Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: COUNTING BY 7'S by Holly Goldberg Sloan

First Paragraph(s): We sit together outside the Fosters Freeze at a sea-green, metal picnic table. 
All four of us. 
We eat soft ice cream, which has been plunged into a vat of liquid chocolate (that then hardens into a crispy shell). 
I don’t tell anyone that what makes this work is wax. Or to be more accurate: edible, food-grade paraffin wax. 
As the chocolate cools, it holds the vanilla goodness prisoner. 
Our job is to set it free. 
Ordinarily, I don’t even eat ice-cream cones. And if I do, I obsess in such a precise way as to prevent even a drop of disorder. 
But not today. 
I’m in a public place. 
I’m not even spying. 
And my ice-cream cone is a big, drippy mess.

What a treat I've got for you today, Esteemed Reader. Counting By 7's is one of my newest favorite books (I have so many) and Holly Goldberg Sloan is one of my newest favorite authors. Which is why it thrills me to tell you she'll be joining us on Thursday to face the 7 Questions.

As I write this, it's the day before I'm to teach a class on writing and I've just been looking over the syllabus I wrote the last time I taught it to make sure I still agree with myself (mostly, I do). I could teach a whole class on Counting By 7's. I'm probably not going to, but HGS (I'm not typing out three names every time) certainly taught me some lessons, not all of which I'll be able to relate to you in this short "review."

TOTAL REVIEW: Counting By 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a wonderful read containing a tear for every laugh and a laugh for every tear. You're going to fall in love with her complicated, diverse characters who read as though they could step right off the page. It's a little Confederacy of Dunces meets Charles Dickens with the sort of prose Dickens wishes he'd been capable of concocting. Rich, evocative, and deceptively simple, Counting By 7's is a pleasure to read that will leave the reader smiling and wiping their eyes.

I really love this book, Esteemed Reader. If you haven't read it yet, read it. Now let's talk shop.

So, anywho, I was looking over this syllabus of mine and read that I was telling my students three different times in one course that the opening of their story is the most important thing they'll write (though, of course, it's all important). I figure if the reader doesn't get drawn in by your opening, you needn't worry about what a mess chapter ten is:) If you know me (and you're here), you know I prefer grabby openings like, "It was three quarters past four when the mutated badgers ate my parents. It wasn't yet five o'clock when they came for me."

Thankfully, HGS is a great deal more subtle than the Ninja. So let's examine that opening above because it absolutely contains hooks. The first time I read this book wasn't even to review it. HGS hooked me and pulled me in and I read the whole book for pleasure. Nobody's death is threatened on page one (although that comes soon enough), but there's absolutely an effective hook that's so subtle it's easy to miss if you're not paying ninja-like attention, which is the point.

HGS tell us that today, the character, who's name we don't yet know, is in a public place and "not even spying" and she's eating ice cream differently. In Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, I attempt to hook the reader by opening with a "paradoxical witticism," which is to say I hopefully hook readers with my humorous prose, and then I drop the line: "the day Ellicott Skullworth's life changed forever began just this way."

I only wish I wrote as beautifully as HGS, but on this particular occasion I believe we're operating along the same lines, even if she's playing chess to my checkers. We're both writing about middle grade geniuses of color and we're both telling our readers, "pay attention, this day is unlike others, and something you're going to want to know about is happening." And a few pages later, HGS does write this is a day that I will never forget.

The real hook, of course, is HGS's prose. It's crisp and eloquent with a lot of white space to set the reader at ease while simultaneously placing greater emphasis on her sparse sentences.  HGS's prose isn't exactly poetry, it's not not poetry, and it's a pleasure to read. It's not pretentiously ornate, but it's direct and expressive. I've picked out some favorite passages below as I do with most books, but it was a tougher pick than usual this time around. I highlighted about two thirds of the book.

In my class, I teach that it's better to craft a story that moves and worry about prose afterward, though of course the best books have both a great story and finely turned phrasing. My reasoning is that readers will forgive lousy prose if the story moves (plenty of best-selling examples out there), but the audience for books with meh stories and lovely prose that wins obscure awards is considerably smaller than the audience for mainstream fiction. I read some such books with enthusiasm, but I'm not exactly an average reader. And as I'm not teaching writers in a MFA program with faculty that weighs in on said obscure awards, I steer my students accordingly.

HGS's prose is worthy of all the awards. But she employs plenty of traditional suspense techniques as well, just to be on the safe side, and the result is a novel that reads eloquently and a story that moves. Shortly after the opening, we're told our heroine, genius Willow Chance, calls home and gets no answer, which is extremely unusual, especially since she's left her parents messages previous. And then, the clincher, Willow arrives home to find police officers waiting for her, who pronounce "there's been an accident."

What accident? Are Willow's parents okay? Naturally, HGS doesn't tell us the answer right way. Like the best suspense writers, HGS makes us wait while flashing back to tell us more about our main characters so that we fully feel for them when the mysterious, yet devastating revelations we know are coming arrive. And we care more about the characters we're meeting because we know this bad thing is coming. It's a technique that works wonderfully in horror stories and mysteries and even the occasional romance, and it works very well here as well.

