Review: Picture Me Gone

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin. 2013. Library copy. National Book Award short list.

The Plot: Twelve year old Mila and her father, Gil, are in New York, visiting her father’s friend and his family.

Or, rather, were supposed to be. Matthew has disappeared, and Mila and her father came anyway, and it is beyond awkward being in the house with Matthew’s wife, Suzanne, and baby son. Suzanne suggests that Matthew may be hiding at his cabin in upstate New York, so these two Londoners set off to see if they can find Matthew.

Mila learns a lot on this impromptu road trip with her father — about Matthew. About her father. About herself.

The Good: OK. Heads up. Two things.

First: I loved this book.

Second: The only way to talk about this book is to talk about the book in its entirety. So, yes, massive spoilers. I feel a bit guilty about that, because part of what I loved about the book is how it is told. Mila tells the story, and she boasts about how clear eyed and observant she is — and she is — but she shares certain information on her own schedule, as she deems it important. And, for all her powers of observation, she can also only tells us what she knows when she knows it.

Matthew’s disappearance is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that Mila solves, but I wouldn’t call Picture Me Gone a mystery. I wouldn’t add that little label to the spine. Instead, I’d say this is a book about secrets. Secrets kept and told, and what that means. And it’s about the biggest secret of all, that mysterious thing called “growing up.”

So, for me to get into the why I loved this, I want to talk about those secrets and what Mila tells us and when and what Mila discovers.

Mila is twelve. She’s a cherished only child. Her parents have their own lives and own love, so it’s not that she is made too important in their lives. Rather, it’s just important enough. I won’t say she’s spoiled, but she has the self confidence and self assurance that such a child has. And she is observant, and part of that may be because of who her parents are: both over 40 when she was born, her father is now close to sixty. He is a translator, so words and intent matter to him. A mother is a musician. Here, an early look at how Mila thinks: “This picture [of her father’s childhood dog] fills me with a deep sense of longing. Saudade, Gil would say. Portuguese. The longing for something loved and lost, something gone or unattainable.

Or Mila thinking about how Matthew has disappeared on his family: “The actual running away does not strike me as particularly strange. Most of us are held in place by a kind of centrifugal force. If for some reason the force stopped, we might all fly off in different directions. But what about the not coming back? Staying away is frightening and painful. And who would leave a baby? Even to me this seems extreme, a failure of love.

Up until the past year, she and her best friend Cat played involved make believe games involving spies and secrets. As Picture Me Gone starts, Cat is no longer her best friend, and instead is hanging out with other, older kids. It’s the start of Mila no longer being a child; and also the start of her beginning her journey out of childhood.

Here is the example of Mila saying what she thinks is important when she thinks it’s important. She mentions Matthew’s disappearance; she talks about Suzanne and the new baby and another son, Owen, who Mila met the last time she was in New York. That first night, Mila is given Owen’s room to sleep in, with all his things around her. At first, given the ages — Owen is a few years older than Mila — I think there is some story of a second marriage.

No. Owen is dead; had died three years before, when he was twelve. Mila says this so matter of fact, as if we knew. But, of course, the reader doesn’t. How Owen dies is also told on Mila’s timeline. It’s not that she was keeping secrets from the reader.

Talking about secrets — Mila and her father go to Matthew’s remote cabin and discover another secret. An old friend of both Matthew and Gil. A woman, Lynda. Not just any woman: a woman who, for a time, came between the two men. Lynda is with her fifteen year old son, Jake. A woman who Matthew is letting stay in his cabin, someone he sends money to. Mila, observant, quickly picks up on the reality that Jake is Matthew’s son; and that, since Jake is the age Owen would have been, Matthew had gotten both his girlfriend and his wife pregnant at the same time.

And then Mila finds out that it’s not the first time Matthew has disappeared. He disappeared after Owen’s death. In a car accident. Matthew was driving. Secrets and secrets, but so far, they are all other people’s secrets that Mila is discovering. Oh, she sees her father look at Lynda and realizes there was something once, between them. And seeing them, and meeting them, Mila begins to think of herself as someday not being a child. “Who will I grow up to be like? I wonder at what point a child becomes a person. . . . I can’t imagine living a real life, or how I’ll ever be an adult. . . . I cannot picture me grown up. I cannot picture me any different from the me I am now. I cannot picture me old or married or dead.

Mila discovers another secret, and it shatters her. And the secret — well, basically, it’s a lie. A lie both her parents have told her. A lie that, in all honesty, I don’t see as that big of a deal but to Mila, Mila who is twelve and believes in her parents, Mila who has been so privileged in her type of family: that there is even a lie shakes her faith in everything. Picture Me Gone is about that moment, of realization, of parents not being perfect; of things being bigger than oneself; of not being the center of the universe; and of growing up. “We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse. Gabriel is just a baby but eventually he will see the world and his father as they are: imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” And it’s not just about seeing the world: it’s Mila realizing that what she does or doesn’t do matters. “I will not always be happy, but perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will be spared the agony of adding pain to the world.” And it’s that realization, as the book ends, that marks Mila leaving childhood.

So, yes. A Favorite Book Read in 2013. It’s amazing, I love Mila, I love the language, I love how and when we are told things. (I wish there were punctuation to be clearer about dialogue, but that’s a minor point.) But, it’s not going to be easy to booktalk this one. Any suggestions?

Other reviews: Teen Librarian Toolbox; Things Mean a Lot; The New York Times.


Review: The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath: The Shades of London, Book Two by Maureen Johnson. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013. Personal copy. Sequel to The Name of the Star.

The Plot: Rory, physically recovered from being stabbed by a killer ghost, returns to her boarding school. That ghost is gone, but she soon realizes that other dangerous ghosts are haunting London. As Rory tries to navigate her separate worlds (student by day, ghost hunter by night) she discovers that there are sometimes things more dangerous than ghosts.

The Good: While I enjoyed The Name of the Star, I loved, loved, loved The Madness Underneath. The Name of the Star is like the TV Pilot that gets the gang together and sets up a premise and The Madness Underneath is the episode where it all comes together and sparks fly.

The Madness Underneath quickly brings the reader up to speed, so, to be honest, I don’t think you need to start with The Name of the Star. Rory can see ghosts; her family and her friends at boarding school don’ t know this; she sneaks out at all hours to assist ghost-seeing ghost-hunters. Got it? Good.

Rory, quite understandably, hasn’t been concentrating on her school work, on account of the whole being stabbed and almost dying thing. Also, ever since then, it’s not just that she can see ghosts; with a touch, she can kill them. Or, whatever it is you call it when the ghost goes away, permanently. The ghost hunters — Stephen, Callum, and Boo — send some mixed messages. She’s valuable because of her ability to terminate ghosts. She cannot tell anyone anything about them, ever. She’s on call when they need her. She cannot be an official part of the team because she’s still in school and is an American. In other words, not only does Rory have a lot going on, there’s also no one with whom she can be completely honest. Her lies keep piling up.

Rory suspects a local murder isn’t what it seems; at the same time, she starts seeing a new therapist who really seems to be able to help her. The Madness Underneath is a mystery, so I don’t want to give too much plot-wise away, but things get complicated and it all happens fast. Every now and then I was a few steps ahead of Rory; other times, I was finding things out at the same time she was. (Long time readers of this blog know that is just how I like my mysteries, because I get to be both smart and surprised.) What interested me as a reader is that the mystery wasn’t what it seemed to be, at first, and I liked that sleight of hand.

What I can give away? Rory herself, who is funny, adding needed humor to a tale that is otherwise, when one steps back and thinks about it, deep and dark and layered. “Julia might well have asked me, ‘Rory, do you want me to go live in the sky? On a Pegasus?’ It was not going to happen.”

Rory is also pretty smart in her observations about those around her. Here she is on her boyfriend Jerome: “I’d gotten used to not being around Jerome, and strangely, this had made us closer. We’d definitely gotten more serious in the last two weeks, but we’d done it all over the phone or on a screen. I’d grown accustomed to Jerome as a text message, and it was somewhat unsettling to have the actual person sliding down the wall to sit next to me. Unsettling, but also a bit thrilling.

Rory can be as honest about herself, sometimes: “I liked being right, and I liked being powerful, and I liked the way I felt right now.

As for the end of The Madness Underneath. I’ll be honest: some may call it a cliff-hanger and cry “no.” I like it; the questions raised were answered. That a new question was raised at the end, well, that sometimes happens.

For all these reasons — the plotting, the writing, Rory’s humor, the romance, the mystery — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other Reviews: The Book Smugglers; bookshelves of doom; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Reading Rants.


Review: Shelter

Shelter: A Mickey Bolitar Novel by Harlan Coben. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. 2011. Library copy. An Edgar Nominee.

The Plot: Mickey Bolitar is fifteen; his father is dead, his mother is in rehab, and he’s living with his Uncle Myron, someone he barely knows. Mickey is adjusting to his new town and living with his estranged uncle when two things happen: his girlfriend disappears and the Bat Lady (the local crazy old lady) tells him “your father isn’t dead. He’s very much alive.”

Mickey uncovers secret upon secret as he tries to find out what happened to Ashley while learning more about the Bat Lady.

The Good: A tightly plotted mystery that pulls the reader in from the first sentence: “I was walking to school, lost in feeling sorry for myself — my dad was dead, my mom in rehab, my girlfriend missing — when I saw the Bat Lady for the first time.” Boom, there are four things to find out more about: what happened to Mickey’s dad? Why is his mom in rehab? And his girlfriend is missing? And who or what is a Bat Lady?

Shelter is the first in a new young adult mystery series from Coben. It centers on one mystery, the missing girlfriend, Ashley, and, rest assured, that mystery is solved. Mickey is a teen, only a sophomore, but he is in a bit of a unique situation. While not an orphan, his mother was unable to deal with the sudden death of her husband and is in rehab. Mickey barely knows his uncle, and keeps him at an arm’s length. In addition, since Mickey is an only child who was raised by parents who traveled the world, he is independent and mature. Also as a result of his slightly odd childhood, he’s not the type who really cares about fitting in with school. Instead of worrying about being popular, or using his basketball talent to become a jock, Mickey dates new girl Ashley and becomes friends who two teens on the fringe of high school society, goth Ema and oddball Spoon.

What I want from a young adult mystery is what I want from an adult mystery: a resolution that makes sense, characters I like, some things I can figure out at the same time (or before) the protagonist and some things I’m surprised by, and no ghosts. OK, that’s not quite accurate, sometimes I like ghosts in my mysteries but I also like when the mystery is “all real” with no supernatural explanations or motivations. Shelter is the no-ghost type of mystery, and it delivers all I expect in a mystery.

I like Mickey; he has a bit of a young James Bond feel to him, because his eclectic upbringing has given him certain talents and experiences that assist in mystery solving. His sidekicks are entertaining and a real help; Ema’s knowledge of tattoos and Spoon’s access to the high school (his father is a janitor) both are needed to solve the mystery. The mystery is a teen one (a friend goes missing) and I was surprised with where Mickey’s investigation took him.

There are some unanswered questions, both big and little, and based on Shelter, I imagine that some of those will be addressed in future books. The adult mysteries I enjoy tend to be series books, so the loose threads left at the end of Shelter were perfect for me: it makes me want to read the next book. Because the main mystery of Shelter was answered (Ashley’s disappearance), I didn’t feel cheated that other questions remain.

When I went looking at the author’s website and the book website, I got a pleasant surprise. It turns out, Uncle Myron is Myron Bolitar who is the main character in a series for grownups by Coben. Not only that, but Mickey and his parents are introduced in one of those books, Live Wire. Guess I have some more books to add to my to-be-read pile! As you can tell from my surprise, the reader doesn’t have to have read that series or that book to fully enjoy Shelter.

Other Reviews: Jen Robinson’s Book Page; An Interview with the Author at Kirkus; YA Sleuth.