On Maureen Johnson’s “Truly Devious”

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Maureen Johnsonthe official “Queen of Teen,” is back and better than ever with her latest novel, Truly Devious. In what might be her finest book to date, this mystery combines the best components of YA fiction — an elite boarding school, murder, a beautifully relatable protagonist, and young love — to create a compulsively readable page-turner. Sometimes I exaggerate about good books, but believe me when I say you will not be able to put this one down until you’ve reached the end.

Johnson first showed off her mystery/crime-fighting chops in the Shades of London series, which begins with a return of Jack the Ripper in present-day London and follows a group of young people who are able to see ghosts. Each installment is brilliantly plotted and exhibits Johnson’s keen eye for detail as well as her ability to construct three dimensional characters. Her ability to shed light on the nuances of adolescence was always present in her work, but so many things about Truly Devious combine these elements and take Johnson’s storytelling to a whole new level.

In the beginning of the novel, Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has gained admittance to Ellingham Academy — a school built by a 1930s industrialist named Albert Ellingham who wanted to share his philosophy of education as a game with the rest of the world. Fifty students of all backgrounds are admitted each year tuition free to explore their niche interests with access to the school’s bottomless resources. There are inventors, artists, musicians, and gamers, but Stevie is different. Her obsession with the Ellingham affair and careful study of criminology is what got her into the school.

Stevie’s goal at Ellingham Academy is simple: solve the murder/kidnapping of Iris and Alice Ellingham, Albert’s wife and daughter, and student Dottie Epstein.

Like the Shades series weaves in and out of the streets of London, Truly Devious relies heavily on the landscape of Ellingham Academy. Situated on a mountain just outside of Burlington, Vermont, the school is isolated from society in an idyll that is perfect for the students’ pursuits. But a shroud of eeriness looms over the campus, which houses countless mysteries from the past, ones that Stevie is eager to examine.

Things take an unexpected turn, though, when Hayes — a handsome young actor who has recently found fame with his YouTube series — is found dead in an underground tunnel where key events of the Ellingham affair unfolded decades earlier in April 1936. The school community is rocked with shock and grief. Stevie sees Hayes’ body when it’s discovered by campus security, and she must finally reconcile the theories of studying crime with the reality of an untimely death.

What the police determine to be an accident soon appears like something slightly more sinister to Stevie. The circumstances surrounding Hayes’ death don’t quite add up, and she’s determined to figure out what, or who, was involved.

Investing herself in the Ellingham affair and Hayes’ death isolates Stevie from those around her. Johnson’s characterization of Stevie’s isolation and anxiety is masterful in its presentation. From the beginning, Stevie feels alien in her own family because her parents are devotees of a fictional senator who mirrors the racist and misogynistic idealogy of someone like Roy Moore. Instead of building the typical kind of familial tension into the storyline that we find in most YA novels, Johnson subtly creates a dynamic between Stevie and her parents that I found extremely moving.

Many teenagers and young adults disagree with their parents over politics and ideology. In Stevie’s case, she doesn’t understand her parents, and they don’t understand her, but they love each other deeply. The way her mom makes sure Stevie has her anxiety medication, and the way Stevie looks out for a cheap place to eat when her parents come to see her because she knows they don’t have much money shows a mutual simplicity of affection at the heart of a complicated relationship.

Stevie is also uncertain about whether she even belongs at Ellingham considering the nature of her interests, isolating her further.

To that end, Johnson builds a lot of heavy hitting material into the historical chapters of the novel. Albert Ellingham, the great benefactor, is clearly modeled after late 19th century, early 20th century titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. His magnificent wealth is legendary, funding his many enterprises, but it is also the source of his greatest loss.

When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, ransom is demanded on three occasions, all of increasing amounts, which prompts his secretary to comment that the kidnappers will always want more. Excess and decadence are hallmarks of the Ellingham lifestyle. Johnson brilliantly underscores the Gatsby-esque nature of the household and the family’s privilege with the inclusion of anarchists as dark clouds over the Ellingham dream world.

There are so many layers to this book, combining all the great elements of a YA novel and a good mystery. I gushed with anticipation as I pieced together the tiny details that Johnson sprinkled throughout the plot like breadcrumbs.

Unfortunately, I’m going to assume book two of the series won’t be released until 2019 or 2020, and I might go crazy if I think about all the possibilities that could unfold. It felt like a loss having to turn the last page of this intoxicating story, and I can promise you that whatever comes next will be even more wild.

On Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Wings and Ruin”

9781619634480_p0_v3_s550x406The third installment of Sarah J. Maas A Court of Thorns and Roses series is an absolute thrill ride. Readers, strap in: Maas goes full throttle from start to finish.

This novel’s predecessor, A Court of Mist and Fury, triggered some unexpected plot twists. We find out that Rhysand and Feyre are mates and that the King of Hybern plans to use the Cauldron—the entity from which their universe was created—to destroy the wall separating the faerie world from the mortal world in an attempt to gain back what he feels is rightfully theirs. In the process, the lives of countless humans and lesser faeries will be compromised—left to the whims of the sadistic King and his cronies.

Driven by jealousy, Tamlin aids the King in A Court of Mist and Fury, which leads all the High Lords to question his loyalty in the war against Hybern. Feyre and Rhysand’s biggest challenge lies in rallying forces together that are strong enough to combat the power that the King yields. Feyre’s sister, Nesta, becomes the key to unlocking the mystery. The iron-willed, fiery-tempered young woman took something from the Cauldron when it changed her so that she can communicate with it in ways no one else can.

The Night Court crew has to convince the other High Lords to offer their armies in defense of Prythian and the human lives that are at stake. But the High Lord of Autumn—Lucien’s father—is rotten to the core, constantly wavering on the cusp of loyalty to Prythian and becoming a sycophant to Hybern. The battle of wills that ensues between the courts is only a minor bump in the road. Feyre and Rhysand must also harness some of Prythian’s darkest forces to defeat the King. These entities come from other realms and are as old as time itself.

In the midst of all this, each character has to deal with his or her own personal demons. Mor and Azriel are still doing their painful dance; Cassian and Nesta maintain a hate/barely tolerate each other relationship that contains obvious passion; Feyre has to deal with the fallout from Tamlin; Amren has to unlock the Cauldron so she can finally return to her original form; and Lucien has to keep a distance from his mate, Elain, who remains a shell after her encounter with the Cauldron and is devastated over her broken engagement with a rich, faerie-hating human.

Everything comes to a head in one of the most breathtaking battles I’ve ever encountered in young adult fantasy literature. Maas’ imagery is brutal and vivid, and the way she weaves each character’s personal dilemma into the final reckoning is beyond compare. Everyone pushes beyond brokenness to defeat the evils the King of Hybern plans to unleash on the people and faeries of Prythian.

All the organizing Feyre and Rhysand accomplish over the course of the novel almost crumbles when several unexpected twists and turns nearly destroy everything. But with the unbridled bad-assery of the three Archeron sisters, the Night Court, and its assembled forces, save the island from a terrifying end. What they’re left with, though, is the mass carnage of thousands and thousands of faeries. What will become a new age for Prythian will also be another period of great mourning for all involved.

a court of frost and starlight sarah j maas

I was ecstatic to find that this novel—what I thought was going to be the final installment in the trilogy—is not the end for our heroes. In May 2018, Maas will be releasing a novella titled A Court of Frost and Starlight. Narrated by Rhysand and Feyre, it will bridge the gap between the original trilogy and a new trilogy set in the Court of Thorns and Roses universe. Next spring cannot come quickly enough.

On Maureen Johnson’s “The Shadow Cabinet”

shadesWHY HASN’T THE FOURTH BOOK COME OUT YET?!?! Oh…have I given myself away already? You could say my investment in this series has gotten out of hand. Or you could say my enthusiasm/outrage is entirely proper because I NEED to know what happens between Stephen and Rory, and what those crazy Lannister-like twins are going to get themselves into.

As I’ve said before about Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, the novels are so fast-paced and intricately plotted that the reader cannot put them down easily. The Name of the Star will, perhaps, always be the strongest installment in the series, but The Shadow Cabinet is a close second. The devastation and anger that wracks the Shades after Stephen’s death provides the foundation for great fiction, and we see Johnson’s characters grow as they move through this trauma.

Rory is at a crossroads. Her guilt about the car accident that caused Stephen’s head injury overwhelms her at times, and she’s determined to use her power as a terminus to keep him around as a ghost at the end of The Madness Underneath. Callum, who is driven in his work by his hatred of ghosts, can’t stand the thought of his best friend taking that form–being trapped in the liminal space between life and what comes after.

Boo and Thorpe are left to rebuild after the fallout. Despite their loss, they must locate Charlotte who has been kidnapped by Jane Quaint and her weird cult. Of course, Rory fails to follow instructions and tries to find her own information when she inadvertently brings a new member to the team–Freddie Sellers. Freddie’s intelligence and enthusiasm repel Boo and Callum at first, suspicious that she might be working for Jane. But they grudgingly come to accept the skills she can offer.

