That Weekend

Three best friends. A lake house. And a secret trip—what could possibly go wrong?  

It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it’s clear that something terrible has happened when Claire wakes up alone and covered with blood on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours. Now everyone wants answers—most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that . . . nothing. And now Kat and Jesse—her best friends—are missing.

What happened on that mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory. But as she’s quickly finding out, everyone has secrets—even her best friends. And she’s pretty sure she’s not going to like what she finds out. 

That Weekend begins by following Claire, who wakes up in the middle of the woods and cannot remember anything. Right from the start, suspense is created due to Claire’s missing friends.  

Although readers may sympathize with Claire’s situation, Claire is so wrapped up in herself and her romantic feelings for Jesse that it is often difficult to feel sorry for her. This makes her an unreliable narrator, leaving readers wondering if she is telling the whole truth. All of this creates a character that readers may struggle to like. 

The book’s timeline isn’t consistent, which causes confusion. For example, the first chapter begins in the present, but then jumps to a flashback from three days earlier, then two days earlier, and then one day earlier. Later, the second half of the book jumps from the present to flashbacks, while also changing to another character’s perspective. Keeping track of the narrator and various flashbacks means the reader has to pay close attention to the titles at the beginning of each chapter in order to understand what is happening.  

Another flaw is that the conclusion of the story isn’t very convincing. For instance, the FBI is unable to find Kat and Jesse, however Claire is able to locate her missing friends without difficulty. To make matters worse, the reader discovers that Kat and Jesse planned their own kidnapping because Kat’s father was abusive and Kat’s grandmother demanded that Kat break up with Jesse. However, in the end, Kat and Jesse part ways and Kat returns to her controlling family. Plus, it can be hard to sympathize with Kat because her actions are responsible for three deaths.  

Because of the forgettable characters, the complicated timeline, and the strange plot twists, That Weekend is a confusing story that readers may want to leave on the shelf. If you’re looking for a suspenseful book that is more entertaining, read Six Months Later by Natalie D. Richards or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart 

Sexual Content 

  • There is a rumor that Jesse “had hooked up with some girl from Westhampton beach after Battle of the Bands.” 
  • After breaking up with Ben, Claire tells Jesse that sex “doesn’t have to be a big deal. Ben turned out to be an asshole, but I don’t regret that he was my first.” Jesse is surprised that Ben was Claire’s first.  
  • At school, Jesse gets into a fight with “some asshole sophomore who’d been teasing him. Jesse was white in the face when a teacher pulled the other kid off him. When Jesse looked down at his hands, drenched in the blood spurting from his nose, he’d started to tremble . . .” 
  • When Claire was fifteen, she went to a party and met up with Amos, who “at seventeen, was practically a man to me.” Amos “runs his hands down my sides, tugs the waist of my jeans. I’m in my brand-new red bra. . . Amos flipped me onto his bed. The Captain Morgan shots roiled in my gut; his sheets, too cool . . .” When Amos tries to undo the zipper of Claire’s jeans, she stops him and says she wants to go home. 
  • On New Year’s Eve, Claire goes home with her ex-boyfriend, Ben. They’re sitting on the couch when Claire notices Ben watching her. “I feel my lips part as he reaches. . . I climb onto Ben so I’m facing him. He pulls my face to his and kisses me. . . he flips me over, pushing my shirt up to kiss my belly button. He moves lower, and I close my eyes. . .” It is implied that they have sex. The scene is described over one and a half pages.  
  • Ben drives Claire home. Before she leaves, Claire is “brushing my lips over his. . . but the urgency in Ben’s body as he kisses me back makes it clear. This time, things will be on my own terms.” 
  • After Claire and Kat have a fight, Amos tells Claire, “[The fight] almost made me pop a boner.” 
  • Kat babysits for a woman who “disappears so fast there’s no doubt she’s off to get laid.”  

Violence 

  • At a party, Claire sees her boyfriend walking up the stairs with another girl. Claire assumes he is cheating on her. When he chases after her, she “slap[s] him across the face.” Claire then leaves the party. 
  • A television personality, Brenda Dean, has a show about real crime. “Twenty years ago, Brenda Dean’s younger sister was abducted off her bike and murdered, the killer never caught. Brenda dedicated her life to justice—first as a lawyer, then with her own cable show.” 
  • Brenda interviewed a woman whose toddler disappeared. Brenda “accused the mom of knowing more than she was saying about what happened to the baby; the woman left the set a sobbing mess, and went home to slit her wrists in the bathtub.” 
  • While at a ransom drop, Kat’s father tries to stop the getaway car and he is dragged behind it. He has surgery but never awakens from his coma. He dies several months afterward. 
  • An FBI agent interviews Claire. During the interview, the agent says, “You ever hear of the plane crash in Queens after September eleventh? . . . My mother and aunt were on that flight.”  
  • Kat comes home late and her dad grabs her. Kat yells, “Get the fuck off me!” Then Kat’s father grabs her and “the world went black when my head smacked against the wall. For a moment I thought I might not come back, that I was dying— when I woke to him shaking me, fear replacing the rage on his face, my mother in the doorway whimpering. . .”  
  • Kat, Jesse, Amos, and another accomplice, Mike, plan a fake kidnapping. However, many things go wrong. Claire, who didn’t know about the plan, gets angry and leaves. She runs into Mike, who panics and attacks Claire, who stabs him with a knife. Afterward, “Mike winced as he lifted the sleeve of his T-shirt . . . Blood poured from an angry slash on his shoulder.” He cleans the wound with Vodka.  
  • Claire is canvassing a house where she thinks Amos is hiding out. “I’m changing gears when my car lurks forward. My forehead knocks into the steering wheel . . . A scream catches in my throat as Amos Fornier pulls me from the car and throws me to the ground, my spine numbing as it hits snow and ice. I see the shovel in his hands at the same moment he brings it down on my head.” Amos takes Claire hostage. 
  • Claire tries to leave, but Kat “blocks my escape through the doorway. When she grabs my arm, something snaps in me. . . I grab a handful of her hair and pull until she’s struggling beneath me like a cat. . . She’s clawing at me; I yank her hair until she’s falls to her knees, smashing her face into the edge of the dresser.” Amos holds a gun to Claire’s head and she stops fighting. 
  • Amos tells Claire about an incident with Kat’s father. Kat’s father found Amos playing with a cigar torch. He “picked me and Kat up by the backs of our shirts. Dragged us outside and held me over the deck railing. He stuck the flame right in my face. He kept saying, ‘You want to see what fire does to a body?’” 
  • Amos, who is drinking heavily, tries to convince Kat to allow him to kill Claire. His plan was to, “Get some booze in her, slip [a fentanyl patch] on while she’s passed out, and bam, overdose.” Kat refuses to let Amos kill Claire, but later Claire puts the fentanyl patch on Amos and he dies. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Both the adults and the teens in the story drink alcohol, so not all instances of alcohol consumption are listed below.  
  • Claire goes to a party and sees her boyfriend in a hot tub sitting on a girl’s lap. In response, she goes inside. Claire’s friend pours her a “few inches of rum into a cup and tops it off with a splash of Coke.” Claire gets drunk. Other teens at the party are also drinking alcohol.  
  • When lost, Claire goes into a bar where a man “raises his beer bottle to his lips, his eyes raking over me.”  
  • When Claire and Kat are alone in the lake house, Kat breaks out a bottle of wine and the two share it and get “giggly-tipsy.” 
  • While in the hospital for a head injury, Claire is given morphine, ibuprofen, and Ambien to help her sleep. Claire is also given a prescription for Ativan, which is supposed to help her with anxiety; however, she is soon taking Ativan in larger doses than recommended.  
  • Claire’s cousin, Amos, smokes weed and eventually becomes a drunk.  
  • Claire finds out that Amos was kicked out of school for selling drugs on campus but he continues to sell drugs afterward.  
  • Someone posts a picture of Claire at a party. “Jamie Liu and I knocking back shots. My eyes are glazed, my head tilted back. Jamie is laughing at me . . . I barely recognize the girl in the picture. She looks like the sloppy chick at the party you never talk to, who hangs on your neck like a spider monkey, crooning into your ear that she’s so wasted.” 
  • A few days after Clarie gets home from the hospital, she sees her mom, “cradling a glass of seltzer that I’d wager has vodka in it.” 
  • Claire is working at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. One of the customers is her ex-boyfriend’s mother, who is drinking champagne.

Language 

  • Profanity is used often and includes ass, crap, damn, goddamn, fuck, hell, piss, and shit. 
  • OMG, Oh God, and Jesus are used several times. 
  • There is some name-calling such as asshole, bitch, bastard, and douchebag.

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Occasionally, Claire quickly prays. For example, after leaving a party, Claire is “praying I won’t cry in front of Jesse . . . I am not religious, but I say a silent prayer to whoever. . . [that] I had the presence of mind to keep my goddamn mouth shut. . .” 
  • When her friends disappear, Claire thinks, “I wasn’t raised with religion, but I don’t know if I accept that it’s all random, that we’re not accountable to anyone. I make a silent bargain with whoever is listening: . . . I’ll be a better friend, if only they come home and be okay.” 
  • Claire is home alone when the doorbell rings. She says “a silent prayer that whoever is at my front door is selling something . . .” and is not someone she knows.

Murder at Midnight

Murder at Midnight presents the story of Mangus the Magician and his newest servant, Fabrizio. The story takes place in the kingdom of Pergamontio, Italy in 1490. Pergamontio is behind the times, and the hapless King Claudio is terribly superstitious in this traditionally Catholic kingdom. When hundreds of identical papers calling for treason against the crown appear overnight, the royal advisor accuses Mangus of witchcraft. Desperate to save his new master’s life, Fabrizio sets out to help prove Mangus’s innocence and discover what created these documents. 

The main protagonist, Fabrizio, is a delightful mix of naïve and brash – he’s never quite sure how he’s going to help Mangus, but he’s determined to try even though he’s likely to make many life-threatening mistakes along the way. In some other characters, this might be trite or annoying, but Fabrizio is ten years old and genuinely doesn’t know any better. He believes in magic wholeheartedly despite Mangus’s repeated explanations about how he’s an illusionist, not a magician. Fabrizio wants nothing more than to save Mangus from certain death – except, maybe, learn magic himself. 

At the start of the novel, Mangus is curmudgeonly and deeply uninterested in Fabrizio, but by the end when Fabrizio and his friend Maria help save his life, he’s just curmudgeonly. Their dynamic involves plenty of Mangus demeaning Fabrizio for not being smart enough, which motivates Fabrizio to want to be a better servant. Mangus is a self-proclaimed philosopher, and he relies on reasoning to make decisions. He serves as a counterweight to Fabrizio whose decisions are motivated entirely by his heart. Although these two never quite see eye-to-eye, they grow a close bond. 

These two characters are well-developed for future installments, and the mystery plot of this first book works well. Fabrizio meets Maria, the daughter of immigrants who bring a printing press to Pergamontio. As the kingdom is somewhat backward, this situation is slowly unveiled through the course of the novel, eventually showing that the scandal runs right to the heart of the king’s inner circle. The plot is interesting with semi-historical elements, and it’s action-packed enough to keep the attention of younger readers. 

Murder at Midnight deals with some light violence as the story is set in 1490s Italy with plenty of intrigue and quite literally backstabbing. The main conflict revolves around Mangus, whose life is threatened since he’s accused of witchcraft and the punishment is death. The book also deals with some Catholic-related themes since Italy is a historically Catholic nation, though the book doesn’t take any stance on religion. Murder at Midnight is a fun introduction to the printing press and censorship. In addition, the dynamic between reason and emotion comes through, showing readers that a balance of the two ideas leads to better outcomes than just reason or emotion separate from each other. Through cooperation and patience, Fabrizio and his various companions can save Mangus and go on with living their peaceful lives – that is, until the next book, Midnight Magic.  

Sexual Content  

  • None 

Violence  

  • When the other servants, Benito and Giuseppe, speak to Fabrizio, they often take swings at him because they don’t like him. For instance, Fabrizio is coerced into telling them secrets from Mangus. When he’s trying to run off, Fabrizio notes that he is “trying to dodge a flurry of blows.” This happens somewhat often. Fabrizio notes that from this particular altercation, he receives bruises from them and nothing more. 
  • The king’s officials, DeLaBina and Scarazoni, threaten to “burn [Mangus] at the stake” and “cut out his heart” if he truly is a magician. Mangus, of course, is not a magician but an illusionist, but the other characters don’t necessarily understand this. 
  • Fabrizio is falsely accused of distributing treasonous papers, and he is taken down to the dungeon to be executed. While there, he nearly trips over a corpse. A soldier asks if the body is dead, and the executioner says, “I hope so. I broke his neck three days ago.”  Fabrizio is not executed, and there is no further discussion about the corpse. 
  • Fabrizio and his new friend Maria find DeLaBina dead in the dungeons. Fabrizio notes, “Beneath lay a man with his head twisted to one side. A ruby-encrusted dagger was sticking out of his back. On the ground, a pool of wet blood was spreading.” This is the extent of the description. 

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • None 

Language  

  • Light language is used frequently. Terms include: fool, stupid, ignorant, blockhead, nasty, ugly, and fat. 

Supernatural 

  • Fabrizio works and lives with Mangus the Magician, who performs, as far as Fabrizio is concerned, “real magic” as well as sleight-of-hand tricks. Much of the book’s main plot deals with how the Kingdom of Pergamontio feels about magic that is rooted in anything other than Christian miracles. Mangus notes that the king “is deeply superstitious” and that he has “outlawed magic.” 
  • One night, Fabrizio watches Mangus perform and decides what is real magic and what is fake, saying that when “a burning candle was pulled from an ear” and “a box changed into a hat” it was for sure “true magic.” 
  • The king of Pergamontio expresses his true fears as to who made the identical treasonous papers that have been distributed throughout the kingdom. He says, “Ghosts? Is that who made the papers? Ghosts can do anything they wish, you know.” DeLaBina expresses that it’s instead magic and someone who “is in league with the devil.” 

Spiritual Content  

  • Since the book is set in 1490 Italy, the characters are notably Catholic. For instance, Mangus notes that “God gave us the gift of reason.” 
  • The kingdom has a curfew, and Mangus tells the crowd that there’s a curfew because “the king loves us and wishes to keep us safe from devils.” 
  • Fabrizio makes an astute comment that catches Mangus’s attention, and Fabrizio attributes it to living on the streets. Fabrizio says, “When you are a homeless orphan – as I was – the teachers God provides are one’s own eyes and ears.” 
  • After seeing a treasonous document, Mangus exclaims, “God protect us!” 
  • Mangus is accused of using magic to make treasonous documents to overthrow the king. As this is 1490 Italy, the king is uncomfortable with modern inventions like the printing press, and identical documents are outside the bounds of imagination. The top prosecutor for the kingdom says, “Such identical replication is impossible for human hands! Not even God – in all his greatness – makes two things alike.” 
  • Fabrizio refers to the treasonous papers against the king as “the devil’s work.” Mangus corrects him that the papers were definitely done by human hands. 
  • The executioner, Agrippa, explains his profession to Fabrizio. Agrippa says that he wanted to be a stonemason, but “the good God willed it otherwise, didn’t he?” 
  • A knock sounds at the door of the execution room, and Fabrizio, who thinks he’s about to be executed, “fell to his knees and began to murmur frantic prayers.”  
  • Fabrizio meets Maria, the daughter of immigrants from Milan who own a printing business and use a printing press. Maria introduces herself as a “printer’s devil” because she’s covered in the black ink she works with, and it’s incredibly hard to scrub off. 
  • When Mangus’s wife, Sophia, learns that her husband has been arrested, she “clasped her hands in brief prayer.” 

Kat Wolfe On Thin Ice

Best friends Kat Wolfe and Harper Lamb can’t wait to travel from England’s Bluebell Bay to New York’s Adirondacks for a fall vacation with their parents. But misadventure plagues them from the start, leaving them in the wrong place at the wrong time. Alone! As the weather turns wild, Kat discovers she may have been the last person to cross paths with Riley, a girl who is a star witness in a criminal trial making headlines across the country. When the witness vanishes, Kat and Harper race to piece together the clues that might save Riley from a notorious gang, but soon Kat and Harper are targets too. With an early snowstorm moving in and no way out, detectives Wolfe & Lamb will need all their wits, skills, and the help of some wayward animals if they’re to survive.

In the past installment of the series, Harper was a minor character who let Kat take center stage. However, in Kat Wolfe on Thin Ice, Harper takes a starring role and her fun-loving personality shines. Although Kat is still the story’s focus, readers will enjoy getting to know Harper and seeing how the two girls work together to solve the case. Their relationship adds interest and readers will enjoy seeing Kat and Harper interact.

Even though the girls spend much of their time snowed in, there is still plenty of action and adventure because they end up in the wrong cabin, alone except for a pack of huskies and a pet raccoon. Mystery is added when the girls investigate Riley’s disappearance and risk their lives to search for clues before a major blizzard hits the area. Along the way, they must use all their survival skills as they attract the attention of a bear, get lost in the wilderness, and are saved by huskies. 

Kat and Harper put the pieces together to solve the mystery and, along the way, the case highlights how stereotypes are hurtful. In the end, the girls keep many secrets from their families, including their accidental stay in a stranger’s cabin and they don’t reveal the culprits that committed the crimes. Despite this, Kat and Harper have many positive attributes including being brave, considerate, and showing kindness to strangers. 

Kat Wolfe on Thin Ice is a wonderfully entertaining book that has the perfect blend of suspense, surprises, and silliness. Plus, the book teaches that “We’re all human. Every one of us makes mistakes. The real test is what we do about it.” For those who love mysteries and animals, not picking up the Kat and Lamb Mystery Series would be a mistake since each book in the series is full of suspenseful mysteries and loveable animals.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Riley, “a star witness in an upcoming trial,” is kidnapped. The two officers who were protecting her “were both wounded in an ambush” and are “critically ill.”
  • A police officer shows up at the cabin where Harper and Kat are staying. When Harper answers the door, the man begins to question her. When he realizes Harper is lying, “he lunged at her and clutched her arm.” When she refuses to answer the questions, the man “squeezed even harder.”
  • As the police officer manhandles Harper, a racoon jumps on him. The policeman “reeled away, blood streaming from two punctures on his neck. Chittering in terror, the raccoon jumped from his shoulder onto the kitchen cabinet.” This gives Harper time to run. Later, the police officer is also bit by one of the huskies. 
  • A rich family earned their fortune through blood diamonds. “Diamonds mined using child and other slave labor in conditions of unimaginable hardship and wickedness.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • When Harper’s dad forgets his passport, he says, “What a bone-headed peanut brained dingbat I am.”
  • When a husky injures his foot, Kat tells it, “I’m going to disinfect and tape up your paw. It’ll hurt like hell.”

Supernatural

  • When Kat meets Riley, she gives Riley a picture of her Savanna Cat, Tiny. When Riley says the cat photo helped save her life, Kat explains that Tiny’s “spirit kept her going when she was lost in a blizzard.”

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Secret of White Stone Gate

After the events of The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane, Emmy goes home to Connecticut for summer break. Now she has returned to England for the new semester at Wellsworth, but there’s a catch—her mom wants her to spend time with and be under the strict rules of her mom’s cousin, Lucy. On top of this, upon returning to Wellsworth, Emmy begins receiving threats from Jonas, a leader in the Order of Black Hollow Lane, who tried to kill her in the previous book. Jonas wants information about her father and the medallions that she stole from the Order and he is willing to do anything to get what he wants. Emmy realizes the reality of her situation when her friend, Lola, is framed for stealing money from a charity fundraiser causing her to be expelled. Emmy must navigate dealing with the constant threats from the Order. Should she give them what they want so that they stop hurting her friends? Or is there another way?

A major theme in The Secret of White Stone Gate is betrayal. Emmy’s favorite teacher, John Barlowe, discusses betrayal in his class. He says, “Brutus betrayed Caesar during the Golden Age of Rome, Henry the Second betrayed Thomas Becket in the twelfth century, and it goes on and on. Sometimes greed and power become stronger than friendship.” This theme is reflected in Emmy’s discovery that her dad had been friends with Jonas, the leader of the Order, but Jonas betrayed him and now is part of the group of people trying to find and kill her dad. 

Desperation to get what one wants is also a topic since the Order demonstrates they are willing to manipulate children. For example, it is revealed that Emmy’s friend, Jack, has a younger brother named Oliver who the Order forced to frame Lola. Isolation and struggling to make friends, combined with the Order’s manipulation, forced Oliver to frame Lola. However, Emmy and her friends do not get angry or act cruelly toward Oliver because they realize an important lesson, “We’re your friends, and you need to know that the Order isn’t your only option.” Emmy and her friends demonstrate true friendship which in turn teaches Oliver that he doesn’t need the Order for a sense of community. 

At long last, Emmy is able to reconnect with her dad. He reveals that he has been secretly watching her, maintaining disguises all along. He explains, “I knew Jonas would be following you. I had to be there. I had to make sure you were safe. I tried to help [Lola] too, but it wasn’t easy to get to her.” Her dad is able to explain why he left her and her mom all those years ago. He says, “[the Order] knew I had a twelve-year-old American daughter. [The Order] found out I was alive and had a family, but [they] didn’t know your name or where you were. I had to run to keep you safe.” Though at first, Emmy struggles to overcome her anger that her dad left, she realizes that what matters most is that her dad is alive and loves her. 

The story neatly wraps up with the Order believing that Emmy’s father is dead. Emmy finally feels that she and her family are free “since you [Emmy] cannot get what [the leader of the Order] wants, we have decided to pursue other avenues. You are no longer of any interest to the Order.” Knowing that Emmy and her friends are safe leaves Emmy feeling happy that she will finally get a chance to “do all the things normal kids got to do . . . Well, maybe they’d never be totally normal.” 

Readers who enjoyed the first book in this two-part series, The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane, will enjoy the strengthening friendship between Emmy, Lola, and Jack. Overall, The Secret of White Stone Gate will keep readers on the edge of their seats as it shows the importance of enjoying the little moments with your friends and loved ones. Readers who are eager for more fun mysteries should also read Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki and Jada Sly Artist & Spy by Sherri Winston.

Sexual Content 

  • Emmy notices Sam, a new student at Wellsworth. “He pushed some floppy blond hair out of his eyes and smiled at something he was reading. Emmy’s stomach fluttered in a way that it usually only did for famous, good-looking soccer players.”
  • When Sam says hi to Emmy, “Emmy prayed no one would notice her cheeks getting hot.”
  • Emmy and Sam work together to help set up a school charity event. “Every once in a while, if Sam made her laugh or accidentally brushed her hand, she’d feel a giant swoop behind her belly button. Those swoops seemed to have a direct connection to her ears, making them hot and flushed. Thank goodness she could hide her ears behind her hair.”
  • Emmy appreciates that “[Sam] was sacrificing a lot for Lola, even though he barely knew her. She imagined being with Sam, Lola, and Jack, sitting around the fire, just being normal friends. And maybe being more than friends with Sam.”

Violence 

  • Reflecting on events from the previous book in the series, “Emmy shivered. She always did that when talking about the old head of security, Jonas. She had trusted him, but he was the one who had caught her in the tunnels, chased her into the belfry of an old church, and tried to kill her.”
  • Emmy finds a threatening note in her room from Brother Loyola, the head of the group that attempted to kill Emmy in the previous book, “In case you were wondering, I’m always keeping an eye on you.”
  • Emmy’s friend Lola is framed for stealing money from the school’s charity fundraiser. Then Emmy receives a threatening video message from a member of the Order. He says, “Tell us where your father is, or your friend will get far worse than expulsion.”
  • At her new school, Emmy’s best friend Lola is attacked by two students. Lola says, “My face is hurting pretty bad, and my hand is killing me from trying to hit them back . . . I managed to stay off the ground, though, otherwise, it would have been a lot worse.”
  • While Emmy is visiting Lola, Jonas, the leader of the Order, suddenly appears and threatens her and her friends. Emmy is afraid so “her hands started to shake. Should she run? Should she scream? Jonas wouldn’t try to hurt her in broad daylight with all these people around . . . would he?”
  • Jonas threatens Emmy’s friend, Lola. Jonas says, “Such a shame about what happened this week. I hope [Lola] isn’t too banged up. You don’t think that’ll be the end of it, do you . . . we’d always find [Lola].”
  • Jonas tells Emmy, “If you value your dear friend’s life, I’d suggest you try a little harder to find your dear old dad.”
  • When Emmy still refuses to tell Jonas where her dad and the medallions are, he says, “It doesn’t seem like you’re getting the message, so let me make it clear. I hurt [Lola]. I hurt your roommate. Here’s the next person on my list.” He then pulls out a photograph of him with Emmy’s mom and says, “Get me what I want, or I’ll bury her.” 
  • Emmy and her dad are chased by several cars carrying members of the Order. The Order is trying to kill them, and her dad decides the only way for them to escape is for him to fake his own death. He grabs an air tank, “It will let me breathe underwater.” Then as they approach a bridge over a large body of water, “the door flew open and her dad leapt onto the railing. Emmy screamed. He didn’t look back. He just disappeared over the edge.” After he landed in the water, Emmy’s dad was able to safely get away, convincing the Order that he is really dead. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • The characters occasionally use mild insults like git, prat, or stupid.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • The leader of the malicious group threatening Emmy and her dad is referred to as “Brother Loyola,” as one would refer to a priest. 

Mystery of the Egyptian Amulet

When the Nile town of Thebes is threatened by a scarab-amulet eating ghost, Zet is determined to uncover the truth. Meanwhile, Zet’s best friend, a jeweler’s apprentice, is in trouble. Could the ghost and his best friend’s ominous master be connected somehow?

As if he didn’t have enough trouble, special orders have gone missing at Zet’s family pottery stall. With angry customers on his hands, his family’s reputation is going downhill fast. Soon the investigation becomes a race against time. Zet and his sister, Kat, must solve the ever-twisting puzzle before it destroys the people they love. 

Zet is an extremely likable protagonist who isn’t afraid to face danger to help the people around him. When Zet suspects that his best friend, Hui, is in danger, he does what comes to him naturally—he investigates the jeweler’s compound where Hui works. When he investigates, Zet is often impulsive; however, his intentions are always honorable. Zet’s fun personality, his mystery-solving skills, and his bravery make him shine. By the end of the book, readers will be wishing Zet was their best friend.

Mystery of the Egyptian Amulet is an engaging story that will appeal to anyone who likes a fast-paced mystery. Readers will also enjoy learning what life was like in ancient Egypt. Even though Zet is only twelve years old, he is responsible for running his family’s pottery stall as well as providing for his mother and younger brother. Zet takes this responsibility seriously, and while he worries about not being able to care for his family, he never complains about his lot in life. Likewise, even though his sister can be annoying, he treats her kindly and even appreciates her knowledge (although, he doesn’t let her know this!). 

The Mystery of the Egyptian Amulet’s danger and mystery will captivate readers. While they will enjoy trying to solve the clues, the best part of the Kid Detective Zet Series is Zet, an interesting character who has many positive character traits despite being impulsive enough to get into some sticky situations. Even though Zet often runs from thugs, the story is kid-friendly with plenty of suspense without being scary. The story’s short chapters and easy vocabulary also make the book perfect for reluctant readers. The Kid Detective Zet Series is a highly entertaining series that will hook kids on reading. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Zet’s best friend, Hui, is an apprentice for a jeweler. When Zet tries to see Hui, a guard tells Zet to leave. When Zet “didn’t move, the man cracked his meaty fingers. . . . the man grabbed his arm and twisted Zet into a headlock.” The guard says, “Makes a funny noise when your neck breaks. Crunch-like.” The next day Zet shows his sisters the bruises the guard gave him.
  • Hui says he must be careful of the jeweler or, “He’ll make me disappear. I know that’s what happened to his partner.” 
  • The police chief tells Zet to be careful because “a servant was attacked in Khonsu Street and almost killed. He was found unconscious, his head bleeding.” 
  • Zet tries to sneak into the jeweler’s house. When he jumps over a fence, “three large hounds crouched at the open door to the house. The snarling dog bared its teeth. . . They bore down on him in a flash of teeth and fur. . . Teeth caught hold of his ankle. He felt skin tear. He wrenched his leg free. . .” Zet got free and ran. His wound is not described. 
  • Zet knows the jeweler is planning on hiding stolen jewels in bread. To catch the jeweler stealing, Zet dresses like a demon. When he went into town, “people fell back in shock.” People began running which allowed Zet to get close to the cart with the hidden jewels.
  • When Zet begins throwing bread out of the cart, the jeweler’s guard, Snaggletooth, “snatched Zet’s ankle. Meaty fingers took hold of Zet’s oiled skin. Zet wrenched backward. . .” 
  • When Zet crawls into the cart, “someone shoved him hard. . . He flew forward. . . he saw Sanaggletooth’s sword chop down.” Zet is uninjured. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • Another one of the jeweler’s guards tries to get Zet. “The henchman landed a glancing blow against Zet’s leg with his club. Nails scraped down his shin. If it had been any closer, it would have broken Zet’s leg. . .” The injury is not described. 
  • When the jeweler’s guards are detained, Zet finds Hui hidden at the bottom of the bread cart. “Hui’s arms and legs were bound tightly to his side. The medjay [police chief] whipped out his blade and cut the bindings free.” Hui is uninjured.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When the police chief went to investigate a man’s residence, the man “sat back drinking wine while we turned the place upside-down.” 

Language 

  • Zet sneaks into the jewelry apprentice shop with Kat. When she makes a loud noise, Zet thinks, “Wormsnot and bettledung! He was a complete idiot. . .”
  • Kat uses “by the gods” as an exclamation once. 
  • When surprised, Zet yells, “What in the name of the gods?”

Supernatural

  • There is a rumor that an evil army of spirits is coming to town. A shopkeeper says, “They’re creeping into town. Stirring up trouble. Casting dark dreams.” The spirits are accused of stealing scarab amulets. The man explains, “And you know how important scarabs are to Egypt. They ensure long life. They ensure birth. Creation. Balance.”
  • Kat worries that the rumors are true because of the war. She says, “The Hyksos spirits probably are mad. And you know they can’t be burying the enemy Hyksos soldiers properly, with the war going on.” 
  • When Hui acts strangely, Kat thinks he has been “hypnotized, or worse, possessed.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • When giving the time of day, the text refers to the sun god. For example, when Zet walked to work, “the sun god spilled his rays over the rooftops.” 
  • When splurging on a litter to carry her, Hui’s mom says, “The gods know I don’t indulge in luxury much.”
  • Because of the strange things happening, some people were frightened. While walking, Zet “passed a man painting a protection symbol on his front door, and chanting what sounded like a spell.”
  •  A man opened a new shop. “Protection amulets of every kind swung from his awning. There were oil lamps with strange symbols, Hyksos spirits probably; heady, acrid-smelling incense burned, and he was stirring liquid in a pot and chanting.” 
  • When Zet’s mom travels down river to find out about a missing shipment, Zet prays, “Please, let her have found out about the shipment.” 
  • Hui made his mother “a tiny gold statue of Maat, Goddess of Truth. The goddess looked ready to do her job – to greet people when they arrived in the afterlife.”
  • In his room, Hui had a statue of “Bes – Hui’s family God. . . Sure he protected their household, like all family gods did, but Bes also loved to stir up trouble. Generally of the entertaining kind.”  
  • Zet passes a temple that had a pool of water in front of the doors. Hui thinks, “Everyone knew the temple pools were doorways into the underworld.” He hurries past the temple.
  • When Zet’s mom doesn’t return home as expected, he prays. “Zet went straight to the household shrine. He knelt in front of the statue of Bastet. The cat goddess regarded him with her gold-rimmed eyes. He lit one of the incense for her . . . ‘Please bring Mother and Apu home safe,’ he whispered.” 

My Flawless Life

Hana Yang Lerner seems to have it all. She excels academically and attends St. Francis, the most elite private school in Washington, D.C. Plus, her position as the daughter of a prominent senator means she is popular and has a bright, shining future ahead of her. 

However, Hana’s reputation is ruined when her father is arrested for a car accident that left a woman seriously injured. Unable to fix her own life, she becomes the school’s unofficial “fixer” – the fixer of other people’s problems. Now, her fellow students contact her, knowing she will be able to bury their secrets. With her friends gone and a deep knowledge of how to make and use connections to her advantage, Hana is well up to the task. 

Until one day, when Hana is contacted by an anonymous student, called Three. Three asks Hana to trail her ex-best friend, Luce Herrera. Hana agrees, thinking this is how she gets her old life back. But the deeper she digs, the more she finds out about her classmates – more than she ever wanted to know. Along the way, she is also forced to confront a deep secret of her own. 

The redeeming qualities of My Flawless Life mostly have to do with its discussion of complex issues such as the “money fixes everything” mentality, parental expectations, and the value that teens place on popularity and reputation. Because Hana and her classmates come from prominent families, they are expected to be perfect and do great things with their lives. Through Hana’s thoughts and emotions, readers will get a glimpse into how that pressure affects teens. They will also see how that pressure is reflected in Hana’s actions, and to a lesser extent the actions of her classmates.  

The overlap between money and reputation is also discussed, bringing to light how important money is in elite circles. Hana’s family’s reputation shatters after her father loses his job and they are forced to move into a smaller home, showing how quickly status can be lost. At the same time, this book examines how money can make a lot of problems go away. For example, Hana is paid well to keep her classmates’ secrets in the dark. My Flawless Life seeks to examine how teens growing up in wealthy elite circles are essentially encouraged to use money in this way. The story condemns this, while simultaneously showing the pressure and expectations that leads teens to accept this way of life despite its ethical concerns. 

However, My Flawless Life is lacking in many aspects. Despite its marketing as a thriller, the book is slow-paced until over halfway through the story. The first half is mostly background information that could have been woven throughout the story to make the pacing more even. Once the mystery actually begins to unfold, the pacing feels too quick – there are so many twists and turns in such a short amount of time that the plot becomes confusing and overwhelming. Furthermore, although Hana is an interesting and well-developed character, most of the side characters feel flat and underdeveloped.  

In spite of the book’s drawbacks, My Flawless Life is interesting and worth a try for readers who enjoy mysteries, unreliable narrators, and discussions about issues such as money, parental expectations, and academic pressure. If you’d like another engaging story that touches on topics such as wealth and parental expectations, American Royals by Katharine McGee would make an excellent choice. Readers should also pick up Amber House by Kelly Moore, a fast-paced story that focuses on family drama. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • In a flashback, a car accident is described: “Through the beam of our headlights, I saw a flash of a person in front of us, one arm raised to her face as if bracing for impact. Then darkness. A grotesque thud on the front of the car. A sickening crunch as we skidded through the grass. Then stillness.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • At a party, Hana sees one of her classmates, Tiffany, snort a line of what Hana assumes is Adderall. 
  • At another party, Hana and her classmates play a drinking game. Some drink alcohol, while others drink nonalcoholic soda, but those who do drink get slightly tipsy. 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Very Bad People

Six years ago, when Calliope was in middle school, her mother lost control of a minivan and plunged into a lake. Calliope and her two sisters, Lorelai and Serafina, survived the crash, but their mother died. The investigation into why the car crashed was inconclusive. Despite the pain of losing their mother, Calliope’s sisters and father were able to move forward. But Calliope has never been satisfied. She suspects that something else is at work behind her mother’s death, and she’s determined to find out what it is.  

Now a junior in high school, Calliope has earned a spot at Tipton Academy – the school her mother once attended. For the first time, she is separating from her family in order to get closer to her mother’s past, hoping that it will bring closure. While Calliope struggles to adjust, she joins Haunt and Rail, a secret society that is responsible for influencing important decisions at the academy. After attending the initiation, Calliope is wary of the society’s role and motives. She also learns that her mother was once a member of Haunt and Rail, or a “Ghost,” too. Feeling that she is closer than ever to discovering her mother’s past, Calliope’s doubts subside as Haunt and Rail secretly – and successfully – launch a campaign to increase pay for the food staff at Tipton. Calliope plunges headfirst into her responsibilities as a Ghost, and she finally feels like she belongs and is inspiring change at Tipton.  

Things start to go awry for Calliope when rumors arise that one of Tipton’s English teachers, Mr. Ellis, is having inappropriate relationships with female students. At first, Haunt and Rail seek to vindicate the affected women, but soon their desire for change becomes more ambitious. Calliope becomes caught up in a crime she never expected as the truth behind her mother’s death comes to light.    

Very Bad People lives up to its title. Readers may pick up this book expecting a boarding school mystery, but they may not be ready for the story’s twists and deceptions. As for the narrator, Calliope is a curious, driven character, who often reflects on her choices. At times, Calliope realizes that she is a bad friend and tries to be better. Plus, she struggles with her allegiance to Haunt and Rail. Even though Calliope is trying to be a good person, she is often complacent even though she knows something is wrong.  

Unfortunately, Very Bad People has many flaws. For example, while Calliope’s complexity makes her more interesting, readers may be surprised by the story’s dark nature. In the end, Calliope’s story feels secondary to the mystery and setting. In addition, her romance with Nico is almost unnecessary. The plot is bogged down with lots of detailed information about the school and a long list of characters that can be difficult to keep track of. Very Bad People is a story for an experienced reader of the mystery genre – not for someone looking for a romance or a detective tale.   

Sexual assault and murder are the main conflicts of this story, and it is very dark at the end. The conclusion shows that Calliope can’t trust anyone—not even her family. The events in the story are traumatic for Calliope and she will never be the same. Regardless, the story has a somewhat happy ending. The conclusion is satisfying because Calliope is finally brave enough to make the right choice.  

Very Bad People is a page-turning thriller. The betrayal between friends and family is shocking to the core and Calliope’s investigation of her mother’s death is thorough – too thorough for her own good, leaving her entangled in a secret society whose motives are questionable. Overall, readers who want a mystery full of twists and turns in an intricate setting should give this story a try, particularly those who enjoy dark academic themes. Readers who aren’t afraid to jump into an exciting book with complicated characters who face evil should read the Truly Devious Series by Maureen Johnson. Readers who want an excellent mystery that isn’t as graphic should grab a copy of Endangered: A Death on a Deadline Mystery by Kate Jaimet. 

Sexual Content 

  • A few weeks after starting school, Calliope begins dating another student, Nico. They hold hands occasionally. 
  • Calliope and Nico kiss. Nico “leans forward and tilts his chin just slightly to the left. Our lips brush lightly once, then come together, and I am falling, falling, and I don’t have to think anymore.” They kiss a second time but it is not described. 
  • Calliope’s aunt, Mave, is bisexual. She uses the words “bisexual” and “queer” to refer to herself, and she is also married to a woman, Teya.  
  • At a Haunt and Rail celebration, Calliope sees two students kiss. “Akari and Lucas finish their dance and collapse onto the couch to a round of applause and hoots. Her body drapes across his, and he presses his lips to hers.”  
  • Calliope’s sister, Lorelai, says that she kissed a boy.  
  • Mr. Ellis, a teacher at Tipton, is accused of being a predator. It is revealed that he “watches teen porn” on his tablet and that he converses with female students via inappropriate text messages. According to a student, Ellis is responsible for, “Inappropriate touching, sexually explicit speech, and private invitations to visit his faculty apartment without other students or teachers present.” Multiple victims are mentioned in the story, including a girl named Lacy, who committed suicide after what he did to her. In addition, Brit, a member of Haunt and Rail, reveals that Mr. Ellis made sexual advances toward her.  
  • After a student, Aymée, is kicked out of Haunt and Rail, the group retaliates against her by sending pictures to the school. The pictures include depictions of Aymée’s past relationship with a teenage boy while she was in middle school along with a note that suggests she had a relationship with Mr. Ellis. In one of the pictures, Aymée is kissing the teenage boy. 
  • Aunt Mave admits she slept with Kathy (Calliope’s mother’s) ex named Danny. 
  • Calliope’s sister, Lorelai, admits that she knew that Kathy was having an affair with Danny. “I saw them together. . . When I walked into the house. . . Momma wasn’t inside. I went around back, looking for her, and she was in the woods behind the house with some stranger. They were half-naked, rolling around in the pine needles. . . Momma said Danny was her special friend and tried to sell me some bullshit story about what they’d been doing. I didn’t fully get what was happening, but I knew it was bad. I knew what kissing was, obviously.” 

Violence 

  • Calliope’s mother, Kathy, died in a car accident. Kathy, Calliope, and her two sisters, Lorelai and Serafina, were in the car. Calliope frequently remembers this moment and her memory of the incident is crucial to the story’s plot. It is described in detail when Calliope says, “I woke to cold water – rushing in, filling the van, dragging us under. Screams and screams. Only our mother was silent in the front, slumped over the steering wheel . . . ” Calliope continues to describe how she and her sisters were able to escape the van, but had to leave their mother behind.  
  • Aunt Mave tells Calliope a story about a student who died when she went to Tipton. The student, Adam, died on campus and there were rumors that his death may have been a murder and that Haunt and Rail were involved. Mave says, “[Adam] died on campus, right in one of the dorms. Tripped down a flight of stairs in the middle of the night, and no one found him until the next morning.”  
  • Calliope finds out that Haunt and Rail members killed Mr. Ellis by poisoning his food. Calliope sees his dead body. “Mr. Ellis is slumped over in a wooden chair, head, chest, and arms draped across the top of his kitchen table. His eyes are open, empty bowls. A dark pool halos his head and drops down onto the tile. Blood – no, vomit.”  
  • Lorelai admits that she was the one who caused her mom’s car accident. “I never planned for it to happen. . . I just needed the car to stop, and I kept asking Momma, and she told me to be quiet. . . Momma still wouldn’t pull over, so I grabbed the wheel. I just wanted us to turn around, go home, but the van spun out, off the road. Then we were in the lake, and Momma wouldn’t wake up.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • At a Haunt and Rail party, someone brings champagne. No one gets drunk. Calliope takes a sip of it. 
  • Calliope’s classmate carries a flask and drinks from it when she visits Calliope’s room.  

Language 

  • Lucas calls Adam a “douchecanoe” and an “ass.” He curses while he describes Adam’s behavior. “Adam was a total daddy’s boy. He was this uber-privileged asshole. . . Adam was partying on campus… [After curfew] he kept the party going in his room, getting shitfaced by himself.”  
  • Students says “fuck” a few times. For example, one student says, “fuck this meeting” and calls Mr. Ellis a “fucker.”  
  • Akari (another student) says, “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.” 
  • “Shit” and “bullshit” are said once.  
  • When the senior Haunt and Rail students accuse Aymée of sabotaging their plan, Aymée says, “I’m not putting my ass on the line,” and, “You’re all fucking brainwashed.” 
  • “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Oh my God” are all used several times.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane

Emmy, a twelve-year-old girl from Connecticut, is being sent to boarding school in England so her mother can advance her career. Emmy’s mom is a child psychologist and “mentor for the moms and dads of America.” Emmy’s mother wants to make sure that her daughter will “get a top-notch education,” even if Emmy doesn’t love the idea of a boarding school. However, Wellsworth (Emmy’s new school) provides her with an exciting opportunity — to learn more about her mysterious father, who went missing when she was just three years old. Following instructions from a mysterious letter from “a friend,” Emmy searches her family’s home for any “relics” from her dad. Emmy finds a box with a letter from her father on top. He asks her to “keep them safe.” The box contains twelve beautiful medallions, but Emmy has no idea why these are so important to her father. 

Emmy is a sympathetic character, as she confronts issues readers may relate to, such as struggling to make friends in a new school. She explains, “Wellsworth wasn’t the first school her mom had sent her to so she could get a ‘top-notch education,’ and it probably wouldn’t be the last. She figured out a long time ago that friends never stuck around when she switched schools, so why bother making new ones?” However, Emmy’s mindset changes when she meets Lola and Jack; the three friends bond over difficulties with their families’ relationships. Lola’s mom is in charge of disciplining and ensuring order of all of the students in their dormitory, and Jack’s family is deeply involved with the dangerous Order of Black Hollow Lane. After spending so much time with them, Emmy realizes, “They really had become like her family.” 

One of the major themes in Nobel’s book is the danger of being greedy and seeking power. While researching the school’s architecture, Emmy and her friends find a book with information about the Order of Black Hollow Lane, a secret society that started at Wellsworth. A teacher explains, “There will always be people who crave power. And people who will go to any lengths to hold onto it.” This perfectly encapsulates the members of the Order and, as Emmy discovers, this is why her father tried to stop them by stealing their “only one complete collection of medallions” that act as keys for them to access their vaults of money.

Another major theme is growing to love a new school or environment, as Emmy ultimately does with Wellsworth. She bonds with her friends, Lola and Jack, and also finds that, “It doesn’t matter if it feels weird. This is my home.” Readers who enjoy mystery or books about secret societies will love this novel as its twists and turns will leave you wanting more. At first, Emmy feels completely alone at her new school as she deals with a cruel roommate on top of a completely new environment. But when Emmy meets Lola and Jack, she is finally able to share her feelings with them and they become her best friends. 

Emmy also finds herself most comfortable representing her new school on the soccer field. Emmy joins the soccer team with her friend Lola and playing helps Emmy gain confidence. She explains, “This was where she belonged. Her heart was meant to pound with the rhythm of fast feet . . . No matter where she was in the world, the smell of freshly cut grass meant she was home.” Though the book mainly centers around Emmy and her friends searching for information on her missing father and about the awful intentions of the Order, readers who enjoy soccer will enjoy that Emmy spends a great deal of time discussing and playing soccer with Lola. 

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane wraps up Emmy’s first semester at Wellsworth and ends with her returning home to Connecticut for the summer. Emmy has seemingly convinced the members of the Order that she has thrown the box containing the medallions into the sea, “Now that [the Order’s medallions] are gone, there’s no reason for the Order to come after [Emmy].” However, the book leaves the readers on edge as it sets up for The Secret of White Stone Gate, as Emmy reveals to Jack and Lola that she actually still has the real box of medallions. Readers will be thrilled to find out what Emmy will do next as she returns to Wellsworth after her summer at home. If you’re up for more intriguing mysteries, check out the Wolfe & Lamb Series by Lauren St. John and the City Spies Series by James Ponti. Strong readers looking for more suspense and mystery should also read Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • In her humanities class, Emmy’s friend, Lola, explains that Anne Boleyn is “a queen who got her head hacked off.”
  • Lola describes a time during a soccer game in which she “punched a girl in the middle of a match and got herself banned for most of last season.” Lola explains that this was because the girl was bullying her teammate.
  • Lola recounts the time she “slugged Brynn [her cousin]” and then “had to do community service.” Lola explains, “He thinks his side of the family is so much better than ours because they have more money.”
  • It is not described in detail, but students gossip about Jack’s brother, Malcom, who “fell off the chapter house roof.” He is injured but okay. 
  • While Emmy searches to find out more information about a mysterious letter from “Brother Loyola,” she runs into Brynn who approaches her and “ripped the letter from her hand.” Brynn is furious and demands to know where she got the letter. “He shoved her into the wall. Pain shot through her back as she crunched into the hard stone. She tried pushing back but he had her pinned.” To get away from Brynn, Emmy “sprang forward and kicked him in the shins as hard as she could. He grunted and limped back, and Emmy launched her whole body into his. He crashed into the display case, and Emmy ran past him.”
  • After constantly dealing with bullying from her snobby roommate, Victoria, Emmy comes back to her room to find her side completely trashed. “Something had finally snapped. She kept running until she reached Victoria and shoved her so hard she fell back onto the couch.”
  • Brynn is bullying Lola and Emmy and he calls Emmy’s father a “deadbeat,” which makes Emmy completely furious. “It happened in the blink of an eye: Emmy let go of Lola, reached back, and punched Brynn square in the face. He doubled over, hand on his eye, moaning like a wounded animal.”
  • As Emmy and her friends uncover the entrance to the Order of Black Hallow Lane, Emmy is separated from them in the tunnels and encounters a figure in the darkness. She is horrified to realize it is the security guard, Jonas. “Jonas’ kindness . . . All his helpful suggestions. It was all fake.” He reveals that he is the leader of the Order, Brother Loyola, and that he has been “keeping a close eye on [Emmy] for a while. Ever since [she] asked [him] about [her dad].” He blocks her path to exit the tunnels and threatens her. Jonas says, “We should be far enough away now that your friends won’t hear us.”
  • Jonas describes how Emmy’s father, Thomas Allyn, joined the Order with him but refused to participate in the illegal activities they did. “As our influence has grown, it has needed to move outside the law. Dealing in weapons, the black market, the underground diamond trade — these are all necessary parts of our work.” Emmy is afraid of Jonas and wonders, “What lengths would Jonas go to?”
  • Emmy’s father decided he did not want to participate in the Order when, “One of his friends was injured when an initiation ritual went too far.” Jonas chocks this up to, “The girl was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just an accident.” But Emmy senses that is not true.
  • To escape Jonas in the tunnel, Emmy “grabbed a lantern off its hook and flung it at Jonas with all her might. The flame blew out, but the sound shattering lantern glass and garbled yelling told her that she’d hit her mark.”
  • Jonas corners Emmy in the belfry of the school’s church where, “Even the teachers’ housing is too far away to hear us.” And then he approaches her, “He took a knife out of his pocket.” He tries to force Emmy to give him the box of medallions. He says, “Hand it over, or I’ll have to take it one way or another. You’d be amazed by what I can pass off as an accident.” Emmy escapes by jumping onto the giant rope connected to the bell, sliding down until she can jump to her escape.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • Occasionally, mild language, such as suck and stupid, is used by the main characters. 
  • When they are frustrated or confused, the British characters, such as Emmy’s friends Lola and Jack, use bloody for emphasis.
  • Rarely, Lola uses prat to refer to someone she thinks is a bad person. 

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Lola explains to Emmy that she only punched the girl during the soccer game because, “That girl was making fun of [her teammate’s] hijab. She’s Muslim, and she likes to keep her head covered when she plays. What else was I supposed to do?”
  • On Emmy’s birthday, which she laments “her mom hadn’t once mentioned,” Lola explains that the school celebrates “Saint Audrey’s Feast Day! We get a proper feast tonight to honor our house’s illustrious patron, Saint Audrey.”
  • Jack explains the “houses” or dormitories the students are separated into are “named after saints . . . Edmund, Felix, Withburga . . . they were all saints from this part of England.”

Masterpiece

Marvin is not your average beetle; he has unique characteristics that set him apart from others. He is an excellent swimmer, has an accurate sense of human time, and most remarkably, he has an incredible ability to draw with ink. Marvin discovered this talent when he decided to create the perfect birthday gift for James Pompaday, the eleven-year-old boy who lives in the apartment where Marvin’s family resides. Marvin and James are an unlikely duo, but their friendship is unbreakable. 

James Pompaday is not your average human either. He is a quiet and careful individual who doesn’t immediately squash Marvin upon finding him. In fact, James is curious about Marvin’s abilities, and he takes the time to observe and understand the beetle’s artistic skills. Little did they know that Marvin’s talent would catch the eye of not only James but also the entire art world. 

James gets the credit for the beetle’s ink drawing. Soon, James finds himself covering for his pint-sized friend. But this is just the beginning of their journey. The duo soon becomes embroiled in a crazy plot that involves replicating a masterpiece created by a 14th-century artist named Albrecht Dürer. In order to save the masterpiece, James and Marvin must work together in ways they never imagined.  

The friends’ adventure leaves them with a newfound appreciation for the power of art and the importance of standing by those you love. Despite their differences, Marvin and James know that they can count on each other no matter what. They learn that sometimes unexpected alliances can lead to incredible adventures and lifelong friendships. In the end, Marvin and James prove that even the smallest creatures can make a big impact on the world, and that true friendship knows no boundaries. 

The charming story, Masterpiece, is about an unlikely friendship. The adventure within the art world is depicted through thin-lined artwork that appears every two to three pages. The black and white drawings play a crucial role in emphasizing the world from Marvin’s perspective, as well as portraying the true intensity of the journey he goes on. The intricate details of the drawings allow the reader to fully immerse themselves in the story and experience the same emotions as Marvin, making it a truly captivating read. From the way Marvin sees the world to the obstacles he faces, the drawings bring the story to life in a way that words alone cannot. The artistry of the illustrations is truly remarkable and will evoke a sense of wonder and awe in the reader. 

Masterpiece is a heartwarming tale that explores the power of friendship and human connection.  The author paints a vivid picture of the character’s emotions and thoughts, making the reader feel fully immersed in their world. The story progresses as Marvin and James develop a strong bond that helps them overcome the challenges they face. Along the way, the reader witnesses how their friendship grows, how they learn from each other, and how they support one another.  One of the most wonderful moments is when Marvin realizes what he feels when looking at James, “It was more than happiness. More than affection or gratitude. It was something deeper. It was the sense of being seen and loved exactly for who he is.” It shows the true connection and extent of the friendship between James and himself. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion that will leave the reader feeling uplifted and inspired. Masterpiece is a beautifully crafted story that celebrates the power of friendship and reminds us of the importance of human connection in our lives. Readers who enjoy Marvin and James’s unlikely friendship should also read Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • After Marvin completes his test piece of a Dürer drawing, he attempts to hide on James’ shirt collar. Then Christina, the lady in charge of the art exhibit, sees Marvin and swats him off of James. “Marvin tried to dive out of sight, but before he could even register what was happening, he felt a blow so forceful that it sent his entire body hurtling through space. He was upside down, turning in midair, the room around him a blur. He bounced off something hard – a wall? A bookshelf? Who could tell? – and crashed to the floor, where he lay on his back, legs waving.” Marvin is unharmed. 
  • After Marvin and James leave the art gallery to return home from their adventures, James closes his hand in the trunk. “He saw James’ right hand reach toward the open trunk at the same time the cabbie slammed the trunk closed. There was a sickening, thwarted clunk as the metal trunk crashed down onto something that wasn’t meant to be there. And an anguished cry.” James ultimately ends up needing a cast for a broken hand. Instead of being upset, James almost seems relieved about the injury because it means he will no longer have to keep pretending to be the one who created Marvin’s artwork. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll

You, who have dug deep and sifted hard for a story to read, have unearthed an ancient treasure: a mystery from the dusty ages when a kid could be a hero and fight for the good of all . . .

Twelve-year-old Zet oversees the family pottery stall now that his father is away fighting the Hyksos invaders. But sales are not going well and his rumbling stomach is setting off warning bells. What if his family can’t afford to eat? Zet needs help fast. Then a miracle happens: a huge reward is offered to whoever finds a stolen scroll and returns it to its rightful owner. Zet needs to track down that scroll. There’s only one catch: Zet is no detective and he’s way out of his element. Still, Zet sets out in search of clues, sneaking past hieroglyphics-covered walls, sprinting along the Nile, and chasing after a crafty pair of suspects. Can Zet find the scroll? Can he win the reward and save the day?

Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll follows Zet, who is desperate to provide for his family. Zet is somewhat impulsive and acts before he thinks. However, he is also a moral character who is brave in the face of danger and cares about others. Zet begins investigating the thief’s identity because a warrior offered him a large reward. Yes during his investigation, Zet meets a farmer and a blind beggar and despite their lowly status, he always treats them with kindness and worries about their wellbeing. 

This fast-paced story will give readers a glimpse into ancient Egyptian life and show some of the hardships that families had to overcome. Even though Zet was only 12 years old, he was in charge of providing for his family: his mother, sister, and baby brother. Zet takes his responsibility seriously and worries about what will happen when the family runs out of food. In the end, Zet is given a reward for helping identify the thieves. Even though Zet’s family needs the money for basic necessities, Zet still offers to give the farmer some of his reward money. Zet’s dedication to his family and his kindness to strangers is admirable. 

Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll is an engaging story full of action and adventure. The conclusion has several surprises and readers will smile when Zet is praised and rewarded for “doing the right thing.” The story’s easy vocabulary and short chapters make it accessible to most readers. The engaging story will entertain all mystery-loving readers who want to travel to ancient Egypt. Readers who want to learn more about ancient Egypt can jump back in time by reading Escape from Egypt by Wendy Mass. To learn even more about the time period, Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll can be paired with the nonfiction book The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • When a thief runs through the marketplace, no one wants to “be associated with thieves. . . You might get your hand cut off, or worse, your head.”
  • A farmer overhears two men talking, but he didn’t “tell them they were trespassing. . . because the thin one pulled out a knife. I didn’t wait to find out if he planned to use it. I just started running.”
  • Zet overhears two thieves talking. “Shut your mouth,” growled the large man. “And keep it shut, or I’ll have to do it permanently. Don’t think I won’t either.”
  • When a man is arrested, Zet worries that the police chief would kill him. “Impale him on a stake, or burn him to death. That was punishment for crimes against the state.” Later, the man is let out of prison unharmed.
  • To stop the thieves, Zet jumps into a river and unties their boat. One of the thieves orders his guard to stop Zet. “The powerful man reached him and they struggled. The servant easily pushed him under, holding him down until Zet thought his lungs would burst” Zet finally “bit the man’s arm. Hard. The hand released him. . . The huge guard grabbed for him again, but Zet found the oar and punched it toward the man’s ribs.” The warrior arrives and helps Zet.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In the marketplace, a man and a stall owner argue over the price of beer.

Language 

  • Zet’s sister calls him a “jackal-head.”
  • A man calls someone a dog.
  • One of the thieves calls Zet a rat.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • When telling time, the description often refers to Ra. For example, “Overhead, the sun god Ra was nearing the end of his voyage across the sky. Soon, he would reach the horizon.”
  • Zet’s family has a household shrine. “Their statue of Bastet, the cat goddess, was small but made of the finest ebony. She had been the household god of his father, and his father’s father before that. . . He lit a stick of incense and prayed to her for help in finding the thieves.” 
  • When Zet prays to the statue of Bastet, he “rubbed Bastet’s carved, ebony head. Even though she was a statue, he felt sure she enjoyed it.”
  • When Zet sees one of the thieves, “he thought of his prayers to Bastet the night before and said a silent thank you.”
  • Zet and his sister go by a chapel. “Inside was the shrine with the stele—the stone carving—covered with dozens of engraved ears. During the day, the Hearing Ear shrine would often be crowded with worshipers coming to speak to the goddess. They’d ask her for favors or help with whatever ailed them.”
  • Zet and his sister sneak into a temple to spy on the High Priest. When the High Priest sees them, Zet says, “We simply want your blessing. A blessing from a man as powerful as yourself. You have the ear of the gods. You have the ear of Amenemopet himself.” The priest gives them a blessing.

Pilfer Academy: A School So Bad It’s Criminal

George Beckett is a natural-born thief, or at least, that’s what the teachers at Pilfer Academy think. 

When a mysterious individual recognizes George’s talent for sneaking around unnoticed and taking things he shouldn’t, he is kidnapped and brought to the mysterious and captivating Pilfer Academy. At Pilfer Academy everything, including the students, has been stolen.

At first, George is excited to have the opportunity to escape his family and play with thief gadgets. However, he soon realizes that applying the lessons he learns at Pilfer Academy to real-life situations is a lot harder than he imagined. George doubts his abilities and wonders if he can keep up with the other students. Despite his doubts, George dives right in and works to become one of the best thieves to attend Pilfer Academy. Along the way, he makes new friends and discovers that there’s more to being a thief than just stealing things. George also learns the importance of loyalty and making difficult moral decisions.

Dean Dean Deanbugle, the goofy antagonist that runs Pilfer Academy, views George as a prospective top pupil. He has a unique way of grooming his students, using praise and rewards to encourage them to engage in mischief and thievery. While George is initially enthralled by the new way of life, the pressure to adjust to the school’s expectations becomes overwhelming. His peers become jealous of the favoritism Deanbugle shows George, creating tension and conflict in the classroom.

As George becomes more involved in the school’s culture, he begins to question the morality of his actions. Is it right to steal from others, even if an adult tells you to? He wrestles with these ethical dilemmas as he navigates his way through Pilfer Academy, trying to balance the desire to impress his teachers with his own sense of right and wrong.

Despite his misgivings, George continues to thrive in the school’s environment. He becomes more skilled at thievery and mischief, earning high marks from his teachers and the admiration of his classmates. However, as the stakes get higher and the tasks more dangerous, he begins to wonder if the price of success is worth the cost. Will he continue to follow Deanbugle’s lead, or will he find the courage to forge his own path? This all comes to a head when he is forced to steal a teddy bear from a baby for his midterm grade. The depravity of the task is enough to tell George all he needs to know about his future at Pilfer Academy. 

Pilfer Academy: A School So Bad It’s Criminal is perfect for middle-grade readers who enjoy adventure, mystery, and humor. The world-building is creative and unique, and the characters are well-developed and relatable. One primary example of this is Tabitha Crawford, George’s partner in crime. Tabitha is intelligent, sweet, and honest. Her humility and loyalty towards George make her a loveable sidekick, but Magaziner does a beautiful job of including her flaws as a friend as well. This makes the friendship between George and Tabitha highly relatable. Pilfer Academy is a fun and entertaining read with has a positive message about the importance of doing the right thing, even when it’s difficult. Additionally, the plot is engaging and will keep readers hooked from the first page to the last.

In summary, Pilfer Academy: A School So Bad It’s Criminal is an excellent book for young readers who enjoy a thrilling adventure with a positive message. The story follows a young protagonist as he navigates an unexpected kidnapping, a school full of criminals, discovering what a true friend really is and where the lines are drawn morally. It teaches readers that friendship is about trusting and supporting someone else and that it is okay to have disagreements sometimes. It also covers the topic of when it is okay to question an authoritative figure and what is morally right or wrong. These themes are presented in a palatable and humorous way that will have readers hooked on every page.

Sexual Content 

  • When touring Pilfer, George is brought through many exhibits including “big ones and small ones, portraying Greek gods and naked people and cupid babies. One even squirted yellow liquid out of its mouth, which George thought looked positively disgusting.”

Violence 

  • One of the opening scenes displays George being stolen from outside his home when he attempts to buy ice cream from a van. George “screamed and tried to bite [the kidnapper], but the netting was small and thick, and George ended up with a mouthful of mesh . . . The woman fastened him down with some heavy-duty duct tape. . . George pushed her—she tumbled back and hit the wall of the truck.” The kidnappers drape George in a net and secure him with duct tape which holds him for several hours.
  • Students repeatedly exhibit bullying behaviors. Pilfer doesn’t just accept bad behavior but encourages some of these interactions between students. This causes a lot of fights and antics to occur amongst classmates. “But the class would have been a lot better if he didn’t feel like he was being hazed by Milo and his friends.” These incidents of “hazing” include George’s roommate, Milo, stealing his bedding, sabotaging his class assignments, and convincing the Dean that George should be sent to the whirlyberg.
  • There are many instances when the “whirlyberg” is brought up. It is a broken-down carousel the Dean uses as a torture device when students are not listening. “I’m going to take these children down to the whirlyblerg for ETERNITY.” Deanbugle tells this to the staff after finding George and Tabitha attempting to escape Pilfer. 
  • Trying to escape, George and Tabitha encounter a set of lasers. “ZZzzzzzzzt!!! came the sound from across the room. ‘What’s that?’ George shouted. He was stuck between three lasers and couldn’t see her. ‘Tabitha! Did you get hit?’” Tabitha is okay, but her hair is burnt by the lasers. They continue to move because they know their options are to escape and get help or spend eternity in the whirlyberg.
  • The rightful owner of the mansion that Pilfer Academy resides in comes to try to airlift it off the ground. He needs it to be airlifted is because the rightful owner of the mansion is the Duke Valois of France, the sworn enemy of Dean Dean Deanbugle. “There came sounds of glass shattering and students screaming. A wave of lemonade from the fountain in the foyer spilled over and drenched a bunch of third years, who ran into the hall, shrieking.” The mansion is successfully airlifted off the ground with a majority of students and teaching staff having jumped out of the building. George, Tabitha, and the rest of the staff are carried all the way to France where they are greeted by the Duke.
  • When Deanbugle is close to being captured by the Duke, he shouts and jumps out the window. “Then he began to kick his legs and throw the biggest temper tantrum George had ever seen. His wails echoed into the night sky. He beat his fists and pulled at his eyebrows. He sneezed onto his sleeve. He punched the living stuffing out of a scarecrow. He ran around like a rabid dog, cursing the day that George and Tabitha had been born and vowing for revenge.” He is apprehended by police cars while throwing his temper tantrum.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • Browbeat is a teacher who utilizes goofy acronyms to teach her lessons, but one acronym creates the curse word “piss.”  “Browbeat lectured for an hour and fifteen minutes on the basic principles of stealthiness, which he called the P-I-S-S method: Patience, Imperturbability, Silence, and Surprise.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Five Survive

Six friends. One RV. Five make it out.

Red thought this would be a normal spring break road trip with her friends, Maddy, Simon, and Arthur. Maddy’s older brother, Oliver, and his perfect girlfriend, Reyna, come along as chaperones. But things start falling apart after the RV unexpectedly crashes, stranding them in the middle of nowhere with no cell service. Soon, it becomes clear that this was no accident. Someone had masterminded all of this.

A sniper’s voice in the woods tells them that one of them has a secret. Once that person confesses, they die; the rest go free. Alliances form and tensions rise, forcing Red to recall harsh truths about her past and come to terms with the fact that not everything in her life is as straightforward as it seems.

Red is an incredibly complex protagonist. Right away, it’s clear that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Her thought process is quite scattered, so readers initially only get small glimpses into her background but those glimpses are powerful enough to convey that her home life is quite rocky. When Red was in middle school, her mother was killed, leaving Red to take on household responsibilities while her dad was consumed by grief. Throughout the novel, she must work through the guilt related to her mother’s death. Red is a puzzle that slowly comes together as she and her friends work together, first to devise an escape plan and then to figure out which of them is the target. But is there a liar among them? Buried secrets will be forced to come to light and tensions inside the RV will reach deadly levels. Not all of them will survive the night.

While Jackson uses traditional third-person narration, every character is equally fleshed out and has a distinct personality. Each of them has a role, even if it may not be obvious at first. In the beginning, Oliver takes control and seems to be the unquestioned leader, but power dynamics subtly shift over time and each character has their moment in the spotlight. As each new piece of information is revealed, Red is forced to reevaluate her relationship with her best friend’s family. This creates a familiar experience for teenage readers who learn that their childhood perceptions of the people around them are not necessarily the full truth.

Jackson is a master at grabbing the reader’s attention and not letting it go for 400 pages. Pacing is maintained through multiple internal plots and sagas that all come together in the end; every story element is there for a reason. With each failed escape attempt, Jackson raises the stakes impossibly high, creating delicious suspense. Characters must grapple with their sense of right and wrong, and question what they think they know about themselves and the people closest to them. Five Survive will stay with readers long after they finish the final page. Although it’s action-packed, it’s also a fascinating glimpse into human psychology, examining what drives people to make the decisions they do and keep the secrets they keep. Jump into another suspense-filled thriller by reading We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or The Agathas by Kathleen Glasgow & Liz Lawson.

Sexual Content 

  • A few sexual “that’s what she said” jokes are made. 

Violence 

  • Oliver and Maddy’s mother is an attorney who is currently involved in a case related to a conflict between two gangs. When describing the case, Oliver mentions some violent altercations. “At the end of August last year, one of the leaders, Joseph Mannino, was killed by another, Francesco Gotti. Allegedly, I should say. Shot him twice in the back of the head.”
  • After the RV breaks down, the six hear a loud noise outside. When they go outside to investigate, a rifle is shot. “A crack in the darkness, louder now that she was outside with it. Red flinched, hands up to her ears, and the red dot wasn’t there anymore. But there was something else. A splintered hole in the RV. Not the size of a fingernail. The size of a bullet.” This scene occurs over two pages.
  • In an internal flashback, Red remembers reading a graphic description of how her mother, a police officer, was killed. “Mom on her knees. Begging for her life…On her knees, terrified, knowing what was about to happen. And then it did: two shots to the back of the head. Killed with her own service weapon.”
  • The six devise an escape plan using reflections in a mirror. The sniper would shoot at the reflection, thinking that one of them was coming out, revealing where the sniper was hiding and allowing them to run in the opposite direction. As predicted, the sniper shoots: “Behind Simon, there was a splintered hole in the wooden base of the dining booth, where the bullet had struck through after the mirror, probably out the other side of the RV back into the dark night. Through glass and wood and wood and plastic and metal. Skin and bone would be nothing in its path.”
  • An elderly couple, Don and Joyce, drive by and, noticing the broken down RV, offer to help. The sniper communicates via walkie-talkie that the six have to drive them away; if they ask for help, the couple will be shot. Oliver slips them an SOS note despite protests from the other five, and the sniper kills them. “Crack. Too quick. Joyce folded sideways onto the road, a space where the middle of her face had been…Crack. A plume of blood in the headlights. A gaping hole in Don’s face, beside his forever-open mouth. He fell slowly, knees buckling first, crumpling backward over his legs, bent all wrong. Empty stare up at the stars, a halo of red pooling on the road.”
  • Oliver describes a bar fight he was in a few months before. Someone was hitting on his girlfriend, Reyna. Oliver describes, “So I pull Reyna away from the guy and I tell him to leave her alone. And then this guy loses it. He shoves me and I’m asking him what his problem is. And then he hits me, punches me right in the face…So I did what any other guy in the situation would do: I hit him back. And maybe it was too hard, I don’t know. But I think the guy gets knocked out. He falls back on the pavement and, you know, he’s breathing heavy like he’s unconscious. He’s not bleeding out or anything.” It is later revealed that this person died a few days later as a result of this incident.
  • Thinking that Arthur is the one with the secret, Oliver attacks him, demanding a confession. “Oliver slapped a hand down on the kitchen counter beside him and then he charged, wrapping his hands in Arthur’s shirt, driving him backward.” This incident continues over four pages, with the fight described between interludes of dialogue.
  • The sniper shoots Maddy in the leg when she tries to get to Don and Joyce’s abandoned car to get help, and the five work together to stop the bleeding as best they can. This is the focus for seven pages; Maddy’s injury is referred to throughout the rest of the novel.
  • The police arrive and chaos ensues. Multiple people are shot and Oliver threatens to set fire to the RV. “Red’s hands jumped to her ears at the sound of the rifle, her eyes flickering from Oliver, lying dead still on the road, to Arthur clutching at this neck, to the police officer in front of her. But the woman wasn’t looking at Red. She was looking at the dark shape of the walkie-talkie in Red’s hand. It must have been instinct for her too. Her gun flashed. A tiny firework. Something stung Red in the chest, breaking through…Her hand cradled her chest, pressed against her dark red shirt. Her fingers came away and the red came away with them.” Several people are injured, but only Oliver dies. This scene lasts six pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • A few references to drinking and being drunk are made. For example, Simon sits down awkwardly next to Red, who remarks, “You’re drunk already? I thought you only had like three beers.” When he moves closer, she “smells the sharp metallic tang on his breath.”

Language 

  • Profanity is frequently used, mostly variations of “fuck” as well as a few instances of “shit” and “ass.”
  • “Oh god” is rarely used as an exclamation.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Good Girl, Bad Blood

After unearthing her town’s secrets and investigating and solving the murder of Andie Bell and Sal Singh, Pip Fitz-Amobi swears she is not a detective anymore.

Even though Pip has released a viral podcast about her investigation, with the help of her boyfriend Ravi Singh, she has put her investigating days behind her. Pip is still haunted by her past involvement in solving the case. “I almost lost everything,” she explains, “I ended up in the hospital, got my dog killed, put my family in danger, [and] destroyed my best friend’s life.” After seeing the lengths she went to investigate Andie’s and Sal’s murders, the obsessive, reckless, almost selfish person she became, and the damage it caused her and the people she loves, Pip never wants to be pulled back into investigating.

But the morning after the six-year anniversary of the deaths of Sal and Andie, the brother of Pip’s friend Connor, has gone missing. She feels she has no choice but to help find him. This time as Pip looks for Connor’s brother Jamie, she uncovers more of her town’s secrets, and now everyone is listening.

Good Girl, Bad Blood is a fantastic sequel to A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. Like its predecessor, this book has fantastic twists and turns. Similar to the first book, Good Girl, Bad Blood has an interesting use of storytelling, combining the more traditional third-person narration with interview transcripts, Pip’s notes, images, maps, newspaper clippings, and more.

Picking up where A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder left off, Good Girl, Bad Blood deals directly with the events of the last book. Unlike other books in the murder mystery genre, this book examines the impact of traumatizing events on Pip and her friends and family. After Pip’s world has been turned upside down by uncovering the secrets surrounding Andie and Sal’s deaths, Pip is a changed person. She is more protective of those she loves and more careful with her actions. But Pip is also traumatized and scared, and she is haunted by the events she witnessed. Pip tries to make it seem like she is fine so she can support those around her, but in reality, Pip is lost. She is unsure of who she is and who she is becoming.

In the end, while Pip and her friends rescue Jamie and uncover a larger, more sinister plot in the process, Pip comes to terms with many of her flaws. She is not a “good” girl. “Maybe I’m selfish,” Pip says, “maybe I’m reckless and obsessive and I’m OK with doing bad things when it’s me doing them and maybe I’m a hypocrite, and maybe none of that is good, but it feels good. It feels like me . . .” Pip also recognizes that she needs more time to heal. She accepts that it’s okay to be angry at the injustices in the world, and it’s okay to not have a perfect answer to every problem. As Pip comes to terms with who she is, she is also shattered from witnessing violence and death as she watches someone get shot and then, unfortunately, fails to save them. Although Pip is forced to accept the cruelty of the world and the people in it, she is still traumatized and terrified by her experiences.

Overall, Good Girl, Bad Blood is a great sequel, with a dark, suspenseful story full of twists and turns and a fantastic cast of characters. Pip is strong-minded, courageous, and independent, but she is also flawed and broken. She continues to show readers that one does not have to fit into the perfect model society expects from you. It is okay to be angry at the world and its injustices and to grieve the loss of others, and to also grieve who you once were. 

Sexual Content 

  • Ravi picks Pip up for dinner. Ravi is dressed nicely, and Pip “could smell aftershave too, as he stepped towards her, but he stopped short, didn’t kiss her on the forehead nor run a hand through her hair.” The pair begin to talk, and Ravi “[places] one hand on her waist, his warm fingers dancing up her ribs.” The scene cuts out before anything else happens between the two. 
  • The night of Ravi’s brother’s memorial, Ravi greets Pip and “[presses his] words into her forehead with his lips.”
  • After an argument, Pip confronts Ravi about her feelings, explaining why she has been so distant lately. “She had barely finished speaking, but Ravi’s hand was against her face, cupped around her cheek, his thumb rubbing the rain from her bottom lip. He moved his fingers down to lift her chin and then he kissed her. Long and hard, their faces wet against each other, both trying to fight a smile.”

