Friday, December 02, 2016

The Operative - Gerald Brandt

The Operative
A San Angeles Novel
Gerald Brandt

Futuristic Thriller/SciFi

Note: If you have not read THE COURIER, the first book in this series, this review will spoil just about everything.  If you wish to read it unspoiled, stop reading this, now.

Only a year ago, Kris was a 16-year-old courier, scratching out a subsistence living as a courier in the lower reaches of San Angeles.  The whole coast has been built up, level by level, over the years.  Now, in 2141, there are seven of them.  The lower Levels are completely enclosed in a grey substance called fibercrete; a ceiling only a few stories tall; and lit by Ambient lights to simulate night and day.  The lower Levels contain the water purification and sewage systems and the poor who can’t afford to migrate to the upper levels.  The upper Level, Level 7, contains the wealthiest citizens, fresh air, open land, and the sun.

When she first arrived at ACE Boot Camp, Kris was uncomfortable with all that sky, over her head, going on forever.  She’s used to it now, and is progressing her training.  ACE is the group that essentially rescued her last year; saved her life.  They’re engaged in an underground battle against the huge corporations that control the world and everyone in it.  And she’s been able to spend quality time with Ian, an ACE agent only a little older than herself.  He’s been through the same training; he seems to see the world through clear eyes.  He’s been, very literally, her lifeline for the past year. 

When the transports arrive one dawn, Kris is outside the camp.  She sees the explosions, hears, the shooting, and figures that they’ve finally come for her.  They race for San Angeles, hoping to find shelter and help.  Their transport is shot out of the sky and crashes through part of the fibercrete wall on Level 1, the bottom level.  Ian is pinned and tells Kris to get out while she can; he’ll find her.  To her shame, she leaves him; watching as the enemy executes the few survivors.  They take Ian alive, giving her hope.  At least she knows the lay of the land here.  Her former occupation serves her well, as she and another refugee from the camp make their way away from the crash site.  It doesn’t take long to figure out who might have been behind this crazy attack.  He’s still angry with her for being the loose thread that unraveled his master plan last year.  He’s dangerous, and he has Ian.

The first novel started with the narrow focus on Kris, the opened up to expose the layers of the story and society; this novel does almost the opposite.  While there’s still very much a rebellion fomenting against the all-powerful corporations, the driving force of this narrative is Kris’ determination to get Ian back.  There’s plenty more going on, including other characters left hanging at the end of THE COURIER, but it always goes back to Kris and her personal need to find Ian.  It’s a little strange, knowing what we already do (and considering what we discover over the course of this story) that this should be the case, but it works as a mechanism to get from the Kris who was a tough teenager without connections to the Kris who has seen and learned a lot more of life and is willing to stand up and fight.  She’s still a fresh character in a fascinating world, and I’m interested in seeing what happens next.

Rating: 7
November 2016

ISBN# 978-0-7564-1204-3 (hardcover)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Never Missing, Never Found - Amanda Panitch

Never Missing, Never Found
Amanda Panitch
Random House

Young Adult/Thriller

Once upon a time, Scarlett Contreras was an ordinary girl in third grade.  All of that changed when she was abducted off the street.  A man hauled her into his car and took her to a house, where she was forced to perform household tasks for the many women who lived in the house.  The boss was an older woman who told her, over and over again, that Scarlett’s family didn’t want her and was not even looking for her.  Being a terrified child, Scarlett believed her.  

During her imprisonment, another girl came to join her.  She was a small girl with a rat-ish face, named Pixie.  She continually tried to escape.  The penalty for such an attempt was, at the very least, a severe beating.  Pixie refused to fold, even after repeated beatings and frequent starvation punishments.  After being held for years, Scarlett was suddenly given a choice: remain in captivity with the girl she now calls her sister, or leave her behind and leave the house, alone.  It was a difficult choice, but Scarlett left the house.  She made it to a police station and told them her name.  Within hours, she was reunited with her family.

Trying for the life of a normal teenager, at 17, Scarlett takes a job at a local amusement park for the summer.  She begins making friends while trying very hard not to speak of her past.  Then Katharina appears.  She’s also a new hire and seems strangely familiar.  She seems to know Scarlett, and does not like her.  She makes mean comments to other employees, and alludes to Scarlett’s years of captivity and the fears that she still carries.  She clearly knows more than she should.  Who is this girl?  What does she know?  Why is she so set on ruining Scarlett’s attempt at a real life?

