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September 2006
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

High School Bites, by Liza Conrad,
NAL/Jam Books, 2006, $9.99.

I CAME UP with a list as I was reading this book:

Set in a high school? Check.
Which is plagued by Goth vampires? Check.
The hero has a legacy in which she is the chosen one who must combat the vampires? Check.
But she didn't get the proper training and so is ill-prepared to fulfill her legacy? Check.

Sounds a bit like a recent, much-missed TV series, doesn't it?

But I'm being a little unfair. Yes, High School Bites bears some superficial similarities to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Liza Conrad uses her own palette so that the familiar elements come out more as her own than as copies of Joss Whedon's work.

There's lots to like about the novel. Our protagonist Lucy—descendent of that Lucy, from Stoker fame—has a breezy voice in her first person narrative, and if she doesn't have experience with these new responsibilities thrust upon her on her sixteenth birthday, she does have pluck and a quick mind.

Which comes in handy, since she's immediately thrust into one dangerous situation after another. She makes mistakes because of her inexperience, and her agoraphobic father's not much help either. But she has her best friend Mina (again, no coincidence with the name) to help her, and finds allies in unexpected places—and shapes.

Younger readers will get a kick out of the book, but older ones—especially those who have some familiarity with Bram Stoker's Dracula should enjoy the way that Conrad has woven elements from that classic novel into this very contemporary, and youthful, setting of hers. I don't want to point any out in particular, because that would spoil your fun, but I certainly enjoyed myself.

Of course, there's always the chance that sticklers will be offended at Conrad's very liberal use of the descendents from Stoker's book, but that will be their problem.

*     *     *

The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives, by Michael Buckley,
Amulet Books, 2005, $14.95.

The Sisters Grimm: The Unusual Suspects, by Michael Buckley,
Amulet Books, 2005, $14.95.

There's a strong sense of familiarity underlying this series as well, although this time it takes its cue not from a television series, but from the comic Fables by Bill Willingham—which always struck me as getting its inspiration from the original Shrek film where we're told that all the denizens of fairy tales have escaped to some undisclosed elsewhere when the evil adversary shows up.

In Fables, many of the familiar characters end up in New York City, and a farm in Upstate New York (the ones that can't pass as human). In The Sisters Grimm series, they've taken up residence in the small town of Ferryport—still in New York State, but this idyllic town on the Hudson River is a far cry from the mean streets of the Big Apple.

The title characters are two sisters: Sabrina, the elder, and Daphne. They're not quite orphans, but have been made wards of the State upon the disappearance of their parents before the first book opens.

Life has not been good for them as they're shuffled from one foster home to another. But then an unknown relative—their grandmother on their father's side, who's supposed to be dead—makes contact with the authorities, and off the girls are sent to live with her. Which is how they end up in Ferryport.

Sabrina, her younger sister's only protector, is suspicious of the seemingly kind old woman, her companion Mr. Canis, and her huge dog Elvis. No sooner do they land in Mrs. Grimm's house, than she's planning their escape. But Daphne likes it here because she feels safe, and she does trust their new family. She feels part of a normal life again.

But it soon appears that neither Mrs. Grimm nor Ferryport are normal. Nor is the sisters' lineage. It turns out that they are the descendents of the Brothers Grimm whose collections of fairy tales are not stories, but histories. And the Grimms are detectives, seeing to the welfare of both humans and Everafters (which is what the fairy tale people call themselves).

Sabrina's distrust vanishes when their grandmother is kidnapped by a giant and it's up to the two girls, and a decidedly pain-in-the-butt Robin Goodfellow, to rescue her.

If High School Bites was for the Young Adult reader, The Sisters Grimm skews a bit younger. Again, older readers familiar with fairy tales will get a kick out of seeing the characters in new guises, but the writing, characterization, and plot are definitely aimed at the younger reader. Which isn't a bad thing. We need younger readers to bring some fresh blood to the graying genre audience.

And you might surprise yourself by forgetting your age and enjoying it. It's fast-paced and fun, simple, but not simplistic.

The Unusual Suspects is more of the same, starting with the girls dealing with an ongoing series of thefts in Gepetto's toyshop and going on to having to solve a murder in their school. This book is a little darker, but mostly as much fun as the first—at least it is until the last three pages. At that point, having already finished the story in hand, the author decides to go on and build in a cliff-hanger to the next book.

Having already done so in a previous column, I'm not going to repeat at length my dislike for this sort of thing, except to restate that it's especially irksome when there's no indication anywhere on the book that the story is incomplete. All this does is show us an author with no respect for his audience.

For this reason, I don't recommend anything but the first book to you, and even then, it's with some reluctance.

*     *     *

Vampire Kisses by Ellen Schreiber,
HarperCollins, 2003, $15.99.

Vampire Kisses 2: Kissing Coffins by Ellen Schreiber,
HarperCollins, 2005, $15.99.

Ellen Schreiber plays no such unprincipled trick on her readers. Her books are stand-alone delights, from start to finish.

In Vampire Kisses we meet the only Goth in Dullsville, Raven Madison, who, when asked by her kindergarten teacher what she wants to be when she grows up, replies "A vampire."

Although raised by yuppified hippies, and with a nerd for a brother, Raven remains uninfluenced by her home environment and retains her enthusiasm for the night and the romantic denizens she imagines populate it. School and the boring town she lives in don't have much of an affect either—she's happy to be an outsider.

But then strangers move into the supposedly haunted house on Benson Hill, which has stood vacant and boarded up for years, and as the new owners remain elusive (they only come out at night, ask to have garlic removed from an order at the local Italian restaurant), talk begins around town that they're…yes, vampires. They even have a reclusive son, Alexander Sterling, handsome, pale, and home-schooled, who Raven spies standing at the attic window.

Naturally, she has to meet him….

Over and over again, throughout this book, when you're sure you know where the plot is going to go, Schreiber takes you somewhere else—but always logically within the context of her story. Her point of view character Raven has an utterly charming voice—she's like the older sister of Emily the Strange. Not quite as antisocial, but certainly as opinionated.

It's not a deep, dark read, so it might be too light for a die-hard Goth, but it's not dull by any means.

Kissing Coffins, the second book, is just as good, but I'm not going to tell you anything about it beyond that because whatever I say will spoil the first book for you.

I highly recommend both titles.

There's a third book forthcoming, but I wasn't able to get a copy in time for this column. If Schreiber's track record so far is anything to go by, Vampireville will be well worth checking out.

*     *     *

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