Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Book Review: The Usual Suspects by Maurice Broaddus

First Paragraph(s): Life is all about timing.
Once the homeroom bell rings at 8:15 a.m., there'll be a five-minute lag before students are marched to the auditorium to gather for morning assembly. Nehemiah Caldwell and I get there before any administration types do. We slide under the curtain beneath the stage and crawl over to the stereo cart.
This is going to be epic.
"You got it?" Nehemiah asks.
I pat my pocket. "Yeah. You got what you need?"
"I'm like a Boy Scout up in this mug."

Esteemed Reader, if you check in with the blog regularly, you know I don't really write reviews that often anymore (note, I'm calling them "reviews" these days and not my "book of the week"). I'm still reading just as much as I ever was, but the time to actually sit down and write a thing that requires greater focus than an email has become much harder to come by now that I'm living with a 5-year-old Little Ninja. 

If I can sit and concentrate for a period greater than an hour, which these reviews require, I really need to get my own books written. So know that my sitting down to write this review at all means I really love this book and I want people to know it exists. I may not review another book this year, but something as awesome as Maurice Broaddus' first middle grade novel doesn't come along every day.

Full disclosure: Maurice is a friend and one of the most amazing writers I know (and I know a lot of amazing writers). You can hear our first ever conversation in the video below when we were on an author panel together. I liked Maurice from the start. He's a horror author who also writes middle grade and science fiction and who also occasionally teaches at the Indiana Writers Center. And he gives me great advice most every time I see him.

Lots of great things have been happening for Maurice. He's currently featured in Kirkus, where he recently received a starred-review. He's got multiple books out now and has had some high-profile book deals, so we can look forward to more of his excellent writing in the near future. And he's appearing in lots of amazing venues. Wouldn't surprise me if one day Maurice is painted on a building in Indianapolis just like Kurt Vonnegut. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Sometimes publishing can seem random and unfair. Probably because it's often random and unfair:) But occasionally, the universe lines up and things work out for someone genuinely deserving. When that happens, it restores faith to see hard work and dedication rewarded.

And few are dedicated as Maurice Broaddus. I've seen him in writing mode and his laser focus is intimidating. Maurice is also a very gifted social organizer, which is a superpower in a writer:) He hosts multiple events to promote writers and writing in the Indianapolis area, including a conference that takes place partly in his home. Maurice believes deeply in the written word and in creating a community of Indiana writers. The world is a far better place because Maurice Broaddus is in it and he's the sort of writer I want to be when I grow up.

I can very much hear Maurice's voice in The Usual Suspects as his essence is all through it. I'm thrilled that this book now exists and that it comes from my beloved Hoosier state. Esteemed Reader, get yourself a copy of The Usual Suspects and prepare for a wonderful read. Request it from your librarians and if you're a teacher, get a copy for your classroom.

This book is a middle grade crime thriller that is always engaging and never pedantic, beginning with the crime itself. This is isn't the case of the missing school trophy or a cookie caper. Broaddus is writing about some real stuff: a gun has been found in a park near school where our heroes hang out with other kids and everyone's a suspect... except that mostly the teachers suspect Thelonius Mitchell and his friends because they're, wait for it, the usual suspects. To clear their name, Thelonius and his friends must discover the true culprit (it's probably Keyser Soze).

Like the best Elmore Leonard fiction, which the author makes clear in his notes he's emulating, The Usual Suspects is all about a classic crime set up populated by compelling characters, beginning with our main character, Thelonius Mitchell:

So I'm back in the principal's office once again. Due to "my escalating antics" I'm here a lot. Some teachers float the idea that I have oppositional defiant disorder (sometimes I think they just say that about kids who say no to whenever adults tell them to do something, in which case, I have a severe case of it, as does every middle schooler I know). Some keep trying to say that I have bipolar disorder (because my shnanigans are so over-the-top). None of them is a doctor and just wants to sweep me and my issues under the rug. Moms scheduled an exam for me to get tested, but with our insurance, it's over a month out. Until then, I have to spend the rest of the quarter in the Special Ed room.

Thelonius is clever and insightful. He's good at understanding relationship dynamics and how to manipulate them, yet he's far from a criminal mastermind:

Whenever I try to polish my voice like Pierce, I always sound like a con artist on the prowl. Adults grow suspicious and know I am up to something, but they have no proof and need to see whatever I am up to play out. I might as well be a thief sending a note daring the cops to stop me from robbing a joint.

Thelonius is our perspective character, naturally, as this is a story told in the first person present tense, but my favorite character is his friend, Nehemiah Caldwell. Nehemiah also has some issues, including a whole lot of pent up anger, but he made me smile in most every scene he's in. Everyone agrees that Nehemiah couldn't have been the one to leave the gun in the park because if he'd had a gun, he'd have waved it at everyone. Also, Nehemiah's distrust of Teddy Grahams might be my favorite character detail in the book:

Nehemiah bounces his Teddy Grahams package off my chest. He hates them because he "never trusts anything that smiles all the time."

