Review: Untold

Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan. The Lynburn Legacy, Book 2. Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: In Unspoken, seventeen year old Kami Glass learned the truth about her village, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Short version: sorcerers are real. Kami’s family may not be sorcerers, but they have the potential to be something just as valuable: a source, magnifying a sorcerer’s magic.

In Untold, now that the secret is no longer so secret, the sorcerers want to take over her village, and reinstate the old ways. Real old ways: like human sacrifice.

Kami is not about to let that happen. Not to her village. 

So what if she’s not sure who is or isn’t a sorcerer? Or whose side anyone is on? Or that she’s not even quite sure where her own mother stands?

She’s Kami Glass. The sorcerers better watch out.

Well, if only it were that easy . . . .

The Good: Despite the fact that Untold is about evil sorcerers who view regular humans as below them in the food chain, so think that human sacrifice isn’t too much to ask, and has terrifying scarecrows coming to life to attack people, despite all that, I’d love to visit Sorry-in-the-Vale and hang out with Kami and her friends. (Well, as seventeen year old me.) Because Kami and her friends are funny and brave. Yes, they’re scared, but they don’t let that stop them.

I have to emphasize this great mix of humor and guts because Sarah Rees Brennan does it so splendidly. That I can laugh and be scared at the same time? Excellent.

Here’s a bit, where Kami’s friend Rusty describes the Lynburn cousins, Jared and Ash: “Jared and Ash – or, as I think of them, Sulky and Blondie – are still sorcerer trainees.” Not only did I laugh, but it’s a great, irreverent look that at the two powerful teen sorcerers that also reveals Rusty’s personality. And yes, Jared is all Mr. Broody while Ash is Mr. Handsome.

The first book, Unspoken, set up Kami’s world, introducing the reader gradually to the reality of magic and murder and sorcerers, of lies told to protect and to mislead. Now that the rules are set up, the fun can really start. OK, so it’s not fun — but in a way, it is. Yes, it is a matter of life and death; of freedom. And there are moments of betrayal and doubt. But it’s also fun, to spend time with Kami and her friends.

Rob Lynburn is the powerful sorcerer who has plotted to take control of Sorry-in-the-Vale; he and his sister-in-law, Rosalind (the mother of Jared) are in league against his wife, Lillian (mother of Ash.) In the first book, Kami was Jared’s source, which made him a stronger sorcerer. That link was broken, and Kami is left uncertain about her relationship with Jared. Where her feelings for him true? What does he think about her? It used to be easy, because the link meant that they could hear each other’s thoughts. Now, not so much, and it’s complicated by Ash.

Untold begins with the attack of the scarecrows: it’s scary but also a bit funny, and emphasizes the power of Rob’s sorcery but also how even this can be fought against, by both regular and magical means.

Lillian is as arrogant as her husband, Rob, but with one crucial difference. She believes the Lynburns are rightful leaders and sorcerers, but she doesn’t believe in things like human sacrifice. She’s disappointed that her son, Ash, followed his father for a time. She thinks that Kami — especially now that she is no longer Jared’s source — is a nuisance who gets in the way. Lillian is good only in contrast to Rob and her follower’s, but despite that (or maybe because of it?) she is one of my favorite characters. As Kami observes late in the book, “Kami had never actually liked Lillian, but she admired her for a moment, with all her heart, and then her heart sank.”

Kami and Lillian are both strategizing against Rob, with Kami’s the primary story, of course, and Lillian’s in the background. As you may remember from my post about When Adults Read Books For Teens, that’s how I think it should be. What Brennan does masterfully in this series is she does so without getting rid of the adults, or having them unreasonably ignorant or stupid or cowardly. The adults such as Lillian and Kami’s own parents are doing things, they just aren’t the main point of the story. And that is part of what is so great about the plotting in Untold; it makes sense, the roles and power that the different characters have.

The third book, Unmade, is due out in September. Luckily, not too long a wait! There is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of Untold, but not anything too frustrating or to make one throw the book against the wall. The main plot of Untold is wrapped up; the end is more a hint of what has to be taken care of in the third book. (And let me say, I don’t envy Brennan, because I have no idea how all of this is going to work out.)

