Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Three More Book Reviews

Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs
by Karen Karbo
Recommended Ages: 13+

Here is the second Minerva Clark mystery. In the first one, we met a middle-school sleuth whose family consists of three older brothers, since their divorced parents are never around; whose best friends are a walking encyclopedia named Reggie and a rascally ferret named Jupiter; and whom a powerful electric shock liberated from the insecurities and self-image problems that plague teenage girls. What better person to solve a murder and break up an identity-theft ring? Who would expect so much of a frizzy-haired kid?

Now Minerva has a new mystery to solve. The second-prettiest girl in her class cries out for help when she unwittingly sells a priceless diamond for $50. Was it Chelsea's fault that her tax-evading, jeweller father swapped out the fake gem on her cheap cameo ring? Minerva takes the case, and proves how much trouble an inconspicuous kid can make for criminals.

Making full use of her city's public transit system, Minerva follows a trail of clues from the airport to the animal shelter, stopping by an on-location movie shoot along the way. She gets hoodwinked, chloroformed, held hostage, and threatened with a gun. She makes creative use of what she learned on Day One of a summer course in basic electronics. She also learns to appreciate the graphic on her Green Day T-shirt, illustrating the idea that "the heart is a hand grenade." In one week, Minerva falls in love with a dog, writhes with impatience as her best friend is too busy being lovestruck to spend time with her, experiences the agony of not hearing a word from her first almost-boyfriend, and worries about an upcoming visit by her flighty Mom. It's all in a week's work for Portland, Oregon's smartest mouth.

Kidding aside, this is a fun book that should go down well with teen mystery lovers. Filled with quirky characters, droll humor, and family-safe scenes of danger and mischief, it also models an attitude toward beauty and style that could be very healthy for many young women - provided they don't need a powerful electric shock to adopt it. Read it, and if you agree you may also want to look out for the third book in this series, Minerva Clark Gives Up the Ghost.

Measle and the Slitherghoul
by Ian Ogilvy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Back in the third Measle adventure, Measle and the Mallockee, we caught a glimpse of something shapeless, slimy, and very, very dangerous. Now that something is on the move.

Its name is the Slitherghoul. For centuries it has been locked up in an underground cell, guarded and studied by wizards, but mostly left alone. No one knows what evil spell created it, but only that it absorbed its creator, a young apprentice wizard named Sheepshank. Then, one day the Slitherghoul escapes from its cell and absorbs the guard and all the prisoners in the holding cells - including the evil warlock Toby Jugg and a bunch of demented wrathmonks, all of whom hate Measle Stubbs and his family.

Absorbed, but not killed, these nasties become the Slitherghoul's eyes, ears, and brain. Together they steer a slimy course toward Merlin Manor, where Measle, Iggy, and Nurse Flannel have been left alone (not counting a feeble security presence) while Measle's parents and baby sister are attending a meeting in Antarctica. The boy's plans to dig a swimming pool are cut short by the arrival of a monstrous blob with the combined consciousness of all his worst enemies. The next thing he knows, he is alone, being chased around and through and over his house by a creature that has already devoured his nanny, his dog, and his best friend.

But don't you worry about old Measle. He has some tricks up his sleeve. Even in a world full of magical beings like warlocks and wrathmonks, leave it to one ordinary boy with no magical powers at all to take charge of a situation. Or is he so ordinary, after all? In fact, isn't Measle an unusually clever, resourceful, and daring kid? He's a real fighter, too. And as he fights to get his friends back, he proves to be more than his slimy wrathmonk foes bargained for. As always.

This fourth Measle book continues the amazingly entertaining verbal dance by an actor, author, and playwright who has never missed a step yet. Ogilvy is sure to please young readers, and listeners younger still, in this tale and the others that go with it. He has fastened upon one of the secrets that have made Harry Potter so successful: a truly admirable boy hero who, for all his grubbiness and smelliness and vulnerability, has the maturity to hold his tongue rather than argue, the courage to face his worst fears, and the wisdom to value and befriend people whom others might call worthless. Harry didn't reach that point until Book 6; Measle is already there.

Sure, this is lighter fare, aimed at tickling the ribs of a younger circle of readers than, say, the last three Harry Potter books. The enemies are much sillier, and Measle's sidekick Iggy is downright childlike. Yet there is serious spookiness and danger in this story, and several characters come to a gruesome end. Nevertheless, with no magic of his own, our Measle survives many magical menaces, and does so mainly on the strength of his wits. There is something awfully grown-up about that. It's as if Ian Ogilvy wants every child who reads his books to believe that, even in a world full of mysteries and powers beyond their comprehension, they have it in themselves to triumph and succeed. If young readers can imagine themselves in Measle's place, they might find ways to emulate him. And that would be a happy ending indeed!

Measle and the Doompit
by Ian Ogilvy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Measle Stubbs is the son of the Prime Magus, the leader of all the wizards in Britain. His mother is a manafount; which is to say, she contributes a non-stop flow of magical energy to strengthen her husband's magic. Measle's sister Tilly is a rare mallockee, who can perform multiple spells, one after another. His best friend is a wrathmonk: a tiny, weak, not-too-bright wrathmonk, to be sure, but still capable of performing magic. But, as we know from his four previous adventures, Measle has no magic of his own. The only magic trick he can do is turning invisible, but even that is possible only because of the special jellybeans Nanny Flannel makes.

So when Measle goes to school, it isn't to a school of magic like Hogwarts, but to an ordinary school full of ordinary kids. And when his entire class disappears in the middle of a school trip, Measle has nothing to fall back on but his own wits, his pocketful of jellybeans, and his friendship with a girl named Polly, who somehow managed to get left behind.

Then who should turn up but Toby Jugg, the most powerful wrathmonk at large and Measle's personal enemy? One by one, Toby drops Polly and Measle into a doompit, a kind of magical portal into the world of Dystopia. In Dystopia you might meet any creature you have heard, read, or dreamed about. And if they don't kill you, you may learn that they aren't quite how you imagined them.

Measle is soon reunited with his dog Tinker and his friend Iggy. Don't ask how; I don't want to spoil the laugh. Together, they face menacing werewolves, stinging fairies, giant ants, and other nasties. How they survive each of these encounters will surprise you again and again, though the biggest surprise - and possibly the biggest laugh - comes from Polly. But inevitably, things finally reach a point where Measle is all alone, caught between his worst enemy and certain death, with nothing to save him but what's in his pockets. It wouldn't be a Measle adventure if it were otherwise.

I have always enjoyed this series by actor, author, and playwright Ian Ogilvy. I know some children who are absolutely crazy for them. I hope this book, first published in 2007, isn't the end of the series. Measle is developing nicely as a character. In fact, he's already starting to notice girls - one girl in particular. It might be fun to see what that leads to. But I am especially interested in knowing what twisted and loopy idea Ogilvy dreams up next. Adults who enjoyed reading these books with their kids may also be interested in Ogilvy's adult fiction, including Loose Chippings, The Polkerton Giant, and A Slight Hangover.

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