May 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Girl Detective

Oh man, I love Gilda Joyce! I’ve always been a girl detective fan (and I’ve written about my affection for the genre in Bookslut before), so I’m constantly on the lookout for a new entry into the cannon that will capture my heart. I know I’m 37-years old and I’m supposed to be past all this, but please; once a Nancy Drew wannabe (or Judy Bolton or Trixie Belden or Harriet M. Welsch), always a Nancy Drew wannabe. I read the first Gilda Joyce book Gilda Joyce: Psychic Detective last year and was quite impressed with how Jennifer Allison managed to create a character who was all things smart and spunky but also quirky and funny as well. Gilda is not just a detective, she’s a psychic detective (she even has business cards saying so in The Ladies of the Lake), and she’s very serious about the psychic end of detecting. In the course of mystery solving, she consults a ouija board, conducts séances and refers constantly to her “bible,” the Master Psychic’s Handbook. Gilda is one seriously focused girl detective.

What’s really cool about Allison’s mysteries though is that there are ghosts who Gilda tries to contact and understand. She is drawn into solving the mysteries around their deaths and while Allison crafts very plausible plots with explanations and satisfying conclusions, the ghost part is not easily dismissed. In other words, the psychic part of Gilda’s detecting isn’t just a joke. Creepy things happen in her stories and when it all is said and done, not everything can be explained away. Which is just the way that Gilda likes it, and her fans will love it as well.

With Gilda Joyce: The Ladies of the Lake, our stalwart young detective is off to private school on scholarship and is almost immediately up to her ears in trouble. In the midst of all the silly rules and cliques and horrible uniforms (pink!), Gilda realizes that the drowning of a student three years before has been all too easily dismissed as an accident by the faculty and students. She is convinced that the ghost of Dolores Lambert is reaching out to her, and Gilda is not one to turn away from the undead. She quickly sets about getting to the bottom of the mystery and that’s when all kinds of scary things (both ghostly and not) begin to happen.

One of the things I love the most about Gilda is that she realistically still misses her deceased father (she types him daily letters) and that her family and friends are such a critical part of the story. Her mother is dating in this book and that has all sorts of ramifications for Gilda as she struggles with the idea that anyone could ever take the place of her dad. Even while she’s chasing after a ghost story, she still wants to know what is going on with the guy sitting on the couch downstairs and that awareness of the real world makes her a very endearing character. It doesn’t hurt that her Mom and grandmother are such well written characters as well.

Basically, Gilda Joyce is just a fantastic literary character, and I can not recommend her stories enough.

Creepy adventure of a different sort takes place in Bennett Madison’s new mystery, Lulu Dark and the Summer of the Fox. This is the follow-up to Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls, and I think it's even better than the first. In this outing Lulu must save her mother and herself. In the process she wears a lot of fun clothes, gets in a car chase while driving a Vespa, and makes some harsh decisions about love. And just like the first book, even though the story seems lighthearted at first there is a definite sense of seriousness and responsibility that looms large by the end. This isn’t the Gossip Girls do some detecting, people, in fact the more I think about it, it’s the kind of story that makes Gossip Girl adventures wonderfully unnecessary and, dare I say, obsolete. Honestly, for that alone, Bennett has my undying love. (Now if only Naomi Wolf would talk about how wonderful Lulu is, then we’d all be getting somewhere!)

Lulu lives in Halo City, which sounds a lot like New York but obviously is not. The city is practically a character in the stories, along with her father who is the coolest Dad ever, and his boyfriend, Theo, who is all things you wish your parent would find in a significant other. Basically, Lulu has a lot in life to be grateful for. She’s looking at a summer of fun with her best friend Daisy and boyfriend Charlie when her mother shows up in the cast of a local B-movie shoot. And then her mother disappears. And then a lot of wild “Patty Hearst with a feminist twist and awards ceremony excitement” starts happening. The story just flies from there.

I was a Lulu fan when I finished the first book and our long term relationship is now set in stone (or hot pink nail polish) after reading the sequel. She makes me laugh, but she’s not vacuous or vapid or deadly dumb or any of those other things that creep up in teen girl fiction (and tv) all too often these days. The books are a lot deeper than they seem and there are some serious issues that Lulu takes the time to consider and the reader will as well. It’s all wrapped up in a lot of wild fashion sense and some hilarious dialogue, but it is there and it’s real and it prevents Lulu from ever falling into the realm of silliness. She’s a sweetie, our Lulu Dark, and she’s also positively fearless. The more time we spend together, the more I find myself adoring this girl. I sincerely hope that Bennett is hard at work on the third book; at least this member of his faithful audience is eager to read more.

Author Elise Broach wrote a wonderful young adult mystery that I read last year, Shakespeare’s Secret, and I spent a lot of time telling every middle grade reader I knew to get their hands on a copy. It’s the book that got me questioning Shakespeare on more levels than anything I ever learned in British Literature back in the eleventh grade, and I was very impressed by how well Broach put a new spin on an old story. I was pretty eager to read her latest title, Desert Crossing, and see what literary direction Broach wanted to go in next. What a surprise to read this intense drama about three teens who get into a car accident while traveling in New Mexico. I kept waiting for something to happen that I expected, for one of the kids to act like a cliché, but Broach is relentless with this plot and with her determination to explore what goes on inside the head of a teenager in crisis. She kept me on the edge of my seat for 276 pages, and I’m sure she will accomplish the same thing with tons of young adult readers.

Initially, for the first chapter anyway, the story is about Lucy and her older brother Jamie who are on their way to their father’s house in Phoenix for Spring Break. Jamie is eighteen and driving and his best friend Kit is also along for the vacation. The boys are driving Lucy crazy (and enjoying themselves a lot in the process), but everything seems fine. Then it starts to rain like crazy and Jamie can’t see and then there’s a bump and the kids know they have hit something. When they turn back around they find the dead girl and everything changes.

The dead girl’s mysteries (not the least of which is who she is and why she was on the side of the road) overwhelm the teenagers immediately. Very quickly though, many other things happen to the group; things between Jamie and Beth, the woman who intervenes to help them, and between Lucy and Kit, which introduces a ton of complications to both of their lives. And there is also Lucy’s relentless determination to find out who the girl was and her insistence that she can not leave the mystery unsolved.

At one point in the story, Kit says “Everything’s fine now,” and it seems at that point like it is; it looks like the kids can just leave and pretend that nothing ever went wrong in the desert. But Lucy knows that is impossible. “She’s still dead,” she says, and right there the story takes a dramatic turn. It’s not all about three kids in a car, it’s about everything else; it’s about a whole world they knew nothing about until Lucy told her brother to turn the car around and take a second look.

The central question Broach poses so effectively with her story is whether the three teens are better off because they found the girl or not. Would it have been easier for everyone if they car continued on to Phoenix, the girl was lost for days or months or maybe forever and none of the many personal complications that New Mexico brought into their lives were ever experienced? Would it have been better for all of them to simply not know? Isn’t that always better?

Broach has her own ideas about what is best, and she has crafted a tense drama about siblings and friends and relationships that transcends most teen literature. Desert Crossing seems like a story about three kids who get into some trouble but it is really so much more. There are a dozen different stories in this book and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. The fact that not one involved Shakespeare is a bit disappointing, but I’ll learn to live with it. Until her next book, Desert Crossing will tide me over just fine.

With Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge I have discovered a new author to fall madly in love with. Fisher has crafted a unique urban fantasy with her novel (something fans of Charles de Lint will immediately embrace), invoking both a strong sense of ancient history and a wonderful retelling of the myth of Taliesin and Ceridwen. The reliance upon the old stories marks this as a uniquely British tale but the rich way in which it grips the lives of protagonist Rob and his younger sister Chloe makes the book appealing to any reader looking for a modern adventure that literally knows no bounds.

As the story begins, Rob’s life is already in disarray. Since his sister’s accident a few months before she has been in a coma and her uncertain future is slowing destroying Rob and his parents. While looking for ways to avoid Chloe’s illness, Rob takes a job at a nearby archeological dig and falls in with a group of pagans whose leader, Vetch, is a new definition of the word mysterious. It rapidly becomes clear that Vetch is tied to the discovery at the dig and oddly enough that it involves Chloe as well. That’s when things take all kinds of unpredictable turns and Rob finds himself running for his life through another world while trying to find a sister who manages to both lie immobile in a hospital bed and climb out of a castle window at the same time. And although it seems obvious what Rob’s challenges will be in the “Unworld,” Fisher is determined to show that sometimes our most significant battles are fought over the things we think we know best. In this case the pivotal question concerns just how well Rob knows his little sister. And for Chloe, the story is all about what she will do to find her way home and who she will be when she gets there.

Darkhenge is a very exciting book -- the plot zips along and keeps Rob and the reader guessing at every turn as the mystery twists and turns and deepens with every page. There is a lot to this story that must be considered, a lot of questions posed for the reader to think about. It’s a very impressive tale, based on healthy doses of myth and history and no small amount of teenage angst. There’s not a moment wasted in reading it though and it definitely provides the kind of long savoring delight that is absent from so much of young adult literature today. Fisher has another book, Corbenic coming out this year and I am certainly going to be getting my hands on that one.