May 04, 2017


Stick Cat #2: Cats in the City. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

Flashback Four #2: The Titanic Mission. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.

     Tom Watson’s Stick Cat saga, followup and companion to his Stick Dog books, moves into its second volume with what is essentially a repeat of the first. In A Tail of Two Kitties, Watson introduced Stick Cat and gave him a sometime companion named Edith – a rather unpleasant character, thoroughly unaware of pretty much everything about herself, unobservant and selfish to such a degree that she actually put Stick Dog’s life in danger during their first adventure, which involved rescuing a piano tuner working in a building across the street after his arms became trapped in a grand piano whose top fell onto them. Now, in Cats in the City, Stick Cat again has the very dubious help of Edith in a rescue – this time of a woman who runs a bagel shop across the street and who falls into a huge vat of sticky bagel dough and cannot get out. Edith initially refuses to help in this rescue, saying she did this before and other cats should have a turn – and some readers may feel the same way. But others will enjoy the way the two cats play off each other, with Stick Cat clear-thinking and intelligent and Edith a complete birdbrain who is easily offended by almost everything and so egotistical that she only helps Stick Cat when he pretends that all the good ideas are hers and he is duly appreciative of them. Like the rescue of Mr. Music in the first book, the rescue of Hazel the bagel maker in this one involves a dangerous across-the-street trip from the 23rd floor of the building where Stick Cat and Edith live in adjacent apartments – and an even more dangerous return to that building after Hazel is safe. There is plenty about food here, too, although not quite as much as in Watson’s Stick Dog books: here, Edith is preoccupied with lox, which Tiffany, the human with whom Edith lives, brings home and shares with Edith once a week, but which Stick Cat has never tasted. (“Lox” is a plural word here, as in “locks.” This provides a very small touch of humor.) The stick drawings of the two cats, and the super-silly ones of Hazel as Edith imagines all the things she might be doing in that bagel-dough vat (swimming, scuba diving), are light and funny enough to rescue what is essentially the same book that Watson wrote to start this series last year. Barely rescue it. Obviously, if Stick Cat develops a fan base that enjoys Edith’s dangerous arrogance and her mistreatment of Stick Cat, and welcomes the way Stick Cat constantly conceals his own cleverness so Edith can take credit for Stick Cat’s ideas, then Watson will continue the series in this same vein. Of course, as with Stick Dog, Watson is creating these books as if he is a middle-schooler – specifically making the Stick Cat ones for a girl he sorta kinda likes. So the books come by their juvenilia and repetitiveness naturally. And Cats in the City does have its funny moments, even if they are mostly the same funny moments that A Tale of Two Kitties had. The question, then, is whether all the Stick Cat books are simply going to be minor variations on the same rescue-the-human-against-all-odds theme. That worked for Watson once and works again, although certainly not as well, in this second book. What will the third bring?

     This is not to say that Watson is alone in recycling plots and characters from book to book. It is Dan Gutman’s stock-in-trade to do the very same thing, sometimes with greater success and sometimes with less. The (+++) series, Flashback Four, falls into the “less” column. The idea here is that four modern kids, of the now-required gender and racial mixture, become time travelers under the auspices of a mysterious billionaire named Miss Z who has spent more than a billion dollars to invent a device called the TTT, for Text Through Time. TTT lets people in one time period text people in other time periods, and yes, that is even more ridiculous than the underlying premises of other fantasy-adventures for preteens. In fact, it is even more ridiculous than plot points in other supposed-to-be-funny fantasy-adventures for preteens. Flashback Four does try to be amusing, but it mostly comes up lame and seems to be trying too hard. In the first book, The Lincoln Project, Miss Z sent the four preteens back to get a photograph of President Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address – Miss Z has a thing about getting photos of events of which, in the real world, no photos exist, and Gutman uses this tenuous real-world connection to throw in a touch of history that is probably supposed to make the books socially responsible or educationally useful or generally uplifting or something. Well, since there is no photo of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, something had to go wrong, which it did when Miss Z accidentally sent the foursome back one day too early, causing all sorts of complications. In the second book, The Titanic Mission, she blames the kids for messing up the first mission, but ends up sending them back to 1912 anyway, to travel aboard the Titanic and take a photo as it is sinking – another thing that events will, of course, conspire to prevent them from doing. But before events do exactly that (as they must, since no such pictures exist), the kids have the usual complications inherent in a pile of total unbelievability like this one, and the full horror of the Titanic disaster is largely downplayed, just as the full horror of the Civil War was in the first book. This book ends differently from the first one, though, because at its conclusion, the kids – rescued from the sinking ship, of course – are left stranded in the year 1912 and trying to figure out if they can make money to keep themselves going by inventing the zipper five years earlier than it was actually created. That little fact is but one of many scattered about here, and Gutman takes pains after the story ends to explain all the facts about the Titanic that he packed into the book. That is admirable, but the four kids here are so dull and interchangeable despite their differing genders and skin color that it is hard to care much about them – they have less personality than Stick Cat and Edith. Add that to the fact that the story itself is thin and repetitive, and The Titanic Mission becomes a book that will really only interest young readers who were so captivated by the mixture of fantasy and fact in the series’ first novel that they cannot wait to read the same thing all over again.

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