July 01, 2010


Molly Moon & the Morphing Mystery. By Georgia Byng. Harper. $16.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 9: Storm Warning. By Linda Sue Park. Scholastic. $12.99.

The Suburb Beyond the Stars. By M.T. Anderson. Scholastic. $17.99.

     Fast, furious and frequently funny – those are the adventures of Molly Moon, the orphan found in a box of Moon’s Marshmallows in the first book about her, Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism (2002). And now we are at the fifth book, Molly Moon & the Morphing Mystery – having gone through Molly Moon Stops the World (2003), Molly Moon's Hypnotic Time-Travel Adventure (2005) and Molly Moon, Micky Minus and the Mind Machine (2007). If those titles don’t seem to make much sense, you aren’t yet familiar with Molly Moon’s universe – which you really need to be in order to enjoy Morphing Mystery, since Lady Georgia Byng does not go out of her way to provide a lot of background or character development. Existing fans of this offbeat and unusual series will be delighted to have a new entry in it at last, but potential new preteen readers will likely be thrown off by the numerous characters and their relationships; this is not a good entry point for the series (although anyone who reads the first book and then moves to the fifth will do just fine). The basis of all the Molly Moon books is itself a book, which teaches 11-year-old Molly how to hypnotize people, which she does to very considerable effect. Morphing Mystery still depends on Molly’s hypnotic abilities, but it also takes her in a somewhat different direction, although still a very British one: “Concentrated orange squash! Certainly not! Wait here on this ottoman, and I’ll be back in a trice.” The Britishisms are part of the charm of these books for American readers and may make them seem a tad more exotic – but in fact there is plenty to enjoy in Morphing Mystery apart from the language in which it is told. Readers do need to pay attention to the words to get the book’s full flavor, though, especially when characters lapse into Cockney rhyming slang: “So these dustbin lids you know that are in trouble, you say you can feel where they are?” “Dustbin lids?” “Kids.” Or: “Well, she sounds like a babbling brook….” “A babbling brook?” “A crook.” And, even more authentically and with greater complexity: “We’ll have a butcher’s with ’im.” “A butcher’s?” “A butcher’s hook, a look.” And what of the plot? Oh, there is a great deal of it, as Molly finds herself in a number of bodies that are not her own, and encountering various dangers in each – such as the possibility, while a ladybug (which, strangely, is not called “ladybird,” its British name), of being eaten by a pigeon. The scenes in which Molly switches bodies are especially well done, as when she avoids consumption-by-pigeon by taking over the bird: “For a millimoment, she was nothing. Then she got the watery tipping feeling as her mind and her spirit washed into the pigeon. The creature stopped pecking. Like a gadget suddenly without batteries, it stood stock still. Its pea-brained mind registered Molly’s arrival. For a moment, it attempted to push her out. But its efforts were a futile grapple.” And what, pray tell, is going on here? Well, that is the mystery, and it takes Molly (and Micky) quite a while (more than 400 pages) to figure it out – with periodic forays into humor (“Where there is a quill, there is a way,” for example – not to mention characters named Cappuccino and Miss Teriyaki). Eventually overcoming the bad guys through adventures including a parachute jump, the near-miss of a poison dart, considerable assistance from termites, and having a woman believe she is a guinea pig, Molly and Micky end up using a monkey as a surrogate judge of character and getting ready for another adventure. And if all this sounds too complex to be followed, much less believed – well, there is a lot to deal with here, and not everyone will enjoy the breakneck pace of the narrative and its constant twists and turns. But Molly Moon fans will rush through the book and surely await the next one eagerly.

