Friday, August 20, 2010

Strange Matter #16: The Weird, Weird West

Spurs. Six shooters. Bad attitudes. Cowboys, ya'll. And we're not talking dudes who just happen to listen to Taylor Swift and own a couple of goofy hats. We're talking about the real deal, the kind that didn't bathe and didn't take no for an answer. The guys who shot first and asked questions later. Could cowboys really have been any cooler? I mean, there's really only one thing you could possibly do to increase their kick-ass-factor. What's that, you ask? Duh--It's to make them undead! That's right. You heard me. Undead cowboys. Be about it.

And so sets the scene for Johnny Ray Barnes Jr.'s THE WEIRD, WEIRD WEST. Shane Reece had a very important great, great, great, great (that's four 'greats', for those of you keeping track) grandfather. The man just so happened to be responsible for taking down one of the west's most notorious gunslingers--Mr. Clayton Motley. And after a present-day earthquake in the nearby town of Mullenfield, the ghoulish gunman is set free from his grave deep in a cave, and starts heading straight for the youngest descendant of Nathaniel Reece, the man who killed Motley years and years ago. Shane and his friend Gabe (Gabey if you want to make him angry) now have to find out how to stop Clayton before he finds the boys and turns them into cowpies. Which is gross. And not really what happens. But it sounds funny, so whatever.

This book is what I like to call a 'slow burner'. The story takes its sweet time developing, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. If a book plays its cards right, this kind of pacing can really pay off in the end, and I think that's the case with THE WEIRD, WEIRD WEST. Mr. Barnes let's the narrative grow organically, peppering it with good characters (I'm thinking of the scene at The Steerhunter in particular, and the natural-feeling relationship between Shane and Gabe) and cool situations, like the runaway wagon ride, and the final gun-slinging showdown with Motley. Cool tidbit for kids: The author makes Shane seem like a real cowboy a few times, having him speak like he's big and tough. It really puts the reader into the cowboy mindset. And it's very chuckle-worthy for us older folk.

The slow pacing that makes the story work could also be something that may alienate younger readers, who may feel like "nothing is happening", when in fact the author is merely carefully setting up major plot points. The story does have its fair share of action, and these scenes are done well, with plenty of great language fueling the literary flames, but one could argue they are a bit few and far between. I tend to really love the Strange Matters that are non-stop thrills, but this entry won me over in the end with its consistency. I especially liked how the author described Clayton Motley, all rotted and generally disgusting, and how varied the characters were, from a knowledgeable specter to a rough-around-the-edges musician. The characters were the real stars in the end; they really struck a chord with me.

After all is said and done, it's a slow-burning yet solid entry in the Strange Matter library.

I give THE WEIRD, WEIRD WEST 3.5 glowing green bullets out of 5.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Strange Matter #15: Creature Features

I've always wanted to have the drive-in movie experience. There's just something that seems really cool about pulling your car up to a GARGANTUAN (a reference you'll understand later--trust me) screen, chowing down on popcorn in the front seat, and using one of those nifty in-car speakers to hear the movie's soundtrack. Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you'd like to look at it) I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, so I always saw films indoors. INDOORS, ladies and gentlemen. Where's the fun in that? Luckily, Marty M. Engle took his precious time to write a little book called CREATURE FEATURES, which just so happens to feature a drive-in...albeit a haunted drive-in.

The story goes something like this: One fateful night, four friends by the names of Nate, Jon, Albert and Simon, decide to go hang out in the dilapidated, abandoned, and altogether-creepy (of course) Starlight Drive-In. They're searching around the old projector booth, because that's what tweens do--mess around with things they have no business messing with--when the supposedly defunct projector boots up, begins flashing outdated movie previews on the now miraculously-repaired silver screen, and the entire drive-in pops and crackles to life. The old neon sign lights up, probably for the first time in decades, and the speakers all start to sputter with crackly audio. And before they can really comprehend what is happening, there is a brilliant flash that sucks Albert, Jon, and Nate into the projector, leaving poor Simon behind to watch them on the screen and figure out how to get them back.

The bulk of CREATURE FEATURES centers around the old movies that the three friends have to fight their way out of: A classic flying saucer flick, a water-monster movie that takes place in the Amazon, a film about a mad scientist who shrinks people with a ray gun, and finally a good ol' fashioned Godzilla-type movie, complete with a giant lizard named Gargantuan (I told you you'd eventually get that reference!). The story bounces back and forth between this main thread and the side-story of a panicked Simon devising all kinds of ways to smash the haunted projector; each smash sends the trio to a another old movie.

Boom. Bang. Pow. That's how I'd describe CREATURE FEATURES. From the moment it starts, the story is an exciting action blockbuster. The scenery is always changing, thanks to the cool idea of sending the kids to different films, and the occasional shifts in perspective that take us back to Simon in the projector booth break up any small instance of monotony. Just when the reader is getting comfortable with a particular scene, the author puts us on an express lane to a whole new world (*resists overwhelming urge to make a corny Aladdin reference*).

And this brings us to the book's only real drawback: Since there are so many characters and the cast is always changing, we don't get a chance to really know anyone in the book. I often got the boys confused with each other, since none of them have any palpably discernible or memorable characteristics. And all of the extras, while suitably fitting for their specific movies and scenes, don't pop out as being all that unique. I would have especially loved to know more about the boys, to have had something to make me care about them. I should NOT want monsters to eat the main characters!

Oh, and the cover kicks ass. I dig that it has an orange theme, and I also dig the giant skull on the drive-in movie screen and the speakers lining the lot. And all of it is underneath a sickly-yellow full moon. Perfect enticement for the potential reader! Also, the CG files at the back of the book are really cool--there are some great shots of Gargantuan coming out of the screen and a sweet rendering of the haunted film projector.

In the end, the trip to the Starlight Drive-In is well worth the change for an over-priced hotdog. And an over-priced bag of popcorn. And a...$8.99 for an Icee!? You must be out of your mind! You...ahem...sorry...

I give CREATURE FEATURES a 4 out of 5.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest Review #1: A PLACE TO HIDE by Sean O' Dell

A PLACE TO HIDE is a surprisingly robust Gremlins homage that shows the beginning of some of Strange Matter's strengths. The book revolves around Trey Porter and his dealings with a centuries-old secret that's been hiding in the Fairfield woods. The name of the book is well-chosen, as the story is continually moved forward by characters hiding from or hiding ....things... away from others.

What I enjoy most about this book is it's one of the first books I can remember where the plot evolves and changes well over the course of the story. There's a dynamic to it that Engle and Barnes hit well. As Trey learns more information, his plans and decisions change a great deal, more than in most books I remember from that time. The subplot revolving around the bully Waylon Burst is also fun to read because it shows how well the characters are fleshed out. People change sides and objectives in logical ways.

In a lot of ways though, this book works best when read in conjunction with the 'sequel', DOORWAY TO DOOM. Even though we never see the bridging event at the end of A PLACE TO HIDE, the effects are well-portrayed in the next installment. It's also interesting how the story comes full circle. The person you most expect to be able to deal with the ending events of the book doesn't quite make the cut. As I mentioned earlier, the monsters here pay homage to Gremlins, especially in some of the descriptions of their appearance and in their reaction to their weakness. But their origins and motivations keep it from being anything enjoyable.

One thing I feel the author could have touched on more is the perspectives of both Trey's friends and the Terrible Trio as they were being chased by the creatures. This is something that the authors prove having as a great strength in DOORWAY TO DOOM--the switching of narratives and perspective to diversify the story. But considering how early this book is in the series, it's understandable. If you're interested in finding out more about The Terrible Trio or the fate of Waylon Burst's, I recommend DOORWAY TO DOOM.

I give A PLACE TO HIDE a 4 out of 5.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Introducing Sean, the first guest blogger for "Revisting Strange Matter!"

After what I assuredly deem to be a sickening amount of away time, Revisiting Strange Matter is officially BACK! I know; you can all breathe now. Feel that collective sigh of relief? Good. I've been getting a few messages from fellow Strange Matter fans and it's so awesome to hear from you guys! Keep the messages coming, don't be afraid to post comments, subscribe and start "following" the blog, and if you're stopping by the site for the first time, drop me an email and we'll talk!

