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.

Review: Mothman’s Curse, Christine Hayes

I have a strong prejudice: The world needs more MG horror stories that deliver supernaturally-provoked chills with bedwetting intensity. MOTHMAN’S CURSE ignited my hope that here was a worthy addition to a fairly short list; it begins out with a great hook:

“When you live in the most haunted town in America, you’ve heard most every ghost story that’s ever been spun about your corner of the world: . . . .”

I prefer ghost stories, but I happily scoop up MG horror stories that creatively skyline all sorts of supernaturals, so long as they don’t cheat on the creep. A sleepless night (or two) may inspire a love of horror that lasts a lifetime; that was certainly true for me.

The premise of MOTHMAN’S CURSE focuses on an intriguing supernatural legend that supposedly lurks—or did—in the mountains near Point Pleasant, West Virginia. In 1966 and 1967 a man-sized mothy critter reportedly fluttered through the area, looming up at night and scaring the poop out of a number of people. Some believed Mothman, as the apparition came to be called, was a harbinger of the late-1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge, which killed 46 people. This insect-man-thingy inspired an entertaining, if imperfect, movie—The Mothman Prophecies (2002)—in which Richard Gere dashes around Point Pleasant trying to fathom Mothman’s meaning. Prophecies wanders down one too many odd side paths, but it also delivers several nicely unsettling moments.

MOTHMAN’S CURSE is not unlike this movie. Excellent choice of supernatural beastie, intermittent entertainment, and a meandering plot.

Unsettling moments? Sadly, not so much.

The story: Josie, daughter of a widowed auctioneer and older sister to two brothers, finds a Polaroid camera that, although empty of film, produces pictures that reveal the image of a sad-faced elderly man, Mr Goodrich, who seems desperate to deliver a message . . . and who, they discover, killed himself. Josie learns the ghostly warnings refer to the Mothman, whose appearance presages deadly natural disasters.

From this intriguing premise, things grow complicated. Very complicated.

There’s a cursed gold hatpin; a dead mother, for whom Josie and her brothers grieve; boxes and boxes of papers, whose contents seem divorced from the plot; radios and televisions that transmit the voices of the dead; another ghost who occasionally flickers into view for no reason that moves the story forward; a father who spends most of the book confined to a hospital bed; a hairdresser who tells Josie’s aunt secrets surrounding deaths related to the Mothman, then clams up when approached by Josie and her brother; a pace-killing sidebar about Josie’s resentment that Mr Goodrich committed suicide; and, most disappointing, the Mothman reveal.

In one of the few nicely done chilling moments, early in the story, Josie catches a glimpse of red eyes glowing outside her bedroom window; a lovely bit of creepiness. However, having created an expectation that Mothman will continue to haunt Josie’s nights, Hayes has Mothman swoop about the auction house in broad daylight, practically brushing the heads of people gathered to bid and buy. Glowing red eyes in the night and a half-seen figure terrified Point Pleasant in the mid-sixties; sunshine and broad exposure turn this Mothman into a cross between an alarmed bat and a cheap, flashy Marvel comic character; hardly a figure to inspire fear. In fact, so unscary is this sight, hordes of sightseers promptly camp out in front of the auction house, hoping for another sighting.

The pace is quick, but this is almost despite the fact MOTHMAN becomes hampered by a confusion of minor characters (e.g., the helpful-then-not-helpful handyman/security guard/graduate student Mitch).

Yet, even all these things could not kill my anticipation; I can deal with myriad subplots and a broad cast of characters if the plot and writing deliver on the chills that are an inherent promise in a horror story.

Alas.

From beginning to end, scenes that ought to ratchet up the suspense, pushing readers toward a fit of shudders and a desperate need to learn what happens next—Will thousands be killed in a stadium collapse? Will Josie die because of the Mothman’s curse?—is delivered with all the tension involved in changing a roll of toilet paper.

I did enjoy the illustrations, and I hope the increased use of illustration in middle-grade books continues. This was once very popular, used to advance the plot, and its resurgence in recent years is gratifying. Kudos to James K. Hindle for this bookful of lively pictures.

I SO wanted to love MOTHMAN’S CURSE. I applaud Hayes’s attempt to exploit the Mothman legend in a middle-grade book. I hope she will try again, and I also hope more authors will produce genuinely scary horror—no gore or gratuitous violence—that will cause at least one or two sleepless nights for children of all ages.

Mothman's Curse Book Cover Mothman's Curse
Christine Hayes
Juvenile Fiction
Macmillan
2015-06-16
320

"When Josie and her brother Fox discover the truth behind the legend of the Mothman, they must stop a disaster in order to break the curse that has been afflicting their town"--

Twisty, ghosty fun. Review: The Swallow, by Charis Cotter

Just two words: The Swallow.

Okay, three more words: by Charis Cotter.

If you haven’t read it, go get it–bookstore, library, friend–and enjoy. Beautiful writing. Characters that grab one’s heart and hold on from beginning to end.

Creating a new twist on ghost stories is really hard. More than a few times, as I’ve wrestled with the stories I’m writing, I’ve sighed and thought “it’s all been done! I’ll never think of anything original.” Reworking a theme isn’t bad, of course; arguably nothing new has been penned since Pliny the Younger wrote a friend about the ghost that haunted an Athens house, complete with rattling chains. So, yeah, imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, and all that. Some authors, however, don’t even attempt to disguise their borrowing; more than a few ghost stories I’ve read in the past several years are obvious variations–slight variations–on The Sixth Sense (he was already dead!), The Shining, or are just plain dumb as well as derivative.

The Swallow is something different. Does it borrow? Yup. Does it do so cleverly? Oh, yeah!

Kudos to Charis Cotter for such a great story! This one is a keeper.

The Swallow Book Cover The Swallow
Charis Cotter
Juvenile Fiction
2014-09
318

Seeking solace in the attics of their adjoining houses in 1960s Toronto, Polly and Rose develop an unlikely friendship based on Rose's ability to see and talk to ghosts.