January 31, 2013

(++++) MYSTERIES AND ODDITIES


Freaks. By Kieran Larwood. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

Hold Fast. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $17.99.

      At its heart, in its soul, Kieran Larwood’s Freaks is a tale like so many others for preteens and young teenagers: a story of being an outsider, of being left out, of desperately wanting to belong, of needing a family, of eventually finding family ties with unexpected people in unanticipated ways. But this wonderful book is so much more than that, and the reason is its largest, most sprawling and powerful character. No, not Gigantus, the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with a fondness for pigeons and a dream of becoming a romance novelist.  And not even Sheba, primary protagonist of this astonishingly involving debut novel, the hairy girl with eyes that flash orange and clawlike fingers. No, the most potent character here is the city of London, specifically Victorian London, very specifically the filthy, unutterably foul-smelling, crowded, murky, horrendous-and-marvelous-at-once city so memorably word-painted by Charles Dickens and now painted equally memorably, albeit in a very different way, by Larwood.  London is everything here: the scene, the setting, the only place where this story could possibly happen. London crawls into readers’ pores, permeating the atmosphere as surely as the foul fog that permeates London itself. This is a London so crowded, so bustling, so filthy, so jammed with ne’er-do-wells, and above all so smelly, that it takes on more life than the characters who move through it – even though they are plenty lively themselves. Freaks is the story of a group called the Peculiars, “freaks” in the parlance of the 19th century, people with deformities who can make a bare-subsistence living only by putting themselves on display: tailed, dung-throwing, stinking Monkeyboy; slit-eyed ninja Sister Moon; pipe-smoking rodent fancier and trainer Mama Rat; as well as Gigantus and Sheba (Wolfgirl).  Like Dickens 150 years ago, Larwood, a kindergarten teacher on the Isle of Wight, expertly crafts just-bizarre-enough names for many of his characters: Grunchgirdle, Plumpscuttle, Sneepsnood. But unlike paid-by-the-word Dickens, with his very Victorian endless sentences combined into endless paragraphs, Larwood – who, after all, is writing for young book readers rather than adult readers of magazine serializations – keeps his communication clear and to the point, focusing on action and mystery and painting his amazing portrait of Victorian London almost as an aside.  Yet it is that picture of London that is more memorable than anything else in Freaks, for all the derring-do (and some derring-don’t) of the characters and all their admirable individuation.  The plot has Sheba joining Plumpscuttle’s freak show after being purchased from an even seedier one, then making a brief connection with a “mudlark” named Till – a desperately poor little girl who searches the filthy mud of the Thames for salable bits and pieces of what-have-you. When Till disappears mysteriously, Sheba and the Peculiars embark on a strange, twisting odyssey of detection and mystery-solving, and this scaffolding holds the plot together very neatly indeed while pulling in just enough real-world characters (notably Michael Faraday) to make the story plausible and almost possible.  In another universe, it would be possible. This is not a “steampunk” book, although steam power is important in it – instead, it is mystery-cum-alternative-history, with memorable characters in an even-more-memorable setting to which Larwood hints he will return in another book. Readers will hope so – and will also hope to see more of his character renditions, a portfolio of which appears at the back of the book as a most-welcome bonus. Freaks is a gem of a novel.

      A great city is central as well to Blue Balliett’s latest novel, Hold Fast, but this is a modern city and an American one: Chicago. Balliett, a more-polished writer than Larwood, at this stage of her career is somewhat too enamored of cleverness for its own sake: the first and last sections of Hold Fast are called “Ice,” and the other 12 have “C” titles (“Click,” “Crash,” “Cling,” “Clutch,” and so forth), with each word defined in several ways before each section.  As in her four previous books, Balliett looks into the past for elements of this one, which springs from a major diamond heist in 2003. But unlike her prior books, which at their best were fascinatingly art-focused, Hold Fast is essentially the simple story of a family sundered and eventually reunited, with passing and rather simplistic nods to causes of the day, such as homelessness, which Balliett sees (according to a note at the book’s end) as a simple matter of matching those without houses to abandoned and foreclosed buildings – a “solution” whose overwhelming naïveté is something less than charming.  The book itself does have charm, though, even if it comes across as somewhat too contrived.  The basic family unit consists of Dashel (Dash) Pearl; his wife, Summer; son, Jubilation (Jubie); and daughter, Early, the book’s protagonist. The mystery here emerges quickly, as Dash tosses out some apparently unimportant (but perhaps crucial) number problems from a poem by Langston Hughes, and shortly thereafter vanishes mysteriously, leaving behind a notebook containing various numbers and a final line, “Must research number rhythms.” The disappearance, the notebook and Hughes are all recurring themes here, along with the issues of what a home really is, what homelessness means, and how people make it through extremely difficult times. Balliett goes out of her way to show how wonderful homeless-shelter operators and volunteers are. “If one of you gets sick, we’ll connect you with medical care. Chicago HOPES, a wonderful after-school tutoring organization, keeps a room here with books and games in it, a place to get homework help and some one-on-one attention.” And so on. The good guys here are so good – and the bad ones so bad – that Hold Fast is more unidimensional than Balliett’s other books; and the ongoing advocacy, however well-meant and justifiable based on Balliett’s sociopolitical views, gives the book more of a pamphlet’s stridency than is really good for it.  The characters become types more than fully formed individuals as a result, and while they endure and overcome hardship, and Balliett pulls the plot strands together expertly, the overall feeling of this book is that it has a point to make rather than a story to tell.  Hold Fast has enough strong elements and fine writing to get a (+++) rating, but it is not at the high quality level of which Balliett has elsewhere shown herself capable – its story is the victim of its own good intentions.

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