An unpopular fifth grader invents a homework machine. His three groupmates end up finding out about the machine, and together the four students stop doing their homework in favor of using the machine that they nickname Belch. Slowly, however, they start to realize that not all is as it seems, and there are hints that not only could they get in trouble for cheating, but there is a possibly sinister man trying to track them down.
This was a very fluffy book. It was a fast read, and generally kept my attention and interest, but there was no real substance to it. The plot, when you stop and think about it, doesn’t hold up to inspection. For instance, the book is told from multiple viewpoints, supposedly because the four kids are in a lot of trouble with the law, and are forced to “make a statement” about everything that happened. There are lots of references to “we didn’t know this would happen”, which suggests that there were unexpected and tragic consequences from using the machine. In the end, however, nothing really bad happened, and the kids aren’t even in any real or serious trouble, to the point where I wondered why the police were having them make a statement at all.
While it was interesting to see the Iraq war incorporated into the book with characters chiming in on both sides of the issue, in the end it wasn’t handled very well. When Snik’s father is killed in the war, he is sad for about four pages, and then jumps right back into the homework machine plotting. There is no sense of real grief. Yes, his chess games with his father take on a new significance, but otherwise nothing happens. He’s subdued, not depressed or grief-stricken in the way that a boy who so clearly idolized his father should be. I’m not suggesting that the book should have taken a depressing turn, but it makes me wonder: if Snik’s father’s death had no impact on the plot, no real impact on character development, and was dismissed after a few pages, why bother to put it in there in the first place?
Of course, fantastic writing, solid plotting and nuanced characterizations are not necessarily what someone wants to read every time they pick up a book. Sometimes it’s fun to just go along for the ride, jumping from one tense scene to the next. If that’s the mood you’re in, this book would be a good bet. It’s fun and funny, with enough suspense to keep the pages turning.