The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
Though I was, of course, aware of the fervor surrounding this series, I’d never read it until now, nor have I seen the movies. (I do own some nail polish inspired by it, though!) Still, I managed to absorb a few facts through cultural osmosis.

1) The heroine is named Katniss.
2) There is also a boy called Peeta.
3) There is an MC lady with pink hair.
4) A competition and various districts?

I came close to immediately casting the book aside when Katniss casually admits to having once attempted to drown a kitten in a bucket, but this turned out to be an effective way of showing how her impoverished, hardscrabble existence in “the Seam” of District 12 has forced Katniss (now 16) to become ruthlessly practical in order to keep her family alive after the death of her father five years previously in a mining accident.

Katniss lives in Panem, which we learn “rose from the ashes of a place that was once called North America.” There were originally thirteen districts, but when they rebelled against the Capitol, District 13 was obliterated and the Hunger Games were established to discourage future rebellion attempts. Each year, during a ceremony called “the Reaping,” a boy and girl from each District are selected to fight to the death in the games, which are televised across the nation. Watching them is mandatory. It’s the Capitol’s way of saying, “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do.” The person Katniss loves most in the world is her 12-year-old sister, Prim, so when it’s Prim’s name that gets drawn at the Reaping, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place. A boy who once showed kindness to Katniss when she was starving, Peeta Mellark, is chosen as the male “tribute.”

I’m extremely thankful I didn’t abandon this book at the outset, because what ensues is fascinating YA dystopia at its best. Katniss and Peeta are assigned a drunken mentor named Haymitch (a past victor from District 12) who advises them in various aspects of strategy, part of which is keeping Katniss’ archery prowess a secret from her competitors and part of which is creating a narrative that the two of them are actually in love. Katniss believes for a long time that Peeta is faking it every bit as much as she is, but that’s not the case.

Katniss is an extremely resourceful protagonist, and watching her brainstorm solutions to tricky problems reminded me a fair amount of Sarasa in Basara, which is quite a big compliment. There was a little more of the romance stuff than I really wanted, mostly Katniss being confused about what her real feelings for Peeta are and what that means for her relationship with her hunting buddy, Gale, back home. But most of the time, she’s extremely capable and badass and yet not emotionally closed off.

I loved learning about her world and am sufficiently worried that she’s now under increased scrutiny from the Capitol due to her actions in the games. I cannot possibly start book two soon enough.

Catching Fire
As Catching Fire begins, Katniss and Peeta—rich, famous, and hated by the Capitol—are about to embark upon their victory tour. After President Snow puts in a personal appearance to inform Katniss that she and Peeta must convince the nation that they defied the Capitol simply out of love for one another, they do their best but are unsuccessful. Unrest continues to foment. As Katniss debates whether to flee with her family or stay and fight, President Snow announces the rules of this year’s Quarter Quell, a special Hunger Games that occurs every 25 years. This time, the tributes will be chosen from past victors, which means Katniss and Peeta are going back in.

I found the first half of the book to be pretty slow. Katniss spends a lot of time being wishy-washy regarding her feelings for Gale and Peeta and it becomes tiresome. There’s literally a line that says, “I really can’t think about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite.” “NO YOU CAN’T, KATNISS,” I wrote back in my notes. However, the action picks up considerably once the rules of the Quarter Quell are announced.

This time, Katniss has half a dozen allies in the arena, so doesn’t have quite as many opportunities to solve tricky problems entirely on her own. (Mostly, she’s focused on keeping Peeta alive and has extracted a promise from Haymitch that this time he will prioritize Peeta’s survival over her own.) Yet, she is the one who understands what brilliant Wiress, who struggles to communicate clearly, is trying to tell the group about the arena and, later, quickly grasps what inventive Beetee is really trying to achieve with his electrical trap.

I did not see the ending coming at all, and while I don’t think this book is quite as strong as the first, it still ends with our characters in an interesting place. Haymitch has broken his promise and saved Katniss because she is the one who’s the face of the rebellion and she’s absolutely furious with him, and yet is that something she can walk away from? Meanwhile, Peeta is in the grip of the Capitol. Onward to the final installment!

Mockingjay
Mockingjay is quite a bit different than the other two books in the trilogy, and wound up being my favorite. Katniss, Finnick, Beetee, and a small group of survivors from District 12 find themselves in District 13, which had not been destroyed as the Capitol claimed. Katniss blames herself for the destruction of District 12 and spends the opening chapters in misery, not knowing whether Peeta is alive or dead, hating everyone and herself most of all. Meanwhile, she’s being pressured by the rebels to take on the symbolic role of the Mockingjay to unite the districts against the Capitol. It’s only after Peeta appears on television, calling for a ceasefire, that Katniss agrees to the arrangement, forcing President Coin (leader of District 13) to agree that Peeta won’t be executed as a traitor and also hoping to negate his influence on the populace.

I loved that District 13 is not some utopia, and is almost as controlling as the Capitol. I loved that Katniss, a volatile teenager, isn’t actually leading the revolution, but is initially just a figurehead who features in propaganda videos designed to inspire the districts. I loved the scenes where the people of District 13 flee to caverns during an air raid, and the fun-starved citizens are entertained by the antics of Buttercup chasing a flashlight beam. I loved Prim’s growing skill and confidence as a healer. I loved Finnick and his revelations about how Snow abuses victors, particularly attractive ones, and how we see a totally new side to him when he’s able to finally marry the woman he loves. I loved that, after the districts are united against the Capitol, the rebels have no more use for Katniss and intend to leave her behind until she manages to complete a grueling training course and qualifies to go to the Capitol as part of a sharpshooting squad, led by Boggs. I really loved Boggs, who acts as a sort of father figure to Katniss and wants to protect her from President Coin’s machinations. I loved all the scenes of battle in the Capitol, especially the fact that Katniss doesn’t storm the president’s mansion and take Snow out single-handedly. The ending is great and very satisfying.

I didn’t love the romantic triangle stuff, though it’s obvious by now that it isn’t really a triangle anymore. Katniss loves Peeta, but she hasn’t realized it yet. Things are complicated when he is rescued from the Capitol and immediately tries to kill her, having had his memories altered as part of Snow’s torture. It takes a long time for glimmers of his real self to emerge, but once that happens they begin to grow back together. I did feel that some of this was rushed at the very end, which is a complaint I could also make about the deaths of some major characters. I realize that in the heat of battle there’s no time to stop and grieve, but it was still kind of a bummer.

All in all, this is an excellent trilogy. I regret that it took me so long to read it but am happy that I finally did!

Note: Ten years after Mockingjay was published, a prequel was released. Alas, reviews are not good and I’ve decided not to potentially sully my opinion of the series by reading it.

Two by Caroline B. Cooney

cooney1The Face on the Milk Carton
The Face on the Milk Carton was first published in 1990, but though I actually was a young adult at the time, I was unaware of its existence. The basic plot is that lactose-intolerant Janie Johnson rebels one day at lunch and has some milk, only to see her own face on the carton alongside the name “Jennie Spring” and a 1-800 number for missing children. She begins to remember things about her past, but is racked by indecision because her parents are so lovely. Could they possibly be capable of such a thing? And what does it say about her that she was lured away willingly with the promise of an ice cream sundae?

