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

Nobody Knows but You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

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

by Erin Cosgrove

Dawn Patrol

Luca and Esme have more than monster waves to worry about.

When Kevin disappears, leaving only a cryptic note, his best friends Luca and Esme have no choice but to try and find him. Their journey takes them to the coast of Panama, where they confront monster waves, unfriendly locals and a surfer who seems bent on destroying them. As their hope dwindles and time runs out, Luca and Esme realize they may be in over their heads.

Because of the short length of the book, none of the characters are well-developed. However, the fast-paced mystery will still capture readers’ interest. The main plot focuses on Luca and Esme’s search for their missing friend. As the two friends search for clues, they meet Jose, whose strange behavior puts Luca and Esme on high alert. Between surfing monster waves, looking for clues, and trying to track down Jose, Dawn Patrol keeps the action and mystery high.

The story is told from Luca’s point of view. Readers will connect with Luca because he is an admirable character who is willing to go to great lengths to find his friend. The conclusion ends on a hopeful note but doesn’t wrap up all the story threads. Despite this, Dawn Patrol is a quick and easy read that will engage readers. As part of the Orca Sports collection, Dawn Patrol is perfect for reluctant readers because it uses a high-interest topic that will entertain teens and help them improve their reading skills.

Sexual Content

  • When talking to a girl, Luca tells her that he’s not interested in Esme. “Nor would I be interested in getting together in, um, that way with this Jose guy.”
  • Luca meets Alana and a few days later, “she leaned over and kissed me on the mouth.” Alana and Luca kiss two more times, but the kisses are not described.

Violence

  • While trying to chase down Jose, “a big guy in dark sunglasses ran out of a hut and barreled into us. . .I slipped and fell headfirst into the water. I popped up just in time to see Esme hit the water.”
  • Esme is kidnapped. When Luca finds the hut Esme is being held at, he tries to sneak up to it, but “Jose came out of the trees and tackled me to the ground. . . I was face-first in the dirt. I struggled to get away. Jose had his hand on the back of my head, pushing my face into the sand.” Luca gets away.
  • Kevin, Esme’s boyfriend, holds a knife toward Delgado, the man that kidnapped Esme. “Kevin hit Delgado’s throat with his forearm, dragged him to the ground, and smacked his head. There were tears on his cheeks.” Delgado lets Esme go.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • While in the village, Esme and Luca pass a group of people who are drinking beer.

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes ass, crap, damn, and hell.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Truly Devious #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Forbidden City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

She is Not Invisible

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

 

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

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

Spiritual Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

I’ll Never Tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Artemis Fowl #1

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

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

Spiritual Content

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

by Morgan Lynn

 

 

 

Take Me Home Tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

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

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Sara Mansfield

 

 

 

 

The Detective’s Assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

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

  Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

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

Spiritual Content

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

Charlie Thorne and the Lost City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

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

 

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

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

Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

 

The Disappearance of Sloane Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

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

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

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

 

Payback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

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

 Drugs and Alcohol

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

Language

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

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

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

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