Wednesday, August 16, 2017

REVIEW | The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
Publication Year: 2011
Genre: Middle-Grade, Paranormal Mystery (Urban Fantasy?)
Series: Lockwood & Co. #1
Awards: It did not win any but was nominated for a couple
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Miranda Raison

WHY?:  It's about kids who hunt ghosts.  Who doesn't want to read that?

SYNOPSIS: In an England that has been overtaken by spirits that only children can see, Lockwood & Co. is one of the many agencies that people can hire to rid themselves of ghostly problems.  When one of their cases goes spectacularly wrong, Lockwood, Lucy and George, who make up the agency, must take on an extremely deadly assignment; to quiet the spirits in the most haunted house in England.   

THOUGHTS:

I am fascinated by ghosts but, strangely, I haven't found many books featuring them that I really love.  I'm happy to say that the first book in the middle-grade Lockwood & Co. series is a book about ghosts that really worked for me.  It is exciting, has a multi-layered plot and a distinct take on ghosts and the hunting of them.

The story is told from the perspective of Lucy Carlyle.  In the England the book is set in, something has occurred that has caused spirits to manifest all over the country and these ghosts are not just a spooky nuisance.  If one touches you, you don't just feel a chill, you die.

Children under a certain age (15 or so) are the only people who can actually see the ghosts and some kids are more adept at it than others.  Lucy is one of the more talented ones so she is recruited at a young age to become a ghost hunter.  Ghost hunters usually work in a group supervised by an adult who can't see the ghost but takes feedback from the children and develops the plan of action.  When Lucy's handler loses his nerve and makes a bad call during an assignment, sending all but she to their deaths, Lucy decides to strike out on her own and heads to London to see if she can find a better situation.

She ends up being hired by Lockwood & Co. which is unique in that it employs no adult handlers.  In fact, it is just Lockwood and his confederate George.  Adding Lucy makes them a threesome working out of Lockwood's large house left to him by his parents who are mysteriously missing.  Each of them brings something different to the table.  Lockwood is very smart and bold, a good planner, strategist and leader and is also very good at seeing ghostly phenomena.  George is a science and research dork who spends his time tinkering with ghostly artifacts and doing background research for their cases.  Lucy is very talented at hearing ghostly phenomena and at getting emotional readings and flashbacks from the dead and objects associated with them.  All together they make a good team and they are all glad not to have the supervision of adults.

Normally, that whole idea of kids doing dangerous things and not involving adults, is a barrier when I reader literature aimed at a younger audience.  What for a younger reader is empowering, I find unrealistic and frustrating.  However, there was none of that in this story.  Lucy's experience with her adult mentor at the start of the story and the maturity of Lockwood and all of the gang really convinced me that they are better off taking care of themselves.  It's a fascinating power structure to explore, with kids having a useful and necessary skill that adults don't, and the story does a good job of imagining what this would mean  - it both empowers the kids as well as making them vulnerable for exploitation.

The idea of kids having this "superpower" denied to adults is only one of the very interesting things in the universe Stroud builds.  At first I thought the book was set in a historical setting, likely Victorian, as some of the trappings of the story and setting suggest but actually the book is set contemporarily or even slightly in the future.  There are television sets and other modern things but the phenomenon of the ghosts appearing has scrambled society in many ways.  And that's one layer of the story that will likely be a constant in the series; what happened to "awaken" the ghosts and how can it be stopped once and for all.

The specific plot of the book is also pretty great.  It is a little slow to get started but it builds to a really exciting and pretty scary climax.  Lockwood & Co. are trying to keep the agency open after a disastrous case and partially as a ploy to get positive publicity they are trying to track down who murdered a young socialite who has become a very restless and murderous ghost.  Their involvement in the cold case brings to them the business of an enigmatic millionaire who wishes them to "clean" out his house which is reputed to be the most haunted in a very haunted England.  The night they spend at the house is chilling and exciting!  My only complaint is that Lockwood has information/suspicions that he does not share with his colleagues and there doesn't seem to be any reason for him to do this except to build suspense and conflict in the story, but I'll let it slide because it leads to a great reveal in the end.

Finally, all three of the main characters are great.  George is the least developed of the three but his peculiarities and bickering with Lucy and Lockwood add much of the humor in the book which lightens up what would be a completely dark tale otherwise.  Lucy, as narrator is the one we get to know best and she's a great character, being both traumatised and extremely brave and empathetic.  She's got attitude and her narrative voice is engaging and provides interesting perspective.  Lockwood is charming and immediately likable but he is also a huge mystery and I expect that also to be one of the plot threads that carries throughout the series.

Taken as a whole this was a really good start to a series and I think it would go over really well with all age groups.  It doesn't shy away from the scary parts so if your young reader is on the easily frightened side I might be a little wary.  I listened to the audio and the narrator, who I think is new to me, was great.  She is essentially the voice of Lucy and I think she did a great job bringing her to life.

FINAL VERDICT A nicely creepy, complex and ultimately exciting ghost hunter story aimed at middle-grade readers though it als entertained my middle-aged brain. Will definitely be continuing the series.  4 out of 5 stars. 



Saturday, August 12, 2017

Saturday in the Garden | The Books Ahead of Me

I like to garden and generally putter around in my yard and my Saturday in the Garden posts serve as my pseudo- garden journal, plus round-up of my week in reading, watching and blogging.  Occasionally, I'll whine, rant or gush about something in a GAK section. 

OUTSIDE

It is so nice in Iowa right now and I took advantage and had breakfast on the veranda (i.e. the concrete pad there) this morning. And while the temperature and humidity have been great we continue to get little rain.  I've done a good job watering this year, so most of the plants are doing well, except for my tomatoes.  The Beam's Pear have slowly died one by one and the Patio Roma have continued to mostly produce tomatoes with blossom end rot.  I don't know why I have such trouble with tomatoes which are supposed to be pretty fool proof.  Well I guess I'm a bigger fool than even they can withstand.  My speculation is that I've got some tomato disease, like wilt, in the soil in all the beds and it doesn't seem to matter where I move them.  I've got one more spot I'll try them next year, fingers crossed.
GAK

Recently, for some reason, the number of my books marked as "read" on Goodreads.com caught my eye.  I just broke the 800 book mark and while some of those are books I added from Before Goodreads (BG) most are those that I've logged since I joined in 2008.  It's not a particularly impressive number compared to most but it is still a lot of books and I found it making me feel really happy.  I suffer occasionally from the anxiety of realizing that there is a finite number of books I will get to read in my life (because if there is something to worry about, I'll worry about it without fail, it's my superpower). The fact that in this roughly 10 year period I've gotten to 700-750 of them feels really good, gives me hope and shifts my thoughts towards all the myriad of books I have in front of me in the years to come and away from what books I will miss.  

WATCHING, READING and BLOGGING

Watching 

The TV slump is still going strong, though I have been watching Voltron a good bit this week. Netflix just released season 3 of the anime(?) that features a giant space robot made out of giant robotic lions.  I'm only a couple of episodes into season three and all sorts of surprising things are going down!  I'm going to start blaming all my character flaws on the fact that we only had idiotic, simplistic cartoons when I was young.

Listening

A couple of new podcasts have caught my ear.

Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell which investigates, analyzes and debunks some common truths held by society.  It's fascinating and at times depressing.

By the Book with Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg is a fun podcast where the hosts pick a self-help book and follow it, to the letter for two weeks and report back on it.  It's funny but also seriously and thoughtfully evaluates each book's validity.  I really like the format and approach!

Reading 

Finished Since the Last Time I Posted:

  • Prose and Cons (Magical Bookshop #2) by Amanda Flower:  A cozy mystery series set in a charming New York village with a magical bookshop.  
  • Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson:  This is the second memoir by "The Bloggess" that focuses specifically on Lawson's struggles with mental illness with a humorous touch.  I liked it better than her first book, personally, even though it has quite a bit of filler.  The filler is hilarious which helps and the substantive chapters are really good and thought-provoking.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender North and South by Gene Luen Yang: The most recent installment in the graphic novel series that continues Aang and the gang's adventures.  I think it's my favorite in the series thus far.
    CURRENTLY READING
    • The Exiled Queen (Seven Realms #2) by Cinda Chima Williams: The continuation of the story started in The Demon King!  
    • The Likeness by Tana French: The second in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery series. This one features Cassie from In the Woods in the lead role.
    • Spirit Animals: Hunted by Maggie Stiefvater:  A 
    • Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch:  Non-fiction about eating psychology and biology.  I've been dipping in and out of it for the last few months!

    Added to the TBR:

    This is a list of books that I have added to my Goodreads TBR list this week.  It helps to burn the books I want to read a little more firmly into my mind, maybe get them on some other folks TBRs and gives me a chance to recognize a lot of the awesome bloggers that add stuff to my TBR!

    • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz:  Heard about this on Book Riot's new podcast Read or Dead (all about mysteries).  I love Anthony Horowitz and this is homage to Agatha Christie!
    • The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are by Robert Wright:  I heard an interview with Robert Wright this week where he posits that humans current evolutionary state is not really designed to make us happy in the modern world.  It was a fascinating idea so I added this book which is one of his earliest works on Evolutionary Psychology.
    • Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment by Robert Wright:  See above.  This is Wright's newest book which is what the interview was about.
    • The Surrender of Lady Jane by Marissa Day: I can't remember where I heard about this one but it's a fantasy romance about a British nobleman under the sway of the Faerie Queen Tatiana who sends him on a mission that requires him to seduce a respectable widow name Jane and GUESS WHAT HAPPENS????  I think they fall in love.  Just a wild speculation.
    • The Bride Behind the Curtain by Darcie Wilde: This is a Regency romance by an author I recently read a mystery by.  
    • The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein:  Can I tell you how much I want Teleportation to be a thing.  SO SO SO MUCH.  So science fiction books that feature teleportation and also how it might be evil are good ones for me to read.  This was very highly recommended by Mogsy at The Bibliosanctum.  

    On the BLOG since I last Posted:

    - Didn't actually post anything this week, though I composed many brilliant posts in my head. - 


    HAVE A GREAT WEEK!

    Sunday, August 6, 2017

    Saturday in the Garden | Bees and Dogs Not Getting Along

    I like to garden and generally putter around in my yard and my Saturday in the Garden posts serve as my pseudo- garden journal, plus round-up of my week in reading, watching and blogging.  Occasionally, I'll whine, rant or gush about something in a GAK section. 

    OUTSIDE


    The pear tomatoes are starting to ripen so I've been munching on those.  I also got to roast some beets that I grew for like the first time ever!  With many of the herbs and wildflowers blooming, I'm also seeing more pollinator activity which makes me smile.  Even a bee using the bird bath!  Looks like a honey bee, though I'm no expert on bee i.d.  Of course my interest in the bee, attracted the attention of Rudy, who, in the absence of other prey, likes to stalk and try to eat bees.  Not only is it dumb on his part but now I feel like bee-kind will feel betrayed because apparently I planted all this attractive vegetation to lure them to their deaths by dog.  Sigh.... Sometimes dogs and gardens don't mix.


    Phlox
    I have really been enjoying my potted plants this summer and am happy to have the jasmine and gardenia in my life.  Funny how plants warm my heart:).  It's an outlet for my nurture gene... which may be a gene I made up but it sounds reasonable.  
    Jasmine



    WATCHING, READING and BLOGGING

    Watching 

    Nothing much actually.  TV slump continues.  I have been watching a lot of booktube videos lately. so I guess that counts.

