The Things She’s Seen: Thriller, Murder Mystery, Ghost Story

Cindy: Fans of We Were Liars are going to want to read The Things She’s Seen (Knopf, 2019), another novel that begs to be read again as soon as you finish. Beth is dead but she hasn’t passed on. Her father is the only one who can see and hear Beth. He is a detective, lost in grief over first losing Beth’s mother a few years earlier, and then Beth. She thinks he needs something to think about so when a new case arises about a mysterious fire at a children’s home, she encourages him to take the case. While they investigate, Beth can observe and overhear things her living father cannot, aiding his detective work. While interviewing a surly teenage witness, Isobel Catching, Beth realizes that Isobel can see her, too. Isobel knows things about the fire and the school’s history but she is not quick to share. She has stories to tell, but is she willing, and are Beth and her father willing to listen carefully? Isobel tells her stories in magical realism verse, poems, and stories based on secrets and hard truths. The Aboriginal brother and sister storytellers weave painful Aboriginal history and racism into this haunting tale, spun from threads of folklore. As the story comes to a close, readers will want to return to the beginning to see how these storytellers wove such an intriguing tale. And, they’ll be begging their friends to read it, too, so they can talk it over. All this in under 200 pages! Yes!

Lynn: As Cindy says, remarkable young writers, Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, have packed a lot in this slim book! It somehow manages to be thriller, murder mystery, and supernatural ghost story with Palyku traditional tales all in one. Woven in are threads of dealing with grief, finding one’s voice, the powerful strengths of family bonds, the healing nature of storytelling, historical tragedies, and the monsters that lurk in our midst. This is a debut novel and the Kwaymullinas write with a powerful maturity, skillfully blending all these elements into a remarkable whole that is totally absorbing from start to finish. This is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.

Gather some snacks, settle into your reading chair, take a deep breath, and open to the first page. You won’t want to stop ’til the book is done!

Graphic Novel Round-Up – Something for Every Reader

Lynn and Cindy: A flock of fabulous graphic novels has swept onto our doorsteps lately and we’ve been happily flying through them. There’s something here for every interest and every age and we’ve been loving them all. Here’s a quick round-up of some of what we’ve been enjoying, starting with graphic novels for high school readers and moving on through to one for our youngest readers.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki (First Second, 2019)

This is an absolutely brilliant look at love in a toxic relationship. Charismatic Laura Dean flies in and out of Freddie’s life, bewitching and beguiling her, taking complete advantage of Freddie’s adoration, stomping on her heart whenever she feels like it and leaving Freddie diminished at every turn.

We’ve all watched relationships like this. Maybe we’ve been IN a relationship like this. Tamaki nails the dynamics, the helpless attraction, the hurt that grows bigger and more destructive each time and the hope that THIS time will be different. Masterfully nuanced illustrations heighten the sense of being there and watching a dear friend walk back into the buzzsaw once again. High Schoolers exploring relationships will love and learn from this story.

Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis (Walker, 2019)

A stunningly beautiful graphic story loosely based on the history of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. While it was fun to notice the parallels, it isn’t necessary to know the history as Meconis creates her own richly immersive story full of period details, evocative characters, and vivid setting. The main protagonist, Margaret, an orphaned child who came to the island surrounded in mystery, is instantly endearing and readers experience the unfolding events along with her.

Meconis’ illustrations are gorgeous but they are also a brilliant part of the storytelling. Each panel has its own part to play in carrying the tale forward, providing important details and developing the characters. This is a visual treat but it is also masterful graphic storytelling. Readers ranging from high school to upper elementary will love the characters, the warmly human touches of humor, the historical feel, the fascinating political intrigue and the feel of an illuminated manuscript. Outstanding book design adds to all these masterfully done elements to make this an imaginative and immersive reading experience.

Sunny Rolls the Dice, by Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm (Graphix, 2019)

Middle school is fraught with changing friendships as tweens shift interests, alliances, and struggle to be “cool.” Some mature more quickly than others, some don’t care what others think, and some long for acceptance by a popular group, or are distraught when good friends leave them by the wayside. As a middle school librarian, I’ve watched these friendship struggles for decades. The Holms have captured the essence of this passage in this newest book in the series that started with Sunny Side Up. Sunny’s best friend has discovered boys, fashion, and makeup while Sunny doesn’t understand why they can’t pursue those interests while still playing Dungeons & Dragons with boys they are only trying to slay in the game. 70s memories of the perils of hot rollers and smelly rental roller skates bring the setting alive for those of us who lived through it…and it’s fun historical fiction with a timeless look at friendship for the intended audience.

