March 26, 2015


43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Six: Greetings from the Graveyard. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by Sarah M. Klise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $15.99.

43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Seven: The Loch Ness Punster. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by Sarah M. Klise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $15.99.

The Island of Dr. Libris. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.

     Some series have more staying power than others. 43 Old Cemetery Road has more than most, although it is finally giving signs that the Klise sisters may be getting ready to wrap things up and enshroud them.  There are no such signs in the sixth book about the adventures of young Seymour Hope and his adoptive parents, author Ignatius B. Grumply and ghost-with-unfinished-business Olive C. Spence. But in the seventh book – well, we shall see.

     What we have in Book Six is another romp-with-variations on the theme of family life in an admittedly unusual family, told through the usual 43 Old Cemetery Road method of letters (yes, “snail mail”!), newspaper articles (yes, newspapers!), occasional transcripts of instant messages and phone calls (yes, phones!), and lots of illustrations. Kate Klise mixes the plot ingredients with her usual skill here, bringing together an unsavory character from Iggy’s past (his money-grubbing onetime fiancée, Nadia S. Richenov); two unsavory characters from the present (escaped convicts Rob Z. Lott and Liza Lott – names that perfectly reflect their characters are a stock-in-trade of this series, as are M. Sarah Klise drawings that neatly capture the characters’ expressions); a character introduced solely for purposes of pushing the plot along (Art Smart, host of a TV show that evaluates antiques); an idea that pushes the story in a new direction (having Seymour, a budding illustrator, create pictures for a line of greeting cards to be sent to people facing awkward situations – a darned good idea, actually); and a family issue to tie everything together (Seymour’s desire to buy something special for Iggy for Father’s Day). The ins and outs will be familiar to readers who already know the series and are easy to pick up for newcomers: Olive, for example, communicates by breaking into letters that other people are writing, with her words appearing in a different typeface. In the case of Greetings from the Graveyard, there are sometimes two ghosts whose typefaces break into letters, the second being T. Leeves, Olive’s onetime butler, called back into service to help Iggy as matters get messy when Nadia figures out how to make money by publishing Iggy’s old love letters to her, now that Iggy is a famous author (of – what else? – 43 Old Cemetery Road). The shenanigans, verbal and otherwise, tie everyone into the usual amusing knots until, eventually, the robbers are recaptured, Nadia is sent packing, and Olive helps buttons things up neatly by being kinder to Nadia than Iggy wants to be (a neat twist that gives T. Leeves something to do at the end as well).

     The usual references to how grumpy Iggy always is are of course present in Greetings from the Graveyard, and they become centrally important in Book Seven, The Loch Ness Punster – and point the way toward what may be a coming conclusion of this delightful series. Having scratched the surface of Iggy’s past in Book Six, the Klise sisters make it central to Book Seven – and in this case, the past is farther back and deals with just why Iggy is so grumpy all the time. Unraveling that particular mystery takes most of the seventh book, with a batch of new characters assuming the usual roles that are part and parcel of 43 Old Cemetery Road. They are Iggy’s Uncle Ian, both when alive and as a ghost, who owns a castle right on Loch Ness, Scotland, and wills it to Seymour; Garren Teed, an insurance salesman who is not very good at his job; a valuable tortoise named Mr. Poe; a venal businessman named Macon Deals who is determined to turn Loch Ness into a chintzy version of a theme park; and Deals’ assistants, Eve Strop (whose job is to listen in on what others are doing) and Dewey D. Zine (whose name, “do we design,” explains his role in theme-park creation neatly). The illustrations in Book Seven are among the funniest in the series, including one of a water slide curlicued to resemble Nessie (the Loch Ness monster) and one “showing” Nessie and then being deconstructed to show what “Nessie” really consists of (at least in this book). Again, multiple complications ensue until, eventually, the bad guy (Deals) is stopped and family values are triumphantly reasserted. But there is something different in The Loch Ness Punster, because toward the end, a marriage proposal and a now-happy Iggy combine to create a focus on the whole “unfinished business” idea that is the basis of Olive’s continuing presence in Ghastly, Illinois. There is a strong suggestion that perhaps her business is no longer unfinished, which would mean it is time for her to move on – as Uncle Ian does after his unfinished business with Iggy is concluded. So perhaps 43 Old Cemetery Road is moving toward its inevitable end – all books and all series finish eventually, after all. Book Eight will surely reveal more, and fans of this series will surely continue to enjoy it even after it is brought to a conclusion; for books, like ghosts but unlike people, carry on even after their final chapters.

     Chris Grabenstein’s The Island of Dr. Libris is not so much a direct series continuation as it is an attempt to reproduce the underlying concept – a distinctly book-based one – of his Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. That book, a kind of literary riff on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was marvelous and intricate and puzzling and fascinating throughout. And it was probably too much to expect another work of the same general type to be at so high a level. The Island of Dr. Libris isn’t, although it is a solid (+++) book that some fans of the earlier one will enjoy for its mixture of adventure and silliness, even though others will find it a trifle disappointing. Grabenstein again draws on multiple literary sources here – he gives a list at the end of 31 books and stories referenced, often barely in passing, in the novel – but the extreme cleverness of the interweaving of stories that was present in the earlier book is absent here. The primary problem is that the plot and characters in The Island of Dr. Libris simply are not very interesting. Dr. Libris himself has the first name Xiang (pronounced Shihahng), not because of any germane ethnic background but because this lets Grabenstein announce that his bookplate reads “Ex Libris X. Libris.” Clearly a genius, Dr. Libris is also a rather boring version of a mad scientist, writing little notes from time to time and indicating that a truly mind-boggling invention he has created means nothing to him except insofar as it will make him rich. That invention is a system that taps into kids’ imagination so that when young people read books, the characters and situations they read about actually come into being – provided the young readers are on the island of this novel’s title. One boy, though, can make things happen on the island even when he is not there: Billy, the central character of The Island of Dr. Libris. Billy is given the usual sort of family problem to deal with – he is concerned that his parents may be breaking up – but otherwise has no real personality. He makes friends with a boy living next door to the house that Billy’s parents have rented for the summer from Dr. Libris. That boy, Walter, has to use an asthma inhaler frequently and says he is not good at anything, but otherwise he too has no personality. In the house on the other side of Billy’s lives a nasty-for-no-reason bully named Nick Farkas, who hangs out with two equally nasty buddies; at a certain point in the story, Nick suddenly turns helpful and even crucial to solving a problem, while his two buddies disappear without a trace, making it hard to understand what they were doing in the book in the first place. The main thing Grabenstein is after here is scarcely characterization or a solid plot. What he wants is a way to have Billy involved in making characters come alive: Hercules, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, the Three Musketeers, Tom Sawyer, Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and others. Then Grabenstein has Billy bring the characters together in ways that are supposed to be funny but come across as forced: Hercules joins Robin Hood’s band and is uncomfortable in the clothing, the Three Musketeers find themselves working for the Sheriff of Nottingham, and so on. The intrusion of a Space Lizard from a video game is funny in a bizarre way, but the inclusion of ever-optimistic Pollyanna serves no purpose except, perhaps, to have a girl character to go with Walter’s equally irrelevant sister, Alyssa. The author’s manipulative hand is simply too obvious throughout The Island of Dr. Libris, with the result that the plot machinery creaks constantly and any sense of exuberance – which so permeated Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – is lost. However, given Dr. Libris’ minimal role in Grabenstein’s new book, and his unceremonious exit from it, perhaps Grabenstein is planning a followup – and if so, hopefully that novel will recapture some of the sense of style and fun that is in short supply in and on The Island of Dr. Libris.

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