Children's books recently have created themselves in the weird, almost macabre fashion of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. The characters are illustrated in ways that make them seem strange, almost as if Picasso had written a children's book, and populated it with his figures. And sometimes the stories are worthless (I found the Lemony Snicket books to be dull and sarcastic). And to go back another step in the oddity that is children's literature, you have to return to the works of Roald Dahl. Again, it is a mixture of the delightful and creepy, blended together to make an engaging and interesting read. I found James and the Giant Peach to be wonderful, but I kept wanting the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be much more like the first movie, where Willy Wonka was more an eccentric grandfather than a pedophiliac character.
And so it is that I highly recommend The Mysterious Benedict Society, a superb first work by Trent Stewart. It reads much like a Roald Dahl book that inspires to be at once The Phantom Tollbooth and old episodes of Scooby Doo. Orphans are recruited by an eccentric and kindly man to help fight a similar man in an evil school bent on world conquest. Mr. Curtain (the bad guy) does this by mind suggestion, through hypnosis and mind altering machines that can enhance memories or wipe them out. The four children (with the main protagonist Raynie) must infiltrate the school, get close to the headmaster, and stop his plan. Adults will find the references to modern day society to be oddly discomforting, as if some of what the book is talking about is actually happening. The interesting thing about the antagonists is that their motives are ones that, in today's society, would not be considered all that bad. The double meanings and Catch-22 ideas that float throughout the books make perfect since to us, but to a child, would be some sort of terrible lie.
The most interesting thing about this book is that after I started reading this book, I started playing Psychonauts on my computer. The book and the video game (which I will review next) goes hand in hand with each other, in illustrations, in plot points.... it's almost like they were made to compliment each other. If you liked this novel, you must play Psychonauts, and vice versa.