It’s interesting to compare the way this book is written to how it would be today; a modern version would probably be in the first person, for example, and would not contain fifteen-year-olds who believe that “dumbbell” is an age-appropriate insult. Possibly it would involve genuine peril. In comparison, Face comes across as a bit chaste, though there are allusions to how far Janie and her boyfriend have gone in their making out. Perhaps “mild” would be a better word for it.

There are some things I liked and didn’t like about the book. As if there were no other way to solve Janie’s dilemma, we get an extremely contrived solution in which she a) puts an account of her abduction down on paper and b) slips it into an envelope onto which she has previously typed her actual return address and c) decides to address it to her birth family though she intends to take it home and put it in the attic and d) promptly loses it and must assume that a good Samaritan will affix a stamp and send it for her. Eyeroll. I did like that Janie’s boyfriend showed his true (and shitty) colors by getting all huffy that her inconvenient kidnapping trauma was cutting into the attention/action he was getting. Alas, though her “drop dead!” reaction was satisfying, she was soon feeling bad about it. Eyeroll again.

Still, despite my complaints, I did think it was a pretty enjoyable (and quick!) read, and I’m interested to see what happens next.

cooney2Whatever Happened to Janie?
While the first book in this series had some suspense to it, Whatever Happened to Janie? is 100% family drama. Because the family that raised her, the Johnsons, has no legal claim to her, Janie is returned to the Spring family after an absence of almost twelve years. The book is primarily about her struggles to adjust to different parents, four siblings, and a life less affluent and cultured than the one she left behind.

Janie feels intensely loyal to the Johnsons, and thus doesn’t try as hard as she might to get along with the Springs. Indeed, she is frequently hurtful to them on purpose. We do get the points of view of her two older siblings, which I appreciated, as they show that the Springs are truly a very nice family that simply had unrealistic expectations about what would happen when Janie came home. Surprise! She’s still as much of a brat as she was when she was three.

There were some subtle moments I enjoyed when she did start to think of the Springs are her real family, but just as she makes real progress, she decides she’s going back to the Johnsons. The Springs consent to this, and everyone plans to continue visiting and corresponding, but it still strikes me as a weird arrangement. Is she going to live the rest of her life as Janie Johnson, then? Will she get her name changed legally? What kind of documentation did the Johnsons provide to enroll her in school in the first place, come to think of it?

Anyway, I’m thinking about it too much.

After this, I did plan to continue on to the next installment in the series, The Voice on the Radio. I checked it out from the library more than once, but just could not summon any enthusiasm for a book about Janie’s shitty attention-seeking boyfriend, Reeve, getting a job at his college radio station and blabbing all of the painful details about Janie’s experience to his listeners.

If I Stay, Books 1-2 by Gayle Forman

If I Stay
Mia has a perfect family (hip parents, adorable younger brother) and a perfect boyfriend (Adam, a sensitive punk rocker) and is a perfect cellist (surpasses multiple teachers!) whose perfect audition landed her a spot at Juilliard after graduation. Her perfect life (well, okay, there’s a modicum of tension with Adam about her moving away to New York in the fall) is destroyed when a car accident on a snowy day claims the lives of her parents and brother and leaves Mia in a state of astral projection, able to see what’s happening to her body while she struggles to decide whether to stay and live out her life after such a devastating loss or die and potentially join her family.

I’m not sure what I expected from If I Stay, exactly. Perhaps something spookier? Instead, it mostly alternates between Mia reflecting on memories with various loved ones and observing the goings-on at the hospital, including an episode in which Adam, instead of simply asking Mia’s grandparents to help him get in to see her, stages an elaborate distraction involving a rock star singing in the corridor outside the ICU. It’s as cringey as it sounds. I also wasn’t fond of the suggestion that it’s inherently virtuous to like classical music.

Despite my complaints, though, I didn’t hate it. Mia’s “this can’t be real” terror is conveyed well and I did get unexpectedly verklempt a couple of times. The book also gets much better once Mia’s best friend, Kim, is introduced. It’s through stories about Kim that we finally start to see Mia as someone less than perfect, which is decidedly welcome. I do find, though, that I wish the whole book had been about Kim in the first place! I find her much more interesting than Mia.

In any case, I did like this enough to check out the sequel.

Where She Went
Where She Went is quite a lot better than its predecessor. Told from Adam’s perspective, it’s set three years in the future as he—now a world-famous, Grammy-winning rock star and yet totally miserable—runs into Mia in New York City. It turns out Mia dumped Adam only a few weeks after she went off to Juilliard and never told him why, which completely destroyed him for a while until he channeled his pain into a batch of songs that would catapult Shooting Star’s major-label debut into multi-platinum status. They each have one night before they’re due to head out on tour and Mia suggests they spend it checking out some of her favorite spots around the city.

I thought Adam’s mental state was conveyed well. He’s hurt, he’s angry, he’s closed off, he’s sick of being tabloid fodder, and he no longer feels any love for music. Although he once vowed to let Mia go if she would just stay, it’s clear that he hasn’t been able to do that. Throughout the course of their conversation, however, he’s finally able to see that the person who’s really been harming him all this time is him, not Mia. The payoff here felt well-earned. Also, Mia does not come off as perfect here as she did in the first installment, which I appreciated.

In a series with some supernatural touches around the edges, it’s notable that the thing that really stretched my credulity is that everyone is so ridiculously successful at such a young age. Adam is a huge celebrity. Mia was extra special even at Juilliard and their meeting occurred at a concert she was giving at Carnegie Hall. Not only that, she’s somehow famous enough that a journalist from the rock scene knows about her and wants the scoop on her and Adam’s relationship. Even Kim has become a war photographer who sells her photos to The New York Times.

Still, this was quite good and made me a bit sniffly, which I perversely enjoy.

Random Reads 2/18/21

Are You in the House Alone? by Richard Peck
Are You in the House Alone? came out in 1976 and though I totally could’ve read it when I was a teen—and thus still a member of its target audience—I never did.

Gail Osburne is a sixteen-year-old high school junior and native New Yorker who’s not at home in the quaint Connecticut village her family relocated to several years back. I knew that the plot involved Gail receiving menacing anonymous notes and phone calls, and I was expecting these events to get started quickly and the suspense to remain high throughout. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, the story is told retroactively, so we know Gail survives. Also, obvious culprit is obvious. (I hope the reveal wasn’t intended to be a surprise, but perhaps readers were less savvy about such things in 1976.) Initially, much more of the focus is on Gail’s relationships with her parents, boyfriend, and best friend, and in particular how the latter two are in the slow process of dissolution. Eventually she receives some threatening notes and creepy phone calls, gets scared, is let down by people in positions of authority, and comes face-to-face with said obvious culprit. That happens halfway through this slim novel. The rest of the book is about Gail’s recovery from her ordeal.

I thought Are You in the House Alone? was going to be fun, suspenseful fluff, but it turned out to be fairly serious and occasionally (intentionally) infuriating. I really appreciated how Peck was able to weave in a couple of threads that seemed very random at first and make them integral to the denouement, too. Ultimately, I didn’t love the book, but I kind of… respect it, if that makes sense. It didn’t go the cheap route.

automaticThe Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack Megaton is a hulking robot who was created to destroy. He developed self-determination, however, and went against his programming. Now, he’s a probationary citizen of Empire City, where mutagens and pollution have created a very diverse population. While some “biologicals” are still “norms,” others have been physically transformed (like rat-like Detective Alfredo Sanchez) and others have been changed in not-so-visible ways (like Mack’s friend, Jung, a talking gorilla with refined literary taste). Mack works as a cab driver and is trying to keep a low profile, but when his neighbors are abducted, he can’t help but try to rescue them. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, of course.

