Tag Archives: mystery

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Standard

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Putnam, 2019

In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17 year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox”, so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne family estate as a lady’s maid for the disagreeable daughter of the house. 

Jo and her guardian Old Gin have lived for many years in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s newspaper, the Focus, and she eavesdrops on them through a disguised vent. Even though the Bells are not aware of their clandestine lodgers, Jo feels they have helped raise her and helped her education. When she learns that the paper is failing and needs to increase circulation to keep going, she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately the identity of the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” as well as her radical views become the talk of the town. 

Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, the events all come to a head, after a flurry of revelations (one of which is exceptionally convenient), propelling Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. 

Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but Jo’s humor, sass, and resilience will make this an appealing read for teens who enjoy exploring different facets of America.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Advertisements

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Standard

Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

 

The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari

Standard

The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly by Rebecca K. S. Ansari
Walden Pond, 2019.

There’s been something missing in 12 year-old Charlie O’Reilly’s life for the last year: his younger brother, Liam. But, bizarrely, no-one else remembers Liam – not his parents, no-one at school, and not even his best friend, Ana, though she, alone, believes Charlie. But since Liam disappeared, his mother has sunk into a deep depression and his father never seems to be at home. It’s only when Charlie and Ana talk to the new assistant baseball coach that they start to find out what might have happened to Liam.

This intriguing debut middle grade novel weaves in elements of fantasy and the supernatural into an ingenious plot, full of surprises and discoveries. Even Charlie’s vivid nightmares, about an Irish family migrating to America because of the potato famine, eventually slot into place.

Themes of loss, regret, and forgiveness are handled sensitively if sometimes a little didactically, as thoughtful, persistent Charlie balanced by brave action-focused Ana – like all major characters they appear to be white – pursues the mystery of what has happened to Liam.

As Charlie learns that life is often painful and messy, he appreciates that without that, there can also be no joy. Ideal for readers who are ready to take on that understanding.

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

Standard

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Knopf, 2019.

An oblique and confusing YA murder mystery (is it? Is that what this?) set in a remote Australian town looks at issues of identity, heritage and injustice through an Aboriginal lens.

16 year-old Beth Teller is dead but that doesn’t stop her helping her white father, a detective, who is the only person who can see her. He is investigating a fire in a children’s home which has left one dead (adult) body and a mysterious Aboriginal witness, Isobel Catching. When I was a lot younger, I was very fond of a British TV show called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), about a pair of detectives, one of whom was dead. I thought this was where this novel was going. I was wrong.

Though not initially, as Beth’s narration follows her father’s investigation in a relatively straightforward, just the facts, sort of way. But added into that, she  witnesses his grief at her death in a car crash and his refusal to make peace with her mother’s Aboriginal family.

Then we get to Catching. Her evidence is given in the form of abtruse and symbol-filled free verse. I found it somewhat incomprehensible, but Beth’s dad starts picking out connections to the fire and to the history of the children’s home.

When Beth died, she had a glimpse of “what comes next” but believes she has to stay with her father until he can accept and move on from her death, and this somehow becomes wrapped up in solving the mystery; in the meantime she is “trapped between two different sides to the world” and this somehow becomes wrapped up in Catching.

In an authors’ note, the Aboriginal brother and sister team gives some background on the history and culture of their people, before and after brutal colonization, as well as explaining some of the stories that inform Catching’s narrative.

Though this short novel switches uneasily between a police procedural and an ambiguous fantasy, it brings welcome new voices to American YA literature.

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

Standard

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
Delacorte, 2019.

After the wonderful One of Us is Lying (2017) I had high expectations for Ms McManus’s new murder mystery. And while it is very good it’s much less nuanced than her previous novel – still highly recommended but not go-out-of-your way to read.

Twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran have to spend the first four months of their senior year living in Echo Ridge, Vermont with their Nana, while their mother, Sadie, is in rehab. Twenty years ago, Sadie’s twin sister disappeared and has never been found, five years ago, homecoming queen Lacey was found murdered. This crime was never solved but the town has decided that Lacey’s ex-boyfriend, Declan Kelly was responsible. As Ellery and Ezra settle into school, there is a new wave of threats against the three candidates for homecoming queen and then one of them disappears. Is this all connected?

