Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Serpent's Tale

I loved the first book in this medieval murder mystery series, which features a woman doctor sent to England on the king's order to investigate the horrific deaths of young children in Cambridge. I was excited to read this, the second installment in the series, but I was also a little worried that it wouldn't live up to my admittedly high expectations. I needn't have worried - I loved it. Some minor spoilers may follow, as events at the end of the first book, Mistress of the Art of Death, impact the opening of the second book, so please read the review of the first book if you think you might be interested in this gripping historical mystery series.

Adelia, our heroine, misses her native Sicily dreadfully, but she is becoming attached to her new home in England. She is practicing medicine, really making a difference in the lives of the people around her, despite the fact that she must continue the charade that her servant Mansur is the doctor and she, a mere woman, his assistant. The best thing in her life, though, is her new baby daughter, and it is delightful to see how besotted the hard-as-nails forensic specialist is with the beautiful child. So much of her life prior to coming to England was on a purely intellectual level, and now Adelia is experiencing life in a visceral, physical way, revealing a more passionate, emotional side of her character.

She is summoned to investigate the murder of Rosamond, King Henry II's favorite mistress - she is to accompany Rowley Picot, the father of her child who is now the Bishop of St. Albans, which creates some interesting tension. Their journey is a dangerous one, and it leads them to a deadly maze with a tower in which Rosamond's body awaits, perhaps with clues that will lead Adelia to the identity of her murderer.

I have listened to both books in this series, and while this reader, Kate Reading, did a fine job, I preferred Rosalyn Landor's interpretation of the first book, which was marvelous. This is a taut story with a cast of fascinating characters, full of twists and turns and all kinds of intriguing details about medieval life. I love King Henry, his keen intellect and wry sense of humor, and I adore Adelia for her strength and intelligence, her fallibility and her passion. The setting is so vivid that I could feel 12th-century England lurking in the back of my mind while I went about my day, and I was always anxious to get back to the story to see what would happen next. There are four books in this series to date, and I look forward to continuing on with the third book - but not too soon. I plan to space them out a bit, so I won't run through them too quickly!

Books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series:
1. Mistress of the Art of Death
2. The Serpent's Tale
(also published as The Death Maze)
3. Grave Goods (also published as Relics of the Dead)
4. A Murderous Procession (also published as The Assassin's Prayer)

The Serpent's Tale (#2 in the Mistress of the Art of Death series) by Ariana Franklin; narrated by Kate Reading (Penguin Audiobooks, 2009)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Bippity Boppity Book: "...Franklin produces several likely suspects for the murders which leaves you guessing who the culprit(s) were until the end. I like that I’m not able to figure out the ending half way through the book..."
The Good, the Bad and the Unread: "Great pacing, great writing, great dialogue, great plot, memorable characters - great read. I read this book non-stop all during my days off and then slowed it down to savor the last few pages."
Jen's Book Thoughts: "The turbulence of the time period, the amazingly intricate characters and an exotic setting all add up to an incredible novel"

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crossing Over

I just love this series - it's about a girl, the daughter of a medium, who is slowly coming to terms with her ability to see spirits - to see them and to help them, too. In this fourth book Kat and her eighth-grade class take a field trip to Montreal.

It's exciting to go to a different country, and it's great that Kat's best friend Jac is going with her. It's secretly very great that Ben, a kid in her class Kat recently realized she likes a lot, is sitting just a few rows behind her on the bus. It's not so great that she seems to run into ghosts everywhere she turns, though - especially in Old Montreal. It's kind of difficult to impress the boy you like when you keep talking to people no one else can see.

I continue to adore this series. I love Kat's strong narrative voice, the way the story is told so skillfully and believably from her point of view. I love the way relationships are explored: Kat's with her best friend, her mother, the other kids in their class, her secret crush. People change and grow from book to book, becoming increasingly complex, and the adults are depicted as actual people with weaknesses and strengths, who change and grow, too. The books are charming, funny, sometimes a bit dark and bittersweet, as stories that touch on death tend to be. They challenge readers to think beyond the usual, everyday things, and I like that in a book.

Books in the Suddenly Supernatural series:
1. School Spirit
2. Scaredy Kat
3. Unhappy Medium
4. Crossing Over


Crossing Over (#4 in the Suddenly Supernatural series) by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel (Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "It’s rare that I get this excited over a book. It’s different than with other series that I enjoy. I actually squeal when I see this book in stock."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sizzling Sixteen

It just doesn't feel like summer until I get the latest Stephanie Plum adventure into my hot little hands. Hooray for the library - even though I work there, I am often late on the uptake when it comes to getting on the waiting list, so I had to be patient for a while for this one, but it was definitely worth the wait.

In this installment, Stephanie's Uncle Vinnie, her boss at the bail bonds agency where she works as a bounty hunter, is kidnapped. The ransom? The gambling debt money he owes. He is such a scummy guy that not even his wife wants to pay to get him back, so Stephanie, Connie and Lula decide to work together to find the money so they can save their jobs. That is, of course, easier said than done - and, of course, with hilarious results (some of which involve hobbits).

I continue to love this series, although it's certainly not for everyone. It is over the top with characters, humor, and the most entertaining and patently ridiculous plots, and I laugh out loud every time I read (and occasionally reread) one of these books. Some are certainly better than others, but they are typically solid, and this one is no exception.

I am always a bit surprised by the many blog reviews I read of books from this series, in which people claim they are disappointed, the books aren't funny enough, or aren't as funny as earlier books. There's too much Morelli, not enough Ranger, gripe, gripe. One patron at my library even complained to me that there was too much Grandma Mazur! Complaining that there is too much Grandma in a Stephanie Plum book is like complaining that there are too many Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. Or too many rabbits in Watership Down. Or too many ghosts in A Christmas Carol. Or... Okay, I'll stop now.

I for one think it's amazing that Janet Evanovich has managed to sustain this series so well, keeping so many readers interested in her characters and their lives, and so very many of us impatiently waiting to find out what happens next.

Books in the Stephanie Plum series:
1. One for the Money
2. Two for the Dough
3. Three to Get Deadly
4. Four to Score
5. High Five
6. Hot Six
7. Seven Up
8. Hard Eight
9. To the Nines
10. Ten Big Ones
11. Eleven on Top
12. Twelve Sharp
13. Lean Mean Thirteen
14. Fearless Fourteen
15.
Finger Lickin' Fifteen

Sizzling Sixteen (#16 in the Stephanie Plum series) by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's Press, 2010)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
I'd So Rather Be Reading: "That's why these books are the perfect summer reads: they are light-hearted, funny, sometimes silly, and totally implausible. Implausible, you say? Yes!"
What Cheesy Reads: "Another hilarious adventure with Stephanie. The next book should be very interesting after what happened this time."
YA Booknerd: "There's no other series/book that makes me laugh as hard as Stephanie Plum's adventures."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Incarceron

Claudia is a privileged teenager growing up in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world. There are computers and advanced technology, yet it has been mandated that people live according to "protocol" - as though they were in the 17th century. Her father is the Warden of a most unusual social experiment, a prison known as Incarceron, and Claudia has been groomed her entire life to wed the son of the ruler of their land. She is under no illusions about any sort of loving relationship she might have with the prince, a feckless, self-involved young man who has just been kicked out of his exclusive private school. She just didn't expect the news that that they'd have to get married so very soon.

Finn is a teenager who woke up one day in a cell in Incarceron with no memory of his past. He is known as the star seer because he claims to be from outside the prison, and to have occasional, elusive memories of having seen the stars. He and Keiro, his blood brother, survive the best they can in the lawless, brutal world of Incarceron. When he discovers a crystal key that has the same design as the tattoo on his wrist, and Claudia finds a similar key among her father's belongings, she and Finn are able to communicate with each other. Everything they've held to be true is suddenly called into question. While only one person has ever been said to have escaped Incarceron, Claudia is determined to help Finn escape as well - only there is much more to the prison than they know, and the price to be paid for the truth is much higher than they expect.

I listened to the audio version of this book, and while it took some time for me to come to care about the characters and their situation, once that happened, the book became quite gripping. I am a little unclear why the audio reader chose to narrate the book with an American accent but give all the characters English accents - I found it a bit distracting until I became used to it. I loved the idea of Incarceron, and the reasons behind it, and the fascinating society that Fisher creates. There are lots of intriguing "what if" questions raised and answered (some only partially), and I always enjoy that aspect of speculative fiction.

We learn that Claudia has been taught all kinds of things - martial arts, including fencing, political strategy, all things relating to the protocol of the era in which they pretend to live - so I was expecting her to be a bit more feisty as well as a skillful diplomat, but often she just blurted things out like an unsophisticated teenage girl, so I never felt that I really had a good grasp of her character. I did like Claudia, as well as Finn, but they weren't half as interesting as some of the minor characters, which may be why it took me a while to warm up to them.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, and I am planning to read its sequel, Sapphique, because I just have to know what happens next!

Books in the Incarceron series:
1. Incarceron
2. Sapphique

Incarceron (#1 in the Incarceron series) by Catherine Fisher; narrated by Kim Mai Guest (Listening Library, 2010)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "Around half-way through the book I got hooked. As the action and suspense built up I became much more interested in the lives of Finn and Claudia."
A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy: "Because there are two narratives, two stories, there is a fairly large cast of characters. Each one is fully drawn; very real..."
Fantasy Book Critic: "From the moment I started reading this book, it sucked me in and it was almost impossible to put down."
Sleep. Eat. Read:
"I found Incarceron to be one of the most imaginative books I've ever read. Fisher's world building is incredible..."

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook

Eleven-year-old Julian Calendar, a brilliant but ultra-nerdy inventor, is moving, and when he starts his new school, he is determined to re-invent himself, to make some friends, to fit in for once. When he introduces himself to the class, saying, "Like many of you, I enjoy popular activities such as 'hanging out' at the local shopping mall and watching sports on TV, so I know we're going to be great friends!" it becomes clear that his plan isn't going to go very well.

Sure enough, it's the same old thing for Julian - but with one very important exception: there are two other students, notorious troublemaker Greta and talented sports star Ben, who turn out to be brainy inventors, too (although neither can compete with Julian in the nerd department), and they invite Julian to join them at their secret underground cool-gadget-filled science lab hideout. The three make a great team, although they have very different interests. When someone steals their blueprint notebook and starts cashing in on all their hard work, the three friends must pool their resources and work together to get their notebook back - not to mention foil a dastardly plot at the same time.
This is such a fun graphic novel! As a gadget lover, I found all the creative and often funny gizmos very appealing, as well as the book's celebration of intelligence, imaginative problem-solving skills and teamwork. The plot itself is fairly predictable, and the characters are mainly stock types - but the story is fun and exciting, and I loved the all-inclusive nature of the school as it is portrayed in the artwork, full of kids from many different ethnic backgrounds. I particularly enjoyed Greta's relationship with her father, a museum director who is obsessed with ancient Mesopotamia.

The artwork is colorful and detailed, giving readers so many things to look at on each page that the book practically begs to be reread over and over again. Kids who have enjoyed pouring over the layout of books like the Magic School Bus series will appreciate the complex illustrations that offer tons of information through arrows and circles, labels and lists. Funny, smart, exciting, and very entertaining - this is an excellent summer read, and I for one will be very much looking forward to the next installment in adventures of the Secret Science Alliance.

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis (Bloomsbury, 2009)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy: "What's not to love about three kids who are outsiders who are brought together by their love of science, invention, and fun?"
The Graphics Classroom: "This is a story about characters overcoming peer perceptions and using their strengths for good and for fun."
Puss Reboots: "There is an amazing amount of detail on many of the pages, pushing the boundary of the graphic novel. It's not a fantasy story with illustrations; it is a fully integrated dance between text and art."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Match Made in Hell

This second book in the Nicki Styx series sees Nicki's life taking a very new direction. Nicki, who started to see ghosts following a near death experience in the first book, has begun to reconcile herself to this unwelcome development in her life. It hasn't been all bad, really - after all, as a result she has met and is now romantically involved with her sexy new boyfriend, Dr. Joe Bascombe.

