Pitch perfect but tone deaf

The Extraordinaries by T.J. Klune, narrated by Michael Lesley

r/suggestmeabook: I want a funny YA book with an uncritical depiction of police from the point of view of a very ADHD gay teen who really wants to be a superhero.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 397

Listening time: 13 hours, 3 minutes

Publisher: Tor Teen

Series: The Extraordinaries

From the publisher: Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right? After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

This book made me laugh out loud more than any I’ve read in a while, so I started recommending it left and right when I was only a quarter of the way in. The story opens with Nick’s fanfic about the IRL superhero Shadow Star in a reality that shares our fictional superheroes, and includes in-jokes comic aficionados will get (I had to ask the resident expert about those), which got me going at the outset.

What if he’d met some Luxor Avenue debutante or a burly mechanic with oil stains on his fingers? Nick read alternate universe fanfiction. Stuff like that happened all the time.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Usually characters who are oblivious to things that the text makes obvious frustrate me, but T.J. Klune manages to make Nick so endearing, it doesn’t bother me. Part of it is that I relate to his ADHD to the extent that I was (and still am) often oblivious to what’s going on around me because I hyperfocus on something to the exclusion of everything else. Nick is far more ADHD than I, and might strike some as stereotypical, but he feels very much like kids I’ve known. On the other hand, there are some of his symptoms that don’t sound much like ADHD, but I’m not going to speculate on those.

Some people were born to be an Extraordinary. Nick was born to have a million thoughts in the space of a minute that often led to splitting headaches. It wasn’t fair.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Nick’s friends are also very likable. In addition to sweet best friend Seth, Nick hangs out with Gibby, a badass I wish I could be more like, and Jazz, the constantly underestimated rich cheerleader who is more supportive than you’d think a character with that shorthand description would be. The adults are very much portrayed from a teen POV, but they are, for the most part, positive folks, with a couple of glaring exceptions.

That’s the one thing you don’t expect. How lonely it is. Because you can’t tell anyone about it. You can’t tell your family because they wouldn’t understand. You can’t tell your friends because they could become targets, and you don’t want them to get hurt.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

The pace is brisk and the tone teenage snark. The narrator is a bit over the top, but it worked for me. I could have done without the Jack Nicholson impression for ex-boyfriend Owen and his father, and two accents of BIPOC that are problematic. Granted, if you’ve got one narrator for a book and a diverse cast, there’s a potential for problematic voices no matter how well-intentioned you are; it’s a question of impact that I defer to people of that community to resolve.

Just because you did something wrong doesn’t mean that’s who you are. And even if you keep doing the wrong thing, you can still be saved. Maybe they just need someone to listen to them, to hear the storm in their heads.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Not all is fun and games. Nick’s mom is dead, and that fact hovers over his life profoundly and pervasively. Klune handles the multifaceted nature of grief deftly and that grief informs one of the intriguing themes of the book: “What are you willing to do to keep your loved ones safe?” I’m not sure how I feel about the way that question is resolved in this book, and am interested to see if Klune picks it up in the next volume, because it’s a good question to ask. The knee-jerk answer is “Anything,” but even that virtue can become a vice under the right circumstances, something that Klune alludes to, but doesn’t address as deeply as I thought he was going to with the various references to that question.

Life isn’t a comic book. Extraordinaries aren’t everything. So what if they can do things others can’t? That doesn’t make them more special than the rest of us. It doesn’t work like that.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

The more complicated question is that of the depiction of police. Nick’s dad is a cop. As I’ve mentioned before, my husband is a retired police officer. I haven’t gotten my kids to read this yet, but from my POV, the portrayal of the police dad and his relationship with his kids is spot-on. In fact, there were a couple of incidents that were very close to some we went through during my kids’ teen years.

It’s well known that regardless of what else they are, teenage boys are inherently stupid.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

There were only two quibbles I had when I finished the book as it pertained to the accuracy of depiction: first, that the police utility belt wasn’t called by its name, a Sam Browne. However, neither of my kids remembered that term, so I discarded that quibble. The second I’m going to add below the “check the price” button, as it could be a spoiler.

In the mystical time known as Before, Dad would regale him with stories of grotesque injuries he’d seen on the job, much to Mom’s dismay.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Nick’s dad, Aaron, is a gruff but good guy. The story is told from Nick’s POV, so it makes sense that as a junior in high school, he hadn’t yet developed a critical eye when looking at cops. But the events of the book portray police in an uncritical way, showing almost exclusively the admirable aspects to police work: the times that an officer will put his own life in danger to save a stranger, the dedication to the law over vigilantism, and the sense of service to the community and each other. All of these things happen, but it’s clearly not the complete picture.

‘Police officers are woefully underpaid,’ Nick agreed. ‘Especially for the line of work they’re in. It’s dangerous on a daily basis, and they should be compensated.’

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Given that Klune introduces the idea that superheroes would be more complicated than good vs. evil, it’s hard to argue he couldn’t have artfully placed the argument that the police and policing are also flawed. The book was written before George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers and published a few months after. Although Black Lives Matter predates the Floyd tragedy, the video of that event has signaled a seismic shift where uncritical portrayals of police feel a bit tone deaf. 

You’ll be an officer of the law, they said. You’ll help people, they said. You’l get a Taser, they said, even if they also said you couldn’t use it whenever you wanted.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

This complicated my relationship with the book, as it brought back many familiar and rather cozy memories of a time when I felt like police were generally good, and the problems were that of a few bad apples—we always knew guys “like that.”  However, there was no way to watch the protests last summer, with all the videos of attacks against protestors and journalists, and keep that point of view. 

Dear ol’ Dad straps a gun to his waist and a badge to his chest and goes to work every day knowing there’s a chance he might not come home. And that’s scary.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Perhaps the use of a Black police chief was meant to signal that this particular department in this alternate reality doesn’t have those issues; we see that in other fantasy fiction, where some social issues of our current day are not a problem so that others may be addressed. Indeed, none of the officers in the book have any issues with the fact Nick is gay, which also strikes me as improbable, so this may be a conscious decision on Klune’s part. I can also see how using a “good” police department or an unambiguously evil antagonist are useful in conducting the kinds of extended thought experiments that are part of what I find so appealing about SFF. But I’m having a hard time arguing to myself that it’s sufficient reasoning not to address the police depiction here.

‘Maybe I’ll give it a go,’ Cap said, rubbing his mustache. ‘My secretary says your dad is dreamy, whatever that means. Think I got a shot?’

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Police are alternately lionized as the keepers of justice and vilified as corrupt in popular media. But the reality is far more complicated and ugly than either extreme, and in this period of debate about what to do to untangle the racism inherent in modern policing, it feels somehow irresponsible to promote a book that does not raise these issues.

So that’s the bottom line, I suppose. I loved this book, but did so with some sense of guilt for loving it, because although the bulk of the story is Nick’s obsession with the Extraordinaries, his love life, and his ways of dealing with fear and loss, the police depiction is a key piece of the story. If you read it with a full awareness that the police depiction is as fictional as flying crimefighters in tights and capes, then you’re good to go.

Postscript: Just to make sure you don’t miss the comment from Dianthaa, I wanted to move the link she shared here: http://www.tjklunebooks.com/new-blog/2020/7/29/a-message-about-the-extraordinaries. In it, Klune talks about the portrayal of police, taking responsibility and planning to address the issue in the next installment in the series. This stance is consistent with the general sensitivity Klune has to social issues, and the timeline of the writing and publication makes sense as well. Thanks, Dianthaa!


The second, spoilery quibble: Although I can see how it makes sense from a story perspective, there would not be a hospital corridor lined with uniformed police officers waiting around when a fellow cop was injured in the line of duty. Cops will come and go all day (and night) to check on the wounded buddy, but you won’t see them filling the hallway and waiting around. Been there; done that.

Until the vaccine comes, there’s this

Big5+ Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I want a satisfying and optimistic fantasy tale of a man finding out what really matters to him.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 393

Publisher: Tor

From the publisher: Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

This was the book I didn’t know I needed. It touches on themes that have been painful this year, but redeems them in a way that restores hope in humanity without ever being glib or ignoring the ugliness that can be part of the equation.

This year has fairly vibrated with a sense of powerlessness. Can I, just one person, do anything about all of the big issues that are facing all of us? What can I do about institutional racism, or the pushback against LGBQTIA+ people that runs from casual verbal cruelty to outsized paranoia over what bathroom to use? How can I keep me and mine safe from COVID-19 when people are pretending it doesn’t exist? Then there’s the tick-tick-tick of climate change in the background.

“It’s not only this village, Mr. Baker. Just because you don’t experience prejudice in your everyday doesn’t stop it from existing for the rest of us.”

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Into all that mess comes this sweet and positive tale that doesn’t pretend change is easy or fast, but asserts strongly that change is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s something that each individual can contribute to. Linus Baker, the everyman protagonist of the tale in a close third narrative, does his moral best within the context of his limited powers, but doesn’t really look past his immediate surroundings to see what kind of consequences there might be, the quintessential well-meaning soul who unintentionally contributes to the status quo. His life is upended by a special assignment to the eponymous house.

