Goodreads: Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom
Source: Received review copy from author
Published: Aug. 2016
The abandoned house at the end of Hardscrabble Street has served as a childhood hangout for generations. So when Dr. Fell moves in, he immediately builds a magical playground as a gesture of goodwill for his neighbors. But soon children are getting hurt on the playground and no adults seem to care. “What a nice man is Dr. Fell” mutters everyone in the neighborhood–everyone except Gail, Nancy, and Jerry. For some reason the three remain immune to Dr. Fell’s spell–but can they expose his dastardly plot before it’s too late?
Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is a quirky and creepy book, just the kind you would expect the marketing department to ask Chris Grabenstein to endorse on the cover (as he does). It features all those comfortable and familiar MG elements–a terrifying villain somehow harming children, a trio of children who will dare to stop him, a surprising lack of parental intervention, and an enticing yet also menacing wonderland for the children to explore. But the story takes these elements and gives them a dark twist, making all the elements feel freshly dusted off for this new adventure.
Middle-grade books, of course, often feature darkness. N. D. Wilson’s books show the protagonists suffering great physical hurt and include some deaths. Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm trilogy recaptures the gore of the original tales and does not shy away from decapitation and other such matters. Neilsen’s book follows in this fine tradition of refusing to pander to its readers. It is closer to Gidwitz’s stories than Wilson’s; it’s bitterly dark, extremely creepy, and a little gruesome. If readers think too much about it, they might feel a little sick.
Neilsen, however, adds some levity to ensure his readers are never overwhelmed by the darkness. The magical playground still enchants. The protagonist engage in ordinary squabbles that readers may relate to. And the protagonists fight Dr. Fell with methods that are, frankly, a little goofy. They fight evil with the logic of an eight-year-old and it shouldn’t work–but it does. Younger readers will likely find it funny.
If have any criticisms, it’s that the prose at time seems to be working too hard. There’s an abundance of adjectives that threatens to pull readers out of the story as they begin to focus on how the text is working. And sometimes the prose is clever and sometimes the prose is trying to be clever, but you can feel the strain. I read an advanced copy, so some of these issues might have been revised, but they did distract me from the reading experience.
Overall, however, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom seems just the thing to please middle-grade readers who like quirky and goofy stories, and readers who like their stories scary. It’s the kind of book that you expect will make publishers ask for more.