I can't remember when exactly this book caught my attention, but it was back when the Newberry Winner for 2010 was announced. This book, with its intriguing cover and even more intriguing premise caught my attention and I immediately put it on my 'To-Read' list, but decided to save it for later because it was still in hardcover and I had other books that were demanding my attention. When it *did* come in paperback, I would bring to the staff room at Chapters when I was working and would read chapters and here and there, but then my work schedule started to kind of suck (for awhile, I was lucky to get ten hours a week) and I lost my momentum and decided to just wait and read this all in one go, one day.
Two weeks ago now, I went to Ottawa to visit a friend of mine, and they have a huuuuge Chapters there. I'm talking two-storeys big (the one I work at is only one-storey, boo), so while I was there picking up Not Flesh, Nor Feathers by Cherie Priest (yayy!), I decided to pick this one up as well for the ride home from Ottawa.
This book is different. It's unlike anything I've ever read before and is one that needs to be read absolutely spoiler-free, so this review will stay that way.
First off, and this isn't very spoilery, this book has science fiction in it, even though it largely reads like contemporary fiction. At its core, this book isn't about time-travel and quantum physics.. it's about Miranda's journey of growing up, maturing, and learning. About family, about friendship and about how things and people change. The way I worded that makes it sound like this is some kind of after-school special, but it's really, really not. It's a lot less heavy-handed than that and is one of the most beautiful stories I've read in a long while.
Miranda is by no means a perfect character; she's very typical for a twelve-year old girl: she can be selfish, judgmental and near-sighted a lot of the time, but she's also a girl who's just hurting, because of the loss of her best friend Sal, who's abandoned her and because of the near-poverty her and her mom live in (that might be a bit of an exaggeration though -- but they're definitely lower-middle class). Despite her flaws though, she really is a good kid, and that really shines through. I loved how she was able to make new friends even after Sal left with her with no explanation, and the friendship that blooms between her and Julia and how she was able to grow past her pre-conceived notions of her to forge this friendship. Julia ended up being quite a deep character herself -- her characterization was spot-on and I loved every minute she was on the page (even though she comes off as snooty at first.)
The plot itself is very engaging, it mostly being a mystery. You really want to know who the hell is sending Miranda these cryptic messages. I was able to guess quite soon who the mysterious messenger was and the workings behind it, but younger children are reading these novels might not be so quick to catch on. Also, just because I knew who was behind it all didn't make any less fun to read about. The writing style is very nice as well, being a first-person POV from Miranda's perspective; her narrative voice rang true for a twelve-year old but still possessed a hinting of some kind of lyrical quality (I hate saying that someone's writing is lyrical as that description has become horribly cliche, but I'm sick and my brain can't think of a better adjective at the moment) that lends a nice, almost surreal, but still very much being grounded in reality, feeling to everything.
This book is also an homage to the children's classic A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (which also happens to be one of my favorite books), but it's still very much its own book and not a remake or a rehashing of Wrinkle in any way. References are made to the book constantly, it being Miranda's favorite novel, but Stead also puts in all kinds of little tidbits that are very obviously a nod to the classic. However, even if you're not familiar with Wrinkle, you won't be missing out on anything and can still wholeheartedly enjoy the novel.
Final Verdict: I haven't read a TON of middle grade fiction, but from what I have read, this novel ranks very high up there. This is a book with staying power and I think it's one that will be remembered along with great titles such as A Wrinkle in Time (whom it's paying a very obvious homage to). There's strong writing, a flawed, but overall likable protagonist, great supporting characters who have depth, and a great mystery story to wrap up this more or less perfect package. This is a story with science fiction elements, but overall, it's very much a story about growing up and the changes that come with that, and it's beautifully executed and still blends well with the science fiction elements, which very easily could've felt jarring and out of place.