Book Review: The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange @theLucyStrange @chickenhsebooks

The Secret of Nightingale Wood
Lucy Strange
Chicken House, March 2019
ISBN ‎ 978-1-338-31285-0
Trade Paperback

While middle-grade The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange is a relatively recent release (2016 in the UK, 2017 in the US) the bittersweet story is set in 1919. The absolute resilience and fierce determination of 13-year-old Henrietta (Henry) exemplifies a young hero to applaud.

The Abbott family has suffered a tragedy at the same time that they receive a blessing. The shock and unimaginable pain combined with “hysteria” (a very common type of depression today) that Mrs. Abbott exhibits, call for complete rest. The forever-changed family, along with Nanny Jane, pack up and move to Hope House.

There, Dr. Hardy eagerly awaits his subject patient. He’s partnered up with a “cutting edge” doctor and cannot wait to try his brilliant new techniques such as giving folks tropical diseases so that the fever “cures” the brain or soaking someone in a scalding-hot bath.

Henry not only dislikes Dr. Hardy, she does not trust that his best interests are in making her mother better. She thinks Nanny Jane may agree, but her hands are tied and Mr. Abbott has been sent away for work. Henry is truly alone.

Until a tendril of smoke catches her eye. Henry walks into the dark woods, as if she’s being led. The last thing she expected to find was a wild-haired woman living in a rusted caravan. Henry cannot be sure if the ghostly figure is real or a figment of her imagination. But she is going to find out.

In her quest to save her mother from the asylum and the greedy hands of Dr. Hardy, Henry attempts to confirm her own sanity. As she seeks answers, she inadvertently solves a three-year-old mystery and motivates a few adults to support her in doing the right thing.

Absolutely appropriate for pre-teen and younger teenagers, the authenticity of such an altruistic adolescent captured the heart of this Old Adult reader. I may have even sniffled and shed a few tears.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2020.

Book Review: The Beautiful Lost by Luanne Rice

The Beautiful Lost
Luanne Rice
Point, July 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-11107-1
Hardcover

How do you survive when you’ve been hit by three waves of overwhelming loss and you’re only sixteen? That’s what the last three years have dumped on Maia. Her marine biologist mother walked out, leaving her with her dad, an insurance agent. At that point, Maia had hope Mom would come for her and was keeping afloat emotionally by her memories of the two of them sitting on the roof outside her room, watching the night skies. That bond was further strengthened, or so she believed, by their shared love of whales and their songs. Supposedly, her mother felt suffocated living in suburban Connecticut, leaving to study whales while living in a remote cabin above a Canadian fjord north of the Saint Lawrence River.

Wave number two hit when her father started coming out of his own funk and found someone he wanted to marry. That reality flattened Maia’s imaginary house of hope that things might become as they once were. She fell into a dark depression so severe that she was hospitalized. Now, barely holding on thanks to antidepressant medication, she’s come up with a plan to run north and find Mom.

The only thing she has that makes life bearable, is the secret crush she’s developed on enigmatic Billy, a boy her age who has his own troubled past and lives in a group home she can see from her bedroom window. Almost every night, Maia studies his window, hoping to get a glimpse of him.

When her hyper alert stepmom pushes the panic button after Maia leaves school early, it forces her to speed up her plan. The following day she takes off in her mother’s old Volvo and is shocked when Billy accosts her and insists on coming along.

What follows is a physical journey via back roads from Connecticut through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, followed by a stealthy entry into Canada. More importantly, and of greater interest, is the spiritual and emotional quest that accompanies it. Billy and Maia are both wounded and secretive, he more than she. Learning to feel and then trust those feelings, makes for a fascinating read. The people they meet on their journey are both interesting and integral to their growing awareness.

The ending is partially predictable, but the parts that aren’t really enhance the suspense. I liked both teens. Some readers may find Billy a bit too hard case emotionally, but having worked with teens on an inpatient psychiatric unit, his coping mechanisms aren’t that surprising. Teens who have been depressed, affected by family chaos or secrets, as well as those who know someone struggling with depression.

In her author’s notes at the back, Luanne shares why she felt compelled to write this book and what her own teen years were like. This is her second young adult book. I read and really liked her first one and it’s safe to say after two really good entries in this genre, she’s got game.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, July 2017.

Book Reviews: The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos and Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace

The Mystery of Hollow PlacesThe Mystery of Hollow Places
Rebecca Podos
Balzer + Bray, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-237334-2
Hardcover

From the publisher—

All Imogene Scott knows of her mother is the bedtime story her father told her as a child. It’s the story of how her parents met: he, a forensic pathologist; she, a mysterious woman who came to identify a body. A woman who left Imogene and her father when she was a baby, a woman who was always possessed of a powerful loneliness, a woman who many referred to as “troubled waters.”

Now Imogene is seventeen, and her father, a famous author of medical mysteries, has struck out in the middle of the night and hasn’t come back. Neither Imogene’s stepmother nor the police know where he could’ve gone, but Imogene is convinced he’s looking for her mother. And she decides it’s up to her to put to use the skills she’s gleaned from a lifetime of reading her father’s books to track down a woman she’s only known in stories in order to find him and, perhaps, the answer to the question she’s carried with her for her entire life.

I was drawn to this book by the very idea of this young girl trying to solve a mystery by using the skills and knowledge she’s acquired through reading mysteries. That’s about as much credibility as an amateur sleuth can hope to have and mighty few do so, in my eyes, Imogene already has an advantage.

Imogene has always known that her mom suffered from debilitating depression but, on the surface, she’s had a happy life with a loving father and stepmother so it’s especially alarming when her father disappears. Besides the expected fears that arise when someone goes missing, Imogene is thrust into a search for herself as well as her dad. She’s a complex girl, quite the loner even though she has a terrific friend in Jessa who is actually my favorite character because she has a strength and loyalty about her that I admire. It’s no surprise that Imogene has a certain lack of self-assurance—after all, her mother left her behind—and that her self-worth takes another swan dive when her father seemingly walks out.

While I had a great deal of sympathy for this girl, I really think her story will have the strongest impact on readers who have experienced similar troubles. The mystery here isn’t a conventional one; rather, this is a psychological study of family and its dysfunctional parts along with a search for two missing people. Ms. Podos is a writer with real talent and I’m looking forward to much more from her in the future.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2016.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shallow GravesShallow Graves
Kali Wallace
Katherine Tegen Books, January 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-236620-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When seventeen-year-old Breezy Lin wakes up in a shallow grave one year after her death, she doesn’t remember who killed her or why. All she knows is that she’s somehow conscious—and not only that, she’s able to sense who around her is hiding a murderous past. In life, Breezy was always drawn to the elegance of the universe and the mystery of the stars. Now she must set out to find answers and discover what is to become of her in the gritty, dangerous world to which she now belongs—where killers hide in plain sight, and a sinister cult is hunting for strange creatures like her. What she finds is at once empowering, redemptive, and dangerous.

Just imagine if you were to wake up one day only to discover that you’re actually dead. That’s what happens to young Breezy and she’s immediately thrust into the midst of her own very personal mystery. Not only that, she can sense those around her who have killed. Add to that the realization that there are others who, like her, are…odd…and you have a “life” that is intensely strange and full of questions crying out for answers. The interesting thing about Shallow Graves is that Breezy may not find all the answers she’s looking for.

Is Breezy a monster because she is/was dead? I suspect each reader will reach their own conclusion about that but, for me, yes, she is a monster by definition but there is much about her that brings out her essential humanity and I ended up liking her a lot. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I was particularly enthused about other characters, mainly because there were just too many and not enough attention was paid to them by the author to really bring them to life.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book and, although it sometimes seems rather jumbled and aimless, I recommend readers push through. In the end, I don’t think you’ll be sorry you did and it will appeal to lovers of mystery as well as dark fantasy. The only real quibble I have with Shallow Graves is that the ending is a bit of a non-ender but I don’t think all things absolutely have to be tied up in neat little packages, do you?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2016.

Book Review: Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman

BacklashBacklash
Sarah Darer Littman
Scholastic Press, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-65126-4
Hardcover

When a young person tries to commit suicide after being cyberbullied, what are the consequences? What should happen to the bully? How does the victim recover? What are the parents’ roles and responsibilities? How does the victim go back to a normal life and face the bully or bullies? How are siblings affected? These are questions kids often don’t consider until it’s too late.

From the switching points of view of four teenagers, a victim and her younger sister and a bully and her younger brother, Backlash addresses the repercussions to the kids and their families of an instance of cyberbullying. Their descriptions of events and feelings hint at causes such as family dysfunction, peer pressure, and the self-absorption common to youth. Voices of parents, police investigators, and a counselor become clear as the kids relate how they each understand the events and their consequences. The characters are fully developed, as is the role of each in the unfortunate incident and its backlash.

Sarah Darer Littman’s book should be read by teens, discussed in classrooms, and suggested to parents of bullies and victims. The story doesn’t give solutions, only a scenario, and the hopeful outcomes for these characters can’t be anticipated in all cyberbullying cases—the victim here doesn’t die, for instance, and gets counseling. But the horrible consequences portrayed in the story might make a reader recognize his or her own mindset and think before bullying or reacting to a bully. As the author points out in the voice of one of the characters, words can hurt or even cause a death.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, November 2015.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

It's Kind of a Funny StoryIt’s Kind of a Funny Story
Ned Vizzini
Disney-Hyperion, 2007
ISBN 9780786851973
Trade Paperback

In It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the reader spends a period of time in a 15-year-old boy’s life.

I found Craig to be a bit of an atypical teen-aged boy, in that he seemed very self-aware and in tune with his emotional and mental states. He has been cognizant of “something” off for most of his life. The “something” spirals out of control after Craig has pushed himself beyond limits to pass a test for entry into an exclusive high school.

It seemed that his knee-jerk reaction was to go to his parents in search of professional help. While I loved that the author showed that a chemical imbalance resulting in depression can most certainly be affected by stress (the two are not mutually exclusive, nor are they “two completely different things” as commonly believed); I felt that Craig’s realization and handling of the situation was unrealistic. I would not expect someone at that age to realize that he needs professional help, go to his parents, and work with multiple doctors to learn to manage the imbalance.

Overall, I liked this book. It was a quick read, and it gave me hope. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe teenagers are more self-aware than I thought.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2012.