Towards the end of January, I was selected by GoodReads to be an advance reader of Cloaked by Alex Flinn. I’m not really sure why, as I haven’t written a review there. In fact, I had only made a basic account and I hadn’t started using the website to its full potential yet. I don’t think I’m optimizing it now… My plan is to use it to catalog all the books I’ve read in 2011, since one of my goals for this year was to read 300 books. I’ve never really counted how many books I’ve read in a year, but it seemed doable. And I do like a nice round number. So here we are.
Cloaked came out on February 8th. I didn’t get around to writing about it due to my health and all that jazz until now. Which I think means that GoodReads won’t be picking me as an advance reader anymore, but I’m okay with that. It’s a lot of pressure. And just to warn you, I have hardly anything nice to say about this book. So without further ado, please to enjoy my review…
- Title: Cloaked
- Author: Alex Flinn
- Publisher: HarperTeen
- Release Date: February 2011
- Hardcover, 340 pages (mine was the uncorrected paperback proof version acquired via GoodReads)
- My Rating: 1/5 stars
For starters, I hate the cover art of the book. That’s often what draws me in, what prompts me to stop in my tracks, pick up the book, and read the inside flap to see if it’s worth buying. This is an image of a hibiscus growing out of the stylized thorn-covered Cloaked title text. Fun fact about the hibiscus plant? They do not have thorns. *headdesk* I understand that the story takes place in Miami and the Florida Keys so the hibiscus is a reasonable choice symbolically, but if you’re going to evoke the fairy tale side of things — the immediate visual that springs to mind is of the rose under glass in Disney’s Beauty & The Beast (1991)— could you at least choose a flower that actually has thorns? Awful. So before I even crack it open, this book has made a terrible impression on me.
Quoting the plot summary from the book jacket flap: “Johnny’s not your average hero. But a little magic changes everything. There isn’t a fairy godmother or any of that. It all starts with a curse. And a frognapping. And one hot-looking princess. And before Johnny knows it, he is on a mission in the Everglades, with only a flock of swans and a talking fox named Joe to help guide him against the forces of an evil witch.”
The book is filled with shoe-related quotations, because Johnny is a cobbler in his mother’s shoe store within a posh Miami hotel… Which is where he meets the dazzling bronzed and blonde Princess Victoriana of Aloria, who promptly asks Johnny to go on a quest to find her older brother, who has been turned into a frog by the evil witch of her oppressive suitor. Said suitor is trying to oppress Victoriana (oh God that name is just ridiculous) into marrying him; Johnny’s reward for successfully locating the princess’ brother and helping to turn him back into a human is, coincidentally, her hand in marriage. Which is great because (a) she’s this Paris Hilton lookalike which I guess is appealing to men these days and (b) Johnny and his mom are trapped in a life of poverty and said marriage would solve all his financial woes. Cloaked‘s title stems from a magic-endowed cloak that transports the wearer anywhere he or she wishes to go by sheer force of thought. Of course, Victoriana’s foil is present in the guise of Meg, the coffee shop girl next door, his best friend who’s secretly in love with him and who (SPOILER ALERT) is secretly a witch herself. But a good witch. Who assists Johnny on his quest even though she’s getting romantically screwed over in the process. La-dee-dah.
(Of course, Johnny fulfills his quest, learns that Meg is magical too, rescues the prince and saves the kingdom of Aloria, realizes he’s in love with Meg too and abandons Victoriana’s marriage proposal, and becomes a rich and famous shoe designer…and they all live happily ever after. I just wish it weren’t so happy, as the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales that Flinn riffs on throughout the story had ambivalent outcomes at best.)
Throughout the book there are abuses of the English language that really make my skin crawl. Even the author’s pre-prepared blurb isn’t an example of great grammar. I know Flinn is trying to capture authenticity in her young narrator’s voice, but would it kill her to use the subjunctive correctly?! The only kids I knew at that age — it’s billed as being a book suited for grades 6 through 9 — who knew that correctly before it came up in our English class lesson plan were the avid readers.
I had a worse problem with authenticity than just the dialogue. Here’s the thing… Johnny’s voice never feels authentically male to me. Flinn is a woman, and writing a lead character who is of a different gender than the author is hard. (A good example of success is Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden.) It’s especially hard to maintain a feeling of masculinity when your leading male character is highly emotional, or as the kids these days say, “emo.” (Success? The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.) I kept waiting for the moment when the voice in my head reading the story would flip the switch to male, but it never happened. That was especially disappointing, since I follow a lot of young adult (YA) book bloggers on Twitter who raved about Flinn’s writing when I had initially said that I had been chosen to read and review Cloaked.
