Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book of the Week: ADVENTURE AT SIMBA HILL by Susan Runholt

You’ll remember last year, Esteemed Reader, I reviewed the first two books in Susan Runholt’s Kari + Lucas mystery series, Mystery of the Third Lucretia and Rescuing Seneca Crane. If you don’t remember that, here is the link. You don’t have to have read those books to enjoy Adventure at Simba Hill as each Kari + Lucas mystery is a self-contained adventure (though the books do reference one another). But really, both of those books are excellent and why would you not want to read them? I recommend you buy all three.

Incidentally, I’d tell you that author Susan Runholt will be here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions, but she already faced them. You don’t have to wait until Thursday, Esteemed Reader. You can read Susan Runholt’s interview right now (or just after this review).

For those of you who don’t already know, Kari and Lucas are two fourteen-year-old girls who trot the globe solving mysteries, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that their next leap will be the leap—never mind. But extra nerd points if you know that reference:) Kari is Batman to Lucas’s Robin and they never actually seek out mysteries. They just sort of find themselves in the right exotic location at the right time to become entangled in a new international mystery.

This book marks the third time this has happened and it sort of amuses me that the girls haven’t really noticed their incredible fortune--or is it misfortune--beyond the fact that they get excited at the hint of a mystery. In the same vein, I always like to imagine someone casually asking Jack Bauer if he’s noticed this is the seventh time he’s saved the country from a terrorist attack in just 24 hours without ever once using the bathroom. “Huh,” Jack Bauer might say. “That’s interesting. Tell me where the godmeeped bomb is!”

Whew. I’ve just referenced two television programs that are no longer on the air. I’ve got to focus! Actually, one of my favorite things in reading the two Kari + Lucas sequels is finding out just how Kari and Lucas are going to get themselves entangled in a mystery. After all, Runholt has yet to disappoint and have the girls go after a mundane mystery. The mystery in each book has been a complicated ordeal full of danger and intrigue that any mystery novelist would be proud to call her own.

This falls right in line with my new campaign to recognize middle grade books as family literature and not just children’s literature. Adventure at Simba Hill is a mystery a child can read and enjoy, but it’s also one that will likely snag any adult reader. This isn’t a good mystery novel for children. This is a good mystery novel that happens to feature children (adolescents, really) and that children will likely enjoy. But Runholt’s mystery series can go toe to toe with our old friend William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series. As he’s mentioned in the acknowledgements of Adventure at Simba Hill (isn’t the fiction world a wonderfully small place?), I doubt he’ll mind.

But I digress (always). The thing I was watching for as I read this novel was how long would it take and how much set up would it take before the girls were back in harm’s way, which is exactly where we like them. As this is something I struggle with in my own mystery writing, I’m keen to see how a pro like Susan Runholt does it.

The meter starts running on page one. First, Runholt reintroduces us to our heroes and their mothers. As this is the third book in a series, hopefully most of the readers know these characters already and need only a little reminding as we may have been reading a book a week since the last one:) Still, Runholt dutifully drops in the most necessary exposition carried over from the first two novels so that newcomers follow along as well.

This is probably another reason why Kari and Lucas never say to each other “Can you believe we’ve solved two, count them, two international mysteries? Wouldn’t it be just an insane coincidence if we found ourselves in the middle of a third?” One thing a writer has no way to control is when a reader will join her mystery series. After the newcomer enjoys Adventure at Simba Hill, he or she may want to read the first two novels, so why spoil the endings to them in the third book and risk losing those sales?

When we first join Kari and Lucas they are trying on outfits for their trip to Africa. We learn that the girls have been invited to visit Kari’s Uncle at an archeological dig. That’s chapter one and Runholt has taken care of a lot of business. But there’s still no mystery and the meter is still running.

In the next chapter the girls are on a plane and more exposition is revealed. They land and meet Uncle Geoff and see some of Africa. This is exciting and fun, but the meter is still running! And then, finally, on page 21 the girls learn that someone is looting artifacts from the Simba Hill archeological site:

The professor shook his head. “It’s a mystery.”
Lucas looked at me, her eyes wide. Nothing got our attention more than those three little words.

And there you have it. Susan Runholt, ladies and gentlemen. In 21 pages we are completely caught up with Kari and Lucas, they are already in another country for a relatively plausible reason and entangled in an international mystery. In the manuscript I’m currently revising, the main mystery isn’t introduced until page 233 (I’m working on it!!!). So understand I am in awe of Runholt’s ability, but still… I can’t help but think that 21 pages is an awful long time to keep readers, especially young readers, waiting. It’s not my fault hours of television and video games have given young minds everywhere attention deficit disorder. I want them to be up for old school Victorian novels that go on forever setting up the novel until page 102 when a stranger comes to town. But this is the readership we modern middle grade novelists have to deal with.

