April 17, 2014


Alice-Miranda 4: Alice-Miranda at Sea. By Jacqueline Harvey. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits. By Michael D. Bell. Knopf. $15.99.

Lost Children of the Far Islands. By Emily Raabe. Knopf. $16.99.

     The fourth adventure of ever-perky, decidedly rich, unassuming and always-helpful Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones continues in the vein of the first three by offering a mild mystery and tons of charm oozing from every page. Jacqueline Harvey’s books may be formulaic, but the formula is enough fun to keep fans of Alice-Miranda and her decidedly upscale adventures reading. The posh doings this time occur aboard a ship – a royal yacht, no less – aboard which Aunty Gee is hosting the wedding of Aunt Charlotte to Lawrence Ridley. Absolutely all the upper-crust types are there, even the insufferable Ambrosia Headlington-Bear, who is invited because she is the mother of Alice-Miranda’s friend Jacinta but who does not even realize that Jacinta is aboard until Alice-Miranda tells her: “I was invited because I always get invited to these things,” Ambrosia declares, and is less than thrilled to find out that in this case she was invited because of her daughter. Amid the family snootiness is the mystery that Alice-Miranda needs to figure out, which involves a possible jewel thief aboard and some jewels perhaps hidden in a trumpet case – and a ship’s doctor who looks entirely too familiar for someone Alice-Miranda is sure, or pretty sure, she has never met before. Alice-Miranda has a good word for everyone, as usual. Typical dialogue, from one single scene: “Please, I’m a very good listener.” “Your mother was famous.” “That’s so beautiful.” “That’s a wonderful story.” “I’m just glad that things have worked out.” In reality, it talks a little bit of effort for things to work out here, as secrets are revealed, an evil (and silly) scheme is uncovered, and bad guys make comments such as, “Keep your hair on, little one.” Eventually, parents and kids are reconciled, friendships are made or cemented, and Alice-Miranda is so sweet and nice and wonderful that she has plenty of heroism left over to share with friends and carry over to the next book.

     There is heroism aplenty in Michael D. Bell’s Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits as well – much of it in the person of Lantern Sam, who is not a person at all. He is a male calico cat (those are very rare: almost all calicoes are female), looking quite bedraggled and very much the worse for wear, who lives aboard a fictional train called the Lake Erie Shoreliner in the 1930s and who just happens to be a great detective. He also talks a mighty good game – yes, talks, although only a few people can hear him. Such as 10-year-old Henry Shipley, who is aboard the train and who meets a girl named Ellie who soon disappears, with a ransom note shortly to follow and a mystery to be unraveled as the train barrels along. Lantern Sam is preoccupied with two things: solving mysteries and eating sardines that he gets from the train’s conductor, Clarence, who helps cat and boy in their search for clues and culprits. The cat detective contributes chapters called “The Almost Entirely True Autobiography of Lantern Sam” that are interleaved with Henry’s narrative of the long-ago train ride and search for Ellie. The cat’s musings are along these lines: “I give Clarence a hard time every now and again, but all in all, he’s a good egg, and he did save my life. Well, one of my lives, anyway.” Lantern Sam – he has a lantern-shaped spot on his side, and was also once, in his own words, “incinerated by a railroad lantern” – is sarcastic in expression and darn good in a fight: “The image of that calico missile flying through the air with all seventeen claws extended and teeth bared while screaming ‘Mrrrraaaaa!’ is one that no one in that dining car will ever forget.” And of course he does help Henry solve the mystery – and at the end of the book, which takes place 75 years later than the events on the train, we find out what all this ended up meaning to Henry and Ellie many years later. Actually, the book’s conclusion seems to preclude a sequel – unusual in books of this kind – but maybe, just maybe, one of Lantern Sam’s descendants will turn out to have some of his mystery-solving and communicating-with-selected-humans abilities.

     A darker and more serious book whose fantasy elements are of a much more traditional kind, Lost Children of the Far Islands, by first-time author Emily Raabe, also features animals; but these are actually shape-changing humans, or rather Folk, among whom are twins Augusta (Gus) and Leo and their little sister, Ila, who never speaks (in the first part of the book). They do not know of their ancestry and special powers, though – at least not until their mother becomes ill and the children realize that what is sapping her strength is her increasingly desperate attempt to protect them from one of those ancient and unfathomable evils that inevitably crop up in fantasies of this ilk. This one is a very toothy and multi-jawed creature called the Dobhar-chú or King of the Black Lakes, which is given to the typical pronouncements of bad guys (or bad things) in gloating language whose sole purpose is to keep the plot moving – for example, saying to Ila: “Child, you are fun! …I’d almost like to keep you. But, alas, bigger plans, bigger plans! Once I am rid of you and your sister and brother, nothing will hold me on this scrubby little island.” Yes, this is yet another tale in which a super-powerful ancient being can somehow be conquered only by three modern children – admittedly, in this case, two who can change themselves into seals and one who can transform into a fox. As usual in books like this, the kids have a teacher, too, called the Mórai. And of course there is an ultimate confrontation that begins when “something swam back and forth in the water, just under the surface, something dark and massive and unmistakably evil.” The eventual rescue of Ila and saving of the world and all that results from a reconsideration of what the words “Lost Children” actually mean in a poem within a book called The Book of the Folk. It is all very mystical and very transformational and very meaningful and very, very conventional, including a conclusion in which the kids are not sure they will ever be able to shapeshift again but there is a last hint that there may be further adventures to come. Lost Children of the Far Islands is no better and no worse than many other fantasy adventures for preteens – Raabe gets the pacing right, uses old legends (notably that of the selkies) as the basis of her story, and makes sure that there are numerous coming-of-age elements to go with the straightforward elements of adventure. Young readers seeking a world of wonder – any world of wonder – may enjoy the book. But those who have read other fantasy adventures may well have the feeling that they have seen all this before, in similar if not identical guises. They will be right.

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