The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless by Allan Woodrow, illustrated by Aaron Blecha
Horrid Henry meets Greg Heffley in this new series about a boy who wants to be evil, but only sort of evil, when it comes right down to it.
"Bwa-ha-ha!" he cackled. Zachary knew every self-respecting rotten evildoer needs a gleeful, evil cackle. But although he practiced almost every day, his cackle needed work. It sounded like a hyena with the hiccups.
Zachary continued walking past the two-story houses along his street, and then turned into Plentyville's small downtown. He read the sign on the side of the road: Plentyville, Where Plenty of Good things Happen!
Zachary knew plenty of bad things also happened in Plentyville.
In fact, he made sure of it.
Zachary's aspirations to evil range from the grandiose—"Alter the gravity of the earth so it crashes into Pluto"—to the mundane—putting snakes in people's mailboxes. And because he's such a sweet-looking boy, who blinks a lot, no one suspects him of wrongdoing, ever. I got a little tired of the recurring joke about the blinking, but I did not get tired of the joke about Zachary and other citizens yearning to qualify for entrance to a secret society of villains. And then there's Amanda Goodbar, Zachary's opposite number, a girl who looks like trouble and so gets blamed for Zachary's pranks. ("'You can't fool me with your blinking eyes,' said Amanda. 'I'm onto you.'") But my favorite character is Zachary's new henchman, Newt, who concedes that he would be willing to stop liking puppies in order to hang out with our budding supervillain.
Zachary is not happy to discover other aspirants for membership in SOURBALLS (Society of Utterly Rotten, Beastly, and Loathsome Lawbreaking Scoundrels). In his attempts to eliminate the competition, Zachary might just accidentally do something good!
This tongue-in-cheek offering reminds me a little of Mark Walden's H.I.V.E. books, but it's a shorter, easier read, apparently aimed at younger or reluctant middle grade readers, say, boys ages 8 to 10. Zachary's desire to walk on the bad side is tempered by absurdity and a lack of real malice. The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless is not a character-driven book, but I will say that at heart, this boy seems to be mostly a bored daydreamer. I think kids will enjoy watching his interplay with Newt, not to mention his success in filling a giant inflatable fish with mustard.
Try pairing this book with How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Vordak the Incomprehensible. (See my review here.)
Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger
Angleberger is the guy who wrote a whole book about a fortune-telling origami Yoda, so it probably won't surprise you when I tell you the full title of his latest: Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset.
The story begins with Lady Luggertuck unexpectedly asking her maid to tie her corset a little less tightly. She's never done that before, and the household practically falls into chaos as a result. As the back jacket copy puts it: "Shelves go undusted! Cake is eaten! Lunch is lukewarm!"
Then a family heirloom disappears, and the servants naturally get the blame. But Horton and his friends, the stable boys, who sound like a slightly objectionable law firm (Blight, Blemish, and Bump), are determined to discover the real thief. Along the way, Horton falls hard for a girl above his station and the Shipless Pirates complicate things considerably. Besides which, there's the obligatory sneering villain to make life hard for our hero.
Tongue-in-cheek is Angleberger's rallying cry in this book, as he takes on a traditional genre (um, Upstairs-Downstairs Melodrama? Gothic English Manor House Mystery with Highwaymen?) and makes it his own. Here's where we meet Horton:
"Lazy, lazy, lazy boy!" roared Miss Neversly, a middle-aged woman with two hundred years' worth of meanness in her. Her wild black hair whipped across her furious face as she swung her spoon at the servant boy. "Wretched wart-covered ape!"
Beware, Reader, do not form an opinion of Horton based on Miss Neversly's cruel words. True, he had just been a trifle careless in the matter of firewood fetching. However, he is to be the hero of our story and it is only fair to point out that he was ill-paid and ill-treated for his services, which mostly involved the washing of dishes and was normally done quite carefully.
Be sure to watch for the author's parody of Hercule Poirot and his ilk, AKA The Greatest Detective in all of England. Plus the harried and harrying members of the press. I also really enjoyed Angleberger's frequent references to previous volumes about Lady Luggertuck, e.g., "Faithful readers will remember that M'Lady Luggertuck had a fear of forks ever since the events recounted in 'M'Lady Luggertuck Hires a Tattooed Nanny.'"
