Jackaby: A Review

“One who can see the ordinary is extraordinary indeed, Abigail Rook.”

Jackaby by William RitterAbigail Rook has few prospects when she arrives in New Fiddleham, New England in 1892. After fleeing her boring and proper life (and parents) in England, she is keen to continue her adventures in this new country. Unfortunately having adventures require certain necessities, all of which require money.

After failing to get a series of menial jobs, Abigail finds herself in the unique position of serving as an investigative assistant to one R. F. Jackaby, investigator of the unexplained.

While Jackaby has a keen eye for the extraordinary–complete with the ability to see supernatural creatures and magic auras–Abigail is especially skilled at seeing the ordinary details that come together as the basis of any investigation.

Abigail and Jackaby, with the help of handsome police officer Charlie Cane, will have to work together to solve a series of grisly murders in New Fiddleham before they become the next victims–or the prime suspects in Jackaby (2014) by William Ritter.

Jackaby is Ritter’s first novel. A sequel, Beastly Bones, is slated for publication in September 2015.

Abigail is a fine addition to the recent crop of strong and self-sufficient heroines. In addition to being key to Jackaby’s investigation, Abigail is also a winsome narrator with quick thinking and a sharp tongue. It is wonderful to see a heroine who is able to acknowledge her strengths as easily as she does her weaknesses.

Jackaby is a character who will feel immediately to fans of Sherlock Holmes. Although he is not entirely original, Jackaby’s unfailingly belief in things unseen combined with his abrupt manner and deadpan humor make Jackaby a winning character in his own right.

Ritter is at pains throughout Jackaby to stress that Abigail has no romantic interest in Jackaby whatsoever. Although it is great to see a mystery and a fantasy sans romance, it was also disappointing because these two characters complement each other so perfectly. The lack of romance is complicated (much to the plot’s detriment) with secondary characters written in for both Abigail and Jackaby as quasi love interests. Abigails preoccupation with a certain police officer often feels particularly forced and unnecessary to the plot.

Despite its winning characters, Jackaby is somewhat weak as a mystery. Ritter includes several fairly obvious clues early on to leave attentive readers waiting to see big reveals for most of the novel. Uneven pacing also move the narrative along in often clumsy starts and stops until the denouement which seems to drag needlessly.

As a fantasy, Jackaby is an excellent novel with a fully realized world complete with a perfect blend of magic and historical details. A great choice for fans of historical fantasies or mysteries alike.

Possible Pairings: Knightley and Son by Rohan Gavin, Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, Death Cloud by Andrew Lane, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Mr. Samuel’s Penny: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Mr. Samuel's Penny by Treva Hall MelvinWhen 14-year-old Elizabeth Landers arrives in the small town of Ahoskie, North Carolina, she fully expects to have a boring vacation. Things turn out very differently that summer in 1972 almost as soon as Elizabeth and her sister arrive.

A grisly car accident catches the town’s attention and Elizabeth is at the scene when the bodies of Mr. Samuel and his young daughter are recovered. Mr. Samuel is clutching an unusual 1909 wheat penny in his hand—a penny that is stolen from the sheriff’s office.

Already interested in pennies herself and haunted by the crime scene, the protagonist decides to use part of her summer trying to find the penny for Mr. Samuel’s widow.

Melvin walks the line between adult nostalgia and the authentic voice of a teen throughout this novel that is set to start a new series. Unfortunately, the narrative never seems entirely comfortable with either tone.

Numerous biblical analogies and references to Christianity lend a decidedly non-secular tone to the entire novel. Elizabeth is still an approachable narrator, who will find her fans in certain readers.

*A slightly different version of this review appeared in an issue issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*

Exquisite Corpse: A (Blog Tour) Review

ExquisiteCorpse BlogTourBanner
Exquisite Corpse by Penelope BagieuZoe isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want it to involve her lousy boyfriend and her totally unsatisfying job as a merchandise exhibitor at trade shows.

Zoe is frustrated by everything and everyone. At least until she meets the eccentric Thomas Rocher. Zoe doesn’t recognize him as a literary genius and (supposedly) deceased author.

Turns out dead authors can still get pretty great book deals–especially Thomas since his ex-wife Agathe is also his agent.

Zoe has a lot to learn about publishing but she also might teach Thomas and Agathe a thing or two in Exquisite Corpse (2015) by Pénélope Bagieu.

Exquisite Corpse was originally published in Bagieu’s native France in 2010. Now it is happily available in English translation.

Bagieu combines humorous scenes and snappy dialog in this laugh-out-loud comic adventure. Although many of Zoe’s problems are decidedly adult (lousy job, a boyfriend who wants sex while Zoe is busy fuming), her lack of direction and uncertainty about her future will feel universal to many readers.

With detailed characters and a plot ripe for follow-up, readers will also wonder Exquisite Corpse might only be the first act for Zoe, Thomas and Agathe.

Exquisite Corpse is filled with brightly colored panels and Bagieu’s clean-lined, sleek artwork that perfectly highlights the interplay between what is written and drawn on each page. Laugh-out-loud twists and a surprise ending make this graphic novel an enjoyable quick read sure to brighten a dull lunch hour or commute.

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

Hold Me Like a Breath: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany SchmidtIn a world where organ donation is strictly regulated, Penelope Landlow’s Family helps those who can’t afford to wait for legal organ transplants . . . as long as they can afford to pay black market prices.

With rival families and upstarts jockeying for position, Penelope knows as well as anyone that the Family business is dangerous. With the Organ Act making its way through congress she also knows the Family business is on the verge of a major change.

Thanks to an autoimmune disorder called Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) that causes excessive bruising and bleeding, Penelope also knows she’ll never really be a part of the Family business–changes or not.

With her entire family, and even her lifelong crush, convinced that she is far too fragile for the Family business or anything resembling a normal life, Penelope spends her days dreaming of NYC, shopping, watching C-Span, and wandering her family’s lavish estate.

It isn’t enough.

When disaster strikes, Penelope is thrust into a world of secrets and betrayals she is ill-equipped to understand. As she struggles to make sense of her shattered past and shape her own future she’ll also learn that life isn’t always a fairy tale. Sometimes you have to make your own happy ending in Hold Me Like a Breath (2015) by Tiffany Schmidt.

Hold Me Like a Breath is the first book in Schmidt’s Once Upon a Crime Family trilogy. It is loosely inspired by the story “The Princess and the Pea.”

Penelope is an interesting heroine in that she is spunky while also being painfully naive thanks to her sheltered upbringing. Although she is fragile because of her ITP, Penelope is not easily broken as she demonstrates repeatedly throughout the narrative.

With organized crime, black market organs and murder as part of the plot, Hold Me Like a Breath is not your typical fairy tale romance. Sweet moments of first love are tempered with suspense and action as Penelope tries to make sense of the catastrophe that leaves her alone for the first time.

Hold Me Like a Breath is an engaging mystery and coming-of-age story complete with twists that turn the narrative completely upside down not once but twice. A romantic lead who sees Penelope as a true equal helps move the romance here from saccharine and sweet to rock solid and empowering.

Schmidt blends elements of mystery and romance in this retelling that is as unique as it is exciting. In addition to nods to the source material, this book also builds a world that is developed down to the finest details and includes a diverse cast of characters who readers will look forward to seeing in book two. Hold Me Like a Breath is a clever page-turner with a heroine who learns what it takes to chase her own happily ever after in this sensational start to what is sure to be a marvelous series.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Heist Society by Ally Carter, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

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

You can also check out my interview with Tiffany!

The Secrets We Keep: A Review

“But no matter what I did or how far I went for her, she’d keep me on the outside, five safe steps away from her and her inner circle.”

The Secrets We Keep by Trisha LeaverIdentical twins Ella and Maddy used to be inseparable until Maddy started to care more about field hockey and the popular crowd than she did about her quiet, artsy sister.

Ella still always come when Maddy calls. Even if it means sneaking out of her room and away from her art school portfolio in the middle of the night to pick Maddy up.

Instead of a quick drive and a painless trip with both of them home in half an hour, Ella’s car goes off the road in the midst of a bitter argument.

After, Ella is in the hospital, battered and with little memory of the accident. Maddy is dead.

Surrounded by friends and family who believe she is Maddy–convinced Maddy will be missed more than she ever will and filled with guilt over the accident–Ella makes a choice. She will become Maddy. She’ll live the life Maddy deserved. She’ll make things right.

Ella soon realizes that her sister’s  life is filled with secrets which Ella will have to understand while she tries to keep them. As Ella tries to make sense of the sister she barely knew she will also have to decide if she can continue living a lie or finally step out of her sister’s shadow in The Secrets We Keep (2015) by Trisha Leaver.

The Secrets We Keep is a story about family and grieving but also a mystery as Ella tries to understand what Maddy had done that left her crying and desperate for Ella to pick her up on the night of the accident.

Leaver begins the story with a prologue telling readers exactly what Ella has done and why she feels so strongly that she has to pretend to be Maddy (along with numerous circumstances stacking up to lead to Ella’s initial mis-identification as Maddy). The book then backs up to the night of the accident as readers learn more about the sisters’ estrangement and currently strained relationship.

There is no way to get around the fact that Maddy is a stereotypically mean popular girl before her death. An identifier which she never gets to transcend because she dies and instead it is Ella left picking up the pieces.

Unfortunately shifting the start of the novel to before the accident (and before Ella truly makes her choice as she is swept up in the post-accident confusion at the hospital) neutralizes a lot of the initial urgency. For the first seventy-five pages of the novel, readers know know exactly what happens after the accident which means that readers also know more than Ella herself.

