April 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Heirs to Poe

Tim Wynne-Jones has crafted a classic thriller for teens with his new title, The Uninvited. There are no evil fairies and no -- thank god -- vampires in this suspenseful novel about a college sophomore who goes into the Canadian woods expecting to find a place to clear her head and instead discovers a whole lot more. This is no “run for your life from a crazed camper” story, however. The Uninvited is about Mimi, who made a wrong romantic decision at school and gets away to sort out the aftermath, and Jackson, who has taken a year off from college to work on his music. They meet at a house that has been lent to each of them by the same person. Figuring out what they have in common is the first mystery, but someone is watching the house and, more significantly, watching Jackson and Mimi.

Wynne-Jones ratchets up the tension with each chapter while also building on the relationship between the two main characters and their families. Mimi finds herself falling easily into small town life and making friends, one of whom is revealed to the reader as having ulterior motives. There is the neighbor who wants to do more than just chat, the guy up the road who longs for every aspect of Jackson and Mimi’s seemingly blissful lives, and the mother-from-hell who is a master of manipulation. (And there’s also that romantic entanglement that Mimi ran from which continues to unravel long distance via cell phone stalking.)

The author keeps the plot tightly controlled, so the suspense rolls out page by page as Mimi is watched, Jackson is robbed and Cramer -- son of the crazy woman -- finds his carefully constructed life going to hell in spite of his efforts to keep it together. Cramer has several moments of clarity in the novel as everyone’s lives start to spin out of control. At one point, he realizes: “…it seemed to Cramer that his mother’s life was a promise she couldn’t keep. Somebody had to do it for her.” But that extra weight is too heavy for him to bear and the lure of the other house, the lives that seem so much easier than his own, becomes very strong. The question is what will happen when Cramer breaks, or rather, who will break first.

The Uninvited is a first-rate thriller with a lot of twists and turns (the ending is excellent) and some very sympathetic characters. It’s straightforward suspense writing that takes no shortcuts. This is one for teens who want to sit on the edge of their seat without any supernatural tricks.

The new anthology Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow, was not published for YA readers but is an excellent way for older teens to see how applicable Edgar Allen Poe’s literary genius is to modern times. Nineteen authors including Delia Sherman, M. Rickert, Gregory Frost, Sharyn McCrumb and Laird Barron all crafted stories inspired by Poe. At the conclusion of each tale the authors reflect on the specific work which sparked their contribution and share their own memories of reading Poe. The resulting collection ranges from love affairs gone wrong, nightmares large and small and stories based on Poe’s actual life. As a whole, Poe encompasses a broad swathe of the author’s work and celebrates him in a manner that should appeal equally to those well versed on his stories and poems and others who are mildly curious and in search of original works that stand well on their own.

There were several standouts, starting with Sherman’s tale of dangerous romance in “The Red Piano,” a contemporary homage to all those “…deathly ladies: pale, learned, sickly, beautiful and doomed, doomed, doomed to die horribly so that their pale, learned, beautiful and tortured lovers could enjoy -- and lovingly, lingeringly describe -- torments of grief and/or guilt.” As the author shows, things have changed in the 21st century and ladies are not quite so willing to fall for the tortured hero routine (or at least they don’t fall for it completely). Anyone who ever picked the very wrong guy will understand Sherman’s protagonist and feel for the literary heroines she mentions in her note.

Kim Newman takes on the many movie remakes of Poe’s work in the ironic and often laugh out loud funny “Illimitable Domain.” (Vincent Price fans will especially want to read this one.) Melanie Tem tackles a classic Poe image with “The Pickers,” a tale of subtle psychological horror that highlights a group of raven-like humans who work their way into the life of a single mother slowly going mad from loneliness and despair. Bit by bit they take what she has left, making all that tapping so much more sinister. Catherine Tobler revisits the last days of Poe’s life in “Beyond Porch and Portal,” a story that defies common romantic looks at the faerie world and Gregory Frost’s “The Final Act” plays on the character of Poe himself while crafting a tight mystery about marital infidelity and lies.

