Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Alligators Overhead by C. Lee McKenzie, a middle-school magical adventure which I finished reading last weekend.
Characters: Perpetually in-hot-water Pete Riley, 12, and his brainy but cautious friend and sidekick Weasel are the main characters in this fun, quirky splash through a swamp and haunted mansion in Hadleyville, Fla.
Pete is all boy, which is part, but not all of his troubles.
For almost two weeks Pete hadn’t done a single thing wrong. Then that snake wriggled its way into his lunch bag, and he couldn’t let a perfectly good snake go to waste. Beside Mrs. Kenner wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t gone over the top of her shoe instead of straight at Lucy Burke where he’d pointed it to go. That girl had about driven him mental flipping her pony tail every time she walked past. She deserved the snake. Mrs. Kenner really didn’t.
C. Lee does a nice job explaining in middle-grade terms how having lost his parents in an accident causes Pete to “act out” in pranks like the preceding.
Pete didn’t like that nervous-scared bundle of stuff tumbling around inside him. Not one bit. So he’d devised a good system to avoid those feelings. When he was busy hatching his pranks, and then escaping blame he didn’t have time for the nervous-scared stuff. He almost forgot how much he missed his “real” home. He almost felt normal again. The problem was his good system got him into bad trouble.
Along with Pete, Weasel, Aunt Lizzy and the alligators of the title, Alligators Overhead features a cast of witches, mean hunters, a corrupt mayor, aggressive reporters and other scary creatures.
Plot: Pete’s fears of what will happen when Aunt Lizzy reads Principal Pitts’ letter about Pete’s latest prank are rendered moot when a spooky mansion, mysteriously vanished a hundred years before, reappears, just as mysteriously — next door to where Pete lives with Aunt Lizzy at the edge of a swamp.
Setting: Alligators Overhead takes place in and around the fictional small town of Hadleyville, Fla., including action in nearby Ornofree Swamp, home to a large tribe of ‘gators, threatened by developers.
As they went down the steep bank and into the swamp, the air grew warm and steamy. Mosses that dangled from tree limbs separated like ragged curtains when they swiped them aside. The spongy ground squished under feet they couldn’t see.
Of course, what red-blooded all-American boy could resist entering a haunted mansion, even if, or perhaps because, his well-meaning aunt had forbidden it?
They stood very still on the top step. When nothing leapt at them from the shadows, they tiptoed across the wide porch.
The windows were dark, and moonlight and stars reflected back at them. Pete pressed his face close to one of the panes, but he couldn’t see anything inside.
He was stretching out his hand toward the knob when the door swung in on its own. Weasel went stiff as a Popsicle and tightened his grip on Pete’s arm. A trickle of sweat snaked down Pete’s back, and his heart bounced against his ribs like a paddleball.
“I’m . . . not . . . doing this.” Weasel shook his head side to side. “No. Not.” Pete’s foot was almost over the threshold. “Big mistake” kept rattling around in his head. “Big. Big one.”
“Got to see what’s inside,” that devilish #1 voice said. It won, as it always did, and Pete dragged Weasel behind until they were in the entry hall.
What I thought could’ve been done better: This is another one of those indie books that is every bit as good as anything you might find from a professional house. I know that’s an odd way to begin the “critical” section, but that’s how I see it.
However, I’m on record saying if you haven’t found something you like and something you think could be better, you haven’t read closely enough.
So I’ll just say I would’ve liked a little more personal description of Pete and Aunt Lizzy, since they are so central to the story. Is Pete gangly and skinny with a thatch of straw-colored hair? Is Aunt Lizzy tall, dark and stern, but with the hint of a smile around her thin lips and a sparkle in her green eyes?
I would’ve liked to have seen these lovely characters the way C. Lee sees them. They are still well-drawn in terms of action and dialogue, and perhaps the book’s middle-grade audience doesn’t need personal description.
When I was 12, though, and reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — and Conan the Barbarian, I really liked the personal description of characters shared by the authors.
What I thought was good: I enjoyed Alligators Overhead start to finish. Nothing magical about that. C. Lee has written a fine story by the numbers. Number one — it’s well-edited. I think I remember one typo, but forgot to mark it, and I may be mistaken anyway. Two, plenty of vivid verbs, active voice and colorful description.
Dripping swamp water, they walked toward Aunt Lizzy. The first alligator in their path opened its mouth, hissed and snapped its jaw closed. They froze, but the alligator turned aside and let them through. In a few more steps they had to stop again. Another alligator blocked their way. This one swished to the side like an automatic door. As they stepped inside the circle next to Aunt Lizzy, the alligator’s tail swished and closed them off from any hope of escape.
Up close, Cenozo was even more awesome than from a distance. A foot taller than Aunt Lizzy, he seemed to be smiling at them, but when he opened his short, broad jaw his spiky teeth were anything but friendly.
One chomp from that guy and Pete was morsels.
There are many other great things about Alligators Overhead — the dialogue, for instance — but In the interest of brevity, I’m going to skip to what I liked best.
And that’s the way C. Lee captured so well what it was like to be a 12-year-old boy constantly getting in trouble — or at least the way I remember it. As I recall, age 12 was a constant mix of guilt, fear, boredom, excitement, and fun.
Her book really brought back those amazing days, when my friends and I explored the neighborhood marsh and the spooky abandoned old house; when we rode bikes, and sneaked out at night during sleep-overs; and worried about getting in trouble for all of it.
Overall: For me, as an adult reader, Alligators Overhead effortlessly brought back the magic of those last pristine years before dating, cars and worries about looks and college. I’m pretty sure it will also ring true to its intended audience of middle-school readers.
The witches, alligators and mysteriously appearing mansion are a wonderful ring-setting for this gem of a story about the magic of being 12, when many of us first began to sense that we’re capable of the most amazing things.
Good job, C. Lee!
And for a sexy superheroine paranormal sci fi romantic adventure thriller, check out my own novel American Goddesses ~ thanks for visiting Honest Indie!