Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Velociraptor

What would happen if a Tyrannosaurus rex and a velociraptor met each other? What if they had a fight? Who do you think would win? 

Even though Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Velociraptor ends with a battle scene between the two dinosaurs, the book also has several pages discussing fossils as well as the reasons dinosaurs may have become extinct. Throughout the book, interesting facts are included such as “a newborn T. rex skeleton has never been discovered. Maybe you will be the person who unearths it.” Each page has large pictures as well as fun facts including dino trivia, gross facts, and definitions. For example, one gross fact is “A raptor’s arms and hands seem perfect for a dinosaur that is an aggressive hunter—quick, long, and strong. A raptor could easily rip apart its prey.”   

The nonfiction reader is packed full of interesting information about the two bear species. The book also has two pages devoted to funny bear stories. Similar to a picture book, each page has a full-page illustration. With 6 to 11 simple sentences per page, Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Velociraptor is accessible to most readers. However, younger readers may need help with some of the vocabulary such as excavation, articulated, paleontologist, and proportionally.  

Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Velociraptor fun format will appeal to most readers. Each two-page spread has large illustrations and explains the characteristics of each bear. Readers may be surprised by the ending battle the T. Rex dies. However, the text also explains why the outcome could have been different.  

The box is jam-packed with interesting facts, photos, and illustrations. The nonfiction text will spark reader’s attention as it teaches readers about dinosaurs. To learn more about dinosaurs, read about famous fossil hunters in Barnum Brown Dinosaur Hunter by David Sheldon and The Dog that Dug for Dinosaurs by Shirley Raye Redmond. Dinosaur-loving readers would also enjoy these fictional books: the Dino Files Series by Stacy McAnulty and Don’t Disturb the Dinosaurs by Ada Hopper.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • One illustration shows a T. Rex eating a smaller dinosaur. The illustration shows some blood.   
  • The end battle between the T. rex and the raptor is illustrated and includes some blood. While fighting, “the raptor slices the T. rex with its sickles. The angry R. rex bucks, and the raptor gets flung into the air. . .” The raptor calls to its pack and the pack appears. “The raptor pack slashes and cuts the T. rex. It’s over The T. rex crashes to the ground. . .” The fight is illustrated over six pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

That Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

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

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

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

Language 

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

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

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

Siege and Storm

After narrowly escaping the Darkling and his army, Alina and Mal are on the run. They try to make a new life for themselves in Novyi Zem, but they have to be careful. Alina, the Sun Summoner, is hardly inconspicuous wearing her amplifier made from Morozova’s stag as a collar, and the Darkling has spies everywhere. 

But she and Mal can’t outrun their enemies. They aren’t in Novyi Zem long before the Darkling finds them. He captures them and brings them on a ship led by Sturmhond, a famous privateer. The Darkling intends to drag Alina and Mal back to Ravka and continue expanding the Fold. But first, he is determined to hunt down the sea whip – the second in the triad of Morozova’s legendary creatures that can be used as powerful amplifiers – and force Alina to kill it and claim its scales as a second amplifier. This would magnify her summoning abilities and give the Darkling access to even more of Alina’s power.  

But Sturmhond and his crew are not what they seem. When they turn on the Darkling, Alina finds herself with powerful allies and renewed hope. Her new alliance with Nikolai Lantsov, the ever-witty and incredibly charming second-born prince of Ravka, throws her into Ravkan political dealings. Ravka’s precarious position in world politics means the country cannot be saved with Grisha power alone. Alina begins accompanying Nikolai to war council meetings as Ravka attempts to broker peace treaties with its neighboring countries, and she quickly realizes that Ravka was in much greater danger than she ever imagined. But will all of Alina’s efforts be enough to stand against the Darkling, who remains Ravka’s greatest domestic threat? And can Alina and Mal’s strained relationship survive Alina’s growing power and importance? 

If writing a good first book in a trilogy is hard, then writing a good sequel is even more strenuous. But Siege and Storm electrically picks up Alina’s story right where it left off and keeps the momentum going all the way to the end. The plot involves many twists and turns and never lets readers be lulled into a false sense of security. From heart-stopping action scenes to breathtaking exchanges between characters, there is never a dull moment. 

In Siege and Storm, Bardugo fleshes out her world even more, expanding on Ravka’s function as a country by placing it into a larger “world” context. Readers learn about this complicated history along with Alina, so the new information is masterfully woven throughout the story. Alina is a fascinating narrator, and readers get to experience her thought process and understand how and why she makes her decisions. Alina is not a perfect heroine by any means, but her flaws are what make her relatable. Even when she makes mistakes, she strives to fix them, and her self-awareness, compassion, and perseverance are traits that make her an admirable protagonist.  

Siege and Storm brings back all of the fan-favorite characters from the first book in the series, Shadow and Bone. Plus, several new characters are introduced that are equally quotable and loveable. Bardugo delves even deeper into her characters, forcing them to confront their darkest demons and complicating their relationships with each other. As tensions rise and power dynamics shift, Alina and her friends and allies must fight to remain united in the face of the real threats instead of turning against each other and letting their jealousies and vulnerabilities win. Siege and Storm ends on a dramatic cliffhanger that will leave readers excited beyond measure to get their hands on the next (and final) book in the series, Ruin and Rising.  

Sexual Content 

  • Mal kisses Alina harder than usual when they are in private. “His tone was light, but when his lips met mine, there was nothing playful in his kiss. He tasted of heat and newly ripe pears from the Duke’s garden. I sensed hunger in the slant of his mouth, an unfamiliar edge to his need that sent restless sparks burning through me. I came up on my toes, circling my arms around his neck, feeling the length of my body melt into his. He had a soldier’s strength, and I felt it in the hard bands of his arms, the pressure of his fingers as his fist bunched in the silk at the small of my back and he drew me against him. There was something fierce and almost desperate in the way he held me, as if he could not have me close enough.” 
  • During a fight, Mal tells Alina that he distances himself from her to protect her position as a leader. “‘Why do you think people asked me on the royal hunt? The first thing? They wanted to know about me and you.’ He turned on me, and when he spoke his voice was cruel, mocking. ‘Is it true that you’re tumbling the Sun Summoner? What’s it like with a Saint? Does she have a taste for trackers, or does she take all of her servants to her bed?’” 

