Posted in Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Dark middle grade fantasy: Room of Shadows

Room of Shadows, by Ronald Kidd, (Aug. 2017, Albert Whitman), $16.99, ISBN: 9780807568057

Recommended for readers 10-13

David finds himself with a lot of anger lately. I mean, it’s justified: his dad abandoned his mom, and they’ve been forced to move into this creepy old house. When a school bully messes with him on a bad day, David beats him up, earning some in-house grounding from his mom. That’s where he discovers the room: a secret room with an old desk and a carving of a Raven, signed, “EP”. The weird dreams start shortly after. When the incidents start at school, all involving people who David’s tangled with, everyone starts looking at him differently, including his mom and the police. How can David prove he isn’t The Raven – the person responsible for the incidents, who leaves a signed note each time? And how can he keep himself safe from The Raven, who’s fixated on him?

With a background in Edgar Allan Poe’s history, I dove eagerly into Room of Shadows. The author takes Poe into very dark territory here, for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. It’s an interesting concept, but one I had a hard time with. I didn’t really get to know David or his best friend, Libby; I felt like their character development took more of a backseat, allowing the Poe storyline to drive the plot. I did like the nod to some of Poe’s greatest hits in the story, including The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, and The Pit and the Pendulum; it’s always great to discover Poe in new fiction. This one wasn’t my book, but middle grade horror fans who are ready for something weightier than Goosebumps and Haunted Mansion may sit down with this one.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

The Gray Twins reunite in The Whispers in the Walls

Scarlet and Ivy: The Whispers in the Walls, by Sophie Cleverly, (May 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492634065

Recommended for readers 8-12

When we left Ivy Gray at the dismal Rookwood School, she had just found her lost twin, Scarlet; hidden away in an asylum by the tyrannical headmistress, who told her family that Scarlet was dead. Masquerading as Scarlet, Ivy attended Rookwood and discovered the truth about a great many secrets. The Whispers in the Walls picks up just as Ivy reunites with Scarlet and they go home, only to have their spineless father and cruel stepmother send the two girls back. Back to the school that hid one daughter in an asylum and lie about her death. Their father drops them off with a “But it’s different now, it’s still a very good school with a new headmaster”, and has the nerve to tell them he loves them after that, securing a Father of the Year award sometime in the future, I’m sure.

Things aren’t wonderful back at Rookwood. Penny, Scarlet and Ivy’s tormenting nemesis, is still there, and she’s worse than ever. Violet, Penny’s best friend, and bullying accomplice, the girl who was also hidden away at the same asylum, is sent back to Rookwood, but is quiet, withdrawn, and now rooming with Ariadne. Scarlet is insufferable to such a degree, Ivy finds herself distancing from her twin. The headmaster, the sinister Mr. Bartholomew, is a fanatical disciplinarian whose punishments go beyond reason.

The girls are thrown back into this maelstrom, with most of the student body none the wiser. But there are new secrets discovered at Rookwood; secrets about Mr. Bartholomew himself; a secret group of students from the past that may include Scarlet and Ivy’s mother, and another girl rescued from the asylum, hiding in the school.

The Whispers in the Walls is a good follow-up to The Lost Twin, but Scarlet is nearly insufferable. She’s difficult for the mere sake of being difficult, and may put off readers as much as she does her twin sister. Ivy remains a strong character who continues developing through the story; I hope she rubs off on Scarlet for future adventures. The new headmaster, Mr. Bartholomew, continues the tradition of awful school management – Rookwood seems set to go through headmasters and headmistresses like Hogwarts goes through Defense of the Dark Arts professors. There are several story threads presented in The Whispers in the Walls, only a couple of which are resolved; I’m looking forward to seeing where the third book takes us.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

Regency romance and mystery: Duels & Deception

Duels & Deception, by Cindy Anstey, (Apr. 2017, Macmillan/Swoon Reads), $10.99, ISBN: 9781250119094

Recommended for readers 12+

It’s 1817, and Lydia Whitfield is an English society heiress with her future planned out for her – even her marriage partner is planned for her, thanks to her departed father. She will run the family estate until her marriage, when Lord Aldershot, her intended, will take over the day to day work. Until then, her drunkard uncle and his unbearable wife and daughters are living at Roseberry Hall with Lydia and her mother. She wants to be free of her meddling uncle, so she contacts Mr. Robert Newton, a law clerk, to begin drawing up marriage contracts, and everything seems to be progressing nicely. Until Lydia is kidnapped!

