Category: Mystery

Deadly Little Scandals (Debutantes #2)

Cover image for Deadly Little Scandals by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-1-3680-1517-2

 “I couldn’t forgive my mom for deceiving me, but every day, I got up and let Aunt Olivia and Lily and John David go about life like normal. It was hard not to feel like the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.”

Last year, Sawyer Taft became a debutante, infiltrating the high society world her mother left behind, for the sole purpose of finding her biological father, the man who was responsible for the teen pregnancy that got Ellie Taft disowned. Of course, it didn’t hurt that her grandmother Lillian Taft was also offering Sawyer a trust fund that would more than pay her college tuition. But the family secrets she uncovered ended up being more than Sawyer bargained for, and the revelation of her birth father’s true identity threatens to destroy the family she has only just regained. So when her cousin Lily convinces her to participate in the pledge process of an elusive secret society composed solely of women, known as the White Gloves, Sawyer throws herself into the distraction. After all, these well connected women from her mother’s world might just have the answers to the unsolved half of Sawyer’s mystery—what happened to the other girl who got pregnant at the same time as Ellie, and where is her baby now?

After the events of Little White Lies, Sawyer is still grappling with the revelation that her Uncle JD, Aunt Olivia’s husband, and Lily’s dad, is her dad, too. Her mother had long led her to suspect that Senator Ames was her real father, but the events surrounding his downfall and arrest led to the awful truth. Sawyer can’t bring herself to tell Lily and Aunt Olivia what she knows, but the fact that her then twenty-three-year-old uncle slept with her then eighteen-year-old mother, who was deliberately trying to get pregnant as part of a pact with two other girls, has threatened to bring Sawyer’s world crashing down around her, and challenged everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. To be honest, the revelation of the pregnancy pact from book one continued to squick me out in book two, and the fact that Ellie was technically of age didn’t make the situation feel any less icky. Sawyer is similarly disturbed, and becomes increasingly desperate to find the one other child in the world who came into existence the same way, and might be able to relate to her plight. But her mother’s friend Ana proves elusive, and her child even more so.

Like the previous volume, the main part of the story is intercut with flash forwards, which feature Sawyer and Sadie-Grace trapped at the bottom of a hole, waiting for the drugs that are immobilizing them to wear off. The main part of the action takes place over the course of a summer, which the Taft family spends at their summer home on Regal Lake. Lily, Sawyer, Sadie-Grace and Campbell are all trying to pledge the White Gloves, but only eight new girls will be chosen. However, Deadly Little Scandals incorporates a third timeline as well. Set twenty-five years earlier, it features the parents of many of the main characters, in the summer after Edward Taft’s death, and before their senior year of high school. Jennifer Lynn Barnes carefully balances the three intertwining parts to a twisty conclusion, as old secrets finally come to light.

After spending Little White Lies carefully building up Sawyer’s friendships, and rebuilding her extended family, Barnes threatens to tear it all down in Deadly Little Scandals. The “perfect” family that Sawyer found a place in against all the odds isn’t so perfect after all, but Sawyer is afraid to be the one who causes it to implode, even as her secret festers. She despises her mother for keeping the secret for so long, but somehow ends up joining in keeping it from the people it will affect most. It is challenging to top the revelations of the first volume, but Barnes delivers, even as the plot twists often stretch credulity. Nothing can be taken for granted, but at the same time Deadly Little Scandals remains a great romp through the world of debutantes and secret societies.

You might also like The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1250-31307-2

 “Nothing is going to stop this. Too many powerful people rely on what the societies can do. Before Lethe existed, no one was keeping watch. So you can make futile bleating noises in protest and lose you scholarship, or you can stay here, do your job, and do the most good you can.”

Alex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watch dog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. She was supposed to have an entire year to learn the rules from outgoing delegate Daniel Arlington before he graduated and moved on. But then Darlington disappears, and a girl is murdered, and it is up to Alex to ensure that none of the societies were responsible.

Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. Alex’s past is murky, and the precise events the led her to the hospital where Dean Sandow made her his offer even more so. She doesn’t want to think about it. The circumstances around Darlington’s disappearance are equally mysterious; no one is supposed to know that he isn’t just spending a semester abroad, lest the societies get any funny ideas. What quickly becomes evident is why Alex was chosen; she can see the Grays, the ghostly shadows of the dead that haunt New Haven and the Yale campus, and threaten to disrupt occult rites if not banished by graveyard dirt or death words. Every watcher before her has had to swallow a nasty, toxic potion to perform this duty, but Alex can see the Grays all the time, even when she would rather not.

Ninth House might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie. Some of the horror is magical in nature, but much of it is real. Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.

In many respects, Ninth House is an examination of structural inequality. It is all too easy to imagine the privileged secret societies of an Ivy League school keeping magic to themselves, and using it to increase their power, wealth, and influence, widening the gap between themselves and everyone else. Alex is trying to bear the weight of the responsibility she has taken on, but she is being slowly crushed under the burden. Her aborted high school career left her utterly unprepared for the rigours of study at Yale, just as Darlington’s sudden disappearance leaves her utterly unprepared for performing the full scope of her responsibilities. Lethe House is supposed to monitor and curtail the excesses of the other eight houses, but Lethe is also dependent on the houses for the very funding that allows it to continue to exist, creating a conflict of interest that threatens to bind Alex’s hands at every turn. Power dynamics are constantly in play.

At nearly five hundred pages long, Ninth House is a slow burn. Bardugo plays her cards close to the vest, and only doles out information grudgingly. This opening and build up contrasts sharply with the dramatic twists and rapid turns of the ending, which comes to more than one false conclusion. While the main plot is largely wrapped up in this volume, Bardugo leaves the door open for more mysteries in the world of Alex Stern.

Little White Lies

Cover image for Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-1-368-01413-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

This isn’t a fairy tale, sister dear…This is a revenge story, and it’s going to be epic.”

Sawyer Taft has never known her father. All she knows is that he knocked up her teenage mother, and abandoned her. Then her grandparents kicked her mother out of the house, and the two of them have been on their own ever since. So when family matriarch Lillian Taft shows up on her doorstep, Sawyer isn’t disposed to trust her grandmother, but she may be able to make Sawyer an offer that is too good to refuse. In exchange for one season as a debutante, Sawyer will receive a half-million dollar trust fund that could put her through any college she wanted. And she might even be able to figure out who her father is in the bargain. But the high society her mother left behind is a cut-throat place, where skeletons are best left in their closets.

Sawyer is a tough smartmouth who has helped keep her family afloat by working in a garage, where she regularly has to fend off the ignorance and condescension of the male clientele. She forms a sharp contrast to her mother, Ellie, who is flighty and unreliable, apt to throw over her waitressing job on a moment’s notice in order to spend the weekend with her latest fling. So while Sawyer inherently distrusts her mother’s family, there is something in her that longs for a connection beyond what she has to a mother who feels less like a parent than someone Sawyer has to take care of all the time. It is this vulnerable longing that brings Sawyer into the world of debutantes and country clubs, though she tries to focus on the financial incentive of finally having a guaranteed way to pay for college. I really enjoyed these conflicting aspects of her character, as well as her outsider perspective.

As Sawyer is drawn into the world of debutante traditions, life becomes increasingly complicated. Her relationship with her own mother is complex, but her cousin and her other new friends have their own fraught family dynamics to cope with. I was expecting a lot of mean girl behaviour, but Sawyer actually begins to form a genuine connection with her cousin Lily, and their neighbour Sadie-Grace, although there is one frenemy in the form of Campbell Ames. As Sawyer traces the family connections between her new friends, and the people her mother left behind, she soon realizes that her biological father must be among their close connections. Every one of these men is married and has a family, and probably has no desire to have an illegitimate daughter exposed to the world. One of them is a Senator, after all, and certainly isn’t looking for a scandal.

Little White Lies is told with alternating timeline chapters, plus a series of anonymous blog posts called “Secrets On My Skin.” In the flash forward snippets, a group of debutantes have been arrested, and left in the hands of an incompetent and confused rookie cop who must try to figure out what to do with them. These jumps are interesting because you get to see where the characters’ relationships are going to end up, and often it is a sharp contrast to what is going on in the main timeline of the story. The anonymous blog further reveals the darkness hiding beneath the surface of the Taft’s polished, country club world.

