Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. Amulet Books. 2013. Library copy. Morris Shortlist.

The Plot: 1918. Mary Shelley Black, 16, has fled Portland, Oregon following her father’s arrest for treason. She is going to stay with her aunt, Eva, in San Diego.

San Diego has changed since the last time she was there, months ago, visiting her aunt and seeing her best friend since childhood, Stephen Embers.

The Spanish Influenza has almost shut down the city. People are in constant fear. And Stephen is gone — even though barely 18, he has volunteered for the army and is fighting in Europe. His regular letters stopped a few weeks ago.

Mary Shelley wants to see Stephen’s mother and older brother, Julius, to find out more about Stephen. The problem is, Stephen and his older half-brother have never gotten along. The last in a long line of disagreements had to do with photography. Stephen takes artistic pictures of nature.

Julius is a spirit photographer, capturing the ghosts of the deceased in photographs of loved ones.

Stephen, disgusted with the scam, joined the Army. Julius spread lies about Stephen taking advantage of Mary Shelley.

The last person Mary Shelley wants to see is Julius. But she will, if it means finding out more about Stephen.

The GoodThe nice thing about reading something after it’s been put on a shortlist is being able to read it through the lens of, why this book?

The setting of In the Shadow of Blackbirds is 1918 San Diego: a city in fear of flu, in fear of war. People with masks, afraid of the flu, doing anything to protect themselves. I loved the details, such as the conviction that onions will keep the flu away. How one moment a person is fine, the next they are dying. Even the details of the dying.

I wish there were more books set during World War I. For various reasons, it seems that it’s an overlooked time period in the USA. In the Shadow of Blackbirds looks at the war from the view of life on the homefront. The anti-German bias. The men, ruined in body and spirit, who returned from the battlefields. How people treated shell shock. The propaganda. And the way that any dissent was treated.

Spirit photography is part of that homefront: between the deaths from the war and the deaths from the flu, people are desperate and look for any comfort. To have lost a loved one, then given proof in the form of a photograph that they are still there? It’s a gift.

A gift that Julius gives to people, for a price. A gift that both Stephen and Mary Shelley are skeptical about. Stephen, because he believes that Julius is mistreating the art of photography. Mary Shelley, because she is a scientist that doesn’t believe in ghosts. In the Shadow of Blackbirds, details are given about the tricks and inventions people use to fake spiritual photography and seances; and how people catch those faking.

It also gives the possibility of ghosts being true. Mary Shelley, scientist, always pragmatic, almost dies. After, she sees and senses things differently. One of those things — well, a ghost. Or, at least, one ghost. Believing in spirits doesn’t mean that she also believes, suddenly, in spirit photography or seances. In some ways, it makes her more skeptical. At this point, In the Shadow of Blackbirds also turns into a mystery, as Mary Shelley begins to investigate the death of the ghost. (Look at me, being all careful about that identity of the ghost!)

Mary Shelley is an interesting character: she’s the daughter of a female physician, who died shortly after giving birth to her. Her father’s been arrested for treason, but it’s more that he’s an an anti-war pacifist than someone agitating for the downfall of his country. She loves science, and is the type of person who, when she takes something apart and then puts it back together, it works better than it did before.

And Aunt Eva! I felt so much sympathy for Eva, only 26. What she wants is what a typical woman of that time wants: a home, a husband, children. She has no children; her husband died young; and she’s working endless hours in a factory. She has a home where she has to hide anything with German connections, even though — as she explains — the family is Swiss. And while she has a home to offer Eva, she’s not well off — they cannot afford electricity. Eva even has had to cut her hair short, because of her work in the factory. Eva wants a happy ending that involves a man and children; instead, she’s working and taking care of a stubborn teenager.

My last thought, which really has nothing to do with the Morris criteria. The cover! I LOVE when a publisher doesn’t use stock photos. The cover replicates a photograph taken of Mary Shelley. More information about the cover design — including the care taken with the font — is at The Lucky 13s blog, in the post Cover Scoop.

Other links and reviews: the website of In the Shadow of Blackbirds has some great extras; Jen Robinson’s Book PageVikki Vansickle; My Not So Real Life.



Review: Wait For What Will Come

Wait For What Will Come by Barbara Michaels. Originally published in 1978. Image from HarperCollins ebook edition, 2009.

The Plot: Carla Tregellas is just another hardworking American when the lawyer contacts her to tell her the news: as the last member of the Tregellas family, she has inherited an old mansion in Cornwall. Carla, in her mid twenties, is very practical. She’ll use her summer vacation to go and see her inheritance and take care of getting it sold. There is no question of keeping it: she has little money, and the mansion comes with some land and the house, of course, but nothing else, really. Common sense says sell it and sell it quickly.

Things change when Carla is in Cornwall; when she sees the mansion. When she feels a connection to the place, something she never thought she’d feel. That’s before she hears about that she inherited not just a building; she also inherited a curse. Is the curse to blame for the strange things that start happening? Or is someone trying to drive her out, to force her to sell?

The Good: I was sad to hear that Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara G. Mertz) died this summer, so decided to read one of her books that I hadn’t read before. Then, given how Barbara Michaels = Gothic I had to post the review on Halloween. I selected Wait For What Will Come because BookRiot called it one of her best.

Wait For What Will Come has everything I want and expect in a Michaels’ book.

There’s the sudden inheritance! While Carla’s family has been in the United States for generations, the branch back in Cornwall didn’t do very well. The money’s gone and with the death of Walter Tregellas an heir had to be found. Carla is that heir! Or, rather, “the nearest surviving blood relative who still bore the family name.” I love discovering you’re a secret heiress. Bonus in that you never knew the person who died so it’s grief free. What a disappointment to a younger me to look at all my many relatives and realize that I could never be a long lost heiress.

Of course, Carla being the heiress isn’t a happy ending; or, rather, a happy beginning. No money left, house in terrible shape — BUT DID I MENTION IT’S A MANSION THAT IS HUNDREDS OF YEARS OLD. At first Carla is all “she may as well have a look at it before it went out of the family forever,” but then Carla begins to realize that hey, how many times do you get a MANSION THAT IS HUNDREDS OF YEARS OLD and so keeps postponing leaving and selling.

There is a — love rhombus? Let’s just say, there are multiple handsome young men falling over each other for Carla. The family lawyer, Alan Fairman. The local doctor, Simon Tremuan. The housekeeper’s grandson, Mike Penkowsky. Later on, Mike’s friend, Timothy O’Hara, stops by.

Then there are the various Cornish legends and myths that are mentioned and explained, including the Tregellas family curse! A FAMILY CURSE. A “sacrifice to the sea” must be made every 200 years. GUESS GUESS GUESS WHETHER THE 200 YEARS ARE UP. And that sacrifice is linked to demon lovers. Or dream lovers. Or both.

I love that it’s a curse that is every 200 years, because that is just enough time to have no idea what really, actually happened. I mean, it’s not like it’s within any type of living memory.

Wait For What Will Come weaves together a bit soap opera, a bit historical myth, some modern concerns about what to do with a building one may love but cannot afford, some mixed motives from the locals, all haunted by the possibility of the supernatural. Is the curse real? Is there a family ghost? Is there a realistic explanation to all that is happening, or is it a fantastical reason?

I thoroughly enjoyed Wait For What Will Come. But here’s my problem: other than Ammie, Come Home and Stitches in Time I don’t remember which Barbara Michaels books I’ve read. So, recommendations welcome!



Review: The Ruining

The Ruining by Anna Collomore. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Group USA. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Annie wants only one thing: Escape.

She wants to leave Detroit behind her, leave the poverty, her neglectful mother, leering stepfather, dead sister. She wants to start anew. She wants to be a new person.

Annie seizes on college as her way of escape: San Francisco State University. Far away from home, from anyone she knows, she can have a second chance and leave her secrets behind. Especially how she is responsible for the death of her sister.

College costs money, so Annie gets a job as a nanny for the wealthy Cohen family. She sees the photo of mother, father, toddler daughter and infant son and she admires that perfection. She wants that perfection.

Annie will be the best nanny, ever, in order to stay with this beautiful family in their welcoming mansion in sunny California.

Her life is a perfect, a dream come true, down to the handsome boy next door.

And then Annie’s dream turns into a nightmare, and she doesn’t know what to believe anymore. Mrs. Cohen — Libby — runs hot and cold. Annie gets mixed messages. Is Annie an employee, a younger sister, a trusted friend? Why has the door been removed from her room? What are the mysterious documents in the garage? Why does Libby favor her baby, Jackson, and ignore young Zoe? Why does Libby sometimes call her “Nanny” not “Annie”?

There’s something not quite right going on in the Cohen household, but really, what does Annie know? She’s new to the house and family. She’s from a different class of people. Maybe this is just the way rich people are, maybe this is just the way a nanny gets treated.

What does Annie know? Is she imagining things? Is something wrong with Annie….or is something wrong with the Cohens?

The Good: This is one of the “OK, I have to discuss it so there will be spoilers, OK, deal with it” reviews. Not quite yet; I won’t start for a few paragraphs.

This is a psychological thriller where a young nanny gets gaslighted by her employer and struggles to hold onto her sanity and reveal the truth about her employer.

Or, is it?

Annie goes from poverty to wealth beyond her dreams. Except, well, she doesn’t — she’s the nanny. And the first intriguing thing about The Ruining is the examination of the nanny/employer relationship. Perhaps because I’m an adult reader (and I like to do that — to identify what I see in a book as an adult reading a book intended for teens) but one of the first things I saw in The Ruining that gave me pause from the start was the blurry lines between Annie and the Cohens. Or, rather, Annie and Libby.

At the start, Annie says “In California, I would reinvent myself. I would finally have the life I deserved.” Yet that life, at first, is not really her life she’s reinventing. Rather, she’s fitting herself into the life of the Cohens, and it’s their life she wants. Once in California, she doesn’t reinvent herself by applying herself to the area that is “her life,” that is, to college and her studies. Instead, it’s the house and food and luxuries of  Cohes.  This blurring is not one-sided: Libby gives Annie a glass of wine, gives her some of her old clothes, goes through her college course catalog telling Annie what classes to take.

Libby treats Annie almost as a younger sister and Annie drinks that in, wanting more. Libby is a dream come true, so of course it goes wrong.

But here’s the thing: does it?

In other words: just how crazy is Annie?

The Ruining can be read in two ways:

In one, Libby Cohen is a troubled woman who hires Annie because she realizes Annie’s background will make Annie easy to manipulate. Annie’s secret? Annie’s younger sister drowned when Annie was supposed to be watching her. That, and Annie’s fear of returning to Detroit, make her susceptible to Libby’s manipulations. In this reading, Libby gaslights Annie — pushes her buttons — drives her crazy, with Annie ending up in a mental institute. Luckily, the handsome next door neighbor believes in Annie and uncovers Libby’s dark secrets, freeing Annie, and in the end Annie and he are happily living together.

In the other, Annie is a troubled young woman who projects her fears and demons onto Libby. Almost nothing Annie says about Libby can be entirely trusted. Anything Annie says is suspect. Is handsome Owen someone Annie is even involved with? Does he come to rescue her?

And the spoilers start now, because I want to talk about which one of these readings works for me. So if you haven’t read it, be warned.

Be further warned: part of the reason I’m being so spoilery, and so detailed, is that most of the reviews I’ve read take the view of the first reading

Me, I believe that Annie cannot be trusted. Not one bit. Part of why is she tells us not to: “I needed a clean break from my reality.”

Part of it — and this is my bias — there were things that Annie did as a nanny that made me think, “huh.” She notes how she grabs a tote bag from under the kitchen sink to use as a bag for her college books, and nothing said she had permission to do it. She’s given the family car to run an errand and instead takes a lot of time driving around San Francisco. When she packs a gourmet style picnic lunch for the boy next door, I wondered what the Cohens thought when they went to look for the food. These are little things, but little things early on that shows that Annie is from the start thinking “family” not “employer.” Now, some would point to things that what the Cohens did are just as odd — Annie is supposed to be working less than 30 hours a week, but it seems much more. It also seems like she needs to be on call 24/7, even being available on her day off. And, of course, the Cohens as the rich employers have all the power. Still, while I raised an eyebrow or two at what Libby did or didn’t do, I also felt that Annie was just as inappropriate in the relationship.

Annie clearly adores Zoe. She pains herself as a super-nanny. And yet, she uses Zoe to connect with the boy next door, playing outside to “entice Owen out.” Admittedly, even this is murky — did Annie do it, or did she do it because Libby sort of suggested it in a “I hope this isn’t why you want to play outside with Zoe” way? While watching Zoe and flirting with Owen, she gets angry at things Owen says and curses in front of Zoe. Yes, that gave me pause. Also (and sorry, another bias!) when Owen and his parents are over for dinner, and Owen, Zoe, and Annie are alone, Annie’s clear focus is on Owen, not Zoe. This, though, is another example of the blurriness of the whole nanny situation. Is Annie a guest at the diner party, with the Cohens taking advantage by having her watch Zoe? Or is Annie a nanny during the party, ignoring her responsibility to flirt with Owen?

To share just a small bit of how Annie sees the world, here is Annie describing her doctor, someone who she has said only a little older looking than Libby, who is in her early twenties. “He looked like the kind of man whose ambitions had never been connected to the reality he now lived.” Which, first, I love because I can so easily picture such a person. Second, that’s a pretty harsh judgment for Annie to be making on someone who is, by her description, less than thirty. Finally, though, I wonder if it’s Annie herself she’s describing, as someone not connected to her own reality.

Back to Owen, briefly. I’m not sure if he’s made up, entirely; but I do know if he is real (and if the version of Libby as evil manipulator is real) then Owen is not a nice guy. (Spoilers, again, but I’ve read reviews swooning over him!) Here’s the thing: Owen is college age. And when he plays foosball against Zoe, a three year old? He doesn’t let her win. Not once. NOT ONCE. Again, maybe it’s because I’m old, but — no. That’s not the sign of a nice guy with principles.

Instead, I see Owen as the cute, flirty guy next door who Annie wants, who she wants to believe is a guy for her because it fits in with what she wants her life to be, even if it is not. And even as she doesn’t quite connect with the real world, she tries to re-imagine it into the way she wants it to be but the truth bleeds through. So Owen is perfect and handsome, yet she cannot deny that he won’t let a three year old win a game. Annie loves Zoe, and talks of all she does for her, yet keeps peanut butter around the highly allergic child. She finds boxes and clothes marked “Adele – something, maybe Elizabeth, Cohen” and doesn’t acknowledge that Elizabeth is a nickname for Libby and that Libby and Adele may be the same person.

So! Clearly, The Ruining is a book that gave me many thoughts. And feelings. What do you think? Is this a mystery about a girl who is being used by her employer? Or is a look inside a disturbed mind, where nothing can be trusted?

Other reviews: Respiring Thoughts; In The Best Worlds; Daisy Chain Book Reviews.

Review: Pretty Girl 13

Pretty Girl 13 by Liz Coley. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Angie is on a Girl Scout Camping trip when she leaves her tent in the early morning to find a private space to “take care of business.”

Three years later, she appears at her own front door, confused, bewildered, with no idea what happened to her.

No idea where she’s been for the last three years.

She doesn’t even know three years have passed.

Angie looks at her parents, older, and acting so weird. She looks in the mirror and sees a face that she only vaguely recognizes. It is older, it is thinner. Her body is hers and not hers, with strange scars. Marks on her wrists and ankles.

Where has she been? What has happened to her?

The Good: A girl, lost, then found. A miracle! A miracle with so many questions, and Angie is the only one who can answer them.

Pretty Girl 13 is about Angie’s return to her family, with Angie thinking and believing she is a thirteen year old. Thinking and believing nothing bad has happened. Confused and angry and uncertain about the lost years. Angie cannot just step back into her old life, no matter how hard she wishes it, because time has passed. She is not thirteen. Her friends are no longer thirteen.

Pretty Girl 13 is about Angie’s journey in remembering what happened, while trying to navigate the world she is now in.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, even before Angie does, Angie did not run away. Angie did not get lost and wander in the forest for three years. Angie was not taken in by a kindly person wanting a child of their own.

Angie was taken by a man. And while he would say it was for love — it was not for love or kindness.

How Angie dealt with the trauma of the kidnapping and being held for three years and all that happened during those three years is complex; it is heart breaking; and it is not something that is discovered easily. Basically, she created multiple personalities to protect herself, so that things didn’t happen to “Angie.” “Angie” remained protected and whole, to return to her family as if nothing happened.

Except, of course, something did happen. And Angie has to become whole, to face the truth of those three years and the truth of the present. And that takes time.

One important thing to know about Pretty Girl 13: It is about surviving. Angie is a survivor. She does not realize it at first. It takes time: she and the reader realize it as she learns about the personalities that formed to protect her, personalities that are indeed part of her. A terrible thing happened; and it marked her; but it does not define her.

Other reviews: Belle of the Literati; Book Chic; Busy Bibliophile.


Review: The Little Woods

The Little Woods by McCormick Templeman. Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Cally Wood, sixteen, is a transfer student at the exclusive St. Bede’s Academy. She’s starting the middle of junior year.

Cally has a secret, one she doesn’t want her new friends to know. Ten years ago, her sister Clare disappeared. The loss devastated the family: her father died, her mother drinks, and Cally became “that girl,” the girl whose sister went missing. Cally doesn’t want to be “that girl.” Especially at St. Bede’s. Because it was at St. Bede’s that Clare went missing from her bed, the night of a terrible fire. Clare was visiting a friend, and both she and the other girl were never seen again. Everyone believes they died in that fire.

At St. Bede’s, Cally struggles to find her place among groups of friends that have already formed. It’s hard to be a new girl, especially one that has started mid-year. Along the way, she keeps hearing about Iris, a girl who ran away in the fall. The girl who used to sleep in her dorm room.

Cally suspects that Iris didn’t run away. There are campus rumors that Iris was murdered. As Cally realizes that the rumors may be true, she also begins to wonder — could what happened to Iris be connected to what happened to Clare?

It’s Good: I love mysteries. This is a great dual mystery (what happened to Iris? what happened to Clare?) as well as the additional question of whether these two disappearances are linked. St. Bede’s is physically remote; it also bans cell phones and has very limited Internet. In addition to putting certain limitations on how and when people discover information (for example, Cally can’t just do an Internet search on Iris or Clare or other things), it means The Little Woods is a variation of the country house mystery, where the physical location of a crime creates a very closed pool of suspects. An assumption that somehow Clare’s and Iris’s disappearances are linked closes that circle even more. For me, at least, that meant that The Little Woods became not so much a who-done-it but a why-did-they-do-it.

I love boarding school stories — love, love, love. One thing I like about Cally at Boarding School is she is such a slacker. She repeatedly shares how lazy she is. She tests well without studying much and likes it that way. Why, then, St. Bede’s? Bluntly, it’s an escape, more a running away than a running to something. Yes, Cally realizes that she it also means the chance to get into a better college, and perhaps find out more about Clare’s disappearance, but her primary motivation is that she’s not at home. This motivation (and lack of motivation about other things) explains why Cally seems to be such a slacker once she is actually at St. Bede’s. And it explains why she doesn’t hit St. Bede’s running, either as a student or as detective. Cally is not Veronica Mars at Boarding School.

That Cally is not Veronica Mars is part of the reason I really liked her. Yes, she’s smart. Yes, she’s curious about what happened to Iris. Yes, she wants to know what really happened to Clare, torn between believing Clare died in the fire or that something else happened. But she’s also trying to get along with her roommate, making friends, maybe even a boyfriend. Cally’s investigation doesn’t really begin until a body is found in the woods near the school (the “little woods of the title”)

I loved how Clare was her own person, with a combination of not caring what other people think and not thinking about other people. Part of it is being shy; part of it is not knowing the social codes at her new school.

Here’s what I mean: Cally’s first day of her new school. “I brushed my teeth, pulled on a black T-shirt and my shorts even thought I knew it was too cold for them. Somehow I’d already managed to lose my brush.” Or, here when a bunch of her friends are headed to the local town on a free Saturday: “It wasn’t exactly like I’d been excluded, but I hadn’t been invited either. Did everyone need an invitation, or was that just me? Was I socially reticent to the point of phobia? Would a different girl simply have invited herself along?

One last thing: while there is a whisper that the disappearances may have an “other” explanation — the book jacket reads, “unexplained disappearances. suspicious deaths. there’s something wrong with the woods behind St. Bede’s Academy” this is not a “the fairies did it” book. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but much as I enjoy a good mash-up, I like a mystery to be a mystery with the answer not to be fairies or ghosts or time loops. Usually (but not always) that is a short cut to a logical explanation.

Ok, now the really last thing. I loved the language in The Little Woods. The writing just, well, made me happy. Funny and observant and smart. A bit selfish, because she is sixteen. “I didn’t have tons of experience with team sports. I enjoyed watching them on TV with [my cousin] Danny, and i wasn’t exactly bad at them, but my phenomenal laziness had prevented me from excelling at any.” “The awful thing was that despite the genuine horror in the auditorium that morning, an overwhelming atmosphere of excitement accompanied it. A few girls started crying, but it was immediately clear that they were not supposed to, and they worked to staunch the flow. There was danger in unrestrained outbursts of emotion.”

Bottom line? It’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews and interviews: Attack the Stacks; Interviews: With Camille DeAngelis; With Nova Ren Suma.

Review: Spirit and Dust

Spirit and Dust by Rosemary Clement-Moore. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2013. Review from ARC from publisher. Companion to Texas Gothic (2011).

The Plot: Daisy Goodnight is seventeen (so, so close to 18!), a college freshman, and a psychic consultant to the FBI.

Yep, that’s right. Daisy, like all the Goodnight women, has a talent. Hers is the ability to communicate with the dead. For real. Which is why this Texas teen is now in Minnesota, talking to the spirit of a recently murdered bodyguard. The good news is, Daisy can tell that the young woman he was guarding, Alexis Maguire, isn’t dead.

The bad news is, Alexis is the daughter of a crime boss, Devlin Maguire, and Devlin Maguire will stop at nothing to get his daughter back.

Including forcing Daisy to use her unique talents. By whatever means necessary. Including threatening her and her family. Including using magic.

The Good: I am such a fan of Rosemary Clement-Moore! Spirit and Dust (like Texas Gothic and The Splendor Falls) is a perfect mix of paranormal mystery and romance.

The mystery: Alexis Maguire has been kidnapped. Since Daisy talks to the dead, she usually isn’t involved in a case involving a live person. Maguire realizes the power of magic; he even has a witch on staff. He uses magic against Daisy to force her to help find Alexis, not realizing (or, more likely, not caring) that Daisy is the type of person who would help find Alexis just because it’s the right thing to do.

So, what does Daisy do? Figure out who amongst the dearly departed may know something about Alexis. As Daisy discovers more and more, she figures out this is not a simple, typical kidnapping. Alexis, a classics scholar, had discovered something long hidden about Ancient Egypt — something that in the wrong hands, could give someone much power. So, yes, this means that not only is there talking to the dead and kidnapping, but there is also magic, a secret brotherhood, research, Egyptian artifacts, and — as promised — romance.

Research — this is the fun type of research. The dashing from museum to museum, looking for clues, stealing a car or two, and avoiding getting blown up type of research.

Spirit and Dust does a tiny bait and switch. One of Daisy’s handlers is a cute, young FBI agent so of course I thought, “aha, the love interest.” Then Daisy got kidnapped by Maguire, and one of Maguire’s henchman, Carson, gets assigned to Daisy, to make sure she does what Maguire wants. Carson is young, cute, funny, and smart. But wait,  you say — he’s the bad guy, right? Let me just say, that yes, Carson becomes what I think of as a “question mark” — is he a good guy or a bad guy? Yes, he works for Maguire, but all his actions seem to indicate he’s a good guy. But is Daisy too trusting?

What else did I love? The mythology of Spirit and Dust. Daisy talks to spirits, and these spirits remnants are a bit fascinating. When someone has just died, they leave an image that only she can see. A remnant also exists at the place of death, which is what Daisy usually sees when she is brought in by the FBI. It also means that visits to places that have seen a lot of death, such as the Alamo (hey, she is a Texan!) can be a brutal experience for her. Yes, her abilities come with physical side affects, such as migraines. Or, if she’s in a museum with, say, a mummy? Yep, that’s a problem, also. Objects, such as jewelry, that have a connection to a person may also have a remnant. It’s just complicated enough that talking to the dead isn’t easy, or simple.

Spirit and Dust is a true companion to Texas Gothic. Texas Gothic was about Daisy’s cousin, Amy; Daisy made an appearance it that book, and Amy appears in this one. You don’t need to read the one to read the other; there is no continuing story arc. That said, there are plenty of Goodnights so I, for one, hope we see more books about this talented mystery solving family.

Other reviews: Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; YAL Book Briefs; A Dream Within A Dream; Page Turners.

Review: 17 and Gone

Last week, I reviewed 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma (Dutton, 2013).

That review was for people who, well, don’t want to know too much about a book going in. So, short version of 17 & Gone for those readers is that Lauren is seeing ghosts, including a girl who may still be alive, and is that girl alive and why is Lauren seeing these ghosts?

This review is for people who don’t mind learning the why Lauren is seeing ghosts; and for the people who have readers who may not want to read the ghost-mystery book but, well, would want to read 17 & Gone based on that why.



Lauren has schizophrenia. 17 & Gone is about Lauren beginning to to have the symptoms, but, of course, she doesn’t know. The same way that anyone wouldn’t know. So, what she sees, and what she hears, and what she begins to get obsessive about, she interprets as ghosts. She believes that these voices are the girls; she believes the things they tell her are their true stories. The other things that she sees or experiences she believes are all related to that haunting.

I love how Suma does this; how we only known Lauren as her symptoms begin so we follow that gradual slope that she does, so it’s never a lot she has to process but a slow buildup of many things. By the time she begins to think her mother may not be her mother, by the time of blood and knives and fires, it all seems to make sense — just as it makes sense to Lauren.

I love how there a few hints that this is not Ghost Whisperer for teens; aside from the obvious, the tone and increased feeling of things not being settled. The timing seems a bit off; not that it’s wrong, but there is something a bit disjointed and jumpy in what and how and when Lauren is telling us things.

Lauren’s mother is a single parent, and when I read that her father had left and may be homeless I wondered. Later, it turns out that he, also, may have schizophrenia. Is this why Lauren’s mother is working towards a degree in psychology?

See why I was torn about how to describe and discuss this? Because much as some readers are going to want to discover this on their own, there will be others who are looking for books about teens and mental illness and because of that, will want to read 17 & Gone.

Review: 17 and Gone

17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma. Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Lauren’s beat up old van breaks down on a snowy day on the way to school, and because of that, she sees the missing poster she must have passed day after day after day. Abigail Sinclair. Seventeen, like Lauren. Missing from the summer camp where she was working. Something pulls Lauren out of the van, across the street, to the poster, to Abigail, to Abby’s story. It’s not until the van is fixed and Lauren is parking in the school parking lot that she looks at the rearview mirror and sees Abby. In the mirror. In her car. And suddenly Lauren knows more than any missing poster could ever tell her.

Lauren is being haunted by Abby, but she couldn’t tell you whether that means Abby is alive or dead. Lauren just knows Abby is missing, and there is more to her story than the poster tells, and that Abby wants answers and wants to be found.

And it turns out — it’s not just Abby who is haunting Lauren. Once Abby finds Lauren, once Lauren thinks, here is a girl who is just 17 and she is missing, she is gone, Lauren starts realizing there are many more girls who are 17 and go missing. She finds their missing posters and they, like Abby, began to show up, to haunt her, to appear in her dreams.

Why is it that so many seventeen year olds disappear? Why are they coming to Lauren? And what happened to Abby?

The Good: This is both one of my Favorite Books of 2013 and one of the most difficult books of 2013 to talk about. Because of that, I’m splitting this into two blog posts. This one will be spoiler-free; the one I post next week won’t be.

While this is a bit mystery (what happened to Abby? can Lauren figure it out?) and a bit ghost story (all the girls that Lauren sees, the dream she has about them) this isn’t quite as simple as either a mystery or a ghost story. It’s not tidy; it’s not that linear. “Girls go missing every day,” Lauren realizes, and later says “I want to give warning, I want to give chase. I’d do it, too, if I thought someone would believe me.”

But warning about what? Chasing what? About Abby, or any of the girls, or about what seems to happen when a girl turns seventeen that makes that year the riskiest year of them all?

No matter how much [Abby’s] disappearance itched at me, tugging and not letting go, she wasn’t the only girl who wanted me to have her story. That’s the thing I’d soon discover. There were more. So many more. There were more lost girls out there than I’d ever imagined, and now they knew where to find me. Their whispers came from the shadows, the sound of so many voices more static than song.”

