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, Chris 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, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, 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*

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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*

The Reader: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sefia has been hiding and evading capture for most of her life. It started with the house  built on a hill filled with secret rooms and hidden passages meant to guard a dangerous secret. When her father is murdered, Sefia does what she has been trained to do. She hides. She grabs the thing that her parents spent their lives protecting. She goes to her aunt Nin and together they run away.

After Nin is kidnapped, Sefia vows to find her. Sefia turns to the strange rectangular object her father died to protect. As she examines the thing, Sefia slowly realizes it is a book.

The Book may hold secrets about Nin’s abduction and Sefia’s own parents if only she can master the symbols within and learn to read the words. In Sefia’s world, books are their own kind of magic–a dangerous power in the wrong hands. Sefia will need that power if she wants to rescue Nin and stop hiding in The Reader (2016) by Traci Chee.

The Reader is Chee’s first novel and the beginning of her Sea of Ink and Gold series. This book is a layered narrative filled with hidden messages and clues within the text (be sure to look at the page numbers for one of them). The depth and layers within The Reader are impressive and staggering to contemplate. However the hidden clues, messages, and intricate physical design of this novel are distracting at times. Readers willing to give this story time and a proper chance will enjoy the intricate layers and the unexpected ways Chee’s multiple narratives come together.

In the fantasy world Chee has created the written word doesn’t exist. While they have identifying symbols to label things like herbs and other items, this world relies more heavily on an oral tradition for their stories and history. Books and reading are magic in a very literal sense and so both things are closely guarded by mysterious powers and largely unknown to citizens like Sefia.

If you spend too much time scrutinizing the main conceit of this plot (reading doesn’t exist), it starts to crumble. How does electricity work in this otherwise non-industrial society? How do characters leave messages for each other without written words? Are glyphs used? Oral recordings? No one knows or at least no one shares.

Vocabulary that would be taken for granted in any other story also needs further clarification in a book like The Reader. How do characters know about pens or reading lamps? Why do they exist if, as the novel states, reading doesn’t exist? Furthermore, although Chee’s writing is rich and heady, there isn’t a particularly good way to show a character learning to read when that character doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe a book, letters, or words. It makes for plodding passages and very slow progress for the rest of the story.

Readers willing to ignore these niggling questions may find themselves drawn into Sefia’s story. The premise, the larger message about the written word, and particularly Sefia’s own growth is empowering. Chee’s descriptions are vivid and bring Sefia’s multi-faceted world to life.

The Reader is a slow-paced adventure story. Sefia embarks on a journey with unlikely allies and surprising foes. She discovers magic and her own inner strength. She also, strangely enough, learns to read. How you feel about that last one will largely influence how you feel about this story as a whole. Recommended for readers seeking an introspective fantasy with a slow payoff. (Go into this one willing to commit to the series as many of the big reveals come in final chapters.)

Possible Pairings: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Dial Em for Murder: A Review

Dial Em for Murder by Marni BatesSixteen-year-old Emmy Danvers dreams of becoming a published author. Her latest attempt at a romance novel is proving troublesome when an old man latches onto her at Starbucks. The man seems to know Emmy and refuses to leave her alone. He also slips a tablet device into her pocket as he tackles her.

Then he dies. Still sprawled on top of Emmy.

Turns out the whole thing is more than an extremely unlucky moment in an otherwise ordinary day. The tablet, locked with a password Emmy can’t figure out, contains dangerous secrets. Information someone might even kill to get.

Emmy will have to find the father she’s never met, deal with a bad boy who may or may not be an ally, negotiate complicated feelings for her long-time best friend, and avoid the killers who are still hunting her down. At least Emmy will have lots of material for her next novel in Dial Em for Murder (2016) by Marni Bates.

While Emmy comes across as a bit brassier than her sixteen years would suggest, she is a fun heroine who is easily swept along in the myriad conspiracies and spy games that seem to surround her as she tries to make sense of recent events and unlock the mysterious tablet.

Dial Em for Murder is a fast-paced mystery filled with action and adventure. Although it is currently a standalone, the ending (and its lack of closure on several fronts) suggests that readers can expect further installments. Sure to appeal to fans of Ally Carter and other spy-centric adventures.

Possible Pairings: All Fall Down by Ally Carter, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Pretending to Be Erica by  Michelle Painchaud, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan

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

Twist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Twist is the sequel/companion to Loop. As such this review contains major spoilers for book one.*

Twist by Karen AkinsBree Bennis should be living happily ever after now that she’s saved her mother, found a way to fight back against ICE’s plans to change the timeline to their advantage, and reunited with her boyfriend Finn from a different century.

But it turns out being a time traveler is never easy.

In the twenty-third century, ICE is still trying to alter the timeline by allowing non-shifters to time travel to points in their own pasts. Bree’s reverter can undo the changes before the timeline is permanently altered but she can only work so fast. Now that she is no longer a chipped Shifter, she can literally see when her reality changes.

Everything still feels controllable until Bree’s Future Self stops her from fixing one key change to Bree’s own life six months earlier. Losing the last six months of her life, Bree never travels to the twenty-first century to meet her boyfriend Finn. She never tangles with ICE. But she knows the timeline is still at risk and she still has to stop it.

