Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

Rory Deveaux is back in this second book in the Shades of London series. This review may contain some spoilers to the first book, so I suggest that if you are in the mood for a compelling supernatural mystery you check out the Edgar Award-nominated The Name of the Star instead and read no further here.

Following the harrowing events of the first book, Rory has been living in Bristol with her parents, who are worried for her and are constantly hovering solicitously nearby. When her therapist suggests that she return to London, to the scene of the Jack the Ripper copycat murders that she was so perilously involved in, Rory is delighted - despite the horrific things that happened at Wexford, she misses the boarding school and the good friends that she made there - not to mention the members of the Shades, London's secret group of supernatural police specialists.

Rory finds that school is difficult; she cannot focus, as she's constantly suffering flashbacks from the previous year. A string of strange murders is happening in the city, and she just knows they are somehow related to ghosts, but the Shades are not convinced. Rory soon finds herself a dangerous position as she tries to determine the truth behind the killings.

I love Rory, her strength and wit and determination. The first part of the book unwinds slowly, as Rory truly is suffering from PTSD, and I was glad to see that her experience was not brushed airily aside as she moved on to fearlessly confront more scary things - she came across as a teenager who had survived a terrible event as was, with the help of her family, therapist and friends, learning to come to terms with it. I enjoy reading about strong female characters (and recommending books featuring them to teens - and others - at my library), but I become annoyed with the unrealistic super female that appears all too often - the beautiful, tall, witty, butt-kicking martial arts expert who is always on top of things, never makes mistakes (unless the plot requires it) and is unfazed by any and all danger. Rory is a realistic heroine, funny and strong, fallible, learns from her mistakes, and has a good heart. I can't wait for the next book in this wonderful series.

Books in the Shades of London Series:
1. The Name of the Star
2. The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath (#2 in the Shades of London series) by Maureen Johnson (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013)

Also by Maureen Johnson:
Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes

Monday, December 30, 2013

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses

This YA book explores traditional fairy tales from a dark, often gruesome perspective, mining the most disturbing aspects (and there are plenty) of the stories from Anderson and the brothers Grimm. The twelve dancing princesses, Bluebeard, the little match girl, the robber bridegroom and, of course, Little Red Riding hood are among the tales retold from various perspectives.

Some take a fairly traditional approach to the stories.  "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" begins: 
When one sleeps, they all sleep. When one pouts, they all pout. And they all wear out their shoes in a roadhouse by the lake."
Others have a more modern, up-to-date spin, as with the story "Bearskin:"
The soldier had seen the devil in the desert. And he'd seen the devil's toys - IEDs, VBIEDs, the maniacs with dynamite strapped to their chests.
So he wasn't surprised when the devil came right up to him in the VA hospital room and said, "So here's the deal. If you can wear a bearskin for seven years, you'll stop having  bad dreams. And I'll make you rich. But it you ever take the bearskin off, I get your soul."

This is a quirky, compelling, darkly humorous and often disturbing little book that will have appeal for fans of fairy tales in all the shapes and forms. It's a mixture of poetic prose and free verse, heavier on concepts and ideas than on characterization, interesting and full of surprises. My library shelves this in the YA section, but it definitely has adult appeal and I would not recommend it to younger teens because of some of the content. I look forward to seeing what Koertge turns his talents to next.

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge; illustrated by Andrea Dezso (Candlewick Press, 2012)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger

This one totally had me when I read the tagline at the back of the book: It's one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It's quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to finishing school.

This teen novel is set in the same fictional world as Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series and features Sophronia, a brash and adventurous teenager who doesn't fit in with her mother's plans for her to be a demure, marriageable young lady. She finds herself whisked off against her will to Madame Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, but on the way there she discovers that the school will not be at all what she expected (and certainly is not what her mother had in mind for her). In fact, she might even find herself liking it there.

Nefarious plots, supernatural creatures, magic, dancing lessons, assassination lessons - what's not to like? Funny, exciting, mostly predictable but still packing a few unexpected twists and turns, this teen novel will appeal to Gallager Girl Academy and Sorcery and Cecelia fans, and to just about anyone, teen or adult, who is looking for an amusing, steampunkish romp with strong female characters and suspense mixed with a bit of silliness.

Books in the Finishing School series:
1. Etiquette and Espionage
2. Curtsies and Conspiracies

Etiquette and Espionage (#1 in the Finishing School series) by Gail Carriger (Little, Brown and Co., 2013)

Also by Gail Carriger:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Vesper by Jeff Sampson

This YA fantasy novel features teenage Emily Webb, a girl who prefers to stay in the background at school, keeping to herself and following her own geekish interests. Things change for her when she starts having dreams about becoming a stronger, bolder Emily, dreams that are so real but in which she behaves entirely out of character. She soon realizes that these dreams are, in fact, real, and that she is both drawn to and repelled by the nighttime version of herself. When a girl - also named Emily - is murdered one night, Emily becomes drawn into the mystery - both of the identity of the killer and of the reason behind the changers that are happening to her.

