Book Review: Truly Devious


Johnson, Maureen. Truly Devious. Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.

So much of my life takes place at school. There are some weeks where I feel as though I’ve spent more time within the cinderblock walls of my classroom than at home with my husband and dog. Because of this, I’m often attracted to books where the action unfolds within a school—the Harry Potter series, for example, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.

I can now add a new—and fabulous—book to that list: Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, the first book in a forthcoming series.

Ellingham Academy is a unique boarding school in Vermont, established in the 1930s by the wealthy and altruistic Albert Ellingham. Elaborate and secluded, Ellingham Academy aims to attract gifted students who need more time to focus on their individual gifts—inventions or creative writing, for example. Albert, his wife, and small daughter even live on campus. Albert is a fan of board games and riddles, and believes learning should be more like a game. This comes back to haunt him as both his wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. The kidnapper leaves a chilling singsong letter signed “Truly, Devious”. Despite monetary exchanges, Albert’s wife and daughter never return home. His wife’s body washes ashore; his daughter Alice’s whereabouts remain unknown. Although an anarchist is arrested and charged with the crime, most believe the man was innocent.

In present day, Stevie Bell is both nervous and excited to have been admitted to Ellingham Academy. Stevie is a true crime buff—she listens to a large number of crime podcasts, ravenously reads detective novels and criminology books, and is a fan of most detective shows. Her most fervent dream is to someday work for the FBI, and her cold case of choice is the Ellingham case. Her interest in Ellingham Academy is not purely academic—she wants to closely study and solve the crime. But when one of Stevie’s classmates is found dead, Stevie realizes her powers of deduction are needed in a different way. Is the killer among Stevie’s classmates? Will Stevie make progress in solving the Ellingham kidnapping case?

I am usually not a fan of mysteries, but Truly Devious pulled me in immediately. Ellingham Academy is a brilliant setting—visually idyllic but with a dark past. Albert, too, is something like Willy Wonka in that his properties are full of hidden passages and tiny intricacies. And though Stevie is both gifted and brave, she has moments of vulnerability and anxiety that soften her character and make her relatable. The mystery aspects of the novel, too, were nicely paced and believable.

My only real complaint about Truly Devious was that there was a broad cast of characters and keeping track of the students and faculty often made me want to take notes of my own. The adults, especially, were only sporadically mentioned, and I often had to go through the book to remind myself of which teacher was being referenced.

Still, I was enthralled by Truly Devious and am now eagerly awaiting the sequel. Many students are passionate about crime and forensics, and I can foresee this novel being popular choice among the student body. The novel also touches on topics that are worth discussing—fame, plagiarism, and political disagreements.

Book Review: Juliet Immortal


Jay, Stacey. Juliet Immortal: A Novel. Ember, 2012.

Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is the most fun I have during the school year.

I love assigning roles to my students, having them act out the various fight scenes with foam swords, and helping them uncover all of the hidden meanings and double entendres found within the text. I’m a sucker for any Romeo & Juliet retelling—from West Side Story to the children’s cartoon Gnomeo & Juliet. I was powerless, then, to the novel Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay.

In Juliet Immortal, Shakespeare’s play is not fiction, but a romanticized and warped retelling of actual events. Romeo and Juliet did fall in love in Verona and marry impulsively; however, Romeo killed Juliet as she awaited him in the tomb in order to gain immortality. Juliet’s spirit goes to work for the Ambassadors of Light, inhabiting the souls of others across centuries and bringing soulmates together. Romeo works for the Mercenaries, dark spirits who try to convince soulmates to kill one another in exchange for the same immortality.

Juliet has awakened in the body of Ariel, a teenager of the 21st century with physical and emotional scars. Via glowing auras, Juliet realizes that she is to bring together her best friend Gemma and a haunted boy named Ben. But Juliet’s own feelings for Ben threaten to derail her mission and the rules of the spirit world. Romeo, too, has returned to the same era, inhabiting the body of Dylan, one of Ariel’s schoolmates. Who will win this struggle of good versus evil—Romeo or Juliet? Will Juliet ignore her feelings for Ben and complete her mission? Are the goals of the Ambassadors of Light and the Mercenaries as clear as they seem?

The premise of Juliet Immortal is an intriguing one as Romeo, the Nurse, and various Ambassadors and Mercenaries can inhabit any body of their choosing. Anyone in Juliet’s new world, then, could quickly turn into an enemy. The suspense is palpable, and many of the fight scenes and moments of violence felt appropriately climatic.

To my disappointment, Juliet Immortal did not satisfactorily mirror its source material. As readers of Romeo & Juliet know, the Nurse is a lively character in the play—raunchy, dimwitted, and incredibly funny. The Nurse in Jay’s novel is an extremely flat, almost robotic character, and I would have loved to see some of her traits from the play carry over. And while Juliet’s immaturity and impulsiveness result in her death in both the play and the novel, she doesn’t appear to have learned her lesson in Juliet Immortal. Her feelings for Ben bloom as quickly as her feelings for Romeo, and some of Ben and Juliet’s proclamations of love were much too corny.

I’m not certain that Juliet Immortal would be an appropriate book to read with a class in its entirety. The violence in the text is graphic and disturbing. Still, Jay’s book would be suitable for a classroom library, and a great recommendation for a mature student who is hesitant to leave the famous star-crossed lovers behind.

Book Review: Expelled


Patterson, James, and Emily Raymond. Expelled. JIMMY Patterson Books, Little, Brown, and Company, 2017.

I love a good story, whether that story is found within a book, television show, or movie. In truth, I’d go to the movies every weekend if money were no object. I love documentaries, particularly crime documentaries. Specifically, I am intrigued by the idea of exonerating a wrongly accused individual. So, when I read the synopsis of James Patterson and Emily Raymond’s Expelled, I simply couldn’t resist purchasing the novel.

Theo Foster is having an extremely unfortunate junior year. His ailing father committed suicide, and Theo discovered his body. More recently, Theo has come under fire for an inappropriate photo posted to his Twitter account. The photo shows the drunken school quarterback, a topless female student, and the school mascot urinating on a football jersey. Theo is expelled for this offense, and the photo becomes the talk of the school and community. Theo, however, maintains his innocence, and is completely bewildered by this chain of events. Fearful that expulsion will ruin his entire future, Theo sets out to clear his name and discover who really posted the photo from his account.

Theo bands together with his friend Jude, the school’s mascot who has also been wrongfully accused and expelled. Together, they set out to create a documentary where they’ll interview their peers and get to the bottom of the photo scandal. Theo’s mysterious and alluring classmate, Sasha Ellis, also agrees to help, as she has been wrongfully accused of stealing money from the school’s vending machines. But Theo meets resistance at every turn—from school administrators, from other students at the high school, and from Theo’s own friends. Are those closest to Theo as innocent as they seem? Can Theo prove his own innocence?

As a high school teacher, the details and plot points in Expelled always felt true and unexaggerated. In the age of social media, an unflattering photo or tweet can destroy lives and reputations, ruin chances for scholarships or job opportunities. The novel also touches on serious subjects such as suicide, steroid use, and sexual abuse.

Overall, though, I had a difficult time feeling invested in Expelled. Theo seems to be the only member of the accused interested in clearing his name and—while some of that makes sense later in the novel—he is consistently distracted by his interest in Sasha. His feelings toward her occasionally border on obsession. And the ending seems rushed and much too neat.

Still, Expelled would be a worthy addition to a classroom library. Teachers can also use excerpts from the novel to stress the dangers of reckless social media use. Students who are interested in mysteries will likely find it a satisfying read.