Despite its name, The Automatic Detective isn’t really much of a mystery. I suppose it’s more… sci-fi noir. Mack meets various thugs, beats some of them up, gets beat up himself, etc. Slowly, he makes progress on uncovering a huge conspiracy. At times, I felt like Martinez was a little too enamored of the gimmick he created, and places in the middle dragged a bit as a result, but the ending is pretty satisfying and overall the book was enjoyable enough, even though it’s quite far from the sort of thing I usually read.

As a final note: I really liked that Martinez limited himself when it came time to invent universe-specific profanity. Instead of the text being liberally sprinkled with words like “frell” or “frak,” the phrase “Oh, flurb” appears but once (during a moment where the meaning is 100% apparent) and made me laugh out loud.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily eager to read more by Martinez, but I’m glad I read this one.

jeeves2The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
When I read My Man Jeeves back in 2010, I was somewhat disappointed because so much of it was repetitive. While there are some common elements that recur within the eleven stories that comprise The Inimitable Jeeves, it is still so very much superior that I’d now say… forget about that first book. Start here. Go back and read My Man Jeeves for completist purposes, if that’s your inclination, but start here for the best introduction to these characters and Wodehouse’s uniquely charming and amusing writing.

First published in 1923, The Inimitable Jeeves contains a linked set of stories that typically involve affable Bertie Wooster being imposed upon by either his eternally lovesick friend Bingo Little (who is “always waylaying one and decanting his anguished soul”) or his mischief-making younger cousins, Claude and Eustace. One plot thread involves convincing Bingo’s uncle (who provides him with an allowance) to agree to Bingo marrying a waitress. Jeeves comes up with the idea to ply the uncle with romance novels featuring class differences to soften his heart, and it ends up that Bertie is compelled to go visit the old fellow and claim to be the author. In addition to containing the most elegant description of sweat I’ve ever seen—“The good old persp was bedewing my forehead by this time in a pretty lavish manner.”—this situation is referenced a few times in subsequent stories until Bingo succeeds in getting married to a different waitress who really is the author of those romance novels.

So, even though you’ve got episodic happenings, it’s rather a satisfactory conclusion. Bertie is endearing, Jeeves is competent, the writing is excellent, and it made me laugh. (I especially liked when a character was described as resembling “a sheep with a secret sorrow.”) I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the series after the first book; now I feel as though I finally see what the fuss is all about. I’d also like to give credit to the fabulous narration by Jonathan Cecil. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but I hear echoes of Fry and Laurie in his performance, and I heartily approve. I will certainly seek out more unabridged versions read by him.

The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters
This is the second in the Jacqueline Kirby series of mysteries. I haven’t read the first, and wouldn’t normally begin with the second, but the book promised an English country mansion plus “fanatic devotees of King Richard III” so my usual routine flew right out the window.

Even before university lecturer Thomas Carter likened himself unto Watson, I’d noticed the similarities between how this tale is told and the Sherlock Holmes stories. We are never permitted inside Jacqueline’s head. Instead, we see her how Thomas, hopeful of one day securing her romantic affections, views her. It’s fairly interesting, actually, because Thomas’ opinion of her fluctuates, sometimes peevishly. “You drive me crazy with your arrogance and your sarcasm and your know-it-all airs,” he says at one point. And though he soon after claims “I’m no male chauvinist; I don’t mind you showing off,” the fact is that earlier he was grumbling inwardly about her feigning “girlish ignorance” to reel in mansplainers and then walloping the “unwitting victim” with a cartload of knowledge. It’s true that Jacqueline isn’t especially likeable sometimes, but for remorselessly trouncing the sexist louts she encounters throughout the book, I must commend her!

The mystery itself is somewhat bland, unfortunately. The leader of a Ricardian society has received a letter purportedly written by Elizabeth of York, which would exonerate Richard of the deaths of her brothers, the “princes in the tower.” He calls a meeting of the society, with each attendee costumed as one of the historical personages involved, and summons the press, planning to unveil his find with much fanfare. But someone begins playing practical jokes on the Ricardians reminiscent of the fates of the people they are pretending to be. The book isn’t a long one, and soon the pranks start coming right on the heels of one another. Because of the swift pace—and some shallow characterization—the solution is rather anti-climactic.

Still, while I’m not sure I’ll seek out any more Jacqueline Kirby mysteries, this was overall a decent read.

A Perfect Match by Jill McGown
The series of books featuring Detective Inspector Lloyd (whose first name is a secret for now) and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill begins with a short yet enjoyable mystery in which a wealthy young widow is found dead in a small English town on property she’d just inherited from her recently deceased husband. Unlike some mysteries of which I am fond, there’s no preamble where readers get to know the victim or the circumstances of their life. Instead, immediately there’s a policeman discovering the body and then Lloyd turns up to question the victim’s next of kin. This same lack of character development hampers the romantic tension between Lloyd and Hill, leaving me with no idea what motivated Hill to finally decide to act on her feelings for him, betraying her marriage vows in the process.

The mystery itself is interesting enough, however, involving long-married Helen and Donald Mitchell who have ties to both the victim, Julia—her late husband was Donald’s older brother and Helen thinks they were having an affair—and chief suspect, Chris, originally a friend of Donald’s who has fallen in love with Helen. I can’t claim to have mustered anything more than a mild curiosity as to what the outcome would be, but neither did I guess the specifics, so that was good. I liked the interrogation scenes, too.

McGown’s writing had some fun moments. I loved the super-evocative imagery of Lloyd telling Hill that her new perm makes her look like Kevin Keegan. I also really appreciated a recurring bit where each chapter ends with the point of view of wildlife. When Chris is eventually brought in by the police, his arrest is depicted from a bird’s perspective, for example. There are also ducks, a moth, a fly, a cat… I don’t know if this device recurs in later books in the series, but I look forward to finding out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
This is the second mystery/thriller I’ve read in which a single mom who is a lawyer with a cold and unfeeling mother of her own attempts to work out the mystery of what happened to a family member (the other being Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw). Is that some kind of trend these days?

Kate Baron has a demanding job at a swanky firm, but she’s trying her best to be a good mom to her fifteen-year-old bookworm daughter, Amelia. She’s shocked to get a call from Grace Hall, the prestigious private school Amelia attends, saying that her daughter has been accused of cheating, and by the time she makes her way to the school, Amelia has evidently jumped to her death from the school roof. The police are only too happy to classify her death as a suicide, but when Kate gets a text that says “Amelia didn’t jump,” she starts trying to put together the pieces of what happened.

Reconstructing Amelia has quite a few problems. Despite her better judgment (and a promise to her best friend), Amelia joins a clique of bitchy girls at school who end up publicly humiliating her and trying to get her expelled when she falls in love with someone deemed off-limits. It’s hard to muster sympathy for what she ends up going through when one remembers the cruel prank she was willing to pull on someone else as part of the initiation process (largely kept off-camera to keep us from disliking her too much, I guess). We’re repeatedly told about the great relationship Amelia and her mom share, but never shown it. The subplot about Amelia’s dad is the literary equivalent of wilted lettuce. And the fact that the new detective who gets assigned to the case allows Kate to question suspects is absolutely ludicrous.

And yet, I couldn’t hate the book, largely because of Amelia’s friend, Sylvia. For much of the book she comes across as shallow and self-absorbed, but when Amelia really needs her, she’s there. She gives Amelia this tour of “great moments at Grace Hall” to cheer up her impressive pal, right before breaking down about her own legitimate pain. I never would’ve thought at the outset that I would have such immense sympathy for Sylvia, but I do. I find myself hoping that she’ll be okay.

shutterislandShutter Island by Dennis Lehane
It sure is nice going into a book unspoiled, particularly one as twisty as Shutter Island. I was quite happy with the book as it began, with U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule taking the ferry to Shutter Island to track down a patient missing from Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s late summer 1954, and these guys are manly but accessible, and surprisingly funny. Consider this relatiely early exchange that cracked me up:

Pretentious Doctor: *makes remarks on the lives of violence the marshals must lead*
Chuck: Wasn’t raised to run, Doc.
Pretentious Doctor: Ah, yes. Raised. And who did raise you?
Teddy: Bears.

For a while, all seems straightforward. Then Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s actually come there looking for a patient named Andrew Laediss, who was responsible for setting the fire that killed Teddy’s wife two years before. Gradually, one starts to doubt everything (and there was a point where all of the uncertainty got to be a little much for me) but the ultimate conclusion is a very satisfactory one.

Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Set in Iceland, Why Did You Lie? starts out with three different storylines taking place a few days apart. The first involves a photographer on a helicopter journey to take pictures of a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the second is about a policewoman whose journalist husband has recently attempted suicide, and the third is about a family who returns from a house swap with an American couple to find some of their stuff missing and weird footage on the security camera. Of course, as the book progresses, these storylines converge, and it’s pretty neat when the police activity the helicopter flew over in chapter one turns out to be almost the culmination of the policewoman’s plot thread.

For some reason, I can’t help wondering how Ruth Rendell might’ve written this book. I think Rendell would’ve done a lot more with characterization, for one thing. There’s certainly some here, especially for the anxious husband who struggles to make his wife admit something really has gone wrong with their houseguests, but the primary concern seems to be getting on with the suspenseful action. Quickly, each plot features some kind of creepy lurker and then ominous notes (variations on the “why did you lie?” theme) figure in to all three, as well. Nina, the policewoman, digs around and talks to people and works out that everything connects to a supposed suicide from thirty years ago.

The result is certainly an entertaining book, but not one I could really love. One major issue I had is being able to predict something very significant. The number of characters who could’ve been angry enough about the 30-year-old lies in question to terrorize people in the present is very small. And once the existence of a certain person is oh-so-casually mentioned two-thirds through the book, I thought, “Oh, well, it’s them, then.” And then a little later, I figured out which of the characters it must be and I was right. This made for an anticlimactic ending that was clearly meant to be a shocking one. Also, I would’ve liked to have cared more that one character ends the novel poised to move on with life but, in reality, still in jeopardy.

I still would read more by this author, though.

Jackaby, Books 1-4 by William Ritter

jackaby1Jackaby
I’ve seen this series described as “Sherlock meets Doctor Who,” and that is pretty apt. It’s January 1892 and our plucky British narrator, Abigail Rook, has just arrived in New England and needs employment. No one is hiring except for the eccentric investigator, R. F. Jackaby, who is looking for a new assistant since his previous one is “currently waterfowl.” Jackaby’s physical description is evocative of Benedict Cumberbatch in character as Sherlock, and he’s occasionally tactless, but aside from one early demonstration, he doesn’t do much in the way of deduction. Instead, he’s more like The Doctor—a kooky, scarf-wearing fellow who dashes about warning townspeople of supernatural threats while they regard him as “a crackpot imbecile.” Abigail is, of course, the companion—a clever girl who has always longed for adventure but who has until now been denied it. Happily, there is no hint of romance between them.

In this first installment, Abigail and Jackaby work together to solve a series of murders afflicting a particular apartment building. Jackaby, of course, can tell the culprit is a creature of some sort while the policeman in charge scoffs at this assertion and, at one point, locks Abigail and Jackaby up for impeding his investigation. Although I liked the characters—especially Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghostly resident of Jackaby’s headquarters—the mystery portion of the book was sadly predictable. “Obvious culprit is obvious,” I wrote in my notes, and though I didn’t work out what sort of creature was to blame, another character’s bestial secret was no surprise.

Still, I did enjoy Jackaby and like the characters and tone well enough to continue. I do hope the next mystery is a little less transparent, though.

the-map“The Map”
This short story takes place on Abigail’s birthday. She’s been quite clear about not wanting a fuss, but Jackaby is determined that they will have an adventure. Their first stop is a magical market, which she doesn’t enjoy much, to Jackaby’s disappointment. While there, however, they pick up a treasure map and proceed to complete a series of challenges in search of the treasure buried by the notorious rogue, the Bold Deceiver.

“The Map” may not be an essential piece of reading, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I especially liked the challenge in which they must get past the enormous hare guarding a castle—that one was sad and funny simultaneously. I also like that they’re not 100% successful with all the tasks, since centuries have passed since they were set up. On the whole, it’s worth checking out.

jackaby2Beastly Bones
It’s now the spring of 1892 and Jackaby and Abigail have been sent to the nearby town of Gad’s Valley to investigate thefts from a paleontological dig site. Abigail is mad for fossils, so is very excited about this prospect, while Jackaby must be convinced it’s worth their time. Another benefit is that Abigail gets to spend more time with Charlie the handsome policeman, for whom she has feelings, though she’s unsure what to do about him. Jenny the ghost has advised her to go for it and make the first move while Nelly Fuller, intrepid lady reporter, chastises her for thinking about love. “Do you want to be safe and happy or do you want to be great?”

As I had hoped, the mystery in Beastly Bones is a definite improvement over the first book; despite being a fine example of Chekhov’s Gun, its multiple layers made for a more complex case. Mostly, however, I liked that one aspect of it remains unsolved. Even though this series has Sherlockian elements, it hadn’t occurred to me that there’d be a Moriarty equivalent, but it looks like there is!

Still, the characters remain the main draw. Jackaby can be brash and insulting, but he doesn’t talk down to Abigail or treat her like a kid. I enjoyed his aversion to hearing about her romantic problems, and his awkward attempts to be sweet. “Buck up; you’re dreadful company when you’re melancholy.” Abigail continues to be resourceful and likable. And though there wasn’t much of Jenny, the ending finds her enlisting Jackaby to delve into her own murder. I’m very much looking forward to it!

jackaby3Ghostly Echoes
I’d really been looking forward to Ghostly Echoes and the truth behind Jenny’s murder, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d been hoping for.

True, Jenny’s murder is solved, but there is practically zero exploration of the person she was when she was alive. The plot is more about the evil council responsible (turns out that Moriarty-seeming character from previous books was only stirring things up to keep Jackaby busy so this group of dark fae could keep an eye on him) and the looming threat to mankind. Jenny did grow tremendously in both confidence and ability, and had a few genuinely badass moments in which she got to save her friends. I also appreciated her realization that she is more than a mere echo of the girl who died, but has her own thoughts and feelings. “I’m my own somebody.” I liked all of that, but I still wish she’d been the focus throughout instead of only in places.