Like her previous novel DAMAGE DONE, the author does a great job at telling the story while building suspense.  It seems both completely impossible, and possible, that Katharina might be Pixie.  She might very well be angry that Scarlett left her in that house, alone.  This might be her revenge.  But that sounds so crazy, even to Scarlett.  She’s trying so hard to build a real life for herself, with friends, a possible boyfriend, a job.  Who else would want to ruin that for her?

The plotting is laid out perfectly, playing both sides of the ‘is she/isn’t she’ question with equal conviction.  When you add in a sister who, on her best day, doesn’t seen thrilled to have her home, a dad who seems to wish that she could just forget the whole thing, and a bunch of summer co-workers who are more than happy to spread and believe rumors,  and you’ve got a powerfully emotional story.  This story is possibly too dark for younger/tween readers, but it’s great for teens and older readers alike.

Rating: 8
July 2016

ISBN# 978-0-553-550764-5   (hardcover)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Ninth City Burning - J. Patrick Black

Ninth City Burning
J. Patrick Black

Science Fiction/Military

Five hundred years ago, an alien race came to Earth.  Because they arrive on a February 14th, we call them Valentines.  We don’t know what they call themselves, because they didn’t come to talk.  They announced their arrival by blowing major cities off the face of the planet in seconds.  They brought death and destruction and a new kind of weapon, powered by something called ‘thelemity.’  Humans had never heard of this power before, but quickly learned to use it.  Our technology leaped forward, and we were able to take the fight to the Valentines.

After the destruction of so many of Earth’s cities, and the attendant death toll, society had to re-order itself.  There are several large Cities around the globe, each centered around the war effort and under the rule of the military force.  Outside the Cities are settlements that exist to supply food, goods, services, and draftees to the Cities.  Further out, in the wilderness, there are groups of people who know nothing of the war, never enter Cities, and only wish to live free.  In the Cities, kids train for the military from the time they enter school.

Several centuries of constant fighting seem to have brought this war to a stalemate, with no end in sight.  Both sides have been using largely the same tactics since the war began.  There are a few tacticians, though, who believe they detect a change in the way the Valentines are acting and reacting.  These few believe that something big, something different may happen in the very near future.  Something that could end the war and the human race.

This debut novel works well on so many different levels.  The world-building is solid and absolutely realistic.  The different levels of society make sense against a background of centuries of war.  If you’re a scifi fan, there’s plenty to love here.  The concept of thelemity and how it works is fascinating.  The way space travel works here, including time moving at a different rate on Earth and at the Front.  For techies and gearheads, the military hardware is amazing. 

Aside from all of that, this is a very character-driven story.  Much of the first section of the book is devoted to introducing a diverse and far-flung cast of characters.  Jax lives in Ninth City and can use thelemity.  He’s only twelve, but his ability leaves him respected but isolated.  Naomi is from the wilderness and a tight-knit family.  Her ability throws her into an entirely new life, fighting a war that she never knew existed.  And there are the “kiddos” from the settlement who are unlucky enough to get caught up in the most recent draft, changing all of their lives.  Each one is an individual with hopes and dreams and fears.  Watching these people move through events large and small makes this a very satisfying read.  I hope to see much more from this talented author.

Rating: 9
September 2016

ISBN# 978-1-101-99144-2 (hardcover)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Invisible Library - Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library
Genevieve Cogman
The Library exists in a shadowy place where alternate worlds intersect.  Librarians are agents for the Library who travel to various alternates by way of portals, in order to collect important works of literature.  Some works must be collected because they can strengthen the bridge between the Library and the world in question.  Some works seem vital to the world itself.  And some are collected simply because they differ in some aspect from the other, original, or known versions of the text. 

Irene is a Librarian.  She travels to various alternates to collect various books.  Sometimes, she can simply walk into a book shop and purchase a copy, then return home.  Other times, the original must be obtained.  More intricate scenarios require undercover identities, longer time windows, and specific, possibly-illegal talents.  She’ll be travelling with Kai, a trainee who was recruited from his home world, in part because of some youthful – if shady - indiscretions.  This is her first time functioning as a mentor, and she wonders why a trainee is being included in a job that will, no doubt, require some finesse.

Irene notes that the alternate world contains a good deal of technology, and a bit of magic.  It is also infected by chaos; meaning that the natural laws of the world do not exclude the presence of the supernatural.  On the surface, however, it appears to be Victorian-era London.  The assignment is to obtain the original manuscript of an edition of Grimm.  The volume in question is apparently in the safe of the owner.  The owner, a vampire, was recently murdered.  In addition, there are Fae agents interested in this volume, for reasons unknown.  All of the above complicates things, of course.  As does the fact that, once Irene gets to the safe, she finds that the book has been stolen by an infamous female cat burglar.

This book is one of those rare things: a story that you’d like to live in, or at least visit for a very long time.  The characters, good and bad and in between, are all drawn very well; they have histories and motives that cause them to act/react the way they do.  The world-building here is tremendous.  The descriptions of places and people and the very atmosphere are so evocative that I could very easily picture The British Museum, draped in fog, with zeppelins tethered to the roof.  Everything works the way it does for a reason, including the things that are infected with chaos.  The plot is multi-layered and almost more than one book can safely contain.  Almost.   Each new layer builds nicely onto the next, expanding the scope of the story.

The story really begins firing on all cylinders when Irene and Kai meet Peregrine Vale, Earl of Leeds.  Vale is an eccentric but very famous detective about London.  His name – his mere presence - can open doors for Irene and Kai that might otherwise be firmly closed.  He knows everyone who is anyone, and many people who are not.  This is not to say that Irene needs too much help.  She’s quite competent and resourceful; capable of keeping her head when things go haywire.  Kai, too, seems oddly competent, and Irene begins to suspect that there might be more to him than meets the eye.  The story is really a joy from beginning to end.  If you love fantasy, detectives, thrillers, and books… you have found a home here. 
Rating: 9 ½
June 2016
ISBN# 978-1-101-98864-0 (trade paperback) 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Voyagers: Game Of Flames - Robin Wasserman

Game Of Flames (Book Two)
Robin Wasserman
Random House Children’s

SciFi/Middle Grade
Note:  This is Book 2, so this review will spoil the ending of Book 1.  If you don’t want that to happen, read Book 1 first!
Earth is running out of energy.  The remaining resources available here will last only a few years.  The only option is to look somewhere else for energy.  That’s why there’s the Alpha Team.  A team of four kids who volunteered to go out into space to collect the elements needed to create a new, renewable energy source.  It’s exciting, but scary.  Because the truth is, if they don’t manage to collect and combine all six of the required elements, they won’t have enough power to return their ship to Earth.
Dash, Piper, Gabriel, and Carly trained for this mission together.  But training in simulators and being millions of miles from Earth are very different.  They’re headed to their second planet, Magnus-7, to collect the second element.  The planet is like one huge factory.  It’s all metal and moving parts and danger.  Training is good, but there are no do-overs here.  Before they arrive, they get a very nasty surprise: They’re not the only team out there.  There’s a second team, in a similar-yet-different ship, and they seem to think they’re competing with the Alphas.

Omega Team is made up of the four kids who came in second during training.  They’re pretty bitter about it, especially their leader, Anna.  They’re being directed by someone who thinks it’s foolish to simply bring the energy source home and give it away to everyone.  He wants to control the energy and become rich by charging for it.  Dash suggests that the teams should work together, but Anna doesn’t want to hear it.  For her, winning is the only thing that matters.  Once they’re on the planet, they find a war raging, and are forced to take sides. 
There’s a lot going on in this second book.  Obviously, they need the second element.  But there’s a long way to go to get it.  This mission involves getting through the maze of the planet, dealing with the locals, and even dealing with the other humans there.  It will take the whole team to make it work.  So far, this series is more than solid.  Each character is unique (one of the crew members can’t walk and uses a hover chair) and each brings different skills to the story.  The story is fast paced and very exciting.  Readers, be on the lookout for some huge news about one of the crew!
Winter 2015
ISBN# 978-0-385-38658-6  (hardcover)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Black Rabbit Hall - Eve Chase

Black Rabbit Hall
Eve Chase
G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Black Rabbit Hall is one of those places that you wish was real.  It’s an estate in Cornwall with an enormous main house in dire need of repairs and updates.  Outside, there’s a patch of woods big enough to get lost in if you’d like.  There’s a spot on the cliffs that allows you to look out over the ocean, and below that, a private beach.  For fourteen-year-old Amber, her twin Toby, and their young siblings Kitty and Barney, it’s a magical place.  The summers they spend there seem to be bits of life suspended in time.  The summer of 1968 is no different.  Long, hot days; time spent reading or dozing interspersed with trips to the shore; picnics with Momma.  Nothing ever changes at Black Rabbit Hall.  Until the day it does.  A sudden, tragic accident irrevocably changes the lives of everyone.

In the present day, there’s Lorna.  Things are changing for her, too.  Her mother recently passed away, leaving her to plan her wedding more or less alone.  At the moment, she and her fiancé, Jon, are looking for wedding venues.  Lorna wants something special, as most brides do.  When she sees an ad online for Pencraw Hall, she feels it will be perfect.  The more she thinks about it, the more she absolutely must see it.  Arriving one afternoon, Lorna meets the owner, Mrs. Alton.  The elderly widow lives in the manor house alone, except for a couple of women who cook and clean.  Most of the house is shut off, but Lorna loves it.  Jon does not.  When Mrs. Alton invites Lorna to come back for a few days as a sort of a ‘test drive’ in the place, Lorna feels compelled to do so. 

I am floored by the realization that this is a first novel.  It’s beautifully-written, almost lyrical in tone.  The descriptive passages are so evocative that I felt I was there, with the characters, experiencing what they did.  I’ve heard comparisons to “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier, and I think that’s fairly accurate.  The plotlines are different, but the overall tone is there.  The tale is a sort of gothic tale.  The house seems almost magical; it’s like a character in its own right.  Eventually, the two plots above merge, of course.  I will not write another word about it, though.  Each reader should have the pleasure of experiencing it unspoiled.  This is the kind of book you can open up and fall into, never wanting to leave.  I admit that I felt a pang of loss when I turned the last page.  I can only hope for many, many more novels from this author.

Rating: 9
February 2016
ISBN# 978-0-399-17415-4 (hardcover) 
            978-0-698-19145-7 (eBook)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Witches With The Enemy - Barb Hendee

Witches With The Enemy
A Novel Of The Mist-Torn Witches
Barb Hendee

Celine and Amelie are sisters and seers.  They operate an apothecary in a prosperous village under the protection of Prince Anton.  It wasn’t always this way.  They were forced to leave the village of their birth just a year ago, running for their lives from Prince Damek’s guardsmen.  When Celine refused to lie to a girl about what her life would be like married to Damek, the prince ordered both sisters killed and their home burned to the ground.  Known for his cruelty and volatility, the news that he plans to marry comes as a surprise.  The lady, Rochelle, is young, beautiful, and very sweet. 

But there’s a snag.  Rochelle and her family are currently at Damek’s castle, hammering out the details of the upcoming union.  The chief negotiator, Carlotta, Rochelle’s rather unpleasant older sister, suddenly dropped dead the previous evening after taking a sip of the local wine.  This could obviously stall or end the negotiations.  And that would make Damek look bad in his father’s eyes.  Since their father will determine which of his sons (Damek or Anton) will inherit, this is a serious concern.  And that’s how Anton finds himself in the bizarre position of asking Celine and Amelie to ride to the aid of his older brother, lifelong tormentor, and direct competitor.

This series is so much fun.  In each installment, we learn a bit more about the sisters.  This time, we also get some very interesting background on the brother princes.  It fleshes out both characters, elevating them from the obvious good/bad dichotomy that’s been enough until now.  The sisters are, of course, terrified to be returning to a place controlled by Damek, but Anton pledges his protection.  One points out that this might be a ruse to lure Anton in and kill him, leaving his brother as the only heir by default.  Anton has some pretty believable reasons for going in spite of that.

The story is the third in a series (THE MIST-TORN WITCHES, WITCHES IN RED) that mixes fantasy and mystery to great effect.  Celine and Amelie are Mist Torn witches.  Celine can see the future, and Amelie can see the past.  It takes their skills as seers in addition to their intelligence and observations to stop the killings (another death occurs the night they arrive.)  There’s a subplot running through the proceedings that I didn’t anticipate, but it added to the whole.  If you enjoy fantasy, mysteries that may end in the paranormal, or both, you should take a look at this author.

Rating: 7 ½
May 2015
ISBN# 978-0-451-47199-8 (paperback)