June 2012

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Young Indiana Joneses

If you're looking for a great escape this summer, you absolutely have to pick up Robin Wasserman's recent thriller The Book of Blood and Shadow. Comparisons have abounded to Dan Brown's juggernaut The Da Vinci Code (I would also make the case for The Eight by Katherine Neville), and while the plot of a scholarly uncovering of a centuries-old secret prompting attacks from dueling religious societies hellbent on achieving their own aims is certainly in that vein, there is something far more powerful going on in The Book of Blood and Shadow. At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story about first love and friendship. It carries the same themes of any realistic fiction about the perils of high school. In the midst of all the excitement, protagonist Nora must deal with distant parents, squabbling friends, and heady romance. While she dodges assassins and translates Latin on the fly, her mind is always partly on the questionable loyalties of the people she is supposed to be able to trust. In every way that matters, it's the twelfth grade all over again; Nora just has to solve a murder and stay alive on top of traditional hallway drama.

Readers learn on the first page that Nora's friend Chris has been killed. From there, the plot backs up and we discover how Nora and Chris became involved in a translation project, and the grave issues affecting Nora's home life. We meet the other two members of their group and the odd professor who supervised their independent study. Her friends are her lifeline as her family slowly falls apart and the hours spent on "the book" are a welcomed distraction, especially as Nora has been handed the relatively innocuous assignment of translating some letters written by a young woman more than 400 years earlier. Wasserman excels at bringing the distant Elizabeth alive, and it is entirely believable that Nora would identify so strongly with her subject. (I would have felt the same way at that age.) The letters, written to Elizabeth's brother and detailing the work of their alchemist stepfather, present a literary puzzle that Nora slowly decodes. As the teens begin to discover what Elizabeth knew, it becomes clear that they are not alone in their interest and those who have observed them are out for blood. (Insert loud sinister music here.)

So there is murder and there is chaos and there is running for your life and finding clues. There are teenagers in Prague with cloaked mysterious men out to get them and a priest with a gun and no one who can be trusted. In the end, Nora is left with the bitter choice between what she always believed and what might be the truth. This might just mean that The Book of Blood and Shadow is a first rate thriller (with a golem story!) guaranteed to keep you up all night turning pages, and that would be fine -- it would actually be better than most YA titles in this vein. But Wassermen never forgets who her characters are -- in this case a bunch of teenagers with conflicting priorities -- and so more than anything this is a novel about growing up. The Book of Blood and Shadow is about determining whom you can trust, letting go of whom you thought you were, and turning a corner into adulthood. It's about first love and broken hearts, about confidence and self-worth and making a choice about who you want to be. That all of this happens while being chased by crazy people intent on discovering secrets hidden in old letters written in Latin makes it more exciting than most, but the elements are still the same. Some of us come of age crying in a bathroom stall during an afternoon pep rally, while Nora has her moment hiding on a darkened street in Prague. But we all know what she is thinking, and Wasserman's genius is not sacrificing those moments for thrills. She keeps this story's heart beating in universal territory and because of that it will resonate far longer than this reader hoped. Amazing.

For a more lighthearted adventure that has a most appealing retro sensibility, reach for the utterly charming adventure Zeuglodon by James Blaylock, coming in August. Aimed at the younger end of the teen spectrum, the book opens fast as budding cryptozoologist Kathleen and her two cousins find themselves in a mystery, pursued by dastardly villains and tasked with keeping safe an important scientific item. (If you consider a mummified mermaid scientific!)

Kathleen, Brendan, and Perry live in a small seaside town in Northern California with their great uncle, a member of The Guild of St. George. The guild holds a massive collection of many strange and wondrous things that most of us can only hope exist. (It's the warehouse from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark all over again.) Unfortunately, someone else happens to want one of those things and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it. So the mermaid is stolen and they have to get it back and that involves a car, a plane, a boat, a submarine, a tunnel underneath a great mansion to a passageway that is guarded by, well, I'll let you figure that out on your own, and then it's the Center of the Earth! (As depicted by Jules Verne and other excellent science fiction writers.) There's also a dog and a nosy investigator reminiscent of Margaret Hamilton's Amira Gulch who is working with Social Services to get the children away from Uncle Hedgepeth and the lingering sadness over Kathleen's missing scientist mother who vanished in a bathysphere.

Blaylock is just the right side of madcap with Zeuglodon, and he elevates this novel with some enormously likable characters and dialogue witty enough for a teenage version of 1930s Hollywood. Kathleen is not simply spunky. She is the girl detective when still a girl -- Veronica Mars, the early years. All the promise of who she will be is there for the reader to imagine, along with her sidekicks (both most worthy) and the whole The Goonies-esque Sunday morning movie of it all. You know the good guys will win in the end (although there are plenty of surprises), but the journey is the destination here and well worth the visit.

A few months ago Quirk Books released a gorgeous title from mythic fiction author Theodora Goss, The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story. Slipcovered and with an accordion-fold binding, The Thorn and the Blossom is designed so it can be flipped and readers may thus enjoy Brendan and Evelyn's separate perspectives of the same tale. While the publisher's work is impressive, it is Goss's handling of the story itself that really blew me away. You do not have to read these perspectives in any particular order; you can start with Brendan or Evelyn and either way you will not ruin critical moments or spoil the ending. They blend so perfectly that this truly is one novel, only a deeper and richer one than we are generally ever fortunate enough to expect. But it's still the story, first and foremost, that won me over. The story itself is a classic. The Thorn and the Blossom is steeped in the romantic tradition and filled with legends of knights and magic and giant killing. That the telling is so unique and powerful just makes it that much more of a winner.

Both Brendan and Evelyn are college students who meet in the small Cornish town of Clews. Brendan lives at home and works at his father's bookstore. Evelyn is using her Oxford break to do a bit of casual research into family history. They are drawn together by mutual attraction and a love for old myths. Brendan shares the town's place in the medieval tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Evelyn, who loves medieval literature, falls hard for the story and the young man telling it. What should be a sweet story of scholarly pursuits and stolen kisses changes, however, when Evelyn is presented with a terrifying vision. The romance ends nearly before it begins. The story picks up years later, when the two meet as professors at a college in the U.S., each of them separately having built a career around the Green Knight legend. The characters fall hard, reveal all their truths, uncover some secrets, and discover just how tightly their lives are woven to the pageantry and poetry of the past. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an ageless story, and Goss insists her readers consider it long and hard, just as Brendan and Evelyn do, and respect its power for all that it might actually reveal.

Most of us read medieval literature (or about it) at some point in high school or college, but all too often it is passed along as something we have to analyze, memorize, and easily forget the moment a test is turned in. Goss brings Sir Gawain and the Green Knight alive. She makes it thrilling and relevant and, most importantly, real. The Thorn and the Blossom gives readers not one tale to enjoy but another to rediscover and appreciate, and both of them are wrapped up in characters that will be easily appealing to students cramming for an English exam and wishing they could appreciate the books they are reading rather than just absorbing them. It's a beautiful book, both inside and out, and truly a treasure on every appreciable level.

From the other side of the world, Ryan Inzana's oversized graphic novel Ichiro is a blend of coming-of-age and heroic journey that is rooted both in modern Japan and the country's centuries-old creation myths. Brooklyn-born teen Ichiro has been raised by his widowed Japanese mother in his Caucasian father's world. Now a job opportunity is taking mother and son far from home; Ichiro will be staying for the summer with his grandfather while his mother works in Tokyo. With firm ideas about America and its military role in his head, largely due to his father's death as army reservist (this happened apparently years before), Ichiro finds himself uncertain how to negotiate the Japanese side of his heritage. Through experiences with his grandfather, Inzana patiently takes Ichiro from Hiroshima to the Japanese invasion of China, making it clear that there are no easy answers for war, ever, and the most important part of understanding is to ask difficult questions. All of this would be fodder enough for the novel, but the author goes much further by occasionally taking the conversation into Japanese stories of gods and goddesses and then, in one crazy night, sending Ichiro into a rabbit hold of epic proportions. When he wakes up he finds himself in the "domain of the gods" where a war is being fought that he cannot escape.

Inzana changes his drawing style in the other world -- shifting to a palette of washed greens, blues, and rust, giving those pages a more fantastic quality. The creatures he draws are radically different as well, miles from the realistic depictions in NYC and Japan and certainly in keeping with the fairy tale nature of the story at that point. But the main theme of war is continued when Ichiro meets Hachiman, the armored god of war who is imprisoned against his will and provides Ichiro with a story that perfectly illustrates all of war's absurdity. After struggling to understand his father's death, the deaths in Hiroshima, and his family's part in Japan's conflicted history with the Chinese, Hachiman's tale of two countries and a disputed bridge seems almost daringly simplistic, and yet the war god is an incredibly compelling character. Ichiro learns that "the wheel of war when set to spin revolves on its own after the first turn." In his "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" T-shirt, he finally begins to grasp how ignoble war can be and how heroes sometimes lose their lives for the most banal of reasons. What he does to get home keeps the story hopping, but the essential philosophical message is clear, valuable, and serves to alter not only how Ichiro sees his world but likely how the reader does as well.

Ichiro is the kind of thoughtful adventure that should be wildly appealing to boys in particular and provides enough action to keep the most reluctant of readers involved. Its blending with myths makes it a true standout and the potential to bring so much of Japanese history to a western audience really makes me excited about this title. It's gripping, smart, and more than a bit wild in places. Ichiro is an everykid -- as American as it gets -- and what befalls him is a sort of hardcore Alice adventure that invokes twenty-first century problems in a significant way. Inzana has done a fine job here, and Ichiro is not to be overlooked.

Finally, a note on a quintessential middle grade summertime mystery, The Case of the Missing Deed by Ellen Schwartz. The setup is classic: cousins converge on their grandmother's home on bucolic Otter Island in western Canada. It's a place built on memories of screen doors slamming, picnic tables, fishing, and bike rides, but this year things look grim, as a deep pit mining operation is poised to receive approval for operations nearby. They are buying up property, and unless the grandmother can produce her original deed, they will seek government approval to take over her land. All of this might be of questionable legal accuracy but it sends the kids on a rush to discover where their puzzle-obsessed grandfather hid the deed prior to his death. Tossed into the mix of plots and suspicions are a handful of recipes (this is a family that cooks), a light romance, a lot of red herrings, and more than one moment of Trixie Beldenish spying. It's classic middle grade fare, totally perfect for the young, and a lot of fun. The kids sell this one -- five distinct personalities and all of them believable. I hope we are looking at the start of a solid Teaspoon Detectives series.

COOL READS: I went through a major ancient Egypt obsession when I was in junior high, beginning, of course, with Cleopatra. The appeal of this time and place in history is perennial, fueled by an endless supply of cartoons, cable specials, the traveling King Tut exhibit, and movies, movies, movies. (I will never apologize for loving The Mummy franchise.) National Geographic does what it does best with National Geographic Kids Everything Ancient Egypt: Dig Into a Treasure Trove of Facts, Photos, and Fun, a new release by Crispin Boyer (with Egyptologist James Allen). Vicky Alvear Shecter weighs in on the subject as well with a more focused title, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen.

The Nat Geo title has everything you would expect: dozens of photographs, snappy headlines, informational boxes, and a nice blend of historical study and the work of contemporary archeologists. (I was particularly interested in "How to Make a Mummy" and the section on the Rosetta Stone.) Boyer runs down rumors (exactly what did Napoleon's army do the Sphinx?) and refreshingly spends as much time on the average Egyptian as he does the royals. He makes Everything Ancient Egypt a solid entry level book for MG readers that adults will also enjoy paging through.

Shecter aims directly at teenage girls with Cleopatra Rules! and isn't shy about speaking to them in a casual, almost flip tone. At first the catty asides bothered me a bit, but honestly, after reading along, I began to see what she was trying to do and why it works. Shecter wants to demystify Cleopatra, make her much more a wife and mother, savvy political leader and endangered monarch, than the femme fatale she has long been characterized as. In careful chapters written in chronological order that draw a line between what is known versus what is suspected or assumed, she lays out her argument for Cleopatra as a woman ahead of her time who laid it all on the line to save her country and people. She was a hell of a lot more then just a pretty face, and the battles she fought were epic. In the end, Shecter makes this world leader someone teenage girls should admire and, more importantly, understand. That she does all this in a language they will embrace actually makes the book that much more fun to read.

Colleen Mondor is deep in the archives at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks researching plane crashes from the 1940s. The Map of My Dead Pilots is her recent book on Alaska flying. She blogs at chasingray.com.