Monday, August 24, 2009

It's review time again!* This time, we're covering a young adult book, Daniel X: Watch the Skies by James Patterson. You know him, right? The author behind the Alex Cross books and the recently made into a (failed) television series The Women's Murder Club books? Patterson has recently shifted from adults to teens and entered into the world of young adult sci-fi. Indeed, this is the second book in the Daniel X series, following The Dangerous Days of Daniel X (2008). I've been able to read both volumes and since they're virtually indistinguishable, I'll be talking about what happens in both in this review.

Let me explain. In brief, Daniel X is an alien alien hunter, a 15 year old sent to protect humans from all the evil aliens out there intent on destroying or conquering Earth. In addition, he is especially concerned with a constantly updating "List" of the baddest alien baddies, particularly number one on that list, "The Prayer," who killed his parents, also alien hunters. As an alien, Daniel has special capabilities, mostly having to do with his mental powers of projection. He can create and maintain substantial seeming visions of his parents as well as his four best friends, each of whom, while projected, operates like a real being with powers of his or her own. In short, he comes equipped with his own small army of helpers, all perfectly designed to complete particular tasks. And, because Daniel is just masquerading as a normal high schooler, he also gets to play with his classmates' minds occasionally and convince them that they really want to read Silas Marner. (Patterson seems to get some sort of special glee from making obscure literary references most likely not appreciated by his primary audience members.)

The books are billed as "page turners" and the fact that they are filled with super short chapters, most less than a page long, helps create the illusion, perhaps convincing if you are a teen-aged boy, that you are cruising through this book at a rapid pace. In addition, the language is certainly accessible to a young reader, though I wondered if Patterson's attempts to be "hip" were, in fact, limiting the shelf life of these books. Slang that is au courant today is often woefully outdated tomorrow, and teen readers are most discriminating when it comes to declaring things decidedly UN-hip. In fact, at times I found the author's use of slangy interjections distracting; it seemed as if Patterson were working overtime to assure that his readers don't forget how "cool" this character is. Most of the 15 year old guys I know, including the five I see every morning at class, would be quick in real life to dismiss someone who was trying so hard, and I wonder if their reading preferences might not work in exactly the same way. In addition, the plots are a bit thin; both novels seemed essentially the same to me. However, all that being said, I do see this book as being a good fit for someone who has had trouble with reading for pleasure (or for school, for that matter) in the past. Even a slower reader could finish both these volumes in no time at all and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Patterson is nothing if not a workhorse, and he churns out books with abandon. Sadly, the Daniel X books, at least so far, show some signs of having been written in a flurry. On the one hand, Patterson's goals are noble: he has started ReadKiddoRead, a website designed to help parents and educators encourage reading in children and teens. The easy to navigate site is filled with book recommendations divided by ages and subjects, along with author interviews, a newsletter, and changes to win t-shirts. However, it seems, again, as if Patterson is trying a bit too hard to make his latest series be a part of the "almost can't-miss sure shot book for boys" list (and yes, his books are included in the list, though the recommedations come from someone else). While reading, I kept thinking Patterson was writing more of a screenplay than a novel, with passages that seemed expressly designed for making into an action sequence in a movie as opposed to developing plot or character. On the other hand, these qualities contribute to making these books both zippy, entertaining reads for the younger, more reluctant reader set, and, ultimately, these are the readers Patterson is trying to reach. On that level, at least, I would say he succeeds.

*As usual (particularly given the new FCC rules in the works), full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for reviewing and will receive a $20 Amazon gift card from Mothertalk once my review is posted. I have not been given any parameters or restrictions regarding the content of my review, and any opinions expressed here are my own.

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