Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book Review: Something Wicked

Title Something Wicked
Author Alan Gratz
Genre YA Literary Fiction (disguised as Commercial Fiction)
Category Mystery
Rating A-

Summary High school sophomore super sleuth (aka, observant and cool-headed) Horatio Wilkes is hanging out with his friend Jack Mackenzie (aka, Mac) and Mac's girlfriend Beth at a Scottish Highland Festival when Mac's maternal grandfather, Duncan MacRae, is murdered. [Hint, hint: This is an easy-to-understand retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth, so that's pretty much all the summary you'd really need.]

First Line "History is full of guys who did stupid things for women."

Review I gave the first book in this series, Something Rotten (a re-telling of Hamlet), an A+, but this book only got an A-. Sure, it's still the grading equivalent of five stars, but this one wasn't perfect.

You still got Horatio's snark and wit and great one-liners:

"...Beth had changed into more formal cosplay: a white long-sleeved peasant blouse, white-trimmed blue vest, and a skirt in her family tartan with tall argyle socks to match.
'Waiting tables tonight at the Salty Wench?' I asked Beth.
'Spending the night with your right hand again?' she threw back," (p. 47).
You still got Horatio figuring out the crime and being unflappably cool throughout (even after getting beat up by a bunch of bag pipe players who are far more scary than that description can make them sound), but there were a few things that were off, in my opinion.

First, and this is kind of my big drawback with all murder-mysteries series... why the easy set-up? I remember watching Murder She Wrote with my grandma and saying, "I'd never be friends with that lady--people always end up dead around her." I thought Gratz should have at least given a shout-out to the fact that in what appears to be (chronologically speaking in the life of the narrator) about six months, why he's now found himself in the middle of two huge family killing frenzies. Maybe Horatio needs to pick friends who aren't so messed up. It might just be me, but I feel, with Gratz's strong writing style that comes across as sarcastic and wry, his assumption that his readers are smart and with him during the book, that this topic should have gotten a little play. If nothing else, maybe a quick line about, "Who am I? Jessica Tandy?"

The other thing that struck me as problematic (and Gratz was kind of hamstringed by the Bard on this one) was that Mac was a tough character to care about, and for the set up of this book, you kind of need to like him. Sure, you're not supposed to like Beth, I get that, so he did a pretty good job of making her rude and condescending to Horatio, but Mac didn't work for me.

The primary problem is that you need to feel (as a reader) that Horatio and Mac are good friends and that's why Horatio wouldn't and shouldn't ever suspect Mac of committing the crimes. That's essential for the "mystery" aspect of this book to work. Unfortunately, Mac comes across as a giant douche bag (he doesn't even play up the "my grandpa died and my uncle's in jail and that's why I'm acting like a jerk" angle like Hamilton did in Something Rotten to explain his behavior), so the friendship seems forced.

I know that Shakespeare created a character who is hen-pecked by Lady Macbeth, so Gratz had to follow in those foot steps and make Mac to be the modern day equivalent (i.e., whipped), but that doesn't deny that he also needs to be a friend of Horatio so that you care about him too. If you also care about Mac as a character then you won't suspect him either, but it was too caricatured, in my opinion, and Mac was such an obvious suspect (apart from the fact that this book follows the plot of Macbeth precisely without any plot twists). But, even if you've never read the play, Mac and Beth are too obvious.

Gratz could have made Mac just slightly more likable and the story would have benefitted. If nothing else, maybe a quick line behind Beth's back where Mac would say, "Who does she think she is? Hillary Clinton?" to create a solidarity, a bromance of sorts, between Mac and Horatio so the relationship was more believable.

Those two things aside, this is still a fantastic addition to Gratz's canon. It's another one that is a great intro to Shakespeare's material. This book is pretty likely to have a tough entry into school curriculum because of some language and generalized underage sordidness, but it's still a good read that should be getting attention.

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