Nearly

I followed through on my intention to read more young adult books by Elle Cosimano, by checking out her duology about Nearly Boswell. Yes, that’s her name, although she makes her friends call her Leigh, because she thinks a name like Nearly makes her stick out too much. Nearly is a girl who likes to operate below the radar for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that she has a special “gift” (or curse): If she touches someone, skin on skin, she can feel their emotions, and can usually tell whether they are lying or being truthful. Although this sounds useful, functionally it can be overwhelming, giving her a bunch of information she doesn’t really want to know. Other reasons include that she lives in a run-down trailer park with a mom who makes her living as an exotic dancer, and Nearly doesn’t want to give anyone more reasons for verbal target practice at her expense.

Nearly’s father left them five years ago, and (a pivotal plot point) Nearly reads the personal ads daily, searching for a message from him (since he communicated with her in that way once before). But what crops up instead are a bunch of weirdly worded clues that end up being the precursors to murder—all of people somehow associated with her life. Now she’s in a race to interpret or solve the clues to try to beat the murderer to the next victim, assisted by Reece, a new love interest who may not be someone she should trust.

This mystery is solved in the first book, but events begin to repeat themselves in book #2, as Nearly navigates her way through an internship at the town crime lab (although the clues appear as chemistry formulas rather than as personal ads) in a weirdly familiar way that just can’t be happening, given that the person most likely to be tormenting her is now locked away in prison. It also doesn’t help that Reece is working as an informant for the police and is involved with another girl as part of his undercover personna. When a skeleton is exhumed from the local golf course, Nearly has to wonder: Could it be her con man father buried there? or is it someone he murdered?

These are suspenseful reads, a little dark, and rather brilliantly plotted. Teens who enjoy the Naturals series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes would probably love them. The books are Nearly Gone, and Nearly Found.

Missing the mark

I read two books this week about which I was kind of excited, both of which didn’t pay off in the way I was hoping they would.

The first was The Final Girl Support Group, by Grady Hendrix. I hadn’t read anything by Hendrix, but people rave, so since I’m not much of a horror reader but am trying to keep up with some new books in that genre that I could recommend, I decided to try this one, which didn’t sound as terrifying as some.

The premise was interesting: In slasher movies, the “final girl” is the one who’s left standing at the end, after having fought back and defeated the killer, cutting short his terrifying rampage. This book purported to explore what happens to real-life final girls after the trauma is ended. The answer is, the trauma never ends. There may be an actual threat offered by a surviving villain (one who, for instance, has gone to jail rather than dying, and could therefore escape or be released) or from a crazed fan; or the ongoing villain could simply be the PTSD that lingers long after the events are history.

This book focuses on six “final girls” (women) and their therapist, who have met for more than a decade to try to exorcise their demons, and the action in the book is triggered by one of the women going missing, followed by other events that indicate someone knows who they are and is stalking them, one by one. The premise goes on to promise that the “girls” will stick together and have each other’s backs.

I’m not going to waste a lot of time on this review. I struggled to find a description for the book: It was supposed to be horror…but the emotion of fright was never once evoked. The scenes were so disjointed and the red herring got passed to so many different people that in the end, I just didn’t care that much. Add to that a bunch of intensely unlikeable characters and a somewhat boring narrative and all I can say is, interesting idea, poorly executed, don’t bother.

The second was the book Grown, by Tiffany D. Jackson. I had selected this book for my Young Adult Literature class in the mystery category without having read it, because it was a book that included diverse characters, written by a credible (and award-winning) author of color.

The blurb on Goodreads said: “Author Tiffany D. Jackson delivers another ripped-from-the-headlines mystery that exposes horrific secrets hiding behind the limelight and embraces the power of a young woman’s voice. When legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots Enchanted Jones at an audition, her dreams of being a famous singer take flight. Until Enchanted wakes up with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night. Who killed Korey Fields? Before there was a dead body, Enchanted’s dreams had turned into a nightmare. Because behind Korey’s charm and star power was a controlling dark side. Now he’s dead, the police are at the door, and all signs point to Enchanted.”

First of all, whose idea was it—the publishers, the author’s?—to try to position this book as a murder mystery? That is specifically what the blurb on Goodreads promises: It makes it sound like the book is all about “Who killed Korey Fields?” In that blurb, Enchanted (the main character) almost serves as a set-up rather than as the whole point of the story. But (spoiler alert) the murder doesn’t happen until you are almost 80 percent through the book, and is, compared to the rest, a minor plot point. The author specifically says in her author’s note at the end, “This book is about the abuse of power. It’s about the pattern of excusing grown men for their behavior while faulting young girls for their missteps. It’s about the blatant criticism of girls who were victims of manipulation…. About the individuals who were meant to protect and serve never believing victims in their moments of bravery.” So why not position the story directly? Why promote what amounts to deceit? I am honestly surprised that more reviewers aren’t calling this out.

The book is a vivid and sometimes horrifying depiction of a teenage victim of “Me Too,” who is stalked, groomed, essentially held captive, and abused by a 28-year-old celebrity. Korey Fields prefers young girls, and uses his celebrity as a music star to draw them in by promising them assistance with their singing careers. Enchanted Jones has an amazing voice and dreams of stardom, and she is captured by the twin allures of that and the personal attention Korey begins to lavish on her. She ends up leaving school and her family behind at age 17 to go on tour with Korey, supposedly protected by a guardian (who is in Korey’s employ and is possibly one of his former victims), only to encounter the crazy, jealous behavior and punitive actions of an exploitative sociopath who must be the center of attention no matter what.

