A Review of The Twelve-Fingered Boy (book 1 in The Incarcerado Trilogy) by John Hornor Jacobs
by REBECCA, March 18, 2013
Shreve: juvie’s 15-year old fast-talking, savvy candy dealer with a heart of . . . gold-ish
Jack: Shreve’s new roomie is young, quiet, vulnerable, and clearly drawing some sinister interest
Mr. Quincrux: the sinister interest (and the best name award goes to!)
Shreve’s got things pretty much figured out at Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center: when to sell, where to avoid, who to sweet talk, and how to keep a low profile. When his new roommate, Jack, shows up, though, everything Shreve knows goes to pot. Jack may have six fingers on each hand but that’s nothing compared to the fact that he seems to have superpowers. And when Mr. Quincrux and associates show up with the ability to invade minds and control what people do, Jack and Shreve make a break for it, trying to outrun them on a cross-country chase. There’s only one little wrinkle: ever since Mr. Quincrux rooted around in Shreve’s noggin, Shreve has found that he can do the same . . .
The Twelve-Fingered Boy is my absolute favorite kind of book: it’s set in a gritty, realist world but has elements of unreal powers. This is the best of both worlds, for my money, because the gritty realism provides the occasion for strong prose and complex characters, and the special powers provide an opportunity for fun, creative genre twists and turns. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is told from Shreve’s perspective, and he is an eminently likable chap. He’s a cocky smooth talker who is also sensitive and insightful. He’s a smartass who takes Jack under his wing and protects him. And, in the second half of the book, he wrestles with his own relationship to power.
John Hornor Jacobs’ prose is strong, making for insightful characterization, varied dialogue, fast-paced action, and contemplative interior monologues:
“On the inside, where all the wards were orange, everyone tries to be different. Some with crazy dos, some wearing earrings, the more desperate scratching tats on their hands with black pen ink and needles. Kids talk big, walk big, kick out their chests, tell jokes in overloud voices, laugh hard at unfunny jokes. They try to put a stamp down on themselves. They want to define who they are, and who they aren’t, by drawing lines in an ever-changing sandbox.
But the ones who are different, the ones who really would stand out if their differences were known to the general pop, well . . . they don’t want to be different at all. They want to be just like everybody else. The boys so desperately trying to be different, well, if they get a whiff of something truly foreign, they’ll destroy it. Nothing that different can be allowed to exist, to prove that they’re all alike.”
I love this exchange between Shreve and his mother:
‘Honey, why do you have to call me that?’
‘Moms. You used to call me momma.’
‘It’s just one of those things, Moms.’
‘I don’t like it. It’s like you’re saying I’m . . . I don’t know . . .’
‘More than one.’
‘Yeah, like that. Like I’m more than one person.’
We’re all more than one person. But I don’t say that.
‘Okay, momma. Okay.’”
When Mr. Quincrux tries to “recruit” Jack for his talents, Shreve sticks up for him and everything goes to hell. They run away from the detention center because they know Quincrux will stop at nothing to get them. Jack, who doesn’t even really know what his powers are, is terrified that he will hurt someone and Shreve has suddenly developed powers of his own—or has he merely unlocked the door on powers that everyone has? The Twelve-Fingered Boy paints a complicated picture of Jack and Shreve’s relationships with their powers, and it’s a relationship that only gets more complicated as the story continues.
‘How did you do it? . . . You did the same trick Quincrux and the witch did.’
I think for a bit. I can’t come up with an answer for him.
‘I don’t know, Jack. Maybe something transferred into me when Quincrux . . . ‘
I don’t know any other way to say it, and it hurts to admit it, even to Jack.
‘When he raped me. I think part of him, his residue or something, was left behind.’”
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
Because I received The Twelve-Fingered Boy as an ARC, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a standalone novel until I got to the last page and looked it up on Goodreads. Which is a good thing: the world and characters are fully developed and there wasn’t even a hint that we were in a “first act” type first book in a trilogy. Sure there were things that weren’t entirely explained, but I assumed that was because it’s a fast-paced book. However, the second I learned that it was the first in a trilogy, I got excited—no, not just because that meant there was more to come (although, YAY! there’s more to come!). It was because it’s very clear that John Hornor Jacobs is interested in asking questions the permutations of which this first novel could only begin to explore.
