Crooked Kingdom

crookedkingdomby Leigh Bardugo
First sentence: “Retvenko leaned against the bar and tucked his nose into his dirty shot glass.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Six of Crows
Content: There’s violence, and some vague talk about what Inej did in the pleasure house. Nothing graphic, though. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

There will be spoilers for Six of Crows. Which you really ought to read.

Kaz and his crew have one goal: get Inej back. Sure, that means going up against Van Eck, the most powerful merch in Ketterdam, but they’re invincible, right? Right?

Well… it sounds easier than it is. And, because this is Kaz we’re talking about, he’s playing a much longer game than any one of his crew knows.

And that’s me, not giving too much away. Because it’s best if you don’t know much about this one going in. Know that the whole crew is back — Jesper, Wylan, Nina, Matthais, Inej and, of course, Kaz — and that the cons played here are immensely satisfying with their twists and turns. Know that Bardugo is ruthless with her characters, which just makes me love this book more. Know that the ending is immensely satisfying.

An excellent ending to a fantastic story.

 

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Audio book: Six of Crows

sixofcrowsby Leigh Bardugo
Read by: Jay Snyder, Brandon Rubin, David LeDoux, Lauren Fortgang, Roger Clark, Elizabeth Evans, and Tristan Morris
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of violence, some of it on the graphic side. Illusions to prostitution, and two swear words (they stood out). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’m glad I read it. It’s probably on par with Hunger Games, so if your kid/you can handle the content of that, this one is probably okay.

I put this one off. I know I did. I know I should have read it last fall when it was Hot and Everyone was reading it. But, I was busy, and I kept putting it off. Until I was in need of a new audio book and I stumbled across this one. I finished it, went into work and declared “So THAT’S what I was missing!” Yeah.

Kaz Brekker has worked his way up in the Dregs — a criminal gang in the island city/nation of Ketterdam — and has a reputation for being brutal and willing to take anything on. So when he’s tasked with springing a scientist out of the most secure prison in the world — the Ice Fortress in Fjerda — of course he accepts. The price is right, after all. He gathers together a crew of six people — ranging from a merchant’s exiled son to a Grisha —  and they set out to achieve the impossible. Of course, they don’t get along, there’s a lot of internal mistrust and bickering. And, of course, things go badly. (I was wondering how it was all going to fit in one book. The answer is it does but it doesn’t.)

This was enormous amounts of fun. Perhaps part of that fun was the audio form: there were five different people doing the five different narrators, which helped immensely. I really enjoyed the way each one did the other characters slightly differently as well as the way each actor interpreted their own character. It definitely added something more to the book.

I have to admit that I liked this one better than the Grisha books. For whatever reason, I love heist books, I love books with twists and turns (though some of the twists were unfair; she didn’t give me enough information to see things coming and I was genuinely surprised a couple of times) and this one had both. I came to like the characters — Matthais the Fjorden had the most character growth (I wanted to throttle him in the beginning), but I loved the rest of the crew as well. I liked the diversity — it felt effortless and natural rather than an author just trying to be diverse. Bardugo expanded the narrow world she’d created in the Grisha books, and gave it much more depth, which I absolutely adored.

I’ll most definitely be picking up the next one (maybe even in audio) to see how this adventure ends.

To Catch a Cheat

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “Jackson Greene placed his pen on his desk, loosened his red tie, then flipped the page on his American History exam.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by publisher.
Release date: January 26, 2016
Others in the series: The Great Greene Heist
Content: There’s a slight romance. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jackson Greene’s in retirement. Again. For real this time. No more cons. No more heists. He’s focusing on getting Gaby de la Cruz to be his girlfriend and on passing American History. Then he gets called into the office: someone flooded the bathrooms and ruined the carpets over the weekend, and the principal is convinced it’s Jackson and his crew.

Except it’s not: every single member of the crew has an alibi for the time frame, albeit ones they’re reluctant to give. And then Jackson is texted a video — obviously faked — of him and his crew performing the prank. It’s blackmail: steal the answers to the huge American History test or the principal gets the video and Jackson gets suspended.

