Because October always makes me think about Ray Bradbury it seems only fitting to start this column with a particularly Bradburyesque title. All About Emily, an upcoming novelette by Connie Willis, possesses all of the unmitigated joy of Bradbury while also investigating one of his favorite topics: what it is that makes us human. It contains numerous hat tips to Old Hollywood, a rousing literary cheer for the Rockettes, and many good things are said about Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and one of the best movies of all time: Desk Set.
Claire Havilland is a Broadway legend in the near future who is fearful that the good roles are beginning to pass her by. Fooled into a confrontational meeting with ingénue Emily, niece of a famous artificial intelligence pioneer, Claire finds herself the unlikely friend and ally of a young woman who is not who she seems. As the two banter about famous movies, Claire worries that Emily is actually after her career and begins to second guess everything about her present and future. The fact that she does this while referencing classic films and their fictional remakes (Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Desk Set!) proves the author's gift for comic genius.
But just as Bradbury does so well, Willis shows a deft hand here with the issue of humanity and how it will be affected and complicated by robotics and artificial intelligence. This is largely familiar territory to anyone who ever watched an episode of Star Trek with Data in it, but Willis makes the questions fresh with the theater setting and also clearly revels in making the story as much about that world and the people who inhabit it as the more traditional science fiction topic of robotics. She writes of artificial intelligence like Bradbury wrote about Mars -- by gifting readers with characters that are unforgettable and a story that is as much about the familiar as the other. The fact that she is funny as hell in the process just makes All About Emily that much sweeter to read. It's another rousing success for Willis, which should surprise none of her many fans.
If we're going to really talk about October, though, we have to get to the scary and, for me, the stories that scare the most (and linger longest in my memory) are those that practice a level of subtlety when putting its characters in frightening situations. Yes, buckets of blood can be pretty horrifying but give me a darkened room and the feeling that you are not alone any day. Make me believe it could happen to me and I'll be terrified every time.
Marcus Sedgwick's new novel White Crow has two concurrent plot lines, one set in the modern day involving disaffected teen Rebecca and the other in the same small town in 1798 where a man of God finds himself falling to temptation. Rebecca's story carries the book and is where Sedgwick devotes most of his time but by the end her tale effectively converges with the one from the past in a final few pages that manage to be both elegantly written and horribly real. (The author's note at the end explaining the historical sources will only serve to freak readers out even more.)
At its heart, this is the story of a two teenage girls. Rebecca has relocated to the small coastal town of Winterfold for a couple of months with her father who is facing a professional crisis of epic proportions. Ferelith is effectively an orphan, a social outcast for unknown reasons, who sees in the moody Rebecca a much needed friend. But every interaction between the two girls is fraught with tension. They each have issues and the wrong word is often said, feelings are hurt, misunderstandings abound. But there is nothing to do in Winterfold and Rebecca's father is preoccupied and Ferelith is full of adventure and so bit by bit Rebecca is pulled into a world of skirting the law, treading into dangerous spaces and finding comfort in the abandoned and decrepit. Winterfold is a town on the cliffs and the ocean is slowly claiming it. Ferelith revels in the destruction while leading Rebecca again and again to the precipice, taunting her with the notion of falling into the abyss. Each succeeding day Rebecca walks closer to the edge until a devious game finds her trapped and alone and Ferelith's manic need for control is finally exposed.
Sedgwick surprised me with the ending here and kept me riveted as the relationship between the two girls unfolded. The 1798 plot line was puzzling at first but as the teens began to wander over the same historic ground, the two stories found their way toward each other. I was left both deeply impressed by Sedgwick's writing skill and the manner in which he brought a sinister air to a tale that could have been about violent teen hijinks but is actually more about the dangers of desperation. Ferelith is relentless and Rebecca, barely coping with her own issues, is ill equipped to help her. Forced to face her demons in the dark she realizes this but also recognizes herself in the other girl and wonders if she has also gone too far down a dark path of loneliness to ever find a way back. The White Crowis absolutely, terrifyingly brilliant.
Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood has a title that raises the expectations of the reader, and thankfully this thoroughly original ghost story does not disappoint. (How long has it been since I've read a convincing teen ghost story? Ages and ages.) Cas is a teenage ghost hunter -- he finds them and kills them with a knife that belonged to his heroically murdered ghosthunting father. Blake clears the stumbling block of how-do-you-kill-someone-who-is-dead? in the very beginning by showing why the knife is so important. For a variety of reasons, certain ghosts are not ready to go and regardless of their decent natures while alive, they now murder with abandon. Cas listens to local myths, travels cross-county with his wiccan mother, and dispatches the dangerous dead with skill and precision. The fact that this mission means he doesn't have much a life is to be expected but just as Buffy found the Scooby gang in Sunnydale, Cas's latest job in Thunder Bay, Michigan brings him a lot more than he expects as well.
Up front we learn that Anna is a ghost that Cas has to kill. She haunts a house, supposedly where she lived, and is suspected of killing dozens of unlucky drifters and stupid people who go looking for her legend. In a dress of dripping blood she is the big scary monster that makes the teenagers in Thunder Bay look twice while out alone at night. Cas gets everything he needs to know about her in the first few days after he hits town and thinks he has it all figured out. Unfortunately he can't help making an enemy of one jealous jock while making friends with one beautiful popular girl. When he finds himself on Anna's turf it is a less than advantageous position and as the blood starts flowing he can only watch in horror at just what this very disturbed ghost is capable of.
Blake does a great job of making ghosts terrifying and her descriptions of their lucid moments makes the bad things that follow only that much more disturbing. People die in some truly gruesome ways in Anna Dressed in Blood, but really, that's what happens in horror stories and Blake is giving her readers what they expect. Don't worry about it being gratuitous, though; there is a detailed back story to every violent act and the author relishes in bringing those forward and showing how twisted memories can become in the afterlife. Anna's story, of course, is the most compelling and as Cas teases it out of her he and his friends find themselves shocked and appalled by the truth behind the legend. By the time they get that far of course they are all separately invested in the outcome of her story and torn between just what the right thing is to do.
Beyond the smart horror, Blake uses a lot of humor here as well, nodding to some infamous horror tropes (how many of us have chanted "Bloody Mary" in the bathroom mirror during slumber parties?), and also whistling in the dark during more fearful moments. (Cas considers that if he and Anna were in a fairy tale they would not be Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty but rather "the fricking dragon and the wicked fairy.") The supporting cast comes together in a timely and believable fashion, and none of the friendships is fake or forced. In face Blake does an excellent job of writing all of the high school scenes and jettisons the easy tropes for a realism that is sadly lacking in a lot of YA these days. She doesn't rush to the finish line, adults are honest and sincere, and everybody has a motivation you can understand, even the kids you kind of hate. All of this combined makes Anna Dressed in Blood one of the most surprising titles I've read all year. I could hardly put it down and highly recommend it.
Only a few months ago I reviewed Clay and Susan Griffith's first book in the Vampire Empire series, The Greyfriar. Their follow-up, The Rift Walker, takes readers deeper into this alternate world where vampires dominate Europe and fight a deadly war against humans for power and territory. Human heroine Princess Adele is inches away from a political marriage arranged by her father with the bombastic American hero Senator Clark, while the vampire prince Gareth struggles to keep his Greyfriar identity a secret while he fights with his deadly brother for control of their dying father's empire. The fact that Adele and Gareth are madly in love (in a most unsparkly kind of way) makes everything they do a little bit more complicated. They also both believe there must be a way for vampires and humans to forge middle ground -- as long as the vamps give up that whole raising humans for food thing and humans back off of the "only good vampire is a dead vampire" doctrine. It doesn't help that a lot of people are invested in the war for devious purposes and crossing lines, making backroom deals and largely playing a massive game of brinkmanship that no one else has a clue about. Plus there's the whole magic thing that Adele has going on but can't control and the people who are supposed to help her on that score have their own secret desires as well. This is one intense universe the Griffiths are writing, that's for sure.
Everything that worked well in The Greyfriar is back and better in The Rift Walker. From a somewhat rushed and romantic attraction for Adele and Gareth in the first book, we now have a careful and measured acceptance of a romance that both are committed to, regardless of all its attendant complications. Clark returns as the boorish arrogant neocon readers came to loathe but proves this go-round also to be a smart and canny ally who cannot be ignored; he has more than one good moment in this book and is certainly someone to grudgingly cheer for. The biggest part of the story though is the turncoats who orchestrate a devastating coup in Adele's Equatorian Empire and align themselves with the vampires all in the name of saving humanity. Politicians can never be trusted, the Griffiths make clear, as if we needed reminding of that eternal truth.
