I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
In short: If Sherlock Holmes were an 11-year-old girl and a mad scientist to boot, he would be drawn into the mystery of a murdered actress, too.
I know, these books are being sold to the adult mystery market. But The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, A Red Herring without Mustard, and Bradley's latest are some of my current favorites and do star a child. Flavia de Luce is at once poignant in her loneliness and hilarious in her ruthlessness. She lives in a crumbling British manor house with her depressed, stamp-collecting father and her often-cruel older sisters. (The year is 1950/1951.) Is it any wonder Flavia falls in love with chemistry, particularly poisons? In this fourth book, a film crew comes to make a movie, but a blizzard and a murder turn the film shoot into a mystery for Flavia to solve.
Why do I include the Flavia de Luce mysteries in a YA roundup? Because, as any YA editor worth her salt will tell you, Young Adult fiction is all about voice—and Flavia's voice is marvelous. My favorite passages are about her interactions with a war-damaged family retainer named Dogger (who seems to be the only person keeping an eye on this crazy kid):
"As you know, Miss Flavia, my memory is not what it once was."
"Never mind, Dogger," I said, patting his hand. "Neither is mine. Why, just yesterday I had a thimbleful of arsenic in my hand, and I put it down somewhere. I can't for the life of me think what I could have done with it."
"I found it in the butter dish," Dogger said. "I took the liberty of setting it out for the mice in the coach house."
"Butter and all?" I asked.
"Butter and all."
"But not the dish."
"But not the dish," Dogger said.
Why aren't there more people like Dogger in the world?
And who else but Flavia would try to prove the existence of Father Christmas scientifically by laying a trap for him? Who else would set off rockets on the roof while solving a crime, for that matter? No wonder the local police inspector is both aghast and fascinated by this child.
I mean, I almost don't care what the mystery is: I just want to see more of Flavia!
Liar's Moon by Elizabeth Bunce
In short: A young thief tries to clear her aristocratic friend from charges of murder and discovers a morass of intrigue while war threatens.
This sequel to Starcrossed finds Digger back in the city, where she is arrested and thrown in a cell with her friend Lord Durrel Decath, who once saved her life. It turns out Durrel has been accused of murdering his wife. Once released, Digger investigates out of a mixture of loyalty, compassion, and curiosity. The investigation moves rather slowly, but then, clues don't drop out of the sky in real life, do they? Digger eventually uncovers troubles having to do with the smuggling of Sarists (illegal magic makers), even as she tries to decide for herself whether Durrel is guilty or innocent. The book ends with a really great twist.
Liar's Moon is a little akin to Tamora Pierce's Mastiff (see below) in that it features a dogged young investigator trying to get at the truth. Digger is tough, impatient, and thoroughly likable. While I sometimes feel that events move Digger in this book more than Digger moves events, she does find herself in the middle of some very big actions on the part of major players. And no matter what, Digger keeps working away at the mystery of the murder Durrel has been accused of committing.
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
In short: Everyone believes Jack the Ripper has returned to London in the present day, and only Rory seems to see him as he stalks his victims.
Rory moves to London to attend a boarding school when her parents get a sabbatical abroad. She is in the midst of adapting to roommates and major British exams when she notices a strange man on the street—and learns that someone is replicating Jack the Ripper's murders one by one, each on the date of the original murders. But the someone doesn't appear to be human. Has the ghost of Jack the Ripper returned?
I got this book because I really like Maureen Johnson's writing, though I'm not big on Jack the Ripper as a topic. Johnson certainly knows her way around a story. Our girl Rory turns out to be a special kind of ghost whisperer. She isn't the only one, either.
There are a lot of books like this series start out there right now, but Johnson happens to be a better writer than most. In her hands, a tattered genre takes on a fresh feel. I look forward to Book 2 in the Shades of London series.
Possess by Gretchen McNeil
In short: Bridget can banish demons, not a life skill she was really hoping for. She joins a team of exorcists, but starts to suspect she is being used.
I was a little hesitant to read this book, I have to say. On the one hand, it's by a cool fellow author from the Enchanted Inkpot blog, Gretchen McNeil. On the other hand, I'm one of those people who never did and never will watch The Exorcist. Ya know?
