October 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Secrets, Secrets, Secrets

Secrets, secrets, secrets. Is there anything more fun then a little bit of mystery in your reading, especially at this dark time of the year? One of the best things about steampunk is the adventure (although like any other trend it can suffer horribly from derivative stories that retread all the fog of Victorian London with robot Sherlock Holmes and threatened Martian invasion -- if you are writing this book right now, I apologize). But steampunk with dangerous, long-held secrets is way better. Andrew Mayer has secrets aplenty with The Falling Machine, the first book in The Society of Steam series. Set in 1880s New York with an industrial group of Avengers-type heroes, The Falling Machine is as much about technological hijinks as it is about greed and pride and hubris. It is also about socialite Sarah Stanton whose father is the rich and famous Industrialist, leader of the Paragons. Sarah is supposed to be a good girl and do what her father says, but when a dear family friend is assassinated in front of her, she refuses to step aside. Everything is not right among the Paragons, and Sarah notices all the little fissures and cracks among the superheroes and how easily they have made themselves vulnerable to attack -- possibly from within.

There is a solid mystery in The Falling Machine and some first-rate world building that uses historical New York as a platform to go in intriguing directions. "Tom" the mechanical man who has worked for years with the Paragons, is the only one Sarah can trust as everyone else becomes a suspect in a plot that involves not just taking down the heroes but stealing their power source and laying the city bare to a takeover of Lex Luthor-like proportions. Sarah is the one who knows too much and thus must be controlled and married off as quickly as possible. It's all straight out of an Edith Wharton novel (except for Tom of course), as Sarah spends days dithering in her room wondering if she should try and save the city or not. (Even the heroine in a Wharton novel would have made a rope ladder out of the sheets and escaped.) But he pulls the plot out of the fire when his heroine takes to streets and finds her inner Paragon. There's a killer cliffhanger ending but the second book, Hearts of Smoke and Steam, is out this month, so you won't be on the edge of your seat for long.

Cherie Priest continues her outstanding Clockwork Century series with a trip to Louisiana in Ganymede where keeping the lid on secrets is part of daily life. The Civil War is still raging, Seattle is still buried under a deadly gas that turns people into the undead, and life is generally rough all around. But in New Orleans, Josephine Early, her brother, and their friends have gotten their hands on a top secret Confederate weapon that just might swing things the Union's way and finally -- finally -- bring about an end to the war. They just need someone to pilot it, and that is where air pirate Andan Cly (from Boneshaker) and his crew come into the picture. If Cly will do what Josephine needs, in spite of their complicated history, then things could change for the better. Of course that will happen only if the Texians who control the city don't stop him first, and if the Confederates don't get their weapon back, and if the undead roaming down by the river don't overwhelm all of them.

Fans of Priest's earlier novels will be delighted to see Cly back with a big role here, as well as cameos from Briar Wilkes, Mercy Lynch, Texian Ranger Horatio Korman, and even an update on Croggon Hainey. Priest continues to mine history as she builds her Clockwork Century world and with everyone from Marie Laveau to Confederate inventor H.L. Hunley to descendants of Jean Lafitte worked into the text she keeps her alt-history close enough to the real thing for readers to enjoy the deviations. More than anything though it is sheer pleasure to see how Priest keeps the plot rolling as she introduces even more memorable characters and drops them into demanding situations. There are battle scenes aplenty (with both the living and the dead), and questions about allies and spies and the tension inherent in any plot when everything hinges on whether or not a weapon can be aimed at the enemy before it kills those trying to operate it. (If you're familiar with Hunley's actual work then this concern will not surprise you.)

While the steampunk inventions remain worthy of attention, the biggest appeal remains the characters Priest excels at creating. The spying and counter spying that was so prevalent in Dreadnought is key to the Ganymede's allure and the questions about who is on whose side (and what can be done about the zombies) keep readers guessing. The killer secret unveiled in the final pages about a supporting character is truly a gift from Priest to her readers. There are a lot of lazy writers out there who think steampunk is a quick way to tell a tale, but Cherie Priest isn't one them. This is alternative history storytelling at its finest and she is a blend of Verne, Doyle, and dare I say it -- Louisa May Alcott. The action is here, the mysteries, but also the gender balance among strong characters (both leading and supporting) is very nearly unprecedented. (That would be where the shout out to Alcott comes in.) I have yet to be disappointed by the Clockwork Century, and Ganymedemight be the strongest entry yet in the series.

For younger teens, there are two recent releases that blend subtle mysteries with coming-of-age themes. Both Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor and The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar conjured up memories of Elizabeth Enright's best, making them quieter mysteries (no zombies here for sure) but also the sort of stories that readers can become immersed in and just might stoke those latent detective tendencies that dwell within us all. Good, thoughtful fun, which is often overlooked because it seems so easy to write, but tougher and tougher to accomplish in the age of vampires.

The Visconti House is a traditional ghost story with fourteen-year-old Laura moving with her artsy parents into what the town considers a historic haunted house. She's an odd fit at school, in the way anyone from an unorthodox family can be (there are schoolyard comments about the funky dress of her parents' visiting singer and actor friends), but the outsider trope is beaten to death here. Laura is bored with classroom dramas and not interested in participating beyond the minimal amount necessary to avoid being ostracized. The days blend into each other in a forgettable manner until her curiosity is piqued by her house's unknown history. She ends up befriending her neighbor Leon, who is definitely too odd to fit in at school. Leon is also fascinated by the house's history and together they start conducting research in libraries, cemeteries, and neighborhood locales, to find out why the house was built and what became of the people who lived there. That story is decidedly romantic in the best sort of Masterpiece Theatre vein, and Laura and Leon discover it in the methodical and determined way that any budding detective will appreciate. Is there a romantic spark or two for them? Certainly, but more importantly, Laura comes to appreciate the respect of her family and friends, the value of Leon, and also those classmates who choose her friendship not for calculated reasons but genuine ones. This is something we all need to learn (and relearn), but Edgar effectively dodges the lure of the message book by crafting such an engaging mystery and including excellent supporting characters, especially among the many adults who people Laura's and Leon's worlds.

In Sparrow Road, the deep secret is much more personal as twelve-year-old Raine and her mother leave her grandfather's home for a summer at an artists' colony (artists are very popular in teen fiction lately). Raine's mother will not explain why she has taken a cook's job there or why Raine is supposed to remain at the colony and not visit the nearby town. Even more annoying, she won't acknowledge the obvious friendship she has with the colony's manager, a very mysterious man who strikes Raine, a curious kid, as cold and unfeeling, and yet runs the colony with aplomb and is highly respected -- ample fodder for her imagination. Raine knows there is something going on and she is determined to figure it out.

As it turns out, the secret in Sparrow Road upends Raine's world in multiple ways. But as much as O'Connor makes the book about that secret, she also has a lot of fun with the quirky personalities of the many denizens of the colony and introduces the idea of community and kindness into the life of a young girl who is suddenly faced with questions about where she belongs in the world. There is also a bit of a larger mystery at work as to how the many people at the colony are related and the ways in which some of them share a common past. Raine works her way through all of this, with the help of several friends, and while there are certainly more than a few prickly moments she proves why uncovering finding the truth is always the important thing.

I finished both The Visconti House and Sparrow Road with a sense of satisfaction, both in how the novels were written and also in the respect the authors showed their readers. These are not books where things happen to the characters, but rather those where the protagonists bring about change through their own questions and actions. The characters are smart and determined kids who don't take no for an answer, which made me want to cheer more than once. I love paranormal and steampunk and the whole world of science fiction and fantasy, but realistic novels with kids who get the job done are very special too.

And finally, David R. Godine has rereleased Anne Lindbergh's sweet paean to friendship and life in the city, The People in Pineapple Place. Set in early 1980s Georgetown the middle grade novel follows August Brown who has relocated to Washington, D.C. with his newly divorced mother after leaving his much beloved father and all of his friends back in rural Vermont. With a long spring vacation ahead of him (it's an oddly long break which is my only quibble with the narrative; I don't remember having a month off in the spring!), August spends time ducking the attention of his preoccupied twenty-something au pair and exploring the neighborhood in a very Harriet the Spy kind of way. Early on he discovers the residents of nearby Pineapple Place, which include a group of kids near his age all of whom are eager to make friends. August is delighted, many hijinks ensue and all seems right with the world -- except no one can see the kids but August and no one has ever heard of Pineapple Place. Fortunately Lindbergh doesn't keep us guessing long and August forces some answers from his friends. As it turns out, they seem to travel through time with their houses and street entirely intact wherever they land. The kids have been frozen age-wise since 1939 and August is simply their latest lark, and a welcome albeit temporary addition to their days. He, of course, thinks this is awesome and off they go on more adventures about the town.

Lindbergh does not bother explaining how the Pineapple Place bunch has managed not to age or how they travel. It's all up to one of the residents (a crusty sort), and that's all there is to it. The how of it is not the point here, anyway; The People in Pineapple Place is about a boy whose life has been turned upside down and the friends he makes who help him settle in. It is also a love story about living in the city, something exceedingly rare in teen fiction, and while decidedly set in 1982 (with a fun foray back to the pre-WWII era), it has a contemporary realistic feel. Nothing terrifying happens in this book, nothing horrifying or disturbing. The divorce is tough, but August learns to voice his feelings and navigate an honest path with his mother who is a wonderful sort of parent who gives him the kind of freedom that most tweens dream about. The most refreshing thing about this novel was how I didn't have to worry about it -- the kids have their big secret but it's a fun secret, a secret of parks and picnics and skating down the halls of the National Gallery. It's a secret that hurts no one and readers are allowed to simply enjoy how the friendships unfold and the revelations are made. The People of Pineapple Place is a perfect title for precocious younger readers who want a secret, but not something to worry about. (And Harriet the Spy wouldn't be a bad purchase either!)

COOL READ: I rarely see a book for teens that addresses world religions in a way that is not message-based. For those wishing to find the facts, and only the facts, on a plethora of belief systems, it is often only in the adult shelves that answers can be found. If you're not ready for five hundred pages on the history of Christianity however, DK has come to the rescue with What Do You Believe? Subtitled Religion and Faith in the World Today, it sports DK's usual superior design with full color illustrations, photos, multiple sidebars, text boxes, and eye-catching fonts. It includes the histories of the major religions, special traditions, holy texts, and a lot of other information from food to clothing to holidays. It's all laid out in a brisk informative fashion that highlights similarities between the groups (those between Christians, Muslims, and Jews will likely be striking) while also noting specific differences. Most importantly, however, it is how the information is conveyed in a matter-of-fact tone that addresses common questions ("What happens when religion meets science?" or "What is morality?") with answers that invite further study. What Do You Believe? is exactly what it purports to be; a textbook example of the right way to investigate a touchy subject in a manner that never forgets the purpose is to educate. Well done!