MG – Ali Cross Like Father, Like Son

Patterson, James. Ali Cross Like Father, Like Son. Little, Brown, 2021. 978-0-316-50013-5. 294 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Ali Cross, son of Patterson’s famous literary detective, Alex Cross, is back in the second book of the series. Ali loves his father’s work, and when his friends are in trouble, he jumps into the situation, determined to use his own talents to solve the problem. Ali and his best friends are at a local D.C. music festival, waiting to see their friend Zoe’s mom perform, when gunshots ring out. Ali races to see if Zoe is OK. He eventually finds her in the backstage maze of semi trucks, RVs and trailers, only to realize she has been shot. Ali rallies his investigative team to discover what happened, but they run into a roadblock in Zoe, who seems determined to keep Ali from finding out the truth. Ali Cross is a delightful upper middle grade and middle school series. Ali is one of the most realistic characters in tween detective fiction. He lies to his Nana Mama and gets in trouble (then lies again). He feels guilty, he makes mistakes, and he loves his family. The plot embraces current issues such as homelessness, police violence, and the proliferation of black shooting victims, balanced with Ali’s personal experience with police work. Ali and Zoe are Black, and other friends are diverse.

THOUGHTS: A well-crafted story from a master storyteller. Patterson is the king of pacing, and the story will keep even reluctant readers engaged. Topical issues add some depth to the book. Mystery fans should enjoy the series, which will lead them to Alex Cross books when they’re older.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – The Box in the Woods

Johnson, Maureen. The Box in the Woods. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. 978-0-063-03260-6. 383 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12. 

In July of 1978, Sabrina Abbott was breaking the rules, something this too good girl had never done. She and her friends paid dearly. Student sleuth Stevie Bell, known for solving the unsolvable Ellingham Academy case is home for the summer, working the second shift at the deli counter of her town’s local grocery store in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Desperate for her next case – or something more interesting than thinly sliced meat and cheese – Stevie receives an email referencing Camp Wonder Falls, and Stevie being Stevie knows this is the Camp Wonder Falls with the box in the woods murders. The email’s sender, Carson Buchwald, knows of Stevie’s talent for crime solving, and he wants to give Stevie full access to the camp, now known as Camp Sunny Pines, in exchange for her help in creating a true-crime podcast/documentary. Stevie and her friends will be counselors at camp, but Stevie really will focus on the case. Of course, her parents never will let her go for a decades old murder investigation, so Stevie has to get creative. Once at camp, Stevie enjoys time with her friends and barely tolerates the outdoors, but having real life family members of victims is harder than Stevie thought. Then an eerie message appears on Stevie’s bedroom wall – much like the one at Ellingham – and Stevie realizes not everyone is happy with Carson’s plan to  drudge up buried memories. Someone definitely doesn’t want the truth to surface, but that’s never stopped Stevie before.

THOUGHTS: Fast-paced and twisty, this thriller/mystery works best if you have the context of the series, but it can be read as a stand alone. A must purchase for high schools where mysteries are in demand.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Stevie Bell is back. With the Ellingham mystery solved and summer in full swing, Stevie’s life has returned to “normal” until she receives an email from Carson Buchwald, owner of Camp Sunny Pines in Massachusetts. Previously Camp Wonder Falls, where four gruesome murders happened in July 1978, Carson wants Stevie’s help to solve the “Box in the Woods” murders for his podcast. Stevie is intrigued by the request and accepts a position at the camp, along with Nate and Janelle, so that she can investigate the murders further. As Stevie learns more about the murders, she realizes that the town, and those who were there in 1978, are not sharing the whole truth. While she delves into the details and ultimately figures everything out, Stevie must also deal with David and her relationship, whatever it may be, with him.

THOUGHTS: Told through alternating chapters of present day with Stevie and flashbacks to July 1978, Maureen Johnson adds another delightful mystery to her repertoire. The only downside to this stand-alone is that I wish it weren’t a stand-alone. Stevie Bell is a fantastic character who is the perfect 21st Century detective. Readers want (and need) more of Stevie, Nate, Janelle, and David.

Mystery          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

Fans of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series will be delighted with this new stand-alone mystery featuring the cast of characters from Truly Devious. It’s summer break and real crime buff Stevie, fresh off solving the notorious Truly, Devious murders at her school, Ellingham Academy, is at loose ends at home. Then comes an offer too good to refuse. Wealthy, eccentric, entrepreneur Carson Buchwald purchased a summer camp that was the location of the notorious Box in the Wood murders over 40 years ago, and he offers Stevie and her friends summer jobs at the camp, with the expectation that Stevie will identify the killer of the four teen camp counselors. (So he can make a podcast on the murders.) Stevie, Nate, and Janelle head to camp, bringing their unique skill sets to help Stevie uncover what happened in the summer of 1978. A sprawling cast of characters past and present offers red herrings galore. But Johnson plays fair with the reader, offering enough clues for an astute reader to determine who-done-it, but the how and the why are largely revealed in the big, Agatha Christie inspired denouement. It is a gloriously fun book, which can be read as a stand-alone, but readers of the Truly Devious series will be delighted to reconnect with familiar characters, and hope for more books. While most characters are white, Janelle is black and queer. Stevie’s struggle with anxiety is well portrayed.

THOUGHTS: A sophisticated mystery with a dynamic, enjoyable cast of characters, this book has it all: action, danger, suspense, clues, red herring and good, loyal friends. Readers of The Box in the Woods who haven’t read Truly Devious will definitely seek the series out.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Super Puzzletastic Mysteries: Short Stories for Young Sleuths from Mystery Writers of America

Grabenstein, Chris, et. al. Super Puzzletastic Mysteries: Short Stories for Young Sleuths from Mystery Writers of America. 978-0-062-88420-6. 378 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Inspired by Encyclopedia Brown books, Chris Grabenstein assembled a collection of short story mysteries to challenge readers’ deduction skills. Written by twenty middle grade and YA authors, each mystery offers the opportunity to see if you can find the clues, eliminate the red herrings, and arrive at the correct solution. Answers and explanations are provided at the end of the book. The contributing authors range from famous (Alane Ferguson, Stuart Gibbs, Chris Grabenstein, Lauren Magaziner) to familiar (Lamar Giles, Kate Milford, Peter Lerangis) to new discoveries (Tyler Whitesides, Bruce Hale, Gigi Pandian), and mysteries skip from fairly easy to totally devious. These stories will definitely challenge readers’ critical thinking skills.The anthology will please diehard mystery fans of all ages, or provide a fun read-aloud classroom activity. Readers will enjoy connecting with the work of favorite authors, but more exciting, will be introduced to new authors and books.

THOUGHTS: This is a delightful, long overdue modernization of the Encyclopedia Brown two-minute mysteries. The puzzles are generally challenging, but fair, although one or two seemed like the solution required a large leap of logic. A recommended purchase for middle grade libraries.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD