December 31, 2008


Children of the Lamp, Book 5: The Eye of the Forest. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 2: One False Note. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Pairs of young adventurers are on trails that lead them all over the place in these new, exciting and well-wrought entries in two mystery series. P.B. Kerr’s latest Children of the Lamp novel follows the now-familiar pattern of involving djinn twins John and Philippa in a quest filled with exotic locales, magical danger, and confrontation with strong forces of evil. There is something formulaic in the elements of the book, but the specifics of the plot are intriguing enough – and the writing good enough – to conceal the familiarity of Kerr’s approach. In The Eye of the Forest, rare Incan artifacts are missing, and John and Philippa – together with their Uncle Nimrod – are sent to recover them. This lands them in the Amazon rain forest, at a powerful spell-guarded doorway that some unknown force of evil wishes to open – which is why the artifacts have been stolen. There is an overlay of ecological concern here, with the risk that the opening of the portal could devastate the rain forest as well as disturb the Incan empire, which is deemed to be sleeping rather than destroyed. The portrait of the Amazon region and its creatures is a straightforward one: “All he could hear was the myriad sound of the birds twittering tunelessly, monkeys laughing like hyenas, frogs creaking like old ropes, and insects whirring like dozens of small clockwork toys. …He was beginning to realize just what a strange place the rain forest really was and how your mind could play tricks on you: sticks that turned out to be insects, leaves that turned out to be lizards, logs that turned out to be alligators.” But the portrayals of odd magical objects, such as a frightening engraving, are nicely done: “Dressed all in black, with a white hourglass on his back, the strange man had long, horribly thin arms and legs, tiny hands and feet, and a head bent down so that only a white domelike forehead and a few straggling hairs could be seen. Not so much a spider man as a sort of human-spider.” The eventual outcome of The Eye of the Forest involves both magic and such scientific concepts as the potential creation of a critical mass of uranium as large as a mountain – in fact, it is a mountain, which could mean “building an atomic weapon that is going to destroy the world,” or rather both worlds, the everyday one and the magical one in which a multi-part ritual could produce atomic disaster. Vampire plants, gestalt slippers from Kublai Khan, and a variety of other strange and fascinating items keep The Eye of the Forest entertaining right through to the end – which, in typical series fashion, makes it clear that there will be more djinn adventures to come.

     The 39 Clues is an adventure that is just getting up to speed, with the second book of the planned 10-book series that began when wealthy and eccentric Grace Cahill changed her will in her last minutes of life, setting her relatives off on the trail of a series of clues that will eventually lead successful mystery solvers to a huge fortune, great power or maybe both. This is a very well-done interactive series, which includes the books themselves (by various authors), clue-containing card packs bound into each volume (there are six cards in One False Note), and a Web site,, where readers can play an online game while waiting for new books to come out. In the second book featuring various Cahills, upright and unscrupulous, scouring the world for clues, protagonists Amy and Dan Cahill are everywhere. In fact, that’s a problem here: the orphan brother and sister are seen on a train; but they are also suspects in a burglary at a hotel; and they have been spotted in a car, and a speedboat, and being pursued by an angry mob, and…well, what exactly is going on? Part of what is happening involves the fact that even though “the official contest began at the funeral,” as Amy points out to Dan, “the clues have been around since Mozart’s time – maybe even before.” And since the Cahills are related to Mozart – and to Houdini, Napoleon and many another famous figure – there must be all sorts of clues in all sorts of places. The 39 Clues is more a romp than a serious adventure, but there are enough confusions, near disasters, close calls, booby traps and nasty bad guys to keep things percolating along at a brisk pace. One False Note (whose title is itself a clue to one dramatic scene) is fun, fast-paced and a fine second entry in a thoroughly engaging (if rather mindless) series.

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