Kane/ Miller, 2009 (originally published by Penguin Group, Australia, 2001).
While her larger-than-life horticulturalist mother travels around Japan on a quest for plants, Hannah is staying with family friends, the Maekawas, in a fictional area of Kanazawa, on the west coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, in order to improve her Japanese. Hannah would have preferred to stay at home in Australia but the opportunity for her to improve her already decent knowledge of Japanese was too good to miss, at least as far as her mother was concerned! However, an outbreak of flu shuts down Miki Maekawa’s school so the opportunity for formal learning becomes limited. This is where the adventure really begins and Hannah actually learns a lot more about Japanese history and culture than she bargained for: a mischievous spirit requiring their help seems to have found his way into their midst, along with a box of antique curios that is a seemingly insignificant portion of a parcel sent to Miki’s father by a fellow antique Japanese paper collector. All the girls’ time is now devoted to solving the mystery of the cryptic poem they have found in the box (and usefully quoted for reference at the beginning of the book), and they gradually realise that there are also malevolent spirits about, who are trying to make them fail.
Hannah and Miki are joined by Hiro, a boy who lives across the street and who has his own family mystery, in this case a missing father. Their quest leads them, among other places, to the local fortress, a remote shrine, a traditional tea house and a magical frog pond: and as they delve deeper into the mystery, it becomes every more apparent that Hannah herself is a focal point for everything strange that is happening.
Despite the supernatural elements in the plot, Kierin Meehan weaves a perfectly credible tale, full of intrigue and drama. Hannah’s narrative voice is humorous and at times self-deprecating, so that her audience will genuinely empathise with her as she tries not to commit social gaffes; puzzles her way through the riddle poem; and seeks to define her own central role in the mystery. Along the way, readers are introduced to a delightful array of characters; encounter campaigning for the protection of bears; collude in the long-overdue dénouement to a love story, and absorb some fascinating cultural details about both ancient and modern Japan, without ever feeling lectured at. By the end of the story, past and present merge in a satisfying climax to what is a very exciting read.
Hannah’s Winter is a gripping read that will stay with readers long after they have finished the book – and will probably also fill them with a desire to go and explore Japan in wintertime for themselves.