March 27, 2014


Knightley & Son. By Rohan Gavin. Bloomsbury. $16.99.

Middle-School Cool. By Maiya Williams. Illustrated by Karl Edwards. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

     It doesn’t take too big a twist on the real world to produce books that are genuinely strange. Knightley & Son, the first novel by Rohan Gavin and the start of a planned series, need not go all that far beyond traditional detective procedurals featuring modern-day Sherlock Holmes types in order to have an attractive surrealistic sheen about it. Because the book is aimed at preteen and young teenage readers, a protagonist in that age range is a must, and Darkus (Doc) Knightley fills the role admirably. The reason he is needed, from the story’s point of view rather than that of the target audience, is that his father – a distinctly post-Holmesian character – has just come out of a mysterious four-year coma induced, perhaps, by his arcane studies into an utterly villainous conspiracy that is not run by Professor Moriarty but might as well be. It is the Combination, and it is responsible for just about all the unsolved crimes, big and small, that happen everywhere. Unless, of course, it does not exist and is only the product of the older Knightley’s disarranged mind – that being, not surprisingly, the viewpoint of the stolid and stodgy coppers who can only approach criminal enterprises in a straightforward, straight-line, matter-of-fact way that is wholly inappropriate when the genuinely nefarious game is afoot. This is not to say that father and son Knightley are entirely on their own. Montague Billoch, aka Uncle Bill, is on their side. Well, pretty much, although even he does not believe it when Alan (Knightley p√®re) waxes enthusiastic about his Combination theory. The thing is that Uncle Bill does not work for, in his own words to Doc, “any department ye or many other people will have heard of. …Specialist Operations branch forty-two. Only among the likes of yer father and myself, it’s known as the Department of the Unexplained. …It exists outside the regular world, just like the crimes it investigates. …Highly organized crime, parapsychology, the occult, the dark arts, and well nigh everything in between.” This is a wonderful recipe for a conspiracy-theory-focused story in which Doc’s outstanding mental agility and speaking ability far beyond that of any ordinary 13-year-old will be necessary to unravel a most puzzling set of clues while his father remains in yet “another narcoleptic stupor,” which conveniently removes him from the action so Doc can be the center of the reader’s attention. This is quite helpful when it turns out that what may be at the center of a series of distinctly odd occurrences is nothing but – a book. Not a “nothing but” sort of book, though, as Doc tells Uncle Bill, but one that “bears all the hallmarks of a grimoire. …Followers of the black arts call it a ‘necronomicon.” This makes no sense to Bill, who has quickly become Watson to Doc’s Holmes, but it soon proves a most fruitful line of inquiry, as Doc proves himself “a chip off the old block” (as Bill, who often speaks in clich√©, puts it) and moves smartly along on an investigation filled with enough twists and turns to delight readers both young and young at heart. The whole of Knightley & Son is far too absurd for adult lovers of traditional mysteries to enjoy, but its complexities – including the inevitable if un-Holmesian partnering of Doc with a female sleuth of his own age: his stepsister, Tilly – are piled so delightfully upon each other that readers who get into the spirit of the caper will not want it to end. And it doesn’t – because, as noted, this is the start of a series, one that has considerable potential to expand into ever-more-intriguing realms.

     The realm of Maiya Williams’ Middle-School Cool is, as the title indicates, middle school, but this is not just any middle school – it is Kaboom Academy, an “alternative” school whose degree of alternative-ness becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on. Indeed, it seems to be a school that exists in an alternative world, one that overlaps the everyday one but is not quite identical to it. The game that’s afoot here involves the nine students in Journalism 1A, the staff of The Daily Dynamite, which despite its title comes out only four times a year. The adults here are every bit as odd as the kids, if not odder. That is a clue! Take Dr. Kaboom himself. “‘I earned my doctorate in learnomology, specializing in thinkonomics and edumechanics,’” he tells parents. The narration continues: “Nobody in the room had ever heard of those disciplines before, but Dr. Kaboom’s voice was so deep and commanding it didn’t occur to them to question him. It was like receiving information from God, or if you didn’t believe in God, Darth Vader.” That is a hint! And readers will immediately know that there is something more than slightly askew about Dr. Kaboom, even before he continues lecturing while saying “leering” instead of “learning,” “meatheads” instead of “methods,” “rabid” instead of “rapid,” “irrelevance” instead of “intelligence,” and so forth. It soon becomes apparent that the Kaboom method of doing things – which is highly secret, of course – has some very unusual repercussions. There are, for example, the repercussions of playing dodgeball with balls that appear to be sentient, since “the height and intensity of the bounces seemed to increase with every impact, defying the laws of physics,” after which “the balls started to coordinate with each other, creating patterns like synchronized swimmers or a marching band” (Karl Edwards’ illustrations, which fit wonderfully into the story, are particularly enjoyable here). Middle-School Cool includes wordplay, as in a discussion of “the five Ws” answered in news stories – a scene that will remind those who know Abbott and Costello of the comedy duo’s famous “who’s on first?” routine. The book includes oddball personalities, such as Mr. Gruber, a “yo-yo magnet” at whose proximity the toys fly off their strings to attack him; former conjoined twins Aliya and Taliya, who find a highly amusing way to achieve a measure of independent thought and appearance; and a teacher named Mr. Mister whose first name turns out to be Mister, meaning he is Mr. Mister Mister – shades of Major Major Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22! There are more than 22 “catches” here, in fact, and readers will not be surprised when it turns out that Kaboom Academy and its students are an experiment of sorts – but what sort of experiment, and why, is a matter revealed only late in the book, as all good (or not-so-good) revelations should be. Middle-School Cool is not only a lot of fun but also, underneath the hijinks and hilarity, a book with a theme worth thinking about: just what could be done in a school that sets out from the start to approach education in a way entirely, or at least mostly, divorced from everyday reality? The possibilities, if not exactly endless, are endlessly intriguing, and very funny indeed.

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