Fortunately, this book is more of a paranormal suspense book than a horror story (though there are a few horror elements). I like how main character Bridget Liu is not happy about her ability and the subsequent pressure from Catholic priests to exercise it for the good of the community. This seems more normal to me than all those books where the teen is either blasé or thrilled about having supernatural powers.
And of course, Bridget trusts all the wrong people, or distrusts the right people. I think most readers will be way ahead of her on that one, but it's still fun to watch her figure things out. Bridget is a piece of work, and her tough 'tude makes for a more interesting story. Subplots with her males buddies and her mom's potential boyfriends add to the ups and downs of Bridget's life. I want to see more of this girl!
Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John
In short: A defiant deaf girl becomes the manager of a high school band named Dumb and learns through trial and error what music is really about.
Five Flavors of Dumb is now out in paperback, having debuted in November of 2010 and won the 2011 Schneider Family Teen Book award. That's the award given for the best book of the year about a young person with a disability.
Both at home and at school, Piper must deal with people who are uncomfortable about her deafness. On the home front, her parents have raided the college fund her grandparents left her to pay for an operation to make Piper's baby sister hearing rather than deaf. This sends all kinds of painful messages to Piper, whose father seems especially uncomfortable with her deafness.
At school, Piper stumbles into being the manager of a band named Dumb and makes them an outrageous promise she feels compelled to keep. Even with the help of an aging rocker and her guitar-blessed little brother, she struggles to make things work. It doesn't help that she has a crush on the lead singer, or that he has a crush on what appears to be a stereotypical rich mean girl. But nobody is quite what they seem in this immediate and well-told story. John brings the pieces of his tale together beautifully. You'll want to listen to all your favorite music before, after, and during Five Flavors of Dumb.
Mastiff by Tamora Pierce
In short: Beka Cooper's back, called on to find the king's child after he is kidnapped in an absolute bloodbath tainted by dark magic.
I've been waiting breathlessly for this one! I liked Pierce's Alanna and Kel series (Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small). I also enjoyed the Immortals series. I'll admit that I wasn't too crazy about the Circle of Magic books. However, I really like the Beka Cooper books, which combine police procedural with magic. Beka is a member of the Provost's Guards, a tough and dedicated group of cops in the fantasy land of Tortall. (Think late Middle Ages, only with magic.)
When the young prince is kidnapped, Beka and her partner Tunstall set out in hot—or rather, methodical—pursuit. They are accompanied by Beka's scent hound, Achoo; her occasional companion Pounce, a powerful being in the shape of a cat; a mage named Master Farmer who is less of a bumpkin than he seems; and Sabine, the lady knight who is Tunstall's lover. The people they are after leave ugly spells behind to stop the "dogs." The kidnapping is, of course, highly political.
Beka herself is persistent, honorable, and courageous. She also has a few tricks up her sleeve. My favorite is that she can talk to whirlwinds and to the spirits of the dead who sometimes hover for a brief time within the bodies of pigeons.
We also get a growing attraction between Beka and the exasperating Master Farmer. Plus some great twists and turns in the plot. After all, very few writers can make a story and its characters seem as real and intriguingly complex as Pierce can. I recommend you get the first two books and read all three in order. Immerse yourself in Beka's world!
Supernaturally by Kiersten White
In short: In this sequel to Paranormalcy, Evie has a normal life at last—and she's bored. Soon she's sucked into helping the International Paranormal Containment Agency again.
It's hard to write a second book, especially when the first book is full of action and suspense. Where do you go next? What we get is Evie sneaking out to work for the IPCA again without 'fessing up to boyfriend Lend, who is off at college and can't keep an eye on her the way he did before. Evie worries a lot about something she's realized about Lend, but doesn't tell him what she knows. Meanwhile, her missions for the IPCA throw her together with a strange, puckish boy named Jack. He is supposedly a fellow agent, but readers will guess within moments of meeting him that he has his own agenda.
Evie does encounter creepy-cool fairy Reth again and even travels to the fairy world. She also tries to figure out who is sabotaging the IPCA's work. Oh, and she reluctantly applies to college.
So now we're up to three guys more-or-less vying for Evie's attention: Lend, Reth, and Jack. Sort of. Reth's still got that fairy stalker thing going, Lend is gone for much of the book, and the author's characterization of Jack simply screams "untrustworthy."
I will say that White does a good job of re-imagining a couple of key characters, sending the series in a slightly new direction. This book doesn't flow as well as the first one, and Evie whines a bit too much, but it's not bad. I figure, hang in there; Book 3 is sure to pick up steam!
Virals and Seizure by Kathy Reichs
In short: Temperance Brennan's niece Tory and her three buddies acquire super senses while solving the mystery of some rogue science in the islands off Charleston. Book 2 is about pirate treasure.
I talked about the Virals books in my recent post about crossover writers, or adult authors writing books for teens. I'm a fan of the TV show, Bones, as well, so I thought I'd give the books a try.
Reichs is an accomplished storyteller, and both books are fun to read. In Virals, Tory and her three guy friends infiltrate the island lab where their parents work to rescue a half-wolf pup that has disappeared from the woods. The puppy is sick, but parvo isn't communicable to humans, so it's okay, Tory reasons. Only, the pup isn't sick with an ordinary virus...
Redheaded Tory is the queen bee here, at least in her little group of science geeks. There's moody possible-love-interest Ben; technical guru Shelton, who's African American, thank you; and chunky Hi (Hiram), who's Jewish. Tory also deals with jealous, rich mean girls at school and a hunky rich guy who sometimes pays attention to her. And then there's her father's girlfriend, who wants to turn tomboy Tory into a Southern debutante.
Tory and her team investigate the growing mystery on Loggerhead Island. They discover a corpse and get shot at, but ultimately lack the evidence to convince their parents that something is really wrong. Oh, and there are monkeys. Don't forget the monkeys!
The second book finds Tory and Co. with enhanced abilities. As they deal with the unnerving changes, they also search for pirate Anne Bonny's treasure, hoping to save the research facility where their parents work. The first book is pretty good, but Seizures is better paced and hangs together better than Virals, which suffers from a mild case of scene-setting.
This budding series reminds me of those old books about the Three Investigators, only dialed up several notches. Tory would be Jupiter Jones, with the three boys as sidekicks. Keep in mind that first and foremost, Reichs' new stories for younger readers are adventures. They are definitely an entertaining read.
All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin
In short: Anya is the daughter of a dead crime boss in a future New York City in which caffeine and chocolate are illegal. Did she really try to kill somebody with poisoned chocolate?
Think Prohibition. For that matter, think the drug wars. Zevin postulates that whatever is illegal will be bought and sold by crime families. In her future New York City (2083), that would be chocolate. Coffee and chocolate. Anya deals with her life as best she can: she goes to school, avoiding her idiot ex; tries to keep her brain-damaged older brother out of trouble; looks after her little sister; cares for her grandmother, who is slowly dying; and tries to keep a lid on her awful cousin. Then someone uses her family's chocolate stash to poison said idiot ex, framing Anya for the crime. Anya is thrown into a juvenile facility, where she is treated very badly. When she gets out, she must deal with the fallout from a recent development—a new boyfriend who's the assistant DA's son. (For some reason, his father isn't very happy about that.) Furthermore, Anya gets in a fight with her best friend, and she still has to figure out who really poisoned Gabe.
I like Anya a lot. Here she talks about dressing up for a party. Note that many things are scarce in her day.
I went to my bedroom to find something to wear other than my old bathrobe. Nana once told me that, in her day, the way we dressed was called vintage. New clothing production had all but ceased a decade ago, and a sartorial concoction like Scarlet's required a lot of effort and planning. Unlike my best friend, I hadn't put any thought into my outfit for that evening. I threw on an old dress of my mother's—red jersey, short and swingy but with a modest neckline. It had a hole in the armpit but I wasn't planning on doing a lot of hand-raising anyway.
The pieces of the story may seem familiar, but Zevin makes them new, and not just because of her dystopian world building. Zevin has a knack for putting the reader inside the soap opera that is Anya's life without being too over the top. These days, you'll find dystopian books all over the place, many of them much harsher. But All These Things I've Done is the one I suggest you track down and read.
Note for Worried Parents: Virals and Seizure are okay for older MG readers. (Amazon lists them for 12 and up.) The rest feel more mature—they are books for teens, of course. Mastiff and Liar's Moon both allude briefly to sex. Then there's All These Things I've Done, which has a character refusing to sleep with her boyfriend because, she tells him, she's too young, she doesn't love him, and she wants to wait till marriage because she's Catholic. Possess and Mastiff have some strong violence. Possess is about demonic possession and exorcism.