Good Books for Boys, middle grade, Mystery, Summer Reads

First Class Caper: The Billionaire’s Curse

As a bookseller I am constantly looking for new titles to win over my young customers. “Like ______? Then you will LOVE _________,” or some variation of this sentence, comes out of my mouth at least ten times a day. I will admit to panicking when kids come in looking for something to match the love they have for Percy Jackson or The 39 Clues series. Nothing burns like the dismissal of an unimpressed young reader. Luckily, I work with the best team of booksellers out there, and we have built our reputation on sniffing out fantastic new titles.

The Billionaire’s Curse comes to us from Australia, that hotbed of children’s literature. It is the first in a trilogy of books about young Gerald who inherits his Great Aunt’s considerable fortune, only to become a target in a dangerous game of theft, fraud, and murder. Gerald’s uninterested and unappealing parents fly out to England with him for the funeral of his namesake, Great Aunt Geraldine. After it is revealed that Gerald has inherited the vast majority of her fortune, his parents take off and leave him alone in his newly-acquired London mansion with only crusty Mr. Fry for company. But something strange is afoot, and Gerald makes his way to the British Museum, where a priceless diamond has recently been stolen. Here he makes the acquaintance of a fun-loving and resourceful pair of twins, Sam and Ruby. The dynamic duo save him from certain death, and in a convenient twist of plot, end up accompanying Gerald to a country house in Beaconsfield, where they find themselves in the thick of a mystery involving the upcoming summer solstice, King Arthur, a crystal casket, a thin man who smells like bleach, and an old Major with a glass eye. Sound like fun? It is.

This is a great summer read. After an unneccesary prologue and a mediocre first chapter, the story heats up and I was hooked.*Once Gerald arrives in England, there is no time to be bored, as Richard Newsome whips through the plot, pausing only to offer helpful exposition or have one of his characters utter a witty sentence. There is lots of fun at the expense of typical stereotypes (stoic butler, lazy cop, bustling housekeeper, dotty Mother, blustering Major) but Newsome makes good use of his cliches, even having one of his characters remark “It’s only a cliche if you’ve heard it before.” Well played, Newsome, well played.

Humour is a major element of The 39 Clues and the Percy Jackson books, and Newsome is able to capture the same lighthearted yet action-packed sense of fun, combined with juicy morsels of ancient history and mythology. There are some entertaining descriptions and lots of witty dialogue, even in the midst of rather tense situations.

I admit, when it was first revealed that the mystery had something to do with King Arthur, I had my doubts. Are there no other legends or mythologies children’s authors can mine for material? As much as I love Arthurian intrigue, there are lots of well written, innovative books out there covering the same material (The Dark is Rising, The Telling Pool, The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp, Here Lies Arthur, not to mention T.H. White’s classic take on the legends). But Newsome handles familiar material very well, giving it a contemporary spin, merely hinting at the origins and leaving a lot to be explained in upcoming books. In the end, I was won over by Newsome’s light touch and winsome writing style. Plus who can resist a good Summer Solstice scene and a booby-trapped ancient Roman burial chamber?

Ruby, Sam, and Gerald are likeable characters, but this is not a character-driven book. This is a great, action packed mystery that will make readers laugh and stay up late under the covers to get to the bottom of the mystery. Spoiler alert: for a truly satisfying conclusion, readers will have to wait for the next installment.

The Billionaire’s Curse is available now in hard cover from HarperCollins.

*It is possible that readers younger than I will not find the prologue as unnecessary as I did. I found it offered nothing to the plot and it’s tone was quite slapstick (fat slob of a policeman gets shot in the bum with flower darts). Since Officer Lethbridge makes only the briefest of appearances later in the book, and in fact the tone of the novel is not slapstick, I was confused as to why it was left in.

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