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Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Thomas Dunne Books, 2016
Available: Hardcover, Kindle edition, Audible
Certain Dark Things is an excellent example of what a vampire novel can be. The characters are strong, the writing is fast-paced, and it paints a vision of a world we have not seen before. There is a ton of vampire fiction out there, much of it unreadable, but Silvia Moreno-Garcia brings a fresh take to the genre in this page-turner.
In the world of Certain Dark Things, the existence of vampires became public knowledge in 1969. Slowly, the vampires have become a part of society. There are a variety of species and sub-species of vampires, and many have evolved geographically and culturally. Reading it, there is a sense that we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg. The book comes with a glossary which explains the ins and outs of the vampires and their history. I found this unnecessary, and only referred to it once. Many of the details listed at the back of the book have little bearing on this story, but it is clear the author has this whole world thought out in great detail. World-building is clearly one of the book’s great strengths.
Domingo is a homeless teenager surviving on the streets of Mexico City, whose life changes hen he meets Alt, a vampire that comes from a Aztec background. Alt’s biology requires that she feed from the young, but she doesn’t have to kill to feed. Domingo is fascinated with her: he has read about vampires, but never met one. Although gangs of vampires and drug cartels battle beyond the city limits, within Mexico City, vampires are illegal. Why would Alt risk coming to Mexico City? This is what drives the narrative.
The novel is well structured. Moreno-Garcia uses multiple points of view, switching easily between them. Character development is also impressive. Ana, the police detective, has a story interesting enough to carry its own novel. Watching Domingo fall deeper and deeper for Alt, readers learn just how inhuman she is. Some of the strongest moments of the book happen between them.
Moreno-Garcia isn’t the first to write about Mexican vampires, but every dark fiction author deserves a chance to put their spin on the creature, using the unique set of tools they bring to the table, and she has created a clever and original story. We can only hope she will choose to return to this world with a sequel. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by David Agranoff
The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell
HMH Editions for Young Readers, 2010 (reprint)
Available: Paperback, Audible, Kindle edition
Scott O’Dell is best known as a writer of historical fiction for children, particularly for novels set in California or Mexico. He is most well-known for his middle-grade survival story and Newbery Award-winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, as well as three Newbery Honor books: The King’s Fifth, Sing Down the Moon, and The Black Pearl. Inaddition to winning several additional awards, he also established one: The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, which is awarded yearly to an American writer of an outstanding work of historical fiction for children. The Black Pearl, first published in 1967, is indeed a work of historical fiction– but it’s also a pretty terrifying book, with much of it devoted to a legendary sea monster, the Manta Diablo.
Sixteen year old Ramon Sandoval’s father is a pearl merchant, and has just made him a partner in the business. Ramon is eager to learn to dive for pearls, but his father has reservations. His father and the other pearl divers are large, muscled men, while Ramon is still not entirely grown. When Ramon finally convinces his father to take him on an expedition, he meets the Sevillano, a talented diver with a storehouse of outrageous stories about frightening monsters and giant pearls.
During his father’s next absence, Ramon, determined to prove himself, pays an Indian who has come to sell a pearl to teach him how to dive. He hopes to find the great pearl of the Sevillano’s stories: the Pearl of Heaven. The Indian warns Ramon of the Manta Diablo, a vengeful giant black manta ray who guards the pearls in his cave under the lagoon where the Indian dives. Despite the warning, Ramon dives into the cave, pries out a gigantic oyster, and finds an enormous black pearl. When the Manta Diablo discovers the cave is in disarray, it’s a race to escape home with the pearl before he is caught. Once revealed, the pearl garners a great deal of unwanted attention from the town, but despite its size and beauty, he and his father are unable to sell it. Ramon comes to believe the pearl is cursed and that he must return it to the monster, but the Sevillano has other ideas, and they embark on a dangerous voyage by water, chased by the Manta Diablo.
The story is framed by the introduction of the Manta Diablo, a local legend used by mothers to scare their children into behaving. Ramon, while not a believer, loves this story. The Sevillano, who has been out in the ocean, makes this a more believable story, and the Indian’s dread reinforces it. None of this is enough to convince the skeptical Ramon, who is determined to find the legendary Pearl of Heaven– when it comes to legends, apparently greed and ambition outweigh fear. As the novel progresses, the Indian’s dread is infectious, and Ramon actually begins to believe that there might really be some truth to the legend. The manta’s chase and the battle with the manta up the tension, although it’s certainly possible that Ramon is more terrified of the Sevillano than he is of the manta.
