Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Every Word by Ellie Marney

fpo  Every Word is the second book in Ellie Marney's young adult, Sherlock Holmes inspired mystery series, and it is so good! Rachel Watts and James Mycroft, the would be teenage detectives, were first introduced in Every Breath. Both were transplants to Melbourne of a sort. Rachel and her family had recently moved from the countryside when it became impossible to sustain the family farm. Mycroft (people rarely call him by his first name) moved to Melbourne to live with his aunt after his parents were killed in a car accident. In the first book, Rachel and Mycroft were friends who liked to play at detective work, Mycroft more so than Rachel. When a homeless man they frequently chatted with ended up dead, their detective work became more than game.

As Every Word begins Rachel and Mycroft are still recovering from the aftermath of the events in the first book. Rachel and Mycroft have grown closer, though her parents are not entirely happy with Mycroft or their daughter after their previous adventure left both teenagers with more than a few bruises. But overall, things are good. Then suddenly Mycroft rushes off to London without saying a word to Rachel. His boss - Mycroft works at the pathologist office as a junior assistant of sorts - has been asked to go to London and assist in a case involving a suspicious car accident and a very valuable missing book. Rachel takes off after him, half worried about Mycroft and the bad memories waiting for him in London, and half furious at him for thinking that he could leave without saying anything. Once again Mycroft and Rachel find themselves in the role of detective.

This is an excellent series, with great plotting and great characters. I like Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and novels - like not love. They're fun, but Sherlock Holmes always comes across as a character. Ellie Marney succeeds in channeling Holmes (and Watts), while making her characters feel real. James Mycroft isn't just an astute observer who can deduce where you're from and what you've been up by glancing at your shoes and tie. He is a gifted boy crashing into adulthood, while mourning the tragic death of his parents, who also happens to be very observant and have a strong practical interest in science. Rachel Watts is a full character in her own right as well; she isn't there just to record Mycroft's adventures. She operates independent of and in concert with Mycroft. At one point Mycroft remarks what a relief it is to have such clever friend. I concur, what a relief to have a clever young woman working along side Mycroft and calling him on his BS when necessary.

The next book in the series is Every Move and I can hardly wait. This series was originally published by an Australian press so there is always a delay before the books make an appearance in the the U.S. I hope the wait isn't too long.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales by Margaret Atwood

fpo  Short story collections are not my strong suit when it comes to reading. I’m never quite sure what to make of them. Give me a 250-page collection of short stories or an 800-page tome, in 9 out of 10 cases I would pick the tome. Short stories often feel too short. Just as I’m getting into the story, it’s over and then I’m still holding the same book in my hands but a completely new story has started. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress. Actually trepidation may be overstating it. I have read two (yes, only two) books by the great Canadian author, and I liked one and loved the other, so I was fairly certain I would get through Stone Mattress okay.

My favorite stories were Torching the Dusties and the title story Stone Mattress, along with Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady, a trio of stories that open the book. Torching the Dusties reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale (a book I loved) in its bleak and not to unbelievable portrait of a future where a certain segment of the population is treated as disposable. Stone Mattress is a powerful revenge fantasy in which a woman enacts a plan to get back at the first man that wronged her. It is a truly a wicked and satisfying tale. Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady are three connected stories about three people that once knew each other in their youth. There were some stories that didn't work for me but overall I enjoyed the collection.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction

fpo I knew nothing about the character Hawkeye outside of the Avengers movies and cartoon series. People kept recommending Matt Fraction's Hawkeye but I ignored them. There is another character that shoots arrows that I adore and I didn't feel the need for another superhero with the same ability. But everything I read and heard said Matt Fraction's Hawkeye was awesome so I finally gave in and bought a copy of Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon. Of course it was every bit as awesome as people said.

fpo Fraction's Hawkeye series is all about how Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye because it turns out there are two of them) spend their time when they are not out avenging with Tony Stark and the other Avengers.

On his own Clint Barton is kind of a mess. He's emotionally disconnected, has a tendency to push people away, and trouble seems to always have a way of finding him. He lives in a semi-crappy apartment in an okay building and finds himself at war with a gang that has been buying up every building in the neighborhood. So far the gang has been successful in convincing tenants in occupied building to relocate, but their run of success hits a brick wall in the form of Barton and his neighbors who balk at being asked to vacate the premises. 
fpoThe other Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, is fairing better, well slightly better. Fed up with Barton, she heads out to Los Angeles for some fun in the sun. Within minutes she gets robbed and gets kicked out of her hotel. To make things even more exciting, someone is trying to kill her. But Kate is resourceful. She makes some friends, finds a source of income, and starts digging into the mystery of the people who are after her.

fpoI read four volumes of Matt Fraction's Hawkeye: My Life As a Weapon, Little Hits, L.A. Woman, and Rio Bravo. The end of Little Hits left me slightly confused but other than that I loved this series. I was also surprised to learn that the series incorporates deafness and deaf culture into the story line in an interesting and great way.

I think this might be the end of this particular story line. Hope the next one is just as good. Hawkeye has become a character of (my) interest.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Three Nights With a Rock Star by Amber Lin & Shari Slade

fpo  Earlier this year I read One Kiss With a Rock Star, which among other things, touched on how male and female bisexuality are often treated differently (female bisexuality okay, male bisexuality not so much). That book was actually the second in a series. Ordinarily I like to read things in order but decided to make an exception. Several months later I finally got around to reading the first book in the Half-Life series, Three Night With a Rock Star. In hindsight, it is probably a good thing I read the second book first or else I might not ever gotten to the second book, for Three Nights With a Rock Star is as steamy as it is ridiculous.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: Nineteen-year-old Chloe got a job selling merchandise for the rock band Half-Life as it crisscrosses the country on tour. Chloe leaves the tour and comes home pregnant. She refuses to identify the baby's father, telling her big sister Hailey that he's in a weird place in his life and not ready to be a father.

It's only been Hailey and Chloe for a long time. Their mother, who may have been a prostitute, disappeared a long time ago and neither of them ever knew their fathers. Having grown up as the daughter of the town trollop, Hailey is determined from having her future niece or nephew suffer the same fate. She simply cannot stand by and let her baby sister live with the shame of being an unwed mother. So church going, kindergarten teacher Hailey heads to the hotel where the band is staying, determined to find her sister's baby daddy and force him to do right by Chloe and take responsibility for his actions. Soon after getting to the hotel she meets Half-Life's lead singer, Lock. Within in minutes of meeting the sexy lead singer, Hailey signs a contract agreeing to be his sex slave for three days in exchange for having full access to his band and crew so she can find the no-good guy who impregnated her sister. Hailey and Lock have mind blowing sex. Then there are complications. Eventually they fall in love and everyone ends up coupled and lives happily ever after. I'll give it this, Three Nights With a Rock Star may be complete and utter nonsense, but it is steamy hot nonsense.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls  Thea Atwell leads what many might called a charmed life, or as her mother says, a lucky life. She and her twin brother Sam live with their parents on a secluded farm in Florida. She spends her days riding horses and investigating the wonders of the natural world with Sam. Educated at home, Thea and Sam rarely spend time with other children.The only other child Thea and Sam see with some regularity is their cousin Georgie.

Their seclusion from the outside world seems nearly absolute. It is 1930 and even what would become known as the Great Depression is starting to make itself felt, Thea and her family barely feel its effects. This is partly because her father is a doctor and, after all, there will always be sick people. Her father's medical practice, however, isn't really where the family gets its money. That comes from the citrus groves on Thea's mother's side. But not even wealth can protect one from all the tragedies of life.

Thea is 15-years-old when she is sent away from home to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. She hopes it is just for the summer but as fall comes around she realizes her banishment will last much longer. Her banishment is the result of a family tragedy in which Thea played a significant part. (Contrary to her family or even Thea herself, I cannot hold Thea solely responsible.) She views the camp/boarding school as a punishment but it becomes a gift as Thea begins to grapple with who she is away from the isolated life of her family.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a coming of age of tale set in 1930s Florida and North Carolina. In other hands this story may have filled with sentimentality and nostalgia. Anton Disclafani does not waste time with that here. Thea's transition from childhood to adulthood is messy and painful. Her actions hurt her and those around her but like often in the teen years, she can't quite seem to stop herself. She manages to be both insightful and naive, calculating and innocent at the same time, kind and cruel at the same time.

I'm still grappling with what to think about Thea and The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. Thea as a character was strong and full of contradictions, which I felt was intriguing and accurate in the sense that people, particularly teenagers, are often full of contradictions. I liked that there was a lack of romanticising of the past. There was something missing, however. I wanted more about Sam in particular, as well as their parents but maybe that's unfair since this is Thea's story. I also wanted to know what kind of woman Thea was going to become. She makes one mistake, and then makes the same mistake again and it isn't quite clear what she has learned in regards to that situation. She does grow in other ways, but not exactly in the way that I would have wanted given the nature of the story and the tragedy that drives the novel.