     Fans of The 39 Clues, now nine-tenths of the way to completion, await every book eagerly, using the multimedia adventure’s playing cards and Web site while waiting for the next installment. Linda Sue Park had the difficult task of creating the penultimate book, which needed to reveal something momentous without giving away the grand finale – due out later this year. Park has done a good job with the latest part of this globetrotting adventure (this book is set in Jamaica). The big revelation here is the identity of the Man in Black, who has followed and spied upon protagonists Amy and Dan Cahill throughout their worldwide search for clues that may bring them tremendous power. The Man in Black is a Madrigal – as were Amy and Dan’s parents, whose deaths are not explained in this book and must therefore be reserved for revelations in the final volume. The Madrigals are the most mysterious of the five branches of the all-powerful Cahill family, whose members include just about every important historical figure you can imagine. The books attempt, not terribly successfully, to have an educational component consisting of information on important or at least interesting real-world historical people who, in this fictional universe, were Cahills of one sort or another. In Storm Warning, for example, there is a section devoted to Anne Bonny, a Caribbean pirate about whom, conveniently, little information is available from primary sources. “‘Okay,’ [Amy] said slowly. ‘Suppose Anne Bonny was a Cahill. That’s not so far-fetched. To start with, she was born in Ireland, where the original Cahills lived. …She lived during a time when women were really restricted. Most of them weren’t allowed to do a lot of the things that men could. Like travel. So she finds out about the clues, and she disguises herself as a man and becomes a pirate because she figures it’ll be the best way to hunt for clues.’” And this thinking helps Amy and Dan on their search for clues, leading eventually to the inevitable confrontation with the Man in Black, who is so dastardly that he actually threatens to harm a cat. There are many revelations at the end of the book, although Dan’s question when he gets them – “Why couldn’t we have known all this before?” – seems eminently reasonable. The answer, of course (or the meta-answer), is that the sprinkling of revelations is the whole point of The 39 Clues, which now heads to England for its upcoming grand finale.

     There is little humorous in The 39 Clues, but a sort of skewed humor is a characteristic of M.T. Anderson’s writing, and it provides some of the flavor of The Suburb Beyond the Stars – in fact, the title itself is pretty offbeat. Years ago, Anderson wrote a book based on “Dungeons and Dragons” and similar nerdy pastimes of the days before video games. It was not published in its original form (and thank goodness, he has said), but after he revised it, it became The Game of Sunken Places, featuring 13-year-old best friends Gregory Buchanan and Brian Thatz, two very different boys described in that book as seeming like “two lobes of the same brain” – which turns out to be important. The Game of Sunken Places gets somewhat out of hand, not only within the story but as a story: Anderson stuffs it so full of characters and events that its seams show despite his skillful attempts to cover them. It turns out that Brian and Gregory are playing the Game of the title for someone, or rather for two entire races of someones, and Brian’s victory (for which both boys are grateful) creates a scenario in which the next Game of the same type (for there will definitely be a next one) will be set up by Brian himself, and cannot start until Brian wants it to. All this is background for The Suburb Beyond the Stars, which is the sequel to The Game of Sunken Places. It really helps to have read the earlier book before tackling this one, just as it helps to know the prior Molly Moon and 39 Clues books before reading the latest volumes. Anderson does make some references to his earlier book to indicate what happened before the start of Suburb, but he does not really provide enough detail to help an otherwise unknowing reader figure out what is going on. And a lot is going on. Anderson opens the book with Brian being pursued through Boston’s subway system – encumbered by his cello, in a typical bit of Anderson levity – by characters who may be from the losing side in the earlier book’s Game, and in any case are certainly deadly. The action here (and there is lots of it) shifts after a short time to Vermont, where the previous book’s adventure took place – and the mystery is why there seems to be a new Game going on even though Brian has definitely not arranged for one to begin. Actually, that is a minor mystery for the boys, who are more concerned with simply surviving whatever is happening than with deciding just what’s up. Gregory’s Game-savvy cousin, Prudence, disappears; the body of a missing real-estate developer, found in an abandoned house, may actually be up and about and selling exceedingly peculiar homes; strange creatures chase the boys; people who should be in certain places turn out to be – elsewhere; something is stalking the Vermont woods and the houses within them; and time itself seems to have gone somehow wrong. As in the previous book, Anderson packs a lot of plot material into The Suburb Beyond the Stars – maybe too much for the novel to handle. He does juggle his plot points more skillfully here than in the earlier volume, though, and the result is a fast-paced adventure story in which the two boys have to solve a series of interconnected mysteries. Oh yes – and save the world (which, actually, will have to wait until the next book, since this one does not get nearly that far). The writing, especially the dialogue, is not always at the level of the plotting: “They’re not going to listen to you. People can only hear what they want to hear.” “Someone’s got to tell them how much danger they’re in.” But it is the fast pacing and the cleverness of plot construction, not the interactions between the boys or between them and the other characters, that readers will find most engaging in this little slice of otherworldly suburbia.

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