August 05, 2010


Turtle in Paradise. By Jennifer L. Holm. Random House. $16.99.

Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, Casebook No. 4: The Final Meeting. By Tracy Mack & Michael Citrin. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel IV: The Necromancer. By Michael Scott. Delacorte Press. $18.99.

Hawksmaid: The Untold Story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. By Kathryn Lasky. Harper. $16.99.

The Carrie Diaries. By Candace Bushnell. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $18.99.

     Take your pick: visits to the recent past, the mythic past, the historical past, the fictional past, even the maybe-historical past are all here. Turtle in Paradise is a personal, fictionalized memoir of Great Depression life in the Florida Keys, based on stories that author Jennifer L. Holm heard from her great-grandmother. It is one of those spunky-girl-learns-about-life tales that many preteens (the book’s target audience) will find attractive, featuring an 11-year-old girl – the “Turtle” of the title – in 1935, living with a batch of unruly boy cousins while her mother struggles to make ends meet as a housekeeper. The name “turtle” turns out to refer, unsurprisingly, to the protagonist’s emotional shell and how she learns to come out of it. It is also a reference to the turtle harvests that were common in the Depression but are now the height of political and ecological incorrectness. There is plenty of period color here – “Mama’s head is so high in the clouds, I’m surprised she doesn’t bump into Amelia Earhart,” for example, and “Little Orphan Annie and Terry Lee get into scrapes, but they always get rescued.” And there are some scary moments involving a major storm – there really was a Labor Day hurricane in 1935. At bottom, though, this is a familiar, and familiarly heartwarming, story of a young girl thrust into unfamiliar circumstances, making the best of them, and doing a lot of growing up in the process.

     There is growing up at the end of The Final Meeting as well, but this growth is as completely fictional as is the famed sleuth around whose adventures this fourth (and apparently final) Baker Street Irregulars book is built: Sherlock Holmes. The idea of the series by Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin has been to take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brief references to street urchins who helped Holmes in some cases and expand them into full-blown novels – with the kids at the center and playing a far more central role than they ever did in anything by Doyle. The story underlying The Final Meeting is The Final Problem, the story Doyle created to get rid of Holmes so people would focus on Doyle’s other work – an approach that backfired when readers absolutely demanded Holmes’ return, leading Doyle eventually to bring him back after a rather unsatisfying explanation of why Moriarty, but not the great detective, had perished at the Reichenbach Falls. As in the other books in the Mack-Citrin series, the street kids are smarter and more aware of things – and Holmes rather less so – than in Doyle’s work; but of course that is inevitable in tales designed to exaggerate the children’s importance. As it happens, The Final Problem is quite a short Holmes tale (Doyle really did want to be rid of the character), so this book’s expansion to well over 200 pages is more than a bit of a stretch. But there is plenty of time here to explore the relationships among the young characters, and also to find a way to make them – well, some of them – privy to the eventual secret of Holmes’ survival. The authors’ main invention is a particular relationship involving Moriarty and another character; they use this to allow the Irregulars to follow clues in one direction while Holmes follows them in another way, although of course everything eventually meets. The appendices, including a brief biography of Doyle, a discussion of Victorian-era trains, and more, are worthy additions to a preteen-oriented quartet of novels that adds nothing to the Holmes canon but may pique some young readers’ interest in exploring Doyle’s original stories.

     The six-book series, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, continues at its headlong pace in the fourth volume, The Necromancer. Flamel seems in these novels to be as fictional as Holmes, if not more so, but there really was a 14th-century alchemist named Nicolas [sic] Flamel, and he really did, as in these books, have a wife named Perenelle (spelled correctly by Michael Scott). Intended for ages 12 and up, this series is a bit of a stretch at holding the interest of all but the youngest teenagers, being a fairly commonplace (if scarcely straightforward) story of good and evil magic and a magic-mastering attempt by two young people (named, in a rather obvious way, “Newman” = new man [and woman]). The Necromancer – which will be followed, eventually, by The Warlock and The Enchantress – feels a great deal like a midpoint novel, with Josh and Sophie pausing for a rest in San Francisco and trying to decide what to do in light of their failure to learn the protective magics on which they have been working. They are also unsure at first whether to continue to trust Flamel himself, but they certainly know to keep avoiding Dr. Dee, whose fruitless pursuit of two missing codex pages has led him to be outlawed by his Elder masters. Much of the book moves on two tracks – Josh/Sophie on one and Nicholas/Perenelle on the other – but of course they come together in the face of the primary threat, in which Dr. Dee decides to train a necromancer in order to raise the Mother of the Gods, Coatlicue (an Aztec goddess), from the dead. The series continues to mash together myths and legends from many sources, including characters ranging from Mars to Machiavelli. The book moves along smartly and will satisfy readers of the ongoing series, although it is scarcely a worthwhile point of entry to Josh and Sophie’s adventures.

