May 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Kid, P.I.

In the latest installment of the Enola Holmes series, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets, author Nancy Springer continues to provide readers with a smart and spunky heroine who is wonderfully intelligent (and not afraid to show it). This is a series that builds on previous installments, so it is best to begin with The Case of the Missing Marquess and learn about the contentious relationship between Enola and her much older brothers, as well as why she is in hiding. All of that comes to bear on the plot in the current book as the mystery is wrapped around the sudden disappearance of Dr. Watson. While searching for clues to find the good doctor Enola sees a malevolent message in a display of flowers sent to his wife; a message that seems to elude everyone else -- even her brother Sherlock. It’s up to her to solve the mystery, catch the culprit and save Dr. Watson before it’s too late.

One of the really cool aspects of this story is how Springer folds not only the facts of the mystery (missing man and creepy flowers) but also a neat little ongoing commentary about life for women in the late 19th century. Enola can’t just go and solve the mystery; Enola can’t just go and do anything. The crime solving is combined with no small amount of subterfuge on her part -- both to stay hidden from her older brothers and to maintain the facade of proper Victorian lady. It’s a difficult juggling trick to maintain and when it seems like her missing mother might be trying to contact her, Enola is tempted to risk it all.

Enola has evolved in so many ways throughout the series but continues to be at her heart the girl from the country that we first met in Marquess. I loved her ruminations on independence and the bits and pieces of historical reference that Springer continues to drop into her plots. This is just a first rate girl detective series and one that should not be missed by middle school readers who like their plots tightly wound and clues smartly dropped. I very much look forward to the next installment.

Set in 1941, Death in Kingsport by Curtis Parkinson is another historical mystery but filled with a lot more thrills and chills than you would expect. All around dependable guy Neil is startled to hear thumping sounds from within his uncle’s casket right before he is cremated. His parents think he was imagining things (of course) but Neil just can’t shake the possibility that something strange is going on. When he becomes aware of two mysterious deaths in his small town, both of whom shared a doctor with his uncle, he is certain that it could not all be a coincidence. Figuring out why anyone would want to kill these men is not easy, however, and it takes the help of his brainiac buddy Graham and his new friend Crescent (who is in town to solve a personal mystery of her own) to get to the bottom of everything. The fact that it all hinges on a trip into the Amazon rainforest decades before gives the book an adventurous twist but even without it, there is plenty going on in Kingsport to keep the pages turning.

The one thing I kept thinking as I read this novel was how much it reminded me of the classic teen mysteries of my youth (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Three Investigators were all front and center back then). I don’t want to suggest it is dated -- because it isn’t -- but it does have a vintage feel to it. You have a dogged teen protagonist who ends up facing an adult with a diabolical motive and it’s up to the teen (and his two sidekicks) to uncover the truth. Crescent’s subplot is a nice addition that fits well into the larger storyline and adds a bit of poignancy that was all too true for the time period. I liked how the kids worked together (although Graham’s intellectualized vocabulary could be a bit much) and thought the mystery came together in a very effective manner. Death in Kingsport does everything a good mystery should with no unnecessary distractions. It’s a solidly written novel that should not be overlooked. (And a very good choice for boys in particular.)
In The London Eye Mystery Siobhan Dowd gives us a variation on the locked room mystery. Ted and Kat see their cousin Salim enter one of the cars of the London Eye observation ride. They watch the car go up and spin around the track and when it comes back down they watch the doors open and then wait for Salim to come out. They wait and they wait and they wait. Soon enough it becomes clear that Salim has seemingly vanished within the London Eye.

Of course everyone thinks Ted and Kat must have just missed him or gotten confused somehow. There’s no way that Salim could have boarded the ride and then disappeared. In fact, everything the kids say -- about Salim not wanting to move to New York City from his home in Manchester and how he seemed to act a bit oddly on the way to the ride and might even have run away -- is curtly dismissed by the adults as they notify the police and start an official missing person investigation. Ted and Kat find themselves with a lot of theories that no one wants to hear and so in the grand tradition of teen detectives everywhere, they set out to find Salim themselves.

