"The Possum Always Rings Twice: A Chet Gecko Mystery," "Strange Happiness"

“The Possum Always Rings Twice: A Chet Gecko Mystery,” Bruce Hale, Harcourt; 2006; 112pp.

If you haven’t read Chet Gecko before, you have my sympathies. It is certainly a terrible deprivation to go without meeting Emerson Hicky Elementary School’s best lizard detective. He cuts a dashing image in his trench coat and fedora, and by his own immodest claims, he’s tackled cases “stickier than a spider’s handshake.” Need a better reason to read on?

This time, it looks like someone is rigging the student council election and threatening the candidates. Now our detective-hero thinks that’s just not fair, even if one of the candidates, Popper, is a “hyperactive tree frog with all the charm and tact of a runaway chain saw” and the other, Viola Fuss (get the name?) is a super-paranoid sandpiper. And when Viola Fuss shows Chet Gecko a threat note she received, it’s time for our intrepid reptile and his spiffy mockingbird-assistant, Natalie Attired, to get to work.

There are the usual suspects: Ben Dova, a wolverine with a big BO problem; horned toad Rocky Rhode; and Perry Winkel, a fox with a flashy campaign. Chet and Natalie have a lot of questioning to do and stakeouts to stage, of course when they’re not dodging a fine set of school bullies with a wallop-first-ask-questions-later philosophy; or serving detention time with a mean, green alligator known as Ms. Glick.

Even as things heat up, Chet has the cool to share his wisdom with you — “I discovered that politicians and diapers should both be changed regularly. (And for the same reason.)” He is equally at ease engaging in snappy repartee with his adversaries. Example? There’s a fight at the drinking fountain and Ben Dova says, “Lousy lizards can’t drink here.” Chet retorts: “And a body can’t walk around without a brain, but here you are.”

Stand warned, though: The book has more than its share of groan-inducing wisecracks.

Needless to say, Chet Gecko gets to the bottom of things, all the while dreaming of chomping on honey-covered fruit flies and Termite Twinkies. Who’s the possum? Why does he always ring twice? Pish tosh! That’s a small detail that we need not trouble ourselves about. Not when we’ve got a gecko like Chet to keep up with.

For ages 8 to 12.

“Strange Happiness,” AVI, Harcourt; 2006; 147pp.

Ever wondered what it’s like to be someone else? Or something else? Avi (see Japan Times column dated Oct. 7, 2004) takes such wonderings to their most bizarre in five stories that deal with transformation. A boy turns into a cat (incidentally, the cat in question turns into the boy); an invisible princess pieces herself together; a boy uncovers the identity of a baseball mascot, to his own peril; and a shoemaker makes a promise to his cat and pays for breaking it. Pique your interest?

In “Bored Tom,” my personal favorite of the five, our bored hero decides to experience life as a cat. Now, boys and cats don’t swap bodies everyday, but when Avi tells the story, you get the sense that such things happen all the time — you’ve just been out of the loop. The author’s tone is matter-of-fact as things get more and more unlikely. What starts out as Tom’s great plan to laze around all day instead of going to school turns into something that chills you to the bone.

Avi leaves you riveted, flipping fast, page by page, from one story to the next. He doesn’t waste time building atmosphere or establishing characters. The story comes straight to the point and from then on, it acquires a momentum of its own and there’s no stopping it.

In “Curiosity,” Jeff wonders about the town’s mysterious baseball mascot — who is he behind the mask? At first, this seems like a typical story about an inquisitive kid snooping around, but then there’s something very disconcerting about that mascot.

Can it be a mistake to suppose that being someone else would be better than being yourself? Does curiosity kill the cat? Can you make a promise flippantly and forget all about it? In this collection of imaginative and thoroughly unpredictable tales, anything can happen and does. And by stretching the limits of possibility, these rather surreal stories leave you thinking — and not a little shaken.

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