June 08, 2006


King Dork. By Frank Portman. Delacorte Press. $16.95.

Icefire. By Chris d’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $14.99.

     Dig ever more deeply into yourself, and what will you find?  This is not only a question for psychoanalysis.  It is a question posed in many books for teenagers – though rarely as entertainingly as Frank Portman poses it in King Dork.  This is a book that grabs you with its weirdness from the start: the cover (by Angela Carlino) has the book’s title and author’s name superimposed on and mostly blocking a reproduction of the famous cover of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  You can see just enough of the Salinger cover to know what it is, if you have read that book.  And it’s really helpful to have done so if you’re going to follow and understand Portman’s, because the Salinger book plays a major role in this one.  Portman’s protagonist, Tom Henderson, whose father died under unclear circumstances that rise to the level of mystery as the book goes on, finds his father’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye and discovers a secret code in it.  He also finds a funeral card and a receipt for 24-hour Martinizing.  And things rapidly start getting weirder.  Tom, a typical high-school loser with typical rock-band ambitions, discovers that there is not one mystery but many of them, and after a while, you can barely keep up with which mystery interlocks with which other one.  There’s a song about suicide, and another that’s a love song with decidedly raunchy overtones.  There’s some fairly raunchy action, too, and although it is not described in detail, it explains why King Dork is intended for ages 14 and up.  As for those mysteries: Tom gets involved with fake people and dead people, monks and the Bible and the Crusades, a devil head and witchcraft, and various Da Vinci Code sorts of things – all the while trying to survive the rigors of a typical high-school existence and, oh yes, figure out how and why his father died.  This is a strange book in many ways, all the way to its finish, which includes an Outro, a Bandography and a particularly pointed Glossary (“Advanced Placement: classes that are far easier than regular classes and for which students receive inflated grades”).  Everything in the endpieces really does relate to what goes on in the book, which deftly combines the detective genre with the coming-of-age novel and serves the whole thing up with more than a touch of satire.  Highly recommended.

     The genre of Icefire is easier to pin down: it is heroic fantasy, at least in a broad sense.  The age range for Icefire is younger: 7-10.  The book is more straightforward: a search of the past for important keys to what is happening in the present and, perhaps, an understanding of what will come in the future.  But this sequel to Chris d’Lacey’s The Fire Within is anything but typical in how it progresses and where it eventually leads.  It’s a dragon story, but with a difference (several differences, actually).  In The Fire Within, the hero, David, discovered not only the power of dragons but also the power of…stories.  That was a neat touch, one of several that made the book special.  Now we are in a world where dragons grant wishes (if they benefit the dragon race), where the history of the Arctic is a mystery, where a teardrop of fire may hold the answer to that mystery or to the mystery of dragons or to a discovery of the interrelatedness of all these mysteries.  D’Lacey tells readers in an afterword that he was always interested in polar bears – more than in dragons, even clay ones like David’s Gadzooks – and sure enough, polar bears (nine of them) are key to the various mysteries here.  This is a book in which dragons use cell phones, text messages can be dangerous, and alien apparitions offer visitors a cup of coffee.  It is an unusual book, in which a journey of discovery comes to a most interesting end – and the journey itself is as enjoyable as the eventual discovery.  D’Lacey leaves open the possibility that he may write another book set in David’s world.  If so, it will – gadzooks! – be worth waiting for.

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