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Oct/Nov 2007 Reviews & Interviews

Mysterious and Puzzling Journeys

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! I started Kathryn Lasky's Blood Secret expecting a historical mystery concerning a missing mother and questions of personal identity. I was fairly blown away by the story's development however, as it veered into all sorts of territory that I was utterly unfamiliar with. As advertised, it is the story of Jerry and her long gone mother but the history part is beyond what I thought I would find. Rather than a standard genealogical search, Jerry finds herself having occasional fantastical episodes that bring her into the lives of her ancestors. The fantasy episodes are written remarkably well—they do not seem strange or surreal at all—and pack an enormous punch. As it turns out Jerry is descended from Jews, many of whom suffered enormous persecution from the Spanish Inquisition.

Nope, you don't see that often in a young adult mystery.

The central question in Blood Secret is not why Jerry's mother left (or where she is), but rather who the people were that Jerry came from. Religion doesn't show up often in YA fiction because it is tricky—one big minefield with tons of places to write the wrong thing. But Lasky handles this so wonderfully well, she really eases the reader into the dark nonfiction territory she has to tread. Slowly, artfully, she writes in several episodes from the perspective of teenage girls and boys who lived over six hundred years ago and she makes them remarkably alive and powerful and significant.

She makes them seem just like you and me.

Even though I have a degree in history, I knew very little about the Inquisition; specifically, that it reached into Mexico (Spanish territory at the time) and adversely affected the lives of people who were born there. Lasky brings it all home for Jerry though, from around the world and across time until it is only her and her great aunt and their own confusing family traditions that never made any sense, at least not until they realized just where they might be coming from, and what they really mean. This sudden clarity allows Jerry to see herself as more than the girl who was left behind and instead as an important part of a legacy that demands to be remembered and respected. She understands the big picture and her own very significant place within it.

Suddenly a wandering hippie mom just doesn't seem like such a huge big deal.

Blood Secret is the sort of complex and quietly gripping tale that can be easily lost in the whirlwind of high school heartbreak and Harry Potter wannabes. But it is well worth the attention of curious and serious-minded teen readers. This is a book that demands more than a moment of the reader's time but tells the kind of story that needs to be read. It made me think long and hard about people I was utterly unfamiliar with and I still have not let them go. It's easy to recommend this one as a mystery with a lot of depth and more than one layer of emotion.

I fell hard for Enola Holmes in Nancy Springer's first mystery with this engaging young sleuth, The Case of the Missing Marquess. The hook for the series is that Enola is Sherlock Holmes' much much younger teenage sister. Her widowed mother took off for parts unknown to live the life of a liberated (albeit sedate) lady in the first book and young Enola found herself facing boarding school and all sorts of rules due to the sudden notice of her previously absent brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft. Using money her mother had secreted away for her, Enola solved a mystery and found a new way to earn a living and survive. Of course, having the world's greatest detective determined to find you makes every step more dangerous than the last, but Enola is smart and plucky—very plucky as a matter of fact—and she is bound and determined to live her own life. In her new mystery, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady she shows herself to be quite capable in more ways than one as she gets to the bottom of a kidnapping plot with some truly nasty elements.

As the story opens we learn that Enola has made good on her plans to become a private investigator. In this regard she struck me a bit as a younger version of Jacqueline Winspear's fabulous Masie Dobbs. Enola also looks beyond the obvious for the motivations of her clients and suspects, something that shows her to be as nearly prescient as the indomitable Miss Dobbs. (Do look into Winspear's adult novels if you are a fan of historical mysteries—she's a fantastic writer.) Springer really turns the young adult mystery genre on its head with Left-Handed Lady however, as Enola ends up looking for the runaway/kidnapped Lady Cecily who had compassion for the working poor and even read Das Kapital by Karl Marx.

And no, Springer doesn't just name-drop Marx, she actually explains Marxism and makes socialism, union organizing and Britain's strict class structure part of the plot. How refreshing and incredibly cool is that?!

In the midst of much talking, thinking and investigating all that might have gone on when Lady Cecily was out among the working class, there is also the sudden appearance of Dr. Watson on Enola's doorstep, a scary moment with a madman, a very close call with her dear brother Sherlock and some more code breaking and sending of messages between the heroine and her absent mother. I find these mysteries to be extremely appealing and strongly recommend them for the twelve and over set. (And even younger if you have a heavy reader.) Enola Holmes is a force to be reckoned with, and I'm delighted to say she makes a fine match for her much lauded older brother.

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen came my way as a total fluke and I was delighted to discover it. This middle-grade mystery by Eric Berlin is most similar to the classic The Westing Game and should not be missed by kids with a thing for puzzles (of any kind). Winston, as it turns out, is exactly one of those kinds of kids and when a small gift he bought his little sister at a curio shop ends up having a false bottom sheltering a very odd puzzle, well, Winston can't leave it alone. He enlists the help of friends, discovers the true nature of the mystery and then finds himself involved in a very unusual treasure hunt. At every step of the way, new clues appear, either as part of the hunt or as gifts given to Winston by friends who know how much he loves them. Some of the clues must be solved but many are just for fun. (Answers to all of them are provided at the end of the book.) There is a very good surprise ending and Winston proves himself to be resourceful but not creepy-smart, and thus, thoroughly likeable.

