December 14, 2017
(+++) WINTRY WARMTH
The Afterlife of Holly Chase. By Cynthia Hand. HarperTeen. $17.99.
The Lost Frost Girl. By Amy Wilson. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Feel-good stories with twists for teenagers and preteens are scattered throughout most Christmas seasons, and this one is no exception. Cynthia Hand’s The Afterlife of Holly Chase is a contemporary retelling of Charles Dickens’ inevitable-in-the-season A Christmas Carol, assembled in somewhat muddled fashion from a bit of gadgetry, a touch of time travel, and a fair number of paranormal-romance elements. It is a story that initially does not go the way Scrooge’s did: wealthy, super-selfish 16-year-old Holly, the daughter of a big-time movie director, is given a chance to mend her ways after doing a nasty number on the family maid one Christmas Eve. But she does not cooperate with the ghosts that warn her – so when she conveniently dies (conveniently for the plot, that is; not for Holly), she clearly needs some sort of penance. There is no Marley-like chain clanking here: Holly “wakes up,” if that is the right term, in New York City, where she is forcibly recruited into something called Project Scrooge – a kind of company that tries to redeem one otherwise lost soul every year through interventions like the one Holly ignored. The best part of The Afterlife of Holly Chase is Hand’s description of the secrets of how Project Scrooge operates – this is where the gadgetry and time travel come in. But the book’s focus quickly turns to the paranormal-romance stuff, which is pretty thin gruel. Five years after becoming part of Project Scrooge, Holly finds out that the redemption target of the year is a super-hot, super-rich 17-year-old named Ethan Jonathan Winters III. Yes, “Winters.” Holly has remained 16 for the past five years, and now she actually takes an interest in her job because it involves Ethan – with whom she secretly (and against the rules of Project Scrooge) becomes romantically involved. In fact, Holly is seen to develop both a genuine romance (genuine by the standards of teen-focused books like this, anyway) and a friendship with the still-alive Stephanie, whose pre-death condition makes it possible for her to bring coffee. These events are supposed to be part of Holly’s redemptive efforts, which proceed almost in spite of herself. The Afterlife of Holly Chase never manages to be madcap, although it seems to want to be. It does, however, periodically qualify as quirky, and even though the ending is a foregone conclusion, it is pleasant enough when it happens. The getting-to-the-ending can be a bit of a chore, though: Holly’s narration is often pointed and attractive, but at other times it turns to treacle that would not be out of place (except for the vocabulary) in Dickens’ time: “I felt so close to him then, a connection that I was sure was not just based on attraction or circumstance, not the accumulation of a bunch of fake stories I’d told him. Something we could build on. Something that would last.” This sort of thing seems much better when taken in the joyous and forgiving spirit of the season.
Aimed at preteens rather than teenagers, with a narrator who is 12 rather than 16, Amy Wilson’s The Lost Frost Girl has a more-unusual premise than The Afterlife of Holly Chase, although Wilson’s frequent use of fairy-tale tropes makes her novel somewhat less intriguing than it might otherwise be. The protagonist here is named Owl (yes, Owl) McBride, and she somewhat resembles the bird, with a slightly beaky nose, near-yellow eyes and white-blond hair. She lives with her mom, knows nothing at all about her dad, and has a close girlfriend named Mallory and, soon after the book’s beginning, a new boy in class who seems unusually interesting: Avery, who “has tawny-brown hair in a long braid snaking down his back” and “the strangest copper-colored eyes.” Owl’s mom won’t discuss Owl’s dad at all, until eventually she does, revealing that he is none other than Jack Frost, the elemental spirit of winter. This explains the bedtime stories Owl’s mom has long told her about meeting Owl’s father in “magical wintry lands.” Soon enough, as winter begins to develop, Owl’s skin turns bluish white and sparkles with frost – and she wonders if perhaps she has inherited some powers of her own from her father. Now Owl just has to find Jack Frost himself, and she does, but their first encounter is decidedly frosty: he is wild and uncaring and denies that he is her dad. The increasingly determined Owl decides to go to Jack’s winter kingdom and get him to help her understand and control her emerging powers. And that leads to a series of encounters with battling elemental spirits representing the various seasons, with Jack joining the North Wind against the Queen of May and the Earl of October – and none other than Mother Earth eventually having to step in as a kind of Gaea ex machina to sort things out. Wilson tries to balance the otherworldly elements with normal, everyday concerns of human 12-year-olds, such as school and poor grades and friendship problems. This does not work particularly well, since it is hard to believe that Owl – who, after all, is the narrator – would mentally and emotionally balance mundane life against the marvels she encounters in and around Jack Frost’s kingdom, not to mention what happens when the Queen of May maneuvers things so that Owl is supposed to take over Jack’s role for a time. So The Lost Frost Girl creaks a bit in the plot department and does not always hold together terribly well, but its unusual underlying premise is more interesting than the basis of many other preteen adventures and fantasies. And even though the reason eventually revealed for the enmity between Jack and some of the other elementals is quite thin, it suffices in this context to produce a satisfying climax and a conclusion that ties the book up neatly while leaving open the possibility, just the possibility, of a sequel.