I’m sharing another instalment of my Mini Review Mondays, the most recent of which was last week. In case you haven’t seen any of my previous posts, I do ‘mini’ reviews of books that I’ve read, loved and usually promised to review ages ago.
Today, I’m talking about three stories that all have a strong mystery element to their stories, though they have such different and interesting concepts.
First up, I’d like to talk about The Castle School (for Troubled Girls) by Alyssa Sheinmel. Thank you so much to Sourcebooks Fire for sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
When Moira Dreyfuss’s parents announce that they’re sending her to an all-girls boarding school deep in the Maine woods, Moira isn’t fooled. She knows her parents are punishing her; she’s been too much trouble since her best friend, Nathan, died―and for a while before that. At the Castle School, isolated from the rest of the world, Moira will be expected to pour her heart out to the odd headmaster, Dr. Prince. But she isn’t interested in getting over Nathan’s death or befriending her fellow students.
On her first night there, Moira hears distant music. On her second, she discovers the lock on her window is broken. On her third, she and her roommate venture outside…and learn that they’re not so isolated after all. There’s another, very different, Castle School nearby―this one filled with boys whose parents sent them away, too.
Moira is convinced that the Castle Schools and the doctors who run them are hiding something. But exploring the schools will force Moira to confront her overwhelming grief―and the real reasons her parents sent her away.
Publication Date: 2nd March
TW: self-harm, pulling out hair, selective mutism, anorexia, substance abuse, depression, OCD, kleptomania, alcoholism, rape, cancer, death and grief
The Castle School is a nuanced, thought-provoking exploration of mental illness and grief, beautifully told and moving.
The core strength of this book has to be the characters for me. Each of the girls felt fleshed-out, assisted by seeing inside each of their heads at least for a page or two. It created this really cohesive and thought-out exploration of a range of different mental illnesses and raising wider questions about the struggles young people face in today’s world. At the end of the day, this is primarily Moira’s story. In a character-driven novel, your protagonist has to be interesting and relatable and Moira was both of those in bucketloads. She’s got a tough exterior but she’s haunted by her past and shrouded in her grief. Watching her go through a personal journey of grappling with that grief and learning to live with it was cathartic and amazing. Sheinmel pays close attention to detail in every step along the way and I really appreciated that.
A big draw of this book for me was the hint at some mysterious secondary school. This paid off really well, especially in the links between the two schools that are eventually revealed. It didn’t take away from the main storyline, instead it complimented and enriched it. It threw up questions about psychological techniques and highlighted how individualised the rocky and seemingly endless road to recovery can be. Speaking of which, I really appreciated how Sheinmel made it clear that there is no magical cure or simple solution to deeply entrenched and complex problems. Instead, it has to be personalised and thoughtful care, with acknowledgement that there will be relapses.
The Castle School was a quieter, introspective story that I found myself caring for more and more with each page.
Next up, I’d like to talk about the brilliant The Conductors by Nicole Glover. Thank you so much to Del Rey UK for sending me a finished copy in exchange for an honest review.
Meet Hetty Rhodes, a former conductor on the Underground Railroad who now uses her magic to solve crimes in her community in a post-Civil War world.
As an escaped slave, Hetty Rhodes helped dozens of people find their own freedom north using her wits and her magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, still fight for their people by solving the murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch.
When they discover one of their friends brutally murdered in an alley, Hetty and Benjy mourn his loss by setting off to find answers. But the mystery of his death soon brings up more questions, more secrets, more hurt. To solve his death, they will have to not only face the ugly truths about the world but the ones about each other.
Publication Date: 4th March
TW: racism, slavery, violence, death, mentions of drowning, grief, domestic violence, implied rape, murder
The Conductors initially drew me in with that amazing premise. I mean combining a former conductor of the Underground Railroad, mystery, murder and a little magic sounds like a fantastic read. Luckily for me, The Conductors more than surpassed my expectations.
Glover has created such a rich and fascinating world. The more I learnt, the more I wanted from every aspect of the story. We learn about several different magic systems, all of them brilliantly unique and incredibly interesting to see. I liked how well-explained it was, so that we knew every little detail but it never felt like info-dumping. Instead, it was intricately woven into the dialogue and very fabric of the world around Hetty. The dialogue and character interplay was so easy to visualise and imagine happening around you, as every character felt so realistic and three-dimensional. For me, the clear standout was Hetty herself. She had such a strong and vibrant voice that really drew me to her. I loved how fiercely intelligent and driven she was. Glover also included flashbacks throughout the story showing how Hetty escaped and became a conductor. This way of combining history with fantasy was so inventive and original for me, highlighting the dark and brutal history with a magical element added in.
On top of that, the central mystery is great. We get led down several rabbit holes in pursuing various leads and watching those dynamics play out was hugely satisfying. There’s an atmosphere of tension and intrigue throughout that kept me hooked to the pages. The reveals, when they eventually appear, are shocking but also make complete sense in the wider arc of the book. There’s all sorts of little hints that culminate in a great payoff. I liked how some elements were also left open for future stories and there’s one aspect in particular I would love to see explored more.
The Conductors has given me a taste of a dark and transfixing world that I want more of. I will definitely be seeking out more of Hettie’s adventures.
Finally, I’d like to discuss The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep by Laurie Faria Stolarz. Thank you to St Martin’s Press for granting my wish and sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
Trapped in a well, surrounded by dirt, scratching at the walls trying to find a way out.
Four days of a thirst so strong, that when it finally rains, I drink as much as possible from the dripping walls, not even caring how much dirt comes with it.
Since my escape. Since no one believed I was taken to begin with – from my own bed, after a party, when no one else was home…
Six months of trying to find answers and being told instead that I made the whole incident up.
Since I logged on to the Jane Anonymous site for the first time and found a community of survivors who listen without judgment, provide advice, and console each other when needed.
A month of chatting with a survivor whose story eerily mirrors my own: a girl who’s been receiving triggering clues, just like me, and who could help me find the answers I’m searching for.
Since she mysteriously disappears, and since I’m forced to ask the questions: will my chance to find out what happened to me vanish with her? And will I be next?
Publication Date: 1st April
TW: discussions of trauma, kidnapping, enclosed spaces, death by fire, implied sexual assault, violence, abuse
The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep is a riveting YA thriller that slowly burns into your imagination.
This has such a striking opening that left me desperately tearing through the pages until I could uncover every last detail. From there, you’ll be left spinning at all the twists and turns that follow. This story goes to some dark places, but always retains this strangely dream-like element. The mystery is genuinely gripping and engaging, keeping me guessing throughout. It always has this fairy-tale like quality to it, though I’m talking about the Grimm versions here. There’s something not quite right about everything that’s occurred but you can never quite put your finger on it. Here, you become unsure that you can fully trust yourself, let alone Terra.
Terra was a fascinating protagonist. Throughout the story, we are unsure as to how reliable she truly is. Her actions and certain tiny details trip you up at times. For me, I love being able to question the protagonist and therefore my own reading experience. It adds a certain touch of mystery to your own judgement and makes for a richer reading experience.
I really liked the Jane Anonymous site that we see jumping into the narrative time and time again. It felt like a good idea to bring together survivors of horrific events to a place where they can talk about their experiences and vent their frustrations and trauma. However, it is a double edged sword. There’s always a danger with technology that you never really know who you’re talking to and it’s easily manipulated to lure unsuspecting victims. This adds to the sense of paranoia and a foggy atmosphere of mistrust that permeates the whole book. In a story about secrets and trauma, there’s the further complications of reliability and trustworthiness. I never felt like I could fully trust anything or anyone that the story brought to my attention.
The Last Secret You’ll Ever Keep is the type of story you can never fully take your eye off, or you risk missing something and trusting the wrong person.