Monday, December 5, 2016

Larger-Than-Life Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall, 2016

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This isn't about me. This story, I mean. So already you got a reason to hang it up. At least that's what Mrs. Smith, our English teacher, says.
But the story 
is about ten-year-old Laney Grafton and the new girl in her class--Lara Phelps, whom everyone bullies from the minute she shows up. Laney is just relieved to have someone else as a target of bullying. But instead of acting the way a bullied kid normally acts, this new girl returns kindness for a meanness that intensifies . . . until nobody remains unchanged, not even the reader.

In a unique and multi-layered story, with equal parts humor and angst, Laney communicates the art of storytelling as it happens, with chapter headings, such as: 
Character, Setting, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax. And she weaves an unforgettable tale of a new girl who transforms an entire class and, in the process, reveals the best and worst in all of us.
(176 pages)

I've been a long-time casual fan of Dandi Daley Mackall's books ever since I picked up a copy of her the first Winnie the Horse-Gentler book at a yard sale a few years ago. I was getting rather sick of horse books at the time because I was realizing they all had the same rather vapid and predictable plot lines, but the book reinvigorated my passion for horse novels. I also later loved Mackall's Starlight Animal Rescue series, which is connected to the Winnie books, and loved them even more. Mackall has a gift for blending realistic characters, hard facts about life, and inspirational messages all together and offering them to her readers in slim, engaging novels. That's why I leaped at the opportunity to review Larger-Than-Life Lara: it looked like a very different book than the other ones I'd read by Mackall, but I was pretty sure she'd still be able to pull off a great story.

And she did. I really enjoyed reading Lara, it felt kind of like a grittier version of The Hundred Dresses. Actually, now that I think about it, I would be surprised if Mackall got the inspiration to write Lara from Dresses. Since I always loved Dresses growing up, that is a very good impression for me to come away with.

The narration in Lara comes from Laney, who has to be on of the best narrators I've read in a while. She's writing the "true" story down the way her teacher taught her to, using all the tricks they learned in school. Every chapter is titled with exactly what it introduces (Villain, Setting, Dialogue, etc.), and Laney prefaces her plot devices or narration decisions with funny, candid explanations like this one:
Mrs. Smith says stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They should get told in a chronological order, which is a fancy way of saying making stuff happen like it did in real life, without jumping back and forth in time like some kind of time traveler. I tried to do that, which is why you can find words like first and next and then, if you go back looking for them in this story.
But I can't figure out how else to tell this one conflict without time traveling backwards. So Mrs. Smith, if you're reading this, I just apologize for this.
Isn't that just so cute? I don't know what it is, but I just really love this sort of fourth-wall-breaking narration style.

Anyway, moving on. Laney is a really great character, not just a fun narrator, and I definitely felt for her. The situation at her home is not so great (think three older brothers, no mother, and an alcoholic/likely abusive father), and she is constantly covering for her family at school and hiding her school life from her family. It's not good, at all, and I felt terrible watching her hold everything in. The focus in the end of the book, though, isn't really on her home life; it's on Lara and the way she was being treated at school. Now I haven't had much experience with bullying, but I thought it was absolutely horrible the way everyone treated Lara from day one. The minute she walked in the classroom door, people were calling her ugly names and making fun of her. That's despicable! If she's really that overweight, that's her parents' fault–or the fault of some disorder, maybe, I don't know–but it's definitely not her fault. She's ten years old, people! I don't know, fifth graders are just so barbaric sometimes.

As for Lara as a character, I never really felt like I got to know her that well. She seems sweet, and extraordinarily brave, but almost rather one-dimensional: we never really see Laney have a heart-to-heart with Lara and find out what makes her tick. There were honestly a lot of characters and plotlines whose stories I would have loved to see expanded, which is why I wish the book were a little longer. Barring an updated and heftier re-release of the novel, I'm hoping for a sequel sometime down the road. I think there's a lot of material in Larger-Than-Life Lara that Mackall could use to develop a whole series, actually. It could be, I don't know, "The Paris, Missouri series." Or something catchier. I'm not really a title developer. But anyway, I definitely enjoyed Larger-Than-Life Lara and I'm glad I had the chance to read it. If you've read it, comment below and let me know what you thought!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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