April 09, 2009

(++++) THIRDS

The 39 Clues, Book 3: The Sword Thief. By Peter Lerangis. Scholastic. $12.99.

Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #3: Best Friends and Drama Queens. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

     The 39 Clues – think a much-changed, much-updated version of Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery, The 39 Steps – continues apace in its third installment, as this unusually clever mixture of books, card packs and a Web-based game keeps twisting and turning the saga of Amy and Dan Cahill, two young members of the far-flung and notoriously deception-prone Cahill clan, as they race around the world seeking clues to their family’s immense wealth and power. Each of these books is written by a different author, but there is so little individual style to the volumes that it scarcely matters whose name is on the cover. What counts is each book’s setting (exotic) and pacing (fast). The third book in the series, The Sword Thief, focuses on Japan and on the uneasy alliance into which Amy and Dan enter, with considerable trepidation, with their uncle, Alistair Oh. The key to this book, and to the series as a whole, is putting Amy and Dan into perilous situations in which they suddenly discover clues to the 39 important clues. For instance, at one point in The Sword Thief, the kids and Alistair are within an underground train system, menaced by the yakuza (Japanese gangsters akin to Sicily’s Mafia), and all at once, this happens: “‘Cube!’ Amy blurted, suddenly breaking loose and racing back to the pile. ‘Look! Sphere! Cylinder! Para – parallelowhatever! Those are geometric shapes – right, Dan? They’re right here!’” This does turn out to be important – and it is a fair sample of the humor that creeps into the excitement from time to time (a page earlier, there is a reference to “trying to find a hypotenuse in a haystack”). The point here is that we know Amy and Dan will make it past their nefarious competing relatives, through each adventure and on to the next, but we also know they will have a tough time of it: Dan comments at one point, “We were in a ninja fight…for the first time in my nonvirtual life. And I hated it.” What we do not know is how the other Cahills will interfere with Amy and Dan, and to what effect; and what will happen to anyone with whom the young protagonists ally themselves (Alistair’s encounter may prove fatal to him – or maybe not). Furthermore, we do not know for sure where the clues are pointing, except that at the end of one book, it will be clear that the next clue is somewhere else in the world (Book 4 will be set in Egypt). The result of this blend of knowing and not knowing is an attractive adventure series that works as a multimedia event, not just a straightforward story; and that has plenty of “perils of Pauline” cliffhangers to keep young readers’ attention – plus clue-related cards (six of them) bound into each book, plus a Web element to keep things interesting in between issuance of new volumes.

     Meg Cabot’s Allie Finkle series has reached its third volume, too, and it too has settled into a routine – a lower-key and more everyday one than The 39 Clues. But this is not to say that Ally’s life lacks drama; in fact, the title of the third book, Best Friends and Drama Queens, has “drama” built right in. But of course this is fourth-grade drama rather than the world-spanning, highly dangerous type. It all comes from Cheyenne, a new girl from Canada who is now attending Ally’s school, Pine Heights Elementary (thereby relieving Ally of new-girl angst, which she duly suffered in Book 2). Cheyenne turns out to be a super-bossy, take-charge type who manipulates or shames Ally and her friends into doing things Cheyenne’s way so as not to be considered “big babies.” This means the other girls have to play Cheyenne-approved roles and start getting involved with boy-chasing and kissing games at recess – all while feeling so put-upon that Ally ends up “really, really wishing I could go back through time to that first day of the new semester and, instead of Caroline having big news about a new student starting at Pine Heights, her big news could have been that she’s gotten a horse instead.” This being impossible, Ally has to figure out some other way of coping with Cheyenne. It takes a fair amount of cat cuddling and the willingness of Ally’s mom to crawl into the closet with a very upset Ally before a solution to the problem is found – involving some name-calling, some rule-setting and the timely intervention of a number of the best friends’ parents. Best Friends and Drama Queens gets a (+++) rating for its lighthearted and upbeat – but rather too simplistic – approach to issues of maturity, friendship and the unending questions of boy-girl and kid-adult relationships.

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