Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Author: Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, editors
Genre: YA Anthology / Fantasy and Horror
Pages: 432
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Call number: Y Zombies

I guess Black and Larbalestier have been debating the merits of zombies vs. unicorns on the Internet for a while now, but I missed the hoopla until it finally spilled over into this anthology of twelve stories. At first, I thought that each story would be a death match between a zombie and a unicorn, but that would have gotten old fast, so I’m glad instead that each author represents a side: on Team Zombie, it’s Alaya Dawn Johnson, Carrie Ryan, Maureen Johnson, Scott Westerfeld, Cassandra Clare, and Libba Bray; on Team Unicorn, it’s Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Margo Lanagan, Diana Peterfreund, Meg Cabot, and Kathleen Duey.

I’ve read a lot of zombie stories (and seen a lot of movies), but my experience with unicorns is more limited: Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and Holly Black’s short story “Virgin”, and . . . that’s about all I can remember. So, I was actually looking forward to reading the unicorn stories, just to see what’s out there in the modern day, but I ended up on Team Zombie anyway. I don’t know if I find zombies more interesting because I enjoyed the stories more, or if I enjoyed the stories more because I find zombies more interesting, but it’s still the case: overall, the zombies won out.

I liked all of the zombie stories in this collection, but my top ones were: “The Children of the Revolution”, by Maureen Johnson, the zombie babysitting story which was funny and creepy and had a killer ending; “Bougainvillea”, by Carrie Ryan, which is set in the same universe (after the Return) as her two novels and continues her excellent storytelling; and “Prom Night”, by Libba Bray, which had a subtle, disquieting ending as doomed teenagers, after all of the adults in town have been quarantined or killed, attempt to soldier on with the high school tradition of prom.

For the unicorn stories, the one I really liked was “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn”, by Diana Peterfreund, which is set in her Rampant universe and definitely made me want to read the novel. Several of the stories explored the dangerous side of unicorns, but this was the one I felt did it best. I also enjoyed Meg Cabot’s “Princess Prettypants” as a kind of as tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted revenge fantasy, and I thought two of the others – Margo Lanagan’s and Kathleen Duey’s – were both disturbing in a good way.

I thought it was curious that a lot of the zombie stories I liked had a strong romance element, involving zombies of various sentience levels, while several of the unicorn stories focused more on their dangerous side, often as a vengeful judge/punisher of wrongdoing.

Cover comments: Honestly, this book should sell based on the cover design alone. The cut-out of the zombie fighting a unicorn, and the cartoonish but graphically violent scenes of their death match ranging over hill and dale, is some of the best I’ve seen. Not only does it effectively present the focus of the book, it’s hilarious and eye-catching. It’s like looking at an I-Spy or Where’s Waldo book, but with a sick twist.


Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Author: Lauren Oliver
Genre: YA Fiction/Paranormal
Pages: 480
Call number: Y Oliver (it hasn’t come in yet, so put this book on hold now and you can get it in March — IT’S AVAILABLE NOW, March 8)

I really didn’t expect to like this book. The plot sounds like something out of an after-school special, like a Very Special Story about about appreciating your life or caring about others or not going to parties without a designated driver. The plot sums up easily: Samantha dies in a car accident Friday night on the way home from a party with her friends, but she realizes she has to relive the entire day when she wakes up in her bed to find it’s Friday morning again. As she lives Friday over and over, trying to figure out how to stop her death, she starts to notice things about her life, her friends, and her family that she never noticed before.

Instead of hating it, though, this book totally amazed me.

It isn’t sentimental or depressing or heavy-handed. It’s sad at times, yes, and it does have a message that is hard to ignore. Samantha starts out a little unlikable – she’s not a horrible person, but she’s self-absorbed and entitled. She has a comfortable life with a close-knit family, a popular boyfriend, and three best friends. She takes her popularity, and the perks that come with it, for granted, and she and her friends ignore and/or torment those lower on the high-school food chain. The thing is, she doesn’t seem to recognize their casual cruelty for what it is. It’s just the way things are in high school. But anyone reading will see the devastating effects their bullying has on others, particularly shy, quiet Juliet, who has been a long-standing target.

You’d think Samantha reliving the day of her death multiple times would get repetitive, but it doesn’t. Samantha’s death is a mystery that needs solving, and figuring out how and why the car accident happened (so that she can prevent it) unearths a whole bunch of secrets. She is constantly trying new things to get a different ending, and her decisions result in more and more deviations from the first Friday. Something as simple as being late for school instead of being on time has a ripple effect; something more substantial, like not going to school at all, make big changes (keeping in mind that it’s always Friday, of course, so certain scheduled events always take place whether Samantha is there or not).

The story ends up being a very intricate dance of action and consequence, and what’s most compelling is how Samantha’s story widens from being focused mostly on her to what’s going on around her. This gradual change is really important, because it shows how much Samantha has changed as a person (kinder, more compassionate, more aware of others, more outspoken) and it brings the circumstances leading up to her death into clearer focus (and a twisty set of circumstances it is).

Living the same day over and over is the ultimate learning experience. Overall, this book is about Samantha coming to realize what’s truly important and making her life one she can be proud of. Again, I know how this sounds like a Hallmark card, but Oliver manages to do it in a totally believable way without bringing the sap. Let me assure you, I am violently allergic to sap, so I really mean this. It’s moving, it’s meaningful, and I still can’t believe it’s a first novel. Wow.

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

Publisher: Simon & Schuster’s Children’s
Genre: YA Horror
Pages: 448
Call Number: Y Yancey

“These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me…and the one who cursed me.”

So begins the journal of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a man with a most unusual specialty: monstrumology, the study of monsters. In his time with the doctor, Will has met many a mysterious late-night visitor, and seen things he never imagined were real. But when a grave robber comes calling in the middle of the night with a gruesome find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet. [summary from Goodreads]

The case starts out simple enough – the grave robber brings to Warthrop the corpse of a young girl inexplicably entwined with the dead body of a monstrous creature – but their search for what the creature is and how it got into the grave quickly becomes complicated. After a deadly trip to the local cemetery and some late-night dissections, Dr. Warthrop becomes convinced that the monster is an Anthropophagi, a hellish species his father had studied, and that the cemetery is their breeding ground. Their search to uncover more about creatures leads them from the graveyard to the mad house and into the past of both Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop.

The setting – New England in the late 19th century – is gloomy and bleak, perfect for such a dark story, and the haunted, driven characters fit the world perfectly. The Anthropophagi, far from being supernatural creatures, are wholly of the real world and are much scarier because of it – think about your local community being overrun by violent, man-eating animals at the top of the food chain and you’ll get the idea.

While the story has plenty of nail-biting suspense, hair-raising scares, and festivals of gore, it’s also a story about relationships, particularly of sons and their fathers: the son’s eternal striving to either live up to his father’s deeds, surpass them, or atone for them. Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop’s relationship is dysfunctional at best, shades of father/son and mentor/apprentice but not quite living up to either, but at the same time they need each other, if only because no one else needs them.

This is not a silly kid’s book about monsters that nobody would find scary. It’s not a B-movie. It’s not for the easily frightened or squeamish. What it is, is one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read (and I’m including adult books here, too), genuinely scary, fascinatingly gross, and psychologically complex.

If you like horror novels, this is the one to read.

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

Genre: YA Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance
Pages: 392
Call number: Y Stiefvater (new YA fiction section)

As a child, Grace was attacked by the wolves living in the woods behind her house and almost killed. Her memory of the event is hazy, but she remembers the yellow eyes of the wolf that saved her, and since then she’s seen him every winter lurking just outside her backyard. In the summer, however, he’s conspicuously absent, and she misses him keenly. Sam, the wolf in question, is a werewolf, and while he watches over Grace as a wolf, as a human he can’t get up the courage to speak to her. When a boy from Grace’s school is killed by wolves, she interrupts the hunting party that forms, but not before wolf Sam is shot and, turned human by the injury, ends up bleeding on her back deck. Once they finally meet, their long-held interest in each other turns to romance, but staying together looks unlikely as Sam’s time as a wolf approaches.

Stiefvater offers a unique take on the werewolf mythology in this supernatural romance. Rather than changing with the full moon, her wolves change with the temperature: they are wolves in cold weather and humans in warm weather. The longer they are werewolves, the less frequently they change back and forth, eventually becoming a wolf for good. The temperature required to change varies, as does the length of time they have before losing their humanity for good, but in general the younger werewolves change with the seasons more often and have more time as humans ahead of them.

