October 20, 2011


100 Scariest Things on the Planet. By Anna Claybourne. Scholastic. $7.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book One: The Medusa Plot. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $12.99.

     “Scary Places and Dreadful Destinations.” “Scary Stunts and Frightening Feats.” Oh, there are all sorts of chilling things in Anna Claybourne’s 100 Scariest Things on the Planet, each of them given a ranking of one to five “fear faces” (think unhappy “happy face” icons). This begs the question of why anything less than a five-face fear has been included – aren’t there enough five-face items to add up to 100? How about four-face plus five-face? Do one-face items really qualify as among the scariest things? Well, a meteorite gets one face because “it could squash you flat! But don’t worry too much – they’re very rare.” And free running (“running, jumping, swinging, and backflipping around city structures and obstacles”) also gets one face: “Some free running moves look superhuman.” Black holes get a single face, too: “Being sucked into a black hole would be horrifying. Luckily, it’s unlikely!” These are tops-in-the-world scares? There aren’t even any black holes “in the world” – or anywhere near it. On the other hand, El Camino del Rey (“a narrow, rickety pathway clinging to the side of a cliff” in Spain) gets five faces as “one of the scariest walks anywhere in the world.” That seems to make sense. But five faces also go to snakes – not venomous snakes, not dangerous snakes, but snakes in general – with the ridiculous comment, “Ssssnakes [sic] are scaly and slithery…and scary!” Really? In contrast, sharks get three faces and spiders get four. A lot of the ratings seem to reflect Claybourne’s personal feelings and fears rather than anything objective. But of course the purpose of this ”eek!” book is not really objective science – it’s thrills, seen and read about in perfect safety. This also helps explain the book’s odd mixture of real-world frights with entirely fictional ones: vampires are here (getting three faces), as are poltergeists (four faces), not many pages away from nanotechnology (three faces) and artificial intelligence (two faces). It is very hard to take 100 Scariest Things on the Planet seriously, even though each entry gets a fact or two as well as the hype. The book is even lighter than once-over-lightly – but should be fun for young readers who want to decide whether things that frighten them have made Claybourne’s list.

     Snakes may not really deserve to be called five-face frightening, but the snakes-for-hair appearance of Medusa is a longtime, if thoroughly fictional, scary thing, and The Medusa Plot trades on that image as it begins a new series of books in The 39 Clues series. This new set of books was promised at the end of the original 10-book sequence and prepared for in the transitional 11th book, Vespers Rising. Now that we know that Amy and Dan Cahill and some (if not all) of their fellow Cahills are the good guys, it is time for an entire cotingent packed with baddies: the Vespers. It turns out that just because Amy and Dan thought they had won the hunt for the clues, and just because readers following the books, collecting the cards and visiting the Web site thought everything had come to a conclusion, that doesn’t mean things are really over. Not, apparently, by a long shot. The Vespers are running around kidnapping Cahills (including Jonah Wizard’s cousin, a new character named Phoenix), then demanding that Amy and Dan ransom their family members by stealing various things. Since the Vespers are clever and powerful enough to kidnap so many Cahills in so many different places with such apparent ease, you would think they would just go steal the desired items themselves; but logic has never been a high point of The 39 Clues. So the Vespers first demand that Dan and Amy steal a painting, which they do, but it turns out to be a fake, so the Vespers, now becoming impatient, give the siblings a deadline to find and steal the real painting, which turns out to be in the possession of “A. Sudem” (“Medusa” spelled backwards). It turns out that the teen protagonists (Dan is now 13, Amy 16) have a real talent for thievery, and stealing from bad guys isn’t really stealing anyway (or something like that), so everything works out fine – setting up the next book, in which Amy and Dan will have to steal something else. And don’t ask why the protagonists accept without question the notion that the nefarious Vespers will actually release hostages in return for the stolen objects they want. Not even 39 clues would be enough to solve the mystery of how and why these characters do what they do. But fans looking for more of what they found in the original sequence – more cards, more online games, more “participation” through Internet-based missions – will have fun with this continuation.

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