The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid

whizmob

The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid
Colin Meloy, illustrations by Carson Ellis
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins
October 2017
Reviewed from Advanced Reader’s Edition; all art not seen

When his divorcee mother decides to chase her dreams, Charlie is sent to Marseille in southern France to live with his father who serves as the American consul general there. Largely left to his own devices and bored of the high society parties his father drags him to, Charlie takes up with a group of young pickpockets known as the Whiz Mob. These aren’t any pickpockets though; they are highly trained career criminals working under the guidance of someone they call the Headmaster. Charlie is fascinated with the mob’s jargon (there’s a glossary in the back matter), their sketchy cafe hideout, and impeccable costumes that let them pull off elaborate grifts. Despite his lack of training, they take Charlie under their wing, but when Charlie’s best friend in the mob goes AWOL, it sets off events that leave Charlie choosing between his family and his friends. The story is set in the 1960’s but has a timeless feel. Challenging vocabulary and the Lemony-Snicket-esque narrator’s asides, seemingly addressed to adults, left me questioning what audience this book is meant for (publisher suggests grades 3-7). Nonetheless, more sophisticated middle-grade readers may be sucked in by the suspense, humor, and novelty of a gang of international children of mystery and will appreciate the mid-book plot twist, if they make it that far.

Child criminal read alikes

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
Loot by Jude Watson

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My friend is dead. I have no tapes.

13 reasons why

Exactly a year ago one of my best college friends, Andrew, killed himself. I was devastated by the news. It was another suicide in a long line of suicides of people close to me and my family. That’s what you get when your parent is a psychiatrist in a state with a high rate of mental illness and low access to care and all manner of mental illness runs in your family. While all of them have been painful, I think this one was the hardest. Whenever these tragedies strike, I’m reminded of the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and why I dislike that book’s portrayal of suicide so very very much.

13 Reasons Why is about a high-school girl named Hannah who dies of suicide but leaves a box of 13 cassette tapes, one for each of the people who she blames for driving her to suicide – classmates and former friends who bullied her, a student who raped a friend and assaulted Hannah, and the school counselor who ignored her cries for help – explaining to them why they are responsible for her death. The tapes are delivered to Clay who had a crush on Hannah and shared what seemed to be an innocent make-out session with her, and he is entrusted to make sure the tapes make it to their intended recipients.

Over the years that I have read and reread the book, it was hard to put my finger on the reason why I hated it. It seemed to change with every reading. First I hated that it romanticized suicide. Then I found it distasteful and disappointing that it turns suicide into the tool of a revenge fantasy. It bothered me that it gives Hannah a voice but hands all the glory to Clay on her behalf. I found it hard to believe that Hannah would premeditate her suicide to such a degree as to have time and drive to record all these tapes with such eloquence and clarity, plan how they would be delivered, and then actually go through with it. Sometimes I just wasn’t a big fan of the writing. But Andrew’s death revealed a whole new reason to me – I’m jealous of the closure.

Even a year later, I find myself wondering about the time between him leaving the last person he saw that night, the thoughts that went through his mind, and the decision he ultimately made. Was he lonely? Was he afraid? Did he consider calling someone? Did he call someone? If he thought back on the last 10 years, did he think of our years of college partying that undoubtedly contributed to his addiction with joy or remorse? Could I have done something different? Could we all have done something to help? What had happened to my friend?

I’ll never know. My friend is dead. I have no tapes. All I have is a group of grieving friends and unanswered questions. I have a screenshot saved on my computer of our last Facebook conversation. I have questions that are still nagging me a year later. Every once in a while I have dreams about him. What I wouldn’t do for a recording of his voice offering some kind of explanation, even if it would be hard to listen to. I don’t need 13 reasons. One would be plenty.

NaNoReadMo: We Were Liars

liars

We Were Liars
E. Lockhart
Delacourte Press
May 2014

Growing up, Cadence Sinclair Easton spent summers on her grandfather’s private island in Cape Cod where each person in the Sinclair family – the grandfather and his three daughters – has his or her own home. Cady roamed the island with her two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and friends and eventual love interest, Gat – a crew known as “The Liars” – visiting the houses, hanging out at the beach, and watching her mother, aunts, and grandfather get drunk and bicker about money, real estate, inheritance, and broken marriages. For two years following her 15th summer, she has not been allowed to go back and is suffering from debilitating migraines and amnesia. She knows something happened that last summer on the island but the combination of memory loss and painkillers for her migraines leaves her unable to piece together what happened. When she returns to the island to rejoin The Liars, things seem like they might go back to normal, but as Cady starts to remember what happened in that 15th summer, she knows nothing can be the same again. Because of the first-person narration by Cadence, the reader comes to the realization along with her, an ending that will make you question everything you just read and compel you to turn around and reread We Were Liars, looking for hints.

I read this book after being a big fan of E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, but other than being about rich New Englanders (which, as a Bostonian, I feel I can especially appreciate), the books have very little in common. We Were Liars feels so dark right from the beginning, and while you can’t put your finger on it, something always feels a little off. It makes sense since we are getting the story from the point of view of an obviously ill, overprotected, and wholly unreliable narrator. Seriously, Cady might be the most questionable narrator I’ve ever read.

Cady’s family is not the kind of endearingly quirky rich people that Frankie’s family is; the members of the Sinclair family are pretty awful people actually, from the racist grandfather all the way down to the bratty kids so protected by money that they can’t even contemplate the consequences of their actions. They remind me of this quote about the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby – “They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they made” (chapter 9 of The Great Gatsby).

We Were Liars has been optioned for a movie. They have only just recently announced who would be adapting the movie script that E. Lockhart wrote based on the book, so there is no telling how long it will take to come to the screen. I can’t wait to see the sets – the island, the houses, the Cape!

Read alikes:

Placebo Junkies by J.C. Carleson
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane