The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks

Rain has no problem hanging at the back of the crowd in her posh Manhattan private school. Though she has had extensive speech therapy to overcome the cleft palate she was born with, she’s still insecure about her “mushmouthed and nasal” sounding voice.  But when her former best friend and notorious party girl Wendy is found strangled to death in Central Park, Rain finds herself coming forward to defend the needy girl who hid her pain behind her boisterous personality. She wants justice for Wendy, who the newspapers have reduced to the dead girl, “The girl  in Central Park.” So Rain forces herself to leave the audience and step into the spotlight. She starts questioning people about Wendy’s death: namely bad boy Nico Phelps, who Wendy stalked on Facebook, and his cold, classy girlfriend Sasha Meloni. She must also deal with the police’s questions about her own lapsed relationship with her ex-bestie, and confront a nosy reporter who seems bent on trashing Wendy’s already damaged reputation. As she circles closer and closer to the terrible truth about what really happened in the park that night, Rain discovers that in speaking up for someone else, she has finally found her true voice. But will she solve the case only to endanger herself? Partially inspired by the Central Park Preppy Murder, this unusual crime mystery with an unlikely and admirable sleuth at its center is a tight thriller that stands out from the rest of the pink-dust-jacketed pack.

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

Rebecca’s summer is sucking–hard. She and her police officer dad have rented a vacation house in an attempt to escape the crowds of London and her father’s work troubles. Except the gloomy little village of Winterfold is full of suspicious locals and is itself in danger of disappearing as more and more of it falls into the sea that is slowly washing it away. Bored, Rebecca spends most of her time reading the same shabby paperbacks over and over or dialing her ex-boyfriend and hanging up. Then one day she meets reckless goth girl Ferelith who introduces Rebecca to all of  Winterfold’s dark secrets–including the strange chair with manacled armrests in the basement of abandoned Winterfold Hall. Who knows what horrors occurred there? The title, which refers to a quote by psychologist and philosopher William James about the possibility of an after life, gives some clue: “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”  No one has ever returned from the dead to tell us if there is an afterlife or not, so logic says there probably isn’t. But what if there was one soul, one “white crow” that could prove that logic wrong? Rebecca’s about to find out–because Ferelith has some dark secrets of her own. Told in three distinct voices (Rebecca’s, Ferelith’s and that of a shady church rector who witnessed the basement atrocities back in 1798) this gruesome page turner will keep you up way past your bedtime. I read it all on one gulp one rainy afternoon and had a case of creepies all evening.

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

Death Cloud

There have been so many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes lately, you knew it was just a matter of time before we met up with Sherlock Holmes, age fourteen. The year is 1868, and Young Master Holmes has just been informed that due to his army officer father’s deployment to India, his mother’s illness and his big brother Mylock’s busy lawyer schedule, he won’t be going home for the summer holidays from school. Instead, he’ll be staying with a little known aunt and uncle in the English countryside, far from civilization and anything remotely interesting. Fortunately, his boredom is quickly eased by his new acquaintances: brash and brilliant American Amyus Crowe, who will be his summer tutor, Amyus’s beautiful red-headed daughter Virginia, and scrappy river rat Matty Arnett, an orphan boy the same age as Sherlock who lives off his wits and what he can steal. The four of them form an unlikely detective team when a body is discovered on Sherlock’s uncles’s property. The corpse is lumpy and swollen, and rumors of plague soon blanket the countryside, throwing everyone into a state of panic. But by using the powers of deduction that Amyus Crowe is teaching him, Sherlock soon realizes that while the stranger’s death was caused by something carried on the air, it wasn’t germs or disease. Another body was discovered in the nearby village in the same condition, and Matty claimed to have seen a mysterious black cloud hovering over the house where it was found. Could the two deaths be linked? If so, what was the black cloud and how did it cause two different people to drop dead miles from each other? As he digs deeper into the mystery, Sherlock discovers from a series of mostly innocuous clues a diabolical plan created by an evil genius mastermind to strike at the very foundations of the British Empire. Sherlock’s first foray into investigation becomes a terrifying adventure that threatens to end his life on more than one occasion. But he must prevail, or his entire country could be lost. Great period detail, loads of interesting scientific facts from the time, and the methodical, logical plotting that we expect from a traditional Sherlock Holmes novel are all here, plus some pretty heart-pounding fight scenes. My only issue is the odd cover–since when does Sherlock Holmes have Justin Bieber hair? A fun read nevertheless, and who knows? Maybe they’ll tap the Biebs to play Sherlock in the teen movie version. Stay tuned for the sequel, Rebel Fire, coming out November 2011.

The Julian Game by Adele Griffin

julian game
Raye Archer is a lowly scholarship girl at swank private school Fulton. Her only friend is Star Trek geek Natalya, and Raye’s getting a little tired of spending Saturday nights at Nat’s house watching marathons of Next Generation on the Syfy channel while consuming copious amounts of Duncan Hines instant brownies. So when Ella Parker, one of the ruling members of the uber popular Group, offers Raye a shot at high school stardom by allowing Raye to become her Mandarin tutor, Raye jumps at the chance. But soon she starts losing Ella’s attention, so to keep the Queen Bee interested, Raye offers to help her get back at Julian Kilgarry, the hottest dude in school. Apparently, Julian had the gall to diss Ella at a party, and now Ella wants revenge. Julian’s comeuppance appears in the form of a blue-haired girl named Elizabeth, Raye’s online Facebook creation. Raye and Ella use Elizabeth to gain Julian’s trust in order to lure him places where he’s bound to run into trouble. But Raye’s conscience won’t let her keep up the ruse, so she ends up confessing to Julian, who is not only unexpectedly grateful, but ends up asking Raye out. Raye can’t believe her good luck. But just how long does she have before ruthless Ella discovers that she and Julian are more than just friends and her luck runs out? Ella will stop at nothing to show Raye who’s boss, even if it means using the Internet to cyberbully Raye into submission. What can you do when your frenemy is as elusive as a nasty email that can’t be deleted or website that won’t disappear? In terms of just really good writing, this mean girl thriller is heads and shoulders over those tired old Gossip Girls. Adele Griffin sums up so well how it feels to be drawn into the orbit of a dangerous girl who could kill your rep with a lift of her little finger: “I’d never had a bona fide girl crush, but something about Ella’s physical beauty and the way she was standing so close to me made me understand, with sharp and aching clarity, how you could fall wildly in love with a girl like Ella. She looked perfect as a daffodil. What did it matter if she was rotten at the root, if you could somehow get her to love you back?” Seriously, I’m rolling out “perfect as a daffodil” as my new catch phrase. Love it! Just like you will love this down and dirty story of best friends gone wrong and dudes done over. (And head over here for more information on the dangers of cyberbullying and how to stop it. Online harassment is no joke, be a part of the solution, NOT the problem!)

YOU by Charles Benoit

Fifteen-year-old Kyle Chase knows the score. Just like you, he can almost recite his parents’ and teachers’ lectures as they’re saying them, because he’s heard them so many times before. “Is that all you’re going to do all day, sit in front of that computer?” “Why don’t you wear some clothes that fit for a change?” “Stop mumbling and speak up.” “Because I said so.” It’s funny how it never changes. Funny in a sad way. Kyle can’t find much to laugh about these days. His friends are idiots obsessed with partying, his teachers are robots, his parents don’t listen and the girl he’s secretly in love with doesn’t take him seriously. And he’s starting to suspect that it’s mostly his fault that his life is like this, his fault for letting important decisions slide by until the choices were made for him. Now there’s no going back. Kyle’s just floating through his days—until he meets Zack McDade. Zach is off-the-hook weird, with his strange airs, million dollar vocab and bright colored sports coats.  Kyle doesn’t like Zach, but his particular brand of smooth sarcasm and utter confidence does make school a little more interesting, a little more alive. Until he turns his massive powers of manipulation on Kyle. What happens next may be inevitable given what has come before, but Benoit’s explosive ending is not one that YOU will forget anytime soon.

What’s so fantastic about this book isn’t the topic, which will be sadly familiar to many of you. It’s the way Benoit, a former high school English teacher and adult mystery author, tells Kyle’s story, from back to front (like Gail Gile’s amazing Shattering Glass) and in a rarely used second person voice that draws you uncomfortably close to Kyle’s troubled psyche. You may want to pull away from Kyle, or deny what’s happening to him. But you won’t be able to. Because Kyle’s not that different from you. Or one of your friends. Or that quiet guy who sits slumped in the back of your Algebra class. Though this book reminds me of several other outstanding titles, Benoit has also crafted something here that is so original and raw that I couldn’t put down until I finished the entire thing. The bad news: YOU isn’t coming to a library or bookstore near you until September 2010. The good news: YOU have a really amazing read to look forward to this fall.

Reality Check by Peter Abrahams

reality check
Seventeen-year-old football quarterback Cody Laredo never considered himself a good student. He maintained grades just high enough to keep his butt off the bench, hoping that a college football scholarship would be his ticket to the NFL. But now that he’s blown out his knee, lost his gorgeous upper-crust girlfriend Clea to boarding school and missed so many classes that he has no idea what is going on, he’s decided to drop out. Which is why he’s free to skip town and head east when he hears on the local news that Clea’s gone missing. When her beloved horse Bud comes back rider-less, the local authorities assume Clea was thrown in the woods and a search party is quickly assembled. Cody quietly joins their ranks, initially concealing his identity from the townies. But when Clea isn’t found in a few days, the search is called off and Cody begins to conduct his own investigation, based on little more than commonsense and intuition. As he begins to collect clues about Clea’s disappearance, Cody struggles with who to suspect and who to trust. Among the possible perpetrators are: Ike, the crabby old stable hand at Clea’s fancy school who seems to know more than he’s letting on; Sergeant Orton, the local fuzz who appears to be playing Cody just as much as Cody is playing him; and finally Townes, the rich boy who stole Clea’s heart—and maybe more. One of these men know what happened to his best girl. And it’s up to Cody to find out who before it’s too late. Reality Check is a solid, satisfying mystery with an earnest, blue-collar teen sleuth at it’s center. I love how Cody, who readily admits he’s not the biggest intellectual in the world, operates from the heart and realistically struggles with putting the pieces of the puzzle together, instead of snapping his fingers and solving it all in one fell swoop. This is the first book I’ve read by mystery author Peter Abrahams, but you can bet it won’t be the last!

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Micah is a liar. That is a fact. And the only thing you can be absolutely sure of in this dark, sexy thriller from Aussie author Larbalestier. For Micah, lying has become second nature, a way to distract herself from her outsider status, her parents’ indifference, the tiny NYC apartment that feels too small for her restless spirit. For Micah, there is only one truth. But it’s buried so deeply beneath all her lies she isn’t sure anyone would believe her if she ever found the courage to tell. “I am often in trouble. Mostly for things I have not done. I can’t expect to be believed. I am the girl who cried wolf.” Only two things calm her—running and spending time with her secret love Zach. Secret because he’s popular and she’s not. Secret because he has a real girlfriend who proudly calls him her own. But when Zach goes missing and later turns up dead, he and Micah’s relationship comes to unwelcome light. Suddenly Micah finds herself at the center of a storm of malicious gossip, unsubstantiated rumors and chilly silences. No one wants to find out what happened to Zach more than Micah, but to do so she’ll have to face some hard truths about herself, some of which are quite nasty indeed. Micah is a liar. That is a fact. But everything else in this suspenseful page-turner could be the truth or could be a lie, and it’s up to you, dear reader, to figure out which is which. With a surprise twist smack in the middle and a delightfully unreliable narrator, Liar is a delectably disturbing story from start to finish. My only complaint is the cover–the girl shown here looks nothing like the way Micah is described: half black and half white with short, curly hair. However, that’s small potatoes compared to how much I enjoyed this roller-coaster of a chill ride. (Editor’s Note: Shortly after this review and others were written, Justine’s publisher Bloomsbury decided to change the cover to more accurately reflect the narrator’s race.)

Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

Meet Bernie and Chet, the two hard-bitten P.I.’s  of the Little Detective Agency. Though one has two legs and the other four, both are tough, not easily fooled dudes with hearts of gold. Bernie Little is a down-on-his-luck detective with a big debt and small checking account. Chet “the Jet” is his loyal-to-the-bone mongrel sidekick whose wandering nose and lack of impulse control often gets him into trouble. Chet is the star of this mystery-series opener, as he narrates Bernie’s life in an uber-realistic, easily distracted canine voice that often comes across as barkingly funny. In their first adventure together, Bernie and Chet are hired to find wealthy teen Madison Chambliss, whose divorced mother reports her missing. But there’s more to this apparent runaway case that meets the eye (or nose, in Chet’s case), and the dedicated partners soon dig up connections between Madison’s disappearance, a real estate development that’s gone bottoms up, and the Russian mafia. To make matters more complicated, both have recently become smitten: Bernie with local investigative reporter Suzie Sanchez and Chet with a mysterious furry female he only knows by her come-hither bark. Unlike some other best-selling doggerel, this book nails the dog’s-eye point of view perfectly and also serves as an excellent introduction to the detective genre if you haven’t had the pleasure of dipping into it before. A doggone good book that even a cat person can love. I can’t wait to go on a stake-out with Chet and Bernie again!

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

what i saw
It’s 1947 and fifteen-year-old Evie is in a big hurry to grow up. She’s sick of her gorgeous mom Bev always stuffing her into little-girl dresses and making her wipe off her lipstick. So when her stepfather Joe proposes a family holiday to swanky Palm Beach, Evie jumps at the chance to recreate herself on vacation. Her opportunity to do so arises when she meets Peter, a dishy ex-G.I. friend of her stepfather’s who’s also staying in Palm Beach. Peter is a twenty-three-year-old Hottie McHotster and a total flirt. Though Evie’s mother seems to enjoy Peter’s company, Joe seems sullen and resentful anytime he’s around. Slowly it becomes clear to Evie that Peter wants something from her family—but what? Does he really like Evie, or is he just using her to get closer to beautiful Bev? Or maybe his true target is Joe, and Evie is just an afterthought in his pursuit of a business deal with her stepfather. The answer is revealed when a tragic accident forces Evie to choose between Peter and her parents, and the decision she makes  surprises even Evie herself. Though it takes place almost fifteen years earlier than the 1960’s cable sensation, this slick hist. mystery reminded me of the glamorous yet repressed world of Mad Men, where no one shares their real feelings and family secrets are swept neatly under the rug. Judy Blundell’s sophisticated teen noir is not only one of the few true mysteries in YA  Lit. Land, it’s also one of the best. But don’t just take my word for it—Blundell’s book was also crowned the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, despite some very tough competition.

The Crazy School by Cornelia Read

crazy school
Sarcastic, twenty-something amateur sleuth Madeline Dare, grown-up child of hippie parents, takes a job as a teacher at an elite, if fairly cult-ish private school for troubled teens. The head guru in charge, Santangelo, promises desperate parents results, no matter what technique he has to employ to get them, including isolation and humiliation. Madeline, who’s having nasty flashbacks about her own dad’s bizarre child-raising methods, is having serious doubts about whether she can continue to teach using Santangelo’s “unorthodox” techniques. Then, two of her fav students turn up dead and Madeline rejects the hypothesis that the kids offed themselves and instead begins to dig for evidence of corruption at the highest levels. Turns out that pseudo-suicides are the LEAST of what shady Santangelo has under his ridiculously pretentious opera cape. This bitterly funny mystery by Edgar Award-nominated author Cornelia Read has a great cast of teen characters, but the best voice is that of jaded, wickedly witty slacker sleuth Madeline Dare herself. This is one seriously dark comedic nailbiter.

Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess

such a pretty girl
Fifteen-year-old Meredith is trying to catch a criminal. This terrifying man abused the trust of his small community when he used his position as a school baseball coach to molest children. Sentenced to nine years in prison, he’s been paroled after only three years–and now he’s coming home. You see, Meredith knows him better than anyone, because he’s not just a face in the newspaper–he’s also her father. He may have fooled the parole board, but he hasn’t fooled her. Meredith has come to the awful conclusion that if she wants to make sure he never hurts anyone else ever again, she’s going to need proof of his continued sickness, even if she has to use herself as bait: “I know now that I’m the only one who really understands the threat and if I’m ever going to be free of him…then I will have to bite the bullet and spend time in his company. Stake out the sacrificial lamb. Uncoil the rope so he can hang himself.” I burned through this devastating read in one subway commute, and I’m still shaking from the impact. This chilling debut by Laura Wiess is horrifically real in its depiction of not only adults who abuse but also those who stand by and let it happen. But Wiess balances these descriptions with the angry, amazing Meredith, who’s character showcases the hidden strength of teens and their ability to heal in the face of overwhelming odds. While the transcendent ending makes the horror of getting there all worth it, don’t pick up this book unless you’re ready to travel with Meredith to the deepest, darkest corners of the human soul.

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt

harmlessWhen is it okay to tell a lie? When a friend asks if she looks fat in that miniskirt and you shake your head no? When a stranger asks how old you are online and you write 18 when you’re only in eighth grade? How about telling your parents you’re at a sleepover at a friend’s house, when you’re really out partying with senior boys from another school? Anna, Emma and Mariah say they’re having a sleepover in order to hang out with unsupervised older boys they know their parents wouldn’t approve of. Emma even sees it as doing her folks a favor, because “parents don’t really want to know the truth. They just want to know that everything is perfect…so they can concentrate on their own problems.” But when the three friends are unexpectedly busted, they quickly come up with a story of being attacked by a vagrant to cover up their first lie. At first, their parents believe them and everything is cool—until someone is actually arrested for assaulting them. Now, each girl has to decide for herself if she can continue to lie when an innocent man’s life is at stake. What makes matters worse is that something really bad actually DID happen to Emma that night. But she can’t even begin to deal with her feelings about it until they all own up to the truth. Dana Reinhardt’s introspective and richly characterized novel, told in a trio of realistic teen voices, reminds you that even actions that seem harmless at the time can end up having devastating consequences. For more reads about how hard it is to come clean, try What Mr. Mattero Did by Pricilla Cummings or Friction by E.R. Frank.

Paranoid Park by Blake Nelson

If you saw someone die right in front of you, what would you do? Run? Scream? Pull out your cell and dial 911? Or would you go home and pray no one ever found out you were there? The terrified narrator of Paranoid Park does exactly that—see, he wasn’t supposed to be hanging out at the notorious skate park, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to be hopping trains and joy-riding into the old freight yards. But he was and he did. So he was there when the freight yard security guard who tried to chase him tripped and fell under the deadly wheels of the train. Our boy takes one look and runs for the hills. Now he is consumed with fear and guilt. Did anyone see him? Will he be blamed for the man’s death? Has he ruined his life forever? As you read the choices the unnamed narrator makes, you can’t help but put yourself in his shoes: what would YOU do? Loosely based on the Russian classic Crime and Punishment, this white-knuckle nailbiter was an especially popular title with the 8th grade boys at my school this year. And don’t miss Paranoid Park: the movie, directed by Gus Van Sant, out in spring ’08.

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles

lessons from a dead girlLaine can’t quite believe that Leah Green, her one time best friend, is dead. But Laine was there when Leah ran off the road and wrapped her black sports car around a tree. And while she feels both guilt and shame, her biggest feeling is relief. Because now she’ll finally be able to come out from under the shadow beautiful, popular Leah has cast over her life since fifth grade. When they were little, Leah used to take Laine into her toy closet to “practice” what they would do with boys when they grew up. Then Leah maliciously used the secret of the closet to blackmail Laine into doing what Leah wanted. Why wouldn’t Leah just leave Laine alone? How could she have been so kind and so brutal at the same time? Laine tries to figure out the reasons behind Leah’s cruel manipulations in the days after her death, and as she explores each “lesson from a dead girl,” she begins to understand Leah was part of a cycle of abuse—a cycle that Laine can now bring to an end. This suspenseful, disturbing debut will help older teen readers understand that abusers are victims, too. If you enjoy the emotional, gritty work of E.R. Frank or Ellen Hopkins, you’re gonna love Jo Knowles.

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady: an Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer

Even though fourteen-year-old Enola Holmes has grown up in Victorian England, where submission to the male patriachy and painful whalebone corsets are the norm, she is not your typical Victorian shrinking violet. For one thing, her older brother is the famed sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and Enola is determined to follow in his footsteps, even if she has to run away from home to do it! Using secret funds left to her by her eccentric mother, Enola starts her own detective agency in London, which she operates using a combination of subterfuge, a variety of disguises, and her own good common sense. Her first official case comes courtesy of a grieving upper-class mother, who’s well-heeled daughter seems to have run away with a scheming merchant’s son. But nothing is quite what it seems to be, and soon Enola is knee-deep in a conspiracy that includes brainwashing, kidnapping, and a garrote-(a nasty weapon made of wire and wood, used to strangle unsuspecting victims from behind) wielding villain who makes Jack the Ripper seem like a pussycat! She’s also busy staying one step ahead of her relentless brother, who won’t be happy until Enola has been found and safely ensconced in a respectable, if incredibly tedious, boarding school. This second volume in the highly entertaining Enola Holmes series is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a good long while. Enola is plucky and smart, and though she sometimes seems like a twenty-first century girl tooling around in a nineteenth century world, her ocassional bouts of insecurity keep her all-too real. Don’t be fooled by the small format and somewhat young cover–this is one read that is grittier than it looks. If you end up loving Enola as much as I do, make sure you investigate her first adventure, The Case of the Missing Marquess.