A lively, jaunty mystery with a terrific cast of characters.

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In this middle-grade novel, a tween becomes entangled in a mystery when an unknown vandal targets the West Virginia shopping mall where she resides.

Twelve-year-old Chloe Lamont lives in a modest house with her mother—right in the middle of the Oasis Mall. Shoppers treat the family home like a novelty, often tossing coins into the chimney from the mall’s upper level. But living there has some advantages; Chloe’s mom, Ursula, runs one of the shops, and they’re minutes away from such conveniences as groceries and hair salons. But now, someone is damaging mall property, first egging a storefront. Subsequent vandalism shows a pattern, as it occurs in the early-morning hours inside the locked mall. Authorities naturally look at the Lamonts, who have opportunity though no apparent motive. But it only gets worse for Chloe and her mom, who notice items missing or disturbed in their home—things the vandal probably used, like eggs. It’s not just a question of who is doing the misdeeds, but also how someone stealthily bypasses their bolted doors. Meanwhile, Chloe starts a new school year in the seventh grade. She doesn’t make friends easily and dreads being stuck in a new teacher-formed group in English class. On the plus side, the group’s focus is on mysteries, Chloe’s favorite genre. As it turns out, the other members of the “Mystery Group” are a lively bunch and enjoy a good mystery as well. When they learn Chloe is living in the midst of one, the students realize that there’s an entire mall and a tiny home filled with potential clues.

Baer delivers a brisk, entertaining tale. The story’s young protagonist is appealing and sympathetic. Years ago, she lost her firefighter dad, who died heroically, and not long after, her grandfather as well; he had stopped a real estate developer from tearing down the Lamont home. Readers will surely embrace Chloe even with her flaws, such as moroseness being her temperament of choice. After all, peers at school mock her, and her backyard is “synthetic grass” that she vacuums. The author astutely concentrates on the Lamonts, including the eventual revelation of why Ursula deems her estranged parents “evil.” While the family’s living situation has more downsides than upsides, this breezy tale is not without humor. An amusing, recurring bit involves Chloe continually hearing about nature—in random shoppers’ conversations. She hears one woman while standing in the kitchen: “Whatever happened with that friend of yours who found the nest of opossums in her sock drawer?” Supporting characters are outstanding, particularly the members of the Mystery Group. The charming new guy at school, Robby Morales, draws Chloe out of her shell almost immediately while Ashley Elizabeth Hutzell, readers soon learn, isn’t as haughty as her reputation suggests. Despite the Mystery Group’s determination to solve the mall crimes, there’s unfortunately little in the way of evidence gathering or piecing together clues. Still, the students’ enthusiasm is infectious, and the big reveal is rewarding. Chloe, along with Robby and the others, is a prime candidate for a series of books or spinoffs.

A lively, jaunty mystery with a terrific cast of characters.

Pub Date: March 22, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5092-3512-4

Page Count: 202

Publisher: Wild Rose Press

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021


A whodunit that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise.

Coded clues put two young sleuths on the trail of a magic mandala hidden somewhere in a huge, bustling department store.

Hardly has meek young Zander Olinga arrived for a visit with Zina Winebee, his grandmother and owner-manager of the Number Nine Plaza, than he learns of a threat to the continued existence of the renowned emporium. The danger is linked to Darkbloom, a rumored evil spirit set on reversing the good-fortune charm left by Nepali monks at the store’s founding. The stone tablet bearing the magical mandala vanished 90 years ago, and finding its hiding place becomes a race pitting Zander and intrepid new ally Natasha Novikov against unknown saboteurs whose minds have been taken over by Darkbloom. The keys to the tablet’s location are a series of ingenious word and number clues left by Zander’s great-granduncle Vladimir, and Guterson provides enough hints along the way for savvy readers to decode them. What he doesn’t do is give either his leads or the many-faceted store (which, over the course of the story, is explored from the Ferris wheel on its roof to the bakery in the cellar) any more depth or distinctive traits than he gives Nepali religious practice. Darkbloom remains a shadowy bugaboo, its actual nature and motivations unexplained and its fate left anticlimactically unresolved. Zander’s father is from Cameroon, and his mother reads white; names cue some diversity in the supporting cast. Final art not seen. (This review has been updated for factual accuracy.)

A whodunit that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. (Mystery. 9-12)

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 2024

ISBN: 9780316484442

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Christy Ottaviano Books

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2023


From the Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter series , Vol. 2

Funny delivery, but some jokes really miss the mark.

An animal ghost seeks closure after enduring aquatic atrocities.

In this sequel to The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter (2020), sixth grader Rex is determined to once again use his ability to communicate with dead animals for the greater good. A ghost narwhal’s visit gives Rex his next opportunity in the form of the clue “bad water.” Rex enlists Darvish—his Pakistani American human best friend—and Drumstick—his “faithful (dead) chicken”—to help crack the case. But the mystery is only one of Rex’s many roadblocks. For starters, Sami Mulpepper hugged him at a dance, and now she’s his “accidental girlfriend.” Even worse, Darvish develops one of what Rex calls “Game Preoccupation Disorders” over role-playing game Monsters & Mayhem that may well threaten the pair’s friendship. Will Rex become “a Sherlock without a Watson,” or can the two make amends in time to solve the mystery? This second outing effectively carries the “ghost-mist” torch from its predecessor without feeling too much like a formulaic carbon copy. Spouting terms like plausible deniability and in flagrante delicto, Rex makes for a hilariously bombastic (if unlikable) first-person narrator. The over-the-top style is contagious, and black-and-white illustrations throughout add cartoony punchlines to various scenes. Unfortunately, scenes in which humor comes at the expense of those with less status are downright cringeworthy, as when Rex, who reads as White, riffs on the impossibility of his ever pronouncing Darvish’s surname or he plays dumb by staring into space and drooling.

Funny delivery, but some jokes really miss the mark. (Paranormal mystery. 8-12)

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-7595-5523-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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