|Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews|
Greg Leitich Smith.
Tofu & T. Rex.
Little, Brown. 2005.
Ages 10 & Up
How do I possibly describe a book about private school applications, sausage making, paleontology, vegans, and accidental arson? Maybe the better question is how a person writes something that combines all of these extremely varied subjects into a cohesive and fun storyline. I thought Greg Smith might have bitten off more than he could chew with Tofu and T.Rex (and I've left out the parts about frogs and fountains and lawyers), but he pulls it all off surprisingly well. It's not a serious book, not in the classic sense, but it is a major trip into figuring out what matters and who is important and when you should make a stand. It is also, more than any book I have read in a while, about the strength a couple of teenagers find in being themselves. It's a book about authenticity and honesty, and along the way it is one hilarious adventure.
"Freddie" has been sent back to her hometown to live with her grandfather, aunt, and cousin after getting into trouble one time too often at her new high school. Freddie's trouble isn't the conventional kind; she is a militant and intense vegan who goes a little too far in an attempt to bring attention to the plight of her school's mascot. Leaving Texas and her parents would not be so difficult if her dear (and wonderfully written) grandfather didn't own a deli and her cousin Hans-Peter wasn't committed to testing recipes for the town's Wurstfest competition in the family kitchen. There's a lot of meat around the house, and Freddie isn't very good at coping in that environment. Truth be told, Freddie isn't good at coping at all.
Hans-Peter is determined to gain entrance into the school Freddie is already back attending, the unorthodox and elite Peshtigo School. He undergoes the intense application process throughout the book, which involves crafting recipes for sausage and decrypting a code based on the numerical definition of Pi. His eventual reliance on Freddie to meet a crucial deadline and her ensuing commitment to keeping that deadline, is what brings the two cousins together. There's also a vegetarian entry into Wurstfest and a dreadful deli slicing accident to round out the final chapters and prove that even deeply committed vegetarians and carnivores can get past their initial differences and find a common ground.
Maybe we should send this book to every member of Congress. (I'm not kidding.)
The most enjoyable thing about Tofu and T.Rex for me was how very cool all the characters are. Wanting to go on a dinosaur dig is cool, forming the Union of Students Concerned about Cruelty to Animals is cool, having a mother who is a fugu chef is cool, and making sausage from scratch is, big surprise, very cool. Smith has written a book with a bunch of quirky characters who do not overwhelm the storyline with "weirdness," or even worse, "cuteness." They're smart and funny and not the slightest bit worried about being anyone other than who they truly are. There's a lot going on in Tofu and T.Rex that a reader will respond to with a grin, a nod, or a bit of personal revelation. And there's a lot to think about after the book is finished, which may be the most surprising and best thing of all.
Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.
The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn and The Demon in the Teahouse.
Philomel. 1999 & 2001.
Ages 12 & Up
I love a good historical mystery. My current near obsession is with Jacqueline Winspear's excellent Maisie Dobbs series set in England after WWI. For me when an author purposely sets a mystery in a specific time period and then makes the events and atmosphere of that period critical to the story, it is kind of a like getting a whole second story for free. Not only do you have a killer mystery to follow, but you also get to soak up all the surrounding drama as well. Of course the whole thing can go to hell in a second if the author is no historian and only chooses a period at random, or worse, tries to steal some suspense from actual historical events. I hate it when that happens. When it's all done right though, a historical mystery can be fantastic, and Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler certainly know what they are doing with the adventures of fourteen year old Seikei in early 18th century Japan.
Seikei is the son of a tea merchant but has always dreamed of being a samurai. As the events unfold in the first book in the series, The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn, it becomes clear that, as the son of a merchant, he is destined to remain in the class of his birth with no hope of fulfilling his dream. This weighs heavily on Seikei, who wishes not only to learn the honor and courage of the samurai but also to be a poet, something only the samurai class is permitted to do. It will no doubt surprise most young readers to know that the warriors of old Japan were both master swordsmen and writers, but for Seikei it makes perfect sense. His longing to be part of their world is what propels the first story along as he falls into a mystery surrounding a samurai he meets while traveling with his father. He finds himself becoming a critical part in solving that mystery, and in the process Seikei also gets a front row seat to the politics of the samurai class and learns that not everything and everyone is as perfect as he always thought. What is nice about this sudden awareness is that it only deepens Seikei's faith in the samurai ideals, while allowing him to develop a healthy dose of cynicism when it comes to dealing with individuals who claim, rather casually, to embody those ideals.
The mysteries in both of the first two volumes in this series are first rate. They demand the reader pay attention, and they proceed at the appropriate speed with the collecting of clues, spying of suspects, and no small amount of undercover work on the part of our hero. The fact that Seikei ends up working for the famous samurai and advisor to the shogun, Judge Ooka, a real historical figure who is revered in Japan, only gives the plots more realism and a boatload more credibility. The history is so fantastic in these books that I really can't stress it enough, but it isn't the slightest bit dull or pedantic. Of course, when you think about it though, how could samurai training be dull?
Reading about the samurai code, understanding their talents and skills, and even learning about the culture and traditions in Japan almost three hundred years ago is fascinating in the hands of the very talented Hooblers. Seikei is a first rate teen hero, and his continuous quest to find the truth in his world while attaining the level of wisdom he aspires to is both admirable and, dare I say, refreshing. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about his adventures thus far, and I very much look forward to the other titles in the series. Any boy or girl would love to read about Seikei and his world, but these books will particularly appeal to those readers who yearn for more significance in their own lives, who want to reach that level of wisdom and honor that Seikei dreams of as well. And hell, if you know a would-be poet, it wouldn't hurt to let them read about the samurai. It just might give them the confidence they've been looking for.
Now onward to In Darkness, Death and The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass. Go Seikei!
Alfred A. Knopf. 2005.
Ages 10 & Up
There is a certain genre of young adult books that has seemed to live forever. It includes titles like The Saturdays and Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright and always involves a group of boys and girls who run around and have a lot of fun adventures while not saving the world. These are the ultimate bologna sandwich and lemonade books; they are made for rainy days stuck indoors or sunny days outside in a hammock. There are only the most basic of truths to found within them: be true to yourself, be brave, be smart. They are strictly the most essential sort of reading that any child can find because within these stories they will see what they need to be happy. They will see just how much fun it can be to be a kid.
I love these kinds of books.
The Penderwicks is the story of four sisters, their widowed father, and the few weeks they spend one summer vacation at a place called Arundel. Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and "Batty" Penderwick are determined to have a good time, and after they meet Jeffrey Tifton, they are determined that he should have a good time as well. Of course things get complicated because Jeffrey's mother is a bit more focused on herself than her son (okay, a lot more focused!), and the girls are very bad at being seen and not heard, and Batty leaves a door open, which lets some rabbits escape, and the family dog, Hound, is pretty much the size of a pony, but all of that is okay because this is a story that is guaranteed to give a happy ending; it's what it is designed to do. So while all the chaos rushes around the girls and Jeffrey as they hatch plots and make plans, the reader knows it will all work out eventually. That happy ending is something you can count on as the plot thickens dramatically and events seem to be taking a turn for the worst. Just hold on though as the Penderwicks will get you through everything, all the while baking brownies and playing soccer and writing exciting stories of adventure. Ultimately they prove to be exactly the sort of friends that Jeffrey desperately needs, and he ends up teaching each of them a thing or two as well.
So here's what you must do when reading this book. The bologna sandwich needs to be on white bread (wheat is okay in a pinch), with real mayonnaise and NOTHING ELSE! Serve it on a plastic plate with a dill pickle and plain Lays potato chips on the side. Fill a glass with either lemonade, sweet tea (if you're in the South), or cold white milk. Then get comfortable and lose yourself for a little while in an old fashioned story. The Penderwicks is a sweetheart of a book and guaranteed page turner. Elizabeth Enright would be proud; clearly someone was paying attention when she wrote all those classics.