Chasing Alliecat by Rebecca Fjelland Davis

Sadie’s parents have a bit of a strange relationship, and to figure out where they stand with one another, they’re spending the summer together in Egypt. Sadie, of course, can’t come with them, so they dump her with family in small town Minnesota, where she lives in a tiny room and finds herself bored. But then Sadie meets Joe and Allie — and it’ll be Allie who ultimately changes the course of her summer by pushing her to try something new: mountain biking.

Sadie finds she loves biking, and she gets good at it. So good, in fact, she signs up for a mid-summer race as a beginner. Even though her nerves shake and shake at the thought, she’s going to do it. This is going to be her summer escape.

Then things between Joe and Allie get tense, and Joe seeks the time and guidance of Sadie, who herself is confused about who or what either of her new friends are. She wants to get to the bottom of these two, but when Allie finds the half-dead body of a local priest then disappears mysteriously for days, that’s when Sadie knows there is something much deeper and darker going on.

Chasing Alliecat was a fast-paced read that I think really fills a niche in the YA market. It’s part adventure, part mystery, as well as part sports novel. There are killer racing scenes written with pure adrenaline, and even as a non-biker, I could feel those moments and they made me want to grab a bike and hit the trails with Allie.

I dug the way this book was set up and executed: immediately, we know that there is a mostly dead body and we know that Allie is somehow connected to this priest. Of course, we don’t know why, and we aren’t given the chance to know why for quite a while. As soon as the body’s discovered and Allie flees, we’re ripped from the moment and taken back a month in time to the beginning of Sadie’s stay with her relatives. This gives us as readers not only the opportunity to get to know the characters and the story leading to this life changing bike trip, but it also forces us to read a little differently than had we been given the story more linearly. I like that we’re trusted to play detective before Sadie can, since the story’s flashback point means she actually doesn’t know what’s going to happen is coming — this isn’t a story of her reflecting back on the events leading up to the discovery so it’s as if we get secret knowledge and we can pack it away and hope Sadie gets those clues along the way. This was a very smart tactic, and it really stood out to me as an offering of trust to the reader.

The relationships among characters are interesting, and I think that Davis does a good job developing full and dynamic characters. Allie is herself a bit of an enigma, but because we pick up enough clues through Sadie (and Joe’s) observations, we get a picture that there’s something broken about her. She’s a tough girl and not just because of her mountain biking. Sadie is, too, though she seeks the same sort of strength present in Allie. Joe is also a character of strength, but Sadie’s a little more reluctant to dig this from him; she knows there’s something buried inside him since the death of his brother, and when she finds it, her respect for him grows exponentially.

For me, the mystery of the story seemed pretty obvious. I had Allie’s game figured out early on, as some of her clues are huge, but I think for the average teen reader, this won’t be so obvious. The mystery itself reminded me a bit of the mystery in Mary Jane Beaufrand’s The River in that all of the pieces are there, but the actual point of the story isn’t to collect them to get from point A to point B. Instead, we’re supposed to stop and consider the bigger elements of the story itself: the characters, the setting, and the vehicles driving the narrative. That’s to say, the bigger mystery is unlocking these pieces. Once those unravel, the mystery works itself out.

I didn’t quite feel the romantic pull between Joe and Sadie as I believe I maybe should have, but that came down to also not believing Allie’s sexuality. We’re given hints — from Joe himself, in fact — that Allie is a lesbian. In fact, we’re led to believe throughout that Allie may have feelings toward Sadie; at the end of the story, we’re given Sadie’s insight into this and her reactions. I kind of felt this element was extraneous and served as a way to detract from the mystery. I think given the powerful aspect of mountain biking woven into the story, this could have been left out. I didn’t think romance or discussion of sexuality mattered in a story that really dug into much deeper family issues. I guess, too, I was a little uncomfortable with how Sadie handles this in the end, even if she is quite realistic. Most readers won’t give it a second thought.

Chasing Alliecat is an excellent pick for readers looking for a good story with solid characters that moves along quickly. I think this title would work for reluctant readers — this is plot driven, despite having strong characters — and the premise of the story involving mountain biking has instant appeal. Though don’t discount this as only a book for reluctant readers: your light mystery and adventure fans will love this, as will readers looking for teens who do teen things like learn to mountain bike during the summer. There’s not too much content wise to worry about in this title, aside from a little cursing (which is not in any way gratuitous but fits with the characters and the sport), so I think this is a title you could talk to upper middle school students and high schoolers without problem.

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