October 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Season of the Dead

Hold on tight, I'm about to recommend a vampire novel. I am just as shocked by this as you are. In my defense, this is a decidedly complex and bloodthirsty vampire novel in which there is only a bit of romance and no one sparkles and and no one falls in love with someone who might remotely be considered "the girl who must save the world." In a word, Holly Black's Coldest Girl in Coldtown is fabulous and it simply must be read to be believed.

In Black's America, the vampire infection has been identified and those who become ill are quarantined, along with full-blown vampires in "coldtowns." When initially bitten but before feeding, victims become physically cold thus confirming their infection. Teenager Tana finds herself in the middle of a vampire mess when waking up after a party that apparently took a horrifying turn while she was passed out. Facing certain death along with an old boyfriend and a mysterious but helpful stranger, she gets them out alive and finds herself on the kind of road trip that Kerouac needed a lot more drugs to dream up. Their destination is Coldtown in the former Springfield, Massachusetts. Along the way, Tana must tease out the stranger's story, keep her friend from losing his humanity, freak out over her own potential vampire-ness and deal with two of the most clueless teenage hitchhiker-bloggers in the history of the world. Winning means getting herself locked behind the gates where the most fabulous vampire party in the country runs live every night on the Internet. If only the whole thing wasn't so terrifying, it might just be fun.

But -- and here is where Black truly shines -- every little bit of Coldest Girl in Coldtown is exceedingly terrifying. Between moments of sarcastic wit, readers discover Tana's desperate backstory, the equally troubling motivations of her companions and the desperate lives of those who dwell in Coldtown. Everyone has his or her own twisted story in this walled city and survival at its ugliest is the only thing that matters. Black strips all the glittery appeal from vampire life while making vamps themselves far more human then we have become accustomed to. Assholes in life are assholes in death and Coldtown is full of a lot of hungry, angry, confused, lost, royally screwed-up assholes. What readers won't expect is the craven nature of the humans who end up there as well and how the most base aspects of their natures are revealed to Tana as she tries to stay sane, stay alive, and dodge that damn infection.

Every character in Coldest Girl in Coldtown is rich and complicated. This is a complex world the author has created and she relies on everyone within it to keep the narrative the irresistible adventure it is. I thought the vampire novel was dead, or at least on life support, but Black has done nothing short of a miracle here; she has made me care about fangs again. Darkly romantic in the manner of the oldest tales, mysterious and bloody and banked with shocking twists and turns, Coldest Girl in Coldtown is all of October's promise come to life. Somewhere, Anne Rice is chuckling with glee as finally the real vampire is back.

Robin Wasserman's The Waking Dark opens with bloody murder and doesn't slow down for one minute from then. (If you read Black and Wasserman back-to-back, you might want to have a romantic comedy on standby to mellow out to afterward.) It's intense, compelling, and always a coming-of-age story first and a "scary, we might all die, hold on to your hats" suspense novel second. It has been compared in various places to the great works of Stephen King, and I agree that the influence is there, although The Waking Dark ends miles better than It. This is one part Stand by Me, one part Red Dawn (original not remake), and one part every single bad thing you've ever thought about the military industrial complex (see Super 8 for more on this). Mostly though it is just a blazingly good story and the sort of page-turner that will keep you up all night for sure.

In the opening pages five teens are directly involved in five separate gruesome murders (either as witnesses or participants) in the quiet town of Oleander, Kansas. In the days that follow the shell-shocked population searches for answers to the crimes, all of which were perpetrated by otherwise perfectly decent residents. As time goes by the teens struggle with their experiences while everyone else tries to dismiss the "Killing Day" as an aberration, wrapping themselves up in religion or denial and doing their level best to resume the rhythm of seasonal celebrations that dictated Oleander's calendar for decades. Then one year later a tornado rips through town, as they do in the Midwest, and all of the Oleander's secrets are blown apart. A quarantine follows, borders are erected, soldiers swarm the perimeter and the five protagonists must navigate a strange new world where societal rules seem to be slipping away in a rush for power, bloody vengeance and paranoia. This is Lord of the Flies times a million and it doesn't slow down until the last screaming page.

The plot of The Waking Dark certainly keeps readers riveted but where Wasserman truly excels is also King's strong point -- the characters. Daniel, West, Jule, Ellie and Cass are complex, thoughtful and extremely compelling. They introduce questions of God and fate, good and evil, and bravery and cowardice throughout the narrative and refuse to be pigeonholed into easy categories. All of them are strong and all of them are weak; they make choices both admirable and regretful and their long soul searching journeys, which encompass the entire book, are the stuff of epics. A high school hallway lives in The Waking Dark, and everyone you know passes through its pages, meeting challenges that none could have prepared for. Few will survive intact.

The most surprising part of The Waking Dark, though, is just how much fun it is to read. This story takes you away, it steals your breath, it shocks and amazes. Oleander is not Derry, Maine, but damn, it sure took me back. I loved this book, and along with Coldest Girl in Coldtown (and last year's The Diviners by Libba Bray), it goes right to the top of my gift list for teens this fall.

Cat Winters creates a dark and forbidding atmosphere in the very real historical setting of 1918 San Diego with her paranormal mystery In the Shadow of Blackbirds. This has to rank as one of the more unusual reads I've enjoyed this year and certainly one of the only books I've read for teens that relies heavily upon the effect of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic on American life. Winters considers faith, the supernatural, patriotism and the power of love (romantic and otherwise) in this tale of scientific-minded Mary Shelley and her quest to determine if she is haunted or crazy.

It's very difficult to write about In the Shadow of Blackbirds without some major spoilers. Suffice it to say, there is a death early on that is certainly tragic but does not seem mysterious. Then there is a ghost (or Mary is crazy and thinks there is a ghost) and a lot of questions are slowly raised surrounding that death. Mary finds herself caught between a desire to believe the story of her loss and the compulsion (spurred by the ghost) to ask many questions that no one wants to hear. It doesn't help that many of the people around her, devastated by losses in the trenches as well as from the flu, are all desperate to believe in the power of séances and spiritual photography as a way to bring peace, not trouble.

There was not one part of In the Shadow of Blackbirds that went as I expected. The time period threw me, the historical detail really blew me away (you would not believe how people tried to stave off the flu), and the good guys and bad guys were just, well, sad and scary and truly shocking. This is probably the most realistic book about war I have read that does not even have one battle scene in it. It has elements of the real Mary Shelley's curiosity and creativity, some costumed fun of an aviatrix steampunk-ishness kind, some shades of Sherlock Holmes's younger sister (if he had one), elements of Vera Britain's tragic wartime experiences, and a lot of the world Margaret Fox inhabited at the height of the spiritualism movement. Mary Shelley is smart as a whip and determined and dedicated, and her love story is tragic romance. Keep the lights on as the blackbirds swoop in, but don't put this one down -- it's a true original from start to finish. (Oh, and the black-and-white period photos for each chapter are awesome!)

Daniel Abraham returns to his popular crime solving duo of Balfour and Meriwether in the outstanding novella Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs. On the surface, this is a classic detective tale set firmly in an alternate but recognizable late-nineteenth-century England. Our stalwart duo are commissioned by the Crown to investigate a so-called "blue rose affair," which by definition means nothing is going to be as it seems and all sorts of occult weirdness will ensue.

A private envoy of the Queen, Daniel Winters (picture a Victorian 007, only a wee bit seedier), has disappeared while investigating a mystery in Harrowmoor Sanitarium. An inmate there, famous explorer and soldier Michael Caster (picture Richard Burton), has succumbed to nervous fits, and while taking a "rest cure" submitted some sonnets to a journal that suggest elements of a blue rose affair are at work in Harrowmoor. Winters was supposed to speak to Winters and run down the truth but vanished during the investigation. Now Caster must still be interviewed, Winters found, and the mystery thoroughly investigated. Balfour and Meriwether are to leave posthaste (on a private rail car of course) and get to the bottom of things. The adventure kicks off almost immediately because nothing, of course, is as it seems.

Balfour and Meriwether follow some thoroughly Holmes and Watsonesque deductive reasoning as the chapters shift to represent their alternating points of view. Winters turns out to be deeply enmeshed in a plot that is totally blue rose-ish and seriously creepy besides. If Winters is to be found alive some major rescuing must take place. As exciting as that is, however, the sub plot involving Michael Caster is what spins the plot into brilliance. Consider what lies in wait for him at Harrowmoor as he explains to Meriwether:

You divined the reason for my internment here. They have discussed a great number of treatments for me. Most recently, they have considered unmanning me surgically and giving me a course of forced sedation that would last the rest of my life, however long that might be.

Caster doesn't need a rest cure; he is gay and in Victorian England, which means being delivered to a place like Harrowmoor by concerned relatives who fear for their reputations more than long-term physical damage to the life and limbs of a war hero. The places Abraham takes this story in the face of Caster's revelation are wonderful and give the novel a twist. Older teens will love the thrills and spills and the lush manner in which the author layers on the atmosphere, but it is Caster whose heart beats the loudest and for teens longing for some wicked cool heroes (gay and straight), The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is not to be missed. It's positively swoon-worthy, as is the wonderful Caster.

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's anthology, Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, is a collection of "gaslamp" fantasy that offers up equal doses of thoughtful adventure and uneasy chills by the likes of Delia Sherman, Gregory Maguire, Jeffrey Ford, and Catherynne Valente. There is a lot of subtlety to these short stories, and because of that they strike much deeper and harder than the reader expects. These are tales that linger, and will likely bring all of the contributors many more fans.

The title story by Sherman opens the collection, and it is wonderful. A Victorianist scholar pours over the queen's teenage magic exercise book, decoding her entries, and discovers secrets about Victoria's abilities and a most regretted spell that was cast in romantic desperation with terrible results. This one has academic drama, historical intrigue, and some insight into Victoria's very real and painful upbringing. It's thoughtful, smart, and introduces a wonderful new universe where, frankly, I hope Sherman will set an entire novel. (A reader can dream, can't she?)

From there the collection spins in many unexpected directions from Jeffrey Ford's Industrial Revolutionesque take on fairy manufacture in "The Fairy Enterprise," through Genevieve Valentine's stirring call for freedom during London's Great Exhibition (freedom even for fantastical beasts) told through letters and encyclopedic entries, to the world's creepiest governess in Maureen McHugh's "The Memory Book." I was about to strongly suggest that a governess should never be trusted, except in Elizabeth Bear's selkie tale "The Governess," she ends up being the hero. She's a very prickly hero, though, so I think my cautionary message about the position still stands.

Kaaron Warren's "The Unwanted Women of Surrey" takes gender politics, blends it with the Cholera epidemic of 1851 and then tosses in creepy-ass witchcraftiness. There are also ghosts and a narrator who conjures images of the Stepford Wives crossed with Shelley Duvall circa The Shining.

In "Charged," Leana Renee Hieber reminds us of all of Edison's less savory side, and Dale Bailey and Catherynne Valente rub up against history with Margaret Fox in "Mr. Splitfoot," and Charlotte Brontë in "We Without Us Were Shadows." Each of these stories carries elements of the fantastic, while managing to be poignant and more realistic than one would expect -- tragically well done on both counts and a wonderful way to enjoy these historic figures in a new light.

Veronica Schanoes introduces readers to the horror of the working class women who suffered and died making Lucifer matches in "Phosphorus": a brief moment in history rarely considered. This story is a horror because so very much of it is based in fact. "Phosphorus" is, in fact, downright ghastly, and the narrator a character that haunts in the truest sense of the word. I want to know more about the history behind this story, but honestly, I'm still too creeped out to deeply research it.

Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer's epistolary romance, "The Vital Importance of the Superficial," manages to convey light horror while showing not a single drop of blood -- well done! -- and then Gregory Maguire takes our beloved A Christmas Carol and makes it crazy disturbing with "A Few Twigs He Left Behind." Yes, Tiny Tim is all grown up and physically just fine, but emotionally? Well, you have to read it to believe it.

Finally, I must mention the wonderful Theodora Goss. With "Estella Saves the Village" she presents the most terrifying of premises: that your entire life might be a lie. She then gives readers a rash of gifts to discover (Miss Havisham! Pip! Sherlock Holmes! And more and more and more!), and yet the collision course all of these delights are on with the end of the world seems impossible to ignore. This one is, by Goss's own admission, pure wish fulfillment and a delight for lit lovers. It left me with a smile on my face. I then went back and read the title story again so I could revel in all things Victoria and magic. Queen Victoria's Book of Spells was wonderful and an anthology I highly recommend.

Colleen Gleason also visits Holmesian territory (I can never get enough Holmes, so I'm not going to complain) in her decidedly YA steampunk mystery, The Clockwork Scarab. First in the new Stoker and Holmes series, this version of Victorian London includes Sherlock's romantic foil Irene Adler, now attached to the British Museum and in the clandestine employment of Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales (aka Victoria's daughter-in-law and wife of the future king).

Adler is looking into the kidnapping and murders of several young women from the upper echelons of society and enlists two crackerjack undercover agents to assist her: Mina Holmes (daughter of Mycroft) and Evaline Stoker (sister of Bram). Mina exhibits all of the acute observatory powers of her uncle and excels at deductive reasoning, although any sort of physical prowess is noticeably lacking. Evaline is a certified vampire-hunter in Stoker-style but suffers from crippling self-confidence that becomes a real problem as the narrative unfolds.

The plot is mostly straightforward: Adler explains the mystery, the teen detectives are immediately engaged, lost girls are found (some in better condition than others), and through fits and starts Mina and Evaline learn to trust each other and solve the crime. Along the way each stumbles upon potential romantic interests who bring their own interesting backstories to the table (one a cop, one a tough street guy), and there are also many cool steampunk additions having to do with transportation, crime-solving, and keeping house. While more bloodthirsty than most recent YA mysteries (don't think there won't be some dying), The Clockwork Scarab is mostly a fun jaunt through an alt-history setting with two protagonists who are generally quite enjoyable to be around.

The only potential glitch here is the presence of a time traveler who suggests Holmes is not real and dresses and acts an awful lot like someone from our world, and thus raises an enormous amount of questions, none of which is resolved by the novel's end. Gleason will obviously be dropping some clues on this front in the sequel, but until then, readers should consider The Clockwork Scarab a fun jaunt through a not-so-merry England that is darkly exciting and well worth a late night read.

COOL READ: Madeleine L'Engle's middle grade classic A Wrinkle in Time is the quintessential autumn read. From the opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night," to the unfolding story that takes places among fallen leaves, coats, bluster, early dark, and sinister howls, L'Engle infuses every bit of her story with the thrills and fear of the season. In her adaptation, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, Hope Larson took all that the classic had to offer and gives it new life with her poignant and personal illustrations. The basic story is firmly intact: Meg Murray; her little brother, Charles Wallace; and new friend, Calvin, become embroiled on an interstellar adventure to rescue the Murrays' father. For all that it involves traveling to other planets, however, A Wrinkle in Time remains very much a tale of realistic emotion and oddly has never struck me as science fiction. I always feel much more like I'm reading a traditional family drama with a bit of mystery than something like Asimov. In that regard, L'Engle is very much like Ray Bradbury to me; even when they go into space, their stories read like they occurred just down the street.

Larson's adaption includes winning portrayals of Meg and company (especially the wide-eyed innocence of Charles Wallace, young enough to still be in footie pajamas) and the subtle horrors of the IT-controlled planet of Camazotz. She washes her pages in blue, but keeps the pages subdued enough for the words to convey their power. For reluctant readers this is a first class introduction to L'Engle's work, and fans will enjoy seeing it presented in a new way that remains faithful to the original every step of the way.