YA – A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

Jackson, Holly. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. Delacorte Press. 2020. 978-1-984-89636-0. 400 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Pippa Fitz-Amobi is a good girl: high achiever, faithful friend, devoted daughter, and big sister. So it’s a bit out of character for her to solve a murder for her senior capstone project, especially because it’s one that’s already been solved. Five years ago, high school senior Andie Bell disappeared from their small town of Fairfield, Connecticut. Her body was never found, but the remains of her boyfriend, Salil “Sal” Singh, were discovered in the woods along with evidence that he had killed Andie and then committed suicide out of guilt. Pippa’s instincts, honed on true crime podcasts and documentaries, tell her that Sal is innocent. She aims to raise enough doubts about Sal’s guilt to convince the police to revisit the case. With the help of Sal’s younger brother, Ravi, Pippa susses out one lead after another, untangling clues and connections hidden within interview transcripts, journal entries, and text messages. Meanwhile someone with much to lose is watching their every move — and he (or she?) is unafraid to follow through on threats against what Pippa holds dearest when she refuses to stop digging. Holly Jackson skillfully weaves the elements of a solid mystery into her debut: suspense, red herrings, breathless amateur surveillance, and even a spooky dark alley. A huge twist, revealed just when the crimes have seemingly been solved, propels the pace right to the final page.

THOUGHTS: Mystery fans, take note: You’ll be hooked from the “Murder Map” that appears on page 29! This fast-paced whodunnit is perfect for fans of Karen M. McManus’ thrillers, especially Two Can Keep a Secret. Note that this novel’s potentially sensitive topics include suicide, sexual assault, and an animal in peril.

Mystery          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Pippa Fitz-Amobi has everything going for her: She’s a good student with good friends and a great family. Pip is a “good girl,” and she can’t help but notice how local missing (presumed murdered but never found) Andie Bell also seemed like a good girl. A fan of true crime podcasts and documentaries, Pip can’t ignore the feeling that the five year old murder/suicide of two local teens has some gaps in its investigation. She knew Sal when she was younger, and he couldn’t have possibly killed Andie then himself. Or did he? Though she sells it to her advisor as a look at how media sensationalizing can impact an investigation, Pip decides her senior capstone project will be to look into the Andie Bell case. As she uncovers one clue after the next, she begins to hope that she can prove Sal’s innocence. When Pip receives a threat telling her to stop digging, she knows she must be onto something. Then again, maybe someone is just playing a sick joke. Getting closer to Sal’s little brother Ravi during her investigation doesn’t help Pip keep her feelings separate from the case. When a threat hits close to home, Pip is ready to give up. She might be paranoid, but it seems like someone in Fairview doesn’t want her to keep looking. Told throughout Pip’s investigation, readers will be on the edge of their seats to learn what really happened to Andie Bell and if Pip will successfully complete her project.

THOUGHTS: Told in a variety of formats, readers will not want to put down this fast-paced mystery. The full cast audiobook is excellent. Fans of other YA Thrillers by authors like Karen M. McManus, April Henry, and Gretchen McNeil will be happy to have a new author to enjoy. Mature topics (drug use, drinking, and suicide) make this one best suited for high school readers.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – A Breath Too Late

Callen, Rocky. A Breath Too Late. Henry Holt and Co., 2020. 978-1-250-23879-5. 272 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Trigger Warning: This title deals with abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide. The day after she dies by suicide, Ellie wakes up from the worst dream. As she goes about her morning, things feel off, but Ellie escapes her sad house and makes her way to school. She slips into first period where the class is told that a classmate died yesterday. It isn’t until Ms. Hooper says the name that Ellie realizes no one can hear her scream. Because Ellie’s recent memories are distorted, she tries to uncover what exactly happened. Her regret is evident, but the permanency of her decision is firm. Ellie witnesses the grief of others as she tries to come to terms with and understand her death. Through this experience, Ellie realizes that though she felt like there was no escape in sight and nothing left to hope for, not all was as it seemed. Despite not feeling it, Ellie was loved.

THOUGHTS: This book is devastating and very compelling. Readers will want to know if Ellie figures out what happened and if she finds peace through her regrets. Highly recommended.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

These Shallow Graves


Donnelly, Jennifer. These Shallow Graves. New York: Delacorte Press, 2015. 978-0385-906791 487 p. $19.99 Grades 8-12.

Jo Monfort is rich, clever and trapped. In 1890s New York, upper crust young ladies seek and receive only early marriage proposals, the richer and more stable, the better. They do not seek to showcase their opinions, writing skills or investigative interests, as Jo wishes to do. Jo and her friends know that their parents will seek for them the best match based upon family history, source of wealth, stability of name, etc. For Jo, that means she and her good friend Abraham “Bram” Aldrich will likely marry. By all accounts, he is quite a catch: kind, intelligent, handsome, and rich. But as much as she likes him, she doesn’t love him and doesn’t even know what that means. In fact, heavy issues like business and delicate issues like the body, or, heaven forbid, sex, are not discussed and not understood (Jo’s friend Trudy honestly thinks that a stork brings a child and only after you’ve married.)

When her father is found dead in his study, the police rule it an accident (he was cleaning his gun), but Jo knows he was too smart to make that mistake. When investigating on her own, she meets Eddie Gallagher, a handsome reporter for the newspaper, The Standard, owned by her family. Through him, she learns that the evidence points to a suicide, and her trusted uncle likely paid for the “accident” ruling to save the family name and business. Shocked, Jo is driven to know what would lead her father to suicide. Excited, Eddie is driven to break a huge story that will make his career. Attracted, they both fall in love and unearth some astonishing answers and deep mysteries around the shipping business shared by her father, uncle, and several other men. Eddie is more able than Jo to believe ill of her family and its business. As naïve, but driven Jo sneaks out (night and day) to seek answers, she risks her reputation (girls don’t walk alone, let alone go to the morgue or a graveyard). Fortuitously for her, she’s understood and trusted by several new friends: Eddie, his mortician friend Oscar, and street criminals Tumbler and Fay. Fay teaches Jo some needed self-defense skills, and saves her life more than once before the story is done.

The story gives a realistic look at the disparity between classes and sexes in 1890s New York, but strains credulity on many occasions—as when Jo repeatedly succeeds in avoiding repercussions, and she finds just who or what she needs when she needs it. The denouement, when the evil man finally answers, at great length, the entire history, after being shot in the kneecap, is nearly unbelievable (the “ouch” he utters, and his clarity of mind, do not match the pain or shock of this injury). But by then readers just want all the details and a happy ending for Jo, too. And it’s a happy ending we do receive.

THOUGHTS: Given its length and focus, this is for advanced readers who love a deep mystery sprinkled with a little romance. Indeed, this could begin a series for Jo and Eddie working together. The complicated world of 1890s New York provides excellent fodder for numerous murder mysteries and a furthering of Jo and Eddie’s relationship. Oscar in particular, as mortician, adds an incredible amount of interesting information to the tale.

Historical Fiction; Mystery       Melissa Scott, Shenango High School

New Realistic Fiction: 99 Days and My Heart and Other Black Holes


Cotugno, Katie.  99 Days.  New York: Balzer + Bray, 2015.  978-0-06-221638-0. 372 p.  $17.99.  Gr. 9 and up.

After her mother wrote a best-selling novel about her tragic love life, Molly Barlow ran off to boarding school in another state to avoid the backlash.  Now, however, she is back in her hometown for 99 days of summer before her freshman year of college.  Unfortunately, her year-long absence didn’t seem to help matters; she is still despised by everyone in town.  Julia Donnelly, the sister of the two boys whose hearts she broke, eggs Molly’s house and leaves her nasty letters.  She can’t talk to her mom, as she doesn’t want her pathetic life to end up being the subject of another novel.  Even her former best friend doesn’t seem to want anything to do with her.  The only person who seems happy to see her is Gabe, Julia’s oldest brother.  As she tries to mend broken relationships, Molly begins a tentative relationship with Gabe.  Things become complicated, however, when Patrick – Gabe’s brother and Molly’s first love – returns home.  Caught in a steamy love triangle, Molly finds herself right back where she started when she left town in the first place and looks forward to starting over again with a clean slate in college.

Realistic Fiction          Julie Ritter, Montoursville Area High School

Despite her transgressions, Molly is a very likeable protagonist, and I found myself rooting for her throughout the course of the novel.  I was disappointed, though, that while she​ grew emotionally and became more thick-skinned as the novel progressed, she did not seem to learn from her mistakes.  There are definitely themes in the book that will resonate with young readers, including sibling rivalry, adolescent love, and unfair double sexual standards.  I would give this book to anyone looking for a dramatic summer romance.  Be forewarned, however: the book does contain off-page sex, swear words, and instances of underage drinking.


Warga, Jasmine. My Heart and Other Black Holes. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2015. 978-0-06-232467-2. 302 p. $17.99. Gr. 9 & up.

The only way Aysel can be sure she doesn’t end up like her mentally ill father is to kill herself — or so she thinks.  Ever since her dad murdered her town’s star athlete, she’s been ostracized and depressed.  She spends her days surfing a suicide website, looking for a partner to help her commit the act.  She finds one in Roman, who on the surface seems to have everything going for him — athleticism, friends, good looks — but carries an enormous amount of guilt from a heartbreaking loss.  As they plan their deaths, a slow shift in perspective causes Aysel to begin to waver on carrying out their pact.  Readers will hang onto Warga’s honest and graceful narrative to find out whether Roman can be saved, too.  Teens struggling with depression can relate to the “black slug” devouring Aysel, whose dark humor makes her an endearing narrator.  The list of resources in the back for depressed and suicidal teens is essential.  Suggest to teens who couldn’t put down Jay Asher’s immensely popular Thirteen Reasons Why.

Realistic Fiction     Kristen Rowe, Plum Senior High School

I Was Here…new from Gayle Forman


Forman, Gayle. I Was Here. New York: Viking, 2015. Print. 978-0451471475. 288 p. $18.99. Gr. 9+.

The newest novel by Gayle Forman is an intense read, and, yet, sadly, a timely story for today’s youth. Similar in theme to Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and Please Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, I Was Here tackles the difficult subject of teen suicide. Forman succeeds in writing a story with realistic and engaging characters and plot. Meg and Cody have been best friends since grade school. Since Cody’s family consists of only her mother Tricia (who insists that Cody call her by her first name), Cody spent a majority of her time growing up as a part of Meg’s family. But ever since they graduated and Meg moved away to begin her first year at college, they talked less and less and did not see each other as much as they planned. Cody was supposed to go to school near Meg, but did not have the funds to attend school yet, and instead spends her time cleaning houses. Cody’s world is turned upside down when she receives an email from Meg stating that she has committed suicide. While cleaning out Meg’s apartment, at the request of Meg’s parents, Cody finds other emails on Meg’s computer that cause her to wonder why and how Meg got to the point where she felt the only option was suicide. Cody begins communicating with a boy that supposedly broke Meg’s heart, and Cody is confused by her attraction to this boy. As Cody begins looking into the time before Meg’s death, she learns more about a sinister world that exists to assist those who want to commit suicide. This is a story that needs to be handled with care and mainly offered to mature young adults or supported with discussion by an adult. Forman includes a much-needed author’s note describing her connection to the story, why she chose to write it, and avenues for help for those suffering from depression.

I absolutely LOVE Gayle Forman and became a big fan of hers after falling in love with If I Stay. Though her sequels do not always hit the mark, I also loved Just One Day. After reading the premise for I Was Here, I was interested to see what path Forman would take when discussing the subject of teen suicide. Unfortunately, this topic has been foremost in our minds lately due to news reports of teen suicide and the prevalence of mental disorders and depression among teens and young adults. At first, and through many parts of the novel, I was apprehensive about the direction the plot was taking. At one point Cody discovers how Meg decided to commit suicide and what prompted her to do so, and I was nervous about the possibility of exposing susceptible teens to these ideas. Forman, however, handles the plot and characters’ actions well and clearly shows the negative outcomes of access to an unlimited amount of information (both good and bad) on the Internet. Her much-needed author’s note at the end is something that all teens should read when finished with the novel. I am eager to share this title with students and hear their reactions, especially since Thirteen Reasons Why was such a popular title for so long. I still keep in touch with one former student who is also a fan of Gayle Forman, and I am excited to discuss this new novel with her as well!

Realistic Fiction          Lindsey Myers, Peters Township High School



Forman, Gayle. I Was Here. New York: Viking, 2015. 978-0-451-47147-5. 270p. $18.99. Gr. 9 and up.

Meg and Cody were inseparable until Meg’s college scholarship took her to the University of the Cascades and way from their Eastern Washington town.  Although they tried to remain as close as always, physical distance separated their once inseparable friendship.  Now Meg is dead, and Cody is determined to figure out why her best friend committed suicide.  As Cody tries to deal with the lack of information surrounding Meg’s death and the suicide note Meg emailed her family, Cody, and the Tacoma Police Department, she is determined to find out what happened to Meg, their friendship, and the life she once knew.  Gayle Forman eloquently explores the impact of suicide on loved ones, friendships, growth, and separation in I Was Here.  Focusing on the impact Meg’s death has on Cody provides a unique perspective into how and why people choose to commit suicide and the impact death has in a young person’s life.  As Cody tries to piece together Meg’s life in college, she not only figures out who Meg was without her, but who she can become without Meg and because of Meg.  I Was Here is one of the most beautifully written novels of love and loss.

In my opinion Gayle Forman is the best young adult writer currently publishing.  She tackles difficult issues and emotions with beauty and tack that many writers could only imagine.  She takes on the emotions and the maturation process of teenagers and young people and weaves them into magical stories of reality that draw forth reader emotions and connections to all of her characters.  Often adult novels or authors are described as YA crossover; Gayle Forman is a YA author that is an adult crossover.  I Was Here may focus on the friendship between two teens and the loss one feels, but Meg’s parents feel things too, and it is through Cody that they find a way to cope.  Parents who feel loss will understand and relate to this novel as much as students who have dealt with grief.  This novel is a novel of healing, and in a world with much grief it provides hope.

Realistic Fiction   Erin Parkinson, Lincoln JSHS, Ellwood City