51 posts categorized "Mysteries and Thrillers" Feed

With Malice: Eileen Cook

Book: With Malice
Author: Eileen Cook
Pages: 320
Age Range: 12 and up

I picked up With Malice one afternoon, when I needed a little break from work, and simply could not put it down. With Malice begins when 18-year-old Jill wakes up in a hospital. She's been seriously injured in a car accident, and has no memory of the previous six weeks, including what was supposed to have been a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy. She soon learns that she is not the only one who has questions about what happened in Italy, and particularly what led to the car accident. A media frenzy and legal case ensues. 

What follows is a deconstruction of the events as revealed through police interviews, news stories, blog and Facebook posts, interspersed with the experiences (mainly from before the accident) that Jill does remember.  Every piece of information, every revelation about personality or intentions, feels like a tiny clue, as the reader (and Jill) tries to figure out what happened. I read With Malice over about 24 hours, because I simply could not stop until I knew what had happened. 

Eileen Cook's characterization is masterful, particularly of Jill and her best friend, Simone. Jill's roommate from rehab is a delight. Even some of the tertiary characters, revealed mainly through interviews with the policy, come through clearly. But of course it is Jill's experience that is at the heart of the story. She suffered brain damage in the accident, and struggles with aphasia (not being able to come up with the right word when she is talking). Like this (as she is thinking to herself):

"I'd never been in the hospital before. Well, once in second grade. I fell off the -- Dammit. Now I can't think of what they're called. The ladder thing, suspended above the playground. Lion bars? No. Elephant bars. That's not it either, but that's like it. You swing across them. I'd had to get stitches, but I'd never stayed in the hospital before." (Page 6)

Impossible not to empathize with Jill - her perspective is so immediate. I'd like to talk about her more, but I don't want to give anything important away. With Malice is a book about which the less you know ahead of time, the better. Just read it. With Malice is a compelling mystery and a fascinating character study, with a ripped from the headlines subject. It is a pitch perfect summer reading delight! Recommended for teens and adults. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: June 7, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Leaving: Tara Altebrando

Book: The Leaving
Author: Tara Altebrando
Pages: 432
Age Range: 12 and up

I was initially a bit unsure about whether or not I wanted to read Tara Altebrando's The Leaving. It begins with the kidnapping of six five-year-olds on their first day of kindergarten. As the parent of a five year old, I feared that it might strike a bit too close to home. But I've been really struggling lately to find books that can hold my attention. The cover blurb on The Leaving, by E. Lockhart called it "a top-speed page-turner", adding "I promise, you will not even look up from the page." So I decided to give it a try. And I'm glad that I did.

The Leaving did succeed in holding my attention. I read most of it in a single sitting, after my husband and daughter left on a father-daughter camping weekend. I found it more intriguing than emotionally wrenching, so the core subject matter of kidnapped kids wasn't a problem. Nearly all of the story takes place eleven years after the kidnapping, when five out of six kids return home with  no memory of their lost time.

The Leaving is told in alternating chapters from the limited third person perspective of three teens: two of the kidnapped children and the younger sister of the one who does not return. The narrative styles of the three are quite different. Scarlett's thoughts include poetic fragments, shared via visual effects like circular words. Lucas's thoughts are darker, and include white on black snippets, like signs: "CAROUSEL OCEAN GOLDEN HORSE TEETH". Avery, the one was was not kidnapped, is the most ordinary, wrestling as much with her doubts about her boyfriend as with worries about the brother that she doesn't even remember anyway. Even Avery wrestles with questions about the nature of memory. 

The Leaving is filled with tiny clues about what might have happened to the kids, set against a backdrop of media frenzy and local suspicion. The reader is not sure who to trust, or whether the outcome might include something supernatural (aliens?). There are also ordinary teen attractions, socioeconomic differences, and conflicts with friends and parents. Altebrando balances it all smoothly, keeping the reader most of all interested in turning the pages. 

Here are a couple of quotes to give a feel for Altebrando's writing:

"Back at home around dinnertime, there were no signs of dinner. Mom was in bed, surrounded by still more tissues. The woman had become a movable flowering tissue tree, dropping fruit wherever she went." (Avery, Pag 110, ARC)

and

"Normal people don't remember everything.

