September 25, 2008


Dream Girl. By Lauren Mechling. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Mason. By Thomas Pendleton. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Gone. By Michael Grant. HarperTeen. $17.99.

     You would expect a young woman with the name of Claire Voyante to have the power to contact supernatural forces, but part of the enjoyment of Lauren Mechling’s Dream Girl is that Claire cannot initially do so – at least not in any organized fashion. Yes, she has visions, but they do not lead anywhere useful – until, on her 15th birthday, Claire gets a very special cameo from her ex-socialite grandmother, Kiki Merriman. Kiki knows a thing or two about mystical powers, and also about holding court (which she does at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). And sure enough, the black-and-white cameo seems to make Claire’s visions clearer, and she soon finds herself on the trail of a mystery. Unfortunately, it isn’t a particularly interesting mystery, and Claire herself is mighty slow to connect the dots that her powers reveal. In fact, some of the subsidiary characters turn out to be more interesting than Claire: Kiki, for one; and Sheila, the Queen Bee of Claire’s high school, who is in fact a nerd underneath all her flash; and Eleanor, another high-school classmate, who seems to rise effortlessly above the sorts of experiences that trouble so many high-school students (including Claire). Dream Girl is nicely written and often amusing, and its ending certainly opens the door to one or more sequels – so perhaps Claire will be a more fully formed central character in the future. For now, it takes no clairvoyance to foresee some level of reader disappointment in the initial exploits of this girl detective.

     The powers that emerge in Thomas Pendleton’s Mason are far less benign. The title character is a severely abused, mentally and emotionally stunted high-school boy who is being raised by his Aunt Molly and is subjected to constant taunting and sadism by his brother, Gene, who repeatedly calls Mason “doorknob,” as in “dumb as a doorknob.” This is family dysfunction taken even beyond the norm for teen-oriented novels – no surprise, really, since Pendleton specializes in horror writing. Into Mason’s life, and therefore into Gene’s path, comes Rene Denton, who first thinks little of Mason, then becomes close to him after seeing how badly Gene treats him. This puts Rene squarely in Gene’s sights, and she becomes a victim herself – but it turns out that Mason does have powers he can bring to bear to protect his only friend, even if they are of little use to the troubled boy himself. Actually, Pendleton introduces these powers very early in the book, spoiling the sense of mystery; but he does not explain them fully until later, and by the novel’s end those powers, and Mason himself, are directly linked to the death of Mason’s mother. This is a tangled web that can only be sorted out through death – several deaths, it turns out. Written with far more concern for pacing than for characterization, Mason moves quickly down its dark road to a strong conclusion that horror-genre fans will find inevitable from the beginning.

     The genre of Gone is a combination of horror, science fiction and fantasy. The story is one of those end-of-the-world yarns that really wants to be taken seriously (parallels to Lord of the Flies are obvious) and really wants to be considered weighty (it runs 558 pages, and there will surely be a sequel, or several). The book is set in Perdido Beach, California, where all adults have suddenly and mysteriously vanished – some years after a nuclear-power-plant incident gave a number of children supernatural powers that are only being acknowledged and developed now that the grownups are gone. The good guys in the book are led, reluctantly, by a boy named Sam Temple, while the bad guys are led by Caine Soren, who turns out to be Sam’s brother. Also important are a beautiful girl genius named Astrid, on whom Sam has a crush (a juvenile one; definitely no sex here); Little Pete, Astrid’s autistic younger brother, who – it turns out – was with their father in the local nuclear plant’s control room when the adults went poof, and who is clearly some sort of key to something important; and a girl named Lana, who is in a car wreck miles from Perdido Beach and who turns out to have her own supernatural power, which may tip the balance between good and evil in the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone), where all the action takes place. Michael Grant, co-creator of the Animorphs and Everworld series, juggles all these absurdities rather well, although not particularly stylishly; but that does not make the plot points any less absurd. The spherical force field that jams all signals around Perdido Beach (that is, “Lost Beach,” as heavy-handed a name as “Caine” for the bad guy and “Temple” for the good one), leaving the kids without cell phones or Web access, is one of several isolating mechanisms that Grant uses to establish a microcosm and have good and evil war with each other within it. Grant’s chapters have countdown titles, starting with “299 hours, 54 minutes” and ending with “01 minutes” and then “Final,” to create a sense of urgency, although the specific times are arbitrarily chosen. Gone is escapist dark fantasy that may appeal to young teens wondering what they would do in a world without adults, but it is a book of far less profundity than Grant apparently wants it to be.

1 comment:

  1. The last thing Michael Grant is looking for is profundity.

    I've always said that my goal is to keep kids awake at night reading under the covers. I'm an entertainer not a teacher. There are certainly political and philosophical issues raised in GONE, but it's not intended as an issue book or treatise. It's intended to be creepy fun.