Sunday, October 12, 2014

MINI-REVIEWS: The Case of the Missing Marquess, Cybele’s Secret, and The City of Ember

All three of these books are middle-grade to YA novels, each in a different genre: mystery, fantasy, and science fiction respectively.  I’m reviewing them together because while I liked them all in different degrees, I don’t have much to say about each.  They were all good but didn’t stand out.  In the order I liked them:

Original Publication Year: 2006
Genre: Middle-grade, Mystery
Series: Enola Holmes #1
Format: Audio (Audible)
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren

Enola Holmes is the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft.  Enola was a late in life baby for their mother and on her 14th birthday her mother (the Marquess of the title) disappears without a trace.  Calling on her older brothers for help turns out to be a mistake, as they see her as nothing more than an ill-mannered burden and prepare to ship her off to a horrid girl’s boarding school.  Enola is cannot bear to be shipped off and is desperate to know what has happened to her mother so she makes her escape, using a number of disguises to get to London. She then sets out to discover what has happened to her mother (and a young missing duke to boot). 
If I was 10-14 years old I would have eaten this book up and asked for seconds.  As an adult, it definitely felt young and that is what in the end really stopped this from being a great read.  It suffers a little from the problem of Enola being way too young for almost everything that happens in the book, including the circumstances surrounding her mother’s disappearances.  Despite all that fussing, I did find the book charming and the puzzle is intriguing.  I liked it enough that I will definitely be continuing with the series which promises to develop interestingly. 
Final Verdict: An engaging historical mystery series that seems perfectly suited for middle grade readers and only slightly less so for adult readers.    3.4 out of 5 stars.

Original Publication Year: 2008
Genre: YA, Fantasy
Series: Wildwood #2
Format: Audio (library - digital)
Narrator: Justine Eyre
Awards: None

Marillier is known for her retellings of fairy tales and even her original stories have a very folk tale-esque quality to them.  This book was no exception.   In full disclosure I have not read the first in the Wildwood series so this was my introduction to the Transylvanian merchant family with connections to a magical world.  While I do wish I had read book one first I had no trouble keeping up with things - Marillier does a good job throwing in summaries to catch up new readers.  

Much of the action in this book takes place in a historical Istanbul and is focused on an artifact sacred to the ancient Goddess Cybele.  Interest in such an artifact is dangerous in the highly religious Muslim community on Istanbul.  The main character, Paula, is 18 and a scholar and she struggles with a lot of the restrictions placed on women in the Turkish culture.  She is a relatively likeable and strong female lead but I didn’t find her particularly interesting and she does a lot of stupid and naïve things because she’s young and thinks she knows best.  I found none of the characters all that interesting though there is some pretty transparent bait and switch things going on with a couple characters – i.e. they seem stereotypically good or bad but are not what they seem.  The setting is interesting however and there is a really fun obstacle course, Indiana Jones- style contest to wrap up the quest to return the artifact to where it belongs. 

Final Verdict: A perfectly readable, though not terribly remarkable YA book that is part fantasy and a little bit historical fiction.  3 out of 5 Stars.

Original Publication Year: 2004
Genre: Middle Grade, Science Fiction
Series: Book of Ember #1
Format: Audio (library – cds)
Narrator: Wendy Dillon
Awards: A bunch of children’s literary award

This one is a little bit of a challenge to judge.  I didn’t love it but that is because: a) I am not the intended audience and b) part of my dislike was for the narrator who is actually probably fine but her performance was pitched towards 9 year olds.  So for 9 year olds, I think this book has a lot of promise - an interesting premise and mystery. 

Unfortunately for adult readers there are some fatal flaws mostly to do with plausibility.  Many a great book has been built on completely implausible ideas but the internal logic must work and the story has to crack on and be completely absorbing to work.  I think this book lacks both of those.  One flaw,  that is a frequent pitfall for an adult reading children’s or YA literature, is that there is too much agency and authority given to its young main characters (in this book 12 year olds) and adults are marginalized and given no real role.  In The Case of the Missing Marquess this was less annoying because Enola truly has no trustworthy adults to turn to, but in this book there is no good reason for the children not to have enlisted the help of some trusted adult relatives.   The second big issue is the premise itself which upon any kind of reflection reveals itself to just be a spectacularly dumb, flimsy, or at the very least a poorly executed idea.  It is also hard to believe that a society would not have innovated or at least shown the tiniest bit of curiosity in 250 years. 

Final Verdict:  I think this is a pretty good children’s that really doesn’t translate well for adult readers.  I wanted to see what happened enough that I have started book 2 in the series but the problems from book one are just exacerbated.  2.75 out of 5 Stars.

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