Liesl & Po. By Lauren Oliver. Illustrated by Kei Acedera. Harper. $16.99.
The Magic Cake Shop. By Meika Hashimoto. Illustrations by Josée Masse. Random House. $15.99.
Hell Is for Real, Too. By “Skip Shmuley.” Illustrations by Leif Parsons. Plume. $13.
By turns gentle, amusing, involving, comforting and scary, Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po is a wonderful story of magic, mystery and wonder. It starts with perhaps a few too many threads, but Oliver quickly pulls them together and shows their interrelationships, which then become the movers of the plot. There is Liesl, who desperately misses her father, who has just died – she was unable to say goodbye to him in the hospital because her stepmother would not allow her to go there. There is Po, a ghost who has noticed Liesl’s drawings from the Other Side and has also noticed that she has not done any for three days (since her father’s death); and who, when wondering why not, suddenly turns up in Liesl’s room – not to haunt her but to find out what is wrong. Po is accompanied by Bundle, a “shaggy thing [that] made a noise somewhere between a bark and a meow,” because on the Other Side, things blur, and Bundle is not quite a cat and not quite a dog…just as Po is not quite a girl and not quite a boy. There is also Will, who has seen Liesl at her window and, like Po, has been concerned about and interested in her – and who is an alchemist’s apprentice, charged with delivering an important box of magic that he manages to misplace in the midst of his errand, ending up instead with a box containing the ashes of Liesl’s recently deceased father. The improbability of the characters, the events affecting them, and the coincidences through which they meet and interact is substantial – but not at all relevant to the delights of the story. Liesl asks Po to search for her father on the Other Side so Liesl can say a proper goodbye, and Po thinks of all the reasons that is impossible: “People lost shapes quickly on the Other Side, and memories, too: They became blurry.” But he agrees to try to help, in return for a drawing, which Liesl makes him; and eventually, after Po does succeed in locating Mr. Morbower, Po learns – and helps Liesl learn – that something is very wrong with Liesl’s stepmother, Augusta. Indeed, as in many fairy tales, Augusta fits the “evil stepmother” role quite neatly; but here too, Oliver tells the story in a way that transcends cliché – helped by very fine illustrations by Kei Acedera, which make characters and settings alike come alive. Eventually Liesl finds herself shut in a room, all alone, without food, “trapped, with no possibility of escape,” until she comes up with the impossible idea of having Po take her out through the Other Side – in a scary scene that, in context, makes perfect sense. The eventual climax, in which multiple characters are shown to be other than what they seem, while others are reunited and some are separated and the whole mixture is stirred to perfection and served piping hot, is truly wonderful – and wonder-filled. Liesl & Po is one of those stories that, although written for eight-to-12-year-olds, can stay with young readers long after it is finished, gaining in meaning and impact over time.
The Magic Cake Shop is far more straightforward, but this (+++) book has many charms of its own. Meika Hashimoto’s debut novel, whose cartoonish illustrations by Josée Masse fit the story very well indeed, is about Emma Burblee, would-be baker, who is the child of the rich, highly attractive, spoiled and extremely self-centered Mr. and Mrs. Burblee. Experts at using their beauty to make even more money than they already have, the Burblees are just the sort of caricatures to whom adults as well as the book’s preteen audience will want to say “yuck.” Mr. Burblee, for instance, comments on the way he makes even more money through his Chic-Chic hat store than he already has: “The trick…is to make women feel rotten about themselves. Once you make them feel ugly, they’ll be desperate to buy anything that seems to make them instantly beautiful.” This is perhaps a little too close to home for the diet, lingerie and perfume industries, but here it is used to show just how different Emma is from her odious parents. Emma’s appearance is far too ordinary for the adult Burblees’ taste, and she refuses to “improve” her looks at beauty salons or through ear piercing, eyebrow plucking, teeth straightening or extensive makeup use. Emma also is developing a social conscience, a major no-no for her self-involved parents – and worst of all, she has “endless curiosity about food.” The Burblees have a cook, a really nasty piece of business named Mrs. Piffle, who makes sure everyone eats only low-calorie foods and forbids Emma to eat anything at all outside the home. Clearly this Cinderella tale is ripe for the intervention of someone magical, and that is just what it gets. After Emma rescues a beautiful dessert cookbook that her mother receives as a gift and promptly throws away, she starts baking, to the utter horror of her parents, to whom she proudly shows her first attempt – only to be told to get rid of “that hideous thing” and be prepared to eat only radishes when Mrs. Piffle is not around. The Burblees then send Emma to stay with highly unpleasant Uncle Simon for the summer, and while she is there, being called a “brat,” an “ignorant twit,” a “little pipsqueak” and a “detestable slug,” she meets Mr. Crackle, baker extraordinaire, and also makes some friends – Mrs. Dimple and Albie. The rest of the book involves nefarious plans by Uncle Simon, who is in cahoots with the equally evil Maximus Beedy in a scheme that would ruin Mr. Crackle; Emma’s determination to foil the scheme; and her discovery of just how magical Mr. Crackle’s shop is. This leads to amusing warnings, such as one about separating “the biddle hegs from the wibbly cobbleseed,” because “if they touch each other, they form a vapor that turns your head into a pumpkin.” And one about not using too much aurora borealis dust in a chocolate soufflé – one man who ate an over-dusted one “shrank to the size of a gingerbread man and floated out of the shop,” although feeding him rock candy eventually anchored him back on the ground. Food-based transformations turn out to be quite useful for undoing the nefarious plots of the nefarious plotters, and Emma ends up happily baking at Mr. Crackle’s shop – although Hashimoto seems to have forgotten that Emma’s parents will at some point return for her and make her life miserable again. Or perhaps the author has a sequel in mind….
Hell Is for Real, Too is not a sequel but a parody – specifically of Heaven Is for Real, a million-selling book in which an evangelical pastor claims his son fell into a coma, went to Heaven and returned. Despite the “child” connection, this bit of sophomoric writing, a very thin paperback that costs about 10 cents a page, is intended for adults. Ones who enjoy silliness and/or have read Heaven Is for Real and wished someone would take the opposite tack will give the book a (++) rating, but others will find even that modest ranking to be generous. The pseudonymous Skip Shmuley, who is supposedly a TV comedy writer (which would explain the preponderance of the book’s humor, which focuses on sex, excrement and minor celebrities), dies after a botched vasectomy performed by “illegal immigrants from Canada,” is sent to Hell by Jesus (who talks to him in Spanish), and soon finds himself in a place where “the room temperature was approaching sixteen thousand degrees,” asking for “some SPF 6000.” Skip describes the various “rooms” of Hell, where reside child stars, parents who used “my child is student of the month” bumper stickers, bloggers, midlevel city officials, and so on. The quality of the writing and humor may be judged from the comment about “the special room for people with OCD. This room is unlocked, with a doorway that leads directly to a back stairway out of hell that goes straight into heaven. You’re free to leave at any time. Unfortunately no one is willing to touch the doorknob, nor can they get their feet positioned just right on the tiles in the foyer.” Occasional illustrations by Leif Parsons are in the same spirit. One, for example, illustrates the author’s discussion with Satan about passing gas in an elevator – showing one person standing upright and four others in various stages of collapse. Satan eventually decides to send Skip back to Earth to do three tasks: file an extension on Satan’s taxes; attend a theological debate about whether there is a Hell and tell the theologians that yes, there is; and “reveal to humanity the coming apocalypse.” The book lumbers on through all this (you wouldn’t think so short a book could lumber, but this one does), and eventually Skip explains “little-known facts about Hell,” such as the fact that not even Satan can get a steak cooked rare there; “things to do in Hell,” such as visiting a sports bar to watch “Asian amateur jai alai and major league soccer”; and the “most interesting people you’ll meet in Hell,” such as the Kardashian sisters (“well, just the ugly ones”) and “anyone who’s ever played Angry Birds.” If this sort of humor is your thing, you will enjoy this “middle-aged accountant’s astounding story of his trip to Hell and back.” If not, you may find the book to be Hell on Earth…well, no. It’s not bad enough to be worthy of such a lofty condemnation. Heck on Earth, perhaps.