Rescuing princesses and princes; stray thoughts

Princesses. The 1970s and following were filled with mixed messages: Princess stories–particularly as told by Disney–were toxic to a woman’s spirit and enabled disabling cultural messages regarding femininity and female power. “Don’t let your babies grow up to be princesses” could have been a hit song for Willie Nelson, had he been attuned to the anti-princess zeitgeist.

Not that this princess-as-pernicious talk has died down all that much; it’s simply morphed into new princesses who wear armor (Mulan), shoot arrows and climb mountains (Merida), open restaurants (Tiana), or who are at least more adventurous and assertive (Rapunzel).

I grew up watching the classic Disney princess movies and have seen all the modern versions, and while I enjoyed them–even when Maleficent inspired my first and still-clearly-remembered nightmare, I never fell in love with the princesses themselves. I didn’t dream of waltzing in a ballroom or in the middle of a forest, although I admired Aurora’s ability to do the latter in a long dress and without tripping over a root.

I didn’t like the clothes; climbing a tree in a long dress would have been a drag. And my mother would have yelled at me for getting a princess dress dirty, which was an inevitability, given the woods, forsythia caves, and construction sites that demanded exploration.

I did like all the furry friends these princesses accumulated and would have loved to be surrounded by chatty mice and helpful birds who might help me conquer my math homework. Sadly, any small furry friend that wandered into our house invariably met a cat who wasn’t clued-in to my fantasies.

More than anything, I admired and wanted to be a fairy godmothers, especially Maleficent. A power dresser long before that term gained popularity, her deep, resonant voice compelled the respect I craved. Okay, mostly fear, but the respectful kind. With a voice like that I could have ruled the world, and if not the world, my three brothers. As it was, I had to break a few metaphorical glass slippers and hold the shards to sibling throats to keep from getting run over.

On the other hand, I don’t consider princesses the scourge of female empowerment they came to be considered, and I was pleased to find this defense on YouTube (thanks to Once Upon a Blog; http://fairytalenewsblog.blogspot.com). I don’t buy all the arguments put forward–traditional femininity drags around a lot of well-deserved baggage, thus doesn’t seem the best term the author(s) to defend kindness, cheer, and optimism.

My favorite fable princess was and remains Eilonwy, from Lloyd Alexander’s marvelous The Prydain Chronicles. She was kind, optimistic, and cheerful. Also strong, decisive, and courageous, terrific traits Alexander deliberately chose to bestow upon his only female protagonist (setting aside the enchantress, Achren, who isn’t in all the books).

These qualities, moreover, aren’t confined to princesses. Katherine Addison’s wonderful 2014 novel, The Goblin Emperor, gives us Maia, long-suffering, often confused, frequently bullied, and ultimately victorious prince who learns to be an emperor by deliberately eschewing the ruthlessness of his late father, ruler of the Elflands, in favor of bridge-building mercies and friendships.

I recommend the video. I also recommend reading Alexander’s books–epic fantasy that has aged well–and certainly Addison’s Emperor as means of continuing ways of dispelling the sometimes awful stereotypes that haunt too many princesses and princes.

One more thought, a caution. During Disney’s bad animation years (1970-1980s), the studio optioned The Prydain Chronicles and made a movie. A really bad movie. No humor, no fairy folk, no pathos. Alexander himself said the movie had no relation to the books, and I remember sitting in the theatre, outraged, as the Jeffrey Katzenberg version played out to its miserable end. Pixar: Please do a remake.

Resourceful kids & teens in sci-fi and detection

2016’s best book, across all the genres I read, was ILLUMINAE (Amy Kaufman & Jay Kristoff).

I’ve long loved epistolary novels, starting with DRACULA. Smart, capable characters never bored me (the fact some die early & movingly) helps. The suspense rises and falls—but mostly rises—so skillfully I kept turning pages way too late into several nights. AIDAN, the endearingly whacko ship’s AI, creates a nicely twisty climax and proves surprisingly sympathetic. HAL still claims top stop in AI villains–that’s tough crazy to top, even for these skilled authors–but AIDAN is charmingly romantic, in addition to deadly.

Okay, I was skeptical about a couple of elements–email and texting will still be in use 500 years from now–but I closed the book a happy reader.

The sequel has just been published, but I felt more fear than pleasure. Lately sequels have disappointed me (yes, I’m talking about you, REVENGE OF THE EVIL LIBRARIAN), and ILLUMINAE set a standard so high any author might blanch and hastily turn to a new series.

Optimism won out over experience.

I leaped.

I’m about a third of the way through GEMINA, and . . . safe landing!

Hanna, Nik, and Ella don’t disappoint. I was initially dubious that fashion-conscious, druggy, blonde, Daddy’s girl Hanna could be as interesting as ILLUMINAE’s Kady. And the authors have endowed Hanna with multiple black belts and military strategy acumen that rivals that of War College graduates, but, hey, we’re in Fiction Land. And while thus far the creepy mutant worms and murderous corporate goons aren’t as scary as AIDAN or the little girl who walks around the Alexander dragging a ragdoll heart (a human heart, mind you, that she’s ripped out of some poor slob’s chest), there’s lots more to come, and I’m anticipating a fun, thrilling, creepy read.

GEMINA delivers. Highly recommended.

Oh, and ILLUMINAE will be a movie soon(ish), and I’m praying Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company doesn’t louse it up the way it did World War Z: http://bit.ly/1NJ9p4B

Reading ILLUMINAE and GEMINA has roused recollections of other smart space opera kids who don’t get a lot of blog attention these days, and when I’m done with GEMINA, I plan on doing a reread of my faves.

I’ll start with Andre Norton, who wrote smart teens inevitably caught up in weird and usually deadly adventures.

First, there’s Murdoc Jern (and Eet) in THE ZERO STONE, one of the first Norton stories I read and which captivated me. I followed STONE by reading the body-swapping, culturally complex

MOON OF THREE RINGS, with Krip Vorlund and Maelen.

Norton authored an admirable range of YA sci-fi, and while her prose at times seems over mannered, and those searching for romance should continue searching, these classic tales are worth trying. Or rereading.

Then there’s my favorite space opera author, James H. Schmitz. Sadly neglected these days, he hit a homer with the three young WITCHES OF KARRES, who partner with Captain Pausert in a breathless, often hilarious series of adventures in the Hub of the Universe.

WITCHES is a cult favorite—a first edition will run you some serious change—and deserves the status. Adolescent Telzey Amberdon starred in many of Schmitz’s short stories and a couple of novels, and while humor doesn’t play as large a role in the Amberdon stories, she’s fun to follow. True, all these kids possessed unfair advantages that Kaufman & Kristoff avoid: The witches channel klatha (magic), which allows them to manipulate light, matter, sound, and endows them with varying degrees of psi ability; Telzey is not only brilliant, in her first adventure discovers she’s an adept psi, so much so she’s recruited to work with the government’s Psychology Service, a sort-of FBI charged with solving psi-related crimes.

If you haven’t read these stories, I recommend them wholeheartedly.

And, to round out both the end of April and my thoughts about resourceful teen fiction protagonists, this afternoon I sat through the Orlando Rep’s stage production of NANCY DREW AND HER BIGGEST CASE EVER.

What fun!

Everything I remembered about the books was there—although, admittedly, it’s been years since I last cracked one—including friends George and Bess, dad Carson Drew and faithful housekeeper Hannah, boy-toy Ned, and the roadster that made Nancy the coolest . . . when I was 8. I mean, a car! Seemingly endless $$$. No school obligations that I recall. Allowed to go everywhere and do everything.

Kudos to Playwrights John Maclay & Jeff Frank, who overlooked not one Nancy cliché. The staging was fab, the cast solid, the audience gleeful

Here’s a YouTube vid of the world premiere in Milwaukee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofhoP3dRTks

Enjoy.

