May 20, 2010


Legends: Battles and Quests; Beasts and Monsters. By Anthony Horowitz. Illustrated by Thomas Yeates. Kingfisher. $9.99 each.

Poison Apple Books: The Dead End; This Totally Bites! By Mimi McCoy (End) and Ruth Ames (Bites). Scholastic. $5.99 each.

     There is plenty of life remaining in the grand tales of the past. Plenty of death, too. Anthony Horowitz, best known for his Alex Rider series, clearly relishes the “death” part. His first two Legends books – there will be two more per year for the next two years, for a total of six, all of them updates of Horowitz’s decades-old Kingfisher Book of Myths and Legends – retell myths and stories from many times and many peoples, with an emphasis on cinematic descriptions of mayhem (abetted by Thomas Yeates’ atmospheric illustrations). For example, in the first part of the story of Theseus – well before he kills the Minotaur – the young hero encounters some bandits. “He had managed to kill no fewer than five of the worst offenders, kicking one of them over a cliff, lopping off the legs of another, and crushing a third with a huge boulder.” In the legend of “The Great Bell of Peking,” the bell-maker’s daughter sacrifices herself to ensure the success of her father’s greatest work: “She leaped off the gantry with a terrible scream and dived headfirst into the molten metal. …Her scream was cut off instantly. At once there was a great sizzling and a horrible smell filled the air.” In the Bororo Indian story of a very unpleasant character called Geriguiaguiatugo, the title character changes himself into a stag and viciously butts his father: “The first time, the father landed in a clump of thistles. The second time he hit a wasp’s nest. And the third time he splashed into a nearby river, where he was immediately torn into a million pieces by a pack of ravenous piranha.” Readers ages 9-12 who cannot get enough of this stuff can get more of it in Beasts and Monsters. This includes a Cheyenne story of a young man transformed into a sea monster after eating an odd-looking egg; a retelling of the tale of Saint George and the Dragon that attempts (not very successfully) to be a humorous commentary on government foibles; and a Celtic story that includes a really ugly eight-foot-plus giant and the hunting of a boar that “howled as all its insides fell out, covering Oscar with a tangled knot of steaming, bloody intestines.” The legends retold in the Legends books are certainly grotesque and gory enough on their own – many of them exist in multiple versions, some bloodier than others – but Horowitz’s aim seems to be to attract reluctant readers by emphasizing the grotesqueries and gore as much as possible. For at least some boys (the books are clearly boy-oriented), this will probably be quite effective.

     The Poison Apple books are intended for girls in the same age range. Whether told in the third person (The Dead End) or the first (This Totally Bites!), these books – entries in an ongoing series – are about the supernatural adventures of preteen girls who discover that some old legends are still hanging around in the modern world. Of course, it helps to get out of the mainstream to find them. That means way out in the country, to an old house that Casey Slater’s parents have bought and are remodeling, in The Dead End. This is a things-that-go-bump-in-the-night story, in which things almost go bump right on top of Casey, who is convinced that the house is haunted but whose parents are (not unexpectedly in a book like this) completely oblivious. The townsfolk think the place is haunted, too, and one old man in particular – who nearly jumps with startlement when he first sees Casey – seems to know more than others about why the house may be haunted. There is nothing very original in the book’s structure: things happen to Casey that her parents do not see; lights go on and off even though the electricity is disconnected; a large cabinet falls over and misses Casey by just a little bit; and so on. There is also a best friend back home for Casey to talk to, and a cute boy in town for a little innocent flirting. Pretty much everything is predictable in The Dead End, including the fact that a twist in the story shows that things are not exactly what Casey feared they were. There is a twist in This Totally Bites! as well – this book being a modern take on the ever-popular vampire legend. Here the focus is on Emma-Rose Paley, who has pale skin, an aversion to sunlight and garlic, and a Romanian great-aunt with the expected accent: “Ven I suggested to her the idea for this exhibit, she took it and ran vit it. …Ve vant it to be perfect.” Clearly Emma-Rose, whose appearance and tastes are quite unlike those of her parents, must be a fledgling vampire – a state of affairs that costs her her best friend, Gabby, and leads her to the library to find one of the earliest vampire books, John Polidori’s The Vampyre (which a cute guy helps her locate). Again, things do not turn out quite the way Emma-Rose thinks they will, and in fact the twist here is somewhat less satisfactory than the one in The Dead End. But these books are written to be fast and forgettable, not as literary masterpieces, and both of them, as well as others in the Poison Apple series, can be fun when taken not too seriously and in small bites.

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