May 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

A Horse Named Charming

Every time I think I've read it all an author comes along and wham, I get reminded that yes, indeed, you can take an old story and make it new all over again. Dear readers, I give you Six-Gun Snow White, which is exactly what it sounds like -- a Western spin on the fairy tale classic. Catherynne Valente spins it in such a way that somehow you end up with visions in your head of Clint Eastwood, William Randolph Hearst, Coyote, the horrible mines where all those poor kids were enslaved in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Annie Oakley times seven. But the idea alone, even with all these elements, is not enough. What makes Six-Gun Snow White such an unforgettable read is the voice of the main character and the narrative that Valente drops her into.

First, be aware this is old-school Snow White, full of all kinds of pain and torment and born of a forced union between her Native American mother and wildly wealthy and powerful father, the arrogant "Mr. H." (This is where all of my Hearst suspicions kicked in.) After her mother's death in childbirth, our heroine leads a largely ignored childhood with a few highlights like shooting targets with the jewel-laden, silver-handled revolver her father gave her. Things take a sudden turn however with the dreaded arrival of the stepmother. This is when Snow White gets her name, for as the new Mrs. H. makes clear with her mixed-blood heritage, white is "the one thing I was not and could never be." Thus begins the torturing of Snow White and the nightmare that is life with an evil stepmother.

Eventually, Snow White runs away on the back of a horse named Charming, out for Indian Territory, for the story she has created of her mother's people, for a better life out there somewhere. A hired Pinkerton detective hunts her relentlessly, following the legend she leaves in her wake. Snow White gets harder on her own, she gets tough, she gets angry, she gets brutal. She survives. When she faces down the detective, she finds a place with seven friends and when her stepmother knocks on her door, well, Snow White follows the tale that has been written for her. I'll only say that the ending manages to be both unexpected and perfect, it's a gift of an ending, and for this reader, who grew up on Red River, The Searchers, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, this was the Snow White I have waited my whole damn life to find. With a gorgeous cover by Charles Vess, Six-Gun Snow White is the kind of literary shock that requires an immense talent.

Paul Crilley's The Lazarus Machine takes place in an alternate steampunk 1895 where Tesla-powered computers are everywhere and Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are heroes of the day. Sebastian Tweed and his father make a living as spiritualists -- or rather his father pretends to talk to the dead while Sebastian uses technology to answer. In the opening chapters, Barnaby Tweed is kidnapped by the malevolent Professor Moriarty and his gang, and Sebastian sets off on a race to find his father and discover why Moriarty, back from apparent death on Reichenbach Falls, would want him in the first place. To get these answers he must work with budding journalist Octavia Nightingale, who is on her own search for a missing parent and shares Sebastian's interest in foiling Moriarty's (certainly nefarious) plans.

There is plenty of running around London for both Sebastian and Olivia as they call on friends to help pursue the Moriarty mystery to the highest levels of British government. Crilley does a grand job of ratcheting up the tension, especially when Sebastian has to break into a prison. What's especially appealing is the many strong supporting characters (particularly female) he has created, including not only Olivia but also young computer mastermind "Stepp Reckoner" and family friends Jenny and Carter (who present an excellent picture of marital bliss, albeit mixed with occasional larceny). The biggest win here, however, is found in the plot twists and turns, all of which are played out with witty elegance. Crilley really thought this one out, and his care with the plot should be deeply appreciated by the readers. There's comedy, a tiny hint of romance and smart banter. I think Crilley just might have done the near impossible here and accomplished a steampunk adventure that has equal appeal to teens of both genders. Now if Sebastian and Olivia can just stay alive as they continue their adventures into the dark underbelly of British politics, this could be a series with serious staying power.

