December 18, 2014
(+++) GETTING ANGSTY
Bogle Trilogy #2: A Plague of Bogles. By Catherine Jinks. Illustrated by Sarah Watts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Little White Lies. By Katie Dale. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
The doubts, uncertainties and feelings of not fitting in that collectively come across as angst in many books for preteens and teenagers are in full bloom – if that is the right word – in both of these novels. A Plague of Bogles, the sequel to Catherine Jinks’ How to Catch a Bogle, returns readers to an alternative version of Victorian England, in which monstrous, child-eating bogles roam London and professional boglers are called upon to dispatch them. Birdie McAdam, bogler’s assistant and the central character of the first book, plays a subsidiary role here, having moved up in the world (at least by traditional standards) and finding herself doubting who she really is and where she fits in. She was a more interesting character in the first book, and her lack of assurance and altogether lower level of intensity here are unfortunate. “Last time I saw her,” says the new book’s protagonist, Jem Barbary, “she were living with a fine lady near Great Russell Street, eating plum cakes every day and wearing lace on her petticoats.” This is not the Birdie readers of the first book will want to see – and, thank goodness, some elements of the original Birdie do reappear in the course of A Plague of Bogles. But Jem is, in the main, the central character, and neither he nor his adventures are as interesting as were Birdie’s in the series opener. Jem, an orphan, was apprenticed, so to speak, to an old thief named Sarah Pickles, who would be pretty much straight out of Oliver Twist except for the fact that she operates in an environment saturated with magic. Jem worked for her as a pickpocket until she betrayed him, and then he ended up on the streets, hoping to become a bogler’s apprentice. Indeed, Jem has already helped dispose of a bogle, and he does eventually get together with Alfred Bunce, to whom Birdie was apprenticed, and become Alfred’s new assistant. And so there ensue a series of new adventures, in which bogles seem to cluster in ways they did not in the first book – hence the title of this sequel. Eventually everything ties back to Sarah Pickles, who turns out to be even more unpleasant than Jem originally thought her to be; and after a series of close calls, and Jem’s capture and near destruction by bogles, it is clear that he and Birdie will be involved with Alfred in the next entry in the series. Second books of trilogies are always in a difficult position: they need to make sense on their own while advancing the overall story line, starting in the middle of things and ending up somewhere else in the middle of other things. A Plague of Bogles feels a bit too much like a placeholder to be fully effective, and Jem is not as interesting or fully delineated a character as Birdie. But Jinks paces the story well and skillfully delivers more of the thrills and chills she provided in the first book – although here as in How to Catch a Bogle, the illustrations by Sarah Watts add little to the story and are significantly less grim than the tale itself. Birdie will presumably overcome her uncertainty and self-doubt in the next installment, and with her experience added to Jem’s – and the likely reappearance of villains who managed to escape in the first two books – the scene is set for a bang-up conclusion.
London is different – modern and more realistic – and the angst is dialed up multiple notches in Katie Dale’s Little White Lies. This is in part simply a matter of the reader age targeted by the book: Dale’s is for 14 and up, Jinks’ for 8-12. But it is also a matter of the story’s focus. Little White Lies is intended as gritty realism (or pseudo-realism), with nary a whisper of magic or anything particularly outré. There is, however, plenty of room here for overplotting, over-coincidence and a general sense that things are overdone. The first-person narrator, Lucinda (Lou), meets an attractive young man named Christian Webb, who has a mysterious past about which he will not talk. Christian keeps his blond hair dyed black and has no family photos anywhere. He is clearly not what he seems to be – but then, it turns out, neither is Lou. Christian’s house is burned one night and his motorbike is destroyed, leaving Lou to rescue him from who-knows-what and take him to the only place he says he can go, to a friend named Joe. Then it just happens to turn out that Joe leaves and locks the apartment from outside. And just then the TV comes on to announce that a criminal named Leo Niles is on the run. And Leo is Christian! And Lou knew it all along! And she has been on a crusade against Leo because Leo’s crime involved a break-in at Lou’s house, leading in turn to two deaths and Lou’s uncle being imprisoned, leading to headlines such as “Convicted Criminal Released as Hero Dad Rots in Jail,” leading to Lou telling readers how she ended up putting Leo’s/Christian’s “phone number on fake taxi cards, jogging past his house every day to discover his routine, bumping into him in the café and ‘accidentally’ spilling coffee on him so I could nick his wallet, giving me an excuse to see him again and a reason to trust me.” And pretending to twist her ankle, and stealing Christian’s keys to frame him for a crime he did not commit, and – well, suffice it to say that Leo may be no angel, but neither is Lou. Leo and Lou – isn’t that cute? Too cute, actually, and so is what happens next, because all these revelations happen mid-book, after which, well, Lou and Leo kiss. Oh my. Now Lou may be falling for the evil criminal who destroyed her family! But Leo soon reveals what really happened, and in a way that Lou believes. But who else will believe it? What can Lou do? What should she do? Follow her heart, her feelings, her concern for family, her instincts, her intellect? Oh my, oh my! Suffice it to say that the book’s second half is no more believable than the first; maybe less. Revelation piles on revelation, with one such eventually showing that Lou’s beloved uncle was not so innocent after all, not so deserving of the “hero” designation he got in the press, and that Lou’s also-beloved aunt had an unwitting hand in the whole mess, and – well, my gracious and my goodness, there is so much to work out here. To give Dale credit, she keeps twisting the plot until it practically shrieks “enough already,” thereby pulling readers along from point to point, event to event, surprise disclosure to surprise disclosure, with a sure hand and sufficient speed to prevent many of those readers from laughing at the plot’s absurdities and holes. Intended as a book for “mature” teens, with its panoply of love, death, crime, infidelity (sort of), and other “adult” themes, Little White Lies is as much a fantasy as any fairy tale rewritten for six-year-olds. But its language and headlong pace make it feel like a book for older readers, and teens trying to convince themselves that this is a foretaste of literature for adults will enjoy what Dale offers. And, to be completely honest, adults should admit that many genre-bound, angst-soaked page turners written for adult readers are no more believable or realistic than Little White Lies. Not that that is much of a compliment to the readers – or the books.