Review: The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks

Book: The Girl in the Park
Author: Mariah Fredericks
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Release date: April 24, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley
 
Summary from Goodreads: When Wendy Geller’s body is found in Central Park after the night of a rager, newspaper headlines scream,”Death in the Park: Party Girl Found Strangled.” But shy Rain, once Wendy’s best friend, knows there was more to Wendy than just “party girl.” As she struggles to separate the friend she knew from the tangle of gossip and headlines, Rain becomes determined to discover the truth about the murder. Written in a voice at once immediate, riveting, and utterly convincing, Mariah Frederick’s mystery brilliantly exposes the cracks in this exclusive New York City world and the teenagers that move within it.

First impressions: I had not heard much about this book. I requested it on NetGalley because I thought the story looked interesting and different for the YA market. As soon as I started reading it, I was so happy with my choice to try out this book. It draws you into the mystery from the first pages, and Rain is a terrific teen character.

Lasting impressions: YA contemporary meets mystery/suspense thriller? Full of win! 

Conflicting impressions: Okay, so the killer is kind of easy to spot. Luckily there’s a whole lot more happening in this book.

Overall impressions: It would be so easy to just say, “Yeah, this is a murder mystery about a rich private school girl who liked to party.” That screams Law and Order: SVU doesn’t it? It sounds like it’ll be this quick read about a girl who runs off and gets drunk at a party and winds up dead and her friend saves the day by catching the bad guy.

It’s so much more than that.

It’s about how the persona one high school girl chose to present to her classmates warped their perception of her death. It’s about secrets and the price we pay to keep them. It’s about how love and attraction can be mishandled and exploited. It’s about the media’s role in victim blaming, and how the public uses it to feel safer. In short, there’s a lot under the surface of this seemingly simple story.

I appreciated following this plot through the naive eyes of Rain – a girl still recovering from a painful speech impediment and trying to finish high school without drawing more wrath from the popular crowd. Wendy, a vivacious outsider desperate to either fit in or make waves (whichever is more convenient), befriends Rain when few else will. It is that loyalty that drives Rain to find out what really happened to Wendy after she is found dead in Central Park.

Rain struggles to marry the Wendy she knew with the Wendy splashed across tabloid pages and whispered about in the halls. She pushes to find the truth, often through conversations with people she’d rather not have to speak with, and as the events of that night start to unravel, Rain gains the courage to keep right on pushing. She has to make difficult decisions – when to tell the truth, when to state suspicions, when to break a confidence – and she also has to deal with difficult consequences. The question she must answer time and again is “How far will I go to honor Wendy?” Finding the answer to that question is half the fun of this delightful mystery.

Highly recommended to whodunit fans and YA contemporary readers.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould

Book: Cross My Heart
Author: Sasha Gould
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release date: March 13, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley

Summary from Goodreads: Venice, 1585.

When 16-year-old Laura della Scala learns that her older sister, Beatrice, has drowned, she is given no time to grieve. Instead, Laura’s father removes her from the convent where he forcibly sent her years earlier and orders her to marry Beatrice’s fiancé, a repulsive old merchant named Vincenzo. Panicked, Laura betrays a powerful man to earn her way into the Segreta, a shadowy society of women who deal in only one currencyâ??secrets. The Segreta seems like the answer to Laura’s prayers. The day after she joins their ranks, Vincenzo is publicly humiliated and conveniently exiled. Soon, however, Laura begins to suspect that her sister’s death was not a tragic accident but a cold-blooded murderâ??one that might involve the Segreta and the women she has come to trust.

First impressions: Man, I am such a sucker for historical settings. The rich details and ominous beginning had me hooked.

Lasting impressions: A fun historical mystery that’s recommended for fans of both genres.

Conflicting impressions: The romance didn’t feel real for me, and I felt the story could have done without it.

Overall impressions: If there’s one thing I love more than historical fiction, it’s secret societies. This book offered me both, and for the most part I was not disappointed.

Laura is a pleasant protagonist, who is stuck in the most unfortunate situations for much of the book. I really rooted for her, because nobody likes to see nice people in sucky circumstances. Forced to live in a convent while her father uses all the available dowry money to try and marry off her older sister, Laura’s life is bleak. When her sister dies suddenly in a mysterious drowning, her father pulls her from the convent to use as a back-up bride.

Say it with me: ICK.

Laura goes along with this plan while out enjoying society for the first time, but soon learns that her new husband-to-be is a decrepit, dirty old man who promises nothing but a lifetime of misery. He’s skeezy in every sense of the world and I shuddered at the thought of poor Laura forced to spend the rest of her life with him.

Say it with me: DOUBLE ICK.

This is where the Segreta comes in. They are a secret society of powerful women that help make things happen in Venice. They pull strings, using the power and influence of secrets to bribe and undermine the men that rule over their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, and one that I wish had been developed a little more. We are given only the face value of this group, with no explanation into their surely rich history and inner workings. As written, it felt a little like a device used to propel Laura’s story forward instead of a vital, integrated thread of the plot.