Berlin clearly had a lot of fun writing Winston Breen but he's careful not to talk down to his audience. The kids are smart, the adults seem in the habit of acting first and thinking later and the puzzles are tricky but entirely doable. (The man knows his puzzles—his crosswords appear in The New York Times.) If Berlin keeps up with books like this, he will find himself with a very healthy following among his target audience; he's writing the kind of book that few other authors are and kids will love it.

Everyone's favorite teenage psychic detective is back (yea!) with a new mystery in Gilda Joyce: The Ghost Sonata. Author Jennifer Allison is smart enough to know what keeps this series fun (the very quirky Gilda) while also balancing it against real mysteries and otherworldly elements. Just like the first two books, there's something not quite of this world wreaking a bit of havoc in Gilda's life. This time though, things are more complicated than usual. Gilda has accompanied her friend Wendy Choy to Oxford University, where she is competing in a prestigious piano competition. The ghost is after Wendy's attention, not Gilda's (or so it seems from all the creepy things that are happening) and if she can't figure out what is after her friend, then the competition will be a total bust and poor Wendy might just have a nervous breakdown from the stress (not to mention what her parents might do).

In equal parts funny and mysterious, Allison has crafted another winning adventure for Gilda. It's nice to see Wendy taking front and center a bit here and also to see Gilda having a bit of typical ninth-grade angst over boys. (Have no fear; she's still pretty much all about the mystery.) I was very happy to see the Lewis Carroll bits in the story, and also the tarot cards and the creepy British ghost stories. (I do believe this is the first time anyone has thought to explain to readers what treacle is.) But mostly I just kept wondering what on earth Gilda would do next—what she will wear next, what she's going to say next, what she's going to think. And I am still quite pleased that Allison keeps the other-worldly element in these stories; she doesn't explain it all away to tricks and mirrors (shades of Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo). She lets her readers know that things really do go bump in the night for reasons we can't understand and girls in piano competitions might just be susceptible to wayward ghosts; it could happen. And if it does, then Gilda is the girl you want along to sort it all out.

The Ghost Sonata is perfectly fine to read on its own but really, you should start with Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator and then The Ladies of the Lake to get the full "Gilda experience."

Wendy Corsi Staub's Lily Dale: Awakening is a book that promises a big mystery involving the very real psychic abilities of the people who live in Lily Dale, NY. (Check it out; it's the world's largest center for spiritual development and the practice of the Spiritualist religion.) As the book opens, Calla's mother has just died in a bizarre accident. She and her father are reeling from the shock and they are also facing some big changes in their financial situation. The decision is made for Calla to go spend a few weeks with her maternal grandmother, someone she barely knows, while her father resettles them in another state. Calla is happy for the time alone. She not only needs to adjust to life without her mother, but she is deeply disturbed by the appearance of a mysterious—dare I say ghostly?—woman at her mother's funeral. Calla needs some time to think and her grandmother's house in Lily Dale seems like the best place to do that.

But of course Calla doesn't know what Lily Dale is all about, or why her grandmother lives there.

From the moment Calla arrives, the strangeness kicks up notch by notch. She sees the benevolent ghost who openly haunts her grandmother's home; she is awakened at the same time every night by a dream involving her grandmother, her mother, and the nearby lake; and the problem suffered by one of her grandmother's clients seems to strike a chord within her. As she navigates the weirdness and learns more about her mother's past, Calla finds herself beginning to question her own psychic abilities and also, slowly, to reconsider that accident that took her mother's life.

If there's one thing life in Lily Dale makes clear, it's that nothing is ever what it seems.

I liked Calla a lot and really enjoyed her vibrant and funny grandmother. I think Staub was very smart setting a mystery in Lily Dale and from the cliffhanger ending it is clear that she is going to mine the village's history for all it is worth. Good for her! I must confess though that I was frustrated more than once by Calla's reticence in sharing her concerns and discoveries with her grandmother. There was no reason for these two characters to doubt each other; in fact, Staub goes out of her way to show them connecting and getting along. So the ghostly visits and nightmares that affect Calla so strongly could have—should have—been shared with her grandmother, who most certainly would have been able to help. It seemed to me that Calla's refusal to admit what was happening to her was a plot device to ratchet up the tension and not realistic to the character. In end I was left annoyed by this and it prevented me from enjoying the story as much as I wanted to. I hope that Staub does a bit of restructuring for the next book and gives us a Calla who is not so stupidly stubborn.

In Linda Newbery's gentle World War II mystery, At the Firefly Gate, Henry is struggling to adjust to life in a village after his parents have decided to leave London behind. He's worried about a new school and not making friends (all the regular stuff) and also by the sight of a strange man who sometimes lingers at night near their back gate. No one else sees him and there is something strange—something off—about the mystery man's presence. It would all be easily chalked up to late night fears and exaggerations if Henry's elderly next door neighbor Dottie didn't seem to recognize him to know him, the first time they meet. And then Henry has a dream about a place and people he never met and then planes from World War II fly overhead one night and he knows that it all means something; it all means something very, very important.