Once Shreve discovers he has the ability to (to shorthand it) read and change minds, he and Jack use it as a purely practical tool: to get money, food, hotels, and transportation. It’s necessary for their survival and dead useful for flying under the radar. Little by little, though, the boundaries of these powers become permeable and Shreve is forced to ask a number of questions that have been lurking in the back of his mind since he first acquired them: what does it mean for a kid who has grown up powerless to suddenly have so much power? when you know that your power comes from someone evil, how do you know you won’t become evil? what are your responsibilities as a result of that power? etc.
All in all, I’d say The Twelve-Fingered Boy absolutely lives up to its intentions: gritty realism, an interesting adventure, a seesaw of power and corruption, the posing of ethical dilemmas, friendship, a dynamic and creepy turn . . . it’s got it all. And with two more books to come, I’ve no doubt that The Incarcerado Trilogy will impress.
Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.
Last Night I Sang To The Monster by Benjamine Alire Sáenz (2009). This is one of the more beautifully-written books out there. Sáenz is also a poet, and it absolutely shows in his command of prose. The combination of such gorgeous prose and a difficult story, narrated by a character who is dealing with the aftereffects of some horrible events adds up to a book that changed the way I thought about first-person narratives. My full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster is HERE.
procured from: I received an ARC of The Twelve-Fingered Boy from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is now available!
Posted by Rebecca on March 18, 2013
DISCLAIMER: If you don’t like Wes Anderson’s style, then you probably won’t like Moonrise Kingdom, so you don’t have to read this. Then again, you might like it better than his other movies — the emotions of the characters are a little closer to the surface, a little more accessible and direct.
Critics often say that they hate how cute and/or curated Anderson’s films are, and I’m happy to say that these criticisms haven’t watered down his style. In fact, in Moonrise Kingdom he applies it almost with a vengeance: opening overview of setting, with narrator/guide? Check! Slow-motion group exit/entrance at emotionally climactic moment? Check. Retro zoom up to main character(s)? In yo face. Specially created artwork (in this case, middle-grade fantasy book covers)? Check. And because it’s all applied to a world of camping and tweens with outsize emotions in their limited-by-adults world, these touchstones seem simultaneously more absurd and more fitting.
I think that the trailer doesn’t really do it justice:
It highlights the not-quite natural acting of the main characters and the twee-ness of the adventure without giving us a taste of the heart that’s in the film. Not to mention the homey beauty of the island where it’s set, featuring a sunset canoe escape/weather balloon release of such hauntingness that it’s hard to describe. (In other scenes I’d point to the spot-on use of children’s choir pieces to add to the atmosphere, but I don’t think that they were used in that particular scene. Children’s choir!)
Clearly this is a film to be seen by lovers of a good coming-of-age story — Sam and Suzy are, after all, two 12 year olds who fall in love and run away together. The mood of heat infused August that opens the film leads to September chill and dusk as they struggle to stay together against the forces of their parents, Social Services, axe-wielding Khaki Scouts and, finally, nature itself. But Sam and Suzy start out in love and (SPOILER ALERT) end up in love. It’s wonderful to watch them because of their determination and the growth of their friendship–thank God we have children playing children and not 20 year olds–you can tell that their awkwardness is genuine and that their kiss is really their first kiss (Really!) But the characters that are revealed to us the more the film goes on are the adults – Mr. & Mrs. Bishop, Scout Master Ward, and Captain Sharp. There’s some heavy stuff in their short lines of dialogue and tilts of the head, no matter how Stoic their line delivery.
And that’s what kept me glued to the screen as I watched Moonrise Kingdom. Even when the chase at the end got almost hokey in its Biblical magnitude or when Suzy’s revelation of her troubled feelings started seeming too boilerplate, the whole sweeping rest of it allowed me to forget about those things and invest myself in Anderson’s world. It has a sweet heart, but it doesn’t shy away from showing heartbreaking things.
It could be that I can easily layer my experiences at summer camp or hiking in woods full of rhododendrons and blocky drops of rock over the scenes of camping and hiking in Moonrise Kingdom. Although I love the other films in the Anderson oeuvre, I was never a genius child growing up in a house with genius brothers and sisters, or an ambitious boarding school playwright, or never traveled via train through India, etc. etc. So Moonrise Kingdom was bound to have more immediacy to me. I could feel the unmistakeably dewy coldness of waking up in a tent in the early morning, as it were.
Or maybe I just want to have grown up in Summer’s End, listening to A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and reading in the choicest window seats.
Find some of the elements in Moonrise Kingdom in these films:
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): languid mystery happens during a hike in the Australian scrub. You can almost see the heat waves.
Addams Family Values (1993): Thanksgiving camp scene. Wednesday Addam’s first crush. Clear precursors to Moonrise Kingdom.
Romeo + Juliet (1996): Classic fierce young love reimagined in California, and a righteous storm at the end of the movie.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953): a vacation at the beach where no one can relax.
Cria Cuervos (1976): If you want less love and more dysfunction try this mesrmerizing look at seriously unhappy children, family secrets and a killer soundtrack in Franco-era Spain.
Posted by tessabarber on July 4, 2012
A review of Elsewhere (Borderlands #1) by Will Shetterly
By REBECCA, Friday, March 23
Just Ron: Newly arrived in Bordertown, Ron has some growing up to do, but a good heart
Mooner: Half-elf and ersatz leader of Castle Pup, he’s charisma + recklessness + pride
Wiseguy: Mooner’s twin, she’s a badass and a fierce defender of Castle Pup
Florida: Mysterious little girl who just showed up one day . . .
Mickey: Human owner of Elsewhere bookstore, she ushers Ron into life in Bordertown
Goldy: Co-worker at Elsewhere and crusader for love through books
A Few of the Crew at Castle Pup . . .
Leda: Dreamy elf addicted to peca, the Dragon’s Milk, she also has a royal pedigree
King O’Beer: Will’s roommate, he and Sparks (their third roommate) are both in love with Mooner
Strider: Beautiful, regal elf, he seems like he’d be a dick but he totally isn’t
Sai: Resident mature, non-idiot, she is also Bordertown’s middleweight boxing champ
When you arrive in Bordertown, the city that stands between The World and Faerie, where spellboxes power motorcycles and gingerbread cookies beg not to be eaten, it isn’t very wise to piss off anybody.
image: humanoddity.blogspot.com (Annette Kurtis Clause)
When Ron Starbuck runs away to Bordertown in search of his older brother, Tony, the first things he does are get kicked off a moving train, call a pair of half-elven twin bikers “pointy-eared dinks,” and chuck a rock at them. Not a good first impression. But Mooner takes pity on Ron and soon he is zooming through the streets of Bordertown on the back of Mooner’s motorcycle, past “a ruined church that twisted around itself as if magic had brought it to life and someone had barely managed to kill it before it could slither away,” and along the Mad River that smelled “thick and soporific, sweet and fetid like sweat or blood or the beach after a storm,” (15) into Soho, where “something drifting from across the Border reminded [Ron] of waffles and orange blossoms,” and, finally, to Castle Pup, collective house extraordinaire (16).
Everything in Bordertown is cobbled together, carved out and layered atop of what used to be “any damn city in the World”—“Its soul changed, not its shape” (14). Thus, Elsewhere is a delightful romp through an urban landscape repurposed by teenagers and unpredictable, motley magic. Will Shetterly is a master at world-building through description; he’s also one of a fabled few who can use physical description well—in a way that shows how a combination of a character’s born physicality and choices of presentation can give some (limited) insight into her personality.
“wore a black leather jacked draped with chains, a gray Danceland T-shirt, and dirty purple chinos tucked into low blood-red boots. When she came near, I saw that her skin was as pitted as Mooner’s. His made him look dangerous. Hers made her look vulnerable as well, which made her look even more dangerous” (20).
“wore torn blue jeans, black cavalier boots, and a ruffled white silk shirt open almost to his waist. His white hair was tied at the back of his head like a samurai’s. His features were elvishly perfect: high cheekbones, flaring eyebrows, lips that seemed ready to laugh, eyes the color of smoke.
