Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Back to the usual

It's time to get caught up on reviews! I'll start with the juvenile puzzle mystery type books. This is the companion post to this post right here., in which I reviewed The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Puzzling World of Winston Breen. I set out to read several juvenile novels in a similar vein, but the third was mis-printed, thus missing many pages, so I had to wait for the replacement. It sort of derailed my whole plan, but I've finished Chasing Vermeer, Shakespeare's Secret, and The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. The interesting thing to me about reading all five in a short-ish period of time is that I had lumped them all into one category, but they're really quite distinct from each other.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett: I've read that this is like DaVinci Code for children, but it's far better written, and there are elements of Magnolia as well. It takes place at University of Chicago Laboratory School, which was a lot of fun for me because I lived near there for three years, and Matt, who lived there as a child, actually went to Lab School. Petra and Calder, two U School students, are brought together by an eccentric elderly woman, mysterious letters, a troubled teacher, and the theft of a Vermeer painting by a thief who ostensibly has ideals. The crime has baffled the FBI--can two precocious children solve it using puzzles and coincidences? I enjoyed the highly improbable mystery and the unfolding coincidences. It takes a while for everything to come together, but Petra and Calder's budding friendship gives the reader something interesting while we wait. I would have loved this book as a child, with all the puzzles to figure out and a very complicated plot that doesn't underestimate its readers. The added element of learning art history is fantastic--like the world seized by interest in Vermeer in the book, children reading this will be sucked right into learning about Vermeer, and it could spark an interest in other mysterious artists.

Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach: This was similar to Chasing Vermeer, but the focus here is on never-popular, unassuming Hero Netherfield, named after the Much Ado About Nothing character by her Shakespeare scholar father, and her developing confidence as she grows into her name and begins to make friends. The plot is much more simple, even stripped-down compared to Vermeer, more a crossword puzzle than a Dan Brown potboiler. Hero's new house, she learns from her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Roth, has a mystery: a diamond that was supposedly stolen may still be hidden there. As her friendship with Mrs. Roth grows and she is drawn into the mystery, Hero begins to learn about Shakespeare and the mystery surrounding his identity (along with some history of the time period), while making friends with the popular Danny Cordova. The story is more plausible and understated the the slick-by-comparison Chasing Vermeer, and the characters are more developed, leading to a surprisingly touching conclusion. Like the art history in Chasing Vermeer, the literary history in Shakespeare's Secret is sure to lead at least some readers into further research.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E. L. Konigsberg: I loved E. L. Konigsberg as a child. I checked all her books out of the library, and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler a dozen times, not to mention Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (Konigsberg does not shy away from the long titles), and more recently, I had loved The View From Saturday, so I was the most excited about this book, but it was the one in the group of five that I liked the least. Amedeo wants to distinguish himself by discovering something, anything, of significance. He ends up helping a classmate, William Wilcox (who HAS actually discovered something important), prepare eccentric neighbor Mrs. Zender's house for an estate sale. He finds a sketch signed by Modigliani, who was reviled in Nazi Germany. Coincidentally, his godfather is working on a Degenerate Art exhibit at his museum. It takes forever for everything to come together, and the writing seemed odd to me. Very stilted dialogue, almost stylized and theatrical, with odd repetitions. I didn't really sympathize with Amedeo and William the way I did in the other four juvenile mysteries I read because they didn't feel real and fleshed out. The sections from Peter's (the godfather) point-of-view seemed out of place in a children's book. Mrs. Zender was more pathetic than anything, and a most unsympathetic character. The history lessons with Nazi treatment of art were interesting, however. Maybe I just missed the point on this one.


Holly said...

Oh, I didn't know you were reading Shakespeare's Secret! I will have to share Masterpiece with you when I'm done with it. And thank you for reviewing Chasing Vermeer. That one has been on my radar since it came out several years ago now. All of Balliett's books have jumped out at me. I will get to them someday. :-)

View from Saturday and The Outcasts of 19 Schuylur Place jumped out at me of Konigsburg's books.

allisonmariecat said...

You'd love Chasing Vermeer! It makes art history seem very cool :) Masterpiece sounds fun, too.