Gemina Book Cover Gemina
Amy Kaufmann and Jay Kristoff
Juvenile Fiction
Knopf Books for Young Readers
October 20, 2015
608

For fans of Marie Lu and James Dashner comes the first book in an epic new series. “Never have I read a book so wholly unique and utterly captivating.” —Marie Lu, New York Times bestselling author of the Legend trilogy This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she'd have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded. The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that's little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to fight their way onto one of the evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit. But their problems are just getting started. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet's AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what's really going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it's clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend sheswore she'd never speak to again! Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.

Science Matters

22 April

Happy Scientists March day! Let’s support all the women and men who daily struggle to further knowledge, NOT alternative facts or vague beliefs. Let’s help stop the assault on science and push back against lies, religious beliefs passed off as scientifically verifiable, and those clueless ones who utter the oh-so-ignorant question: Well, it’s all just theory isn’t it? So that means it’s not all true, right?

Let’s also support efforts to improve the way science is taught in school, particularly high school, so kids graduate knowing what a scientific theory really means. Here’s one explanation, from the theoretical physicist, Marcelo Gleiser, writing for NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/03/23/471480717/why-is-theory-such-a-confusing-word

And another, from Tia Ghose, writing for Scientific American. She tosses in some other frequently misused scientific terms for good measure: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/just-a-theory-7-misused-science-words/

Here’s a couple of great posters from today’s march (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post):

Support science. Support scientists by ensuring Congress and the states fund their work. And vote–also yell, scream, & rave–against science deniers in the 2018 and, especially, in the 2020 presidential election.

You’re going down, 45! And Pruitt & Betsey will be tumbling with you.

Eugène Thivier (1845-1920) Le cauchemar, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France; photo by Traumrune (Wikipedia Commons).

In honor of my father (physicist), my two youngest nieces (a biologist & atmospheric scientist, respectively), and the rest of my family and friends (all science wonks), I’m working on my own small experiment this weekend.

Recently I bought a set of 10 Staedtler triplus fineliner porous point pens—the official name on the label—to give me an excuse to draw a plot diagram for my latest WIP. While I’ve been pleased by the (indeed) fine lines and bright colors, I’ve been about a claim on the back of the package:

DRY SAFE: can be left uncapped for days without drying up (Test ISO 554)

Really?

I used to love Sharpie fine point pens. They feel good in my hand. Bright? The ink from those babies practically glows. I marked up many a manuscript with them, delighting in the smooth glide of the pen tip . . . but always afraid. Very afraid. Because Sharpie fine point pens don’t like being left uncapped. Not at all. Air is their enemy, and this has meant that, when using them, the lid-clicking action on my part, as I switched from one color to another, has been near-maniacal lest I tripped over the dry-out threshold.

Staedtler claims their pens don’t dry out? Well, I love a challenge.

Yesterday I chose the color in the set I can easily live without: Pink. I’ve loathed pink since I was a child and was required to wear lots of it, making the choice of sacrificial victim easy. Gleeful, even.

I uncapped that baby and left it to live or die in my air-conditioned office.

It’s been 24 hours. A fresh and hideously pink line runs easily out of the fine tip an onto the paper.

How long will it take to kill the pink?

I’ll be checking back daily.

IT

The LA Review of Books recently published a long essay about Stephen King’s IT; its themes, its impact, its creepiness, the inability of commenters to avoid using it or its or it’s when writing about it.

I love the story’s creepiness. I relish King’s excellent evocation of childhood and. EXCEPT . . . *drum roll* . . . that gross-unnecessary-unimaginative-male-fantasy-andwhatthe hellwashethinking section in which Beverly has sex with the other Losers. The essay’s author opts for kindness when he writes: The scene has, to put it mildly, not aged well (although I don’t imagine it worked very well in 1986 either). No kidding.

How I wish Mr. King would revisit and edit IT. Delete that scene. Transform it into something (a) believable and (b) that doesn’t involve child sexual abuse. That he would reject that scene as, possibly, the result of a bad day and the baneful influence of various ingested substances in which he no longer indulges. When I dream, I dream big.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/where-it-was-rereading-stephen-kings-it-on-its-30th-anniversary/?mc_cid=87669f501f&mc_eid=2d9b4082ca#!

Review: Castle Hangnail, by Ursula Vernon

The death of Terry Pratchett left a chasm of loss in the heart of fantasy lovers, one that will never be completely closed by those who love Sam Vimes, Sally, Cheery, Nobby, and the myriad other endearing characters who populate Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s largest city.

Castle Hangnail has come along at the perfect time. It cannot, will not, relieve the sense of loss, but it offers a middle-grade fantasy that hits a delightful inventiveness high filled with wit and humor. The story itself is simple: A twelve-year-old girl runs away from home to become the castle’s Mistress—the post having fallen vacant after the last Mistress zapped a television repairman and decided she was a rosebush—and must complete a series of magical tasks to prove her worthiness . . . and to prevent the Board of Magic from decommissioning the castle, thus throwing all the minions out of work.

What’s the story? On one level, this is the story of a young witch determined to become the mistress of a tatty castle, who finds she has a list of magical tasks to be accomplished. Molly is not the usual storybook heroine: She’s short and pudgy, with fuzzy brown hair and strong opinions, one of which is she is determined to be a wicked witch, but not evil, which is good since she has an irrepressible kind streak.

She wrestles with grown-up problems: Being recognized as competent despite her unexpected appearance, lack of qualifications, and her inner doubts. An abusive friendship from her past adds to her challenges and introduces a theme that doesn’t get as much attention as it probably deserves: Friendships in which one party makes the other weak and powerless. Molly’s kindness and innate courage, however, ensure all comes out well for everyone concerned, and while the ending struck me as not only improbable—which is saying a lot in a fantasy—but rushed, it also allows readers Happy Ever Adventuring promise for Molly and the loyal minions of Castle Hangnail.

Those familiar with Vernon’s Dragonbreath series or her short fairytale, Nurk, will recognize the wry humor, although Hangnail affords the author greater and more glorious scope.

First, there’s Majordomo, the castle’s guardian and a lisp-less Pratchettian Igor, as fond of cats as he is of his fellow Castle minions, an affection rivaled only by his determination to keep Castle Hangnail from being decommissioned. In this he is aided by his fellow minions, all of whom are more amusing and lovable than those yellow blobs in the movies. There is sentimental, stalwart, and invisible Lord Edward, who occupies a magical suit of armor and offers polite, if ineffectual, protection. In the kitchen is a minotaur cook with an iffy grasp on English and a hatred of the letter Q. Pins is a walking, talking pincushion and talented tailor, inseparable from her best friend, a hypochondriac goldfish who lives in a small bowl. Best of all is Serenissima, daughter of a djinn and a shopkeeper with some mermaid ancestry, a creature of steam who is handy for cleaning the carpets and drapes, creating a sauna, and—oh, so clever—who spends her free time in a teakettle “writing epic poetry about boilers.”

Adding to the fun, Clockwork Bees buzz around the gardens and the basement, while talking bats sleep in the high tower.

In what I choose to interpret as nods to Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, Molly stomps about in boots—“very serious boots . . . [that] looked as if they could kick a hole in a stone wall and have fun doing it”—although Majordomo occasionally worries they might not be sufficiently Wicked boots for the castle’s mistress. In fact, I will utter what Pratchett purists may consider heresy: Castle Hangnail is funnier than the Aching books and (blessedly) less obsessed with examining the dreary illogic of human failings. Indeed, I found the second and third books (A Hat Fully of Sky and I Shall Wear Midnight) to be reading slogs, too intent on forcing character development and almost devoid of the deft wit of many (but not all) of Pratchett’s other works. Molly is as thoughtful as Aching, but much kinder, less enigmatic, and altogether more fun.

Highly recommended.

Castle Hangnail Book Cover Castle Hangnail
Ursula Vernon
Juvenile Fiction
Dial Books for Young Readers
2015-04
320

When little, twelve-year-old Molly arrives at Castle Hangnail to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the minions who dwell there have no choice but to give her the job and at first it seems she will be able to keep the castle open, but Molly has quite afew secrets that could cause trouble.

Review: Dreamwood, by Heather Mackey

In an alternate late 19th century, twelve-year-old Lucy Darrington flees a San Francisco finishing school and heads to the fictional Saarthe, an alternate Pacific Northwest where logging is the major industry within lands still owned by indigenous peoples. She steps off the train in Pentland, hoping to reunite with her father, a ghostologist whose work on the East Coast has diminished as the result of a scandal. Instead of a happy reunion, Lucy finds her father is missing and the region is filled with tension as loggers battle a plague, called Rust, killing the enormous kodok trees and thus threatening the primary source of income for settlers and First Peoples alike.

A mysterious old man tells Lucy that only the mythical and elusive Dreamwood—a tree out of legend—can heal the Rust plague. Sure her father was looking for the truth about Dreamwood, Lucy sets out to find him and immediately faces a perilous reality: Dreamwood exists (if at all) in the Devil’s Thumb, a peninsula suffused with mystery and magic, and from whose wooded shores few ever return.

Accompanied by Pete Knightly, who hopes to find a cure for Rust that will help his own deeply indebted family, and a Native American girl, Niwa, Lucy reaches the Devil’s Thumb. Here she and Pete face their own weaknesses, an environment hostile to humanity’s arrogant carelessness, a group of unscrupulous men also searching for Dreamwood, and His-sey-ak, the nature spirit who haunts the forest.

Clever, courageous, pragmatic, headstrong, and arrogant, Lucy yearns for friendship even as she is often careless of its demands. She is likeable, a character easy to root for, even though Mackey occasionally allows Lucy to stray into cliché: For example, although Lucy is warned that death awaits those who dare take anything from the forest on the Devil’s Thumb, she quickly yields to temptation, as does Pete. Could Mackey not think of anything less signaled and predictable to prove her main characters are prone to human frailties? This incident, along with one or two others, detract from an otherwise suspenseful climb to the story’s climax, which itself feels rushed, as if Mackey was running out of inventive steam.

Mackey does not excel at detailed, satisfyingly grounded world building. Instead she relies on broad and unsatisfying explanations of this alternate history, in which added (and thoughtful) details would have been welcome. Pentland, for example, is presented as the barest sketch, as is the topography of the Pacific Northwest, whose its dramatic mountains and volcanoes, mists and infrequent blue skies cry out for better exposition. And the mysterious old man Lucy encounters in the woods near Pentland? He is painted sketchily and exists, all too obviously, as a means to push Lucy in the direction of Dreamwood and the Devil’s Thumb; if mentors are going to be featured in a story, they deserve better treatment.

More pleasing is Mackey’s portrayal of the Lupines, a fictional Native American nation whose members understand the uses and dangers of the magic that suffuses the region and who—a refreshing plot point—have retained control of most of their ancestral lands. While I would have loved more participation in this story of Niwa and her people, the inclusion of the Lupines adds to the inventiveness of this alternate history.

Lucy’s quest contains enough that is creative that most readers will forgive the plot holes, thin secondary characters, and clichéd plot points to enjoy this supernaturally-tinged adventure/mystery.

Dreamwood Book Cover Dreamwood
Heather Mackey
Juvenile Fiction
Putnam Publishing Group
2014
328

"12-year-old Lucy Darrington goes on a quest to find her missing father in a remote, magical territory in the Pacific Northwest"--

Horror movies

Most horror movies are pretty horrible. Not horror-inducing, just bad.

Predictable.

Simplistic.

Boring.

Psychopaths prey on teenagers or unwary travelers with chainsaws, axes, long, sharp knives, or other implements guaranteed to cause pain and death. Spurting blood. Anguished screams.

*Yawn*

No psychopath has yet equalled the remarkably non-violent and un-bloody (well, barring one notable scene) Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Terrified victims race from room to room (or tree to tree if lost in a forest). Then, just as safety is (apparently) in reach, the killer leaps out and takes a fatal swing.

