Friday, February 22, 2008

Debi Gliori

Pure Dead Magic
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

Frequent reviewers of books and movies, like me, delight in making capsule-summaries of a whole book or movie in a single sentence, especially in the format "X meets Y in Z"--extra-especially if the likeness is only a passing one. I am guilty of this, so I suppose I shouldn't complain that this book quotes two such off-center summaries--TWO!!!--on its covers. Put together, they almost halfway give you an idea what the book is like. Booklist calls it "Harry Potter meets Lemony Snicket in a high-tech setting." And Kirkus Reviews, Starred, adds, "Mary Poppins meets the Addams Family in a nonstop farce." Can both of these be true? And if so, what could it mean???

The title comes from the popular idiom of Glasgow (Scotland) speech, where the author is apparently living a Scot's life in an Italian family. And the story is pretty much her family's story, I think, only with magic and gangsters added. It's an interesting combination.

The Strega-Borgias are a whopping (ahem) Italian family living in a 600-year-old, somewhat run-down, Austrian-style fairy-tale castle, next to a sea loch in the Scots highlands. The place is therefore called StregaSchloss.

As the curtain goes up in Pure Dead Magic, the father (Signor Luciano Strega-Borgia) has been kidnapped by his mafioso half-brother, Don Lucifer di S'Embowelli Borgia, and is being held in a palazzo in Italy while his family thinks he has abandoned them. Don Lucifer is a nasty piece of work, but mainly he wants Luciano to sign over custodianship (is that a word?) of the family fortune which Luciano's 12-year-old son, Titus, will inherit when he turns 13. And then of course, he intends to have Titus whacked so he, Don Lucifer, can claim the fortune for himself and get the nose job of his dreams.

To further his plans, he sends his consigliere, Pronto (that's his name), to StregaSchloss to whack Titus and anyone else who happens to be handy. Pronto hires three hit-men in black suits and one hit-man in a head-to-toe rabbit costume who goes by the moniker Attila the Bun (!!!), and together they storm the castle. They haven't reckoned, however, on the fact that Titus is a 12-year-old computer geek, or that his 10-year-old sister Pandora has stolen a couple of disposable wands from her mother (who is studying to be a witch), or that the nanny Mrs. MacLachlan has a make-up case that combines magic with high-tech, or that the butler Latch dreams of being a swashbuckling hero, or that the French cook (Marie Bain) is a nervous wreck whose cuisine could be a deadly weapon all by itself.

Least of all, have the hit men (and hit bunny) reckoned on the fact that StregaSchloss has a low-tech security system that includes the talking rat Multitudina (mother of multitudes), the lipstick-wearing talking spider-with-attitude Tarantella, a hungry moat crocodile named Tock, a leathery griffin (who can turn to stone and back again) named Sab, an adolescent dragon named Ffup, and a ravening yeti on a permanent bad-hair-day, named Knot. And that everyone is too concerned about rescuing the baby of the family, 14-month-old Damp, from cyberspace (where, along with 13 baby rats, she has been shrunk and e-mailed by accident) to give more than passing notice to four men and a giant bunny armed with semi-automatics.

The result is an adventure that combines the internet with wands, spells, mythical beasts, wacky plastic surgeons, and the denizens of Rent-a-Thug.

Pure Dead Wicked
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

In this sequel to Pure Dead Magic, all the good guys from the first book return (except that Marie Bain is on holiday in France). The adventure begins when a couple of slates fall off the castle roof and narrowly miss crushing the whole family to death. Signor Strega-Borgia calls in a roofing contractor who declares that the roof is okay but the beams under it are unsound, and quotes a heart-breaking six-digit sum as an estimate for fixing it.

Things go from bad to worse, because the contractor is a crook in cahoots with a real estate contractor, who wants to get hold of Strega-Schloss and turn it into a really tacky suburb or, perhaps, a toxic waste dump. So while the roofing contractor sabotages the family's picturesque ancestral home until it is on the verge of being condemned for mandatory demolition, the family takes up residence in a grossly overpriced hotel in the nearby village of Auchenlochtermuchty, where the witchy proprietress is trying to poison her own husband, steal somebody else's if possible, rip off the Strega-Borgias for all they are worth, and make their stay as miserable as possible.

It also turns out that she is one of the masterminds of the plot to get their home out from under them. (Her name is Ffion, which someone pronounces fee-YAWN, but which I think is intended to be pronounced "Fie on.")

But certain members of the Strega-Borgia entourage have other ideas. Particularly, the beasts Sab, Ffup, and Knot, the crocodile Tock, the rat Multitudina and her daughter Terminus, the spider Tarantella, a gang of tiny kilted warriors sprung from a spilled tincture of dragon's teeth, and 403 naked little pink clones created by Titus, Pandora, and Damp. And the kids themselves, of course.

The results are a bit gruesome, to tell the truth, and what ends up being really ironic is that the family thinks they have gotten away with something when, in fact, they have unwittingly prevented others from getting away with their home.

Gliori's books are wacky and modern and full of a dizzying combination of high-tech and low-tech wizardry, and adorable family values (plus the not-so-adorable stuff kids get up to when they're not thinking of others). Pure Dead Wicked ends with what is for me a bit of a mystery...what came out of the egg? Maybe if I could think like a Scotsman I would know. Or maybe I just have to wait for the third book to come out! [UPDATE: Just read on...]

Pure Dead Brilliant
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

As fans of Pure Dead Magic and Pure Dead Wicked already know, Strega-Schloss is an Austrian-style castle in the west of Scotland, owned by an Italian family that apparently bears some resemblance to the author’s own Italian-Scottish family. Besides the operatic parents Luciano and Baci – one the son of an enormously rich mafioso, the other a very mediocre student-witch – there are almost-13-year-old Titus (a computer genius who is about to inherit his mafioso grandfather’s millions), 10-year-old Pandora (whose best friends are a talking tarantula and two talking rats), and their 2-year-old sister Damp (who is actually the most powerful mage in the world). And lest we forget, the “help” is really part of the family: the mysteriously ageless nanny, the worst French cook in the world, the unflappable butler, the friendly moat monster, and the mythical beasts – a yeti, a griffin, and two dragons – who live in the dungeons. Oh yeah, I almost forgot Strega-Nonna, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother who lives in cryogenic freeze in the basement, and is only thawed out for special occasions.

Amazingly, each of these characters (with the possible exception of Strega-Nonna) is vibrantly depicted, and often wildly funny. But they’re only the start. In this “Pure Dead” adventure, the family castle is invaded by Signora Strega-Borgia’s study group from her course on witchcraft. Among the interesting characters in this group is a demon in disguise – or rather, a Second Minister of the Hadean Executive. The demon only wants three titchy things: an ancient stone of unbelievable power which has been hidden for generations in Strega-Schloss... the soul of young Titus, which was sold by a distant ancestor along with the souls of all his male heirs...and, as a fetching bonus, a certain blossoming, 2-year-old mage.

Even though no one really knows what is going on, and even though the Strega-Borgia home is in even more chaos than usual thanks to their twelve weird houseguests, and even though an armed and deadly assassin is bearing down on the family for his own greedy, vengeful reasons, and even though Astoroth has powers at his/her command that only a demon from Hades can summon, he/she won’t have an easy time overcoming the wackiness, the magic, and the love that binds the Strega-Borgias together. Add to the mix an “alarming clock” that allows you to re-set not the hour and the minute, but the year; a giant monster that sleeps at the bottom of a nearby Loch; and an infant who conjures scenes out of fairy tales simply by waving any oblong that happens to be in reach, and you almost pity the bad guys; they haven’t got a chance!

By the time I found this third book in Debi Gliori’s “Pure Dead” series, a fourth book, Pure Dead Trouble, had already come out. Be sure to check out the “Gliossary” of helpful Latin, Glaswegian-dialect, Italian, and French words at the end of the book.

Pure Dead Trouble
(UK title: Deep Trouble)
by Debi Gliori
Recommended Age: 12+

The fourth adventure of the castle-dwelling Italian-Scottish Strega-Borgia family and their retinue of talking animals, mythical beasts, and servants begins with the butler lying comatose on the doorstep. As Latch recovers his consciousness and his memory, it becomes clear that something from the Pit of Hell has come calling while the Strega-Borgias were on holiday. And it will come again, searching for the Chronostone that S’tan, the infernal Boss, wants so badly.

Meanwhile, the young substitute butler Alexander Imlach is on a sinister errand of his own. A vile coproration has set up a drug-testing facility on the shores of Lochnagargoyle, resulting in lots of pollution and the horrid deaths of numerous test subjects. No one would be more deserving of having an ecoterrorist blow them up, but unfortunately “Zander” is prepared to destroy innocent people in doing so. People like Titus and his kid sister Pandora.

The result is a madcap adventure with bits of deep, dark menace stirred in. A lipstick-wearing tarantula prepares to welcome her babies into the world. An “unreconstructed male” loch monster experiences the agony of courting a dreamy, teenage dragon. The guard crocodile dreams up a dangerous get-rich-quick scheme to finance the refurbishment of his moat. Fourth-time-expectant parents Luciano and Baci grapple with mood swings, food fetishes, and morning sickness. And littlest sister Damp, the most powerful witch in training drawers, stirs up magical trouble every time she wields anything resembling a wand.

Once again, it falls to Nanny McLachlan to defend the family against the ultimate evil. With all these other adventures going on, the “ultimate evil” (a chain-smoking demon with marital problems) is almost forgotten. But Isagoth hasn’t forgotten the Strega-Borgias or the enormous diamond in their possession, a diamond that can give absolute power to its wielder. As Nanny McLachlan realizes that nothing in life can keep the Chronostone out of Isagoth’s claws, the question becomes: will she be able to protect the Strega-Borgia family any longer?

UPDATE: As a U.S. fan of this series, I became increasingly frustrated with Borders and B&N. They never seemed to have the latest book in stock. So I defected to online booksellers, from whom I obtained two further books in this series: Pure Dead Batty (UK title: Deep Water) and Pure Dead Frozen (UK title: Deep Fear). They are on my "short list" of upcoming reads.

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