Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Breaking the Rules

When you write fiction, you're told that your plot and characters have to be grounded in reality for your readers to connect to them. People aren't perfect, so your characters have to have flaws and obstacles or no one will buy what you're selling. What they don't tell you is the caveat: all the rules apply until they don't, and if you're really good you can make up your own rules as you go along.

Steve Kluger is that good.

I read Last Days of Summer years ago, and enjoyed it immensely. Kluger's story of a headstrong young boy and his relationship with his idol, a seriously cranky ballplayer, was funny and poignant. Epistolary novels are tough to pull off, but Kluger does it beautifully. I loved the book, wrote a staff selection card for it at the bookstore, and recommended it as much as I could.

But as is often the way, I eventually got distracted by other books and Kluger kind of slipped my mind.

So when I was doing some research on recommended reading lists for kids, it took me a minute to put together the Steve Kluger who wrote Last Days with the recommended book My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park. But once my brain finally kicked in, I put in my inter-library loan request and waited.

I can't tell you how glad I am that I did.

Once you've met these characters, you won't want to put them down. I laughed out loud countless times and totally irritated various friends by forcing them to listen while I read parts of the book out loud to them. The dialog is snappy and the pacing is great, but it's the characters that you'll want to hang on to: TC, whose mom died when he was six, but not before teaching him the importance of magic and dreams; Augie, TC's brother (by mutual decision, ratified by all parents), who loves musicals and old movies and hasn't yet realized that he's gay; Ale, smart as a whip, but who worries about disappointing her father (a retired ambassador) if she follows her true love of dance and the theatre; and Hucky, a six-year old kid who's deaf and fully believes that someday Mary Poppins is going to come and live with him. And I haven't even mentioned the grown-ups, who are just as fun to spend time with.

As in Last Days, the action unfolds entirely in letters, emails, and diaries, and again, it works perfectly. Is it believable? Certainly not. These kids are too perfect, and things work out way too easily. Does it matter? Certainly not, because these kids will absolutely charm the socks right off you, and sometimes that's more than enough.

So thanks for the reminder, Mr. Kluger--I won't forget you again.

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