Saturday, July 1, 2017

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head (H. C. Chester and Lauren Oliver)

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head
(The Curiosity House series, Book 1)
H. C. Chester and Lauren Oliver
Fiction, MG Historical Fiction/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: As New York City slowly recovers from the Great Depression, many relics of yesteryear have fallen by the wayside, yet Dumfrey's Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders manages to endure. Here, visitors can witness wonders like the baseball-sized kidney stone and stuffed two-headed calf (whose second head requires regular repairs), and a stage show with some of the greatest human marvels in the world (or at least the city): Hugo the elephant man, Phoebe the fat lady, Andrew the alligator boy, and more, including four extraordinary children. Thomas can bend in impossible ways, more flexible than a snake. Sam's so strong he can barely open a door without destroying it. Phillipa can read minds... or, at least, mostly tell what someone's carrying in their pockets. And the girl Max's knives are as fast and accurate as any sharpshooter's bullet. The museum is their livelihood, but, more importantly, it's their home.
The day Mr. Dumfrey acquires the shrunken head should've been the start of a new era for the museum, a draw to restore dwindling crowds and fill draining coffers. But the death of an elderly visitor shortly after its debut leads to rumors of a curse - and hints that a murderer may be on the loose. To save Mr. Dumfrey from charges (and save their museum home), the four children set out looking for answers... but as more bodies turn up, the investigation itself becomes as dangerous as any curse.

REVIEW: I wanted a light read to balance a darker, more intense paperback, and Curiosity House grabbed my attention with an interesting premise, hearkening back to the old days of offbeat tourist trap attractions that have largely succumbed in modern times. It started out decently, if a little overloaded on characters and names who ultimately have very little to do but clutter up the museum. The kids tend to be exaggerated, moreso than even in other middle grade titles, but are decently drawn enough to care about and have unique personalities. The story moves at a decent pace as the investigation takes turns, hits dead ends, and has unexpected breakthroughs. Some time after the shrunken head's first tragedy, though, cracks start appearing. The kids become selectively obtuse as the authors practically slam certain clues in the reader's face that the characters conveniently ignore, to the point I started wondering just how simple they thought middle grade readers were. Distracting cliches - the foursome have to "pair off" (if not in a romantic sense yet, more of a feel-extra-aware-of-but-don't-quite-know-just-why sense), the girls tend to be more squealy and shrieky, etc. - start gnawing on the story. An underlying sense of unlikability bordering on malice becomes apparent; though I can't put my finger on just where or how, at some point I found myself realizing that there was something about the mindset and overall tone of things that ran at odds with the otherwise light premise, something that just set my teeth on edge enough to put me at arm's length. The Big Reveal shocks the characters, but not the reader, prompting a few eye-rolls. Then the story ends without real resolution or logic, mostly because this is Book 1 of a series and there have to be some sizeable threads left dangling to justify future books. By the end, not only did it feel like it never lived up to the originality and potential promised by the premise, but much of the charm of Dumfrey and his museum felt oddly tarnished, especially if you really think about the circumstances surrounding his collection of the kids. Younger readers might enjoy it more than I did, fascinated by the strange characters and the lost world of yesteryear's "dime museums" and spectacle attractions, though I wouldn't put it past some of them to pick up the same odd vibes I did, being unable to really enjoy it without quite knowing why.

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