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Ghoulfriends Forever (Monster High #1) by Gitty Daneshvari
I am unsure how I feel about this book. The style is definitely more cutesy than I am used to in even the most early reader of children's chapter books. But Daneshvari managed to really hook me in with the plot.
Our story opens on the opening day of Monster High's new residential wing. Rochelle Goyle, a gargoyle from Scaris (remember what I said about cutesy?), is trying to find her way around the school. She is taken in hand by Miss Sue Nami, a teacher who emits water in some way that is never adequately explained. The illustrations show that she has a pillar of water instead of legs, but the text clearly uses the word "legs" to describe her stance.
When rooms are assigned, Rochelle is given a triple room with Robecca Steam, a robot from the 19th century who was dismantled for around a hundred years, and Venus McFlytrap, a plant monster. This is convenient, since all three characters were released in the Monster High doll series at the same time. If you are familiar with the "Monster High" line of toys, you will be aware that all of the characters have pets. Rochelle has a stone griffin named "Roux" (I think that someone at Mattel is under the impression that "roux" is pronounced more like "rocks" than like "rue"), Robecca has a robotic penguin named "Penny," and Venus has a plant named "Chewlian."
We also meet the other residential students, who include a pair of gypsy vampire sisters, a three-headed boy (each head speaks a different language), a voodoo doll that was given life by Frankie Stein, a group of pumpkin-headed siblings (relatives of the Headless Headmistress), a cyclops, and a hunchback.
We meet some of the staff, including Mr. D'eath, a depressed middle-aged skeleton; Dr. Clamdestine, the Ghoulish Literature teacher; and Sylphia Flapper, the new dragon-whispering teacher.
It is the entrance of Miss Flapper that starts the plot. In the Monster High universe, it seems that there are two kinds of dragons. Miss Flapper is one -- a humanoid with vestigial wings. There is also the the traditional kind of dragon -- the big lizards that breathe fire. Miss Flapper is hired to teach dragon whispering, which is control of the big lizard type dragons. Everyone believes that Miss Flapper must be the most amazing dragon whisperer ever, since she doesn't have any burn marks or claw scratches anywhere. In fact, she is not only unscarred, she is amazingly beautiful.
Meanwhile, Rochelle cannot stand to see anyone unhappy, so she sets about raising Mr. D'eath's spirits. One of the things that she tries to do is spark a romance between Mr. D'eath and Miss Flapper.
Miss Flapper brought with her a troop of ogres to work as her security detail. The ogres are largely unpleasant, except for one, who tells the ghouls in halting Fanglish that something other than the obvious is going on here.
Gradually, all of the students of Monster High except for the ghouls join a group started by Miss Flapper and soon after joining each starts behaving strangely. Since they haven't joined the group, it is up to the ghouls to figure out what is going on and how to stop it.
Along the way, we see the Skultimate Roller Maze class and visit the Coffin Bean. These are, of course, familiar names to me, as I work in the toys department of a Walmart, and there is a Skultimate Roller Maze line of dolls and a Coffin Bean playset. I was surprised that there was no mention of any of the Draculaura's Sweet 1600 toys along the way. I wonder what the odds are that they'll turn up in the next book.
As I said before, the plot is engaging and despite the cutesy beginning, it actually didn't take too long for me to give up the rolled eyes and get into the storyline. The central characters of the web series and the toy line -- Frankie, Clawdeen, Draculaura, Cleo, Lagoona, Ghoulia, and so on show up, but they stay largely to the background, which was actually kind of nice.
One weakness of this series, the blame for which is squarely on Mattel and not on Daneshvari, is that two of the main characters have names that start with the same two letters -- Robecca and Rochelle. This is, if not forbidden, at least recommended against, since efficient readers read in chunks. They read a few letters of each word and context clues give them the rest of the word. This led me to be confused about who was speaking, particularly since Daneshvari does a good job of giving each Ghoul an individual personality. A few times I had the disorienting experience of hearing Rochelle speaking in a folksy manner or Robecca insisting that they have to follow the rules.
I do have to warn of one thing that caused me to get hung up on Alfred Hitchcock's quote about believing the impossible but not the implausible. The world they live in has places called "Scaris" and "Bitaly," the dominant language in the land where Monster High is located is Fanglish, and the store chains in the malls all have monstrous names like Aberzombie and Flinch (can't remember if that is an actual canonical name or if I just made it up), and yet the monsters are apparently some kind of underclass. It certainly seems to me that the Monster High world is a monster-centric one which would make the the "normies," if anyone, the underclass. I certainly hope that if monsters truly are marginalized, that it becomes more obvious in future books.