|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
Sign of the Raven
There is nothing better on certain nights in October (and any other dark, dank, time of year) then a proper scary story. It should have genuinely fearful moments for the protagonist, an overall feeling of dread and a lot of uncertainty about how things will turn out in the end. I don't think there needs to be a lot of gore, and too much gore can ruin a book in a second, but that feeling of dread--that goes a long long way. (Ray Bradbury is a grand master at this sort of thing, his short story "Come Into My Cellar" still creeps me out, and it was written over forty years ago.)
Julie Hearn has done an excellent job of crafting a very creepy book in Sign of the Raven. Aside from the story itself, one of the coolest things about this book is that so much of it is based on historical truth. Hearn has written an elegant time travel novel where Tom "jumps the gap" in his grandmother's London basement and goes back to the exact same location in 1717. It is there that he reconnects with an old friend, Astra, the "Changeling Girl" who is small in stature and part of a freak show type environment that permeated parts of London in the early 18th century. Astra is at the complete mercy of an evil man who charges money for others to stare at and grope her. Along with others like the Bendy Man and Gorilla Woman, she is trying to save the body of a dead friend (The Giant) from being used by doctors for anatomy lectures. What Tom soon discovers is that Astra is in grave danger herself, and he must be braver than he has ever been in order to save her.
It is historical fact that grave robbing was a common way in which 18th century doctors obtained cadavers for anatomy experiments and research and the bodies of people suffering from deformities were a special prize. While researching her book, Hearns came across information on freak shows, particularly those associated with the Bartholomew Fair, and crafted her tale around this environment. The addition of the time travel element just makes the story more interesting for modern readers, as they are able to learn about the past along with Tom, and suffer his frustrations and confusions while trying to navigate a city he knows but does not recognize at the same time.
All the while running for his life from some very bad guys, of course!
Sign of the Raven is a most unique tale of adventure and horror. There are a lot of delicious moments in this book when you want to pull the covers up over your head (we are talking grave robbing here, after all), but none of it will terrify. It serves mostly to fulfill that need that most of us have, for a good spooky moment done in a smart and well crafted way. Hearns has done an excellent job here of putting her characters in peril and forcing them to think their way out, while also suggesting that all in this world is most certainly not what it seems. "Mind the gap," indeed, learns young Tom. Mind the gap and what you just might find waiting on the other side!
When I started reading Lily's Ghosts I expected a nice little haunted house story with the occasional small shock by a mischievous ghost or two. I am usually let down by the mystery/adventure books that I read for young adults because authors seem to be determined to consistently underestimate their audience. I don't know how Lily's Ghosts flew under my radar and wish that more kids knew about this really great story. Basically, the ghosts are confused, Lily is confused and lots of mayhem ensues. Does it all work out? Yes, of course. But do you expect things to turn out like they do--well, basically, not in a million years!
Lily and her mother have settled in Cape May, New Jersey after moving for about the millionth time. Lily's mom is an artist--and she seems to attach herself to the wrong man just a little bit too fast and too often for Lily's sake. They are crashing now at Great Uncle Wes's house, which is actually the family's old summer house from back in the day when the family had money and resources all over the coast. None of this matters much to Lily's Mom as she is determined to make a go of her art and steadfastly removes herself from all discussions about the family history. Lily doesn't have the luxury of staying uninvolved however, as she is convinced that the house is haunted by her dead great Uncle Max.
From the first pages of Lily's Ghosts author Laura Ruby makes it clear that Cape May is a haunted town. Throughout the story she introduces various confused ghosts from the destructive Lola to a happy sunbathing couple continuously disappointed by the closed refreshment stand. The ghosts have their own agendas and reasons for lingering in our world (Lola in particular is pretty funny), but Max has serious business to conduct. The problem is that Max seems to be on fire, but even though Lily can't see his flames she knows he's there, and she's determined to find out why.
There is some sleuthing, a la Nancy Drew, in Lily's Ghosts, and some mild romancing with the very cool Vaz, a local boy with a ghost of his own (one of the more endearing points of the story.) Lily's mother goes all soccer mom on her at one point and she realizes that being the daughter of an artist is way cooler than that and libraries might not have seemed too important to Lily at the beginning of the story but she gains a new respect for the secrets they harbor by the end. There is also drama and danger and a few moments demanding heroics, all of which combine to bring in a truly excellent ending. Laura Ruby is definitely on my list of cool authors to watch out for now and I will be reading her a lot in the future. Lily's Ghosts was first class all the way and a treat in store for any middle grade and up reader.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp.
I am a total sucker for King Arthur stories and this book, The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp, has to be one of the best twists on the legend that I have come across in a long long time. It has knights and swords (Excalibur, of course), and very bad guys in long dark robes, and some cutting off of people's heads which might seem excessively violent to some but really is mandatory in an Arthur story. There is a mysterious spy and helicopters that swoop down out of nowhere and more than one very wicked, and very fast, car. Basically this is everything an adventure reader wants wrapped up with a bow and is sure to please any fan of the genre. The fact that the hero is about as insecure and unprepared of an adolescent that you will ever find is pretty much what makes the whole thing perfect. Quite frankly I like my heroes that way; it makes them easier to relate to.
Alfred Kropp is having one shitty life. He never knew his father and his mom was great but cancer came and got her and now he has only managed to get out of foster care by living with an uncle that he barely knows. On top of everything he is an oversized kid in a world that frowns upon that sort of thing and he doesn't have a single day in high school that is not painful. He would like life to get better--he desperately needs it to get better--but when his uncle comes home with an opportunity to make a cool million Alfred knows the deal is too good to be true. It plays out pretty much like he expects, although a lot weirder and certainly more terrifying. Alfred manages to surprise himself a few times, but really he has no idea what is in store for him as the plan falls to pieces and everything goes to hell very quickly. All that matters is that he has fallen into a legend and suddenly the life of Alfred Kropp takes the first of many strange turns.
Alfred Kropp seems like pure fantasy at first, but there are a lot of elements to this story and many of them have a serious amount of realism. Everything Alfred feels and the way that he reacts to the unreal events around him has a loud ring of truth. I understood why he did the things he did and I rooted for him every step of the way. He seems like an average misunderstood teenager, hell he seems like an average misunderstood adult, and I wanted him to win so badly that it was hard sometimes not to jump to the back of the book and see what happened.
One of the things that impressed me the most about this book though wasn't Alfred, but the way that Rick Yancey handled the Arthurian legend. It is so easy to screw something like that up, but he was careful to respect the very real history surrounding it and came up with quite a plausible reason for Excalibur's return. I thought it was too cool that he focused so much on Bedevere also--he was always one of my favorite knights his legend fits perfectly into this new story that was written around it.
Yancey seems to have left some sequel potential open at the end, so maybe Alfred will return again in the future. I hope so, as I would like to see how things turn out for him. There was more to this book than meets the eye, and certainly more than I find in most young adult adventures. It was a first rate story and I'd gladly visit Alfred's world again.