Monday, April 20, 2009

Who Ya Gonna Call? How 'bout Teenage Ghostbuster Gilda Joyce?

Jennifer Allison made her way onto my TBR mountain chain (which is actually a color-coded, obsessively-organized Excel file) when I read a review of her first book on Amanda's blog. After one unsuccessful attempt to locate it at my library, I forgot all about the author and her series about Gilda Joyce, a 13-year-old sleuth who uses her psychic abilities to solve mysteries. Then, the librarian at my kids' school asked me to read Allison's sophomore novel and create a test on it for the school's homegrown reading program. Since I hate reading series books out of order, I requested the first book from the library. After a brief wait, I finally had both books in my hands. It took me about a day and a half to speed through them, a half hour to write tests, and a couple minutes to request the next two books from the library. It's always a thrill to find a compelling new series.

That said, I have to warn you that these books are not exactly what they seem. It's a clear case of never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover (or a series by its covers, I guess). That said, I love the cover art on these books - they're whimsical, fun and mysterious in an R.L. Stein, not Stephen King sort of way. Gilda Joyce appears to be a spunky, modern-day Nancy Drew. Based solely on cover art, I thought, "Oooh, good, a new mystery series for my 7-year-old to devour." Um, yeah. After reading a surprising amount of profanity, as well as references to Playboy, antidepressants, infidelity, sadistic hazing rituals, seances, and teenage suicide, I was thanking my lucky stars that I grabbed these books before said 7-year-old found them lying around the house. Considering the subjects covered in YA novels these days, this may sound pretty tame - my problem is that the books are shelved in the children's section, the art makes them look innocent enough for the under 12 set, and promotional materials happily proclaim them to be "For readers of all ages." Now, there's a possibility that I'm being hyper-sensitive and naive (who, me?), but I want to make it clear that I don't recommend the Gilda Joyce series for anyone under 13. Cutesy covers be darned - these books are more sinister than they look.

For us "mature" readers, this is a pretty fun series. Although the stories are not as light-hearted as I anticipated, kooky Gilda provides some serious laughs. She's basically an eccentric combination of Junie B. Jones, Fancy Nancy and Harriet the Spy, which might explain why she seems a bit immature for a 13-year-old. At any rate, Gilda's recently taken up psychic investigation. Whether she realizes it or not, her new fascination with the paranormal has a lot to do with her father, who died of cancer 2 years ago. Now, she spends her time glued to The Master's Psychic's Handbook; donning disguises to spy on suspicious persons; and recording it all on her prized possession - her father's ancient Underwood typewriter. As if chasing ghosts isn't enough of a chore, Gilda's also dealing with an obnoxious older brother; her mother's return to the dating scene; and her best friend's waning interest in all things Gilda. With its quirky narrator, her hilarious hijinks, and even some serious stuff thrown in, this is a series that will appeal to a lot of readers. Just be sure they're old enough to handle it

The series begins with Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator, in which we first come to know (and love) our spunky heroine. Faced with the prospect of another ultra boring summer in ultra boring Michigan, Gilda decides a trip to sunny California is just the thing to up her cool quotient. So, she rattles off a letter to her distant cousin, Lester Splinter, boldly inviting herself to his home even though she has never met the man. Luck is on her side, and she's soon winging her way toward the Pacific Ocean. She's disappointed to spy San Francisco's foggy cloak, but she's thrilled when she sees the Splinters' broody old mansion. Just the sight of it makes her left ear tickle - a sure sign of paranormal activity.

The Splinters - Lester and his teenage daughter, Juliet - are not exactly welcoming. It's from Rosa, the housekeeper, that Gilda first learns about the house ghosts. Most prominent is the ghost of Aunt Melanie, who threw herself out of the fairy tale-like tower that looms behind the mansion. As much as Gilda wants to see the ghost, she can only hear her footsteps as she ascends the tower stairs. Gilda's enthusiasm for ghost busting brings Juliet out of her shell. The lonely girl just wants to be rid of the presence that constantly haunts her.

According to The Master Psychic's Handbook, restless ghosts are usually trying to deliver a message to the living. In this case, Gilda's convinced Aunt Melanie wants the girls to find out what really happened to her. It's her first case, and Gilda's determined to solve the mystery. With outlandish costumes, seances, and superior investigative techniques, she sets about finding the truth.

The sleuth's second escapade, The Ladies of the Lost Lake, takes place closer to home. This time, Gilda's touring a snobby private school, to which she has won a scholarship courtesy of her mother's cheesy new boyfriend. She's not at all sure she wants to abandon her public education until she learns about the ghost. Suddenly, the all girls' school seems a lot more alluring. Never mind the bubble gum-pink uniform, Gilda feels a new psychic investigation coming on!

According to the principal's vampirish assistant, making noise while crossing a campus lake will disturb the ghost of Dolores Lambert, a freshman who drowned in its waters. A tickle in her left ear alerts Gilda that something's not quite right with this tidy little story. Something horrible happened to Dolores, and Gilda won't stop until she figures out exactly what happened.

Once again, Gilda employs her no-fail investigative techniques: colorful costumes for spying; seances for communicating with Dolores; and creeping around places where she really doesn't belong. When she uncovers signs of a disturbing secret among the senior girls, Gilda knows she's getting close to the truth. The more snooping she does, the more danger she senses. Could Dolores' killer be hot on Gilda's trail? And will Gilda's fancy education be in jeopardy when she exposes the school's secrets? How far will she go to pacify the ghost of Dolores Lambert?
My personal favorite is Gilda's third adventure - The Ghost Sonata - since it's a more traditional ghost story. In it, Gilda fanagles a way to hop across the pond with her best friend, Wendy Choy, who has been invited to compete in an international piano competition at Oxford University. While Gilda's happily spending the prize money in her head, Wendy seems less than enthusiastic about the trip. In fact, the normally unflappable Wendy seems downright ... flappable. She doesn't believe in the supernatural the way Gilda does, but she's definitely spooked about nightmares she's been having recently. The creepy feeling hits Gilda, too, when her tarot cards reveal a sinister future for Wendy.
Nevertheless, Gilda can't wait to explore gloomy old England, where she's sure to have ample opportunity for throwing around delicious terms like "park the custard," "gormless," and "knickers." What she doesn't count on is a ghost. A boy her age seems to haunt the piano competiton, revealing his face to Gilda, playing ghostly sonatas at night, and slipping tarot cards with disturbing images under the doors of the pianists staying at creepy Wyntle House.
Wth some help from a cute English pianist and a couple clever disguises, Gilda will get to the bottom of the mystery. It will involve spying on several suspicious persons, traipsing through a graveyard in the rain, and avoiding a constantly-smirking Wyntle House employee. Meanwhile, there's the problem of Wendy Choy - can Gilda solve the mystery quickly enough to shake her friend out of the trance that threatens to destroy any chance of her winning the competition? Clearly, Gilda's "vacation" is going to have this ghostbuster working overtime.
The Dead Drop, Gilda's fourth adventure, comes out on May 14, and guess who's numero uno on the library's waiting list? Yep, that would be me. I'm excited to see where this series will lead. Despite my reservations about its "mature content," I think the series offers fast, appealing mysteries that are surprisingly (and delightfully) spine-tingling. Gilda's colorful personality will appeal to anyone who appreciates fun, spunky characters. Just be aware that the under-12 crowd just might not be ready for the force of nature that is Gilda Joyce, psychic investigator.

Series Grade: B+
All book images are from Jennifer Allison's official website.

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like great summer reading books for my teenage daughter and me.

    Oh... and thanks for the great idea... I'm soooooo going to color code my Excel file!

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  2. I really liked the first one. For whatever reason, my library doesn't have any of the sequels so I haven't had a chance to read them. I'm glad you enjoyed the others though!

    Oh, and I agree that the audience was older than I originally imagined.

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  3. Sounds like a cute series. I hadn't heard of this one before, but I can understand why you would want to keep them away from your seven-year-old.

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  4. Hi -- thanks so much for your wonderful discussion of the GILDA JOYCE series! The books have a growing audience of kids that have been inspired to read and write - many of them so-called "reluctant" readers. The series has also been praised for its treatment of issues of loss and its celebration of childhood and the imagination. Readers might want to check out Gilda's new blog for writers: www.gildajoyce.wordpress.com

    -Jennifer Allison

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