Bruce Hale kindly sent me an Advanced Reading Copy of Playing with Fire, which will be released on Monday, 24 June 2013 (I believe I have done the math correctly…). I really enjoyed it on a number of levels; I hope you all will as well.
Playing with Fire (2013)
It’s wonderful when a book lives up to expectations, when there’s a consistency in tone and humour across vastly different stories. I really enjoyed Bruce Hale’s Flyboy of Underwhere (2008), and was looking forward to Playing With Fire, aimed at a slightly older reading audience. I was in no way disappointed.
“Max Segredo stood by the curb and watched his house burn. It gave off a cheery light… Max suspected that the house’s owners didn’t fully appreciate the beauty of it all” (1). Between the opening lines and the title, Playing with Fire sets up expectations of being another realist story of a child in trouble, a pyromaniac who needs psychological help: but it is not.
Hale’s humour surfaces reliably in Max’s intelligent but cheeky responses—sotto voce and aloud—to the comments of the adults in power over him. Readers will smirk or giggle at his wit and language, but with that they will recognize a strength that has enabled him to survive the foster system, to remain true to who he knows himself to be. Max does need help, though: just not psychological help. He is in trouble. He has been passed around from one foster home to another, and his case-worker is fed up with the “accidents” that keep happening around him. If he doesn’t fit in at the Merry Sunshine Orphanage, his next stop will be “juvvie.”
Merry Sunshine Orphanage, as Max sardonically points out, is “no Ritz-Carlton” (155). It is run by an Asian director, Hantai Annie, whose chopped language might offend the most politically correct critic, but with whom I had no issues. She, like the other teachers, is a caricature in some ways, but also a source of practical and familial learning in Max’s new life. Rewiring Max’s psyche on a social level—for Max has learned well to trust neither the system nor other people—is the province of the other students. Max fights with and against them; he makes mistakes; he certainly doesn’t always like them, but they help him learn the lessons that life teaches children, that he has missed out on, having been shunted from foster home to foster home.
Max’s agenda is simple: he has learned that his father—thought dead—is actually alive. He needs to escape the orphanage to be reunited with his father, to be a family again. The one problem is, Merry Sunshine Orphanage is actually a school for spies, and that makes it harder to trick the authorities… With the help of his new friends, Max moves towards his goal, only to ultimately doubt that what he seeks is actually what he wants or needs.
Playing with Fire is a palimpsest of friendship, betrayal, and loyalty, a humorous spy story layered over a base of psychological realism. Max eventually learns the lesson that Hantai Annie lives by and teaches her students: “We are your family … Family is messy […] we fight, we make mistakes, we don’t always like each other, but somehow, we forgive” (303).