He’d accepted long ago that some people, no matter how good their heart was or how much love they had to give, would always be alone. It was their lot in life, and Linus had figured out, at the age of twenty-seven, that it seemed to be that way for him.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Self-deprecating, isolated, but dedicated to his job because of a fundamental conviction that children deserve to be safe and cared for, he’s easy to root for. His character growth is fundamental to the story, and it occurs incrementally and believably. I generally hate it when characters have sudden changes of heart because of one particular dramatic incident; those can help, but my life’s experience tells me that people must already be in motion for a drama to move them to a new position.

Then there are all the other quirky and charming characters, as well as the people you love to hate. T.J. Klune has a gift for sketching memorable characters quickly, so small roles such as Ms. Bubblegum, J-Bone, Marty, the train conductor, and the post office guy are almost as memorable as the main cast. There’s the yearning-for-purpose Chauncey, spiders-in-the-brain Lucy, singing-to-the-earth Phee, nibbling-to-communicate Theodore, I-want-to-be-round Talia, and future poet laureate Sal. These children are all lovable, but I must confess some favoritism for Chauncey and Sal.

Many considered them to be nuisances, and for a long time, they were hunted down, their heads used as trophies, their skin made into fashionable shoes. It wasn’t until laws were enacted protecting all magical creatures that the barbaric acts ceased, but by then, it’d almost been too late, especially in the face of empirical evidence that wyverns were capable of emotionally complex reasoning that rivaled even humans.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Arthur Parnassus, however, doesn’t appear to play favorites. The father figure and teacher who heads up the school Linus must investigate is the guy we’d have all wanted to have our backs as students. However, he’s probably the least well-developed character in the book, but that I can forgive that because 1. we’re seeing him through Linus’s obscured vision and 2. it’s necessary for plot reasons.

He was as fresh-faced as the young people who came into DICOMY with their shiny degrees and ideas about how things should be done rather than how they actually were. They quickly learned to fall into line. Idealism had no place in government work.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Then there are all the characters who only appear in a scene or two, and yet they are memorable. Klune has a knack of adding just the right details to sketch them quickly and convincingly.

She was a stern woman, hair pulled back so severely that it brought her unibrow up to the middle of her forehead. He wondered every now and then if she had ever smiled in her life. He thought not. Ms. Jenkins was a dour woman with the disposition of an angry snake.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The bit that made it hard for me get get going on the book was the music (although, to be fair, once I got past the first third of the book, I could not put it down). It mostly put me in mind of the first time I watched A Knight’s Tale. As a hardcore history buff (or antiquarian, if you want to go with my history prof’s label), I was startled when Queen showed up at a tourney:

Yes, in the purely fictional world (I’d thought) of The House in the Cerulean Sea, all of a sudden The Everly Brothers’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is playing in this other reality. Of course, fictional music would not have had the same emotional impact as “Beyond the Sea” or “You Send Me,” so it made a certain kind of sense, but it was a bit jarring, just like “We Will Rock You” showing up in what I thought was a period film. (Yes, my expectations for A Knight’s Tale were all wrong.) On balance, I see why Klune made that choice, but I wish there had been another way to get the effect he wanted.

As Bobby Darin sang about watching ships from golden sands, Linus moved through the dream, fingers tracing along the books on the table. He barely glanced down at the titles, entranced by the telltale scratch of a record spinning.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The other jarring note was the use of the exact phrase that was born of 9/11: “See something. Say something.” I, too, found this formulation disturbing in our world, and to hear it echoed in the book brought me out of the fantasy world Klune had made. Perhaps it was to point to the thematic links between the worlds, but it felt like a moment where he was jumping up and down and saying “Look what I’m saying about the US,” taking focus from the story to the author and his message.

Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

All that aside, at the core of this book is a question man has debated for centuries (and probably woman as well, but we didn’t get recorded much until recently): Are we born evil or made that way? Can we rise above our genetic/hereditary/nature? Can people change? This is not just a philosophical jaunt. The side you take on the debate seems to have endless ramifications about how you treat crime, poverty, drugs, and a slew of other questions with practical political applications. I believe, on some level, it is the answer to that question that lies behind all of the current conflict in the US, because how you treat humanity at large (as opposed to the folks you actually know), really depends on the answer to that question.

Linus has avoided this question about the nature of humanity and is forced to confront it, if only implicitly. Despite the two types of intrusions where our realities overlap, I loved this book. And I learned that buttons are awesome. Nope, not going to explain; read the book and know the power of a button.