March 20, 2014
(+++) CHILLS OR CHARMS
Cold Calls. By Charles Benoit. Clarion. $17.99.
The Cold Cereal Saga, Book Two: Unlucky Charms. By Adam Rex. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.
It’s an old, old plot: mystery caller mysteriously contacts several people telling them, in a mysterious way, that he (or she) knows something secret and damaging about them, so they must do his (or her) bidding, or the awful something that the mysterious one mysteriously knows will be revealed to the world. This is exactly the plot of Cold Calls, which tries for a bit of a twist on the formula by weaving into it a story about bullying – which is what each of the mysteriously called people (Eric, Fatima and Shelly) is forced to do. The protagonists are typical teenage types: the jock who makes a serious mistake, the dutiful daughter who is too curious about her religion for her own good, and the goth girl hiding from her past. It is impossible to relate to them as anything other than one-dimensional, but Charles Benoit is not looking for a character-based book here – this is a mystery, if a rather formulaic one. It is filled with things that pass for self-analysis and could be said or thought by any of the protagonists, such as this, which happens to be thought by Shelly, the former goth girl: “She knew there had to be some punishment. You don’t commit a crime that big and expect to walk away. Maybe God was just picking up the slack for the judge. But it wasn’t the voice of God that had her doing things she never thought she would do, things she hated doing but didn’t have a choice about. Not a real choice, anyway.” Eventually, the three unwilling bullies, who are from different schools, meet when all are required to go to an anti-bullying program – each has been forced by the mysterious voice into bullying specific classmates. The three start to compare notes and soon realize they are all being victimized the same way, and presumably by the same person – against whom they must team up. “We can so do this,” says one. “We can cross-reference names, compare notes, look at things we have in common. Like I said, we can do this.” But it’s not so simple (or there would be no book). The three protagonists have to forge an unlikely alliance-cum-friendship, and have to learn about each other, and have to speak in clichés such as this one: “I’m glad you know my secret. …It felt like this weight I was carrying everywhere.” They have to figure out what is going on, come up with a way to take care of their mutual problem after tracking down the mysterious caller, arrange to confront the person who has been calling them, manage to get rid of the items about which they have been blackmailed, and then – well, mysteries like this have an obligatory twist ending, and this one is no exception. There is nothing profound or important in Cold Calls, but it is a quick read, a “beach read” sort of book that teens will enjoy as long as they do not spend too much time noticing the formulaic plotting and cardboard characters.
The plotting is not so much formulaic as exceedingly improbable in The Cold Cereal Saga, whose second book, originally released last year, is now available in paperback. In this series for ages 8-12, a manufacturer of breakfast cereal is plotting to take over the world (oh, that again). This is a distinctly modern fairy tale, complete with TV, computers and airplanes as well as magical creatures – which are being lured into the world through a rift in the time-space continuum. Scott (that is, 11-year-old hero Scottish Play Doe) is searching for that rift to try to save the Queen of England, who has been kidnapped and replaced by two goblins in a queen suit – a kidnapping that makes somewhat more sense than does that of Princess Poppy, since in this case the objective is to, you know, rule the world, right? Anyway, if Scott does manage to locate the rift, he wants to rescue the Queen and persuade the fairies to stop doing what they’re doing, which involves using an ingredient called Intellijuice in Goodco Cereal Company products to turn kids into a zombie army. You see, Goodco is run by a fairy named Nimue, that being one of the names given to the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend; and if you think that connection far-fetched, it helps to remember that The Cold Cereal Saga also features an accountant/scientist/time traveler named, ahem, Merle Lynn. Among the other characters here is a two-foot-tall leprechaun name Mick: Adam Rex feels no need to be consistent by following only a single set of stories, myths or fairy tales. Rex’s many illustrations, including a TV news broadcast and a commercial break, add to the hectic pace of this already hectic book, which unfortunately will be well-nigh unintelligible to anyone who has not read the first book in the series. Rex keeps the plot moving – maybe “lurching” is a better word – from event to event, chase to chase, scene to scene, complication to complication; and it is not always easy to figure out just what is going on, although readers who enjoyed the first book will be able to make sense out of Unlucky Charms. Many of the problems here are typical in second books of trilogies: such books have to advance the story, but not too much; they have to set up the finale, but not too clearly; they have to bring back old characters and introduce new ones, but not to the point of confusion. Unlucky Charms does not quite succeed on those terms – there is a frantic-ness about it that at best is fun and at worst is simply, well, frantic. It is at least clear that some sort of happy ending is in store for everyone, even the kidnapped Queen, at the conclusion of the saga, although Unlucky Charms is careful to leave things in such a state that it is by no means clear just how that happy ending, or indeed the ending of the story itself, will come about.