Monday, June 17, 2024

The Lost Home World

The Lost Home World
by Cerberus Jones
Recommended Ages: 10+

Amelia's older brother James is struggling to understand why the wormholes connecting to the gate under their family's hotel on the Australian seashore are so far off schedule, when suddenly a completely unexpected gate opens up and through it steps a mesmerizingly beautiful man. Mallan claims to be the long-lost brother of Lady Naomi, an alien woman who (we now learn) arrived on earth through the gate when she was only a baby, and was raised by groundskeeper Tom. Mallan quickly wins everyone over and seems to be about to take Lady Naomi back to their homeworld ... but it's James, again, who smells a rat.

James is all right in the upstairs area, for sure. But when the world is in danger – or, at very least, their otherworldly friend – it's Amelia and her best friend, Charlie, who must leap into action. Mallan isn't who he seems, and who he actually is is so much more awful than anyone could have guessed. Or maybe, they should have – but he outwitted them until it was all but too late.

Or maybe it is too late. The bad guy certainly enjoys having the upper hand, and Amelia can't do much to stop him from carrying her and a terrifyingly dangerous item through the next available wormhole. One possible outcome is that the entire earth could be turned inside out and sucked into the vast Nothing that fills the cosmos. Obviously, since this is book 7 of 8, that doesn't happen. But what does happen is pretty far out.

It's been a couple years since I read the other books in the Gateway series, because I couldn't find a copy of this particular installment for less than a ridiculous amount of money. Then I visited the amazing Thimbleberry Books in downtown Marshfield, Wisconsin, whose owner and his kitty-cat shop assistant helped me track down a copy that I could order for only a mildly foolish sum. And so I finally read it, and completed the series, and the world is beautiful again.

Cerberus Jones is the three-headed writing team of Chris Morphew, Rowan McAuley and David Harding. None of them, nor their group alter-ego, shows up in a search of Fantastic Fiction. Though the edition I read was published out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the book was originally published in Australia. So, that might explain why information is so thin on the ground about these folks. But if you like your world not being overrun by deceiving reptiles, thank them and the Forgotten Bay hotel for their valuable work of guarding that gate which none of us is supposed to know about. Wink, nudge.

Dragons in a Bag

Dragons in a Bag
by Zetta Elliott
Recommended Ages: 8+

Jax's mother needs somewhere to stash him during her day in court, so she brings him to the apartment of an eccentric, older lady Jax has never met before. Mama calls her "Ma," though she's no blood relation. Everyone calls her that, and she says she's raised many kids though none of them were her own. Ma reluctantly takes Jax for the day, but it's clear it isn't the best timing for her. You see, Ma's a witch, and she's just taken delivery of a package containing tiny creatures who need to be moved to another world – a world with more magic than modern-day Brooklyn.

Ma wonders out loud whether Jax might like to be her next apprentice. He isn't sure how ready he is to experience weird stuff like interdimensional travel, especially when something goes wrong with their transporter (a gatehouse at the entrance to Prospect Park) and Jax inadvertently leaves Ma alone in the age of dinosaurs. But a sense of responsibility comes over him, and he recruits old and new friends to help him, and sets out on the beginning of an adventure involving super-smart squirrels, talking rats, and scaly critters that grow like ganbusters when they're fed sweet treats.

This is the first book of a (currently) five-book set, which continues with The Dragon Thief, The Witch's Apprentice, The Enchanted Bridge and The War of the Witches. If it suffers from anything, it's from the sense that it isn't a complete story, and that perhaps the whole quintet is really one story that's been hacked into five books by a greedy publisher that hasn't, apparently, learned anything from the Harry Potter phenomenon about kid's willingness to plow through a thick book if the story is on point.

Canadian-U.S. author Zetta Elliott is also the author of the "City Kids" quartet (starting with The Phoenix on Barkley Street), several standalone novels such as A Wish After Midnight and The Ship in the Garden, and some collections of plays and poems. In her acknowledgments at the end of this book, she explains that in this series of books, she set out to build a magical fantasy for young readers around urban settings and characters of color. I think it might just work; but as I said, I'd prefer to hold a complete story in my hands.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

10 'Goosebumps' books

Recommended Ages: 8+

Would you believe, I'd never read one of R. L. Stine's "Goosebumps" books until very recently? Somewhere or other, I picked up a 10-book boxed set of apparently random titles from the series – they're in no kind of sequence – and on and off over the past two or three months, I read them.

There are some general things I could say about them. First, they're light, kiddie horror stories aimed at, I would estimate, an elementary- to middle-school audience. They're chapter books with ghoulish cover art, narrated by kids who aren't altogether noble and heroic, but you can relate to them because they have character flaws most kids can probably recognize in themselves. They try to capture what an ordinary kid in the real world would feel upon encountering actual, walking mummies or scarecrows, living ventriloquist's dummies and garden gnomes, ghosts, werewolves, blob monsters, you name it. They parcel out the breaks between their brief chapters to build suspense and create jump scares. Their level of horror is mildly creepy, but not screaming-heebie-jeebies inducing. They have a fair amount of humor in them. They often end in chilling twists (albeit ones an alert reader might be able to spot coming from a few chapters away). And many of them, in the edition I bought, include extras such as brief interviews with the author, fun facts about the featured creatures, related book recommendations and other goofy and educational stuff.

Where I'd usually start a review with the title of the book and then do a synopsis, I don't feel that would do in this case. Instead, I'm going to drop a list of the titles in my boxed set with brief notes about where they stand in series order and what they're about. For me to give away any more would be to spoil too much, I think. Let's just say that, overall, the charm of these books is in their quick-to-read, direct appeal to young readers' imagination, although in large doses the formula starts to get overly repetitive. And boy, oh boy, can you do this series in large doses (see below).

Stay Out of the Basement was the second book in the original "Goosebumps" series. It features a couple of kids whose father, a mad scientist type, has been running creepy experiments in their basement. Overcome by curiosity, the kids violate the rule in the book's title and discover a disturbing hybrid of plant and human, which has sinister ideas of its own.

The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, book 5, features a couple of Egyptian-American kids who discover a secret chamber in a pyramid that their archaeologist uncle is studying, near Cairo. But the discovery also exposes them to the danger of being turned undead by ancient magic.

Let's Get Invisible, book 6, sees a group of youngsters experimenting with a strange mirror they find in a hidden attic room, that has the power to turn them invisible. However, the longer they stay invisible, the more it seems somebody or something wants them to stay that way.

Night of the Living Dummy, book 7, introduces the flamboyant character of Slappy, who not only plays a key role in the movies based on this series but also stars in quite a few sequels. In his first appearance, he's only one of two ventriloquist dummies that come to life with evil on their minds.

The Ghost Next Door, book 10, involves a girl who suspects that the boy next door may be a ghost – or maybe he's about to become one, unless she can save him.

The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, book 14, features a boy who loves his dog. So, obviously, he doesn't want to believe his dog is dangerous. But something with teeth is definitely leaving well-chewed animal carcasses on the edge of the Florida swamp that runs behind the hero kid's house. Could it be a werewolf?

The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight, book 20, brings a brother and sister to their grandparents' farm, but things are different this summer. The hired man holds a strange power over them, and apparently – thanks to a "book of superstition" that he's been reading, over other things as well.

Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes, book 34, pits three kids and another wrongly-accused dog against a bunch of "mischief gnomes" that pose as innocent lawn ornaments, between increasingly insane pranks.

The Blob that Ate Everyone, book 55, has a main character who aspires to write scary stories (sound like someone you know?). He gets his hand on a typewriter that, apparently, causes anything he types to come true. Unfortunately, he loses his temper and takes out his anger on the town in the form of a story about a giant, people-eating blob – a story with one of the wackiest twist endings ever.

The Haunted Car, book 21 of the spinoff "Goosebumps 2000" series, teaches one 12-year-old boy not to be quite so crazy about cars, when his dad buys a "sports sedan" (truly a master-stroke of fantasy) that practically drives itself. Strike the word "practically." And you know what else? It's evil.

Don't worry about reading these books too close to bedtime. They probably won't send you nightmares. But don't sue me if they do. I suppose it depends on whether their chilling twists, page-turning jump scares and general theme of "nobody believes the kids until it's too late" get under your skin.

R.L. Stine is a New York-based writer who specializes in writing humor and horror for children. Going all the way back to 1985, his titles include two "Hark" books, about 53 "Fear Street" books plus 13 "Fear Street Super Chillers", three "Fear Street Cheerleaders" books, about 20 "Fear Street Saga" stories, 36 "Ghosts of Fear Street" books (many of them with various co-authors), three "99 Fear Street" books, three "Fear Street: Cataluna Chronicles," 12 "Fear Street: Seniors" books, two "Fear Park" books, two "Fear Hall" books, four "New Fear Street" books, three "Fear Street Nights" books, four "Fear Street Relaunch" books, a "Fear Street Super Thriller" trilogy, and the "Return to Fear Street" trilogy. There are a four-part "Babysitter" series, the "Space Cadets" trilogy, 12 "Nightmare Room" books, a further "Nightmare Room Thrillogy," two "Dangerous Girls" books, eight "Mostly Ghostly" books, 16 "Rotten School" books (whose first book sets the tone with the title The Big Blueberry Barf-Off!), eight "Just Beyond" books, three "Garbage Pail Kids" books, and three "Stinetinglers." And then, of course, there are about 62 O.G. "Goosebumps" books, 42 "Give Yourself Goosebumps" titles, 25 "Goosebumps 2000" titles, eight "Give Yourself Goosebumps Special" titles, three "Goosebumps Gold" titles, four "Goosebumps Graphix," 19 "Goosebumps Horrorland" books, six "GB Horrorland House of Horrors" books, 10 "Goosebumps Most Wanted" books plus four "special edition" titles, 19 "Goosebumps SlappyWorld" books, four "Goosebumps House of Shivers" books, and various and sundry accessories to these series, such as story collections, boxed sets and Monster Survival Guide. And also, teen novelizations of the two Goosebumps movies, 2013 and 2018. And almost 45 standalone titles (going by Fantastic Fiction's listing), including a handful of collections and anthologies. I feel it's a bit late in my lifetime to set out on a course of trying to read them all, so expect any further reviews of R.L. Stine's oeuvre when you see them.