Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-You Notes. By Peggy Gifford. Illustrated by Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $12.99.
The Navigator Trilogy, Book Two: City of Time. By Eoin McNamee. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
The Hall Family Chronicles, Book 8: The Dragon Tree. By Jane Langton. HarperCollins. $15.99.
The Return of Skeleton Man. By Joseph Bruchac. HarperTrophy. $5.99.
Authors and publishers like to hold onto a good thing until it no longer is a good thing. The problem is that it can be hard to tell when sweet storytelling turns sour: author and publisher alike get caught up in a sequence, not always realizing they may be leaving readers less satisfied with later installments than they were with earlier ones. That is an issue for all these books: each is admirable in its way, but none quite delivers the punch of its predecessors. Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-You Notes, for example, is not a sequel per se but a chance to revisit the girl who charmed many readers in Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love “Stuart Little.” The new book is of the heartwarming-tale-of-a-split-family type, with Moxy being required to write a dozen thank-you notes before she can fly to Hollywood to visit her father, who has promised to take her to a star-studded New Year’s Eve party. Moxy, being both creative and a procrastinator, finds thank-you notes boringly repetitive and a task to be put off as long as possible; so she spends her time looking for ways to make the writing go faster (how about using her stepfather’s fancy new copier?). Nothing works as Moxy intends, of course, and then her father cancels the planned trip anyway, giving Peggy Gifford the chance for a truly syrupy plot twist in which Moxy enthusiastically does write a thank-you note – to her mother, for always being there for her. The book, written in very short chapters and punchy sentences, is easy to read and often funny; but the plot, unfortunately, never stops creaking.
The plot is far more complex in The Navigator Trilogy, whose second book is adventure-packed as it brings Owen closer to finding out about the great power and responsibility he has as Navigator of Time. City of Time is fantasy in science-fictional guise, filled with forces of evil (the Harsh), forces of good (the Registers), and forces of ambiguity (Cati, the Watcher – and her father). Natural disasters are starting to occur in this book, as Earth’s Moon moves closer to the planet and distorts weather patterns, while time itself slows down. Eoin McNamee paces City of Time well, but the underlying plot retains a high level of unbelievability: “There used to be a constant supply of time. People bought and sold, and lived happily. Then buyers started coming in from elsewhere. Nobody knew who they were. The price of time multiplied a hundredfold.” Capitalism and a sort of “time bank”? Best to take City of Time, and the trilogy of which it is the midpoint, as simply a forthright fantasy, and regard its many odd elements (the tempod, the terfuge) simply as flights of fancy.
The Hall Family Chronicles is 100% fantasy from the start – a start that has led from The Diamond in the Window to the eighth book in the series, The Dragon Tree. Here, Jane Langton visits 40 Walden Street in Concord, Massachusetts, to focus on a mysterious tree in the Halls’ back yard (or perhaps just over their property line). The tree is threatened by tree-cutting Mortimer Moon, so Eddy and Georgie Hall set out to save it, which leads to creation of the Fellowship of the Noble Tree on the one hand – and to Moon’s counterplans on the other. The whole story becomes one of good vs. evil, with the tree itself having some plans of its own, and the characters begin as one-dimensional types and shrink even further as Langton moves the story more and more into the realm of myth (Adam and Eve, the idea that the snake in the Garden of Eden was good rather than evil, the tree of Paradise, and so on). A fast read, and a pleasant one for fans of the tales of the Hall family, The Dragon Tree is thin in both plot and characterization for readers who are not already enamored of this series.
The Return of Skeleton Man is also thinner than its predecessor, Joseph Bruchac’s original Skeleton Man, in which an Indian legend persists into the present and commits horrifying crimes whose background only a Mohawk girl, Molly, and her parents fully understand. Originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, this sequel actually has Molly acknowledge that sequels almost never measure up to originals. Bruchac may have realized even when writing this book that it was not at the level of his earlier tale. More than half of the novel is taken up with scene-setting that quickly becomes tiresome. The story takes place at a sprawling mountain lodge whose resemblance to the creepy setting of the film The Shining is noted by Molly herself. In fact, a few of Bruchac’s scenes, in which Molly walks along deserted corridors, feeling someone or something watching her, closely resemble parts of the film and the Stephen King novel on which it was based. Eventually, Molly must re-confront Skeleton Man and outwit him a second time, thanks to help from an unexpected source. The book’s climax is effective enough, but the story is even less substantial than its brief length – 136 pages – would indicate. At the end, Molly says she hopes Skeleton Man is gone for good. In truth, it would be best if that were true – many sequels, this one included, quickly reach a point of diminishing returns.