FALLING FROM GRACE

A tried and trite theme for coming-of-age novels, Cassie’s loss of innocence in a southern town during the ’20s fails to deliver a convincing reality despite some affecting understated prose and engaging characters. While abetting her brother Jake’s prank of putting blue dye in the baptismal pool, Cassie overhears her father’s romantic encounter with the new preacher’s wife. Cassie’s sister, Adra, has left town that morning on the sly, due to the rumors about her relationship with a boy who has committed suicide. As Cassie copes with these betrayals, she finds herself becoming friends with newcomer Jan, two years older and newly arrived from Hungary. A death of another boy, which is caused by drinking homemade whiskey, the revelations regarding Adra’s failed romance, and a Ku Klux Klan attack on an old man provide plenty of action. The aura of unreality is especially evident in the complete absence of people of color, and from the father’s sudden realization of the value of his family in a conveniently overheard conversation. Hints at Adra’s boyfriend’s homosexuality as being at the root of his suicide seem to be superimposed melodrama when readers are totally unconnected to Adra or the boy. It’s this unevenness of narrative that lacks connection and detail to give a distinct sense of time and place that hamper McNichols’s debut from fulfilling the promise of Cassie’s sharp voice and the subtlety of the writing. (Fiction. 10-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-8027-8750-9

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2000

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THE TIGER RISING

Themes of freedom and responsibility twine between the lines of this short but heavy novel from the author of Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). Three months after his mother's death, Rob and his father are living in a small-town Florida motel, each nursing sharp, private pain. On the same day Rob has two astonishing encounters: first, he stumbles upon a caged tiger in the woods behind the motel; then he meets Sistine, a new classmate responding to her parents' breakup with ready fists and a big chip on her shoulder. About to burst with his secret, Rob confides in Sistine, who instantly declares that the tiger must be freed. As Rob quickly develops a yen for Sistine's company that gives her plenty of emotional leverage, and the keys to the cage almost literally drop into his hands, credible plotting plainly takes a back seat to character delineation here. And both struggle for visibility beneath a wagonload of symbol and metaphor: the real tiger (and the inevitable recitation of Blake's poem); the cage; Rob's dream of Sistine riding away on the beast's back; a mysterious skin condition on Rob's legs that develops after his mother's death; a series of wooden figurines that he whittles; a larger-than-life African-American housekeeper at the motel who dispenses wisdom with nearly every utterance; and the climax itself, which is signaled from the start. It's all so freighted with layers of significance that, like Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue (2000), Anne Mazer's Oxboy (1995), or, further back, Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead (1965), it becomes more an exercise in analysis than a living, breathing story. Still, the tiger, "burning bright" with magnificent, feral presence, does make an arresting central image. (Fiction. 10-12)

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-7636-0911-0

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2001

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RAMONA'S WORLD

Ramona returns (Ramona Forever, 1988, etc.), and she’s as feisty as ever, now nine-going-on-ten (or “zeroteen,” as she calls it). Her older sister Beezus is in high school, baby-sitting, getting her ears pierced, and going to her first dance, and now they have a younger baby sister, Roberta. Cleary picks up on all the details of fourth grade, from comparing hand calluses to the distribution of little plastic combs by the school photographer. This year Ramona is trying to improve her spelling, and Cleary is especially deft at limning the emotional nuances as Ramona fails and succeeds, goes from sad to happy, and from hurt to proud. The grand finale is Ramona’s birthday party in the park, complete with a cake frosted in whipped cream. Despite a brief mention of nose piercing, Cleary’s writing still reflects a secure middle-class family and untroubled school life, untouched by the classroom violence or the broken families of the 1990s. While her book doesn’t match what’s in the newspapers, it’s a timeless, serene alternative for children, especially those with less than happy realities. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 1999

ISBN: 0-688-16816-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1999

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