May 07, 2015
(++++) FIRSTS AND THIRDS
Anyone but Ivy Pocket. By Caleb Krisp. Illustrations by Barbara Cantini. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Darkmouth, Book I: The Legends Begin. By Shane Hegarty. Illustrations by James de la Rue. Harper. $16.99.
Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret. By D.D. Everest. Harper. $16.99.
Books of Beginning, Book Three: The Black Reckoning. By John Stephens. Knopf. $17.99.
The Gollywhopper Games 3: Friend or Foe. By Jody Feldman. Illustrations by Victoria Jamieson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Every series has to start somewhere, and ones for preteens and young teenagers start, inevitably, with books that introduce central characters and send them on thrilling adventures of self-discovery (usually in quest form) – concluding in such a way that the first plot is brought to a satisfactory conclusion, but plenty of possibilities are left open for continuation(s). The best of these basically formulaic multi-book series, however, have a protagonist who is sufficiently enjoyable and/or odd to keep readers interested and make them eager to learn more. Ivy Pocket is just such a heroine, a quirky and unusual personality (thanks to Caleb Krisp’s offbeat writing) set in a fascinatingly strange world (exceptionally well-illustrated by Barbara Cantini in a style heavily influenced by Edward Gorey’s decidedly peculiar art). Anyone but Ivy Pocket stars a 12-year-old maid in vaguely Victorian times (the era when Gorey also set his drawings). Ivy is the typical orphan who will turn out to be more than she seems to be, on a typical “who am I?” search – but with some decidedly atypical supernatural overtones. She has no sense whatsoever of what a huge mess she makes of life – other people’s lives – through her over-enthusiastic and generally wrongheaded approaches to problems and her determinedly unsubtle and unapologetic tale-spinning and (admittedly overdone) forthrightness of expression. A typical flight of fancy: “Hadn’t I saved that blind man from a runaway carriage by pushing him to safety – and wasn’t I crushed under the wheels in the process, horrifically injured, yet when I woke up in hospital my first thought was not about myself, but rather, the blind man I had saved? And wasn’t I awarded a medal for bravery by Queen Victoria herself? Yes indeed! Well…no. Not exactly. Some of the particulars may be exaggerated. But I had certainly thought about doing such things. Which was practically the same thing.” Ivy is in fact given to gross exaggeration – and to calling pretty much everyone “dear,” including her aristocratic betters – and to giving advice where it is decidedly not wanted, as when she tells a tutor not to fear being a spinster: “You find yourself without prospects – heartbreakingly grim and monstrously unattached. This sort of thing is terribly common among book-loving, sour-faced governesses, so you are not alone. Do not give up hope! I feel certain there is a humpbacked footman or a toothless blacksmith just waiting to sweep you off your feet.” To an elderly and very upper-crust woman, she remarks, “I believe it is the headaches that are making you such a miserable old bat.” And so on – and on and on. Ivy is quite self-assured, telling readers, at various points, that she has all the instincts of a prima ballerina, a junior Sherlock Holmes, a highland hermit, a startled rabbit, a stockbroker, an assistant librarian, a sedated cow, and many more – Cantini’s gallery of Ivy’s “instincts” claims, at the front and back of the book, is wonderful and hilarious. Ivy is distinctly reality-challenged, but she is basically well-intentioned: “I sighed. I hated the truth, as a general rule. But I decided to give it a try.” Krisp’s story has her assigned by a dying aristocrat to deliver a necklace called the Clock Diamond to the pampered daughter of another aristocrat on the daughter’s 12th birthday – a by-no-means-simple task that soon involves multiple ghosts, strange women with complex agendas, and hints of a world coexisting (uneasily) with the everyday one. The book prances along delightfully, combining elements of The Perils of Pauline with ones drawn from Lemony Snicket, as Krisp pulls and tugs the plot this way and that without ever making things too complex or too scary for his target audience. This introduction to Ivy will certainly have many readers eagerly anticipating her next appearance – in Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket.
