July 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Things That Bite

With Lonely Werewolf Girl author Martin Millar has written a breakout novel that defies any and all fantasy stereotypes. The best way I can describe it as a combination political thriller and werewolf soap opera -- if your idea of soap opera includes some seriously bloody confrontations between creatures that can rip your arms off. There is a ton of family drama, some deviations into the formation of a successful pop music career, discussion of high fashion (and theft of same), a lot of pizza, and much admiration for Joan Jett and Sabrina the Teenage Witch -- and assassins of all shapes and sizes who kill on a whim and like it. Basically, this book is a delicious 550-page romp through urban fantasy versions of London and the Scottish countryside that draws you in from the first few pages and does not let you go.

There is a lot going on in this novel and many storylines to follow. It’s a big sprawling family epic in a lot of ways -- it just happens that this particular family is comprised of a bunch of werewolves. Teenager Kalix is the center of the work, as it is her life that is danger. Kalix’s actions have thrown the entire family in turmoil, but rather than see her as the villain it is clear that she is the Dorothy in this bloody Oz. She is the one who pulled back the thin veneer of civility that kept her family from admitting the horrors within its midst and now everyone is taking sides and alternately trying to kill her or save her. That Kalix is a near suicidal mess makes her a sympathetic but very complicated character. She draws the empathy of two human college students and it is through their eyes that readers grow to care about Kalix and see all the good and bad in her family.

Millar has done more for the urban fantasy genre with Lonely Werewolf Girl than most authors. He lifts the entire oeuvre of werewolf stories up, in a manner similar to what Joss Whedon has done for vampires. There is far, far more here than killing, although Millar never shies away from realistic violence. But when he introduces Kalix’s older sister as a fashion designer he then spins out a subplot concerning the theft of fashion design and gives it a fantasy element. Her cousins are alcoholic pop singers who can’t hold it together long enough to carve out decent careers and Millar takes part of the plot into their hopes, dreams and addictions. Politics, both in Kalix’s dysfunctional family and the larger werewolf world, are key to the story and the author makes that as exciting as one of Kalix’s many desperate chases through the city. Every detail in this book is rich and deep and thoughtful; Millar gives his characters the time and attention they deserve and because of that, readers finds themselves with far more story then werewolf fans have come to expect. It is Laurell K. Hamilton at her plot-filled very best, Stephen King in The Stand, even Charles Dickens. Kalix is a teenage killer who can barely contain her rage at the world and Millar makes you love her.. The fact that this is sincerely accomplished through the text is really quite remarkable and a testament to the writing ability of this so very talented, and sharply creative, author.

Kristopher Reisz populates his new novel, Unleashed, with a group of werewolves also, but there are few similarities between the blood politics in Millar’s work and this fantasy version of Rebel Without a Cause. Reisz has a gift for creating realistically disaffected teens, and just as he did so brilliantly in his debut work, Tripping to Somewhere, this new novel also involves the lives of a bunch of kids who are angry and frustrated for many different but not uncommon reasons. Daniel wishes he had made a better choice when his parents suggested an easy but dishonest way into a college scholarship (it was nothing criminal but he feels now he has received something he did not deserve) and Misty is tired of the struggles she and her brother endure with a hardworking but largely absent single mother. Every kid in this book in fact, whether shapeshifter or not, is angry about something. Readers accustomed to heavy hitting teen novels might wonder, as some reviewers of Tripping did, just why the kids are so angry (no one is dying of cancer for example) but any teen will certainly understand.

They’re angry because they can be, and sometimes that is all it takes. (Remember James Dean’s character yelling “You’re tearing me apart!” at his parents? They had no clue what he was talking about but what makes the movie a classic is that those feelings were sincere and deeply rooted in the acute powerlessness of the teen years.)

The novel’s plot follows Daniel, who is a popular well-rounded success, becoming attracted to Misty, and the ambivalent way in which she and her “pack” glide through school. Daniel is on the fast track to success with an acceptance to Cornell but he feels like a fraud. With her palpable feelings of anger and clear disdain for the adults around her, Misty seems capable of emotions that Daniel can barely acknowledge. In a word, he thinks she is wicked cool and is drawn to her, and away from everything that that used to matter so much. The shapeshifting that Misty and the others are capable of is the dark secret and how Daniel will react to that, and what will become of his burgeoning relationship with Misty, raises the tension in incremental notches as the story unfolds.

