58 posts categorized "Mysteries and Thrillers" Feed

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

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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).

© 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

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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).

© 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

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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).

© 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

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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


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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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


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

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


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


The Girl from Felony Bay: J. E. Thompson

Book: The Girl from Felony Bay
Author: J. E. Thompson
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12 

The Girl from Felony Bay is a middle grade mystery set against a deeply layered South Carolina coast backdrop. Abbey Force has had a bad year. Her father is in a coma after an apparent fall, accused of a crime that Abbey is certain he didn't commit. Abbey's home, Reward Plantation, has been sold to cover remunerations from the crime. Abbey is living with her snake-like Uncle Charlie, and Charlie's downtrodden wife Ruth. As the summer vacation after sixth grade begins, Abbey's number one goal is to prove that her father didn't commit the crime he is accused of. She is helped in her quest by Bee Force, the daughter of Reward's new owner. 

There's a lot to like about The Girl from Felony Bay. The mystery is well-developed, with clues parcelled out gradually, so that young readers can figure things out along with Abbey. I know that I read this quite quickly, eager to understand what was happening. I found the resolution of the mystery satisfying, but was pleased that the author didn't feel the need to fix every single loose end. 

Thompson's characterization is superb. Abbey fairly leaps from the page, and a number of secondary characters are revealed to have unexpected (but plausible) depths. The friendship between Abbey and Bee develops a bit quickly, but Thompson doesn't gloss over the awkward aspects of their relationship. Bee is living in the house that Abbey grew up in, sleeping in her very bedroom. And Abbey and Bee both understand immediately that Bee's family is descended from slaves that Abbey's ancestors owned (it having been common practice for freed slaves to take the last name of their owners as they left the plantations). These uncomfortable realities could have derailed the girls' friendship, but don't. 

Abbey's voice frequently made me smile. She has a wry humor, and a keen wit, with just a hint of the south in her diction. Like this:

"He sipped on his drink and squinted at me with the same face he'd use if he just discovered the meat in his lunch sandwich had gone bad. Uncle Charlie is about six feet two, nearly as tall as Daddy, but no longer thin. He's not exactly fat, either, at least not yet. He reminds me of a candle that's been sitting in the sun too long and is starting to bulge in the wrong places." (Chapter 2)

"She managed to hold back her sorrow when I told her I wouldn't be around for dinner." (Chapter 17, in reference to a neglectful and lazy aunt)

"Rufus was jumping up and down, which is what he did most of the time, since Labrador retrievers are just born happy. The only time they are even happier than usual is when there is a bowl of food nearby." (Chapter 29)

Thompson also does a fine job in portraying the South Carolina coastal region, including its beauties, inconveniences, and dangers. Like this: 

"We could still see the river through the trees off to our left, it's brown water glittering like hot butterscotch. To our right the heavy shrubbery of palmetto trees, live oaks, hanging drapes of Spanish moss, and tangles of honeysuckle and wild oleander and river oats and plants I couldn't begin to name cut off our view after only a few yards." Chapter 7)

"After another couple minutes, the cacophony of the frogs had become almost deafening, so I knew One Arm Pond had to be directly to our right. I couldn't see it through the leaves, not even moonlight reflecting off the surface, but I could smell the musty odor of pluff mud. I was studying every single root, vine, or stick with great intensity now, and that's when I came to a quick stop.

Two feet ahead of me, way to close for comfort, something that looked at first like a thick black root had just crawled from underneath a layer of dead magnolia leaves. It was maybe four feet long and as thick as a beer can in the middle." (Chapter 18)

So there you have it. An absorbing mystery for middle grade readers, with strong characters, and a setting that the reader can practically smell and taste. The fact that The Girl from Felony Bay also matter-of-factly takes on race relations in the south (including a sub-plot regarding heirs' property rights "and how a lot of African American people have gotten cheated out of valuable land over the years") is a nice bonus. 

Although the two main characters are girls (and there's a girl in the title), I think that The Girl from Felony Bay is quite boy-friendly. There are, after all, alligators and poisonous snakes, and hints of pirate treasure. The Girl from Felony Bay is a great choice for anyone looking for a middle grade mystery that has suspense and complexity as well as emotional depth. Highly recommended. 