The protagonist of Shane Hegarty’s debut novel, Darkmouth, Book I: The Legends Begin, is far more straightforward: a boy with destiny and a mission, being trained by his expert father in the family business and traditions despite being not very adept at what he is supposed to be doing. What Finn is supposed to do is desiccate the monsters – called “Legends” – that seep into this world from the one next door and are visualized in suitably scary manner by James de la Rue. The gateways between Finn’s world and that of the Legends are mostly closed nowadays, so Legend-hunting isn’t what it used to be, and that is unfortunate not only for Finn’s family but also for the publishing company that produces a book chronicling the family’s derring-do: “No new edition, no profits. They’re badly in need of an update,” Finn’s father comments. The passage continues: “Finn was well aware of this already, thanks to the publisher’s repeated letters. ‘Looking forward to your Completion,’ Plurimus, Magesterius, Fortimus & Murphy wrote. ‘How’s the training going?’” But can Finn ever manage his Completion, which will make him a full-fledged Legend Hunter, when he has so little aptitude for the more-violent elements of the job (of which there are many) and a sneaking suspicion that talking to the Legends might be a worthwhile approach, even though that has been tried before and had such dire consequences that “no one likes to talk about it,” as Finn is repeatedly told? Hegarty’s book is more conventional than Krisp’s, including, for example, Emmie, the de rigueur girl who wants to be a Legend Hunter and whose involvement complicates matters for Finn while also giving females someone with whom to identify in the story. But the novel has elements that make it more interesting than average, notably the excerpts from A Concise Guide to the Legend Hunter World that are sprinkled about: “There are many theories as to why the gateways between the Infested Side and this world have become so rare. …Suggested reasons for this include industrial pollution, global warming, the proliferation of mobile-phone radiation, volcanic eruptions in Iceland, and methane released by the, as it were, ‘emissions’ of cows.” The plot thickens rapidly and soon involves a substance called Coronium that allows Legends to make holes between their world and Finn’s, plus a doomsday weapon that could dispose of the Legends once and for all unless it first destroys the town of Darkmouth and all the Legend Hunters in it. The basic plot here is very conventional – Finn actually yells at his father, “You keep telling me what I’m going to be. You’ve never asked me what I want to be.” But for all that is ordinary about this launch of the Darkmouth series (there is even, yes, a dark and threatening prophecy), there is enough unusual and well-conceived about it to raise expectations for upcoming books. Hopefully Hegarty will become more comfortable with writing stories that twist expectations instead of following them, and hopefully de la Rue’s illustrations will continue at the same high level they attain here. If both those things occur, the tales of Darkmouth will be very much worth reading.
Enjoyment is harder to come by in Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret, the (+++) start of a series with a fascinating basic premise but rather mundane execution and far too much reliance on being a sort of Harry-Potter-ish imitation. D.D. Everest is the pen name of Des Dearlove, who has written a number of nonfiction books for adults but has not written for young readers before. His handling of fiction for younger readers is on the clumsy side: his protagonist, Archie, has trouble figuring out all sorts of easy things that readers will grasp right away, while he manages to solve difficult problems quite easily for no apparent reason other than the need to keep the plot moving. And does it move! There is enough material in Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret for several books, which results in an action-packed story that lurches in a helter-skelter way and requires frequent monologues from good and bad characters alike in order to keep things more or less straight. The plot is really quite formulaic: Archie learns from his grandmother that he is part of a magical family, meets some unusual cousins, becomes an apprentice in a magical library, and soon discovers that there are dark doings afoot and that he is at the center of events more parlous than he ever expected. Ho hum. Archie makes a number of poor decisions early in the book, setting up later events with which he must cope, but he never really develops as a character: he is suitably brave and suitably worried about all the responsibility thrust upon him, but the ease with which he adapts to a number of mind-boggling circumstances feels forced – like the monologues, Archie’s actions show the authorial hand too strongly, resulting in a book in which it feels as if the author has created a chessboard and is constantly moving the pieces on it, but the pieces themselves have no particular reason for going where they go. A few subsidiary characters, such as the cousins and Old Zeb, are enjoyable, and the basic plot – which has to do with the power of books themselves – is a highly attractive one that could well be explored in more depth, and hopefully will be in future series entries. This first one, though, seems mainly concerned with having as much happen as quickly as possible, with problems that are irritating but not terrifying being solved rather too easily. A surface-level book that is easy and quick to read but lacking in any real substance, Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret may actually be best for children younger than the 8-12 age group at which it is nominally directed.
