54 posts categorized "Mysteries and Thrillers" Feed

Mojo: Tim Tharp

Book: Mojo
Author: Tim Tharp (@timtharp1)
Pages: 288
Age Range: 12 and up 

I'm always interested in finding more children's and young adult mysteries. So when I heard about Tim Tharp's Mojo, a YA murder mystery by a an author who previously won a National Book Award, I was interested. And Ms. Yingling liked it (and considers it edgy but still appropriate for middle schoolers), so I decided to give it a look. My own feelings about the book ended up being a bit more mixed. 

Mojo begins when high schooler Dylan finds classmate Hector Maldonado dead in a dumpster (this is not described very graphically). The police (after harassing Dylan and his friend Randy) quickly close the case, declaring Hector's death a drug overdose. Dylan doesn't buy it. When he continues to obsess about the lax police investigation, his best friend Audrey suggests that he instead focus on investigating the disappearance of the rich and pretty Ashton Browning (who attends a different school). Dylan, motivated in part by the $100,000 reward that Ashton's parents put up, and in part by the need to prove himself (and gain "mojo"), begins to investigate. 

Mojo is twisty and suspenseful. I was never completely sure what was going on. I like that Tharp addresses racism and homophobia (Audrey is gay), both in realistic ways. I like Dylan as a character. He's quirky but determined, and surprisingly loyal (even to Ashton, who he's never met). His relationships with Audrey and Randy are realistic. He admits freely that he does "carry a few extra pounds", and his passion for hamburgers is unabashed. He loves his parents, even though he doesn't let them in on what's really going on in his life. 

Dylan's voice is blunt, self-deprecating, and often funny. Like this:

"Audrey and I had to grab a seat in back, which was fine. I didn't want to stick out as the guy who only spent time with Hector in the Dumpster after he was already dead.

I'd never been to a Catholic funeral before. My parents aren't exactly into organized religion. On Facebook, under Religion, they entered spiritual. But I have to say this for the Catholics--they really know how to put on a show. And I don't mean that in any kind of disrespectful way. I don't usually call clothes garments, but the priest running the program had some mega-cool garments going on. The hat alone made you feel like, This is going to be serious." (Page 19-20)

Dylan is baffled at the notion that someone would turn in people who are in the country illegally, but he also is quick to leave Randy behind when he has the chance to hang out with people who are new and more interesting (which I thought was completely realistic). I also found realistic Dylan's struggles to get around to investigate without a car (particularly after he creates a rift with Audrey). 

So, there are a lot of things to like about Mojo. But, here's what bothered me about it. I'm going to try to talk about this without spoilers, but it's a bit tricky. Dylan is a fairly sharp kid. He's used to being picked on a bit at his rough and tumble public high school. But when Dylan becomes involved with several wealthy kids from Ashton's posh private school, he just ... believes everything that they tell him, despite warnings from Audrey and Randy that these rich aren't really his friends. I wanted to shake Dylan for being so dumb. Of course I've read a lot of books, and seen a lot of movies and television shows, so perhaps I'm more cynical than the target reader for Mojo. But I still found it difficult to enjoy the book because I just didn't find Dylan's reactions (particularly in the later part of the book) plausible. 

So there you have it. Mojo is a fairly edgy YA mystery, one that isn't afraid to take on issues of race, class, and discrimination, but never lets these things dominate over the suspenseful plot. Mojo features a strong protagonist, and lets that protagonist be overweight, without making a major issue out of it. Mojo didn't quite work for me, but I'm sure that there are lots of readers out there who will enjoy it. And it certainly fills a need for boy-friendly young adult mysteries. Librarians for middle school or high school will want to give this one a look.

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

The Wig in the Window: Kristen Kittscher

Book: The Wig in the Window
Author: Kristen Kittscher (@KKittscher)
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9-12 

The Wig in the Window is a middle grade mystery featuring a pair of 12-year-old sleuths and best friends. Sophie and Grace are next door neighbors in the small town of Luna Vista, CA. The girls' FBI-obsessed efforts to spy on their neighbors go awry after they observe bizarre behavior by Ms. Agford, the counselor at Sophie's middle school. (Grace is home-schooled.) 

The Wig in the Window is ever so slightly over the top, which keeps it middle grade reader friendly despite some dark elements. There's a clique of do-gooder girls that virtually amounts to a cult. Sophie has an obsession with Chinese culture, The Art of War, and feng shui. She becomes ostracized at school after a single incident. And, as the narrator, she displays a dry sense of humor. Like this:

"My grandpa spent his days playing canasta with other veterans down at the VFW, a club for Veterans of Foreign Wars. (Besides the Civil War, were there any non-foreign wars?)" (Chapter 3) 

"Students bearing unwieldy instrument cases and mangled lunch bags poured forth. Marissa and her friends arrived as a set, looking like displaced flight attendants as they strode along the sidewalk, their matching rolling backpacks in tow." (Chapter 15)

The friendship between Sophie and Grace, which we see filtered through Sophie's perceptions and mis-perceptions, is complex and conflict-filled, lending another layer of drama to The Wig in the Window. I actually preferred Sophie's new friend, Trista, over Grace. Trista is an outcast who doesn't seem to mind her lack of social position, who befriends Sophie when others cast her aside. Sophie's hint of a developing relationship with a book in her class didn't quite work for me for some reason, but is a very minor part of the book, and may add interest for middle school readers. 

I am always on the lookout for middle grade mysteries that feature real stakes and active investigation on the part of the protagonists, and The Wig in the Window fits the bill. The mystery in The Wig in the Window is not watered down for young audiences, though Kristen Kittscher uses middle-school-appropriate humor to keep things accessible. The balance between having kids running around investigating on their own and having them get in trouble with concerned parents is a tricky one, but I think that Kittscher nails it. You also have to love an author who can use the word "recapacitate" in a sentence (Chapter 22). Recommended for mystery fans, ages 9 and up, particularly girls. 

Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

Boy Nobody: Allen Zadoff

Book: Boy Nobody
Author: Allen Zadoff
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

Boy Nobody is a tense thriller about a 16-year-old boy who has been trained as an assassin. The first person narrator (we don't learn his real name until late in the book, but let's call him Benjamin) was kidnapped by a shadowy organization, apparently part of the government, after a boy named Mike killed Benjamin's parents. Benjamin was trained to execute meticulously planned missions. For each mission, he is inserted into a school, where he befriends some key student. His target is someone close to that student, such as a parent. His job is to kill the target. 

Benjamin has a distinct voice. Not knowing much about the premise of the book, I thought at first that he was supposed to be some sort of alien. He calculates his every move and reaction. Like the scene below, in which a bunch of kids are hanging around after a baseball game.

""Your best kicks ass and takes names," Jack says, and he punches my shoulder again.

This time the big man doesn't move. But the other players are looking at us. 

Two punches on the arm. A way of asserting dominance.

Dominance is a threat. It must be dealt with.

I run a checklist in my mind:

I can let him punch me. Choose a lower status.

I can retaliate in equal measure, with equal force.

I can escalate. Assert my dominance.

Which should I choose?" (Chapter: I Pick Up a Baseball Bat)

He's like a human computer, the ultimate, unquestioning tool for killing people. But when the next student that Benjamin is supposed to befriend turns out to be the smart, extremely attractive daughter of the mayor of New York City, things become a bit more complicated than usual. Like this:

"Because my mind is thinking the wrong things. I should be thinking about finishing my assignment, but I'm thinking about the curve of Sam's neck, the corner of her lip, the way her breasts swell against the fabric of her dress." (Chapter: I Slip into the Bathroom down the Hall)

There is certainly violence in Boy Nobody, though I didn't find it gratuitous. (I mean, the book is about an assassin. The fact that he kills a few people should not be surprising.) There's a hint of a James Bond feel to the violence, and to the couple of sexual incidents (which are not described in detail). 

The teen assassin is an interesting premise for a young adult novel. Kind of takes teen alienation to a new and toxic level. Imagine having to go into school after school, reinventing yourself each time, figuring out the social dynamics on the fly? Now imagine doing that with no parents behind you (just two controllers who communicate via technology), and no one to confide in. Even if he didn't have to kill people, Benjamin would still be about as alienated as it gets. 

Boy Nobody is fast-paced, with lots of short paragraphs leaving white space in the text, and plenty of action to move the plot forward. Benjamin is a unique character, his damaged mind revealed through is first person narration (and his actions). Sam is also surprising and intriguing. And a nerdy computer geek comes into Benjamin's sphere, adding a bit of humor and humanity. 

While the main plot in Boy Nobody wraps up neatly, quite a few details are left unexplained. I don't know whether or not Zadoff intends to write other books about Benjamin, but he has certainly put the elements of a bigger picture in place. Personally, I hope that there are more books - I'm interested to see where this story goes. In the meantime, I recommend Boy Nobody for teen and adult readers who enjoy thrillers, and aren't put off by the idea of reading one told from the assassin's perspective. Boy Nobody is well worth a look!

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: June 11, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

The Girl from Felony Bay: J. E. Thompson

Book: The Girl from Felony Bay
Author: J. E. Thompson
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12 

The Girl from Felony Bay is a middle grade mystery set against a deeply layered South Carolina coast backdrop. Abbey Force has had a bad year. Her father is in a coma after an apparent fall, accused of a crime that Abbey is certain he didn't commit. Abbey's home, Reward Plantation, has been sold to cover remunerations from the crime. Abbey is living with her snake-like Uncle Charlie, and Charlie's downtrodden wife Ruth. As the summer vacation after sixth grade begins, Abbey's number one goal is to prove that her father didn't commit the crime he is accused of. She is helped in her quest by Bee Force, the daughter of Reward's new owner. 

There's a lot to like about The Girl from Felony Bay. The mystery is well-developed, with clues parcelled out gradually, so that young readers can figure things out along with Abbey. I know that I read this quite quickly, eager to understand what was happening. I found the resolution of the mystery satisfying, but was pleased that the author didn't feel the need to fix every single loose end. 

Thompson's characterization is superb. Abbey fairly leaps from the page, and a number of secondary characters are revealed to have unexpected (but plausible) depths. The friendship between Abbey and Bee develops a bit quickly, but Thompson doesn't gloss over the awkward aspects of their relationship. Bee is living in the house that Abbey grew up in, sleeping in her very bedroom. And Abbey and Bee both understand immediately that Bee's family is descended from slaves that Abbey's ancestors owned (it having been common practice for freed slaves to take the last name of their owners as they left the plantations). These uncomfortable realities could have derailed the girls' friendship, but don't. 

Abbey's voice frequently made me smile. She has a wry humor, and a keen wit, with just a hint of the south in her diction. Like this:

"He sipped on his drink and squinted at me with the same face he'd use if he just discovered the meat in his lunch sandwich had gone bad. Uncle Charlie is about six feet two, nearly as tall as Daddy, but no longer thin. He's not exactly fat, either, at least not yet. He reminds me of a candle that's been sitting in the sun too long and is starting to bulge in the wrong places." (Chapter 2)

"She managed to hold back her sorrow when I told her I wouldn't be around for dinner." (Chapter 17, in reference to a neglectful and lazy aunt)

"Rufus was jumping up and down, which is what he did most of the time, since Labrador retrievers are just born happy. The only time they are even happier than usual is when there is a bowl of food nearby." (Chapter 29)

Thompson also does a fine job in portraying the South Carolina coastal region, including its beauties, inconveniences, and dangers. Like this: 

"We could still see the river through the trees off to our left, it's brown water glittering like hot butterscotch. To our right the heavy shrubbery of palmetto trees, live oaks, hanging drapes of Spanish moss, and tangles of honeysuckle and wild oleander and river oats and plants I couldn't begin to name cut off our view after only a few yards." Chapter 7)

"After another couple minutes, the cacophony of the frogs had become almost deafening, so I knew One Arm Pond had to be directly to our right. I couldn't see it through the leaves, not even moonlight reflecting off the surface, but I could smell the musty odor of pluff mud. I was studying every single root, vine, or stick with great intensity now, and that's when I came to a quick stop.

Two feet ahead of me, way to close for comfort, something that looked at first like a thick black root had just crawled from underneath a layer of dead magnolia leaves. It was maybe four feet long and as thick as a beer can in the middle." (Chapter 18)

So there you have it. An absorbing mystery for middle grade readers, with strong characters, and a setting that the reader can practically smell and taste. The fact that The Girl from Felony Bay also matter-of-factly takes on race relations in the south (including a sub-plot regarding heirs' property rights "and how a lot of African American people have gotten cheated out of valuable land over the years") is a nice bonus. 

Although the two main characters are girls (and there's a girl in the title), I think that The Girl from Felony Bay is quite boy-friendly. There are, after all, alligators and poisonous snakes, and hints of pirate treasure. The Girl from Felony Bay is a great choice for anyone looking for a middle grade mystery that has suspense and complexity as well as emotional depth. Highly recommended. 

Publisher: Walden Pond Press (@WaldenPondPress)
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

Strangelets: Michelle Gagnon

Book: Strangelets
Author: Michelle Gagnon
Age Range: 14 and up

When I learned from Colleen Mondor that Soho Press was debuting Soho Teen, a mystery/thriller imprint for young adults, I was intrigued. I am generally on the lookout for teen mysteries. So I went onto NetGalley, and found Strangelets available for review. Once I started to glance through it, I couldn't put it down, actually pre-empting the book that I was already reading.

I would call Strangelets science fiction with a mystery slant, rather than pure mystery/thriller. Strangelets begins with three geographically separated teens, each facing imminent death. A hole opens up, sucking each teen into a vortex. They wake up locked in an otherwise abandoned hospital wing, together with three other teenagers with similar near-death stories. When they eventually make their way outside, they find themselves in a crumbling, overgrown complex of buildings. The truth about where they are, and why, is revealed gradually over the course of the book. The puzzle of trying to figure things out kept me reading long into the night.

Strangelets is plot-driven and suspenseful, with a delightfully creepy atmosphere. Like this:

"They emerged from it into an enormous room, the size of an airplane hangar. It was filled with computer equipment, huge towers, and complicated looking panels. Silent and dark as a tomb, cast in an eerie red glow by emergency lights place at staggered intervals. It looked like a scene straight out of an old James Bond film; Declan half-expected to find a villain in a swiveling chair stroking a cat."

The limited third person viewpoint shifts frequently between the three primary protagonists, but I never found this disruptive. Terminally ill Californian Sophie, Irish bad boy Declan, and defecting Israeli soldier Anat have quite distinct voices. Sophie evokes sympathy (and is clearly intelligent), while Declan adds charm, street smarts, and humor (as above). Anat is not particularly likeable, but has other strengths. Here's Anat:

"Not that any of these kids were her fellow countrymen. Far from it, she thought with a snort. They were all soft, whining about missing a single meal. If anything happened, she was clearly the best equipped to handle it."

 Here's Sophie (with elipses to avoid spoilers):

"Of course, it was pretty absurd for a bunch of teenagers to get sucked across the planet into the infirmary beneath a research facility, too. And for ... Absurd was the order of the day."

The science in the science fiction of Strangelets is a bit vague, but still thought-provoking. I don't want to say more, because a big part of the fun of reading the book lies in figuring out what's going on. I found the ending a little more tidy than I might have personally preferred, but I think that most teen readers will like it. 

I enjoyed Strangelets, and I think that teens (boys and girls) will too. I look forward to seeing what else Soho Teen comes up with. Recommended. 

Publisher: Soho Teen (@soho_teen)
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from NetGalley

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you). 

Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator: Josh Berk

Book: Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator
Author: Josh Berk (@JoshBerkBooks)
Pages: 240
Age Range: 12 and up 

Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator is part mystery, part family drama, and part day-to-day high school adventures of geeky slacker guy. It's an unusual mix, but one that works. After Guy's 70-something father dies, Guy joins the forensics club at school. He also starts writing a book containing various pithy maxims of his much-traveled, larger-than-life dad. He soon run across several potentially intersecting real-world mysteries (including a potential murder attempt). Together with his friends (and fellow geeks) from forensics club, Guy attempts to pull it all together, and pull himself out of an extended period of depression.  

Guy has a great voice. He's over-the-top lazy, and funny in spite of his depression (Crime Scene Procrastinator is much more about black humor than sadness). Like this:

"I had a bunch of tissues. Before we left the house (for the funeral), I jammed my suit pockets with them until my pockets were bulging cartoonishly, like I was a shoplifter swiping throw pillows. The last time I bought a suit was for my bar mitzvah, so it hardly fit. I looked ridiculous. I knew that. I had two whole boxes of tissues in there. I feared I'd need them all. I was wrong. I needed more." (Page 1)

"After Social Studies, Anoop and I go to lunch. School lunch sucks. Ever since the "healthy lunch" program began last year, there's no more pizza, burritos, barf-a-roni, tots o' tater, or even those awesomely gooey chocolate chip cookies. We can't even have peanut butter anymore, because one kid is allergic to peanuts and apparently can't be in the same room with even a dab of PB&J without having his face explode or something." (Page 13)

Guy's is definitely a teen boy voice. There's another kid who is called "Penis-head". There's a documentary with "boobs ... flopping around like pizza dough." There is a scene in which Guy resists going up to the front of the classroom, for a particular reason (though not explained in painful detail), etc. These things don't dominate the book, but they definitely make it more YA than middle grade. And they make Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator more boy book than girl book (though there are two strong girl characters, and no reason at all why girls wouldn't enjoy all of the forensic science discussed in the book). 

The plot in Crime Scene Proscrastinator meanders a bit, and I saw most of the twists coming. But it's nice to see a book that makes science (forensic science) cool, and relevant. Also, Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator is life-affirming without being didactic (as Guy comes out of his depression), and tackles real subjects without letting go of humor. Recommended, particularly for high school libraries. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: March 13, 2012
Source of Book: Library copy on Kindle (but quotes checked against finished review copy from the publisher)

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

The Book of Blood and Shadow: Robin Wasserman

Book: The Book of Blood and Shadow
Author: Robin Wasserman (@robinwasserman)
Pages: 448
Age Range: 12 and up

Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow was already on my short stack when I read this at Chasing Ray:

"If you're looking for a great escape this summer, you absolutely have to pick up Robin Wasserman's recent thriller The Book of Blood and Shadow. Comparisons have abounded to Dan Brown's juggernaut The Da Vinci Code (I would also make the case for The Eight by Katherine Neville) ..."

There was more, of course, but those two comparisons from Colleen Mondor were enough for me to decide to read it next. And I'm glad that I did. The Book of Blood and Shadow is an intelligent, suspenseful thriller that happens to feature a teen protagonist. Honestly, it didn't feel much like a young adult novel to me - I think that it could easily have been published for adults, and that it holds plenty of adult crossover appeal. It certainly kept me reading late into the night (no small feat these days!). 

The Book of Blood and Shadow begins with the grief of high school senior Nora over the murder of her best friend, Chris. Nora's tale then moves backward, to the events leading up to Chris' death, and then forward, as Nora embarks on a quest for understanding. The plot hinges on a 700 year old coded book, a series of four hundred year old letters (written in Latin), two secret societies, and multiple alchemists. The first part of the book is set in New England, the later part in Prague. There's a compelling mix of careful research and desperate action. 

Nora is a well-developed character. Her parents were broken by the death or her reckless brother six years earlier. Chris and his girlfriend Adriane form a substitute family of sorts for her (to which Chris' roommate Max is eventually added). She bears the scars of her family trauma, but still wants to see the best in the people she loves. She is wryly witty, with realistically low self-esteem. Like this:

"I'd never understood girls like her--as in literally couldn't comprehend how they achieved perfection by seven a.m., hair sleek and dry, lip gloss and mascara and foundation and the variety of cosmetics of whose existence I remained unaware masterfully applied, accessories matched to sartorial selection matched to freshly polished nails. Whereas I inevitably showed up to school late, with tangled, wet, and, several months of the year, frozen hair tucked into a lopsided bun, my socks mismatched, and, on truly special occasions, some hastily applied drugstore foundation that couldn't disguise the fact that my nose was slightly too big for my face." (Page 15-16)

"It's not often you get the opportunity to casually destroy something of value. When you're a kid, there's always a new tower of blocks to knock over, another Barbie to microwave. When you grow up, they take away your toys." (Page 18)

"This is how it happens, I thought as the doctor slid the clipboard into its holster and escaped. You don't even realize you're living in a before until you wake up one day and find yourself in an after." (Page 86)

As you can see from the passages above, The Book of Blood and Stone does have a certain maturity of grammar and vocabulary. It is not a quick, light read. The plot moves back and forth in time (not literally, but via letters), requiring readers to pay close attention to multiple strands of story. The tone is generally dark. But for those willing to invest some time and mental effort, it's a rewarding book (and a fascinating window into modern day and historic Prague). I recommend The Book of Blood and Shadow for teens and adults who are looking for a well-written thriller that will make them think, and take them away to new places.  

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: April 10, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Flirting in Italian: Lauren Henderson

Book: Flirting in Italian
Author: Lauren Henderson
Pages: 336
Age Range: 12 and up 

Flirting in Italian is Flirtingcoverthe start of a new series by UK author Lauren Henderson. Henderson also wrote the Scarlett Wakefield series, which I reviewed here and here. Though set in a different country (Italy vs. England), Flirting in Italian has a very similar feel to the Scarlett Wakefield books. So similar that I am certain that had I started Flirting in Italian without knowing the author, I would easily have been able to name her. This is not a criticism - I enjoyed the Scarlett Wakefield books thoroughly, and found Flirting in Italian equally pleasing. But the strength of Henderson's voice makes it a bit difficult to distinguish between Scarlett and Violet (note similarity of names), despite differences in the two girls' situations. 

Anyway, Flirting in Italian is about Violet Routledge, a teen from London who signs up for an eight week summer program at the Villa Barbiano in Tuscany. Though the program is ostensibly to help Violet with her University applications, Violet's real reason for choosing this particular program is the Villa Barbiano's proximity to the Castello di Vesperi. The Castello di Vesperi is linked to a late 18th century painting of a woman who looks remarkably like Violet (who has no resemblance to either of her parents). Violet wants to learn about the unknown woman in the portrait, and find out whether she shares some secret connection to Violet. The fact that Violet will be able to flirt with handsome Italian guys while she's there (including the young scion of the Castello di Vesperi), well, that's an added bonus. 

Flirting in Italian is part mystery (as Violet finds her life in danger) and part teen romance, with the faintest hints of the supernatural. It does take a while for the plot to really get going - there's quite a bit of description of the villa and the other girls sharing Violet's course, etc. There are digressions regarding "the Swimsuit Beauty Parade" (and body image insecurities to which many teen girls will relate), and the different flirting styles of Italian vs. British and American males. But I still found the book to move along quickly, thanks to Henderson's breezy style, a mix of dramatic teen intensity and apt description. For example:

"I bite my lip. I don't know anything about the portrait. I can't even buy a postcard of it. So how am I ever going to find out who the girl in the paining is? I have to discover why on earth a girl who lived in the late eighteenth century -- in Italy! -- looks so like me she could be my twin sister." (Page 4)

"I fumble in my bag for my sunglasses, holding up the people behind me. Warm, humid air wraps itself around me insistently, demanding that I unzip my jacket, pull off my cotton sweater, bare my arms and neck to the blazing mid-afternoon sunshine. By the time I'm down the wobbly metal stairs, by the time my feet touch Italian soil, I've wrestled off the outer layers I was wearing in the air-conditioned plane. Everyone else is going the same, wriggling and writhing as they cross the tarmac, shrugging off jackets, stuffing them into carry-on cases, older English men and women put on on the straw Panama hats and ribboned raffia boaters they've brought to protect their white skin from the scorching Mediterranean sun." (Page 31-32)

The present tense viewpoint helps keep things moving quickly, too, with various chapter-ending cliffhangers. 

I recommend Flirting in Italian for teenage girls and adult women who enjoy a mix of mystery and romance (there is a fair bit of kissing, and some drinking). Because of the way the romantic and interpersonal elements (rivalries between the girls, etc.) dominate the mystery, I do think that this is more of a book for girls than for boys. It would make a nice next book following the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, with slightly more mature content. 

One warning - as with the Scarlett Wakefield books, part of the plot wraps up in this book, but other threads are left for the not-yet-released sequel,Kissing in Italian. Those who demand instant gratification would be best served by waiting until the next book comes out (and perhaps the one after that - I don't know). But as for me, I'll enjoy looking forward to Kissing in Italian. The book, that is.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: June 12, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Reality Check: Peter Abrahams

Book: Reality Check
Author: Peter Abrahams
Pages: 352
Age Range: 13 and up

RealityCheck 1.23Peter Abrahams is the author of Down the Rabbit Hole and Behind the Curtain, both of which I liked because they are middle grade/middle school mystery novels that deal with real mysteries (dead bodies, etc.). I also commented when I reviewed those that Abrahams, an author of adult mysteries, has a good feel for the voice of teens (he has four children, and I'm sure that helps).

Reality Check is, I believe, Abrahams' first YA novel. Cody Larado comes from a difficult background (dead mother, alcoholic father). His only hope for getting out of his small town is football. Cody, a high school junior, is the school quarterback, at least until he blows out his knee. The contrast between Cody's life and that of his wealthy, perfect girlfriend, Clea, eventually becomes too much. The two break up right before Clea goes east to attend boarding school. But when Clea disappears while riding her horse in the snowy Vermont woods, Cody drops everything and leaves his home in Colorado to try to find her.

Reality Check is a somewhat bleak novel. Cody's future looks pretty grim, and the atmosphere in Clea's snowy Vermont town is downright ominous. You don't know whether or not Clea is dead. This is definitely YA, not middle grade. There is also some mature language, and not-very-graphic references to sex.

Reality Check is also suspenseful and (for a mystery novel), quite realistic. I did see the ending coming before Cody did, but not by much (there's one line that positively gives the game away -- I think that Abrahams wants the reader to see what trouble Cody is getting into before he does).

I didn't identify very well with Cody, a struggling student whose only real interest (besides Clea) is football. But I still liked him, and wanted him to succeed. There was one passage that made me feel old, when Cody, in a hotel room, sees his first black and white televsion set. But this is probably realistic. And, of course, I'm not the target audience. Reality Check is definitely boy-friendly, with plenty of references to sports, and a boys-eye view of being in love. We get a lot of Cory's inner monologue, like this:

"Mr. Weston's eyes--similar in color to Clea's but in no other way--rose slowly up to Cody's face. DId he notice that COdy was wearing his shirt. No way to tell.

"That your car in the drive?" he said, not furious, not even loud, but Cody's spine felt icy just the same. "I asked you a question," Mr. Weston said after a moment or two of silence.

Was it a serious question. Mr. Weston had seen Cody's car before, and besides, who else's could it be, an old banger like that in the Weston's circular driveway." (Chapter 2)

I would recommend Reality Check for fans of John Feinstein's sports mysteries, or anyone looking for a mystery/thriller for teenage boys. It's a quick read, with a distinctive voice, and an intriguing, twisty plot. 

Publisher: HarperTeen (@HarperTeen)
Publication Date: April 27, 2010
Source of Book: Library eBook

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Shelter: A Mickey Bolitar Novel: Harlan Coben

Book: Shelter: A Mickey Bolitar Novel
Author: Harlan Coben (Mickey Bolitar website)
Pages: 288
Age Range: 12 and up

Shelter2 I've been a fan of Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series for several years now. The books are mystery/suspense novels published for adults, featuring a former basketball player turned professional agent. I prefer the Myron Bolitar books to Coben's standalone thrillers, though I do generally enjoy those, too. Myron is entertaining but also full of heart, and he is relentless in his pursuit of what's right. His wealthy, brilliant, scary best friend Win  occasionally steals the show.

The most recent book in the Myron Bolitar series, Live Wire, introduced Myron's teenage nephew, Mickey Bolitar. With Shelter, Coben brings Mickey to the forefront and launches a new series written for young adults. 

Mickey Bolitar has spent most of his life traveling to far-flung countries with his parents, who were more or less missionaries. In the past year, however, he has moved to the United States, witnessed his father's death in a car accident, and seen his mother descend into drug addiction. Forced to live with his uncle Myron, who he can't stand, and bullied by a couple of thugs at his new school, Mickey ends up with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. But when a mysterious old woman suggests to Mickey that his father might be alive, and Mickey's new girlfriend disappears without a trace, Mickey finds that he has much bigger things to worry about. Together with two new friends, strays that he has collected from the fringes of the high school pecking order, Mickey sets out to investigate the various mysteries that make up his life.

I think that teens, particularly boys, are going to really enjoy Shelter. Coben lives in suburban New Jersey with his wife and four children. I'm not sure how old his kids are, but he writes Mickey with what seems to me to be an authentic teen voice. Sure, Mickey's an exceptional basketball player who knows martial arts and goes out of his way to defend underdogs. But his insecurities over his mom, his contentious relationship with his uncle, and his struggles with authority at school all feel real. 

Here are a couple of examples of Mickey's voice:

"An orientation should consist of visiting your classes, getting a tour of the facilities, and maybe meeting a few classmates. But no, that's not enough. We had to participate in these moronic, dehumanizing, and totally awkward "team building" exercises." (Chapter 1)

"There didn't seem to be much class warfare here. These kids had been together for so long that they didn't really notice. The so-called outcasts who sat alone had been sitting alone for so many years that it wasn't so much cruelty as habit. I wasn't sure if that was better or worse." (Chapter 2)

"There is no place more hollow, more soulless, than a school at night. The building had been created for life, for constant motion, for students rushing back and forth, some confident, most scared, all trying to figure out their place in the world. Take that away and you might as well have a body drained of all its blood." (Chapter 4)

The secondary characters, particularly Mickey's two new sidekicks, are well-drawn, too. I especially liked Ema, a "big girl" with tattoos who dresses all in black, and has a mysterious home situation. Ema is initially defensive, but also brave, smart, and witty. I hope to see more of her in future books.

The mystery itself in Shelter is more realistic than, say, the Young James Bond or Alex Rider series. Impressive self-defense skills aside, Mickey is a kid, not a secret agent. He doesn't have a driver's license, and has his uncle looking over his shoulder (somewhat). But there are elements like a mysterious watcher in a black car, scenes set in a strip club, and a secret basement hideout below an apparently abandoned building. Shelter is a fast-paced, intriguing mystery that will keep readers guessing to the end, and beyond (the book ends not on a cliffhanger exactly, but with one extremely puzzling question remaining).

I must admit that Shelter was an extra-fun read for me, having read the Myron Bolitar series. Coben actually inter-mixes the timeline of Shelter with the events of Live Wire, a bit, and various characters and references provide additional context for the long-time fan. But I think that Shelter does stand on its own, and that teen readers will like it. Coben certainly leaves the door open for future books in the series, and I hope that these materialize. Recommended for YA mystery fans, and also for adult fans of Coben's books. I think that high school librarians looking for books that boys will like will especially want to give Shelter a look.

Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Publication Date: September 6, 2011
Source of Book: Bought it from iBooks to read on iPad 2.

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Between: Jessica Warman

Book: Between
Author: Jessica Warman
Pages: 464
Age Range: 13 and up

211103_136013466413862_1223380_n Between is a paranormal mystery by Jessica Warman. When popular it girl Elizabeth Valchar wakes up in the middle of the night on her father's yacht, she hears something thumping against the side of the boat. She's horrified to see the dead body of a girl facedown in the water. She's even more horrified to realize that the body belongs to her.

Liz finds herself trapped in limbo, able to see and hear her friends and family members, but unable to communicate with them. The only person she can communicate with is Alex Berg, a boy from her class who was killed in a hit and run accident a year earlier. She has only limited memories of her life and who she is. Liz travels back into her own memories, between watching her family and friends in the present, trying to figure out what kind of person she was in life and what caused her death.

Between is compelling - I read it in just a couple of days, sneaking in a few pages whenever I could. The resolution of the various mysteries wasn't a big surprise, but it was interesting to see how the various plot threads tied together.

Liz, particularly the living Liz, isn't particularly likeable. Neither are her friends (with the possible exception of her boyfriend, Richie). Neither is Alex, unpopular in life, and wearing an enormous chip on his shoulder in death. Early in the book, there's a fair bit of Liz ranting about how popular she was, and Alex being sarcastic and nasty about it. The two do reach an understanding, eventually, but their roles still feel a bit stereotyped. Like this:

"This cannot really be happening," I say, even though I know it is happening. "It's my birthday. People aren't supposed to die on their birthday! Especially not me. I'm Liz Valchar." I'm almost shouting. "I'm very popular, you know! Nobody will be happy about this."

His voice is bone dry. "Yes, Liz. I'm aware of your social status." (Page 26)

And this:

"He looks around my room, observing the mess and disarray. "It's funny," he says. "I always thought you guys -- everyone in the upper social echelon -- I assumed you had such simple, perfect lives. Everything seemed so easy for you." (Page 147)

We learn that a number of things in Liz's life weren't easy, as she examines how these things made her who she was. I found her self-analysis a bit overly explained, but I suspect that teen readers will be more able than I am to relate to that figuring out of self. And that is the point of the story, after all, for her to be caught in limbo until she figures things out.

There's a fair bit of discussion about eating disorders in Between. Not the mechanics of eating disorders, but the motivation, the need to exert control, that can lead to anorexia. I thought that this aspect of the book was well done.

I also thought that Warman did a nice job with mood and setting. There's a vaguely otherworldly tone to the book (helped out by the creepy cover), in contrast to the real-world settings. Liz's street, the boat, and the graveyard where she ends up buried all feel three-dimensional, despite not being described in great detail. Warman uses flashes of images, like Richie sitting on his windowsill smoking out the window, and they work well together.

All in all, I found Between enjoyable and memorable (if occasionally irritating). I think if the premise of a popular girl caught in limbo after her death, trying to figure out what happened to her, grabs you, then you should take a look at Between. And it is nice to see a paranormal mystery, to counter the current glut of paranormal romance novels.

Publisher: Walker (@BWKids)
Publication Date: August 2, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Iron House: John Hart

Book: Iron House
Author: John Hart
Pages: 432
Age Range: Adult

Iron_house I accepted a review copy of John Hart's Iron House, an adult thriller, because it was on my wish list. I had enjoyed Hart's previous novel, The Last Child, and wanted to check this one out. Iron House is about two brothers who spent their childhood in a hideous, neglectful institution (called Iron House), until a tragedy separated them. Older brother Michael ran away, and went on to become a top of the line mob enforcer. Julian, on the other hand, was adopted by a wealthy senator and his wife. Twenty-three years later, Michael, in love, is trying to get out of the mob, even as violence taints Julian's sheltered world, and brings the two estranged brothers back into each other's lives. The seeds of Julian's problems can be traced clearly back to Iron House. 

Primary protagonist Michael is a strong character, shaped by his terrible childhood into a killing machine, but still possessing a moral compass. Here's a passage that I think captures Michael's essence:

"Michael waved back, conflicted. He knew what to do, but didn't want to do it; needed Elena, yet was here. Michael told himself to get a grip, to chill out. He could still fix everything: Julian, Elena, the life they'd yet to make. But the comfort was illusory. Everything he loved was far away." (Page 237)

Michael is highly capable (a bit like Lee Child's Reacher in that sense, but more complex), and despite the many other treads, is the heart of the story. The senator's wife, Abigail Vane, is also intriguing, much stronger than her polished looks would suggest.

Iron House is well-written and compelling - I stayed up late reading it several nights in a row, and then had trouble falling asleep because my adrenaline was racing. There are quite a few puzzles, and I found it intriguing to try to figure them out. But overall, Iron House was a bit too graphic for me to whole-heartedly enjoy it.

I have a fairly high threshold for violence in my adult reading. Lee Child and Harlan Coben are two of my favorite authors. But Iron House had a couple of scenes that crossed the line for me. That doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend Iron House to other adult readers. Hart sets a good balance between action and mystery. The settings are well-defined (particularly the creepy Iron House). The characters are also clearly delineated and interesting, and Michael is a killer to cheer for. Iron House is a top-notch thriller. But you should only read it if you have a high tolerance for graphic violence (including torture).

Iron House is a book that will (for good and ill) stay in my memory for a long time. Recommended for fans of sharp-edged, intelligent thrillers.

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (Macmillan)
Publication Date: July 12, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.