I can see all the reasons why so many people embraced this book and gave it high marks. It deals with issues that need to be shouted about—loudly. And its focus is about and from within the Black community, where these issues are even more perilous. But there were so many problems with it that I couldn’t give it the credit I wish it fully deserved.

I feel like the author punted in some ways. She starts out with a clear idea of where she wants to go, but then doesn’t follow through in areas that matter, and that’s too bad, because there was real potential. The story gets confusing when her characters don’t know, act, and do as the real people in this situation would. There’s way too much random here.

Some specifics:

The main character was all over the place. I can see her initial star-struck reaction when this man shows interest in her and supposedly wants to promote her career, but honestly, her ongoing level of naiveté, given her background and family dynamic, was flat-out ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that a teen girl could get herself into this situation—but not this teen girl, the way she is initially written. And the mistakes that she makes in attempting to defend herself, after the murder occurs…anyone who had ever watched five episodes of any police procedural TV show would understand such concepts as chain of evidence and illegal search and find another way to make sure that somebody paid attention to the things that would exonerate her.

And looking at that family dynamic: There are certainly hordes of teens out there with parents who aren’t paying attention and/or just don’t care, but that’s not how these parents were set up. Sure, their life was pictured as busy and full of worries (primarily financial), and they placed a lot of reliance on their eldest to help out and babysit the rest of their children, but this is painted as a household in which everyone acts responsibly, and even if their daughter insisted she leave school and go on tour with a male musician who is 11 years older than she is, there’s no way that these parents were going to allow that. These parents, the way they were drawn (and the father’s lay-off and financial woes are not sufficient distractions) would have been all up in her business to find out how she got to know him that well in the first place, and stuff would have come out that would have waved all kinds of red flags on the way to the big one, which is, Are we really letting our daughter, who we care enough about to send to an expensive private school and harangue about her homework and college prospects, be a dropout and go away with this man? No. Sorry. I just didn’t buy it. And if you are saying Yeah, but the girl was determined—again, not this girl. She wasn’t described as someone with the self-confidence, bull-headedness, or fortitude to demand and get her way, or to leave without permission. On the contrary, she is nervous, unsure of herself, all of the characteristics that would lead to the initial situation of his being able to groom her, but would not promote the action she then takes. It just happens, somehow, and that’s one of so many things that just happen, without enough back story to create believability.

There were a lot of things to appreciate about this book, but there were so many small details that jangled that the cumulative effect was an atmosphere of disbelief for the reader (or at least this reader), which is the complete opposite of what the author was trying to achieve with her thesis of “please believe the victims.” I admire her desire to write about girls being sexually coerced and exploited by adults who know better, and to focus specifically on black girls, who continue to be the most disregarded, but the way she went about it was simply inadequate. There were elements that rang true, but just as many that made me say “Oh, c’mon!” more times than I should have during a narrative such as this. I give her respect for her attempt, and her storytelling kept me reading to the end despite all the missteps…but it could have been so much more powerful.

(I do love the cover…)

Ash (aka Cinders)

Back in 2012, I read Malinda Lo‘s science fiction book, Adaptation, and gave it a four-star rating and a good review. It was good storytelling, had romance both gay and straight, and hey, aliens!

Ever since then, I have meant to go back to her and at least read Ash, her Cinderella retelling with a sapphic twist, and this week I finally did so, as part of my preparation for my “speculative fiction” unit at UCLA for my Young Adult Literature class.

I have to say I was underwhelmed. There are nice things to say about the book: The writing is sometimes lyrical, and the scene-setting imagery (descriptions of forests, countryside, hunting on horseback, etc.) is lovely. Some of the characters are attractive, at least in their physical descriptions. But it seemed like Lo didn’t quite know how to both present/exploit the original fairy tale and then deviate from it effectively (or provocatively, as most readers would be expecting).

The details of the original that were retained were clichéd, with the stepmother being almost a cartoon caricature and the daughters’ personalities left unformed beyond the usual, which is to say, the elder is egocentric, frivolous, and mean, while the younger (less attractive and therefore less valuable?) retains a smidgen of humanity. The father likewise becomes the bum who didn’t pay the bills and left everyone in the lurch. And the prince (central to the original tale) has barely a cameo appearance in this book. The character of Aisling’s absent (dead) mother was so much more fully formed than most of the people in this story who were alive—it was both disconcerting and not ultimately useful.

You would think, against this backdrop, that the main players—Aisling or “Ash” (Cinderella), the King’s Huntress, Kasia, and the mysterious Fae suitor, Sidhean, would shine. They don’t, and nor do their relationships. Although Ash regards Sidhean with awe and wonder and looks forward to his visits and his company, there is little emotional involvement visible from either side (except for one or two extremely brief repressed moments on Sidhean’s part), and the prospect of going away with him does not fill Ash with joy, despite her miserable lifestyle from which one would think she would be desperate to escape.

Likewise, the meetings with the Huntress only hint tentatively and subtly at there being any kind of fascination (on either side), let alone attraction, and are so quietly and decorously handled that you keep wondering if you imagined reading the synopsis of the book in which these two supposedly fall in love. There are moments…but they remain unarticulated until almost the very end, and there is little sense of who the Huntress is, with few glimpses into her past and present and almost no indication of her feelings. There is no love story here, except in the vague dim recesses of the two characters’ minds—no verbalization, no wooing, no physical manifestation.

In effect, this book has an almost totally flat affect. Although there are conflicts (as Ash learns from her rather obsessive reading of fairy tales, it’s a big deal to go away with a fae into his land, where time moves differently and people can become trapped forever), they are not ultimately dealt with as if they are that significant. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but the resolution with Sidhean was puzzling, abrupt, and unsatisfying.

In this setting/world it also seems that a relationship with a fae prince is so much more scandalous than is a lesbian one—which seems almost completely taken for granted—that the reader is denied even the frisson of forbidden love, and when the two women eventually get together, it verges on mundane. And I mean, we all say we want books in which same-sex relationships are accepted and taken for granted, but…this is a fairy tale retelling in which “Ash” supposedly ends up a princess, married to a prince, so…shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks when that doesn’t happen?

I was just puzzled by this book—especially all the ways the author chose not to go. It’s not exactly a pan—it’s a pleasant enough read, and has some interesting moments—but it was so much less than I hoped or expected.

Genre assumptions

The book I chose to read this week was the perfect example of being led into genre mislabeling by certain aspects of content. The book is Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn, part of the “Dragonback” series. Because of the presence of dragons, and also because of the series title (making it sound like people were riding on the backs of dragons), I assumed going in that this would be a fantasy. After all, dragons are mythical creatures, right? and their presence would probably indicate world-building that involves some kind of medieval setting?

I was dead wrong. The only thing I got right about this book was believing that it would be a solid addition to my list of books for middle school readers, and that I might possibly be fortunate enough to have discovered one that was particularly appealing to boys, who are more typically reluctant readers than are girls at that age.

Dragon notwithstanding, this is science fiction. The dragon is one of a race of poet/warriors (the K’da) who are symbiotic with other select species and need them in order to live. The dragons transform from three dimensions to two, and ride around on (and receive sustenance and life from) their hosts while giving the appearance of being a large and elaborate tattoo—so instead of people riding dragons, it’s the other way around. And all species involved in this book are space-faring, with much of the action taking place on ships and in spaceports and outposts on various planets.

There aren’t too many books with dragons that anyone would consider sci-fi; the dragons of Rachel Hartman, for instance, while able to shapeshift back and forth between their native shapes and human form, are set within a construct that is definitely medieval in nature, as are the conflicts explored in her books. Same with the dragons of Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Chris Paolini, Jasper Fforde, and, of course, Tolkien. Even Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, alternate history in which dragons are the steeds ridden by the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, figure more as fantasy than anything else.

The only dragon books of which I’m aware whose author has attempted to claim science fiction status are those of Anne McCaffrey. Since these are telepathic fire-breathing dragons that bond for life with their riders, many have scoffed at McCaffrey’s claims. Her rationale for the premise is that mankind travelled to the planet Pern via rocket ships, only to discover that their new home was beset by deadly spores that traveled from a red planet to theirs in irregular cycles that lasted a decade or two every once in a while; they used their science to take the native fauna they called fire lizards (miniature dragons about the length of a forearm) and super-size them through selective breeding to wipe out the spores by breathing fire on them. (Her premise would be a lot more believable if she had also thought to use science to explain how these spores from the red star survive the unbearable heat of entry into the planetary system only to be destroyed by a simple toasty breath!)

Anyway, back to my middle school series. Zahn’s voice is perfect for his protagonist, who is a 14-year-old thief named Jack. Jack’s parents died when he was little, and his uncle Virgil, an interstellar conman, raised him to be an innocent-looking but precocious assistant for his various illegal exploits, so Jack has lots of talents like breaking and entering, computer program manipulation, and being a quick-thinking fast-talker. But his uncle died a little while back, leaving Jack alone except for the computer that runs Jack’s ship, upon which Uncle Virgil imposed his personality, so that “Uncle Virge” is still in some sense with Jack, imbued with the same sly, evasive, self-serving qualities that his human uncle possessed.

Uncle Virge is unhappy, therefore, when Jack decides to rescue and play host to Draycos, one of an advance team of K’da warriors who landed on a supposedly vacant planet where his people were intending to settle, refugees hiding out from their mortal enemies. Somehow their enemies already knew their destination, however, and managed to destroy all the advance ships and everyone on them save Draycos. Draycos has a few months to figure out what happened and from where, exactly, the threat lies, so that he can return to the main emigration ships of his people and re-route them somewhere safe, and Jack has undertaken to help him.

It turns out, however, that Draycos is at least as helpful to Jack as Jack is to Draycos, given his superb warrior skills. The two of them make a good team—the boy with lots of undercover experience to get them where they want to go with no one the wiser, and the dragon, honorable and principled, who can protect them along the way.

I finished book #1 and proceeded on to the second, Dragon and Soldier, and I plan to keep going with the rest of the series. So far, book #2 is as imaginative and delightful as was the first, my sole complaint being that each book ends rather abruptly so that you feel an immediate need to access the next volume, which is actually a decided advantage when it comes to luring the reluctant reader to keep going. I believe that those middle-schoolers (and anyone who loves science fiction and/or dragons) who discover these books will do just that.

Christmas thriller

It’s that time of year when all the people in the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” are asking for Christmas- or holiday-themed books. The presumption, of course, is that these will be cozy, feel-good, Hallmark-type stories to foster that precise experience of flannel pajamas and plucked heartstrings by the fire. But who’s to say that a Christmas story can’t be perilous and full of drama?

On the recommendation of Ivy-the-Librarian (one of my colleagues also on FB), I picked up the Libby (OverDrive ebook app) global Big Library Read community book for the month of November, Five Total Strangers, by Natalie D. Richards. It’s categorized as Young Adult, although it should properly be New Adult, since all the characters but the main protagonist are college students. Mira, however, is 18 and still a senior in high school, so I guess that was the determiner. Honestly, though, this book could be enjoyed by anyone who likes a heart-pounding suspenseful ride.

“Ride” is used literally in this case: The back story is that Mira, who has been living in California with her father while going to an arts-based high school, is returning to her mom’s in Pittsburgh for Christmas. While she usually gives herself a lead of three or four days before the holiday to travel, this year she pushed it to the last minute and is flying in on Christmas Eve morning. Unfortunately, due to the onset of a record-breaking snowstorm, she arrives in Newark to discover that her connecting flight has been cancelled and the airlines are sending passengers to local hotels until the skies clear. But Mira is determined to make it home for Christmas with her mom—it’s the first year they will be without her Aunt Phoebe, her mother’s twin sister who passed away a year ago from cancer, and Mira knows that her mother will need support to get through it. So when her seatmate on the flight into Newark says she is renting a car with three other friends and will be happy to drop Mira off in Pittsburgh, Mira jumps at the chance to be a part of the ride-along with Harper, Brecken, Josh, and Kayla.

Harper seems to be a reassuringly mature and well organized person, as well as friendly to and protective of Mira, so Mira feels confident climbing into the SUV with her and her friends. What she shortly learns, however, is that none of the others knows each other—they met at the airport and agreed to share the rental car—and now she is living out any parents’ worst nightmare, your child in a car with four strangers. Who knows what could happen?

In fact, more disasters and drama occur than one could imagine, even in these adverse circumstances. Above and beyond the tension created by the truly terrible weather and the constant driving hazards it presents is the gradual realization that someone in the car is actively trying to sabotage the trip, making such essentials as cell phones and maps disappear just when they are needed the most. But why? This is essentially a locked-room (in a car) mystery, and the ramp-up of stress is palpable. I especially identified with Mira’s conflicting feelings as she went from being determined to make it home to be with her mom to realizing that perhaps her own safety was going to have to take precedence over a picture-perfect Christmas, could she but bring herself to run screaming from the car.

I had some basic caveats as the story progressed: There is too much speculation with no progress or resolution on at least one character, while another is left too vague, considering a role as a major actor in the plot. I was also a bit irritated by some of the too-pat coincidences. But overall, the suspense is well maintained, the red herrings are effective, the breathless quality keeps amping up throughout, and you are poised to let out a tension-generated shriek should a housemate tap you on the shoulder or a pet jump in your lap at a pregnant moment.

If you want a book with a Christmas vibe but without the hearts and flowers, Five Total Strangers is definitely a Yule tale with a different effect! Because this is the Libby book for November, most larger libraries have unlimited copies of the e-book available for remote checkout. Access it, curl up with your cocoa, and prepare to be traumatized.

Witchy? or whiny?

I will be teaching Young Adult Literature at the UCLA library school again this coming spring quarter, so I am starting to gear up for that by trying to catch up with a couple of years’ worth of teen fiction. Although I teach the history of the literature, I also like (and need) to be up on the latest thing in as many genres as possible. This week I chose a fantasy/paranormal by a first-time author—The Nature of Witches, by Rachel Griffin—partly because, well, it’s October! Time for witches.

The book has an interesting premise: There are weather witches, who are each attuned to a particular season—Spring, Summer, Fall, or Winter—and their gifts allow them to manipulate both the weather and the well-being of the earth, in ways that specifically relate to that season. So Spring-born witches, for instance, are skilled at digging their fingers into the earth and making plants spring from seeds and grow to maturity in whatever time period they wish, while Winter-born witches are better at manipulating water, making it rise up out of the ground into the atmosphere, creating storm loops that provide more precipitation. All witches draw their power from the sun.

In their world, as in ours, the populace is in general ignoring climate change, and its effects are worsening. In this story, the depredations to the earth by greedy developers and exploiters are beginning to outweigh the witches’ abilities to preserve the status quo, and witches are burning out attempting to keep the earth from spiraling into a decline. The general population of non-witches are called “shaders.”

The protagonist of the book is Clara, who is a rare and special “Ever” witch—that is to say, she has an affinity with all seasons, not just one, and can use her powers no matter what the season, while those identified with a particular quarter of the year are powerful during those three months and much more helpless during the other nine. But Clara doesn’t have good control of her powers; she has, in the past, injured or killed people when she unintentionally diverted her power and overwhelmed them, and as the book opens, she is considering staying outside during a total eclipse, which would strip her of her powers, in order to be able to live a normal life. But the fact that she is an “Ever,” able to work in every season and to harness powers not available to regular witches, means that this would be an incredibly selfish act on her part, so she is torn.

On Goodreads, I rated this a three, for concept, and also for some of the truly beautiful visual images the author presents as a part of her earth-loving witches’ consciousness. But you could definitely tell that this was a first effort on the part of the author, without some of the world-building skills necessary to a good fantasy, and also with a particular kind of teen vibe that, while common in YA Lit, is neither endearing nor enjoyable.

I loved the idea of weather witches, and having them be identified with one season, with all those season’s priorities and perspectives, was effective. Also effective was to have the one “special” witch, the “Ever,” as the protagonist. So far, so good. But to characterize everyone not a witch as a “shader” and give so little attention or perspective as to who the “shaders” are (yes, we know, the “common person,” but there’s a big spectrum there!) was to slight the entire background of the story.

First of all, am I being obtuse when I don’t comprehend how the word “shader” relates to ordinary non-witchy people? I don’t get the term. Second, although it is mentioned multiple times that the shaders have ignored the limits of the witches’ abilities to maintain the world in their eagerness for continued expansion and growth, there is little attention paid to how those communications between the two factions take place, what specific warnings have been delivered, who is in charge, etc. There are a couple of organizations mentioned by name and subsequently by initials that you have to keep looking up because they are so unmemorable, but nothing is included about their interactions except that, latterly, shaders are “beginning to pay attention.” Not good scene-setting. We needed more detail, some history of association, some BACKGROUND.

As for my second caveat about the specific teen nature of the protagonist…what I am talking about is a self-involved view of the world that relates anything and everything back to the feelings and emotions of the main character. The world revolves around her, and her obsession with her powers cuts in front of any regard she may have either for her loved ones or for the world at large. Yes, she spends a lot of the book protesting that she would give up her powers in order to keep her loved ones safe…but then she continues on, justifying and hedging her bets and putting them in danger anyway, only to cut them off again when playing with her powers gets her in trouble. And she continues to muse fatalistically on the necessity for her to be stripped of her powers in order to live a happy life, regardless of how it would deprive the earth at large of a savior of whom it has desperate need. In other words, she’s selfish, self-involved, myopic, and kind of whiny!

Far from being reserved to this particular book/author, this kind of character is prevalent in a percentage of teen-directed fiction, and although a certain amount of the observation of teen behavior and (lack of) emotional maturity may be true and accurate, it’s not fun to read. I’m not saying that authors shouldn’t write teens authentically, only that there might also be a little bit of aspirational imagining of them as rising above those thought patterns and behavior, and not at the end of an interminable 300+ pages but nearer the beginning!

This book got some enthusiastic five-star ratings, and I’m betting a lot of those are from teens who felt the romance and allure but didn’t mind the erratic and selfish thinking so much. But I would have enjoyed more back story and less angst. I call this “dithery fiction” because we spend the entire book listening to the character saying “what if” but taking forever to settle to a decision. Yes, she shows moments of resolution…which dissolve like sugar in water at the first sign of opposition, and then it’s reset: start over, dither some more. It’s ultimately so tiresome that it makes it hard to enjoy the rest of the story.

(I did like the cover image!)

This could be Clara, with spring flowers growing up around her
in the meadow where she and Sang meet.

Mostly ghostly

I promised ghostly goodies in honor of Hallowe’en, so let’s review some titles that will have you thinking of the mysterious barrier between this world and the next, and what happens when that barrier falters!

First off is a series that was written for middle school teens but that delights everyone who reads it: The Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. The first book is called The Screaming Staircase, and it lays out the scenario that prevails in the other four books:

For more than 50 years, England has been overrun by ghosts. They linger, they float around, they make horrifying noises, they haunt specific places and, in some cases, they reach out to touch the living, which “ghost-touch” is nearly always fatal. The most frightening aspect of this wholesale haunting is that while adults can experience some of the effects, they can’t actually see the ghosts and therefore can’t protect themselves. So a bevy of teens and children (who CAN seen them) are recruited and armed with silver chains, salt, lavender, swords, and holy water and sent out in teams to lay the souls to rest by measures merciful or stern.

Psychic Investigation Agencies, mostly run by adults, are in charge of these teams of teens; but one young man decides that the adults who can’t even see the threat shouldn’t be in charge of his fate, and starts his own agency, run by and employing only teenagers. Anthony Lockwood, George Cubbins, and Lucy Carlyle do their best to prove they can fight ghosts with the best of the prestigious and powerful organizations against which they are competing for business, but a series of hapless incidents puts their fate in question. Then they get the chance to spend the night in one of the most haunted houses in England…

I’m baffled as to why the reviewers insist that this series is “for a younger audience.” In fact, the recommendation for 4th through 7th grades is wholly inappropriate—the 4th-graders would be too frightened! I would say 6th grade and up…and up. I found the mysteries engaging, the haunted scenarios truly frightening, and the world-building completely believable. I think anyone would like these. The other books are: The Whispering Skull (pictured above), The Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow, and The Empty Grave. (Another bonus: The series is complete! No waiting around for sequels.)

Now for another book that is also YA, but doesn’t seem so in the reading: A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb. Helen and James are two spirits who are haunted by a few hazy, incomplete memories of their pasts (when they were alive), and need to remember who they are and how they died, and figure out why they are in this strange limbo between life and death. Helen, who is 130 years past her due date, has discovered that when you are “light,” in order to keep from plunging into some kind of horrific afterlife you need to cling closely to a human host. Her latest is an English teacher, Mr. Brown, and it is in his class that she encounters James, the first person who has been able to see her since she died. There’s a reason for that: James is also “light,” but has found an ingenious way to live again.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, but if you are thinking this sounds like a Stephenie Meyer plot, think again: It’s far more than a sappy teen romance. FIrst of all, Whitcomb’s writing is witty and sophisticated, and the story itself is surprisingly complex, exploring such themes as human existence, forgiveness, and the emotions of love, grief, and responsibility. The personas are carefully crafted to relate to their relative time periods, Helen’s formal speech contrasting beautifully with James’s more contemporary lingo. Whitcomb is also a master at describing the sensations the characters feel as they experience certain things for the first time. I found the story arc deeply satisfying when I read the book, and only recently discovered that there is a second book, called Under the Light. I was surprised, since a sequel didn’t seem necessary, but the description reveals that it’s more of a companion novel, telling the stories of two other deeply invested characters, and I intend to grab it just as soon as I reread this one so that I remember all the necessary details!