So who is our twelver-year-old heroine, Willow Chance? I see we're already running on the long-ish side and I have a lot of passages I want to share, so why I don't I let Willow Chance herself tell you who she is:

I think it’s important to get pictures of things in your head. Even if they are wrong. And they pretty much always are. 
If you could see me, you would say that I don’t fit into an easily identifiable ethnic category. 
I’m what’s called “a person of color.” 
And my parents are not. 
They are two of the whitest white people in the world (no exaggeration).

With the exception of the color red, I always wear earth tones because I’m blending into my environment. This is important for observation.

These are some very specific, distinctive details HGS uses to tell us who Willow is, but note she also shows us who Willow is through oddball behavior that immediately reveal the truth of her character

I’ve never understood coloring books. 
Either draw a picture, or don’t. But why waste your time coloring in someone else’s work?

I felt compelled to write the following on an index card: 
You need to have a dermatologist perform a punch biopsy on the mole (nevus) on the back of your neck. If it is not too much of an invasion of your privacy, I would very much like to look at the pathology report. I will be taking a taxi next week at this same time. This is important, so please do not take this medical suggestion lightly. 
Willow Chance 
I handed him the message when I got out of the taxi.

Willow can come off as a know-it-all, albeit one who draws a great deal of sympathy from the reader because of the tragic circumstances that befall her. HGS wisely has her heroine doing all sorts of heroic things along the way. And, on occasion, she's as charming as any fictional character could ever be:

We were sitting under one of the few trees out in front of the main school district office when I said to her, in Vietnamese: 
“You are my new best friend.” 
Mai was silent. I knew that she had many friends at school, and that her friend Alana was the one she considered to be her closest friend. 
I was just a little kid, and I realized that I had overstepped. 
What kind of person only knew someone for a few weeks and said something like that? 
So I added: 
“Since I just started at a new school, you’re right now sort of my only friend, so that makes the distinction perhaps not much of a difference.” 
And that made Mai smile.

Nor does HGS's capacity for creating credible characters stop with her protagonist. There isn't a flat character in Counting By 7's. Any of the supporting characters could easily be the protagonist of their own novels. I adore every member of the new family Willow creates for herself, particularly Mai, who is, perhaps, destined to be her mother. That has its ups and its downs, naturally, but one of the ups is Mai's self possession and undeniably effective methodology for achieving any goal.

Mai explained to the woman in the office that there was a family emergency. 
And then she used a trick. She started speaking in Vietnamese. Rapid fire. 
That unnerved people. 
The next thing she knew, she had a permission slip to get Quang-ha out of biology (where he was actually paying attention to a short film on mitosis).

My favorite character is Dell Duke, a high school guidance counselor who isn't a bad guy by any means, but who is allowed to be the most obviously flawed member of the cast. Every character has a flaw or twooffset by a heroic moment, as these are three-dimensional charactersbut Dell's flaws are particularly distinctive

Mr. Dell Duke had a large jar of jelly beans on his desk. 
He didn’t offer me any. 
I don’t eat candy, but I was fairly certain he did. 
I guessed that he had the jelly beans to make it look like he was offering kids a treat, but in actuality he never did and went on his own jelly-bean-eating binges.

Scientists had made the show. It was filled with facts and feelings, two things that Dell could live without. 
If he was going to actually watch a nature documentary, the only kind that he could suffer through was one where a fierce predator took down a wide-eyed furball. 
But he liked it when the furball could see it coming. 
A good chase with a few near misses added tension to the eventual crime scene. 
A male narrator with a deep, husky (almost evil) voice set the stage for the slaughter. The music surged. 
And then Bam! 
The Madagascar show had nothing like that. It focused on a group of monkeys who looked like squirrels in raccoon costumes. 
There was nothing in this program of interest and Dell had fallen asleep to it many times since he came to Bakersfield. 
He would not, could not, recall a single thing from the program other than what he had uttered to Willow at the end of their first session:
“Female lemurs are in charge of the troop.”

I've got one last passage I want to share with regard to HGS's ability to create compelling characters. Again, I have no shortage of highlighted passages to share with you, but you're just going to have to read the book yourself to enjoy them all. Note how HGS characterizes Willow through her observation of Dell, strengthening the reader's understanding of both characters:

I sat in the airless office/trailer and stared at Mr. Dell Duke. 
His head was very round. Most human heads are not round. Very, very few, in fact, have any real spherical quality. But this chubby, bearded man with bushy eyebrows, and sneaky eyes, was the exception. 
He had thick, curly hair and ruddy skin and it looked to me as if he was at least of partial Mediterranean origin. 
I was very interested in the diet of these countries. 
The combination of olive oil, hearty vegetables, and cheese that comes from goat’s milk, mixed with decent servings of fish and meat, had been shown in numerous studies to promote longevity. 
But Mr. Dell Duke did not look so healthy. 
In my opinion, he wasn’t getting enough exercise. I saw that he had a substantial belly under his loose-fitting shirt. 
And weight carried around the middle is more deleterious than extra pounds in the butt. 
Yet, culturally speaking, today men with big butts are considered less desirable than a man with a potbelly, which is no doubt wrong from an evolutionary point of view. 
I would have liked to take his blood pressure.

