May 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Nary a Vampire in Sight

Matt Kindt shows that the graphic novel is a primo format for unorthodox mysteries with his utterly beguiling Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes. Framed around the career of a famous police detective named Gould, Red Handed gives readers several seemingly random mysteries about all sorts of crimes ranging from art theft to chair theft to pickpocketing to illegal fur trading to the taking of unseemly photos of unknowing women (legs and feet, occasional arms, but nothing R-rated). Gould unravels every crime, tracks the perpetrators and carts them off to jail except there seems to be a pattern forming in all these random acts of criminality and Gould smells a plot. Just who is behind it and why is a mystery he cannot ignore, and as the story continues, it becomes clear that solving that larger mystery is a case of life and death.

This is a carefully plotted novel, the sort of plotting that belongs in a class on how to do it. Kindt does not waste a word or picture. He knows what he is doing and why every step of the way, and the care he takes to pull every one of these threads together is masterful. But as elegant as the plot is, it's the larger mystery that keeps the pages turning. Readers will not be able to stop asking questions, stop trying to figure out why certain characters do certain things and how, even though they don't know each other, they're being manipulated by someone else. (The artist who writes her novel with stolen words is a personal favorite of mine.) Interspersed throughout the novel are black and white text-only scenes in which future Gould and the mastermind exchange barbs in an interrogation setting. Clearly he solves the mystery, but the why of it all is left to the final pages, and it packs a wallop.

First Second Books is consistently one of the finest imprints out there for teens, and I cannot recommend their graphic novels enough. Red Handed is another first-class example of a wonderfully written story with beautiful, unique illustrations that perfectly complement the unusual mood of the narrative. Published for teens, adults would be fools to pass this one up; it's about as good as it gets and a mystery not to be missed.

Soho Press inaugurated a new YA imprint this spring, and I am delighted to say that this venerable mystery press is giving us exactly what I have wanted for so very long: straight-up mysteries for teens! There are girl detectives, conspiracies, family secrets, school hallways fraught with serious drama, and some hard-core thrillers. Basically, every kind of mystery a teenager could want and nary a vampire in sight.

The first Soho title I cracked open was Helen FitzGerald's Deviant. The author quickly introduces Scottish street kid Abigail, whose long-lost mother has died and unexpectedly left a small package for her daughter. Notified by the counselors at the teen group home where she lives, Abigail discovers her inheritance includes a cryptic letter, a revelation about her previously unknown father, a plane ticket to California, and a pile of cash. Because she is no fool, she gets a passport pronto and blows out of Edinburgh without a backward glance. What she doesn't know is the trouble that awaits her in the Golden State.

In L.A. the changes come fast and furious: her father is wealthy, she has a perfect, if somewhat Stepfordish, stepmother, and her older sister (who never knew their mother) alternates between being an undercover rabble rouser and a stoner rich kid. Before she has a chance to get her bearings, Abigail is caught up in her sister's illegal escapades, and then there is a death -- a serious, very upsetting death. Abigail uncovers a most nefarious plot and ends up running for her life and then -- and then -- well, bad things happen, and you think it's all over (but it's not of course).

In many ways Deviant fits solidly in classic contemporary thriller territory, and with older characters, some sex, and more graphic violence, it would easily read as an adult title. The pacing is great, the plot flows right along and even though the author knows she is doing a bit of a homage to a classic, it is one we never get tired of, and there are plenty of original bits added in to make Deviant stand on its own. What truly makes the novel shine, though, is Abigail. She's tough and smart but more than once acknowledges her position in L.A. as a fish out of water and acts pretty much as any teen in her position would. She's no dumb bunny, but she's not a superpowered Buffy either. Abigail is canny and bold and determined, a lost girl who has to fight if she wants to get out of this mess alive. I loved this kid and hope -- as the final pages suggest -- that there will be more from her in the future.

