Couple weekends ago we fired up the fire pit for the first time this year. Fire good.
Fire is convivial and pretty and warm and often smells spicy and smoky and exciting. Plus it's good for roasting marshmallows. And since this is Jesus season, we had PEEPS to roast on our fire. If you've never tried it, may I recommend. I don't like Peeps, but a roasted Peep is like a bite-size crème brûlée. A vaguely poultry-shaped, distinctly trailer-park crème brûlée. Or in the case of the bunny-shaped ones, a vaguely tumor-shaped trailer park crème brûlée. SO GOOD.
I don't know why the bunny ones melt so freakishly, but they do, and it's kind of entertaining. So while I held my purple bunny Peep over the glowing coals of our fire the other night, as I watched it puff up and keel over on the end of my stick, carefully monitoring the blistered brownness of the sugar coating, I gave my Peep some dialogue:
Hey Beatrice, where you at? It's me, Dante!
Eurydice honey, it's time to go home! I brought my guitar... hey is that you behind me?
Quit that singin' - music is the brandy of the damned!
I crack myself up sometimes. Which is good, because most other people think I am just a moron.
The reason I had these old-style visitors to Hell on my mind was that I had just finished reading Terry Caszatt's Brass Monkeys - and if you think references to classic literature are par for the course when I read middle grade chapter books, you are badly mistaken. It's just that, of all the Kid Journeys To A Secret World In Order To Save His/Her Friends/Baby Sister/Dad/Mom/Species/World books I've read in the past few years, this is the first that kind of instantly and enduringly evoked these eternal images for me.
Not that Brass Monkeys reads all epic and tragic - not at all. It is funny and warm and sweet and creepy - in addition to being just a little epic and tragic, just around the edges. It's a lot like a bunny-shaped Easter Peep named after a character in a Shaw play bubbling and swelling in the flames of a campfire. (Boy, I sure hope Terry Caszatt has tried a roasted marshmallow Peep at some time in his life, or else he is going to NOT GET this review. Sorry, man. My other analogy was to The Stand by Stephen King, and that wasn't exactly appropriate either.)
Rather briefly, because usually I don't worry too much about spoilers when I write reviews of children's books, but Brass Monkeys is kind of a special case, everything except the broadest outlines of the plot being completely surprising and delightful - or surprising and grotesque - it goes like this:
Eugene is a kid as nebbishy as his name. He transfers to a new school in a new town, a terrible school. The town is whatever, a little snowy, but not nearly as nightmarish as this school. A few kids at his new school seem to know who he is, and to expect him to be some kind of agent for change, perhaps involving kung fu (which he does not know), and while he is sure that they've got the wrong guy, weird things keep happening to him... until the whole school literally goes to hell on a rollercoaster and it's up to him to quest their asses out of there and vanquish the (really atrocious) evildoers.
That's your two-minute booktalk. Take out the word "hell" when you're talking to fifth graders.
The characters are very real, and most of them are very eccentric. Dialogue is smart and natural. Settings are mind-blowing. Our man Caszatt should look into writing a graphic novel script - there are a lot of artists out there who might really enjoy drawing some of his landscapes.
Can't stop without a mention of music, though. There's a lot of music in this book, dirgelike music that crushes hope and fabulous triumphant music that I think must sound like centaurs playing John Philip Sousa, in addition to more humble solo renditions of music that just feels right to the person playing it or singing it. And of course, there's that title. I assume that most middle grade readers will not have the reflexive knowledge of Beastie Boys lyrics that I do, which is probably good, because none of the lyrics to "Brass Monkey" are suitable for children... but I didn't mind hearing the Beasties in my head all the while I was reading, especially after one of the bad guys keeps using "shadrack" as an insult.
I once was lost but now I'm found
The music washes over and you're one with the sound
Well who shall inherit the earth the meek shall
And yo, I think I'm starting to peak now Al
And the man upstairs I hope that he cares
If I had a penny for my thoughts I'd be a millionaire
We're just 3 M.C.'s and we're on the go
SHADRACH MESACH ABEDNAGO
-- Beastie Boys, "Shadrach"
This is for the kid that loves Gregor, who wants to visit The Lost Island of Tamarind, who can't wait for the next installment of The Bell Hoot Chronicles. The protagonist is a boy, but there are plenty of funny and fierce female characters too. And there's music - sweet sweet music.