2 out of 4 stars
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Sinister Summer: Cars, Cruisers, and Close Calls is the second book of C.A. Hartnell's series, The 1950s Adventures of Pete and Carol Ann. The book follows eleven-year-old Carol Ann and her best friend, Pete, as the two have lots of summer adventures: A patriotic parade, a surfing trip, a horseback-riding lesson, and a Luau are just some of the exciting events of the summer. All the while, Carol Ann and Pete must steer clear of Butch, who seems to want to start trouble, and Mary Jane, Pete’s older sister who never has a nice thing to say.
This book is geared towards lower-middle-grade readers, approximately eight to twelve years old. The themes throughout the book are appropriate for the intended audience, and the writing isn’t overly complex. The author deftly adds some higher-grade vocabulary words and defines them through the narrator’s love of the dictionary. Additionally, Carol Ann regularly refers to Bible quotes, which she keeps record of in her handy pocket notebook. These quotes are smoothly integrated into the story and add a sweet touch to the character’s innocent persona.
However, there is a major problem with the plot of Sinister Summer: there isn’t one. The book consists of 12 chapters, and each chapter reads like a separate vignette of events that happened over the course of Carol Ann’s summer in 1955. Although these stories are told in chronological order, there is no overarching event pushing the story along. There are minor subplots, one about Carol Ann’s great aunt and uncle traveling along route 66 and another about someone starting fires in the neighborhood, but these arcs are vague and only briefly mentioned throughout the chapters. Unfortunately, this lack of suspenseful storytelling is likely to bore readers at the lower-middle-grade level. Further, the few “sinister” events that take place throughout the chapters are all easily resolved, and the resolutions require little effort on the part of the main characters.
In addition to the lack of plotting, there are many references made in the narrative that will fail to resonate with the target readership. This book is set in the 1950s, and the author regularly refers to popular songs and figures. It is unlikely that middle-grade readers will know names like Patty Page, Perry Como, and Chuck Berry, which are only a few of the icons mentioned. Moreover, the author breaks a cardinal rule for writing middle-grade chapter books. The narrative is told through Carol Ann’s first-person perspective, but occasionally the author’s adult voice seeps through. It becomes clear that the stories are the author’s own experiences, and she is attempting to retell events through an 11-year-old’s point of view, like when Carol Ann mentions that a certain song will always remind her of events that just took place.
I had high hopes for Sinister Summer; some of the best books I’ve ever read were middle-grade novels. Sadly, the lack of a true story arc and the author’s failure to capture the perspective of a middle-grade narrator made Sinister Summer relatively lackluster. I don’t think many young readers will be captivated by this book, and most probably won’t understand the majority of the references made in the story, so I’m rating this book 2 out of 4 stars. I decided against a lower rating because the book is well written. Some adults with ties to the 1950s may enjoy reading this book to young children and connecting it to stories from their own pasts.
Sinister Summer: Cars, Cruisers, and Close Calls
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