Today we bring you the latest installment in our feature, “What She Said…” in which we both review books that the other has previously read and reviewed. This feature arose because of a very serious dilemma we faced at Casa de Smugglers: what happens when one of us reads and reviews a book that the other desperately wants to read and review? We can’t really post about the same book AGAIN, right? WRONG! Thus, “What She Said…” was born.
Today, we feast on The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher and The Colors of Madeline by Jaclyn Moriarty.
Best friends and seventh graders Sophie Young and Grace Yang have made a game out of spying on their neighbors. On one of their midnight stakeouts, they witness a terrifying, bloody scene at the home of their bizarre middle-school counselor, Dr. Charlotte Agford (aka Dr. Awkward).
At least, they think they do. The truth is that Dr. Agford was only making her famous pickled beets! But when Dr. Agford begins acting even weirder than usual, Sophie and Grace become convinced that she’s hiding something—and they’re determined to find out what it is.
Soon the girls are breaking secret codes, being followed by a strange blue car, and tailing strangers with unibrows and Texas accents. But as their investigation heats up, Sophie and Grace start to crack under the pressure. They might solve their case, but will their friendship survive?
Perfect for fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Wig in the Window is a smart, funny middle-grade mystery with a REAR WINDOW twist.
Original Review: May 2013 | Original Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
What Thea Said:
Wow. It’s hard to believe that The Wig in the Window is Kristen Kittscher’s debut novel because believe me when I say this book is fantastic. Part spy-mystery (in the vein of a young Nancy Drew), part contemporary middle grade novel about friendships, change and consequences, The Wig in the Window is a smart, fun read that is as powerful as it is witty.
I loved The Wig in the Window wholeheartedly, and cannot wait for more Young and Yang. Absolutely recommended, and solidly in the running as one of my Top 10 Books of 2013.
What Ana says:
12-year-old Sophie Young and Grace Yang are neighbours, best friends and amateur sleuths with a penchant for getting in trouble. When the two sneak out at night to investigate their mysterious neighbour (who is also Sophie’s school counsellor) Charlotte Agford, they stumble across a dangerous plot with real-life repercussions. As the mystery build-up and real FBI agents get involved, Young and Yang find themselves wondering if they have bitten more than they can chew. Worst of all, they find out that there are things that even the strongest friendship cannot survive.
The Wig in the Window is a book that strides deftly across genres and is part mystery, part contemporary fiction dealing with issues such as friendship, prejudices and cultural appropriation. The latter is where the novel truly shone for me and I completely agree with Thea’s take on what makes this novel so strong: the relationship between the two main characters which is strained and heartfelt and so, so real because of those. They have their ups and down, break ups and make ups and all of that reminded me of every relationship I had at that age.
Another thing I really enjoyed about the book is how Sophie is not an immediately likeable character. She is very quick to judge people and often those snap judgements are based on superficial perceptions. The good thing is that the narrative – as well as the characters – constantly call her on that but without ever letting us forget that she is a very young kid still learning and growing up. This is what I like to call compassionate challenging. At one point, she calls Grace superficial for liking fashion for example but is immediately confronted. Another recurring theme is that of Sophie’s – a White character – love for all things Chinese and her frustration with Grace’s – who is Chinese-American – apparent lack of appreciation for her own “culture”. When Grace finally addresses that head-on, it is a thing of beauty. I will include here the same quote that Thea did because it is worth repeating:
Grace jutted her chin forward. “I know more than you ever will. It’s who I am. You never get that! Are you any less Irish because you don’t know anything about the life of Saint Patrick? How would you feel if I was always spouting off stories about Irish faeries and dressing like a leprechaun while I danced jigs? I can’t believe I’ve put up with it for this long. And your Mandarin accent sucks, by the way.”
That’s all awesome and the best reason for anyone to read the book.
That brings me to the actual plot of the novel with the mystery surrounding Charlotte Agford and my own personal reaction to that side of the story. On the one hand, the actual mystery is very well done, unpredictable and it had me guessing till the very end. On the other hand, I always have a hard time suspending disbelief when it comes to MG and YA mystery novels featuring kid-sleuths. I always wonder how realistic is it that a pair of untrained 12-year-olds are more capable than the police and the FBI put together. Or that when things are finally revealed, all the law-breaking done by the kids in the pursue of these criminals are just forgotten and forgiven. And I know this is not the correct frame of mind one must have when coming into these types of stories but it is unfortunately, inevitably where my mind goes. This mean I am probably not the right audience kid-sleuthing books but if you are? I am sure you could do no better than The Wig in the Window.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
A Color of White by Jaclyn Moriarty
Arthur A. Levine Books, April 2013, Hardcover: 373 pages
The first in a rousing, funny, genre-busting trilogy from bestseller Jaclyn Moriarty!
This is a tale of missing persons. Madeleine and her mother have run away from their former life, under mysterious circumstances, and settled in a rainy corner of Cambridge (in our world).
Elliot, on the other hand, is in search of his father, who disappeared on the night his uncle was found dead. The talk in the town of Bonfire (in the Kingdom of Cello) is that Elliot’s dad may have killed his brother and run away with the Physics teacher. But Elliot refuses to believe it. And he is determined to find both his dad and the truth.
As Madeleine and Elliot move closer to unraveling their mysteries, they begin to exchange messages across worlds — through an accidental gap that hasn’t appeared in centuries. But even greater mysteries are unfolding on both sides of the gap: dangerous weather phenomena called “color storms;” a strange fascination with Isaac Newton; the myth of the “Butterfly Child,” whose appearance could end the droughts of Cello; and some unexpected kisses…
Original Review: April 2013 | Original Rating: 8 – Excellent
What Ana Said:
A Corner of White is an interesting hybrid of Fantasy and Contemporary YA. The latter comes through in the way that explores certain themes like self-identity, growing up, relating to others. Although those are obviously not exclusive themes to Contemporary YA, there are still typical of the subgenre and deftly explored here. [...]
