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.