Truly Devious #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Forbidden City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

She is Not Invisible

Laureth Peak’s father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers—a skill at which she’s remarkably talented. When he goes missing while researching coincidence for a new book, Laureth and her younger brother fly from London to New York and must unravel a series of cryptic messages and frightening clues to find him. The complication: Laureth is blind. Reliant on her other senses and on her brother to survive, Laureth finds that rescuing her father and spotting the extraordinary, and sometimes dangerous, connections in a world full of darkness will take all her skill.

Laureth, a sixteen-year-old blind protagonist, desperately wants to find her father. Laureth’s experiences highlight the difficulties she faces because she is blind. Because of her disability, Laureth takes her seven-year-old brother, Benjamin, to New York to look for her father. The sister-brother relationship is sweet, and it allows the reader to see the different ways Laureth and Benjamin communicate, which allows Laureth to navigate without making her blindness apparent.

While looking for her father, Laureth finds his notebook that has his research notes about coincidences, patterns of the universe, and scientists’ research. For example, he ruminates about the mathematical probability that coincidences happen, synchronicity, as well as some scientists’ obsessions with a meaningful number. The excerpts from the notebook are incredibly boring and they slow down the plot. In the end, Laureth’s father decides to dump all his research and resume writing the same type of funny stories that made him famous. There seems to be no point to the tedious passages about coincidences.

While She is Not Invisible is unique because it focuses on a smart, blind protagonist, Laureth’s story lacks believability. For example, a blind teenager and a seven-year-old boy would not be able to navigate the streets of New York alone. The story concludes with Laureth’s family reuniting, but in the end, none of the clues that Laureth follows help her find her father. Instead, her father just miraculously appears in the hotel’s stairwell just when Laureth needs him most. The conclusion is anticlimactic, and all the pieces of the puzzle come together too easily.

Many teen readers will relate to Laureth, who often doubts herself. Along the journey, she gains confidence and comes to realize that “no one should want to be invisible. To have no one notice you or speak to you. That would be really lonely, in the end.” If you’re looking for a compelling mystery that will be hard to put down, forego reading She is Not Invisible and instead grab a copy of Six Months Later by Natalie D. Richards.

Sexual Content

  • Laureth wonders if her dad is “sleeping with someone else.”
  • Laureth and her brother go into a bar in the hopes of finding their father. A man yells, “Take your clothes off.”
  • The bad guy traps Laureth in a dark hotel room. He says, “You and me can still have a good time together. In the dark.”
  • When Laureth’s parents are reunited, she “heard Dad kiss Mum, who giggled like she was young.”

 

Violence

  • Laureth reads a story about a man who “is cannibalized by his shipmates.”
  • A man pulls a knife on Laureth, Benjamin, and a boy named Michael. Michael runs off and finds his brother. Laureth heard “a soft thud and the sound of air coming out of someone all at once… There was another thud, and I heard the Smoke scream.” Later, the police find the man tied to a fence with his own belt.
  • One of the bad men is in Laureth’s hotel room. Laureth leaps onto the bed, “straight across, and felt his hand grab my ankle. . . then I kicked out wildly with my free leg. My heel hit something that was sort of hard and soft at the same time, there was a crunch, and he yelled, really loud.” She manages to escape.
  • Laureth has her brother break all the lights in the hotel’s hallway and the stairs. Laureth runs down the stairs and hears the bad man scream. “It was followed by a series of terrible thuds and thumps as the man fell down to the ground floor.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Laureth overhears her parents arguing about her dad taking pills for his “state of mind.”
  • Sometimes Laureth’s father “has another glass of wine or two.”

Language

  • Profanity is used rarely. Profanity includes ass, crap, hell, and damn.
  • Ass is used twice. For example, a blind samurai in a Japanese film is “blind but he still kicks ass.”
  • A man says, “Goddammit. . . Can’t smoke anywhere in this damn city now.”

Supernatural

  • Laureth’s brother Benjamin has a strange effect on electronics which his family calls the “Benjamin Effect.” When Benjamin touches electronics such as cell phones and TV screens, they stop working.

Spiritual Content

  • In Laureth’s father’s book of notes, he writes, “There’s a word for the feeling that we are in touch with something great, something powerful, something outside ourselves, and that word is NUMINOUS. It used to only be used in connection with religion; that feeling that you’re in touch with God.”
  • Einstein said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
  • Laureth thinks about a poem. “It’s a pious poem about God. It’s about how, although you might try to ignore Him, and turn from Him and even flee Him, He will keep following you, faithfully, like a faithful hound follows its master, all of your life.”
  • Occasionally Laureth prays. For example, when a man says something rude, Laureth “prayed Benjamin didn’t understand.”
  • In his research, Laureth’s father found that George Price, “one of America’s greatest thinkers, gave in and had to admit that God existed.”

Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World

Did you know that a dog’s nose is so sensitive that if a human could see as well as a dog could smell, we could be able to see the small letters on an eye chart from four miles away? While your dog may be talented at sniffing out snacks or alerting your family to welcome (or unwelcome) visitors, some dogs are super sniffers who put their noses to work with firefighters, soldiers, and scientists to save lives. These knowing noses can help locate missing people, detect explosives, or even sniff out a tiny, endangered snail species in the middle of a huge forest.

Dog lover and acclaimed science writer, Nancy Castaldo, introduces us to these heroic canines, many of whom were death-row shelter dogs. There’s Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, who is a decorated war hero; Rocky, the German shepherd who wears a bulletproof vest while sniffing for illegal drugs; Alan, a fox red Labrador retriever who detects tiny but life-threatening changes in his owner’s blood sugar levels; and Raider, who searches for disaster victims in piles of rubble. From your own very backyard to danger zones all over the world, hard-working dogs are on the job helping humans every day—eager to please, hoping for love, and always on alert.

Readers will be amazed by the dog’s abilities to use their sense of smell to help people. Sniffer Dogs educates readers about the different jobs that dogs train for including sniffing for bombs, drugs, missing people, and human remains. Sniffer dogs are also used to help people with medical conditions like diabetes. Some Sniffer Dogs are trained specifically to find old bones. For example, “the ghost town, Bodie, was once the fifth-largest town in California in 1859. Today, dogs are locating the unmarked graves of Bodie’s past residents.” Incredibly, other dogs are also trained to help scientists find whale feces in the Atlantic Ocean which allows scientists to study the population of endangered whales.

The book explores the different ways dogs have helped people throughout history. In World War II, “sentries and patrol dogs assisted the troops in battle, and ambulance dogs transported first-aid supplies to wounded soldiers.” Readers who want to learn more about how military dogs have helped people should also read the G.I. Dogs Series by Laurie Calkhoven.

Sniffer Dog’s format will appeal to readers because of the large pictures that appear on almost every page. The book includes information on real Sniffer Dogs and gives specific information on how the dogs have helped. Readers will learn about the dogs’ training, their relationship with their handlers, as well as their incredible sense of smell. While the book is packed full of information, each section is broken into small, manageable sections. However, the advanced vocabulary may be difficult for struggling readers.

Sniffer Dogs will appeal to dog lovers as well as anyone who is interested in science. If you are researching any type of service dog, then Sniffer Dogs is a must-read. If you’re interested in learning more about how dogs are used in the military, grab a copy of Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine. by Jennifer Li Shotz.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Because dogs are used to help find both living and dead people, many historic events—9/11, the Oklahoma bombing, etc.—are discussed in the book.
  • Eli, a bomb-sniffing black lab, went to Afghanistan with his handler Colton. “On December 6, just a few months after arriving in Afghanistan, Colton was hit by sniper fire while on patrol and was killed. Eli stood guard, crawling on top of his partner’s body, not leaving its side, even when Colton’s fellow soldiers came to retrieve it.”
  • When the Titanic was sinking, Ann Elizabeth Isham, refused to leave her dog. “It is commonly believed that when her Great Dane was denied a place in a lifeboat, she refused to leave without it. Their bodies were both found floating in the sea after the ship sank. Reports say that her frozen arms were wrapped around the dog’s neck. . .”
  • Roselle, a Seeing-Eye dog was with Michael Hingson on 9/11. “Roselle guided Michael Hingson down seventy-eight floors in Tower One after the American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the building just eighteen floors above him.”
  • Dogs trained to find deceased people learn how to “recognize decomposing body odors as the scent drifts away from the body or skeleton. . .”
  • During World War II, “two men, a pilot, and a gunner, were flying on a training mission when their plane went down . . . Sadly, the bodies of the airmen were never recovered.” When the plane’s remains were found, dogs were “able to locate many of the bones of the missing men at the site, including a finger bone with a ring on it.” 

Drugs and Alcohol

  • During World War I dogs carried “cigarettes to stressed-out soldiers in the field.”

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

I’ll Never Tell

Friends for life. Or death. Spring break. Aruba.

Swimming, sunshine, and golden beaches. It was supposed to be the best time of Anna’s life. Paradise. But then the unthinkable happens. Anna’s best friend is found brutally murdered. And when the local police begin to investigate the gruesome crime, suspicion falls on one person—Anna.

They think she’s dangerous, and they’re determined to prove her guilt. With the police and media sparking a witch-hunt against her, Anna is running out of time to prove her innocence. But as she digs deeper into her friend’s final moments, she finds a tangled web of secrets, lies, and betrayal.

Will she clear her name in time? When the truth is finally revealed, it’s more shocking than anyone could have imagined.

Originally published as Dangerous Girls in 2013, I’ll Never Tell portrays a group of friends as partying rich kids, who spend their free time drinking, doing drugs, and having sex. The story is told through Anna’s point of view and jumps to various timeframes including when Anna meets her best friend Elise, a trip to Aruba during spring break, various points of the investigation, and Anna’s current experiences in jail. The shifting time periods are not confusing because they are clearly labeled, however, the format doesn’t allow any of the supporting characters to be well developed. As a result, it’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters, including Elise who is murdered.

Even though the story is a mystery, a large portion of the plot focuses on Anna’s jail experiences and explores how the wealthy escape the arms of the law. While this story thread is interesting, it is not well-developed, and in the end, none of the rich suspects are guilty of the crime. Another flaw in the story is the conclusion, which has several inconsistencies that take away from the murder reveal. When the murderer finally is uncovered, there is little shock value, but plenty of confusion.

In a world full of good books, readers can find engaging mysteries without the over-the-top partying and gratuitous sexual content. Unfortunately, I’ll Never Tell falls short in both mystery and entertainment. Readers looking for an excellent mystery should read Six Months Later by Natalie D. Richards, Heartwood Box by Ann Aguirre, and the Jess Tennant Mysteries Series by Jane Casey.

 Sexual Content

  • While at a bar, Chelsea tries to get a boy to dance with her. “She grinds above him like a lap dancer, laughing, until he finally catches her around the waist and follows her into the dark, one hand draped possessively across her shoulder.”
  • Anna and her boyfriend, Tate, kiss often. For example, Anna reaches up “to kiss him, and this time, there’s no tension, just a familiar low heat building, and Tate’s hands sliding along the edge of my shirt—”
  • Anna, Tate, and Elise dance. “Tate brings me (Anna) tight against him, and then it’s the three of us, me and Elise dancing up close to him and spinning away. . . Tate laughs between us, his hands linger on Elise’s waist as she grinds against him. . . I grab his hand away from her, pulling him wordlessly to the edge of the dance floor, my back finding some surface, his hands finding the curve of my hips, his lips finding mine.” The scene is described over two pages.
  • Elise says Tate is a “man-whore. He’s already dated four different girls this year.”
  • On Halloween, Tate likes Anna’s “sexy costume. . . His lips press against my neck again, but this time he bites down softly, playfully. . . he’s pulled me around so I’m facing him, his lips hard and searching on mine. . .” The scene is described over a page.
  • Elise says she dumped a guy because “he had a two-inch dick and no idea what to do with it.”
  • Elise and Tate plan their first time having sex. “He grinned, trailing his hand lower, down my throat, and across the sensitive skin of my breast. I felt my stomach flip over. . . Tate dipped his head, following the path of his hand with his lips now, kissing a winding trail down my body, while the other hand gently stroked, lower, in a slow rhythm that left me gasping.”
  • Elise has sex with several boys that she just met. Because of Elise, Anna realizes, “I could kiss a boy, breathless against the back wall of some club, and then just walk away not even knowing his name. Or, like Elise, do more. Do whatever we wanted.”
  • Elise and Anna have a sexual relationship, but their kisses are the only thing described.
  • While in Aruba, Tate and Anna share a room. One morning, “He pulls me back up, kissing me hard as he rolls over and crushes me in his embrace. . . then the kiss deepens, his hands reaching impatiently for the flesh of my thighs, easing them apart. I feel him harden against me.” When Anna asks Tate to wait, he decides to go for a run.
  • After hooking up with a boy, Elise complains about him. “You know he did this weird role-playing thing. . .He got off on the whole domination thing, you know, holding me down, trying to make me beg. I mean, I like getting thrown around as much as the next girl, but this was different.” Later, the boy tried to spike Elise’s drink with liquid Ecstasy.

Violence

  • While in jail, an inmate attacks Anna. “The girl lunges at me. I barely have time to get my hands up in defense before her body is on mine and she’s tearing at my hair, clawing at my face. . .The girl drives her elbow into my stomach, making me gulp for air. Her face is lit up, breathless and bright, nose bloody from one of my desperate blocks.” The fight is broken up when Anna is pulled off the inmate. Someone gives Anna a syringe that makes everything go black.
  • Elise and Anna get into an argument. Anna keeps “holding tight, until she shoves me away hard enough to send me flying to the ground among the shattered glass. . . there’s a dull pain in the back of my head, where it cracked against the floor.”
  • Elise slept with Niklas once. Later, he goes to see Anna in prison. Niklas says, “Found yourself a prison bitch yet? Some action in the shower?”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Anna, Elise, and a group of friends go to Aruba over spring break. They drink beer, vodka, and other alcohol excessively throughout the trip.
  • During a trial, an attorney tries to “establish Miss Chevalier’s normal partying routine” by showing a picture of her and her friends drinking. Anna says, “We all drank. Just some wine, or vodka with mixers, you know? The guys had beer.”
  • During the trial, Anna’s attorney tells her that the prosecutor will “ask about the weed and the pills. About my mom’s Xanax, and the times Elise tried her dad’s Percocet, about the cocaine Melanie saw Elise try over Christmas break, and the liquid X Niklas tried to feed her in the club that night.”
  • Anna thinks the lawyers are trying to say “[she] led Elise astray. . . that [Anna] coerced her into skipping school, and staying out too late, and drinking dollar shots in dive bars until she screwed strange guys in the bathroom of clubs that should have never let [them] in.”
  • Elise and Anna go to a restaurant and “sip cocktails from sugar-rimmed glasses.”
  • Tate meets Anna at a college party where they both drink beer. Later, they “do lime Jell-O-shots together.”
  • Anna and her friends go to each other’s “big, empty houses, sneaking liquor and smoking weed.”
  • After Elise is murdered, one of her friends “spends most of the day curled up in his room with the blinds drawn, woozy on anti-anxiety meds.”
  • Elise takes prescription pills “sometimes. When I don’t’ want to deal with . . . feeling, like this.”
  • After Elise is murdered, Tate “was having panic attacks. . . so they put him on a bunch of meds. He was pretty out of it.”
  • While in prison, Anna is given sleeping pills.

Language

  • “Oh my God”, “God” and “Jesus” are used as explanations occasionally.
  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes: ass, asshole, bitch, bastard, bullshit, dykes, hell, pissed, and shit.
  • When Elise ignores Anna at school, Anna thinks, “What was she going to do? Tell her friends to go fuck themselves, cast herself out of their world, all alone?”
  • Elise tells a girl she is a “skanky bitch with no soul.”
  • One of Anna’s friend’s posts, “So hungry, could murder a fucking rhino” on his social media account.
  • Elise flirts with a young vendor and then upsets him. He yells, “Fucking Americans! You are whores!”
  • Someone calls Anna a pussy.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Artemis Fowl #1

Captain Holly Short is a highly skilled elf. However, as the first female officer assigned to her unit in LEP (Lower Elements Police), she has a lot to prove. But with the short-tempered Commander Root breathing down her neck, Holly wonders if she’ll ever be given a fair chance to succeed. If only the fairy folk still lived above ground and had never been driven into hiding by the Mud Men.

Artemis Fowl is a twelve-year-old human genius. His family has a long history of illegal activity, though Artemis’ father had tried to legitimize the family fortune. But when Artemis’ father’s ship sank—along with most of the family fortune—Artemis decides to return to his family’s illegal roots in order to regain his father’s lost wealth. Luckily for Artemis, he is in a unique position. His youth means he still believes in magic, while his genius may allow him to become the first human in history to succeed in stealing fairy gold.

Artemis Fowl is told in the third person with the main points of view being Artemis’s and Holly’s; however, the story often jumps to other characters’ points of view, which helps develop smaller characters and flush out the actions of the large cast of characters. While Holly and Artemis are on opposite sides of his gold-stealing scheme, they are both likable characters. Holly is impulsive, clever, and confident. Artemis is brilliant, socially stunted, and he never goes anywhere without his bodyguard Butler. While Artemis is a criminal mastermind, he learns from his mistakes and grows to realize that kidnapping Holly was wrong (though he still keeps the money).

This first installment of the Artemis Fowl series is fast-paced, hilarious, and action packed. Colfer does an effortless job introducing a myriad of fairy folk in a way that does not feel overwhelming. Each chapter leaves readers on the edge of their seats, as they wonder what will happen next. While there is violence, it is not graphically described. There is also potty humor. For instance, dwarves tunnel much like worms, with dirt going in one end and coming out the other, which allows for plenty of bathroom-related humor. But for readers ready for action and excitement, Artemis Fowl is a delightful read that will leave them reaching for the next book, Artemis Fowl and the Arctic Incident.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While walking through a city, “an unfortunate pickpocket attempted to steal Butler’s wallet. The manservant broke the man’s fingers without looking down.”
  • When Holly sees a dwarf picking pockets, she “gave him a swipe in the backside with her buzz baton. The electric charge singed the seat of his leather pants.”
  • A troll eats a couple of cows. “It was not a pretty sight. Without going into details, let’s just say that there wasn’t much left besides horns and hooves.”
  • Holly stuns a troll before it can kill anyone. “Aiming for the weak point at the base of the skull, she let the troll have a long burst of the concentrated ion ray . . . The troll picked up a table . . . He pulled back a shaggy arm and let fly.” Holly’s gas tank is hit. It “burst into flames like some deadly firework. Most of the gas landed on the troll. So did Holly.” The struggle is described over three pages.
  • Butler picks a fight in order to cause a diversion. “Butler dropped the first with a round house punch. Two more had their heads clapped together, cartoon style. The fourth was, to Butler’s eternal shame, dispatched with a spinning kick.”
  • Artemis lures Commander Root into a trap, then sets off an explosion. Commander Root, “made it. Barely. He could feel the explosion rattling his torso as he threw himself into a reverse loop. Flames latched on to his jumpsuit, licking along his legs. Root continued his maneuver, crashing directly into the icy water.”
  • Butler fights off a squad of LEP officers. “Captain Kelp was the first casualty, a titanium-tipped dart puncturing the neck of his suit . . . Butler continued the swinging motion, driving punishing punches into the chests of two more fairies.” The fight takes place over three pages.
  • A goblin tries to blow a fireball out his nose and hit Mulch. Mulch stuffs his thumbs up the goblin’s nose. “The fireball had nowhere to go. It rebounded on the balls of Mulch’s thumbs and ricocheted back into the goblin’s head. The tear ducts provided the path of least resistance, so the flames compressed into pressurized streams, erupting just below the goblin’s eyes.”
  • When Mulch starts to burrow, Foaly tries to watch. However, “a blob of recently swallowed and even more recently recycled limestone whacked him in the face.”
  • There are several other times where characters are either hit with earth or gas that Mulch ejects from his derriere. For instance, “the constrained wind had built itself up to minicyclone intensity and could not be constrained. And so it exited. Rather abrasively. Blowing open Mulch’s back flap, and slamming into the rather large gentlemen who had been sneaking up behind him.”
  • During her escape, Holly punches her kidnapper, Artemis. “Holly put an extra few pounds of spring in her elbow and whacked her abductor right on the nose.”
  • Butler and Holly fight a troll. Trolls are primal hunters; they have little brain power and kill anything that gets in their path. Butler “squeezed the trigger as rapidly as the Sig Sauer’s mechanism would allow. Two in the chest, three between the eyes . . . scything tusks ducked below Butler’s guard. They coiled around his trunk, slicing through his Kevlar reinforced jacket . . . he knew immediately that the wound was fatal. His breath came hard. That was a lung gone, and gouts of blood were matting the troll’s fur.” Holly joins the fight with the troll. “Her heels caught the beast square on the crown of its head. At that speed, there was at least half a ton of G-force behind the contact. Only the reinforced ribbing in her suit prevented Holly’s leg bones from shattering. Even so, she heard her knee pop. The pain clawed its way to her forehead.” Later, “The human twirled the mace as though it were a cheerleader’s baton, ramming it home between the troll’s shoulder blades. . . Butler planted his foot just above the creature’s haunches and tugged the weapon free. It relinquished its grip with a sickly sucking sound.” Butler defeats the troll but does not end its life, at Holly’s request. The fight takes place over seventeen pages.
  • The fairies send in a blue-rise bomb, which kills all life forms but doesn’t harm anything else. However, Artemis and his friends had already escaped, so the only thing killed are bugs and rats.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Artemis meets a fairy hooked on alcohol. He gives her “a virus that feeds on alcohol,” to purge it from her system. He also mixed a “slight amnesiac” into the injection, so she won’t remember ever meeting him.
  • Artemis secretly slips a fairy holy water, which would have killed her. Then he offers her the antidote as part of a deal.
  • Artemis’ mother is ill. “Nervous tension, the physicians said. Nothing for it but rest and sleeping pills.”
  • Holly is tranquilized with a dart. “Holly felt the dart puncture the suit’s toughened material, depositing its load of curare and succinylcholine chloride-based tranquilizer into her shoulder. The world instantly dissolved into a series of technicolored bubbles.”
  • Root smokes cigars often.
  • Mulch burrows through the earth, into a wine cellar. “Over the centuries, residue seeped through the floor, infusing the land beneath with the wine’s personality. This one was somber, nothing daring here. A touch of fruit, but not enough to lighten the flavor. Definitely an occasion wine on the bottom rack.”
  • Artemis, Butler, and Butler’s sister drink champagne, to celebrate when the ransom is paid. However, Artemis secretly spiked the champagne with a tranquilizer.

Language

  • Holly thinks another officer is “a bimbo. An airhead.”
  • Idiot is used once.
  • D’Arvit is a fairy curse word that is used several times.
  • Two fairy coworkers call each other “half-wit” and “cave fairy.”
  • Mulch says “Oh, gods above” when surprised by something.
  • Damn and hell are used a few times. For example, a sprite says, “Blow the door off its damn hinges.” Holly asks, “What the hell is going on here?”

Supernatural

  • The fairy folk live underground, where they hide from the Mud Men (humans). There are pixies, sprites, centaurs, dwarves, goblins, etc. The first fairy Artemis meets is a sprite. “The fairy’s nose was long and hooked under two slitted golden eyes. Her ears were pointed, and the alcohol addiction had melted her skin like putty.”
  • “A lot of the magic attributed to [fairies] is just superstition. But [faries] do have certain powers. Healing, the Mesmer, and shielding being among them . . . What fairies actually do is vibrate at such a high frequency that they are never in one place long enough to be seen.”
  • Fairies can use their magic to heal. Holly heals Butler during a fight with a troll. “Butler could actually feel his bones knitting and the blood retreating from semicongealed scabs.”
  • Fairies can temporarily stop time over a small area. “Five elfin warlocks would form a pentagram around the target and spread a magic shield over it, temporarily stopping time inside the enchanted enclosure.”
  • Dwarves “can unhinge their jaws, allowing them to ingest several pounds of earth a second. The material is processed by a super-efficient metabolism, stripped of any useful minerals and . . . ejected at the other end.”

Spiritual Content

  • Every fairy carries a book that contains all the rules the fairy folk live by. “It was their Bible, containing . . . the history of their race and the commandments that governed their extended lives.”
  • Sprites are the only fairies with wings, and male sprites are very arrogant about that. It’s said in passing, “Give a fairy a pair of wings and he thinks he’s God’s gift to women.”

by Morgan Lynn

 

 

 

Take Me Home Tonight

Kat and Stevie have been best friends since they met in their high school’s theater department. Both are passionate about performing, and the two become as close as sisters (something that they love to hear). Kat hatches a plan to sneak out of their small town and go to New York. Kat plans to surprise Stevie by getting tickets for a play put on by her theatre teacher. As the two sneak into the city, they create a contingency plan; if they are separated they will meet at Grand Central Station at 11:11. But once they arrive in the city, things go horribly wrong.

Stevie runs into her stepsister, Mallory, who asks her to stop by her apartment and drop off a wallet. Once inside, Stevie and Kat meet Mallory’s Pomeranian and promptly get locked out of the apartment with no money and a dog in tow. Kat is content to roll with the punches, desperate to impress her teacher. Stevie, however, would rather just go home. The two fight and separate; Stevie goes to find Mallory’s spare keys while Kat goes to her teacher’s play. As Stevie embarks on a wild goose chase for Mallory’s keys, hitting various NYC landmarks along the way, Kat traverses the city with Cary, a boy she meets. She accompanies him through his various jobs, flirting and having fun. Kat then goes to see the play, which is astonishingly bad. Both friends are furious with each other, believing themselves to have been abandoned by the other. But Stevie and Kat still meet up at 11:11 and eventually recognize how much they need and rely on each other.

Take Me Home Tonight is a fast-paced, engaging novel that allows the reader to come along for a night-out-gone-horribly-astray. Told from both Stevie and Kat’s point of view, as well as another character called Teri, the reader is able to get to know these characters well. Although they have their flaws, both girls are generally likable and relatable to high school girls. Through their separation, Kat and Stevie learn that they will always find their way back to each other. “Not because we couldn’t be apart—the night we’d had proved that we could. But because we wanted to be together, which somehow made it that much better.”

The story contains a subplot surrounding Teri, one of Stevie and Kat’s friends who is kidnapped by a member of the Albanian mafia on the run with stolen goods. However, this subplot feels out of place in the novel, and—although resolved—feels rushed.

While at first glance, the story seems to be singularly focused on Stevie and Kat’s relationship, Take Me Home Tonight is a novel about relationships of all kinds—friendships, romantic relationships, parental relationships—and most importantly—your relationship with yourself. These elements form an entertaining story full of characters that seem familiar and real.

Through Stevie’s and Kat’s experiences, the story emphasizes the importance of understanding others, focusing less on yourself, and knowing that what is best for you may not be what is best for others. Although the plot can seem confusing or disconnected at times, Take Me Home Tonight is an intriguing novel with a multitude of complex, intertwining stories.

Sexual Content

  • Kat describes when she and Stevie lost their virginities. Kat says, ”The first time I slept with anyone, I drove to Stevie’s afterward, even though it was past midnight, and we stayed up for hours in her kitchen, eating whatever we could find in the fridge and talking about every detail. But the first time Stevie and Beckett slept together, she didn’t even tell me for three days, and even then, she didn’t want to go over every moment like I had.”
  • Kat kisses Cary after they spend the day together in New York. “I gathered all my courage, and stepped forward, and kissed him.”
  • When at a play, months after they initially meet and have begun dating, Cary kisses Kat. “Cary . . . [gave] me a quick kiss.”

Violence

  • Stevie is mugged by a man holding a fake knife.
  • Teri is kidnapped by a member of the Albanian mafia posing as a CIA agent while she is babysitting. The man, Dimitri, threatens her with a tire iron to get into the car. “The guy sighed and set down the tire iron. Teri started to breathe a little easier, but then he reached behind him and pulled a gun out of his waistband.”
  • When stopping at a murder mystery party, Kat sees “a group of people, all dressed up, standing around in little clusters with drinks, and what appeared to be a dead body on the floor, lying in a pool of blood.”
  • Teri escapes Dimitri and finds the CIA agent Dimitri was impersonating. But Dimitri finds them and shoots the CIA agent. “And then, a second later, to see Dimitri shoot him, right in the chest.” The CIA agent is wearing a bulletproof vest (revealed later) and survives.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Kat mentions, “I’d been taking prenatal vitamins for years in an attempt to get my hair to grow thicker.”
  • While describing the school’s campus, Kat says, “We pushed open the door and walked outside, heading across campus, past the faculty parking lot and the dumpsters people were always vaping behind.”
  • While at dinner, Stevie’s ex-boyfriend, Beckett, (who is 17) is served an alcoholic drink by mistake.

Language

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes fuck, shit, hell, and asshole.

Supernatural

  • Stevie talks about premonitions that she has, stating, “Every now and then, I would get a feeling about something. It wasn’t even anything close to psychic powers—which I wasn’t entirely certain I believed in, despite the fact that I’d watched a lot of Little Medium marathons with Teri and Kat.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Sara Mansfield

 

 

 

 

The Detective’s Assistant

Eleven-year-old Nell Warne couldn’t have imagined what awaits her when she arrives on her long-lost aunt’s doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows.

Much to Nell’s surprise, her aunt is a detective, working for the world-famous Pinkreluctanceational Detective Agency! Nell quickly makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate. . . and not just by helping out with household chores. As her aunt travels around the country solving mysteries, Nell must crack codes, wear disguises, and spy on nefarious criminals.

Nation-changing events simmer in the background as Abraham Lincoln heads for the White House, and Aunt Kate is working on the biggest case of her life. But Nell is quietly working a case of her own: the mystery of what happened the night her best friend left town.

Nell’s adventure paints a picture of life in the 1800s. When she is forced to live with her Aunt Kate, Nell quickly realizes that her aunt isn’t like most women—instead Aunt Kate takes on many disguises while solving mysteries. At first, Aunt Kate doesn’t trust Nell and doesn’t want to give the grieving girl a home, giving readers a small peek into the life of an orphan. The Detective’s Assistant also uses letters between Nell and her friend to delve into the topic of slave hunters. Even though the topic is explored in a kid-friendly manner, sensitive readers may be upset by the death of so many people.

Despite her aunt’s reluctance to give Nell a home, Aunt Kate makes sure Nell learns vocabulary, grammar, and math. Throughout the story, Aunt Kate is always correcting Nell’s speech. For example, Aunt Kate tells Nell, “And the proper word is isn’t, not ain’t. Mind your grammar, even in times of distress.” Nell also learns new vocabulary such as somnambulist. This highlights the importance of getting an education and adds fun to the story.

The Detective’s Assistant is sure to delight readers because of the interesting, complex characters as well as the cases that Aunt Kate and Nell help solve. Since the story is told from Nell’s point of view, the readers get an intimate look at Nell’s emotions. Nell struggles with the death of her family, how the slave trade affected people, and the possibility of being sent to an orphanage. All of these aspects make The Detective’s Assistant a fast-paced story with many surprises. In the end, Nell learns that “family meant taking the folks we’re stuck with and choosing to love them anyway.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A pickpocket takes Aunt Kate’s purse. Nell sees him “and with one swift stomp of my foot, I crashed the heel of my big brown boot onto his toes. The bandit let out a howl and began hopping on one leg.”
  • When others notice their money is missing, the crowd “pounced on the skinny pickpocket like a pack of wolves.”
  • In a letter, Nell’s friend tells her about slaves who were trying to go to Canada so they can live free. “And the next thing Mama knows, her friend’s neck is in a noose hanging from a tree.”
  • Aunt Kate investigates a “murder by poison.” A woman’s “lover has succeeded in putting his wife in a pine box.”
  • While babysitting a young girl, the girl treats Nell poorly. Her “shins ached from unexpected kicks, my arms were sore from vicious pinches, and my pride was wounded from insults to my general appearance and intellect.”
  • Aunt Kate investigates a bank robbery. “A bank teller was murdered in cold blood, and money was stolen.” The bank teller was killed with a hammer and “three blows to the head.” Later the criminal confesses.
  • Slave hunters stole a family and they “got sold off to the highest bidder.” The family was torn apart.
  • Nell’s father, Cornelius, accidentally shoots and kills his brother. Cornelius was helping slaves escape to Canada. At night, “a man came riding up toward us—we could almost feel the hoofbeats. . . [a man] called for us to stop. . . And in a rush of panic that swept over all of us, your daddy fired his gun.”
  • While Cornelius was helping slaves escape, slave hunters killed him. “His body washed up in the Chemung River.”

  Drugs and Alcohol

  • Nell’s father, “saw the jailhouse for drinking and cheating at poker.” Nell’s father is often referred to as a drunk liar who gambles.
  • Nell names her dog Whiskey. Nell “didn’t know a thing about liquor when I named her. But I heard my daddy say whiskey was pure gold.”
  • While walking down the street, “a few menacing drunks pushed past, knocking both Aunt Kate and me off balance.”

Language

  • “Heck and tarnation” is used twice.
  • Darn is used twice
  • Nell calls a bratty girl a “little jackanapes.”
  • Nell thinks that some boys are “dunderheads.”
  • When a rebel starts talking about John Wilkes Booth, Nell thinks the rebel is an “illiterate oaf.”

Supernatural

  • In order to gain a suspect’s trust, Aunt Kate pretends to be a fortune-teller. The suspect believes that “her brother’s ring warned him of storms at sea.”
  • A man thinks the detectives use “voodoo magic to get those criminals to talk.” Others think the detectives use whiskey to get people talking.
  • Nell couldn’t go to a funeral because “Daddy thought it was bad luck to have a child so close to the Grim Reaper.”

Spiritual Content

  • Nell writes to a friend, saying her daddy “is splitting logs with the angels.”
  • Someone asks Nell how her father made it “to the pearly gates of heaven.” Nell replies, “Through prayer, ma’am. Mine mostly, since he wasn’t the praying kind. . .”
  •  Aunt Kate says, “Frugality is a virtue. It says so in the Bible.”

Charlie Thorne and the Lost City

Charlie Thorne is a genius. Charlie Thorne is a fugitive. Charlie Thorne isn’t even thirteen.

After finding Einstein’s last equation and going incognito, Charlie’s ready to take it easy in the Galapagos Islands. That is until she’s approached by the mysterious Esmerelda Castle, who’s on the hunt for a legendary treasure and has a code only Charlie can decipher.

In 1835, Charles Darwin diverted the HMS Beagle’s journey to go on a secret solo expedition in South America. When he returned to the ship, he carried a treasure that inspired awe and terror in his crew. And so the treasure vanished, never to be seen again. . . but Darwin left a trail of clues behind for those brave and clever enough to search for it once more.

In a daring adventure that takes her across South America, Charlie must crack Darwin’s nearly two-hundred-year-old clues to track down the mysterious discovery—and stay ahead of the formidable lineup of enemies and CIA agents who are hot on her trail.

In an epic Amazonian adventure, Charlie teams up with Milana and Dante as they try to solve the clues and find Darwin’s “treasure.” They must outmaneuver the Castellos siblings who have teamed up with a Russian spy. The groups try to outsmart each other and the bad guys are willing to use any means necessary to find the treasure. The fast-paced action will have readers at the edge of their seats as they try to guess who will betray who.

Even though Charlie and the others are trying to decipher Darwin’s clues, these messages take a back seat to the story’s action. However, readers will gain insight into some of the Amazon’s plight including the loss of habitat. But the real treasure in Charlie Thorne and the Lost City is the introduction to the Amazon’s flora and fauna. Another interesting aspect of the story is when the group finds a creature that would prove that evolution is a fact. While some believe that the creature should be introduced to society, Charlie believes that the only way to keep the creature safe is to keep its existence a secret.

Middle school readers who are ready for a more realistic mystery that has cruel villains will enjoy Charlie Thorne and the Lost City. While most of the action revolves around Charlie being chased, the villains make it clear that they will kill anyone who stands in their way. The story also explores the idea of evolution. Fans of the Theodore Boone Series by John Grisham will enjoy Charlie’s winding trip through the Amazon and her courage to do what is best for the creatures that remain hidden deep within the Amazon’s depths.

Sexual Content

  • Dante took Charlie’s advice and “kissed Milana Moon.”

Violence

  • When a strange man and police appear looking for Charlie, she sets a booby trap so she can escape. “The resulting explosion blew the policeman off his feet, throwing him across the tiny kitchen. The cabinets all burst open spilling glass and plates, which shatter on the floor.” No one is seriously injured, but one policeman’s “eyebrows had been scorched off his face.”
  • While looking for Charlie, Ivan goes to the Darwin research facility to question an employee. When he doesn’t get the answers he wants, Ivan “spun Luis around, wrenching the young man’s arm behind his back so that he cried out in pain.”
  • Charlie attempts to get out of town unnoticed but Ivan gives chase. Ivan “clipped two cars and sent them skidding. More cars crashed into those, and a terrific jam blossomed instantly.”
  • There is a multi-chapter chase where Charlie’s group tries to avoid being killed by Esmerelda and her brothers. By plane, Esmerelda and her brothers follow Charlie into the Amazon. Esmerelda’s “brothers’ bullets only hit the water. Gianni got caught up in the excitement and lobbed a stick of dynamite as well. . . The blast had been close enough that she, Dante, and Milana had been soaked by the plume of water.”
  • Trying to avoid being shot, Dante was “weaving back and forth across the river. . . Milana had her gun out, ready to fire on the approaching plane.” Milana’s bullet “caught the guy on the pontoon in the arm, making him drop the machine gun, which plunked in the river.” During the chase, Milana is hit with “a piece of red-hot shrapnel” but is not injured badly.
  • Charlie swims to a barge and sets a trap. “As Esmerelda approached the barge, Gianni took the remaining submachine gun, stepped out onto the pontoon, and prepared to shoot. . . Charlie ran as fast as she could while the plane closed in on her. Gianni opened fire. Bullets sparked off the metal skins of the oil tank. . . And then the world erupted into flame.”
  • The tanker explodes. Esmerelda’s “plane was directly above the first tanker when it blew apart like an enormous firecracker. The blast tossed the plane like a toy, while a ball of fire and smoke enveloped it. . .” The plane catches fire. “Esmerelda and her brothers leapt from it, their clothes on fire too. Just after they dove into the water, the plane blew up.” Everyone survives, but Esmerelda and her brothers are “badly burned.”
  • Esmerelda and her brothers join Ivan, a Russian spy. Ivan holds Charlie, Milana and Dante at gunpoint. In order to escape, Dante and Milana “targeted the Castellos first. . . Dante and Milana made quick work of them.” Charlie runs.
  • Milana, Dante, and Charlie try to escape the bad guys in a multi-chapter chase. Each group is trying to capture a creature. Someone shoots the creature, who “shrieked in pain and tumbled across the wet ground, then rolled back to its feet and scampered away into the cover of the rain. . .”
  • After someone shoots a creature, its friends attack. “Then the creatures’ assault was quick and well coordinated. And while their weapons were rudimentary, only rocks and sticks, they wielded them with terrifying skill.” The man shoots and hits a creature. “It crumpled into the mud, whimpering in pain.”
  • Charlie helps a creature. “It was bleeding from it’s leg where Oz’s bullet had struck it and was in obvious pain.”
  • Someone shoots Dante. “Dante turned to see who had shot him, but his vision was already going blurry. His mind was clouding. His strength was ebbing.”
  • A snake attacks one of Esmeralda’s brothers. “It moved with startling speed for such a big creature, first sinking its teeth into Gianni’s torso and then coiling around him. . . He was certainly hurting now—and he was terrified.” When Gianni’s brother tries to help, “the snake responded by wrapping its tail end around Paolo as well.”
  • Esmerelda sees her brothers. “The anaconda had already killed them both. Gianni’s body was floating facedown in the creek, while the giant snake was actually consuming Paolo. It had unhinged its jaw and begun the long process of swallowing her brother headfirst.”
  • Ivan and Esmerelda capture Charlie. In order to escape, Charlie throws a bullet ant at them. “Ivan felt the sting first. . . It felt as though every nerve ending in his body had suddenly caught fire. It was so intense that it leveled him. . . Esmerelda went down next. . . She sank to the floor as well, gripped by convulsions.
  • Charlie and Esmerelda fight. “Charlie intercepted her attack, catching Esmerelda’s arms in her hands. She used her fingernails as a weapon like Milana had told her, digging them deep into Esmerelda’s skin. . .” Charlie had put poison on her nails.
  • Esmerelda “lunged for Charlie with the knife. . . [A creature] slammed into Esmerelda, sending her reeling backward into the cockpit. . .” Charlie escaped but Esmerelda and “the helicopter plummeted into the gorge, crashed into the river. . . and exploded in a ball of fire.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • While in America, Ivan, a Russian spy, helped support the illegal drug trade.
  • While at a lodge, “The adults were drinking beer” and Dante “had brought another beer back to the room from the bar.”
  • Someone shoots Dante and Milana with a tranquilizer dart.
  • After an expedition into the Amazon, Milana and Dante finally make it back to civilization and they both have a beer.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Darwin makes an incredible discovery, but others think it is “an affront to God.”
  • When a group of creatures attack, they chase a man. “He had to get away from the ones that were chasing him and pray that there weren’t others ahead.”

 

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter

Isabel Feeney is one of the few newsgirls working in 1920s Chicago during the era of guns and gangsters. Every day, while she sells copies of the Tribune, she dreams of being a journalist like her hero, the famous crime reporter Maud Collier. So when Isabel stumbles upon a murder scene on her own street corner, she’s determined to solve the case.

Who murdered mobster Charles “The Bull” Bessemer? Was it his beautiful fiancée, Miss Giddings, whose fingerprints were found on the gun? A jealous husband? Or Bessemer’s associate, Al Capone? As Isabel tracks down clues, she finds herself working alongside Maude, who is covering the case.

But as Isabel gets closer to discovering who killed a gangster, someone becomes determined to silence her, too.

Readers will quickly fall in love with Isabel, who is intelligent, observant, and determined to solve the murder mystery. As Isabel follows the clues, she meets several possible suspects and her snooping often gets her into trouble. Along the way, Isabel meets two new friends, Flora and Robert. These friendships add interest because Flora’s family are gangsters, and Robert has a physical disability due to polio.

Even though the fast-paced story takes readers into the violent world of Chicago, none of the crimes are described in gory detail. Instead, Isabel’s journey focuses on finding the true killer by meeting the people in the prime suspect’s life. Isabelle’s new friends include the dead man’s daughter, a famous female reporter, and a police detective. As Isabel searches the city, readers will get a look at Murderess’s Row—a wing of the Cook County Jail.

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter will appeal to both mystery and history fans. Despite Isabel’s good intentions, she often speaks without thinking and gets herself into potentially dangerous situations. As Isabel follows the clues, she writes them in a notebook, which helps the reader keep track of all the clues. Even though the story is written from Isabel’s point of view, all of the characters are uniquely interesting and well-developed. The conclusion wraps up all of the story threads and will leave the reader smiling. Readers who love a mystery that revolves around a plucky heroine should add The Friday Barnes Series by R.A. Spratt to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • After a man is murdered, Isabel is the first person on the scene. The man is “stretched out on the snow, bleeding.” Isabel sees “a puddle of blood near his ear.”
  • Isabel tells a detective, “I’ve had way worse fights with the kid next door—pounded him—but it doesn’t mean I’d kill him.”
  • Isabel thinks about her dad’s death and wonders, “if my father had suffered, like from poison gas the Germans had used, or if he’d gone quickly, like from a bullet. Or if it had been really horrible, from a bayonet.”
  • A reporter tells Isabel, “I’ve trudged through the ash-covered remains of big fires. And waded into the river to get a better look when a corpse was being dredged out. And of course, I’ve stepped over bodies, sometimes several at once, because this is a violent city.”
  • A gangster is called the Nose because his nose got shot off.
  • Isabel mentions how “Mrs. Harq had bumped off her dentist husband . . .”
  • The newspaper has an article about how “Marty Durkin, who’d killed a federal agent in Chicago, had finally been caught after leading police on a wild-goose chase over America.”
  • While walking down an alley, someone hits Isabel over the head. She “stumbled on something—right before everything went black.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Al Capone is mentioned several times. “As everybody in Chicago—even kids—knew, Al Capone was a very dangerous man who’d made millions of dollars selling alcohol, which was illegal because of Prohibition.”
  • Isabel passes a speakeasy. “Secret places where men and women went to listen to jazz music and drink bootleg alcohol, away from the police—until the parties got raided.”

Language

  • Heck, darn, and jeez are used occasionally.
  • Isabel thinks that her friend is a witch.
  • A man calls Isabel a “brat” and a “lying little monster.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

The Disappearance of Sloane Sullivan

 No one wants me to tell you about the disappearance of Sloane Sullivan.

Not the lawyers or the cops. Not her friends or family. Not even the boy who loved her more than anyone. And most certainly not the United States Marshals Service. You know, the people who run the witness protection program? Yeah, those folks definitely don’t want me talking to you.

But I don’t care. I have to tell someone.

If I don’t, you’ll never know how completely wrong things can go. How a single decision can change everything. How, when it really comes down to it, you can’t trust anyone. Not even yourself. You have to understand, so it won’t happen to you next. Because you never know when the person sitting next to you isn’t who they claim to be…and because there are worse things than disappearing.

This story begins with Sloane once again changing her name and going to a new school. While Sloane is quickly brought into a group of friends, none of the characters are likable. By the end of the story, readers will wonder why Sloane let any of these people into her life. Each character is so full of secrets that it is difficult to distinguish the truth from rumors. While Sloane’s lies are understandable, the rest of the characters come off as self-centered, manipulating liars.

Sloane tells her own story, which allows the reader to understand her motivations. In addition to her thoughts, Sloane often has flashbacks. Readers will empathize with Sloane, who constantly has to move in order to keep safe. Her only stability is Marc, who is posing as a federal Marshal. Marc has taught Sloane the importance of being aware of her surroundings as well as how to protect herself. Despite this, Sloane makes so many mistakes that it’s amazing she is still alive.

While The Disappearance of Sloane Sullivan has a unique premise and suspenseful moments, by the end, none of the characters can be trusted. The complicated ending is not believable, and even Marc, Sloane’s protector, turns out to be a bit of a creep. At 400 pages, some of the high school drama and Sloane’s inner struggles could have been cut out. If you’re looking for a suspenseful mystery romance, some better options would be Six Months Later by Natalie D. Richards and Crossing the Line by Simone Elkeles.

Sexual Content

  • While talking about the senior trip, someone says, “I heard the chaperones go to bed early and everyone sneaks out and hooks up.”
  • When Sloane was a freshman, she skipped school to hang out with Ben, a senior. “Ben gave a throaty laugh as he pushed my brown hair off my shoulders and kissed the side of my neck. My heart jumped in my chest.” When Marc finds them, Ben “leaned in and kissed me right on the mouth, all the while glaring at Mar . . I’d done my fair share of imagining my first kiss, even the possibility it might happen with Ben, but I never thought it would happen just to taunt Mark.”
  • When Sloane enters a new school, she sees some students “making out in front of classrooms.”
  • Sloane thinks back to a time when she had a boyfriend named Duke. “He leaned in and kissed me. It was slow and sweet and steady, just like him.”
  • Sloane’s friend, Livie, is upset that her boyfriend broke up with her. Livie says, “But we were together for almost two months. We made out tons of times. . . That counts for something, right?”
  • According to rumors, Jason has “slept with half the girls in the school.”
  • Jason said he left a party because “I found my date making out with him [the host] in his bedroom?” Another time, he agreed to go to a party with Lauren, but “when I got there, she and her friends were already drunk. . . she kept trying to take me to her room so we could be ‘alone.’ She said she wanted to ring in the new year by doing something special and she wanted me to be her first.”
  • When a girl disappears, some people say that she’s “hooking up with a guy and she’s “holed up in a motel room somewhere.”
  • Even though Sawyer knew Sloane didn’t like him, he kissed her.
  • While on the senior trip, Livie implies she’s going to a boy’s room to have sex. Livie says she can ask the guy if “he has any lonely friends.” Sloane tells her, “I don’t want some random trip hookup, Livie.”
  • Sawyer and Livie “slept together.”
  • Once Jason knows who Sloane really is, they kiss. Sloane “grabbed a fistful of his shirt, pulling him the rest of the way to me. . . So when I finally pulled away from him, breathless and dizzy from the amazing softness of his lips and the feeling of his hands against my skin. . .” After this, they kiss several times, but the kisses aren’t described.
  • After months, Jason and Sloane are reunited. “And then Jason is kissing me. His kisses are urgent at first, insistent like he’s trying to erase the last eight months. Then they slowly turn soft and sweet and gentle. . .”

Violence

  • Sloane was told her father committed suicide, but later she finds out he was murdered. The death is not described.
  • When a boy gives Sloane an unwanted kiss, she “yanked my knee up as hard as I could until it landed between Ben’s legs. He groaned and doubled over, and I shoved him with both hands. . . I watched him hit the ground.”
  • Sloane has a series of flashbacks. She saw two men kill a man. “The older man slumped against the warehouse at their feet. His blond curly hair was matted with blood and his face was swollen and bruised.” The flashback is described over two pages.
  • While at a birthday party, the girl’s father walks behind Sloane and scares her. “Without thinking, I crouched down and swung my leg around in an arc just like Mark taught, sweeping a man’s legs out from under him. He crashed onto his back with a loud oof . . .”
  • Sawyer gets angry at Jason. “Sawyer planted his hands on Jason’s chest and shoved with all his drunken might. Jason stumbled backward, but caught himself before he fell.” Sloane gets between them and stops the fight.
  • Sawyer taunts Jason and Sloane “grabbed Sawyer’s wrist with my right hand, pulled his arm across my chest, and flipped him over my shoulder in one impossibly fast movement. He hit the ground with a loud smack. . . Then he lunged at me. Faster than I could react, Jason jumped in front of Sawyer and punched him so hard his teeth clicked together as his head snapped back. . . He was out cold.”
  • When the “bad guy” shows up at Sloane’s school, she runs home only to find a man’s body. The man’s eyes “were dull and empty and I couldn’t look at them.”
  • Marc’s family is full of gangsters. He says, “For my tenth birthday, my uncle Gino taught me the best places to cut a person so it would hurt like hell but they wouldn’t bleed out before they confessed.”
  • A rival gangster, Reuben, killed Marc’s little sister. Reuben “told us where we could find her body. He even mocked the way she’d begged for her life.”
  • When Marc threatens Jason with a gun, Sloane “shot him.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • While talking about the senior trip, someone tells Sloane, “people smuggle alcohol along and party in their hotel rooms.”
  • In the past, Sawyer got drunk and “got pissed someone beat [him] at cards and punched a hole in the drywall in [his] basement.”
  • While at a party a girl is drugged. The doctors “think someone must’ve slipped something in her drink. . . No injuries or evidence of sexual assault or anything.”
  • At prom, Sawyer gets so drunk that he can’t stand up.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, crap, damn, hell, holy hell, pissed, and shit. For example, a boy tells Sloane, “You’re getting ready to tell me we shouldn’t be friends, right? That you don’t want to be dragged into all of my crap.”
  • Christ, Jesus, oh Lord, God, and good God are used as exclamations occasionally. For example, when someone makes a sexual innuendo, Sloane says, “Oh my God! You did not just turn Harry Potter into something dirty.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Occasionally, Sloane prays for something. For example, when Sloane sees someone from her past, she prays that her brown eyes “would be enough to throw him off.”
  • When Sloane and her friends sneak out of school, they go to a carousel. When the cops show up, Sloane introduces everyone. Sloane “prayed, prayed, he didn’t know the characters’ names from The Goonies.”

 

Payback

After a serious betrayal from one of their former friends, the clones of Project Osiris are on the run again. Now separated into pairs, Eli and Tori and Amber and Malik are fighting to survive in the real world.

Amber and Malik track down the one person they think can help them prove the existence of Project Osiris, the notorious mob boss Gus Alabaster, also known as Malik’s DNA donor. But as Malik gets pulled into the criminal world—tantalized by hints of a real family—his actions put him and Amber in greater danger.

Eli and Tori get sucked into even bigger conspiracies as they hunt down Project Osiris’s most closely guarded secrets—including the question of who Eli’s DNA comes from? With a surprising new ally and another cross-country adventure, the four will have to work together to overcome the worst parts of themselves if they are going to end Project Osiris once and for all.

Payback, the fast-paced final installment in the Mastermind Series, shows what happened to all the other Osiris clones. The beginning of the book focuses on Malik, Tori, Amber, and Eli. Malik and Amber spend time with the criminal that Malik was cloned from; until Malik finally realizes that he is not the same as the criminal who shares his DNA. On the other hand, Eli makes a surprising discovery about the person he was cloned from.

While Payback has several surprising twists, some of the plot is redundant and the events don’t shed much light on the characters. Despite this, there is enough action and suspense to keep readers interested. However, because of the backstory, readers must read the Mastermind books in order in order to enjoy Payback.

The books’ narrative repeatedly talks about how the characters were excellent at criminal behavior because their DNA came from criminal masterminds. However, the conclusion contradicts these statements by claiming that the characters’ DNA does not determine their behavior. The conclusion also leaves many questions unanswered, which may frustrate readers. Instead of having a solid conclusion, the book ends without tying up all of the plot threads.

One surprising aspect of the Masterminds Series is the unexpected pockets of humor. Even though the characters are often in danger and running from their enemies, readers will find themselves laughing out loud because of the characters’ interactions. While the series has some flaws, the unique premise, the interesting characters, and the plot twists will keep readers turning the pages. Readers looking for another fast-paced adventure should add the Wizard for Hire Series by Obert Skye to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While helping someone load groceries into their car, someone tries to nab Tori. Tori “reaches into the grocery bag, pulls out a glass jar of pickles, and swings it at her attacker, catching him full in the face. He staggers back, dazed, his sunglasses askew.” Tori is able to escape.
  • Amber begins working at a soup kitchen. A police officer comes in looking for a man who is eating there. When the policeman shoves the man, Amber gets angry. “The big tray of mashed potatoes is in my hands before I even realize what I’m doing. I heave it over the plastic sneeze guard, raining the entire load down on the advancing cop.” Then she runs away.
  • Eli thinks he is a clone of the Crossword Killer who killed nine people. “The lives he took were not in pursuit of any goal, regardless of how horrible or lawless. He killed for the sake of killing.”
  • Someone binds Tori to a chair. Eli tries to fight her attackers. “I pick up the nearest object—a floor lamp—and swing it at them. . . The bigger one grabs it and hauls me in like a fish on a line . . . Powerful arms imprison me, and soon I find myself duct-taped too, my arms locked behind my back.”
  • An adult tells Eli and his friends about a younger brother that went to jail for “petty theft. He was killed by another inmate.”
  • While the kids were trying to steal a boat, a fisherman tries to stop them. “. . . A metal toolbox swings up and around, catching him on the side of the head with a sickening thunk. He drops like a stone. . .”
  • Malik tries to get Robbie, another Osiris clone, to go with him. Robbie refuses, and Malik tries to “tackle him and hold him underwater for a few seconds. . . I pull him, choking and gasping, out of the drink.” Robbie freaks out and “he pounds his fists against my [Malik] chest and face.”
  • The Purples try to nab the kids. As the Purples get closer “the metal pole of a large beach umbrella swings out of nowhere, catching the two Purples full in the face. Both men drop to the beach, unconscious.”
  • C.J. Rackoff also tries to stop the kids, but Malik rams “his head full force into Rackoff’s jaw.”
  • Eli’s “father” points a pistol at him. Right before he is about to shoot, “Hector slams into my one-time father from the side, jarring his gun arm. With a sharp crack, the shot goes off.” The bullet hits a huge aquarium, and a rush of water and fish come pouring out. Afterward, “the ginormous manta ray [takes] up half the lobby floor. That’s when I notice a pair of feet sticking out from under it.”
  • During the struggle, Hector is injured. “Hammerstrom’s [Eli’s father’s] bullet must have grazed him, because he’s got an angry red line stretching from the corner of his mouth to his left ear.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • The kids worry that Dr. Bruder from Project Osiris will give them a drug. Dr. Bruder has “fancy pills designed to make us kids forget things Osiris doesn’t want us to remember.”

Language

  • There is minimal name calling, such as idiot, jerk, morons, nitwit, slimeball, doofus, loser, and bonehead.
  • Both “oh my God” and “OMG” are used as an exclamation one time.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • While trying to steal clothes, Tori sneaks onto a balcony. On an adjacent balcony a woman comes out and Tori prays “that the woman goes back inside before it occurs to her to glance to the right.”
  • Eli’s father tries to kill him. When he’s uninjured, one of the adults says, “thank God!”

City of Villains #1

Mary Elizabeth Heart is a high school senior by day, but by night she’s an intern at the Monarch City police department. She watches with envy from behind a desk as detectives come and go, trying to contain the city’s growing crime rate. For years, tension has simmered as the city’s wealthy elite plan to gentrify a decaying neighborhood called the Scar—which once upon a time was the epicenter of all things magical.

When the daughter of one of the city’s most powerful businessmen goes missing, Mary Elizabeth is thrilled when the Chief puts her on the case. But what begins as one missing person’s report soon multiplies, leading her down the rabbit hole of a city in turmoil. There she finds a girl with horns, a boyfriend with secrets, and what seems to be a sea monster lurking in a poisonous lake. As the mystery circles closer to home, Mary finds herself caught in a fight between those who once had magic, and those who will do anything to bring it back—even if it means creating a few monsters along the way.

This dark, fairytale-inspired world explores the reimagined origins of Maleficent, Ursula, Captain Hook, and other infamous Disney villains. Readers who expect to walk into a world of Disney characters will be disappointed to discover that while the characters are named after Disney characters, they are normal humans. To make matters worse, at the beginning of the story, a slew of characters are introduced, but most of them have only a brief appearance which leads to confusion. In addition, the characters are so underdeveloped that readers will have a hard time connecting with them. While the story is told from Mary Elizabeth’s point of view, her insight into her friends’ true personalities also adds to the confusion.

The setting of the story is unclear because it references the United States in modern day, but it also is a world that magic used to exist in. Like the characters, the world building is underdeveloped. Unlike most Disney stories, City of Villains revolves around teenagers who hang out at bars. Plus, Mary Elizabeth is an intern at the police station which gives her access to some brutal murder cases, including her own family’s murder. For example, the police are attempting to solve a gruesome case that involves a murderer leaving gift-wrapped body parts all over the city.

City of Villains will leave many Disney fans disappointed. The plot takes the reader on a winding and confusing journey through a world with little magic. The gruesome murder scenes, the underdeveloped characters, and the unrealistic conclusion make City of Villains a book that is best left on the shelf. Readers who want a fairytale-inspired story should check out Fairy Tale Reform School by Jen Calonita or the Once Upon a Con Series by Ashley Poston.

Sexual Content

  • Mary Elizabeth and her boyfriend kiss, but the kiss is not described. For example, “James and I pause to kiss while Ursula stops to answer a call on her cell.”
  • When a girl is reported to be missing, the chief of police doesn’t want to investigate. “The last thing I need is drama over a girl who’s probably in a hotel room with someone she met in some club last Saturday night, picking up parasites from the questionable bed linens.”
  • Mary Elizabeth argues with a boy at school. He tells her, “I think what Mr. Iago is getting at is that your need to engage in confrontations with me boils down to attraction and sexual tension. . . if you didn’t have that ugly birthmark and weren’t totally concave in the chest area, I might consider relieving all that tension for you.”
  • While in a bar’s bathroom, Mary Elizabeth sees writing on the wall. It says, “For a good time call Mary Elizabeth.”

Violence

  • While working at the police station, Mary Elizabeth learns about a case. “Body parts showing up all over the Scar . . . So far there’s been a thigh, an arm, a hand with the fingerprints cut from the skin. . . they come in these boxes wrapped up like holiday gifts, frozen in dry ice.”
  • A new package arrives. “A hand rests in the center, mist rising all around it as the dry ice burns off. Its fingernails are blackened and congealed blood crusts at the wrist. It’s discolored gray, and the middle finger is pointed straight upward, flipping the chief the bird.”
  • At school there is a scuffle between two boys. “Stone slams into Lucas Attenborough, who pushes him back easily, so Stone falls onto his back, loses his breath, and looks up at us in panic. Lucas gives him a kick that’s more symbolic than painful.”
  • When Mally isn’t invited to a party, she shows up with her pet bird, Hellion. Mally’s bird “flew everywhere, digging his talons into the rose blossom cake, knocking over the vat of ginger beer, pecking into the chestnut-toasted suckling pig.” Later, Mally “cut Flora’s break lines, left a roadkill on Fauna’s doorstep, and bleached Merryweather’s grass.”
  • Mary Elizabeth’s parents and sister are murdered and Mary Elizabeth sees some crime scene photos with “all that blood.” She also learns that the man who killed them “just wanted to know what it would feel like to take lives.”
  • In a vision, Mary Elizabeth sees Mally, who is trying to tell her something. “She is yanked out of the chair. She slaps against the plastic seat and whacks heavily against the floor, and then she slides along, head lolling to the side, eyes unblinking and open.”
  • Bella, a young police officer, accidentally shoots someone. “I was aiming for his leg, but I killed him.”
  • Bella tells Mary Elizabeth about a trucker who “kidnapped a couple people, and then left their remains outside of Las Vegas.”
  • The police arrest a man who “had a kill kit in his vehicle: ropes, hacksaw, trash bags. . . and we found trace elements of Ursula’s blood in his shop and on his clothes.”
  • The person who helped kidnapped Mally and Ursula tells Mary Elizabeth, “I thought they’d be drugged, poked with needles, dosed with forgetful serum, and then returned home. . . I had no idea it would turn out this way, that people would actually be monstrously altered.”
  • While trying to free Mally and Ursula, men try to stop Mary Elizabeth. “I kick the gun out of one man’s hand and then punch and duck and swerve but feel something hit my chin and something else grab me by the back of the head. . .” Ursula jumps into the fight. “She swings her arms out and the men go flying, making hard thudding noises as they hit the wall. She makes a rising motion and the men get up like marionettes, doing jigs. They are horrified and helpless as their bodies are flung to and from.”
  • While trying to escape, Mally “hurls blue lights at him. She hits him and he is singed and within seconds has disappeared.”
  • Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend James’s hand is hit with darts. His hand begins to shrivel. In order to save his life, Mary Elizabeth grabs an ax. She swings “high and brings the ax down, severing James’s hand from his arm. . . He screams as I take off my belt and loop it around his arm tightly as I can.”
  • At the end of the battle, the police show up. “Pieces of broken glass and bodies are strewn everywhere. Medics have begun to collect Kyle’s men one by one and puts some into ambulances, while others are covered in blankets, a signal that they will need to be collected for the morgue.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend is “the son of a drug-lord/murderer.”
  • Mary Elizabeth and her boyfriend see a man who is “wasted.”

Language

  • The teens often call each other names such as doofus, idiot, moron, jerk, prick, loser, and crazy witch.
  • Profanity is rarely used. Profanity includes asshole, damn, bitchy, hell, pissing, and jackass.

Supernatural

  • Magic used to exist, but now the only place that is magical is the Ever Garden. “Once someone tried to sell hot dogs from a cart and was hurled out by a redwood.”
  • Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend shows her a blue ball of light. “So I keep looking at this light until I’m part of it, until I am the swirl and I can see it isn’t just a flat blue. . . It’s alive and beckoning, its fingers reaching for me. Half a second later, the light shoots into my chest.”
  • Due to a magical experiment, Mary Elizabeth’s best friend, Ursula, is changed. “She has tentacles, black ones that look to be part of a backless dress.” At one point, Ursula “changes from a human to an eel to a giant floating jellyfish and back to a human in a matter of seconds.”
  • While looking in a mirror, Mary Elizabeth sees a reflection of a different version of herself. She can step through the mirror into another place. She pushes the glass and “the glass gives, turning opaque like silver satin as my fingers disappear to the knuckle.”
  • At one point, Mary Elizabeth levitates.
  • Mary Elizabeth’s boyfriend uses magic to put her to sleep. “He presses his lips against mine and pulls me in close. . . He pulls back, puts a thumb to my forehead. . . ‘Sleep,’ he says, and blue light shoots into my head. The world abruptly fades to black.
  • Mally turns into a “badass” dragon.

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Dirt Road Home

Two years ago, Hal was sent to a state residence to keep him away from his alcoholic father. Hal escapes the boys’ home but is eventually captured. Now, he’s being sent to serve hard time at Hellenweiler Boy’s Home.

With his dad back on the wagon, Hal can walk out sooner than he thinks if he keeps his cool. But at Hellenweiler, trouble finds those who try to avoid it. In order to stay out of trouble, Hal tries to avoid the other residents, but two rival gangs each want Hal to pick a side. To make matters worse, Hal realizes the head of Hellenweiler, Mr. Pratt, is determined to keep Hal locked up. Is there any way Hal can stay out of the gangs’ fights? Will everyone believe Mr. Pratt’s lies?

Hal is determined to stay out of trouble, but other inmates notice his confidence and compassion. For example, Hal encourages the new arrival of Leroy to quickly choose a gang as Leroy will need protection. But after seeing Leroy and Hal interact, the gang leader chooses a cruel initiation task—beat up Hal. Hal quickly realizes Leroy’s struggle and promises not to fight back. Hal takes the beating because he knows it is the only way Leroy will be safe. Throughout the story, many boys fight each other. Some of the fights are barbaric and bloody, which may upset more sensitive readers.

Readers will admire Hal for his determination and grit. Hal’s experiences highlight the violent nature of boys’ homes and the corrupt system that is designed to keep the boys behind bars. The boys often fight each other and the guards gladly ignore much of the fighting. However, the guards seem to relish in being able to use violence to stop the fighting. While the story ends on a positive note, readers will be left wondering if all of the boys can be reformed or if are some of them already destined to live in a prison for the rest of their adult lives.

Full of violence, questionable characters, and suspense, Dirt Road Home will keep the reader interested until the very end. The story has a darker tone and explores difficult topics such as alcoholism, justice, and prison life. Hal and several other characters made an appearance in Alabama Moon. Even though readers do not have to read Alabama Moon to understand the story, understanding Hal’s background will help readers have empathy for him. Dirt Road Home is an easy-to-read story that illustrates how one person can make a positive difference in others’ lives.

Sexual Content

  • Hal dreams about his girlfriend and “the time I couldn’t help myself and leaned over and kissed her on the tailgate of my truck. And the way I’d felt when she’d kissed me back and then later when she’d stood behind me and put her hands in the front pockets of my jeans and pulled close against me.”
  • Hal kisses his girlfriend. “I leaned into her and kissed her on the mouth. Her lips were soft and tasted like cherry ChapStick. I’d been thinking about that kiss ever since.”

Violence

  • Two rival gangs try to recruit new boys. A boy chases after a basketball and gets too close to a rival gang member. “The Hound slapped the ball out of the Minister’s hand and bent down to get it. The Minister kneed the boy in the stomach and the Hound collapsed, holding himself.” An adult breaks up the fight.
  • As part of a gang initiation, Hal’s friend Leroy is told to beat up Hal. Hal tells him, “I won’t fight back, Leroy.” Leroy “drew back and hit me in the ribs. I grunted and leaned over and grabbed my side. . . He punched me hard in the stomach. I doubled over and went to my knees. . . He hit me across the face and I fell sideways. I rolled over and looked at him. Tears were coming down his face. ‘Kick me,’ I said.” Hal is taken to the infirmary.
  • When Hal refuses to join a gang, Tattoo “slammed his hand into my throat and pressed me against the wall. I gasped for breath as he held me there. . . He hit me again. I felt the coppery taste of blood in my mouth. Then I saw it running down his hand.” Hal is knocked unconscious. The scene is described over a page.
  • A gang member tries to make Hal throw a punch. “Jack’s hand shot out and grabbed me by the throat and pinned me to the wire. He was breathing heavy through his nose, and his eyes danced with craziness.” An adult intervenes.
  • When one of the boys refuses to fight, he disappears. Someone tells Hal, “Chase accepted a service he could not pay for. He is gone. . . He was taken away in an ambulance last night.”
  • Hal sneaks down to the basement intending to fight Jack. “I tightened my grip on the shiv and started to stand. Before I could rise, another figure slipped out of the darkness behind Jack and pulled him to the floor. The room was suddenly filled with screaming.” Someone beat up Jack. The next morning, one of the boys is found in bed with “blood staining his bedsheet and the entire side of his shirt.” Both boys heal from their wounds.
  • The two gangs fight. “It was a blur of chaos and confusion as the Hounds descended on their cowering prey . . .” Guards watch the fight and then one “stepped down onto the yard. Behind him came three more guards, each of them with his own club. . . Then I saw sticks rising and falling and caught glimpses of their faces, jaws clenched and eyes narrowed at the pleasure of what they dealt. I heard grunts of pain and more yelling. . . in the end, the guards stood in the settling dust. A few boys lay around them, moaning and curled into fetal positions.”
  • Paco explains how he became a gang leader. “I put a rock in my fist and walked up to their leader and hit him in the face with it until he fell to the ground and spit his teeth into the dirt.”
  • During a fight between the two gangs, “the boys are so worked up that they continue to fight and do not notice the guards. Perhaps even if they did notice they do not believe what is about to happen. . .” The guards attack the boys. After the fight, “there are several boys lying on the ground. One of them is not moving. . . Caboose’s younger brother.” When Caboose refuses to leave his brother’s side, “the guards close in and I hear the clubs hitting his back like punches to a side of beef. Slowly, after many blows, Caboose becomes silent. . . Then, after many more blows, he rolls over and falls across his brother.”
  • A guard finds a shiv in Hal’s locker. The guard grabs Hal and, “I felt the hand on my shoulder. I tried to twist away and the fingers dug clawlike into my collarbone and pain shot up my neck. Then I was hit hard from behind and I went to my knees with the room spinning.” Hal is put in solitary confinement.
  • Paco tells the story of how he ended up in the boys’ home. He was bullied. He became tired of the jeers and ridicule. “I snapped. I began picking up desks and throwing them at students from the back of the room. They screamed and ran for the door. . . All I had to do was throw the desk at the cluster of them.” Paco blames the boys’ home for turning him into a “violent youth.”
  • The gangs fight. Jack, one of the gang leaders, “charged and rammed Paco against the fence. . . Jack began driving his fists into Paco’s kidneys over and over while Paco did nothing to defend himself. . . Jack came at Paco again and began hammering his face with the fury of an insane person. . .” Paco’s friend Caboose “picked him up and put him over his shoulder like he weighed nothing. Blood drooled out of his mouth and down Caboose’s back.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hal’s father is a recorded alcoholic. In a brief conversation Hal asks, “He goin’ to AA meetin’s?” Occasionally, Hal thinks about the past, when his father would drink whiskey.
  • When Hal’s father comes to visit him, Hal is worried because his father has lost weight. His dad says, “I guess I’ve been wired to the stuff [alcohol] for too long. Gotta get reprogrammed.”
  • One of the boys tells Hal, “My parents are in jail for sellin’ drugs.”
  • Before Hal had to go to the boy’s home, he spent time with his girlfriend. They were “drinking a couple of hot Budweisers I’d found in the toolbox.”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, crap, damn, hell and pissed.
  • Someone is called a wuss several times.
  • Christ is used as an exclamation twice.
  • Hal’s father writes Hal a letter. In it, he writes, “I figured you wanted her [Hal’s girlfriend’s] address, numbskull.”
  • While talking to his father, Hal calls his mom a “fat old nag.”
  • One of the boys calls someone a “dumb spic.” The boy replies, “Bring it on, cracker!”
  • Someone tells Hal that he will have to join a gang for protection. When Hal refuses, someone gives him a shiv. Hal says, “Then I’m screwed!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Masterminds #1

Eli Frieden has never left Serenity, New Mexico…why would he ever want to? Then one day, he bikes to the edge of the city limits and something so crazy and unexpected happens, it changes everything.

Eli convinces his friends to help him investigate further, and soon it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems in Serenity. The clues mount to reveal a shocking discovery, connecting their ideal, crime-free community to some of the greatest criminal masterminds ever known. The kids realize they can trust no one — least of all their own parents.

Masterminds has a slow start as it introduces the many characters and the town of Serenity. However, the story also has some heart-stopping moments, which all revolve around the kids trying to figure out the secret that all of the adults have been hiding. Many of the story’s events and explanations are far-fetched. Because of the unbelievable nature of the plot, readers will have to suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy the story.

The story revolves around five characters—Eli, Malik, Hector, Tori, and Amber—and each chapter changes between these characters’ points of view. The constantly shifting point of view is confusing, especially since the characters’ voices are all similar to each other. However, the changing point of view allows readers to understand some of the individual choices that the characters make. Despite this, when the kids discover the answer to the mystery, some of the characters’ reactions still seem extreme and inconsistent.

Readers who enjoy conspiracy theories and mysteries will enjoy Masterminds. The story has a unique premise and will leave readers debating the scientific question of nature vs. nurture. While not all of the events are believable, the suspense and mystery make Masterminds an interesting story. The conclusion doesn’t wrap up all of the story’s threads, but leaves many unanswered questions which will be explored in the next book, Criminal Destiny. While Masterminds has some slow moments, Criminal Destiny picks up the pace in an exciting sequel. If you’re a mystery fan that would prefer a more logical mystery, the Theodore Boone Series by John Grisham would be a better choice.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While trying to get out of town, a guard grabs Malik. Eli swings “his shovel around and I catch Alexander the Grape between the shoulder blades. He drops like a stone. . .” When another guard named Bryan comes after them, Eli tries to drive away. “There’s a thump on my running board. An indigo-sleeved arm reaches for me. The hand grabs my hair. It hurts.” One of the kids hits Bryan in the head with a hoe and he falls down.
  • Eli’s friends jump from a speeding truck before the truck goes over the edge of a mountain. They are not sure if Hector also jumped or died when the truck went over.
  • The kids catch a ride in a train car. When the cars stop, workers see the kids. When a worker grabs Tori, “Malik springs into action. He snatches up a full Gatorade bottle and bounces it with deadly accuracy off the side of the man’s jaw. The blow knocks him backward into the wall, and he releases Tori.” The kids run. Malik gets stuck under a pallet. Amber “leaps into the cab of the forklift, dislodging the driver.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • As Eli tries to leave town, he gets sick and has to stay home for two weeks. During his time at home, Eli is given pills. He thinks the pills are supposed to make him forget what happened.

Language

  • There is some name calling including, loser, idiot, moron and stupid. The name calling happens infrequently.
  • After reading a note from Randy, Malik says, “Hardaway was always a wing nut. . .What a doofus.”
  • Eli thinks his dad is a doofus.
  • Eli calls Harold “stupid.”
  • “Oh my God” is used as an exclamation once.
  • When Eli discovers he has been cloned from a criminal, he hopes his DNA didn’t come from a bonehead.
  • The kids call some of the factory workers the “Purple People Eaters.” Someone makes names for them like “Alexander the Grape.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • During a thunderstorm, Malik is “praying that it would be over.”
  • When there is a plumbing emergency at Eli’s house, he prays that Hector’s dad can fix it.
  • Eli and his friends discover a scientific research project called Osiris. “Osiris is the Egyptian god of the afterlife.”

Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed

Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed follows Diana of Themyscira (AKA Wonder Woman), a sixteen-year-old who leaves her home island and learns about the modern world. Diana is the only child on her island, which is full of powerful, immortal Amazon women. With no one to share in her experiences, Diana has often felt lonely and confused while going through puberty. Even so, she lives an enjoyable life. The Amazons are happy and ensure that everyone is well-fed and cared for.

When boats full of refugees wash up on the shores of Themyscira, the Amazon women chase them off in order to protect their border. Diana, though, is determined to see the refugees to safety and accompanies them off the island and into the mortal world.

They land in a refugee camp in the Middle East, where Diana sees war, poverty, sickness, and cruelty. Her ability to understand and translate every human language soon catches the attention of UN ambassadors, who give her a visa to the United States. Diana soon finds herself living with Polish immigrant Henke and Henke’s granddaughter Raissa in the Queens borough of New York City.

Diana becomes passionate about helping the children of her new community. As a headstrong and compassionate warrior, Diana finds herself at odds with the forces of injustice and hatred. She must stand up for the truth and justice that she was raised to believe in. While fighting for the rights of immigrants, she finds a new family and home in the mortal world.

With skillful writing and drawing, Laurie Halse Anderson and Leila Del Luca have brought a new and original story to the Wonder Woman character. The full-color illustrations are detailed and visually engaging, with a diverse array of panel layouts for effective visual storytelling. While comics fans will recognize the characters of Diana and the Amazons, this story can be read independently of any other Wonder Woman comic book. Diana’s position as an idealistic fish-out-of-water lets readers gain a fresh, heartbreaking perspective on the injustices of war, poverty, homelessness, and even human trafficking. At the same time, Diana discovers the joys of caring for children, connecting with other teenagers, and partaking in modern culture. Diana encounters food trucks, regional slang, polka dancing, subway transit, and parkour with wide-eyed enthusiasm readers will find endearing.

The story culminates in an exciting fight where Diana uses her superhuman strength to rescue children from a rich and powerful villain. It’s satisfying to see a real-life “bad guy” vanquished so quickly and easily by Diana. Even so, the story will leave readers with the knowledge that change is not always easy, and that the human rights abuses (like poverty and human trafficking) portrayed in this piece of fiction have real-life parallels which are not so easily brought down. The story is political in nature, with a stance that mature readers will recognize as being pro-immigration. The message is optimistic and idealistic, but still emotionally compelling. It makes for an uplifting story that will interest not only superhero fans but also for casual readers who want to read about social justice in the modern world.

Sexual Content

  • At the refugee camp, a woman suggests Diana cover up her Amazon armor (which is sleeveless) with a sweatshirt because “the guards can be dangerous,” implying that she might draw unwanted attention.
  • Diana and Raissa are harassed by men on the street, who whistle and say, “Gimme that sweet candy, baby!” When Diana realizes their intentions, she slams them up against the wall saying, “My aunts would have killed those jerks.”
  • Diana is horrified when she learns about the concept of human trafficking, and even more horrified to hear that children who are kidnapped or trafficked are often “forced to have sex.”
  • Raissa gets into an argument with a rich man who is gentrifying her neighborhood. He taunts her by saying, “You’re hot. I like having pretty girls in my office. Want to be my personal intern?”

Violence

  • An Amazon kicks a refugee who has landed on the shores of Themyscira, saying, “Quiet! You’ve broken our barrier.” The other Amazons scold her and say she has gone too far.
  • A woman tells Diana that before she fled Poland, “Thousands were beaten and jailed for protesting. Including me.”
  • During an encounter with bureaucrats who want to stop her from feeding hungry children, Diana is so angry that she throws a picnic table and breaks it. She is arrested.
  • A fight breaks out when Diana rescues a group of children from human traffickers. The fight lasts four pages. Several of the kidnappers have guns, but nobody is seriously hurt.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When mortals land on the shores of Themyscira, the Amazons give them a “forgetting tea” before sending them away.
  • Diana rescues a group of children who have been kidnapped by human traffickers. The children have been drugged to keep them asleep.

Language

  • Profanity is used very infrequently. Language includes bitch, badass, hell, ass, and shitty.

Supernatural

  • As a child of the Amazons, Diana has superhuman strength and abilities. She tries not to draw attention to these. When Raissa says she saw Diana send two vans flying into the air during a fight, Diana says, “You hit your head. You must have been hallucinating.”

Spiritual Content

  • Diana recalls how the “Five Mothers”—the Greek goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, and Hestia—created the Amazons. She also recalls how the Five Mothers granted the Amazon queen a child, which was how Diana was created.
  • Diana makes offerings of food at the Temple of the Five Mothers, and says a prayer to each. For example, to Athena, she says, “Athena, grant me your wisdom. Help me be a good Amazon.”
  • Diana feels that “the gods are warning” her with a vague ominous feeling. She says, “The gods are whispering, but I can’t hear what they’re saying.”
  • Diana says that the Statue of Liberty “looks like Hestia, the goddess of family and the home.”

by Caroline Galdi

 

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor #1

For as long as April could remember, the key has hung around her neck. As an orphan, she has no one to ask what the key belongs to, but she knows it can help her find her mother. While at a museum, April sees the Winterborne family crest and is surprised that it is the same crest that is on her key. Later that night, she sneaks into the museum and accidently starts a fire. When she awakes, she’s in the hospital and a strange woman is sitting by her bed.

The woman takes April to live in a big, creepy mansion with other orphans. April is convinced that she isn’t like the other orphans because her mother will come back for her. But now, April is convinced that the clues to finding her mother are inside the mansion. As she looks for clues, April realizes that the Winterborne House is hiding more than one secret. April and her friends are going to have to work together to unravel the riddle of a missing heir, a creepy legend, and a mysterious key before the only home they’ve ever known is lost to them forever.

Even though danger lurks behind every corner, April is determined to figure out why Gabriel Winterborne (the missing heir) has suddenly returned to the mansion, and why he is hiding from everyone he knows. April’s determination and grit are admirable, but she has a tendency to get into trouble. April doesn’t know who she can trust, which adds to the story’s suspense. Even though the other orphans eventually help April, they are not well-developed. However, each member of the group is interesting and unique.

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor will appeal to both mystery and action fans. The fast pace, constant danger, and interesting characters will have readers trying to fit all of the pieces into the puzzle. The plot isn’t unique—the creepy mansion, the bitter uncle, and April’s key are all predictable.  In addition, the conclusion leaves a list of unanswered questions. Although the story sets the scene for a sequel, the conclusion is frustrating because none of the main plot points are solved.

Readers who love the Gallagher Girl Series may be disappointed by Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor because it lacks a unique plot and humor. Despite this, Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor’s mystery and suspense will appeal to a wide range of readers. The easy-to-read story has plenty of intense action, questionable characters, and spooky scenes that will have readers reading late into the night.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • April was spying when she sees two men. “She turned and started to run, but unfortunately for April, she ran right into a very hard, very broad, very smelly chest.” The man pushes her toward a boat “and April wanted to run, but when she looked back, she saw the gun.”
  • When the men caught April, “Gabriel dropped onto the big man with the gun. . . he yelled as he dodged and kicked, swerved and stabbed. . . One by one, the men fell or stumbled or ran back to the boat.”
  • When the men in the boat try to leave, Gabriel “went for the man behind the controls first, and the boat slowed when Gabriel threw him across the deck, sending him crashing into the crates that went tumbling like a house of cards.” One of the men is able to get Gabriel’s sword and stabs Gabriel, who “stumbled and looked down, almost insulted to see his own sword sticking out of his body. . .” The scene with the men is described over four pages.
  • Tim shows April a series of scars, and implies that his father abused him.
  • When Gabriel was a kid, the boat that his family was on blew up “because bombs and boats don’t mix.” When Gabriel survives the explosion, his uncle tries to kill him repeatedly.
  • On his twenty-first birthday, Gabriel’s uncle hired someone to kill him. The hired killer “hit me on the back of the head and knocked me to the ground. . .” The man shot Gabriel, who fells into the water. “When I came up for air, I heard shouting and sirens, and I knew he was probably gone.” After he is shot, Gabriel disappears and some believe he is dead.
  • April sneaks into a house and is caught. “So April kicked. And lunged. And pushed. And ran. . . She tried to scramble back, but Evert was already grabbing her by the arms and jerking her to her feet. . .” April’s friends help her. “What followed was a whirl of thunder and punches and kicks. And some hair pulling. And a little tripping.”
  • As April and her friends run, Evert is able to grab April. “She threw her head back, jamming the back of her skull into his nose. She heard him scream and felt his blood run down the back of her neck, warmer than the rain.” The chase scene is described over eight pages.
  • When Evert sneaks into the Winterborne Home, the kids attack him. Evert “tried to duck, but he was too late. He tried to run, but he was too slow. A half dozen copper pots were already zooming straight for his head. He stumbled. . . Ropes wrapped around his ankles. A net fell over his head.” Evert is able to use a knife to cut himself down.
  • Evert knocks April to the ground. “April’s head banged off of the hard stone. Her vision blurred. . . Then Evert pulled her to her feet, her back to his chest, a knife at her throat.” April is able to break free.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Gabriel is injured, April gets him back to the house. When Sadie sees him, she asks, “Is he drunk?”
  • In the middle of the night, April “didn’t care about the noise” because she assumed everyone was in bed, except the butler “who was probably in the library with his nightly glass of port.”
  • When Gabriel is injured, one of the kids pretends to be an adult and asks a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic.

Language

  • A man calls someone scum.
  • Darn is used three times.
  • April thinks that Tim is a jerk.
  • Evert calls someone a coward.
  • April calls Evert a “greedy moron.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Gabriel falls into the ocean, April begins praying. April and her friends are able to get Gabriel back to the house, and get him into bed. “All April did was hold Mr. Winterborne’s hand and pray. . . No matter how many times April prayed for him to wake up and yell at her . . . his eyes stayed closed.”

Rescue Mission

During one of Ben’s baseball games, his dad is tasked with finding two escaped convicts. Ben promises his mom that he’ll stay home and be safe. Once he hears that his dad is missing, Ben knows he can’t keep his promise. After gathering supplies and sneaking out, Ben and Hero, his retired search and rescue dog, meet up with the police to find his dad.

Ben and Hero do everything they can to find his dad’s trail. Even with help from Officer Perillo and his new friend Tucker, finding his dad is tough. The duo fight through the forest, deal with dangerous snakes, and put their lives on the line. Ben’s dad is a cop – a hero in his own right – but the two convicts are clever and dangerous, forcing Ben and Hero to be extra cautious. The two escaped convicts won’t go down without a fight. Will Ben and Hero rescue his dad, or will the convicts win the day?

Hero: Rescue Mission is a very fast-paced story that centers on Ben. Through his point of view, the reader can understand his worries, fears, and frustrations surrounding his dad’s disappearance. Readers can also understand why Ben is so reckless. From the outside, it may look like Ben doesn’t seem to care about his own safety; however, he’s simply afraid he might never see his dad again.

The third installment in the Hero series focuses on how worry can make someone reckless. Ben wants to save his dad as fast as possible, but this also leads to him being bitten by a snake. That snakebite puts Ben in the hospital, which only makes the search more difficult. There are many times where Ben loses his cool and shouts at others because he thinks they aren’t moving quickly enough. Yet, through this adversity, Ben learns to take things slowly. He learns the value of caution, as well as careful planning.

Once again, Hero stars as one of the main characters of the story. The retired search and rescue dog is eager to find Ben’s dad. At the start of the story, Hero is just as anxious and reckless as Ben is. Through bonding and training, Ben and Hero begin to work as one. They need each other in order to save the day. Hero: Rescue Mission focuses on Ben and Hero’s fears as they race to find Ben’s dad. Despite the story’s fast pace, most of the story is about Ben learning to control both Hero and his emotions. Much of the conflict with the convicts occurs at the very end of the story. Once Ben finds his dad, he and Hero must battle the convicts and prevent them from robbing a convenience store. This mimics real police work and illustrates both the importance of the police and the danger they put themselves in.

Newcomers to this series do not need to have read the first two books in order to understand the plot. While there are references to the first two books, Ben explains the references. This book will appeal to young readers that have a parent or family member in the police force. With a realistic protagonist, an engaging emotional story, and a truly heroic search and rescue dog, Hero: Rescue Mission is a fun, exciting entry in Jennifer Li Shotz’s series.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • During Ben’s baseball game, his friend Noah is injured. The injury “had come when a foul ball had barreled toward Noah and hit him in the arm—hard. Noah had yelped in pain, and Coach Lee had called a time-out and jogged over.” After the game, Ben’s “best friend sat slumped over on a deck chair, his very swollen arm cradled in a sling.”
  • When thinking about Hero’s abilities, Ben thinks, “And… well, if it came down to it, Hero was pretty great at attacking bad guys too.”
  • Ben recalls a memory from his past when Hero was “getting attacked by two vicious dogs at the dogfighting ring.”
  • After picking up a rock, Ben is bitten by a snake. Before he “had time to process what it was, Ben felt a sharp sting, burning, and warmth spreading up his arm.” Immediately after that, Ben falls. He “staggered backward and fell to the ground. His arm was on fire, and he was so woozy he couldn’t even lift his head.”
  • Ben’s new friend Tucker carries around a slingshot. Tucker shoots a rock at one prisoner, “and the escaped prisoner let out a yell as it bashed him in the forehead. Blood spouted from a gash above his right eye, and he clutched at it with a meaty hand. He howled in shock and pain—and fell away from the window.”
  • The second convict has a gun. He points the gun at Ben and Hero. “There was no way Ben was going to let Hero get hurt—and this man clearly wouldn’t hesitate to shoot any of them, human or canine.” Ben then learns that the convicts are “going to rob [a convenience store] for supplies and cash and then head south for Louisiana.”
  • Ben’s dad attacks the convict without a gun. Ben’s dad, “swung the board in a high arc and brought it down on the man’s head with a deep, dull thwack.”
  • The convict with a gun goes to rob a convenience store. Ben sees “the prisoner, holding a gun. It was pointed straight at [the shop owners].” Hero leaps on the convict with “a thunk, and the man grunted as the air was knocked out of his lungs. He fell forward like a bag of rocks, hitting the ground so hard Ben felt the floor vibrate.” Tucker also “swung his mother’s bat with all his force. The sound it made when it connected with the convict’s leg was flat and disgusting.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • The second convict tells Ben that the first convict will be, “real pissed off when he wakes up.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Jonathan Planman

The Case of the Stolen Sixpence

Twelve-year-old Maisie is a noticing sort of person. That’s why she is convinced she would make an excellent detective if she ever got the chance! But instead of detecting, she spends her days polishing the banisters at her grandmother’s boarding house or fetching fish for the lodgers’ dinner. Maisie is willing to bet that her idol, the great detective Gilbert Carrington, never fetches his own fish.

Maisie’s chance comes when she notices a wriggling sack discarded in an alley—with a half-drowned puppy inside! Who would try to get rid of a sweet little dog? The mystery becomes her very first case. When Maisie’s friend George is accused of stealing coins from the butcher shop where he works, she finds herself with a proper crime to solve. While she spends less time peeling potatoes and more time searching for evidence, the clues pile up—and so do Gran’s questions about where she’s always running off to. Can Maisie find the culprit in her new canine assistant’s would-be drowning, clear George’s name, and keep up with her chores?

When Maisie finds a half-drowned dog, Eddie, Maisie has to convince Gran to allow her to keep the dog. With the help of one of the boarders, Maisie shows Gran that Eddie is useful to have around. Readers will giggle as Maisie and the boarder work together and come up with a creative solution that allows Eddie to stay.

While Eddie often gets into some humorous trouble, he also leads Maisie to befriend George. When George gets fired, Maisie promises to prove that he isn’t a thief. With a boarder’s help, Maisie disguises herself so she can investigate. While Maisie sneaks around looking for clues, she uses her powers of observation to solve the mystery. The mystery is solved in an entertaining way that leads Maisie into some interesting situations.

Maisie is spunky, observant, and willing to don a disguise to solve a mystery. Maisie’s grandmother, the maid, and the other boarders are not well-developed, but they add interest and suspense to the story.

The detective story has an easy-to-follow plot. However, some readers may need help understanding some of the vocabulary since Maisie and the other characters use old-fashioned vocabulary such as scullery, sniggering, dithered, and reproachful

The Case of the Stolen Sixpence has an interesting mystery, a determined main character, and a mischievous dog. Black and white pictures will help readers visualize the story’s action, and they also break up the text into manageable blocks. The advanced vocabulary and sentence structure make The Case of the Stolen Sixpence best for proficient readers. However, the story would be fun to read aloud to younger readers. Mystery lovers who aren’t ready for Maisie’s mysteries should grab a magnifying glass and the Hilde Cracks the Case Series by Hilde Lysiak. Proficient readers who desire more illustrated mysteries will want to travel back in time with the Time Jumpers Series by Wendy Mass.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Maisie admires a detective, Gilbert Carrington, because he “managed to solve a murder once just from an ear sent by the penny post in a small brown paper parcel.”
  • Maisie finds a puppy in a sack. She thinks that someone was trying to drown the puppy by putting him in a sack and throwing him in a river.
  • A boy tries to kick Maisie’s dog.
  • When Maisie asked a boy named Reg some questions, he “put one meaty hand out and shoved Maisie at the door. She banged into the wooden frame, and clutched her shoulder…Reg tried to kick the little dog away, cursing, and Maisie screamed…”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • One of the boarders at Maisie’s house is named Sidebotham. “Maisie couldn’t help sniggering whenever the governess’s name was mentioned. It sounded exactly like Sidebottom, and Miss Sidebotham’s rear end was rather enormous.”
  • When Maisie asks a boy about George, he sneered, “Sweet on him, was yer? Get off, nasty little beggar.”
  • “Drat,” is used three times. For example, someone calls George a “dratted boy.”
  • A man calls Maisie a “stupid little brat!”
  • Someone tells Maisie, “Sally’s mother. She’s a right old witch.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Spin

Spin centers around the murder of Paris Secord, an up-and-coming musician whose stage name was DJ ParSec. After finding fame and fortune on SoundCloud and YouTube, Paris begins to clash with some of the friends who helped her on her way to the top. When Paris is found dead on top of her signature turntables, her childhood best friend Kya and social media guru Fatimah (“Fuse”) find themselves suspects in the investigation. To clear their name, they set out to solve the murder themselves.

Kya and Fuse are the two main narrators of the story, which switches between their first-person perspectives. As Kya and Fuse delve deeper into Paris’s past, they must come to terms with the bitter fallings-out they had with Paris before she died. While Kya and Fuse start as enemies, they soon bond in their shared efforts to bring justice to Paris. As they investigate, the two encounter a conspiracy involving crazed fans who will do anything to prove themselves loyal members of the ParSec Nation. As Kya and Fuse unravel the mystery, some chapters flash back to Paris’s perspective, which reveals crucial details and reveals how she coped with fame.

 Spin is a fast-paced mystery that introduces readers to music industry concepts, such as ill-intentioned managers and nosy journalists. The story honestly portrays contemporary music culture and rabid fandom. While some of this portrayal comes across as well-researched and genuine, other parts feel forced. Readers might find the narrative’s dialects and buzzwords unnatural. For example, the book often shows tweets from rabid fans, but the style and syntax of the tweets is disingenuous and awkward.

Spin succeeds in its earnest portrayal of class tensions. Kya, Fuse, and Paris all must deal with their families’ financial situations and how their circumstances have shaped their worldviews. For example, Paris set up a bank account for her newfound wealth while trying to keep her grandmother from being evicted. “I learned quickly,” Paris says, “that black-folks rich and rich-rich aren’t the same thing.”

Spin delivers no central lesson about racial injustice. However, Spin is a diverse story set across a backdrop that shows readers how black music and culture evolve. From seeing Paris in the studio to seeing her fans’ blogs and bedrooms, readers will get a close-up look of how people of color influence and lead in the music scene. Readers will also see the anxieties Kya and Fuse experience while dealing with the police, because they are wary that, as people of color, they may become victims of police brutality.

Overall, Spin feels fairly one-dimensional, and readers may guess the ending before the murderer is revealed. The story is strongest in its theme of friendship, and readers will enjoy seeing Kya and Fuse bond as they begin to heal from Paris’s death. Equally important is the way art and culture bring people together, even as fame pushes artists to their breaking points.

Sexual Content

  • An internet troll asks Fuse, “If I hooked jumper cables to a car battery and clamped them onto your fingers and toes…would you blow?”
  • In a flashback, Paris narrates how she meets her boyfriend Shameik, who was “a CUTE-cute boy from my grade. Suddenly him invading my personal space wasn’t such a big deal.”
  • Paris’s boyfriend Shameik “kissed my neck again. It tickled, but I didn’t giggle because I liked acting as if those kisses didn’t affect me so he’d keep trying.”
  • Shameik and Fuse kissed once. It isn’t a big deal to Paris and is never described in detail, but the kiss keeps being brought up.
  • A character says, “If you made me leave so [Shameik and Fuse] could make out, I’m going to need some gas money.”

Violence

  • On the night of Paris’s murder, Kya punches Fuse in the face. “Her punch connected with my left eye. A solid POP! A white explosion of pain that washed out the room for a hot second.”
  • While questioning Fuse about the murder, a police officer “holds his hands at chest level, fingers curled, ready to grab” Fuse. Another cop grabs Fuse “so all I could do was kick, then he lifted me so those kicks only hit air.”
  • Fuse remembers finding Paris’s body. “That sheet of sticky, dark blood over half of ParSec’s [Paris’s] face. How she’d been a rag doll, arms spread wide, across the turntables…Her eyes bulged, the right one deep red where white should be, like something in that side of her head had exploded.”
  • A ParSec fan at school shoves Kya into a locker.
  • Fuse says, “Beyoncé could start the Purge with a tweet if she wanted.” (The Purge is a film about an anarchic period of unhinged murder and violence; the saying “The Purge” has become shorthand for such an event.)
  • Dedicated ParSec fans kidnap Kya and Fuse, zip-tie their hands and ankles together, and put them in the back of a van. Kya’s “turned—too late—to see two [people] rushing at me, duct tape stretched and ready. The first strip pressed hard against my lips while one of my assailants wrapped me [Kya] in a bear hug, pinning my arms.” During the attack a person in a mask “slammed a palm into my [Fuse’s] chest, pushing me back against the van wall.”
  • While they are captive in the van, Fuse is “angry enough to tear a chunk out of Kya” and aims “a two-heeled kick towards Kya’s chest.”
  • Someone tells Kya, “You should calm down. You’ll bust a blood vessel.” Kya responds, “I’ll bust your blood vessels!”
  • Devoted ParSec fans threaten to cut off Kya’s pinkie with garden shears. Later, they claim they were joking.
  • When they find the murderer, a group of ParSec fans deliver him to the police, “tied, gagged, and slightly bruised.” The fans have cut off his pinkie. The murderer’s hand “was heavily bandaged. A splotch of red seeped through.”
  • Fuse threatens Paris’s manager with a stun gun, but never uses it.
  • Fuse’s mother had the stun gun because “these days she preferred pepper spray and the spiked keychain her self-defense teacher gave her.”
  • When confronting a suspect, Fuse expects Kya “to kick the door in, snap this woman’s neck like Jessica Jones, and tear [her] out the house through a load-bearing wall.”
  • Paris’s narration reveals that her murder was an accident. She recounts, “His forearm grazed my chin, and I bit into his denim jacket sleeve. There were layers between my teeth and his flesh…I bit down with all the force in my jaws. He howled, tried to fling me off. He succeeded… The stand my laptop sat on was made of heavy aluminum… the corners were sharp… My temple connected with all the force generated from me and [the murderer]’s combined pain. A solid thunk, then my legs wouldn’t work.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • A popular rapper smells “strongly of weed and cologne.”
  • Paris’s boyfriend, Shameik, finds beer bottles in Paris’s apartment and says, “Who was over here drinking beer?” Paris admits to sharing beers with a popular rap group. Shameik says, “My girlfriend’s alone with some drunk old guys, and I’m not supposed to be concerned?”

Language

  • “God,” “crap,” and “Jesus” are used infrequently.
  • “God!” and “Jesus!” are used as an exclamation occasionally.
  • Fuse says that ParSec fans view Paris as “their god.”
  • Paris says that Kanye West is “one of the gods.”
  • Paris’s grandmother sometimes says, “Lord.”
  • Paris says, “I promptly lost my ish [sic]” when she gets 8,000 plays on her SoundCloud.
  • Paris’s manager calls Fuse a “strumpet.”
  • Fuse says, “Screw it,” once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Kya’s mother thanks God for Kya’s safety.
  • Kya attends Paris’s funeral and observes that “The Fifth Street Baptist Church choir should’ve been here. That was [Paris’s grandmother]’s church…where Paris got dragged every Sunday before she could call shots. There was no ‘Amazing Grace,’ no ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’”
  • A music journalist finding a lead looks “like someone told him Christmas Eve got rescheduled to today.”

by Caroline Galdi

Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine.

When Justin finds out his older brother, Kyle, has been killed overseas, Justin is devastated. Kyle was a marine, a hero trying to live up to his father’s reputation, yet in an instant his life was over. Now, Kyle’s only connection to Justin is Max, Kyle’s former canine partner and a discharged K-9 marine.

When Max was at Kyle’s side, he was meant to sniff out explosives, search for enemy soldiers and weapons, and keep Kyle and his unit alive. Max, just like Kyle, was trained for war. He was trained to be a hero. While Max’s presence doesn’t make it easy for Justin and his parents to grieve, they soon discover that without a home, Max will be put down. With no home to place Max in, Kyle’s partner is placed in Justin’s care.

After Kyle’s death, it isn’t easy for Justin and his family to see Max alive and well. It isn’t easy for Max to move on from his days on the frontlines. Most people misunderstand Max, believing he is too aggressive. Max isn’t meant to be a pet. He is meant to be a hero. Justin is the only one who understands Max is also grieving for Kyle. Both Justin and Max find it difficult to adjust to each other. Soon the two bond over Kyle’s death, supporting each other and giving each other a purpose.

When Tyler, Kyle’s best friend, is discharged from the marines, Justin begins to ask questions. Justin and Max work together to figure out what really happened to Kyle. Can they find the truth and still protect Justin’s family from the dangerous people Tyler is working with?

Shotz’s novel about a war dog coming home to his handler’s family is a wonderfully wholesome story. Justin and his family are well-written characters that deal with the guilt, shame, and sadness that accompanies a loved one’s death. Max serves as the means to which Justin’s family can work out their emotions surrounding Kyle’s death, as well as the means to which everyone comes together in the end. Max is also a stand in for Kyle; since Kyle is gone, Max helps Justin protect his family and sniff out Tyler’s true intentions, just as Kyle would have done.

Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine. shows that heroes come in many forms. Kyle is considered a hero because he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the marines. Justin struggles with his father’s pressure to live up to his brother’s legend. Justin’s father, who was discharged early on from the marines because of a leg injury, struggles to connect with Justin because Justin doesn’t want to be a marine. However, Justin proves himself to be as much of a hero as Kyle. At the end of the story, Justin earns his dad’s trust and lives up to Kyle’s memory.

Unlike Kyle, Tyler chose to lie and deceive his best friend’s family in order to smuggle weapons across the border. Tyler will eliminate anyone that stands in his way. The story emphasizes that someone doesn’t need to go into the military to be a hero, and that not all marines are heroes.

Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine. is fast-paced, and the suspense builds from the moment Justin’s family is told Kyle has died. The believable twists will keep readers turning the page until they reach the heartwarming conclusion. Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine. is a must-read because of the realistic characters and wonderful storytelling. For more heroic dog stories, try the G.I. Dogs Series by Laurie Calkhoven.

Sexual Content

  • When Justin meets Carmen, “her dark eyes were still zeroed in on him, making his cheeks feel kind of hot.” Justin thinks Carmen is pretty.
  • When two of Justin’s friends are in his backyard, “they looked up to see Justin framed in his window, shirtless.”
  • When Carmen is invited over to Justin’s house for dinner, Justin feels awkward. “Then again, Justin had never brought a girl home for dinner.”
  • After triumphing over Tyler, Carmen and Chuy meet up with Justin. Then, Carmen “stepped forward and planted her lips on his. Justin was so startled that he didn’t know what to do at first. Then he quickly came to his senses and kissed her back.”

Violence

  • At the beginning of the novel, Justin is playing a military-themed video game. In the game, the “virtual army let out a series of grunts and pumped their fists in the air or fell to the ground.” The game makes Justin think of his brother, Kyle, a soldier overseas. “Sometimes Justin tried to picture Kyle as one of these guys, but it was just too weird. He couldn’t imagine his brother shooting anyone.”
  • Chuy, Justin’s friend, has a cousin named Emilio. Emilio is “pretty hard-core—possibly even in a gang—and he wasn’t going to be happy when he learned that Chuy had misplaced his new  (video) game.”
  • Kyle is never seen in the present day because he dies fighting in Afghanistan. When a solider comes to Justin’s house, “Justin knew for sure: His brother was dead. Kyle was dead.”
  • In a flashback, Justin thinks about the time Kyle picked him up from school. Justin had gotten into a fight. “He didn’t know how to tell Kyle that he’d gotten in a fight over a stupid bike. Or that he’d been sucker-punched. Or that he’d managed not to hit back, because he didn’t think it was worth it.”
  • During another flashback, Justin remembers Tyler, Kyle’s friend, speaking to his parents over video call. “‘We’re making trouble, Mrs. W.,’ Tyler said, ‘For the bad guys, that is.’”
  • When Justin confronts his dad about Kyle, he says, “Being a man and enlisting and getting killed, like Kyle? Or being a man and getting my leg shot up, like you? Tell me what I’m supposed to learn from either of those things.” Later, Justin tells his dad, “‘You’d like me to get myself killed,’ Justin said, holding his dad’s ‘Wouldn’t you?’”
  • Justin’s mom gets a call about Max, Kyle’s dog. She tells the family, “Sergeant Reyes called. They’re going to kill Max.”
  • Tyler tells Justin’s dad that Max is the reason Kyle was killed. Justin sees “his father was standing in front of Max’s crate, his gun drawn and pointed at Max’s”
  • When Justin is hunted by a pair of rottweilers, Max fights one of the dogs. “The two dogs rolled around in the dirt, a frenzy of growls and bites and scratches, battling each other fiercely.” Justin found Max injured later.
  • Justin watches as his dad, Ray, is about to be attacked by Stack, a sheriff deputy and Tyler’s accomplice. “What his dad couldn’t see—which Justin and Max both could see—was that Stack was running at Justin’s dad from behind, holding a giant rock in his fleshy hands, raised high in the air. He was about to slam it down onto Justin’s dad’s” Max saves Ray, “Stack stumbled, and Max flew over Ray and crashed into Stack’s chest, knocking him to the ground.”
  • During the final battle with Tyler’s gang, Justin sees “his dad, who pointed a gun straight at the windshield and fired. The truck swerved and crashed into the side of the hill. The back of the truck exploded in a burst of flame, and suddenly a thousand gunshots pinged around the ravine. The ammunition in Tyler’s truck had ignited.” No one is injured or hurt in the explosion.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Tyler is given pain medication for a shrapnel injury. Tyler says, “But they got me on so many painkillers, I hardly notice it.”
  • When Tyler comes over to talk to Justin’s dad, “Justin was surprised to see his dad limp over to the mini-fridge under his desk and take out two beers. It was early for him to start drinking.”
  • When Tyler asks Justin’s dad for a favor, Justin’s dad took “another swig of beer, as if for courage.”

