Archive for the ‘Mystery’ category

SYLO by D.J. MacHale

November 25th, 2013

SYLO by D.J. MacHale kept me guessing the whole time as to who the villains were and what motivated them. That’s saying a lot, because I’ve seen many stories about a crazy government taking over. That’s the big trend right now, right? But SYLO covers new ground as we wonder if there’s another, bigger threat that the super controlling government agency is protecting the populous from.

It does have the stereotypical underdog male protagonist, his goofy friend, and the tech-savvy girl/potential girlfriend. So the characterization is a little routine, but it’s the plot that will keep you reading. A small island off of the East Coast of the United States has been quarantined and high school student Tucker Pierce intends to find out why. A mysterious disease is reported, a shipment of superpower-enabling crystals washes up on shore, and high tech aircraft haunt the night skies. It’s got all the makings of a Men in Black story, but, like I said, it’ll keep you guessing.

It’s the first part of the series and I appreciate that MacHale wrote an introduction explaining that this is not Pendragon. In the current market, where there is so much series loyalty and students get upset when an author writes in a different style, it was probably a wise move on MacHale’s part. It’s still science fiction, but it has a little bit more of an edge than the first Pendragon books. It’s worth getting a copy for your library to test the waters of its popularity. It’s a well-known author but not necessarily a well-known series since it’s new, so it may take a bit before you need multiple copies unless you booktalk it.

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha

August 27th, 2013

Set in the 1890’s in New York, Ripper follows a young boy, a young girl, and a bully-turned-friend (yes, the three-part party has been done before, but go with it) as they try to track down Jack the Ripper. The first well-known serial killer committed his murders in London, but the book theorizes that Jack made his way to the United States to cause trouble. The book is full of historical references but they do not seem like an encyclopedia entry that jars the narrative. The short chapters in Ripper benefit the pacing; the action occurs in tiny snippets. I like that. Where the pacing struggled, though, was in the scope of the mystery. Having figured it out pretty early on, I wanted more intrigue but had to settle for Ripper being more of an adventure book instead of a mystery.

Teddy Roosevelt is becoming more and more popular in fictional works and he’s fun in this one. What I appreciated was that Petrucha gave him flaws. For a historical figure who lived such a boisterous life, flaws like impatience develop him as a supporting character.

The discussion of nature versus nurture – What is it driving Jack the Ripper to kill? – is intriguing and gives some secondary motivation to Carver, the young protagonist. While I would have liked more development for Carver’s foils, the young girl and the former bully, Ripper is still an enjoyable read and worth having a copy on the shelf.

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

July 3rd, 2013

Before she became a writer, S.J. Kincaid interned with a politician in Washington, D.C. and you know that had to influence Insignia, her debut novel. It’s set in a future where corporations have more power than nations and war has become so distant and sanitized that teens are the ones fighting the battles via drones. The threat of a neutron bomb and mutually assured destruction keeps warfare civil.

Tom is recruited a la The Last Starfighter to train in the Pentagon (now a spire like something out of Ender’s Game) and escape his troubled home situation. It’s a fun adventure and, on the surface, is a lighthearted sci-fi story with enjoyable character interactions. I found myself laughing out loud multiple times and that’s rare for me.

But there’s another layer to Insignia, one that challenges what modern warfare really means and what the whole point is. Behind the scenes are employees of megacorporations trying to woo combatants to fight for them. Imagine if the U.S. Army was sponsored by Wal-Mart (with Wal-Mart’s two million employees) and the Navy was run by McDonald’s (where every fish in the sea contained genetically engineered McFish DNA). The great thing, though, is that it’s not preachy and addresses it in an accessible manner.

The tech is pretty cool, too. Each character is introduced with name, rank, and IP address popping up in Tom’s vision. Computer programming takes center stage for a bit, but it either produces humorous or dangerous results, so I don’t think a non-programmer audience will be bogged down by it. I like to code, though, so I may be biased. (Really, the programming action reminded me of the wizard duels in Harry Potter.)

While many parts reminded me of other stories, Insignia‘s a brilliant combination of those different elements told through Kincaid’s honest voice. It’s definitely worth a read and a copy or two on the shelf.

Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz

March 12th, 2013

I’m concerned with a condition like Asperger’s being minimized to a gimmick or a trend in YA literature, so I was a bit reluctant to read Colin Fischer at first. I’m glad that I did read it, though, because I would have missed out on a great story if I hadn’t.

Colin Fischer trudges through the daily life of a high school student, but has a unique perspective on life as someone with Asperger’s. I’ve enjoyed stories like Mockingbird by Erskine whose narrator gives us insight into their condition (what good story doesn’t do that, really?). What I especially liked in Colin Fischer was any time that an emotion was written. It was in a different font to represent Colin referencing a face chart to understand body language. The semi-subtle feature continued to draw me back into Colin’s mind. Characterization of duplicitous people, characters who said one thing but meant another, was enhanced by misleading faces. Colin has to sift through the information to get to the truth.

Colin Fischer is a detective in the same style as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. He’s in good company and borrows their techniques while applying them to a high school mystery. A gun has gone off in the school cafeteria and Colin will determine who fired the gun – simply for the love of truth.

Miller and Stentz do a good job of balancing out the seriousness of the situation with some fun pop culture references. On second thought, make that a ton of references. Almost every page has a footnote explaining some kind of allusion, whether to the Kuleshov Effect or Die Hard. It makes sense that the authors would have a finger on the pulse of entertainment. They’re the screenwriters from X-Men: First Class.

This has the potential to be a popular book and rightfully so. It’s stellar realistic fiction and I would love to see the mystery genre jump off. Browsing the aisles of Barnes and Noble and seeing the majority of stories revolving around a girl rebelling against a corrupt government [cough] Hunger Games [/cough], Colin Fischer stands out. I hope that others will take a look at it, too.

Trash by Andy Mulligan

August 28th, 2012

My first experience with Trash was hundreds of printed copies of chapter one showing up in my library unsolicited as a promotional. I wondered if there was some unintentional irony with a book set in a giant landfill being advertised by creating another landfill. Was I supposed to give all 1300+ students a copy? Publishers and marketing experts, I don’t recommend that strategy.

Moving past that, Trash is a socially-conscientious book about a fictional Third World country and an extremely impoverished group of kids. The kids find a wallet in a section of the trash heap one day and through some investigation find that there may be a big conspiracy that they’ve uncovered.

Where Trash succeeds is in its grit. I truly believed in this poor country and the corrupt politicians serving themselves instead of the people. The description of life in a landfill is very gripping, which makes sense because Mulligan spent some time in the Philippines and visited a real-life group of trashpile kids.

Where Trash struggles is in the constantly switching POV. By jumping voices so many times, even though the voices sound real, it’s tough to keep track of characters and, more importantly, connect with them. Some narrators pop in for a few pages and then are gone for the rest of the book. I didn’t know who was worth investing in. If students can get past that, I think fans of realistic fiction with elements of a mystery story will enjoy it.

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby

August 8th, 2012

Icefall reminds me a lot of The Ranger’s Apprentice, and that’s not a bad thing. Icefall is set in a Viking community and deals with Norse mythology but doesn’t cross into a fantasy adventure, per se. It’s more historical fiction, although we don’t know how far back in the past it takes place. Nowhere does Thor come down to Earth and start smiting trolls or whatever. Instead, main character Solveig’s conflicts are universal struggles of worth and acceptance.

Solveig’s father is king. Her older sister is beautiful, her younger brother is strong and heir to the throne. This right there makes it very similar to most middle grade/YA tales. Even All-American Girl by Meg Cabot had this type of middle child angst. I kindof liked that, though. Solveig is not the chosen one nor is her rise to heroism something akin to farmboy Eragon/Luke Skywalker.

