The Truth Commission by Susan Juby (InfoSoup)
There are books you never want to end, and this is one of those. These characters are so fresh and new and real that I wanted to spend even more time with them. This novel is about three teenage friends who attend a private art high school together. There is Dusk, the stunningly beautiful girl who creates tiny tableaus for stuffed shrews. There is Neil, a boy stuck in the 1970s and who paints portraits of beautiful women like Dusk. And then there is the protagonist, Normandy, who does tiny needlepoint work and is best known for being the younger sister of the famous graphic novelist. The three start The Truth Commission, where they decide to start asking everyone the truth about things they may be keeping secret. Nothing is off limits from sexuality to love to angry ostrich-raising school secretaries. But Normandy’s family survives on secrets and the question becomes whether she can face the truth about herself and those she loves.
Juby has created a witty and dazzling read for teens. Done entirely in Normandy’s voice and writing as “narrative nonfiction” the book offers footnotes that are often asides between Normandy and her English teacher. This framework creates a real strength of the story, allowing for not only the story to be told but for Normandy to be writing about the past and offer some perspective on what happened. Filled with plenty of clever humor, this book is an impressive mix of tense mystery and gentle romance.
The characters are the heart of the book. Normandy reveals herself on the page and hides nothing. She shows through her own reactions to her sister’s graphic novels, which depict Normandy as entirely useless and ugly, as the only one who is thoughtful and credible in her family. As she hides from the wrath of her sister, making herself small and quiet, she also becomes her sister’s confidante. Her best friends too are intriguing mixes of truth and denial. Dusk is the artistic daughter in a family of doctors, and yet one can see her own ties to medicine through her art. Neil seems to be the son of a stereotypical middle-aged man who hits on teen girls, but both he and his father are far more lovely than that.
Strongly written with great characters and a dynamic mix of humor, romance and mystery, this teen novel is one of the best of the year so far. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Viking Books for Young Readers.
The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner
Aaron has just gotten a job at a funeral home with a man who is happy to give him all sorts of opportunities like a new suit, help with getting a driver’s license, and even invites him to eat meals with his family. But Aaron has too much to hide to trust his new boss. Mam is slipping deeper and deeper into dementia, often forgetting who Aaron is. The two of them live together in a camper where their neighbors are violent. Aaron also has a recurring nightmare that happens every time he falls asleep, so he tries not to sleep. When he inevitably does, he sleepwalks. As Aaron finds stability in his job with death, his tenuous control of his life starts to fall apart. The question is when Aaron will be able to face the truth of his past and whether it will be before it destroys him entirely.
Brilliant. This winner of the 2012 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers is an amazing read. Gardner creates a tense mystery yes, one that keeps the pages turning. At the same time though, the book is immensely poignant as a young man learns to trust others, figures out that sometimes people just do good for others for no other reason, and starts to trust himself too. It is a story of a person realizing that they are good at something, seeing a future where there was none, and finally being able to see their past clearly, dealing with the things they buried long ago.
Aaron is an incredible hero at least in part because he is so very human. From his lack of speech to the depth of his thoughts, he is trapped in his own head much of the time. As he works with the death around him, handling dead bodies, attending funerals, and putting together caskets, he finds that the dead are not the problem. It is the emotions of the living that are too difficult for him to handle, and that includes his own. The secondary characters are equally well drawn, with no one as a caricature, even the police officers.
A beautiful book, one that is tragic and hopeful all at once, that combines death and life into one amazing read. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Queen’s Shadow by Cybele Young
Released March 1, 2015.
This fascinating and unique nonfiction picture book takes a mystery and turns it into information about how various animals see. At the Queen’s Ball, several different animals have gathered. Then there is a flash of lightning and a moment of darkness. When the lights come back on, the Queen’s shadow has been stolen! Who stole it and how can they prove it? One by one, each animal offers testimony to what they witnessed “colored” by the way they are able to see the world. There are the eyes of the chameleon who can look in two directions at once but only shoot out his tongue when both eyes are focused on the same thing. The shark excels at seeing contrast more than anything and notices patterns of light and dark. Pit viper sees in heat and cool. Dragonfly offers perspective from compound eyes. It will take each of their ways of seeing the world to solve this mystery.
Young creates an entirely abstract and amazing world here. There is a strong sense of decorum throughout the book, no animals attacking each other and the human queen unafraid of any of her more predatory guests. She combines information for the mystery about what was witnessed through that specific set of eyes and then shares strictly scientific information in offset text boxes too. The result is a book that keeps you turning pages not only to solve the mystery but to continue seeing the world in such unique ways and learning more.
The illustrations have a feel of vintage illustrations with finely detailed ink drawings washed with color. This style is reworked though when seeing through other animals’ eyes so that with each turn of the page, the art is ever-changing and fascinating.
