A Lively Quintet for Teen Readers

Serendipity struck at our daughter Sara’s house a while back. Both she and her sister Lisa have discovered that Goodreads is a great way of getting new books to read and review. “Dad, I bet you’d like this one,” she said while I was waiting for her to put dinner on the table. I picked it up and was three chapters in by the time stir fry was set in front of me. I certainly couldn’t leave it at that, so I came home and ordered the book.

The Dead and Buried by Kim Harrington would qualify as a YA cozy, if such a genre existed. Jade grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts where everyone knew everyone from kindergarten through graduation. She always wanted to live in a bigger house in a town where the school offered more. Remember the old Chinese curse about being careful what you wish for? Well Jade gets that in spades. The book opens at the beginning of her senior year. The family has moved to a town in eastern Massachusetts, having found a much bigger and fancier house in a town with a school system that offers a lot more.

Jade’s 5 year old stepbrother, Colby, starts acting strange shortly after they move in. When he tells Jade about the ghost girl who talks to him, that’s her first inkling that something about the new house is off. She believes him because she can feel drastic temperature changes accompanying a sense that she’s being watched.

When her reception at the new school turns decidedly cold and she notices kids talking about her before looking away, she begins to wonder what they know that she doesn’t. Since the popular kids are avoiding her, she makes friends with super studious loner, Alexa Palmer. Her new friend fills Jade in on a few things, but because Alexa’s a loner, there’s plenty she doesn’t know herself. Their friendship (which evolves very nicely, by the way) helps Jade stay on keel until the other kids begin to thaw enough so she starts feeling a little more comfortable and can fill in some of the missing pieces.

It turns out that Kayla Sloane, a super popular and very mean, manipulative girl died in their new house the year before. It’s her ghost tormenting Colby because she didn’t see who pushed her and wants Jade to investigate.

As Jade becomes more involved with other kids, she develops a crush on Donovan, Kayla’s ex-boyfriend and the top suspect (among other teens, at least) in her death. Jade’s efforts to investigate, while dealing with her step mother’s anger and denial over the ghost, coupled with her evolving relationships with Alexa and Donovan, make for an immersive and well-crafted read.

I liked a number of things about the book. First the author does a stellar job of developing all the relationships. She avoids the wicked stepmother cliche, instead creating a very believable level of friction between the two, before resolving it in realistic ways. All of the kids are three dimensional, the angst at a perfect level and the killer a pretty well-disguised surprise. I liked it so much, I immediately ordered her two earlier YA mysteries.

Kim’s other teen mysteries feature the same family, the Ferns, who live in Eastport, Massachusetts, a fictional town on Cape Cod. Clare, short for Clarity is the main character with her brother Peri (short for Periwinkle) a few years older. They, along with their mother, Starla, make up one of the more interesting households in teen fiction. The family has an interesting history. Clare’s mother and father grew up in a town full of people who possessed some sort of psychic ability. In fact those exhibiting more pronounced traits were encouraged to marry and have children to make the powers stronger. Clare and Peri’s parents did exactly that, but their dad vanished years ago and neither teen can get mom to talk about what happened.

The three make a living by doing psychic readings for tourists during the summer months and hope they make enough to cover expenses for the rest of the year. In Clarity the first book in the series, Clare is navigating the stormy seas created by other kids unease over her family’s psychic traits. She’s also dealing with very ambivalent feelings that stem from her feelings of betrayal when she learns through an accidental use of her psychic gift, that her boyfriend, Justin got drunk and hooked up with one of the popular, but nasty girls in their class. While Clare still has strong feelings for him, her sense of morality won’t let her forgive him.

Justin’s dad is running for reelection as mayor against a local businessman who has a son in the same class as Justin and Clare. Both boys are pulled into the campaign foolishness. Things get complicated when a new police detective and his son arrive on the scene shortly before a young woman is found murdered in a local motel room. Clare’s worst fears are realized when she discovers that Peri, who has a habit of indiscriminate hook-ups, was with the girl shortly before her death. He becomes the prime suspect just as the homicide becomes an issue in the campaign. Justin and his dad want Clare to use her psychic gift, an ability to see things viewed by the last person to touch an object, in an effort to discover what the dead girl might have seen just before she was killed. The new detective wants nothing to do with psychics, so his hot son, Gabriel, becomes an intermediary.

Clare can’t figure out why Gabriel is attracted to her one moment, but becomes hostile the next. It has something to do with his own family history, but she won’t learn that until later in the story. The interaction between Clare and the two boys, another couple of murders and plenty of action make this a hard to put down story. Again, all the characters are well drawn and even Peri, who is pretty amoral in his interactions with females, becomes someone you like and understand. The ending is fast paced and the identity of the killer something most readers won’t figure out until the last few pages.

Perception, the second book in the series, takes place a month after school starts the following fall. Clare and Justin have made peace after the harrowing events at the end of the first book, but rekindled romance is only something rolling around in Justin’s head. Clare is willing to work on being friends again, but that is the extent of her interest. She has a lot more questions than answers about Gabriel, however. Now that she knows why he and his dad have such negative feelings about psychics, she’s trying to decide where their relationship is headed. He’s awfully attractive and she senses it’s a mutual thing.

This time a girl who wasn’t very well known has disappeared. Her mother is frantic, but when Clare offers to see if she can pick up anything from the girl’s bedroom, the mother gets cold feet. Another girl, Malory, an outcast at the school was the only person who could be considered friends with the missing girl. She’s pretty fragile, thanks to her treatment by the mean queens who used to make Clare’s life hell before the events in the first book. Clare can’t decide if the girl wants to be friends or might be the mysterious stalker who keeps sending Clare notes and pictures. Try as she might, she can’t pick up anything from the pictures and notes, leading her to believe her secret admirer is more calculating than others around her might think. The plot is complicated by Clare’s concern for Peri. He went from being a outgoing happy, amoral guy to a shadowy figure who’s terrified to leave the house since he was accused of killing the girl he hooked up with in the first book. How he begins his return to normal, who the stalker is, how the murder of the missing girl was tied to the disappearance of another girl in Paris years before, plus an abduction just before the climax, make this an even better story than Clarity. I thoroughly enjoyed all three mysteries. They had great characters, decent teen romance and well plotted mystery elements. In fact, I’m hoping The Dead and Buried gets nominated for next year’s YA Edgar.

Kim has another trio of mysteries aimed at a younger age group. I haven’t read them yet, but did buy them for the library and initial response has been quite positive. They feature best friends, Norah and Darcy. When one of their assignments is to create a fake business, they decide a detective agency would be perfect. Darcy loves mysteries and Norah loves helping people. Unfortunately, someone disappears and they’re handed a real investigation. This book is called Partners in Crime (Sleuth or Dare Book 1). It’s followed by Sleepover Stakeout and Framed and Dangerous. Published by Scholastic, the series is aimed at ages 8 and up.

Another young adult mystery, Bad Hair Day by Carrie Harris, has both humorous and supernatural twists and is the second featuring high school geek Kate Grable. In the first book, Bad Taste in Boys, Kate used her love of all things medical to sleuth out what was turning boys at her school into zombies. The second one picks up several months later when Kate is about to realize one of her dreams, shadowing a doctor in surgery. Instead, she ends up paired with the county coroner. She’s just beginning to realize this isn’t such a terrible fate, when he’s arrested on suspicion of murder. Kate must figure out how to keep the morgue running, find evidence that will clear the doctor, host a rockathon to raise money for epilepsy research (she has epilepsy herself), keep Aaron, her boyfriend and fellow wannabe doctor from being seduced by a well endowed rival whose dad is chair of the surgical department at the hospital and figure out who is killing some of the role-playing nerds her younger brother hangs around with. If these weren’t enough to cause her teen angst to max out, she’s constantly wondering whether she’s doing OK as a girlfriend or totally screwing up the relationship because she’s essentially clueless about teen romance.

The combination of geekiness, self-doubt, neat plot elements and sheer funniness, make this a great read and a book that would be a good one to use when encouraging reluctant readers to explore the mystery genre (although you might want to have them start with the earlier book.)

The fifth book, Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams, isn’t a mystery, but is a quick read with an amazing amount of emotion. I burned through it in two hours and wish a copy could be in every public library so hurting teens, particularly those who have lost a sibling through a violent end, could read it. It’s that powerful. London is in a sea of sadness. Her brother Zach, who was the bright star in the family, is dead. Her father is lost, staying late at work, even sleeping under his desk some nights. Her mother moves like a zombie and hasn’t spoken to her for almost a year, not even looking at her because she blames London for Zach’s death.

Written in terse paragraphs set apart by white space, you are pulled into London’s stream of consciousness as she tries to wade through each day, feeling dead inside. The book is a beautiful and sad description of her journey to stop hurting and figure out what really happened and why. You are slowly fed the story of Zach’s last day on earth, interspersed with London’s attempts to connect with the kids who care. Her old boyfriend, Taylor, Zach’s best friend, loves her deeply, but feels helpless. When Lili and her gorgeous brother Jesse move from Utah, Lili won’t allow London to blow her off and retreat into her shell. No matter what London does, Lili won’t give up. It helps that London has an intense attraction to Jesse and part of her journey back involves exploring feeling again with both boys. How it shakes out at the end is powerful and will have most readers tearing up with a mix of sadness and hope. That’s a pretty good thing for a book to do.

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