November 25, 2009


The Good Neighbors, Book Two: Kith. By Holly Black & Ted Naifeh. Graphix/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You. By Vlad Mezrich. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Solomon Effect. By C.S. Graham. Harper. $7.99.

     The second book in The Good Neighbors graphic-novel trilogy, Kith, continues the themes of reality, illusion and identity confusion that filled the first, Kin. The focus continues to be on Rue Silver, who is half human (through her father) and half faerie (through her mother) – and there is nothing ethereal about the faeries in these books: they are human-sized, powerful and inimical (or at best indifferent) to the human race. The idea that Rue does not quite know where she fits, and must find out, is a tried-and-true one, but it has a twist here because Rue does not much like either of her choices. Her mother was allowed to marry her father only on condition that he was never unfaithful to her – but he was, after falling in love, and in this book finds himself torn between human and faerie-centered emotions, which he tells Rue are not the same. Rue finds her mother in this installment and tries to save her from her grandfather, Aubrey – but is it really “saving,” and does her mother really belong with her father or with the faeries? While these uncertainties abound – handled in spare, direct text by Spiderwick Chronicles coauthor Holly Black and in dark, gloomy and sometimes frightening art by Ted Naifeh – Rue is also dealing with unexpected changes in her peer group, with her boyfriend’s apparent drifting away, with her own attraction to someone else, and with unanswerable questions, the central one being, “Are you sure you know whose side you’re on?” Rue is not sure: “I used to try really hard not to worry. Now I’m worried all the time.” And what she learns about herself does not help her decide what to do: “What makes us betray the people we love? Now I know. Nothing makes us. We just do.” By the end of this episode, Aubrey has engineered a faerie-focused success that Rue feels should horrify her – but doesn’t. And that ends the book with a question mark that will remain unresolved until the trilogy’s finale.

     There is little that is light in The Good Neighbors, and little that is dark in The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You, a “dating guide” written by a team of nine like-minded satirists under the pen name “Vlad Mezrich” (yuck). At a time when vampires are hot – as publishing phenomena, not just within the books themselves – this amusingly overdone little book makes a nice corrective to the oh-so-serious emotional intensity of the Twilight series and other works that would be bodice rippers (or bodice piercers, maybe?) if today’s teens and young adults still wore bodices. The book contains a flow chart to help a would-be vampire dater decide if he is “goth, emo, gamer, or vampire.” It offers appropriate things to say at awkward moments: “Of course I understand that killing my brother was an accident. Don’t worry about it – things like this are bound to happen.” There are comments by smitten teens such as “Abigail, 16” and “Willa, 18,” and by vampires such as “Gregor, 498” and “Theo, 112.” There are multiple-choice quizzes, advice on “coaxing him out of the crypt,” suggestions on how to celebrate the holidays together, and what to do if it turns out after all that the vampire really just isn’t that into you (“what to do when your relationship has one foot in the grave”). There are even suggestions for places to contact if you can’t get over the heartbreak of losing him, such as the Vampire Depression Hotline. The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You is silly, juvenile and overdone – but then, so are plenty of the “vampires are wonderful” stories out there these days. And those books, unlike this one, are meant to be taken seriously.

     It is hard to tell how seriously to take The Solomon Effect, C.S. Graham’s fast-paced followup to The Archangel Project. Like The Vampire Is Just Not That Into You, this is a team-written book, although here it is a team of two: husband and wife Steven Harris and Candice Proctor. Their earlier thriller turned on the concept of “remote viewing,” the ability to see things from a distance – specific things, if guided by a handler who knows how to get the remote viewer to focus in the right place. Psychology graduate student and Iraq War veteran October “Tobie” Guinness has remote-viewing ability; she works with a CIA rogue agent, Jax Alexander (the CIA abounds with rogues -- in books, anyway). Yes, the protagonists are types; and yes, the plot of The Archangel Project was formulaic (vast conspiracy to stop Tobie and Jax after Tobie remotely views secret documents that that could lead to war, assassination or both). The Solomon Effect is formulaic, too, involving a nefarious Nazi plot that comes to light through discovery of a sunken U-boat off the Russian coast that carried a cargo that could bring on the Apocalypse. Calling this an apocalyptic novel is therefore redundant. And of course Tobie and Jax are threatened by enemies in high places as well as by those who would benefit from allowing an unimaginable (well, not so unimaginable) catastrophe to occur. What is interesting about The Solomon Effect is the sneaking suspicion that the authors are not taking it entirely at face value. They lapse frequently into genre clichés, for example, but seem to know when they are doing so. Sample dialogue: “What part of ‘life is never easy’ did you miss?” “You never know; we might get lucky.” On the same page: “Things are not going as well as we’d expected. …We haven’t been able to contact our man in Berlin to ascertain just what went wrong.” Elsewhere: “You of all people should know I don’t give anything away.” And “I’m not an easy man to kill.” Add chapter headings that sometimes function as datelines (“Jaffa, Israel: Thursday 29 October 11:54 p.m. local time”) and you have all the trappings of thoroughly mediocre adventure fiction – but somehow The Solomon Effect is better than that, perhaps because it seems to watch itself from outside, making readers aware that the authors know exactly what they are doing. Consider it, perhaps, a display of authorial remote viewing. In any case, the book can certainly be read simply as an apocalyptic thriller, enjoyed and immediately forgotten. But it is more fun if you assume its use of multiple clichés is intentional – thus making it possible to get extra enjoyment out of some of the story’s twists and turns, such as the crucial importance of Googling a 93-year-old doctor who has contributed a certain article to Scientific American.

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