June 22, 2017
(+++) BIG-CITY STORIES
York, Book 1: The Shadow Cipher. By Laura Ruby. Walden Pond Press. $17.99.
Apartment 1986. By Lisa Papademetriou. Harper. $16.99.
When a book for young readers (ages 10 and up) runs nearly 500 pages, is offered with unusually attractive production (the pages are physically beautiful), and is set in some version of New York City, it practically screams “BIG AND IMPORTANT.” When it is merely the first book of a planned series, well, what is there to say? Hmm. Quite a lot, actually. Laura Ruby’s York is highly sensitive to the diversity fad (or trend) for books of this type and equally sensitive to steampunk designs and intimations of social relevance (here, gentrification). The characters are pure cardboard types, defined by appearance: twins Tess and Theo Biedermann have bushy hair and olive skin, are Jewish, and are emotionally fragile; Jaime Cruz, their neighbor, has brown skin and Cuban-Trinidadian heritage, and is calm and artistically gifted; the real-estate developer who buys their rent-controlled building – rent control is a 100% positive thing here, showing how far from reality the book is – is greedy and has bad hair and is, well, potato-faced. New York City here means Manhattan, as it does for so many people who do not know New York City at all: there is a brief foray into Brooklyn but nothing whatsoever in the city’s other three counties, known in New York as boroughs. The overall structure of York is steampunk, with the usual elaborate machinery, solar power running everything (how?), and enough pop-culture references to (presumably) keep readers engaged (Legos, Godzilla, Spider-Man, etc.). Throw in elements of Hamilton and The Matrix, not all of which the intended audience is likely to comprehend, and you have an author trying very hard to be SIGNIFICANT as well as entertaining. In truth, the entertaining parts of The Shadow Cipher are much better than the pseudo-significant ones. There are elevators that go sideways and subways that actually climb buildings. There is a T-shirt in which Schrödinger’s cat is dead on one side and alive (but possibly a zombie) on the other. And there is a not-Angry-Birds game called Angry Bots. The plot, which takes a while to get going, involves the protagonists’ attempt to solve the Morningstarr (two r’s, unlike the real New York City’s single one) Cipher and thereby discover a treasure and, you know, save their building and family and all that. Ruby says early on that when you try to solve the Cipher, it tries to solve you, and that pseudo-enigmatic comment helps explain the otherwise inexplicable coincidences that drive the plot, such as finding just the right thing at just the right time and getting the solution to part of the overall puzzle just before (rather than, say, the day after) the destruction of the protagonists’ home. Essentially, this is a puzzle book – and in that respect, in being a mystery that is not a murder mystery, it is first-rate for its intended audience. It is also a book for people very much enamored of New York City (or of Manhattan, anyway), either because they know and love it or because they have never been there and imagine it as far more wonderful and wonder-filled than many of those who have lived there would consider it to be. Ruby does a good job of capturing some of the essence of real-world New York, but it does not pay to look too closely at the details she trots out for verisimilitude: for just one example, she has a subway line called the “A” train possess an elevated stop at 116th Street, when that is actually the “1” train at 125th Street. This sort of thing does not matter to the plot in the slightest, and in many respects Ruby has certainly done her homework regarding New York City, but for that very reason the occasional lapse of detail is jarring. There are a lot of good things in The Shadow Cipher, and once it gets going, it propels readers along nicely, especially if they do not stop to examine too much of the detail too closely. Then it stops. Just stops. Rather than make the story self-contained, rather than build to a cliffhanger ending, Ruby just brings the narrative to a specific point and drops it – and drops readers. That will be a significant disappointment to those who have become engaged in the story and in the characters. Ruby has some apologizing, or at least making-up, to do in this book’s sequel.
The usual racial and social-consciousness stuff makes it into Lisa Papademetriou’s Apartment 1986 as well, albeit at more-manageable length. The protagonist here, Callie, is actually white, which makes it easier for Papademetriou to show her as naïve, self-absorbed and too full of herself – try that with a nonwhite character and you are in for a drubbing as “insensitive,” maybe even racist, for your failure to understand that any such issues in nonwhites are all about circumstance and heritage, not, heaven forbid, anything inherent in one’s character. Apartment 1986 uses Callie’s initial sense of self-satisfaction and self-importance as a pedestal at which to chip away pretty much continuously, until at the book’s end Callie is sadder and wiser and much more understanding of the importance of caring for people who are physically different from her – although she is not too much sadder or wiser, since the book is for a narrower age range than Ruby’s (about 10-14), is far less portentous, and is a standalone rather than a series opener. Callie’s initial happy thoughts and self-image as a philosopher are obviously going to lead her into significant life reversals, which duly occur when her father loses his job and the family has to move out of its apartment on Manhattan’s toney Upper East Side and live far more modestly. Besides – horrors! – Callie, who goes to one of those traditionally snobbish private schools, now does not have concert-ticket money! One day, Callie is so stressed by life – and by her attempted visit to her grandmother, who lives in the apartment that gives the book its title – that she decides to skip school altogether, and this soon becomes a habit. But it is a positive habit, because instead of, you know, hanging around in the streets or something, she goes to museums, which are educational and really as good as being in school, right? It is in a museum that Callie meets Cassius, whose personality consists of being African-American and loving museums and experiencing racism that Callie eventually realizes is, like, a bad thing. Luckily, she does not express herself that way – because she does talk in a kind of teen-cute manner early in the book, complete with exclamation points and lots of capital letters. Anyway, Callie soon encounters the real world not only because of Cassius but also because her little brother is being bullied at school and it turns out that her grandparents are, like, evil, because they rejected her gay uncle. Friendship, family and history, including the ability to learn from the past without being trapped in it – these are the themes of Apartment 1986 just as surely as they are the themes of the York series. Indeed, they are very common themes in books for the age ranges targeted by Ruby and Papademetriou. The two authors dress things up differently, but are ultimately trying to bring their readers to essentially the same place, without lavishing much creativity on thoughts about whether perhaps a different, less-commonly-reached emotional location might be worth exploring.