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Story Time
Edward Bloor
Harcourt, 424 pages

Story Time
Edward Bloor
Edward Bloor was born in 1950, in Trenton, New Jersey. He graduated from Fordham University in 1973. His other books include the young adult books, Tangerine and Crusader.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

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I was looking forward to reading Edward Bloor. I had heard encouraging things about this rising author who had a flair for fast-moving plots and plucky grade school heroes who keep "young adult" readers -- a flexible term, but it says on the dust jacket that we're talking ages twelve and up -- coming back for more.

Well, the plot was fast-moving, no question. Story Time is set in a corrupt US county where the school board and the local government are so firmly under the sway of one greedy family that they allow them to shanghai public school students into the fee-charging Whittaker Magnet School, where the concept of "teaching to the test" goes reductio ad absurdum and then keeps right on going. The brightest kids on the county sit in rows in the basement of the Whittaker Library, taking test after test while the Whittakers scheme to get the First Lady to come and bless their system, presumably so they can go public and take the business national. Unfortunately for all, some of the books in the old library are haunted by nasty ghosts: open one up and a malevolent spirit will seize the reader and make him or her do something at least grievously embarrassing, if not gruesomely fatal.

Dragooned into this anti-Hogwarts-from-hell are middle-school student Kate Peters and her uncle, the brilliant George Melvil (who happens to be two years younger than Kate). They are the products of an offbeat household. Kate's mother, George's big sister June, is an agoraphobic wreck because of (we eventually learn) an unhappy encounter with one of the haunted books that prompted Kate's dad to run off and leave them. They live in half a duplex next to Kate's grandparents, who are devoted to their clog dancing club and whoop whenever the narrator brings them into the reader's ken.

Swirling around the plucky pair of heroes are the Whittakers -- including a pair of horrid credit-stealing children -- the various corrupt county officials, the First Lady and her deus-ex-machina chief of staff, Pogo the weird librarian who speaks only in nursery rhymes, a young woman who has a genius for inventing death rays for the military, a man who owns an orca that lives on shrimp (don't ask me why), a mysterious pop can scavenger and many, many more. In fact, far too many more. The bewildering plethora of characters, who are trotted onto the page and off again in a mechanical fashion, are one of the things wrong with this book.

More problematical is that Bloor seems to have crammed so much plot into 224 pages that he affords the reader no opportunity to breathe. There is almost no rhythm to the book. The action unfolds at the same metronomic pace, incident piling on incident -- some of them quite gory -- leaving scant room for the heroes to reflect upon their predicament beyond plotting the next move in their game of wits with the evil Whittakers. They are up and down a secret passage to hide behind a bookcase and eavesdrop on the bad guys so many times I wanted to call Bloor up and ask him if he couldn't have thought of another plot device. There is almost no internal monologue, no sense that these kids are learning life lessons or growing at all from their experiences. Compared to Harry Potter, who I suppose has to be the standard against which the inhabitants of any YA book about a school and magic must be measured, the folks at the Whittaker Magnet School are cardboard to the core.

And, frankly, the writing is flat -- Bloor does not seem to know a synonym for "walked" -- and there are even grammatical errors: "He watched Cornelia Whittaker flip over Cornell Whittaker Number Two's heavy trunk like it was made of Styrofoam." There are other lapses that should not have made it past the copy editor's pencil: "She fixed a frightened stare at the First Lady..."

There are some nice touches in Story Time: I liked the floor mosaic in the library entrance that showed the 19th century robber baron turned philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, writhing in hell. And the book certainly could have worked as a black humour satire on the test-based curriculum. But I got the strong feeling that Bloor was trying to stuff ten pounds of writing into a five pound bag. Perhaps that's why he didn't actually deliver the boffo, laugh-packed ending scene where the chief villain, in the presence of the president of the United States, opens a book containing a long imprisoned, mean tempered ghost. Instead, he makes the reader infer the scene while showing us an emancipated Kate running joyfully out of the school's shadow into sunlight. Oddly enough, the last paragraph is the only truly lyrical piece of prose in the whole book.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His novels are Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, and Majestrum. The first chapter of his new novel, The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn (Night Shade Books, September 2007), is on his web page is at http://www.archonate.com/spiral-labyrinth.


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