Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Chasing Vermeer — 4 stars

If you look back through the list of books Mountain Gal and I have reviewed on this blog together, you’re going to realize that we read fantasy, at least for the most part. However, in the interest of being a helpful resource to people who read other kinds of books, I have been trying to expand my own reading to things I wouldn’t normally pick up. Because (gasp!) there actually are other kinds of books out there.

That's why today’s review is a non-fantasy book. Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett, is set in modern-day Illinois, and it's about two 6th graders, coincidences, and the paintings of a 17th century artist from the Netherlands. A most unlikely combination, in other words.

Chasing Vermeer is a mystery kind of story, but not the whodunit, hunt-for-fingerprints kind of mystery. This mystery is one that has to be solved by believing in coincidence, in chance, and luck. Lots of luck. It has to be solved by looking for clues in everything, by finding connections between perfectly ordinary events that together have a significant meaning. Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew would never have solved this mystery—they wouldn’t have seen the clues. But for 6th graders Calder Andalee and Petra Pillay, clues jump out at them from every direction.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about Calder and Petra that makes them perfectly suited to solve this mystery, but it certainly does help that Petra is willing to believe even the most unlikely event could be a clue, and Calder is a visual thinker whose pentominoes—flat geometric figures formed of five squares—help them find many of their best clues. But besides these qualities that make them both uniquely themselves, Calder and Petra are just two ordinary 6th graders—who happen to be in the right places at the right times to solve a mystery, save a painting, and prevent a giant art fraud from taking place.

And that’s really all I’ll say. About the plot, at least.

I figured this book would be targeted toward the 8-12 range, both because of the age of the characters and because of the cover art. (NOTE: the illustrations on the inside are really great too!) However, the story is actually pretty complicated. I had to pay attention to catch all the clues and remember all the connections they had made. I also really liked the way the two characters played off each other. They’d swap ideas and put clues together really well—and they were usually way smarter about it than me. Basically, the mystery was really, really interesting, and was definitely not something you’d be able to solve until the characters did. And it was super complicated, which I think makes a mystery story that much better.

For really critical readers, here's a specific thing about Chasing Vermeer that I'd like to praise. Blue Balliett (that can't possibly be her real name!) has two very young narrators in this story, and I was very pleased with the way she handled the fact that they were solving a mystery that baffled even the FBI. At some point in the course of their sleuthing, they had to end up in danger, but I was worried that Balliett would shrink from that and keep Calder and Petra perfectly safe. But she didn’t. They ended up in very real, very serious danger, and when that happened the tension in the story went up a notch—maybe two. It made for a climax that was memorable, instead of a simple “mystery solved, bad guy in jail” kind of ending.

My final opinion of Chasing Vermeer is that it’s certainly worth reading. The story is fun, there are great characters, and a very interesting mystery! Definitely preferable to Nancy Drew. I’ve also read the sequel, The Wright 3, and that was just as good. There’s a third book that I haven’t gotten a chance to read yet, but given the track record of the first two, I’ll vouch for it being a great book.

Link to Blue Balliett’s website:
And since her website is kinda tricky to maneuver, here’s the link to her Amazon page as well:

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