One of the first girls that appears to Lauren is Fiona Burke. Unlike Abby, or the other girls that will show themselves (Natalie, Shyann, Madison), Lauren knows Fiona. Or knew her. Fiona disappeared when she was 17; Lauren was only eight at the time. Fiona was her next door neighbor, and Lauren’s memories of Fiona mix with what she sees of the teenage girl who appears now to her. Does 17 mean something special to Lauren because of Fiona’s disappearance all those years ago? Or is it something special because that is how old Lauren is now? Is that what connects her to all these girls who went missing at 17? Is that what makes it easy for these ghosts to connect to her?

Whatever the reasons, they connection is made and Lauren knows she cannot tell anyone because who would believe her? It is quickly clear that she is the only one who sees this girls: not her mother, not her boyfriend, not her best friend, not any of the people at school. Just Lauren. Part of the reason I just loved 17 & Gone is how the author conveys Lauren’s point of view, her conviction, and why she does what she does in language that is almost foggy and never quite clear — much like how Lauren sees these girls. Here, for example, Lauren describing a setting: “The campground was buried in a valley of mosquitoes, pine treas, and poison oak, skirting the edge of a tepid lake.” It’s a language of belief rather than a language of questions; and so the reader believes what Lauren believes.

The resolution, the explanation of why Lauren sees these ghosts and why it matters that these are all girls who are 17 & gone, is shocking and at the same point makes perfect sense. Lauren’s story is told from a place of fragmentation and smoke; and then it clears. While Lauren says early on, “this was before I shattered into the particles and pieces I’m in now,” when was Lauren whole? 17 & Gone begins with Lauren shattered by what she sees, by these girls, by her knowledge that “girls go missing every day. They slip out bedroom windows and into strange cars. They leave good-bye notes or they don’t get a chance to tell anyone.” And this “go missing” is both a metaphor by the child who goes missing because the teen is becoming an adult and also solidly real: Abby is a real person who went missing, as was Fiona, as are the other girls who haunt Lauren. It’s not just about road from childhood to adulthood.

What else do I want to say in this post? I adored the portrait of Lauren’s mother. Forget everything else: Lauren’s mother is tattooed (I know!) and is working at a local university while pursuing her degree. Before she got this job she was a “dancer.” The two of them live in a carriage house on a bigger property. Mix that all together, and you have a very working class family in a richer neighborhood, with a woman making sacrifices for herself, her daughter, and their future. While this woman was well-drawn, she never became front and center. This was always Lauren’s story.

17 & Gone is a Favorite Book for 2013 — because Lauren’s voice is so strong and true. Because Nova Ren Suma’s writing is such that I quoted it again and again in my reading journal. Because while it’s not a linear mystery, it is a mystery — two actually, both what happened to Abby and why is it that these ghosts appear to Lauren? — and both mysteries are resolved, satisfactory and breathtakingly, in the pages of 17 & Gone. And because of how those mysteries are resolved, which warrant an entire post next week.

Other reviews  — which, warning, are more spoilery than here. Leila Roy (bookshelves of doom) at Kirkus; Stacked; crossreferencing.



Review: Game

Game by Barry Lyga. Sequel to I Hunt Killers. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In I Hunt Killers, Jazz helped capture a serial killer. It was his father, the infamous serial killer Billy Dent, who taught Jazz the ways of killing, not thinking for a moment that Jazz would decide to help the police rather than continue in Dear Old Dad’s line of work.

Jazz is trying to deal with the fallout from I Hunt Killers when the New York Police Department shows up on his doorstep, asking the seventeen year old to use his unique skills to help them catch the Hat-Dog Killer.

Jazz caught the Impressionist because he was a serial killer imitating Billy Dent’s crimes, under the guidance of Billy Dent. The Hat-Dog Killer started killing before Billy escaped from prison; with no connection to Billy’s crimes, can Jazz help?

Turns out, Jazz can. His girlfriend Connie insists on not being left behind; his best friend Howie stays behind to help care for Jazz’s grandmother. And turns out, Dear Old Dad is also in New York….

Start reading. And then lock and double lock your doors.

The Good: Needless to say, you should read I Hunt Killers first. Done? Good.

Moving the mystery to New York City is smart: first of all, just how many serial killers can Lobo’s Nod have? Plus, Billy Dent is too smart to return to his hometown. Or, rather — Billy Dent has too much unfinished business. He has other things to do….

But this isn’t about Billy, is it? Because the Hat-Dog Killer started while Billy was still in prison. Because they’ve found DNA on the victims and it doesn’t match Billy’s. No, the Hat-Dog Killer is a new killer for Jazz to hunt, with the help of Connie and Howie.

Let me just say: the hard part of any teen mystery is why is it a teen investigating? Game‘s solution, that only Jazz has been trained from birth by a serial killer, is simple and chilling at the same time. Also, with Mom dead (body never found, but it’s assumed she’s one of Billy’s many victims), Dear Old Dad an escaped convict, Gramma suffering from dementia (and just general racist meanness), there’s no one telling Jazz “no”. Now, there are people telling his friends “no” so their need to be some creative solutions there to the “why are their parents letting them investigate serial killers” problem.

Let me also say: I think that Connie’s and Howie’s being friends with Jazz, and their involvement in the capture of the Impressionist, leaves them a bit over-confident and under-afraid of what they are getting involved in. It’s one thing when the mystery happens in your back yard; it’s another when you go to find it. I find their actions and motivations believable, but I still wanted to sit them down and say WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?

Connie; another good thing about this series is the diversity in the characters. Jazz is white; his girlfriend is black. This is both just a part of who they are, but also an interesting plot point because, see, Billy Dent killed plenty of women but never one who was black. Is Jazz attracted to Connie because she is “safe” since she doesn’t look like any of Dear Old Dad’s kills? Do Connie’s parents dislike Jazz because he is white, or because he is the son of Billy Dent?

One more thing: yes, the murders are nasty stuff, but it’s nasty stuff described in a line or a paragraph. It doesn’t go on for pages and pages, like some adult serial killer fiction books do. So it’s intense, and it doesn’t pretend that the killing is anything but brutal, and it doesn’t romanticize murders, but it also doesn’t go on and on and on in step-by-step detail.

The good news is the Hat-Dog Killer mystery IS resolved by the end of the book. This is a mystery, after all, and that matters. (Yes, I am still not over the ending of the first season of The Killing). The bad news? Certain other plots were introduced and the way those plots were left, well, yes, the term “cliff hanger” would be appropriate.

One more thing: you know how sometimes I skip to the end to reassure myself that certain characters don’t die, so I can continue to read with less tension? Well, that totally backfired on me. Darn you, Barry Lyga!!

Other reviews:  YA Love; Makeshift Bookmark.

Review: The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath: The Shades of London, Book Two by Maureen Johnson. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013. Personal copy. Sequel to The Name of the Star.

The Plot: Rory, physically recovered from being stabbed by a killer ghost, returns to her boarding school. That ghost is gone, but she soon realizes that other dangerous ghosts are haunting London. As Rory tries to navigate her separate worlds (student by day, ghost hunter by night) she discovers that there are sometimes things more dangerous than ghosts.

The Good: While I enjoyed The Name of the Star, I loved, loved, loved The Madness Underneath. The Name of the Star is like the TV Pilot that gets the gang together and sets up a premise and The Madness Underneath is the episode where it all comes together and sparks fly.

The Madness Underneath quickly brings the reader up to speed, so, to be honest, I don’t think you need to start with The Name of the Star. Rory can see ghosts; her family and her friends at boarding school don’ t know this; she sneaks out at all hours to assist ghost-seeing ghost-hunters. Got it? Good.

Rory, quite understandably, hasn’t been concentrating on her school work, on account of the whole being stabbed and almost dying thing. Also, ever since then, it’s not just that she can see ghosts; with a touch, she can kill them. Or, whatever it is you call it when the ghost goes away, permanently. The ghost hunters — Stephen, Callum, and Boo — send some mixed messages. She’s valuable because of her ability to terminate ghosts. She cannot tell anyone anything about them, ever. She’s on call when they need her. She cannot be an official part of the team because she’s still in school and is an American. In other words, not only does Rory have a lot going on, there’s also no one with whom she can be completely honest. Her lies keep piling up.

Rory suspects a local murder isn’t what it seems; at the same time, she starts seeing a new therapist who really seems to be able to help her. The Madness Underneath is a mystery, so I don’t want to give too much plot-wise away, but things get complicated and it all happens fast. Every now and then I was a few steps ahead of Rory; other times, I was finding things out at the same time she was. (Long time readers of this blog know that is just how I like my mysteries, because I get to be both smart and surprised.) What interested me as a reader is that the mystery wasn’t what it seemed to be, at first, and I liked that sleight of hand.

What I can give away? Rory herself, who is funny, adding needed humor to a tale that is otherwise, when one steps back and thinks about it, deep and dark and layered. “Julia might well have asked me, ‘Rory, do you want me to go live in the sky? On a Pegasus?’ It was not going to happen.”

Rory is also pretty smart in her observations about those around her. Here she is on her boyfriend Jerome: “I’d gotten used to not being around Jerome, and strangely, this had made us closer. We’d definitely gotten more serious in the last two weeks, but we’d done it all over the phone or on a screen. I’d grown accustomed to Jerome as a text message, and it was somewhat unsettling to have the actual person sliding down the wall to sit next to me. Unsettling, but also a bit thrilling.

Rory can be as honest about herself, sometimes: “I liked being right, and I liked being powerful, and I liked the way I felt right now.

As for the end of The Madness Underneath. I’ll be honest: some may call it a cliff-hanger and cry “no.” I like it; the questions raised were answered. That a new question was raised at the end, well, that sometimes happens.

For all these reasons — the plotting, the writing, Rory’s humor, the romance, the mystery — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other Reviews: The Book Smugglers; bookshelves of doom; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Reading Rants.