While the writing is somewhat stilted and dated, and the book starts with somewhat of a slow pace, once the pearl divers enter the scene the story becomes engaging, not just because Ramon is engaged in the experience, but because it is fascinating, and something most people know little about. As the book progresses, it’s interesting to see how his relationship with both his father and the Sevillano develop. Ramon’s experiences as he learns to dive in the lagoon are immersive; O’Dell’s descriptions are gorgeously written. Ramon’s interactions with the Indian at that time start to ratchet up the suspense, especially once Ramon enters the cave of the Manta Diablo. The legendary manta of terror and its appearances in the novel, be they through story or through Ramon’s perceptions of his experience, snagged this reader from the first page, and O’Dell’s suggestion that something can be both beautiful and evil is food for thought. Recommended for grades 4 and up.
Reader’s advisory note: Older children and teens who like this book might like The Pearl by John Steinbeck or The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
Content note: The representation of the Indians in the book as especially superstitious and violent is a talking point you might want to cover with your child, as well as the religious motivations behind some of the actions (not being Catholic, certain children thought the Madonna referred to in the story was the American pop singer, which caused some confusion).
Tell The Story To Its End by Simon P. Clark
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015
Available: Hardcover, paperback, Kindle edition
Oli’s mum has suddenly, and without explanation, decided the two of them should go to the country and visit his uncle, Rob. Rob has been estranged from Oli’s parents for many years, and although no one is telling him anything, Oli knows something bad has happened. In an effort to distract him, Rob suggests that Oli explore the attic, and once the attic door is opened, strange things begin to happen in the house.
As Oli explores the village it becomes clear that something about his family is being held against him, but no one will tell him exactly what it is. He becomes friends with Em, who is fascinated by local legends and stories, and shares with him the tale of Full Lot Jack, who offers children their heart’s desire in exchange for their dreams. Her stories, in combination with the strange things that have been happening since the attic door was opened, and a need to escape his family’s lies, drive him to explore the attic, where he meets Eren, a creature that lives in the attic and feeds on stories. As frightening as Eren is, Oli can’t stay away. There is more truth to Eren’s dark stories than in Oli’s everyday life, and Oli must make a decision about which one he most wants to escape.
In some ways, this book reminded me of A Monster Calls. There’s a lonely boy with nightmares, who calls a monster to him in an effort to make sense out of fear and lies, with a parent who has something seriously wrong going on. As in A Monster Calls. there is a great deal about the power of story. But there the similarities end. Tell The Story To Its End lacks the powerful illustrations combined with primal emotion that make A Monster Calls an outstanding read. Instead, it’s a story packed in cotton wool, with muted emotions and dissociated relationships. The beginning of the book suggests its end, and Clark’s skill with creating gothic nightmares instills a sense of dread from the very first page, that only increases as the reader turns the pages, knowing what is likely to unwind. Despite that feeling of inevitability, the book doesn’t unfold in a predictable manner. Readers who enjoy dark tales that play cleverly with plot, structure, and narrative will be surprised, and may find something to like, but those seeking deep emotional connection or expecting a happy ending will want to look elsewhere. Appropriate for ages 11 and up.
The Fifth Doll by Charlie N. Holmberg
Available: Paperback, Kindle edition, Audible, MP3 CD
The Fifth Doll is an excellent fantasy novel for pre-teens and young adults. Charlie N. Holmberg has written several novels about young heroines who face the trials and tribulations of life and magic. The current novel gives readers not only an interesting plot that keeps them guessing, but also a bit of cultural history about what life might have been like in an early 20th century Russian village.
Matrona, the daughter of a dairy farmer, is unusual in at least two ways. She is an only child, and, at age 26, isn’t married yet. Her family and the carpenter’s family have arranged a marriage for her. She hopes she will come to love her aloof betrothed, but she is secretly attracted to the potter’s son, Jaska. Matrona’s village is unusual, too. No one has ever left, except Slava, the tradesman. Slava leaves the village periodically with his horse and cart, into the surrounding forest, and returns with goods from the outside world. No one else knows what that world is like.
The weather is almost perfect. The villagers have never experienced a freezing winter and have no concept of what snow is, but Matrona has nightmares of gray skies, rows of box-like houses unlike the village’s colorful farmsteads, trodden dirt roads and the sound of tramping feet.
Matrona accidentally enters Slava’s house and discovers a room full of nesting, or matryoshka, dolls. Each doll has the painted face of a villager. Slava has a secret plan, and Matrona is an unwilling part of it. Each doll has power over its original. Slava forces Matrona to open her own doll one doll at a time every three days. When she refuses, he threatens her family.
When Matrona opens each doll, there are disturbing consequences. Her secret thoughts are revealed to the entire village, she has excruciating headaches, and hears an inner voice chastising her for her faults. Her vision is alerted. She sees faint lines in the sky and snow for the first time! Matrona can’t escape through the forest. Each path she tries leads her back to the village.
If she opens the fourth doll and reveals the fifth, Slava’s plan will be complete and Matrona will be his substitute. What is his plan? What is in the outside world? Can Matrona and Jaska save themselves and the village? Holmberg keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Robert D. Yee
Pretty Deadly, Volume 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue Deconnick, art by Emma Rios
Image Comics, 2014
Available: Paperback, Kindle & comixology ebook
The story begins with the skeletal Bunny and Butterfly introducing us to an unusual little girl named Sissy the Vulture Girl, and her guardian, old man Fox. Sissy and Fox travel to different towns reciting the “The Song of Deathface Ginny”. which tells the story of The Mason, the love for his wife Beauty, and the tragedy that awaits her due to his carelessness with her. We learn through the tale that Deathface Ginny’s skills as gunslinger and sabre wielder are legendary, and that if she is set free, death awaits those who cross her path. As the book progresses, Sissy discovers there is much more to the story.
The artwork in this volume is absolutely gorgeous. The backgrounds are vast landscapes with the colours changing to illustrate where the action is taking place. The characters are uniquely rendered.
The storytelling is disjointed and there is a lot of information the reader gets in this first volume, but this method of storytelling it fits the material well. If you like Preacher or gritty westerns with supernatural elements, this may be a good title for you to check out. In addition, if you are looking to read or highlight something for the next Women in Horror Month, February 2018, this is definitely a title you need to pick up. Deconnick and Rios are an amazing team of women creators in the comic horror genre. Highly recommended.
Volume 1 collects Pretty Deadly issues #1-5.
Contains: a little bit of blood, a little bit of sexual content, nudity
Reviewed by Lizzy Walker
I was reading a blog post on realism in zombie fiction by Brian Parker, a writer of zombie fiction. Somewhere in the middle of it, he addressed the problem of the Mary Sue in zombie novels:
If you’re like me, you likely roll your eyes at the stereotypical protagonist in zombie fiction. You know the type, it’s some guy or girl—devastatingly handsome or beautiful, but overlooked by the rest of society—who works at a video game store. When the shit hits the fan, they come out of their shell and use their secret level-84 ninja skills to become the unlikely leader who saves their friends and/or family. Everyone in the group is an expert shot and every time they pull the trigger, heads explode. Sound familiar? More on that in a moment. Don’t forget the quintessential part of a typical zombie novel: The main character’s love interest is unattainable before the zombies appear, but once their competition is killed, the guy gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after.
Luckily for us, there are zombie stories out there that successfully break, or at least subvert, these character and plot cliches. Here are a few worth checking out.
The List by Michele Lee
This is a brief novella that can be read in one sitting, and you’ll want to do that. The story is told in first person by an unsympathetic protagonist with poor social skills who has a lot of built up resentments against the other residents of his apartment building. At the time of the story, he’s been holed up safely for quite some time, and has successfully avoided getting infected by the zombie virus. He is about to emerge and work his way through the building by taking out the now-zombified residents of the building, one at a time, in brutal and gory fashion. Despite the unsympathetic narrator, the voice is fantastic, and there is plenty of dark humor. In the interests of full disclosure, Michele is a reviewer for Monster Librarian and the editor for our companion blog Reading Bites, but that doesn’t affect my recommendation here.
Allison Hewitt Is Trapped by Madeleine Roux
We’ve previously reviewed Allison Hewitt Is Trapped. I’m not going to claim realism here, but I also wouldn’t call Allison a Mary Sue. She’s a graduate student who works in a bookstore (no video games here– each chapter is named for a book) and is trapped in the break room with the rest of the bookstore staff and a couple of customers, with no apparent rescue in sight, blogging about the experience on a miraculously still-existing military Internet network. I find Allison’s ability to wield a fire ax as a deadly weapon, without prior experience, to be unrealistic, but even since its publication in 2011, there aren’t enough books in this subgenre with women who are snarky, resourceful, save themselves, and can strangle their enemy with a laptop cord. The story doesn’t end exactly unhappily for her, but there’s a companion book that takes place many years later, and the zombies still are ravaging pretty much everything, so I wouldn’t say it’s a happy ending either.
Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
Never be afraid to check out YA fiction– there are some powerful works out there. Ashes is one of these. The main character and narrator is Alex, a teenage girl with terminal brain cancer and considerable camping, hiking, and general survival skills, who decides to run away to the forests of Michigan to spend her last days. While she’s there, an electromagnetic impulse hits, kills millions of people, destroys communications and technology, and turns the majority of children and teenagers into flesh-eating zombies. She is joined by Ellie, a spoiled and obnoxious nine year old who is orphaned early on, and Tom, a soldier she encounters in the forest. Oh my gosh, this is a dark, brutal, and desperate read. Anyone who thinks YA is light and fluffy can think again. I also think it’s a very realistic portrayal. Alex doesn’t suddenly discover she has super survival skills– her skills are a big part of the reason she escapes the EMP in the first place. Tom doesn’t mystically discover he has weapons skills– he’s a trained soldier. And nothing is more realistic than an obnoxious nine year old. This is the first book in a trilogy, and I really recommend it.
Even though the media-generated excitement over teen dystopias like the ones in The Hunger Games and (to a lesser degree) Divergent, has died down a bit, anyone living through the past year can see that dystopian fiction is still terrifyingly relevant. Some days it really doesn’t feel like we’re all that far from living through The Handmaid’s Tale, and George R.R. Martin’s early story “And Death His Legacy” is so prescient that it made me shiver.
A lot of dystopian novels have a depressing world view: the main character’s attempt to change things is thwarted, and, even if that character survives intact, the world they live in doesn’t really alter (Winston, in 1984, is one of the most broken characters ever).
What is different about most YA dystopias is that there’s an individual there who starts to question the status quo, and acts to change it– not without some horrifying struggles, but usually, they’re successful at either overturning the system or escaping to establish one they hope will be better. In the recently released book on children’s and YA horror, Reading in the Dark, there is an essay suggesting that YA dystopian novels aren’t necessarily about individual self-discovery: they are more about teens figuring out their responsibilities to society. I think it’s both. Seeing that there is a possibility to change things, and that it could be one person, a teen not all that different from them, who instigates that change, makes YA dystopian fiction a literature of hope. It makes me optimistic for the future.
That being said, here are some excellent YA dystopias that start with a (usually) pretty ordinary kid chosen to perpetuate the system, who ends up creating a better world.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
You can’t go wrong with this Newbery Award winner that tells the story of Jonas, living in a future utopian society, who is chosen, in a ceremony with his peers where they are all assigned jobs for their adult lives, to be the Receiver of Memories, the one person allowed to know the memories of the past in human history. It’s not as action-oriented as Divergent, but packs a much more powerful and memorable emotional punch. The Giver is part of a four-book series, but the first is the best and definitely stands alone. There is a movie based on the book that was released a few years ago. Be aware that euthanasia and eugenics are important to the plot, and part of why the book is so heartbreaking.
This is the first book in the Razorland trilogy (which now also includes two novellas), and it’s quite a bit more graphic than the first two books, probably on par with Divergent. In yet another post-apocalyptic underground world (one decidedly more primitive than Ember) Deuce goes through her naming ceremony and becomes a Hunter in her enclave, a sort of tribal society. As a Hunter, Deuce is supposed to find and catch food and rid the tunnels around her enclave of Freaks, ravening, cannibalistic creatures. Although she’s a believer in the way things work in her enclave, her exposure to a wider world and a partner who’s not so convinced lead her to question the actions of her leaders.
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The city of Ember is an underground city built as a last refuge in a world about to be annihilated by nuclear weapons. Two hundred years later, everything, from food to electricity, is running out. After the ceremony where Lina and Doon, along with their peers, are assigned their future careers, the two of them trade places, and discover a puzzling mystery they must solve to save the residents of Ember from darkness. This has more action than The Giver, and more of a mystery at its center, and is a compelling read even for those of us well over the target age range. The City of Ember is also part of a series, and all of them are great reads. It has been made into a movie already, with Bill Murray as the corrupt mayor. and I really enjoyed it.
Across The Universe by Beth Revis
The first book in a trilogy, this science fiction thriller is told from the point of view of two teenagers– Amy, the only person not specifically chosen for a role in settlement of a new planet, and Elder, whose future leadership of the spaceship Godspeed was chosen early in his life. There’s mystery, cloning, genetic and hormonal manipulation, general lying and betrayal, and a surprising amount of action given that this all takes place in a closed environment. In some ways, it reminded me very much of The Giver. There’s suicide, near-rape, and euthanasia in this book, among other things, although I think Revis handles it all pretty well. The target audience for Divergent should enjoy this.
