February 26

Mystery by Jonathan Kellerman

It is times like these when the reality of my reading backlog hits. Last week I unpacked Kellerman’s next novel, Victoms, that is due for release in March. I am privileged to get best sellers to review, I know that. I also know that there is no way I could afford to keep myself in reading material. I depend on publishers. But when I open a pack, and see a book from a series and know that at least one of the series is still in the backlog, I get a case of the guilts and go digging. So before I will allow myself to read Victims, I found and read Mystery. (By the way, is Kellerman getting sick of thinking up titles? These single word are a bit general.)

On impulse Robin and Alex decide to visit a favourite haunt on its closing night. Amidst an uncomfortable evening, they notice a strange girl dressed in white who appears to be waiting for someone who never shows up. Outside is a man, very obviously a bodyguard. The next morning Milo shows up with crime scene photos of the girl’s mutilated body, and somehow Alex and Robin feel they have to be involved. After all, they were among the last people to see her alive.

And so begins another Alex Delaware thriller.

My last review in this series commented that the plots were all the same. Well, this one strays just a little bit from the norm. Mostly it is about trying to identify the victims. You would think in this world of photo ID to walk down the street, that would be no problem. But when the girl starts calling herself Mystery, and lives not far from the seedy underworld of LA, maybe it can be harder than you would think.

I did enjoy the deliciously sick family at the bottom of the crime. One would hope, only in America. Actually, one would hope, only in Hollywood.

February 26

Me & you by Niccolo Ammaniti

And another book read almost as soon as it was published! This is getting scary. But I am so glad I had a couple of quiet hours to thoroughly enjoy this little treasure from a gifted Italian author.

Lorenzo is 14 and has no friends. He is very happy that way, but Mum worries. So one day when he overhears a group of his classmates planning a week away skiing, he tells his mother he is invited. She gets so excited that the poor kid is trapped into pretending to go away. Instead he plans to hide in the basement of his apartment building with tinned food, and his PlayStation. All goes according to plan, until his older sister Olivia turns up. Olivia needs a place to crash and hopefully find some money for her next hit. Instead Lorenzo’s peaceful holiday becomes an instant lesson in drug rehabilitation.

This is a good book on many levels. This translation is easy to read and still tells the story with power and sympathy. I haven’t read anything quite like it for this target age since ‘Came Back to Show You I Could Fly’ by Robin Klein many many years ago. That book won all kinds of awards, I believe this one is far, far better.

It seems like I have read a few books recently that I could confidently recommend for study and discussion. I would love to see what a literature circle would do with this. Perhaps I’ll get a chance someday.

February 26

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

A couple years ago I reviewed a couple of autobiographies of people who had been raised in Sudan and escaped during the ‘troubles’. Both of those stories were definitely not for children because the story was told with unvarnished truth. Nothing was spared the reader. But now American author Linda Sue Park has tried to tell a similar story, but this time in a way that children will understand. Actually, she is telling two stories, one of a young girls whose whole life is centred around walking the miles to the pond to get water for her family, twice a day, every day, with only time for food between trips.

The second story is much longer and complex. Salva was at school when the bombs attacked. His teacher opened the back door and told all the students to run into the bush, and keep running. Assuming his village and his family has been destroyed, Salva runs, and runs, eventually joining a group of refugees that includes his uncle. Together they walk to Ethiopia, well until the thieves strike, then Salva walks alone. In the refugee camp in Ethiopia he finds relative safety, that is until the Ethiopian government decides to send all the refugees home, at gunpoint.

This is really an over-simplification of the story Park tells. She continues the story of Salva into his adulthood, and even up to the present day when Nya and Salva meet. In 120 pages she manages to convey the horror of the Sudanese refugees, and the war they were escaping. But this book is not without hope. It is about the stubborn determination that some people have to ensure that the world is left a better place.

In our privileged world, this is an important book for the shelves. It is not only beautifully written but very accessible to even weaker readers. It may also jolt some of our over protected selfish children towards some social conscience. That is never a bad thing.

 

February 25

Farundell by LR Fredericks

First book from an author, always an adventure. The reader can’t really be sure about the journey they commence, but that is half the fun. Fredericks is certainly taking the reader for a ride, but the question is whether or not the trip is for real, or just theme park imitation.

Paul has survived WWI, physically at least. But the emotional scars are deep and very resistant to healing. Estranged from his Boston family, he spends his time in Europe, trying to write but in reality doing what he can to survive. While trying to make a go of it in London, an old friend asks him to help his famous relative write his memoirs. He lives on an idyllic country estate and Paul is welcome to join the household. However, strange things happen in the British countryside, and soon Paul is encountering ghosts, murders and a search for missing treasure.

