August 17, 2017


The Bad Guys #4: Attack of the Zittens. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.

Shadow House #3: No Way Out. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.

     The fourth entry in Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series of comic-strip books (not to be confused with graphic novels) picks up right where the third left off and continues until the start of the still-to-come fifth book. Clearly Blabey has hit his stride with this story of bad-reputation characters now gone good – and their evil nemesis, the adorable but deranged guinea-pig billionaire Dr. Rupert Marmalade. Actually, Blabey continues expanding the cast of The Bad Guys in Attack of the Zittens. The original group included Mr. Wolf, Mr. Shark, Mr. Snake and Mr. Piranha. Then he added Legs, a tarantula. And then Agent Fox, on whom Mr. Wolf has a crush because she is, well, foxy. And now, in the fourth book, there is Granny Gumbo, on whom no one has a crush because she is more likely to be the crusher than the crushee: she is an alligator, a very toothy one who has a habit of losing her teeth (she sneezes them out when she gets a whiff of Mr. Wolf, because she is “allergic to mutt-dogs”). Agent Fox introduces the Bad Guys to Granny Gumbo, because Granny is preparing an antidote for the plague of zittens visited upon the world by Marmalade. These are not actually dead kittens revived but simply kittens that look like zombified kitties and have a habit of chewing anything they can attach themselves to (notably Mr. Wolf). Granny Gumbo’s antidote will de-zombify the zittens back into cute and cuddly kitties, and all will be well, but she needs some snake venom for a final ingredient; luckily, one of the Bad Guys is Mr. Snake, who provides the venom (not willingly). Meanwhile, back at Agent Fox’s airplane, which for the time being is being piloted by Legs, Mr. Shark and Mr. Piranha are headed for the island where Marmalade is hiding, with Mr. Shark wearing one of his “perfect” disguises (a beak that is supposed to make him look like a dolphin) and carrying Mr. Piranha in a fishbowl because Mr. Piranha is a freshwater fish and cannot swim in the ocean (although, as Mr. Snake points out before things really get going here, “a little salt in your gills” does not seem like much when Mr. Piranha and Mr. Shark both spend most of their time in these books walking around on land). Absurdity piles on absurdity here, as in the three earlier books – for instance, Mr. Wolf, who is absolutely determined not to be big and bad, insists on creating a “cowcatcher” of cushions and pillows in front of Granny Gumbo’s truck so no zittens will be injured “as we plough through them at high speed.” This leads Mr. Snake to remark, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” but then, he has not heard everything yet. Oh yes, there is still more to hear here (and see here), including the use of Mr. Snake as a slingshot/catapult to toss balls of antidote-soaked yarn to the milling zittens – and the reappearance of Marmalade with a “cute-zilla ray” that will change “every cute and cuddly creature on the planet into a drooling weapon of DESTRUCTION!” And that sets the stage for the next book in the series, which is going to be out of this world. Not as to quality or plotting, just as to setting: its focus will be the moon, from which the cute-zilla ray is being beamed. Stay tuned (and readers who are thoroughly enjoying The Bad Guys certainly will).

     “Enjoying” is not exactly what readers do with Dan Poblocki’s Shadow House trilogy, although those who like being scared – somewhat scared, anyway – will be pleased with the third and last entry, No Way Out. This (+++) book is strictly for those who read the first two in the series, The Gathering and You Can’t Hide. Four largely interchangeable characters – Azumi, Dash, Dylan and Poppy – continue to be victimized here by someone or something that lured them to the house and has trapped them in it. Actually, they do manage to get out in this book, but initially only as far as the grounds of Larkspur House, which turn out to have frights, ghosts and traps of their own. The best elements here, “best” meaning “creepiest,” are the same as in the first two books: the cover, which is very cleverly designed and genuinely scary, and the illustrations, which neatly call on a variety of common fears (the portrait of three clowns near the start of No Way Out is especially eerie). The writing, unfortunately, is nowhere close to the quality of the visuals. “Last time something in the house asked us to play, the Specials showed up and tried to kill us.” (To understand the Specials, readers have to know the earlier books.) “It was a horror to imagine that he’d lose it over something as simple as a carnival tent. But then nothing here was simple.” “He couldn’t shake the feeling that this room, the game, and the prizes might all be a trick.” “They poured toward him – a smoky liquid made of shivering hands and teeth and hair.” “What if it’s all a distraction? What if they’re working with the house to confuse us?” And so on, and so forth. Shadow House is all about working together, along the lines of many, many series for preteens, and it is also about trust and uncertainty and losing friends and regaining them: “Could they trust each other again? Listening to the tinkling of the music box, he suddenly felt like they might.” Characters die in the series, or at least disappear, but they tend to come back after a while as it turns out they are not really dead and gone forever. What Poblocki wants to do here is make things scary enough to keep readers wondering what will happen next – but not as frightening as events would be in books for older readers, for whom horror often involves gore, true terror, and genuine no-coming-back death of protagonists (or at least of less-central characters). The result of Poblocki’s approach is sometimes unintentionally funny, as in this snippet of dialogue: “‘After all this, I’m not going to die in a flipping fire!’ ‘You’d rather be eaten by a giant monster?’” But no humor is intended. Most of the time, what goes on here is predictable – not the specifics, but Poblocki’s authorial hand telling readers that there is about to be another bad thing happening to the characters: “The door swung open and everything changed.” Eventually, and not at all surprisingly, the kids escape, the house is destroyed, and the characters remember that “each of them had been called to Larkspur because of their connection with the dead” but that now “that connection had been severed” and they can get on with their lives. This is not much of a conclusion and is no revelation at all, and no character really grows in any significant way in the Shadow House series. But growth and character development are not the point here: Poblocki seeks only a good-size helping of entertainment-through-terror (or at least through modest scariness), and that is just what he delivers in No Way Out as he finally gives readers, after three books, a way out.

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