June 12, 2014

(+++) MYSTERIOUS POWERS


Dreamer, Wisher, Liar. By Charise Mericle Harper. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Saving Lucas Briggs. By Marisa de los Santos and David Teague. Harper. $16.99.

The Hypnotists, Book One. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Back in 1958, a collection of 11 short stories by Theodore Sturgeon appeared under the wonderful title, A Touch of Strange. Modern authors of books for preteens and young teenagers may or may not know the half-century-old book, but many certainly do try to bring “a touch of strange” to their own writings. Charise Mericle Harper, for example, introduces the idea of a “wish jar” with time-traveling powers as part of the plot of Dreamer, Wisher, Liar. The jar turns up one unhappy summer in the basement of the house where Ash lives. The summer is unhappy because Ash wants to spend it at camp with her best friend, Lucy, before Lucy moves away, but instead is being forced by her mother to spend it at home with a seven-year-old irritant named Claire. Ash’s mom has told Ash that she must babysit Claire, the daughter of a friend, and Ash is quite upset enough about losing Lucy without being told to babysit instead of going to camp. Ash is frightened of new people and of change in general, and she suffers from a condition called prosopagnosia, “face blindness,” which means she cannot recognize people after first meeting them – a day or less later, she needs to be reintroduced. Lucy has always helped Ash with this, whispering names or hints, but now she is leaving, and Ash’s life cannot possibly get worse. It can, however, get stranger, when she finds the old jar, tries to use it to make wishes (primarily one that Lucy will stay and not move away), and discovers that that is not how it works: it contains someone else’s wishes. And when Ash starts reading them, strange things happen: she is carried back in time and becomes an invisible, ghostly presence observing the ups and downs of the friendship of two other girls. So now we have Ash as a dreamer and wisher, and she becomes a liar as she tries to figure out what is happening to her without telling her mother or Claire or other people know what is going on, because “that’s the kind of thing a crazy person would say.” Claire, meanwhile, turns out really to like old people, so she and Ash spend time at “the old people’s home,” where Claire bubbles and Ash starts to discover connections to the past that tie in, somehow, with the wish jar. There are also scenes involving a thrift store, and crying clowns, and – well, Dreamer, Wisher, Liar is a grab-bag of a book, somewhat overdone and overcomplicated even though its heart is certainly in the right place. The tie-everything-together ending is almost too neat, but its emotional warmth will be just what readers are looking for at that point, and the final affirmation of the magic in everyday life makes for a very satisfying conclusion.

     Time travel is at the heart of Saving Lucas Briggs as well. Margaret O’Malley’s family has the ability to time-travel, but there are strict rules and strict requirements. There is a rather convoluted explanation of how it all works, courtesy of Margaret’s father: “Time is a garden hose stuffed in a suitcase. …An infinitely long garden hose stuffed into a very big suitcase, a suitcase larger than just about everything you can think of, including our universe. …And the hose is stuffed in such a way that every bit of it is touching every other bit of it, if you can imagine that. …But the point is that every bit of time is actually curled up cozily beside us, all day every day, even if it is hopelessly, eternally just out of reach. Out of reach unless – and here’s where things get tricky, so please pay attention – you figured out a way to poke a pinhole in the walls of the hose, those walls being otherwise known as the limits of reality as we know them, and you slipped through the pinhole from one loop to the next in an instant.” There is more of this – a lot more – and it is all equally convoluted and incoherent and, really, meaningless. But it is not the point of the story by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague. What Saving Lucas Biggs is about is Margaret’s determination to go back in time to change the past of a cruel man known as Judge Biggs – who has sentenced Margaret’s father to death for a crime he did not commit. Margaret teams up with her best friend, Charlie, and Charlie’s grandfather, Josh, to go through a hose pinhole (or whatever) that leads to a year in which Lucas Biggs was changed forever into the cruel person Margaret knows. Of course, changing the past, while not impossible in this context, is quite difficult, because the hose (or whatever) resists being changed. Margaret ends up back in the year 1938, a time when there is a murder, a faked suicide-murder, and a whole series of consequences “which would lead to my father’s life being in terrible danger in ways that I also couldn’t tell” anyone about. Well, as Margaret is told point-blank by someone who knows what Margaret is trying to do, “history doesn’t want to change, you know. History resists.” And “no human being’s stronger than history when it’s resisting.” There are back-and-forth plot complications galore here, not surprisingly in a book about time travel, but eventually the solution Margaret comes up with takes place in the present day and has the sort of family focus that is typically central to books for this age group. Saving Lucas Biggs takes a long time (in several senses) and goes through a lot of byways before getting to its satisfying conclusion, but it does get there, and readers willing to stick with the rather twisty plot will be very glad indeed when they finally find themselves with Margaret “right there in the one now.”

