Tag Archives: mystery

Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

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Little Monsters by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2017

Kara Thomas’s second psychological mystery builds on all the good things from her debut, The Darkest Corners (2016), and resolves all the issues I had with that book. In short, it’s a thrillingly menacing and atmospheric chiller in which none of the characters are quite who they seem to be.

High school senior Kacey has only recently arrived in Broken Falls, Wisconsin, moving in with her dad and his blended family after one too many blow-ups with her single mom’s endless stream of boyfriends. She makes friends and becomes the third leg of “BaileyandJade and Kacey.” All in all, she can’t quite believe how easygoing her new life is.

But then one night Bailey goes missing and at first the local police show little interest – just another teenage runaway. But Kacey and Jade start digging up evidence that points to a local boy with a grudge against Bailey.

Once again Ms Thomas brilliantly evokes the milieu of a white working class town: Most of the highschoolers have no escape and are trapped there for the rest of their lives, the lucky few can’t wait to get out. The heavy snows adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the local tall tale about a murdered family piles on the eeriness.

The plot is perfectly paced; layers are gradually peeled off the emotional lives of the characters exposing the depths of their pain and desperation, gradually leading to a wildly twisty (and for me, unpredictable) denouement.

Ideal for teens who like a side of creepy with their mysteries.

Thanks to Delacorte/Random House for the review copy.

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The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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pearl-thiefThe Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Disney-Hyperion, May 2017

At the start of this mystery novel, set in pre-World War II Scotland, 15 year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart arrives back from finishing school in Switzerland. Sitting down by the river on her grandfather’s estate, she is knocked unconscious, and her gradual recollection of what led up to this attack is the key to the whereabouts of some missing river pearls and the identity of the thief.

The mystery itself is not particularly gripping or original, but it is a hook to hang the development of Julie, later to become Verity of Code Name Verity (2012), on. She loves putting the pieces of a puzzle together, she enjoys fooling people, and she relishes leading a conspiracy. She is empathetic, adventurous, impulsive, brave if somewhat foolhardy, willing to give anything a shot, and discontented with the lot of women in this era. As you can see, these are threads that will lead her to her role in that outstanding novel.

The Pearl Thief is also interested in social justice, through its portrayal of the McEwen family who are Travellers, often disparagingly referred to as “tinkers.” Many of the establishment figures, from the police to the librarian, are quick to jump to conclusions about their morals and behavior, instantly blaming them for everything from theft to murder. Julie, however, is less bound to this and takes their side (I can’t say I’m wild about this trope of the tolerant toffs and the bigoted working class). Ms Wein’s note on Travellers is a model of explanation and caveat.

Julie is yearning for romance, and her description of her relationship with Ellen McEwen suggests that her feelings are more than just that of a friend. The two girls along with their brothers, make an appealing quartet as they investigate the mystery.

As with her other novels, but particularly for me, Black Dove, White Raven (2015) Ms Wein evocatively and exquisitely describes the period and the setting. The death of Julie’s grandfather, the Earl of Strathfearn, means the family must sell off his estate to pay off his debts, and that melancholy task gives added resonance to Julie’s description of the countryside (though they do have a castle to go to, so let’s not shed too many tears).

This is an early ARC, and it has some issues that I’m sure will be sorted out. I found some of Julie’s narration and breaking of the fourth wall to be a bit too jolly hockey sticks (defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “used to describe a woman or girl of a high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys most people.”) The tone shifts around a bit as well, but I suspect both these quibbles will be fixed before publication.

CNV was such a great novel, and though Ms Wein’s subsequent novels have been very good, they have not achieved that same level. Nor, currently, does The Pearl Thief, but it is still a fine historical mystery novel with an engaging and complex narrator and some thoughtful ideas about society in 1938.

Thanks to Disney-Hyperion and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

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The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

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creeping-shadowThe Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 4
Disney Hyperion, 2015

This middle grade series just keeps getting better. Lucy Carlyle is now out fighting ghosts on her own, away from the comfort and protection of Lockwood and Co. She’s doing alright, after all she has the Bartimaeus-style snarky skull to keep her company, and she’s making a living as a freelancer. But, and you’ll have noticed the name of the series, she’s soon back happily working with charismatic Anthony Lockwood, nerdy George Cubbins, and even last book’s newcomer and love rival, the elegant Holly Munro.

There is an overarching grand conspiracy going on, that seems to revolve around the two original agencies founded to solve the Problem, Fittes and Rotwell, and once again, Lockwood and Co. is all wrapped up in it. This time it starts when Lucy discovers that someone is stealing powerful Sources which should be destroyed, and leads to a very haunted village.

Stroud does a magnificent job of keeping this series fresh, building on the familiar characters and world, as well as introducing new elements. Coming into the familiar mix of humor, chills, and mystery is a more somber note, a trepidatious twang of foreboding: Lockwood’s dark side and live fast die young attitude comes more into focus, even as he gets closer to Lucy.

Each novel in this series can stand alone, with an episodic structure that builds to a dramatic climax. But the reader would be best to start at the beginning to get the full rich umami of the stew that the author keeps cooking up for us.

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Trouble Makes a Comeback by Stephanie Tromly

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trouble makes a comebackTrouble Makes a Comeback by Stephanie Tromly
Kathy Dawson Books, November 2016.

