Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator; Story Time; Leonard da Vinci; and Valley of Secrets

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor

Jennifer Allison.
Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator

Dutton Children's Books. 2005.

Buy now from Amazon!Gilda Joyce is a girl in search of a mission. She has already decided to be a psychic investigator (and she's not waiting to grow up to start on this career), but she is short on mysteries to solve. She's so desperate that she has resorted to spying on the guy at the local Gas Mart, who seems to be a bit disgusting and suffer from poor fashion sense, but not much else. It's looking like a long dull summer without her best friend, who is off to camp, and struggling with memories of how much happier her family was when her father was still alive and money was not the central issue in all of their lives. In short, Gilda is desperate for adventure and she's the kind of girl who is more than willing to go find herself one if that's what it takes to gain career success.

In Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator there is indeed one big fat adventure awaiting our heroine. She ends up in San Francisco of all places (a journey that is neatly explained in the opening chapters), and soon has a bonafide haunting to research and expose. There was a mysterious suicide from a dark tower that must be considered and the possibility of a murder and cover-up. Her second cousin Juliet is in danger of disappearing into a haze of depression and secrets are behind every door, especially the one that is locked. What Gilda has is her father's typewriter for keeping track of clues, her ouija board for conducting séances, and her disguises for making sure that no possible villain is ignored. Along with Juliet she finds out just what happened in the tower so many years before, and who has been responsible for all the lies that followed. She also learns a thing or two about her own family and what it means to miss someone long after they are gone.

There are a lot of things I liked about Gilda Joyce starting with the relationship between Gilda and Juliet. Separately I would never believe that either one of these girls could solve this mystery, but together they are the perfect detective duo. I also loved that fact that all the creepiness is not explained, that clearly some otherworldly things happen in this book and they are accepted as the unexplainable. It's not all psychic visitations though, and the traditional girl detective elements of locked doors, cryptic clues and daring outbursts are all present. Author Jennifer Allison moves beyond the formula with her book however, and has created a very funny and engaging heroine. It is nice to see Gilda's family engaged in the story as well; it makes her more a typical teenager and provides some interesting insights into her motivations as well.

All in all, Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator was a great night of reading. Give it some extra atmosphere (fireplace, winter storm, darkened hallway) and readers have a most excellent evening or two ahead of them. It might even prompt a few to buy themselves a typewriter. Now that would be cool!


Edward Bloor
Story Time

Harcourt. 2004.

Buy now from Amazon! At first, Story Time seems like a straight forward satire of the education industry aimed at the young adult crowd. Kate and George have tested into their town's top school, Whittaker Magnet School. It seems to be a dream come true (for George at least), but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it should be. The school exists strictly for standardized testing and rote memorization, the students are kept in an underground basement in dank classrooms that soon result in Kate referring to her classmates as "Mushroom children" and everyone must drink horrible protein shakes. Humiliation and harassment are the order of the day and everything is approved in the name of higher test scores, which result in higher property values, which keeps the local County Board handily on the side of the school's administration. All of this would be bad enough for Kate and George (and it is) but then a demon is loosed in the library and people (admittedly rather horrible people) start dying. And suddenly Kate and George realize that Whittaker School must stopped; not just for their own good, but pretty much for the sake of civilization as we know it.

First, you should know this is a very funny book. It's a direct attack on our testing society and hammers more than one solid truth about what makes schools a true place of learning. Bloor also goes after the military industrial complex (on a level easily understood by a twelve year old) and makes his case that perhaps developing weapons of mass destruction is not the best use of our time (go figure). The whole thing is wrapped in a very good family story about a marriage that fell apart because someone forgot that sometimes you have to believe in the people you love, no matter what. Oh--and also it doesn't hurt to have good friends when the chips are down (or demons are loose) either.

The biggest thing about Edward Bloor is that he knows his readers are smart and savvy and he treats them with the respect they deserve. He also knows they like to have a good time on occasion and Story Time is an excellent place to do just that. Kate and George aren't sure always what they should do and are certainly over their heads more than once, but they are fearless in the face of adversity and committed to each other as only an Aunt and nephew (it all makes sense) can be. They know that sometimes kids have to save themselves regardless of what the adults have to say and they aren't interested in wasting any time standing around wondering what they should do. Bloor gives them some good friends (both adult and child) to aid in their adventure and it all comes together so well that the First Lady and President (who are visiting) can't deny all the dastardly deeds committed by the Whittaker family.

In other words, the bad guys get it in the end.

I love Bloor's books and Story Time is definitely a treat. I wish someone would send it to President Bush and his entire Cabinet. Maybe then we could fix the education system in America. "No child left behind" my ass. None of it matters if you don't learn anything in the process; Edward Bloor knows that, what's our excuse?


Kathleen Krull.
Illustrated by Boris Kulikov.
Leonardo da Vinci.
Viking. 2005.
ISBN 0-670-05920-X

Buy now from Amazon!This is the first of Krull's "Lives of…" series books that I've read and I'm suitably impressed. Writing nonfiction for young readers can't be easy, at least it seems like it would be hard to me, and da Vinci is both a complex and ancient character to choose (to most kids anyway), but Krull manages to make him both alive and relevant, something pretty impressive as I'm concerned.

What we know about da Vinci is that he was born in 1452 and that he was insatiably curious--a true renaissance man. He experimented constantly on a multitude of subjects ranging from human anatomy to weapons of war. He was an engineer, an artist and a philosopher who was determined to learn as much about the world around him as possible. The fact that he accomplished all of this in a time when many people were ignorant and illiterate has only added to his mystique. Leonardo was a genius, pure and simple, but even more impressively, he was committed to learning and it is this attitude that Krull explores so effectively.

No biography is successful if the biographer is unable to properly convey both the life and times of the subject. Krull is writing for a young audience who has limited, if any knowledge, of her subject but she immediately drops them into the reality of the Middle Ages. She makes sure they understand how dirty, dangerous and disgusting it was to live in that time and also does not shy away from da Vinci's birth as an illegitimate child of a peasant girl and distant father. She follows his journey from his grandparents' house to Florence and later Milan, relying on his natural drawing talent to pave the way to bigger and better things. Although da Vinci was clearly destined to be a great artist it was his determination to understand everything, to investigate all about the world that piqued his curiosity that certainly drove his success. Krull shows that this need to understand and know more was critical to da Vinci's achievements and certainly reveals him to be a modern day hero for likeminded young children.

Krull's prose is direct and easy to understand while never talking down to her audience. Boris Kulikov's black and white drawings are a perfect complement to the text, showing da Vinci conducting numerous experiments in the course of his life. Together they make this a great middle grade biography that would be helpful to any reader of any age who needs an introductory primer on the great genius. It also should be noted that Krull devotes two chapters to da Vinci's infamous notebooks, and follows up on where they are now. Their inclusion as such a vital part of da Vinci's story makes it clear to readers that journals are important at any step in the learning process and hopefully will serve as an inspiration to other curious future Leonardos!


Charmian Hussey.
Illustrated by Christopher Crump.
The Valley of Secrets.
Simon & Schuster. 2005.
ISBN 0-689-87862-1

Buy now from Amazon!The entire time I was reading The Valley of Secrets I kept feeling like I was reading an old book or an old fashioned story written one hundred or more years ago. It has a timeless, aged quality to it that made me think of something from the late 19th century although it is clearly a modern story (cars and trains and sneakers are in the text just as they should be). It kind of lulled me a bit into a nostalgic mood, and proved to be a very nice comfort book as the weather turned decidedly nasty outside. As it is in some ways a call to arms about the deforestation of the Rain Forest, I did not expect to feel such a warmth towards the book as I was reading it (I thought I would be feeling much more militant), but Charmian Hussey is mostly telling a story here, not selling a message. And that makes it a wonderful read on any level.

In the opening chapters we learn that the Lansbury Estate is quite mysterious and Theo Lansbury has not been seen by the people of the nearby town for many years. An equally mysterious letter brings young orphaned Stephen Lansbury, who is interested in "biology, zoology and wildlife conservation" onto the scene. Over the ensuing chapters the estate's secrets are slowly and carefully explained. Stephen must read the old Amazon journals of his great uncle Theo to find out why the estate is so important and the nature of the legacy he has been entrusted to maintain. He also has to learn to live in a mansion that seems stuck in time and to face his fears as he wanders around the overgrown valley. The parallel storylines, both of Stephen's discoveries and his uncle Theo's Amazon expedition, each have their own set of excitements and concerns. Suffice to say, all is explained by the very satisfactory ending and Stephen in particular proves to be very engaging hero.

All in all The Valley of the Secrets is a good page turner, but an even better cozy mystery. It's British through and through and accomplishes a great deal more with its quiet manner than any number of more "in your face" titles. Hussey also includes several sources at the end for readers who are curious about learning more about the Amazon Basin which I'm sure will be very welcome to budding naturalists. I hope she sticks with her very unique writing style because there really aren't many books like hers out there. A ten year old (or twelve, or fifteen) will disappear, quite literally, into Stephen's world for days. And that is a great way to spend a rainy winter vacation. In fact, it is the perfect way.


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