Vampire Empire continues to be the best sort of grown-up vampire title, a tonic to those who lament the days when vamps were smart and scary and unconcerned with adolescent yearnings. The political deals and machinations are complex, the alliances fraught with complications and the friendships both noble and dangerous. Plus Adele and Gareth are both sexy and cool as they sort out how to be together and save the world. I'm fully onboard with this series; along with Martin Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl, it is at the forefront of just how exciting truly original paranormal can be.
Finally, Beth Kephart uses a subtle but still terrifying approach in her story of two young women seeking the truth, You Are My Only. This is the tale of teenage Sophie who was kidnapped as an infant and now begins to question why her "mother" has always insisted she be homeschooled and kept in the house with paranoid tales of strangers who will try to steal her away. In alternate chapters readers learn about Emmy, the twenty-year-old young woman who suffered a nervous breakdown after her baby was stolen. Sophie's story combines a bit of Nancy Drew detective work, some close calls as she uncovers hidden clues and a cute boy next door who persuades her to break the rules and pursue a large life. But Emmy's story is much more disturbing as her abusive husband promptly blames her for the lost child and assists in an investigation that culminates in Emmy's involuntary commitment in a state asylum. Back and forth readers go, from Sophie hiding up in the attic to see the outside world and sneaking down basement stairs in search of sealed boxes while Emmy struggles to maintain her hold on sanity in a place where being sane is a detriment and where no one will hear you scream.
You Are My Only stands firmly in thriller territory and will likely draw many readers, especially those who fondly recall The Face on the Milk Carton. But Kephart has a talent for beautiful writing and gives readers many gifts here, from candid conversations about the works of Willa Cather to a poem written for Johannes Kepler. (Remember, Sophie is home schooled.) All of her supporting characters are thoughtful and layered, even the kidnapper, and the relationships Emmy and Sophie build with the people they encounter are both believable and true. It should particularly be noted that Kephart creates a kind and lovely lesbian couple who live next door and are crucial to Sophie's wellbeing. The author makes it clear that a family is a place of safety and hope and Helen and Cloris are exactly that for Sophie as she finds the courage to reach out for the truth. Here's hoping their sincere portrayal proves to be a similar beacon to their many readers.
I will confess that part of why You Are My Only appealed to me so much is that ever since The Yellow Wallpaper I have carried a healthy fear of the stories of women who are driven insane by the care of others. The fact that the asylum Kephart writes about is based on a real and horrible place (Byberry Asylum, in Philadelphia), doesn't help assuage my fears. In the end both Sophie and Emmy are young women who live in fear through no fault of their own and must struggle against great odds to find the truth without losing their minds in the process. In this very intense psychological thriller they take chances and most importantly do not give up. I like that in any novel and find a lot to admire in a book that gives me not just one but two young women to admire. The fact that Kephart accomplishes this in the midst of writing about a cute boy, a dog, some kite flying and classic literature is all par for the course for her fans but will impress many new readers who show up for the thrills this time. (And do read about Byberry if you get a chance -- it's about as scary as it gets.)
COOL READ: More than once over the years I have wondered into the topic of cryptozoology and wondered just how much of it was true. Having grown up on the possibility of the Loch Ness monster (and still bummed that the picture was faked), I have a soft spot for what might be out there, somewhere, that we haven't found yet. (The whole coelacanth discovery keeps all of us wondering what we have missed.) Author Kelly Milner Halls dives headfirst into the mother of all cryptid legends with her latest title, In Search of Sasquatch. With full color pictures of footprints, ancient artifacts and a still from the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film, she keeps readers turning the pages and meeting the people who believe.
What's nice is that so many of these people are scientists or professionals in their respective fields (for example Hollywood special effects expert Bill Munns talks about why he believes the film is not a hoax) and Halls interviews them in the same way you would address a more mundane topic like bees or whales. She makes a believer out of her readers not by insisting the Sasquatch is real but by presenting enough evidence that you start to wonder how you ever doubted. In Search of Sasquatch is a fun, thoughtful and exceedingly well designed title that will appeal beyond its middle grade audience. Reluctant teen readers will especially enjoy this one as they start to question their own preconceived notions about what the woods are hiding and how they might contribute to its discovery.
Colleen Mondor writes about sorts of literary matters at chasingray.com. Her book, The Map of My Dead Pilots about Alaska aviation is due out next month.