Masterminds is the first book in a thrilling trilogy by Gordon Korman. Larrabee loved it and insisted that I drop everything and read it.
Eli Frieden lives in Serenity, New Mexico, an isolated and idyllic town with a population of 185. Eli’s dad is the school principal and the mayor and reminds him often how lucky he is to live in a community with no crime and no poverty.
One day, his best friend suggests that they ride their bikes out of Serenity, something Eli’s never done in all his thirteen years. When they get to the town limits, though, Eli starts to feel sick. Before they know it, they’ve been rescued by the local security force (nicknamed Purple People Eaters by the kids) in a helicopter. A few days later, Eli’s friend is shipped off to live with his grandparents in Colorado, but he leaves a note where only Eli can find it: “There’s something screwy going on in that town.”
The story of what’s really going on beneath Serenity’s perfect facade is told through the point of view of five different kids. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot twists, so I’ll just say that Masterminds has a mix of action, mystery, and suspense that’s rare in middle grade books.
The other two books in the series are Criminal Destiny and Payback, and Larrabee highly recommends them too. He says the series gets better and better!
Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is a terrific book and code lover’s mystery. It’s exactly the type of book my Nancy Drew-reading younger self would have loved. Larrabee enjoyed it too.
Twelve-year-old Emily’s family moves all the time. Their latest move has brought them to San Francisco, home of Garrison Griswold, the creator of Book Scavenger. Book Scavenger is a game in which players hide books and then post clues in the form of puzzles, and Emily is a big fan. (Larrabee’s first comment: “Is this game real? It should be!”)
Emily stumbles across a mysterious book, a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold-Bug. At first, she thinks it’s a Book Scavenger find, but it’s not listed online. When she finds typos in the story, she becomes convinced that the book contains a code that’s part of Mr. Griswold’s new game. With the help of her friend James and her older brother Matthew, she must solve the puzzles and find the hidden treasure while staying one step ahead of the bad guys.
Some of the things I liked best about this book:
- The San Francisco setting: I recommend this book for anyone planning a trip to the City by the Bay.
- The friendship between Emily and James: I love friendship stories!
- The relationship between Emily and Matthew: For anyone who’s watched a younger sibling trying to figure out what’s happening to a teenage sibling, their interactions will ring true.
- The codes: From substitution ciphers to Pigpen ciphers, this book is full of cool codes.
For readers (like us!) who can’t get enough, there is already a sequel, The Unbreakable Code. And the third book in the series, The Alcatraz Escape, is coming out next month!
Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe by Jo Watson Hackl is the story of twelve-year-old Ariana “Cricket” Overland’s quest to find the mysterious Bird Room and convince her mama to come home for good. Set in a Mississippi ghost town, this book is part survival story, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story.
Some of the things I liked best about this book are:
- The beginning.
“Turns out, it’s easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketfuls of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for merchandise from Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry grocery store. The hard part was getting up the guts to go.”
- Cricket. Her story is in many ways a sad one. Her father has died, her mentally ill mother has left, and her aunt wants to ship her off to live with a great-aunt. But Cricket stays determined and hopeful.
When she was younger, her mother told her, “We’re meanderers, Cricket. We pay attention.” Those qualities make her a good artist, a good detective, and a good narrator.
- The Bird Room. I like the idea of a secret room whose four walls are painted with a garden in spring, summer, winter, and fall. And I was excited to learn from the author’s note that it was inspired by the work of a real artist, Walter Inglis Anderson.
Thank you to Random House Books for Young Readers and NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book. Its expected publication date is July 10.
Greenglass House by Kate Milford is the perfect book to read on a cold winter evening. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it–although he read it last summer and I read it during this unusually warm California winter.
It’s a mystery set in an old smuggler’s inn called Greenglass House in Nagspeake, British Columbia. Twelve-year-old Milo is the innkeepers’ adopted son. Normally he and his parents have the inn to themselves during winter vacation, but not this year. Guest after guest arrives, each more peculiar than the last. With the help of Meddy, the only other kid in the house, Milo will have to figure out what secrets they’re hiding and what brought them all to Greenglass House.
I love a lot of things about this book: the stories that the characters tell each other by the fire at night, Milo and Meddy’s role playing game, and the relationship between Milo and his parents. Most of all, I love the setting: an old house with stained glass windows, creaky stairs, and treasures in the attic.
Now there’s a second book in this same awesome setting: Ghosts of Greenglass House. I can’t wait!
I just finished reading Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game with Larrabee. This book won the Newbery Medal in 1979, and I remember liking it as a child (although I found that I’d largely forgotten the plot). Now, apparently, it’s a “modern classic.”
Sixteen residents of Sunset Towers are summoned to a nearby mansion for the reading of Samuel W. Westing’s will. The will turns out to be a puzzle. The heirs are placed on teams of two and given clues. The ones who figure out who killed Mr. Westing will inherit his $200 million fortune.
This book was an challenging read aloud choice for us with its large cast of (mostly adult) characters and twisty mystery plot. We enjoyed it, though. I doubt if Larrabee would have liked reading this one on his own, but together we were able to keep the heirs straight, and we had fun trying (and mostly failing) to guess the answer to the will’s puzzle.
When you pick up a mystery novel, what do you expect?
- A crime or some other kind of puzzle to be solved
- A detective as the main character
- Several suspects with motive, means, and opportunity
- A suspenseful plot with many clues, including some that are false or misleading
- A satisfying resolution that makes you feel like you could have solved the mystery yourself
These are conventions of the mystery genre. We know them from a lifetime of experience with books and movies, but kids have to discover them for themselves.
Tracy Barrett’s The 100-Year-Old Secret is a good introductions to the genre. Larrabee pronounced it one of the “best detective stories” he’s read. Blaine enjoyed it too when he was younger.
It’s part of a series featuring two American kids, Xena and Xander Holmes, descendants of the great Sherlock Holmes. In the first book, the siblings are tasked with finding a missing painting.
While Larrabee was reading it, he said, “I think I know who’s in the painting… But I still have a lot of chapters left.” That, my young friend, sounds like a red herring.