But when the latest ghost in her life turns out to be a family member, and her twin sister - her boyfriend's ex-wife - walks into her life, things become hopelessly complicated. Before Nicki knows it, she's agreed to accompany her sister to the most haunted city in the country in search of the truth about their family. To add to the confusion, a very sexy man keeps turning up, determined to lure Nicky away from Joe, and he is very tempting indeed. Devilishly tempting, in fact...

This is a fun series with romance, suspense, and a bit of mystery. While the coincidences that keep cropping up were a bit much, it was certainly entertaining to go along for the ride. It was fun to see Nicki attempt to come to terms with her newly discovered family, and I enjoyed seeing the way in which her relationship with her newly discovered twin is developing. There were times, though, when I became frustrated by the lack of communication between the sisters, which spurred the plot along in convenient directions but became wearisome after a while. The ending offers a satisfying conclusion to the main story, but leaves many intriguing loose strings to be addressed in future volumes.

Nicki Styx series
1. Dead Girls Are Easy
2. A Match Made in Hell

3. You're the One that I Haunt

4. Silent Night, Haunted Night


A Match Made in Hell (#2 in the Nicki Styx series) by Terri Garey (Avon Books, 2008)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Best Fantasy Stories: "Terry Garey has given us a great story with strong characters that pull you in and make you feel like you’re experiencing the story with them."
Darque Reviews: "Ms. Garey adds many twists to this installment, and keeps readers on the edge of their seat until the last moment."
SciFiGuy.ca: " A Match Made in Hell is surprisingly fresh and fun."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mortal Engines

This first book in Philip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles features a futuristic England in which society has embraced the philosophy of "Municipal Darwinism." The cities (and towns) have become mobile. They are enormous, lumbering machines that move across the devastated landscape, gobbling up smaller, weaker towns and villages smaller, stealing their resources and enslaving their people. Municipal Darwin is accepted and upheld by the government, so that when London chases a smaller village, its citizens stand on the upper decks of the city, cheering it on, and when they capture their quarry, it becomes a day of celebration.

Fifteen-year-old Tom, orphan and apprentice to the guild of Historians, lives in London, and he has never questioned the way things work. Not, that is, until the day when a mysterious girl attempts to kill London's Head Historian, and Tom intervenes, saving the famous historian's life. Tom finds himself in the Out-Country, the wasteland traversed by the traveling cities and towns, in the company of the would-be assassin, flung into a world with a harsh reality that challenges his previous assumptions.

Meanwhile in the city of London, Katherine, the daughter of the Head Historian, is curious about the girl who attacked her father. Her investigations point her in the direction of a mysterious item known simply as Medusa - an item that, it appears, connects her father with the young woman who attacked him. Katherine enlists the help of a young apprentice engineer named Bevis to help her learn more about Medusa. A rip-roaring adventure follows, for all the above characters, involving floating cities, cyborg assassins, secret agents, and weapons of mass destruction.

Having read (and adored) Philip Reeve's Larklight series, I was curious to read this, his debut novel. And while it lacks much of the tongue-in-cheek humor of Larklight and its sequels, as it is quite a bit darker, it does have lighter moments that relieve the tension and darkness. This book is for an older audience (my library shelves it in the YA section), and it packs some heavy punches. No one is safe, much is at stake, and the consequences of failure are dire. I'd recommend this to fans of The Hunger Games and Airborne. It is a taut, fast-paced adventure story with a touch of romance and characters who are well-drawn and memorable. This is not a world I'd have the least desire to visit, but it is a fascinating one, complex and full of surprises. I look forward to reading the next book in this gripping adventure series.

