Ring of Fire, by R. D. Baccalario (Random House, 2009, upper middle grade, 291 pp) is an exciting fantasy/mystery for sixth graders on up.
In Rome, on December 29, four 12 year-old kids find themselves forced to share a hotel room. Harvey (from the New York), Mistral (from Paris), Sheng (from Shanghai), and Elletra (the hotel owner's daughter) are surprised and amused to find that they share the same strange birthday--February 29. But things quickly grow more surprising, and less amusing, when they go for a night-time ramble through the old streets of Rome, and a frantic man presses a briefcase on them.
"Please," the man insists. "They're looking for me. I don't have time to explain. No one does. No one." (page 61)
And the next day, the man is found dead.
Inside the briefcase is a set of strange wooden tops...and clues that will take the four children on a dangerous quest to find answers, as they realize that stakes of the mystery they have become part of are higher than they could have dreamt.
The mystery, rather than the fantasy, is what drives the story, and the action is almost non-stop. The point of view shifts, particularly in the first half of the book, between the kids and the Bad Guys, so the reader knows from the beginning that this is a matter of life and death.
Although an effort is made to make the kids distinct characters, this is not the strongest point of the book (and adult readers of mg fantasy might well be disappointed in this regard). There's really not much time for characterization--all the things happening keep whisking them around Rome... And indeed, Rome, with all its ancient secrets, often takes center stage, with several very handsome color pages of maps and illustrations let the reader explore alongside the four protagonists. (The only problem with putting them in the middle of the book is that I didn't know they were there--I might have made more use of them in the first half of the book had I known).
I personally don't care too much for third person present narration, but I was able to loose sight of that as I got caught up in the action. Although some resolution of the central issue of this book is achieved, there are many unanswered questions--it is, after all, the 1st of a quartet.
In short, a fine book for the mystery loving kid (recommended to fans of the 39 Clues Books and The Mysterious Benedict Society).
(Note: I'm going with sixth grade on up because, besides the issue of the rather complicated plot, there are a few bits of rather intense violence-for instance, someone gets shot at point blank range and tied up to possibly bleed to death in a bathtub).
Here's a review from a sixth-grader at Book Trends, one from the Lateiner Gang, and another review from Amanda at A Patchwork of Books, who nominated this for the Cybils.
(note: book received from the publisher for Cybils consideration)