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BOOKS: Down to his last life

Talking calico cat, Lantern Sam, helps solve a kidnapping case on a train.

When 10-year-old Henry Shipley boards the train to Ashtabula, Ohio, he has no idea he'll be solving a mystery with the help of a talking cat.

"Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits," by Michael Beil, is action-packed from the start. Shortly into the trip, Henry meets Ellie, an heiress his own age, who within the hour is kidnapped.

With the help of Lantern Sam (the talking cat) and Clarence the conductor, Henry finds Ellie. But this doesn't solve the problem: Henry is bound and gagged, too. It's only a matter of time before the kidnappers escape from the train with the ransom -- a priceless sapphire necklace known as the "Blue Streak."

The plot twists and turns. Even when the kidnappers are caught, the story doesn't end. As Henry and Ellie celebrate by riding the Blue Streak roller coaster, the kidnappers appear in the seat behind them.

"Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits" also carries a unique subplot. Within Henry's adventure are chapters that follow the life of Lantern Sam, from the time he was a kitten to his life on the train.

Besides being able to talk, Sam is also a male calico. The odds of this happening are 3,000 to 1. Or so he says.

In some ways, the chapters about Sam's life interrupt the main plot. However, each story is about one of the "lives" that Sam loses as a cat. Before long, readers realize that he's down to his last life when he's with Henry and Ellie.

Although "Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits" takes place in 1938, it's never bogged down with historical details, other than quick references to people who lived during that time.

The passenger train that Henry rides is fictional, but the Blue Streak Roller coaster is not. In 2013, it celebrated its 75th anniversary. You can still ride it today at Conneaut Lake Park in Pennsylvania.

"Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits." By Michael D. Beil. Knopf, 2014. 288 pp.