Laird Barron’s “Strappado,” inspired by “Masque of the Red Death” among others is the one story that sets the collection firmly in “older teen” territory. A cautionary tale of sex and violence that examines the dangers of an empty life, Barron takes readers into a dangerous place but never veers into the leering torture porn territory of Saw or Hostel. This is a story demanding personal reflection and care; a visit to the dark side that doesn’t sugarcoat the sort of horrors that live there. Sharyn McCrumb’s “The Mountain House” might at first seem to be a swipe at Field of Dreams ala NASCAR, but a moment’s look at the poem that inspired it, “The Haunted Palace” cements the significance of the empty house, a home in mourning. The return of dead heroes for a second chance at glory is a bit of a red herring here, a sweet way for the protagonist to assuage her widow’s grief. “The Mountain House” is about grieving, and one of the more affecting stories of grown-up life and love that I have come across.

The other stories go by like a wonderful blur: Glen Hirshberg’s “The Pikesville Buffalo” is about wild animals now tamed, which alludes directly to a Poe piece while also combining his own memories of family and the eponymous strange older aunt characters in everything from Bewitched to Sabrina: The Teenage Witch. Barbara Roden revisits Poe’s attraction to the theories of John Symmes in “The Brink of Eternity” which ponders why some men will go to the ends of the earth, regardless of personal safety. This story is an artful blend of fact and fiction that seamlessly flow together to reveal horrors we bring upon ourselves in pursuit of places we can not fathom. M. Rickert as usual is on hand with an especially disturbing tale of children and abuse that so perfectly encapsulates the spirit of “Annabel Lee” it seems impossible for me to imagine reading it without her “Sleeping with Angels” as a companion. Pat Cadigan’s “Truth and Bone” is about family gifts and secrets and how badly one can go hand in hand with the other. The path Cadigan takes from Poe’s “The City in the Sea” to this story of a teenager in dire peril, whose oblivious family refuses to notice, was of particular interest to me. Cadigan is a writer whose imagination made huge leaps here and ended up in a place that is more about family values then fantasy.

Nicholas Royle’s “The Reunion” reminded me of The Shining in a good way -- and cautions again about hotels that just don’t seem right. (Flee them at all costs.) Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Flitting Away” might seem like the least Poeish tale in the book, but then again, in a final note, she makes the connection clear. Rusch ties this story of rape’s aftermath to the murder of Mary Rogers (and thus Poe’s Marie Roget) and pulls a line directly from him that perfectly characterizes what happens in her story. She brings Poe, and Rogers as well, into the present with a bang. For students in particular this story will likely make the most sense to their contemporary world and have the strongest resonance.

Finally, for me, Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Lowland Sea” is the story that has bothered me the most and stayed with me the longest. It is another take on “Rue Morgue,” another look at hedonism and selfishness, another attempt to dodge the blackness of payback and responsibility. But damn; it is so bleak. There are layers of this story that stretch from modern slavery to Hollywood to the visitation of disease on foreign shores by those society has collectively ignored too long. It is a tale of retribution and written like poetry. I think Charnas channeled Poe when she found “Lowland Sea” within herself. The only question I had was, where on earth did you come from to channel this bleakness to begin with? Which brings me to the question of why Edgar Allen Poe was the man he was. Put Poe in the backpack of every disillusioned seventeen-year-old you know and then wait -- they will find a way -- at last -- to appreciate a true American master.

Kin Platt’s A Mystery for Thoreau is an excellent choice for middle grade readers who are first beginning to wade into this period of American literature. Told from the perspective of budding journalist and teenager, Oliver, the story follows the sudden arrival of an outsider who subsequently goes missing and the discovery of a body. This is all a bit much for the mid-nineteenth century town and it falls to local poet Henry Thoreau, Algonquin tracker Charley Bigbow and the intrepid Oliver to uncover many secrets and find the villain. Along the way, readers get to meet many familiar names which keeps the plot lively and will hopefully spark further interest in the real people behind the story.