Note; Whitcomb has another book that sounds like it would be spooky, called The Fetch. My recommendation is, don’t bother. It’s more about the Russian Revolution than anything else.

Another young adult series that offers up some spooky situations is the Shades of London series, by Maureen Johnson. In the first book, The Name of the Star, Louisiana teen Rory Deveaux has arrived in London to start boarding school just as a series of murders directly mimicking the crime scenes of the notorious Jack the Ripper are taking place. Despite a number of potential witnesses, it seems that Rory is the only one who spotted the man responsible for these heinous crimes, for a surprising reason that puts Rory in imminent danger. In the other two books—The Madness Underneath, and The Shadow Cabinet—we move beyond the Ripper story to discover that there’s a lot more happening on the ghostly front in London than anyone without Rory’s extraordinary perspective would suspect.

Note: There was supposed to be a fourth book, but six years passed and the author seems to have moved on permanently. It’s not really necessary to continue—the story arc was satisfyingly contained within these three. People wished for new adventures for various characters, but there is no cliffhanger, the story ends.

Finally, let me mention a few stand-alone titles that provide a satisfying shiver for your backbone:

Try Graveminder, by Melissa Marr. Although she is primarily a teen author, this book was billed as her first for adults; but I think both teens and adults would enjoy it.

The story centers on the town of Claysville, home to Rebekkah Barlow and her grandmother, Maylene, and also a place where the worlds of the living and the dead are dangerously connected. Minding the dead has been Maylene’s career and, once she dies, Bek must return to her hometown and, in collaboration with the mysterious Undertaker, Byron, make sure that the dead don’t rise. The tagline of the book is “Sleep well, and stay where I put you.” Deliciously creepy!

Break My Heart 1,000 Times, by Daniel Waters: A suspenseful thriller in which a “Big Event” has happened in the nearby metropolis, and all the resulting dead are lingering instead of moving on. Veronica and her friend Kirk have recently noted that not only are the ghosts not moving on, but they seem to be gaining in power. But when the two decide to investigate, they draw the sinister attention of one of Veronica’s high school teachers, who has an agenda that may include Veronica’s demise…

Meet Me at the River, by Nina de Gramont, is told from two viewpoints, that of Tressa, trying to cope with the death of her boyfriend, and that of Luke, the boy who is dead but can’t leave. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I so much enjoyed discovering the facts of the story in exactly the way the author wanted, which was not immediately, not all in a paragraph of explanation, but gradually, through the interchanges, the thoughts, the scenes. I will say that this book is much more than a sad paranormal love story—it’s as deep and intense as the river in its title. I found myself humming while I was reading, and finally figured out that I was remembering the hymn “Shall We Gather At the River?”, a song they sang at funerals in my childhood, a song laden with images of crossing over, being with loved ones. So much of this book was about death, but so much about life, too.

Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal: Jeremy can hear voices. Or, specifically, one voice, that of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the infamous writing duo, The Brothers Grimm. He made the mistake of admitting this once during childhood, and has been treated with doubt and suspicion by all the others in his village ever since. Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil whispered about in the space between this world and the next. But when Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy (and his unique abilities), a grim chain of events is set in motion. And as anyone familiar with the Grimm Brothers knows, not all fairy tales have happy endings…

For this list, I pretty much stuck to ghosts and steered clear of all the other beings that go bump in the night, but I’m going to mention one simply because it’s so much fun: Fang Girl, by Helen Keeble. Xanthe Jane Greene, a true fangirl of the fanged, wakes up one night in a coffin. Given her fantasies you’d think she’d be pleased, but no: What girl wants to preserve in eternal life such 15-year-old afflictions as acne and a puberty-born tendency to extreme clumsiness? Not to mention missing out on all the teen milestones, like getting a driver’s license and going to prom. So what does she do, upon emerging from her grave? What any 15-year-old from a loving environment would do—she goes home to her parents and little brother. Vampire lore has been done to death, but in this clever and winning parody Helen Keeble finds new territory, and it’s the perfect mix of paranormal with comedy. Don’t miss it.

I hope you will find something from this list to make your Hallowe’en reading sufficiently scary. Let me know what you think!

Ghosts for Hallowe’en

Now that we’re coming up on October, someone on “What Should I Read Next?” (Facebook page) just asked for good ghost stories or scary books for their teenager and, although I have a few favorites (more about those in a later post), I think that niche has been underfilled with good works. But T. L. Huchu is helping to change that, with his new book (published this summer), The Library of the Dead, listed as “Edinburgh Nights #1.”

