Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Only the Good Spy Young

Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter (NY: Disney/Hyperion, 2010).

In this latest installment in the Gallagher Academy series, Ally Carter pushes Cammie Morgan into more dangerous situations than ever! At the heart of the mystery lies Mr. Joe Solomon--the academy's Covert Operations teacher. Is he the devious double agent others are telling Cammie he is? Or is he a good guy? And what about Cammie's erstwhile boyfriend, Zach? Cammie and her pals have to find evidence that Solomon has planted for them in the Academy, but it's hard going since Cammie is being so closely watched. A terrorist organization that recruits agents solely from other agencies wants Cassie, and she doesn't know why, so she's being kept "safe" at the school. The new Covert Operations teacher seems intent on finding out what Cammie knows, and Cammie has to rely on her friends and her spy skills to find out the truth. Not everything becomes clear by the end, but the story is packed with action and adventure for Cammie.

Excellent spy thriller with a touch of romance! Great read for ages 12 & up.

Sizzling Sixteen

Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2010).

Some of the books in this series are not as good as others, but this one is excellent with lots of laughs. Stephanie Plum is taking a breather from Joe Morelli, her on-again off-again flame, but he steps in to raise an eyebrow now and again. Ranger is still around as well, and there's plenty of the usual tension between him and Stephanie.

The plot revolves around Stephanie's attempts to save her employer's life by raising the money he owes on a gambling debt. Stephanie doesn't even like Vinnie that much, but he's family and he's given her a job that she actually enjoys, so she, Lula (former hooker and lackluster file clerk), and Connie (busty office manager) plot and scheme to get the money and rescue Vinnie since no one else will and they want to keep their jobs. It turns out that Vinnie has been scammed and, worse, his scammer has been scammed as well, so there's lots of drama, anger, and explosions. Stephanie's grandmother is up to her usual tricks as well--trying to see bodies at funerals even when the caskets are supposed to remain closed.

Oddly, toward the end, Evanovich seems to be hinting that this might be the last of Stephanie's adventures. Stephanie says she's getting tired of bounty hunting, and she and Morelli appear to be getting back together as the novel closes. Could this be it? I hope not!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (NY: Little, Brown, 2007).

Many children's books portray their young protagonists in life threatening situations over which they must triumph to save the world. Here puzzle master Reynie Muldoon, supersmart Sticky (George) Washington, intrepid and resourceful Kate Wetherall, and whiny little Constance Contraire all pass a special test that takes them to the home of Mr. Benedict. He has a unique mission for them: to infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened that has been using children to transmit secret brainwashing messages all over the world via television, radio, and other media. These odd messages act subliminally, and Mr. Benedict suspects they are at the root of the present "Emergency" state of the earth.

The Institute is located on Nomansan Island (yes, the book is full of these funny little word games) and the children immediately notice many strange contradictions--you can go anywhere on the island, but you must stay on the paths. You can stay up as late as you want as long as you go to bed at 10 p.m. You can eat whenever you want as long as it's during prescribed meal times. It's an odd school where students hear the same contradictory-sounding lessons over and over, and the best students become "messengers" who have privileges associated with transmitting messages dictated by Mr. Ledroptha Curtain, the Institute's founder and the evil genius who plans to take over the world--unless Reynie and his crew can stop his nefarious plan!

Stewart creates engaging and humorous characters to whom children will relate well. The plot moves along trippingly at the beginning, drags a bit in the middle, but ends dramatically--and happily, with obvious room for a sequel! Boys and girls will enjoy the camaraderie of the children and the way they have to figure out what to do with minimal adult supervision. Excellent, though extremely long, read at nearly five hundred pages; fine for ages 8 and up, or read aloud in smallish chunks to a slightly younger audience.

Nobel Genes

Nobel Genes by Rune Michaels (NY: Athenium, 2010).