Violence 

  • Alina has nightmares. “Sometimes she dreamed of broken skiffs with black sails and decks slick with blood, of people crying out in the darkness. But worse were the dreams of a pale prince who pressed his lips to her neck, who placed his hands on the collar that circled her throat and called forth her power in a blaze of bright sunlight.” 
  • The Darkling describes how he will punish Alina if Mal refuses to track the sea whip [a dragon]. “Because every day we don’t find the sea whip, I’ll peel away a piece of her skin. Slowly. Then Ivan will heal her, and the next day, we’ll do it all over again.”
  • The Darkling and Sturmhond’s crew capture and kill the sea whip. “Beads of water flew from [the sea whip’s] mane, and its massive jaws opened, revealing a pink tongue and rows of gleaming teeth. It came down on the nearest boat with a loud crash of splintering wood. The slender craft split in two, and men poured into the sea. The dragon’s maw snapped closer over a sailor’s legs and he vanished, screaming, beneath the waves.” This scene is described over three pages. 
  • After Sturmhond’s crew turn on the Darkling and become Alina’s allies, the Darkling and his army attack them. “Pistol shots rang out. The air came alive with Inferni fire. ‘To me, hounds!’ Sturmhond shouted, and plunged into action, a saber in his hands.” This scene occurs over 10 pages. The following two bullet points happen during this scene. 
  • Ivan, the Darkling’s right-hand man, is killed by Tolya, one of Sturmhond’s crew members: “The fingers of Tolya’s outstretched hand curled into a fist. Ivan convulsed. His eyes rolled up in his head. A bubble of blood blossomed and burst on his lips. He collapsed onto the deck.”  
  • The Darkling unleashes his nichevo’ya, or shadow monsters, on Alina and her allies. “The nichevo’ya reached the masts of the schooner, whirling around the sails, plucking sailors from the rigging like fruit. Then they were skittering down onto the deck. Mal fired again and again as the crewmen drew their sabers, but bullets and blades seemed only to slow the monsters. Their shadow bodies wavered and re-formed, and they just kept coming.” Sturmhond’s crew manages to confuse the nichevo’ya long enough to escape. 
  • Sturmhond tells Alina she needs to be more ruthless, and tells her how he earned the respect of his crew. The first time he ever tried to board an enemy ship, the captain laughed at him and mocked him, so Sturmhond “cut off his fingers and fed them to [his] dog while [the captain] watched.” 
  • Mal spars with other Grisha soldiers in practice fighting matches. “Eskil [a minor character who is Grisha] let out a loud oof as Mal clamped his arms around him, keeping the Grisha’s limbs pinned so that he couldn’t summon his power. The big Fjerdan snarled, muscles straining, teeth bared as he tried to break Mal’s hold. . . Mal tightened his grip. He shifted, then drove his forehead into [Eskil’s] nose with a nauseating crunch. Before I could blink, he’d released Eskil and hammered a flurry of punches into [Eskil]’s gut and sides.” This scene occurs over three pages. 
  • Alina wanders outside the city and encounters the Ravkan peasants who congregate outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sankta (or Saint) Alina. They crowd around her, trying to get close to her and touch her. “The bodies pressed tighter, pushing and shoving, shouting at each other, each wanting to be nearer. My feet lost contact with the ground. I cried out as a chunk of my hair was ripped from my scalp. They were going to tear me apart.” Tolya and Tamar, Alina’s bodyguards, rescue her before it’s too late, and Alina is left shaken but uninjured.  
  • The Darkling and his nichevo’ya attack the Grand Palace after Vasily, Ravka’s lazy and arrogant crown prince, double-crosses his brother, Nikolai. Nikolai is Alina’s ally and friend, and he had plans to save both Alina and Ravka. However, many people die in this nichevo’ya attack. Vasily, Alina, and many others are injured. This scene occurs over 13 pages, with several interludes for dialogue.  
  • During the fight, “Vasily lifted his saber high and charged, bellowing with rage. Mal stepped in front of me, raising his sword to block the blow. But before Vasily could bring down his weapon, a nichevo’ya grabbed hold of him and tore his arm from its socket, sword and all. He stood for a moment, swaying, blood pumping from his wound, then dropped to the floor in a lifeless heap.” 
  • Alina attacks the nichevo’ya to save her friends. “Another pack of nichevo’ya descended from the windows, clawing their way toward Nikolai and his mother. I had to take a chance. I brought the light down in two blazing arcs, cutting through one monster after another, barely missing one of the generals who crouched cowering on the floor. People were screaming and weeping as the nichevo’ya fell upon them.” Alina and many of her friends, including Mal, escape, but they don’t know whether or not Nikolai was able to get to safety. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Novyi Zem is the center of the jurda trade. Jurda is a stimulant people use to stay awake. For example, “Zemeni men liked to tuck the dried [jurda] blooms between lip and gum, and even the women carried them in embroidered pouches that dangled from their wrists. Each store window [Alina] passed advertised different brands: Brightleaf, Shade, Dhoka, the Burly.” 
  • When Mal returns from a hunt, he tells Alina about how he and the other Grisha who went on the hunt entertained themselves. “We spent more time every day playing cards and drinking kvas [an alcoholic beverage analogous to beer] than anything else. And some duke got so drunk he passed out in the river. He almost drowned. His servants hauled him out by his boots, but he kept wading back in, slurring something about the best way to catch trout.” 
  • Alina complains about how boring war council meetings are, and Nikolai jokes, “Next time, bring a flask. Every time [Vasily] changes his mind, take a sip.” Alina replies, “I’d be passed out on the floor before the hour was up.” 
  • After missing his guard shift, Mal is found hungover. Alina and Tolya find him the next morning. “[Mal] hadn’t changed his clothes from last night. There was stubble on his chin, and the smell of blood and kvas hung on him like a dirty coat.” 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Siege and Storm involves a magic system known as the Small Science, which is a way of manipulating matter that appears supernatural or magical. Those who can wield the Small Science are known as Grisha; many of the main characters in this novel are Grisha.  
  • The Grisha are split into three orders: Corporalki (the Order of the Living and the Dead), Etherialki (the Order of Summoners), and Materialki (the Order of Fabrikators).  
  • The Darkling and Baghra, Alina’s tutor, are Shadow Summoners, while Alina is a Sun Summoner. These are unique abilities that no other known Grisha possesses. For example, Alina uses her power when Sturmhond steers his ship through the Fold: “Hurriedly, I braced my feet against the deck and threw up my hands, casting a wide golden swath of sunlight around the [ship].” 

Spiritual Content 

  • When she and Mal reach Novyi Zem, Alina prays, “Let us be safe here. Let us be home.” 
  • Ravkans worship Saints, and some have started to worship Alina as a living Saint, calling her Sankta Alina (Saint Alina) and Sol Koroleva (Sun Queen). 
  • Some Ravkan peasants sell relics of Saints, such as fake bones supposedly once belonging to different Saints. Nikolai tells Alina, “There are rumors that you died on the Fold. People have been selling off parts of you all over Ravka and West Ravka for months. You’re quite the good luck charm.” 

Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred

Fourteen-year-old Jay Cooper is enjoying the view from his Uncle Rex’s Cessna when a low-flying 757 speeds past them. Caught in its wind turbulence, their small plane is shaken violently, knocking Rex unconscious and leaving Jay blind from a head injury.

With fuel running out fast, Jay drifting in and out of consciousness, and the plane heading straight for a mountain range, this high-flying adventure shows the importance of faith as Jay faces numerous unseen dangers.

Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred is an exciting survival story that shows how one teen’s bravery allows him to survive a dangerous situation. The story focuses on Jay, who is blinded when his plane is caught up in wind turbulence. Despite his injury, Jay stays calm. When Jay is instructed to crash land the plane into Puget Sound, he realizes that he is unlikely to survive, and his uncle will surely die. Despite this, Jay believes that God “knows what’s best. We just have to put ourselves in His hands and let Him take it where He wants to take it.” Jay is only able to succeed because his trust in God allows him to focus on the situation at hand, and not be consumed by what-if questions. Jay’s determination to safely land the plane and save his uncle’s life is admirable.

Even though much of the story focuses on Jay’s conflict, there are many people who guide Jay. When another pilot witnesses the accident, the pilot follows Jay’s plane to give Jay directions, so he does not crash. Jay is also in contact with air traffic control, his father, and other members of his family. The media also appears and broadcasts Jay’s dilemma. The varying points of view create suspense as well as highlight the unknown dangers that Jay must face. Readers will get caught up in the story’s drama and will root for Jay to successfully land the plane. 

Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred is a suspenseful story that will capture the reader’s attention from the very start. While the story highlights Jay’s trust in God, the lesson is integrated into the story and never feels preachy. Readers will be biting their nails wondering what new difficulty Jay will have to overcome. Fans of survival stories should put Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred at the top of their reading list. Readers who are eager to read more survival stories should also read the classic book, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and The Raft by S.A. Bodeen.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Several of the characters pray short prayers. For example, when Chuck sees his friend’s plane begin to spiral, he prays, “Dear Lord, please wake him up, nudge him, get him on the controls.”

Polar Bear vs. Grizzly Bear

What would happen if a polar bear and a grizzly bear met each other? What if they had a fight? Who do you think would win? In this nonfiction read, two ferocious bear species are compared and contrasted.  

Polar Bear vs. Grizzly Bear’s fun format will appeal to most readers. Each page has large pictures of bears as well as fun facts, true stories, language facts, and definitions. For example, one fun fact is that “a grizzly is faster on land. A polar bear is probably faster on ice.” Each two-page spread compares the characteristics of the bears. Readers may be surprised by the ending battle because “the polar bear sees no point in fighting anymore. There is no reason to fight to the death. The polar bear runs away.” The battle between the two bears is illustrated over two pages; however, no blood is shown.  

The nonfiction read is packed with interesting information about the two bear species. The book also has two pages devoted to funny bear stories. Similar to a picture book, each page has a full-page illustration. With six to eleven simple sentences per page, Polar Bear vs. Grizzly Bear is accessible to most readers. However, younger readers may need help with some of the vocabulary such as translucent, apex predator, and carnivore. 

Polar Bear vs. Grizzly Bear will spark readers’ attention and make them want to learn more about bears. It is part of the Who Would Win? Series, which has 20+ books that will satisfy all kinds of animal fans. Readers looking for more bear humor should also read the graphic novel, Bird & Squirrel on The Edge by James Burks. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Polar bears can eat humans, “but it hardly ever happens.” However, “each year grizzlies eat a few people.” 
  • When the polar bear and the grizzly bear see each other, “the grizzly charges at the polar bear, growing and showing his teeth. . . [The polar bear] fights back. Whap! He smacks the grizzly in the face. Ouch! They claw, scratch, and bite.” The polar bear eventually walks away from the fight.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Shadow and Bone

Alina Starkov never expected to be anything but ordinary. An orphan from Keramzin, a small village in Ravka, she is a mapmaker in Ravka’s First Army. Her best friend, Mal, is also in the army as a tracker. Alina wants nothing more from life. 

But that changes when her regiment attempts to cross the Fold, a swath of deadly darkness created 400 years ago by the Black Heretic that splits Ravka in half. Alina discovers that she can summon light, making her a Grisha – someone with the ability to practice the Small Science. But Alina is no ordinary Grisha – she is a Sun Summoner, who is prophesied to destroy the Fold for good. 

Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite—and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift. 

Alina begins working with the mysterious Darkling, the only Shadow Summoner and leader of the Grisha. He tells Alina that he seeks to rectify his ancestor’s mistake and unite Ravka once more. The Darkling says Alina is Ravka’s only hope. But the more Alina learns about the Grisha world, and about the Darkling himself, the more she realizes that things are even more complicated than she previously thought. With Ravka’s future on her shoulders, Alina must figure out who her allies are and possibly prevent a catastrophe bigger than the creation of the Fold itself. 

As the first book in a fantasy trilogy, Shadow and Bone has the difficult task of setting up its characters, setting, and plot in an engaging way while still leaving room for the story to develop in subsequent books, and it does not disappoint. The world-building is excellent as it introduces just the right amount of information so that the reader is not confused but is still intrigued to learn more.  Throughout the story, Bardugo expertly weaves in more details as needed. Ravka comes to life through Bardugo’s lush prose that provides just enough description without distracting from the plot so that even the most plot-driven readers will not be able to walk away from this book. 

Another positive aspect of Shadow and Bone is its vast cast of characters. Even minor characters have multiple layers of depth which keeps readers on their toes and makes them constantly examine the characters’ decisions. Alina is an easy character to relate to for anyone who has ever struggled to fit into an unfamiliar environment, and her strength and perseverance make her an admirable protagonist. This is especially evident in her struggle to merge her new life with her old dreams for her and Mal, and readers will root for her as she searches for ways to combine her ordinary past with her extraordinary present. Readers will eagerly devour Shadow and Bone, and delight in learning about the world of the Grisha alongside Alina. 

Sexual Content 

  • A beautiful Grisha girl smiles flirtatiously at Mal. His friends tease him. “‘You know she’ll be staying at camp,’ Mikhael said with a leer. ‘I hear the Grisha tent’s as big as a cathedral,’ added Dubrov. ‘Lots of nice shadowy nooks,’ said Mikhael, and actually waggled his brows.”  
  • Mal taps on Alina’s tent after hours. One of her fellow soldiers hears the knock and giggles, “If it’s that tracker, tell him to come inside and keep me warm.” 
  • The night before their regiment crosses the Fold, Alina and Mal reminisce about their childhoods. They are interrupted and when Mal gets up to leave, he tells Alina to wish him luck. She does, and then thinks sarcastically, “Good luck? Have a lovely time, Mal. Hope you find a pretty Grisha, fall deeply in love, and make lots of gorgeous, disgustingly talented babies together.”  
  • Alina’s friend Genya usually spends her time at the Grand Palace because the Queen and especially the King like to keep her close. It is insinuated that the King treats Genya as if she is a prostitute. Genya later confirms this to Alina, telling her that “the King has his way with lots of servants.” 
  • The Darkling kisses Alina in an empty room at the Little Palace. “I’d been kissed before, drunken mistakes, awkward fumblings. This was nothing like that. It was sure and powerful and like my whole body had just come awake. I could feel my pounding heart, the press of silk against my skin, the strength of his arms around me, one hand buried deep in my hair, the other at my back, pulling me closer.” This scene occurs over two pages. 
  • As Alina wanders the outskirts of the city, a drunk man stumbles out of an inn and grabs Alina by the coat. He says, “Hello, pretty! Have you come to keep me warm?” He makes a few more comments in the same vein; Alina quickly gets away by blinding him with her light powers. 

Violence 

  • When Alina’s regiment attempts to cross the Fold, they are attacked by volcra, deadly creatures who live in the Fold and feed on humans. There are many injuries and casualties, including Alina’s friend Alexei. Alina “gasped as Alexei’s arm was yanked from mine. In a spurt of flame, I saw him clutching at the railing with one hand. I saw his howling mouth, his wide, terrified eyes, and the monstrous thing that held him in its glistening gray arms, its wings beating the air as it lifted him from his feet, its thick claws sunk deep into this back, its talons already wet with his blood. Alexei’s fingers slipped on the railing . . . His screams faded into the sounds of battle as the volcra carried him into the dark. Another burst of flame lit the sky, but he was gone.” This scene occurs over four pages. 
  • When Alina is being taken to the Little Palace by Grisha guards, they are attacked by Fjerdan assassins. Alina “huddled on the floor [of the carriage], clutching the knife’s heavy hilt, my knees to my chest, my back pressed against the base of the seat. Outside, I could hear the sounds of fighting, metal on metal, grunts and shouts, horses whinnying. The coach shook as a body slammed against the glass of the window. I saw with horror that it was one of my guards. His body left a red smear against the glass as he slid from view.” This scene occurs over four pages. Many unnamed people die, and a few are injured.  
  • Alina has a nightmare where she “threw open the door . . . and screamed. There was blood everywhere. The volcra was perched on the window seat and, as it turned on me and opened its horrible jaws, I saw it had gray quartz eyes.”  
  • During a combat training session, Alina spars with Zoya, one of the most powerful Grisha. Zoya “pressed her advantage and lunged forward. That was her mistake . . . I [Alina] stepped to the side, and as she came in close, I hooked my leg around her ankle. Zoya went down hard. . . But before I had a chance to even register my victory, Zoya sat up, her expression furious, her arm slashing through the air. I felt myself lifted off my feet as I sailed backward through the air and slammed into the training room’s wooden wall. I heard something crack, and all the breath went out of my body as I slid to the ground.” 
  • In the woods, thieves attack Alina and Mal. Alina’s training saves them. “Before he could recover, I [Alina] slammed a knee into his groin. As he bent double, I put my hands on the back of his head and brought my knee up hard. There was a disgusting crunch, and I stepped backward as he fell to the ground clutching his nose, blood spurting between his fingers.”  
  • The Darkling kills Morozova’s stag in order to use its antlers to make an amplifier for Alina. The Darkling “strode forward and without hesitating slit the stag’s throat. Blood gushed into the snow, pooling around the stag’s body. I watched as the life left his dark eyes, and a sob broke from my chest.” 
  • Alina has a nightmare. “That night, I dreamed of the stag. I saw the Darkling cut his throat again and again. I saw the life fading from his dark eyes. But when I looked down, it was my blood that spilled red into the snow.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Alina watches a friend “take a swig from the bottle [of kvas] and then lurch forward.” Kvas is the Ravkan equivalent of beer. 
  • While en route to the Little Palace, Alina, the Darkling, and the rest of the Grisha guards sit around a fire and “pass a flask back and forth.”  
  • Genya, Alina’s best friend at the Little Palace and a Grisha servant to the Ravkan King and Queen, describes the King as “probably drunk” and says that he “devotes all his time to hunting, horses, and imbibing.”  

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • This book involves a magic system known as the Small Science, which is a way of manipulating matter. Those who can wield the Small Science are known as Grisha. The Grisha are split into three orders: Corporalki (the Order of the Living and the Dead), Etherialki (the Order of Summoners), and Materialki (the Order of Fabrikators).  
  • The Darkling and Baghra, Alina’s tutor, are Shadow Summoners, while Alina is a Sun Summoner; these are unique abilities that no other known Grisha possess. For example, here is a description of when Alina summons light for the first time on purpose and by herself: “I called and the light answered. I felt it rushing toward me from every direction, skimming over the lake, skittering over the golden domes of the Little Palace, under the door and through the walls of Baghra’s cottage. I felt it everywhere. I opened my hands and the light bloomed right through me, filling the room, illuminating the stone walls, the old tile oven, and every angle of Baghra’s strange face. It surrounded me, blazing with heat, more powerful and more pure than ever before because it was all mine. I wanted to laugh, to sing, to shout. At last, there was something that belonged wholly and completely to me.” The Darkling’s power works in a similar way: “He brought his hands together and there was a sound like a thunderclap. I gasped as undulating darkness spread from his clasped hands, spilling in a black wave over me and the crowd.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Many Ravkans worship Saints, and consider Alina to be a living Saint because she is the Sun Summoner. 
  • The Apparat, the King’s spiritual advisor, tells Alina, “There is something more powerful than any army. Something strong enough to topple kings, and even Darklings . . . Faith.”  
  • Alina checks the casualty lists every week, looking for Mal’s name, and each time she doesn’t see his name she “gives thanks to all the Saints that Mal was safe and alive.” 
  • When Alina is on the run, she can’t resist slipping into a tiny church to hear the priest say Mass. The priest “offered prayers for the congregation: for a woman’s son who had been wounded in battle, for an infant who was ill with fever, and for the health of Alina Starkov. ‘Let the Saints protect the Sun Summoner,’ intoned the priest, ‘she who was sent to deliver us from the evils of the Shadow Fold and make this nation whole again.’” 
  • Alina describes Genya as “a painted icon of a Saint, her hair a burnished copper halo.” 

Mummies and Pyramids

When Jack and Annie got back from their adventure in Magic Tree House #3: Mummies in the Morning, they had lots of questions. Why did people make mummies? What was the mysterious writing on mummy cases? How did most ancient Egyptians spend their days? How were the pyramids built? Find out the answers to these questions and more as Jack and Annie track the facts.

Filled with up-to-date information, photos, illustrations, and fun tidbits from Jack and Annie, Magic Tree House Fact Trackers are the perfect way for kids to find out more about the topics they discover in their favorite Magic Tree House adventures. Teachers can use Fact Trackers alongside their Magic Tree House fiction companions to meet common core text pairing needs. Mummies and Pyramids pairs with Magic Tree House #3: Mummies in the Morning.

Mummies and Pyramids is broken into small sections. Almost every page has a black-and-white illustration. Because readers may not be familiar with some of the vocabulary, unfamiliar words are explained in the book’s margins. Pictures of Jack and Annie are also scattered throughout the book. 

Those interested in mummies should read Mummies and Pyramids. The easy-to-read text is packed full of interesting facts about mummies, pyramids, and Ancient Egyptians. Even though the book includes information about how mummies are made, the matter-of-fact tone and non-gory descriptions will put readers at ease. There is only one drawing of a body being mummified, but the person is mostly wrapped in linen. Because the book explains the Ancient Egyptians’ belief in the afterlife, parents may want to discuss their beliefs with their children. 

Mummies and Pyramids is an engaging nonfiction book that brings Ancient Egypt alive. Readers who want to learn more should also read the nonfiction book The Curse of King Tut’s Mummy by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfel. To take a step back in time while learning more about Egypt, read Escape from Egypt by Wendy Mass and Secret of the Prince’s Tomb by Marianne Hering.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Tomb robbers would steal from mummies. “Sometimes tomb robbers even burned the mummy to light the tomb while they worked. . . Ancient Egyptians thought tomb robbers were committing crimes against the gods. If they were caught, they were beaten and often put to death.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Food and jugs of beer have been found in mummies’ tombs.

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • While a body was being mummified, “the priest wrapped magic charms in the mummy’s linen strips. The Egyptians believed these charms would bring good luck and protect the person in the Next Life.”
  • Before a mummy was laid in its tomb, there was a ceremony called The Opening of the Mouth. “Egyptians believed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony made it possible for the dead person to eat, drink, and speak in the Next Life.”
  • To help a mummy make the journey to the Next Life, “mummies were buried with prayers, magic spells, and maps of the underworld.”

Spiritual Content 

  • Ancient Egyptians believed in many Gods and these beliefs are explored throughout the book. There is one chapter dedicated to the different Gods. Because of this, not every reference to the Gods is listed below. 
  • Egyptian rulers, called Pharaohs, “had total power over their people. . . Egyptians thought their pharaoh was more than a person. They worshipped him as a god.” 
  • Some of the Egyptian Gods “were like ordinary men and women. Some were like animals. Many were half-human and half-animal. The Egyptians believed the gods and goddesses watched over everything they did.”
  • Egyptians created statues that were cared for by priests. The priest “washed and dressed them. They even served them meals. . . At home, they prayed to their own statues of their favorite gods and goddesses.” 
  • When taking a mummy to be buried, the “priest said prayers and recited magic spells.” 

Very Bad People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Content 

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

Violence 

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

Drugs and Alcohol 

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

Language 

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

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Deadman’s Castle

A twelve-year-old boy has a simple desire: to have friends, go to school, keep his name, and stop “bugging out.” Unfortunately, his life has been far from simple ever since his dad witnessed something he shouldn’t have. In order to protect themselves, his family abandoned their identities and went into hiding. Currently, the young boy hides under the name Igor.  For the past seven years, they have had to live under different names and in new houses. Now they’re always on the run, hiding from the mysterious and dangerous Lizard Man.

Despite the constant danger and the fear of being discovered, Igor clings to the hope of a normal life. He yearns to have a routine. Igor longs to be able to discover his real name, the one that connects him to his past and his family. But as he grows older and more restless, Igor starts testing the limits of his dad’s strict rules, hoping to find a way to break free from the never-ending cycle of running and hiding. But the more Igor uncovers, the more he realizes that the danger is real, and the Lizard Man is closer than ever. The Lizard Man is getting closer, and Igor’s father’s past is catching up with them. But Igor is determined to find a way out of this life of fear, to discover the truth about his father’s past and his family’s connection to it.

Despite the odds, Igor clings to the hope of a normal life, and his determination to find a way out of the cycle of hiding and running makes him a hero in his own right. Will he be able to uncover the truth about his family’s past and put an end to the never-ending cycle of hiding and running? Only time will tell.

Deadman’s Castle is a gripping tale of adventure and mystery that promises to keep readers on the edge of their seats. From the very first page, readers will be transported to a world of danger and intrigue, where every turn of the page brings a new revelation and a new challenge for the protagonist, Igor. As the story unfolds, Igor finds himself embroiled in a web of lies and deceit that threatens to destroy not only his own life but the lives of those he loves most.

The plot of Deadman’s Castle is both intricate and compelling with a rich and immersive world that readers won’t want to leave. There are heart-stopping action scenes that will leave readers breathless with fear and suspense, as well as heart-warming moments of tenderness and compassion that will bring a tear to the eye. 

But it’s not just the plot that makes Deadman’s Castle such a captivating read. The characters are fully fleshed-out and multi-dimensional, with their hopes, fears, and motivations making them feel like real people. Readers will find themselves cheering for Igor as he struggles to uncover the truth about his family’s past and break free from the never-ending cycle of hiding. They’ll also be drawn to the other characters, such as Zoe and Angelo, Igor’s two new friends, who each have their own unique story to tell. Zoe, if that even is her real name, is a mysterious orphan struggling to find her sense of identity. Constantly changing her entire style and name without warning, she still knows how to remain true and honest to those she keeps closest to her. Angelo, on the other hand, is a rough and tumble boy with a hard exterior but a soft inside. Zoe and Angelo make for loveable and relatable sidekicks to Igor’s adventures.

In short, Deadman’s Castle is a must-read for anyone who loves a good adventure story. The book masterfully explores the theme of living a life of constant movement, while recognizing and empathizing with the struggles of adolescents. It addresses the themes of identity, family, and the lengths taken to protect loved ones. It’s a novel that will keep readers on the edge of their seats from beginning to end and leave them longing for more.  Readers who want more suspenseful stories should also read The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown and Dreaming Dangerous by Lauren DeStefano.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • On the first day of school, the other kids treat Igor like an outcast. A group of three boys threatens to harm Igor. One of the bullies, Angelo, “turned to [Igor]. He pointed a finger like a stabbing knife. ‘I’m going to kill you,’ he said.” At this point, Igor becomes worried that his dad may have been right; starting school so suddenly with a strange name would make him an easy target for being picked on.
  • Igor decides he must face Angelo and he goes outside with Angelo and his posse. “The others held my arms and pinned me there, one on each side . . . his hand swept up again,  and in his fist was — snow. He had a handful of snow, and he squashed it into my mouth and my eyes. He forced it between my lips, against my teeth; he pushed it up my nose.” The boys only stop their torture when Igor starts laughing because it wasn’t as bad as the things he imagined in his head.
  • Trevis, Angelo’s former best friend, likes to make up bizarre stories instead of answering questions truthfully. Igor asks about Zoe, one of Igor’s new friends, and Trevis tells Igor, “Both of her parents were killed. Zoe grew up as an orphan. . . It was a 747. A jumbo jet . . . Three hundred and forty people were killed.”
  • Angelo, Zoe, and Igor decide to go to Deadman’s Castle. Igor inquires why it is named Deadman’s Castle. “‘Cause there’s dead men in it,’ said Angelo. ‘There were bodies sealed in the walls.’” Although they never confirm what the actual story behind the name is. 
  •  While at Deadman’s Castle, Igor faces the Lizard Man. Igor “didn’t know what to tell him. [The Lizard Man] swung his foot and kicked me in the ribs.” Igor lay on the ground, unable to get out of reach of the Lizard Man. He ultimately joins Angelo, who has already been placed in a cell in the basement. 
  • The Lizard Man corners Angelo and Igor who use their video game skills to defend themselves. Igor describes how Angelo was “suddenly Johnny Shiloh, and I was Colt Cabana. We leapt from the floor and tackled the Lizard Man. The whip fell from his hand; his hat went rolling into a corner . . . With fists and feet we attacked the Lizard Man.” It deters the man for a few seconds but doesn’t take long for him to get back up and chase after the boys, before recapturing them.
  • Angelo’s dog, Smasher, tries to protect the boys from the Lizard Man. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for the Lizard Man to fend off the dog. “Either way, it didn’t matter. The door slammed against her. There was a thud and a cry that came together, the most terrible sound I’d ever heard.”
  • The Lizard Man chases Angelo and Igor when they try to break free. To escape, the kids must cross a very deep pit that is only crossable by planks of wood. “With a scream, he fell. The lantern dropped from [the Lizard Man’s] hand and went tumbling down in a whorl of light. It hit the walls and went out, and we heard the thudding of the planks as they boomed from the sides of the pit. Everything landed at once, what seemed a long time later: the light, the Lizard Man, and the planks of the bridge.” The kids presume he has died and run for help.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Ultimate Shark Rumble

Sixteen different sharks battle it out in a huge underwater fight! Who will be the champion? 

This nonfiction read compares and contrasts 16 ferocious sharks. Readers will learn about each animal’s anatomy, behavior, and more. Then, they’ll the animals will compete before finally revealing the winner!  

Ultimate Shark Rumble’s fun format will appeal to most readers. Each page has large pictures of sharks as well as shark facts, true stories, language facts, and definitions. For example, one fun fact is that “some Native Hawaiians believe that tiger sharks are the spirits of their ancestors.” Each “shark rumble” explains the characteristics of each shark as well as which shark would win in a battle. The pictures show the battles, including a shark’s sharp teeth biting another shark; while not gory, some blood is shown.  

Anyone who wants to learn more about sharks needs to read Ultimate Shark Rumble. Similar to a picture book, each page has a full-page illustration. With six to eleven simple sentences per page, Ultimate Shark Rumble is accessible to most readers. However, younger readers may need help with some of the vocabulary such as cartilage, positioned, caudal fins, and remoras.  

Ultimate Shark Rumble is jam-packed with interesting shark information. The nonfiction book will spark readers’ attention and make them want to learn more about sharks. The Who Would Win? Series has 20+ books that will satisfy all kinds of animal fans. Readers who want to take a bite out of more shark-related books should add The Great Shark Escape by Jennifer Johnston and Shark Lady by Jess Keating. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • In each shark rumble, the text explains which shark would win and why. For example, in a fight between a hammerhead shark and a tiger shark, “the tiger shark glides to the side and bites off one of the hammerhead’s eyes. The hammerhead is in trouble. The tiger shark then bites it in the back. Tiger shark wins!”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Kat Wolfe Investigates

After a break-in at their London home, Kat Wolfe and her veterinarian mum decide it’s time to move to the country. Dr. Wolfe’s new job on England’s Jurassic Coast comes with a condition: They have to adopt Tiny, a huge Savannah cat who resists Kat’s best attempts at cat whispering.

Kat starts a pet-sitting agency to make pocket money, but then the owner of her first client, an Amazon parrot, vanishes from his gadget-filled mansion. Only one person shares Kat’s conviction that he’s the victim of foul play: Harper Lamb, an American girl laid up with two broken legs thanks to her racehorse.

Kat and Harper team up, but what starts out as mystery-solving fun turns deadly for the duo. When all clues point to a nearby army base, can they count on their unruly animal friends to save the day—and their lives?

Kat Wolfe Investigates is a highly entertaining story that has mystery, suspense, and many other positive aspects that make it perfect for any mystery-loving reader. Readers will fall in love with Kat, who tries to stay out of trouble but gets thrust into the middle of a deadly mystery. At first, Kat tries to do the right thing by taking her concerns to Sergeant Singh, the only policeman in town. However, the Sergeant doesn’t believe Kat. So, Kat and her friend, Harper, begin their own investigation. Even when the two realize that the investigation could be dangerous, they continue their quest to find answers and save Kat’s client.

Not only is Kat a loveable character, but she is also surrounded by a slew of interesting characters – both human and animal – of all ages. Harper is a computer whiz, Kat’s friend Edith is a retired librarian, and Kat’s mother is the town’s only veterinarian. There is also a talking parrot, a Savannah cat, and a racehorse. The animals and humans blend to make a heartwarming story of friendship that has surprising pockets of laugh-out-loud humor. In addition, Kat’s story shows that “you should never rush to judgment—particularly when it comes to people you don’t know.”

Kat Wolfe Investigates is an excellent story that has a large cast of characters and a complex plot that takes the reader on an adventure with several surprises. Middle-grade readers will find themselves admiring Kat’s determination, bravery, and kindness. However, the content may disturb younger readers since the story has a believable villain who is responsible for other people’s deaths and who tries to have Kat and Harper “exterminated.” In the end, Kat catches the culprit and the story concludes on a happy note. For more mystery fun that features a spunky heroin, check out the Friday Barnes Mystery Series by R.A. Spratt and The Curious Cat Spy Club Series by Linda Joy Singleton.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • While pet-sitting, Kat sees a man outside of the house. She thinks the man might be a burglar, so she hits a button to turn on the outside grill. “A towering inferno shot out from the barbeque on the deck. . . The soldier let out an agonized yell and reeled back, clutching his forehead.” Later, Kat finds out that the man’s “left eyebrow is now slightly shorter than the right, but otherwise he was unscathed.” 
  • Darren, an “exterminator” sneaks into Dr. Wolfe’s office. Her desk has so many files on it that all he sees are “her eyebrows.” The man doesn’t realize the eyebrows actually belong to a monkey. “The eyebrows made an excellent target. He aimed his revolver right at them. It was a starting pistol, not a real gun. . .” He threatens the doctor and then leaves. 
  • When the exterminator goes to leave, Eva, the monkey “flew at him and sank her teeth into his ear. Disorientated in the dark reception area, Darren swirled around in agony. Eva bit down harder. . .”
  • Darren breaks into Kat’s house. “As Darren padded across the tiles, starting pistol in hand, Tiny (Kat’s Savannah cat) ambushed him from the top of the kitchen cupboard, crash-landing on his back and sinking his claws and teeth into Darren’s neck.” Darren’s has several injuries, “a scratch had rendered one of his eyes useless. The other was swollen from the bite he’d incurred at the animal clinic.” 
  • While investigating Ramon, the owner of the parrot, Kat finds out that his squad was on a mission, “but someone leaked the plans and the Russians ambushed their unit. Mario was killed and the other five soldiers were killed.” Later, someone starts killing soldiers with an undetectable poison.
  • On a dark, rainy night Kat rides onto a military base. “A harsh beam swept the ground, bathing them in light. A warning shot cracked. A shrub exploded almost at their feet.” The shot scares the horse, who takes off running.
  • When Kat makes it to the gate at the base, a soldier stops her. The next thing Kat knew, “she was staring into the barrel of a rifle.” Kat is taken to the base and given a towel to dry off.
  • At the base, Kat discovers that the villain is the chef. The man captures Kat and threatens to kill her with a gun. Before the villain can kill her, Kat’s grandfather, the Dark Lord, “stepped from the shadows.” To save Kat, the Dark Lord throws his gun down. “The chef clamped an arm around her throat.” Kat reacts by pulling a martial art move. “A short, sharp tug on his chef’s jacket, a lunge, and a twist, and Chef Roley soared over the gymnasium. He crash-landed on the studio floor below and was out cold.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Harper shows Kat a picture of a group of men in a photograph. The men were on a boat with “beers in hand.”
  • After a monkey bites Darren, he takes “two painkillers with a can of soda.”

Language 

  • Ohmigod is used twice.
  • Oh Lord is used as an exclamation once.
  • Harper tells Kat that someone is a jerk.
  • A man in the military tells a man, “Damn fine job you did.”
  • A soldier says, “My God.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Star Dunes

A major discovery forces the Explorer Academy into the limelight in The Star Dunes, but Cruz has much more on his mind than fifteen minutes of fame. A new face on board the ship makes Cruz’s worlds collide. On route to Africa, Team Cousteau is now down a major player, and Cruz can’t help but be preoccupied by the hole in his life. The discovery of his mom’s next clue leads him to the most exotic location yet – a vast desert. With no other information to lead the way, an unlikely ally helps Cruz pursue another piece of the puzzle. Then just as things seem like they might turn out alright, Dr. Fanchon Quills has a technological breakthrough that gives Cruz a glimpse into the past and reveals more about his future than he really may want to know. 

In this adventure, Cruz and several other explorers go to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where they learn about how humans have put gorillas in danger. “Habitat loss, war, hunting, disease—they have reduced the entire population of mountain gorillas to two protected areas.” The mission also allows the students to learn about African elephants that are endangered because of. Through the explorers’ experiences, readers will learn about the animals’ loss of habitat and about conservation efforts.  

Cruz’s quest to follow his mother’s clues and find the formula for a lifesaving drug is admirable. However, his single-minded focus and risky behavior continually puts others in danger. In addition, readers may find it difficult to understand Cruz’s unwillingness to be honest about Nebula’s attempt to end his life. Even though Nebula kidnapped Cruz’s father and poisoned Cruz’s friend, Cruz still keeps secrets that could help keep himself and others safe. To make matters worse, none of the adults punish Cruz for repeatedly sneaking off to search for clues. Instead, the adults only focus on Cruz’s positive attributes despite his bad behavior. 

While The Star Dunes is action-packed and the mystery intensifies, this installment of Explorer Academy has many events that are difficult to believe. Nebula has shown that they are smart enough to infiltrate the Academy and repeatedly get access to Cruz’s room, which makes their inability to capture or kill him implausible. In addition, the Academy faculty continually choose Cruz for missions over the other explorers which is unbelievable, especially since Cruz continually breaks the rules.  

Despite The Star Dunes flaws, Cruz’s fast-paced adventure allows readers to experience other cultures as they learn about the importance of wildlife conservation. The well-written story includes 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. The story will appeal to many readers because it includes a diverse cast, interesting technology, and teaches about wildlife. The Star Dunes concludes with Cruz reading a cryptic letter from his mother that will have readers reaching for the next book in the series, The Tiger’s Nest. 

Sexual Content 

  • Before leaving for a mission, Bryndis goes to tell Cruz goodbye. “Cruz found himself looking into her eyes. . . He felt cool lips brush his cheek, and then she was scurrying back down the hall in her polar bear slippers.” 

Violence 

  • While following his mother’s clue, Cruz takes a self-driving car. While on a deserted road, another truck hits them. “They were accelerating, but so was the truck behind them. Cruz could only dig his fingernails into his seat and watch the speedometer rise. . . Suddenly, everything was a blur. Cruz saw white lights and red dust and Dugan’s face and white lights and red rocks and Dugan’s face. . .” After Cruz’s car crashes, the truck takes off. The scene is described over three pages. 
  • While in the desert, two men chase Cruz and Dugan. “Cruz felt a jerk. Someone had a hold of his pack. He tried to pull away but couldn’t. . . Suddenly, his feet were out from under him. He was on his stomach being dragged backward. Cruz was trying not to choke on sand. . .” Both Cruz and Dugan escape. 
  • While on a mission, Cruz and his team see poachers aiming at a pangolin and its pangopups. Cruz “could see the hunter bring the weapon to his shoulder. . . The hunter was lining up the animal in his scope. . .” Cruz orders his mechanical bee, Mell, to attack. Then “the hunters were running in circles, wildly swatting the air around them. . . Mell was still stinging, zipping this way and that to strike her targets. Cruz sprayed the hunters with his octopod. Both cried out, fell to their knees, and threw their hands over their eyes.” The poachers are arrested. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Someone put a deadly toxin in Cruz’s duffle bag, but it was “Bryndis [who] was exposed to the deadly toxin. The poison was absorbed through her skin.” Bryndis is given an antidote, but she is still extremely sick. 

Language   

  • Darn is used once. 
  • After a truck knocks them off the road, Dugan says, “Nothing like some idiot who thinks it’s funny to go around frightening people.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

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.” 

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