September 11, 2008


Darkest Powers, Book One: The Summoning. By Kelley Armstrong. HarperTeen. $17.99.

The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney. By Suzanne Harper. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Wicked Dead #4: Crush. By Stefan Petrucha and Thomas Pendleton. HarperTeen. $7.99.

Ghost of Spirit Bear. By Ben Mikaelsen. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Spirit. By J.P. Hightman. HarperTeen. $16.99.

     Ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night…well, there are ghosties aplenty in books for preteens and teenagers, that’s for sure, and there are things that go bump in the night as well, although at least some of them are indulging in fleshly rather than unearthly delights. Many teen-oriented supernatural books place a veneer of the otherworldly over recognizable real-world situations, then see where that takes the characters. It takes them to some scary places, some silly ones, and some all-too-recognizable everyday ones, albeit decked out in some outrĂ© furnishings.

     Ghosts are currently a big thing in books of this type. The Summoning opens a planned trilogy called Darkest Powers, in which Chloe Saunders’ desire for a normal life is usurped by her ability to see and hear unexplainable things that no one else’s senses pick up. As a result, Chloe is eventually sent to a group home for troubled kids called Lyle House, where she gets the help she needs and becomes a normal teenager. Just kidding! No, of course she meets other young people with perception problems and powers of their own, and of course Lyle House itself turns out to be a place of dangerous secrets that Chloe begins to find out, and of course there are dark powers that insist on keeping those secrets, well, secret, so Chloe – using strength and intelligence she did not fully realize she had, plus friends she had never expected to make – needs to find a way to fight back. Supernaturals gotta stick together, after all.

     And if you don’t want to deal with the supernatural, sometimes that’s just too bad, as Sparrow Delaney discovers. She so does not want to be a medium (like her six older sisters, her mom and her grandmother); she so does not want to talk to ghosts (much less see, hear and smell them); and she is so determined not to let anyone know she can do these things. But The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney doesn’t stay secret, or there would be no book – and there certainly is one, in which Sparrow thinks she’s doing just fine in 10th grade at her new high school, even to the point of meeting a guy she finds kind of interesting. Uh, two guys. And one is as charming and persistent as can be – and is also dead. He’s a ghost who won’t leave her alone until she helps him, you know, Move On. The blend of humor and seriousness here sets the book part from others in this genre and makes it especially attractive.

     But there’s nothing humorous at all in the Wicked Dead series, in which ghost girls in a crumbling orphanage take turns telling stories in the hope that one tale or another may be the key to…well, somewhere better. The fourth book in the series, Crush, follows the formula closely and, within its self-imposed limits, effectively. This tale is about a boy named Jonathan Barnes, who has a terrible time with teachers and fellow pupils at his school, until everyone who has ever tormented him starts turning up…well, dead. It turns out there are Reapers that are, um, reaping the bodies of Jonathan’s enemies, but is he somehow calling them, or is one of his friends doing it, or is there some dark power manipulating everyone and everything? And in the framing tale, what is happening among the ghost girls, and how does the evil Headmistress figure into their fate? Answers are not forthcoming here – only a modicum of chills.

     There are chills in Ghost of Spirit Bear as well – physical ones as well as the spiritual kind. This is a sequel to Touching Spirit Bear (2001), in which Cole Matthews was sentenced to a year of exile and aloneness on a remote Alaskan island for beating another boy. Cole has survived and made peace with his victim, Peter Driscal, but in the new book, he must also make peace with a deeply troubled high school, filled with tensions that are coming closer and closer to bringing out the raging beast within Cole. Gangs and violence are part of everyday life at the school, and Peter is a natural victim, because of his limp and speech impediment. Cole does his best to cope: “Nothing was the same here, but he did feel he was starting to find a calm place deep inside himself where he could go when school and the city piled up on him.” Eventually, a campaign to make the school’s mascot a Spirit Bear – akin to the one that taught Cole so much in Alaska – unites the everyday world and the Alaskan wilderness. In truth, Ghost of Spirit Bear is only the ghost of its predecessor in effectiveness, being just too mundane to make an effective sequel. It will be of interest mainly to readers of the earlier book who wonder what happened next to the characters.

     Spirit handles ghostliness in a different way, with a touch of witchcraft thrown in and a Romeo-and-Juliet plot that eventually leads to the question of who is the haunter and who the haunted. Set in Victorian times and looking back even farther, to the 17th century and the Salem witch hysteria, the book focuses on ghost hunters Tess and Tobias Goodraven and a strange, silent, deadly witch of the woods called Old Mother Malgore. A train wreck puts the Goodravens mysteriously in touch with the spirits of a young couple of long ago – a circumstance that dovetails perfectly with their reasons for hunting ghosts: “Tess and I seemed to have a knack for it. We started to seek out hauntings, and then it just got so wickedly interesting.” Perhaps too interesting this time, though, as the past passes into and through the present, and Old Mother Malgore wields power over space and time alike. The final confrontations – there are several – build in power and strangeness to a genuine surprise ending that raises questions of good and evil, spirit and flesh, and who – if anyone – has the right to live out a life. Intended for ages 12 and up, Spirit will be too peculiar and intense for younger and more impressionable teens. But spirited it certainly is.

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