Book Reviews: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro and Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller

A Study in CharlotteA Study in Charlotte
Charlotte Holmes Novel #1
Brittany Cavallaro
Katherine Tegen Books, March 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-239890-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Jamie Watson has always been intrigued by Charlotte Holmes; after all, their great-great-great-grandfathers are one of the most infamous pairs in history. But the Holmes family has always been odd, and Charlotte is no exception. She’s inherited Sherlock’s volatility and some of his vices—and when Jamie and Charlotte end up at the same Connecticut boarding school, Charlotte makes it clear she’s not looking for friends.

But when a student they both have a history with dies under suspicious circumstances, ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Jamie can no longer afford to keep his distance. Danger is mounting and nowhere is safe—and the only people they can trust are each other.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes (cue the gasps of horror) even though I’ve read all of the original canon during my reading lifetime. I’m not sure why I’m sort of ambivalent about Sherlock but there it is and my lack of enthusiasm has carried over into all the subsequent work by other writers as well as the movie and tv adaptations (although I have a soft spot for Basil Rathbone’s films and for the first Robert Downey, Jr. movie). Then, I threw caution to the wind and jumped into A Study in Charlotte because I wanted to see how Ms. Cavallaro would handle the concept of a female Sherlock and both Sherlock and Watson being teens.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this and the boarding school setting was just right. I liked Jamie Watson a tad more than Charlotte Holmes but, as a pair, they were effective, amusing and better than average sleuths which is as it should be since this is Holmes and Watson we’re talking about. Charlotte is every bit as annoying, intellectually arrogant and obsessed with scientific endeavors as her great-great-great-grandfather and Jamie’s concern for her reflects nicely on his forebear. Together, they become a formidable team in investigating the death of a classmate when they become prime suspects and they’re not intimidated by the ensuing dastardly things that happen or the appearance of another name from the past, Moriarty.

The only real concern I have with this interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work is Charlotte’s use of drugs. That follows with Sherlock’s use of cocaine, of course, and in itself is not objectionable but I was uneasy with the perception that she can take it or leave it and it doesn’t have much of a deleterious effect on her. I know that’s harking back to the original detective but I could have wished for a bit more cautionary aspect to it because this is a story that will appeal to younger and more impressionable teens.

Brittany Cavallaro‘s debut is intriguing and a lot of fun with a good deal of attention paid to both plot and characterizations. There’s no doubt in my mind that the author has a terrific concept here and has carried it out quite successfully and I’ll definitely be looking for the next book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

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Summer of the DeadSummer of the Dead
Bell Elkins Novels #3
Julia Keller
Minotaur Books, August 2014
ISBN 978-1-250-04473-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

High summer in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia–but no one’s enjoying the rugged natural landscape. Not while a killer stalks the small town and its hard-luck inhabitants. County prosecutor Bell Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong are stymied by a murderer who seems to come and go like smoke on the mountain. At the same time, Bell must deal with the return from prison of her sister, Shirley–who, like Bell, carries the indelible scars of a savage past.

In Summer of the Dead, the third Julia Keller mystery chronicling the journey of Bell Elkins and her return to her Appalachian hometown, we also meet Lindy Crabtree–a coal miner’s daughter with dark secrets of her own, secrets that threaten to explode into even more violence.

Acker’s Gap is a place of loveliness and brutality, of isolation and fierce attachments–a place where the dead rub shoulders with the living, and demand their due.

I first read Summer of the Dead as a selection for one of the book clubs I’m in and the woman who suggested it spoke of it with such high praise I couldn’t not read it. The book lived up to her comments, I’m happy to say.

West Virginia lends itself, fairly or not, to rather depressing stories what with its coal mining, lack of education in some areas and levels of poverty that would crush many of us not accustomed to what can be a bleak outlook. I hasten to add that all of this truly lovely state is not like this but it’s unfortunately true that there’s some validity in such a perception.

Bell Elkins returned to her hometown, Acker’s Gap, and took up the position of county prosecutor. When an elderly man is killed in his own driveway, she and the sheriff, Nick Fogelsong, are really puzzled about what would have prompted someone to take a sledgehammer to him. At the same time, Bell is coping with her sister, Shirley’s, release from a lengthy incarceration. Shirley is most definitely not in a peaceful frame of mind but the past these sisters share weighs heavily on Bell, causing her to feel unusually obligated to Shirley.

On another front, we meet Lindy Crabtree, a woman whose only relief from her dreary existence is her love of books and science. Her father is, to my mind, one of the most compelling characters in the book; a former coalminer, he represents all the terrible things that can go wrong in such a life and the scene that is riveted in my brain is of him crouching under a table because he needs the enclosed space and the dark and is unable to stand erect because of all the years spent bent over in the mines.

There’s an intelligent plot here and the characters are vivid but it’s the region and the residual effects of coalmining that really stand out. Ms. Keller has gotten my attention and I’ll be seeking out the previous Bell Elkins books.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

Book Reviews: Take the Fall by Emily Hainsworth and The Lifeboat Clique by Kathy Parks

Take the FallTake the Fall
Emily Hainsworth
Balzer + Bray, February 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-209422-3
Hardcover

From the publisher—

WHO KILLED GRETCHEN MEYER?

Fear grips the residents of Hidden Falls the night Sonia Feldman and her best friend, Gretchen Meyer, are attacked in the woods. Sonia was lucky to escape with her life, but Gretchen’s body is discovered at the bottom of a waterfall. Beautiful, popular, and seemingly untouchable, Gretchen can’t be gone. Even as Sonia struggles with guilt and confusion over having survived, the whole town is looking to her for information. . . . Could she have seen something that will lead the police to the killer?

At the top of the list of suspects is Gretchen’s ex-boyfriend—and Sonia’s longtime enemy—Marcus Perez. So when Marcus comes to Sonia for help clearing his name, she agrees, hoping to find evidence the police need to prove he’s the killer. But as Gretchen’s many secrets emerge and the suspects add up, Sonia feels less sure of Marcus’s involvement and more afraid for herself. Could Marcus—the artist, the screw-up, the boy she might be falling for—have attacked her? Killed her best friend? And if it wasn’t him in the woods that night . . . who could it have been?

From the moment Sonia stumbles out of Hidden Falls Park, battered and frightened nearly to death, her family and the local police are full of questions about what could have happened and then word spreads that her best friend, Gretchen, is missing. Not long after, Gretchen’s body is found at the bottom of the falls and suspicion soon points to Gretchen’s former boyfriend, Marcus. His arrest doesn’t lead to comfort, though, because he has an alibi and is released.

Tension rides high in this story as Sonia becomes more and more desperate to remember enough details of her attack to help find the killer. Out of desperation to get back to as normal a life as possible, she returns to school and to the circle of friends who were actually better friends in past years. As time goes by, Sonia begins to acknowledge that, perhaps, Gretchen was not such a great friend but she also begins to have serious doubts about some of the people around her. Could one of them be the killer?

Sonia is a very likeable girl if far too impulsive and she matures in front of the reader’s eyes as she copes with the tragedy and the fear of who might still be out there wanting to do her harm. She’s surrounded by loving family but, as might be expected, that’s not enough and it may be that friends like Haley and Aisha, the boys in the group like Tyrone and Kip, even a belligerent former friend like Reva, will be the ones to help her recover. They could also be harboring the killer.

There are motives aplenty but, in the end, the identity of the killer/attacker is unexpected and I have to admit I didn’t see it coming until about 3/4 of the way in. This doesn’t mean the author didn’t play fair; far from it as it all makes total sense. I’m not sure if I was just being dense or if Ms. Hainsworth really did craft a surprising reveal but, either way, she got me and I’m impressed. This is the second book I’ve read by Emily Hainsworth and it most certainly won’t be the last if she keeps writing this well.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

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The Lifeboat CliqueThe Lifeboat Clique
Kathy Parks
Katherine Tegen Books, March 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-239396-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Some people might say that Denver has a death wish. Why else would she dare to sneak into a Malibu beach party where she’d be surrounded by enemies?

Oh yeah. Croix. Denver never thought in a million years he’d ask her out, but who is she to question this miracle of fate?

Well, that isn’t the only surprise fate has in store.

During the party a tsunami hits the coast of California, and Denver and a handful of others escape death and are swept out to sea. Of course, one of her fellow castaways is none other than her ex-BFF, Abigail, who can barely stand the sight of her.

Trapped on a small boat with the most popular kids in school and waiting to be rescued, Denver wonders what might kill her first—dehydration, sunstroke, or the girl she used to think of as a sister?

My goodness, this book is kind of a mess and, yet, I couldn’t look away. There are far too many coincidences, such as a tree that just happens to be in the right place at the wrong moment, and the whole idea of the tsunami borders on being silly BUT…somehow, it works. In particular, the tsunami provides the setting needed for this character study and the lack of plot really doesn’t matter too much. The thing I really liked is that there are only five teens on this boat floating out to sea so we really get to know each one.

Generally, the issue is that Denver has been ostracized by these other kids, led by her former BFF, Abigail, and Denver claims to not know why. In the following weeks, running out of food and water and losing hope while they drift, they have nothing to do but talk and truths begin to come to light. Perhaps most important, they all learn a great deal about each other and, in some cases, begin to care.

These five—Denver, Abigail, mean girl Sienna, blabbermouth Hayley and drummer/stoner Trevor—are interesting and they all have their own insecurities as well as unexpected strengths. I found myself wishing that they would be found before it was too late but also hoping, if they survived, that they’d remember what they learned about themselves and their boatmates.

It’s unfortunate that the story drags in places and that there is little tension even in their direst moments but I did still enjoy it. Billed as “darkly humorous” and “savagely funny”, the labeling isn’t quite right as it has its funny moments but there’s not much to laugh at once the tsunami hits. It’s a quick read and not very deep—even the worst times didn’t cause me to feel any real emotion—but I think the author’s aim, to have these teens open up to each other and show their true colors, was a good one.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2016.

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.

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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: Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Not a Drop to DrinkNot a Drop to Drink
Mindy McGinnis
Katherine Tegen Books, September 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-219850-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Teenage Lynn has been taught to defend her pond against every threat: drought, a snowless winter, coyotes, and, most important, people looking for a drink. She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty or doesn’t leave at all.

Confident in her own abilities, Lynn has no use for the world beyond the nearby fields and forest. But when strangers appear, the mysterious footprints by the pond, the nighttime threats, and the gunshots make it all too clear Lynn has exactly what they want, and they won’t stop until they get it. . . .

Getting around to writing this review has taken me far too long; the only excuse I have, and it’s real, is that I was so drained by it (in a good way) and, even today, find it difficult to express myself well.

What struck me most was the desolation, not only physical but emotional. It seemed that 16-year-old Lynn had little or nothing to live for and, yet, her mother tried so hard to instill in Lynn an appreciation of the things that society in general had lost by teaching her to read and write, to love poetry. She also taught her daughter the realities of survival, to have a healthy fear of others who would gladly kill them for food, possessions and, most of all, water.

How sad is it, then, to realize that, in her childhood, Lynn had never spoken to anyone except her mother, had never heard a man speak her name before Stebbs, the one man who lived nearby and had never harmed them. He had come to them when he was hurt and she was 6 years old. Now Lynn thinks they could have a partnership and she needs that because coyotes killed her mother after Lynn accidentally shot her in the leg trying to protect her from the raiding animals. One big coyote is pack leader and he is as important to this story as any of the humans.

Stebbs is emotional about Mother’s death—maybe he loved her? She had come to him when Lynn was a baby to join forces but he turned her away, said he could only be responsible for himself. The rejection made her hard and she rejected him when he tried to stay after getting hurt. Stebbs is a man with secrets and contradictions but also a man who seems to care in his own way.

Then there are other people, specifically Streamers—people living near a stream, with no evidence they have guns, who don’t know any better than to burn green wood, who are not moving on before winter. These are probably city people with no buckets so they can’t leave the stream. Stebbs and Lynn agree he’ll watch the pond while she investigates their camp when there’s been no smoke for two days and Lynn finds Lucy, Eli and Neva. Neva is Lucy’s mom, Eli is 16 and is Neva’s brother-in-law, Lucy is 5. The family had tried to escape the city, Entargo, because Neva was pregnant and a second child is illegal but her husband was shot. The three are living by the stream in a brush shelter and Lynn and Stebbs must decide how they’ll handle this situation. The Streamers are in desperate straits but to take them in could be a true burden.

Then they discover that people to the south, already known as deadly and cruel, will play a crucial role in their lives and their future, shaky as it might be. Heartbreak is coming but Lynn is also going to learn that people need to help each other if humanity is to survive with any sense of decency.

The setting for Not a Drop to Drink is Ohio, not far from Lake Erie. The Second War for Oil has led to all the devastation and the water shortage as well as the destruction of the society Lynn’s mother and others of her generation had known. Ms. McGinnis built her world so well that I could easily visualize their surroundings (especially when they would go to the roof) but her characters stood out, every one of them down to an elderly coyote. Lynn herself is a mass of conflicting ideas and emotions and watching her on the path to maturity is worth every turn of the page.

As a devotee of post-apocalyptic fiction, I have a mental file of the very best—Not a Drop to Drink is one of them and I’ll be continuing with Lynn’s story.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2015.

Book Review: Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley and Double Crossed by Ally Carter

Pretty Girl-13Pretty Girl-13
Liz Coley
Katherine Tegen Books, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-212737-2
Hardcover

From the publisher

Angie Chapman was thirteen years old when she ventured into the woods alone on a Girl Scouts camping trip. Now she’s returned home…only to find that it’s three years later and she’s sixteen-or at least that’s what everyone tells her.

What happened to the past three years of her life?

Angie doesn’t know.

But there are people who do-people who could tell Angie every detail of her forgotten time, if only they weren’t locked inside her mind. With a tremendous amount of courage, Angie embarks on a journey to discover the fragments of her personality, otherwise known as her “alters.” As she unearths more and more about her past, she discovers a terrifying secret and must decide: When you remember things you wish you could forget, do you destroy the parts of yourself that are responsible?

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Angie’s parents have experienced what every parent fears, the abduction of a child with no resolution, no knowledge of what really happened on that fateful day. When Angie suddenly reappears three years later, the repercussions are not what we might imagine, should we find ourselves in such a situation. I would not be the least bit surprised that the child can’t drop back into life as though nothing happened but, in this case, I found her father’s behavior baffling and sometimes her mother’s was also. Yes, her mom has the excuse of pregnancy wreaking havoc on her hormones and moods but her dad’s aloofness is nothing but hurtful and it’s even shameful when he has to choose whose story to believe.

Angie, on the other hand, is an extremely sympathetic character and I understood her desire to have a normal life as well as her rage against her parents. When it began to be apparent that “others” had an active say in what normal meant, I completely bought into the premise. Although multiple personalities are a fairly rare condition, it makes sense for Angie when her alters start to reveal what Angie’s life has been like—and not just for the past three years.

I’ve read other books that feature a kidnapped child, including those who are held for long periods, but this one struck me as particularly appealing. I like Angie very much and applaud her strength, no matter it’s source. Ms. Coley has done a fine job of telling not only Angie’s story but that of the people who love her, including those who will always be a part of her.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2013.

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Double CrossedDouble Crossed
A Spies and Thieves Story
Ally Carter
Disney/Hyperion, January 2013
ISBN 978-1-4231-8747-9
Ebook

From the author—

Macey McHenry—Glamorous society girl or spy-in-training?

W.W. Hale V—Heir to an American dynasty or master thief?

There are two sides to every coin. Whether these two can work together is a tossup.

Born into privilege, Macey and Hale are experts at mingling with the upper class. But even if they’ve never raised an eyebrow at the glitz, neither teenager has ever felt at home with the glamour.

When Macey and Hale meet at a society gala, the party takes a dangerous turn. Suddenly they’re at the center of a hostage situation, and it’s up to them to stop the thugs from becoming hostile. Will Macey’s spy skills and Hale’s con-man ways be enough to outsmart a ruthless gang? Or will they have to seek out the ultimate inside girl to help?

Two very uncommon teens discover each other, and their respective talents, at a high society charity auction just before a band of masked intruders breaks in and a heist begins. It begins but why doesn’t it end as quickly as most such things do, allowing the robbers to abscond with the goods before the cops get there? Macey and Hale are on their own to try to save the day—but, then again, they’re not really on their own when Kat and Abby make their presence known in Hale’s earbuds.

This is a novella that combines the characters of Ms. Carter‘s two series and then offers excerpts from those series. I’ve known about these books for quite a while but have never read any of them—now I’m a convert and am heading on over to fill up my Nook. Hmm…not sure which series to start with but probably Gallagher Girls since that was first. Can’t wait to get started!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2013.