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Unexpected Mysteries

We’ve been calling this post “unexpected mysteries” which is an intriguing title that I quite enjoy. I wonder if it’s more accurately, “slow, detail-laden, explorative mysteries,” though. Mysteries aren’t always the big movers and shakers in YA fiction, although there are quite a few to be found in the middle grade realm. While one of the titles does skew younger for audience, these two titles share main characters living on the fringes of society, and meticulous scrutiny of the past.

murderers apeThe Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius (trans. by Peter Graves)
January 2017, by Delacorte Press
Reviewed from final eBook

This title has garnered three stars due to the detailed setting, the sympathetic main character, the steady mystery slowly unraveled, and the design. Starting in Lisbon, set sometime in the past (there are cars around, but it overall feels historical, so maybe early 20th century), the narrative eventually travels through Egypt and India to tie things up neatly in Lisbon. Much of the action occurs in ports and on the wharves, there are lots of long shadows, and a sense of small winding streets that make it easy for people (or animals) to disappear. The indoor settings often correspond with the action: Ana’s apartment feels welcoming and cosy; the palace is complicated and feels public, full of scrutiny; boats of all kinds offer comfort and familiarity. Sally Jones is a sympathetic figure, too; she’s loyal, hard working, kind, and empathetic. She wants only to repay kindness done to her, to keep busy, and to exorcise the ghosts in her heart. She is keen to repair what has been broken — whether it’s an accordion, an engine, or an injustice. These are admirable qualities, and as a result readers (and other sympathetic characters) connect with her.

I read this electronically, and the design was fantastic — beautiful, quirky character sketches and small illustrations at chapter headings, all done with attention to detail by Wegelius. They add to the old fashioned atmosphere and sense of place. Many figures are crammed (not a negative here, just trying to be descriptive!) into a scene that makes their identity clear. Ana is near a window and surrounded by plants; Sally Jones huddles forlornly near a chimney surrounded by empty rooftops and heavy night.

Not everything works well. The long story and slow pace had me pretty distracted; I picked it up and put it down a lot before eventually getting all the way through it. That’s a personal reaction, of course, but it also resulted in my feeling that the stakes were disappointingly low. We knew Chief would get out, we knew Sally Jones would be OK, and at some points I felt like I was waiting for the mystery to kick in or keep going.

Sally Jones as a character is very sympathetic, but she’s also quite passive; this was another way the stakes of the novel were lowered. She sleeps through key portions of the plot, and misses the actual resolution. While she’s there for the very important emotional highs, she is also treated like a child in the narrative — and so what could be suspenseful is instead toothless. Related: the way her gorilla-ness is handled bothered me, too. The narrative makes clear that she is vulnerable and could be put in a zoo at any time. Yet she always finds a human willing to help (she must always have a human’s help), and those humans always understand her innermost feelings. She never needs to use her words with friends, they always have harmonious understanding — how?

The cast is huge, and it may be due in part to the sheer number of characters involved that Wegelius relies so heavily on stereotypes to flesh out his world’s inhabitants. Sally Jones is sympathetic but is also everything kind and loyal. Fidaro is cranky, cantankerous, but all to hide a loving heart. Ana is a caretaker. Ayesha is, too; she immediately begins assisting Sally Jones. The Maharaja and his mother are pretty blatantly stereotyped as well. The old fashioned feel of the narrative doesn’t hide that, and doesn’t excuse it.

city of saints & thieves coverCity of Saints and Thieves, Natalie C. Anderson
Putnam, January 2017
Reviewed from ARC

It’s Karyn here, muscling in on Sarah’s mystery post to talk about one of the first and most buzzed books of the year, although that buzz seems to have faded quite a bit from the initial high. I just did a quick count of stars (using Jen J’s invaluable Booksheets and starred review spreadsheet) and right now — admittedly before reviews are in for a few potential late-year heavy hitters — we have two 6 star books, six 5 star, and sixteen 4 star books on the YA or upper crossover end of things. Which puts this, with its four stars, in the top 24 in terms of critical reception. That’s pretty far up there given how many books have been published. So let’s talk about the book.

Set in an imaginary city in a very real Kenya, this one is pacy and fierce. I’ve seen it billed (by the publisher) as Gone Girl meets Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and also (on a blurb) as Oceans 11 meets Blood Diamond. I’m not seeing the Gone Girl so much, but the other three make sense as comps — and are also fairly uncommon as comps for YA, which is probably part of the buzz and the appeal, for reviewers and for actual real live teens.

Other than the genre, what does this one have that makes it a Printz potential? Definitely the setting. Everyone loves the setting. The author isn’t Kenyan, but has lived in Nairobi and worked with refugee populations, so there’s a sense of authenticity although it’s not an #ownvoices narrative. And, of course, we (USian reviewers, and especially white reviewers) might be wrong about the sense of authenticity, but the sense of place is tangible — the geography feels real and mappable, the sights and smells tangible.

Also it’s super cinematic — it’s got the kind of set up and commercial appeal that make it ripe for adaptation — which is always a plus; the pages practically turn themselves for much of the book. Although  for a while in the middle the pacing got a little draggier, but I was having the kind of week where there was never enough time to read at length, which always makes slow bits feel eternal, so this might be a minor issue that felt more significant in my read. But there’s a compelling and original plot, and it plays out against some deeply political global issues (main character Tiny/Tina is a Congolese refugee, and the mystery is closely tied to that piece of backstory), which adds depth to something that might have been fairly ephemeral and all surface otherwise.

Tiny/Tina and her friends — Hacker Boyboy, rich white Michael, and Tiny’s much more sheltered sister, plus not-friends the Goonda gang and their boss — all work, and have some truly individual moments but overall they read like really good Central Casting. That’s not a bad thing; in fact, in the context of the genre thriller, it’s perfectly suitable and supports the fact that for the most part this about the plot and the politics, and to a large degree about Tiny; everyone else mostly exists to propel her story. That said, I’m not sure that this rises above its genre, and the RealPrintz tends to reward genre-blenders or books that otherwise break the mold. Being a great example of genre X is usually not enough.

City of Saints and Thieves is an excellent read and I would say a must buy for pretty much any collection serving teens, but it’s not superlative, just really good. I predict both that this will be discussed by the RealCommitte AND that this one falls by the way side after conversation and more importantly after being held up against other 2017 reads.

So there you have it — two mysteries well worth a discussion or two, but neither one is getting a nomination for the Pyrite or a prediction for the RealPrintz from out team. Agree? Disagree? Chime in.

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. We added The City of Saints and Thieves to our Mock Printz list for the school district. The mystery isn’t predicable nor is the setting. I liked it a lot as a potential honor book this year after I read it and think it will be and should be seriously discussed.

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