January 26

The Understudy’s Revenge by Sophie Masson

A few years ago Masson wrote a series of books that gave classic folk tales a modern appeal. In this novel for YAs she gives Hamlet a similar treatment, setting her story in London in the 1860s. The result is a very approachable book for good readers of all ages.

Millie is general gofur for her father, director and stage manager of a professional theatrical company based in London. After the death of one of their leading actors, the company decides to produce Hamlet, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that they are still viable as a professional company. During auditions a strange, but talented young man gets a role. But Millie doesn’t trust him, and begins her own investigation into his past.

This book attracted my attention when I first saw it. I have always enjoyed Sophie Masson’s writing for kids, mostly because she challenges them to think beyond just the words on the page. Too many authors for kids are primarily interested in action and adventure and as a result too many students are unwilling to read ‘deeply’ and think. Masson may sell fewer books than others, but her fan base is going places.

Don’t get me wrong, there is heaps of action and adventure in this. Millie gets herself into all kinds of trouble, including kidnapping and drugs. But faithful friend Seth comes to the rescue, a comforting thought.

Best of all is the vision of London of the time. Masson has done her research and it is all there on the page. It is almost possible to feel you are walking through the various neighbourhoods as you follow Millie on her adventures. And the cast of characters is wonderful, from the extravagant leading man to the mysterious foreign stranger.

 

 

January 25

11.22.63 by Stephen King

After decades of successful writing most authors find a convenient formula or familiar characters and simply continue on with ‘the further adventures of…’. Or they may spend years writing each book painstakingly working through every detail and word until the work becomes as difficult to read as it was to write. But not Stephen King. How on earth this man writes at least a book every year and still keeps the ideas fresh and the pages turning I will never know. My one regret is that I found his writing late in my reading career.

Like all the best scifi/fantasy, this book holds at its core a wonderful ‘what if’? What if someone had stopped Oswald and JFK had survived to serve out his term and been re-elected? But King doesn’t just start there. His story starts in 2011 when a typical young man, single with no dependents is sent on a trip back to 1958 with the express purpose of stopping Oswald. Why 1958? Hey that’s where the ‘rabbit hole’ emerges. Jake/George has to blend in, build a life for himself and still be in Dallas in November 1963. But you see, history resists change, so all is not as simple as it may appear.

Appropriately most of this book centres on Jake’s life before Dallas.The reader is quickly lulled into believing this is really a story about a man out of his time, and in many ways it is. But history puts up enough resistance to keep the pages turning. There are firebombed homes, mob henchmen, car crashes and plenty more to keep an adventure reader interested. There is also a story of a teacher who loves his job, a cribbage game that prevents an accident, and even a romance to slow the pace and add depth to Jake’s story.

And when the deed is done? How is the world changed? King has given this a great deal of thought and I personally found his alternative history very believable. I think this new world is the most horrific part of the tale.

I almost started this in November when it arrived, but the poor book has a series of misadventures that meant that I didn’t actually lay my hands back on it until this week. But in many ways I am glad this is the last of my summer reads. It is like chocolate, a satisfying way to finish a meal.

 

January 23

Cold Vengeance by Preston & Child

Regular readers will know that I am a fan of the Aloysius Pendergast series. I really enjoy the ‘X-files’ nature of the early novels. The more recent novels are less supernatural and psychic, but there is still a delicious blend of weirdness mixed in with the crime and detection story. This novel is part of a sequence, something that these authors have done very successfully in the past. This time the Pendergast is drawn into an investigation of his wife’s death, where he discovered in the previous book that all was not as it seemed.

Having discovered that his wife was murdered in Fever Dream Pendergast heads off to trap the man he thinks committed the crime. Before he leaves he asks his friend D’Agosta to look after his NYC property and his ward. After all he was seriously injured at the climax of the last book. But all too quickly Pendergast discovers that all is not as it seems and everything and everyone has a secret.

This is a very convoluted story. It will make little or no sense if you haven’t read the rest of the series. In fact, I actually had just finished the Diogenes sequence from the series when this book arrived, so I will admit that the various storylines have become a little muddled. But then these books were never intended to be literature. Preston and Child are doing very well out of writing books for entertainment. And believe me, if you don’t mind the weird and wonderful, you will be entertained by the whole series.

If you want my suggestion, I suggest that you try to lay your hands on the whole Pendergast series and spend a few days relaxed and reading. You won’t be disappointed.

January 18

Five Parts Dead by Tim Pegler

What must it be like to be the one who survives one of the horrific car accidents that make the news so regularly? This is one of the questions explored by Tim Pegler in this novel for YAs published in 2010. But this question is disguised under layers of history and mystery, so the young reader could even miss the whole point, until it becomes real.

Dan knew it was wrong to get into the car, but his ‘mates’ literally forced him into the back seat. Now two are dead and the third is in a nursing home and Dan is in a wheelchair, at least for a while. But Dan is used to surviving close calls. If he were a cat, five of his nine lives would be gone. Some would call it luck, but Dan is feeling guilt. Dan’s family arrange a change of scenery for everyone. Mum and Dad are bushwalking, with a base camp at an old lighthouse. Not much fun for a guy in a wheelchair. But then Dan starts seeing a strange girl? Is he losing his mind, or have all his brushes with death given him a ‘special link’ with the spirit world? Make up your own mind.

Maybe because I have been reading a lot of fantasy, but I felt this book read very quickly. Dan’s survivor guilt and all the consequences of the accident were not necessarily the whole focus of the story, although they well could have been. Many authors would have used the ghost story as their complete plot development. The historical research was well handled, if a bit convenient, without overpowering the storyline.

This was a very satisfying read.

January 18

Red Mist by Patricia Cornwell

Once upon a time I was a real fan of the Kay Scarpetta series. I had to be the first to read her latest release and then distribute it on to a list of Scarpetta fans that I knew. But something happened. The murders got too weird. It seemed like Cornwell was trying to outdo herself with every story. The serial killers were stranger and stranger and the logic behind the plots began to stretch beyond believable. As a result I haven’t read the last book, and therefore I may have missed some details as I went through the new book.

As is usual for Cornwell, the latest book takes up where the last one finished. Her friend Jack has been killed and Kay only just escaped with her life. But a trip to Georgia and a visit with Jack’s mother promises to provide her with answers that she needs to put everything to rest. However, the trip somehow gets a little more complicated and before long the whole team is working out of a hotel suite in Savannah to solve a string of murders that started nearly 10 years before.

For most of this book I was starting to think that this book was going to return to Cornwell’s old style, where the story focussed on the people rather than ‘extreme’ crime. The various murders appeared straightforward and Scarpetta’s involvement seemed sensible and logical. It wasn’t even too hard to put together a short list of suspects. Then at the end, the story simply got weird again. Why is it necessary to make everything an international terrorism plot? And I’m sorry, but the way the guilty party simply appeared from nowhere was just too convenient.

If asked to review another Scarpetta novel, obviously I will. But if I were forking out hard earned money to buy this, or her next, I for one won’t bother.

January 18

Temple of the Gods by Andy McDermott

It is summer, right? The time to sit back, turn off the brain and read a real page turner. And one of my favourite writers who keeps me turning pages is Andy McDermott. I agree, the plots are thin, anyone but the core characters are paper thin, but nearly every book by McDermott has me up until the wee hours of the morning, wide awake and reading. This one is no different.

Before you go any further, stop and make sure you have read The Sacred Vault and The Empire of Gold. If not, go do it now. It won’t take long and there is no way you will make sense of this plot unless you are already familiar with earth energy and the 3 statues.

Now for the plot summary, well it is kind of the same as all the rest. Eddie and Nina are on the trail of some rare archaeological artefacts. Just as they get their hands on them, a bunch of mercenaries arrive and after a huge fight, take them away. Then Nina using her education and insight and Eddie using his contacts and brawn locate and win back the artefacts only to see them and their legendary source destroyed. Easy summary, because that’s the plot outline for the whole series.

But McDermott has a talent for imaginative interpretations of legend, as well as the ability to write a gripping adventure. He doesn’t let anything resembling a fact get in the way. So relax, chill and enjoy.

January 11

Down the Darkest Road by Tami Hoag

Believe it or not, I have never read a book by Tami Hoag before. I have heard good things about her books, but until her latest arrived for review, I had never actually picked up one to read. I’ll just say that if the rest are half as good as this one, she will definitely get added to my ‘someday when I have time’ pile.

This is not a mystery novel, not in any way. Everybody knows from page one whodunit, the cops, the survivors and even the crim. No this is a psychological thriller on a grand scale. Be warned, it will catch you and hold on until almost the last page. Give yourself time to read this all at once.

Leslie Lawton, 16, disappeared 4 years ago. She left home to attend a softball game, and never returned. Days later her abandoned bicycle was found down an embankment. This crime, more than any other, is tough on a family. Father, Lance, couldn’t cope with the guilt of his final argument with the girl or the suspicions of the cops, and solves his problems by driving off the edge of a very high bridge. The cops know who abducted and murdered her, but without a body or any evidence, nothing can be done. So as her younger daughter is about to turn 16, Lauren accepts the offer of accommodation in another city in an effort to keep this daughter safe. But, it just so happens that the girl’s abductor has moved to the same city.

The story is told from Lauren’s point of view, and Hoag has created a very sympathetic character. The reader is drawn into her anger and frustration and even if we don’t agree with her decisions, we understand them. Who among us could be sure we wouldn’t respond the same way? This is a woman on the brink of disaster and has very few options to pull back from the edge. Contrast this emotional wreck with the steady stability of Tony Mendez. Apparently he is a repeating character and Hoag has a very firm grasp of his story. I hope the gentle teaser at the end is followed up in another book in future.

I must applaud the twists and turns of this plot. Saying much more will risk spoilers, so I can only say, buckle up for a thrilling ride. I was caught unawares so many times it is embarrassing.

January 10

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Wow, this fantastic fantasy series has finally reached the end! And what a coming of age for a young author. In the past I have commented on the growth of Paolini as a young man as reflected in his writing. Well here he draws all the different strands to a fantastic conclusion, but not quite what is expected.

Readers of the series will know that the Varden are gradually drawing near to their goal. But how on earth are they going to beat Galbatorix? And Eragon is no longer the only Dragon Rider. How are he and Saphira going to prevail? And when the leader of the Varden is kidnapped, all seems lost. But then, in fantasy, the good guys never lose in the end. The question is simply how to win.

It is going to be difficult to say anything about the climax without spoiling, but I must congratulate Paolini on his brilliant idea. It was just so ‘right’ and effective and strangely satisfying.

And I have read a few other reviews that comment about the ending. Most authors would simply have Eragon remain as hero protecting his world forever. But Paolini was smarter than that. Perhaps influenced by Tolkein, and that is not a bad influence, he finds a new purpose for Saphira and Eragon in their future. But no, there won’t be a sequel.

This book is huge. But don’t worry, it reads quickly. Rarely have I enjoyed the finish of any series as much.

January 10

Destined by PC and Kristin Cast

Every now and then I look at the mountain of books that I have read and not yet reviewed, or open my ebook reader and see the huge list of unreviewed books on that and feel guilty. This is supposed to be my reading diary and a collection of personal reflections on the books, but it is pretty useless unless I actually review all the books I read. So my New Year’s Resolution is to attempt a book every day until I am caught up. Review number 6, day 10 – not too far behind.

But back to the books. Near the end of last year the next volume of the House of Night series was published. The sad thing is that I didn’t even notice. However, I made sure I had a copy in my hands before the end of term.

There is no point in summarising the plot. If you have read the series, then read on. If not, then you need to go find a copy of Marked and give it a go. Experience shows you will either love it or hate it.

Yes I am a fan of this series. This is more than the typical vampire romance. I have always liked how the authors linked other mystical cultural icons into the story, granting each their own power. But this book suffers badly from middle book syndrome, mostly it’s a vehicle to move pieces on the chessboard.

Unquestionably, this is chick lit. Far more effort is put into the who does what with whom than into any action or adventure sequences. And most of the comment I have read on the net really objects to Heath’s ‘return’ such as it is. Personally, I’ll sit back and reserve judgement at this stage. Let’s see where the story goes from here.

Because I will certainly be waiting for  book 10.

January 10

Fantasy in Death by JD Robb

This is another of the books from the backlog. When I received the book 31 in the In Death series, I figured it was time to dig out book 30 and read it. Usually I try to read a series from the beginning rather than pick up the story in the middle, but when the series hits 30 books or even 31, there is no way. I had heard good things about Robb, back in the mists of time I had read something by Nora Roberts, another pseudonym for the same person.

Set just slightly in the future, this mystery investigates the murder of a computer game designer. By this time, computer games resemble the Star Trek Holodeck, and while playing alone in a locked flat, Bart is decapitated. How? Why? Everybody loved him, and his small business was completely dependent on his design genius. Enter Eve Dallas and her partner Roarke. She covers the police work and he has the computer skills to smooth her way. Together they lead the reader up blind alleys, follow red herrings and eventually work out whodunit.

This book was a bit of fun. The sheer impossibility of the crime had me stumped for ages. Even as the murder weapon was found or the suspect list was shortened, I was still thinking – but How? As with the best of crime writing, all was made clear in the end.

I will warn that this is clearly an example of crime chick lit. There is just as much focus on the relationships between the various regular characters as there is on the crime and it’s investigation. That’s inevitable for a long series. Eventually the readers come back to find out what happened to their favourite characters as much as for the new story. It’s a bit like a soap really.

But still, a fun read while on holidays.