Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill
By Megan Frazer Blakemore
Published 2014 by Bloomsbury Childrens

Hazel Kaplansky is the smartest person in her town, despite the fact that she is only ten years old. But her title may be called into question when Samuel Butler arrives. Add to that Hazel's worry that the new gravedigger her parents hired, Mr. Jones, is a Communist spy and Hazel finds herself in quite a tizzy. She is determined to solve the mystery - and she might let Samuel help her along the way.

I just recently posted my review of Blakemore's previous middle-grade book, The Water Castle, which I found didn't quite live up to my expectations. I spotted her new title at ALA Midwinter and her publisher was very enthusiastic about it, so I happily took home a copy. Plus, this was historical fiction, set in Vermont (another place I love) and focusing on the McCarthy era. Okay, I'm all in for this set-up.

Once again, though, I find myself disappointed with the outcome. As before, I have no qualms with Blakemore's writing and I appreciate the complex emotions and surface level writing she is putting into books for middle-grade readers. It's clear that Blakemore doesn't believe in writing down to her readers. Similarly, I though Blakemore did an absolutely fantastic job with the setting, both geographically and temporally. I've been to Vermont, and I think Blakemore captured the small town feel quite nicely. Though I didn't live during the McCarthy era, it's clear that Blakemore is passionate about research and aiming for historical accuracy in her books. She brought the pervasive sense of suspicion and fear quite clearly to life in this book. I think kids will have an easy time understanding what it meant to be living in an era where no one really trusted their neighbor.

Unlike The Water Castle, though, this book falls down for me on the characters. I realize I am maybe in the minority with this, but I did not find Hazel charming or precocious or endearing at all. Quite frankly, she bothered me and made me wonder why her parents let her behave the way she did. She is cocky and gullible and often downright mean, which makes an unappetizing combination. I enjoyed the secondary characters far more, and wanted to know more of the stories of Maple Hill and its inhabitants.

For the right reader, this book has definite appeal, and there were certainly aspects of it that I enjoyed, but Hazel just did not work for me.

Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.

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