This World We Live In. By Susan Beth Pfeffer. Harcourt. $17.
Dear Dumb Diary #10: The Worst Things in Life Are Also Free. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
Movie for Dogs. By Lois Duncan. Scholastic. $16.99.
How many ways can Susan Beth Pfeffer tell the same post-apocalyptic story? So far, the answer is three. This World We Live In is essentially the same tale as The Dead & The Gone, which was essentially the same story as Life As We Knew It. That first book was quite harrowing: Pfeffer imagined worldwide climate change caused by a catastrophic meteor collision with Earth’s Moon. The scenes of chaos and the inevitable split between good people and bad ones in the attempt to survive sudden dramatic changes in every aspect of life were perhaps not exceptionally creative: this sort of thing has been a science-fiction staple since the genre began. But Pfeffer managed to make readers care about at least some of her characters, and there was a certain raw grittiness about this world and its unwanted changes that made the book memorable. The Dead & The Gone was less so – because essentially what it did was revisit the whole scenario and show how other characters handled other issues in other circumstances arising from the same global catastrophe. It was less a sequel than a second book on the same topic. And now comes This World We Live In, which returns once again to the same post-apocalyptic scene to explore how still other characters are trying to survive and rebuild their lives. Yes, there is some character overlap among the books, so to an extent the three volumes can be thought of as a trilogy. But there is little character development from story to story – the budding love between Miranda Evans and Alex Morales in This World We Live In feels both inevitable and forced – and there are no real new challenges to be faced by the characters after the disaster of the first book. Perhaps that is Pfeffer’s point: having survived the initial cataclysm, characters need to figure out how to make ongoing lives for themselves now that the initial terror and response to disaster are over. Indeed, This World We Live In hints at this plot point by having Miranda’s mother trying with increasing desperation to keep doing as many pre-disaster activities as possible, while Miranda herself and the other characters set about creating and implementing survival strategies for a world that has changed forever. But this “you can’t go home again” theme is so obvious that it barely deserves to be considered a straw man (or straw woman): of course the characters who accept the permanent dissolution of the old ways will be the ones to find successful new approaches to life (albeit only after making some difficult, even agonizing decisions). Pfeffer writes well, and she still makes readers care about the characters whom she bothers to flesh out and give believable motivation; but readers have already lived in This World We Live In long enough. It is time for them, and Pfeffer, to move on.
There is nothing post-apocalyptic about Jamie Kelly’s middle-school world – it only feels that way to her, because she sees her entire life ruined forever every, oh, 10 minutes or so. Jim Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series is frequently hilarious and frequently less so. The Worst Things in Life Are Also Free falls into the “less so” category, but it does have its moments. One occurs when Jamie discovers an insurmountable obstacle to her plan to become a vegetarian during summer vacation: “I think a lot of people, like me, love animals in both ways – with all of our hearts, and with all of our teeth as well. It’s just so difficult not to eat their adorable little delicious bodies.” Another takes place when Jamie realizes how the money-go-round works: her parents have money in the bank that is “supposed to help pay for my college education one day, where I will learn the skills I need to earn the money I’ll need to pay back all the money I borrowed for the college education.” More thoughts like these would have made the tenth Dear Dumb Diary installment a real winner, but there just aren’t enough of them. The story is about the ways in which Jamie, her sort-of-related beautiful-and-hated frenemy Angeline, and her BFF Isabella try to earn money for a trip to an amusement park called Screamotopia. It is not a very good story: Jamie’s rants against Angeline ring hollow (and Angeline herself just becomes nicer and nicer all the time, which doesn’t help the whole “frenemy” thing); Isabella is more backstabbing and undermining to Jamie than usual (which doesn’t help the BFF idea); and the three girls take genuinely cruel advantage of a none-too-bright classmate named Emmily, who ends up being the only one who does a good job of earning money. Some of the individual scenes are funny, and some of the illustrations – such as one of a baby wearing eight diapers, one over the other – are really cute. But the story as a whole, if not one of the worst things in life, isn’t one of the best, either. And it isn’t free – although fans of Jamie probably won’t mind paying $5.99 for this less-than-stellar installment of her diary entries.
Movie for Dogs is an all-right book, too, but that is all it is. And it feels too much like its predecessors – Hotel for Dogs and News for Dogs – to get points for creativity. Like the latest Jim Benton book, this one from Lois Duncan is a summertime story, with Bruce and his sister, Andi, learning about a filmmaking contest whose theme is dogs, and deciding to make Red Rover a celluloid star. It is obvious from the start that things will not be as simple as that: there will be some sort of scam by Bruce and Andi’s nemesis, Jerry Gordon (and there is); and there will be a big surprise (well, not a surprise to readers) in which Bruce and Andi’s film will do better than even they had hoped (yep: they get a call from Hollywood); and there will be some serious competition from an unexpected source (yep) and some pushy Hollywood type getting on the kids’ nerves (also yep). There is certainly nothing wrong with any of this – familiar plot, familiar characters, a twist in which the bad guys almost get away with their evil plot, and of course a feel-good ending. Readers of the two previous books will have a lot of fun with this one, and probably won’t care that this set of variations on a theme is really more of a twice-told tale. Or, indeed, a thrice-told one.