Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Four Book Reviews

by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Recommended Age: 14+

Bailey, Zo, Annabelle, and Delia have been best friends since forever, though they couldn't be more different from each other. Their little circle of high school pals includes a tomboy, a popular girl, a genius, and...well, plain old Bailey, who narrates the story and doesn't think of herself as anything special. But during a trip to the mall to scope out clothes and accessories for the upcoming spring dance, a new side of Bailey comes forward, a Bailey attuned to magical objects and voices from the fairy realm, a Bailey on whom the destiny of the world depends.

It begins when the four girls split a package of temporary, press-on tattoos. Before they think to question the strange designs and color, before they realize that the mysterious saleswoman has brought her wares to the mall just for them, they have been marked by fairy blood. This gives each girl a magical power that will last until the night of the dance. It also makes them sensitive to a cosmic battle going on in a dimension most mortals cannot sense.

Fashion diva Delia uses her power of transfiguration mainly to tart up her shoes, clothes, hair, and those of her friends. But the ability to turn a lock into tapioca, for instance, does come in handy when the girls have to break into a hotel room to save a child's life from being sucked out by an evil fairy. Zo's glimpses of the future, Annabelle's trick of reading (and sometimes controlling) other people's minds, and Bailey's power of fire also come in handy. But more important still is her ability to communicate with two ancient beings who are fighting to preserve the balance between their world and ours, between life and death. And that power comes not from the tattoo, but from Bailey's own blood.

Coming from an author whose other novels include Golden and Platinum, Tattoo is a fun romp featuring four lively teen heroines. Their friendship, their different personalities, their crushes on boys, and their resourcefulness in confronting an otherworldly threat to all existence, will bring pleasure to many readers, especially teen girls.

I don't mean to take away from this endorsement, but I must qualify it with an "occult content advisory." The story is built on a concept of the world in which fairies and the gods of various religions are involved in the origins of life, existing alongside us in a balance of magical energy. This worldview could be compared with certain aspects of the pagan movement, though some pagans in the book are depicted as ignorant dabblers. My advice to parents is that, before choosing this book for your daughter, you prepare for a frank discussion of these magical and occult themes.

The Black Tattoo
by Sam Enthoven
Recommended Age: 14+

Jack Farrell has come to believe that his whole life is one endless streak of bad luck. This belief actually helps him to cope with some serious stuff. No matter how bad things get, he can always put things in perspective, aided by his favorite word: "Typical." You'll be amazed at the kinds of things Jack covers with this word. Tagging along behind Charlie Farnsworth while his better-looking, more charismatic best friend gets all the attention? Typical. Losing out on a meal of his favorite food because Charlie has to tell off his estranged father and storm out of the restaurant? Typical. Serving as the useless sidekick of a teenage superhero in training? Typical?

"Typical" indeed! Soon Jack's unique perspective on life enables him to keep his wits about him when a demon possesses his buddy's body and takes him straight to Hell. Huffing that it's absolutely typical, Jack follows him. He survives a personal audience with the emperor of the underworld. He meets God and isn't impressed. He cools his heels in a dungeon shared with freakishly nasty creatures, one of whom he is slated to meet in a gladiator death-match. He faces gruesome death in a variety of forms. He learns to survive on a demon diet upchucked by talking bats, or Chinj. And he copes with it all remarkably well, considering that he isn't a high-kicking, sword-swinging teen warrior babe like Esme, a demon-battling girl-on-a-mission with whom Jack has hardly any chance.

It's not that Jack is never scared. You would probably feel as he does in this situation:
He was frightened. Terrified, in fact. Large parts of his brain were wibbling and gibbering to themselves, quietly yet with gusto. Single words like Hell and shark played leapfrog in his head, amongst more prosaic ones like Help!, No! or AAAAAAAAAAARRGH!
Though he doesn't have Esme's martial-arts skills, and though he isn't as well-armed or battle-seasoned as the Sons of the Scorpion Flail (a demon-battling paramilitary group), Jack travels to Hell not once but twice, determined to save his friend from making the biggest mistake in all eternity. And amazingly, for all his uselessness in battle, Jack turns out to be instrumental in saving the universe. Which is just typical, wouldn't you say?

Obviously, I'm going to lay on another "occult content advisory" here. The magic in this book includes spells to bind demons. People get in heaps of trouble by making bargains with demons. One particular demon excels at taking control of people. And woven into this story is a theology that, again, is best described in its own words:
"All our religions are false," Felix said... "There's no benevolent Creator watching over us all. There's no divine justice, no grand master plan. There's just this...being that made the universe and has been asleep ever since. The demons call it the Dragon."
In spite of its unorthodox theology the book can be enjoyed on its own terms, even by orthodox believers, as a work of pure fantasy. But I mention this in case such concepts may strain your capacity for "willing suspension of disbelief." Bear it in mind while deciding whether you will enjoy this quirky, action-packed story and the often breathtaking scope of its imagery.

The Monsters of Otherness
by Kaza Kingsley
Recommended Age: 12+

In Book Two of Erec Rex the heir apparent to the magical kingdom of Alypium begins a series of magical tasks testing his claim to the throne. As Erec begins a new course of studies under a frankly dodgy pair of tutors, he faces a growing heap of challenges. The Stain brothers continue to contest Erec's claim to the throne. Protest demonstrations and snarky memos show that he is hated by the people he is destined to rule. Meanwhile Erec keeps receiving suspiciously enthusiastic fan letters.

Baby dragons have been disappearing. War is brewing with the creatures who inhabit the wasteland of Otherness. Two of Erec's siblings have been abducted and replaced by lookalike assassins. An evil "Prince of Peace" has laid plans whose fulfillment will be fatal to Erec and, indeed, to the whole world. All that, plus the first two of twelve seemingly impossible tasks, fall on Erec's young shoulders just when his best friends Bethany, Oscar, and Jack seem to be growing away from him in their own, fateful directions.

Erec's second adventure is filled with the unexpected. There's the mystery of who is really behind the kidnapping of Danny and Sammy Rex. Even more mysterious are the clues Erec picks up to his own shadowy, ominous past. It's a time for a boy with a magical, royal destiny to learn about seeing past appearances. It is a time for a future king to practice compassion and justice, to face the uncomfortable results of telling the truth, to decide whom he should and shouldn't trust, to resist the tempting allure of pure power, and to learn how to balance superhuman powers with his human frailty.

So there's plenty going on in The Monsters of Otherness. Don't be surprised if, at times, it moves a bit faster than you can comfortably follow. Erec himself seems to be dragged along at a swifter pace than he can keep up. Within a very short time he meets trolls, dragons, harpies, hydras, and other creatures both wondrous and scary. He navigates through a bureaucratic maze, sticks his hand into the well of the fates (eww), solves one mystery only to be confronted with another, and simultaneously wins and loses a series of contests. He befriends an unusually resourceful butler, makes signal use of a magic scroll, and sees a friend fall in battle. He experiences sacrificial love. He struggles for self-knowledge. And he continues fighting to win a scepter he fears to hold - for good reason! - only because the idea of his enemies holding it is more terrifying still.

All this is almost too much for a single book, but it is only the second part of an ongoing series. And when it ends, Erec has made it through only two of the twelve tasks required of a would-be king. So plenty of adventure remains in store for us. The third book, titled The Search for Truth, is coming out at the end of June 2009.

Olivia Kidney Stops for No One
by Ellen Potter
Recommended Age: 11+

Olivia and her father have been kicked out of another Manhattan apartment building, thanks to her Dad's level of skill as a building superintendent, best described as "hopeless." It doesn't take them long to find a new home. In fact, one finds them, when George Kidney gets an envelope full of $100 bills and an invitation to ply his trade at a brownstone on 84th Street.

The brownstone in question is a bizarre place, even from the perspective of a girl who can talk to ghosts. The bottom floor is completely flooded, so everyone has to navigate it by boat. Upstairs in her new bedroom, Olivia is greeted by an unsigned card from someone who seems to know a lot about her. The handsome playboy who runs the place receives a constant series of guests, who only show up at night and whose activities make mysterious and disturbing noises. And then one of the guests turns up dead in Central Park. Soon an old friend who shares Olivia's psychic gifts comes to tell her that she's there on a mission, and it's a matter of life and death.

Compounding the mystery are many smaller, secondary adventures. Olivia takes another step in accepting the death of her older brother. For the first time in ages, she opens herself to the risky world of friendship, both with a cocky skateboarder and with a strange girl who attends the school for "superior children" next door. She helps bring together two lovers who have been separated by a lifetime of sorrow. Most importantly, however, she helps another lost soul find its way in a quirky, original adventure laced with spirit-world spookiness, laugh-out-loud humor, and weep-out-loud tenderness.

Happily, this book is by no means the end of the series; happily, I say, because it never resolves one nagging question about Olivia's redoutable friend Frannie. How did she know that her sister was visiting Ansel by night? When you read the book, you'll know what I mean.

This sequel to Olivia Kidney has also been published under the title Olivia Kidney and the Exit Academy. There is also at least a third book in the series: Olivia Kidney Hot on the Trail, also known as Olivia Kidney and the Secret Beneath the City. Anyone with information on this series and its confusing array of alternate titles would be welcome to leave a comment.

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