Who Killed Christopher Goodman?: A Review

“The finger that tips the first domino is guilty, not the dominos themselves.”

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? by Allan WolfChristopher Goodman wears ridiculous bell bottoms. He plays trombone in the school band. He introduces himself to every person he meets and shakes their hands. No doubt, Christ is a little eccentric, but he’s a genuinely nice guy. Which is why everyone in Goldsburg, Virginia is shocked when Chris is murdered during 1979’s Deadwood Days, a western street festival that draws tourists to the town every summer.

Classmates Doc Chestnut and Squib Kaplan find Chris’ body during a cross country run. The entire school, the entire community, is stunned by the murder.

Doc and Squib along with Hunger McCoy, Hazel Turner, and Mildred Penny carry the burden of knowing they were together on the night of the murder and may have inadvertently played a part in the tragedy. All five of them are haunted by the events of that night and the ways things could have turned out differently as they try to make sense of their grief and guilt in Who Killed Christopher Goodman? (2017) by Allan Wolf.

This mystery is inspired by an actual murder that occurred when Wolf was a teen himself as explained in an author’s note. Although Wolf was not as connected to that murder as his characters in Who Killed Christopher Goodman? he never forgot about the murder and always wondered about that lost chance at friendship.

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? features six narrators including Chris’ killer. While readers might guess who the killer is early on, Wolf does an excellent job of maintaining just enough tension and suspense over the course of the novel to still keep readers wondering.

Scenes with group dialogue are written in a screenplay style which ties well with the way the cast of voices are listed  in the beginning with quick identifiers: David Oscar “Doc” Chestnut, the Sleepwalker; Leonard Pelf, the Runaway; Scott “Squib” Kaplan, the Genius; Hunger McCoy, the Good Ol’ Boy; Hazel Turner, the Farm Girl; and Mildred Penny, the Stamp Collector. Wolf helps to differentiate between the large cast of narrators with distinct dialects including long-winded sentences for Squib who has Tourette’s and verse passages for Leonard.

Wolf uses this unique format to excellent effect to create a gripping mystery as well as a thoughtful character study where each of the six main characters grapple with their actions on the night of the murder and their blame, if any, in Christopher Goodman’s death. Who Killed Christopher Goodman? is a fast-paced novel that will appeal to reluctant readers as well as fans of mystery and suspense. (In fact, I wouldn’t surprised to see this get an Edgar nomination.)

Possible Pairings: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrouch, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia C. Wrede, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the January 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

The Lie Tree: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Magic” was not an answer; it was an excuse to avoid looking for one.

The Lie Tree by Francis HardingeFaith Sunderly is no longer a child but at fourteen she is not quite a woman. Desperate for her father’s respect, Faith is keen to be seen as a proper young lady. But a proper young lady doesn’t have a sharp intellect or burning curiosity that drives her to acts of subterfuge. They certainly don’t harbor dreams of becoming a scientist.

Faith knows that some kind of calamity drove her family from their home in Kent to the strange island of Vane and ruined her father’s reputation. The Reverend Sunderly’s name is further sullied when he dies under strange circumstances soon after the family’s arrival. While her grasping mother does everything she can to ensure the Reverend has a Christian burial, Faith is resolutely certain that her father was murdered.

Investigating his death and the events that brought the family to the island, Faith discovers that her father was hiding an odd tree that thrives in near darkness and bears fruit for every lie it’s told. Stranger still, every piece of fruit can reveal a secret truth.

Hoping to prove her worth as a scientist and discover her father’s murderer, Faith plans to study the tree and use its fruit. But revealing a truth as large as the identity of a murderer requires monstrous lies which soon gain a life of their own and threaten to destroy far more than Faith’s reputation in The Lie Tree (2016) by Frances Hardinge.

The Lie Tree is Hardinge’s latest standalone novel.

The Lie Tree is atmospheric and evocative with vibrant descriptions of the island landscape. Hardinge seamlessly blends a variety of genres in this book which features a compelling mystery, a thoughtfully detailed historical setting circa 1868, and fascinating fantasy elements.

