May 10, 2012

(++++) BOY BOOKS

Amos Daragon #2: The Key of Braha. By Bryan Perro. Translated by Y. Maudet. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Calvin Coconut #7: Man Trip. By Graham Salisbury. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

Baseball Great #3: Best of the Best. By Tim Green. Harper. $6.99.

Baseball Great #4: Pinch Hit. By Tim Green. Harper. $16.99.

      Bryan Perro’s well-written Amos Daragon series, nicely translated from the French by Y. Maudet, gets even more interesting in the second of its 12 books, The Key of Braha.  These under-200-page adventure novels are interestingly enough plotted to appeal to boys who are reluctant readers, but not so intricate as to make exceptional demands on readers’ time or understanding.  They skate along on the edge of not taking themselves quite seriously, yet they retain enough elements of traditional quest tales to give readers a sense of familiarity among the strange occurrences.  In The Key of Braha, sequel to The Mask Wearer, the first thing that happens to Amos is that he dies.  Not sort-of dies, not did-he-die-or-not dies, but dies.  Stabbed to death by Queen Lolya of the Dogons, who immediately and rather unbelievably insists that Amos is not really dead, Amos soon finds himself at the River Styx, meeting Charon, who insists that Amos is not dead, until a man carrying his head under his arm gives Charon a letter stating that yes, Amos is indeed dead, so Charon takes him aboard his ship.  And then things get weird, or weirder.  The head-carrying man, Jerik Svenkhamr, has been assigned to accompany Amos to a place called Braha, the city of the dead, where Amos alone – only he, because of one of those prophecies that are inevitable in adventures like this one – can retrieve a certain key that is needed to open the doors to heaven and hell, which have been blocked by gods who are in the midst of a feud.  And if that seems unclear, do not worry, since it doesn’t get much clearer.  “‘The key of Braha does exist,’” one character explains to another.  “‘But it is only meant to open the passage at the top of the pyramid, not the doors of the positive and negative worlds.  It is used to open an ethereal pathway between Braha and the world of the living.’”  So now that that’s clarified, the adventure can continue, as Amos visits Braha and encounters an old enemy, who proclaims in true villainous fashion, “‘I am glad to see you again.  You caused my demise.  Well, I am the one who is going to dispatch you into darkness and oblivion, into the nothingness of nonexistence.’”  But of course he can do nothing of the sort, and Amos, after answering three riddles (again, a common element in supernatural quests) and using his mind to overcome a demonic figure, gets the chance to become a god – and refuses – and forgets everything that has happened – but, thanks again to his own cleverness, has found a way to prompt his unremembering self to take certain actions that make everything turn out just fine.  Until the next book, that is.

      Much milder and more unassuming, and even shorter than the Amos Daragon books, the latest Calvin Coconut volume features Calvin taking a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii with his mom’s boyfriend, Ledward.  Man Trip has Calvin catching a big fish for the first time, then finding out what happens when someone catches a really big one:  Ledward hooks a gigantic marlin.  “‘Marlin are the most violent creatures in the sea, worse than sharks.  They eat and attack, eat and attack.  That’s their life,’” one character explains.  Calvin gets to help tag and release the marlin, is proclaimed “a real fisherman,” learns a bit about himself and life, and then returns home to confront more-ordinary problems, such as being paired with Shayla on a school project and saving the lives of 17 toads.  Like Graham Salisbury’s earlier Calvin Coconut books, Man Trip, which gets a (+++) rating, features some slices of life, Hawaii style, and Jacqueline Rogers illustrations that amusingly complement the text.  Young readers not yet familiar with the books can start with this one, or any of them, and pick up enough of the background to enjoy what they read.

      The first three Baseball Great novels are also more-or-less independent, despite their recurring characters.  What unites them is primarily Tim Green’s focus on baseball and the young people whose lives revolve around it.  The third book in the series, following Baseball Great (2009) and Rivals (2010), is the (+++) Best of the Best, originally published last year and now available in paperback.  Like the first two books, it features Josh LeBlanc and his friends Jaden and Benji.  As in the two previous novels, Green, a former National Football League player, is at his best when writing about sporting events: interactions among the characters tend to sound forced, and dialogue is self-consciously with-it.  The big problem here for Josh isn’t playing during the summer with an all-star team (the play-by-play is what Green does best).  It is the possible splitting up of Josh’s parents, and his dad’s taking up with a woman named Diane, one of whose children – Zamboni – is really nasty to Josh, who in turn is really nasty to him, so they get into a fight, and…well, there isn’t very much unexpected on the interpersonal side here.  Josh and Benji hatch a plan to use Skype to catch Zamboni doing something he shouldn’t, to give Josh a tactical advantage, but of course they find out something unexpected that changes Josh’s attitude toward Zamboni.  The book reads as if Josh’s family issues get in the way of the more-important baseball playing, which is really his focus and Green’s, rather than the other way around.  “‘You can’t live your life in a constant state of bleeding,’” Josh’s mom says at one point, adding that her marital problem “‘has nothing to do with baseball. …This is life.’”  Josh says that in that case, “‘baseball is way better.  You know what you have to do and you either do it and you win, or you don’t and you lose. You know who’s for you because you all wear the same colors. Nobody changes teams during a baseball game.’”  Green intends, of course, to show that baseball really is like life; whether he does so successfully will depend on just how much readers like the game and how believable they find Josh to be.

      The same positives and negatives of style and approach apply as well to the latest Baseball Great novel, the standalone Pinch Hit.  This one, which also gets a (+++) rating, is a variation on the age-old prince-and-pauper place-switching plot.  Trevor, who has a lead role in a feature film and lives in a mansion, looks almost exactly like Sam, whose family barely makes ends meet but who is a top baseball player.  Trevor, it turns out, doesn’t really want his own limousine, bowling alley and swimming pool – he wants to play baseball for real, not just by hitting balls from a pitching machine.  And Sam wants to use his talent to make it to the Major Leagues – but he also wants success for his father, a struggling screenwriter.  So when Trevor and Sam happen to meet on a movie set and notice their close resemblance, they hatch a swap-lives plot so each can make his and his family’s dreams come true.  But things go awry, not surprisingly at all.  “The thrill for Trevor didn’t last,” begins one of the short chapters that focus sometimes on one boy’s experiences, sometimes on the other’s.  Indeed, the thrill doesn’t last for either boy.  “The whole thing was awful, and [Trevor] asked himself what he’d been thinking,” and Sam has issues as well, involving family matters and friendship and other things.  Once again, it is the descriptions of the sporting events that Green handles best – even with Mark Twain as a model, he just doesn’t get human interactions quite right, and he certainly lacks Twain’s finely honed sense of humor.  The climactic game, and Sam’s success in it, is coupled with some bittersweet self-awareness for Trevor, and the idea is that both boys end up wiser as a result of temporarily trading lives.  But the focus is so firmly on the details of baseball that Pinch Hit, like the earlier Baseball Great books, is strictly for sports lovers who want some off-the-field melodrama to go with the on-field plays.

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