May 31, 2012
(++++) AN END, AND A NEW BEGINNING
The Norumbegan Quartet, Volume 4: The Chamber in the Sky. By M.T. Anderson. Scholastic. $17.99.
Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus: 20th-Anniversary Full-Color Edition. By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Random House. $14.99.
It has taken almost seven years, but M.T. Anderson has finally brought his Norumbegan Quartet to a conclusion with The Chamber in the Sky – ending a series whose first volume, The Game of Sunken Places, was quite different from the three succeeding ones. That initial book was a very exciting and rather old-fashioned adventure, a revision of the first book that Anderson ever wrote, and it connected rather imperfectly with the alien-invasion theme of The Suburb Beyond the Stars and the otherworldly The Empire of Gut and Bone. But Anderson knits much of the tetralogy together well in The Chamber in the Sky, which picks up where The Empire of Gut and Bone left off and absolutely cannot be read on its own. The new book quickly brings back Brian Thatz and Gregory Stoffle, now on a quest with teenage Norumbegan royal Gwynyfer Gwarnmore for a way to stop the evil Thusser Horde from taking over the Norumbegan domain and, not incidentally, Earth. The problem is that there is little to choose between when it comes to Norumbegans or Thusser, the former being so self-involved and feckless that they seem a poor alternative to their militaristic and determined opponents, who have violated the Rules of the Game that started this quartet of novels and are now simply invading and conquering – a fact that disturbs the indolent Norumbegans not at all. So Brian and Gregory, best friends when they are not in conflict about Gwynyfer, who spends her time flirting with Gregory and patronizing Brian, must search for a way to reactivate the Rules of the Game, which turn out to be contained in something called the Umpire Capsule, which is traveling around the innards of the gigantic maybe-alive-or-maybe-dead body first introduced in The Empire of Gut and Bone. This whole setting makes very little sense, but then, the Thusser methodology is also rather weird – and actually fairly scary: Earth people are absorbed into the structures of their own homes and possessions to turn those things into items that the Thusser can use. The Thusser power themselves from people’s dreams and spirits, while the Norumbegans – the nobility, anyway – have lost interest in pretty much everything and while away their time in ridiculously overdone language, petty games and occasional plots. Anderson creates some peculiar scenes of shifting geography, as well as shifting time (time moves differently on Earth from the way it moves in the world where Brian and Gregory are), and does some interesting things with the motivations of the various races – automatons called mannequins, created by the Norumbegans, are far more lively than their putative masters, and the troll, Kalgrash, is in many ways a more interesting character than the human teenagers. Anderson makes sure that Earth is saved, but he goes out of his way not to solve every mystery he has created – just what happens to the gigantic body in which the Norumbegans have been living, for instance. Actually, the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory, precisely because Anderson leaves some ends hanging a bit more loosely than is really necessary. And there are some odd mistakes in the narrative, such as one reference to Gwynyfer as Guinevere and some clearly unintended repetitions: “The machine was a drill, the floating head realized. They were going to drill a new passage into the Dry Heart. It wasn’t a blade, the floating head realized. It was a drill. They were going to drill a new passage into the Dry Heart.” But the books in The Norumbegan Quartet have all had their imperfections, and the sequence itself has always been attached imperfectly. The Chamber in the Sky assembles the series in final form about as well as anything could. The very first book has a level of excitement, simplicity and directness that the three later volumes do not match, but given the complexity into which Anderson turned The Norumbegan Quartet, the final novel does a commendable job of pulling everything together.
The saga of Junie B. Jones has been going on much longer than Anderson’s: for two decades, during which the plucky and outspoken kindergartner has barely aged at all (although she did recently advance to first grade). Now Barbara Park’s very first Junie B. book, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, has been reissued in an edition that has several things to recommend it beyond the pleasure of rediscovering how this redoubtable series began. For one thing, Denise Brunkus’ illustrations are now in color, which gives them more punch than in the original black-and-white and makes certain specific ones, such as the very first picture of Junie B. at the start of the first chapter, even more appealing. For another thing, this edition incorporates 14 pages of supplementary material, including pictures and a biography of Park, plus an interview in which Junie B. “asks” Park where she comes from (Junie B. is based on a character from The Kid in the Red Jacket) and why she has the middle name Beatrice (because Park loves the name, even though Junie B. doesn’t). There is also material on Brunkus’ illustrations, including early character sketches and some successful and unsuccessful attempts to create covers. All these additions are fun, but the original story is more so, introducing the endearingly disheveled Junie B. and her intense dislike of the school bus and determination not to ride it – leading, in this first book as in so many successors, to a whole series of unintended consequences, here including firefighters and police officers showing up at school and Junie B. almost having a very embarrassing bathroom accident. Junie B. generally gets in trouble by saying exactly what she has on her mind, exactly when it pops up – a pattern established in this book and showing no signs of growing old 20 years later. She remains a delight to not-quite-perfectly-behaved girls everywhere, including ones who have grown up and now have children of their own. Revisiting the book that started it all is a real joy, and the new edition of Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus will make a perfect replacement for any copy that happens to have been around so long that it has become frayed and tattered but remains, like Junie B. herself, very lovable indeed.