Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Roman Mysteries

Titles:  Thieves of Ostia; Secrets of Vesuvius; Pirates of Pompeii; Assassins of Rome; Dophins of Laurentum; Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina; Enemies of Jupiter; Gladiators from Capua; Colossus of Rhodes; Fugitive from Corinth; Sirens of Surrentum; Charioteer of Delphi; Slave-Girl from Jerusalem; Beggar of Volubilis; Scribes from Alexandria; Prophet from Ephesus; Man from Pomegranate Street; Legionary from Londinium; Trimalchio's Feast; as well as a travel guide, two quiz books, and a live-action BBC series production

Author:  Caroline Lawrence

Rating:  *** (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
              Highly Recommended

Audience:  5th grade and up

The Roman Mystery series offers an untapped historical setting for young mystery lovers:  The Mediterranean in A.D. 79.  Meet Flavia Gemina, 12-year old daughter of a ship's captain in Ostia, Italy.  Teaming up with her new neighbor Jonathan, a rescued slave girl named Nubia and Lupus, a mute orphan boy, the four friends eventually travel far and wide through the Roman Empire solving mysteries, including those concerning their own families.

These books are amazingly accurate to historical settings and details.  You can practically hear the slave market, smell the fishmongers, and feel the steamy baths as you follow Flavia around town.  Author Caroline Lawrence has extensive classical background, from archeology and language study to religion, teaching and traveling.  She also spares few details from an era where twelve year olds were on the cusp of adulthood.  There are a few brutal scenes and a few mature themes, but these are historically accurate, not gratuitous as we witness in much media today.

Chasing Vermeer

Titles:  Chasing Vermeer; The Wright 3; The Calder Game; The Danger Box; Hold Fast; Pieces and

Author:  Blue Balliet

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
              Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  4th grade and up

When my 10 year old discovered these books by Blue Balliet, it was as if a new world was opened up to her.  All of a sudden she was talking about pentominoes, architects, puzzles, artists and Calder sculptures.  (Did you know there's a "Calder" at the public art walk in Seattle?)  This was one of the series she begged me over and over to read for myself.  I finally got around to it when I heard Balliet had published a fourth:  Pieces and Players.

In the first book, Chasing Vermeer, Balliet introduces her nerdy, cross-cultural trio of friends:  Calder Pillay, Petra Andalee and Tommy Segovia from the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago.  Actually, they're so busy being suspicious of each other, they aren't quite friends when the book starts.  As they overcome their prejudices they find they have plenty in common when it comes to solving puzzles and helping their favorite 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hussey.

Calder particularly likes to trust his pentominoes for clues when solving mysteries.  For the uninitiated, pentominoes are 12 puzzle pieces in varying shapes, each made up of 5 squares.  The 12 different shapes represent 12 letters in the alphabet and can even be fitted together in one large rectangle.  When Calder pulls a "U" pentomino out of his pocket, he wonders if it stands for  "understand," or "under," or maybe "University School."  He tells Petra, "They help me figure things out.... seems like the pentominoes kind of talk to me.  I'll get the feeling that they want to tell me something, and so I'll grab one, and a word will just pop into my head."

Tommy and Calder have also created a pentomino code for their correspondence, which is fun for readers to decipher.  Illustrator Brett Helquist has added a picture mystery for readers as well, so this book engages bright readers on multiple levels.  Kids who wish to make their own cardboard pentominoes will even find instructions in the afterword!

Under the Egg

Author:  Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Rating:  ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  Middle School

My second WWII book in a row, Under the Egg plays out like a Monuments' Men for youth, although it is highly fictionalized.

13-year old Theodora (Theo) Tenpenny doesn't inherit much when her Grandpa Jack dies:  a few hundred dollars, a failing townhouse in Greenwich Village, and full-time care of her distracted, unstable mother.  There's also the unusual egg picture above the fireplace mantle and a few family chickens out back.

Grandpa Jack's final message to "look under the egg" finally begins to make sense when rubbing alcohol is spilled on a portion of the egg painting and a new image begins to appear.  Considering Jack's service in WWII, as well as his job as a security guard at the Metropolitan Art Museum, Theo is now faced with perplexing mysteries:  What is the painting?  And who was Uncle Jack?

With help from her friends (quirky, bold, new-agey Bodhi, Librarian Eddie and Episcopalian Reverend Cecily), Theo just might be able to solve these mysteries while preserving her family's way of life.

The book gives a nod to both Buddhist (Bodhi=Buddha's enlightenment) and Christian spirituality, but is primarily neutral in terms of moral instruction.  Fans of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Chasing Vermeer will definitely enjoy this eclectic take on art mysteries.