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, 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 Raven King: A Review

“If you can’t be unafraid, be afraid and happy.”

The Raven King by Maggie StiefvaterGansey has been searching for his lost king for years. In the years after he died–and was brought back–Gansey is certain that finding Glendower is his destiny. Surely, such a quest is what he was saved to complete?

Along the way Gansey’s unlikely friends have joined him in the hunt: Ronan, a dreamer inextricably linked to the ley line and the magic of Cabeswater; Adam, who bargained away his autonomy to become Cabeswater’s magician; Noah, whose grip on his life is becoming more and more tenuous the longer he is dead; and Blue, the girl from a psychic family who is not psychic at all, the girl who is going to kill her true love with a kiss, the girl who loves Gansey.

For months now, Gansey and the rest have been creeping closer. Glendower is almost found. Dreams and nightmares are building. A storm is coming. Every quest has an end, but this time no one knows what they will find when it’s over in The Raven King (2016) by Maggie Stiefvater.

The Raven King is the final book in Stiefvater’s widely acclaimed Raven Boys Cycle. It is preceded by The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, and Blue Lily, Lily Blue. This book should definitely be read in order with the other books in the series and (obviously) has spoilers for the earlier books.

It’s always bittersweet to come to the end of a much-loved series. With characters like Blue and Gansey and Ronan and Adam, it’s especially hard to say goodbye. But The Raven King is the conclusion these characters deserve–possibly even the one they have earned–after everything they’ve survived and accomplished in the rest of the series.

Like the rest of this series, The Raven King is extremely well done with flawless writing and a tight plot. Although some rare readers might find the ending a bit too perfect, this book is also an excellent example of what you have to always trust the author.

The Raven King is a story where all of the characters are hurtling towards very specific goals and destinations only to realize that in the end the destination wasn’t the point at all–it was the journey, it was the people met along the way (particularly when it comes to the new characters introduced here). A completely satisfying conclusion to a stunning and evocative series.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Clarity by Kim Harrington, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Pivot Point by Kasie West, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

*A copy of this title was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

Lucky Strikes: A Review

Lucky Strikes by Louis BayardFourteen-year-old Amelia has been taking care of things at home for a while by the time her mama passes. She knows all about running the family gas station and she’s fair to middling when it comes to taking care of her younger brother and sister, Earle and Lucey.

The only problem is, Melia isn’t sure that the state will see it that way if anyone finds out they don’t have an adult taking care of them. It’s bad enough that Melia is scraping the bottom of the barrel to keep the gas station afloat while Harley Blevins eyes them with a mind to buy–or run them out of business. Melia certainly has no intention of letting her and her siblings wind up in foster care and split up. No way.

All Melia has to do is keep her family together and keep the gas station running until she comes of age and can adopt Earle and Lucey. No easy feat with no adult in sight. When a hobo literally falls in her path, Melia thinks she might have found exactly what she needs to keep everyone fooled. She just needs everyone to play along for a little while in Lucky Strikes (2016) by Louis Bayard.

Lucky Strikes is Bayard’s first historical novel written for younger readers. This book is pretty solid middle grade fare although because Amelia is fourteen it technically falls under the umbrella of YA.

This book is narrated by Melia in a breezy and conversational style. Throughout the book she is talking to someone (addressed as “you”) although readers don’t learn who exactly that is until the final pages of the story.

Bayard uses his expertise as an author of historical fiction to bring 1934 Walnut Ridge, Virginia to life. Lucky Strikes is filled with vivid imagery and detailed descriptions that will immediately bring readers into the story as well as its unusual settings. This novel makes 1934 and the Great Depression immediately approachable to readers without bogging the story down in extraneous historical facts.

Amelia is a plucky, self-starter of a heroine who doesn’t waste time on sentimentality when there is work to be done. While she often feels a bit too old to be a fourteen-year-old–particularly because of her pragmatism–it is possibly a side-effect of her having sensibilities from a very different time. The story also largely works because Amelia is fourteen which lends urgency to her need to find an adult to act as a stand-in parent.

Lucky Strikes is a madcap story about perseverance, friendship, and how sometimes family can be found in the most unlikely places. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and fast-paced stories.

Possible Pairings: The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Signed, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams

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

Blue Lily, Lily Blue: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie StiefvaterBlue hasn’t looked back since taking up the strange quest that has consumed four Raven Boys. Since then Gansey, Adam, Noah, and even Ronan, have amazingly become her best friends. What first seemed like disparate priorities and an absurd alliance has since blossomed into the strongest friendship Blue has ever known.

Their friendship isn’t the only thing to have changed since the search started.

Some bonds have strengthened while others have threatened to break. Dreams have offered as much wonder as terror.

And family, it turns out, can mean all kinds of things.

But as Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah come closer and closer to the end of their search all of them have to wonder what will come next. With so much to gain from finding what they are seeking, none of them–maybe especially Blue–has thought hard enough about how much there is to lose in Blue Lily, Lily Blue (2014) by Maggie Stiefvater.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the third book in Stiefvater’s widely acclaimed Raven Boys Cycle. It is preceded by The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves. Although this book is the third in a four book series it works surprisingly well on its own with references to key events in previous books and a larger focus on both old and new characters.

This story picks up about a month after the events of The Dream Thieves.

Stiefvater offers another atmospheric fantasy filled with wry humor and unforgettable characters ranging from the protagonists readers have come to love to antagonists who are indecently likable. Lyrical, spirited prose moves along this character-driven story as we learn more about all of the major (and even some of the minor) players in this tale.

New problems–and losses–ensure that Blue Lily, Lily Blue will stand on its own merit outside of the (many) strengths of the Raven Boys Cycle. This installment also continues to keep the ongoing plot of the series fresh and exciting as nothing in this story is quite what readers will expect.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue also reaffirms the ties between these unlikely friends and the strength that can be found in such powerful bonds. While all of the characters grapple with what they know and do not know, both about themselves and their search, this novel cleverly celebrates the hidden depths to be found in all of their relationships.

This book goes in unexpected directions and circles back to events from the first book in a seamless manner that highlights how carefully this cycle is plotted. While Blue Lily, Lily Blue necessarily leaves unanswered questions it is a satisfying novel that strikes just the right chord between forward plot development and closure for this installment.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Clarity by Kim Harrington, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Pivot Point by Kasie West, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher*

The Dream Thieves: A Review

The Dream Thieves by Maggie StiefvaterEverything changed for Blue, Gansey, Ronan and Adam before they ever found Cabeswater. Things changed for Noah long before that.

Now that the ley lines have awakened even more changes are coming to the small town of Henrietta. There will certainly be more moments of wonder; maybe even things coming close to magic. But darker things are also being drawn to the power of the lines.

Ronan always knew that his family was different. He always knew that his dreams were different. Ronan always knew that, in some fundamental ways, he was different.

It wasn’t, after all, everyone who had a pet raven named Chainsaw. Nor was it everyone who acquired such a pet from his own dreams.

As Gansey’s search for Glendower and Cabeswater continues it soon becomes clear that Ronan’s dreams are at the center of their latest puzzle. But with so many people searching and grasping for pieces of Cabeswater, it’s unclear how much will have to be lost before the next piece of the puzzle will be found in The Dream Thieves (2013) by Maggie Stiefvater.

The Dream Thieves is the second book in Stiefvater’s Raven Boys quartet. This book picks up closely after the conclusion of book one, The Raven Boys. While both books are delightful on their own, it’s unlikely readers new to the series will be able to catch up without reading the first installment.

This book focuses much more on Ronan even as Stiefvater continues to delve into the mysteries surrounding Glendower and Gansey’s search. Blue and Gansey have their moments, of course, but it was a pleasant surprise to have the book focus so much on Ronan. (Even more of a surprise to realize how very likable he is as a character.)

Stiefvater’s writing is top-notch as this series continues. The focus on Ronan’s dreams and a new secondary character takes the story in a new direction while Stiefvater’s beautiful prose and familiar characters continue to deliver everything readers will remember with fondness from The Raven Boys.

The Dream Thieves is a perfect blend of skillful storytelling and suspense as tension builds until the final confrontations in the story. Being the second book in a series of four, there are (of course) several questions left by the end of the story including a very surprising ending. That said, Stiefvater delivers everything fans will hope for and expect from her in this novel along with a story that is certain to resonate with readers.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Clarity by Kim Harrington, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Pivot Point by Kasie West, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

The Darkest Minds: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

When Ruby woke up on her tenth birthday, she didn’t know her world was about to change. She knew about the disease sweeping through the country’s children–it was impossible to miss when kids kept dying. She didn’t know that surviving the disease was the worse outcome.

Surviving, it turns out, was another word for changing–waking up one day with abilities that used to be the impossible stuff of movies; waking up with strange powers that most of the kids, especially Ruby, can’t begin to understand. Or control.

Now sixteen, Ruby knows just how dangerous she is. She knows she’ll never be allowed to leave Thurmond, the government camp set up to “rehabilitate” other kids like her.

She also knows that she has to escape to survive.

On the run, desperate to get away, Ruby soon falls in with other kids looking for a sanctuary called East River. Ruby knows she can’t let anyone get close–not after what happened on her tenth birthday–but maybe they can all use each other to get to East River in one piece.

Life outside Thurmond isn’t what Ruby expected. Turns out, staying under the radar is hard when you’re dangerous. Ruby lost control of her life when she was ten years old. If she can learn more about her own abilities, she might be able to reclaim that control. But everything in life comes with a price. Especially freedom in The Darkest Minds (2012) by Alexandra Bracken.

The Darkest Minds is Bracken’s second novel. It is also the first in a trilogy.

This book was one of my most anticipated 2012 reads. I fell in love with Bracken’s debut novel Brightly Woven and ever since I could not wait to see what she released next.

Part road trip, part sci-fi adventure, part dystopian The Darkest Minds does not disappoint. With a plot that turns on a dime it is a guaranteed page-turner with an ending that will leave readers anxious for the next installment.

At the same time, The Darkest Minds is so much more than an action-packed read. Ruby’s story is heart-wrenching and horrifying but her resilience and her persistence are fierce to behold. The other characters in the story are vibrant and beautifully written–even at their most villainous.

Bracken has created a disturbing world with elements that are both fantastical and uncomfortably possible in our own world. Ruby’s voice throughout the novel is as smooth as honey filled with descriptions that bring the eerie Virginia landscape of the story vividly to life. The Darkest Minds is a stunning, sometimes harrowing, start to a series; confirming that Bracken is an author to watch.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, White Cat by Holly Black, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, False Memory by Dan Krokos, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012

The Raven Boys: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Raven Boys by Maggie StiefvaterBlue’s family trades in predictions that range from the non-specific to, for Blue, the very explicit warning that she will kill her first love.

That’s never been a problem since Blue doesn’t believe in love or much care for boys, particularly the so-called raven boys from the Anglionby school who walk around her small town like they own it.

As the only non-clairvoyant in her family, every year Blue takes down the names of souls she cannot see on the corpse road while her family watches them pass. Every year is the same.

Except this year Blue does see something.

There are only two reasons Blue would see a boy clearly enough on the corpse road to make out the Anglionby crest on his sweater; only two reasons he would tell her his name is Gansey: Blue is either his true love. Or she is going to kill him.

Gansey wears his raven boy persona easily, using his wealth and prestige to get what he wants–and needs–to search for something even his closest friends sometimes doubt is real.

Charming and determined, it’s as easy for Blue to become caught up in his world as it was for Gansey’s other friends: Adam, a scholarship student struggling to navigate Anglionby on his own terms; Ronan, sharp, bitter and determined to keep the world at arm’s length; and Noah, the quiet observer who sees a great many things but shares very little.

As Blue and these improbable raven boys find each other things start changing for them and their small town. Together they could unearth untold magic and power, as long as they can find it first–and control it–in The Raven Boys (2012) by Maggie Stiefvater.

The Raven Boys is the first book in the four book Raven Cycle.

With such varied characters and a sweeping story, it’s hard to summarize or review a book like The Raven Boys. As she did in her Printz honor title The Scorpio Races, Stiefvater once again presents a new world with a fascinating take on mythology that is all its own.

Stiefvater creates a varied cast with characters ranging from calculating to naive, from prickly to endearing–often at the same time. With so many brilliantly dimensional characters it’s hard to pick a favorite, or even a star*, in The Raven Boys as Stiefvater expertly allows each character their chance in the spotlight.

Being the first book in a series there are, of course, unanswered questions at the end of The Raven Boys along with some tantalizing hints of things to come later in the series. While the lack of resolution is frustrating at times, Stiefvater’s characters and intricate writing guarantee readers will want to come back for the next installment in her Raven Cycle.

*That’s a lie. Blue and Gansey are definitely my favorites of all time–I want to be Blue and befriend Gansey. Though in all fairness I really do mean it when I say all of the characters have their moments in this fantastic ensemble cast.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Clarity by Kim Harrington, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Pivot Point by Kasie West, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

Exclusive Bonus Content: In case you had any lingering doubts that Maggie is brilliant, be sure to check out the trailer she made for The Raven Boys. And by “made” I mean she did the art, animated it, wrote and performed the music and put the whole thing together.