May 22, 2014
(++++) MORE OF THE SAME, SOME OF THE DIFFERENT
Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #5: You Can Bet on That. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
UNICORNE Files, Book One: A Dark Inheritance. By Chris D’Lacey. Scholastic. $16.99.
Authorial virtuosity comes in many forms, and if that sounds like too much of a portentous proclamation to apply to something like the Mackerel Middle School series by Jim Benton, well, it should, since the series is so fluffy and lighthearted that it practically floats away each time a new Dear Dumb Diary book comes out. On the other hand, the “authorial virtuosity” remark really does fit what Benton accomplishes here, because he has managed to keep this series going through a dozen books of Jamie Kelly’s first year of diaries and, now, five books of the second year – and with rare exceptions, the books have been absolute delights. Yes, they are formulaic, but Benton plays enough games with the formula so that the short paperbacks are full of twists and turns that understandably keep kids reading and clamoring for more. The characters are long since established – the primary ones in You Can Bet on That are Jamie, of course, plus her permanent frenemy, Angeline, plus her Machiavellian sort-of-friend, sort-of-fiend, Isabella. And there is the usual supporting cast of adults and hangers-on. The approach of the books, which are not quite graphic novels but contain lots and lots of drawings “by” Jamie, is also long since established – but the specific drawings are weird and offbeat enough, time after time, so at least some of them are laugh-out-loud funny. Those would include, in the latest book, the one of customized worms, the outfits Jamie imagines for Isabella (such as “slabs of wet meat”), and the visual demonstration that “even though GLOP is gross, GLOP is the basis of all Beauty products.” Then there are the multiple plots and subplots, which Benton always knits neatly together by the end of each book. In this case, the big plot has usually negative Jamie and usually (heck, always) positive Angeline reversing roles in connection with a bet that Isabella is sure to win, to the heinous destruction of whoever loses it. But there is also a Web site where postings get a trifle, um, complicated; and there are also various clothes being made by Jamie’s mom that all look like, err, monkeyvomit (Jamie and her dad both think so, and both go through major contortions trying to spoil the “gifts”); and there are school-meat-loaf substitutes such as “ice creamed corn” and “the super-fun bowl of just flour and salt”; and there is a debate-related surprise from Dicky Flartsnutt, who “was BORN TO NERD.” Yes, all of this fits together, and yes, all of everything in the Dear Dumb Diary books always fits together; but it all fits together differently (and, in general, hilariously) every time, and that right there is the reason this ongoing series is so darn much fun.
Bigger, bolder, brassier and much less amusing, Chris D’Lacey’s enormous Last Dragon Chronicles – seven lengthy novels plus an eighth “companion book” as coauthor – seem to have whetted the author’s appetite for simpler, faster-paced, less epic fantasy. At least that seems to be so on the basis of the new UNICORNE File series, the first book of which, A Dark Inheritance, is a straightforward paranormal adventure whose episodes of silliness appear to be intentional. It includes an ordinary-for-this-sort-of-book family, with protagonist Michael Malone; his younger sister, Josie; their mother; and a father who has mysteriously disappeared while out doing his job “selling computer programs to medical establishments.” But of course that could not have been his real job, or there would have been no story – since Michael, as soon as he starts discovering his own otherworldly powers, wants to use them to find his father, who was working for the same outfit (UNICORNE) that now recruits Michael himself. The improbable group’s overdone name stands for “UNexplained Incidents, Cryptic Occurrences” and, uhhh, “Relative Nontemporal Events.” Of course, “the first rule of UNICORNE was you did not talk about UNICORNE, right?” Anyway, Michael comes to the attention of Amadeus Klimt, the usual shadowy-leader type who is not exactly what he seems to be, after Michael rescues a dog that is about to jump off a cliff – doing so in an impossible way that may involve creating an alternative universe within the multiverse and that incidentally results in Josie turning out to be a very good flute player. Michael soon learns that he has the power to “imagineer,” and D’Lacey seems completely oblivious to the fact that this word has been used by Disney for years to describe what it does in its theme parks and elsewhere. The basic plot description of A Dark Inheritance actually points to more humor in what D’Lacey does here than does the narrative itself; and that calls into question the extent to which the humor is intended vs. the degree to which it just slips in because of the multiple manifest absurdities of the story. Oddities pile up rather quickly in the narrative: an attractive older teen named Chantelle shows up on a motor scooter to snatch Michael from school for his first meeting with Klimt, then becomes Michael’s family’s au pair because that is what Michael says she is; a girl at school, by the name of Freya, is important because she owns the dog that Michael rescued, except that she says she doesn’t, resulting in one small mystery among many; and so on. There are enough serious scenes in A Dark Inheritance so that it seems D’Lacey wants the book to be read as an adventure with humorous moments, not a sendup of the whole preteen-to-teen adventure genre; but it could as easily be read as an elaborate joke, whose serious elements are introduced as a distraction. D’Lacey is a good enough writer to deserve the benefit of the doubt; the difficulty with this book is that it is hard to be sure what that benefit ought to be and where the doubt lies. With any luck, and probably some skill, the nature of the balancing act may become clearer as the series continues.