Continue the review, no spoilers

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, by Alison Goodman

eonAuthor: Alison Goodman
Publisher: Viking
Genre: YA Fantasy
Pages: 531
Call number: Y Goodman

Eon is a crippled servant in a world where cripples are untouchable, considered to bring bad luck with them wherever they go. However, Eon’s ambitious master has plans for him still and has spent years training Eon to become a Dragoneye. The Dragoneyes are special men, each chosen by one of the eleven celestial dragons, able to commune with their dragon and use its power on behalf of the emperor. The Rat Dragon is now the ascendent, and Eon is one of several candidates to become the apprentice Rat Dragoneye. He and his master have staked everything on Eon being chosen; if he is not, his master will lose what little political power and wealth he has left. Eon has a rare special gift — he is able to see all of the dragons in the spiritual realm at once — and this is the reason he, a cripple, is allowed to compete. However, Eon has a terrifying secret that only he and his master know — he is really Eona, a girl. Women are forbidden to be Dragoneyes — they are forbidden from most aspects of power — and discovery of this fact will mean instant death for Eon and his master. They have both ruthlessly eradicated all traces of the female in Eon, but it is still a dangerous plan, and one that both does not go as expected and yet exceeds all expectations. Eon is not chosen by the Rat Dragon, but by the Mirror Dragon, the twelfth dragon that has not been seen for hundreds of years. This marvel instantly catapults Eon to Lord status and co-ascendent Dragoneye with the cruel and power-mad Lord Ido, the Rat Dragoneye. Now it is even more important for Eon to hide her sex, as she is quickly immersed in a political power struggle between the current emperor, whose health is failing, and Lord Ido and his brother, High Lord Sethon, who intend to take over the throne.

Click here for the review

Bonechiller, by Graham McNamee

bonechillerAuthor: Graham McNamee
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (Random House)
Genre: Horror
Pages: 294
Call number: Y McNamee

Don’t look for it on the map. The place is so small it doesn’t even get a dot. Once a year they get a new WELCOME TO sign put up, but it doesn’t last a week before it’s so full of buckshot holes you can’t even tell the name of the place, and you sure don’t seem welcome.

Nowhere–officially known as Harvest Cove. Tucked away in the Big Empty that makes up most of Canada . . . .

If you’re looking for somewhere to hide, this is it.

Harvest Cove is a tiny, out-of-the-way community trying hard to be a summer cottage location, with not much success, and in the winter the population dwindles. Perfect for Danny and his dad, who are drifting from place to place on the run from the past. His dad takes a temp job as the winter caretaker of the marina, and Danny goes to school with army brats from Base Borden. His core group is Pike, loyal but psycho and obsessed with explosives; his anxiety-ridden brother Howie; and Ash, a fierce, half-Ojibwa boxer that he has a mad crush on. It’s a cold, bleak winter, and late one night on his way home, Danny is attacked by a huge white beast that blends into the ice and snow until it is nearly invisible. Still, he manages to see enough to terrify him, and the speed of its attack makes it nearly impossible for him to escape. But escape he does, after the beast stings him on the hand with its sharp tongue. That’s when the nightmare really begins. Because that’s when Danny realizes he didn’t get away after all. It’s still hunting him night after night, toying with him, and soon his friends are in danger too.

This had a good, monster movie feeling to it and is one of those books in which the title works on several levels. Because it’s written in present tense, with short, fragmented sentences, it feels like Danny is actually telling you the story as it happens. There aren’t a ton of books written in present tense, and it’s interesting to see what a different reading experience that is. It’s very cinematic, and it works well to convey Danny’s panicky frantic scrambling during the beast attacks. The descriptions of this tiny town during a freezing winter is excellent — much of the action happens at night out in the below-freezing wasteland of ice and snow, and the sense of isolation, of there being nowhere to run and no-one to help, is terrifying.

The descriptions of the monster are cool, very vivid and scary and menacing. But I don’t feel the Wendigo-ish mythology was really put to use, so the monster wasn’t nearly as effective as it could have been. There were some cool variations and extrapolations on Wendigo lore, and it’s not like I expected the characters to snap their fingers and go “A-ha! Wendigo! We know this for sure because it is exactly like the Wikipedia entry!” but I was annoyed by how vague the author left it. It’s clear he did his research. Did he have to leave it all out?

That might just be me over thinking things, however. Overall, this is a good, scary, tension-filled story, and with such an amazing cover, I think it’s definitely one to pick up. If you read this one, let me know in the comments what you thought about the monster, and if I really am just super picky.

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