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THE SHRUNKEN HEAD by Lauren Oliver


From the Curiosity House series, volume 1

by Lauren Oliver & H.C. Chester ; illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe

Age Range: 9 - 12

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-06-227081-8
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Four orphans employ highly unusual talents to solve a series of murders in 1930s New York City.

Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders displays mummies, wax figures, depictions of grisly crime scenes, and now an amazing shrunken head, all to titillate the public. A giant, a fat lady, an elephant man, and others demonstrate their skills and amaze the customers. But the tale is centered on young Sam, Pippa, Thomas, and Max, children whose peculiar abilities set them apart from the world while joining them together into a kind of family unit. The action begins when a customer dies after seeing the shrunken head. When the head is then stolen, headlines scream the events, and suspicion falls on Dumfrey and the children. Trying to save him and the only home they know, the children find themselves ever more deeply enmeshed in difficulties as the bodies mount up and danger stalks them. The plot abounds with action and mystery, but it is filled with red herrings and detours as well as oft-repeated hints about the identity of the master villain. The four orphans’ characters develop very slowly, and their interactions are repetitive and predictable, while the supporting characters, though large in number, are almost entirely one-dimensional. Much of the tale feels self-consciously trope-dependent, too reminiscent of other works and with not enough original material to carry the day.

Though ambitious, this Gothic misses the mark. (Historical fiction. 9-12)