Books are also at the heart of John Stephens’ Books of Beginning trilogy, which concludes with The Black Reckoning. The tale-telling in this trilogy is reminiscent of, yes, Harry Potter, but not entirely or slavishly so. In fact, elements of this sequence will remind some readers of the Narnia books and, for that matter, of J.R.R. Tolkien. But Stephens, a TV writer and producer, knows how to pace a story in his own way, and also how to create the right mixture of protagonists (Kate, age 14 at the series’ start; Michael, age 12; and Emma, age 11), put them in a suitably isolated setting (10 years in orphanages), and make them appropriately important (they are, of course, potential victims of a horrible evil of which they are unaware – but which, through the books of the series’ title, they will learn about and will be able to withstand). There is a particularly well-done balance in the first two books of the humorous (sometimes actually silly) and the intense (the formulaic quest-to-find-one’s-true-role-in-fulfilling-a-prophecy). That balance shifts to the serious side in The Black Reckoning, a conclusion that is somewhat unusual in that it wraps matters up reasonably well but is not as strong a book as the two earlier ones. Very little here is unexpected: there was plenty of foreshadowing in the first two books, so the events in this concluding volume do not pack the emotional punch that they otherwise could. And the character of Emma, the main protagonist here, is too flawed to produce in readers a sense of triumph or even strong involvement: she remains immature, self-absorbed and self-congratulatory, never learning things about herself in the way that Kate and Michael did in the first two series entries, The Emerald Atlas and The Fire Chronicle. In this finale, Emma is kidnapped by the Dire Magnus, whom she must beat to the discovery of the Book of Death; for their part, Kate and Michael are on a quest to save Emma and find their missing parents. These are well-worn tropes of magical fantasy, and they are handled in a more-ordinary way here than in the first two Books of Beginning volumes. Also, oddly, the actual conclusion of the book seems rather rushed, as if Stephens has done everything he intended to do (including killing off several characters whose deaths make sense and at least one whose death really does not) and just wants to wrap things up. The centrality of the unsympathetic Emma, whose conceit and arrogance quickly wear thin but never change, and the rather arbitrary nature of its somewhat forced conclusion make The Black Reckoning a (+++) finale to a series whose first two books were deserving of (++++) ratings. Odd.
The third entry in The Gollywhopper Games series is odd, too. It does not wrap things up – this is an open-ended set of books – and does not really advance the story of the games very much. Instead, it looks for real-world relevance to complement the fantasy of complex (but not too complex) puzzles and questions that young participants need to solve while they learn things about themselves and their abilities beyond what they thought they knew. The very first book in this series was Jody Feldman’s debut novel, and it had all the enthusiasm and some of the roughness that is to be expected in a first-ever book that intends to create an offbeat fantasy world. The second book, The New Champion, relied on sibling rivalry to carry the plot while introducing a new set of puzzles structured in a way that encouraged readers to solve them along with the Games competitors. The Gollywhopper Games seemed poised to become a trilogy, but Friend or Foe is more a companion volume to the first two than any sort of conclusion – that is one oddity. The other is Feldman’s insistence on making a real-world cause-of-the-moment – concussions in youth sports – central to the book. This is certainly a well-meaning thing to do and certainly shows Feldman’s sensitivity to matters beyond those of mental games and puzzles, but it is a jarring combination with the learning-focused and essentially lighthearted concept of this series. The Games themselves, especially the Mall Challenge Round, are still fun, but too many plot holes remain just as open at the end of Friend or Foe as they are at the start. For example, there is an ongoing theme involving some behind-the-scenes politics of sabotage, which at first seems to be wrapped up with the capture of the presumed saboteur – but then turns out not to be concluded at all, since the supposed guilty party may not actually be guilty (that whole element of the story proves to be something of an anticlimax). Friend or Foe is a (+++) book: fans of The Gollywhopper Games will likely still enjoy this entry, but it comes across as marking time rather than moving the overall story ahead – and the book really does not benefit from its foray into a real-world issue, however strongly Feldman may believe that issue to be an important one.