March 05, 2009


Deeper. By Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams. Chicken House/Scholastic. $18.99.

The 100 Cupboards, Book 2: Dandelion Fire. By N.D. Wilson. Random House. $16.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #8: It’s Not My Fault I Know Everything. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams are creating quite a series with their tales of a mysterious and often frightening underground world. Tunnels, the first book in the sequence and the authors’ first novel, introduced 14-year-old Will Burrows and his best friend, Chester, who investigated the mysterious disappearance of Will’s father – who vanished shortly after discovering a mysterious abandoned tunnel underneath London. The young explorers found an entire underground civilization and a malevolent and genuinely scary group called the Styx that dominated the belowground world through fear. Will and Chester eventually made it back to Topsoil – the everyday aboveground world – but there were plenty of loose ends that made it clear they would need to return to the world beneath soon. And so they do in Deeper, which combines the frightening elements that Gordon and Williams brought to Tunnels with an expanded sense of intricacy involving family relationships – including a confrontation between Will’s birth mother and adoptive mother that turns out to have a great deal to do with a Styx plan to eliminate Topsoilers altogether. The story proceeds in multiple threads, flashing from Styx activities to Will’s continuing search to the adventures of Will’s father himself. The notes that Dr. Burrows enters day after day in his journal provide a great deal of information on the underground world and the people living there, but it is the events involving the other characters that give Deeper its emotional punch and overarching sense of dread. Not surprisingly in a series of this type, Will’s importance increases as the events progress, as a Styx elder explains: “Will Burrows is contained for the moment, but he may yet become a false idol, a figurehead, for our enemies. They might seek to use him in their opposition of us and the measures we intend to take. He cannot be allowed to continue to roam unchecked in the Interior. He must be flushed out and stopped.” So as Will searches, others search for him, and the world beneath becomes increasingly multidimensional and complex, filled with alliances, renegades, competing social structures and considerable danger for the unwary. The elements of the story gradually interweave, and eventually Will and his companions learn of a deadly virus called Dominion that the Styx intend to release to destroy the Topsoilers. Pursued by Limiters and Stalkers, Will and the others are hopelessly overmatched and outmaneuvered, and anyone hoping for a happy ending will not find it here. Deeper is clearly a way station between Tunnels and the next book of the series, Freefall, but it does serve to deepen the story while providing a higher level of intensity than is usually found in books for ages 8-12. It will, in fact, likely be too intense for readers on the lower end of that age spectrum.

     Dandelion Fire, on the other hand, will be just fine for pretty much all preteens. Exciting but not nearly as disturbing as Deeper, N.D. Wilson’s sequel to The 100 Cupboards continues the adventure that began when rather timid 12-year-old Henry York found a wall covered with 100 cupboard doors in his aunt and uncle’s house in Kansas. Go through the cupboards and, to use an obvious phrase, you’re not in Kansas anymore. And Henry found in the first book that the cupboards were really portals that could conceal evil (in the form of the witch of Endor) in addition to wonders. The second book’s title refers to the gift of second sight: dandelion fire is said to run through the veins of those who have it. And Henry discovers that he is one of those. He now knows that he was born in one of the cupboard worlds, and is determined to reenter the cupboards to find his real parents and learn his own background and, perhaps, destiny. This is a rather formulaic setup for a quest story, and the tale is often told in rather formulaic language: “A knot tied in her stomach, and she felt the first stage of panic. She didn’t want to express her thought. Not even to herself. But she did. She might never get home.” Still, the very simplicity of the writing will make Dandelion Fire attractive to many young readers, and the nearly nonstop – if not particularly intense – action is well enough handled to earn the book a (+++) rating.

     Intensity is the last thing Jim Benton wants in his “Tales from Mackerel Middle School,” of which It’s Not My Fault I Know Everything is the eighth. In these books, Jamie Kelly’s diaries follow a familiar pattern (starting with an admonition to readers not to read them), although this one includes a “Diploma of Everything” foldout just to make things more interesting. In this episode as in earlier ones, Jamie has problems with her “best enemy,” Angeline, imaging that Angeline “wakes up in a puddle of her own beauty, and she glides over to the mirror and radiates gorgeous glamour all over the place.” Jamie has problems with boys, too (“bathing won’t kill you”), and with dogs (her dog and Angeline’s just had puppies together, leading Jamie to give the puppies names ranging from “The Bubblegum Duchess” to “Stinkette”). Jamie does not have problems (usually) with her best friend, Isabella, or with those quizzes in magazines: “I’m a Magazine Quiz Genius, so it just naturally follows that I am a genius at everything. I mean, we have to admit: The people who write these quizzes are the brightest people in the nation.” Like the other Dear Dumb Diary books, this one is a collection of largely unrelated events that eventually turn out to be sort-of-related after all. It helps that Jamie’s Aunt Carol works in the school office and is married to Uncle Dan, the assistant principal – who is Angeline’s uncle. But what really helps the book – and gives it a (+++) rating despite its predictability – are Benton’s drawings, which are consistently funnier than the often-amusing stories. This time, one picture shows a girl carrying a “sacred diary” and accompanied by a “sacred koala assistant, which would be awesome”; one shows a girl literally turning into a puddle when stared at by a huge-eyed puppy (“a puppy’s gaze can actually make a human girl melt with PURE LOVE”); one shows a famous-but-ugly person improving his looks by taping his paycheck to his face. Dear Dumb Diary is scarcely great writing and is not even great drawing; but it is great fun, which is clearly all that Benton wants it to be.

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