     The adventure is more surface-level and the plot more straightforward in the first book of a new series, The Hypnotists. Gordon Korman, who to date has contributed five books to The 39 Clues sequences and written six in a series known as Swindle – not to mention a number of other individual books and trilogies for preteens and young teenagers – writes formulaically, but in a way that makes his books distinctly attractive to adventure seekers who are not looking for anything particularly profound or philosophical. There are no images here of face blindness or time as an infinite garden hose. Instead, there is 12-year-old Jackson (Jax) Opus, who discovers that he has color-changing eyes with hypnotic abilities that he barely understands and cannot control: they lead to a wild ride on a city bus, a doctor’s apparent nervous breakdown, and a series of what Jax thinks may be out-of-body experiences for Jax himself. His parents send him to a ridiculously overwrought psychiatrist with an “endless forehead,” who is given to pronouncements such as, “There is no lying in this office. Even when you speak an untruth, deeper truths are revealed to me.” This works out about as well as might be expected – worse, actually, since Jax tells the pompous doctor to jump out the window and the doctor promptly does just that, or tries to until Jax stops him. Clearly, as Korman writes, “Something was very wrong.” Well, enough initial setup – soon The Hypnotists proceeds in some entirely expected directions, as Jax hears from the Sentia Institute (“sentia” as in “sentient”) and its director, Dr. Elias Mako (“mako” as in “shark”). Things there are clearly not as they seem; indeed, it is not even clear what they seem to be. Jax quickly tires of hearing that Dr. Mako has “devoted his life to New York City education and is an inspiration to every single one of us.” Readers will know that the repeats mean something is seriously amiss. And lest that not be immediately clear, Jax’s father soon becomes distressed and reveals that “the whole Massachusetts branch of the Opuses was burned at the stake during the Salem witch trials!” This is utter nonsense, but of course it is not intended to be believable – Korman does not do “believable.” What he does is “exciting,” and The Hypnotists delivers on that score. Unsurprisingly, as Jax gets more deeply into what Sentia and Dr. Mako do and plan, he starts to question whether he is learning to use his talent or is himself being used. For it turns out very quickly that Jax is more than an ordinarily able hypnotist – if the types of hypnotists trained at Sentia can be considered ordinary. Jax is a super-hypnotist, able to practice, among other things, “remote mesmerism,” in which even a recording can hypnotize people. Readers will realize long before Jax does – as a protagonist, he is rather dim – that Dr. Mako is up to no good, a fact made super-clear when the not-so-good doctor tells Jax, “Sometimes, Jackson, true greatness can only be achieved through extraordinary methods,” and then reveals that Jax’s parents will be safe only as long as Jax cooperates with Sentia’s plans. There is, of course, a good guy available to help Jax – his name, Axel Braintree, is a giveaway, although, as Jax points out to Braintree, “You’re a convicted art thief who holds self-help meetings in a Laundromat.” Even with all the absurdity and occasional flashes of humor here, The Hypnotists is intended to be taken as an adventure story, not a sendup of adventure stories, despite the fact that the one person Jax cannot initially command is a friend who is color-blind. Korman mixes things up satisfyingly for readers who do not choose to look at any of the plot holes and clich├ęs too closely, and it is a fair bet that the next book in this series, Memory Maze, will provide more of the same.

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