May 08, 2014


Incinerator. By Niall Leonard. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

Deception’s Princess. By Esther Friesner. Random House. $17.99.

Cool Beans: The Further Adventures of Beanboy. By Lisa Harkrader. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

     Knowing where you belong and staying there is not a formula for a novel for young readers – the formula is more about not knowing where you belong and finding out. But the know-it-and-stick-with-it approach is a formula for authors of novels for young readers: staying firmly within a particular genre makes it possible not only to create a well-targeted novel but also to spin out sequels and even entire series. Thus, Incinerator, a hard-boiled and intense mystery-adventure for ages 14 and up, is a sequel to Crusher, which introduced young boxer and dogged investigator Finn Maguire. Incinerator contains multiple references to the earlier book but is reasonably easy to read on its own. Here, having solved the mystery of the bludgeoning death of his father in the earlier book, Finn encounters even more violence, sexuality, betrayal and brutality, the pace and intensity of Incinerator making up for the lack of a direct family connection in the story. Finn, who is 17, is now running a boxing gym with his former coach and old friend, Delroy, but things go quickly awry when Finn’s lawyer, Nicky, disappears with all Finn’s money. That puts Finn in debt to loan sharks with truly vicious enforcers – and forces Finn to try to find Nicky and get his money back so he can repay his debts. Multiple mysteries soon emerge as Finn investigates Nicky’s other clients and turns up the typical-for-this-genre web of lies, betrayals and, of course, violence. In fact, there is so much violence in the book that even some 14-and-up readers may find it a bit much – as when Finn discovers one bad guy, a victim of other bad guys, disemboweled. Finn’s revenge on those who have hurt him and his friends – yes, some of his friends get hurt or killed, as again is typical of this genre – is extreme, to the point of his killing someone without even quite realizing that he has done so (although the dead man most certainly deserves it, and Finn later wishes he could bring him back to life and kill him again). Niall Leonard is primarily a screenwriter – Crusher was his first novel in what is called the “young adult” space – and his abilities certainly show in the breakneck pace of Incinerator and the edge-of-cliff (here, edge-of-building-roof) scenes with which he moves the plot along. That plot is complex but not too complex, keeping readers guessing but not mystifying them too deeply: there is little subtlety to anything in Incinerator, just as there is little to Finn – although since this is a British thriller rather than an American one, U.S. readers may pull up short when encountering some of the slang (“lags,” “nobble,” “postie,” “HGV,” “optics,” “blag” and so on). This slam-bang adventure is very much in the Mickey Spillane tradition (“I didn’t need the same standard of proof as the cops”) rather than that of, say Dashiell Hammett; and, in fact, young readers who find Finn congenial, if scarcely appetizing, may want to move on to the Mike Hammer books after finishing this one.

     Deception’s Princess is for slightly younger readers, ages 12 and up, and is in the fantasy-adventure genre rather than the mystery-thriller one. It is actually the seventh book in a series that probably can continue indefinitely, since each book stands on its own and their only “series” connection lies in the way Esther Friesner creates them. The sequence is called The Princesses of Myth, and each focuses on an inevitably strong-willed young woman for whom there is some historical evidence but whose specific personality and adventures are largely unknown and are therefore fertile ground in which Friesner can grow her novels. Reading these books will make teens, particularly teenage girls, think that there were no obedient, placid, satisfied-with-life princesses at all in antiquity: every single one was determined to become more than she was born to be, and every single one possessed elements of heroism and dynamism. That makes The Princesses of Myth into a sort of anti-Disney series (although even Disney’s cartoon heroines long since developed some backbone and self-awareness). Deception’s Princess actually features a character, Maeve, who bears some resemblance to a recent Disney heroine, Merida from the movie Brave, although it is unlikely that Friesner had that in mind. Maeve is drawn by Friesner from bits and pieces of Irish myth and history in the century or so after the time of Christ. Very little is known of Ireland in that time and even less of Maeve, or whatever person or persons the legends about her were based upon. So Friesner mixes a bit of Maeve’s personality as reported in the 12th-century work in which she is mentioned with a touch of what is known about life in ancient Ireland, then presents a story in modern English dialogue that is sprinkled with Irish terms and names – whose pronunciation is explained at the back of the book. Friesner portrays Maeve as the youngest of six daughters, a girl both beautiful and rich, and one who is desirable for those qualities as well as for the kingdom she will bring to her husband, since her father is High King and has no male heir. But 16-year-old Maeve is unsatisfied with her role in life and determined to escape it and prove herself to be – well, whatever she wants to be or become, a highly modern notion that Friesner has no problem slipping in, because the anachronism itself is what will interest the target readers of this genre. Maeve’s approach to getting what she wants is a combination of court political skill with old-fashioned misbehavior, giving herself a reputation that she does not deserve but that keeps her free of marital entanglements. As the book progresses, she loses her desirability as marriage material, faces a typical-for-the-genre conflict between family and the call of her own heart, and eventually attains the freedom to be herself, with the question of what that means never answered or even really asked: being free is enough – and what a modern notion that is. Deception’s Princess has the pluses and minuses of Friesner’s other books in this series, with pacing and dialogue that will appeal to teens of today who value freedom from the bonds of family and tradition above all.

     The intended audience is still younger in Cool Beans: The Further Adventures of Beanboy, which is aimed at preteens and is the sequel to Lisa Harkrader’s The Adventures of Beanboy. Like the earlier book, this followup has illustrations that are important to its story, although not absolutely integral to it; and here as before, the book is never quite sure whether it wants to be an illustrated tale or a graphic novel. The cast of characters returns here, including comic-book fan and would-be comic-book creator Tucker MacBean; his divorced parents; his special-needs brother, Beecher; his close friend and onetime middle-school bully, a girl named Sam; and, for a change, a different middle-school bully, Wesley Banks. The plot here, as in the earlier book, is fairly complex, involving Art Club and dodgeball and the loss of a bulletin board and a helmet and a bunch of friends who are defined by what they do rather than by who they are: “I’ve always believed that every person is born with some kind of talent. Like I was born a comic book artist. And Noah was born with all those giant brain cells. And even somebody like the Kaleys, they were born knowing how to boss people around. …But whatever talent Dillon Zawicki was born with, he did a good job of keeping it a secret.” But of course Dillon does have talent, and in fact so does everybody in an essentially good-humored, feel-good book this this one, which fits neatly into the “camaraderie and team spirit” genre for middle-school readers. The chapters are sprinkled with scenes from “Tucker MacBean’s Top Secret Undercover Beanboy Comic Book,” and the plot progresses entirely predictably until it reaches its climax with an inevitable one-on-one confrontation between Tucker and Wesley in which heart (and art) triumph over brawn (and bullying). Because this is a feel-good book, the eventual outcome is never in doubt; the interest is in how things will get to that point and what sorts of friendships will be made, or cemented, along the way. By the end of Cool Beans, everything is just swell for everybody, or almost everybody, and the only real question is whether Harkrader intends to continue to yet another sequel in the same genre, with the same cast of characters.

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