January 17, 2013


Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $16.99.

The Resisters 3: Titan Base. By Eric Nylund. Yearling. $6.99.

Horse Diaries #10: Darcy. By Whitney Sanderson. Illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Random House. $6.99.

      Some series of books for young readers give the impression that they can and will go on forever. Wendelin Van Draanen’s stories of youthful detective Sammy Keyes show no sign of flagging, and Sammy’s many fans will certainly lap up each new adventure as it becomes available – even if, in truth, some recent ones are less interesting than many of the earlier entries.  Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City is the 16th of these books, and despite its rather lurid title, is primarily about Sammy trying to answer some mysteries about her own life – and doing so in Las Vegas.  Sammy, you see, has family issues, like not knowing who her father is or why her mother has kept his identity secret all this time, and what her mother’s intentions are regarding Sammy’s boyfriend’s father (would she really marry him?). And Sammy has peer issues, too, many of them centering on Heather Acosta and Heather’s mother, Candi (“a liar and a thief and a sneak and a coward”), and grandmother issues as well; and eventually she realizes, “I was an emotional mess, and now I was a muddy mess, too.”  The climax here has Sammy not only finding out who her father is but also meeting him (after deciding she doesn’t want that guy to be her father, for reasons that seem sensible at the time).  There is a big confrontation with her “diva” mother, too, and eventually Sammy decides that “I’ve finally, finally gotten back to an edge of reality,” and everything is neatly buttoned up at the end – a Van Draanen specialty in these books, although she never buttons things too tightly to prevent the next volume from emerging.  Sammy’s grandma gets the sum-up line here: “What’s a little trouble with a heart as big as yours?” And that, in fact, is a pretty good summation of this entire series to date. Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City is not one of the series’ best books, but its unusually strong focus on Sammy herself and on her family situation makes it a nice change of pace from the more-usual mysteries in which she is helping other people handle their problems.

      There are no ongoing family issues in the continuing saga of The Resisters, which is about Ethan Blackwood and his squadron, fighters for Earth against the invasion of the evil alien Ch’zar. This is pure adventure material, science fiction on the surface but not particularly scientific underneath. It is mostly about how kids are better able to fight the aliens than adults, and in fact if Ethan and his friends do not prevent the bad guys from finding the Resisters’ secret base, the Ch’zar will not only discover it but also absorb all the adults into the Ch’zar collective mind. Yes, this is absurd and silly, but the point here is adventure, not a plot that bears too-close examination.  This is the third book in The Resisters saga, which is unlikely to go on as long as the Sammy Keyes works – it has been rather creaky from the start – but which is easy to read and fast-paced enough so it will attract young readers interested in the trappings of SF if not in the more-serious and more-complex issues that better books in the genre raise.  The main issue in Titan Base is simply survival and fighting back in the face of “Ch’zar mental domination.”  Ethan has an important realization here about Ch’zar mental powers: “The real question was how they’d been able to resist the strength of that pull at all. If he and [his sister] Emma had the sensitivity to hear it…that meant they were somehow interfering with the alien collective hive mind.”   But the knowledge does not seem helpful, and eventually, after a series of near-escapes and non-escapes, Ethan concludes that “the human race was doomed.” But of course it isn’t, and two similar but not-identical letters sent to Ethan and Emma by their parents (the one significant family connection here) hold an important clue that the brother and sister figure out by comparing the differences between their two notes. Anyway, the result of all this is yet another difficult-but-inevitable triumph of brave Earth kids, and the promise of more fights to come as the series continues.

      The ongoing Horse Diaries sequence, now at its 10th entry, is different from those featuring human protagonists in ongoing adventures. Each book in this equine fantasy series is about a different horse from a different time period, and each is narrated by the horse.  Darcy opens in 1917 in Ireland and is told by a gray Connemara pony with silver dapples. A speedy, tough workhorse, Darcy carts peat from a peat bog and explores the rugged Irish countryside with Shannon McKenna, oldest daughter in her human family. But as usual in these books, the everyday life of a horse is only part of the story.  The tale also involves the Irish Republican Army and a dangerous health condition that almost claims pregnant Mrs. McKenna’s life in an incident that ends happily – thanks to Darcy’s abilities. As usual, some attempts are made to create a setting appropriate to this particular horse’s time and place: “Any passerby who saw us emerge from the bog would probably think they’d seen the dreaded kelpie or dullahan of ancient lore.”  Also as usual, there is a concluding section – after the end of the story – with additional facts about Connemara ponies and the history in which they belong, including a brief look at the Irish Potato Famine and at famous real-world Connemaras. Like the other books in this ongoing sequence, Darcy is complete in itself and aimed entirely at young readers who are fascinated with and by horses of all sorts. There is enough genuine history here to give the book some educational value, but its main reason for being is adventure from an equine perspective – and a chance for young horse lovers to meet yet another type of horse with which they may not before have become acquainted.

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