     Like Nicolas Flamel, Robin Hood appears to have been a real person, at least in some form – and in an even earlier time, the 12th century. Modern notions of Robin Hood robbing the rich to give to the poor, and earlier legends of him as the stalwart supporter of King Richard during the regency of the hated Prince (later King) John, seem to have little basis in fact, but they have certainly captured the popular imagination. So has the never-very-fleshed-out relationship between Robin and Maid Marian; and it is the “back story” of that story on which Kathryn Lasky focuses in Hawksmaid. Here Marian is Matty Fitzwalter, daughter of a famous falconer and a girl raised to dance and embroider with skill so she can marry nobly. But her destiny is, of course, different: her mother is murdered, her father impoverished, and Matty finds her solace with hunting hawks – especially a merlin (a bird, not the Merlin of Arthurian legend): she names the bird Marigold, trains it and finds it her closest friend, except perhaps for a young man named Fynn. In this story, it is Fynn who becomes Robin Hood, and it is Matty who is largely responsible for finding a way to ransom King Richard and prevent Prince John from usurping the throne. Lasky’s book, like Scott’s Flamel series, is intended for preteens and young teenagers. Hawksmaid will likely appeal mostly to preteen girls, who will find Matty an attractively forthright, brave and clever protagonist. The nearly human hawks, which play as large a role in the story as do the humans, are an attractive element, and the notion that Marian, Robin and other characters knew each other as children and grew into noble causes and outlawry together is attractive as well. The ins and outs of the story are perhaps on the formulaic side, especially in terms of the 100% evil characters and 100% good ones. But as a fast-paced adventure novel, Hawksmaid has much to recommend it.

     The Carrie Diaries is another “back story,” but a strictly modern one. And in Candace Bushnell’s book’s case, there is no question that the central character never did exist. She is Carrie Bradshaw, instantly recognizable to all fans of Sex and the City – the TV show and, so far, two movies. Carrie is, of course, a writer, but how did she become one? That is the rather thin underlying premise of The Carrie Diaries, which gives readers Carrie as a high-school senior, observant and clever but certainly not worldly – and a virgin. The book, like Sex and the City, is basically about friendship among women (young women, in this case), the impossibility of trusting men (or, here, boys), and the need to find yourself and then do what you need to do to fulfill your destiny as you define it – a point brought home with blaring obviousness at the book’s end, when a totally destitute Carrie uses the writing she has done so far as the basis for her determination to make it in New York, which readers know she will. Fans of the later Carrie should at least enjoy the dialogue and narrative here: “The only way to look at men is like they’re electrons. They have all these charges sticking out, and they’re always looking for a hole where they can put those charges.” “The idea of ‘dumping the bastard’ was like rocket fuel, shooting me into a stratosphere of uncaring bliss.” “The alcohol works its magic and I suddenly don’t care about anything anymore. I take off my stole and make the mink heads drink beer.” The Carrie Diaries is entirely superficial and, although somewhat toned down from Sex and the City, goes out of its way to proffer a with-it vibe at all costs. It is, however, far less interesting than the later adventures of Carrie and friends in the big city: despite some bright writing, it is hard to imagine that adult readers of Sex and the City will want to read The Carrie Diaries or give the book to their teenage daughters. In fact, the audience for the book is a little difficult to determine. It seems to be aimed at teens who have heard a lot about Sex and the City but don’t care much about it, but might get interested if Carrie had more in common with them. Far-fetched? Well, why shouldn’t that be the intended audience? After all, Carrie herself suggests here, “Think odd thoughts.”

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