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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

far, far away, by Tom McNeal. Alfred A Knopf, Random House. 2013. $21.00 ages 12 and up

"When the silverware was finally finished, other tasks were assigned - the feather dusting of his collections of nutcrackers and novelty salt and pepper cellars, for example - until at last the noon hour came and the baker set out plates of sandwiches, plump with preserves and cream cheese, their crusts neatly trimmed, and served with a thick fruit nectar..."

Jeremy Johnson Johnson is one very special young man.. His life is grim. His mother has gone and left him with his deeply depressed father. The fact that he can hear ghosts is what sets him apart of any of the other children in his small village.

Jacob Grimm narrates this fantastic story. In doing so, and because Jeremy can hear him, he acts as a protector and mentor. Thanks in part to Jacob's tutelage, Jeremy does well in school, and has knowledge of fairy tales that is stellar. Ginger, a classmate who intrigues and beguiles Jeremy, eventually sees what is so special about him and they become fast friends. The magical Prince Cakes made by the town's baker help cement the relationship. Together, they make some mischievous choices and their adventures begin.

Thankfully, Jacob is caught in the time between mortal life and life after death. The Germans call it the Zwischenraum. It offers the chance for him to interact with Jeremy and be the adult presence he so badly needs. Jacob does his best, despite the fact that he is not always successful.  The village of Never Better is hiding some secrets. Children are disappearing, and evil seems to lurk on its streets.
It is the mysterious Finder of Occasions who brings darkness to this modern tale, and reminds us that Grimm fairy tales are often sinister and unsettling.

Tom McNeal blends masterful storytelling with intense and intricate plotting to create a cast of memorable and mostly likable characters who charm and befuddle the readers at times. The setting is pretty contemporary which gives the story a sense of immediacy and believability. The story is totally engaging from the first page to the last. I found that I had great difficulty getting any sleep once I started reading it. (Just one more section, I kept telling myself.)

The warm-hearted relationship between Jeremy and Jacob, and the often humorous scenes are much needed to offer relief from the sinister events on the pages of this stunning tale. If Jacob is to move on, he must prove he can protect Jeremy and keep him safe. Will he be able to save his young friend from the evil that has shown its ugly face in Never Better?

This is a fascinating and mesmerizing of the best I have read in the past year. It makes me wish I were still teaching so that I could read it to a class of middle years students. The writing is dramatic and very impressive. I think you should read it, and then share it with anyone who loves wonderfully told stories. Thank you, Tom McNeal!

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