Johnson packs quite a few punches into this book because, when we find out what Jane has planned, it seems impossible that Rory and the others will make it through unscathed.

*Spoiler alert* Jane is attempting to revive her friends and mentors–the power hungry twins, Sid and Sadie. We find out that, like Stephen, these two have been in a state between life and death since the night they murdered ten people and drank poison in 1973. Jane wants them back so that she, too, can “defeat death” and reach some new level of consciousness or whatever.

Rory just wants Stephen back.

The most compelling pieces of this novel take place in that liminal space as Rory tries to pull them back to the living. We find out that Stephen is a member of the illusive Shadow Cabinet whose sole purpose is to guard the stones that keep the boundaries of life and death separate, and aid souls on their way to whatever comes after death. The termini the Shades had been using before the Ripper threw them into the Thames were cut from the Eye of Isis–one of the nine stones that protected London. When it was destroyed, the tear made London a hotbed for the supernatural.

Since Rory is a stone, Stephen is also tasked with protecting her. Loving her isn’t part of the plan. It can’t be. The push and pull of their relationship is heartbreaking, and the reader wants nothing more than for it to be okay for them to be together, living like normal teenagers. In peace.

But it is not to be. Once Rory and Stephen return to the world of the living (with Sid and Sadie in tow), they have to return another major stone that Jane stole to complete the ritual. Of course, they manage to do it, but nothing is the same. No one else in the Shades knows about the Shadow Cabinet. Rory doesn’t remember what happened when she went in after Stephen, so she doesn’t know why she and Stephen can’t be together. It’s just the hint of a feeling that something is off…and Sid and Sadie are on the loose, murderous as ever.

You can understand why Johnson needs to release the fourth novel pronto. The lives of these beautiful characters hang in the balance. *lets loose a sigh* Stephen and Rory have to get their happy ending…and Sid and Sadie need to pass from this life.

On Meg Rosoff’s “How I Live Now”

rosoffThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Meg Rosoff‘s 2004 novel, How I Live Now, is eerily prescient. At the time of its publication–only three years after 9/11–the dystopian world in which our protagonist, Daisy, and her cousins live could have seemed like the reality we were headed towards. While it has always been true that, at any given time, parts of the world are besieged by the atrocities of war, most inhabitants of the West cannot conceive that our societal structures will collapse. That kind of endless violence–the inevitable outcome of hundreds of years of colonialism and imperialistic greed–happens to others in “those parts of the world.”

How I Live Now tears down this facade of safety. 15-year-old Daisy, a spirited teenager with anorexia, is sent to stay with her Aunt Penn and cousins in England. Her father and his new wife have little space in their new lives for Daisy, and everyone agrees that a summer away from New York will do her good. When she reaches England, terrorist attacks have blossomed all over the world, and security is high. But her cousins’ life in the countryside is secluded from the dangers in London and other cities.

Homesick at first, Daisy finds herself isolated from their insular world. Aunt Penn keeps odd hours and travels often for her work. Osbert, the oldest cousin, takes on a superior role to his brothers and sister. He keeps track of the war we discern as World War III while the others go about their chores and games. Twins Edmond and Isaac, along with their young sister, Piper, possess preternatural abilities when it comes to understanding the earth and other people’s unspoken thoughts.

Soon enough, Daisy is completely wrapped up in their world–an idyll in the midst of a brewing storm. Aunt Penn has to attend a conference in Oslo shortly after Daisy’s arrival, so the children are alone in the house. Rosoff’s sparse narrative captures the lushness of summertime and the young love that blooms between Daisy and Edmond. The taboo of their incestuous relationship is mitigated by the circumstances the children find themselves in. Right after Penn leaves, a nuclear bomb goes off in London, and their isolation is complete. They live off of government rations and what grows on the farm.

Daisy and Edmond–two lost souls–are bound together by more than family ties. The chemistry of their blood and bones and the way they can know each others’ thoughts without saying a word becomes a refuge. They make promises to never leave each other.

Of course, their summer sanctuary goes as soon as it comes. Osbert, eager to contribute to the war effort, offers their home as a barracks for a local regiment. The children are separated from each other. Daisy and Piper are sent to live with an army officer and his wife. The boys are sent to another farm nearby. While Daisy’s days are consumed with physical labor, she and Edmond still communicate with each other through whatever invisible rope that holds them together. He is in her mind, telling her stories, bringing them peace.

But violence erupts again. Daisy and Piper are forced to flee. They make their way towards the others only to be confronted by mass slaughter. In this moment, the vertiginous out-of-body experience that accompanies the sight of heinous carnage takes over Daisy and Piper. Rosoff’s brutal sentences convey the horror of the atrocities they encounter without falling into hyperbole or melodrama. The facts are what they are. The horror of the images speaks volumes without prodding.

Eventually, Daisy’s father brings her back to America. She leaves home as soon as she can to work in the New York Public Library. Living to see the end of each day is a gamble,  but she is determined to make it back to England. When she finally goes back seven years later, the farm is still the sanctuary it once was. Daisy learns what happened to Osbert, Isaac, and Edmond all those years before. They made it out. But Edmond is a shell. He hates Daisy for breaking their promise. For leaving.

Daisy begins the process of salvaging what was lost, rebuilding the structure of their happiest days. Despite all that’s happened, the novel ends on a hopeful note. Daisy will stay in England with Edmond and the others and live out the rest of their years in peace.

How I Live Now is a gorgeous, heartbreaking reflection on war and sanctuary. In just a 192 pages, Rosoff explores the ways in which young people can build worlds for themselves outside of what society claims is right. Through a deep connection to the earth and the natural world, Daisy and her cousins shape a niche under the weight of world-ending terror. In a world that is starting to appear more and more like that in How I Live Now, this story of love and resilience resonates as strongly as it did over a decade ago.

On “What to Say Next” by Julie Buxbaum

30199656This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buxbaum‘s new novel, What to Say Next, is a heartwarming exploration of grief, social norms, and first love.Two teenagers from vastly different high school social strata find themselves talking to each other after years of occasional pleasantries. Over the course of the novel, they teach each other how to handle grief and experience love—even when it’s unexpected. They drive past all the noise and go directly to the things that matter.

Half of the narrative in What to Say Next comes from a teenage boy named David Drucker who falls on the Autism spectrum. He dislikes labels and comes up with what he believes is solid evidence refuting the idea that he has Asperger’s syndrome or High Functioning Autism. He’s just different, and everyone in school simply ignores him or forgets that he exists. But he’s had his fair share of torment, so to avoid potentially dangerous situations, David’s popular sister Laura—one-time ruler of Mapleview High—has him make Trust and Do Not Trust lists in his notebook. Each person in his class is profiled with details that he has observed, accompanied by any interactions he has had with that person in the past.

When it comes to Kit Lowell, David notes the way she always sits criss-cross applesauce, how her hair falls in commas across her face, how she smiles at him sometimes. Kit, who is half-Indian (Asian, not Native American, according to David’s notes), is the prettiest girl in school. She is someone with whom he never expects to have any meaningful social interaction.

Until the day she sits at his lunch table.

And the first thing David says? The most recent fact he’s learned about her: “So your dad is dead.”

Thus starts the beginning of their acquaintance as more than just classmates. Kit finds that it’s easy to talk to David. He’s straightforward, tending not to sugarcoat the fact of death. In turn, David experiences the nuance of flirtation, analyzing everything along the way. Much like Don Tillman’s 2014 novel The Rosie Project, David decides to take on the task of studying the mechanics of Mr. Lowell’s accident. Could he have braked in time? Or was death inevitable?

Kit and David come across some heavy truths over the course of the novel, and they come to depend on each other for feedback and support. Buxbaum does a fantastic job of crafting the narrative with both Kit’s and David’s perspectives. The precision and logic with which David approaches life suits the circumstances of Kit’s grief. Like every teenager that opines in a John Hughes movie, these two get each other.

What to Say Next is perfect for people who loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is effortlessly readable and its characters loveable. Perfect for the last stretches of summer.

On “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas

ACOMAF-cover1This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

To say that I stopped breathing for the entire length of A Court of Mist and Fury would not be an overstatement. I knew its predecessor, A Court of Thorns and Roses, set the series up for some cataclysmic changes, but I never expected to be so emotionally drained by the end. That, I say, is the mark of a well-crafted series. Sarah J. Maas‘s world building is compelling, rich with detail, and surrounds the reader completely. Her character building as well remains unparalleled in the YA fantasy genre.

I had my doubts about how good the second installment in the series would be—a classic anxiety for any budding fan. But ACOMAF was even better. So much better, in fact, that I stopped to ask myself why. *SPOILER ALERT* The answer: Rhysand. Rhysand and Feyre. Feyre and Rhysand. The world is righted. Tamlin, that a-hole, is out. Rhysand, Prythian’s resident BAMF, is in. I knew in my gut at the end of ACOTAR that Rhys was Feyre’s mate, but I didn’t know how Maas was going to unspool the threads of their narrative.

In the beginning of ACOMAF, Feyre is severely psychologically damaged by what happened Under the Mountain in Book One. Tamlin is also damaged, but he offers Feyre no comfort. His need to protect becomes overblown and completely stifling. Feyre can barely leave the house because of his new overprotective nature…or is it new? Later on in the novel, Feyre contemplates how her relationship with Tamlin morphed into what it did. When she first came into Tamlin’s court, after years of drudgery and destitution, she needed Tamlin’s protectiveness and the safe environment he provided for her to paint and relax after so many years. Feyre realizes that who she was before Amarantha died when she went Under the Mountain. There is no going back.

Right before she steps onto the altar to marry Tamlin, Feyre knows she’s about to make a huge mistake and she screams internally for someone, anyone, to help her. Enter Rhys. He interrupts Feyre and Tamlin’s nuptials to make good on the bargain he and Feyre made Under the Mountain. He takes her to the Night Court where she slowly, grudgingly realizes how much better life is when she’s learning and doing and being around people who don’t treat her like a porcelain doll.

Tamlin continues to keep her cloistered, and, in the moment that changes the course of everything in ACOMAF, locks her in the Spring Court manor. The animalistic rage that stems from being caged in takes over her body. Rhys and his cousin, Mor, rescue her and take her to the Night Court for as long as she wishes to stay. Feyre feels numb. She feels guilty about leaving Tamlin but knows she couldn’t have stayed without becoming a shell of a person. Rhys has asked for her help. The King of Hybern is about to wage a war that will destroy both Prythian and the mortal world on the other side of the wall.

With Rhys’s help—and the help of his small group of friends/allies—Feyre learns that she is more powerful than most Fae. When the High Lords of Prythian gave some of their power so that she could live, their powers became hers. Ice, wind, fire, water–it’s all at her disposal. Will Feyre work through the trauma of death Under the Mountain? Will they defeat the King of Hybern’s arsenal of magic and deadly forces? Only time will tell.

A Court of Mist and Fury is an absolute thrill ride. Feyre learns how to become a true warrior by using the tools she possesses. She and Rhys seal the bond that was between them for years without their knowledge. (Good riddance, Tamlin.) A new cast of characters brings the realm to life. Cassian and Azriel—Rhy’s Illyrian brothers-in-arms, the ever powerful and charming Morrigan, and the deadly, sarcastic, knife sharp Amren.

Maas developed their narratives with such deft plotting that no reader can start this book without finishing it as fast as possible. It is engrossing, romantic, action-packed, and a sharp study of kingdoms at war. I have no doubt this series will go down as a classic in the fantasy genre, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the third installment, A Court of Wings and Ruin.

On “The Boy in the Smoke” by Maureen Johnson

Image result for the boy in the smokeMy friends, if you haven’t already started reading Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, now is the time. I know I’m late to the game myself, but the long reigning “Queen of Teen” has delivered a well-written, suspenseful, page-turning series; It’s best to start reading now before some production company decides to make a film adaptation.

I was only aware of the three major installments of the series before I started reading. (I have yet to read the third novel.) But I found out that Johnson published a prequel novella for National Book Day in 2014. Naturally, I had to get my hands on it. I don’t know about you, but if a writer produces supplemental material for a series I love, I have to read it.

When I realized it was about Stephen Dene’s childhood and relationship with his family, I was thrilled. The Madness Underneath left me feeling some kind of way, so the novella partially placated my sense of loss. Since I have a ton of other books to get through before I can read The Shadow Cabinet, it also served as an excellent hold over until I can get to that last book.

In just over eighty pages, Johnson paints a deft, astonishingly complete portrait of Stephen’s life as a teenager (which makes me think she’d be an amazing short story writer.) His relationship with his sister is the only thing that matters to him. But after his parents cut off contact with her, sending money in exchange for silence, they see less and less of each other.

After her death, he continues to go through the motions of his life at Eton with everyone avoiding any mention of tragedy. Indeed, as far as his parents are concerned, his sister never existed at all. No use airing dirty laundry, as they say.

Plagued by a deep sense of loss and time wasted, Stephen is driven to despair, attempting suicide by hanging. Yet, he doesn’t succeed. He’s saved by a ghost–a student who threw himself in the river over unrequited love from another boy and has been stuck in the boat house ever since.

Thus begins the start of everything. Before Callum, Boo, and Rory, there was just Stephen, tasked with assembling a team of fellow ghost seers. Having Stephen’s backstory makes his romance with Rory all the more poignant in retrospect. Only time will tell how the rest of their story will play out.