Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: Splendors and Glooms

Splendors and Glooms
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Expected publication August 28, 2012 by Candlewick

When Clara Wintermute, a solitary and dissatisfied only child, happens upon Gaspare Grisini's magical puppet show, she insists he perform for her birthday party. This small request will set in motion an extraordinary string of events that will leave Clara and Grisini's two young assistants, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, in serious danger.

This book has been on my radar for some time because it's been getting a lot of buzz as a potential Newbery 2013 contender. Plus, it has some elements that I find pretty hard to resist - Victorian England, creepy puppets, and magic. So I was thrilled to receive a digital galley at the recent School Library Journal SummerTeen event. I started it almost immediately.

Now I've come to a bit of a dilemma - I'm not sure what my thoughts are on this book. Admittedly, I just finished it and perhaps require some more time to get thoughts and feelings sorted out, but I wanted to write up my review while the book was still fresh in my mind. I'm almost 100% positive that I liked this book - in fact, I might even say that I really liked this book. But I also have a hard time articulating why I liked the book or even what my issues with it might be. I expected this book to be a bit creepier than it ended up being, but it is atmospheric and quite unsettling. Two of our main characters are orphans, and Schlitz doesn't shy away from detailing the rough life these kids are living. This book feels very Dickensian, but also very magical - I mean, there is ACTUALLY magic in it, after all. But it doesn't feel magical in the way Harry Potter feels magical - generally, the magic here is being used for truly terrible things and the people who possess the magical knowledge are the bad guys. But the children are not defenseless - as one might expect from a Victorian orphan, they have their wits and street smarts to see them through.

I enjoy that Schlitz employs multiple points of view - it gives us time to piece together the story and figure out the mysteries. And, generally, I enjoy the characters - Parsefall is my favorite but it's difficult to not sympathize with Clara or to misunderstand the sincerity of Lizzie Rose's feelings. Some of the secondary characters work better than others for me - Grisini is a bit too villainous to come off as more than just a stock character but Mrs. Pinchbeck is a lovely little spitfire who distinguishes herself from the background. Schlitz does a lovely job of setting the tone for the story - her descriptions of time and place are evocative and really pull you into the setting.

Here's my main struggle: this book feels like your typical rags to riches, Horatio Alger, happy ending story. But, it's beautifully written, compelling and unique, introducing some decidedly untypical elements to said story. I feel like Schlitz has pulled a really clever trick on readers with this book (and does it consistently - though I've not read any of her other books, I get the feeling that she does this sort of thing quite a bit). Ultimately, I have to say I was quite happy to read this book and found it very enjoyable. There are definite elements with strong kid appeal - did I mention the creepy puppets? - and I think kids who find this won't be disappointed. I'll be interested to see how all the buzz plays out come award season.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a digital advance reader's copy via NetGalley.

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