In her short life Faith has come up against the limitations of her gender repeatedly and seen the scientific world she so loves betray her again and again. Faith knows she is capable of becoming more than a decorative and occasionally witty wife like her mother. Yet the men in her life constantly remind Faith that to want more, indeed to want almost anything at all, runs contrary to her proper place in the world. As a result Faith is a pragmatic and often ruthless heroine. She knows she is unkind and unlikable. She doesn’t care. This fact is deftly illustrated with her reluctant association with Paul–an island boy unwillingly drawn into Faith’s investigations.

This complex and nuanced narrative is all about contrasts and tensions. The Lie Tree takes place at a time when scientists are still struggling to find ways to articulate evolution and to reconcile scientific advancements with spiritual belief. Faith’s father is terrified of what evolution and archaeology might mean for his already fragile religious faith. His efforts to find definitive proof of one or the other ultimately becomes his undoing.

The Lie Tree also examines the ways in which femininity can be exploited and manipulated as demonstrated by its varied cast of characters. Faith explores this theme throughout the narrative as she tries to make sense of her role in an adult world that has little use for her both as a not-quite child and as a young woman.

Recommended for readers who like their fantasy to come with mystery, suspense, a firmly historical setting and a healthy dose of feminism. The Lie Tree is a provocative and fascinating novel guaranteed to stay with readers long after the book is finished. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Chime by Franny Billingsley, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, A Tyranny of Petticoats edited by Jessica Spotswood, The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller, The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

*An advance copy of this title was provided for review by the publisher at BEA 2016*

Blood Red, Snow White: A Review

“There was never a story that was happy through and through, and this one is no different.”

Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus SedgwickArthur Ransome left his family and his home in England to travel to Russia where he found work as a journalist. His love story with Russia started the moment he set foot on its snow-covered ground and continued as he compiled his first published book–a collection of Russian fairy tales.

Over the years Russia would continue to draw Ransome back to it through the first murmurings of unrest in Tsarist Russia, into the first bloody revolution, and beyond. Reporting on the turbulent political climate for an English newspaper draws Ransome unwittingly into the middle of the conflict between White and Red Russia as he is courted to be both a spy and a double agent.

All Arthur wants is to hide away and marry the Russian woman he loves. But that proves difficult with her position as Trotsky’s secretary and his own murky sympathies. With history being made and the world changing from moment to moment, Arthur will have to choose a side and make hard choices to survive in Blood Red, Snow White (2016) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Blood Red, Snow White was originally published in the UK in 2007 and made its first appearance in the US when it was reprinted in 2016. This book follows the sensational real story of novelist Arthur Ransome during his years in Russia as a suspected spy before he would write his Swallows and Amazons children adventure novels. Blood Red, Snow White was originally written shortly after Ransome’s MI6 file was made public–details Sedgwick relates in an author’s note which includes excerpts from those files.

This novel is broken into three parts. The beginning, written in third person, relates the beginning of Arthur’s life and journey to Russia as well as the early stages of the Russian Revolution as short fairy tales. The second part of the novel, in a closer third person point of view, follows Arthur over the course of one night in Moscow as he decides if he will agree to act as a British spy. In part three Arthur narrates his story in first person as he tries to make his way back into Russian and extricate himself and Evgenia from the political machinations around them.

This fast-paced, literary novel looks at a moment in history through an unexpected lens. Readers familiar with Ransome’s own books will, of course, find this novel fascinating. Although some of this novel is, necessarily, speculation it is well-researched and thorough with detailed information about Russia during Ransome’s time there as well as key details of Ransome’s life.

Blood Red, Snow White is an approachable and ambitious novel filled with atmospheric settings and a gripping story of love, adventure, spies, and Russia.

Possible Pairings: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson, Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Like a River Glorious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger*

“I thought my magic would save us all. But it turns out, all the magic in the world is rubbish compared to good people who take care of their own.”

Like a River Glorious by Rae CarsonOctober 1849: Leah “Lee” Westfall has made it to California along with her new family of misfits, outcasts, and unlikely friends that she met along the trail. But even with her best friend Jefferson and her family by her side, the path to gold and prosperity is not easy–even for a witchy girl like Lee who can sense gold.

Hiram, Lee’s uncle, is still desperate to use her powers for her own gain. Lee was helpless to stop Hiram from killing her parents, she’s determined that he won’t hurt anyone else she cares about.

Lee’s plan to best Hiram backfire leaving Lee vulnerable as her uncle’s captive. Separated from her friends, Lee will need every ounce of her witchy powers, her resilience, and the help of new allies if she wants to free herself from Hiram’s grasp once and for all in Like a River Glorious (2016) by Rae Carson.

Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger.

Like a River Glorious picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one (which ends right when Lee and her group arrive in California). Lee has found them a gold-rich area to claim and their settlement is well on its way to becoming a town called Glory. Then Uncle Hiram shows up, takes Lee captive, and everything goes to hell.

In order to read this book, it’s important to acknowledge that westerns are inherently problematic. As a genre the western often centers the experience of white characters while ignoring or diminish native experiences. Older westerns (and bad modern ones) romanticize expansion, systemic genocide, and white savior tropes while exoticizing, stereotyping or dehumanizing American Indians. If you want to see critiques of books through a Native lens, definitely check out Debbie Reese’s blog, especially her review of the first book in this series.

Reading Like a River Glorious with the above in mind, there are still some problems inherent to the genre. But in this second installment, Carson does the work on the page to constantly check Leah’s privilege as well as that of the other characters (male privilege for instance). This book also thoughtfully engages with a lot of the racism/biases/stereotypes that Lee encounters.

The scope of this book is much smaller, Lee spends a lot of the story held captive by her uncle. Her world narrows to securing survival and safety for herself and those she cares about. She see the atrocities her uncle is perpetrating in his mad search for gold and she feels helpless in the face of it. Understandably, that makes Like a River Glorious quite bleak but also very important as, through Lee’s first person narration, the novel the problems of westward expansion along with the wonder that pioneers felt as they sought opportunities at the expense of the indigenous populations.

Carson uses this shift in tone to create a more character driven story focused particularly on Lee and Jefferson as the two friends try to reconcile their lifelong friendship with what comes next when Jefferson wants more and Lee wants to maintain her autonomy.

Lee grows up a lot in this installment as she realizes she cannot (and should not) always be the hero. Jefferson remains a perfect counterpoint to Lee as male lead and an excellent character in his own right. Like a River Glorious is a well-researched work of historical fiction with a slow burn a slow burn romance and inclusive cast and a touch of fantasy. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

The Smoke Hunter: A Review

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn BensonEllie Mallory has few regrets when she loses her position as a government archivist after her arrest at a suffragist rally. Her exit ends with a neat bit of rebellion when Ellie grabs an unassuming Psalter that has been mis-catalogued.

Inside the book Ellie finds a mysterious stone with odd carvings along with a map to a hidden city that shouldn’t exist. The map claims to lead the way to a Mayan city deep in the jungle that was flourishing long after the civilization’s collapse. Finding the city could make Ellie’s career and open doors for her that have long been barred because of her gender.

When pursuers threaten to take Ellie’s prize out from under her, she embarks on a journey on her own to Belize City where she plans to mount her own expedition and find the city first. Ellie reluctantly hires on Adam Bates, a local surveyor and experienced explorer, to help her reach the hidden location.

As Ellie and Adam approach their destination there realize there is more at stake than credit for an unprecedented discovery. Dark forces are at work and Ellie and Adam are being drawn to their source in The Smoke Hunter (2016) by Jacquelyn Benson.

The Smoke Hunter is Benson’s debut novel.

The Smoke Hunter unfortunately has a slow start. A prologue dating from 1632 sets the scene but also delays drawing readers into the story. Despite the breakneck pacing and constant action, Ellie’s journey is slow to start with substantial setup as she discovers the map and also as she works to begin her exhibition.

Stilted dialogue and overlaps in the narrative from chapters that alternate close third-person point of view work to create an uneasy distance between readers and what should be a plot filled with urgency and immediacy.

Ellie and Adam are unlikely allies and a powerful force as they learn to trust each other and work together over the course of The Smoke Hunter. Readers willing to put in time with the setup in the beginning will be rewarded with a story filled with light adventure and high action.

