Those who have been reading my blog for a while might have noticed that I often gush about the appeal of books that feature big old houses full of stuff. Books in which a young central character (most often a girl) must explore the old house, optionally making a new friend/solving a mystery/becoming a happier person/reading some books herself along the way. Just such a book is the forthcoming Kepler's Dream, by Juliet Bell (Putnam, May 10, 2012, middle grade, 256 pages).
Eleven-year-old Ella is facing the most difficult summer of her life. Her mother is going a last-hope cancer treatment, and while she is hospitalized, Ella is to stay with her father's mother, an eccentric woman who is a stranger to her. Ella's parents divorced long-ago, and her father, a professional fishing guide, can't/won't taker her himself.
So Ella arrives at her grandmother's home in the middle of a south-western no-where. Ella's grandmother is not welcoming, nor is the rambling old house is full of Things...and the library full of precious and valuable books, located in its own separate building, is not a place where Ella is encouraged to spend time.
Heartsick with anxiety over her mother, lonely and unwanted, Ella is not a happy child. But as the days pass, she makes friends with the daughter of her grandmother's groundskeeper, Rosie, gradually learns how to get on with her grandmother, and thinks evil thoughts about a most unpleasant bibliovore who's come to admire the library. Still, she is bored and at loose ends.
But when the heart of her grandmother's book collection, an astronomically rare copy of Kepler's Dream, vanishes, Ella and Rosie are determined to solve the mystery, and through themselves into detective work. In so doing, not only do they learn the reason why this book is so precious, but they uncover the truth of a long-ago tragedy that affected both their families, and set the stage for healing.
So very much the sort of book that is my cup of tea. I appreciated the descriptions of the house, empathized with Ella's pain, and loved the library! It's a slowish sort of read, in that Events don't happen with Great Rapidity--instead there's lots of description, lots of introspection, lots of past events being thought about, some nice metaphor action. Even the mystery doesn't build to a Climax of Exciting Face-down with bad guys, being more a sort of after the fact realization. Which is more than just fine with me, but it won't be everyone's cup of tea. (I think this is one of those books whose cover will do an excellent job atracting those who will like it, and detering those who won't).
That concludes the impartial part of this post. I now move on to my own emotional reaction.
I liked the book very much, and enjoyed reading it, but didn't quite love it...and I've had to give considerable thought as to why. My reasons are all very personal, and don't count as measured critical thoughts about the book, but for what it's worth, here they are.
1. I have never been to the southwest. The books with big houses full of stuff that I love most are set in the sorts of foresty/gardeny places that are so familiar to me personally, and I love that part of them, maybe even more than I like reading about cabinets of curiosities. I don't feel at home encountering more arid fictional landscapes (and I think this is one reason why I've never been quite sure I know what I think about The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keatly Snyder, which also takes place on a western ranch). I realize that this is most definitely my own (pathetic?) problem, and not the book's.
2. I wanted to find Ella more of a kindred spirit than she turned out to be. She is apparently a reader...so I was expecting her to be a READER, like young me. Sure, she reads, she's impressed by the library, she thinks Kepler's Dream is a beautiful book, but she never convinced me that she actually was happy to spend time finding comfort in books, that she needed books, especially given her mother's situation. This too could be my problem--I could have created false expectations viz reading-ness where none were intended.
3. Ella's grandmother was a complete jerk to her son (Ella's father) when he was a little boy and I cannot forgive her. She could try harder with Ella too. In her favor, she's quirky and interesting, and thaws a bit toward the end, but really? She's not nice. I know, intellectually, that there are people in the world who are not nice, but when I'm given a happy ending that includes someone who is supposed to be a newly-emergent sympathetic character, but one that I can't like because she was so mean to her little boy, I'm not going to love the book. This might not have bothered me so much when I was Ella's age, and didn't have little boys of my own.
4. The ultimate fate of Kepler's Dream gives book-collector me shelfware/insect damage anxiety.
Did I enjoy reading it? Yes, lots. Did it make me want to read Kepler's Dream myself? Yes! Would I recommend it to fans of The Velvet Room in particular? Most certainly. Will I re-read it? Quite possibly someday I will.
Did I love it? Not quite, but I bet others may.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher