One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2017 (audiobook)
The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie in this riveting teen mystery novel, which made for a great listen.
Five senior high schoolers get detention but within minutes of them arriving in the room, one of them is dead. Though it appears initially to be an accident it soon emerges that it’s murder and that only one of the four – brainy Bronwyn, sporty Cooper, pretty and popular Addy, or bad boy Nate – can have done it. They all claim to be innocent but then it emerges that the dead boy, Simon, who was behind their high school’s savage (but always true) gossip app, had dirt on all of them which he was about to go public with.
The novel is told through the perspective of the four teens, as they go from being witnesses to being suspects, and then, finally, investigators themselves. The twists pile up and the resolution is satisfying and unexpected.
What makes this more than just a smart mystery is the unravelling of the foursome’s lives when their secrets become public and how they deal with it. It shows the horrible pressures that many high school students are under, often driven by their family circumstances but also self-imposed. They rise above their John Hughesian cliche roles, becoming rich and nuanced characters and the audiobook readers do a terrific job of bringing them to life.
Otherwood by Pete Hautman
This strange and eerie middle grade is a sophisticated and cerebral fantasy about alternate realities.
8 year-olds Stuey and Elly share a love of playing in the woods between their houses, particularly in the shelter created by a deadfall of trees, which they name Castle Rose. The woods used to be a golf course owned by Stuey’s ex- bootlegger great-grandfather and back in the 1940’s he vanished from there along with his arch-enemy, the district attorney Robert Rosen.
Shortly after their 9th birthdays, Stuey shares this family secret with Elly when they are in Castle Rose and she just disappears in front of Stuey’s eyes. Of course nobody believes him, but when Stuey goes back to Castle Rose he occasionally sees Elly there and it turns out she thinks he disappeared and, in her reality, nobody believes that either.
Hautman does a terrific job of setting up the fairly complex idea of alternate realities and the mindboggling twists that go with that. As their worlds and the people in them take different paths, Stuey and Elly comes to realize that somehow the secret has broken reality into two and it is up to them to try to glue it back together.
Despite their differences – Stuey thinks he comes from a planet “where everybody is blond and chunky and we don’t talk much” and Elly is from “Planet Opposite” as she is skinny with curly hair and talks a lot – the kids are both thoughtful and realistic about their situations. They know that nobody will believe what actually happened and so they lie to conform, in turn making themselves question what really happened.
Weaving in themes of loss, redemption, and the power of friendship, this is a charming novel that will appeal to readers looking for an elegant but satisfyingly smart fantasy.
Born Scared by Kevin Brooks
13 year-old Elliot is scared of “everything” and hardly ever leaves the sanctuary of his room, or his home in rural England. The only people who don’t fill him with horror are his Mum, Aunt Shirley, and Dr Gibson, and he has internal conversations with his twin sister who died an hour after she was born. In the middle of a blizzard, Elliot realizes there’s been a mixup with his anti-anxiety meds, so his mother goes out, just for 10 minutes, to get them, but then she doesn’t come back. After several hours, Elliott screws up his courage and goes to look for her.
As Elliott narrates his slow, laborious, and terror-stricken way along a road, through a field, and into a wood, there is a second storyline about a pair of bank robbers disguised in Santa outfits. This has an odd mix of tones: blackly comic as one of them is the archetypal dumb criminal who has to be told everything numerous times but there is also deeply unpleasant violence, made all the more shocking by its matter of factness.
Elliott is an engaging narrator, unflinchingly straightforward about his debilitating anxiety and the beast within him that’s only kept at bay by his pills, and has created Ella as an alter ego and friend who can coax him out of retreating into himself. His fear never leaves him as he struggles through the snow, but he and Ella find ways to cope and keep him going forward. Though it never feels like Elliot will have a fairytale ending in which his fear disappears, there is hope that he is at least a small step forward.
This is not an easy read, as it swings between Elliot’s terror-stricken narrative and the black comedy of the robbers, but most middle graders will recognize his anxiety, albeit likely much more extreme than they have felt, and empathize with his heroic quest.
A World of Cities written and illustrated by James Brown
Candlewick Studio, October 2018
This delightful oversized picture book has gorgeous retro illustrations and is stuffed full of fascinating facts about 30 cities from around the world.
Each city is featured on a double page spread, showing a significant building surrounded by iconic symbols and graphic decoration evocative to the place, with bold colors and fonts further linking to the location. Information runs around the edge of each poster-style spread, and more random facts are artfully inserted on and around the illustrations. Other than the size of the population, which is given for every city, the types of information are inconsistent and include historical facts, quotes, and topical tidbits. No sources are listed, though a note does reassure the reader that “reliable” ones were used.
The cities include the obvious such as London, New York, and Paris, as well as more unusual choices such as Seoul, Dubai, and Prague. However, there are only two cities from Africa (Cape Town and Cairo) and two from Latin America (Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City) and there is no world map showing where the cities are.
Along with the contents, the size and thick matte pages will make this a sumptuous book for elementary school (and older) kids to browse.
The Button War by Avi
At the start of World War I, in a Russian-occupied remote Polish village, a gang of 11 and 12 year-old boys start a game that quickly spins into something much more serious and dangerous.
The boys set out to “get” buttons from the succession of soldiers of different nationalities that come into their village. Whoever secures the best one (though that is never defined) will become the Button King and all the others will have to bow down to him. The dare is initiated by Jurek, a masterful portrait of a controlling and manipulative bully who knows all the right buttons to push to get the others to follow him. Jurek is powerless in the world, a poor orphan who lives with his uninterested sister, but has great power in the microcosm of the gang. Jurek controls the game, even as the others try to claim victory or walk away: “Jurek invented rules faster than any human being in the world. And they were always about what he wanted.” Like Lord of the Flies, it is easy to forget that these are just young boys.
The others, including the narrator Patryk, all persuade themselves that they’re playing so that they can beat Jurek, but none of them have the agency to turn away from Jurek as he goads them into compliance. Even though Patryk is physically bigger than Jurek, he doesn’t have the single-minded ambition and rage that the other boy is driven by.
The adults that are present are either parents or soldiers. Parents are mostly ineffectual and out of their depth; they know little or nothing of the “far world” (everything outside their village), and have no clue about the tides of history that have washed up in their lives. The soldiers are cruel, thoughtless, and entirely, and deliberately, interchangeable.
This short and stylized novel is a clear allegory for the futility of war, often exemplified by the battlefields of WWI in which hundreds of thousands of men died fighting over a few muddy yards of a field. As one nationality after another comes into the village – Germans, Austrians, French, English, Cossacks – the fallout from the game becomes increasingly serious and becomes one of life and death. This is a pitch-black and thought-provoking novel that doesn’t have an uplifting ending or resolution, so it doesn’t feel particularly suitable or appealing for kids but is an extraordinary work nonetheless.