January 14, 2010


A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts. By Ying Chang Compestine. Illustrations by Coleman Polhemus. Henry Holt. $16.99.

Demon Chick. By Marilyn Kaye. Henry Holt. $16.99.

     Had enough of the same old ghost-and-demon stories? Try these – they’re different. A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts is a most unusual compendium of ghost stories (some of which are far scarier than is the norm in books for preteens), Chinese history lessons – and recipes. Ying Chang Compestine, author of Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, explains the longstanding importance of food in Chinese culture as well as the belief that people who die in certain ways or with unfinished business, and return as angry ghosts, can be appeased with offerings of food. She also tells a bit about Chinese numerology – the number eight is particularly lucky – and then offers eight stories in which food plays a greater or lesser part. Two involve appetizers, four include main courses, and two are about desserts. After each tale, Compestine provides a very good recipe for the dish that is central to (or at least mentioned in) the story. About the only thing wrong with that is that some of the stories are gruesome enough so that readers might not want to eat the food associated with them. These are not garden-variety frights: there is cannibalism, burial alive (of a young girl), gruesome murders of various kinds, innocent people executed, and more. A story that turns on the penchant of some Chinese for eating still-living animal flesh – in this case, monkey brains – is especially stomach-churning (and no, the recipe has nothing to do with that theme: it is for tofu with chili-garlic sauce, which plays a lesser role in the tale). The recipes are quite good – the jasmine almond cookies are a particular treat. And Compestine’s short post-story explanations of the historical and cultural background of the tales are fascinating, dealing with such subjects as school factories during the Cultural Revolution, organ harvesting, the board game mahjong, controversial treatments for mental illness, and more. A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts is a highly intriguing book – equally readable for chills, for some fascinating cultural and historical insights, and for recipes for delicious food. And the black-and-white illustrations by Coleman Polhemus are a fine touch, capturing the mood of each chapter and heightening the intensity of some of the tales’ more outré moments.

     Demon Chick is unusual, too – often hilariously so. It’s the simple story of the daughter of an aspiring presidential candidate – an ordinary enough teenage girl whose soul just happens to have been sold to the devil to further her mother’s ambitions. Hmm…not so simple. And Jessica Hunsucker is not about to take the arrangement lying down, especially when she finds out that the part of Hell to which she is consigned consists of dull suburban neighborhoods – and includes living with a demon named Brad (although he does seem like a nice enough guy). This setup leads to some often-hilarious dialogue, as when Jessica discovers that she and Brad both really like the movie Grease, which Brad is watching on the TV in their house: “I looked away and focused on the screen. ‘How did you get this? They don’t have video stores in Hell, do they?’ ‘I was surfing and just came across someone watching it on TV. And I fiddled with the controls and got their TV screen to fill our screen. So we don’t have to watch the other people watching our movie.’” And almost before you can figure out what all that means, something new happens – like finding out that “sexual orientation doesn’t count for anything down here,” and the suburban-style kitchen equipment works but is just messed-up enough to keep things uncomfortable, and Jessica’s mother has some grand evil plans that go well beyond what she has already done to her daughter. And that becomes a problem of its own: “‘Damn,’ I muttered in frustration. ‘Doesn’t anyone care? A maniac bitch is trying to take over the world, and they’re worried about global warming.’” Even when supposedly serious stuff is going on, Marilyn Kaye keeps the bright and offbeat writing flowing: “I was only human, sort of.” And the way she ties everything together by the end of the book is really neat. Teens who have had enough of traditional young-adult romances will find a lot to like in Demon Chick. It’s devilishly entertaining.

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