March 17, 2011


Secret Society. By Tom Dolby. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $8.99.

Secret Society 2: The Trust. By Tom Dolby. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Vesper. By Jeff Sampson. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Secret Zoo: Secrets and Shadows. By Bryan Chick. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Many novels for teens play into the notion of a grand, glorious, faintly diabolical world out there, where riches and power are just waiting for the initiates – who must be willing to undergo frightening trials in order to become the super-successes that they (and by extension their readers) deserve to be. This is the underlying premise of Tom Dolby’s Secret Society books, which focus on students at the exclusive (of course) Chadwick School. The first book in the series, originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, is about the initiation of Phoebe, Nick and Lauren into a mysterious age-old Society that demands their undying loyalty (and insists they all bear ankh-shaped tattoos on the nape of their necks, which would seem to undermine the “secret” notion). Indeed, “undying” loyalty may be only part of what the society insists upon, for in this book a body with that distinctive tattoo turns up in New York City’s Central Park – and the recent initiates need to figure out what is going on and whether they may be the next targets. Meanwhile, they can revel in the way everything they want has been coming to them since they joined – although there is a touch of uncertainty about the proceedings in the person of Patch, an aspiring filmmaker and fellow student, who has not been invited into the “in” group but is determined to document its activities. Uh-oh. Dolby labors mightily, and sometimes unintentionally amusingly, to try to make the book as “with it” as possible, as when he has a magazine write of Chadwick’s students that they are “a raucous crowd of vodka-swilling models, i-bankers, and underage scenesters.” The author also tries to pull mystery in at every opportunity – it is only near the end of the book that he introduces the “power of fourteen,” for example (some photos of the Society show 14 members, some 15). There turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a strong familial component to the Society, and a father-son confrontation, and a bonding-by-death component – well, none of this book is really surprising, but many teens will enjoy being taken along for the ride.

     And if they really enjoy it, they can continue riding with the second book in the series, The Trust, in which the four friends of the first book are trying to find a way out of the clutches of the Society – which has little trouble figuring out methods of keeping them in line. Personal relationships take a more central role in this book: Nick and Phoebe’s romantic one and Nick and Patch’s longtime friendship. The dialogue, a distinct weak point in the first book, is no better here: “I believe things happen for a reason. That certain things are, I don’t know, not necessarily predetermined, but if they’re meant to be, they’re meant to be.” There is a jewelry heist here, and a death that results in the distribution of trust funds to – among others – Patch. And of course the book’s title has a double meaning, referring not only to financial matters but also to the friends’ now-ever-present worry about whom they can trust, if anyone. Patch, a key in the first book, is one here, too, as it is revealed that he “was born in the caul, which, not to mince words, is the amniotic sac. It is very rare, unlike anyone else in our family. Traditionally, it has marked a child for greatness.” And it turns out, unsurprisingly, that even when the friends believe they have eventually escaped the Society’s clutches, they really haven’t. Another novel is sure to follow.

     A mysterious murder figures in Vesper, too. Here the entrapment, if that is what it is, is supernatural rather than merely mystical and wealth-based. The book’s protagonist, Emily Webb, thinks she may have been taken over by the spirit of a murdered classmate who was also named Emily. The reason: normally a shy, withdrawn geek, Emily is now doing very un-Emily-like things at night, sneaking out to midnight parties and discovering that her body and mind are both stronger and more fearless than they have ever been. But maybe these things are not un-other-Emily-like, since they started happening the same night the other Emily was found dead. This whole setup is an even thinner premise than usual for a supernatural-possession novel, but Jeff Sampson insists readers take it completely seriously, and he follows it through doggedly. The chapter titles here are clever and are part of the narrative flow: “Em Cee and Em Dub,” “The Emily and Megan Milkshake Spectacular,” “Communist Herrings, Huh?” And there are several “internal documents” from the mysterious “Vesper Company” (hence the book’s title) that reveal much of what is really going on. “Nighttime Emily’s antics were often way out of line,” regular daytime Emily confesses, “but whatever worry I had about that change was also tempered by a giant dose of excitement – of enjoyment at my new confidence, my new ability to kick butt and take names.” Ah, but there is indeed something supernatural taking place, and perhaps daytime Emily would be better off if she were merely being possessed by the other Emily – but she has little choice in the matter. Then it turns out that Emily likes what is happening to her – has happened to her – and the stage is neatly set for the inevitable sequel to this novel.

     There will be sequels to Secret and Shadows, too – the book is a sequel already, being the second in a series called The Secret Zoo, which was the title of the first novel – but because this is a book for preteens (the target age range is 9-12), it is more lighthearted than teen-oriented novels, and its followups will likely be as well. Bryan Chick’s four protagonists are Noah and his sister, Megan, and their best friends, Richie and Ella. All live in Clarksville City, where the zoo contains animals that, as the four friends discover, behave in some rather odd ways. Then Megan disappears, and when the other three go in search of her, they end up inside the zoo – which, they find out, is a magical place in which animals and humans live in harmony, help each other, and communicate clearly. All this occurs in the first book, in which the four also meet the mysterious Mr. Darby and learn about the Secret Society. But not that Secret Society – not at all the sort written about for teen readers. This one is a well-meaning group of humans and animals, working together to protect threatened species. It is all very upstanding and unexceptionable. There are evildoers about, though, and Secrets and Shadows has much to do with them. Here the four young people join the Secret Society and become Crossers, able to move between the two worlds of the real zoo and the Secret Zoo. They are then enlisted in the battle against the Shadowist, an evil character who preys on humans and animals alike, is determined to conquer the Secret Zoo, and is backed by nothing less than an army of sasquatches. “I know it’s complicated and strange,” Mr. Darby tells the four protagonists at one point, but “soon it will make more sense.” Well, it never does – not really – but the story is a pleasant adventure nevertheless, with some mild thrills and some human-animal bonding that nicely supports the underlying protective message. And there are scenes in school that neatly complement the ones involving Secret Zoo matters, such as one in which Noah confronts the school’s worst bully, Wide Walt, and bests him – because “he’s no bigger than a sasquatch.” Chick clearly had fun putting this series together, and some of that is communicated through the pages, where even the scenes of danger are often leavened with a touch of humor and the certainty – appropriate for books for this age group – that everything will turn out just fine. But not in this book, which ends in a setup for the next. The Secret Zoo series will certainly continue.

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