Margaux Froley's contribution to the Soho Teen line, Escape Theory, is a complex murder mystery set at a boarding school. Filled with some of what you expect (prescription drug abuse, town versus school tension, class issues, teen pregnancy), this psychological thriller manages to keep increasing the tension. The short take: Jason "Hutch" Hutchins, one of the most charismatic students on campus, is dead of an apparently intentional overdose. Classmate Devon, a scholarship student, had a unique friendship with Hutch and is having a lot of trouble believing he would kill himself.

As part of a new peer-counseling program, Devon is supposed to talk to Hutch's closest friends and provide them with some student-student therapy. (I'm not sure how believable this scenario is, but as plot devices go it's okay.) Everyone has an idea about what really happened, and bit by bit Devon figures out that not only is there something suspect about Hutch's death, but a whole lot of other nefarious activity is happening on campus too. They might be rich and look pretty, but, of course, there's a seamy underbelly. Devon makes alliances, uncovers clues, gets a boyfriend (maybe), bonds with an unlikely gal pal, and solves the crime.

There are many things that work well with Escape Theory, starting with Devon and the Keaton School setting. Our protagonist is the typical bookish-introspective-outsider teen heroine, but she's also pretty mouthy and spunky in all the right ways. Very Veronica Mars. As her classmates shuffle through her "office," she asks the questions she wants answered, and she doesn't let go as they push back against the intrusion. She's not afraid to stand up for herself with the administration, but she's also a bit flawed and that's nice to see. The only truly false note is her over-the-top conversations with friend Presley, which read more as an adult's idea of how teen girls interact then how they actually, um, interact. Absent that easily ignored misstep, Escape Theory is a nice little page-turner that opens up all sorts of future possibilities set at Keaton School. There are a wealth of personalities and scenarios introduced here the beg for future exploration; here's hoping Ms. Froley will dive back into the ugly side of high school again and take us another adventure with Devon and her band of merry pranksters.

Sarah Rees Brennan introduces some paranormal elements (no vampires! no werewolves!) in her enormously fun spin on the girl detective, Unspoken, the first book of The Lynburn Legacy. (The second book, Untold, is due in September.) Teen Kami Glass has lived in a very sleepy British town, Sorry-in-the-Vale, her whole life. As editor of the school newspaper, she is eager to get into all of the town's secrets, most notably those surrounding one of the founding families, the Lynburns, who have recently returned. Her life is a bit complicated by the one thing she cannot control, the existence of Jared, an imaginary/invisible friend who has communicated telepathically with her since childhood. They don't know how they do it or why they do it, only that they are bound together and always, always, a part of each other's lives.

It is pretty much impossible to discuss the plot of Unspoken without dropping a dozen different spoilers, so I'm going to stay purposely general in this review. While lots of readers are going to enjoy the paranormal elements, it was actually the characters that made this one succeed hugely for me. Kami is Nancy Drew in all of her nosy best, and also channels some Rory Gilmore circa the "Life and Death Brigade" episodes as she stays hot on the trail of the Lynburns. Brennan wisely gives her several friends to solve crime with and all of the teens are well rounded, funny, and smart. (My only complaint would be that they are also gorgeous -- there is so much gorgeousness in Sorry-in-the-Vale that one wonders if average-looking teens are allowed to live there.)

Along with the Scooby gang bits, there is also Kami's family, a delightfully normal and nice supporting cast, which is actually a solid component to the narrative. As for the Lynburns, they are the great big soap opera mess that the plot deserves and oh, how I wish I could say more but I swear, I can't. I'll just add that cute emotionally-tortured boys are always a good thing, and although I'm not fond of love triangles, I'll take this one because it's all tied up in the fight at the end.

Brennan has done a great job here of writing a cracker-jack mystery that doesn't insult the intelligence of its readers. Kami and her friends are enormously likable and watching them navigate the secrets that permeate their town (and turn deadly) makes for a real page-turner. I found Unspoken to be the best sort of diversionary read, and while the tweets have flown fast and furious over the cliffhanger ending, I was quite pleased with Brennan's choice there. She is making her characters work for their story, and as she has crafted so many wonderful personalities here, their drama (and trauma) is not something to overly worry about. Kami is no dumb bunny; she's going to figure things out and with her pals will be saving the day, I just know it. Of course I have to get Untold to figure out how that will happen, but I'm confident Brennan won't let me down. This is an author at the top of her game, and Unspoken is the start of a series that I have fallen hard for.

Finally, Doyce Testerman has crafted a noir urban fantasy that while published for adults is an affecting crossovers for teen readers. It has monsters of an insidious Sam Spade-ish kind, sinister and creepy and deviously intelligent, and it has a sorely conflicted and appealing heroine who is a private detective/former singer and lover of rock and roll (which has plot relevance). But mostly, surprisingly, the root of Hidden Things is all about family and how you can never ever, no matter how hard you might want to, get away from that place you call home. You carry it with you, even in the midst of a trip through an alternate world on the trail of a murderer and in the hopes of finding one of your dearest friends.

Hidden Things opens with a bang as Calliope Jenkins receives a late-night phone call from friend and business partner Josh, who is away investigating a case. The call is strange, but it's nothing compared to the shock of discovering the next morning that Josh is dead and that he died before the phone call was placed. The police are investigating, Josh's wife is freaking out, and a very peculiar guy who appears to be homeless keeps trying to insert himself into Calliope's life. He seems to know a lot about her and Josh, and he won't go away. In rapid succession, Calliope realizes that all is not as it seems, that she needs to follow Josh's trail if she wants to get any answers and that guy just might have the answers she needs, if he doesn't drive her crazy first. Also, there appear to be people out to kill her, so none of this is going to be easy.

What we end with here is a great road novel, a solid mystery, a trip into a parallel world, a glutton, a reason never to trust men in suits, and a dragon -- a really really cool dragon. Here is Testerman's lovely statement on dragons, which pretty much are words to live by:

Dragons are true. It doesn't matter if they fly and breathe fire and can eat a town full of people, if they're messengers for god or a symbol of everything lost that you wish you still had. They might be any of those things or all of 'em, and it still doesn't matter how they are. They are.

It is on the road that the book's coming-of-age plot breaks through, as Calliope finds herself returning to Iowa, where Josh apparently died and, nearly as devastating, where Calliope grew up. The route to answers about her lost friend lie through her home, through her past, through the reckoning about who she was and who she is. It is where everything comes together and is the scene of a confrontation between Calliope and her sister about leaving home and staying and why some of us make one choice and some make the other. And that is where Testerman really sells Hidden Things as a book about growing up. Yes, this is a mystery, and it has a wonderful noir sensibility. But also, as Calliope accepts all that Iowa means for her and Josh and all that it can never be again for either of them, Hidden Things is about leaving home. That's what makes it a killer YA novel, even though it wasn't written for teens. Excellent.

COOL READ: DK's excellent new entry in the "Big Ideas Simply Explained" series is The Politics Book, and it is really something special. With the publisher's classic design style (liberal use of color and sidebars, multiple fonts, dynamic presentation), this is a book that is both highly informative and pleasing to page through. The multiple contributors provide chronological history that dates back to "Ancient Political Thought" beginning in 800 BCE and moves forward through medieval times, the Enlightenment, "Revolutionary Thoughts," and "The Rise of the Masses" and more contemporary discussions. A ton of famous names are packed in here and I loved how the title moves around the world and in and out of big and small ideas. It is as comprehensive as it gets, but more importantly very readable. There is not a dull page here and the examples make the most complex issues clear and easy to understand. (And some of the quotations are really amazing, like Mao Zedong's "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.")

I get great nonfiction to review all the time, and I work hard to bring the best, most unusual, most useful, and interesting of those titles to this column. The Politics Book stands out as one of the most important I've read in a long time. I wish I could put it in the hands of every teenager and adult I know. Pair this with the graphic novel Economix by Michael Goodwin and you could radically transform the population into a smarter, savvier group of individuals. Learning is good, folks -- don't be afraid to read these books and find out more on such worthy subjects.

Colleen Mondor blogs at chasingray.com about what she's reading, what she's writing, and a lot about Alaska.