October 27

Phyllis Wong and the Forgotten Secrets of Mr Okyto

McSkimming is known for his long, long titles, and it looks like the Phyllis Wong series may go the way of his well-established Cairo Jim books. He has been writing adventure/mystery novels for kids for as long as I can remember, but it has been years since I actually took the time to read one.

Phyllis is fascinated by magic. She has been learning all the tricks and putting on shows for friends and family since forever. But now strange things are happening to her friends, as if by magic. One bookend is exchanged for another under the owner’s watchful eye. A diamond necklace appears to disappear right in front of the CCTV camera. The police are stumped, but young Phyllis knows that given the chance she can get to the bottom of it. Then her father gives her a best birthday present ever, and before too long she knows what has happened.

McSkimming is onto a winner with this new series. Every kid is fascinated by magic and magicians, and with this premise he can explore hundreds of the classic magic acts of the past. Naturally he reveals just enough secrets to keep his plot moving but not enough to actually build a working model, so I can see kids trying to build their own ‘magic’ briefcases out in the garage. Then when the next book is out it will be something else. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.

October 27

The Devil’s Edge by Stephen Booth

OK, so it has been out for a while. And the next book in the series of 12 has been published. But I have just discovered this author, so now is my chance to share my thoughts.

Fans of Stephen Booth will be well aware of the Cooper/Fry series. I entered the story at book 11, so forgive me if I am missing important personal background. In fact it felt the gaps as I was reading. Fry has almost nothing to do with this story, until the very very end. But still the author kept following her activities, which had nothing to do with the murders. It was a little distracting to be suddenly shifted to some police training session.

This is definitely a police procedural novel. The deaths appear to be an unfortunate consequence of house break-ins, so almost everybody is looking for a gang working the area. But Cooper has a hunch, and although only a junior officer, it is his series, so he gets to go off and follow the hunch. His boss keeps saying, bring me some proof…so Cooper keeps hunting. His new partner seems helpful and friendly, but she is still new and he is trying to work out where her loyalties lie.

I loved the setting. The mountains and moors of the district are lovingly described and add so much to the atmosphere of the novel. The moors are a classic setting for fear and dread, look at the Hound of the Baskervilles or Wuthering Heights. But here they are also a welcoming friend for those who take the time to understand their ways. Cooper enjoys the moors and goes there to think. Just sometimes they are willing to share their secrets, and a smart cop knows when to listen.

Someday when I have nothing else to do, I would love to sit down and read this whole series, but until then all I can do is recommend that you start searching out ebook editions.


October 22

Black Painted Fingernails by Steven Herrick

Most teen coming-of-age novels are centred around kids of 15 or 16, just occasionally 18. But this now kids are living at home much longer and that first lash out for independence can often come sometime after their 21st. And that makes a difference.

James is on the road, heading up country for his first student teaching round. Not that he is sure he wants to be a teacher. Life just seemed to push him in that direction and he went along. He is driving with strict instructions to ring his mother hourly or she will worry, and everything he will need for the first week has been organised and listed. Then Sophie asks him for a lift and his whole organised and pre-planned life seems a whole lot less important. Before he knows it he is attending her father’s funeral and meeting the rest of the family.

This is a new age group for Herrick to explore. Most of the rest of his protagonists are sensitive young men about 15 years old. So how does he handle this older character? I’m not so sure. James is a lot less sensitive than Herrick’s norm and much more selfish and self-centred. Sophie is extreme, and she has had a tough life. Somehow I feel that a wimp like James would be more likely to dump her as quickly as possible rather than totally upend his life for her.

Like most road novels, somehow I can’t help wondering what will happen around the corner. Sophie and James are just too different to make a go of their relationship for long.

October 22

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Before I begin, I will confess to fandom. Right from the delightful Rivers of London I have adored the Peter Grant supernatural mystery series. And the third book has done absolutely nothing to change my mind.

Peter’s new case involves a body found in the London Underground. Nothing special it would seem, except that there is no way this body could get where it was found. No CCTV footage, no witnesses, and the victims boots are coated in sewage. Strangely, the murder weapon appears to be a piece of pottery! Reluctantly, the police contact the Folly. But Peter is given strict instructions to work ‘by the book’. When the victim turns out to be a US Senator’s son, now suddenly the FBI is involved and it is even more important that no magic or other weirdness is mentioned. However, Agent Reynolds is hard to shake, unnaturally hard.

This book doesn’t have the overwhelming sense of danger of the previous two. And that is not a bad thing. It is almost as if Peter is gaining confidence and understanding of this strange world he has entered, and managing his dealings with mythological creatures much more comfortably. Lesley also gives him a sense of balance that is lovely to see. If anything, at the end of this book I really like Peter even more than the first books.

Aaronovitch has maintained his whimsical sense of humour though. This book is not LOL funny, more a quiet smile as you turn the page. A real joy to read.

Don’t try this unless you have read the previous two. And I encourage you to find them and begin your delightful adventure.

October 21

Silhouette by Thalia Kalkipsakis

Every now and then one comes across an incredibly talented teen. Most of the time they have worked hard to develop the talent and have a high degree of self-discipline and an awareness of others that is well beyond their years. But every now and then there is one who just knows they are the best thing that has ever happened to this world and no one will convince them differently.

Scarlett is a very talented dancer. She is in year 12 at a specialist dance academy and in a few weeks will be graduated. From there she has her heart set on the Royal Ballet. Her mother is trying to encourage her to broaden her goals, or at least finish some of her homework. But Scarlett knows that she only needs to dance and the world will fall at her feet. Breaking every rule of the school, she auditions for a music video and gets the role. Is this the beginning of the rest of her life, or the end of all her hopes.

Kalkipsakis has written a very clear and consistent character in Scarlett. The girl simply knows that she has forgotten more than any adult will ever know.  The book opens with Scarlett correcting the choreography as set by her teacher. This disregard of adults is continual, and gradually leads Scarlett in to a very ugly place far from her ballet dreams. For this very reason I liked this book a lot. Most authors would go for a cliche resolution that allows Scarlett to dance the lead in the graduation performance. Kalkipsakis comes close, but avoids that pitfall.

Over the years I have worked with heaps of talented teens. Some musically talented, some future sporting heroes, some actors and dancers. Too often the talented ones end up like Scarlett, but with no kind author to pull them back from the clifftop.

October 21

The Warlock’s Shadow by Stephen Deas

Only a month before the next volume of this trilogy is released, it is time to refresh the memory of the second book. At the end of book 1 Berren finally accepted his future in the boring life of law enforcement, kind of. Dreaming of glory, he seems doomed to running errands and collecting water.

But then a prince hires Berren to just watch. It seems fabulous money to simply watch a door from hiding. Then the Dragon Monks arrive, the prince disappears and everything seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. At least Berren has finally found somebody to train him is swordplay, even if it is a girl. As typical for a middle book in a trilogy, the chess pieces are moved, evil is exposed and not all that appears evil truly is.

Deas has a lovely relaxed storytelling style that makes his books easy to read. With the finale of this trilogy due in November, you have time to revisit this little gem and be ready for the end.

And if you haven’t begun the Thief-taker trilogy, why not request the whole lot for Christmas. It will provide a relaxing holiday read.


October 20

Department 19 by Will Hill

Once upon a time every boy wanted to be James Bond. Horowitz and Muchamore among many others have made their name by writing adventure novels about secret government organisations and saving the world. Will Hill is now joining that club, but his SGO has a delicious difference.

Many years ago Jamie watched his father die. Then he was declared a traitor to his government and Jamie had to learn to live with the disgrace. Now his mother has been kidnapped and only Jamie appears to be interested in getting her back. But he needs help, and very specialist help at that. Enter Department 19, the secret government organisation that once employed his father. The question is whether Jamie can actually operate under their rules and still rescue his mum.

This was a real page turner. It may look long, but it was hard to put down. There are so many twists and turns that the question ‘Now What?’ should be the title of every chapter. Caught up in Jamie’s struggles are a couple of characters right out of Hollywood, but then is reality necessary when you are reading. The imagination just picks up these ideas and flies.

This isn’t the greatest book I have read this year, but it was a lot of fun. It is over the top and impossible. But then if even a fraction of the stuff that happens in this book were possible, the world would be a very scary place.

And by the way – book 2 is available.


October 20

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

At last, something new from JK Rowling! It has literally been years that we have waited. And now that many of her fans have grown up, this time it is a book for adults. When this arrived last week I immediately set aside everything else and began. And that was my first mistake.

Set in a small English village, the story centres around the local Parish Council and a sudden vacancy caused by the death of one councillor. Several locals nominate, but gradually most are removed from the contest by a strange ‘ghost’. No not magic, just competent adolescent hackers. There is no surprise about the winner of the election. In fact there are very few surprises at all until suddenly all the dominoes set carefully in place begin to fall.

This is a book about characters, not action. There is little plot as such, more the gradual inevitably of progress according to the personalities of those included. My biggest problem is that I really didn’t like anybody. A book about characters is fine, as long as someone is sympathetic. But these people were so ugly that they almost became caricatures. The violent husband/father, the obese mayor, the mid-life crisis woman, even the misunderstood migrant – they are all here, and none of them are nice.

I have read an interview with Rowling where she claims that her main protagonists in this book are the adolescents. I will admit that she does write them well, but each of them is too selfish and self-centred. Adolescents are often self-obsessed, but many of them are also idealistic and generous. Not in this village.

I guess what I missed most was Rowling’s lightness and humour. It appears that in writing for adults she is determined that everything has to be extra serious. The beauty of the Harry Potter series was simply the gentle smile that was always just around the corner no matter how dark the world became. In this book, around the corner is just another crisis or disaster or rape or death or abuse…

This book should have waited its turn.