Kathryn Reiss
by Michelle Erica Green

 Kathryn Reiss, PaperQuake: A Puzzle (Harcourt, 2002)
Kathryn Reiss, Paint By Magic (Harcourt, 2002)  

It's hard enough to grow up in a world where parents are always at work and earthquakes can strike at any moment, so imagine what it would be like to grow up plagued with prophetic visions or a mother who seems to be possessed. The protagonists of Kathryn Reiss' novels find themselves contending not only with domestic problems, but with eerie messages from the past; they alone can solve the mysteries, and lives depend on their ability to do so.

The supernatural stories of fourteen-year-old Violet and eleven-year-old Connor have much to offer adults as well as the pre-teen audience for which they're intended, for although uncanny events shake their worlds, their hearts and the hearts of their novels remain rooted among family and friends. Reiss, a two-time Edgar Award finalist, creates intriguing stories for her young detectives to crack and keeps the reader engrossed by making the characters amiable and grounded.

Violet in PaperQuake has panic attacks whenever the ground begins to shake, which happens all too often in the suburb of San Francisco where she lives with her parents and two sisters -- the other two thirds of a set of triplets. But while Rose and Jasmine have always been healthy and vibrant, Violet was born with a heart murmur, and her family insists on treating her like a fragile flower. She even has to fight for permission to do chores alongside her sisters, like helping to clean out the old house her family intends to turn into a flower shop.

When an earthquake uncovers a letter addressed to "Baby V," Violet thinks at first that her siblings are playing a cruel joke on her. But the letter turns out to be from 1906, written just before the devastating quake that nearly leveled the city. As aftershocks continue to plague the region, Violet stumbles across more letters -- clues to the past of the building she's helping to renovate, and possibly to the pasts of those close to her as well. But the notes grow ominous, and Violet has terrifying visions of a catastrophe like the one from nearly a hundred years earlier.

Though she's tempted to wallow in self-pity and assume the scary warnings have to do with her own health, Violet presses to solve the mystery, enlisting the help of her fellow triplets, who begin to treat her as an equal for the first time in their lives. The girls don't behave as paragons of virtue -- parents may be particularly troubled by a false bomb threat -- but the open minds and emerging social consciousness of the young protagonists make them excellent role models.

Connor, the main character in Paint By Magic, also demonstrates resourcefulness, commitment to family and a sense of responsibility to his community. The son of workaholic parents who leave his care to baby-sitters, Connor returns home from school one day to discover that his mother has become obsessed with turning his family into an old-fashioned cliché. She has gotten rid of all the televisions and computers, learned to cook and demanded that they give up a frenetic schedule of after-school activities.

As if that weren't weird enough, Connor's mother has also become fanatical about a painter from the 1920s who had a muse who looked just like her -- and she keeps freezing in place as if she's posing for paintings, wearing a terrified expression. When Connor borrows her book on the painter, Fitzgerald Cotton, and picks up a sketch that falls from the pages, he finds himself whisked decades into the past, where Cotton lived in a house standing on the exact site where Connor lives ... and where, Connor is shocked to discover, his mother has already traveled.

As Connor discovers the lost pleasures of life in 1926, like jigsaw puzzles and swimming holes, he also realizes that the time travel paradox goes further than he imagined. For Cotton is the descendant of Lorenzo da Padova, an Italian Renaissance painter who dabbled in the dark arts, whose favorite model happened to have the same last name as Connor's mother. Da Padova may have stored something more sinister than brilliant pigments in his ancient paint box, now in Cotton's workshop leaking acrid fumes. Before Connor can return to his own era, he must figure out the connection between da Padova, Cotton, and his mother -- and how to break it.

A story both nostalgic for the olden days and conscious of their pitfalls, especially for women, Paint By Magic allows readers to consider a life without modern conveniences through the eyes of someone who knows what he's lost when they vanish. The language isn't as graceful as that of Paperquake, yet the story may have more relevance for contemporary readers. Though the protagonists of both novels talk like they're older than their supposed ages, the author brings direct intelligence to the dialogue that will appeal to readers who like sophisticated storytelling. The conversations sound real, albeit a bit too clean, and unexpected moments of humor enliven tense scenes.

Reiss -- who has a Web page here -- moves her characters seamlessly between historical eras, demonstrating the way ethical choices can have ramifications in eras long after they're made. As Violet and Connor piece together the patterns in their pasts and presents, they develop the realization that life is richer and stranger than they ever dreamed. Readers who follow them across quaking floors and painted landscapes are sure to share in the excitement of their discoveries.

Green Man Reviews
Get Critical