***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Excellent at a prose level, this is a book that is indecisive about whether it's MG or YA, and has a snoozer of a quiz show in the middle of the action.
MG or YA? Normally I fully believe in writing a book for all ages. To some extent, age classifications are a fabrication of marketing and sales departments, not something authors should necessarily concern themselves with while they're writing. But this book was inconsistent in its emotional pitch. The ancient Jacob Grimm is arguably the main character. He grows and changes the most, and his ultimate catharsis (or abreaction) is inextricably linked with the resolution of the story. His struggle involves figuring out what is "undone" in his life--an emotional need that I think won't resonate with middle-grade readers. Meanwhile Jeremy is a fifteen-year-old whose thoughts and feelings could easily be those of an eleven- or twelve-year old. His romance with Ginger is tame and inessential (they could have been the sort of buddies that boys and girls often are in middle-grade novels without altering the narrative flow at all). Sophisticated YA readers might find the faux-fairy-tale atmosphere of the town and dumbing down of the Grimm tales (and the scholarship surrounding it) to be frustratingly simple or annoyingly stylistic.
Is Ginger a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
I thought Ginger's "How are things in Johnsonopolis/Bliksville/Burpotopia" tic was part and parcel with an unfortunate tendency toward being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl--a trait she only really shook for me at the very end of the novel. She slides strands of her red hair through her lips, calls Conk "Conky-poo," and even jokingly describes herself as "brainy, athletic, teenage love goddess." This is typical language surrounding Ginger:
She knuckled Jeremy softly on the shoulder. "Was that gig freakishly fabuloso or what? Less than four hours' work and we get a great breakfast, a great lunch, and some serious loot in our boot!"
At one point she runs off into the woods "like a frisky deer in the meadow." I recall that even as she wakes up from a sedative, after being abducted, and in a dungeon, the first words out of her mouth are the too-clever "Whoa! Headache from hell!" or something along those lines. The only thing saving her from the technical definition of a MPDG is that McNeal hastily gave her an "inner life" (her grandfather is negligent, nay emotionally abusive), and she does have her own goal of getting out of town and going to college (I think she mentioned that once). She settled down finally in the "winsome" department (Jacob's word for her) as things got dark toward the end. Thank goodness for the dungeon and threat of death.
The Quiz Show. The quiz show damaged the already faltering pacing. (The book starts out too slow, and the darker denouement with Sten needed to happen much sooner.) It's questionable why the quiz show was included at all. Was it to show that Jeremy is scrupulously honest? To prolong his financial suffering? Moreover, the Disney-Snow-White question was much too simple to be the third part of the final, most difficult three-part question (and is one of the things that lodges this book in MG territory). The staff of Uncommon Knowledge would never have dreamed that Jeremy was unfamiliar with the movie versions of the tales, and a question like that would not have been included in the final round. McNeal could have avoided that "baby" question by having any of the contemporary academic research included in the quiz. Jacob Grimm knew about his work and his life, but not necessarily about what current Literature Studies have to say about both.
Two Book Bookstore. The actual books in the Two-Book Bookstore were a slight red herring for me. I thought Jeremy's grandfather's memoirs were going to be important to the plot. There's a bit of a tease there: Jeremy mentioned that he skimmed them when he was too young to be interested, and Jacob pointed out he couldn't read them unless Jeremy turned the pages. Why wasn't this a regular bookstore that was simply struggling in a small town? I suppose it was to add another of those whimsical touches that McNeal uses (e.g. the town that's hard to find, but once you find it you never forget where it is) to make the contemporary setting reminiscent of a fairy tale. But to me it's problematic to include plot points for "atmosphere" rather than as something that is essential to the narrative.
Fairy Tale Town. In general I thought the almost arch atmosphere of the town plays a part in making it feel somewhat too "young" in tone (despite having an ancient, adult narrator with a very adult problem) and possibly damages the point of the novel. I like the way McNeal is using Jeremy's story to show us that scary things happen in real life--mothers leave and die, fathers become hermits, people are not what they seem, children get abused and killed--just as they did in the old fairy tales. What an excellent premise, especially given that the original Grimm tales were relevant and real to the people who told them so many years ago, even if they seem dated or quaint to us now. But to be YA, and to resonate with contemporary readers the way the old tales resonated with readers in rural villages two hundred years ago, I think the town of Never Better (ugh, dumb name) should have been more of a real place to us. I would have preferred that the kids had acted like real teenagers, not like innocents, and the baker hadn't looked like Santa Claus, etc. Basically, stop trying to make a real place seem like a "fairy tale" place, because fairy tales weren't even written that way. Trust the reader to see the parallels in their modern society.
Apropos of nothing. Can you walk into a man-sized oven full of billowing flames and die without screaming?