The Unusual Suspects: A (conflicted) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Unusual Suspects by Michael BuckleyI received the first two books in Michael Buckley‘s Sisters Grimm books as a gift. The premise of the series sounded incredibly promising and exactly like the kind of thing I would love. Even the covers are great. Unfortunately, I was not as impressed by the first book, The Fairy Tale Detectives, as I had hoped. Still, having The Unusual Suspects (2007), the second volume, in hand I decided to soldier on.

The story opens not too far after the first book. Sabrina (age 11) and her sister Daphne (I think age 7) have adjusted to life with their unusual grandmother in Ferryport Landing. When social services finally catch up with Granny, the children find themsevles enrolled in school at Ferryport Landing. That goes for Puck, nemesis to Sabrina and character of Twelfth Night, who features a larger role in this story as he becomes closer (in a literal sense) to the Grimm family.

Sabrina is already angry enough and preoccupied enough by her missing parents and, according to her, her own completely unaided efforts in trying to find them without dealing with school. Sabrina, in fact, wants nothing to do with school or the creepy Everafters who are teaching there. Sabrina’s mistrust of the institution is confirmed when a teacher and the school’s janitor turn up murdered under very strange circumstances. However, in order to investigate with her grandmother and Daphne, Sabrina is forced to go along with the whole student thing for a bit longer.

If the snark wasn’t indication enough, let me point out that I am not a great fan of the Sisters Grimm novels. The more I search online, the more I seem to be in the minority. Parents love them, School Library Journal loves them, and I have yet to find a child reader who doesn’t love them. But I just don’t.

The reality of these books compared to the potential they books had before I read them falls painfully short. Buckley has several excellent side characters (Mr. Canis and Ferryport Landing’s Mayor are my two personal favorite characters out of either book) with excellent side stories, but that isn’t enough. While certain details are fleshed out, the main characters remain flat. Daphne is adorable and probably would have done better with more page-time. Puck, while entertaing is also often annoying (something Sabrina and I do agree on). The characters also never communicate. Granny, while awesome, never really knows what is going on with Sabrina. Although that doesn’t matter much since Sabrina will clearly never listen to anyone about anything. Ever.

Which brings me to Sabrina, our main character. I acknowledge that Sabrina is dealing with some heavy stuff, but I hate how angry she is. Buckley makes such a point of her anger (in the first and second books) that this one trait completely absorbs Sabrina’s whole personality. All I see is an irrationally angry eleven-year-old. This unattractive trait is further emphasized in The Unusual Suspects. As a result, when it becomes apparent that an Everafter (one of the fairy tale creatures that populate Ferryport Landing) is responsible for the school killings, Sabrina seems bent on blaming all of the Everafters for the actions of one. No matter how nice any of them are to her. I don’t know about anyone else, but that sounds a lot like bigotry to me.

Even if I did like Sabrina, the tone of this novel was as erratic as that of the first novel. Buckley takes on a lot in these volumes, but not in a cohesive way. The murder scenes are described with accurate guts and gore. Meanwhile Sabrina’s emotions are flattened to one word: anger. This creates an unbalanced narrative that sometimes feels like the children’s novel it is and sometimes feels much darker. In my view, the writing isn’t targeting a consistent audience.

Readers will have to judge for themselves, but after finishing this novel I have decided to wash my hands of the series (even though this book does end on a cliffhanger), finding that no matter how hard I wish for the characters to develop a bit more or become more self-aware, they never do.

The Fairy Tale Detectives: A (negative) review

The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael BuckleyThe Fairy Tale Detectives (2005) is the first book in The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley. The series begins with a compelling premise: The stories of the brothers Grimm and other fairy tale originators (Hans Christian Andersen, etc.) are all true. In a Tolkien-style spin, fairy tale creatures (called “Everafters”) used to coexist with humans, but in recent years they have been exiled to a small town near the suburbs of NYC. The Grimm family is still around, monitoring the Everafters and suspicious crimes in the area as part of a pact binding the Everafters to the town for, well, quite a long time.

Unfortunately, this premise offers little compensation for having to deal with Sabrina Grimm during the first half of the novel. Recently orphaned under odd circumstances, Sabrina (age 11) and her younger sister, Daphne, are sent to their mysterious grandmother whom the girls were told had died years ago. This all occurs in the first chapter. From there to the halfway point, readers are privy to Sabrina’s numerous railings against Granny Grimm proclaiming her as a fraud or a lunatic. Often at the same time.

After the halfway point, when the author finally lets Sabrina be an effective character instead of her previous killjoy self, the story picks up. Sabrina also becomes tolerable to read about. At times Buckley seems to forget that he is writing a children’s novel–perhaps hoping to imitate Jasper Fforde’s more effective integration of fictional-characters-as-real-people in his popular Thursday Next novels. This creates scenes that seem incongruously gory, some characters even seeming vicious. These scenes are especially jarring when, at other points, Buckley seems to be at pains to avoid writing about violence (particularly with the circumstances of the girls’ being orphaned). Buckley seems uncertain of his audience and his own style–which changes throughout the narrative alternating between fractured fairy tale and Goosebumps styles to ill effect.