Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
This book had us repeatedly exclaiming, “What!?!”
The Dirt Bike Detective by Douglas Hoover is a fun, wild, hilarious comedy/detective novel about a group of misfit students who join forces to solve the mysterious circumstances occurring at their school, the very historic and very haunted Raven Ridge Academy.
It is incredibly self-aware of the ridiculousness and absurdity of its plot and characters, and it is even self-referential from time to time (such as when a character is upset that a teacher ruins the ending to Romeo & Juliet for everyone).
It had us thinking of things like the original Hanna-Barbara Scooby Doo, Richard Donner's Goonies, or J.J. Abrams's Super 8. It's probably most like Scooby Doo in that it features young investigators caught in the middle of a mystery that seems supernatural but that likely has a somewhat-rational explanation (“somewhat” being the key word here).
Chase, the precocious genius with the exotic athletic abilities, is a lot like a combination of Velma and Fred with a side of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. He is kinda Mr. Perfect. He also gives the book it's title with his skills at riding a dirt bike, something which leads to some absurd and hilarious circumstances. Chase is a perfect contrast to his eventual best friend and our narrator, Oliver, who is kinda a loser/loner.
Oliver has a lot of insecurity due to the fact that he was born with a large birthmark on his face and constantly feels like he doesn't quite fit in. He's also not an athlete or as smart as Chase. Probably most importantly, he's a courageous coward who is probably afraid of his own shadow. Every scary noise or supposed ghost sighting gives him the heebie jeebies and causes him to hypothesize about every irrational explanation there is: ghost sightings, zombies, and even aliens! He's a little bit like Shaggy in a sense.
Oliver has a massive crush on Jax (Jaxon), the cute Asian girl in the class. Jax is spunky and doesn't take crap from anyone. She has a great combination of that girl-next-door vibe and that unobtainable vibe. She's a lot like Daphne in that sense.
The rest of the main cast consists of the bizarre faculty and staff of Raven Ridge Academy. There's the aptly-named Principal Sterns, who is every bit as oppressive as his name suggests. Then, there's the beloved history teacher, Mr. Doyle, who goes missing early in the story, sparking one of the book's biggest mysteries. There's the janitor, Frank, who despises Doyle. There's Coach Conley who seems to be liked by the kids but not so much by Doyle. Lastly, there's Doyle's substitute teacher, Miss Lexington, who looks like a million bucks (the male students really seem to dig her), but who has the world view and personality of Michael Moore (the documentary guy). Ok, well, she pretty much hates America and blames it for the majority of the pollution and corruption in the world.
In probably the funniest part of the entire book, we get a hyper-nationalistic, pro-American, presidential award-winning speech by a immigrant student named Ana Rahela Balenovic. The irony of her whole character, the circumstances surrounding her, and her speech is that they're all markers of a character who'd probably be treated as inspirational, heroic, and good in just about any other work. However, in this book, while she's not treated as “bad” or “evil” (far from it), she is treated like a bit of an annoyance and a pest for comedic relief. She is basically the teacher's pet, the student who always gets the best grades and who always wins the big prizes. What's ironic is that we've either been a student like this or were close to a student like this: that goody-two-shoes, know-it-all who says all the right things, joins all the right clubs, plays all the right sports, and kisses all the right butts to get the big scholarships and offers to Ivy League colleges.
She is literally a refugee from a war-torn country who loves America and does great in school, yet our narrator constantly views her with eye-rolling annoyance and skepticism. It's both hilarious while also being a bit sad. Like, our narrator has almost no respect or positive regard for Ana at all, viewing her as a snob and a nuisance.
Ana's point of view goes into direct conflict with Miss Lexington's, something which kinda sets up the last couple of acts. Both disturbingly and hilariously, Miss Lexington basically comes after Ana with that one speech from The Newsroom.
Now, this book is far longer and wordier than it should be, especially regarding its comedic tone and target audience. It's nearly 500 pages long. For an epic, a fantasy novel, or something along those lines, that would be acceptable, but this book keeps going and going long after the point it should've concluded. Yes, it was funny, cute, and entertaining, but there came a point when even all of that couldn't keep us from losing interest or having our attention spans challenged.
A lot of this book seems like a Simpson's Treehouse of Horror Halloween episode in which the writers just throw everything on the screen at once to see what will shock and stick the most. Not only is the setting of this book haunted by multiple different ghosts, it's also supposedly inhabited by zombies and aliens who live among the students. The characters even try to track which students, faculty, and staff eat human foods and which don't.
Now, this is kinda adorable and funny, and it does play into many of our childhood experiences. For example, one of us had a fourth-grade teacher who had a white box in their room. Many of the students came to believe that it was a bomb and that the teacher might be either a terrorist or a mercenary. At a parent-teacher conference, the teacher was confronted with the concerns of the parents and students only to reveal that the box was a sort of interactive sound device that read vocabulary words out that a student could copy (for pronunciation and phonetic purposes). So, we get it. Kids make up all kinds of wild, crazy scenarios in their heads based on their limited knowledge and experiences.
The thing is, this all really pads out the book, making it a lot longer and convoluted than it needed to be. In addition, there are a lot of times when the narrator is just making stream-of-consciousness-like remarks and observations about their everyday experiences in every single class. Yes, there are a few clues here and there and we get to know some of the side-characters a bit more, but it just seems very drawn out and unnecessary for a work of this type to get so involved.
This book never seems to end. Even when it ends, it doesn't end because you get an epilogue that is basically an entire summary of the book. It is actually such an over-the-top, ridiculous, and absurd explanation and inclusion that it could almost be treated as one huge joke. In fact, it was probably meant to be. It gave us a good laugh and made us exclaim, “WHAT!?!”
There's also a whole global conspiracy/domestic terrorist thread that runs through these sub-plots, even involving the president and the secret service.
The area in which this book really shines is its humor. This is one of the funniest books of the season! Many of these jokes are kinda cheesy, but cheesy in a way that's endearing. For example, when the president visits the school, he immediately and shamelessly rips off “Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston by saying that he believes the children are our future. School of Rock landed the same joke in a similar scenario. Chase also tells Jax that “accidents don't happen by accident.” This is kinda hilarious because it's an absolute statement and is actually not true. Accidents do happen and many of them are spontaneous. However, in the context of this book, it kinda makes sense since a lot of the wacky things that happen (like the electricity/AC not working) have suspicious origins.
The other thing that is consistently funny is whenever Oliver fawns over Jax. It's always in the most idealized, romantic light possible no matter what's happening. He very often calls her “My Love” in his thoughts, and you can almost picture her dressed in flowing white, sparkling robes with angel wings playing a violin whenever Oliver thinks about her.
It's also funny when the boys fawn over how attractive Miss Lexington is. There's almost a Wonder Years vibe to all of this budding attraction and infatuation.
There are times when this book is legitimately unsettling and frightening, especially if you happen to be reading this alone at night in a building that's also known for being haunted. There are times when it reads like a camp fire ghost story. It also has some moment that verge on pushing the limits of teen/YA and into mature territory, especially discussions of the alleged murder and/or self-deletion of a former-student-turned-ghost. However, it's never so severe that it becomes inappropriate for teenage readers. And the book maintains its goofy, entertaining hokeyness throughout.
Check it out on Amazon!