The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver, 246 pp, RL 4
Lauren Oliver is the author of the brilliant YA dystopian trilogy that beings with Delirium and a society where romantic love is considered a disease that should and can be eradicated from the human experience on a child's eighteenth birthday (after all, love can make you feel like you are on the top of the world or in the depths of despair.) She is also the author of another captivating YA novel that makes you think, Before I Fall. And then Oliver decided to write middle grade fantasy! How often does that happen, a teen author shifting gears like that? With Liesl & Po, Oliver crafted a vaguely Dickensian tale of two orphans, each with ghoulish guardians, a ghost with a ghost-pet named Bundle and a missing box of magic. Now, Oliver treats lovers of fantasy, especially unseen worlds, to a very special experience with her newest book, The Spindlers.
With fantastic cover art and too-small chapter heading illustrations by Iacopo Bruno (take a look at his website! Bruno is a wonderful cover artist and has illustrated the jackets for many books you'll regocnize. Even more fun, being Italian, he has illustrated covers for the Italian translations of several American kid's books you know!) The Spindlers is without a doubt the kind of book a child will read and remember and reminisce about well into adulthood. I know that, in the weeks since I read/listened to the book moments, scenes and an overall appreciation for the character of Liza and her love for her little brother are still swirling in my mind. Oliver brings two crucial talents to a book of this nature - a gift for poetic language that will make you stop and savor her writing, especially if you are reading this book out loud, which I HIGHLY recommend, and a stellar imagination that can take people, places and things we have seen before and rearrange and refashion them in a way that feels both new and comfortably familiar and, when all is said and done, works out to make perfect sense, leaving no loose ends. If you have ever tried to tell a story or write a story of this nature, or if you have read many stories of this nature than I have no doubt you can appreciate how impressive that is.
The Spindlers begins with Liza waking up one morning to find that her "chubby, stubby, candy-grubbing, pancake loving younger brother, who irritated and amused her" is not himself. In fact, after a morning of tests and observations, Liza is sure that this fake-Patrick has had his soul taken by the Spindlers. Spindlers, as explained to Liza and Patrick cautiously by Anna, their beloved teenage babysitter who has left them to go to college, are like spiders, but the have human hands at the end of their eight legs and only two eyes, which are huge and crescent shaped. Most often, they are no bigger than the head of a pin, but they can grow to the size of a car and, while they are scared of brooms, they are impossible to kill, even with a broom. And they live underground. Resolving to rescue Patrick, Liza tries to sneak past her parents late at night while her mother sits, as she often does, in front of a pile of bills that has left an indelible crease between her eyes like an angry exclamation point, and her father tries to read a book without his missing reading glasses. When Liza is caught taking the broom she tries to explain about Patrick and the Spindlers and, after a brief pause, her mother's face collapses "like a balloon deflating," and she says to Liza in a tired voice, "We've talked about your stories before, haven't we?" For Liza, telling stories is like "weaving and knotting an endless rope. . . no matter how dark or terrible the pit she found herself in, she could pull herself out, inch by inch and hand over hand, on the long rope of stories." Her mother's tired response seems to say, "I have nearly had enough of you," which is almost more than Liza can bear, making her wish ever more fervently that Anna would return and that she was, in fact, her true sister just like she had imagined. Anna, after all, was the only person Liza had ever met who believed the 'real world was not just grocery stores and park playgrounds, textbooks and toilet paper," but "gnomes and spindlers and different worlds, too."
Wearing her pajamas, tennis shoes with no socks and armed with a broom, Liza heads underground and The Spindlers takes a bit of an Alice in Wonderland turn, with a grand ball, a court trial and a sumptuous feast. But, The Spindlers is so much more. Liza heads to the basement of her house, pushes aside a bookshelf and heads into the dark crawlspace that seems, somehow, wider than she remembers. And, as she feared, she trips in the dark and finds herself hurtling downward where she lands on what she thinks is a large furry rug but is, in fact, Mirabella, the largest and strangest rat Liza has ever seen. Standing on her hind legs and wearing a wig, loads of make-up and a skirt made out of newspaper, Mirabella is very proud, often haughty and prone to babbling, singing, easily hurt feelings and lectures. Mirabella agrees to act as Liza's guide, taking her to the dreaded spindlers so she can retrieve Patrick's soul. Along the way they pass through the Troglod Market, the Court of Stones, the Live Forest and the River of Knowlegde. Liza encounters the Lumer-Lumpen, glowworms that are revered for the supposed wisdom, dancing nids, the frightening scawgs - hag like creatures that can appear as beautiful young women who trap their victims with a sleep-inducing feast, and moribats, minions of the Queen of the Spindlers. But, my favorite creation of Oliver's are the Nocturni, shadowy flying creatures who are dream-bringers and carriers of the seeds of hope, poppyseed-sized and, at their center, filled with as much light as the sun. The seeds of hope grow on the bushes of hope in the Live Forest and, after being instructed as to what they are by Mirabella, Liza pockets a handful and uses them to great effect below and above ground. There is one nocturni for every human being and they stay with them forever, carrying their souls to the Shadow World when they die, watching over them and keeping them safe forever. It is very rare for a human to meet her nocturni and Liza is deeply impressed and moved by the opportunity to meet hers.
The Spindlers ends with a battle of the wits that Liza barely overcomes, only to be met with the sheer power and anger of the Queen of the Spindlers that ends in a spectacular climax with the amazing spindler webs falling to Liza, the nocturni and a pack of rats. As I said above, Oliver weaves the threads of her story together into a very satisfying ending that returns to Liza's somber home life, her weary parents and her beloved brother who listens to her stories and not only believes them but embellishes them. Beyond the entrancing, enchanting, sometimes dangerous and grimy magical world Oliver has brought to life, with The Spindlers she has written a story about the sometimes hard to quantify bond between a sister and brother, a bond that is as strong as the long rope of stories Liza has knotted for herself and Patrick.
Source: Review Copy Book AND Purchased audio book