November 24, 2010


Children of the Lamp, Book 6: The Five Fakirs of Faizabad. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

Poison Apple Book: Now You See Me… By Jane B. Mason & Sarah Hines Stephens. Scholastic. $5.99.

Scholastic Book of World Records 2011. Scholastic. $10.99.

     P.B. Kerr hit his stride with the Children of the Lamp series almost from the beginning, and he hasn’t tripped yet. In The Five Fakirs of Faizabad, the sixth book in the sequence about John and Philippa Gaunt and their Uncle Nimrod, “A group of religious scoundrels, mendicant fakirs most probably, but certainly part of a fraternity that is governed by laws of an uncommon or secret nature, seems to be bent on bringing about some change in the amount of luck that exists in our world. The question is, why? What do they hope to achieve?” The words are Uncle Nimrod’s, and they sum up the plot perfectly, including its inherent absurdity and its ever-present tinges of humor. Kerr likes to mix the magical with the mundane – on the very page on which Nimrod explains the plot (to someone whose help he is seeking), he tells his nephew, who is upset at not answering a riddle, “We can’t all be Stephen Hawking.” Kerr is a well-known writer of thrillers for adults (under the name Philip Kerr), and he maintains his sense of pacing in his books for children – the very first of which was the first Children of the Lamp volume, The Akhenaten Adventure. So, what is going on with those fakirs? It turns out they were buried alive while possessing answers to the greatest secrets of the universe – secrets that an evil djinn wants for his (its?) own nefarious purposes. So the twins and Nimrod must protect the dead fakirs to prevent bad luck from permeating the world, as if the world didn’t have enough of it already. Kerr’s tongue seems even more firmly in cheek in this book than in earlier ones, and there is an increase in the humor quotient even as the action (as usual) spans the world (from the Himalayas to Yellowstone National Park, and including a search for Shangri-la). The magical characters that appear throughout the book are especially well handled here. Just one example: Liskeard Karswell du Crowleigh, a librarian bottle imp who “most resembled a monitor lizard” and who explains that he was transformed when, as “a poor excuse for a sorcerer,” he tried “to steal the synopados, the soul mirror of a wicked djinn.” Now Liskeard also hassss to ssspeak with lots of added “s” sssoundsss. And when Liskeard’s dead former master appears in response to Nimrod’s wish, that ghostly character – Mr. Rakshasas – says that if Nimrod doesn’t want to go to Shangri-la, he should “smack the bottle imp five times on the head and this message will self-destruct.” It is even in minor matters like this one – passing scenes, as it were – that Kerr’s attention to detail keeps the book fast-paced, funny and exciting all at once. Also here are a flying carpet, “a typical Nazi,” a medium who has no understanding of the message, and much more. Eventually, even Philippa has to say to Nimrod, “Do try to be serious for a moment.” But that would spoil the fun – and Kerr never does spoil it. Perhaps the best adult line in the book is a throwaway, not at all germane to the plot, spoken by a character called Mr. Burton: “Irony can be hard to detect when English is not your first language. I expect that’s why Americans can’t understand it.” Kerr is a wonderful writer who keeps the adventure of John and Philippa light enough, but fast-paced enough, to enthrall young readers; but he maintains enough grown-up sensibility so the books are mind-stretching for their intended audience. The climax of The Five Fakirs of Faizabad, for example, mixes mystic revelation with “the gravitational lensing effect as predicted by Albert Einstein.” It is a thrill ride – and if it ends, sort of, where it began, readers are quite unlikely to complain.

     Other books produced in a series may be equally reliable, but they are scarcely at Kerr’s novels’ level. The Poison Apple books, mild paperback thrillers that are quick and easy to read, are a good example. The most recent of these, fourth in the group, is Now You See Me… (the ellipsis is part of the title). It fits the series just fine: the face of a boy appears mysteriously in photos taken with an old Polaroid camera that two friends, Abby and Lena, find in a thrift shop. The face gets clearer and clearer with every picture, and its expression is deeply troubled. There’s a ghost in that machine somewhere, somehow, and the question is why it’s there and what it wants. Searching for the answer brings Abby and Lena into discoveries about the past, about who the boy was, about his relationship to the thrift shop, and about a certain butterfly ring that turns out to hold the key to much of the mystery. The book is not particularly spooky, and even though authors Jane B. Mason and Sarah Hines Stephens repeatedly say that Abby and Lena are scared or feel unsafe, there isn’t really much reason for them to be unsettled. Like the other Poison Apple books, Now You See Me… gets a (+++) rating as a fast, not-too-challenging read, with supernatural elements that preteen girls (the books’ target audience) will likely find modestly involving but not too frightening.

     There are some real frights in Scholastic Book of World Records 2011, the latest annual compendium of more-or-less random bests, worsts, mosts and leasts in a variety of fields. This (+++) book is all about the real world – or at least certain parts of it. A look at the open-mouthed gaboon viper (“snake with the longest fangs”) is certainly chilling; so is a glance at the death cap, the world’s most poisonous mushroom – not that the fungus looks scary, but the brief text describing its effects is certainly frightening (“the poison shuts down the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system, causing coma and – in more than 50 percent of cases – death”). Scary in their own ways are the photos of Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999, after the “most destructive tornado since 1900,” and of the open-mouthed “most dangerous shark,” the great white. But there is uplift in the book, too, and a lot of information that is just plain interesting: the most-visited U.S. museum is the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.; the top-earning actor and actress in 2009 were Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson; the woman with the most World Figure Skating championship wins was Sonja Henie, while the man with the most wins was Ulrich Salchow (for whom a competitive jump is named). Scholastic Book of World Records 2011 covers pop culture, sports, science, nature, money and various human-made artifacts. It is, as in other years, a once-over-lightly, designed not for reference but for quick “isn’t that interesting” looks at this and that. It does contain some real surprises, but readers have to search for them. For example, the actor with the highest average box-office gross is Stan Lee, whose films – based on Marvel Comics characters he helped create – had an average gross of $184.1 million, edging out the films of Orlando Bloom. Scholastic Book of World Records 2011 continues this series’ tradition of fine photographs, a strongly visual presentation and a hit-or-miss approach to events, people, animals, places and things that might (or might not) continue to seem important by the time the 2012 edition rolls around.

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