Told in the first-person from the perspective of a boy who is never named,this novel intriguingly plays on the concept of self-discovery--a common enough theme in YA fiction. The boy is living with his manic-depressive mother who has always told him that he's the product of a sperm donation by a Nobel laureate. She expects he will great scientist, and has had him tested and tutored from an early age. He's a bright boy, but not particularly gifted, and he devotes hours to pondering a book of Nobel Prize-winners, wondering which one he looks like, which one's gifts he has inherited. As his mother's illness, progresses, the boy has to deal with other pressures as well.

Michaels portrays the world of a boy living and dealing with a disturbed individual with a poignancy that evokes empathy. It's a sad story with a sad ending, but the reader is left with the sense that the boy has the strength to overcome his difficult beginnings. Recommended for grades 7 & up. Some mature themes, situations.

The Musician's Daughter

The Musician's Daughter by Susanne Dunlap (NY: Bloomsbury, 2009).

Fifteen-year-old Theresa lives in eighteenth century Vienna, the daughter of a court violinist and the goddaughter of the Kappelmeister, Franz Joseph Haydn. The discovery of her murdered father's body near the gypsy camp on Christmas Eve launches Theresa into a thrilling investigation as well as self-discovery. Dunlap magically recreates this long-ago world, its customs and mores, in a way that will delight readers, even those (like me!) not normally attracted to historical fiction. Theresa's relations with her mother and little brother as well as her father's fellow musicians are charmingly and realistically rendered, as are her dealings with her mother's sordid uncle, Theresa's would-be sponsor who has more nefarious ideas in mind for Theresa.

This is an excellent mystery adventure with a frisson of romance. Dunlap brings life and grace to the past. Recommended for grades 6 & up.


Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

Killing and romance--a proven combo in YA fiction--triumph again in this thrilling debut novel from Kristin Cashore. And she does it without vampires or werewolves!

Graceling is set in a fantasy world of seven countries ruled by seven kings where some people are born with special gifts--called graces. Some graces are less useful than others, but once a person is known to have a grace--marked by the eyes becoming distinctly different colors, usually at a young age--he or she is sent to the king, who may choose to exploit that grace. Katsa, the king's niece, is a killer, and her uncle has been exploiting her grace to control his subjects for years. The strong-willed Katsa has also formed a secret Council that allows her to use her grace for good, for she frequently despises her uncle's commands, and this bit of rebellion helps assuage her conscience.

As the novel opens, Katsa and two of her fellow council members have traveled to another kingdom to rescue the grandfather of another king. No one is quite sure why he's been kidnapped, but he is old and infirm and needs help, so Katsa has set out on this mission en route to another official one for the king. It is imperative that she keep her unofficial work a secret from the king, who would become enraged if he knew that Katsa was using her grace for purposes he has not condoned. The mission goes well--Katsa is able to dispatch all the guards without killing them, her preferred method, and rescue the grandfather. The only glitch: she happens upon an unexpected person, a man graced with exceptional fighting skills who sends Katsa mixed messages. She opts not to kill him, though he would be able to identify her. This man turns out to be Prince Po, who is also seeking the grandfather--his grandfather! When they meet again, Po has sought the help of Katsa's king, and Po and Katsa become sparring partners, and eventually much more.

Throughout the novel, Katsa is honing her grace, coming to terms with her power, and deciding how best to deploy it. Katsa and Po embark on a dangerous mission that could alter the lives of everyone in the seven kingdoms, for the kidnapping of the grandfather was indeed part of a grand plan to conquer all the land. Cashore masterfully weaves the themes of control--on a macro and micro level--throughout the novel, as Katsa must not only learn to control her grace, but how to deal with others who are trying to control her use of it. There is also the control dynamic woven into the culture of the kingdoms--of kings controlling land and people, and men controlling the lives of women.

This is a fabulous, exciting, breathtaking novel with strong characters and themes--grand and rewarding on many levels. Highly recommended for grades 7 & up. Violence & mild sexual situations.