Monday, June 30, 2008

#34 Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes

Phantasm XXXIV: Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes

Front Tagline: Keep off their grass!
Back Tagline: Someone's Been Stalking In My Garden!

Official Book Description:
Two pink flamingos. A whole family of plaster skunks. Joe Burton's dad loves those tacky lawn ornaments. But then he brings home two ugly lawn gnomes. And that's when the trouble starts.
Late at night. When everyone's asleep.
Someone's creeping in the garden. Whispering nasty things. Smashing melons. Squashing tomatoes.
No way two dumb old lawn ornaments could be causing all the trouble.
Is there?

Brief Synopsis:
I thought perhaps I'd misremembered Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes. Maybe it was one of the "funny" Goosebumps books? Remarkably, I didn't and it isn't. RL Stine wrote a "scary" book about gardening. RL Stine, for future reference, here's a cheat sheet:

Things that are scary: Monsters. Ghosts. Nuclear war.
Things that are not scary: Gardening. Gnomes. Gardening.

By now, you probably know that this was the last Goosebumps book I read as a child, and thus fittingly the last book of the original series to be covered by the blog. Before I revisited the book, I wondered if I'd be able to pinpoint the exact moment when I realized I'd outgrown the series. I got pretty far into the book before I was able to finger the breaking point, almost to the third sentence of the first page. It was probably never possible for a book called Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes to be good, but I didn't anticipate it would be this worthless. But don't take my word for it, take my word for it:

The book opens with a ping pong game. At one point protagonist Joe Burton serves the ping pong ball by kicking it instead of using the paddle, much to his older sister Mindy's chagrin. He then follows that up with a hilarious routine where he tells her there's a spider on her back. Oh man, and then, and there are tears of laughter streaming down my face as I write this, he tells her she's got something gross on her face. Isn't Joe the coolest? Don't bother answering, he's got this one:
Me? I'm not organized. I'm cool. I'm not serious like my sister. I can be pretty funny.
Must be a hidden talent. Joe reveals that he doesn't look like anyone else in the family. They're all tall and skinny and he's short and stout. Perhaps you're thinking that the twist will be Joe is actually a lawn gnome. I wish that were the twist. That is not the twist.

Shortly after arriving in the rec room, Joe's friend Moose sits on Joe's chest. I don't know either, let's move on. Moose lives next door. His father, Mr. McCall, and Joe's father have a running rivalry involving the produce they grow in their gardens. If that sounds exciting, good news, that's the entire book. The scary paperback with the dripping letters on the cover, it's about gardening.

Mr. McCall has it out for Joe's dog Buster, as the mutt has an affinity for trampling into the McCall's garden and digging it up. And sure enough, as soon as this plot point is mentioned, Buster is revealed to be digging up the McCall's garden. Mr. McCall comes out in a rampage and threatens the children and their little dog too. Boy, I haven't seen a McCall this angry since Gordon wore Casey's shirt. Joe pulls out his trusty dog whistle and Buster slinks back into the Burton's yard. I just don't understand how anyone can hate the Burtons' dog:

Joe's dad thinks it would be a fine time to visit the little old lady down the block, as she sells gardening supplies from the first floor of her three story house. The woman, Lilah, somehow stays in business, selling lots of garden-related paraphernalia, like New Jersey snowglobes and Truly Madly Deeply cassingles. Joe's dad is such a good customer that he even named a plaster deer after her, Deer-Lilah. Please note: that's not my joke. It's the book's fault!

Joe's dad loves lawn ornaments, even going so far as to dress-up the plaster deer and flamingos on his lawn for the holidays. Joe's mother however hates the lawn ornaments and finds them embarrassing. It's too bad Joe's father didn't marry John Waters. Well, I guess not everyone can appreciate the subtle social commentary of putting a beard on a plastic bird to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday. The worst part is that I didn't make that up, that's one of the holiday decorations in the book.

Joe's dad spies two darling little lawn gnomes and instantly purchases the small plaster men, eager to be a part of the Gnome Owners Association. Mindy warns that the lawn gnomes look evil in a poor attempt to generate suspense. Joe's father however ignores such frightful talk and cheerfully names the little guys Chip (because his tooth is chipped) and Hap (because either he's so happy looking or half-Japanese). Here is a list of better names for gnomes:

Gnome Chomsky
Gnome N. Clature
Gnomie the Clown
Lil' Gnomeo
Gnome Macdonald
Sean "Puffy" Gnomes
Gnomer Simpson

Walking back home with the gnomes in hand, Joe thinks he sees Hap change its expression from a cheery grin to a grim howl. Seriously, this is the book. I still can't believe it. Evil Lawn Gnomes Who Move Their Faces: The Book.

You can probably guess what happens next. Strange horrible things start to happen to Mr. McCall's lawn, and Buster the dog keeps getting blamed. Also, in between sequences of tomatoes getting squeezed and squashes getting, you guessed it, stomped, there are plenty of additional gardening scenes. However, the suspicion quickly turns from the dog to the gnomes when Mr. McCall awakes one morning to find someone has drawn smiley faces on his prized casaba melons:

Forgetting what we all learned last week with respect to what dogs can do, Joe is immediately suspected of the deed. Joe pleads his innocence and even brings in evidence of the real perpetrators: there's black paint underneath one of the gnome's hands and a melon seed between his lips. Perhaps the twist is the gnome is actually Al Jolson?

It soon becomes apparent that the rivalry between the neighboring gardening aficionados is escalating, yet the attempt to turn a gardening feud into a thrill-a-minute frightfest never quite pans out. Let me reiterate: some Goosebumps books are intentionally funny or lightweight, but this book plays it completely straight and expects the reader to be involved in a gardening war.

Joe becomes convinced that the gnomes are responsible and talks Moose into staking out the two houses to catch the lawn ornaments in the act. Moose cancels his big date with Midge and the two hide across the street on stakeout, in a scene which beautifully references everyone's favorite Emilio Estevez comedy, Men at Work. Eventually, the gnomes do come to life and start their terrorizing.

The giggling men start splashing big buckets of paint against the exterior of Joe's house, which is not part of the garden unless these gnomes have a really loose definition of what constitutes a lawn ornament. A confrontation between the gnomes and the children breaks out and at some point Mindy shows up and one of the gnomes drags her into the street by her hair. So the book is still just like any show on TLC.

The gnomes suddenly get very serious and reveal that they are Mischief Gnomes who were kidnapped from their native forest and sold into slavery. RL Stine is just about the last author who should be so cavalierly co-opting slave trade imagery. The gnomes reveal that they can't help causing trouble, it's in their nature. But, if the three kids will help rescue their friends being held at the garden supply store, Chip and Hap promise to leave forever. The kids agree and make their way to the old woman's house.

The other kidnapped ornaments are supposedly left gnome alone in Lilah's basement. Hap and Chip would have freed them alone but they weren't able to get in the basement window. Now with the help of the children, they'll be able to free their six gnome friends. The kids lower the gnomes into the dark basement and follow behind. Once inside, they see that they've been tricked. There's not six other gnomes. There's six hundred. Wait, you mean you can't trust Mischief Gnomes?!

The hordes of gnomes come to life and start attacking the children. Some want to tickle an unwilling Mindy, apparently unaware that "gnome means gnome." Other gnomes want to use the children as trampolines or play tug of war with their bodies. This is scary? It's not even all that weird because it's so ridiculous. The children are upset about being tricked and even more upset that the narrative has strayed so far from its fundamental gardening aspects.

Luckily, Joe remembers how gnomes are scared of dogs (but not all animals I guess) and so he calls for Buster to come into the basement using his whistle. But it turns out gnomes aren't scared of dogs, they're scared of dog whistles. All of the gnomes freeze into place as soon as Joe blows the trinket. Well, I'll go ahead and say it: That was convenient.

But the Twist is:
Joe's dad, distraught from mysteriously losing his two lawn gnomes, brings home an eight foot tall plaster gorilla for the garden. Wait, a what?
"I think it's a beauty, Dad," I said. "It's the best looking lawn gorilla I ever saw."
The twist is supposedly that then the gorilla winks and oh it's a shock, but the real twist is what the deuce is a lawn gorilla

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Joe and his sister Mindy, who disappears into a pack of wild living gnomes 4/5 of the way through the novel.

Questionable Parenting:
Entering the Garden of Getting Even, Joe's father takes his squashed tomato and walks over to Mr. McCall, who happens to be wearing an all-white jumpsuit. Joe's dad hurls the fruit at his neighbor, in a scene that isn't at all telegraphed or predictable.

Minority Alert:
One of those gnomes on the cover appears to be in the middle of an offensive "Me Chinese Me Make Joke" routine.

R.L. Stine Shows He Is Down With the Kids:

Early 90s Cultural References:

Early 00s Cultural Predictions:
Joe is reminded of a zombie from a film with the unlikely title of Killer Zombie From the Planet Zero. This along with Chip's injury was twice in a book about gardening that I was reminded of Planet Terror. That's kind of a horror movie, but there isn't any gardening in that film, so in retrospect it probably doesn't seem quite as scary or exciting as Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes does now.

Look, Seriously, the Entire Book is About Gardening:
Maybe I haven't stressed this enough. I actually left out most of the gardening parts too, so just imagine how much worse it really is. There's an entire chapter about the whole family cheerfully spraying plants with insecticide.

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 5/6:
Joe had no idea he and his family were about to begin "the most horrifying adventure" of their lives... as they walk into a garden store. Well, after this book, I'll admit it, the idea of any more gardening is a little frightening.

Great Prose Alert:
Anything is better than lawn gnomes who come alive and do terrible mischief.

Yeah, now I remember.

Next week, Blogger Beware will be presenting a retrospective covering the first 62 books. Along with many other "fun" categories, I'll be counting down the best and worst Goosebumps books in the original series. Think you know what'll make the top and bottom ten? You might be surprised.

Monday, June 23, 2008

#26 My Hairiest Adventure

#26 My Hairiest Adventure

Front Tagline: It keeps growing... and growing... and growing...
Back Tagline: He's Having A Really, Really Bad Hair Day...

Official Book Description:
Larry Boyd just found the coolest thing in the trash. It's an old bottle of INSTA-TAN. "Rub on a dark suntan in minutes"-- that's what the label says. So Larry and his friends do. But nothing much happens.
Until Larry notices the hair. Dark, spikey [sic] hair growing on his hands and face. Really gross shiny hair.
Hair that jeeps growing back even after he shaves it off....

Brief Synopsis:
Well, we might as well get this out of the way. All together now: This is the one where it turns out they're all dogs or something.

As the book opens, Larry Boyd is running from a pack of dogs. For some reason, dogs just love chasing after Larry. Maybe I misremembered the twist and they all turn out to be Milkbone Dog Treats or something. Larry slides across ice and snow as he races towards his friend Lily's house. Luckily Lily has just the thing to stop a dog chase: a snow shovel, which she waves around in a threatening manner. The dogs all scamper away so they can laugh at her without hurting her feelings. Please note that this opening sequence is the only remotely adventurous event in a book with the word "Adventure" in the title.

Larry made the trek to Lily's house so that they and their friends Manny, Kristina, and Jared can rehearse for the upcoming Middle School Battle of the Bands. I know what you're saying, "I've never heard of a middle school throwing a Battle of the Bands" contest, and the fact that they only have one other band competing against them certainly would explain why this isn't a regular event. Their main competition is a band called Howie and the Shouters, a superior rock n' roll group led by the titular school jerk. But Larry and crew's band is offering stiff competition for the, um, competition.

See, their band, the Geeks, consists of three guitars, a keyboard, and vocals. Bass guitar and drums are a lot easier to learn than the guitar, but not in Goosebumps world. Another questionable musical moment soon follows when the keyboard's "saxophone" preset is said to perfectly recreate the sound of a saxophone solo, over which the characters roundhouse their instruments. It doesn't help the band any that they spend as much time changing their name as they do actually playing music-- "Pirate Gold" is vetoed for not being as cool as "the Geeks," which is almost as bad a decision as that time Vampire Weekend rejected any other band name at all in favor of "Vampire Weekend." The Geeks work each other up with trash talk about Howie and the Shouters, joking about how horrible Howie's squeaking guitar sounds. Somewhere, Isaac Brock is sobbing into a couch cushion.

Perhaps you're thinking, "Well, they may be no match for Howie and the Shouters, but maybe they've got the right look for a popular band." First, that's a very relevant thought and I thank you for thinking it. Second, nope. Larry has big ears (which are over-exaggerated on the horrible horrible cover) and wavy blonde hair; Lily is blonde with bangs and her eyes are two different colors (remember, this is the one where they all turn out to be Marilyn Manson or something); Manny is a man, so there goes any relevant Degrassi jokes; Kristina is fat and so of course she's always eating in every scene; Jared plays keyboards and if he was given more character information than that, I don't remember it. Maybe he's the mysterious fourth Smoosh sibling.

Well, after running through a couple classic rock songs, the kids decide to take ten and go play in the snow. While outside, they decide that if they're gonna be in a rock band, they might as well practice being poor. While digging through their neighbor's trash, they come across a discarded medicine cabinet. Showing they indeed are not ready to be musicians, they ignore the pharmaceutical bottles and instead retrieve a bottle of INSTA-TAN. For some reason, all five members of the band think that it would be really awesome to get a fake tan.

So awesome that they excitedly race into the bathroom and take turns squirting the liquid on their bodies. I guess this was written before adults realized what groups of children really do in a bathroom together. Everyone is having such a grand old time rubbing fake tan solution on their bodies that no one cares when Larry expresses concern over the fact that the INSTA-TAN expired in 1991.

The hilarious bathroom tanning party ends when Manny pretends to peel off his skin, only to reveal that it was merely a wet kleenex. Again, so close to what teenagers are doing in the bathroom and yet so far.

The gang makes its way back outside and participates in a massive, highly-unlikely snowball fight. The fun of the afternoon proves to have been too much for Larry and he loses consciousness and collapses. I'm avoiding making puberty and pubic hair jokes in conjunction with the forthcoming hair-growth scenes, but I'm not above raising my eyebrows over the name of Larry's pediatrician: Dr. Murkin. Dr. Murkin gives Larry his regular bi-monthly shot and reminds the boy that he's not supposed to overexert himself, as he doesn't have sweat glands. Larry whines and Dr. Murkin pats Larry's head and tells him he's still a good boy, a good boy! Yes he is, yes he is!

Please note that for every half-assed attempt at giving the characters dog-traits, such as different colored eyes and no sweat glands on the skin, there's still plenty of missteps, such as the fact that everyone can see colors. Also, outside of barking "Jingle Bells" in popular Christmas novelty songs, dogs don't possess musical abilities.

After his injection, Larry races back to the snowball party but finds that it dissipated shortly after he left. Apparently Howie came by to gloat about having bought an Eric Clapton songbook for the contest, so I guess the sixth grade audience can look forward to being regaled with a squeaky-guitar rendition of "Cocaine."

That night, between the snowball fight, the fake tan party, and playing with his cat Jasper, Larry's simply exhausted. But before he can drift off to sleep, he's shocked to discover a thick patch of hair growing on his palm. He races to the bathroom and luckily he beat Jack Lemmon, so there's still razorblades inside. He lathers up and shaves his palm. It's a disgusting scene. There's a lot of shaving scenes in the book and they're all disgusting, though at least they all end before "Needle In the Hay" can start playing.

The next morning, Larry is paranoid about his hair growth. Everyone already calls him "Hairy Larry," and since kids aren't very creative, this wouldn't get them to stop. He tries asking Lily if she experienced the same thing, since he's attributing this growth to the fake tan they all used. Lily reveals that in fact she has and also she's a werewolf. Larry buys her story for a few minutes, which goes to show you, dogs are dumb. Proof:
But I had believed her story. Up to the part where she said she ate three people.
In class, Howie gives a book report on a Matt Christopher novel. If you never read a Matt Christopher book as a child, they were basically the Horror at Camp Jellyjam without monsters. Howie's oral report is awful but he's Howie, so he manages to ace it. Larry goes up to give his Bruce Coville (!) report but Howie trips him. Larry's confused though: it's winter but he'd just been wished a nice fall. Sorry. While picking himself up the ground, Larry notices the hair has grown back around his hands, this time covering both palms. He runs out into the hall and retrieves his gloves from his locker. Things could be worse, though. Lots of cool people wear gloves: chauffeurs, elevator operators, Mickey Mouse.

What follows in the book is sixty pages of hair growth. Sometimes on the knees, hands, arms, and regrettably near the end, across the forehead. Let me reiterate: reading about hair growth is gross. At some point, Manny disappears and a dog with the same shaggy hair as Manny joins the pack of dogs that runs around the small town. When Larry goes to investigate, he discovers Manny's house is completely empty. He can't figure out why he left, but of course his biggest concern is that now the Geeks only have two guitar players instead of three. Oh no, now they can no longer re-enact Zaireeka on stage.

