I'll admit it -- I'm a sucker for mysteries. I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and the like, moved up to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle in middle school, and by high school was reading pretty much any mystery author that could hold my attention. Now, whenever I need a break from schoolwork and a change of pace from kid's books, I'm all about authors like Lee Child, Michael Connolly, Meg Gardiner and Laura Lippman (among many others).
So when Vanished by Sheela Chari cropped up on my radar screen, it was pretty much a must read -- a middle-grade mystery that takes the reader from Boston to India and back again. Neela is pretty much an average musician, but she longs to be world-class. When her grandmother sends her a beautiful and intricately carved veena (a stringed instrument from India), Neela is more than happy to cast off her practice model and play this gorgeous heirloom. But then Neela's veena disappears, and in her efforts to find it, Neela uncovers some unexpected information about a famous veena player who died tragically, and a cursed veena that will never stay with the one who owns it. Could this curse be on Neela's veena? And how will she ever get the priceless instrument back in her family?
What I loved about Vanished is Neela's persistence. Once she gets hold of the idea that there are strange circumstances surrounding her instrument, she just won't let it go, despite getting in trouble at home or receiving threats to give up the hunt. This persistence drives the story, and keeps the reader hanging in with Neela, certain that the truth will turn up around the next corner. Neela's friends add flavor to the plot, from traditional Pavi to unconventional Matt to Lynne, who seems somewhere in between friend and nemesis for much of the book. Neela's parents are proud of their Indian culture and traditions and have taught Neela to be too -- another point I like is that Neela's ethnicity, while it adds depth to the story, doesn't drive the plot. This isn't a "ethnic girl clashes with American society" story -- it's a "creepy guy appears, veena vanishes, what is girl going to do" tale, and that's what will hold a young reader's interest.
For me the plot ran a little thin towards the middle; although I think a strong reader will hang in with it, this slowdown could be a turn-off for reluctant readers or those who aren't true mystery fans. Still, things pick up considerably when the family travels to India, and the change of locale is perfectly timed with the build-up of plot tension. Chari's strength is character, and it shows in people like Lynne, whose unusual mannerisms fit perfectly with her role in the story, and Matt, who turns out to be the right person to help Neela crack the case (even despite his orange hair).
Chari has a solid debut here, and I'll be interested to see what comes next from her. This is a great choice for readers interested in India, strong females, music or just a great character-driven mystery.
Vanished by Sheela Chari, published by Hyperion Books
Sample quote: "At the coat closet, she opened the wooden folding door, still thinking of what to say at home, when she stopped. At first she thought she was mistaken. But the closet was so small, the truth was plain and simple. An awful feeling crept over her. She stared at the coat still hanging in the closet, a dark vinyl jacket that Hal had said was his, and the gaping space next to it where her veena should have been."