Reading Victoriana’s French accent was unbearable. “Zat is Philippe, before ze spell.” … “Zis is ze famous Alorian birthmark. It is shared by many great kings.” It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when authors do this. Tell me she has a French accent, and in my head I will read her dialogue in a French accent. This phonetic nonsense I find very alienating. Beyond that, her character was so over-the-top ridiculous with the flirting and the big eyes that it was comical…and I don’t think Flinn meant it to be that way. The catch with magical realism, is you have to pull the reader in and make said magic believable. I was laughing the whole way through Cloaked, and not in a good way. I’m glad it was a quick enough read to finish in one night or I think I might have given up trying to finish. (Here’s where the GoodReads peer pressure took hold of me!)
I’m trying to think of something positive to say about this book. Admittedly I’m not a big YA reader. I pursued J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series to its conclusion, and I must say it was because of the level of detail and descriptions to the character and plot. If the Harry Potter series were a meal of detail, it would be more like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The interconnectedness of subplots in earlier books and how they carry through to great significance in the end is simply astounding. Rowling’s commitment to building a realistic fantasyland makes me want to continue reading her books into adulthood. It’s a short list that she’s made there. Otherwise, I haven’t read a specifically “young adult” novel since the beginning of middle school, or when I was about 11 years old. I’m 23 now, going on 24 years old. So that’s my caveat. If I walked into a bookstore today, Cloaked isn’t something I would pick up off the rack and choose for myself. (Which is why this post is filed under ‘Fearless Friday’!)
Flinn’s storytelling leaves much to be desired. She sets her story in Miami and the beautiful Florida Keys, but her descriptions are lacking. My only visual references for Miami are the dark dark world of the TV show “Dexter” — and the wild neon tee shirt with the white suit jacket and no socks 80s fashion of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas on “Miami Vice” reruns. Imagining a teenager in this framework is a bit bizarre. Even the descriptions of the creatures on Johnny’s quest, like the two giants, are generic, lifeless, and boring: “The giant is close enough that I can see his dark hair covering much of his body, his only clothing, the hide of an enormous animal tied at the waist. His face is dirty and stained with deer’s blood.” What do their faces look like? And their legs? How can they blend so seamlessly into the plant life of the Florida Keys if their fur is so dark? How did people not notice ten foot tall giants before? Did they migrate from someplace else? These questions fill me with rage. If an author is going to imagine a world, a complete world, for me as a reader then I expect all the relevant descriptive information to be there in the text. I’m not omniscient. I read books to escape this crazy world we live in, not for the mental exercise of filling in the blanks for a lazy author.
I liked that Flinn was riffing on various old fairy tales (mostly from the Brothers Grimm), ones maybe not as well known in the general pop culture lexicon. “The Elves & The Shoemaker,” “The Six Swans,” and “The Fisherman & His Wife” were all favorites of mine as a child. She included a directory of the fairy tales she used at the end of the novel as well as a listing for the Sur La Lune Fairy Tales website, which has much more detailed information — and this I unabashedly love her for!! Teasers spur young readers to investigate a topic further. That process of discovery is just so precious; I think it’s what creates in children a lifetime love of learning. And perhaps, they will find and devour books that are more well-written. (I’m sorry, but this book was just atrocious. In my head, I’m filing it next to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight in the rubbish bin. Even if I were asked to recommend a “fluff” book or a “beach read,” Meyer and Flinn still wouldn’t fall into that category.)
Right now the Disney TV mill’s latest teen idol Vanessa Hudgens is out promoting the movie version of Alex Flinn’s previous book, Beastly. (And oddly enough, the cover art of the book is just like Cloaked but with the rose I had imagined. I can appreciate the attempt to give a cohesive “look” to the Flinn’s books, but not at the expense of ridiculously poor taste.) Beastly is another retelling of the “Beauty & The Beast” fairy tale, but set in modern-day New York. The release of the Cloaked book ties into that overall PR campaign… In case you were wondering why Alex Flinn seemed to be a part of your consciousness prior to reading this book review.
So there you have it, folks. If you wanted a wordless recap, just imagine me sighing and shaking my head in sadness. Cloaked had so much potential for greatness as a conceptual story, but Alex Flinn’s execution just falls flat.