Tag Archives: thriller

Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter

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Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter
Scholastic, 2018.

In this rousing fast-paced middle grade thriller, two teens battle the elements, terrorists and each other.

Six years ago, some Russian terrorists failed in their attempt to kidnap the First Lady – an attempt that was seen by her ten year old son Logan and his best friend Maddie, daughter of the head of the secret service. Now Maddie and her Dad live alone in the wilds of Alaska and Maddie has learnt survival skills while Logan has spent the ensuing years ignoring her and overenthusiastically enjoying the social perks of his position. When the President sends Logan to stay with Maddie to cool off, a Russian swoops in again and Logan is abducted – luckily Maddie is on their trail!

Maddie is a somewhat endearingly odd mix of wilderness “badassery”, including skills with knives and hatchets, and simpering girliness as she worries about her complexion and whether she finds Logan attractive (what do you think?). Logan is the sort of dreamy bad boy who comes with convenient skills such as understanding Russian and having a photographic memory. The Russian kidnapper who starts out as an unfeeling monster is turned into a more sympathetic character further in as it suits the plot.

Author Carter (the Gallagher Girls series) keeps the book short and breezy with characterization, dialogue, and setting all in efficient service of the plot and, though there is some wild implausibility – Logan manages to unlock his own handcuffs while walking over a broken rope bridge in a raging storm for example – it’s mostly a thrilling romp as the two teens face and overcome one obstacle after another to outwit their captor.

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The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

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The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2018.

Kara Thomas has created another atmospheric and tense thriller about teen girls, that sadly promises a little more than it ultimately delivers.

Five years ago, two of the cheerleading team of Sunnybrook High died in a car accident, a few days later two were murdered and then shortly after that one killed herself. Now junior Monica Rayburn, sister of the girl who committed suicide, discovers that there may be a connection between the girls’ deaths. The novel moves between Monica’s present day narration with occasional breaks into a third person perspective of the events from five years ago leading up to the deaths.

Monica is unraveling as she investigates the deaths and uncovers some inconsistencies: Her emotions are fraught as she deals with being dumped by her boyfriend and then having a summer fling with an older man which ended poorly. She makes a connection with Ginny, a girl who has always been there but has been invisible to Monica and her friends, but now Ginny provides support and encouragement to Monica as she digs deeper.

Monica’s parents have tried to protect her from getting caught up in the events of five years ago, but now this protection feels more suspicious: her stepfather, a police officer, was the one who fatally shot the neighbor who he believed was the murderer.

Using technology, connections, inspiration, and old-fashioned sleuthing, the two girls close in on the truth. But will it bring closure or will it rip the community apart?

As with her previous novels, The Darkest Corners (2016) and Little Monsters (2017), Kara Thomas does a terrific job of creating a slippery atmospheric mystery combined with the seesaw emotions of a teen girl being pushed to her limits. While not quite as satisfying as the masterful Little Monsters, the plot resolves in an unexpected twist and Monica is able to move forward.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 2017

Pullman makes a welcome and largely successful return to the world of His Dark Materials with the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set when Lyra Belacqua is just a baby. I LOVED all three books of HDM but most especially the middle one, The Subtle Knife which introduced Will.

In the familiar steampunky Oxford, where a person’s soul is an externalized animal daemon and alethiometers can reveal the truth, 6-month old Lyra has been placed in the sanctuary of a nunnery to protect her from the Magisterium, the ruling religious body, after a witch has prophesied that she is “destined to put an end to destiny.”

The protagonist is 11-year old Malcolm Polstead – a marvelously enterprising, curious, and full-hearted boy who is something of a precursor of Will. He helps out at his parents’ pub and at the nunnery where he meets and becomes deeply enamored of baby Lyra. In his wanderings around the city he becomes involved with a scholar-spy who might be working against the Magisterium.

When a supernatural storm floods the country, Malcolm, along with sharp and no-nonsense 16 year-old Alice, rescues Lyra from the nunnery. They set off in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, to London to the perceived safety of Lyra’s father. On this odyssey, which has rather more natural and supernatural encounters than I really wanted, they are relentlessly pursued by a smiling villain and his hideously deformed hyena daemon.

Pullman expands the world – three alethiometers! – and adds new characters including the uncomfortably creepy villain, Gerard Bonneville. There are returning characters, including Lyra’s parents Lord Asriel and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, which might bring a frisson of familiarity to HDM readers but new readers will not be disadvantaged.

The target is still organized religion and Pullman pursues this with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Magisterium’s secret police, and the League of St. Alexander, which empowers children to turn in supposed enemies of the Church. Dust is discussed briefly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I got much out of those passages and recall feeling similarly vague in the later (chronologically) books.

The ending is frustratingly abrupt, raising many questions and it is unclear how or even if the next book in the series, apparently set a decade after His Dark Materials, will answer them. Nonetheless, even with flaws, this is an impressive extension to a beloved series that will appeal to tweens, teens, and adults.

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.