Normal people forget.

Do normal people ever have just one memory that is so ...

Very ...

Unrelenting/unavoidable/unfathomable?" (Scarlett, Page 146, ARC)

Anyone who enjoys suspenseful books that also make the reader think will enjoy The Leaving. It is well constructed and intriguing, with flawed but likable characters and surprises throughout. Highly recommended.

Publisher:  Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids)
Publication Date: June 7, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Code of Honor: Alan Gratz

Book: Code of Honor
Author: Alan Gratz
Pages: 288
Age Range: 12 and up

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz is about a 17-year-old boy whose life falls apart when his beloved older brother is accused of terrorism. Kamran Smith's father is caucasian, but his mother is Iranian. Kamran is living a charmed life in Phoenix as a homecoming king, football star, boyfriend, and soon-to-be cadet at West Point (his longtime dream). All of that changes when CNN starts showing video of his Ranger brother Darius working with, and speaking for, middle eastern terrorists.

People at school (even his friends) are suspicious of Kamran, as is the Department of Homeland Security. Before he knows it, Kamran is locked in a detention facility, trying to escape so that he can save his brother. 

Code of Honor covers a lot of ground, from friendship and loyalty to what it feels like to be discriminated against to the bond of brotherhood. There is also, particularly in the second half of the book, plenty of high stakes action. While it might be a tad implausible for Kamran to be directly involved in preventing a terrorist attack, Gratz pulls it off. There was one scene in which I was skeptical, but then he mitigated my concerns, and made things make sense. 

I read Code of Honor in a single sitting, eager to know what would happen to Kamran and Darius. I didn't even stop to place post-it flags, so I don't have any quotes for you. I like that while Gratz addresses what it feels like to be treated differently because you look Middle Eastern, he also makes Kamran broadly relatable, and includes enough action to keep teens (and adults) turning the pages. 

Code of Honor has a ripped from the headlines theme, a fast-paced plot, a diverse protagonist, and a focus on loyalty and honor. It belongs in high school and public libraries everywhere. Recommended, and going on my keep shelf. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: August 25, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Damage Done: Amanda Panitch

Book: Damage Done
Author: Amanda Panitch
Pages: 304
Age Range: 14 and up

Damage Done is a brand new young adult thriller by Amanda Panitch. It's told from the first person viewpoint of Lucy Black, who used to be known as Julia Vann. Julia's life changed forever when her twin brother Ryan killed 11 people in their school's band room. Due to intense media scrutiny (and very unhappy neighbors), Julia and her parents changed their names and moved from northern to southern California. As Lucy, Julia is managing pretty well, with a best friend and a possible love interest. But everything threatens to unravel when a figure from her past appears outside of her new high school. Danger ensues.

Damage Done is both fascinating and disturbing. I couldn't put it down, reading it over a day or so, and staying up late to finish (something I hardly ever do these days). Lucy reveals details about her brother through her memories, indicating that his tendencies as a sociopath were apparent from a very early age. She expresses guilt at having defended him for earlier incidents (one involving the death of a puppy), but her love for Ryan is also clear. Less clear, but endlessly intriguing, are hints about Lucy herself, and about their rather dysfunctional parents. Panitch also intersperses sections from the unofficial journal of Ryan's psychologist (dating back to the puppy incident). These are revealing in a different way, particularly of Dr. Spence's gross incompetence.

I did find some of the details of Damage Done implausible or ill-defined. What does her father do for a job after he changes his own identity? What about school and immunization records? The family is not in an official witness protection program - just trying to stay under the radar. And ... some other details that I won't share, in the interest of not spoiling the story for anyone. 

Still, Panitch does a nice job of balancing retrospective analysis of the events leading up to the school shooting against current action, as Lucy faces new threats. There is even a rather sweet love interest to lighten the tone a bit. 

