December 07, 2017


The Doldrums, Book 2: The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse. By Nicholas Gannon. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Gone #7: Monster. By Michael Grant. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $18.99.

Going Wild #2: Predator vs. Prey. By Lisa McMann. Harper. $16.99.

Hero #3: Rescue Mission. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Harper. $17.99.

Ryan Quinn #2: Ryan Quinn and the Lion’s Claw. Harper. $16.99.

     The approach of winter is a great time to stock up on books that preteens and young teenagers can read while sitting inside, avoiding cold-weather precipitation, with a cup of cocoa (or something else suitable) close at hand. And it sometimes seems as if wintertime is ready-made for books that are sequels or parts of ongoing series – the idea being that if young readers already know and like a particular sequence, then they can settle cozily into a new entry with a sense of comfortable familiarity that is especially inviting when the weather outside is, if not frightful, at least less than attractive. Fans of Nicholas Gannon’s 2015 The Doldrums, for example, will enjoy the sequel, The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse, which – like the first book – is particularly nicely illustrated by the author with both color plates and black-and-white spot illustrations. The charm here is of the “further adventures” sort: the book could be a standalone volume, but readers unfamiliar with the prior one will not enjoy it nearly as much as will readers who liked the first book. The focus here is again on the grandparents of Archer Helmsley, but this time, instead of a quest by Archer and friends to locate the grandparents in Antarctica (that was the first book), what is happening is the grandparents’ return home. And this is proving to be a mixed blessing. They are famous explorers whom Archer has waited all his life to meet, and have been stuck on an iceberg for two years – or have they? Not everyone in the town of Rosewood believes that story. And not everyone is happy about the grandparents’ return, since it has been an unusually harsh and unpleasant winter in Rosewood and some people are blaming Archer’s grandparents and the Helmsley Curse – which, however, may or may not exist. As in the previous book, Gannon mixes offbeat adventure with often-sly humor and a style in which even throwaway lines are handled with aplomb: “Cornelius fished in his pockets and revealed a letter that would have been very pretty were it not spotted with grease.” “There’s a crazed iceberg lunatic out there and you’d not thought of telling us sooner?” There are also some names that are sufficiently unusual to carry along parts of the story on their own: Mr. DuttonLick, Mr. Harptree, Mr. Suplard, Mrs. Thimbleton, and others. Not quite a romp, not quite an adventure – although it partakes of both – The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse offers plenty of amusement and involvement for many sorts of need-to-stay-indoors circumstances.

     Much darker and more straightforwardly adventurous, Monster is the latest entry in the Gone series, which Michael Grant began in 2008. The series’ underlying premise, too absurd for science fiction but perhaps not quite scary enough for full-fledged horror, involves a meteor hitting the town of Perdido Beach and causing everyone over age 15 to vanish (apparently the meteor checks birth certificates). The under-15s – the target age range for the series, of course – exist in the Fallout Alley Youth Zone (FAYZ) within a dome that keeps them inside as an alien virus causes all sorts of mutations. Those give young people powers such as teleportation, telekinesis, the ability to heal, and others, and also create creatures such as talking coyotes. And in standard Lord of the Flies fashion, there is a breakdown of the thin veneer of civilization as various individuals and factions fight for primacy within the FAYZ. This goes on in various guises for six books, and it is on that background that Monster builds. This entry starts four years after the original meteor strike: the dome has disappeared, but now even more meteors are striking Earth, and these too bear alien viruses, and these viruses are even worse than the original one. It is 100% obvious here that Grant is simply ratcheting up the same Gone plot to a higher level, a kind of video-game-cum-TV-series trick that helps conceal the two-dimensional nature of the characters and keeps readers focused on the good-vs.-evil plot machinations. Those creak badly from an adult perspective but will keep fans of the series well entertained as they watch the emergence of various new characters in Monster and get to find out which turn into heroes and which become, well, monsters.

     Lisa McMann’s Going Wild series is only in the second book of a planned trilogy, but here too the debt to other sources is evident – this sequence leans heavily on Animorphs. Slightly less intense than Gone and aimed at slightly younger readers, Going Wild has more coming-of-age elements. Instead of mutated animals, McMann has young people obtain animals’ powers, not through mysterious alien viruses but through mysterious, umm, bracelets. The original Going Wild was primarily a scene-setter with a focus on central character Charlie Wilde (not an inspired name in this context). Charlie gets elephantine strength, cheetah-like speed and gecko-like clinging ability from her bracelet, and in Predator vs. Prey her friends – Maria, Mac and “frenemy” Kelly – get bracelets of their own, a circumstance that causes predictable angst among the group members and challenges Charlie to find ways to turn everyone into parts of a well-functioning team that can rescue Charlie’s father, who is mixed up in all this somehow. The dialogue here is particularly lame: “I really want you to trust me.” “Worried, scared, all of that. She’s feeling pretty bad.” “You don’t seem to understand my vision at all, and I’m disappointed by that.” “That’s not a bad idea.” “She totally just lied. I can’t believe this.” Neither careful plotting nor any sort of strong attempt at characterization will be found in Predator vs. Prey, but neither is the point here. The idea is simply to continue and expand the adventure that started in Going Wild, and actually this book is faster-paced and more involving, on a surface level, than its predecessor. It is not a good entry point – Charlie’s background from the first book is important to everything that happens in the second – but for those already interested in the world that McMann calls up here, this sequel is a pleasant enough way to pass some time.

