Sophomore Strange: The Suburban Strange by Nathan Kotecki
"We’re a set of small black shiny beads who string around together, finding beauty the rest of the world has overlooked,” said Regine. Celia thought this was a description she should remember, but she couldn’t make sense of it. The driver continued, “The Rosary is just the name we’ve given ourselves. But to describe us, I’d say we are the cognoscenti.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Celia said.
"So you see how we are, right?" Regine said to Celia. "Some kids might give you a hard time, and some kids are gong to want to be friends with you just because you're friends with us. You decide who is worth your time"
Celia is an tall, awkward sophomore transfer student to Suburban High, inexplicably adopted because of her drawing talent in a shared summer art course with Regine, taken in as a novice member to their group, who dress in stark, sophisticated black and drive to school in three dark sedans, which bring memories of her father's funeral instantly to Celia's mind. Attired by Regine in blacks and greys, Celia finds that membership in the Rosary gives her instant status, protecting her from the harassment that drove her from her old school.
But all is not well at Suburban High. As the fall semester begins, girls experience a dangerous series of strange mishaps at school on the day before their sixteenth birthday. The rumor mill soon turns out a theory of an evil curse which strikes in varied ways, bee stings which bring on anaphylactic shock, falls down staircases, concussions on snow walkways, choking in the cafeteria. At first Celia is not worried; her own birthday in April is far away, and the whole idea seems too preposterous to be true. Celia enjoys the Rosary's oversight, encountering dark. intriguing music, art, music, and relishing the Rosary's weekly trips to a mysteriously sophisticated club, Diaboliques, where she enjoys the stares of Tomasi, a darkly handsome young man who watches her from across the room.
At school, Celia befriends a very different girl, her chemistry lab partner Mariette, who is everything her Rosary friends are not--bubbly, dressed in nondescript but bright clothes with flyaway reddish curls. But Mariette seems gifted, able to improvise their lab experiments with no need for timing or exact measurements, infinitely kind, but somehow surrounded by a strangely magical aura, seemingly able to tame even Mr. Sumoletso, their chem teacher known to be incredibly demanding. In fact, their whole class performs amazingly well with Mariette there while his other classes struggle to pass.
But as the year moves on, more girls suffer increasingly serious mishaps on the eve of their sixteenth birthdays, and Mariette gradually reveals to Celia that she is one of the Kind, practitioners of white magic, and that she is struggling to use her nascent powers to protect these girls against someone at the school, someone who is obviously one of the Unkind, one whose continued power requires that he obtain a dying girl's last breath. And then, despite her developing powers to foil the evil Unkind's plan, Mariette herself drowns on the eve of her birthday in the school's new swimming pool.
Celia cannot shake her memory of discovering Mariette there:
... red hair slicked across her blue-gray forehead and cheeks, ...mouth gaped open, eyes ...closed.
Celia realizes that she knows who the murderer must be, and without Mariette's protection,, she may be the next victim.
Nathan Kotecki's just published The Suburban Strange (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) combines a story of a strange high school clique with a meta-fictional fantasy mystery. Slow paced at first, this story builds inexorably toward the final confrontation between Celia and the Unkind murderer, in a world divided between "citizens," those who live obliviously in the real world, the Kind, the forces of good, and the Unkind, the forces of evil. Kotecki thankfully avoids peopling this familiar struggle with the usual array of faery folk, werewolves, or vampires, but even so, Celia and Mariette seem the only "real" teenagers in Kotecki's often surreal surroundings, a feature which may turn off some readers. Other young adult readers who are devotees of fantasy set within in a seemingly prosaic high school setting, may relish this cosmic struggle of good and evil, especially since the book ends with the tantalizing hint of a sequel.