OMG!!!!!! No, seriously you guys! I love this book now. Had I read this as a 12 or 13 year old girl, I would probably have read it at least once more since finishing it at 2AM this morning.
Disclaimer: I was sent an advance review copy, for free. Also, I am typing this with an 18 year old black cat clinging to my chest and shoulder. If there are typos I miss, that’s why. It’s the “Cat wants love NOW, Monkey!” difficulty setting, and it’s the one I live most of my life in.
But on to the book. The Department of Cautionary Tales by Katy Stauber, features Juniper Strauss, a 17 year old mad scientist. Apparently, in the near future periodically incredibly smart kids just happen. Juniper is one of those. Juniper is highly intelligent, but expelled for blowing up a wing of the high school. The incident that gets her arrested by the DCT (Department of Corrective Technologies) involves covering Houston, TX in three feet of energy leeching fungus. Sure, she’s a mad scientist, but she doesn’t want to be evil. In mad scientist jail, she meets Kamal (computer guy), Boom (chemistry), Shelly (human/animal gene splicing and medical), the Mendez brothers (shooty things and vehicles) and Ben (physics). And Rex, who appears to be 15 when she gets there and has been 15 for several years, because he screws with time.
Ok, a couple of the things I totally loved about this book: Juniper had been chubby, but became thin accidentally, when she created her “gutbrain” to ramp up her brain power. And when she does talk about it, she says that she had at one time thought being thin would solve her problems and people would like her, and that it didn’t. She was still who she was, just skinny. Also, in a later part of the book she talks frankly about the fact that she masturbates and it’s just a really short, matter of fact statement that flows naturally out of her thought processes. Juniper and her relationships with the other teenage mad scientists read really real to me. I mean, maybe they’re buddies a little too quick, but you’ve only got so much book to do everything, and the rivalries and temper tantrums all sound realistic, even on the backdrop of super science.
These are not super rational, cold, unemotional beings. These are super scientists who are riddled with teenage hormones and mood swings, where a drunken kiss becomes a friendship shattering catalyst, with jealousies and tantrums. Only, in this book, the stakes are higher, because these kids have the abilities to nuke each other off the map, and the lack of impulse control common to teenagers. Most of them aren’t actively evil, they just don’t stop to think about consequences, until the consequences bite them in the ass.
I do have one fairly minor nit to pick with this book. The book is supposed to read, mostly I think, as Juniper’s journal and the language is a little stilted for that. But, I understand why it might have been written that way. Very formal language construction (i.e. lack of contractions) is frequently used as literary shorthand for super intelligent characters. It did pull me out of the book every once in a while. Granted, not enough to put it down before I finished it at 2 AM the night before a 10 AM band practice. I thought I had one other, but not really, now that I think about it.
Back to the awesome though. I totally bought Juniper’s mood swings, the catalysts that made her do the big things she does. I completely believed that she was just this confused, hormone-addled 17 year old who felt like shit that one of her experiments had crippled her father and led to her mother kicking her out (that’s in the first chapter, totally not a spoiler). She wants her parents to be ok, and to love her. The other kids are all believable in temperament and attitude, even Rex.
Oh, Rex. But that would be spoiling.
Juniper is strong, she is the agent of her changes. She isn’t a helpless victim waiting to be rescued. She does impulsive, destructive shit, but she also owns it and recognizes her culpability for it. She understands why her mother freaked out and kicked her out. And you understand why Juniper does the things she does. She makes sense. At no point while reading this book did Juniper do anything that made me roll my eyes because it was out of character or just plain dumb. You can watch her maturing through the course of the book.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with kids in the 12 and up range. It’s a fast damn read. I started it at 5 PM yesterday while waiting for the Geek Husband What Rules to pick me up. We went to Costco, went to dinner, came back home and I finished by 2 AM. Granted, I do read fast. Trust me, I was cursing myself for that decision at 8:45 this morning while trying to drag my butt out of bed for band practice, but it was totally worth it.
Adult me loves this book, and is planning on reading it again at some point. Like I said, 12 or 13 year old me already would have read it again, and then pestered her parents for a chemistry set.
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