Winter is sucking the happy out of all us with either too much snow in the Midwest and New England, too little rain in California or too much heat in Alaska. Everything is crazy outside, so why not disappear awhile in a rip-roaring adventure? Sometimes, escapist reading truly is the best kind of reading there is.
George Mann's intrepid steampunk "supernatural specialists" Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes return in a quite diabolical serial killer investigation with The Executioner's Heart. The Newbury and Hobbes mysteries have always done a great job of showcasing both of its protagonists without leaving Hobbes in a subservient literary position, but this go-round is especially well done. Things get complicated quickly and all sorts of supporting characters step up to help unsort the web of clues and political intrigue the detectives uncover. At the center is still a killer who must be stopped and that, as usual, is where Newbury and Hobbes truly shine.
Newbury has some Holmesian issues to deal with and struggles with addiction that might strike a Baker Street chord. However, he also wrestles with the supernatural and is risking his life battling a spiritual entity on behalf of Hobbes' sister. The paranormal is to be expected of course, as this is an England where Queen Victoria is kept alive through machinery of a most unnatural kind, and don't even get me started on what our heroes find on display at the Crystal Palace exhibition.
But around all the wonderful world building is still murder and greed and lies. Bloody death is popping up all over the drawing rooms of London and the victims appear to be connected in only the most tenuous of ways. As Newbury and Hobbes get on the case, they find themselves considering some most unexpected suspects, and while the killer must be stopped, soon enough the killer is the least terrifying part of the plot. Readers in search of a modern take on classic adventure and Holmesian hijinks that move at a rapid pace will find The Executioner's Heart to be right up their alley. I don't know which one of these characters I love more, only that I heartily look forward to what happens with them next.
For a somewhat creepier detective novel, look no further than The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock. Langdon St. Ives has anchored several Blaylock novellas, but this is his first full-length title. Now semi-retired and enjoying life in the country, in this go-round the intrepid detective is joined by his stalwart companions Tubby Frobisher and Jack Owlesby, a doctor from Edinburgh named Arthur Doyle, and a young former circus aerialist, Finn Conrad. The villain is, as usual, the nefarious Dr. Ignacio Narbondo although others scatter about. Most dangerously, there is the "Aylesford Skull," the ghost that comes with it and the paranormal nightmare that it is capable of unleashing.
I'd like to think that true Victorian England never looked so grim, except the grave robbing and serial murders that Blaylock describes are right out of late nineteenth-century London. Narbondo himself is so unsettling perhaps because his evil is so common and with his backstory fleshed out here (courtesy his mother), he becomes a villain that readers can understand although certainly never sympathize. (Which actually makes him a lot worse.)
In The Aylesford Skull, St. Ives faces down an attack on his family, the return of a "dead" friend, foes willing to shed the blood of anyone in order to increase their personal power and an increasingly insane Narbondo. There is also some fishing, bird watching, talk of elephants, a flying machine and pirates. Blaylock does his usual talented blend of fantastic and science-possible and the interplay between the supporting cast makes for a fast-paced plot. It's a dark tale that manages to be a fun read and happily, gives the author to space to indulge all of his literary whims with this always enjoyable character.
Charles de Lint's Jack in the Green, out this month from Subterranean Press, is a contemporary tale that transports Robin Hood and his Merry Men into the modern gang culture of the American southwest. Fans of de Lint will have some idea of what to expect here: teenagers trapped in grim circumstances who encounter elements of myth and folklore and embrace them to effect great personal change. This time the stakes are incredibly high but the legend is no slouch either and what happens to Maria when she spies old friend Luz breaking into a house with a new "gang" of her own is something magical.
Maria and Luz hoped to find some magic when they were young, and miraculously, it looks like it might have happened. Jack Green and his friends may not understand how things work in Santo del Vado Viejo, where the 66 Banda gang rules the streets and the cops are more concerned about protecting the gated communities, but standing up for the downtrodden is written into their DNA. Class consciousness is always part of de Lint's titles and it is front and center here as Green robs from the rich to help the poor. When Maria finds herself falling hard for the mysterious hero while getting caught in the middle of a turf war, de Lint raises the stakes and forces his characters into an impossible situation. Then he pulls it all out with the kind of ending readers have learned to expect. With such engaging young characters, a theme that will resonate with any teen reader and Robin Hood to boot, Jack in the Green (with illustrations by Charles Vess), is an excellent YA choice.
Unexpectedly, I found a thread of Nikola Tesla running through a couple of the books I read for this column. Tesla is enjoying a renaissance these days and finding him in books for middle-grade and teen readers is an excellent way to build curiosity about this brilliant inventor.
Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith is a throwback to classic 1950s style adventure stories (The Mad Scientists Club, anyone?). Siblings Nick and Tesla Holt have been sent for the summer to stay with their unorthodox Uncle Newt in Half Moon Bay while their scientist parents look into soybean growth in Uzbekistan. In short order they discover he is the very definition of eccentric, and while soaking in all the scientific awesomeness of his home lab (not to mention his home, period), the kids put together a fun rocket experiment and accidentally end up launching Tesla's necklace into the yard of the forbidding, sort-of-abandoned mansion down the street. The necklace must be retrieved, very big guard dogs thwarted, mysterious girl in the upstairs window rescued and lots of bad guys stopped. To accomplish all this, the brother and sister enlist the help of some bicycling neighborhood kids and more than a few things from Uncle Newt's basement. In the end a nefarious plot is stopped and the good guys win with lots of clues laid out for future adventures including figuring out just what Nick and Tesla's parents are really doing.
What elevates Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab above standard MG hijinks is the unique book design, which incorporates not only blueprints and schematics on every page but also illustrations throughout. On top of that, the authors include step-by-step instructions for every experiment that Nick and Tesla conduct so readers can give them a go as well. The directions are basic and easy to follow, the components accessible from your own home or local hardware store and the results a lot of fun -- rockets! "robo-cat dog distractor"! electromagnet! The narrative provides a standard page-turner but the experiments are an extra kick that shows the sort of fun that can be had when science leaves the lab. The second book in the series, Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage, is out now and a third, Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle, is due shortly.
Tesla's Attic by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elman is billed as a middle-grade title, but I think it actually works best for teens. The only thing it is missing from standard YA fare is romance and frankly, sometimes teen readers don't want romance in their mystery-adventures. For those interested in what strange things could be lurking in an inherited house and how they tie into a potential "Men In Black" conspiracy, then, Tesla's Attic fits the bill. Make the heroes a smart and fearless group of Super 8 level teens who are not superpowered, not magical and not on the cusp of finding some mystical object that will make them superpowered or magical, and you have a great start to what is billed as the Accelerati Trilogy.
Fourteen-year-old Nick, his younger brother and father have moved into his great aunt's house large rambling Victorian house, which was left to them in her will. Still reeling from the recent death of his mother in a fire, Nick is struggling to hold his family together as they make their way in a new town, new school, and new family reality. Cleaning out the attic for a garage sale seems like a good idea, as Aunt Greta was knee-deep in a lot of who looks like junk. Unfortunately there are some bizarre side effects to the seemingly innocuous toasters, vacuums, tape recorders, and other items that make their way into the community at the surprisingly successful sale. After some strange occurrences at home, Nick realizes he has to get all the stuff back and enlists the help of some classmates who have been freaked out by their purchases. In the meantime, the group tries to figure out just how these things got to be so powerful and who might have built them.
Tesla fans will already know that there are plenty of connections between the inventor and Colorado, so the idea that he might have stashed a few things in an old friend's house for safekeeping is not beyond the realm of possibility. Just what the inventor was up to with all this stuff is another thing however, and when a group of deadly physicists appears who really wants the stuff, (and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it), then the stakes increase exponentially. It's one thing to save a neighbor from a wild toaster but quite another to face down folks who are as likely to kill you as negotiate. Nick has to get a grip on what he has unwittingly loosed on the town and also be mindful of his family, who don't know what's going on and are facing their own demons as well.
The chemistry between Nick and his friends, Mitch, Caitlin, and Vincent, is really fantastic. They are a complicated group, not all necessarily likable, and hiding their own secrets as most of us do. They come together first because of circumstance -- each has one of the attic objects -- but slowly, as they work on solving the mystery, they become friends. It's a lot of fun to see them form a team and the way Shusterman and Elfman have written them, as teenage "everymen," readers will easily be able to project themselves into the story. Tesla's Attic was a very fun read for me, one of the more engaging and surprising titles for teens I've come across in a while.
If these novels sound appealing then consider Elizabeth Rusch's picture book biography of Tesla, Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World. There is a wealth of information in here about Tesla's childhood, his emigration to the U.S. and his infamous problematic relationship with Thomas Edison. Rusch shows how he was thwarted more than once by people who doubted his ideas and eccentric thinking but never backed down. It's a very inspiring story, and Oliver Dominguez's full color illustrations bring to life the inventor and the times he lived in. While Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World was clearly published for elementary school-aged children, I would not hesitate to recommend it for older readers. This is a great literary dip into the waters of Tesla's life and not to be overlooked simply because it is a picture book. I relished every page.
COOL READ: While I have become quite accustomed to the Scientists in the Field series taking me to unexpected places in the company of interesting people, The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America's Largest Mammal by Sy Montgomery is a trip way off the tracks. Likely few readers will have ever come across a tapir, even in the local zoo, and books about them are few and far between. But Montgomery excels at trips into the unexpected corners of the wild and she succeeds brilliantly here, in the company of field scientist Pati Medici and her associates. Along with photographer Nic Bishop (familiar to readers of the series), Montgomery went into Brazil's wetland territory to find the tapir. In the midst of some serious insect attacks and heat that makes a Florida summer seem downright Arctic in comparison, Montgomery and Bishop were witness to the work of this dedicated group who are trying to save the tapirs and the forests that depend on them.
There are some fascinating facts here, such as that tapirs are most directly related to horses and rhinos and have changed little in the last 12 million years. The pictures are, as usual for the series, clear, compelling and dynamic. The Scientists in the Field books never get old and with its unique subject, The Tapir Scientist is one of my all-time favorite entries.
This is the final installment of the Bookslut in Training column. I hope you have enjoyed reading it every month as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I am still writing, still reviewing, and can be always found online at my website, chasingray.com, and via Twitter (@chasingray).