October 02, 2008


The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love. By A.E. Cannon. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Stealing Heaven. By Elizabeth Scott. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Bird Lake Moon. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     If you go by the solstice, summer has been over for only a short while, but the feeling of summer is, for most people, long gone, its pleasures only a memory. Some of these summer-themed books may bring back a few pleasant thoughts, at least for a little while, if read as the escapism that they are during a chilly autumn day.

     The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love is the cleverest of them, being based by A.E. Cannon – very loosely – on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cannon writes a humor column for a Utah newspaper, and she has a deft hand at plotting and a clever way with words. Thus, it is not enough for her to place her protagonist, Ed, in a real loser of a summer job, shelving DVDs at a store called Reel Life Movies (and a good store name that is). She also arranges that Ed cannot have his own name tag and is stuck with one that says Sergio – thus raising the usual teen-novel questions of identity in an amusing way while also recalling Shakespeare’s many mistaken-identity jokes in his play. Cannon has Ed meet the girl of his (midsummer night’s) dreams, Ellie, but he has no chance with her as his real self; however, perhaps he can be Sergio the Brazilian and get together with her on that basis. And Ed also finds that his two best friends, jokester Scout and super-brain Quark, are not giving him the respite from his mind-numbing job that he had hoped they would, because Quark has a thing for Scout and Scout appears to have a thing for…Ed. The plot machinery here does get creaky – and no fair comparing it unfavorably to Shakespeare’s, because everyone compares unfavorably to him – and Cannon seems to be trying a little too hard at times to be cute: “Years and years from now, Ed will be having Regency romance cover flashbacks, and it will all be my fault,” says Scout in one of the chapters he narrates (the principal characters take turns, not always sounding convincingly different). On balance, The Loser’s Guide to Life and Love is an above-average offbeat summer romance-and-growing-up book, with its Shakespeare connection providing a little added spice.

     Stealing Heaven has an offbeat angle of its own: 18-year-old Danielle, the central character, is a thief. In fact, she’s a second-generation thief, having been taught by her mother, who stays one step ahead of the cops by moving from town to town and specializing in the theft of antique silver from wealthy homes. Somehow, even with this modus operandi and even with the cops apparently being on to them, they are able to continue their escapades in the little beach town of Heaven. The wrinkle here is that Dani (as she is called), desperate for connections and friendships, finds them unexpectedly in Heaven, and finds herself trying to balance her life of crime (and her relationship with her mother) against her own need to feel at home somewhere and maybe even get something going with a cute guy she meets. Elizabeth Scott lays on the plot coincidences somewhat too thickly – that cute guy, for example, turns out to be a cop, and the special female friend Dani makes turns out to live in the next house that Dani and her mom have targeted for thievery. Dani is, at bottom, more of a naïf than a reader would expect an experienced 18-year-old thief to be. For instance, when her friend catches Dani in a maid’s uniform (Dani has been checking out the antique silver, of course), Dani is amazed to be taken at face value: “And now, in spite of the uniform, in spite of everything Mom has always said, she’s still standing here wanting to talk to me. She’s saying we’re friends. The only people who’ve ever said they were my friends before were cops who’d try to butter me up to get me to rat on Mom.” Dani never quite makes it into believability, and Scott keeps ratcheting up the melodrama until the inevitable parting of the ways between mother and daughter – occasioned not by jail but by disease, which turns into its own kind of prison. Much of Stealing Heaven is depressing, but the ending is uplifting in a fairly typical way, and the whole book seems not only to be set in a beach town but also meant to be read in one.

     Bird Lake Moon takes place in another summer setting: at a lake, where friends Spencer and Mitch have been hanging out at nearby houses while concealing secrets from each other. There is a lot of gloom and doom at the lake, with talk of divorce in the air at Mitch’s house, while Spencer sees what he thinks are mysterious and possibly ghostly signs (new scratches on his goggles, a turtle on the porch, an ivory turtle statue missing from its usual place). Then Spencer’s family’s dog, Jasper, goes missing, only to be recovered by Mitch, and then Mitch, Spencer and Spencer’s sister, Lolly, spend time together, and some secrets come out (notably about the drowning death of another child years earlier). And then bits and pieces start to come together, with Spencer’s concern about a possible ghost in the house colliding with his continuing thoughts about his long-dead brother, and with Mitch revealing at least some of what is really going on. One line in a chapter about Mitch pretty well sums up the overall mood of the book: “He felt an undercurrent of muted sadness encroaching upon and controlling the day.” Although sensitively written, Bird Lake Moon is so fraught with twinges of unhappiness – sometimes more than twinges – that it is a decidedly downbeat read. It is a book about summer, but with winter at its core.

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