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.

Nuclear fun and nightmares. Review: The Dead Boys, by Royce Buckingham

A review of The Dead Boys, by Royce Buckingham

The town of Richland, in Washington state, is famous and infamous as the location of the Hanford Site, the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States (it produced plutonium for most of the nuclear weapons developed by the U.S.) and the focus of the nation’s largest environmental clean up. As if this disaster on the Columbia River wasn’t sufficiently horrifying, Buckingham uses his hometown as the setting for a story that combines an unconventional serial killer, its victims, and a smart protagonist.

Twelve-year-old Teddy’s nurse mother moves him to Richland a month before the new school year begins, then pushes him outdoors to find new friends. Teddy is a smart, likeable, shy, and brave protagonist, and down by the river he meets Albert, dressed in old-fashioned bell-bottom jeans. Albert warns Teddy about the local bullies, led by a kid named Henry, and hints at a greater danger, but before he can share more, the bullies appear. Albert slips into the river to escape, leaving a bewildered Teddy to deal with Henry on his own. Teddy meets other boys around town, all of whom talk and behave—then disappear—in odd ways. Just as odd and even more intriguing is an enormous sycamore tree growing in the yard of an abandoned house next door. Fairly quickly, Teddy figures out the tree, the Hanford Site, and the mysterious boys are connected and that the tree, which scratches at Teddy’s window with long, grasping branches, seems determined to lure Teddy closer. When the tree takes drastic, dangerous action, Teddy realizes it will stop at nothing to bring him under its control, and he learns that it knows—and will use—Teddy’s deepest fears to achieve its goal. There’s a wonderful scene in which a black widow spider threatens Teddy; our hero’s decisive action made me squirm, and undoubtedly it will please everyone who reads it.

Buckingham adapts the villainous tree motif by adding ecological terror in the form of the Hanford Site, a nice touch by the author, a Richland, WA, native. The Dead Boys, of course, isn’t unique in using a tree as villain: Apple trees make Dorothy Gale’s life briefly miserable in The Wizard of Oz; hundreds of kites were lost to one greedy tree, courtesy of Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz; and Buckingham’s giant sycamore bears a strong resemblance to a gnarled tree that loomed outside the home of the hapless Freeling family in Poltergeist.

The story benefits from fast pacing and action that doesn’t encourage reflection, an asset in a story that, judged by the most lenient standards, fails just about every logic test. Why, for example, does the tree only crave 12-year-old boys? Engaging as each boy proves—and Buckingham does deft, quick characterizations of each—wouldn’t the boundless energy of 5- or 6-year-olds provide enough power for entire forests? What does the tree have against girls? Adults? Or dogs and cats, for that matter? Equally puzzling is why the police don’t seem to realize that over the decades there’s been a systematic series of disappearances among the 12-year-old boy population; has the tree cast some form of glamor over the entire town? The climax, in which Teddy negotiates the dim, dusty world of the sycamore, proved so visually confusing I gave up trying to make logical sense of it and let myself succumb to a surreal vision—it worked for me.

When I closed the book, I wondered how the boys Teddy saved would cope with their new lives, devoid of family and many familiar landmarks; and I liked Dead Boys even more for having provoked such questions. Highly recommended.

The Dead Boys Book Cover The Dead Boys
Royce Buckingham
Juvenile Fiction
Penguin
2010
201

Timid 12-year-old Teddy Mathews and his mother move to a small, remote desert town in eastern Washington, where the tree next door, mutated by nuclear waste, eats children and the friends Teddy makes turn out to be dead boys trying to lure him into becoming the tree's next victim.