The story is told from the perspective of Ellery, a true-crime aficionado, and Declan’s brother, Malcolm – two fully fleshed out and interestingly quirky characters. However, it would have been nice if Ellery had had a bit more agency, and that’s a bit of an issue with all the female characters. The twins, Malcolm, and new friend Korean American Mia do some investigating of their own which may or may not help the police and now Malcolm is getting the same kind of suspicious looks as his brother did five years ago.

The author does a great job with a pretty straightforward murder mystery plot and adds in a couple of interesting layers. Echo Ridge is wealthy and almost wholly white, and Mia and her sister Daisy have felt the pressure of being outside that. There is a Latinx police officer too and the twins, who don’t know who their father is, are biracial – is it just coincidence that all these non-majority culture people are tangled up in this mystery? The novel also takes a sharp look at the role of the media is generating suspicions and fanning the flames of the threat story.

There are plenty of suspects, red herrings, and twists before an unexpected resolution is reached. This is a fast-paced and tightly plotted novel that will grip YA mystery fans.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

Standard

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
Random House, 2019

This latest and very solid entry in the DC Icons series is a contemporary YA origin story for Clark Kent. 17-year-old Clark feels isolated by the astonishing powers he has but can’t quite control, and when he finds out that he is actually from another planet he feels even more of a freak.

The author makes the deft and timely connection between Clark being an “alien” and the change of Smallville from accepting community to one that is suspicious of those who are different, especially the Mexican migrant workers. Sadly, the author rather bludgeons the reader over the head with this connection and a few less mentions would make the novel feel less didactic.

Canon character Lex Luthor plus new characters, the Mankins family, are recent arrivals in town who appear to be philanthropic and upright citizens but may be connected to the mysterious disappearances of immigrants from the town. As Clark and his high school journalist best friend Lana Lang investigate, they uncover some nefarious goings on around the mysterious craters that are sprinkled around Smallville.

Clark is such a straight arrow he has the potential to be a dull protagonist but his earnest search for an identity and a role make him relatable, and his warm relationship with his parents and tentative romance with Gloria Alvarez show him as very human.

After many thrills and spills, the bad guys are unmasked and their dastardly plot is foiled. Clark realizes his job is to “protect not punish” and as he decides he will do everything in his power to make his adopted planet “a better, safer place,” his journey to becoming Superman is set.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Standard

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Levine, 2018.

So I have spent the weeks since the beginning of the year reading and judging middle grade fiction for the Cybils awards. It was very satisfying: I read some terrific novels and had some interesting discussions. In the end, our choice came down to two novels and I’m thrilled that my top choice, The Parker Inheritance, won out. That’s today’s review and over the next few weeks I’ll post about the other books. In case you’re interested, here is the link to the full list of Cybil award winners.

12-year-old Candice is spending a “horrible summer” in Lambert, South Carolina as her home in Atlanta is being remodeled prior to being sold after her parents separate. She and her mother are staying in the home of her beloved grandmother, who died two years ago, and while clearing out the attic, Candice finds a letter addressed to her grandmother that offers the opportunity of finding $40 million by solving “a puzzle mystery that will take you deep into the city’s past.”

As Candice and her new friend Brandon (both brown-skinned like the majority of characters in the book) try and work out the clues that will lead them to the treasure, they uncover the Jim Crow past of Lambert, particularly an incident involving a tennis match and the African American Washington family.

With twin themes of “Just because you don’t see the path doesn’t mean it’s not there” and “We hear what we want to hear. We see what we want to see,” Inheritance covers a lot of ground about prejudice both past and present. So here’s a list of the topics the novel explores: sexism, gender roles and labelling, homophobia, racism, segregation, police violence against Black people, Jim Crow, passing, miscegenation. There may well be more but those are the ones that immediately came to my mind. These are all woven organically into a terrifically absorbing mystery as Candice and Brandon try to crack the puzzle which is really well worked through, and the elements that the kids take on can also be solved by the reader (albeit a very smart one).

The characters are vividly created – not just our main two protagonists but all the support ones, and the author gives them all some complexity and nuance. Though there are some out and out villains, those on the side of good, adults and kids alike, are not perfect but recognize their slips. The South Caroline setting, both past and present, is powerfully evoked and the Jim Crow era is strikingly brought to life through both Candice and Brandon’s research and the chapters set then that are interspersed throughout the book.

This book is the real deal and a thoroughly deserving winner. It covers so many important issues without making them “issues,” and fully integrates them into an engaging and thought provoking novel.