MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz

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When an editor receives the final installment in famous author Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd mystery series, she is immediately sucked into the story.  A housekeeper has died falling down the stairs–a seeming accident.  But when the wealthy estate owner is decapitated at the foot of the same staircase days later, it must be connected.  Detective Atticus Pünd hadn’t intended to take any more cases since he learned he is dying.  But the facts of the case are too strange to pass up.  It seems everyone in the village had a motive for one or both murders, and yet none of the motives seem to explain all of the events.  As the novel draws to a close and Pünd is about to reveal the murderer, the editor realizes that there is a chapter missing.  She puts in a call to her boss, asking him to contact the author, and instead receives startling news:  the author is dead–an apparent suicide.  It turns out that he, like his character Pünd, was dying of cancer.  But something doesn’t sit right about the author’s death, and as the editor searches for the final chapter of his manuscript, she begins to suspect that he may have been murdered, as well.

This intriguing double mystery reads a bit like an Agatha Christie.  It is riddled with quirky suspects and red herrings–both in the framing story and the mystery “novel” within.  I found the Pünd plotline more engaging at first, as it took me a little while to get into the framing mystery once the Pünd story abruptly ended.  But it was a neat concept and definitely kept me reading to the end.  I recommend it to fans of classic whodunit mysteries.

COME FIND ME by Megan Miranda

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Ever since the chilling tragedy that shattered her world, Kennedy has been trying to keep her brother, Elliot’s, work alive.  She sneaks back to her old house (the one her uncle and now guardian Joe is intent on selling) and takes the readings from Elliot’s radio telescope, continuing his search for messages from extraterrestrial beings.  But she isn’t the expert that Elliot was, and when she gets a strange reading–a negative frequency that shouldn’t exist–she has to turn to the Internet message boards to ask for advice on how to interpret the results.  The consensus is that there must be something wrong with the telescope or the computer program.  The frequency cannot exist.  But one other user has somehow detected the same pattern of negative frequencies.  Nolan has been searching for his older brother ever since he mysteriously disappeared.  Although his parents have turned their house into a call center to search for missing children, Nolan is convinced that the explanation for Liam’s disappearance is not so simple.  After all, Nolan had a strange premonition the night before that Liam would disappear.  And there was that night when Nolan had the high fever that he was so sure he saw Liam in the living room–like he was trying to communicate with Nolan from another dimension.  That was when Nolan got the EMF meter and started taking readings in the woods where Liam disappeared.  When his path crosses with Kennedy, they realize that the two tragedies that took their brothers might be connected, and that the frequency they’ve discovered might hold the key to solving both of the mysteries.

I would classify this book as a truly character-driven thriller.  While the tantalizing mysteries thread through the story, it is the emotional plot of these two teens finding one another and helping each other process the tragedies that truly drives the book forward and makes it impossible to put down.  It is a masterful piece of writing that will appeal to fans of thrillers, mysteries, and even realistic fiction.  (The sci-fi elements actually turn out to be very light.)  Highly recommend it!  The audiobook is very good, as well.

STAND ON THE SKY by Erin Bow

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When Serik’s attempt to capture a golden eagle goes wrong, Aisulu carries her injured brother down the mountain to their family for help.  But as her uncle is preparing to set the broken leg, Aisulu decides to break a promise and tells her parents about the limp Serik has been concealing for months.  And suddenly, her life changes completely.  Her parents leave for the city to take Serik to the hospital, and Aisulu is left in the care of her uncle and his eccentric wife, unsure whether Serik will ever forgive her for her betrayal, even though she may have saved his life.  And so, she decides she will save another life.  Abandoning her responsibilities for milking the goats and carrying water, she heads back to the mountains and finds the dead eagle’s nest, rescuing its baby chick and bringing it home with her.  At first she fears that her uncle will take the eagle from her, since she is a girl and eagle hunting is man’s work.  But as she and the eagle bond, she sees a new side of her uncle as he encourages her to train the eagle as a hunter.  As Aisulu and her eagle progress through their training, she sees the complexity of the attitudes about gender norms in her family and community and realizes that she may be in a unique position to save her brother–and the rest of her family–once again.

Set in the Kazakh region of modern Mongolia, this is the story of a girl finding her self-worth and realizing how much she is valued by her family, even though she is different.  The uncertainty of Serik’s health and Aisulu’s eagle training drive the plot, but the real power of the story is in the transformation of Aisulu and her family.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to middle grade readers who enjoy character-driven novels and learning about other cultures.

THE MYSTERY OF BLACK HOLLOW LANE by Julia Nobel

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People think it must be great growing up as the daughter of a famous child-rearing expert.  But sometimes Emmy wishes she had a normal mom–or at least that her mom spent less time on her work and more time paying attention to the things Emmy is interested in.  When her mom announces that she has accepted a job on a reality TV program and that Emmy will have to go to boarding school on the other side of the ocean, it seems like proof that her mom’s work is more important than she is.  It makes her feel a little bit less guilty about the secret she’s been keeping from her mom: the mysterious note and the box of “relics” from her long-absent father.  “Keep them safe,” the note commanded.  Emmy never knew her father, has no idea what these “relics” are, and doesn’t know who wrote the note or what kind of danger the mysterious writer anticipated.  But when she arrives at her new elite English boarding school, she begins to uncover more pieces of the mystery of who her father was, and in the middle of the web of secrets is a danger much more real and terrifying than Emmy could have imagined.

This intriguing start to a mystery series is a great middle-grade page turner.  The plot draws on common enough tropes–missing father, secret society, “heroic trio uncovering secrets at a boarding school” with a pleasant Harry Potter vibe–but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in likable characters and an engaging mystery to puzzle out.  I look forward to the sequel!

THE PERFECT COUPLE by Elin Hilderbrand

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The maid of honor’s body washed up on the Nantucket beach the morning of the wedding.  It was the bride who found her.  Needless to say, the wedding was canceled.  Now it is up to the chief and his lead detective to interview the shell-shocked bridal party and figure out what happened.  The simplest explanation, of course, would be that it was an accident.  Girl has too much to drink, goes for a late night swim, washes up on the beach the next morning.  But what about the abandoned kayak that belongs to the father of the groom?  Why does the other bridesmaid seem so reluctant to discuss the MOH’s love life?  Why was the bride on the beach so early in the morning carrying a suitcase?  And where is the best man?  As the investigation unfolds, it becomes clear that everyone has at least one secret and no one is as perfect as they seem.

A character-driven mystery, this novel will appeal to some mystery fans, but also realistic fiction fans who like some good old-fashioned family dysfunction.  In the end, exactly what happened is less important than the complex web of relationships between the characters.  A fast and enjoyable summer read!

DEATH PREFERS BLONDES by Caleb Roehrig

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Margo started pulling heists because she was bored.  She certainly didn’t need the money, being the heir to the Manning fortune; in fact, the tabloid accounts of “Mad Margo,” the wild party girl, provide a useful cover for her real illegal activities.  The four acrobatic drag queens who form the rest of her team all definitely need the money, though, and when a job that could be worth millions falls into their laps, it is impossible to pass up, even though it involves breaking into the highly fortified mansion of a Russian mobster.  Unfortunately, although they pull off the heist unscathed, Margo underestimated the danger she has gotten them all into.  And when things at her father’s company take a dark turn, Margo suddenly finds herself in over her head with hitmen chasing her around the globe.  The only people she knows she can trust are her team, but she may need to take a chance on a young accountant who is quickly becoming more than just a friend.

The premise is gimmicky and the plot absurd, but it sure is a fun ride!  There is a weird balance of far-fetched action plot and intense, realistic character development, which made for strange pacing.  But once I got into it, I had trouble putting it down.  I’d recommend this novel to teen thriller fans.

If you liked Death Prefers Blondes, you might like Kristen Orlando or Ally Carter.

 

 

THE MISSING PIECE OF CHARLIE O’REILLY by Rebecca K. S. Ansari

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Charlie’s little brother, Liam, disappeared almost exactly a year ago, and Charlie is the only one who remembers him.  When he disappeared, every trace of him vanished with him–his clothes, his photographs, even the top bunk of Charlie’s bed.  Charlie’s mother also changed when Liam disappeared.  Even though she can’t remember him, she almost never gets out of bed these days.  Charlie is determined to find Liam and bring him back, because he knows it’s his fault Liam is gone.  After all, the night before Liam disappeared, Charlie fell asleep wishing he didn’t have a brother.  As Charlie and his best friend Ana search for Liam, they stumble upon a secret asylum full of disappeared children and realize that Charlie’s unusual dreams about an Irish family from the past may hold the key to freeing the trapped children–but only if they want to be released.

No mistake is too big to be forgiven in this novel about how family makes us whole.  As Charlie discovers what happened to Liam, the mystery of his disappearance gives way to a race to escape from a magical prison.  Interwoven with this suspenseful story is the theme of self-forgiveness as the characters must learn to accept themselves and their past mistakes.  Character development and plot work together beautifully to drive the story forward.  I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a touch of fantasy and character-driven suspense.