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Two Books That Have Absolutely Nothing in Common*
As previously mentioned, time is short and books are many.
So for today, two books that don’t actually belong in a joint post, brought to you by the color red and the letter D: The Dead I Know and Dime.
The Dead I Know, Scot Gardner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2015
Reviewed from final copy
Australian import. 4 stars. Short, lyrical, life-affirming and set in and around a funeral parlor. It’s original, for sure.
And it’s really a lovely little book, full of unexpected and only half-sketched characters, told in Aaron’s rather complex voice — his internal voice is beautiful, often self-aware, wry and rich, while his external voice is terse to the point of silent.
The tension between those two sides of Aaron is sometimes confusing, and raises the question of how much we can trust his perception; sometimes things didn’t seem to add up, but he’s a professional denier. He’s spent a lifetime ignoring the trauma in his own childhood, suppressing it until it manifests as nightmares and sleepwalking. He’s been ignoring Mam’s slow but steady decline into dementia. When he does have to speak, he’s capable of being articulate and funny; he’s intelligent and thoughtful. He says he isn’t those things, although only implicitly (he doesn’t say a lot of things explicitly), but he betrays himself with the language.
And oh! That language: from the opening sentences on (“…with tall narrow eyes of stained glass to suit”), it’s often just gorgeous. Like this:
When sleep is not a sanctuary, darkness sometimes is. When the mess of human activity nags at you, the ocean can make you deaf with its rhythmic wash. I kept my T-shirt on but buried my jeans, socks, and shoes in the warm sand. I waded into the water until the tide dragged at my shorts, then I dived, swallowed at once by the ocean’s maw.
As a psychological portrait, too, this offers so much. The idea that death can heal the living is fascinating; Aaron, like John Barton, seeks reprieve from pain caused by a tragic loss, and like John Barton finds that caring for the dead — and through that care, for the ones they’ve left behind — can be the greatest gift. This is one of the most unusual portraits of grief I’ve come across in literature, but it feels absolutely true to the characters. The slow reveal of Aaron’s past isn’t artificially prolonged because he isn’t acknowledging it; so often with first person narration it’s disingenuous at best to have the big thing hidden; here it would be impossible for it to be any other way.
So what’s wrong with this? Well, there’s a whole subplot that was clearly ripped from the television trope hall of fame. Trailer park drug addicts, petty revenge, and a murder that Aaron (briefly) is accused of committing — none of this feels compelling, it’s paced differently, and it’s a strange distraction from a very character-based drama. It’s one flaw, yes, but it runs through the whole book, throwing off the pacing, the plotting, and the tension. So it’s a pretty huge flaw.
(And what’s with the cover, which seems to want to be a little in your face with a side of humor? Yes, Aaron is sometimes very drily funny, but not that often. This is a package at total odds with the content, which is a real shame.)
Dime, E.R. Frank
Atheneum, May 2015
Reviewed from ARC
Full disclosure: I have liked Frank’s gritty realism since I was working at a public library, well over a decade ago, desperate for books that reflected experiences that are too often not depicted in YA lit. I’m not the only one, I guess, since this has three stars — but it was also one of the few books that came up in the comments the other day as a “don’t bother” with no one gainsaying that opinion.
And in all honesty, I don’t think this is even in dark horse territory, but I do think it’s a notable book in many ways and deserves a little attention.
Dime is a foster kid turned prostitute, trying to find a way to tell her story and the story of her “wifeys” to save Lollipop. We’ve seen this before, in various formats (My Book of Life by Angel is probably the most recent; Living Dead Girl has a slightly different angle but also uses this idea of the protagonist who can’t or won’t save herself but is stirred to take action by the plight of a younger, more innocent girl being victimized, used, and abused). But what this lacks in originality it balances with vigor: Dime is a fantastic character in many ways, and even if her story is an old one, she lives it fully. She doesn’t know she’s not the first; her fight for Lollipop and Brandy isn’t diminished by the fact that it’s been done before.
She’s also a reader, and Frank uses other books to rich effect: through The Color Purple and The Book Thief and several other books, Dime finds hope and company. Her attempts to tell her story (Brandy’s story and Lollipop’s and even L.A.’s story, too) in different voices — Sex, Money — are some of the most literary moments of the novel, directly influenced by Death’s narration of The Book Thief.
And ok, so ultimately this is a book that feels purposeful and maybe has some MESSAGE happening, but it’s compelling. It’s a page-turner, with enough action (the Russians, Lollipop) and enough pathos (Dime lands on the street because she cares about school, which prompts her to do things that piss off Janelle, her foster mother) to engender genuine sympathy; it’s impossible not to root for Dime, and through her Frank makes all the girls sympathetic; she even manages to make Daddy comprehensible.
Like I said, it’s not really a contender, but it’s worth a read and I know I’ll be passing it to teens for years to come, just as I’ve done with Life is Funny and America.
(Also, since I mentioned the cover of The Dead I Know, I just want to note that this is the opposite: this cover sells the content and the tone very very well.)
*Except beginning with the letter D, red and black cover art, and early 2015 publication dates. But thematically? Chalk and cheese.
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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