Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

"I think I can. I think I can." This little engine that could is chugging through the 2013 Newbery Medal list mentioned in a previous post. My non-picky appetite seems to stack the most recently devoured book on the top of the pile making it number one for my own personal list. Argh! My top 5 are pretty much interchangeable. So many terrific books!  Glad I'm not judging the "most distinguished" book of the year... Right now I'm guessing: Splendors and Glooms, Crow, Starry River of the Sky, and The One and Only Ivan. What's your pick?

While Splendors and Glooms meets the Newbery criteria with its unusual and complex plot, characters, themes, and language; it might not be all that likable to folks not hankering for the Victorian mood and language that slowly builds at the start entwining different plot points into an exciting climax. Not that this matters when choosing a Newbery - that falls under personal taste which is not measured in winning books. The book is creepy and depressing in parts with Lizzie Rose and Parsefall being abused and Clara neglected, to humorous scenes with the wacky dog and Pinchbeck reliving her acting days with Lizzie Rose. Remember the hubbub surrounding The Tale of Despereaux because of the violence in it? I think this might rile up some for the same reason. On the blog Heavy Medal the discussion about the pacing being slow and boring just goes to show some are gonna love it and some are not. It's worth deciding for yourself.

The first chapter introduces Clara Wintermute, the sole survivor of cholera that took the life of her four brothers and sisters. Life is one mournful event after the other with trips to the family mausoleum at Kensal Green cemetery for holidays and birthdays. Clara feels guilty because she lived and her parents neglect her in their grief. When Clara sees a marionette troupe she convinces her dad to have them perform at her birthday party. She likes the girl who plays the music, Lizzie Rose, and the boy, Parsefall, who works the puppets, but she is frightened of Mr. Grisini, owner of the show. Clara disgraces herself at the performance and soon after vanishes. Grisini is the prime suspect but when he disappears, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are left trying to survive with no money.

Circumstances force them to flee London to Strachan's Ghyll, a frigid place that contrasts wonderfully from the smoggy London atmosphere. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are befriended by a witch who is by no means a one-sided villain. She is an interesting study of manipulation and loneliness. All the characters have interesting changes except Grisini, who remains the one-sided villainous character from beginning to end. Lizzie Rose tries to control her environment through cleanliness and caring for those around her. She responds in kindness and rejects hate. Parsefall is a victim who finds relief through the craft of puppetry.  His view of people is what motivates him at the end of the novel. All of the buildup and multiple viewpoints are essential to the plot and characters' actions that leads to an exciting climax.

The Dicken's-like orphan Parsefall adds to the Victorian feel and is a masterful example of character voice. He calls an expensive gem a "gewgaw" and tells Lizzie Rose to not involve the "coppers" with Grisini because "You don't know 'im the way I do." He is a streetwise, illiterate boy who is not as tough as he tries to appear. The witch is another fascinating piece of character building who is vicious and vulnerable. Only Lizzie Rose can truly see her lonliness, but then only Lizzie Rose can truly see the loyalty of Parsefall. Loveable Lizzie Rose is like the comical dog she hauls around who has unconditional love for all the odd (and normal) characters she crosses paths with. Clara becomes friends with Lizzie Rose and must decide whether or not she'll help the children in the end, as well as, forgive her parents and herself in order to move forward with life.

Some of the content to know about beforehand are: a kidnapping, two swear words, characters attacked - one child maimed, a female character having to deal with unwanted male attentions, lots of characters with child abuse and neglect issues, hint of a suicide (due to magic), and many deaths (all except one happen in the past). This gothic tale is best for older readers.

Slow? Boring? Violent? Newbery possibility? Decide for yourself. This one definitely distinguishes itself.

Reading Level 5.5

5 out of 5 Smileys

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