November 16, 2006


The Mislaid Magician, or Ten Years After. By Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer. Harcourt. $17.

The Boy Book (a study of habits and behaviors, plus techniques for taming them). By E. Lockhart. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     When young kids discover something they really enjoy – a roller-coaster ride, perhaps, or being carried on a parent’s shoulders – they inevitably wait until the last ounce of deliciousness has been squeezed from the experience, and then say, “More!!”

     Readers of the Kate-and-Cecy adventures and the stories of Ruby Oliver are likely to shout “more!!” as well after savoring the delights of this tale or that.  How fortunate, then, that Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer have come up with a third novel about Kate and Cecy, while E. Lockhart is offering a third story (and second novel) about Roo.

     There’s something magical about all the adventures of Kate and Cecy, and not just because the cousins can actually work magic.  In these days of E-mail, text messaging, IM and SMS, it is a genuine pleasure to discover an old-fashioned epistolary novel – that is, one written in the form of letters among the characters.  Wrede (Cecy) and Stevermer (Kate) are really adept at this form, which has the added advantage of solving the usual problems of collaboration, such as the “voice” in which a book is to be written.  Here, the writers give the characters their own voices through their letters – point-of-view consistency is irrelevant (and, given the many things that happen to the protagonists, probably inadvisable).  In this third book of their adventures – after Sorcery and Cecilia and The Grand Tour – Kate and Cecy are old hands at marriage, which they have been practicing for 10 years, and at having children (five between them), and of course at magic.  Now they are watching the transformation of England by the expansion of the railroads – and James is asked by Lord Wellington himself to investigate the disappearance of a German railroad engineer.  While James and Cecy head north on their mission, Kate and Thomas are left with the five kids (all of whom start casting spells themselves) and with a mysterious mute girl whom they have rescued.  The sprawling plot has to do with the railroads’ interference with ancient underground magic.  The letters that move the plot along are as charming as ever – in what other book would someone write, matter-of-factly, “Mr. and Miss Webb remain dogs for the moment”?  And yes, the complexities are nicely knitted together in the end.

     The magic is of a different kind in E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver stories (although Roo herself would probably wish she could have the powers of Cecy and Kate).  The Boy Book, a sequel to The Boyfriend List, finds Ruby in her junior year in high school, a newly licensed driver, with a new friend (Noel) and a new job (at the zoo).  Some of her friends (former friends?) from the earlier book are still not speaking to her, and she still suffers from bouts of self-pity, often expressed in footnotes, such as this one: “Everyone at Tate Prep, even the fifth graders, has a cell phone.  Everyone but me.”  Still, Ruby is not a perpetual whiner, and her attractive qualities more than make up for her complaining.  Her “levels of boyfriends” list, dating to her sophomore year and used here to open one chapter, is still hilarious, still accurate, and still having repercussions.  And Ruby’s approach to the all-too-common problems of adolescence – writing a book about them – remains offbeat and refreshing.  Ruby is no better at solving her problems here than in The Boyfriend List (or in the story in which she appeared in the anthology, Not Like I’m Jealous or Anything).  But that is what makes her attractive: she seems more of a real person than do the protagonists of most teen-focused books, and her failure to make sense of everything in her life is itself a liberating experience – at least she realizes that life doesn’t always make sense.  One chapter in particular neatly sums up Ruby’s introspection and ultimate frustration in trying to figure things out.  It’s the one called “Why You Want the Guy You Can’t Have: Inadequate Analysis of a Disturbing Psychological Trend.”  Ruby is a real charmer.

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