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Book Review: A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal

 

line in theA Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (ISBN-13: 9780735227422 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 10/17/2017)

Gr 9 Up—Friendship, romance, obsession, and crime all get tangled up in this complicated mystery about love and lies. Angie Redmond and Jess Wong are best friends, though Jess harbors a desperate and rather obvious crush on Angie. Their relationship becomes complicated when Angie begins to date Margot, a wealthy student at a nearby boarding school. Jess, a talented artist who creates a dark, supernatural comic about a love triangle, has her doubts about Margot, who seems cruel and controlling. Margot drives a wedge between Angie and Jess, but eventually, a murder brings them back together. As the police interview all three girls, the details of the night a student is killed highlight the tension among Angie, Jess, and Margot, but do not clearly point to who may have committed the crime. Just when it seems like the truth is coming to light, the story takes another turn, forcing readers to reassess everything they think they understand. Dark, twisty, and unsettling, this book almost begs to be read in one sitting, and then instantly reread. The pace picks up in the second part, with higher tension and uncertainty propelling the story forward quickly, encouraging teens to race to the whodunit conclusion. Though the final few chapters feel rushed, they provide a satisfying—and shocking—finale to this scandalous examination of jealousy, secrets, and untrustworthy characters. VERDICT A high-interest thriller with wide appeal recommended for all collections.

Review from this month’s School Library Journal: The Girl with the Wrong Name by Barnabas Miller

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of School Library Journal.

 
the girl with the wrong nameGr 9 Up—A search for answers only leads to more questions in this suspenseful mind-bending thriller. Theo Lane does not remember what happened to her on the night of June 17; she just knows she woke up bruised and with a giant facial gash. She’s repressed any memories of the trauma and, according to her friends, is not acting like her usual self. She avoids her friends and instead focuses on making secret documentaries. Her new subject, unbeknownst to him, is a young man named Andy, who is looking for a girl with whom he spent an amazing night. Theo throws herself into helping him solve his mystery. Before long, both are wondering what they might be forgetting as they run around New York City on a dizzying journey through clues that lead them to night clubs, weddings, a women’s shelter, and, most unexpectedly, Theo and Andy’s shared past. A major discovery near the end reveals truth far more twisted than Theo—or readers—could have predicted. Miller takes readers further and further down the rabbit hole, making it hard to guess if anything—or anyone—is ever as it seems. Some of the plot points push the boundaries of believability, but they all serve to keep readers guessing and racing along with Theo toward the shocking truth. Captivating characters and solid writing help maintain the frantic pace and the bewildering mystery.

VERDICT A riveting thriller for fans of unreliable narrators.Amanda MacGregor, Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

 

ISBN-13 :9781616951948

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 11/03/2015

Book review: Vanished by E.E. Cooper

In E.E. Cooper’s Vanished, Kalah is left to put together the pieces of a mystery after one of her best friends disappears and another commits suicide.

 

Kalah, a junior, is newly best friends with seniors Beth and Britney, who have a long history of fighting and making up. Kalah and Beth have been hooking up, unbeknownst to Britney (and to Kalah’s boyfriend or anyone else, for that matter). Kalah feels closer to Beth, but Beth has a history of not getting involved or attached, so it’s hard to know how she really feels about Kalah. Britney is moody, jealous, and controlling. She’s extremely concerned with her image, going so far as to lie about getting into every Ivy League school she applied to. Kalah knows this new friendship is fragile, but she’s desperate to reconcile her public and private self and show who she really is. She intends to tell Beth how she really feels and what she wants (to be with her) on the night of Beth’s 18th birthday. But that plan goes away when Beth disappears to get some “space.”

 

Kalah is devastated that Beth left without even so much as a goodbye. She’s also, rightfully so, extremely worried, but Britney gives the impression that she knows more about Beth’s disappearance and that it’s fine. In fact, nobody seems super alarmed that she’s gone. She’s 18, she wanted some space, she’s clearly fine, let it go. Things become murkier when Jason, Britney’s boyfriend, is taken in for questioning after eyewitnesses report seeing him arguing with and then making out with Beth. Kalah isn’t sure who or what to believe, a feeling that intensifies when Britney leaves a suicide note and disappears. No body is found, but she’s presumed dead. Kalah tries desperately to get in touch with Beth, but when she finally hears back from her, she starts to wonder if maybe the truth of all of this is far more complicated and insidious than anyone could imagine.

 

There is a lot going on in this book beyond the main plot. Kalah repeatedly references her anxiety and OCD, and talks about having spent some time in therapy and the various ways her therapist helped her learn how to cope with these things. Her mother suggests she go back to therapy after all of this happens, an idea Kalah is resistant to. Kalah also has never been attracted to a girl before and doesn’t know how to tell anyone about it, or if she wants to. When she does tell her brother and her mother that she loved Beth, they are kind, loving, and sympathetic. This book also features lots of odious adults—nosy reporters, and oversharing and pushy officer, and absent or terrible parents (particularly Britney’s racist mother).

 

The ending of the book leaves a lot of room for interpretation—do we believe the story Kalah has put together or the one presented to her—and ends on a total cliffhanger. The pace of the book really ramps up about halfway through and manages to sustain the suspense and mystery all the way to the last word. My only real quibbles with the book are the slow start, the too similarly named main characters (Beth and Britney—took me a while to keep them straight), and the less well-developed secondary characters. It’s also hard to feel like we really know Beth or Britney because they both spend much of the story gone—they’re really gone before we get to see much of them. Over all, though, this a was a compelling read, one that will be a hit with fans of suspense stories and plot twists. An easy recommendation for a wide audience of readers. 

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS

ISBN-13: 978006229390

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 5/12/2015

Series: Vanished Series #1

Book review: Cut Me Free by J.R. Johansson

One of these days, I’m going to post the list of “things in YA books that are pet peeves/we’re so over/we flat-out hate” that I started with my YA book club. I referenced it in my review of The Prey (things from our list that that book hits: dystopia-fatigue and love triangles). I bring it up here because one of my reading pet peeves is when the entire plot of a book could be resolved or diverted by a character having one conversation or taking one step.

 

In J. R. Johansson’s Cut Me Free, Piper, the main character, has a ton of really compelling reasons to go to the police. Now, ostensibly she doesn’t do this because (as you’ll learn when you read the book), she doesn’t trust them. She’s worried about the consequences because of past incidents. But the reasons to go to the police multiply and at a certain point I shoved this book aside and shouted, WHY?! Let’s see: Piper has been kept captive and tortured for YEARS by the Parents (her Mother and Father, whom she always capitalizes and never refers to as “my,” always “the”). They killed her little brother. Piper managed to escape. She then, while living under the radar, stumbles across a little girl whom she thinks is being abused. She saves her, but they’re now being hunted and played with by some sicko who knows her real name (she now goes by Charlotte), repeatedly breaks into her apartment, and threatens her life. GO TO THE POLICE. Or get someone to go to the police on your behalf. But who could she ask? Probably not Cam, the boy who sets her up with new forged documents and has connections to the mob. Probably not Janice, her neighbor who is also apparently living under an assumed name/on the run from something/one. I know it’s not that simple—something bad is happening, just go to the police. In books or real life. But because of how the plot unfolds and how much is at stake, I was desperately irritated that she was not trying to ensure her safety or the safety of Sanda (the young girl she rescues). Sure, go take on this complete psychopath on your own, Piper. Sounds great. If it’s the Father come looking, you know he’s VICIOUS and crazy. If it’s Sanda’s captor, you know he’s VICIOUS and crazy. (Yes, that sound was me screaming at my computer.)

 

Here’s the thing: based on the blurb, I wanted to read this. I thought it might be a really interesting look at abuse. When she rescues Sanda and learns she lived in an orphanage in Myanmar, was taken, worked cleaning for a rich family, and then was sold to her captor, I thought, ugh, but also, tell me more. Too bad, me! You don’t get more! I thought maybe there would be more about child trafficking, some greater plot or information or something, but no. Here’s what we do get a lot of: really horrific scenes of brutality. REALLY HORRIFIC. Like, to the point that I eventually almost couldn’t read them because they felt less necessary to the story and more gratuitous. I felt like a voyeur. There are some flashbacks to the nightmarish 10 years Piper spent living in an attic and being abused (though, again, I wanted more of her story filled in). There’s what Piper sees when she begins to observe Sanda’s situation and what she discovers when she eventually rescues her. But it’s everything that happens once Piper comes face to face with her stalker that is just shocking. I know some people like books that are like this—graphic, violent, bloody, disturbing—and I’m usually okay with them. But this one was rough.

 

Fans of thrillers who like mind games will tear through this. I found it overwritten, sensational, lacking in meaningful world-building, and outside the bounds of believability. Much like The Prey, it features a completely unnecessary romance storyline. Cam could still have been a large part of the story and a significant person in Piper’s life without having to be the forced-feeling love interest that shows Piper she can trust and love someone (and really, a lot of their relationship made me uncomfortable, from his savior complex to their physical interactions in Krav Maga). Honestly, a more compelling story (to me) would have been more of a focus on the 10 LONG YEARS Piper spent locked up and tortured, more about what she did to escape the Parents, and how exactly she managed to travel from Wyoming to Philadelphia (especially after having spent nearly all of her life completely removed from all society and having, in theory, only a very rudimentary understanding of how real life works. I mean, we’re supposed to believe that she can’t figure out how to remember how much coins are worth, but she can escape, flee, and take on a crazed lunatic all on her own? Oooookay). At the end, an author’s note says she is “passionate about advocating for victims of human trafficking.” I believe that, and of course admire that and any attempt to bring more attention to this issue. Human trafficking is but one small piece of this psychological thriller. Read this one if you like suspense and don’t mind suspending your disbelief long enough to go along with what most of this story asks of you.   

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF NETGALLEY
ISBN-13: 9780374300234
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 1/27/2015

Book review: Twisted Fate

In Norah Olson’s Twisted Fate, sisters Sydney and Ally couldn’t be more different. Ally is naïve, picks blueberries, bakes muffins, and doesn’t mind dressing like her mother to go sailing. Syd skateboards, like punk music, and is on track to be class valedictorian, despite her main interests in life including skipping class and getting high. When new boy Graham moves in next door, he’s an enigma—in a fairly clichéd and uninteresting way. He’s got a troubled past, feels he’s a genius filmmaker, and comes between the sisters. He’s self-adjusted his various anxiety and ADD medications so that he’s pretty much just one big dilated pupil of intensity. Even Syd, who likes drugs and pushing boundaries, think he’s pretty freaky. He films the sisters, their friends, and random children around town, often using a tiny and hidden camera. As the content of his art films are revealed, they prove to be incredibly disturbing. Like, profoundly messed-up and gruesome.

 

Both sisters take turns telling the story, often recounting the same episode but from completely different perspectives—in fact, it took me a while to realize they were even talking about the same time/thing, their stories were so different. Graham also narrates, as do two police chiefs and his stepmother. The whole story boils down to this: Graham is disturbed and something bad happened in the past; Ally is sweetness and light and everything good; Syd is a rebel who sees Graham for the threat he is, yet is still drawn to him. This psychological thriller manages to build but not entirely sustain suspense as it moves toward an ending that close readers will be able to predict.

 

Pieces of the story stand out, like a fantastic conversation between Sydney and (I think) a guidance counselor at school about the roles and expectations for girls. There’s commentary on class privilege, drug use and abuse, and our current culture of documenting and sharing our lives. There are a lot of interesting things going on in this novel, but they often get buried under too many unnecessary other things.

 

Something about the writing occasionally feels clunky—maybe the many heavy-handed hints, maybe the flat characters who definitely feel like what an adult’s version of what this kind of teen is, maybe the unbelievable excuses and exemptions that allow the story to unfold as it does. The premise is interesting, but the execution leaves something to be desired. This might be a good pick, maybe, for reluctant readers, because of the high level of interest, but that interest is hard to sustain as perspectives shift and the same cliffhangers are dangled over and over again. Tighter writing and less foreshadowing would have helped the eventual big reveal to pack the punch that it should. Fans of thrillers and suspense stories may enjoy this one, despite its flaws, especially if they like bad things happening and disturbing (and disturbed) main characters.

 

REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
ISBN-13: 9780062272041
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date
: 1/20/2015