Friday, December 19, 2008

Strange Matter #3: Driven to Death

The third book in the Strange Matter series and the second one written by Marty M. Engle, Driven to Death is a terror-filled tale about two brothers, Darren and David Donaldson, who get mixed up with some malicious supernatural forces.

The story begins with Darren and David going to the video store with their dad. It's in a shopping center that happens to house a McDonald's, a place where all the local high school kids hang out (Mr. Engle's first Strange Matter book, No Substitutions, also had a scene that took place at a McDonald's...Maybe he was hungry when he was writing these books?). David, the older brother, is quite embarrassed as they drive by, hoping that no one sees him with his "lame" father. Later on that night he sneaks out of the house and drives the family Celica back to the fast food joint, sans parental baggage. Around 3AM, younger brother Darren starts getting nervous because David isn't back yet. Suddenly he sees his brother pushing the car down the street, struggling to out-run a ghostly car that's tailing him.

The mist-covered ghost car finds its way into the Donaldson household and the boys end up coming face-to-face with the three ghost/undead teenagers inside. Apparently, David slammed into their car during his midnight joyride and now they want the Celica as collateral. It gets switched out with the ghost car and the brothers are kidnapped and taken to a ghost pirate ship (yes, you heard that right) to talk to the undead teenagers' father, to offer an explanation for the car accident.

As strange as the concept is, I actually had a fun time with this book. Mr. Engle kicks off the story with a description of Darren's model pirate ship in the Donaldson garage, which kind of foreshadows the whole pirate subplot. Tidbits of pirate trivia are sprinkled throughout the text, like what it means to shanghai someone, and it made for some cool reading. There was a lot of action, probably more than the first two Strange Matter books combined, and that's always a good thing. I did think that there were two stories here, and they fit together a bit awkwardly to say the least. The adventure starts off with the whole ghost car/supernatural joyride thing, and then abruptly shifts to a pirate ship. It seems that Mr. Engle wanted to go too many different directions with the book, and it could have easily been expanded into two separate manuscripts. Or maybe he didn't have enough of a plot with just the ghost car stuff and decided to fatten it up with the pirate shananegans.

And in what seems to be an irksome trend with the Strange Matter books, this story has a jarring number of typos. I'm beginning to think that Engle and Barnes didn't send their manuscripts to editors before having them mass-produced. What gives, you guys? It just comes off as tacky and messy.

This book was much better than the preceding Strange Matter book, The Midnight Game. Even with its convoluted plot, it still manages to entertain.

I give Driven to Death a 3.5 out of 5.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Strange Matter #2: The Midnight Game

The second installment in the Strange Matter series is about a boy named Tyler Webb who finds a ticket to a midnight football game. The event is between two old teams from a historic Fairfield (the town where all the Strange Matter stories take place) and when Tyler arrives at the field, the players begin to unearth themselves for their unfinished business. That's right - a football game between two undead, zombie teams.

Tyler and his friend Libb, who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about football, go on to discover that the Green Devils, Fairfield's premier football team, lost the championship game when Tom Maul, the star player, botched everything in the last quarter. The team is then doomed to rise up from the grave and replay the game again and again for all eternity, unless something or someone can break the cycle.

Compared to No Substitutions, the first Strange Matter book, I thought The Midnight Game was a bit weak. The story was uninteresting and slightly confusing at times. I'm still trying to piece together all the details and I'm 23 years old! The concept was cool, but I think more could have been done in regards to story-building, maybe hanging around in certain scenes for longer. Also, there were a few glaring editorial errors. One in particular comes to mind in the second chapter. An entire paragraph is more or less repeated within the same page, looking like some text was moved around, but the original text wasn't deleted after the change was made. Yikes! How did this sneak by?!

Additionally, there just wasn't a whole lot of character development. Now I know this stuff is for middle-grade readers, but I'm beginning to think that these books could have benefitted from another 5,000 words or so. I would have loved to see the kids' encounters with the undead football players stretched out and filled with more detail. There was a lot of missed opportunity for expansion here, most notably during the supernatural bits. I also would have liked to get to know the main characters more. They just seemed too cookie-cutter.

Overall, a below-average entry in the Strange Matter series.

I give The Midnight Game a 2.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Strange Matter #1: No Substitutions

Ah, the very first Strange Matter book! What a treat! I sat down with it yesterday and raced through it in a few hours. Having worshiped Strange Matter back in the day, I was a bit apprehensive about re-reading the series - memories are often far more pleasant than present-day reality. But to my delight, I was pleasantly surprised. This book is good!

No Substitutions is about two kids, Curtis Chatman and Shelly Miller, who are progressing through a normal day at Fairfield Junior High. Shelly informs Curtis that Mr. Jackson, their extremely boring history teacher, won't be in class, and that they will be having a substitute instead. Excited about this development, they head to their next period, only to find that the usual substitute isn't there. A strange man named Stacy Calhoun is at the head of the room. He has silvery blue eyes and weird hair all over his face, and he announces that he was a star quarterback at Fairfield High back in the 1970s. He catches Shelly and Curtis passing a note and punishes them by making them take two heavy boxes to the library with the class, and when they get there, one of the boxes gets dropped and a swarm of nasty bugs comes bursting out. A book on werewolves is also in the box, and Curtis snags it. Kids all over the library get bitten, and Curtis and Shelly get wrongly suspended for pulling such a horrendous prank. Curtis starts to read the book later on, and it starts to become quite obvious that Stacy Calhoun isn't human.

I won't go on to spoil any more, but I will say that one of the book's strong points (and an obvoius precursor to the later Strange Forces books) is the detailed classification of werewolves that Curtis discovers in the leatherbound book that falls from the bug-box. Marty M. Engle must have been very much into the supernatural to include such a cool tidbit of information in the story. It seems that he didn't just make it up - it's actual werewolf myth material, as far as I can tell. It is determined that Stacy Calhoun is a loup-garou, a voluntary werewolf that loves to hunt and enjoys the thrill of being such a nasty creature. Awesome!

The book isn't perfect though. The writing is a little uneven at times, and some of the kids' dialogue is a bit unrealistic. Also, the ending seems a tad bit rushed. I think it would have served the story well had the last scene been stretched out into a few more chapters. That way the action wouldn't read so much like a screenplay.

Overall: Fast-paced, easy to read and scary, the first entry in the Strange Matter series is a great adventure for kids. It's quite short (just over 17,000 words - 120 pages) and is a perfect choice for reluctant readers.

I give No Substitutions a 4 out of 5.