As a lover of Shakespeare and a graduate with an English degree, the very title Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave had me interested. There's a lot of speculation and mystery surrounding Shakespeare and even though I'm not a big scholar of the research and conspiracy theories, I find the whole thing very interesting. Once I read the summary blurb for the book I decided I'd have to read it. Essentially a young girl (12 years old) is on a treasure hunt to solve a centuries old mystery hidden in her family heritage.
The book is definitely geared towards younger readers. Potentially to the 8-10 year old crowd but probably more digestible by the middle-grade level. As I mentioned, the main character in the story is 12 year old Colophon Letterford. She's a very smart girl with a passion for books and learning. So much so that she requested extra homework over her Thanksgiving holiday break. Her slightly older brother is the opposite of Colophon and more what you might consider a "typical" teenager (not a fan of schoolwork, a little distanced from his parents, and constantly plugging his iPod earphones into his ears).
The book begins with a preface or introduction that sets the stage for the mystery. Hundreds of years ago, an ancient ancestor took a trip to Mont St. Michel to recover and protect a secret item. The initial scene brings out elements of suspense and intrigue and sets the stage for what to expect later on. The description and pacing of the Mont St. Michel scene is rather fun.
We then leap to present day and find out that the Letterford family now control a very prestigious publishing house. Not the most financially successful or recognized publishing house, but prestigious because of the nature of their offerings. In fact they are in financially tough times and have been losing best-selling authors. I have a little worry that the discussions of the business side of the publishing world might be a little dry for younger readers, but the anecdotes and information are pretty minimal overall and exist mainly to add to the motivations of characters later on.
Now that the characters and general layout of things are set, we get to the mystery and the secret. After Thanksgiving dinner, Colophon learns from a cousin that there is a family treasure that has never been found. Due partly to her natural curiosity but mostly to some external influences, Colophon dives head long into solving the clues of the mystery in the hope of finding the treasure that can help save her family's business. At the same time as Colophon is undertaking the treasure hunt, she suspects her uncle is trying to sabotage her father's business and so she tasks her brother with helping their father try to sign on some new authors.
With these two parallel threads (the treasure hunt and the author hunt), we are given a number of fun adventures ranging from silly to suspenseful. I was impressed at the logical and straightforward way the characters went about achieving their goals. There were a few times that the realism was stretched a bit thin but mostly everything felt realistic or at least that it was following logical rules that made sense in the scenarios.
Probably the hardest thing for me to swallow (as is often the case in treasure hunt stories) is that Colophon was the one to solve the initial clue. This clue has been on display for 400 years and many family members have "destroyed their lives" trying to find the treasure. And yet the clue itself is fairly straightforward to find and identify. Granted, she and her cousin were able to use the Internet to quickly put together the 3 variables that the clue presented, but the Internet has been around for a couple of decades now and even before that, a little paper research would likely have revealed the connection earlier, especially if family members were dedicating their whole lives to solving the problem (and with the added fact that the connection was literary in kind and this family is a literary family). Still, this is a kid's book and so it makes sense that the child would be the hero and I can accept that.
On a semi-related note, while Colophon was smart and (supposedly very well read), there were a couple of times that her cousin had to explain some literary references that I felt should have been very obvious to her if she were really as bookish as it seemed she should be. Granted, I may be superimposing myself over Colophon and forgetting that she's just a 12 year old girl and no matter how interested she is in books and learning, she's a "normal" girl (smarter than average, but not presented as "genius" or "prodigy" level) and thus is likely reading a little above her grade level but likely not yet entrenched in the literary breadth of an English scholar. On the flip side, it can be assumed that most kids reading this book wouldn't be knowledgeable on all these subjects even if we assume Colophon should be. So while it annoyed me when seemingly simple references had to be explained, I had to push back and acknowledge the audience.
Setting aside those complaints, I felt like the clues and the treasure hunt were a lot of fun. It reminded me a bit of the 39 Clues series but without the competitive danger of other family members in the chase (though that looks like it will change in the sequel). In fact, the competitive danger was more of a factor in the "author chase" than in the treasure hunt as Colophon's uncle is in fact putting a number of plans in place to hinder the company's progress. I really enjoyed the methods used to sabotage the author meetings. They were pretty fun and imaginative.
One thing I didn't expect (but I should have) was that this book is going to be part of a series. I should have anticipated that due to the title descriptor "The Letterford Mysteries" (plural). In fact, it wasn't until the final couple of pages of the book that it becomes apparent that the chase isn't over and that there will be more to come. This caught me a little off guard but actually made me happy since I enjoyed the book and the writing and like the idea of reading more.
Overall this was a pretty fun book. I really enjoyed the creative treasure hunt as it wound through bits of historical literary trivia to arrive at a fun conclusion. I had a lot of fun with the whimsical methods used to try and sabotage the business. The pacing was good and should keep young kids involved while still providing enough detail to the mystery and the treasure hunt to make it interesting, rich and compelling. Even though it stretched believability in a few cases, I also felt like the whole thing was largely realistic especially as contained within the concepts and relationships set up in the story. I also really loved the Shakespearean trivia throughout the book. Each chapter was named using a line from a Shakespeare play (complete with an appendix to identify the source).
While I was surprised by the quick twist at the end of the book to set up the sequel I was certainly not disappointed. In fact I'm looking forward to the second book coming out next year. Give this a try. It's a fun adventure/mystery novel for the young or young at heart.
4 out of 5 stars
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