Damage Done is compelling, but because of violent and disturbing content, I would only recommend it for high school and adult readers, and not for younger teens. [And I'm not sure if I would personally put a book about a school shooting in a school library, but luckily I don't have to make such decisions.] People who enjoy puzzling out events from clues, and enjoy suspense, will want to give Damage Done a look. It won't leave you with an upbeat feeling, but it is certainly not a book that you'll forget in a hurry. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: July 21, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Detective's Assistant: Kate Hannigan

Book: The Detective's Assistant
Author: Kate Hannigan
Pages: 368
Age Range: 8-12

The Detective's Assistant by Kate Hannigan is historical fiction speculating on the existence of the niece of an actual historical figure, Kate Warne, the first female detective to work for Pinkerton's Agency. 11-year-old Nell Warne is dumped on the doorstep of her extremely reluctant aunt by marriage, after the deaths of Nell's family members from various causes.

Aunt Kitty lives in a Chicago boarding house in a time immediately prior to Abraham Lincoln's election as President. Aunt Kitty blames Nell's father for the death of her husband, and this keeps a rift between woman and girl. But slowly, Kitty starts to allow Nell to help her in her work, to become an informal detective's assistant. The two are involved in solving various cases, including one with great historical significance and one that strikes much closer to home.

Truth be told, it's Aunt Kitty who is the stronger character here, despite Nell's first-person viewpoint. Though rather disagreeable (Nell refers to her in letters as "Pickled Onion"), Kitty shows herself to be an early feminist, a woman who believes that girls can do anything. She is a stickler for vocabulary and self-improvement, and she frequently surprises Nell with her expressed beliefs (e.g., paraphrasing: 'You want to be a nurse? Why not become a doctor?').

On of my favorite scenes in one in which Nell and Kitty are following a suspected murderer at night, in a creepy setting. Nell worries that they'll be caught, and Kitty, after the briefest of reassurances, adds: "And the proper word is isn't, not ain't. Mind your grammar, even in times of distress."

Yes, Kitty/Kate is a strong character. But Nell is fun, too. She has a melodramatic voice that lends an over-the-top, not quite realistic tone to her experiences. This is a good thing, because otherwise reading about an unwanted girl whose entire family has died might be depressing. And The Detective's Assistant is NOT depressing. It's entertaining and educational and occasionally suspenseful, but not depressing. For example, here's Nell, undercover with some secessionists:

"I'd read enough newspapers by now to know about abolitionists, and I did not think the term deserved to go hand in hand with the word traitor. I fanned my face a little faster and resisted the urge to smack these blithering cretins roundly on their hot heads." (Page 274) 

All in all, Nell is a pretty good foil for Kitty. Hannigan weaves in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of mid-nineteenth century America almost seamlessly. Nell is excited to try the exciting new food, "iced cream". And she is especially pleased with the new dish "Macaroni a l'Italienne with Fromage" (aka macaroni and cheese). She has to be careful not to drag her skirts through horse dropping along the street, and she aspires to the widest, most petticoat-filled skirts she can get.

Nell is an avid newspaper reader, and it is through her curiosity about the world that young readers will pick up background about Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Underground Railroad. Letters between Nell and her best friend, Jemma play a key role, too, conveying both major information and tidbits like the existence of "the glorious thirty-three states in the Union."

These letters (displayed using a font that looks like rounded handwriting) also help to show Nell's educational progress throughout the book, as her vocabulary and grammar improve. It's only in an afterword that the author reveals that Kate Warne and her Pinkerton's colleagues were real people. And finally, the letters include various codes that the two girls use for passing information back and forth. A key to the puzzles' solutions is included at the end of the book, though I doubt many readers will need it. 

The Detective's Assistant is an entertaining, multi-layered blend of historical fiction and mystery, perfect for middle grade readers. Highly recommended.  

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


I Am the Mission (The Unknown Assassin): Allen Zadoff

Book: I Am the Mission (The Unknown Assassin, Book 2)
Author: Allen Zadoff
Pages: 432
Age Range: 13 and up

I Am the Mission is the second book in Allen Zadoff's The Unknown Assassin series (following Boy Nobody, which was renamed I Am the Weapon). Like the first book, I Am the Mission is a fast-paced, suspenseful book in which the reader isn't quite sure who to root for. Book 2 picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book. The variously-named narrator (we do eventually learn his real name) has gone AWOL from his shadowy government organization, The Program. He is in hiding as a camp counselor when a crew from Homeland Security extracts him. His "Father" figure, the head of The Program, gives him a new assignment, one intended to test his loyalty.

