Sinister and Creepy
Libba Bray's The Diviners arrived with a huge splash this fall and happily, it is worth every single laudatory word. Weighing in at 578 pages, this doorstop-sized thriller is equal parts Stephen King and Zelda Fitzgerald, with bonus forays into Buffyesque research fun at the appropriately named Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult. It includes a multi-ethnic cast of characters, a peek into GLBT life during the Jazz Age, multiple POVs throughout, and a very good reason to burn abandoned houses to the ground. The mystery is gripping, the pages drip with atmosphere, the dialog is crisp and period authentic, the history is solid, and the big bad is so big and so bad that readers will get a scare long before the final, not the slightest bit disappointing, pages. Does The Diviners have it all? I think so, and the best part is that it's the first book in a projected four volume series.
In 1926, seventeen-year-old Evie finds herself on the train out of Ohio after a scandalous evening with friends. A few clairvoyant tricks to liven up a party have backfired, and while everything Evie "sees" is true, her small revelations about a fellow guest were not appreciated by his family. She is banished to her uncle's care in New York City where, we hope, she will stay out of trouble and, more importantly, allow her parents' social standing back home to recover. Uncle Will is not at all what Evie expects, however, and his museum and association with the police soon catapult her into a serial killer case that is terrifying and violent. Evie's story is just one thread to this intricate spellbinding plot, as her friend Mabel struggles to balance her parents political affiliations with the lure of Evie's adventures; a Harlem numbers runner named Memphis seeks to protect his little brother from visions of an apocalyptic future; a chorus girl named Theta plays out a masquerade that finds her at the center of murderous events; a small time criminal named Sam saves the day for his own mysterious purposes; and Jericho, Uncle Will's assistant, harbors a secret that is so outrageous it very nearly makes every other moment in the book pale by comparison.
Is your head spinning yet? If not, it should be, as The Diviners is a head-spinner in the best sense, and it puts together with such elegance and artistry a story that sings like few others. Each chapter, each character's stumbles and successes, builds on those that came before, and always the search by this group of disparate individuals to get to the Big Bad is the thread that readers will find most irresistible. Bray is clear to leave many clues for the story to come, especially in the budding relationships (romantic and otherwise) between the characters. But it is the many small touches of humanity (in spite of the paranormal elements) that lift The Diviners above so much YA fiction today. Through Theta and her roommate Henry's cementing their friendship in her moment of direst need, to Evie's misguided struggle to transform herself into a girl who will live up to her family's expectations, readers catch a glimpse of life in another time and the demands it placed on those who were trapped within in. Who you can love and how you may live, the pressure to succeed within the narrowest confines of convention, the weight of religion and ethnicity and sexuality, and the long unwritten list of shoulds and should nots that has always existed and likely always will are what The Diviners is about. The fact that Bray tells that story on top of a monster thriller that harkens back to the best moments of It (not including the ending) proves how talented this author is. Outstanding.
John Scalzi has a whale of a good time in his smart and cheeky SF novel Redshirts. Anyone who is familiar with the original Star Trek is going to know what Scalzi is doing here and will love it. Redshirts follows the growing unease of Ensign Andrew Dahl, recently posted to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid. The Intrepid has a glamorous captain, a brilliant chief science officer, and a lieutenant who gets the crap beaten out of him by some alien or another on a near weekly basis. Dahl and his fellow recruits are excited by their new posting, but over a period of a few days they begin to notice that something is not quite right on the Intrepid. With the exception of the highly regarded officers, everyone is terrified of taking part on away missions. When Dahl and his friends find themselves sent on missions they quickly realize the reason why -- the redshirted ensigns assigned to the Intrepid die with alarming frequency, while the rather boneheaded senior officers escape every single time. The worst part is that the ensigns seem powerless to prevent themselves from making suicidal decisions -- even when they know what they are doing is stupid. Something is wrong on the Intrepid, and Dahl and his pals resolve to figure it out, rather than hide from the officers like everyone else.
Here's what you have to know about Redshirts: it's metafiction to a pretty much unprecedented level. You have the initial innocuous seeming parody of Star Trek, then you have the revelations that take the narrative nearly inside Star Trek. Then you go deeper yet and realize this is a book with a thing or two to say about the all too common lazy writing in science fiction television and abysmal character development of those shows. It's about creativity and Hollywood, about the power of writing and the lure of easy money. It's also about changing your destiny (could there be a more powerful sci-fi trope?) and making your mark. There's some alternate world stuff, some jokes about actors, and so much good dialogue that you want to read it out loud. Redshirts wins the award for the most enjoyable and fun novel I've read in ages and will lighten up anyone suffering from the winter blues. It's perfect for teenagers -- it screams crossover with its young adult characters and mocking tone -- and I hope that it gets nominated for an Alex Award. This is the book I think John Scalzi was born to write. I certainly know it's the one a lot of Star Trek fans have been waiting to read.
Ned Vizzini brings on the funny as well with The Other Normals, which presents early on as the best sort of coming-of-age story. Fifteen-year-old Perry is stuck with a couple of the world's most ridiculous parents. Incapable of dealing with each other, they have become involved with their divorce lawyers who now interfere in all elements of their lives, from how they live to how they raise their sons. Perry's older brother is a burnout and his one joy, the role-playing game Creatures & Caverns, has rendered him a social pariah. A new friend, Sam, who is equal parts smartass and game-geek, is about the only decent thing going on in Perry's life. Then the lawyers decide Perry needs to attend the world's worst summer camp, where he joyfully discovers Sam is also exiled, but unfortunately, in this locale, he is too cool for Perry. It is going to be, for sure, the worst summer ever. Then denizens of the World of the Other Normals arrive. Perry discovers that Creatures & Caverns is real, and he has a major part to play in its future (à la The Last Starfighter) and everything he does in that world affects what goes on in his own. Even though he might die a bloody death at the hands of a fish-faced (literally) bad guy, at least he is being proactive. He is needed. He is significant. Pretty heady stuff for a kid whose first day at camp involved getting his butt kicked by the bully du jour.
In short order, Perry finds himself threatened, arrested, and on the run in the World of the Other Normals. He also finds out he is the key to saving that world and that it involves him going back to camp and doing something socially perilous. (This involves a pretty girl.) (If you were Perry you would be terrified.) Nothing, of course, goes as anticipated. More dangerous adventures in the World of the Other Normals occur, this time with deadly consequences, and Perry learns the connection between the two worlds works in ways that he can not begin to predict. Bottom line, he has to be a hero and he has to do it while suffering some serious social suicide. If Perry were just a little more savvy, then this might be hard to swallow, but he's so... well, he's so Perry that it's all quite believable and even, in spite of the bloody bits, absolutely hysterical. I don't like saying any book is gender specific, but this one has junior high school boy written over it in such big broad letters that it can't be ignored. My only question is what on earth happened to Ned Vizzini when he was fourteen to provoke this insane adventure? Thank goodness for whatever it was though because The Other Normals is too wonderful to miss.
Gwenda Bond delves deep into one of America's defining mysteries with her exploration of the Lost Colony of Roanoke in Blackwood. I still remember learning about Roanoke in elementary school, with the doomed infant Virginia Dare and the last lonely clue of the carved word "Croatoan." It was much more appealing than Jamestown and the Pilgrims, and certainly fodder for writers of all sorts of genres. Bond concocts her own gumbo of story here, with a blend of mystery, thriller, paranormal, and romance to create a densely packed adventure that sucks readers in with a blistering plot pace but then keeps them riveted with some truly dark and scary moments. Plus there's a great dog that does not die. (This is not a spoiler; it is my gift to dog lovers everywhere.)
Miranda has lived her whole life on Roanoke and labors under a reputation of family weirdness that makes any chance of social acceptance impossible. In Blackwood's opening pages, she is struck with a bizarre vision and makes a spectacle of herself in a very public setting, basically thus committing social suicide in front of the entire town. Then her father is killed and the people of Roanoke begin disappearing. By the time you hit page thirty-two, it is clear that Miranda is not the only one in trouble, and while the police scramble and the media swarms, the island descends into chaos. That's when Phillips, son of the police chief and holder of a powerful gift, is called back home from school. The first person he wants to see is Miranda (there's some history there), and together the two of them get to the bottom of what happened to the colonists more than four hundred years earlier.
There is an escape from jail and more than one episode of evading authorities, a basement library with wicked cool stuff, a dead man walking, a megalomaniacal killer from the past bent on destruction and world domination, apparitions that pack a wallop, compulsive donut eating, the aforementioned awesome dog, and the weight of history that threatens to break our teen heroes just when we need them the most. Bond is relentless in her story and while occasionally her adults are just a bit too convenient in their parental moments, I'm willing to forgive her those episodes for how brilliantly she sells this story. Miranda and Phillips are equal parts smart and terrified and handle the drama that surrounds them in about the most realistic way a reader could hope for. What really elevates Blackwood, though, is the very end. While Bond delivers on all the excitement she has built up, it is in the aftermath, the serious final pages, where she really makes her tale all that it could be. I expected predictable, but what I got was poetic and heartfelt and exactly right. Thoughtful teens will eat this novel up, and honestly, who could blame them?
Jasper Fforde, best-selling author of the bombastic Thursday Next series (great crossover for older teens), has his first foray into the YA world with The Last Dragonslayer, the first book in the Chronicles of Kazam series. In a world physically much like our own (and with an obvious British sensibility), Fforde introduces a backstory where magic was at one time indispensable and now is fading away, leaving those who make a living from such things as speedy magic carpet deliveries in some financial trouble. As acting director for Kazam, an employment agency for sorcerers and other magic practitioners, Jennifer Strange is particularly worried about the situation. Between the loss of income, keeping her many sensitive employees from killing each other and maintaining control as a sixteen-year-old foundling (akin to indentured servitude) whose boss has vanished, she has a lot to deal with. Then all the sorcerers start getting visions that the world's last dragon is about to die at the hands of the unknown Last Dragonslayer and everyone goes crazy over what this means. "Big Magic" is on the way, and soon enough, just surviving is going to be a test of epic proportions.
Fforde excels at sly humor, and he is in rare form here on that score. For all that it involves the potential violent death of a dragon and a major war, The Last Dragonslayer is not a dark novel. There are a few moments of reflection, but from the plotting of real estate land grabs (once the dragon is dead the Dragonlands will be open for development), to the product sponsorship of slaying and many, many political inanities, Fforde is clearly having a blast with this story. He's also doing something very unusual in YA -- writing a novel that is all about a cagey female protagonist having to make difficult but smart choices, none of which have to do with love or romance, and all of which involve kicking butt -- either with her brain or a little sword swinging. Jennifer is a young Thursday Next in many regards, but carrying her own baggage and wholly within her teenage self; this is not an adult novel masked as a teen one, but YA all the way. With fellow foundling Tiger, her ever-faithful Quarkbeast, and the best dragon since Sean Connery voiced Dragonheart (don't judge me), The Last Dragonslayer is the sort of YA adventure novel that emphasizes story and spares readers the kneejerk angsty passages that seemed to be so prevalent in YA fantasy today. Fforde has channeled Terry Brooks and Terry Pratchett, and I very much look forward to his next visit to Kazam.
In Tiffany Trent's The Unnaturalists, an alternate New London has its own magical groove going on, and Vespa Nyx finds herself surprisingly right at the center of it. Although this society has some hefty Victorian ideas about what girls can do or be, Vespa has dodged a lot of cultural bullets by working with her father at the Museum of Unnatural History. Magical beasts are contained there for study or survey, and Vespa is grateful for the opportunities to mount the corpses of these dangerous creatures. There are two problems, however; her father's creepy obsequious assistant and her own unsettling experiences that seem to be of a perilously magical kind. If Vespa has some magic of her own going on, then she is in big trouble, but if she doesn't, she just might be going crazy. Getting to the bottom of things is a goal that quickly gets out of her control when she is caught doing something she shouldn't be able to do by a local rich girl with an eye on catching a desirable husband. Vespa must cast a spell for the man of the other girl's dreams or risk being revealed and all the horrors that entails (picture Salem). So then The Unnaturalists becomes a bit of a social farce, albeit with steampunk, witchcraft, and some very unfortunate folks who are magically enslaved to power massive generators.
