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.

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