One key difference between London Eye and other mysteries is that Ted has an unnamed difficulty which seems to be autism. His awareness of his difference is clear and he brings up how others aren’t sure how to cope with it several times in the narrative. Ted notices things in a way that the average person does not, and combined with his sister’s acute awareness of body language (something most teenage girls are fairly good at) they form a powerful and unorthodox detecting duo. The best part of the book is how their typical quibbling rivalry slowly transforms into mutual respect as they work together. The kids are collectively ignored by every adult they encounter and mutually irritated by this, as they aren’t stupid and might very well know what to do. In the end when they do figure out what has happened, it is just in the proverbial nick of time and earns them well deserved kudos all around.

The London Eye Mystery is one of the more traditional mysteries I’ve found for teen and middle grade readers. The plot easily would fit into an adult book but the main difference here is that the protagonists are ignored simply because they are not adults. Dowd proves that to dismiss the observations of a young person simply because they are young is a foolish decision. Sadly, she passed away last year and won’t be able to revisit the Sparks family for more adventures with Ted and Kat.

Unquiet Dreams is the second entry in Mark Del Franco’s series about Connor Grey and his adventures in the “Weird” section of Boston. This is a fantasy series that is strongly grounded in reality; even though it includes a lot of faeries, elves, and in this case trolls, the crimes are perpetuated for all too familiar reasons: greed and power. As a druid suffering from a serious case of diminished powers, Connor makes a living primarily by helping the Boston PD with the cases that have a touch of fey to them. That’s how he gets involved in the murder of teenager Dennis Farnsworth and finds himself trying to save the world.

What you have here are run-ins with more than one troll, political upheavals among the fey folk comparable to the modern Middle East (or the US vs. the USSR during the Cold War), a horribly dismembered dead elf who was a very significant figure, a gang war, a drug war and a missing teenage girl who might know everything or might be dead. Connor and his cop friend Murdock have to figure out multiple plots, separate the gangs and find yet another troll who disappeared the night of the murders. While all of this is going on, he struggles to find his way among the Guild, the official group governing the faerie folk (it reminded me a lot of the State Department) where he used to be a valued member but now is a nuisance. Connor has a lot going on in his life, but what he wants to do is find out who killed Dennis because that is what everyone else seems to care the least about and it bothers him to think of that boy frozen and alone in the mud, caught in a war that he never even knew was happening around him.

I love the pacing of Del Franco’s books; he packs a lot of action but gives the reader (and Connor) time to process the plot developments before sending the story careening off in another direction. He also develops his characters in a patient manner -- no one falls in love suddenly or gets an unexplained feeling of good or evil about someone else to jump things along. Friends are friends here, siblings are complicated and all the stiffness you would expect among former co-workers and mentors is laid bare. No one is forgiven easily in Del Franco’s stories and Connor pushes his way along trying to solve crimes and heal his heart at the same time without ever knowing quite what to do.

Unquiet Dreams is another crackerjack mystery that includes everything from drug dealing to real estate schemes to not so hidden grabs at power. I heard echoes of our confusing times when Connor chides an old friend for falling for easy promises and willfully ignoring that he was being played. My only complaint is that Del Franco got a bit repetitive on a few issues which became tedious (Murdock’s troubling “essence” was explained no less than four times), but that’s a minor quibble. There are murders and threats and mind altering drugs with devastating consequences. This is a fantasy mystery but the parallels with modern America are unmistakable. Del Franco is doing good things with this series; I hope he keeps it up.

Will Peterson’s Triskellion rather abruptly drops the reader and the very NYC twins Rachel and Adam into the quiet English countryside with their grandmother so their parents can battle through a divorce. From the moment they step off the train it is obvious things are going to be very different in their new locale. Upon arriving in the village of Triskellion, it gets downright bizarre, in an Avengers episode kind of way. The streets are barren, people are odd and then a couple of teenagers beat up Adam. There is clearly no reason to think anything good will happen this summer.