Too, there’s not really much Jackaby, either. Yes, we learn about his childhood friend who was the Seer before him and how the council was after her too, but he just seems so… deflated. I guess it’s reasonable for him to be subdued given the case and its implications—he was worried that closure for Jenny might mean she’d move on—but I missed the humor he used to bring to situations. I reckon there shan’t be much of that in the next volume, either, in which our heroes face off against the bad guys and attempt to save the world.

The Dire King
The final entry in the Jackaby series wasn’t bad but, like the previous installment, certain character moments that I really wanted to see play out were completely glossed over.

Jackaby and company are trying to prevent the Dire King from destroying the veil that separates the Annwn and our world. This involves locating a particular magical artifact, attempting to destroy a diabolical machine, clashing armies, and lots and lots of fairies and magical creatures. I cannot possibly express how little interest I have in lots and lots of fairies and magical creatures.

There was at least more Jackaby here, and a somewhat warmer one, which I appreciated. I just wish there was much more about him and Jenny. She’s finally able to overcome her inability to touch him when his life is on the line, and there’s the suggestion that they’re going to live happily ever after once the crisis has been averted, but man, I really wish we’d gotten a scene where he pours his heart out and she scolds him for taking so long while also crying happily. Similarly, while I like where Abigail ultimately ends up, the very end is briefly pretty great but then it’s just… over.

I know cheesy epilogues get maligned pretty often, but in this case I would’ve appreciated one!

The Queen’s Thief, Books 4-5 by Megan Whalen Turner

A new installment of The Queen’s Thief is here! That proved an excellent incentive to reread the first three books (which I deeply love) and finally tackle the fourth book as well as the handful of short stories that’ve appeared as paperback extras.

A Conspiracy of Kings
A Conspiracy of Kings is a coming-of-age story for Sophos, the sweet, scholarly boy we met in The Thief who also happens to be the heir to Sounis. Some of the barons are in revolt, and when the villa in which he’s staying is attacked, Sophos tries to save his mother and sisters but ends up captured himself. Although he’s resourceful enough to escape and hide out amongst enslaved field hands, he nonetheless is bitterly self-critical and sure his father is disappointed in him (as usual). And yet, throughout the course of the novel, he exhibits a great deal of courage, makes some hard choices, and—though still the sweet, scholarly boy underneath—ultimately becomes a worthy king.

A Conspiracy of Kings strikes me as a simpler book than The King of Attolia, probably because Sophos is earnest and idealistic rather than guarded and secretive, though that’s not to say that he’s incapable of carrying out a secret plan or clever strategy. The book does have an unusual narrative style, beginning in the third person with Sophos already in Attolia, switching to first person as he tells Eddis his story up to that point, going back into third while everyone’s together in Attolia, going back into first when he returns after claiming the throne and fills Eddis in again, and then back into third for the ending.

It occurs to me that as The Queen’s Thief series continues, the further we’re getting away from Eugenides. The Thief was first-person from his point of view, The Queen of Attolia was third-person, The King of Attolia viewed Gen and his relationship with the queen through the eyes of a palace guard, and now we have a story about Sophos in which Gen appears occasionally and spends some of that time behaving with icy formality. I appreciate the expanding world the characters inhabit and genuinely enjoy spending time with everyone, but I do love Gen best and hope the focus returns to him someday.

Thick as Thieves
After waiting so long for a new book in the series, learning that it would be about Kamet, the slave of the Mede ambassador Nahuseresh, was somewhat of a disappointment. Now, I feel compelled to apologize to the author because I really should’ve had more faith in her. Kamet is a smart, distrustful protagonist with somewhat of a superiority complex and his evolution throughout the novel is fascinating.

Thick as Thieves is most similar to the first book in the series, since it involves a road trip peppered with storytelling. An Attolian soldier has been dispatched by Eugenides to steal Kamet out of spite, and after initially planning to decline the offer of freedom (thinking of all the power he will one day wield after he is gifted to the next emperor), Kamet is forced to accept after learning that his master has been poisoned and that he must escape quickly or face torture and execution. A Goodreads reviewer describes what follows as “bloodshed, betrayal, and bromance,” and I really cannot improve on that description. Although he initially thinks the Attolian is an idiot and plans on ditching him at the earliest opportunity (rather than return to uncivilized Attolia) he comes to like and respect him very much. I also love how one little piece of information lets readers know exactly who this soldier is, although Kamet does not use his name until near the end.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s the part of the book that really shines. (Alas, the road trip does drag a little in parts.) There are quite a few surprises—including one satisfying “I knew it!” moment—and the conclusion is both sniff-inducing and exciting, as conflict is still brewing between the Empire and the small countries on the peninsula, though the latter (thanks to Eugenides) appear to have acquired some powerful allies. This is such a great series and I hope we’ll see Kamet again in what follows.

The short stories:
“Thief!”, originally printed in Disney Adventures Magazine in 2000, is a prequel short story about Eugenides as a kid. There’s not much to it, but I liked seeing Gen interact with his older brother and favorite sibling, Stenides.

“Eddis” was included in the 2007 paperback edition of The King of Attolia. In it, nine-year-old Helen—wonderfully described as round, solid, sturdy, and not too bothered by the fact that she isn’t pretty—slips away from the palace to go exploring. Her destination is a desolate temple where she is visited in the night by a trio of gods, who refer to her as “the last Eddis.” It’s a neat story that not only fleshes out Helen’s background a little bit and explains why she uses the masculine “Eddis” rather than “Eddia,” but ties in nicely with her motivations in A Conspiracy of Kings.

“Destruction” was included in the 2011 paperback edition of A Conspiracy of Kings. In this brief story, we witness the ceremony to dispose of Hamiathes’s Gift in the fires of the Sacred Mountain in Eddis. Frustrated Sounis is in attendance as is Attolia, who never takes her eyes from Eugenides. Scant though it is, I find I appreciate having a mental image for this occasion, as well as the moment in which Eugenides achieves certainty that the stone is really gone.

“Knife Dance” is included in the new paperback edition of The Queen of Attolia. In it, a juggler named Druic is coerced by his jerk of a brother to perform a certain Eddisian knife dance—”one of the Mysteries of the Thieves”—for the court of Attolia. Both the king and his god have something to say about it. I liked this one, and the ending was very satisfying.

“Wineshop” is included in the new paperback edition of The King of Attolia. It’s extremely short and depicts Eugenides enjoying his final moment of anonymity before coins bearing his likeness enter circulation and how Teleus spoils it all. There’s one part of it that makes me wonder if Eugenides knew that was going to happen. It would not surprise me.

Random Reads 3/29/17

All hail the debut of a new recurring column of sorts, collecting reasonably short reviews of disparate books.

banquetA Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
While A Banquet of Consequences is not the best Lynley and Havers mystery I have read, it’s still great heaping loads better than the last one (Just One Evil Act). In fact, in my review of the latter, I wrote “I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer.” And that’s pretty much what we did get this time around.

When Claire Abbott, respected feminist author, is found dead in a hotel room while on a book tour, her death is first ruled a heart attack. After her persistent friend and editor insists on a second opinion, a more thorough toxicology screening reveals the presence of poison. Having met the author and her truly odious personal assistant (and chief suspect), Caroline Goldacre, Havers begs Lynley to pull strings for her so that she can investigate, which doesn’t go over very well with Superintendent Ardery. Happily, Havers does do a competent job, though this doesn’t go very far in improving Ardery’s opinion of her.

