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)

Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Courier - Gerald Brandt

The Courier
A San Angeles Novel
Gerald Brandt
Futuristic Thriller/SciFi

In the year 2140, life looks both very similar and very different.  The area from San Diego to San Francisco has grown into a single enormous metropolis, called San Angeles.  The spread is not only outward, but upward.  There are now seven distinct Levels.  As each Level was constructed over the last, the wealthier citizens moved up, the poorer remained below concrete ceilings.  Some have ambient lights that dim at “night” and brighten to denote “day.”  Access to Levels Six and Seven is strictly regulated. There are generations of people who have never seen the open sky.  Of course, business continues.  There are three huge corporations that control much of everyday life.  These three are in constant competition.  And the competition is ruthless.
Kris Ballard, on her own at 16 after the deaths of her parents, lives on Level 2.  She ekes out a precarious living by working as a courier.  Since most, if not all, internet and electronic transmission of data can be monitored and intercepted; businesses still send hard copies of the most sensitive information.  Her workday is almost over when Dispatch calls Kris and asks her to make one last run.  Only the prospect of a good tip on both ends (and the threat of no work at all tomorrow) convinces her to take it.  The pickup goes as planned.  When she arrives at the delivery point, she enters an office to discover a brutal murder in progress.  Relentlessly pursued, Kris runs for her life.
The first part of the book is dedicated to Kris and her pursuit by someone who wants to eliminate her.  As the story continues, the focus widens and, for the first time, readers realize that there is a much larger scenario at play.  Kris is simply a loose end.  As the focus broadens, the author begins filling in the larger picture of a conspiracy that covers the planet, and extends beyond it.  The world-building here is done incredibly well.  The multi-layered society is both figurative and very literal.  There’s a real sense of dark and claustrophobia in the scenes in the lower Levels.  Once the story breaks out into the open spaces of the highest Levels, it’s easy to understand how overwhelming the whole thing is for a scared kid.  She’s a kid readers will root for; smart and capable even while dealing with a terrifying situation.  The narrative is very fast-paced and should appeal to those who enjoy scifi, action, and thrillers alike.
Rating: 8
March 2016
ISBN# 978-0-7564-1139-8 (hardcover)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Runaway - Peter May

Peter May

For a group of teenagers, Glasgow in 1965 seems to offer little to no future.  Especially if the future you want is as a rock and roll band.  London – the Big Smoke – that’s where all the action was happening.  Like so many other young people, they are completely captivated by the sounds of the Beatles, the Kinks, and so many others.  They’ve been doing fairly well in their community as a cover band and have dreams far beyond the staid lives presented by their parents.  When their de facto leader, Jack, gets expelled from school for having a bit of cannabis, they all decide, each for his own reasons, to leave immediately.

The story begins in the present day, a literal lifetime away from their time in London.  Maurice, once their lead singer, calls to ask Jack for his help.  Jack owes him.  Maurice has terminal cancer and is probably weeks away from his own death.  There’s something that he must set right before he dies.  Jack can’t do this alone, so he enlists the help of his own very reluctant grandson, Ricky, and that of Dave, the onetime bassist.  Together, the four retrace that 1965 path to London, while Jack confronts his own past actions.

This story is related by present-day Jack, now a man pushing seventy.  He’s looking back at his life and is not particularly happy.  His wife died a few years ago, his son and daughter-in-law couldn’t wait to put him in a home for the aged.  His grandson is a computer genius who lost his first job and never found another.  That time in London was a true turning point in all of their lives.  Nothing was the same afterwards, for any of them, for all kinds of reasons.  The bond that was formed, though, is still strong some fifty years later. 
As it happens, the author once ran away to London as a teenager.  His experiences obviously color those scenes. There’s a true energy to this tale that jumps off the page. The characters might be people you know; they’re individuals, each with his own history and motives.  Human relationships are rarely neat and tidy.  It’s satisfying to witness Ricky and Jack, coming to appreciate each other as individuals.  Watching the relationship between Jack and Maurice evolve is very bittersweet.  They were best friends until London; even in the present day, Maurice is holding back secrets because of his own resentment.  I doubt I would have been brave (or foolhardy) enough to make that kind of trip, but I’m glad I got to go along with Jack, twice.        
Rating: 7 ½
February 2016
ISBN# 978-0-62365-789-5 (hardcover)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Perfect Days - Raphael Montes