Peculiar in a delightful way, this nonfiction picture book is one that will appeal to children wanting to “see” more of the natural world. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Kids Can Press.
The nominees for the 2015 Edgar Awards have been announced. The awards are presented by the Mystery Writers of America and celebrate the best in the mystery genre. Here are the nominees for books for youth:
Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick
Eddie Red, Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Nick and Tesla’s Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith
Saving Kabul Corner by N. H. Senzai
Space Case by Stuart Gibbs
BEST YOUNG ADULT
The Art of Secrets by James Klise
The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano
The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson
The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Set in Toronto in the sixties, this book is about two lonely girls living in homes that attach to one another. Polly has a huge family with foster siblings too. She feels ignored by all of them, though she can’t get away from her twin brothers and their noise. That’s how she finds her way into the attic as a safe place away from the bustle of her family. Polly has always wanted to meet a ghost, which is why she thinks that Rose is a ghost the first time she hears her singing in her neighboring attic. But Rose turns out to be a real girl, who just happens to look very ghostlike too. Rose has always been able to see ghosts, and she hates it since they never leave her alone. Rose spends a lot of her days alone, no one at school talks to her, her parents are very busy business people, and the housekeeper ignores her. So the two girls quickly form a close friendship, made even closer by the frightening ghost that looks just like Rose and who threatens Polly’s life. Can the two girls figure out who this ghost is and what she wants?
I seem to be on a roll with Canadian children’s book authors lately, and this is another wonderful Canadian read. Cotter creates a mystery inside a ghost story that twists and turns delightfully along the way. Readers will think they have it all figured out and then the story will change. Yet somehow Cotter makes it all work and in the end the entire novel makes great sense, enough that readers will want to start again to see the clues they may have missed.
The writing here is exceptional. Cotter writes with a confident voice, one that allows each of these girls to be entire unique. The two of them are quite different from one another, each clearly resulting from their very divergent upbringings. The friendship also reads as real with small arguments happening regularly and the two girls having to repair these small issues. Through the entire book there is a wonderful ghostly presence, a feeling of being in a real place but one unseen by others. It’s a place that is a delight to visit.
Perfect for reading under the covers with a flashlight, this strong ghost story is both entertaining and riveting. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hermelin: The Detective Mouse by Mini Grey
Released August 5, 2014.
Hermelin is a mouse who lives in the attic of Number 33 Offley Street. His attic is filled with books and boxes and a typewriter that Hermelin uses to write with. When Hermelin notices that the Offley Street Notices board is filled with people missing things, he knows just what he has to do. So he starts working as a mouse detective and solving the mysteries of Offley Street. He does this by noticing things and then leaving typed notes for the people to help them find their missing items. Then when tragedy almost strikes the youngest person on Offley Street, Hermelin is the one to save the day! Soon everyone wants to know exactly who this Hermelin person is, so they invite him to a thank you party in his honor. He just isn’t quite what they were expecting…
A new Mini Grey book is always a treat and this one is perfectly lovely. Hermelin is a winning character with plenty of pluck as he goes about solving mysteries. Happily, the mysteries are just as small as Hermelin himself, making the book all the more jaunty and fun. Grey spends some time showing Hermelin’s attic and how he lives. The small details here add a rich warmth to the book and it is also the details that create such a vibrant world on Offley Street with the humans as well.
Done in her signature style, the illustrations are filled with details. One can read the cereal box, the milk carton, and the titles on the books as well as giggling at the flavors of cat food on the shelf. Hermelin himself is a lovely white mouse with inquisitive eyes and a face that shows emotions clearly. The entire book is a pleasure to immerse yourself into and simply enjoy.
Clever and filled with adventure, the vast appeal of this detective story is no mystery at all. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Knopf Books for Young Readers.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Cady has been spending her summers on the family’s private island for her entire life. She and her two cousins Johnny and Mirren were joined by Gat, a boy who became almost a cousin but also so much more for Cady. The foursome call themselves The Liars, and during the summers were inseparable but barely contacted one another during the rest of the year. But then one summer it all changed and now Cady can’t remember what happened. She was found bedraggled and wet on the beach of the island, alone. Now she suffers from amnesia and migraines, spending days in bed in severe pain. But she is determined to find out what happened, even if the other three refuse to contact her any more, so she returns to the island.
Lockhart has created a mystery and thriller that is written like modern poetry. She plays with construction in her novel, dancing between verse and prose masterfully. This disjointed approach to construction also speaks to the way the entire novel is deconstructed and put back together again. The book moves in time, flashing forward and backward, yet is never confusing. Still, readers will be caught in this sparkling web, unable to piece together the mystery until Lockhart is ready for the reveal. And she does it with great style and technique.
