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Posts Tagged ‘Maureen Johnson’

The snow is falling hard and the surprises keep coming in Taylor Adams’ page-turner No Exit (HarperCollins, digital galley). A fierce blizzard causes college student Darby Thorne to pull over at a remote rest stop in the Colorado mountains. Stranded with four strangers, she ventures outside to get a cell signal but instead discovers a kidnapped child hidden in the van parked next to her. Who among her fellow travelers has locked the little girl in a dog crate? What Darby does in the next few hours will determine all their lives. Gripping and cinematic, Adam’s tale is destined for the movies, but why wait when you can read it now.

There’s snow and ice and a car plunging into a dark river in The Current (Algonquin, review copy), Tim Johnston’s riveting second novel after the very good The Descent. It’s the dead of a Minnesota winter when state troopers recover an SUV and two young women from the Black Root River. Audrey Sutter is half-frozen but alive; her friend Caroline has drowned. With echoes of a similar incident in which a young woman drowned in the same river a decade ago, this new tragedy is no accident. Audrey discovers the townspeople she thought she knew — the father of the first dead girl, a suspect who was a teenager at the time, her father the former sheriff — are harboring secrets and regrets. The plot is layered, Johnston’s writing evocative. The Current carries you along inexorably, the way good stories do.

Watcher in the Woods (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), like other entries in Kelley Armstrong’s Casey Duncan series, is set in the isolated community of Rockton in the wilds of the Canadian Yukon. But don’t look for it on any map. It’s a safe haven for both criminals and victims, who pay a corporation big bucks to stay off the grid. Casey is the town’s detective, and her boyfriend Eric Dalton is the sheriff. When a U.S. Marshal shows up looking for a resident and is subsequently shot, the two have to figure out not only the murder but also how the marshal found Rockton in the first place. Could be it has something to do with Casey’s estranged sister, April, secretly flown in to assist on a medical case. Atmospheric, tightly plotted and smartly paced, the book delves more deeply into Rockton’s mysterious past. There’s more than one watcher in the woods.

Seraphine Mayes has long wondered why she looks different from her twin brother Danny and their older brother Edwin, and looks for answers in Emma Rous’ twisty The Au Pair (Penguin Berkley, digital galley). An old photo of her mother, who fell to her death from the Norfolk cliffs shortly after Seraphine and Danny were born, shows her mother holding a single newborn. The picture was taken by Edwin’s young au pair at the time, Lauren Silviera. As Seraphine searches for Lauren in the present, the narrative alternates with Lauren’s story in the past. Threatening notes, secret lovers, family quarrels and village gossip of changelings contribute to the murky puzzle. You’ll have to decide if the solution — given the outlandish premise — makes sense.

Maureen Johnson is at her most devious in The Vanishing Stair (HarperCollins, library hardcover), the second in her wickedly entertaining Truly Devious series. In the first book, readers met Stevie, an Ellingham Academy student obsessed by the unsolved murder and kidnapping case at Ellingham in 1936. Stevie thought she was making progress, but then one of her classmates died and another disappeared, and Stevie’s parents yanked her out of the alternative boarding school. She’s totally miserable as the second book begins, but then hated politician Edward King pulls some strings and Stevie’s back at Ellingham. Her story alternates with that of two students from the 1936 Ellingham class, who fancy themselves as a stylish crime couple like Bonnie and Clyde. What do “Frankie and Eddie” have to do with the Truly Devious case? Secret tunnels, hidden doorways and peculiar riddles abound as Stevie works with an eccentric true crime writer and tries to figure out her relationship with classmate David, Edward King’s son. It’s all great fun and nail-biting suspense right up to the very last page — and another cliffhanger ending. Maureen Johnson, you’re killing me!

 

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Martha Grimes’ clever Richard Jury novels take their titles from British pubs, and there have been some doozies over the years: I Am the Only Running Footman, Help the Poor Struggler, Five Bells and Bladebone. So the 24th in the series, The Knowledge (Grove Atlantic, digital galley) seems merely another curiosity. But don’t go looking for it in London. The Knowledge, which refers to the street maps that the drivers of London’s famous black cabs know by heart, is also the name of a hidden, cabbies-only pub so secret that even Scotland Yard can’t find it. The story of the pub is one of the whimsical digressions in the murder case Jury is investigating, the shooting deaths of an American astronomer and his wife on the steps of a private casino. The shooter escapes in a black cab, but the stalwart driver alerts his network and Patty Haigh, a sassy preteen Sherlock, manages to pick up his trail at Heathrow and wrangle a first-class ticket to Kenya. Jury will eventually dispatch his pal Melrose Plant on safari to find Patty, while placing antiques dealer Marshall Trueblood inside the casino to deal cards. The complicated plot involving drugs, stolen art and greedy villains, is almost an afterthought, but who cares when the gang’s all here, plus winsome newcomers. I was totally charmed. Like lovely Vivian, I can’t make up my mind between Jury and Plant, so I’ll take both, please.

The many charms of Venice are on full display in Donna Leon’s new Guido Brunetti novel, The Temptation of Forgiveness (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), which is as thoughtful as it is atmospheric. Brunetti moves adroitly from vicious office politics to happy family life to investigating the case of a comatose beating victim. Turns out he is the accountant husband of a teacher whom Brunetti’s wife knows and who recently approached Brunetti about the drug problem at her son’s private school. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Meanwhile, what of the man’s elderly aunt, a Miss Havisham-like figure in a Venice apartment? The leisurely plot hinges on government corruption to no one’s surprise, this being a city long familiar with frauds of all kinds. But there’s something particularly unjust about a system that takes advantage of its most vulnerable citizens. Here’s a vision of Venice that tourists don’t see, and it’s not pretty.

Scotland Yard’s Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers return in Elizabeth George’s immersive doorstop The Punishment She Deserves (Penguin, purchased e-book), but so does their boss, Isabelle Ardery, who exists on vodka and breath mints. There’s no love lost between Lynley and Ardery, even though or because of a brief affair, but Ardery really has it in for Havers. So she takes the DS with her to Ludlow to investigate a possible case of police malfeasance, hoping Havers will go rogue and hang herself. Six weeks earlier, a church deacon suspected of pedophilia hung himself while in police custody, but the dead man’s influential parents insist he would never commit suicide. Ardery wants to make sure the original investigation was legit so as to avert any lawsuit, but Havers keeps picking at loose ends, of which there are many. Also multiple suspects, motives and red herrings. It will take Lynley’s late intervention to prove Havers right and get the case back on track but not before readers have met three college students rooming together in a rundown house, a community police officer with dyslexia, another police officer with family problems who likes to hang glide, a bar owner with an upstairs room to rent by the hour, a homeless man with a dog and claustrophobia, and Ardery’s ex, who is about to take their twin sons to live in New Zealand. There’s rather too much of Ardery and not enough Lynley to my liking, but Havers tap dances. Really.

YA crossover alert. Maureen Johnson launches an intriguing new series with Truly Devious (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), which is somewhat reminiscent of  her Shades of London series, with its boarding school setting and teenage protagonist. But Ellingham Academy was established by an eccentric tycoon in rural Vermont, and only accepts the best and the brightest, for whom tuition is free. Stevie Bell gets in because of her obsession with true crime and detecting skills, and she vows to solve an infamous cold case despite her panic attacks. Back in 1936, the founder’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and a student died. The only clue was a nasty rhyme signed “Truly Devious.” Just as Stevie is getting used to the weirdness that is Ellingham and her fellow students, Truly Devious appears to strike again and the book ends with a cliffhanger. Johnson increases the suspense of the Christie-like case by alternating narratives between present day and 1936. Waiting for the next installment is going to be difficult, but I’ve had experience with Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Holmes  series, which continues with The Case for Jamie (HarperCollins, library hardcover). The first book, A Study in Charlotte, found Sherlock Holmes’ descendant Charlotte Holmes meeting up with Dr. Watson’s descendant Jamie Watson at an American boarding school, where they were targeted by members of the Moriarty crime family. Then events turned even darker in The Last of August, and as the third book begins, best friends Jamie and Charlotte haven’t spoken in a year. Jamie’s back at school for his senior year, with a nice girlfriend and no idea as to Charlotte’s whereabouts. He no longer trusts her after a shocking betrayal. But the Moriarty clan is apparently bent on ruining Jamie’s life so as to get to Charlotte, who is feeling guilty and driven as she tries to save him from afar. They alternate narrating chapters, often at cross-purposes until finally joining forces to defeat Lucien Moriarty or die trying, which is a real possibility. A happy ending? Not going to tell you.

 

 

 

 

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darkestOnce upon a time — actually, the last few months  — I’ve been leading a double life. By day, I’m reading literary fiction and crime novels, but by night I escape to the paranormal via YA novels. Oh, the adventures I have among ghosts and witches, heroes and villains, changelings and dreamwalkers.

