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Weekly Reviews: Literary Mysteries
Gavin Extence’s debut novel earns today’s starred review. This is a unique book, which will be especially popular with the many fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and with Kurt Vonnegut readers. Every year, when I booktalk to my students, they bring up Haddon’s novel. It is still a widespread favorite. I’m looking forward to recommending The Universe Versus Alex Woods as a read-alike. It is an emotional read, and also full of good humor. For more about the book, take a look at the its website, which includes an excerpt, Alex’s Recommended Reads and a Playlist. (Also, NPR’s Petra Mayer included it among her 5 Great Summer Reads for Teens, the only adult book to make the list.)
Chris Bohjalian’s latest is a suspenseful novel, in which one family’s WWII experiences come back to haunt them. The Light in the Ruins incorporates forbidden love, a fabulous Italian setting, and a serial killer murder mystery. Need I say more?
Bookending the veteran with debut novelists, let’s conclude with The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn. This is another mystery that alternates past crimes with their present consequences. It takes place in the American south, and explores race relations and slavery. Just what is a resurrectionist? “One who steals bodies from graves in order to sell them for dissection; a body snatcher.” (Thank you, freedictionary.com)
Young Adult/High School–Mysteries usually end when the perpetrator is arrested, but Extence’s novel begins with the apprehension of Alex Woods, wanted for kidnapping, possession of marijuana, and suspicion of murder. The teen’s responses during interrogation are guileless statements of truth that are odd enough for readers to warily wonder what is wrong with this character and just where is this novel taking them. Then, Alex recounts the events leading to his arrest, beginning with his most distinctive experience: as a child, a meteor ripped through the roof of his home and struck him on head. Whether the meteor was the cause of his later epilepsy, his quirky personality, or his fascination with astronomy and love of lists is unclear, because his free-spirited mother also asserts an overbearing influence on him. By the time Alex, bullied by his peers and befuddled by adults, befriends cranky Viet Nam vet Mr. Peterson and learns to worship the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, readers will recognize that Alex exhibits some of the behaviors of Asperger’s. When Peterson enters the final stages of terminal cancer, Alex concocts a plan to assist with his suicide. His emotional detachment slowly withers as Alex navigates the emotions of loss, grief, and love. Inevitably, comparisons will be made with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Doubleday, 2003), and teens who appreciate that novel, or the works of Kurt Vonnegut, will be fascinated with the extraordinary world of Alex Woods.–John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY
Adult/High School–Beautiful 18-year-old Cristina Rosati could not have foreseen a time when her perfect life as a nobleman’s daughter living in an opulent villa in the hills of Tuscany would end in bloodshed. In 1943, Nazis arrive at the villa, ostensibly to study the Etruscan tombs located on the property. To everyone’s chagrin, Cristina begins an ardent affair with one of the young Germans. Too soon, however, the Allied armies reach Italy, eventually clashing in a ferocious battle on the grounds of the Rosatis’ villa, leaving it in ruins. Flash forward to 1955, when the body of Cristina’s sister-in-law is found in Florence, with her heart carved out of her chest. Police investigator Serafina Bettina, a victim of war violence herself, suspects the motivation for the murder is rooted in the war years, possibly stemming from the Rosatis’ affiliation with the Nazis. When Cristina’s mother is murdered in the same fashion as her daughter-in-law, it becomes clear that someone is killing off members of the family, one by one. As Serafina searches for answers in the ruins of the villa, she uncovers painful memories of her own that may connect her to the Rosatis. Each revelation in pursuit of the killer seems to expose secrets buried in the violence of the past, raising questions of personal culpability during a time of war. Teens who love suspense will devour this one. Other subjects of interest in the book are the front-line view of invasion of Italy, and the Nazi’s systematic plundering of Florence’s treasures.–Diane Colson, formerly at Palm Harbor Library, FL
Adult/High School–Jacob Thacker doesn’t want to work in public relations for his alma mater, the South Carolina Medical School, but his recent drug abuse means that he does what he’s told. When the skeletons of many dissected African Americans are found in a campus basement foundation, Jacob is charged with diffusing the situation, no matter the cost. In an alternate plot, Nemo Johnston, a slave owned by the college, is responsible for digging up cadavers for medical students to dissect, but he’s also an anatomy instructor and holds other authority not usually given to black men in the South in the 1860s. The two worlds collide when Jacob’s unearthing of the college’s secrets coincides with details from his own family’s past. Teen fans of mystery and crime novels will enjoy this fast-moving, behind-the-scenes look into the disturbing history of medical colleges of the South. The author includes a note describing the basis for Nemo Johnston, including works consulted. The grossness factor of dead bodies and dissection is similar to Daniel Kraus’s Rotters (Delacorte, 2011), while the handling of Southern racial issues reminds readers of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound (Algonquin, 2008).–Sarah B. Hill, Paris Cooperative High School, IL
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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