Publisher: Walden Pond Press (@WaldenPondPress)
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
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).

© 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


Strangelets: Michelle Gagnon

Book: Strangelets
Author: Michelle Gagnon
Age Range: 14 and up

When I learned from Colleen Mondor that Soho Press was debuting Soho Teen, a mystery/thriller imprint for young adults, I was intrigued. I am generally on the lookout for teen mysteries. So I went onto NetGalley, and found Strangelets available for review. Once I started to glance through it, I couldn't put it down, actually pre-empting the book that I was already reading.

I would call Strangelets science fiction with a mystery slant, rather than pure mystery/thriller. Strangelets begins with three geographically separated teens, each facing imminent death. A hole opens up, sucking each teen into a vortex. They wake up locked in an otherwise abandoned hospital wing, together with three other teenagers with similar near-death stories. When they eventually make their way outside, they find themselves in a crumbling, overgrown complex of buildings. The truth about where they are, and why, is revealed gradually over the course of the book. The puzzle of trying to figure things out kept me reading long into the night.

Strangelets is plot-driven and suspenseful, with a delightfully creepy atmosphere. Like this:

"They emerged from it into an enormous room, the size of an airplane hangar. It was filled with computer equipment, huge towers, and complicated looking panels. Silent and dark as a tomb, cast in an eerie red glow by emergency lights place at staggered intervals. It looked like a scene straight out of an old James Bond film; Declan half-expected to find a villain in a swiveling chair stroking a cat."

The limited third person viewpoint shifts frequently between the three primary protagonists, but I never found this disruptive. Terminally ill Californian Sophie, Irish bad boy Declan, and defecting Israeli soldier Anat have quite distinct voices. Sophie evokes sympathy (and is clearly intelligent), while Declan adds charm, street smarts, and humor (as above). Anat is not particularly likeable, but has other strengths. Here's Anat:

"Not that any of these kids were her fellow countrymen. Far from it, she thought with a snort. They were all soft, whining about missing a single meal. If anything happened, she was clearly the best equipped to handle it."

 Here's Sophie (with elipses to avoid spoilers):

"Of course, it was pretty absurd for a bunch of teenagers to get sucked across the planet into the infirmary beneath a research facility, too. And for ... Absurd was the order of the day."

The science in the science fiction of Strangelets is a bit vague, but still thought-provoking. I don't want to say more, because a big part of the fun of reading the book lies in figuring out what's going on. I found the ending a little more tidy than I might have personally preferred, but I think that most teen readers will like it. 

I enjoyed Strangelets, and I think that teens (boys and girls) will too. I look forward to seeing what else Soho Teen comes up with. Recommended. 

Publisher: Soho Teen (@soho_teen)
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from NetGalley

© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you). 


Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator: Josh Berk

Book: Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator
Author: Josh Berk (@JoshBerkBooks)
Pages: 240
Age Range: 12 and up 

Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator is part mystery, part family drama, and part day-to-day high school adventures of geeky slacker guy. It's an unusual mix, but one that works. After Guy's 70-something father dies, Guy joins the forensics club at school. He also starts writing a book containing various pithy maxims of his much-traveled, larger-than-life dad. He soon run across several potentially intersecting real-world mysteries (including a potential murder attempt). Together with his friends (and fellow geeks) from forensics club, Guy attempts to pull it all together, and pull himself out of an extended period of depression.  