Books in the Hungry City Chronicles:

1. Mortal Engines
2. Predator's Gold
3. Infernal Devices
4. A Darkling Plain
5. Fever Crumb
6. A Web of Air

Mortal Engines (#1 in the Hungry City Chronicles) by Philip Reeve (Eos, 2001)

Also reviewed at:
All Lit Up: "If I have made the book sound terribly depressing, however, that is far from the truth; there are many instances of genuine humour in Mortal Engines, and it is a testament to Reeve’s skill as a writer that he often juxtaposes these moments with some of the darkest moments in the story. "
Becky's Book Reviews: "It's a fast-paced, sci-fi adventure with danger and mystery and the slightest smidgen of romance."
Fantastic Reads: "This is a definite page turner, almost impossible to put down."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Deep and Dark and Dangerous

There's something about the summertime that makes me want to curl up with a traditional, creepy ghost story. Fond childhood memories of time spent lounging at the pool or in a shady hammock, lost in a book sending shivers down my spine, had me reaching for this novel when I happened to see it on the shelf at my library. A Mary Downing Hahn that I hadn't read yet? Perfect!

Thirteen-year-old Ali is invited by her aunt to come to the family's old lakeside cottage in Maine for a few weeks during the summer. Ali will babysit Emma, her four-year-old cousin, while Aunt Dulcie, an artist, works in the studio. It is a struggle to convince Ali's overprotective, worrywart mother to allow her to come, though. She and Dulcie have a difficult relationship, and Ali's recent questions about an old picture discovered in the attic have left Ali's mother even more worked up than usual. But Ali, with the support of her father, gains permission to go, and it first things are idyllic.

Then she and Emma meet a strange young girl on the beach, Sissy, who insinuates herself into the Ali's playtime with Emma, creating friction between the cousins and making Emma behave in unpleasant ways. To this tension is added the constant references Sissy makes to something bad that happened at the lake a long time ago, as well as the increasing number of nightmares suffered by both Ali and Emma, involving creepy images of human bones down at the bottom of the lake.

This is a fairly straightforward ghost story with engaging characters and an atmosphere of mysterious foreboding. I liked that the adults were as complex as the children, not just grownups hovering in the background to give or deny permission, but people living out the consequences of the choices they've made. I did find it unrealistic that Aunt Dulcie would never insist on meeting Sissy, whose influence on four-year-old Emma is such a clearly negative one, and whose appearance on the scene wreaks such havoc in the girls' lives. Other than that minor quibble, though, I found this to be a very enjoyable, dark and creepy summer read.

Deep and Dark and Dangerous: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books, 2007)

Source: My local public library

Other reviews of books by Mary Downing Hahn:
All the Lovely Bad Ones
Closed for the Season

Also reviewed at:
Book Bits: " The book is kind of creepy, as it should be, but the characters are not quite believable."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "...it did not disappoint. Deliciously creepy, this book reminded me of the Lois Duncan stories that I loved as an early teen..."

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bite Marks

Jaz Parks, CIA assassin, is back in this, the 6th book of one of my favorite supernatural action/adventure/touch of romance series, and I'm glad to say that this one exceeded my admittedly high expectations.

In this installment, Jaz and her team are in Australia, where some gnomes (yes, gnomes) are plotting to destroy the NASA complex that is based there. With Jaz are her teammates, a bunch of strange characters who don't always get along, but who possess a wide range of bizarre skills that, together, make them a tough force to beat.

There's just one little problem, though - Jaz is hearing a voice in her head, and realizes she has been possessed by something with an agenda that's probably not aligned with her own. And then there's a problem with a demon that's been after one of her teammates for, oh, several centuries now. As usual, a straightforward mission becomes anything but.

I continue to adore this series for its engaging characters and their continually developing relationships with each other, its creativity, sheer unpredictability, and for the way it periodically makes me burst out laughing. The books really should be read in order for maximum payoff, though. Only a few months to wait for the next installment, which is coming out in November. I highly recommend these books! If you are looking for a new supernatural/urban fantasy and are overwhelmed by the plethora of mediocre books out there, give this one a try - you won't regret it.

Books in the Jaz Parks series:
1. Once Bitten, Twice Shy
2. Another One Bites the Dust
3. Biting the Bullet
4. Bitten to Death
5. One More Bite

6. Bite Marks
7. Bitten in Two (to be released in the U.S. in November 2010)

Bite Marks (#6 in the Jaz Parks series) by Jennifer Rardin (Orbit, 2009)

Source: My local public library