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*

It Wasn’t Always Like This: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It Wasn't Always Like This by Joy PrebleThanks to a mysterious tea, Emma O’Neill and her family stopped aging. Charlie Ryan and his parents suffered the same fate. By 1916, Emma has been seventeen for two whole years.

When an organization called the Church of Light notices, both families are targeted. Emma and Charlie survive the massacre but they aren’t sure they can ever really be safe. Separated during their escape, they are still bound together by their love for each other even as circumstances conspire to keep them from finding each other.

Over the last hundred years Emma’s gotten good at hiding and at noticing patterns. It takes someone with her uniquely long perspective to realize a decades long series of murders have something in common: every victim bears a striking resemblance to Emma.

The murders are coming closer together now–closer than they have in a very long time. Which can only mean Emma’s enemies are getting closer too. As Emma hunts the murderer she begins to hope, for the first time in a long while, that solving this case might also help her find Charlie again in It Wasn’t Always Like This (2016) by Joy Preble.

It Wasn’t Always Like This has been likened to Tuck Everlasting meets Veronica Mars. It turns out that this comparison is wonderfully accurate.

Preble uses sparse prose for Emma’s no-nonsense narration. Third person narratives from other characters are interspersed throughout for necessary exposition.

It Wasn’t Always Like This offers a fascinating perspective with its immortal teenager heroine. Emma is as jaded as the best hard-boiled detectives and possibly even more world-weary. But she is also still seventeen. She is still rash and impetuous. Sometimes she’s still dangerously optimistic in spite of everything she has seen. Throughout the novel Emma keeps wondering if she can ever really learn from her mistakes and grow when it is physically impossible for her to grow up or mature.

A high stakes mystery and lots of action make this a page-turner even while the characters hearken to a more thoughtful tome. It Wasn’t Always Like This is a refreshingly original mystery with a little something for everyone. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit, Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Dreamology by Lucy Keating, The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol Ostow and David Ostow, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Veronica Mars (TV show)

With Malice: A Review

“They’re hinging everything on meeting the legal term of having done something with malice aforethought. That you wanted to do something badly, and you planned it.”

With Malice by Eileen CookEighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room recovering from a broken leg and a traumatic brain injury with no memory of how she got there.

She doesn’t remember anything about her study abroad trip to Italy six weeks ago with her best friend Simone. She doesn’t remember the car crash that killed Simone or the flight her wealthy father chartered to get her to an American hospital. She doesn’t remember why she might need the lawyer her father has hired.

Everyone thinks they know what happened between Jill and Simone thanks to witness accounts and the sensational news coverage, but it’s up to Jill to figure out the truth for herself in With Malice (2016) by Eileen Cook.

This character-driven thriller teases out what might have happened between the two girls as the events leading to the accident slowly unfold. Jill’s recovery in the hospital includes realistically portrayed rehab for her broken leg and speech therapy for the aphasia that leaves her forgetting words. Therapy sessions allow Jill to process the trauma of the accident while working through her retrograde amnesia.

Cook intersperses Jill’s first person narration with supplemental materials including police interviews, news coverage, and blog posts about the car crash. Travel guide excerpts are as close as readers will get to any Italian locations as Jill’s memories of the trip remain elusive for most of the novel.

Flashbacks, Facebook posts, and emails help to further develop Jill and Simone’s characters as well as their complicated relationship. The rest of the cast fall more comfortably into stock character territory including the rich-but-absent dad, the smooth-talking lawyer and the wannabe-Casanova-tour-guide.

Questions of what Jill remembers and what might have been a dream or suggested memory lend a chilling quality to the conclusion of this novel. A solid thriller that expertly navigates familiar territory, With Malice will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

Possible Pairings: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the April 2016 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online*

The Leaving: A Review

The Leaving by Tara AltebrandoEleven years ago six kindergartners were taken from their school and disappeared without a trace. There have been movies and conspiracy theories but nothing close to the truth; no kind of resolution for the parents and siblings left behind.

Until now.

When five of the missing children come back they’re sixteen-years-old and healthy. They have no memory of what happened or where they’ve been held. They barely remember the lives they’re returning to. None of them remember the sixth victim, Max.

Scarlett returns to a mother she hardly knows and a life that doesn’t quite fit while Lucas finds a family that has moved on without him and threatens to shatter with his return. Avery remembers both Scarlett and Lucas as well as she remembers the day Max never came home. Now, eleven years later, she waits again for a brother who doesn’t return.

Everyone wants to know what happened. Scarlett, Lucas, and the others are desperate to fill in the gaps in their memories while Avery is grasping for some trace of her still-missing brother. All five of the returned children begin to find strange clues that seem to be leading them somewhere. But only Lucas and Scarlett–with Avery’s prodding–are willing to follow the clues wherever they may lead in The Leaving (2016) by Tara Altebrando.

Altebrando juggles three narrators and numerous plot lines over the course of this novel. The story alternates first person narrated chapters between Scarlett (whose narration includes unconventional formatting and patterned text), Lucas (whose barely-there memories surface as blocky black text), and Avery (who has the most conventional narration). All three of the narrators are white but from a variety of economic backgrounds which adds another dimension to their connected stories.

There is something inherently cruel about this premise which Altebrando explores with frightening detail. The prose here is sparse leaving details to the imagination that make the experiences of the kidnapped children all the more horrifying to imagine. There are no easy answers here and no clean resolution–something that gives The Leaving a lasting impact.

The Leaving is, ostensibly, a thriller. The novel is packed with suspense and razor-sharp tension in short chapters that build to a chilling conclusion. At the same time, this story is also a thoughtful character study. Who are we without our memories? Who can we become? Is a blank slate of a childhood that different from the gradual forgetting that comes as we grow older? Are the monsters we fear any less frightening if we don’t remember them?

The Leaving is an ambitious work of suspense that is atmospheric, eerie, and incredibly successful. A must read.

Possible Pairings: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, False Memory by Dan Krokos,  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

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

A Study in Charlotte: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I’d prefer to think,” Holmes said, cutting me off, “that we aren’t all so mercilessly bound to our pasts.”

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany CavallaroJames Watson dislikes rugby almost as much as he dislikes being sent to the Sherringford boarding school in Connecticut (a mere hour from his estranged father) on a rugby scholarship. The prospect of finally being able to meet Charlotte Holmes is the one bright spot in is trans-Atlantic exile.

After years of imagining what meeting Charlotte might be like and how they might become friends, James finds himself face-to-face with the unlikely and insufferable girl. He also finds himself beside her at the top of the list of suspects for the murder of a fellow Sherringford student.

Armed with little but deductive reasoning on Charlotte’s part and a sharp temper on James’, the two follow in the steps of their great-great-great grandfathers’ working together to solve the case. Even with solving mysteries in their blood, Charlotte and James will have to learn how to work together and trust each other before they can close their first case in A Study in Charlotte (2016) by Brittany Cavallaro.

A Study in Charlotte is the start of a new series and Cavallaro’s first YA novel.

A Study in Charlotte starts with an interesting premise: What if Holmes and Watson were real people? Instead of writing the stories himself, Arthur Conan Doyle was Watson’s literary agent. All of the familiar pieces are still there with the additional baggage of family legacies and descendants.

While Cavallaro does some interesting things to update her source material the novel remains, despite Charlotte’s hopes to the contrary, bound irrevocably to the past. A Study in Charlotte reads as more of a light retelling than any kind of new spin on this familiar duo.

A Study in Charlotte is a charming introduction to the world and wonders of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson but readers more familiar with the original stories (and numerous film adaptations) may well be left wanting more from this tale that stays in familiar territory more often than not.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Body in the Woods by April Henry, Every Breath by Ellie Marney, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

These Shallow Graves: A Review

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer DonnellyNew York. 1890. Jo Montfort wants her education and her life to mean something. She doesn’t want to finish out her time at school only to get married. Jo dreams of following in the footsteps of Nellie Bly to become a famous reporter who can write articles to help make the world better.

Jo’s dreams, and her more prosaic future, become uncertain in the wake of her father’s accidental death while cleaning his revolver. The only problem: Jo knows her father would never have been reckless enough to clean a loaded gun.

With the help of an ambitious young reporter, Jo sets out to find the truth. In her search for the truth, Jo will dig up old secrets and shocking truths in These Shallows Graves (2015) by Jennifer Donnelly.

These Shallow Graves is a standalone historical fiction novel.

Donnelly’s novel is well-researched and thorough bringing the world of 1890s New York to life around Jo’s story with thoughtful details and historically accurate settings.

The characters pale in comparison to these rich settings. Although Jo grows throughout These Shallow Graves, she remains painfully naive and idealistic to a fault. Her sensibilities are also decidedly (frustratingly) modern despite her upbringing in New York’s Gilded Age. Jo remains a fun, very feminist, heroine in this story about a girl making her own way but it’s impossible to wonder how likely such a story would be in the time period of the novel.

Jo never quite operates comfortably within her time period and the story suffers a loss of credibility as a result. As a mystery (and a romance) These Shallow Graves works well but not, perhaps, as well as it could while certain motivations and events bear the scrutiny of a close reading better than others.

These Shallow Graves is another fine historical mystery from Donnelly with the requisite doses of romance and suspense. Readers looking for an immersive read and a strong heroine will find much to recommend here.

Possible Pairings: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman, The Gilded Cage by Lucinda Gray, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee,  Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A copy of this book was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2015 for review consideration*

The Mystery of Hollow Places: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca PodosThe only details seventeen-year-old Imogene Scott has about her mother are ones gleaned from the bedtime story her father told every night.

Before he became a best-selling novelist, Joshua Zhi Scott was a forensic pathologist who met Imogene’s mother when she came to identify a body. He would then tell Imogene that her mother was always lonely. He’d even say that she was troubled waters. They would never talk about why her mother left, especially not since her father remarried and Lindy is now part of their family.

When Imogene’s father disappears in the middle of the night, Imogene thinks he might want her to follow the clues he left behind; he might want Imogene to find him and maybe find her mother as well.

With unlikely help from her best friend and all of the skills learned from reading her father’s mysteries, Imogene hopes to find her father and unravel the secrets surrounding her own past. But, as Imogene knows too well, things aren’t always perfect at the end of a mystery in The Mystery of Hollow Places (2016) by Rebecca Podos.

The Mystery of Hollow Places is Podos’ first novel.

Podos delivers an eerie mystery in this surprising tale. The Mystery of Hollow Places is also a solid homage to mysteries and Gothic novels alike as interpreted by a heroine whose favorite novel is Rebecca.

Imogene’s first-person narration is pragmatic and often insightful as she makes sense of her mother’s absence and her father’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Unlike many teen detective stories, this book also remains decidedly in the realm of possibility as Imogene works with what she has and within the limitations inherent to a teenager trying to investigate some very adult problems.

Although the plot focuses on the mystery of finding her father, Imogene’s story is just as much about acceptance and the strength found in friendships and choosing who to call family. Elements of magic realism and a stark Massachusetts backdrop add atmosphere to this sometimes choppy mystery with a diverse cast of characters.

The Mystery of Hollow Places is a strong debut and an unexpected mystery. Recommended for fans of traditional mysteries, suspenseful stories filled with twists, as well as readers looking for an atmospheric novel to keep them company on a cold winter night (or to evoke one anyway!).

Possible Pairings: Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol and David Ostow, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan

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