December 30, 2010


The Hole in the Wall. By Lisa Rowe Fraustino. Milkweed Editions. $16.95.

The Rivalry: Mystery at the Army-Navy Game. By John Feinstein. Knopf. $16.99.

Kickers, Book 3: Benched. By Rich Wallace. Illustrated by Jimmy Holder. Knopf. $12.99.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes. By Lenore Look. Pictures by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

     Opening with the famous “butterfly effect” as propounded by chaos-theory founder Edward Lorenz – that is the idea that something as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can have large and distant consequences – Lisa Rowe Fraustino’s The Hole in the Wall proceeds through bits of the supernatural, touches of The Secret Garden and elements of environmental awareness to become a novel with a standard bad guy (rich man buying up lots of town land) and standard moral (despoiling the environment is bad), but above-standard pacing and writing. Sebastian “Sebby” Daniels, the book’s 11-year-old protagonist, finds a refuge – the “hole in the wall” of the book’s title – from his constantly bickering family and unpleasantly run-down mining-town surroundings. But then he starts seeing weird colors (H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space may come to the minds of adult readers familiar with that genuinely spooky tale). And, more mundanely, he gets sick from raw cookie dough, and the family’s chickens disappear, and something is clearly not right. Sebby and his twin sister, Barbie, who appear to care more about these events than anyone else in town does – and to be better investigators than anyone else, too – follow a series of leads that all end up with astrophysicist and mining boss Stanley “Boots” Odum, who turns out to be a typical nefarious businessman (“‘You think everyone has a price, don’t you?’” says Ma to him at one point – the dialogue here is not exactly original). The mystery deepens, as does the secret-keeping, with even a doctor getting into the clich├ęd dialogue: “‘I’m sorry, Sebby, but I’m not at liberty to discuss the situation with you at this time.’” Everything eventually gets discovered and appropriately sorted out, and even Sebby’s family manages to pull together, so the book ends in a satisfying way – and is, in parts, quite exciting to read. But its formulaic foundations, like the butterfly’s wings, have large consequences for its originality of plotting and dialogue.

     Sports-focused novels tend to be formulaic both by definition and by design. There will be winners, losers and issues of team support, self-respect and all that. This applies whether the books are intended for ages 10 and up, as is The Rivalry, or for ages 7-10, as is the Kickers series. The Rivalry, a piece of fiction by John Feinstein – who wrote a well-received nonfiction book about the Army-Navy football game in 1997 – plunges young detectives Stevie and Susan Carol into a pregame adventure centered on the fact that the President will be attending the game. The writing is designed entirely for existing football fans, who will deem the jargon realistic and involving: “‘On a two-step drop you saw a hold?’” Similarly, readers are expected to understand about “Coach K” at Duke University: “‘Anything happens to him and they probably shut Duke down tomorrow.’” There are, of course, locker-room scenes and strategy sessions and bravery and intense rivalries leading up to the main event, not just during it. There are bits of social consciousness, too: “‘I will tell you this, though: you can’t be an African-American in this country and not encounter racism.’” Bill Gates makes a brief appearance, and President Obama a longer one, and there is crooked stuff going on that Stevie and Susan help uncover, and eventually, of course, the game is tied, and Stevie says, “‘I don’t want it to ever end.’” He means the game – but the book really has gone on long enough, even for dyed-in-the-wool fans.

     Kickers takes place at a more modest level. The series is about the fourth-grade Bobcats, a co-ed soccer squad trying to make the league playoffs, with nine-year-old Ben being a big reason for the team’s success. In the third book, though, Ben is benched for dangerous moves, barred from the rest of that game and from the next one – which will be against the Rabbits, the league’s best team. Ben, whose temper tends to flare at the wrong times, realizes that “he could blame Mark for today’s trouble. He could blame Loop for the fight they’d had at recess last week. And he could blame his parents for the way he’d been feeling, since he was upset about the arguments they’d had. But he knew who was mostly to blame. He was. And that didn’t make him feel any better.” So Ben has to figure out how to help his team even while benched – and then, when he is able to play again, has to harness his anger at trash-talking based on his red card, turning the negative energy positive so his team can win and move on to the playoffs. The story is quite conventional, and Rich Wallace tells it in straightforward prose; young soccer players will likely enjoy the action scenes more than the obvious messages about being a tough but fair player and not letting anger get the best of you.

     What gets the best of Alvin Ho is – well, just about everything. Lenore Look’s series about him, intended for the same age range as Kickers, is filled with action that is decidedly outside the sports sphere. With LeUyen Pham’s illustrations helping move the plot smartly along, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes provides more of the same sorts of trials and tribulations encountered in its two predecessors, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters. Alvin is what used to be called a fraidy-cat – he is frightened of pretty much everything, to the point that he actually cannot speak in school – but his adventures are amusing and endearing enough so he does not come across as pitiable. Alvin, who narrates the books, lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and in the latest volume goes on a field trip to the Old Hill Burying Ground – where there are costumed guides. whom Alvin regards as the actual historical personages they are pretending to be. Alvin, of course, takes along his PDK (Personal Disaster Kit), and makes it through the field trip – only to encounter another challenge when he gets home and finds an invitation to a girl’s birthday party, when what he really wants is to go Hobson’s very boy-oriented one. Alvin has to negotiate social occasions, a particularly stinky science experiment, and the appearance of one of the “ghosts” from the field trip in the guise of a modern teenager. He looks as if he manages quite well – the illustrations really do help the story quite a bit – and by the time you throw in some sort-of-Shakespearean insults (part of what goes on in Alvin’s family) and some references to being Asian-American (which crop up in all the Alvin books, since that is Alvin’s ethnicity), you have an amusingly far-fetched story that Look and Pham pull together nicely, although the stinkiness and “gas propulsion” that conclude everything are really rather overdone and overemphasized. Fans of Alvin will likely find the ending funnier than parents will, but this is one series that is really not written or illustrated for adults – not at all.

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