The boy's mission is to penetrate the tryouts for an ultra-right-wing summer camp that is apparently radicalizing teens and assassinate the head of that organization, a charismatic man named Eugene Moore. He is not supposed to actually enter the camp, because a prior operative from The Program disappeared there (and is now presumed deceased). The boy ends up out of communication with The Program, and not sure who to trust. I mean, when you are a secret teenage assassin, who can you trust, really? Happily for the reader, the boy's one friend from the previous book, Howard, makes an appearance. 

Like the first book, I Am the Weapon has a premise that may disturb some readers: a teen who has been taught to kill people, quickly and stealthily, and who has no semblance of a normal life. But if you can accept that premise, it's a well-constructed, twisty thriller. The boy does commit one act that I found ... disturbing, I guess, in part because it's clearly a mistake. But he shows hints of humanity, too. Zadoff also provides more background for how he ended up in The Program, and why he is the cold-blooded, fearless killing machine that he is. Fans of the first book will definitely not want to miss this one. 

Zadoff has a knack for quick characterizations, like this:

"He has a masterful way of using truisms to support his ideas. One can easily agree with the truth of the surface statements without questioning the ideas themselves." Chapter "It's Moore", digital ARC (The ARC, at least, doesn't have conventional chapter titles. The first sentence of each chapter is formatted as a title, instead.)

He also muses quite a bit in this book on the nature of fear. Like this:

""The part they don't understand..." he says. "If you don't feel fear, you don't feel joy or love. Not in any real way. Without the fear, the risk is gone. And without risk, rewards don't matter. You're left with nothing much at all. You're numb." ("My Name is Francisco Gonzalez", he says.)

I Am the Mission is written in first-person present tense, which helps to keep up the suspense. The narrator is a surprisingly sympathetic character for a stone-cold killer. Attempting to figure him out is perpetually interesting. Recommended for older teen and adult readers for whom the fascinating aspects of the premise outweigh the disturbing aspects. Personally, I couldn't put it down, and eagerly await the next book. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids) 
Publication Date: June 17, 2014
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile: Marcia Wells

Book: Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile
Author: Marcia Wells
Illustrator: Marcos Calo
Pages: 256
Age Range: 9-12 (lightly illustrated middle grade)

Mystery of the Museum Mile is the first book of the new Eddie Red Undercover series by Marcia Wells. Eddie Red is a code name for Edmund Xavier Lonnrot, a sixth grader with a photographic memory and the ability to draw (well) anyone he has seen. When Eddie's talents are inadvertently discovered by the New York Police Department, he is hired to help on a special case involving art theft. He's only supposed to visit some museums and draw the people he sees, under the guidance of a grouchy but protective cop named Bovano. But of course things get more complicated, and more dangerous, than that. 

So, ok, there are a couple of points here requiring suspension of disbelief. The NYPD hiring an 11-year-old? Said 11-year-old's parents going along with it? The photographic memory AND drawing skill? But personally, I found it well worth letting those points go and enjoying the ride.

Edmund (or Eddie Red, as you may prefer to think of him) is a solid character. Smart, sure, but realistically insecure about it. Loyal to his best friend, who has pretty serious OCD. Eddie breaks the rules in order to learn more about the case, but he's nervous about that. He's not your young James Bond, able to do everything. He's more your regular kid who has one particular skill. He desperately wants to solve the case so that he can make enough money to remain in his private school. 

Eddie is also pretty matter-of-fact about being a young African-American male in the city. The color of his skin isn't a big deal, but it's not glossed over, either. It's an integral part of who he is, and who his parents are. This, together with his white friend Jonah's quirks, makes this a mystery that should feel relevant to a wider range of kids than many. Eddie does have a very mild love interest, which didn't really feel necessary to me, but there's not enough to it to be off-putting for younger kids. 

The mystery involves following clues, putting things together, and applying a bit of geometry (Jonah is helpful here). A fair number of scenes take place in Jonah and Eddie's school for gifted kids, which I found interesting. 

Here are a few snippets, to give you a feel for Wells' writing:

"People always ask how to spell my name. It's European and looks pretty unusual, but it's easy to pronounce: Lawn-rot. Some family down south owned my ancestors back in the slave days, and the name stuck." (Page 16)

"I try to follow. Sadie, our cat-who-may-be-an-evil-overlord-in-disguise, heads me off. Leaping in front of the kitchen door, she arches her back in a ripple of fur and hisses." (Page 39)

"He remains standing, staring out the window. He has quite a pasta/beer belly packed onto his tall body. This man is what my mother would call a touch cookie. Only he's more like a tough loaf of old and angry Italian break, with too much garlic mixed in." (Page 53)

There are also occasional full-page illustrations, representing Eddie's drawings of important characters in the story. Calo's pencil (charcoal?) sketches are a bit professional to actually be created by a sixth grader, but they are a nice addition to book, fleshing out Eddie's talent and giving readers a glimpse of the characters. 

All in all, Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile is a nice addition to the ranks of middle grade mysteries. I look forward to Eddie's further adventures. Recommended!

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHBooks)
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers: Matthew J. Kirby

Book: The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers
Author: Matthew J. Kirby
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8 - 12

Spell Robbers is the first book in a new series by Matthew J. Kirby, The Quantum League. The premise of the book is that there are people, called Actuators, who can take advantage of quantum mechanics to bring about events with their thoughts. These events include everything from conjuring up fireballs and storm clouds to manipulating locks.

When 12-year-old Ben moves with his grad student mother to a new university, he's invited to join an after-school Science Camp in which a professor is training young Actuators. But when their professor, Dr. Hughes, invents a portable device that makes Actuators much more powerful, the camp is attacked. Dr. Hughes is kidnapped, and Ben and another boy are rescued, and co-opted, by The Quantum League. High-stakes adventures follow.

Kirby does a good job of keeping the plot moving, and adding sufficient twists to keep the reader guessing. I was able to anticipate some, but not all, of the twists. 

I also liked the fact that the capabilities described in Spell Robbers are based on science, rather than magic, even though there's not a huge difference in the end result. [Is "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have strong powers as an Actuator" really all that different from "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have the ability to do magic"?]. Here are a couple of snippets:

"At the atomic level," Dr. Hughes said, "reality is dependent on our observation of it. As the Nobel-winning physicist Eugene Wigner put it, reality is created when our consciousness 'reaches out.' When you actuate, you are reading out to create a potential reality. (Page 36)

"Non-Actuators," Agent Taggart said, "N-A's. Most people who cannot actuate don't really perceive it. It is a part of reality they are blind to, just like you're blind to infrared light. They see the aftermath of actuation, but they attribute it to other things. Freak storms. Freak accidents. Spontaneous combustion. That kind of thing." (Page 62)

I did find a bit disturbing the device that Kirby uses to separate Ben from his mother. I understand that some sort of device was necessary in order to free Ben up to have his high-stakes adventures. But, without giving away any plot points, I didn't like this one. There's also a whole "only kids can actuate because adult brains don't think that it's possible" element to the story that I could see as a necessary plot point (otherwise why would The Quantum League recruit 12-year-olds?), but that I found a bit ... tired. 

Still, I think that middle grade and middle school kids who enjoy over-the-top adventures will like Spell Robbers. There's a superhero vibe to the quantum battles that take place. There are also some scenes that take place in a creepy abandoned amusement park, a highly kid-friendly setting. Ben is smart and loyal. There are various unanswered questions left at the end of Spell Robbers, leaving plenty of room for future titles in the series. 

All in all, while perhaps not quite as original as I might have hoped, The Quantum League offers kid-friendly science fiction with three-dimensional characters (including a 16-year-old girl who helps train Ben) and a fast-moving plot. Definitely worth a look for elementary and middle school libraries, or as a gift for adventure-hungry readers. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


Double Digit (A Girl Named Digit): Annabel Monaghan

Book: Double Digit (A Girl Named Digit)
Author: Annabel Monaghan
Pages: 192
Age Range: 12 and up

Double Digit is the sequel to A Girl Named Digit (reviewed here). Double Digit finds our heroine, Digit, starting college at MIT, and planning on a long distance relationship with her 21-year-old FBI agent boyfriend, John. At MIT, math genius Digit finds a quirky, agreeable roommate, other friends who accept her for who she is, and an attractive, kindred spirit resident advisor. Really, what she finds is a place where she is finally comfortable, and where she can use her prodigious intellect for research that matters, and feel at home. Until, that is, a hacking incident gets her in hot water with the CIA, and her old nemesis, Jonas Furnis, tries to kidnap her. Various chases, deadlines, and code-breaking ensue. 

Digit is one of my favorite recent book characters. She's smart but not arrogant. Her sensitivity to patterns amounts almost to a disability (she can't stand it when things are mis-aligned or chaotic). She's introverted, but loyal to her friends and family members. She genuinely and in a non-annoying way, wants to improve the world. And she's bright enough to actually do something about it, if the people who want things from her will let her. 

There are two details that I love about Digit's first-person voice. First, periodically we'll see her inner monologue, followed by what she actually says. And often there are the same (or at least consistent). She doesn't hold back. Second, the chapter headings are hilarious. From "What could possibly go wrong?" to "Some days you're the windshield; other days you're the bug."

Digit often has keen little insights. Like this (starting with remarks from Digit's roommate, Tiki):

""...And this thing with Howard is pretty serious, maybe the real deal. I think." There was something about the way the light left her face as she said this. It was like she wasn't buying her own story." (Page 7)

And on New England trees and weather (vs. LA):

"But here it's sort of dynamic. Like every day you wake up and the weather's a little different, the light's a little different. It keeps you on your toes." (53)

Then there's her self-deprecating humor:

"What more could a girl ask for? I had an ex-boyfriend who'd been spending all his time with Malibu Barbie, a brother who was dressed in drag, a slice across my neck, and a one-way ticket into witness protection." (Page 68)

Honestly, who wouldn't want the whole context, after reading that snippet? 

So yes, Digit is a character I enjoy reading about. I hope that she has many more adventures. And I think that MIT is the perfect place for her. And yes, there is also action, danger, and high-stakes suspense in Double Digit (as in the first book). It's not exactly realistic action (though more so than the Young Bond and Anthony Horowitz novels and the like), but it's great fun. 

A note on age range for readership. Double Digit is set in college. There is a muted reference to Digit having apparently slept with John (and intending to do so again), but nothing overt. Digit and Tiki do attend a toga party, where Tiki drinks too much. But overall, despite the college setting and the 21-year-old (mostly ex)boyfriend, this is no "sexy-times New Adult" novel. The language is fine, and there ends up barely even being kissing. I think it's fine for YA readers.

Another note. Although the main character is female, and more cerebral than action-oriented, I think that the Digit series would work well for male readers, too. There is hacking, a cool robot, and code-breaking. There is a toga party. There is, in short, no reason on earth for boys to brush this off as a girl book, and I applaud the publisher's choice of a blue cover.

But I also think that the truest sweet spot for the Digit books lies with smart, math-oriented girls, who will be thrilled to embrace Digit as one of their own. I would have been so, so thrilled to run across these books when I was in high school. Heck, I'm still thrilled, despite my 25 year high school reunion having come and gone. I can't wait to see what's up for Digit next (and I know which of her two potential love interests I would like her to choose, too). 

Double Digit is highly recommended for YA or adult readers, male or female. But do read A Girl Named Digit first, for background (and more time with Digit). This one is due out next week. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHBooks)
Publication Date:  January 7, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


Mojo: Tim Tharp

Book: Mojo
Author: Tim Tharp (@timtharp1)
Pages: 288
Age Range: 12 and up 

I'm always interested in finding more children's and young adult mysteries. So when I heard about Tim Tharp's Mojo, a YA murder mystery by a an author who previously won a National Book Award, I was interested. And Ms. Yingling liked it (and considers it edgy but still appropriate for middle schoolers), so I decided to give it a look. My own feelings about the book ended up being a bit more mixed. 

Mojo begins when high schooler Dylan finds classmate Hector Maldonado dead in a dumpster (this is not described very graphically). The police (after harassing Dylan and his friend Randy) quickly close the case, declaring Hector's death a drug overdose. Dylan doesn't buy it. When he continues to obsess about the lax police investigation, his best friend Audrey suggests that he instead focus on investigating the disappearance of the rich and pretty Ashton Browning (who attends a different school). Dylan, motivated in part by the $100,000 reward that Ashton's parents put up, and in part by the need to prove himself (and gain "mojo"), begins to investigate. 

Mojo is twisty and suspenseful. I was never completely sure what was going on. I like that Tharp addresses racism and homophobia (Audrey is gay), both in realistic ways. I like Dylan as a character. He's quirky but determined, and surprisingly loyal (even to Ashton, who he's never met). His relationships with Audrey and Randy are realistic. He admits freely that he does "carry a few extra pounds", and his passion for hamburgers is unabashed. He loves his parents, even though he doesn't let them in on what's really going on in his life. 

Dylan's voice is blunt, self-deprecating, and often funny. Like this:

"Audrey and I had to grab a seat in back, which was fine. I didn't want to stick out as the guy who only spent time with Hector in the Dumpster after he was already dead.

I'd never been to a Catholic funeral before. My parents aren't exactly into organized religion. On Facebook, under Religion, they entered spiritual. But I have to say this for the Catholics--they really know how to put on a show. And I don't mean that in any kind of disrespectful way. I don't usually call clothes garments, but the priest running the program had some mega-cool garments going on. The hat alone made you feel like, This is going to be serious." (Page 19-20)

Dylan is baffled at the notion that someone would turn in people who are in the country illegally, but he also is quick to leave Randy behind when he has the chance to hang out with people who are new and more interesting (which I thought was completely realistic). I also found realistic Dylan's struggles to get around to investigate without a car (particularly after he creates a rift with Audrey). 

So, there are a lot of things to like about Mojo. But, here's what bothered me about it. I'm going to try to talk about this without spoilers, but it's a bit tricky. Dylan is a fairly sharp kid. He's used to being picked on a bit at his rough and tumble public high school. But when Dylan becomes involved with several wealthy kids from Ashton's posh private school, he just ... believes everything that they tell him, despite warnings from Audrey and Randy that these rich aren't really his friends. I wanted to shake Dylan for being so dumb. Of course I've read a lot of books, and seen a lot of movies and television shows, so perhaps I'm more cynical than the target reader for Mojo. But I still found it difficult to enjoy the book because I just didn't find Dylan's reactions (particularly in the later part of the book) plausible. 

So there you have it. Mojo is a fairly edgy YA mystery, one that isn't afraid to take on issues of race, class, and discrimination, but never lets these things dominate over the suspenseful plot. Mojo features a strong protagonist, and lets that protagonist be overweight, without making a major issue out of it. Mojo didn't quite work for me, but I'm sure that there are lots of readers out there who will enjoy it. And it certainly fills a need for boy-friendly young adult mysteries. Librarians for middle school or high school will want to give this one a look.

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


The Wig in the Window: Kristen Kittscher

Book: The Wig in the Window
Author: Kristen Kittscher (@KKittscher)
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9-12 

The Wig in the Window is a middle grade mystery featuring a pair of 12-year-old sleuths and best friends. Sophie and Grace are next door neighbors in the small town of Luna Vista, CA. The girls' FBI-obsessed efforts to spy on their neighbors go awry after they observe bizarre behavior by Ms. Agford, the counselor at Sophie's middle school. (Grace is home-schooled.) 

The Wig in the Window is ever so slightly over the top, which keeps it middle grade reader friendly despite some dark elements. There's a clique of do-gooder girls that virtually amounts to a cult. Sophie has an obsession with Chinese culture, The Art of War, and feng shui. She becomes ostracized at school after a single incident. And, as the narrator, she displays a dry sense of humor. Like this:

"My grandpa spent his days playing canasta with other veterans down at the VFW, a club for Veterans of Foreign Wars. (Besides the Civil War, were there any non-foreign wars?)" (Chapter 3) 

"Students bearing unwieldy instrument cases and mangled lunch bags poured forth. Marissa and her friends arrived as a set, looking like displaced flight attendants as they strode along the sidewalk, their matching rolling backpacks in tow." (Chapter 15)

The friendship between Sophie and Grace, which we see filtered through Sophie's perceptions and mis-perceptions, is complex and conflict-filled, lending another layer of drama to The Wig in the Window. I actually preferred Sophie's new friend, Trista, over Grace. Trista is an outcast who doesn't seem to mind her lack of social position, who befriends Sophie when others cast her aside. Sophie's hint of a developing relationship with a book in her class didn't quite work for me for some reason, but is a very minor part of the book, and may add interest for middle school readers. 

I am always on the lookout for middle grade mysteries that feature real stakes and active investigation on the part of the protagonists, and The Wig in the Window fits the bill. The mystery in The Wig in the Window is not watered down for young audiences, though Kristen Kittscher uses middle-school-appropriate humor to keep things accessible. The balance between having kids running around investigating on their own and having them get in trouble with concerned parents is a tricky one, but I think that Kittscher nails it. You also have to love an author who can use the word "recapacitate" in a sentence (Chapter 22). Recommended for mystery fans, ages 9 and up, particularly girls. 

Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


Boy Nobody: Allen Zadoff

Book: Boy Nobody
Author: Allen Zadoff
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

Boy Nobody is a tense thriller about a 16-year-old boy who has been trained as an assassin. The first person narrator (we don't learn his real name until late in the book, but let's call him Benjamin) was kidnapped by a shadowy organization, apparently part of the government, after a boy named Mike killed Benjamin's parents. Benjamin was trained to execute meticulously planned missions. For each mission, he is inserted into a school, where he befriends some key student. His target is someone close to that student, such as a parent. His job is to kill the target. 

Benjamin has a distinct voice. Not knowing much about the premise of the book, I thought at first that he was supposed to be some sort of alien. He calculates his every move and reaction. Like the scene below, in which a bunch of kids are hanging around after a baseball game.

""Your best kicks ass and takes names," Jack says, and he punches my shoulder again.

This time the big man doesn't move. But the other players are looking at us. 

Two punches on the arm. A way of asserting dominance.

Dominance is a threat. It must be dealt with.

I run a checklist in my mind:

I can let him punch me. Choose a lower status.

I can retaliate in equal measure, with equal force.

I can escalate. Assert my dominance.

Which should I choose?" (Chapter: I Pick Up a Baseball Bat)

He's like a human computer, the ultimate, unquestioning tool for killing people. But when the next student that Benjamin is supposed to befriend turns out to be the smart, extremely attractive daughter of the mayor of New York City, things become a bit more complicated than usual. Like this:

"Because my mind is thinking the wrong things. I should be thinking about finishing my assignment, but I'm thinking about the curve of Sam's neck, the corner of her lip, the way her breasts swell against the fabric of her dress." (Chapter: I Slip into the Bathroom down the Hall)

There is certainly violence in Boy Nobody, though I didn't find it gratuitous. (I mean, the book is about an assassin. The fact that he kills a few people should not be surprising.) There's a hint of a James Bond feel to the violence, and to the couple of sexual incidents (which are not described in detail). 

The teen assassin is an interesting premise for a young adult novel. Kind of takes teen alienation to a new and toxic level. Imagine having to go into school after school, reinventing yourself each time, figuring out the social dynamics on the fly? Now imagine doing that with no parents behind you (just two controllers who communicate via technology), and no one to confide in. Even if he didn't have to kill people, Benjamin would still be about as alienated as it gets. 

Boy Nobody is fast-paced, with lots of short paragraphs leaving white space in the text, and plenty of action to move the plot forward. Benjamin is a unique character, his damaged mind revealed through is first person narration (and his actions). Sam is also surprising and intriguing. And a nerdy computer geek comes into Benjamin's sphere, adding a bit of humor and humanity. 

While the main plot in Boy Nobody wraps up neatly, quite a few details are left unexplained. I don't know whether or not Zadoff intends to write other books about Benjamin, but he has certainly put the elements of a bigger picture in place. Personally, I hope that there are more books - I'm interested to see where this story goes. In the meantime, I recommend Boy Nobody for teen and adult readers who enjoy thrillers, and aren't put off by the idea of reading one told from the assassin's perspective. Boy Nobody is well worth a look!

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: June 11, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook