December 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Saving the World. Again.

With winter break looming large, it's time to get a stack of books together for a nice long afternoon of escapist fiction. Go ahead and indulge yourself with these adventures -- I'm sure you deserve them!

Gwenda Bond provides readers with a rousing drama that is firmly grounded in a classic coming-of-age story with her mash-up of myths and secret societies, The Woken Gods. Washington, D.C. is now home to embassies housing the physical manifestations of legends from around the world and throughout history, including the Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians, American Southwest and even New Orleans. Just as global politics has always involved uneasy detentes between nations, the gods and man are gripped in a peace forged in death that is maintained by the mysterious Society of the Sun. Society members keep the gods from killing mankind through brute strength and hundreds of "relics" that have been gathered and guarded through the ages and now are the only effective weapons against immortal power. That Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse is very real, only it involves the relic-gathering skills of a ton of Indy-like archaeologists and is in a way cooler location.

Kyra Locke knows all about the Society and the gods because her father works there and her mother lost her mind when the gods were "awakened." Now an angry high school student, she spends a lot of time failing to get her father's attention and hanging out with ex-boyfriend Tam and best friend Bree. Then Kyra's dad giver her a vague "if I don't come home you must run away" lecture and a god tries to kill her in the middle of the street. The Society saves her butt and hauls her and her friends away to tell them what has really been going on. Except they don't really and the teens must figure it out on their own. But the fun here is all the twists and turns and lies and revelations, and careful world building and nonstop action (with bonus romance) that make anyone looking for a bunch of smart tough characters to hang out with very, very happy.

What Bond gives readers here is a whole bunch of adults who have not done the right thing in ways big and small. She also gives us adults who can't seem to wrap their heads around the fact that teenagers are not stupid or silly and thus can actually be trusted with the truth. There is some research la Giles, some breaking and entering (more than once) and some running for your life that is not always successful. Also a few serious ceremonies, the frustration of secret justice, the "I didn't know you liked me but I'm so glad I know now" kind of conversation and the requirement of putting your hand into an open wound to stop a deadly infection. Clearly, the squeamish need not apply to save the world in this case.

The Woken Gods is a fast-paced tonic for curious readers who seek multi-layered mysteries and a salute to smart under-appreciated kids everywhere. The cool part is when it all comes together at the end and some very delightful parents do step up to the plate because they trust their kids. Bond has her characters growing up in a strange new world, in a bold brave way. The Woken Gods is one mighty fun read, and thus a perfect respite from holiday madness. Smart equals good in any adventure, and this is a very good read.

Jasper Fforde follows up The Last Dragonslayer with the second book in his "Chronicles of Kazam" series: The Song of the Quarkbeast. These books (and they really should be read in order) are set in a funny world where magic is used for fixing construction projects, large-scale landscaping and speedy delivery via flying carpet. There are also pointless foreign policy squabbles, foolish bureaucrats, a despotic king and all number of recognizable societal silliness. Our heroine, sixteen-year old Jennifer Strange, lives in the Kingdom of Snodd where she runs the show for a bunch of "underemployed magicians" at Kazam Mystical Arts Management and nothing ever seems to go the way she wants it to.

In The Song of the Quarkbeast, Jennifer has a lot on her plate. Kazam's founder is still missing in an enchantment that went wrong (although reappearing unannounced in various points in the kingdom on occasion), her most powerful magicians have fallen victim to a spell, Kazam is under attack from a power-mad professional rival and there are trolls. She is also missing her late lamented pet quarkbeast very much, which becomes that much more difficult when she meets a rather demented quarkbeast hunter. All in all, Jennifer's life is as complicated as ever and keeping a cool head is especially critical if she wants to save the kingdom again.

Fforde knows exactly what he is doing with these books, and while they are a bit lightweight, they are also a lot of fun. Jennifer possesses a wry sense of humor that serves her well and her friends and coworkers continue to balance quirkiness and kindness in equal parts. Fforde fits all of their idiosyncrasies into this tightly crafted plot with ease and the addition of a hint of romance this time around is welcome but not a distraction from the continued unfolding of life around Kazam. There is also more than one mystery but every last bit is solved, sorted, and dealt with by the final paragraphs. There is no villain in these books, Fforde prefers to give his readers the sort of political messiness we are all too familiar with in the twenty-first century. The politics are so funny, teen readers will enjoy their addition to the plot. The Song of the Quarkbeast is pure fantasy comfort food: an excellent choice for decompressing in the midst of your own family political upheavals this month.

The adventure in The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence hits much closer to home but also involves leaps of faith and a strong heart for the title character. As the story opens, seventeen-year-old Alex is stopped at a border crossing and herded off by the police on drug charges. He is apparently the center of a national news story and facing multiple personal crisis. Plus his closest friend is dead, and he's the only one who can explain what happened. That's the setup, and the chapters that follow bring readers back several years to explain how Alex got there.