High school student Hazel is also leading a double life in Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest (Little, Brown, library hardcover). Hazel wonders why she’s so tired in the mornings, unaware that her nighttime dreams  of being a warrior in the service of a fairy king are true. It’s part of a bargain she made to help her musically gifted brother Ben. Both Hazel and Ben are fascinated by the glass coffin in the forest near the town. Inside resides a sleeping fairy prince, a tourist attraction in a land where humans and fae warily co-exist. But then the coffin is destroyed, the prince disappears, and this already odd world falls out of kilter. As in her vampire novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Black excels at mixing the ordinary  (school, parents, teenage crushes) with the extraordinary (changelings, unicorns, curses). She transforms fairy tale tropes with modern, snarky charm.

nightbirdAlice Hoffman’s many adult novels are suffused with a lyrical magical realism, which also informs her new novel for younger readers, Nightbird (Random House, digital galley). In the small Massachusetts town of Sidwell, residents hold an annual pageant about the town’s long-ago witch. But 12-year-old Twig and her mother, a talented baker, never attend, continuing to lead an isolated life in an old house, where Twig’s older brother James hides inside. Only Twig knows that James comes out at night, unfurling the black wings he’s had since birth, the result of the Sidwell witch having cursed the male side of the family. Twig is afraid someone is going to discover James on one of his nighttime flights; already there are whispers of a shadowy, flying monster. When a new family moves in down the road, Twig makes a good friend and James falls in love, but all is complicated by strange graffiti in town, a mysterious boy, and a woods full of small, endangered owls. Hoffman’s light touch casts a memorable spell. In Sidwell, even the library and the apple trees appear enchanted.

shadowcabMaureen Johnson left fans hanging on the edge of a cliff two years ago with The Madness Underneath, the second book in her enthralling Shades of London series, when she apparently killed off a major character. But never fear; she’s not Veronica Roth, thank goodness (yes, I am still bitter about Allegiant). In The Shadow Cabinet (Penguin Young Readers, purchased e-book), American student Rory Devereaux and her secret London ghost-busting colleagues have the mad skills to save one of their own. Maybe. While team leader Stephen hovers between life and death, Rory and squad members Boo and Callum try to find Charlotte, a student apparently kidnapped by her crazed therapist Jane, who hopes to resurrect the two leaders of a 1970s cult. But that’s just part of a hair-raising plot that also includes the disappearance of 10 other girls, a mass murder and a conspiracy threatening London at large. Readers who like Ben Aaronovitch’s adult Rivers of London series will appreciate the similarities in tone as Johnson leavens the scary with the humorous. Super supernatural.

mimeSamantha Shannon kicked off a projected seven-book series in 2013 with The Bone Season, a wonder of intricate world-building and spirited adventure. I wouldn’t attempt reading the series’ second book, The Mime Order (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), without reading the first, so detailed is this futuristic London ruled by the corporation Scion, peopled by a thriving underworld of outlawed clairvoyants, and threatened by the otherworldly race known as the Rephaim. Having escaped from the Oxford prison colony controlled by the Rephaim, dreamwalker Paige Mahoney is the most-wanted fugitive in London. She’s rebels against the quasi-protection of the manipulative mime-lord Jaxon, a Fagin-like figure, but really runs into trouble when she encounters the Warden, the enigmatic Rephaite who was both her captor and mentor in Oxford. Scion seeks both of them, and unless Paige can carry out a complex scheme to become a mime-queen, they’re doomed. Five more books? Really?

wallsaroundNova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us (Algonquin Young Readers, digital galley) stuns with its intertwining narratives of mean girls, ghost girls and aspiring  ballerinas. Amber is an inmate at a secure juvenile detention center, imprisoned for having killed her stepfather. Violet is a talented ballet dancer headed for Juilliard. Their stories unfold in alternating chapters, three years apart, but are linked by Ori, who becomes Amber’s cellmate after Violet testifies against her in the murder of two dancers on a hot summer night. Secrets abound, and the revelations are all the more disturbing for the lyricism of the writing. What really happened the night the prison doors opened as if by magic? Shiver.

 

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madnessSometimes I think I want to go back to school. Not ordinary school-school but someplace exotic, like Hogwarts or Brakebills.

Wexford, the London school in Maureen Johnson’s The Madness Underneath (Penguin Young Readers, digital galley), isn’t all that unusual unless you are 17-year-old Louisiana teen Rory Devereaux. As a new student at Wexford in 2011’s The Name of the Star, Rory’s near-death choking experience left her with the ability to see ghosts. And that led to some rousing ghostbusting adventures with the “Shades of London,” a super-secret trio of young police officers on the trail of a ghostly Jack the Ripper copycat.