This was certainly an action-packed read, and I liked that Emily doesn't sit around whining about what is happening. It is certainly unsettling to her, but she approaches the situation with strength and tenacity, and she takes charge as best she can, given her limited knowledge of what is going on. While I will certainly be recommending this series to teens at my library who are looking for an page-turning fantasy, I personally didn't connect with the characters enough to continue with the series. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but I guess I am a little tired of all the loose ends that are inevitably present at the end of this kind of book, leaving the reader hanging until the next one comes out. It sure would be nice to have things end in a conclusive way once in a while!

Books in the Deviants series:
1. Vesper
2. Havoc
3. Ravage

Vesper (#1 in the Deviants series) by Jeff Sampson (Balzer and Bray, 2011)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Takedown Twenty

When I show up at work to find a brand-new Stephanie Plum novel waiting for me on my desk, it's like finding a cupcake or a fudgy frosted brownie. I exclaim Hooray! and spend the next few hours impatiently waiting to crack the book open and find out what's been going on in Trenton since the last time I visited Stephanie and her quirky assortment of friends, family, co-workers, skips and, of course, romantic interests.

In this installment, Stephanie has incurred the wrath of just about everyone in town when she goes after an elderly man, a mobster known as "Uncle Sunny," who is wanted for murder (a witness captured the incident on his phone and posted it on YouTube, so there's no doubt about his guilt). He's a charming man who wears a bow tie, and not only is Stephanie not getting any help at all from anyone, they are actively opposing her in every way they can.  To make her life more complicated, her mother sets her up with the local butcher - and is encouraging Stephanie to quit her dangerous bounty hunter job and work at the butcher shop instead. Things are going so badly that Stephanie finds herself admitting that her mother might actually be right.

Fans of the Stephanie Plum series will find a lot to like here - plenty of Morelli and Ranger, Lula and even a giraffe. Humor abounds, but there are also some heartfelt moments and plenty of suspense. Anyone in the mood for a break from the stress and demands of life - particularly at this time of year - will find a welcome respite in Stephanie Plum's Trenton. The series is best read in order. Lots of fun!

Takedown Twenty (#20 in the Stephanie Plum series) by Janet Evanovich (Bantam Books, 2013)

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
Finger Lickin' Fifteen
16. Sizzling Sixteen

17. Smokin' Seventeen
18. Explosive Eighteen
19. Notorious Nineteen
20. Takedown Twenty

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

I was about halfway through this book before I realized it was a sequel of sorts to Kushner's Swordspoint, which I had read back in the late 80s when it was published. I couldn't remember much about it other than the fact that I'd enjoyed it, and I was too excited to see what happened to stop reading this and pick up the first one - which is saying something, because normally I'm such a stickler about reading things in order.

The setting is the city of Riverside, where our heroine, Katherine, is sent to live with her uncle. She had envisioned going to the city and attending lavish parties wearing lovely gowns, maybe even falling in love - but her uncle has other plans for her. Known as the Mad Duke Tremontaine, he has decided that it would be far more amusing to have her trained up to become an expert at swordsmanship. And because her mother is in the duke's debt, Katherine has little choice. She finds herself thrust into a world of political intrigue, duels, and swordplay, and the more she learns of her uncle, the more she wonders about the truth behind his often outrageous behavior.

This was a wonderful read - fantasy writing at its best - with rich world-building, complex characters, and an exciting, fast-paced plot. Katherine is an admirable, endearing heroine who will appeal to fans of Graceling and Sorcery and Cecelia. I'm looking forward to returning to the city of Riverside when I go back to reread the first book, Swordspoint.

Books in The Swords of Riverside series:
1. Swordspoint
2. The Privilege of the Sword

The Privilege of the Sword (#2 in The Swords of Riverside series) by Ellen Kushner (Bantam Books, 2006)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Will and Whit

Despite the fact that Laura Lee Gulledge has published only two graphic novels so far, she is at the top of my list of favorite graphic novel authors. Her books are beautifully illustrated, surprising, creative, quirky, funny, moving, and just all-around delightful. I first discovered her with Page by Paige, which I adored. In fact, I was almost worried to pick up this second one because I felt my expectations may have been unrealistically high. But I needn't have worried.

From the cover I expected this to be a traditional love story, but it wasn't that at all. Not that there isn't romance - that's certainly a part of it - but as with Page by Paige, there was so much more. Our heroine is teenager Will (Wilhelmina) Huxstep, who is wrestling with some demons - trying to come to terms with a family tragedy that has left her fearful of the dark. She is a creative person, and she battles her fear through her art: she makes beautiful, whimsical lamps. She enjoys getting away from the plugged-in aspects of life and out into the world, doing fun things with her friends (also creative, artistic people). When the threat of hurricane Whitney - and the accompanying blackout - is bearing down upon them, Will will need to muster all her bravery - and creative outlook on life - to make it through.

I just loved this book. Gulledge uses metaphors in her artwork  in such amazing ways (this one is populated by very interesting shadows that give the careful reader insight into thoughts and feelings that lie beneath the surface), and the artwork and the words flow from page to page in a natural way that lends itself perfectly to the story. The characters are engaging and funny and feel very real, and they interact in ways that often had me laughing out loud. This is a moving story that teens (and adults) will certainly find appealing, and if you have been thinking of taking the plunge into graphic novels, this one would be a wonderful one to explore. Highly recommended!

Will and Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge (Amulet Books, 2013)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

This is one of the few books that I read after seeing the movie, and this is also one of the rare times that I have had difficulty deciding which one I liked better!

I hesitate to say too much about it, because it is fun to just let the story unfold and go with it. People who love zombie stories definitely need to read this one - and people who think they don't like zombie stories really should give it a try. It is told from the zombie's point of view - and in a funny, sensitive, very interesting sort of way. It involves romance, coming-of-age, humor, action, and, of course, some blood and dismemberment just for fun. Also there are echos of Romeo and Juliet. 

What's not to like? Give this one a try - you won't be sorry you did. Oh, and the movie? You really need to check that out as well. It's the most charming zombie movie you will ever see.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (Atria Books, 2011)

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Recruit by Robert Muchamore

Eleven-year-old James is a bit of a troublemaker, but there is no doubt he has a keen mind. When he and his sister are orphaned, he finds himself recruited to be part of a teen spy group. After all, who would suspect children of bugging houses and doing recon work? He has a very rigorous basic training to make it through, and if he gets through that, his first mission.

I picked this one up because it is popular among preteen and teen boys at my library, so I thought I should check it out. It is a fast read, rather predictable, but with characters who offer a bit more in complexity than I had expected, particularly some of the minor characters. I found that James's behavior wasn't always believable for an eleven-year-old boy, but I doubt younger readers will have an issue with that. There is a lot of fast-paced action here, and while I don't personally feel the need to continue with the series, I'll definitely be recommending it to young readers at my library.

Books in the CHERUB series:
1. The Recruit 
 2. Class A aka The Dealer
3. Maximum Security
4. The Killing
5. Divine Madness
6. Man Vs Beast
7. The Fall
8. Mad Dogs
9. The Sleepwalker
10. The General
11. Brigands M.C.
12. Shadow Wave 

The Recruit (#1 in the CHERUB series) by Robert Muchamore (Simon Pulse, 2004)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

This is a lovingly illustrated adult fairy tale about a postman who falls in love with a raven. They stay together and have a child, a girl who is a raven at heart and feels trapped inside her human body. It's an unusual story with a dreamlike quality that unfolds in a matter-of-fact but magical way. I enjoyed it very much!

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger (Abrams Comic Arts, 2013)

Also by Niffenegger: The Night Bookmobile

Also reviewed at:
This Book is Reserved
Nomad Reader

Friday, December 6, 2013

Blackout by Connie Willis

I'm struggling a bit with how to review this one. It's a story set in 2060 Oxford, where historians travel back in time to learn more about particular eras and events in history. This one focuses on England during World War II. There were things I loved about it, and things I didn't like so much. So I'll tell you what those things are, and leave it at that.

What I loved:

  • The setting. By the time I finished reading this I felt as though I'd sat through the blitz in the Underground and other basements around London. She clearly did a ton of research into life in England during the war, and it shows.
  • The way certain scenes would just take off and become so gripping and compelling that it felt as though I were experiencing them as one of the characters.

What I didn't love so much:
  • As clear as it was that Willis thoroughly researched the background of this one, there was a little too much of her research in the book, indigestible lumps of exposition that dragged down the narrative for me.
  • The characters were sort of eh. I didn't really care much about any of them - in fact, with all the point-of-view shifts I could barely keep them apart, to the point where I'd find myself several pages into a new chapter thinking I was reading about one character when, in fact, I'd been reading about another.
  • The book felt way longer than it needed to be.
  • The way the book just ended, without any real conclusion to speak of.
  • I could never figure out the point of the time-travel investigations. It seemed so purely academic and arbitrary, which took away some of the tension I think I was supposed to be feeling.
So yeah, good and bad. I'm not sorry I read it, but even though the book just ends, clearly to be continued in the sequel, I have no intention of reading any further. If you really love World War II-era stories, this one is definitely for you. If not, you might want to give it a pass and pick up something else by this wonderful author. 

Blackout by Connie Willis (Spectra Ballantine Books, 2010)

Also by Connie Willis:
Inside Job