Smile and Say Murder

NOT a YA book to read before you die, but a good friend last night reminded me of the other book series I was obsessed with in my youth: The Nancy Drew Files.  These weren’t the Nancy Drew books your mum had read, in which Nancy and her plucky chums investigated a spooky apparition near or lake or twisted tree stump.  No, these were adventures for the nineties, with more action, exploding cars/speedboats/light aircraft, and bikinis galore.

All Nancy Drew Files were written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, although no such woman exists.  Instead the stories came from a James Patterson-like factory set up by one Edward Stratemeyer.  The writers were initially paid a tiny fee and were made to sign away any rights to their work and agree to total anonymity.  Some of the authors were later identified, but many remain a mystery.

Over 124 books, Nancy, a feisty teenage detective (and poster girl for “strawberry blondes” everywhere) solved a series of recycled mysteries, most often going undercover.  Luckily for Nan, she never had to investigate the death of sewer workers – more fashion models, soap stars, cheerleaders, sorority girls etc.  She was accompanied by sometime boyfriend Ned Nickerson (although Nancy frequently flirted with hot lifeguards/frat guys/photographers who inevitably turned out to be the murderer/thief), and best mates: “pleasantly plump” Bess Marvin and emerging lesbian George Fayne.

As with any children’s series favourite, it’s the mind-numbing predictability that kept me reading for most of 1991.  Without fail, the most evil character was innocent, and on more than one occasion, the client paying Nancy was in fact the evil party – underestimating a mere girl’s ability to uncover the truth.  Paralysing agents were a huge feature too, Nancy repeatedly found herself unable to move as a result of anaesthetics or pressure points, while water or fire crept closer.  Still, exciting stuff!

Today, it is important to enjoy these treasures for their front covers, which boldly portray what was considered hot in a) women’s clothing and b) “sexy” men in the early nineties.  First up, the “Nancy models” were clearly 10 years older than the supposed 17 years, and the men look like the stills from 90’s classic Heartthrob.  The US covers somehow managed to be even more horrific than the UK covers, too – depicting a frightening range of pastel trouser suits.  Impressive.

Just think, in 25 years, someone’s going to be writing about Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Jacqueline Wilson with such nostalgic mockery.  Something to think about.

“Difficult Second Album”

Since the grand unveil of Lady Gaga’s new single Born This Way last Friday, much has been written about the so-called “comeback”.  Mainstream media outlets and more sycophantic bloggers (Perez-ahem-Hilton) were full of praise for the “anthem”, falling over themselves to herald a new dawn of pop music.  The rest of the Internet was less kind.  Some sources claimed it was a blatant rip off (Express Yourself, Waterfalls, When Love Takes Over), while others went so far as to say Gaga’s repeated references to her gay fans were a hard-faced grasp for the pink pound.

I was somewhere in the middle of the hate spectrum. Fairly average pop song, not unlike something Girls Aloud might have turned out a few years back.  Are the lyrics overbaked?  Hell, yes.  But then I saw this video:

I realised I’d completely missed the point. As a Gaga fan, I’d felt entitlement for her follow up material. It had to be as good as Bad Romance, or better.  Wrong, Born This Way isn’t for men in their early mid oh, okay, late twenties. It’s for teenagers.  It’s for people who are only just discovering the thrill of being a little different. It’s for the girl in the video clip. I realised I’d seen this argument occuring elsewhere – a similar debate rages on Doctor Who forums.  Men (and some women), who should know better, claiming ownership of something that is, primarily, for kids.

So I don’t like it now, but twelve year old me would have had Born This Way on cassette, and I’d have secretly listened to it after I was meant to have gone to bed on my Walkman.  Basically, fans of Bad Romance need to quit hating on Gaga and let her Little Monsters have their fun.

YA Books to read before you die part 3

SABRIEL BY GARTH NIX

Back on track with more books recommended by my lovely chums at online writing colony, Litopia.  This Australian oldie but goodie, originally published in 1995, is one of my personal favourites, and that has nothing to do with the fact Garth Nix and I have the same agent!  In fact, my dear friend Stuart claims to have only read Sabriel and it’s sequels Lirael and AbhorsenThat’s how amazing they are!

Sabriel takes place in an utterly convincing fantasy version of our world, in which schoolgirl Sabriel lives a fairly ordinary life at boarding school until her father, a powerful wizard known as The Abhorsen, vanishes.  Sabriel must venture beyond the wall of her mundane existence into “The Old Kingdom” to retrieve him.  The only problem is, Sabriel and her father are essentially reverse Necromancers, so her poor dad could be either side of life and death.  To complicate matters further, The Old Kingdom is rife with “Free Magic” and zombies (apparently the next big thing in teen fic) who’ve escaped the gates of the afterlife.  As Nix writes, “Death and what came after death was no great surprise to Sabriel.  She just wished it was.”

Sabriel is a fantastic lead character: responsible, capable and wise in the same way that has so endeared readers to Katniss from The Hunger Games.  Much like Miss Everdeen, Sabriel accepts her brave quest in a heartbeat, although is much less ready to accept her family legacy as the new Abhorsen. The inevitable sense of adulthood creeping up on the schoolgirl is one that any teenage reader could readily identify with.  As with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Sabriel is apparently presented with a fixed destiny, one over which she has no choice.  Like Buffy Summers, she’s a “Chosen One”.

The set pieces are incredible, notably Sabriel’s voyages into the afterlife. Nix portrays death as a fast flowing river through the nine gates of Hell, with all manner of beasties lurking underneath the surface. Magic is represented in a down-to-earth, unshowy manner; Sabriel using a series of bells to manage the undead (and ensure they stay dead!).  Her time in The Old Kingdom is full of enough gore and nasties to engage both young male and female readers.

Praise also goes to the author for the excellent supporting cast.  Sabriel gets a dashing and not unsexy love interest in the shape of Touchstone, a reanimated statue with secrets of his own. Their flirtation is coy and sexually charged – Sabriel a somewhat cold and reserved character, unsure of how to deal with burgeoning attraction.  Meanwhile, Mogget is the highlight of the series for many fans – a feline sidekick with a psychotic alter-ego. The reader is never certain whether to trust the sinister enslaved cat, and one suspects he’d happily kill Sabriel at the first opportunity if he could. Not exactly Disney material.

Unlike many fantasy counterparts, Sabriel succeeds with a tiny cast of only about six characters, keeping the plot streamlined and accessible.  Sequels, Lirael and Abhorsen are weightier but still never feel Lord of the Rings-ish.  The universal themes of loss and responsibility are clear, but never heavy-handed.  It’s no great surprise that a film version was in development as of 2008 – I’d urge readers to pick up the book beforehand so they know what all the fuss is about!