Lynn: Here’s a title that grabbed my attention the moment I opened the box: Turn Left at the Cow (Harcourt Oct. 2013). Happily this middle school mystery turned out to be just as much fun as the title.
13-year-old Travis, fed up with his mom and new stepfather, runs away from Southern California to the Minnesota home of his paternal grandmother, intent on learning something about his long dead father. Gram isn’t one for conversation but she reluctantly works out a deal with Trav’s mom and allows him to stay for the summer. The area is way more rural than Travis has ever experienced but he begins to feel at home there, making friends and falling hard for the neighbor girl. But the truth about Travis’ father is far from what he expected. After his pregnant mother left, Trav’s father robbed a bank and his boat was found floating on the lake. Neither his body nor the loot have ever been found although the local townspeople have been searching ever since. A lot of the locals are ready to paint Travis with the same brush as his father, especially when money from the robbery shows up in town stores right after Travis arrives.
Trav and his two new friends set out to solve the mystery and find the money and it all seems really exciting but when someone trashes Gram’s house and leaves a warning note, things turn really serious.
Debut author Ballard does a great job with this mystery, scattering some diverting red herrings here and there amidst the clues and providing a really authentic surprise solution at the end that caught me flat-footed. The mystery keeps the pages turning but the characters are what won my heart. Trav is a great kid struggling to deal with what the adults in his life have handed him. He works hard at being and sounding tough but he’s a sweet considerate boy with all the right instincts under that hard shell. His next door neighbors are truly engaging and I especially enjoyed the wonderfully portrayed relationship of the cousins and the sweet first romance between Trav and Iz.
I can’t wait to booktalk this one. Readers looking for a fun mystery are in for a great puzzle and there’s a lot more to think about along the way.
Cindy: I can’t wait to booktalk this either and I will be doing so today as soon as I finish this post and can give up my copy. I collect great first lines and this one qualifies:
There were so many dead bodies stuffed into Gram’s freezer chest that it was kind of like wandering through a cryonics lab.
How can you not love a first chapter in which a boy finds a woman’s head at the bottom of the deep freezer his grandmother makes him clean out? It’s not quite what you think, but I’ll let you enjoy the discovery for yourself. Good mysteries for tweens are so hard to find and this one delivers on many fronts. I like the relationship that develops between Trav and his grandmother and I wouldn’t mind seeing them again in another installment. Iz and Travis are both dealing with the dawning understanding that sometimes parents “just aren’t who you need them to be.” Consider recommending this mystery to fans of Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt.