October 09, 2008


The Debs. By Susan McBride. Delacorte Press. $8.99.

Hell Week. By Rosemary Clement-Moore. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Cycler. By Lauren McLaughlin. Random House. $17.99.

     There are all sorts of hells in novels for teens – the hell of interpersonal rivalry, the hell of internal confusion, even the hell of demon-spawn type. Take your pick among these three books for ages 14 and up. Pick Susan McBride’s The Debs for the good-girl-bad-girl-confused-girl mixture that seems the traditional approach to “how High Society lives” in books for teenagers. There has to be a super-attractive witch who is out to get those of lesser class and/or appearance; here, that would be Jo Lynn Bidwill. There has to be a token bookish type – that would be Michelle “Mac” MacKenzie. There has to be a slightly far-out character who is not in the typical mold for her social class – Ginger Fore, an environmentalist with an unfortunate involvement with a college guy. And there has to be someone who doesn’t quite fit in – here, Laura Delacroix Bell, whose family’s wealth is in her favor but whose size 14 figure raises some eyebrows. It is debutante season in Houston, one of those cities frequently used as a hotbed of passions and rich people behaving badly, and there are sure to be fireworks at the Glass Slipper Club as these four girls and assorted hangers-on drive around in Escalades, Corvettes and BMWs while developing aphorisms for their privileged but oh-so-competitive lives (“It’s impossible to fight fair against someone who plays dirty” – Ginger Fore). Absolutely nothing in The Debs ought to be taken seriously, but if you’re looking for a tour of largely self-made hell, this book is a pretty good guide.

     For a truly hellish sort of story, there’s Hell Week, Rosemary Clement-Moore’s sequel to Prom Dates from Hell, in which Maggie Quinn encountered an entire set of cheerleaders named Jessica, a chemistry experiment that called up a thing called the Shadow, and various stinky otherworldly minions. Maggie has now made it to college, and in Hell Week – Clement-Moore’s second book for young readers – Maggie, formerly a high-school journalist, has become a college reporter writing an exposé of Sorority Rush. To do that, she has to get close to the sororities by trying to pledge – and sure enough, she gets a bid from Sigma Alpha Xi. The only problem is that there’s something not quite right about the sorority and the people in it. And Maggie has family issues to deal with, too: her mother is pregnant, and Maggie fears (with reason) that both mom and baby are under threat from the SAXes, as the girls of Sigma Alpha Xi are called. With the help of her friend, Lisa, Maggie works out what to do: “The logical parts were all Lisa. The insane parts were mine.” Maggie’s eventual confrontation with a sorority-leading demon summoner walks the line between scary and silly; and if this book isn’t really up to the quality of its predecessor, maybe the next one will be. For this is now part of a series called Maggie Quinn: Girl vs. Evil.

     Ultimately, though, the worst hell of all is the one inside oneself, and in the case of Lauren McLaughlin’s Cycler, it is not so much a matter of girl vs. evil as girl vs. boy – with both in the same body. Jack and Jill McTeague are the same person in Cycler, with Jill being a more-or-less ordinary high-school student who disappears for four days a month, supposedly for blood transfusions but in reality because she transforms without volition into Jack – who is, yes, anatomically complete as a male. The Jack and Jill personas tell this story in alternating chapters, with Jill being more of a Dr. Jekyll and Jack being more of a Mr. Hyde (perhaps not surprising, since he is usually confined to Jill’s room for his four days of existence per month). “My life is a disaster on so many levels, I can hardly keep track of it all,” writes Jill at one point. Well, yes. She and Jack write notes to each other so they can communicate across their “phases,” and Jack is gaining strength somehow, and he is making a play for Jill’s best friend, Ramie; and on top of everything, prom is coming up, and it’s getting to such a point that Jill isn’t sure who she’ll be when the big night arrives. By the time Jill and Jack turn 18, there is so much bad blood between (within?) them that his/her/their parents lock Jack in Jill’s room after having given him increasing freedom for a while; and Jack takes revenge on Jill by cutting off a lot of her (his) hair; and things get even worse and more complicated after that – until eventually, inevitably, Jill (who has the last word in the book) realizes she has to tell both her best friends, the girl Ramie and the boy Tommy, what she is. As science fiction and a novel of self-discovery, Cycler is ludicrous in the extreme; but it is saved from constant unintentional hilarity by McLaughlin’s often-effective attempts to give Jill and Jack different voices and different motivations. Cycler is, finally, an odd book and far from a totally successful one, but it certainly stands out from run-of-the-mill teen-oriented novels about self-discovery and sexual exploration.

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