Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 2 - Mystery on Church Hill

Steven K. Smith brings Derek and Sam back in the second book of his Virginia Mysteries series, Mystery on Church Hill.  The books are aimed at a younger audience (the higher end of elementary school age children), but I did find the first book to be not so bad, so figured the second book would hold up as well and, perhaps, might even be better.  Unfortunately, after reading it, I came out with some mixed feelings.

The underlying mystery is actually the one really good thing about the book.  Along the lines of National Treasure, the boys find a letter that was written by Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, which seems to indicate that Wythe was in possession of an early draft of the Declaration of Independence - one hidden in Wythe's house in Williamsburg, Virginia.  This sets the boys off on a scavenger hunt to find the draft, and they have to work hard to stay ahead of an unscrupulous actor who is determined to get his hands on it first and sell it off to the highest bidder.

This book also introduces Caitlin Murphy, a classmate of Sam's who begins as an antagonist, but ultimately helps the boys out and becomes integral to their solving the mystery.  An interesting new character, but not sure if she will remain part of the "team" for future mysteries.

Sadly, though, that is about where the interesting parts of the book end.  The banter between the brothers starts to get old real quick.  While I get that Smith is trying to make them playful and act like you would imagine brothers do - with the difference in their ages, I had a hard time believing they would be continually playful all the time as they are in the book.  I know my brother and I were never that close all the time.

Further, Smith's desire to integrate historical fact into his books, I feel like this one went too far pushing the history of Patrick Henry, the signing of the Declaration, Williamsburg, the reenactments, etc.  It felt forced in many places - really unnecessary to the story or the plot - more like a history lesson that you would read in an elementary school book.  I am sure that's not the way Smith intended it to be, and perhaps from an elementary school student perspective, it won't come across that way.  As an adult reading this, however, the interjections of history did not meld smoothly into the story, and it took the reader away from the mystery for those few moments.

Another factor that takes away from the enjoyment factor (for me, anyway) in this book is the nearly complete lack of identity for Derek and Sam's parents.  They are simply "Mom" and "Dad."  They have no names and, for the most part, have no identity, outside of Mom and Dad.  They only appear when it's necessary for Derek and Sam to get somewhere, or when the brothers need to be rescued (or reminded that they are children).  Obviously, in Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, the parental figures were much more stand-by characters - however, ND and HB were also in their later teens, able to drive, and much more able to be independent.  Derek and Sam are in middle school and definitely not at an age where they should have so much freedom from their parents.  Granted, this is fiction, so to ground it too much in reality would pretty much render the boys unable to solve a mystery - but taking the parents completely out of the picture creates a scenario that is not plausible enough to make it believable.

This second book was much more difficult to get through than the first book, so we'll see what lays ahead with the third and fourth books.  I hate to be so negative about a book, particularly with children's mysteries, since this is a genre I love and wish there were more of on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.  There are only four books in this series (not sure if any more are intended or will be written), but if this is any indication of what books three and four are like, then I can see why there haven't been any more published.

RATING:  4 solar microscopes out of 10 for bringing a third 'sleuth' into the mix in an effort to vary the characters a bit.

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