Settings are as clichéd as the monsters: Houses where a murder occurred. Abandoned lunatic asylums. Foggy forests. Cemeteries. Halloween.

cropped-Bronze-cowled-writer.jpg

There aren’t many movies I can say truly scared me, but here are a few I can recommend.

THE UNINVITED (1941), starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, is a traditional haunted house story that, for all its age, uses excellent special effects to create lovely levels of creepiness to this story. Ghosts—there are two—appear unexpected and, in one case, in unexpected form. Even two big handicaps—the lack of acting skills possessed by Gail Russell, who played the young woman in peril, or the purple dialogue handed to an otherwise wonderful actress, Cornelia Otis Skinner—can mar the pleasures of this straightforward ghost story that contains, at its heart, a murder mystery.

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), starring Bruce Willis in one of his best roles, a brilliant Haley Joel Osment, and a lovely turn by Toni Collette, as Osment’s mother, bewildered about how to understand and support a son who obviously doesn’t fit in with other kids. First time I saw this, I did not see the ending coming, and I was delighted, especially when repeated viewings revealed writer-director M. Night Shyamalan played fair: The clues are all there, as are a plethora of red herrings. Creepy moments occur when least expected: Collette turns her back on her neat kitchen for a few seconds, only to turn and find ever cabinet and drawer has silently, swiftly opened. Osment goes the bathroom in the middle of the night and, as he stands before the toilet, something passes down the hallway behind him. Marvelous.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) scared me silly first time I saw it. Oren Pelli, the writer and director, understood a critical point few writers/directors grasp and fewer put into action: Haunting terror is best evoked not in chainsaws or masked killers but by making the normal suddenly otherwise. In PARANORMAL, a door moves slightly in the middle of the night while the homeowners sleep . . . With no visible help. A Ouija board suddenly catches fire. Footsteps, outlined in powder, appear on the bedroom floor at night. Knocks and thumps abound. All of this is recorded by a video camera set up by the skeptical, but accommodating boyfriend of a woman who senses something isn’t right in their otherwise mundane townhouse. The ending is a shocker, but even so—and there’s no spoiler here—we see only the same characters we’ve been following throughout the movie.

THE INNOCENTS (1961). One slightly paranoid governess (the excellent Deborah Kerr), two bright, cheerful children, a warm and jolly housekeeper, and a huge mansion deep in the English countryside, and memories of the children’s former governess and the absent master’s valet, both now dead. Memories . . . or ghosts? The governess sees a man’s face in a window. A woman stands, very still, on a small island in the middle of the estate’s lake, watching her . . . then disappears. The children begin to behave and speak oddly, and Kerr—who played the uber-governess in THE KING AND I (1956)—grows increasingly confused and frightening. No cheerful Rodgers & Hammerstein songs to set all right in this movie. The fact that many who see this film version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw know Kerr from KING makes her terror even more effective. Another shocker of an ending, in part because we are given is no answer to the question: Is the house haunted?

WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000). Imperfect, but the first half contains some wonderfully creepy moments created by another director (or writer; possibly both) who realized that terror lies in the familiar suddenly turning strange. Like bathrooms in which the tub fills itself with hot steamy water and words are drawn by an invisible figure on the steamy medicine chest. A front door opens by itself just as star Michelle Pfeiffer reaches for the knob. A framed photograph of her and her loving husband (Harrison Ford) keeps falling to the floor and breaking the glass; the family dog freaks out by the lake water behind the family home. Then there are the dysfunctional neighbors, one of whom disappears under mysterious circumstances. Things go a bit silly and hysterical in the last third, as if all involved in the production became impatient to get it done, but overall this is an entertaining and nicely hair-raising movie.