I didn’t hate him immediately. I pitied him. There are three desirable things that a guy can have: height, looks, and brains. The odds of getting all three are so slim that he probably needed help tying his shoes” (21-2).
Shetterly’s descriptions of Bordertown are Elsewhere’s worldview, too. In a city where places and possessions are hodgepodge and magic lives in the cracks of worldly pavement, things are not what they seem. Except when they’re exactly what they seem. Every scene of this novel is packed with delicious atmosphere, funny and smart dialogue, action, and, of course, magic.
what was this book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
I first read this book when I was around twelve or thirteen, and it’s absolutely one of my favorites. Each character—even those who appear for only a page or two, and there are many of these—is an individual, and we can read backstory in those brief sketches. This makes the place of Bordertown feel incredibly alive. The cast of central characters, too, is extremely well-drawn, each carrying the mark of her life in every action.
Characters make bad choices and do wonderful things; they are infuriating and lovely. There is not only magic, but also hair-cutting, cooking, dancing, and lots and lots of love, requited and un-. Shetterly shows the mundanities of life in a magical place, and he clearly shows Bordertown’s problems as well as its pleasures. This is one of the novel’s biggest successes, for me: gangs of elves war with humans and halfies; Castle Pup is threatened with a choice between folding from a lack of access to funds and turning itself into a business to stay afloat; King O’Beer and his boyfriend run into Elsewhere to escape a group of gay bashers; throughout the city, kids are addicted to peca and the water of the Mad River; magic backfires and harms people; magic intentionally harms people. The problems of any city run throughout Elsewhere, and Shetterly shows what permutations they might take in a place like Borderland.
Elsewhere is an original novel, but it inhabits the world of Bordertown that was originally created by Terri Windling in the anthologies Borderland (1986), Bordertown (1986), and Life on the Border (1991). Shetterly and Emma Bull (they’re married) contributed the story “Danceland” to Bordertown, and Elsewhere grew out of that story (as did Emma Bull’s 1994 Bordertown novel, Finder). You can read it here.
As Terri Windling explains here, in the late 1980s she was commissioned to create a “shared world” anthology for young adults—a world, that is, that could be built and then opened up so that other authors, like Will Shetterly, could write stories in that world. The setting she proposed, of course, was Bordertown, which she describes as “a modern city at the edge of a mysterious, magical realm—a border city where runaway children gather to create new lives for themselves . . . sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously (reminiscent of Real Life teen meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s).” The books gained a cult following in the 1980s and early 1990s, spawning, among other things, Borderland parties and raves. Count. Me. In.
Elsewhere is a wonderful read: great characters, awesome writing and—I saved this one—a little mystery that twines slowly through the book like a bike with a semi-busted spellbox. And, at the end, when Ron’s smart mouth pisses off the wrong person, magic turns him into something he could never have imagined. Check out Shetterly’s sequel, Nevernever, to find out what happens to Ron, and whether he can reverse the curse.
Note: in 2011, a new anthology set in Bordertown was published, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner and featuring stories by such YA delights as Cory Doctorow, Jane Yolen, Will Shetterly, Annette Curtis Klause, Cassandra Clare, Terri Windling, and Neil Gaiman.
You can read Cory Doctorow’s story, “Shannon’s Law,” here.
And, hey, want to write some fanfiction or make some art in the world of Bordertown? Here are the guidelines.
The reason I picked this book up at a library book sale in Ann Arbor many moons ago is that I adore the cover. I guess I can see why someone might think it was ugly, but I challenge that person to a boogie-off at Danceland.
Ecstasia by Francesca Lia Block (1993). In this prequel to Primavera (1994), members of a popular band live in a magical world where youth and fun are the most valuable commodities; one by one they are driven underground or out of the city, some for love, and others by addiction.
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar (1992). If Elsewhere is punk with elves, then this is elfpunk—well, fairypunk.
The Modern Faerie Tales by Holly Black (Tithe, 2002; Valiant, 2005; Ironside, 2007). Black’s trilogy also delves into the grittiness inherent in the seeming beauty of fey mythos.
And, of course, if you just like the world, anything in the Bordertown oeuvre.
procured from: a library book sale long, long ago (best $1.50 I’ve spent, not counting that one coffee that one time)