Dutton, 2016 247 pgs
Bestselling author, Ally Condie (the Matched Trilogy), stretches her writing wings as she dives into realistic middle-grade fiction. Twelve-year-old Cedar, her mother, and her younger brother move for a summer back to her mother's hometown in the Pacific Northwest, where a local college hosts a summer Shakespeare festival. Cedar's family is grieving the deaths of her father and autistic brother the previous year and are presently living with the sadness, guilt, and rebuilding of the aftermath. A strange neighbor boy, Leo, introduces Cedar to the festival and helps her to secure a job with him selling programs. Leo, a theater lover, drags Cedar into his scheme of leading private tours tracing the footsteps of a deceased local celebrity in order to raise money to see a favorite actor on stage in London. While leading the tours the two friends get swept up in the mysterious death of the actress and attempt to reconstruct what actually happened that fateful night. The Summerlost Festival becomes a refuge for both young people as Cedar begins to volunteer for the costume department and Leo finds a reprise from the town bullies who make his life miserable because he is different. Meanwhile, items are appearing on Cedar's windowsill. Are they from the buzzards who congregate in her yard or maybe Leo? By summer's end, one mystery is solved and another isn't, but Cedar forges a forever friendship and her now compact family begins to heal.
Condie proves that she is not limited to age group or genre as she departs from Dystopia and tackles some tough topics for tweens, sure to appeal to fans of Flipped. Summerlost is a quiet book, yet has enough of a plot to keep it from getting boring. Death of a loved one is the scariest fear kid's face and may be why dealing with this loss is a topic so often explored in serious fiction for children. Cedar is struggling both with the loss of her father and brother, but also the guilt that she carries for sometimes being embarrassed and impatient of how her autistic brother acted. She finds a new friend, a job which helps her to feel productive and capable, and the perfect escape into the land of Elizabethan England. Throwing herself into the life of the deceased actress and trying to solve the mystery surrounding her death also provides a distraction and, although the mystery is never solved, helps her to find peace and closure in her own situation. As the book moves on we discover, as Cedar does, that some characters are not what they seem at first. The adults in the book are flawed, but positive influences in promoting Cedar's growth. The real story is the friendship between Cedar and Leo, proving that twelve-year-old kids of different sexes can be friends. Although there are little romantic "twinges" they remain platonic and discover that their friendship is much deeper than other relationships in their lives and more important than a crush. The "gifts on the windowsill" mystery is solved in a very satisfying way and offers the reader closure on that front. Most plot lines are wrapped up at the end and the characters are left happier and better off at the end of the book than we meet them at the beginning. The reader is still left with questions concerning the actress's death, but that reflects real life, where we don't always find out the full story. Cedar and Leo are okay with not knowing and, therefore, so are we.