August 19, 2010


Freak Magnet. By Andrew Auseon. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Stranded. By J.T. Dutton. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Lincoln’s Sword. By Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald. Eos. $7.99.

     Oddities happen all the time in real life, but they happen in novels, especially ones for teenagers, with distressing regularity. Authors may do a good job of following what happens after this oddity or that, but the artificiality of the odd occurrence and/or odd person remains. So it is in Freak Magnet, which is told in alternating chapters headed “Freak” (the boy) and ”Magnet” (the girl). The whole thing starts with what is called, in movies, a “meet cute” moment, when Charlie notices Gloria in a coffee shop and, after she walks out, just has to walk after her to tell her she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. She, of course, gets away from this maybe-stalker as quickly as she can – and it turns out that she is smart to do so, because freaks are attracted to Gloria the way bees are attracted to flower nectar (in fact, after Gloria walks away, Charlie comments, “I could still smell her – floral, powdered…she was a flower that refused to wilt in the weather”). And so, from this inauspicious and predictable beginning, Andrew Auseon proceeds with a story of gradually increasing attraction, Gloria’s “freak journal” in which she makes notes of all the oddballs she encounters, and repeated references to poetry, nerdiness and astrology. The watchword here is spoken by a minor character: “Problems will still be there, even if you turn your back,” and of course there are problems in this budding relationship, notably involving both young people’s families. “Life was not good, but it had the potential to be better,” Gloria writes in one of her point-of-view chapters, and ultimately that is the message that readers are supposed to take away from this typically bittersweet book about growing up.

     Stranded is even more bitter and considerably less sweet, and the oddity around which it centers is a horrible one: the discovery of a dead baby in a cornfield in the super-ironically named town of Heaven, Iowa. J.T. Dutton’s whole book is a morality play, 21st-century style, in which high-school junior Kelly Louise is forced to move with her mom back to Heaven to live with the family’s Nana and Kelly Louise’s too-good-to-be-true cousin, Natalie, who dresses perfectly and has taken a virginity pledge. But the story of abandoned Baby Grace shadows everyone and everything in Heaven, where – not surprisingly at all – it turns out that Natalie is nothing like what she seems to be, and the whole town is filled with those dark secrets that seem to pervade every nook and cranny of every out-of-the-way fictional small town since (and before) Faulkner. As Kelly Louie contemplates ways to lose her virginity (“I had been trying to rid myself of mine for months without luck”) and adjusts the socks in her bra, she struggles to keep Natalie’s secret even though, “little by little, my mental health and clear skin were being affected.” The town’s narrow-mindedness and church obsession wear on Kelly Louise, as does Nana’s “obsessive-compulsive drinking” and “litany of what made Natalie perfect and untouchable in everyone else’s eyes.” Eventually, Natalie’s secret comes out, many things go awry in Kelly Louise’s life, and a many wholly anticipatable complications ensue, leaving the principal characters emotionally wrung out and changed for (in most cases) the better. There is not a single element of the plot that has not been used elsewhere, and the emotional roller-coaster ride is one on which many authors have taken teen readers before. Dutton handles the very familiar material well enough, but it is very familiar material.

     So is the underlying premise of Lincoln’s Sword, one of the innumerable alternative-history (wrongly called “alternate-history”) books in which the outcome of the Civil War is seen as so pivotal that a small change here or there could produce an unending cascade of consequences through the following decades. This is not an entirely unreasonable idea – certainly a Confederate victory in the War between the States would have led to many differences after the conflict’s conclusion. Nevertheless, the “what if” approach to this war has been done many times before. The way it is done by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald involves the foresight of their book’s rather creepy Mary Lincoln and of her best friend, Mercy Conkling, who is also a seer. Lincoln’s Sword also involves one of those mysterious strangers who seem to dot the alternative-history landscape – this one is named Thomas – and an impossibly noble President Lincoln (himself given foresight in this book, through his dreams). The title of the book refers to a magical sword that Mary Lincoln sees in visions and that may hold the key to Lincoln’s and the Union’s future. It falls to Lincoln to accept the sword and his own assassination, which he does when he tells Thomas, “I dreamed I was on a phantom ship, racing toward an unknown shore. I’ve had that same dream three times before: before Gettysburg, before Antietam, and before Fort Fisher on Cape Fear. All great Union victories, but all accompanied by great rivers of blood.” The story seesaws back and forth between dates during the Civil War and ones after it, and some of its subsidiary characters prove more interesting than its central ones: Cole Younger of the James-Younger gang and General Albert Pike, to name two. There is nothing believable in Lincoln’s Sword and no attempt at believability in it. It is purely a piece of alternative, magic-infused history designed to take advantage of the continuing fascination with Lincoln and the Civil War – a touch of strangeness largely for its own sake.

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