Legend by Marie Lu
June is the elite of the elite, being groomed for a position high up in the military in a dystopian society that’s more or less under military rule. Day is a rebel trying to undermine it. What could possibly go wrong when their lives intersect?
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Here’s one that’s interesting because almost everyone is chosen, eventually. It’s not wanting to be chosen that makes Tally stick out. Or, to make it more complicated, it’s wanting to be chosen but having to pretend she doesn’t want to be chosen and standing out as special when she wants to blend in. And then changing her mind. And changing it again. While it could stand alone, I think, it’s a good thing it’s part of a series because I have no clue where it’s going to end up. Westerfeld pretty much turns the tropes on their heads.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared with a different introduction at Musings of the Monster Librarian on March 3, 2015.
Paper Girls, Volume 1 (Issues #1-5) by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics, 2015
Available: Library binding, paperback, Kindle edition and comiXology ebook
Paper Girls begins with a strange dream that Erin, the new papergirl, is having, just before she has to awaken for her route. We discover that that date is November 1, 1988. Halloween is almost over for some costumed teenagers when they see Erin on her own. She becomes their target, until the other papergirls (Mac, Tiffany, and KJ) show up, and take matters into their own hands. The girls partner up, two and two, in order to finish their routes in peace, each pair traveling with walkie-talkies in case the teenagers show up again. It should have been smooth sailing from there, but then the girls chase robbers into an abandoned building and find a strange piece of machinery that instantly transports them to another time. Things are very different in their neighborhood after that. Adults speaking a strange language; aggressive flying reptiles; people disappearing; humanoid teenagers who can only communicate with the papergirls through a translation stone; and meeting a very different Erin after she emerges from the time machine, are just a handful of the strange things that the papergirls encounter in the first volume.
I have to admit that this is my first exposure to Vaughn’s work, as I have not read Saga yet. All I have to go by is my first reading of Vaughn’s storytelling, and I enjoyed it. That said, I have consulted with a few colleagues about Paper Girls as compared to Saga, and, while they enjoyed the story, it didn’t meet up with their expectations. The biggest complaint was that the story was too disjointed and the reader doesn’t get much backstory of the papergirls. I do agree, but I still think this is a good story. One friend also indicated it was a slow burn, but pretty rewarding on the last panel of the book. The first volume ended on a great cliffhanger, too. I’m looking forward to reading Volume 2. A note: as this is set in the 1980s, there is some offensive language specifically regarding the LGBTQ community. Recommended for ages 15 and up.
Reviewed by Lizzy Walker
Demon Freaks by J.R.R.R. (Jim) Hardison
Fiery Seas Publishing, 2017
Available: Paperback, Kindle edition
Jim Hardison’s Demon Freaks pits high schoolers on the eve of their SAT exams against wicked would-be wizards and monsters, with the fate of the world at stake. The story is written with irony and humor from the viewpoint of teenagers. The protagonists are members of an ad hoc school band, including twin boys who don’t look or think alike. The drummer, who is the low-achieving son of a high-achieving family, is the comic foil. The female member is a “brain” who is happiest taking a shower.
The night before the SAT, the band members plan to meet to jam and cram, but are caught in the middle of a deadly rivalry between two groups of elderly, evil golfers, the Servants of Darkness and the Golfers’ Association. The Servants of Darkness are led by the teens’ sarcastic, vindictive English teacher, while the Golfers follow his power-hungry brother, who looks like a twisted Santa Claus. Both groups want to possess a magical dagger that traps souls, communicates telepathically with its victims, and can control their minds. Think of the Ring of Power in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
Each group plans to use the dagger for a human sacrifice, in order to open the gates to Hell and release a powerful demon that they hope will help them dominate the world. Two of the teens are captured, possibly to be the human sacrifices. The rest of their friends, along with commandos from a clandestine division of the McDonald’s Corporation called McODD (McDonald’s Occult Dangers Division) fight the Servants, the Golfers and Teethheads (scaly, fish-headed monsters with hundreds of teeth) in tunnels and chambers under the golf course.
The story is told in an engaging, fast-paced, tongue–in-cheek style. The teenagers are quirky, but discover hidden talents that help them outwit the adults. The adults are caricatures of hubris and greed. The plot will appeal to children and teenagers. The monsters are scary, but not frightening. The violence and gore are mild. The author has written another novel, an epic fantasy Fish Wielder. Recommended.
Contains: Not applicable.
Reviewed by Robert D. Yee