October 04, 2012


The Wondrous Journals of Dr. Wendell Wellington Wiggins. By Lesley M.M. Blume. Illustrated by David Foote. Knopf. $16.99.

The Scorpions of Zahir. By Christine Brodien-Jones. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

The Secret Zoo #4: Traps and Specters. By Bryan Chick. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Romeo and Juliet Together (and alive!) At Last. By Avi. Scholastic. $6.99.

      An exceptionally clever updating of 19th-century novels about the exploration of lost worlds (yes, those of Jules Verne, among others), Lesley M.M. Blume’s The Wondrous Journals of Dr. Wendell Wellington Wiggins is a delight both to read and to look at.  Presented as a series of long-lost diaries of a famed “paleozoologist,” the book tells the story of Dr. Wiggins’ six journeys to the four, or rather six, corners of the world – South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia & Australia, and Antarctica & the North Pole – and the bizarre creatures and plants he discovered absolutely everywhere.  The discoveries are brilliantly realized in “notebook sketches” by David Foote, who manages to draw everything from Wiggins’ sour-faced mother to the Amazonian Umbrella Fish and Mirrored Pigradillo with equal aplomb.  Blume really goes to town with the concept of discovering previously unknown and utterly bizarre species, being sure to have her diarist give them Latin-sounding names, as any good scientist would: the Hundred-Horned Bull is Centumgeminus Bucerus Bovis, the Pin-Headed Desert Giants are designated Acus Capitulum Solitudo Gigantus, Hermit Crab Humans are Eremita Crustacea Populi – all this almost makes sense, which is one of the most wonderful aspects of the book.  But not the most wonderful.  The best things here are the tales of Wiggins’ adventures up, down and around the various continents, and his descriptions of what he finds while on his “mission to uncover remnants of the ancient animal world.”  For example, the Mighty Trelephants are gill-equipped carnivores that have horns the shape of slender trees, upon which birds perch – only to be caught and consumed.  The Trelephants go extinct after consuming “poison-winged falcons.”  Oh, and there is an “editor’s” footnote (one of many in the book) contrasting their carnivorous ways with the herbivorous appetites of modern elephants.  Then there is the Devil’s Triangle Magnet Tribe (Magneticus Populus ab Bermuda): a cross between humans and thick-scaled fish, tribe members used underwater magnets to attract the iron in the blood of fish, unfortunately forgetting that this would also attract their own blood, and perishing when the magnets held them so tightly that they could not move their arms or legs or feed themselves.  Blume’s created voice of Dr. Wiggins is so perfect – the dedicated 19th-century scientist uncovering marvel after marvel with equal parts boldness and modesty – that adults as well as young readers will be swept into this delightfully offbeat book from start to finish.  And Foote’s drawings must be seen to be believed – or disbelieved, as the case may be.

      Exciting in its own way but altogether more ordinary in plot and prose, Christine Brodien-Jones’ (+++) The Scorpions of Zahir is a pleasantly complex archeological adventure, set in Morocco and starring 11-year-old Zagora Pym, daughter of desert explorer Dr. Charles Pym and sister of astronomy-obsessed Duncan.  Part mystery, part adventure, part coming-of-age story, the book opens with a very standard gambit – Dr. Pym receives a mysterious letter from a partner who had been lost and was presumed dead – and continues as father and children embark on the usual Indiana Jones-style expedition featuring prophecies, hyenas, an exotic tribe, and a rogue planet approaching and endangering Earth.  A lot of this is patently absurd, even by fantasy standards: “No one knows precisely how near to Earth the planet will come, but it is a fact that Morocco lies directly in its path.”  A small country directly in the path of an entire planet?  Umm…no.  In any case, Zagora is “determined not to be frightened of anything,” but soon finds out that there is plenty to be worried about – “even the dromedary is scared,” one character says.  Zagora repeatedly sees an enchanted oryx, learns about killer scorpions (those of the book’s title), and sees a portrayal of two futures of which “of course…only one will happen” (and a good thing, too, as it turns out).  Zagora discovers that she has “desert sight,” which comes in mighty handy as the adventures progresses, and eventually she is responsible for turning the rogue planet aside, overcoming the scorpions, and generally behaving heroically, if quite unbelievably.  The book ends with a setup for a sequel, which readers enchanted by the magical elements of this tale will look forward to seeing.

      The Secret Zoo series has enchantments of its own – three books full of them so far.  The fourth, Traps and Specters, ups the danger level of siblings Noah and Megan and their best friends, Ella and Richie, who by this time have spent more than a year helping the denizens of the Secret Zoo.  This time the four Action Scouts have to protect both human and animal allies: the evil “Shadowist” DeGraff has captured three Descenders, and the police are holding two animals they consider dangerous.  The series is becoming more far-fetched the longer it continues, but Bryan Chick has never pretended to anything approaching realism, as the narrative sometimes reminds readers: “Coasting on wide wings, the Descender looked like something out of a fairy tale.”  And: “At the maze, the four friends crawled into the darkness and steered clear of the pop-out-at-you zombies that looked a lot like their teachers in white face paint and smears of eye shadow.”  Actually, that scene does make sense: this episode takes place at Halloween, which also explains why Ella is wearing a Wonder Woman cape and carrying a Lasso of Truth; and the timing allows Chick to create a series of predictable but fast-paced scenes in which Halloween costumes and genuine peculiarities are intermingled to the confusion of pretty much everyone.  Traps and Specters gets a (+++) rating for fans of The Secret Zoo sequence, who will enjoy the further adventures of characters who do not change very much at all from book to book but simply confront an increasing series of rather inept instances of villainy.  There is certainly humor here: “Richie stood frozen in his nerd costume, his pants pulled high, his white socks exposed.”  But a lot of the amusement, and a lot of the adventure, feels a little tired at this point, as if it (or something much like it) has happened before and will no doubt happen again, in the next book.

      Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is also a tale that happened before – Shakespeare took the story from an earlier one, as often in his plays – and heaven knows it is a tale that has been told again and again and again since Elizabethan times, in every way, shape, form, arrangement and format.  Some of the post-Shakespeare versions were altered to have happy endings, but few, if any, were rewritten as out-and-out comedies until Avi came up with Romeo and Juliet Together (and alive!) At Last in 1987.  Now available in paperback, the book centers on eighth-graders Peter Saltz and Anabell Stackpoole, who like each other but are too shy to do anything about it, so of course they are cast as Romeo and Juliet in a production run by Saltz’s best friend, Ed Sitrow, who narrates the novel.  Things go awry, mostly in predictable ways.  “People didn’t know their lines.  Or they forgot what they were supposed to be doing on stage, like which direction to walk.  True, sometimes they forgot their lines as well as which way to go.”  And that is just during rehearsals.  Then there is a betrayal – removal of all the labels for the lighting, curtain, and other electrically driven production elements.  A girl who can barely see anything without glasses loses them – actually, they break.  Once the play starts, there are miscues galore, pratfalls, costume errors (one cast member is “dressed like a Chinese peasant”), and of course many mangled lines of dialogue (“parting is such sweet and sour that tomorrow I shall say good night till it be sorry”).  A lot of this (+++) book is very, very funny; a lot of it is overdone; and a goodly portion – involving the petty rivalries and game-playing of the students – is pretty standard stuff.  Avi does stir the pot nicely, as he usually does, and some of his lines are just right, as when Anabell cannot get the cork out of the poison that Juliet is supposed to drink: “She had strength of character but not much strength of strength.”  The plays on Shakespeare’s words tend to be less successful, such as “O lemon table day” for “O lamentable day.”  Romeo and Juliet Together (and alive!) At Last will probably be most enjoyable for middle-school and high-school students who have either tried performing Shakespeare or at least thought of doing so.  True, it may scare them away from the prospect, but hopefully it will make them more enthusiastic about the possibilities.

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