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.

Book Review: Moxie


Mathieu, Jennifer. Moxie. Roaring Brook Press, 2017.

This is an exciting yet challenging time to be a woman. Exciting because of recent developments—the women’s marches in Washington, DC and across the country, and the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. Challenging because, despite everything, we still have a lot of work to do. This is why Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie is an incredibly important book, a must-read for budding young feminists.

Vivian lives in the small Texas town of East Rockport, where football rules all. Pep rallies are a frequent occurrence, local businesses shut down during home games, and football players have free reign over the school. It doesn’t help that the star of the football team, Mitchell Wilson, happens to the son of the school’s principal. He barks at his female classmates to make him a sandwich and plays a game known as “bump n’ grab” where he fondles girls in the hallway. This coupled with dress code checks that target female students specifically has pushed Vivian to take action.

Inspired by her mother’s past as a member of the punk rock scene and a frequent protestor, Vivan creates a zine known as Moxie, a call to arms aimed at other fed up girls attending East Rockport High. She leaves the zines anonymously in the girls’ bathrooms, and it has a small ripple effect throughout the student body. Subsequent issues follow—Moxie encourages girls to show up in a bath robe to combat dress code checks and slather players of the “bump n’ grab” game with offensive stickers. Other girls, inspired by Moxie, hold bake sales and arts and crafts shows. But, as Moxie’s influence spreads, the administration cracks down: eventually, any school activities under the sponsorship of Moxie are strictly forbidden. Will the administration trace Moxie back to Vivian? Will Vivian ever change the sexist culture of East Rockport High?

This book is equal parts entertaining and rage inducing. There were moments that I felt such anger toward the archaic policies at East Rockport High that I found myself grinding my teeth. Mathieu also does a fantastic job with characterization, particularly with Vivian and her boyfriend, Seth. Seth is a complicated character, a “good guy” who doesn’t understand Vivian’s anger and continually tries to reassure her that not all guys are the same. This is great commentary, a reminder that everyone can grow and change.

On the flip side, Moxie pushes the boundaries of believability. Some of the actions of the administrators and teachers, specifically, were so outrageous that it was difficult to imagine that they’d be allowed in the most closed minded of communities. And all of Vivian’s teachers are the same—checked out, disinterested, etc. I found it hard to believe that in an entire high school there was not a single caring adult who was aghast at the behavior of the male students.

Still, for classes studying gender issues, you’ll find few books better suited for class discussion than Moxie. The novel challenges feminist stereotypes—a character in the novel, for example, believes she cannot be a feminist because she is a cheerleader. Moxie would also be a great catalyst to promote positive change in our schools and communities.

Book Review: Far From the Tree


Benway, Robin. Far From the Tree. Harper Teen, 2017.

One of the most fascinating aspects of teaching is having a set of siblings a few years apart. They might be extremely similar—same facial expressions, same voice, same work ethic or lack thereof. I’ve also experienced the complete opposite—siblings that look and act so differently that I have trouble believing they are even related.

This is something I meditated on as I read Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. The connection between families, particularly siblings, is a significant thematic idea in Benway’s novel.

Sixteen-year-old Grace has been aware of her adoption her entire life, though she’s given it little thought. That changes when she falls pregnant, is abandoned by her boyfriend, and chooses adoption for her unborn daughter. Although she feels she has selected a wonderful adoptive family, Grace feels a tremendous amount of grief and guilt after giving birth. She decides to locate and meet her biological family, beginning with her siblings—an older brother, Joaquin, and a younger sister, Maya.

But Grace quickly learns that Maya and Joaquin have problems of their own. Although Maya lives with a well-to-do family, her parents are on the cusp of divorce and her mother is struggling with alcoholism. Joaquin has floated through the foster care system for the majority of his life, finally landing with a couple, Mark and Linda, who are willing to adopt him. However, prior experiences have burned Joaquin, and he is not certain he is worthy to be adopted. Will Grace, Maya, and Joaquin have a normal sibling relationship? Will Grace come to terms with placing her baby up for adoption? Can Grace convince Maya and Joaquin to help her locate their biological mother?

The narration continually shifts between Maya, Joaquin, and Grace, and each character has a unique voice and perspective. This book doesn’t shy away from tough topics—adoption, the foster care system, divorce, teen pregnancy, bullying, racism, and anger are all touched upon and portrayed realistically. There are also small symbols sprinkled throughout the novel that have major significance—the photographs that line Maya’s staircase, for instance. This book is quiet, but impactful.

I was slightly irked by the character of Maya, as her personality seemed to fluctuate throughout the novel. When Maya and Grace first meet, Maya is extremely aggressive toward Lauren, her adoptive sister, with little buildup or explanation as to why. Maya is also described as being both extremely talkative and guarded, personality attributes that seemed to clash with one another.

This book is sure to be a popular choice in a school or classroom library. Students who have experienced any facet of adoption or familial strife will relate to the characters a great deal. This novel could springboard great discussions about family. Is our family determined solely by blood relation? What can our relatives tell us about our past and our future? What does it take to be an effective parent? Is the love of siblings unconditional? Far From the Tree is an emotional ride, but its hopeful ending will stay with the reader long after they’ve finished the book.


Book Review: We Now Return to Regular Life


Wilson, Martin. We Now Return to Regular Life. Dial, 2017.

