Saturday, October 24, 2009


Montmorency and the Assassins: Master Criminal, Spy?

by Eleanor Updale

#3 in the Series

Montmorency's back many years later, with a whole host of characters from the first books, not to mention a few from the new generation who are just growing into their own and able to join him and Lord George on their wild and dangerous spying missions.

Here, Montmorency, Vi and her son, George, and George's nephews all get in on the mission, which takes them all the way to Paterson, New Jersey in search of anarchists. Again, there is costume and undercover work involved, though this time, it's not Montmorency who dives into the lower classes and the plots of would-be terrorists. Instead, while a junior Fox-Selwyn joins the inner circle of anarchists, Dr. Farcett visits with Thomas Edison, and Montmorency falls for a woman so hard that it threatens the success of the mission when he is reluctant to leave on the ship that carries George's nephew Frank and a young man planning a bombing.

Quick thinking and new schemes hatched on a moment's notice save the day, and by the end of the book, they have, they think, found a way to extricate Frank from the anarchists without seeming to have betrayed them. Everything seems fine... until a package arrives and sets up book #4.

Again, the books seemed rather scattered over a few different plotlines, though it was more cohesive than the last. In the end, though, the action is fast-paced, the suspense kept taut, and the characters make you care about them, and those are the things that make or break a novel of this sort. So while I didn't love it as much as the first book either, I wasn't putting it down! Rather, I quickly picked up the next installment.

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Montmorency on the Rocks

by Eleanor Updale.
#2 in the series.

I am, quite frankly, not as enamoured of this one as I was of the first book.

It starts several years later, during which time we are told Montmorency and his friend Lord George Fox-Selwyn have had quite a career as international spies for the British government. As the book opens, Montmorency has become addicted to an unnamed drug while in Turkey, and George takes him north to his brother's estate in Scotland to cure him with the help of Dr. Farcett, who had healed his wounds in prison. Events soon lead them to a small island off of Scotland, Tarimond, which will come to feature prominently in this book and later ones.

On Tarimond, Dr. Farcett begins to look into why every baby there has died for the past 8 years, while in London, the investigation into a covered-up explosion requires the investigative services of the spies Montmorency and Lord George. The three make their way back to the city, only to find an old friend of Montmorency's ahs the information they need, and they bring her into their life, increasing their circle at the same time that they uncover the bomber - but not before he strikes again.

Once again, we have tales of intrigue and suspense, and the theme of dressing as another person or class helps them find out what they need by blending with a different group of people. I felt, though, that this book is trying to do a lot more than the first book did, and loses some of the wonderful straight-forward drive and plot that made that so good. Instead, the twists and turns feel less directed on one hand, and more contrived on the other, as they clearly set up things and characters for book #3.

In sum, I didn't not like it, but felt it didn't quite live up to the standard of its predecessor, which I loved.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Montmorency: Thief, liar, gentleman?

by Eleanor Updale

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, since it sounded so delicious. Suspense, set in the Victorian era, involving a man who was a thief slinking under London by night and a gentleman by day. Would he be found out as one or as the other, and what would he stand to lose?

This first book sets up the series, introducing us to Prisoner 493 and his history, walking us through his time in prison, where he nurses his bitterness and envy towards the upper class and plans his dual life in great detail.

When he is at last released, he begins by setting himself up with the tools, clothes, and lodgings he will need, and the adventure begins. The crimes are not written up in detail, which could become dull and repetitive really quickly. Instead, his plans and what he learns are outlined, his narrow misses and the things he realizes he must change are sprinkled throughout to keep a nice degree of tension, and his progress is notable, but well-paced.

By the end, he finds himself offered a legitimate job of sorts - but one perfectly suited to his skills and parts of his personality, for it is all about deception, sneaking, and the thrill of the narrow escape. This perfectly sets up the next book in the series, too, and closes the door on part of his deception while it opens a new avenue for the same sort of suspense. This neat trick to keep the series fresh doesn't even feel gimmicky, which can be tough to pull off.

It will tell you something of my opinion that having finished the book last night, I went to the teen section today to pick up the rest of the series, bumping the book I had brought to work to start today.

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Pure Sunshine

by Brian James

Named for the type of acid the character are tripping on over its two-night span, this book follows a small group of Philly boys getting their party on, and sticking around with the one who's narrating as his night goes a little south.

This book doesn't seem like it's just for shock value, a big issues book, though it does talk about the drugs a bit and lets the narrator ponder more than a little about who he really is, what he wants, and why he hides parts of that from certain people, even among his group of friends.

Instead, it gives strong, believable descriptions of what an acid trip is like and how your body reacts to it, how the narrator feels at different points over the night as he rides out the effects of the chemicals and some weed he adds in, and then the next day. He talks a bit about what kind of kid he is, too, which some will identify with, and others may find interesting or may just dismiss.

The second night, he is not reacting well, gets into a huge, ugly argument with friends, and takes off on his own for a night of no fun, just hanging on to survive until the drugs leave his system. By the time morning comes, he is in rough shape, and the appearance of the girl of his dreams is the only thing that lifts him out of the gutter and the beginnings of self-pity.

The thing about this bad night of his is that it's not written to be some sort of comeuppance or morality thing. It just is what happened with too much chemical and not enough positive stuff to think about - which I think is important, because there is nothing a teenager is going to want to read less than a lesson on how he asked for it and no good came of his drug use. That, they've heard. Instead, the book answers some of those questions about what it's like to use drugs without making it either glamourous and fantastic or horrible and a sure dead end. It's got balance.

The other thing about this book is that you really see a normal, not-so-bad kid not always following his best instincts because they are not cool, but wishing he could. So while he joins in the bragging about girls and such, he actually has a major crush on a nice girl for all the right reasons, and is sort of waiting for someone like her before he has sex - he just doesn't want to admit that and face potential ridicule. And while he does okay in school and all, he doesn't want to be seen to be too interested or care too much, because it's not cool to. Instead, he talks about how he and his friends keep having to up the ante, moving from one sort of harmless trouble to the next level, when sometimes he wishes they could go back to doing small, goofy things for fun instead of having to see them as boring and chasing the next little high of small-time trouble.

By the end, he has not necessarily decided to turn over a new leaf and reject all of that as a result of some epiphany, but he is finding himself longing for simpler things and more truth, and maybe a shot at making that nice girl his, cutting the b.s. It's an interesting ride because unlike many books, not much is resolved, but some possibilities of what comes after are left wide open. And while I kind of hate not knowing, I think it might play better with a teen than a tidy ending, especially since things still are wide open at that age.

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Sara's Face

by Melvin Burgess
Melvin Burgess has an incredible knack for dreaming up situations that sound like they could only lead to the cheesiest book in the world, yet making them entertaining and easy to buy into by virtue of his fantastic writing. His book Lady, for example, is about a teenaged girl who turns into a dog. Ridiculous? Sure. But he writes it so that the experience of being a dog seems like it must be realistic, it is so plausible.

So here, he writes about a rock star who has, teaming up with a gifted but unscrupulous plastic surgeon, pushed the boundaries of surgery well past normal or accepted. As a result, after years of constantly morphing his appearance, his face has collapsed. Still, he won't be kept down, and reinvents himself with a mask that propels him to even greater heights of global fame.

Sara, who considers herself a piece of performance art in her own way, is awestruck. She takes to wearing a mask of his face as much as she can, even before she burns her face with an iron. As she recovers, the great star Jonathon Heat visits her in the hospital, taking her under his wing and into his home, where he says he will nurture her talent, fix her face, and make her a star. The question is - is that what he really wants? Sar begins to have suspicions that he and his surgeon want her for a whole different reason, and that she may not even be the first.

The book has good suspense, an ending horrible enough to satisfy but not as bad as it could be, and a premise of evil plotting that leaves you with some delicious little chills. At the same time, for those who are inclined to a good think or good discussion, there is plenty here for that, too.

Not the kind of book I'd say you have to read, but a good little thriller, and just shocking enough to make you want to.

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Friday, October 02, 2009


Give a Boy a Gun

By Todd Strasser

Written in the wake of the Jonesboro and Columbine rampage killings, this teen fiction book digs into the background of a fictional school shooting and the boys behind it. It is written as the interview notes of a reporter who went to the town and spoke to children, parents, and school faculty members who recalled what they could of the boys going years back, as well as the events of the hostage-taking. Among those notes, in footnotes at the bottom, are interspersed statistics and small facts about other real-life shootings, gun fatalities, and plenty of quotations from the documentary “Making a Killing, “ about the arms industry.

The book itself, I thought was quite well done. I know a lot of parents might react to this with horror, wondering why kids need to read about it. There are a few answers there. One is that it’s a fear our kids live with, a fact that hovers in the background of their lives at school now, the worry behind every lockdown. One school in the area my library serves has had two already this year. One based on a toy gun that was rumoured to be real, and one on a bomb threat. It’s October 1st as I write this, less than one month in. So yes, we may wish kids didn’t have to think about it, but they do.

So. With that said, this book manages not to glamourize the boys or the event, nor does it make it into a horror show. I really thought the author pulled the punch at the end, in fact, so there is very little in the way of gore. What is most shocking in the body of the book is the anger in the shooters and the entitlement in the in-crowd of jocks and the way the faculty support it.

For all that, though, Strasser does drive home a point hard, time after time. He just doesn’t use the body of the work to do so, which I appreciate, because there is little worse in terms of enjoyable reading than a book with a purpose. Instead, he hammers away at you with the facts, all the more chilling for being true. That gun deaths kill more children than all diseases combined. That for 1995, in seven states, there were more shooting deaths than traffic fatalities. That in 1995 alone, more Americans were killed by firearms than soldiers killed in 3 years of the Korean War and well over half of the number of soldiers killed during 8 years in Vietnam. (If you have seen the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C., that last fact is staggering, because you have a visual for it.) That military analysts have noted strong and marked similarities between “shooter” video games and training used by the military to break down soldiers’ resistance to shooting another human. And over and over, the seeming indifference of arms manufacturers, who continue to market guns whose only logical use can be to kill people, not to mention the tactics used to sidestep attempts to regulate their product.

Taken whole, it gives recommendation for things that need to change, it indicts the gun lobby strongly, and it shows not sympathy, but a level of understanding for how this can come to pass when conditions in a school or community are just the exact recipe for such a disaster.

If you worry that such a book might provide instruction or glamourize this kind of action, I would say I think it is not providing what kids who are wondering about it are looking for. Instead, it feels more like a call to action, a heads up about the need for change. It’s a good read, and a tricky balancing act is handled well here by Strasser.

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