March 19, 2015
(+++) PAST TIMES
Seven Wonders No. 4: The Curse of the King. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
Seven Wonders Journals: The Key. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $2.99.
Finding the Worm. By Mark Goldblatt. Random House. $16.99.
Mining the past, distant or more recent, is a common way for authors of novels for preteens (ages 8-12) to try to give their books some depth, or at least resonance. The Seven Wonders series takes place entirely in modern times, but its whole premise involves the long-ago days of the Seven Wonders of the World – of which the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus have been the focus of the first three entries. The Curse of the King focuses on the statue of Zeus at Olympia, but although the setting is new, the basic plot here is identical to that of the earlier novels. Friends Jack, Cass and Aly are searching for “seven magic Atlantean orbs hidden in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – six of which don’t exist anymore.” They are also trying to figure out why the fourth member of their group, Marco, has switched sides, working now with the evil Massa organization that seeks the same orbs (called Loculi) for its own nefarious purposes. Oh – and the searchers are going to die soon. At least that is the underlying concept here: they all have mutant genes that give them superpowers but will kill them by age 14, and their only hope for a cure is to gather the Loculi and discover the objects’ secrets, saving the world into the bargain. But, just to make matters more hopeless, one of the Loculi was destroyed in the third book, so even if the friends find all the rest, they are going to die anyway. No! Just kidding! The whole point of Peter Lerangis’ fast-paced writing is to create a series of impossibilities and then have everything work out just fine anyway. Readers of this series will certainly know that Jack (the most central of the central characters) and his friends will find a way around the destruction of one of the Loculi, somehow, and their innate goodness will keep them searching for the remaining magical objects even though one is, it seems, gone forever. The Curse of the King is even sillier than the first three books, in large part because Lerangis decides to have the statue of Zeus come alive and go on a rampage early in the narrative – while talking entirely in phrases drawn from TV shows and ads. Thus, we have the most powerful of the old Greek gods, the conqueror of the Titans, the wielder of thunderbolts, saying, in capital letters: “TO THE MOOOON, ALIIICE!” “COWABUNGAAAA!” “I THINK THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP.” “I’LL GET YOU, YOU SKWEWY WABBIT!” This is so over-the-top as to be embarrassing, but perhaps not to the intended audience of Seven Wonders, which may know little, if anything, about The Honeymooners, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the film Casablanca, or the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Still, it seems that the newly animated (or reanimated) statue of Zeus would collapse from humiliation under the weight of this sort of dialogue. Anyway, the friends get the Loculus of Strength from the statue, but soon find themselves in the hands of the Massa, whose dialogue is about at the level of that given to Zeus: “Massa strong. …No more froufrou Harvard-bricky college-la-la-la heads in clouds.” The chapter titles maintain the uneasy balance, or imbalance, between seriousness and humor: “Good Enough for the Cockroaches,” “His Jackness,” “The Meathead Starts Over,” and so forth. The most important part of The Curse of the King is the unsurprising return of Marco to the group of Loculi seekers. But a simple reassembly of the group would be too simple, and this is only the fourth book of the series, so one of the other members is sundered from the searchers here – setting the stage for the next journey to a past so ancient that it might never have existed. Oh, wait – it never did.
As an accompaniment to the main Seven Wonders sequence, Lerangis is producing occasional novellas that expand on the primary adventure. The Key is one of these. It is the story of Aliyah and Osman, twin brothers, treasure hunters and thieves, who eventually find a key that may lead them to the greatest treasure of all – or to doom. The story has echoes of Aladdin’s and is told in the form of journal entries. It also has enormous absurdity, which puts it right in line with the main sequence. The negotiation between the boys and a soul-stealing supernatural being is ridiculous in the extreme, with the result that the death that results not long afterwards has none of the power or portentousness that readers might expect and that it needs to have for the vow at the end of the book to have any importance at all. The Key is weaker and less focused than the main sequence of Seven Wonders, within which it fits, at best, unevenly. Still, it is a modest, self-contained adventure that readers who enjoy the notion of contemporary young people enmeshed in ancient mysteries will find easy and quick to read and at least mildly entertaining.
The history underlying Finding the Worm, Mark Goldblatt’s sequel/companion to Twerp, is far more recent: the books are based on Goldblatt’s own years growing up in the New York City borough of Queens in the 1960s. Finding the Worm can be read on its own, but readers familiar with the relationships and events in the earlier novel will get a lot more from this one. The central character is again Julian Twerski, who is clearly Goldblatt’s alter ego. The book gives him the usual combination of school-related and personal problems on which so many novels for ages 8-12 are based. At school, he is accused of vandalizing a painting and told he has to stay with the guidance counselor until he writes a confession – which would be the easy thing to do, except that Julian didn’t do it and, of course, is too morally and ethically upright to create a false confession just to make his life easier. (However, as is made clear when the principal calls him in to discuss the vandalism, he is not all good, because he “egged” a handicapped boy named Danley Dimmel – in the previous book.) So the first issue here is: who did commit the vandalism and why, and how and why did Julian get blamed? On the personal level, Julian faces two dilemmas of different levels of importance. One involves Beverly Segal, a girl he likes, who is a very fast runner and has challenged him to a race. The other has to do with his friend Quentin, who has cancer and is hospitalized – at the very start of the book, it is clear that this is a major theme, since on page 2, Julian is already worrying, “I thought Quentin was dead.” The Quentin story – which, among other things, involves Julian trying to use the New York Yankees to help his friend recover – runs through the entire book and plays into Julian’s concerns about “becoming a man” through his bar mitzvah, an event that he fears Quentin will be unable to attend. Julian’s Jewish background is important to Finding the Worm, and dovetails neatly with the usual themes of novels for this age group, one of which (generally the most important one) is “finding out who you really are.” Again and again, Goldblatt shows that Julian is basically a good kid, albeit one with all the uncertainties and worries to be expected in a preteen. Quentin’s illness, Julian explains, “makes you feel guilty, almost, on account of he’s sick and you’re not. It’s like – I don’t even know how to explain it. It just hits you. Like you’re running down the block, running to get home for dinner, and the wind is whistling in your ears, and you’re taking deep breaths, and the air just comes and goes like it’s nothing, and then, out of nowhere, you remember Quentin is stuck in that hospital bed, with those tubes going in and out of him, and it just doesn’t seem fair.” One of Julian’s friends tells him at one point, “You think too much. …You need to turn it off.” But of course Julian cannot turn off either his thinking or his feelings, and by the time he learns who really did deface the school painting, it is no longer important – many other things are far more significant. The constant filtering of Julian’s thoughts and interactions through his Jewish heritage may make the novel’s audience somewhat limited, although certainly his struggles with good and evil, life and death, transcend any religion and, indeed, religion in general. This is not a feel-good book but a seek-to-understand one: young readers looking for something less facile and less neatly buttoned-up than preteen novels usually are will find it here.