Mystery-wise, there were elements that I guessed, but I did still enjoy the element of ambiguity that remained at the end. Too, I liked that in the next volume, the Italian detective from Just One Evil Act (probably the best thing about that dreadful book) is going to be visiting England. He was quite sweet on Havers, as I recall! My one real complaint is that Lynley had hardly anything to do, except intercede on Havers’ behalf, contemplate his relationship with Dairdre, and look after an admittedly adorable dog.

Still, it’s good to have my faith in this series somewhat restored!

endofeverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen years old and have been BFFs and next-door neighbors for as long as they can remember. Lately, though, Lizzie has begun to realize that Evie is no longer the open book she once was. (“I know her so well that I know when I no longer know everything.”) When Evie goes missing, Lizzie does all that she can to help bring her home, while being forced to acknowledge that maybe there had always been a darkness hidden within her dearest friend that she had never noticed.

In addition to the mystery of what’s happened to Evie, this book deals a lot with Lizzie’s burgeoning sexual feelings. Though she has some contact with boys near her age, she’s really smitten with Evie’s gregarious father. She longs to be close to him, to provide clues that give him hope, to take his mind off what’s happening. She exults in her ability to affect him. In the process, she somewhat usurps the place that his eldest daughter, Dusty, has filled. What I actually liked best about the book is that Abbott leaves it up to the reader to decide—is Mr. Verver’s relationship with these girls crossing a line? Perhaps his intentions are utterly pure (and, indeed, it seems like he might be crushed to hear someone thought otherwise), but there are some things he does and says that just seem so inappropriate.

Ultimately, I liked this book quite a lot (though I feel I should warn others that some parts are disturbing). Abbott offers several intriguing parallels between relationships to consider, and I think it’s a story I will ruminate over for a long time to come.

ex_burkeThe Ex by Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago, Olivia Randall sabotaged her relationship with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Now he’s the chief suspect in a triple homicide and Olivia, a defense attorney, is hired by his teenage daughter to represent him. Initially, Olivia has absolute faith in Jack’s innocence (and feels like she owes him because of how she treated him) but mounting evidence eventually makes her doubt whether she ever really knew him at all.

In synopsis form, The Ex sounds pretty interesting, but the reality is something different. Olivia herself is not particularly likeable. Setting aside how she treated Jack in the past, in the present she drinks too much and is having a casual relationship with a married man. I think we’re supposed to come away believing that this whole experience enables her to grow past some parental issues inhibiting her ability to find real love, but it’s glossed over in just about the most cursory way imaginable. And because the narration is in the first person, other characters who might have been interesting—namely a couple of other employees of the defense firm helping with the case—are exceedingly undeveloped.

The mystery plot itself is average. The final twist wasn’t something I predicted from the outset, but once a certain piece of evidence was revealed, it turned out to be very similar to another mystery I’d just read so it was a bit of a slow slog to the inevitable conclusion. The writing is also repetitive, with the significance of various clues being reiterated over and over. One genuinely unique aspect of the book is that because Olivia is a defense attorney and not law enforcement, she wasn’t overly concerned with actually solving the case, so much as finding plausible alternate suspects to establish reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why some things the culprit did were left unexplained and some evidence unaccounted for, though it could have just been sloppy writing.

I don’t think I shall be reading anything else by this author.

girldarkGirl in the Dark by Marion Pauw
Set in The Netherlands, Girl in the Dark is told in alternating first-person chapters between Ray, a man with autism who has spent eight years in jail for the murders of his neighbor and her daughter, and Iris, a lawyer and single mother who discovers by chance that Ray is the elder brother she never knew she had. She is convinced of his innocence, despite evidence that he is capable of destructive rage, and begins investigating the case and pursuing an appeal, while trying to get her icy mother to talk about her past.

Although the book is advertised as a thriller, most of the time I was more infuriated than thrilled. Leaving aside the question of Ray’s guilt or innocence, the way he was/is treated by others—including Rosita, the opportunistic neighbor who used and then rejected him, as well as one of the employees of the institution he’s been transferred to, who seemingly frames Ray for smuggling drugs into the facility (there’s no resolution to this minor plot point)—generates a great deal of empathy. In particular, there is an especially cruel scene near the end of the book that made me literally exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” Although he occasionally exhibits frustrated fury, Ray is also shown to be sweet and thoughtful, at one time a skilled baker (thriving in an environment that prioritized both routine and precision) and obsessed with the welfare of his tropical fish (currently in his mother’s care).

I didn’t come away with as vivid a sense of Iris as I did Ray. The scenes involving her job and clients were, in a way, mental palate cleansers from the stress of Ray’s situation, largely bland and unmemorable. When she finally gets her hands on Ray’s case files, her end of the story improves, but there are aspects of the final resolution that are kind of ridiculous. That said, I thought the ultimate ending was satisfying and I doubt I’ll forget the book any time soon.

kiss_and_tellMr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Mr. Kiss and Tell came out in January 2015. I had pre-ordered it the previous May, but when it arrived I just couldn’t get into it, despite a few attempts. A couple of months later, iZombie debuted. It had all the hallmarks of a Rob Thomas show and, lo, I love it. So much so, in fact, that I started to feel like I’d be okay without further adventures in Veronica’s world. Mr. Kiss and Tell spent the next two years occupying various spots in my living room. Then, finally, I read it. And I remembered how deeply I love these characters and now I am totally sad that there aren’t any more books beyond this one. Yet.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first Veronica book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, did not follow up on the movie storyline about police corruption in Neptune. Happily, that plotline gets some attention in this book. Weevil is acquitted of the charges against him, but his reputation and business has taken a hit, so he agrees to a civil suit against the county. Keith works to find others who’ll testify about evidence-planting, and meanwhile a candidate enters the race against Lamb, who’d been running for reelection unopposed. There’s some closure on this by the end of the book, but still plenty of room for more going forward.

Veronica, meanwhile, is hired by the Neptune Grand to investigate a rape that took place in their hotel. The case has quite a few twists and turns, although it surprised me some by not twisting as much as I expected. (So is that, therefore, a twist?) By far, however, the best parts of the book are the conversations between the characters. Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Weevil… I could vividly imagine each being performed by the cast, which is almost as good as not having to imagine. I especially liked that things still aren’t 100% perfect in Veronica’s world, and Logan is only home for a few months before the accidental death of one of his friends means that his shipmates are a man down. Veronica struggles to understand why he feels so strongly that he must return early, leading to my favorite scene, in which Logan reveals what his life was like in the years she was gone, and how he ended up in Officer Candidate School. It’s a bit implausible that they hadn’t had this conversation before, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

In fact, my only quibble is a bit of timeline fluffery near the beginning. On the whole, this was immensely satisfying and I will continue to hope for more books in the future. After all, never giving up hope has worked out for Veronica Mars fans in the past!

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was a reread for me, but one I hadn’t yet reviewed, since I read it shortly before creating this blog. (I did review Christie’s second and third books before getting sidetracked. This time I shall persevere and read them all!)

A soldier named Hastings, invalided home from the front, runs into John Cavendish, an acquaintance who invites him to recuperate at Styles Court, where Hastings had often visited as a boy. It is Hastings who narrates the story of what happens there. In brief, instead of John inheriting Styles Court upon the death of his father, the property was bequeathed to his stepmother, Emily, upon whom he is presently dependent for funds. When Emily is poisoned, suspicion initially turns to her strange (and substantially younger) new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and then ultimately onto John himself. The cast of suspects is rounded out by siblings, spouses, friends, and servants. Hastings suggests bringing his old friend Hercule Poirot in to investigate.

I did remember “whodunit,” along with the explanation for one perplexing aspect of the case, but otherwise, most of this felt new to me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Oh, I still find Hastings annoying, but Christie’s depiction of Poirot’s appearance and mannerisms struck me as especially vivid this time around, and I was left with a more distinct impression of him than I’d held previously. (I had somehow acquired a mental picture of Poirot that had him looking like Alfred Hitchcock!) Although some of the clues are a bit convoluted and/or improbable, the overall solution is satisfying and makes sense. What’s more, my enthusiasm for tackling the rest of Christie’s oeuvre has been rekindled!

outpostThe Outpost by Mike Resnick
In an effort to broaden my horizons and read more science fiction, I went looking for books that might appeal to fans of Firefly. In the course of that search, I came across The Outpost. The notion of a bunch of space-faring outlaw types gathering at a bar on the edge of the galaxy, swapping stories, then banding together to fight off some aliens sounded appealing. Don’t be fooled like I was.

While it is indeed true that a bunch of space-facing outlaw types do gather to swap their stories, these recitations are actually highly embellished tall tales, and they seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. Finally, during a brief middle section of the book, the bar’s patrons go off and fight some aliens, and getting a glimpse of reality, including several pointless and unheroic deaths, was the best part of the novel. All too soon, they’re back at the Outpost, telling their war adventures with varying degrees of embellishment. It’s at this point that several very boring arguments on the ethics of “improving” history ensue.

It’s true that sometimes, I did smile or laugh at something, but on the whole this book just riled me up. None of the characters has any depth whatsoever, and several are positively odious. Many of the stories told by the guys involve busty and lusty women, and it’s fine if the characters themselves are sexist (to be fair, one of the female characters does call them out on this eventually), but most of the female characters created by Resnick are also vampy vixens whose stories are sex-oriented and whose bodily proportions are repeatedly emphasized.

I listened to the unabridged audio version read by Bob Dunsworth, and I cannot recommend it. He frequently misreads and mispronounces words, so that at one point someone is wearing “flowering” robes instead of “flowing” ones, “defenestrating” loses a syllable, “etiquette” gets a “kw” sound, et cetera. Making it through the book was a tremendous slog, and more than once I cursed my completist nature.

theseviciousmasksThese Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
I can’t for the life of me remember how I heard about this book. I immediately put in a materials request with my library, but when it arrived I didn’t remember it at all. It does have hallmarks of something that would appeal to me, though: a setting of England in 1882, superpowers, romance, one of the authors mentioning Buffy in the dedication… It boded well.

I found it a bit disappointing at first, however, despite an independent and snarky heroine (Evelyn Wyndham, and is that a Buffy/Angel reference?) and dialogue that made me snicker right from the start. It just seemed so like “Pride and Prejudice with superpowers” that I began to wonder who was meant to be who. (“That charming fellow Mr. Kent, set up as a romantic rival to surly and brooding Sebastian Braddock, must be the Wickham surrogate!”) Too, the constant bickering between Evelyn and Sebastian, as they work together to rescue her sister the healer from a scientist who wants to experiment on her, did grate after a while.

However, in the end the book surprised me. Not just by deviating from the Pride and Prejudice mold or by imbuing people with unsuspected powers, but by taking the plot in a direction that absolutely made sense and which I absolutely did not see coming. A sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) has just been released and verily, I shall read it.

Shades of London, Books 1-3 by Maureen Johnson

The actual title of this post should be “Books 1-3 plus that novella that came out in 2014,” but that was rather inelegant.

name-of-the-starThe Name of the Star
When Louisiana native Rory Deveaux’s professorial parents take a sabbatical in the UK, Rory jumps at the chance to attend boarding school in London. The early chapters of The Name of the Star depict her acclimation to life at Wexford, befriending her new roommate (Jazza) and developing a flirtation with one of the male prefects (Jerome). Because the phrase “boarding school in London” is totally my cup of tea (har har) and because Rory is amusingly snarky, I was already loving the book at this point, and that’s before I even got to the part with Jack the Ripper and ghosts!

A copycat of the notorious killer is on the loose, and since Wexford is located in Whitechapel, many of the crime scenes are nearby. After a near-death experience by choking grants Rory the ability to see ghosts, she actually witnesses the perpetrator (who has mysteriously failed to show up on any CCTV recordings of the murders) which brings her to the notice of a special secret police squad tasked with controlling any unruly members of the spectral population.

Several more fun characters are then introduced, and here I must compliment the narrator of the unabridged audiobook, Nicola Barber, whose facility in accents made me feel like I was listening to a BBC show. (I especially liked that Callum, a former football hopeful now dispatching meddlesome ghosts on the Underground, sounded rather like Lister from Red Dwarf!) In fact, I think this would make a pretty great BBC show, with its mildly diverse cast and the fact that the heroine is not merely brave (she eventually assists the squad in their ghosthunt), but funny, too. Admittedly, there were a couple of moments where Rory did some dumb things, but one could argue she didn’t really have better alternatives.

I haven’t loved a book this much in quite a long time, and I am both happy and bummed that there are two more (only two more!) in the series currently.

madness_underneathThe Madness Underneath
It is with true regret that I must report that The Madness Underneath suffers from an unfortunate case of Middle Book Syndrome. A crack created at the end of the first book seems to be providing a way for the buried dead of Bedlam to make it to the surface, and Rory’s newfound skills as a human “terminus” are effective in dispatching one murderous ghost, but this plotline fizzles out partway through. (Sidebar: it’s a crazy coincidence that this article comes out the very day I finish this book!) Then Rory falls in with a cult whose philosophy and goals don’t make a lot of sense, and shortly after her costly rescue, there’s suddenly a cliffhanger ending. If I had to wait for book three, I would probably be peeved that that’s all there was.

That is not to suggest that nothing of merit happens, however. I actually really liked how Rory’s return to Wexford was handled—how she was just simply incapable of caring about things she used to care about. So far behind in schoolwork that it’s overwhelming, she can’t muster the desire to try, and yet is blindsided when it is suggested that perhaps she ought to withdraw prior to exams. So caught up in the ghosthunting gig, boyfriend Jerome’s suspicions (and then guilt over same) become just another nagging problem, so she ends their relationship. I liked that Callum feels more antagonistically towards ghosts than the others do, and yet everyone seems to respect each other’s point of view. I liked the Marc Bolan reference. And, of course, before the more serious stuff starts to happen, there are at least a dozen lines of dialogue that made me laugh. (There’s also a dream featuring ham lunchmeat that I think might be an homage to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Restless.”)

Even though this particular installment was kind of disappointing, I continue to look forward to subsequent books just as much as before.

boy_in_smokeThe Boy in the Smoke
This short novella visits four defining moments in the life of Stephen Dene, leader of the ghost police, offering insight into the thoughts and background of a notably reticent character. Some of these incidents have been referred to in previous books, but not in this much detail.