Guy has a great voice. He's over-the-top lazy, and funny in spite of his depression (Crime Scene Procrastinator is much more about black humor than sadness). Like this:

"I had a bunch of tissues. Before we left the house (for the funeral), I jammed my suit pockets with them until my pockets were bulging cartoonishly, like I was a shoplifter swiping throw pillows. The last time I bought a suit was for my bar mitzvah, so it hardly fit. I looked ridiculous. I knew that. I had two whole boxes of tissues in there. I feared I'd need them all. I was wrong. I needed more." (Page 1)

"After Social Studies, Anoop and I go to lunch. School lunch sucks. Ever since the "healthy lunch" program began last year, there's no more pizza, burritos, barf-a-roni, tots o' tater, or even those awesomely gooey chocolate chip cookies. We can't even have peanut butter anymore, because one kid is allergic to peanuts and apparently can't be in the same room with even a dab of PB&J without having his face explode or something." (Page 13)

Guy's is definitely a teen boy voice. There's another kid who is called "Penis-head". There's a documentary with "boobs ... flopping around like pizza dough." There is a scene in which Guy resists going up to the front of the classroom, for a particular reason (though not explained in painful detail), etc. These things don't dominate the book, but they definitely make it more YA than middle grade. And they make Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator more boy book than girl book (though there are two strong girl characters, and no reason at all why girls wouldn't enjoy all of the forensic science discussed in the book). 

The plot in Crime Scene Proscrastinator meanders a bit, and I saw most of the twists coming. But it's nice to see a book that makes science (forensic science) cool, and relevant. Also, Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator is life-affirming without being didactic (as Guy comes out of his depression), and tackles real subjects without letting go of humor. Recommended, particularly for high school libraries. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: March 13, 2012
Source of Book: Library copy on Kindle (but quotes checked against finished review copy from the publisher)

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Book of Blood and Shadow: Robin Wasserman

Book: The Book of Blood and Shadow
Author: Robin Wasserman (@robinwasserman)
Pages: 448
Age Range: 12 and up

Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow was already on my short stack when I read this at Chasing Ray:

"If you're looking for a great escape this summer, you absolutely have to pick up Robin Wasserman's recent thriller The Book of Blood and Shadow. Comparisons have abounded to Dan Brown's juggernaut The Da Vinci Code (I would also make the case for The Eight by Katherine Neville) ..."

There was more, of course, but those two comparisons from Colleen Mondor were enough for me to decide to read it next. And I'm glad that I did. The Book of Blood and Shadow is an intelligent, suspenseful thriller that happens to feature a teen protagonist. Honestly, it didn't feel much like a young adult novel to me - I think that it could easily have been published for adults, and that it holds plenty of adult crossover appeal. It certainly kept me reading late into the night (no small feat these days!). 

The Book of Blood and Shadow begins with the grief of high school senior Nora over the murder of her best friend, Chris. Nora's tale then moves backward, to the events leading up to Chris' death, and then forward, as Nora embarks on a quest for understanding. The plot hinges on a 700 year old coded book, a series of four hundred year old letters (written in Latin), two secret societies, and multiple alchemists. The first part of the book is set in New England, the later part in Prague. There's a compelling mix of careful research and desperate action. 

Nora is a well-developed character. Her parents were broken by the death or her reckless brother six years earlier. Chris and his girlfriend Adriane form a substitute family of sorts for her (to which Chris' roommate Max is eventually added). She bears the scars of her family trauma, but still wants to see the best in the people she loves. She is wryly witty, with realistically low self-esteem. Like this:

"I'd never understood girls like her--as in literally couldn't comprehend how they achieved perfection by seven a.m., hair sleek and dry, lip gloss and mascara and foundation and the variety of cosmetics of whose existence I remained unaware masterfully applied, accessories matched to sartorial selection matched to freshly polished nails. Whereas I inevitably showed up to school late, with tangled, wet, and, several months of the year, frozen hair tucked into a lopsided bun, my socks mismatched, and, on truly special occasions, some hastily applied drugstore foundation that couldn't disguise the fact that my nose was slightly too big for my face." (Page 15-16)

"It's not often you get the opportunity to casually destroy something of value. When you're a kid, there's always a new tower of blocks to knock over, another Barbie to microwave. When you grow up, they take away your toys." (Page 18)

"This is how it happens, I thought as the doctor slid the clipboard into its holster and escaped. You don't even realize you're living in a before until you wake up one day and find yourself in an after." (Page 86)

As you can see from the passages above, The Book of Blood and Stone does have a certain maturity of grammar and vocabulary. It is not a quick, light read. The plot moves back and forth in time (not literally, but via letters), requiring readers to pay close attention to multiple strands of story. The tone is generally dark. But for those willing to invest some time and mental effort, it's a rewarding book (and a fascinating window into modern day and historic Prague). I recommend The Book of Blood and Shadow for teens and adults who are looking for a well-written thriller that will make them think, and take them away to new places.  

