September 23, 2010


Come Fall. By A.C.E. Bauer. Random House. $15.99.

The Toymaker. By Jeremy de Quidt. Illustrated by Gary Blythe. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Wildfire Run. By Dee Garretson. Harper. $16.99.

Saving Sky. By Diane Stanley. Harper. $15.99.

Genius Trilogy No. 3: The Genius Wars. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

     Even in ordinary sleep, the line between dream and nightmare can be thin, with experience shading almost imperceptibly from one to the other. In these novels for preteens and young teenagers, the lines are more clearly drawn, and the sense of dislocation and of being unsure how to escape is clear as well. Come Fall is a middle-school story with magic in it: three kids outside the school mainstream are just becoming friends when they are trapped in skirmishes between none other than Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen made famous by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The jealousy of the fairies is played out in their handling (or mishandling) of Salman Page, the new kid at school, and Lu-Ellen Zimmer, who starts the new year in a funk because her best friend moved away over the summer. The third member of the threesome is Blos Pease, a rather obvious alteration of “Peaseblossom” from Shakespeare’s play. And then there is Puck, of course, as mischievous and meddlesome as ever. And to flesh (or feather) things out there is Bird, a crow with a penchant for collecting shiny things. Separate short chapters focus on various characters, and mundane school assignments are nicely intermingled with magical occurrences as Oberon repeatedly reminds Puck to “sow discord.” The mixture of mundane and otherworldly elements is not always seamless, but the blend is interesting; and although there is nothing particularly outstanding about most of the characters, the intersections of the story with Shakespeare make for an unusual tale.

     The Toymaker starts as a not-very-nice dream and rapidly becomes worse. Here too the worldly and otherworldly are mixed, but there is little benign in the motivations of most of the characters. The protagonist is a circus boy named Mathias, raised by an unloving grandfather and conjuror from whom he takes a small piece of paper when the old man is dying. Soon enough, lots of people are after the paper, and all of them are malevolent. It is only when Mathias, injured while escaping from one of the bad guys, encounters a street-smart kitchen maid named Katta, that he finds an ally; and soon thereafter he has two more people helping him seek the secret of the paper. Gary Blythe’s atmospheric illustrations add considerable interest to a dark tale of secrets that are buried and perhaps ought to remain so. As for the title, there is nothing amusing whatsoever about any toys – or things that are toylike – in this grim story.

     There is no magic in Wildfire Run, but there is nightmare aplenty. Set in a real-world place – the presidential retreat at Camp David – this is the story of the chief executive’s son, Luke, and his friends, Theo and Callie, who are together at Camp David under the ever-watchful (perhaps too watchful) eyes of the Secret Service. Then there is a forest fire, and then an earthquake, and suddenly the book becomes a story of escape and survival, complete with computerized security that needs to be hacked and an impassable gate that needs to be, well, passed. There is a lot of screaming and yelling here and a lot of formulaic adventure dialogue: “Sal will be dead in a few minutes if he doesn’t move!” “Do it, Theo!” “Run! Run! They’re going to crash.” A dog named Comet is often more interesting than the human characters, and the piling-up of trouble after trouble (even a poisonous snake) is overdone, but the book can be a thrill ride for kids who do not think too closely about its implausibilities.

     Saving Sky is also set in the United States, but this is an alternative-world story in which the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 prove even more horrific than in the real world. In this tale, the president was killed in the attacks and the nation became involved in an ever-escalating war both at home and in the Middle East. The government is setting up detention camps along the lines of the ones used for people of Japanese descent in World War II – and this creates a major moral dilemma for Sky Brightman, the 13-year-old girl whose first name appears in the book’s title. One of Sky’s classmates, Kareem, is sure to be rounded up and placed in a camp; and Sky – who lives on a rural New Mexico ranch and has been little touched by all the nation’s turmoil – finds that she has the inner strength to stand up for what is right even when it is not popular. The book deliberately sets up World War II echoes, not only in the camps but also in the idea of hiding Kareem in a 10-foot-square area reminiscent of places where Anne Frank and other Jews were hidden, often unsuccessfully, from the Nazis. Indeed, the parallels between Nazis and agents of the U.S. government are overdrawn and even somewhat offensive. But the point of Saving Sky is really about saving American values – and about the way a 13-year-old, or two of them, can change many adult minds even when the entire nation is living through nightmarish times. This book is, on many levels, pure fairy tale, but young teens who want to feel empowered in a difficult world that they have not made may well find it inspiring.

     The nightmarish events in The Genius Wars follow from those in the two previous books in this series, Evil Genius and Genius Squad. The original premise of the books was a fascinating one: a focus, for once, on the traditional bad guy, and how he got that way. Soon enough, though, the books became far more conventional, as Cadel Piggott Greeniaus came over from the side of evil to that of good, and began fighting back against all that he had formerly espoused. The Genius Wars is the natural climax of Cadel’s new commitment to being on the side of the angels, as he travels long and hard to track down Prosper English, his onetime mentor (and very obvious father figure) and now his nemesis. There is an eventual, inevitable confrontation between Cadel and Prosper, just the two of them aboard a flimsy dinghy, with Prosper accusing Cadel of pettiness and mediocrity while Cadel thinks – but does not say – that “he was no longer a warped little puppet with a blinkered view of the world” and now simply wants a normal life. A fight, a stalemate, a near-drowning, and Prosper is gone for good, unless he isn’t, quite – in the tradition of far too many stories in which the bad guy must be dead but maybe, just maybe, isn’t. Well written and frequently exciting, The Genius Wars is nevertheless disappointing for anyone trying to figure out the title, because there seems little of the genius in Cadel, and not much more of the evil type of genius in Prosper. Cadel lives through a nightmare; Prosper doesn’t (unless he does); but unfortunately the whole good-vs.-evil structure of the book (and the series) has by now become so formulaic that readers are supposed to take it at face value when Cadel is given the promise, “This time, I swear to you, he won’t come back.” Maybe he will; maybe he won’t; maybe there will be another installment in the “Genius” books and maybe not (the series is designated a trilogy, but authors and publishers have been known to extend such things). In any case, it seems unlikely, if there is yet another book, that it will recapture the clever (if perhaps not genius-level) concept that launched these novels in the first place.

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