There's a whole lot more we could discuss about Counting By 7's, Esteemed Reader, but I see we're already running longer than usual, so I'll cut to the chase and let the passages of HGS's prose speak praise for her work higher than any I have to offer. This book gave me a lot to consider, not just as a reader, but as a writer. There are a couple elements that challenged my thinking on storytelling.

The first is HGS's use of coincidence at a few points throughout her story, which is one reason I compared her story about a likable orphan to the work of Charles Dickens. There are a few plot points in the story that if I read them in a different work, I would call bull crap on, and yet they don't bother me in this story. For instance, one character randomly wins a contest that provides him with just the funding he needs to accomplish his goal. Another character has a hidden fortune she has never revealed until the moment in the story when it's most convenient for her to have it.

In the case of the fellow winning the money, he takes significant action that leads to his being in position to win that money, which softens the lucky coincidence, and people do occasionally win contests. In the case of the character with the hidden fortune, it is true to her character that she would squirrel away the money to amass the fortune.

More, despite the elements of tragedy, Counting By 7's is a comedy (in the classical sense), and the rules are different for comedy. In his breakdown of the seven major plots (see what I did there?), Christopher Booker defines a comedy as "Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion." Without spoiling, much, Counting by 7's fits that bill.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of sad parts in Counting By 7's (at one point, Willow longs for death), but by the end we want our beloved characters to find happiness and they do. So in the final analysis, the coincidences are not a cheat the way they would be in a more straightforward suspense tale. I want my comedic characters to end up happy and I'm okay with their receiving help from fate because they made me smile plenty of times before.

There's a whole theme of gardening throughout this story we're not even going to touch on because we're running long and there's one last thing I want to discuss instead. It's a very slight spoiler and one that HGS is okay with as she also gives it away in the video below, but if you're planning to read this novel, and you should, you may want to skip the next two paragraphs.

From the beginning of the story, we know that Willow's parents are likely going to die. It is the inciting incident of our story. But we don't know how they're going to die. So it's on the edge of our seats that we read about Roberta Chance learning she has cancer. Jimmy Chance rushes to the doctor's office to comfort her and we see the depth or their relationship. It's a very emotional scene, which is why it's such a shock that they're killed in a car accident leaving the doctor's office, all their despair over a fate they don't actually have to face seemingly beside the point.

I've been turning this scene over in my head for weeks. On the one hand, the scene between Willow's parents as they confront cancer does make me care for them and care that they both die. On the other hand, it's a bit of a cheat to have a whole scene of tragedy that doesn't progress the plot as there's another scene of equal tragedy coming concerning our living protagonist. Of course, just as people really do win money in a contest, plenty of people also win the contest of random death on the road. And the scene absolutely works as I found it quite moving... and yet... ...but it did work...

I think what bothers me about the scene is that I'm not a gifted enough writer to pull it off and HGS is.

And that's where we'll leave it. Read Counting By 7's and come back on Wednesday to see Holly Goldberg Sloan face the 7 Questions (my God, the 7's are everywhere!). As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Counting By 7's:

Life, I now realize, is just one big trek across a minefield and you never know which step is going to blow you up.

All reality, I decide, is a blender where hopes and dreams are mixed with fear and despair. Only in cartoons and fairy tales and greeting cards do endings have glitter.

She wished all of her customers just wanted red nails. Red was lucky. 
But Pattie carried over one hundred shades in their squat little glass containers. 
She put down a bottle of fire-engine red and picked up peacock blue, a new shade that was very popular but carried no good fortune. 
With the annoying blue in her right hand, she looked through the front window and suddenly saw a dusty sedan pull into the parking lot. 
A police car was right behind it. 
Not good. 
Maybe if she had kept the red bottle in her hand, this wouldn’t have happened. She knew that wasn’t logical, but still.

I can still walk and talk and breathe, but there isn’t much point. It’s just something my body is doing.

Pattie hangs up, and right away dials a number. 
Her even disposition is one of her best qualities. And she’s maintaining it. Sort of. 
Maybe that happens when you’ve been through a lot. All of your edges are worn off, like sea glass. 
Either that, or you shatter.

I look up at the apartment house. It appears to be a building constructed by a blind contractor who didn’t use an architect. 
The proportions of the place are all off, and not in a provocative way. 
It looks like someone took an enormous box, painted it the color of serratia marcescens (which is a rod-shaped, pink bacterium that grows in showers) and cut holes in the sides.
I’m somehow not surprised that Dell Duke lives here.

“Are you looking for something?” 
I want to say that yes, I’m looking for anything that could make a world gone flat return to its original shape, but instead I just mumble: 
“No. I’m getting a glass of water. Dehydration is the cause of ninety percent of daytime fatigue.”

The idea of something for nothing is appealing in some visceral way. 
Even if free things are never free. 
The burden of ownership means everything has a price. 
I think that’s why really rich and famous people look so weighed down and glum in most photos.
They know that they have to keep their guard up. They have things other people want.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

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