July 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Last Chance at Escape

As soon as I heard that Andi Watson was writing a title for the DC comics Minx line I was pretty jazzed. I’ve been a fan of Watson’s work for ages (I will recommend right now that you run out and buy all the Skeleton Key collections as well as Love Fights) and I know that he can write to a young female audience. Clubbing really took me by surprise though, it’s a mystery in the English countryside with a smart-mouthed goth “city-girl-banished-to-the-country” heroine that frankly had me shaking my head with laughter far more than worrying she might die. There is a murder, some slight mayhem and a wild-ass twist of an ending.

Lottie is used to hitting the London clubs in her favorite outfits with clueless parents totally unaware. As the book opens she has gotten in a bit of trouble after a ride home with the cops and ends up being sent to the country for a teenage “time-out.” So with her corsets, fishnets, three-inch high heels and everything else that was critical to her club appearances, Lottie goes to hang out with her kind but dull grandparents. They own and operate a country club and so she quickly finds herself having to study golfing, participate in a cake contest and get ready for the local version of the country fair.

The attitude is what keeps the story buzzing along with Lottie namedropping everyone from Tess of the d’Urbervilles (“The rest of my class hated me for saying it was all her fault for having such lousy taste in men.”) to British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Watson also throws out references to F1 racing, “La Traviata,” Aleister Crowley, Samuel Coleridge and the Warrior Queen Boudicea. He is like Joss Whedon that way, writing up to his audience and daring them to catch everything he has to say. There is a mysterious death that might involve Lottie’s grandfather and with the local cute guy in tow (you knew there had to be a cute guy somewhere out there in the boonies, didn’t you?), and Lottie is determined to get to the bottom of it all. What she finds it totally out of left field (but fun as hell) and involves a bit of Buffy weirdness and the swinging of clubs in a rather violent manner.

Josh Howard’s illustrations are the perfect complement to Watson’s story; he draws Lottie as teen who fits her club-hopping image and all I can say is that the man must have had a lot of fashion magazines to give him these ideas. The drawings are crisp, the many different facial expressions honest and appropriate to the action and he makes Lottie appear both tough and vulnerable as the story progresses. Fans familiar with his work will recognize his style -- he nails this sassy and sardonic character from start to finish.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe Eliot Fintushel’s Breakfast With the Ones You Love ever since I finished reading it. It was sent my way by a very helpful editor after I complained about the lack of young adult science fiction on my personal site. Breakfast was published as an adult book by Bantam but the protagonist is a teenage girl. She also has an interesting talent: she can telepathically inflict great harm on living creatures, or, if she’s really mad, she can kill them.

Lea has no family, rents a room from a rather strange little old lady and waits tables for a less than savory employer. Other than the killer telepathy angle what really makes her interesting is her friend Jack (otherwise known as “the Yid”). Jack is building a spaceship in the abandoned section of the local Sears Roebuck. He is waiting for his people to return to Earth for him and “the thirteen” (all of whom are unknown to him but will arrive exactly at that moment) to be taken into space where they will be debriefed on all they know about the planet. Lea believes in Jack’s mission and hopes to leave with him. She has no reason (other than her cat) to stay behind.

Fintushel has created a world that seems mostly like our own but every now and again leans into cyberpunk language and descriptions that will make a reader’s head spin (in the best sort of way). Jack seems crazy, but Lea is so committed to him that the reader is more than willing to ride along with her and see what really happens in that overlooked section of Sears. When the mafia, the group of batty evil old ladies, Jack’s group of Jewish rabbis and other followers who they meet in the sewers, and Lea’s long lost brother all show up then things really get interesting.

More than anything else though, and even with all the wildly unusual plot elements, Breakfast With the Ones You Love is a coming-of-age story. Lea is running from something and Jack, with all his strangeness, is the safe place where she landed. Leaving with him (as translator for the Thirteen) is another way for her to get further from the past she desperately wants to forget. Things catch up to her as Jack’s big day approaches though and all the mysteries behind why Lea is alone (and angry) are fully explained.

Breakfast is a story that will appeal to all those teens who get angry every now and again, get frustrated about where they are and how they got there and are looking for a major adventure to set them free. Throw in a love for some kicking butt and you have the perfect audience for a book that is a wild ride from beginning to end. Adults will enjoy it just fine but more than anything, this is a book for YAs. It’s about knowing who you are and being okay with that knowledge -- being okay with every last inch of the person you have turned out to be. Lovers of unorthodox spaceships will think it is way cool too.

David Brin’s new novella, Sky Horizon has two of the best lines ever: “Some of the Math Club nerds have got a real live alien! They’re hiding it in a basement rec room!” As soon as I saw that excerpt I knew I had to read this book. The Math Club at Twenty-Nine Palms High School has indeed found E.T.’s rather more carnivorous little brother. They are charging a few bucks from curious fellow students who want to take a look and before too long the popular kids decide they can make a lot more money if they keep the creature on their own turf. That’s when junior Mark Bamford and his friends first encounter the alien, and decide to make a very big choice about the right thing to do, regardless of how it affects their popularity potential.

Brin has been kicking the Sky Horizon story around for a  very long time, and is as focused on telling a great first contact story as much as he is exploring the lives and limitations of teenagers. There are several interesting classroom conversations in the book concerning independent thought and individualism as well as the relationship between natives and colonizing groups. These talks allow for Mark and other students to exchange their thoughts and explore heavy topics that are all too often ignored by teenagers. Brin clearly has a lot of respect for this age group (both as characters and readers) and he gives them an enormous amount of credit. He dares to think that if trusted with a big decision that some teenagers will rise to the occasion, and because of this, adults should spend a lot more time listening to what they have to say.

The combination of teenage drama and classic “alien coming to America” is first rate in Sky Horizon -- very original and very well written. It is exactly the sort of science fiction tale that young adults will immediately embrace. It will speak to them in a language they understand and even though it involves visitors from beyond the stars, the themes of teen frustration and longing will be remarkably familiar. David Brin is a first class science fiction author, but with this new title he proves himself to be more than capable of writing for a young adult audience. I strongly recommend this title and look forward to the many more adventures for Mark and his friends that Brin hints at with his awesome (and totally surprising) ending.

In Esther Friesner’s Temping Fate Ilana Newhouse is looking for a summer job and thinks, at first, that she might have gotten lucky with her sister’s former employer, the Divine Relief Temp Agency. But before she knows quite what has happened, Ilana finds herself accepting a job for a group of sisters who it turns out are the Fates. Yep, we’ve got ourselves an adventure where the whole world of Greek mythology is hanging out with kids in Connecticut and Ilana has landed right in the middle of it. The initial question is whether she will stay with the agency -- and then after that is settled it’s all about just what kind of trouble she will get into and also just how much her life will change because of what she thought was just a summer job.

A major plot point swirls around Dyllin, Ilana’s older sister, who is getting married in a rush that is driving everyone in the family insane. There are also the weekly meetings with some of the other temps where Illana makes a few friends, including the very appealing Corey (he temps for several Heroes). And the Furies show up and well – if you thought middle school girls were mean before, then you haven’t seen what their like when they’ve got the power of the Furies.

On some levels Temping Fate is mostly played for laughs and Ilana spends quite a bit of time trying to alternately save herself or everyone else she knows and get in a little payback on a jerk or two. But there are also those moments where it becomes clear that Illana has been looking for a way to matter. That’s when Temping Fate really shines and makes the book much more than the average beach read.

Sarah Deming also tackles the notion of gods and goddesses living among mortals, but she tells a very different story in Iris, Messenger. Iris is a typical middle-schooler who makes her sarcastic nature known from the very beginning: “The main difference between school and prison is that prisons release you early for good behavior. School lasts about thirteen years no matter how good you are. Also, prison has better food.”

Okay, Iris doesn’t fit in but she really doesn’t want to. She thinks her teachers are either idiots or deranged (correct perceptions on her part as the story reveals) and life at home with a scientist mother devoted to all things soy isn’t all that much better either. Her distant and ardently religious father has remarried a woman apparently allergic to children and the only thing keeping Iris from losing her mind is a very healthy imagination that unfortunately makes it hard to pay attention to anything school-related. And then her birthday comes along and she receives an amazing edition of Bulfinch’s Mythology and life gets way more exciting.

Let’s all pause for a moment and recall the wonderfulness that is Bullfinch’s.