First and foremost, he is the boy who got hit by a meteorite and lived. The one-in-a-million accident made him famous and left him with a unique perspective that has colored every choice he makes in life. Raised by a mother who runs a wiccan-type shop and gives tarot card readings, he is used to being an easy target for bullies. Now with a wicked scar on the side of his head, a crazy story and avid interests in astronomy and neurology (for obvious reasons), keeping himself from being a target is nearly a full time job. It is while on the run one day that he meets a reclusive neighbor, the gruff widower Mr. Peterson, and finds the friend who changes his life.

Alex is a complex and endearing character, intrigued by science and literature and especially, through his friendship with Peterson, drawn to the works of Kurt Vonnegut. Extence makes sure to explain these interests, allowing Alex to have deep considerations of writing and astronomy that carefully add layers of meaning to the story. Most importantly he is a very likable kid whose curiosity will appeal to many readers. Consider this revealing passage:

I think if I could just spend the whole six hours of the school day solving algebra problems, then I'd be extremely happy. But, of course, that's not exactly normal. That's the part everybody hates. Most of the other boys can't wait for the break so they can go outside and play football. And to me, that really is baffling. It seems like such a waste of time and energy. It doesn't tell you anything about the world. It doesn't add or change anything. I don't get the appeal.

Extence takes Alex far beyond the point of traditional bullying and places him in an adult situation that calls for problem solving and sincerity of the highest order. He must make decisions that rattle not only his family but also ultimately spark a national dialogue, and he does it all for the most basic of reasons: it's the right thing to do. Light years from the traditional "problem of the week" novel and a brilliant look at the creative mind of an intelligent teen who willfully challenges the adults around him, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is thought provoking and intense. Fans of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes should especially give this one a look.

Joanna Nadin's Paradise combines family drama and secrets in the best gothic tradition, while still firmly set in contemporary England with nary a moor in sight. Sixteen-year-old Billie should be happy, the grandmother she never knew has left her a house in her will, and as Billie and her mother and little brother are barely hanging onto their crappy London apartment, this refuge sounds like a godsend. The problem is that her mother, who has always exhibited unpredictable behavior, is determined to leave without telling her boyfriend and Billie isn't too excited about being in a place she doesn't know with a mother who is starting to unravel again. She is sorely tempted to just walk away from it all, but her brother needs her and she loves her mother and the house does offer a possibility of... something else. In the grand scheme of things, that is enough to tip the scales and so off the little family goes to Cornwall where, of course, everything comes apart.

As you would expect, there is a big house where everything is mysteriously undisturbed, as if it has been waiting for the new occupants. Billie's uncle died years before in an accident as a teenager and his room is just as he left it, whereas her mother's childhood room bears no hint that she ever lived there. The town seems to know more about the family then Billie does and while a small group of teens seems welcoming, Billie's mother becomes more and more unhinged making it difficult to pay bills, let alone invite friends over. All too soon everything goes to hell in a hand basket in the most spectacular fashion but not before Billie learns just enough about her mother's past to demand more answers, which entails visiting a graveyard, nearly drowning in a dangerous sea, and finally figuring out who her father was and why he left her before she was born. The secrets are revealed so quickly in the end that your head spins a bit, but as someone who hung on every word of Victoria Holt when I was fourteen, I think the rhythm is just fine and readers will be delighted. Consider this one a modern twist on a classic narrative and a true page-turner.

For those seeking a bit more of a cautionary tale for their vacation reading la Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda's roommate-from-hell classic Single White Female, I recommend Jenny Davidson's subtle novel, The Magic Circle. The story starts out with one of those uniquely cerebral bar discussions favored by grad students, albeit on an unexpected topic. The plot centers around the groundwork that goes into developing a game to be played on the street level that realistically incorporates the architecture and history of the environment around it. For Columbia University students Ruth and Lucy, this means figuring out what to include in their game about the Victorian era in New York City, "Trapped in the Asylum."

The game is set in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, and is based on the real history of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Using the game's app as a guide, players move through the streets portraying someone voluntarily committed to the asylum la Nellie Bly. They will also gain experiences and answer questions that uncover clues about the asylum's creepy past. The goal is to make an educational game interactive and fun, part of what Ruth is researching in school, and it all seems quite interesting but relatively innocuous. The inclusion of neighbor Anna, a visiting scholar from Denmark, turns Ruth and Lucy's careful game planning on its ear however and brings a level of uncontrollable chaos into their lives.

On the surface, The Magic Circle is very much about game theory and the work that goes into creating a successful manufactured environment. The women work hard at making their games work in a logical way, both Ruth's "Trapped in the Asylum" and Anna's brainchild, "Places of Power", the latter of which incorporates Greek myth, the occult, and architecture into the mix. (Ghostbusters is appropriately name-dropped here, though Anna's vision has a much more adult form.) Through email excerpts and online journal entries, Davidson shows Ruth and Anna working through the details of their separate games while alternately arguing against and supporting each other's visions. Lucy, who is called away for several chapters due to a family crisis, serves to show the readers just how much the games change and overwhelm their creators' original visions when she returns and is shocked to discover how far her friends have moved from their original theories. Lucy cannot resist being drawn into the debauchery presented by Anna's game however, changing her view of what the games are supposed to be about. (So much for education.) Anna shows the appeal of game playing can be more than just leaving reality behind; it is about embracing a fantasy that is as close to real as it gets and presents potential consequences that are unpredictable and thus extremely exciting. It should come as no surprise that all of this takes a serious turn for the worse very quickly.

Anna's brother arrives and romances the reserved Ruth. "Places of Power" rapidly gains in popularity as word spreads through online message boards and forums and groups converge to play the game in a wild weekend that finds all the players engaging in dangerously indulgent behavior in Morningside Park after dark. The intoxication of playing the game infuses every aspects of Ruth and Lucy's lives and pitted against each other by their roles, they find themselves less inclined to question their conduct and suspicious of ulterior motives. Through it all, the Danish siblings weave a web that threatens to overwhelm the other two women, and lures them deeper into a game they never intended to play, let alone expected to threaten their lives.

The Magic Circle is a subtle thriller that effectively introduces the appeal of urban exploration and game playing into the freedom presented by the college environment. The dark turn that the plot takes is a warning call to any older teen who feels the lure of leaving the rules behind. Davidson shows how easy it is to lose your way and come unmoored from the person you thought you were when tempted by others. Teens about to leave for college will find a lot to consider in Ruth and Lucy's adventures and many questions to answer about how they would respond to all the possibilities that these games present. (Some sexual content makes this one a crossover for older teens only.)

Finally, as this is the holiday season, I couldn't resist a couple of unusual ideas that would certainly have appealed to me as a teenager. (And frankly still do.) Beth Kephart's recent title on writing memoir, Handling the Truth, has been receiving accolades all over the place for its thoughtful consideration of the good and bad in the genre, as well as providing examples from many wonderful books. Kephart is a National Book Award finalist who teaches writing; she pulls from her own experience and classroom discussion to illustrate many points. For the teen writer, Handling the Truth offers some valuable insight into many facets of the writing life, especially finding the truth in a story. Packaging Handing the Truth along with a couple of the dozens of memoirs Kephart lists in her detailed bibliography would be a great way to tell the teen in your life that your take his or her writing dreams seriously.

Another idea is to purchase a book subscription for YA lovers that will extend the gift-giving season into their mailboxes all year long. After filling out a questionnaire to help narrow down the gift recipient's interest, Oblong Books and Music in New York State will mail recipients"...a brand-new hardcover YA book specially chosen for them each month, along with swag and info about the books and authors we love, and whatever's hottest in the YA world. We'll help you discover the books that will be your new favorites." The service is available for three, six, or twelve month installments and all information can be found on the store's website.

COOL READ: Oyvin Torseter's The Hole is certainly one of the most simple yet innovative picture books I have come across in ages and an absolute treat for young children. Nicely designed by Enchanted Lion Books with heavy cardboard covers and sturdy pages, Torseter's story is beguiling in its simplicity. An animal-man (who stands upright but looks like a dog) has just moved into a new apartment. As he wordlessly unpacks, he is shocked to discover a hole in the wall. The hole appears and disappears at random as he tracks it around the rooms until finally capturing it in a box. He then goes off into the city (full of all manner of other "people" plus, great buildings and cars), boards a bus, and travels to a large facility where the hole is unpacked and studied until the techs tell him "that's all we can do for now" and packs the hole away for future study. He returns home, goes to bed and, of course, the hole is still there. (Fortunately for our hero's sanity, he doesn't notice.)

This subversive little story is laugh out loud funny, witty as hell, even with its very few words, and, as the hole is physically present through an actual hole in the page, also a very active book for the reader to engage with. The spare use of color and the line drawings give the pages plenty of white space for the hole to stand out, and the diversity of the characters gives the book a broad appeal. The Hole is an ageless read, as it will be enjoyed by everyone who picks it up. (And trust me, everyone will want to pick it up.) This is one of those titles that from conception to final product is just utterly and completely original. It's as good as it gets, and I can't recommend it enough.

Colleen Mondor is thrilled to pieces to be celebrating her 100th column for Bookslut this month. Catch up on her writing and other odds and ends at her website: chasingray.com.