“The Forgotten Boy” recounts a time when Stephen’s parents forget to fetch him from school at the end of term. (They’ve gone to Barbados instead.) His sister Regina comes to his rescue, determined to save him from a life doing what their parents expect, but she’s erratic and Stephen soon figures out that she’s using drugs. In “The Break in the Chain,” Stephen is attending Eton when he gets word of Regina’s death by overdose. (His parents “worked out their grief at a resort in Switzerland.”) He manages to carry on for several years, determined to fulfill his duty of succeeding at Eton and carrying on to Cambridge, until a visit from his unfeeling family leads him to commit suicide (in a scene that is absolutely riveting).

“The Specialist” find Stephen recovering at a psychiatric hospital and being recruited by Thorpe to lead the reformed team. And in “The Boy in the Smoke,” Stephen has finally achieved his dream of becoming a police officer. Practically the first thing he does is search for Regina’s ghost, only to find she did not return. Lastly, he fulfills his promise to come back to visit the ghost who saved his life and this slim little book comes to an end that left me rather verklempt.

Is this book essential to understanding the Shades of London series? No, but I’d say it’s essential to understanding Stephen, and very definitely worth the time.

shadcabThe Shadow Cabinet
What do you get when you take a series that first beguiled me with London, boarding school, Jack the Ripper, and ghosts, and then remove half of those things? A book that is reasonably good but which I just cannot love with anything approaching the ardor I originally felt.

The Shadow Cabinet offers a lot more information about the cult and their goals, introduces the concept of powerful stones that prevent London from being overrun by spirits as well as a secret society tasked with protecting them, and unleashes creepy, evil siblings Sid and Sadie upon the world. More attention, though, is devoted to Rory’s personal plight. Now in hiding from family and friends after running away from Wexford, she and the team are searching everywhere for one of their own who they believe has become a ghost.

The resolution to book two’s cliffhanger is pretty satisfying, I must admit, and I found that I did care a lot about whether certain characters made it out of Sid and Sadie’s proximity unscathed. I also really liked getting to know more about Thorpe, the group’s MI-5 overseer, and that Rory apparently receives permission to tell her two closest friends from Wexford what’s really been going on. And then there’s also the part where Stephen asks the bad guys, “Do you want to test that theory?” which surely must be another Buffy reference, right?

I’m still looking forward to the fourth book, which I believe is going to be the last in the series, but I must admit that my expectations are lower now than they once were.

Uninvited by Sophie Jordan

uninvitedbook description:
When Davy tests positive for Homicidal Tendency Syndrome, aka “the kill gene,” she loses everything. Once the perfect high school senior, she is uninvited from her prep school and abandoned by her friends and boyfriend. Even her parents are now afraid of her—although she’s never hurt a fly. Davy doesn’t feel any differently, but genes don’t lie. One day she will kill someone.

Without any say in the matter, Davy is thrown into a special class for HTS carriers. She has no doubt the predictions are right about them, especially Sean, who already bears the “H” tattoo as proof of his violence. Yet when the world turns on the carriers, Sean is the only one she can trust. Maybe he’s not as dangerous as he seems. Or maybe Davy is just as deadly.

Review:
We meet Davina (Davy) Hamilton in March 2021, when she is about to graduate from her prestigious prep school and proceed on to Juilliard. Davy is a special snowflake musical prodigy who is also gorgeous, with a studly boyfriend many other girls covet. She’s also not shy about congratulating herself for these things.

Her privileged existence comes to an end when routine screening reveals that she carries the gene for HTS—Homicidal Tendency Syndrome. She is promptly uninvited from her swanky school and sent to a class for “carriers” at the local public school, where some of the kids are obviously creeps but others seem as normal and harmless as Davy insists she is. Carriers are treated poorly by society, and when an angry group of them perpetrates a mass shooting, all carriers are rounded up and sent to detention camps. Davy and a couple of classmates, however, are diverted into a program where they train to kill on government command.

While there were a few things I liked about Uninvited, I must admit that it was not especially good. Original-flavor Davy is not a sympathetic character, but she does eventually realize that she used to be a pretty crappy person and that her friends and boyfriend never truly cared about her. I also found the repeated references to music in her head puzzling—as a musician myself, it’s true that I usually have a song (or at least unformed noodling) in my head, but I thought this was normal for everyone, and not a sign of genius as we are evidently supposed to believe here.

Too, the writing is sometimes weirdly choppy, and I’m not sure what the point of that was. Is it simply bad writing or is it an attempt to convey how grim the situation is? If that’s the case, why use it during a scene where Davy’s boyfriend seems to accept her, kill gene and all?

I need this. So much. His arms. His love.

That’s just one example. I confess that I eventually started internally reading these in a flat robot voice to amuse myself. Jordan sometimes seems to mix up musical terms, too, like when Davy refers to the “pitch” of an aria, or that her body sways to the “harmony.” Plus, there were two instances of “y’all” being spelled “ya’ll.” Can you become an editor without understanding how contractions are formed? Apparently, at Harper Teen you can!

So, irritating main character, bizarre writing style… what is there to like? Well, the concept itself is kind of interesting, and because I didn’t particularly care about anyone, their misfortunes didn’t cause me any anxiety. The portion of the novel set in the training program is the strongest, with Davy becoming determined not only to become strong in her own right, but buying into the claim that if she does well enough, the government will have the neck tattoo proclaiming her as a violent carrier removed.

In the end, I find myself interested enough to read the sequel, Unleashed, though I am very grateful that this series is not a trilogy.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

ketchup_cloudsFrom the front flap:
Zoe has an unconventional pen pal—Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer. But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell. A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other.

Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence. Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe’s letters, but at least somebody will know her story—somebody who knows what it’s like to kill a person you love. Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.

Review:
When a complicated love triangle results in the death of one of the parties involved, British teenager “Zoe” is wracked with guilt, especially since no one realizes the part she played in all of it. Unable to keep it in anymore, Zoe ends up writing anonymously to Stuart Harris, an inmate on death row in Texas for killing his wife, figuring he will understand how she feels. As her letters, written at night in the backyard shed, proceed chronologically through the events leading to the fateful night, Harris’ execution inexorably nears.

The whole concept of this novel put me in mind of John Marsden (a compliment). Initially, I thought of Letters from the Inside, though really the similarities are few between those works. More, this resembles something like So Much to Tell You or Winter, in which a teenage heroine attempts to get over a tragedy in her past that is gradually revealed to the audience.

Pitcher does a good job maintaining the suspense, and at varying times I desperately wanted either to peek or not to peek at the ending. Better still, and like Marsden, the true focus here is on forgiveness and healing. I found Zoe a very appealing character, the funny and creative sort I would’ve liked to be friends with in high school. (Bonus points for owning a fountain pen!) True, she makes mistakes, but never does anything outright dumb. And I liked her family, too, particularly the bond between the sisters and the way in which Zoe realizes she’s got someone closer to home who can relate to what she’s going through.

Another thing I really appreciated was how Zoe behaved around the two boys in her life, brothers Max and Aaron. She was never not herself, never downplayed her own interests and enthusiasms, and it was shown to be this quality that made her most attractive. The love triangle also didn’t resolve quite in the way I was expecting to, and while I mostly really like the ending, I will always be annoyed when a guy makes a decision on a girl’s behalf.

Ultimately, I liked Ketchup Clouds a lot. This was Pitcher’s second novel, and at some point I intend to check out her first, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece.