October 2010

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

I See a Darkness

Martin Millar successfully returns to the world of werewolves, mayhem and fashion crises in Curse of the Wolf Girl, a sequel to his earlier title, Lonely Werewolf Girl. Readers must -- must -- read the books in order to have a clue what is going on, but with that caveat, you can sit back and enjoy the ongoing trials and tribulations of the MacRinnach werewolf clan with glee. There is also a lot here about remedial college, comic books, opera, pop music, and how to get your fashion line reviewed by very popular couture bloggers. That all these disparate storylines are cohesively held together is something any writer would find difficult to accomplish, but Millar does it, and he provides a very powerful narrative that never strays from its thriller roots.

So don’t let the fashion bits scare you -- this is a werewolf story where people get their arms torn off with abandon, promise.

Wolf Girl takes up soon after the events of the previous title. The MacRinnach clan is now led by surviving son Markus, who is happy to assume the mantle of werewolf leadership, but struggling to find a woman who understands his predilection for occasionally dressing in female clothing. His younger sister, 17-year-old Kalix, is living in London with her human friends as well as Fire Elemental Vex, who is the bubbliest teenage girl imaginable, if you accept that she is not human. Vex is well on her way to being adopted by Queen Malveria and thus become heir to a Fire Elemental throne -- which currently has no other heirs (a bone of contention among Malveria’s court). The queen is not too worried about heirs, as she would rather busy herself with matters of fashion, a subject her friend Thrix is only too happy to endlessly discuss with her. Thrix, sister to Markus and Kalix, is hoping to become a famous designer, and wishes that MacRinnach clan politics would leave her alone so she could focus on what really matters -- her business. Cousin Dominil becomes concerned about the increasingly bold activities of werewolf hunters in London and turns to Thrix, who is not only a werewolf but also wields some powerful magical ability, to fight back. Thrix isn’t so sure this is a good idea, but Markus is, unofficially, all for it. Dominil, desperate to have something to do that doesn’t involve monitoring alcoholic ninny werewolf cousins Butix and Delix and their pop band (think Paris Hilton, and you have these two pegged) is all too happy to go to war. Soon enough there is an unexpected werewolf casualty, and everything then blows up -- in a big way.

Oh -- plus, there are werewolves seeking revenge for the events in the last book; Malveria’s hold on her throne is under serious threat; and a lot of action is propelled by the desire of many people for a certain pair of high fashion boots -- and how preoccupied you can become about obtaining them. And Kalix and Dominil are both addicted to laudanum. And Kaylix and Vex are going to get cutoff financially if they don’t do well in school, which is way easier said then done. And then there’s Decembrius who is a werewolf who gets visions and likes Kaylix. And there’s a comic book and Hello Kitty and the opera.

So what happens? The point of view changes many times, the plot threads come fast and furious, and yet very carefully everything converges at once. It is funny as hell, smart and snappy, pushy and bold in all the right ways, and downright outlandish. Yet this is also a sweet title about friendship, a romantic comedy in more ways then one, and it’s about an incredibly dysfunctional family that nonetheless tries to pull it together. Plus there are bad guys with silver bullets and there are encounters with tooth and claw and there are moments -- more than one -- where Kaylix or Dominil or Thrix or Malveria kick some full on major ass. We’re talking girl power in a serious way -- not silly, but hardcore-serious, kill-you-dead-for-trying-to-kill-me, kind of way. Plus the guys don’t do half bad either. Fun, that’s what Curse of the Wolf Girl is, major, major fun. I just enjoyed the hell out of this book and I think you would too.

I used to love vampire novels back when they were about vampires, and not humans having (or wanting, but not having) sex with vampires. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.) Elizabeth Bear has created a great vampire series centered around Don Sebastien de Ulloa and returns with The White City to remind me all the reasons why vamps can be great characters and elevate the simply well written to downright delicious. (I did not mean to slip a food metaphor in there. It just happened. Honest.)

Following on the events of  New Amsterdam, but easily able to stand alone, White City finds Sebastien back in Moscow along with his “court”: forensic sorceress Abigail Irene and author Phoebe Smith. It is a bittersweet return, as all of them are mourning the death of the fourth member of their group, Sebastien’s longtime friend, Jack Priest. Moscow holds particular memories of Jack, and through flashbacks, Bear shares events from the last time he and Sebastien were there, and introduces old friends who are now threatened in the present, and ask the vampire for help.

