fulfilling my 2021 goal to read one book each month by an author i love that i haven’t gotten around to reading yet
another PERFECT story by katherine rundell. i love her so much that i (almost) want to have a bunch of kids just so i can fill their tiny sticky hands with her books.
like the best of her work, this one is tightly plotted, with wholesome-but-authentic characters and a few surprises.
it’s a historical heist/adventure story about a group of kids from different backgrounds who are corralled and led by the inimitable vita into pooling their specialized skill sets and abilities into a plot to recover an emerald necklace with sentimental/familial—as well as monetary—value from its hiding spot in vita’s grandfather’s crumbling family manse—the straight up castle whose ownership he’s just been hoodwinked out of by a wicked, heartless man.
vita’s plan is to sneak into the castle, recover the emerald for her grandfather, and hopefully get his home back as well.
it’s age appropriate without being kiddy, she presents diversity without it feeling checklisty and she addresses racism and immigration and economic imbalance in the melting pot of 1920s manhattan in a thoughtful appropriate way that feels natural, while phrasing it perfectly and succinctly:
Racism can’t be cured by black excellence when it’s caused by white ignorance.
vita is a very likable character—stubborn and passionate, shining with determination; a courageous girl adhering to her own moral code. a brush with polio has left her with a twisted leg and in chronic pain, but she refuses to let it slow her down. she’s realistic about what she can and cannot do, but having to endure pain has become something of an asset—it has toughened her up and made her less likely to back down from a fight.
People do not expect a small girl to be willing to take or inflict pain.
it’s a charming and entertaining book with a positive message about family and friendship and teamwork. vita’s got maybe a little more empathetic generosity of spirit than seems realistic when it comes to a wounded enemy, but—hey, it’s a middle grade book, and i suppose “carrying a full-grown man-villain to safety” is a good lesson in politeness and grace.
because i love heist narratives a LOT, this is right up there with my former favorite of hers, Rooftoppers. i love this ragtag team of circus performers and pickpockets, and the way they distribute the labor each according to their strengths, even vita, whose contribution, apart from planning, is not immediately apparent:
“Right,” said Silk. She turned and looked at Vita, at her thin hands, at her bloodied elbow. “So if he’s climbing the wall, and he’s taming the dogs, and I’m picking the lock to the walled garden—what are you doing?”
Samuel and Arkady turned to Vita, as if the question had not occurred to them.
“Well…it’s my family’s emerald,” she said reasonably enough.
“But what can you do?” asked Silk.
Vita’s brain drew a total blank. She thrust her hands in her pockets, and her fingers met her penknife. She thought of Lady Lavinia, and her sharp-eyed watchfulness.
“Wait a second.” The mostly-devoured loaf of bread still lay on the beer barrel next to the bread knife. She took it, an apple, and an orange, and set them side by side on the mantlepiece.
“My grandpa taught me to do this,” she said.
She crossed to the far end of the room, took the bread knife, the steak knife, and her own penknife in one hand, and without pausing to make sure the others were watching her, threw the knives over their heads at the mantlepiece.
They yelped and ducked and twisted to stare.
The bread knife had sliced a chunk off the apple. The steak knife had stuck in the bread. And her own Swiss Army knife had cut straight to the center of the orange, filling the room with the scent of the faraway sun. In fact, she had been aiming to slice the apple exactly in two, like Lady Lavinia in Carnegie Hall, but she did not admit it.
“I can do that,” she said. “I’m the just-in-case.“
although i am less keen on the whole “normalizing bird-aggression” parts:
“Rimsky!” He made a whistling, hissing sound through his teeth. The crow took off, sweeping in three lazy flaps to land on Arkady’s outstretched hand. She hopped up Arkady’s arm to his elbow, leaned over to the boy’s breast pocket, fished a crust from it, gave him a peck on the thumb, and took off again.
Arkady sucked a small amount of blood from his thumb. “Bird affection takes a bit of getting used to.”
THAT IS JUST HOW THEY TASTE YOU BEFORE RETURNING TO DEVOUR YOUR FLESH!
other than that, a wonderful book for kids or old ladies like me.