One of the most chilling books I’ve ever read was Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life. Dugard was abducted as a child, then imprisoned inside the home of her abductor for eighteen years. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted and even bore two children during the time of her captivity. I was in awe of her strength and perseverance.

One thing I didn’t consider, though, was how Jaycee’s reappearance rocked her family and how difficult it must have been to assimilate into her previous life. These are topics that are explored further in Martin Wilson’s YA contemporary fiction novel, We Now Return to Regular Life.

The past three years have been hellish for Beth Walsh as her brother, Sam, went missing on a seemingly innocuous summer afternoon. He told Beth he was going to ride his bike to the mall with his neighbor, Josh, but failed to return home hours later. Despite exhaustive searches on foot, pleas to the public, and false leads, Sam was never located. Beth tries to begin her life anew by joining the soccer team, making new friends, and spending as much time away from home and her grieving mother and stepfather as possible. However, while studying with a friend, Beth receives a phone call she never anticipated: her mother tells her that Sam has returned home. Will he be the same mischievous little brother that Beth remembers? What happened to Sam in his three-year absence?

Josh feels an enormous amount of guilt regarding Sam Walsh’s disappearance. He was with Sam the day he went missing, but abandoned him when the two began arguing. Josh shares all of this with the police, of course, but what eats him inside is the bit of information he keeps secret: as Josh walked back home, alone, he was approached by a strange man in a white truck. The man offered to give Josh a ride home, but Josh fled and hid in a neighbor’s backyard until the man drove away. Josh later decides he was overreacting, and decides to keep the event a secret. But when Sam returns home after three long years, Josh is gutted to learn that the strange man in the truck was Sam’s captor. Will Josh ever come clean to Sam about keeping important information from the police? Will Sam forgive him? Will the boys repair their friendship?

We Now Return to Regular Life has a unique plot, and Beth and Josh’s dual narration gives readers a complete picture of how Sam’s disappearance and reappearance rattles a family and community. The book also discusses masculinity. Many of Sam’s former friends express disbelief that a boy could be abducted and sexually assaulted. Many of the same friends avoid or refuse to speak to Sam, believing that he is a freak or that he somehow enjoyed his kidnapping. These parts of the novel were difficult to read, but I felt they were important and worthy of discussion.

I have only nit-picky complaints regarding the book. I expected the media to have a larger presence in the story—news vans are parked around the house when Sam first returns home and there is one televised interview, but very little coverage is mentioned afterward. Also, the appearance of Beth and Sam’s biological father was much too brief. I desired more exploration of their broken relationship

Overall, Wilson’s novel would be a smart addition to a classroom library. The book explores the ways human beings grow and heal from trauma, which will unfortunately be relatable to a number of students.

Book Review: The Hazel Wood


Albert, Melissa. The Hazel Wood. Flat Iron Books, 2018.

Note: This is a review of an advanced reading copy.

I was fortunate to receive an ARC of Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood. I’ve received other books in the past; however, upon opening the package, I knew Albert’s novel was unique. The cover was beautiful, embossed with silver and gold images of daggers and castles and birdcages. It was covered with blurbs of praise from authors such as Stephanie Garber and Kristin Cashore. And now, having read the novel, I can say with certainty that “unique” was an understatement. The Hazel Wood will be a sensation very soon, and with good reason.

At only seventeen, Alice has lived the chaotic life of a wanderer. She and her mother have never settled in one place, moving from one state to the next. Once in a new home, they relax briefly before being plagued by bad luck and moving again. In fact, Alice’s earliest memories consist of long stretches of highway and the books she read during her travels. There is another memory, too: the time she was kidnapped by a redheaded man who promised to deliver her to her grandmother. The man did not harm her, and she was soon rescued and returned to her mother; however, the incident spurred an obsession in young Alice. Her grandmother, Althea Proserpine, is an author who wrote a single book: Tales from the Hinterland, a collection of dark fairy tales. Although it was a hit, very few copies of the book still exist. Those who have read the book are secretive and fanatical about what lies within. Alice has never met her grandmother; her mother avoids the subject altogether, forbidding Alice to research the topic further.

The bad luck that once followed Alice and her mother seems to have finally come to an end. Alice’s mother is married to a wealthy man and Alice attends an elite prep school in New York. At the café where Alice works, one of the patrons bears an uncanny resemblance to the redheaded man of her past. Later, she returns home to find her mother gone, a single page from Tales of the Hinterland left behind as a clue. With the help of her classmate and Althea Prosperine expert Ellery Finch, Alice begins the quest of finding her mother and uncovering her family’s secrets. Will she find her mother alive? Will she ever meet the elusive Althea Proserpine?

I’ve read very few novels that are able to weave together contemporary and fantasy as well as The Hazel Wood. The fusion of the two genres kept me on my toes, unsure of what to expect. Alice is perhaps one of the best YA narrators I’ve ever read—her observations are laced with sharp sarcasm and a distinct voice. And the descriptions—particularly those at the latter half of the book—are as magical and vivid as any fairy tale.

I had no qualms about The Hazel Wood, only disappointment that the book will not be accessible to all young readers. The vocabulary can be challenging in parts, and I can foresee reluctant or struggling readers throwing in the towel.

Still, this novel will be beloved by teens who are up to the challenge of reading a complex and humorous tale. I believe the world will be raving about The Hazel Wood very soon, so I feel honored to have received an early copy of such a magical book.