Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gregor the Overlander (Suzanne Collins)

Gregor the Overlander
(The Underland Chronicles, Book 1)
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Fiction
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: Two years, seven months, and thirteen days ago, Gregor's father disappeared without a trace. In New York City, people vanish all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Some of them fall in with the wrong crowd, or simply don't want to be found. Gregor knows that's not the case. His dad would never leave him, his sisters, his mother, or his grandmother. Sure, they weren't exactly living in a Park Avenue penthouse, but he loved Gregor, and Gregor loved him. As soon as Dad comes home, he'll...
But Gregor won't let himself think about that, won't let himself think of hope or happiness, for fear of jinxing his father's return. In the meantime, all he can do is help out as best he can around the house. With Grandma's senility, Mom struggling to stretch one income over so many mouths to feed, and his two-year-old sister Boots' constant need for supervision and diaper changes, there's more than enough to do to keep his mind occupied. Even doing laundry is a blessing. At least, until Boots worked loose the latch on the grate in the laundry room. As Gregor races to keep her out of the walls, the two fall in... and down.
Suddenly, Gregor and Boots find themselves in a strange, dark world, where giant cockroaches, spiders, rats, and more live in an uneasy truce with humans and bats. The people of the Underland have many prophecies left by their long-lost progenitor - prophecies that may concern Gregor himself. Gregor only wants to return home, where his mother must be frantic... until he learns that he isn't the first human to tumble into the Underland. The last "Overlander" to survive the plunge came through precisely two years, seven months, and thirteen days ago.
Gregor's father. Still alive.

REVIEW: Gregor the Overlander mixes some nicely original "otherland" twists with a strangely bland story. The title character tends to think in obvious blocks of text (annoyingly set off in quote marks), holding the reader's hand as though not trusting them to follow the tale through its darker stretches. As with many "otherland" tales, Gregor's New York City street smarts and ability to comprehend slang terminology gives him an edge on the Underlanders, though they prove quite adept at surviving in their own harsh world, with a matter-of-fact survival instinct that perpetually eludes him. Gregor's adventures in the Underland start out fairly benign, as he is protected from the brutality of Underland survival by having the good fortune to travel with people who do the hard work for him. The fact that he's named in a prophecy only heightens his security. Even when death and destruction come crashing down upon him, I felt oddly detached from the action, with only an occasional emotional connection breaking through. I can't say precisely why; maybe it was the writing style, or the way Gregor tended to explain his thoughts and emotions instead of feeling them. Boots, his traveling companion, actually has a purpose on the journey, though I do rather wish Collins had aged her a few years: I've never been particularly fond of pushy toddlers. (I'm also not entirely sure that Boots wasn't the reason for my sense of detachment - Gregor spends so much energy protecting her from the hard edges of the Underland that his own experiences seemed equally bubble-wrapped for most of the story.) The author gets marks, however, for using a tantrum as a sonic weapon, perhaps the most unique use of a two-year-old I've ever encountered. Collins also establishes different morality codes for the different species of Underland; one of Gregor's great struggles is how he must come to accept that not everyone here thinks like a human, nor can they be expected to do so. Almost despite itself, Gregor's quest builds to a violent climax, though most of the violence occurs offscreen and is only witnessed in its aftermath. The very end teases of more adventures to come for Gregor and Boots.
In the end, while the book had its moments, I couldn't find the energy or interest to push it to a solid Good rating. I don't expect I'll follow the rest of this series.

The Familiar (K. A. Applegate)

The Familiar
(The Animorphs series, Book 41)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the Animorphs series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: After yet another loss to the Yeerks, the stresses of battle nearly tear the Animorphs apart. Marco nearly got himself killed when Rachel refused the order to retreat. Cassie feels the deaths of the Hork-Bajir-Controllers she took out, innocent creatures enslaved by their Yeerk masters, crushing her soul. Tobias and Ax have their own personal problems, drawing them apart from the group. And Jake... Jake can hardly find the energy to care anymore.
He stumbles home, nearly running into his Yeerk-controlled brother Tom, before crashing in bed. How can he go on like this? His own friends, his warriors, at each others' throats, the Yeerk invasion marching on with nary a stumble for all their efforts, knowing that the Andalite warships that they'd been counting on for relief may not show up for years (if at all)... the war might as well already be over.
Jake wakes up the next morning to find himself in a strange room, wearing strange clothes, in a body that is strange... but familiar. It's his own body, aged maybe ten years. He looks out the window to see the New York City skyline - only radically altered. Yeerk Bug fighters and Andalite warships swoop over the gloomy city streets - but as allies, not enemies.
Is this a dream? Is this the work of the Crayak or the Ellimist? Has Jake finally gone insane? Or did the Yeerks win the galactic war?

REVIEW: The "dream" episode is almost invariably a sign that the writers of a given franchise are running out of ideas... or killing time before sweeps. This book seems to fall in a similar category. The nightmare world Jake wakes into is too riddled with inconsistencies for even him to fully believe, yet he has little choice but to endure it; pain, even in a dream, is still pain, and he's not willing to bet his life that none of it is real. There's enough weirdness and action, and enough personal torment on the part of Jake (who blames himself for this "future" and the fates of his friends and family), to keep turning pages. Still, it's hard to feel much urgency over what is clearly an unreal situation. It ends with what amounts to a cop-out... one with absolutely no follow-through in the rest of the series. That pointless conclusion lopped off the half-star over Okay that it almost earned.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October Site Update (#2), Reviews Archived

With November and the holidays about to swallow me whole, I figured I might as well post an update now.

The previous 38 reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main website. (I don't expect I'll manage anything near that many reviews in the coming months... as I said, I have holiday projects that need starting. I'm also hoping for my third successful NaNoWriMo in November. Wish me luck...)

Enjoy!

The Other (K. A. Applegate)

The Other
(The Animorphs series, Book 40)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Marco doesn't get many evenings home by himself, what with being part of the Animorphs and defending the planet from alien parasites and all. After his father remarried, he had even fewer nights alone. But, for once, the Yeerks are quiet and the Animorphs are off-duty. At least, until Marco's channel-surfing thumb leads him to an amateur video on national TV: an unidentified shape in the woods, little more than a four-footed blur. A blue blur.
An Andalite. But not Aximili, or Visser Three.
Investigating, Marco and his friends discover that Ax wasn't the only survivor of the Dome ship that was destroyed over Earth. Two more warriors survived... more or less. One of the pair, Mertil, lost part of his tail - a shameful deformity in Andalite culture. The other, the giant Gafinilan, seems to be Mertil's protector, but there's something very odd about his behavior that sets off Marco's inner alarms. Maybe it's the way he refuses to join in the fight against the Yeerks. Maybe it's his peculiar mood swings. Or maybe it has something to do with why, ever since that video, there's been no trace of Mertil...

REVIEW: Another book in the past-midpoint drift... Since we just had a visit from Andalites two installments ago, it seems a bit soon to play the "More Andalites on Earth" card again. It's also a bit odd that only now, so long after the crash, does anyone seem to notice that Elfangor's ship wasn't the only one to enter Earth's atmosphere intact. But that's as maybe... Some of the paranoia and veiled intentions of previous books returns here, as Marco struggles to figure out Gafinilan's angle: is he a coward, a Yeerk traitor, or something else? The handicap prejudice of the Andalites, as embodied in Ax's categoric dismissal of Mertil, feels more like a political-correctness statement than a natural development. Like the previous book, The Other may not approach the complexity and interest level of the peak of the series, but it nevertheless entertains.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Hidden (K. A. Applegate)

The Hidden
(The Animorphs series, Book 39)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: The puny Helmacrons left months ago, leaving behind nothing but the wreckage of one of their toy-sized spaceships. Unfortunately, Helmacron technology can detect morphing energy... and, somehow, the Yeerks managed to repair the sensors on their ship. The strongest source of morphing energy on Earth is Elfangor's blue box, the Andalite device that transfers morphing capabilities. And Visser Three will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.
As Cassie and her friends begin a deadly game of hide and seek, the unthinkable happens. An animal - an African Cape buffalo bull - somehow triggers the blue box's powers - and unthinkingly acquires a human morph. Cassie knows it cannot be allowed to live. At best, it's an abomination. At worst, it's a liability; if the Yeerks caught it and infested it, it would reveal the identity of the Animorphs, whom it has seen as both bull and man. But she can't reconcile herself to the bull's destruction, especially as its sometimes-human brain begins learning with unexpected speed. On the loose in the woods, the unnatural mutant seems to think the Animorphs are its herd... and, to a buffalo, a herd is to be defended at all costs. Even against Taxxons, Hork-Bajir, and the ultimate Abomination, Visser Three himself.

REVIEW: Yet another bend-till-it-breaks warping of Animorphs canon forms the backbone of the subplot; the idea of an animal accidentally triggering the blue cube seems on par with an animal accidentally bumping against a computer and coding a website. The general idea of outrunning a morph-seeker hearkens back to the first Megamorphs book, as well. Still, it's not all bad. Cassie wonders whether human DNA can make a subsentient animal into something more, even as she knows that the necessities of war, and not philosophical puzzles or ethics, will determine the bull's fate. I might have considered dropping this a half-star for general lack of originality, but I just read a far more atrocious YA book (Witch & Wizard, by James Patterson); by comparison, I danged near bumped this one clear up to Great. (Check the time stamp on this review versus Patterson's review... yes, I needed a dose of Applegate to counteract that one.)
On a vaguely related note, my copy - with the original "morphing" cover cutout to an internal illustration - demonstrates that this stretch of the series just wasn't getting the oversight it needed. The cutout cuts right through the front-cover "hype" excerpt, leaving word fragments to either side.

Witch & Wizard (James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet)

Witch & Wizard
(The Witch & Wizard series, Book 1)
James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet
Little, Brown and Company
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)


DESCRIPTION: For decades, the power of the New Order had been growing, but as high schoolers the siblings Whit and Wisty Allgood didn't pay much attention. Politics is for grown-ups and debate club dweebs, not a football star like Whit or a habitual truant like Wisty. Then one morning they woke to hear the sound of boots marching past their suburban home... followed by a commando team breaking down their door. Suddenly hauled away by New Order forces, accused of witchcraft (of which they know nothing) and sentenced to death, Whit and Wisty finally realize that politics does indeed affect them. As harsh as the New Order is on ordinary freedoms, banning books and music and imagination, the all-powerful One Who Is The One seems to have a personal vendetta against the Allgood teens. But why? It's not like they're really a wizard and a witch, with some sort of weird mystical power that could threaten his plan to dominate the world... are they?

REVIEW: I know it's probably not fair, but I cannot help comparing James Patterson to K. A. "Animorph" Applegate. Patterson writes mostly adult thrillers. Applegate writes for kids and young adults. Patterson's a household name. Applegate... very popular, but not quite that big. Patterson pitches this book at the upper age bracket of the Young Adult spectrum, while Applegate generally hits midgrade and younger. Yet, even at its weakest, the Animorphs series runs rings around this book.
Setting aside the grave mistake of naming his protagonists almost identically ("Whit" and Wisty" scan very similarly, and their narrative voices are the same), there are so many problems here I hardly know where to begin. Let's try the beginning, shall we? The book starts with a dramatic public execution in progress before cutting to the backstory of how the Allgoods found themselves before a stadium full of spectators, about to be dropped to their doom by The One Who Is The One. (Brilliantly original name, there... but, then, it fits the one-dimensional villain like a glove. Or rather a mitten - a glove would imply complexity of design. But I digress...) Unfortunately - and this risks a spoiler, but frankly I don't care - this book never catches up to the execution. It just leaves the reader hanging on a "to be continued..." cliffhanger. But, I'd lost faith in the thing long before then. Tissue-thin caricatures of characters, little to no logic to the world's magic, less logic behind the whole New Order, pathetic alternate-world versions of real-world books and bands (The Walking Heads? The Pitcher in the Wheat? Really?), zero plot depth, all written in a tooth-grindingly immature voice... oh, but why go on?
Did Patterson seriously think that teens were this stupid? Was he writing some sort of deadpan parody of teen magial realism series? Are all of his best-selling thrillers this lousy, or does the blame lie on his co-author? Contrast any character or situation in this book with the Animorphs, where middle-schoolers confront death, destruction, paranoia, loss of self, the politics of war, battle trauma, torture, and even the possibility of killing their own family members for the greater good of Earth's liberation, and it's easy to see which author respects their readers, and which is just looking for a quick buck on a popular genre.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Arrival (K. A. Applegate)

The Arrival
(The Animorphs series, Book 38)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Ever since Aximili's brother Prince Elfangor gave five human children the power to morph, they pinned their hopes on the eventual arrival of more Andalites. As much as the Animorphs have harrassed the Yeerks, as much of a thorn in the side as they've been to Visser Three, they simply could not win the war to liberate Earth from the invading alien parasites. While rescuing an ally Chee from human-Controllers, Ax suddenly finds himself side-by-side with a female aristh. Andalites - here at last! His hearts rejoice! But Estrid and her companions have their own agenda... and Ax has learned the hard way that his own people can be as cruel and amoral as the Yeerks. Just what has brought this ship to Earth - and why are they taking such pains not to reveal their mission to Ax?

REVIEW: As usual, Ax's story tends to be weaker than the other Animorphs' books. He spends less time wrestling with his loyalty to humans and more time watching his fellow Andalites with a mistrustful eye... a fact that surprises even him. The female Estrid momentarily blurs his thoughts - he is, after all, an adolescent Andalite - but fails to keep him from figuring out the visitors' true mission. The book almost lost half a star towards the end, revealing that key information was deliberately left out of the narrative. In the end, while the Andalite relief fleets are no nearer to Earth, the Animorphs - and Ax - nevertheless prove themselves more than capable of soldiering on. If it wasn't the best in the series, well, I've slogged through worse.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Weakness (K. A. Applegate)

The Weakness
(The Animorphs series, Book 37)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: With Jake out of town, the Animorphs figured they'd lay low for a few days. But Tobias has stumbled onto Visser Three's new feeding grounds - the place where he's most vulnerable. Ever since the Animorphs' last strike, the Visser has been very careful to change meadows every few days, so they don't have time to wait for their leader. In cheetah morph, under Rachel's leadership, they go in - and find themselves stymied by a new enemy.
The Councilor has come to monitor Visser Three's progress, and his host body, a Garatron, functions at such a speed he makes cheetahs look like tree sloths. Thwarted, Rachel comes up with a new plan: hammer the Yeerks now, while the Visser's under the microscope, and maybe throw the entire Earth invasion into chaos. After all, Yeerk politics have helped the Animorphs before. But last time, they were under Jake's leadership. Rachel's more direct style could be a change for the better - or the worse. And, considering how many close calls they've had, worse could all too easily be deadly.

REVIEW: Rising back toward their old form like a bald eagle riding a thermal, The Weakness brings back some of the internal struggles - both within the group and within the narrator - that are a trademark of the series. Rachel tries to be as strong a leader as Jake, but her personality doesn't cope as well with the planning and the pressure. Through poor luck and hubris, she nearly dooms them all... but no leader gets to walk away from their own messes, no matter how impossible they look. This one doesn't push the credulity envelope quite as bad as the previous few books, though parts of the story feel like arguments Rachel had with herself (literally, sometimes) in The Separation. Still, a fairly satisfying installment on the whole.

The Mutation (K. A. Applegate)

The Mutation
(The Animorphs series, Book 36)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good))



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting reviews of the individual Animorph books.

DESCRIPTION: Ever since losing the Pemalite ship to the "Andalite bandits" (and the interference of Crayak's pet, the devious Drode), Visser Three has become obsessed with recovering it... and, not incidentally, restoring his damaged reputation with the Yeerk High Council. Just how far will he go? Late at night, Jake receives a phone call from a shaken Cassie. The free Hork-Bajir have brought one of their own to her in hopes that she can heal him... and fix the horrible, bungled aquatic mutations the Visser grafted onto his body.
The Chee confirm that Visser Three is planning a deep-sea expedition to locate the Pemalite ship, using a brand-new craft known as the Sea Blade. Jake and the Animorphs race to stop him... only to find themselves facing an even greater danger. For down beneath the ocean lurks a secret nearly as old as human civilization, a lost world scavenging the detritus of humanity's oceanic explorations. The Animorphs would just as soon abandon the Yeerk craft and its crew to these strangers... until they're caught, too.

REVIEW: A marked improvement from the last book, it still has a touch of "gimmick" spray-painted across the plot. (Does everyone need an Atlantis storyline?) The undersea civilization may be a bit of a stretch, but Applegate manages to put an original stamp on a threadbare plot device. The idea of being forced to cooperate with one's enemy to escape a more imminent threat is also old, but the alliance doesn't dominate nearly as much of the book as the cover blurb implies. Not their greatest adventure ever, but a fun and action-packed outing nevertheless... and a hopeful sign that the series hadn't yet jumped the shark.
On another unrelated note, the next phase of the Animorphs Transformers line of toys is advertised in the back of my copy. The action figure of Visser Three looks especially sad...

Writing Tools (Roy Peter Clark)

Writing Tools
Roy Peter Clark
Little, Brown and Company
Nonfiction, Writing
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: Everyone knows how to read, but only the gifted few can write. Plucking a golden idea from the aether, they work their literary alchemy to transform it into written words, via publisher or newspaper or Web site. It's not a skill, but a talent, the gift of the muse bestowed upon the lucky.
Or not.
Without knowing how it's done, writing can seem like a conjuring trick, but in reality it's like any other skill. With the right tools and some experience, anyone can build their own book. Published journalist and author Roy Peter Clark gathers years of academic and practical experience, condensing them into 50 "tools" to help writers do what they really want to do: write.

REVIEW: The key to success is self-discipline, at least according to the little key chain I got in ninth grade. The key to self-discipline, I would say, is learning how to do what you want to do, then actually doing it; without knowing how, it's all too easy to let procrastination rob you of whatever self-discipline you may have. With his "toolbox," Clark offers a sound method for creating a story, be it a work of fiction or an informative newspaper article. The process itself remains much the same no matter what genre one wishes to pursue. The tools needn't all be applied to every single project, but by having them on hand, they make getting stuck that much less likely. They can also help figure out where one is spending too much time and effort, and where one isn't spending nearly enough of either. Each "tool" gets its own short section, with a series of exercises and questions at the end to drive home the point. A useful and practical guide, which I expect will be well-thumbed-through in years to come.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Proposal (K. A. Applegate)

The Proposal
(The Animorphs series, Book 35)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Marco's mother died two years ago, drowned in a boating accident. But Marco and the Animorphs know better - enslaved by the Yeerk known as Visser One, she had merely completed her assignment, turning over direct control of the invasion to the Andalite-Controller Visser Three. Since then, he has met his mother in the field of combat, has seen her fall... but no body was ever found, meaning his mother still lives, a slave to an alien parasite.
But Marco's father still thinks she's dead. And that's become a problem, now that he's dating again. Not just casual dating, either; this is serious. Too serious for Marco.
The Animorphs have just learned that William Roger Tennant, a popular self-help guru, is actually a human-Controller, who plans to use his upcoming prime time network debut to lure millions of innocents to The Sharing, the Yeerk front organization. Discrediting his golden-boy image is the only way to stop the plot - but Marco's having trouble with his morphs. The stress of his home life causes him to warp into impossible hybrid beasts. If he can't get himself under control, it won't be Tennant who will be exposed. It'll be Marco and the Animorphs.

REVIEW: A rough redressing of Rachel's DNA allergy from Book 12, the story sputters along on fumes from previous adventures, throwing in some half-hearted efforts at levity with Marco's morph of Euclid, his would-be-stepmother's annoying toy poodle. Granted, I could believe Marco would have some issues dealing with his father's plans for remarriage, but I'd already seen this general story arc in The Reaction, which played more convincingly. Little originality and minimal new developments make it a largely forgettable installment... save the way it ends on a cliffhanger, segueing into the return of Marco's mom/Visser One in Visser (reviewed on my website here.)

The Prophecy (K. A. Applegate)

The Prophecy
(The Animorphs series, Book 34)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting reviews of the individual Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: When Cassie saw the free Hork-Bajir Jara Hamee lurking outside her barn, she knew there was trouble. Summoning the rest of the team, she heads to the hidden valley of the free Hork-Bajir, where a strange alien awaits him. Quafijinivon claims to be the last of the Arn, the highly intelligent race that created the Hork-Bajir... and whose apathy about that race's fate led to his own kind's extermination when the Yeerks and Andalites turned the planet into a war zone. He wants to use the DNA of the free Hork-Bajir to repopulate their home world and form a new resistance - but to do that, the cloned colonists will need weapons. The Andalite-turned-Hork-Bajir Aldrea was supposed to have stolen a large cache of weaponry just before she and her mate, Dak Hamee, were killed, but never relayed that information to anyone else. But all is not lost: the Arn has her "essence," her stored personality and memories, which needs only a host body to waken. If anyone could locate the cache, it would be Aldrea. But she has been dead for many years... when the mission is done, will she readily relinquish her host, or will she fight for this second life as hard as she did when she truly lived?

REVIEW: Mostly an excuse to follow up on The Hork-Bajir Chronicles (reviewed on my website here), the logic and premise - not to mention certain aspects of the mission's execution - twist Animorphs canon to the point of breaking. (If you haven't read the Hork-Bajir Chronicles and attempt this book, you'll definitely be thrown for a loop.) Aldrea works through some identity issues, learning to respect the "inferior" humans (and even come to terms with her Andalite origins), but beyond that the secondary layers that make so many Animorphs books so good just weren't there. Still, it's not as weak as Book 33, and the Animorphs kick some serious Yeerk hindquarters.

The Illusion (K. A. Applegate)

The Illusion
(The Animorphs series, Book 33)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Tobias was once an ordinary boy... or so he thought. Then he became trapped in the body of a red-tailed hawk, a predator whose mind became part of his own. Later, he regained the ability to morph: a hawk who could walk as a boy again, but only for two hours at a time. And then he learned that his real father, a man he had never known, was no man at all, but the Andalite Elfangor - who had, for the sake of love, become a nothlit, voluntarily trapping himself in a human body until the Ellimist sent him back to his homeworld.
Boy? Hawk? Animorph? Andalite? Who is Tobias? Even he doesn't know anymore...
The Animorphs set out to destroy the Yeerk's newest weapon: the Anti-Morphing Ray, which - if it works - will force them to demorph in mid-combat. Revealing their human bodies, their true identities. But Jake has a plan to convince the Yeerks that their newest toy is so much scrap metal. See, they can't force an Andalite to demorph if their true body is an animal... a hawk. Tobias knows the plan could be fatal, but for all the confusion about who he is, he knows what he is. A warrior. And no warrior, especially not the son of Prince Elfangor, would hesitate to die for the sake of the greater good.

REVIEW: On the story front, this book felt a bit weak... but, then, the Animorphs series isn't just about fighting aliens and freeing Earth. It's about the characters, about how they grow and change under the strains of war. As a character portrait, exploring perhaps the most complex of the Animorphs, The Illusion succeeds brilliantly. (I suspect this is also the book that launched a thousand fanfics - the sometimes-strained relationship between Rachel and Tobias, which seems even more angst-ridden and doomed than that of Romeo and Juliet, comes to the forefront here, with Rachel showing a rare, tender side of herself that only Tobias gets to see.) It also continues Applegate's trend of showing different faces of the Yeerk enemy, in this case an embittered, voluntary human host who personally handles Tobias's interrogation/torture. The Anti-Morphing Ray itself proves a non-event, but the book really wasn't about it, anyway. After the disappointment of the previous installment, I enjoyed a return to depth here.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly)

Frankenstein
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Upon the icy Northern ocean, an English expedition finds a half-mad gentleman among the ice floes. His name is Victor Frankenstein, and the tale he tells of his youthful ambitions, his ultimate triumph over the very source of life, and subsequent torments at the hands of his own diabolical, unnatural creation, will haunt his listeners to the end of their days.

REVIEW: This is a tale of misery and torment. Oh, what miseries Victor suffers... He scarce could stand, for the weight of them must surely crush his legs. Fever madnesses burn his brain, a thousand torments preclude his joys. Page upon page, chapter upon chapter, the sorrows and sins unwind in stiflingly dense prose. He grinds his teeth and tears his hair and faints in fits of unfathomable guilt like a third-rate actor chewing the scenery. The tale of man attempting godhood, of the responsibilities of the creator to his creation, of genius gone astray and love transmuted to bitter hatred, fairly drowns in the sea of tears wept by the doctor. At some point, such paroxysms of utter misery stop being gloomy atmosphere and become smothering smog... but, then, without them this would've been a short story instead of a full-blown novel. The idea may be classic, but the execution nearly had me tearing my hair out like the good doctor - sadly, for entirely different reasons.

The Separation (K. A. Applegate)

The Separation
(The Animorphs series, Book 32)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Rachel knows she shouldn't use morphing for personal reasons, especially not on a field trip. But the earring that fell into the tide pool was a special gift from her father. Besides, nobody would see her, and it's not like the starfish has a brain that's going to give her trouble. In and out in a couple of minutes, then back to the rest of the class.
Then came the little kid. The one with the sharp little shovel... a shovel just the right size to slice a small starfish in two.
Most animals would've died, but starfish have amazing regenerative powers. When it's time to demorph, suddenly there are two Rachels. But they are hardly identical. One is the soul of compassion, full of fear, while the other embodies the terrible, bloodthirsty rage that lurks deep within her mind. It turns out two aren't always better than one - especially when one of those two wants to kill first and think later and the other is too paralyzed by her own fears to stop her darker half.

REVIEW: I came close to lopping another half-star off the rating, here. One of the weakest books in the series, it takes the "evil twin" chestnut and does precisely nothing original with it... except have the Rachels act so entirely out of character that they danged near blow the Animorphs' cover more times than a starfish has legs. The concept grew stale quickly, the narrated thoughts of both Rachels being too extreme to engender much interest. The solution comes more or less out of nowhere, for the purpose of setting everything right before the next book. About the only mytharc progression is the introduction of the experimental Anti-Morphing Ray, which comes into play in the next installment. Not a stellar book, but at least it reads quickly... a virtue I've come to admire, having struggled through some very tiresome and densely-written tales of late.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Conspiracy (K. A. Applegate)

The Conspiracy
(The Animorphs series, Book 31)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***** (Great)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Jake leads a dangerous life. He's the unofficial leader of the Animorphs, pitting himself and his closest friends against Yeerks most nights of the week. At home, he lives under the same roof as a human-Controller. His beloved older brother, Tom, may walk and talk and act like he used to, but an alien slug in his brain is really calling the shots. For the most part, Tom ignores Jake and lives his own life, as older teen brothers are wont to do. So, while Jake still must be on his guard, he's never felt directly threatened under his own roof.
Until now.
His beloved great-grandfather has just died, tossing the family into upheaval. Their parents are taking Jake and Tom out to his cabin for the wake and funeral - a trip of four days at the least. Only the Yeerk in Tom's head needs access to Kandrona rays from the Yeerk pool every three days. Suddenly, there's a new battle line in the Yeerk war... a line straight through the center of Jake's house. A line between Tom and Jake... and Jake's father. Jake doesn't know what Tom's Yeerk means to do, but he knows one thing: he won't let the aliens take his father. No matter what the cost.

REVIEW: This book forms a perfect mirror with Book 30. When Marco had to deal with potentially killing his own mother in The Reunion, Jake kept telling him he was too close to the situation to make the call. Now, the leader of the Animorphs finds his own family turned into sacrificial pieces on the game board... and when his best friend, Marco, tries to tell him (from personal experience) that it's not a battle he's equipped to deal with, Jake doesn't take it well, to say the least. In this book, it becomes abundantly clear how the war is changing the Animorphs team... not for the better. These are not the same five children who wandered through an abandoned construction site at the start of the series. Jake finds himself doing things he never thought himself capable of - and ordering others, his friends and allies, to do things nobody should have to do. On its own, this book might've rated four or four and a half stars, but taken with the book before it, it forms a dark, bleak profile of two lives and one friendship irrevocably changed by the horrors of combat. These insights are truly what lifted the Animorphs series above the average young adult action serial.

Peter Pan (James M. Barrie)

Peter Pan
James M. Barrie
Project Gutenberg - Public Domain Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: Wendy, John, and Michael Darling knew of Peter Pan long before they saw him. A wisp of dream, a half-forgotten cradle song about a boy who refused to grow up... but those were just stories. The boy who flew through the nursery window, leaving his shadow behind for Mrs. Darling to find, is real. Try as their parents and faithful nanny, the dog Nana, might, Peter won't stay away. Soon, he convinces the Darling children to fly away with him to Neverland, a world forged of adventure and imagination. Pirates and fairies and mermaids and more... every day in Neverland brings a new story to tell. But soon Wendy starts to wonder when - or even if - Peter will let them return home.

REVIEW: This was a free e-book download from Project Gutenberg, which claims to be "created in the United States of America from a comparison of various editions determined by age to be in the Public Domain in the United States." Whatever that means... In any event, I'm acting under the presumption that this is a faithful rendition of the original text. Considering the age, the overall story holds up decently, even if some glaring stereotypes (girls doing nothing but darning socks and wanting babies, "redskin" savages, etc.) and archaic language date it. Peter comes across as far less of a benevolent playmate than an oddly inhuman captor, an immature demigod who proves as much a danger as a protector of the Darlings and the Lost Boys. As sad as it seems to know that children must grow up, Peter himself seems even sadder, forever denied the love of a family by his own nature. His story isn't the only disturbing subtext beneath Neverland; Barrie recognizes the dark side of childhood and imagination at several points. The story moves fairly well, though the characters tend to the exaggerated and goofy, even the pirate crew of Captain Hook. I almost gave this a solid Good rating, if only because the other books I'm currently reading (save the Animorphs reread) have tended toward the dull and dismal. In the end, though, the goofiness and the annoying intrusions of the narrator kept it down.

The Reunion (K. A. Applegate)

The Reunion
(The Animorphs series, Book 30)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
****+(Good/Great)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Marco meant to go to school that morning. He really did. But, plagued by persistent nightmares of his mother - last seen in a flooding underwater Yeerk facility, with the alien slug Visser One still wrapped tightly around her brain - he just couldn't face another mindless morning of classes, so he took the bus into town. That's when he saw her: his mother, Visser One, back on Earth but in disguise. The disaster off Royan Island cost her her rank, and made her a marked Yeerk - but if she's returned to the territory of her rival, Visser Three, she must have a plan for redemption. Infighting Vissers make a perfect opportunity for the Animorphs to disrupt the Yeerk invasion... and maybe, just maybe, give Marco a chance to save his mom in the chaos.
If they play their cards right, the Animorphs could end them both: Visser Three and Visser One, the leaders of the invasion. It's an opportunity they can't afford to pass up, but one fraught with dangers... and with no room to spare for sentimentality or impossible dreams of rescue. What will Marco sacrifice in the name of victory - and can he be trusted to make that sacrifice, with so much at stake?

REVIEW: On the heels of the war- and death-heavy Megamorphs 3 comes one of the darkest stories the Animorphs have yet told. Marco is torn between heart and head, between his own growing ruthlessness and the frantic dreams of a loving son forced to watch his mother's ongoing captivity in wretched silence. He keeps telling himself that he knows exactly what he's doing, that his sentimentality won't interfere with his judgement, but even immersing himself in an ice-cold mindset can't stop the white-hot pain of his predicament from burning him up inside. His family tragedy at the hands of the Yeerks always made the war more personal for him than the other Animorphs, even more personal than it is for Jake (whose brother, Tom, was the first blood-relative Controller the fledgling Animorphs discovered.) It only lost half a star because the opening feels weak and forced.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Elfangor's Secret (K. A. Applegate)

Elfangor's Secret
(The Animorphs series, Megamorphs 3)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Many years ago, a lost and war-weary young Andalite warrior came to Earth... and stayed. Prince Elfangor brought the Time Matrix, the most powerful piece of technology known in the galaxy, and buried it in an empty field, before morphing to human to live with the one person he truly loved. At least, until the Ellimist intervened, sending Elfangor back to the battle zone. But the Time Matrix remained - and, just before his death at the hands of Visser Three, Elfangor almost retrieved it.
Almost...
Now, Supreme Leader Jake rallies his friends - Marco, Cassie, Melissa, and Tobias - and an upstart alien to defend the Empire from the Yeerk invasion... a matter only slightly more pressing than Cassie's disturbingly rebellious remarks and his own nation's wars against the Primitives of South America. But - no. Something's wrong with time. Terribly wrong. The Yeerk known as Visser Four - smarting from the loss on Leera, a loss caused by the interference of the Animorphs - has located the Time Matrix, using it to manipulate history so that the Yeerks will have a much easier time conquering Earth. For once, the Ellimist and Crayak agree that Visser Four must be stopped... but the Crayak demands a price for giving the Animorphs a chance to set the timeline right. A life must be paid. Against the millions who will die in altered wars throughout history, a negligible cost, but that life will be one of their own.
The Animorphs have never hesitated before. They cannot afford to hesitate now, not when the alternative is to grow up in a slave-based society with a set of morals so twisted they can scarcely contemplate them. Even if one of them may not return from their journey through time...

REVIEW: I came close to clipping this another half-star. The set-up feels rushed; no explanation is given for how Visser Four, alone of all the Yeerks - with access to all that superior Yeerk technology - tracked down the Time Matrix and worked out how to use it, though it's implied that the Crayak himself might have been involved, only to regret it. Once that bump is over, the rest of the story moves quickly, twisting down dark paths through puzzles that strain not only the temporal but the moral fibers of the Animorphs to their utmost. "Right" and "wrong," "good guys" and "bad guys," all labels quickly lose their meaning as battles are lost that should be won, lives that should burn long are snuffed out, and flags that should fly are never sewn to begin with. Thrust into the heart of war after war, the blood toll and body count can't help but be high, and Applegate - as usual - doesn't pull punches. War is Hell, no matter what the reason, the era, or the timeline.
At the end of my copy, as in the previous book, is an ad for the short-lived line of Animorphs transforming action figures. Toy technology just cannot adequately combine a human figure with an animal without making both look very, very screwy...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Sickness (K. A. Applegate)

The Sickness
(The Animorphs series, Book 29)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***** (Great)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Cassie and her friends just wanted one ordinary night, a night when they could be regular kids at a school dance. Then Ax, in human morph, grows strangely delirious... the onset of an Andalite glandular illness that might be lethal. In the middle of hustling the erratically-demorphing alien from the school gym, Cassie is confronted by a mild-mannered teacher who seems strangely knowledgeable about her extracurricular alien-fighting activities. Mr. Tidwell and his Yeerk companion are part of the fledgling peace movement, comprised of Yeerks who don't want to be forced upon involuntary hosts, who want to find a better way than continual galactic war. He brings grim news: Aftran, the Yeerk who founded the movement after an eventful meeting with Cassie, has been captured, and Visser Three plans to interrogate her personally. Everything - the peace movement, the Animorphs, the fate of the Earth itself - rests on freeing Aftran from the Yeerk pool. A daunting challenge, even for the Animorphs at full strength. But Ax's disease is catching. One by one, the Animorphs fall ill... leaving Cassie on her own, with a dying Andalite and an impossible mission.

REVIEW: An excellent follow-through on Book 19 once more pits Cassie against herself. Making the choice to let Aftran (and her human host, young Karen) live was one thing: surviving the consequences, including this worst-case scenario, is quite another. In some ways, she's revealed to be the strongest of the Animorphs, sticking to her convictions even when they fly in the face of practical, hard-learned battle instinct. (In light of the series finale, this strength shines even brighter.) The side-story with Ax and the others falling ill adds a nice, if slightly plot-convenient, sense of urgency. And, once more, Erek the Chee comes into play, though for once he's not the reason for their current predicament. Coming as it does in the middle of an overall downgrade in quality, this book serves as a nice reminder of why I became hooked to begin with.
On an unrelated note, the ad campaign for K. A. Applegate's Everworld series (reviewed on my website here) begins here. They were pitched at a distinctly older audience than the Animorphs books; I suspect that Scholastic realized by now that a fair chunk of the readership was over the target age.
And on yet another unrelated note, this book marks the halfway point of Project Animorph; 29 books down, 29 to go...

Imagine a Day (Sarah L. Thomson)

Imagine a Day
Sarah L. Thompson
Athenium
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: A treehouse large as a manor... a library of doorways to other worlds... The illusionary paintings of Rob Gonsalves feature in a second book of short verse.

REVIEW: Much like Imagine a Night (reviewed on my website here), the paintings boggle the eye and inspire the heart. The verses by Thomson, while fun, are largely incidental. Once in a while, Gonsalves's people appear distorted, but otherwise it's yet another feast for the imagination.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Experiment (K. A. Applegate)

The Experiment
(The Animorphs series, Book 28)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Aximili has learned much about humans since becoming stranded on Earth, but much about their behavior and culture still confuses him. Even with the help of the wonderfully educational device known as a television, he cannot figure out how one species can be so contradictory, yet still dominate their world. Now, he's about to experience first-hand how hypocritical and brutal humans can be. The Yeerks have acquired an animal-testing facility and a meat-packing plant. Put them together, and it's hardly likely that Visser Three is simply going into the fast-food business. To investigate, Ax and the Animorphs must infiltrate the lab... and witness the horror that is a modern slaughterhouse.

REVIEW: I've said before that Ax's books tend to be weaker than the rest. This is a decent example. Despite his superior intelligence, he remains baffled at simple human concepts, though his commentary on our species makes for more than a few chuckles. This book takes on the subjects of animal testing and modern meat production, but with little of Applegate's usual depth. Add to that the fact that the entire mission is something of a shaggy-dog adventure, and this book settles nicely into the murk of the mid-series slump.
Incidentally, my copy contains "bonus" bookmarks, featuring the cover illustration: Aximili morphing to bovine form. If Ax were to ask just what the purpose was of reproducing such an unremarkable image, when many more dynamic pictures have graced the covers of Animorphs books, I have to admit I wouldn't be able to defend my species very effectively.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Exposed (K. A. Applegate)

The Exposed
(The Animorphs series, Book 27)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Becoming an Animorph meant sacrificing normality, risking life and limb in a fight against nearly-impossible odds, knowing that talking to anyone - a cop, a friend, even her own mother or father - about what she did would land her in a loony bin or - worse - in the Yeerk pool, with an alien slug wrapped around her brain. But, terrible as war is, Rachel still feels a thrill of excitement when she rips into an enemy with the claws of a grizzly bear, or tramples them under an elephant's feet. Sometimes, she's so into the battle that she scares her fellow Animorphs.
She scares herself, too.
Much as Rachel tries to fight it, something deep within her longs for blood and danger. But even that part of her quails at the latest challenge. Something has gone wrong with their allies, the Chee. The holograms that enable the alien androids to pass as human are on the blink, as is their ability to move. Soon, they'll be immobile and utterly exposed... and if the Yeerks got their hands on the advanced Pemalite technology within the Chee, there would be no stopping them, on Earth or elsewhere in the galaxy. But the Pemalite ship that regulates the Chee lies hidden three miles beneath the ocean, down where the water pressure would destroy every animal in the Animorphs' DNA arsenal. And one thing that Rachel has always feared is crushing, smothering darkness...

REVIEW: Had this not come right on the heels of the previous book, it probably would've earned an extra half-star. The series returns to its strong suits, as Rachel wrestles with her changing life and the black monster within. But they just worked with Erek the Chee in the previous installment; that, plus another plot twist (which might constitute a spoiler, so I won't go into specifics here) feel like too much of a similar note struck too close together. That problem aside, it's a fairly good entry in a series that, more often than not, rose well above average.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Attack (K. A. Applegate)

The Attack
(The Animorphs series, Book 26)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)



NOTE: In honor of the recent re-release, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Jake and his friends thought they had enough on their plates, fighting the Yeerk invasions and the devious Visser Three. Then, the Ellimist returned. Capable of folding space and time on a whim, his seemingly omnipotent powers bound by rules no human mind can comprehend, he has helped in the past... but never as expected. Now, they learn that the Ellimist has an enemy, the entity known as the Crayak. The entire war with the Yeerks, it seems, is but a small skirmish in the eons-long, galaxy-wide conflict between two forces so powerful that open conflict would tear the space-time continuum itself apart. Thus, their habit of fighting through proxies: whole species, like the Yeerks, or even individuals, like the Animorphs. The Ellimist needs seven champions to fight against soldiers of the Crayak, to determine the fate of an entire alien species light-centuries removed from Earth. On his side will stand the five human Animorphs, Aximili the Andalite, and Erek the Chee. The Crayak sends seven members of a species whose names the Animorphs already know, the species that slaughtered the Chee's creators: the Howlers. Winning will hurt the Crayak, and (it is implied) the Yeerks. Lose, and the Animorphs will never have existed...

REVIEW: This brings the series back up to (nearly) its top level. Jake finds himself risking his life and the lives of his friends for aliens who utterly repulse him, fighting an enemy that has never lost a battle in thousands upon thousands of years, and all on the vague promise of the Ellimist that a victory will, somehow, help weaken, if not defeat, the Yeerks. He also must deal with Erek, whose programming prevents him from harming even the murderous Howlers, and Ax, whose momentary breakdown in bravery leads to reckless behavior. Jake resents being treated like a piece on the Ellimist's and Crayak's gameboard, but all he can hope to do is avoid becoming a sacrificial pawn. A small yet glaring error - confusing falcon talons for fingers during a morph - hints that this might be a ghostwriter's work, but it's far closer to Applegate's standard than the last two installments. Still, it's nice to see the series back in fighting shape, so to speak... and I've had a run of bad luck with my other reading, as you can tell from the ratings here.
On an unrelated note, my first-run version of this book features a large cover sticker proclaiming the "new" timeslot of the Animorphs TV series. I remember it airing all of two times at the advertised time; I gave up chasing it around Nickelodeon's schedule after that.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Frog Princess (E. D. Baker)

The Frog Princess
(The Tales of the Frog Princess series, Book 1)
E. D. Baker
Bloomsbury
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Princess Esmerelda's life is nothing but a disappointment. She comes from a line of witches, but can't cast a spell without horrific consequences. She's of royal blood, yet laughs like a donkey and trips over her own feet. Her own mother can scarcely look at her without a sneer of disdain... but that doesn't stop her from using Emma to buy a politically advantageous engagement to a neighboring kingdom. The princess flees to the swamp, the only place where she feels free to be herself - but this time, she meets a talking frog. Eadric claims he used to be a prince, and only needs her kiss to restore his humanity, but Emma knows enough to be skeptical; after all, with magic leaking out of the castle, any animal might start talking, and just because a person's been hit with a frog spell doesn't mean they wore a crown. But he's persistent, and she finally gives in... only something goes terribly wrong. Instead of turning Eadric into a prince, the kiss turned Emma into a frog! The two set off on a dangerous quest to find the witch who cursed Eadric, while Emma gets a crash-course in amphibious survival.
And she still doesn't know if he's really a prince or not...

REVIEW: To be perfectly honest, if the premise of a later book in the series hadn't intrigued me, I probably wouldn't have tried this one. But I hate coming in partway through a series, so I gave it a try. The story sounds superficial and trite, but I've read many Young Adult books that rise above seemingly-simple stories. Sadly, this isn't one of them. Characters bend and twist their personalities to fit the scene, having to tell the reader what they're feeling instead of being able to show it through consistent actions. Everyone tends to be pleasant when approached in the right manner, except for a few not-nice people who are suitably punished for being unkind to the heroes. The world and the magic system are paper-thin and about as deep. Conflicts and resolutions, much like personality traits and half the conversations, pop up out of thin air, and tend to the obvious - not unlike Baker's shallow stabs at humor. If I were a young girl just starting to read longer books without pictures, I might have liked it, but this book holds absolutely nothing to interest anyone else. I actually thought about dropping this to a solid Bad, but it's just too simple of a story to care that much about it.

The Extreme (K. A. Applegate)

The Extreme
(The Animorphs series, Book 25)
K. A. Applegate
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)



NOTE: In honor of the re-release of the series, I'm finally posting individual reviews of the Animorphs books.

DESCRIPTION: Marco thought his week was going bad when he totally blew a date with Marian, one of the cutest girls in school. (But, really, a Beethoven concert? How was he supposed to stay awake?) Then Erek the Chee turned up with news that makes things even worse: the Yeerks are working on a way to remote-beam Kandrona rays via satellite relays. If they can pull it off, then their greatest weakness - the need to leave their hosts every three days to visit the underground Yeerk pool - will be history. The Animorphs have to crash that party... only Erek doesn't know where it is, or what defenses the Yeerks have waiting for them. All they know is that it's somewhere remote... very remote, where alien ships won't be noticed.
Which explains how the Animorphs find themselves on the ice-blasted shores of the Arctic Ocean. It doesn't explain how they're supposed to survive, when the weather alone is nearly as deadly as their alien enemies...

REVIEW: Not quite as silly and pointless as Book 24, it nevertheless continues an aimless coast in the series. Like the previous book, it's more about the "wow" gimmick - in this case, the "field trip" to the Arctic Circle - than about character growth, or even the fight against the Yeerks. I've heard rumors that ghostwriters were responsible for a good chunk of the series, especially this middle stretch; that might explain the autopilot overtones, but it's not really an excuse, as I'm sure there are decent ghostwriters out there who could've managed to pep up even a canned plot like this one. Still, it's not outright embarrassing, even if there's a slight continuity hiccup.
On an unrelated note, this book features an ad for the late, lamented Watchers series by Peter Lerangis (reviewed on my website here), which was axed by Scholastic after six books and never had a chance to develop as it should have. There's a certain irony in its appearance in a book that's essentially series-padding.