October 11, 2012


Bushman Lives! By Daniel Pinkwater. Illustrated by Calef Brown. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Four: Shatterproof. By Roland Smith. Scholastic. $12.99.

A Beautiful Dark, Book Two: A Fractured Light. By Jocelyn Davies. HarperTeen. $17.99.

      Daniel Pinkwater’s pervasive peculiarities are not for all tastes, but they are so outré, so entertainingly weird, that they are always for some tastes and worthwhile for previous non-tasters to sample as well.  Bushman Lives! is entirely Pinkwaterish.  The writing is unmistakable: “I love my parents, and accept them for the good kipper-eating people they are. Good, but completely insane. Just as an example, my father will not look at reruns on television, even if he did not see the program the first time. ‘I did not pay three hundred and seventy-nine dollars for this fine television set to look at old shows,’ he says.”  The plotting is equally unmistakable: there is a dead gorilla (hence, or maybe not hence, the book’s title), and the Great Chicago Fire (the book is set in Chicago, although not in 1871), and Molly the Dwerg from Pinkwater’s earlier Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, and a set of Calef Brown illustrations that are merely chapter introductions but that are nothing “mere” at all because there are 79 chapters – with titles such as “So Here I Was” (try illustrating that!), “Lizardlips,” “Painting with Troika,” “I Meet a Third,” and “Minimonoism.”  Thinking of “plot” as “what happens” is a sure recipe for brain scrambling here, because many things happen that connect, or don’t, to many others, with everything basically giving Pinkwater the chance to write (in the words of narrator Harold Knishke), “Most of the other boys at the party all looked more or less exactly like Cordwainer. …The exceptions were one black person, one homosexual person, one sloppy, unshaven rude person, and me.”  The book is sort of about art, and sort of about sculpting, and sort of about a guru named Golyat Thornapple, and sort of about a replica of a Roman trireme, and not really about any of those things but more or less about some combination of them blended with beef stroganoff into one of the strangest smoothies you will ever read until Pinkwater writes something else.  Not, not, not for everyone, but so odd, odd, odd that it’s impossible to ignore.

      The continuing series of The 39 Clues is much, much more straightforward even as its second component, Cahills vs. Vespers, continues with the first-ever single-word title and an author wholly new to the sequence. Roland Smith, like all the other contributors to the tales of Dan and Amy Cahill’s travails and successes, manages in the (+++) Shatterproof to keep the pacing of these novels going while never intruding into the online missions that are unlocked by the six game cards included with each book.  The Cahills vs. Vespers series is darker than the original The 39 Clues and considerably more improbable, revolving around the idea that the evil Vespers are quite capable of kidnapping a whole bunch of Cahills but not capable of managing the thefts that Vesper One insists on having Dan and Amy do to keep the hostages alive.  By now Dan and Amy are, understandably, being sought by Interpol for their crimes, so they are competing (the series has the definite aura of a video game) on two fronts: against the Vespers and against law enforcement.  In this fourth book of the six-book Cahills vs. Vespers sequence, Vesper One ups the ante, not at all surprisingly, by insisting that Dan and Amy steal one of the world’s largest diamonds, the Golden Jubilee, which is being displayed in Berlin at the Pergamon Museum.  There are a couple of deaths in this volume – as noted, Cahills vs. Vespers is designed to be darker than the original series – and the identity of Vesper Three is revealed.  And Smith’s writing keeps to the tone, or tonelessness, that is this series’ hallmark: “Now Amy had to smile. The only reason she and Dan hadn’t been kidnapped like the others was because [sic] she had single-handedly punched and kicked their three assailants into submission. Well, she had to admit that Dan had helped by dousing the three men with gasoline and threatening to light them on fire. But still.”  The entire The 39 Clues world, in books, trading cards and online, is at this point pretty much beyond criticism: fans will gravitate to anything new in the series, and non-fans will surely not choose to become acquainted by starting with the fourth book in the second portion of the sequence.

      Nor will non-fans likely start to become involved in the life of the rather improbably named Skye through the (+++) A Fractured Light, since Jocelyn Davies’ second novel builds directly on her first, A Beautiful Dark – and is the midpoint of a trilogy, meaning it both starts in the middle of Skye’s story and ends there.  Readers who already know Skye, though, will be pleased with the continuation of this romantic fantasy about angels.  Skye herself happens to be human, but her parents weren’t: they were (not unusually for this genre) a Romeo-and-Juliet pair, one a Guardian and one a Rebel, who fell in love and were turned mortal as punishment.  But because of her genetic heritage, or angelic heritage, Skye holds both dark and light power within her, and now that she is 17, her angelic abilities have begun to manifest.  Now both the Order and the Rebellion want Skye to join up, but she is determined to remain neutral and, rather than get involved in the ultimate confrontation between good and evil and the fate of the universe (or whatever), deal with more-pressing issues such as the upcoming prom.  Davies tries to intercut the human and angelic worlds and show how they both pull upon Skye – and how both sides in the looming battle have a hold on her, too, thanks to her attraction both to Asher (friendly, dark and wild) and Devin (laid-back, even reserved, and golden).  With Asher merely using her for the Rebellion and Devin trying to take her out of the battle entirely by killing her, and with Skye’s realization of her growing ability to blur destinies, things are building, or are supposed to be building, toward the grand battle and eventual climax that will conclude the trilogy.  Unfortunately, the whole premise of A Fractured Light is just as unbelievable as that of A Beautiful Dark, and Davies’ delving into just about every cliché of the supernatural-romance genre, playing all of them back in unsurprising ways, makes it hard to think of this book or the trilogy of which it is a part as more than a summer beach read – even in the fall.  Still, genre fans will ignore the book’s obviousness in plotting and in what passes for characterization and simply enjoy this as an unsophisticated romantic adventure.

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