New reviews will be coming soon, and today, with much pleasure, I am happy to introduce the first of what I hope to be many guest bloggers on Revisiting Strange Matter. His name is Sean and he's a fellow Engle and Barnes fan. He's here to tell you a little about how he got started with the series, and his first guest review is currently in the editing process and will be up for your reading pleasure soon. Enjoy, and keep things strange!

- The Strangest Blogger, Mitch


Hello folks! Guest Reviewer Sean "SmokedToast" O'Dell reporting in. :) Like Mitch, I got pulled into the strangely vast web that was the Fairfield universe as a child. A lot of my favorite memories regarding book stores were related to coming in and looking for the familiar format of the Strange Matter book covers, ready to find out which monstrosity would pop up next. Even then, my first major 'web browsing' was related to the series. I'd been visiting my dad in upper Wisconsin and ran into a local internet cafe that had opened. It's taken me a few days to find a copy of the site still online so I could revisit the appearance of Frank Dunk, amongst the other Strange Matter regulars.

What I think that Engle and Barnes "got" that a lot of other series missed out on was that there were more then two ways to produce a shared universe. Most childrens' horror books at that time seemed to have two trains of thought on the subject. They'd either minimize the amount of relation between books by saying it was the same location and that 'weird stuff happens here' but not really touch on the particular phenomena, except for the rare book... or they would focus on one group of kids throughout the whole series with the occasional guest star. Strange Matter broke that mold by having good character development, even across multiple books.

Many of the kids became experts, or at least as much as a young adult could become in the initial paranormal situations they premiered in. There were as many cameos as one would expect from events happening in a single town. There were even indirect sequels to previous books--not a case of Monster Blood 1 through 4, per se--but more along the lines of that we would visit upon other characters and learn how the previous books had altered their lives. It really made it feel like the authors were passionate about their work and wanted to make this a lasting universe to play in.

My first book for review is a clear example of what I mean by the cohesiveness, at least when read before the book Doorway to Doom. It is a Place to Hide, starring Trey Porter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Strange Matter #14: Plant People

PLANT PEOPLE is your typical weird-neighbors-move-in-next-door type of story, only imagine that the neighbors are strange botanical creatures that are disguised as regular people and secretly trying to overtake the entire human race. Oh, and it's up to 8th grader Rachel Pearson to stop the whole plant circus from spinning into motion, because her parents don't believe her crazy stories. No pressure, right?

I wanted this story to be way cooler than it turned out to be, simply because I grow carnivorous plants, and with that experience comes an expectation of particularly wicked greenery. The cover alone, which is fitted with a grinning, Audrey II look-alike, seems to promise plenty of botanical misadventures. And it does deliver on some levels, just not all.

Rachel meets the two bizarre neighbor kids early on in the story. One of them likes to eat bugs and the other enjoys pocketing handfuls of dirt because it's of "good quality". They both talk a little bit too properly, as does the whole new neighboring Smith family, which, in addition to the strange behavior, initially alerts Rachel to something being "off". This is all after Rachel collects a strange seed from the forest behind her house, and as things progress, it eventually hatches out of her backpack in the school locker room, and then proceeds to grow to monstrous proportions and try to do away with her. This was actually one of the cooler scenes in the book, complete with dozens of hungry vines/tendrils that carry Rachel about the locker room like a rag doll.

One of the funnier moments, and a definite 90s throwback/reference, is when Rachel's dad comes home from playing golf and wants to watch "Pierwatch". I'll let you figure out what beach-running sitcom the author was alluding to there! There was a good sense of suspense in this Strange Matter entry, just because the reader is left wondering throughout the whole book what the Smith family is ultimately going to do to Rachel and her parents, and when it all comes out, the action gets really good. I can really see kids enjoying this one. Who hasn't had a weird family move into their neighborhood? This would clear up so much for kids--obviously every weird, new family is secretly made of plants. Obviously.

Could have been better, could have been much worse, PLANT PEOPLE is a solid Strange Matter entry. Although I'm still waiting for a really good carnivorous plant story to come along and do them justice. Maybe it's my job to write it...we'll see!

I give PLANT PEOPLE a 3.5 out of 5.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Strange Matter #12: Dead On Its Tracks

Three words: Haunted, runaway train. DEAD ON ITS TRACKS stars Elizabeth and Jacob, two good friends who love scary movies. They're trying to see the latest one at the local cinema, a real screamer called Terror Train, but it's sold out. So what do they do instead? They go exploring at the old haunted train depot, of course! To their horror, the Fairfield Express starts to move once they're on it, and suddenly they're at the mercy of Odd John Cape, the insane engineer that supposedly (and purposely) crashed the train years and years ago.

This is, for whatever reason, another of those Strange Matters that I have very little recollection of, but I was pleasantly surprised at its quality. The entire plot basically revolves around the kids trying to stop the train before it replays its horrific crash while they're on-board. The author did a great job populating this tale with plenty of good characters that added a lot to the story (I particularly liked George, a tar-covered corpse who initially helps the protagonists, and Charlie, a behemoth waiter that protects a ghostly little girl and charges about, smashing things). The characters were better drawn than previous Strange Matters, and I thought that along with the nicely imagined backstory, they really contributed to rounding out the entire package.

There were also some nice twists towards the end of this book that make it stand out among other entries. I just felt that the story was well-developed and executed just the right way. This is like a Strange Matter sleeper hit! Nothing overly spectacular, but just really well-done.

I give DEAD ON ITS TRACKS a 4 out of 5.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Strange Matter #11: Something Rotten

If my memory serves me correctly (and many times it does not), SOMETHING ROTTEN was my very first Strange Matter book. I got it on one of my many childhood trips to Wal-Mart with my mom, probably sometime in 1996. On our visits there, we'd always pass by the magazine/book section on the way to the toy section, which was a little alcove of an isle near the in-store McDonald's. I'd usually beg to have five minutes to check out the latest scary titles, and when I saw the cover of this particular one -- a red, glowing, dripping blob of ooze sitting on a bedroom desk -- I knew I had to have it.

The rest is history folks, and from then on I went about collecting the rest of the series like the rabid horror-reading tween that I was. An interesting fact before we begin the review: I do believe Wal-Mart was the first and only place to carry Strange Matter, for a good amount of time, at least, and then Albertson's picked up the series to display near their checkstands. Target was all about Goosebumps, so I had to synchronize my Wal-Mart/Albertson's visits with the release of the newest Strange Matter book -- "Mom, can I go with you to buy milk and ice? Yes, I'm only coming along to keep you company!" Conniving, I know, but it got me new books!

Okay, so on to business...SOMETHING ROTTEN tells the story of Skinny Joe Alister (he's so skinny that two strong students at school bet on how many times they can bench press his frail frame) and his little brother Gary, who both happen to love rock collecting. On a trip to the local and famed Fairfield Caverns, Joe wanders into the "forbidden" area of the caves, an old abandoned excavation site that is filled with strange, sparkling crystals. He takes some of the artifacts home to find that there are amoeba-like blob creatures called Deros living inside them, and after the entities break out, Joe, Gary and all their friends have to go around zapping them with light (the Deros' only weakness) in order to save the town from a gooey overtaking, one not unlike the long-missing Fairfield Caverns owner fell victim to years and years prior.

Even though this book marked the beginning of a wonderful few years of reading my favorite middle-grade series, I had no recollection of the story when I started re-reading it. Zero. None. Zilch. It's weird how memories can fade like that. But this lapse didn't stop me from enjoying things. I really like this Strange Matter entry. It starts off with a bang, as you get to follow the brothers through cool descriptions of the Fairfield Caverns, and I'm all about cool descriptions. There are different landmarks, like Fat Man's Squeeze and Headache Rock, a low outcropping that many explorers bump their head on. There's also an underground pool filled with blind lizards and fish. I love details like this! Moving on to the meat of the story, which is when the Deros start to break out of their earthy entombment, there's plenty of great action to keep readers interested. The blob descriptions are well-done, and there's a scene towards the end where the kids see a skeleton inside one of the gelatinous baddies that's really chilling. I just enjoyed the whole setting of this story, all of it taking place in, deep, moodily-lit caves. Something about it just makes things fun.

I think Mr. Engle did a great job with SOMETHING ROTTEN. The plot was tight, the pacing was perfect, and this entry really zones in on what the series is really all about: Non-stop paranormal adventure. Nothing to bog down the energy, no over-complicated threads to bore and confuse the reader. And no typos, at least not any that I could see, which is always a plus!

I give SOMETHING ROTTEN a 4.5 out of 5.