Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $15.99.
The Poisons of Caux, Book Three: The Shepherd of Weeds. By Susannah Applebaum. Knopf. $16.99.
Rumors from the Boys’ Room: A Blogtastic! Novel. By Rose Cooper. Delacorte Press. $12.99.
The Lily Pond. By Annika Thor. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Sammy Keyes mysteries are by now so well-established – the new novel is the 14th in the series – that Sammy’s name on the cover is all readers will need to see in order to develop an instant attachment to the latest book. Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls is not one of the best entries in the sequence, being both overdone and rather obvious, but that will not prevent fans from enjoying it. And Wendelin Van Draanen is, as usual, adept at pacing things well and covering any plot holes with cleverness and surprises. This is a Halloween-focused tale, which is one of the reasons its plot is rather obvious: Sammy and her friends are dressed as zombies, and they cut through a graveyard, and of course something bad happens there (they get chased by a shovel-equipped man), and after some other unpleasant events, they all decide to head home and gorge on candy. But something ominous turns up along with their treats. So Sammy – with friends helping, or at least tagging along – soon becomes involved with gravediggers, embalmers, undertakers and other Halloween-ish types. “This was not good. Not good at all.” Well, of course not, especially with such characters as Dusty Mike around: “He’s definitely strange. And more than a little creepy.” And speaking of strange, here Sammy finds out about the Day of Skulls, information on which comes with a computer animation of a skull “wearing a little red and blue knit cap that has side flaps” and having “a burning cigarette clamped between the teeth.” The point here is that everything is creepy, which is a pretty unsurprising thing for everything to be in a story centered on Halloween; hence the comparative obviousness of the plot. It does have twists, though. “What also kept scrambling through my head was how often I had misjudged people,” Sammy thinks at one point; and she and her friends have been misjudged, too. There is, thank goodness, some of the trademark humor of this series from time to time, as when one of Sammy’s friends tries to alert the 911 operator to a serious problem by saying, “There’s crazy people burying people at the graveyard.” And of course Sammy eventually discovers that cemeteries need not be frightening and can even be places “where I appreciate life.” So the ending, at least, is not scary at all.
There are plenty of scares in The Poisons of Caux, the trilogy by Susannah Applebaum whose conclusion, The Shepherd of Weeds, finally brings together Caux and its sisterland, Pimcaux. Following The Hollow Bettle and The Tasters Guild, this conclusion involves fulfillment of the prophecy that has driven the trilogy from the beginning. It is Ivy, the Noble Child, who here must defeat her father and the Guild – with the help of an army of scarecrows and some of the birds of Caux. If all this sounds both complex and rather hackneyed (every protagonist in adventure novels seems to have some sort of prophecy to fulfill), that is a pretty fair summation of the book. Applebaum, though, tells the story well, with a good sense of pacing and enough of a feeling of danger to keep readers involved throughout. The book’s sections are introduced by elements of the prophecy – Sparrowhawk fragment, Corvid fragment and Chimney Swift fragment, for example. And each fragment comes to make sense in the pages that follow it. For example, the Moorhen fragment reads, “Long lament, take wing/ Whosoever speaks to the Trees/ Speaks to the King,” and leads to an important chapter in which one character comments that “the true nature of plants is awakening,” and to a section where readers learn that “in the hierarchy of birds, it is the crow who wears the crown.” As usual in fantasies, this one includes loss and death and turmoil through to the end – but at the end, as Ivy stands hand in hand with Rowan, it is clear that all the trouble and hardship has paved the way for a much better future. This is scarcely an unexpected ending, but it is quite a satisfying one despite its predictability.
Rumors from the Boys’ Room is not a part of a series or a trilogy – at least, not exactly. It is a second book done in the style of Rose Cooper’s Gossip from the Girls’ Room, which means it looks like a notebook (lined pages) filled with cartoony drawings by narrator Sofia Becker, a sixth-grader who fully intends to post some of her “innermost private thoughts” on her soon-to-be-popular blog. The whole thing seems quite a bit like Jim Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series, which in many ways it resembles – for instance, when Sofia objects to the existence of Mia St. Claire, “the most annoying girl in all of Middlebrooke Middle School,” whose “hair smells like fresh strawberries” and who “has the ability to cast spells on boys and make them like her.” Sofia has a BFF, Nona Bows, who in turn has pet issues, as when she says sadly that her dog died and Sofia comments, “Nona doesn’t HAVE a dog. I tell her this since she seems to have forgotten.” Sofia herself has issues with school projects and parents and all the usual stuff sixth-graders have issues with, and she shares her thoughts on these things (well, some of these things) on “The best blog in the world. Ever.” Which she signs “The Blogtastic Blogger.” And which gets her comments such as, “Hey, knucklehead! Don’t you know anything?” Which lead to comments from adult advisors such as, “Tone it down. Watch it with the name-calling and yelling.” The fun here is not so much in the plot and the ins and outs of middle-school relationships – all those are pretty straightforward. Some of the drawings, though, are fun – such as the “milk hose” that Sofia imagines after her mother, who is pregnant and has heartburn, says milk helps but water makes it worse. And the ups and downs of the blog are amusing enough to keep middle-schoolers interested: the book is easy to read, mildly amusing throughout, and will be followed by Secrets from the Sleeping Bag in the not-too-distant future.
A much more serious “companion book” – actually the second in a four-book sequence – The Lily Pond is set during World War II, and continues the story of Stephie Steiner that began in A Faraway Island. Annika Thor draws on some of her own experiences for this story of a girl who, with her younger sister, Nellie, has escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna and is living on a rugged Swedish island. The first book was about adjustment; this second one is about education, friendship and young love. Stephie’s foster parents will allow her to leave the island to go to school on the mainland, in Göteborg (where Thor was born and raised). Stephie looks forward both to the greater cultural possibilities of the city and to living there in proximity to a boy named Sven, son of lodgers who had rented her foster parents’ island home during the summer. Stephie is smitten with Sven, who is five years older and does not hesitate to express anti-Hitler sentiments – at a time when Nazi ideology is spreading, even in Sweden. Stephie also remains worried about her parents, who have stayed behind in Vienna; Nellie misses them too, saying, “‘I’m going to pray to God to arrange for them to come here.’” But things are not that simple – certainly not for Jewish families like Stephie’s and Nellie’s. In one letter from her father, Stephie reads that “life has become more and more unbearable, and everyone who has a way is trying to get out of Vienna,” but her parents do not have a way – at least not yet. Then a way opens up – then it closes – and Stephie, at a distance and totally unable to do anything, is emotionally tugged back and forth by family issues while also trying to navigate her newfound attraction to a boy. That too goes wrong; and so does something significant in school; and Sophie finds she needs friends and others on whom she can rely more than ever. Then it turns out that she has them – so even though the situation is bleak in many ways, with winter weather reflecting Sophie’s own internal worries, there are glimmers of hope here and there. The Lily Pond is not a standalone book – it is really a continuation of A Faraway Island – and its subject matter may not be congenial for young readers today unless they have an interest in semi-autobiographical historical novels. But the book is well and sensitively written, and those already gripped by what happened to Sophie in the earlier novel will be equally intrigued by the developments in her life that are detailed in this one.