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Out of the Ashes

by Valerie Sherrard

Valerie Sherrard, the executive director of a group home for adolescents and the foster parent of more than 70 teens, has created a highly readable novel for this age group. Out of the Ashes is a well-plotted mystery that thoughtfully explores the issues of mean-spirited gossip, arson, and sexual abuse. It’s also a believable romp through the triumphs, pitfalls, and agonizing embarrassments of small-town high school life.

The novel opens with a classic dilemma. Greg, the new guy in town, likes Shelby, but Shelby only has eyes for Nick-the-jock, who barely knows she exists. When fires start breaking out, Shelby suspects Greg is guilty and blunders through an initial investigation with little regard for his feelings. When she learns that the arsonist is likely a sexual abuse victim, she proceeds investigating with greater sensitivity, hoping to find the culprit so he or she can receive help.

Sherrard peoples her fictional town of Little River with interesting characters (both young and adult) and offers plenty of suspects to keep readers guessing. Mystery elements are tied up neatly at the end, but the possibility of romance with the appealing Greg is left open, a clever incentive to buy the next Shelby Belgarden Mystery.

The eye-catching cover will grab readers, as will the structure of the first-person narrative, which begins partway into the action with foreshadowing comments such as “if I’d known what kind of mess lay ahead.” Fast-paced, straightforward, and peppered with realistic dialogue and humour, Out of the Ashes is perfect for teens who want a compelling story that is not too challenging.