Review of the Day: The Carrefour Curse by Dianne K. Salerni
Poor kids. You have to pity them. So many choices. So many books. How the heck are they going to decide what to read these days? Not to pull out the old “Back In My Day” card, but back in my day we didn’t have quite as many choices! If we wanted something to read we had a bunch of “classics” gathering dust in the library, and a bunch of contemporary titles that we found through the Scholastic Book Fair. As a result, the bulk of my reading between the ages of 9-12 consisted of Apple paperbacks involving ghosts and Agatha Christie novels. But these days? Between then and now someone figured out that children’s books sell. It’s a real problem because when you can have any book you want, how do you even begin to choose? So for this review, I am directing it towards those kids who, like 11-year-old me, want to read something mysterious, scary, creepy, and possibly involving either ghosts or soul-sucking family members. In short, The Carrefour Curse. It’s one of those books that could easily slide into the morass of other chapter book fiction published in a year, were it not for the inconvenient fact that the writing is incredibly good. Honestly, it starts with someone vomiting frogs and only picks up from there. I don’t know what more you could want.
I’m not kidding, by the way. The first line in this book reads, “You’d think spitting up frogs would be a lot like the worst stomach flu you’ve ever had, but it’s surprisingly different.” The victim of this frog expectoration? That would be Garnet Carrefour. Until this day, her life has been relatively normal. That is, as normal as a life can be when you and your mother harbor a kind of magic born out of your familial lineage. Garnet’s magic is connected to stones and rocks, but that doesn’t help her when a wonky spell forces both her and her mother back to their ancestral home. Great-grandfather Jasper is dying and that means all the Carrefours are to return back to the Crossroad House, whether they want to or not. Trouble is, there are rumors that Jasper’s lived as long as he has by sucking the magic (and maybe more) out of his heirs over the years. Garnet’s not sure what’s she’s getting into when she arrives, but she certainly didn’t expect to find time travel, strangers lurking in graveyards, visions, and reclusive uncles. Now she needs to solve the mystery behind her family’s magic, before she fulfills a projected curse her mother’s been protecting her from for years.
Each reader comes to each book that they encounter with a set of baggage. For a children’s librarian, this is compounded by also including the loads of books they’ve already read up until this point. There’s a finite number of stories in this world, and it’s not unusual when you hear the plot of a book that bears some vague resemblance to another. So it was that I initially read the plot of The Carrefour Curse and avoided it. Why? Because, on first glance, it sounded oddly similar to the plot of A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge. In both books you’ve an evil patriarch of a family and a mother who escaped with her child in the hopes of sparing her daughter. In both cases something forces the girl to return to the estranged family members only to discover the evil at the family’s core (which involves a grandfather-type figure taking advantage of his younger relations). Oh. And in both cases you have protective bears in some way. Summarized in such a manner, this might sound damning, but the fact of the matter is that in terms of tone, plotting, pacing, and characterizations the two books could not feel more different. First off, the Hardinge title, which borders on young adult, is a gigantic metaphor for young women, the patriarchal attitudes they’re born into, and how they must throw them off. The Salerni title, in contrast, contains some nice creepy vibes, but it’s on the younger scale of the equation. Honestly the true difference is the fact that while one is a straight up mystery, The Carrefour Curse is both that and something else enticing: A mystery!
Lord, I miss mysteries. I get that they’re exceedingly difficult to write, I do. Still and all, there’s something so satisfying about reading an author who knows precisely where to take a reader, as well as how to lead them astray. Anyone who knows how to wield a red herring with precision and skill is aces in my book. Admittedly, as someone who can’t do it herself, seeing an author write fantasy AND mystery at the same time feels a little show-offy. Should writers be allowed to be so simultaneously skilled? Apparently so. In The Carrefour Curse you’ve an inkling of what’s going on, but to help both Garnet and the reader put all the pieces together, Salerni has to offer up exposition in the most enjoyable ways possible. Sometimes she goes the old-fashioned route with characters doing independent research into old files. That’s cool, but you can’t really sustain that sort of thing in a book for children for very long. This isn’t A.S. Byatt’s Possession after all. So the solution comes in the form of time traveling magic. That sounds, on the surface, like an easy out, but I admired how neatly she worked it into the larger narrative. Did she have to twist herself into pretzels to justify Garnet not telling her mom what was going on? Heck yeah. But that’s the price you pay when you don’t make your protagonist an orphan these days. And happily, the mystery works well.
Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t worried as I read. For slambang openings, Salerni has the competition beat. Still, I fretted about her conclusion. As the reader approaches the climax one concern was that our heroine might be a bit too passive when the moment came. She exhibits very little preparation or special skills throughout the narrative, so how the heck was she going to save the day against her evil great-grandfather? Well . . . she has a bit of help. She doesn’t have to go it alone, and when that becomes clear the reader can decide whether or not to go along with that reveal or to reject it outright. Because Garnet still has a hand in not just her own salvation but the saving of another person, I was willing to go along for the ride. Still, I’m very glad she didn’t just have to save just herself. It would have been highly unsatisfying if that had been the case.
The librarians I work with have to read a lot of middle grade novels in a given year. That means casting a wide net. Still, when I notice that a bunch of them are all reading the same book, and loving it, my ears perk up and I take notice. The Carrefour Curse falls neatly into that category. It isn’t simply that the story is interesting and mysterious. I think a lot of the charm lies with the author’s voice. You become very fond of Garnet and her p.o.v. right from the start. But maybe there’s a fair amount of credit to be given to Salerni’s longstanding love of the old Dark Shadows television show. Decaying mansions and unnerving family members combined with a bit of mystery and jokes (yes, jokes!) is the secret ingredient that’s going to get kids to read this book. They have a lot of choices out there, it’s true, but a kid who’s a fan of just one of these genres is going to find something to love here. Creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, this is the family story you just aren’t going to want to avoid. Hand it to the kid who can’t make up their mind on what to read next.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed copy from library.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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