Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book 'Em!: Diana Renn's Top Mystery Reads of 2011

Welcome to "Book 'Em," our new Tuesday theme! For the next seven weeks, every Tuesday, we'll be blogging about our favorite young adult and middle grade mystery reads. Maybe you'll get some gift ideas for the mystery lovers in your life, or add some books to your 2012 reading lists. We hope you'll follow our footsteps in the coming weeks and check out some great titles -- some classic, some recent, some hot off the press!

Personally, I read so many great YA and MG mysteries this year; I'm having serious trouble narrowing down to my favorites. But here are five mysteries I read in 2011 that stood out on my list:

Young Adult Top Picks: 

The Other Side of Dark, by Sarah Smith. This smart, page-turner of a mystery concerns a search for a hidden treasure box in a condemned historic house. There's a lot more than a treasure hunt here, though: this novel also confronts history head-on, not shying away from complex topics. Among them: the history of slavery in the United States, reparations, and racial identity and racism in America today. The main characters are intriguing: an orphaned teen girl (Katie) who sees ghosts and has a gift (or curse) of being able to draw them in macabre detail, and a boy (Law) who is an architecture buff; he must come to terms with his identity as a mixed-race son of academic parents who are at loggerheads over race and history. There is also a strong cast of ghosts -- some funny, some quirky, some ghastly, some furious. Evidently I'm not alone in my love of this book; it was named a "Must Read" title in this year's Massachusetts Book Awards, and it was a 2011 Agatha Award nominee.

The Christopher Killer, by Alane Ferguson. This is the first book in a mystery trilogy set in Silverton, Colorado. If you're looking for an ambitious, courageous, and extremely resilient teen sleuth, you'll find one in Cameryn, the daughter of a county coroner, who aspires to become a forensic pathologist. In this novel, she tries to track down a serial killer who has killed a friend of hers; the killer leaves a St. Christopher medal on all his victims. The young sleuth is up close and personal with dead bodies and autopsies, and you'll learn a great deal about this science -- maybe more than you wanted to. You'll also find a well-paced and expertly plotted mystery. I read the book twice this year, once for enjoyment and to figure out who did it, and the second time to figure out how Ferguson pulled off this high wire act. She makes great use of red herrings, suspects, and reveals. And the book isn't as dark is its subject matter might suggest. There is humor at appropriate and welcome moments, and ample opportunity for Cameryn to reflect on the reality of her loss. This book has really stayed with me over a period of many months; my mind often drifts back to the characters and the plot. I'm looking forward to finishing the trilogy in 2012, and I'm curious how these characters evolve over three books.

Down the Rabbit Hole, by Peter Abrahams. Thirteen-year-old Ingrid Levin-Hill is one of my favorite sleuths. As a soccer player and aspiring actress, participating in community theater, she's a busy girl. But not too busy to solve a riveting mystery! Ingrid stumbles into a mystery instead of seeking one out -- on the way home from the orthodontist, she gets caught in the rain and invited into the home of "Cracked-Up Katie," a local eccentric in a not-so-great neighborhood. When Katie turns up dead the next day, Ingrid finds herself uncomfortably close to a murder mystery, especially since she left her soccer cleats in the house. She pulls a number of gutsy moves, like entering the house to retrieve her shoes, tampering with evidence in the process. I found the way she mishandles the mystery, bungles into things, and gets in way over her head totally believable. As much as I turned pages quickly to find out who the murderer was, I turned pages to find out how Ingrid was going to get herself out of trouble. This is the first book in the "Echo Falls" mystery trilogy. I'm also a huge fan of another YA mystery by Abrahams, Reality Check, but since I already raved about that on our "Under Cover" feature a few weeks ago, I thought I'd highlight the Echo Falls mysteries here. Abrahams is a suspenseful and literary mystery writer; any fans of mysteries for kids should read him. I'm very much looking forward to his new novel for middle grade readers, coming in January 2012: Robbie Forester and the Outlaws of Sherwood Street.

Middle Grade Top Picks:

Vanished, by Sheela Chari. In this novel, eleven-year-old Neela tries to track down a family heirloom that has disappeared under her watch: a veena, which is a traditional stringed instrument from India. Neela tracks down an assortment of unusual clues and stumbles into a curse that may be attached to the instrument; apparently this veena has a long history of disappearing, reappearing, and disappearing again. This book has a fairly complex plot, but clues and reveals are parceled out at just the right pace. The mystery is intriguing, but I was also compelled by Neela's personal growth in the novel, and how she deals with her self-doubts and stage fright as a budding musician. This is the best kind of mystery, I think, where the sleuth's efforts to solve the mystery lead to personal reflection and growth. Another great hallmark of this novel is the absence of one reliable sidekick; Neela is sometimes on her own in her sleuthing and sometimes aided by different people (from a cast of well-developed supporting characters) and so the mystery avoids a formulaic feel. I also loved learning about veenas, dragons, and Indian culture. And if you missed our October interview with Sheela, you can find it here.

Masterpiece, by Elise Broach. This story of an artistically gifted beetle who lives under a sink and becomes involved in an art heist seems destined to become a classic. It's in the tradition of The Borrowers books and The Cricket in Times Square in some ways -- small worlds meticulously rendered -- but the mystery plot makes it more of a page-turner for me. There is a touching friendship at the core of the novel, between Marvin, the beetle capable of imitating great pen-and-ink artists, and James, the boy who lives in the apartment. Together they become involved in a staged art heist at the Met, with the goal of recovering an Albrecht Durer miniature drawing. I love the wild premise of the novel, the details of the bug's miniature world, the art history, and the idea that small beings can accomplish great things.

Mystery lovers: what books are on your wish lists this holiday season? What mysteries are you dying to read in 2012?

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