Z. By Michael Thomas Ford. HarperTeen. $16.99.
Ghost Huntress, Book 4: The Counseling. By Marley Gibson. Graphia. $8.99.
As You Wish. By Jackson Pearce. HarperTeen. $8.99.
Love Sucks! By Melissa Francis. HarperTeen. $8.99.
Vampire Boy’s Good Night. By Lisa Brown. Harper. $16.99.
There are scary things out there, wherever “there” may be, in most novels about the supernatural. And those things have to be handled carefully and with the utmost attention and seriousness, because lives are at stake, and sometimes souls, and sometimes even the whole world – and if you do not buy fully into the ethos in which all this is occurring, there is a risk you will spend your reading time noticing the holes in the books’ plots or even laughing at the wrong places (assuming there are any right ones). So Z, which if nothing else deserves an award for the brevity of its title, is about hunting zombies (called z’s with a small letter) in virtual reality, and also about a mysterious drug (called Z with a capital letter). But soon enough, the game at which Josh is an expert Torcher (torching being the preferred method of eliminating zombies) leads him to an “In Real Life” (IRL) game – if it is a game – played on the streets. His entry to IRL comes through a girl named Charlie, the best virtual-game player of them all – assuming everything she is involved in is virtual. It is very easy to see where Michael Thomas Ford’s book is going; it is somewhat more interesting to know where it has been. In this world, there really were zombies, some 15 years earlier, and there really was a zombie war that devastated families – Charlie’s father, for one, turns out to have survived only through a desperate measure. Now the real-world game and the hologame both exist, and the real-world one must (of course) be kept secret. Why? Well, of course there is great evil afoot, and of course it is tied into the drug Z, and eventually Josh and his friends must confront a horde of real-world zombies, and learn the horrible ways in which the creatures have been deliberately created…. Well, it is all nonsense, but fast-paced and often thrilling nonsense that it does not pay to question too closely.
Nor should the Ghost Huntress series be looked at too carefully. Marley Gibson, herself a self-described ghost huntress, says that series protagonist Kendall Moorehead has feelings and experiences like those of real-world psychics; and maybe that is hype to sell books, and maybe not. In any case, Kendall’s teen troubles are intended to be taken very seriously: her psychic gift has actually led to her death (temporarily), and so she is understandably wary of it at the start of The Counseling. Therefore, Kendall goes to a special sort of “retreat” in northern California, where she and other psychically gifted young people confront their abilities, fears and worries. But Kendall’s ghostly visitors do not take time off, and one in particular keeps appearing to her asking Kendall to “find” her. Even more strangely, this ghost, Hailey, also appears to someone else at the retreat – a boy named Patrick, to whom Kendall is attracted, but who has deep fears of his own to confront. Oh – and he and Kendall communicate telepathically. Gibson seems never to have met a plot point she could not smooth out by introducing a new one, usually supernatural but not always (the use of Skype is actually a nice touch). Eventually, Kendall and Patrick and the other teen psychics solve the mystery surrounding Hailey, and Kendall and Patrick give in to their mutual attraction, and everything is nicely set up for the next book. It is all unnaturally, or supernaturally, neatly tied together.
After all this seriousness, it is nice to find a touch of humor in a book with a supernatural focus. Jackson Pearce’s As You Wish has an even more absurd plot than do most fantasies and most romances – but then, it is a fantasy-romance, so it comes by its multiple layers of silliness naturally. It is the story of a girl named Viola who wants desperately to be loved again (her boyfriend has broken up with her) and wants equally desperately to belong, to fit in with other people. So she unwittingly summons a jinn from the world of Caliban. Never mind how (Pearce never bothers to explain); it just happens. And the jinn (whom Viola soon calls Jinn, with a capital J, thus giving him a name) will not only grant her three wishes but also must grant them in order to free himself from Earth – where he most decidedly does not want to be – and return home. But it turns out that wishes are not all that easy to make. For instance, a wish for world peace will be immediately granted – but as soon as someone fires a gun, the peace will be broken. Tricky. Even trickier are Viola’s developing attachment for Jinn – and, trickier than tricky, the possibility that he may be falling in love with her as well, despite the fact (if it is a fact) that a jinn cannot fall in love. Throw in an ifrit (sort a jinn boss), some wishes that misfire, a trial on Caliban, and a few other offbeat items, and you have a book that rushes headlong to a foregone conclusion but at least retains something of a sense of humor along the way.
There are touches of humor in Love Sucks! as well – following up on the same sorts of touches in Melissa Francis’ previous book, Bite Me! (not to be confused with a Christopher Moore book with the same title). AJ Ashe, teenage vampire and newly minted official adult (she has just turned 18), has to learn in Love Sucks! to control her vampiric superpowers (by dating her trainer, who is also a mindreader) and also control her impulses toward her ex-boyfriend (who has ended up as her stepbrother). Oh – and get used to the idea that her mom is about to have a baby. Let’s see, what else? Her father still wants to take over the world, with AJ’s help, and the prom is coming up, too. By page 17, AJ and readers are already encountering a demon that is “part gorilla, part human, with long arms and a giant head. It was kinda like a furless Sasquatch with fangs” that talks “in a gravelly voice, like Kathleen Turner after too many cigarettes.” AJ is the “key holder,” which is really important, and she is sort of bound to the bad guys because she is “Serpentine,” but not full-blooded, so maybe not totally bound to them. And if all this sounds both ridiculous and confusing – well, the first adjective is correct, but the second not so much so, because it is just impossible even to try to take all the whosits and whatsits seriously here. Francis deserves plenty of credit for making the book fun to read: “There was a lot to be said for a man who could make me laugh while I was being wooed to the dark side by Hooded Evil.” And having a search for powerful runes coexist with prom planning is pretty neat. The line, “This was going to be very messy,” refers to an important plot element, but could just as well describe the plot as a whole. It is messy, and silly, and sometimes the serious elements and amusing ones coexist very uneasily indeed. The climactic confrontation, intended to be very intense, is less so because of the overhang of amusement and confusion; but the followup to the climax does a good job of setting the scene for the next book. Francis has a fine little series going here.
For start-to-finish humor in a jugular vein (as Mad magazine used to put it), you need to look at vampires very differently and go to books for much younger readers – say, ages 3-7, the target audience for Vampire Boy’s Good Night. From the child-size coffin in which “the vampire boy wakes up thirsty for breakfast” (brought to him in a glass by a helpful butler) to the visit he pays to his friend, Morgan the witch, who tells him that “children don’t really exist,” this is a book that plays the supernatural and scary entirely for amusement. It all takes place at Halloween, with vampire Bela and witch Morgan unsure of what is going on because the party at which they arrive while searching for children seems not to include any kids at all – just familiar supernatural creatures such as ghosts, a monster and a mummy. It is only at the party’s end that Bela and Morgan realize, when they see the other guests unmask, that children are indeed real. And the kids’ looks of surprise as Bela and Morgan fly away on Morgan’s broom are just right. The book ends with Bela going back to sleep until the next night, as Morgan flies off. The pleasant but not overdone story and well-made but not overly scary illustrations earn this twisted Halloween tale a (++++) rating – thanks in large part to the gentle, age-appropriate humor with which it is told.