September 06, 2012
(+++) THE EXCITEMENT CONTINUES
Floors, Book 2: 3 Below. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $16.99.
Troubletwisters, Book Two: The Monster. By Garth Nix and Sean Williams. Scholastic. $16.99.
Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $16.99.
Blogtastic! Novel No. 3: Secrets from the Sleeping Bag. By Rose Cooper. Delacorte Press. $12.99.
There’s plenty of new adventure where the old adventures came from in these series, which bring back characters with whom readers will already be familiar and send them through a whole new set of twists and turns. The second books in the Floors and Troubletwisters series expand on the themes laid out in the series openers. Floors is about the exceedingly odd Whippet Hotel, which now belongs to Leo Fillmore because of what happened in the first book and which, in 3 Below, features from the start the same cast of characters: Leo’s best friend, Remi; Mr. Phipps, the gardener; six cooperative but mischievous ducklings; a talkative little robot named Blop; and others. The underlying theme of this second book is the same as in the first one: nefarious characters trying to wrest the Whippet Hotel away from its rightful owner for their own dark purposes, with Leo and friends exploring the hotel’s many byways and secret passages while also foiling the evildoers. The redoubtable Patrick Carman is an old pro at ringing changes on essentially similar plots: “And so it was that when Leo and Remi returned to the lobby expecting to find Ms. Pompadore, they found their old nemesis instead. Ms. Sparks had taken up residence in precisely the same place from which she’d run the hotel with an iron fist for years: behind the registration desk.” But even though, analytically, the plot of 3 Below is not all that different from the plot of the first book – which was simply called Floors – Carman makes sure to throw enough odd occurrences and peculiar characters into 3 Below to keep readers amused. Typical bit of dialogue: “You can only get Floogers from Dr. Flart. …He’s not as easy to deal with as I am. Mad scientists are by nature…unpredictable.” Just how unpredictable? Well, there is a drink called Flart’s Fizz, and “a bright green stream of Glooooob” that is “sour, sweet, syrupy, sparkling perfection,” and then there are characters such as Captain Rickenbacker, who “whip[ped] his cape behind him as he went into stealth superhero mode in search of monkeys and missing children,” and a dancing Wyro – and when Remi comments at one point, “My life just gets weirder and weirder,” readers will smile and probably cheer, since weirdness and fun are what the Floors series is all about.
Troubletwisters is more serious, but it too benefits from highly professional writing (both Garth Nix and Sean Williams are expert storytellers) and a series of well-wrought variations on a traditional and fairly common plot. This one is about twins with magical powers – Jaidith (Jaide) and Jackaran (Jack) Shield, in this case. The kids’ surname makes it clear that their magic is protective in some way (although it can also go awry, as they found out in the first book, simply called Troubletwisters). In The Monster, Jaide and Jack find out what they need to protect against – the creature of the title, and a deadly force called, with a singular lack of originality, The Evil. All the usual elements of supernatural adventure for preteens are here: small, isolated town; nameless forces conspiring to do dastardly deeds; humans keeping dark secrets; creatures leaving trails of slime as they slither along; and alleged explanations that actually explain nothing at all. For example, the twins receive postcards from their father in Europe, one card breaking off mid-sentence and the other picking up there, and the cards refer to an event that happened just one day earlier – a fact that mystifies Jaide and Jack until Jaide figures it out: “He’s a Warden. …I guess he can do things like this.” And that is supposed to be sufficient explanation. The twins are living with Grandma X (obvious names are part of the style of this series), and through her and others, they learn more about their father’s past and what sort of thing they must shield the world from – something derived in part from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, but without anything close to that author’s mastery of fright: “A new island had appeared out of the ocean floor and The Evil had found a way into our world through it. The enemy was well established by the time we arrived, inhabiting albatrosses and sharks, even the stones of the island, which rose up against us in the form of granite giants.” The eventual confrontation with The Evil includes predictable dialogue: “We grow weary of this dance,” “You have but delayed the inevitable,” and all that. And of course nothing definitive happens, since this is only the series’ second book – which concludes with a clear look ahead at what will come next.
Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes series has been going for quite some time, since 1998, with Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack being the 15th entry. Reliably written, well-paced and often amusing, the Sammy Keyes books are certainly formulaic – Sammy inevitably gets into the middle of a mystery that she must solve to extricate herself from difficult circumstances – but just as certainly enjoyable. In the new one, Sammy’s town, Santa Martina, has its very own superhero, Justice Jack, a guy who dresses up in spandex and rides around on a dirt bike, looking for crime to fight. Sammy doesn’t think much of him, but lots of townspeople do, to the point of asking him to track down a woman who may have absconded with a lot of people’s money. Sammy’s usual personality quirks keep the book lively (“Grams hates it when I’m on the loose with hot sauce”), as do her observations, such as this one about Rose Wedgewood, the neighbor who has gone missing: “The Mighty Wedge is not a normal neighbor. And the Mighty Wedge doesn’t make small sounds. From falling off the toilet, to pounding on the wall for help, to lumbering across the floor with her walker, to breathing, everything Mrs. Wedgewood does is seismic.” Justice Jack actually does help find Mrs. Wedgewood, but that is by no means the end of the neighbor’s story or of this book, because it is only a subsidiary mystery, and not very mysterious at that. The larger issue here, which Sammy gets to solve, includes peculiar tire tracks, an ominous shortcut past a junkyard, a stolen statue, and a bid for a reality show. The eventual happy ending is thoroughly overdone here, with crimes forgiven and a few too many happily-ever-afters, but Sammy’s fans won’t care, since she once again shows her pluck, thoughtful ideas, cleverness and all-around likability.
There is plenty of likability in Rose Cooper’s Blogtastic! novels, too, and the third one – with a summer-camp setting – carries on in the style of the first two, Gossip from the Girls’ Room and Rumors from the Boys’ Room. This time, Sofia and best friend Nona are at camp together, but in different cabins, with Sofia forced to endure a counselor named Priscilla Jane but called The Priss – who is known to be, in Nona’s words, “way too strict and uptight.” There is also a girl named Olivia in Sofia’s cabin, which has the unfortunate name of The Gray Hairstreaks, who appears to hate Sofia and maybe everyone else. The plot here is identical to that of just about every summer-camp book ever written for preteens: canoeing, hiking, rules, pranks, boys, spooky stories – nothing unusual at all. What makes the book fun is what made its predecessors enjoyable: the many cute black-and-white drawings of the camp, the campers, and everything from a shower stall to a snake to a can of baked beans. There are also “random camp observation” boxes with such comments as “butterflies are ugly” and “pranks can be an awesome way to have fun.” Of course, Sofia finds out that pretty much everything that worried her wasn’t worth worrying about, and everything at camp is pretty cool, and by the end of the book, she realizes she will really miss the camp and all the BFFs she met there – even a boy. Intended for ages 10 and up but with the feeling and sensibility of a book for younger readers, Secrets from the Sleeping Bag is amusingly entertaining because of its pictorial elements, which give its twice-told plot enough interesting twists so that fans of Cooper’s storytelling will look forward to the next entry in this series.