Friday, October 31, 2008

A First Creepy Doll Story

As luck would have it, I just finished reading a book appropriate for Halloween posting.

The Red Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer is a Stepping Stones Book. "Build the bridge to chapter books...," the publisher says. So we're talking a book for young 'uns here.

Earlier this week, anonymous and I were talking about whether or not books for children and YA readers need truly new and unique story lines because much is new to less experienced readers, anyway. I understand that everything's new when you're too young to vote, but I find it difficult to judge how good a book for a younger audience is when its plot and/or characters and/or setting have been done to death.

The Red Ghost is an example of a book that is using a story line that's been done many times before but doesn't come across as the same old, same old. The Red Ghost is a creepy doll story, and, yes, indeed, a lot of us older folks have seen it before. But Dane Bauer manages to create a real sense of tension here that I don't usually see in books for kids this young. This is a short, complete mystery that the kid characters manage on their own. You've got what is really a simple plot, a limited number of characters, and a setting that is rooted in one place, all necessities, I think, for a book for kids in the lower grades.

Many books for this age group are just silly and pointless. The good ones tend to be very realistic, sometimes with adult characters helping child protagonists learn feel-good lessons. The Red Ghost is a genre novel for the very young. I don't think I've seen many of those, and I was quite taken with the novelty of it.

Like many early chapter books, this one has a number of illustrations. Peter Ferguson's black and white drawings definitely show the feelings of the characters portrayed. He created a great-looking main character, a neighbor who is a dignified, contemporary older woman, and a doll that looks as if she's got something on her mind.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Maybe You Can Be Too Ambitious

The Postcard by Tony Abbott includes a couple of elements I find very interesting. Jason, our main character, ends up searching for his dead grandmother's history. I'm definitely into the whole personal past thing. Jason stumbles upon excerpts of a '40s and '50s era noir mystery that may or may not include an account of events in his grandmother's life. I like a little noir every now and then, so I was attracted to that.

I didn't feel that all the elements in this book were well connected, though. Abbott is the author of Firegirl, a book that stayed focused on one situation and delved into the intense suffering of the characters dealing with it. The Postcard covers too many situations. Mom and Dad's marriage is in trouble. Dad has personal problems that may relate to his childhood and his own mother. The search for Jason's grandmother didn't need any of that. It was interesting enough all by itself. It did, though, become extremely complicated given that a lot of it is told through the chapters of a mystery novel that may be totally fabricated or may not. Jason ends up jumping through hoops following clues that I know I would have totally missed. We find out that there was a mind at work behind the mystery, though I was never certain why he didn't just come forward.

In an interview regarding The Postcard at cynsations, Tony Abbott called the book a "magical realist noir crime comedy mystery." I wonder if that's just too much to try to do in one book.

The Postcard did make me want to go to Florida, though.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Mystery Day

I wasn't just talking about myself these past few weeks while working on the A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers' blog tour. I did some reading, too.

I was a big fan of Peter Abrahams' first Echo Falls Mystery, Down the Rabbit Hole. I'd heard from other bloggers that the second book in the series wasn't as good, and I have to say I agree. I was nearly a quarter of the way through the book before it became clear to me just what the mystery was this time around, and it was so close to the main character and her family that at that point this story revolving around steroid use among teen athletes seemed to be more of a problem novel than a mystery. The plot wasn't nearly as smooth as it was the first time around, either.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, on the other hand, has a very smooth plot and well developed characters. It did seem a little Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time lite with its autistic main character. What are the chances of kid readers being familiar with that book, though? (Yes, it was a cross-over book, but it's five years old and no longer all over the place.) In addition, Ted, of London Eye, has less extreme autistic characteristics than Christopher in Night-time, while at the same time the mystery he needs to solve is more serious--the disappearance of his cousin versus the killer of a neighbor's dog.

Both these books are being marketed to middle grade readers.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

So Much Going On

Are they traditional 1930's English mysteries?

Are they creature features?

Are they time travel stories?

The Invisible Detective books by Justin Richards include all those scenarios. At least the two I've read did. They are incredibly multi-layered and enjoyable to an experienced reader who recognizes what's going on. And this experienced reader still hasn't read the first book in the series, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage. Ghost Soldiers is the the third book, and then I went back to the second because that's how I happened to stumble upon them at I'm a Reading Fool's library.

Our basic premise involves four kids in 1930's London who have set up this imaginary detective, Brandon Lake, who holds court above a locksmith's shop. People come to the so-called Invisible Detective with their problems, though he sits with his back to the room so no one knows that the deep-voiced man in the big chair is actually a boy named Art Drake who's maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. Since I missed that first book, I don't know how they managed to get this started. But people who speak with Art leave him a little money, which he shares among his Scooby gang, one member of which lives on the street.

So here you have your 1930's British detective set-up. To make it a little more palatable to twenty-first century child readers who may not be into that kind of thing, the Scoobies all have what might be described as very modest "super" powers. Meg can tell when people are lying. Jonny is the fastest boy in London. And Flinch, our street urchin, is some kind of contortionist and can wriggle her way in and out of tight spots.

Art's power? He is a leader. What's more, the story occasionally shifts to his future as an elderly man with a grandson who is also named Art Drake. And this Art Drake has some kind of psychic connection with the Art Drake his grandfather used to be back in the 1930's when he and his friends fought crime.

What kind of crime did they fight? Creepy sci-fi crime. Giant mutant rats. Super soldiers who have been created by mad scientists.

I think the sci-fi crime storylines were the weakest element in the books I read. A little too over-the-top. I'm a bit mystified with what's going on with the two Art Drakes, too, probably because I haven't read the first book.

These books strength are those four 1930's kids, who stick together and care about each other and are, for the most part, on their own. What becomes of them in the decades after they function as The Invisible Detective? We know Art lives into old age and has a son who becomes a Scotland Yard Detective just as his own father was back in the '30s. But what about the others? Could that strange girl in the young Art's time who knows more than she should about The Invisible Detective of the '30s possibly be descended from Meg? Could that old guy in the shop where young Art found his grandfather's casebook possibly be Jonny? And what was poor, sweet, illiterate Flinch's fate?

There is so much going on in these books that I do have to wonder if some child readers will be able to keep up with everything. This adult reader, though, will pick up the next Invisible Detective novel she happens upon.


Friday, April 04, 2008

Still A Mystery

I've been hearing about the lack of YA mysteries for a year now. Colleen at Chasing Ray is still looking for them.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Gilda Rises Above Everything

I was first exposed to Gilda Joyce last year during the Cybils reading period, when I read The Ladies of the Lake and liked it a lot.

I liked the newest Gilda Joyce book by Jennifer Allison, too, though I'm not quite so enthusiastic as I was about the book I read last year. For one thing, I don't remember Gilda being quite so over the top as she is in The Ghost Sonata. She's still funny, smart, and unique, but transporting a number of bizarre costumes to Oxford, England and then wearing them (a 60s mod outfit, a sequined gown to accompany a tiara) seemed to make her a little laughable. Though this book, like its predecessor, functions pretty well as a stand alone book, I do think readers who aren't familiar with the earlier works might be thrown when, well into the story, Gilda starts writing a letter to her dead father. I don't have a problem with Gilda writing to her dead dad, I just think it's not set up particularly well in this volume.

The Ghost Sonata involves Gilda accompanying her friend Wendy to Oxford where Wendy will take part in an international piano competition. I've never been to Oxford, but the setting certainly seemed realistic to me. I've never taken part in any kind of international competition, either, but, once again, that aspect of the book was great. The ghosty stuff was good, too. I looked forward to getting back to the book, plus I didn't quite foresee the ending. I expected a slightly different explanation.

I did find the point of view switches awkward, though. The Ghost Sonata is written in the third person, with a point of view character who changes. Usually Gilda is the p.o.v. character, but sometimes it's her friend Wendy. A few times it switches to other, more secondary characters.

The writing done from these other characters' minds is good. Wendy, in particular, is a good character. But the switches seemed abrupt, and they came irregularly. It made the storyline seem as if it was broken into chunks. It's one of those things, like footnotes, that pulls a reader away from a story.

Now, this may not be the result of poor work on the author's part. It may be that I so rarely see books written this way anymore that I no longer can move along with the narrator. The omniscient point of view--a third person narrator that shifts from character to character--isn't very popular these days. A third person point of view with a point of view character who remains the same through the entire work is more common, when third person is used at all. Particularly in children's books and YA, first person is king.

I don't think Allison used this kind of shift in The Ladies of the Lake. Whether or not what she does her with point of view in The Ghost Sonata is one hundred percent successful, I think she deserves some credit for doing something different with one of her series' books.

Gilda Joyce is still a great series. A popular one, too. I just tried to renew my copy at the library and found there was a hold on it.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Voice! Characters! Plot! Setting!

I stumbled upon a great new teen mystery series while hunting for third person novels at the library last week. Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahams bills itself as "An Echo Falls Mystery," a series about theater geek Ingrid Levin-Hill, a thirteen-year-old suburbanite who would be a mind-numbingly typical child if she didn't have a strong streak of Grampy running through her.

Ah, Grampy. Truly, truly, a beloved grandfather.

Down the Rabbit Hole involves Ingrid's accidentally becoming involved in a murder that no one knows she's involved in and her attempts to find the criminal. Of course, that's what so very many murder mysteries are about, right? Down the Rabbit Hole is a very traditional murder mystery, written around a child and her experiences, and written very well.

Voice. Ingrid has a marvelous voice. And, remember, this book is written in the third person. It's harder to do voice in the third person. Maybe it's not so much that Ingrid has a voice as perhaps the book has a tone. I think that what makes Ingrid so distinctive is that she goes her own way. Sure she's into soccer and theater the way so many kids are. She's into Sherlock Holmes the way so many book kids are. But when she goes after this stuff they seem truly distinctive to her. She doesn't seem like a cookie cutter kid.

One problem that I often have with kid mysteries and thrillers is that it never makes sense why the child detective doesn't turn to an adult for help. It just defies logic. I have never seen that issue addressed as well as it is here. Ingrid has very real and logical reasons for continuing to pursue the murderer on her own.

Characters. This book is so good, I was nearly half through it before I realized how stereotypical many of the characters are. (I'll be doing another post on that later.) But they're really good characters. There are no cartoon heavies here.

The love interest in mysteries almost always ruins the books for me. Love lines are so formulaic and tacked on to the story. The kid love interest here is one of the most believable and touching I can recall. I totally bought that kiss after those awkward, stilted telephone calls. The love interest is integrated into the plot far better than the love interests in many adult mysteries.

Plot. The plot in kid mysteries is often very weak for the obvious reason that the child detective has trouble getting around to do her crime solving. Can't drive, can't go out at night, can't do much. Abrahams, who has been nominated for an Edgar award for his adult mystery writing, does an excellent job with this. As a writer, I was reading along going, Oh, that's smooth how he got her to this house. Great how he got her there. Yes, there were a couple of points that I felt were forced and a bit unbelievable, but, quite honestly, you get that in any mystery. The bad guy might be predictable for those of us who've been reading mysteries for a long time (though I didn't catch on to the why until the very end), and the ending was a bit rushed, but the target readers should find this to be high class work.

Setting. Though Abrahams lives in Massachusetts, he's set his kid series in Connecticut. Echo Falls is an imaginary place, but the Echo Falls soccer and football teams play teams from towns in Connecticut that are real. In fact, they are right next door to me. Echo Falls is bigger than the town I live in. (We don't have a police department, for instance. We have to hope the state troopers will get here before our crimes are yesterday's news.) But a great deal of what he talks about is real for this area.

Personally, I like Ingrid Levin-Hill better than Kiki Strike because I prefer loners, or at least individuals, to posses. But the Echo Falls books do seem as if they could be companion mysteries to the Kiki Strike books. One is a classic, small town mystery, the other an urban scooby gang story.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Where's The Mystery?

Remember when some commentors at YA Cafe suggested that more YA mysteries were needed? Colleen Mondor reviews eight of them at Eclectica Magazine. Included is a mystery by Nancy Springer, whose book, Rowan Hood, was discussed here a couple of weeks ago.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Searching For Mysteries

I picked up a couple of mysteries for middle-grade readers about a month ago. One of them, Hannah West in the Belltown Towers by Linda Johns got a little buzz when it was published because the main character is homeless.

Well, that's true. But she's homeless in a very high-class way. She's the daughter of a single mom who loses her job and can't find a comparable one. Mom can't keep their home on her new income as a part-time waitress/freelance writer, so she hooks into her network of well-to-do friends and she and Hannah become housesitters. In The Belltown Towers they have a six-week stint in a classy highrise. This is the beginning of a series and, presumably, Hannah will have an adventure each time she moves.

I actually think this is a promising premise--a young person who has to keep moving and encountering new people. But the circumstances around the homelessness are not very well-developed here. Hannah's living situation is very quickly sketched, and the problems someone without a permanent address must face are only touched on. What's more, Hannah's encounters are going to involve mysteries.The mystery in Belltown Towers is very weak, and the bad guy is extremely obvious. Though I did have trouble at the end figuring out why the bad guy was stealing what she was stealing. But I have to admit that by that point I was only skimming.

However, I wasn't even able to get past the eighth page of the second middle-grade mystery I tried reading. It was also the first in a series.

Writers of mystery serials for kids face a major problem. They are writing about amateur detectives, so to some degree or another their plots are going to be forced and unnatural. Even adult amateur detectives require some suspension of disbelief on a reader's part, and with kid amateurs, the need to suspend is far greater.

I think this is why during the twentieth century, when everyone became interested in specialization and professionalism, anyway, the police procedural became so popular. We can believe a cop is going to run into any number of murderers and worse. But while your average person on the street might stumble into one mysterious situation in a lifetime, it's hard to swallow him or her doing it over and over again. And, as I said, with a child it's even harder to come up with something believable that can happen again and again.

The kid sleuths can't drive to get places. What adult is going to take a child detective seriously? How do these kids get their information? Since they are children, how much background knowledge do they have about anything in order to have a jumping off point for their investigations?

We're talking some big obstacles here.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Scooby Gang Takes On A Girl Posse

Kirsten Miller works in advertising, and her debut book, Kiki Strike Inside The Shadow City, reads as if a really savvy marketer took a piece of many high profile stories and melded them together brilliantly. You've got a girl spy/criminal in the tradition of Artemis Fowl with her own Scooby Gang (nod to Buffy) that takes on a mean girl posse from...well, any number of recent books and movies. Then you've got a princess, and we love princesses. Really. You've got a world under New York, though it's more like the old Beauty and the Beast series than the Underland.

And you've got some history and mystery, too.

All these elements are worked together very well. The Scooby Gang is known as the Irregulars, which Miller says is a tribute to the Baker Street Irregulars of the Sherlock Holmes' stories. What's more, the book is narrated by a Watson-like character with a voice that is notable and not imitative of other first-person kid narrators. Though I did figure out the ending, I didn't do it right away. And there were plenty of twists and turns before I got there.

Kiki Strike is definitely a good entry in the early teen mystery category.

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