Thursday, May 16, 2024

Spy Ring and Puzzleheart

Durst, Sarah Beth. Spy Ring
May 21, 2024 by Clarion Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus


Rachel and her best friend Joon are eleven, and live in Setauket, Long Island, New York. Rachel's mother is planning on marrying her boyfriend, who has been living with them for a year, and whom Rachel likes. Rachel and Joon have recently been obsessed with the Culper Ring during the Revolutionary War, and have been practicing their spying just like Anna "Nancy" Smith Strong, a local woman long thought to be the first woman spy for George Washingon. When they eavesdrop on Rachel's mom and Dave, they hear them talking about a silver ring that Dave wants to give Rachel so she feels included in their wedding, even though they haven't asked very much for her input. The ring apparently belonged to Nancy, even though it doesn't have enough provenance for the local museum to accept it. Rachel is so excited by this prospect that she and Joon rifle through her mother's things, find the ring, and clean it up. There is an inscription in it that says "find me", and the two decide that this must lead to a treasure, which would come in handy, since Joon's father has lost his job and the family is looking for affordable housing, most of which is located hours away from Setauket. They start at the local cemetary, where they find Nancy's tombstone and decipher a clue that gives them "stone". From there, they go to Patriot's Rock, see a 300 year old church, and inquire there. A woman suggests they look at the mural in their school, and the janitor kindly lets them in and helps them determine where Devil's Rock is. Later, looking at the local mill, they find numbers in the millstones on the ground around the 1930s reproduction. They get info from the library, and also from Linda, an elderly docent at the local museum. They even manage to get a key from an antique clock by setting it to the time 3:55! The portrait they saw at the library of Nancy and her husband gives them more clues, and the kids eventually have to ask Dave for help. He calls family members who have Nancy's family Bible, and by using a blow dryer on the pages, uncover another clue. This takes them to the attic, where Terry, who has not been happy with having kids wandering around historic sites, helps them uncover a box in the steeple of the church. Will this box hold the treasure? And will it help provide a way for Joon's family to stay?
Strengths: Ah, summer. Wouldn't it be great to have a day to bike around a picturesque portion of Long Island with your best friend and solve a 250 year old mystery about a strong and courageous woman who never got her due? Rachel and Joon do just that. All of the places in the book are based on really places in Setauket, where the author lives. There's clearly a lot of love for the area, as well as for local history in the writing. As someone who was eleven during the US Bicentennial, this story reminded me very strongly of the books and articles in Cricket Magazine that were prevalent at the time. Youngsters were always investigating historical events and finding out information that 200 years of adults couldn't uncover. This also had a bit of the feel of some 1950s series books set on the East Coast (which seemed VERY exotic to my Ohio sensibilities!) where kids would roam around the historic sites and sandy shoreline solving mysteries with the help of friendly old people. This is perfect summer reading for a rising fourth grader, but be prepared for a lot of pleas to travel to Setauket and the East Coast to see more Revolutionary War history.
Weaknesses: As an adult, it stretched my credulity that the children were able to intuit all of these clues so quickly, but as a youngster, I would have believed it completely.
What I really think: This is a bit of a departure from Durst's fantasy books, but is a great exploration of little known US history that will appeal to readers who enjoyed Gutman's Flashback Four or Beil's The Swallowtail Legacy. It would make a great read aloud to go along with a Revolutionary War curriculum. 

Reese, Jenn. Puzzleheart
May 14, 2024 by Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Perigee and her father are traveling to visit her estranged grandmother, Savannah Ecklund, who lives in the puzzle house that she built with her husband, Herbert. After he died suddenly when Perigee's father was young, Savannah sent her son to live with relatives because she was so consumed with grief. Perigee hopes that by bringing their father to visit, it will help him with his depression after losing his job and reconnect him with his mother. The house on Enigma Lane was supposed to be open to the public, and never was, so the puzzles Savannah and Herbert had planned never got to be operated. Savannah is in the house with Lily, whom she is watching while Lily's mother is doing search and rescue training, and the two have to sleep in the library because the rest of the house is so dangerous. Lily and Perigee are determined to solve the puzzle and make the house safe, but the House is not happy, and we hear from it in alternating chapters. The two children are able to find some coins that operate some of the puzzles, like a waterfall behind glass, but get lost in some of the secret passages, which is dangerous. They make some good progress, but Savannah is not happy at all, and threatens to raze the house because she wants to be left alone. This hurts the House's feelings, which makes things more dangerous. Will Perigee and Lily be able to solve the puzzle and reconcile Perigee's father and grandmother?
Strengths: Perigee's desire to help their father and reunite their family is admirable, and the idea of a puzzle house is enthralling. The details of the house are endlessly fascinating, and I sort of want a wooden puzzle version of the house to make, complete with tiny squirrel statues! Lily is a good foil for Perigee, and willing to go along with all of the plans while having ideas of her own. This has a happy ending, which is not always the case when a sentient House is angry with you.
Weaknesses: I always have a hard time believing that parents are so affected by grief that they abandon living children who need them, but I suppose it does happen. The father's depression is hinted at, but since it affects Perigee so much, more details about how the two deal with this might have been instructional for younger readers.
What I really think: This is very similar to Currie's The Mystery of the Locked Rooms (4/2/24), which had a puzzle house that had long been abandoned until children break in and solve the puzzles. This will be a big hit with fans of this author's Every Bird a Prince and A Game of Fox & Squirrels or books with sentient houses like Funaro's Watch Hollow or Josephson's Ravenfall.

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