It is clear while reading Unleashed that just as the teenage girls in Tripping to Somewhere were sorely tempted by the careless freedom within the Witches Carnival, Daniel finds the power of becoming a wolf equally hard to resist. Reisz does not sugarcoat how the shapeshifters act and slowly exposes the close association between power and casual violence. In Millar’s world being a werewolf is a way of life and the violence that comes with it is something his characters are exposed to from birth. But Reisz’s teens have no such lifelong ability to comprehend what they can do or should do with this new “gift.” With Unleashed he continues to carve out an area for himself in YA literature; a unique combination of teen melodrama and fantasy that does not shy away from all that makes teens irresponsible and foolish while still celebrating their acute intensity and the razor sharp way in which their emotions impact every decision. His books are interesting rides and solid choices for the high school crowd.

I have to credit author Tom Becker with the wonderful job he has done of creating a hidden London in his novel Darkside. Neil Gaiman gave us a first rate London underground that no one knew was there in Neverwhere (highly recommended), but Becker manages to meet that literary challenge head-on for teens with his visit to a place that no one wants to admit exists. He also fills his tale with a menacing atmosphere that propels the plot forward; this one will keep you compulsively reading so make sure you have all night to devote to Jonathan Starling’s adventures.

From the very beginning Jonathan makes for a very sympathetic protagonist. Life with his father is difficult at best but not for the typical “he doesn’t understand me” reasons. Alain Starling suffers from crippling bouts of what seems to be devastating depression and often has to be hospitalized. Jonathan could care less about school and is blundering his way through adolescence with the help of a family friend. His discovery that his father might not actually be psychologically ill, but instead suffering from a visit to some alternate side of London, is hard to believe, but then someone tries to kill him, and all too quickly all the odd research Alain has done over the years starts to make sense. Jonathan finds himself running for his life in search of “Carnegie,” his father’s friend and the only one who can help him. But Carnegie doesn’t live in any part of London that Jonathan recognizes. A lot of things become clear when Jonathan slips into Darkside, but just what he can do with all that knowledge to save himself and his father is anyone’s guess. He has to figure it all out fast or it won’t matter what Jonathan knows; because more than one big bad is out to get him and these guys play for keeps. Let’s just say Jack the Ripper is the local municipal hero. Darkside is an ugly place and it’s full of people who thrive on that ugliness and would happily eat up anyone who tries to change it.

I might be reading too much into a story about vampires, child murderers and a London trapped in the worst part of Victorian times, but I couldn’t help but think that metaphorically Darkside is the parts of every town that we don’t want to see. As long as we keep our eyes on the shiny parts of the mall and those gleaming golden arches then we won’t catch all the parts of our society that are wrong. The problem for Jonathan is that he discovers all the anger, hurt and pain of London is now in a place where it has been left to grow to unimaginable proportions. And then he finds out just what kind of creatures would thrive in this sort of environment and that’s when the book really takes off and flies.

Delia Sherman’s fun-filled romp through the magical side of New York City in Changeling is truly a love letter to a place the author holds in deep affection. As Neef careens from one end of “New York Between” to another in an attempt to fix a foolish mistake that had horrible ramifications, Sherman lets loose with dozens of fanciful tales about Manhattan. From the Green Lady in Central Park to the Curator of the Metropolitan Museum and the Dragon of Wall Street, Sherman mixes myths and reality in an utterly delightful manner. Between pulling for Neef to outwit her opponents and wondering just what Sherman will offer up next, Changeling is an urban fantasy that succeeds on multiple levels and should be a first choice for YAs who like some intelligent bite with their visits to faerie.

Neef is a human child who was stolen by the faeries and while she is quite pleased with her life in Central Park she chafes at the rules that keep her separate. Impulsively she breaks one and finds herself in huge trouble with the Green Lady who wants to hand Neef over to the Wild Hunt -- which means Neef is going to be a very dead human girl in like five minutes. After a lucky escape, a sudden capture, a serendipitous meeting with someone who is not what she seems and another lucky escape, Neef lands at the Metropolitan Museum and an agreement is made with the Green Lady. Neef is then sent on a quest to gain some boons in trade for her life and that is where the real fun begins.

There is so much about this book that I thoroughly enjoyed, from the true sense of menace that was ever present to the plot careening around a familiar city in unfamiliar ways. Neef is a very engaging protagonist, and the supporting characters are all first rate. There’s not a dull moment or more importantly an insignificant one to be found. Changeling has universal appeal for boys and girls; and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to adult fantasy fans as well.

With Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper graphic novelist Kazu Kibuishi takes a couple of tried and true elements of children’s fiction (the creepy house bequeathed by a mysterious relative, the door that leads to another world) and throws in a mixture of dark fairy tales and steampunk nostalgia to create a story that is both cool and weird for the middle grade set. There’s a monster that actually swallows the main characters’ mother alive (she continues to provide guidance from inside), an elf prince with serious parental issues and an airplane and a robot. Oh -- and a pink bunny because, well, the elf prince is nasty so you kind of need the bunny to balance things out.

Kibuishi puts all of these elements together and throws in poor Emily and Navin, who are just trying to figure out how to get their mother back. They’re pretty stoic and dependable kids, as you would expect from the book’s opening pages when their father dies in a horrible car accident. (I do hope there proves to be a reason for this opening down the line because it really was a bit too close to Walt Disney’s parent killing habit for its own good.) Basically, these are the kind of kids that will charge through a door into who knows where to bring mom home. And when that doesn’t prove all that easy they are just plucky enough to hang in there and keep trying. And then Emily uses the amulet she found in the house and things get very magical very fast.

The Stonekeeper is tailor-made for the younger crowd and Kibuishi clearly knows who he is writing for and nails every necessary plot element, creates interesting characters (both good and bad) and never releases the tension for a second. As for his artwork -- his artwork is stunning. The book is illustrated in full color and it is just gorgeous to look at. At less than $10 it’s a lot of bang for your buck, which I expect from Kibuishi after enjoying the marvelous Flight anthologies he edits.

As usual catch me over at chasingray.com, where literary discussion continues on everything from Alaska flying to the latest in eco-books for teens. Also don’t forget guyslitwire.com; where we aim to provide many reviews and recommendations for teenage boys.

Cool Read: In the past few months I have received and read three gorgeous titles on Greek myths and legends. What’s really unusual for these picture books is that not only do they have truly wonderful (and distinct) illustrations but that the stories they include vary from the popular (Medusa, Theseus and the Minotaur) to the more obscure (Pygmalion & Galatea and Argus, the “Watchman with One Hundred Eyes”). As a package they offer an outstanding introduction to their subject and will certainly engage readers from elementary school through college and serve as excellent entries into the world of Greek myths.

The McElderry Book of Greek Myths by Eric Kimmel with stunning illustrations by Pep Montserrat, offers chapter long retellings of popular stories with illustrations that cover double folds and draw the reader in with lush, darkly vibrant colors. Kimmel includes such stalwarts as “Pandora’s Box,” “Persephone and Hades,” and “King Midas and the Golden Touch,” while also including the tragedy of Icarus, the triumph of Theseus (who is a bit of a jerk in this version) and the wild adventures of Jason. Kimmel is not writing adoring tales but shows both the nobility and pettiness of everyone involved and will likely cause readers to identify quite a bit with his subjects. Midas truly is a ninny here, Medea is crazy, and Ariadne gets her due for providing her critical assistance against the Minotaur. This is an excellent readaloud book that will stay with children for decades.

With The Mighty 12: Superheroes of Greek Myth Charles R. Smith uses poetry to great effect to introduce the leaders of Olympus. Illustrator P. Craig Russell is an acclaimed comic book artist and his full color drawings are reminiscent of the Illustrated Classic Comics series of the past. Again we have big double fold spreads with artwork seamlessly crossing the pages and pulling the readers from one side to the next as they read Smith’s poems. Artemis is boldly presented on the hunt “Prideful Kings/Boastful Queens/And men who spy,/Trying not to be seen,/Will feel the pain/Her cold heart can bring/When she pulls her arrow/Across her bow/And allows no pity/Or mercy to show.”

All the major players are here: Zeus, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, etc. Smith also includes a very useful glossary explaining why he chose his subjects and certain particulars (parents, symbols, etc.) about each. There is also an excellent bibliography for future reading.

Finally, author/illustrator Lynn Curlee ignores the gods and goddesses and looks elsewhere in Mythological Creatures: A Classical Bestiary. Each double spread includes a creature’s history on one side and large colorful paintings on the other. She discusses the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs, the nesting habits of the Gryphons (from Persia) and the difficulties Odysseus found when he encountered Polyphemus, the Cyclops. Curlee gives a lot of attention to the more obscure creatures (the Chimera and Talus, the Bronze Giant) but doesn’t ignore favorites like Pegasus, the Phoenix and the Minotaur. As a bestiary, Curlee’s title functions quite well and offers readers an alternative for learning about the lesser known players in many of the myths.

Readers of all three books will see differences between the stories but this should only prompt further research and not confusion; the differences are subtle and clearly come from the wide range of sources available on these subjects. The books are an excellent, if unplanned set and all come highly recommended.