November 17, 2012

Secret Letters: A Panoramic Review

"Inquisitive and observant, Dora dreams of escaping her aristocratic country life to solve mysteries alongside Sherlock Holmes. So when she learns that the legendary detective might be her biological father, Dora jumps on the opportunity to travel to London and enlist his help in solving the mystery of her cousin's ransomed love letters. But Dora arrives in London to devastating news: Sherlock Holmes is dead. Her dreams dashed, Dora is left to rely on her wits--and the assistance of an attractive yet enigmatic young detective--to save her cousin's reputation and help rescue a kidnapped heiress along the way. 

Steeped in Victorian atmosphere and intrigue, this gripping novel heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in young adult literature." (from Goodreads)

Secret Letters by Leah Scheier

My reaction: 

I had a lot of issues with Secret Letters, but it was still an enjoyable, entertaining enough read. 

To start off with, you have to take the whole book with a grain (or perhaps several) of salt. The entire premise is somewhat far-fetched; even the idea that Dora would be assisting on a mystery case requires a suspension of disbelief. She's so overconfident in her abilities, especially in the first half of the story, and really manages to bungle things up sometimes. There was more than one occasion where I'd go, "Dora, you idiot! Why are you doing this???" in my head. This makes for some very cringe-worthy scenes where you're embarrassed for her because you know she's doing or saying something stupid and it's not going to end well. (During some of these I was quite tempted to skip ahead rather than sit there thinking, "Oh no, she didn't just say that...")

There were also some moments that just seemed too preposterous to be believable. For instance, some of the climactic scenes took on a comedic tone at times that I didn't feel was really appropriate. I wanted to be submerged in this dramatic setting, and instead the villains would be chuckling! Or there'd be people pointing guns all over the place and it just seemed farcical instead of full of tension, and I'd be going, "I just don't buy this, it's too ridiculous."

I will acknowledge that Dora did grow on me as the story progressed. Thankfully, I think she learns a bit of humility by the end (helped along by Peter Cartwright, who is only too willing to help her realize she can make mistakes), so that was good to see. I like that she was able to recognize her failings (to some extent, anyway). And she certainly doesn't lack curiosity or chutzpah. However, I thought — for a book set in 1891 — that she sounded a little too modern-minded; a bit much was made of the fact that she didn't do what everyone expected of her. It was kind of like these points were being thrust in the reader's face, as though to say, "You'll like Dora, because she's spunky and she doesn't conform to societal standards, and she enjoys solving mysteries just like her dad!"

In terms of side characters, some of them weren't very well fleshed-out at all, and I had trouble keeping track of the details — who was who, who knew what, who was related to whom, etc. Also, I found the characterization inconsistent at times. Peter has wild mood swings and is very unpredictable; in one scene, he'll be overly protective, in the next he'll be joking around. It's difficult to know how he's going to react to something. I liked him when he was teasing, but other times he seemed to be a completely different person, showing off his moody, broody side. I'm not sure if that's just his personality or if it's a reflection of the writing quality. Then there's Agatha, who is a young, pregnant girl who gives off a bit of a "lost sheep" sort of vibe. Towards the end, though, she starts sounding much older, saying things that don't seem authentic for her age and character.

Best aspect: the interactions between Cartwright and Dora, which were pretty darn adorable sometimes. They've got the whole bickering-but-secretly-we-kind-of-like-each-other thing going on. It didn't reach the level of "romance" but there were certainly hints in that direction. Cartwright was probably my favourite character — he gets most of the amusing lines!

I also really liked the personal stories of Cartwright and Dora that we find out towards the end, and thought they were handled quite sensitively and effectively.

If I could change something... I'd make the mystery itself a whole lot easier to follow. While I appreciate the fact that it wasn't easy to guess in its entirety, it ended up being very convoluted. I got mixed up in all of the details and forgot what the characters were actually trying to solve. When it comes to mysteries, a nudge from the author in one direction or another is often helpful, even if it turns out to be a red herring (as is frequently the case). Instead, I was mired down in all the complexities

This confusion was compounded by a writing technique the author employed a few times (especially towards the end, during the climactic scenes) in which information is conveniently withheld from the reader for a while, resulting in something like the "unreliable narrator" device. I find this incredibly frustrating, especially considering this book is written in 1st-person POV. In other words, we should be on the same page as the narrator — and in some scenes I was most definitely not. More than once the reader is not told ahead of time what the plan is, and then the characters go somewhere or do something and you have no idea what their motivations or intentions are. For instance, at one point several of the characters, including Dora, end up in the cemetery for no apparent good reason, and I was left going, "Why are they in the cemetery??? I DON'T UNDERSTAND." (To be perfectly fair, I'm not sure Dora really knew exactly why everyone was hanging out in the cemetery either, but unlike me, she didn't seem particularly concerned about that fact.) Sure, we find out later what they're doing there, but for several pages the reader is left in the dark! If you're going to confuse the reader, fine — but make sure the narrator is confused too. Otherwise it makes for this odd disconnect between the narrator's reaction and the reader's. 

Also, the full explanation for the mystery wasn't particularly satisfying either — it felt like several different secrets got connected together in a really implausible way, instead of having been thought out well at the beginning. The blackmailing storyline, which is one of the main reasons Dora goes to London in the first place, ends up taking a spot on the sidelines; I thought this was a shame since I would have liked to have gotten more of Adelaide's story, particularly about her (somewhat troubling, from the sound of it) relationship with her husband.

If you haven't read it: you're not missing that much. But sure, if you like books set in the Victorian era and couples who bicker, and you don't mind being unclear about what's going on at any given time, you might enjoy Secret Letters.

If you have read it: were you as confused as I was in trying to follow the plot?

Just one more thing I want to mention: It doesn't surprise me that this is a debut novel. It's pretty easy to read and some of the dialogue is quite charming, but overall the writing style is a little amateur-ish. Tell-tale signs like cliched expressions, overly dramatic metaphors, and an odd 3rd-person perspective that occasionally sneaks in there all point to the fact that this book could have used more editing, or — to be frank — a stronger, more experienced writer. Hopefully that will come with time and practice, and the next in the series (I'm assuming there will be one...) will have a higher quality of writing.


"Oh, and if, by chance, I haven't yet returned," he added with a little smile, "please try to wait for me in the study, or on the sofa, like a normal girl. Not beneath my bed, or inside the chimney, or hanging like a kitten from the curtains. Please."

Final verdict: 3 shooting stars. 

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher.

This book counts towards my goal for the Debut Author reading challenge.


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