     A real animal rather than humans with animal characteristics is at the center of the Hero series by Jennifer Li Shotz. Hero is both the series name and the name of the search-and-rescue dog at its center – who, along with human protagonist Ben, gets to save the day repeatedly. These books really can stand on their own, their plots being so simple and straightforward that the original setup in Hero and Hero: Hurricane Rescue is unnecessary to enjoy Hero: Rescue Mission. It is true that there are references here to the earlier novels, such as the comment that Ben had flown in a helicopter “once before, when he and Hero were rescued from the woods after the hurricane.” Yet it is quite possible to skip those back-references and still enjoy this story. What makes it apparent that this third series entry is intended for readers who already enjoy the sequence is the fact that the book contains so very little in the way of scene-setting or characterization. It is not so much that the characters are one-dimensional as that the whole series setup requires them to be one-dimensional, somewhat along the lines of the old Lassie and Timmy TV shows, in which the heroic dog repeatedly had to rescue a young boy and look out for him. Hero does not have to save Ben in Rescue Mission, however; not exactly, anyway. Instead, Hero has to help Ben save Ben’s father, a police officer who disappears while searching for two escapees from a prison near the town. Of course, Ben and Hero go searching for Ben’s missing dad, and of course, things do not go smoothly – there is, for example, a part of the narrative in which Ben is bitten by a venomous snake, hospitalized, and then has to escape from the hospital so he and Hero can resume the search. And then the two of them meet a boy named Tucker who insists on joining them. And that turns out to be a very good thing, because Tucker knows a lot about the woods where Ben and Hero need to search, and Tucker is more observant than Ben and has some very good ideas about tracking the convicts: “The kid was some kind of cross between a mind reader and a woodsman – a kind of nature superhero,” Ben thinks. But then it turns out that Tucker needs Ben’s help, and then everyone, including Ben’s dad, needs Hero’s help, and all ends well – as readers will know from the start that it will. This is a feel-good book, simply written and simply plotted, in which the heroic dog has more personality than any of the humans.

     Unlike the latest Hero book, which is understandable even for readers who do not know the earlier ones, the second volume in the Ryan Quinn trilogy by Ron McGee makes no sense unless you know the first, Ryan Quinn and the Rebel’s Escape. That book introduced the eighth-grader of the title and gave him the usual surroundings of a new school, new friends, a bad-guy bully, and a preteen-style possible romance. But just as Ben’s dad goes missing in Hero: Rescue Mission, Ryan’s father goes missing in the first book, and his mom is kidnapped – and suddenly it turns out that Ryan has a mission, or rather has been trained for missions all his life by his parents, without knowing anything about what they have been doing or why. This does not make a lick of sense, but given the proliferation of stock characters who might as well be labeled “hero,” “villain,” “techie,” “football hero” and so forth rather than given actual names, it is clear that the Ryan Quinn series is designed for action and nothing else. After the first book, in which Ryan rescues everybody good and evades everybody bad in the mythical Far East dictatorship of Andakar, Ryan Quinn and the Lion’s Claw starts with Ryan’s parents trying to put the genie of Ryan’s training and abilities back in the bottle – a laughable endeavor, of course. Ryan now knows he has a role in the Emergency Rescue Committee (in which he is a small-h hero, not to be confused with Hero the dog and those rescues). Furthermore, in typical genre style, Ryan learns in the second book that there is a traitor in the committee who is out to ruin Ryan’s parents and, if possible, the entire committee itself. This soon sends Ryan – along with the friends he had with him in the first book, Danny (token non-American, being half Filipino) and Kasey (token girl and Ryan’s crush) – off on another far-flung adventure. This one flings them to a place in Africa called Lovanda, where two justice-seeking musicians have started a revolution, a place where Danny (the obligatory tech genius) gets to help the revolution by “using message apps and social media.” And at the very end, after the expected happy ending, there is a hyper-clunky setup for the third book, in which it apparently will turn out that Ryan Quinn isn’t an all-American boy after all, but comes from a far more sinister background. Readers who do not care about clarity of organization, plot or characterization, but who crave action, action and more action, will enjoy Ryan’s second Jason Bourne-ish forays hither and thither – which are much more fun to imagine while sipping hot cocoa than they would be to deal with in any sort of reality, even one as unrealistic as that in Ryan Quinn and the Lion’s Claw.

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