Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith
Putting aside the absurd premise of this novel (British Hugo was due to go on an Amtrak trip across America with his girlfriend Margaret Campbell, but when she dumps him he has to find another person of the same name to accompany him as the tickets are in her name) this is a YA romance as light and fluffy as a marshmallow.
Hugo is a biracial (white mother and black father) sextuplet and he and his siblings have been doing everything together forever and are even set to go to university together, so Hugo sees the train ride as an opportunity to strike out on his own. The warm love and support of his siblings, along with their amusing YA novel banter, grounds Hugo as well as allowing him the freedom to explore his own dreams.
Margaret “Mae” Campbell got into USC but not into the film program she wanted. She knows she’s good at film making and is passionate about it but, wouldn’t you know it, it takes her sort of boyfriend to point out her style is “impersonal”. Of course, once she falls in love with Hugo, the movie she decides to make about the stories of all the different people on the train gets the emotional lift it apparently needed.
Aside from a mildly uncomfortable racist incident in Chicago, there’s no intended edge in here whatsover. Though personally I was irritated by the patronizing attitude of the boys to Mae, I don’t think the author was deliberately meaning this to be an issue.
The author gives us a sly wink when she has Mae’s Nana talk about old romantic movies: “It’s not supposed to reflect reality…. But sometimes you just want to pretend that the world is a better place than it actually is. That loves triumphs over everything.” And that sums this book up in a nutshell and if sometimes a reader just wants to find characters who are smart, funny, attractive and able to fall in love in just three days (and sometimes I am that reader), then this is a good place to be.
Reviewed from an ARC.
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
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
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.
Lovely War by Julie Berry
A gorgeous and lush YA romance set during World War I is framed by a quarrel between the Greek gods representing the novel’s big themes of love, war, art, and death.
When James Aldridge meets piano playing Hazel Windicot at a parish dance, they have only a few days together before he leaves for the front. They are both terribly British: shy and innocent, reticent yet thrumming with interior emotions. They have tea, stroll through parks, and go to a concert, and though they have never even kissed, it’s clear that theirs is a love for the ages.
As James is whisked off to the trenches, Hazel signs up to entertain the troops in France. There she meets up with Belgian Colette Fournier, who has survived a German massacre of her town in which all her friends and family were slaughtered. Through these two women we get to see the confining sexism of the times – neither British nor Belgian women got the vote till after the war, but it’s more the social and cultural norms that chafe here.
They both get to know Aubrey Evans, a black musician (all other main characters are white) who plays with real-life Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry ragtime band aka the Hellfighters. Through Aubrey we see the horrific bigotry that the black soldiers faced from their compatriots. As Aubrey and Colette begin to fall in love, there are warning signs that an interracial romance will be a grenade lobbed into the rigid propriety and attitudes of their “superiors”, so when Aubrey disappears, Colette and Hazel fear the worst.
Both epic and intimate, the novel contrasts the minutely detailed horrors of the trenches with the exquisite intensity of love, particularly during an enchanting interlude when Hazel and James meet in Paris. None of the protagonists are unscathed by the war but, like me, I think many readers will be swept away by the glorious story and the message that, in the end, love conquers war and death.
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.
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.
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.