Saturday, December 27, 2014

Duck and cover

The year that Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis brought out the first Wildwood book (2011), the Portland literature festival, Wordstock, went a little gaga. I was working at the festival and wandered into one of the not-Main-Stage venues and found myself listening to an author about to publish her first book for children and who seemed to share a last name with Mr. Meloy. Her book sounded good, but only after someone asked a question did I twig that Maile Meloy (she kindly provides a link to pronouncing her name) and Colin are siblings.

Meloy's book was The Apothecary. Janie Scott's parents have made an unexpected move from Los Angeles to London in the early 1950s. They claim to have gotten a great job offer writing for a British television series, but they eventually get around to explaining the blacklist to Janie. It doesn't make her feel much better about leaving all her friends in sunny Southern California for a dreary post-war London and a snooty school for which she doesn't have the right clothes.

Hoping to cheer her up, her father takes her to the neighborhood apothecary for a cure for homesickness where she meets the proprietor's moody son, Benjamin Burrows. Benjamin doesn't want to be an apothecary as his father insists; he wants to be a spy.

(Ooh, I'm getting fuzzier on the details!) Somehow, Janie (and Benjamin) learns that Benjamin's father is part of an international group of magician/scientists hoping to bring to halt the Russian testing of a special nuclear bomb. Of course, there are magician/scientists working for the Soviets as well, including Andrei Sakharov. When Mr. Burrows is taken away by a German with a nasty scar, Janie and Benjamin use his ancient Pharmacopoeia to disguise themselves (into birds) and stow away on board the ship heading to a remote island in the Baltic Sea carrying some magical equipment that will make time stand still and destroy the Russian bomb.

Many magical adventures featuring disobedient teenagers ensue, including living through a nuclear blast. I remember enjoying this, but -- aside from the well-drawn and unusual setting -- it's pretty much like every other kid-using-magical-powers-to-save-the-world novel: It's funny, occasionally gross, very slightly romantic, suspenseful and full to the top with dastardly villains (including a few of the "school" variety).

I listened to a book read by Cristin Milioti a few years ago and didn't like it very much, but I wanted to give her another chance. She does a good job here portraying 14-year-old Janie in her first person narrative. Milioti's got a slightly husky, but suitably youthful, delivery and invests Janie with appropriate independence (she doesn't buy the propaganda in the Duck and Cover film she's shown in school). She reads quickly but knows how to stretch out the suspenseful bits. Janie's a girl with strong emotions and these are evident in Milioti's reading.

She's got a fairly large cast of characters to portray, with accents all over the map. In addition to the English characters, there's a Cockney pickpocket, a Chinese scientist, a Hungarian who can stop time, some Germans, the Russians and a couple of others. Her accents sound natural to me and she switches easily between them in dialog. Except for Janie, Benjamin, and Pip the pickpocket, everyone else is an adult, and Milioti does a good job differentiating between the ages and genders.

The novel begins with Janie describing that she can't remember the events she's about to relate, but she's reconstructed the story from her diary, a diary that was recently returned to her from an undisclosed location by Benjamin. All through this note to the reader, there is this underbed of kind-of 1950s movie soundtrack music; lots of strings and yearning. The music returns at the end, with more piano.

Reading Meloy's sequel to this novel doesn't interest me much, but I might read one of her books for adults. Maybe some short stories.

[Janie and Benjamin are instructed to bring the Pharmacopoeia to someone in the Chelsea Physic Garden, but they arrive too late! This photo from the Garden was taken by La Citta Vita and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
Narrated by Cristin Milioti
Penguin Audio, 2011.  7:35

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