Mystery of the Map

Oliver, Mya, and Jorge take a ride in a hot-air balloon, only to crash-land on an unknown island filled with extinct animals and a horde of angry Vikings. Welcome to Poptropica, an uncharted group of islands whose existence is hidden from the rest of the world. As the three friends embark on a perilous search for a way home, they quickly discover the shocking reason they were brought there—something that threatens the very existence of Poptropica and their ability to ever make it off the island! 

Many kids already love Poptropica, a website that shares stories via gaming literacy. Kids familiar with the website will instantly connect to Poptropica: Mystery of the Map. Written by Jack Chabert, author of Eerie Elementary (published under a pen name), Mystery of the Map uses action and humor to entertain readers. The graphic novel features three diverse kids—Oliver, Mya, and Jorge. The three are somewhat stereotypical—Oliver is a nerd, Jorge is clueless, and Mya is frustrated by the boys’ antics. Despite this, readers will love this crazy adventure where the kids get the best of the Vikings.  

Some of the humor is comically childish. For example, after falling from the sky, Jorge gets caught in a tree and a bird pulls off his belt. Jorge’s pants fall, revealing bright pink, space underwear. Then, when the kids sneak into the Viking’s fort, one Viking picks his nose and eats the booger. In addition, two of the Vikings are sitting and their butt cracks show. Oliver says, “Seriously? These guys built ships that crossed the Atlantic, but they couldn’t invent belts?” 

Each page has brightly colored illustrations that use fun elements such as onomatopoeia—”Krash! Smash! Krak!”—as well as comical characters with oversized eyes. The illustrations clearly show the characters’ varying emotions such as annoyance, fear, and confusion. Some of the pages let the illustrations tell the story without text. Other pages contain up to nine sentences with easy-to-understand vocabulary. Most of the sentences are super short, which makes the book accessible to reluctant readers. 

While on the island, the kids meet Eric the Red. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t give much information on the well-known Viking and misses the chance to add historical facts. If readers are interested in more adventurous Viking stories, they can sail into history by reading Voyage with the Vikings by Marianne Hering & Paul McCusker. 

While there is little educational value in Mystery of the Map, the graphic novel will entertain readers with the funny, fast-action romp through an island filled with Vikings. Most of the violence comes from the kids running from danger, which is portrayed in humorous ways. The simple plot has a mysterious villain, Octavian, who the kids outwit. If you’re looking for a book series that kids will devour, the Poptropica Series should be on your must-read list. The conclusion ends with the kids sailing away from the island, leaving readers eager to start the next book in the series, The Lost Expedition 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • While on a balloon ride, Captain Octavian pushes Mya. To defend her, her brother Oliver pokes Octavian in the stomach. During the tussle, Jorge and Oliver fall out of the hot air balloon. Octavian then pushes Mya out. The three kids fall from the sky but are uninjured. 
  • Octavian tries to steal a Viking ship. When a Viking calls out, Octavian throws a stone at the Viking’s head, which knocks the man out. 
  • A large saber tooth cat chases the kids. When the cat jumps, Jorge ducks and the cat hits a tree and knocks itself out. 
  • When the Vikings try to put the kids into a cage, they run. There is a short fight that shows a Viking throwing a barrel at the kids. Then the Viking gets out his weapon. Before he can use it, Oliver knocks a container off a shelf. The container hits the Viking on the head and the kids are able to escape. 
  • A group of Vikings shoots arrows at the kids.  
  • A Viking chases the kids. The short chase ends when the saber tooth cat attacks the Viking and they both fall into a river. 
  • The kids find a man wearing only his underwear, tied to a tree. They free the man. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • The Vikings drink mead. 

Language   

  • Octavian calls a boy a brat. 
  • Because Oliver can identify a rare bird, Jorge calls him a nerd. 
  • Jorge asks if Mya is a neat freak.  
  • When Jorge hears a Viking talking to himself, Jorge says, “He’s nuts.” 

Supernatural 

  • The kids find a magical map. Oliver explains, “I can pinch and zoom and stuff! I can see all sorts of details about the island. It’s some kind of new technology.” The map answers their questions and shows them where to go. For example, when Oliver says, “Map, please find shelter,” the map shows them where to go. 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Double Helix

The mystery deepens and the action intensifies for 12-year-old Cruz Coronado and his friends in this exciting third book of the Explorer Academy Series.

Cruz, Emmett, Sailor, and Bryndis continue their studies at sea and travel to exotic locations around the world. A mysterious person alerts Cruz to impending danger while he and a few trusted pals explore ancient ruins in Petra, Jordan to search for another piece of the puzzle his mother left behind. Worst of all, now his father has gone missing, which prompts Aunt Marisol, his number one protector, to leave the ship in search of him. Who is the new professor who takes her place? Does the new technology this professor introduces help or hurt Cruz’s quest? And why is Nebula determined to stop Cruz before he turns 13? The clock is ticking as Cruz’s first teen birthday draws near…a milestone that will change his life forever. 

The action intensifies as Cruz tries to figure out a way to save his father without giving in to Nebula’s demands. Back in Hawaii, Cruz’s best friend, Lani, tries to track down Cruz’s father. Readers will enjoy seeing more of the smart, gutsy girl who isn’t afraid to jump into danger. As Lani investigates, she must decipher clues that Cruz’s father has left behind. The chapters jump back and forth between multiple perspectives—Cruz, Lani, and the bad guys. This increases the suspense and reinforces the idea that Nebula will do anything to get what they want.  

Even though Cruz is on Orion, the academy’s ship, Nebula is still able to get to him. Cruz should be safe aboard the ship, but several times someone tries to kill him. Cruz has no idea who to trust, but he’s determined to solve the clues that his mother left behind. However, Cruz is unaware of the fact that Nebula needs him dead before his thirteenth birthday. The reason for this is not revealed, but it adds another layer of mystery to the story.  

The Double Helix’s mystery becomes more complex, which will keep readers intrigued. With danger around every corner, new gadgets, and the introduction of archaeology, The Double Helix will keep readers on their toes. The story packs in interesting science. For instance, when the explorers learn about archaeology they also learn about the lucrative and illegal business of looting archaeological sites and selling cultural objects to private collectors. While The Double Helix educates readers, the lessons are brief and are well- integrated into the story, so they never feel like a lecture.    

The Explorer Academy Series is perfect for science-loving readers who want to see smart teens solve problems. The diverse group of characters are intelligent and likable because they are not perfect. However, Cruz makes a dangerous mistake when he goes off alone on an archaeological field trip and falls into a hidden ancient well. The conclusion ends in a cliffhanger that will have readers eagerly reaching for the next book in the series, The Star Dunes. 

Sexual Content 

  • When a girl’s hand brushes Cruz’s hand, “he felt a tiny shock go through him.” 

Violence 

  • While at a Halloween party, Cruz is blindfolded. Someone grabs him. “Another hand was on his neck, this one sliding around to his throat. As the glove tightened, Cruz’s pulse began to race. He thrust his elbow straight back as hard as he could. . . the attacker’s grip loosen[s].” Cruz escapes. 
  • Someone pushes a rock off a cliff intending to hit Cruz, but someone pushes him out of the way.  
  • In the previous book, the bad guys kidnap Cruz’s father. Cruz meets with the bad guys, intending to give them what they want. At the last minute, Cruz changes his mind and tries to run. “Cruz tried to pull away, but the man in the cap was too strong. He began to bend Cruz’s arm back, pushing him to the ground. Pain shot through Cruz’s wrist. His knees buckled. . .” Someone helps Cruz escape. 
  • Someone pushes Cruz into an ancient well. Cruz “felt a jolt, and suddenly, Cruz was falling. . . Skin was scraping rock. Falling. . . A point punctured his spine . . .Cruz hit the unforgiving ground with a bone-crushing thud. Pain shot through his shoulder.” He’s stuck in a well with no way out. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • During a Halloween party, when a zombie grabs a girl, she says “Bloody undead.” 
  • Dang is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Many of the archaeological objects have carvings of ancient gods. 

Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade

Enola Holmes, the much younger sister of Sherlock, is now living independently in London and working as a scientific perditorian (a finder of persons and things). But that is not the normal lot for young women in Victorian England. Young women fall under the near absolute control of their nearest male relative until they reach adulthood. Such is the case of Enola’s friend, Lady Cecily Alastair. Twice before, Enola has rescued Lady Cecily from the unpleasant designs of her caddish father, Sir Eustace Alastair, Baronet. And when Enola is brusquely turned away at the door of the Alastair home, it soon becomes apparent that Lady Cecily once again needs her help.

Affecting a bold escape, Enola takes Lady Cecily to her secret office only to be discovered by the person Lady Cecily’s mother hired to find her daughter – Sherlock Holmes himself. But Lady Cecily has already disappeared again, now loose on her own in the unforgiving city of London.

Even worse, Lady Cecily has a secret that few know. She has dual personalities. One is left-handed, independent, and competent; the other is right-handed, meek, and mild. Now Enola must find Lady Cecily before one of her personalities gets her into more trouble than she can handle, and before Sherlock can find her and return her to her father. Once again, for Enola, the game is afoot. 

Enola is a truly admirable character who comes up with unconventional ways to help Cecily escape her father’s cruel treatment. While trying to help, Enola digs into Cecily’s father’s past. Enola gets into plenty of mischief along the way. With secret rooms, a dangerous slide down a coal chute, and a daring rescue, Enola’s story is entertaining. However, in this installment Enola doubts her abilities and often scolds herself for not being able to come up with new ideas to discover Sir Eustance’s secrets. This interferes with the story’s enjoyment, especially because it’s out of character for Enola.   

Readers will not relate to the dubious activities of Sir Eustance, as they are tied in with the story’s time period and are not relevant to today’s readers. Enola discovers that Sir Eustance had been selling his deceased servants’ bodies to “dissecting rooms.” While not strictly illegal, “it would be a dreadful scandal if it came out.” Enola uses this information to blackmail Sir Eustance into treating his wife and daughter better. However, Cecily and her mother make such a short appearance that readers will not feel connected to them, making the end of their plight anticlimactic.  

While Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade has some flaws, mystery-loving readers will find a lot to like in the Enola Holmes Series. Enola is a head-strong girl who clearly loves solving a good mystery. Her unexpected ways of solving mysteries lead Enola into humorous situations and her interactions with Sherlock add an interesting dynamic. However, the series is best suited for strong readers because of the advanced vocabulary which includes words such as fulminated, iconoclasm, phrenologist, protuberant, and exigency. Despite this, Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade gives an interesting view into the late nineteenth century and readers will enjoy trying to decode Cecily’s pigpen cipher. Readers who enjoy the Enola Holmes Series and would like another book with a strong female protagonist should add The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi to their reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • Cecily was taken by a “charismatic kidnapper.” When she was returned home, most of society considered Cecily “soiled, stained, ruined matrimonial goods.”  
  • During a dinner conversation, a group of women are discussing a woman who bore her husband eight children. A woman says, “One of us should have slipped her a diaphragm.”  
  • While trying to discover Cecily’s father’s secrets, Enola wonders if “he had dallied with brazen ladies of the theatre. . . run wild in his youth. . . succumbed to hard liquor or worse. Perhaps he had even been known to frequent opium dens.” 

Violence 

  • After facing Cecily’s father, Sir Eustance, Enola tries to flee, but the butler “jumped in front of me to bar the door, I was able. . . to whip my dagger out of my bodice and raise it—not truly menacing; I had no intention of taking his life.” The butler moves out of the way. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Sherlock likes to smoke “shag tobacco.” 

Language   

  • Sir Eustance asks Enola, “Who the blasted blazes do you think you are?” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • During this time period, being left-handed was considered “the mark of the devil.” 

The Cipher

Robert “Smiles” Smylie is not a genius. He feels like he’s surrounded by them, though, from his software mogul dad to his brainy girlfriend to his oddball neighbor Ben, a math prodigy. When Ben cracks an ancient riddle central to modern data encryption systems, Ben suddenly holds the power to unlock every electronic secret in the world—and Smiles finally has a chance to prove his own worth.

Smiles hatches a plan to protect Ben from the government agents who will stop at nothing to get their hands on his discovery. But as Smiles races from a Connecticut casino to the streets of Boston, enlisting the help of an alluring girl, he comes to realize the most explosive secrets don’t lie between the covers of Ben’s notebook—they’re buried in his own past. 

With topics such as public-key cryptography, the Riemann Hypothesis, and prime numbers, readers may be reluctant to pick up The Cipher. However, the mystery and thriller aspects of the story will quickly draw readers into the story and keep them entertained until the last page. The story explains many mathematical principles in a way that makes the math accessible to all readers. Even though the story focuses on math concepts, Smiles’ family life, his love life, and the mystery behind his birth mother combine to make a truly entertaining read.  

Even though Smiles doesn’t have to worry about money, his life is a mess. His adoptive mother died in a tragic car accident. He feels like he is a disappointment to his father. His birth mother rejected his attempt to reach out to her. Plus, he was kicked out of his prestigious high school for having weed in his dorm room. To make matters worse, his longtime girlfriend, Melanie, broke up with him. Smiles is a complete and total mess, and many teens will relate to Smiles’ wide range of emotions and the feeling that he isn’t sure what he should do with his life. Despite Smiles’ messy life, readers will find themselves rooting for him.  

Ford writes his story in the third person point of view, which allows readers to see the same events from different people’s perspectives. This adds a layer of depth and intrigue. In the end, each character reveals a different piece of the mystery. The thought-provoking conclusion will leave readers questioning morality, forgiveness, and the nature of love. Readers looking for a fast-paced mystery full of surprises will find all that and more in The Cipher.  

Sexual Content 

  • After his girlfriend gives him a birthday gift, Smiles kisses her. Without thinking he “was dipping his head and drawing toward her. Kissing her. Tender but intense, soft but electric.”  
  • While in high school, Smiles tried to seduce his high school math teacher. 
  • A girl says she wouldn’t want to be a cheerleader and have “Greg Simmons palm my ass ten feet in the air for a whole football game.”  
  • At a math conference, Smiles meets Erin. They promise to “stick together” and then “their lips met with a wild energy.” 
  • After kissing Erin, Smiles thinks, “Melanie didn’t kiss him like this. Not at all. There was something hungry about it, something that made Smiles feel more desired than he’d ever been in his life. . . [Erin’s] lips were soft and yielding, her murmurs a hum of delight.” Someone walks into the room and interrupts them. 
  • Smiles kisses Erin several more times, but the kisses are not described. 
  • Smiles takes Erin to his family’s cabin. After they go into the hot tub, Erin goes upstairs. Smiles thinks, “And right now there was a hot girl lying on a bed upstairs, waiting for him.” It is implied that Erin and Smiles have sex.  

Violence 

  • A man goes to an affluent neighborhood, puts a package in the mailbox, and then shoots himself.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Smiles’ father is in the hospital dying of cancer. He’s given morphine for the pain. 
  • When he was little, Smiles’ mom taught him to “make daiquiris (virgin for him, double rum for her).” 
  • Smiles considers making “a beer pong app for smartphones for when you were drinking but didn’t have a Ping-Pong table around.” 
  • While in a conference room, Smiles sees his birth mother who is “flush with wine.” 
  • When stressed, Smiles thinks “he really could have used a Xanax or something.” 
  • For vacation, Smiles’ family and their friends would go to a cabin. “The moms would pair off and have drinks on the deck.” 
  • When Melanie’s father was overly tired, he would have “a glass or two of Cabernet.” 
  • Smiles was kicked out of his private prep school because he had weed in his closet. Later, he thinks about the first time he got stoned. 
  • An adult in the story drinks whiskey.

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes ass, bastard, bitchy, crap, piss, hell, and shit. 
  • Infrequently, the phrases oh God and God are used as an exclamation.

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Several times Smiles prays for something. For example, when Smiles sees a hot girl, he “prayed to a merciful God she would stop at the check-in. She did.”  
  • When the NSA kidnaps Smiles’ friend, Ben, Smiles “prayed someone would intervene, but there were no witnesses in the lot.” 
  • When Melanie sneaks a file out of an office, she put it in her purse and “could only pray that Jenna wouldn’t open it and see.” 

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene takes great comfort in his routines. Afterschool Monday to Thursday is bowling. Friday, the best of days, is laser tag! But Chester has one very special secret—he gets spy messages from his dad. Chester thinks his father must be on covert government assignments, which is why Chester has never been able to meet him.

Then one day, Chester’s classmate Skye approaches him with a clue. They’ve been tasked with a complex puzzle-solving mission! Skye proves to be a useful partner and good company, even if her free-wheeling ways are disruptive to Chester’s carefully built schedule. As Chester and Skye get closer to their final clue, they discover the key to their spy assignment: they have to stop a heist! But cracking this code may mean finding out that things are not always what they seem. 

Chester is used to being alone. Nobody sits by him at lunch. Nobody sits by him on the school bus. And nobody helps him when Marc bullies him. His dad is the only person that Chester can talk to, but he’s never actually met his dad and they only communicate through emails. But in Chester’s greatest time of need, his dad goes silent. So, when a strange clue is left on his door, Chester is convinced that his dad is a spy in danger—and only Chester can help. When Skye approaches Chester with the other piece of the clue, the two are forced to work together even though Chester would prefer to solve the mystery on his own. 

Chester Keene Cracks the Code has a slow start, but once Skye jumps into the story, the story takes off on a fun hunt for clues. Even though Chester is a bit “difficult,” Skye doesn’t let his quirks chase her off. And soon, Chester discovers that he likes having Skye as a friend, even though she is impulsive. While the clues add mystery to the book, Chester and Skye’s developing relationship adds heart and teaches readers the value of friendship. Even though the story is written from Chester’s point of view, readers will be able to relate to Skye’s annoyance when Chester gets difficult. 

Throughout the hunt for clues, Chester thinks his father is leaving the clues. While Chester thinks about the need to solve the clues and help his father, there is no clear reason that explains why Chester believes his father is in danger. Because of this, Chester’s constant thoughts about his father’s danger become a bit tedious. However, many readers will relate to Chester’s feelings of abandonment and his deep desire to meet his father. Chester eventually learns that with or without his father, he is surrounded by people who love him, and that is enough.   

Even though Chester and Skye must solve the clues left for them, the clues are so specific to the characters that the readers don’t have a chance to solve the clues themselves. Despite this, the story contains enough mystery and adventure to keep readers interested. Plus, the story teaches the importance of friendship, family, and speaking up when being bullied. Chester realizes “people make mistakes. . . Perfect—it doesn’t exist.” Overall, Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a fun read that shows the importance of embracing the people in your life and accepting them for who they are. 

Sexual Content 

  • Chester’s mother is dating a man who stays the night at her house. Chester knows that “Mom and Christopher won’t come out of the bedroom until later.” 
  • Skye tells Chester that her dad might marry his girlfriend because he’s “over the moon. They’re all smoochy smoochy all the time.” 
  • After Christopher proposes to Chester’s mom, they kiss. Skye tells them, “Get a room.” 

Violence 

  • After winning a round of laser tag, Marc (the school bully) corners Chester. Marc punches Chester. “A flash of color bursts behind my eyelids. My ears ring with a tinkling sound, or maybe the force of my body being slammed into the change machine. . .” Chester gets a huge black eye. 
  • Marc is standing by Chester’s locker. When Chester approaches, Marc “tosses a casual punch at my shoulder. . . Only, his hand lands hard enough that it throws me off-balance, and my other shoulder collides with the bank of lockers.” Then, Marc grabs Chester. Marc “grips some combination of my shirt, my armpit skin, and my backpack strap, and with tremendous force, whips my entire body around him. . .” Chester ends up on his back “limbs sprawling, neck kinked.” Chester’s shoulders and neck hurt, and his shirt is ripped. The scene is described over two pages.   
  • Chester tells a story about a man who came into the bowling alley and “tried to rob Amanda [the owner] at knifepoint once. She hit him in the head with a bowling ball.” 
  • Four people rob an armored car. Two of the men have “guns raised, they charge on the truck. Boom. The guard flinches like he hit a wall. He grabs his neck, then slumps down.” 
  • When a guard falls, Chester thinks, “Is he dead? But there’s no blood. No terrible explosion. A tiny arrow sticks out of his neck.” 
  • When the robber sees Chester, he grabs him. “My shoulder pops as [he] binds my hands together behind my back. He uses something thin and smooth. It cuts into my skin.” 
  • Skye jumps in to help Chester. A female robber grabs Skye and “she goes down.” The robber says, “Pop ‘em and let’s get out of here.” One of the men refuses to kill them because “they’re just kids.” The robbery is described over five pages. 
  • The school bully, Marc, calls Chester “Salisbury-face” because they were serving it at lunch. Angry, Chester’s “lunch tray geos vertical, smashes straight into Marc’s face. Peas go rolling over his shoulder, down his arms, and onto the floor.” 
  • Marc corners Chester in the bathroom and gives Chester a bruise “exactly the size and shape of a urinal head.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Twice after being punched, Chester goes home and takes Tylenol for the pain. 
  • While having dinner, Chester’s mother and her boyfriend have a beer. 
  • At the bowling alley, a group of adults is drinking beer.  
  • Chester’s mom’s boyfriend serves pizza and beer to other adults. 

Language   

  • Marc calls Chester a loser several times. 
  • When Marc slams into Chester, Chester thinks Marc is a “jerk-face.” 
  • After hitting Marc with his lunch, Chester thinks, “Oh, no. Oh, crud.” 
  • Skye says Marc is a jerk. 
  • Dang it is used three times. 
  • Heck is used four times. 
  • OMG, my God, and oh my God are used as an exclamation a few times. 
  • Skye calls Chester a doofus and a goof.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit

Deer Creek is a small town whose only hope for survival is the success of the Founders’ Day Festival. But the festival’s main attraction, a time capsule that many believe holds the town’s treasure, has gone missing.   

Twelve-year-old Randi Rhodes and her best friend, D.C., are Bruce Lee-inspired ninjas and local detectives determined to solve the case. Even if it means investigating a haunted cabin and facing mean old Angus McCarthy, who is the prime suspect. The future of their whole town is at stake! Will these kids be able to save the day?  

Randi is a plucky heroine who isn’t afraid to jump into danger if it means solving a case. When her father decides to move the family to Deer Creek, Randi is convinced that she will die of boredom. However, she is soon sneaking around town looking for clues that will reveal who took the town’s time capsule. Along the way, Randi meets D.C. and the two connect over their love of martial arts. As they hunt for clues, they also learn about the importance of friendship. This theme is reinforced when they read a letter written by the town’s founding fathers who wrote, “We were prosperous because our friendship is more precious to us than any riches on earth.”  

Many readers will relate to Randi and her friend D.C., who face real-world conflicts. Randi is not only struggling with the loss of her mother; she also believes her father doesn’t understand her. Randi’s friend D.C. worries about his mother’s financial issues. He also gets frustrated because his mother treats him like a sick little boy because he has asthma. While the story focuses on Randi and D.C., the town is full of interesting people who add both conflict and humor to the story.  

With plenty of action and suspense, The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit will entertain mystery-loving readers. In addition, readers will learn the necessary skills to sleuth on their own. Throughout the story, readers are prompted to go to the appendix and complete a “Ninja Task.” These tasks include how to conduct a stakeout, how to make a footprint cast, how to collect a dusty footprint, etc. The appendix also includes recipes for making caramel apples and ice cream. Another positive aspect of the book is the full-page, black-and-white illustrations that appear, on average, every 24 pages. 

The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit is a fast-paced story that brings the town of Deer Creek alive. Like many stories, the book has a group of bullies, a misunderstood town outcast, and a small-town sheriff. Despite this, Randi’s love of ninja’s, spying, and solving mysteries makes The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit a fun read. Plus, the conclusion adds several surprises that tie up all the story threads and remind readers that friends help each other become better people.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Randi and D.C. go into an abandoned house that is rumored to be haunted. When they hear someone opening the front door, the two kids hide in a bedroom. When someone opens the bedroom door, D.C. kicks the person. “The kick he delivered must have been powerful. The figure rocked backwards and fell.” Once the man is down, the kids run from the house. 
  • When Randi and D.C. go back to the abandoned house, two bad guys appear. The kids overhear a man saying, “Next time you should drag the little brats out and take them back to the caves. There are places down there where no one would ever find them.” 
  • Randi, D.C., and their friend Pudge follow the bad guys to a cave. While there, Angus appears and a man “crept up behind Angus McCarthy, put an arm around his neck, and trapped the old man in a headlock. . .” 
  • While in the cave, the main henchman orders a man to, “Take Mr. McCarthy away and deal with him. And make sure he won’t be coming back. I don’t want that old coot causing any more trouble.”  
  • In order to help Angus, the kids follow behind the bad man who is hauling Angus deeper into the cave. Randi “tapped the thug on the shoulder. . . When the thug wheeled around to see who was behind him, he was greeted with a lightning-fast punch. . . Once he was down on the ground, Randi delivered a chop to the right side of his head that would make sure he stayed nice and quiet. . .” 
  • The other bad guys see Randi, D.C., and Pudge. When they try to capture the kids, Randi “leaped forward in a gravity-defying jump kick, connecting with the first foe’s abdomen. It was so powerful, it sent him reeling backwards and onto another guy. . . By the time the agents realized what had happened Randi was already spinning and kicking low to the ground, smashing ankles, kicking up dust, and exhibiting textbook form on a tornado kick.” The scene is described over four pages.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Mean girl Amber-Grace often calls people names, including freak, Yankee scarecrow, idiot, and a loser. 
  • Amber-Grace calls D.C. a “little deaf punk.” 
  • Randi thinks that Amber-Grace is an “obnoxious brat.”  
  • A man asks, “You think I was the one who took the durn capsule?” 
  • A woman calls someone a “miserable old coot.” 
  • D.C. is hard of hearing. While D.C. was working at his mom’s fruit stand, a boy “wriggled his fingers as if using sign language. ‘Didn’t you hear me, deaf boy?’”  
  • A group of kids ambush D.C. and start making fun of him. One boy refers to D.C. as Bruce Wee. The boy says, “You know why Bruce Wee’s belt is yellow and not black? It’s ‘cause he’s’ so scared to fight that he pees in his pants.” Randi jumps in to help and she tells the boy, “Well, anyone who’s earned a yellow belt wouldn’t have any trouble kicking a bloated butt like yours.” 
  • Darn is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Green Ghost

It’s Christmas Eve, and Kaye’s family is on the way to her grandmother’s house in a swirling snowstorm. Suddenly the car hits a patch of ice, slides across the road and skids into a snow-filled ditch! Through the car window, Kaye spots a light in the woods. Its glow leads her and her parents through the blizzard. They find a warm cabin, a kindly old woman named Elsa, and a green ghost who needs Kaye’s help!  

A long time ago, when Elsa was three, her sister Lillian wanted a beautiful Christmas tree rather than the ugly Junipers that her father brough home every year. So, Lillian and Elsa go into the snowy woods to find a tree. However, when Lillian finds the tree, she is unable to cut it down. By the time Lillian gives up, Elsa is shivering cold. Lillian can’t carry Elsa home, so she wraps Elsa up in her jacket, crawls under the tree, and snuggles up to keep Elsa warm. While Elsa survives, Lillian dies.   

By the time Kaye meets Elsa, she is an old woman who lives by herself. Like Elsa’s sister, Kaye wants a beautiful Christmas tree, not the artificial tree her grandmother planned to get. Kaye’s story parallels Lillian’s story and, in the end, Kaye learns that having a beautiful Christmas tree isn’t what is important. Christmas isn’t about the tree or the decorations, it’s about spending time with the people you love.  

The Green Ghost is full of suspense which will keep young readers flipping the pages until the very end. Even though The Green Ghost is a ghost story, the ghost’s appearance isn’t frightening. Before Kaye realizes that Lillian is a ghost, Kaye follows her into the woods. Kaye wonders, “What if this girl was playing a trick on her? What if she was trying to get Kaye lost in the woods? Could she find her way back to Elsa’s alone if she had to?” While the story revolves around a ghost, the story has a happy ending. 

The Green Ghost’s format will appeal to readers because of the short chapters, large font, and illustrations. The story goes back and forth between the early 1930s when Lillian was alive and the present. The two points of view are easy to follow because the chapters from Lillian’s time begin with the date and have a gray boarder around each page. This book is part of the Stepping Stones Series that is specifically written for beginning readers. The series allows readers to explore different genres such as history, humor, mysteries, and classics. 

If you’re looking for an engaging Christmas story with a positive message, The Green Ghost would be fun to read wrapped in a blanket on a cold night. If you want to add another Christmas-themed book with a positive message to your child’s reading list, check out Winter Wonders by Kate Hannigan. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Kaye and her family skid off the snowy road. “And they were sliding back across the road again. The car slid, and it turned, too . . . like some kind of carnival ride.” The car is stuck so they walk to a nearby house for help. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Blasted is used several times. For example, Kaye and her family are driving through a snowstorm. When Kaye starts asking her father questions, he snapped, “We’re in the middle of blasted nowhere.  

Supernatural 

  • A ghost appears to Kaye. “A small, pale face appeared. . . a lighted face. . . The light—or face, whatever it was—called to her. Not with a voice. . . Still, the light called as clearly as if it had said, ‘Come.’” 
  • Lillian, the ghost, appears as a little girl and leads Kaye into the forest where she stops by a tree. Then, “Lillian stepped back toward the line of trees and disappeared. She simply vanished.” 
  • Elsa tells Kaye that the ghost is her sister who died. “When I was a girl, Lillian visited me every year, right around Christmas. . . And then she and I would walk out together to see this tree.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Elsa tells Kaye and her family, “it was surely an angel who had brought them to her on this stormy night.” 

The Iron Tomb

When Sam Force goes to Egypt to spend the summer with his Uncle Jasper, he is ready for the usual vacation filled with museums and lessons about pharaohs and ancient gods. Instead, Sam arrives at the airport and learns that his uncle is missing and wanted by the police.

After narrowly escaping his own arrest, Sam sets off to find his uncle using a series of clues that Jasper left behind. But a group of mysterious men is hot on his trail, and Sam knows they’re willing to do whatever it takes to track down Jasper and whatever he was looking for.

Now all Sam has to do is find him first.

With the help of his new friends, Hadi and Mary, and using knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, Sam makes his way across Egypt determined to find his uncle. And if he does find Jasper before it’s too late, he may also uncover the secret of the Iron Tomb. . . a secret that could change Sam’s life forever.  

The Iron Tomb starts off with instant suspense as Sam gets to Egypt and is forced to hide from the police. Since Sam doesn’t know anyone from Egypt, except for his uncle, he must rely on Hadi and Mary, two teens he just met. Despite just meeting them, Sam puts his full trust in them which is unrealistic considering their unusual behavior. For example, Sam is riding in the back of a delivery truck and the police are hot on his trail. Mary suddenly calls and tells Sam to move to the truck’s roof. Then, Mary and her ‘handler,’ fly over the truck in a helicopter and save Sam. Despite this, Sam doesn’t question Mary’s motives until he overhears a phone conversation where Mary reveals that she is sure Sam can lead them to his Uncle Jasper. 

Even though many of the events are unrealistic, middle-grade readers will enjoy the non-stop action and unexpected twists. Learning about Egyptian history is a bonus. Black and white pictures are scattered throughout the book. The illustrations show maps and clues, and help readers picture some of the complicated plot points. Readers who enjoy ciphers and deciphering clues will enjoy trying to solve the mystery along with Sam.  

Even though The Iron Tomb focuses on the mystery of Jasper’s disappearance, the book doesn’t shy away from bloody violence. For example, when Sam is going through the sewers, two men dump a body into the water and a hoard of rats begins feasting on the corpse. The scene is graphic, bloody, and doesn’t advance the plot. In addition, one man kills another, then drinks his blood in order to survive. The graphic descriptions of violence will upset some readers.  

Despite the book’s flaws, readers eager for a dangerous adventure with plenty of surprises will find The Iron Tomb an entertaining read. While Sam is too trusting, he is also a smart, determined boy who doesn’t give up. Sam’s bravery and determination can be admired even though he often makes mistakes. Even though The Iron Tomb solves the mystery of Jasper’s disappearance, the conclusion clearly sets up another mystery that will take Sam to Belize in the second book of the series, Bones of the Sun God. Readers who want to learn more about Egyptian history should trek to the library and also grab a copy of The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Readers who are up for more action-packed adventure should also read Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra by Stuart Gibbs and Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas by Jonathan W. Stokes.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Five years prior to the book, Sam’s parents were murdered “in a hotel room robbery.”  
  • While in his uncle’s apartment, a man grabs Sam. “A thick woolen sweater snaked itself around his chest and wrenched him away from the sink. Sam cried out in surprise as he was pulled back against the body of a large man.” Sam is able to escape. 
  • A man with short hair is following Sam, who tries to hide in a store. When the man finds him, Sam throws jars of olives at him. “The Short-Haired Man laughed as the first one smashed near his boots. . . But the laughing stopped when the second bottle of olives exploded on the wall, showering Sam’s target with olives and shards of glass.” In order to escape, Sam pushes a shelf unit onto the man. “The ceiling-high wall of goods crashed on top of him. . . Sam could hear the man screaming and cursing.” The scene is described over two and a half pages. 
  • To escape the Short-Haired Man, Sam goes into the sewers where a “furry mass” of rats follows him. Sam shoots a rat and then “tiny fangs flashed in the light as the mob attacks their wounded comrade.” 
  • When Sam is in the sewer, someone throws a body into the water. “Sam watched with sick fascination as the rats went to work on their floating buffet.”  
  • One of the men who disposed of the body goes into the water after the man’s wallet. “Using the flashlight as a club, he belted the rats out of the way, grabbed the wallet, and waved it triumphantly. . . The wallet was covered in so much blood it looked like it had been pulled out of the victim’s chest. . .The blood dribbled down the man’s arm as he held his prize in the air.” 
  • When the rats attack the man with the wallet, he “howled and swatted one of his attackers with his flashlight. . .Rats began launching themselves at the terrified Egyptian, who dropped the wallet and began swatting rats. . .” The rat scene is described over two pages. 
  • When Sam tries to escape the sewer, the killers go after him. Sam throws his flashlight at the men. “The thud of metal on flesh triggered a stream of harshly spoken Egyptian, but the figure kept climbing. . .” The man grabs Sam, but Sam is able to escape. 
  • Sam, Bassem, and Mary try to escape two men on motorcycles. “Bassem took one step back and flicked the rod up like a samurai presenting his sword to his opponent. As the first bike came toward him, he swung down and across in one smooth, vicious motion that caught the rider in the middle of his chest.” The man crashes to the ground. Sam and his companions flee. 
  • The other biker continues to follow Sam and his companions, who hide in an open-air market. When the biker is in the middle of the crowd, Bassem throws smoke bombs into the crowd. “Chaos had exploded in the square. High-pitched shrieks from goats, donkeys, and men combined. It was like a bomb going off on Noah’s Ark.” Sam and his companions escape into the desert. 
  • When Sam finds his Uncle Jasper, Jasper looks like a “lifeless, blood-splattered body.” At first, Sam thinks Uncle Jasper is dead, but later Sam finds out the blood was from Jasper’s bloody nose. 
  • The Short-Haired Man slaps Sam. “The lighting-fast slap across the face sounded like a snapping stick in the confines of the dining room. His vision clouded; his eyes watered.” Later, the man slaps Hadi, a boy who works for him. “Hadi eyed his attacker through blood-covered fingers as he tried to stem the gush coming from the pulpy mess that had been his nose.” 
  • In an effort to kill Sam and Uncle Jasper, the Short-Haired Man causes an explosion that leaves Sam and Uncle Jasper buried underground.  
  • Sam finds a letter about how two men—Jason and Thomas—were trapped in a boat that got caught in a storm and buried by sand. The two men fight, and Jason “drove the wooden stake into the jugular vein and watched as his life force spilled out of him. . . A rich red pool, creeping out from his body across the floor. . .” Later, the man confesses that he “fed upon another” and drank the dying man’s blood. 
  • The Short-Haired Man plans to kill Hadi because Hadi knows too much. The man “straightened his arm and took aim at the back of Hadi’s head. The boy’s whimpering died away. . .” Sam distracts the man and saves Hadi’s life. 
  • Sam tries to shoot the Short-Haired Man with an old flare gun. The man mocks him and pulls the trigger several times. When the flare gun doesn’t go off, the man puts the gun in his pants. Then, “Thick and white, the smoke belched from the Short-Haired Man’s jacket, and he began to scream. . . Fat red tongues of flame signaled the second stage of an explosion that was meant to happen hundreds of feet up in the air. The Short-Haired Man was transformed into a fiery ball of flailing arms and legs. . .” The man falls into a shaft. 
  • The Short Haired Man climbs up the shaft, and grabs onto Sam’s ankle. Sam sees “five bloody, burn-ravaged fingers were locked around his ankle . . . hovering in the white smoke coming out of the shaft, was barely recognizable as human—a burnt and swollen head coated in sand made wet by the weeping skin.” Eventually, the man falls into the shaft and is buried by sand. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • After breaking his ribs, Sam is given an “injection” to dull the pain.  

Language   

  • Pissed off is used twice. 
  • The Short-Haired Man calls Hadi “a sewer rat working for money.” 

Supernatural 

  • Sam is given a scarab beetle necklace because “it is good luck and will keep us safe.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Akhenaten was named “the heretic king because he banned the worship of all the gods and decreed there would be only one. Aten, the sun god.” 

The Nebula Secret

Adventure, danger, and a thrilling global mission await 12-year-old Cruz Coronado as he joins an elite school for explorers.

Cruz leaves his tranquil home in Hawaii to join 23 talented kids from around the globe to train at the Explorer Academy with the world’s leading scientists. Their goal is to become the next generation of great explorers.  

But for Cruz, there’s more at stake. The moment he arrives at the Academy, he discovers his family has a mysterious past with the organization that could jeopardize his future. In the midst of codebreaking and cool classes, new friends and augmented-reality expeditions, Cruz must tackle the biggest question of all: who is out to get him … and why? 

The Nebula Secret focuses on Cruz, but the third-person narration allows readers to get a glimpse into other characters as well. Due to the large cast of characters, Cruz is the only character that has any depth. As far as the other academy students, most of them are only introduced briefly and readers will have to pay close attention to remember all their names.  

Cruz’s conflict is multifaceted. Someone is trying to kill him, but Cruz doesn’t know who or why. This makes it difficult for Cruz to know which students and teachers to trust. In addition, Cruz’s mother left him clues to decode. The questions behind Cruz’s mother’s death add to the mystery. Plus, the story is interspersed with suspense and high action that keeps readers entertained until the very end. 

The Explorer Academy has high expectations for the students. Despite this, making mistakes is seen as a learning opportunity. While students’ grades are important, getting an A isn’t the priority. Instead, the school encourages integrity, honesty, and compassion. Furthermore, teachers reinforce the importance of teamwork and often require students to work with their classmates. No one is expected to be a perfectionist. In the end, this theme is reinforced when one student’s desire to be perfect leads to him being expelled. 

The Nebula Secret combines a well-written story with maps and illustrations that appear every two to twelve pages. Many of the illustrations are a mix of photographs and drawings, which give the pictures a touch of realism. Another positive aspect of the book is that famous people and places are mentioned, including the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and Nellie Bly, who said, “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” These references may spark readers’ interest to learn more about these people and places. Plus, the book includes a section titled The Truth Behind the Fiction; these pages combine pictures and short blurbs on people mentioned in the book who have interesting jobs.  

Unfortunately, the conclusion of this story isn’t believable. Instead of wrapping up the story thread, Cruz learns that his mother has left more clues that will lead him to a formula that she invented. Even though Cruz’s mother knew it would endanger her son’s life, she left him these clues that only he can follow. To make matters worse, Cruz will have to find eight different locations to piece the formula together. Not only does this make the scenario difficult to believe, but it also sets up a series that must be read in order. Before you pick up the Explorer Academy Series, make sure you’re willing to invest the time to read all seven books in the series. Readers who aren’t ready to jump into a long series may want to check out the Secrets of the Seven Series by Sarah L. Thomson or the City Spies Series by James Ponti instead. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • While surfing, a scuba diver grabs Cruz and pulls him under water. Cruz “lashed out and his fist hit something smooth and hard. . . His thrashing had knocked the air hose loose from the diver’s tank. Cruz felt a sharp pain in his ankle and then, suddenly, he was free!” Cruz makes it to safety with only a cut ankle. 
  • Cruz was alone in a hallway when “he saw an arm shoot out. Fingers locked on to the front of his shirt and spun him around so fast he nearly went airborne. Cruz’s spine hit cold stone. The person warns Cruz, ‘They killed your mother. They will not hesitate to kill you, too.’” 
  • A man chases Cruz and his friends, who run and hide in a janitor’s closet. “Tendrils of smoke were curling up from under the door. . . His vision blurring, Cruz couldn’t tell if his friends were still conscious.” The students realize that the gas is deadly. With the help of Cruz’s drone, they escape. A teacher finds them and gives them an antidote to the gas.  
  • During a simulated mission, Cruz and his classmate Sailor see men illegally chopping down trees. When the men see the students, they begin shooting. “Cruz had lost the trail, but spotted an opening in the trees ahead of them. The clearing! If they could reach the group, maybe the men would give up chase . . .” The kids become trapped between the men and a waterfall. Cruz says, “We might survive the fall. We won’t survive the gunshots.” They jump over the cliff. “In the simulator, however, the pair had dropped only about 15 feet before landing on a huge inflatable cushion.” 
  • While on a simulated mission, a man corners Cruz. The man tells Cruz that he is going to kill him, but before he can attack “his attacker collapsed at his feet. . . Next to him was a lanky man in a lab coat clutching a giant dinosaur bone.” The attacker is arrested. 
  • The academy’s librarian, Rook, threatens Cruz and his father with a laser. “A red laser beam shot from the device. In seconds, the burst had burned a hole clean through the ceiling. And the roof, too!” 
  • In order to get free from Rook, Cruz “flung the book at Rook, who ducked, but not fast enough. The novel smacked him in the face. . .” Then Cruz’s honeybee drone “zeroed in on Rook, and began poking the librarian. She zipped up and down, left and right, stinging him on the shoulder, the face, the head, the chest, then back to the face.” Rook is arrested. 
  • While struggling with Rook, Cruz is hit with the laser. The doctor tells him, “A few millimeters to the right and it would have burned a hole right through you.” As it was, Cruz’s injury was “starting to blister and ooze.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Occasionally, a student calls another boy a dingleberry. 
  • Heck and darn are both used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Hand on the Wall

Ellingham Academy must be cursed. Three people are now dead. One, a victim of either a prank gone wrong or a murder. Another, dead by misadventure. And now, an accident in Burlington has claimed another life. All three in the wrong place at the wrong time. All at the exact moment of Stevie’s greatest triumph. She knows who Truly Devious is. She’s solved it. The greatest case of the century.

At least, she thinks she has. With this latest tragedy, it’s hard to concentrate on the past. Not only has someone died in town, but David disappeared of his own free will and is up to something. Stevie is sure that somehow—somehow—all these things connect. The three deaths in the present. The deaths in the past. The missing Alice Ellingham and the missing David Eastman. Somewhere in this place of riddles and puzzles, there must be answers.

Then, another accident occurs as a massive storm heads toward Vermont. This is too much for the parents and administrators. Ellingham Academy is evacuated. Obviously, it’s time for Stevie to do something stupid. It’s time to stay on the mountain and face the storm—and a murderer.

The final book in the Truly Devious Series continues the fast-paced intriguing story that solves both the Ellingham’s kidnapping and the murders at the Ellingham Academy. Stevie is relentless in her desire to solve both mysteries and in the end, she is able to tie up all of the events in a satisfying manner. Even though the story ends in the typical detective story confrontation with all of the suspects together, the conclusion still has several surprises.

In addition to solving the mysteries, several of Stevie’s friends are able to find evidence of Senator Edward King’s corrupt behavior and come up with an ethical way to stop the senator from running for president. While his son, David, plays a part in King’s demise, David’s erratic behavior throughout the series makes him an unlikeable character who is difficult to relate to. While David had a difficult childhood, his bad behavior is never fully explained. And even though he treats Stevie with contempt and cruelty, in the end, she forgives him in order to give her a happy-ever-after ending.

The Truly Devious Series is highly entertaining and will keep mystery-loving readers on the edge of their seats. Even though the story revolves around high school students, the content has some gory details, some steamy scenes, and mature content. Readers who are ready for more mature mysteries should grab a copy of The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur or I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga.

Sexual Content

  • Francis and Eddie, two students from 1936, have sex. Francis thinks, “there were certainly other couples who had sex on the Ellingham campus—one or two. Those people did it giddy, bashfully, and wracked with terror. Eddie and Francis came to each other without fear or hesitation.”
  • While walking through the woods, Eddie tells Francis, “Once more. Up against the tree, like an animal.” Francis declines because she is late.
  • Francis hears that Eddie “fathered a baby once and the girl had to be sent away somewhere outside of Boston. . .”
  • At one point, Stevie and David kiss “over and over, each one renewing the last.” Then later, David “leaned down to kiss her, his lips warm against hers.”

Violence

  • The murders from the first two books of the series are summarized.
  • When a detective finds one of the kidnappers, he “punched him in the face, sending him crashing into some trash cans. When he was down, he flipped Jerry on his back and slapped a pair of cuffs on his wrists, pinning his arms behind his back. . .” The detective removes the man’s gun, binds him, and then ties him to the seat of a car.
  • When Ellingham’s wife was kidnapped, she was quiet for days. When a kidnapper let the “kid” play outside, the kid ran and hid. Ellingham’s wife “jumped” the kidnapper. “She jumped on top of me, dug her thumbs into my eyes. I dropped my gun. . . I grabbed a shovel or something from the wall and hit her with it, hard. There was blood, but. . . she was still standing. . .” When the other kidnapper sees what’s going on, he shoots and kills Ellingham’s wife. The scene is described over a page.
  • One of the kidnappers, Jerry, takes a detective, George, to where he left Ellingham’s daughter. The girl was left with a stranger in a remote location, where she died of measles weeks before the detective arrived. When George sees the girl’s grave, he picked “up the shovel, and was shocked by the first blow, which knocked him to his knees. They came fast, a flurry mixed with cries and gulps. The snow splattered with blood.” Then George kills the man who had been caring for the child; the murder is not described.
  • A man explains that when Ellingham died, most of the body wasn’t found. “We found three hands, a leg, a foot, some skin.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • While waiting for the birth of a child, a family friend drinks wine.
  • Ellingham’s wife was addicted to cocaine. Her friend noticed her “behavior was changing; she was fickle, impatient, secretive.”
  • Fenton, a professor at a local university was an alcoholic. She died in a suspicious house fire.
  • To help her through panic attacks, Stevie takes Ativan.
  • In 1936, some of the rich girls hid their gin and cigarettes in the walls.
  • At Ellingham’s wife’s funeral, some of the guests drank “countless glasses of champagne.”
  • While trying to track down a suspect, a detective goes into a bar and orders a “glass of whisky.” Later, he shares a drink of whiskey with a friend.

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, bitch, bullshit, damn, goddamn, fuck, hell, holy shit, pissed, and shit.
  • My God, oh my God and Jesus are used as exclamations frequently.
  • There is some name calling including dick, asshole, and jackass.
  • One of the faculty calls the students morons and boneheaded.
  • In a diary entry, a student calls Ellingham a “sanctimonious prick.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • One of Ellingham Academy’s students from 1936, “set up a ring of candles on the ground and drew a pentagram in the dirt. He was always doing things like that—playing at paganism.”

The Agathas

Last summer, Alice Ogilvie’s boyfriend Steve dumped her for her best friend. Then, Alice disappeared for five days. Alice was pretty, rich, and popular. But that all changed when she returned to school. Now Alice’s old friends hate her, and the rest of the school follows their lead and begins treating Alice like she doesn’t belong.  

Then, Alice is paired with fellow classmate, Iris Adams, who agrees to tutor her. Iris is the opposite of Alice—she flies below the radar, she and her mom struggle to make ends meet, and she could care less about popularity. Despite this, Alice and Iris click almost instantly and their bond is strengthened by the untimely disappearance of Brooke Donovan—the very girl Alice’s boyfriend Steve dumped her for. Alice, a fan of mystery author Agatha Christie, and her newfound partner-in-crime, Iris, soon find themselves solving not calculus, but a murder case.  

When Brooke’s body is found, Steve is arrested but Alice and Iris aren’t convinced that Steve is guilty. Both girls have different motives for solving this case. Alice hopes it can win back the favor of her ex-friends and restore her status as the town’s golden girl, while Iris hopes to obtain the hefty cash prize that comes along with solving the case. In order to get the reward and prove Steve’s innocence, the two teens need to figure out who actually killed Brooke. But the town of Castle Cove holds many secrets, and Alice and Iris have no idea how much danger they’re about to walk into. 

Alice’s spunk and Agatha Christie obsession combine with Iris’s ingenuity and resilience to make a frightening yet captivating pair. Alice and Iris must navigate their oblivious teachers and parents, as well as work around an inept police force. At some points, it seems as if everyone is working against them, and readers will find it near impossible to put down the book while reading about how they handle it. The book switches between Alice’s and Iris’s perspectives. Both girls are fun and interesting characters. The reader will experience first hand how the girls interact with each other as well as how they perceive and feel about each other internally.  

Throughout The Agathas, Alice slowly learns what it means to truly have someone on her side. In meeting Iris, Alice finally feels like she has someone she can trust. On the other hand, Iris is carefully navigating a difficult domestic abuse situation at home, struggling with money issues as well as her father’s physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. Despite having a restraining order, Iris’s father still bothers her in person and through text messages. In dealing with her dad and supporting her mom, Iris learns to trust herself and hones her ability to help her and her mother get away from their abuser and lead their own lives.  

Alice and Iris navigate small-town scandal, school, and tumultuous personal lives, creating a thrilling, yet realistic adventure from cover to cover. For a murder mystery, there is a surprising absence of violence and gore, which makes for a wonderfully plot-dependent book instead of a story that relies on shock factor. Though the dramas of high school are largely exaggerated and the absence of parental supervision is unrealistic, The Agathas is an interesting read, featuring the perfect mix of drama, scandal, and the dark and intriguing side of mystery. Mystery fans who want a fast-paced story that shows the dangers of bullying should also read the Jess Tennant Mysteries Series by Jane Casey. 

Sexual Content  

  • Alice’s friend, Kennedy, shows Alice an explicit video of herself with a classmate. Then Kennedy says, “He’s hot! I’m not sorry! I deserve a nice piece of ass once in a while, too, you know.” The video is not described. 
  • Alice and her friends are talking about the “rich people” in town. Alice’s friend says, “Park’s rich and she tried to drug Brooke! Kennedy’s making sex tapes.” Another friend replies, “This is a virgin crowd. Except for Zora.” 
  • Alice and Iris are digging through Brooke’s dad’s things and find nude pictures of female staff. “Peeking out a box in the corner is a boob. A photograph of a boob. A boob… that belongs to the lunch lady, Mrs. Yang.” 

Violence 

  • Iris’s dad frequently abused her and her mother. When Iris was younger, she recalls her parents fighting. Her dad was angry at her mother for seemingly no reason. Iris recalls, “I can feel his hands on my chest, pushing me. I’d wedged myself between them after he’d lunged at her. The snap in my wrist as I hit the linoleum.” 
  • Alice and Iris are working on a school project and researching Henry VIII. Alice says to Iris,  “I don’t want to just sit here and talk about some gross dude who chopped off his wives’ heads.” 
  • A few days after Brooke’s disappearance, Alice discovers her ex-friend’s body at the bottom of a cliff. “There, nestled against the craggy rocks, is a body. A body facedown in a black leather jacket; long brown hair fanned out and floating in the water like seaweed; bare, blueish legs sticking out from a short, pleated cheerleader skirt. Being pelted by hard rain.” 
  • Iris tells Alice about a true crime show, saying, “I once saw a show about a guy who bludgeoned his mother to death in the kitchen and then cooked a full meal of pot roast and mashed potatoes, so anything is possible.” 
  • Brooke’s autopsy report shows that “her skull was fractured, most likely from the fall to the rocks . . . ”  The police speculate that she was pushed off the cliff by Steve after they had fought at a Halloween party. 

Profanity 

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes: ass, shit, fuck, goddammit, and bitch.  
  • Alice calls a character in one of Agatha Christie’s novelsa badass older woman.”   
  • After Alice and Iris find Brooke’s body, a boy says, “Holy shit . . . We have to call the cops.” 
  • Alice’s friend has a difficult relationship with her father. Alice says, “She’s scared shitless of him…He runs everything with a tight fist.”  
  • Alice confronts her friend’s abusive dad, saying, “I am Alice fucking Ogilvie, and I didn’t just solve a murder to run away from some jerk who clearly has been making my friend’s life a living hell.” 
  • When Alice realizes she is talking to Brooke’s murderer, she says “She was my friend, you bitch… We are not the same. I tried to help Steve when he was in trouble. I didn’t murder his fucking girlfriend.”  

 Drugs/Alcohol 

  • Teenagers frequently have high school parties where there is alcohol. “Even kids from neighboring towns came, swanked out and ready to get their drunk on.”   
  • Alice says her friend, Kennedy, “is not known for handling her liquor well.” 
  • At a party, Kennedy mixes ambien in Brooke’s alcohol. When someone else drinks it, Kennedy says, “I wanted her to pass out, that’s all. I didn’t mean for him to drink it.”  
  • Alice goes to Brooke’s house. In order to look for clues, Alice crushes Xanax and puts them in Brooke’s dad’s beer. The Xanax knocks him out. 

Spiritual Content  

  • None  

Supernatural  

  • None  

The Screaming Staircase

In London, ghosts haunt the living and only children have the ability to sense these otherworldly beings and remove them from our world. Lucy Carlyle and her co-workers, Anthony Lockwood and George Cubbins, are agents working for Lockwood & Co., an independent agency without adult supervisors. After an assignment goes wrong and the agency burns a client’s property down, the trio are forced to investigate the most haunted house in England: Combe Carey Hall.

The suspicious circumstances behind Combe Carey Hall might place Lockwood & Co. in even more danger than they realize, especially as they attempt to solve the mystery behind a decades-old murder. Will Lucy and her co-workers make it out of Combe Carey Hall alive? Can they help a restless spirit pass on? Or will they become just another one of the property’s victims? And what is the mysterious owner of the hall hiding?

The novel is written from Lucy’s point of view and, while she comes off as far more mature than the average teenager, her insecurities and snarky personality make her relatable without compromising her likability. The banter and trust between Lucy, Anthony, and George make each of the characters shine. Every character has strengths and weaknesses that complement each other, and this elevates their teamwork skills. In addition, the dynamic between the trio helps emphasize the importance of relying on others while also trusting in one’s own abilities. After the group escapes Combe Carey Hall alive, Lockwood even says, “I trust your talent and your judgment, and I’m proud to have you on my team.”

Stroud’s worldbuilding around the supernatural elements of this alternate London is extremely interesting and intricate. A variety of different ghosts are introduced, plus several government and private agencies that investigate the paranormal. Stroud deftly addresses how the appearance of ghosts would impact London on a wider scale. To help readers understand this complicated world, a glossary of new terms is used, which includes specific agencies and specters’ abilities.

The Screaming Staircase is an excellent introduction to more macabre horror stories, especially for tweenagers who love longer novels. The book’s grim atmosphere is more intense than most novels geared toward young children, with consistent descriptions of death and its central mystery being related to murder. However, the descriptions of violence never breach into anything too graphic, and Stroud’s light-hearted dialogue ensures that the book is never too grueling. Nevertheless, the horror elements, while toned down for a younger audience, are still present. Younger readers could easily get nightmares, so consider avoiding this book if your child is easily frightened.

A double-edged facet of the book is its lack of a true moral. The Screaming Staircase is not trying to convey any deep messages or complex ideas, but that lack of intention helps ensure the novel is a fun and down-to-earth read. The fun dynamic between Lucy and her co-workers, interesting ideas presented in a haunted London, and macabre elements make Lockwood and Co.: The Screaming Staircase an excellent introduction to YA horror.

Sexual Content

  • When George goes looking through Lucy’s armoire, he says, “Well, there’s nothing in here but some charming tops and skirts and. . . Ooh, Lucy-I’ve never seen you wearing that.

Violence

  • When discussing the potential cause of a ghost’s manifestation, Lucy discusses how a man, “Fell down the stairs and broke his neck. . . He must’ve fallen with tremendous f-[orce].”
  • Lucy thinks about what happens to agents who forget to properly stock equipment. “A girl at Rotwell’s had died the previous week after forgetting to restock her magnesium flares.”
  • Lucy reveals that decomposed human remains are often the source of a ghost’s manifestation, “Most often. . . 73% of the time . . . it’s associated with what the Fittes Manual calls ‘personal organic remains.’ You can guess what that means.”
  • During an investigation, Lucy sees a corpse. She describes it as “a thing of bones, bared teeth, and shrunken skin, dark and twisted as burnt wood . . .”
  • Both of Lucy’s parents were abusive. Her father’s “hands were hard and swift in punishing any of his children who disturbed his usual taciturn indifference.” Lucy’s mother also “beat [her] sore.”
  • Lucy’s mother tells the story of a girl who committed suicide. The girl “waded out into the reeds, lain down in the stream, and drowned herself.”
  • Lucy and Lockwood discuss a variety of serial killers, including “the coin-in-the-slot killer” and the “one who kept heads in the fridge.”
  • When investigating the history of a house, George finds out that “in May 1926, the owner, a Mr. Henry Kitchener, had hung himself somewhere on the premises.”
  • The caretaker of Combe Carey Hall describes how a previous owner was a serial killer who decorated the hall with the skulls of his victims. “When he’d finished off each one, he set their skulls on the steps of the central staircase with candles burning behind the eye sockets.”
  • Lucy ponders the importance of securing a point of retreat while within Combe Carey Hall. She remembers, “two Grimble agents had been separated from their colleagues when the bathroom door blew shut on them . . . the two agents had been battered to death by whirling ceramics.”
  • While they’re in Combe Carey Hall, a thick, goopy substance called ectoplasm surrounds Lucy, Lockwood, and George. Lucy says, “It looks like blood, it smells like it. It’ll do as blood for me.”
  • Lucy finds the body of an agent who previously died in the house. “The neck was twisted at an odd, unnatural angle. One hollowed jacketed arm reached towards the hole as if it wished to drag itself forward and slip down into the dark.”
  • In an attempt to escape the torturous screaming of Combe Carey Hall’s staircase, Lucy nearly throws herself into the well. “Just a couple more strides and the screaming would stop. I’d be part of that silence too.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Lucy describes her alcoholic father. “His breath smelled of strong, brown beer.”
  • Lucy’s old mentor “chain-smoked cigarettes.”

Language

  • As Lucy tries to get someone’s attention, “he didn’t bloody respond.”
  • As she tries to follow Lockwood’s plans, Lucy thinks, “What the devil was Plan E?”
  • When Lucy collapses, George bursts into her room and says, “What the hell’s going on?”
  • Lucy calls the initial investigators behind a woman’s disappearance “idiots.”
  • George discusses how suspicious their assignment is by saying, “This whole thing is screwy.”

Supernatural

  • The premise of the novel is centered around the existence of ghosts and how to destroy them.

Spiritual Content

  • When London first got infested by ghosts, people visited various places of worship. “Churches and mosques did excellent business as people sought to save their souls . . . ”
  • Combe Carey Hall was initially “a priory, founded by a breakaway group of monks from one of the local abbeys.”
  • The monks who took up residence in Combe Carey Hall eventually, “turned away from God to the worship of darker things.

by Mia Stryker

 

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane

Several months have passed since Gregor’s first trip to the Underland. Just as his life is returning to normal, his baby sister Boots is kidnapped by the cockroaches, and Gregor is forced to journey back to the subterranean city of Regalia. Once there, Gregor reunites with the rebellious Luxa and his bat Ares whom Gregor has pledged his loyalty and protection. Gregor soon discovers that the Underlanders have kidnapped Boots because of The Prophecy of Bane. This ancient prophecy implies that if Boots were to be killed, the rats would have the key to power. 

The Underlanders believe that Gregor is the prophesied Warrior who must kill an evil rat cloaked in a coat of white: the Bane, an enormous, snow-white 10-foot rat that threatens to destroy Regalia and subject all of the Underland to his rule. The Prophecy of Bane mysteriously says that the Warrior will be fatally weakened if: “Die the baby die his heart, die his most essential part. Die the peace that rules the hour. Gnawers [another term for rats] have their key to power.” Believing that Boots is the baby spoken of in the prophecy, the rats kidnap her.  

In order to save his sister, Gregor and his companions must embark upon a long and dangerous voyage, sailing into the heart of rat territory.  Gregor is determined to destroy the Bane before the rats can kill Boots. Gregor must learn to fight for those he loves while encountering dangers, close calls, and surprises along the journey. He must also discover what it means to be a warrior. 

Those who read Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane will enjoy its simple yet engaging plot, its pulse-pounding action, and its variety of characters and settings. The character and mythos of the Underland are deepened in this worthy sequel. New and dangerous creatures are introduced, the uncharted, watery depths of the Underland are explored, and at the end of this long voyage lies a mysterious and powerful foe: the Bane. 

Once readers enter the world of the Underland, the quick-moving plot and the dynamic characters will sweep middle school readers up, keeping their minds and imaginations engaged for the entirety of the book. To keep the suspense high, each new chapter introduces a new danger, an exciting development, and an intriguing complication to the plot. The action, often violent and bloody, is kicked up a notch from the first book. However, like the first book in the series, it is often the creatures and not the humans that suffer wounds and death in battle. Despite this, sensitive readers may be upset by the vivid battle descriptions. 

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane is rife with themes of familial love and sacrifice, compassion, friendship, and duty. Gregor will stop at nothing to protect his friends and family. However, Gregor is faced with many difficult situations and moral dilemmas, all of which develop his character. Gregor discovers that he possesses incredible powers as a fighter. In fact, whenever he is near or in the midst of battle, Gregor’s mind enters into “rager mode;” a “rager” is a gifted warrior who possesses fighting abilities that approach the supernatural. Throughout the book, Gregor must learn to harness and control these abilities, lest they control him. The danger of letting his violent, rager instincts overpower his kind nature forces Gregor to consider the nature of violence and how it should be used only to protect and defend. 

Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane provides a story that is an incredibly entertaining blend of mystery, travel, and adventure. Every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, providing ample reason for even the most reluctant of readers to devour it quickly. Furthermore, the ending perfectly sets up the sequel, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods. Readers will not be able to help themselves, they’ll have to immediately reach for the next installment. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The Underlanders practice their swordplay by having a contraption that throws small, golfball-sized balls at them in rapid succession. The Underlanders’ goal is to slice as many balls as possible. These balls are filled with red liquid that mimics blood. Gregor first goes into “rager mode” when training with the blood balls. “He was aware only of the blood balls flying toward him from all directions . . .  He could hear his blade making a whistling sound. Something splattered against his face. . . He could feel liquid dripping off his face and hands. The pounding of his heart was audible. He looked down at the ground. At his feet lay the oozing shells of fifteen balls.” 
  • The verbiage of the Prophecy of Bane itself is somewhat violent. For example, If Under fell, if Over leaped,/ If death was life and Death life reaped,/ Something rises from the gloom,/ To make the Underland a tomb./ Hear it scratching down below,/ Rat of long forgotten snow,/ Evil cloaked in coat of White,/ Will the Warrior drain your light?/ What could turn the Warrior weak?/ What do burning Gnawers seek?/ Just a barely speaking pup / That holds the Land of Under up/ Die the baby, die his heart/ Die his most essential part/ Die the peace that rules the hour,/ Gnawers have their key to power.” 
  • Twitchtip, a rat that aids the humans in their mission, threatens a giant talking firefly, saying “. . . if you don’t stop your incessant babble, that big rat sitting in the boat next to you [referring to herself] will rip your head off.” 
  • While discussing effective ways to kill rats, Ares the bat says, “The neck is vulnerable. The heart, but one must get past the ribs. Through the eyes to the brain. Under the foreleg is a vein that bleeds greatly. If you strike at the belly, you may not kill instantly, but the rat will likely die within days from infection.” 
  • As the group is sailing, they are attacked by a giant squid. Gregor is grabbed by “a slimy red tentacle,” and nearly pulled overboard. However, Ares manages to grab him, and “a tug-of-war ensued, with Gregor as the rope.”  
  • As the battle against the squid continues, Gregor “sank his teeth into the tentacle as deeply as he could” and “slice[d] through a tentacle that had encircled his ankle.” Trying to free Gregor, the humans and bats slice and claw at the tentacles. Gregor enters again into rager mode and, “His sword began to move—not in a premeditative way, but with some instinctive precision and force utterly beyond his control. He hacked away at tentacle after tentacle.”  
  • After the battle, “Four angry red circles, sucker marks, swelled on his forearm” where Gregor was initially grabbed. These sucker marks “begin to ooze pus.” The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Gregor’s tentacle wound worsens. “The whole forearm was badly swollen. The sucker wounds, which had turned a revolting shade of purple, oozed fluorescent green pus. They burned as if they were on fire.” 
  • As Pandora, a bat, flies over a volcanic island, a large cloud of flesh-eating mites emerges from the jungle. “[Pandora] had no time to react. One moment she was darting around eating mites, the next moment they were eating her. In less than ten seconds they had stripped the writhing bat down to the bone. Her white skeleton hung for an instant in the air, then crashed into the jungle below.” Ares barely escapes these flesh-eating mites and is bitten on his tail several times while fleeing. 
  • The group is attacked by large, dinosaur-like serpents. As the monsters attack, large waves wash the rats “into the serpents’ mouths.” Various members of the quest are injured. “One of Mareth’s pant legs was soaked in blood. In front of him, Gregor saw the shuttering heap of wet fur that was Twitchtip. Blood poured from her nose, which appeared to have been smashed in, and oozed from the stump that had been her tail.” 
  • When a serpent tries to eat Twitchtip, Gregor stabs the serpent’s tongue. As a fellow quester is attempting to dress Mareth’s wound, he rips “off the remains of Mareth’s blood-soaked pant leg, revealing jagged flesh around a gaping wound.” 
  • Two rats, Snare and Goldshard, fight each other to the death. “The fighting was vicious . . . Snare lost an eye. Goldshard’s ear dangled from a shred of fur. You could see the bone in Snare’s shoulder. Goldshard’s left front paw was snapped in two. Finally, the gold rat came in on her opponent’s blind side and locked her fangs on his neck. In the final throes of death, Snare got his hind feet between their bodies and slashed open the length of Goldshard’s belly . . . Her intestines spilled out on the ground . . . With a terrible gurgling sound, Snare suffocated in his own blood.” 
  • After returning from their journey, the Regalian crowds that have gathered are outraged to learn that Gregor has not killed the Bane. They begin throwing objects at him and Ares. “Something hit [Gregor] on the side of his head. His hand went up and came away bloody . . . More objects began to rain around him . . . The one thing they had in common was that they were all made of stone . . . he and Ares were being stoned to death.”  
  • Because of his failure to slay the Bane, Gregor and the other Underlanders stand trial for treason. Ares informs Gregor that if convicted, “They will bind my wings and your hands and drop us off a very high cliff to the rocks below.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • In response to the taunting of Ripred (a rat), Gregor says, “Just shut up, okay?” 
  • After the mission’s failure, Ripred offers Gregor a warning saying, “And you know, there will be hell to pay in Regalia.” 

Supernatural 

  • Nerissa, a member of Regalia’s royal family, is a soothsayer, and interprets the Prophecy of Bane. 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Long Lost

Eleven-year-old Fiona has just read a book that doesn’t exist. 

When Fiona’s family moves to a new town to be closer to her older sister’s figure skating club—and far from Fiona’s close-knit group of friends—nobody seems to notice Fiona’s unhappiness. Alone and out of place, Fiona ventures to the town’s library, a rambling mansion donated by a long-dead heiress. There she finds a gripping mystery novel about a small town, family secrets, and a tragic disappearance.  

Soon, Fiona begins to notice strange similarities that blur the lines between the novel and her new town. With a little help from a few odd Lost Lake locals, Fiona uncovers the book’s strange history. Lost Lake is a town of restless spirits, and Fiona will learn that both help and danger come from unexpected places—maybe even from the sister she thinks doesn’t care about her anymore. 

While Long Lost focuses on Fiona, the story also jumps back in time to tell the story of two sisters—Hazel and Pearl. Fiona finds a mysterious book that keeps disappearing and reappearing; the book gives her a look into Hazel’s and Pearl’s lives. Fiona’s side of the story starts off slowly as her most pressing conflict is getting a library card, but soon the action picks up and the reader will get hooked on the mystery of what caused Hazel to disappear. Another element that builds suspense is the town’s belief in the Searcher, a mysterious black-draped apparition that steals children. While the plot is interesting, with all the different story elements, the plot may be difficult for some readers to follow. 

While the story contains plenty of mystery, it is also a story about sisters. Both sets of sisters—Hazel and Pearl, and Fiona and Arden—get so angry that they wish the Searcher would take their sibling. However, like all siblings, the girls learn the importance of working out their problems and being supportive of each other. Unfortunately, for Hazel and Pearl, this realization doesn’t happen until after they have died and meet up again as ghosts. 

While the main characters, Fiona, Hazel, and Pearl are not necessarily relatable, they are well-developed and interesting. Anyone who has siblings will understand the girls who often fight, say mean things to each other, and at the same time love each other.  

At times, Long Lost is a spooky story that will have readers’ hearts pounding. Readers will also be trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. The one downside of Long Lost is the conclusion, which is rushed and leaves readers with questions. However, the story ends on a hopeful note with Fiona and her sister, Arden, repairing their relationship. Middle-grade readers who love the idea of ghosts, but don’t want the frightening elements of many young adult novels will enjoy Long Lost. If you’re looking for more spooky, fun ghost stories, check out the Shadow School Series by J.A. White. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • When Pearl comes home alone, one of the servants didn’t recognize her. “The pale, fragile form drifting out from between the trees with trancelike steps, hollowed eyes barely looked alive at all. . . beneath the blue pallor and stunned stare, she recognized Pearl’s familiar face. . . The girl was too cold even to shiver. . . Mud clung to her shins. Scratches and scrapes covered her bare arms.” Later, it is revealed that Pearl jumped into the river trying to find her sister. 
  • While in the woods, Fiona sees the Searcher. “A tall, gaunt, black-draped form. Hunched shoulders. Long, bent spine.” Fiona “didn’t have time to think. She could only whirl around and run.” Fiona is frightened but uninjured. 
  • In the library, after hours, Fiona meets the ghost of Pearl. Then, “The library’s double doors thumped open. . . The Searcher stepped forward. His cloak dragged along the parquet. Its hood was too deep to reveal any hint of a face inside. . . The Searcher took another step. A rush of cold air swept up the staircase, carrying the smell of damp and mud and rot.” Both girl and ghost run. 
  • Fiona runs into the library’s basement. “She was still trapped in the dark with one long-dead girl, a ghost dog, and some silent, lurching thing in a long black cloak.” Later, Fiona discovers that the Searcher is really Hazel’s ghost. 
  • Angry at Hazel, Pearl “lowered her head like a charging bull, and barreled straight into her sister’s stomach. The two of them fell to the ground. . . Pearl lunged forward and snatched the knife from Hazel’s pocket, where it was always kept. As Hazel sat up, trying to grab it back, Pearl kicked her sister in the ribs, knocking her aside. Hazel let out a gasp of pain. . .” The fight is described over two pages. 
  • Hazel drowns, but her death is not described. 
  • Hazel’s ghost tricks Fiona into going into a cistern. Fiona “couldn’t feel hands wrapped around her wrists; there were no fingers, no flesh. But the coldness held on to her, as solid as stone. She couldn’t get up.” Hazel attempts to drown Fiona, but someone rescues her. The scene is described over four pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • After Hazel disappears, her mother is “dosed by the doctor.” Her father locks himself up in a room with a “crystal decanter.”  

Language   

  • Fiona calls herself an idiot and Hazel calls her sister an idiot twice. 
  • In her thoughts, Fiona uses the word kook several times. When a boy tells her that a book is cursed, Fiona wonders if he is a kook.  

Supernatural 

  • The town has a rumor about a Searcher who “was a dark being that skulked through these woods, awaiting the moment when it might catch another wanderer alone. According to the tales that wound through the town, any such unlucky wander was never seen again.” When Pearl’s sister is missing, Pearl says the Searcher took her. 
  • Fiona finds a book that tells the story of Pearl and Hazel. The book keeps disappearing and then showing up in a different location. Fiona believes that the book has “been waiting for the right person to come along.”  
  • Fiona meets a boy her age named Charlie. He believes the disappearing book is cursed. “The book is cursed to remain at the library. It’s can’t leave for long. Just like a ghost can’t leave the place it haunts.” 
  • Charlie believes in ghosts. He says, “Ghosts are just parts of the past that haven’t stopped happening. Things are unfinished. Like if you disappeared, and no one found you.”  
  • The ghost of Mrs. Rawlins appears to Fiona.  
  • As Fiona discovers more about Hazel and Pearl, the book mysteriously adds new pages. 
  • While looking for clues in Hazel’s bedroom–which has been preserved as she left it—Hazel’s pocket knife “wobbled on its rounded handle like an egg set on a countertop. . . it spun faster and faster, making several full circles before coming back to a halt.” The knife points to “the spot where a peephole was drilled through the wall.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Vanishing Stair

The Truly Devious case—an unsolved kidnapping and triple murder that rocked Ellingham Academy in 1936—has consumed Stevie for years. It’s the very reason she came to the academy. But then her classmate is murdered, and her parents quickly pull her out of school. For her safety, they say, she must move past this obsession with crime.

Stevie’s willing to do anything to get back to Ellingham, be back with her friends, and solve the Truly Devious case. Even if it means making a deal with the despicable Senator Edward King. And when Stevie finally returns, she also returns to David: the guy she kissed and the guy who lied about his identity—Edward King’s son.

But larger issues are at play. Where did the murderer hide? What’s the meaning of the riddle Albert Ellingham left behind? And what, exactly, is at stake in the Truly Devious affair? The Ellingham case isn’t just a piece of history—it’s a live wire into the present.

The Vanishing Stairs will keep readers interested as new information is revealed both in Stevie’s personal life and in the Ellingham case she is investigating. Stevie is a sympathetic character, who struggles with panic attacks, isn’t always sure how to interact with others, and is curious enough to dig into the lives of the past. Now that one student has died and one student has disappeared, Stevie is more focused on finding out why Ellingham Academy seems to court danger.

While readers learn some information about the kidnapping of Ellingham’s wife and daughter, they also get a firsthand look into the events of 1936 as the book goes from past to present. Stevie’s investigation is able to shed light on some of the events in the kidnapping, but the crime also unfolds from several different characters’ perspectives which allows the reader to understand all aspects of the events. The crime is more complicated—and has more secrets—than expected.

The second installment in the Truly Devious Series begins right where the first one left off. Despite this, the story quickly and excellently explains the main events and important characters from the previous book. However, in order for readers to have an emotional connection to the characters, the series should be read in order.

The Vanishing Stairs is a fast-paced mystery that readers will not be able to put down. Both the interesting characters and the twisty mystery make this a perfect book to wrap up in a blanket and enjoy. However, be warned The Vanishing Stairs does not downplay violence, or the lengths people will go to hide their secrets.

Sexual Content

  • As Stevie is investigating the Ellingham case, she learns about Francis, who was a student at the school. While Francis does not know this, her biological father was a “handsome barman” that worked at a casino that many of New York’s rich frequented. The casino was where “bored society women like to spend their afternoons sipping drinks. . . and apparently doing other things.”
  • In 1936, two students, Francis and Eddie, meet in the woods where “he pressed her back into a tree. She took his face in both hands and kissed him roughly, running her hands down his back. . .” Both Francis and Eddie were “dirty” and “wild.”
  • Eddie was determined to disappoint his rich family. “There were tales of seducing maids, wandering naked through formal dinners, filling an entire bathroom with champagne.” His bad behavior was why he was sent to Ellingham Academy.
  • While making out with Eddie, the narration explains, Francis “had been with other boys before, but they fumbled. Eddie knew precisely what he was doing. . . He drew her down now and ran his hands along her side inch by inch until she hardly felt like she could bear it.”
  • While in the school cafeteria, someone says Janelle and her girlfriend, Vi, are “about to make out on top of those mugs.” Two other times, someone comments on their public displays of affection.
  • David and Stevie explore a hidden tunnel in the academy. David “ran his fingers down her jawline gently. . . He kept coming closer, slowly, testing his way, until his chest was against hers and she didn’t move. . .When her lips met his, she felt something release inside of her. . . There was something frantic about the way she kissed him, like being with him was the only way she could breathe.” The scene is described over half a page.

Violence

  • Stevie reads an article about Eddie’s death. “Edward Pierce Davenport spent the day consuming opium and violet champagne. . . After toasting the city and the setting sun, he downed a last glass of champagne and swan-dived from the building into the street below. His body landed on a Nazi vehicle, denting the roof.”
  • Dottie’s body was found by a delivery man. “He saw what appeared to be a sack on the ground. . . he realized there were two legs coming from the sack—at least parts of legs. They were discolored, ravaged by weather and wildlife.”
  • David said that his mother had an affair with “a guy in the state legislature who went to Beck’s gym.” During the affair, his mother got pregnant.
  • Ellingham purchased a clock that was reported to be owned by royalty. Ellingham wondered, “When had the murdered princess last looked at it? It had been spared the sight of her death, her head put on a spike and paraded through the streets of Paris. The head had even been displayed at her friend the queen’s prison window, a ghastly puppet.”
  • Stevie is in town when she sees a group of skaters. “One of them was repeatedly punching David in the face. . . There was a gash along his right cheek that was trickling blood. There was another cut above his eye. . . There was a bit of bloody spittle coming out of the side of his mouth.” Later Stevie discovers that David paid the skaters to beat him, but he doesn’t explain why.
  • Ellingham learns who was responsible for kidnapping his wife and child. The person explains how Dottie died. When trying to escape, Dottie “jumped right down into that hole trying to get away. . . I climbed down after her. There was so much blood. She was groaning and trying to crawl, but she couldn’t make it. . . Her skull must have been cracked wide open. . . So I grabbed a pipe. . . and just hit her once and she stopped moving.”
  • To confront the suspect, Ellingham takes the man out on a boat. When the man refuses to tell Ellingham where his daughter is, Ellingham blows up the boat killing both himself and the suspect. “Bits and pieces of boat and human would be found for weeks to come, washing up on the shore.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Ellingham Academy first opened, Ellingham “told the staff to turn the other way when students were caught drinking.”
  • When meeting a university professor at a coffee shop, Stevie notices that the professor has difficult walking alone. Later, at the professor’s house, Stevie sees the recycling full of “many wine bottles, two whisky bottles, a vodka bottle.”
  • When David was seven, his mother went into the bathroom “with a bottle of Chablis and passed out. She was red all over—the water was turned all the way up on the hot side.” When David found his mom, he called 911.
  • While “a little drunk,” David told a friend a secret.
  • While anxious, Stevie takes “one small white pill. The emergency Ativan that she carried ‘just in case.’”
  • It is revealed that Ellingham’s wife had been using cocaine.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, bastard, crap, damn, fuck, holy shit, and shit.
  • Jesus Christ, my God, God, and oh my God are used as exclamations frequently.
  • Stevie thinks Edward King is a “sanctimonious ass.”
  • Stevie calls several people dicks. For example, Stevie comments that a student’s friends are “real dicks.”
  • A security guard says, “Some jackass bought pumpkin-flavored K-Cups.”
  • A security guard tells Stevie, “Edward King is a son of a bitch and his son is a piece of work.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Curse of the Phoenix

Fraternal twins Zac and Lu live rather estranged lives despite living in the same household. Zac is always indoors due to his asthma and severe allergies. Lu can go outside and hang out with her friends, yet feels burdened by her brother’s medical emergencies. The only thing they have in common is that they both grew up listening to their mother’s stories about the Wildewoods, an imaginary land where mythical beasts roam free. These creatures fill up the pages of Zac’s sketchbooks and inspire Lu’s love of animals.  

When their mother dies, the twins are sent to England to spend the summer with relatives they’ve never met: their aunts Merle and Rowena, their uncle Conrad, and their cousins Penelope and Oliver. It doesn’t take long for the twins to discover the incredible secret hidden in the forest of their ancestral home. Their mother’s stories about centaurs, unicorns, and dragons were not made-up after all. Their family is the keepers of the Wildewoods, the last place on earth where mythical creatures can live safely away from human harm.  

There are many dangers that lie in these lands—and a terrible curse. When Zac and Lu become victims of the curse, their only hope is tracking down the last living phoenix. On their search, they discover family secrets, learn about the magical creatures, and come to terms with their mother’s death.

The chapters alternate between Lu’s and Zac’s perspectives which gives insight into each twin’s point of view. Because Lu is more cautious than her brother, Lu’s perspective focuses on the danger of the Wildewoods and helps the reader understand the lay of the land as well as how the family cares for the creatures. On the other hand, Zac sees the mystique of the magical creatures and is less mindful of their inherent danger to humans. Some readers will relate to the responsibility of an older sibling, and other readers will relate to the joy of discovering and exploring a new place.  

Zac and Lu stumble into danger whenever they venture into the lands and their relatives get hurt while fending off the mythical beasts that the twins stumble upon. For instance, their cousin Penelope fights a manticore to protect the twins but gets a lethal dose of the manticore’s venom, which incapacitates her for the rest of the summer. While the Wildewoods are scary and dangerous, they are portrayed as a traversable place for the family members to explore.  

The Curse of the Phoenix is a fun, magical story that captures the magnificence of magical creatures and depicts the weight of the consequences of one’s actions. This novel has a quick pace, and it seamlessly integrates the Wildewoods into Zac and Lu’s new lives. Questions about the curse are answered early on, giving more chances for the main characters to explore the vast parts of the Wilde, the family’s estate. Throughout the story, the relatives allude to past events, giving the story a sense of mystery. Readers will eagerly flip pages to see if their predictions were correct. This is a must-read book for its unique perspective on humans and their relationships with magical creatures. Readers who like exciting adventures with intriguing mysteries will enjoy Aimée Carter’s Simon Thorn Series as well as Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • On their first visit to the Wildewoods, Zac and Lu come across a dragon. The twins try to escape, but Lu accidently steps on a twig, grabbing the dragon’s attention. Lu tackles Zac into a heap of dirt right as the dragon attacks them with fire. “A plume of fire exploded from the dragon’s snout, missing them by inches.” A bright flash distracts the dragon, but it eventually refocuses on the twins. The dragon tries to attack with fire, but the twins’ Aunt Rowena protects them with a shield.  Then, she drives “the dragon into the trees with a massive shield.” Despite her protective equipment, “she was limping as she moved forward.” The encounter with the dragon lasts for two pages.  
  • Zac goes out to the Wildewoods to find the phoenix with Lu and Penelope in tow. They encounter the manticore. Zac draws its attention by throwing a stick at it. Zac “hurled his stick straight for its hindquarters. And as it made contact with a loud thwack, the monster roared again and whirled around, launching itself directly toward Zac instead.”  
  • To save Zac, Penelope jumps on the manticore’s back, and tries to cut the manticore’s flesh. “Penelope held on, clutching its stunted mane and continuing to press the knife into the manticore’s flesh, but it was too strong.” Penelope’s grip begins to slip, but their cousin Oliver cracks a whip at the manticore to distract it from her. However, the manticore had already stung Penelope and “she was unconscious and deathly pale.” Zac and Lu are uninjured, but Penelope remains bedridden for most of the story. The encounter with the manticore lasts for two pages.  
  • Oliver, using a bow and arrow, tries to shoot the phoenix so he can weaken it and capture it. The phoenix warned Zac about Oliver’s attempt. “That was when [Lu] heard it—a faint whistling sound. In that same instant, as her brother crashed into her, the whistling was punctuated by a loud rip, and Zac’s agonizing cry.” Lu stumbled backward, fighting to hold him up. “To her horror, blood began to stain his sleeve.” The arrow nicked Zac in the arm. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zac takes Benadryl to stop his allergic reactions and an inhaler to relieve his asthma symptoms. 

Language   

  • One of the twins’ aunts uses the word “bloody” multiple times. “Bloody” is a British slang word that means “very,” but it is considered a swear word in other regions. 
  • Zac thinks of the word “crap” when he tries to hide from Oliver, but accidentally gets Oliver’s attention.  

Supernatural 

  • The phoenix cursed the Wilde family as punishment for their ancestor’s cruel actions against magical creatures. Those born into the Wilde family are forced to stay near the Wildewoods estate. At the age of thirteen or upon entering the Wildewoods before turning thirteen years old, each blood-related family member receives a W-shaped mark on the palm of one of their hands. The marked family members cannot travel too far from the estate or else they will die.  
  • Zac gets occasional visions about the past due to his bond with the phoenix.  
  • The phoenix blood is a powerful healing agent that can heal any injury and cure any illness.  
  • The phoenix willingly gives Zac a drop of phoenix blood so he can heal Lu from an injury. When she drank the blood, “the arrow began to work itself out of her body . . . he wound in her stomach magically [closed] on its own.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Oracle Code

After an accident renders her disabled, teenager Barbara Gordon is sent to the Arkham Center for Independence (A.C.I). She learns to cope with her newfound disability, makes new friends, and processes her trauma. However, there seems to be something more sinister occurring within the rehabilitation center; kids are disappearing, and the doctors are hiding something. Can Barbara solve the mystery behind the facility before she too falls victim to it?  

The graphic novel, The Oracle Code is told from Barbara’s point of view, which helps the reader see her character growth and understand the overarching themes of resilience, the importance of friendship, and embracing who you are. The story shows the difficulties of living with a disability, while still emphasizing that having a disability does not make your life less valuable. Barbara’s friend Issy reinforces this theme when she says, “The truth is, no matter what anyone led you to believe, life on wheels isn’t any worse or better than life on both feet, or one foot, or crutches. It’s what you make of it.”  

Barbara also learns the importance of letting others help during hard times. While she tries to be as independent as possible, eventually Barbara accepts that it is okay to rely on others and ask for assistance when needed. As she tries to solve the mysteries behind the A.C.I, Barbara calls upon her friends and family, and it is through their teamwork that the puzzle is eventually cracked.  

The secret behind the facility is incredibly dark and may be difficult and upsetting to read. The head physical therapist and head psychiatric therapist experiment on the A.C.I patients in order to find more effective treatments and cures. This is done by kidnapping the children whose parents have seemingly abandoned them and erasing any trace of their existence. The therapists then perform torturous experiments in order to “fix” them. The physical therapist even refers to the children he experiments on as “collateral damage.” In the end, Barbara and the rest of the patients within the A.C.I. prove that they don’t need to be “fixed.”  

Preitano’s illustrations highlight the emotionally powerful moments with dynamic page compositions and incredible character expressions. The color schemes also help differentiate between flashbacks and the present day. Flashback sequences are illustrated in stark reds, oranges, and yellows. This contrasts the muted colors used in the rest of the graphic novel. Preitano’s use of intense shading also helps intensify the looming dreadful atmosphere of the A.C.I. Despite the excellent illustrations, the dialogue between the characters and Barbara’s internal monologue is still central to the story and ensures each idea is conveyed clearly. In addition, the text is easy to read because it uses simple vocabulary. 

The Oracle Code is highly recommended for anyone struggling to come to terms with a disability. Barbara and her friends are excellent role models because they persevere through difficult circumstances and display selflessness by helping each other despite the dangers. In addition, their incredible vulnerability will encourage teens to be more open with their emotions. Plus, the well-written mystery and relatable characters make for an incredibly engaging read.   Overall, The Oracle Code is an excellent graphic novel and a must-read for anyone who loves DC comics or a good mystery.  Fans of DC comics should also read Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed by Laurie Halse Anderson.  

Sexual Content  

  • None

Violence  

  • Barbara gets shot “trying to help someone.” During flashback scenes, guns and bullets are consistently present in the illustrations.  
  • The hospitalized kids retaliate against the doctor who experimented on them. The doctor is hit several times with mobility aids and then tied up with a jump rope. Onomatopoeias like “crunch” and “smack” are used during this segment. 
  • The A.C.I. experiment on a patient, who later said they were “test subjects.” 
  • One of the doctors conducting genetic experiments also threatens Barbara and her friends with a gun.  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • None 

 Language   

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • None

From The Desk of Zoe Washington

Zoe Washington is a normal 12-year-old who is refusing to speak with her long-time best friend, Trevor. Her spiraling friendship with Trevor seems to be the most of her worries . . . until she checks the mail and sees a strange letter from the county prison. Could this be what she thinks it is? Is her long-lost father finally reaching out after all these years? 

All Zoe knows about her birth father, Marcus, is that he is in prison after being convicted of murder. Zoe’s mother refuses to speak about Marcus and brushes off all of Zoe’s questions. After all, Zoe has a wonderful stepfather that has taken care of her since she was born, so what need is there for Marcus? But there is a need. Zoe wonders about Marcus. Does he like Hawaiian pizza too? Why did he refer to her as “Little Tomato?” Why is he telling her he is innocent? Innocent people didn’t go to prison . . . or did they? 

For Zoe, Marcus’s letter brings up so many unanswered questions. Questions about who he is and what he did to end up in prison. But more than anything she can’t stop thinking, what if he is innocent? With each new letter and phone call, Zoe begins to piece together the clues of the crime that Marcus supposedly committed. The only problem is that nothing is adding up. Suddenly the answer seems so clear to Zoe; she needs to track down a mysterious witness to help prove Marcus’s alibi.   

But tracking down the witness is harder than Zoe anticipated . . . especially when she must keep it a secret. So, Zoe enlists the help of none other than her ex-best friend, Trevor, to travel to Harvard University to find the witness. However, the day trip turns out worse than anticipated and Zoe ends up in big trouble. Worst of all, now that she is grounded, Marcus has no one searching for the woman who may be the answer to his freedom. 

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an inspiring story that showcases Zoe’s bravery. The plot emphasizes that even when life seems uncomplicated, it usually is anything but. The overlap between Zoe’s summer activities and her mission to prove her father’s innocence provides a delicious complexity to the storyline. The story takes a deep dive into Marcus’s conviction and the racial inequality of the justice system. The plot successfully educates the reader on wrongful convictions and racism, while maintaining a lighthearted nature that cuts the heavy feelings that can arise from such deeply serious topics. Even though the book delves into mature topics, it is not overwhelming. Instead, readers will find the story easy to understand.   

Zoe is a likable and well-written character who matures throughout the novel. Her character development reinforces that it is not the amount of time you spend with someone that matters, but instead how you spend it with them. Zoe reminisces on this towards the end of the novel when she visits Marcus in prison. “I had no idea what would happen next, but I hoped with all of my heart that The Innocence Project would set Marcus free. In the meantime, I was so thankful I found his letter on my twelfth birthday, and that he was in my life now, where he belonged.”  

Readers will sympathize with Zoe and understand her confusion when it comes to topics such as The Innocence Project and wrongful convictions – concepts that are hard to understand in the mind of a 12-year-old. Serious topics such as racism and wrongful convictions are discussed throughout the novel, but nothing of a graphic nature is present.  

While the story is intended for a younger audience, it still evokes a sense of realness within the plot and the characters. The roller coaster of emotions that Zoe goes through during her journey is easy for the reader to understand and admire. There are so many moments where the reader’s heart will reach out for Zoe. From The Desk of Zoe Washington focuses on themes such as having an unconventional family, social justice, and prison reform. The seamless, yet informative inclusion of social justice issues complements the kid-friendly nature of the novel, making it a must-read for those wanting to be gradually introduced to these topics. Middle-grade readers who want to explore other books about racial injustice should read A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramé and I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Zoe discusses the Black Lives Matter movement. “I knew about the Black Lives Matter movement, how Black people all over the country were getting shot by police for no good reason. If those police officers weren’t going to jail, then it made sense that the whole prison system was messed up. I never thought about whether prisons had the wrong people before. I assumed that if you committed a crime, you got the punishment you deserved, and innocent people would always be proven innocent. Apparently not.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Zoe’s grandmother recalls a fight that Marcus got into when he was younger with another basketball player. “Marcus said that the other player, who was white, called him the N-word while they were playing. Under his breath, when nobody else could hear him.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

 Pride and Premeditation

Unlike other unmarried women her age, rather than a good husband, seventeen-year-old Lizzie Bennet wants nothing more than to practice law and work in her father’s law office. When there is a murder in high-society London, Lizzie jumps at the opportunity to prove herself worthy of being a litigator.

Although the authorities have charged someone with the crime, Lizzie has her doubts, promising to catch the real killer and clear the name of the man accused of the crime. But many obstacles stand in her way. For example, the man accused of the crime isn’t actually her client and is being represented by Mr. Darcy, a young lawyer and the heir of a prestigious law firm, who has no interest or patience for Lizzie’s antics. In order to uncover the truth and catch the killer, Lizzie pushes the boundaries of social and gender norms in this regency-era murder mystery.

Pride and Premeditation reimagines Jane Austen’s classic characters from Pride and Prejudice with a murder mystery twist. Following in the footsteps of the classic, Price examines gender roles and social standards of 19th century England. Lizzie is often pushing against preconceived sexist notions of what an unmarried, young woman should be doing. Rather than finding a husband of good social standing—as society and her mother tells her to—Lizzie would rather help her father around his office, and study contracts and case law. In conversations with her father or Mr. Darcy, Lizzie questions if she would be treated differently if she “weren’t a young lady.” Headstrong and extremely motivated, Lizzie explains she “will not live [her] life sitting by the side while there are so many men making a mess of things.”

The novel also looks at the classism and the social hierarchy of English society at the time. Lizzie feels as if she is looked down upon by those with higher social standing. The upper class often looks down on Lizzie, judging her based on where she lives or what she wears. But Lizzie, actively aware of this classism, simply sees this as another obstacle she must face in order to prove herself. Furthermore, Lizzie observes how people of her social standing look down on people of a lower class. In one instance, her mother scolds Lizzie for socializing with “street children” (or “urchins” as her mother would say).

Full of witty dialogue, Pride and Premeditation is a fast-paced story centered not only on the murder of a member of high-society London, but also on notions of justice, class, and the role of women in 19th century England. Readers will relate to Lizzie, who struggles with social and familial standards, and the people who are trying to dictate her actions when Lizzie is simply trying to pursue her interests. Readers can learn the importance of unabashedly being oneself and sticking to one’s convictions from Lizzie, no matter the obstacles society attempts to throw at you.

Pride and Premeditation has many familiar characters from Jane Austen, making it a great read for those familiar with Austen’s works (though knowledge of the original characters can make the twists and turns of this mystery slightly more predictable). However, the novel can also be enjoyed as a standalone novel for those unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice. With a strong female lead, Pride and Premeditation is an inspiring and fun book with just the right mix of mystery, adventure, and a hint of romance, making this book is a must-read.  Readers who enjoy historical fiction and mystery should also read Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer.

Sexual Content

  • Lizzie and Darcy share one kiss. When Lizzie sees Darcy a few weeks later she is “reminded of the warmth of their kiss.”

Violence

  • The basis of this novel is the murder of Mr. Hurst, who was “stabbed with a fine penknife.”
  • There is a discussion about the blood spatter on the body, Lizzie notes “when a creature is killed, there is usually a bit more splatter.”
  • As she walks down the street, Lizzie is abruptly grabbed, as “a gloved hand” stops her from screaming and shoves her into a carriage. Lizzie is taken in order to talk to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, someone interested in Lizzie’s investigation, then freed.
  • Lizzie discovers the dead body of Abigail who was left in the river Thames to drown with her hands “bound with rope”.
  • After stumbling upon the ransacked offices of Pemberley and Associates, Darcy and Lizzie are shoved by the assailant “sending them tumbling into the records room.” As the assailant rushes back to the streets, Georgina, Darcy’s younger sister, “opened the door [of the carriage] as he went by and hit him quite hard,” but he gets away.
  • In a heated moment of action, as Lizzie and the others discover what Mr. Wickham has done, he holds Lizzie at gunpoint, digging “the muzzle into her ribs.”
  • Mr. Wickham drags Lizzie out of her house, threatening violence to anyone who interferes. A chase ensues. Lizzie manages to escape the grasps of Wickham, “plung[ing] the sharp end of her brooch into his thigh.” As Lizzie tries to run away Wickham shoots at her, just missing her. The scene lasts over ten pages.
  • Darcy catches up to Wickham and Lizzie and confronts Wickham with a gun. In order to stop them from shooting each other, Lizzie steps in between the two. There is a confrontation between Darcy and Wickham where they talk about Wickham and Darcy’s history. This is interrupted by the mastermind of the murder of Mr. Hurst and Abigail, who shoots Wickham. He “double[s] over …crumpl[ing] to the ground,” falling into the river Thames. This action sequence is described over a chapter.
  • When Lizzie confronts a suspect, he grabs her, but she pulls away, drawing “Darcy’s spare pistol, pointing it at [him] just as he brandished a knife.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Multiple times, Mr. Hurst is referred to as a drunk and he is “always drinking.” The night before he is killed, the man suspected of killing him finds him at a “club,” brings him home, and tells “him to sober up.”
  • There is a delay outside Darcy and Lizzie’s carriage, and the driver blames it on “a drunk.”

Language

  • Mrs. Bennet refers to Fred, Lizzie’s informant, as an “urchin.”
  • Words like “lord almighty,” “for heaven’s sake,” and “bollocks” are used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Mikaela Querido

The Wig in the Window

Sophie Young and Grace Yang are best friends, seventh graders, and wannabe spies. The town of Luna Vista is quite boring, so they make a game out of spying on their neighbors. They even have a map of who and who not to spy on. But their game quickly becomes serious.  On one of their midnight stakeouts, they stumble across a terrifying scene at the home of their eccentric yet demure middle-school counselor Dr. Agford (also known as Dr. Awkward). The school counselor is hacking away at what appeared to be a piece of human flesh. Even though they are proven wrong about what Dr. Agford was chopping, the girls are still convinced that Dr. Agford is hiding a dangerous secret—and are determined to find out what it is.

Sophie and Grace attempt to uncover more about Dr. Agford, but Dr. Agford effortlessly evades the girls’ efforts to trip her up. Dr. Agford, as a respected adult, easily inserts herself into Sophie’s life. She slowly changes the girls’ neighborhood watch into a serious game of cat-and-mouse. As their investigation heats up, Sophie and Grace crack under the pressure. Their friendship, along with their investigative skills, are put to the test.

The narrative squarely focuses on Sophie’s perspective. This point of view helps the reader understand the workings of Luna Vista Middle School and Sophie’s personal life. Older readers will relate to the book’s portrayal of middle school, as the story is realistic in depicting Sophie’s thoughts about her classes, peers, and teachers. Like any preteen, Sophie also openly talks about her obsession: hers is Chinese culture, more so since Grace is Chinese American. Sophie gets “carried away with the traditional Chinese practice of feng shui . . . the idea that you can arrange your space to bring good luck and positive chi” and she takes the teachings of philosopher Sun Tzu as fact. This is notable when Sophie uses Sun Tzu’s tips about deception (when you are near, you must pretend you are far) to make sure she doesn’t reveal any information to Dr. Agford.

The story also covers cultural appropriation and interracial friendships, which is a point of conflict between Sophie and Grace’s relationship. Sophie dislikes that Grace is seemingly unengaged in Chinese culture, and Grace hates that Sophie practices activities relevant to Chinese culture without knowing their cultural significance. Grace accuses Sophie of “being superficial” because she talks about Sun Tzu, arranges her room with feng shui in mind, and practices kung fu. Sophie is performative in her adoration of Chinese culture. To Grace, Chinese culture is who she is. While Sophie never understands its importance to Grace, the two friends make up, but Sophie doesn’t move past her surface-level understanding of Grace’s culture. Through their exchanges, readers will learn the importance of being considerate of other’s cultures.

The Wig in the Window is a suspenseful yet fun story that focuses on relationships between authority figures and friends. The suspense comes from the girls avoiding Dr. Agford’s wrath, as she has a lot of sway in the community. Sophie’s narration about the school and the town gives the story a humorous and light tone. There is some name-calling that is typical of middle schoolers bad-mouthing each other, such as when Sophie’s classmates purposely mispronounce her French name as “AY-NUS” instead of “AN-YES.”

The consequences for the girls’ crimes—spying on their neighbors and breaking-and-entering—are nonexistent for the sake of the plot. Any adults that could stop the girls from investigating criminal activity are equally absent. Still, this book has lessons about appreciating other cultures and a good portrayal of interracial friendship, alongside the masterful way the girls uncover the mystery surrounding Dr. Agford. If readers enjoy the game of cat-and-mouse between Dr. Agford and the girls, and the girls’ friendship, then they should consider reading the City Spies Series by James Ponti.

Sexual Content

  • Grace is in love with one of the boys in their grade. She says “Score. He’s totally hot”
  • Sophie’s brother, Jake, says Sophie’s probably angry because it’s “probably that time of the month.”
  • Jake got busted for not being home. At first, Sophie thinks her brother, “had his own brush of death at his girlfriend’s.” However, upon closer inspection, she notices that “the red welts all over his neck proved to be hickeys.”
  • Sophie thinks of her crush, Rod. “Who cares if people still called him Rod Pimple? He was cute now.”
  • Sophie thinks about Rod’s appearance. “At Luna Vista the guys weren’t allowed to let their bangs hang over their eyes. It made him seem even cuter that he was so adorable and a rebel.”

Violence

  • Agent Stone tackles Sophie to the ground. Sophie “groaned in agony as he pressed his knee against my back and wrenched my arms behind me.” Sophie feels pain on one side of her body for the rest of the night.
  • Sophie gets out of Agent Stone’s grip so she can stop Dr. Agford from hurting Grace. The adults want to get rid of the girls because the girls were going to tell the authorities about their crimes.  “[Sophie] hoisted [her] knee up and rammed [her] foot down over his.” He loosens his grip. Then, Sophie “delivered a swift donkey kick square into his crotch.” He crumples to the ground, groaning. Finally, Sophie pepper sprays the man’s eyes. He “screamed. His hands flew to his face as he stumbled backward.”
  • Agford is trying to drown Grace, so Sophie sneaks up on Dr. Agford. Then, Sophie hits Dr. Agford so she can get Grace out of Dr. Agford’s grasp. “[Sophie] slammed the heel of Grace’s cowboy boot directly into the back of [Dr. Agford’s skull]. She let out a bloodcurdling yell and crumpled to the sand in front of [Sophie].” Dr. Agford is knocked unconscious.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Most kids at Luna Vista Middle School refer to Dr. Agford as “Dr. Awkward.”
  • Grace says “Oh my God” nine times.
  • “Thank God” is used as an exclamation five times.
  • One of Sophie’s friends says “Oh, my lord!”
  • Sophie calls herself a “psycho.”
  • After meeting with Agent Ralston, Sophie comments that the government “sure gives [FBI agents] crappy cars.”
  • When she is trying to figure out why Dr. Agford wasn’t smiling at one of the assemblies, Sophie thinks “for God’s sake.”
  • While watching an episode of Wheel of Fortune, Sophie’s grandfather yells, “Buy a vowel, nitwit!”
  • Grace and Sophie call themselves “crazy” for confronting Dr. Agford.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Sophie is obsessed with Chinese philosophy, and she explains the concept behind the teardrop-shaped half of a yin-and-yang pendant. “According to Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are opposite forces that interact with each other. Yin is dark, quiet, colder energy. Yang is active, bright, and warm energy. The two need to be in balance for harmony.”
  • Sophie’s brother likes to topple some of Sophie’s “Buddha figurines” because he thinks it’s funny to mess with her.

by Jemima Cooke

Nobody Knows but You

Kayla Martin has always been a bit of an outcast. That is until she meets Lainie at an eight-week-long summer camp. The two girls instantly become inseparable. Lainie is fun, charming, larger than life, and able to bring out a side of Kayla that she never knew she had. However, it isn’t long before another camper enters the picture.

Nerdy but confident, established playboy Jackson immediately grabs the interest of Kayla’s newfound best friend. The two begin a passionate, hot, and cold relationship. Though Kayla is less than thrilled about the effect Jackson is having on Lainie—and about becoming the third wheel—she remains fiercely loyal and hopes Lainie will come to her senses by the summer’s end.

But the summer ends with Jackson’s corpse being discovered in the lake. Foul play is suspected, and Lainie quickly becomes the prime suspect. As her friend awaits trial, Kayla grapples with the murder and the events leading up to it. Everyone else seems so sure of the truth, but she knows there’s often more to a story than meets the eye.

Nobody Knows but You is largely told from letters Kayla writes, but never sends, to Lainie. These letters describe her memories of that fateful summer as well as the aftermath. Kayla’s perspective, especially in the format it’s presented, is very unreliable. Early on she states, “even now, I am keeping [Lainie’s] secrets. Everyone that I can.” It becomes clear Kayla has a very biased outlook on the situation, and the reader is not necessarily meant to agree with how she perceives the events.

In order to give more perspective, the reader also gets glimpses of Kayla’s text exchanges with various characters. Kayla’s contributions to these exchanges tend to be very short and vague while the other person provides more substance, which shows that our narrator doesn’t reveal all that she knows. In addition, the narrative sometimes shifts to news articles and fellow campers’ transcribed statements. The articles and statements give the reader outside perspectives that highlight Kayla’s bias. The perspectives provided give the reader a very intimate (Kayla’s letters), semi-removed (camper’s statements), and outside (articles) look at the situation.

The story emphasizes the idea that strong connections and a deep sense of community are formed at camp. An unnamed camper muses, “I have friends I was tight with only the last ten days of camp and I know them better than people I’ve been friends with all of high school. You kind of have to experience it to know about it, but it’s true.” Teenagers who have been avid attendees of summer camp will likely be able to relate to this sentiment and understand why Kayla holds her bond with Lainie in such high regard. However, Kayla and most of the other characters are unlikable. This seems to have been the author’s intent, but it might make it difficult for some readers to get invested in the story.

Nobody Knows but You suffers from underdeveloped characters, particularly in the case of Kayla herself. Another negative aspect of the story is that the letter-writing format makes it difficult to gauge who she is outside of her relationship with Lainie. Furthermore, the final twist will be predictable for seasoned YA readers. However, this is a short and fast-paced read that is intriguing. While not a must-read, it is a gripping story that even the reluctant reader will be drawn into.

Sexual Content

  • Lainie and Jackson are often portrayed kissing and struggling to keep their hands off each other. A camper says, “you’d see them laughing and cuddling, or practically tearing each other’s clothes off in public.” The sexual nature of their relationship is heavily alluded to, and near the end of the story, Kayla states in one of her letters to Lainie that a scene flashed before her eyes of “letting [Jackson] kiss you. Kissing him back and running your hands under his t-shirt to feel his warm skin. Letting him unzip your hoodie and push it off your arms … leading him down the path toward the dock, where you can continue what you started, and more.”
  • Jackson, who is sixteen, hooked up with fellow camper Emma, who is only thirteen. A camper says regarding a statement Emma made, “sucking face with a notorious fuckboy doesn’t show you the depths of his soul.”
  • Kayla describes passionately kissing a boy named Ian at a Halloween party in one of her letters to Lainie. She says she knew she and Jackson gave each other scratches, and that some were “featherlight, and others harder, like the ones I gave Ian at the party tonight, experimenting.”
  • One camper states that they heard a rumor that “Lainie, Kayla, Nitin, and Jackson had a four-way orgy on the dock one night.”
  • Kayla recalls a late-night swim with Lainie, Jackson, and Nitin in which they all removed the majority of their clothes. She states that “only Jackson stripped completely – and only once he was underwater, thank goodness.”
  • Lainie tells Kayla that she went out with a girl in her school and that the two of them “hooked up at the Valentine’s dance.”
  • Kayla and Lainie kiss twice. Kayla says, “your lips were soft on mine, but what I felt was my insides plummeting.”

Violence

  • Jackson was murdered. He was bludgeoned in the head. He is hit twice, the first knocks him unconscious and the second “[breaks] the skin – a small gash, but still bleeding.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Kayla and Lainie sneak out at night, Lainie offers her “contraband.” Kayla assumes she is referring to cigarettes or other drugs, but it turns out to just be gum.
  • Kayla describes a Halloween party where she unknowingly drinks spiked punch and becomes drunk.
  • Lainie jokes about the camp chef having Scooby Snacks in the kitchen. Kayla realizes she is referring to a drug, “though exactly what kind of drug, [Lainie] didn’t seem to know for sure.” She later concludes that it’s either Valium, pot, mushrooms, or club drugs.

Language

  • “Fuck” is said multiple times.
  • “Motherfucking” and “fuckboy” are both used on one occasion.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • Kayla is pretty certain she does not believe in an afterlife but considers the possibility. As Kayla muses over her dislike for Jackson, she says, “I hope it’s fine. I don’t need [Jackson] to rot in hell for eternity.”

by Erin Cosgrove

Truly Devious #1

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: she will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester.

But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.

Truly Devious will captivate murder mystery fans as it goes back and forth from the 1936 kidnapping of Ellingham’s wife and daughter and the current students who reside at Ellingham Academy. While Stevie scours the school’s archives for clues to the cold case, she also must navigate typical high school drama, which makes her a more relatable and likable character. While some of the students are a little too quirky to be believable, that doesn’t detract from the book’s entertainment value. Instead, it highlights some of the bizarre behavior of the ultra-rich. The story has the perfect blend of suspense, mystery, and teenage angst. Plus, there’s a mysterious boy Stevie isn’t sure if she should hate or love.

While most of the story revolves around the Ellingham’s school, the reader also gets a look into Stevie’s home life and the conflict between her and her parents. Stevie’s parents have never really understood why she can’t be “normal.” Increasing the conflict, Stevie’s parents also work for Senator Edward King—a rich, corrupt man who Stevie hates. While Senator King plays a small role in Truly Devious, the book hints that the senator will return in the next book in the series, The Vanishing Stairs.

The fast-paced mystery expertly blends the past and the present into an entertaining story that will keep the readers guessing until the very end. While the conclusion partially solves one mystery, the mystery of the Ellingham’s kidnapping ends with an interesting new clue which will have readers reaching for the next book in the series, The Vanishing Stairs. With interesting characters, a suspenseful mystery, and lots of surprising twists, Truly Devious will please mystery buffs who are ready for more mature content. If you’d like a tamer detective story, the Jess Tennant Mysteries Series by Jane Casey is a highly entertaining mystery that will thrill without the graphic images.

Sexual Content

  • Janelle recently broke up with her girlfriend and now has a crush on another student, Vi.
  • When two students disappear, a boy says, “I think they’re going to go back and bone. . .” Later, the students “walked close enough together and looked at each other in a way that made it clear that they had not parted ways right away last night.”
  • After a student dies, David and Stevie go back to her bedroom. After talking for a while, “David pressed his lips to hers. . . He was kissing her very gently, his lips pressing on her neck. . . Her hands were in his hair.” The make-out scene is described over a page. A teacher interrupts them and tells David to leave.
  • David wants to talk to Stevie about them making out. He tells her that her technique “was good. You really like to explore with that tongue. Every part of you is a detective, I guess. . . I like what we did.” After they talk, “she pressed her lips to his. . . Their lips met and they would be tighter for a minute, then they would both stop and stay where they were for another few seconds. . . He was stroking her hair, running his fingers up the short strands. . .” When there is a knock on the door, Stevie hides in the closet. David answers the door and leaves.

Violence

  • Stevie is investigating a murder from 1936. As she investigates, the story flashes back to the events when Dottie was murdered. While trying to escape from a man, Dottie falls, and “her fingers slipped along the rungs of the ladder, but she couldn’t get purchase. She was falling. The floor met her with terrible finality. . . There was an ache that was almost sweet and something pooled around her. . . When the darkness came for Dottie, it was quick and it was total.”
  • After delivering ransom money, Albert Ellingham is knocked out when “something came down on his head, and then all faded to black.”
  • When Ellingham’s wife’s body was found, “she was wrapped in oilcloth and she was in bad shape, real bad shape. . . Iris’s body was found to have three gunshot wounds.”
  • Ellingham and one of his friends die when their boat explodes. The death is not described.
  • A man named Vorachek is standing trial for the kidnapping of Ellingham’s wife and daughter. During the trial, he is shot. The death is not described.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • During prohibition, a secret tunnel was built, and “bottles of wine and liquor of every description” were stored in a hidden area.
  • Stevie has a prescription for Lexapro and Ativan. Twice Stevie takes Ativan while having a panic attack.
  • Ellie, one of the students, sneaks in champagne. When offered it, Stevie “decided to go for it. She had only drunk a few times in her life. . . the champagne was warm and had a hard, mineral taste and fizzed up her nose. It was not unpleasant.” Several times throughout the story, Ellie appears drunk.
  • Ellie tells Stevie that “plenty of people on the street will buy [alcohol] for you for five bucks.”
  • Ellie went to Paris with her mother and her mother’s “lover.” While there they drank wine.
  • Ellie says that a boy spent his time smoking weed and playing video games; later, Stevie finds out that this is untrue.
  • At a school gathering, some of the students pass around a flask. Stevie doesn’t drink from it.
  • After the kidnappers demand more ransom, Ellingham “poured some whiskeys with a shaking hand, giving one to the detective and keeping one for himself.”
  • While reading the Ellingham’s case files, Stevie finds out that a man who was present drank “often and in high quantities.”
  • Stevie and her friends play a drinking game. While playing the game, some of the players drink, while others don’t. “Stevie reached for the bottle and took a very tiny sip, just enough that the wine touched her lips and scent flooded her nose.”

Language

  • Several times a girl says, “It is hot as balls in here.”
  • Oh my God, God, and Jesus are used as exclamations occasionally.
  • Hell is used frequently.
  • Ass, damn, crap, pissed, and shit are used infrequently.
  • Ellie tells Stevie that her parents’ boss, a senator, is an asshole.
  • Stevie says, “I’m not being a dick.”
  • A girl says that a boy’s ex-girlfriend is a bitch.
  • Stevie says that her parents’ employer, a senator, is a “racist, fascist scum.”
  • The f-word is used twice.
  • In a heated situation, goddamnit is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Forbidden City

Street-smart and agile, Paris is a huge fan of Liverpool F.C., Doctor Who, and chess. He’s also a survival specialist and the oldest member of the City Spies—a secret team of young agents working for M16, the British Secret Intelligence Service.

When M16 sets out to thwart Umbra’s attempts to recruit a prominent North Korean nuclear physicist for their nefarious purposes, the operation calls for Paris to make a covert connection with the scientist’s chess-prodigy son at a pair of tournaments in Moscow and Beijing. Meanwhile, Sydney is embedded as a junior reporter for a teen lifestyle site as she follows the daughter of a British billionaire on tour with the biggest act of her father’s music label.

The band and the billionaire are somehow connected to the scientist and the recent thefts of nuclear material from an old Soviet missile base, and it’s up to the City Spies to figure out how. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the team will have to work together in perfect harmony in order to succeed on their most dangerous mission yet.

The third installment of the City Spies Series takes its focus off Brooklyn, and instead, Paris takes center stage. On the current mission, Paris and Mother go undercover. As part of their cover, Paris participates in the Around the World Chess Tournament, which allows Paris’s personality to shine. This also allows Mother to show that he truly wants to be a good father to his adopted children. The new dynamic adds interest and allows the story to focus on the common question: “Who am I?” This question gives Mother the perfect opening to share some of his background which gives the story a more sentimental vibe.

While Paris wrestles with the question, who am I, he also makes a decision that he thinks was a huge mistake. These two story threads dovetail perfectly and highlight the fact that everyone makes mistakes, and while some mistakes have devastating consequences, mistakes should be forgiven. In addition, when it comes to mistakes and consequences, we should not “celebrate people’s misfortunes.”

The mission requires part of the City Spies team to travel to both Russia and China which adds adventure and action. However, the team splits up into three groups and the constant back and forth between groups is at times a little overwhelming. Plus, readers who fell in love with Brooklyn will be disappointed by her absence because she sits out most of the mission.

The City Spies Series doesn’t rely on one plot formula, but instead, each book has a new focus that keeps the story interesting. Despite this, for maximum enjoyment, the series should be read in order. While the team must work together to complete the mission, their relationships—like any family’s—are complicated and have conflicts. These conflicts make the characters more relatable and add an interesting dynamic to the spy story. While the City Spies Series will appeal to readers of all ages, the series is perfect for middle-grade readers who love spy mysteries but want to avoid the violence. The Friday Barnes Mysteries Series has a more humorous tone, but will also appeal to middle-grade readers who love mysteries.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While walking down a street, a man says something to two bodyguards, the Sorokins. “In a flash, Sasha grabbed him by the wrist and spun him around, twisting his arm up behind his back as he writhed in pain. . . on the verge of tears, he said something that Sydney assumed was an apology.”
  • When Jin-Sun is kidnapped, the City Spies find where he is being held captive. Sydney puts several smoke bombs down the chimney in the house where Jin-Sun is being held. The man guarding Jin-Sun, Sorokin, comes out of the house and “Sydney jumped on him from above. It was a direct hit, and as he staggered farther into the courtyard, Monty attacks him with a flurry of Jeet Kune Do moves to knock him out cold.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • While misleading the China Ministry of State, a spy leads them to an airport where they find her alone on a plane. When they enter the plane, she “took a sip of champagne.”

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche

Enola Holmes is the much younger sister of her more famous brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft. But she has all the wits, skills, and sleuthing inclinations of them both. At fifteen, she’s an independent young woman—after all, her name spelled backwards reads “alone”—and living on her own in London. When a young professional woman, Miss Letitia Glover, shows up on Sherlock’s doorstep desperate to learn more about the fate of her twin sister, it is Enola who steps up. It seems her sister, the former Felicity Glover, married the Earl of Dunhench and, per a curt note from the Earl, has died. But Letitia Glover is convinced this isn’t the truth, that she’d know—she’d feel—if her twin had died.

The Earl’s note is suspiciously vague and the death certificate is even more dubious, signed by a John H. Watson, M.D. (who denies any knowledge of such). The only way forward is for Enola to go undercover—or so Enola decides at the vehement objection of her brother. And she soon finds out that this is not the first of the Earl’s wives to die suddenly and vaguely—and that the secret to the fate of the missing Felicity is tied to a mysterious black barouche that arrived at the Earl’s home in the middle of the night. To uncover the secrets held tightly within the Earl’s hall, Enola is going to require help—from Sherlock, from the twin sister of the missing woman, and from an old friend, the young Viscount Tewkesbury, Marquess of Basilwether!

The interaction between Sherlock and Enola is humorous and although Enola usually doesn’t include Sherlock in her plans, he does acknowledge her ability to come up with a creative scheme to solve the mystery. Like Sherlock, Enola is a capable character who uses her mind to solve problems. To Sherlock’s dismay, Enola’s unconventional upbringing has allowed her to grow into a spunky, self-sufficient teen. Enola explains, “My mother saw to it that I was not taught to knit, crochet, embroider, or play the piano; she wanted to make quite sure that I would never become domestic or decorative.” Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche is an engaging mystery, and also explores women’s roles during the Victorian Era.

Springer excellently narrates the adventure with old fashion language, British colloquial language, as well as difficult vocabulary such as crepuscular, galvanization, and pulchritude. Despite this, most readers will be able to use context clues to understand unfamiliar words. The different types of language are part of the book’s charm and help distinguish different characters. For example, when Dr. Watson is worried about Sherlock’s behavior, he seeks out Enola. Dr. Watson tells her, “I exhorted him to shave and get dressed as a rudimentary step in exerting himself toward recovery, but to no avail.”

Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche takes readers on an action-packed adventure that is pure fun. Readers will fall in love with Enola, who is the story’s narrator. The unconventional character isn’t afraid to take risks, use stealth, or ask for the assistance of others. Even as Enola galivants through England, she takes the time to discuss her fashionable clothing which will delight fashion-conscious readers. Readers who want a delightful mystery should add Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche to their must-read list. More mature readers who enjoy historical mysteries should also read Glow by Megan Bryant.

Sexual Content

  • When Sherlock was investigating a case, he fell into a deep hole. Enola shows up to help and “the Lord of the manor came out with a shotgun and fired upon us!” Both Sherlock and Enola were able to escape.
  • Women could be committed to an insane asylum if they had “adulterous thoughts or tendencies.”
  • When the Earl of Dunhench’s wife is freed from an insane asylum, she says, “I could not cease brooding over Caddie, his infidelities, how he doomed me for not being complaisant. . .”

Violence

  • The Earl of Dunhench and his butler grab Enola and lock her in a bedroom. She is able to escape.
  • Tish dressed up as her sister who was committed to an insane asylum. Mistaking Trish for his wife, the Earl of Dunhench, puts her in a black barouche and sends her back to the asylum. On the way, Tish gets upset with Dawson (a servant). “Tish reacted like a viper striking. Screeching something inarticulate, she coiled, snatched off her sow, and flung it at Dawson’s face.”
  • While Dawson is distracted, Enola comes out from underneath the black barouche’s seat. When Dawson goes to scream, Enola “pounced, clamping my hand over her mouth before she got past her initial squeak. Kneeling on her bosom, with one hand silencing her and the other flourishing my danger, I warned her.”
  • When the driver goes to help Tish out of the carriage, Enola “charged. . . I knocked them both sprawling, Tish back into the carriage on her posterior, and the coachman similarly into a formidable rose bush.”
  • When Sherlock confronts the Earl of Dunhench, Watson “stationed himself at the main entry and stood guard with his pistol in hand.” When the conversation “deteriorated,” Sherlock “pulled out my life preserver—a handy pocket truncheon made of rope and weighted wood—and showed it to him.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Sherlock injured himself falling into a deep hole, Enola tossed “down brandy and bandages.”
  • In order to help Sherlock, Enola lists drugs that help with depression. “Laudanum, belladonna, antimony, all highly efficient if they do not cause your untimely demise.” Sherlock does not take any of the drugs.
  • Enola falls off a horse. As she lay on the ground, she “saw the clodhopper boots of comment men surrounding me and smelled alcohol on the breath of those leaning over me.” The men take Enola into a tavern and offered her “a nip of brandy.”
  • The Earl of Dunhench offers Enola wine, but she “sipped only water.”
  • Enola goes into an insane asylum and is told, “In order to calm them enough for bathing, we must drug them.”

Language

  • Sherlocks gets angry at Enola and says, “Your mission be damned!”
  • Hell is used twice. When Sherlock enters the Earl of Dunhench’s house unannounced, the earl yells, “Who the hell might you be?”
  • A woman calls the Earl of Dunhench a “great parlous pile of pig dun” and a “cad.”

Supernatural

  • When someone dies, mirrors are covered “supposedly so that the soul of the departed might not blunder into one and get trapped inside the house.”

Spiritual Content

  • Enola finds a woman picking fruit on a Sunday. The woman had been stung by a honeybee. She tells Enola, “Some would say it’s what I deserve for working on the Sabbath. But I can’t believe God will mind, being as these will make such good cider.”

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