Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Desperados

Shoot-'em-up Westerns are a rare thing in children's literature. It's one sub-genre of the historical fiction canon that I can say I haven't read a lot of. Truth be told, I haven't even encountered many. Lots of historical fiction novels for children are set within the same time period as Caroline Lawrence's THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS, but none in recent memory have taken the same path Lawrence has to tell her story. This book was a blast!

THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS begins with P.K. Pinkerton, our twelve-year old hero, hiding out in the bottom of a cave. His foster ma and pa have been scalped and murdered by none other than Whittlin' Walt and his 'pards. And worse yet, now they're after P.K. because he has in his possession a document that would make its bearer incredibly rich. Gunfights, clever disguises, Soiled Doves, and saloons ensue.

If this book was eligible for the Newbery, I would be championing it pretty hard this winter. But sadly, Caroline Lawrence does not reside in the US and apparently this novel was published in the UK before its rights were purchased and published here, early this 2012. Either way, I am making it my mission to insert this title into as many conversations as I possibly can.

Random Acquaintance #1: Hey Mr. H! Did you catch Clint Eastwood on the Republican National Convention the other night?

Mr. H: No I didn't. Have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence though?

Random Acquaintance #2: Hey Mr. H! How did your fantasy football draft go?

Mr. H: Not bad. Have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence?

Random Acquaintance #3: Hey Mr. H! How are the kiddos? 

Mr. H: The fam is doing well. Thanks for asking. By the way, have you read THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS by Caroline Lawrence?

Seriously. I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed this book. I am a father of two children now. My daughter is two and a half years old and my son is six months. My life consists of going to school, coming home to entertain them and make supper, wash dishes and pick up the house, put the kids to bed, and then maybe, just maybe, take a little bit of time to catch up on school work and lesson plans. Plus, I've started graduate school this year and am earning my masters in Educational Leadership. Suffice it to say, I don't have a lot of time to read for fun.

Taking part in the discussions on Heavy Medal during Newbery season is something I love to do. I can't possible read even half of the books people will be discussing in depth on that blog this year, but if I focus my efforts, I can tackle the big ones. Wasting time reading books that are ineligible, or not worthy of discussion, will frustrate me because I could have spent that time reading a favorite of bloggers over there. Even knowing that THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS is ineligible, doesn't bother me. Not in the least! I should be upset but I don't care. That's how much I liked this book!

I loved P.K.'s voice. It's reminiscent of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. I'm sure Asperger's syndrome is not something that was being diagnosed back in the Wild West. Which makes the intricacies of P.K.'s narrative so rich. It's obvious P.K. is autistic, but a name cannot be placed on it because it doesn't exist. P.K. refers to his difficulties showing and feeling emotion as his "thorn". He struggles socially because he has no emotional response to situations. His foster ma and pa were scalped right in front of him and he was as sober as could be!

Which makes Lawrence's twist ending, that much more clever. A twist ending you say? Sometimes knowing a twist ending is coming, ruins a reading experience. Not that case with this book. I promise you, there are two surprises in this book you will never see coming. I didn't anyway. And I can't remember the last time a book caught me the way this one did.

It's crude and it's violent. It's thrilling and surprising. It's the book I've enjoyed most this year. I can't wait to see where Lawrence takes P.K.

Final Grade: A

The False Prince

THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen was the first book I noticed this year, with any type of Newbery buzz. Newbery buzz, as children's literature fans are sure to know, can be a double edged sword. Peak too early, and you may find yourself doomed (OKAY FOR NOW). Swoop in at the last minute, and sometimes you're in better shape (MOON OVER MANIFEST). Suffice it to say, we're now in September and the current buzz surrounding this book, is almost non-existent.

Jonathan Hunt listed THE FALSE PRINCE on his 2013 Newbery Reading List back in January already, the same time I was able to get a paperback copy in my hands through a Scholastic Book Order. Oddly enough, Amazon doesn't list the publication date until April, but since I was hearing things back in January I felt lucky to get my hands in on the action early! Which I rarely ever get to.

THE FALSE PRINCE tells the story of Sage, an orphan thief who finds himself recruited ('kidnapped' might be a better word) along with three other orphan boys, by a powerful man named Conner. Conner plans to pit the boys against each other in hopes of disguising one of them as the long-lost (and believed to be dead), young prince of a discontent nation. With certain death awaiting those Conner doesn't find worthy, each boy is determined to win his approval. As Conner's true motive begins to reveal itself, an even bigger secret surfaces that alters everything!

A strange sense of deja-vu came over me while reading this book. About halfway through I felt as if I had read this book before. Then it hit me . . . I had! Back when it was called THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner. Once I realized this, reading this novel became an interesting experience. Because I began to see everything differently. In fact, I began to realize that Nielsen was more than likely going to end her novel exactly as Whalen Turner had, by pulling the rug out from under readers. I even guessed how . . . just like Megan Whalen Turner! By using an unreliable narrator.

Novels with unreliable narrators are a tricky thing. When done well, they can blow readers away. When done not-so-well, they can leave readers frustrated, confused, and angry. Books like this almost seem to invite criticism. To me, it's different if the narrator has amnesia or is suffering from denial or something like that. But when the narrator is a perfectly healthy individual who is purposely hiding something from the reader, only to reveal it at the very end when the story reaches its climax, I tend to feel as if the author was merely out to "trick" their readers. Personally, I feel like that is the case with this story.

I admit, Whalen Turner's novel could be very guilty of this as well, but she went on to write an extremely complex series of novels, each one exceeding the previous in terms of brilliance. So it's easier to forgive her for tricking her readers. Nielsen has planned a trilogy with this cast of characters so it may be unfair to judge her yet. But right now, I can't think of any other way to describe this novel than to say it's THE THIEF's younger, easier-to-read cousin.

It's not a bad book. The psychological intrigue was interesting. I liked the suspenseful way the kidnapped boys began to compete against each other, yet, befriend each other and rely on each other in the same way. In the end though, I just felt sorry for the other boys because I was able to see through the main character's secret early on and they weren't able to see that they were competing in an unfair competition.

I suppose, if a younger reader has not encountered THE THIEF, and enjoys middle-aged suspense and mystery, this would be a good read. However, if that child reader is smart, and loved the taut storytelling on display in THE THIEF, I'm afraid they are going to put this one down because it just doesn't stand up when compared.

Maybe comparing it isn't fair. But THE THIEF was just that good. I couldn't help it.

Final Grade: B