Things go from bad to bad when Lily also disappears. When Larry tries to talk to her parents, they quickly drive away, but not before insisting they never knew any Lily. Now down to one guitar player (If they keep losing members, they'll just turn into Casiotone For the Painfully Alone), the Geeks must make a difficult decision as the Battle of the Bands approaches. If they drop out, someone's going to have to scribble out the final 's' on all the promotional material. The remaining kids ultimately decide that regardless of the dwindling size of their band, the show must go on. Triumphantly, they declare that they'll do it for Lily. And they're not the only ones doing it all for Lily:

Finally the night of the Battle of the Bands arrives. Luckily, Jared's mother was in the audience and while she ignored the other members of the group, she did capture some excellent footage of her son's performance:

Since Howie and the Shouters went on first and were even called back for an encore, the bar was set pretty high for the Geeks. Luckily they brought the house down with "I Want To Hold Your Hand"-- or should that be "I Want To Hold Your Paw"? Amazingly, the Geeks win the Battle of the Bands on the strength of their special effects. See, while performing, Larry turns into a dog. The audience, being huge fans of the Teen Wolf movies, thinks this is done with Hollywood Magic, when it is in fact done with Larry being a dog.

Ashamed, Larry runs home and tells his parents what happened. His father's reply?

But the Twist is:
"You're a dog."

See, Dr. Murkin developed a way of turning dogs into children and then giving them to his employees. The twice-monthly injections were booster shots of the serum, but after a dozen years, the formula loses its effect. Everyone in the town works for Dr. Murkin and all the children are in fact dogs. His former parents tell Larry that Dr. Murkin has decided not to turn dogs into children anymore. The book ends with Larry's parents bringing home a newborn baby girl named Jasper. So at least one of them turns out to be a cat or something.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Larry and his bandmate Lily, who disappears halfway through the novel and also turns out to be a dog or something.

Questionable Parenting:
Nope, I can't think of a single instance of any adult in this book making a poor decision.

Questionable Employing:
"Mr. Boyd, I've called you and your wife into my office to tell you that your company dog is now your company child. If you have any parenting questions, remember, I'm a scientist. Buy a book or something. Okay see you guys l8r."

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
I'll never get tired of this. Ch. 25/26:
"You're a dog."

Great Prose Alert:
"Let's try it!" Manny repeated, grinning his crooked grin.

Most Goosebumps books are dogs, but this one is a real howler.
Thank you.

Monday, June 16, 2008

#27 A Night In Terror Tower

#27 A Night In Terror Tower

Front Tagline: It's gonna be a L-O-N-G night!
Back Tagline: All Locked Up And No Place To Go!

Official Book Description:
Sue and her brother, Eddie, are visiting London when they run into a little problem. They can't find their tour group. Still, there's no reason to panic. No way their tour guide would just leave them. All alone. In a gloomy old prison tower.
No way they'd get locked inside. After dark. With those eerie sounds. And a strange dark figure who wants them...dead.

Brief Synopsis:
When Woody Allen set Match Point in London, he inspired critical praise for moving beyond his comfort zone. No such accolades awaited the author of Goosebumps ten years prior though, as RL Stine remains an Alexa Chung in a Louis Theroux world.

Sue and her younger brother Eddie are American tourists in London. They've spent an average day in London, eating bangers, riding in double-decker buses, and visiting old buildings. This was written before Skins, so these kids didn't bother to do anything fun during their unsupervised jaunt around town. As the story opens, Sue and Eddie are touring the infamous ominous Terror Tower. Sue didn't want to go but Eddie begged her. Being a good sister, she does take the opportunity to tease him about his tendency to get scared a lot, especially at movies. Hey Eddie, if you don't want to get scared, I've got just the movie for you:

Inside the castle, the guide leads the tourists around the various rooms, showing them empty jail cells and torture chambers. The guide spends a good amount of time introducing the various tools of torture, such as the rack, thumbscrews, and a paperback copy of Watchers. Sue's first reaction to such horrific sights is to take a picture, but she can't find her disposable camera. Her brother produces it from his bag and it's revealed that Eddie is a gifted pickpocket. Oh now I think I remember the twist ending of this one: spiritual transfiguration.

During the tour, Sue spies a man in black following their every move through the castle. Yet she never stops to tell him "Wrong tower book," so he maintains his watch over her and her brother. The tour guide leads the group into a small barred cell and tells them the tragic story of Prince Edward and Princess Susannah of York (You gotta be kidding me-- for more than one reason), two preteens who were sentenced to death by the King. Sue tries to listen to the story but gets distracted by Eddie breaking her camera and misses the end. Well, it probably wasn't important.

Once Sue and Eddie stop bickering about the camera, they realize that the tour has left them behind. They walk out into the steep narrow stairwell and can't hear or see anything-- anything except the man in black. But instead of regaling the youngsters with gravel-voiced country rock, the man attempts to capture the children. The siblings still aren't quite sure what's going on, but the guy is wearing a cape. Even in Goosebumps books, common sense dictates that if a guy in a cape tries to capture you, you run in the opposite direction.

An extended chase down tunnels and sewers follows. Inside the sewer, a wave of rats move in on the humans, because when you're already cribbing from a few Stephen King books, what's one more? The two kids think quick and grab onto the metal rings descending from the ceiling, lifting their bodies up out of the rats. Kids learn practical life lessons in these books: If you're ever pursued by a strange man, run into a sewer and conjure a rat-wave.

Once the rat-tide subsides, the kids lower themselves down and escape out into the parking lot. They discover that their tour bus left without them, but luckily the trusty night guard tells them in a thick Scottish brogue where to call for a cab. Cross your fingers that the kids stop at a pub so we can get an Irish accent as well, as in London, every European accent abounds!