Violence 

  • Picking up where the first book in the series left off, Good Girl, Bad Blood, references much of the violence of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder including the disappearance and death of Andie Bell, the murder of Sal Singh, and the kidnapping of Isla Jordan. Andie Bell was having an affair with her history teacher Elliot Ward, and when she went over to his house to talk one night, “an argument ensued. Andie tripped, hitting her head against his desk. But as Ward rushed to get a first aid kit, Andie disappeared into the night” and was declared missing. 
  • Thinking Andie must have died from her head injury, Ward killed Sal, Andie’s boyfriend, making “it look like suicide and planted evidence so police would think Sal killed his girlfriend then himself.” Months after this, Elliot Ward found who he thought was Andie on the side of the road, disheveled and incoherent. Ward kidnapped Isla, who he thought was Andie, for five years to continue to cover up his crimes. 
  • Andie was actually not killed directly by Ward, in fact, she was able to make it home that night, only to be confronted by her sister, Becca Bell. Becca had been drugged and sexually assaulted by Max Hastings (who is revealed to be a serial rapist), and later finds out that the drugs Max used were sold to him by her sister. The two “started arguing, pushing, until Andie ended up on the floor, unconscious and vomiting. . . Becca froze . . . watching Andie die, too shocked, too angry to save her sister’s life.” Becca hides Andie’s body “because she was scared no one would believe it was an accident.” 
  • After Pip tells the police about how important it is to look into Jamie’s disappearance, the police say, “We’ve got an actual high-risk case: an eight-year-old abducted from her backyard.” It is later revealed that the abduction was only a domestic dispute. 
  • After publishing the podcast, Pip’s life changed. “The anonymous death and rape threats still came in weekly, comments and tweets calling her an ugly, hateful bitch.” Pip explains internet trolls comment on almost everything Pip posts. These hateful comments continue after she posts about Jamie. Pip gets comments saying “I killed Jamie Reynolds,” Who will look for you when you’re the one who disappears?” and “I killed Jamie and I’ll kill you too, Pip.
  • As Pip goes to the old, abandoned farmhouse on the edge of town in search of Jamie, she remembers this is “the place where Becca Bell had hidden her sister’s body for five and a half years. Andie had been right here all along, decomposing in the septic tank.”
  • As the investigation into Jamie’s disappearance continues, theories pop up online about what happened. Connor angrily tells Pip about what he is reading. “They think my dad killed Jamie . . . They’re saying [Connor’s dad] took the knife from our house and followed Jamie down Weevil Road. Killed him, cleaned and dumped the knife, and hid his body temporarily. That he was still out when I got home around midnight because I didn’t ‘actually see’ my dad when I got in. And then he was absent last weekend because he was out disposing of Jamie’s body. Motive: my dad hates Jamie because he’s ‘such a fucking disappointment.’”
  • Six days after Jamie goes missing “a dog walker discovered [a] body at about six a.m. . . . in the trees beside I-95, between Fairview and Stamford.” The radio reports “Officers are still at the scene. The deceased is as yet unidentified but has been described as a white male in his early twenties.” Worried, Pip rushes to Connor’s house to see if the body is Jamie’s, but they find out it is not. 
  • It is revealed that Jamie was kidnapped by Stanley Forbes, who is in the witness protection program because his father was a “serial killer. He killed children. And he made his young son, Child Brunswick [Stanley], help him lure out the victims.” Over the years “six children disappear . . . Their burned remains were later discovered buried along the shore of Lake Ontario, all within one mile of each other. The cause of death in each case was blunt force trauma.” 
  • As Pip questions him, Stanley explains that Jamie confronted him about his identity. Stanley explains, “the next thing I know, Jamie lunges at me with a knife. I managed to get out of the way and knock the knife out of his hands. And then we were fighting, out by those trees beside the house . . . I push Jamie off, into one of the trees, and he hits his head, falls to the ground. I think he lost consciousness for a few seconds and after that he seemed a little dazed, concussed.” Not wanting to have to move again, Stanley kidnapped Jamie because he “just needed time to think about what to do. I was never going to hurt him.”
  • Charlie, the brother of one of the victims who was killed by Stanley’s father, tricked Jamie into helping him. Charlie made Jamie believe he was a girl who had a stalker “threatening to kill her.” In reality, Charlie is trying to have Jamie kill Child Brunswick (Stanley) for him. 
  • Charlie finds Pip and Stanley talking in the old barn and Charlie pulls a gun on Stanley. Three months after his sister was found, Charlie explains how his “dad hanged himself. I was the one who found him, after school. My mother couldn’t cope and turned to alcohol and drugs to numb everything out. I almost starved. Within a year I was removed from her care and sent from foster family to foster family . . . By seventeen, I was living on the streets.” 
  • As Charlie holds Stanley at gunpoint, Pip steps in front of Stanley, pleading to Charlie, “Please don’t shoot.” To protect Pip, Stanley pushes her away. Pip pleads with Charlie more, but he does not budge. “Charlie looked at [Pip], watched her crying. And then he lowered the gun. [Charlie] took two heavy breaths. . . then Charlie fired. The sound ripped the earth out from under Pip. . .  He fired again. And again. And again. Again. Again. Until they were just empty clicks. Pip screamed, watching Stanley stagger back off his feet, falling hard against the floor.” Pip tries to save Stanley by performing CPR and placing pressure on the wounds. As she tries to help him, the building bursts into flames and smoke fills the room. “The smoke was getting lower and darker . . . Pip coughed with every breath. But she didn’t let go of him. She held on and she pulled” Stanley out of the burned building. Outside, on the grass, she continues to perform CPR, trying to save Stanley, but unfortunately, Stanley dies. This scene is rather vivid and lasts over a few pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • On her podcast, Pip recounts the trial of Max Hastings and how he drugged his victims. An “expert witness . . . [talked] about the effects of benzodiazepines like Rohypnol . . . The drug acts like a sedative and can have a depressant effect on the body’s central nervous system . . . It feels almost like being separated from your own body, like it just won’t listen to you, your limbs aren’t connected anymore.” Two women who were assaulted by Max, explained they “both only had one or two alcoholic drinks the nights of the” attacks.
  • The night after the memorial, Cara, Pip’s best friend, went to a party and “was so drunk she couldn’t speak in full sentences, not even half sentence, or quarter, broken up by cries or hiccups.” Pip picked up a “drunken, sobbing Cara.” The next morning, Cara texts Pip: “Urgh, been throwing up literally all day.” 
  • The night he went missing at a party, Jamie “went outside to have a cigarette.” 
  • People send Pip videos of the party Jamie went to. One video showed two of Pip’s classmates “downing two bottles of beer” and later playing beer pong. 
  • When Pip tells her parents she is investigating Jamie’s disappearance, they are angry. Pip’s mom reminds her, “you ended up in the hospital, Pippa, with an overdose. They had to pump your stomach.” 
  • Another witness tells Pip they saw Jamie after they “went to [their] buddy’s house on Weevil Road for some takeout and beers.”
  • As Pip stakes out the abandoned barnyard, she encounters three teenagers who regularly hang out there. Pip recognizes one who was “buying drugs from Howie Bowers last year.” She sees all three of them smoking cigarettes. After questioning them, Pip learns that they “carry drugs across state lines” for a local drug dealer and in return get “weed for free.” 

Language   

  • Profanity is used often throughout this book. Profanity includes shit, fuck, bitch, and ass.

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Haze

Bram’s friend Jeremy wants to go public with information about a hazing-related student death. The morning after he tells Bram this, he’s injured in a hit-and-run accident. Now Jeremy is in a coma, and Bram is trying to follow the trail that he left. The trouble is that Abby, Jeremy’s sister, is convinced that Bram’s swimming coach is to blame. Bram knows Coach is innocent, but can he prove it? And what will happen if he’s wrong?

Told from Bram’s point of view, Haze is a well-rounded swim story that highlights the dangers of hazing. Bram, who is trying out for the swim team, has always looked up to Jeremy. When Jeremy warns Bram to stay away from the swim team’s initiation party, Bram wants to understand Jeremy’s strange warning. But before the two can meet, Jeremy falls victim to a hit-and-run resulting in a coma. As Bram begins to investigate, he finds that the swim team is known for dangerous hazing, excessive drinking, and other inappropriate behavior. 

Bram’s story will captivate readers from the start because Bram’s desire to fit in is very relatable. In addition, the story quickly increases the danger and suspense. As Bram tries to piece together the clues surrounding Jeremy’s accident, he discovers that no one can be trusted—not the coach or the members of the swim team. The realistic mystery will keep readers guessing until the very end. 

As part of the Orca Sports collection, Haze is a fast-paced story that uses easy-to-read language that will appeal to reluctant readers. The high interest topic and the well-written story will entertain most teens. Plus, Bram’s story reminds readers of the dangers of excessive drinking and shows how hazing can quickly become dangerous. While the story revolves around the swim team, the mystery, and suspense will captivate non-athletic readers as well. If you’re part of a swim team and want more swim-related stories, these books are sure to make a splash: Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher and Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab.

Sexual Content 

  • Bram and his ex-girlfriend, Abby, are at a party. She tells him that they should go into a room. Teasingly, Abby says, “Relax. I’ll leave your virtue intact. It is still intact, isn’t it?”
  • To get into her brother’s computer, Abby takes it to another student who says, “I warn you. If he has protected files, there’s a ninety-five percent chance they’re porn.” 

Violence 

  • The swim team is known for hazing new teammates. The new teammates are called “pond scum” and forced to wear diapers while swimming. Another time, they had to walk across campus in their Speedos. 
  • Jeremy is hit by a car. Later, it is revealed that the driver was trying to kill Jeremy. Jeremy is in a coma for several days before he wakes up. 
  • Someone locks Bram in the sauna. In order to escape, Bram slams his body “against the door. My left cheekbone smashed the window frame, and my arm hung through the broken window. . . Deep cuts burned along my arm. Blood welled up, then started to pour from a gouge along the inside of my forearm.” Coach finds Bram and takes him to the hospital. 
  • In order to silence Bram, two of the swim team members and an adult put Bram in the trunk of a car. The adult “had a handgun pointed” at Bram.
  • Bram is taken to a boat and a swim team member, Steven, “grabbed my arm and yanked. I fell into the boat face-first, landing half on the floor and half on the rear-facing seats.” Bram is hidden in the boat’s crawl space and, later, Abby is thrown in with Bram. As the boat goes out to sea, Bram and Abby are able to jump into the ocean and swim to shore. Both are hospitalized but recover. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Three years ago, after a swim team party, one of the boys “choked on his own vomit and died.”
  • Bram goes to an off-campus party. When he walks inside, the air is “ripe with beer.” Bram finds a group of swimmers taking shots.
  • Bram finds a picture of a swim party where the coach was “holding up some kind of a large funnel. Marcus was drinking out of it while Coach poured beer in the top. . . And later that night, Marcus died of alcohol poisoning.” 

Language   

  • The new members of the swim team are referred to as “pond scum.”
  • Pissed is used infrequently. 
  • Damn and hell are both used a few times. 
  • Bastard is used twice. For example, while talking about Jeremy’s accident, the coach says, “If I ever get my hands on the bastard who did this. . .”
  • The coach uses Jesus as an exclamation once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

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

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Sherlock likes to smoke “shag tobacco.” 

Language   

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

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

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

The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy

Created by the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum, who is also a former operative in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, this is the official handbook for kids who dream of one day becoming a spy or working in the intelligence field.

Have you ever wondered what spies really do? What kind of training is involved? Do you have to go to a special school or take a polygraph test? How do you live your “cover?” How does your work life affect your relationships with your friends and family? Is there danger involved?

This fascinating, fact-filled book answers these questions and more while providing a historical timeline, definitions of key terms, suggestions for further reading, an index, quizzes, and exercises to see if you have the right spy stuff. 

The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy is packed full of interesting information about the spy world and it explains why spies are important. “Every country wants to know what other countries—both friends and enemies—are doing and how it might affect their national interests.” Readers will learn about the world of spies through fun infographics that include spy terms, job descriptions, true stories, and quizzes. Readers will also learn about common spy myths and what a spy’s life is really like.  

Readers will also learn about other jobs within the spy world, such as people who create spy science and technology, a case officer, and an intelligence analyst. In addition, the book explains what qualities spies need and what steps to take in order to become a spy. While a spy’s life isn’t as exciting as James Bond portrays it, readers will still enjoy learning about dead drops, listening devices, and ciphers. After taking the quizzes, readers will know if a spy’s life is for them.   

The book’s conversational tone and graphic elements give the story an interesting flair. Every page has some type of graphic element including black and white illustrations, “Spy Speak” glossaries, lists, and/or bold red titles. Breaking up the text with these graphic elements makes the reading more enjoyable and presents facts in a way that makes them easy to remember. Even though the book’s topic is serious and the importance of intelligence gathering is highlighted, the book will not fail to entertain readers interested in the world of spies.  

As a former CIA operations officer and the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum, Peter Earnest uses his knowledge to teach readers about becoming a spy. By the end of reading The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy, readers will have a better understanding of the spy world and if they have what it takes to go undercover. Readers who want to jump into the exciting, but the fictional world of a group of young spies should read the City Spies Series by James Ponti.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • A timeline titled “How Long Have Spies Been Around?” includes spies who were executed for espionage. For example, “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. . . The Rosenbergs were members of an atomic spy ring whose espionage helped the USSR develop its own nuclear bomb.” 
  • “A defector from Russian intelligence dies of radiation poisoning in London.” The defector believed the Russian president planned his assassination. 
  • Sometimes countries kill enemy leaders. “This is called targeted killing, rather than assassination.” 
  • In order to stop terrorist attacks, President Bush declared “war on terror. . . Armed drones have also been used to attack terrorist strongholds and kill terrorist leaders. The terrorists also rely on their own intelligence capabilities and covert tradecraft to plan and carry out their deadly activities.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When the KGB suspected that one of its operatives was working for the British, they gave him a truth serum.  

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

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

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

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

Language 

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

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

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

The Hand on the Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

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

The Agathas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content  

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

Violence 

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

Profanity 

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

 Drugs/Alcohol 

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

Spiritual Content  

  • None  

Supernatural  

  • None  

The Vanishing Stair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

The Oracle Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content  

  • None

Violence  

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

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • None 

 Language   

  • None 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • None

Afterward

Ethan was kidnapped four years ago. But when his captor, Marty, brings home a new eleven-year-old boy named Dylan, the police break down Marty’s apartment door shortly after. Now, Marty is dead, and both boys are able to reunite with their families. Ethan’s parents are overwhelmed with relief at having found their only child alive after all this time. While very glad to be home, Ethan himself struggles to readjust after having lost four years of his life to captivity and trauma.

Afterwards switches back and forth between the perspective of Ethan and Dylan’s older sister, Caroline, who feels like she is the only one in her family willing to acknowledge what happened to her brother. Caroline observes, “It’s like my mom wants to act like everything is going to be okay if she just says it over and over enough.” To complicate matters, Dylan is nonverbal autistic, and since the family can’t afford therapy, they can’t understand his trauma. While her parents are attempting to sweep the whole incident under the rug, Caroline knows her brother is suffering and still needs to heal.

After several months, when the media’s cameras have faded away and the rest of the world has moved on, Caroline decides that there is only one person who can give her the information she needs to help Dylan—and herself—deal with the kidnapping. Slowly, a powerful friendship begins to form between the two teenagers who are suffering because of the pain inflicted by the same man.

Since each chapter of Afterward alternates between both Ethan’s and Caroline’s perspectives the reader is able to better understand their interactions with each other.  Readers will sympathize with Ethan as he describes the difficulty of returning to a normal life. He thinks, “I think I probably can’t be fixed at all.” The reader feels the heartache of his struggle and can easily root for him to overcome his trauma. Caroline is a bit more difficult to like. She is rather reckless, and at one point reignites Ethan’s trauma in an act of selfishness. However, Caroline’s more nurturing and considerate side is showcased in her relationship with her brother.

Ethan’s therapist, Dr. Greenberg is a lovely addition to the story as he is professional but personable and he’s the light that guides Ethan along the road to recovery. However, Dylan gets a bit lost in the narrative. Because he disconnects from the world, readers will find it difficult to connect with him. The story becomes more about Ethan and Caroline’s friendship than helping Dylan through the trauma he suffered. The closest the story gets to suggesting Dylan gets the help he needs is Caroline telling her mother that he needs therapy, and the reader can only hope they will find a way to afford it.

Afterward ends with some uncertainty about where the characters will go next. Nonetheless, Afterward is a difficult but heartfelt read that shows that recovering from trauma is possible. The story doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but it does handle them in a way that is respectful and manageable for a teen reader. Afterward would be a good read for older teens who are looking for a serious and mature story. Readers who want to explore another book that revolves around a kidnapping should read Pretend She’s Here by Luanne Rice.

Sexual Content

  • Caroline and Jason work together. Caroline describes kissing and “messing around” with Jason during breaks and after work. During one of their encounters, she describes him as delivering “these tiny, goosebump-inducing kisses and nibbles all over [my neck] that make my hair follicles go electric.” Then he pulls her to the ground and it is strongly implied that they have sex.
  • During work, Jason texts Caroline suggesting they hide behind one of the hay bales and “get nekkid.”
  • While musing over her blossoming friendship with Ethan, Caroline reveals that she has never been able to be just friends with a guy. Before Jason, Caroline “messed around” with three other boys.
  • Before he was kidnapped, Ethan was heading to his friend’s house. He was wondering if he could stay overnight and he became excited at the prospect of using Jesse’s binoculars to spy on his babysitter. He hopes that she’ll “take off her shirt and everything.”
  • While at a party, Caroline describes seeing two people “groping each other like two eighth graders under the bleachers.”
  • While intoxicated, Caroline takes off her shirt and tells Ethan to kiss her. He does; Ethan describes “getting hard” as they grope each other. He says, “her tongue is in my mouth, and she’s putting her hands on my shoulders and back.”
  • Kissing Caroline triggers memories of Ethan’s sexual trauma from his captivity. He remembers, “Hands on me. Rough hands. Big hands. Not stopping. Not when I pleaded for them to stop and then gave up when the pleading only made it worse.”
  • Dylan was likely sexually abused during his captivity, but it is not described. Caroline is disturbed when imagining “Dylan being touched or hurt.”
  • Ethan talks to his therapist about his abduction. Ethan says, “‘When I was with him, sometimes my body responded then, too. Even though I hated what was happening.’” He questions whether this means some part of him wanted the sexual acts.
  • When Caroline’s mother tells her that her father is having an affair, she says, “Your father is having sex with someone else.”

Violence

  • In an article detailing the boys’ reappearance, Ethan and Dylan’s captor, Marty, is described as dying of “a self-inflicted gunshot when authorities attempted to arrest him at his workplace.”
  • Ethan and Dr. Greenberg talk about the protesting of nukes in the eighties. Ethan thinks to himself, “People don’t talk about countries firing nuclear weapons much anymore. It’s just terrorists blowing shit up or people shooting up schools that freaks everybody out.”
  • Both Ethan’s and Dylan’s roadside kidnappings get described in detail and each description is about two pages in length. Both boys are held at gunpoint. Ethan recalls his captor telling “me to get down. Get on the floor, this is a gun on your neck.” Ethan describes, “The [gun’s] metal feels heavy on me. Heavier than the guy’s hand.” The weapon is never fired, and no physical injuries are noted.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ethan takes prescribed medications to ease his anxiety and help him sleep. At one point, he reveals he is taking four different prescriptions.
  • When they are together, Caroline and Jason often smoke weed and drink heavily spiked sodas. Caroline muses that Jason “only gets sweet and gentle when he’s high.”
  • Ethan recalls smoking weed at fifteen and possibly even younger.
  • While at a friend’s house, Caroline drinks Shiners from the fridge.
  • While her father is in the kitchen, Caroline takes a beer from the refrigerator “just to see if he’ll notice,” which he does not. She drinks half of it in her room and pours the rest out.
  • Caroline offer’s Ethan a swig of heavily spiked Diet Coke. This leads to the sexual encounter mentioned above.
  • Occasionally, adults are described as drinking beer.

Language

  • Dylan often repeats the phrase, “Damn, piece of cake.”
  • Occasionally, Ethan or Caroline will use the words hell, ass and fuck.
  • Shit and bullshit are said multiple times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • After Dylan’s return, Caroline prays to God, though she is uncertain if she believes in him. She thanks God for bringing her brother home.
  • Near the end of the story, she again thanks God, even though she is pretty sure she doesn’t believe in him.
  • Ethan and Dr. Greenberg discuss why people do and don’t believe in God. Dr. Greenberg mentions that he is Jewish, but doesn’t elaborate on his beliefs. They briefly discuss atheism and Unitarian Universalism, a religion that lacks a set of beliefs and “supports the idea of everyone being on their own faith journey.”
  • Ethan thinks back to the idea he had of God before his abduction and how he began to resent God for not answering his prayers for help in captivity.
  • During one of his sessions with Ethan, Dr. Greenberg refers to the novel, Cat’s Cradle. He explains the story’s fictitious religion that involves a belief that people are cosmetically linked in ‘karasses,’ or teams, to do a section of God’s will. Ethan thinks of being connected to Caroline and Dylan in this sense and wonders why fate would link them in such a terrible way.

by Erin Cosgrove

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

Everyone in Fairview thinks they know what happened: Andie Bell, the pretty and popular high school senior was murdered by her then-boyfriend, Sal Singh, who then killed himself. Five years later, Pip is not convinced that Sal is guilty. There are too many unanswered questions: Why was Andie’s body never found? Why would Sal kill Andie? Why would Sal kill himself?

While the case has officially been closed, all Pip sees are loose ends. With the help of Sal’s brother, Ravi, Pip tries to unravel the secrets of what happened in Fairview five years ago. Pip insists that Sal is innocent. Pip’s investigation becomes more than just a school project, putting not only herself but those who she loves in danger.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is a suspenseful, thrilling read that has short digestible chapters and tons of twists and turns. Jackson uses an interesting style of storytelling that combines a traditional third-person narration with journal entries from Pip’s point of view, interviews, police transcripts, maps, text messages, and much more. Oscillating between each point of view gives interesting insights into Pip’s character. Pip is a headstrong and determined young girl, who seems like she has her life fully put together, but she is far from that. Readers will relate to Pip who, as a teenager entering into adulthood, does not fully know who she is as a person or what she wants to do with her life.

Pip recognizes the racial bias that may have played a role in the suspected murder Sal faced. For example, when interviewing the reporter, Stanley Forbes, who heavily covered the original story, he explains to Pip “it’s always the boyfriend or the ex-boyfriend. Not only that Sal was Indian . . .  [T]hey have different ways of life from us . . . They don’t treat women quite like we do.” Bullying and its effects are also discussed heavily, as the murder victim, Andie, was a notorious bully who caused real harm to her victims.

The book also explores sexual relationships in various forms, including consensual and non-consensual sex, as well as relationships between older men and underaged girls. Sexual assault and rape, along with common misconceptions surrounding these topics, are also discussed. For example, at parties, girls’ drinks are being spiked. When Pip confronts the person who has been doing this (after she found out he drugged and raped a girl) he attempts to justify it by saying “but, like . . . she didn’t say no.” There are also heavy themes of teenage drinking which in many ways is normalized throughout the book.

Overall, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is an entertaining, suspenseful story with interesting twists and turns that readers will not see coming. The story examines the actions of a group of teenagers, who are not always the good kids they are perceived to be. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder also tackles the difficult topics of death, grief, teenage drug use and other mature topics. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is perfect for mystery lovers who are ready to explore mature topics.

Sexual Content

  • Pip jokes that her friend is “the daughter of a porn star.” Her friend responds by saying her father “only did one nude photoshoot in the eighties.”
  • Two of Pip’s friends are described as having “a failed fling last year that amounted to just four kisses and some drunken fumbling.” Later, it is revealed that they have recently kissed again.
  • A photo is found showing a boy “wearing nothing but a pair of black underwear.”
  • Andie claims that she has a sexual relationship with an older man, a janitor who works at the school and is about twenty.  Andie blackmails the man’s sister with this information.
  • When Pip goes to a party she observes the “dancers and the overenthusiastic kissers.”
  • When carving pumpkins, a friend notes Pip’s pumpkin looks like “a vagina on fire.”
  • Pip interrogates a suspect, Max, asking if he “drug[ged] and rape[d]” a girl at a party. He responds that he did put something in her drink “but, like… it wasn’t rape. She didn’t say no.”
  • Pip finds out Andie has been having a sexual relationship with one of her teachers, Mr. Ward. He explains “it only happened twice.”
  • Right before Pip’s press conference, Ravi, Sal’s brother who has been helping Pip with her investigation, “[leans] in to press his forehead against” Pip’s. The two then share a kiss.

Violence

  • The basis of this book is Pip’s investigation of a murder and an apparent suicide. Sal, the suspected murderer, is believed to have killed himself by “taking a huge dose of sleeping pills, and plac[ing] a plastic bag over his head, securing it with an elastic band around his neck. He suffocated while unconscious.”
  • The murder victim, Andie’s younger sister, Becca, is mentioned to have “been hospitalized for self-harming.”
  • Pip is interviewing someone who knows about the drug dealer in the town. When Pip tries to leave, he “[grabs] her wrist to pull her back.” Then, she “grab[s] his wrist with her other hand and squeezed, digging her nails into his skin.” She is able to get away.
  • Andie bullies another girl, Natalie, in her class, tricking her into recording and sending a topless video of herself. Andie posts this video online and “loads of other people were sharing it. The comments were horrible.”
  • After a night of drinking, Max and a few of his friends went to a party. When it was over, Max “who was just as drunk as [the rest of the group], was driving too fast up the highway. It was like four a.m. and there were no other cars on the road. And then… this man comes out of nowhere . . . he was standing well back on the shoulder . . . [and Max] lost control of the car.” Though the man did not die, “there was so much blood . . . and his legs were bent all wrong.” The group covered up the accident.
  • Pip’s dog is kidnapped and she is blackmailed for all the information in the case. The dog is found “in the river . . .drowned.”
  • When Pip confronts Mr. Ward, the teacher Andie was sleeping with, he reveals that he and Andie fought. Mr. Ward “just pushed her to get her to stop. . . she fell back and hit her head on [his] desk. Hard. And . . .she was on the floor and her head was bleeding.” Andie was conscious and when he went to go get a first aid kit she disappeared. Thinking she had died, the teacher attempted to cover his tracks by killing Sal.
  • In order to cover his crime, the teacher stole pills from Sal’s house, and forced Sal to swallow them. The teacher “held [a penknife] up to his neck.” When Sal “started to struggle . . . [the teacher] pinned him down and forced him to take more” pills.  As Sal “lost consciousness, [the murderer] put the bag around his head.” After Sal died, the killer framed him for Andie’s murder, placing blood under his fingernails and Andie’s phone in his car.
  • Months later, Sal’s killer thinks he saw Andie on the side of the road, “messed up on drugs . . . skinny and disheveled.” He kidnaps her and locks the girl in his attic. Unfortunately, this is not Andie but a troubled girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • After Andie escapes her teacher’s house, she walks home and is confronted by her sister, Becca. The two fight and Andie is cruel to her sister causing her to snap. Becca explains that Andie tried to push her out of the way and Becca “pushed her back . . .and [they] were both shouting and shoving and then . . . it was so fast . . . Andie fell back onto the floor . . . Her eyes were closed. And then she was being sick . . . her mouth was full, and she was coughing and choking on it. And [Becca] just froze.” Andie dies and Becca hides the body in a septic tank on a farm.
  • Becca drugs Pip. Pip runs away dazed and confused. When Becca catches up to Pip, Becca pushes her. Pip “[falls] onto her back in the leaves and mud.” As the two fight “Pip’s head [is] smashed against a tangled set of roots, a snaking trail of wet down her face, the iron-bit of blood in her mouth.” Because of the drugs and her injuries Pip is in and out of consciousness. Becca gets on top of her and begins to strangle Pip, but Becca has a change of mind and retreats. At this moment Pip is rescued. Just as she is saved Pip falls into unconsciousness, but she is safe. This scene lasts over four pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Teenage and underage drinking is mentioned heavily throughout the story. It is talked about in passing, but many of the main characters also are described as drunk. Pip’s parents allow her to go to a party and drink. Her dad tells her, “I want you to remember to be, at least, a little irresponsible.”
  • Sal takes his father’s sleeping pills. His father “was taking phenobarbitals for his insomnia.”
  • In order to find out who is selling drugs, Pip talks to someone who has drugs at a party. He rolls them a joint, pulling “out a small baggy of weed and a packet of rolling papers.” Pip pretends to take a few drags.
  • Andie sells drugs, including “weed, sometimes ecstasy, mephedrone, ketamine . . . and Rohypnol.” (Rohypnol is commonly used as roofies).
  • Pip finds out that there are “instances of drink spiking happening at . . . house parties.”
  • When Pip asks to be excused from the dinner table, her father jokes “some people have to worry about their kids rushing off from dinner to inject heroin into their eyeballs. Be thankful it’s homework.”
  • After she was drugged and raped, Becca wakes up and doesn’t know “what happened or with who.” Becca asks her friend to go with her to get “the morning-after pill.”

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes shit, asshole, fuck, bitch, and slut.
  • “Scum Family” is spray-painted on the house of the suspected killer.
  • After a friend’s breakup, someone says, “Boys are dicks.”
  • A girl says her dad “married the whore like right after the divorce” (referring to the woman he was cheating with).

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Mikaela Querido

 Pride and Premeditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Mikaela Querido

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