I expected this to be a work of literature, rather than the reading for entertainment that I normally get to review. It certainly started out that way. This book could have been about the importance of friendship and acceptance in life. About how we all need others to help us deal with the painful experiences that everyone encounters. Instead it was more like a paranormal fantasy. There was a book that ‘spoke to the soul’, literally. Almost everyone in the family practiced astral-projection. In fact, the ghost seemed the most normal character in the book. And when Sylvie enters the scene? Well Fredericks totally lost the plot.

My advice for next time, decide from the start whether the book is going to be a drama, erotic romance, or fantasy. Then stick to one genre.

February 25

Lenobia’s Vow by PC and Kristen Cast

Before I begin, I will remind everyone that I am a fan of the House of Night series. Maybe that is why I found my first experience of the novella spin-offs so disappointing. Really, it was childish and totally and completely unnecessary to the story arc. Now that I have that off my chest…

I suspect these novellas are meant to provide fans with background on each of the main adult vampires in House of Night. Certainly this one opened with Lenobia as a young girl in France months before she was marked. She escapes a certain future in service by pretending to be a noblewoman and heads off for New Orleans to marry a wealthy landowner. On the way she meets a couple of horses, we all know Lenobia, and eventually falls in love, but not with her intended. When she is caught, and disgraced, it all begins to look like her life is firmly on the road to happiness, until the final twist.

My real concern is about the target audience. The House of Night books are targeted for confident 14+ readers and of most interest to the 15+ crowd. These silly little books full of pictures and large text, excellent for the tweens. Great if the Casts are trying to attract a new audience. But the two series are simply too different. The craftsmanship, the linking of philosophical concepts, the whole cultural connection is missing. And worst of all, the language is so simple. It is almost as though the first word they thought of was written down and it would do.

I will admit that it only took a couple hours to read, but the time was well and truly wasted.

 

February 25

Devious by Lisa Jackson

I swear Jackson has a new book out every few weeks! She has found a successful style and just keeps writing. There are common themes, like long lost love found, and gruesome murders, but she hasn’t fallen into the ‘same old. same old’ series trap, or even worse continually trying to outdo the last book. How does she do it? I suspect by writing several series and revisiting her familiar characters regularly.

Who would murder a nun? And how? Since the Middle Ages, convents have been some of the most secure residences in the world. After all, they are meant to exist outside and protected from humanity, only emerging to perform their Christian duty. Well, somebody didn’t tell the bad guys because one after another the poor novices from St Marguerite’s are being strangled. Who, how and why? That is the problem for Detectives Bentz and Montoya. Throw in an ex-detective sister of one of the novices just to keep them on their toes, and soon bodies are turning up all over the place.

Jackson is often referred to as a romance novelist and one of her recurring themes is parted lovers rediscovering each other. But I felt this one is more a crime thriller with ‘mushy bits’ than an actual romance. So anyone looking for hot romance, probably should keep looking.

However, if you are looking for an entertaining page turner, this is a good choice. There is enough action, well frequent enough murders, to keep the story moving. Every now and then there is a page written from the killer’s point of view and that just adds to the tension. And without spoiling, I really like the twist in the final chapter. I have missed the next book in the series, so it looks like a visit to a bookshop is in order.

Devious was actually published last March, but it is due for rerelease in May in a different format. If you can’t find it immediately, put it on your shopping list and pick up the rerelease.

February 21

The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher by Doug MacLeod

Finally I got to read the last of the CBC short list for 2010! Sometimes it seems to take forever for publishers to reprint and even longer for anything to work its way through the system and into my hand.

London, 1828 – and Thomas Timewell is determined to grant his grandfather’s last wish. Grandfather wanted to leave his body to science. But the family decided that Grandfather was to have a ‘proper’ funeral and his body left safely underground. One night soon after the funeral, Thomas decides to take matters into his own hands. During the night he encounters professional body-snatcher Plenitude and before morning finds himself a new, if illegal, job.

MacLeod is well known for his humorous books. Most of them are real ‘laugh out loud’. This one, however, was a much darker comedy with less laughter and more thoughtful consideration. The reader is lead to consider some real philosophy and address some ethical questions. For example, is it more evil to steal a body to train young doctors or train a doctor for surgery who has never seen beneath the skin?

I have seen some recommended reading lists where this is listed for 14+, but I think most junior secondary students could read it with appreciation. In fact, I would not be surprised at all to find this book listed as a novel for study in some schools. I mean what an easy way to introduce philosophy discussions simply and painlessly.

This is writing of some depth from MacLeod. I hope he continues in this style.

February 19

From Blood by Edward Wright

Edward Wright is not your average crime/thriller author. Most establish a set of characters they feel comfortable with, hold to a specific setting and crank out a new novel every year. Apparently Wright releases a book once every 2 years, and this one dates from December 2010. His research is painstaking and his plot is tight, so what he may sacrifice in profit, he gains in quality.

Shannon is a child of the 60s, literally. Her parents were deeply involved in the student protests against the Vietnam War and all the risks that involved. But since having children, they settled down and even joined the academia they once despised. Shannon, now in her 30s, is still fighting this conservatism, quitting her Ph.D. to establish a cleaning business, and frequently becoming involved in such social rituals as barroom brawls. Just as she is making peace with her parents, their tortured bodies are found in their burning home. With her dying words Shannon’s mother sends her on a mission to ‘warn the others’. And there begins Shannon’s immersion in the remains of the 1960s counter culture.

This book is truly a page turner. There are enough red herrings form a school. The twists and turns and narrow escapes make this one book that is very difficult to put aside. In fact, once Shannon finds her brother, forget everything else for the rest of the day. And the bad guys? They are appropriately mean and ugly.

I particularly like Shannon’s character. She has grown up in a sheltered existence and her naivete is immense, even though she tries hard to be a bad girl. The bad guys use this innocence to their own advantage, again and again. When she learns what has been done, her anger helps give her focus to do what she has to do.

I can’t say much here without spoiling, but I don’t feel the final twist was handled effectively. I for one needed a few extra clues along the way.

 

February 15

Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

Welcome to another author in the field of YA supernatural romance. This is Hand’s debut novel, released a year ago. I finally brought it to the top of the reading list when the sequel was released last month. But notice, there are colours other than black and red on the cover. In reality this is not another vampire romance but rather an angel romance. Personally, I have read better, but this will find a fan base.

Clara is part angel and she has known it for two years. Now the dreams intended to identify her purpose in existence are coming thick and fast. She knows she will need to rescue her one true love from a forest fire. All she has to do is work out where and find who. Mum helps with where and together the family moves to the place Clara needs to be. And who is no problem at all. He just happens to be the school heart throb. Now all she has to do is wait for the fire. Her life’s purpose will be complete and she will be firmly on the path to eternal happiness. But Clara is far more interested in Tucker than Christian. When it really comes down to it, does Christian really need her help. Then the fire happens, but Tucker is trapped and likely to die. Who does she save?

At that simplistic level, this is a good read. But it is also intended to be the beginning of a series. How is Hand going to spin a simple ‘will she or won’t she’ into a series? By inventing the Black Wing angels. Very clearly the Black Wings are going to be critical as Clara faces the consequences of her decision in the fire.

Personally, I really don’t care. I didn’t get caught up in the drama, really didn’t care which choice she made. So I am not racing out to acquire book 2. Maybe next year.

February 15

Pure by Julianna Baggott

It is a rare thing for me to actually receive a book before its publication date and even rarer for me to read it before it is published. However, this year I am trying to prioritise YA reading and over the summer I had cleaned out the backlog. Then when this arrived (official publication was yesterday) it immediately jumped to the top of the list. I have already done a booktalk on the book and from the response, I think it will find a good audience.

This is the opening book of a trilogy set in a future where mankind has destroyed the world as we know it with nuclear weapons. The bombs were seeded with nanobots programmed to help put everything back together. Unfortunately the programming was faulty and as a result humanity was ‘put back together’ with whatever was closest at the time. For example Pressia, our heroine, was 7 years old and holding her favourite doll at the time. Now instead of her hand she has the doll’s head permanently attached. Of course some humans were protected by the Dome, a vast indoor city. Here humanity is pure, and unchanged – well maybe. After years of this stability, life starts to change when one brave young man leaves the safety of the Dome in search of his mother who was caught outside when the Detonations happened.

This is a very visual book. The publicity indicated that the film rights hand been sold even before publication, and it is very easy to imagine this story transformed into one of those modern scifi/horror flicks. But I think that the visual impact could actually make it harder to tell the story.

To my mind the story is actually about humans finding a way to work together in spite of their differences. It is about looking beyond any strangeness into the mind of the person within. It is also a story about holding fast to your beliefs and the power of faith. Not necessarily religious faith, more about being true to yourself and your past.

Regular readers will know that I often comment about book covers. The copy I received is white with pale blue lettering. In a bookshop I saw the edition with a pure black cover using a reflective ink to highlight the letters. Personally, I prefer the white edition. The black just doesn’t feel right for the story.