Review: Isle of Blood

The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey. Book 3 in the Monstrumologist Series. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It is February 1889 and thirteen year old Will Henry and his mentor / employer, monstrumologist Pellinore Warthrop, get a special delivery from their old friend Jack Kearns.  The gift is the second greatest prize in monstrumology: it will inspire Warthrop and will to seek out the first greatest prize, racing across the globe to find it before anyone else does. Will is pushed to his physical, mental, and emotional limits as he is forced to face the ultimate question: what is a man and what is a monster? What is the difference between the two?

The Good: It is the place where desire meets despair.”

If you enjoy horror, especially horror told in a literary manner, and haven’t read any of the Monstrumologist series yet, stop now and go read The Monstrumologist and The Curse of the Wendigo. This is the horror of Stephen King, including the deep examination of people and their psyches, a look into what makes people love — or people kill. It is told in the rich language of days past, as if polysyllabic words and classical language makes blood and violence easier to read about and to think about. To think — yes, horror demands you to think, not just about “what is that sound outside my window” but the deeper philosophical questions, such as – what is a monster? What is a man? What is the difference? Instead of Uncle Stevie making the reader think about the darker aspects of ourselves, it is Uncle Ricky, taking our hand as we search for monsters, known and unknown, inside and outside our homes and hearts.

At this point, I assume you’ve read the first two books, and your question now is, is The Isle of Blood as good as it’s predecessors? To step back, The Monstrumologist introduced the reader to a world where monsters are real, biological creatures waiting to be discovered and studied like any other mammal, insect, or fish; it told a layered, action packed story and introduced us to young Will Henry and his mentor, employer, and guardian, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop. The Curse of the Wendigo managed to both be scarier and grosser than the first book, and also revealed more layers of Warthrop’s character and more understanding of his obsession and the impact that had had on his life.

Yes, the third book, The Isle of Blood, is as good as the first two, if not better. It is just as bloody and dangerous and the stakes are just as high, as Warthrop and Will take part in a deadly, dangerous race to find the “Typhoeus magnificum,” the unseen one that preys on people. I’m hesitant to give too much of the plot away: a package arrives for Warthrop and . . .  Well, in the world of the monstrumologist a package is never just a package, a delivery person is not just a person who can go on their merry way, unmarked by their interaction with monster hunters. The adventure proceeds at breakneck speed, bringing back some of the people met in the first two books. Yancey includes real references: pwdre ser (which, by the way, was also the basis for the film, The Blob) and the Hanwell Asylum, and appearances by Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur Rimbaud. I’m sure there are others I missed.

As for the bigger questions of the series, beyond “catch the monster,” The Isle of Blood is about how this lifestyle has impacted the character and morals of young Will; and how Warthrop, an unwilling foster father, has shaped his unwanted foster son. Are these two really unwilling and unwanted? What about need? Most importantly, what type of man is Will becoming? For the first time in the series, I’m terrified of the possible answer to that question. Yet, shouldn’t I be reassured, because doesn’t the structure of these books — Rick Yancey telling us he’s merely transcribing the journals of an old man named Will Henry — assure me that Will Henry will be just fine? No. I’m not reassured, and I’ll need to wait for the next book to find the answer to that question. Meanwhile, though, rest easy — the monster search for Typhoeus magnificum is resolved within the pages of The Isle of Blood. Or, rather, rest as easy as one can knowing that monsters are outside your door.

Because Will Henry’s journey, both physical and emotional, fascinates and scares me. Because monsters are real. Because this series keeps getting better and better. For all these, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.


Review: Wither

Wither by Lauren DeStefano. First book in The Chemical Garden Trilogy. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Review from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Scientific advancements and genetic engineering created a perfect generation of children. As they grew and aged, they continued to be perfect.

The problem? Every generation after appears healthy, at first. Until the virus makes itself known. Then, they get sick and die. The death age for males is 25, for females is 20.

The result? A world full of older “first generation” adults, orphaned children, and young adults who know death is coming. It’s created a culture with extremes of poverty and wealth, with whispers of experiments being done to try to find a way to cure the virus, a world of polygamous marriages for the benefit of wealthy men anxious to see their family lines continue and to maximize their number of children before they die.

One way to meet the need for brides? Taking them. Kidnapping them. Stealing them.

For some, kidnapping is a rescue, a move from the cold, overcrowded, under-supplied orphanages.

For others, it means being torn from their families.

Rhine Ellery, 16, is one of the kidnapped brides. Rhine resolves to do whatever it takes to survive. To escape. To be reunited with her her twin brother, Rowan. She learns there may be worse things than being kidnapped.

The Good: I am fascinated by the world DeStefano has created. Imagine a world where, for fifty years, no child born has lived past 25 or 20. Rhine and Rowan were born to “first generation” parents (so, obviously, the genetic engineering also extended fertility); their parents were killed in an explosion and the twins have taken care of themselves, and each other, in the years since. Any child born to subsequent generations will see their parents die. What does that do to people? To a culture? For Rhine and Rowan, it creates a tight bond between the siblings.

Linden Ashby, Rhine’s 21 year old husband, is wealthy, and that wealth has isolated him from the harshness of the world. He lives in a mansion, with his rich first generation father and tons of servants. Rhine and two other girls are selected from a van full of kidnapped, traumatized girls. Linden not only doesn’t see the trauma; he also thinks they are there voluntarily and has no idea that the girls he rejects are shot and left on the side of the road. Part of me doesn’t believe that Linden could be so ignorant; part of me sadly realizes that happens with privileged people. They don’t see the poverty, the abuse, the truth. Some of Linden’s servants are children, orphans bought and sold. How can Linden not know? Because he’s been raised his whole life not to see what is in front of him and to believe he’s entitled to all he has.

Linden’s childhood sweetheart, and first wife, Rose, is 20 and dying. Linden’s rich and powerful father buys him three new brides. Rhine, who misses her brother. Jenna, 18, who is just as involuntarily a bride as Rhine. At 13, Cecily is an orphan who believes she is now living the fairy tale: a room of her own, clothes, good food, servants. Linden’s brides are on a locked floor, locked away from the world, birds in a cage. As I watched the Royal Wedding, I kept on thinking of how Wither was a twisted, nightmare version of the happily ever after fairy tale: here is your prince, your castle, your life of luxury. The price paid to be a princess is high.

Vaughn, Linden’s father, is not just rich and powerful; he’s also a doctor. He has lots of secrets, not all good. He’s trying to find a cure so his son Linden doesn’t die at 25. He’s willing to do anything. Including buying women for his son. To continue the fairy tale-ness of Wither, Vaughn has locked rooms in his basement. All the servants, all the brides, fear him. Linden, the spoiled, protected, indulged son, is the only one who doesn’t.

To “wither” is to become dry, to lose freshness. Rhine’s world is withering away as the young die; but it is also Rhine herself who risks withering away. She is kidnapped and locked away, with freedom to leave the floor, and then the house, earned slowly and over time.

Wither is the first in a trilogy. The main plot of Wither is wrapped up in such a way that I’m not quite sure what the next books will bring. Will it be more about Rhine? Will it be Rowan’s story? Or someone else’s?

I look forward to the other books in part because I have so many questions about this odd world. One of the servants at the Ashby house, on the bride floor, that plays a role in the story is Gabriel, a young man about Rhine’s age. Really, I thought, really? A floor of teen girls, locked up, and a hot young man is one of their attendants? Really? Maybe this society hasn’t quite sorted out how to do captured brides, and don’t realize that this is a bad idea of epic proportions. Or … maybe Vaughn knows exactly what he is doing and we’ll learn more in book two.

What else I’m eager to learn more about: what Vaughn knows, what he doesn’t know, what the reader knows about Vaughn. Vaughn is trying to get a cure. Only a little of what he does in the basement is shown, but it’s not good. By coincidence, Rhine’s dead parents? Geneticists. I’m putting two and two together and getting four and thinking this (along with Rhine’s having two different colored eyes) Means Something. The death-ages of 25, of 20 — why? What are they linked to? What, exactly, is the virus?

Review: Rot & Ruin

Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

The Plot: Benny Imura has turned fifteen, which means he has to get a job or lose half his rations. Morningside and its inhabitants have survived the First Night of the zombies and fourteen years later, the zombies still moan outside the town’s fences. Benny tries a number of different jobs; he manages to find something wrong with each one of them until he has no choice but to become his brother’s apprentice.

His brother, Tom Imura, is a professional zombie killer. Benny knows it won’t be exciting; he knows Tom isn’t as brave as people think. Tom never talks about killing zombies, doesn’t boast about daring feats like the other bounty hunters, Charlie and the Hammer.

Tom takes Benny beyond the fence, into the Rot and Ruin. Turns out, almost everything Benny thought, about zombies, humans, and even about First Night, was wrong.

The Good: Rot & Ruin begins humorously, with Ben and his slacker friend Lou Chong trying job after job. Locksmith, because even bedroom doors need locks on both sides… in case someone dies, becomes a zombie, and turns on his family in the night. The zombies of Rot & Ruin are the type that, with death, lose coordination and planning.  Also, the dead always rise, not just the ones that were bitten by zombies. Locksmith is actually a bit boring and, well, unnecessary as zombie’s usually can’t even turn a door knob. Then there’s Carpet Coat salesman, because carpet coats are so thick they hold up well against zombie bites. They hold up so well pretty much everyone already has one. Funny, yes — but always lurking in the background are the zombies. Benny’s saga of job-seeking not only establishes Benny’s character, it is also a terrific way to show the reader Benny’s world, a world of zombies, of isolation, of Benny thinking the way he lives is normal.

Benny’s journey with Tom outside the gate is the actual, physical journey of hunting zombies — and even that phrase, “hunting zombies,” turns out to not mean what Benny thought it was. It is the journey of Tom and Benny becoming brothers. Finally, it is Benny’s journey from child to adulthood as he learns the truth about the world and those he thought were heroes and cowards. That journey is scary and violent and action packed.

Maberry examines the question — what will life be like for that first generation of survivors? Rot & Ruin is set safely away from the actual events of First Night and the months that immediately followed, the months of running and fighting until the town that would be Mountainside was founded. Benny knew (or thought he knew) his own story: his father a zombie, his frightened mother shoving her toddler son into the arms of his older half-brother with the one word: “go.” Now, there are houses with cisterns for water and trade routes between the isolated towns. Now, there are fences to keep the zombies out. Now, the people who live behind the fences can almost — almost — forget.

Rot & Ruin also addresses the fact that the dead were once alive, and not just alive but loved ones. Family. Father, mother, child, sibling. After running, after survival, how does a person handle that their loved one is out there? Erosion artists, one of the jobs Benny flirts with, creates zombified pictures of relatives.

How does surviving zombies impact people? Does it make them kinder? Traumatized? Do they value life more, or less? Benny is forced out of his teen slackerhood into adulthood, forced to make these decisions out in the Rot and Ruin.

I am thrilled to say that there is a sequel coming this summer, Dust & Decay.

Because zombies aren’t in this book just because they’re the latest cool thing. Because zombies manage to be both terrifying and sad. Because Tom Imura is an amazing zombie fighter, even if it takes a while for Benny to realize it. Because I am as  haunted as Benny by the Lost Girl, the human child surviving beyond the fence. Because after I read this, I went into my kitchen to try to figure out how much food I’d have when First Night struck and realized, at most, I’d last a few months. Because of all this, Rot & Ruin is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Some book extras. As Bookshelves of Doom says, “the pages practically turn themselves.”

Review: Red Glove

Red Glove (The Curse Workers, Book Two) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Sequel to White Cat, which you really should read first.

The Plot: For most high school seniors, the big question is what elite college to go to and what to do with their lives. For Cassel, it’s juggling magic and his family (the good news is his mother is out of jail, the bad news is she’s back to her old cons). As a curse worker, he is presented with two unique opportunities: work for the mob, like most of his family has done; or work for the Feds, using his talents to track criminals. Cassel would never turn against his family and friends and work for the Feds — until they show him the photo of his older brother, in a pool of blood.

The Good: This is book two of The Curse Workers series, and you really should read White Cat first. Red Glove continues all the goodness found in White Cat: family, friends, short and long cons, loyalty, mystery. Cassel remains one step ahead of the reader, and in many ways the reader is the “mark,” the subject of Cassel’s cons. Will the reader believe Cassel? Know what Cassel is doing? Or be shocked by what Cassel ends up doing? And — like in White Cat — will the reader end up being as surprised as Cassel about where Red Glove leads?

Red Glove digs deeper into the shady world where Cassel lives, exploring more layers and facets. He’s been raised to trust family and criminals, not friends and outsiders. The events of the past year left him distant from his brothers; it also brought his mother back into his life. She’s returned to her old ways, using her ability to manipulate and control emotions to target rich, old men. The reader also learns more about curse workers, the laws against them, and how those laws and discrimination led to the power of the crime families. Where does Cassel’s loyalties lie? Is it to his family and the person he was raised to be?

Cassel and Lila, the two teens raised in a world where the mob is a way of life and lies and curses are the norm, are both fascinating characters. They are street smart and Cassel’s ability to plot and scheme is impressive. At the same time, neither are perfect. Cassel, for all his planning, makes mistakes. He is, for the first time, making friends and turning to them instead of family. But family – including the crime family led by Lila’s father – won’t let him go. His brother’s death tears him apart; who would want him dead? Well, other than Cassel. And Lila — yes, Cassel knew her as his best friend from childhood. But who is she now? What is she capable of?

I had the pleasure of reading White Cat and Red Glove back to back, and I can’t wait for the third book. The world Black has created, and the characters within it, are complex and fascinating and a little bit (um, no a lot) scary. There is humor, warmth, and love in these books, but there is also darkness. One reason I’m looking forward to the next book is I want to see just how far Black will explore the darkness of Cassel’s world.

Final thing I love about this series: the writing. There are so many asides and observations that left me chuckling and reaching for a post it to mark the page. Here is Grandad, talking about magic: “magic gives you a lot of choices. Most of them are bad.” Cassel, on his mother’s dramatics at his brother’s funeral: “Mom’s putting on a show, but that doesn’t mean she’s not actually sad. It’s just that she isn’t letting her grief get in the way of her performance.”

And yes, both books in this series are in my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Review: White Cat

White Cat (The Curse Workers, Book One) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Also listened to the audiobook version, copy from the library.

The Plot: For Cassel Sharpe, 17, life is about family, curses, and the con. His family is full of curse workers — people who with a touch of the hand can curse you. Make you fall in love, invade your dreams, alter your memory, even kill you. Cassel is the lone non-worker in a family of workers.

As Cassel knows from helping his family, all criminals of one degree or another, you don’t have to be a worker to run a con. You don’t have to be a worker for people to be afraid of you. You don’t have to be a worker to kill someone.

When Cassel was 14, he killed his best friend, Lila. The daughter, and heir, of one of the big crime families. His family sent him off to a fancy boarding school, to protect him and to hide him and keep him out of the way. He keeps his hand in the game by doing a little bit of bookmaking.

One night Cassel almost dies: he has slept walked onto the roof of his school while having a disturbing dream about a white cat eating his tongue. He goes home and notices that his brothers are keeping things from him. Is he being kept out of the family’s biggest con because he’s not a worker? Or, even worse — is he being used? Is he being worked?

In a life full of lies, where even memories and emotions can be manipulated, Cassel has to figure out the truth.

The Good: This is an amazing mash-up of genres and I am head over heels in love. Maybe an emotion worker touched me with an ungloved hand while I wasn’t looking, but no, I think my love for White Cat is real and true. It’s difficult enough to write about a con, to write a mystery, to write about the supernatural or the mafia or family or friendship. To write about them all at once? For each to be spectacular? For all of them to be woven together flawlessly into one story? Amazing and impressive.

Any con caper has to balance two competing storytelling techniques: it must be simple enough for the reader to understand, and it must be unpredictable enough for the reader to be surprised. The reader, in a way, is the mark. I confess, the TV show Leverage has spoiled me because it balances these two perfectly, which means that I began White Cat with high expectations. It has to be at least as good as the TV show. Usually, that type of expectation put on a book is a problem and slightly unfair to the book. Not the case here, because White Cat is note-perfect in how it plays the con. In White Cat, the reader feels like they are in on the con, as smart and clever as Cassel and his family, yet as surprised and fooled as any mark when the full con is played out. As a reader, I love having a book not just meet but exceed high expectations.

If the structure of White Cat is a long con, at it’s heart, White Cat is a murder mystery. Did Cassel kill Lila? Why? Will he kill again?

In Cassel’s world, curses are real, and Black has created a realistic, detailed universe that is not just about the logic of curse work but also the consequences of curse work on society and culture. Since a touch of the hand can curse a person, glove wearing becomes the norm. A naked hand in public is a shocking thing; a naked hand in private is the ultimate show of trust. Consequences to curses exist: after a curse, the curse worker experiences blowback. Play with someone’s memory, lose a bit of your own. Cassel’s grandfather is a death worker, and he has lost a finger for each death curse.

All curse work has been banned. At different times, in different places, prejudice and discrimination have resulted in terrible acts against curse workers. Making curse work illegal, which basically criminalizes curse workers themselves, has created and strengthened organized crime. At one time, people feared curse workers because of the ability to cause harm; now, it’s combined with a fear of the criminal world. Cassel’s family is all involved, in one way or another, in crime. His brother Philip has the markings that show he owes his allegiance to one of the big families. These crime families involve themselves in illegal acts beyond curse work, but curse work is used to assist the illegal actions. Being outsiders have created a sense of family amongst workers, but the family activities include murder and drug dealing. White Cat manages to be both sympathetic to the criminals and to paint them in a horrifying, chilling light.

White Cat is also a fascinating take on alternate history. No, really! Cassel’s world is ours. He lives in New Jersey, and the details about Trenton, Princeton, the Pine Barrens all add dimension to the story and make it real. Yet at the same time it’s not our world, because it’s a history where curse workers have always existed and impacted history.

Cassel has been taught that in a world of liars and cons and curses, family is the only thing that matters, the only people who you can trust. After that, well, it’s all just part of the con. “Actually trusting someone when they have nothing to gain from me just doesn’t make sense. All friendships are negotiations of power.” The power, control, and structure of the different criminal worker families demand their own version of loyalty, including loyalty exhibited by the blood and ash of keloid necklaces.

Black’s use of language is delightful. I kept on marking passages, like this one, where Cassel thinks back on his childhood friendship with Lila: “I couldn’t tell if [Lila] hated me half the time, even when we spent weeks hiding under the branches of a willow tree, drawing civilizations in the dirt and then crushing them like callous gods. But I was used to brothers who were fast and cruel and I worshipped her.” Or, this: “I can’t trust the people I care about not to hurt me. And I’m not sure I can trust myself not to hurt them, either.”

Because White Cat explores loyalty and love as Cassel negotiates the criminal and curse workers world and realizes that he cannot trust what he was taught or how he was raised. Because I was up till two in the morning reading it. Because I immediately began reading the sequel, Red Glove. Because Black has created a world and a group of people that has made me care so much, and intrigued me so much, that after I finalize this post I’m off to find the fanfiction to give me a fix until the third book comes out. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011 (and is why I don’t limit my favorites to books published in one year!)

I’m not sure I did a good enough job conveying just how much I enjoyed this book. As usual, Reading Rants has a terrific review. And after reading White Cat I promptly began listening to the audiobook version, which gave me an even better appreciation for the scattered clues and delicate plotting.

Review: Nothing

Nothing by Janne Teller, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Atheneum Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Originally published in Danish as Intet in 2000. Personal copy.

The Plot: On the first day of school, Pierre Anthon announces to his classmates, “Nothing matters. I’ve know that for a long time. So nothing’s worth doing. I just realized that.” He walks away, climbs the tree in front of his house, and taunts his classmates. “It’s all a waste a time.”In a few years you’ll all be dead and forgotten and didly-squat, nothing, so you might just as well start getting used to it!” Good in school? “ There’ll always be someone who is better.” Fame and achievement may be in your future? “And then you’ll find out that fame and the big wide world are outside of you, and inside there’s nothing, and always will be, no matter what you do.” Love? “First you fall in love, then you start dating, then you fall out of love, and then you split up again.”

Agnes and her classmates realize quickly they have to get Pierre Anthon out of the tree. They have to stop him telling them that they, their hopes, fears, present, are nothing. “We didn’t want to live in the world Pierre Anthon was telling us about.”

They try words. They try stones. Pierre Anthon stays in the tree and his taunts continue. Finally they come up with a plan: They will prove to him that life has meaning, that it is more than nothing. They will collect things that matter to prove Pierre Anthon wrong. Will it work? What will be found, and lost, along the way?

The Good: This is a stunning, heart shattering, haunting book that will result in many discussions about whether Pierre Anthon is right or wrong in his philosophy, as well as the reactions  and actions of his peers. How far will Agnes (the narrator) and her friends will go to stop Pierre Anthon?

Nothing is the first translated work to receive a Printz Honor; it was originally published in Denmark in 2000. The translator’s note explains that the translation retains much of the original. Names remain the same; the setting is still a Danish town, the grade still called seventh even though the closer American fit is eighth, both age wise (ages 13 and 14) and school wise (it is the last year of school before moving up to a larger school). Unexplained in the note is the decision to retain the original dates of the book: it is set in the school year 1992 to 1993. Those more familiar with Denmark may see significance in those years.

Agnes tells this story, and her tone brings you into the story, so you share the fear and frustration and growing anger she and her classmates feel about Pierre Anthon and what they are “forced” to do to stop him. The format of the story is wonderful. Various sections of the book (not always chapter headings) contain a handful of words, chilling in their starkness sentence, standing alone in the middle of the page. They introduce something that will be said (Pierre Anthon’s original statement of nothingness) or emphasize an action (“It was then that Pierre Anthon stood up.”) Pay attention, this tells us. These words matter.

I looked down at my bare feet and decided Gerda was going to pay.” Up to this point, the “heap of meaning”  the teens put together are objects that matter to them. An old doll, a hymnbook, things collected from neighbors. The heap of meaning grows, but was what was being collected really a collection of things that mattered? Dennis is forced to hand over his complete Dungeons & Dragons books after he attempts to hold back four, so he turns on Sebastian to give up his fishing rod, who makes Richard give up his soccer ball, who then makes Laura forsake her favorite earrings.

At that point, Agnes tries to deflect attention from her newly acquired green wedge sandals but Gerda doesn’t fall for it. The sandals join the heap of meaning. Home without her sandals, Agnes thinks “I looked down at my bare feet and decided Gerda was going to pay.” The teens have gotten to the heart of it: the pile of meaning must contain that which is truly meaningful. They have also begun to stray, because the motivation changes. It is now about finding not what is most meaningful to someone, but, rather, what will hurt someone else the most. All the better if the someone else was instrumental in your own loss. The pressure and, yes, manipulation steadily increase as the teens realize the power they have over each other.

This is the perfect example of the deep discussions that can result from Nothing. Does this change in motivation matter? How do you define what has meaning? Is it what someone else decides? Is it what hurts the most to give up? How does that meaning shift now that it’s been sacrificed, and can it be restored? As the book ends, as this tale plays out to its chilling, inevitable end, do Agnes and her friends succeed in creating a heap of meaning? Do they discover the meaning of Nothing? Do they discover meaning? And, if so, at what price?

This is a bleak, dark book. It is not double rainbows and ponies. Personally, I was blown away by it and think it’s a great book and am pleased to see it get recognition. That said, many people will hate it — not because it’s a bad book but because it is not a happy, hopeful book. Bad things happen.I can easily see people confusing their distaste for where this book goes (and it goes there) with a judgment on the book itself. That would be a mistake.  Nothing is unsettling. It won’t be for every reader, true. But those readers who it is for? Will adore it; will love that there is something out there that is more than sparkle and false hope and romance. They will love a book that asks hard questions without easy answers, a book that will give them a safe place to grapple with tough questions. It is for teens who are already reading bleak, sad, haunting books, of course. You know you have them in your library. Let them know up front: this book will bother you. This book will make you mad. This book will make you think.

Review: The Curse of the Wendigo

 The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 2010. Personal copy. Sequel to The Monstrumologist.

The Plot: 1888, New England. Will Henry and his guardian/employer, monstrumologist Pellinore Warthrop, are pulled into another hunt for monsters, this time, the Wendigo. The thing is — Warthrop doesn’t believe in the Wendigo. Monstrumology is a science, dedicated to the study of actual biological entities that others would call “monsters.” It is not about myth or superstition; there is nothing supernatural about monstrumology.

Problem is, one of Warthrop’s friends, John Chanler, went hunting the Wendigo in Rat Portage, Canada and disappeared. Chanler’s wife asks Warthrop to go find John. Warthrop and Will Henry go to western Canada to find Chanler. The search for the Chanler, the journey for the truth, will take them from the forests of Canada to the tenements of New York City.

The Good: What is that noise? Is it the Wendigo outside the window? Is it a vampire lurking in a basement? No, it is only the sigh of contentment (yes, contentment) that The Curse of the Wendigo is every bit as wonderful, fabulous, horrifying and thought provoking as The Monstrumologist. You hear something more? Why, that would be the sound of me turning all the lights on, of locking all the doors, of checking to make sure there are no open windows so that I can sleep tonight. Oh, I won’t sleep soundly…. but hopefully, I will sleep. As Yancey muses having read Will Henry’s journals, “The central question, the thing that woke me up in the dead of night shivering in a cold sweat, the notion that haunted me as I fought to go back to sleep . . . Could monsters be real?”

As with The Monstrumologist, this book stands alone: a creature is hunted, there is a resolution. The bigger story — the series mystery, as it were — remains the mystery of Will Henry and his journals. Yancey’s framing device is that, in the present day, Rick Yancey discovered the journals of recently deceased man who claimed that his name was Will Henry and that he was born in 1876. In the handful of pages before and after Will Henry’s memoir of his time with the monstrumolgist, Yancey discusses his own research into trying to discover who Will Henry was and how much of his journals were fiction and how much were fact. Those mysteries remain — and I am intrigued by how long Yancey will go with this series, with whether there will ever be (or can ever be) an answer to who Will Henry was. For more on the framing device, as well as the literary style of this series, see my review of The Monstrumologist.

In The Curse of the Wendigo, questions of faith, belief, and science are woven together. Warthrop repeatedly explains just why “myths” are myths, as opposed to the cold, logical science of monsters. It is amusing, actually, to think that Warthrop defends the existence of natural monsters against supernatural creatures, while the reader of these books discounts the monsters that are oh-so-real to Warthrop. Against the backdrop of “Wendigo: real monster or mythical creature,” The Curse of the Wendigo also asks questions about love and relationships, about what makes us human, about belief. What are the bonds between Warthrop and Will Henry? Between Warthrop and Chanler and Chanler’s wife, Muriel? Is John Chanler turning into some type of creature? Or is he going insane? And is that being caused by actual infection from a real beast or from a person breaking because of isolation and loss? Along the way, there is plenty of action, gore, and a further exploration of the science of monstrumology as practiced by Warthrop.

Once again, Yancey fills his book with unexpected humor and easter egg references to things and people that are “real.” Warthrop does something that puts his whole group in danger, and someone tells him, “Warthrop, I would have liked to have been included in this decision.” A throwaway reference is made to “that damned Irishman Stokely” or some other “S” name who is pushing the society to include vampires in the creatures it studies. Ah, vampires…. By having Warthrop be skeptical of the Wendigo (as compared to other characters), Yancey can include lore and stories about the Wendigo as Warthrop and his colleagues research and debate whether it is “real”. Because of this scientific approach, the monstrumologists also bring in lore and stories of the vampire, arguing that the two are at least related, if not the same creature.

The second half of the book is set in New York City, looking at both the privileged and the tenements. (Of course Jacob Riis makes an appearance!). Here, a description of the filth: “Each morning the manure was collected and hauled to special staging areas, called “manure blocks,” to await transport over the Brooklyn Bridge. The largest manure block was located on Forty-second Street, one block away from where a hundred thousand people got their drinking water, the Croton Reservoir.” Not only is Yancey giving the reader a peak at a historical time and place, he is also foreshadowing events that happen later. In addition, the depiction of the poverty, the cruelty, the filth shows that there are many monsters, many risks, many dangers in our world — even without Wendigos or vampires.

Because I love this series; because the writing can be beautiful while describing the unthinkable; because it makes me think; because it scares me; because the description of New York City in 1888 made me never want to travel back in time; it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

Review: The Demon’s Covenant

The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: The story of Alan, Nick, Mae, and Jamie starts not that long after the events of The Demon’s Lexicon. Demons, magicians, and battles, oh my.

The Good: There will be spoilers.

For those who have not read The Demon’s Lexicon: if you like horror infused with humor, read my review, read the book, then get the sequel. Know that yes, this is a trilogy, and the sequel is as good as the first so yes, you want to invest your time in this one.

The rest of the review is for those of you who read The Demon’s Lexicon and are wondering — how’s the sequel?

Alan and Nick are dealing with the consequences of Nick’s true identity being made public. Meanwhile, Jamie is trying to balance school and being an untrained, unaffiliated magician. Mae is trying not to think about the magician she killed to save Jamie, as well as her relationships with both Alan and Nick and Seb. Seb being the main person bullying Jamie. Alan is concerned that Nick is going to end up giving in to this true nature and disaster will follow. Mae doesn’t want to lose her brother. Jamie wants to know about how to be a magician, even if it means meeting with Gerald, a magician known to see humans as sub-magician and not worthy of care or concern. Mae’s concern for Jamie brings her back to the Ryves brothers.

This is terrific horror. The demons are chilling in their difference from humans, the magicians terrifying in their belief in their superiority. As with the first book, the risks to body, to sanity, to life are quite real. And, as with the first one, the quartet of teens deal with stress, danger, and risks with one-liners that make me both laugh out loud and want to hang out with them. Without, of course, the threat of doom and danger. You know what it’s like? Redford and Newman at their finest, in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (If right now you’re going “huh? who are they?” don’t share your reaction with me, as it will make me cry. Just go to Netflix or your library or wherever you go to get movies. You won’t be sorry. Do share your new-found love of these movies.)

Alan, Alan, Alan. The older brother who will do anything, lie to anyone, risk everything, to protect his brother Nick. Including protecting Nick for the consequences of Nick’s actions. And Nick. Oh, Nick. The younger brother who see the world differently, knows he is out of step emotionally with everyone around him, yet wants to change (or at least pretend) for Alan.

And Mae…. can I officially be jealous of Mae? Because with who she ends up kissing, well, how can I not be jealous? I loved, loved, loved how this was handled. A female with multiple love interests? At the same time, no less? And for each one, I thought, “yes, this is right, pick him.” OK, maybe there was one I was a bit “eh” about. The Demon’s Covenant, while not a paranormal romance, does a terrific job of exploring attraction, want, need, lust, love, and sexuality.

Because I love me a book that can have me scared and laughing, often at the same time, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

The third book, The Demon’s Surrender, is due in 2011. I cannot wait!

Review: Presenting Tallulah

Presenting . . . Tallulah by Tori Spelling and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton. Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2010. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: Poor little rich girl Tallulah finds a friend and asserts her own identity.

The Good: I know, I know. A picture book by a celebrity author.

But you know what? I LOVE Tori Spelling. From 90210 to Awake to Danger (based on a YA book by Joan Lowery Nixon) to Mother, May I Sleep With Danger to her reality shows with her husband, Dean.

What I enjoyed about this book:

Spelling says the story is loosely based on her childhood. She talks about reading with her children and wanting to write a book for them.

All the booksigning photographs from Brantley-Newton’s (the illustrator) blog.

The “rich girl” aspects of Tallulah’s life are from those great illustrations, not the text, which shows a union of pictures and text in illustrating Tallulah’s rich girl status. “Tallulah was not supposed to get dirty,” while a girl in fancy dress and many ribbons stares at a lawn with fountain, grass, and two gardeners.

Tallulah’s parents dress her up as a doll : “Tallulah was not allowed to wear jeans to school. Or keep her hair down the way she wanted. Or wear the sneakers that all the other kids wore.” An unhappy looking little girl, in an uncomfortable looking dress with more ribbons and fancy shoes. Better yet? The illustration is one at a store, with mother in high heels with long nails as behind Tallulah, all sorts of kids are having fun in comfortable clothes, shoes, and sometimes jeans. As I looked at the picture, I thought, “Tallulah’s mother is wearing awesome shoes.”

Tallulah (the stand-in for Tori) is white and blonde like Spelling, but her classmates are a range of colors. I like that Brantley-Newton has made Tallulah’s school and friendships diverse.

Max is a snazzy dresser. The text doesn’t tell us whether Max is different because, like Tallulah, he has parents who send him overdressed to school (he’s in a suit and tie) or because he is in a suit and tie because he wants to be.

Tallulah asserts her sense of identity and self by both saving a puppy and getting dirty and standing up to her mother and her father . . .  and the housekeeper.

Who is this book for? For people like me, who follow Tori on Twitter and laugh with her at the version of her life she presents on camera. And as such, with its illustrations of uniformed servants and stretch limos bringing a small child to school, and with an ending of Tallulah striving for what she sees as normalcy (much like Tori herself has done with her husband Dean and two children), it delivers. Bonus points in that Brantley-Newton shows Tallulah dressing up her new puppy in a skirt.

Review: The Unwritten Rule

The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott. Simon Pulse. 2010. Copy from author.

The Plot: Sarah and Brianna, best friends since forever. Ryan, Brianna’s boyfriend. Ryan, who Sarah likes. Likes likes.

Yes — Sarah has broken the single most important unwritten rule.

Sarah likes her best friend’s boyfriend.

Sarah’s a good girl! She doesn’t break the rules, especially the one that says stay away from someone’s boyfriend. But when she sees Ryan, she cannot help how how she feels.

And the thing is — maybe, just maybe, Ryan likes her.

The Good: From the first page, Scott had me hooked, caring for Sarah, seeing the world through her eyes where maybe, kind of, sort of, it is OK to like your best friend’s boyfriend.

Let me begin with this: oh, the love, the lust, the glances, the heat. The Unwritten Rule brilliantly captures all those emotions of wanting someone else, wanting a boy, wanting that boy to want you back: “”Yes,” he says, and his voice is rough, intense, and we are standing close enough to touch now but we aren’t touching, we aren’t, but I can feel how we could all around us. In every breath I take there is the promise of his skin touching mine and I want that. I want us to kiss again, I want him to kiss me, I want him.”

Ah, love. But when the person you love who may love you loves someone else? Such as your best friend?

Let’s be blunt. Love triangles are hard. Or, at least, I am hard on them. I have never bought into the “it was an accident!” school of excuses for cheating. I want ethics and ethical behaviour. Scott gives that to me — Sarah double and triple thinks every step she takes, agonizes over what is happening, yet she cannot deny her feelings.

I also want something more than stereotypes. Triangles tend to have certain predictable roles. In The Unwritten Rule type of triangle, where the “cheater” is the good girl, the girlfriend is typically painted as an evil bitca. (The other type of triangle? The girlfriend is the “good” one and the other girl is “slutty”; the third type is both girls are good and have no idea the other exists because the boy is a player.)

Scott twists and turns those stereotypes, making them full, deeper characters who are anything but typical. “Good” Sarah is the best friend side kick, the buddy, and is so cautious about moving forward on her feelings that she almost misses out on life and love. Brianna is the beautiful one who goes through boys, who views her six weeks of dating Ryan as a noteworthy and admirable time period. Brianna may have bitchy moments, but she is neither evil nor a bitca. And Ryan, Ryan is neither player nor played. In other words, a reader cannot help but like and respect each of these individual teens.

OK, here’s the thing. Now is the time in the program where we go to spoilers. So if you don’t want them, back out now. Know that the romance is hot; know that Scott does not rely on stereotypes; know that you want Sarah to have a happy ending with Ryan but have no idea how Sarah can do that while remaining true to herself and not hurting anyone else.

I am warning you! There is no crying about spoilers after this point.

Sarah and Brianna, best friends. Except — well, you be the judge. Here is a short sample of some of the things Brianna says to Sarah: “I’ve got this new powder in there. It’ll make your nose less shiny.” “You’re not as boring as you think you are, you know.” “Remind me that I have some conditioner that’s supposed to be great for limp hair, OK? I totally bought it for you and remembered it just now.” Yes, Brianna is that type of friend. But Brianna can also be loyal and thoughtful. And Sarah hears how Brianna’s parents talk to Brianna, and knows Brianna is echoing that behavior.

Sarah puts up with a lot from Brianna. To be honest? I really, really wanted Sarah to call Brianna on this garbage and Sarah doesn’t. Sarah is too kind — she understands Brianna, feels compassion for her, doesn’t want to hurt her. Wait, you’re saying, but doesn’t this make Brianna evil? Or a bitch? No. It makes Brianna human, and flawed, and wanting love and friendship yet having no idea how to give love or friendship.

Sarah is a bit of an odd main character. Yes, she’s kind. And she’s let herself be overshadowed by Brianna. Sarah half believes all those slights Brianna doesn’t mean; Sarah sees herself as beige next to Brianna’s gold. While the reader quickly realizes Ryan likes Sarah and got sideswiped and dazzled by Brianna, Sarah takes a lot longer to realize it because Sarah doesn’t realize that she, Sarah, could be wanted and pursued. In other words, Sarah is one of the most passive main characters I’ve encountered in a long time. And you know what? It totally works. You feel for Sarah, believe in her, and part of the quiet charm of The Unwritten Rule is Sarah’s slow, realistic path to action, knowledge, and awareness. Sarah’s own issues of insecurity are not Brianna’s fault. Just as Brianna is formed by two parents who don’t know how to love, Sarah is formed by two parents whose love for each other doesn’t always have room for Sarah.

Brianna is awesome, in that scarily intimidating way some people can be. I understand Sarah falling for Brianna’s personality and strength, and understand Sarah misunderstanding her own quietness for weakness for so long. As I read the reviews excerpted at Scott’s website, I see that Ryan and Sarah are not alone in falling for Brianna. I did; and so did other reviewers.

In a triangle, the hard thing to believe is that the guy is with the wrong girl. Is he a player? Or is he stupid? Or is he weak? Here, Ryan and Sarah make tentative steps towards each other. Brianna storms in, a force of life, of brightness, and momentarily charms Ryan. Yes, he allows himself to be seduced by her intense, honest, upfront interest in him and by the time he recovers it’s too late. He’s “with” Brianna and finds it’s not easy ending things. He tries; and part of the beauty of this book is Ryan’s shy fumblings towards Sarah that get intercepted by Brianna. He’s only seventeen; he tries.

And here is another thing. I one hundred percent believe that Brianna knew all along that Ryan and Sarah were slowly dancing towards a relationship with each other, remembered that Sarah had liked Ryan for years, saw what was happening and deliberately stepped in, turned on the charm, to ensnare Ryan. Not from meanness, but from fear, fear of losing Sarah’s friendship. Why is this marvelous? Because Scott does not spoon feed the reader. What Brianna knew, and when, and why she acted, is for the reader to decide, not for the author to over explain.

The Unwritten Rule makes my Favorite Books Read in 2010, because the nuanced, believable characters are so memorable. And did I mention how hot the writing is? Wow baby.