Trent has created a fascinating world with New London, but I couldn't help thinking as I was reading The Unnaturalists that it could easily have contained another hundred pages, or a second book. Vespa's revelations about her family and her budding romance are rolled up into a plot that includes shades of everything from The Scarlet Pimpernel to Robin Hood, and the characters are not given enough time to think through the events around them before they must move on to reacting to the next thrilling moment. It's an enjoyable read, but a bit rushed, and the ending involves a lot of killing off of everybody you don't like, which seems more than a tad convenient. Trent is on to something with New London, and the final pages do hint at more to come. I hope in Vespa's next adventure she has time to puzzle out what is going on around her, rather than just hold on tight as the world rushes by.
Finally, Kate Milford recently utilized Kickstarter to come out with a middle-grade gem, The Kairos Mechanism. A sequel to The Boneshaker, it picks up a year later with Natalie relishing life in quiet Arcane, after the world's creepiest carnival has left town for good. Things take a mysterious turn when two teenage brothers show up ushering home the remains of a local man who disappeared fifty years earlier. Somehow, even though he apparently died in the Civil War, his corpse is remarkably preserved. As the town leaders close ranks, Natalie becomes determined to both help the brothers and learn the truth. This is Arcane, home of a significant crossroads, so of course things are going to get complicated pretty fast, of course there is something scary brewing, and of course Natalie is going to be up to her neck in a dangerous adventure before she is done. But The Kairos Mechanism manages to be not only a tightly written mystery (only 164 pages) but also an excellent buddy novel and another fine foray into the (slightly creepy) escapades of my favorite girl detective this side of Kiki Strike. Milford is creating quite a world with her novels and they have middle-grade delight written in every word. (Also note that an illustrated ebook version of The Kairos Mechanism is due out for the holidays. Am I the only one who thinks that putting some books on an ereader is a killer stocking idea?)
COOL READ: Two unique picture books came my way lately and while they skew quite a bit younger than the usual fare for this column, I can't resist mentioning them (and plenty of teens have younger siblings to read to anyway). Pomelo Explores Color is the latest in Ramona Badescue's series of this charming little elephant's adventures. This should be a rather ordinary outing -- we've all seen a zillion books for little ones on colors -- but Badescue is not the type to do ordinary. Pomelo, as rendered by the whimsical illustrations of Benjamin Chaud, wrapped in the "comforting white of his favorite dandelion," peers out from within the "shiny brown of chestnuts" and enjoys the "bouncy green of the meadow." This is an exuberant joy-filled title that is equal parts cheeky and thoughtful. The design makes it perfect for little hands, but the text will be a delight for much older readers as well. I can't remember the last time I came across a colors book that was so offbeat. Pomelo Explores Color is one not to pass up. (And do check out Pomelo Begins to Grow as well.)
For slightly older children, I highly recommend Waterloo and Trafalgar by Olivier Tallec. This wordless title follows the war-time hijinks of two nearly identical little men, one dressed in blue and one in orange, who spend every day peering over the wall at each other. Dedicated to their conflict, they man their posts through all sorts of weather and circumstance and never let a moment in which they might mock or tease one another pass. It all is silly, and readers will share more than a moment of laughter in response to Tallec's facial expressions or goofy situations, but it's the astounding, astonishing, absolutely perfect last page that will really give readers pause. Then you go back to the beginning and go through it all over again with a new appreciation. Waterloo and Trafalgar is a true gem -- a much-to-be-admired example of storytelling power and a serious lesson about the absurdity of war that any reader (no matter how young) can appreciate.