Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Apothecary, by Maile Meloy (fiction) - magic potions, Cold War spies

Moving is often difficult,
but having to leave your home because your own government is spying on you?

After World War II, the US government did not take the threat of Communism lightly, as the Cold War kept American and Soviet nuclear missiles always at the ready. So people with influence who might be liberals or Communist sympathizers were watched, regardless of their fame. People in the entertainment industry with humanitarian ideals could find themselves on the Hollywood Blacklist and never allowed to work in movies again.

It's no wonder that Janie's parents decided they'd rather be in England than be forced to testify against their friends before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.

Against the threat of open nuclear warfare, what good is an old book of spells and potions?
It's the only hope that Benjamin and Janie have as they race to save the world.

Book info: The Apothecary / Maile Meloy; illustrated by Ian Schoenherr. G.P.Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 2011. [author's website] [illustrator's blog] [publisher site] [book trailer]

My Recommendation: Janie wasn’t happy about moving from Hollywood to England in the middle of 9th grade, but her family was being spied on – by US agents! Her parents were just movie script writers, believing that more people should have a chance at a better life, now that they all survived World War II.

As the Cold War deepened in 1952, anyone thought to have Communist ideas was suspect and could be “blacklisted” and kept from working, especially in the entertainment industry. So it’s off to London to work on a BBC television series under assumed names, away from orange trees and sunny beaches to gloomy skies and war-scarred city buildings.

Her new school is awful – uniforms and Latin and medieval history. Everyone huddles up with their friends except Benjamin, who lives with his father at the apothecary shop near her apartment and Sergei, whose father works at the Soviet Embassy.

When Benjamin’s father receives a note that a Chinese chemist has been captured, he scarcely has time to hide Benjamin and Janie and an old book in a secret room before the shop is invaded and he is kidnapped! Notes in the Pharmacopoeia lead them to a special herbal garden, to an old man who can read its Latin and Greek instructions for strange elixirs and warnings about risky transformations, like the tincture that allows a human to change into a bird and back again.

But the teens can’t stay in the garden - whoever took Benjamin’s father wants the Pharmacopoeia and won’t rest until they have it. On the run, arrested and questioned, Janie and Benjamin must escape again and again. Who can they trust? Their rich schoolmate Sarah? Mr. Danby, their Latin teacher and former prisoner-of-war? Sergei and his father?

Is it a foreign government that wants the Pharmacopoeia’s secrets? Someone wanting wealth or immortality or power? It will take all of Janie and Benjamin’s bravery and cleverness to keep this special knowledge out of the wrong hands. (One of 5,000 books recommended on Review copy courtesy of the publisher.


  1. I love the time this book is set in. Thanks for posting about it.

    1. I had never thought about how long it would take to rebuild from bombing versus "just" retooling war-effort factories - the contrast between Los Angeles and London in 1952 is startling.

  2. This is on my TBR list, & you've given me more reasons to be sure to read it! Thanks for the review. I don't know of many books in this time period, so it will be a good one to add to the library.

    1. Readers will enjoy the fantasy elements, as well as Benjamin's skepticism about what the Apothecary can actually do.


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