Similarly, Laura develops a romance that was very ho-hum for me. I didn’t sense much chemistry or connection between them, and it jumped from friendly to ohmigodpleasemarryme in 4 seconds flat. Though the character provides an interesting subplot to the book, I personally would have found the book more satisfying with more emphasis on the Segreta and less on the romance.

The mystery of Laura’s sister’s death at times gets shuffled to the backburner as the story progresses, but the reveal at the end was interesting and I enjoyed the mystery component. I think fans of Renaissance Italy and mystery books will like this one as much as I did, despite its few small flaws.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Mini-Reviews: Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries

Book: What Angels Fear
Author: C. S. Harris
Publisher: New American Library
Release date: November 1, 2005
Source: Borrowed from library
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) In London, 1811, a young woman is brutally raped and murdered, her body left on the altar steps of an ancient church. The prime suspect: Sebastian St. Cyr, a brilliant young nobleman still haunted by his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars. Now he is running for his life, desperate to catch the killer and prove his innocence. Moving from Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms to St. Giles’s fetid back alleys, Sebastian is assisted by a band of unlikely allies and pursued by a Machiavellian powerbroker with ties to the Prince Regent himself. What Angels Fear seamlessly weaves an intimate knowledge of the period with a multi-layered and compelling story, and is the first of a series of novels featuring these characters.

Overall impressions: This is a terrific historical mystery with political intrigue and a dose of humor. Though its reliance on the historical setting led to a glacial pace, I appreciated the rich detail that completely transported me. If you like Regency London and an interesting murder mystery, this is your book.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has a lonely and somewhat depressing life. He is the third and only living son of the Earl of Hendon, and as a young boy was devastated at the death of his mother and the realization that his father was disappointed that he is to be the sole heir. He also had the misfortune to fall in love with an actress, who broke his heart to prevent him from being disinherited. After running off to join the war against France, he returns a much changed man.

When he is framed for murder, Devlin is determined to find the real killer, not only to save his own hide but to correct the grave injustice suffered by the young victim. Devlin has a condition that provides him with extraordinary eyesight and hearing, which serve him well as he struggles to stay alive in his quest to track down a murderer. Full of twists and turns, gorgeous historical details, and vibrant characters, this is a gem of a book for historical mystery fans.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Book: When Gods Die
Author: C. S. Harris
Publisher: New American Library
Release date: November 7, 2007
Source: Borrowed from library
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #2

Summary: (from Goodreads) Brighton, England, 1811. The beautiful wife of an aging Marquis is found dead in the arms of the Prince Regent. Draped around her neck lies an ancient necklace with mythic origins-and mysterious ties to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin. Haunted by his past, Sebastian investigates both the Marchioness’s death and his own possible connection to it-and discovers a complex pattern of lies and subterfuge. With the aid of his lover, Kat Boleyn, and a former street urchin now under his protection, Sebastian edges closer to the killer. And when one murder follows another, he confronts a conspiracy that threatens his own identity…and imperils the monarchy itself.

Overall impressions: Viscount Devlin is once again investigating the murder of a young woman in this second installment in the series. Having proved his outstanding potential as a detective in the first book, he is personally solicited to help in a touchy case of a murdered aristocrat found half-dressed in the Prince Regent’s chamber during a party. The deeper he digs, the more things point to unrest, rebellion, and a possible overthrow of the monarchy.

This one was not nearly as intriguing as the first entry. Devlin is not as personally invested since his own life is not on the line, so it lacked the same urgency. The case is interesting, but revolved heavily around politics of the time, and as someone not as familiar with Regency England’s political history, I felt like I was missing things at times.

I appreciated seeing my favorite characters back again – the Irish doctor performing autopsies, the actress and lover Kat Boleyn, and the adorably sweet street kid-turned-servant Tom. The setting and characters are so fully realized that I felt like I was stepping back in time. For these reasons, I will likely continue in the series, but hope that the future plots remain as interesting as the first one.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Review: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

Book: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer
Author: Michelle Hodkin
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release date: September 27, 2011
Source: ARC for review from Around the World Tours

Summary: (from Goodreads) Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.
It can.

She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed.

There is.

She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.

She’s wrong.

First impressions: I tried really hard to avoid reading much on this book before I read it. It was majorly hyped at BEA this year, and everyone has been buzzing about it since. I wanted to keep this one fresh, so I had few expectations. That made the beginning a lot of fun to experience, with no idea where we were going. I loved the letter up front that tells us “Mara Dyer” is a made up name to protect her identity. Mystery for the win!

Lasting impressions: Without question, the best thing in this book is the romantic interest, Noah Shaw. He is my new book boyfriend.

Conflicting impressions: Our heroine has a big change in direction in the last part of the novel, and her motivations went against the character we’d followed for so long. It made her actions disappointing and let me down as a reader.

Overall impressions: There are two big reasons you should read this book: Noah Shaw and masterful intrigue.