With such a character-driven book, the depiction of the characters is of paramount importance. Lockhart excels in all of her books in creating characters who are real people, human and flawed. She does the same here, creating in Cady a very complicated character that readers have to put together as a puzzle until it clicks together in the end. The other supporting characters are equally well rendered. Even the parental figures who seem stereotypical at first reveal surprising depth as the story continues.
Superbly crafted and brilliantly written, this book is one of the best of the year. Get your hands on it now! Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Delacorte Press and Edelweiss.
The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
Return to the world of the Newbery Honor book Three Times Lucky in this follow-up novel. Mo and Dale continue to run their Desperado Detective Agency but the mysteries have gotten smaller. Then an old inn goes up for sale and Miss Lana, Mo’s guardian, accidentally purchases it. That’s when it is discovered that that inn comes with a resident ghost. Now it is up to Dale and Mo to figure out why the ghost is haunting the inn, something they also manage to make into a homework assignment to do double duty. But the mystery of the ghost is tied up in other secrets in Tupelo Landing, secrets that have been kept for decades but that must be revealed to solve this mystery.
Returning to Tupelo Landing was immediately like being reunited with friends. There was catching up to do, but it was easy and warm right from the beginning. Turnage’s writing is rich and layered. She excels at descriptions, creating analogies that are surprising and constantly original. Here in Mo’s voice is a description of Lavender, the boy she plans to marry eventually:
Lavender has eyes blue as October’s sky and hair like just-mown wheat. He’s wiry and tall, and flows like a lullaby.
All of your favorite characters from the first book are back again. There are the Colonel and Miss Lana, continuing to figure out their relationship while running a restaurants whose theme changes every night. There is Grandmother Miss Lacy whose funding saves Miss Lana and the inn, but who may be dealing with secrets of her own. There is even the scary Red Baker who may be closer to the ghost than anyone else. There is even one complex new character who takes time to learn about because his secrets are held very close. And then of course there are Mo and Dale, the two detectives at the heart of the story and who give the story its heart.
Funny, heartfelt and memorable, this sequel is just as good as the award-winning original. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin Group.
Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel
Peggy is an orphan who lives with her uncle, aunt and beloved cousin, until she is thrown out of the household for refusing to marry the man her uncle has chosen for her. Peggy has few options, so she turns to a gentleman who seemed to know her mother when she was alive but whom she only met the day before. With no other choices, Peggy is drawn into the sparkling grandeur of being a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I. But she does not go as herself, instead she assumes the identity of Lady Francesca Wallingham. As Fran, she joins the circle of girls serving the queen but she also must be watchful for anyone discovering her. As the intrigue increases, Peggy realizes that anyone around her could be a spy and starts to question what happened to the real Fran.
Zettel manages the near impossible in this novel. She has a historical novel that stays true to the time period and yet manages to read as swiftly as a more modern teen novel. Without ever breaking out of the setting or inserting modern sensibilities, Peggy still manages not to turn off readers with her opinions. Readers are quickly shown what life was like for an orphaned and penniless girl in this time with a sexual assault on Peggy soon after we meet her. This helps underline her lack of power and explain why she takes on the danger that she does for the rest of the book.
Zettle plots this book with great skill, revealing the true motivations of the characters slowly. There are several mysteries at play here and more that emerge as others are figured out. The pacing of the book is don’t very well too, with enough historical detail to make sure the setting is strongly presented but never too much to slow down the speed of the storytelling.
A dark and mysterious historical novel, this is much less froth and much more intrigue and betrayal with some romance too. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson
Things have been a lot worse for Eel in the past, he now has a place off of the streets where he can sleep safely and he only goes to the River Thames to dig for things to sell to make ends meet. He has serious responsibilities that he keeps entirely private. It helps that he faked his own death to get Fisheye Bill Tyler off of his trail. But Eel still keeps his street smarts and listens, so he knows that Fisheye is back after him. Then in the summer of 1854, his entire world turns upside down and the Great Trouble begins as the Blue Death of cholera comes right into his neighborhood in London. Everyone knows that it is spread through the air, but one doctor, that Eel does small chores for, thinks differently. Now it is up to Eel to help the doctor prove that it is the water that carries the disease before hundreds more die.
Celebrating the visionary Dr. John Snow on the 200th anniversary of his birth, this book successfully mixes historical fact with historical fiction resulting in a dynamic book with engaging characters. At the outset of the book, Hopkinson takes care to make sure that readers understand what living in poverty and parentless was like in Victorian England. She shows the filth, the danger, the loneliness and the skill that it took to survive.
Eel is a wonderful protagonist. He is incredibly smart, driven to help those he cares for, and a mixture of brave and desperate, something that keeps him at the center of this medical mystery. Hopkinson does a great job of keeping all of her characters true to the time period, offering no modern sensibilities into the equation, but presenting it just as it would have been.
This is a dark and thrilling novel that will not let you escape until the epidemic is over and the mystery solved. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.