Dr. Dan's Elixir
|Potent Magic for Young Minds|
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.