Oliver is the heart of this novel and his careful language (a nice introduction to nineteenth century formality) narrates the story and introduces Concord’s denizens. From Thoreau, who is in prison for willful failure to pay taxes, to his parents, sisters and aunts, Oliver is deeply acquainted with the family. Through his careful reporting of the murder he also encounters Ralph Waldo Emerson, who philosophizes about death, a spunky young Louisa May Alcott, who is encouraged to stop writing poems and start writing novels and hints are dropped about Nathanial Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott and even Edgar Allen Poe (with his Marie Roget story discussed by Oliver and his friends). All of this works because the characters contribute to the plot and because they really were in Concord at the time. It is believable that Thoreau would help solve a murder that occurred near Walden Pond and that Emerson, still reeling from the death of his son, would feel moved to comment on the tragedy. Every aspect of the novel blends seamlessly with the mystery and readers will enjoy meeting the historic figures while also puzzling out the multiple crimes. This is a very good introduction to a solid chunk of American literary history and I certainly wish it had been around to pique my interest in junior high when Thoreau was first presented in my dreadful 8th grade English class.

Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied is a stylish, noir-like thriller that carries its 1940s setting into a spectacular plot built on meaningful looks, suspicious associations and unspoken feverish longings. From start to finish Blundell places this story of lies and possible murder deeply in Perry Mason territory (and I mean that as the highest compliment). For fifteen-year-old Evie the events in the book are life changing as she watches her perfect family (beautiful mother and loving step-father) slowly crumble. What do you do when you realize your parents are not who you thought they were and how far would you go to protect that family image that has always meant so much?

The intrigue begins with a series of mysterious phone calls that Evie’s stepfather Joe, is reluctant to answer. He then persuades his wife and daughter to suddenly take a trip down to Florida, an out of season holiday that is far beyond the standard fare. Once they arrive in a nearly empty Palm Beach hotel, the Spooners meet the Graysons who have a troubling secret of their own but quickly befriend the family. Evie also finds herself dazzled by another newcomer, a young man named Peter Coleridge who surprisingly knew Joe during the war. The tension between Joe and Pete is unmistakable but it does not stop Evie from devising ways to spend time alone with him, nor does it seem to dissuade her mother from striking up her own friendship with him as well. Joe becomes more tense, Peter more insistent, the women pursue their own aims and the Graysons, who seem to be offering Joe a financial opportunity he is desperate to take, suddenly find themselves exposed. And then there is a boat ride that begins with three passengers and ends in a storm with one person missing. That is what leads to the court room and Evie’s decision to tell the lie of the book’s title.

There are questions about crimes and criminals that remain unresolved at the book’s end, but that does nothing to diminish the power of the story or its very satisfying ending. This is a book that sings of Bogart and Bacall, Raymond Chandler and Robert Mitchum and utterly and completely of Gene Tierney. You do not have to be a noir fan to enjoy it however, and it is assuredly a teen drama with wide appeal. I found a great deal to admire in Blundell’s writing here, and in her willingness to take a chance on a setting and style rarely visited for teens. There is a reason why this book is an award winner; it is completely cool.

Mal Peet’s Tamar is a blend of family drama and military espionage that combines to form a very tight historical thriller in one storyline while in another long held secrets from the past are revealed. In the WWII portion Dutch agents “Dart” and “Tamar” are trained by the British to go back to occupied Holland and assist the local underground forces against the Nazis. The chapters detailing their experiences there, especially the stress of living under assumed names while actively working for the British behind enemy lines, are extremely well written. Most impressively, Peet is able to show that not only is the enemy the cause of strife during time of war, but the actions of those supposedly on the “good” side can also cause problems and the pressure on everyone involved can lead to tragedy. That is exactly what happens to the two men and Marijke, a local woman in the underground who shelters and loves Tamar. In 1995 it is a fifteen-year old named Tamar who is drawn into the past. Her grandmother, the same Marijke, is struggling from dementia and the stress or depression from that illness has caused her grandfather, “Dart,” to apparently kill himself. He leaves Tamar a box of objects that combined provide a set clues about his war time past. Desperate to know more about her grandparents, and also despondent over her own missing father who left on a business trip and then seemingly abandoned his family, Tamar and a friend decide to follow the clues. What they discover dovetails with the second plotline and blows apart everything she thought she ever knew about her family and herself.

