I’ve decided to analysis what makes a bad book by reviewing two books which I think deserve this title – my least favorite Sleepover Friends Book and my least favorite BSC book ( my apologies to both readers and authors if these are your favorites. ) I wondered how to go about slanting the review – do the terms of story , plot and character fall under the generic rules of fiction? Or under the sub-heading such as teen series fiction as in – is this a good series book or more specifically under their own heading such as is this a good book in the Sleepover Friends series.
Let’s start with the Great Kate #19 in the Sleepover Friends , which, coming off the heels of a rather perky adventure – #18’s Stephanie and the Magician , is a dreadful mess. The trouble with the story is that it stalls, right at the gate with false suspense. ( Opening any story in which the outcome of the action can already be guessed is a shot in the foot. )And unfortunately this story shoots itself in the foot but rather than lie down dead , it limps along for another 80 pages.
I am however thankful for the fact that this is one of SF shorter adventures – 85 pages , but not the shortest – #3 clocks out at 73 pages.
The book begins with the girls – Kate , Stephanie , Lauren and Patti , sitting around attempting to mystically bend spoons with the power of their mind. Now if this were a fantasy novel who knows where this might have lead to , but this being a series about four typical girls – you know darn well , no spoons will bend. Hence the paragraph fizzles. Why not have something almost happen – Kate’s kitten, Fredericka, darting under a table , rocking it, causing the spoons to move and the girls to gasp , or a misplaced magnet starts a spoon to jerk – does Stephanie have the power? Nope , nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, it does kick off another typical-of-the-series argument between Kate’s stoic defense of her beliefs – mysticism is hogwash vs everyone else’s opinion – not all science has been discovered or explained. The trouble with the plot that follows this argument – Stephanie, in attempting to teach Kate a lesson, gets the wool pulled over her eyes – is a hard sell, not only for a fan of the series , but even for a first timer. For every fan knows Kate is a lost cause – it would be easier to dress Stephanie in yellow ( everyone knows she’s a red, black and white freak ) than convince Kate of an unexplained phenomenon.
Kate is one of those characters so rooted in her stubbornness that if she’d ever been abducted by aliens would have written off the experience with various arguments of logic. To the aliens – nice space ship , I’ve seen better crafts in a Skip Dulveen movie or even question her last Dr. Pepper – come to think of it , it did taste a little funny. She would even walk her fingers up the little green guys’ backs in search of a zipper – and not even when the probing started , would she cave. So, with such an inflexible character, where does the writer think she’s going with this? – especially when Kate starts off by bashing the writers nerve for having her involved with such malarky, as spoon bending in the first place – I feel like an idiot! Kate bemoans in the opening sentence.
For a first timer to the series the idea can also seem a little self sabotaging – let me explain – if Stephanie and the others trick Kate into believing magical things can happen with smoke and mirrors they’ve just blown their argument by proving Kate’s opinion is factual that nothing magical can happen without smoke and mirrors.
This is Stephanie’s plan – in an effort to broaden Kate’s mind-over-matter philosophy, Patti suggests a Science/ sociology experiment involving talking nicely to plant a and negatively to plant b. Stephanie wanting to speed things along decides to enlist Lauren’s aid to switch plant a with a slightly bigger spider plant to show Kate that it really does work. Now how can Kate dismiss her own psychic powers , with the evidence right in front of her? Though it’s an interesting trick – and Kate can be so stuffy ( ‘some people’, she crabs, ‘have minds so open they’re as full of holes as Swiss cheese!’ ) that she has it coming but the argument again will not be solved eventually Kate will learn of their deception and can still back up her own opinion. No magic without – slight-of-hand. However the writer knowing that this is going down too , predictable a path twists it away from the desirable position of having Kate put on the hot seat to having Stephanie – after sneaking into Kate’s house to plant the charlatan plant , lose her distinctive rhinestone pin. By this moment if you don’t know what’s going to happen you should have the book yanked from your hand and be slapped upside the head with it. Everyone knows this is the clue that gives Kate the heads up and that she’s going to turn the tables on the girls – so when the girls are faced with an even larger plant than they brought in and Kate’s solemn announcement that she has the power – they may gasp but you’re going to yawn.
The plot has ditched it’s original idea of the reader waiting to see how Kate reacts to her suddenly larger plant to how the girls will react to Kate’s sudden ‘powers’ and not one suspects they’re being had! What follows is an extremely boring chapter of Kate explaining her technique to the girls – breathing lessons and talk of plant growth which is about as exciting as watching grass grow which this plot is a mere extension of! Kate then uses her ‘skills’ to get a boy to call , and to find Stephanie’s lost pin which when they go outside to hunt for it – Donald , next door hunk , and ever watchful spy blabs Kate’s not-so-secret, secret . Patti’s involvement was a bit of a surprise but necessary.
Oddly enough the side plot of Roger’s love life is equally dismal. Roger’s character is a little like Kristy’s older brother Charlie in BSC one part – solid older brother , three parts chauffeur – a much needed formula to deposit Kristy at the weekday BSC meetings and the Sleepover friends at the mall. At best both are side characters of no consequence , there for an occasional quip – at worse Roger’s given his own side story – like now. Because of the age difference the girls can only play fix-it cupids to Roger’s love life resulting in the predictable backfire – that Linda mistakenly believes a slick new suitor is sending her roses and candy and not an apologetic Roger. I would’ve preferred a meddling love story involving Bullwinkle and a posh poodle rather than this ( only because it might not have been original but definitely more humorous ) Because this is so cliche and Kate’s plot so flimsy the overall story has few redeeming moments.
The book fumbles due to unoriginality the patching up a friends/siblings romance and nearly wrecking it by having someone else take the credit for the sudden deluge of gifts is so cliche that it could only be redeemed if the couple was not predictably reunited at the end. The fact that any eleven year old would spend all their extra money to ensure this scheme worked is a another flight of fantasy. Speaking of which – in a story that hinges on the paranormal , when it’s not of the fantasy genre , one has to look for the obvious logical outcome- which kills the suspense – in each instance we were waiting to see how Kate would react and when that was yanked away how the girls would react. But we didn’t for once believe in the events taking shape. Had the author wanted to do something genuinely spooky or test Kate’s mind over matter theory why not have something that at least has a moment of credibility , if not a good spook factor – have the girls spend Halloween night at the McBride house! P.s. – for more reasons why this episode failed read on till the end summary.
Here’s what I’d have rather read –
BSC #32 THE SECRET OF SUSAN
The premise is simple – Faced with the task of babysitting a young autistic girl ( Susan of the title ) , Kristy is so blown away , by her beauty and talent ( playing the piano ) , knows that she, above all experts, can reach her. By the time this point becomes clear any reader that has ever watched Rain Man would expect, that, no matter the outcome, Kristy and Susan will at least find some clever, heartwarming way to communicate. However the more sophisticated reader who has had a school integrated with special-ed students might understand that Kristy’s go get-um attitude is about to deflate faster than a popped balloon.
Although I don’t like to check out other people’s opinions on books too much , especially before writing my own – I decided to go to several book sites and check out what others thought about this BSC offering. The readers were definitely split – some cheered Ann M Martin for bringing the important issue of autism to their attention , some loved the addition of the Hobart family and the fact that for once Kristy couldn’t solve it all. Others were more critical about the way the autism was handled calling it inaccurate especially when Kristy is lead to a dictionary which mentions childhood schizophrenia , acting out and withdrawing from reality – but even Kristy finds this vague and confusing. At best the issue is brought to children – at worst – yes it’s rather inaccurate – considering a lot of Susan’s characteristics only effect a very low percentage of those having autism Susan becomes a rarity not a spokesperson – but we are told that Susan is savant as well as autistic which allows for her amazing ability with memory and music.
But the suspense formed by the back blurb – of Kristy’s quest to prove that Susan Felder is a ‘regular’ kid is prematurely snuffed out when we are told on pg 37 ,as if a warning, that some experts believe if an autistic child has no meaningful language by the time she or he is five, there will be little progress. Since Susan is eight Mrs. Felder isn’t too hopeful. So what exactly fuels Kristy’s hope
probably her inability to listen instead of hearing – to borrow Kristy’s dictionary terms that means though Kristy’s is hearing the words coming out of Mrs. Felder’s mouth , she’s not actually attending to what is being said ( even not being said ). Though Mrs. Felder is hopeful that the team of professionals might be able to reach Susan she’s not naive. And though proud of her daughter’s special abilities would rather she be able to simply communicate – something she never does. And that phrase is apparently lost on Kristy who is usually better at keeping facts about her charges straight! Because on the very next page Kristy puffs herself up with some sort of self-righteous anger at the purposed injustices heaped upon Susan – that no one understands her , that they’ve made her some sort of outcast shipping her from school to school. All this after seeing Susan for five minutes? She asks – ‘why didn’t her parents try to help Susan make friends? She couldn’t talk, but neither could Matt, and he has plenty of friends.’ Matt Braddock is of course ( if you’re a fan of BSC ) a hearing impaired character who uses sign language. Kristy has just boiled communication down to mere speech not presence. That’s like saying a coma victim can’t talk – it’s redundant – he can talk – but he can’t reach you. She’s also boiling friendship down to the fact that Susan should be friends with ‘normal’ kids. But nothing can stop Kristy now as the closing lines of Chapter four tell us – nobody can say I don’t stand up for what I believe in. And for now Kristy believes Susan is in need of someone to fight her battles.
Unfortunately Kristy stays uncomfortably in this unwanted activist role for most of the book without getting an inkling of progress out of Susan. And though Kristy mistakenly believes Susan has a friend in James Hobart , one of the boys from the Australian family that just moved in , the only reason the boy claimed her friendship was the rush of sympathy he felt when he saw her being teased by the same bully who’d been teasing him. The bullies even turn to Susan , when she becomes a novelty and Kristy still blinded in her quest wields Susan’s talents as though they’re ways of getting to know Susan, rather than what they’ve become, in the story – mere parlor tricks , done by an uninterested performer. At one point the bullies sells tickets as though Susan is a side show attraction, with one girl writing the bill as – the incredible retard , the amazing dumbo, and finally Kristy’s naive outlook is lifted. After taking Susan over to Claudia’s whose babysitting at the Hobarts, she discusses the incident in front of Susan admitting when Claudia is chagrin , that she doubts Susan hears anything or rather she is so disconnected that nothing appears to matter to her. She stops pushing the relationship between James Hobart and Susan – doing James a favor who has found a friend ( the reformed bully ) who better suits his needs. Standing by while someone twirls and flaps and ignores all attempts at conversation – would be difficult for a mother let alone an eight year old boy.
You would think this revelation would scrap Kristy’s mission but no. Hired to help pack Susan’s belongings , Kristy feels like a failure because she still believes , Susan should be at home. Deciding to confess this to Mr. Felder who finally generates some sympathy for the parents as we learn this hasn’t been an easy or thoughtless decision he eases some of her guilt. I say some sympathy because Kristy or writer , never allows much sympathy for the parents. Just when they seem clear of Kristy’s thundercloud of suspicion another raindrop falls – like Mr. Felder still hoping that one day Susan will play in a concert. Which, contrasted with Kristy’s wondering if her parents ever pinned wish fulfillments on her or her siblings comes across as either normal , or depressingly sacrificial. Despite the beauty of Susan’s music with her inability to communicate she has the awful impression of a mere songbird.
Here’s another dilly – baby Hope. Now there is some controversy in the silver-lining that is Baby Hope. For those of you who have forgotten this part – Mr. And Mrs. Felder confide to Kristy that they’re going to have a baby , and are going to call the baby Hope in honor of Susan. Now we could assume this is meant to be our silver-lining for the usually overcast Mr. And Mrs. Felder , that, for their courage , perseverance , and patience they’ve been gifted this baby. However we could also see this gift as a ‘pimple demolished’ – the ‘marred’ child is sent off under the guise of a wonderland – a place where she can play music uninterrupted – while the parents enjoy their ‘whole’ child undisturbed and free of guilt. Though this is a harsh theory it’s almost bellied by Kristy whose beside herself with the thought of a new baby client. Susan has been clearly forgotten. And further reinforced by the fact that we never hear from the Felder’s again.
There’s a few laws that evolve in a series , laws unto themselves – one for the BSC is that if you never hear from a client again there is usually a reason for it. Number one was that there were creeps or predators for the Mysteries, or had some unsavory conflict with the BSC. Since there is no real ‘conflict’ with the Felder’s one wonders why did we never hear from them again? Was Kristy right? But in following the rule that all clients who are never mentioned again must be creeps , you find if a reader carefully digs it can be canceled out by a basic BSC phenomenon. Since the Secret of Susan is written after the girls have entered the eighth grade , a year which they will stagnate in , Hope can never be born! Mrs. Felder would stay eternally pregnant which is probably why they were never heard from again. Of course this time rule does flex to allow – Jenny Prezziosos to have sister Andrea be born and snap back to keep Mary Anne’s Tigger a kitten. So who knows.
There are a lot of undercurrents in this book that never get resolved. It’s probably Ann M Martin’s most ambitious plot but fails to do the trick mainly because it’s motto ‘certain problems can’t be solved’ bows out to – ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ that and possibly because it’s too short –
This slim book seems to be a paradox until you decide to do a little math. From the line up of spines, on any shelf, the first edition of BSC’s the Secret of Susan looks to be the obvious choice for shortest BSC read however the number of pages sets your brain in a whirl – 145 when most books stop short at 132. So lets do the math – I counted an average of seven words on each line and counted up the lines on an average page ( no fair starting on Chapter starts or ends ) ,then times them. For BSC book #80 Mallory Pike’s #1 Fan – here’s the results – aprox 7 words per line – 30 lines per page – that’s a 210 word count per page. So for it’s 146 pages that comes to 30, 660 words. ( Member this is all just averages! ) Let’s compare #32 The Secret of Susan which is only 27 lines per page ( rather than 30 ) it averages about 7 words per line – that’s 196 word count per page. Times that plus their page amount – 145 and you come up with 28, 420. Now if you subtract the amount between both books and divide by the page number – even though The Secret of Susan appears to be only 1 page shorter than book #80 – word wise it’s probably 15 pages shorter! 18 of which are used up introducing the characters and their jobs within the club!
Ever wonder if this might’ve been a better book had Kristy not been the babysitter? I do – unfortunately I’m not sure who I’d pick – though Kristy appears not to save the day in this book – I think that’s a fallacy – I believe she is responsible for the miracle of baby Hope. I’ve mentioned before in a review ( see Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls – ) that each member of the club had certain expectations to fulfill and Kristy was a wish fulfillment character. She’s got the dream house, step dad , things go Kristy’s way – she might not have been able to solve the secret of Susan , but she’s placed in the empty Felder’s household the most precious of all the BSC creatures – a baby.
Although one can’t really slight a ‘happy ending’ I do find fault with the almost memory game match up’s that take place in this story. When I was eleven the side story made me want to tear out my then super-red hair , Mallory’s ‘romance’ with another redhead Ben Hobart – in school there was this little red-headed boy ( he was the cliche of all redheaded boys – a troublemaker ) whom everyone thought was made for me – yeah like Raggedy Ann and Andy – barf and I’ve always had this shudder feeling that people mentally go around arranging redheads with redheads , blondes with blondes. Had Ben been a redheaded troublemaker , maybe that would’ve helped but being that he’s an older brother , kind helpful supportive , he’s like a total Logan-clone. This embarrassing discovery sabotages any joy one could find in the side story.
Series fiction loves to sum up a new character by slipping on a cliche usually involving a place – a fashionable New Yorker , a healthy California , a hillbilly from West Virginny or an accent ( which gee whiz implies place ) – now mind you it’s easy to immediately curl a girls toes with a sexy accented foreigner think Jude Law , Jeremy Irons but what’s to separate him from say Timothy Spall? Looks? Considering if I do that I’ve boiled these people down to phonetics and looks , with all that remains is the equivalent of chatty Cathy dolls. Give me a character invoked with the little used sense , taste – as in good taste. Give me a character with bite! The Hobarts are toothless characters merely capitalizing on the Crocodile Dundee trend something the writer never bothers to hide – but other then their accents & their shyness they are a bundle of names and cliches – totally one dimensional. The other cliche of this memory game match-up is to turn the bully into James’ new bf. So far no one is out their pair up. Mallory scores a boyfriend , the Felders have the promise of a new baby , even Susan could be linked to her great love – the music school. And the book does end with an upbeat albiet hokey note when Kristy in her new found empathy for the handicap thinks maybe someday she’ll become a teacher and work with them which however , sounds self serving because there is no follow up.
All in all not my favorite BSC book – I found that Dawn and Whitney Friends forever was easier to swallow – Whereas Secret of Susan seemed concocted of hit movie ingredients – Rain man and Crocodile Dundee , this book kept everything simple. It too , dealt with a ‘handicap’ ( 80’s term don’t freak ) client , Whitney who has Downs Syndrome whose parents hire Dawn to impersonate a friend , rather than sitter in order to spare Whitney’s pride. Clever but simple.
So how did each book fail – as a book in general? A series book? Or under their own terms as a SF or BSC book? I think both failed number 1 – as a book in general when each author failed to plot a story in which the outcome wasn’t already known – it was predictable even by predictability standards! And 3 under their own headings – A good Sleepover Friends book – involves one good pig out – and there are no fantastic food orgies in this episode , and a funny Bullwinkle moment – alas I don’t even think Bullwinkle makes an appearance – not a grand one anyway. There are also no real great clothing descriptions or Jenny sabotages – in fact everything has been pared down to the paranormal. A complete wash out on it’s own level. To discover Secret of Susan isn’t the best BSC book one must take a different angle – unlike Sleepover Friends The Babysitters club changed viewpoints for each book. * However Sleepover Friends changed it’s format with # 30 Big Sister Stephanie and in a twist from the BSC the title didn’t always imply who was narrating – Big Sister Stephanie was taken from the viewpoint of Kate.*
BSC books therefore must be noted as to how good they are with the character piloting them – for instance it’s perfect that Mallory deals with the twins identity crisis in book #21 because with her seven siblings she knows all about wanting to be your own person! Other plots aren’t as easy to pigeonhole – why give Stacey a haunted house in book #35 , why is the Stoneybrook pageant told from Dawn’s eyes. Other’s however offer their own solutions – Claudia is given the phantom phone calls because at the time, book #2 , it seemed obvious to give her, the first official boy-girl date that ends the plot. Secret of Susan seems to fall under this idea – helmed by Kristy it’s outcome is assured a magical ending – the punchline appears to be Kristy can’t solve it all – yet – Kristy has an affinity with the author or vice versa in which things life’s hiccups are rewarded with big bonus’s – when a beloved dog dies – Kristy gains a friendship and a new puppy.
Even Kristy’s feelings of failure are erased with the books ending that Kristy not only feels competent but enough so that she could possibly grow up to take on a class of Susans’ The book would’ve been better helmed by Dawn who had a good rapport with adults therefore Baby Hope might not have been a necessary twist to bring about a happy ending. I also think that had Dawn discovered an urge to help handicap kids that might’ve given Dawn a whole new direction of side stories – rather than reserve her to the mere stepsister zzzz subplots she was forced to endure.
Description of how I made the fantasy Sleepover Friends cover will be up the Cliquey Pizza facebook page!