One of the perks of my summer bookstore gig is occasionally I get to pick some books to review from whatever happens to be lying on the Advance Reader Copy table. I'm partial to the kids' books. I'm a bit overdue with these two - I read them on the flight to the Comic Con.
Selling Hope - Kristin O'Donnell Tubb
It's hard to separate this book's promise from its execution. On first reading the back cover blurb, I thought it was a neat story idea, and still do. In 1910 Chicago, with Halley's comet approaching, a 13-year-old on tour with a vaudeville troupe (she plays assistant to her father, a magician) gets the idea to raise some money by hawking fake "anti-comet pills" to terrified townspeople. However, she hasn't anticipated the emotional consequences that ensue - both for the customers (who cling to the belief that they now have "hope") and for our young entrepreneur (not-so-coincidentally also named "Hope") herself. Along the way, she grapples with her feelings about her mother's death, navigates her relationship with her dad, and forms a bond with a fellow troupe member, who just happens to be a 15-year-old Buster Keaton.
It's a mixed bag. The substance and Ms. Tubb's imaginative resources are commendable. The narrative, on the other hand, is awkward. Narrator Hope's voice, while distinctive, is labored, making her come across as self-conscious in the way she describes things. (Furthermore, as an incidental point, I find it hard to buy that Buster Keaton could have been such a bland, vanilla-milkshake presence -- but I admit I wasn't there.) Despite the problems, it's worth a read: every plot point is tied up, no character is left undeveloped, and whenever Ms. Tubb describes Hope's reactions to Buster, her writing really shines. Her investment in her characters, story, and research is obvious; the excesses should be taken along with the positives, not automatically allowed to overshadow them. Decide for yourself.
SNARK-O-METER RATING: 1.5 snarks ("You Might Just Watch The Playhouse Instead")
Big Nate: In A Class By Himself - Lincoln Peirce
Having grown up with 11-year-old comic strip antihero Big Nate (although I didn't specifically attend P.S. 38), I'm happy to see the kid get a book of his own. Although the inevitable comparison will be to Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its sequels, I was actually reminded of Marissa Moss' Amelia's Notebook series; Amelia, like Nate, draws her "own" cartoons to accompany the story, and the tone of the humor is not dissimilar. Both characters have engaging, first-person voices that engage the reader as a friend.
The story is told with ease, humor and style. Readers may well figure out the ending ahead of time, but it's still entertaining and the story never insults the reader's intelligence. Personally, I only wished Nate's character had had more of a chance to develop in this book; given that this was a story told outside of the constraints of a daily comic strip, I felt that the character could have had a lot more room to grow. There's plenty to him; this is, after all, the same kid who created the comic strip hero "Dr. Cesspool." So naturally he's a sentimental favorite of mine. Here's hoping we see sequels.
SNARK-O-METER RATING: Bag of Cheez Doodles (because I know Nate would prefer that to bubble tea)