There’s more to the plot than that, of course, including a brilliant long con with lots of twists and turns. Sure, it’s implausible, but it’s a lot of fun as well. The diverse cast is back as well, which is also incredibly gratifying. It’s very nice to have a fun book with diverse characters and have it be (mostly) issue-free. (I’m not sure how well the Asian kids came out of this; the character development of the minor characters seemed a little weak, but maybe Johnson was relying on what he did in the first book?)

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Loot: How to Steal a Fortune

by Jude Watson
First sentence: “No thief likes a full moon.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: The only think I can think of is that it’s a bit intense, action-wise. Probably on par with the Percy Jackson books. There’s no swearing, no romance. It’s happily in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This book — combined with The Great Greene Heist (it’s a trend! Does two books make a trend?) — has gotten me thinking about the implausible versus the impossible. It is implausible that Jackson Green could have thrown together a crew to scam less-than-intelligent adults into exposing a blackmailing scheme. It is highly impossible, however, that 12-year-old March McQuin could have gotten together a crew in order to steal back 7 Moonstones that his illustrious thief father, Alfie, stole 12 years before. (Granted, the premise behind the Heist Society books by Ally Carter is also impossible.)

Impossible, however, doesn’t mean “bad”.

In fact, Watson has put together quite a ripping tale. After Alfie’s death during a heist in Amsterdam, March discovers he has a 12-year-old twin sister, Julia, that he didn’t know about. And then, at Alfie’s funeral, March and Julia are confronted by the woman from whom the moonstones were stolen. She’s offered them $7 million in order to steal them back. In a week. They’re up against incredible odds: Alfie’s old partner, who has just recently gotten out of jail, are after the stones as well.

Even though the premise is impossible, Watson does a fantastic job keeping up the pace. The chapters are short, the pacing quick, making it a perfect read for reluctant readers. Plus, it’s action-packed with chases (both in the car and on foot) and rooftop falls as well as planning and executing some pretty amazing heists.

No, it’s not a story that could actually “happen”. But it was still a lot of fun.

The Great Greene Heist

by Varian Johnson
First sentence:
Support your local independent bookstore (actually, just support mine!) and buy it there! (Before the end of June, PLEASE.)
Review copy sent to me by the author, upon my request. Also, I’ve met him a couple of times and I think he’s fantastic.
Content: There’s no swearing, and only hints at romance. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) at the bookstore, though older kids would like the con aspects of it, I think.

Jackson Greene is going clean. He got ratted out (and caught) four months ago, in what he calls the “Kelsey Job” but what the school has come to know as the “Mid-Day PDA”. It cost him a certain amount of freedom (he can no longer have a cell phone, and he has weekly meetings with the principal, Dr. Kelsey) and one of his best friends, Gaby de la Cruz. Fast-forward to the fall of 8th grade, and student elections. Gaby’s running for president, and Jackson’s not going to get involved. That is until her opponent suddenly drops out, and Jackson’s nemesis, Keith Sinclair, enters the race. Jackson knows something fishy is up, and sets out to prove it. Of course, that means a long con. Which means he needs a crew.

Jackson assembles a memorable one: reminiscent of great heist movies (Oceans 11 is referenced more than once) and books (Heist Society!), Johnson weaves in not only every stereotypical element (there’s the right-hand-man, the tech guy, the runner, the money) but also plays against stereotype. My favorite is with the beautiful cheerleader Megan Feldman, who is a tech and programming genius. But there’s also Hashemi who is a budding inventor (my favorite: the MAPE, a beta cellphone the size of a brick); Bradley, a sixth-grade artist who’s mostly in awe of being included; Victor, the money behind the operation; and Charlie, twin brother to Gaby, and Jackson’s right-hand-man. And the cool thing? Only two of the crew is white.

It was refreshing that race rarely comes into play; for the most part characters were just that, and not the “Asian kid” or the “Black kid” or the “White girl”. Yes, one of the older secretaries is subtly racist, mixing up the names of the Asian kids and saying “Boys like you are always up to something or other.” It’s probably over-the-top, but in the context, it works. And the principle is a certified jerk (he was the one I wondered about: how did he ever get to be in charge of a school and not challenged?). But then again, this is all an elaborate fantasy: how many 13-year-old boys are capable of running a long con?

It was a ton of fun, though.

Perfect Scoundrels

by Ally Carter
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Of all the people who knew about the big house in the middle of Wyndham Woods, very few had ever been inside.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Heist Society, Uncommon Criminals

I have decided (only took me three books, too), that one of the things I like best about this series is that it’s not really a “series”. You don’t have to read the first two to get the third (though they’re fun and you should read them). Each one is a separate con/heist while building upon the characters we’ve come to know and love (and, in my case, swoon over).

This one is all about Hale. (*swoon* You should have seen me at the store when these came in. I was a complete fangirl. HALE!) The short version is that we learn a lot about his family, his past, and his life. Which, to tell the truth, doesn’t really bode well for Kat. Hale’s beloved grandma Hazel has just passed away,  and it turns out that Hale is the sole inheritor of the business, with the family lawyer named as trustee until Hale turns 25. And fortune. Except, Marcus (ever-trusty chauffeur/butler/guy) believes there’s something wrong: his sister, Marianne, who was Hazel’s companion and friend, was completely cut out. He asserts that the will read is fake, and hires Kat to find and steal the real one back.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. But to tell you it would be to ruin your fun. I will tell you this: out of the three, this one has the tightest con. I didn’t figure it out until it was nearly over, and then I just sat back, reveling in the brilliance of it all. And while Hale wasn’t perfectly charming the whole book, it was still Hale. I know I shouldn’t have crushes on 17-year-old fictional men, but honestly: *swoon*

Plus the whole gang is back, and there are some brilliantly funny moments as they set up the long con. We get to meet more of Kat’s family, with all their brilliance and weirdness. Though I have to say that my new favorite minor character is Silas. Please: more of him!

All the other fun elements that I’ve come to expect from these books are there: jetting around the world, rappelling down buildings, breaking into banks, and just a little bit of kissing (in closets). I hope Ally Carter has a few more of these up her sleeves, because, heaven knows I can always find time to read them.

If only because I *swoon* over Hale.

Uncommon Criminals

by Ally Carter
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Moscow can be a cold, hard place in winter.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

This book, as pointed out by Liz B., can be summed up in three sentences: It’s fluff. But it’s such fun fluff. And no one does fluff as well as Ally Carter.

The other best way to sell it (and Heist Society, the first one in the series)? It’s Oceans 11 for teens. In book form.

After pulling off the heist of the century (which I suppose is a bit of a spoiler for the first book. Sorry), Kat and crew have basically gone their separate ways. Kat’s taken on a personal mission for good, taking jobs stealing back paintings stolen by Nazis in World War II. Hale’s constantly upset with her because she keeps shutting him out. Gabby’s gone her own way, and Uncle Eddie’s moved to Paraguay (or was it Uruguay? That’s a running gag.) to run a sting for the family. So, when Kat is propositioned to steal the Cleopatra diamond for what is ostensibly a good cause, she doesn’t hesitate.

Then things get deliciously complicated.

Honestly? The best thing about this book (aside from Hale’s swoonworthiness; I really shouldn’t have crushes on 17 year old fictional boys. Not healthy.) is that Kat and crew up and go all over the world at a drop of a hat. They’re MINORS! And they get away with so much. It’s hilarious and improbable and fun. Who cares that they’re smart rich kids basically stealing things because they can? (Well, not exactly, but it feels that way at times.) I don’t. I’m along for the ride, and, man, it’s a fun one with an absolutely brilliant twist at the end.

Sometimes, fluff — especially good fluff — is exactly what you need.