Publisher: Dial Books
Release Date: August 22, 2017
Received From: NetGalley
Molly Mavity is not a normal teenage girl. For one thing, her father is a convicted murderer, and his execution date is fast approaching. For another, Molly refuses to believe that her mother is dead, and she waits for the day when they’ll be reunited . . . despite all evidence that this will never happen.
Pepper Yusef is not your average teenage boy. A Kuwaiti immigrant with epilepsy, serious girl problems, and the most useless seizure dog in existence, he has to write a series of essays over the summer . . . or fail out of school.
And Ava Dreyman—the brave and beautiful East German resistance fighter whose murder at seventeen led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall—is unlike anyone you’ve met before.
When Molly gets a package leading her to Pepper, they’re tasked with solving a decades-old mystery: find out who killed Ava, back in 1989. Using Ava’s diary for clues, Molly and Pepper realize there’s more to her life—and death—than meets the eye. Someone is lying to them. And someone out there is guiding them along, desperate for answers.
SEXUALITY: presumed heterosexual
TROPES: nonlinear timeline, epistolary
TAGS: contemporary, historical, young adult, Kuwaiti character, immigrant character, disabled character, mystery, Muslim character (non-practicing)
WARNINGS: physical illness (epilepsy), cissexism / transmisia, misogyny, slurs, gendered slurs, hospitalization, suicide mention, ableism, death, parental death, murder, pyromania, fatmisia / fatshaming, institutionalization, nonconsensual hospitalization, suicide, drugging, nonconsensual drugging, Japanese fetishization, capital punishment, torture, fascism, corrupt government
“My mother always told me, when they lock you up, when they take away your voice, become an arsonist. When you light something on fire, you’re also burning down the bad things in yourself.”
When I read the description of this book, I was immediately interested in the whole concept. I was eager to find out how Molly and Pepper, the main characters, would solve a decades old mystery and what the end result would be. I was also very interested to read a book with a Kuwaiti main character, because as far back as I can recall, I’ve never read one.
For a good while after I started reading, I was convinced I was going to DNF the book. For me, it did not become interesting until after the 30% mark. The only thing that kept my interest until then was the sections from Ava’s point of view. Up to that point, I would’ve much rather just read a historical from Ava’s perspective on living in East Germany during the Cold War and surviving the Stasi and inciting a revolution. I was already invested in finding out what happened to Ava, which is why I stuck around past the 25% mark. Luckily, the rest turned out to be an enjoyable read, so I don’t regret my decision to continue.
Ultimately, Ava’s chapters continued to be my favorite parts of the novel, but I did enjoy following along with Molly and Pepper as they solved the mystery. Certain aspects were fairly predictable, and I guessed them far in advance of the revelations, but there were enough twists and turns that I wasn’t bored with the investigative aspect of the story.
I also loved the fact that Molly and Pepper’s friendship wasn’t something that turned into a romance in the midst of everything. One of my favorite lines of the book was from Pepper’s point of view: “Her friendship is not a consolation prize.” While both of them recognize that there could possibly be some potential for a romance, they’re content to be friends and appreciate the connection and aspects that they have of each other in their lives.
The epistolary style of the novel was an small issue for me, but I fully recognize that this is a personal issue. Molly’s chapters are letters that she writes to Pepper, who we discover in the first chapter is in a coma; Pepper’s chapters are in the form of summer school essays he turns into his school principal; and Ava’s chapters are diary entries. On the surface, this is an interesting, albeit a tad strange, concept and structure. However, for me personally, I have a difficult time believing that characters remember every single word of every conversation, in order to be able to accurately write them down. I know it’s a silly thing for me to be bothered by, but it’s something I can’t shake.
Upon finishing the novel, I think I still would’ve preferred to just read a historical YA about Ava, but I was overall satisfied with the whole of this book.
Stephanie Oakes is a teacher and YA author from Washington State. Her debut novel, THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY (Dial/Penguin, June 9, 2015), about a girl who escapes from a religious commune only to find herself at the center of a murder investigation, is based on the Grimm fairy tale, “The Handless Maiden.”
THE ARSONIST, her second YA mystery through Dial/Penguin, is scheduled for publication in 2017.