The book’s protagonist is a fierce, brash, in-your-face 14-year-old girl with green dreadlocks named Ropa, a part-Zimbabwean, part-Scots “ghostalker”—I’m not sure whether this was Huchu’s (unattractive) way of spelling ghost-talker, or whether he purposely left it hazy as to whether she is a talker or a stalker!—who carries messages between the living and the dead in a vaguely post-apocalytpic Edinburgh. She, her little sister, and her beloved Gran live in an immobile caravan (trailer) parked on someone else’s land, and while Gran pays for her medicines with her knitting, Ropa haunts the streets looking for ethereal customers whose relatives will pony up a fee for a message from the dead, in order to pay the landlord for their parking space and buy their food and coal for heating. She draws on her Zimbabwean heritage by using an mbira, an ancient African musical instrument, as an aide to better communicate with the spirits, whose messages can be “tuned” into coherence by music.

Jomo, a friend of hers since childhood, has recently begun a job about which he is being extra secretive, but Ropa knows how to play to his ego, and she is soon being ushered (surreptitiously) by him into a library that operates as a secret society, available only to those with an interest in and talent for the occult. Although Ropa dropped out of school in order to support herself and her family, she is a lifelong reader and is thrilled with the opportunities offered by the library, once she gets past the daunting gatekeepers. Some of what she learns comes in handy when Ropa finds out from some ghosts on her turf that (live) children are being kidnapped and exploited in weird ways, and decides to track them down and return them to their families.

I was immediately drawn into this book—the narrative voice is fantastic. Ropa uses street lingo like a hansom cab driver from a Regency novel, but also throws in a lot of teen slang (presumably Scottish), so that while she is completely understandable, her turns of phrase are quite entertaining. The scene-setting is likewise amazing: History has taken the heart out of Edinburgh, and while there are only slanting references to wars and conflicts that leveled buildings and changed the financial dynamic of the city, a clear picture emerges that seems like London after the Blitz, if London had also suffered from climate change! It’s clearly a victory of some other country (England?) over the Scots, since everyone greets one another with the call-and-exchange of “God save the King!” and “Long may he reign!” with a nervous look over their shoulders to make sure people observe that they are following protocol. It’s little details like this that make the book so immersive and such fun.

The book is populated by quirky, fully fleshed-out side characters, both sinister and benign, and draws on Ropa’s two cultures—Zimbabwean and Scots—to make things even more interesting. There are truly scary scenes and also a lot of sarcasm and humor, and I predict a big hit with teens from about 13 up, although this is one of those young adult books that speaks to a wider audience. If you are an adult and enjoy a good ghost story, by all means recommend this to the teens in your circle, and then go read it yourself!

I’ll review an array of Hallowe’en-appropriate books for teens (and others) as soon as the month turns to October…

Inheritance

I just finished reading two new books in a series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, author of the ever-popular The Naturals. These are so different from those books, though, that I didn’t know whether I would like them. But I think she pulls it off, and although I’m not sure it will be quite as popular with teens as The Naturals, it will still engage them with its mysteries and puzzles. I thought, after reading both, that this was going to remain a duology; but despite feeling like things were well enough wrapped up at the end of book #2, I discovered on Goodreads that there will be a book #3. Hmm. I’m not sure what’s left to discover, given that the mysteries are pretty much solved…unless she’s going heavily into the romantic aspect. I hope not.

The Inheritance Games and The Hawthorne Legacy reminded me of two other books, one for children and one for adults: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware. I’m not a personal fan of The Westing Game—I find it convoluted and confusing, and feel like the characters are all made of cardboard—but I can’t deny its appeal to middle school kids, who will grow a few years older and like Barnes’s new series very much because of it. Both books are about people inheriting money and having to play games to do so, although it’s direct in The Westing Game, while in The Lying Game it’s a case of mistaken identity wherein the protagonist decides to keep her mouth shut and go along with it for the sake of the inheritance. The Inheritance Games books are a sort of mashup of those two, although the protagonist has no need to lie, since she is the clearly designated heir; she just needs to figure out why, and to do so before someone manages to kill her to get what they believe to be rightfully theirs.

Avery Grambs is a somewhat disadvantaged girl who grew up in a mostly one-parent household (Dad is kind of a deadbeat), then lost her mother a few years back and was raised the rest of the way by her older half-sister, Libby. Then one day she is summoned to the reading of a will—and it’s not just any will, but that of the fabulously wealthy billionaire, Tobias Hawthorne. She figures that for some random reason the man has decided to leave her some money; but she never in this world expects that he has left her his entire estate, minus some minor bequests, while disinheriting both his daughters and all four of his grandsons. Some would consider it a dream come true; but as Avery is uprooted from everything she knows and has to take a crash course in how to deal with all the repercussions and unexpected issues that come with great wealth, she isn’t so sure that it’s not a potential nightmare instead.

To receive her inheritance, Avery has to live at Hawthorne House, a sprawling estate where most of the rest of the family also resides, for an entire year. Dragging along her sister Libby and attempting in vain to evade the paparazzi, Avery moves into her new home, only to discover that Tobias Hawthorne was a wily old gent whose house is filled with secret passageways, hidden compartments, and a bunch of puzzles, riddles, and codes that may solve the mystery of: Why her?

Meanwhile, half of her new-found family is out to get her, while the other half is fascinated by the puzzle she represents, and all of them, whether hostile or friendly, are trying to use Avery to their own ends.

There is a nice story arc that carries you from the first book to the second, and the riddles and clues will delight most teenage readers as much as they stymie the teens in the book. There are a few confusing subplots that I think we could have done without, but they don’t distract too much from the main trajectory. Barnes is great at the slow build-up and the big reveal, and uses it to good advantage several times to promote further suspense and interest. There are also enough details about parties, clothes, and jet-setting to entertain those who enjoy the trappings of wealth, and a little incipient romance to satisfy that longing as well. This is a series that teens will enjoy, and perhaps some of their parents will too! I look forward with both anticipation and trepidation to see what becomes of everyone in book #3, which has a tentative title of The Final Gambit and is due out sometime in 2022.

Interludes

As I have previously mentioned here, sometimes I take a break between what I would consider more “significant” works (or at least the works of writers unknown to me) to read something lighthearted, whether that is a book written with juveniles as its audience, or a “bit of fluff” characterized by chick lit or Regency romance. This past week or so, I did both, with some surprising results.

The first book I picked up was The Extraordinaries, by T. J. Klune. Given that Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, is one of my favorite books ever, I had high expectations for a book in which ordinary people have the potential to become extraordinary, and the extraordinaries have complicated relationships with their ordinary contemporaries (and with one another). What can I say? First, I have to face that there is no comparing any book with the brilliance that is Vicious. It stands alone (well, except for its sequels). Second, I read Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea first, absolutely fell in love with that, and then read this. Who could not be a little disappointed?

The Extraordinaries is exactly as billed: A YA novel about a kid with ADHD who wants to be a superhero or, alternatively, wants to be beloved of a superhero. It’s cute, it’s inclusive, it’s frank and matter-of-fact about sexuality, it has some great characters, and teens will love it. Me? Not as much. I see its worth and its value without being able to immerse myself in its story. Also, I feel like the (ultra-serious) post-er who decried the glorification of the police (always the good guys, regardless of bad behavior) in this had a point. Not to the extent he carried it, but still…yeah. But for kids who like comics and graphic novels, this is a next step, and a fun one. I had planned to read the sequel, Flash Fire, but after the first couple of chapters I put it aside. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just not for me. But like I said, teens (especially lgbtq etc. teens) will be enthused. (I do, however, look forward to the sequel to Cerulean Sea with unabated hope.)

I decided instead to move on to my reliable go-to author for light relief, the inimitable Georgette Heyer, writer of the quintessential Regency romance. But I ended up being surprised by a book that was not quite like most others she has written. A Civil Contract is surprisingly serious in tone compared to her light, frothy stories of witty, clever people, and owes much to Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility.

It has a common theme of star-crossed lovers who may or may not prevail, and who probably appreciate the person with whom they end up more than the one they initially desired. But in this case there is no blinding realization that they have come to love that person, but rather a quiet acceptance that the relationship they have created will in the long run suit better, regardless of their feelings.

Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, an officer in the Peninsular War, is called home upon his father’s demise to discover that his family’s fortune has been decimated by his happy-go-lucky, completely improvident parent, and that he is on the verge of ruin. He has a mother and two sisters to support, and the youngest is not yet “out” (presented to society); without a dowry or indeed any basic support, her fate at least will be grim if he can’t figure out their financial situation in a hurry.

Before he left for the war, Adam had an understanding with Julia Oversley, for whom he has conceived what he believes to be a lasting passion, and which is returned by the beautiful Julia. But he knows that her father is not so unworldly as to agree to a marriage between his daughter and a man who can’t support her. While he is steeling himself to sell significant parts of the family’s estate, including the country seat, Julia’s father approaches him with the idea that he make a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a fabulously wealthy but admittedly vulgar merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, to whom Mr. Oversley owes a favor. In exchange for his daughter Jenny achieving the social status that comes with marriage into an aristocratic family, Chawleigh will pay the myriad bills accrued to the estate and buy back all of Adam’s mortgages on the country home. Jenny, a school friend of Julia’s, goes into the marriage knowing that Adam still loves Julia. And the rest of the book details the emotions still held by the two parties in the doomed love match, as well as the new wife’s adaptation to being married to a man who not only doesn’t love her, but holds her father in revulsion, despite his own resolve, for being who he is and wielding power over Adam’s every decision.

This book, rather than a recounting of the making of a marriage, is an exploration of what constitutes a successful one once the deed is done. It incorporates the many sacrifices one has to make by tolerating the baggage of relatives and friends that come with a partner; it reveals the necessity of kindness, tolerance, patience and, above all, a sense of humor. It showcases, in fact, that the significant parts of married life are the ordinary, everyday events rather than the moments of exaltation or grand passion.

Julia Oversley is the Marianne Dashwood of the story—beautiful, impulsive, sensitive, willful, and somewhat selfish—while Jenny is Elinor—practical, somewhat shy and retiring, and more concerned for the feelings of others (specifically Adam’s) than for her own. Jenny’s father, Jonathan Chawleigh, is somewhat reminiscent of Sir John Middleton, in that he speaks his mind in an embarrassing manner without thought for what he is saying or how it will affect his listeners. But he goes far beyond that character in both coarseness and good-heartedness, and steals the show whenever he appears on the page.

There was rather too much historical narrative for my taste regarding the various engagements between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, but it’s well written and definitely pivotal to the plot. This is one of the few books of Heyer’s that has a quiet, satisfying ending rather than an “Ahah!” moment, but it doesn’t suffer for that. While it was an unexpected read in the midst of Heyer’s others, I still both enjoyed and appreciated it.