Something’s not right on this plane

Cover artwork for Unaccompanied MinorTitle: Unaccompanied Minor

Author: Hollis Gillespie

Publisher & Release Date: Merit Press, December 2013 (ebook), January 2014 (hardback) — I’m a little confused about this.

The Hook: Teenage MacGyver on a plane vs. bad guys

The Lowdown (from goodreads): “Fourteen-year-old April Mae Manning spent her life on airplanes with her flight attendant parents. When her father dies in a crash, April’s mom marries a pilot who turns out to be an abusive jerk, and gets Mom confined to a psychiatric hospital. So April takes off, literally, living on airplanes, using her mother’s flight benefits, relying on the flight crews who know she’s been shuttling between divorcing parents for a year. Then, there’s a hijacking, but why is April’s “dad” on board? April flees to the cargo hold with another unaccompanied minor she’s met before, and they fight to thwart the hijackers, faking a fire, making weapons from things they find in luggage. At last, locked in the cockpit with a wounded police officer, the boy, and his service dog, April tries to remember everything her parents said to do in a crisis above the clouds. But she knows it won’t be enough.”

Overall Impressions:  I loved this thrill ride of a story and tore through most of it in one sitting. (There was a break to go to work.) Picture an action/adventure movie set on a plane but instead of Bruce Willis, Nicholas Cage, Samuel L Jackson or Harrison Ford saving the day, it’s a teenage female MacGyver with wide-ranging inside knowledge of how airlines work. She’s (practically) a third-generation WorldAir employee (on both sides), after all, and has practically memorized the entire run of MacGyver*. And I kid you not about the movie likeness – this book features a body thrown from a plane, a bomb in a bag, an undercover cop, surprise family revelations – and it left me with that same great feeling of adrenaline and “good guys triumph!”

(You’ve officially been spoilered.)

April Mae (she corrects people more than once on the spelling) Manning is wonderfully resourceful, self-confident, inquisitive, competent and snarky character who has taken to running away from  her scuzzy stepfather by slipping onto WorldAir flights. She’s a nightmare of custody issues – the jerk stepfather has primary custody, even though he basically ignores  her, and her mother is temporarily checked into a psychiatric facility – escapes from kidnapping, and the air is where April feels safest.

April’s intimate knowledge of WorldAir workings and the amazing numbers of employees she has met make her quick to notice when something looks hinky, and she pulls together with her band of rebels – friends Malcolm and Flo and police officer Ned Rockwell – to thwart the bad guys.

The story doesn’t allow for many shades of gray – the good guys are basically good, the bad guys pretty much bad – but the bad guys’ plot turned out to be something different than I anticipated and delightfully circular.

The story’s a blast and the characters form a wonderful family – part blood, part choice.

The Highs: April’s great voice. Much of the story is told from the perspective of a police/FBI witness interview/interrogation, and she’s just so crisp and sure of herself and steamrolls the agents.

April and her mother love each other so much, and while Elizabeth hates that she doesn’t have her daughter and feels lost fighting against the courts, she’s taught April all kinds of lessons she relies on while away from her mother. Most important, especially when things go wrong: “Don’t freak out, figure it out.”

When April, Malcolm, Flo and Ned all attempt to contact someone official about the hijacking and bomb and can’t get past automated phone trees.

I love how Ms. Gillespie took very cliche roles – precocious minor; scrappy dog; police officer with a history of questioning orders; sassy, super-tough flight attendant; older character with a string of past relationships and possible substance abuse – and mixed them up into something frothy and fun and effective.

Officer Ned’s attachment to his boots.

I am not an animal person, so I’m putting this in: I even liked the dog.

Buzzkills:  Minor character deaths – the reader doesn’t spend much time with them, but April’s memories of them made me wish we did.

Family court has completely failed April and her mother.

The Source: Bought the ebook.

*Pause to google correct spelling of MacGyver and look at pictures of Richard Dean Anderson for a moment.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a free airplane ride was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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Looking for that one good man…

Cover art for Charming by Elliott JamesTitle: Charming

Author: Elliott James

Publisher & Release Date: Orbit, September 2013

The Hook: An order of Charmings -how could so many princes have the same name?- protecting the world from paranormal and supernatural danger.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “John Charming isn’t your average Prince…

 “He comes from a line of Charmings — an illustrious family of dragon slayers, witch-finders and killers dating back to before the fall of Rome. Trained by a modern day version of the Knights Templar, monster hunters who have updated their methods from chain mail and crossbows to Kevlar and shotguns, John Charming was one of the best–until a curse made him one of the abominations the Knights were sworn to hunt.
“That was a lifetime ago. Now, John tends bar under an assumed name in rural Virginia and leads a peaceful, quiet life. That is, until a vampire and a blonde walked into his bar…”
Overall Impressions: Awesome premise, fast-paced and interesting plot, unexpected twists, compelling world-building and main character, but the in-your-faceness of the love interest got on my nerves.
The world-building is fascinating – all the pieces of different mythologies getting pulled together under the umbrella of the Pax Arcana. In a nutshell, elves and fairies are/were real, and when they decided to leave this world, they made a superspell (the Pax Arcana) that makes it very, very, very hard for normal people to notice supernatural things (such as their descendants) and strong-armed a bunch of secret organizations (such as the Charmings) with a geas to keep supernatural beings from doing anything that pushed past the notice of the spell. And if death is required to stop said supernatural beings, so be it.

John’s a likable character and enjoyable narrator, with a layer of snark covering his inner pain, as per urban fantasy rules. He definitely has reasons for that pain – he’s been marked for death by his speciest knight family because he’s part werewolf and in their pursuit they killed the woman he loved. He’s been on the run and laying low when he gets inadvertently pulled into an unofficial investigation: Some vampires are up to something *very* bad, and really, rather clever.

Sig (the “blonde” from the jacket copy) is portrayed as a smart, strong, extremely capable individual with her own issues but she’s put together an eclectic team to deal with certain supernatural threats and she’s very obviously a good leader who sees people’s potential and directs them well. She has strong beliefs about men taking advantage of women and acts on them. But she’s also very obviously the love interest, to the extent that practically every member of the team tells John he should pursue her because her current long-term lover (decades) is no-good and she’ll never leave him on her own because loyalty, but she is interested in John. Balancing the Sig as person and Sig as love interest is tricky, and I don’t know that’s always achieved. At times I was tempted to just walk away.

But then I’d get sucked back into the story, and the ending is earned. Not a happily ever after, but honest and a good set-up for the series.

I think this would appeal to fans of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs’ books. I’d like to read the sequel and see how the balance and pacing matures.

The Highs: These are not undeniably attractive and sexually magnetic vampires. Well, there’s a glamour but since John sees through it, and he’s telling the story, so do we. And the book has some fun poking at the trope. However, they are darn effective vampires as bad guys and some of them as smart bad guys.

Molly, Molly, Molly. She was the reason I kept reading when I got annoyed. Her worldview got turned on her head when she accompanied Chauncey (another team member, originally an exterminator) to a haunted house for an exorcism and she struggled with that before coming to the decision to express her faith in a different way. She’s reasonably terrified by things such as vampires and has her own ways of coping. Including playing Christmas music in April because Christmas makes her happy. She instantly became my favorite with that scene.

Sig wears practical clothing for fighting! Who knows how she would be rendered on the cover, but in the first fight with vampires she’s described as wearing cargo pants and a military commando-style dark sweater. That paragraph is my favorite description of her physical appearance in the book.

That the characters respect what each other bring to the battlefield. Even when they don’t like each other.

Buzzkills:  There were a lot of fighting scenes, which I often skim. (Did a major character die / suffer great injury / reveal new power and/or ability? Okay, moving on.)  One sequence in particular seemed unnecessary other than to have an action scene before important exposition.

In John’s second meeting with Sig, he strips naked after the fight so she can burn his blood from the scene and his clothing. Parts of the discussion felt as it their purpose was to say “Look! Sexual attraction! Notice it! Don’t you want them to get together?”

The Source: e-galley from publisher through NetGalley

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a hand-crafted sword was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

The teen Ocean’s Five calls in the family

Title: Perfect Scoundrels (Heist Society #3)Cover of Perfect Scoundrels

Author: Ally Carter

Publisher & Release Date: Disney Hyperion, 2013

The Hook: It’s a heist with talented cons and crooks. Banter. Plus, I enjoyed the heck out of Heist Society (first in the series).

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Katarina Bishop and W.W. Hale the Fifth were born to lead completely different lives: Kat comes from a long, proud line of loveable criminal masterminds, while Hale is the scion of one of the most seemingly perfect dynasties in the world. If their families have one thing in common, it’s that they both know how to stay under the radar while getting-or stealing-whatever they want.

“No matter the risk, the Bishops can always be counted on, but in Hale’s family, all bets are off when money is on the line. When Hale unexpectedly inherits his grandmother’s billion dollar corporation, he quickly learns that there’s no place for Kat and their old heists in his new role. But Kat won’t let him go that easily, especially after she gets tipped off that his grandmother’s will might have been altered in an elaborate con to steal the company’s fortune. So instead of being the heir-this time, Hale might be the mark.

“Forced to keep a level head as she and her crew fight for one of their own, Kat comes up with an ambitious and far-reaching plan that only the Bishop family would dare attempt. To pull it off, Kat is prepared to do the impossible, but first, she has to decide if she’s willing to save her boyfriend’s company if it means losing the boy.”

Overall Impressions: I love a good heist story – all clever sleight of hand and plans within plans – and this one fits the bill. Kat’s an engaging heroine and her crew of “loveable criminal masterminds” are great fun. They band together to do the impossible. Again. The main villain’s identified by the crew pretty quickly and realizes it, so then you have the chess match aspect as well.

The story pulls you along at a quick pace, counting days after one big event and then days until the next major deadline/looming crisis, dashing back and forth across the Atlantic. Unexpected obstacles, new plans.

The tension between Kat and Hale is interestingly done. Hale’s grandmother’s will (Hazel seems to have been the only other worthwhile Hale) names Hale her heir, and he sees that as her continuing to believe in him and the close relationship they had. When Kat is given reason to believe the will might be fake, she doesn’t want to tell him because he’s holding onto what he sees as the message of the will to help him deal with his grief. Both of them are emotionally compromised, and while I did want to say “Talk to each other already!” it’s believable.

The Highs: The story starts with a flashback to Kat and Hale’s first meeting. She broke into one of the family home’s to steal a Monet but instead steals Hale. (For the record, he threatens to scream if she doesn’t.) I was charmed.

All the charming, clever, talented criminals using their skills for good.

Buzzkills: The main villain felt a bit one-dimensional. He was definitely smart and ruthless, it’s just that beyond his selfishness I wasn’t entirely sure what was motivating him. (Quite possibly someone else who reads this book will tell me that I am oblivious. This will not be the first time I have heard that.)

The Source: Public library

Disclaimer: No chocolate or artwork (priceless or otherwise) were provided by the publisher for this review.

Aliens and mayhem and fascism, oh my!

intheafter

Title: In the After

Author: Demitria Lunetta

Publisher & Release Date: Harper Teen, June 2013

The Hook: You had me at aliens, but it was the smartly-written dystopia that really won my heart.

The Lowdown: Amy is an average teenager until the day They arrive.  In the blink of an eye, she’s left all alone as humanity is decimated by monsters straight out of a nightmare.  Thanks to her parents’ foresight and her own intelligence, she has the skills and tools necessary for her survival, but it’s not till she rescues an abandoned toddler that she finds a reason to keep on living.  She and Baby, as she names the girl, live relatively comfortably in their little fortress until a stranger breaches their defenses.  Miraculously, they survive long enough to be picked up and taken to New Hope, a community that promises to beat back the invading horde and rebuild humanity.  But New Hope has its own dark corners, and Amy’s unanswered questions about her new home and those who control it lead her to a terrifying discovery.

Overall Impressions: Just when I was ready to give up on dystopias for awhile, this fabulous book came along and restored my faith in YA lit’s ability to imagine truly chilling futures for society.  This dystopia was written on a small scale, but it was sharp and frighteningly believable.  I found myself thinking, more than once, “This is EXACTLY what would happen in this situation!”.  I loved Lunetta’s descriptive-but-straightforward style, and while I didn’t always like Amy, I had a lot of respect for her by the end of the book.   I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting for the sequel.

The Highs: I’m a sucker for aliens, and Lunetta’s aliens were as creepy as could be.  The swiftness and brutality of their invasion was frighteningly realistic, as were the effects on humanity’s surviving members.

Buzzkills: It only enhanced the story for me, but be warned that the violence in this book is pretty graphic, and the descriptions of the invasion and its aftermath are brutal.

The Source: Advance Reader Copy from publisher

Disclaimer: No chocolate or shiny things were provided by the publisher for this review.

Love is a battlefield

Title: The TestingCover of The Testing

Author: Joelle Charbonneau

Publisher & Release Date: Houghton Mifflin, June 2013

The Hook: Post-apocalyptic battle for survival where nothing is what is seems? Yes, please!

The Lowdown: Graduation day for sixteen-year-old Malencia Vale: she finally finds out whether she’ll be chosen for the Testing, a program to select the new leaders of a world still struggling to recover from chemical and biological destruction. But that night, her father warns her of the true nature of the Testing – a vicious competition where the penalties for wrong answers are deadly. At least she has Tomas, the one person she can trust on the field… she hopes.

Overall Impressions: This is very similar to the Hunger Games and the Maze Runner, with environmental and interpersonal landmines, real and figurative. Cia and her reactions to the brutal regime of tests draw a lot of sympathy from the reader, and a strong romantic thread with Tomas pulls the story along. Issues of trust, secrecy and Big Brother surveillance present interesting challenges to their relationship and to Cia’s view of the world and of her fellow human beings.

This is scheduled to be the first in a trilogy, and has seeded some intriguing elements for future world exploration. I look forward to seeing more about the world outside the very structured Commonwealth, both the twisted humans in the contaminated wilds and the rebels we caught a brief glimpse of in this first novel.

The Highs: Fast-paced, with believable characters and an interesting look at the results of a biological, chemical and nuclear world war. I appreciated that Cia is a very intelligent and strongly moral character, who still has lessons to learn through the book.

Buzzkills: The writing felt overly simplistic at times. There’s about as much gore as the Hunger Games, if that bothers readers.

The Source: ALA Midwinter Exhibits.

Disclaimer: No chocolate or other survival gear was provided by the publisher for this review.

Edited to add author’s name. Whoops!