June 30, 2011


Ashes, Ashes. By Jo Treggiari. Scholastic. $17.99.

The Vampire Stalker. By Allison van Diepen. Point/Scholastic. $17.99.

     There are only so many scare settings in books for teens (or ones for adults, for that matter). What distinguishes books of this type is therefore less the environment in which the stories take place than the characterization of the people in the books and the seamlessness (hopefully) of the plots. Thus, there is nothing especially new about the post-apocalyptic setting that Jo Treggiari offers in Ashes, Ashes. This is New York City after the world, or most of it, has ended – an old, old idea. Lucy Holloway, the 16-year-old protagonist, lived through “the end” and is now surviving a huge number of dangers, some hidden and some obvious, by hanging out alone in the wilds of Central Park. This is not a very believable scenario, but it does set the stage for an inevitable romance, which soon emerges in the guise of a boy named Aidan – who helps Lucy escape from vicious dogs and urges her to join a band of survivors. This would seem to make eminent sense, especially since there are evil Sweepers about, picking up some surviving city residents and infecting them with plague. In fact, it turns out that the Sweepers are particularly interested in Lucy, who is more than a mere survivor…. Well, this is a very, very ordinary plot indeed, and much of the writing is equally straightforward: “Nothing seemed different, but lately she’d had the unsettling feeling of eyes on her.” “The rain fell in heavy sheets, reducing everything to slippery mush.” “Aidan was nowhere to be seen. She pictured him glowering in the shadows somewhere, breaking sticks or punching walls, or something equally useless.” Well, it turns out that not everyone was a victim of this particular disease-generated apocalypse: “The majority of the deaths were adults aged thirty to sixty. The kids and teenagers were okay ’cause they were up to date on their shots…” It eventually turns out, not surprisingly, that much of what Lucy and Aidan have long believed may be exactly the opposite of reality; and Lucy turns out to be “an anomaly,” which is scarcely a surprise. There are betrayals, and betrayals of the betrayers, and basic questions about the world-ending (or almost-ending) plague and whether Lucy may unknowingly hold a key to preventing its resurgence; and there is an eventual confrontation with the baddies, and a thrilling escape, and a somewhat hopeful conclusion. Ashes, Ashes is so filled with clich├ęs in plot and characterization that it can almost stand as a “type” of the post-apocalyptic novel for young readers. It has both the pleasures and the flaws of familiarity: it is easy to read and will please teens who like action-packed adventure without many surprises, but it will offer nothing to readers looking for unusual twists or clever approaches to a highly familiar setting.

     The setting of The Vampire Stalker is familiar as well, although it is quite different from that of Ashes, Ashes. Allison van Diepen (a high-school teacher with a surprisingly typical name for a writer of supernatural fiction) actually gives her book an intriguing title, because it could mean that a vampire is stalking someone or that someone is stalking a vampire. And the plot premise has a twist, although scarcely a new one: Amy, the book’s protagonist, is in love with a vampire hunter who is the hero of a fictional series of adventures. That is, he doesn’t exist – until he does. It turns out that the hunter, Alexander Banks, has come to life from the pages of the books about him in order to pursue the evil vampire Vigo, who has also emerged into reality. Umm…yeah, sure. “No way. This couldn’t be happening,” comments Amy, who narrates the book, at one point. But of course it is, somehow. And the librarian at Amy’s school knows it, even though Amy says, “What I wanted was to hear her explain why none of this was real. Why Vigo couldn’t possibly be here in Chicago killing innocent people.” There turns out to be a thoroughly ridiculous “explanation” of why Vigo and Alexander really can be in Chicago, having to do with infinite dimensions and particles jumping among universes and certain books created by “some people [who] are able to tap into parallel dimensions and write about them, often without knowing they are doing so.” Anyway, back at the supernatural adventure, Amy is falling for the now-actual Alexander, who may be falling for her, too, but is determined to take Vigo down even at the cost of his own life (so heroic!). Of course, there are the inevitable confrontations, and there are amusing scenes here and there (going to a mall, grabbing a hockey stick, and breaking it to use as a vampire-destroying stake). There are also some inevitable family issues, which become more complicated after a Vigo attack traumatizes Amy’s sister, Chrissy. Eventually the good guys win, there is hope for worlds on both sides of the mysterious energy portal connecting Alexander’s world to Amy’s, and there is considerable hope for Alexander and Amy as well – and for some other book characters who have conveniently wandered over from the other side. It is sometimes hard to tell how seriously van Diepen wants readers to take The Vampire Stalker, which tends to lurch from intensity to humor rather uneasily. But the book has enough offbeat elements to attract vampire-tale lovers looking for something a bit different – and enough wholly conventional ones to interest readers who simply want another story about vampires and those who stalk or are stalked by them.

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