August 21, 2008


Chasing the Jaguar. By Michele Domínguez Greene. Rayo/HarperTeen. $7.99.

The Mystery of the Martello Tower. By Jennifer Lanthier. Laura Geringer/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Football Hero. By Tim Green. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      The concepts of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys for girl and boy readers, respectively, in the 8-12 age range, are alive and well, but the changes those popular series characters have undergone in being remade for the 21st century render them well-nigh unrecognizable – except for the pattern of their successful solutions to spooky mysteries. Chasing the Jaguar, originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, is the story of Martika Gálvez, who begins having strange dreams about jungles and jaguars shortly before her 15th birthday. It turns out that Martika is of Mayan heritage, descended from a line of women with psychic powers – including her great aunt, Tia Tellin, a curandera (female shaman) and consultant to the Los Angeles police force. Martika is determined to learn more about her potential psychic inheritance from Tia Tellin and to be guided to her own destiny – but then she finds herself confronted by a mystery that she is not sure she is ready to solve. The daughter of Martika’s mother’s client is kidnapped, and Martika needs to try to use her emerging psychic powers to find the girl, Jennifer – if she can. Martika sees visions that she is not sure how to interpret, but she goes in search of their real-world equivalents anyway. She has dreams, too: “I felt like I was inside [Jennifer’s] mind, I could see what she was seeing.” And Martika starts discovering some other abilities -- potentially dangerous ones, including a fiery power that emerges when she gets angry. “Anger can be positive,” Tia Tellin tells her. “It can protect you and it can prompt you to take action. But it has a dark side as well. It can turn in on you and consume your life and your hope.” The dialogue does tend toward cliché, and the solution to the kidnapping is hardly surprising, but Martika has the potential to become an interesting blend of the modern world and ancient arcana as the series continues – which it surely will.

      The Mystery of the Martello Tower is the start of something, too. It is Jennifer Lanthier’s first novel, and its focus is siblings Hazel and Ned, home for summer vacation and wanting nothing more than a few months of warmth, laziness and sleeping late. No such luck: their father, an art dealer, suddenly disappears without saying goodbye; their babysitter leaves town; burglars break into their apartment; and suddenly they start seeing two menacing thugs everywhere. Something is afoot – but what sort of game is it, and who is moving the pieces? Hazel and Ned soon learn that the many odd occurrences are connected, and that their father’s disappearance has something to do with the mystery that surrounds the death of their mother years earlier. While Chasing the Jaguar looks to ancient powers to solve modern mysteries, Hazel and Ned and their friends look strictly to modern techniques, using Internet searches to focus on two men named Clive Pritchard and Paul Fazza, then figuring out that the men are thieves who favor anagrams in creating their crooked schemes. The young sleuths are properly skeptical of their computer-based techniques: “The Internet is one strange universe… There’s stuff here from five or six years ago and stuff from yesterday. And who knows how much of it is true?” But their instincts take them in the right direction – and when Hazel realizes that the Martello Tower, which is on an island, holds the key to much of what has been going on, the stage is set for Hazel and Ned to “save the police” (whose surveillance of the bad guys has gone awry) by making sure the crooks cannot escape. Eventually, the mystery of where the siblings’ father went is solved, too, as is the question about their mother’s death, and everything is buttoned up far more neatly than could ever happen outside a novel, in a way that preteen readers will enjoy – especially since the book’s structure leaves open the possibility of one or more sequels.

      Football Hero, although not exactly a sequel, is a successor of sorts to Tim Green’s Football Genius, his first novel for young readers. Green, a former player with the Atlanta Falcons and the author of a number of suspense novels for adults, has also been an NFL broadcast analyst and commentator. His specialty is showing football players in a highly positive light while providing an insider’s details of how the game works. – a potent combination for fans of the game. However, neither this book nor its predecessor will be of much interest to young readers who are not football devotees. Football Hero is decently paced and moderately well written, but the basic plot is nothing special and the characters are far too one-dimensional to be mistaken for real people. The book’s focus is on brothers Ty and Thane Lewis. Ty, who is 12, is delighted when the coach at his school recruits him for the football team – except that Ty’s guardian, Uncle Gus, needs Ty to help in the family cleaning business and won’t let Ty play. Thane, for his part, is in college and being actively recruited by the NFL. The crime-and-mystery connection here is that Uncle Gus is working on gambling plans with a local mobster named Lucy – and Lucy starts becoming very friendly to Ty, trying to use him to get inside information from Thane. It falls to Ty to figure out the scheme and undermine it, while saving his brother’s career. The level of unreality is striking but quite irrelevant, since the point of Football Hero is to take young readers inside a game they presumably love while giving them a bit of a mystery on which to focus as well. Of course, Ty outwits the bad guys and does get to play football after all; and of course, Ty ends up as the hero both of the crime investigation and of his school’s big game. The whole book is pure fantasy, but will be fun for young fantasy-football fans.

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