Newbery really lulls readers in with this story and they will be surprised with just how much they hope for the happy ending. Henry is forced to pull at strings as the story unfolds, catching hints where he can find them and dodging trouble from Dottie's surly teenage niece, Grace. The descriptions of WWII life and flying are wonderfully written and make this mystery a sure winner with boys. But it is Henry's determination to figure out just who the man is and who he is waiting for that will keep you turning pages. And the budding friendship between the young teen and elderly Dottie is lovely to watch unfold. Mostly though, I loved reading about the Lancasters flying; that kind of aviation touch is so rare in YA literature these days that to find it unexpectedly in a sweet little mystery about old friends and promises is just a special treat.

I was not quite sure whether or not to classify Wendy Mass's wonderful Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life as a mystery, but as Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy spend most of the book trying to figure out a way to open a mysterious box, it seemed to fit the bill. There is a lot more going on in this coming-of-age novel about a thirteen-year-old learning to accept his father's untimely death than a traditional mystery would include, however. But the plot is propelled largely by the reader's desire to find out just what that box is all about. All the other lessons about life and happiness that are explored in the process of finding the keys are just icing on this intriguing and highly original cake.

A month or so before his thirteenth birthday, Jeremy receives a beautiful wooden box which was bought and filled by his father several years before. Engraved on the lid are the words, "The Meaning of Life: for Jeremy Fink to open on his 13th birthday." The box is a voice from the grave and Jeremy is convinced it contains everything he needs to know about how to live his life. Unfortunately, it requires four specific keys to open and they have been lost in the intervening years. Undaunted, Jeremy and Lizzy set out to find used or antique keys that will fit the box but after getting caught sort of breaking and entering, they find themselves stuck with community service, making deliveries for a retired pawnbroker. What seems a slight plot device becomes enormously significant to the story and sets Jeremy off on a quest to determine the meaning of life. His existential crisis becomes as significant to the story as the box and the answers he and Lizzy receive from their questions about life prompt the two of them to consider all sorts of questions about who they want to be. In the end the mystery is finally solved in a most satisfying way, but the philosophical questions raised by Mass's story will likely linger far more than the truth about the box.

It's not often that a young adult book delves into such deep subjects, but Mass does it so well that readers will be as fascinated by conversations about time travel and meditation as they are about Winnie the Pooh and comic books. The balance between light and heavy is perfect in Jeremy Fink and something that both readers and writers should find inspiring. It is the introduction of philosophy to the story that really impressed me though, and got me thinking about just how children learn about that subject today.

As it happens, a few years ago Christopher Phillips wrote a very straightforward picture book on this subject, The Philosophers' Club. There is no real age range for this title and the way in which Phillips addresses how one question leads to another, and the concept of "journey as the destination" should be just as enlightening for 8-year-olds as it is for high schoolers. In his introduction, Phillips reminds readers that no one questions like young children and that in this respect they are "young versions of that quintessential questioner from ancient Greece—namely Socrates." The specific answer is not the goal, he explains, but "it's the questioning that matters."

Throughout Phillips's text, accompanied by the gentle illustrations of Kim Doner, children wonder, "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" and is the cup "half empty or half full?" There are also deeper issues tackled here, like what is violence and what is philosophy, but Phillips doesn't push any answers on his readers. The questions all prompt more questions and revelations are clearly for each single reader to find on his or her own. In The Meaning of Life, Jeremy Fink is set on the same path to wisdom that Phillips advocates and his search for wisdom, not only about losing his father but about living his own unique life, will inspire countless readers who want to know who they should be. In many ways, Jeremy is exactly the sort of child who should be reading The Philosopher's Club, and combining the two books in one thoughtful package is an excellent way to send young readers off on their paths of self-discovery.

I don't know when we all decided that true wisdom, and living each day to the fullest, was less important than passing a class and getting a high-paying job, but clearly this new way of life is not working. Asking questions is a good thing. In pursuit of so many mysteries, Jeremy and Lizzie ask a lot, and what they discover makes for a truly fantastic story.

 

Blood Secret by Kathryn Lasky
Harper Trophy 2006
ISBN 9780060000639
293 pages

The Curse of the Left-Handed Lady: An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer
Philomel 2007
ISBN 9780399245176
234 pages

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin
Putnam 2007
ISBN 9780399246937
224 pages

Gilda Joyce: The Ghost Sonata by Jennifer Allison
Dutton 2007
ISBN 9780525478089
288 pages

Lily Dale: Awakening by Wendy Corsi Staub
Walker Books 2007
ISBN 0-8027-9654-0
240 pages

At the Firefly Gate by Linda Newbery
David Fickling Books 2007
ISBN 0-385-75113-1
152 pages

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass
Little, Brown 2006
ISBN 0-316-05829-7
289 pages

The Philosophers' Club by Christopher Phillips
Illustrated by Kim Doner
Tricycle Press 2001
ISBN 1-58246-039-6

 

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