Thursday, February 10, 2011

Box it up

Have you ever had a danger box? According to Blue Balliett, this is a box where you store stuff that might be (or have been) dangerous: blown-up firecrackers and old shotgun shells, maybe a match or two. Of course, those smart readers who enjoy Balliett's enticing puzzle novels might also figure out that a danger box is where you might store a radical idea or two, or maybe your fears -- safely tucked away. Zoomy Chamberlain has a danger box and what's inside is a real treasure.

Balliett's latest novel, The Danger Box, is not about those three Chicago Laboratory School sleuths, Petra, Calder and Tommy. Instead, we move about 70 miles east across Lake Michigan to the small town of Three Oaks, Michigan and meet 12-year-old Zoomy, who lives quietly with his paternal grandparents. Zoomy's got a touch of OCD and a case of pathological myopia. He controls a world that he can't see very clearly by keeping lists using a purple pen. He's happy, if a bit lonely. Then his long-absent father suddenly and frighteningly re-appears in his life, driving a stolen truck, and leaving with his parents -- for sale in their antiques/knickknack store -- a box holding a very old notebook. While Zoomy's grandparents soon realize that the notebook has been stolen as well, they allow Zoomy to take a look at it -- inspired as he is by the fact that someone else kept lists in a notebook like he does.

Zoomy's research takes him to his local library, where he meets a "firecracker" of a girl named Lorrol (embarrassed by her mom's spelling, yet she likes that her name is a palindrome). Together they figure out how valuable their find is. (And to preserve the novel's secret, I shall only provide this link.) Of course, since the item was stolen by Zoomy's father, there is someone else interested in the notebook. And that person might not be on the right side of the law either.

I like Balliett's book-smart, nerdy tweens, and I do love an art-themed mystery. I like that her characters are mixed-race without the story being about that. Zoomy is white-Mexican and Lorrol is black-Jewish and both belong to the self-formed "unknown parent club." The reality-based art objects are presented in an accessible way, and I always get the feeling from reading that I could solve a famous art disappearance too! Both Zoomy and Lorrol seem really young for 12-year-olds; which isn't necessarily bad, since I think Balliett's books are perfect for skilled younger readers.

The book has three narrators: Zoomy -- telling us the story in first person, Lorrol -- who reads issues of a free newsletter called "The Gas Gazette" (which becomes rather tiresome actually), and an adult male, who provides third-person information on a mysterious Mr. Zip and what happens when his self-aggrandizing plan to return the stolen treasure to where it belongs goes terribly wrong. And yes, there are three readers (hooray!): Alex Wyse, Veronika Dominczyk (pronouned duh-MEN-chick), and Jason Culp.

Wyse is very good. He's got a youthful-sounding, reedy voice that projects Zoomy's fears and anxieties as well as his growing confidence and excitement at what he discovers. He reads with a nice, varied pace and a childlike naïveté that sounded completely genuine to me. There's a little bit of what I'll call "New York" punchiness to his delivery (and I'm at a complete loss to describe it -- plosives produced further back in the mouth maybe? [but I could be talking nonsense]) that bothered me at first, but then I relaxed and allowed him to tell me the story.

Dominczyk has the tough job -- reading those slightly pedantic newsletters, but we don't hear from her that often. And I do appreciate that another narrator is reading these excerpts.

Culp reads his sections like he's doing a movie-preview-type voiceover ("in a world ..." -- hey, maybe he's replaced this guy!). Serious and manly, he hits the right note here -- of greedy foolishness and craven self-interest. His deep voice manifests the world's scary adults for Zoomy.

I downloaded this book because it was in mp3 format instead of WMA -- which means it can come through to my new MacBook Pro. (Yes, I realize that WMA dominate library downloadables -- that's what I've got the work PC for [wink].) Now I just need to get the Apple product (Mac) to talk to the non-Apple product (Sansa) via I-Tunes, so I can listen to those books on CD I've copied (for personal use only!) onto my computer.

Apple's a cult, I've decided.

Anyway, I probably wouldn't have requested this book if I hadn't been experimenting. And I'm glad I got it.

The Danger Box by Blue Balliett
Narrated by Alex Wyse, Veronika Dominczyk and Jason Culp
Scholastic Audio, 2010. 5:50 (although the catalog entry for the CD version says 6:15)

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