September 08, 2011
(+++) ANIMAL TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
Floors, Book I. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $16.99.
Ravenwood. By Andrew Peters. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.
Poison Apple Book: Curiosity Killed the Cat. By Sierra Harimann. Scholastic. $5.99.
From birds to bird hunters, animals are central to these adventure stories, which run the gamut from amusing to intense. The new Floors series by Patrick Carman, creator of The Land of Elyon and other books and sequences, is a mostly amusing, lightweight gathering of happenstances set in a highly unusual hotel, where every room is different and pretty much anything can happen…and often does. Floors tries a bit too hard and is a bit too much like other “wonderland” books — who knows what opening this or that door will do? But Carman’s fine sense of pacing and amusing (if scarcely original) characters prevent the book from bogging down or turning entirely into formula. The Whippet Hotel is where it all takes place — an establishment run by Merganzer Whippet, whose dying business-tycoon father long ago told him that he would “prosper in the field of wacky inventions,” a statement that Merganzer did not realize was but one in a series of communications that were no more than gibberish. The Whippet Hotel is weird in the extreme, but Merganzer is worrisomely absent as the book begins, and the focus quickly shifts to 10-year-old Leo Fillmore, janitor’s son and the perfect foil for readers who want to explore the peculiarities of the hotel through the eyes of someone who can go anywhere in it. Well, almost anywhere. There is plenty of oddity to go around here, and Carman spends much of the early part of the book promising more of it: “Captain Rickenbacker had fallen head over heels for the hotel from the moment he’d stepped foot into the lobby. He loved the Whippet Hotel. It made him happy. It made him content. And so he had stayed — two years running — on the third floor, in one of the oddest rooms in the hotel.” Being odd is a specialty of the building and the story. The ducks are part of it: “Betty and the other ducks were like dogs, really — if they had a good long walk every day and they got fed, they were happy on the roof. But if they were left alone for too long, they grew restless and irritable. They’d fly down to the lobby and start biting people.” But it soon — by page 17 — turns out that there is not enough strangeness in the hotel, because “Leo’s life was about to change forever” as four mysterious boxes are left for him, evildoers and their evil plans are afoot, the hotel starts to fall apart, Leo finds a friend in another young hotel worker named Remi, and the building’s strangeness turns into a series of plot points: “Every guest room had a red ball hanging from a red rope. On the wall near the ball was a red button. To send a distress signal, a guest had to grab the ball and pull the cord while simultaneously pressing the red button. …Apparently…all the guests in the hotel were pulling their rip cords and pressing the buttons in their rooms at the same time, over and over again.” And why? What exactly is going on? Well, that would be telling — and would deprive readers of “the slug cave…in the Haunted Room,” the notes from missing Merganzer, and the holes that pursue Leo and Remi and almost catch them. This all leads to a happy ending that is far from a conclusion — the series has the potential to go on for quite a while, since it is made clear that there is much about the hotel that has yet to be revealed.
The revelations are more serious in Ravenwood, and the birds are, too. Andrew Peters’ book is a straightforward adventure/fantasy about a forest kingdom nestled high in the trees, threatened by a mechanistic enemy, and possibly to be saved by a young boy who, like Leo and Remi, does not at first seem equal to the task. Ark is, in fact, quite a bit like Leo, being something of a janitor himself: a plumber boy, whose main job is unclogging toilets. But Ark is older — he is 14 — and his story is darker than Leo’s and more fraught with peril. The book is filled with vaguely religious messages and implications: “Diana was also enraged once. The Wood-Book talks about how She laid low the temple of the honeylenders! Trust that which lies within you!” And this Diana, if she (or She) is what some believe her (or Her) to be, is served by ravens that are anything but reassuring. Inevitably, Ark will meet these creatures after he overhears the plot by the aptly named land of Maw to swallow up Arborium — and subsequently has to flee for his life and attempt to save his world. Peters likes to present atmospheric scenes, as when Ark meets (perhaps) Diana. “Could this really be Her? Impossible! Stories didn’t come to life,” thinks Ark. But he is soon explaining himself: “‘My name is Arktorious Malikum, a plumber’s apprentice, son of Mr. Malikum.’ And here, up high in this strange tree, he was out of place. …‘Your words cover up truth. You are a sewage worker, a delver in dark places. I thought I could smell something foul. …My curiosity is dulled. You are a thin snack with too much gristle. Sometimes my birds bring me treasure. Sometimes they don’t. …I have found you wanting, and the conversation tedious. My children are welcome to you.’ …There were more ravens than he had seen in a lifetime, a city of feathered monsters. …The birds clacked their beaks, screeching their dawn chorus as they prepared for a feast.” The plot is a standard one of good, nature-loving and nature-living people vs. evil technology-driven ones, the latter being thoroughly unidimensional: “Them scientists went right down to the molecular level and made this stuff superstrong. That’s why our shining cities tower over your tiny trees. This material is the future.” But those who believe that “the future truly was golden” are of course due for their comeuppance, and (also of course) it will come through Ark, who becomes “a true child of nature, tooth and claw,” and others like him. The defeat of evil by good is, as usual, suitably satisfying, and if Ravenwood offers little that is new, Peters at least presents the plot forthrightly and with considerable skill in the pacing.
Neither pacing nor plot is a strong point of the Poison Apple books, which are intended to provide mild and quickly forgettable chills to preteen girls. Curiosity Killed the Cat does just what it needs to do, no more and no less. It includes a maybe-for-real ghost cat, a real cat named Icky that disappears mysteriously, and a setting close to a graveyard. What Hannah, the book’s protagonist, is doing in that setting is living with her father and his new family, which includes a stepsister named Madison who is, like, so totally mean. Hannah has the usual seventh-grader adjustments to make, some involving school and boys, but the focus here, as in other books in this series, is on the eerie things that may or may not indicate that something supernatural is going on. The thing that scares Hannah the most is a scratching noise at her door every night — with nothing there when she opens the door. The question of ghost cat and Icky the cat gets mixed up, and of course there is a climax at (when else?) Halloween, when Hannah and Madison find themselves together in the cemetery in the dark with the scratching sound and…well, nothing awful happens (the Poison Apple books are about chills, not real terror), but the stepsisters become friends, other social matters work out nicely, and even the Halloween party costumes turn out to be appreciated by everyone. Easy to read, not too scary, and easy to forget — Curiosity Killed the Cat is a typical entry in its series, and should be just as appealing to its target audience as the previous Poison Apple books.