A Corner of White is a book that expects a certain level of commitment and patience from its readers. And maybe not everybody might be invested in the type of story it tells or have the patience to see it unfold slowly. Slowly is the key word here because the stories, or rather the story it tells (because it’s just one, really, at the end of the day) is developed carefully and insidiously.
This is a book that is built on appearances and assumptions. [...]
If you like Hilary Mckay, Megan Whalen Turner, Jennifer Nielsen and the way their books play with narrative in clever ways? You must read this.
What Thea says:
Oh, readers. I really, really hate it when this happens. I preface this portion of my “What She Said” review with a caveat – this is, as Ana likes to say, a regurgitation of my feels for the book. (Unfortunately, my feels are not of the gushingly positive variety.)
A Corner of White is a well-written book. I know it appeals to many people and certain audiences. It is whimsical and humorous, filled with quirky characters and a great underlying concept, i.e. the juxtaposition of the ever-changing seasons of Cello and its rogue colors, against the less vibrant real World (called simply, “the World”) is wonderfully positioned.
And yet…A Corner of White and I simply did not hit it off. We are not BFFs; we are not soulmates. This is not a failing of the book, but rather a simple matter of incongruity and incompatibility. In other words: it’s not you, book. It’s me.
Allow me to explain: there are some books with which you immediately forge a deep, lasting connection. (You know those books – they’re the literary equivalent of love at first sight.) There are also the books that you know you should like, but there’s just no spark or chemistry; in fact, there’s just something about that book that causes your brain to tune out. I swear there were times when I was reading A Corner of White that felt like that Batman The Animated Series episode, “Perchance to Dream.”
(You know, the episode where Batman is trapped in a dream by Mad Hatter, and when he tries to read a book it’s a bunch of jumbled up nonsense. This allows Batman to figure out he’s in a dream, because according to the Animated Gods, reading is impossible in dreams because that part of the brain is sleeping during sleep.) (This is not true, but I love the idea.)
I digress. A Corner of White is a charming book – the story takes place in both the Kingdom of Cello (a fantasy land where seasons last for mere days, colors run rogue and are capable of killing a person, and technology runs at a slightly different pace), and our more familiar World. Madeleine is a beautiful young woman who used to live in the lap of luxury, until the day her mother suddenly decided to run away from her father, whisking Madeline away from yachts and private jets to drizzly Cambridge, England. Here, Madeline consumes a number of beans (yes, beans) because this is all her mother knows how to cook and can afford, dresses in bright colors, and spends time with her two other homeschooled friends. Meanwhile, Madeline’s mother sits day after day watching and practicing for her spot on a quiz show (she gets every single answer wrong). In the Kingdom of Cello, Elliot is a young man singularly bent on discovering the whereabouts of his missing father (who is rumored to have run off with the school physics teacher). Before embarking on a dangerous journey confronting some rogue Violets, Elliot is convinced by his mother to stick around his home farm town of Bonfire, to help put together a pyramid of pumpkins, play some baseball, and hang out with his friends (who hang on to his every word because he’s just that charismatic and wonderful).
One day, Madeline discovers a connection between the World and the mysterious land of Cello, and begins exchanging notes with young Elliot – their fates are intertwined, despite being worlds apart.
Sounds intriguing, right?! A Corner of White, however, never really actually capitalizes on this promise. Alternating between the World and Cello, there are a lot of WORDS in this book and plenty of whimsical quips and quirky touches for Madeline and Elliot. But… it’s so much whimsy and quirk that it quickly grows tiresome and feels entirely pointless (or, rather, that there is so much whimsy and quirk merely for the sake of whimsy and quirk). There are pages upon pages of excerpts from travelling princesses of Cello, who flitter on about how WONDERFUL the different towns they’ve visited are and how DARLING everything is (interspersed with editor’s notes correcting errors and clarifying gramatical/vocabulary choices).
There is much time spent with both of the book’s main characters, Madeline and Elliot, but it’s hard to truly care for either of them because they are so superficially quirky without any deeper connection (also, I am not endeared to Madeline, as clearly her mother is SICK and she sort of halfheartedly worries about getting her mother to a doctor, only to forget about it and continue on her own self-absorbed storyline for another 100 pages). Furthermore, I know there’s a plot in here somewhere and an eventual convergence of storylines, and perhaps I’m simply impatient because I found myself getting irritated with the lack of a story (and similar lack of character building) for the first half of the novel. And without a story, and without robust characters it all felt like a lot of style without any actual substance.
Not to mention the concept of Colors and the whimsy of Cello – complete with killing Colors – sounds very much like Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, this is a comparison that I could not get out of my head, and one that is not favorable for A Corner of White (Shades of Grey is also whimsical and hilarious, but has a story that moves and characters who ring as far more genuine to me).
Basically, what it all comes down to is simple: this book and I could not connect, and I put it down after 200 pages. It breaks my heart to say it, especially because I know that A Corner of White works for so many other people whose taste I love…but this was a big DNF for me. (I’d encourage everyone to give this book a try, though, for that very reason – while this book didn’t work for me, it could very well work for you!)
Rating: DNF – as much as it pains me to say it, I could not finish this book. After a few days of picking it up and putting it down, I called it quits.
Buy the Books:
The Wig in the Window: