Code Name Badass: The True Story of Virginia Hall

When James Bond was still in diapers, Virginia Hall was behind enemy lines, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Hitler’s henchmen. Did she have second thoughts after a terrible accident left her needing a wooden leg? Please. Virginia Hall was the baddest broad in any room she walked into. When the State Department proved to be a sexist boys’ club that wouldn’t let her in, she gave the finger to society’s expectations of women and became a spy for the British. This boss lady helped arm and train the French Resistance and organized sabotage missions. There was just one problem: the Butcher of Lyon, a notorious Gestapo commander, was after her. But, hey—Virginia’s classmates didn’t call her the Fighting Blade for nothing.

So how does a girl who was a pirate in the school play, spent her childhood summers milking goats, and rocked it on the hockey field end up becoming the Gestapo’s most wanted spy? Audacious, irreverent, and fiercely feminist, Code Name Badass is for anyone who doesn’t take no for an answer. 

Code Name Badass chronicles Virginia Hall’s fight against societal norms and the Nazis. Hall’s experience highlights the amazing power of perseverance, bravery, and never taking no for an answer. As part of the French Resistance movement, Hall faced constant danger. However, she never stopped fighting.  

With historical photos and excerpts from historical documents, Code Name Badass brings the women who helped win World War II to light. A list of other exceptional women spies appears at the back of the book along with a long list of resources that Demetrios utilized. While Hall’s story is motivating, Demetrios’ tone and constant reminders of sexism become a little off-putting. For example, Demetrios writes, “Dindy (Hall’s nickname) had a lot of luck. Buckets of it. She had a lot of bad luck, too, but, with one major exception, that bad luck stemmed only from the fact that she had a vagina.” 

Readers who love history, especially World War II history, will find Code Name Badass full of little-known facts. While Hall’s story is interesting, it is not for the weak of heart. The brutality of the Germans is repeatedly described, and many of Hall’s contacts lost their lives because of the Germans’ cruelty. Because of the book’s difficult vocabulary and detailed descriptions, Code Name Badass is not the book for readers looking for a light, entertaining historical fiction book. However, anyone interested in spycraft, World War II, or the women who have impacted our world will find Code Name Badass informative and interesting.  

Sexual Content 

  • While discussing Dindy’s “badassery,” Demetrios writes: “Never take no for an answer. (Unless someone says they don’t want to have sex with you, kiss you, be touched by you, etc. Then no means no.)” 
  • During wartime, women were sexually assaulted and raped as “a key strategy” to breaking down “civilians and combatants alike.”  
  • During the French occupation, Germans visited brothels. 
  • One double agent was known to keep mistresses. 
  • One female agent “got knocked up in the field” by another agent. 
  • Another female agent “drove one agent so batty with love that he literally threw himself into the Danube, intending suicide.” The agent was known to cheat on her husband with “sexy spy guys.” 

Violence 

  • During a hunting expedition, Dindy accidentally shot herself. “The shell ripped into her left foot, tearing past the skin and driving through cartilage and bone. Virginia collapsed, staring down at what had once been called a foot.” Dindy’s foot is amputated. 
  • During the Battle of France, “Bullets started flying, bombs began to drop, and shit got real. . .” Dindy helped by becoming an ambulance driver, who “saw men dying around her every day in the most horrible of ways, the soil once again being soaked with French blood.”  
  • During the battle, roads were bombed, “caring little that the dusty streets and highways and country lanes were filled with refugees who were desperate to get away from the fighting.” 
  • During World War II, “the French government would cut off your head if you had an abortion.” 
  • During the war, William Simpson was “shot down” and sustained “terrible burns and los[t] both hands.”  
  • Resistance fighters “killed a Gestapo agent, then dumped the body on the steps of [the Germans’] headquarters with a note: ‘With the compliments of British Intelligence.’”  
  • Dindy has dinner with Olivier, another spy. The restaurant’s “door crashes open, and a dozen gendarmes swam in, guns, batons, or haughty chins raised. Screams fill the café, and glass shatters as tables are overturned and precious rationed food and drink fall to the floor. . .” With help, both spies escape.
  • The Gestapo was cruel to prisoners: “Dogs let loose on prisoners, fingernails pried off, prisoners tied up with spiked handcuffs. . . Agents and Resistance fighters were often tortured for information.”  
  • Dindy’s supervisors told Dindy that a “dangerous man” had infiltrated her group. The supervisor told Dindy “she was fully authorized to have him disposed of as neatly as possible.” 
  • Two men put their family on a ship heading to England. “Their parents, wives, and Alfred’s three children all drowned when their ship . . . was torpedoed by the Germans.”  
  • The book mentions people who were killed by the Germans. Most accounts are not graphic. For example, according to Dindy, “the Germans had gotten all ancient Rome on the Resistance, skewering their bodies on iron posts as a warning to all.” 
  • Several agents were “brutally murdered in the Dachau concentration camp. . . all three were shot in the back of the head, then their bodies shoved into the camp’s crematoriums.”   
  • One man refused to do the Germans’ biddings. The man “tried to cut his throat rather than bend his will.”   
  • If Dindy and her crew saw Germans lurking around, they would kill the Germans. “One story has it that Dindy’s boys would drop German bodies in the Lignon River after they’d done away with them.” 
  • One spy was captured and “he was beaten, tortured, and then shipped off to Buchenwald, where he suffocated and died in a cattle car stuffed with more than 150 prisoners.” Another captured spy “had her front teeth knocked out and her arm broken.” 
  • Gestapo agent Klaus Barbie was brutal. “His accusers testified about Barbie raping female inmates in the presence of not only other guards, but also of the Resistance members waiting in the hallway to get tortured . . . Barbie encouraged German shepherds to chase naked women around their cells; each time the women were viciously bitten, Barbie would laugh maniacally. He beat children.” 
  • Spy Odette Sanson “underwent fourteen Gestapo interrogations. . . was held captive by the Germans for two years. . . they branded her back with a hot iron and pulled out all her toenails.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Occasionally, the book mentions adults drinking alcohol. For example, during prohibition, Dindy traveled to Europe where she could “enjoy oodles of wine.” 
  • After accidentally shooting herself, Dindy was given morphine in the hospital. 
  • Spies were given cyanide pills to use “on themselves or others.”  
  • To help agents’ stamina, they were issued amphetamines. “For Dindy, popping those bitter-tasting blue Benzedrine pills was sometimes the only way she could juggle the revolving door of agents, Resistance workers. . . who knocked on her door, day and night.” 
  • Dindy loved to drink “gin and Italians, a mix of gin and vermouth.”

Language   

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes ass, bastard, bitch, dumbass, damn, dicked, pussy, fuck, hell, and shit. 
  • When Dindy was nineteen, she “became engaged to a complete douchebag.”  
  • Gaulle was a “total dick when it came to how he treated the foreign agents.”  
  • Klaus Barbie, an evil Gestapo agent, “was a real motherfucker.” 

Supernatural 

  • After accidentally shooting herself, Dindy “insisted until her dying day that on ‘several occasions’ her deceased father, Edwin Hall, came to visit.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

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.” 

Bones of the Sun God

After his adventures in Egypt, Sam Force is finding it nearly impossible to return to everyday life at boarding school—especially now that he knows his parents are still alive. However, his Uncle Jasper has banned him from setting off in search of them until he can go with Sam, but Sam’s not sure he can wait that long. When a man turns up at his school—a man he last saw in the Egyptian desert—he knows he can wait no longer.

Sam needs to continue the hunt for his parents. Luckily, his friend Mary Verulam has a plan, and before he knows it, he’s on his way to Belize. However, from the moment he lands, Sam finds himself being followed and threatened. When his research leads him to a local crocodile park and the leader of a mysterious crocodile cult, things become really dangerous. Sam is left to wonder if he’ll ever be able to locate his parents—and if there is anyone he can trust. 

Right from the start, Sam knows he’s going to sneak out of the country to continue the dangerous search for his parents—he just didn’t expect the search for clues to turn deadly. Multiple people warn Sam about the dangers that lay ahead and strongly encourage him to return home. However, the stubborn boy refuses to listen. While Sam’s determination and resourcefulness are admirable, he’s also impulsive and reckless. To make matters worse, Sam isn’t afraid to sneak into places he shouldn’t be, which causes many problems. Despite his dangerous actions, Sam is a likable protagonist that readers will root for.  

Similar to the first book in the series—The Iron Tomb—Bones of the Sun God doesn’t shy away from violence. In book two, a new villain appears—Felix, the crocodile cult leader – who will do anything to keep his secrets safe. This includes plotting Sam’s death, killing his henchmen, and feeding people to his trained crocodiles. The constant threat of being eaten by crocodiles keeps the action high. Plus, readers will be shocked when the crocodile park’s secrets are revealed. 

Bones of the Sun God continues the mystery of the pyramids and of how the Arc of the Covenant is related to them. However, Sam spends much of his time being chased by others and the story lacks the clues that made book one so much fun. Despite this, Bones of the Sun God will entertain readers. Readers will also enjoy the black and white pictures that are scattered throughout the book. The illustrations will help readers imagine some of the complicated plot points.  

Readers who aren’t put off by violence will find Bones of the Sun God highly entertaining because the action-packed story follows a likable protagonist who is willing to jump into danger to discover where his missing parents are. However, the strange crocodile cult and the bloody violence may make the book inappropriate for some readers. For a high-interest, fast-paced adventure with less violence, there are many good options including The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta and Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia. And if you want to discover some Egyptian history in a non-fiction format, check out The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld.   

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • While in a pool of water, a beast attacks a knight. The beast’s “white teeth enveloped his legs. A loud crack echoed across the chamber as powerful jaws slammed together around his waist. With one last effort, he brought his dagger arm down onto his attacker’s skull. . . And then there was only darkness.” The knight dies. 
  • While at a river, a young boy named Elio sees a “crocodile’s jaw open. . . A cloud of white mist bursts from the beast. With the pain came sudden understanding. The boy stared down at the silver dart sticking from his thigh. His eyes felt heavy . . . the last thing he heard as his world went black was the sound of the beast laughing at him.” Elio is kidnapped and taken to the crocodile park. 
  • Sam was cleaning the rowing shed when bullies from his school show up. Sam “aimed the bottle of detergent at Andrew Fletcher and squeezed. The soapy liquid hit him in the eyes, and Andrew howled in pain. Before his two friends could react, Sam swung the foamy jet at them.” Sam is able to get away.  
  • Sam hides with a group of tourists who go to a crocodile park. During a show, a man appears and says, “The guardians of the underworld demand sacrifices.” Then, crocodiles appear and begin attacking people. “Two more [people] went down, the first rammed from the side, the second pushed from behind. Arms flailed, water churned, and then there was only one person left. . . Down at the pool, the woman scrambled back toward the edge, but before she could climb out, her legs were pulled out from under her and she disappeared beneath the surface.” 
  • As the audience watches in horror, another man steps into the pool of water. “Lights in the bottom of the pool switched on, illuminating the crocodiles, who were still holding their human sacrifices.” The man calls on Kinich Ahau and then, “the crocodiles, unburdened by their prey, swam to the far side of the pool and disappeared into the tunnel.” The people who the crocodile attacked walk out of the pool unharmed. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Two policemen were taking Sam to the airport when they come upon a broken-down car in the middle of the street. “Two men spun toward the police car. They had guns. There were two flashes of light and everything went black. . . A man pulled Sam’s door open and wrenched him out. As Sam was dragged to the old car, the struggling policemen fell silent.” Sam is taken to Felix, the founder of the crocodile park, who locks Sam in a cage. 
  • Sam escapes from the crocodile park and runs towards the forest. Sam falls and “lay there, defenseless. . . he saw the silhouette of the man looming over him. Suddenly, the red [laser] beam hit the man’s face. . . then the man threw his hands to his eyes and howled in pain.” 
  • One of Felix’s henchmen, Azeem, ambushes Sam in the wilderness. Sam throws juice at Azeem’s face and bats attack him. Sam “heard the fluttering of hundreds of pairs of wings as they swept through the forest . . .Sam heard a cry as the first one of the tiny juice-hungry mouths fell on their new meal.” Azeem is not seriously injured.  
  • Sam returns to the crocodile park to save Elio, another boy who is held prisoner. As they try to escape, they see “the body of a large bald man in a white suit.” The man’s skin was a “sickly gray color” and he “had been dead for some time.” Later, Sam discovers that the dead man’s body was stolen from the morgue. 
  • As Sam and Elio run from the crocodile park, a bomb goes off. “The concussion from the blast hit them. Sam saw Elio lifted off the ground and pushed through the air.” Sam has a “nasty cut on his forehead,” but is otherwise uninjured. 
  • Sam finds a hidden entrance into a pyramid. When Sam goes in, he finds Azeem and Felix digging a hole. Felix holds a gun on Azeem, who is at the edge of a pool. Azeem’s “confused look transformed to panic as he heard the noise behind him. . .” Azeem sees a crocodile, but is unable to get out of the pool because “Felix kept the gun aimed down at the Scar-Faced Man.” 
  • As the crocodile gets closer, Azeem panics. “He tried to climb out [of the pool] again, but Felix lashed out with his foot. The kick sent the Scar-Faced Man stumbling backward. . . Azeem went rigid. The water around him became red and his screaming reached new levels of loudness. . . the man was pulled under, his scream cut off. . .” Azeem dies. 
  • After leaving the pyramid, Felix sets off a bomb. Sam and his friend, Mary, run. The explosion “grew to a deafening roar and a howling wind, so powerful Sam and Mary were pushed along the floor of the tunnel. . . Sam felt his exposed skin being stung by the tiny fragments of stone carried along by the explosion. . . He heard Mary screaming.” Afterwards Sam’s “head was throbbing, his ears were ringing from the blast,” but he was otherwise unharmed. 
  • In the pyramid, Sam finds a parchment belonging to a Templar Knight that tells why they built a structure inside the pyramid. While building the structure in a pool, crocodiles appeared. “I shall never forget the look of horror, the pain, as unseen monsters took hold of their legs. Screams were stifled as the men were pulled under…the ugly red stain that spread through the pool left us in no doubt as to the fate of our other two companions.” Later, the knight meets a similar fate. 
  • Sam goes into the pool to retrieve an item. A crocodile “comes out of the tunnel . . . and smashed into [Sam], knocking him back off his feet. . . he went under with his mouth open. The choking sensation triggered a burst of panic that wiped the crocodile from his mind.” Sam survives without injury. 
  • Sam and his friends follow Felix, who is trying to escape in a submarine. “Sam pushed the hatch down, hitting Felix in the head. Stunned, the man let go to the side of the ladder and fell back inside. . . Five feet below, Felix was sprawled in a heap unconscious.” 
  • Sam is trying to get out of the submarine when Felix “grabbed Sam’s pants . . . [Sam] swung his free foot backward, catching Felix in his stomach, then released one hand from the ladder and swung his elbow back, smashing into Felix’s forehead.” The two wrestle with each other for six pages and Sam eventually escapes. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Some believe that the pyramids were “built on key energy points around the world. Powered by Arks, they create an energy field that holds the earth’s crust in place.” The Ark can produce a magical substance known as the philosopher’s stone, “but the Ark will only produce this magical substance if it is taken out of the pyramid.” Some men would like to remove the Arc and become immortal despite the danger to the earth.  

Spiritual Content 

  • The story revolves around Kinich Ahau, the Egyptian sun god and the god of the underworld. 
  • Sam visits Mayan pyramids where the Maya “performed ceremonies and made sacrifices to their gods.”  

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

Cammie is not over her breakup with Josh, and after the winter break, all she wants is for things to go back to normal. But her mother is keeping secrets, the East Wing of the school is closed off, and an unwelcome intruder on a Covert Operations assignment leaves Cammie and her friends on edge.

It should be mentioned that the Gallagher Academy is an all-girls spy school, so Cammie and her friends are less than prepared when it is revealed that an all-boys spy school exists and—even worse—some of those boys will be attending the Gallagher Academy in an exchange program. Suddenly, Cammie, Bex, Liz, and Macey find themselves at odds with their strange new classmates. Why are the boys really here? Why won’t any of them talk about their own school, Blackthorne? And is Zach just a boy spy on an innocent exchange program who happens to like Cammie, or is something more sinister at hand? When Cammie is blamed for a security breach at the mansion, she knows something is not right. But will Cammie and her friends discover the truth about their male counterparts in time to stop whatever nefarious schemes are underfoot?

Despite being a well-trained spy who could incapacitate a person in under eight seconds, Cammie remains a relatable and lovable character who embodies the awkwardness of a typical girl. Readers will fall in love with Cammie, who has impressive spy skills and yet is completely baffled by boys. At one point, Cammie thinks, “Boys! Are they always this impossible? Do they always say cryptic, indecipherable things?” Because the story is told from Cammie’s point of view, readers will get an inside look at her thoughts and feelings, which makes Cammie an endearing character. At times, Cammie’s jumbled emotions will make readers hurt along with her. Especially when Cammie sneaks off alone and wonders if “maybe crying is like everything else we do—it’s best if you don’t get caught.”

Luckily, Cammie has a group of friends that always has her back. Bex is fiercely loyal, while Liz’s optimistic outlook is a welcome relief. Macey adds a little humor with her boy translations. By the end of the book, readers will feel as if the Gallagher Girls are friends. However, that doesn’t mean that Zach is not a welcome addition to Cammie’s life. While his charm is confusing to Cammie, it’s hard not to fall in love with his tough-boy attitude.

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy continues the series in a satisfying way, bringing back favorite characters from book one with the welcome addition of the Blackthorne boys. In typical Ally Carter style, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy begins with suspense and leaves the reader turning pages until the very end. Through first-person narration, Carter creates a fun story full of relatable characters and explores teen romance in a wholesome way that is perfect for younger readers. If you haven’t bought the entire series yet, you will want to. Even though there are six books in the series, each book will have readers ready to jump back into the Gallagher Girls’ world.

Sexual Content

  • Zach leans in to kiss Cammie, but they are interrupted. “His hands were warm on the back of my neck; his fingers laced through my hair, and he tilted his head and he moved in. I closed my eyes. And I heard, ‘Oh my gosh! Cammie, is that you?’”
  • Zach kisses Cammie. “The last thing I expected was to feel his arms sliding around me, to sense the whole world turning upside down as Zach dipped me in the middle of the foyer and pressed his lips to mine.”

Violence

  • In P.E. class, Cammie “hauled off and kicked the heavy [punching] bag—hard—and it flew back and hit [Zach] in the stomach. For a second he stood there, doubled over, trying to catch his breath.”
  • Cammie and her friends find their teacher, who had been injured by a thief. “Our teacher fell into their arms. Blood stained the side of his face, and his voice was faint as he lay on the floor and said, ‘He got it.’”
  • Cammie reacts when Zach grabs her. “Without stopping to think, I stepped back into my attacker, tried to flip him over my head, but he countered his weight at that precise time, stopping my momentum.”
  • During what turns out to have been a test of their skills, the Gallagher Girls fight to stop a thief and his guards. “For a moment it seemed to be raining Gallagher Girls. All around me fists flew, kicks landed . . . I’d knocked a guard to the ground and was struggling with a Napotine patch . . . the next time I saw [Liz] she was jumping from the cab, landing on the back of a guard who had been chasing Eva.” The fight continues over four pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Cammie remembers how her “mom gave Josh some tea that’s supposed to wipe a person’s memory blank” to make him forget what he knew about the Gallagher Academy.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

Mysterious Messages: A History of Codes and Ciphers

This fascinating look at history’s most mysterious messages is packed with puzzles to decode and ciphers that kids can use themselves. In this book you can find the encrypted notes of Spartan warriors, the brilliant code-crackers of Elizabeth I, secret messages of the American Revolution, spy books of the Civil War, the famous Enigma Machine, and the Navajo code talkers. As computers change the way we communicate, codes today are more intriguing than ever.  

From invisible ink to the CIA, this exciting trip through history is a hands-on, interactive experience—so get cracking! 

Mysterious Messages is for readers who want an in-depth historical look at the practice of creating codes and ciphers. The book starts with the father of history, Greek writer Herodotus, who documented some of the first cases of hiding messages. Sections of the book go into more detail about the historical aspects of hidden messages and give examples that readers can try to solve. Along with the stories, the book contains small sections titled “the Boring Definitions Box” that define words. Scattered throughout the book are pictures of the people discussed in the stories. Many of the pictures are of statues, paintings, photographs, and black and white sketches. In addition, historical documents are featured such as a letter written in code to the Queen of Scots, who was planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.   

Politics played a huge role in the development of codes and ciphers, and Mysterious Messages discusses the many ways spies secretly communicated. While the format has a visual element on every page, readers who aren’t interested in history and politics may find it difficult to finish the book. However, Mysterious Messages would be an excellent source to use for a research paper. The book will also appeal to readers who want to learn more about espionage and how codes and ciphers were used both in diplomatic times and times of war.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • In order to hide a message, a nobleman “slit open the belly of a freshly killed rabbit, hid his message inside, and sent it off with a courier posing as a hunter.” 
  • Christopher Marlowe was “murdered at the age of twenty-nine” because of his work as a secret agent. 
  • Several people who were caught spying were hanged.  
  • Mary, the Queen of Scots, used secret messages in an attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. “The Queen of Scots was tried, found guilty largely on the basis of the deciphered message, and beheaded.” The other people involved were “bowelled alive and quartered.”  
  • The British caught Nathan Hale spying. When he was found guilty of espionage, he was “hanged from the limb of an apple tree.”  
  • A British spy was captured with papers that contained details of a conspiracy. He was “hanged by the Americans.” 
  • During World War I, “a German submarine had torpedoed the Lusitania, a British passenger ship. Twelve hundred people drowned.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • During World War II, a Polish cipher “was so desperate to read Germany’s Enigma-enciphered messages that it hired a psychic to try to make sense of them.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • In the 1500s, a man from Germany believed that “if you wrapped up your message in a picture of the person you were sending it to, buried it under the threshold of the house, and said the proper incantation, it would be delivered telepathically by a network of angels.”  
  • Since Queen Elizabeth embraced Protestantism, “the

Rebel Spy

Rebellious Frannie Tasker knows little about the war between England and its thirteen colonies until a shipwreck off her home in Grand Bahama Island presents an unthinkable opportunity. The body of a young woman floating in the sea gives Frannie the chance to escape her brutal stepfather—and she takes it.

Assuming the identity of the drowned Emmeline Coates, Frannie is rescued by a British merchant ship and sails with the crew to New York. For the next three years, Frannie lives a lie as Miss Coates, swept up in a courtship by a dashing British lieutenant. But after witnessing the darker side of the war, she realizes that her position gives her power. Soon she’s eavesdropping on British officers, risking everything to pass information on to George Washington’s Culper spy ring as agent 355. Frannie believes in the fight for American liberty—but what will it cost her? Inspired by the true “355,” Rebel Spy is rich in historical detail and intrigue. 

Rebel Spy was inspired by the true “355,” who was part of the Culper spy ring. However, 355’s identity has never been discovered, and Frannie is completely fictional. Frannie is a complex character whose stepfather, Sewel, is a tyrant. In order to escape Sewel’s abuse, Frannie makes a desperate move and assumes a dead woman’s identity. While on a ship sailing to New York, Frannie witnesses the British soldiers’ savage nature. These events lead Frannie to believe that “tyranny was wrong. Abuse was wrong. And power ought never be misused.” Frannie struggles between her desire to live a comfortable life as a lady and her belief that no one should be forced to live under a tyrant’s rule. 

As the events of the war unfold, readers will learn how the war affected the entire world, not just the colonies. Because Frannie is living the life of a Loyalist, she becomes friends with many people who believe the Rebels deserve their fate. While the cruelties of war are not glossed over, many of the Loyalists and British soldiers were good people fighting for what they believed was right. However, Frannie helps the Rebel cause because she is convinced that, “Access to life, liberty, and happiness should be equal to all. We should all have a say in deciding our own fates.” Even so, Frannie points out that women will not have this ability even if the Rebels win the war. Instead, they are controlled by their fathers or husbands. 

While Frannie’s story is interesting, she is slightly self-absorbed and doesn’t think about how her actions will impact others. For example, Frannie allows Duncan, a British officer, to court her and she has every intention of marrying him. Frannie claims to care for Duncan, but she often spies on Duncan and relays important information to the Rebels. Frannie never considers how her actions will affect Duncan. Since Frannie’s life is full of lies and deceit, she does not always come across as a sympathetic character.  

Full of danger, suspense, and interesting facts about the Revolutionary War, Rebel Spy will please readers who enjoy historical fiction. While Frannie is not necessarily a relatable character, readers will empathize with her struggle as a young woman living in colonial America. From Frannie’s experiences, readers will learn that “reading will strengthen your expression. Words have power. Learn them and that power becomes yours.” To learn more about how women played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War, check out Susanna’s Midnight Ride by Libby Carty McNamee. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Frannie was a child, her mother was falsely accused of “having relations with men—some of them enslaved men—and she became a woman of ill fame. . . People crossed the road when they saw her. They hissed ‘filthy strumpet’ and ‘bloody doxy.’ They threw eggs and rubbish at our shop.” In order to survive, Frannie’s mother ended up “doing just what she’d been accused of.”  
  • The captain of the ship “brought the shore’s enjoyment to the Ambrosia—the ‘shore’s enjoyments’ being libations and women.” 
  • While sailing toward the colonies, Frannie meets a man. After dancing, Frannie “threw my arms around his neck, and kissed him. Asa pulled me in tight, his lips parting, his tongue sweeping against mine, and suddenly time disappeared. There was nothing beyond our mouths, gently searching.”  
  • On a different night, Frannie and Asa again kiss. Frannie often gets distracted by “Asa’s lips, which turned me liquid, and his chest, which was a perfect place for me to rest my head.” 
  • Frannie goes out on a midnight errand and sees “brothels and molly houses—brothels catering to men who favored men. Places where the orphaned and destitute often ended up. Where I might’ve ended up, if not for Miss Coates.” 
  • After a servant, Malcom, and Frannie are out most of the night, Malcom’s mother sees them. Malcom’s mother assumes they “snuck away to—” Malcom and Frannie do not correct his mother’s assumption because “the truth is. . . well, it’s worse.” 
  • Frannie’s guardian has arranged for her to court Lieutenant Duncan. After a brief conversation with him, Frannie felt “a velvety heat spreading through me. One thing I couldn’t deny: my body knew exactly how it felt about Lieutenant Duncan.” 
  • The British officers would board with the colonists. However, the officers were less than kind. One woman said, “A girl of barely twenty was got with child by a redcoat who breaks bread with her and her husband every night. Another has been told she will never bear children—she was savaged by five men, redcoats all.”  
  • Frannie is attracted to Duncan, who is courting her. When he leaned close to her, “his lips brushed my cheek, sending waves of heat down my center. He had yet to kiss me. I was so desperate for it to happen. . .” 
  • When Duncan kisses Frannie for the first time, she describes, “He was perfect. His kisses gentle, soft, warm. Desire struck me, and I stepped closer and clutched his arm.” 
  • Frannie gets upset that Asa isn’t “fighting” for her. After a brief argument Asa “wrapped me in his arms and kissed me. Deeply. Passionately. For blissful moments, we clung to each other like we’d only breathe again if we became one.” 
  • Frannie goes to talk to another spy. When the spy goes inside, a man on the street calls, “What’s wrong with us, trollop? We got the same parts he’s got!” 
  • When Duncan gets sent away, he goes to say goodbye to Frannie. “Alone in the dim entryway, we had kissed. It felt like our mouths were discussing something complicated and trying to reach an understanding.” 

Violence 

  • After Frannie backtalks to her stepfather, Sewel, he orders Frannie to go into the ocean even though a shark is nearby. Frannie “was praying for God’s protection as I lowered myself into the water, inch by terrible inch. And crying, too, though crying only ever turned him wickeder.” 
  • Sewel is a convicted murderer. He was “fighting in a tavern over a spilt drink and kill[ed] somebody. . . By reciting a Bible verse and getting the brand, he was saved from swinging by a rope round his neck.”  
  • While out to sea, a ship gets stuck on a reef. Frannie grabs the boat’s paddles in order to go help. Sewel orders her to stop rowing. When she doesn’t, Frannie attests, “something slammed into my back. The breath drove out of me. I flew forward, cracking my head on the keel. The world flashed white and went black.” 
  • After hitting Frannie, Sewel grabs her. “He leaned down, bringing his face close to mine. I kicked and thrashed, but he held me by the neck. . . His hand shot under my shirt and squeezed, hard.” Sewel tells Frannie, “You’ll learn and you will obey me.” 
  • In order to get away from Sewel, Frannie “reached back and swung the oar with every bit of strength in me. The paddle struck Sewel between the shoulder blades with a deep thud. . . Sewel flew forward and plunged into the foamy water. He disappeared without a splash, the sea swallowing him whole.” Another boater rescues Sewel. 
  • Before Frannie’s mother died, Sewel would hit her. After Frannie’s mother dies, Sewel announces that he is going to take Frannie as his new wife.  
  • While traveling to the colonies, two sailors disagree with who is right – the British or the Rebels. The two men get into a fight. “Hackett lunged at him – so fast, a blur – but suddenly everything seemed slow, like it was happening under water. He slammed into Lane and drove him back. . . Lane and Hackett grappled and swung, the sounds of their blows horrible.” The men are bruised, but not seriously injured. 
  • A sailor threatens Frannie, demanding that she give him jewels. The Sailor says, “Fail me and see if ‘old buzzard’ don’t slice you open gullet to gizzard, then dance a gig on your entrails.” 
  • The British come aboard the Ambrosia and force men to join the army. When Asa refuses to volunteer, two soldiers “tacked Asa to the deck, the sound of bone and muscle against wood thunderous. Asa kept struggling even as men piled on him. Then two men slipped cudgels from their belts and swung them.” Asa is beaten until he is bloody. Then, he is “dragged off the Ambrosia.” Asa’s beating is described over a page.  
  • While out on a midnight errand, Malcolm accompanies Frannie. A man “rammed into Malcom. He flew back and crashed into the dirt.” When the man holds a knife to Malcolm’s neck, Frannie “pulled my pocket watch over my head and threw myself on the man’s back. I slammed the hard silver into his ear as I came down. He yelled and rolled away, the knife falling from his hand.” Frannie and Malcom escape. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • While in a tavern, Lieutenant Duncan takes a soldier outside and “there was a grunt. The sound of a body thudding against brick.” Lieutenant Duncan warns the soldier to watch his mouth. 
  • When Frannie’s stepfather, Sewel, finds her, he kills one of the servants, Malcom. Frannie finds his body “lying in the dirt.” Malcom’s mother “pressed her hands to his neck, trying to stop the blood that poured out of him. So much blood. It was everywhere.” Malcom dies. 
  • Frannie has a plan to meet Sewel and frame him for spying. However, when she meets him, he kidnaps her and takes her out on a skiff. In order to get away, Frannie “dove at him, aiming the knife at his neck. . . The blade sank into his shoulder. He roared with pain and swung, his fist crashing into my temple.” In retaliation, Sewel tries to strangle her. A patrol of redcoats approaches the skiff. 
  • When Sewel sees the redcoats, he shoots. “The marines fired back, raising a thunderous noise. Wood popped and shattered all around [Frannie]. The skiff shuddered and shook.” When Sewel refuses to stand down and instead grabs his rifle. The redcoats fire. “Cracks exploded into the night. His body jerked back. His shoulder tore off. His hand disappeared in a bloody spray. Other pieces of him burst and broke.” Sewel is killed and Frannie is taken prisoner. The scene with the soldiers is described over three pages. 
  • When Frannie is imprisoned on a boat, she learns that a starving prisoner was “bayoneted through the gut for trying to filch a piece of bread.” 
  • When the Rebels found a major spying for the British, the traitor is “sentenced to death by hanging.” 
  • On a rainy night, Frannie jumps off the prison ship and into the ocean. As she swam away, Frannie “sensed the bullets slicing around me, but I kept going, even when one found my calf and bit.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Frannie’s stepfather is a drunk who often drinks rum.  
  • After being found on the beach half drowned, Frannie is offered laudanum, which she refuses. However, when she is offered a drink, Frannie “drank it half down before my throat lit with burning coals. It was watered rum—and not much watered.” 
  • During meals, Frannie and other adults are served wine. Alcohol is also served at parties. 
  • When Frannie takes on Emmie’s identity, her friends celebrate Emmie’s birthday by sharing a bottle of “spirits.” The girls get drunk.  
  • When Frannie gets upset, Duncan wants her to take laudanum. She refuses it. 
  • When Duncan’s uncle gets upset, he is given laudanum to calm him down. 
  • When Duncan and Frannie get engaged, they have a celebration and drink champagne. 

Language   

  • Lord is used as an exclamation infrequently. 
  • Frannie calls a sailor an “old hellhound.” 
  • Damn is used three times. Hell is used once. 
  • A sailor says that he is his father’s “bastard.” 
  • Frannie injures a man who attacked a servant. Afterward, the man calls Frannie a bitch.  
  • Bloody is used as profanity several times. For example, a soldier says, “bloody hell.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Frannie occasionally prays. For example, when a storm is near, Frannie “saw thick clouds bunching on the horizon and whispered a quick prayer they’d stay there.” 
  • In the past, Frannie’s stepfather, Sewel, was almost killed. He said, “God looked out for drunks, fools, and sailors.” Frannie thinks, “God must’ve loved Sewel fierce ‘cause he was all three.” 
  • Sewel tells Frannie, “Lying’s a terrible sin. An abomination unto the Lord.” 
  • When Frannie sees a dead girl laying on the beach, she takes the girl’s clothes and the girl’s identity. When a sailor finds her, he says, “Unnatural, a lass surviving such a trial. God’s had a hand in this.” Someone replies, “or the devil.” 
  • After taking Emmeline Coates’ identity, Frannie “prayed for God’s forgiveness.” 
  • Frannie reads a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine, who wrote, “all men were born of equal power and no one could be born to preference. The Bible supported this notion, he wrote, which made kings and monarchies ungodly and wrong.” 
  • When Duncan reprimanded Frannie, she thinks, “it was a wife’s duty to obey. He for God and she for him. . . that was the proper order of things.” 
  • One of the servants tells Frannie, “I pray for you . . . Every night, I pray you find your place.” 

Before Takeoff

This is an evening like any other in the Atlanta airport. Sixteen-year-old James and eighteen-year-old Michelle are both on a layover when their paths cross. They are drawn to something nobody else seems to notice: “a blinking green light that will soon cause all hell to break loose.” While James is hesitant to do anything, an impulsive Michelle reaches her hand toward it. When she realizes that “it’s not just a light, but a button,” she presses down.  

Impossible events begin almost immediately. One end of the airport jumps to ninety degrees while snow falls at the other. Explosions, tornados, and rushing rivers spring out of nowhere. To make matters worse, nobody can locate an exit, glass windows refuse to break, cell phone calls aren’t going through, and anytime someone tries to text “something about the events at the airport, [their] words turn into a string of emojis” that are indecipherable.  

As James and Michelle search for their families inside the airport, the mayhem keeps getting worse, and people are quick to form groups and turn on one another. Michelle realizes that she caused this—that the green button must be responsible for this madness—and that she needs to destroy it before it’s too late. 

Before Takeoff is told in omniscient third person, taking the reader inside the minds of James, Michelle, and countless people throughout the airport. Occasionally, the story will make references to things that will happen after the narrative is over. These tactics allow for a better understanding of the grand scope of this situation, as readers are privy to knowledge and events that the main characters are not. The narrative occasionally makes remarks that are informal and playful, at one point describing a series of fights that break out as a “Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco.” This is a way of demonstrating an awareness of the absurdity of the plot and inviting the reader to just go along with it.  

Unfortunately, Before Takeoff ‘s perspective makes it difficult for the reader to get an intimate understanding of James and Michelle. There are so many glimpses into the heads of so many people that it becomes easy to feel detached from the two main characters. Readers may find it difficult to care about them. In addition, as their ordeal stretches on, the plot drags because readers are not given much incentive to be invested in the characters or the outcome. 

From the start, readers know that James and Michelle will reunite with their families and successfully put an end to what is going on. Their romantic connection is also predictable. The narrative tries to make a point about human nature. Particularly, it focuses on how quick people are to grow hostile towards each other in chaotic situations, how they “succumb to their biases . . . blame the people they know the least about.” However, it fails to set itself apart in any way from countless other stories that have made comments about the same phenomena. Unfortunately, Before Takeoff’s enticing premise falls flat. Since the characters are hard to care for and the storyline is so predictable, the book is not worth reading unless the reader is an avid fan of fantastical survival stories. While the writing is often witty, getting through the whole story ultimately feels like a chore.  

Sexual Content 

  • Michelle remembers an old boyfriend and how they snuck around “finding places to make out, finding new places to press their bodies together.” 
  • During a conversation with James about love, Michelle muses, “‘I’d be content with something simpler than love… A perfect sexual relationship, sure.’” 
  • James has not cried in a long time, but  “he came close a few times during those weeks when [a classmate] refused to talk to him after they’d hooked up.” Later, the book implies that they did not have sex, as James lists it as something he would like to do before he dies. 
  • Michelle and James enter an airport shop to get dry clothes to change into. Michelle tells James not to look, and “reaches back to unclip her bra right as James forces himself to stare at a wall.” 
  • Michelle tells James,‘“the boy’s I’ve been with . . . forget gradients of sexuality; we’re talking intimacy here, lie-in-the-dark-and-talk-about-deep-shit intimacy—they’ve all asked some sort of question related to numbers. . . How many other times did you do this.” James reiterates that “sex or making out or whatever” shouldn’t be quantified by how many people you’ve done those things with. 
  • James and Michelle kiss passionately in a closet. There is a skip in time and the two are described as still being in the closet and “still clothed and mostly chaste . . . closely attuned to the joys of the physical.” 
  • An airline employee named Rosa remembers going to a frat party where guys were “walking around shirtless, thinking that the display alone would get them laid.” 
  • James and Michelle dance at one point, and “it doesn’t take long for sex to enter [their] minds.” Their bodies are pressed together and James wonders if Michelle “can feel him start to harden.” 
  • While dancing, Michelle “can feel [James’] erection any time their hips meet. Her hand dips below the waistband of his jeans.” A new commotion interrupts them before they can go further. 
  • A woman reminisces over a lost love, and how “every now and then, during, sex, she’ll still picture [his] face instead of her husband’s.”  

Violence 

  • Two men have a confrontation, and a man named Taha attempts to diffuse the situation. When one man attempts to hit the other, Taha instead “catches the blow directly on the nose, and that sound carries towards James, as does the sound of the back of Taha’s head when it lands against the floor. . . There’s a splatter of blood on the tile.” This leaves Taha unconscious. This whole altercation takes place over two pages. 
  • There are two explosions of ambiguous cause. The first one “ripples the air and shakes the walls, sending several people to the ground.” The second is described as “knocking a few more things to the ground, handing out another dozen concussions or so.” 
  • James and his family lived in Humboldt Park “when the shootings were bad.”  
  • The narrative states that in Concourse A, “A Hunger Games-esque/Battle Royale fiasco has broken out, and since we have weak constitutions . . . we shall pass over the events that take place there for the remainder of this narration.” 
  • A man named Joseph accuses Taha of knowing something about what’s going on at the airport. Joseph intimidates him and jabs a finger at his chest. Before it makes contact, “Taha has grabbed it with one hand and Joseph’s wrist with his other hand, then twisted so that Joseph’s arm is behind his back and his finger is some slight pressure away from breaking.” Taha lets Joseph go after insisting he has no right to accuse him of anything. 
  • An airline employee unsuccessfully attempts to break through a window to escape, swinging a chair at it and punching it in frustration. The narrative notes a stream of blood leaking “from between his clenched knuckles, his skin cracked from the efforts to break free.” 
  • A vaguely described curse passes through the airport causing many people to “merely stop breathing, quietly passing from this life without a bang or a whimper.” 
  • During a commotion, “fistfights [start] to merge, an almost cartoon-like cloud of punches and kicks and curses.” 
  • It is stated at one point that “a handful of other people die in the unspoken battles of the A gates” due to the violence that has broken out there. 
  • People are trampled in stampedes. At one point, people who are unable to get out of the way are “[bracing] themselves for uncaring boots. They curl up in balls and protect their heads.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • James recalls that he often gets stuck looking at mirrors “in the midst of anxiety-ridden afternoons and drug-addled nights.” 
  • “Two white twentysomethings named Brad and Chad, buzzing off their earlier choice to pair shots of Jameson with twenty ounce beers” run around the airport during the chaos. 
  • “The smell of filth and alcohol” is described as coming from stranded passengers. 
  • At one point, a couple of people are noted to be smoking cigars. 
  • James and Michelle get drunk on unspecified alcoholic beverages during a salsa party that breaks out. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used rather frequently, both in the narration and dialogue.  Profanity includes ass, asshole, fuck, shit, bullshit, damn, and goddamn.  
  • Michelle often uses the French swear word “putain,” which translates to whore, bitch, and slut. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual 

  • James recalls being pulled over for not using a blinker and how the cop made him and his friend get out of the car and “only because he found nothing else, and they deferred to him like he was God, did they get back in.” 
  • A woman was “begging the God she stopped believing in when she was fourteen that she’ll see her kids again.” 
  • James thinks about God and going to church with his friend Marcus. James at one point “believed in God even though he never saw evidence of Him, other than what the preacher at church would say.”  
  • A congregation of people gather on their knees, “whispering their prayers in a dozen languages.” 

Escape from Falaise

After their plan to rescue the Prince of Gallica has gone horribly wrong, Will Treaty and his apprentice, Maddie, are being held captive at the Chateau des Falaises in Gallica. The dangerous baron, Lassigny, is intent on keeping them—and the prince—no matter what. But Will and Maddie are determined to escape.

If they ever want to return to their home, they’ll have to find ways to outwit the baron and get outside the locked tower. When friends from home endeavor to find their own way to help, it seems escape is closer than ever. But the dirty tricks of the baron are no laughing matter.

Facing dangerous threats, battles with knights, and a new and risky plot to save the prince, the odds are stacked against them. But the Rangers will use all the tools of their trade to save themselves and save the day.

Escape from Falaise concludes the story arc that began in The Missing Prince. In this installment, Horace and Halt join in the effort to free Maddie and Will. Even though the two Rangers successfully escape the castle, they go back in to finish their mission—free the Gallican prince, Giles. The story highlights the qualities of an honorable leader by using Lassigny and the Gallican king to demonstrate examples of abuse of power. The political intrigue is interesting and introduces a new twist to the Royal Ranger Series.

 One positive aspect of the story is that the Rangers go out of their way to avoid killing someone. For example, Lassigny’s guards use deadly force to try to stop Maddie and Giles from escaping the castle. Despite this, Will and Halt try to incapacitate the guards instead of killing them. Another positive aspect of the story is the camaraderie and respect among the rangers. Even though Maddie is significantly younger than Will and Halt, both men listen to her and take her opinion into consideration. Plus, they trust her to save Giles even though she must do it alone.

Readers who fell in love with the characters in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will enjoy seeing them in a new light. While the story focuses on Maddie’s role as a ranger, Halt, Horace, and Will play a major role in the story’s plot. Because the Royal Ranger Series is an extension of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series readers will want to read it before they jump into Flanagan’s companion series, the Brotherband Chronicles. If you’re looking for a book series with honorable characters who demonstrate loyalty, courage, and perseverance, all of Flanagan’s series will hit the mark.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Armand, one of the king’s senior officers, is “unpopular among the servants” because he “wasn’t above physical punishment for those who attracted his anger. He was free with his fist when it came to the male servants and had been known to lash out at some of the female staff with the short riding whip he always carried.”
  • Armand and Maddie have a duel. Maddie “let fly with two rapid shots, smashing the lead-weighted hardwood arrowhead into the heavy iron helmet. . .” During the fight, Maddie uses her arrows repeatedly. “Three massive blows slammed against Armand’s helmet, deafening him, blurring his sight and hurling him sideways to the right. . .” Maddies’ horse Bumper charges Armand’s roan “shoving him upward and sideways.” Armand falls of the horse, ending the battle.
  • To escape from captivity, Halt, Will and Maddie hide in a stable. When the stablemaster is about to see them, “an iron-hard arm clamped around his throat from behind. The stablemaster gave a short, startled gasp. . .He struggled wildly for a minute or so, but Halt’s grip was relentless, tightening further and further, cutting off the air to the man’s lungs.” When the stablemaster is unconscious, Halt ties him up.
  • While trying to leave the castle, a solider attempts to stop Halt, but his horse Tug “set his shoulder and thudded into the man, knocking the halberd from his grasp, and sending him crashing against the stone wall . . .Fortunately for the guard, he was wearing chain mail and a helmet, as his head slammed into the stonework. His eyes glazed and he slid down the wall, semiconscious.”
  • When Will and Maddie escape, Lassigny gets angry and orders someone to flog several of the soldiers.
  • Maddie sneaks into Lassigny’s castle to free Giles, who is being held captive. While they are sneaking out of the castle, Maddie uses her sling to incapacitate two guards. “The smooth, round stone slammed into the guard’s forehead . . . He gave a startled grunt, threw out his arms and crashed over. . .” Then Maddie throws a stone at the other guard. “The impact of the stone on the man’s head. . . was sickening. Like his comrade, the guard threw out his arms and collapsed backward onto the floor.” Maddie checks the men, who are unconscious but breathing.
  • When Giles is moaning in fear, Maddie “drew back a hand and slapped him hard across the cheek. Instantly, he sat up, his eyes wide-open. . . The moaning stopped.” Later, to escape, Maddie hit Giles again, knocking him unconscious.
  • As Maddie and Giles are escaping the castle, soldiers spot them. Halt shoots at the men. “Maddie saw another guard on the battlement go down.”
  • When Lassigny and his soldiers start leaving the castle, Will and Halt shoot arrows. “The results were devastation. The three riders in the front rank behind Lassigny were plucked from their saddles. Two of them lay where they fell.”
  • Lassigny challenges Horace to a “fair combat.” Lassigny charges Horace. “Lassigny, prepared to resist an upward flick, was caught unprepared for the powerful downward force of Horace’s stroke. The point of his lance was hammered violently down, so that it slammed into the ground. . .Then the lance shaft could bend no further and it shivered into splinters, and he fell, crashing down on his back.”
  • Lassigny recovers and attacks Horace with his sword. When Horace “delivered stroke after stroke,” Lassigny’s arm “was numbed by the impact and his knees buckled beneath him, forcing him to give ground.” After Lassigny gives up, Horace turns his back. Lassigny’s “face was a mask of hatred as he stepped towards Horace’s unprotected back, raising the dagger for a treacherous killing stroke. The three Rangers shot within the same heartbeat. Three arrows thudded into Lassigny, the force of the triple impact hurling him sideways.” The scene is described over five pages.
  • The king orders his brother to be executed for treason.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • During a meal, alcohol is served, but “Maddie didn’t drink alcohol, and Will only imbibed sparingly.”
  • At another meal, alcohol is served. “Will signaled that he would have a glass. Maddie opted for water.”
  • When Will and Maddie are being held prisoner in the castle, they are served wine.
  • When Maddie sneaks the prince out of the castle, she waits for two men to move off the stairs. The men “were sitting and passing a flask of wine back and forth.”
  • While eating with the king, wine is served.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Missing Prince

Will Treaty and his apprentice, Maddie, have been urgently summoned to Castle Araluen. When they arrive, they learn a shocking truth: the Prince of Gallica is missing—and the King of Gallica has asked for help. All reports suggest that the young prince has been taken prisoner by the dangerous and powerful Baron Joubert de Lassigny. King Duncan knows that sending troops to Gallica to rescue the prince could start a war, as could openly helping Gallica resolve internal conflict. But there’s another way to save the prince: the Ranger Corps.

Soon, Will and Maddie are on the road to rescue the missing prince, disguised as father and daughter jongleurs. Maddie will have to use her knife throwing skills to keep up her disguise, and her ranger’s apprentice training to complete the mission. But going undercover is dangerous—and the road presents its own hazards. Can she and Will use all of their talents to save the prince, or will the arrogant Baron uncover their plans and put their lives– and their kingdom– at risk?

Unlike the other books in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series, The Missing Prince is missing action. For most of the story, Will and Maddie are traveling to the castle where the Prince of Gallica is being held captive. Along the way, Will and Maddie face bandits which adds excitement to the story. However, their trip drags and when the two finally reach their destination, the book suddenly ends leaving the reader wondering what will happen in the next book, Escape from Falaise.

Will and Maddie are admirable characters who willingly face danger in an attempt to free the missing prince. However, the book’s slow start focuses more on the political reasons to help the Gallican prince. In addition, Maddie’s mother is reluctant to let Maddie go on a ranger mission. Readers may quickly become bored with the political and parental aspects of the story. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will be happy that Will Treaty plays a major role in The Missing Prince.

Some of the story’s plot feels redundant because Will again disguises himself as a jongleur. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will enjoy Will and Maddie’s relationship and the two working together. Plus, the conclusion has several surprises and leaves readers with several unanswered questions. Even though The Missing Prince lacks the action of other books, the cliffhanger will have readers reaching for Escape from Falaise.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • To stop a band of thieves, Will dresses like an old farmer. When the thieves see Will, they try to stop him. Will shoots an arrow and “Jem was down, rolling in agony on the ground and clutching an arrow that had transfixed his left calf.”
  • One of the bandits, Barton, tries to hit Will, who lifts the man and throws him. “Barton landed with a heavy thud, flat on his back. . . When he recovered, he found himself looking along the blade of a very sharp saxe knife, which pricked the soft skin of his throat.” Will and Maddie take the men to the local law.
  • While Will and Maddie are entertaining, thieves appear and demand everyone’s money. A young man tries to intervene, but “the bandit leader stepped in close to him and swung the butt of the crossbow so that it slammed into Simon’s forehead.” The man is injured.
  • As the thieves are celebrating their newfound wealth, the leader “held his bottle up prior to drinking from it. Will’s arrow smashed through it, showering the drunken bandit chief with wine and shattered fragments of glass, before thudding, quivering into a log lying ready by the fire.” To take down the bandit leader, Maddie “whipped the sling up and over and the lead shot hissed through the air across the clearing, striking Vincent’s skull behind the ear with an ugly thud. The bandit’s eyes glazed, and he let out a sickly little moan. . . he crashed to the forest floor, stunned.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • While Will and Maddie are restraining the bandits, “a man rose onto one knee and leveled the crossbow.” Will sees the movement and “he drew his throwing knife and sent it spinning across the clearing. . .the knife hit him in the center of his chest.”
  • While searching the castle tower for the missing prince, “a burly figure” sees Maddie. When the man grabs her, “she suddenly stepped toward him. . .she grabbed a handful of tunic, bent her legs and shoved her backside into his body.” She then knees him in the groin and runs.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Will and Maddie pose as jongleurs and perform in local taverns. The customers often drink wine and ale. When they eat at the castle, ale and wine are also served.
  • A man who has been following Will and Maddie, goes into a tavern and is “nursing a tankard of ale.”
  • After the thieves rob the townspeople, they hide in the forest. The eight men were “sprawled around the camp. They stole some wine from the tavern last night and they’re all drinking.” The men turn into a “nosy, drunken group.”
  • Will and Maddie see a peddler who had “casks of ale and wine.”

Language

  • A man thinks that the Gallic king is a “pompous prat.”
  • Damn is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Aftermath

Three years ago, Skye’s older brother Luka was implicated as one of three perpetrators in a school shooting that claimed the lives of four victims. Though Luka never fired a weapon, the police saw him walk out of the bathroom holding a gun, and when he didn’t drop it, they shot him dead. The evidence that he was a willing participant could not be more damning than that, though Skye cannot fathom how her “kind and thoughtful brother . . . joined his friends in a school shooting.” In the wake of endless harassment and her father walking out on the family, Skye and her mother moved away to live with her grandmother.  

However, a turn of events forces Skye to move in with her aunt back in the town she grew up in. She knows that while much of the country has forgotten the shooting, “the people here will have not forgotten. They will not have forgiven.” She finds herself going to school surrounded by peers who were personally impacted by the shooting. One of these peers is her former best friend, Jesse, who lost his older brother that fateful day. Skye had anticipated the isolation, dirty looks, and cruel comments. However, strange events start occurring and it seems Skye is being given cryptic clues that there is more to the story of the tragedy. Skye and Jesse end up reconnecting and teaming up to uncover the truth. Could Luka have been innocent? More urgently, could the true third perpetrator still be out there, planning another attack?  

Aftermath is largely told from Skye’s perspective. She is a well fleshed out narrator and the reader is able to sympathize with the shame and defeat she feels as the sister of a school shooter. She struggles with misplaced guilt over the lives lost due to her brother. It’s heartbreaking to see her suppressed grief over losing Luka. As she puts it, “You aren’t allowed to grieve for someone like Luka. It doesn’t matter if he was an amazing brother.” However, the book falters in the chapters that are told from Jesse’s perspective, which are in third person. The perspectives do not alternate evenly and Jesse’s point of view is shared less frequently. Moreover, the reader might feel a disconnect with his character due to the different perspectives. Unfortunately, Jesse’s narrations end up feeling unnecessary and they disrupt the narrative’s flow. 

Though Skye is a well-rounded protagonist, there are areas of her character that will leave the reader wanting. For instance, her relationship with her deceased brother is not adequately explored. The novel states that they were close, and offers a couple memories, but not enough depth for readers to understand their strong bond. In addition, Skye’s romance with Jesse falls quite flat. Since the two friends were developing an attraction to each other before the shooting, it’s rather predictable that the flame will be rekindled once they cross paths again, but their romance ends up feeling like an unnecessary addition to the story.  

Aftermath is well written and easy to follow; plus, it has interesting twists and turns. Though some of the events that take place admittedly stretch the suspension of disbelief, young readers will likely be too wrapped up in the story to care. As the sister of an apparent school shooter, Skye’s perspective is intriguing and not one commonly found in stories that handle this type of subject matter. Unfortunately, the book loses some of this uniqueness when Luka is revealed as having been innocent, even heroic. As such, Skye is given an easy out from her shame and her struggle to balance mourning her brother while also accepting that he took part in the tragedy. 

Even though Aftermath is a well-told story that manages to stand out among other YA novels that handle shootings, it is undeniably flawed. Despite this, Aftermath is definitely worth reading for those interested in crime fiction, especially if they are interested in viewing crime from a unique perspective. However, readers might end up being let down by the conclusion’s reveal, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. Readers who want to explore the grief associated with school shootings may also want to read Every Moment After by Joseph Moldover and Shooter by Caroline Pignat. 

Sexual Content 

  • After the shooting, Skye read message boards where someone suggested that Skye should be sexually assaulted. The post reads, “‘I hear one of those bastards has a sister. . . Maybe someone should take her and –’ I won’t finish that sentence. . .”  At the time, Skye was thirteen and she was “reading what some troll thinks should be done to me and wondering how that would help anything.” 
  • Skye recalls being thirteen and playing basketball with Jesse. She says that Jesse’s older brother, Jamil, looked her “up and down in a way that [made] me want to hug the ball to my chest.” 
  • Jesse recalls the same incident mentioned above, adding that his brother watched Skye leave with “his gaze glued to her ass . . . [saying,] ‘She’s gonna be hot someday, little brother. I’m gonna be thanking you then, for keeping her around.’” 
  • Skye is harassed by a group of older boys, and one of them tells her, “You’ve got a smart mouth. How about I show you a better way to use it?” Nothing ends up coming from this threat. 
  • Skye remembers her father being away on business trips, speculating that he was “screwing his business partner.” 
  • When Skye and Jesse kiss for the first time, Skye describes “[pressing her] lips to his,” but the two of them are interrupted before things escalate further. 
  • Skye and Jesse begin kissing passionately. She says, “I’m finally kissing Jesse . . . his arms tighten around me, the kiss deepening, igniting a spark that is definitely not for middle grade Skye.” 

Violence 

  • The shooting that took place three years prior to the events of the book is referenced several times. Skye recounts that the police saw her brother with a gun and that “they told him to drop it. He didn’t. They shot him. . . [Luka’s friends] Isaac and Harley opened fire elsewhere. When it was over, four kids were dead, ten injured. Harley was arrested. Isaac had fled. He was found two days later – dead, having saved the last bullet for himself.” 
  • An anonymous number sends Skye illegally obtained footage taken by students during the shooting. The first video she receives is of a victim “under her desk, sprawled and there’s blood . . . her dead eyes staring.” She receives videos of the other victims’ bloodied bodies as well. 
  • Skye joins the newspaper at school and finds several notes about her, one of them saying, “I hope someone puts a bullet through Skye Gilcrist’s head.” 
  • Skye finds herself locked in the newspaper room and someone shoves paper and lit matches under the door causing a fire. Skye says, “I feel heat on my leg and look down to see sparks scorching through my jeans. I smack them out and stay down . . .[I] grab the metal [door] handle and fall back, hissing in pain.” She finally manages to break out and pull the fire alarm, having escaped any real damage from the flames. 
  • Jesse, troubled since his brother’s death, apparently got in trouble for a series of fistfights, “culminating in an attack on a younger boy.” 
  • A group of football players—Grant, Duke and Marco—harass Skye on the street. Jesse sees and runs over to defend her, causing a fight to break out. Skye narrates that Jesse “grabs Duke by the jacket and throws him down . . . Grant aims a kick straight at Jesse’s head . . .  [his] boot hits him in the face.” A bystander intervenes and the fight is stopped. Jesse is left with a bloody nose. The scene is described over five pages. 
  • At school, a boy starts intimidating Skye and Jesse, and the situation escalates into this boy attacking Skye. Skye describes, “his hand slams into my shoulder, and I fly into the lockers. Jesse grabs the guy by the back of the shirt and yanks him away . . . I grab the guy’s arm. As he yanks away, my nails rake down his arm.” Someone intervenes shortly afterward. 
  • While Skye and Jesse are investigating clues at a park, someone attempts to abduct Skye at knifepoint. Skye describes him locking his arm “over [her] throat… [she] can’t breathe.” She fights him off. He lets go and takes a knife from his belt. The blade “slashes through [her] jacket. Slashes through skin and into flesh.” He shoves her into a pit but flees when Jesse finds the two of them. Skye’s cut is quite severe, and she is later treated by a doctor. 
  • In the book’s final chapters, Tiffany, the girlfriend of one of the perpetrators of the shooting, is revealed to have been the true mastermind behind the massacre. She breaks into Skye’s apartment with a gun and sedatives. She has a confrontation with Skye where it is revealed that Tiffany sedated her aunt and is planning to kill her and frame Skye. Skye manages to drive a knife “into her, just enough to make her drop the weapon and try to grab me, but I have her by the wrist. . . and two seconds later, I have her on her knees, arm pinned behind her head.” This all takes place over the course of eight pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • A group of high school football players that are harassing Skye is implied to be drunk. Skye tells them, “It seems like you’ve already had a few [drinks].” 
  • Jesse has been taking steroids at the recommendation of his track trainer, unbeknownst to his parents and the school. He eventually confesses and is kicked off the team. 
  • During the kidnapping attempt, Skye’s would-be abductor attempts to put her to sleep by putting a chloroform cloth over her mouth. 
  • Skye’s friend Chris is a weed smoker. 

Language 

  • After the shooting, Skye says someone wrote: “DIE, BITCH” in her locker. Bitch is used on multiple other occasions. 
  • Some refer to Skye’s lesbian aunt as a dyke. 
  • Shit is used twice. 
  • Profanity such as damn, hell, and ass is used often. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Skye says that people have told her that they hope her brother is “rotting in hell.” 
  • As she arrives at the airport near her hometown, Skye describes “praying that [she isn’t] recognized.”  

Saving Montgomery Sole

Montgomery Sole is used to being the odd one out, the “mystery” kid, at school and in her small town. Montgomery is used to being judged and misunderstood by those around her, mainly because she has two moms. But Montgomery finds solace in her friends, Thomas and Naoki, who, like her, enjoy a good mystery. Together the group forms a school club dedicated to all things mysterious, strange, and unexplained. 

One day, after falling down a deep rabbit hole on the internet, Montgomery finds the “Eye of Know,” a possibly all-powerful and all-seeing crystal amulet, that is only $5.99. Intrigued by the mystery and ambiguity surrounding this necklace, Montgomery buys it. But once she begins to wear the Eye of Know, strange things begin to happen. People Montgomery despises, like her school bully, have unexplained terrible things happen to them. 

Montgomery, not knowing what is happening, begins to confront the bullies and ignorance in her life, fueled by her anger toward them. Montgomery is forced to learn how to deal with these mean people, without losing herself and the people she loves most in the process. Montgomery is a caring, headstrong, passionate sixteen-year-old. As she is dealing with the bullies and ignorance in her life, she is also trying to grow up and explore her interests. While Montgomery becomes slightly obsessed with figuring out all the mysteries of the world, she is reminded that when “exploring… [in] the end of it, what you know is you.” Montgomery reminds readers that you don’t need to try to fit in with society’s standards and that it is okay to simply be a mystery. 

Saving Montgomery Sole discusses religion and its weaponization. Growing up, Montgomery has felt at odds with religion since it has often been forced upon her. Plus, it is the religious people in her life who have told her that she and her family need to change. For example, when Montgomery was younger, her religious, Evangelical grandparents often told her that she needed a real father and she needed to be a “good Christian” girl. Then, when a religious preacher moves into town and begins plastering posters around the community that say the American family needs to be “saved,” Montgomery again feels targeted. Montgomery feels as if her family and their way of life are being attacked by this preacher, who is claiming to know what is right and wrong, and his religion. In the end, Montgomery realizes that while there will always be some people who use religion negatively to force their beliefs on others, it does not mean she needs to feel attacked. Montgomery realizes she can rise above the hate. 

Saving Montgomery Sole also highlights the importance of friendship and family. Throughout the novel, Montgomery keeps her worries and fears to herself. While Montgomery is feeling attacked by the new preacher and the school bullies, she keeps this to herself, insisting to those around her that she is fine. This only increases Montgomery’s feelings of isolation. It is only when she talks to her moms and her friends about what is bothering her that she begins to feel better. Montgomery reminds readers that they are not alone, and of the importance of relying on one’s support system in times of need. 

Overall Saving Montgomery Sole is a great book, with a diverse and hilarious cast of characters. Its magical undertones and fun storyline balance out its serious messages about hate and bigotry. While Montgomery Sole is coming to terms with the difficult world around her, she reminds the audience that it is okay to be unique. Montgomery’s actions show that people do not need to fit into society’s mold.  

Sexual Content 

  • When Montgomery and her friends are discussing lucid dreams, Thomas “says most of his dreams are sexy dreams.” 
  • When Matt transfers schools, Montgomery befriends him and they go on a lunch date. After flirting, Montgomery “leaned forward and . . . kissed him.” She explains “I wanted to because at the time I thought he was cute. . . I was enchanted. We had three soft kisses. They were these amazing little melty kisses. Then his hand grabbed my thigh. Clamped down. And all of the sudden it was just like tongue. And I pulled back . . . We kissed again. I learned to manage the overwhelmingness of tongue. And the meltiness came back. But that feeling was quickly replaced by something else, specifically his hand pushing under the front of my sweater. I could feel him searching from my boobs, like clawing past my T-shirt in this weird, frustrating way.” Montgomery pulls away from Matt not wanting to continue further. Matt responds negatively, saying “Oh my God, I knew it . . . you’re a dyke, right?” 

Violence 

  • Montgomery reads a blog about a woman who thinks she is in the “process of becoming a human cyborg.” An article Montgomery reads later explains the woman “had to give it up because she was hallucinating, possibly due to lead poisoning from all the bolts and screws she was inserting under her skin. 
  • There are many instances of bullying throughout the book, specifically towards Montgomery and her friend Thomas, who is gay. For example, the school bully, Matt, purposely bumps into Thomas. Matt spins around and says, “I thought you gays, I mean, guys were supposed to be light on your feet.” 
  • One day Montgomery finds a white cross on her locker, as well as “kick me stickers, MONTYZ MOMZ HAVE AIDS signs, [and] MONTY IS A LESBIAN Post-it notes.” 
  • When she is walking down the hall, Montgomery is “nearly slammed into a wall” by Matt, who says, “Watch your face, Sole!”  
  • At Montgomery’s younger sister’s soccer game, a group of girls make incredibly bigoted comments at the other team. These comments include: “I think a couple of these kids are, like, Mexican. They’re probably not even legal,” “That girl needs an eating disorder,” and, “Does this girl with the pink bow in her hair look retarded to you?” When the girls see Montgomery’s mothers hugging, one of the girls exclaims “let’s get out of here before they, like, rape us.”  
  • While she is standing by her locker, Montgomery “was hit with a heavy thud against [her] back.” It was Matt who hit her. 
  • One day after class, Montgomery and Thomas find that his locker was vandalized. The writing says, “Thomas blow jobs for $5.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes idiot, dickhead, dick, bitch, assholes, jerkoff, and shitty.  
  • Derogatory language is also used a few times. This includes retard, dyke, and fag. 
  • Some of the profanity in the book is only implied. For instance, at a soccer game, a woman yells obscenity “like the C word” at the ref.  

Supernatural 

  • Montgomery and her friends have a school club where they talk about the mysteries of the world, often these topics are of the supernatural nature. The topics include remote viewing, ESP, mind control, and more.  
  • The Eye of Know is described as a rock “excavated from an asteroid landing in the magical mountain ranges of Peru. When wielded by a skilled visionary, the eye is a portal to vision untold. Journey forward into insight. Explore the power of know.” 
  • When Montgomery was younger, she and her mothers went to a haunted antique store. Montgomery asks the shop owner about the ghost. The shop owner explains it is a “feminine spirit.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Montgomery ponders on spiritual messages. She wonders if “maybe there was some connection between bread and Christianity that merited further investigation.” 
  • Montgomery explains that the new reverend in town thinks her and her friends are “going to hell.” 
  • Montgomery’s younger sister, Tesla, is interested in praying with some of her friends before their soccer game. Momma Jo explains “look. It’s not bad, Tesla. I just, I think what I’m saying is . . . I’m saying praying doesn’t win games. Praying is something people do as part of something much bigger, like a religion.” Mama Kate puts her hand on Tesla’s hand. “What we’re trying to say is, sweetie, praying is not something you do just so you can win a game.” When Tesla asks, “Why don’t we have a religious practice?” Montgomery snaps at her saying, “we don’t need one.” 
  • Montgomery explains, “Mama Kate’s parents are really religious. Evangelicals. Believers in the Second Coming. When we were little, they would give Tesla and me religious-type stuff all the time. Like for our birthdays they would send us books like Good Christian Girls tucked into the covers of regular books. They slipped little golf crosses into birthday cards signed, Jesus loves you.”  
  • Furthermore, Montgomery explains that when she was younger, she thought “Jesus was, like, this person my grandparents knew. Like a great-uncle. Great-uncle Jesus from Kansas.” 
  • Montgomery ponders about mystics. “A couple of mystics talk about Jesus a lot. About how Jesus was at work in the world of the living and the dead, shepherding people into heaven. Like Jesus was some kind of maître d’ for heaven. If he’s so important, I wondered, why is he working the door?” Montgomery says, “These people have no logic.” 
  • When Montgomery confronts the new priest, whose posters say he is trying to “Save the American Family,” he tells Montgomery she has a “depraved soul” and “will burn in hell with the rest of those who cannot and will not accept the love of Jesus Christ.” 
  • Montgomery confronts Kenneth, the son of the new radical preacher. The two begin to talk about religion. Kenneth explains “a person can believe in God and Jesus Christ, can be a Christian, and not be like my father.” They talk about what it means to be a “good Christian.” 
  • Kenneth comments on what his father preaches, saying “how about I don’t like calling stuff sin and saying people will go to hell? I don’t think it’s right. And I’ve studied my Bible my whole life just like he has. I don’t see that the Bible says you have to do all this and break in on other peoples’ lives and . . . don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to do. I don’t think that’s being a good Christian, to answer your question.” 

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the feeling took root—that desire to look, to move closer, to touch. Whenever it started growing, it definitely bloomed the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. Suddenly everything seemed possible. 

But America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day. 

When Lily is first introduced, she is shy and reserved which is evident in her interactions with her best friend, Shirley. Shirley is more outgoing and assertive and outshines Lily most of the time. Whenever Lily brings up her ambitions to study space, Shirley quickly dismisses them as boring and insignificant. In part due to her Chinese heritage, Shirley has more realistic goals—getting married and becoming a mother.  

Then, Lily meets Kath. Kath encourages Lily’s ambitions and over time they become extremely close friends. Lily has been curious about the Telegraph Club (a lesbian club) after seeing an advertisement for it depicting a male impersonator. When Kath tells Lily that she has been to the Telegraph Club, Lily only becomes more curious about what is inside.  One night, they decide to visit the club. At the club, Lily discovers a whole new world that makes her question her identity.  Lily begins to explore her sexuality, which brings about an array of conflicts. 

Readers will have no trouble relating to Lily. She is dedicated to her family and culture but simultaneously struggles to find her place in the world. She also wonders whether there is a place for her outside of Chinatown. Some of the chapters are dedicated to discussing Lily’s family members, which allows readers to get to know Lily’s backstory better. This includes her mother, father, and aunt. While these backstories are interesting and provide extra detail to the story, it would’ve been more interesting to hear parts of the story told by Kath or Shirley because they are much more involved in the plot line. 

Another enjoyable part of the story is visual timelines that are provided every couple of chapters. Communism, McCarthyism, and xenophobia are big aspects of conflict within the Chinese community at this time frame. Therefore, these timelines give readers a wider view of what was happening during the 1950s. 

Overall, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a great depiction of young romance, especially LGBTQ romance. Kath and Lily’s love story is not straightforward, but has many twists and turns along the way which makes the plot more realistic. The book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2021. This was the first time a book with a female LGBTQ lead won the award. 

Sexual Content  

  • Lily has a sexual awakening after seeing a book featuring “two women on the cover, a blonde and a brunette. The blonde wore a pink negligee and knelt on the ground, eyes cast down demurely while the shapely brunette lurked behind her.” 
  • The girls go bowling. When their movements expose parts of their legs, some men “eye the girls and grin at each other.” 
  • Lily and Kath have a brief sexual interaction in an empty classroom where “Kath put her hand between Lily’s legs, and Lily helped her, fumbling with her underwear.” 
  • When Shirley is changing into a dress, Lily begins to feel awkward and “couldn’t help but notice the soft rise of Shirley’s breasts over the cups of the bodice; the way they shifted when she twisted back and forth.” 

Violence  

  • Police raid the Telegraph Club. During the raid, Lily and Kath are separated. Lily reads the newspapers account of the raid, using the terms “sexual deviates” and “lewd conduct” to describe the club’s attendees and activities. 
  • Lily tells her mother about her sexuality. To this, her mother reacts extremely negatively, slapping Lily and saying, “there are no homosexuals in this family.” 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • While at the Telegraph Club, Lily has her first beer which she describes as tasting “frothy and a little like soapy water, but it was cold and went down more easily than she anticipated.” 
  • After she finishes the beer, Lily says she feels “a little warm, but not unpleasantly so.” 
  • While at a friend’s house, Lily impulsively smokes a cigarette hoping it “might burn away the haze of wine and the horrible day she’d had.” 
  • After the Telegraph Club is raided, a newspaper article discusses how “marijuana cigarettes were offered, and Benzedrine, known as ‘bennies,’ were for sale” at the club.   

Language                                                                                                                                               

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • None

The Missing Prince

Will Treaty and his apprentice, Maddie, have been urgently summoned to Castle Araluen. When they arrive, they learn a shocking truth: the Prince of Gallica is missing—and the King of Gallica has asked for help. All reports suggest that the young prince has been taken prisoner by the dangerous and powerful Baron Joubert de Lassigny. King Duncan knows that sending troops to Gallica to rescue the prince could start a war, as could openly helping Gallica resolve internal conflict. But there’s another way to save the prince: the Ranger Corps.

Soon, Will and Maddie are on the road to rescue the missing prince, disguised as father and daughter jongleurs. Maddie will have to use her knife throwing skills to keep up her disguise, and her ranger’s apprentice training to complete the mission. But going undercover is dangerous—and the road presents its own hazards. Can she and Will use all of their talents to save the prince, or will the arrogant Baron uncover their plans and put their lives– and their kingdom– at risk?

Unlike the other books in the Ranger’s Apprentice Series, The Missing Prince is missing action. For most of the story, Will and Maddie are traveling to the castle where the Prince of Gallica is being held captive. Along the way, Will and Maddie face bandits which adds excitement to the story. However, their trip drags and when the two finally reach their destination, the book suddenly ends leaving the reader wondering what will happen in the next book, Escape from Falaise.

Will and Maddie are admirable characters who willingly face danger in an attempt to free the missing prince. However, the book’s slow start focuses more on the political reasons to help the Gallican prince. In addition, Maddie’s mother is reluctant to let Maddie go on a ranger mission. Readers may quickly become bored with the political and parental aspects of the story. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will be happy that Will Treaty plays a major role in The Missing Prince.

Some of the story’s plot feels redundant because Will again disguises himself as a jongleur. Despite this, fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice Series will enjoy Will and Maddie’s relationship and the two working together. Plus, the conclusion has several surprises and leaves readers with several unanswered questions. Even though The Missing Prince lacks the action of other books, the cliffhanger will have readers reaching for Escape from Falaise.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • To stop a band of thieves, Will dresses like an old farmer. When the thieves see Will, they try to stop him. Will shoots an arrow and “Jem was down, rolling in agony on the ground and clutching an arrow that had transfixed his left calf.”
  • One of the bandits, Barton, tries to hit Will, who lifts the man and throws him. “Barton landed with a heavy thud, flat on his back. . . When he recovered, he found himself looking along the blade of a very sharp saxe knife, which pricked the soft skin of his throat.” Will and Maddie take the men to the local law.
  • While Will and Maddie are entertaining, thieves appear and demand everyone’s money. A young man tries to intervene, but “the bandit leader stepped in close to him and swung the butt of the crossbow so that it slammed into Simon’s forehead.” The man is injured.
  • As the thieves are celebrating their newfound wealth, the leader “held his bottle up prior to drinking from it. Will’s arrow smashed through it, showering the drunken bandit chief with wine and shattered fragments of glass, before thudding, quivering into a log lying ready by the fire.” To take down the bandit leader, Maddie “whipped the sling up and over and the lead shot hissed through the air across the clearing, striking Vincent’s skull behind the ear with an ugly thud. The bandit’s eyes glazed, and he let out a sickly little moan. . . he crashed to the forest floor, stunned.” The scene is described over four pages.
  • While Will and Maddie are restraining the bandits, “a man rose onto one knee and leveled the crossbow.” Will sees the movement and “he drew his throwing knife and sent it spinning across the clearing. . .the knife hit him in the center of his chest.”
  • While searching the castle tower for the missing prince, “a burly figure” sees Maddie. When the man grabs her, “she suddenly stepped toward him. . .she grabbed a handful of tunic, bent her legs and shoved her backside into his body.” She then knees him in the groin and runs.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Will and Maddie pose as jongleurs and perform in local taverns. The customers often drink wine and ale. When they eat at the castle, ale and wine are also served.
  • A man who has been following Will and Maddie goes into a tavern and is “nursing a tankard of ale.”
  • After the thieves rob the townspeople, they hide in the forest. The eight men were “sprawled around the camp. They stole some wine from the tavern last night and they’re all drinking.” The men turn into a “nosy, drunken group.”
  • Will and Maddie see a peddler who had “casks of ale and wine.”

Language

  • A man thinks that the Gallic king is a “pompous prat.”
  • Damn is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

The Place Between Breaths

It’s been years since Grace’s schizophrenic mother fled from her and her father, Dr. King. Deep down, Grace knows that her mother’s disappearance was purposeful – that she left out of fear that staying would only cause the family more pain. Now in her teens, Grace’s relationship with her father is strained. Dr. King is still working tirelessly as a recruiter at a lab that studies schizophrenia in order to find a cure. “He waits for [his wife] to return, to be found, and finally, finally, their love, [their] family [to be] whole again.” 

Grace, who is interning at the same lab, knows better than her father. She knows “what is and is not within the realm of possibility . . . [that] hope is just a four letter word.” The only thing she believes in is science. And one day, science comes through for Grace. She discovers a DNA code that could be the breakthrough her father has hoped for. Or at least, that’s what she thinks. The discovery could be a delusion, as Grace’s mind has already begun to slip. Grace is experiencing symptoms that are all too familiar to the ones she witnessed as a child. Soon, she cannot be certain of what is real—and neither can the reader. 

The Place Between Breaths is rather unique in the way it is presented. Grace narrates much of the novel; however, several chapters take on different points of view. Sometimes the reader is given flashbacks from Grace’s childhood that are told in the third person. Other times, the narrative takes on a second-person point of view with an ambiguous speaker who is speaking to an unknown person. This creates a somewhat disjointed and intentionally confusing reading experience, like puzzle pieces that are meant to be put together as the story goes on. 

Grace’s emotions are very raw making her easy to sympathize with. The reader feels her growing hopelessness as her schizophrenia consumes her. During a schizophrenic episode, Grace thinks to herself, “Please let me die. I refuse to live like this.” Readers will want Grace to find peace in her rapidly deteriorating state. Other characters are difficult to get a good sense of, which is clearly intentional. Since Grace cannot be certain of what is going on around her, the reader cannot be certain if the people around her are who she perceives them to be. 

The Place Between Breaths requires readers to pay careful attention to the text, particularly in the concluding chapters. It may even be necessary to read the novel over again to grasp what exactly happens. This is doable, as it is a brief 181 pages. However, certain readers might be irritated by how confusing the narrative is and frustrated by the lack of closure. The confusion is purposeful because the audience is meant to experience the story through the lens of having schizophrenia.  

The Place Between Breaths is an important novel that spurs an honest understanding and empathy for those suffering from schizophrenia. It is a uniquely told story that manages to be moving despite its confusing nature. It has a bittersweet message that, while many people continue to fall victim to this disease, medical advancements are slowly but surely being made. Teenagers who are interested in exploring mental illness in literature will likely enjoy the read. However, The Place Between Breaths is definitely not something everyone will enjoy. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim also explores how mental illness can affect a family. 

Sexual Content 

  • Grace’s friend Hannah is pregnant. When talking about the pregnancy, Grace says, “I didn’t think things were that serious with you two. I thought it was strictly messing around.” 
  • Grace is cynical about Hannah’s relationship with her boyfriend and suspects that “he probably just [uses] her for sex.” 

Violence 

  • During a schizophrenic episode, Grace notes, “my teeth sink into the soft flesh of my tongue. Blood pools in my mouth.” 
  • Grace hallucinates a train coming toward her house and panics. She says, “I will myself to die before the train explodes into the house. I smash my face against the floor. My nose fills with blood.” 
  • During a heated argument, Grace attacks Hannah’s boyfriend, Dave. She describes, “I reach up and grab him by the hair. Bite his shoulder.” During the fight, Dave shoves Grace to the ground. “The back of [her] head slams against the pavement” and she is knocked unconscious. 
  • Grace’s fellow intern, Will, reveals that his schizophrenic twin sister killed herself years ago. He recalls stopping her during her first attempt. Will says, “‘My dad had this sword collection . . . she got into the room . . . I tried to take it away from her . . . that’s how I got these scars [on my palms].”  
  • Will says his intervention in his sister’s suicide attempt “didn’t do any good. Because in the end, she still found a way to end her life a few days later.” 
  • One of the book’s second-person perspective chapters describes the feeling of a schizophrenic breakdown, how “you will feel as though your ears are bleeding from the cries . . . your skin ripped open from the clawing.” 
  • At one point in Grace’s childhood, her mother harmed her during a schizophrenic episode. Her mother “pulled her close and then placed the blade [of a knife] against the pillowed fat of her cheekbone. The ridge and edge forming an indented line.” It is unclear if she actually cut her. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • As a young child, Grace witnesses her father injecting her mother with something to help combat a schizophrenic episode. 
  • Several characters note that the drugs for treating schizophrenia have improved vastly. 
  • Grace attempts to kill herself by poisoning her coffee with cyanide stolen from the lab, but she is stopped by a hallucination. 
  • While in treatment, Grace “takes the pills when [she is] told to.”

Language 

  • Minor words of vulgarity, including damn, ass, and hell are said on a few occasions.  
  • Fuck and shit are used occasionally.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Grace confronts Hannah’s boyfriend, Dave, about him wanting Hannah to carry their child to term. He says, “I wasn’t raised to just cut and leave. My faith means a lot to me. I actually prayed on this, Grace.” 
  • Grace tells Dave that “‘there is a reason your GOD gave scientists the brains to create birth control and abortion.” 
  • A doctor at the lab Grace interns at compares the work of a scientist to religion, saying, “our place of worship is here [at the lab]. Our scriptures and prophets are the texts and scientists who have come before us. We are just as adamant and at times fantastical as any zealot.” 
  • Grace’s mother is described as praying at one point during her childhood 
  • Grace is highly skeptical of religious faith. The topics of faith and worship are motifs throughout the book. 

Powwow Summer

Part Ojibwe and part French, eighteen-year-old River lives on a farm with her mother and stepfather. After graduating high school, she looks forward to spending her last summer before university with her friends, but she struggles with her identity after years of racist bullying. On top of this, she must deal with doubts about her relationship with her boyfriend, as well as her stepfather’s violent tantrums.  

When River’s mother reveals that she’s been seeing someone else, River supports her. But when River’s mother tells her that she wants them to leave in the dead of night and move in with her new boyfriend, River feels conflicted and angry. After a conversation with her mother turns heated, River buys a bus ticket to Calgary to stay with a friend. On the way, she is intercepted by a call from her dad, who invites her to stay with him instead. River agrees, and so begins a summer in the city with her father and grandmother, both of whom are Ojibwe. While staying with them, River learns about the lives of people in her community and grows especially close to her grandmother (or nokomis), Grace. 

Over the summer, River encounters new situations. She joins a healing circle. She goes to her first bar with her dad and, later that night, her first North Side party. She learns about the intergenerational effects of residential schools and other issues facing the Ojibwe community. Eventually, River attends a powwow. At the afterparty, River gets drunk and witnesses a knife fight between two gang members. Not thinking straight, River takes pictures of the fight, including a selfie in front of it that prominently displays her red bandana. When she posts the pictures online, they go viral and the comments are filled with threats from people who interpreted her bandana as gang affiliation. River panics, takes down the photos, and asks her family for advice.  

But the damage has already been done. While coming out of a convenience store, she is attacked by two girls who want to be initiated into a gang. Although she is terrified by this incident, River chooses not to press charges after hearing their experiences during another healing circle. Later on, she shares an especially profound moment with her grandmother while they gather birch bark. At the end of the summer, River returns home with a new sense of self and a plan to major in Indigenous Studies.  

Powwow Summer is ultimately an uplifting story that centers around River’s experience of learning about and growing close to her culture. But the novel doesn’t shy away from the struggles that can come with being indigenous. A prologue at the beginning of the book details the racist bullying that River endured in grade school. While the story doesn’t linger on this, River alludes to the bullying in a conversation with her mother, where River recalls being singled out by a racist elementary school teacher.  

Another issue that frequently pops up in the background of the story is the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. River feels her heart sink when she observes a team of volunteers dragging the Red River in search of a missing woman. This comes up again when River attends a healing circle and hears one of the members talk about his cousin’s recent suspicious death. The family believes it may have been an overdose, but the police do not seem to care. It is even revealed that the two girls who jumped River only did so because they believe a gang will offer them protection from “perverts and Indian killers.” 

Also looming over the narrative is the memory of residential schools, where River’s grandmother and others endured years of abuse. River grows especially close to her grandmother and wonders how she is able to remain so strong despite such hardships. These three issues are far from the only issues that Powwow Summer tries to tackle. The novel includes a wide range of issues in less than 200 pages, and at times the scope may be a little too broad. Readers may find the plot complicated, but the various threads are woven together skillfully.  

Powwow Summer is told through both conventional chapters and River’s journal entries, which are usually one to two pages long. River is a likable character with believable struggles, but she also witnesses many other peoples’ struggles, and some readers may be disturbed by these intense scenes. Ultimately, Powwow Summer is a powerful story about identity headed up by a likable and well-developed main character. Powwow Summer is best suited for readers interested in historical fiction or who want to learn more about Ojibwe culture.  

Sexual Content 

  • When River tries to alert the teachers about the harsh bullying she receives from boys at school, the teachers say that boys teasing her means that they “like” her. 
  • While at the beach, River notices some younger teen boys gawking at her as she applies sunscreen to her friend’s back and observes that the towels in their laps seem “a little too strategic.” 
  • When River jokes about riding a horse in the Canada Day parade, her boyfriend tells her that it would add “sex appeal.” 
  • One of River’s friends denounces a potential love interest as not a “real lesbian.” Her friend says, “If you don’t like tacos, then go back to the hot dog cart already. I can’t be someone’s experiment.” 
  • River kisses her boyfriend several times. 
  • River brings a blanket to a day trip with her boyfriend. She intends to use it for a picnic, but adds “and then if you’re good, we’ll see what else we can do with, or under, it.” Nothing ends up happening at the day trip because River is a virgin and reluctant to have sex until she is sure that she is ready. 

Violence 

  • When River leaves some of her equipment on the front porch, her stepfather Randy reacts violently by “smash[ing]” fine china “against the brick chimney beside the dinner table.” Blood “splatter[s]” on River and “drip[s] from his hand.” 
  • A grade school teacher singled out River. When River would talk in class, the teacher began “pok[ing]” her and “slapp[ing]” her.  
  • River witnesses a gang fight between two men. One “[holds] a knife to” the other’s throat. He does not actually cut the other man. 
  • After her post goes viral, two girls approach River in a store parking lot and attack her. One girl “[swings] her fist” and punches River. When River falls to the ground, the girls “[stomp] on River’s foot and calf.” 
  • River receives several online threats including one that warns her, “You are gonna wish you killed yourself, after you find out what they are going to do to you.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In a flashback, River overhears two bullies say, “Indians are mostly drunk people on welfare.” The bullies speculate that River is “drunk at school” and that she “drinks Listerine and sniffs gasoline from a paper bag.”  
  • River’s friend relays that a party is going to have “lotsa babes and booze.” 
  • River’s stepfather drinks heavily. 
  • River’s father orders her a rum and coke from a bar.  
  • At a party, two girls do cocaine near where River is trying to sleep. They offer her some, but she declines. 
  • River gets drunk at a powwow afterparty. 

Language  

  • Bullies at school refer to River’s eyes as “dogshit brown.” 
  • In a flashback, River gets called a racial slur by her peers. 
  • The word “shit” is used frequently throughout the narrative. 
  • “Bitch,” “slut,” “damn,” and “hell” are also used at times. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • At a youth night, River smudges herself with sage and wafts tobacco smoke from a bowl. The youth leader explains that the smoke carries prayers up to the Creator.  
  • River “ask[s] the Creator for a sign” or “something that would show her the path she was supposed to be on.” 

The Words We Keep

It’s been three months since Lily found her older sister, Alice, bleeding from her wrists on the bathroom floor. Now, with her father having drained his bank account for Alice’s mental treatment program, Lily knows she is not allowed to be a burden to her family. She’s told no one about her panic attacks, or how she impulsively picks the skin on her stomach until it bleeds, sometimes even in her sleep. She constantly wonders to herself, “What if you’re going crazy? Just like [Alice]. What if . . .you’re already gone?” Still, Lily knows she cannot let any of this out. She needs to keep her eyes on the prize – that being a full track scholarship to Berkeley. 

Her sister’s return home from Fairview is coupled with a boy named Micah transferring to Lily’s high school. As it turns out, Micah was in treatment with Alice, and he’s also Lily’s new partner for a school art project. The two embark on a project that involves leaving poetry in unexpected places throughout the school. The two maintain their anonymity, gaining the title “the guerilla poets of Ridgeline High.” Lily knows Micah can assist her in finding a way to help her sister. However, Lily also finds that she needs Micah to help her, because the words she’s kept inside for too long are beginning to break through. 

Told from Lily’s perspective The Words We Keep is a vivid and gripping story about the effect depression and anxiety can have. The reader feels the push and pull of Lily knowing she needs help but wanting to be strong for her family. The poetry she writes communicates this struggle very well. The highlight on mental illness and self-harm is unflinching, and while at times difficult to read, the narrative handles the difficult subject matter beautifully. Occasionally the chapters end by showing the reader Lily’s Google searches and her word-a-day calendar entries, which allow for deeper glimpses into her psyche. Other chapters end with comments on the high school’s student message board, offering insights into how other students perceive Lily and Micah’s poetry project.  

Lily and Micah’s tentative bond and eventual romance is developed well. Micah’s mysterious nature and affinity for the characters of Winnie the Pooh intrigue Lily, and she muses that he might be able “to understand [her struggles]. Maybe he’s the only one who could.” The strained relationship between Lily and Alice is also very important to the narrative. The sisters are both suffering, but unable to console each other because they are holding their struggles back for the sake of the other. Through their relationship, the importance of openness with those close to us during trying times is emphasized. 

The major characters in The Words We Keep are largely well-developed and likable, but those outside of the main cast are too numerous and one-dimensional. For example, a bully named Damon is at points unrealistically cruel to Micah. Damon goes as far as giving Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note suggesting that he kill himself, which Micah just shrugs off. Other characters, like Lily’s best friend and her stepmother, provide little substance to the narrative and seem to leave and reenter the story at random periods with little impact, leaving the reader to wonder why they were included at all. 

The flaws of The Words We Keep ultimately do little to detract from the impact of the story. Readers will be able to connect with Lily and will want to see her story to its finish. While not for the faint of heart, this is an important novel that explores the pain of suffering in silence, and how to overcome the fear of letting it out and asking for help. Readers will learn that many people around them may be fighting inner demons, and that compassion and openness about one’s own struggles is imperative. Readers who want to explore mental health through fiction should add Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson and Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge to their reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • Lily texts Micah saying that a talk with her sister went over “like a fart in an elevator.” Afterward, Micah jokingly texts Lily that she needs to “work on [her] sexting skills.” 
  • When students begin leaving poems throughout the school, Lily notes “the occasional blow me” written along with them. 
  • Lily says that her father and stepmother are newlyweds, “which means sex. And lots of it.” 
  • Lily and Micah almost kiss in a janitor’s closet and rumors spread. One student speculates on the student message boards that Micah was “banging [Lily] in the janitor’s closet.” 
  • When Lily and Micah kiss for the first time, Lily describes, “his lips [moving] slowly, as gentle as a breeze, but the taste of him makes my whole body hum . . .our bodies, our lips, melt farther into each other.”  
  • Lily and Micah go skinny dipping in the ocean. Lily says, “I taste the ocean on his skin as I press my mouth to his shoulder, his neck, his jaw. He groans, low and guttural, when his lips find mine.” 
  • Lily sees her sister going skinny dipping with a guy at a beach party. He later says that the two of them were “messing around.” 
  • Micah was with Lily and her family at the hospital after Lily attempts suicide. He later confesses, “‘I have to tell you something . . . they put you in a hospital gown and I totally saw your butt.” She jokingly asks if it was “good for [him],” to which he responds it was. 

Violence 

  • As a child, Lily nearly drowned while swimming in the ocean. Her sister guided her back to shore. Lily remembers, “salt water fills my mouth, my ears, my everything . . . and then I’m on the sand. Dad’s swearing. He’s pounding on my back. He’s yelling my name so loudly, it hurts my head.” 
  • Lily discovers Alice on the bathroom floor, “blood draining from her wrist, pooling on the tile . . . Dad scoops her up, legs limp, blood dripping like a fairytale crumb down the stairs.” Alice is taken to the hospital and then to a mental facility. Lily recalls finding her in the bathroom several times throughout the book. 
  • Kids at school discuss rumors surrounding Micah. One boy says, “‘I heard someone found him perched on Deadman’s Cliff, trying to, you know. . . ’ [he] makes a throat slitting motion with his thumb.” 
  • One student says they heard that Micah “went full psycho on a kid at his last school. Like stomping him to the ground.” 
  • On a message board for students at Lily’s high school, someone suggests they make bets on “how long until [Micah] offs himself.” 
  • Lily self-harms. The earliest incident the reader is privy to is when she vigorously plucks hairs around her eyebrows, “[digging] the tweezers in until blood beads on my skin. But I keep going . . . got it . . . I wipe the pinpoints of blood from my eyelids.” 
  • When Lily was seven, a man, who is later revealed to be Micah’s father, leapt from Deadman’s Cliff. She remembers “watching the body covered in a white sheet like a bloated whale on the sand” on the news. 
  • Lily picks at the skin on her stomach, constantly picking off scabs and opening new wounds. She says, “it helps calm me, keeps me from having a full on meltdown . . . before long, blood coats my fingertips.” This process is described vividly throughout the book. 
  • Lily picks at her wounds in her sleep as well, waking up to find “bright red, angry splotches where I’ve ripped open my skin.” 
  • Micah lashes out at one of his bullies. In a fit of rage, Micah pushes him “up against a locker, and he’s hitting him, hitting him, hitting him.” A school security guard apprehends Micah and he is suspended from school and sentenced to do community service work. 
  • Alice has a breakdown at a beach party and tries to jump from Deadman’s Cliff, apparently convinced that she might fly. Lily tries to climb up to convince her to get down. She reaches for Alice’s ankle and “as she yanks her leg away, her other foot slips . . . and she’s falling. And screaming . . . and there’s blood in her hair. So much blood.” Alice survives the incident, ending up with a concussion. 
  • After her sister’s fall. Lily picks the skin on the entirety of her body in the bath, saying, “I continue even though the pain fills me. Because the pain fills me . . . I scrape myself away.” This happens over three pages. 
  • Lily has a nightmare about finding her sister in bed with “a waterfall of blood [pouring from her covers]. Soaking her nightgown. Splattering onto the carpet.” 
  • While in her room, Lily opens a box of razors and runs her finger “across all the razors and pencil sharpeners and scissors . . . If pain is all we’re going to feel anyway, why not bring it on?” She snaps herself out of it before she can act on the urge. 
  • Lily runs away from home in the middle of the night and attempts suicide by jumping off of Deadman’s Cliff. She thinks, “I just want it to stop. All of it—the monsters, the guilt, the never enough. It’s the only way.” Alice, Micah, and her father arrive and stop her. This scene lasts six pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Lily finds her father cleaning out a medicine cabinet in preparation for Alice’s homecoming. She suspects this is so he can “make sure Alice doesn’t down a fistful of Aspirin when she gets home.” 
  • Lily’s father takes sleeping pills. 
  • Lily begins secretly taking her father’s sleeping pills to combat her intrusive thoughts. 
  • A bully leaves Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note reading, “Do us all a favor.” 
  • After picking at her entire body, Lily takes one of her father’s sleeping pills and one of Alice’s prescribed pills. She sleeps for days while her father and stepmother are constantly with Alice at the hospital. When she awakes, she takes a double dose of sleeping pills and several of Alice’s before returning to sleep.

Language 

  • After Alice falls from the cliff, a student on the message board says that she and Lily are “total attention whores. The world would be better without them.” 
  • Shit, bitch, and damn are said on a few occasions. 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lily says that she and her family talk with her therapist while holding each other’s hands “like we’re saying a prayer. And maybe we are, supplicating a higher power to help us.” 

Handbook for Boys: A Novel

After a fight with another student, sixteen-year-old Jimmy is charged with assault, a crime that would normally get him six months in juvenile detention. But the judge offers him an alternative: a six-month community mentoring program run by a man named Duke Wilson. On the judge’s request, Jimmy begins working at Duke’s barbershop. There, he and another student named Kevin meet Duke’s “old guy” friends, who have a lot to say about life.   

At first, Jimmy finds his time at the barbershop unbearable. Duke and his friends frequently tease Jimmy, and each new customer prompts them to launch into a philosophical conversation relating to Duke’s “rules of life.” Gradually, Jimmy begins to warm up to Duke and his friends. Despite his skepticism about their rules, Jimmy continually sees Duke’s wisdom about making choices reflected in other parts of his life. Eventually, Jimmy must grapple with his friend Kevin’s choices that lead to Kevin’s arrest for drug possession.  

 A major theme in Handbook for Boys is intergenerational differences. Jimmy and Kevin are teenagers, while the men at the barbershop are repeatedly described as “old guys.” The novel is told from Jimmy’s perspective and, as a result, readers may be sympathetic to Jimmy’s concern that Duke can’t “understand what it is to be young now.” The rift that this creates is frequently commented on. Jimmy initially finds Duke’s advice to be judgmental, but he comes to accept much of it in the latter half of the book. 

Another prominent theme is the role of agency in everyday life. Duke and his friends firmly believe that people decide their own fate and are therefore always responsible for what happens to them. In fact, this belief is central to Duke’s philosophy. Jimmy initially disagrees. When Duke first posits his “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality to him, Jimmy says, “Anybody can make a mistake, but you figure everybody should be perfect. You’re not even perfect.” Jimmy pushes back in similar ways at various points in the story, but he also seems to internalize Duke’s worldview.  

Jimmy’s empathy makes him a likable character, and readers who often butt heads with respected elders may find him relatable. But even though the story is written through Jimmy’s eyes, he mostly serves as a vehicle for the lessons taught by Duke and his friends. Told as a series of conversations about life, Handbook for Boys frequently prioritizes life lessons over plot. Young readers looking for a clear storyline may find the novel’s philosophical tone preachy or see the issues explored in the story to be dated. 

Ultimately, Handbook for Boys is an insightful look into mentorship and second chances that presents some potentially helpful advice for young people, including the importance of making choices that better their lives. However, it occasionally leans too heavily into its advice-giving side at the expense of staying engaging. Readers who want an entertaining story about overcoming obstacles may want to skip Handbook for Boys and instead read the Hazelwood High Trilogy by Sharon M. Drape or the Alabama Moon Series by Watt Key. 

Sexual Content 

  • Duke and the guys discuss the dangers of pregnancy and venereal diseases like AIDS. Duke says that he’s not willing “to risk [his] health for a few minutes of pleasure,” but tells Jimmy and Kevin “[w]hat you want to do with your life is your business.” 

Violence 

  • Jimmy is on probation for assaulting another student. He describes the incident by saying, “We got into it and I wasted him. But then I was so mad that when it should have been over, I kept punching him. I knew it was wrong because he was hurt bad. His nose was broken and his lip was cut.” 
  • When Kevin makes a crack at him, Jimmy threatens to punch him in the face. The barbershop guys chastise Jimmy for the comment. 
  • One of Duke’s friends speculates about the life of a man in prison, saying that the man must be worried “somebody is going to stick a shank in” him. 
  • After another argument with Kevin, Jimmy thinks about “smashing his face.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Kevin’s mom catches him smoking weed and turns him into the police. 
  • A customer at the barbershop tells a story about getting arrested for accidentally purchasing a stolen watch. The previous owner sold it to the customer in order to buy drugs.  
  • Duke refers to a woman outside the barbershop as a “junkie,” which leads to a conversation about why people do drugs and the importance of avoiding them. 
  • One of Duke’s friends brings up the dangers of contracting AIDS from a drug needle. 
  • Kevin fails a drug test and is later arrested for possession. 

Language  

  • Jimmy calls a philosopher lame. 
  • The word crap is used several times. 
  • Words like stupid and dumb are occasionally used. For example, Jimmy refers to his uncle’s dog as stupid. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Duke asks Jimmy if he went to church Sunday morning. 
  • A woman comes to the barbershop and asks one of Duke’s friends to pray for her. 
  • Jimmy’s great-aunt Sister Smith visits and asks whether Duke is talking to Jimmy about “choosing the ways of the Lord over the ways of the world,” among other spiritual concerns. Jimmy is uncomfortable with the conversation. 
  • A customer says he needs a “good Christian man” to cosign a loan for him. 

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.” 

Jumper

Blair Scott has been “hell-bent on a career in wildland firefighting” since she was in high school. Being only nineteen, she and her longtime best friend, Jason, don’t expect to be recruited when the Forest Service calls for an additional class of smokejumpers. It’s a particularly rough fire season, though, and they are both accepted. The only thing holding Blair back is type 1 diabetes, and with Jason’s help, she is determined to hide her condition from their instructors.  

Training is strenuous, and both Jason’s and Blair’s families become more insistent that Blair tell the truth. They point out that the medical forms for the job say “‘diabetes may be disqualifying. It’s not an absolute.’” Blair doesn’t want to take any chances. Things are going too well to risk stalling the momentum. Eventually, however, things do begin to spiral out of control. When tragedy strikes, Blair is forced to pick up the pieces and decide where she goes from this point. 

Blair narrates the story, allowing for meaningful insights into her life and why she is so passionate about smokejumping. Also apparent is underlying guilt about Jason having to look after her. He is fiercely protective of her, to the point where Blair wonders if he would even be pursuing a job as a smokejumper if “he weren’t so committed to keeping [her] out of the ER.” This sentiment is most poignantly felt after a tragic accident that leaves Blair struggling to cope.  

The friendship between Blair and Jason is the highlight of the novel. It is refreshing to see Blair, who is a lesbian, enjoy a strong but purely platonic relationship with a man. Their dynamic is very enjoyable. At one point, Blair playfully muses that “Jason and I always fall for the same girls, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s him they want . . . If I were interested in guys, even a little, I’d probably join them.” The reader feels the connection between these two characters very deeply, and, as a result, the experiences Jason and Blair have together are impactful.  

Jumper is not a novel for everyone. The narrative is a slow burn that might be less than engaging for certain readers. A large portion of the story focuses on Blair and Jason’s training, and while it is undeniably an intense process and the risk of Blair having a health emergency looms, this part of the book is largely uneventful. In addition, Blair’s stubborn hotheadedness occasionally makes her difficult to like. Her ambitions are easy to empathize with, but her reckless nature can be frustrating as suspense is built around the danger she is putting herself in. 

Despite the aforementioned flaws, Jumper is a solid story about two friends fighting against the world. Readers who are interested in platonic male-female friendships will get a lot of enjoyment out of Blair’s bond with Jason. Additionally, those who are diabetic will relate to the protagonist’s struggles. The book also contains plenty of interesting information about smokejumping and just how difficult and dangerous the occupation is. The reader will be left with an appreciation for people in this line of work. Readers who enjoy Jumper should also check out the Peak Marcello Adventure Series by Roland Smith which takes readers into the suspenseful world of rock climbing. 

Sexual Content 

  • Blair is attracted to one of the female instructors, and Jason jokes that seeing the two of them run together is “orgasmic or something.” 

Violence 

  • In her childhood, Blair was bullied by a boy, so she retaliated by punching his nose “so hard, he squealed like a pig. Bled like one, too.” 
  • Early on, Blair and the other trainees are informed that a hand crew in Idaho “got caught between two walls of fire . . . there [were] no survivors.” 
  • In the Idaho fire, “members of the shot crew deployed to help clear an exit path sustained serious injuries that [grounded] some of them for the rest of the season.” 
  • Blair’s training is quite strenuous and results in minor injuries along the way, particularly when jumping. Blair describes: “[slamming] down on my already bruised hip . . . everything hurts, but I breathe into the pain. I can handle the pain.” 
  • One of Blair’s trainers stresses the importance of bending one’s knees when landing from a jump. He says, “you may have braces on your ankles. But there’s nothing to keep you from jamming your hip into the socket. I’ve only seen that happen once . . . I’d never heard a human being scream like that.” 
  • During a forest fire, Jason is killed in an avalanche when a boulder hits him in the chest. Blair hears “that meaty thwack of hard meeting soft, of expelled breath and crushed bones . . .  Jason is on the ground . . . There is a peculiar dent in his chest.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • One of the trainers frequently chews Nicorette gum. 
  • After dinner, most of the recruits “head for the bar, while the four of us still underage park it outside the A & W next door.” Fellow underaged recruit Luís suggested joining the guys at the bar, saying “come on, goody-goodies, it’s only beer.” He convinces everyone but Blair to go with him. 
  • Blair uses insulin shots due to her diabetes. 
  • After a particularly rough landing, Blair says that she’ll have Advil with her dinner. 
  • Blair buys a “big bottle of ibuprofen” to lessen the pain caused by injuries sustained during training. 

Language 

  • Damn is said frequently.  
  • Occasionally shit, hell, and variations of ass are used. 
  • Blair says that Jason has a “natural resting-bitch face.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • A head trainer tells the newly minted smokejumpers, “‘If you’re the praying sort, ask for an early fall and a long, hard winter so we can regroup.’” 
  • During Jason’s funeral, Blair notes the pastor talking about Jason “like he was his favorite altar boy or something . . . Jason wasn’t religious. Why would they bother pretending he was?”

500 Words or Less

Nic Chen doesn’t want to spend her senior year known as the girl who cheated on her lovable boyfriend with his best friend and made him transfer schools. She doesn’t want to continue to be ostracized. She doesn’t want to be stared at as she walks down the hallway or have people write “whore” on her locker in lipstick. So, when an opportunity arises to write a classmate’s college admissions essay, Nic tries to use it as an opportunity to rebrand herself and change her reputation. 

As Nic is asked to write more and more essays, she begins to walk in her classmate’s shoes. But the more essays Nic writes, the more unsure of herself she becomes. Weighed down by the guilt of cheating on her ex-boyfriend and writing other people’s essays, Nic questions the person she is becoming and if she is still the perfect straight A, Ivy League-bound teenager society wants her to be. 

Written in poetic verse, 500 Words or Less is very approachable and is a great introduction to poetry and novels written in verse. Interestingly, Rosario includes the essays that Nic writes for her classmates throughout the book. Told mainly from Nic’s perspective, the reader will see Nic’s journey as she learns to move on from her failed relationship, deals with the heartache of breaking up with her first love, and rebuilds herself knowing she acted terribly wrong. Nic is a complex character. She is a determined, passionate girl, who has admittedly made mistakes. Readers will relate to Nic’s struggles with self-confidence, knowing who she is, and wondering if her actions define her. She explains, “I’m still the girl / who cheated on her boyfriend, / the girl who cheated / on those essays, / the girl who cheated / because maybe / that’s who I am.” Throughout this book, Nic learns to forgive and accept herself as well as forgive the people who have hurt her. 

Through Nic and her classmate’s experiences in their senior year of high school, 500 Words or Less takes a look at the pressures of high school and of getting into the right college. Nic explains that she and her classmates “waited for our lives to change / with a single e-mail / from a university / that wanted us.” Furthermore, Nic explores the pressure she and her classmates receive from their parents to be successful and get into the right school. When Jordan, an old friend, tells Nic he is no longer going to Princeton, he explains, “I was always supposed to go / to Princeton. / Because I was supposed to become / my father, / and my father is an asshole.” In the end, Nic and Jordan end up not going to Princeton. Rather than following their parents’ dreams for them, Nic and Jordan decide to do what’s best for themselves, showing that getting into the perfect college will not make or break someone’s life and that any path after high school is valid. 

500 Words or Less also touches on the topic of sexism. Nic points out that while people began to alienate her and write “whore” on her locker, everybody still likes Jordan, the guy she cheated with. She thinks to herself “was there even a male equivalent / to the word ‘whore?’/ There were words/ but none that carried / the same weight.” While Nic is outcasted, Jordan remains the popular kid, showing the blatant misogyny in the treatment of men and women even when they both make the same mistake. 

The book also touches on racism. When Jordan asks Nic for help on homework in Japanese, Nic says, “You know I’m part Chinese, Jordan.” Jordan responds, “It’s like the same thing- / Chinese, Japanese, Korean.” In another instance, a friend tells Nic that she’s “lucky because / half-Asians were always prettier than/ white girls like her.” Nic feels uncomfortable when her friend tells her this. However, Nic isn’t the only person who feels stereotyped. In a college application essay, an African American classmate writes, “I want to attend [this college] because I want to be more than a football player. In America, this is not what young black men are supposed to do . . . I want to be more than an athlete, more than a black man who has a great arm.” Although people would like to “forget that race exists,” Nic points out the subtle ways racism leaks into society, negatively affecting people of color.  

Furthermore, 500 Words or Less examines classism, as Nic’s school is predominantly full of upper-class students whose parents can afford to “[donate] handsomely to the school” they are applying to. Nic herself comes from a wealthy family. She admits that even though she charges $300 per essay, she doesn’t need the money. However, there are a few students who are lower class and do not have the same opportunities as the richer students. Unlike the rich students who know they can go to college no matter what, to some of these students going to college “means everything” as it is a path to upward social mobility.  

Overall, 500 Words or Less is an engaging book, written uniquely with a diverse cast of characters. However, it’s best for mature readers because of the profanity, alcoholism, and normalized teenage drinking. Readers who are applying to college and figuring out what they want to do after high school will relate to Nic’s story and learn that getting into the perfect school is not everything. Furthermore, 500 Words or Less explains that the choices you make in high school do not define you. If you’re ready to jump into another engaging book with a protagonist who is trying to figure out who she is, grab a copy of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez. 

Sexual Content 

  • At a party Nic throws, she and her boyfriend went into her father’s office to find a drink. Nic remembers she was “drunk / on love / and alcohol. / I ran my fingers along the side of his body. / He squirmed / and smirked / and grabbed my hand in his. / He pulled me closer. / Our lips met.” He begins to tug at “the zipper on my dress, / fumbled with the clasps on my bra. / I unlocked my lips and stepped away.” Nic is worried someone will find them and leads Ben up to her room. She describes, “I untangled my hand from his / and fell on top of my bed . . . / [He] fell on top of me . . .  / [and] this time I didn’t stop him.” 
  • On a date, Nic and her boyfriend stop for a bite to eat. As the two eat, Nic thinks, “I wanted to kiss him.” 
  • At Jordan’s party, Nic and Jordan “ended up / upstairs” and have sex. It is suggested that they have sex once or twice more.  

Violence 

  • Nic’s boyfriend dies in a tragic snowboarding accident. Nic explains “teenagers didn’t die in avalanches/ they died in / car crashes, / drunk-driving accidents, / drug overdoses, / gunshot wounds, / or suicide.” After the accident, Nic heavily researches avalanches to understand how he died. She finds out “the force alone / of snow / sliding down a mountain / can kill you,” or “one suffocates after being trapped / in the snow / for thirty minutes.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • During a family dinner, Nic’s father drinks wine. 
  • Nic’s mother was a heavy drinker. Nic remembers how her mother “couldn’t / French braid / my hair / because she was / drunk.” Her father would often find her mom “slumped in a chair” with “an empty bottle of wine” when he came home from work.  
  • Nic remembers how “Mom poured herself another / from a bottle of chardonnay / on one of the last nights / before she disappeared.”  
  • When Nic and her friend Kitty arrive at a party, they are greeted by the host, who smells like “a pitcher of margaritas.” At this party they find “handles / of cheap vodka, rum, and whiskey / wafting toxic smells on the kitchen counter,” along with a variety of mixers.  
  • At the party, Kitty pours “everything- / and I mean everything, / including the dredges of empty bottles- / into a plastic cup” and takes “a large gulp.” Nic leaves the party without checking on Kitty, leaving her “shit-faced” and extremely “drunk.” 
  • Nic reminisces on the party she threw two years ago where she first reconnected with her boyfriend. “Strangers filled empty spaces, / squeezing by, / finding friends / and a beer.” Nic found him in the kitchen drinking “a Keystone Light/ slowly.” The pair go into Nic’s father’s study and she offers him “whiskey, bourbon, or scotch” and pours the two of them “a glass of Glenrothes 1970 / single-malt whiskey,” which Nic explains is a “five-thousand-dollar bottle / of whiskey.” 
  • In a draft of an essay Nic is writing for someone else, she writes about this person’s mother who “is an alcoholic, which leads me to my biggest fear in college—drinking. . . I go to parties all the time. . . But I don’t drink. I haven’t drank.” 
  • At a barbecue, someone asks Nic to “grab a beer for me.” 
  • Nic reminisces about how it all went wrong with her ex-boyfriend. She thinks, “it was polishing off a bottle of Jameson / with Jordan / last summer, / at his party.” As Nic leaves this party she encounters “stragglers smok[ing] / cigarettes and weed.” 
  • Nic remembers previous Christmases where here mom “drank a bottle of Riesling / and passed out under the tree.” 

Language   

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes whore, shit, bitch, goddamn, fuck, slut, ass, and asshole.  
  • After the school finds out that Nic cheated on her boyfriend, her peers begin to bully her, calling her names like “slut” and repeatedly writing “whore” on her locker.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Way You Make Me Feel

Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously, but when she pushes one joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck the KoBra. Clara was supposed to go on vacation to Tulum to visit her social media influencer mom; she was supposed to spend lazy days at the pool with her buddies. Instead, she is stuck in a sweaty Korean-Brazilian food truck all day, every day? Worse still, she is working alongside her nemesis, Rose Carver. It’s definitely not the carefree summer Clara had imagined.  

But as time goes on, it turns out that maybe Rose isn’t so bad. And maybe the boy named Hamlet (yes, Hamlet) who’s crushing on Clara is pretty cute. And perhaps Clara actually feels invested in her dad’s business. What if taking this summer seriously means Clara has to leave her old self behind?  

Clara doesn’t mind being the center of attention if she’s carrying out a prank or causing mischief. Because of her bad attitude, Clara is a surprisingly unlikable protagonist who always focuses on herself. Even though Clara befriends Rose and Hamlet, the reader is left wondering why two nice, over-achieving teens would spend time with Clara. When forced to work at her father’s food truck, Clara matures slightly. Unfortunately, Clara’s personal growth doesn’t make up for her poor attitude and her transformation at the end of the book is not believable. 

While there is a host of other characters in the book, none of them are well-developed. Clara’s nemesis, Rose, seems like a well-adjusted teenager, yet she has no friends. Rose’s lack of friends is not believable because it is never explained why she has no friends. Plus, after years of hating each other, the girls quickly become besties, which is a little unrealistic. In addition, Clara’s father ignores his daughter’s outrageous behavior and temper tantrums. Even when Clara travels out of the country to visit her mother without telling him, her father’s reaction is mild. Because Clara is the only character who is well-developed, readers are left confused—why do Rose and Clara’s father act as they do? 

The Way You Make Me Feel has a unique premise that revolves around a food truck; however, most of the conflict comes from Clara and Rose bickering, which becomes tedious. Several times throughout the story, Rose’s old friends appear—however, they are equally unlikable and add little to the story. The lack of character development and the absence of genuine conflict make The Way You Make Me Feel a book that will be quickly forgotten. While The Way You Make Me Feel is a disappointing read, Maureen Goo’s other books—Somewhere Only We Know and I Believe in A Thing Called Love—are excellent books that will make your heart swoon. However, If you’re hungry for a food-related romance, both A Pho Love Story by Loan Le and Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch are sure to please. 

Sexual Content 

  • While at a school dance, Clara and her friends “passed the time by taking Snapchats of people making out or groping one another on the dance floor.” 
  • One of Clara’s neighbors saw Clara “making out with my boyfriend” and doused them with a hose. 
  • Clara tells a friend that she and her boyfriend “made out so many times.” 
  • After Hamlet and Clara go on a date, Clara kisses him. Clara “took a step forward, and tugged him by his shirt until our hips bumped. . . I got up on my tippy-toes to reach his lips, and brushed them over his. . . He drew me in closer until our bodies were pressed against each other, one of my hands still clutching his shirt, the other wrapped around his neck, curling into his hair.” 
  • Hamlet’s mom “bought an American customer-service telemarking company in Beijing but didn’t realize until weeks into it that it was for sex toys.” 
  • After coming back from a trip, Hamlet picks Clara up from the airport. “Then he leaned over and kissed me. Kissing Hamlet felt like coming home, for real. I stood up on my toes to deepen the kiss. . .” They kiss several other times, but it is not described. 

Violence 

  • While at prom, Clara and her friends pull a prank. After being voted the prom queen, one of Clara’s friends dumps a bucket of fake blood on her. Rose, who helped plan the prom, got angry and grabbed onto Clara’s wrist. “Rose growled as she let go of one of my wrists to take another swipe at my crown. . . There were a few people onstage now, dragging us apart.” The two girls slip on the fake blood and knock over a lantern that causes a fire. 

 Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In ninth grade, Clara smoked a cigarette in the school bathroom. It was her first time trying a cigarette, but she got caught and was suspended. 
  • Clara and her friends go to a party and drink beer. 
  • Clara and her mom go to a party. While at the party, Clara “continued to drink—people kept offering me shots and various frosty cupped drinks with fruit in them.” Clara gets drunk and has a hangover the next morning. 
  • The morning after the party, one of Clara’s mom’s friends was drinking a Bloody Mary. 

Language   

  • Clara calls people names including jerk, nutjob, dick, butt-kisser, incompetent clown, and total fascist. 
  • Clara’s dad tells her that she is acting like a “little butthole.” 
  • Oh my God, God, and Jesus are all occasionally used as exclamations.  
  • Profanity is used sometimes. Profanity includes ass, damn, crap, freaking, piss, and WTF.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • When Clara’s friend Patrick gets injured, he texts her saying his parents “think Jesus was punishing them for letting me date you.” 

What My Mother Doesn’t Know

When Sophie Stein enters high school, she finds herself falling in love with a boy named Dylan. However, as she goes through some difficult self-discovery, she realizes that she and Dylan are not compatible. Instead of being attracted to Dylan’s intellect, Sophie is only attracted to him physically. Meanwhile, the ups and downs of this romance lead Sophie to chat online with Chaz. At first, Chaz gives Sophie the validation she seeks, but Chaz isn’t prince charming. Instead, Chaz makes sexual comments toward Sophie, who finds herself alone again. 

Then Sophie meets Murphy, an unpopular boy who isn’t conventionally attractive. Despite this, Sophie becomes enamored by him and they start hanging out. Sophie discovers that she has more in common with Murphy than she initially thought, and she eventually falls in love with him. In this relationship, her connection with Murphy is stronger than anything she had previously experienced. However, Sophie has a difficult time telling her two best friends about the romance, since most of the school has spent many years making fun of Murphy.  

Sophie is a relatable character dealing with the average struggles of a teenager. Throughout the novel, she attempts to discover who she is in both her romantic life and family life. She also combats peer pressure and her own insecurities. In the end, Sophie overcomes her fears of becoming unpopular and is no longer afraid to show her affection toward Murphy. One of the big themes of this novel is that attempting to be popular and well-liked should not come above what brings happiness. Another theme is to not judge a book by its cover. At first, Sophie judges Murphy, but when she looks beyond his appearance Sophie forms a beautiful relationship with him. These messages will resonate with many teens. 

The story’s conclusion is predictable because from the first time Murphy appears Sophie finds herself dealing with a strange attraction toward him. Plus, the story lacks conflict and the ending is a bit too happily ever after. Because Sophie is a teenager, she can act a little childish at times. She approaches many things, like romance, for the first time in her life. Therefore, she comes across as a bit naive when dealing with these new situations. Since Sophie focuses a lot on her blooming sexuality and the intense attraction she feels towards the men in her life, only big romance fans will enjoy What My Mother Doesn’t Know 

What My Mother Doesn’t Know is told through a series of poems and diary entries that Sophie writes, making it a quick read. While the novel is told entirely from the perspective of the main character, readers won’t find it difficult to relate to other characters in the book. Not only are Sophie’s romantic interests well-developed, but so are her best friends and parents. Overall, the story is a cute tale of teenage romance.

Sexual Content  

  • After sitting on a guy’s lap in a car, Sophie said it felt like “some R-rated movie and everyone else in the car was just going to fade away and this guy and I were going to start making out.” 
  • Sophie makes sexual references to prove that her father is not actually listening to her. When he asks how her day at school was, she says, “We played strip poker during third period and I lost.” Her dad replies, “‘That’s nice,’ without even looking up from his meatloaf.”  
  • Sophie has to listen to her friend, Grace, “moan about how horny she is.” 
  • Sophie says her “breasts have been growing so fast lately that if [she] were to sit there and watch them for a while . . . [she] could actually see them getting bigger.” 
  • Sophie discusses how her mother has never talked to her about safe sex or birth control, yet her mother is still scared Sophie will “get pregnant or something.” 
  • Sophie and her friends go to the ice cream shop wearing no clothes under their coats: “This afternoon before we put on our raincoats, we took everything else off!” 
  • Sophie talks about how she only really liked Dylan physically, saying, “If Dylan and I had met by chatting on the Net . . . instead of face to face and I hadn’t seen his lips or the way he moves his hips when he does that sexy dance and I hadn’t had a chance to look into his eyes and be dazzled by their size and all that I had seen were his letters on my screen, then . . . I think I would have liked him less.”  
  • Chaz tells Sophie that one of his favorite things to do is “jerk off in libraries.” 
  • While waiting for her mother after the school dance, a boy grabs Sophie’s breast on a dare. “The guy standing closest to me is suddenly bursting out laughing and grabbing my breasts with his slimy paws.” 
  • While having breakfast at a hotel, Sophie imagines “what it would be like to be lying naked underneath a sheet while a strange man rubbed oil all over my body.” 
  • Sophie dreams about having a man “remove every stitch of [her] clothes.” The man in her vision turns into Murphy and she dreams of “how his hands will feel cupping the lace of [her] bra.” 

Violence  

  • When a boy grabs Sophie’s breast after the school dance, she “slams [her] knuckles into his chin” and “smashes [her] foot into his friend’s knee.” 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Sophie briefly mentioned how her mother is “stuffing Hershey’s Kisses into her mouth, chain-smoking, watching her soaps, and weeping.”  

Language                                                                                                                                               

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

 Spiritual Content  

  • Sophie flashes back to a confrontation with a group of girls where she is ridiculed for her faith. The girls ask Sophie’s friends, “Don’t you know you aren’t supposed to play with anyone who doesn’t go to church?” 

What Goes Up

The past few months have not been ideal for Jorie, to say the least. Her ex-boyfriend, Ian, has left for college, but they are trying to “still be friends.” Her parents’ marriage is on the rocks after her father’s affair and she is struggling to trust him. In addition, Jorie is trying to understand why her mother chose to stay in the relationship. To escape life’s drama, Jorie decides to attend a college party with her boyfriend, Ian, and his two friends.

The next morning, Jorie wakes up in the dorm of an unfamiliar college boy, with a text from Ian that says, “you go and hook up with [one of my friends] right in front of me. You’re such a hypocrite.” Full of regret, Jorie decides to explore what led to this moment and where she goes from here.

What Goes Up is a novel in verse. Since the story is told through poems rather than traditional structure, the story is a little confusing. The reader must pay close attention to keep track of the timeline, as it is not well established. Another confusing element is that the bulk of the book is a series of flashbacks that aren’t in chronological order.

Jorie’s character is explored intimately, and she is easy to sympathize with. Her flaws are present, but they don’t detract from her likability. However, because of the introspective nature of the book, readers don’t learn much about the other characters. This is not a detriment to the overall story as the focus is clearly meant to be on Jorie’s emotions anyway.

Jorie is an artist with an interest in the science of mushrooms and fungi, using mushroom spore prints in her work. The reader will be surprised at how the mushroom and fungi facts parallel Jorie’s experiences and relationships. For example, she discusses signs of toxicity in mushrooms and how “even experts have been fooled by specimens they thought were safe,” clearly alluding to the trouble between her parents.

This breezy, uniquely told story is sometimes confusing. The shortness of the book will undoubtedly leave readers wanting more information about Jorie’s life and her relationships. The book implies that Jorie’s drunken hookup with Ian’s friend is just as big of a betrayal as her father cheating on her mother, which is puzzling. While insensitive, the hookup took place after her and Ian had broken up, so it was not adulterous.

Even though What Goes Up is a bit confusing, it is still a very interesting read that can be enjoyed by seasoned and new readers of verse novels. The writing is witty and charming which balances out the rawness of the serious topics. Overall, this story succeeds in sending out a powerful cautionary message about the domino effect that can be spurred by difficult moments in life and provides an important exploration of whether it is possible to still love someone after a betrayal.

Sexual Content

  • The book begins with Jorie waking up in the bed of a college boy who she recalls kissing the night before. They might have had sex, but her waking up to see his head “poking out from the shell of a green sleeping bag” leaves room for interpretation. She was drunk, and the book implies that the boy decided not to take advantage of her in that state.
  • Jorie recalls kissing a boy at recess when she was little, saying he “gagged me with his Dorito-crusted tongue.” The boy kisses her friend during the same recess period.
  • Ian begins jokingly “miming masturbation,” while alone with Jorie while talking about reproductive cells in mushrooms.
  • The day after the party, Jorie’s friend texts her in regards to how she made Ian feel. The friend asks how Jorie would feel if she saw him “ho it up with one of [her] friends.”

Violence

  • In seventh grade, Jorie and her friends were drunk while jumping on the trampoline. Jorie says, “a midair collision forced us back down to earth.” Her friend sustained a non-serious head injury.
  • Jorie remembers an incident in elementary school where a boy tried French kissing her friend. Her friend bit a boy’s lip “so hard it bled.”
  • In a fit of anger, Jorie slaps her mother. Jorie says “it was like smacking a stone, a wall . . . I was crying and thinking, Why is she letting me do this?”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • In seventh grade, Jorie goes to a friend’s house and drinks an old bottle of wine they found in the back of a cabinet. Jorie and her friend “passed it back and forth until the taste didn’t matter, until we couldn’t stop giggling.”
  • Jorie goes to a party where she and her friends drink White Russians. Jorie becomes disoriented and is hungover the next morning.
  • Jorie watches a video of herself while she was drunk. “Drunk me teeters on the edge of the couch like a Jenga tower.”
  • Jorie makes art using mushroom spore prints. A fellow student asks her if he could get high by licking it. The student calls to Ian, “‘remember that time we were shrooming and you thought your sister’s guinea pig was possessed?”

Language

  • Jorie says that the boy who kissed her and her friend in elementary school began calling them “ugly Slut and Lesbo Bitch.”
  • The boyfriend of the woman Jorie’s father is cheating with shows up at her house “yelling about his whore of a girlfriend, [her] mom’s piece of shit husband.”
  • Fuck is said a couple of times.
  • “Dickweed” is said once.
  • In a blind rage, Jorie says she called her mother “a bitch, a fucking idiot, a stupid–I can’t even write the word.”

Supernatural Content

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Erin Cosgrove

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