September 18, 2008


The Land of Elyon, Book 4: Stargazer. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $11.99.

Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #2: The New Girl. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

     The official Book 4 in Patrick Carman’s The Land of Elyon series is actually fifth in the sequence – the last book released, Into the Mist, was designated a prequel – but Carman’s tales of Alexa Daley remain as earnest as ever. It is hard to see where Carman will go with these continuing stories: The Land of Elyon was conceived as a trilogy but just keeps growing. He is now placing his basic characters (and some new ones) in unusual, challenging and somewhat threatening situations, then showing how they think and work their way out of their difficulties. This is a rather formulaic approach, and the newer books, including Stargazer, lack the strong characterization and genuine inventiveness of The Dark Hills Divide, the series’ first book and Carman’s first novel. Still, middle-school readers looking for an easy-to-read adventure tale with some unusual settings will enjoy Stargazer. This book finds Alexa and her friend Yipes stranded in an odd community called The Five Stone Pillars, which literally consists of five different pillars of rock. Each pillar is different and each harbors secrets, and Alexa and Yipes need to learn about the pillars and their people in order to find their way back to Elyon. To get back, they plan to use a most unusual means of conveyance: a flying contraption – a balloon called Stargazer. Thanks to an encounter with the eccentric Sir Alexander Wakefield, “the oldest man in the world,” whom everyone has believed to be dead, Alexa and Yipes have a chance not only to escape but also to help the people of The Five Stone Pillars if, or rather when, their world comes crashing down around them. The destructive sea monster Abaddon, responsible for much of the woe of The Five Stone Pillars, is eventually conquered, and Yipes makes a proposal that leads to a concluding celebration in which everyone takes part – but the possibility of yet another sequel is there, even though Stargazer comes to a satisfying finish.

     Meg Cabot, continuing her post-Princess Diaries series about nine-year-old Allie Finkle’s trials and tribulations, keeps things on the light side even as she tries to teach a lesson here and there. In The New Girl, Allie – who suffered through a move in the first book, Moving Day – is both excited and nervous about starting the term at Pine Heights Elementary School (well, duh). And she is entirely excited about getting a new kitten – literally the pick of the litter of a show cat. Unfortunately, Allie has attracted the attention of a nasty bully named Rosemary Dawkins, who gets caught making fun of an essay Allie has written and therefore wastes no time telling Allie that she is going to beat her up. Allie tries using her various rules – the chapter titles – to handle everything that is happening to her: “You aren’t supposed to lie to adults – unless lying to them will make them feel better.” Or: “Ask old people what to do because they know everything.” Trying to balance her new kitten, her new enemy and her new friends proves a lot for Allie to handle, and a spelling bee and family visit to school don’t make matters any easier. Still, Cabot keeps things light and slightly silly through most of the book, although the specter of Rosemary keeps intruding into Allie’s thoughts – until one of her rules comes to everybody’s rescue, and everything works out just fine, except for a surprise involving the new kitten, but that’s really fine too, and…well, it’s all fine, OK? Overdone, oversimplified, too neatly buttoned up, but just fine.

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