Spy Files: Spy School

Do you have what it takes to go undercover and discover the secret world of espionage?    

Spy Files: Spy School stealthily slips into the shadows, exposing different types of spies, the training techniques of the secret service, and the fake identities and disguises they use. Discover the grisliest methods of interrogation and the greatest tales of escape. Unmask the celebrity with vital information in World War II. Reveal how a CIA disguise expert helped six diplomats escape from a hostage crisis.    

Packed with case studies, photographic evidence, and mug shots, readers will learn about shaking a tail, spy training, double agents, identity exchange surveillance, black-bag operations, and more.   

Spy School uses a fun format that breaks up information into small, manageable parts. Each two-page spread changes topics and each page has only one to three short paragraphs, plus photo captions. Each page has illustrations such as historical photos, drawings, and mug shots. Plus, some pages have an infographic titled “Top Secret” that gives additional information on spying. While the format will appeal to many readers, the large font and short paragraphs don’t allow each topic to be explored in detail. 

Spy School will whet the reader’s appetites with a wide range of spy-related topics. However, some readers may be disappointed by the book’s brevity, since each topic is covered in seven or fewer sentences. However, if you want to get a quick look into the spy world to see if it is truly like a James Bond movie, then Spy School is the book for you. Because of the wide range of topics, Spy School would also be good if you’re browsing for a more specific topic for a research paper. Readers who want a fictional book on cracking codes, stealing secrets, and dodging bullets should also sneak into the library and grab a copy of Spy School #1 by Stuart Gibbs.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Oleg Penkovsky was a double agent who was “interrogated and shot by the KGB.” 
  • KGB agent Ramon Mercader killed Joseph Stalin’s rival “with an ice pick.”  
  • An anti-Soviet Ukrainian was poisoned with “gas spray hidden in a newspaper.” 
  • During World War II, some spies were tricked. “One prisoner would be taken behind a truck and a shot fired. The other prisoner would become scared and talk. The trick was that the gun had only been fired at the ground.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In order to avoid being interrogated, “some spies carry deadly cyanide pills, to be used to prevent them breaking down under torture.” 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Code Name Badass: The True Story of Virginia Hall

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

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

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

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

Language   

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

Supernatural 

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

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Charlotte Spies For Justice: A Civil War Survival Story

Twelve-year-old Charlotte lives on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia, where the American Civil War is raging. All around her, citizens and the Confederate army are fighting to protect slavery — the very thing Charlotte wishes would end. When she overhears the plantation owner conspiring against the Confederates, Charlotte knows she must help. Maybe together they can help the Union win the war and end slavery. Helping a spy is dangerous work, but Charlotte is willing to risk everything to fight for what is right — justice for all people.  

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is full of action and suspense that focuses on the heroic deeds of many historical events. While Charlotte is fictional, she is a relatable character who shows bravery despite her fear. Several times, Charlotte visits Libby prison. Even though the story shows the harsh conditions of Libby prison and includes the death of several Union soldiers, no gruesome details are given. However, the story highlights Charlotte’s fear of being caught and harmed. Despite her fear, Charlotte is willing to risk her life to help the Union cause. She says, “I’m willing to give my life away if it helps free my people.”  

Even though Charlotte is a fictional character, many of the book’s characters are based on real people. This includes Elizabeth Van Lew, who gathered important information to pass along to the Union Army. Readers will be fascinated with the different ways Elizabeth Van Lew used to send messages, including using invisible ink and ciphers. She also hides messages in hollowed-out eggs, the heels of boots, and loaves of bread. Several times, Charlotte comments on Elizabeth Van Lew’s “odd” behavior; the author’s note explains that Elizabeth Van Lew’s strange behavior was another way she disguised her activities.  

Another historical spy is Mister McNiven. Despite being surrounded by war, Mister McNiven greets Charlotte each morning by saying, “It’s a good day to be alive.” At first, Charlotte doesn’t understand his optimism. However, she soon realizes Mister McNiven believes this because “he knew he was doing something important. He hoped for a better tomorrow and he was doing his part.” 

To make the story easy to follow, each chapter begins with Charlotte’s location and the date. Every ten to seventeen pages there is a black-and-white illustration that focuses on Charlotte’s activities. One illustration shows a Confederate soldier hitting Charlotte. The back of the book contains an author’s note that goes into more detail about the historical facts of Elizabeth Van Lew, a glossary, and three response questions to help readers connect to the reading material. 

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is an engaging story that shows how ordinary people were willing to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of all people. The story, which uses kid-friendly descriptions, is both educational and entertaining. Since the story is full of danger and action, it will appeal to a wide audience. Readers interested in historical fiction can also learn about the Underground Railroad by reading Long Road to Freedom by Kate Messner. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Charlotte goes to a prison holding Union prisoners. While there, she sees “a dead Union soldier. . . I caught a glimpse of his face. I could tell he had been beaten.” 
  • While delivering food to the prisoners, a Confederate soldier named Robert points a gun at Charlotte. Robert “walked toward me, put the barrel of his gun in my face, and cocked it.”  Another soldier, Erasmus Ross appears and grabs Charlotte’s face. “He squeezed even harder, and a sharp pain shot through my jaw.” Ross drags Charlotte outside. 
  • In order to protect Charlotte, Ross takes her outside and tells her, “I’m going to get you out of here, but I have to hit you.” He proceeds to backhand her. “It hurt, but not nearly as much as it should have. . . Mister Ross gave me a shove so hard it sent me to my knees.” As she was leaving, “a shot rang out behind me. I could only hope that Mister Ross had fired into the air.” 
  • After a prison break, Confederate soldiers “recaptured forty-eight Union soldiers. . . Two of them drowned.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Some people called Elizabeth Van Lew “Crazy Bet.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Before Takeoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

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

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

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

Language 

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

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual 

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

The Falcon’s Feather

In the exciting follow-up to The Nebula Secret in the seven-book Explorer Academy Series, Cruz, Sailor, and Emmett, along with their new ally Bryndis, embark on their first globe-trotting mission aboard the ship Orion. Cruz jumps right back into school and starts using the latest technology in submersible underwater dives, but is soon reminded of the dangers of exploration when his equipment fails and he almost drowns. Determined to keep his eyes on the prize, Cruz sneaks away to find answers but unknowingly lures his friends into bigger trouble. When a friend of Cruz’s mom meets an untimely end, Cruz’s luck seems about to run out and the questions multiply. What does his mother’s message mean? Where will it lead? Who is following him? And why?  

Cruz’s adventure takes him and his friends to the land of the Norse gods. While there, Cruz and his classmates are introduced to amazing technology that is prominently featured. The technology is interesting and gives The Falcon’s Feather the opportunity to educate readers on several different global threats facing our world, including melting glaciers, endangered whales, and the lack of biodiversity in crops. For example, Cruz and his team go on a mission to save whales trapped in fishing nets. Before they leave, they learn “it’s not uncommon for larger marine animals to get snagged in lines and nets. . . More than three hundred thousand whales, dolphins, and porpoises die this way every year—that’s one every two minutes.” The facts are well-integrated into the story and never feel like a lecture or an encyclopedia. 

The Falcon’s Feather combines a well-written story with maps and illustrations that appear every two to twelve pages. Many of the illustrations are a mix of photographs and drawings, which gives the pictures a touch of realism. Another positive aspect of the book is that the academy encourages cooperation, respect, and honor. While all the students do not necessarily like each other, they are still expected to work together to reach a common goal. Plus, the book includes a section titled The Truth Behind the Fiction, which combines pictures and short blurbs on people featured in the book who have interesting jobs. While this story recaps important plot points from the first book, the series should definitely be read in order. 

As the second installment of the Explorer Academy Series, The Falcon’s Feather ramps up the action and gives readers more insight into the different characters. The large cast of characters that appeared in The Nebula Secret are beginning to feel like friends. Plus, suspense is created because the reader knows there is someone inside the academy who wants Cruz dead. The Explorer Academy Series will appeal to many readers because it has mystery, technology, animals, and an interesting cast of characters. The Falcon’s Feather ends on a cliff-hanger, so readers will be eager to begin the next book in the series, The Double Helix.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Cruz and his friends help whales who are trapped in nets. The group learns that if whales are “unable to break free in time, it can lead to serious injury or even death. The ropes can slice through their skin and cause infection. They can deform bones, cut off part of a tail, and restrict breathing, swimming, and eating.” Many whales die due to nets. 
  • A friend of Cruz’s mom, Nóri, was planning to meet Cruz at a hot spring. When Cruz arrives, he discovers that Nóri was pushed into the hot pools and “badly burned…From the chest down, Nóri was wet and violently shivering.” Nóri dies from his injuries. 
  • While looking for an artifact in an ice cave, Cruz and his friends are cornered. “Cruz was facing two men. One was Officer Wardincorn. The other was Tripp Scarlatos. Both were holding guns.” The two men question the kids and then “Tripp tossed something round and green into the air. . . a massive boom rocked the cave. Ice began raining. Cruz could feel the sting of hundreds of shards pelting his head, neck, shoulders, and back.” No one is seriously injured. 
  • During a phone conversation, one of the villains reveals that his henchman “is dead. Fell into a crevasse.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Dang is used once.  
  • One of Cruz’s friends calls Tripp a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • When someone knocks on the door to Cruz’s room, his roommate quickly hides a vacuum. Cruz says “a silent prayer of thanks that [his aunt] insisted he bring it.” 

The Iron Tomb

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

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

Now all Sam has to do is find him first.

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

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

Language   

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

Supernatural 

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

Spiritual Content 

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

Fall of Hades

Now that the small island nation of Tuvalu has become the base of Dr. Hatch’s operations, Michael and the Electroclan plan to stop him by taking down the Elgen’s floating treasury, a ship named the Joule. In addition, Dr. Hatch’s remaining loyal electric children have turned against him. Before Hatch can have them executed for treason, Michael wants to rescue them, along with the innocent Tuvaluan citizens who have become prisoners on the island the evil doctor renamed “Hades.”

For Dr. Hatch, it seems like things are finally falling apart due to his number one in command, Welch, disappearing with the help of Quentin, his former favorite electric child. However, Hatch’s feelings change when he learns of the Electroclan’s plans. The Electroclan have enlisted a captain named J.D. to help them sink the Joule – but J.D. is on Hatch’s side. Hatch allows J.D. to go along with the Electroclan’s plan to infiltrate the island so the Electroclan is in his grasp.

A bloody battle ensues at a prison in Hades during an intense storm. A few of the Electroclan, such as Tanner and Gervaso, die in the fight. At the end of the book, Michael climbs a tower to get struck by lightning. The subsequent massive explosion ends the battle, though Hatch escapes from the island. The Joule is destroyed and Hades has fallen, but Michael, the symbol of hope for the resistance, is gone.

This installment of the Michael Vey series dedicates a large amount of time to the story’s minor characters, often skipping from the action to flashbacks or other characters’ dilemmas. While it can be distracting from the main plot, readers who have followed the story until now will want to keep reading to see if Michael can finally defeat Hatch. Because Michael is fighting an all-out war, the events may be difficult to connect to, but readers will likely sympathize with Michael’s motives. Michael believes that the best sacrifice is the one made for others, even if isn’t successful. He says, “I’m fighting a battle for humanity. Of course, I could die and not win any victory, but I think that’s got to be worth something too.”

Though this book ends with Michael’s disappearance, picking up the last book is a must. The most moving part of the story is Michael’s climb up the tower, where he reflects on the journey he has taken with his friends and family. “So many memories. Most of them recent, it seemed. I suppose I had lived more life in the last year than most people live in eighty. That was good. Because I knew mine was coming to an end.” The final book of the series, Michael Vey: The Final Spark explores what motivation remains for the Electroclan once Michael is gone and whether they can keep the fight alive in Michael’s memory.

Sexual Content

  • As part of Welch’s backstory, we learn that he fell in love with a girl named Mei Li despite the Elgen’s rule forbidding romantic relationships. Welch stays with her while he’s on the run, and they kiss.
  • Michael and Taylor are dating. They kiss a few times.
  • When Nichelle is getting a tattoo, the artist says, “What do you need, babe? I have a special for the ladies as long as it’s on lady parts.”
  • Jack recalls a time when he sent a girl a text that got him in trouble. “I sent a text to a girl that said I wanted to kiss her. Her father ended up on my doorstep with the police. The autocorrect had changed my text to I wanted to kill her.”
  • A captain named J.D. who is assisting the Electroclan takes an interest in Taylor. He calls her beautiful and kisses her hand. He says, “I might just have to keep this one for myself.” Michael remarks that Taylor looks uncomfortable with the comment and when he shakes the captain’s hand, he shocks him.
  • When the Electroclan find out that captain J.D. has sold them out, Taylor says, “he sold us all out for money. He wants the million-dollar bounty on Welch, and he asked Hatch if he could own me. As his pet.”

Violence

  • Michael tells a story about a railroad worker who was forced to decide between killing his son or killing innocent people to illustrate his dilemma in fighting the secret war against the Elgen. “There was a man who was in charge of switching the railroad tracks for the train. It was an important job because if the train was on the wrong track, it could crash into another train, killing hundreds of people. One evening, as he was about to switch the tracks for an oncoming train, [the man] suddenly heard the cry of his young son, who had followed him out and was standing on the track he was supposed to switch the train to. This was the dilemma – if he switched the tracks, the train would kill his son. If he didn’t, the people on the train, hundreds of strangers he didn’t even know, might die. At the last moment, he switched the tracks. The people on the train went on by, not even knowing the disaster they had missed or the little boy who had been killed beneath them.”
  • In a flashback about Welch’s past, Welch remembers the time when he was a delivery boy on a job bringing pizza to the Elgen headquarters when he stopped an ex-employee from vandalizing the building. “The vandal sprang from the garden, sprinting diagonally across the building’s front walkway in Welch’s direction. Instinctively, Welch dropped his pizzas and took off to intercept the man… Welch leveled the guy, who was barely half his size, with a waist-high tackle. Then he picked him up by the waist and carried him over to the front entryway, where there were now three security guards rushing out of the building… The [vandal] suddenly tried to free himself from Welch’s grasp. Welch belted him across the face, knocking him out.”
  • Torstyn, one of the electric children, is tortured by Hatch in a cell that is meant to keep him uncomfortable, including lights that are always on. There is also a screen that plays a video of rats devouring animals or humans every 15 minutes. Torstyn also has a RESAT on, a torture device specifically engineered for the electric children. Hatch uses it to cause him pain when he tells Torstyn that he intends to feed him to the rats. Hatch also tells Torstyn how he will die. “If you cooperate with me, I will see that you are anesthetized before going into the bowl. You will not feel those little mouths, bite by bite, eat away your life… I can also promise you that if you don’t cooperate, I will make sure that your vitals are well protected so that the furry little creatures will have to gnaw their way up your body cavity to end your life.” Hatch also says, “It was medieval torture, you know. During the Inquisition, the torturer would place rats in a cage on top of a prisoner’s body, then put hot coals on top of the cage. The rats would burrow through the body to escape the heat… If you fail to help me, you will be terrifyingly aware of every rat’s bite. Your head and eyes will be caged, so you can see your own skeleton as the rodents strip the flesh from your legs and arms to the bones. You will witness your own slow consumption.”
  • When Quentin says that Michael Vey might be able to stop Hatch, Hatch replies by saying that he will feed Quentin Michael’s flesh. Hatch later says, “Today I will feast on my enemy” when he learns that Michael is coming for him.
  • When Quentin is put in a monkey cage like the former Prime Minister, he glimpses the former Prime Minister. “He looked more animal than human. He was pale and ill and had lost enough weight that his ribs seemed to stretch his skin. He was covered with filth and fleas and blood, as he bore dozens of bite marks [from the monkeys].”
  • Taylor’s father, Mr. Ridley, is shot in a confrontation with recreational hunters near the ranch the Electroclan are hiding at. Michael shocks them in retaliation. “I pulsed, and a massive blue-gold wave of electricity exploded, knocking Taylor and all four of the hunters to the ground… In the dark I could see something black around Mr. Ridley’s stomach.” Taylor also uses her powers to hurt the hunters. “The hunters were all on the ground rolling around, moaning in pain… two of them started screaming.”
  • The doctor that arrives at the scene wants Michael to cauterize Mr. Ridley’s bullet wound by shocking it. “I looked down at the mass of blood. The bullet wound was about the diameter of a dime and slightly ragged… I pulsed. Mr. Ridley’s body tensed… I could feel his blood boil against my finger. The pungent stink of burning blood filled the air.”
  • A few of the kids, including Michael, Jack, Ostin, and Nichelle, get mugged on their way back from a tattoo parlor. Michael attacks the mugger. “I blasted him up against the wall of the building behind him. His gun went off from the pressure of my pulse, but the strength of my pulse stopped the bullet in midair. The man fell to the ground.” He is only knocked unconscious.
  • Taylor and Jack punish a guard who hurt McKenna when the Elgen tracked them down. “She closed her eyes, and the man began shaking. When she stopped, he had a blank expression. Suddenly Jack walked up to the man and punched him, knocking him over… Then he walked around punching each of the terrified guards.”
  • When the Electroclan rescues Quentin, they have to dispose of some guards. Michael shocks them. “I reached out and pulsed. A massive wave blurred the air, sizzling with the rain it devoured. Both of the guards were knocked off their feet.”
  • When J.D. reveals that he gave them up, Zeus and Michael want to hurt him. Though they don’t, J.D. says that Hatch intends to kill them and has “special plans” for Michael: Hatch intends to eat him with a special cannibal fork used by the Fiji people called the ai cula ni bokola. J.D. says, “The general plans to serve you for the feast to celebrate the end of the resistance.”
  • A long battle ensues on the island of Tuvalu for control of a prison. Gervaso, the head of the resistance’s military operations, is shot and sacrifices himself in his final moments. “A gun opened fire, hitting Gervaso in the chest and knocking him back onto the dock… Gervaso feebly lifted his handgun but was hit two more times by Elgen bullets as the squad stepped up onto the dock… The front guard, barely older than twenty, walked on the blood-soaked dock until he was next to Gervaso. He pointed his gun at the back of Gervaso’s head. ‘Good-bye, man.’ Gervaso rolled over to look the young guard in the eyes. In his hand Gervaso held a grenade, its pin already pulled. ‘Yeah, good-bye.’ ‘Hit the deck!’ the guard shouted, but it was too late.  The grenade blew, igniting the chain of explosives. The entire dock exploded in a blinding flash.”
  • At another point in the battle, Michael is terrified due to the gruesome scene. “The dark grounds below us were chaos. The screaming of fallen prisoners echoed amid the hellish landscape of rain, smoke, and fire. The Elgen forces flowed in like demon shadows, darkening a courtyard lit only by gunfire or grenades. Occasionally, lightning would strike, illuminating the grounds for a second, like a strobe, capturing the dying and killing in frozen, violent stances.”
  • During the battle, to turn the tide in their favor, Ostin releases the rats who then eat the Elgen soldiers. “The ravenous rats swept across the yard in a powerful, glowing surge, running at guards, drawn to them by the smell of death and meat… The swarm of rats broke against the men like a wave hitting the shore, covering and devouring them, pouring over each other, as the guards were stripped of their flesh… The sounds of screams and machine guns echoed in the distance.”
  • Tanner, one of the electric children, dies in battle when they are being bombed. Michael is with Tanner in his final moments. “Through the smoke I could see Tanner lying on top of a desk against the west wall. His arm was dangling over the side, and I could see blood dripping from his fingers… He was mostly covered in the chalky plaster of the wall, except where the red of his blood had seeped through and stained his clothes and the dust crimson. There were holes all over his body. Shrapnel… Somehow Tanner was still conscious. His chin quivered, and a thin stream of blood fell down from the corner of his mouth… He looked into my eyes. Then his gaze froze and his hand went limp.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Hatch occasionally drinks alcohol. He also takes sleeping pills in unhealthy amounts.
  • It is mentioned that Welch’s parents were drug addicts. Later, when asked to drink alcohol, Welch declines. He says, “My biological father was an alcoholic. I figured I inherited his genes.” Eventually, Hatch forces Welch to have a glass of alcohol when he becomes part of the company. He takes a sip of wine.
  • Welch smokes once in the book. Welch says, “I hope I get to die slowly of cancer.”
  • J.D. admits that he gave up the Electroclan because he needs money for drugs. His former friend, Gervaso, calls him a “junkie.” J.D. replies, “After I got shot saving you, they put me on painkillers. I got addicted. When the painkillers stopped working, I needed something stronger.”

Language

  • Occasionally the kids use insults like “stupid,” “freak,” and “idiot.”

Supernatural

  • The focus of the Michael Vey series is on seventeen Electric children with electricity-related powers. A full dossier is available in the front of the book. For example, Michael can pulse like an electric eel, Mckenna can create light and heat, and Taylor can use electrical brain signals to read minds.

Spiritual Content

  • Michael thinks about dying occasionally in the book. “Lately I’ve been wondering where Wade is – you know, the whole death thing. Life after life. Where do we go after we die? Or is this it and when we’re done, we’re done? I don’t know. It’s possible that Wade and my father are hanging out right now, watching us. Cheering us on. Maybe… I guess one day everyone finds out what death is about.”
  • When Hatch finds Welch, he remarks on it spiritually. “Hatch couldn’t believe his good fortune. ‘And to think I said there is no God.’”
  • Jack once says “choke on that karma.”
  • Michael quotes from the Bible. “As we walked off the dock onto the island, I felt a dark, eerie feeling of desolation. A line from the Bible came to me: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
  • When Tanner is dying, he comes to terms with killing others. Michael says, “It wasn’t your fault. It was never your fault. Hatch made you do it.” Tanner replies, “Maybe. . . God will see it that way.”
  • When Michael climbs the tower, he shouts “to the gods of lighting” to strike him. He also says, of getting shocked, “I felt what it feels like to be God. But I’m no god.”

by Maddie Shooter

The Nebula Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

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

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Dark Waters

Until next time. That was the chilling promise the smiling man made to Ollie, Coco, and Brian after they last outsmarted him. And as the trio knows, the smiling man always keeps his promises. So when the lights flicker and a knock sounds at the door, there can only be one explanation: he’s back and a frightening new game is afoot.

But before the three friends can unravel the smiling man’s latest nightmarish scheme, they set sail on Lake Champlain, where it’s said Vermont’s very own Loch Ness monster lives. Brian is thrilled. He hasn’t sailed since visiting family in Jamaica, and even the looming threat of the smiling man can’t put a damper on what is guaranteed to finally be a day of fun—even if it is awkward being stuck on a boat with his former best friend, Phil, and his new best friends, Coco and Ollie. But when the crew finds themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island and hunted by a monster on both land and sea, fun becomes the last thing on their minds. The smiling man has at long last set the stage for a perilous rematch. But this time, Brian is ready to play.

Unlike the first two installments of the Small Spaces Quartet, Dark Waters’ worldbuilding isn’t as believable. When the kids go through a rain squall, they are transported behind the veil. However, at first, the kids refuse to believe they are in danger. While the story implies that the smiling man is responsible for the kids’ plight, he never makes an appearance. Instead, the ghost of a man who died hundreds of years before is one of the central figures. While the ghost’s story thread explains the mysterious island, the man’s appearance does little to advance the plot. Likewise, Brian’s friend Phil is added to the cast of characters. However, he does not add any depth to the story.

Readers will also miss Ollie, who quickly fades from the story because she refuses to leave her sick father’s side. This allows Brian to take center stage. Unfortunately, Brian doesn’t use his knowledge to beat the smiling man. Instead, Brian and his friends do little more than run from both the ax man and the snakes. Brian never interacts with the smiling man. Even though Brian keeps his friends safe, but he doesn’t discover a way to get off the island.

Through Phil’s character, the story hints that honesty is important. This is reinforced when “Brian belatedly realized that if you told a lot of lies, even if it was for a good reason, like trying to keep people safe, it started to get hard to trust that other people were telling the truth.” Despite this, Brian and the other kids never tell the adults the true reason they are on the island. Another negative aspect of the story is that Ollie makes a bargain with smiling man in order to save her father’s life. However, she makes this decision without consulting anyone else, she hides her actions until the last moment, and the conversation between Ollie and the smiling man is not described. The conflicting message is confusing and leaves the reader wondering what would have happened if the kids had been honest.

In the end, Dark Waters is disappointing because the kids do little to solve the problems that arise. Plus, the characters’ behaviors are not consistent. Readers who loved the first two books in the story may have a difficult time wading through Dark Waters, especially because the dynamic between Ollie, Coco, and Brian changes which is one of the main appeals of the series.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A giant water snake jumps out of the water. “The silver thing lunged, mouth wide, going for Phil’s hand. Would have gotten it too. If Mr. Adler hadn’t put his whole arm in front of Phil, shoved him unceremoniously to the deck, and gotten bit himself instead. . .”
  • The water snake attacks the boat, causing it to begin to sink. “A groaning of metal as though—as though something big was trying to get into the boat. Or get farther into the boat. Metal shrieked. . . Rising out of the murky, swirling water. A giant pink mouth, wide open packed with teeth as long as his forearm.”
  • When the water snake attacks the boat, it is implied that it killed Phil’s uncle, Mr. Dimmonds. “Their bags, full of all their gear, were floating already in the surge. And . . .and there was Mr. Dimmonds’s blue-striped beanie, floating too. . . the beanie sank. It had tooth marks in it.”
  • The kids put a decoy life raft into the water and “then there was a sudden boiling froth of water under the decoy raft, and the whole thing went flying into the air. A snapping mouth attached to a glittering silver body came flying up after it.”
  • The kids and two adults board a life raft and float toward an island. When they near the island, they see “a dripping silver head, a mouth crowded with teeth, rearing up out of the water. The head was bulging and barnacles, the eyes huge and filmy and blank. The mouth opened wide.” Everyone makes it safely onto the island.
  • Phil realizes that Brian remembered what happened with the scarecrows (in book one). Upset, Phil “punched him. It wasn’t a very good punch, more a shove, but it took Brian by surprise and dropped him.”
  • While exploring the island, the kids find a cabin with a skeleton in it. “The rest of the skeleton was covered by a blanket, except for one arm. The skull lay on a moldy pillow, fallen sideways, turned toward them.”
  • The “ax” man, who turns out to be a ghost, offers to “ax” the kids. He says, “Better the ax than what’s coming for you.”
  • While the kids are in the forest, they hear the chime of metal. Then, Brian sees “ten feet of snake had unwound itself from a branch overhead. Its open cotton-pink mouth was four feet away, jammed with teeth.” The kids run and climb a tree.
  • The snake starts to climb the tree so Brian tried to “break off a pine cone, and hurl it down. . . the pine cone bounced off the snake’s nose.”
  • The kids, who are still stuck in the tree, need to get the snake to leave, so Phil “grabbed the last flaming pine cone, and pitched it down with a lot of force and accuracy right into the thing’s eye. . . Now the snake was really enraged . . . it lunged higher yet, wrapping its body around the trunk of the tree, jaws going wide. . . Phil pitched the log straight into the snake’s open mouth. . . Then the jaws slammed shut and the snake recoiled, all the way back down to the ground.” The kids finally escape.
  • The kids find a captain’s log that talks about a sailor who was “lost while attempting to cast a fishing line just offshore. The monstrous snake reared up out of the water and snatched him.”
  • The captain’s log tells about some of the men who tried to leave the island in a boat. “Grieved to report the destruction of the lifeboat Emily, with all hands. . . then a smashing sound as the boat was flung into the air. The men came down into the water, and they had not chance even to drown, for the serpent plucked them out like so many fish and swallowed them down.”
  • The ghost tells the story of how his men died. “They hadn’t made it to the boat at all, they were just gone—swallowed whole, like rabbits.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • In total oh God, oh my God, and Jesus are used as exclamations six times.
  • Freaking is used twice.
  • Brian calls the snake a jerk.

Supernatural

  • Ollie’s watch helped the kids in the last two books, but this time, “after a second, as though the watch—the ghost of Ollie’s mom—whatever animated the watch—was reluctant, the screen shifted and became a compass.”
  • In each book, the kids go into a different world. “. . . Mist and water and through mirrors, that was how you went from world to world.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

Dead Voices

 

Ollie, Brian, and Coco have had their fill of frightening experiences. After their narrow escape from the smiling man and his sinister scarecrows during their class field trip last fall, they are ready for some fun. Skiing at Mount Hemlock sounds promising, but their enthusiasm quickly dims as a snowstorm traps them at the loge with only their parents and Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, for company.

Strange things start happening. Coco is seeing shadowy figures, Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls, and Brian is positive that the stuffed bear in the lobby was on its hind legs when they arrived—not on all four.

Their fun-filled trip is quickly turning into another terrifying encounter with another dimension. There are ghosts at Mount Hemlock and their voices are demanding to be heard, but the price of listening may be too high.

In this haunting follow-up to Small Spaces, Ollie, Coco, and Brian must rely on their friendship and sharp minds if they are to survive their next harrowing adventure. Readers who are ready to be frightened will enjoy seeing Ollie and her friends go up against the smiling man one more time. However, Dead Voices increases the fear factor because both the living and the dead use deception to try to lure the children into Mother Hemlock’s frosty arms.

Unlike Small Spaces, Dead Voices focuses more on Coco’s point of view. While Ollie plays a main role in the story, Brian disappears early on, leaving Coco responsible for saving Ollie. This shift gives the book a new perspective and allows the reader to see how Coco is often misjudged because of her small size. Because Coco appears childlike, she is underestimated. However, she is a master at chess, which has taught her to look at a problem from many angles. It is this skill that allows Coco to beat the smiling man and free Ollie.

In the first book of the Small Spaces Quartet, Ollie and her friends spent most of their time running from danger. However, Dead Voices increases the suspense by increasing the danger. In addition, the ghosts are more frightening both in appearance and in their actions. Ollie meets a ghost, who appears to be friendly and helpful, but instead leads her into a trap. And when the smiling man makes an appearance, the reader learns that he is capable of completely changing his appearance, which allows him to disguise himself and trick Ollie into being trapped behind the mirror. To make matters worse, the smiling man puts all the other adults into an unwakeable sleep, thus making the kids rely on themselves.

Dead Voices is an action-packed ghost story that includes mystery, ghosts, and a deceptive villain that readers will love to hate. The simple plot leads readers into a creepy world where Mother Hemlock wants to make Ollie sleep forever. Dead Voices is perfect for middle-grade readers who want to be frightened without the graphic images that often appear in YA books. Readers who enjoy scary stories should also read Nightbooks by J.A. White and The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Ollie and her friends meet a ghost named Gretel. While alive, Gretel would wander the orphanage where she lived. One day, Mother Hemlock, “hauled her upstairs, and locked the girl in a closet. . . Gretel was afraid of the dark. She screamed and screamed, but no one came. . . the little girl had died of fright.” Throughout the story, Gretel says she is looking for her bones.
  • After Gretel died, Mother Hemlock “threw herself out the attic window in remorse.”
  • Mother Hemlock grabs Ollie who “thrashed in the thing’s grip, head-butted her, bit her horrible tasting arm, let her legs go limp so that she was dragged across the floor. . . Ollie felt panic starting to choke her.”
  • In order to get away from Mother Hemlock, Ollie lunged “with all her strength, and grabbed a fistful of hot coals. She shoved them up at Mother Hemlock’s grayish, furious face. Mother Hemlock fell back, smoldering, screeching.” Ollie escapes and runs to hide.
  • A dead bear comes alive and chases Ollie. “As Ollie watched, frozen, the dead bear fell to all fours. Licked its chops. Then, creaking, the dead bear charged. . . [Ollie] raced through the dining room. The footsteps of the dead bear sounded close behind her, and she could smell its reek: a combination of dust and formaldehyde.” Later, the bear chases Ollie again.
  • Dead coyotes come alive and chase Brian and Coco. Brian pulls Coco “up the stairs just as howls broke out from every part of the lobby and the shadows seemed, all at once to leap from the stairwell. . . There was a louder clatter of dog nails as dead paws slipped on the lobby floor.” As they are running from the coyotes, the kids get separated.
  • In order to help Ollie, Gabe (a ghost) “had thrown an old sack of some kind over Mother Hemlock’s head. She was groping around in a fury trying to get it off.”
  • Mother Hemlock grabs Ollie. “To her horror, Ollie felt her eyelids growing heavy. . . Frost was stealing up over her eyes, sealing them shut. Ollie screamed when she felt the frost creeping up over her own face.” Ollie falls asleep.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Coco says, “We’re about to have a pretty darn rough night.”
  • Coco calls the smiling man a jerk.

Supernatural

  • Ollie’s dead mother is able to communicate with Ollie through her watch. Ollie explains, “My watch helps me . . . My watch was—it was my mother’s. I think she talks to me with it. I think she’s trying to warn us now.”
  • Ollie and her friends see many ghosts. The main ghost, Gretel, wore “a long white nightgown. Her face was gray-white; her nose was black. Her eyes were frozen open, huge and unblinking.” Gretel says she is looking for her bones.
  • The kids are told that some ghosts “act. They want something. That’s when they’re dangerous, when they want something.”
  • When Ollie looks into a mirror, a ghost is able to grab Ollie’s hand. “A creeping horror started to overtake her: a feeling that if she stayed there long enough, she would become a reflection instead of a girl. She felt herself take an involuntary step toward that dark mirror, then another.” Mr. Voland breaks the connection by breaking the mirror.
  • Voland uses an Ouija board to communicate with the dead. Ollie thinks her mother is using the Ouija board to talk to her; however, Mr. Voland was using the Ouija board to trap Ollie behind the mirror.
  • Ollie looked into a mirror and saw a woman. “She was blue-lipped and black-nosed. . . When she smiled at Ollie, her teeth were sharp. . . Ollie tried to yank away, but black-nailed fingers had curled out of the mirror glass, catching her hand and holding it.” Ollie is pulled into the world behind the mirror.
  • When Coco and Brian get separated, she hears Brian’s voice coming from behind a lot of hallway doors.” Coco doesn’t find Brian, but Ollie’s watch leads her down a steep staircase.
  • Gabe, a ghost, cannot speak because his mouth is frozen shut. However, he uses a Ouija board to talk to Coco and Ollie.
  • Coco and Ollie need to find out how the world behind the mirror is connected to the real world. Ollie thinks, “Gretel is on this side. Gretel’s bones are somewhere on Coco’s side. The ghost and her bones are connected. If Gretel stands in front of a mirror on my side, and her bones are reflected in the same mirror on Coco’s side, then a door will open.” Gretel’s bones are never found, but Coco finds another way to open the door.

Spiritual Content

  • Brian says, “Dead people—they’re gone. We aren’t meant to talk to them.” Because of Brian’s comment, Ollie thinks Brian is Catholic. “It came out at odd moments.”
  • Mother Hemlock is closing in on Coco, who yells for Brain. Coco prayed “that Brian could hear.”

 

Gallant

Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for Girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home to Gallant. Yet when Olivia arrives, no one is expecting her. But Olivia is not about to leave the first place that feels like home; it doesn’t matter if her cousin Matthew is hostile, or if she sees half-formed ghouls haunting the hallways.

Olivia knows that Gallant is hiding secrets, and she is determined to uncover them. When she crosses a ruined wall at just the right moment, Olivia finds herself in a place that is Gallant—but not. The manor is crumbling, the ghouls are solid, and a mysterious figure rules over all. Now, Olivia sees what has unraveled generations of her family and where her father may have come from.

Olivia has always wanted to belong somewhere, but will she take her place as a Prior, protecting our world against the Master of the House? Or will she take her place beside him?

As a gothic, ghost story Gallant is surprisingly dull and unexciting. While Olivia can see “ghouls” and communicate with them through her thoughts, none of the ghouls she encounters are developed in detail. Instead of being interesting, the ghouls fade into the background and they evoke little emotion. Even though Olivia learns that she can communicate with ghouls, she doesn’t try to initiate a conversation with her dead uncle, who obviously killed himself. She also doesn’t try to communicate with her dead mother, who could answer many of her questions. Because of this, Olivia’s gift is not fully developed or explored.

Olivia is an interesting and unique protagonist, who is non-verbal and communicates only through sign language. This caused her childhood to be lonely and unpleasant. Not only does she have to struggle with being abandoned at Merilance, but she also has to deal with the other children who are cruel, and the matrons who are indifferent. Because of this, Olivia is willing to go to Gallant, even though her mother has warned her to stay away.

While the story has some interesting story threads—what happened to Olivia’s parents, why should she stay away from Galant, why can she see ghouls—none of them are well developed. Even though Olivia encounters the personification of Death, his soldiers, and other ghouls, the story only evokes mild curiosity, contains little suspense, and little scare factor. In addition, the conclusion is lackluster and depressing. In the end, the reader is left wondering why Olivia would stay at Gallant. Readers who are looking for an exciting paranormal story should read Schwab’s other series, The Archived, or The Breathless by Tara Goedjen.

Sexual Content

  • Sometimes boys would “linger at the edge of the gravel moat,” trying to get the girls’ attention. One day, Olivia goes to talk to a boy and “he kissed her, she waited to feel whatever her mother had felt for her father the day they met, the spark that lit the fire that burned their whole world down. But she only felt his hand on her waist. His mouth on her mouth. A hollow sadness.”

Violence

  • Anabelle, a girl at Merilance, tears pages out of Olivia’s mother’s journal. Olivia “fell on Anabelle, finger wrapped around her throat. Anabelle yelped, and Olivia squeezed until the girl could not speak, could not breathe, and then the matrons were there, pulling them apart.”
  • To get back at Anabelle, Olivia “went down into the cellar. . . she managed to fill the jar with beetles, and spiders, and half a dozen silverfish. She added a handful of ash from the head matron’s hearth.” Olivia dumps the content on Anabelle’s head.
  • Olivia cannot yell and she wonders if pain could free her voice, so she cuts herself. “The cut was deep. Blood welled and spilled onto the counter, and heat screamed up her arm and through her lungs, but only a short, sharp gasp escaped her throat, more emptiness than sound.”
  • In a dream, Olivia witnesses her uncle’s death. “The gun swings up against his temple. . .” then Olivia wakes up.
  • While in Death’s world, a ghoul pushes Olivia away. “And then a blade sings through the ghoul’s back, and it staggers, and Olivia knows the ghoul cannot die, knows it is already dead, but the sight of the metal spilling out of its chest, its knees buckling silently to the dirt, still sends a shock of horror through her bones.”
  • In order to get out from behind the wall, someone killed Matthew’s brother. “The door on the other side was soaked with blood. There was so much of it. Too much. Someone had painted the door with my brother’s life. Covered every iron inch . . . But that thing slaughtered my brother for nothing. Only a Prior’s blood can open the door, but it has to be willingly given.”
  • Olivia goes behind the wall, hoping to find Matthew’s brother. When she sees Death, “Olivia spins, drawing the blade. She doesn’t wait, but twists and drives the knife into his chest.” The knife doesn’t hurt Death.
  • Death tries to subdue Olivia, who “fights like a girl set loose on the world with nothing and everything to lose. But it’s not enough. A gauntlet closes over her wrist, flinging her into a plated chest, and the last thing she sees is the gleam of an armored shoulder as the third shadow looms.”
  • Olivia takes a piece of bone and “the sliver of bone becomes a beak, becomes a skull, becomes a crow, muscle and skin and feathers.” Olivia tells the crow to attack Death. “Olivia is on her feet, racing toward the door, even as she hears him pluck the bird from the air, the brittle snap of its neck. . .”
  • In a multi-chapter conclusion, Olivia and Matthew fight Death. Death captures Olivia. “His embrace tightens until she cannot move, cannot breathe. Her bones groan, and she lets out a stifled gasp.” Matthew comes through the door to help Olivia.
  • One of Death’s soldiers goes after Matthew, who “slashes out with his blade, but the wolfish soldier dodges lithely and kicks him in the chest. He collapses to his hands and knees, gasping for breath . . . The soldier lowers the dagger to his throat.”
  • One of Death’s soldiers grabs Olivia, “she writhes and tries to breathe, tries to think and time slows down. . . She slams her head back into the soldier.” Olivia is able to free herself and grab one of the soldier’s weapons. “The soldier rears back, but Olivia is already swinging, bringing the sword down a third time, carving deep into his shoulder. The collarbone comes free. . . he is already falling back into dust as the bone hits the grass.”
  • In order to save Olivia’s life, Matthew “pushed her out of the way the instant before the sword cut down. Matthew, who leans in the doorway, the blade driven through, the point jutting like a thorn from his back.” Matthew dies.
  • When death finds a way into the living world, Edgar “aims at Death a second time and fires, the bullet melting in the air above his floating cloak.”
  • Olivia calls on the ghouls, who “close over [Death] like ivy, their edges dissolving into one teeming mass of shadow as they force him back through the garden, back through the open door, back beyond the wall.” Then Olivia seals the door with her blood.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • One of the matrons at Merilance hides a bottle of brandy in a drawer.
  • In order to help Matthew sleep, Edgar drugs him.

Language

  • Damn is used once.

Supernatural

  • Olivia can see “ghouls.”
  • There is a stone wall at the back of Gallant’s garden. At night, a person can walk around the wall, but they end up in a different world—a world where Death lives. Olivia’s mother once went around the wall and saw Death “with his four shadows and his dozen shades, all silent in the bones of the ruined house.”
  • When Olivia crosses the wall, she sees “the shriveled remains of a garden. Withered limbs and wilting blooms, their petals, pale, their leaves devoid of color. . . And there, at the top of the ruined garden, sits another Gallant.”
  • In Death’s world, Olivia has the ability to give life. When Olivia picks up a tooth, it “jumps. Shudders like a bee against her palm. . . by the time it hits the ground, it is not a writhing bit of bone, but a mouse.”
  • Olivia meets Death. “His skin is not creased, yet here and there it peels away, the polished bone beneath showing through like stone under thinning ivy. And that is how she sees that there are pieces of him missing. . . The joint of one finger. The edge of one cheek. . .”
  • Death watches a group of people dancing. Death dances with a woman. And then, “the dancer crumbles against him, her body sagging into ash and he sighs. . . A pale white fragment shines on the wooden floor where the dancer stood . . . then it rises and tucks itself against the tear along his jaw, and she realizes it was a shard of bone.” Then other bones return to Death’s body and flesh regrows over the bones.
  • Matthew explains how his family, the Priors made the demon go back beyond the wall. The Priors “put the wall back up. And this time, they soaked it edge to edge in their blood and swore that nothing would ever cross that gate without their blessing.”

Spiritual Content

  • At Merilance, Olivia “was told to kneel and knit her fingers and speak to a God she couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t touch. . . She never believed in higher powers.” But when she meets death, she prays to the ghouls for help and they come.

Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra

After tracking down incredible discoveries by Einstein and Darwin, Charlie is back. This time, the great ruler Cleopatra has left behind an extremely valuable and powerful treasure, its location encoded on an ancient stone tablet.

In 30 BCE, Cleopatra and her husband, Marc Antony, lost their war against Octavian for control of the Egyptian Empire. However, Cleopatra knew Octavian was really after the mysterious item that was the source of all her wealth and influence, so she hid it before committing suicide. She left a series of devious clues behind for her children to find, but they were lost to history. . .until now.

In a breathless adventure that takes her across the globe, Charlie must fight for her life against ruthless enemies, match wits with Cleopatra, and solve the two-thousand-year-old mystery to prevent the most powerful treasure of the ancient world from falling into the wrong hands. 

Because the story revolves around finding Cleopatra’s hidden treasure, the story contains many historical facts about Cleopatra, Caesar, and other important people. The history lessons are not boring; the interesting facts help the reader understand the political issues surrounding Cleopatra and will help readers empathize with Cleopatra, who was misjudged because she was a woman.  

Charlie is an extremely likable character, who is intelligent, capable, and brave. In order to keep Cleopatra’s treasure out of the wrong hands, Charlie puts her trust in her half-brother and CIA agent, Dante, and his partner, Milana. Along the way, they must avoid both the CIA, the Israeli, and the Egyptian agents who are willing to kill to take control of Charlie. Despite being chased around the globe, Charlie is remarkably down to earth. At one point, when the Israelis capture her, she tells the agent, “If you were actually nice people, you wouldn’t have dragged me down into the bowels of the Colosseum to talk to me. You would have taken me out for gelato.” 

Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra is best suited for older readers because of the violence, power-hungry villains, and deadly agents who are trying to capture Charlie. The action-packed story has a complicated plot, intense fight scenes, and life-or-death chases. The constant danger makes for an exciting book that readers will not want to put down. The mystery of Cleopatra adds an interesting dimension that will engage readers. Readers who are looking for another fast-paced mystery should check out the City Spies Series by James Ponti and the Secrets of the Seven Series by Sarah L. Thomson.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Charlie sneaks into Ahmet’s office. When he appears, “Charlie tricked him into turning his back on her. Now she clamped the chloroform-soaked rag. . . over his nose and mouth. . . He tried to fight back. . . Charlie simply leapt onto his back as if he were giving her a piggyback ride, wrapping her arms around his head and keeping the rag pinioned directly over his face.” Ahmet collapses to the floor. 
  • While leaving Ahmet’s party, two bodyguards chase after Charlie. Before she can take off on a motorcycle, Charlie “headbutted another man who was trying to catch her.” She escapes the house but is followed. 
  • Hoping to lose her pursuer, Charlie drives into the desert and allows her motorcycle to fly over a sand dune. Then, Charlie sees “the stocky, muscular shape of his body. He was aiming a gun at her.” The man forces Charlie to surrender. The chase scene is described over two chapters. 
  • The men who captured Charlie encounter a roadblock. “And then the shooting started. The snipers were aiming at the tires of the van, and they were extremely accurate. All four tires were blown out within seconds.” Charlie is let go. 
  • The Egyptian secret service questions Charlie’s captor, Semel. When Semel doesn’t answer the questions, “someone clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of a rifle. Not hard enough to knock him unconscious but close. He saw stars, felt blinding pain, and fell forward in the dirt.” 
  • While interrogating Semel, someone shoots the agent, who “yelped in pain, spun, and fell.” Multiple agents are shot in the leg, and Semel and his men escape.  
  • In order to get Charlie to comply with orders, one of her friends is captured by a man named Lembris. “Lembris stood behind Eva, pressing a crowbar against the front of her neck. Eva was crying.” Eventually, Milana fights Lembris and frees Eva. 
  • The following scenes are described over eleven pages. Ramses has his men surround Charlie, Milana, and Dante. In order to escape, Charlie “reached behind [Ramses’s] back and yanked on the electrical cord that dangled like a vine from the scaffolding above. The power drill attached to it tumbled off the scaffolding and landed squarely on Ramses’s head. . . The heavy drill hit Ramses hard, and he dropped like a stone.” 
  • Then, Milana goes after Ramses’s bodyguard. “She quickly disarmed him, then jabbed him with the sedative she had. . . it was just enough to incapacitate the big man.” 
  • When Ramses begins to get up, Dante “drove the Egyptian’s head down into the marble floor, knocking him out for good.” One of Ramses’s men, Baako, throws a crowbar at Dante. “Pain shot through him, but he could tell no bones were broken.” 
  • Baako and Dante continue to fight. Baako slammed into Dante, driving him backward into the scaffolding so hard that all four stories of it trembled. . .” Eventually the scaffolding falls onto Baako and he “lay unconscious beneath it all.”  
  • After finding one of Cleopatra’s clues, Charlie, Dante, and Milana are ambushed by their own agency, the CIA. Without warning “bullets came from all around. . . Dante sprang from where he’d been crouched and fired back, aiming at where the shots were coming from. There was a cry of pain in the darkness, and then at least one of the shooters stopped.” In order to escape, the group flees separately. 
  • As Charlie runs from the bullets, two cars begin following her. “The second car struck the first again, sending it into a low embankment, where it flipped and landed upside down. The second car was badly damaged as well. Its front axle snapped and it ground to a halt in the plaza in front of Charlie, blocking her escape.”  
  • When the driver of the car attempts to “escape through a shattered window. He was only halfway out when Semel clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of his gun, knocking him cold. . .” 
  • The chase scene is described over 10 pages. Dante had “a burn across one bicep where a bullet had nicked him. Milana had a gash from a knife in her left arm. . .” 
  • In an epic multi-chapter conclusion, several CIA agents try to take down Dante and Milana, who they believe are rogue agents. Milana “disarmed the stunned CIA operative and threw her to the ground” and then ran into Central Park. Eventually, Milana is able to incapacitate all of the agents. 
  • A rich villain, Ahmet, tries to kill Charlie with cobra venom. “Charlie hated to use the elixir to defend herself, but she had no other choice. The remaining drops of liquid flew through the air, caught Ahmet in the face, and instantly began to react. His flesh smoked and sizzled.” Ahmet’s skin begins to burn. 
  • Despite being injured, Ahmet chases Charlie. “He stepped on the jagged glass of the syringe with his bare foot. It cut into his flesh, and he suddenly realized that, in addition to everything else, the very cobra venom he had brought with him to kill Charlie Throne was now in his system as well.” When Ahmet continues to chase Charlie, she hits him with a helmet made of medieval armor. Ahmet is too injured to continue after Charlie.  
  • Two villains, Israeli agents, Egyptian agents, and the CIA agents all try to capture Charlie, Dante, and Milana. During the chase, several people are injured. One villain lunges at Charlie, trying to poison her with cobra venom. “Charlie hit him with the mace. . . the heavy iron ball struck his forearm, snapping both bones. . . He cursed at Charlie and charged toward her, leaving her no choice but to defend herself. She leapt aside and swung the mace at him once more. . . the iron ball glanced off his head, sending him reeling.” The villain falls off a ledge and “onto the rocks below.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Instead of allowing Octavian to capture her, Cleopatra “drank her poison and imagined how horrified Octavian would be when he learned what she had done.” 
  • At a party full of adults, Charlie talks to a man who “had a glass of scotch in his hand and was slightly unsteady on his feet; this obviously wasn’t his first drink of the evening.” 
  • In order to find one of Cleopatra’s clues, Milana needs to get an archaeologist out of the way, so she drugs her.  
  • Milana uses sedation darts to incapacitate rival agents who are trying to kidnap Charlie.  
  • During dinner, Dante drinks wine. 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Cleopatra’s treasure is the philosopher’s stone which turns “base metals into gold.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • Some people considered Cleopatra “more than human. They thought her to be a goddess, the living incarnation of Isis.” 
  • Isis was “the most important goddess in Egyptian mythology, the goddess of life and magic, and the protector of women and children. Cleopatra sometimes claimed to be Isis in the flesh and a lot of Egyptians believed it.” 
  • During Cleopatra’s time, the Nile flooded almost every year. People believed “a good flood year meant the gods were smiling on the Egyptians.” 

Girl in the Blue Coat

Hanneke Bakker is struggling to find her place during World War II. Without her parent’s knowledge, Hanneke has been obtaining and selling black market goods. However, her life gets turned upside down when Mrs. Janssen, one of her usual customers, asks her to find Mirjam Roodveldt, a young Jewish girl that Janssen had been hiding in Mrs. Jansesen’s home.  

At first, Hanneke refuses to help find Mirjam. However, when she agrees to search for her, Hanneke quickly becomes exposed to the brutal realities of war. When Hanneke meets a group dedicated to hiding and rescuing Jewish citizens who are under threat from the Nazis, it causes Hanneke to question how beneficial her efforts have been. With blonde hair and light eyes, Hanneke identifies herself as the “Nazi’s poster child,” making her feel guilty about her negligence to the war.  Hanneke is eventually drawn further into the mystery of the missing girl and her search leads her to stunning revelations about the war and the people involved. 

Teens will relate to Hanneke because she falls deals with many of the same struggles that normal teens experience, such as young love and conflicts with parents. The story is told from Hanneke’s point of view in a very raw and honest way. Throughout the book, Hanneke must cope with the death of her boyfriend, Bas, as well as the loss of her normal life during wartime. She also deals with losing her best friend, Elsbeth, whose morals become questionable after marrying a Nazi soldier. The story teaches readers that grief is not a one-way street and that there are multiple coping mechanisms that help someone deal with loss.  

Since the story is written from Hanneke’s point of view, other characters are not well developed. While everyone is dealing with their own form of grief, describing the lives of other characters more in-depth would have made the novel more impactful. For example, Ollie copes with the loss of his brother who died in battle. When talking to Hanneke, Ollie reminisces on his brother’s life saying, “. . . I talk about him all the time. Him and his obnoxious jokes, his laugh, what he would have become.” Unfortunately, readers are given limited knowledge on Ollie’s personality and perspective. This leads readers to have a one-sided view of the conflicts in the story. 

Even though Hanneke is the protagonist, she is not always likable. However, she has several positive attributes including courage and determination. Her naivety comes out frequently, which makes her seem self-centered. For example, when Mrs. Janssen asks Hanneke to find Mirjam, Hanneke focuses on whether or not it would benefit herself. At times, she lacks conviction and she frequently questions her actions, which may frustrate readers. She asks people involved in the war resistance dumb questions too, then becomes angry with herself because she had previously shielded herself from the horrors of the war. 

Despite taking place in 1942, teens will be inspired by Hanneke and the positive messages she carries. Hanneke’s life would have been simpler had she not agreed to search for Mirjam; however, she knows it is what must be done for the sake of Mrs. Janssen, who is worrying herself sick over Mirjam’s disappearance. Despite making mistakes, Hanneke continues her journey. Ultimately, Hanneke’s compassion for Mrs. Janssen and for everyone who has lost people to the horrors of war is comes to drive her.  

While the characters are fictional, many of the events are historically accurate and the war within the Netherlands was extremely well-researched by the author. However, at times the plot felt like it went too slow, while other times it went too fast. Plus, the conclusion was rushed and confusing. Nonetheless, those who are interested in the history of WWII would find this an interesting read, especially those who wish to learn more about the German occupation of the Netherlands. For readers interested in learning more about the World War II resistance, Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen is a must-read. 

Sexual Content  

  • Hanneke and Ollie, the brother of Hanneke’s dead boyfriend, briefly kiss whilst pretending to be a couple in front of German soldiers. “Ollie cups my face in his hands and kisses me. His mouth is soft and full, his eyelashes brush against my cheek, and only he and I know that our lips are shivering in fear.” 
  • Hanneke occasionally flirts with German soldiers to avoid suspicion. “With the way I’m standing, my dress has risen above my knee, and the soldier notices . . . I shift my weight a little so the hemline rides even higher, now halfway up my goose-bumped thigh.” 
  • Hanneke frequently recalls previous romantic encounters she had with her boyfriend. In one instance, she recalls her first kiss with him. “When he kissed me, he dropped his bicycle and it clattered to the ground, and we both laughed.” 
  • Ollie confesses his love for Willem, saying, “Jews aren’t the only ones who suffer because of the Nazis. I don’t love Judith. I love Willem.” 

Violence  

  • At the beginning of the war in the Netherlands, “two thousand Dutch servicemen were killed when they tried but failed to protect our borders as the country fell” and “German planes bombed Rotterdam, killing nine hundred civilians.” 
  • Hanneke is shocked when Mrs. Janssen says, “I’ve heard of people imprisoned, taken away and never returned. But four people, including a woman and a child, shot dead in cold blood?” 
  • Mrs. Janssen recalls the death of her family at the hands of the Nazis. This took place at the Janssen family shop, where the Janssens were hiding their Jewish neighbors. Someone had tipped off the Nazis that these individuals were being hidden, leading to a massacre. “When the shooting was done, Hendrik was dead, and David, and Rose, and Lea. Only Mirjam managed to escape.” 
  • The Nazis capture and beat a man, causing “bleeding from the nose, his right eye split and swollen.” 
  • Hanneke talks about protests that have “left dead bodies in the streets.” 
  • A fight breaks out between two shop customers. Nazi soldiers come to disperse the fight. “A fight broke out in the shop, which led to the earliest major roundup and hundreds dead.” 
  • Hanneke talks about how resistance workers “could be shot” for their work. 
  • During a round up, a girl tries to escape, but she is shot and killed by a Nazi soldier. “They shoot her. In the middle of the bridge, in the back of the neck so that blood bursts from her throat, slick and shining in the moonlight.”  

Drugs and Alcohol  

  • Hanneke smuggles items through the black market, including “cigarettes and alcohol.” 

Language                                                                                                                                               

  • Profanity is used rarely. Profanity includes damn in both English and italicized Dutch. 
  • Mrs. Janssen goes to show Hanneke the cupboard where she hid Mirjam. When she sees it, Hanneke thinks, “Verdorie. Damn it, she’s crazier than I thought.” 

Supernatural  

  • None 

Spiritual Content  

  • Several of the characters are of Jewish faith, which is a big source of conflict within the story as it takes place during World War II.  
  • The Nazi soldiers sympathize with the Christian characters. A soldier says, “I feel bad punishing a good Christian woman who is too stupid to know where her husband was.” 

Small Spaces Quartet #1

At night they will come for the rest of you. It’s with this ominous warning that eleven-year-old Ollie and her two friends, Coco and Brian, set out on a chilling adventure in the woods with nightfall fast descending and the ever-watchful eyes of scarecrows on their backs.

What began as an unremarkable school trip to a nearby farm soon becomes a frightening journey into the world behind the mist. In order to survive and not remain trapped there forever, Ollie and her friends need to be quick on their feet as they work to unravel a hundred-year-old mystery, save their classmates, and beat the villainous smiling man at his own game.

When night falls, Ollie and her friends must find small spaces to hide from the scarecrows, who follow the smiling man’s commands. During the daylight hours, the three friends search for a way back into their world. Along the way, they meet several ghosts, who were unwilling to leave their loved ones who the smiling man turned into scarecrows. However, before Ollie meets the ghosts, she finds Beth Webster’s book where she chronicled the story of her family and explains how the smiling man was able to turn her husband into a scarecrow.

Beth Webster’s story connects to Ollie’s own story. In Beth’s story, her mother-in-law was distraught over her son’s disappearance. In order to appease his grieving mother, Beth’s husband Johnathan makes a deal with the smiling man. The smiling man brings Johnathan’s brother back to life, but Johnathan then becomes the smiling man’s servant. Similar to Beth, Ollie is also grieving the loss of a loved one—her mother. However, Ollie doesn’t let her grief overshadow her life. When the smiling man offers to bring Ollie’s mom back to life, Ollie doesn’t accept the deal. Instead, she gives up the deepest desire of her heart in order to break the curse and restore her classmates.

While Small Spaces is predominantly a ghost story, it also touches on the theme of grief. Through her experiences, Ollie learns that her mother’s words and advice will continue to help her navigate life. Even though Ollie still grieves her mother’s loss, she is learning to find joy in life again.

Small Spaces will appeal to readers who want a creepy, scary story without bloodshed and gore. The easy-to-read story keeps readers on edge as the smiling man’s secrets are revealed. The story’s conclusion is a little confusing as it tries to piece together the stories of the past with the stories of the present.

While Ollie and her friends are not well-developed, they are an interesting group that learns to appreciate each other’s differences. If you’re looking for a fast-paced ghost story that will keep you guessing, then grab a copy of Small Spaces. Beware: when you get to the end, you will want to find out what happens in the next book, Dead Voices, in which Ollie and her friends get trapped in a haunted snow lodge.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • After school, Mike takes Coco’s notebook and begins taunting her. When Brian does nothing to help Coco, Ollie threw a rock that “caught Brian squarely in the back of the head, dropped him thump onto the grass, and turned everyone’s attention from Coco Zinter to her.” Then Ollie gets on her bike and races home.
  • At the farm, the kids were going to learn about “slaughtering hogs (cut the throat and then hang it up to drain).”
  • Before the book begins, Ollie’s mother died in an airplane crash. “Ollie dreamed of the crash, even though she hadn’t seen it. She hadn’t seen the firs afterward, or the bits of broken plane stuck in a tree, the things that haunted her nightmare.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • God is used as an exclamation twice.
  • The first time the scarecrows come for the kids, Brian asks, “What in hell was that?”

Supernatural

  • Ollie reads a book about a brother who makes a deal with the smiling man to bring his brother, Caleb, back to life. Caleb “came back. He was pale and blue-lipped; his eyes were strange and distant. . . It was his voice, his smile. Only the look in his eyes had changed, and he would not say where he was.”
  • Ollie’s teacher tells the class a story about the farm that the class will be visiting. The farm is rumored to be haunted because two brothers wanted to marry the same girl. The teacher says, “The younger brother disappeared. No one ever found traces of either of them. Eventually, the sheriff decided that the younger brother had killed the elder and then been overcome with remorse and thrown himself into the creek. That was when the rumors of hauntings started.”
  • In the past, there was a school at the farm. The schoolhouse “was burned to rubble, of course, right down to the foundation stones. . . The weird things is this: they never found any bodies.”
  • After Ollie’s mother dies, her father gives her her mother’s cracked watch. While running from the scarecrows, the watch gives her a countdown until sunset and tells her what to do. For example, “RUN” and “HIDE.” When Ollie whispers, “Mom? Is that you? Can you hear me?” The watch’s screen reads “ALWAYS.”
  • The scarecrows try to grab Ollie and her friends. They crawl into a small space under some rocks. “A nightmare face turned to Ollie: stitched-on snarl, eyes like two finger sized holes. The rake reached out again. . . A huge, straw-smelling arm thrust itself into the hole. . . Then the arm withdrew.” When the scarecrows realize they can’t reach the kids, they leave.
  • While running from the scarecrows, the kids go into a house where Ollie meets a ghost. Ollie discovers that two of the scarecrows are the ghost’s sons. When the kids leave the house, “Two scarecrows stood outside, one at each window. Somehow, they were not looking into the house anymore, but were watching the kids run, still smiling their wide smiles.”
  • Brian recognizes one of the scarecrows as his friend Phil. Brian says, “It’s wearing Phil’s clothes. Because that’s Phil’s hat and Phil’s hair and kind of Phil’s face—if it were sewn on.”
  • Ollie and her friends go into another house and Ollie sees a ghost. “A hand appeared on the doorframe. A thick, yellow-nail hand. Then a face popped around the edge of the doorframe. . . It was a woman. Or had been. Her skin was sunken in beneath the cheekbones, and when she smiled, her lips stretched too wide, the way a skull smiles.” The ghost tells her that the scarecrows are “neither flesh nor spirit” and that they are now the smiling man’s servants. The ghost says, “the cornfield is the doorway” to another world and the scarecrows hold the door between two worlds open.
  • While talking to the smiling man, Ollie figures out how to save her classmates. Ollie flings “a scattering of drops [of water] at the first scarecrow. . . the scarecrow screamed—a human scream.” The scarecrows that were from the past turned into dust but her classmates turned back into themselves.

Spiritual Content

  • After the scarecrows come for the kids, Brian says, “Deliver us from evil” and then did the sign of the cross. When Ollie and Coco look at him, he says, “I’m not a good Catholic but maybe God is listening.”

Cinder

For Cinder, a reluctantly adopted half-cyborg, daily life has always been a constant struggle toward belonging and acceptance. Inside her home, Cinder is nothing more than the orphan she was as a child, though she can never forget the scientist that rescued her. However, his untimely death has left her with little knowledge of her former life. Unable to know the motivations of the person who initially saved her, Cinder now faces the wrath of a stepmother who uses her as a common mechanic and breadwinner for Cinder’s two stepsisters. Outside her home, Cinder faces an entirely different sort of ill-will; as part-cyborg, Cinder faces endless forms of discrimination from her community in the Eastern Commonwealth of New Beijing, a society that is more than willing to give up any of their cyborg citizens for the purposes of scientific experimentation.

New Beijing faces its own onslaught of problems. Once a powerful and prosperous development, the royal state now faces threats of war from the Lunars, a magical dictatorship residing on Earth’s moon.  Crippled under the wrath of a plague known as letumosis, New Beijing fears that its only hope of survival may rest in its Prince Kai’s ability to marry the Lunar Queen Levana—or else find a cure for the disease that currently holds a 100% casualty rate.

Cinder gratefully avoids both issues of the letumosis plague and New Beijing’s political instability, focusing instead on her own efforts to escape her present living conditions. However, when Cinder’s stepsister, Peony, falls to the disease, Cinder is opted up for a cyborg draft that aims to find a letumosis cure, and is thus driven into the conflicts of her nation head-on. In facing experimentation, Cinder finds not only a connection with Prince Kai, but also faces the truth behind her childhood. In encountering her past, Cinder must now ask: does she think she can change the fate of her world? And, if she loves and accepts herself—her own power—will others accept her as well?

Cinder is a sci-fi fantasy that works to retell the classic story of Cinderella from the lens of an imaginative society filled with political intrigue and social commentary pertinent to our community today. In weaving together the personal struggles of Cinder, the strategic plans of Prince Kai, the wrath of the Lunar population, and the welfare of New Beijing as a collective, Meyer presents a story that keeps readers on the very edge of their seats. Though there are subtle nods towards Cinderella throughout the narrative, Cinder is presented as her own, dynamic character with unique conflicts and struggles.

As a longer narrative with more complex diction, Cinder is a story for junior high and high school readers. It is also important to note that, as a narrative that presents explicit descriptions of death and disease, the narrative may not be suitable for younger readers, particularly considering our present struggles with the COVID pandemic. However, for those readers wanting a thrilling, action-packed, and innovative piece of speculative fiction that works to bring real world conflict to an imagined world, this is the perfect book! Cinder will especially capture the attention of any readers looking to dive into sci-fi fantasy for the first time, as the narrative holds an easily digestible, yet intricate, world that serves as a perfect introduction to the genre. In following Cinder’s journey, readers can also truly see the way invented worlds speak to issues of discrimination, classism, ethics, and power within our present world.

By confronting New Beijing’s societal conflicts as the result of a history that speaks to her own past, Cinder also rises to accept where she has come from—as both New Beijing citizen and cyborg mechanic power—to sculpt her own path in the world with newfound agency. When fate arises, and the wellbeing of a community rests in her hand, Cinder truly shows all readers that empowering themselves is the first step towards empowering their surroundings.

Sexual Content

  • When Dr. Erland praises Cinder for the way her technology falls perfectly in line with her central nervous system, Cinder sarcastically replies, “I’m sure I’ll feel much more grateful when I find a guy who thinks complex wiring in a girl is a turn-on.”
  • Fascinated by Queen Levana’s projected beauty, Kai hesitates when meeting her. Instead, he stares “at the pale, translucent skin, wondering if just touching her was all it would take to destroy a man’s mind.”
  • To stop Prince Kai from announcing his marriage to Queen Levana, “Cinder wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him . . . Though Cinder had intended for it to be a short kiss, she found herself lingering. Hot tingles coursed through her body, surprising and scary but not unpleasant, surging like electricity through her wires . . . the desperation melted and, for the briefest of moments, the ulterior motives were gone. She found herself kissing him for no other reason than she wanted to.”
  • After seeing Cinder kiss Prince Kai, Queen Levana says, “You must misunderstand my culture. On Luna, we consider monogamy to be nothing more than archaic sentimentality. What do I care if my husband-to-be is in love with another . . . woman?”

Violence

  • At the beginning of Cinder, Cinder watches as a baker named Chang Sacha realizes that she has caught the plague. As a result of this discovery, Chang Sacha’s son is taken from her, and a screaming Chang Sacha is led to quarantine by officials. Following this, Cinder realizes that officials are “going to burn Chang-ji’s booth.” Authorities burn the booth until “The baker’s booth had been reduced to rubble and the skeleton of a portable oven.” The scene is described over five pages.
  • While introducing Queen Levana, the queen of the Lunar race, it is mentioned that the queen “murdered her older sister, Queen Channary, so she could take the throne from her. [Rumors from the Eastern Commonwealth community] said [Queen Levana] had her own husband killed too so she would be free to make a more advantageous match. They said she had forced her stepdaughter to mutilate her own face because, at the sweet age of thirteen, she had become more beautiful than the jealous queen could stand. They said she’d killed her niece, her only threat to the throne. Princess Selene had only been three years old when a fire caught in her nursery, killing her and her nanny.” This is the extent of the description concerning the violence incited by Queen Levana.
  • Cinder’s youngest stepsister, Peony, catches the disease that is described when Cinder finds, “a splotch of red, rimmed with bruise purple” on Peony’s collarbone. Peony screams, and cries, before an emergency hover and med-droids take her away to quarantine. At this time, a med-droid tests Cinder for the disease by inserting a needle in her right wrist and drawing blood.
  • In light of Peony’s sickness, Cinder’s stepmother Adri donates Cinder to the cyborg draft (a system where a family’s cyborgs can opt themselves up, or have their family guardians donate them, as bodies for plague testing). In an argument with Cinder, Adri slaps Cinder’s cheek with the back of her hand. In order to escape the droids trying to take her, Cinder swings her toolbelt—known as a magbelt—“against the android’s cranium.” Cinder then smashes the lens of the second android. The last android finally catches Cinder before she escapes and electrocutes her until she falls to unconsciousness. This scene lasts five pages.
  • When unconscious, Cinder has a dream described as this: “Flames. Smoke. Blisters burbling across her skin. Her leg and hand were gone, leaving stumps where the surgeons had attached her protheses. Dead wires dangled from them. She tried to crawl but was as useless as an upended turtle . . . she was surrounded. Other crippled victims writhed among the coals, moaning, begging for water. They were all missing limbs. Some were nothing more than a head and a torso and a mouth, pleading.” This image is described over two pages.
  • Against her will, Cinder is tested at the king’s hospital. In this scene, an android pins her head to the side of a stretcher she is strapped to and uses prongs at the back of her neck to scan her system and note the percentage of “machine” Cinder truly is. The android then proceeds to inject Cinder with the plague. This scene lasts six pages. After being given the virus, a description of the android drawing Cinder’s blood lasts two pages.
  • Attempting to escape the testing lab, Cinder tries to attack the leading scientist on the royal letumosis research team, Dr. Erland. Cinder raises a wrench at his temple, but after speaking to the doctor, she decides against this action.
  • To test Cinder’s system, Dr. Erland pinches a vertebra above her shoulders. At this moment, “Fire and pain ruptured her spine, flooding her veins. She cried out and fell off the table, crumpling to the floor.”
  • Cinder visits her sister Peony in the quarantine section. The setting is described with “the stench of excrement and rot.” Flies fill the room with buzzing, while the patients are “sleeping or staring blankly up at the ceiling, their skin covered in a blue-black rash.” Peony is described with “purplish blotches” all over her arms, “just this side of death.”
  • In the hospital, Cinder also sees Chang Sacha again. Sacha has bluish pigment and a pungent odor. She grasps Cinder’s hand with yellowed fingernails. She asks Cinder to look for her son Sunto, before “the life dulled in Sacha’s black eyes.” Sacha’s death is described over two pages.
  • Following Sacha’s death, Cinder watches as a med-droid arrives and pulls out a scalpel. “Cinder watched, mesmerized and disgusted, as the android pressed the blade into Sacha’s wrist. A stream of blood dripped down Sacha’s palm . . . The med-droid traded the scalpel for tweezers, and Cinder heard the subtle click of metal on metal. She grimaced as the android extracted the small chip. Its protective plastic coating glistened scarlet.”
  • Dr. Erland warns Cinder that she must leave the royal research lab as “Queen Levana will stop at nothing to ensure her control, to terminate any resistance. That means killing those who could resist her—people like you. . . If she were to see you, she would kill you.”
  • Dr. Erland speaks on the murder of his daughter at the hands of Queen Levana. None of the details are described, except that she was killed because she was a “shell,” a Lunar without magic.
  • Cinder returns to quarantine to visit Peony. During this visit, Peony’s “face was ashen, her lips peeling. The dark splotches on her neck had begun to fade to lavender beneath the surface of her ghostly skin. Eyes on Cinder, she pulled her arm out from beneath the blanket and spread out her fingers, displaying their blue-black tips and the yellowish tinge of her nails.” When Cinder tries to raise Peony to administer an antidote, her body goes “limp,” and Cinder “stared into Peony’s empty eyes. Eyes looking past her, through her.” The description of Peony’s death lasts four pages.
  • To stop a med-droid from taking Peony’s ID chip, Cinder “wrenched the scalpel from [the med-droid’s] glove and jammed it into the android’s sensor. . .Cinder barreled over the bed and slammed her fist into the android’s head.”
  • Cinder pulls the chip from her sister herself. Cinder “asked for hurried forgiveness while she grasped her sister’s fragile wrist. She spliced the scalpel into the soft tissue. Blood dribbled out of the wound and onto her glove, mixing with years of grime. Peony’s fingers twitched when Cinder hit a tendon, making her jump. When the cut was wide enough, she peeled it open with her thumb, revealing bright red muscle. Blood . . she dug the tip of the blade in as carefully as she could, easing up the square chip.” This description lasts a page.
  • In a tense conversation with Queen Levana, Kai tries to loosen his grip on a chopstick, “lest he accidentally leap across the table and jab a chopstick into the witch’s eye.”
  • After assuming she was disrespected by a server, Queen Levana orders the servant to turn a blade towards herself, aiming it at the corner of her eye. This interaction ends here, as Kai stops the Queen before she can force the servant to hurt herself.
  • Angered by the new income Cinder has gained from the royal research department, Adri violently mangles and dismantles one of Cinder’s droid friends, Iko. She also asks Cinder to take off her new, machine-made, foot as payment for Peony’s funeral. This interaction lasts two pages.
  • Upon seeing Cinder at the ball, Adri raises a hand over her shoulder to strike Cinder, but Kai stops her with a hand firmly wrapped around her wrist.
  • Knowing that Cinder is Lunar, Queen Levana orders her arrest. A “Lunar guard stepped out of the crowd . . .Without warning, he grasped Cinder’s wrists, pinning them behind her.” Queen Levana then forces Cinder to lift the barrel of the gun to her own temple. When Cinder’s finger pulls down on the trigger, she manages to evade the Queen’s brainwashing just enough to force the gun away from her head. The gunshot shatters a chandelier above. Cinder then pulls the gun at the Queen and pulls the trigger, but a red-haired guard steps up to block the blow. This scene lasts about 15 pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Cinder’s stepmother Adri maintains full, albeit reluctant, guardianship of Cinder following the death of her husband. As a cyborg, Cinder faces cruel discrimination and punishments under her stepmother’s control. For instance, Adri often threatens to sell Cinder off “as spare parts.”
  • Pearl, Cinder’s stepsister, also throws cruel taunts Cinder’s way. For instance, on mention of the cyborg draft, Pearl says, “I know a cyborg who could volunteer for plague testing . . . They reimburse the volunteers’ families, wire-head.”
  • In a discussion on whether to marry Queen Levana, the prince of New Beijing, says, “My plan is to not marry her. Diplomacy be damned.”
  • Following Peony’s death, Cinder shouts into her body, “Dammit. Dammit. Peony!”
  • Angered by the fact Prince Kai gifted Cinder a pair of white gloves, Pearl says, “Did you think the prince—no– the emperor would find it in his heart to overlook all your. . . ‘shortcomings’?”
  • One of the girls working for Queen Levana’s attendants, upon meeting Cinder, exclaims, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m an evil, worthless, wretched girl.”

Supernatural

  • At the beginning of the novel, another society known as the Lunars are introduced, with the line, “everything about Lunars was eerie and superstitious.” According to Cinder, Lunars were a society that evolved from an Earthen moon colony, but no longer became human. They contain supernatural powers that allow them to be able to “alter a person’s brain—make you see things you shouldn’t see, feel things you shouldn’t feel, do things you didn’t want to do. Their unnatural power had made them a greedy and violent race.”
  • Describing the Lunar people further, Dr. Erland says, “Lunars have the unique ability to not only detect bioelectricity in others, but to also control it. They can manipulate it so that people see what the Lunar wishes them to see, and even feel what the Lunar wishes them to feel. A glamour is what they call the illusion of themselves that they project into the minds of others.”
  • Upon Queen Levana’s arrival to Earth, an angry protest goes to the palace, but as soon as Queen Levana steps upon the balcony, they quiet. “Slowly, as if sleepwalking, the crowd began to depart . . . So, this was the effect of the Lunar glamour, the spell to enchant, to deceive, to turn one’s heart toward you and against your enemies.”
  • During a discussion about Queen Levana building an army, Prince Kai is given a picture taken on the moon, showing rows of creatures with wide hunched shoulders described as “a cross between man and beast. Their noses and jaws protruded awkwardly from their heads, their lips twisted into perpetual grimaces. White spots erupted from their mouths—Kai could not see them clearly, could not tell for sure, but they gave him the distinct impression of fangs.” These creatures are also thought to hold magic.

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Hannah Olsson

Duplex

Ryan wakes up to find his contractor dad building walls to turn their big old house into a duplex. The family that moves into the other side includes Bizzy Horvat, the pretty girl he has a crush on at school. Bizzy claims her mother is a witch with the power to curse people with clumsiness or, in Bizzy’s case, astonishing beauty.

When a bee gets caught in Bizzy’s hair, Ryan acts so quickly and radically to save her from getting stung that he attracts the attention of a group of micropotents—people with micropowers. He soon realizes that Bizzy and her mother also have such powers. It becomes Ryan’s job, with the help of the other micropotents, to protect the Horvats from a group of witch hunters from their native country, who are determined to kill Bizzy, her mother, and all the other “witches”—micropotents—who have gathered to protect them.

Ryan is a loveable, ultra-smart nerd, who will do anything to keep the people he loves safe. Throughout the novel, readers will enjoy seeing Ryan grow and mature. While Ryan is an interesting character, he is not necessarily relatable. For a sixteen-year-old, Ryan doesn’t talk or act like a typical teenager. For example, when Ryan is on a goodbye date with his girlfriend, “Ryan felt like he was catching a glimpse of a whole life that might have been, a life in which he was able to court her, to drive her to the movies and someday to the hospital to give birth to their child, and strap car seats into the back of the car until the kids were old enough to sit up safely on their own. . .”

Throughout the story, Ryan struggles to understand his parents’ separation. He wonders, “How do married people who loved each other so much they moved in together—how do they get so angry that they completely reject the life they built?” Later, Ryan finds out that his parents separated after his mother got an abortion. Ryan’s father says, “I don’t know if I can live with it. What she did. That was my baby too, we decided together, it was ours, and it’s dead now, and we’ll never have another, and I didn’t even get a vote.” While the topic of abortion is not explored in detail, the feelings of each parent are discussed. Ryan’s complicated family life adds interest to the story.

Unfortunately, Duplex spends too much time explaining Ryan and the other micropotents’ powers, which slows down the plot. In addition, once Bizzy and Ryan begin dating, their constant declarations of love become annoying. Plus, Ryan spends too much time explaining how he doesn’t love Bizzy because she’s beautiful, but because she’s an amazing person. While the story has some suspense, the action doesn’t pick up until the end. Readers who have read Card’s other micropowers novel, Lost and Found, will see the similarities; if readers enjoyed Lost and Found, they will also enjoy Duplex. However, if you’re looking for an excellent book about characters with supernatural power, you may want to read Card’s Ender’s Game Quintet or the Michael Vey Series by Richard Paul Evans instead.

Sexual Content

  • When Ryan begins spending time with Bizzy, his mother gets worried. His mother says, “But you are both bags of undifferentiated hormones as volatile as nitroglycerin. So, I’m warning you. Keep your clothes on, buster. Keep your fly zipped. Don’t get that girl pregnant.”
  • Bizzy and Ryan are getting to know each other. “‘I’m going back inside now,’ Ryan said, ‘because what you showed me, and what you’ve been saying—it makes me want to hold you and kiss you and all kinds of stuff that would require me not to be in the friend zone.’”
  • Bizzy kisses Ryan to hide her face. “To Ryan’s disappointment, it only took one kiss to get them to the library. . .Worse yet, Ryan felt like he had wasted their first kiss on what amounted to camouflage.”
  • When Ryan hugs a girl, she says, “If you’re trying to turn me on, it’s not working.”
  • Bizzy and Ryan kiss many times. For example, Bizzy “swiveled to him, grabbed his head, and planted a kiss on him that was so passionate it blew the previous one out of the water.”
  • Bizzy and Ryan become girlfriend and boyfriend. At school, “She kissed him again. This time it was a real girlfriend kiss. Not long, not passionate, just quick. A declaration of ownership.”
  • Bizzy says that some girls “try to do a sexy walk. They end up looking like beginner prostitutes.”
  • Bizzy and Ryan get home late. Ryan is worried about their mothers’ reactions. He says, “The thing is, if I get home at ten, they’ll assume I got you pregnant by nine-thirty.”
  • Ryan’s mom had an abortion. She says, “It was a termination of an unwanted pregnancy, still in the first trimester.”
  • On Halloween, Bizzy and Ryan kiss. “She leaned in to kiss him. . . He did not break the kiss. Not for a good long while.” Later Bizzy, “kept stopping to kiss some unexpected part of his head—ears, nape of the neck, eyelid, cheek, chin. He never thought that having Bizzy kiss him could possibly be annoying, but now he knew that it could. And that she wanted to annoy him.”

Violence

  • Alfred shows up at Ryan and Bizzy’s school posing as an FBI agent. When the man makes a move to shove Ryan, “Ryan didn’t wait for the door to close. . . Ryan struck him in the side of the head with all the force of his open hand and extended arm. Alfred’s head crashed into the metal door frame as if his skull were on a track. A think streak of blood trailed after him.” The man dies.
  • To force Ryan to test his micropower, his best friend, Defense, begins bullying a classmate named Errol. When Defense calls Errol names, Errol kicks him. “Kicked him with all the force of a game-winning field goal. Defense gave a horrible oof! that sounded as if all the air he had ever inhaled was discharged at once. That was followed by a high gasp and then a whine that told Ryan that Defense probably had some broken ribs.”
  • When Errol goes to kick Defense in the head, Ryan leaps up. “He was at exactly the right position to strike Errol on the Adam’s apple. . . The blow landed with Ryan’s full mass behind it. Errol’s body instantly went limp and he fell straight down, with Ryan landing atop him.” The school nurse “performed an emergency tracheotomy and had Errol breathing again.” Both Errol and Defense had to be taken to the hospital.
  • A man tries to get into Bizzy’s house. When Ryan tries to stop him, “The man’s hand flew out toward Ryan’s face. Depending on where he meant to land it, it would have blacked Ryan’s eyes or given him a bloody nose. Instead, though, the man’s hand hit the edge of the Burkes’ storm door, which Ryan had partially closed to bring it right to the place where the man’s fist was going.” The man breaks his hand and leaves.
  • Two men dressed as police officers go to Bizzy’s house. When they enter the house, one of them reached for his gun. “As the fake cop was drawing his gun, which Ryan knew he was going to use to kill Mrs. Horvat and Bizzy, Ryan got his own hand onto the gun and squeezed a shoulder nerve in the guy so that his grip on the pistol suddenly let go. . .Ryan shot the guy square in the shoulder. . . By now the other fake cop had turned around and was drawing his pistol.” The second man falls to the ground. When the cop begins making noise, Ryan’s friend, “kicked this guy really hard in the head.”
  • When two cops are on the ground, another man comes into the house. “The man drew a weapon and began to raise it to aiming position. . . [Ryan] fired his pistol and the man sprouted a hole in his forehead and dropped like a rock.” The man dies.
  • Two more men enter the house. “They dropped to the ground, probably not dead because Ryan’s shots took them in the knees. They were screaming in pain while yawning.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Dahlia, a friend of Ryan’s, has a micropower that makes people yawn. She says, “I’ve done ride-alongs with police guys on patrol, and they found it a lot easier to subdue drunks who were yawning. Even though yawning is sometimes a trigger for vomiting.”
  • On Halloween, Defense calls the police to report a drunk driver. He says, “I’m watching an obviously drunk guy get into his car.”
  • On Halloween, Defense and Ryan see two drunk guys dressed as policemen. Ryan says, “The friendship of drunks who need somebody to lean on must be one of the great blessings of alcoholic life.”

Language

  • Profanity is used rarely. Profanity includes ass, bitch, damn, crap, hell, and piss.
  • There is an abundance of name calling including ass-face, bonehead, dimwit, loser, moron, idiot, pervert, psycho bastards, weirdo and whiny baby.
  • Bizzy’s mother calls Ryan an “ass-faced idiot.”
  • A teacher calls Ryan a “rotten little con man.” Another teacher calls Ryan a “sphincter.”
  • A police officer refers to Defense as a “pissant kid.”
  • Ryan’s sister says their mom was being a “fishwife.”

 

Supernatural

  • Ryan joins a group of people who have micropowers. For example, one girl “makes people yawn, which partially incapacities them.” A boy can feel spider’s pain. “I know when they die, and I know whether it was deliberate arachnicide or not.”
  • According to Bizzy, her micropower comes from being cursed. Bizzy explains, “Mother says that when I was a baby, a Gypsy woman got so angry at Mom that she cursed me with something that would cause my mother grief for the rest of her life. . . I’m not just pretty, Ryan. The glamour is one of astonishing beauty. I’m heartbreakingly beautiful.”
  • At first, Ryan cannot see Bizzy’s glamour. “When she was paying no attention to him, he could see how the glamour poked through, stabbing at the hearts of strangers. Unlike people who had resting-angry-face or resting-bitch-face or whatever, Bizzy had resting-beautiful-face. It was all he could see, now that he knew what to look for. Her talent wasn’t that she could make herself beautiful, it was that she could make herself less beautiful. . .”
  • Bizzy believes her mother is a witch. She says, “her micropower is one that would have gotten her burned as a witch in 1680. Because if she mutters a certain formula under her breath, things go wrong for that person for a few days. . . They drop things. Like heavy tools on bare feet. Or the baby they’re carrying. Or the file folder they absolutely have to get to the boss’s desk right . .”
  • Ryan meets Jannis who can heal people. Jannis explains, “I help put things in order. But nothing deep inside the body. I’m good with broken bones just under the skin. . .” She uses her micropower to help Defense and Errol heal.

Spiritual Content

  • Bizzy and Ryan were talking about the different nature of girls and boys. Bizzy says, “Insane boys think God finally got the guy-design right when he made them. But crazy girls think God ran out of good parts and made them out of scrap.”

 

Girl From Nowhere

Ninety-four countries. Thirty-one schools. Two bullets. Now it’s over . . . or so she thinks.

Sophia Hepworth has spent her life all over the world–moving quickly, never staying in one place for too long. She knows to always look over her shoulder, to be able to fight to survive at a moment’s notice. She has trained to be ready for anything.

Except this. Suddenly it’s over. Now Sophia is expected to attend high school in a sleepy Montana town. She is told to forget the past, but she’s haunted by it. As hard as she tries to be like her new friends and live a normal life, she can’t shake the feeling that this new normal won’t last.

Then comes strong and silent Aksel, whose skills match Sophia’s, and who seems to know more about her than he’s letting on . . .

What if everything Sophia thought she knew about her past is a lie?

Sophia is an interesting character, whose parents have taught her many survival skills including how to defend herself, even if that means she must take a life. While Sophia’s conflict isn’t relatable, her story takes the reader on a fast-paced ride through many dangerous situations. Along the way, Sophia meets Aksel, which adds romance and gives Sophia a protector. Eventually, Sophia confides in Aksel and explains how after being kidnapped and tortured, she feels as if she is “tainted.” Aksel helps Sophia realize that she’s not defined by what others did to her.

While Sophia and Aksel are teenagers, they do not act like typical teenagers. Instead, Aksel reveals that he has been secretly training to be an undercover agent. While this explains his advanced skills with weaponry and evasion, readers still may have a difficult time believing that Sophia and Aksel could survive an attack from a trained terror group. The conclusion is one bloody confrontation after another and finally ends with a surprise that has a very little emotional impact. Despite this, Sophia’s story is entertaining and suspenseful, and Aksel is a swoon-worthy protagonist.

Readers who love action-packed, secret agent stories will enjoy Girl from Nowhere. Sophia isn’t portrayed as a helpless girl in need of a man to protect her. Instead, she is a strong character who is intelligent and resilient. Readers who love strong characters, conspiracy theories, and a sprinkle of romance, but don’t want the graphic descriptions of violence should read Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter and Endangered: A Death on a Deadline Mystery by Kate Jaimet.

Sexual Content

  • At a party, Sophia is dancing when Tate “comes up behind me, places his hands on my hips, and sways with me along with the music. . . I elbow him in the chest, right above his second rib.” Then Sophia leaves to line dance with a friend.
  • From the first time Sophia meets Aksel, she feels drawn to him. “His fingers graze mine, igniting flames across my skin.” Often, Sophia thinks about her reaction to Aksel. She wonders, “Why does being around Aksel make my skin feel like it is perpetually on fire?”
  • While out with friends, Tate puts his arm around Sophia’s shoulder. Sophia thinks, “Emma once said memories of kissing Ryan Rice in ninth grade give her the ‘heebie-jeebies.’ This is what I feel when Tate puts his arm around me—the heebie-jeebies.”
  • As Sophia and her friends split up, “Tate slinks his arm around [her] waist.” Tate realizes that he left his keys in the restaurant and leaves Sophia alone.
  • Sophia and Aksel are exploring the wilderness. Sophia’s snowshoe causes her to stumble. Aksel’s “arm is braced firmly around my waist to keep me from falling. He stares down at me, and my cheeks go blistering hot. . .Aksel’s lips press against mine. His fingertips trace my cheek, my jawline, before returning to the nape of my neck. . . Then our lips are meeting again and every nerve in my body is electrified.”
  • After Sophia rejects Tate, a rumor goes around that she “hooked up with Tate outside the Creamery, then hooked up with Aksel hours later.”
  • While swimming, Aksel swims towards Sophia, and “he wraps his large hands around my ankles and stands up in the water. . .Heat spreads like wildfire across my chest and it constricts my airways, like I can’t breathe . . . He outlines my lips with his thumb. He bends forward to kiss me. . .” Aksel stops and asks about a Sophia’s scar.
  • Sophia and Aksel kiss for the first time. They’re at his house when “his hands entwine my waist, resting on the hollow of my lower back. Gently, he pushes me against a wall. . . An intense heat races throughout my body. . .We kiss until he leans away.” The scene is described over a half-page.
  • Sophia and Aksel kiss numerous times. For example, “Aksel’s hands slide across my [Sophia’s] neck, slipping down my back. . . flames of heat surge across my throat. I feel his pulse, flush against my chest. Our lips hover. . . He pulls me in, wraps his strong arms around my waist, and kisses me.”

Violence

  • After being kidnapped, Sophia is home alone when someone breaks into her apartment. She was hiding when “right before he stepped into the kitchen—pop! He slumped to the ground, dead the instant my father’s bullet penetrated the back of his head.”
  • While walking in the forest, a bear attacks Sophia. “Huffing and grunting, she swats my back, violently rolling me over. My skull hits the dirt. She strikes my thigh fiercely with her paw.” Someone shoots a rifle and the bear runs away.
  • Sophia has a flashback that makes her panic. When she was younger, her family charted a sailboat when a group of men began chasing them. Sophia’s parents tell her to hide underwater. Her mother says, “No bubbles. You have to stay hidden, and that’s the only place! Now go!”
  • When the men get close to the sailboat, “gunfire erupted. . .” When Sofia comes up, she sees “four bloodied bodies floating in the water. Facedown.”
  • While attending school in Africa, the class goes on a safari. While the group was exploring, a truck blockades the road. One of the men gropes Anika and “her brother Peter shouted at him. The rebel hit Peter so hard with his rifle barrel, Peter staggered into the bumper, bleeding from his ear. . .”
  • One of the rebels shot the driver, who “crumpled onto the dirt, dead.” The rebels killed another adult, but when they went to shoot some of the children, the gun jammed. Sophia describes, “I reached into my boot, pulled out my 5-7, and fired twice. The commander dropped to the ground. A rebel shot Katu, so I shot him too, a double rap into his stomach. . .” The school group race to the hospital, but the fate of the injured adults isn’t known.
  • While leaving a restaurant, Sophia sees a man who has been following her. The man is standing next to Aksel’s truck, blocking the passenger door. “Abruptly, the man takes a step toward Aksel, like a tiny squirrel provoking a chained dog. Glinting in the man’s hand is the shining, polished edge of a blade. . .” After a short standoff, the man backs down.
  • Sophia tells Aksel about being kidnapped. While in Istanbul, two women ask Sophia for directions. Sophia “turned in time to see the second woman corner me. Her hand shot out like a viper from the folds of her pleated dress, snatching my wrist with a viselike grip. The first woman threw her shawl over my head, muffling my screams as they dragged me into the alley.”
  • After the two women restrain Sophia, a man blindfolds her and takes her someplace where she “was tied to a copper pipe jutting out from between the floorboards. . . I was scared. I knew I would be sold to a terror group, or a wealthy buyer. . .” A man finally unties Sophia and questions her. “When I didn’t answer, he touched my cheek and rubbed his hand against my neck . . . That was worse than when he hit me. And he did. . . often. . . he made me bleed.”
  • While being held captive, a man named Farhad “pulled out a rusty knife and put it next to [Sophia’s] throat.” The man threatened her, “Tell us who your father is or I send him your head.” When Sophia spat in his face, the man cut her, leaving a scar under her chin.”
  • Sophia was able to get the knife from Farhad. She “swung the knife, cutting him from his forehead to the bottom of his cheek.” Then, Sophia was able to escape. The kidnapping is described over four pages.
  • Terrorists surround Aksel’s house in an attempt to capture Sophia. One of the men throws a grenade. “The floor-to-ceiling glass windows shatter. The trim erupts in bright flames, splintering shards of wood across the room. We throw ourselves to the floor. Aksel turns midair, landing on top of me, shielding my body.”
  • The terrorists begin shooting at both Aksel and Sophia. Aksel “fires twice. Both bullets hit a man’s chest. His knees buckle and he drops. Aksel. . . pulls the trigger again. This time he punctures the man’s neck. A geyser of blood sprays across the foyer.”
  • When some of the terrorists enter the house, “Boom! A flash of bright light, the doors burst open. The force of the exploding thrust me [Sophia] across the room. I land hard on my bleeding leg.” Then “a man lunges for Aksel’s neck. Aksel spins hard around, hitting the butt of his rifle into the man’s face with a bone-crunching sound.”
  • A man is able to capture Sophia and “holds my arms behind my back and wraps a cable tie around my wrists. . . I throw my head backwards with as much force as I can. Crack! The Chechen lets go of me. . .” Sophia is able to use a knife to cut the man. “The semiautomatic drops from his hands as he tries to stop blood spurting from the neck.” The bloody scene is described over nine pages.
  • Sophia reads a report about Anton Katranov, who was an undercover spy that worked under Sophia’s father. Sophia’s father, Kent, found Anton “face down on the floor, arms outstretched… behind him were the lifeless bodies of his two boys. And behind them, blocking the entrance to the back bedrooms, lay the crumpled body of Mrs. Katranov.” The deaths are described over two pages.
  • Sophia gets angry at her parents and sneaks off a train. When Sophia realizes she is being followed, she goes into a crowded club and then tries to leave, undetected. She cuts through an alley and sees, “the bald man. I reverse, but two other men approach from behind me. . . Between them is a girl with long, dark hair, and silver hoops in her ears. . . Now, she stares at me, wide eyed. Petrified. Blood is coagulating around a cut in her eyebrow. Her lip is swollen. . .” Sophia gives herself up, so the men will let go of the girl.
  • Sophia is thrown into a car, and her ankles are zip-tied. Despite this, she is able to “curl my knees into my chest, pivot to the left, and rocket my legs out from my body. My blunt heels collide with the back of the driver’s head.” The car swerves and crashes. Sophia escapes.
  • The story concludes with a multi-chapter, extended description of the battle between Sophia, her parents, and the terrorists. Sophia’s father appears out of nowhere and grabs one of the terrorists, Munich Jacket. “Unflinching, my father bends Munich Jacket’s forefinger so far in the wrong direction that the bone snaps in two. . . With a swift swipe of his HK, my father breaks Munich Jackets’ skull.” There is a blood gun battle where many people are killed, including Sophia’s father.
  • As Sophia runs from the terrorists, she runs across a frozen pond. When the men try to follow, “I turn to see the ice dissolve beneath them too. Their bodies plunge into the frigid water.”
  • Bakami, the terrorist who wants Sophia, finally captures her. “Bakami slides his hand around the back of my neck and pinches my spine so savagely between his forefinger and thumb I nearly black out. . . Slowly, I tilt my neck back then ram my head forward. My forehead collides into his face with a hard crunch . . . Blood gushes from his nostrils, soaking the collar of his shirt.”
  • When Sophia continues to talk back to Bakami, he “traces my collarbone with his fingernail. . . with the back of his hand, he swings the weight of his forearm across my jaw. He grips my neck, pinching my esophagus, strangling me.” Bakami points a gun at Sophia, readying to shoot her when, “A gunshot sounds. Followed by another. . . Abramovich [Bakami] crumbles back against the mahogany desk, blood pouring from the silk handkerchief in his pocket.”
  • Sophia and the secret agents follow the terrorists, who set off a bomb. When Sophia comes to, “my skin is on fire. Hot pieces of metal gash my forearms like fiery embers; they singe my shirt, engulfing the pavement and every nearby surface.” While there are several injuries, no deaths are described.
  • When the double agent is discovered, Sophia’s mother “grabs Andrews by her lapel, flings her around, and shoves. Andrews tumbles backward out of the plane, sucked into the sky.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Sophia is injured, she is given an injection of lidocaine.
  • Sophia’s captor drinks vodka.

Language

  • Damn is used twice. Sophia’s father tells her, “Stop being obstinate and get on the damn plane.”
  • One of the terrorists calls Sophia a whore.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Daughter of the Deep

Ana Dakkar is a freshman at Harding-Pencroft Academy, a five-year high school that graduates the best marine scientists, naval warriors, navigators, and underwater explorers in the world. Ana’s parents died while on a scientific expedition two years ago, and the only family she’s got left is her older brother, Dev, also a student at HP.

Ana’s freshman year culminates with the class’s weekend trial at sea, the details of which have been kept secret. She only hopes she has what it’ll take to succeed. All her worries are blown out of the water when, on the bus ride to the ship, Ana and her schoolmates witness a terrible tragedy that will change the trajectory of their lives.

But wait, there’s more. The professor accompanying them informs Ana that their rival school, Land Institute, and Harding-Pencroft have been fighting a cold war for a hundred and fifty years. Now, that cold war has been turned up to a full boil, and the freshman are in danger of becoming fish food.

In a race against deadly enemies, Ana will make amazing friends and astounding discoveries about her heritage as she puts her leadership skills to the test for the first time.

In Daughter of the Deep, the books 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island written by Jules Verne are more factual than fictional. One of the teachers explains who the book’s characters are and where they fit into modern society. Ana also discovers that she is a descendant of Captain Nemo who “hated the great colonial powers. . . and had personal reasons to hate imperialism.” While introducing the above topic, both the Land Institute and Harding agree that “turning Nemo’s technology over to the world’s governments, or worse, the world’s corporations, would be disastrous.” Riordan repeatedly reminds readers of the danger of the world’s governments and corporations, who are more concerned with keeping their monopolies than helping citizens. This theme is not well-developed, and most teens will quickly forget these passages.

The story is told from Ana’s point of view. Even though she is the heroine, Ana is not portrayed as a perfect person. After her parents died, Ana dissociates; the narrative explains that Ana has talked to the school counselor regarding her grief. While Ana’s talk of her painful menstrual cycle makes her more relatable, the topic will make some younger readers uncomfortable. After the hostiles destroy Harding-Pencroft Academy, killing anyone on campus, Ana decides that the hostiles will be let free without any consequences. In the story’s conclusion, Ana unrealistically forgives the people who destroyed the school and then tried to kill her and her friends.

The story has a large group of characters who are both racially and religiously diverse. Plus, one character, Ester, has autism and needs an emotional support animal. However, even with readers paying close attention, the large cast of characters is difficult to keep track of. Daughter of the Deep has a unique premise, interesting characters, and fun technology; however, the story leaves the reader wondering if justice was served or if Ana’s opponents will just regroup and come back to continue their killing spree. Before jumping into Daughter of the Deep, readers who are intrigued by Jules Verne’s books should read the Max Tilt Series by Peter Lerangis.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • In order to demonstrate a Leyden, Dr. Hewett shoots a student. “The only sound is a high-pressure hiss. For a millisecond, Gem is wrapped in flickering white tendrils of electricity. Then his eyes crossed, and he collapsed in a heap.” Gem recovers quickly.
  • Students from the Land Institute attack the Harding-Pencroft Academy’s yacht. When they board the vessel, they use grenade launchers. “Two fist-size canisters plunk onto our gangway and roll hissing. . . the explosions still leave [Ana’s] head ringing.”
  • A student’s dog helps defend his person. The dog, Top, “joins the party, clamping his jaws around the guy’s throat . . . As it is, he [the attacker] crab-walks backward, screaming and trying to shake off the furious twenty-pound fluff demon attached to his windpipe.”
  • During the attack, “Two hostiles fire their silver weapons. Miniature harpoons impale Elois’s shoulder and Cooper’s leg. White arcs of electricity bloom from the projectiles, both [students] crumple.” When the hostiles continue to fire, “Drue Cardenas shoots another intruder. Unfortunately, the electricity also arcs to Nelinha, who had been in the process of pummeling said intruder with a socket wrench. Both of them go down.” No one is killed, but several are injured. The fight is described over six pages.
  • Caleb, a student from the Land Institute, attempts to kidnap Ana. They are in the ocean when Ana snaps her “head backward and hears the satisfying crunch of Caleb’s nose breaking.” As the two struggle, “help comes from an unexpected direction. Right next to us, a mass of sleek blue-gray flesh explodes out of the sea, and Caleb is body-slammed into oblivion under the weight of a six-hundred-pound bottlenose dolphin.” Ana is able to escape.
  • A huge octopus, Romeo, likes the submarine, the Nautilus. When Ana and Gem first see it, “Gem tackles me and jets me out of the way, but the creature isn’t interested in us. Eight tentacles the size of bridge cables wrap themselves around the Nautilus.” The group manages to safely detach the octopus from the sub.
  • Ana’s brother, Dev, who is captain of the Aronnax, attacks the Nautilus. “The Aronnax’s four torpedoes sail straight over our heads. . .” Before the Aronnax can cause any damage to the Nautilus, “Romeo’s enormous tentacles wrap around the Aronnax, pulling her into an embrace… Romeo snaps the Aronnax like gingerbread. Fire and sea churn together. Giant, silver air bubbles, some with people inside, billow toward the surface.” The Aronnax is destroyed, but everyone survives.
  • There is a multi-chapter confrontation between Dev’s group and Ana’s group. When Ana and Gem try to get back to base, they see “Dev’s skiff is waiting for us. . . a black wedge bristling with weapons like the spines of a porcupine fish. It faces us from only fifty feet away. . . and in the pilot’s seat is my brother. . . We sail over the Dev’s stern . . . Gem shoulders his Leyden rifle and fires two rounds straight into the submersible’s propulsion system.” Once the skiff is out of commission Ana and Gem go to free the hostages.
  • Back at the base, Ana and Gem are attacked before they can get out of the ocean. “The nearest diver jabs [Ana] with his knife. . . The razor-sharp edge rips the fabric and grazes my ribs. . . White spots swim in my eyes. Nevertheless, I use my boots to wrestle my attacker, pushing him backward into one of the pier’s pylons.”
  • In order to get away from her attacker, Ana unsheathes her “blade and stabs him in the BC vest. . . With his vest’s air bladder punctured, my opponent is blinded by bubbles. He starts to sink . . . On his way down, I kick him for good measure.” Socrates, Ana’s dolphin friend, helps in the fight. “While he headbutts the blue-eyed diver into submission, three of the local bottlenose dolphins descend on the other guy . . . The dolphins welcome him to the neighborhood with an extreme tail-fin smackdown.”
  • Gem shoots several of the opponents with non-lethal bullets. The bullets leave them with “nasty red welts in the middle of their foreheads.”
  • When Gem and Ana get to the base, they see their friends “are being held at gunpoint.” Gem uses an alt-tech flash-band and then enters the dining room “but there’s no one left to shoot at. Our friends are still alive, though they’ve looked better. . . All four hostiles are out cold, spread-eagled on the floor, goofy grins frozen onto their faces. . .”
  • Dev finds Ana and Gem. “My brother smacks [Gem] across the head with a ratchet. Gem collapses. . . My brother glares at me. . . He grabs my wrist, slapping the gun from my hand, then steps in and twists, attempting to throw me over his shoulder.” The brother and sister fight until, “[Ana] shoot[s] him three times. The last rubber bullet snaps his head back, raising an ugly red spot right between the eyes.” Dev is taken as prisoner and locked in a room. The casualties from the battle are minor. There were no deaths on either side.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Students from the Land Institute attempt to kidnap Ana. Ana describes, “Someone behind me locks his forearm across my throat. I feel a sharp pain like a wasp sting in the side of my neck.” Ana discovers that she has been injected with sea-snake venom.
  • Ana takes Midol for period pain.

Language

  • God, oh god and my god are all used as exclamations several times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Ana’s school is attacked and destroyed, she prays, “Three-Eyed One, Lord Shiva, who nourishes all beings, may He liberate us from death.”
  • While thinking about her ancestors, Ana thinks, “Ester and I were bound together before we were born. It makes me wonder about reincarnation and karma, and whether our souls might have met at another time.”
  • After Ana realizes that her brother destroyed their school, she said “a prayer for my brother, and for the future.”

Molly and the Twin Towers: A 9/11 Survival Story

Life in lower Manhattan is normal for Molly, her dads, and her younger sister. But on September 11, 2001, everything changes. Molly and her younger sister, Adeline, are at school when the first plane hits the World Trade Center. When the Twin Towers fall, the city is thrown into chaos. Papa, a pilot, is flying, Dad can’t be reached, and Gran, an EMT with the New York Fire Department, is at Ground Zero. It’s up to Molly to find her sister and navigate a city she no longer recognizes.

The book begins with a short introduction to Molly’s family, which allows readers to connect to the people Molly cares about. Because the attack on the Twin Towers occurs when Molly is at school, her fears and confusion are understandable. When the school begins to evacuate, Molly searches for her sister. Once the two are together, Molly tries to protect her sister from falling debris, she also worries about her dad, who is an airplane pilot, and her Gran, who is an EMT stationed close to the towers.

Afterward, Molly’s dad tries to explain why the terrorists flew a plane into the Twin Towers. He says, “There are people in the world who believe that violence, hurting others, is how they’ll get what they want.” Her dad doesn’t think that terrorists will win because “for every person who wants to cause harm, there are thousands more who want to protect. To do good.”

Molly and the Twin Towers will answer basic questions about the events of 9/11. While Molly’s fear is obvious, the events are described in kid-friendly terms. Some of the information is told through news sources, which allows the reader to get basic facts without bloody details. Despite this, Molly’s shock, confusion, and fear are at the forefront of the story. Afterward, Molly and her family go to therapy in order to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In order to make the story easy to follow, each chapter begins with Molly’s location and the time. Every 7 to 10 pages there is a black-and-white illustration. The illustrations mostly focus on Molly and the events surrounding her. Some of the illustrations show the Twin Towers engulfed in smoke and ash. The book ends with a note from the author that describes some of the heroes of 9/11, a glossary, and three questions about the story.

Molly and the Twin Towers will teach readers about the events of 9/11. The short chapters, fast-paced plot, and suspense will keep readers interested until the very end. Molly is a likable character who shows bravery in the face of fear. Readers who want to learn more about the attacks should also read I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis.

Sexual Content

  • Adi and Molly have two dads. “Our dads had used a different surrogate for each of our births. I got Dad’s light eyes and dusty hair. Adi got Papa’s beautiful darker features and curly hair, which she claimed to hate.”

Violence

  • While at school, Molly hears a huge boom. “It almost sounded fake, as if I was in a movie theater and the surround sound was turned all the way up. . . The noise shook our entire school like a humongous, angry clap of thunder. The glass in the windows next to me shuddered.”
  • A little later, Molly hears another explosion. “This one I felt in my chest. The blast made my ribs rattle, and the sound echoed within.”
  • Molly overhears an adult say a plane ran into the towers. Molly “couldn’t believe one airplane had hit, let alone two. It had to be something else.”
  • Molly leaves the school so she can look for her sister. Once outside, “fire and smoke raged and billowed out of the top portion of the North Tower. The South tower, now also on fire, was quickly catching up. Debris rained down as if the sky was falling.”
  • Molly hears a radio broadcaster say, “This just in . . . my lord . . . excuse me. . . I-I’m getting reports that another passenger plane has crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington D.C.”
  • As Molly runs towards home, “a sound like nothing I’d ever heard before seized the air. It was a deafening thunderclap followed by the roar of a thousand train engines. . . The smoke and debris began where the tower stood and tumbled forward. It was like a large wave, quickly engulfing everything in its path, threatening to wash us all away.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • While looking for her sister, Molly “prayed I would find my sister sitting safely among the cushions and chairs. But when I reached the top, the loft was empty.”

The Forest of Stolen Girls

1426, Joseon (Korea). Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister Maewol went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest near a gruesome crime scene.

After five years, Hwani reunites with Maewol on Jeju island. Hwani has crossed the sea to find her father, Detective Jeewoo Min, after he has disappeared while investigating the disappearance of thirteen other girls. She is the older sister whose life plans—to get married and bear children—have come to a halt.

Maewol was called to be a shaman and train under Shaman Nokyung. Unlike Hwani, Maewol despises their father and does not wish for him to be found. When the body of one of the girls is discovered, Maewol and Hwani get sucked into the mystery of the disappearance of the young girls. The sisters realize there’s a possible correlation between the disappearances and their own Forest Incident, an event that left Hwani and Maewol completely changed. As Hwani and Maewol investigate further into the disappearances of the missing girls, they encounter a formidable enemy, the Mask, and the sisters learn that evil comes in different forms.

The entire story of The Forest of Stolen Girls is told in a prose narrative style, in the first person point of view. The story follows Hwani and her turbulent investigation into her father’s disappearance and, into the disappearance of thirteen young girls between the ages of eleven and eighteen. As the reader follows Hwani’s investigation, they will feel what Hwani feels and suspect who Hwani suspects.

The story displays a realistic sisterly relationship. The two sisters they, but are also kind to one another. A majority of the story is spent on the obstacles Hwani and Maewol face as sisters. Hwani is more logical and calculated while Maewol is impulsive and acts upon instinct. Maewol despises her father while Hwani idolizes him; this creates the central conflict. Hwani discovers her father is not as good as he seems and learns to be there for Maewol. Maewol, in turn, learns to forgive her sister even when Hwani has wronged her. At the end of the story, their sisterly bond is what saves Maewol and Hwani.

The Forest of Stolen Girls deals with the brutal history of China’s imperialism over the Korean peninsula. The core of the story relies on the historical fact that in Joseon, Korea, over 2,000 girls were kidnapped from their homes and sent to China as “tribute girls.” The story deals with this intergenerational trauma gracefully and brings to light atrocities committed by both Chinese and Joseon officials alike. The taking of tribute girls results in characters committing heinous actions for the sake of their own daughters. In order to prevent Gahee from being taken as a tribute girl, her father sliced up her face. Though her father did it to protect her, this actions permanently disfigured her and made her an outcast among her own people.

The Forest of Stolen Girls shows class strife and how it correlates with the missing girls. Rich officials of the Joseon government use bribes to keep their daughters from becoming tribute girls. But because the officials need new girls to take the place of their spared daughters, they kidnap girls from poverty.

The story shows the desperation of the poor, such as Convict Baek aiding in the kidnapping of girls in order to feed his daughter. The Forest of Stolen Girls shows readers that no one is truly bad and no one is truly good. It is the system in place that pressures people into continuing this cycle of grief and trauma.

The Forest of Stolen Girls is a beautiful novel that centers around a story of Asian women and the trauma they’ve endured for centuries. The mystery is beautifully woven, with every event, fight and conversation is meant to either aid the investigation, provide a red flag, or add to the characters’ stakes in the mystery. The twist is pulled off excellently and shows realistic motives that reveal the monster in people. The Forest of Stolen Girls is for readers who like murder mysteries, historical fiction, or would like to learn more about East Asian history.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • After discovering the body of one of the missing girls, Hwani asks the victim’s older sister, Iseul, some questions. Iseul implies that Hyunok was not raped while captured. Iseul says, “The midwife is my aunt. We knew Magistrate Hong would have her buried without an examination; he is like that. We examined Hyunok, and my aunt concluded that my sister hadn’t been harmed in…that
  • While exploring the forest, Hwani is chased by a man in a white. “The blade flashed as he swung the sword, and I squeezed my eyes, waiting for the slash of pain.” Maewol saves her.
  • While treating her wounds, Hwani recounts how her aunt used to beat her with a stick, thus leaving thin scars on her legs. Her aunt uses corporal punishment as a form of discipline. Her wounds “stung, yet the pain was a mere inch compared to Aunt Min’s beatings. When she was upset, she would wait for Father to leave before striking my calves with a thin stick, and the humiliation of it had made the cuts all the more excruciating.”
  • Maewol tells Hwani that one of their possible suspects, Convict Baek, “ sliced up his daughter’s face when she was only twelve, and no one knows why.”
  • Hwani confronts Convict Baek. Convict Baek shoves Hwani, causing her to fall and hit her head against a low-legged table, hard enough to draw blood. “He took another step and with his large hand he shoved at my shoulder with such strength that I went toppling. My head hit the corner of the low-legged table, my hair coming undone and falling over my face.”
  • After Hwani finds her father, Inspector Yu tells her his cause of death was not poison. “He was stabbed.”
  • Seohyun wants to kill the person who forced her to become a tribute girl. “There was murder in my daughter’s eyes. She told me in riddles what had happened. She and many other girls had been given to Emperor Xuande for her imperial harem. She also told me she was going to kill the person responsible, that she’d found out who it was but she wouldn’t give me a name.”
  • Hwani fights Village Elder Moon in a cave where he was keeping all of the stolen girls. The scene lasts for about three pages. “With all my strength, I continued to cling to the village elder’s robe as we thrashed in a blackness that seemed to leak through my eyes, surging fear into my soul. The village elder’s hands, too, turned desperate. Fingers grappling for anything, grabbing strands of my hair, wrapping tight around my throat as I struggled to hold on. My limbs felt numb and frozen, about to shatter as the cold deepened.”
  • Convict Baek and Village Elder Moon are sentenced to be executed. “Weeks later, when the verdict was made in accordance to the Great Ming Code, Village Elder Moon accepted his fate with a stare as blank as that of the dead. He was to be decapitated for having committed murder. Convict Baek, his accomplice, was to be punished by strangulation.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • There are multiple mentions of poison, as well as incidents of poisoning. Poisoning was a common method of execution in Joseon, Korea.
  • Hwani gets poisoned twice, once with a poison called kyeong-po buja that Hwani ingested herself, and the second time with arsenic from Village Elder Moon.
  • Hwani’s father is revealed to have been poisoned with arsenic as well. The poison did not kill him.
  • Village Elder Moon’s daughter, Chaewon, commits suicide by poisoning herself because she cannot live with her father’s actions.
  • Hwani pours a bowl full of rice wine onto her father’s grave.

 Language

  • None

 Supernatural

  • None

 

Spiritual

  • There are multiple mentions of spirits and the spirit world. For instance, Maewol describes what she sees when Hwani asks her if she can really communicate with the spirits from the spirit world. “I can’t hear what they say…I can’t really see or hear anything clearly. It’s like seeing shadows through the fog. A very thick
  • Maewol is a shaman, someone who communicates with the spirits.
  • Hwani and Maewol say “gods” rather than God because their religion is polytheistic.
  • There’s a brief mention of witchcraft when the body of Detective Min was discovered in a pristine condition. Village Elder Moon said, “No corpse could be in such a condition, not with the humidity of Jeju. It has to be witchcraft.”

by Emma Hua

 

Help! We Have Strange Powers!

Jillian and Jackson are twins having a normal day at the movies until a fortune teller machine changes their lives by zapping them with superpowers. Now Jillian can read minds and Jackson can make objects levitate. The twins are excited to live their new lives as real-life superheroes, but what if superpowers come with super villains?

Scientist Dr. Cranium kidnaps the twins and takes them to a lab. Dr. Cranium wants to drain the twins not only of their powers but of their minds. The twins escape the lab by lying about their powers, but their troubles are not over. They eventually go to HorrorLand, and become trapped in a creepy theme park run by monsters. Will they be able to escape, or are they trapped in HorrorLand forever?

Help! We Have Strange Powers is the tenth book in the Goosebumps HorrorLand series. The first part of the story is interesting as it focuses on Jillian and Jackson’s new powers. However, once the twins are trapped in HorrorLand, the plot becomes confusing because the twins meet all of the characters from the previous books. This will be confusing for readers who have not read the previous books, as there is no explanation for what HorrorLand is or how Jillian and Jackson get there.

Help! We Have Strange Powers is told in the first person from Jillian’s perspective. In true R.L. Stine fashion, each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, making the reader want to continue with the book. Jillian and Jackson are not admirable, as they only use their powers for selfish reasons and to mess with others. The plot is not cohesive and it uses the typical Goosebumps elements. Even though the story is just average, fans of R.L. Stine will enjoy Help! We Have Strange Powers because it is an easy-to-read thriller.

Sexual Content

  • Jillian reads her classmate’s mind. He thought, “Wow. Jillian is looking totally hot today.”
  • Jillian says the gym teacher is “young and tall and very hot. The girls in school all have crushes on him.”

Violence

  • Angry that Artie, an annoying kid, got butter on his sweater, Jackson “wrapped an arm around Artie’s neck and began wrestling with him…The two of them tumbled into the aisle, wrestling, grabbing at each other, punching.”
  • As Jackson reaches into a fortune-telling booth to grab his fortune, the machine shocks him and Jillian. Jillian’s “whole body shook and danced as a powerful shock stung [her]. Jolted [Jillian] hard. And sent pain shooting out over [her] arms and legs.”
  • During a soccer game, Artie kicked the ball, which “crashed into Jackson’s stomach.” Jackson “opened his mouth in a sick groan. His face turned purple, and his eyes nearly goggled out of his head.”
  • Jackson and Artie are playing Wii boxing when Artie’s “punch went wide – and he slammed his fist into [Jackson’s] jaw.”
  • Jillian and Jackson try to see if they can fly. They break into a run and leap up. Jillian “crashed headfirst into the wire fence . . . and staggered backward, struggling to keep [her] balance. Pain shot through [her] body.” Jackson “hit the fence with a loud clang. He bounded off and tumbled onto his butt.”
  • While Dr. Cranium tries to wipe Jillian and Jackson’s thoughts, Jackson uses his powers to crash a mannequin into him. “The mannequin dropped hard and fast. It landed headfirst on top of Cranium, and he crumpled to the pavement.”
  • Jackson uses his powers to crash a chandelier onto the Purple Rage, a superhero who was trying to hurt the kids. “The chandelier crashed onto the superhero’s head and shoulders. The Rage uttered a weak cry. He toppled facedown onto the floor.”
  • Because the Purple Rage is so angry, he “exploded. His body burst apart with a loud splat . . . his purple guts went flying all over the room.”
  • Jillian, Jackson, and a few other kids try to go through a portal in a mirror that leads to Panic Park. It doesn’t work because the mirror turns back into solid glass, and Jillian runs into it. Jillian “screamed as [her] forehead cracked into solid glass.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Jackson and Jillian go see a movie called Butt-Kicker II.
  • Jackson used his powers to hurl a soccer ball at Artie. It missed Artie because he bent down to tie his shoe. Jackson said, “I’m sorry I missed that jerk.”

Supernatural

  • Jillian and Jackson obtain telekinesis and mind-reading abilities after getting zapped by a fortune-telling machine. Jillian can read people’s minds and Jackson can make things levitate. They are kidnapped by Inspector Cranium, who tries to erase their memories by “going into their brains.”
  • Jillian and Jackson eventually end up at a theme park called HorrorLand. The workers there are monsters, and they trap the two siblings and other kids in a basement where superheroes try to hurt them.

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Jill Johnson

They Both Die at the End

Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio both receive a call from Death-Cast at around midnight on September 5, 2017. Death-Cast tells them that they will die sometime in the next 24 hours.

Until that day, the boys had nothing in common. Mateo has spent his life inside, fearing the day he gets the call and doing everything he can to avoid bringing it about early. Rufus, on the other hand, has seen death up close and personal. After losing his family in a car accident, he has vowed to live every day to the fullest.

Their paths cross when they each download the app Last Friend, designed to give people a chance to connect with someone on their End Day. The novel follows the boys as they try to make each final moment count, and learn to balance healthy fear with the pursuit of feeling truly alive one last time.

The spoilers are in the title, but knowing the ending makes the reading journey more valuable. The audience is given happy moments, not a happy ending. Readers must grapple with their own mortality and ask whether they have been living more like Mateo or Rufus. For these reasons, the book is recommended for older teenaged readers. While the message is valuable, it is at times difficult to confront, so readers should approach the book with caution. They Both Die in the End addresses death, illness, difficult upbringings, terrorism, spirituality, suicide, and first loves.

The story alternates between the first-person perspectives of Rufus and Mateo as well as a third-person view of characters whose stories intertwine with theirs. As their lives intertwine, characters who may seem unrelated at first, find themselves deeply affected by the boys. This unifies the plot and allows Silvera to explore a diverse collection of characters and their relationships with death without becoming too unfocused. Despite the sadness of a short life, the collective experiences of Rufus and, more particularly, Mateo, leave readers with the hope that though the boys may not have lived long lives, they each lived fully on their final days.

Sexual Content

  • Mateo wants to go do something outside, so he does not spend the day “masturbating because sex with an actual person scares [him].”
  • Mateo’s best friend Lidia is an 18-year-old single mother.
  • A man approaches a woman at a club and says, “Maybe you’ll live to see another day with some Vitamin Me in your system.” This causes her friend to “[swing] her purse at him until he backs up.”
  • Rufus’s foster home has a “bulletin board with information about sex, getting tested for HIV, abortion and adoption clinics, and other sheets of that nature”.
  • Aimee, Rufus’s ex-girlfriend wishes Rufus would “watch porn” rather than reality TV.
  • Rufus remembers when he and Aimee were dating, and they would “rest underneath the blanket together.”
  • Mateo distinguishes between the Last Friend app and Necro “which is intended for anyone who wants a one-night stand with a Decker—the ultimate no-strings-attached app.” Mateo says, “I’ve always been so disturbed by Necro, and not just because sex makes me nervous.” Mateo doesn’t like the app’s eight-dollar fee because he feels “as if a human is worth more than eight bucks.”
  • Rufus describes his outfit, including basketball shorts over gym tights to prevent his “package” from “poking out there like Spider-Man’s.”
  • A potential Last Friend reaches out to Mateo, but she reveals she does not really want a friend. She says, “do you have an open house then? I’m supposed to lose my virginity to my bf but i want to practice first and maybe u can help me out.” Mateo blocks her after he sees the message.
  • Another potential Last Friend tricks Mateo by implying he can save Mateo from death. When Mateo asks him how, he says he should come over to his apartment because he “[has] the cure to death in [his] pants.” Mateo blocks him as well. Rufus later receives the same message when he downloads the app.
  • After hearing Rufus is dying Aimee cries, holds Rufus’s hand and hugs him. He remembers how “she would relax on [his] chest whenever she was about to watch one of her historical documentaries.” After noticing that “she’s mad close,” Rufus “[leans] in” to kiss Aimee but is interrupted.
  • Mateo changes his profile to only allow sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds to message him, so “older men and women can no longer hit on [him].”
  • Mateo can hear the sounds coming from different apartments, including “one couple moaning” and laughter which he says could possibly be from “being tickled by a lover.”
  • Mateo considers the life of birds who “mate and nurture baby birds until they can fly.”
  • On the party train, Rufus notices “a girl . . . hops onto the bench seat to dance. Some dude is hitting on her, but her eyes are closed, and she’s just straight-up lost in her moment.”
  • A girl described as gorgeous, hazel-eyed, and black approaches Rufus on the party train and he feels “her breasts against [his] chest and her [lips] against [his] ear.” She asks if he wants to go home with her, and Rufus refers to her as his type, but he ultimately says no, due to him not having “much [he] can offer her, besides what she’s obviously suggesting.” He acknowledges that “sex with a college girl has gotta be on mad people’s bucket lists—young people, married-dude people, boys, girls . . .” However, he remembers Aimee and thinks, “I’m not trying to cheat that with something fake like this.”
  • The girl ultimately leaves with another guy, and Rufus suspects “they’ll just have sex tonight and he’ll call her ‘Kelly’ in the morning.”
  • Mateo tells Rufus about his parents’ proposal story. He explains, “My mother turned him down twice. He said she liked playing hard to get. Then she found out she was pregnant with me and he got down on one knee in the bathroom and she smiled and said yes.”
  • Mateo discusses his parent’s relationship in terms of songs, saying, “Another of Dad’s favorites is ‘Come What May,’ which my mother sang to him and womb-me during a shower they took together before her water broke.”
  • Delilah places her phone on the pillow “on the side of the bed that was Victor’s whenever he stayed over.”
  • Rufus tells Mateo, “Your Last Friend is gonna make sure you go out with a bang. Not a bad bang, or a you-know-what bang, but a good bang,”
  • Rufus jokes that if observing makes one able to do something, then “[he has] watched enough porn to make [him] a sex god.”
  • As Mateo looks at Rufus’s Instagram, Rufus says he feels “exposed.” Rufus likens it to “someone watching [him] wrap a towel around [his] boys” after a shower.
  • When Rufus was thirteen, he describes how “flipping through magazines, [he’d] scout for pictures of girls in skirts and dudes in shorts and would tilt the page to see what was underneath.”
  • At Make-A-Moment, Mateo notices that “a couple are kissing in a hot air balloon.”
  • Mateo meets a boy who “was pretty sure love didn’t mean that your father slept on the couch and that your mother didn’t care when her husband was caught cheating on her with younger girls in Atlantic City.”
  • After Mateo’s nightmare, he notices how Rufus “shifts closer…[Rufus’s] knee knocking against [his].”
  • Rufus explains that Althea Park is “where [he] kissed this girl, Cathy, for the first time.”
  • Mateo tells Rufus he’s never dated anyone, but he has had crushes. Then Mateo thinks to himself, “I sense there’s something more he wants to say; maybe he wants to crack a joke about how I should sign up for Necro so I don’t die a virgin, as if sex and love are the same thing.”
  • Mateo describes riding the bike with Rufus. He says, “I would lean against Rufus, shifting my weight against him . . .  keep holding him.” He determines that he is “going to do something small and brave.”
  • Rufus will not express his interest in Mateo, because, “He’s gotta make a move himself.”
  • When talking about the ending to his dream, Rufus says, “Nah, I think I started dreaming about sex or something and woke up from that.”
  • Mateo recognizes that Rufus is “probably not a virgin.”
  • While sitting next to each other on the train, Rufus “shifts, his body leaning against [Mateo’s].”
  • A comment could imply a history of sexual assault. A girl tells someone “all the heartbreaking [secrets] she always kept to herself because speaking up was too hard.”
  • Rufus, Mateo, and Lidia go swimming unexpectedly and strip down to their underwear. Rufus says, “[Mateo] avoids looking my way . . . unlike Lidia . . . who’s looking me up and down.”
  • When they prepare to jump into the pool, Rufus says, “I grab Mateo’s hand and lock my fingers in his. He turns to me with flushed cheeks . . . ” After they jump, they are still holding hands, and Rufus hugs Mateo in the water.
  • Later, Rufus thinks, “We don’t bring up the hand-holding or anything like that, but hopefully he gets where I’m coming from now in case he had any doubts.” Rufus says, “[The Plutos are] smiling at me like they wanna tag-team bang me.”
  • A girl “eyes [Rufus] up and down” and Mateo’s “face heats up.” He says, “But then Rufus catches up to me and pats my shoulder and the burn is different, like when he grabbed my hand back at the Travel Arena.”
  • Mateo and Rufus sing karaoke. Then Mateo drags Rufus “offstage, and once we’re behind the curtain, I look him in the eyes and he smiles like he knows what’s about to go down . . . I kiss the guy who brought me to life on the day we’re going to die.” Afterward, Rufus kisses Mateo.
  • Mateo and Rufus slow dance. “We place our hands on each other’s shoulders and waist; [Mateo’s] fingers dig into him a little, the first time I’m getting to touch someone else like this.” Mateo admits that “maintaining eye contact with Rufus is really hard” because it is “the most intense intimacy [he has] ever experienced.” They speak into each other’s ears and continue to dance before they kiss and part.
  • Rufus thinks, “Part of me can’t help but wonder if Mateo is bringing me home so we can have sex, but it’s probably safe to assume sex isn’t on the brain for him.”
  • Mateo sings “Your Song” for Rufus, and in the middle of the song, Rufus kisses his forehead.
  • Mateo and Rufus sit on the bed, “linking [their] arms and legs together.”
  • Rufus tells Mateo, “I would’ve loved you if we had more time . . .Maybe I already do . . .” Mateo then says, “I want to say it as many times as I want—I love you, I love you, I love you.” To which Rufus responds, “You know damn well I love you too . . . I don’t talk out of my dick, you know that’s not me.” He says he wants to kiss him again, but he doesn’t.
  • Rufus narrates as Mateo “climbs into [his] lap, bringing [them] closer.” They stay close together and kiss one more time before sleeping side by side.

Violence

  • After he finds out that he is going to die, Mateo wants to “curse into a pillow” because his dad is in a coma or “punch a wall because [his] mom marked [him] for an early death when she died giving birth to [him].”
  • Mateo tells the story of a President who “tried to hide from Death in an underground bunker four years ago and was assassinated by one of his own secret service agents.”
  • Frequently, Mateo and Rufus imagine the scenarios in which they could die. These are often worst-case scenarios, and some are gruesome. For instance, Mateo says, “I could choke on a cough drop; I could leave my apartment to do something with myself and fall down the stairs and snap my neck before I even make it outside; someone could break in and murder me.”
  • A fight between Rufus and Peck, Aimee’s new boyfriend, occurs over nine pages. Rufus repeatedly punches Peck, while pinning him down. Rufus fears he may kill Peck. He checks to make sure Peck doesn’t have a pocketknife, concerned that Peck may be the one to kill him. Rufus picks “Peck up by the back of his collar and then [slams] him against the brick wall . . . Blood slides from an open wound in [Peck’s] forehead.” Finally, a friend of Rufus’s looks like he is “about to kick [Peck] like his head’s a soccer ball.” Peck is not killed but walks away severely injured.
  • Rufus explains that his family’s car “flipped into the Hudson River” killing his sister and parents. Rufus later goes into more detail about the crash. He explains, “I’d sat shotgun because I thought it bettered our chances of surviving a head-on car crash if both my parents weren’t in front.” He says that it did not change anything “before going on about the screeching tires, the way we busted through the road’s safety rail and tumbled into the river. . .” Rufus says, though he forgets their voices, “I could recognize their screams anywhere.”
  • Victor, a Death-Cast employee, explains that his day included telling a mother her four-year-old daughter will die today and sending police to her home just in case the mother is responsible for the impending death.
  • While contemplating death, Rufus thinks “I’m praying that I don’t drown like my parents and sis.” He then says he’s “counting on not getting shot.”
  • Despite telling his friends he “wasn’t going to kill” Peck, Rufus internally admits, “I could’ve killed him.”
  • Rufus says that his survivor’s guilt after his family’s death was so strong that “there’s no way in hell [he] would’ve been chill with [himself] for beating someone to death.”
  • Wondering what happened to a blogger who died, Mateo considers looking into “muggings or murders in Central Park” to see if one victim was the blogger.
  • Rufus tells the readers that his friend “Malcom’s parents died in a house fire caused by some unidentified arsonist, and whoever it was, Malcolm hopes he’s burning in hell.” He later says Malcolm learned from “the flames that burned his house, parents, and favorite things” how to value people over things.
  • Rufus’s friend’s father “committed suicide.”
  • After telling Aimee that he promises not to die before he gets to see her again, she responds with the question, “How many Deckers make those promises and then pianos fall on their heads?”
  • Rufus warns Aimee that Peck “better not call the cops” so that Rufus doesn’t “find [himself] on the wrong end of some officer’s club.”
  • A picture in Rufus’s room is described as showing his friend with a bloody nose after an attempt to create a handshake went awry “because of a stupid head-butt.”
  • A man using the Last Friend app “unwittingly befriended the infamous Last Friend serial killer.”
  • The characters occasionally joke that another character could kill them from frustration. For instance, Rufus says, “It’s possible I’m gonna die at the hands of my foster father; if you’re not his alarm clock, you shouldn’t wake him up.”
  • Rufus describes how Aimee pushes him, and that, “She doesn’t play when it comes to violence because her parents got real extra when they tag-team-robbed a convenience store, assaulting the owner and his twenty-year-old son.” He clarifies that she will not be arrested like they were for “shoving [him] around.”
  • Peck is described after the fight as having “one eye shut, a cut on his lip, spots of dried blood on his swollen forehead.”
  • Playing a video game, Mateo watches his avatar “[step] on a land mine” which causes the virtual “arm to fly through a hut’s window, his head rockets into the sky, and his legs burst completely.” However, a moment later, the character returns “good as new,” which makes Mateo contemplate the finality of his own death.
  • Mateo has a panic attack and lashes out. He throws “these books across the room and even kick some of my favorites off their shelves . . . I rush over to my speakers and almost hurl them against the wall, stopping myself.” He stops because the electricity could kill him.
  • Rufus, while biking to Mateo’s home, says, “He better not be a serial killer or so help me . . . ”
  • Rufus’s friends, Malcolm and Tagoe, are arrested by the officers who are trying to track down Rufus, because “Malcolm argued with the police officer and resisted arrest” and “Tagoe jumped into the argument too with more aggression than Malcolm himself was using.”
  • The narrator explains that “Malcolm has never even been in a fight before, even though many paint him to be a violent young man because he’s six feet tall, black, and close to two hundred pounds.”
  • Mateo is concerned that Rufus is going to rob him when he first meets him. He checks the hallway “to see if he has some friends hiding against the walls, ready to jump me for the little I have.”
  • Mateo imagines his death again and cringes from the phantom feeling of “falling face-first onto spiked fences or having your teeth punched out of your mouth.” He runs through a list of scenarios with Rufus and their plan, should one of them occur. These scenarios include “some truck might run us down,” “someone pulls out a gun,” and “a train kills us.”
  • Mateo and Rufus come across a dead bird that “has been flattened; its severed head is a couple inches away.” Mateo thinks “it was run down by a car and then split by a bike.” When Mateo goes to bury the bird, he fears its head will “roll away.”
  • Mateo remembers seeing a baby bird fall out of its nest and how “its leg broke on impact.”
  • Rufus is grateful their train arrived because “we can safely rule out falling onto the exposed tracks, getting stuck while rats run by us, and straight chopped up and flattened by the train.”
  • Rufus says that getting Mateo “out of the apartment was one thing, but I’m probably gonna have to knock the dude out and drag him out of the hospital,”
  • Mateo tells Rufus about a childhood incident in which a bully took his lunch money, saying, “He punched me in the face and took it all.”
  • When Mateo goes to an ATM, he is “praying someone doesn’t come out of nowhere and hold [them] up at gunpoint for the money—we know how that would end.”
  • When exploring a ditch, Rufus tells Mateo, “If you find any toes in there, we’re jetting.” Mateo says there are no body parts, but in the past, he has found a “guy with a bloody nose and no sneakers. . . [he was] beat up and robbed.”
  • “Four six-foot-tall kids jumped [Kendrick] and stole” his sneakers. He ended up with a bloody nose and “walking home in his socks was painful.”
  • Mateo has a nightmare. “My skis disappeared and I flew straight off the mountain while headless birds circled overhead and I kept falling and falling.”
  • Rufus cries, mourning his own death, and becomes violent in response. He narrates, “I hammer at the railing with the bottom of my fist. I keep going and going. . . I stop, out of breath, like I just won a fight against ten dudes.”
  • An angry man, Vin, is said to “like to be feared” which is why he wrestles. However, he got sick and now cannot do that to take out his aggression. This results in him deciding to build a bomb to destroy the gym, those inside, and his coach, as his coach “suggested a new career route.” The narrator says, “Vin is going to die where he was made. And he’s not dying alone.”
  • Mateo and Rufus are caught in the explosion. “Glass shatters and we’re suddenly thrown backward through air as fire reaches out toward a screaming crowd. . . I slam against the driver’s side of a car, my shoulder banging into the rearview mirror. My vision fades—darkness, fire, darkness, fire.” He has no idea what happened, just that “Rufus is struggling to open his eyes and others are screaming. But not everyone. There are bodies on the ground, faces kissing cement.” He sees a woman whose “blood is staining a rain puddle.”
  • Deirdre is described “on the ledge of her apartment building” contemplating suicide. She sees people below and assumes they are betting on “if she’s a Decker,” or someone who knows they will die that day. Deidre says, “The blood and broken bones on the pavement will settle their wager.” It is said that this is not the first time she has thought about killing herself.
  • When Deidre was in a fight at school when she was young, someone called her “that lesbian with the dead parents.” This prompted her to go to a ledge, though her friend talked her out of killing herself.
  • Rufus seems to have struggled with suicidal thoughts before. He tells Mateo, “There was a point where I didn’t think any of this was worthwhile.” He goes on to say, “I would’ve been game with game over…but surviving showed me it’s better to be alive wishing I was dead than dying wishing I could live forever.”
  • Rufus tells Mateo he doesn’t deserve to die. Mateo responds that no one does. Rufus asks, “Except serial killers, right?” However, Mateo does not respond, implying he believes they are no exception.
  • Peck’s friend has been “stealing candy from the drugstore . . . fighting those who are the Goliath to his David. Starting a gang.”
  • Peck’s friend wants to hurt those who hurt Peck. He “imagines Rufus’s face where the dartboard is. He throws the dart and shoots bull’s-eye—right between Rufus’s eyes”.
  • The narrator says, “Peck will gain respect by unloading his gun into the one who disrespected him.”
  • Mateo hugs his best friend, Lidia. “She says everything in this hug—every thank-you, every i-love-you, every apology.” Mateo returns the hug. However, after a moment “Lidia steps back and slaps [him] hard across the face.”
  • A police officer is afraid of getting the call every night, “especially since losing his partner two months ago.” His partner died tracking someone participating in Bangers, which encourages Deckers to “kill themselves in the most unique way possible” and post videos that can win their family money. However, he says, most do not win, and “you don’t exactly get a second shot.” The Decker’s attempt to kill themselves resulted in the partner’s death.
  • There is a car crash. In the midst of a car ride, “Sandy’s eyes widen” then “the car jerks and Howie closes his eyes, a deep sinking in his chest.” The crash is narrated from the perspective of the boys who caused the accident. “The two boys laugh when one car bangs into another, spinning out of control until it crashes against the wall.” A girl survives the accident and remembers the “way [Howie’s] head banged against the reinforced window, heard the sickening crack that will stay with her forever—”
  • Peck pulls out the gun at the club, intending to kill Rufus. There is a stampede and Mateo says, “People are stepping on me and this is how I’m going to die, a minute before Rufus gets shot to death.”
  • There is a fight to get Peck to put the gun away. “Mateo punches Peck in the face.” Then, “Peck’s homie swings at Mateo” and someone runs “into Peck and his boy like a train, carrying them through the air as the gun drops, and he slams them against the wall.” Rufus is able to get the gun after he kicks “Peck’s other boy . . . in the face as he goes to grab it. . . Rufus unloaded the gun. All the bullets find their way into the wall.”
  • Mateo dies in a fire. “When I switch on the burner, my chest sinks with regret. Even when you know death is coming, the blaze of it all is still sudden.”
  • Rufus fights through the fire to try to find Mateo. He inhales a lot of smoke but reenters the apartment. He finds Mateo and grabs “Mateo, my fingers sink deep into boiled skin . . . half of his face is severely burned, the rest is deep red.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Mateo regrets that “no one will ever get high with [him].”
  • Rufus describes his appearance in a photo saying, “my eyes uneven, kind of like when I’m high, which I wasn’t (yet).”
  • Two potential Last Friends reach out to Mateo with the message subject line being “420?” Mateo narrates, “I ignore Kevin and Kelly’s message; not interested in pot.”
  • Rufus says the gas station “smells like piss and cheap beer.”
  • Mateo changes his profile to only allow Deckers to reach out, “so I don’t have to deal with anyone looking to buy a couch or pot.”
  • A girl approaches Rufus on the train who has “an extra can of beer” and asks, “Want one?” Rufus refuses.
  • Rufus later takes pictures of the “crushed beer cans and water bottles” on the train.
  • Mateo does not regret going to the party but thinks, “I don’t want to be around people who get so drunk they pass out and eventually black out the nights they’re lucky to be living.”
  • A girl has a cigarette at one point.
  • Officer Andrade and his partner “traded dad jokes over beers.”
  • Officer Andrade plans to “share a beer” with his partner in heaven.
  • Lidia says while drinking, “I wish this had some kick to it . . . I can’t be sober when I lose you.”
  • Rufus and Mateo sing “American Pie” which includes lyrics about “whisky and rye.”

