April 04, 2013


Strike Three, You’re Dead. By Josh Berk. Knopf. $16.99.

The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop. By Kate Saunders. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Last Academy. By Anne Applegate. Point/Scholastic. $17.99.

     A kind of Ballpark Mysteries for older readers, Strike Three, You’re Dead is the first book featuring preteen detectives Lenny Norbeck, Mike and Other Mike, names that are presumably supposed to be funny as well as reflective of the focus on Lenny, who wants to be a baseball announcer (talking to or into microphones, that is, mikes, get it?). The Ballpark Mysteries books are short, improbably plotted paperbacks for ages 6-10, more or less, while Josh Berk’s novel is for ages 8-12 and is longer and a hardcover, although no less improbable in its plot. Baseball-loving Lenny knows he will never be a good player, but he has talent as an announcer; so much talent, in fact, that when he enters a contest, he wins – and gets the right to be the live broadcaster for one inning at a Phillies game. And that explains why Lenny is around, waiting for his big chance, when a young pitcher dies – dropping dead of a heart attack, right on the mound. But of course it couldn’t really be a natural heart attack or there would be no mystery and no book, so Lenny decides there must be foul play amid the foul balls, and he and the Mikes set out to investigate. And they, being smarter than all the officials and other adults put together, soon discover that there is indeed something unsavory going on. They are not quite sure why or to whose benefit – they make a bunch of mistakes in their investigation – but they keep getting closer and closer to the truth, with Lenny narrating in baseball-announcer language: “Solving a mystery was just like understanding a baseball play. Follow the ball. Third base to second base to first base. One, two, three. It was as clear to me as a line drive to the forehead.” The young detectives do need some professional help to figure things out and wrap them up, but the basic detection is all theirs, and thanks to their success, they are guaranteed a sequel. At least one. Yay, team!

     Intended for slightly older readers, ages 10 and up, Kate Saunders’ The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop is even less believable than Berk’s novel and is clearly intended to be taken considerably less seriously. It features twins named Oz (yes, Oz) and Lily Spoffard, whose great-great-uncles were famous chocolatiers at a shop, now boarded up, that was located on the ground floor of an old London house that the Spoffard family has just inherited. The twins soon discover that their great-great-uncles weren’t quite as, ahem, sweet as everyone thought, and that at least one of their secret formulas could, ahem, destroy the world if it fell into the wrong hands. And those “wrong hands” are in fact poking around already, searching for the deadly recipe. The deadly magical recipe, which must be defended not only by Oz and Lily but also by such allies as an invisible cat, talking rat and elephant’s ghost. Clearly Saunders is looking for a romp here, but like the book’s title, the plot of The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop is just a little “off” somehow, as if the author and/or characters are trying a bit too hard to have fun.  Still, there is fun to be had here, provided that readers enjoy this dialogue: “Edwin had a wonderful time; you two have made an old dead elephant very happy.” And this: “Thank goodness you’re a fool and you don’t know when you’re being double-crossed!” And this: “Whoops, you weren’t meant to see that. …It’s the switchboard, where we send and receive messages of a magical nature, and intercept magical signals.” It seems there are government magical agents opposing the nongovernmental bad guy agents, and there are things like anti-ghost paint and a Time-Glass and a spell that only Lily can read and the twins’ mom’s pregnancy and….well, there is so much packed into The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop that readers may have a hard time keeping up with everything. The book falls a touch short of being delicious, but it is certainly tasty.

     The darkness threatening the characters in The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop is never really very frightening, but in a book written for teenagers rather than preteens – a book such as The Last Academy – the darkness seems much more real and a great deal more scary. The cover of this book proffers an interesting question that fits Anne Applegate’s novel quite well: “What is this prep school preparing them for?” Obviously something dark is afoot here – how could it not be, when the school’s name is Lethe Academy? But what are the students supposed to forget (Lethe’s waters caused those in Hades to forget their past)? And what are they supposed to remember, or learn, to replace whatever is forgotten? This boarding school is cut from the same doom-laden cloth as many others in supernatural books for teens, and 14-year-old Camden Fisher is very much the same as protagonists of very many other novels of this genre. This is Applegate’s first novel, so it is scarcely surprising that it is derivative in much of its plot and many of its characters, but the events are so familiar that readers who know this genre may have trouble differentiating the book from others. Inevitably, someone disappears mysteriously, but the various characters are less concerned than they should be; inevitably, Cam finds herself remembering things that she can’t possibly be remembering, their troubling implications not quite graspable; inevitably, Cam develops a crush that may or may not be good for her. Some elements of the book are nicely done in juxtaposing the mundane world with that of Lethe Academy. For instance, while waiting for keys to be copied, Cam “went across the street to McDonald’s. A bored, middle-aged manager stared somewhere past my head as I ordered a Happy Meal. …Half an hour later, I picked up my new keys, along with the old ones. Together they felt too heavy for what they were. Like there was magic inside them. Like they were the keys of good and evil.” Okay, this is overwrought, but the contrast is nicely presented. So are some comments that Cam makes while trying to find out what is going on: “My failure at Breaking & Entering 101 was kind of epic.” The mystery of what is really happening might be greater if an important character were not named Charon, but there it is, and today’s teens may not recognize Lethe and Charon anyway, or may not make the connection between them and Cam’s story. For them, the book’s major twist will come as a well-choreographed shock, which is what Applegate clearly intends it to be. For those who do pick up on the hints, The Last Academy will seem more formulaic, although it still has some satisfying twists and turns.

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