Katharina Who?

I did it.  I judged a book by its cover, and you know what?  It turned out all right.  The screen-printed look of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden got my attention but it was not what sold me in my selection of Helen Grant’s novel as my next read.  There was a dark mystery to the story, which John Connolly described as “…a strange, haunting modern fairy tale;” plus it won an Alex Award during the American Library Association’s latest spate of honors bestowed on 2010’s literary contributions.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Alex Awards are given by the ALA to adult novels that  still appeal to young adult readers.  Needless to say, I am as much a fan of this category as I am of fairy tales and ominous stories.  I was also pleased to find a glossary of German words and phrases in the back of the book (nothing makes me happier than a glossary or a timeline), so be sure you mark it before you plunge into Grant’s novel.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden tells the story of a ten-year-old girl named Pia Klovenbach living in the small German town of Bad Munstereifel.  It is one of those towns where no one has any secrets and nothing ever happens, that is until Pia’s grandmother ignites and the Linden girl disappears during a festival parade shortly after.  As Pia bears the stigma of potentially exploding (or causing those around her to), the town is frantically trying to find Katharina Linden.  Pia and Stefan–the two social outcasts of her grade– band together to conduct their own investigations into Katharina’s disappearance, though soon she is not the only child to go missing.  The two friends explore local folklore and history and find there actually are a number of secrets residing in their town, some of which eventually lead them into great danger.

Moving beyond synopsis to assessment, I’d say that this book had its moments but is unmemorable on the whole.  “Fine” is the first word that comes to mind to describe it, but written in italics so that it’s leaning toward “Very Good.”  For a first novel it is quite good but around the 160 page mark I found my attention wandering.  This was strange because the book wasn’t doing anything wrong, but maybe that’s just it.  It stuck to the formula without many plot twists or challenges to convention: troubles at school, troubles at home, another clue, another festival, another child missing, and so it repeats.

Grant’s story is well-written, well-plotted, and her characters are well-developed.  She doesn’t shy away from serious topics, such as murder or divorce, which give her novel more depth and substance than might normally be found in an eerie mystery.  I can’t easily say what I didn’t like about the book; it’s just that there were no real surprises, though she did succeed in creating a few truly tense moments within her narrative.  I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading Katharina Linden–it’s above a beach read and particularly good transportation reading, as the short chapters suit frequent interruptions–but I can’t get excited about it.  I do think it was solidly written, however, and would be interested in what else Helen Grant may write in the future.  Here’s hoping that now that she’s gotten down form she can take a few more risks to truly show her talent.

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