Tag Archives: mystery

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

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Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Hyperion, 2018.

Kelly Loy Gilbert (Conviction, 2015) has written a perceptive and subtle realistic novel, set in the Asian American community of Cupertino in Silicon Valley, a setting which allows her to explore not just what it means to be second generation Asian American but also other identities within that of economic status, immigration status, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

Two deaths cast a shadow over senior Danny Cheng: those of his sister who died before he was born and Sandra, a friend who committed suicide last year. But his life now seems to be on an upswing: he has been accepted with a full scholarship at his dream school, RISD, and has some sketches on display in a gallery. But when he finds a box of papers hidden away in his father’s office, he opens the proverbial Pandora’s box.

Narrator Danny is a very much a teen – he can be selfish, impulsive, and makes some poor choices. He sees the world through art and often comments on how he would approach a drawing of a moment and what he would want to capture, and his touchstone, and the leitmotif of the novel, is the centrality of human connection and entanglement. There is a minor dual narrative that’s written in the second person, addressed to his sister which fills out the family history.

The author draws a nuanced portrait of the largely Asian student body at Monta Vista public high school (a school which she actually attended): “We were all tired and stressed out all the time, all of us worried we’d never be good enough, many of us explicitly told we weren’t good enough….We all felt it, the relentless crush of expectation, the fear of not measuring up….”

Danny’s relationship with his parents is authentically complicated and beautifully drawn. They are immigrants, much lower on the socio-economic scale than most of the other families at the school, and still bring their customs and attitudes from China. Though they are fiercely proud of their son and his achievements, they are torn between two cultures and have guilt and secrecy etched into them. The other significant figures in Danny’s life are his friends, Harry and Regina, and his friendships with them are also fractured and challenging with clandestine depths.

As Danny pursues the truth, doubting his quest even as he won’t drop it, the past of his family falls into place and, against the odds but entirely organically, there is a feeling of hope and resolution.

Though set in a very specific community, the author has created characters and themes that will resonate with all American teens.

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The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

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The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas
Delacorte, July 2018.

Kara Thomas has created another atmospheric and tense thriller about teen girls, that sadly promises a little more than it ultimately delivers.

Five years ago, two of the cheerleading team of Sunnybrook High died in a car accident, a few days later two were murdered and then shortly after that one killed herself. Now junior Monica Rayburn, sister of the girl who committed suicide, discovers that there may be a connection between the girls’ deaths. The novel moves between Monica’s present day narration with occasional breaks into a third person perspective of the events from five years ago leading up to the deaths.

Monica is unraveling as she investigates the deaths and uncovers some inconsistencies: Her emotions are fraught as she deals with being dumped by her boyfriend and then having a summer fling with an older man which ended poorly. She makes a connection with Ginny, a girl who has always been there but has been invisible to Monica and her friends, but now Ginny provides support and encouragement to Monica as she digs deeper.

Monica’s parents have tried to protect her from getting caught up in the events of five years ago, but now this protection feels more suspicious: her stepfather, a police officer, was the one who fatally shot the neighbor who he believed was the murderer.

Using technology, connections, inspiration, and old-fashioned sleuthing, the two girls close in on the truth. But will it bring closure or will it rip the community apart?

As with her previous novels, The Darkest Corners (2016) and Little Monsters (2017), Kara Thomas does a terrific job of creating a slippery atmospheric mystery combined with the seesaw emotions of a teen girl being pushed to her limits. While not quite as satisfying as the masterful Little Monsters, the plot resolves in an unexpected twist and Monica is able to move forward.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Crims by Kate Davies

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The Crims by Kate Davies
Harper, 2017.

A mildly entertaining British novel about a family of absurdly incompetent criminals whose style reminded me of both David Baddiel’s The Parent Agency and Julian Clary’s The Bolds.

12 year old Imogen ran away to a fancy boarding school after the matriarch of the Crims was killed in a heist. However, when the rest of the family is jailed for the theft of a valuable lunch box, she feels obliged to return to help them out.

Davies does a competent job of delineating the numerous Crims by providing them with a defining trait: fearsome-looking Uncle Knuckles is really a gentle flower-loving man, Freddie is astonishingly absent-minded, Imogen’s father is an accountant who loves numbers and book-keeping, and so on. Imogen had developed an ambition to be a future world leader while at school, but now discovers that her love for her family and her suppressed criminal plotting genius outweighs that.

The silly situations, word play, and broad characters are somewhat reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, though the quips about grisly murders fall rather flat.

Judging by the open ending, the intention is to have a sequel in which the Crims take on the frighteningly competent Kruk family.

The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne Jones
Candlewick, June 2018.

I really enjoyed Canadian Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (2015) with its mix of beautifully written realistic prose and a magical element that just blended in. The Ruinous Sweep, an ambitious literary YA murder mystery has a similar blend of dream-like fantasy and intricately dense characterization.

In the first half of the novel, which flows from the present back to the recent and further past, 17 year-old Donovan Turner has been hit by a truck and is lying critically injured and semi-comatose in an ICU. His girlfriend Beatrice, Bee, sits with him and he starts talking but what is he trying to communicate? Woven through this is a hallucinatory account of Donovan’s evening which becomes an allegorical journey. With a too abrupt shift, in the second section of the novel, Bee starts making connections from Donovan’s hospital ramblings to his past (and the reader can make connections to his interior trek), and she launches her own investigation, though this is not a murder-mystery in a straightforward sense.

The writing is elegant and precise, sharply crafted and still staying true to the characters. Both Donovan and Bee are attractive, complex, flawed people, well-matched in their grope towards defining themselves: by nature she is “be” and he is “do” but in the novel’s present, they switch roles. Bee does, however, makes a crucial to the plot decision that just seems out of character. The adults seems a little too split into saintliness and evil, but given the guiding text maybe that’s deliberate.

Wynne-Jones has been inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of Donovan’s quest reflects Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell and Purgatory. However, there are few clues beyond the title and the epigraph that this is what the author’s doing. While I knew of the Divine Comedy, I wasn’t that familiar with it so I did a quick Wikipedia check and some of the parallels in the novel then made a bit more sense (eg Virgil, Dante’s guide, becomes Jilly, Donovan’s guide). Without this knowledge, and I suspect most teen readers will not be aware of Dante’s work beyond the title, the narrative moves into strange and weird territory without at least initial apparent reason. Maybe an Author’s Note would help? Also some of the events in Donovan’s hallucination don’t seem to make sense either as a link to his past or a clue to his present, though maybe they are an echo of Dante.

This is a challenging read to get into, but the reward is immensely fulfilling as Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s work, leads Donovan through purgatory and towards heaven. Ideal for teens and adults who seek out demanding reads.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp
Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

A creepily atmospheric YA paranormal chiller which draws much of its menace from its setting in a tiny tight-knit community in the wilds of Alaska during the long winter when there are few hours of daylight. Corey returns to Lost Creek, “an almost all-white conservative town with little room for wayward girls,” for the funeral of Kyra, her troubled best friend and almost immediately realizes it was a suicide not an accident. Corey becomes increasingly troubled by the town inhabitants’ attitude towards Kyra in both life and death and, even though she herself left only a few months ago, their closing against her as an “outsider.” This is interspersed with flashbacks to the previous two years during which Kyra’s alternate manic episodes and depressions had become increasingly severe. Niekamp (This Is Where It Ends, 2016) draws nuanced portraits of both bipolar Kyra, looking only for acceptance of herself as she is, and Corey, convincingly conflicted between being there for her friend and craving normality. Some interesting sub-plots around sexuality are undeveloped and the novel occasionally breaks into a screenplay format for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, this will appeal to teens who enjoy magical realism with a side of eerie. Reviewed from an ARC.

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

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A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2017 (originally published in the UK in 2012)

I’ve never met a book by Ms Hardinge that I haven’t loved and, while this one is no exception, I don’t love it quite as much as some of her others. But that is not to detract from a novel that has luxuriant imagination, believably complex characters, glorious writing, and astonishingly rich world building.

A Face Like Glass is a return to the high fantasy of The Lost Prophecy and the Mosca Mye books, Fly by Night and Fly Trap. Caverna is a rampantly decadent underground society that crafts True Delicacies that “crossed the invisible line between the mind-blowing and the miraculous….wines that rewrote the subtle book of memory, cheeses that brought visions, spices that sharpened the senses, perfumes that ensnared the mind, and balms that slowed aging to a crawl.”

It has a somewhat traditional pyramid structure, with the ancient and paranoid Grand Steward not so benevolently dictating from the top, a swirling plotting aristocracy of masters of the Craft on the next level, and drudges (literally called drudges) at the bottom.

Here’s the twist, there’s been much said about how limiting language can limit expression of rebellion, but in the case of Caverna, it is facial expressions that are limited. Babies are born not knowing how to show their feelings on their faces and have to be taught. Drudges learn only a handful of compliant and contented expressions, thus limiting their ability to combine in anger and rebellion. The aristocracy have a much broader range of options, crafted for them by Facesmiths, such as Uncomprehending Fawn Before Hound and Violet Trembling in Sudden Shower, enabling them to be much more subtle and manipulative with their faces..

A newcomer arrives in this fin de siecle society who views it through new eyes. The outsider is 12 year-old Neverfell, and she has the human ability to show her feelings, and indeed finds it impossible to conceal them, much to the astonishment and sometimes revulsion of the Cavernans. She quickly becomes a pawn in the cynical plans of several people and it is only as she loses her naivete that she understands how ravaged Caverna is and what she must do to save herself and the innocents who have been unwittingly caught up in the court drama.

So why don’t I love it quite as much? Well, for me it sagged a little in the middle – the first time I’ve ever felt that in a Hardinge novel. While it isn’t as long as some of her other books, there was one point at which I thought that it was a bit of a slog, though it soon picked up. Secondly, Neverfell, our protagonist, lacks the edge and bite of other Hardinge heroines. She is like an adorable puppy, but I prefer my honey spliced with some vinegar, which I got with the leads of The Lie Tree, Cuckoo Song and the Mosca Mye books.

But, hey, this is still a Frances Hardinge novel which makes it head and shoulders above most books I’ve read this year.