Some Things Are Not As They Appear
I have read several young adult books lately that seem to pretty much defy any genre classification. They easily combine the elements of mystery, family drama and fantasy or supernatural stories. I love these kinds of books because they offer readers so many different ways to enjoy them. Of course none of it would matter if they weren’t well written to begin with, but I’ve been pretty damn lucky that way for awhile now, and these titles just prove that my reading roll is continuing.
In From Charlie’s Point of View, author Richard Scrimger presents the case of the bank-robbing Stocking Bandit, a man the police and everyone else seem to think is Charlie Fairmile’s father. The mystery is unusual because the only people interested in truly solving it are 13-year-old Charlie, who is blind, and his two friends Bernadette and Louis. And because the book focuses not only on the search for clues but also the difficulties Charlie and crew have with fitting into middle school, it provides many opportunities for humor and pathos.
From the beginning, it is clear that Charlie is smart and determined to prove his father’s innocence, even in the face of overwhelming odds and surprising evidence. Scrimger doesn’t short Bernadette or Louis along the way either, providing insight into their own personal struggles and explaining how this group of misfits blends together so well. The most surprising character, though, is Gideon, the classmate who seems to appear and disappear to the sound of church bells. The introduction of Gideon transforms the book from a somewhat predictable (albeit fabulous) mystery into something completely original. It’s funny, it’s subversive, it’s compelling and it’s compassionate. But who is Gideon? Ultimately he’s just one more character in a very rich detective/adventure story, and even though he is the most mysterious, he is not the most fascinating. That accolade goes to Charlie, who sees his parents and friends as the three-dimensional people they are -- people he enjoys being with and doesn’t want to lose. When he finally uncovers the real Stocking Bandit (in an appropriately creepy setting), the payoff for all his hard work is exceptional. And after crafting such an unorthodox mystery Scrimger doesn’t disappoint his readers in the end. He knows they want to believe in the larger mystery -- and in Charlie, Bernadette and Louis -- beyond the discovery of a bank robber. And so Scrimger gives his readers more than one revelation and more than one personal success. It is a very cool ending, and a great cast of characters to spend time with.
Neema does not have such dire circumstances to deal with in Judith Clarke’s Kalpana’s Dream. Her main concerns are fitting in as a freshman at Wentworth High and finding some way to communicate with her Indian great-grandmother who has come for an extended visit and speaks only Hindi. Neema is determined to fit in with her classmates, but as an Indian girl living in Australia she is not sure just how she can accomplish that completely. It all gets more complicated when she ends up in the dreaded Ms. Dallimore’s English class and must wrestle with the ultimate in essay assignments, crafting an answer to the question, “Who Am I?”
Kalpana’s Dream should be just a classic teenage-girl-coming-of-age story; it’s what it seems to be on the surface and what author Clarke appears to have set her young protagonist up for. But there is a lot more going on in this story than the reader initially suspects. First, Kalpana is a wonderfully written and richly developed elderly character, someone who feels compelled to suddenly leave her village and travel thousands of miles to visit her granddaughter’s family. She is also determined to communicate with Neema, even though it seems impossible without a translator. And yet, the more Kalpana invades Neema’s life, the more she seems to fit perfectly within it. There is also Ms. Dallimore’s essay assignment which becomes a major source of contention for all of her students and an opportunity for Clarke to blow reader perception sky high. No one is whom they appear to be in this book, let alone Ms. Dallimore, whom the children all believe is dating Dracula. While this should just be the same pointless gossip that haunts any high school, Kalpana’s Dream is not your typical young adult book and Clarke introduces everything into this story for a reason. Would Dracula date an English teacher? I like to think so, but I’ll let you decide after you read the book.
Life is a lot more serious for Declan Steeple in Tim Wynne-Jones’s A Thief in the House of Memory. His mother left a few years before, and his father’s new girlfriend couldn’t stand the family house, so they moved down the road and turned the mansion into a private family museum, the "House of Memory." In the book’s opening chapters there is a robbery at the old house and someone dies. This death ends up sending Dec on an unending quest to discover just what happened to his mother, a quest that is marked by sudden visitations from his past -- hauntings or hallucinations of his mother and his younger self that he cannot seem to control. Is he losing his mind, or is the house trying to tell him something, trying to warn him about something? And where is his mother, and what happened that night she disappeared? Bit by bit Dec tears about the carefully built façade his father has crafted since Lindy vanished from their lives, and bit by bit he comes to realize that nothing is as he thought and everyone in his family has been keeping their own secrets and lies.
Thief was one very creepy mystery, perfect late at night reading especially if you have some fog or rain outside. The idea of a father turning his family home into a shrine to the past conjures up all sorts of haunting possibilities and Wynne-Jones knows this. Add to it a very crazy group of characters -- from Dec’s father who recreates battlefields in his garage to Dec's friends who are experiencing high school in the kind of way I dreamed about -- and you have a first-rate thriller for any age. Nothing is what it seems in Dec’s world, and no matter how hard he tries to make sense of it all he is constantly reminded that some questions do not have the kind of answers a boy wants to hear about his parents; indeed some questions are really better left unasked.
Here are three books that seem to be one thing but turn out to be much more. They are funny and smart and surprising, the best sort of books no matter how old or young you are. They might not be on display at the chain bookstores, but in my collection they are front and center. These are books that made me think and as far as I’m concerned, that makes them the best books in publishing today.
From Charlie’s Point of View by Richard Scrimger
Kalpana’s Dream by Judith Clarke
A Thief in the House of Memory by Tim Wynne-Jones
Farrar, Straus & Giroux