The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming StaircaseBook Review:  The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

No one knows why, but over the past fifty years, all sorts of ghosts have been appearing throughout London.  While characteristics vary from one Visitor to the next, the one thing that seems consistent is that they all pose some sort of danger to the living.

While anyone of any age can be harmed by the Visitors, young people are typically the only ones who can see or sense them.  Several Psychic Detection Agencies have emerged, employing young people to seek out and remove the threat.

Lucy, Anthony, and George are Lockwood & Company, the only Psychic Detection Agency without adult supervisors.  Before the story is over, they will agree to take on Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted houses in England.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read them but this series-starter reminded me of The Three Investigators series I loved so much growing up.  The difference may be that while Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews investigated baffling phenomena, they typically found living people at the heart of the mystery.  The supernatural is very real in this series, although the living are just as likely to be behind disturbances as well.  Well-crafted, believable mystery with truly spooky moments.

Special Note:  you must read Stroud’s Bartimaeus series.  Must!

 

 

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A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow

A Cold Day for Murder

Book Review:  A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow

Winter in Alaska is brutal.  When a young ranger disappears, most assume that he was too inexperienced for this remote part of the world, he froze to death somewhere in the park, and his body will be discovered in the spring.  His Congressman father isn’t willing to accept that and pulls some strings to have an investigator look into the disappearance.  And the investigator disappears as well.

Enter Kate Shugak.  At one time, she was the star investigator of the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office.  She’s been in self-imposed exile for over a year, haunted by her last case.  With two people missing in the Park she grew up in, one of whom she knows, she’s pulled out of her exile.

Stabenow excels at setting:  the dangerous beauty of the wilderness, the sometimes ugly imprint of man’s determination to live in such harsh conditions, the liveliness of Bernie’s Roadhouse.  Stabenow also seamlessly weaves the conflict between the Aleutian traditional way of life and modern America into the story.

The characterization wasn’t as seamless for me.  Kate’s anger toward Jack — and her quick relinquishment of it — felt forced.  The narration also jumped a couple of times, pulling me out of the story.  My biggest complaint though is that Kate tells Jack and Bobby that she’s figured what happened and she shares the details with them — but makes the reader wait a few pages.  This annoyed me.

That said, the mystery itself was well-plotted.  The biggest clues were fairly obvious, although I missed one of them.  The suspense comes from knowing that while the Park is vast in size, it’s small in population — it’s impossible to hope that the person Kate is looking for is not someone she’s close to.

While I found the first book in the Kate Shugak series interesting, I’m not sure if I will continue.  Shugak’s world is harsher than I typically like to visit but . . . maybe.  Someday.

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High Country by Nevada Barr

High Country

Book Review:  High Country by Nevada Barr

Four Yosemite park employees have gone missing and no one wants to talk.  Enter Anna Pigeon.  A ranger from elsewhere in the national park system, she’s able to fill in as a waitress at the Ahwahnee Hotel and gather what information she can from her unsuspecting coworkers.  True to form, Anna soon uncovers connections which lead her to the scene of their disappearance.  Unfortunately, she’s quickly spotted by people who don’t mind making one more park employee disappear.

I’ve fallen behind on reviewing, again, so it’s been a couple of months since I read this.  A few things stood out to me at the time though.  One, Anna remains a force to be reckoned with.  She may be tiny but she’s sharp and she’s a fighter.  She gets banged up, quite often, but she tends to do more damage to the bad guys than they do her.

Two, as much as I love Anna, and you know I do, there were a few points in this book that didn’t make sense to me.  Anna found the scene quite easily — and the reason for the disappearance.  It was a common trail, one that someone had seen one of the hikers on.  I have to assume that someone checked out that trail — why didn’t they find what Anna found?  Why didn’t aerial searches spot what Anna saw so clearly?  Why would a bad guy give such obvious clues to several people he was partying with?  Okay, he was probably drunk (I don’t remember) BUT  the scene rang untrue enough to me that I still remember thinking it as I read it, a couple of months later.

Those issues aside, Anna herself does not disappoint.  I loved this book — her overnight ordeal in the Sierras is one of her most challenging survivals yet.  The 12th book in the series and Anna is as compelling a character as ever — as are the various parks which she serves.

Looking forward to Hard Truth and dreading the day when I don’t have another Anna Pigeon novel to look forward to.

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Book Review: The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Ivy TreeBook Review:  The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

A young woman is relaxing and daydreaming with her back against Hadrian’s wall in scenic Northumberland when her peaceful afternoon is shattered by an angry young man who yells the name Annabel and proceeds to threaten her.  She manages to convince him that she is not the cousin who ran away 8 years ago.  And his anger transitions into careful consideration.  The resemblance is so uncanny and their meeting so timely that he rapidly forms a plan, which he assures her will benefit both of them while hurting no one.  Mary allows herself to be persuaded.

Mary’s conscience threatens the perfect plan, almost from the start.  She finds that what she agreed to is much harder to do once she’s among the people Annabel cared about — and who cared about Annabel.  Why did Annabel run away?  And how far will Con go to keep Mary in line?

There’s more than one mystery afoot in this novel and I can promise you that if you read it, you’ll do exactly what I’m doing now — re-read it to fully appreciate Stewart’s subtlety.  I love it when an author can legitimately surprise me.  For the most part, Stewart gives the reader everything needed to see the whole picture — for the most part.  She did cheat, just a bit, I think with one scene and slipped in another.  But the bulk of it is right there, if one is quick enough to spot it.  And it’s beautifully written — Stewart has an easy narrative style, and a gift with description.  Atmospheric suspense at its best.  Highly recommended.

 

 

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Books in Brief

Sigh.  I have been reading, honestly.  I just haven’t been writing.  Again.  Here’s a quick look at some books that I have read over the past few months.

 

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  In this post-apocalyptic vision of the future, part of the former United States is now The Republic of Gilead, a far-right totalitarian Christian theocracy.  Women are assigned to various classes; they are not allowed to read or to have money of their own; they are not even allowed to keep their own names.  Offred is a Handmaid, the role assigned to fertile women not eligible for marriage.  Unless she is able to conceive a child by Fred, for him and his wife to adopt as their own, she will be declared an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies to clean up hazardous waste.  Offred recalls her happy past and relates her chilling present.  An absolutely terrifying vision of the future.

A Wrinkle in TimeA Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  A government scientist has gone missing; his daughter, Meg, her younger brother, Charles Wallace, and her friend, Calvin O’Keefe, travel through space and time to find him.  They are aided by Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.  I loved this book as a kid; I was less impressed with it this time around.

Artemis AwakeningArtemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold.  Centuries have passed since the Empire was shattered by war and the advanced technology it enjoyed was lost.  Legends tell  of Artemis, a planet created to be a pleasure resort back in the Empire’s Golden Age.  All tech was concealed and the occupants, animal and human alike, were bioengineered to help the guests enjoy their stay.

Archaeologist Griffin Dane investigates the legend and it leads him to the actual planet.  Finding himself stranded there, he is rescued by Adara and her psych-linked puma, Sand Shadow.  What will he discover about the forgotten technologies that created Artemis and her inhabitants?  Intriguing beginning to a new series.

A Darkling SeaA Darkling Sea by James Cambias.  Humans first alien contact was with the Sholen and years of conflict followed.  A hard-won truce and an uneasy peace are challenged when humans explore the oceanic world of Ilmatar and make contact with its residents.  The story is narrated by Rob, a member of the human exploration team, Broadtail, an Ilmataran, and Tizhos, a Sholen scientist.  Slightly uneven plotting but a fascinatingly detailed space opera.

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The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes

Book Review:  The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes

perfect-ghostEm Moore is painfully shy.  As the silent partner of a successful writing team, she’s able to live a mostly solitary and self-sufficient life; she does the writing, her partner Teddy does the information gathering and the PR.  When Teddy dies in a mysterious car accident, her world changes drastically.  Determined to finish their last project together, the biography of reclusive movie director Garrett Malcolm, she leaves the safety of her apartment and resolves to complete the interviews with the man himself, despite everyone’s doubts.

The story unfolds slowly but deliberately, told by Em and addressed to Teddy in absentia.  Details from her past seep into the narrative and they aren’t pleasant.   Em is a survivor, but will she fall victim to a fatal accident herself?  Malcolm clearly has secrets, and it seems more and more likely that Teddy’s accident wasn’t an accident at all.  Did he discover something scandalous?  Was he up to something scandalous himself?

This book was impossible for me to put down and the ending caught me by surprise — I love it when an author can do that!  I immediately began re-reading and became even more impressed.  It takes a lot of skill to show readers everything they need to know but lead them in an entirely different direction.  Linda Barnes just made my “Must Read” list.

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Rooms by Lauren Oliver

RoomsBook Review:  Rooms by Lauren Oliver
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It’s rare that a book with unlikeable characters can hold my attention.  Not only did Rooms hold my attention but it kept my nose buried in its pages for an entire weekend.  Rooms is a well-paced novel that feels absolutely real even though two of its main characters are ghosts.  Not Casper the Friendly Ghost variety but not the Poltergeist variety either.  More the invisible, silent roommate variety.  Richard Walker has just died and his estranged family has come back to clean house.  Alice and Sandra, bound to the house since their deaths, pay witness to the family’s comings and goings, commenting, reminiscing, and arguing as the days go by.
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Oliver’s imagery throughout the novel is exquisite but what appealed to me most was the mystery.  Each character in this novel is haunted, not by ghosts, but by events from their pasts.  I may not have liked any of the characters but I was curious about them.  Oliver does not disappoint.

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