Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tesla's Attic (The Accelerati Trilogy #1) by Neal Shusterman, Eric Elfman

Shusterman's books have an action-packed creepy factor that satisfies many of my 5th graders. Now I can add funny. I didn't expect the clever humor in this one along with the familiar scary plot. Add terrific character development and some adult humor that pokes fun at education, pop culture, and literature and I couldn't put this bugger down. When an antique heavy, chrome-plated toaster plunges down some fold-up attic steps gashing fourteen-year-old Nick's forehead, he is off to hospital for stitches adding excitement from the get-go. He has just moved into a run-down Victorian house that his dad inherited and has claimed the attic as his room, but it is so full of junk that when he pulls down the ladder a toaster bonks him on the head. While having a garage sale to clear out the antique junk, he notices some strange, obsessive, behaviors from people that are buying items. When a car careens into a tree in their yard he realizes that the lamp is drawing them in zombie-like droves to buy junk for more than it is worth. He discovers that the junk was the property of the mathematical genius Nikola Tesla and are wanted by an organization, the Accelerati, that believes they can control the world with its powers. With the help of some newfound friends, Nick tries to get the sold pieces back before the Accelerati retrieve them. When the end of the world threatens, both groups try to save it in unsuspecting ways.

The authors seem to have a blast with their odd-ball characters and clever humor. Take gloomy Vince, who dresses all in black and buys a wet-cell battery at Nick's garage sale. When Nick tells him its dead he replies that everything dies. "Batteries are no exception. I'll take it." In a humorous bargaining scene, Nick talks Vince down from his original offer of 10 dollars to 3 dollars. Mitch Murlo introduces himself in a nonstop stream of words finishing Nick's sentences for him. Nick dryly thinks, "But apparently Mitch only needed himself to carry on a conversation." The two become friends and Nick eventually gets some words in edgewise and discovers a real friend in Mitch. When Nick talks to Vince and Mitch about the strange properties of the antiques and swears them to secrecy, Vince sarcastically replies, "Secrecy is a key element of my existence. But Mitch here is the emergency broadcast system." Caitlin buys an old reel-to-reel tape recorder that she wants to use for her garbart project, an art form that combines recycled garbage with other art mediums. She's surprised meeting Nick who doesn't fall over himself for her like most guys. She's a bit full of herself at the start of the story and learns to face her superficiality by the end (with the help of the tape recorder she just bought).

The character arcs are varied and distinct. Nick is dealing with grief over the loss of his mother. Vince is obsessed with death and is a loner that learns to be friends with Nick and Mitch. Mitch has a brilliant father in a mess because he was betrayed by friends. Nick realizes that he must go with Mitch to see his father because it is something a true friend would do. Caitlin is insecure and angry. When she buys the magical tape recorder it shows her the truth of situations whether or not she wants to know it.  Petula, a student at their school with a crush on Nick, only helps if she knows she'll get something back from the other person. Mrs Planck (love that name - look up the physics measurement called, "planck units"; it adds another dimension to her character and ties in with the ending) is the observant lunch lady with hidden talents. Theo, Catilyn's boyfriend, adds comic relief. He is mostly dumb but has some astute moments such as realizing the flaws with his relationship with Caitlyn and manipulating Nick's dad. These characters have clever and humorous dialogues or monologues: "Nick and Mitch waited for the single overworked waitress to bring them menus, but Nick's mind wasn't on food. Nor was it on his upcoming baseball tryout. Once again his head was up his attic. Or, more accurately, not the things missing from it."

The plot has great twists and magical elements that make it unpredictable. The inventor Nikola Tesla left behind a bunch of inventions to Nick's Great-aunt Greta that was rumored to be romantically involved with him a hundred years ago.  Once Nick discovers the properties of the magical antiques he is able to determine Nikola had created a magnetic field and uses it to solve his problems. I'm not a science and math fan but I really liked how the authors tied in facts with the storyline. I wasn't overwhelmed by the physics and some are cleverly done such as the mathematical "imaginary number" tied in with Petula's character, as well as, the evil men with their "quantum business card" and how they view Tesla's inventions as scientific while most people would view them as magic. This reminds me of the debunking of many creation stories and myths by science in the history of literature. Trivia facts about famous mathematicians such as Archimede's running naked through the streets yelling, "Eureka," and Euclid proving the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but was habitually late made me laugh. And I don't even like numbers. I'm just mentioning a few connections between mathematics, physics, astronomy, and science. There is Principal Watt. The mathematician Godel. The Tesla versus Marconi controversy. Thomas Edison. Wireless electricity. And more. But nothing in great depth. Okay, 'nuff said on that.

I like it when authors put in references to issues and pop culture or literature without detracting from the story but adding more in-depth themes or a bit 'o funny for the reader looking for more.  When they make Mitch swear on the Bible Vince starts joking about his mom's Bible collection with the Thomas Kinkade illustrations, the Smurf Bible, or the Damnation Bible. The Accelerati is a play on words that is similar to the Illuminati that made me think of Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code". When Nick demands, "In simple English, with no Petulisms," I thought of Miss Havisham's havishamisms in "Great Expectations". Harry Potter gets a nod and the Horsehead Nebula in a picture frame that Nick found in his bed made me think of the movie, "The Godfather." That might be pushing it but once I get going I can't stop. It's like working a crossword puzzle - I'll find things the author didn't even intend.

Then there is just plain 'ole fun humor such as when the cranky neighbor returned the toaster and tried to get twenty dollars for it when she paid only five. Danny, Nick's younger brother, said he remembered she paid five and she snapped she'd sue him to which Nick replied, here's five and if you want more, "consult my lawyer," pointing to eight-year-old Danny. Or when Nick goes from talking about mass-energy equivalence and the endless variable to finding a carton of rotten juice and Danny cracking their dad's joke that Great-aunt Greta left a urine sample for them. Smart, clever lines to some potty humor. My kind of fun. When Nick's files go missing and he shows up with records from a school in Denmark, he comments that the school was happy to be able to claim him as an international student. The authors poke fun at education some, but I laughed the hardest at this one.

Not all of the questions are answered regarding Tesla's invention and the Accelerati's goals, but I was satisfied enough with the ending because the end of the world crisis was resolved and there was a nice twist regarding two characters. It also makes the Accelerati not look quite so one-dimensional as villains, which makes me excited to read the sequel to see where the authors' are going to go with the next plot. I am definitely going to need more copies of this book for my library. Students will be racing for it.

4 Smileys

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