October 08, 2009


43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Two: Over My Dead Body. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $15.

Nation. By Terry Pratchett. Harper. $8.99.

The Other Side: A Teen’s Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal. By Marley Gibson, Patrick Burns, and Dave Schrader. Graphia. $10.99.

Ghost Huntress, Book 2: The Guidance. By Marley Gibson. Graphia. $8.99.

Gifted, Book 3: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. Kingfisher. $7.99.

     Things don’t merely go bump in the night in the best of these books about the paranormal – they communicate quite clearly, sometimes to humorous effect and sometimes in the service of more serious matters. Humor is paramount in the second book of the Klise sisters’ new series, 43 Old Cemetery Road, and it’s a good thing there is so much amusement here, since the plot has more holes than in the first book, Dying to Meet You. That volume introduced the town of Ghastly, Illinois; the old mansion whose address forms the title of the series; the spirit of Olive C. Spence, builder of the house and, in her day, an unsuccessful writer; Ignatius B. Grumpley, a successful modern author suffering from writer’s block and a bad case of grumpiness; and Seymour Hope, preteen son of the money-grubbing Les and Diane Hope, who abandoned him in Ghastly for travels in Europe to peddle their book debunking ghosts. All those characters reappear in Over My Dead Body, and new ones are thrown into the mix, notably a singularly unpleasant anti-ghost and anti-Halloween crusader named Dick Tater, a librarian named M. Balm, and a sympathetic judge named Claire Voyant. You’ve got to love those punny Klise names, and it’s hard not to love their convoluted plots and wonderful illustrations, too. This book does strain credulity in suggesting that Dick Tater and his organization, IMSPOOKY (International Movement for the Safety & Protection Of Our Kids & Youth), have the power to stop all Halloween celebrations and compel people to burn all books of ghost stories. But the overstatement makes for a good cautionary tale, in which even many self-proclaimed lovers of the stories say they will go ahead and burn the books – a gentle but effective warning about overweening moral authority. Over My Dead Body moves smartly along through the usual Klise mixture of pictures, letters, computer-screen communication (ghost Olive’s favored approach), and newspaper pages, and its eventual triumph of goodness over badness (including, again rather unbelievably, having Seymour taken from his parents and adopted by Grumpley) is a fitting conclusion that guarantees more adventures ahead.

     Nation is a very different sort of adventure, although ghosts – specifically, ancestral spirits – play a large part here, too. Terry Pratchett (now Sir Terry after being knighted earlier this year) has here created one of the best modern versions of a Robinson Crusoe story. Deservedly a bestseller in hardcover, Nation is now available in paperback and will hopefully find its way to many more bookshelves in this less-costly version. Supposedly a book for teenagers (it is recommended for ages 12 and up), Nation tackles very adult themes indeed, including politics, religion, the relationship between men and women, the role of violence in nation-building, and much more. It is an alternative-history tale in which the daughter of the heir apparent to the British throne is shipwrecked by a tsunami that also wipes out an entire group of island people except one: a boy named Mau, who was on another island when the wave hit. It falls to Mau and this girl from another place – Ermintrude, but she prefers to be called Daphne – to reestablish Mau’s nation, with a little help and a lot of interference from its spirits, and using the motley collection of tsunami survivors that washes ashore here and there. The book is filled with subplots, high and low humor, and characters in whom one cannot literally believe but about whom one comes to care deeply. And it has a spectacular conclusion whose daring and sheer sweep are breathtaking even after repeated readings. This is in part, but only in part, a ghost story; it is, above all, a human story, and a brilliantly realized one.

     Back in the real world, there really are ghosts among us, at least according to Marley Gibson, a self-proclaimed ghost huntress who approaches spirits in books written both as fiction and nonfiction. The Other Side is seriously intended as a guide for teenage ghost hunters, explaining the tools of the trade while trying to keep the narrative on the light side: a chapter on electronic voice phenomena is called “What is an EVP, and can it cause embarrassing stains?” – and one on the translucent spheres that sometimes show up in photos is called “What are orbs? (Hint: Not a techno band.)” Gibson devotes some time to phony mediums and well-meaning but mistaken people who believe they have seen and even photographed ghosts; but she is quite convinced that spirits do walk among us, to the point of warning teens to practice “safe hex” when searching for them. (To this end, she includes a lot of Biblical prayers but nothing from, say, Confucianism.) Gibson says skepticism about spirits is justified but cynicism is not, and she defines cynics as people who “believe that if something cannot be reproduced, it must be dismissed.” Not coincidentally, that is the definition of a scientist. Teens who want to believe there are huntable spirits out there will give this book a (+++) rating; scientifically oriented readers will not rate it at all – and that is obviously fine with Gibson and her coauthors.

     Gibson is actually more interesting in the thinly fictionalized Ghost Huntress series, in the first book of which the central character proclaimed, “I am Kendall Moorhead. Psychic. Intuitive. Sensitive. Ghost huntress. No more wigging out.” That book, The Awakening, was about Kendall’s move from Chicago to a small town in Georgia, where she discovered her powers after her father bought a white-noise machine and Kendall heard a voice coming out of it. The second book, The Guidance, is more of the same but with additional, typical teen angst thrown in – in the form of Courtney Langdon, a rival at school who decides to distract attention from Kendall by doing her own dabbling in the supernatural. Bad move. Kendall is not exactly nice to Courtney, at one point arranging for her to become physically ill during a fetal-pig dissection – after which Kendall remarks, “Well, that couldn’t have gone more perfectly. I know it’s not exactly the classiest thing I’ve ever done, but the beeyotch had it coming…” But what Courtney doesn’t deserve is being possessed by the spirit of a Civil War soldier that “uses its powers in a cruel or unjust way, weighing down a human’s body or mind for the spirit’s own enjoyment or purpose.” And then there is Kendall’s guiding spirit: a pretty young girl, about whom Kendall’s mother knows more than she is letting on. There is also some help here from the church, in the person of the singularly poorly named Father Mass. Visitations, broken glass and mirrors, and other sorts of manifestations lead first to a climax involving the soldier and then to some frightening implications for Kendall’s future – to be explored in the next book of the series. The Guidance is well enough written and quickly enough paced to get a (+++) rating for fans of the genre; but Gibson’s final disclaimer, in which she tries to connect the fiction directly with real-world experiences, may best be taken with a dose of skepticism, if not cynicism.

     The Gifted series covers some of the same territory, but it is not strictly ghost-focused and never pretends to be more than light entertainment – a fact that stands in its favor. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow follows Out of Sight, Out of Mind and Better Late Than Never in this saga based on a clever underlying idea: what if “gifted” students weren’t necessarily smart but were actually, you know, gifted with unusual powers? There are nine “gifted” students of this type at Meadowbrook Middle School, making it possible that this series will be going on for some time. It is Emily, who can see into the future, who is the focus of Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. Like all the gifts of the “gifted,” Emily’s is imperfect: she cannot tell when something will happen, just that it will occur. And this spells trouble at Meadowbrook, where Emily’s fellow students are starting to disappear, one by one. Marilyn Kaye does not seem to take these books too seriously, which helps them get a (+++) rating even though much of what goes on is formulaic. In the current volume, video games and basketball turn into distractions (or maybe clues); there is a planned bank robbery in which the talents of the “gifted” are called upon; and certain of the “gifted” end up manipulating others for purposes of their own. There’s dirty work afoot here that goes well beyond the school: Madame, who teaches the “gifted,” says, “I’m worried for the world.” She apparently says this with a straight face, but it is impossible to take the Gifted series entirely seriously. Still, as a venture into escapist paranormality, it can be a lot of fun.

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