February 24, 2011


Unearthly. By Cynthia Hand. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Fallen Angel. By Heather Terrell. HarperTeen. $8.99.

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead. Yearling. $6.99.

     Move over, vampires. Step aside, werewolves. There are new supernatural kids on the block, whose adventures are designed to thrill, titillate and enthrall teen readers: angels. Or part-angels anyway, such as 16-year-old Clara, the protagonist of Cynthia Hand’s Unearthly. This debut novel often reads like one: predictable plotting, strings of coincidences, stilted dialogue. But its underlying premise is an interesting one: Clara has known she is part-angel (one quarter, actually) for two years, but is only now getting visions of her capital-p Purpose, a rite of passage that is going to involve (no surprise) a great-looking guy. It soon turns out that Clara is not the only one of her kind by a long shot – not even in her own neighborhood. There is, for example, a girl named (what else?) Angela: “‘Clara, sit down. Relax.’ Then she adds, ‘I know.’ ‘You know wh—’ Sit down,’ she says. In Angelic. My jaw literally drops. ‘How did you—?’ ‘What, you thought you were the only one?’ she says wryly, looking at her nails. I sink into the chair. I think this classifies as a real, honest-to-goodness revelation. Never in a million years would I have expected to stumble upon another angel-blood at Jackson Hole High School. I’m floored.” But we cannot leave Clara on the floor, where she is presumably searching for the jaw that has “literally” dropped, for she has to learn more about her kind and her Purpose – and eventually face, quite unsurprisingly, a test in which she has to decide which of two great guys she is going to save. But first she has to learn about the evil Black Wings, who appear to her in nightmares: “I feel the amber eyes of the Black Wing. Then he’s holding me down, pressing me into the cold ground beneath, his body blotting out the light. Pine needles stab into my back. I scream and flail. One hand strikes his wing and I pull out a fistful of black feathers. In my fingers they evaporate. I keep pulling at the angel’s wings, each feather a piece of his evil, until he suddenly dissolves into a heavy cloud of smoke, leaving me coughing and panting in the dirt.” The chapter titles here are fun: “Hot Bozo,” “Goth Tinker Bell.” And the basic idea of angel families (Clara’s over-100-year-old mom, who only looks about 40, is a half angel) is interestingly offbeat. But the book is more earthbound than unearthly in its standard teen-relationship complications and its ultimate “finding out who I really am” climax – which, not surprisingly at all, sets the stage for a followup novel.

     Fallen Angel is also a teen paranormal romance and also the start of a series. It too focuses on finding one’s true calling, and it too is basically a love story with complications – here involving Ellspeth (Ellie) Faneuil and Michael Chase. The angels here are a good deal like vampires in their taste for blood, but they also have such angelic characteristics as the ability to fly and the power to know what others are thinking. Here too the modern teens are caught in an ancient struggle for primacy between good and evil – although the twist here is that Ellie and Michael may find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Heather Terrell’s novel, like Hand’s, is told in the first person, and in both books, the Hebrew word Nephilim is used to refer to fallen angels – or, in the case of Terrell’s book, to “a unique race of half man and half angel.” In fact, these books have so many traits in common that readers who like one will gravitate equally to the other. This is not to say, though, that they are identical: many details differ. There is no “percentage angel” issue in Fallen Angel, for example; one is either angelic or not (although an important question about this issue is raised as part of the book’s climax). Ellie’s father explains to her that God sent Noah’s flood to wipe out the half-breed Nephilim and the humans corrupted by angels, and then punished all the immortal angels – some of whom turned to the dark side and some of whom realized the error of their ways and decided to try to make amends. Hence the persistent split among the angelic; and hence, Ellie’s dad explains, the legends of vampires, which began when people saw good angels “trying to bring souls to God at the moment of death” – actions that were misinterpreted when people “attributed to them the deaths they witnessed.” Yet the bad angels added to the legends by trying “to suck away humans’ souls and create a civilization that worshipped them, instead of God.” This is all, of course, nonsensical, and it makes God out to be a bully – and not a very intelligent one, at that – but it is merely “back story” for the tale of Ellie and Michael. Part of what happens here also involves Ellie determining her small-p purpose, and the book sometimes becomes unintentionally funny as she struggles with that: “How could someone like me – whatever I was – hope to move past all this drama and strangeness and go to college?” The climactic scenes at Harvard Square, underground on Boston’s T system, and at Quincy Market, will be fun for those who know Boston, and the book as a whole is well paced and does a good job of setting up its sequel, to be called Eternity. But calling the whole thing angelic would be stretching the truth.

     There are no beings designated “angels” in Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning novel, When You Reach Me, but there are occurrences that parallel what angels and other supernatural beings do or could do – although Stead is as careful to play against genre stereotypes as Hand and Terrell are to stay within them. In fact, When You Reach Me straddles two genres – mystery and SF – throughout. Set in New York City in 1979, and intended for ages 9-14, it is the story of sixth-grader Miranda and her best friend, Sal, who suddenly shuts Miranda out for no apparent reason after he is punched, also for no apparent reason, by Marcus, another boy on the street. Then all sorts of strange things start to happen, the strangest being the series of notes that Miranda starts to receive, with odd and cryptic statements followed by equally odd and equally cryptic commands – for instance, to write a letter to the unknown sender of the note. Originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, When You Reach Me has a few plot elements that do not wear especially well, notably one involving Miranda’s mom’s determination to appear on a TV show called The $20,000 Pyramid. That plot is interwoven with the one about Sal’s mysterious backing away from Miranda and with a third, about a crazy laughing man whom Sal and Miranda have seen on a street corner and from whom they know enough to stay away. The laughing man, who of course is not what he seems to be, proves to be the linchpin of a plot that turns on Stead’s concept of time travel – the SF element underpinning the book. But this foundation becomes clear only at the book’s end. Until then, Miranda (whose constant reading of Madeleine L'Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time provides a hint of what is going on) tries to work through the peculiar notes and also understand her own feelings about Sal and her mom’s for her boyfriend, Richard. Miranda’s mom says, at one point, “I just feel stuck, like I’m afraid to take any steps, in case they’re the wrong ones,” and this could easily be Miranda’s problem as well – but she pushes through, and eventually figures out the relationship among Sal, Marcus and the laughing man. On one level, the book explores forms of friendship: Miranda’s with Sal and her later ones with two people she initially dislikes, Marcus and a girl named Julia. On another, it is all about the relationship between past and future, and their intersection in the present – rather heady territory for a book targeting readers of this age range, and undoubtedly a big reason the book won its Newbery award. The chapter called “The Last Note” – that is, the final one Miranda is told to write – pulls everything in the book together neatly in a list with 47 numbers. There is no talk of angels in the list, but the deed that leads Miranda to write the letter is certainly angelic, not in a modern or twisted sense but in that of a very old-fashioned “guardian angel.” Dressed up in science-fictional trappings and held at bay through the elements of a mystery, the story of When You Reach Me is ultimately about the occasional, very occasional, presence of something angelic in life, even though the way it gets there is one that passeth all understanding.

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