Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review of Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

Johnson, Maureen.  Truly Devious.  HarperCollins, 2018.

In the 1930s, affluent, but unconventional, Alfred Ellingham founded the exclusive Ellingham Academy in the mountains of Vermont, with hopes of attracting the future’s smartest, brightest, and most creative minds.  Students were allowed to learn at their own pace and take on personal projects tailored to their interests.  Not long after, Ellingham’s wife and three-year-old daughter were kidnapped.  Someone calling himself “Truly Devious” took credit for the crime and demanded ransom for the victims.  Unfortunately, the ransom drop went horribly wrong, supposedly leading to the death of Alfred’s wife.  His daughter, Iris, was never found.  At about the same time, one of the students was also found murdered in a tunnel on the school property.  Although someone was charged and found guilty, the true perpetrator was never found.

Jump ahead to present day, and a new class of students is arriving at the academy.  Among those students is Stevie Bell, an amateur detective, who hopes she can solve the Ellingham mysteries.  She considers herself to be an expert on the case because she has read and studied everything she could find on it.  Now another student has died mysteriously in the same tunnel, and the school is in an uproar.  Despite anxiety attacks, teenage drama, and a schoolgirl crush, Stevie must now solve more than one case.

Truly Devious is a fresh take on the basic crime novel.  The story alternates between the present and the 1930s, using flashbacks to describe the school and the crimes that happened in there in thirties.  The school’s grounds and buildings are beautifully described and seem idyllic in nature.  There is a cast of well-fleshed-out and exceptionally diverse set of characters—in gender, ethnicity, race, and other aspects.  There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, plot twists, surprises, with just a little romance thrown in for good measure.  Just when you think you know who the murderer is, something happens to change your mind and keep you guessing!  Of course, there is that dreaded cliffhanger, leading the reader yearning for next book in the series.

Hand this novel to your students who are fans of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie.  I recommend it to middle school, high school, and public libraries and give it four out of five fleur de lis!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Shusterman, Neal.  Thunderhead.  S&S, 2018.

Thunderhead follows up Neal Shusterman’s popular futuristic novel, Scythe, which deals with a death-free earth and a unique way to control the human population.

In this second book in the Arc of a Scythe series, Rowan has become a phantom vigilante, Scythe Lucifer, tracking down corrupted scythes in MidMerica and killing them.  Citra, now Scythe Anastasia, is taking her job very seriously, gleaning victims with humane compassion.  She has become quite popular among the junior scythes and is living with her mentor, Scythe Curie.   They are concerned about the attitude that many of the newer scythes have developed—gleaning with glee and wild abandonment, instead of doing their jobs with seriousness and dignity.  Through a newly introduced character, Greyson Tolliver, it is revealed that the lives of Scythes Anastasia and Curie are in mortal danger due to their “old world” views. 

The powerful A.I. Thunderhead is observing everything that is happening on earth, with increasing disappointment, but does nothing to directly interfere with the Scythes.  However, it has its hand in every other aspect of human life across the globe.  In an effort to help earth, and ultimately, the Scythedom, Citra takes her life into her own hands, hoping that she can connect with the only thing that can save the world.

OMG.  This. Book.  I thought that Scythe was exceptional, but the Thunderhead is even better!  How can that even be possible!?

Neal Shusterman has made expanded the Thunderhead into a “living breathing character” by putting its dialogue into diary-like entries, allowing the reader to know how it feels and sees the world.  The characters from Scythe have been fuller developed, and the additional ones add even more depth to the sequel.  The world building of Endura, the Scythe government seat of power, and of The Great Library of Alexandria is outstanding.  Add in the fascinating plot and the surprising twists, and you have what I think is the Novel of the Year, even if it is a sequel.

So…five things.

1.     Brilliant, flowing writing
2.     Likable and vile characters—both remarkably refined
3.     Amazing world building
4.     Shocking plot twists
5.     A cliffhanger ending  (Insert, “Noooooo!” here!)

I highly, highly recommend Thunderhead to upper middle school, high school, and public libraries and give it five fleur de lis.  I’d give it ten if I could!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Roe, Robin.  A List of Cages.  Disney-Hyperion, 2017.

Adam Blake, a senior in high school, is the happiest, most energetic, albeit clumsy, student at his high school.  Although he has ADHD, he has learned to compensate and has excelled in his classes and is one of the school’s most popular students.  One of his classes involves being a student aide to Dr. Whitlock, the school psychologist, and he is bored most of the time during this period.  One day, she asks Adam to locate a freshman named Julian, who, consequently, lived with Adam and his mom for a while after both of his parents were killed in a tragic car accident.  After several years, Julian’s uncle took custody of him, and the Blakes were not allowed to see him.

Adam is thrilled to see Julian again and is happy that he actually remembers him.  However, Julian has become extremely shy and withdrawn and is slow to open up to Adam.  We learn through Julian’s eyes that he also has undiagnosed dyslexia and is scorned by many teachers for his poor grades and scholastic performance. 

Adam begins spending a lot of time with Julian, and he is accepted into Adam’s group of senior friends.  Adam notices that Julian’s clothes are old and do not fit him well, and that Julian often misses school due to illness.  Adam eventually figures out that Julian is keeping secrets from both him and Dr. Whitlock.  What Adam and his friends ultimately discover about Julian could put all their lives at risk!

This debut novel by Robin Roe is an emotional roller coaster of a ride.  I am a sucker for teenage male protagonists, and she has created some very special ones.  The novel is character-driven, told in first-person through the eyes of Adam and Julian.  All the characters, including the supporting group, are exceptionally well developed.  Adam is just a great guy and well liked by students and teachers.  Julian has had a lot of trauma in his life since losing his parents but is still disdained by his teachers and his impatient, evil uncle.  All of Adam’s friends have distinct personalities.  I did not like Charlie, Adam’s best bud, at first, but he grew so much during the story that I actually ended up loving him.  He is like a giant, lovable teddy bear and fiercely loyal to his friends!

The dialogue and setting are authentic, the characters are wonderful, and the villain is hateful.  I could not believe the abuse that Julian has to endure from his uncle, who does not even care for him one bit.  The scenes where Julian is locked in a trunk emotionally drained me.  It was no surprise to find out that Robin Roe is an adolescent counselor, since she portrays the characters so realistically and compassionately.

This novel has it all—family, friendship, great characters, a little romance, drama, and a happy ending, despite cruelty.  It is a real page-turner, and I highly recommend it for high school and public libraries.  I give it five out of five fleur de lis!