Outrageous? Oh, yes! But very funny, and very fun. I suspect this one requires a rather different sort of reader than some of the other books listed here, but for the kid with a taste for farce, Horton Halfpott will be just the ticket.
The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander
If you make your way to the fourth stall in the East Wing boys' bathroom of a certain elementary/middle school, you will find the offices of a kid who's a slightly shady problem solver. Mac and his best friend Vince are in business, and they're good at what they do. They're also saving every penny they earn so they can get tickets to the World Series, where they hope to watch the Chicago Cubs get their due at last.
Until suddenly things go south. A mysterious high school crime lord named Staples orders his bookies and thugs to undercut Mac's business. Mac retaliates in his usual clever fashion, enlisting the help of the baddest of his school's bullies, but Staples is ahead of him every step of the way—all because Mac has agreed to offer his protection to a worried third grader.
The Fourth Stall has a mafia thriller feel as it escalates, with Mac's every effort stymied and even those closest to him falling under suspicion. Walden Pond Press is known for its book-to-film crossovers, and it's easy to picture this one as a movie. If they do make it, I hope they don't lose the strongest things about the book: Mac's voice and the buildup of suspense. You almost wish the story wouldn't end: as in movies like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, it's almost more fun not knowing just why things are going so very wrong for your hero! I'll leave you with a glimpse of Mac from early in the book.
I was sitting behind my desk in the fourth stall from the high window. Maybe I should stop here to explain how we fit my desk into the stall. A lot of kids will tell you that the toilet was cleared out years ago due to a huge accident. They say some joker tried to flush a whole box of Black Cats and four cherry bombs down the toilet. Supposedly, the porcelain shards exploded everywhere and severed his arm and he now has a hook for a hand and lives in some special institution for kids who think they're pirates.
I know the truth, though, because I have connections the other kids don't.
Warp Speed by Lisa Yee
Yee is famous for her humor, but there's something awfully poignant about Marley's story. The major theme here is bullying, which reminds me just a tad of a recent fantasy novel, Ellen Booraem's Small Persons with Wings. With all the accounts of cyberbullying and other student persecution in the news lately, I suppose it's no wonder that the topic is cropping up in MG/YA more often these days.
Marley Sandelski's life is one endless round of being bullied. In answer, he puts on the speed. But when he accidentally wins a race for the track team that's been trying to recruit him, Marley isn't necessarily interested. For one thing, he doesn't want to abandon his own little group of geeks. For another, he runs for himself.
One of my favorite things about this book is how it mocks the clueless, pointless way well-meaning adults address bullying—with goofy assemblies and messages the bullies alternately jeer at and incorporate into their own ruthless schtick.
Warp Speed is another book in the Millicent Min series, with appearances from characters like Stanford, Emily, and Millicent. Yee perfectly captures the voices of these middle school kids. The audio-visual club is a great setting for Marley and his equally unpopular buddies, and I especially enjoyed the endless arguments about which is better, Star Wars, Star Trek, or—thanks to a newcomer—Batman. Here's Marley, climbing the bleachers for a school pep rally:
As I push my way up the bleachers, I get punched in the arm three times. This started last year. Some guy hit me for no reason, and now he and his two idiot sidekicks do it all the time. I call them the Gorn, after the evil slow-moving beast who first appeared in "Arena," Star Trek: The Original Series (a.k.a. TOS), Season One, Episode 18. The biggest Gorn is the leader. His head looks like a giant pink grapefruit, he's got a beak nose, and he's missing a front tooth. The middle Gorn is missing part of his left eyebrow. He hits the hardest. The smallest Gorn is crazy scary, laughs like a little girl, and appears to be missing a brain. All of them have shaved heads and wear letterman jackets with no letters on them. They used to play football, but got kicked off the team for not playing by the rules. Each time any of them lands a punch, they high-five. Forget touchdowns—just hit Marley instead.
