The Lovely And The Lost by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Not every teenager knows what they want to spend the rest of their life doing, but Kira Bennett is different and determined. After being rescued as a child from a feral existence by her adoptive mother, she is dead set on following in Cady’s footsteps by becoming one of the best search and rescue trainers and teammates ever. Alongside her adoptive brother Jude and their spirited neighbor Free, as well as the dogs they’ve been raising for this purpose, she’s well on her way to achieving her goal. Sure she still has a problem with human interaction, but that’s something she’s continuing to grapple with and learn.

And then Cady’s estranged father shows up asking for help. Bales Bennett is an ex-military man who first started Cady on her career path, but the two stopped talking after a bitter argument before Jude was born. When Barnes explains that he needs her help to find a missing child, Cady simply can’t refuse. She packs up her kids and their dogs, and they take the five-hour drive to Cady’s hometown of Hunter’s Point, on the edge of the Sierra Glades National Park. Nine year-old Bella Anthony has gone missing from her family’s campsite, and the Bennetts (plus the intrepid Free) are on the case:

We got to work. Within ninety seconds, a plastic bag was being passed around so the dogs could get the girl’s scent. I assumed it contained clothing, until it came to me.

Not clothing–a blanket, I realized, my stomach inexplicably heavy. A baby blanket.

The fabric might have been lavender once, but it was faded nearly to white now. It was threadbare and tattered, and the moment I saw it, I wondered if the little girl slept with it at night. When she was lonely, when she was scared, did she hold on to it? Did she press her face into it?

Did it help?

I will find you. The promise unfurled inside of me, unexpected and with the strength of a creature with a life and will of its own. I will bring you home.

Despite Kira’s emotional investment, she knows that recovering Bella will be a hard task given that the park covers over 750,000 acres of wilderness. Not helping matters is Gabriel Cortez, the surly and secretive teenage boy Bales is fostering, whose assistance seems to run hot and cold. Add to this the unsettling presence of Mac Wade, a gentle giant with a complicated history with Cady, and the overtly hostile behavior of the town sheriff, for whom Bella’s disappearance is only the latest in what’s starting to look like a deliberate pattern, and Kira is soon struggling not to revert to the instinct-driven, violent creature she used to be.

Her dogs help a lot, but Kira’s real anchors are Jude and Free. It’s so refreshing to see such a tightly knit group of unconventional teenagers who aren’t riven by pettiness and romance. Jennifer Lynn Barnes writes about young people with a naturalness that makes for compelling and often humorous reading, such as here, after the girls have gotten Gabriel to loosen up a little:

A loud and unmistakable sound–followed by an equally unmistakable smell–permeated the air.

“You’ll have to excuse Duchess,” Free said primly. “Cocky teenage boys make her ladyship gassy.”

“Her ladyship?” Gabriel asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Duchess,” I explained, nodding to the dog. “Also known as her ladyship.”

“I hesitate to point this out,” Gabriel said, “but the proper address for a duchess is Her Grace.”

Free and I stared at him.

“What?” Gabriel muttered. “A former juvenile delinquent can’t enjoy the occasional historical romance novel?”

And while The Lovely And The Lost is an excellent young adult novel that grapples with questions of humanity and identity, it’s also a densely layered mystery about missing persons on the very edge of the wilderness that will have you guessing as you compulsively turn page after page. I was really impressed with the way Ms Barnes wove all the different plot strands together to create a highly readable and oddly relatable thriller with a truly unique heroine.

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