A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

2023, Reviewed

I’m not sure why The Fresco/Cable Family in 2023 was on our recommended reading list. If I gave this to my English teacher I’d get a D-minus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan. I’ve read the whole series. I love the Alaska setting, the ridiculous adventures, the goofy humor, and the quirky characters. But… pacing? Plot? Is this a coming of age story? Or a quest that doesn’t really go anywhere? There’s definitely no story-arc with “rising action” and “denouement”. Isn’t that supposed to be a requirement or something?

The first chapter starts promisingly, with the main characters – Molly and Lizzy – exploring the Olympic Peninsula with their mom (Nancy) and Steve, one of everybody’s favorite recurring characters.  Manish and Billy the Dachshund also make an appearance (important!).  The majesty of the Hoh National Forest is perfectly described, but (reality check) would the shoreline beaches really be that warm and sunny in January?  And then Nancy goes on to the Bay Area and has a great time with a bunch of characters from the prequel series -- Kate, Craig, Matt, Raph, Amy -- but it rains like a monsoon?  Does the author not understand weather?

And then, boom, we’re back in Fairbanks Alaska waaaay too quickly. Darkness and ice fog may have been interesting early in this series, but I’m so done with it. Do we really want to hear more about snow-biking to school at 40 below zero?  What’s with the long sections about chemistry class, and the adult characters buying groceries and doing taxes?  Editor needed!

In the February chapter, Nancy heads to Anchorage for the Alaska Forum on the Environment.  Imagine a bunch of scientists and a lot of environmental leaders from rural Indigenous communities trying to problem-solve climate change. It’s genuinely interesting… although… good luck with that, Gen X, but we know we’re inheriting your issues anyhow.

Sorry, is that too dark?

The next chapter, though… I do not like that kind of dark.  Shiloh!  Why? Whhhhhy?

Shiloh the floppy-eared rescue sled-dog of questionable ancestry and asthmatic tendencies was one of my favorites.  Sure, Eddy carries on the narrative role of bumbling canine comic relief, with Sinbad the cat as both his nemesis and his idol.  But the series will never be the same.

Not. Okay. At. All.

I was about to hurl the book out the window, but… recommended reading list… so here we go.

Next, we get to hear more about the dad, Jay, as he snow-bikes to Nome on the Iditarod Trail.  Right, yeah, he’s done this before. Like, what, three times, plus all the shorter trips? It’s dramatic, it’s gorgeous, it’s an unforgiving setting. And it’s even original – thanks to Jay’s remarkable ability to snap seat-posts. Seriously, is that even possible IRL? And is it possible to overnight-mail bike parts to remote villages? Who dreams up these questions?

By the time I got to chapters devoted to spring, I’d given up on 2023 having a clear plotline. Again, editing? Why so many Mondays?  Why am I reading about spreadsheets and dental cleanings?

Still, there were some good parts. Lizzy and Molly totally rock their junior year in high school, winning a state History Day award from their project on the trail from Valdez to Fairbanks, excelling in rock-climbing and horseback riding, respectively (both good sports for increasing tension via action sequences, especially if you happen to have a fear of falling), learning pottery, and preparing for Advanced Placement exams.

OMG who takes five AP exams at a time?  Thinking about this is giving me a headache.

Okay, moving on. Summer. Nancy takes the action overseas, meeting up with a character from the series prequels, Amy. [Note: giving multiple characters in a novel the same name is stupid and confusing.  Why?] As a middle-aged comic duo, Nancy and Amy take on a swath of Europe along the borders of Germany, France, and Switzerland, mangling several languages and wandering from belfries to forests and back again, croissants in hand.  This whole section cracked me up. 

Jay’s summer subplot is also entertaining. As if biking the Iditarod Trail hadn’t been enough, he takes on the Wilderness Classic, a race on foot and via pack raft, 190 miles cross-country from the Little Tok River to McCarthy.  The Wrangell Mountains! Lynx!  Bears! But why cover so much ground in a mere six days?

Yeah, the parents in this series are seriously weird. But you probably already knew that.

While the adults are wandering around the world, the YA characters are actually working. As in the last couple of books, they have summer jobs with the Alaska Songbird Institute.  Here the plot makes a little more sense.  Not only is the outdoor setting perfectly depicted in all its sunlit and mosquito-infested glory, but hatchling swallows are fascinating, slightly repellent, and entirely adorable. 

And there’s bird drama!  Are the younger trainee birders under Molly’s supervision useful, or a messy hassle?  Is one male swallow visiting two neighboring nest boxes?  Do the females know? The tension!

Next, Wasilla. (It's not just where Sarah Palin came from.)

This interlude is a high point, but too many great characters – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins from Utah – are crammed in too few pages.  Also, see the note above about names; there are two Jays in the story, and two Charlottes, and Robert marries Ben but also has a brother named Ben. Can we call Jay by his middle name, Egbert?

Back in Fairbanks, Nancy takes to the stage, this time as Lord Montague in an outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet.  The mom being Romeo’s dad is intrinsically funny – which works for me, because R&J isn’t really a tragedy, it’s a dysfunctional emo comedy gone very wrong.

Oh, sorry, am I getting dark again?

Perhaps in an attempt to inject some “pathos”, “drama”, and “irony”, none of the other main characters have a chance to see Nancy in her Shakespearean performance, because while Lizzy is recovering from wisdom-tooth surgery that results in dry-socket and infection, Molly and Jay come down with COVID.

A word about the COVID theme in this novel: it’s horribly done. 

Yes, it’s “authentic to the era”, but we’re all 3+ years done with the pandemic genre.  Having two central characters contract the illness in July and the other two in October is tedious. They all have mild cases. There is no drama here, only several chapters of hassle and coughing.  Pointless.

The August chapter is way better. The main characters are joined by their staunch side-kick Laurel, and they travel north of the Arctic Circle to backpack in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Cramming three teens, two adults, and a dog into one small pickup truck is like non-stop improv.

Breathtaking scenery! Mountain streams! Fossils! Hundreds of caribou bones! And (bonus) no other people!

The writing feels rushed when this chapter shifts to the opening days of senior year, but high school does offer dramatic potential. Engineering class involves popsicle sticks, PVC pipe, bloodshed and mayhem. Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Shelley, are all deconstructed, and we learn that (shocker) Mr. Rochester is gross, old and creepy. Not. A.Romance.

Meta-moment: one of our two heroes telling her dad, “You don’t know anything about literary criticism.  Seriously.”

Then, more repetition.  Is this book done yet?  No one wants to read about frustrating contracts with NOAA or NSF, or extended CVs.  What is with adults and acronyms?  No one wants to hear about – or be asked about – the hell of college applications. Ever.

Or descriptions of snow.

Seriously, it’s snow.  Call an editor, stat.

Okay, so I did actually enjoy this book. I laughed a lot, and I’m waaaay invested in these characters. But I’m holding firm on this being appalling writing in a “narrative” sense.  At the end I had no idea whether the heroes were even heroes.  Did they become better people? 

Did they realize their own tragic flaws?

I guess I’ll have to wait to find out in the sequels.