    Reading 

    Finished Since the Last Time I Posted:

    • The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima:  I had a slow start with this one but ended up really loving it!  I've already started reading book two.  
    • The Devil's Novice (Brother Cadfael #8) by Ellis Peters: This is one of my favorite historical mystery series about a monk in medieval England.  It had been a while since I'd read one of these and it was nice to be back with Cadfael.  
    • A Useful Woman (Rosalind Thorne Mysteries #1) by Darcie Wilde: This is the start to a historical mystery series set in Regency era England.  I really enjoyed it and it was a smidge more substantive than I was expecting.
      CURRENTLY READING
      • The Exiled Queen (Seven Realms #2) by Cinda Chima Williams: The continuation of the story started in The Demon King!  
      • Prose and Cons (Magical Bookshop #2) by Amanda Flower:  A cozy mystery series set in a charming New York village with a magical bookshop.  
      • Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson:  This is the second memoir by "The Bloggess" that focuses specifically on Lawson's struggles with mental illness with a humorous touch.  
      • Intuitive Eating by Tribole and Resch:  Non-fiction about eating psychology and biology.  I've been dipping in and out of it for the last few months!

      Added to the TBR:

      This is a list of books that I have added to my Goodreads TBR list this week.  It helps to burn the books I want to read a little more firmly into my mind, maybe get them on some other folks TBRs and gives me a chance to recognize a lot of the awesome bloggers that add stuff to my TBR!

      - Big List Next Week!
        On the BLOG since I last Posted:

        TUESDAY: Quiet Genre Books  - A list of SFF and Mystery novels that are on the quieter side
        THURSDAY:  Review | Queens' Play (Lymond Chronicles #2) by Dorothy Dunnett


        Bunnies really do love carrots.

        HAVE A GREAT WEEK!

        Thursday, August 3, 2017

        REVIEW | Queens Play (Lymond #2) by Dorothy Dunnett

        Queens' Play by Dorothy Dunnett
        Publication Year: 1964
        Genre: Historical Fiction
        Series: The Lymond Chronicles, Book 2
        Awards: None listed but I'm shocked it hasn't gotten some kind of award.
        Format: Audio (from Audible)
        Narrator: Andrew Napier

        Hi! If you would like to read a (mostly) spoiler-free review of The Lymond Chronicles as a whole, you can do so in this post.  The review below of Queen's Play will not be spoiler-free so proceed at your own risk!


        WHY?:  I'm re-reading Lymond!!

        SYNOPSIS:  Queens' Play picks up roughly two years (a little less perhaps) after the events of book one, The Game of Kings.  The young Mary Queen of Scots has been living at the French Court and her mother the regent Queen of Scotland and sister to the King of France, Mary of Guise, is preparing to visit her.  Rumors are floating around that her daughter may be in danger and Mary de Guise wishes to recruit Lymond to go undercover, keep an eye on young Mary and root out any plots against her.  Lymond agrees with equal degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance - it sounds like a good time but he's gonna do it his way and avoid becoming a vassal of the Queen Regent.  What ensues is a harrowing and delightful romp through the twisted political highways and byways of Renaissance France.

        THOUGHTS:

        With The Game of Kings, I came into the re-read remembering almost nothing about it except that it was confusing.  Queen's Play is really the first book in the series that left some specific impressions in my brain mostly because it is the first to feature Dunnett's famous set pieces.  Scenes of such excitement and unique spectacle that it's hard to credit how believable they are on the page:  assassination attempts by first, elephants, than cheetah and a treacherous and crazy night time race over the rooftops of a French City.  Seriously, they make total sense while you're reading!

        Zooming out to the big picture, the political situation is no less mind boggling.  What's going on in the Europe in which we find ourselves immersed in 1549 (or thereabouts)?  Edward, sickly young son of Henry the VIII sits on the English throne.  The war between England and Scotland, that played a large role in book 1, is at a halt for the moment so Scotland is free of the English though still very wary.  They are less wary of the French mostly because the Queen Dowager of Scotland, Mary of Guise, is the French King's sister.  Her daughter - the famous Mary Queen of Scots is just 8 years old and has been living at the French Court for two years and is betrothed to the heir to the French throne.  It's interesting to see Mary Queen of Scots as a precocious and rather charming child:). 

        Lymond has been called to France for the sole purpose of keeping Mary the younger safe because her mother fears she is in danger and indeed there are many assassination attempts throughout the book.  Someone in the French Court wants more power and it is Lymond's job to ferret them out.  

        Ireland is also in the mix. Like Scotland, they want to get out from under the English but they do not have the central ruler like Scotland nor the close tie to France.  One of the stronger chieftains, Cormac O'Connor is in France trying to convince the French to lend their aid in pushing the English out of Ireland, however O'Connor's main goal is to set himself up as Ireland's monarch. The English also show up in France because in their weakened state they seek to forge a peaceful alliance with their enemy France by securing Mary Queen of Scots' hand in marriage for King Edward or barring her one of the King of France's daughters, Elizabeth.  Phew!  Lots going on and that does not even touch on the jockeying for power and position within the French court.  

        The people of France are not all enamored of their monarchy and nobles which are at the height of extravagance and profligacy. The king keeps the whole court on the move, not staying in one place for too long and holding lavish dinners and parties for the mostly licentious and drunken nobles.  

        Into this court-gone-wild steps the Irish Prince of Barrow Phelim O'LiamRoe and his ollave Thady Boy Ballagh.  What's an ollave you say?  Good question!  After looking it up, the best way I can describe it is like a personal bard and scholar.  O'LiamRoe is ostensibly there to expand his horizons and get a feel for the French in a way that might benefit his home country but his real reason for being there is on a lark to provide cover for Lymond whose alter ego is, of course, Thady Boy Ballagh.  I say of course but actually, Dunnett does a good job hiding Lymond's cover personae.  We know he's there in the Irish nobleman's party but are unsure who he is until a little ways in. Or at least I was unaware the first time I read it:). 

        Some of the characters from book one make a reappearance.  Tom Erskine, the lovesick admirer of Christian Stewart is now a high level dignitary for the Queen Regent and married to Margaret, lady in waiting to the Scottish court.  I love the little touch that Lymond is obviously a little put out that Tom has moved on from the deceased Christian and married Margaret and so he is disinclined to like her - Lymond is sentimentally loyal.  However, Margaret proves to be a woman of good sense (Tom has a type:) and she and Tom are allies to Lymond/Thady Boy.  

        There are also a lot of new characters, some of which will remain important throughout the series like Archie Abernethy (posing as an Indian Elephant trainer) and Oonagh O'Dwyer (the first woman we "witness" Lymond get down and dirty with).  As with book one, Lymond attracts the enmity and love (all at the same time) of a young man, in this case Robin Stewart. Phelim O'LiamRoe also ends up having complicated feelings about Lymond though he never obsessively loves him like Robin. "He cursed Francis Crawford with hate and yearning in his voice."  That quote pretty much encapsulates how most people feel about Lymond. The men that get attached to him are generally strong and talented themselves but have some weakness of spirit that Lymond tries to remedy but his efforts often go awry. I really liked O'Liamroe and was kind of bummed he a) didn't get Oonagh in the end and b) doesn't show up or even get mentioned (I don't think) in later books.

        In comparison to the first one, this book's plot is as complicated, if not more, but it has a better narrative flow and is a little less episodic.  It also goes further in demonstrating how talented Lymond is at being duplicitous.  He spends much of the book drunk and rowdy but illustrates again and again that he always has his eye on the mission and is never not focused except for perhaps when he gives in to temptation with Oonagh.  I have to say I was surprised by their union and am even more puzzled by readers who describe her as Lymond's first real love - they don't really interact all that much and the banter and intimacy was greater with Christian and eventually Philippa.  Anyhoo, Lymond is a machine who even carries on as normal after he is poisoned so that he doesn't blow his cover. Bad Ass.  

        This book is definitely where the hook is set deep.  The political intrigue, the glittering descriptions of the French Court, the astounding set pieces, capped with a daring, nail-biting finale, the fact that Lymond survives despite being poisoned, nearly falling from the top of a cathedral tower, nearly being squeezed to death by a professional wrestler and skewered by a French nobleman in a duel to the death; all of it firmly establishes that this series is fathoms deep and will provide one rollicking ride.  

         The narrator changed from book one to book two and I do like Andrew Napier's voice better.  He handles all the accents  - Scottish, English, French, Irish - really well.  I have two complaints however, 1)  he reads Lymond very flat and without much expression which wasn't terrible but there is so much missed potential for bring the character to life and 2) he pronounces Lymond (Lie-mond) as Limmond. Super annoying.  And he does it for two books before it gets corrected.

        FINAL VERDICT: An improvement over the excellent book one and an example of how all novels about 16th century France should be written; swash-buckling and full of political intrigue!  5 out of 5 Stars.

        Related Lymond Chronicle Posts



        Tuesday, August 1, 2017

        Quiet Genre Books


        Lately I've been thinking about quiet genre books.  The vast majority of SFF, mystery, horror I read is fast-paced, action-packed, and momentous.  But occasionally you run across a genre book where big things are happening, but the focus of the book isn't directly on those big things, not exactly.  Sometimes, these books are kind of dreamy and unfocused and those don't often work for me.  Much of the magical realism I've read fits in this category.  The other kind of quiet genre book I've run into are those that shift the lens onto the mundane everyday even when the big picture is BONKERS. They are often more focused on the characters and the big things that are happening around them are secondary. It's a unique approach, at least in my experience and there are some really excellent books that do this.  Below are some of my favorites!

        *************



        1) Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

        Fantasy. A young woman appears back home, 20 years after she disappeared without a trace, looking no different than when she went missing and claiming to have been living in the land of Fairy.  The book focuses on the aftermath and the struggles of her family to know what to think.

        2) The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

        Science Fiction, YA. Something has gone wrong with the Earth's rotation causing the world to slowly start dying.  The book takes place at the very start of this happening and 11 year old Julia's coming of age during this time.

        3) We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

        Horror.  Sisters Merricat and Constance live secluded in their house for years after the majority of the rest of their family was killed by arsenic in the sugar bowl.


        Science Fiction.  (This one is a little borderline as it does have some actiony parts.:) The small crew of a tunneling ship spends a year traveling across space in order to blow a hole in space and create an intergalactic highway.  The book focuses on the everyday lives of the crew and their relationships.

        5) Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

        Mystery (Hitsorical).  (This one may also be a little borderline).  After a fender bender, the Kopp sisters run afoul of a local criminal but stand up to him when he terrorizes their farm.

        6) Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

        Mystery (Historical). A murder in small town Minnesota in 1961 causes 13 year old Frank to face some things about the world and  grow up more than he was perhaps ready for.

        7) The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

        Fantasy. The immigrant story told through the lens of a golem and Jinni who find themselves in turn of the century New York where they each deal with the challenges they face in very different ways.

        8) A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

        Fantasy, YA. Madeliene lives in Cambridge England while Elliot lives in a parallel and much more magical world but they can somehow pass notes to one another ordinary objects in each of their worlds like a parking meter.  Their letters back in forth help them both deal with the trials of being a teenager.

        9) Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

        Science Fiction, YA.  Set against the backdrop of all the adventure and drama of Star Wars, this tie-in novel focuses on two young adults, friends and lovers, who end up on opposite sides of the conflict.

        10) The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

        Fantasy, YA.  As the famous and dangerous Scorpio Races approach, Puck and Sean train and struggle with life on an island that offers little opportunity and which is beset by man-eating horses that come from the sea.

        11) The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

        Science Fiction.  A first contact story that is much more interested in the lives and relationships of the the unusual group of Earthlings that embark upon the mission.

        12) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

        Fantasy.  A love story between two magicians caught in a life or death battle centered around a whimsical and unearthly traveling circus.

        13) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

        Science Fiction.  A group of teenagers bond at an exclusive boarding school.  Revealing why this is science fiction, reveals too much but the book is mostly about these kids coming of age and friendships.

        14) Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

        Mystery.  Part investigator, part psychologist, Maisie Dobbs is a young woman who after World War I opens up her own private investigation business in London.  The rest of the books in the series don't fit this mold but in this first book the focus is definitely on Maisie and her life, the mystery is secondary.

        15) In the Woods by Tana French

        Mystery. Dublin police officer Peter, along with his partner and best friend, must investigate a brutal murder in his childhood neighborhood where he himself disappeared briefly with two of his friends and only he ever returned.

        **************

        Do you have any favorite books that fit this description? I'd love to hear about them!