"Yes Ma'am," I said, "Anna Celeste's party is Saturday but I don't need a ride ... No Ma'am. It's because Anna Celeste is my Sworn Enemy for Life and I'd rather go face-down in a plate of raw chicken entrails than go to her party. Plus, I'm not invited... Yes Ma'am, I'll tell the Colonel you called. Good-bye."
This story revolves around the restaurant owned by Mo's sort-of adopted parents, Miss Lana and the Colonel. Miss Lana is always changing the restaurant's theme--Parisian cafe one day and '60s roller rink the next--but while the decor changes, the regulars stay the same. And on the day our story begins, Mo is opening the restaurant by herself. The special: peanut butter and jelly, hand squished or fluffy.
That's also the day that a law enforcement officer shows up from out of town, Mo's best friend steals a neighbor's boat, and the owner of the boat turns up dead.
There's definitely a gothic mood to the book, despite the funny turns of phrase. Almost everyone in town seems to have a mysterious past, including Mo herself. She was found floating down the river on a billboard during a hurricane when she was just a baby, and her biological parents have never claimed her.
Some people may be a little creeped out by the amount of danger Mo finds herself in, and at least one person in my mock Newbery group felt that the tone of the story didn't match the increasingly disturbing events. I have to disagree. I like the fact that Mo narrated the events without describing exactly how scared she was all the time. I tend to think that if the narrator has to tell you when to feel scared, then the novel isn't all that scary. I also think that real kids don't reflect on their feelings nearly as much as kids in books do. Real kids just react--exactly the way Mo does when she throws up, sleeps for 18 hours, or starts yelling her head off. Those are all examples of how Mo deals with the stress she's under, without telling us she's stressed.
Plus, Mo is determined to be tough, like the Colonel. And she knows karate.
That said, I did find it a little hard to believe that the adults in the story would let Mo charge into danger the way they do at the end. I also never felt like I really understood the Colonel's and Miss Lana's relationship. And maybe I rushed through the ending of the book (because it was so exciting!), but the explanation I found there didn't quite make sense. That didn't really lessen my enjoyment of the book, but it did make me wonder about its Newbery-ness. Similar concerns were recently raised on the Heavy Medal blog, along with questions like, where are all the black people?
Still, this is a favorite so far this year, a nice blend of genres and the most distinct, memorable voice I've read in a long time. If you read books to fall in love with the characters, this book is sure to win you over.