This satisfying sequel to Trouble is a Friend of Mine (2015) picks up 5 months later. Zoe Webster, now at the end of her junior year, has settled into the social scene at River Heights, and even has a boyfriend, football team member Austin Shaeffer. But then Digby returns with new leads on the mystery of his sister’s abduction 9 years previously.

As with the previous book, there are several strands going at once. The overarching mystery of Sally Digby’s abduction spreads its net wider as it seems to become more than just a missing girl case. There is a secondary, though interlinked, escapade, this time involving steroids and the football team. There are a few plot glitches, but I’ll put those down to reading this as an ARC

The hardboiled mysteries work well, but, for me, are really just a vehicle for the characters. The central twosome are just as charming, irritating, and sharp. Zoe’s narration shows her as the smartest and funniest high schooler around, and Digby continues to surprise with skills, self-doubt, and focus. And then there’s the crackling tension of their will they-won’t they romance, now complicated by Zoe’s relationship with Austin, and Digby’s with punk girl, Bill.

The support characters now have a bit of room to spread out and develop even more depth. Entitled rich girl Sloane shows more social intelligence and self-knowledge; Felix is still the stereotypically supersmart Asian kid and the only non-white character, but he has become the manager of, and something of a stud for, the girls’ soccer team. Adults are not just foils for the teens. Both Zoe’s and Digby’s mothers are complex, flawed, richly created human beings, and the father figures in Zoe’s life are a nicely contrasting pair.

The bad news is that we’re left on a pretty abrupt cliffhanger. The good news is that there’s more to come from River Heights.

Thanks to Kathy Dawson Books and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Replica by Lauren Oliver

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bookcover_replicaReplica by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2016.

With this very enjoyable first book in her new duology, which takes on the big theme of what it means to be human, Lauren Oliver returns to the sci fi/dystopia genre of her splendid Delirium trilogy.

Lyra and Gemma are both connected with the mysterious Haven Institute which is situated on a remote Florida island. Lyra, or 24, is one of the many replicas (or clones) that live there. Gemma’s father was one of the founders of Haven. When a bomb goes off on the island, Lyra escapes and Gemma makes her way down to Florida – from their different perspectives, they both want to find out who they are and what Haven’s purpose really is.

Told from the perspectives of Lyra and Gemma, the author has taken the interesting if not entirely successful decision to write this as two novellas rather than the usual interleaved chapters. I applaud trying new things, but I feel maybe it would have worked better in the traditional way. In the intro, Ms Oliver talks about the Rashomon effect, but it is much harder to detect this when you are not reading the two accounts side by side, particularly in an eBook.

The created world is thought-provoking and cohesive, and, as she did with Delirium, the author gradually drops in new information to build a fuller picture, but does this without ever leaving the reader frustrated or confused. The science of what is going on at Haven comes in a couple of big information dumps and I found it a bit confusing, though I suspect it’s not essential to follow precisely. Suffice to say that the scientists at Haven are Up To No Good.

I really like the two narrators and the voices that Ms Oliver has created for them. Lyra is precise and a little cold. Ms Oliver is largely successful in creating a character that knows nothing about the outside world, except what she has occasionally seen on TV or overheard from the Haven staff, and then to convey her wonder and confusion as she encounters it. Gemma becomes more intriguing as we get to know her and her family background.

Both girls have love interests (and all main characters appear to be white). Lyra flees from Haven with hunky 72, who is of the silent brooding but “beautiful” type, and Gemma’s ride to Florida is Pete, who is of the fresh-faced, handsome, nice, and inexplicably drawn to the outcast girl type. Neither really develops much beyond that. As the young women dig deeper into who they are, their beaux’ responses add new dimensions when the idea of love as a marker of humanity is explored.

The plot rattles along, with twist following twist, and the two accounts add developments without being repetitious. Unfortunately, the novel just sort of ends on an incomplete note, so we’ll have to wait for the concluding sequel, though yay for dropping the treading water middle book of a trilogy!

Ms Oliver’s books are always worth reading, whether realistic or speculative. Fans of her previous novels won’t be disappointed, and Replica could well attract some new readers.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan

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i woke up dead at the mallI Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan
Delacorte, 2016

In this inventive and charming YA supernatural romance, 16 year-old Sarah Evans wakes up dead in Minnesota’s Mall of America, still in the mango chiffon bridesmaid’s dress she was wearing when she was poisoned at her father’s wedding. Along with a group of other murdered young New Yorkers, Sarah must deal with unfinished business from the living world in order to move on to the next life.

Playwright Sheehan has constructed a clever and entertaining afterlife, though it doesn’t always make logical sense. The teens must work their way out of Limbo through revisiting a day in their lives, going to their funerals, and sharing in a therapy group. Their “death coach” Bertha, is an Angel, and there is an authority figure, but this hereafter does not overtly fit into any specific religious tradition.

Sarah’s lively, funny narration, liberally sprinkled with morbid wordplay, brings a light touch to this grim situation. She starts a forbidden-in-the-afterlife romance with Nick, and though their attraction in death is instant, it emerges that they have glancingly met many times in real life but never connected. The other teens, apparently all white though economically diverse, are an endearing bunch, and we learn about their lives and deaths as they each find peace and move on to their next incarnations.

With the message that life is precious and you should enjoy it while you can, wrapped up in a humorous and heartfelt story, this will have wide appeal for teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC.