Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘mystery

cover image for Court of FivesCourt of Fives by Kate Elliot

Jes and her three sisters couldn’t be more different, and they fight and squabble as siblings do. Yet when it comes down to it, they’ve got each others backs.  Which is fortunate, as she needs their help to do what she loves best: training for the Fives, a sport that requires quick thinking, agility, stamina, and strength.  But when Jes’ father returns from war, her plans to finally compete – something he would never approve of – are thrown in disarray.  Soon the rest of her life is as well, and Jes will need to use all of the skills that make her a great athlete to keep her family safe.

full disclosure, before I get into WHY THIS BOOK IS SO AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD READ IT:acknowledgements page from Court of Fives

(yeah, I really just put that there bc: OMG)

I adore Kate Elliot’s books, and Court of Fives is no exception.  I’ve been eager to see how/what she does with YA, and now that I have I’m so very glad she did.  I love the way that Elliot handles Jes as an athlete, and her relationships with her sisters.  And I especially love that she made Jes’ social standing so complex, that it’s not as simple as her family being rich and her father having status, nor simply that Jes and her sisters are biracial in an extremely racist society.

And I really, really, really, would love to go into more detail about WHY this book is so awesome, but it’s not coming out for another half a year, and I may want to pitch a longer/actual review.  SO YOU WILL ALL JUST HAVE TO WAIT.

Sorry! I know you all hate me now. I promise I will rave about this book in much more detail this summer, closer to when it comes out.

cover image for The Agency: A Spy in the HouseThe Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

Twelve year old Mary Quinn was supposed to hang for her crime.  Instead she was given a chance to start a new life as a pupil at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.   Now, five years later, seventeen year old Mary Quinn knows that she should be grateful for everything she has been given – and she is – yet the idea of spending her life as a tutor at the school or as a maid in someone else’s house fills Mary with dread rather than hope.  She’s not afraid of work, but she can’t help wishing that there were other options out there for an young lady with education but no family or fortune.  Then, for the second time in her life, she’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity – this time, to be trained as a spy.  But can Mary keep not only the Agency’s secrets safe, but also the Agency from learning the truth about her own heritage?

This book has so many awesome moments. It also, unfortunately, has a bit too much boyfriend and not enough roller derby for my tastes.*  Still, it’s a lovely book that manages to be delightfully surprising in many ways.  It also does a wonderful job of handling Mary’s secret, which happens to be that [she’s biracial, passing for white. Also, that her mother sometimes earned her way as a sex worker.]   Mary’s status, situation, and relationships make this book a refreshing contrast to the more typical young adult novels set in Victorian London, which tend to be about young ladies of a certain social class, and treat the few non-white characters in them as oddities and visitors rather than Londoners.

*the phrase is from lj user buymeaclue.  I’d link, but the journal is now friendslocked. :p

cover image for The Nine TailorsThe Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

When bad weather causes Lord Peter Whimsey’s car to miss a bridge and drive off the road instead, it leads to a chance encounter with a rector named Mr. Venables,  Which later leads to Mr. Venables writing to Lord Peter for help when the wrong corpse is found in a local grave.

Oh, and there’s lots of stuff about church bells.

The Nine Tailors is very much “of it’s time” – this isn’t a style of writing that you’d find in any modern novel (that I can think of).  It may be harder for some readers to get through, but I rather liked it.  I especially loved how multi-dimensional and opinionated all the women were – something that is lacking in far too many novels, recent or otherwise, especially ones with male protagonists.

There are a few times where modern readers may want to shout at the characters “haven’t you ever seen a TV mystery before?” …and then quickly remember that of course they haven’t, and neither had Sayer’s contemporary audience.  But the book still managed to keep me guessing and turning the pages, despite that.

I’m also enough of a nerd that I loved the mystery surrounding the coded letters and also the math of how the bells were rung (even if it took me most of the book to realize how it worked).

cover image for Once A WitchOnce a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough

Tamsin Greene is determined to find her own path in life, one far from the family that seems to pity her.  It’s not easy living in the shadow of a perfect older sister.  It’s even harder when you’re also the odd one out in a very close knit extended family, the only one who can’t do magic.  But when a stranger walks into her grandmother’s bookstore one night while Tamsin is working, she finds herself inexplicably pretending to be her perfect sister.  And promising to help the stranger with the kind of task only someone with Talent could manage.

I really enjoyed this book – up until about the last third of it, when it felt like all of the revelations were just a bit too recycled.  Especially for a young adult fantasy novel published post-Twilight.  The writing was not spectacular, but it was engaging enough.  I’ll likely give the sequel a try, but my expectations won’t be very high.  Perhaps it will surprise me?

cover image for The Lost SteersmanThe Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein

Following the devastating and tragic events of The Outskirter’s Secret, Rowan and Bel have temporarily parted ways.  Bel is staying behind with her own people, to do what she can to keep them safe, and to help maintain peace between the Outskirts and the  Inner Lands.  Rowan, after informing the Archives of what she has learned, has settled for a time in Alemeth, hoping to find some clues as to the location and identity of Slado in the disordered records there.  While there she runs into Janus, the lost Steersman, and is faced with the dilemma of wishing she could trade information with him while he remains under the Steerswomen’s ban.  When Outskirter demons begin attacking Alemeth, and it becomes clear that Janus is no stranger to dealing with them, Rowan knows that she must learn his secrets, no matter the cost.

There’s a definite shift in tone in this book, largely due to Bel’s absence.  As much as I missed the banter and teamwork between the two women, this is still an amazing book.  Kirstein’s ability to explain things scientifically and clearly, and with prose that remains imaginative and engaging, is used extensively here.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else writing scenes like the ones in which Rowan investigates the demons, especially while also maintaining such a clear point of view and tight but logical control over how much is being revealed.

cover image for The Language of PowerThe Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein

Rowan continues her quest to track down Slado, and this time her investigation has brought her to the town of Donner.  Bel is with her once again, as is William, the magician’s apprentice the two women met and fought beside in The Steerswoman.  They are hoping that investigating the succession change from the current wizard, Jannik, and the one before him, Kieran – to whom Slado was once an apprentice, may yield some useful clues as to Slado’s identity and location.  But time is quickly running out for the trio, as the threat of the remaining Guidestars’ destructive power grows with every day that passes.

It may seem from the synopsis that Rowan’s search is going painstakingly slowly, but I assure you that’s only because discussing the extent of the progress she’s made would involve revealing major spoilers for all of the books. The overall search does take time, as such investigations almost always do, but that’s largely because each new bit of information Rowan finds prompts even more questions.  Rowan’s real progress is in learning to ask better questions, something that’s especially evident in this, the fourth book.  There’s much that Rowan is able to do and figure out in this book that she wouldn’t have been able to in the first, simply because what she has learned in the meantime about the jewels, the Guidestars, demons, magic, and the differences between the Inner Lands and the Outskirts.  All of her discoveries have fundamentally changed Rowan’s perceptions about the world around her, and her actions, decisions, and inner dialogue in The Language of Power makes that extremely clear.  This entire series is amazing for the ways that it shows how research, science, and logical thinking really work to change how we understand things, which is a big part of why I love it so.

(Both titles listed below are available separately as ebooks – they were also available at one time as a single volume titled: The Steerswoman’s Road.)

cover image for The SteerswomanThe Steerswoman
by Rosemary Kirstein

Some books are so unique and memorable and unexpected and so good that you wish you could read them again for the first time.

And then there are the stories that you want to reread over and over again like comfort food.   Because they have all the tropes and character types that you always love.  Including the kind that are depressingly hard to find.

Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman (and sequels) manages to be both of these at the same time, and has therefore ruined me for all other books. Ever.

Rowan is a Steerswoman. Wikipedia says this means that she’s a “traveling scholar” – but that’s not really doing her role in her culture justice. Because scholars, as much as I love them, tend to produce work that’s packaged in a way that’s hard for people outside of academia to access – and accessing academia often costs money.  Steerswomen, on the other hand, usually spend a large portion of their time traveling from town to town, sharing the knowledge they’ve gained, as well as acquiring new information.  One of their most sacred rules is that they have to truthfully  answer any question anyone poses to them.  In return, others must do the same, or be put under a ban and never have any Steerswoman answer any of their questions ever again.  This may seem trivial, but Steerswomen were originally navigators – thus their name – and much of the information they collect is practical.  Refusing to answer a Steerswoman’s question could mean they never warn you of the blight that’s spreading, and how to to guard against it.

There are, indeed, academies and halls where all the journals that Steerswomen keep on their journeys eventually go, and where some of the Steerswomen stay and maintain records and work on more theoretical pursuits.  But Steerswomen are like modern public librarians as much as they are like modern scholars – their purpose is to provide access to knowledge as much as it is to collect knowledge.

You can already see a big part of why I like this book, I’m sure.

I love not only that Rowan is a scholar/librarian but also that her role as librarian is more than just a nod and a wink about how awesome books and libraries are; The Steerswoman asks much deeper questions than that.  It repeatedly deals with the ethics of providing information – what it means to do so, or to withhold it – and how Steerwomen navigate issues like privacy, respect, and distrust.

AND – it gets even better.

Rowan isn’t simply wandering aimlessly about.  Like most Steerwomen, she has a particular topic that she’s researching.  In her case, she’s looking for the origins and purpose of some very strange jewels that have come into her possession.  Like any good interdisciplinary scholar, she’s using science – yes, SCIENCE – as well as interviews, research, and deductive reasoning in order to achieve her goal.

Very early on in the book, two things happen.   First, Rowan acquires a companion, the wonderfully competent and clever Bel. Who, unlike Rowan, does not come from the agricultural towns and villages of the Inner Lands, but rather from the harsh landscape of the Outskirts.  Secondly, someone tries to kill Rowan, and she suspects it’s because of the questions she’s been asking about the jewels.

In lesser hands, the mystery of the jewels could have been merely interesting, but what Kirstein does instead is nothing short of amazing.  Rowans’ scholarly search is as fundamental to the worldbuilding of the story as it is to our understanding of her as a character. Rather than just a princess in a tower to help move the plot along, Rowan’s search for answers leads her to bigger mysteries.  Even more than that, the gap between what Rowan doesn’t understand  but we do about science and the world around us means that every new clue that Rowan finds out about the jewels gives us new clues about the world she lives in.  Yet Kirstein does this all without Rowan (or Bel) ever coming across as stupid or incompetent; quite the opposite, in fact, as it’s often very clear just how clever and imaginative both need to be in order to make as much progress as they do.

Also, Bel is awesome and Rowan and Bel’s friendship and working relationship is so wonderful and fun and functional.

And that’s all just within the first few chapters. Did I mention it just gets even better from there?


cover image for The Steerswoman's RoadThe Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

Explaining the set up for this novel in detail will reveal too much of the plot of the first book.  WHICH YOU SHOULD READ RIGHT NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY.

Suffice to say that Rowan and Bel are still as awesome as ever, and still traveling together.  This time their journey takes them out of the Inner Lands and into Bel’s home: the Outskirts.

“The camp was pitched against the edge of the forest, one side nestled beneath overhanging evergreens, the other open to a green, rolling meadow, where the tent shadows now stretched away from the vanishing sun, long fingers indicating the east.”

Since I can’t say much more than that without everything being full of spoilers, I want to instead talk about Kirstein’s prose.  It’s lovely and expertly done in all four books, but this novel in particular is excellent for highlighting just how talented Kirstein is at her craft.  While there were strange goings on in the first book, much of it still took place in a setting that was familiar to Rowan herself.  It was also a setting with a great many similarities to other fantasy novels, and to certain periods in Western history, so it’s familiar to readers as well, in a way.  But in Outskirter’s Secret, we enter into territory that is entirely new to Rowan, and less familiar to many readers as well, and we encounter creatures quite unlike any other we’ve seen before.

“The greengrass vanished.

It was a subtle process as Bel had first described…: first one noticed occasional patches of redgrass, then more, and eventually one realized that for indeterminate length of time no greengrass had been seen at all.”

All of this is told in Rowan’s scientific yet poetic voice, through which Kirstein is able to paint us pictures of the this new world that Rowan finds herself in – images that are as clear, accurate, and detailed as photographs but as lyrical and wistful as watercolors.

“The breeze was in her face, speeding wild lines of brown and red directly toward her; it was sinister, threatening. The colors seemed to hover, sourceless, ineffable.

…Rowan wished it would rain; wished the colors to gray, the grass to dampen and silence. She watched the grass tops dizzily and stumbled along behind the Outskirter.”

This series really deserves to be read and talked about and praised, rather than dwelling half-forgotten in obscurity.  So GO. Get yourself a copy and read it.  And tell other people about it.

cover image for Zora and MeZora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

Everyone in Eatonville, Florida knows there’s something special about Zora. But no one else in town knows her quite like her two best friends, Carrie and Teddy, do.  Together, the three spend all the spare time they have exploring, getting into one mischief or another, and – of course – listening to Zora’s stories.  When a man turns up dead on railroad tracks not long after Zora talks of seeing an alligator man in the swamp, no one believes her.  Except Carrie and Teddy, of course.  So it’s up to the young trio to get the bottom of the mystery before more people get hurt.

I was skeptical at first of the premise of the story: focusing on the childhood of a famous person; books like that can often be rather generic and present a very standardized and inaccurate view of history.  Instead this lovely, slim novel is full of detail and nuance, of complications and implications.  The language is just absolutely beautiful, a fitting tribute to Hurston’s work, and yet it’s still readable by the middle graders it’s marketed to.  Highly recommended.  This should be in every public library’s collection.

cover image for Pusheen the CatI Am Pusheen the Cat by Claire Belton

Inside this book you will find Pusheen the Cat’s guide to petting, acquiring treats, sleeping, and much more. Round, silly, and adorable, Pusheen is a delightful teacher with personality and opinions to spare.

This is a bit of an odd book in that it doesn’t quite fit into normal categories – it’s the kind of book that would simply be labeled as a “gift” book in most bookstores.  Children may enjoy it, but much of the humor references adult experiences. Many adults may enjoy it too, but the format and illustration style makes it look more like a  children’s book.  Still, it’s entertaining and I’m glad I read – and it would, indeed, make a fun gift a great many cat lovers.

cover image for Cold FireCold Fire by Tamora Pierce

Daja, and her mentor Frostpine, have come to the northern city of Kugisko so that the latter may visit with old friends.  Their restful trip is soon interrupted, of course. In turns out that their hosts’ twin daughters are natural mages, and since it was Daja who discovered their gifts, it’s up to her to make sure that they are trained properly.  Frostpine has troubles of his own to take care of, as he’s asked by the governor to look into counterfeit coins – preferable before the public finds out and panic ensues.  And both mages are worried about the mysterious fires that appear to be accidents, but seem to keep happening more frequently than is normal.

This wasn’t a bad book, in fact I think I liked it best of this second quartet so far.  Daja’s characterization is a good mixture of older-than-before yet-still-very-young and this story has a nice mix of cultures and customs.  Unfortunately, it’s far from Pierce’s best.  Also, I was tired of the plot idea of our four friends discovering natural mages – and being required to become teachers themselves – before I was finished with the first book.


cover image for Keeping You A SecretKeeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters

As her senior year draws to a close, it looks as though Holland Jaeger has everything going for her.  Good grades, best friends, the perfect boyfriend, a job she loves, and a sometimes trying blended family that she nevertheless loves.  (Well, Holland loves her Mom and baby sister anyway – her stepdad is tolerable and her stepsister lives elsewhere, mostly.)  Then gorgeous, brilliant, and completely Out and Proud Cece shows at school up one morning and Holland begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself.

Peters writing is rather rough here, and while the rawness fits the subject matter there’s not enough depth to transform this from a Problem Novel into something more enduring.  It’s not so much the talk of Goths and CDs that date the book as it is the assumption that high school will always be a place where only the Brave are Out, and the accompanying lack of introspection that might help teens, a decade later, better understand Holland’s experience – and better recognize what much hasn’t changed.

cover image for Chasing ShadowsChasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi, illustrated by Craig Phillips

Savitri’s acceptance into Princeton should be good news, not a secret she’s afraid to share.    But attending Princeton means leaving Holly and Corey behind in Chicago.  It means a long distance relationship with Corey, no more hanging out with Holly, and an end to the time the three spend exploring the city as freerunners.  Yet before Sav can make her choice, Corey is taken from them in a random act of violence.  Now Holly’s the one with an impossible choice, and Sav may be the only person who can help her.

I stumbled a bit getting into this book; a trio of friends who do parkour seems to be an increasingly common trope, and while it’s one I would normally enjoy, the previous two books I read with this setup were less than stellar, so I cringed at bit at first to see it again.  Thankfully, this isn’t them.

Chasing Shadows is a book about grief and loyalty, friendship and betrayal.  It tackles often complicated topics: from survivor guilt to cultural appropriation, and it deals with all of them with grace and honesty.  There are no simple answers here, no easy way to make the pain go away.  Instead we get complicated relationships and heartbreaking decisions wrapped up in a deceptively simple story.  Highly recommended.

cover image for Marie Antoinette, Serial KillerMarie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie Alender

A class trip to Paris is just the opportunity Colette Iselin needs.  A chance to meet new people, to get away from home, to escape her mother, to hang out with the popular girls, and to explore a new, fabulous city – and her family’s past.   But a serial killer is on the loose in Paris, murdering young men and women about the same age as Colette.  And Colette herself has been seeing strange things – including what may be the ghost of Marie Antoinette.

Needless to say, this particular novel requires a decent suspension of disbelief.  Not so much because of the ghosts, but rather because of the way it plays loose with history.  Still, while not quite as good as the other book by Alender that I’ve read, Bad Girls Don’t Die, this new novel is entertaining enough.

cover image for The Rule of ThirdsThe Rule of Thirds by Chantel Guertin

Preparing for Vantage Point, the photography competition for high school students that Pippa hopes will launch her career, is stressful enough by itself.  But now Pippa also has to deal with rocky friendships, cute boys, and rivals out to sabotage the entry she’s been working on for months.  And because that’s not enough to deal with, Pippa also been assigned to work at the hospital for her community service requirement.  The same hospital where she used to go to visit her Dad, and where she promised herself she’d never have to go to again.

The Rule of Thirds isn’t the type of book to make top ten lists, but it’s a nice, solid, entertaining novel with a good balance of humor and heartbreak and just enough surprises to keep you guessing.  I very much enjoyed reading it, and thought Guertin did a great job explaining the artistic process (when the subject came up) which isn’t something that’s always handled well in books like these.  I very much look forward to reading the sequels.

cover image for The Running DreamThe Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

At night, Jessica dreams of running.  She can feel herself taking her regular morning jog, or racing in another competition, always fast and strong and sure of every step.  But by day, Jessica can no longer walk. The accident that left a teammate dead also left Jessica missing the lower half of one leg.  She doesn’t mind the pain so much – there are drugs for that.  What she’s really afraid to face is the fact that she no longer knows where she’s going, or how she’s going to get there.

I was a little afraid that this book, based on the premise, was going to be maudlin and trite, full of Life Lessons and Inspiration From Unlikely Places.  Fortunately, this book is by the same author who gave us Flipped, so while the story does indeed end on a hopeful and triumphant note, there are no easy solutions here, no universal truths.  Just how one teen girl copes with a dramatic change in both mobility and identity.  Van Draanen does a wonderful job of crafting a nuanced story, and of not only showing us how Jessica changes, but also of letting the tone and mood of the book change along with Jessica.