Perfect Days: A Novel
Raphael Montes
(translated by Alison Entrekin)
Penguin Press
Crime Fiction

 This is one of those rare novels that utterly defies simple classification.  It is crime fiction; it’s also a road trip; it’s psychological suspense; and it is a very peculiar love story.  The two main characters are Teo and Clarice. Teo is a medical student.  A loner by nature, he lives very much in his own head.  His intellect allows him to sail through classes; caring for his wheelchair-bound mother adds to his sense of voluntary isolation.  Clarice wants to be a screenwriter.  She’s a free spirit, a sort of modern bohemian.  The only thing she takes seriously is her writing.  One afternoon, she spends the time it takes to smoke a cigarette in idle chat with a stranger at a party.

A chance meeting at a barbeque, a few moments of bantering conversation, is all it takes for Teo to fall for Clarice.  For Teo, the singular nature of his attraction to Clarice means that their relationship is destined to be real and lasting and meaningful.  The fact that he knows almost nothing about her is irrelevant.  They’ll get to know each other, spend time together in deep and thoughtful conversation.  He can see it all unfolding in his mind’s eye.  When she tells him she’s just not interested, he snaps and kidnaps her.  While that action was impulsive, the ease with which he formulates plans and conceives of methods to keep her subdued is frightening. 
The rest of the story is their journey, both as individuals and together.  Teo truly believes that all he needs is enough time to show her that he loves her and supports her.  He carefully encourages her with her screenplay, even reading it and giving notes.  The two move across Brazil, following the path of the screenplay characters. The author writes with such assurance, it’s hard to believe this is only his second novel.  Not for the faint of heart or stomach, this novel is deeply disturbing on multiple levels.   
Rating: 7 ½
February 2016
ISBN# 978-1-594-20640-5 (hardcover)

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Second Chance At Murder - Diana Orgain

A Second Chance At Murder
A Love Or Money Mystery
Diana Orgain
Berkley Prime Crime

After competing in one reality show called For Love Or Money, you’d think Georgia Thornton would like to take a break from the limelight and try to deal with her personal life.  Actually, you’d be right about that.  That’s exactly what she wants to do.  The sad truth is, though, any money from the first show has already been eaten up by taxes, paying existing bills, and investing in Georgia’s dad’s farm.   So winning another cash prize would be nice.  And the producers are all about getting Georgia on another show after her extra-curricular activities (A FIRST DATE WITH MURDER) generated so much press.  The concept is familiar enough.  This time, several teams of two will compete with each other by performing stunts or completing a scavenger hunt while travelling through various overseas locations. 

And that, in a nutshell, is why Georgia wakes up in the pitch blackness of a freezing tent, camped out somewhere in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Almost the first thing she notices (besides the cold, the dark, and the rock she’s sleeping on) is that Scott, her boyfriend, isn’t in the tent.  Cell phones are useless, so that won’t help.  Not willing to suffer alone, she pulls on her cold weather clothes and goes looking.  She doesn’t find Scott, but she does find a coupe other contestants wandering around the campsite.  One went to the outhouse, one can’t sleep, the usual.  They agree to help her search. 

Minutes away from the camp, they stumble over the dead body of a woman.  She doesn’t belong to the cast or the crew; she’s a stranger to everyone.  There’s another clue: a watch on the ground beside the dead woman.  It looks very much like the watch Scott has been wearing.  The police arrive and do a search, finding nothing else.  They ask for everyone’s passports.  Georgia retrieves hers, and then looks for Scott’s.  It’s not among his things.  Did he kill the woman then run?  Or did he take his passport in the dead of night and leave the tent (and Georgia) meaning not to return?  Or, as the police seem to think, did Georgia do away with her boyfriend in the middle of the night?
Given this set of circumstances, Georgia has a very personal stake in the outcome of the case.  She was dumped at the altar by her last boyfriend, so thinking Scott walked out on her is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw.  As before, her friend, Becca, is on the scene as a producer of the show.  Becca has a balancing act to perform, between her duties as a friend, and her duty to her career.  The author skillfully mixes the various characters (who are uniformly entertaining,) Spanish scenery and customs, and the sometimes near-lunacy of filming a TV show, making the whole a great deal richer than the sum of its parts.  It’s great fun to follow Georgia behind the scenes of a reality show, meeting people on both sides of the cameras.  I hope she continues long into the future.    

Rating: 7 ½
January 2216
ISBN# 978-0-425-27169-8  (paperback)