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Withering-by-Sea by Judith Rossell
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Stella is an eleven-year-old orphan living with her three aunts in a boring, seaside mansion, the Hotel Majestic, where elderly people come to partake of the healthful waters. Her life suddenly becomes way too interesting when she witnesses a murder and finds herself on the run from the evil professor/magician Starke and his gang of men who desperately want the tiny magic bottle that has been strangely entrusted to her. She quite literally bumps into kind Signor Capelli and his musical cats where she finds companionship and help. With eccentric, interesting characters this tween novel is a fun, intriguing blend of mystery, adventure and magic that kids will eagerly eat up. A sequel may be in the future since this novel hints at unanswered questions about Stella’s ancestry.

Sharyn H. / Marathon County Public Library
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( )
  mcpl.wausau | Sep 25, 2017 |
What a delightful book. I know what my nieces are getting for their birthday! ( )
  sophie.anna | May 3, 2017 |
This appears to be the introduction to a series, though my American copy doesn't include the "A Stella Montgomery Intrigue" tagline that other editions do. While the story is full and satisfying to me, it does end without resolving one particular thing that left the book feeling a bit incomplete, in addition to a mystery or two that weren't closed. I don't need the mystery solved, but I think it's clearly meant to be a hook for a next book, as the other edition's tagline indicates.

Withering-by-Sea is both written and illustrated by Judith Rossell in a charming faux-Victorian or faux-Edwardian style. The illustrations appear to be watercolor or pen-and-ink and are scattered throughout the book, either as decorations on a page related to the text or full-page images of a scene. They are all monochromely blue, shading into a deep navy, as is the color used for printing all the text. I was surprised by the navy-blue printing - the only time I have seen anything like it outside of a picture book, it was an apparent error, because it was limited to just a few spots on a few pages. In dim or yellow lighting, the text looks black or nearly black. I have no idea why this choice was made, but the illustrations look very good in blue.

Of course, the printing and style match the content of the book. It is a fantasy country resembling perhaps Bath or Brighton, a bit damp and cold when the story takes place. Our heroine, eleven-year-old Stella Montgomery, is an orphan who lives in a fancy hotel with her three dour and very strict aunts, who travel to different places for their health (this hotel is known for its smelly springs, where the aunts bathe for hours each day). The Hotel Majestic is a marvelously modern Victorian affair, from the imposing facade to the indoor plumbing. At one point, I realized that Rossell had described something in a round-about way, then noticed that it was an attempt to have a 19th-century point of view, and that as far as I can tell, she did not use any modern metaphors or slang terms. There is a lot of old-fashioned (Australian) slang, befitting the pov character, and in the second half of the book, we visit an opera house or vaudeville place or something like it, and get oodles of funny old-fashioned language from a troupe of girl performers all around Stella's age.

The plot is this: while hiding from her aunts in the hotel's conservatory and reading an atlas of the world (complete with descriptions of places and animals far away), Stella sees a strange guest bury something in a potted plant. When she sneaks back to see what it was, and to make sure her own book is hidden, she becomes the unlucky witness of a murder. The creepy magician Professor Starke and his goons are trying to get a magical object and the strange guest attempted to protect it. They have dragged him into the conservatory to hand the object over, but stab him through the chest when he refuses. A small boy is able to scry into ink to discover where it was buried, but Stella has already taken it, and now the Professor is on the hunt for her.

The next morning, the strange guest has disappeared and left a skeleton of twigs and branches in his place, Stella has seen a Hand of Glory and the boy's clairvoyance, and the object she now possesses is creepily mysterious - and very clearly not normal. It appears that there is actual magic in the world, but she must put her head down and do as her aunts wish, and there is no way that any of the three of them, or the maids, will tell her anything. Only, one of them does accidentally allude to something magical having happened to their family, and when she encounters the Professer's boy, he tells Stella that she is also fey. Before she can get any answers or even think of how to get the answers, the Professor's goons kidnap her, and she must escape.

Stella does, eventually, escape the Professor and save the magical object from him. She also makes friends in the boy he controlled, Ben, and some people from the vaudeville hall where she temporarily hides. She learns that Ben is definitely right and she is magical herself, but not the extent of her abilities or anything about the family mystery her aunt referred to. Unfortunately, we don't even learn what happens when she finally returns to her aunts after being away for several days with cops searching for her. Is she punished? hugged? what do they say when she shows up again, considering how she was kept on bread-and-water rations for the very brief time she had wandered away at the beginning of the book to talk to Ben?

Overall, I thought it was a fun little story and would have loved it as a kid (it's very similar to other books I read and loved when I was in the target audience), but I was really bothered by not knowing how the aunts would respond to Stella's return. A fuzzy "eventually, maybe she learned the answers to the other mysteries" would have been fine, making the focus of the book the adventure plot and a fun tour of a fantasy country, but I really want to know if they made her go to bed without dinner for the crime of being kidnapped! ( )
  keristars | Sep 11, 2016 |
Cut and charming, but it left too much unanswered at the end. ( )
  BillieBook | Mar 1, 2016 |
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