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: April 10, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Flirting in Italian: Lauren Henderson

Book: Flirting in Italian
Author: Lauren Henderson
Pages: 336
Age Range: 12 and up 

Flirting in Italian is Flirtingcoverthe start of a new series by UK author Lauren Henderson. Henderson also wrote the Scarlett Wakefield series, which I reviewed here and here. Though set in a different country (Italy vs. England), Flirting in Italian has a very similar feel to the Scarlett Wakefield books. So similar that I am certain that had I started Flirting in Italian without knowing the author, I would easily have been able to name her. This is not a criticism - I enjoyed the Scarlett Wakefield books thoroughly, and found Flirting in Italian equally pleasing. But the strength of Henderson's voice makes it a bit difficult to distinguish between Scarlett and Violet (note similarity of names), despite differences in the two girls' situations. 

Anyway, Flirting in Italian is about Violet Routledge, a teen from London who signs up for an eight week summer program at the Villa Barbiano in Tuscany. Though the program is ostensibly to help Violet with her University applications, Violet's real reason for choosing this particular program is the Villa Barbiano's proximity to the Castello di Vesperi. The Castello di Vesperi is linked to a late 18th century painting of a woman who looks remarkably like Violet (who has no resemblance to either of her parents). Violet wants to learn about the unknown woman in the portrait, and find out whether she shares some secret connection to Violet. The fact that Violet will be able to flirt with handsome Italian guys while she's there (including the young scion of the Castello di Vesperi), well, that's an added bonus. 

Flirting in Italian is part mystery (as Violet finds her life in danger) and part teen romance, with the faintest hints of the supernatural. It does take a while for the plot to really get going - there's quite a bit of description of the villa and the other girls sharing Violet's course, etc. There are digressions regarding "the Swimsuit Beauty Parade" (and body image insecurities to which many teen girls will relate), and the different flirting styles of Italian vs. British and American males. But I still found the book to move along quickly, thanks to Henderson's breezy style, a mix of dramatic teen intensity and apt description. For example:

"I bite my lip. I don't know anything about the portrait. I can't even buy a postcard of it. So how am I ever going to find out who the girl in the paining is? I have to discover why on earth a girl who lived in the late eighteenth century -- in Italy! -- looks so like me she could be my twin sister." (Page 4)

"I fumble in my bag for my sunglasses, holding up the people behind me. Warm, humid air wraps itself around me insistently, demanding that I unzip my jacket, pull off my cotton sweater, bare my arms and neck to the blazing mid-afternoon sunshine. By the time I'm down the wobbly metal stairs, by the time my feet touch Italian soil, I've wrestled off the outer layers I was wearing in the air-conditioned plane. Everyone else is going the same, wriggling and writhing as they cross the tarmac, shrugging off jackets, stuffing them into carry-on cases, older English men and women put on on the straw Panama hats and ribboned raffia boaters they've brought to protect their white skin from the scorching Mediterranean sun." (Page 31-32)

The present tense viewpoint helps keep things moving quickly, too, with various chapter-ending cliffhangers. 

I recommend Flirting in Italian for teenage girls and adult women who enjoy a mix of mystery and romance (there is a fair bit of kissing, and some drinking). Because of the way the romantic and interpersonal elements (rivalries between the girls, etc.) dominate the mystery, I do think that this is more of a book for girls than for boys. It would make a nice next book following the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, with slightly more mature content. 

One warning - as with the Scarlett Wakefield books, part of the plot wraps up in this book, but other threads are left for the not-yet-released sequel,Kissing in Italian. Those who demand instant gratification would be best served by waiting until the next book comes out (and perhaps the one after that - I don't know). But as for me, I'll enjoy looking forward to Kissing in Italian. The book, that is.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: June 12, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).