In short order Iris has followed some clues in the book’s margins and tracked down Poseidon, God of the Sea, now hopelessly lovesick and running a crabshack. She also meets Apollo, performing in a jazz club where Dionysus runs the bar and Aphrodite who runs a beauty salon for immortals.

She meets other gods and goddesses as well, several of whom share pertinent stories from their lives that many readers will recognize. The stories fit perfectly with the unexpected mystery that Iris finds herself caught up in and they also provide her with valuable hints as to what the best course of action is for her to take. In the end she finds out a secret about herself, helps her mom find a better job and makes a ton of good friends. There are also many funny moments in the book, especially those surrounding life at Erebus Middle School. Everything comes together quite nicely in Iris, Messenger and I found myself enjoying it more and more as the story progressed. The bonus here is that the “real” stories from the various gods and goddesses are going to whet the appetite of more than one reader and make them seek out a book like Bulfinch’s on their own.

Interestingly, Diana Wynne Jones’s The Game was the next book I picked up and while it is not about the same set of Greeks, it is still a deeply mythic work, albeit with a very “Jonesquian” twist. Young Hayley is an orphan who has had an extremely dull existence with her grandparents for as long as she can remember. Her grandfather tries to show her some rather quirky aspects of his work, which seems to involve countless numbers of computers, but there is the ever present fear of Uncle Jolyon, who exerts an inordinate amount of control over everyone’s lives. Hayley makes a couple of mysterious friends however and together with clues she has picked up from her grandfather learns about the “mythosphere,” the place where all stories are always being told over and over. She manages to bring one of those stories to life in her bedroom and gets immediately sent off to her aunt’s in a flurry of fear over Uncle Jolyon’s response. The distant family, which Hayley has never known about, changes the plan and brings her to a grand mansion where there are literally dozens of cousins and a multitude of aunts all of whom want to meet and know her. Soon enough Hayley learns that her cousins play a complex game in the mythosphere, a dangerous and forbidden game. It is while playing along that she finds her father, discovers how she ended up with her grandparents and also learns just who her family really is. And let me just say -- all those loose ends tie up in a truly superb fashion (I especially liked the inclusion of cousin Troy.)

From the moment Hayley shows up at the estate, the action comes fast and furious. Readers with any sort of knowledge of Greek and Roman myths will eat this up with a spoon, and especially enjoy all the side jokes and characterizations. Don’t despair if you’ve been left out of the loop on this subject however, Jones has a nice note at the end which identifies who each character from the book represents and after reading that the temptation to go back and enjoy the story all over again will be strong (and should most certainly be adhered to). A bit more fantastic then Friesner and Deming’s books, The Game is still firmly grounded in urban fantasy territory and asks just how curious would you be if the world you knew was proven to be something completely different. I loved how Hayley persevered and stood up to her uncle -- and the way her cousins jumped onboard to lend their assistance. This is a very good tale about hanging tough when you need to and also -- most importantly -- about not losing sight of what matters most even when the big bad glaring at you is a monster of truly mythic proportions.

If you wanted to put the perfect mythology collection together for a any child over the age of eleven or so, you could package Bulfinch’s along with Temping Fate, Iris, Messenger and The Game. It might just be the cure for all those dull school experiences where sadly, not nearly enough time is spent on myths and legends.

I really enjoyed Nina Kirki Hoffman’s recent Spirits That Walk in Shadow a few months ago and so I reached into her backlist recently to read her haunted house novel, A Stir of Bones. Inspired by Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House, Bones is mostly the story of Susan, who is alive and Nathan, who is not. It’s also about making friends and how friends can become your family when the family you have is equal parts terrifying and pathetic.

Susan Backstrom has learned the hard way how to survive with her very demanding father. She cannot disappoint him – ever – or her mother pays a devastating price. She has come to accept all of his rules as the way her life is, but when she overhears a conversation and finds out about a mysterious house, she takes a chance and joins a small group of classmates as they go exploring. The kids find just what you expect in a haunted house, a ghost. What they couldn’t have anticipated is how much he would need them or that Susan would find her dearest friend in the house itself.

A Stir of Bones follows Susan and her friends (including the ghost Nathan) as they navigate using a haunted house for a “clubhouse” and also as each of them presses Susan to reveal more of the torment that seems to drive her to push them all away. Eventually she does tell them what life is like at home and the plot builds to a harrowing night where the reader thinks they know exactly what is going to happen (you can practically hear the music from the Hallmark channel in the background) and then Hoffman throws a curveball.

