Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
November 2006

Hell Phone by William Sleator
Amulet Books, Copyright © 2006
Hardcover, 237 pages
Age Group: 13 up

I didn't think the day would ever come, but I have found a William Sleator novel that disappoints me. The idea of a cell phone that can receive calls from hell is a good one. The idea of a cell phone that can be used by citizens of hell to transport them back to our world is an even cooler idea. However, the novel does not reach the potential of these ideas. The story we receive seems contrived but not so much as the ending. The reader gets to the end of the book and it feels like the author didn't have the time to write a proper ending so he just pulled some things together. All of the characters in the book, except seventeen-year-old Nick, are cardboard stand ups. Only Nick has depth, which is pretty shallow as it is. We are shown hell but there isn't any sign of or mention of the big man himself. Somebody must be in charge of the turmoil that goes on down there.

Stick people, a cell phone, and an unrealistic and unconvincing plot pass for a story here. There is potential tension in the poor boy loves rich girl theme, but it is underutilized. For my life I can't figure out why Nick didn't just throw the phone in the river after he began to receive the nasty phone calls from hell and elsewhere. Why would he feel sympathy for creepy people he doesn't know? They spin a subtle web and before he knows it, Nick is a victim too. He falls for every lie he is told by the various people involved spinning the scheme. Again, throwing the phone in the river seems a good idea. As for the book, this copy goes to Goodwill.

Gideon The Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer
Simon & Schuster, Copyright © 2006
Hardcover, 400 pages
Age Group: 10 up

And so we begin a time travel story -- Peter and Kate find themselves sucked out of their own time (ours) and thrust into 1763. How can this be? A colleague of Kate's father has been using his laboratory to build an anti-gravity machine. Dr. Dyer never dreamed anything in his lab would be harmful to his daughter Kate. Nevertheless, when a proposed anti-gravity machine turns out to be a time machine instead things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

Kate and Peter find themselves tumbling through piles of leaves, and they are not alone. The anti-gravity machine has followed them into the past. Who knows what might have happed next save for Gideon Seymour, newly employed by the wealthy Byng family. Gideon gives the children his pledge that he will do all in his power to help them find a way back to the future (I couldn't resist it). After all, he saw the strange manner in which they arrived, and they know no more or less than he does about how they got to 1763. It's a perfect relationship.

Circumstances quickly compound and escalate. Gideon is no safer than Peter and Kate, yet he seems to be the only true friend they have. It quickly becomes a matter of a switch or prisoner exchange. The children can have the magical box (anti-gravity machine) back in exchange for Gideon. The Lord Luxon has long profited by forcing Gideon to steal for him. Gideon does not like being a cutpurse and tries to take employment elsewhere. Soon everyone appears to be chasing Gideon and the children. Gideon is running long enough to prove himself innocent and Peter and Kate are trying to find the magic box. Throw in a few relatives of the royal family and King George himself, and you can see there's no knowing what's up or down.

Kate and Peter quickly develop a skill they call "blurring." At first it happens to one or another of the two at random intervals. Soon, however, they are able to master the skill. Blurring is fading away or leaving 1763 and fading back to their time for a temporary period. The longer they stay the more it hurts. Eventually the pain is so great that they must let go and be flung back to 1763. While blurring in our world, Kate and Peter have the appearance of ghosts, especially when they come and go. They cannot speak to or touch anyone in their own time.

The children's ability to blur causes havoc with the police investigation in real time. Their "ghosts" are spotted here and there and even a few photographs are taken. At first this is hard on their parents, but soon they come to feel that the children are truly alright. On the other hand it convinces the chief investigating policeman that the parents know more than they are willing to tell. Little does he know that the experiment was funded by NASA and they, the parents, have been sworn to secrecy.

Gideon The Cutpurse is a memorable read and I find myself thinking about it off and on throughout the day. There are two truly surprising plot twists at the end of the book that will astonish the daylights out of you. This is part of what makes this a good read. Another would be how Kate and Peter are so resourceful, intelligent and charming. A third could be the instant friendship and loyalty they inspire in others. And above all the personal integrity of Gideon Seymour. Simply stated, this is a fantastic novel rife with adventure and suspense. It is the first of a trilogy (look for the second installment in the summer of 2007) and a trilogy I would like to see. I'm usually put off from getting involved with trilogies and series because they leave you no time to read anything else. Look for me this summer with a review of The Tar Man.

I suggest you read this book, because the past has never been so close.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt, Copyright © 2006
Hardcover, 352 pages
Age Group: 12 up

Here is another fine novel that managed to be published as "straight" fiction but certainly qualifies as an apocalyptic story and could have been published as science fiction. An apocalypse, according to Webster's College Dictionary, is any universal or widespread destruction or disaster. Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic stories have been the property, so to speak, of science fiction for many years. Both happen to be very popular sub-genres and have resulted in many great works of literature from 1984 to David Brin's The Postman, George R. Stewart's Earth Abides and Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zachariah. Another fine, post-apocalyptic novel published as fiction and not science fiction was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Whether fiction or science fiction, Life As We Knew It is a great look at people striving to survive during a worldwide devastation.

I remember my first total eclipse of the sun during elementary school. We were taught to look at the event through the pinhole in a shoebox to keep from burning our vision. It was quite exciting and something I looked forward to with great anticipation. In Life As We Knew It, NASA scientists have projected a large meteor to strike the moon. Everyone on earth is anticipating this celestial event and the night it is to occur is like a giant tailgate party. However, something goes wrong. The meteor does not follow the projected trajectory and crashes into a different location of the moon. The resulting stress pushes the moon out of its orbit and closer to earth with the result being widespread tsunamis, huge tidal waves claiming major islands and coastlines worldwide, volcanic eruptions covering the earth on an unprecedented scale and a darkened sky caused by the volcanic ash. Enough dust to think the world had gone into a nuclear winter. August in Pennsylvania turning into sub zero weather. Sub sub zero weather.

Sixteen-year-old Miranda is caught in the middle of the earthly turmoil caused by this clash of titans. One thing at a time, life as Miranda knew it began to change. First the food shortage, the fuel shortage, the loss of electricity, the loss of communication technologies, the inability to ascertain the wellbeing of other family members, and the end of written communications. All of these resources that we have come to take for granted, disappear drop by drop until Miranda's family faces uncertainty, fear and death.

Miranda is not alone. She lives with her mother, recently divorced from her father, her older brother Matt who has the sense to come home from college when the moon goes awry, and her little brother Jonny. Together they will fight the fight of their lives for their lives. Much of the discontent will occur within the walls of their own home as they face starvation, thirst, and exhaustion. Their continued emaciation in front of each other drive them and fill them with the urge to live until they become so weak that death takes a face and becomes a welcome guest.

A good example of the selflessness that surrounds Miranda would be the fate of Mrs. Nesbitt, an elderly woman who lives close to Miranda's home and is considered family. Early on in the novel, Mrs. Nesbitt sees the "writing on the wall" and prepares for her death. She begins to stop eating, arranges all of her supplies so they can be easily moved, decides what to leave to each person in Miranda's family a gift (as if her supplies were not enough) and peaceably goes to her death. She tells Miranda, who had been visiting Mrs. Nesbitt on a regular basis, what is to be done with everything before the house is ransacked and where she is to be buried. When next Miranda visits, she finds Mrs. Nesbitt restfully composed and dead in her bedroom. Miranda screams home as fast as she can on her bike. She tells her family what has happened and what is to be done. They mourn Mrs. Nesbitt, but the extra water and foodstuffs will extend their lives for several months. I stand in awe of Mrs. Nesbitt's reasoning that at her age death would find her during this crisis and sooner would be better for Miranda than later. This kind of inner strength is in short supply.

As accurate a portrayal of an apocalypse on such a grand scale, there are two items that bothered me a bit about the book and required me to suspend my disbelief to a greater degree than normal. Perhaps I have read too many apocalyptic novels that I expect them to all fit the same formula. With all that Miranda's family does to prepare and survive, the one thing they do not prepare for is defense against marauders and thieves. It should be obvious that when the law of the land disappears, and the police department is closed, the law of the mob will replace it. One of the first tasks a mob would undertake would be to round up all foodstuffs for themselves. Should such a clan have come to battle with Miranda and her family, they would have been unprepared and would have lost all, certainly Miranda and perhaps their lives. This, the ugliest side of an apocalyptic event, might have been left out in deference to the young age of those expected to read this novel and I can easily understand that reasoning and support such a policy. Miranda's family has no guns or any other weapons to defend themselves in a lawless country. They would be, to use a trite statement, sitting ducks.

The second item that distracted me was that NASA scientists wrongly calculated the meteors path. Sure, there would be a margin of error but not one as grand as in this novel. I have more faith in NASA than to accept such a major mistake. This is the organization that put men on the moon, thought up the space shuttle, landed the shuttle in the desert with great precision and is building a space station. It just seems impossible to me for NASA to make such a large error.

This is a novel worth reading twice. I found it to be a grabber. I was unable to pass the book without a giant hand flying out to grab me for some more reading. Actually, I was so enthralled with this book that I read it in a day and a half. The characters, and especially Miranda, became larger than life to me. The novel is presented as Miranda's personal diary and it didn't take long to begin to think that I was indeed reading from her hand before the ink was dry. The worldwide disaster Miranda must survive could certainly happen in our day. Meteors hit the moon all the time, which is responsible for its crater-ridden face.

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