Tuesday, 29 January 2013

review: Malcolm at Midnight

by W. H. Beck; illustrated by Brian Lies
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 4 2012
middle-grade anthropomorphism mystery

Malcolm is a rat. But when everyone in his new school seems to have something against them, he's fine being mistake for a mouse, even if it means lying to the Academy, the society of classroom pets he is newly initiated into. But when Aggy, their iguana leader, goes missing and Malcolm's identity is revealed, clearing his name means he'll have to find the real suspect... and maybe uncover a few secrets of the school itself.
The cover (illustrated by Brian lies):

Major props to the designer (whose name I would mention if I could find it :S) and illustrator; this could've easily gone cheesy Redwall-style, but it didn't. With the shadowing and illustration style, this cover evokes just the right timeless mystery atmosphere. The clock is a great feature since it plays such a pivotal role, and the title font is bold but serif-ly stylish.

The book:

Let's talk about this book's narration, because holy wow is it unique: written to the class's teacher from the students, the narrator addresses him as "you, Mr. Binney". It's subtle but effective. And footnotes linking to "vocabulary words" or hilarious commentary on specific students in the class are definite funny highpoints, a burst of awesome in each chapter.

That being said, Malcolm isn't distanced at all from the reader due to the narration style. In fact, it'd be nigh impossible not to relate to him, thanks to the identity struggles he goes through. His interactions with the students and other classroom pets alike make him utterly endearing, someone to cheer for.

Speaking of the students and pets -- alll of the side characters are so amazingly developed it's mindboggling. The little quirks of the students and teachers both flesh them out and create that tangible, authentic classroom air. The pets are larger-than-life, from the tarantula (Lance?) to the sister-and-brother hamster duo. Even minor characters like Snip and the barn owl (sorry, I'm forgetting names) are very much 3D. Also, my favourite human? Johan. (Hopefully I'm remembering his name right...!) THIS KID, GUYS. <3

Now, the mystery. Oh, is it a mystery. Red herrings, multiple suspects and hidden motivations propel this storyline non-stop as Malcolm adventures throughout the whole school and even to the great outisde. Beck uses her entire school to map out the action, from the creepy, disused 4th floor to the underground boiler room.

Malcolm at Midnight also has: a villain you can empathize with. A twist-and-turn mystery. And hilariousness when you least expect it. This is by far my best read of 2013 so far.

Rating: 4.6 out of 5