Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Author Spotlight: Lesley Kagen

There’s such a feeling of satisfaction and anticipation in discovering a great author and in turn a path to new worlds and new characters to fall in love with, to learn from and to be inspired by. I had the good fortune during my blogging hiatus to do just that, when I found New York Times best-selling author Lesley Kagen, whose novels proved to be a gold mine of great stories filled with heart, humor, and compelling, memorable characters. Lesley’s simple stories of childhood and family bonds, set in simpler times and places draw you in and enchant you.

Relying on children or young adults as her narrators, she imbues each story with their unabashed sense of optimism, honesty, and courage. Kagen has said “The way kids see the world and the people in it is as close to the truth as one will ever get. Most children don't wear armor the way adults do. They wear their hearts.” Such is the case with my first Kagen novel, Whistling in the Dark, which was so funny and charming that I immediately followed it with Good Graces, Land of a Hundred Wonders, and Tomorrow River.

In Whistling in the Dark, it’s the summer of 1959 in Milwaukee, two young girls have been found dead in the span of the year, and ten year old Sally O’Malley is sure of two things: that she knows who the killer is and that she’s his next target. Determined to make good on the promise she made her daddy before he died, Sally is focusing all her energy in protecting her younger sister Troo. When their mother is hospitalized and their drunkard of a stepfather is too busy for them, the girls rely on their own courage and the kindness of neighbors to make it through unscathed.

Good Graces is the sequel to Whistling in the Dark and in it Kagen reconnects the reader with these two unforgettable sisters. It is one year later and now eleven-year old Sally is still dealing with the near escape from a murderer and molester the previous summer. Dealing with a new round of worries, including a string of home burglaries in town and the escape from reform school of her sister’s nemesis, Sally is still focused on keeping Troo out of danger and keeping her promise to her dad, even if her life depends on it.

In Tomorrow River, it’s the summer of 1968 when we meet Shenny Carmody and her twin sister Woody, who has stopped speaking since the night their mother disappeared. Dealing with their father’s drunken rants and dire threats of putting Woody away in an institution, Shenny is determined to find her mother before it’s too late. As her perilous search for the truth begins, Shenny begins to uncover some painful truths that could turn her young world upside down.

In Land of a Hundred Wonders, Gibby McGraw is what other’s term “not quite right” (brain damaged) since the tragic car accident that took both her parents. A fledgling newspaper reporter, Gibby stumbles upon the story of the century when she finds the dead body of Buster Malloy, the next governor of Kentucky. Determined to break the case, that is if she can remember what she found and where, Gibby hopes to prove to her overprotective grandfather that she can get Quite Right again, but in the process she finds more than she bargained for, including love.

It was Whistling in the Dark that hooked me like a trout and made me a Kagen fan. I fell in love with Sally O’Malley and her effervescent and wily sister Troo. While the book does have a mystery element to the plot, it doesn’t weigh down the story and is ultimately overshadowed by the larger than life personalities of these two intrepid young sisters and their unbreakable bond. As the story’s narrator, Sally’s wiser than her year’s insight, as well as her kindness, generosity and courage radiate light and warmth throughout her tale, and you can’t help but both admire and be dismayed by her gumption and innocence. The added bonus is the amusing and interesting cast of characters which comprise Sally and Troo’s circle of friends, including Fast Susie Fazio, Mary Lane (skinny as a rail and a big fat liar), Willie O’Hara, and Wendy Latour. The incredible sense of family in this small neighborhood brings you back to a simpler time when kids were truly kids with no scheduled play dates or organized activities; you just stepped outside your door and played with the countless kids which where your neighbors and friends.

Good Graces was as charming as Whistling, with Sally’s voice coming through as authentic and honest as ever. Troo is still giving her poor sister fits, while keeping us (the readers) well entertained. Both Shenny and Gibby from Tomorrow River and Land of a Hundred Wonders, respectively, are as sweet and endearing as the O’Malley sisters, while the mystery elements in these last two novels are much more compelling than either O’Malley tale, and play more of an integral role in the story. In addition to the light mysteries in all her novels, the books also deal with a number of other important subjects such as racism and loss.

Each of Kagen’s heroines will easily capture a spot both in your heart and memory. Do yourself a favor and dive into any of Kagen’s novel (with a special shout out to Whistling); you’ll be enveloped in pure unadulterated magic with a dash of nostalgia and a heaping teaspoon of fun.