Now, Bree is stuck undercover with Wyck as her boyfriend. Sure he hasn’t tried to kill her on this timeline but Bree still remembers him as Evil Wyck and she still doesn’t want to pretend to date him. With only a minimal sense of what she has to do to stop ICE, Bree can’t even take a moment to stew when Finn shows up in the twenty-third century dating another Shifter. As a time traveler, Bree should have time on her side. But as ICE’s changes become more extreme, with more devastating personal consequences for her, Bree knows she’s running out of time in Twist (2015) by Karen Akins.

Twist is the sequel to Loop and the conclusion of Bree Bennis’ story.

Twist is a trippy, page-turning continuation of Bree’s adventures. The story is filled with the catch-22 time travel scenarios readers will remember from book one. While this book has a contained story and recaps of key moments, it heavily references Loop and should not be read out of order.

Akins expertly manipulates familiar time travel conventions and tropes to create a unique story filled with twists and turns. While the timeline keeps changing, Bree and Finn’s relationship remains relatively constant as the emotional heart of this story.

Snappy prose and Bree’s witty first-person narration enhance this story and bring readers along for the sometimes bumpy ride across multiple reality shifts for Bree and the timeline. While the story has some nail-biting moments of suspense (and worry for this likable cast of characters), this book is a finale worthy of these characters. Twist is an immensely satisfying conclusion to an adventurous and fascinating sci-fi duology. Highly recommended for readers seeking a new time travel adventure.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Pivot Point by Kasie West, Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

The Gilded Cage: A Review

The Gilded Cage by Lucinda GrayOrphaned at a young age, Katherine Randolph and her brother suddenly find out about a grandfather they never met and an inheritance they can hardly imagine. Moving from their Virginia home to Walthingham Hall in England catapults them both to the highest echelons of society.

Katherine is unprepared for the wealth and luxuries suddenly at her disposal. She is uncertain how she will fit into this new world that seems to accept her brother so much more easily.

When her brother drowns unexpectedly, Katherine refuses to believe that it was an accident. Everyone at Walthingham is keen to see Katherine observe proper mourning customs and move on. But how can she when she suspects foul play in her brother’s death? With no one to trust and far too many likely suspects, Katherine will have to sift through Walthingham’s many secrets and sinister lies if she hopes to unearth the truth before it’s too late in The Gilded Cage (2016) by Lucinda Gray.

Katherine is an interesting heroine and narrator. Throughout the novel her American, working class sensibilities come up against the strict standards of British high society showcasing the contrasts between both. Although set slightly before its start in the 1870s, this book’s depiction of 1820s England hearkens back to the gilded age of the US as well.

While Katherine is persistent and headstrong, it is unfortunately often the male characters in this story that discover vital clues to unraveling the mysteries surrounding Walthingham.

The Gilded Cage is a solid gothic mystery. While the story is atmospheric and spooky (complete with a truly chilling asylum), details beyond that about the time period are sparse in this thin novel. Readers familiar with mystery tropes will also likely realize what’s happening at Walthingham long before Katherine. Short chapters and a few genuinely jaw dropping moments make The Gilded Cage a fast-paced story ideal for readers seeking a quick diversion.

Possible Pairings: The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

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

Breaker: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Breaker by Kat EllisNaomi doesn’t want to board at Killdeer Academy but she can’t stay with her grandparents now that her grandmother has so much to do taking care of Naomi’s grandfather as his Alzheimer’s progresses.

Kyle hopes to be able to remake himself at Killdeer Academy with a new last name and a determination to forget all about his serial killer father. His mother’s decision that Kyle should board is a surprise. But he’s dealt with worse.

Kyle expects to have a completely blank slate at the Academy. The only problem is that he recognizes Naomi immediately. She was the daughter of his father’s last victim. Kyle wants to stay away from Naomi but he isn’t sure how to ignore when she seems to actually want to be his friend–and maybe even more. When people start dying on campus both Naomi and Kyle will have to confront their pasts to stop the murders in Breaker (2016) by Kat Ellis.

The book alternates first person narration between Kyle and Naomi which makes both protagonists well-rounded. While other characters factor into the story in crucial ways, they remain decidedly secondary to Kyle and Naomi and are consequently somewhat less developed. Excerpts from ephemera related to Kyle’s father further complicate the story.

In a departure from her debut mystery fantasy, Blackfin Sky, Ellis delivers a much darker story here. Kyle is haunted by his father’s legacy as a serial killer, terrified that the stigma will cling to him forever and the thought that he could have turned out like his father. Naomi saw her mother’s murder and has spent the intervening years doing her best to not think about her mother at all to avoid the pain of that traumatic loss.

Kyle and Naomi are a completely unlikely pair but their chemistry in Breaker, not to mention their draw to each other is undeniable in this fast-paced thriller that is sure to appeal to fans of the genre. Breaker is a creepy and atmospheric story filled with choice details that bring Killdeer Academy to life in all of its eerie and dilapidated glory.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

You can also read my interview with Kat about Breaker!

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