Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jinks, Silberberg, Ullman, Yancey

The Reformed Vampire Support Group
by Catherine Jinks
Recommended Ages: 13+

I don't hate the Twilight series, but I'm not a fan either. After reading a few of the books and seeing one of the movies, I can appreciate some of its appeal--though I find the concept of bare-chested werewolves preposterous, and I think the books' teen romance emphasis hurts them somewhat. I mean, you can only read Edward, the eternally teeanged vampire, described as the physically ideal male so many times before you start fantasizing about wooden stakes. As for Bella, the vampire-loving narrator of the series, her character's conflicted motives are only captivating for so many hundreds of pages. More needs to happen outside of Bella's head in the first three-quarters of each book, in my opinion.

But what is a writer to do about it? You can whine about it, as I have just done. Or you can present an alternative, which is the tack steered by Catherine Jinks, author of the Evil Genius trilogy. In what could, for the sake of bolstering book sales, be described as a parody of Twilight, Jinks depicts the downside of being a vampire forever frozen at age 15. The result is not only funnier than H-E-double wooden stakes, but it's also a taut, suspenseful thriller with just the right touch of romance (a light touch) and a cast of well-developed, believable, flesh and (ahem) blood characters. There's even a breathtakingly cute werewolf, for your money. He just doesn't have what it takes to hold up his corner of a love triangle. What do you know! Looks aren't everything!

Nina Harrison does not belong to a coven of vampires. She doesn't even live in a fake family of glamorous vampires who move from place to place, changing their identities to maintain their cover. Rather, Nina's "Reformed Vampire Support Group" are a bunch of nebbishes, shlubs, and whiners who meet once a week in the basement of a Catholic church to support each other's abstention from human blood. They survive on guinea pigs and nutritional supplements, they suffer constant headaches and upset tummies, they bleed from the eyes in bright light, and from sunup to sundown they sleep like the dead--preferably in a safe place where the sunlight can't get to them. They can't turn into bats. They don't have super speed or kung-fu powers. They don't heal from injuries any faster than the average person. While it may take a wooden stake to kill them, a bullet (silver or not) can mess them up for life. And when life is endless, that can be a major bummer.

So when a member of Nina's support group gets staked, everyone is worried. They all move, for safety purposes, into the basement of Nina's mum's house--her mum who isn't a vampire, so she can look out for vampire slayers while Nina and her friends sleep through the day. As Nina and her less-pathetic-than-average vampire friend Dave try to solve the mystery of Kasimir's slaying, they get mixed up with a pudgy loser and a father-son pair of werewolf-baiting ne'er-do-wells. Nina finds out whether she has it in herself to rise above her vampire nature and act like the heroine of the mediocre fantasy novels she writes for a living. Dave finds out whether he and Nina might ever get together. And everyone finds out what happens when you put three different kinds of unnatural-born killers in a room together and turn your back on them.

Whatever happens, you can trust that it won't be ideally pretty, or erotically charged, or full of high-paced action and grand heroics, or even particularly scary. Instead, it is just a whimsical mystery full of unexpected twists, rich complexities, and down-to-earth people who just happen to be undead. It is set in a believable present-day Australia where vampires are more likely to stay at home in the suburbs, night after night and decade after decade, watching TV or surfing the internet, rather than running through moonlit forests or massaging grand pianos. I can picture it being made into a movie: not a mass-audience blockbuster, but a quirky independent film with average-looking, unknown actors performing extended scenes in a single take, no musical score, and a washed-out look befitting the vampire's oversensitivity to light. And sequels? I actually look forward to them, beginning with The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group, which comes out in Spring 2011.

Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze
written & illustrated by Alan Silberberg
Recommended Ages: 10+

Some time ago, an Advance Reviewer Copy of this book came to me out of the clear blue. Since it looked, at first glance, like a knockoff of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its sequels, I wasn't very interested at first. But a day came when, for one reason or another, I wanted a book that I could start and finish in one sitting, and this was the likeliest-looking candidate near the top of the heap of books that daily threatens to collapse and bury me alive. So I read it. And although, yes, it probably has a lot in common with the Wimpy Diaries (which I haven't read), I have to admit... This. Book. Made. Me. Cry.

All right, now that you've dragged that out of me (you big meanie!), let me also admit that it made me laugh.

This first-person story, partly told in the form of doodly comic panels but mostly as text, focuses on Milo Cruikshank's move to a new house, a new school, and a new stage in his life. Not only is he starting junior high school, but he is also starting to get a handle on the grief of losing his mother. It isn't easy when his father isn't the same man he used to be, when every reminder of their lost loved one has been banished from their home, and when kids have their usual difficulty talking to grown-ups and to each other.

Milo forms tentative, touching friendships with a boy and a girl in his school, relationships that have at least their share of comic and dramatic ups and downs. He squirms under the attention of the kindly lady across the street. He develops a ridiculous crush on one of the popular girls and suffers accordingly. He struggles with algebra, hates his gym teacher, and drinks more slushy soft drinks than most mortals can endure.

It has to be difficult for any book, but especially one written for kids, to walk the line between quirky humor and dealing with a serious issue like the loss of a parent. Not everyone will like the balance this book strikes between the two. Perhaps, too, a certain sense that the story goes on too long may be put down to the fact that Milo's family faces a problem for which there is no quick and easy solution. But seeing them beginning to heal may be a healing thing for young readers who face similar issues in their own lives.

The answer this book presents isn't what I would advocate as a Christian minister. But as an account of where its author comes from, Milo's journey stirs compassion. At the very least, it may lead youngsters to look differently at the kid in their class whom nobody notices or respects. If he is at all like Milo, there may be something cool, or fun, or even admirable about him. He won't be perfect--Milo certainly isn't--but he may be someone whose friendship brings beauty to your life. Why don't you take a closer look?

Whistle Bright Magic
by Barb Bentler Ullman
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this companion to The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood, we meet Zelly--the daughter of the earlier book's protagonist Willa. Like her mother, Zelly comes to the small town of Plunkit hurting from the absence of her father, who deserted wife and child when she was too young to remember him. While Willa runs the bookstore and tries to wrap up the affairs of her late mother, Zelly makes new friends at the local school and draws them with her into a magical adventure.

The Nutfolk are leaving as more and more of their ancestral woods are cut down by developers. But they find a friendly soul in Zelly, who can see through some of the magic that hides the Nutfolk from human view. One young fairy, Whistle Bright by name, takes a particular interest in Zelly. With his help, she makes some amazing discoveries about her mother's girlhood, and about her father. For the first time in her life, it may even be possible to heal her broken family.

This latest addition to Nutfolk lore, which began as bedtime stories for the author's children, glows with the warmth of love for the type of woodland home in which the Ullman family lives (in Washington state, USA) and with a keen sympathy for the griefs and heartaches that are a part of every life. Though the ending doesn't quite tie up everything too neatly, I thought it came too soon and rather abruptly. Perhaps another book is in the works?

The Monstrumologist
"edited" by Rick Yancey
Recommended Ages: 13+

It's approaching midnight on Halloween. You're up late, strung out on a sugar buzz. You're almost too old to have gone trick-or-treating, but with your vivid imagination and keen sense of fun you probably enjoyed it in a way most smaller kids couldn't. Your parents expect you to be asleep by now, but you're too restless. Perhaps you think to yourself: "This would be the perfect time to read a spooky story." You've got this book on your shelf, waiting for the right time. Why not tonight?

Now listen to my advice: Don't do it. Don't start reading this book on a dark, spooky, sleepless night. If you do, your parents will find you in the morning, barricaded in your room with all the lights on, probably rolled up in a quilt under the bed with red circles under your eyes. You thought vampires were scary. Werewolves, zombies, maybe mummies... But anthropophagi? You've never even heard of them! How could they be THAT scary??

Well, maybe you have heard of them, if you've read Shakespeare's Othello. Monsters like the ones described in this book have cropped up in historical and philosophical writings going all the way back to the 5th century B.C. They're nasty brutes, too. Instead of heads, they have a pair of bulbous eyes on their shoulders and a huge, gaping mouth in the middle of their belly, lined with row upon row of razor-sharp teeth. They have powerful limbs and slashing claws. They are vicious predators, and their preferred diet is human flesh. Never seen one in a zoo? Be thankful. By the late 1800s, when this story is set, most people who have even heard of them think they are extinct. But out of deepest, darkest Africa, one breeding pair has managed to make its way to the New World. They have hidden and multiplied while a town grew up above their heads. And now they have broken the surface and begun to feed, slaughtering whole families at a single meal.

Who could fight monsters like this? Only a few people who call themselves "monstrumologists." One of them, a Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, happens to live in the very town where the anthropophagi have begun to feast on humans. With the aid of his sullen teenaged assistant Will Henry, and later a handsome adventurer who is almost as monstrous as what they hunt, Warthrop investigates the mysterious roots of this new plague and works out how to stop it. But being an arrogant man with more than a touch of the manic-depressive in his personality, Warthrop makes some colossal mistakes. Mistakes that cost lives.

Rick Yancey, the author of the Alfred Kropp series, presents this book not as his own work but as a journal that he discovered at a nursing home after its author's death, an unbelievable(?) number of years after the events Will Henry claims to have witnessed. Whether written by Yancey or by Will Henry himself, their style is curiously old fashioned and what some might call "purple"--which is to say, unfashionably melodramatic at times, and given to lengthy passages of introspection.

In spite of these things, it's a book that you will never find boring. On the contrary, it might be more thrilling than you can handle. It is so full of violence, gore, and the macabre that your stomach might not be able to take it. If you go against my advice, and spend Halloween night alone with this book, you have only yourself to blame for the tooth-chattering wreck your parents will find when they look in on you in the morning. But cheer up! Will Henry is just getting started. Book 2, The Curse of the Wendigo, comes out this month. Just in time for Halloween!


Barb said...

Re Whistle Bright: Thanks for the review. Yes, there is a third book. Hopefully it will see the light of day. Barb U.

RobbieFish said...

That's good news. Best to you!