If I am not mistaken this is Disclafani's first novel. Though it was not perfect it was quite good. I look forward to reading what she writes next.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sweet Thing by Renée Carlino

fpo Sweet Thing is a complicated romance between a man who knows what he wants and a woman who doesn't, at least not at first. After her musician father dies, Mia moves to New York to take over her father's cafe and apartment. She meets Will, a promising singer/songwriter/guitarist, on the plane. The two of them hit it off instantly and quickly become friends and then roommates. There's a deep connection between Will and Mia from the get go, the kind of connection that leads to a life long friendship or maybe something more.

Will falls for Mia pretty quickly, desperately hoping their friendship evolves into a romance. Mia is less sure. Of course she is attracted to the handsome, charming, sensitive soul that is Will, but she isn't quite ready for a Will in her life and it shows, sometimes painfully. The first three-fourths of the novel can be summed up as follows: Mia and Will are friends. Mia and Will get a little closer. Mia freaks out and is cruel to Will, insulting him and pushing him away. All of their friends more or less side with Will, while trying to help Mia deal with her issues. Mia realizes the error of her ways and apologizes. She and Will resume their friendship, and the whole cycle starts again, rinse and repeat.

Truthfully, Will isn't the only thing Mia is unsure about. She is a 25-year-old classically trained pianist with a business degree from Brown. She hasn't really done much with her life since college. To be fair, Mia has a lot going on when she meets Will. She has just moved from Michigan to New York. She is mourning the loss of her recently deceased father while taking on the responsibility of running the business her father started. She is caring for her 13-year-old dog that is slowly dying. As if that were not enough, Mia discovers some long held secrets about her family and the circumstances surrounding her birth. Who can blame her not being willing or able to jump into a serious relationship with Will, even if he is a great guy?

If there was anything I would change about this story it would be for there to be more compassion for Mia. Will was great and Mia was often not so great. But in her defense, she was also 25 and dealing with the loss of a parent. Will was nearing 30 and at a point in his life when he was starting to think about settling down. Sometimes timing really is everything. Their friends could have been a tiny bit more compassionate about Mia's uncertainty under the circumstances. 

There was also one strange thing about this book - the prologue and epilogue. Both are from the point of review of a random woman Mia meets at the airport. The middle aged mother of two sees Mia and thinks about what she was like at Mia's age and the difficulties Mia will inevitably face as she grows older. Then this random woman appears again towards the end of the book and I wasn't sure why. It didn't really add anything to the story. I suppose the prologue and epilogue could be interpreted as a glimpse of Mia's life fifteen years in the future, but that wasn't at all needed. It was a little too on the nose. It would have been better to have left that out and left the audience guessing at Will and Mia's relationship would evolve.

Notwithstanding the unnecessary prologue and epilogue, I enjoyed Sweet Thing. The characters, Mia in particular, changed and grew emotionally throughout the course of the novel. The payoff was well worth it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

fpo  It's been awhile since I read one of Henning Mankell's Wallander's novels. I can't think of why it's been so long. I think I wanted to save them and not read them all at once, lest I run out too quickly. Whatever the reason was, I'm back on the Wallander train - this series is absolutely fantastic.

This one begins with a deeply depressed Kurt Wallander. He killed a man in the line of duty and even though the shooting was justified, he feels horrible that he is directly responsible for someone's death. Let me just pause here and say how refreshing it is to have a police officer who genuinely feels guilty and sad about ending another person's life. This kind of remorse is often overlooked in novels. In real life it is even worse. For Wallander, an officer who rarely uses his gun, killing a human being, criminal or not, is devastating. And so as the novel begins, Wallander is on leave and dealing with his grief very badly. There's too much drinking, inappropriate behavior, and many solitary walks along cold foggy beaches.

He is all set to quit the police force. Then an old friend finds Wallander trudging along the beach on yet another cold and foggy day and asks for Wallender's help. The friend's father recently died in a car accident, only the son doesn't think it was an accident and ask Wallander to look into it. Wallander declines and assures his friend that the officer in charge of his father's case is quite good at his job. Not long after their encounter on the beach Wallander's friend is found dead, and this time it is clear it was murder. Racked with guilt at having refused his friend, Wallander abruptly changes his mind about quitting and sets out to find out who murdered his friend and his friend's father. So begins another international Wallander mystery.

The Man Who Smiled was a pleasure to read. One thing about Mankell, he doesn't waste time. So many books (that I enjoy) start off so slowly and I have to remind myself that the story will pick up soon. That is not necessary with Mankell. The Man Who Smiled grabbed my interest right way and held onto it. The murders Wallander is tasked with solving are never run of the mill cases with simple motives. There is often an international aspect and some degree of commentary about the state of the world at large. This book was no exception. I don't want to spoil the book for anyone so I'll leave out those aspects here and simply say this is a great read, especially for anyone looking for an international mystery.