This book was an absolute JOY to read! I had never heard of the author, Paula Berinstein, nor the books themselves, before stumbling across them on Amazon one day. The cover was colorful, it was toted as a new mystery series, and it combined elements of Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, and Sherlock Holmes. So, let's face it - how could I pass it up?
While there are currently four books in the series published, I bought the first one to give it a try. Wasn't really sure what to expect - I mean, with a title like The Pink Sugar Conspiracy, what is one to think? The moment I started reading, though - WOW! Literally, that's all I could think. Wow! Amanda Lester may only be twelve, and she may have the typical tween-ager woes (problems with friends, problems with parents, problems with school), but right off the bat I liked her. I identified with her. I cared about her and her problems. And by the end of the first chapter, the reader is so invested in this character that you have to know what is going to happen next.
And speaking of the school - Berinstein has created a Harry Potter-type school, only instead of wizardry, this school teaches detecting. It even has the various "houses" for the students named after famous detectives - the Holmes House, the Father Brown House, the Dupin House, and Van Helden House. There are also nods to a number of famous authors, via statues on the school grounds - the Enid Blyton statue, the Agatha Christie statue, the Edgar Allan Poe statue, the Dorothy Sayers statue, the Conan Doyle statue, and so on. This exclusive, secluded school (Legatum Continuatum) is not known to the outside world. It is hidden away just outside of London and is extremely selective in the students it accepts. In fact, each and every one of the students has a connection in some way to a famous detective! For Amanda, unfortunately, that famous detective is none other than G. Lestrade, the inspector that was made famous by Sherlock Holmes. She is ashamed of that fact, viewing Lestrade as nothing more than a bumbling idiot. She has no desire to become a detective - she wants to create and direct films! She resents being shipped off to the school, and she expects to hate every minute of it. Very quickly though, her attitude changes, as she makes friends with Ivy, Amphora, and Simon (as well as Ivy's seeing-eye dog, Nigel, because, yes, Ivy is blind) and soon discovers that her knowledge of film and the movie industry very easily transitions into the world of solving crime.
Berinstein offers up an unusual mystery here - the students are told at the beginning of the school year that they will have a mystery to solve throughout the semester. They will not be told what it is, but they will know it when they see it. Further, it will be up to them to use everything they are learning in their classes to solve the mystery without any help from the teachers or staff. Simple enough, right? But what happens when first, the school garage explodes, taking with it a valuable car that is the prized possession of one of their teachers; and then they discover that the cook is acting oddly, stealing pink-colored sugar and hiding it in a secret underground room on the campus grounds? What is the real mystery? And what is causing the sounds behind the walls? And why are all of the desserts so bland, when there is so much sugar on the school property? And who was flashing that mirror from behind the trees? And how does any of that connect to Amanda's father being kidnapped?
The story moves at a great pace, taking place over the span of the entire first semester. While Amanda grows closer to her friends, and even more so to Nick, she still has a tendency to act on her own and not include her new-found friends in on the action. When she stows away on a delivery truck in the hopes of getting to her father, she is thrust into an unexpected (and honestly, quite humorous) adventure that takes her entirely in the opposite direction where she gets to drive a truck, gets car-jacked, gets attacked by a monkey on a train, and has the opportunity to use all of her skills to not only stop a criminal mastermind from completing a nefarious plan to take control of the world's sugar industry, but also to save her father's life.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. The writing is excellent, the characterization is engaging, and Berinstein keeps it real by acknowledging the differences in Amanda's American upbringing and lifestyle to those of the other students, who are British. She even manages to throw in a good Nancy Drew reference:
What was really neat about the car wasn't all that flash though. It had a way cool rumble seat. Amanda had wanted to ride in a rumble seat ever since she'd read the early Nancy Drew books, in which the girl sleuth had driven a blue rumble-seated roadster. (p. 102)
Interesting that she points out that Amanda read the "early" Nancy Drew books, which says the author has more than a passing knowledge of the Nancy Drew history, since it was in the original text books that Nancy drove a roadster. In the revised editions, she drove her blue convertible.
Now, I do have to admit, I did pick up one minor discrepancy, and the only reason I mention it is because if it stuck out so easily to me, I have no doubt others will notice when reading it. On page 101, right after the explosion in the garage, Amanda is spying on the teachers and the firemen. She wonders if one of the teachers is injured, but realizes, "She couldn't see how. He looked perfectly fine. There were no paramedics at the scene and no one was paying attention to him." Then, just four pages later, when she is joined by Nick, She comments, "It looks like no one was hurt," to which is responds, "Because there's no paramedics?" Here, the book indicates that Amanda realizes Nick is right, as "She hadn't noticed." Now, how could she not notice there were no ambulances, when just four pages prior, she had determined her teacher was not injured because there were no paramedics on the scene? Does this spoil the reading of the story? Of course, not. One minor continuity glitch in a 344 page book, I'd say that was pretty darned great!
I so wish this author were writing the current Nancy Drew and/or Hardy Boys books - they would certainly be a far cry better and would probably be selling a lot more than what they are. Berinstein is a superb author who knows how to tell a truly engaging story with lots of twists and turns. And while there are two mysteries (the staged one by the school and the real one involving the sugar conspiracy and her father), both get played well. Definitely a series I would recommend to anyone of any age - young or adult. Can't wait to dig into the second one (The Orange Crystal Crisis - and yes, the series does focus on colors, as the old Connie Blair series of days gone by did), where, based on the last paragraph in this book, Amanda will be meeting an interesting new student at the school!
RATING: 10 gluppy things out of 10 for proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a great young adult mystery does not have to be short or simple, but can be fully fleshed out with believable characters and intricate plots!