Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Orphans preferred


I have now read seven novels starring 11-to-14-year-old orphans, or almost-orphans, or apparent orphans, in one month. Seven. It's not like I went looking for them either - believe me, you can't spit at the children's section without hitting an orphan. An orphan that in short order will find an extraordinary surrogate family - or his/her own long-lost family - in the bosom (or bowels) of which he/she will discover his/her true abilities or powers and face grave danger and adult-level responsibilities.

Quick reviews anon:

A Drowned Maiden's Hair by local hero and librarian Laura Amy Schlitz. Maud Flynn, 11, is a true orphan adopted by old ladies for nefarious purposes. I liked it, though I have good friends whose opinion I respect who didn't. Thumbs up from me.

The Fairy Tale Detectives by the extremely good-humored Michael Buckley. Apparent orphans (parents kidnapped) Sabrina, 11, and her sister Daphne, 7, are adopted by their eccentric granny, who involves them in her detective work among the fairy tale inhabitants of a small Hudson Valley town. Reviewed earlier, and thanks to Mr. Buckley's intervention, we're now listening to the second book in The Sisters Grimm series, The Unusual Suspects. It's Sabrina's anger that makes me uncomfortable with these books, I've decided. However, veteran narrator L.J. Ganser really seems to be hitting his stride with this second book, making it a more enjoyable ride.

Victory by Susan Cooper. 11-year-old Sam is estranged from his parents and living in London with his uncle when he is kidnapped by a press gang and brought aboard the HMS Victory to serve in the Royal Navy under Admiral Nelson. Reviewed earlier.

The Somebodies by N.E. Bode. Fern, 12, was switched at birth, later to find out she's really a member of a family hip-deep in magic (mother dead, father inept). I jumped into this series at the third book, sometimes a good strategy when you just want to find out whether a series is worth recommending. It's a funny book, grist for the voracious fantasy reader, but not particularly memorable. Thumbs in the middle.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel. Our Matt Cruse, 14, has a mother, but lives and works aboard ship. His real family is the crew and officers, and it is there that his abilities shine. Reviewed earlier. Turns out Klaus, not Charlie, is going to play Matt in the movie.

The Faceless Fiend by Howard Whitehouse. Fourteen-year-old Emmaline has parents, but they sent her to boarding school - same thing, really. In The Faceless Fiend, Emmaline lives among a surrogate family consisting of extremely eccentric characters, in whose company her innate abilities are allowed to blossom as she faces danger. This is the forthcoming sequel to The Strictest School in the World, and I'm finding it kind of tedious so far, but I'm only halfway through.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Percy Jackson, 11, is not an orphan at the beginning of the book, and by the end of the book he's not an orphan again, and his father wasn't dead all along, but merely a characteristically-aloof Greek god, but Percy belongs in this group. Always in trouble at a succession of boarding schools, Percy is dyslexic and has ADHD, both of which turn out to be hereditary traits of his real family: the Olympian gods and their half-mortal progeny. Which he learns once he joins them at their special camp on Long Island. He has to come to grips with his unanticipated abilities and save the world from cosmic war, but that's barely over par for the course on which these orphan heroes play.

This book was predictable and formulaic, and yet! I liked it so much that when I saw the sequel at Target yesterday, I seriously considered buying it so that I could start reading it right away, even though I knew I could pick it up at work today. Is it the snappy dialogue that saves it? The mythic characters? Percy's relative lack of resentment given the upheavals in his life? Or is it just... exciting? I wish I could say for sure, because liking this book makes me feel pretty sheepish about dissing The Sisters Grimm. Thumbs up.

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That Rowling chick has a lot to answer for. Sixty flazillion books sold. Kids crawling all over the library as if it holds something special just for them. Jim Dale's Grammy. And now, dozens of orphaned and abandoned pre-teen book characters.

But don't worry about them: I can just see them ripping free of their bindings, pooling their staggering reserves of grit, pluck, self-reliance, and magical paraphernalia, and confronting her at her manse in Scotland, demanding their parents back. Or maybe insisting that she adopt them.


Then, in addition to half a billion pounds, she'll have her own good-looking bad-ass superhero army - The League of Extraordinary Teenagers.

You know, that is not a bad idea. In ten years, they could go up against Angelina Jolie's gorgeous global brood.