Runholt knows this. So, although as I have already belabored, she introduces the main mystery on page 21, she promises serious adventure on page 7 at the end of the first chapter:

Anyway, a couple of days after Christmas, there Lucas and I were with Uncle Geoff, in Africa, on Safari, with dangerous wild animals running around loose, in the middle of a ring of smugglers that was almost more dangerous than the animals, and—well, that’s what this story is about.

Once again, Susan Runholt, ladies and gentlemen. She knows that casual readers are dying to put her book down and get back to Facebook, X-box, Quantum Leap reruns—and she snags them before they can. And here she makes a promise to the reader that in the pages that follow we are going to enjoy an exciting adventure in Africa that will involve all sorts of danger and intrigue. It’s a promise Runholt makes good on, which is one of the many reasons I’ll be looking forward to the girls’ fourth mystery adventure.

What the meep? I see we are nearly out of review (a little past, actually), yet I still have craft points I want to make and passages to share. By the way, you may have noticed me inserting meeps throughout this review. This is one of my favorite things about the Kari + Lucas mysteries. Whenever the girls, who are fourteen and by all rights should have potty mouths being that they live in America, want to swear they instead insert a meep, as in “the bird scared the living meep out of me.” I’m crazy about the meeps and wish I had thought of this gag before Runholt as I totally want to steal it. It allows the girls to communicate honestly without closing the book off to younger, more impressionable readers who read up.

I will settle for one last craft point and then I will leave you with some of my favorite passages. Another thing I admire about Runholt is her gift for exposition. By its very nature, a mystery novel is one that involves a lot of exposition. We have to learn the details about and the motives of a lot of suspects as well as their whereabouts on the night the crime took place. The reader accepts this and will usually look the other way while some unimportant character tells our detective a wealth of seemingly unimportant information about some guest at the party, sort of like Chris Farley’s security guard in Wayne’s World (anyone here old enough to remember that movie?). This is all good and well and the reader accepts most of this because we’re with the detective(s) and we’re collecting the info to try and solve the mystery before she does.

But in a novel like Adventure at Simba Hill in which our characters are in a different country, we also have a lot to learn about the locale and various social customs. This stuff isn’t as interesting as the clues to solve the mystery, but we need to know it in order to understand the story. And because it’s fun to learn about new places. By the way, you have to admire that Susan Runholt writes a series that requires her to travel the world and do research. Suppose I could get a tax right off if I wrote a novel that takes place on the set of The Dark Knight Rises? It’s a love story:)

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Lucas has been studying Africa at her private school (Kari goes to public) and is brimming with information about Africa. She is spouting off interesting facts before the girls’ plane even lands. And does her knowledge come in handy later in the book? Of course it does! But by planting this seed so early, when Lucas’s knowledge of Africa is required, it seems perfectly natural and expected that she have it. More, because Kari is annoyed by Lucas chirping in every so often with Africa facts, what could have been just dry exposition becomes part of a character interaction and even a small fight, which makes it interesting to read.

So that’s it for this week. Check out Adventure at Simba Hill. It’s at least as good as the other books in the series and filled with excitement, exotic locations, and plenty of girl power. More, it’s a good mystery and as I’ve been very careful to avoid spoiling it, you should get sucked right in.

And now, as always, I shall leave you with some of my favorite passages from Adventures at Simba Hill:

“Bernard, we know that jambo means hello from watching The Lion King. But what does safari mean?”

“Um, Lucas.”
“About the looting?”
“What about it?”
“Well, I was thinking kind of two different things. One is that it would be fun to see if we could solve the mystery.”
Lucas looked at me as if I was a little nuts. “I thought that was, like, obvious.”

The room was as big as a medium-sized house. It had dirt floors full of big square or rectangular holes, and rock walls. Floodlights lit up tables set near the walls. The smell was a combination of dirt and diesel. But what I mostly noticed was that Professor Wanjohi and Mariea were at the back of the room, and although they were quiet now, it was obvious they'd been arguing. You could practically feel the anger in the air.

As we watched, Prosper looked at the guys sitting around him, his eyes half closed, reached for a piece of bread, took a bite, and chewed. Someone said something that must have added to the joke, because there was another wave of laughter. Prosper took another bite of bread, not cracking a smile.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 


  1. Thanks for sharing. I know the excitement of interviewing someone you can't believe said yes. Congrats.

    Great review. I like mysteries and could definitely check out how a master starts a new book in a series and weaves in the backstory in a masterful way. Thanks.

  2. The students never complain when teenagers are dropped into improbably situations, and the target demographic for these books is not quite as distracted by technology and don't require an explosion on the first page. I have this to read tonight, because I'm already in trouble for not having it immediately available to my students!

  3. Thanks for spreading your great blog with everyone..


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