In the entertaining new book, Rory is still recovering from her Ripper encounter when she returns to Wexford. The Shades — serious Stephen, enigmatic Callum and gregarious Boo — need her help, especially after Rory discovers that Wexford is built atop the graveyard of Bedlam, the old insane asylum. But there also are other mysterious forces who want Rory’s particular talents, which were enhanced by her last brush with death.

Rory again narrates with verve as Johnson expertly combines the ordinary problems of school (exams, boyfriends, roommates) with the extraordinary (murder, secrets, ghosts). But doesn’t Johnson know it’s not nice to leave readers hanging by their fingernails from such a steep cliff?!

etiquetteManners are the thing in Gail Carriger’s first book for teens, Etiquette and Espionage (Little, Brown Young Readers, purchased e-book), set in the steampunk fantasy England of her Parasol Protectorate adult series. As a “covert recruit” at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Quality, 14-year old Sophronia and her classmates have lessons in dancing, drawing, music, dress and modern languages, as well as “the fine arts of death, diversion, and the modern weaponries.” Swords can get caught in skirts, which is why the student assassins-to-be use knives even as they practice advanced eyelash-fluttering.  The school itself is located in huge, interlaced dirigibles floating above the moors, and the professors include a vain vampire and a roguish werewolf.

You can tell Carriger had a blast (and tongue firmly in cheek) coming up with the quasi-Victorian details, outrageous names and over-the-top hi-jinks. Both clever and silly, this genre-bending romp involves agile Sophronia and her sidekicks, including a “mechanical” steam-powered dog, fighting off “flywaymen” for possession of a prototype allowing for better communication through the ether. It’s billed as “Finishing School — Book the First” so the ending is happily not the finish.

nightmareSixteen-year-old Destiny “Dusty” Everhart is a relatively new student at Arkwell Academy in Mindee Arnett’s The Nightmare Affair (TOR Teen, purchased e-book). And she’s having a rough time at this boarding school for magickind, being the lone Nightmare among the cliques of witches, sirens, faeries, etc. But her ability to feed off others’ dreams also earns her a certain reputation, although not as scandalous as that of her estranged mother. But that could change now that The Will, the magickind governing regime, demands that she partner with the handsome human Eli Booker to predict the future.

Arnett’s world-building is engaging, especially the classifications and characteristics of magickind, but the plot is a predictable mash-up of high-school coming-of-age and  Arthurian mythology. Here’s hoping the next entry in the Arkwell Academy series offers more challenge.

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I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to be Rory Deveaux for Halloween. I already have the basic looks — dark hair, fair skin, round face. Clothes are no problem — jeans, T-shirt, vintage black velvet jacket — because they are my clothes.  Red lipstick? Check. Southern accent? Got it. Just need to pick up a few props — iPod, old cell phone, Mardi Gras beads. Voila! I’m 17 again (quick, dim those lights), an American schoolgirl in London, soon-to-be fledgling ghostbuster.

Rory doesn’t know about the ghost stuff at the beginning of Maureen Johnson’s nifty new paranormal thriller, The Name of the Star, the first volume  in the Shades of London trilogy. As she tells it, she’s just feeling like a fish out of water at the posh boarding school Wexford in London’s East End. But she likes her roommate Jazza, and one of the prefects, Jerome, has a great grin and floppy curls. Now, if she can just survive field hockey and English food. Also Jack the Ripper.

Yes, Jack’s back, or rather a serial killer bent on duplicating the famous Victorian murders in the Spitalfields area near Rory’s school. Despite the omnipresent closed-circuit TV cameras, the industrious efforts of the police, and intense media scrutiny, the Ripper has yet to be spotted. Then Rory sees a drab bald man outside the school as she and Jazza are sneaking back in the girls’ dorm on the night of another murder. Jazza doesn’t see him, probably because she’s scooted in the window, which leaves Rory the only witness. Soon she’s working with a super-secret security force of young officers with a specific skill set. Stephen, Callum and Boo are charged with keeping Rory away from the Ripper even as they go after the killer. They want him dead or alive. He may be both.

Johnson’s clever plot is grisly and goofy in equal measure, with plenty of grins to balance the gore. The climax in a closed, or “dead” station, of the Underground near London Bridge is followed by a stunning finale at the school that sets up a sequel. I see dead people in Rory’s future.

Open Book: I borrowed a digital copy of Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star (Putnam) from the Orange County Library System’s online catalog. Once I checked it out online, Overdrive delivered the book in Adobe Digital to my laptop in S.C. , and then I sideloaded  it to my Nook. What a cool trick!

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