What I particularly like about Bear’s stories is that she does not stray from crafting tight mysteries to get sucked into the imagined seamier side of vamp life. There are relationships here, and she doesn’t shy away from them, but the main crux of the story is that someone was killed, someone was convicted of murder and executed for it, and now, years later, Sebastien learns that the truth has long been hidden. The fact that Jack was intimately involved in the events only makes the case that much more personal. Sebastien and his court are hunting truth and amidst all the twists and turns of Russian life, they are relentless in that pursuit.

I should also note that Bear does an excellent job of weaving LGBT themes into her literature -- relationships are old and powerful, and built for many reasons ranging from love to power, but gender is not one of them. It is refreshing to see an author handle this so deftly, so easily and with such little drama. Oh, that real life could be so simple.

National Geographic recently waded into the vampire morass with an actual nonfiction title that looks at the cultural and literary history of the creature. It manages to be not only entertaining, but incredibly informative. All those paranormal readers who have been aching to write about a vamp title for school really need to get their hands on a copy of Vampire Forensics -- I doubt any teacher will be able to dismiss the seriousness of the subject matter, or the very professional way in which author Mark Collins Jenkins has researched and written this thorough history.

Jenkins is a historian, and he treats his subject with scholarly respect, which I appreciated a great deal. As he makes clear, vampire legends permeate human history, especially in Europe, so there has to be something to them. Whether or not it is the dark romance of Count Dracula is one thing, but there is something out there -- some combination of medical marvel, superstition, literary license and downright creepiness that makes this a legend not so easy to dismiss. By investigating folklore and forensics, history and literature, he proves that this is a subject far too large to ignore and well worth our time and attention. Really interesting people have contributed to vampire lore over the years, and having all of them and so much more brought together in one title -- written in a general manner any aficionado would enjoy -- makes Vampire Forensics a winner for me. It’s a vamp title teens should love, and I hope it finds its way into their eager hands. (See? History can be wicked cool.)

For middle grade readers I came across two different but enjoyable novels that are tailor-made for the fall season. The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee is the author’s first novel since his wonderful Steinbeck’s Ghost, and again he provides just enough paranormal content to make things a wee bit spooky while mostly focusing on a realistic problem -- in this case, the Victorian-era kidnapping of children off the streets of London for use in forced labor. Printer’s daughter Meg Pickel has been worried about her missing brother Orion for months. He disappeared one night from the family home, and while her parents are worried, there seems little the police can or will do. One night Meg goes looking for him on her own, and stumbles onto a seance where she sees Orion -- and also bumps into Charles Dickens, who is walking the night streets while suffering from writer’s block. Dickens, a family friend, agrees that the seance raises questions that can not be ignored, and soon enough the pair are in pursuit of those who dabble in ghostly communication -- which brings them in contact with an actual ghost. From there, the whole Pickel family gets on board, and all sorts of ugly truths about London’s sordid underbelly are revealed -- not the least of which is that there are a lot of missing children in the city, most of them poor, and other than their families, no one seems to care.

Buzbee excels at keeping the narrative moving, something I am sure his readers appreciate a great deal. This is historical fiction that could be very dry -- we’re talking Dickens, for heaven’s sake! -- and yet it flies along with all sorts of thrilling moments, recovered clues, the discovery of lies and a ton of witty wordplay. Meg is a classic plucky heroine (right down to her decision to dress in her brother’s clothes so she can gather more information), and Dickens is endlessly curious and determined. As the Pickels move about London in search of Orion, Buzbee steeps his plot is the atmosphere of the age with rich descriptions of everything from food to technology. There is not a single wasted word, and while the night is dark and the ghostly apparitions cause for both fear and hope, Meg perseveres to get her family back together. In the end, Dickens even gets his writing mojo back. Add in excellent illustrations by Greg Ruth, and this one is truly great fun. Buzbee has now managed to make me excited about both Steinbeck and Dickens -- I wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible.

