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A GOOD READ: Fantastic plotlines, outstanding novels

I’m a sucker for books in which an author working with a fantastic premise makes a story work by getting the little details right.

Written for teens — but appealing to adults, too — the books below convincingly evoke the Roaring ’20s in Manhattan, a silly version of ancient Greece peopled by stick figures and a suburban superstore in Colorado in a near future full of unpleasantness.

When I first saw Libba Bray’s The Diviners, it scared me. Not for its content — beyond the fact that it was a supernatural thriller set in 1920s New York, I didn’t know anything about the story — but its form. At nearly 600 pages, with a strong, hardcover binding, the book could shore up a load-bearing wall.

Although my concerns about dropping it on my toes remained, my worries about its length vanished inside the first two chapters. Bray plants you in 1926 New York City, where, after a creepy prologue involving some party-goers and a ouija board, a mysterious murderer begins a series of ritualistic slayings meant to fulfill a hellish religious prophecy.

Arrayed against the killer are the teenaged Evie O’Neill, her bookish Uncle Will — an expert in folklore and the supernatural — his towering servant Jericho and a fast-talking thief named Sam. Newly arrived from small-town Ohio, Evie learns about the victims and the killer through her extra-sensory ability to scan the memories of people, alive or dead, by touching objects that belong to them.

Bray ratchets up the tension by writing chapters from the perspective of the murder victims just before the killer strikes. Meanwhile, she weaves in details of other characters with extraordinary powers, including a numbers runner from Harlem and a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who’s trying to escape her past. As their orbits cross, you wonder if coincidence has brought them together or if it is something more.

A thriller and an ode to 1920s New York, The Diviners is a testament to Bray’s skill at pacing a book that has interwoven narratives and plenty of historical detail. A long series-starter like this could easily stall but The Diviners doesn’t. Like the engine in Uncle Will’s Model T, the plot clunks from time to time but all the background stuff is so good, you’ll barely notice.

Mythology is cool again, thanks to the efforts of The Lightning Thief author Rick Riordan and unsung heroes such as graphic novelist Christopher Ford, whose goofy Stickman Odyssey takes you to a Mediterranean that you only wish existed. Their story follows the exiled Greek hero Zozimos as he seeks revenge on his evil stepmother for killing his father and stealing his kingdom’s throne.

The directionally challenged adventurer gets lost again and again, however, ending up everywhere but his homeland of Sticatha. During his quest, he is imprisoned by a sorcerer-king, forced to match wits with a sphinx, required to climb the Mountain of One Thousand Deaths as part of an impossible mission and even caught pooping himself in the presence of some ghosts. (Hey, they’re scary.)

He makes a bunch of friends, too: an archer/heroine named Alexa, a super-strong dude called Praxis, and a little frog-headed guy, Atrukos. Each is more heroic than the self-centred Zozimos, at least in the beginning. The fun continues in a second volume of adventures.

In Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne, the environment goes nuts one day in suburban Colorado. Killer hailstones force kids from a couple of school buses to take refuge in a megastore. Then a massive earthquake hits, triggering a chemical weapons release at a nearby military base. With venturing outdoors a frightening prospect, the kids, who range from grade-schoolers to high school seniors, seal the entrances and set up camp. Why not? The store has endless supplies of food, water, sleeping bags, medicine, clothes and just about anything else you can imagine.

To survive, they need to work together but rivalries, resentment and the horrific state of the world outside make that more difficult than it sounds.

The main character, Dean, is your normal, quiet teen. He pines for the attention of the hot swim-chick, who ignores him, while trying to prove his worth to his little brother, Alex, who has lost respect for him. You’ll see why.

Throughout the book, Laybourne’s teenagers drink, use drugs, make out, beat each other up and, on a couple of occasions, turn homicidal after being exposed to some bad airborne chemicals. Deprived of their parents, meanwhile, the little kids need father and mother figures. Who will step up?

With all the drama and dysfunction inside the store, you almost forget about the world outside. Strangers appear on just a few occasions. When the teens let in a couple towards the end, the story moves into its third and final act.

Find these books and more at your local library.

A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published every Wednesday. Chris Miller works at Coquitlam Public Library.

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