Following the paths of Neil Gaiman, Julia Alvarez and Carl Hiaasen, bestselling author Meloy (Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, 2009, etc.) takes a successful plunge into middle-grade fiction.
Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities can interrogate Janie Scott’s Hollywood writing-team parents for being possible Communists, they move to London. “I was no witty, patient, adaptable Jane Austen,” the 14-year-old admits as she recalls helping to save the world in 1952. While palling around with Benjamin Burrows, who’d rather be a spy than follow in the apothecary family tradition, Janie becomes entangled with Cold War espionage after Benjamin’s father mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a secret 700-year-old book of magic elixirs. As the teens, joined by pickpocket Pip (seemingly plucked out of Great Expectations), search for the apothecary (truly an alchemist), they must also outrun their dreamy Latin teacher (who could be a double agent), rescue a kidnapped Chinese chemist and work with other scientists from around the world to thwart the Soviet’s detonation of an atomic bomb 20 times more powerful than Hiroshima’s, all while testing out some of the elixirs along the way.
Although Janie’s narration loses some of its charm and humor as the adventure escalates, its blend of history, culture and the anxiety of the time with magical “science” will keep readers just as spellbound as the characters. (art not seen) (Historical fantasy. 10-14)