And the Gorn aren't Marley's only bullies, though the boy who forces him to do his homework, Digger, ends up having secrets of his own. I think you'll find that Marley's matter-of-fact approach to the depressing realities of his life at school is one of the most painful things about Warp Speed. You'll be rooting for this kid to survive, let alone to get out from under those Gorn fists, Digger's homework racket, and the sneers of the popular kids.
The Secret of Rover by Rachel Wildavsky
This one's the exception because its main characters are a brother-and-sister team. However, it's not the exception in that it's an adventure story, a book that's plot-based with a capital P. Besides which, the girl, Katie, is kind of irritating—or at least, irritated—throughout the book.
Katie and her twin, David, are left with a nanny while their parents fly to Eastern Europe to pick up the baby they're adopting. Only the nanny acts creepy even before their parents take off, and after they do, she really shows her true colors. Even worse, Katie and David's parents stop answering their phones...
This is our introduction to the new nanny:
[T]he woman stared back from beneath straight black brows. She was short and squat and everything on her crackled with newness. Her neat skirt and blouse, her sensible low-heeled shoes, and even the twin suitcases that she clutched in each fist seemed to have been slipped from their plastic packages and arrayed on her person just moments before she appeared at their door. Her eyes flickered over them and for an instant her straight black brows drew together.
And then she smiled. It was a smile that seemed to glide out from the middle of her face on a slick coat of syrup. Wearing this slippery grin and gripping her suitcases, she leaned toward David. They were almost the same height.
"Hi, sweetie?" she said. "I'm your new nanny?"
Mr. and Mrs. Bowden are scientists who have invented a top-secret project called Rover for the government, and their disappearance is no accident. The fake nanny is in on the plot, part of a military group from a small country that wants to get its hands on Rover. Once they are in control, they make it clear that Katie and David are prisoners and should be grateful if they even get fed. It becomes apparent that the kids will be killed soon.
But Katie and David manage to make their escape, hoping to get to their reclusive Uncle Alex, who also worked on the Rover project. Most of this book is one really long chase scene in which Evil Nanny and her cohorts try to recapture the twins. The kids have a number of near misses and come up with some daring ways to evade their pursuers.
We eventually do get to meet Uncle Alex. The reason for his seclusion strains credibility a bit, but then, this is one of those secret weapon/spy adventures, so credibility isn't its primary goal. More to the point, The Secret of Rover is a daring adventure that I think kids will like. Pair it with Gordon Korman's series, On the Run.
Death Cloud by Andrew Lane
Of all the "younger versions of famous literary figures" out there, Sherlock Holmes has got to be one of the best picks. As the jacket flap tells us, "Fully authorized and endorsed by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, Death Cloud launches a new series of books that will take the teenage Sherlock Holmes, along with his tutor and friends, to America, Russia, and beyond."
I do wonder how many contemporary teens are as drawn to historical mystery as adult readers might be, but putting that aside, this is a promising endeavor. I'm sure the recent Robert Downey Jr. incarnation of the great detective, while it may have shocked purists, can only help sell these books. While Holmes tends to be remembered for his cerebral prowess, he makes a perfectly good adventurous hero, too.
Death Cloud begins, not with Sherlock, but with another boy. Matthew Arnatt is a 14-year-old living hand to mouth, and when he sees the bizarre cloud going in and out of an upper window, followed by a terrible scream, he simply runs. Later we learn more about who died, although how, exactly, is a mystery for much of the book.
Here is the scene is which Sherlock meets Matthew (Matty):
"For a townie you really can sit still, can't you?"
"So can you," Sherlock responded to the voice behind him. "You've been watching me for half an hour."
"How did you know?" Sherlock heard a soft thud, as if someone had just jumped down from the lower branches of a tree onto the ferns that covered the ground.
"There are birds perching in all the trees except for one—the one you're sitting in. They're obviously frightened of you."
"I won't hurt them, just like I won't hurt you."
Sherlock turned his head slowly. The voice belonged to a boy of about his own age, only smaller and stockier than Sherlock's lanky frame. His hair was long enough to reach his shoulders. "I'm not sure you could," Sherlock said as calmly as possible under the circumstances.
"I can fight dirty," the boy said. "And I got a knife."
"Yes, but I've been watching the boxing matches at school, and I've got a long reach."
Matty soon tells Sherlock about the mysterious cloud, which is only the beginning of the plot and its attendant horrors—a plot young Sherlock is determined to unravel. After all, he has been bored stiff after being exiled by his older brother to spend the summer with his dull aunt and uncle at their country estate. Things begin to pick up when he meets Matty, and then Sherlock is assigned a strange tutor from American, Amyus Crowe. Crowe has a pretty daughter, but she's not the demure type, and Sherlock isn't quite sure how to talk to her. Virginia ends up helping him out, however, and it's a good thing his list of allies is growing. Sherlock has come up against a perverse supervillain who would be only too happy to kill anyone who interferes with his plans.
The actual conspiracy is a little off-the-wall, reminiscent of the plans of a James Bond villain, but the adventure is thoroughly enjoyable, and I think you'll enjoy watching an untried Sherlock as he learns from his mistakes as well as from people like his unusual tutor, the sensible Matty, and the intrepid Virginia.
The Secret Journeys of Jack London: The Wild by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon
Then there's the new Young Jack London series, made all the more intriguing by the authors' decision to introduce elements of the supernatural. This was perhaps inspired by the fact that Jack London's mother, a troubled woman, actually worked as a spiritualist in San Francisco for a time. Other astonishing claims in The Wild—that London worked as an oyster pirate at 13, then went to sea and traveled to Japan, lived as a bum after his return to the States, and was jailed for six months, all before the age of 18—are true. (What's more, though it's not in this book, Jack finally attended high school after all of these adventures, writing for the school paper!)
Note that Jack is arguably more memorable than any one of the characters he created, except maybe the dog in Call of the Wild. Golden and Lebbon have chosen to make Jack a few years younger as he sets off for Alaska and the Klondike Gold Rush. Oh, and they've thrown in Native American nature spirits and monsters, not to mention some very bad bad guys. But it's true that Jack London got scurvy while in Alaska.
Take a look at the wilderness as seen through the fictional Jack's eyes:
The landscape was incredible. He came to see it as the great white silence, because if he stood still out in the snowfield, all he could hear was his own breathing and the thudding of his own heart. There was not a breath of wind out there, as if the air itself were frozen into inmobility. The land slept beneath the thick carpet of snow. Sometimes it snowed some more, but other times the air was crisp and clear, and even though the sun didn't rise so high above the horizon, he could see a long way. Closing his eyes, standing out in the snow, he always knew from which direction his watcher observed.
Because it was still there.
The Wild is an adventure story, which is obviously fitting for anything focusing on Jack London. Jack's personal/spiritual evolution in the book is at times a little self-conscious, and I'm not too sure about his stint living in a patch of enchanted forest with a lovely, lethal demigoddess, but I did enjoy the wolf guardian, and the whole thing's a refreshing take on a genre that has gotten rather bogged down with Alex Rider imitators over the past decade or so.
In fact, looking at this crop of books and others that have come out in the past year or two, I would say that authors and publishers have stepped up to the plate, meeting the challenge to produce better books for boy readers.
Note for Worried Parents: Zachary Ruthless's stated goals may be of concern to some parents, while The Fourth Stall's Mac is a rule-breaker in his own right, plus people get beat up. The bullying in Warp Speed can be upsetting. The kids on the run in The Secret of Rover break a few laws along the way as they try to avoid being captured. Young Sherlock has his first exposure to opium, and there are various threats and murders in Death Cloud, a book intended for teens. Another work for the Young Adult reader, The Wild is pretty mature, particularly when it comes to violence, of which wendigo-type cannibalism is only one example. The book deliberately highlights the brutality of mankind and of nature.
Update, 5-1-11: For another take on young Sherlock Holmes, try Shane Peacock's series, starting with Eye of the Crow. Peacock's books have an air of melancholy about them and are very well written. On a related note, Anthony Horowitz, author of the best-selling Alex Rider YA spy series, has been asked by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to write a new adult Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Update, 5-15-11: Here's a nice video interview with Chris Rylander, author of The Fourth Stall. Among other things, we learn about major plot points in the sequels.