Book Reviews: Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie Alender and The Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron

Marie Antoinette, Serial KillerMarie Antoinette, Serial Killer
Katie Alender
Point, October 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-46809-1
Hardcover

At the tender age of sixteen, Colette Iselin’s life is ruined.  Her father left the family, taking his money with him.  The lifestyle changes that abounded devastated her.  Mom was forced to get a job, constantly taking on additional shifts just to make ends meet.   Their house lost; Colette, along with her younger brother and mother, squeezed into the tiniest of apartments.

Colette must keep her disastrous crash from wealth to the poor house…err, apartment, a secret.  Her friends do not hang out with the destitute.  The wildly popular, beautiful and ridiculously wealthy Hannah is always quick with that reminder.  Rather, Colette is reduced to sneaking off to thrift stores to acquire her wardrobe for her Paris Spring Break with her friends and classmates.  A greater teen-age tragedy is hard to imagine.

Wait…..what?

You aren’t really feeling her pain.  She seems whiny, superficial, self-centered and immature?  Yes, I thought that too.  Admittedly, I found this surprising.  Generally speaking, these are not traits best-suited to creating mass appeal for the main character of a Middle-Grade mystery.  Interesting.

The reader doesn’t meet Colette first, though. A spine-tingling, wickedly original murder in Paris kicks this story off and it pulled this reader right on in.  Have I mentioned the murderer?  Marie Antoinette.  A simply fascinating woman in history; the idea of her ghost committing grisly murders at an apparently obscure time is intriguing.  There does appear to be a method to her madness, and Ms. Alender unravels this mystery beautifully.

While Colette and her classmates tour, and learn the history of the City of Love and Lights from their charmingly demure, remarkably learned French college student; young, rich, socialites are dying in bizarre accidents that result, ultimately, in beheading. As the narrative unfolds, Colette realizes that she may have something in common with the victims.  She begins to piece together the puzzle and focus on a much larger picture.  Almost as if truly opening her eyes for the first time, Colette also begins to see things about herself; her choices and her friends.  There is a discernible shift, the pace quickens, the plot thickens.

I love what Ms. Alender has done here.  In addition to giving us an enchanting, distinctively different, middle-grade, ghost-story-murder-mystery; she courageously presented the most authentic representation of today’s “typical” teen-ager as our main character.  To me, it amplified the significance of Colette’s self-discovery and revised outlook.  Quite brilliant, I think.  Romance is mandatory when an adventure takes place in Paris; there may even be a law.  Again, Ms. Alender is spot-on.  This is a fantastic book for the avid reader and it would most certainly pique the interest of a reluctant reader. Yet another Middle-Grade read that I hope will not have a limited, young-readers-only audience.  I know I will be reading more from Ms. Alender.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2014.

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The Dogs of WinterThe Dogs of Winter
Bobbie Pyron
Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-545-39930-2
Hardcover

In 1996 I was living in West Virginia.  I had been out of college for one year.  Despite having graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration, I could not find a job that paid more than minimum wage.  Things seemed bleak; I felt desperate, alone and afraid.  I felt that life was tough and unfair.  I had no clue.

At the same time, in Moscow, four year old Ivan Mishukov walked out of his flat to escape the daily horrors bestowed upon him by his mother and her alcoholic boyfriend.  Life on the streets had to be better.  He would not be alone.  It was estimated that somewhere between 80,000 and 2 million homeless children occupied Moscow and St. Petersburg as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Feral dogs were also there, in the streets, alleys, train stations and even riding the trains.  These facts, in and of themselves, are beyond sad.  The amazingly resilient Ivan did something so unique that he stood out among the all of the “invisible” children.

A street child simply could not endure alone.  Even if able to handle everything else, a lone child would most likely freeze to death in Russia’s harsh winter climate.  Most children lived in groups to increase their chances.  Ivan did not.  At first, it did seem like the only option, but a little guy tough enough to abandon shelter for a “better” life is definitely not going to tolerate nastiness from other children. He turned to the dogs.

The Dogs of Winter is told through the voice of this little boy.  To me, this is the absolute best way to share his story.   Short sentences, acting out in anger, hurt feelings one moment then clapping with delight the next, ensure that the reader never forgets: this is a melancholy tale of a very, very young child.   Ivan’s kindness and generosity extended to the wild canines is reciprocated.  Soon, the boy is accepted into the pack and for two years, he has a family that loves him unconditionally.  This is a family that supports and protects him, and in turn, he does the same for them.  The child who now calls himself Malchik is happy.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view), the unique situation warranted so much attention that every effort was made to “save” Ivan.  For reasons that I simply cannot fathom, Russian police became focused on removing Ivan from the streets and placing him in an orphanage.  The child that has endured more hardship in two years than most of us have in a life-time, now faces the toughest challenge ever.  He does not wish to be “saved”; he needs to remain with the family that he chose.

While “conversations” and situations in Ms. Pyron’s sharing of Malchik’s story are fictional, insofar as no one truly knows exactly what transpired, the spirit in which it is told is true.  I closed this book feeling very conflicted.  Logic aside, I feel angry that Malchik was singled out.  With thousands (millions?) of homeless children and feral dogs, why were resources focused on the one child that, by most accounts, was getting by without harming another living soul?  Why was it imperative for Malchik to be separated from his dogs to be placed in an orphanage or mental hospital?

I wish everyone would read this book.  In today’s world it can be so easy to become self-absorbed, to exist in our own little bubbles or corners of the world.  I think that we can use these reality checks to step back and reassess.  Who knows, maybe we can be so moved that we can make a difference.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2013.

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