There are a lot of excellent characters populating this story. We're not going to go through each of them one by one, but I would mention just a few more. We'll talk about Marcel in a moment, but first I want to talk about the teachers in this book. Thelonius knows better than to trust any of them, even Mr. Blackmon, who appears to be the most trustworthy. After all, T tells us, "Lying to adults is how we breathe."

But Thelonius does know how to work his teachers: Teachers are like people: if you annoy them, by the time you need something they'll automatically say no just to spite you. Do what they want or make their job easier, they are quick to reward you.

The teachers in this story aren't monolithic villains. In fact, Broaddus goes out of his way to show that in some ways, they're as trapped by the social system of control put in place as the boys are. But they do demonstrate villainous qualities on occasion:

Mrs. Horner rarely comes at things directly. She keeps things vague, saying that she doesn't want to limit our creativity. It's more likely that she wants us to accidentally tell on ourselves.

Mrs. Fitzerald has a swagger to her. A bit of a gangster vibe. She wanders the halls with a beaming smile, but she has a resting teacher face with her eyes narrow like unflinching lasers.

The teachers range from honestly trying to make a positive impact in their students' lives to completely disengaged (one of them is on her phone checking Facebook all day) to outright hostile toward the students and our heroes. Broaddus' observations about teachers are probably based on his years of experience working in education, and that honest look at teacher student dynamics is one of the strongest aspects of The Usual Suspects.

There's one other character readers are going to love and no review would be complete without mentioning her:

Her dad, a black dude, is a scientist who often visits her class to talk about his work. Her mom, a white lady, is the president of the PTA who also bakes a mean batch of brownies come school fund-raising season. If Marcel came from money, she never acted like it. Marcel always received straight A's. By all reports, she was the best-behaved kid in the class. But I know better. The quiet ones are the ones everyone really has to watch out for. You see, an obvious stickup thug might get a wallet or two. Put them in bankers' suits and they were robbing folks for millions on Wall Street.
Marcel was strictly Wall Street.

Marcel is a cool customer. I can't tell you a whole lot about her without spoiling some specific plot details, but readers are going to find her fascinating. And more interesting to me at this moment is the first two lines of her description, which are about her parents. To the best of my recollection, Marcel's mom is the first "white lady" in the story.

Not every character's race is specified, but most of the character's who's coloring is mentioned are described as having skin "the shade of sunbaked cinnamon," or "the color of rich sepia," or "the complexion of milk with a dab of butter in it." The effect of this is that "not white" becomes the readers' default assumption about which race each character is, a refreshing change of pace, especially for a middle grade novel coming out of Indiana (former home of the head of the Klan not nearly long enough ago).

The Usual Suspects isn't about race, exactly, but it's not not about race. Just like it's not strictly about kids with special needs, but it's not not about them: 

Moms explained what she has, something about being on the autism spectrum. I hear so many labels placed on me and my friends, I tune them out. 

On its surface, The Usual Suspects is a fun middle grade crime novel with memorable characters and a quality mystery to be solved. Esteemed Readers looking for a good story well told will absolutely find it here and will join me in hoping Maurice Broaddus publishes more middle grade novels right away. We need as many of them as we can get.

But The Usual Suspects is really about multiple intersecting social dynamics and how they can trap and label all of us, not just the kids perceived as troublemakers, but also their teachers, their parents, other children in the neighborhood, and so on. Because all of us have assumptions made about us based on the broad categories society has placed us in. All of us are suspect.

Do yourself a favor, Esteemed Reader, and get yourself a copy of The Usual Suspects. It's themes are universal and you will be captivated by Broaddus' style and structure and his ability to present authentic characters in relatable situations.

More, if there's a problem child in you life, they need to read this book. I wish this book had been around when I was an adolescent and automatically suspected of wrongdoing by some of my teachers (I wasn't always a fine, upstanding Ninja). I don't know that it would've necessarily changed much for me (young me was pretty committed to being troublesome), but sometimes it's enough to know that someone else understands the experience and can relate. 

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Usual Suspects:

I catch myself as my hand moves to my chest to protest my innocence. That kind of theatricality would be insulting to both of us.

That girl can't find a maternal bone in a cemetery of mothers.

"I'm better than his momma. I'm actually here." Moms lets that line sit in everyone's ear for a minute, like she wants it to travel the neighborhood, before she continues. 

Some still go on about the hottest Pokemon cards. They are so sixth grade.

Twon knocks over another chair like Superman casually tossing a tank.

One kid lingers by the pencil sharpener opposite from us. Marquees Neal. "Kutter" to (what few people he called) his friends. His hair is a crown of twists, nesting baby snakes poised to strike. His eyes seem perpetually narrowed, like jagged scars.

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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