While struggling to figure out who she is, Solveig discovers the life of the skald. Skalds are Norse storytellers and they are in charge of the history of their people. Solveig and her steading are trapped in a small valley surrounded by ice and she learns to tell stories until their time in the steading is done. When the ice thaws, her father should return and everything will end happily. What complicates this, though, is that they are running out of food and, moreover, someone is poisoning their warriors. Solveig must figure out which member of her trusted steading is the traitor.

There’s some action, especially towards the end, but the bigger selling point is the mystery of the traitor. The steading becomes weaker and weaker and there may be no one left when the king returns unless Solveig can find the traitor. Again, not much traditional fantasy here. No dragons or mages, although those show up in the tales that Solveig weaves. What you do have in the story is a good mystery with likable characters.

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

May 7th, 2012

I am convinced that Ken Oppel is required by contract to have at least one weird creature in his books. We’ve had flying cats, lonely bats, and maybe even mutated rats (that last one I may be wrong on, but it rhymes, so I’m keeping it).

In This Dark Endeavor, though, the creatures are real. Some are rare, but they still exist. That’s what I love most about the book. Yes, it’s a prequel to Frankenstein and it’s all about alchemy, but the chemistry and the biology stay pretty realistic.

Victor Frankenstein, creator of the famous monster, is the protagonist and the narrator. What is interesting is that Victor is deeply brooding – which, little known fact, is also a requirement by contract for YA characters. Oppel does a good job setting up the man who will try to conquer death itself through science. I guess that’s part of the trend of the “when they were young” books that are coming out; we get to see the origins of well-known characters.
The downside of that trend, though, is that those books sometimes rely too heavily on prior knowledge from the original source. While I benefited from having read the original Frankenstein, students that have read only This Dark Endeavor were still able to understand and appreciate what was going on. In fact, some went on to check out the original.

Having a semi-villain for a protagonist makes for an interesting romance. Normally, you cheer for the hero to win their love, but this time he’s trying to steal from his brother, we know he’s making things worse, and can’t quite endorse what he’s doing. It’s definitely not your normally love story.

Oppel succeeds in making the Frankensteins seem like a real family from history and the characters are the backbone of the story. Students who like adventure stories and won’t be daunted by an 18th-century setting will enjoy it.

Payback Time by Carl Deuker

September 19th, 2011

Taking a break from all of the dystopian/government-gone-mad books, I just finished Payback Time by Carl Deuker.

This is the story of high school football, but thankfully it’s not your traditional sports story. It’s not about a plucky underdog who finds friends because he throws the winning touchdown. The protagonist is Daniel True, although his school nickname is Mitch because students think he looks like the Michelin Man. While Daniel does fight his weight issue, that is not the focus of the book. It simply adds depth of character.

Daniel is a talented reporter for his school’s newspaper. When he’s passed over for the editor position, he is taken from the front page and relegated to the sports page. He realizes that, for a high school paper, most students only read the sports articles. Daniel, though, wants to crack a big story and thinks he may have found one when a star transfer student is on the team but is kept a strict secret. Daniel thinks it may be a cover-up, that the student is ineligible to play and the coach is using him only for key plays.

Deuker knows sports and lists off the play-by-plays during the game scenes. Normally that would be distracting, but since the main character is trying to get as many details as possible, it fits the character. It also makes the book appealing for students who love sports.

The mystery of the transfer student is the focus of the story and is developed well over the course of the book. I don’t want to give too many details because I did change my opinion periodically as I read as to whether the coach was guilty, the transfer student was guilty, or if Daniel was jumping to conclusions.

This is the perfect time of year to put Payback Time out for students to read. Grab a copy. Also pick up Heart of a Champion by Deuker if you don’t have it yet.

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

June 10th, 2011

I received a package in the mail that contained Uncommon Criminals on Wednesday. Since the book doesn’t come out until June 21, I can only assume that this package was connected to a certain con involving a mouse, my library, and large amounts of Italian food.

On Wednesday, I had to put aside reading The Help to read Uncommon Criminals. I had to set down the recently-received book in order to go watch Les Mis performed live at Gammage.

I know. Tough life.

So now I have just completed Uncommon Criminals two days later and can assure you that it’s a great book. That should go without saying, much like any review I could try and give for Les Mis, but it’s nice to know.

This is book two in Heist Society, although I do believe that students could check out this one having not read the first one. (What happens many times with popular novels is that book one always has a huge wait list in my library. Book one definitely is needed for greater depth, but book two can stand on its own unlike some YA series.) Kat is not a thief, despite what her criminal family and resume of heists say. She is approached by an elderly woman who claims to be the rightful heir of the Cleopatra Emerald who wants it brought back to her. Not only is it supposed to be a rare gem, but it also carries with it an ancient curse.

I was glad to see that Carter stayed away from the temptation to make this a paranormal story and instead kept true to her characters. The curse, though, provides a cool backdrop for the developing love between Kat and Hale. Another great overarching idea is Kat’s conflict with herself. No matter who she has to go against or what system she has to trick, Kat’s biggest enemy is her destiny. She does run into a rival thief who represents one possible future for Kat and it’s great to see her face that head-on at different parts of the book.

There’s an exceptional quote towards the middle of the book in a conversation between Hale and Kat:

“Someone did them first, Kat. Don’t forget that. Someone, somewhere did them first.” He shrugged. “So we’ll do something first. Who knows? Maybe a hundred years from now, two crazy kids will be debating the merits of the Kat in the Hat.”

And this, my friends, is what Young Adult fiction is all about. Faced with a task larger than themselves and adults that are all too fallible, the teens must forge their own path and give the readers hope that they, too, count for something in the world. A Wall Street Journal article recently stereotyped YA fiction by one tiny slice of the genre and this hope is the perfect response to that article. Another memorable line from Kat is when she wonders if it’s true that love is the greatest con. For many YA readers, both teen and otherwise, this is a fear that has creeped in at least once and we cheer her on hoping that it’s not just one big lie.

Granted, the book isn’t all just internal *cough* Matched *cough* conflict. There are enough helicopters, rappel lines, and even a yacht to keep me interested. This series more than Gallagher Girls is great for the Long Con developing well over time in the course of one book.

Do your best to purchase multiple copies of Uncommon Criminals from legitimate booksellers on June 21. And librarians, if you no longer have a budget for books, let’s have a little chat about the benefits of the Paul Bunyan versus the Jack and the Beanstalk. You know what I’m talking about.

The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll

April 26th, 2011

Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and expect someone else to raise their young. In The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll, astronomer-turned-sysadmin Stoll discovers 75 cents worth of computer time on a spreadsheet unaccounted for in the user logs. Someone logged in, but there’s an error. Like any good scientist, Stoll picks apart the computer code and sees that it’s working just fine. As he digs deeper, he realizes that a hacker has been in Berkeley Astronomy Labs.

Stoll’s conflict between freedom and order, between his college radical roots and his admin duties, is what creates the character development and makes Stoll a relatable narrator. This is a true story of a computer crime case that happened in 1986. Stoll published the book in 1990 and has many details from his logbooks included in the story.

I can remember being online for the first time in 1994. I had a teacher who ran a bulletin board service and I dialed in my 2400 baud modem to connect directly to his computer. The Cuckoo’s Egg is great for tech nostalgia. Usually I want a tech book that is extremely current, but sometimes it is important to see our roots. The epilogue is my favorite part as Stoll recalls a new threat: a worm embedding and spreading across the Arpanet, the Internet’s grandpa.

This, kids, is a floppy disk. This particular one holds tech-deadly source code.

Even if you’re not a total computer fanatic, there are parts to enjoy about the book. I do feel, though, that having a decent knowledge of computing greatly enhances the suspense when you’re able to appreciate the nontraditional techniques the astronomer uses to capture a hacker who has ties to a high-powered government agency.