Possible Pairings: Heart of Fire by Linda Howard, The Secret Sister by Elizabeth Lowell, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Sandstorm by James Rollins, Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone

Compass South: A Graphic Novel Review

Compass South by Hope Larson, illustrated by Rebecca MockNew York City, 1860: When Alexander and Cleopatra’s father disappears, the twins are soon forced into service for the Black Hook Gang to try and survive. Facing jail time after a heist goes awry, Alex and Cleo inform on the gang in exchange for tickets out of the city.

The twins hatch a plan to head to San Francisco impersonating the long-lost sons of a millionaire. But like most cons, nothing goes quite right.

When they meet Silas and Edwin, another set of twins with the same con in mind, tempers flare and trouble forms leaving Alex and Edwin shanghaied on a ship heading to San Francisco.

While Alex and Edwin try to find their way on the ship, Cleo and Silas reluctantly join forces to reunite with their brothers in Compass South (2016) by Hope Larson, illustrated by Rebecca Mock.

Compass South is the start of a projected graphic novel series.

Cleo and Alex are orphans being raised by their uncle (known to them as their father) with only two mysterious treasures–a watch and a knife–as their family legacy. The larger mystery of the knife and the watch begins to unfold as Alex and Cleo’s madcap trip to San Francisco begins.

Silas and Edwin serve as a nice contrast to Alex and Cleo with different priorities and outlooks during the course of their journeys. Larson’s nappy dialogue (in easy to read speech bubbles) works well with Mock’s carefully detailed full-color illustrations.

This story, filled with a variety of moving parts, subplots, and characters, comes together nicely in a fun introduction to the indomitable Alex and Cleo. As might be expected in a story with two different sets of twins, sometimes it’s difficult to gauge who is being shown in frame however visual clues and dialogue help to quickly clear up any confusion.

Compass South is a fast-paced graphic novel filled with action and adventure. Sure to appeal to readers of all ages looking for an exciting piece of historical fiction, and of course to comics fans. Readers will be clamoring to see what comes next for all of the characters and eager for future installments.

Every Hidden Thing: A Review

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth OppelThe Badlands are rich fossil country. At a time when history is being rewritten and archaeology is largely unregulated, it’s easy for anyone to get into fossil hunting and make their name.

Samuel Bolt’s father has no degree and no position, but he has countless fossil discoveries and publications of his findings. While Professor Bolt is reckless and heedless of consequences, he is a well-known and popular personality among the fossil collection community. Samuel learned his love of fossil hunting from his father but he is eager for a time when he can strike out on his own and make his own name in the field.

Rachel Cartland’s father is a respected Ivy League professor and the head of a university archaeology department. He tolerates Rachel as an able assistant but he is slow to accept her ambitions for a university education and her own work as an archaeologist.

Cartland and Bolt are bitter rivals but when they meet, Samuel quickly finds himself drawn to Rachel in a way he hasn’t felt for other girls before. Rachel, meanwhile, is immediately thrilled by the way Samuel sees her both as an attractive young woman and as an equal.

Both the Bolts and the Cartlands arrive at the Badlands in search of an elusive rex–a king dinosaur that promises to be the largest fossil ever discovered. As rivalries flare and romance blossoms, both Rachel and Samuel will have to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in pursuit of this once-in-a-lifetime discovery in Every Hidden Thing (2016) by Kenneth Oppel.

Every Hidden Thing is a fascinating standalone historical fiction novel.

While the time period is never stated explicitly, Oppel does an admirable job of setting the scene of the early 1900s when fossil hunting and archaeology gained momentum (and respectability) in the US.

Inspired a real rivalry (which Oppel explains in his author’s note), Every Hidden Thing has been pitched as Romeo & Juliet meets Indiana Jones. While not as tragic as the former or as high action as the latter, this description is surprisingly accurate and will appeal to fans of both stories.

Written in alternating first person narration, this novel carefully builds both Samuel and Rachel’s characters. By overlapping the narration at key moments, the motivations behind some of Rachel’s calculating choices and Samuel’s heedless actions are also carefully detailed.

Every Hidden Thing is a well-researched piece of historical fiction. Rachel and Samuel are immediately sympathetic but also remain convincingly grounded in their time as both characters grapple with limitations (Rachel’s gender and for Samuel his lower class status) and the rigors of an archaeological dig. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, star-crossed lovers, and readers interested in dinosaurs and fossil hunting.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, Indiana Jones (movie)