Tag Archives: mystery

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.

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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.

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.