Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

This novel is the second book in Johnson’s Shades of London series. The first book, The Name of the Star, was an Edgar Award nominee.  

 After her near-fatal face-off with the Jack the Ripper copycat Alexander Newman, Rory Devereaux has left school to live in Bristol with her parents. She can’t tell anyone what actually happened; there is too great a chance that she will find herself in a mental health institution. The stress and anxiety are seriously affecting Rory’s mind and body. The therapist she is seeing is useless since Rory can’t tell her the truth. The prospect of never being able to tell people the truth about being able to see ghosts or her involvement in the Jack-the-Ripper criminal investigation is frightening and overwhelming for Rory.

 So when her therapist suddenly suggests she return to Wexford, Rory is eager to get back to school and normal life. One downside: she discovers that she has acquired another talent. She’s become a human terminus, with the power to eliminate ghosts on contact. She soon finds out that the Shades—the city’s secret ghost-fighting police—are responsible for her return. They need her because Newman had destroyed their mechanical termini; now they have a human one. There is a string of new inexplicable deaths threatening London. Rory discovers that the deaths are no coincidence. Something much more sinister is going on, and now she must convince the squad to listen to her before it’s too late.

In addition to her other problems, she is failing her classes, and she becomes involved in a cult of people who share her talent for seeing ghosts. They want to use her abilities for their own agenda.

This book ends with another cliffhanger that makes the reader want the third book immediately. It is much more tightly written than the first book, without the day-to-day teenage detritus that tended to clutter The Name of the Star.



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Filed under Mystery, Young Adult Literature

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Rory is the typical YA outsider – she’s an American from Louisiana attending a British boarding school, and she learns that she has a very particular aptitude that she can’t tell anyone about.

When she arrives at Wexford, she settles in, even though she has to learn how to play field hockey, likes her roommate, meets a boy she really likes, and gets used to English food and English ways of doing things. Johnson truly immerses the reader into the rain/not-rain ambience of London. Her English fellow students find her Southern style amusing. (She may be a little stereotypically Louisianan.) She has one mishap: she chokes on a piece of beef and almost dies.

 Otherwise, everything is going fine until murders reminiscent of Jack the Ripper begin happening. When a murder occurs near the campus, Rory sees a strange man when she and her roommate are sneaking back into the dormitory. The strange thing is that her roommate doesn’t see him.

 Shortly after, Rory is approached by Stephen, a police officer in a very secret unit for her help. Her near-death experience triggered an innate skill for seeing ghosts. This makes her part of the investigation for the Jack-the-Ripper copycat, putting her in great danger.

 The novel takes turns I wasn’t expecting, and once things got started, I couldn’t put it down. There is the paranormal, history, London geography, English culture, and humor and tension. The book begins as a typical, formulaic YA book and evolves into a supernatural thriller. Johnson takes a different approach to the supernatural in YA fiction; there aren’t any vampires, werewolves, or witches. The characters, even the ghosts, are realistic and convincing.

 One problem I have with the book is that we don’t learn about what is so special about Rory until half-way through the book. There are hints, but things don’t really get going until then. It is at that point that Rory must face the effects this ability is going to have on the rest of her life. Plus, the Ripper begins to pose more of a menace to all the characters.

 Good book!  The Name of the Star is an intriguing, creepy mystery with an awesome setting and a great cast of characters. Be prepared to read it from cover to cover.

The next book in the series, The Madness Underneath, is due to be published soon. I think Rory is going to be an interesting character to follow.

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Filed under Mystery, Young Adult Literature

The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell

I have read all the Wallender novels and was wretched when Mankell ended that excellent series. I decided to investigate his other novels. I’m very glad I did. Mankell creates and develops exceptional characters and his plotting is superb. This book is very different from Mankell’s Wallender crime novels; it is an exploration of the underground world of illegal immigrants who have made it from all over the world to what they believed would be sanctuary in Sweden. The only mystery is the girls’ backgrounds and what will happen to them.

Jesper Humlin is a middle-aged published poet, beset with a plethora of tribulations. His last book has sold exactly three copies, and his publisher is pressuring him to write a crime novel (irony?). (It seems that every character in the book is planning to write a crime novel.) His girlfriend wants a baby, his mother, eighty-seven years old, sleeps during the day and summons him to talk and eat at midnight. It turns out that she is also working for a porn phone company targeted to very mature male clientele. His stockbroker has put his money in stocks that are rapidly declining and blissfully assures Jesper that he’ll make the money back in ten or fifteen years.

While he tries his best to avoid writing that crime novel, Jesper goes out of town for poem readings. He decides to visit an old friend Pelle Törnblom, who runs a community boxing club. Törnblom arranges a writing seminar for Jesper for the people in the neighborhood. As a result, Jesper meets three girls, Teabag, Tanya, and Leyla, who are from Africa, Russia, and Iran, respectively. He hears their stories, none of which can he entirely trust, but which plunge him into a world he had no clue existed in Sweden. He tries his utmost to help the girls get their stories told and to extricate them from the hell they have experienced in getting to Sweden and what they are experiencing in their new home. He fails in the latter; we are left to wonder whether he will accomplish the former.

The girls’ stories are all heart-wrenching, but the novel is not the downer it could be. Mankell mixes in humor from the girls’ survival schemes and Jesper’s personal dilemmas.

Mankell is politically active. Wikipedia reports that Mankell participated in the Protests of 1968 in Sweden, protesting against, among other things, the Vietnam War and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. He was involved with the society Folket i Bild/Kulturfront which focused on cultural policy studies. During his stay in Norway in the 1970s, he got in contact with the far-left Norwegian Workers’ Communist Party (AKP-ml) and took an active part in their actions. In 2002 he gave financial support by buying stocks for 50,000 NOK in the Norwegian left-wing newspaper Klassekampen.

His website discusses his dream that his memory books project about HIV and AIDS one day will be stacked in the new library in Alexandria . Together with PLAN Henning Mankell initiated this project to try to raise awareness about the HIV/AIDS issue. Clearly, the issues in The Shadow Girls are close to his heart.

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Filed under Fiction

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason

This was surprisingly fun. When you can root for a murderer, who is really a nice guy, who finds himself in a jigsaw puzzle with all matter of characters who keep popping up, it can be entertaining. It reminds me of Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry.

Plus, if you are a dog lover, then that’s a bonus.

Jason Getty has a secret. After being bullied and harassed by a sociopath, the soft-spoken, even wimpy guy, he does something he comes to regret.  As a result, he has neglected his suburban yard. No good deed goes unpunished. The lawn men find two dead bodies buried outside his ordinary little house. There’s another body that only Jason knows about because he put it there. Who are the other bodies? Jason has no idea who they could  be. When a couple of police detectives with a very smart dog and a pair of third parties show up to complicate matters, the stage is set for one of the strangest nights ever  in Jason’s life.

An Amazon review places this warped, engaging solidly plotted novel into Coen brothers’ territory. I agree. Blood Simple, Fargo, Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski and several other Coen brother movies are close kin to this novel. It’s Mason’s first novel, so I expect great things from her in the future. As a début novel, it’s not perfect, but it is a worthwhile read.


Filed under Mystery

The Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn

Well, here we are, back in the Long Black Coffin neighborhood, kind of.  Maybe there is a cougar craze going on. Back in my day, it was called a Mrs. Robinson. Oh, well. Reading a couple of the reviews on Amazon I found that some readers would have preferred an even more perverse and twisted book, I assume sexually and sado-masochistically. On the other hand, some found it too gruesome. You can’t please everyone all the time.

 I found it too long. Actually, a number of currently published books could use an editor. Have all the editors been laid off? Despite its length, it was a quick read, due to its simple language and lack of character development.

 The Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn is being marketed as a cross between Blue Velvet and Basic Instinct. I didn’t see Basic Instinct, so I don’t know about that, but I see the Blue Velvet elements.  A bizarre tale of suburbia makes this an intriguing and inviting read. It’s got perfect lawns, cookies, home-cooked dinners, and blood. Harlow is a bona fide female psycho, calculating, manipulative and resolute in her planning. All the same, one wonders why her men try so hard to please her in every possible way. It’s a case of telling rather than showing, unfortunately.

 Harlow (interesting choice of name) has a deal with Mickey, who lives in a squalid, run-down rental next door. Andrew is yet another roommate who moves in with Mickey, a friend he hasn’t seen since they were children. He wants to leave behind an unhappy childhood home and agoraphobic, alcoholic mother. Drew is vaguely aware of some tension between Mickey and the neighbors, Harlow and her husband, Red. To him, they are the perfect couple, everything his own family wasn’t. However, the better acquainted he gets with his new neighbors the more he suspects unspeakable darkness beyond the white picket fence. When he discovers the deal Harlow and Mickey have, we all understand that nothing is as it appears.

 There were some holes in the plot – for example, why did the rest of the neighborhood tolerate the rental house Harlow and Red owned? Other examples would be spoilers, except that Drew did seem a bit clueless and Mickey quite unimaginative.

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Filed under Horror

Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless

A review of this book I read compared Georgann Rea to “Holly Golightly turned Mommie Dearest.” I was thinking more like Auntie Mame turned Edith Beale. I had trouble believing that this was nonfiction, a memoir of a hellishly mind-boggling childhood, but by the end I was right there with Wendy, hoping that she and her sister would turn out all right. I also felt sorry for Georgann, that no one intervened in the situation to get her help. Unfortunately, many families need help but aren’t getting it. Part of the problem is the lack of resources, but a great deal can be attributed to shame and secrecy of dysfunctional families.

The girls’ father was prevented by their mother from contact, telling them he wasn’t interested in them. Their stepfather did all he could do for them but finally couldn’t do any more. The emotional and physical abuse inflicted by the mother prevented them from reaching out to anyone who might have intervened. Wendy tried to hide the cracks in their fractured family from the rest of the world.

The book is narrated in the first person by Wendy Lawless, a moderately successful actress, Chanel Bonfire is provocative and affecting, sometimes humorous, and filled with sadness and loneliness. Wendy tells her story in a stunning, straightforward manner that is very moving.

Not many families face the same problems that Wendy and Robin did. Georgann is constantly reinventing herself as she trades up from trailer-park to penthouse, suffers multiple nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts. She manages to marry up, from a Guthrie actor to a successful Broadway producer, and went from a trailer to an apartment in the Dakota. She enjoyed the money, the social status, the alcohol, the attention, the men, everything but her children.

When her second husband had had enough, despair pervaded and nothing about this family was normal. Georgann had affairs with innumerable men and women, never finding what she wanted.
We learn that Georgann was abused by her wealthy adoptive parents, enduring many of the humiliations that she subjected her own children to later in her life.

At one point, Wendy began therapy and found answers to her situation. Her therapist helped her plan how to protect herself and set herself free from her mother. She became an actress and is married to a screenwriter and has two children. Her sister works as a freelance writer after graduating from Hunter College. They reconnected with her father who walked her down the aisle at her wedding.

Her mother was found dead in her apartment; she had been dead for four days.

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Filed under Biographies and Memoirs, Literary Genres