Review: The Book Scavenger, by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (2015)

Emily Crane’s parents pull up stakes every year and move their family to a new state, working virtually and indulging their love of travel to gather material for a book, 50 Homes in 50 States. Their teenaged son seems happy enough with this routine, but twelve-year-old Emily dreams of staying someplace long enough to make friends, to create an emotional anchor in a life filled with detachment. The Cranes next stop is San Francisco, and although Emily dreads the move, this one offers at least one promise of pleasure: San Francisco is the home and literary playground of Garrison Griswold, the originator of what Emily considers “the coolest book-hunting game in existence.”

Alas, the same day Emily and her family drive into town, thugs attack Griswold in a BART station, beating him severely. Now the literary world awaits daily updates from the hospital: Will Griswold survive to reveal his newest book-hunting venture?

James Lee, Emily’s new neighbor, seems familiar with every one of San Francisco’s hidden stairways and twisty streets, and he loves puzzles as much as Emily. They quickly become friends, and James takes Emily—and Matthew, her older, rock-loving brother—on their first foray around town. When they venture into a BART station, Emily finds a copy of Poe’s The Gold Bug jammed behind a trash can, a discovery that plunges her into danger from Griswold’s attackers.

Emily quickly realizes The Gold Bug contains clues about a treasure Griswold has hidden somewhere in the city. She and James set out to crack a series of clever ciphers, only to find that each success raises the risk they will be found by Griswold’s attackers. Emily’s fears are heightened by a growing realization an even more complex and important puzzle confronts her: Having made a friend, how does she keep him?

Bertman paints such a delightful picture of San Francisco that, as I read, I began to think it’s time I revisited that city. Emily is nicely drawn, a girl of realistic strengths—tenacious, clever, and cheerful—and weaknesses—impatient and self-involved, perhaps the result of too much aloneness in her young life. James’s talent lies in solving ciphers, highlighted by a contest he enters with sharp-tongued classmate Maddie, but his strongest (and most endearing) quality is his insistence upon friendship’s mutuality. Emily’s big brother, Matthew, is absorbed in the rock band Flush, much to Emily’s dismay, but this obsession isn’t allowed to override (entirely) his essential kindness. Other characters are drawn much more sparely. Clyde and Barry, the two thugs searching for The Gold Bug (and Emily), are inept and mildly humorous moments, but their voices are virtually interchangeable. Social Studies teacher, Mr Quisling, is almost a complete blank; Bertman seems to think using the name excuses her from character development, yet I wonder how many readers will grasp the historical reference. Ditto Mr Remora; he is peculiar, but hardly sinister, and once again Bertman has chosen a name that is almost laughably on-the-nose, a reminder to all writers that what worked for Charles Dickens doesn’t necessarily translate well in modern middle-grade fiction. Hollister, bookstore owner and former friend of Garrison Griswold, stands in for the de rigueur voice of (mostly) wise, if occasionally oblique, guidance. And the abrupt about-face made by Emily’s parents at the end of the book reduces these already-thin characters to little more than paper dolls being manipulated to force a happy ending. Surprisingly, the least well-drawn character is the most essential—Garrison Griswold—but as his puzzle is the critical issue, this superficiality doesn’t affect the story.

I imagine many readers will be sad the Book Scavenger game doesn’t exist beyond Bertman’s nicely-designed book-promotion efforts. Some, I hope, will be inspired to explore further the scandal-ridden history of Masquerade, a 1979 picture book that induced many to search the book’s illustrations for clues to a treasure hidden by the author, Kit Williams.

Is Book Scavenger perfect? No. Early on, when Emily and James query a potential online ally about the scavenger game, they receive repetitive non-answers; I recognized these immediately, and I imagine most will recognize the frustrating computer response. And, most important, because the book’s villains are so flimsily drawn and possess barely an ounce of the sinister, the story’s climax–replete a lone cavalryman-to-the-rescue–is disappointingly weak. I was left wondering if Bertman was in a rush to meet a deadline or wasn’t quite sure how to end this otherwise delightful story. Emily, James, Matthew, and their puzzles deserve better.

The good of Book Scavenger, however, far outweighs the so-so. Overall, the writing is solid, the mystery nicely complex, the ciphers and puzzles are pure fun, and the main characters appealing and resourceful. Highly recommended.