To say that Tamar is a dramatic story would be a major understatement. The chapters set during the war are taut with intrigue and tension and as one thing after another goes wrong (in so many painful and unstoppable ways), readers will find themselves tearing through pages to find out what happens to each of the main characters. The action is bloody and horrific, as it should be. It is also predictable that as the men unravel, mistakes are made and horrific punishment is meted out by the enemy. Readers should note Peet’s afterword where he explains just how much truth is in this story, which is the most upsetting thing about it.

For the young female Tamar, the danger is much more intimate. While her father’s decision to leave is something she has never understood, she has managed to handle it with the love of her mother and grandparents. That love is what makes trying to understand her grandfather’s mystery so important as she feels particularly close to him in the wake of her grandmother’s illness. He was not the kind of man to open up so this final gift is a much welcomed surprise. As Tamar follows his map and works through his clues she does not find the revelations she was expecting but something far darker, far meaner. She finds 1945 and what it did to the people she loved, and to the child born later who became her father. Tamar will grab you by the throat and not let go until the bittersweet ending. It’s a classy military thriller and perfect for war buffs looking for something with a contemporary twist. Excellent reading on a hot, and safe, spring afternoon.

Another fun but slight mystery (ridiculous and utterly unbelievable dialogue with gay secondary character aside) is Lynn Weingarten’s Wherever Nina Lies. This missing person thriller follows younger sister Ellie as she pursues clues about her sister Nina who vanished two years earlier. Ellie embarks on a cross country hunt with the one person who expresses faith in her search, a young man mourning his own lost sibling. Together they have adventures and misadventures always getting closer and closer to Nina’s trail until… well, until the plot takes a massive turn and everything you thought you knew gets thrown up in the air and Ellie has to think very fast if she wants to live let alone find Nina. There were moments when I thought things were stretched a bit and the reader has to suspend their belief over things like calling the police (how come teenagers never call the police when they are trouble -- have none of them watched Law and Order?), but it still works on a light and breezy level and is most certainly fun spring break reading.

Cool Read: By the time we reach junior high we all know how to tell time both on a daily and weekly/monthly/yearly basis. We know the days of the week and months of the year; when the changing of seasons occurs and the phases of the moon. That’s little kid stuff. But if you asked the average adult why there are varying amounts of days in each month, or who the days of the weeks are named for or where the concept of sixty minutes in an hour (and sixty seconds in a minute) came from I doubt you would get a coherent answer, if any answer at all. We all know a little bit about time but we don’t know a lot which is where Martin Jenkins’s wonderful new title The Time Book: A Brief History from Lunar Calendars to Atomic Clocks, comes in. With its wicked cool illustrations from artist Richard Holland, who specializes in funky yet pitch perfect collages, this is a title that works for anyone over the age of eight or nine. Teenagers will not be insulted reading its pages; instead they will be too busy being embarrassed by their lack of time knowledge to pause in turning the pages.

Jenkins takes a very straightforward approach with The Time Book, methodically explaining the many ways in which science, history and myth (plus no small amount of greed) have collided over the years to form our current methods of keeping track of time. All the major players are here from the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Egyptians and Mayans (who predict 2012 to be a very strange year) to Julius Caser (hello month of July) to a whole host of Norse gods like Thor (hello Thursday). We have emperors looking for status, popes looking to make sense of it all and the British who got to be time central in Greenwich. Through reading the oversized pages and admiring Holland’s cheeky illustrations (time really does fly here) readers will likely be stunned at the convoluted process that has brought us to our current moment in time. Deeply informative, clearly written and beautifully presented, this is the educational title that should be considered a must read. Homeschoolers take note -- you won’t want to miss it.