Tag Archives: mystery

I, Claudia by Mary McCoy

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I, Claudia by Mary McCoy
CarolRhoda Lab, 2018.

So I’m of an age that I watched the BBC series of I, Claudius when it was first on TV and thrilled the nation. And Ms McCoy has taken that story and set it in an elite private high school and it works really well. As an examination of the use and abuse of power, the shenanigans of the over-privileged and entitled students of the Imperial Day School fits perfectly.

Claudia McCarthy (oh what fun Ms McCoy has with her characters names) is a freshman with a limp and a stutter, and just wants to fade into the background. But her popular and well-liked sister Maisie brings her into the inner circle of the Honor Council with its current President Augustus Dean and his girlfriend Livia Drusus. Students are expelled or graduate, rather than the more gruesome ends they suffered in Robert Graves’s classic, as, over the years, the Honor Council presidency moves from Augustus to Ty and finally to Cal Hurt’s reign of terror (see what I mean about names – Caligula was played by John Hurt in the TV series).

Claudia herself is a fantastic creation. Not particularly likable and thoroughly unreliable about her own motives as she rises through the ranks of the school’s Senate with her crush the virtuous Hector, Claudia is unrepentant and pugnacious. She is telling her story, apparently to a therapist, as we accompany her through the school’s descent into wild decadence.

Really, this was just an absolutely terrific read and I was inspired to read I, Claudius to see if I could spot more connections. What I found was that Ms. McCoy and the BBC scriptwriters had sensibly focused on the spine of the story, whereas Grave’s Claudius chronicles every name and relationship to the point of my utmost confusion and, sadly, indifference. So hooray for Mary McCoy taking inspiration and then setting off with it on a wildly entertaining novel.

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One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

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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.

Highly recommended.

Otherwood by Pete Hautman

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Otherwood by Pete Hautman
Candlewick, 2018.

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.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

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Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Katherine Tegen, 2018

Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has been invited to join the elite Ellingham Academy – home to “creative geniuses, radical thinkers, and innovators.” It’s a one of a kind school – completely free and allows the students to focus on their passions. In Stevie’s case that means crime detection. But not only is the school a top place to be educated, it also harbors a mystery: in 1936, the wife and daughter of founder and very rich person Arthur Ellingham are kidnapped. The body of Iris, his wife, and of a pupil from the school are found days later, but his daughter Alice is never found. As Stevie tries to investigate the decades old crime, there is a murder at the school and Stevie gets involved with that too.

The tone of the novel is both sharply modern but also manages to be fashionably retro. The plotting is smart and intriguing and the combination and connections of the old mystery and the new one is well done. As well as straightforward present-day narrative, there are perspectives from 1936 and FBI transcripts of interviews connected to the old mystery.

Stevie is an interesting character – very much at odds with what her parents would like and desperate for friendship from people who get her. Her new friends have a wide range of skin colors, sexualities, and gender expressions and are developed to varying degrees, mainly through the passions that have brought them to the school. Stevie also has a romance that feels completely unlikely and lacking in chemistry.

However, and this makes me so mad, this is the first book in a series and virtually nothing is resolved. You may disagree, but I do feel like a mystery should offer some closure within a book, even if there is an overarching bigger mystery, but that does not happen here – we are left completely hanging. And, while I’m complaining, Stevie manages to find a major clue in a large tin box that the police have somehow completely overlooked while searching a room – feels unlikely and convenient. So all in all, I have to say Truly Devious just felt unsatisfactory.

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver

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Broken Things by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2018.

Lauren Oliver has switched between realistic fiction and sci fi, but the common thread is always young women pushed to their limits. I’ve been a fan since Delirium way back and I think this new one is a perfect encapsulation of Oliver’s talents as a creator of credible and nuanced characters, sharp plotting, and an atmospheric setting.

Five years ago in Twin Lakes, Vermont, 13 year-old Summer was murdered in an apparently ritualistic way. Her two best friends, Brynn and Mia were suspected but never charged, as was her boyfriend Owen. Since then, as they’re still seen as the “Monsters of Brickhouse Lane”, Brynn has hidden away in unnecessary rehab facilities, Mia has withdrawn, and Owen’s family moved abroad.  But now on the five year anniversary of her death, the teens are all back in town and starting to work out who the real murderer was.

So far, so Kara Thomas which in itself is an excellent recommendation. Layering on top of this, the murder seems to be linked to an old children’s fantasy book called The Way into Lovelorn which the girls were obsessed with and wrote a sequel to, and which seemed to have come to life for them.

The narrative is split between Mia and Brynn and Then and Now, and a picture is built up of lonely “broken” girls on the fringes of their communities: Summer was with a foster family, Mia got so anxious she couldn’t speak, and Brynn expressed her rage through fighting. But together they made sense and Lovelorn helped them to do that. But when adolescence hit Summer and Brynn, Mia felt excluded and Summer’s attraction to older boys left the other two behind and Lovelorn is abandoned.

As with her previous realistic novels, the author does an excellent job of vividly drawing an insular small-minded community, and the pressure that brings on teen girls who don’t conform and the murder mystery on top of this works well.

The plot is neatly worked out as the teens (all significant characters in this book are white) unearth clues, both in real life and in the fanfic they wrote. A satisfying resolution is reached without stretching credibility, and both Mia and Brynn are on the road to dealing with their lives now that the weight of suspicion is off them and they can reach closure about Summer’s death.

Perfect for teen readers who enjoy mystery and/or realistic novels with a side of creepiness.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

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.

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.