February 03, 2011


The Shadow Project. By Herbie Brennan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $6.99.

The Amanda Project. By Melissa Kantor. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Magic Tree House #45: A Crazy Day with Cobras. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.

Magic Tree House Research Guide (#23): Snakes and Other Reptiles. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $4.99.

     Somehow the word “project” conveys tones of mystery, at least in teen-oriented fiction. The Shadow Project makes those tones explicit in its title, so it is clear from the start that there is something dark…indeed, shadowy…going on. In fact, Herbie Brennan’s fast-paced book is predictable throughout, not just in its title. In typical almost-like-a-movie formulaic plotting and writing, it tells the story of a thief who is forced into cooperating with the government after he inadvertently breaks into a house that proves to be the headquarters of a secret government operation targeting international terrorism. This sort of thing – as the 17th-century proverb says in a sentiment that is actually much older, “Set a thief to catch a thief” – has been fodder for adventure entertainment for a long, long time. And the idea of a secret, benevolent government organization that somehow functions entirely without anyone discovering it is an old one, too; rather outdated, in fact. Of course, if this were a straightforward bad-guy-joins-good-group novel, it wouldn’t be particularly entertaining, nor would it be in accord with modern suspicions of government or the increasing fondness for twists and turns in plots. So we know from the start that Danny Lipman, the book’s protagonist, is basically a good guy, despite his thievery; and we suspect from the start of his involvement with the Shadow Project that all is not what it initially seems to be with the supposed good guys. In fact, the whole plot takes a thoroughly unbelievable supernatural twist as it goes on, as explained by one of the characters: “‘Roland may be nominal head of the operation, but that’s just because it’s on British soil. It’s actually a CIA project, so the real power is Carradine, however much he keeps a low profile. Since he’s CIA, he follows the current party line: [the terrorist group] Sword of Wrath’s the big enemy, War on Terror, all that rot. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Sword of Wrath’s not the enemy. …[It is] a symptom, not the cause. …[The cause is] war in heaven. …Sometimes the hidden powers manifest of their own accord. …But sometimes particularly evil people tap into the powers quite deliberately to further their own ends.’” Uh…yeah, right. Readers who do not find this unintentionally funny will enjoy being swept further into Brennan’s plot and Danny’s confrontation with the baddies: “They were like something out of the Arabian Nights: muscular, bearded men in turbans, wielding scimitars.” Brennan does a good enough job of pulling the novel together, and throws in a note afterwards explaining that “some of the most incredible aspects of the story are based on fact.” But “based on fact” is a slippery concept – The Shadow Project touches on aspects of reality, but quite lightly. It is certainly fun to read for those willing to suspend a lot of disbelief – and it is only the first book in a series, with the second to be called The Doomsday Box.

     The Amanda Project is also the start of a series, and it too purports to connect with reality, although in a different way. The book itself is coyly stated to be by “Amanda Valentino and Melissa Kantor,” thus pulling the fictional title character and real author into the same world, more or less. And the book is part of an interactive “project” to which readers themselves can contribute through online participation – they can even make themselves into characters in Amanda’s story. The story itself is a simple enough mystery: ninth-grader Amanda Valentino arrives at Endeavor High as a freshman; befriends Callie Leary, Hal Bennett and Nia Rivera, without telling any of them about her relationship with the others; proves herself an intriguing and mysterious character, with premonitions about the future and ambiguous references to things that might happen or meanings that might lie within meanings; and then vanishes without a trace on the Ides of March. This leaves Callie, Hal and Nia to try to figure out – together – who or what Amanda is or was, using clues she has left them and others that keep appearing, possibly from Amanda herself. So there is a hint of the paranormal here, too; but if The Shadow Project has an action-adventure approach that will appeal mainly to boys, The Amanda Project is clearly intended more for girls, with its emphasis on cooperative problem-solving and the importance of friendship and working together. The setup is reasonably intriguing, but there is nothing especially interesting about Amanda, despite the characters’ repeatedly contending that yes, there is. Amanda is given to such lines as, “‘Really, everything’s beautiful…if you look at it the right way.’” This is what passes for a profound observation here. What passes for mystery is this sort of comment from Amanda: “‘Like Beatrix (Beatrice, Bellatrix), we warriors fall, but so too do we rise.’” There is in fact a certain amount of intellectual fun in Kantor’s puzzles, and the emphasis on connecting characters who are otherwise very different sends a message about friendship that reader-participants will enjoy. The Amanda Project is the first of a projected eight-book series; the second will be called Revealed, although it is a sure bet that it will not reveal too much.

     The Magic Tree House series may not be labeled a project, but it is one – a very longstanding one. In presentation, it has become more interesting in recent years as Random House has published nonfiction books to accompany the fictional adventures of the brother-and-sister team of Jack and Annie. Those adventures themselves, though, are wearing a bit thin – the whole idea of a tree house connected to Merlin that whisks the daring duo all over the place in time and space seems even sillier now than it did when the series began in 1992. But middle-school students unfamiliar with the series are still likely to enjoy it, although they may well outgrow it fairly quickly. A Crazy Day with Cobras begins a four-book sequence in which Jack and Annie need to find four specific objects that will allow them to reverse a spell that has accidentally turned Merlin’s penguin, Penny, to stone. Don’t even think about asking what Merlin is doing with a penguin (the answer lies in earlier books, but is beside the point of the newest one); the setup is just an excuse for Jack and Annie to have adventures in the Mogul Empire of India, 400 years in the past. To help them out, they are given a potion to make them small; again, don’t even think about asking what good that can possibly be (Mary Pope Osborne does, of course, make sure it gets used, however improbably). The book revolves around Shah Jah├ún, builder of the Taj Mahal, and has Jack and Annie posing as ambassadors in order to gain access, they hope, to an emerald cut in the shape of a rose. “Far-fetched” does not begin to describe the adventure, in which the characters become involved not only with cobras but also with elephants. But as with all the Magic Tree House books, there is a welcome smattering of historical knowledge here, and of course the guaranteed happy ending after Jack and Annie confront the usual not-too-scary perils that inevitably await them. As for Snakes and Other Reptiles, like the other research guides written by Osborne in collaboration with her sister, Natalie Pope Boyce, it contains a fair amount of solid information, but also some questionable material. For example, it describes reptiles with the outmoded term “cold-blooded,” although scientists now call them “ectothermic,” meaning they obtain body heat from outside sources – while mammals, here referred to as “warm-blooded,” are “endothermic,” meaning they generate heat internally. The scientific words are not too difficult to learn and are much more accurate; but at least the authors point out that the “cold-blooded” term “doesn’t mean that their blood is cold.” Most of the book is a once-over-lightly tour of the reptile world, sprinkled with good photos and some nicely chosen facts – for instance, that crocodiles’ jaws are super-powerful, but only when biting down: “If you put a rubber band around a small croc’s jaws, it can’t even open its mouth.” Although A Crazy Day with Cobras is not really focused on herpetological matters, young readers who enjoy the snake-related parts of the story and want to learn more about these fascinating animals will find Snakes and Other Reptiles a good place to start. And as usual in these guides (of which this is the 23rd, although that number does not appear in the title), the authors provide reasonable suggestions for further, more in-depth research.

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