Language

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes asshole, god, dumbass, jacked up, damn, multiple forms of shit, hell, fuck, pissed, bullshit, ass, bitch/bitching, dope, dick, bastard, motherfucker, and piss.
  • Mateo says he’ll “feel ballsier” once he has said his goodbyes to those he loves.
  • Rufus says to Aimee, “There isn’t a bigger kick to the nuts than you turning your back on the Plutos for the punk-ass kid who got them locked up.”
  • After Mateo talks about wanting to “leave [their] mark,” Rufus jokes, “We going outside to piss on fire hydrants?”
  • When Rufus says he loves the Plutos, he notes that “No one cracks homo jokes.”
  • After Rufus refers to Malcolm and Tagoe as “shadows,” Malcolm jokingly responds, “That because we’re black?”

Supernatural

  • Rufus asks the Death-Cast employee about how they know when people will die. He guesses, “Crystal ball? Calendar from the future?” He remembers the theories told to him about Death-Cast being a “band of legit psychics and . . . an alien shackled to a bathtub and forced by the government to report End Days.”
  • Mateo believes Rufus is not a monster because monsters “trap you in your bed and eat you alive” rather than “come to your home and help you live.”
  • A boy was writing a book about a “demon doctor wearing a stethoscope that could read his patients’ minds.”

 

Spiritual Content

  • Rufus considers taking a picture of Aimee’s church to post to Instagram but decides his “nonbelieving ass” shouldn’t have that as his last post.
  • Aimee is described as “pretty Catholic.”
  • Rufus explains that “Malcom and Tagoe are always mocking the churches that shun Death-Cast and their ‘unholy visions from Satan.’” He goes on, saying that he finds it “dope how some nuns and priests keep busy way past midnight for Deckers trying to repent, get baptized, and all that good stuff.”
  • Rufus says, “If there’s a God guy out there like my mom believed, I hope he’s got my back right now.”
  • Mateo implies that his mother wanted to marry his father before he was born due to “her family’s traditions” believing him to be a “bastard” if she should not. He thinks “the whole bastard thing is stupid.”
  • Rufus and Mateo visit a graveyard and discuss how they, and others, view the afterlife. Rufus thinks that there are two afterlives: one “when Death-Cast tells us to live out our last day knowing it’s our last” and “then we enter the next and final afterlife without any regrets.” He also believes that if we live too long after knowing we will die then “we turn into ghosts who haunt and kill.” He thinks the final afterlife is “whatever you want.”
  • Mateo’s dad “believes in the usual golden-gated island in the sky”, which Lidia likes because “the popular afterlife is better than no afterlife”. Mateo thinks it will be “a home theater where you can rewatch your entire life from start to finish”.
  • Rufus says, “I’m not religious. I believe there’s some alien creator and somewhere for dead people to hang out, but I don’t credit that all as God and heaven.”
  • Mateo says, “I hope reincarnation is real.” This becomes a recurring wish for him. That in another life, he will be able to find Rufus again.
  • Mateo asks if Rufus believes in fate. Rufus says he doesn’t, but Mateo asks, “How else do you explain us meeting? . . . If you can believe in two afterlives, you can believe in the universe playing puppet master.”
  • A girl talks about the book that she is writing which is about reincarnation and a girl trying to find her sister after the sister’s death. The girl also mentions the origins of her name in “a heroine in Irish mythology who took her own life.”
  • Rufus says after cliff jumping, “It’s like I’ve been baptized or some shit, ditching more anger and sadness and blame and frustration beneath the surface.”

by Jennaly Nolan

Scorpion Mountain

Hal, his Brotherband crew, and the Ranger Gilan have freed the twelve Araluens sold into slavery. Returning to Araluen, Gilan is given a new mission by King Duncan: protect his daughter’s life. Princess Cassandra has survived one attempt on her life already, and now whispers of a second attempt have reached the kingdom. A deadly sect known as the Scorpion Cult is thought to be behind the assassination threat. Not waiting to see if the knife will strike true, the Brotherband again teams up with Gilan to track down the would-be killers.

Like the other books in the Brotherband series, Scorpion Mountain has nonstop action as Hal and the other Herons travel to a new location. Several characters from the Ranger’s Apprentice Series make an appearance and assist the Herons. The Herons fight in several bloody battles, which are described in more gruesome detail than in the previous books. One member of the brotherband, Ulf, is seriously injured and must be left behind. However, Ulf eventually heals from his wounds and is reunited with the Herons. While much of Ulf and his brother’s bickering was entertaining, many readers will find that they do not miss the brothers’ constant arguing.

As the fifth installment of the series, Scorpion Mountain continues to show the different qualities of the Brotherband Series, however, none of the characters show personal growth. Even though the Herons visit several new locations, the story is predictable and contains few surprises. Like the other books in the series, the crew travel somewhere new, Hal comes up with a brilliant invention, they fight an epic battle and then return home to a celebration. While the interaction between the characters is entertaining, some readers may find the story’s plot tedious rather than exciting.

Fans of the Brotherband Series will find that Scorpion Mountain uses the same formula as the other books in the series. Gilan and the other characters from the Ranger’s Apprentice add interest to the story; however, the characters are not well developed. Despite the story’s predictability, the action and adventure will keep devoted readers interested.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When an assassin tries to kill the princess, Lydia throws a blunt dart at him, knocking him out. He is then tied to a chair and questioned.
  • In order to free a town from raiders, the Herons attack one of their ships. When they get close to the ship, “Lydia’s first dart hit the helmsmen, killing him instantly. He reeled back across the deck, releasing the tiller, then crashing to the planks.”
  • The Herons use the Mangler to throw huge projectiles at the ship. One enemy tried to throw a spear at the Herons but, “He never managed it. An arrow suddenly thudded into his chest.”
  • During the battle, the slave master peeked out of the port and “was caught across the jaw by one of the leaping oar butts. He fell senseless to the deck. Two of the rowers, seeing their chance, leapt on him, drawing the long knife from his scabbard.” The slaves kill the man.
  • The Herons board the ship and Stig uses his ax to kill an enemy. “The man stumbled before falling on his side, a shocked look on his features.” The Herons kill every crew member. The battle is described over 11 pages.
  • The Herons enter a harbor and attack an invading force. “Philip was drawing back the second arrow when he felt a massive impact against his chest. . . The impact was like a hard punch but the area was numb. Then the pain came. Huge waves of it. . . he collapsed to the wharf like a rag doll.”
  • As the Herons enter the town, they are greeted by Invaders. “Thorn’s terrible club-hand rose and fell and swept from side to side, breaking bones, cracking ribs, sending enemies flying.”
  • During the battle, a “man went down, his horse somersaulting beneath him and sending him flying headlong into the rocky ground.” A lot of the enemies are killed and Ulf is seriously injured. The battle is described over 40 pages.
  • A group of cult members attacks the Herons. One man “begun to swing down from the saddle when Lydia’s first dart arrived. It went into his upper arm, slightly above the small circular shield that he wore there, and penetrated through to his body.” The man’s horse spooks and the man is “dragged behind it, one foot still firmly trapped in the stirrup.”
  • A man gets caught in a “ditch concealed by the thornbush.” Thorn “leaned forward and brought a huge, iron-studded war club down on his skull with crushing effect. The attacker’s hoarse war cry was cut short and he fell face-down, suspended on the clinging thornbush.”
  • During the battle, Ingvar hits a man. “The Ishti warrior felt as if a galloping horse had slammed onto his shield. He was hurled back several paces.” The warriors retreat. The battle is described over five pages.
  • The Shurmel, a cult leader, and Gilan fight one-on-one. The Shurmel thrusts his sword and “meeting no solid resistance, the Shurmel staggered forward, off balance, and felt the razor-sharp point of Gilan’s sword as it flicked up to touch his throat. A small runnel of blood came from the spot where it touched.”
  • During the fight, “Gilan went on the attack.” The Shurmel “staggered back clumsily, only just managing to avoid the stroke.” Eventually, Gilan “stepped forward and slammed his axe into the Shurmel’s unprotected ribs, driving the weapon to the hilt. . . The Shurmel’s eyes mirrored shock, then disbelief, then pain, in quick succession. Then his knees gave way under him and his eyes went completely blank as he collapsed to the stone floor.” The fight is described over 5 pages.
  • A group of cult members attempts to attack the Herons’ ship. As a warrior tries to get onto the ship, Thorn’s “heavy club-hand swept down and smashed the man aside. He fell awkwardly, half in the water. . .” The man tries to get back onto the raft causing one of his comrades to stagger. “Thorn’s sword caught him in the middle of the chest and he fell into the sea without another word.”
  • As the enemy tries to board the Heron, “Ingvar let out a bellow of fighting rage and lunged with his voulge over the side. The blade stabbed in and out like a striking cobra, and three of the Ishti fell back from the ship in terror.” Another raft gets close to the Heron and two men board the ship. “One of them went no farther. A heavy dart flashed across along the deck and thudded into his chest.” The scene is described over several chapters.
  • Reinforcements begin boarding a raft. Someone shoots the Mangler, which is a huge crossbow. “It hit the raft at an angle, but the impact was enough to shatter the pottery warhead and send shards of hard clay whirling through the crew. . . the water around the raft turned red with their blood.”
  • Hal sees the warriors and his “land sailor plowed at full speed into the three men, hurling them to either side like so many ninepins.” At the end of the fight, “a third of the Ishti fighters had been killed or wounded . . . The others wasted no time in surrendering.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When a king meets with the Herons, he offers them ale or wine. They decline.
  • Thorn is a recovering alcoholic. He thinks back to a time when “he saw most things over the rim of a brandy tankard.”
  • An assassin shoots a poisoned arrow at the princess.
  • Philip the Bloodyhand is captain of an invading force. When he is woken up, he has a hangover, and “several empty wine flasks and jars [were] scattered around the room.” Phillip orders a man to “get me wine.”
  • A small group of the Herons go to negotiate with a cult leader. When they arrive, the members were chewing something that Gilan assumes is “some kind of drug. Possibly a hallucinogenic or relaxant.”
  • When the Herons return home, the town throws a huge party where ale is served.

Language

  • Occasionally, characters use a name of a Skandian god as an exclamation. For example, “Gorlog’s earwax,” “Hern’s breath,” and “Gorlog’s eyebrows.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The assassin said he is protected by Imrika, the goddess of death.
  • When Gilan kills the cult leader, the Shurmel “realized that this ridiculous foreigner offered him a wonderful opportunity. Truly, he thought, he has a gift from the goddess Imrika. He raised his eyes to the heaven and uttered a silent word of thanks for this gift.”
  • When Gilan runs into an acquaintance, the man says, “It is you! May the almighty one be praised”

The Sky is Everywhere

After seventeen-year-old Lennie’s sister Bailey dies suddenly, Lennie finds herself trying to navigate a new world without her sister. Lennie lives in California with her grandma, Gram, and her uncle, Big. Lennie is passionate about Wuthering Heights, writing poetry, and music, and playing the clarinet in her school band, where she meets a charismatic new boy named Joe Fontaine.

Another large part of Lennie’s life is her best friend Sarah and her sister’s boyfriend, Toby. Things become complicated when Toby and Lennie start a secret affair while Lennie also begins a relationship with Joe. When she’s with Toby, Lennie feels free from the inescapable loneliness that surrounds her, although she also feels that her relationship with Toby is wrong. Joe is the opposite, the only person in Lennie’s life who didn’t know Bailey, which provides Lennie with an escape from the grief that follows her and her family around.

Lennie finally decides to end her relationship with Toby, because it is causing more harm than good. Then they share a final, goodbye kiss. However, Joe catches the two of them. Joe immediately ends their relationship, especially hurt by Lennie’s actions because she knew he had been cheated on in the past.

Lennie and Sarah scheme ways for Lennie to win Joe back, ranging from seduction to chopping down her grandmother’s roses, which are known around town to cause people to fall in love. However, in the end, what causes Joe to forgive Lennie is a poem that she writes for him, in which she expresses her intense love for him. The novel ends with Joe and Lennie’s reconciliation, as well as a new, budding friendship between Toby and Lennie.

Told from Lennie’s perspective, The Sky is Everywhere presents an inside look into the transition to normality after experiencing grief. Although the plot contains a love triangle, in reality, it is much more focused on Lennie’s relationship with herself. Lennie grows to accept that although her sister is gone, Lennie will always be able to treasure her sister’s memory and love. Lennie comes into her own and in doing so, recognizes a passion for music, something she had become complacent in for fear of failure.

Lennie will be relatable to many individuals struggling through grief, experiencing love for the first time, or those on a journey to discover who they are and what they’re passionate about. Nelson’s language is beautiful, immediately drawing the reader in and causing them to care deeply about the characters and their struggles. Although the love between Joe and Lennie is rushed, overall, the plot flows well, creating a story that’s intricate and easy to follow. The story reinforces the idea that it is never too late to find your passion. It also emphasizes that it is human to make mistakes, and this doesn’t mean you should give up.

Sexual Content

  • At the beginning of the novel, Lennie mentions, “suddenly all I think about is sex.”
  • As Lennie and Toby hug, consoling each other, Lennie notes, “I feel a hardness against my hip, him, that.
  • When remembering her embrace with Toby, Lennie thinks, “I recall the sensation of him pressing into me, shivers race all through my body-definitely not the appropriate reaction to your sister’s boyfriend’s hard-on!”
  • When Lennie encounters Toby after their past meeting, all she can think is “boner, boner, erection, hard-on, woody, boner, boner.”
  • Lennie recalls a conversation with her sister, where Bailey says, “Toby and I did it, had sex last night.”
  • After drinking and talking about Bailey, Toby “kisses me—his mouth: soft, hot, so alive, it makes me moan.”
  • After Lennie tells Sarah about her kiss with Toby, Sarah remarks, “Grief sex is kind of a thing.”
  • Lennie wonders what is wrong with her, because she has romantic feelings for Toby and Joe. Sarah asks, “What kind of girl wants to kiss every boy at a funeral, wants to maul a guy in a tree after making out with her sister’s boyfriend the previous night?”
  • Lennie and Toby meet up and kiss. Lennie feels “his mouth crushing into mine, teeth and tongue and lips.”
  • Lennie and Toby almost have sex. She thinks Toby “must have eight hands because one is taking off my shirt, another two are holding my face while he kisses me . . . another two are one my breasts, a few are pulling my hips to his and then the last undoes the button on my jeans, unzips the fly and we are on the bed, his hand edging its way between my legs.”
  • After Joe almost catches Lennie and Toby together, Toby is described as “trying to cover a freaking hard-on.”
  • To stop Joe’s suspicion about her and Toby, Lennie kisses him. “I mean really kiss[es] him.”
  • In Joe’s bedroom, Lennie starts to imagine Joe naked, and then remarks, “I’ve never even seen a real live guy totally naked, ever. Only some internet porn Sarah and I devoured for a while.”
  • As they lay in a bed, Joe asks Lennie, “Are you a virgin?”
  • Lennie gives Toby a sort of goodbye, closure kiss. “I kiss him and keep kissing and holding and caressing him, because for whatever fucked-up reason, that is what I do.”
  • After daydreaming about Joe, Lennie thinks, “I’m so fed up with my virginity. It’s like the whole world is in on this ecstatic secret but me.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Lennie describes her uncle Big as the “resident pothead,” and “smoking so much weed that when he’s home he seems to hover.”
  • Lennie’s friend Sarah is often described as “smoking cigarettes,” and “trying to blow smoke rings, but blowing smoke blobs instead.”
  • Toby sneaks into Lennie’s room at night and “pulls a pint of tequila out of his jacket pocket.” The two proceed to take pulls from the bottle.
  • When Lennie sneaks off during lunch, Joe follows her, describing her hidden spot as the “perfect spot for a gingerbread house or maybe an opium den.”
  • Lennie imagines her and Joe drinking “red wine” in Paris.
  • While on a date, Lennie and Joe drink “some wine Joe swiped from his father.”
  • Sarah takes Lennie to see a movie and offers her some vodka. Later they are “passing the bottle of vodka back and forth.”

Language

  • Profanity is used occasionally. Profanity includes fuck, shit, damn, and ass.
  • When Lennie is in band class, her teacher encourages them to “stick your asses in the wind!”
  • As Lennie and Joe kiss, she says that she’s turned into “a total strumpet-harlot-trollop-wench-jezebel-tart-harridan-chippynymphet.”
  • After talking to Lennie about her mom, Joe calls himself a dickhead.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Gram believes that a certain household plant “reflects [Lennie’s] emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being.”
  • Both Lennie and Bailey compare Toby to St. Francis.
  • When talking with Joe, Lennie remarks, “My favorite saint of all time is a Joe . . . Joseph of Cupertino, he levitated. Whenever he thought of God, he would float into the air in a fit of ecstasy.”
  • While sitting at Bailey’s desk, Lennie notes that there is a statue of St. Anthony: Patron of Lost Things.
  • After clearing the house of things that Gram has deemed unlucky, Gram remarks to Lennie, “You know that mask Big brought back from South America… . . . I think that it might have a curse on it.”

by Sara Mansfield

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