The entire book is spent playing catch-up, as we follow Mara Dyer trying to remember the blacked out portions of her memory where she may or may not have killed her friends. As she slowly pieces the story back together, we learn more about her and that she has strange powers that can have devastating consequences.

When she arrives in a new school for a fresh start after her family moves to Florida, she meets the notorious Noah Shaw. He’s a playboy who has worked his way through most of the female student body, but he’s not just a pretty face. He’s insanely intelligent, incredibly caring, and feisty to boot. The banter between Noah and Mara is TO DIE FOR. Noah’s witty comebacks, coupled with smoldering looks, had me fanning myself as I sped through the pages.

I was not crazy about the plot of this book once all of the information came to light toward the end. There were a few moments that didn’t make much sense to me. Noah arrives in the middle of the night and leads Mara on a crazy trek through alligator-filled water, yet she never questions him on what they’re doing. Really? Later, she makes a life-changing decision that seemed to go against everything we thought we knew about her and her feelings for her family and Noah. I didn’t understand the motivations behind that choice, beyond the obvious need for retribution.

And the ending! If you are not a fan of game-changing twists, do not read the last page. It sets up a strange new chapter that I’m not sure I want to see explored. I made the mistake of skimming the last sentence while doing a page count check, and sort of ruined it for myself, so I repeat: DO NOT read the last page of this book!

I liked the supernatural elements in this one, although I do wish we’d gotten some more information along the way. Still, the overall story was intriguing and fun to read, and I haven’t been this into a romance since Bella and Edward in Twilight. Noah is majorly swoon-worthy, and his chemistry with Mara is white hot. No matter what the novel’s other shortcomings, it is completely worth a read just to spend some time with Noah Shaw.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: No Place Like Holmes by Jason Lethcoe

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Book: No Place Like Holmes
Author: Jason Lethcoe
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Release date: May 10, 2011
Source: ARC from NetGalley

Summary: (from Goodreads) When Griffin is sent to stay with his detective uncle at 221B Baker Street for the summer, he is certain that his uncle must be the great Sherlock Holmes! But Griffin is disappointed to discover that Holmes lives at 221A Baker Street and his uncle lives in unit 221B. His uncle is a detective, just not a very good one. But when Griffin meets a woman with a case that Holmes has turned away for being too ridiculous, he and his uncle team up to help her. Along the way, Griffin shows his uncle just what it means to have true faith in God, even when the case challenges that. The woman claims that her husband was eaten by the Loch Ness Monster, but monsters aren’t real – or are they?

First impressions: Griffin is super cute and likable, probably because of his (intended) resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. I loved his quick mind, and the story starts off by displaying his deductive reasoning powers while interacting with the train staff on his way into London. It’s so nice to spend time with a brilliant kid!

Lasting impressions: A fun middle grade detective book for the young Christian reader. It had humor, heart, and even a little steampunk thrown in for good measure. I particularly loved the extras at the end – a quiz and mini cases for readers to solve themselves!

Conflicting impressions: At times, the Christianity emphasis was heavy-handed, which ultimately made me like the book less. I don’t mind God references if they are true to character, which here they were, but I do mind when they don’t flow well with the rest of the narrative. It seemed like they were shoved in just to make a point, and I think most readers, even (perhaps especially) the young ones, are smart enough to pick up on that.

Overall impressions: This was a quickly paced story about a young American boy sent to London for the summer to visit an uncle he’d never met. He is a miniature genius with exceptional deductive reasoning skills and idolizes Sherlock Holmes. He soon discovers his uncle, Rupert Snodgrass, is Holmes’ neighbor and also a detective, though not a very successful one. Rupert is crass, obsessed with beating Holmes at the detective trade, and at times even bitter and mean.

When a woman in need of help crosses paths with our young hero, Griffin, he takes her to his uncle and they set out trying to solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearance. Though Griffin’s relationship with his uncle starts out rather strained, by showing off his skills Griffin ultimately wins him over. It’s a nice little subplot of family redemption and acceptance.

The Christian elements pop up a lot during Griffin’s interactions with his uncle, as Griffin tries to force love and faith upon Rupert. I believed that Griffin was genuinely concerned for his uncle’s well being, and that Griffin’s faith was a huge part of his life. I just wasn’t sure Griffin would push Rupert’s buttons about it repeatedly if he was still trying to get Rupert to warm up to him. Something about it didn’t gel with me.

Rupert is a sad, miserable man who ultimately transforms and gains some self-love by the end of the book. He has lots of fun inventions that carry them through the story, providing Griffin with the opportunity to look up to something in his poor uncle. It was cool to watch them bond over the case and start to work together. Though the case was fairly straightforward, it had plenty of exciting sequences to keep my interest.

If you like Holmes’ style of detective work, you’ll like this one, as long as you don’t mind a little Christian love thrown in for good measure.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Are you looking for something to read for the All Male Review Challenge? This is a book with both a male protagonist and a male author! Score!