Language

  • During a flashback, Justin remembers a time when he and his parents were talking to Kyle over video chat. Justin says, “Kyle’s so awesome even his frickin’ dog is a hero.”
  • When going to see Max at the military kennel, Justin thinks, “He was one pissed-off dog, that was for sure.”
  • When Justin thinks about his dad, he thinks, “His dad cared more about a stupid dog that had once belonged to Kyle than he did about his own living, breathing son.”
  • Someone tells Justin, “Yo, you look like crap.”
  • Before Kyle and Tyler became soldiers, Tyler used to tease Justin. Tyler “would make fun of Justin—calling him a serious loser or computer nerd.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Kyle’s funeral is at a church. At the church, Justin’s “Mother’s sobs carried up and over the singing of the choir.”

by Jonathan Planman

Hero #1

Hero, a retired search-and-rescue dog, is not prepared for a stray puppy to come into his life. But when he and a twelve-year-old boy, Ben, discover Scout is injured and afraid, Hero is determined to give the tiny pup a home. Ben promises his parents that he will be able to care for both of the dogs and still be able to keep up on his school work.

When Scout hears a loud noise, he becomes frightened and runs off, disappearing. Hero and Ben go in search of Scout, but soon Ben and Hero find themselves going down dangerous and unexpected paths. Ben soon learns that he has gained the attention of Mitch, the leader of a dogfighting ring. Mitch is determined to capture both Scout and Hero in order to make the dogs fight. Can Ben find his dogs and bring them home before it’s too late?

Ben is excited when he learns that the police department has agreed to let him take care of Hero. However, Ben soon finds that taking care of a dog isn’t as easy as he thought. Soon, Ben is falling behind in school and forgetting important obligations. Ben’s father has always taught him to act with purpose, but Ben seems to be messing up more and more.

When Scout and Hero are missing, Ben intentionally lies to his family about the dogs’ whereabouts because he doesn’t want to get in trouble. He also sneaks out of the house and puts himself and his friend Noah in dangerous situations. When Ben finally talks to his parents, he justifies his actions by thinking that he “hadn’t lied, exactly. He’d told his parents the truth—just not all of it.” Ben doesn’t reveal the whole truth until there is no other option.

Hero is a fast-paced story that takes readers into the dogfighting arena. Readers will connect with both Ben and Hero as they try to save each other. The story doesn’t just focus on dogfighting. Instead, Ben also has conflict with a new boy at school and his friend Noah. The well-rounded story is full of danger and friendship. Even though Ben’s actions do not always make sense, readers will fall in love with Hero.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Ben is distracted, Jack throws a baseball at him. Ben tries to duck, but he isn’t fast enough. “The ball nailed him on his right collarbone, hard. The pain shot through his body. Ben doubled over and took short, sharp breaths, hoping he didn’t pass out right there on the field.”
  • Ben and Noah sneak into a barn that men use for dogfighting. Ben can hear “snarling. Growling. Pained yelping and crying. He smelled the sharp tang of blood in the air.” As Ben looks around the barn, he sees caged dogs. The dog’s faces “were scared and bloody. Their bodies bore the marks of man injuries. Even worse than their wounds, though, were their eyes. They gazed at Ben with a combination of desperation and fear.”
  • As Ben looks for Scout, he can hear “dogs tearing at each other. . . Ben heard one of the dogs wailing and whimpering. It sounded like the animal was hurt—badly.”
  • The leader of the dogfighting ring sees Ben in the barn and pulls a knife on him. Hero sees Ben and he “soared at top speed, front paws extended, teeth bared. . . He [Mitch] let out a confused grunt as Hero landed on him. Ben watched Mitch’s eyes grow big as his body fell forward, Hero on his back with his teeth clamped down on the back of Mitch’s neck. . . Mitch fell facedown onto the concrete floor, his head hitting the ground with a sickening thump. . . Mitch was out cold.”
  • After Ben gets away from Mitch, two “bloodthirsty demons” chase him. Hero comes to the rescue. “One of the dogs was on the ground bleeding. The other was crouched down low, circling his opponent: Hero.” Ben runs away.
  • When Mitch again corners Ben, Hero’s “eyes burned with hatred, and when he opened his mouth to snarl at the men, Ben saw blood on his teeth from the other dogs. . . Hero launched himself into the air, straight at Mitch. . . Mitch wailed in pain as his head smacked the concrete again.” Ben runs away.
  • Again, Mitch comes after Ben. “Hero snarled and snapped his head sideways, latching on to Mitch’s calf with his powerful jaw. Mitch cried out in pain, but he couldn’t get away.” Hero bites Mitch on the leg. A man tackles Hero. Ben grabs a rusty shovel and “hefted it with both hands and ran toward Hero and the man who still lay on top of him. . . Ben swung the shovel high in the air and brought it down fast onto his head. With a groan, the man passed out cold and fell to the side, off Hero.” Hero is injured and has to be taken to the vet. The barn scene is described over eight pages.
  • Hero leads Ben and his father to Mitch, the leader of the dogfighting ring. Hero runs into Mitch’s house and is attacked by two dogs. Ben watches as “Hero and the two dogs spun in circles, snapping their jaws and pouncing on each other. It was a cloud of fur and spit.”
  • When Ben’s father sees Mitch, he pulls a gun on him. As the two men talk, Scout “launched himself at Mitch. The puppy jumped onto Mitch’s wounded leg, closing his small but sharp teeth on his calf.” The police arrest Mitch. The scene is described over six pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Heck is used three times. For example, Ben tells his dog, “You scared the heck out of me.”
  • When Ben asks Noah for help, Noah replies, “Of course I’ll help you, stupid.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Top Secret Smackdown

Ravens have been stolen from the Tower of London! Mac B.’s top-secret mission? Travel to Iceland and retrieve the ravens. . . or Britain is ruined!

In Iceland, Mac discovers secret submarines, hungry polar bears, mysterious blueprints, and his old archnemesis! Is the KGB man behind this birdnapping? Can Mac get the ravens to safety? It’s time for an epic, top-secret smackdown between these two secret agents!

The third installment of the Mac B. series continues the punny fun. Mac learns more about the United Kingdom’s history as well as the difference between dolphins and porpoises. Mac discovers how a simple story can become an important legend. The queen of England orders Mac to travel to Iceland and solve the mystery. Even though the majority of the story focuses on the mystery of the missing ravens, Mac’s difficulties with his mother’s boyfriend also plays a part in the story.

The queen’s outlandish behavior will make readers giggle. Readers will enjoy the conclusion because it ties all of the events together in a unique way. Top Secret Smackdown mixes humorous puns, a mysterious enemy, and wrestling to create a fun story that will entertain even the most reluctant readers. Short sentences and simple vocabulary will help readers build confidence. Large purple and orange illustrations appear on almost every page, which helps readers envision the story’s events.

Mac tells his own story with humor and puts a spotlight on the absurd. Younger readers will love the adventure, intrigue, and interesting characters. Although Top Secret Smackdown can be read as a stand-alone book, for maximum enjoyment the books should be read in order. Readers who enjoy silly, illustrated stories may also want to read Two Dogs in a Trench Coat Series by Julie Falatko.

Sexual Content

  • The story implies that Mac’s mother’s boyfriend stays the night when he thinks, “usually on Saturday mornings, my mom’s boyfriend, Craig, was camped out in front of the TV watching WrestleFest.”

Violence

  • When Mac goes to Iceland, he looks for clues, and “someone hit me on the head with something very heavy and knocked me out.” When he woke up, Mac was tied to a chair.
  • The president of Iceland is telling Mac a story. She acts out part of the story when “she punched me lightly on my arm. When I tried to block it, she punched me harder in the ribs.”
  • The KGB man ties Mac to a chair. Mac breaks out of the ropes and pretends he is a wrestler on WrestlingFest. Mac “jumped onto the KGB Man’s back. He shook me off. . . I jumped on his back again. The KGB man stood up and threw me to the floor. He tore off his shirt.” During the scuffle, Mac throws a chair, accidentally sparked TNT, and “something exploded. The camera zapped. Its wires fried. The submarine was filling with water.”
  • When Mac escapes the sinking submarine, “there was another blast. . .pieces of metal came flying and knocked my legs out from under me.” Mac falls into the river but is saved.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • The KGB man calls a group of people “fools.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Mac is afraid that he might drown, he thinks about Father Thames. “Some people say there is a river god named Father Thames who lives in the waters that run through London. They say he has lived there for a long, long time.” Mac thought he saw Father Thames, but then he realized it was a dolphin.

 

 

Girl Gone Viral

Girl Gone Viral focuses on Opal Hopper, a bright, technology-loving student who attends a prestigious high school in the future. Social media has become even more ever-present, and the biggest trend is virtual reality. Opal Hopper’s father was a Silicon Valley tech engineer who disappeared mysteriously when she was a girl. She’s determined to win a contest where the prize is a meeting with Howie Mendelsohn, a powerful and reclusive tech mogul who she believes will have answers about her father’s disappearance.

For their contest entry, Opal and her friends make a WAVE, which is a VR performance that functionally resembles a live YouTube video. They go viral for using the audience’s biometric feedback data to reveal that a universally reviled celebrity has more sympathizers than anyone realizes. They call their show “Behind the Scenes” and, despite losing the contest, continue to make videos in the hopes of becoming famous enough to meet Howie Mendelsohn. As their following grows, Opal is exposed to the lives of famous Silicon Valley innovators and has to make decisions about the type of public figure she wants to be.

In the middle of all the drama and stress, the book begins to focus on the US presidential elections. Opal and her friends are shocked to find that a fringe presidential candidate from the “Luddite Party” has won the election. As the name suggests, Luddites want to revert America to its pre-information technology state. Politically savvy readers will recognize the characters’ reactions to the election, as they directly parallel the reactions to America’s November 2016 presidential election. Opal finds that many of her friends and acquaintances hold Luddite sympathies, and she is forced to ask difficult questions: Is there something dehumanizing about information technology? Is there something real life can give her that a computer can’t? These questions form some of the central themes of the book.

The beginning of this book may be difficult for some readers to dig into as the narrative is quick to introduce its multiple fictional technologies. The excitement of social media, technology, and celebrity worship is difficult to portray in a novel, and the story often falters in holding the reader’s attention. Multiple minor characters revolve in and out of the story and these characters become difficult to keep track of. Some readers may find that the slow pacing doesn’t hold their attention, but readers who enjoy political commentary and speculative fiction may find the world-building and details intriguing.

The main character is nuanced and real. She is well-written, but readers may dislike her for her ambition and for the difficult decisions she makes. The story captures the current concerns around Silicon Valley: its reclusive moguls, its high-speed technology, the strain it takes on mental health, and the concern that electronics can’t replace human contact. Readers will recognize their own fears in the book’s treatment of all-consuming social media crazes and out-of-control entrepreneurship.

The most intriguing commentary is the political allegory that takes the name of the “Luddite Party,” a fringe political party whose platform centers around rejecting technology. While Opal is purely pro-technology, many people around her have doubts. The book never gives a defining stance on the matter, and the reader is left to decide for themselves whether a world without human contact is a good thing or not.

Sexual Content

  • In their first year of high school, Opal and Shane had a “drunken awkward kiss.”
  • During her early web broadcasts, Opal is sexually harassed by internet trolls: “Even her boobs are trembling. B or C cup??… Anyone have a tape-measure?”
  • During a virtual web show, a guy “rushes up on stage and gropes” Opal. Even though the entire performance is electronic and virtual, she is shaken and uncomfortable.
  • The characters have access to the biometric feedback of their web show’s viewers. Moyo tells Opal that “There’s a small pool of viewers, mostly men, whose eyes blink rapidly during your performance, their faces shake, and their headsets are zoomed into your—”.
  • Opal’s boyfriend Moyo is the main love interest in the book. In one scene, they are “curled up in his bed, half dressed, half wrapped up in his white sheets.” The book never goes into more detail about their activity.
  • While discussing strategies to gain more viewers for her web show, a Silicon Valley mogul tells Opal to be more open and vulnerable with her audience. He does so by telling her: “Sex sells. I’m not saying you need to get naked or anything. . .Open up a bit more.” Opal ends up telling her audience of millions about her relationship with Moyo.
  • Enthusiastic fans sweep the characters up in what Opal can only describe as a “fangasm” (portmanteau of fan and orgasm).
  • Opal buys a piece of technology called “FondrFoil” for her and her boyfriend to use. It is a technology that allows long-distance couples to simulate physical intimacy. “Slowly, I curve my hand around Moyo’s ribs, squeezing them between his body and my mattress until I land on the small of his back. It’s warm, like real skin. Soft. It gives perfectly. Moyo’s trembling, and naturally I go in to kiss him, but that’s not part of the experience. So instead, I pull him in closer.” They don’t go farther than that, and eventually give up on the technology.

Violence

  • Opal is afraid that her friend Shawn will attempt suicide after having been rejected from his top-choice college. After being unable to find him on campus, she and her friend rush to the nearest train station in fear that he’s thrown himself in front of a train.
  • The Luddite Party “shocks children with electricity for spending too much time on their phones,” which is a pretty clear and clumsy allusion to conversion therapy.
  • Suicide is discussed sometimes, but never in-depth. It’s mentioned in passing that a student at Opal’s school once took his own life after being rejected from an Ivy League.
  • Amber, a character Opal contacts in the hope of finding answers about her dad, reveals that her father committed suicide.
  • A prevailing theory around Opal’s father’s disappearance is that he may have taken his own life. The characters frequently discuss how the high-stakes world of Silicon Valley is extremely damaging to one’s mental health.
  • When Opal finally discovers what happened to her dad, she sees a virtual-reality recreation of his death. A man “rams my dad in the face with his elbow, and I hear a crack as the back of [his] skull smashes into the moss-covered rock.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Opal and her friends sneak off campus multiple times to drink alcohol. Opal is scared that her friend Shane may have an alcohol problem.
  • There’s a rumor “that theater department stores booze underneath the soundboard,” which Opal remembers when some students act drunk during a school dance.
  • While experiencing Internet fame, Moyo says, “I think this is what drugs feel like.”
  • A character is described as “drunk on fame.”

Language

  • The characters occasionally say “fuck” during tense moments. Shane says, “I’m fucked” when he doesn’t get into college; Opal occasionally says “what the fuck?” There are twenty-two usages of “fuck” in the book; however, none are sexual in nature.
  • “Freaking” is used four times.
  • “Shit” is used multiple times per chapter.
  • Opal says, “I keep getting screwed by this company,” and, “Karma finds another way to screw you over.”
  • Opal’s classmates note that she is “such a bitch,” and Opal describes this gossip by saying, “I’m the girl our classmates are bitching about.” She also affectionately refers to her friend once as a “son of a bitch.”
  • “Damn” and “goddamn” are both used infrequently.
  • Characters occasionally say “Jesus Christ” or “for Christ’s sake.”
  • Characters say “Oh my God,” “thank God,” “God knows,” “for the love of God,” and “dear God.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Opal’s family celebrates Christmas, but she remarks that her father was Jewish.
  • Howie Mendelsohn references the Bible story of Ahab and Jezebel.

by Caroline Galdi

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