Friday, January 4, 2008

M. T. Anderson

The Game of Sunken Places
by M. T. Anderson
Recommended Age: 13+

For their October vacation from school, Gregory and his best friend Brian accept an invitation to visit Gregory’s strange, sort-of-adopted Uncle Max in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Together the boys ride a train from Boston into the middle of a spooky, magical, and dangerous Gothic adventure.

Maximilian Grendle lives in a huge mansion in a woods where the local people believe wicked things are going on. People have disappeared, and worse than spite of their warnings, Gregory and Brian accept Uncle Max’s brusque offer of a carriage ride to his secluded house, where he orders the boys’ modern clothes to be burned and has them dress up in knickerbockers, long socks, starched shirts, and tweed jackets. The whole house is like a bit of the 19th century that never moved forward in time. There is no one for the boys to confide in except a pretty and pleasant, but rather old-fashioned, girl cousin. And there is little for them to do except get in trouble.

Soon they get into far more trouble than they had bargained for. An ancient board game called “The Game of Sunken Places” beckons to them. More and more spaces appear on the board as they solve a series of riddles and face dangerous challenges together. The friendship between these two utterly different boys is put to the test as the game pits them against creatures from another world – magical beings – trolls, elves, ogres, ghosts, and some really weird and scary things for which there may not be a name. Their steps are dogged by an enemy with pointed ears and a deadly bag of tricks. And the boys gradually learn that the winner of the game will help determine which of two magical races finally wins an age-old war.

This is a thoroughly original, imaginative tale fraught with eerie atmosphere, tension, thrills, and mystery. Its main characters come alive with their individual charms and quirks, with totally believable dialogue set amidst an incredible adventure. The narrative bristles with surprise twists and awe-inducing imagery, mixing humor and sadness, horror and pure weirdness. Find this book if you are ready to discover all these things.

Here is one of my favorite bits, to tempt you...

“The Day approaches when the Vast One shall be greater than He Who Found the Key. Then shall we all be left upon the Plain That Has No Name.”

Gregory coaxed, “Oh, come on...they could give the plain a name! Any old thing would do!”

“When the Time of Naming arrives, then shall the unnamed and unnamable be called by its True Name.”

“I’ll bet it has a name, and you just can’t remember it, you sly devil.”

The Speculant swiveled around, his cape settling around him slowly. He grated, “The Unnameable has no Name. Truth cannot be concealed behind Fiction. The Casket of Deliverance has found the Pearl of Wisdom lacking, and the Bone of No Sight shall, in the latter – "

"Okay,” said Gregory. “You win.”

Whales on Stilts!
by M. T. Anderson
Recommended Age: 10+

This books comes from a series titled “M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales,” which also includes the title The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen. You can probably tell already that there’s something goofy about this series. So I’ll give it to you straight: THIS IS A SPOOF. It is MEANT to make you snicker.

What is being spoofed? Not just one book, movie, or TV series, but a whole genre of them, stretching from probably the 1940s to the 1960s. All the sci-fi movie serials that used to play in the old Paramount Theatre downtown, where they show art films now. The gosh-wow, action-packed novels that are still on the bookshelf in your uncle’s old bedroom when you go to visit Grandma and Grandpa. The cartoons and TV shows that have made every generation of parents scratch their heads and wonder what’s gotten into their kids. Maybe even some comic books and old-time radio plays. Everything from The War of the Worlds to the adventures of Tom Swift, from Flash Gordon to the Power name it, Anderson hits it between the eyes.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for you. I want you to discover it as I did, giggling all the way. Look at the front cover, which shows a couple of whales on tall, metal stilts, rampaging through a town and shooting buildings with lasers that come out of their eyes. In the foreground, three children: a boy dressed like a World War I aviator, a terrified but ditzy-looking girl clutching a vintage phonograph, and a tomboy-ish girl with bangs over her eyes, looking very determined. If that doesn’t say it all, maybe this quote will help you decide whether this book is for you. It’s the first paragraph of the book:
On Career Day Lily visited her dad’s work with him and discovered that he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation.
The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen
by M. T. Anderson
Recommended Age: 10+

This sequel to Whales on Stilts! is another acid-tipped parody of the type of juvenile fiction you may have found boxed up in your parents' or grandparents' attic: the mystery-adventures full of thrills! and chills! that your parents, aunts, or uncles read when they were your age. Or rather, in another age altogether, of which you will sometimes think: "Surely I was never so young!" I remember the type of story well: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift...sometimes fun to read in a corny way, sometimes just plain awful, and just occasionally depressing when you get to thinking about how future kids will regard the books you like to read when they are antique collectibles. Stories about kids who solve crimes, battle monsters, and invent keen machines...they're all together here in one spoofed-up package, drowning in their own ridiculousness while somehow generating a really weird adventure of an entirely new kind.

Katie is sick of being a girl heroine in a series of stories about Horror Hollow. When she isn't actually fighting off zombies or werewolves, her parents are pulling horror-oriented pranks just to keep her on her toes. It stopped being fun ages ago, and she wants some time off. So, together with her friends - Jasper the absurdly dated Technonaut, and Lily the deceptively ordinary girl hero - Katie retreats to a ski resort where, as it happens, characters from every series of juvie adventure books have been lured by a phony coupon. A sinister mystery quickly unfolds (sinister, yes, but also daffy). Katie tries to ignore it; she wants to relax and pretend to be normal. But against her will, she is drawn to try to solve the matter of the stolen jewels, the kidnapped quintuplets, the disappearing stuffed animal heads, and the reason so many kid detectives have been brought together in one place.

Along the way, Katie and her friends encounter some pretty far-out things, to say nothing of a lot of extremely wacky people. Some of the wackiness actually touches the emotions in an odd, unexpected way. Most of it just makes you laugh and groan, one after the other or at the same time, as corny conventions of the kid-detective genre are mercilessly skewered.

I would like to see more of Anderson's "straight" juvenile fiction, like The Game of Sunken Places, which I liked a lot. However, an occasional excuse to chortle wickedly can also be nice, and for that I thank him. His other books, if you are interested, include Burger Wuss, Feed, Thirsty, and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, plus some picture books and short stories. Another "Thrilling Tale" featuring Katie, Jasper, and Lily is due out in 2008: Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware.

Doesn't that create a picture.

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