Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Going Underground

There’s something irresistible about underground. Tunnels become mazes with adventures around every bend. Caves are home to strange, wild creatures. Archeological tombs hold the treasures of the ages. Even a basement or cellar can contain mysteries and surprises that can thrill us to the bone or set our hair on end. There’s no knowing what lurks in the deep dark underground, but finding out is sure to be an adventure.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, 2003, Harper Perennial Books, originally published 1996 (Fantasy)

Richard Mayhew lives in London. He has a job, an apartment, and a fiancé. He has a regular everyday sort of life. All that is about to change. Late to dinner, Richard stops to help a dirty young woman bleeding on the sidewalk. The waiflike girl is named Door and there’s something very odd about her, but Richard brings her home and cleans her up. When Door leaves, it seems the adventure is over. But then Richard begins to change. His friends don’t recognize him, his fiancé barely notices him, and strangers can’t even see he’s there. Knowing Door has the answers, Richard plunges into London Below, a weird and wild world inhabited by those who “fell between the cracks”—people who live in the sewers and subway tunnels, people who talk to rats, people who are magic. Soon Richard is one of Door’s companions on a dangerous quest through this strange land. If Richard wants to get back to his blissfully humdrum life, he’s got to prove his worth against all manner of assassins, monsters, and mayhem. Author Neil Gaiman is at his best here as he skillfully weaves myths and legends together with the familiar to create a magical world that is entirely new. Witty and wickedly inventive, Neverwhere is fantasy at its finest.

Tunnels, Book 1 by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, 2008, Chicken House/ Scholastic Press (Fantasy/ Adventure/ Teen Fiction)

Londoner Will Burrows has always been a loner. His pale skin and white hair make him an outcast at school. His family life is complicated by a television-obsessed mother and a kid sister who’s taken over the management of the household. Will does have a connection with his dad—a shared love for archeological excavation. Still, father and son keep secrets from each other. When, at separate dig sites, they each uncover impressive underground structures that don’t show up on any of London’s schematics, Will and his dad know they’re onto something big. But then Mr. Burrows disappears. Will enlists the help of his only friend, Chester, and keeps digging. What the boys finally find is astonishing—an immense Victorian-style city carved into the living rock. This is “the Colony,” a secret civilization hidden beneath the earth. Will seems to have an odd connection with this subterranean society, and while Chester is locked in jail, Will is taken in by a Colonist family. He is fascinated by the cavernous Colony and its citizens, but Will never forgets Chester—or his missing father. Tunnels only sets up the adventure; final gripping chapters and a cliff-hanger ending ensure that more danger, excitement, and mystery wait in the even-deeper reaches of this extraordinary fantasy world.

Tunnels Series by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams
1. Tunnels
2. Deeper
3. Freefall

Gregor the Overlander: The Underland Chronicles, Book 1 by Suzanne Collins, 2003, Scholastic Press (Fantasy/ Children’s Fiction)

Gregor’s mother works hard to make ends meet. His father vanished three years ago, and Gregor is responsible for babysitting his little sister. It’s a pretty dreary life for an eleven-year-old kid. But then baby sister Boots disappears down a vent in the laundry room one afternoon and Gregor dives in after her. They fall into the Underland, a fantastic world deep underground that’s populated by pale-skinned humans and giant talking animals. The subterranean dwellers suspect that Gregor is the subject of a prophecy that promises an “Overlander” warrior will lead them to victory against an army of rat invaders. Gregor has no desire to embrace his destiny—until he learns about another Overlander held captive by the rats. Gregor thinks of his father and accepts the adventure that lies ahead. He’s accompanied by quite the motley crew—Underland royalty, flying bats, a creepy rat, a big old spider, and a couple of giant cockroaches who take quite a fancy to precocious little Boots. Gregor’s reluctance to stay in the Underland does not extend to readers, who will be thrilled with the amount of detail that author Suzanne Collins lavishes on the world she imagines below ours—a wealth of magical creatures living a mythology of their own in a fantastic series of adventures.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
1. Gregor the Overlander
2. Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
3. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
4. Gregor and the Marks of Secret
5. Gregor and the Code of Claw

The City of Ember: The First Book of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, 2003, Random House Books (Fantasy/ Children’s Fiction)

The city of Ember is the only light in a world of darkness. But now, more than two-hundred years after apocalyptic events destroyed the rest of the world, Ember is beginning to fail. Supplies are running low and power outages that plaque the city are becoming more frequent. Still, life goes on. On Assignment Day, the city’s twelve-year-olds leave school and accept their lifelong work assignments. For curious-as-a-cat Lina Mayfleet, this means becoming a Messenger, delivering notes and gaining access to every area of Ember. For stoic handyman Doon Harrow, this means keeping the centuries-old generator patched together in the Pipeworks far below the city. But Lina and Doon soon stumble across long-buried secrets. The city’s founding fathers never meant for their people to dwell in darkness forever. The instructions for escape have been lost by corrupt city officials, and now, with resources fading fast and the citizens’ anxiety rising high, it’s up to Lina and Doon to find the pieces of the puzzle and save their city—even if it means venturing into the pitch-dark void that stretches beyond the dimming streetlights. Author Jeanne DuPrau invents mechanics, politics, and mysteries for the city of Ember and readers will breathlessly go along for the ride as Lina and Doon bring surprising new truths to light.

The Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
1. The City of Ember
2. The People of Sparks
3. The Prophet of Yonwood
4. The Diamond of Darkhold

The Great Stink by Clare Clark, 2005, Harcourt Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

William May is a veteran of the terrors of the Crimean War. It is the 1850s, but modern readers will have no difficulty recognizing the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder—poor William is fragile, damaged, and unable to relate to his former life. He finds some measure of solace underground as a surveyor for a massive engineering project to revamp London’s outdated, unstable, and very stinky sewer system. Also patrolling the sewers is Long Arm Tom, a “tosher” who searches for valuables and catches rats for dogfight bait. Then William witnesses a brutal murder in the tunnels and, due to his slipping hold on reality, is fingered as the culprit and locked away. While William languishes in prison, it’s up to Long Arm Tom to prowl the dark underground in search of the truth. Though the ending may come a trifle too neatly for some readers, most will be swept away by author Clare Clark’s attention to historical detail. Victorian London is richly evoked in all its triumphs and tragedies, from the engineering feats that created London’s sewers to the horrors of the Crimean War to the harsh differences between the lives of the city’s social classes. The Great Stink is a fine mystery and an even finer portrait of a unique historical time and place.

The Water Room: A Bryant and May Mystery by Christopher Fowler, 2005, Bantam Books (Mystery)

The Peculiar Crimes Unit is a controversial branch of the London Police Department that takes on cases that are just a bit too “off” for the regular police to cope with. Arthur Bryant and John May, the grumpy old men of criminal investigation, have been with the PCU since its inception. May is down-to-earth; Bryant is a cantankerous loner whose acquaintances tend to be mystics, psychics, and Wiccans. Still, they get things done. But with budgets stretched thin, the PCU is looking like less of a necessity. And Bryant and May aren’t helping matters by investigating cases brought to them by friends—May pokes around in the affairs of a disgraced academic and Bryant looks into the death of a little old lady. But the old lady was found drowned in her bone-dry basement. And May’s down-on-his-luck scholar is being paid big money to explore London’s ancient underground river system. With dogged determination, curmudgeonly charm, and good old-fashioned detecting, the duo finds a compelling mystery with a solution that lies deep underground. The Water Room is author Christopher Fowler’s second PCU novel and he is in fine form. There’s plenty of mystery, intrigue, and dark humor, but the real heart of the story is the spirited relationship between the indomitable Bryant and May.

Bryant and May Mysteries by Christopher Fowler
1. Full Dark House
2. The Water Room
3. Seventy-Seven Clocks
4. Ten Second Staircase
5. White Corridor
6. The Victoria Vanishes
7. Bryant and May on the Loose

The Seventh Sinner: A Jacqueline Kirby Mystery, Book 1 by Elizabeth Peters, 2005, Avon Books, originally published 1972 (Mystery)

Pretty young Jean Suttman is thrilled to death to be studying archeology in Rome. It’s a city seeped in ancient history and artifacts. She’s found a group of friends who are fellow scholars and artists. And she’s just met visiting librarian Jacqueline Kirby, who, despite her middle-aged no-nonsense appearance, is an unconquerable spitfire with powers of observation that are only matched by her sharp tongue. So when Jean stumbles across the dead body of a universally disliked fellow scholar during a tour of the ancient underground Temple of Mithra, no one is better equipped to solve the mystery than Jacqueline Kirby. There are, however, plenty of suspects—because Jean keeps meeting with unfortunate accidents, and only her seven dearest friends had the means and opportunity to cause so much trouble. Besides creating a nifty little mystery, author Elizabeth Peters crafts a delightful cast of sinister, sweet, and highly suspicious characters. But it is Jacqueline Kirby, librarian extraordinaire, who takes the cake—and this is merely her first appearance in a very delightful series of mysteries.

Jacqueline Kirby Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters
1. The Seventh Sinner
2. The Murder of Richard III
3. Die for Love
4. Naked Once More 

Pitch Black: Don’t Be Skerd by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton, 2008, Cinco Puntos Press (Graphic Novel/ Nonfiction/ Biography) 

Pitch Black is a graphic novel collaboration between artist Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton, a homeless young man living in the subway tunnels of New York City. The two struck up a conversation one day while Landowne was waiting for a train, and after an exchange of art and stories, the unlikely duo decided to document Horton’s unique biography. Given up for adoption as a baby and then passed from foster home to foster home, Horton’s childhood was grim and violent. A harsh life on the city streets followed, every day a battle for survival. Then one day Horton flees from pursuing cops into a subway tunnel. Underground, Horton finally finds a place of refuge. Though a life in the dark and damp, surrounded by rats and garbage, may not sound ideal, Horton finally has the mentors and friends that he lacked growing up. He shares his story with Landowne—and with the reader—with an unflinching eye. The stark, black-and-white artwork shows life on the streets in all its gritty reality. But despite it all, readers will come away with a sense of hope and inspiration and a new respect for those who—whether by choice or by necessity—live their lives differently.

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