May 30

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

liarozRight from page 1, the reader is told that the narrator is lying. From then on it is the reader’s job to try to separate truth from fiction. And I wish you luck.

Micah is a liar. She has lied to her classmates, pretending for weeks to be a boy, or her father was an arms dealer, or anything. But are all these lies simply covering up a truth she cannot face, or is this the real truth and as a reader we have difficulty believing it.

It seems to be a generally accepted truth that Zach is dead. The rumour is that he was torn apart by dogs in Central Park. From there the story gets murky. Was Micah his girlfriend, or not? Did she really know him, or simply stalk him? We only have Micah’s word for it, so we really have no idea.

I enjoy a good murder mystery. But I generally appreciate the odd clue or two. This book has none of that. The reader has no idea about what to believe and what to disregard. Regardless of that, there was no way I wanted to put this book down. Trying to sort out fact from fiction, truth from lies, certainly occupied a fair amount of thinking during the couple of days that it took me to finish it.

The whole answer hinges on the question, ‘Do you believe in werewolves?’

May 30

The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith

9781408701058So much of what I read is adventure, mystery, thriller or love story. Sometimes it is nice just to sit back and look at the world through another pair of eyes. This book had been waiting for review for months, and last week I heard a young girl stand up in front of her class and say how much she enjoyed it. Suddenly I realised that I needed to read a lovely gentle story myself.

The plot for any of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books is irrelevant. All the stories, and there are several in each book, are about the wise Mma Precious Ramostswa and her friends and family. Occasionally there is a minor mystery, but mostly she is in the business of helping people. This time she is asked to find discover the identity of an unknown safari guide and inform him of his surprise legacy. When a dear friend suspects her husband is having an affair, she reluctantly investigates, and then her wonderful assistant has trouble with her fiance’s aunt. In 250 pages, all these questions are answered, Mma Ramotswa has a holiday and the reader is left with a warm gentle happy glow.

I have no idea how McCall Smith does it. Whatever he writes has a distinct charm. He manages to hold a reader’s interest by telling simple tales about simple people. In a world of action movies, violent games and adrenaline, his books stand apart. There is no way his books, even about detectives could be considered mysteries in the same genre as so many of the violent serial murders.

McCall Smith is in the habit of producing a new book in this series every year, and I for one am looking forward to his 2011 addition.

May 24

Spirit Bound by Richelle Mead

9781921518867And finally the next volume of this series. Yes, I know that I have only reviewed book 1 so far, but believe me that I have read all 4. Then last Friday I got my hands on a copy of book 5 and within 24 hours it was read.

Book 4 ends with Rose’s discovery that A) Dimitri is still alive and B) there is a chance that he can be restored to his previous life. But in order to do it, Lissa has to beat him in a fight. Not likely. Also, just as an aside, both Rose and Lissa are due to graduate from the Academy and the question arises about their future, either separate or together. Book 5 opens with Rose’s final test to establish her qualifications to become a full guardian. In spite of her special and uniquely difficult test, she passes with flying colours. Soon she and the other new guardians are on their way to Guardian headquarters at the Court. As always in this series, Rose hatches a hairbrained scheme, this time to try and restore Dimitri. This time at least she takes along some backup, and it is much needed. Inevitably things go wrong, and disaster follows. One disaster leads to another, and another. By the end, poor Rose is on trial for murder and her future looks anything but promising. Fortunately for fans, she had a chance to have her future told by Aunt Rhonda first, so we all know that she will get out of this mess.

Sadly, this book is my least favourite in the series. At 18, Rose should be showing a little more maturity and sense. I pity the poor soul she is assigned to guard, because she has no self-control and even less responsibility. Personally, I would refuse her graduation until she showed some minimal maturity. But then the Moroi are planning to graduate dhampirs at age 16, so they need to get used to being surrounded by children. But the adventure continues…

Don’t get me wrong, I am hanging out for book 6 and the grand finale just like everyone else.

May 24

Uglies by Scott Westerfield

ugliesFinally a scifi book that today’s young adults are willing to read. In fact they love the series.

Tally is 15 and 3/4 and looking forward to her 16th birthday when it is her turn to become Pretty. After the surgery she will be allowed to leave her ugly school and the dorm and join the Pretties in their never-ending party. And she can’t wait. But Tally has always had a strong independence streak leading her to go walk-about after lights out and explore the world beyond the confines of the school. Her best friend Peris used to accompany her on these adventures, but Peris is now Pretty.

As Tally returns to school after one of these escapades, she runs into Shay, another independent spirit. Shay tells a tale of another city where people are free to live independently, without surgical intervention. Just before Tally turns 16, Shay runs away. Tally’s surgery is delayed until she helps the authorities track Shay and this mysterious city down.

On the surface this is a scifi adventure that depends on adolescent obsession with appearance and peer approval for it’s tension. But a book that remained wholly at that level would be unbearably shallow. If the reader takes the time to look below the surface there will be a complex tale of the effects of isolation with lashings of the traditional scifi theme ‘big brother and one man’s vision of a perfect world.’ ¬†Yes these are very common themes for scifi, but then I doubt many adolescents have read as much scifi as I have.

Unfortunately, I found this book somewhat predictable. Not that I am refusing to read book 2 in the series, but since it doesn’t appear to be available on ebook format, I won’t be rushing out to add the book to my mountain of books to read anytime soon.

May 12

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

9781595141743Over time I have been reviewing all too many of the new gothic/vampire romance series. At times it feels like I have been reading nothing else. And there is some real rubbish out there in this genre. But the Vampire Academy series is one of the best.

It must be difficult to create a series where the hero is a being with a cultural mythology that is clearly evil. Each author needs to create an alternative mythology that explains how their protagonists are different. Mead does so in a very unique way. In Mead’s world there are two kinds of vampires, the Moroi who are elegant, cultured and gentle, only feeding from volunteers and rewarding their feeders well. The other vampires are the Strigoi, and they are the evil monsters of mythology. In this way she has automatically developed an evil monster with superhuman powers and no conscience.

The Moroi are supported by half-human, half-vampire beings called Dhampir. Our heroine, Rose is a Dhampir who is linked to the Moroi princess Lissa Dragomir. This unique link allows Rose to share Lissa’s consciousness. At the opening of the book, Rose and Lissa have been ‘loose’ in modern America, eluding the ‘truant officers’ from the Academy for two years. But eventually they are caught and returned to school. Lissa returns to classes easily, but Rose finds it very difficult to fit in to a routine after her years of freedom. And her bodyguard training has been interrupted by two years of ‘field experience. She is well behind in her training, and private tutoring is required.

In many ways this is a typical boarding school story. Much of the tale is centres around friendship groups and teachers. But there is a real difference. Rose is a gritty tough character and it is impossible not to like her. Lissa is sufficiently dithery and otherworldly to highlight Rose’s feeling of responsibility. The other Dhampir and Moroi have easily recognizable human parallels, and that gives this ‘fantasy’ a strong feeling of reality.

One would think I had read enough ‘vampire romances’ in the past year, but when a good one appears, I simply want more.

May 12

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

RA1 rejacket:Layout 1I have had this book on my ‘must read someday’ list for ages. Kids love the series. And one of the reasons that I bought my ebook reader was so that I could read the popular fiction without restricting access for students.

So I began the story of the orphanWill and Halt. As the book begins Will is approaching his Choosing Day, the time when wards of the Baron are chosen by Guild Masters for their future careers. Will desperately wants to be a knight, but his small stature guarantees that there is no place for him at the Battleschool. And so it turns out, Will is left unchosen at the end of Choosing Day. But it isn’t long before Will proves that he has the natural skills to become a Ranger, and his life changes as he learns the skills needed to survive in that dangerous and hidden life. However, is testing and first ‘graduation’ is interrupted by an attack on the kingdom. Inevitably Will is caught up in events and forced to prove himself in reality.

This is a short book, quickly read with plenty of action and adventure. As with any introductory book of a series there are the necessary introductions of character and place. But I doubt very much that anyone is going to notice these ‘slow’ bits. Certainly I kept the pages turning. And I will most definitely be following Will through all 10 books.

May 12

Burned by PC and Kristen Cast

9781905654949You know how it is when you are caught in a series. As soon as the next book is published, you simply must get it and read it immediately. Well that is the story of last weekend.

If you haven’t read book 6, Tempted, then stop reading this right now. Go find it and READ! Otherwise there will be spoilers in this review.

Now that is sorted out, I can go on. Book 6 ended with the apparent death of our hero/High Priestess/Zoey as she fought the immortal evil. So where can the authors go from there? Anyone with any understanding of classical literature will know, into the Underworld, or as the Cast’s call it the Otherworld. Zoey’s spirit/soul is splitting apart and unless it can be rejoined and returned to her body within 7 days, she will be lost forever.

So the gang goes to work. Stevie Rae is in Tulsa and connected to the resources there, and the rest of the crew are in Europe at the Vampyre High Council seeking assistance there. Eventually it is decided that Stark needs to enter the Otherworld, tricky without dying first, to convince Zoey to return.

OK, so the plot isn’t frightfully original. But that doesn’t prevent it being a good read. Stark has been an incredible character from his first introduction and it is great to see that he has a major role in this chapter. Heath as the heartthrob jock, is also still around for much of the book. The Casts include a new setting, and I liked the originality of the Scottish island. And all the young characters continue to grow, providing the reader with an insight to what they will become as they mature.

I especially liked the whole story idea. Yes a rescue from the underworld has been around since ancient Greek mythology, but to have the same story idea successfully developed for a modern young adult reader was a delightful surprise. Regular readers of these reviews know how much I like it when modern popular culture forges a link to ancient traditions.

This book was no where near the cliff hanger of the last one. And for that I am grateful. I can now wait patiently for book 8.

May 1

By Venom’s Sweet Sting by Tiffany Trent

byvenomIt is rare nowadays to find a good old-fashioned ghost story. And it looks like this series of books set in the 19th century will exactly fit the bill. Admittedly I came in on the middle of the story, but book 2 in the series told a satisfying tale on it’s own.

The book opens in 19th Century America where Corrine and her friends from Falston School are being chased by evil spirits. The Council of Elaphe decide that the girls must move to Scotland for their own safety. The story is about their sea voyage and their early days on the Scottish moors.

The book has a wonderful spooky atmosphere. The evil spirits are dark and threatening, but there isn’t the direct danger so commonly found in modern horror stories. There is no blood and guts, no action and violence, only a thinly veiled threat and the efforts of the girls to find a way to counter the danger.

Another thing that I liked abou this book is that the evil spirits stay evil and unapproachable. In the time of Twilight and its like, it is very nice to see clear lines drawn for a change.

May 1

The Wish Pony by Catherine Bateson

Wish Pony cvr.inddThis is another book that I have had for years, getting a proof copy from the publisher even before it was released in 2008. It read quickly in an hour or so, and then I was on to the next book before taking the opportunity to reflect and review.

Life is changing for young Ruby and she is not ready for it to happen. Mum is pregnant and Ruby just knows that the new baby is going to get all the attention. And Ruby’s best friend has found another better friend! But then Ruby meets her new neighbor Magda and makes a new friend of her own. Magda gives her a gift that just might be magical, and life begins to improve.

This is a simple innocent tale of childhood. Bateson has written many of these in the past and I am sure she will find more stories to tell in the future. Certainly it is radically different from her young adult angst stories written early in her career.

May 1

The Widow and the King by John Dickinson

9780552552462A while ago I reviewed the first book in this series. I ended up reading book 2 immediately, but then got behind in my reviews. But the comments made then still apply.

In book 2 Phaedra is a young widow trying to raise her son Ambrose who is now 12. But when a visitor arrives and destroys the protective magic around their home, Ambrose is forced to flee and hide. Eventually he finds refuge as a young scholar in the kingdom of Develin. This district is ruled by the widow of the previous baron, and her daughter Sophia is as headstrong and stubborn as Ambrose’s mother was at the same age. Naturally Ambrose is found and Sophia joins his escape from the once safe haven.

Most often the middle book in a trilogy is the weakest. The story has no beginning and no end, it just moves on. That is not true in this case. Dickinson has a separate and important tale to tell about Ambrose, his growth into manhood and his choices of friends.

I will admit that personally I did not like Sophia. Perhaps she is intended to be a sympathetic character for readers, but I found her an annoying, self-centred fool. But that all adds to a sense of realism that is rare in fantasy fiction.