Within The Secrets We Keep, Ella’s decision to become her sister makes perfect sense as the motivations stem from a deep sense of guilt combined with grief. But the premise begins to wear thin as the plot progresses and Ella’s secret begins to unravel.

Elements of romance and mystery move the story forward but never integrate perfectly with the main plot of Ella making peace with her sister’s death. The addition of an awkward love triangle between Ella, her best friend Josh and Josh’s two-years-younger girlfriend (who Ella strongly dislikes–and maybe feels threatened by–while refusing to acknowledge possibly having romantic feelings for Josh herself) further dilutes the core elements of the story which had so much promise.

Despite having all of the right pieces, including a great heroine and strong premise, The Secrets We Keep fails to meet its potential and instead becomes very familiar as the plot moves in directions previously handled more notably by Zevin and Oliver among others.

The Secrets We Keep blends several genres to deliver elements of romance and suspense within a story about loss and grieving that will appeal to readers looking for more of the same.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle, Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

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

Soulprint: A Review

Soulprint by Megan MirandaAlina Chase has been imprisoned her entire life for crimes she didn’t commit. With soul fingerprinting a chilling reality, the world knows that Alina’s soul belongs to the most notorious criminal of her time. Everyone is terrified that if she is free, Alina will do it all again.

Desperate for freedom, Alina jumps at the chance to escape even if it means throwing herself in with people she doesn’t know let alone trust. But freedom has a cost and it might be more than Alina is able to pay.

Everyone wants something from Alina. All Alina wants is to be left alone. On the run and still trying to clear her soul, Alina will have to follow clues left by her former self to a shocking secret if she ever wants to escape in Soulprint (2015) by Megan Miranda.

Miranda once again offers up her trademark blend of science and suspense in this story where reincarnation can have severe consequences. In the midst of Alina’s daring escape and numerous chase sequences, Miranda raises questions about the inevitability of fate and whether certain traits really can transfer from life to life.

Alina is a great heroine. She struggles to be strong and independent while also yearning for the kind of human connection that is impossible when you have been a prisoner your entire life. It is also worth nothing that Alina’s mother is Hispanic–a culture Alina identifies strongly with as she clings to the memories of her mother.

Although some big twists are broadcast early on, Soulprint remains a nail-biting mystery that will keep readers on their toes as they try to follow the clues along with Alina. With a strong cast of characters and just a hint of romance Soulprint is one action-packed story sure to have wide appeal.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Pivot Point by Kasie West, Minority Report

*An advance copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher*

All the Truth That’s in Me: A Review

allthetruthinmeFour years ago Judith disappeared from the small town of Roswell Station. Two years ago she came back with no explanation, no longer able to speak.

Shamed by her loss of speech and shunned by everyone from her former friends to her own family, Judith subsists on small glimpses of Lucas, the boy she has always loved, and the one-sided conversation she has with him in her head.

When homelanders threaten to attack Roswell Station, Judith is forced into action as she tries to save the town that has all but forsaken her. Her efforts to stop the invaders prove successful but also raise questions about Judith’s return to town and what she might have suffered during her time away.

Judith has survived these past two years well enough. In order to flourish, she will have to find her voice in All the Truth That’s in Me (2013) by Julie Berry.

All the Truth That’s in Me is Berry’s first novel written for young adults.

Written in the second person as Judith talks directly to Lucas, this novel is part mystery and part coming of age story. Sparse, short chapters and a stark narrative style make this novel ideal for fans of verse novels.

Berry situates the story in a quasi-historical, quasi-Puritanical society. While this environment works well for the plot (and indeed creates one of the only scenarios where Judith’s shunning would make sense) it is also a distraction that feels more like a shortcut in world building and research. While the society does raise questions about freedom and feminism especially, those questions become difficult to answer or even fully discuss with a lack of concrete setting.

Questions about setting aside, this novel does offer a taut and atmospheric story. Readers are thrown directly into Judith’s claustrophobic and often heartbreaking life as she struggles with cruel treatment and bitter memories.

Although this novel was a finalist for the Edgar Award, it is surprisingly thin on mystery. Answers are sought when Judith tries to unravel the secrets surrounding the disappearance of her friend (a girl who went missing near when Judith herself was taken) but the need to investigate is not especially pressing until the final act. A certain urgency is implied early in the story as the homelanders approach only to taper off in a similar fashion in the wake of the attack.

While there is mystery, All the Truth That’s in Me is really a meandering story about a girl trying to find herself (and her voice) after years of being lost–a story, it is worth mentioning, that is told quite well.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill, Madapple by Christina Meldrum, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, All the Truth That’s in Me by Anna Sheehan, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

*A copy of this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2013*