October 21, 2010


Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties: A Practical Guide. By “Miss Edythe McFate” as told to Lesley M.M. Blume. Illustrated by David Foote. Knopf. $16.99.

Masters of Disaster. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

The Greenhouse Chronicles #1: A Crack in the Sky. By Mark Peter Hughes. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Hunchback Assignments, Book 2: The Dark Deeps. By Arthur Slade. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.

     You might expect a book about the behavior of supernatural beings, intended for preteens, to be filled with amusement and lighthearted descriptions of pleasant, ethereal creatures. Not so – not in Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties, anyway. Cast as a protective guidebook by an expert named Edythe McFate, the book explains that just about everything you thought you knew about the various little people is wrong – and, as a result, dangerous. For fairies, brownies, goblins and the rest of these beings are not pleasant creatures of long ago, but modern and frequently malevolent – and protecting oneself from them is a very good idea indeed. “McFate” (through the medium, so to speak, of Lesley M.M. Blume) both explains the habits of various supernatural beings and discusses how they function in the modern world – the latter through eight illustrative stories of the (usually unfortunate) interaction between the supernatural characters and modern people in, of all places, New York City. Aided by excellent David Foote illustrations that convey both otherworldly charm and an undercurrent of menace, Blume shows again and again – whether setting a story in the old Algonquin Hotel or in the Lincoln Tunnel – that, as one story warns, “fairies can always see what you really are. Take note.” So in connection with an explanation of fairy rings, there is the tale of a girl named after a flower who eventually becomes one – but probably not happily (“it’s impossible to know for certain”). There is a story of applause-loving twins who perform at Carnegie Hall, offending beings called Librettos in the process – and therefore are never able to perform in public again. There are discussions of fairies in the kitchen (“fairies simply cannot help themselves when it comes to stealing spoons”), goblins in the subway, enchanted fairy isles, ball lightning at Coney Island, and many other unlikely combinations of real-world and fairy-world themes. In fact, the entire book is an unlikely combination – and for that reason will delight preteens whose view of life is a little different, and perhaps a little skewed.

     Things are off-center for the same age group in Masters of Disaster, but despite the title, this book leans to the light side, not the dark. Gary Paulsen’s story is about 12-year-old Henry Mosley, whose life is so boring that he decides to write down a variety of ways to make things more exciting for himself and his friends Reed and Riley. Among Henry’s ideas: solve a 100-year-old murder mystery; research the contents of a Dumpster; and break the world record for forward somersaults while tied to a bike. Each of these is a recipe for disaster, and the results are fairly predictable. The things Henry and his friends try are not totally off-the-wall – the Dumpster idea, for example, is tied to possibly getting a scholarship for “the study of environmental protection by middle school students.” But Henry, Reed and Riley consistently underestimate the requirements of what they want to do, and equally consistently mess up the execution of their plans; and that is where the fun lies, or is supposed to lie. In truth. Masters of Disaster tries a little too hard to be funny – it is a very short book (just 102 pages) into which Paulsen attempts to pack more than the work can really hold. And none of the kids is particularly well characterized; they are just there. Still, the would-be adventurers and their exploits are amusing enough to garner Masters of Disaster a (+++) rating.

     Nearly four times as long, far more serious and far darker, A Crack in the Sky is also for preteens and also a (+++) book. Its attractiveness is adventure; its shortcoming, formulaic plotting. Its central character is 13-year-old Eli Papadopoulos, grandson of the founder of the huge (and therefore, yawn, evil) InfiniCorp, the firm that “is taking care of everything” (so its ads say) in the domed cities where Eli and many other people live in the aftermath of a Great Sickness that has wiped out most human beings. Naturally, the company’s hubris means there must be something rotten at the core of what it is doing; and it must be something that a 13-year-old can discover even though no one within the huge corporation seems able to find out about it or believe it when Eli points it out. Hence the book’s title: Eli notices that something is wrong with the dome city’s artificial sky and that the city keeps getting hotter. Bad move to point out a problem, though: Eli is sent far away to the Tower (bad corporations do not want to correct any mistakes that anyone points out), and while in exile, Eli meets a girl named Tabitha who is also a stranger to “right” thinking, and together they plan to get out of the domed cities altogether – and away from InfiniCorp. This is an old, old plot of individuals fighting to escape a repressive society in whose warnings of “the danger outside” they refuse to believe. Mark Peter Hughes seasons this stew of familiar ingredients with some entirely predictable elements (including mutants, terrorists determined to bring down InfiniCorp, and a conflict between Eli and his brother, Sebastian) and some less-expected ones (Eli’s pet mongoose, Marilyn). And since this is the first book of a series, Hughes pilots it expertly to a point at which Eli does manage to escape – but ends up in a dire situation that will be resolved in the next novel. A Crack in the Sky is well done for what it is, and Hughes’ end-of-book discussion of global warming and the way he used (and overused) scientific information on it is interesting. But the book has too many predictable adventure elements to be judged a complete success.

     The Dark Deeps targets slightly older readers, ages 12 and up, with a combination of Victorian-era settings, anachronistic devices and dialogue to speed the story along, and a substantial touch of fantasy to disabuse young teenagers of any notion that this might be science fiction. The first Hunchback Assignments novel introduced a secret-agent network called the Permanent Association; its commander, Mr. Socrates; a shape-shifting orphan (remember that this is fantasy!) named Modo; and a set of evil opponents, the Clockwork Guild. That book, very loosely inspired by The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which is a very, very dark and deeply disturbing book in Victor Hugo’s original version), had a number of clever touches that helped make up for its being somewhat overdone. Arthur Slade’s sequel, loosely connected to Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, is less compelling – it introduces only one significant new oddity – but still deserves a (+++) rating for strong pacing and a number of intriguing (if not especially well differentiated) characters. The Dark Deeps also includes a touch of The Invisible Man: Dr. Hyde has treated a Clockwork Guild orphan named Griff – Modo’s evil counterpart – with elixirs to make him invisible. The story involves mysterious attacks on ships in the vicinity of Iceland, with the Permanent Association sending Modo and fellow agent Octavia to find out what is going on. Throw in some French spies, some anarchists, and rumors of a sea monster, and Modo falling overboard and being presumed dead, and you have the elements of a taut tale involving a submarine, a city beneath the sea, and plenty of nefarious doings. Readers who enjoyed the first Hunchback Assignments book will surely like this one as well, even though some elements here are a great deal less than convincing – the ease with which Modo is taken in by Griff’s none-too-believable lies, for example. The Hunchback Assignments is set to be a potentially long-running series, drawing on Victorian literature and various genre conventions and retaining a focus on Modo and Octavia. Hopefully, as Slade writes further books, the characters will show more depth than they do in The Dark Deeps.

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