Amber Benson’s Among the Ghosts is a much more straightforward ghost story; in fact, there are several ghosts from start to finish in this contemporary novel set in a boarding school during summer break. Readers quickly meet one young ghost who then disappears under mysterious circumstances. From there it is on to the decidedly alive Noleen, or Noh, who is off to her aunt’s (she runs the boarding school) while dad goes on an entomological expedition. (Mom’s death is explained early on.) The vacation faculty at the New Newbridge Academy is on the quirky side (to be expected), the school has some strange/gothic/abandoned architecture (to be expected), and Noh is as curious as she is plucky (totally to be expected). What wraps this one up in a bow is that the kid ghosts are there for a reason (and have distinct personalities), and the expected team-up of Noh and the ghost crew has them going against a big baddie who certainly deserves his comeuppance. So basically this is popcorn reading for the tween set, and really, what more could you ask for on a dark and stormy October night? Noh is funny and fearless in the best tradition of Trixie Belden, and honestly the ghosts are well worth getting to know as well. Sina Grace’s illustrations are spot on, although I do wish cover artist Jason Chan had not gone so spooky -- he misrepresents the ghosts big time, and Benson could lose some readers who think it’s more The Exorcist then preteen Casper.

What really made Among the Ghosts click for me, though, was an interesting authorial style. Benson is straightforward when writing about what normally would garner a great deal of drama and handwringing. Noh’s father goes away, and yet her one aunt doesn’t get the message to take care of her. Off she goes to the next aunt, where there is, of course, no one to meet her at the station. So she starts walking to the school where she has a creepy run-in with a strange woman in a cemetery (of course!). Noh soldiers along through all of this, and Benson makes it clear that really, there is no reason to expect her to behave otherwise. And soon enough, readers decide that yes -- she really is this brave, and everyone should get out of her way so she can sensibly save this little corner of the world. It’s all quite refreshing and enjoyable, and with one loophole still left dangling at the end, I do hope Among the Ghosts is simply the beginning of a new series.

As this is the month for truly embracing scary stories, I do want to mention a couple of anthologies that, while not aimed at the YA market, are certainly fine for older teens. Make sure you note that caveat, though -- these anthologies are for the upper end of the age spectrum, and should be considered best for older high school students. (As well as every adult on the planet who loves well written creepiness!) The stories I specifically mention here are teen-friendly for the YA crowd in general.

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Ellen Datlow, showcases a multitude of excellent authors, as well as a thorough summation of 2009’s horror highlights from novels to magazines to chapbooks. I was again bowled over by Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Lowland Sea,” which looks at how the decadent rich react to a deadly epidemic. Let’s just say that a party you can never leave gets very old, very quickly. Steve Eller’s “The End of Everything” is another zombie tale which tells us who the zombies would be afraid of (for good reason), and Glen Hirshberg’s excellent “The Nimble Men” is one of the few horror tales to take place in a cockpit (albeit this plane is on the ground) since The Twilight Zone. I’ve seen the Northern Lights, people -- I don’t trust them either, and Hirshberg really does a great job of capturing all their cold winter weirdness. And don’t miss “In the Porches Of My Ears” by Norman Prentiss, a chilling brief encounter that reminds us when you think something, is wrong trust your gut and flee! Even if you’re in a movie theater and it seems stupid to wig out over something so small -- run like the wind, people. Fear can be your friend in these situations.

In Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, also edited by Ellen Datlow (she’s fabulous, by the way), a lot of familiar names like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman, and Kelly Link are present for a collection that runs the gamut on subject and style. Straub’s contribution, “The Juniper Tree,” is a real-world story about a boy in a movie theater, and the man who befriends him for nefarious purposes. (Yes, it's what you think.) Artfully told, this devastating look into the heart of a young victim will tear you apart, not just for what happens to him, but for why he was alone and looking for friendship in the first place. (It ends staggeringly well -- I can’t recommend this one enough. And I think it is pitch-perfect for teens.) George R.R. Martin shows that paranoia exists for a reason in “The Pear-Shaped Man,” and Dan Simmons will make geeks in particular rejoice with “Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds,” which considers what happens after an engineering team is culpable in an accident.

Kelly Link contributes what has become a modern classic: “The Specialist’s Hat.” This exploration of childhood and games is exceptional in the way it casually builds tension over the course of a single evening with two little girls and their babysitter. Nothing obvious, nothing horrifying and then the end knocks you down with epic force. Words should not be able to accomplish such visceral reactions and yet, with Link, they often do. She’s awesome -- period. As to Elizabeth Hand’s “The Erl-King,” all I can say is that she is the only writer, with perhaps the exception of Richard Bowes, who could possibly combine a reminiscence of Andy Warhol’s Factory and Arthur Rackham’s fairy tale paintings with -- bonus -- rock and roll, teen angst and the danger lurking in a hot summer night. There is also a nod to Goethe because, well, because this is Liz Hand writing about two young girls who go looking for a lost pet, and find instead a man who made a very bad deal decades before that is now coming due. “The Erl-King” has a heroine and doomed dancing girl circa Angela Chase and Rayanne Graff, a narrative that winds from scrapbooks full of dazed hippie confusion to peeks of fairy creatures slyly nodding in the wings. It is about what you would give for your fifteen minutes of fame, and will make readers ponder their own wishes and bargains. Even though this is an early tale from Hand, it continues to prove that, along with Link, she writes some of the deepest, most profound, and dazzling fiction today for teens.

Finally, Jamie S. Rich has written a deliciously dangerous graphic novel about some truly evil teen witches with Spell Checkers. Illustrated by Nicolas Hitori De in a wide-eyed and edgy style that defies comparisons to either manga or superhero comics, what we have here is the story of Jessie, Kimmie, and Cynthiam who are in possession of a powerful spell book (we get the backstory on how they got that puppy -- it's not pretty), and use it for all the reasons any high school student would: excel in all courses without studying, torment their classmates, and capture the heart and soul of anyone they want. Make no doubt about it, these girls are neither Sabrina, the Halliwell sisters, nor Willow (except maybe on her worst Season 6 day). They are petty and selfish and decidedly bratty, and as the plot unfolds and the girls find themselves suddenly the victims of pranks that in the past would be unheard of, they quickly turn on each other. Paranoia runs rampant, devilish tricks are played, every mean girl thing you can imagine is said, and in the end, as the final plot twist is unfurled, they prove themselves to be even meaner than you thought they could be.

Of course that’s how they win, but any teenage girl would know to expect that (and, indeed, will be waiting for it to happen).

If I had to make a comparison I would say that Spell Checkers is what would have happened if the Heathers had magical powers. This is a guilty pleasure because you are rooting for characters who truly have no redeeming features other than a basic feral smartness and determination to survive. Do I hope they get their comeuppance in a future volume? Sure I do. But I’m not holding my breath. Rich knows what he has here, and it’s too much fun to end anytime soon.

COOL READS: If we’re going to look at truly scary books, then we need to consider some real-life dark moments like those presented in They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Baroletti. The author traces the terror group’s powerful rise in the post-Civil War era by going back to the very beginning, and the six men who sat one night in Tennessee and decided to start a social club. Whether or not those former Confederate soldiers intended for their society to devolve in one of the most powerful terrorist organizations in history is up for debate (and Baroletti admits will likely never be known for sure), but the unspeakable actions that followed can not be denied. Thousands of people were terrified, beaten, and murdered by the men in the white robes, and the manner in which local and state governments turned a blind eye to their activities (or protected and helped them) is truly appalling.

If you ever wondered what the federal government can do that the states will not, then you need to know the history of the Ku Klux Klan.

Full of photos and illustrations, quotes from those who embraced the Klan, those who were pressured to join under threat of death (this surprised me), and its numerous victims, are spread throughout the pages. The copious bibliography and notes are impressive, and the author’s personal notes in particular must be read to fully appreciate the nature of Baroletti’s dedication to this work.

They Called Themselves the KKK strips the Klan of all hyperbole. You might choose to believe that such hate lives only in history, but Baroletti makes it all too clear how easily anyone can fall for the promise of power and fear of the unknown. Consider this quote from W. E. B. Du Bois:

These human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something… Of What? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children, of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime.

Klan members murdered because they were afraid of crimes that were never committed. If you can wrap your head around that, then you can see just how terrible they truly were, and why we need to understand them.

In a similar vein, Rick Bowers tackles one of the lesser known aspects of the Civil Rights Movement with Spies of Mississippi. By revealing all of the secrets of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, he shows readers how state employees using taxpayer funds worked to preserve segregation throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. With a litany of famous names from James Meredith to Medgar Evers, to Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, he weaves his narrative in and out of familiar history with little known secrets about spies (both black and white), private detectives and politicians who worked to undermine equality and protect terrorists and murderers. This is America at its calculated worst, and proof that those who stood up to it possessed an almost unbelievable bravery. I don’t know how they did it, any of them; I don’t know where such courage is born.

For finding a fresh take on such a well documented era, Bowers deserves a lot of credit, and it is easy to recommend Spies as a teaching tool on multiple levels. Having said that, I must point out my disappointment both in the poor design (for a National Geographic title in particular, I can’t believe the paucity of photos and ephemera), and the manner in which the narrative slips from one episode to another, leaving readers with far too little information about all of them. Spies of Mississippi is an introduction to the Sovereignty Commission, nothing more. Here’s hoping the great book teens need on this subject will still be written.