April 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

The Mysteries of Youth

The Brixton Brothers #1: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity is both a spoof on the much beloved (and maligned) Hardy Boys series of old, and a legitimate middle-grade mystery. The “brothers” of the title are bold and somewhat reckless: Steve Brixton, who is all too happy to embrace the sudden commotion that unfolds after a visit to the town library turns bizarre; and his best friend, the much more sensible Dana. Together they endeavor to dodge library agents, run from the police, avoid bouncers in a bar by the docks and escape an agent for the dangerous and enigmatic Mr. E. They also have to find a missing quilt which is apparently very important, but sadly, long lost. The clue to its location is somewhere in a rather dull sounding book that Steve gets from the library while researching a school assignment. The boys can’t figure out why the book or the quilt matter, but there are enough people chasing after them to make deep thoughts about the situation irrelevant. When one is held captive in the hold of a fishing vessel that is taking on water at an alarming rate, it really doesn’t matter why you are there after all; you just have to get out and worry about everything else later! 

There’s a lot to love in Mistaken Identity, starting with author Marc Barnett’s endless display of humor. The string of situations is preposterous, and Steve knows this and the reader knows this, but Barnett doesn’t give anyone a chance to slow down and think about it. He just keeps tossing out one plot turn after another and the bad guys keep coming, the good guys prove hard to trust and even Steve’s mom’s boyfriend proves to be insufferable to the extreme. Steve consults his trusty “Bailey Brothers Detective Handbook” to guide him through the stormy waters (literally) of kid detection, and finally, of course, has the a-ha moment that breaks the entire case wide open -- right in the nick of time, of course. It’s goofy and predictable (well, as predictable as a story can be that hinges on a quilting book) and thrilling and a very cheeky update of the 1940s classics. No sappy dialogue, and Steve and Dana happily trade snark which is key to making the book work. Adam Rex’s drawings, also reminiscent of the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys style, are an excellent addition to the text -- I can’t wait for the sequel. 

Nova Ren Suma introduces an interesting mystery twist on the broken-home story in Dani Noir. Thirteen-year-old Dani is dealing with one big pile of parental mess. Her parents have split; her father is living with his new girlfriend and family; and everyone wants everyone to get along because... well, because that would make the parents feel better (although it sucks for the kids). Dani will have none of this, however, and spends her summer days dodging father/daughter obligations, her shell-shocked mother and any hint of familial bonding with the pending stepsister from hell. Her refuge is the local classic movie theater, where she disappears into noir movies to her heart’s content. It’s also where she uncovers a small mystery that proves to be just the distraction her battered heart is longing for. 

The mystery in Dani Noir is not very strong -- it involves an unknown girl, with someone who should not be with any unknown girl, and the resultant teen drama-rama that always accompanies such associations. Dani has friends who matter to her that she thinks she knows, but the mystery girl upends those certainties -- and the more she plays Harriet the Spy, the more she begins to fear that yet another aspect of her life is going to dramatically change. Suma shoehorns this mystery into the plot to propel the action and keep Dani moving, but the far more significant portions of the story involve her parents and close friends, and how all of their relationships evolve. It makes for a pleasant diversion (and allows a lot of wonderful old movie comparisons) but the true gems are found in passages like this: 

Grown-ups think that what they want is way more important than what you want. When you’re considered a kid, this is how it is. You could be totally engrossed in a movie -- like, is that Laura who just came in; wait, is she still alive? -- but who cares, the news is on. Let’s just say if a grown-up wants to watch the news, you’ll watch the news. If a grown-up wants chicken for dinner, grab your fork because you’ll be eating chicken. You can’t make your own choices, watch your own TV channels, or eat your own food until the world freezes over or, I don’t know, college.

Far more than middle-grade readers have been able to expect, Dani Noir is the voice of one ticked-off kid who would really like the world -- and, more specifically, her parents -- to acknowledge that just maybe sometimes kids deserve some respect. I was worried near the end that all that righteous anger was going to evaporate in a Brady Bunch moment, but thank God, Suma doesn’t let me down. The mystery makes for fun reading, but the family emotion really gets under your skin. Add references to Gilda, Laura, Casablanca, and more, and you’ve got an unexpected read that respects its readers from start to finish. 

Going from a girl who loves noir to an actual noir mystery, I was really impressed with You Have Killed Me, a new graphic novel from Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones. This one has it all, and it starts with the first-rate design by Oni Press. The cover is awesome (please, feel free to judge this one by the cover), but it’s the story that really sings -- and for fans of the genre (or those, like Suma’s Dani, who are brand new), it is an absolute killer. Set in 1939, the plot centers around P.I. Mercer and two women -- one who has hired him, and one who is missing. Mercer has a long, complicated involvement with the missing woman and her family, so this one is personal. All too fast, his questions find him with more clues than he can believe. There is the upcoming marriage to the wrong guy, the gambling habit that has drawn the attention of the powerful bad guy, and the attraction for the black trumpet player who had to know he had no real shot with the rich white dame (but tried anyway). Mercer gets beat to hell and back -- the story actually opens with him getting shot, and then flashes back -- and the twists and turns are perfection. From cops who push him around, to a murder at the racetrack, to revelations hidden behind wide, innocent-looking eyes, "classic" does not even begin to describe this book. And don’t think you have it figured out, because trust me, you don’t.  

Special things of note: the black-and-white drawings are crisp and clean, and Jones is to be commended in particular for how much emotion she conveys on these faces. The dialog is snappy (it’s 1939; of course it’s snappy!), the slang right out of every good late-night movie you’ve ever seen, and the use of text boxes to carry Mercer’s thoughts forward -- even as dialogue bubbles surround him -- effectively keeps everything straight for the reader. A lot of work went into making this a first-class reading experience, and it shows. True to its nature, bold in its design, and classic in each and every word and picture You Have Killed Me is the introduction to noir that any reader will embrace. The coolest kids in class will be reading this one, trust me. And when you’re done with it, please watch Key Largo -- proof that noir doesn’t have to exist in a big city to be flat-out awesome. (High-school age only on this one -- it’s written for adults, and would best suit the fifteen-and-up crowd.) 

Ronald Kidd’s The Year of the Bomb is a mystery in the same way that Stephen King’s novella The Body (later adapted into the film Stand by Me) is one, meaning yes, but only partly. This is about another group of four boys living in a small town and navigating their way through a difficult adolescence. In this case, Paul and his friends are finding life in 1955 California to be unexpectedly exciting as a big movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is being filmed in their area. They immediately ingratiate themselves to the cast and crew, and then, through these friendships, discover that not everyone on the set is who they seem. The FBI has an undercover agent present who is investigating un-American activities in Hollywood. He is also interested in a physicist at the nearby California Institute of Technology by the name of Richard Feynman. 

That name hit me like a bombshell while reading -- as did the first mention of The Body Snatchers. Kidd does an excellent job with the history in Bomb; he really immerses his readers in the myths and realities of 1955, and with Paul, Arnie, Crank and Oz, he shows how complicated that time period could be. The boys all pride themselves on being “good” Americans and immediately become consumed with the mystery of what Feynman might be up to. They shadow him, force their way into his life and think they uncover some nasty truths -- although really none of them are sure just what they’ve found. Much closer to home, Paul struggles with secrets in his own home, and Oz reveals something unsettling that has happened in his. What seemed like a grand adventure (right out of a movie, in many respects) gets a whole lot more real as the book progresses, and who you can trust and what you can believe become the real questions that demand answers.  

Fans of Ellen Klages's The Green Glass Sea (and its sequel, White Sands, Red Menace) will feel right at home with The Year of the Bomb, and its appeal should extend far beyond fans of historical fiction to anyone who enjoys thrillers and conspiracy stories. Kidd includes a thorough author’s note in the end explaining the truth and fiction in the story, which readers will find most welcome. Overall, The Year of the Bomb wins high marks from me for how effectively the author takes the big issue of anti-Communism, and weaves it into so many smaller stories about family, friendship and trust. Paul and his friends do grow up in the end, and it is not all happily-ever-after, but the ways their eyes are opened to the world around them make for a first-rate read, and one I continue to think about even months later. Consider this one most highly recommended. 

I love a good ghost story, but they are honestly becoming harder to come by for young-adult audiences. In fact, if you want a ghostly mystery that doesn’t suck you into paranormal romance or vamps and werewolves, you are hard-pressed to find anything at all -- which is what makes Saundra Mitchell’s Shadowed Summer such a wonderful surprise. Aside from a poor cover (if that girl’s head isn’t Photoshopped on there, I’ll eat my hat), this is a very near perfect title for teens looking for a bit more spooky in their crime solving. It’s also knee-deep in Louisiana atmosphere and family secrets -- with a Ouija board and more than one cemetery visit thrown in for good measure. The final spin rocks as well, and makes it certainly a book that defines generational divides and how times change. 

Fourteen-year-old Iris and her best friend Collette survive long hot summers in small town Ondine by playing with magic. They have spell books, and create fake scary moments to while away the hours and dodge chores. Anyone who has ever played with a tarot deck is going to get what these girls are all about and understand what makes them hang out in the local cemetery and hopefully cast a homegrown spell. When Iris sees a boy who isn’t really there, however -- and he keeps coming back -- then it all gets very serious, very quickly. This ghostly “Elijah” proves to be a very angry young man who places demands upon Iris, and acts out his frustration over her slow response time. Forced to discover just who he is so she can work out what he wants, Iris enlists Collette and her new boyfriend Ben to put their teen detective skills in action. What they discover is that nothing ever really changes in Ondine, other than just how far some teens will go to escape. Even though he’s dead, Elijah is a kid in need of rescue, and if Iris can’t do it, then his frustration just might destroy what fragile hold on real life she’s got left. 

Mitchell does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension here -- I can see why Shadowed Summer was nominated for an Edgar Award. At first the spells are all fun and games, and Iris plays along with it, making things up to amuse her friends. But then Elijah proves he is not an illusion, and his habit of appearing right behind her, of sneaking up and whispering in her ear, is positively creepy in the best sort of way. Iris has no time for Collette to be mad at her, or her father to be obtuse, or for everyone to think she is just causing trouble, because Elijah is coming unglued. She has to solve this, and even though Elijah remains sympathetic until the end, he is clearly uncontrollable. Mitchell makes this entire interaction with the other side both unromantic and unappealing -- a perfect example of what it is like to be powerless and have no one believe you. (At one point Iris is sent to the parish priest to figure out just why she is going crazy.) You really feel for Iris as she tries to connect the dots, and keep everyone happy, and break every rule she has to just to get it all sorted out before someone signs commitment papers. What choice does she have if she wants to stay sane? Really, would anyone concern themselves with curfews when a dead boy is lurking around the house making demands?

Written with racecar pacing and effective use of both traditional friend and family drama, plus more than one jump out of your seat moment, Shadowed Summer is a great paranormal mystery. My only complaint is that the epilogue is too short -- I would have liked a few more pages on the fallout here, to see how everyone reacted to what they had to acknowledge was a true haunting. But that’s a small quibble in the grand scheme of things. Nicely done. 

Oddly enough, I read another ghostly mystery set in Louisiana this month as well, Ruined by Paula Morris. With all the pageantry of Mardi Gras around it, Ruined combines a lot of New Orleans history with the city’s ever-present class structure, and a nice dose of high-school hysteria thrown in for good measure. The book’s heartbeat, though, is found in two teenage girls: Rebecca, a New Yorker staying with family friends while her widower father is on overseas business, and Lisette, killed far too young and buried in a place where no one could find her. Lisette is one of the thousands of longtime ghosts haunting New Orleans, but when Rebecca unexpectedly sees her, both are jolted out of their complacency and forge a friendship that sparks questions about how Lisette died, and why she remains trapped in the city. Something has to happen so this ghost can move on, and Rebecca finds herself, strangely enough, a key component of that event. 

First and foremost, Ruined is a novel of place. It is firmly set in the city, dependent upon so many aspects of NOLA history, that I think it would be impossible in any other setting. There is a lot here about trauma in the past, and about race relations, and then, completely separately, class relations. Old money versus new money is a big part of the way the city functions, and Rebecca, from the fast world of Manhattan, is struck by how set in old ways her classmates seem content to remain. That disbelief is extended even further when she learns of a deadly curse that surrounds one of the oldest families in the area, and which of course is pretty much connected to everything else that’s going on, including Lisette’s inability to leave. 

Old connections are the key to Morris’ plot -- they are at the heart of Lisette’s murder, they link together the teenagers who initially snub and later encourage Rebecca, and it is what brings her to the city in the first place. Readers will have to suspend a bit of disbelief by how neatly everything fits together, and the ending will likely not come as a complete surprise, but the way Morris weaves together past and present while continuously steeping the plot in so much steamy Southern atmosphere is really a thing of YA mystery beauty. And Rebecca is an especially endearing heroine -- cheeky and wise, but not above being deeply impressed by a 150-year-old ghost. Read Shadowed Summer and Ruined in sequence, and you’ll get all a solid shot of what makes Louisiana such an irresistible choice for authors. 

Further from the department of happy coincidences, I found myself reading two books aimed at middle-grade readers that were set during World War II. In the very winning graphic novel City of Spies, Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan bring to life the New York City of 1942, as seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Evelyn. Dumped unceremoniously on her aunt’s doorstep, she is supposed to wait out the summer as her absentee father celebrates his latest wedding (her mother is deceased). The aunt is a party girl artist wannabe who has gobs of money but little patience. Initially Evelyn is completely adrift in this new place, but she soon meets Tony, the super’s son, and they form a tight bond built around mutual love of comic books (Evelyn is creating one) and spy hunting. After a false start, they find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy to steal important military secrets from the U.S. government. The plot zips along as the kids stay hot on the trail of the bad guys, which does not end well and finds them both in hot water -- because really, who’s going to believe a couple of kids who say they’ve uncovered a Nazi spy ring? It really, really sucks to be a kid sometimes. 

Beyond the zooming plot, though, there is a lot about City of Spies to sing about. Evelyn and Tony are a lot of fun, and their friendship makes sense -- it’s not at all forced. The supporting characters are all fleshed out here, from Evelyn’s aunt to a local police officer, to the folks in the neighborhood who all of have recurring, if slight, roles to play. Artist Pascal Dizin’s illustrations are truly outstanding -- he captures the war era perfectly while also recreating Evelyn’s own illustrations with a slightly “fuzzy” style that makes it obvious you are reading her comic, but still enjoying that retro, and personally significant, story. 

The surprise in all this is how much more than just a mystery there is to the narrative. Rather than tossing aside Evelyn’s absent father as a plot device, the authors make him a major part of the story explaining who Evelyn is (and how she interacts with her aunt). Even Brendan, the police officer, is allowed some minor drama with his older brother, a haughty federal agent. City of Spies really is a complete package -- characters who will appeal to both genders, a story that doesn’t quit, and a message of independence and confidence in the face of a lot of naysayers that is to be saluted. It’s a most satisfying read that I hope receives many accolades as the year continues. 

Elsewhere, Curtis Parkinson returns to the characters in Death in Kingsport with another historic thriller, The Castle on Deadman’s Island. This is straightforward middle-grade mystery territory, as Neil, Graham and Crescent find themselves searching a majestic house with a legendary past for Graham’s missing aunt. There is also more than one attempt on Graham’s life, a couple of unsavory characters, some boating, an underground cave, a circus room and quotes from Macbeth. Neil worries about Crescent going out with a guy who is cooler than him, and both he and Graham are concerned that a new friend might actually be in league with the unsavory characters, thus resulting in their untimely deaths. Oh, and Crescent witnesses a murder (which is never good when you’re the only good guy on an island). 

Parkinson’s strength is his characters, who come across as good but curious kids, with more than one thing in common with my classic favorites, The Three Investigators. There are not a lot of surprises, but enough to keep eyes from rolling and the pages turning. The target audience will find a bit of appealing creepiness without straying into outright scary territory, and the ending is, as it should be, pitch-perfect (and just deserts are served up). You know what you’re getting with Parkinson, and he delivers, which makes his books perfect vacation reading for bored ten-year-olds everywhere. 

Finally, for real life mysteries and the men and women who spend their entire careers solving them, I recommend settling down at the desk with Every Bone Tells a Story by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw. This look at a series of four critical hominin discoveries is the kind of science done right that should jazz up any teen with a forensic bent. The authors use straightforward prose and break the discussion down into sections entitled “Discovery,” “Deductions,” and “Debates” as they summarize the finding of four sets of bones commonly known as Turkana Boy, Lapedo Child, Kennewick Man and Iceman. The skeletons range in age from 1.6 million years (Turkana Boy, found in Kenya) to 5,300 years (Iceman, found on the Austria/Italy border). Each has a special circumstance surrounding his death and each is found in startling and often unbelievable ways. (The boys who found the skull of 9,000 year old Kennewick man on the banks of the Columbia River during a boat race are my personal favorite.) Just like the vast array of scientists involved, readers will also learn something new from each discovery. Taken as a set, however, they teach a great deal about how we perceive human history and how much we still have to learn. 

Every Bone Tells a Story is an excellent companion to Written in Bone, about the exhumation of graves in Jamestown, and Bodies from the Ice, about several ancient bodies (including Iceman) who have been found preserved in icy regions. What I especially liked about Rubalcaba and Robertshaw’s title, however, was the way they referred back and forth to the discoveries, noting similarities and differences between how each was addressed and researched. There is a whole picture provided by this text that made it quite appealing to me, and I think will certainly make it stand out for older teens interested in the vast array of disciplines focused on this sort of history.