Fuse #8

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Review of the Day: The Theft and the Miracle

The Theft and the Miracle by Rebecca Wade. Katherine Tegan Books (an imprint of Harper Collins). $16.99.

Mystery watch 2007 continues unabated. The latest entry for possible inclusion in my Great Mysteries to Watch Out For: “The Theft and the Miracle” by Rebecca Wade. This one had a lot of built in potential. The possibility of supernatural elements. An appealing heroine. Suspense. Fear. An unnameable threat. And for at least half the story I was on board. The book has a lot of promise to it, but delivering happens to be another matter entirely. In the end, you’ll agree that while Rebecca Wade deserves to wield a pen, her fledgling effort cannot sustain the weight of its own narrative. A great premise and set of ideas that ultimately falls apart.

There’s nothing out-and-out wrong with Hannah’s life. Let’s get that straight right now. I mean, she’s a little overweight and her skin isn’t all the fabulous. There’s are girls in her school that are prettier and more popular that she is, but at least she’s got her best friend Sam by her side at all times. Yep, life is pretty normal for Hannah until the day she gets caught in the rain and shelters in a church to wait it out. The local cathedral is the pride and joy of the town, no question, and resting at its heart is a carved image of the Madonna and Child. Without realizing what she’s doing Hannah starts to draw the statue in a kind of trance. Then the next day the Baby Jesus is stolen and all hell (so to speak) breaks loose. Someone’s destroyed Hannah’s house in search of something. There are mysterious strangers following her. But most of all, the Baby Jesus is missing and Hannah, it seems, is the only person who can track it down. What she doesn't realize is that the mystery of the theft and the mystery of who Hannah really is are inextricably tied together.

Let me say right here that Hannah is a great character. She’s self-conscious like any and all adolescents (pre and post) but she still has a sense of humor. It is my personal belief that anyone who can realistically sustain their humanity through that particular age is someone worth knowing. Author Rebecca Wade knows how to use humor too. I was quite attached to sections where Hannah’s in the church and sees “strange modern signs, which seemed to be warnings against exploding lunchboxes but in fact were only forbidding flash photography.” Plus there are lots of great ideas in this book. You can say a lot about a character by showing rather than telling. For example, Hannah has drawn the big brother she never had (because her mother miscarried) for years. “… she had drawn him many times, at each stage in his life, or rather the life he might have had.” And heck, how many children’s books can you name off the top of your head that casually discuss the word “Satanism”? I’m sure that if this book weren’t so unapologetically Christian (that comes up later) selections of this sort might have been cut out. As they stand, they’re there but mighty unexpected.

Wade sets up her mysteries fabulously too. There’s a rather believable section that requires Hannah and Sam to decode a seemingly ordinary notice posted on their school’s wall. Plus the reason why Hannah is being pursued by creepy unknown characters is believable. Yet while Wade sets up her mysteries well enough, she just doesn’t know how to solve them. There’s nothing wrong with the set-ups in this book. It’s the explanations that come later that are a bit garbled.

Consider this a bit of a spoiler alert for anyone who’d rather not know the rest of the tale.

It’s the book’s tone, you see. It’s off. You think you’re reading a fun realistic mystery story and then you get sideswiped by a ton of religious meanings and goings on. About the time I ran across an odd fellow sporting a card that said, “Gabriel Jones. (Arch.) Practical Assistance Offered In All Areas. No Job Too Great,” I was incredulous. Wait… what? I mean, sure there was a mild miracle in the very first chapter of the book. But about the moment Gabriel (uh-huh) shows up the story is suffused in angels. I have nothing against angels, of course. Madeline L’Engle made them worthy kidlit fodder. But you can’t just start throwing angels into a book out of the blue. It feels, in a way, like the book has split itself into two. The first half is this cool mystery with possible time travel and subtle supernatural elements. Then the second half is blatant, with angels waltzing about the joint and the plot falling apart. Besides, I don’t know how some people are going to feel about the villain saying stuff like, “I can show you the secrets of the great masters. Leonardo, Michelangelo, they knew the mystic power of darkness.” Really? Did you really want to go there? In this book the Wiccans can be cool but Michaelangelo’s the spawn of the devil? Didn’t he, I dunno, paint the Sistine Chapel? That’s the problem with the villains you find here. They draw inspiration from the oddest sources.

Speaking of the villain, this is another problem with the book. You’re never quite sure what they're trying to achieve or what power is being bandied about. You see, much of this story centers on the fact that Hannah unknowingly has a broken finger from the Christ statue. And if the stolen Christ child statue gets its finger back then it’ll be bad for the good guys because…. no idea. Because then the villain wins, I guess. At one point the antagonist is taunting Hannah and offering her the usual power beyond that of mortal men, etc. But this isn’t Darth Vader offering Luke the chance to join him. You knew what that was all about. Here the villain offers vague powers to a girl who doesn’t really need them anyway. And then, AND THEN, when we get to the end of the book the Christ child statue has…. wait for it…. cured Hannah’s acne. So odd.

“The Theft and the Miracle,” started out strong and then just sort of slowly collapsed under its own weight. It’s a real pity too since I was looking forward to having a new mystery to pump up to my library patrons. Just between you and me? I think Rebecca Wade has loads of talent. She just needs to reign her expansive ideas in a little and focus more on what makes a novel interesting. She’s perfectly competent on characters, dialogue, humor, and foreshadowing. It’s just the plots that need some wrangling. Here’s me looking forward to her next book then.

Notes on the Cover: A curious marketing ploy. First of all, the same cover for this book was used in both the British and American publications. It isn’t the original image, however. A quick glance at the galley shows the same image, but with one significant difference. In the ARC, just under the title, an image appears of the Madonna and Child. The Madonna is doting, but where Baby Jesus should be there's only a bare blank outline and white gap. It's kind of cool and I wonder now why it was removed. Maybe the publishers were hoping the original picture could tap into residual "DaVinci Code" goodwill. Then, as time went on, they decided that tying this book into a distinct religious image might limit its potential audience. Maybe. There’s always the fact that mysterious guys in cloaks always make for good covers anyway. I do like the final result. Mary and Jesus made a nice touch, but this was the cover I felt drawn to in the bookstore.

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At 9:29 AM , Blogger rams said...

Yup, deus ex machina, even demoted to archangel ex machina, ist verboten.

At 11:34 AM , Blogger Chris said...

I really like this review. I am glad you are posting reviews for books that you don't love, it gives a nice perspective. Thanks.

At 11:54 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I'll be doing more of those soon. I tend to hold off on negative or tepid reviews if the books haven't come out yet. Trust me, I have a stack of these at home just sitting and waiting.

At 10:10 PM , Blogger Sherry said...

I wrote a much less thorough review of this book. (http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=1858) I liked it better than you did, maybe because the religious and Biblical allusions didn't bother me. I agree that some of the plot elements just didn't work, and I think Ms. Wade is a talented writer who will probably improve with time.

At 12:13 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

And it wasn't the Biblical allusions I objected to necessarily. It was how out of the blue they were and how they swooped in to save the day. It could have been handled better, to my mind. I mean, why does Gabriel show up so late in the game? By that point I'm afraid she lost me.


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