Tag Archives: thriller

The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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Warcross by Marie Lu

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Warcross by Marie Lu
Putnam, 2017.

I enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend series and thought it was one of the better YA dystopian series. Warcross, the electrifying start of a new series, is set in a just-over-the-horizon future and toggles between a sort of Blade Runneresque Tokyo and a virtual reality game called Warcross that the world is obsessed with.

Emi Chen is scraping a living bounty hunting in New York, when she uses her hacking skills to exploit a glitch in Warcross. She is immediately invited to Tokyo by the young (and dishily charismatic, of course) designer of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka. He wants her to participate in the Warcross world championship to catch a hacker called Zero who seems to have nefarious ideas and Emi is chosen to be in the Phoenix Riders team to take part in the tournament.

The most exhilarating parts of the novel are set in the games themselves and it’s a little Hunger Gamesy, though apparently without the threat of imminent death. Ms Lu comes from a game design background and it shows in her wildly imaginative set-ups and fluent descriptions.

Emi is a feisty, thoughtful, and sympathetic protagonist. There are way too many undeveloped characters, at least initially, though as we progress into the world championships this settles down a bit. There is a notable diversity of skin tones, countries of origin, and physical ablebodiedness. Hideo himself, however, comes straight out of central casting as leading man with a tragic background.

There are a few glitches in the plotting – most notably in the revelation of Zero’s identity, which at this stage just doesn’t make sense (in fact, the person who I had tabbed for this fits soooo much better). Additionally, and this may be addressed in the next novel (did I say that this was a series? Well, of course, it’s a series), the novel doesn’t address why, or even how, Warcross is such a global phenomenon to the extent that apparently everyone, even old fogies like me play it or at least watch it. The ending sets us up for the sequel, albeit with a rather tedious dump of exposition.

But I’m mostly quibbling here – Ms Lu is a fine author and when she’s on her home territory she pulled me in and had me thrilled by her VR game.

Will I read the sequel? Past experience suggests that the stakes will be upped from personal to national or even global, which probably means less actual time in Warcross, so it’s probably a no for me, though I’ll take a view when it comes out.

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Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart

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Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart
Delacorte, 2017

I loved  both e. lockhart’s previous novels The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2009) and We Were Liars (2014), (though I read them both before I began blogging so no reviews to link to) so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of her latest, Genuine Fraud and I LOVED this one too!

Jule West Williams is the enigma at the heart of this riveting thriller that opens with the police tracking her down in Mexico and then moves backward to peel away the layers of how Jule got there.

She is an amoral heroine who likens herself to Jason Bourne, James Bond, and “a lone vigilante, a superhero in repose.” Though she is opportunistic, a fluent liar, and without scruples, Jule is still a somewhat sympathetic character, though she herself would not care too much about that. Her identity is fluid, both in terms of the disguises she dons and more deeply: “She could feel the stories she told herself and the stories she told others shifting around, overlapping, changing shades.” The supporting characters are much less developed because Jule only sees others in relation to herself and what they can do for her.

The narrative is driven by the mystery of who Jule really is and what she has done and lockhart acknowledges its debt to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.  The prose is hardboiled, cool, and a little detached and overtly conjures up modern day movie tropes as well as using more subtle imagery of femme fatales from film noir.

The author plays with gender stereotypes showing Jule taking advantage of the assumption that “small, cute women were harmless” as she happily acknowledges that “to be a physically powerful women – it was something. You could go anywhere, do anything, if you were difficult to hurt.” The only chink in her armor is when she starts to fall for Paolo, but she has already booby trapped that relationship before it even starts.

At the end, Jule is triumphant: “I am the center of the story now… I don’t have to weigh very little, wear very little, or have my teeth fixed.” Ideal for teen readers who don’t want soft and cuddly and who appreciate a young woman who has no hesitation in grabbing what she wants.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.

Horizon by Scott Westerfeld

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Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Scholastic, 2017

Prolific author Westerfeld opens up a new multi-author seven part upper elementary/middle grade scifi series. On a flight between New York and Tokyo, the plane crashes leaving only eight survivors – all kids. But nothing makes sense: the other passengers have all just disappeared and instead of being in the Arctic, they are in a tropical jungle, inhabited by unfamiliar and malevolent creatures.

This book is in many ways a set-up for the series and linked online game, so the characters are distinguished by the skills that they bring to the group and, for some of them, a little background family information is broadly sketched in. Dark-skinned Molly is a natural leader and the others look to her for direction. Blonde Anna has trouble filtering what she says, but sometimes the others need her honesty. Biracial Yoshi is the most analytical and creative thinker, making intellectual leaps that the others haven’t. Dark-skinned Javi, white Caleb, young Japanese sisters Kira and Akiko, and young white Oliver make up the octet.

The plot moves along quickly, with plenty of action and intrigue. There’s age appropriate thrills and scares as they encounter the strange flora and fauna and there’s some humor to be had in the names the kids give to them including “pukeberries” and the “dreadful duck of doom.”

By the end of the book, the kids have answered the where part of the mystery, and that leaves the why, who, and how for subsequent books. With Jennifer A. Nielsen up for book 2, this is clearly a series that Scholastic are investing in and Westerfeld gives it a solid start.

Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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Scythe by Neal Shusterman

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Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster, 2016.

This fantastic sci-fi novel imagines a future without death in which Scythes “glean” people to keep the population at the right level. Multiracial Citra and Rowan are apprentice scythes, studying under Scythe Faraday, but at the Scythe Conclave it is decided that only one of them can eventually graduate to be a Scythe and that one will immediately need to glean the other.

I have only read Shusterman’s really terrific Challenger Deep, so I’m not familiar with his other sci-fi series. In Scythe, I think the world building, and the way it is gradually revealed is exemplary. How humans came to be immortal, and the personal, political, legal, cultural, and religious ramifications of that are explored.

The novel is driven by a schism in Scythedom between those who feel it has moral and ethical dimensions, and those who want to kill people for fun. Citra and Rowan spend their apprenticeship year learning not only “killcraft” but also finding out about the way different Scythes approach their weighty task. As their final test approaches, their feelings about each other are conflicted and complicated by the pact enforced on them.

The plot moves swiftly, switching between their points of view, and interspersed with extracts from various Scythes’ journals. There are some satisfying twists along the way, though none that was a great surprise, and the ending (which I found a little too reminiscent of a popular dystopian novel) was satisfying while at the same time setting up a sequel.

With its name brand author, eye catching cover, and intriguing vision of the future, this novel is perfect for teens who enjoy dystopias.

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