Category Archives: Mystery

Silverfin: the Graphic Novel

silverfinI thought Charlie Higson’s first Young Bond novel, Silverfin was all kinds of fantastic – the suspense, the atmosphere, the bad guys, the action sequences and narrow escapes. All parts of it made me into an instant Bond fan. This is saying a lot because I was a girl who had at that time never (yes, never), watched a Bond movie. I knew nothing of Sean or Pierce or Daniel. I do now. Since Higson’s first book, I’ve not only caught myself up on the films, I’ve tried to keep up with the rest of Higson’s series (now at 5 books), but I’m a tad behind. I’m thinking the best plan is a Bond marathon over Christmas break? Until then, I picked up Silverfin – the Graphic Novel to get me back in the spy spirit.

Now, for fans of the novel, there’s quite a bit that isn’t in the graphic version in terms of plot. That’s understandable of course, since given the length of the original, a whole lot of exposition and dialogue had to be cut out. I like exposition and dialogue. That’s the kind of reader I am. I wonder if I had not read the novel beforehand, would I still have felt that the graphic version moved a bit too rapidly, without quite enough time spent on each of the various plot threads and character development? Perhaps not. But that’s how I felt. I found myself rounding the characters out, filling them in in my mind based on my memory of the novel. There’s an interesting interview with Higson, in which he comments on the challenges of converting his text to the new format, and he notes that it wasn’t easy to do, that ideally, more length would have been nice. Still, it works quite well, and most definitely the pages keep on turning. The brisk pacing and excitement is still there in full force.

The art work by Kev Walker and the layout design pack a real the visual punch. I loved the way the colour palette shifted as the story moved from one place to another, signaling a new sequence and setting. The opening section at the loch, all red and black, is super creepy and matches the horror of the events to perfection. The Eton sections are pale, quite muted, as if you’re watching an old film – just right in spirit for the classy and legendary school. When James comes face to face with the true evil secret of Hellebore’s Castle, everything suddenly turns deep shades of bright green, you know the “scientist gone bad” green colour (think Hulk). The colouring supported the text the same way music might in a film, changing as the mood changed, but not in a way that was heavy-handed.

My overall assessment? Well worth reading. Good fun for those who are already fans of the novels, who can fill things in a little along the way. You might be wondering about the first chapter? I know I was. The first chapter of Silverfin has to be one of the spookiest, most suspenseful openings I’ve ever read, period. Let’s just say the graphic version of the opening was good enough to inspire an immediate second reading. If you’re not shuddering by page 5, you should have your head examined.

Silverfin – the Graphic Novel by Charlie Higson & Kev Walker is published by Puffin.

(This is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire).

Dani Noir

final-cover-dani-72-2Every so often I’ll read a book written for kids or teens and I will feel sad that it wasn’t around when I was actually a kid or a teen. It might be because the story has an element that I think only kids can fully appreciate, say something particularly silly or wildly imaginative, and I’ll wonder what the 10-year old me would have thought about it. Or it might be, as is the case with Nova Ren Suma’s outstanding debut tween mystery, Dani Noir, that I think the book could have opened me up to something years before I actually ended up experiencing that thing in my life, and here I’m talking about black and white films. If I’d been able to read Dani Noir as a kid, I would have become a film nut at the age of ten, I am convinced of it. Forget the fact that my tiny hometown didn’t even have a video rental place for most of my formative years, let alone an arty movie theatre showing film noir every night of the week. I would have made it happen somehow with my 3 television channels and giant old family TV. This book might have turned me into the film nerd I am today, but twenty years sooner.

It’s the summer before eighth grade and Dani Callanzano has a lot of time on her hands. The last thing in the world she wants to do is go visit her dad, who now lives across the river with his fiancée and her horrid daughter Nichole, but there isn’t much to do in Shanosha either. Good thing she’s got the Little Art, a tiny movie theater that brings some drama to Dani’s otherwise unexciting mountain town. Dani’s on a film noir kick, and her favourite actress of-the-moment is Rita Hayworth. Dani says, “Most kids my age have no clue who she is. When they think of a big movie star they think of someone like Jessica Alba. But if Jessica and Rita Hayworth were in the same scene and the cameras were rolling you’d forget Jessica was even there.” (Aren’t you liking this kid already?) After an awful first visit her her dad’s new place, Dani heads back to Theater 1, taking refuge in front of the movie screen. It isn’t long, however, before her favourite escape becomes the centre of a mystery, revolving around a strange girl in polka dot tights. When Dani’s imagination starts rolling, things only get more complicated and she starts to see how real life can get be whole lot messier than the movies.

I loved how Dani likes to reimagine her world as if she was making a film, in the director’s chair. Chapter One was really brilliant, as Dani narrates her life at the moment as if she was directing a film about it: “The room would be dark and you’d get a close-up of just my face. That’s when I’d do this whole series of expressions with my eyes. You see fear. Joy. Rage. Bliss. Misery. Passion. Plus lots more stuff I don’t even know the words to. Then I’d take a few steps out of the frame and the shadows would swallow me. And no one would be able to find me after that.” The book is full of great passages like that, that reveal Dani’s flair for the dramatic and her vulnerability all at once. She’s a nuanced, complicated character. She wants drama, but doesn’t. She wants drama when it’s on the screen, but not when she’s living it. I think that’s just such a true observation about being a kid. Most kids crave drama but when it shows up, they want normal back: “Sometimes the bad guy is a person you love. A person you can’t just kick out of your life. And when the movie ends, and the curtain goes down, and the audience leaves the theater, you’re stuck in what’s known as real life. That’s where all the lights are on and the flawed people you’re related to are saying lines you don’t want to hear and there’s no one to yell “Cut!” to make it sop.” Any kids of divorced families who can relate to that? Hands up? I thought that Nova Ren Suma portrayed Dani’s confusion and hurt about her family situation perfectly. She’s mad but she doesn’t know if she should be, or who she can blame, or if she should blame anyone. All of it’s there.

I’d read more stories featuring Dani in a heartbeat. Dani’s a star in the making. Visit the book’s website for lots more and take a closer look at the development of the stunning cover art at Marcos Calo’s blog. Please let lots of kids discover Dani.

Other reviews:

Bri Meets Books

Fuse 8

Educating Alice

Reading Rants

Skeleton Creek

skeletonTwo years ago I would have rolled my eyes if someone had put Patrick Carman’s Skeleton Creek in my hands. The “multi-media” content (that is, videos and text combined) would have made me an instant skeptic. I probably would have labeled it as gimmicky and shelved it without a moment’s pause. Now that I am much more technologically enlightened, only a tiny bit of skepticism lurked as I started reading (watching?) this book a few days back. I was actually pretty excited to see how the video / text concept worked out. All it took was one video installment and I was hooked. Kind of made me wonder if even the purest, most traditional bookworm can’t be seduced by a little film.

Privacy is a religion in Skeleton Creek. For Ryan McCray and his best friend Sarah Fincher, it’s always felt like everyone in town had secrets. For instance, why was their town’s name changed to Skeleton Creek and why is there a secret society known as The Crossbones? In the past, the town was connected to the now bankrupt New York Gold and Silver Company and the teens are certain that an abandoned dredge, once used to mine gold, is at the center of the mystery they feel permeating the Creek. So they investigate the dredge one night and an accident leaves Ryan with a serious broken leg and also results in both of their sets of parents forbidding the two to see or communicate with each other for good. But neither of them can forget what they saw, or think they saw, that night. Ryan writes all that he remembers in his journal and Sarah continues to stay in touch with him through vlogs that she sends to him, which include footage of their night at the dredge and other film that she takes as she continues looking for answers. As the friends get closer to some kind of truth, they have to ask themselves, should they return to the dredge and face what they think is inside, or stop asking the questions that might lead to the worst kind of accident imaginable? Continue reading

Paris Pan takes the Dare

parispanMiddle Grade mystery. Three words that immediately pique my interest. Add to those three words “smart and sassy protagonist” and I’m sold. A good middle grade mystery can shake me out of a funk better than just about any other type of book. I treated myself to Cynthea Liu’s recently released MG mystery, Paris Pan takes the Dare, and I vowed it would be one of my last reads of the summer, before things go all crazy in classroom-land.

Paris Pan is the new kid in town. She has a lot of experience with this role because her family moves every eight months or so, as soon as her father finishes building and then selling their latest house. Paris is keenly aware of the various consequences of this nomadic lifestyle: “One, in the middle of the night, I’ve almost gone to the bathroom in a closet twice. Two, my school transcript is longer than any Harry Potter book. And three, my lifelong friend roster has only one name on it – my dog’s.” While she half-jokes about it, there are real and difficult problems with her family’s unusual way of life. Her dad isn’t around much, since he’s always off supervising the next project, the family’s soon-to-be home. Her mom has to work long hours as a computer programmer to make ends meet, but finances are still a constant struggle. When Paris arrives in Sugar Lake Oklahoma, she discovers it isn’t so hard to find friends when there are only a couple of girls in her class in the first place. Too bad it doesn’t take long for Paris to realize her “friends” are not exactly ideal friend material. Secretly, she’d rather hang around with the class dork and the girl everyone calls Freak. Soon after moving, Paris learns that a girl died very close to her house when undergoing a seventh-grade rite of passage known as “the Dare.” This makes the strange noises and odd night-time sightings Paris has been experiencing all the more disturbing. When her friends decide they should all take the dare together, Paris has to try to make sense of the weirdness, sorting out friends from frenemies and ghosts from perfectly explicable occurrences before things get seriously out of control.

Cynthea Liu has a clean and highly readable writing style. You don’t feel like there are a lot of wasted words on the page but you’re still getting careful characterization (even with the secondary characters) and detail enough to make situations easy to imagine. I thought she captured the middle grade girl voice particularly well. Here’s the opening:

“Where should I start? The first time I felt my life hanging in the balance? Or the moment I believed the deceased had a way of talking to me? Or maybe I ought to begin with the second I walked into that school. Looking back, I should have been suspicious from day one, but now I know that when you want something badly enough, you’ll do anything to get it.

You’ll lie to your friends.

Steal from your family.

Eat a whole box of Creamsicles.

You might even go so far as taking the Dare.”

That’s pretty efficient writing, if you ask me. Talk about a lesson in how to open a novel. Less than 10 sentences in and you’ve already got a solid sense of this character’s personality and funny/sometimes-sarcastic voice, a little foreshadowing, and a teasing intro to the central conflict. Nice work Cynthea.

The plot is exciting, and quite spooky, what with the creepy run-down shed in the woods behind Paris’s house, the night-time laughter, and the freaky porcelain dolls lying around the property. It’s just right that there are unanswered questions about the girl’s death, and that this ambiguity is never really resolved even at the end. Aside from being a page-turning mystery, this is a book about why kids label each other and how even a good kid can find it difficult to risk her reputation by giving outsiders a chance. It’s about learning to make an effort to create relationships that are meaningful and rich, rather than just going with the status quo because it’s simpler or cooler or less painful. Continue reading

Gentlemen

gentlemenSummer is a great time for thriller reading. There’s something about the heat that brings out intense laziness that needs to be embraced. There’s no fighting it. What better way to say yes to lazy than by grabbing a great mystery and spending the whole day reading? Michael Northrop’s recent debut novel, Gentlemen, is the perfect title for exactly this sort of summer indulgence. Dark, thought-provoking and genuinely creepy, this story will grab you in a second, and leave you thinking when your reading marathon is done.

Micheal (yes it’s… Micheal, not Michael), Mixer, Tommy and Bones are the guys everyone at Tattawa High calls losers. Collectively, they’ve done some stuff to deserve the label, but a lot of things have been done to them, by their families and teachers and peers, that haven’t exactly inspired good choices and good behavior. So when Tommy loses it one day in class after their math teacher bullies him, the rest of the guys aren’t so surprised when he doesn’t go home that night. But when it turns out Tommy is officially missing, and the police get involved, everything gets complicated and confusing, especially when their English teacher, Mr. Haberman, starts acting even weirder than usual, making the boys wonder if he might be in some way linked to Tommy’s disappearance. Adding to the creep factor is the fact that they’re studying Crime and Punishment in Haberman’s class, or at least, Haberman is assigning chapters and lecturing on it, and Haberman is really into it, you might even say he’s passionate about it. It isn’t long before Micheal, the most academically minded of the crew, actually starts reading the book and wondering if Haberman might have more than a little in common with the murderous main character, Raskolnikov. What happens next proves that one half-thought out idea can turn ugly in a heartbeat and change lives forever.

Northrop’s book is gritty, and he’s got the messed-up-teenage-guy-with-heart character figured out just right. It’s gripping the way you find yourself so quickly seeing Haberman the way Micheal does. You’re just as suspicious as he is almost right away, and it makes you think how little it takes for suspicion to grow, even when the circumstance seems crazy and unbelievable when you really think about it. That’s one of the most interesting themes Northrop works on in his book. By the time the climax arrives, you’ll have plenty to think about: how even the most brutal crime can come practically out of nowhere; how friendship can form almost randomly and still produce powerful loyalty; the dangerous potential of suspicion.

And the cover? Holy impact. There could be some amazing conversation just about the cover design and how it relates to the narrative, I’m sure. I see a lot of covers, so it takes something to make me do a double take, which is exactly what happened when I got my copy in the mail. For a little background on the process of creating the cover, check out this behind-the-scenes feature at Melissa Walker’s blog. Warning – once unzipped, you’ll find it hard to put this book down.

Gentlemen by Michael Northrup is published by Scholastic.

This review is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos

theodosiaR.J. LaFevers offers readers mystery, adventure, plenty of Ancient Egyptian dark magic and a wonderfully spunky main character in Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. In my mind, there isn’t much more a girl (or boy, for that matter) could want in a book. Did I mention that most of the story takes place in a museum? Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better. I am a sucker for a good museum story. Oh, and it also happens to be the first in a series. Lucky us.

Theodosia Throckmorton spends a lot of time hanging around The Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London, where her father is the head curator. The Museum specializes in ancient artifacts, many of which have been recovered on archaeological digs by Theodosia’s adventurous mother. Even though her parents don’t realize it, the Museum is very lucky to have Theodosia, because she has a talent for recognizing and remedying the ancient curses that cling to most of the artifacts that arrive at the museum. When her mother returns from her latest dig with the Heart of Egypt – an amulet discovered in one of the tombs –  Theodosia must put all of her skills in curse-removal into practice, because this artifact holds tremendous evil powers that could threaten her family, the British Empire and possibly the world at large. (Insert dramatic music here). Will she succeed? Will she save everyone? Not telling. So go read it to find out.

This book reminded me of the best kinds of old-fashioned kids’ books, you know the type where the main character is so much smarter than the adults even begin to know, and she goes up against evil forces without any of the doltish grownups even noticing until she has saved the day. Theodosia is funny and fearless (most of the time) and gifted, and she has an awesome cat sidekick, Isis, who spends a lot of the book cursed and inhabited by demonic powers. So much fun! Kids with any interest in Ancient Egypt (I think that’s probably the vast majority of kids) will devour the details in the story about ancient artifacts, hieroglyphs and curses. There are a few beautiful illustrations by Yoko Tanaka which are perfectly spooky and quirky and made me wish that there were more. Think of Theodosia as a little sister to the fabulous Enola Holmes. She’s equally independent, gutsy and brainy.

As a bonus for writers, R.J. LaFevers writes a blog that is packed with plenty of outstanding advice for aspiring authors. Super helpful and inspiring. Theodosia has her own website too. Three cheers for Theodosia!

Masterpiece

master

Remember I was grousing a few posts back about feeling generally slumpy and wanting a book that would lift my sagging spirits just as well as a slice of Banana Coconut Cake? Well, I found the magic book and I read it and it was delightful. Masterpiece, by Elise Broach is darling. I don’t think I’ve ever called a book “darling” before, but I know that this is exactly the right word for this story. I cannot imagine a child who would not enjoy this one. It seems made for reading aloud (and for lifting spirits), to be enjoyed particularly by sleepy headed kids all tucked up in bed. The story is just complex enough to be satisfying, but is easy to follow, has a cute and imaginative premise and to sweeten the deal, we’ve got some charming ink illustrations by the talented Kelly Murphy.

Masterpiece is the story of Marvin, a beetle who happens to be a gifted artist, and James, an eleven-year-old boy who feels decidedly ordinary. Marvin lives with James, under the Pompaday’s kitchen sink. They may share an apartment, but they have never met, until James receives a pen-and-ink set from his artist father for his birthday and the beetle is inspired to draw the boy a tiny picture. What Marvin produces is incredible – detailed and delicate and very small. James’s family thinks he is the creator of the masterpiece, and as a result, James gets taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a closer look at the drawings of Albrecht Durer, and to show off his own work to museum experts. Of course, things get complicated as James struggles to hide the truth about the origin of the drawing, and he and Marvin get involved in an art heist scheme that if successful, may bring the friends face-to-face with Durer’s lost drawings.

An intro into the dramatic world of art heists and forgery, a friendship story, and a tidy little mystery, Masterpiece is as fine a piece of work as one of Marvin’s tiny creations. You’ll find gentle humour in Marvin’s relationship with his family and suspense in his escapades in the outside world with James. The friendship rings true, even though the characters can’t communicate conventionally. Broach presents the art history stuff in exactly the right depth for her audience, enough to spark curiosity and make kids feel smart. Think of this as Chasing Vermeer for beginners. Just right.

A few other reviews:

bookami
Em’s Bookshelf
Shelf Talker