Book Review: Truly Devious

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Johnson, Maureen. Truly Devious. Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

So much of my life takes place at school. There are some weeks where I feel as though I’ve spent more time within the cinderblock walls of my classroom than at home with my husband and dog. Because of this, I’m often attracted to books where the action unfolds within a school—the Harry Potter series, for example, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.

I can now add a new—and fabulous—book to that list: Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, the first book in a forthcoming series.

Ellingham Academy is a unique boarding school in Vermont, established in the 1930s by the wealthy and altruistic Albert Ellingham. Elaborate and secluded, Ellingham Academy aims to attract gifted students who need more time to focus on their individual gifts—inventions or creative writing, for example. Albert, his wife, and small daughter even live on campus. Albert is a fan of board games and riddles, and believes learning should be more like a game. This comes back to haunt him as both his wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. The kidnapper leaves a chilling singsong letter signed “Truly, Devious”. Despite monetary exchanges, Albert’s wife and daughter never return home. His wife’s body washes ashore; his daughter Alice’s whereabouts remain unknown. Although an anarchist is arrested and charged with the crime, most believe the man was innocent.

In present day, Stevie Bell is both nervous and excited to have been admitted to Ellingham Academy. Stevie is a true crime buff—she listens to a large number of crime podcasts, ravenously reads detective novels and criminology books, and is a fan of most detective shows. Her most fervent dream is to someday work for the FBI, and her cold case of choice is the Ellingham case. Her interest in Ellingham Academy is not purely academic—she wants to closely study and solve the crime. But when one of Stevie’s classmates is found dead, Stevie realizes her powers of deduction are needed in a different way. Is the killer among Stevie’s classmates? Will Stevie make progress in solving the Ellingham kidnapping case?

I am usually not a fan of mysteries, but Truly Devious pulled me in immediately. Ellingham Academy is a brilliant setting—visually idyllic but with a dark past. Albert, too, is something like Willy Wonka in that his properties are full of hidden passages and tiny intricacies. And though Stevie is both gifted and brave, she has moments of vulnerability and anxiety that soften her character and make her relatable. The mystery aspects of the novel, too, were nicely paced and believable.

My only real complaint about Truly Devious was that there was a broad cast of characters and keeping track of the students and faculty often made me want to take notes of my own. The adults, especially, were only sporadically mentioned, and I often had to go through the book to remind myself of which teacher was being referenced.

Still, I was enthralled by Truly Devious and am now eagerly awaiting the sequel. Many students are passionate about crime and forensics, and I can foresee this novel being popular choice among the student body. The novel also touches on topics that are worth discussing—fame, plagiarism, and political disagreements.

Book Review: We Now Return to Regular Life

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Wilson, Martin. We Now Return to Regular Life. Dial, 2017.

One of the most chilling books I’ve ever read was Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life. Dugard was abducted as a child, then imprisoned inside the home of her abductor for eighteen years. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted and even bore two children during the time of her captivity. I was in awe of her strength and perseverance.

One thing I didn’t consider, though, was how Jaycee’s reappearance rocked her family and how difficult it must have been to assimilate into her previous life. These are topics that are explored further in Martin Wilson’s YA contemporary fiction novel, We Now Return to Regular Life.

The past three years have been hellish for Beth Walsh as her brother, Sam, went missing on a seemingly innocuous summer afternoon. He told Beth he was going to ride his bike to the mall with his neighbor, Josh, but failed to return home hours later. Despite exhaustive searches on foot, pleas to the public, and false leads, Sam was never located. Beth tries to begin her life anew by joining the soccer team, making new friends, and spending as much time away from home and her grieving mother and stepfather as possible. However, while studying with a friend, Beth receives a phone call she never anticipated: her mother tells her that Sam has returned home. Will he be the same mischievous little brother that Beth remembers? What happened to Sam in his three-year absence?

Josh feels an enormous amount of guilt regarding Sam Walsh’s disappearance. He was with Sam the day he went missing, but abandoned him when the two began arguing. Josh shares all of this with the police, of course, but what eats him inside is the bit of information he keeps secret: as Josh walked back home, alone, he was approached by a strange man in a white truck. The man offered to give Josh a ride home, but Josh fled and hid in a neighbor’s backyard until the man drove away. Josh later decides he was overreacting, and decides to keep the event a secret. But when Sam returns home after three long years, Josh is gutted to learn that the strange man in the truck was Sam’s captor. Will Josh ever come clean to Sam about keeping important information from the police? Will Sam forgive him? Will the boys repair their friendship?

We Now Return to Regular Life has a unique plot, and Beth and Josh’s dual narration gives readers a complete picture of how Sam’s disappearance and reappearance rattles a family and community. The book also discusses masculinity. Many of Sam’s former friends express disbelief that a boy could be abducted and sexually assaulted. Many of the same friends avoid or refuse to speak to Sam, believing that he is a freak or that he somehow enjoyed his kidnapping. These parts of the novel were difficult to read, but I felt they were important and worthy of discussion.

I have only nit-picky complaints regarding the book. I expected the media to have a larger presence in the story—news vans are parked around the house when Sam first returns home and there is one televised interview, but very little coverage is mentioned afterward. Also, the appearance of Beth and Sam’s biological father was much too brief. I desired more exploration of their broken relationship

Overall, Wilson’s novel would be a smart addition to a classroom library. The book explores the ways human beings grow and heal from trauma, which will unfortunately be relatable to a number of students.