Sunday, August 21, 2011

Arty -- The Red Blazer Girls by Michael D. Beil

It all starts when Sophie screams during class. See, she thought she saw a ghostly face in the window of the church across from their Catholic school, St. Veronica's. Naturally - this wouldn't be a detective story if she didn't - she investigates, along with her two best friends, Margaret and Rebecca.

What they find isn't a ghost, but an old woman named Elizabeth Harrison. And Ms. Harrison needs help. Her late father left a puzzle for his granddaughter - Ms. Harrison's estranged daughter - to solve, but never gave it to Caroline (the daughter) before he died. After so long, Ms. Harrison found the puzzle - and now she wants to recruit Sophie, Margaret, and Rebecca to solve the puzzle.

What are three girls to do except say yes? Especially when - wait for it - treasure comes into the mix.

I've never been a huge fan of mystery - never liked Nancy Drew, believe it or not - but this one sounded good enough to pick up. And it was good. The plot is a bit cliché - I mean, what girl detective(s) hasn't solved the clues to find a treasure? - but the twist to the clues Beil puts on it made it pretty fun.

To wit: they were all 'smart' clues, relating to the arts, religion, sociology, geography, history, and, most of all, mathematics. It was a fun ride, even if I had most of the clues solved before Sophie and Co did. But I enjoy feeling intelligent, so it was a plus rather than a minus.

You'll notice that it's a male writer, writing from the first-person POV of a seventh-grade girl. Usually I have no problem with this - The Sisters Grimm series, for example - but for this book, it seemed a bit... obvious. The girls usually acted like boys more than girls. I can't stand the girly-girls that most of these kinds of books have, but there were a few instances where the 'boyness' really jumped out. Another jarring aspect was the near-constant lack of contractions. Again, not that big of a problem, but they just didn't sound like young teenaged girls.

Character development was a tad lacking. As interesting and individual the back of the book made them sound, I often got Sophie, Margaret, and Rebecca confused. Sophie's hyper, Margaret is Polish, and Rebecca's an artist - I knew that, but I didn't feel it. Surprisingly, the adults had more personality - but when certain plot twists came about, it felt like the author had just decided to change the characters without adding any hints or clues that this change might be possible. The word 'jarring' comes to mind again.

Before you get any silly idea that I didn't like the book, let me say that I loved the mystery part of it. The clues were awesome ('listen very closely to the words of the dumb ox'), and I even learned a few things. It's been a while since I picked up facts in a novel that might actually be useful. I even enjoyed the math (though mostly because, being older than the girls, I knew what they were talking about, therefore enabling me to feel intelligent again). And the treasure at the end - well, I won't spoil anything, but I loved it. The setting - a Catholic church and school in the Upper East Side of New York - was awesome, too.

Summed up, this first Red Blazer Girls book (Amazon now calls it The Ring Of Rocamadour, though my copy just says The Red Blazer Girls) is a promising start to a new detective series. Two more books are already out - The Vanishing Violin and The Mistaken Masterpiece - are already out, and I'm definitely keeping me eye out for them.

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