Old-School Review: The Nina Tanleven Series (The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed)

We’re introducing a new feature at Active Voice! Usually we review books that have come out in the past couple of years, but with our Old-School Reviews we’ll be talking about the books from our childhood and before. Our first Old-School Review features the fantastic Mr. Bruce Coville.

The Ghost in the Third Row By Bruce Coville [Coville at LibraryThingBook One at Amazon; Book Two at Amazon; Book Three at Amazon]

Nina “Nine” Tanleven is thrilled to be performing in a local play, but the excitement gets to be a little too much when she and her new friend Chris both start seeing the Woman in White, a ghost who may be trying to sabotage the show. And the adventures don’t stop there, because exposure to the Woman in White has made the girls more sensitive to ghosts, and they soon find themselves solving mysteries about Confederate soldiers and mad painters, hidden treasures and lost masterpieces…and more than a little bit of danger.

The Ghost Wore Gray Somehow I missed out on reading any Bruce Coville as a kid, which is weird, because as a rule I read all the fantasy and sci-fi I could get my hands on. I remember seeing his My Teacher is an Alien series in the library and thinking it looked stupid; over a decade later, when I became friends with my co-host Rebecca, she encouraged me to lead the series and it was freakishly, mind-bogglingly good. Since then I’ve been a wholehearted convert to the awesome that is Bruce, and the Nina Tanleven series has done nothing to dissuade me from this opinion.

Nine and Chris are really solid, likeable characters, distinct without being stereotypes, and with a very genuine tween-girl feel. I also really enjoyed Nina’s father and her relationship with him, as well as the subtle references to more serious issues simmering on the back burner of Nine’s emotional stove (her parents’ divorce, her feelings about her father dating, her relationship with Christ, etc.). I even liked Nine’s frequent crushes on guys; they felt natural and not creepy at all, which is a target I think a lot of writers, particularly male writers, miss when writing pre-teen girls. And the large cast of characters parading through each book to provide suspects and red herrings was always interesting and amusing.

The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed My one quibble is with the first book. Bruce (who you’ll note is one of the few writers I refer to by first name as if we’re pals, much like Tamora “Tammy” Pierce and Justine Larbalestier) inexplicably skipped certain scenes, as if he’d outlined a much longer book but realized he didn’t have the page room for it in the manuscript. For example, at one point Nine and Chris find a scrapbook about the history of the theater in which the mystery takes place. Nine likens it to finding a handful of missing puzzle pieces under a couch cushion that clarify the whole picture (forgive my lack of direct quote, but I don’t have the books with me)…but we’re never told about anything in the scrapbook itself except for one photograph. In another scene, Nine and Chris suspect the playwright of sabotaging the show, since he has a history of mental illness, but the composer takes them aside and half an hour later, we’re told, Nine knows a lot more about mental illness and the playwright’s courage. However, we don’t. This almost goes being telling instead of showing into “telling about telling.” It’s a strange and awkward way to handle exposition and description, but luckily it disappears by the second book.

Beyond that, all I really have to say about the books is that although the third is undoubtedly the scariest (and the most disturbing, which Bruce excels at), I’d say the second is the best. Let’s say …in the Third Row gets four cupcakes, …Wore Gray gets five, and …in the Big Brass Bed gets four and a half, which means that the Nina Tanleven series as a whole gets four and a half cupcakes. Good show, Mr. Coville.

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    3 Responses to “Old-School Review: The Nina Tanleven Series (The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed)”

    1. Gillian says:

      Coville’s books are great. His alien books, both the My Teacher and Rod Albright series, have concepts and touch on ideas far beyond what other sci-fi for young people, or even a fair amount for adults, covers; such as concepts of gender beyond male and female.

      Bruce writes books that are somehow simultaneously funny, touching, and disturbing. I recommend them to adults and kids alike.

      Bruce is also just a really nice and cool guy. His audiobook company is wonderful, and produces some great stuff. He is friendly to fans and librarians, and contributes a lot to the YALSA listserv.

    2. Jessica says:

      Oh, we’re big fans of Bruce here at AV. I’m a Jess-come-lately where he’s concerned, but he’s been one of Rebecca’s favorites (if not her favorite, period) since she was just a wee sprocket.

    3. Rebecca says:

      Favorite. Period. He’s not just the reason I decided to try writing and not just the reason why I love fantasy and scifi, he’s the reason I love reading, period. Hence my shock and horror when Jess hand never read anything by him. 😉

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