Bones is a prequel for two other books Hoffman has written about these characters, A Red Heart of Memories and Past the Size of Dreaming. These stories pick the story up more than a decade in the future and find the friends all separated by some unknown argument. I’m interested to see how things go for them all as Susan in particular struck a chord for me. Any teen who feels controlled and ignored by the adults in her life will respond to Susan’s frustration and resignation; they will understand why she wants out but simultaneously doesn’t know how to leave. They will also get just how badly Susan needs friends and how lucky she is to find them (even House). A Stir of Bones is a good sort of spooky novel that will lead to other reading; check it out for something you might have missed the first time around.

Finally, Seikei and Judge Ooka return in Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler’s new mystery A Samurai Never Fears Death. I have been a fan of this series since the first book, The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn. This entry is more focused on Seikei and his family and less on his adoptive father, the very real historic samurai and brilliant legal mind, Judge Ooka. The mystery takes place in Osaka, Seikei’s hometown and the place where his brother is now running the family tea business (assisted by their underappreciated sister Asako). After an awkward meeting Seikei goes with his siblings to a nearby puppet show where he quickly finds himself in the middle of a murder. When Asako’s lover, who works at the show, is arrested as the assumed killer, Seikei is determined to get to the bottom of the things. Of course it is way more complicated then it appears and before long he has another dead body to deal with, goes undercover in the show and gets kidnapped.

If you’re new to the series you can certainly jump in with Samurai, although I would recommend starting with Tokaido Inn just so you can get all the relevant back story of how Seikei and Judge Ooka end up solving crimes together. This is a perfect series for fans of historical fiction -- the early 18th century setting is very well researched and presented and will appeal to any fan of samurai stories. The Hooblers provide a lot of authenticity to their stories and the puppet show in this title is real. They give their readers not only a great adventure and teen detective story, but also a superb setting. I don’t know where else YA readers can go to learn about Japan while enjoying such a great story. (And not to go all schoolish in a summer column but teachers should include the Seikei books in the classroom and homeschoolers – well you couldn’t ask for a better way to get the kids excited about the Far East.)

Be sure to check out my site, chasingray.com, for a day celebrating Australian authors on August 15th and a week of multiblog posting of overlooked books staring on the 27th.

COOL READ:  Older teens might have missed Editor Marvin Kaye’s recent anthology The Fair Folk. This collection of six stories (measuring more than 400 pages) offers something that will appeal to anyone fascinated by those who dwell in faerie. From Megan Lindholm’s contemporary tale of a dockworker plagued by a determined brownie to Patricia McKillip’s lush romantic tale of Victorian era painters under the sway of an enigmatic painter (I was convinced “The Kelpie” would be about a demon until it proved to be about liberation), readers are tossed to and fro in multiple fey directions by some of the most talented fantasy writers at work today.
Midori Snyder and Jane Yolen have written an epistolary tale about two banished sisters who long for the magic that was taken from them and find themselves stuck sorting out the mystery of a couple of human teens who appear to be more than they seem. The sisters are kept apart and thus communicate by letters but still find a way to work a few tricks and sort things out for the boy and girl they end up befriending. I’ve heard rumors that “Except the Queen” could be expanded into a book and I look forward to seeing what else Serana and Meteroa cook up.

The Fair Folk is an excellent and exceedingly well balanced collection that might have slipped under the radar for a lot of readers. A bit of cussing makes it best for the high school age, and I’m sure teens will enjoy each of these stories. I am still thinking about McKillip’s gorgeous language (“She regarded him silently for a heartbeat, out of eyes the color of a fine summer day, and in that moment he caught his first astonished glimpse of the undiscovered country that was theirs.”) and the intense surprise of Snyder and Yolen putting a sinister spin on something as common as a tattoo (“I saw a few with blessed spirals, may their lives be always turning toward the mysteries, but most were dull and stupid, a heart that will always be broken, a butterfly for a short and meaningless life, a snake that devours the will, and barbed wire, proclaiming a life of pinpricked sorrow.”). Don’t let this lovely anthology pass you by; it is clearly an embarrassment of fantastic riches.