If you’re a fan of Barnes’ Naturals series, or The Fixer, Little White Lies offers more in that same vein, fully of twisty mysteries, interesting characters, and punchy dialogue. Honestly, for the most part Little White Lies felt like it worked well as a standalone, so I am curious to see how the planned series will continue from this point, though there are a couple of obvious loose threads to work with. There was one final reveal that didn’t sit particularly well with me, and I’ll have to decide if it is a deal breaker for continuing to read, or if I want to see how Barnes revisits this plot point going forward. When it comes to Barnes, I know that nothing is really settled until the final book, and everything you think you know can turn out to be wrong.

You might also like Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen

Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)

Cover image for Jack of Hearts by L. C. Rosenby L.C. Rosen

ISBN 978-0-316-48053-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“My sex life has always been out there, talked about, but now I’m talking about it, too. I don’t know if it’s just going to make the rumors and stories worse. I want to douse the fire, not throw gasoline on it.”

Jack Rothman is an out and proud gay white boy in liberal New York City, attending an elite private school. He knows he has it easy compared to gay kids in rural areas, or even compared to his best friend Ben, who is black and fat, in addition to being gay. But his ostensibly liberal school doesn’t quite know how to handle Jack, a boy who wears make up and has a reputation for sleeping around. So when Jack decides to lean into his reputation, and starts writing a sex and relationship advice column for his friend Jenna’s website, it is no surprise when the administration is displeased. But the sex advice column also prompts a turn for the disturbing, when a secret admirer begins leaving creepy notes in Jack’s locker. Soon stalking turns to blackmail, as the letter writer tries to force Jack back into the closet and curb his sexual behaviour. With no help from the school administration, it is up to Jack and his friends to figure out who is blackmailing him before his stalker gets what they want.

Jack is refreshing character in that his coming out is long behind him. He has friends both gay and straight, and a supportive if somewhat harried single mother. But the world he lives in has certain ideas about how gay people should behave, as exemplified in the character of Jeremy, President of the school GSA, and Jack’s first boyfriend, who is constantly striving after the straight ideal of masculinity in everything except who he dates. Jack’s refusal to be bound by these strictures results in him becoming the object of gossip in his school, where everyone feels free to talk about his sexual exploits, and even make up stories about him. In this respect, Rosen’s fun YA mystery full of parties and teen romance is also a serious conversation about the ways straight people, including young women, objectify gay men for their own pleasure or entertainment.

As a fan of the advice column format, I loved the way Rosen incorporated the Jack of Hearts letters into the story, posing them as advice, commentary, and even plot development in various scenarios, while also reinforcing the book’s emphatically sex-positive tone. Jack, of course, gives remarkably good, carefully crafted advice for a seventeen-year old, coming across as mature and worldly. But these character traits also prove complicated burdens as he tries to solve the problem of his stalker without involving the police, or his mom. As the harassment intensifies, he even begins to pull away from his friends, believing that he can solve everything himself, without worrying anyone else, and it is this belief that takes the book to its darkest place. Although I figured out who Jack’s stalker was early in the book, the intensifying situation still managed to hold me on edge until the very end.

If there was one place Jack of Hearts fell down for me, it was in the relatively abrupt wrap-up, after the stalker is revealed. I couldn’t help but feel that the implications of what Jack and his friends went through were overlooked for a simplistic conclusion. The result is a weirdly anti-climactic let down from an intense situation. After the deliberate intention and care with which the author addressed complex issues like consent and homophobia, this breezy conclusion to a legitimately traumatic experience felt out of place. With a more developed conclusion, this book would have been a real stand-out.

You might also like When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid.

Bad Blood (Naturals #4)

Cover image for Bad Blood by Jennifer Lynn Barnesby Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-148475732-1

“Without order, there is chaos. Without order, there is pain. The wheel turns. Lives are forfeit. Seven masters. Seven ways of killing. This time, it will be fire. Nine will burn. So it has been decreed, and so it must be. The wheel is already turning. There is an order to things. And at the center of all of it—all of it—is you.”

When Cassie joined the Naturals program, she hoped that she might find a way to solve her mother’s murder. But Lorelai Hobbes isn’t dead but rather has spent the past several years in the hands of a cult of serial killers. Now the next Fibonacci date is rapidly approaching, and soon the ritualized murders will start again. But the race against the clock is interrupted when the Naturals are called in to consult on the disappearance of Celine Delacroix, the daughter of Thatcher Townsend’s business partner. Michael is only days from his eighteenth birthday, and being free of his abusive father forever, but seems that Townsend Senior isn’t willing to let go so easily. Now the Naturals have two problems on their hands, and time is running out.

When it comes to mysteries, I generally prefer cases were the detective is not being personally targeted. Writers usually use this technique to increase the stakes, but it more often jumps the shark. Going from individual serial killers to a cult of serial killers further ups the ante. Combine the two, and it is safe to say Bad Blood can get a little melodramatic. The series finale is naturally the most grandiose, graduating from serial killers to cults of ritualistic serial murders with clear ties to the disappearance of Cassie’s mother. However, at this point in the series I am much more invested in the characters than the plot.

As Michael’s eighteenth birthday draws near, we learn more about his relationship with his abusive father. Michael and Lia also get back together, and inevitably end up engaged in the conflicts that come from always know what your significant other is feeling, or when they are lying. The unusual dynamic created within the group by the Naturals’ uncanny skills remains one of the strongest aspects of this series. The presence of a cult also shines a light on Lia’s past life growing up under similar circumstances. Unfortunately this was not explored in depth, but it was still an interesting peek at her past.

I was particularly delighted to see a love interest for Sloane introduced in this volume. Jennifer Lynn Barnes has made it amply clear throughout the series that despite her social awkwardness, Sloane cares deeply for her friends and fellow Naturals. She also suffered tremendously from losing her brother in All In. It was great to see Barnes show Sloane’s romantic side, and it was a sweet grace note for the series to introduce a new character who appreciates her for who she is.

Bad Blood brings the Naturals series to a dramatic close. It has been a fun ride, and I am going to miss these characters.

Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3)

Cover image for Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter by William Ritter

ISBN 978-1-61620-579-9

“Questions are to the clever mind as coal is to the stoker. I will worry more when we run out of them.”

A decade ago, Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered at 926 Augur Lane, currently the abode of one R.F. Jackaby, and his assistant, Miss Abigail Rook. Jenny still cannot remember who killed her, and efforts to help her remember only push her into ghostly echoes that degrade her soul. But she has asked Jackaby and Abigail to take up the case, even knowing that getting her answers may untether her from the mortal world, her unfinished business finally complete. However, the Seer and his assistant are soon called in on another case. Two scientists have disappeared, and the murder of Mrs. McCaffery bears an eerie resemblance to Jenny’s own death. Either a copycat has emerged, or her killer is still stalking New Fiddleham.

Three volumes into the series, the overarching plot is starting to take shape. The mysterious pale man who has been following Abigail finally steps out of the shadows, only to reveal that he is a small part of a much bigger plan. He also seems to know much more about Jackaby’s past than even his closest confidants. As they investigate Jenny’s murder, it becomes apparent that her death has some connection to the deeper mystery of New Fiddleham. While the action is less fast paced than in Jackaby or Beastly Bones, this makes room for important character development, as we finally learn how Jackaby came to be the Seer.

Ghostly Echoes also sees the introduction of Lydia Lee, who is rescued from a beating in a back alley by Jackaby and Abigail. A tall, broad shouldered woman with a low voice, she is attacked after two men who solicit her services realize that she is not quite what they expected. Interestingly, while Abigail sees what the two men saw, Jackaby, with the Sight, seems to see Lydia entirely as herself. Unfortunately, Lydia has little role to play in the story, and seems to have been introduced more as an object lesson than as a fully realized character. But of course, since this is a series, it is possible that Ritter is bringing her on-stage now because she has a bigger role to play in the fourth and final volume of the series.

Ghostly Echoes leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. The murder of Jenny Cavanaugh is solved, but in uncovering the answers, Jackaby and Abigail have meddled with dark forces that do not willingly suffer interference with their plans. The sense of resolution is incomplete, because it is evident that there is a much larger battle on the horizon.

Every Heart a Doorway

Cover image for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-8550-5

“Hope hurts. That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep holding on to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.”

A long time ago, a little girl named Ely West found a doorway, and went on an adventure to a Nonsense world, where she was very happy, until one day she was too grown up to tolerate all the nonsense. Now Eleanor West runs a school for other children who have found doorways that led them home, only to be forced back into a mundane world where no one understands what happened to them. No one except Eleanor. The newest student at Eleanor’s school is Nancy Whitman, and she has just returned from the Halls of the Dead. After years spent perfecting the art of stillness for the Lord of the Dead, everything about this world seems too hot, and fast. Her parents insist on things being just like they were before, meaning colourful clothing, regular meals, and dates with boys, even though Nancy has realized she is asexual. So Nancy is sent to Eleanor’s school to recover from her “ordeal,” and there she meets other children who have had the same experiences. But soon after Nancy arrives, someone begins murdering students.

Sean McGuire builds a cast of distinct characters in relatively short order. Like Eleanor, Sumi traveled to a Nonsense world, and this tiny whirl-wind of energy and chatter becomes Nancy’s roommate, contrasting her stillness. Except for twin sisters Jack and Jill, no two children at the school have traveled to the same world. And even Jack and Jill had entirely different experiences on the Moors (their journey will be explored in the 2017 prequel Down Among the Sticks and Bones). Each world is a reflection and extension of the character that traveled there, so that world-building is character development and vice-versa. And McGuire’s premise is very appealing, locating worlds on spectrums between High Nonsense and High Logic, Virtue and Wicked, with perhaps a cross-direction of Rhyme or Mortis, leaving ample room to imagine and explore.

Every Heart a Doorway uses fantasy and portal worlds as an allegory for children who feel like outsiders, constantly out of place. For many, this rejection comes most strongly from their own families, who cannot handle their strange journeys. Even their peers at the school may struggle to understand them if they traveled to a very different world. Most poignant however is Kade, who went through his door as a little girl known as Katie, only to find that neither the Prism world he was drawn into, nor the parents he returned to, could accept that fact that he was really a boy. The children return to their worlds poised on the cusp of adulthood, grappling not only with the loss of the only place they ever felt at home, but also with their own identities in a world that insists on labels. A murder mystery forms the plot arc, but these themes prove to be the true heart of the story.

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You might also like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

All In (Naturals #3)

Cover image for All In by Jennifer Lynn Barnes by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

ISBN 978-148471643-4

“It’s always personal…Even when it’s not.”

After finally receiving permission to consult on active cases, Cassie Hobbes and the rest of the Naturals are called in to assist with an unusual string of murders in Sloane’s hometown of Las Vegas. This new serial killer is unpredictable; everything from the type of victim, to the location, to the murder weapon varies with each new kill. The only thing that is a consistent is a string of numbers inscribed by various means on the bodies of the victims. As rest of the team watches suspect interviews and struggles to profile the illusive killer, Sloane tries to crack the code, hoping that it will help them figure out when and where the killer will strike again. It might be their hardest case yet, but the Naturals team is also distracted by personal problems stemming from their unusual childhoods. Michael has recently come to a troubling new agreement with his abusive father, Sloane is preoccupied by trying to keep a secret from her Las Vegas past, and for the first time since her disappearance, there has been a break in Cassie’s mother’s case.

Following up on The Naturals (2013), and Killer Instinct (2014), All In retains many of the elements that made the first two books strong. The members of the Naturals program have become one another’s chosen family, but their unique skills ensure an unusual dynamic and spirited banter between them. Jennifer Lynn Barnes also continues to incorporate the creepy “You” sections that take readers into the head of the killer in the same way that Dean and Cassie try to get in their heads when they are profiling. Setting the story in Sloane’s hometown finally reveals more about a character that hovered on the periphery of previous installments, and we also get a couple of key glimpses at Lia’s old life, as well.

A common tactic in mystery and thriller novels is to make it personal by putting the protagonist in the way of danger, or having the case link to their tragic past. Cassie has already been held hostage by killers twice when their cases got personal, so this is a dynamic that Barnes has used extensively in the series. All In more than doubles down on this technique, linking to the past of some characters, while actively targeting other members of the Naturals team. Even Judd, who is supposed to be responsible for remaining objective and prioritizing the well-being of his charges, find ghosts from his past turning up in unexpected places in this case. Barnes no longer has to find excuses to pull the Naturals off cold cases and into the action, but she is still relying on other favoured plot devices, such as personal vendettas, and new murders mimicking cold cases.

As Barnes moves from episodic murder cases to revealing some large elements of her overarching plot for the series, All In undergoes a rather sudden tone shift, from a CSI or Criminal Minds-like vibe to a more Da Vinci Code-type feel. These revelations have broad implications that would tend to ensure that the next volume in the series will have to continue in this direction. It is still possible to make it all work, but the tone has changed dramatically. Currently, no title or publication date has been announced for the next installment.

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