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix, 2019)

Does this book need promotion? Probably not, but given the reception it’s received in my middle school, not because it is Raina’s new book, but due to the subject matter, it’s worth highlighting to be sure you don’t miss it. Telgemeier continues her graphic memoir series with this new entry about what anxiety can do physically and mentally to a child (or an adult). Scholastic published an initial print run of 1 million copies, according to this Forbes! article about the release. Grab your copies quickly, they are already thinking of a second run to meet demand.

The Singing Rock & Other Brand-New Fairy Tales, by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (First Second, 2019)

Here’s a graphic novel that is great for the Gr. 2-6 set. Bright, funny and also gorgeously illustrated stories tell four slightly twisted fairy tales that are joyful hoot.

Perfect for the young child who will appreciate the humor and I think middle school kids would love it if they’d be brave enough to look past the young appearance of the book. Besides being wonderful fun, this would make a GREAT writing prompt.

 

Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth – Masterful Storytelling

Lynn:  Ask a reader what they are looking for in a book and you will get a myriad of answers. Some want to be informed, others seek to be uplifted, diverted, or entertained. Some readers want a thriller, or a mystery, while others want romance, a good laugh, or a satisfying cry. But I am convinced that what is basic to all readers is the love of story. There are few writers working today who tell a better story than Philip Pullman. Since The Golden Compass (Random/Knopf, 1995) burst into the children’s book world, Pullman has enthralled readers. He has also challenged, enraged, confused, and astonished readers at times but his richly inventive books have never failed to weave a story like no other.

His latest, The Secret Commonwealth (Random/Knopf, 2019) has just published and I dropped everything else to read it. I will admit to groaning when I first got it and discovered that it was 633 pages long! As a book reviewer with towering stacks of books waiting to be read, that 633 pages meant that 3 other books got pushed way back in the queue! But Pullman worked his magic again and I was snared from the first word, sinking with exquisite pleasure back into Lyra’s world. I speak from the heart here when I say that I was immediately deeply immersed in the story. 633 pages flew by. I hated having to put the book down, thought about it when I wasn’t reading it, and found every reason to return to it. I’m thinking about it still. Philip Pullman is a master storyteller and this book should not be missed.

Plot??? I can’t begin to do it justice. Let’s just say that this is 8 years after The Amber Spyglass (Random/Knopf, 2000) and 20 after the events of La Belle Sauvage (Random/Knopf, 2017). Lyra is now 20, a student at St. Sophia’s College, and deeply miserable because she and her daemon Pantalaimon have quarreled seriously and are barely speaking to each other. Can you hate your own soul? Authoritarianism is rising, there are desperate immigrants fleeing horrors in their homeland, once benign governments shaping information to manipulate their citizens, brutal terrorists, and cynicism and scorn rule. There are journeys and mysteries, love and sacrifice, hope and despair, good people and bad, and of course, the question of the secret commonwealth. This is a magnificent sweeping story and I loved every word. There is also a whopping cliff-hanger that has left me bereft as I try to calculate how long I have to wait till the next book. This reader cannot wait.

Cindy: A few weeks ago, before even realizing that The Book of Dust, book 2, was imminent, I showed the HBO His Dark Materials book trailer to my 8th graders before book talks. Every copy of The Golden Compass circulated, something I hadn’t achieved through my booktalks. The first episode of the HBO series airs November 3rd. Then Lynn alerted me to her reserved library copy of The Secret Commonwealth and I ordered the audiobook immediately. I am happily immersed in the story, about halfway through, and can’t wait to get back in my car each day. Lyra and Pantalaimon’s arguments are fierce and heartbreaking and the narration makes them come painfully to life. Michael Sheen did such a beautiful job narrating La Belle Sauvage that I knew I wanted to listen again. It will take me longer to read it, but as Lynn said, we don’t want this story to end.

Sorry for Your Loss – a Look at Family Grief

Lynn: Jessie Ann Foley has just 3 novels under her writing belt but she has garnered a lot of honors already including a Printz Honor, a YALSA Teen Top Ten selection, and a Morris Debut Award Finalist among other honors. Despite this, I was totally unprepared for the emotional power and impact of Foley’s new book, Sorry for Your Loss (Harper, 2019). This story opens with a funny scene that introduces readers to Pup Flanagan, an awkward unmotivated high school boy and reveals his hopeless crush on a classmate. Then Foley broadens the view, bringing in the other members of the large and noisy Flanagan family—a Chicago Catholic family with 7 kids. Pup is the youngest at 17 and his siblings all live within a short distance in what he thinks of as “Flanland.” But this close and loving family is struggling with crippling grief over the sudden death of one of the sons from meningitis and they are all lost and alone in the midst of the family crowd.

An art teacher takes an interest in Pup and in a lucky moment, opens a door for Pup into the unusual experience of finding something he is good at and enjoys. Through his camera lens, Pup begins to really see his world, his family, his relationships and his own pain and his family’s anguish with an objective eye for the first time. Helping Pup with his photography and giving him experience with another family is Abrihet, an Eritrean immigrant girl from his art class who encourages Pup to keep looking for the light. As Pup finally begins to deal with this grief, he slowly takes his family with him on a journey that may help them all to heal.

This is a deceptively quiet book. It is written with a slight sense of distance that allows the reader to walk this emotional path with Pup while also looking on with an objective sense at the entire arc of their family dynamics. I found this story incredibly powerful and deeply moving. It is a brilliant portrait of family relationships and the way so many families deal—or don’t deal—with grief. Pup is a charming and achingly authentic character who stole my heart as did the entire Flanagan mob. I won’t soon forget them.

While this is a wonderful moving book for older teens, I think it will be equally effective as a cross-over book for the new adult and adult readers.

Finding Her Voice – The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Lynn: Finding your voice is an important theme of teen books. In Stacey Lee’s new historical fiction, The Downstairs Girl (Penguin/Putnam, 2019), we meet a young girl for whom speaking at all literally means risking the roof over her head and the food on the table. Jo Kuan works as a maid to the cruel and selfish daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Atlanta. She goes home at night to a secret basement home under the offices of The Focus, an Atlanta newspaper. Originally a part of the Underground Railroad, the little apartment is unknown to the upstairs Bell family and Jo has grown up knowing she and her grandfather must not make a sound to reveal their presence. Living in earshot of the lively Bell family has given Jo a wonderful education and vocabulary to assist her already sharp, curious mind and growing sense of justice. But Jo is Chinese in the Atlanta of 1890 and the Chinese, many of whom were brought to the South during the Reconstruction to work the plantations, are discriminated against in both law and society. So even outside of their little home, Jo must keep her thoughts to herself.

But then Jo wangles a job as the new advice columnist for The Focus – anonymously. Not even the young editor, handsome Nathan Bell, knows the identity of the Dear Miss Sweetie column and the success of the new column skyrockets. Gradually Jo takes on discrimination, women’s rights, and injustice in Atlanta and her columns and comments are the talk of the town. As deeply buried secrets about Jo’s past surface and controversy swirls, Jo begins to wonder if the price of speaking up is way too high.

Lee has once more done a stellar job of weaving fascinating history into a lively and highly entertaining story. I knew nothing of the history of Chinese immigrants in the South and the story also includes a less-than-flattering picture of the embedded discrimination in the suffragette movement, as well as the social and legal restrictions on women and minorities that existed at the time. The book is packed with vivid and well-developed characters and Jo, in particular, won my heart from the very first page. As Jo truly finds her voice and speaks up for herself and others, readers will cheer.

Cindy: The “Agony Aunt” columns, as they were nicknamed at the time, were often written by male journalists pretending to be female authors but Jo’s identity is a dangerous secret, and there are plenty of other dangers that keep the plot moving along. Interspersed with the serious themes and events, are chapter-opening sample advice responses to Miss Sweeties fan mail, some tongue in cheek and others with a good dose of snark. This story gallops to a finish, perhaps a little too neatly, but all but the most cynical readers will be cheering as author and protagonist cross the finish line. I’d love to see this book brought to film. Definitely recommend this one to fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s novel, These Shallow Graves (Delacorte, 2015), another 19th-century story with a feisty heroine, a family mystery, and issues of social and gender injustice.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager – YA Snark with a Sighting of Sweetness

Lynn: Opening the pages of Ben Philippe’s debut book, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2019) was like opening my own front door to hear the voices of my sons and grandsons. No, they aren’t Black Haitian hockey-loving Canadians like Norris Kaplan but they were/are smart, snarky, and cynical but with a sweet vulnerability and sometimes a little too clever for their own good. Seventeen-year-old Norris’s recently divorced mother has taken a rare tenure-track position in her obscure field at the University of Texas in Austin. Dragged metaphorically kicking and screaming from his home, friends, father and beloved Habs to attend high school in Austin, Norris knows just what to expect from watching American sitcoms: mean brainless cheerleaders, bullying jocks, clueless nerds and loners! Assigned to keep a writing journal in class, Norris records his observation of the “species” in his field guide and his entries are hilarious but also smugly dismissive.

Norris plans to keep his head down, get through the year and get home to Montreal as soon as possible but despite himself, Norris makes a friend, meets a stunning girl, takes a part-time job, and begins to realize it is not all that easy to lump people into neat stereotypes. Could his field observations be wrong?

This was laugh-out-loud funny with spot-on snarky dialog and such a clever premise. The endearing cast of characters was the real highlight of this book and Norris especially stole my heart. He is working so hard at being cynical but Philippe does a stellar job of giving readers revealing glimpses of Norris’s basic sweetness and the vulnerability he works so hard at concealing. As Norris matures through the course of the story, he begins to see beyond his own assumptions and so does the reader’s understanding of the real depth of all the characters. Early on, I settled in, happy to follow the plot of what I thought was going to be a predictable trajectory. But a surprise twist took the story in an unexpected direction. This was still satisfying but it made the book that much more intriguing for me.

Don’t miss this clever “field guide” and stay tuned for Ben Philippe’s next observation of the teen species.

Updated: Want more? Check out this All Things Considered NPR interview with Ben.

Royal Reads for Teens

Lynn: American fascination with the British Royals is strong and authors for teens have brought the subject across the pond. So if Meghan Markle watching is hot at your library, here are two 2019 titles that will rate the royal wave:

American Royals (Random, Sept. 2019) by Katharine McGee asks why the Brits should have all the fun? This story posits that back in 1781 at the Battle of Yorktown George Washington accepted the offer to become King of America. Jump forward 250 years and the colonial monarchy is still going strong. Beatrice Georgina Frederika Louise of the House of Washington is Princess Royal of America and next in line to the throne. And there are not one but two spares, her younger twin siblings, Prince Jefferson and Princess Samantha. Beatrice has taken her royal role seriously but now she is faced with the need to marry for the future of the kingdom. Can she do this when her heart is taken by a commoner?

McGee has loads of fun with this concept, providing an alternate history and an American aristocracy. The Duke of Boston and the Earl of Huron anyone? She also works in the pre-requisite wild younger royals, noble mean girls, “prince poachers,” and duty vs the heart debate. Stay tuned for the next installment.

 

 

 

Next up is Her Royal Highness (Penguin/Putnam, 2019) by Rachel Hawkins, a companion novel to one of my favorites from last year. Originally titled Royals (Penguin/Putnam, 2018) it has been re-titled as Prince Charming. This story features Flora, daughter of the current Scottish king and sister to Andrew, heir to the throne. Like the first book, this story follows an American girl whose life becomes embroiled with the Scottish royals. Here, Millie Quint is a scholarship student from Texas to the illustrious boarding school, Gregorstoun. Millie is thrilled to be part of the first-ever female class at the previously all-male prep school. Her new roommate, however, sees attendance there as a penance! The two girls are as different as two people can be and dislike each other on sight. But as the term proceeds, the irritation between the two turns to attraction. Does this romance between a geeky geologist and a royal fashionista stand a chance?

This installment is just as much fun as the first one and many characters from Royals add to the fun by joining the story. Sweet and witty, this one will please old fans and make new ones.

 

Cindy: For more royal fun, check out Lynn’s post at our previous blog home of ten years, this royal post at the Booklist Reader.