The cab delivers them to their hotel, where they're sure their parents, who came to London on business, are bound to be back. When the kids try to use the money their parents gave them, they discover it worthless. And they don't have two forms of ID, so writing a check is out too. The cab driver agrees to wait while they run up to their room for the money. Inside their hotel room however, they discover the suite to be empty, with no record of any family having registered. Also, when questioned by the concierge, the kids can't remember their last name. Most troubling of all, these characters will take like 90 pages to figure out what became startlingly obvious to anyone reading the book the moment the tour entered that final room.

The kids dine and dash in the hotel restaurant, fleeing to stiff the cabbie as well. Running through the kitchen corridors, the man in black blocks their path. He accosts Eddie and forces him to give up the three white stones he apparently lifted from the man in black earlier. Eddie does so and the man in black uses the stones to bring the kids back in time. Yet Sue and Eddie don't realize they've gone back in time and are convinced that the medieval-looking grogshop they've wandered into is an elaborate costume party. Running out of the abbey, Sue loses Eddie but finds common sense which reveals to her that she's no longer in the twentieth century. The man in black pops up again and there's another chase. You know what has never translated well into these summaries? Action sequences.

Sue pays a peasant for a hiding space with the funny money and is shocked to discover that it's actually real gold coins. I guess Pier 1's been around a while because the peasant hides her in a wicker basket. When the man in black strolls around, the peasant wastes no time turning Sue in. The man in black commands some soldiers to lift the basket into his cart. The peasant apologizes to the basket for turning the girl in, but she just couldn't go against the man in black-- after all, he's the Lord High Executioner!

Refusing to defer defer to the Lord High Executioner, Sue is escorted back to the castle, where Sue is reunited with Eddie. The two are locked in a cell, but not before the pale man in black taunts them with his white balls. Once the dignified and potent officer, whose functions are particularly vital leaves, a sorcerer appears. I don't care if already made the list, add 'sorcerer' to the list.

The white-bearded sorcerer introduces himself as Morgred, the king's personal magician. He then shocks exactly two people with the following proclamation: Sue and Eddie are actually Susannah and Edward. No. Way. Their parents are dead and their uncle, the King, has imprisoned them to await their death. Morgred used the magic stone balls to send the two kids as far into the future as possible and gave them false memories.

Let's think about this for a second. If this is true, why do the kids not have English accents? Why do the kids not have contemporary money if their clothes somehow became contemporary? And how do the kids still somehow have money to pay for the lunch and bus trip? And seriously, why does it take until page 114 of a 129 page book for the main characters to figure out this twist?

The kids try to make a break for it out the open cell door, but Morgred bewitches the children and they freeze in place. He apologizes with tears in his eyes, but if he lets the children escape, the King will kill him. If the sorcerer dies, his argument goes, who will perform magic for the kingdom? Eh, I bet they could find someone to do magic. I mean, I doubt the Amazing Johnathan still has a job. As this blubberin' Merlin keeps wailing, Eddie reveals to Sue that he's swiped the stones again. Remembering the ancient latin words Morgred used to cast the spell (Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!), the two cast themselves back into the present.

Back on the tour, they finally hear the rest of their story: on the night of the execution, the children mysteriously disappeared. A bearded man joins the children and thanks them for bringing him with them. Morgred asks for the children to call him Mr. Morgan and offers to cast a Food Spell to cure their hunger. The book ends as Eddie wittily replies that they don't need spells when there's fast food restaurants! I could quote the final exchange, which is worse than you'd suspect, but if I did I might accidentally cast a Stupid Spell and the blog would go back in time.

But the Twist is:

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Eddie and his sister Sue, who disappears into a basket two-thirds of the way through the book.

Questionable Wizarding:
Morgred has no problem abandoning all the people in the land who counted on his wizardry so long as he gets to eat burgers in the future.

Appropriate Anagram of the Title Alert:
A Nitwit Regent Horror

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 12/13:
The cab driver wants to get paid his fare. But the twist is that's how cabs work, you pay to ride inside them.

Great Prose Alert:
Up the steep, slippery stairs.

A Night in Terror Tower is well-written, but ultimately more jolly bad than jolly good. Get it, like Britons talk lolz it's a British book.

Monday, June 09, 2008

#56 the Curse of Camp Cold Lake

#56 the Curse of Camp Cold Lake

Front Tagline: Last one in is a rotten...ghost! (Are you kidding me)
Back Tagline: Sink Or...Sink

Official Book Description:
Camp is supposed to be fun, but Sarah hates Camp Cold Lake.
The lake is gross and slimy. And she's having a little trouble with her bunkmates. They hate her.
So Sarah comes up with a plan. She'll pretend to drown--then everyone will feel sorry for her.
But things don't go exactly the way Sarah planned. Because down by the cold, dark lake someone is watching her. Stalking her. Someone with pale blue eyes. And a see-through body...

Brief Synopsis:
Sarah Maas hates water, hates sports, hates camp, yet tragically finds herself at a water sports camp. Unfortunately, the one thing she does love is complaining about Camp Cold Lake in a really whiny tone. And the book's first-person, so there's plenty of insufferable sarcastic asides to go around. Sarah is a female Evan Ross, and there is no male Andy figure in the book to counterbalance the wussery. Sarah's younger brother, Aaron, is positioned to be that character everyone likes, but just because Stine's idea of character development is literally
He likes everything and everyone. And everyone always likes Aaron.
doesn't make it so.

Sarah has trouble making friends at camp. I can't believe the three other girls in her bunk don't want to be her friend. After all, she makes such a good first impression when she forces Briana to give up her bunk because she won't sleep under a window. And then when Meg gripes about being too short, Sarah tells her that thought she gets picked on for being tall, it's still better than being short. Sarah follows that by picking up Jan's bag, spilling out her asthma medicine and revealing that medical secret to the whole bunk. I think short of peeing all over their clothes, Sarah's made the worst possible first impression.

If there's a Goosebumps book set at camp, you can be sure a bonfire scene is a given, and the book doesn't disappoint in this regard. The three bunkmates get back at Sarah by convincing her that some boys threw firecrackers into the bonfire. Sarah runs away screaming and the entire camp laughs at her. Then the girls offer to make up with her, but this too is a ploy to simply place a snake on her back. So basically there are no likable characters in the book.

The two main camp counselors, Richard and Liz, present the camp's water safety rules. Liz is described by the female narrator as being quite fetching, and all the kids give her wolf whistles when she appears in denim cutoffs and a half-shirt. So basically there is one likable character in the book.

Liz is all business and starts rattling off the twenty-item swimming safety list. Sarah frets that she'll never learn twenty rules in another of a long line of comments that make the reader embarrassed for her. Richard is a card who constantly interrupts the proceedings to make "jokes" like this, prompted by one of the preteens asking to go swimming with Liz:
Don't ever swim with counselors-- they have germs!
Which begs the question: Is it really necessary to cock-block twelve-year-olds?

Liz emphasizes that the most important rule is to follow the Buddy System when going anywhere near the water. Before Richard can make a rude gesture with his pelvis, Liz proceeds to hammer home the importance of always going out in the water with another partner. Richard follows this by leading the camp in song. Actual lyrics to the camp song:
Get in the swim
Show your vigor and vim
Which is a textbook example of why you shouldn't publish a first draft. At one point another, more familiar lyric pops up:
Wetter is better
Oh man, I know what the twist is now, Camp Cold Lake is revealed to actually be

After the bonfire, Sarah races off into the woods and scoops some spiders into her flashlight, screwing the top over the creepy crawlies. Her brilliantly devious plan is to place the spiders under the covers of Meg and Briana's beds. I don't see this prank backfiring. After she makes it back to the empty cabin, Jan catches her tucking back the covers on Meg's bed and tattles once the girls get bitten by spiders. For some reason Stine expects us to take sides with the girl who put spiders in another girl's bed.

Now completely shunned by the camp, Sarah eats breakfast alone the next morning. At canoe class (?), no one will be Sarah's partner and she tattles to Liz to force Jan to be her Buddy. Out in the boat, Jan tips over the canoe on purpose, then blames Sarah. Liz swims out into the water and scornfully reminds Sarah that the presidential election of 1840 had already been decided.

Sarah's had enough and wants to run away from the camp. She tells her brother that she's going to run through the woods to the small town on the other side of the camp and call their parents to pick them up. Aaron reminds Sarah that the camp counselors specifically warned against walking in the dangerous woods, though since there weren't twenty reasons why, it must not be that big a deal.

Sarah gives up on the running away plan and hatches an even stupider plan: she'll go out into the water during free swim and pretend to drown. Since she can hold her breath for a long time, she'll just go hang around at the bottom of the lake for a few minutes, then float back up. Seemingly unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf's personal biography, Sarah thinks this will solve all her problems.

Since no one will be her buddy, she convinces Liz to let her swim alone. Sarah enacts her brilliant drowning plan by actually drowning. Whoops. As soon as she makes it back to the surface of the water, she can tell something's wrong with the campgrounds. Though it was summer when she went under, the air is a lot colder and all the leaves have fallen off the trees. What's more, there doesn't seem to be any other campers around. Sarah swims to shore and exits the cold cold water, shivering in the bitter air. As she walks around the deserted camp, flakes of snow begin to fall.

The camp is eerily quiet until a single voice catches Sarah's ear. Sarah encounters the source of the sad song she heard resting on the rickety old porch of a cabin. A pale girl wearing all white greets her, which confuses Sarah even further since though it's snowing, the date couldn't be past Labor Day. The pale girl introduces herself as Della and gives Sarah a nice warm white bathrobe. Della is thrilled that Sarah's come, because she needs a buddy before she can enter "the Other World." Great, just what getting into Heaven needed, another rule.

Della floats up, revealing that she's a ghost, and that Sarah too has died. Della tries to bully Sarah into being her buddy but Sarah freaks out and runs towards the water. She swims out as far as she can and is suddenly greeted with the welcoming image of Liz performing CPR on her.

The entire camp cheers on Liz's mouth to mouth with the girl, only to stop once she exclaims she's alive. She confides that they thought she had died. Jan spoils the celebratory mood by chiming in that she and her boyfriend George Glass are sure Sarah just drowned for the attention. The bunkmates eventually decide that they've been too mean to Sarah and offer her a genuine fresh start. Everything seems to be going so well until Sarah starts seeing the ghost of Della everywhere around camp.

Slowly losing her mind, Sarah visits with the head counselor and asks to hear about the camper who drowned at Camp Cold Lake. The counselor clams up and insists that no camper ever drowned at the camp. Sarah insists that one did, Della, but he won't listen to her. He explains that the camp has so many safety rules for swimming that some people even consider it "the Curse of Camp Cold Lake." Oh, now I get the title, it's like when you have a bad hair day!

Outside of his office, Della taunts Sarah and Sarah hurls insults at the ghost girl. Unfortunately, Briana chose that moment to walk up to Sarah in a friendly manner, and she's genuinely crushed that Sarah would insult her for no reason. Sarah tries to convince Briana that she was talking to the ghost and Briana gives her a strange look.

Richard suggested that Sarah take up water-skiing, with the idea being that the sport is so hard that she'll have to focus all her energy on performing and won't have time to think about ghosts. This is an excellent plan up until the moment where Della takes control of the motorboat and attempts to kill Sarah. At one particularly gruesome moment, Della runs the motorboat over Sarah's head, attempting to decapitate her with the blades of the motor.

Sarah figures that she's had enough of Della trying to kill her in the water and revives her plan to run away. She runs into Briana on the way to the woods and Briana strangely wishes her good luck. As Sarah makes her way through the forest, she spies Della's ghost hanging out in a tree and looking very happy. Della tells her that she'll never leave her, after all she's her buddy.

Sarah is repulsed and lashes out at Della for trying to drown her just because she herself drowned. Della laughs at this and asks her why Sarah had thought she drowned? Della tells Sarah that the counselor was right, no child has ever drowned at Camp Cold Lake. After all, how could anyone drown when there are twenty different rules in place to prevent it? No, Della had wandered off into the woods and was bitten by a poisonous snake.

Della explains that she had to make Sarah afraid of the water so that she would try to escape from the camp through the woods. There are so many poisonous snakes in the woods that it's impossible to make your way through without being bitten. Sarah feels a snake wrap itself around her leg. Before the snake can bite her though, a voice cries out, warning that Della is not her buddy: Briana!

Briana rushes over and pulls the snake off of Sarah's leg and hurls it into the woods. Briana reveals that she went to the camp last year and Della tried to get her to be her buddy, but she resisted. That's why Briana came back this year, to warn whoever Della targeted next not to be her buddy. Suddenly empowered, Sarah proclaims that even though she hates the camp, she'll come back next year to warn the next potential victim against being Della's buddy. Della howls out in anger and falls off the tree limb, disappearing into the darkness.

But the Twist is:
Sarah goes to hug Briana, only to discover that her arms go right through her. Briana explains that Della killed her last summer, and the only reason she didn't become her buddy is because she didn't like her. Briana then holds up a large poisonous snake and asks Sarah to be her buddy.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Sarah Maas and her brother Aaron, who disappears like 1/8 of the way through the novel.

Questionable Counseling:
How did the other counselors not notice that the kid who died last year is now enrolled again for camp?

Minority Alert:
Briana is an African-American, and yes, cringe-inducingly, she is described as having cornrows. Well of course, because the only way to differentiate between a black person and a white one in Goosebumps world is to give the black character racist physical traits. At least he resisted the urge to have her eating fried chicken out of a hollowed-out watermelon-- though I haven't read the Goosebumps 2000 books yet, so keep your fingers crossed. Also, doesn't being a black ghost cancel out?

R.L. Stine Shows He Is Down With the Kids:
Sarah gripes that she'd rather be at the mall, eating a big bag of fries. A bag of fries?

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 7/8:
Sarah cries out as she begins to sink into quicksand. Luckily she remembers that quicksand doesn't exist and it must just be mud. Pshew.

Great Prose Alert:
Then he began talking about towels.

The Curse of Camp Cold Lake is a frustrating book. On the one hand, it contains a very effective sequence in the middle with the spooky snowy abandoned campgrounds. And the twist that Della didn't drown is both clever and unexpected. But the final twist with Briana is illogical, the prose is clunky and poorly conceived, and the protagonist is insufferably annoying. So, thumbs down. Great cover though.

Monday, June 02, 2008

#57 My Best Friend Is Invisible

#57 My Best Friend Is Invisible

Front Tagline: Not seeing is believing!
Back Tagline: He's Outta Sight...For Real!

Official Book Description:
Sammy Jacobs is into ghosts and science fiction. Not exactly the smartest hobby--at least not if you ask Sammy's parents. They're research scientists and they only believe in real science.
But now Sammy's met someone who's totally unreal. He's hanging out in Sammy's room. And eating his cereal at breakfast. Sammy's got to find a way to get rid of his new "friend." Only problem is...Sammy's new "friend" is invisible!

Brief Synopsis:
You might think that a Goosebumps book that fulfills its scientist quota so excessively would have a lot going for it. Protagonist Sammy Jacobs has two scientist parents and a scientist-in-training younger brother, Simon. But all the bunsen burners in the world can't ignite a single spark of interest in this book. See, Sammy's the black sheep of the family because he doesn't care about science, he cares about science fiction. He busies himself reading books about ghosts and aliens while his brother, who apparently caught Porky's on USA Up All Night, is fast at work measuring the growth of his body every day. C'mon, every single day?

Sammy's parents can't deal with the fact that the son of two losers is somehow an even bigger loser than they are, so they spend their time at home ignoring him, opting to pour over Science Reports instead of parenting. Sammy's so unpopular lately that even the family cat, Brutus is ignoring him, a situation to which he wittily quotes Shakespeare, "Now is the winter of our discontent."

Luckily for Sammy, he does have his friend Roxanne, who comes over to berate Sammy for being such a poor athlete. Apparently Sammy lost a track meet earlier in the day and Roxanne wants to make sure he does a better job at the mini-Olympics later in the week. Sammy says he merely let her win and assures Roxanne that he will both run faster and put on the red light.

With that settled, Roxanne and Sammy get to work brainstorming about their English term project. Sammy suggests studying the life cycle of a moth or charting the growth of plants. Roxanne wants to film a haunted house over the weekend. At no point do either of them consider any project related to English for their English project.

Their wild speculation is interrupted by a mysterious light that appears in Sammy's room. The source of this light is revealed to be a special magic flashlight belonging to Sammy's dad that allows invisible organisms to be made visible. For some reason this light scared Sammy and Roxanne, perhaps because they have a phobia about telegraphed twist endings.

Roxanne resumes trying to sell Sammy on the haunted house idea by quoting a bunch of "facts" from books about hauntings. The haunted house is called the Hedge House because there are hedges in front of the house. Expectant mothers, I think you can cross any paranormal investigators off your list of people to ask for baby name suggestions. Instead of visiting a haunted house, Sammy would much rather spend his Saturday watching the new horror movie School Spirit. His father overhears and confuses this with his son actually having school spirit. Wow, a father who only cares about sports, really knocking those cliches out of the park with this one, Stine. Get it, more sports

After Roxanne leaves, Sammy becomes convinced that someone's messing with him, as his window is open and his papers scattered around the room. He's sure that a ghost is responsible, but maybe he just lives in the Watergate apartments. The next morning he discovers that Brutus opted not to sleep in his room as per usual, as though a cat doing whatever it wants was in any way news. He sits down for a nice bowl of cereal, only to discover that while his head was turned away from the bowl, the ghost has eaten all of his cereal. The ghost ate his cereal.

At school, Sammy is called to the front of the class to solve a math problem. The polynomial equation takes a quadrastic turn though as an invisible clammy hand grasps Sammy's and he runs from the room in hysterics.

Back at home, Sammy witnesses the scene depicted on the cover of the book. The cover art really captures how totally lame a ghost eating pizza is, though to Stine's credit he didn't include the pictured church-key soda can. Sammy's mother takes a pause from not paying attention to him to scold him for eating pizza. She then tells him to clean up his room. When he heads upstairs to do as instructed, he discovers that someone has strewn cereal and lunchmeat and other foodstuffs all over his floor. After checking in the hallway for precocious youngsters or feuding heterosexual couples who don't realize their feelings for each other, he comes to the conclusion that only a ghost could have caused this food fight. Then the ghost speaks up and confirms this.

Except the voice is not a ghost at all, but an invisible boy named Brent Green. He's twelve too and wants very badly to be Sammy's best friend. He explains that he doesn't know how he got to Sammy's house or who his parents are, but he's hungry and wants to be Sammy's friend. Sammy tries to get his family to come see his invisible friend, but you can imagine how well that goes. Not even Roxanne believes him, though she does tell the entire student body about it so they can mock him properly at school the next day.

Things get so bad for Sammy that he has to eat lunch alone in the library. That doesn't work out so well, as Brent followed him to school and starts eating his sandwich. Sammy begs him to go away but Brent insists that he's just trying to be his friend. Brent proves his friendship by ruining Sammy's turn in the relay race, costing his team the game. With friends like this, who needs visibilities amirite

To make it up losing the race to Roxanne, Sammy is forced to agree to accompany her to the haunted house that weekend. Beforehand though, Sammy tries every trick in the book to convince Brent to leave. He tries to get him to live with Roxanne because she has better food but Brent doesn't want to be friends with a girl. Ruh roh, no one tell Jessica Valenti about this book!

Brent sees that Sammy's trying to get rid of him and attempts to throw him out the window. He stops himself before he actually murders Sammy though and explains that he was just goofing around in a familial way, which makes perfect sense only if you're a cast member of Dallas. Brent finally leaves after Sammy turns up the radiator high enough to produce steam in his room, proving the old adage true: if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the house of the boy you're bothering.

Anyways, Roxanne and Sammy are at the Hedge House, ready to bust some ghosts. And whadaya know, a ghost does show up. Upstairs in the spooky house, the ghost angrily picks up Roxanne and starts throwing her around the room. Then the ghost picks up a pillow and tries to smother her. Oh my God, the ghost is Albert Finney!

Roxanne and Sammy flee from the house, having learned an important lesson about just writing five paragraphs on Of Mice And Men instead of getting murdered by ghosts for their English project. Back at home, Brent reveals that he was behind the whole charade. Shocker. The invisibully refuses to leave.

Sammy's parents announce that his erratic behavior has caused them to set up an appointment with a mental institution for their son. Before he can be taken away though, Sammy breaks free and runs down to his parents' basement to grab the magic flashlight. He forces the rest of the family and Roxanne to follow him to his room, where he shines the light on Brent, revealing...

But the Twist is:
A HIDEOUS MONSTER. Brent reveals that his mother made him invisible so it would be easier for him to make friends.

Okay, there's more. Take a deep breath.

Sammy and his family can't figure out how Brent can survive with only one head, two eyes, and two short arms that aren't even long enough to wrap around his body. They can't stop being disgusted at how he has hair on top of his head instead of suction-cupped tentacles. Sammy's father explains that this creature is a human and its their duty to call the zoo, as humans are an endangered species. What.

the Platonic Boy-Girl Relationship:
Sammy and his "pal" Roxanne, who doesn't buy that Sammy has a disappearing friend halfway through the book, primarily because it would involve assuming someone would want to befriend Sammy.

Questionable Parenting:
Simon quips that they can use the magic flashlight to search for Sammy's missing brain, causing the entire family to burst into laughter. I'm not upset about the parents mocking their son, I'm upset that the joke wasn't funny.

Questionable Teaching:
Even Sammy's teacher mocks him by pretending to call on an invisible student. That's going to really blow her credibility concerning attendance sheets.

R.L. Stine Shows He Is Down With the Kids:
No one has an ear for the natural dialog of children like Stine:
"How could you -- you stupid clumsy cretin!" she shrieked.

Out of Context Text Alert:
"I bet we hear moaning soon. Make sure your camcorder is ready."

Memorable Cliffhanger Chapter Ending:
Ch. 3/4
There's nothing on the floor. Nothing except... nothing.

Great Prose Alert:
A regular flashlight didn't shine with a shimmery, white, blinding light.

An extraordinarily obnoxious book where nothing happens, every character is grating, and the final twist makes absolutely no sense, My Best Friend Is Invisible is reference-level terrible.