Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Strange Matter #10: Knightmare

This is an odd one for me. I just finished KNIGHTMARE and I'm left feeling, well...nothing, really. I don't remember reading this one back in the day and I barely remember reading it a few minutes ago, so this should be an interesting review.

Basically, Mitchell (the main character shares my name!) Garrison steals a seal from a coat of armor at a museum and it causes him to have a bad "knightmare" in which he battles four creatures of evil: An ogre, a giant wild boar, a griffin, and the Count Deschaul, who takes the form of an emerald suit of armor. Then the nightmare begins to manifest itself in Mitchell's real life, threatening to obliterate him unless he returns the seal to its rightful place back on the armor in the museum.

This Strange Matter was definitely forgettable, and I'm not really sure why. The story was interesting enough, and it was nicely intricate for a middle-grade book. Maybe it's my mood, or maybe it was that the writing was a little confusing at times - I don't know. I just found myself loosing interest at random points in the story, through no real fault of the author, at least as far as I could tell.

There were some redeemable qualities, like how you get to hear about a few characters from other Strange Matter books - the bully Kyle Banner (who was in the last book as well) and Morgan Taylor (who happens to live next door to Mitchell). So that's always cool. This is one of the things I always loved about the series, how characters from other books would just randomly pop up at times. Also, there was a neat little puzzle that the griffin gives to Mitchell to solve, and the author actually put the picture of it in-between the text, which I liked. Which reminds me: In the last book, DEADLY DELIVERY, something similar was done, where a hand-drawn cartoon was pasted in amongst the text, and it broke things up and added a lot to the story's appeal.

I also liked the monsters that Mitchell had to fight. The description of the ogre near the beginning was really good, with all the talk about a goo that oozed out of his belly button. And the whole puzzle sequence with the griffin was also well-done. Plus, the book centers around dreams, a subject I've always been interested in.

Overall, a solid, but strangely forgettable entry in the Strange Matter series.

I give KNIGHTMARE a 3 out of 5.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Strange Matter #9: Deadly Delivery

There's nothing like a good old-fashioned ghost story, and I'm a complete sucker for anything to do with objects that move on their own, chilling apparitions, or disembodied voices. So back in the day (when I was nothing more than a book-wormy wee one), I freaked when saw the cover of DEADLY DELIVERY - a cackling, misty-blue, effervescent entity floating up out of an unlatched trunk. I was immediately drawn in, and who could blame me, a 5th grader utterly obsessed with all things that go bump in the night? Even today, when I look at this book, I still think it sports one of Strange Matter's cooler covers.

The ghostly image that I describe pretty much sums up the story (for the most part, anyways). Two siblings, Simon and Sarah White, are home alone during a freak Fairfield storm (this sounds awfully familiar...FROZEN DINNERS anyone?). There's a knock at the door and a ghastly-looking man leaves a mysterious package on the doorstep, which, upon opening, turns out to be a musty old green trunk. The kids open the trunk, and to their horror, a blue ghost escapes and begins to terrorize the house.

The story starts out strong, with a lot of cool poltergeist-style activities: all the kitchen chairs turned upside-down, smashed plates, and a lot of general disarray. Simon White likes to draw cartoons in his free time, ones in which he's getting the upper hand on his next-door-neighbor/bully, Kyle Banner. The ghost enters his drawings and brings them to life, proceeding to torture the cartoon Kyle Banner. When the baby-sitter shows up, the ghost swallows her whole and spits her out, turning her hair snow-white. This was the fun part of the story. And if the entire book had continued down this road, things would have been grand. But alas, it isn't so.

Halfway into the book, the ghost decides to turn the White's residence into a haunted castle. Now, this sounds pretty damn awesome (in theory at least) and one would think that the story would ramp up at such a point. Sadly, it doesn't. The story bogs down and the excitement is lost, and the reader is left to watching the main characters hang out in a library, trying to find out the history of their new castle home (okay, okay, this is just one particular scene, but come on!). There are some decent parts in the second half of the story, like when the kids get trapped in the torture room, in which a family was left to rot hundreds and hundreds of years ago - this is something they learn from a book they find (maybe the library scene WAS necessary, after all...). And there are hanging skeletons at one point, and the kids find that the castle Baron's deformed brother was kept chained and locked away from the world in a dark room with nothing more than a desk and a straw bed.

The storyline in DEADLY DELIVERY was much more involved than in other Strange Matter entries and could have definitely used another fifty or so pages to flesh things out. Unfortunately, a little too much time is spent on history lessons, but then again, it was necessary to tie all the loose ends together, so who knows. I think it all worked, but for some reason I felt that this Strange Matter didn't move fast enough, especially for middle-grade readers. I do however, respect how Marty Engle pulled everything together, and it shows that he knows how to craft a pretty cool story.

In the end, a middle-of-the-road entry for the series.

I give DEADLY DELIVERY a 3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Strange Matter #8: Frozen Dinners

Who can resist a story about being trapped in a mountain cabin during a freak snow storm while abominable snowmen try to force their way in? I certainly can't! FROZEN DINNERS was one of my favorite Strange Matter books as a kid, and I think it still holds up pretty well today.

Like I mentioned above, the jist of the story is relatively simple: Three siblings, Max, Mark, and Teresa, are stuck inside their Uncle Shoe's cabin on Crier Mountain while a horrible snow storm rages outside. They're alone because Uncle Shoe left to get groceries right before the storm began, and they're left wondering what happened to him. It isn't long before the kids start to experience some odd things: a form walking back and forth out in the blinding whiteness, a huge footprint in the snow, and odd, un-locatable scratching noises. And then - the best part, as always - CHAOS!

I like this Strange Matter book because it's almost pure action from beginning to end, just as any good middle-grade fiction book should be (at least I think so,). The premise is interesting and pretty foolproof, allowing for lots of scares and suspense. The story isn't so scary to me now, but I remember really getting a kick out of it when I was in 5th/6th grade, really imagining how a yeti would burst through a barricaded window.

It's interesting to me how the writing is getting better as I continue on through the Strange Matter series. It seems Engle and Barnes were getting the hang of things as the entries approached double digits. There was only ONE typo in this book, and it was on the LAST PAGE! Oh no! Haha! The intended word was "whole" and it came out as "who" instead. Bummer!

In the end, I still love this book and it was nice to re-read it.

I give FROZEN DINNERS a 4.5 out of 5.