Peterson mostly stays with the twins’ point of view, as they settle in to village life and learn all the strangeness is something that everyone takes for granted. (The occasional empty streets thing is never really explained though.) He does stray into other perspectives sometimes, from the slightly crazy beekeeper who is looking for treasure, to the clichéd lord of the manner type who controls the town, and the pretty much insane druid worshipper who has serious and violent delusions of grandeur (and a band of homicidal hippies to back him up). Most significantly though, he introduces Gabriel, another teenager who doesn’t belong to the village and is on a mission that requires the help of Rachel and Adam.

Triskellion apparently has a legend surrounding a knight and maiden who might or might not have died for the village. There is also a huge chalky “circle” by the nearby forest that has been in the ground for centuries. The beekeeper has found coins and other small artifacts in the area and he thinks there could be something big under the ground. Without anyone realizing it, he has been in contact with a television show that uncovers hidden British history. When the show arrives in Triskellion all hell breaks loose -- literally -- and it is up to Adam and Rachel to save the day. They solve the village mystery, hunt the treasure, nearly die and discover the great secret that Gabriel has been hiding. Between the archaeology, strange dreams and odd bee behavior (not to mention the murderous druid wannabes) there is a lot going on in this book and that might be why I was less than enthralled with it, although I’m sure that kids will enjoy the breakneck speed and scares.

Peterson just seems to ask a bit too often that his readers take certain aspects of the plot on trust. The twins hardly mention their father at all (it would have made more sense for him to be dead for all the attention he receives), they have odd dreams which conveniently reveal historical information, bees help them for no reason, telepathy comes in handy more than once and when their grandmother goes bat crazy they seem to expect it. Also at the end, the twins act as if everything is explained but really, it’s not. You just have to accept that it is and I found that a bit frustrating. I think Triskellion is okay to recommend to readers who enjoy a breezy adventure, especially with an air of menace. I just don’t think the book is as good as it could have been and that makes it a disappointment.

Finally, with Did Fleming Rescue Churchill? James Giblin has written a nifty little “research puzzle” for 7-10 year olds, that I thought was too smart to ignore. The story hinges on a homework assignment for 5th grader Jason. His classmates must select a scientist and then write a three-page biography. Because of an absence Jason ends up with Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. He doesn’t know a thing about his subject and is tempted to go to the internet for all his research but follows the advice of his teacher to learn some basic information from print resources at the library first. After he learns a bit about Fleming he then dives into the internet, where an odd connection between Fleming and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is discovered. Is the Fleming/Churchill story true? Jason isn’t so sure and his final paper expands to include not only what he knows for sure about Fleming but about the process of verifying the Fleming/Churchill connection.

Giblin’s book is very nicely illustrated by Erik Brooks which will help to keep the attention of any reluctant readers. This is such a nice little package though and an innovative way of showing how carefully any research must be conducted that it should engage any child from start to finish. It’s a great learning tool for elementary schoolers before they head off into the upper grades and the first of many research assignments. Giblin also has a nice extra touch at the end where he provides links to the exact sites that list the Fleming/Churchill story he elaborates on in the story.

Cool Read: In the graphic novel Midnight Sun, Ben Towle uses the real tragedy of the dirigible Italia, which crashed with its crew on the way back from the North Pole in 1928, to set up his fictional story about a reporter sent to cover the rescue. H.R. is a borderline alcoholic who majors at doing the minimum amount of work in his job and is more than a bit freaked out at the idea of traveling north on a Russian ship into the polar wilderness. He becomes more aware of what is at stake during the trip and the reality of what the Italia crew attempted, and what might have happened to them since. Polar exploration was not the stuff of daily life in 1928 and while the Italia tragedy was certainly followed by the newspapers it was not significant to the lives of many who read them. Through H.R.’s incredulous eyes it becomes relevant on a very personal level.

Beyond the news coverage, Towle also shows the struggle for survival among the ice-bound survivors and the difficult choices they are faced with. His spare black and white drawings make their difficulties that much more poignant, especially when he focuses on their faces, all of whom look puzzled and distressed. Towle stays enough with the facts of the disaster to not give a happy ending here, but the ending is not really the point -- this novel is more about the journey to find out what happened and the struggle to get home. There are a few light moments (the aircraft rescue is nothing if not comedy) but mostly the author is giving us a tightly plotted human drama that has a lot in common with something that did happen in 1928 -- but not completely.