Friday, August 22, 2014

Review: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms
By Katherine Rundell
Expected publication August 26, 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Wilhemina knows she doesn't have an ordinary childhood but she wouldn't have it any other way. When tragedy strikes and her half-wild way of life in beautiful Africa is threatened, Will will do anything to avoid a terrible fate.

I had mixed feelings about Rooftoppers, Rundell's 2013 release. Never one to write off an author after just one try, when I spotted this one available as an e-galley, I snatched it up, prepared to give her a second shot.

I'm not sure I fared much better with this one. While I appreciated the idea of a non-traditional childhood (Will pretty much runs wild on a farm in Zimbabwe), something about the story just felt off to me the whole way through. I can't quite put my finger on it. It's not that I don't believe there are children living lives like this somewhere. I suppose at least part of it is just how different Will's life is from my own - I can't imagine a place where education is not compulsory and where having a monkey clinging to you is par for the course. There were bits and pieces of the story that rubbed me the wrong way - Will is quite abrasive and extremely selfish; I had a hard time working up sympathy for her. I found it difficult to believe that the Captain would so readily fall for an obviously manipulative woman and would toss Will's welfare aside so easily.

Some of the problem also lies with the fact that I'm not sure what exactly this book wants to be. Part of that is, I think, a marketing issue. The description makes it clear that Will is going to be sent to an English boarding school, but this doesn't happen until halfway through the book. I guess I always just assume that if a plot point is in the summary, it's going to happen sooner rather than later. So, the first half of this book mostly just feels like a love letter to a childhood in Africa. Reading Rundell's author bio shows that she, too, grew up in Africa, and it's clear from this first half that she wouldn't trade that upbringing for anything. But when Will is sent to the boarding school, the book just falls apart. It became increasingly difficult for me to suspend disbelief and even more difficult for me to sympathize with Will. I understand that she is being forced into a situation against her will but she takes no responsibility for her own actions. I'm not excusing the bullying that takes place (though it's certainly far from the worst I've ever encountered), but Will makes no attempts to understand why it's happening. Also, I find it difficult to believe that the adults at the boarding school would have let things continue the way they did - and I don't just mean the bullying. You can't make me believe that a stuffy English boarding school is not going to do something about a pupil who is not bathing. Will's adventures through London are sure to seem exciting to a middle-grade reader, but to me they were desperate and often horrifying.

There is just something about Rundell's work that is not connecting with me. I can see her appeal on certain things, but overall, I don't think I'll be reading her again.

Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.

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