Withering-by-Sea: A Stella Montgomery Intrigue by Judith RossellABC Books, 2014. ISBN 9780733333002
(Age: Yr 4+) The Hotel Majestic stood high on a cliff overlooking the seaside town of Withering-by-Sea, dominating and imposing with its towers and turrets and curlicues and columns and chimneys and balconies and lots of curly metal spouting, looking for all the world like a gigantic white wedding cake. In this impressive place 11-year-old Stella Montgomery lived with her three aunts, Condolence, Temperance and Deliverance who believed that Curiosity is Vulgar, Silence is Golden and insisted that little girls should study such things as deportment, needlework, pianoforte and French Conversation for Young Ladies. They certainly should not fraternise with other children, wander off on their own accord or get embroiled in mystery and intrigue.
Stella is kept on a very tight leash knowing nothing about her past apart from her parents having died when she was little, and there seems to be some secrecy about that. But she is somewhat resigned to her fate, accept her frequent punishment of bed without supper and life plods along until one day she sees a guest of the hotel hide something in one of the oversize pot plants in the conservatory (her favourite hideaway). Just as her interest is piqued she is called by Ada her aunts' maid and marched off, leaving her beloved atlas on the floor to be discovered by who-knows-whom and thrown away. This disturbs her greatly so late in the night, putting her courageous on, she sneaks out to retrieve it and finds herself in the middle of a most mysterious set of circumstances.
A murderer who calls himself a professor but who is really a magician, the lost waif Bob who is fey and can see things in ink in his hands and who cannot escape the magician's clutches, an old Italian whose cats 'sing' along with his violin and Gert the feisty dancer are all central to this fabulous old-fashioned suspense story which rollicks along at a great pace. What is in the little silver bottle that Mr Filbert begged Stella to keep safe with his dying breath, and why is The Professor determined to go to such great lengths, including kidnapping and murder, to get it? How does he discover that Stella has it? Why is everyone else affected by the smoking 'Hand of Glory' yet Stella is not?
Blending Victoriana with a touch of magic, tension and a fast pace, Judith Rossell has written a marvellous mystery that hooks the reader from the start and keeps them on the line right through to the breath-taking climax and then on to the conclusion - except that it's not. The reader is left dangling as Stella climbs the stairs to the Hotel Majestic and the reception of her aunts, determined to find out just who she is. The perfect scenario for the next instalment.
Printed using a blue font and illustrated in monochromatic tones and with a royal blue ribbon bookmark which all add to the mood and mystery, this is a book for the independent reader who is looking for something that will absorb them and take them on a journey into a new genre. Young girls will sympathise with the circumstances of Stella's life but will see themselves as the level-headed, courageous heroine who is determined to keep her promise to Mr Filbert no matter what.
A solid, satisfying read that will have readers waiting for the next adventure.
Teachers notes aligned to the Australian Curriculum are available.