Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Finding Jennifer Jones by Anne Cassidy

Finding Jennifer Jones is the sequel to Looking for JJ and while the  books can be read separately I would highly recommend reading them in order.  If you read any more of this review there are ***SPOILERS*** for what happens in Looking for JJ.

It has been a few years since Jennifer Jones was released back into the community after serving her sentence, but she is not truly free.  There are a series of conditions on her release, and if she breaks them she could end up going back to serve more time - this time in a real prison instead of the children's facility where she was before.  As time passes it feels like Jennifer (now Kate Rickman, formerly Alice Tully) is being dragged down by her feelings of frustration and self destruction.  Kate should be having the time of her life as she approaches her final year of university but instead she is drinking more than she should which sometimes leads to her waking up in strange bedrooms with guys she doesn't really know.  It is a spiral of destructive behaviours that could bring her down.

When a child is murdered in her town Kate learns what is really means to be a convicted killer, because she is right at the top of their list.  For some of the local Police Kate deserves no sympathy, and even worse seem to think she is a target for unwanted attentions.  It all leaves a sour taste in Kate's mouth and when she finds an oportuntiy to escape her old life and the controls on it she leaps at the chance and travels to London.  Life in London seems like the chance for a new start but Kate can't let go of the past, and she feels compelled to search for answers about what happened in the aftermath of the death - even though it means breaking the conditions of her release.  Kate is about to come face-to-face with her past, and what she does next will decide her fate and her future.

Looking for JJ was a powerful book that provided a glimpse into the life of a child who killed another child and what her life was like once she was released back into the community.  Full of hope and dreams of the future Alice Tully seemed to have a future, but that was ripped away and Kate Rickman was left in her place.  Kate has adapted and survived, but she is also broken and fragile, not really part of the community in which she leaves.  Through her eyes we see the future of a released killer, no mater how well she has lived her life she is automatically a suspect when a child is found murdered.  Through Kate we can't help but feel her bitterness that her past is held against her, that the Police don't care about the whole story - only that she killed a child.  It is not surprising that she takes the step of ditching her new life and trying to strike out on her own.

I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Kate/Alice/Jennifer in both novels and I felt it more keenly in some ways for Kate.  Anne Cassidy has once again found a way to make Kate a sympathetic character without excusing her actions or making her a victim - everything that happens to Kate is straight forward but doesn't allow her to avoid her past or her actions.  There is a real sense of closure here, and not just because of the decisions that Kate makes to move forward.  Looking for JJ left a few loose ends, mainly because the story was so tightly focused on Alice/Jennifer.  In Finding Jennifer Jones we learn more about the ripples of that day and what happened to the other people in the novel.

A highly anticipated and well received novel - a confronting and touching novel about learning to live with our actions and moving forward.

If you like this book then try:

Reviewed by Brilla

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy

It was national news when three children went into the woods at Berwick Waters but only two came back out, and even years late the name Jennifer Jones still makes its way into the news.  Alice Tully reads every article with a greedy and intense interest, trying to absorb everything the media has to say about the child killer.  It is not a morbid fascination with a killer though, it is her way of keeping up-to-date about what the media knows about Jennifer Jones - because Alice Tully is Jennifer Jones.  Released from the secure unit that was her home while she served her sentence Alice is learning about the world again, experiencing life before moving on to university and getting on with her life under a new identity to protect her identity.

Alice has not forgotten the events that lead up to the murder, she never could, but she has been trying to find her feet in a strange new world.  She has a bright future if she can stay on track - a placement at university studying a course she really wants to, a boyfriend who loves her and who she loves, and a supportive caregiver who has given her a safe haven to start  her life.  All that security and relative comfort is rocked when a private detective arrives in town who is keen to track her down, at a time when she is already back in the press because her release date is coming up.  Everything she has worked for is starting to slip between her fingers, and as she starts to loose control the memories of her past resurface and threaten to drag her under.

Looking for JJ is one of those books that grabs you and wont let go.  I first read it when it came out ten years ago and I remember it making a huge impact.  I picked it up to read it again because I found a copy of Finding Jennifer Jones and I wanted to refresh my memory of what had happened.  What I found on the second reading was a book that is shocking and confronting, mostly because Jennifer/Alice is portrayed in a very sympathetic light - something that some readers will struggle with.  Alice is not a villain, she didn't kill for pleasure or revenge, she killed by accident.  Reading the book for a second time I was captivated by the development of her character, which we experience through a series of flashbacks which show a neglected child.  There are thousands if not millions of children like Alice out there, children who fall through the cracks because of failings in the social work and justice systems.

One of the more interesting things for me on the second reading was the knowledge that this really does happen, young offenders are relocated with new identities after serving their sentences.  As an adult reading Looking for JJ I couldn't help but draw parallels to the case of the murder of James Bulger and the events in Looking for JJ - mostly because of the way Jennifer is released and relocated as Alice.  These parallels may not be as apparent to a teenager or young adult, but I can remember watching the news and being horrified over the murder, and then surprised about the two killers being released and protected after their release.  There is a lot of depth to the story of Jennifer/Alice and Anne Cassidy shares it with surprising depth and sensitivity - she doesn't excuse or defend the actions of Jennifer, and she doesn't sensationalise it either.

This is a powerful novel that deserves to be discovered and read - although I would recommend it for older teens because of the contents of the novel.  There are some very mature themes here and it will no doubt generate quite a few questions and feelings about Alice and what happens.  Although Looking for JJ and Finding Jennifer Jones can be read independently I jumped straight from one to the other and highly recommend this approach.

If you like this book then try:

Reviewed by Brilla

Friday, February 20, 2015

Arsenic and old books by Miranda James

Arsenic and old books is the sixth book in the Cat in the stack mysteries so this review contains ***SPOILERS*** if you have not read the first five books in the series.  While you can read this series as standalone books it is best enjoyed read in series order so if you have not read the first books - Murder past dueClassified as murderFile M for murderOut of circulationThe silence of the library - then you may want to read them first before reading anymore of this review.

Life is starting to settle down for Charlie and Diesel, although the house is starting to feel a little empty now that Laura has moved out and started her new life with her husband.  The only real excitement in town is the upcoming state senate elections with the son of the mayor campaigning to enter office - following in the family tradition.  Seemingly out of the blue the mayor drops in to see Charlie, bearing the gift of four journals from her husbands ancestor.  The journals are pure gold for any researcher from the period, a personal account of a woman from a well established family with a long and distinguished history who survived the Civil War even though it swept through Athena.  It is an amazing gift for the archive - but it comes with a rather surprising cost.

The rare journals attract attention almost immediately, and Charlie is a little surprised by all the attention and the determination of people to have access to the journals.  Sticking to his guns about making sure the journals are treated properly, Charlie is horrified when the rare items are stolen from his office.  To add insult to injury one of the parties interested in the journals turns up dead, and Charlie finds himself caught up in yet another murder mystery!  With Charlie on the case they may finally be able to get to the bottom of the mystery, because there is more than one cunning plot afoot.

I have made no secret of the fact that I adore the Cat in the stack mysteries - or as they are known in my house "the Charlie and Diesel books".  James has a comfortable and easy writing style that takes no effort to read, and the characters are so engaging that it is difficult not to fall in love with them.  Arsenic and old books continues the strong legacy of the rest of the series, blending together a murder mystery and (somewhat) sweeping family drama as we experience life with adult children returning to the empty nest and a gripping murder mystery.  Without giving away too much of the plot, there are some suitably shady characters, some dodgy dealings, and some rather charming family and friend interactions to quench your thirst for murder, mayhem, and comfort.  

I was wondering if James might have been running short of ideas for the series, because of the introduction of the Southern ladies mysteries series, but that is clearly not the case.  It did feel like Arsenic and old books may have been a touch shorter than some of the other books in the series, but that could be because this was the first hardcover I had read in the series and sometimes paperbacks have less on the page to keep the words a decent size.  This is a well received part of the series, and hopefully we get to see many more adventures with Charlie and Diesel.

One of the best things about Arsenic and old books is that there is a bonus short story in the back that tells the story of how Charlie and Diesel first met!  Very satisfying and a wonderful addition to the story that is Charlie and Diesel.  Now all I have to do is wait for the next book in the series.

If you like this book then try:

Reviewed by Brilla

Friday, February 13, 2015

Son by Lois Lowry

Son is the last book in The Giver quartet, and it closes the story by weaving together the strands of the stories in the previous book so this review contains ***SPOILERS*** if you have not read the first three books in this series.  It is highly recommended that you read Messenger and Son after you have read The Giver and Gathering blue, although you can read The Giver and Gathering blue in what ever order you prefer.

Claire is something of a disappointment for the parents who raised her because instead of learning a useful skill to support the community, or go on to learn more about a profession like engineering or law, Claire has become a Birthmother.  Her task for the next few years will be to produce three children for the Community in which she was raised, and then she will go on to complete essential but menial tasks for the Community until she becomes too old to  work.  That was her future, but when her child has to be cut from her body she is instead reassigned to the fish hatchery where she is something of a curiosity through her sudden appearance.  Through a twist of fate Claire knows that her son was child thirty-six in his year, so she has the opportunity to know her son and interact with him - until the fates intervene again and he is spirited away from the Community.

Without any real planning or purpose Claire leaves the Community and finds herself lost in a world where she has no memory of where she was or what she has lost - but she knows she has lost something.  Shipwrecked and lost, Claire is welcomed into the isolated coastal community where she washes ashore.  In this isolated and insular community Claire is a mysterious and desirable stranger, a beautiful prize that is coveted by more than one person - but she keeps them all at a distance.  Having no memory of her past beyond her name, Claire discovers the world through wondering eyes and leaves everyone puzzled about her lack of understanding about the world around her.  As the years pass and her memory returns, Claire must prepare herself to leave the community that has accepted her - she must prepare physically and mentally for the task ahead and the dangers that wait for her above.

Son is the concluding novel in The Giver series, and closes the story arc that started with The Giver and has blended together the other books in the series.  Starting in the Community with the birth of her son, her story meets that of Jonas.  There is a time when we hear nothing but the story of Claire, but then the story leaps into the Village where we pick up the story of Jonas for a second time, along with the story of Kira and Gabriel.  In many ways Son is the most important novel in the series to date, because although The Giver introduces us to Jonas and his Community, it is through Claire's experiences that you truly come to understand what it means to be part of a Community where babies are Products and every moment of your life is planned and controlled.  It is through Claire that we also understand how Gathering blue and Messenger fit into the world.

It took me a while to read Son, but I did find it easy to pick up and put down because there are three very clear sections in the book (just as well considering all the distractions I had while trying to read it).  It is rare for the final book in a series to finish all the storylines of previous novels so completely, but Son does it is a very clever way, using the gaps in time between novels for life to happen naturally and just allowing us to see certain moments.  For some readers it may be a struggle to keep the characters in the series straight, especially if they are reading the story spaced out over a few years - this is one of those series where it really pays to read it from start to finish, moving book to book rather than reading things in between.  On a more personal note I was very relieved to see that Son has a lot more strength and power than Messenger, Lois Lowry definitely redeemed herself here.

Son concludes a series that has some amazing themes and confronting issues, and it says a lot for Lowry's writing ability that these books can be read as fantasy, as drama, or as an example of social control and discovering who you really are.  

If you like this story then try:

Reviewed by Brilla

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Messenger by Lois Lowry

Messenger is a companion novel for The Giver and Gathering blue - and it is highly recommended that you read The Giver and Gathering blue before you read Messenger.

Six years ago Matty left behind the village of his birth and traveled through the Forest to the Village with Seer.  It was a huge change, not only was Matty accepted with open arms in the Village, but he also had the opportunity to learn and to grow.  Something is changing though, people who were once warm and inviting are now distant and selfish.  The people of Village are not the only thing changing though, Forest is also changing.  For years Matty has navigated the paths of Forest without fear and with the knowledge that he knows the paths, but now Forest seems darker, and thicker, and more sinister.  

When the people of Village vote to close their borders to outsiders Matty must make one final journey into Forest to spread the message, and to try and bring Seers daughter Kira back to the Village before it is too late.  But it may already be too late, and a blooming gift inside of Matty may ask for more than he is willing to give - or does it?

Messenger is the third book in The Giver series, the events happening several years after The Giver and Gathering blue and I have to confess that I found it quite a weak story compared to the others in the series, it was like Lowry felt she had to write it.  One of the most obvious differences between Messenger and the other books in the series is that it is a much shorter book, feeling more like a novella rather than a true novel.  The length makes it feel as though the story is rushed, especially compared to the world building and character crafting that happened in The Giver and Gathering blue.  It felt like Matty wasn't really given a chance to tell his story, that he was rushed along and that he was just a tool to explain what happened to Village rather than having a voice in his own right.

I have jumped straight into reading the final book in the series - Son - and it will be interesting to see if Matty is mentioned in Son or if Messenger is an important part of the series.  If I had known how short the story was and how rushed the story would feel, I would not have picked up and read Messenger at all.  This was a bitterly disappointing read, especially after reading the gems that were The Giver and Gathering blue.  It is possible that my disappointment comes from being an adult reading the novel, and I hope that parents or young people reading this review do keep that in mind - sometimes adults just don't "get" or "enjoy" novels for children the same way the target audience does so please don't let me put you off too badly.

If you like this story then try:

Reviewed by Brilla

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Alta by Mercedes Lackey

Alta is the second book in Dragon jousters series so this review contains ***SPOILERS*** if you have not read the first book in the series.  I highly recommend that you read Joust before you read anymore of this review as this is a series best read in order.

Vetch the serf is no more, in his place is Kiron a young dragon rider who will enter the lands of his birth as a hero.  Reclaiming his name and leaving Vetch behind is only the first challenge Kiron will face, for the land of his birth is a strange place with customs he is no longer used to, and where he will face challenges greater than any challenge in the Tian jousters compound.  Kiron may have been freed of the chains of serfdom, but he has a lot to learn about acting like the freeman he now is, and it goes against everything he has learned to be arrogant and demanding - but luckily he has the example of the Tian jousters to draw on.  

Through luck more than planning Kiron lands on his feet and hits the ground running in Alta, but it is not the land of milk and honey that he might have hoped for.  Through his friendship with Aket-ten and her brother Orest Kiron learns that the Magi are really the ones who control Alta through power and fear, and that no one is truly safe from their power and ambitions.  It is just as well that Kiron is used to hardship and keeping his own council, because it is dangerous to be outspoken in Alta, especially if you are outspoken against the Magi.  Carving out a place for himself and Avatre is only the first step for Kiron, because whether he wants to be or not he is about to be dragged into a conflict against a dark and dangerous force that will do anything to stay in power.  The deeper he digs the more corruption he finds, and the more he finds the more he has to loose - and the more he has to fear.

Alta follows on closely from Joust, starting where the first volume leaves off - leaving no time for breathing room as we rejoin Vetch (now Kiron) on his quest to find a place where he belongs.  He has changed from the angry and resentful young serf into a young man finding himself as a warrior and nobleman after a life of wanting and needing - a seeming deception that sits heavily on his shoulders.  Kiron is a young man who is not yet an adult in anyone's eyes, yet as time passes more and more lands on his shoulders, and he has to find the strength to stand up for himself and for those he cares about.  The passing of time is felt, and it is clear that quite some time passes between Kiron arriving in Alta and the main action, but it is not a clearly progressed "calendar" of time - partly because of the nature of the seasons.  Time passing is both a good thing and a bad time, time allows Kiron to develop friendships, to experience loss, and to grow.

The emergence of the Magi is interesting because they are so sneaky and underhanded, it takes time to peel back the layers of their deception and treachery -  which means it takes time for Kiron and his friends to discover the depth of the danger.  Through Alta we begin to realise that the war between Alta and Tia serves another purpose than just regaining land and honour, and we also start to see the conspiracies that hold Alta in invisible chains and the lengths Kiron and his companions may need to go to to free everyone.  Joust felt very much like a fantasy world as it was heavily focused on the dragons and mythology, with Alta it feels more like a military novel with the dragons and magic becoming part of the fabric of the world rather than the centre of it.  

There is a lot to like here, even though at just over 430 pages it took me a little longer to read than I was hoping!  Thankfully there were no typos or formatting issues with the paperback copy I have.

If you like this book then try:

Reviewed by Brilla

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Joust by Mercedes Lackey

Vetch is an Altan serf, starved and beaten on a regular basis by his Tian master Khefti-the-fat.  Tied to the land that once belonged to his father, Vetch hangs on by sheer force of will and a boiling hatred for the man who controls his life and doles out beatings and punishments like most parents dish out sweets and praise.  He is constantly tired, constantly hungry, and constantly wary of anything that could be perceived as an excuse for Khefti to give him a beating or deprive him of his meager rations.  When a dragon jouster appears out of nowhere and both causes a beating and prevents it, Vetch has no idea just how much his life can change.  In the Tian jousters compound Vetch is still a serf but he is given enough food to eat and the opportunity to stay clean and healthy.  The work is physically punishing and you have to keep your wits about you, but for a child pushed well beyond his physical capacity for years the jousters compound is almost a vacation.  

The other dragon boys may avoid Vetch because he is an Altan serf and they are freeborn Tians, but their lack of friendship is nothing new - and at least they leave him alone, something Khefti's apprentices never did.  One of the biggest surprises though is his relationship with Ari, the jouster who swept him up into his new life.  On every level of his being Vetch wants to keep his distance from Ari, but as time passes he comes to realise that not every Tian is like the men who killed his father and took his land.  Throiugh Ari Vetch learns about dragons, especailly dragons like Kashet who Ari raised from an egg.  Soon Vetch secretly dreams about a dragon of his own - and when the chance comes he seizes it with both hands.  But can Vetch keep his growing friendship with Ari intact as he secretly plans his escape back to Alta and his own people?

I first read Joust when it was released in 2003, and I have fond memories of reading the series which blends together elements of Egyptian-like mythology with magic and dragons.  I have loved dragons since I first read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey and tend to read anything I can find that features these amazing mythological creatures.  The dragons of Joust are an interesting take on the myths of Earth and science fiction, which tend to have dragons in several different "genre" from telepathic entities that bond with their human partner, to wise creatures that hold knowledge and horde treasure, to mindless beasts that destroy anything they can.  The dragons of Joust are an intriguing mixture of reptile, birds of prey, and other greater predators - they don't breathe fire, and if I had to choose one influence most strongly for them it would be birds of prey.  This fresh take on dragons is staisfying enough, but then you add the human story to the mix and it makes the story even better.

Joust is a coming of age story, but on a deeper level is also about learning about the complexities of human nature and the true natufe of war.  Through his relationship with Ari Vetch discovers that the world is not black and white like he has come to believe - Ari is Tian and he is the enemy, but Ari is also a man who sees the hypocrisy of the system he lives in, he may fight for Tia because of his oaths but he does not follow orders blindly.  The relationship between Vetch and Ari feels very genuine and opens a world view for both of them that in turn opens the world view of the reader.  Joust establishes the foundations for Vetch and his world of Tian and Altan jousters and their dragons, a world of intrigue and promise where friendship can develop in a situation of hate, and where a serf can overcome his destiny in a world that would keep him under its heel.  More than your average fantasy with dragons, there is a lot to like about Joust.

The only thing that bugged me about Joust really was the number of errors in the copy I purchased not so long ago - words repeated where they shouldn't have been, weird breaks in words, and I am pretty sure some of the spelling was not American-English or English-English either.  If you have a paperback copy like mine try and ignore it, those errors were not in the original hardcopy as far as I could recall - but I have to say they were annoying and at times jarring.  Hopefully if they reprint again DAW can correct the copy errors.

If you like this book then try:

Reviewed by Brilla