Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Doom Machine

The Doom Machine
by Mark Teague
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you’re a mildly delinquent boy with a knack for souping up flying saucers, Vern Hollow, N.Y. circa 1956 is a good place to grow up. Luckily for him, not to mention the world and the galaxy, Jack Creedle is the right boy at the right time and place. They’ve landed, and most of the town has fled in terror, but Jack still pedals his paper route and tinkers with cars at his uncle’s repair shop. Also, his mom goes on running a boarding house where, any given day, the guests might range from a hobo to a prominent Boston scientist and her brainy daughter.

On that particular day, another trainload of guests show up – the army, rarin’ to fight the saucerful of skreeps that have invaded the town. Meanwhile, the skreeps – who resemble giant spiders – are looking for a Special Item that they’re sure is hidden somewhere in town. Actually, the Special Item is a gadget that Jack’s Uncle Bud invented, which is the only thing the skreeps need to add Earth to their galactic empire.

Before you can say “Sputnik,” Jack, Uncle Bud, the scientist and her daughter, the town sheriff and his unpleasant son are all swept away on a space adventure involving shipwreck, spacetime anomalies, people-eating monsters, an arduous trek across an alien landscape, gladiatorial games, pirates, illusions, heaps of smelly garbage and a planetary revolution in the political, rather than astronomical, sense.

Jack gets to show off his flying saucer souping-up skills. Isadora, the smart girl, demonstrates superior aim with her throwing arm. They both pick up special abilities along the way, including the ability to communicate in alien languages (thanks to a carroty kind of thing that otherwise has no nutritional value), to pass invisibly through a crowd and to perform acts of healing. Her mom and his uncle also have roles to play, for the making or breaking of worlds upon worlds. The question becomes whether they can live up to a prophecy, started (apparently) by some slave deep in the mines of Skreepia, that says someone just like them will save the world. From itself, like.

I enjoyed this book so much that I shared this book with my dad. He felt it had a slow start and a weak ending. I couldn’t agree. I was entertained all the way through, but I guess I was somewhere in the middle of the book when it came home to me that I was experiencing something much greater than the apparent sum of its parts. It’s a really far-out adventure, brimming with imaginative detail and vibrant characters. Inwardly, I squirmed with evil pleasure as the skreepish characters acted according to their nature – completely unsavory, even at times a bit horrifying, yet somehow perversely relatable.

I also got a kick out of the way Jack instinctively knows what tools and engine parts do, without having any notion of what they’re named. Lines like “Hand me that squidgy thing with the red handle” (not a direct quote) made me laugh out loud. The way two very different kids came together to solve a galaxy-sized problem actually warmed me inside. Their remarks, at the moment when their doom seemed inevitable, touched me. And Ma Creedle’s line at the very end of the book gave me a satisfying feeling that the story goes on – although there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a sequel, so far.

This 2009 book is, as far as I know, the only novel by a children's book author and illustrator who has provided art for such books as Cynthia Rylant's Poppleton series, Shana Corey's First Graders from Mars series and Jane Yolen's Dinosaurs series. His own self-illustrated books include The Field Beyond the Outfield, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Frog Medicine, and Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School.

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