So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Other reviews: YA Bibliophile; Speculating on SpecFic; Book Lovers for Life.

Review: Engines of the Broken World

Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee. Henry Holt & Co. Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Merciful Truth’s mother is dead. She and her brother don’t quite know what to do, so they put her under the kitchen table.

Each year there are fewer and fewer people, so there aren’t even that many they can turn to for help. It’s just Merciful and Gospel and the Minister. The Minister shares the words of righteousness: so a lot of nosy advice but not much by way of practicalities.

Merciful doesn’t know what to do. And that’s before she starts hearing something from the kitchen. Before she starts hearing her dead mother’s voice.

The Good: “It snowed the day our mother died, snow so hard and so soft at the same time that we could neither bury her nor take her out to the barn.”

Let me be very, very clear: this is the strangest, weirdest, most original book I’ve read all year.

Let me think twice about that…..

Nope, right the first time.

At first I thought — from her name and manner of speech — that Merciful and her brother lived in some type of religious settlement, one that has rejected modern conveniences, set slightly in the future. A place where most of those had left.

That’s a bit right. When Merciful talks about her world shrinking and people disappearing and the continuing sense of isolation, I thought it was a metaphor. A exaggeration. Instead — it’s real.

For the rest, that was all our animals gone, and winter only just beginning, and that was a bad thing. Though if the fog was really coming, and the end of everything with it, I didn’t guess it much mattered.

Merciful’s world is slowly ending, it is indeed a broken place, and somehow, for some reason, the small cabin that Merciful and Gospel shared with their mother and the strange Minister is hanging on. The Minister — what is the Minister? It’s always been a part of their lives. It’s like the table in the kitchen.

I didn’t guess it much mattered.” If the world is ending, if everything is going, dying or disappearing into a fog, does anything matter?

As I read this, I kept thinking — really? A book about the world ending, not with a bang but a whimper, as fog slowly creeps in, as the cold descends, as the dead don’t stay dead, as the Minister warns and preaches and cautions and threatens. And the horror of Engines of the Broken World is not gore or slash or monsters. It’s the voice coming from her dead mother’s body, it’s the cold and fog, it’s the dwindling resources, it’s the growing sense that there may be no way out.

The voice coming from Merciful’s dead mother slowly begins to make sense. To call to Merciful. To make some sort of sense. It cautions Merciful about the “machine,” and the reader quickly realizes what the “machine” is. Merciful herself has never heard the term before. And the Minister, in it’s animal shape — and pay attention to that form — speaks. “I am a Minister of Grace, shaping the world to make it better, holier, more suited for the Lord.”

And Merciful looks at the Minister, and thinks, “It sounded like normal Minister talk, but I had never heard this line before, never in all the days of my life. I wondered if this was what Auntie had been talking about, because these words made it sound like the Minister was certainly changing things, making the world different. Destroying it, but maybe to save it?

What is the nature of Merciful’s world? Is it, indeed, our world? Or is there something else going on?

Engines of the Broken World is about the end of the world, and what one young girl does as that world ends. It’s about discovering the origins of the world. It’s about God and faith and religion and belief. It’s about learning that the world may be destroyed — or saved — or both — and a decision having to be made, a decision only Merciful can make.

As I said — the strangest, weirdest, most original book I’ve read all year.

So, of course, it’s one of my Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Jenna Does Books.

 

 

 

 

Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Little, Brown. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Tana wakes up after a party to a house filled with the dead.

She is one of three survivors: the others are her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, and strange vampire, Gavriel. As the sun slowly sets, the vampires who killed everyone else, bit Aidan, and tied up Gavriel, crawl out of the basement.

Tana makes a quick decision:  no one gets left behind. She escapes, taking Aidan and Gavriel with her.

Aidan is infected. If he drinks blood, he’ll become a vampire. Tana decides the only logical thing to do is to take Aidan and Gavriel to the nearest Coldtown, a place where vampires and the infected – and those humans unfortunate enough to be trapped behind the walls.

All Tana has to do is drive a hungry infected teen and a hungry vampire to the nearest Coldtown and get them safely inside. She’s also going to go inside with them: Aidan may be an ex, but he’s still her friend, and she’ll do everything in her power to stop him from drinking human blood. So she’ll go in to make sure he stays human. And Gavriel — there are a lot of questions there, but she figures, if the other vampires are after him, there has to be something there worth saving.

The problem is, Coldtown is a lawless place run by vampires. It’s dark and dangerous. Once you get in, it’s almost impossible to leave.

Almost. They haven’t met Tana yet. She’s determined to do the impossible: save Aidan, help Gavriel, and return to her father and sister.

The Good: Holly Black has created a wonderful vampire world in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Vampires used to be hidden, remaining the subject of myth and legend, until one vampire broke the rules. The result wasn’t only the loss of secrecy, it was also the spread of vampirism. People were bit and infected. Once they drank human blood, they became vampires themselves. Very few were able to withstand the compulsion and remain human. Locking the infected in basements and hospitals didn’t work, so a handful to towns were designated “coldtowns” — towns just for vampires. The vampires were locked in, along with any humans unfortunate enough to be stuck in the towns when the walls wents up.

Everyone loves a vampire — the darkness, the danger, the eternal youth, the power. The vampires of Coldtown realize that, and realize that they need blood, and realize that all they need to do is convince humans to enter the Coldtowns willingly. Reality TV shows, live from Coldtown, making it all seem sexy and glamorous and exciting. The vampires are stars — safely behind walls, except for those few so swept out by the wonder of it that they believe they are different and unique enough to enter a Coldtown a human and become one of those stars. As I read about the parties being shown and the clothes worn, about the whole odd society of humans, vampires, and infecteds within Coldtown, I wondered — how much had the vampires created out of the myths of vampires? How much would they have done anyway? Did the vampires allow human stories to influence how they portray themselves?

Tana doesn’t see the wonder of it all, probably because as a child she saw what vampires were really like. Her mother became infected; her father locked his beloved wife up, thinking if they only kept her from drinking blood all would be well. It didn’t end well. Tana’s sister, Pearl, was too young to know her mother or remember the details of her death. Pearl watches the reality shows, online and on TV, entranced. The power and pull of the vampires is also shown by two siblings Tana meets, “Midnight” and “Winter” who are entering Coldtown in the hopes of becoming vampires. (Because of the food supply issues, this is actually not a very likely thing to happen. The last thing the existing vampires want is losing a source of food AND having another hungry mouth within the Coldtown.)

Tana is one of those characters who — well, let me put it this way. If I had been Tana, this would have been an entirely different story because I would have run as fast as I could once I woke up in a house full of my dead friends. I’d have saved myself first, sending help. So yes, I kept on yelling at the book “don’t do that, that’s too dangerous, it’s not worth it.” Except, of course, it was. Tana is simply braver than me. And more forgiving because I really couldn’t stand her ex, Aidan. Or, perhaps, not so much forgiving as someone who has lost people — her mother and a house full of dead friends — so will do anything to save the few survivors, no matter how annoying and self centered and selfish they are. It’s perhaps even a bit selfish of Tana, how she holds close those she wants to save. Selfish, because she doesn’t want to lose people, and selfish because it’s driven by the guilt from her lost mother. Selfish, because she’s not asking what it is that Aidan wants.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown also has terrific plotting: how things fit together is, at times, almost like a layered puzzle box. How the people and things fit together, how it all works out. It’s not just that Tana helping Gavriel turns out to be more significant than anyone could guess. (Well, except the reader of course, who realizes that a vampire being hunted by other vampires has to have a pretty unique backstory). It’s not just what ends up happening with Winter and Midnight and Aidan and even Pearl. It’s how all that works together as a whole. Brilliant.

This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because while I’ll never be the heroine in Coldtown, I love visiting in the safe pages of a book. Because The Coldest Girl in Coldtown starts with a mass murder of a roomful of teens, and those are not the last deaths we’ll see. I love a book where the stakes are real!

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; YA Bibliophile.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Waking Dark

The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman. Knopf. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: One day, a small town: Oleander, Kansas. Like so many other small towns, where everyone thinks they know everyone. Where everyone has secrets. Some secrets they don’t even know about.

A handful of people, with no connections to each other, go on murder sprees. Each murder ends in a suicide; or, in the case of one person, an attempted suicide. There are five survivors, who have to live with the horror they saw. Or, in the case of one, the horror they inflicted.

One year later, just as the town looks like it has recovered, or, at least, forgotten, a series of tornadoes descends. In the chaos that follows, the town is quarantined, sealed off from the outside world.

How much can one town take?

The darkness and horror has barely begun.

The Good: I loved this book so, so much!

I’m not the first to say “Stephen King” when describing The Waking Dark. First, because of the horror: The first chapter starts out with murder after murder, with people of all ages being killed by their neighbors and friends for no reason. And here’s the thing: these murders are not what make The Waking Dark horror. Rather, the horror is the worse that will come. It’s what people will do and will think. Neighbor turns on neighbor, and it soon likes almost as if the people who died the year before were the lucky ones.

Why did these handful of people become killers? The answer may be hidden in the history of the town, or it may be something else. After the tornadoes destroy part of the town, it’s not just the phones and Internet not working, it’s the military blockades around the town preventing anyone from leaving, or entering. Is it the isolation that makes those in the town of Oleander turn on each other? Or is it something more? Is the reason behind the destruction of Oleander and its people supernatural? Scientific in origin? Or something else entirely?

Second, because of the setting: a small town, who, even before the murders and tornadoes, was dying. Dying because of the loss of work, dying because of the rise of meth and drug use, dying because of just the general meanness of people. The portrait of Oleander, and those who live there, is sad and specific and full; Wasserman, like King, has created a world that appears to really exist. I’m sure that somewhere, Oleander is on a map and its inhabitants are flesh and blood.

There are five narratives running through The Waking Dark, overlapping and entwining upon occasion. Daniel Ghent, whose normal life ended years ago with the death of his mother and her father’s losing touch with reality. Julie Prevette, whose trailer trash family is notorious for their violence and crimes and meth. Ellie King, a Christian girl who needs to believe in God. Jeremiah West, high school football player and all around popular kid. And, finally, Cassandra Porter, who doesn’t remember what she did in the baby nursery but who is paying for it now.

Here is an early scene with Daniel: “Daniel flipped through the wrinkled page [of the comic book], past caped heroes who never arrived too late and punches that never left a bruise. He couldn’t remember ever being young enough to believe in that kind of world; he didn’t want to imagine his little brother ever being old enough to stop.” It tells so much about Daniel, and his life, and his childhood, and his brother, and their relationship, in just a handful of words.

Five people do not a town make. The Waking Dark includes many other characters, and this is another area where Wasserman is like King, because even with a few lines and a handful of scenes, she creates memorable, believable characters.

This is not a book about good-hearted people pulling together. When things go back in Oleander, they go really, really bad. What happens when people let the darkness in their heart out? When the meanness that you keep in check to be polite doesn’t have to be kept in check anymore?

The Waking Dark is also not about a handful of strangers banding together to fight back. The main characters know each other the way that teens in a small town would know each other. It takes a while for the five main characters to connect in a more meaningful way, and since all five are teenagers, for most part, they are without any real power to fight anything. This is a town where, within less than two weeks of the quarantine, people believe that a public execution by fire is a good thing. What can teens do to fight that? Not much; they best they can hope for is escape.

Towards the end, there is a line, almost a throwaway — “They had all deserved better.

And this is perhaps the true genius of The Waking Dark, and why this is horror. Because, yes, these five deserve better. But so does everyone in Oleander, whether they’re the young girl whose baby brother was murdered, destroying her family, or the local meth dealer who loves and wants to protect his niece. They all deserve better. We all deserve better than what life gives us: but that’s life. What happens, happens, and is neither punishment nor reward. Life doesn’t care what we deserve. It doesn’t care in Oleander, and it doesn’t care outside Oleander.

One last thing: Oleander is quarantined. And here is another example of why I love The Waking Dark. Even before the military closed the town off, it was a town that trapped people. Using teens as the main characters underscores how trapped people are: make someone a high school graduate and a reader may say, “oh they can always leave,” ignoring the ties of blood and family and friendship, ignoring that leaving a place, any place, requires someplace new to go and the resources to get there. And, not to give too much away about the ending, just because one is stuck somewhere doesn’t mean that isn’t home.

By this point, I’m sure you’ve all figured out that this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

The only thing I’d like to add is the diversity that Wasserman includes in The Waking Dark. One character is part Hispanic; another is gay.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Librarian of Snark; Rachel’s Reading Timbits; and author interview at Entertainment Weekly.

 

Review: The Archived

The Archived by Victoria Schwab. Hyperion Books, Disney Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Mackenzie, sixteen, is a “Keeper” like her grandfather before her. She’s been taught by him how to hunt down Histories (the dead) that have escaped from the Archive  (run by Librarians) before they enter the Outer, our world.

Histories are not the actual people who have died, but they do hold their memories and knowledge. When they wake in the Archive, they are often confused and that can lead to violence. It’s Mac’s job to make sure that they don’t enter our world, where they can cause real harm.

Things have gotten complicated.

Her brother died, and Mac is haunted by the idea of him being in the Archive. She knows it’s not really him, but still — to know his memories are there. To know she can look at his face one more time. But, of course, she can’t. Only Librarians can do that, not a Hunter. It doesn’t stop her from wanting.

In the aftermath of her brother’s death, her family has moved to an apartment building in a new town. At first, Mac thinks that the increase in escaped Histories is because the apartment building has a rich, old history. Instead, she finds out the building’s history has been tampered with. The ever-increasing number of escaped Histories isn’t normal.

Mac is going to break a few rules to find out what is really going on with the Archive, the Histories, and the Librarians.

The Good: Mac has to balance multiple roles and worlds. To the outsider, she’s a typical teen girl. She has this secret life that no one knows about or suspects, including her own family. Being a Hunter, being part of the world of the Archive, is a secret to be held and shared only with others with the potential to enter this strange world. For Mac, that was her grandfather.

At the apartment building the Coronado, Mac encounters two young men: Wesley, a teenaged Hunter; and Owen, someone a bit more mysterious. Mac’s life has been rather close up till now. While she has a best friend, in her old home town, having to live a life that involves training and disappearing at odd moments to hunt Histories has left her a bit isolated from other teens. Even in the world of the Archive, the only people she has met are the Librarians, who are usually a bit stand-offish and business as usual. Meeting Wesley, and Owen, two people who know her secrets, is the first time she’s really had peers who understand what she does.

And yes, there is a bit of a triangle there. And it’s a creepy triangle.

Mac is one of those characters I kept wanting to talk some sense into, because she did some stuff that made me scream ARGH. But her choices made perfect sense for her: Mac is a character who is grieving, deeply, and her grandfather has trained her to be more about action than self-reflection. She is, also, lonely, and doesn’t realize it. Or, rather, doesn’t realize how that influences her decisions. Plus, there’s the whole emotional hurricane of dealing with the Histories, who think they are real but aren’t. While Mac’s action mode can help, as when Mac has to figure out what is going on with the Library that so many more Histories are escaping and what it has to do with her new home, sometimes it hurts. As when it doesn’t really allow her to feel the loss of her brother, or, for that matter, her grandfather.

What else? I like that part of action-Mac is doing research into her apartment building’s history, both by looking for documents and records but also by talking to other residents. I like the relationship that develops with Wes. I like her relationship with her parents, and how that has been affected by her secret life. And the world building! I want to know even more about the Archive and the people who work there.

Other reviews: Disquietus; Sarcasm and Lemons; The Book Smugglers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good: al;dskj;l

Review: The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath: The Shades of London, Book Two by Maureen Johnson. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013. Personal copy. Sequel to The Name of the Star.

The Plot: Rory, physically recovered from being stabbed by a killer ghost, returns to her boarding school. That ghost is gone, but she soon realizes that other dangerous ghosts are haunting London. As Rory tries to navigate her separate worlds (student by day, ghost hunter by night) she discovers that there are sometimes things more dangerous than ghosts.

The Good: While I enjoyed The Name of the Star, I loved, loved, loved The Madness Underneath. The Name of the Star is like the TV Pilot that gets the gang together and sets up a premise and The Madness Underneath is the episode where it all comes together and sparks fly.

The Madness Underneath quickly brings the reader up to speed, so, to be honest, I don’t think you need to start with The Name of the Star. Rory can see ghosts; her family and her friends at boarding school don’ t know this; she sneaks out at all hours to assist ghost-seeing ghost-hunters. Got it? Good.

Rory, quite understandably, hasn’t been concentrating on her school work, on account of the whole being stabbed and almost dying thing. Also, ever since then, it’s not just that she can see ghosts; with a touch, she can kill them. Or, whatever it is you call it when the ghost goes away, permanently. The ghost hunters — Stephen, Callum, and Boo — send some mixed messages. She’s valuable because of her ability to terminate ghosts. She cannot tell anyone anything about them, ever. She’s on call when they need her. She cannot be an official part of the team because she’s still in school and is an American. In other words, not only does Rory have a lot going on, there’s also no one with whom she can be completely honest. Her lies keep piling up.

Rory suspects a local murder isn’t what it seems; at the same time, she starts seeing a new therapist who really seems to be able to help her. The Madness Underneath is a mystery, so I don’t want to give too much plot-wise away, but things get complicated and it all happens fast. Every now and then I was a few steps ahead of Rory; other times, I was finding things out at the same time she was. (Long time readers of this blog know that is just how I like my mysteries, because I get to be both smart and surprised.) What interested me as a reader is that the mystery wasn’t what it seemed to be, at first, and I liked that sleight of hand.

What I can give away? Rory herself, who is funny, adding needed humor to a tale that is otherwise, when one steps back and thinks about it, deep and dark and layered. “Julia might well have asked me, ‘Rory, do you want me to go live in the sky? On a Pegasus?’ It was not going to happen.”

Rory is also pretty smart in her observations about those around her. Here she is on her boyfriend Jerome: “I’d gotten used to not being around Jerome, and strangely, this had made us closer. We’d definitely gotten more serious in the last two weeks, but we’d done it all over the phone or on a screen. I’d grown accustomed to Jerome as a text message, and it was somewhat unsettling to have the actual person sliding down the wall to sit next to me. Unsettling, but also a bit thrilling.

Rory can be as honest about herself, sometimes: “I liked being right, and I liked being powerful, and I liked the way I felt right now.

As for the end of The Madness Underneath. I’ll be honest: some may call it a cliff-hanger and cry “no.” I like it; the questions raised were answered. That a new question was raised at the end, well, that sometimes happens.

For all these reasons — the plotting, the writing, Rory’s humor, the romance, the mystery — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other Reviews: The Book Smugglers; bookshelves of doom; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Reading Rants.

 

Review: Girl of Nightmares

Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake. Tor Teen. 2012. Sequel to Anna Dressed in Blood. Reviewed from library copy.

The Plot: Months ago, the ghost Anna Korlov sacrificed herself to save Cas Lowood. His friends and family tell him: she’s gone. Gone wherever it is that ghosts go. Cas wants to believe them, except he keeps seeing her ghost; and she’s in pain.

Cas doesn’t care what his friends and family say. He’s going to find a way to save Anna, to bring her back, no matter what the cost.

The Good: Cas’s mission to hunt and kill dangerous ghosts, like his father before him, is explained in Anna Dressed in Blood, as is how he meets Anna Dressed in Blood, a dangerous ghost. How Anna is both a dangerous murderous ghost and the girl of Cas’s dreams and the ghost who saves him is explained in Anna Dressed in Blood.

Cas’s friends, Carmel and Thomas, want to be supportive of Cas. Problem is, the girl Cas is in love with is a ghost and that ghost is gone wherever it is ghosts go. Thomas is a psychic, from a family of psychics, so in a way he has no choice but to go along with ghost hunting Cas. That said, his grandfather is one of the many warning Cas to leave Anna be. Carmel, on the other hand, is neither psychic nor ghost-hunter, and is there because they are her friends. It’s a bit much to ask, of friends, to not just put themselves in danger hunting dangerous ghosts but also to try to bring back one of the most dangerous ghosts — Anna.

Cas kills ghosts using his athame, a special type of knife. In pushing his mentor, Gideon, for answers, Cas discovers his athame, and ghost-hunting is more involved than he thought. Has a deeper history than he thought.

Girl of Nightmares wraps up the story of Anna Dressed in Blood, while introducing a broader world, including chilling Order of the Biodag Dubh. There is action, adventure, supernatural aplenty, but it’s also an examination of choice. Cas, Thomas, and Carmel, Gideon, even Anna, all have choices to make, and, needless to say, they aren’t easy choices. What is the right thing to do?

Anna Dressed in Blood was about finding and not killing a ghost; Girl of Nightmares is once again about finding a ghost, only this time, it’s not so simple as finding a haunted place. Once again, Cas has to fight the supernatural; he also has to rely on both Carmel and Thomas. He can’t do it alone, no matter how much he thinks he can.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Chasing Ray, for her Bookslut column; Bookshelves of Doom at Kirkus.

Review: Pale

Pale by Chris Wooding. Stoke Books. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: The Pales have white hair and skin and spooky eyes. They are the fortunate, or unfortunate, ones who have received the Lazarus Serum that brings them back from the dead. Their heart stops beating, they don’t breath, they are dead . . . but they keep going. They don’t grow old.

Jed and his friends mock and beat up the Pales who go to their school. They are strange and different. The law may say they have to go to school, but the law also says that if they are dead, they no longer own what they once did. They live in a part of town called “the Graveyard,” because no one wants them. Jed’s father is one of those “afterlife lawyers” who specializes in making sure that the Pales’ families, not the Pales, get their homes and property and money.

Then Jed gets in a car accident. He’s given the Lazarus Serum. He becomes a Pale.

The Good: I love Chris Wooding’s books, and I hadn’t realized he had a new one out until I saw this at NetGalley. When I began reading it, I was surprised at just how short it was. As Wooding explains at his website, Pale was written for Barrington Stoke UK, a publisher specializing in “reluctant or dyslexic readers.” This past year, Lerner began distributing Barrington Stoke books in the US. So, that explains both why I hadn’t heard about Pale, as well as the shortness of the book.

Pale is quick moving: Jed is all action, and it’s all immediate. The plot moves swiftly, from Jed beating up Pales to then being one. The dilemma is simple: Jed becomes what he despised. What happens now to his family, his friends? Who is he now? None of this self-examination takes much time, and is done within the context of getting beat up or running away or standing up for himself.

Pale has an interesting idea — the dead come back and they’re not really wanted — and it’s basically a conversation starter for the reader. For a short book, it’s full of things that will generate discussions: why would someone take the Lazarus Serum? If people don’t want their families and friends to do, why reject them? Why does Jed and his friends bully the Pales? Etc., etc.

For me, it was nice to have a quick shot of Wooding. The appeal for reluctant readers is obvious: easy to read, short, action, but with things to really think about, and an exciting idea. While I want more, this delivers exactly what it promises: a book to entice and excite reluctant readers.

Other reviews: Turning the Page; Always Cooking Up Something.

Review: White Devil

White Devil by Justin Evans. HarperCollins. 2011. Personal copy. Part of my Holiday Reads for Grown Up series; and what better book to pick than one that is not just a ghost story, but is a haunted boarding school story?

The Plot: American Andrew Taylor has been sent to an exclusive British boarding school, Harrow, for his final year of schooling. He’s under strict orders from his father not to mess things up like he did at his previous high school.

Harrow is old — and anything old has ghost stories, right?

Things are looking up when Persephone Vine (the only female student at the school) approaches Andrew about playing Byron in a play being written by Piers Fawkes, a poet and Andrew’s housemaster.

Then Andrew finds the body of a fellow student. One of the few who had been friendly to the new American. It’s quickly determined to be death from natural causes, but it’s enough for people to give Andrew a wide berth. There are even whispers of drugs.

It’s even more complicated because Andrew something someone — something — no, someone, by the body of the dead student. Who’ll believe him?

As Andrew learns more, he begins to believe that there really is a ghost at Harrow. But if the ghost is real, who is it? What does it have to do with the dead boy? And is anyone else in danger?

The Good: Let’s be honest. Ghosts aren’t scary.

No, really.

What’s scary is what ghosts does. What’s scary is never knowing where a ghost is. The way you can’t trust your eyes or ears. Not knowing what a ghost will or won’t do. Not being able to stop the ghost.

Andrew realizes not just that there is a ghost; not just that it’s killing people; but also, that it has something to do with Andrew. This isn’t something random; and it’s not something that has been going on for ages. It’s something old and dark and dangerous but perhaps scariest of all, it’s about Andrew. People are being hurt because of him. But why? And how? Andrew researches the school’s long past, with the help of Fawkes. Fawkes is haunted by something entirely different. As a young man, he’d shown promise and won awards and accolades for his poetry. Now, he’s a has been, his agent doesn’t return his calls, and his drinking is an open secret. He’s not the best person to handle the sudden unexpected deaths of people around him. What he is, though, is the best person Andrew has, and one of the few people Andrew can trust. And yes, this was scary and full of tension but I couldn’t help but love when Andrew starts looking into the history of the school and doing some in-depth research and reading original sources.

I have a bit of a soft spot for underdogs: Andrew, Fawkes, and Persephone are all underdogs. The lone American, the drunk, the girl. One of my favorite types of tragedies is the underdog so scarred that he becomes the villain. This is what happened here with the ghost — it is love turned to hate, want turned to destruction.

So — you have a ghost. You have a ghost who is killing people. You figure out who and why. And it’s all super scary and reading with one eyed closed. And now comes the real problem: can you stop the ghost?

This book was super scary; and it became even creepier when I read at the author’s website that Harrow is a real school. And while I don’t want to give away the ending, it was unexpected yet perfect and had me putting down the book because I couldn’t believe it and pacing around the room then picking it up again.

Other reviews: New York Times review; Jenn’s Bookshelves; S. Krishna’s Books; Jenny’s Books.

Review: The Infects

The Infects by Sean Beaudoin. Candlewick Press. 2012. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: So, Nick Sole is working at plant that produces fast food chicken. It’s a dead end job, but he’s not really a slacker — he has to help support his family, since his mom left, his dad doesn’t do much of anything (not since he lost his job at the same factory) and he has a younger sister that doesn’t quite have Aspergers. Bad luck and a problem at work leads to him being arrested and sentenced and before you know it, he’s in a van with a lot of other juvenile delinquents, headed to some nature hike to make him a better person, with the nickname Nero.

Then, the zombies attack. Does a van full of teenage criminals, without any weapons, stand a chance?

The Good: The Infects begins with a “gotcha” moment. Nick and his younger sister are fighting zombies, and just as you’re impressed with the nine year old’s fighting skills, gotcha! They’ve been playing a video game. Instead, Nick is just living his normal, boring, trying to make ends meet life. His biggest worry is trying to get up the nerve to do something about his crush, Petal Gazes, who he sees at both work and at school.

The Infects is funny and knowing; it expects the reader to be up on their zombie culture. Chapter headings include Don’t Fear the Reaper and All  Along the Watchtower. Pages are blood-spattered. Even before a full-fledged, people-eating zombie appears before Nero, things are happening in the background that a reader will pick up on. A news report in the background talking about cows that have been torn to pieces. A woman with unfocused eyes walks by, growling and snapping like a dog.

A bite of a zombie infects a person; hence the nickname and title, The Infects. But what is the source of the prime infection? What starts it? And what does it mean? Of course, none of that matters, not at first, as this bunch of teenage boys on a mountain try to figure out just what to do in the face of a zombie attack. Along the way, they meet up with the van of female teenage delinquents, and guess who is in that van? Guess? If you said Petal, you’d be right!

The zombies are frightening and scary, the boys are both resourceful, brave, and foolish, and I wondered just where The Infects was taking me. Forget about twists and turns; it takes expectations and turns them upside down and sideways and I loved every moment of the weird, scary, funny, terrifying trip. When I got to the end, I thought — well, why not?

Other reviews: Guys Lit Wire; Smash Attack Reads.