Lydia is taken as she’s about to meet with Mr. Newton regarding the contracts, and he ends up a victim of circumstance; first kidnapped with her, then rudely thrown out of the coach. But the kidnappers aren’t very thorough, and make it way too easy for Lydia to escape (with Robert’s help). Lydia starts wondering if the kidnapping had far deeper motives than a ransom, and Mr. Newton is too happy to help her investigate. After all, it keeps him close to Lydia, who he finds himself falling for… and she feels the same about him. Can the two get to the bottom of the plot and work through their feelings for one another while maintaining a sense of propriety?

Duels & Deception is a fun mix of proper Regency romance and a complex whodunit. The kidnapping comes with an interesting twist that stands out, and the main characters engage in witty, flirty banter that is sweet and funny. I did struggle with the pace of the novel at times, but overall, romance and historical fiction fans will enjoy this one. A glossary and discussion questions round out the book.

Duels & Deception was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s 35 Most Anticipated YA Novels of 2017 and received a starred review from Voya magazine. Add Cindy Anstey’s previous historical romance, Love, Lies & Spies to your booktalking list, and spice it up a little with some superpowers, courtesy of Tarun Shanker’s These Vicious Masks series.

Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Rollin’ with the Royces: YA’s answer to the K… well, you know…

Royce Rolls, by Margaret Stohl, (Apr. 2016, Freeform), $18.99, ISBN: 9781484732335

Recommended for readers 12+

Sixteen year-old Bentley Royce is the “bad girl” member of the Royces, reality TV’s family du jour. Her family: Mercedes, her narcissistic, media-obsessed mother; Porsche, her self-absorbed sister, and her brother, Maybach, who may or may not be nurturing a gambling addiction, live the high life in the spotlight – or is that the camera glare? The thing is, it’s all an act. Bentley is the classic middle child, overlooked and unheard; the one who takes one for the team when the family needs her, whether it’s pretending to be drunk and staggering out of a nightclub or sticking her tongue out for the cameras in true “Bad Bentley” character mode. But things aren’t looking so good for the Royces as of late: the show’s sixth season is up in the air, and Mercedes is desperate to keep her family’s business on the air, no matter how outrageous the shenanigans have to be to stay there. Looks like it’s up to Bentley to pull the family out of the fire one more time.

Royce Rolls is a biting send-up of all things reality TV, taking gleeful aim at shows like that show where everyone’s name starts with a K because the matriarK Klearly needs all the attention the world Kan give. Loaded with “footnotes” from various show insiders and taking a seemingly vapid character and giving readers an inside view of the “reality” machine, we get satire, a whodunit, and a brilliant reference to Stohl’s Black Widow novels (my favorite part of the book).

The novel is narrated through press releases, news clips, and a third-party narrator. There are plenty of pop culture and reality TV references for readers to spot and laugh at; the emphasis here is on the fact that reality TV is NOT real – they have writers and character treatments, just like any fictional show. It’s about the breakdown and redemption of a family, with a mother who would sell her daughter’s first period on television to get viewers and a Hollywood machine that treats people as disposable. And it’s about how one person can decide to finally say, “Enough”.

I didn’t love Royce Rolls, in part because I found most of the characters exasperating and in part because I’m sick of 99% of reality TV. (I have my vices, I am human.) But I did enjoy it; teens will get a kick out of the references, the unexpected romance, and the satisfying ending.

Posted in Espionage, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Humor, Middle Grade

Introducing Pops and Branwell, an all-ages teamup!

shortcon_1The Short Con, by Pete Toms/Illustrated by  Aleks Sennwald, (Feb. 2017, Alternative Comics), $9.95, ISBN: 9781681480084

Recommended for ages 8-12

In the first installment of a new mystery teamup, Pops and Branwell – two orphans in an orphanage that’s a cover for a full-scale detective operation run by kids – take on their first mystery: who killed Branwell’s parents, and what does her Uncle Lamb know?

This is an all-ages graphic novel that’s too much fun; taking on the hard-boiled detective genre with kids. Branwell is the new kid, the only survivor of the fire that destroyed her life. “Pops” is the seasoned detective that takes her under her wing, with a smart comment and nickname for everyone around her. (My favorite was “Sylvia Plath” for the disconsolate Branwell.) Being assigned the new girl doesn’t sit right with Pops, who prefers to work alone, but it creates a hilarious relationship between polar opposites. The supporting cast includes a nun who wonderfully apes the frustrated boss, and a John Watson-type fangirl, who writes fanfiction adventures where she inserts herself and a “hot guy” into the detectives’ adventures. The conclusion is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the ending left me happily waiting for another installment.

Booktalk this with your Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown series. It would also work nicely with the Series of Unfortunate Events, which is getting renewed interest thanks to the Netflix series. Display with any Adventure Time graphic novels you have around; artist Aleks Senwald is a writer and storyboard artist for the series.

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Posted in Science Fiction, Steampunk, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Time fractures can cripple cities in Timekeeper

timekeeperTimekeeper, by Tara Sim, (Nov. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781510706187

Recommended for ages 13+

My first entry in this year’s Diversity Reading Challenge is Tara Sim’s Timekeeper, a steampunk story taking place in an alternate Victorian London, where clock towers control time. A damaged clock affects the populace, and if a clock is badly damaged or loses a vital part of its machinery, the town “stops”: no one dies, but no one can leave; the citizens are stuck in a time loop. That’s what happened to 17 year-old clock mechanic Danny Hart’s father three years before, and Danny’s become a mechanic in the hopes that he can free his father one day. On an assignment to a clock in the London borough of Enfield, Danny meets Colton, who throws a figurative wrench in all of Danny’s plans. Colton is a clock spirit – the essence of time for the Colton Tower clock – and the two boys fall in love. Danny knows this can’t end well, but he risks everything to be with Colton, who will find a way to keep Danny coming back to Enfield.

Some of the people of London are against the clock towers. They want time freed, uncontrolled, and stage protests that get heated. Clock towers are attacked, and Danny is blamed. He has to find a way to clear his name, keep Colton safe, and keep his father’s town safe so he can bring him home alive.

Timekeeper is the first in a planned trilogy by debut author Tara Sim. The story is very detailed – budding clock aficionados, and readers interested in the science of time (horologists – thanks, Google!) will fall in love with the lyrical way Sim discusses the delicate parts of the clocks and the idea of a spirit manifestation of each clock tower. The romance between Danny and Colton is sweet and gentle, and Danny’s feelings for men is more or less accepted, with some minor snark from the novel’s bully.

Shadowhunters fans will love this one. Get your steampunk on and put this with your Gail Carriger books, your Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld, and your old school Jules Verne and HG Wells collections.

Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Secrets revealed, but whodunit? The Cabin, by Natasha Preston

cabinThe Cabin, by Natasha Preston, (Sept. 2016, Sourcebooks Fire), $10.99, ISBN: 9781492618553

Recommended for ages 14+

A group of friends heads up to a cabin for a weekend of drinking and bonding, a last hurrah before they head to university, and their separate ways. Mackenzie grudgingly goes at her best friend, Courtney’s, behest; it’s the first time they’ve all gotten together since two of their group died in a car accident months ago. The night starts off innocently enough, but when Mackenzie wakes up the next morning, Courtney and her boyfriend, Josh, have been brutally murdered. There’s a killer among them, and Mackenzie and Josh’s brother, Blake, find themselves drawn to one another as they try to figure out who could have done this.

The Cabin is a YA whodunit. Mackenzie is desperate to find out which of her friends could have done this, partially because she wants so badly to believe that an outside force did this; that none of her friends could have the ability to betray and do something so horrific, let alone to friends in their social circle. Blake, Josh’s estranged brother, is closed off, arrogant, and trusts no one except Mackenzie. As the two dig deeper into Mackenzie’s friends’ backgrounds, they start discovering that everyone has secrets, but what would drive someone to kill? The police, especially investigator Wright, are a bit hapless – Wright is borderline obsessed with making either Blake or Mackenzie confess their guilt, and comes off more as a mustache-twirling villain than someone who’s actually helpful. Mackenzie’s parents are a bit oblivious, despite their obvious concern for their daughter. The pace is a bit slower than most whodunits, and the biggest problem here for me was that I didn’t really like any of the characters, including our heroine. The final couple of chapters kept me on edge, though, and the ending was nicely executed.

Add to your YA mystery shelf if you have a strong readership and if you have fans of the slow burn.

Posted in Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Look Past: A Teen Hunts a Killer

lookpastLook Past, by Eric Devine, (Oct. 2016, Running Press), $16.95, ISBN: 978-0-7624-5921-6

Recommended for ages 15+

A teenage girl is brutally murdered and left to be found. Mary was the daughter of a prominent pastor and was in love with Avery, a transgender teen. Shattered by Mary’s death, Avery is hell-bent on finding her killer, but it turns out that Mary’s murder was a message to Avery: repent, or you’re next. As the messages become more repulsive and the killer begins contacting Avery, letting him know that his every move is being watched, Avery has big decisions to make. Does he betray himself by doing what the killer wants? And will that really keep him safe?

Look Past is an intense, brutal book. Mary’s murder is the catalyst, setting everything in motion, and is relived throughout the book. Religious fundamentalism and the violence hate can breed play a big part in Look Past, as does identity and the importance of being true to yourself. There are points in this book where it’s almost too much to take. Avery is a character I wanted to scream at and root for; at the same time, the intensity of Devine’s writing made me want to put the book down and take a break to just breathe – and I couldn’t I finished this book in two sittings, broken up only by the need to go to sleep so I could get to work the next day.

Look Past is a gritty novel about murder in which the main character is transgender. That’s TREMENDOUS. Avery’s a strong, queer character with a supportive family that’s not without their struggles, but ultimately loves their son and supports him. Avery’s best friend and girlfriend stand with him, even when it’s a hard choice; even when it could mean their lives on the line. It’s an unputdownable novel that thriller readers will love and LGBTQ readers will embrace.

This is the second Eric Devine novel I’ve read, the first being Press Play, which looked at hazing and violence in team sports. Eric Devine attacks issues of the day with gusto and doesn’t shy away from grim details or uncomfortable situations. He writes compulsively readable novels that teens and adults alike should read – take a break from your run-of-the mill thrillers and give Look Past a shot.

Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Boarding school thriller: Assassin Game

assassin gameAssassin Game, by Kirsty McKay, (Aug. 2016, Sourcebooks Fire), $10.99, ISBN: 9781492632757
originally published July 2015 as Killer Game

recommended for ages 12+

Cate attends an isolated boarding school where, every year, a select few are chosen to play a secret game called Killer. One person in the group is designated the Killer, who will play pranks on the rest of the group, “killing” them – put a rubber snake in a desk, a brightly colored water pistol fired at just the right time – as long as it doesn’t get out of control or disrupt classes, the faculty and staff tolerate The Game. Cate is thrilled to have been chosen, because she feels like she finally belongs in this school of “superkids”: geniuses and rich kids, all. At first, the game progresses as normal, but soon, one of the players has taken the Game too far, and Cate is next on the Killer’s list. Can she figure out who the Killer is in time to save herself?

I love good thrillers, and if they take place in an out-of-the-way location like a school, library, old hospital, even better. The Assassin Game has a great setting: a Welsh boarding school in the middle of nowhere, and an interesting cast of characters, but it does take a little while to build up steam. It’s a quick read, and there are some great pranks, plus high school friendship/relationship drama to bring things to a simmer and add some fuel to the whodunit fire. There’s not a lot of depth to the characters, but there doesn’t really need to be; that’s not what this book is about. You learn what you need to about them, and you learn enough to try and figure out motivations and who would have reason to burn whom.

If you have readers that like a slow-burn thriller with a satisfying payoff, give Assassin Game a shot.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Murder on The Transatlantic Express? The Transatlantic Conspiracy

transatlantic consThe Transatlantic Conspiracy, by G.D. Falksen (June 2016, Soho Press), $18.99, ISBN: 978-1616954178

Recommended for ages 12+

It’s 1908, and 17 year-old Rosalind Wallace, daughter of a self-made millionaire industrialist, is vacationing in England, spending time with her best friend, Cecily de Vere. Cecily’s family is high-society, old moneyed England, and treats Rosalind as more of a curiosity, even referring to her as “my peasant”. Where Cecily eschews intellectual pursuits and seeks a full dance card during party season, Rosalind is more adventurous; her father has used her to promote his inventions for years, and she’s quite brilliant. When her father calls for her to return back to the States by way of his newest venture, the Transatlantic Express – an underwater railway – Cecily and her handsome brother, Charles, offer to journey with Rosalind.

The problems begin almost immediately, when Charles goes missing while boarding the train; things take a turn for the worst when Cecily and her maid are discovered murdered in their room. Rosalind tries to deal with her grief while proving her innocence and conducting her own investigation into her friend’s murder.

There is so much rich material to draw on in The Transatlantic Conspiracy, but it never fully realized its potential. It’s promoted as a YA novel, but reads more like a middle grade book; the black and white illustrations throughout the book add to this overall look and feel. The characters are stiff, with little development; there are some interesting concepts glanced over, but we don’t get much in the way of development. The detective on the train is one-dimensional but borders on being so much more. Cecily is victimized by her lack of development; all we get is a vapid party girl who, it turns out, is more than she seems, but gets killed off so early on, that I guess we’ll eventually find out about her, posthumously, in subsequent adventures.

I was hoping for more from The Transatlantic Conspiracy. It may be a good introduction to readers who aren’t typical steampunk readers, but fans of the genre may be let down. I’m going to test this one out with the kids in my library and see how it goes; I’ll report back.