Saturday, June 13, 2009

Scary YA Extravaganza

In case you haven't noticed, the post-Potter fantasy wave has been replaced by the post-Twilight paranormal wave, only the emphasis is much more Young Adult this time around. So I've saved up the most recent batch of teen paranormal books I've read in an attempt to look at some of the kinds of things people are doing. Happily, writers are branching out: only two of these books contain vampires, and they're barely mentioned in one of the two.


Dead Is So Last Year by Marlene Perez

This is the author's third book about Daisy Giordano, a psychic teen living in the town of Nightshade. The place has such a large supernatural population that there's a semi-secret city council to represent them. Daisy herself is one of three psychic sisters, and her boyfriend Ryan isn't exactly normal, either. Of the three books, the first one, Dead Is the New Black, is my favorite so far—I love how a maybe-vampire cheerleader set a new style trend by dressing in black and hauling around a miniature coffin on wheels as a fashion accessory. Book Two, Dead Is a State of Mind, focused on werewolves plus Daisy's prom date problems, and now Book Three gives us doppelgangers, mad scientists, witches, and howlingly steroidal football players. In particular, Dead Is So Last Year brings up the matter of Daisy's missing father, who disappeared before the series began and is suspected to have been the victim of paranormal foul play.

As I put it in my Amazon review of Book Two, "I've been trying to imagine what paranormal cotton candy would look like. I think it would be gray. So if Twilight is a big haunch of beef roast, gleaming slightly with blood, Dead Is a State of Mind is gray cotton candy." Perez's books are cheery, tongue-in-cheek, and so fast-paced that some scenes feel sketchy. But the series is a lot of fun, and it's a good pick for middle school readers who aren't ready for some of the darker paranormal offerings. I especially like Daisy as a character, and the author's portrayal of life in Nightshade is contagiously gleeful. For example, Daisy gets a job at a diner run by an invisible man, plus the place has a magic jukebox. I am reminded that not every book in my life has to be 700 angst-filled pages. What Marlene Perez's series lacks in gore and detail, it makes up for in humor.

Demon Princess: Reign or Shine by Michelle Rowen

Michelle Rowen's new book, due out in late September, envisions a teenage girl who learns that the father she's never met is a demon. He is also king of a place called the Shadowlands, a kind of protective border between our world and the Underworld. Messenger Michael, who looks like a cute boy, comes to fetch Nikki with the news that her father is dying. Naturally, she is reluctant to believe his wild tale, at least not until she is attacked by an assassin and her own powers start to manifest.

This book is on the light side, but I'm not sure it should be. The oddest thing, in my opinion, is that Rowen seems not to have had a big enough budget to hire characters. This is especially evident in the Shadowlands, which would have been wonderful with a castle full of intriguing people, but instead gives us a mere two or three bodies, one of them insubstantial. Unfortunately, we are left with a glaringly predictable plot due to what Roger Ebert has called The Law of Conservation of Characters. That is, since Michael is obviously a good guy, and Nikki's father is, too, despite being a demon king, then the only other people around are probably the bad guys.

Nikki spends most of the book dealing with unexpectedly meeting her father for the first time and then trying to save him from his enemies, also getting used to the idea that she's not entirely human. Further subplots revolve around Nikki's prom date, who seems a little too smooth, and Nikki's growing attraction to Michael. Not many surprises here, but I was pleased to come across a clever plot twist that's barely touched on in Reign or Shine and will clearly be addressed in the next book.


Once Dead, Twice Shy by Kim Harrison

Best known for her adult paranormal series, The Hollows, Kim Harrison joins the crowd turning to Young Adult fiction, AKA the lucrative crossover market. Once Dead, Twice Shy features a character first introduced in a novella called "Madison Avery and the Dim Reaper" in a YA collection titled Prom Nights from Hell. That story acts as a prologue to this one—in it, Madison managed to defeat her own death, who came for her in the form of a devious replacement for her prom date. Now Madison must deal with the aftermath, since she's technically dead, and only the amulet she swiped from the failed reaper is keeping her "alive."

Harrison does give Madison an Edward and a Jacob, Edward being Barnabas, a sort of trainer/guardian, and Jacob a boy named Josh, the arrogant initial prom date, who gets a chance to redeem himself here.

Problems with Once Dead, Twice Shy? There's an awful lot of explaining of the rules of the afterlife, or semi-afterlife, in Madison's case. Then late in the book, Harrison waxes philosophical about the great fate vs. free will debate, creating a certain amount of drag. Not to mention she goes all deus ex machina, or rather seraphim ex machina, at a crucial point. Still, in between, the author offers up a nice dollop of adventure together with hints of romance. Madison is a likable narrator, which bodes well for the future. The final scene brings things together in a way that puts our somewhat-dead heroine and her friends in position to feature in a very solid second book.

The Awakening by Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong is the writer of another best-selling paranormal series, Women of the Otherworld. The Awakening is the second book in her new series for teens, Darkest Powers, which began with The Summoning. In the first book, Chloe Saunders found herself in an unusual group home. Each of the other teens in the home turned out to have some kind of paranormal ability or identity, and Chloe was shocked to find out that she could both raise the dead and talk to ghosts. When it became clear that the teens were considered a science experiment by their sinister guardians, they escaped from the institution. Unfortunately, Chloe and two other girls were recaptured.

The Awakening starts off with the leaders of the Edison Group trying to force Chloe and the other two prisoners to help capture the missing boys—sorcerer Simon and werewolf Derek. Cranky Tori, a frenemy with telekinetic powers, proves to be somewhat helpful, to everyone's surprise. Eventually Chloe and her friends get away a second time, and the book turns into a kind of road trip. But will they stay free, and will they find help? We get a few of the answers here, with more to come in Book Three.

What's interesting about The Awakening is that it takes place over the course of only a few days. Granted, the book covers a suspenseful handful of events, and it also includes Chloe's growing experience with her powers. But when I got to the end of the book, I sort of felt like more stuff should have happened. (I didn't get that feeling with the first book.)

On the other hand, Armstrong is a good writer, and her teen characters are well drawn. Their bickering and worries ring true, with Tori making a particularly good foil for just about everyone. Some of the author's best writing is about Chloe and her necromancy. For example, Chloe attempts to punish a pesky ghost by raising it from the dead briefly and then sending it back to show her control. She succeeds, but she is unaware of her own lack of focus. Soon afterward she realizes the hard way that she's created a couple of extra zombies by mistake:
The cloud cover shifted, the light streaming into the room, and I realized I wasn't looking at fangs but at white patches of skull. The bat was decomposing, one eye shriveled, the other a black pit. Most of the flesh was gone; only hanging bits remaining. The bat had no ears, no nose, just a bony snout. The snout opened. Rows of tiny jagged teeth flashed, and it started to shriek, a horrible garbled squeaking.

My shrieks joined it as I scrambled back. The thing pulled itself along on one crumpled wing. It was definitely a bat—and I'd raised it from the dead.

Since Chloe is a zombie master, the bats are drawn to her. The irony being, of course, that Chloe has created her very own nightmares. I really like the way Armstrong depicts how a teenage girl would react to having this particular power, including fiddling around with it without considering possible outcomes. The Darkest Powers series is off to a strong start.


Highway to Hell by Rosemary Clement-Moore

The series title is Maggie Quinn: Girl vs. Evil, and the first two books were Prom Dates from Hell and Hell Week. Now author Rosemary Clement-Moore has moved on from the prom and sorority house settings to another time-honored young adult context: the road trip. Except that psychic Maggie and her friend D&D Lisa (a socially challenged young sorceress) don't drive very far—they get stuck in a little town in the middle of Texas. Their jeep breaks down when they hit a dead cow, but it's obvious the cow hasn't died naturally, and wait, are those taillights Maggie just saw, or glowing red eyes?

Sí, readers, we're in chupacabra territory this time! Along with Maggie, we learn that the entire town is owned by a ranch family, the Velasquezes. Zeke Velasquez starts flirting with Lisa, but he is unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that anything supernatural might be out there slaughtering livestock. Maggie's psychic dreams give her clues, and really, she's just as much Nancy Drew here as she is Buffy, trying to solve the mystery of the monster. What's more, she is determined to uncover the secrets of the Velasquez Ranch and its implacable matriarch, Doña Isabel.

Maggie calls up her paladin boyfriend, Justin, to help her. His would-be monk buddy comes along for the ride, joining Team Scooby with a certain amount of religious reluctance. The cows are dropping like flies (which begs a joke about flies and cow droppings), and Maggie and her friends are soon in danger themselves. But she's figured out she's meant to solve this one: Maggie's not leaving town until she's set things right.

I get a kick out of the Maggie Quinn series. It has the humor of some of the other series I've mentioned, yet the writing is richer. Maggie is another fiesty narrator-heroine, and the books are just scary enough to be fun rather than darkly horrifying, giving them across-the-board appeal.

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill

Sometimes you read a lot of books that just kind of blur together. Other times you read something like Soul Enchilada. I have to tell you, even when the plot showed traces of strain in spots, I didn't care. Bug Smoot is quite simply one of the most real, funny, gutsy, and poignant characters I've met in a long time. And the other characters are dimensional, amusing, and colorful in their own right.

The plot of Soul Enchilada reaches out and grabs you by the lapels, too. Here's a nice hypothetical: What do you do when the repo man comes, and he's a devil? Oh, and he tells you that your recently deceased grandfather traded his soul for the Caddy that's your only inheritance, the one you're driving to deliver pizzas and barely make your rent? But since your grandfather managed to evade the repo man when he died, you're left holding the hell bag. And senior demon Mr. Beals is not just after the car.

There are more twists and turns along the way in this remarkable Tex-Mex debut, but suffice it to say that Bug (who is half black, half Latino) gets some help from a demon-hunting Latino boy named Pesto who wields a mean can of hair spray. She is also assisted by a mysterious coyote, some nerdy Men in Black types, a lawyer with a secret agenda, Pesto's bruja mother, and her own mad driving and basketball skills. Numerous crosses and double crosses later—including a diablo ex machina—Bug wins the day. In terms of plotting, I found the climactic scenes a little off, but this author's "off" still beats most writers' "on" any time.

I haven't even talked about Gill's style, especially the way he writes narrator Bug's voice. Here are a few of my favorite bits:

"Stop tea-bagging my body," said the first guy, who had long, stringy blond hair and a head shaped like the center branch of a saguaro cactus.

"I so owned you. In fact, I pawned you." The second guy had a gut like a pregnant woman and a black, lower-lip beard.

The only time I ever messed around with a séance was when me and Papa C were staying in this falling-down rental house in Chihuahiuta, and these skanky girls next door said they could do voodoo. There wasn't nothing in the Bible about suffering voodoo, so I snuck out at night to a shed in the back of their house.

They brought a candle, a Monopoly set, and a parakeet. The candle was for light so spirits could find their way, and the Monopoly board was our Ouija board because their mama wouldn't let them buy one at the SuperStore. They had a parakeet because you needed a chicken's foot to do voodoo, and they didn't have a chicken. The parakeet was their mama's, and she'd get mad if its foot went missing, so they brought the whole bird, chirping and pecking them whenever it could. I was glad they didn't chop off the foot because I didn't like the idea of hurting a living thing, even to do voodoo.

"I wish you was an alarm clock so I could slap your snooze bar."
My tongue was all sticky, too, like the floor of a dollar movie theatre.
I hope I've convinced you to spend some time with Bug Smoot. Her flaws are just as delightful as her strengths, and I think you'll find that you're cheering her on and booing Mr. Beals far more than the hero/villain/reader triangle traditionally calls for.


Strange Angels by Lili St. Crow

Please understand that I'm a Buffy fan, but not a Stephen King fan. (Except for his book about writing. That I liked!) Normally I try to avoid full-scale horror, with all of the terror and dripping blood and even displays of intestinal loops that it entails. But I will admit to having dabbled in adult paranormal fiction, so somewhere along the way I read something by Lili St. Crow. She's the third author on this list to cross over into YA, and she does it with a vengeance. I mean, YIKES! I was shaking in my flip-flops for at least ten chapters before I caught my breath.

So be warned, Strange Angels is at the dark end of the spectrum; it's not for any but the most bloodthirsty middle schoolers, the ones whose parents think King's books are a good pick for twelve-year-olds. (Oh, and while the hero's a girl, I'm guessing boy readers will get sucked into the action if they give the book a chance.)

You know that TV show, Supernatural, the one about two brothers who travel around working in the family business of monster killing? And it's not cute or easy, ever? Well, Strange Angels is like that. Dru Anderson has been traveling with her father, a monster killer, for years. She's psychic, and she's trained in combat, but even so, she hasn't really been participating in her dad's nocturnal activities. He has tried to keep her safe.

Then one night when Dru is home alone, something comes through her kitchen door, and it's not just a hungry zombie. It's far worse. Dru has to fight back, and then she has to run, and pretty soon she's getting some help from a guy she thinks of as Cool Goth Boy until he tells her his name is Graves. Have I mentioned Jacob and Edward yet? In this book, Graves is Jacob. Edward shows up really late in the book, and his name is Christophe. In the meantime, hang on for dear life, because that's what Dru and Graves are doing.

The greatest strength of Strange Angels is how very real and intimate and terrible Dru's experience feels to the reader. Many paranormal YA books out there seem safe in a certain sense. This book does not. St. Crow's first novel for teens leads readers away from the twilit street of the paranormal, between the crooked trees and up the cracked sidewalk into the door of that dark house known as horror.

So there you have it—a creepy little tour of some of the latest in paranormal YA. My top pick? Definitely Soul Enchilada. David MacInnis Gill is a newcomer to watch. But you can't go wrong with any of these books, whether you want to laugh, or shiver, or both.


Doret said...

The Kelley Armstrong books are pretty popular with a few of my YA reading co-workers. I plan to read them someday. Strange Angels, I've passed without a second glance. The cover does nothing for me but keep the lights on all night does.

Kate Coombs said...

Well, the paranormal books all start to look alike sometimes. I think I wrote this post partly to sort things out in my own head!