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: Dark Companion

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. Tor Teen. 2012. Reviewed from NetGalley.

The Plot: Jane Williams has been in the foster system since she was six. Following the unnecessary death of her best friend, Jane decides she wants more  for her future than what she sees around her and throws herself into studying. It pays off when she is accepted to Birch Grove Academy her junior year.

Jane is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, thrust into a world of privilege. To her surprise, her fellow students are welcoming and accepting. Mrs. Radcliffe, the headmistress of the school, invites Jane to her home and introduces her to her two wildly different sons: scruffy musician Jake and golden haired Lucien.

Something isn’t quite right. The previous scholarship student, Bebe, dropped out of school and hasn’t been in touch with her friends. The school nurse killed herself. Jake says cryptic things; Lucien is sometimes friendly, sometimes not. Is Jane right to worry? Or, as an orphan, does she not have the right context to understand this world of friendships and family?

Jane is right to worry. She’s been brought to Birch Grove for a purpose. The world is even darker than she imagined.

The Good: When I began reading this (boarding school with spooky overtones), I immediately thought of such Lois Duncan classics as Down a Dark Hall and Daughters of Eve. Teen Gothic? Teen Gothic done well? Delicious! I sank into the book with pure pleasure, enjoying Jane discovering the world of Birch Grove, picking up on the dark undertones and whispers of things not being quite right. Jane made friends, had a crush on Lucien, tries to figure out what happened to Bebe, and I just loved every second of it. Who was a real friend? Who was fake? What dark things were going on at Birch Grove? I narrowed my guesses down to —   No, I won’t tell you. That would be cheating. But it’s really hard, because what it turns out to be is so perfect for this book, and so perfectly  part of the book.

Jane is a terrific mix of tough and vulnerable, smart and naive. Here she is on why she is at school: “It was rage that got me to Birch Grove Academy for Girls and out of Hellsdale. I nestled into my bed, knowing that rage would help me survive here, too.” Jane may know the way of the streets, but families are alien territory. What I liked about Jane is how her background impacts her; for example, one of the first thing she does when she settles into her own home (which is a cute little cottage I would love to live in!), is to find a place to hide those things that are important to her. When Mrs. Radcliffe takes her on a shopping trip so that Jane is ready for school, Jane returns half the clothes and pockets the money, putting it in with her secret stash. She’s a foster child who has to hide what is important to her, and who has to be always ready to run.

Also! Before I forget! This book also is funny. One of Jane’s new friends is Mary Violet, and I adored her, because she had such a way of looking at the world — she just cracked me up. It got to the point where just seeing MV’s name appear on the page made me smile. MV does this thing with mangling translations of French words that is just perfect. “She has that je ne sais quoi. That’s French for, “I’m totally clueless.” MV’s wit is quick: “Embrace your flaws. I would if I had any.” Or, “It’s in one of those M months, March or May. Maybe Mebruary or Maugust.”  Jane needs a MV in her life; but hey, we all do.

Jane is at Birch Grove for reasons that have nothing to do with how well she does in chemistry class. She is faced with some interesting choices; choices about trust, but also about herself and what she wants. At one point, I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her and say “what are you doing?! LOOK AT YOUR CHOICES.” I was so frustrated with Jane, but then I remembered who Jane was. A child without parents; without any memory of her dead mother; raised in some of the worst situations possible. OF COURSE she is going to have her own needs, her own dark desires, that those raised in a healthy family would not have. Like I said, Jane was brought to Birch Grove. Part of the reason is not just that she is an orphan with no relatives; it’s that she has the types of needs that can be used or manipulated by others. Who would think that the desire for family, for friends, for belonging, could be twisted and manipulated?

I won’t comment on the romance, except, yes, it involves the two very different brothers. I don’t want to give anything away, sorry!

I was so swept away by the Gothic (aided by wonder epigraphs at the start of each chapter, taken from various early Gothic books), that I missed the most obvious thing in the world. Dark Companion is a spin (a wildly delicious supernatural paranormal spin) on Jane Eyre. Once I realized (and by “realized” I mean, “read a blog post at the author’s website“), I was doubly impressed with Dark Companion.

Other reviews: A Cupcake & A Latte; Talk Supe.

Review: Anna Dressed In Blood

Anna Dressed In Blood by Kendare Blake. Tor Teen. 2011. Personal copy.

The Plot: Theseus Cassio Lowood kills ghosts, just like his father before him. Years ago, his father was killed by one of those ghosts. Now Cas, a high school senior, travels the country with his mother, a witch, always on the hunt for ghosts. The hunt has brought them to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Anna Dressed in Blood. She is the ghost of a teenager killed in the mid 1950s, her throat slit, drenching her white dress with red blood. Since then, she has killed countless teenagers. Cas is there to stop her. What he doesn’t count on is making friends with queen bee Carmel and mind reader Thomas. What he doesn’t count on is falling in love with Anna.

The Good: I adore a good horror story, and this one delivers! I was reading so many good things about Anna Dressed in Blood that I bought my own copy, then put off reading it because I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to the hype. Yes, I know, so silly.

Cas is a loner, partly because he and his mother always move around so he doesn’t have the time to develop friendships, partly because he views what he does as a solo occupation. He doesn’t want friends; he’s not a ghostbuster, thank you very much (but if he was, he’d totally be Peter Venkman.) He takes what he does seriously. The ghosts he kills are killers themselves: they weren’t born that way, they didn’t die that way, it’s what they became after they died. “They might have been normal, or relatively normal, when they were still breathing, but once they die they’re your typical obsessives. They become fixated on what happened to them and trap themselves in the worst moment. Nothing else exists in their world except the edge of that knife, the feel of those hands around their throat. They have a habit of showing you these things, usually by demonstration.” The ghosts don’t even know they’re ghosts, they’re just replaying those last hours, and, sometimes, that involves killing others in the way they were killed. This is where Cas comes in, finding those deaths that ghost caused, hunting down the ghosts, and using his father’s athame to kill them, an athame that only works for him.

Something is different with Thunder Bay; something is different with Anna. Maybe it’s the number of people she’s killed. Maybe it’s because Cas witnesses her killing a local teen, and even as he sees her power (she tears the young man apart) he also sees that even though she could have killed him, she didn’t. Anna Dressed in Blood is too powerful for Cas to kill, too interesting for him to want to kill her, so he decides to try to figure out what makes her so powerful, what makes her so murderous, what makes her so different from every other ghost he’s met. To do that, he’s going to need help.

The people that Cas turns to  – his mother and an old family friend, plus local teens Carmel and Thomas and Thomas’s grandfather — are all fully developed, wonderful characters. Carmel is more than just a queen bee, handling both the news that ghosts are real and that they kill with a certain amount of common sense, as well as a baseball bat. Cas’s mother! Yes, she’s a witch, so she accepts what Cas does, and helps him, just as she did for her husband. Anna Dressed in Blood is full of the little daily details she does, such as putting the knife in a jar of salt for three days and making spells of protection around the house, as well as making a living selling occult supplies and candles and giving Tarot card readings.

Anna Dressed in Blood is both scary and romantic; Anna is both sympathetic and horrible, a murdered girl whose life was taken, a grand injustice, but also someone who has spent more than fifty years tearing apart anyone who steps into her house. The pacing is terrific; I especially loved it when I thought it was “the end” and it turned out much more was going on than I, or Cas, suspected. While Anna Dressed in Blood works as a standalone, I’m thrilled to say that there will be a second book about Cas, called Girl of Nightmares. As the author explains in her blog, “One thing that should probably be cleared up is that Anna Dressed in Blood was not the start of a series exactly. It was the start of a duology. So Girl of Nightmares is the end of Cas and Anna’s story.”

Because Anna Dressed in Blood lived up to its hype; because Anna scared me; because I cheered for Cas; because Anna Dressed in Blood is funny and full of pop culture references; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.*

*Technically? I read this in 2011 but literally ran out of room for the post. Perhaps I need to change this to Favorite Books Reviewed in 2012?

Review: Attack of the Vampire Weenies

Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales by David Lubar. Starscape / Tor Teen. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: A short story collection that will make you laugh while you double lock your doors and check your closets for monsters.

The Good: This is the most recent of Lubar’s “weenie” series of short story collections. Whoever thinks the short story is dead, or that kids don’t like short stories, haven’t talked to any real live kids and haven’t read the latest is this popular series.

What impresses me most about this short story collection is there is not a weak story in it. And it’s his fifth volume of such short stories! That’s pretty darn amazing.

What I love most about Vampire Weenies is just how scary the stories are. I began looking over my shoulder, wondering what was behind me. These are a delicious level of creepy, and just perfect for the target audience (middle grade) as well as older readers. Lubar uses just the right mix of horror, suspense, and a touch of humor, while avoiding any gorefest. Any gore is in the imagination of the reader, which is exactly how I like my horror. The stories reminded me of Twilight Zone at its best, though it’s a little sad to think that if I used that to booktalk this to classes I would get a lot of blank looks.

These are true short stories. Sometimes, you just want a quick scare or quick laugh. Short short stories like this are also perfect for readalouds during class or camp visits. Lubar rarely gives any ages for the main characters in these stories, which makes it easier for any reader to relate to this collection without it being either too young or too old. There is also a lot of karma — bad things happen, yes, but they tend to happen to kids who are being mean or self centered or cruel. Let’s put it this way: deciding to torment your sister by inviting real vampires to her fake “vampire weenie friends” party (complete with snarky comments about sparkle) will not end well. Sneaking out of the house? Will not end well. Tormenting a locked up vampire? Will not end well. Taking someone else’s ear buds? Will not …. well, you get the picture.

I also liked that, at the end of the book, Lubar includes a few short sentences about the inspiration for each story. While some kids could care less, others, like me who just like to know more, or aspiring writers who wonder where inspiration comes from, will enjoy the little bit more about each story.