Cherie Priest happily returns to her damaged "rotter" and gas-filled Seattle with her latest Clockwork Century title, The Inexplicables. I know it's hard to cheer the return of zombie-like cannibals, but I love this version of Seattle and the tough non-cannibal occupants who live there. Her protagonist, teen Rector Sherman, is an orphan who has aged out of charity care and is being shown the door as the story opens. Addicted to the area's drug of choice, sap, and haunted by his complicity in sending a friend into the dangerous walled city, he goes into Seattle seeking evidence of what happened to Zeke. He is fairly quickly nearly killed in an altercation with a hella-big monster and starts going through some serious detox.

Rescued by Zeke's friends and family, Rector finds himself, shockingly, making friends. They discover a plot to takeover Seattle, find the monster and his girlfriend, and also bump into a rotter or two. Through it all Rector struggles to stay clean and more importantly not just die from the effects of his years of drug abuse. While the action comes hard and fast, Priest still lays out a lot potential for future stories, not only with Rector and Zeke (not dead, as it turns out), but the former Confederate nurse Mercy Lynch who is missing a few friends of her own. In the Clockwork Century anything is possible and all of it, in one way or another, ties into the rest.

Like the previous entries in this series, The Inexplicables is fast-paced and populated with smart, capable characters who don't spend much time dithering when there is a job to do. Although monsters appear, these are not horror stories, and the blood and gore is kept to a minimum that complements rather than overwhelms the story. Teenage boys in particular should enjoy The Inexplicables, as Rector, Zeke, and their friend Houjin have the sort of high action adventures with some very real threats that will keep them on the edge of their seats. Rector is no prince, but he's very compelling, and following him as he struggles each and every moment to stay straight is the most powerful part of this exciting story.

My first thought after finishing Timothy Bradley's Infestation was that I had just experienced a Holes mash-up with every single B monster movie that came out of the 1950s. I grew up watching those movies on Sunday mornings, so that is high praise, and for Bradley's target audience of young teen (or tween) boys, it should be all the persuasion they need to hear. Toss in a sympathetic protagonist in a miserable situation who bonds with a bunch of likable if slightly dangerous freaks and then must face down mutant killer bugs. This is everything your typical reluctant reader could want and it comes wrapped up in a plot that zips along convincingly and never forgets that character is what matters most.

Our hero Andy ends up at the Reclamation School for Boys in the New Mexico desert after a miserable foster care experience. The school is a for-profit institution and it makes money by keeping the boys there as long as possible, which isn't too tough as they are out in the middle of nowhere. With harsh rules and continuous punishment plus the prerequisite bullies, Andy is pretty sure he is in hell. Things only get weirder when his roommate takes him up through the ceiling tiles in their room to an abandoned portion of the compound, which dates back to its previous military ownership days. Barrels of chemicals fill the room, hinting at all sorts of nefarious purposes. Very quickly the plot blows up when Andy and seven other students are locked up alone in the isolated Block 6 as punishment. An earthquake-type event occurs and when the boys bust out they find a bloody mess. Plus mutant bugs.

The boys get their act together and don't waste a lot of time wondering about the necessary action of survival. Through the assistance of an adult they learn some of the science behind what the mutants, and Bradley smoothly fits in a little background about the environment and chemicals. Mostly though, this is just a big action-packed novel about killing the big uglies before they kill (and eat) you first. Very, very fun.

COOL READ: Chronicle Books is known for the excellent design that goes into their titles but they've really outdone themselves with The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science. Set up as a encyclopedia for the scientifically curious (teenage Einstein wannabes who live in bedrooms that look like Henry Jones, Jr.'s office will need it badly), each "question" is addressed in a double-page spread that includes a brief essay written a professor, librarian, engineer, or doctor alongside a full-page highly original illustration. The questions are eclectic, including "Can Evolution Outpace Climate Change?" "Why Do Placebos Work?" "Do Rogue Waves Exist?" and "Why Do Whales Sing?" and the color illustrations range from realistic to comedic to sometimes really, really strange. You will learn a lot, but mostly, this one is just damn cool to look at. I still want my bedroom to look like Henry Jones, Jr.'s office; the book fits right in with my plan.