* “The Naturalist”

What a terrific thriller!  Dr. Theo Cray is The Naturalist, a bioinformatics professor.  A computational biologist.  Huh?  Trust me, you’ll find out what that means.  The author, Andrew Mayne, lets Theo tell the story from his brilliant, socially awkward perspective.  The action begins with a flashback to a savage animal attack in Montana; in the next chapter, unsuspecting Theo sits with plastic bags on his hands at the police station.  And it goes downhill -and uphill -from there.

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Theo keeps telling himself to stay clear of the murderous tangle in a backwoods town, but he can’t help himself.  The police wish he would just clear out, but Theo keeps the body count rising.  He is willing to sacrifice everything to save others and bring an evil creature to justice.  Theo’s clever mind and computer analyses detect patterns which expose horrendous events and put him in grave danger.  Even so, I laughed out loud at his perspective, even in the most suspenseful scenes.  The Naturalist is so unusual, yet incredibly realistic, that I also found myself giggling with anxiety as Theo prepares for his own death.

It’s hard to describe The Naturalist without spoiling the wild plot.  If you enjoy science, thrillers, brilliant deductions, and things that go bump in the night, this book’s for you!

* NERDS book review

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NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society is a fast-paced, kids-as-spies thriller and spoof.  The main characters are, well, nerds, who have been recruited by a top secret government agency to combat villains by using nanobyte technology.  Jackson Jones, once a cool 5th grade jock and very much full of himself, plummets from social acclaim to nerd status when he is fitted with the most tortuous set of braces ever designed.  Amazingly, his braces become a secret weapon, but in the end, Jackson’s indomitable spirit, along with a newfound humility, save the day.  Almost.

The author, Michael Buckley, creates this wacky and hilarious story which is the first in a series of five books featuring the NERDS secret society.  Buckley’s characters are straight out of upper elementary or middle school, with lots of “ew!” moments.  Each nerd spy is outfitted with a weapon system built around his or her weakness, which is an interesting concept (see social skills application below).  Students will not be disappointed in the high tech features of this story.  It’s an action packed adventure that travels the globe, just like James Bond movies.  The entire book is written as a transmission of sorts and the reader must provide increasingly (gross) samples of DNA to receive the next level.  There’s no way to keep a straight face as a kid is hunting for ear wax to put on a sensor!  Eventually, the author is makes an all-out ploy for cash, which is just as funny as the rest of the book.

I was surprised that Buckley kills off some folks in this book.  When facing an evil genius bent on destroying the world, I guess there must be casualties.  The “violence” is tempered by humor; pinatas with missiles can really mess up a birthday party.  The book is a fast read, features astounding artificial intelligence, and suggests that Michael Buckley is one quick-witted but wacky guy.  Visit his website for more spy fun; kids can join the NERDS team by answering a set of questions and being assigned a code name.  Very cool.

Special education application:  This is a 5 star book with special appeal to kiddos with learning and social challenges.  The distress and humiliation of bullying is not glossed over, despite Jackson’s total denial that he ever bullied anyone.  In fact, the entire plot is predicated on the good, the bad, and the ugly of elementary and middle school social mores.  NERDS makes a great read aloud for social skills groups, with an abundance of topics to explore.

 

* The London Eye Mystery

The London Eye Mystery

What intrigue, fun, and amazing depth in The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd!  What’s this gripping mystery about?  Aunt Gloria and her son, Salim, come to London to say goodbye to Ted and Kat’s family before heading for a new life in New York.  The sisters and kids decide to take in a final day of sightseeing.  Salim ends up on the Eye by himself but he never gets off!  What happened to Salim?

Told in first person point-of-view by Ted, a 12 year old on the autism spectrum, this book is a gem for many reasons.  As a read-aloud or for kids in upper elementary and older, this book is loaded with enough material to satisfy readers and teachers alike.  All the characters in the book are well-developed.  Themes abound.  The clues are intriguing, the mystery is a real page turner, and the shattering reality of a missing kid is not glossed over.

The portrayal of the thoughts and actions of a kiddo on the autism spectrum is a primary accomplishment of this book.  Seriously, that is no mean feat.  Ted talks to us about his brain with its different operating system, relates his never-ending and complex thoughts on weather systems, and lets us know when he’s stressed, including habitual hand shaking and occasional banging and kicking walls.  Poor Ted.  I’d bang walls in his position, too.  If ONLY his family would listen to Ted!

Ted’s sister, Kat, is a tweener in rebellion against her mum, secretly smoking and often lying, and cursing several times in the book.  While reading this aloud, I left out most of those words.  On the other hand, I appreciate the author’s authentic description of Kat’s struggle to find her way while grappling with agonizing guilt over Salim’s disappearance.

As a special ed teacher, I’d use this book to develop empathy among neurotypical learners for those whose brain are on IOS-Autism.  Kids on the spectrum are at risk for bullying and this book would be a terrific tool for countering those prejudices.  The London Eye Mystery could also validate kids who have been made aware of their diagnosis of ASD.

I was grieved to discover that Siobhan Dowd passed away in 2007 at the age of 47.  She had devoted much of her life’s energy to “tak[ing] stories to children and young people without stories.”  In the days before her death, she established The Siobhan Dowd Trust, a worthwhile project to supply books to those who otherwise couldn’t access them.  Siobhan Dowd definitely achieved her goal of giving a voice to kiddos like Ted.  I encourage you to read the book and check out her foundation, where all royalties and funds from overseas sales provide hope for the voiceless.

* A Most Reluctant Princess

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Jean Cogdell has written another 5 star winner, this time for thoughtful young girls who ponder their future.  As Amy considers her potential careers, including doctor, artist, president, and fairy, clear and gentle illustrations by Ashley Bauer capture the splendid role-playing of this imaginative child.  The sweetest message in this book is based on Amy’s secure love from her parents, especially her dad.  He calls her “his little princess” and Amy delights in being swept off the ground into his arms.  Her mother’s arms also hold this precious girl tight, reminding her that she has plenty of time to follow her dreams.  Cogdell has written this book in rhyme, with the soothing repetition that should make this a delightful bedtime story.  For older readers, there are other issues to ponder, such as the weight of a crown and throne. This book is sure to inspire girls and boys alike to enjoy creative play, while acknowledging that love is the foundation for any happy future.

A Most Reluctant Princess is available from Amazon.