January 07, 2016
(+++) FINDING YOUR PLACE
Going Where It’s Dark. By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Bogle Trilogy #3: The Last Bogler. By Catherine Jinks. Illustrated by Sarah Watts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
There are some really fine writers of novels for preteens and young teenagers, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Catherine Jinks are among them. Both have a strong enough sense of style and pacing to get away with plots that are foundationally little different from those of many, many other books for this age group – plots with the all-too-typical focus of “who am I really?” and “where do I belong?” If Naylor’s and Jinks’ latest books explore no new territory, they at least endeavor to handle their familiar plots with greater skill than many other authors bring to similar material. Naylor’s book, Going Where It’s Dark, has one of those titles that quite obviously refer both to something in the exterior world and to something internal. The outside-world element here is caves: protagonist Buck Anderson loves exploring them, using them as an escape from his all-too-typical coming-of-age woes, which in his case include a stutter that causes him to be bullied at school. The internal-world element is Buck’s inner life, which is upended by a series of issues that are quite typical for books of this type, including over-anxious parents; a twin sister Katie, who is not available as a confidante because she is spending all her time with her boyfriend; the absence of Buck’s best friend, David, who has recently moved away; and so forth. The offbeat little touches that Naylor brings to the book are among the elements that set it apart, among them an encounter with a faith healer and a series of “Pukeman” comics that Buck fondly remembers drawing with David and decides to continue creating on his own. Buck’s stuttering is the thread that ties the book together, as he seeks help through standard channels and then through the decidedly nonstandard one of a grumpy old man named Jacob Wall, for whom Buck is reluctantly doing odd jobs as a favor to Buck’s uncle. The obviousness of the father-figure role model of Jacob (who is completely estranged from his own daughter, for reasons that are quite overdone but also make perfect sense) is a weakness here; so is the inevitable ironic foreshadowing of difficulties, as when Buck “would like tomorrow to be one of those incredible days when things went exactly the way they should.” The direction in which the book will go is obvious almost from the start, as Buck, victimized by the bullies, ends up exploring more and more deeply in a cave system even though he knows it is dangerous, because “eventually someone would come” and “he decided to take a chance.” The outer darkness, of course, is a metaphor for Buck’s inner darkness, and the external exploration parallels his internal one, and all that. Eventually secrets are revealed, the family bonds more closely, and David and Buck – who have remained in touch throughout the book – come to a suitably upbeat conclusion. Going Where It’s Dark is carefully plotted, with everything in it fitting neatly together, and if it creaks a bit because it so carefully hits the expected notes of a book for preteens and young teenagers, at least Naylor manages to hit those notes stylishly.
The finale of Jinks’ trilogy about evil, child-killing bogles and the people who hunt them in Victorian London is also written adeptly but is, for a conclusion, somewhat inconclusive. The three books – How to Catch a Bogle, A Plague of Bogles and now The Last Bogler – do not so much progress as expand: the story does not really advance, but is seen from different angles in the different books. This alternative-history-cum-fantasy series is built around the apprentices trained by Alfred Bunce, the best monster-hunter in London. This time it is Ned Roach whose adventures are explored, and it is Ned to whom the title refers, because by the end of the book, all the bogles have been destroyed – not so much by the boglers as by the progress of human civilization itself, a rather philosophical and not entirely satisfactory apocalypse that is followed at the novel’s very end by a hint of mutual respect between hunted and hunter (raising the question of exactly who was hunting whom, and why). The twisty conclusion of The Last Bogler stands in contrast to most of its narrative, which is pretty much standard fare, with dangers aplenty and narrow escapes and further explorations of the plight of London’s orphans and the lives of Ned and his friends, Birdie McAdam and Jem Barbary. The scene-setting is as attractive and modestly exotic here as in the earlier books: “Joseph Lubbock was the manager of a penny gaff on Whitechapel Road, where he mounted shows featuring dwarves, snakes, clockwork heads, stuffed freaks of nature, and anything else that people might pay to see.” The slang use is consistent, too: “You can’t hire just any old mumper off the street.” But The Last Bogler meanders, covering much of the same territory already explored in the earlier books, and now without the sensation of anything really new – and without the frisson of fright that the first two entries, especially the opening book, conveyed effectively. Certainly Jinks wraps up the series in satisfactory fashion here, and there is a sense that all is, or will be, well with Ned, Birdie and Jem. But this trilogy goes out not with a bang but a whimper, subsiding into darkness instead of extinguishing itself in a blaze of – well, “blaze of glory” would not fit these books, but a somewhat brighter and more decisive conclusion would have been welcome.