Friday, June 8, 2012

Poison Most Vial - a review

I've got a science-themed book review for you today, but if you're a teacher, I invite you to visit the ALSC blog today as well.  Let's talk.

Carey, Benedict. 2012. Poison Most Vial. New York: Amulet.
(Advance Reader Copy)

When the famed forensic scientist, Dr. Ramachandran, is found murdered in his office at DeWitt Polytechnic University, suspicion falls on Ruby Rose's father, the university's custodian.  Someone has planted empty vials of poison in Mr. Rose's locker.  With the help of her friend, T. Rex, and the reclusive "Window Lady" from apartment 925, Ruby and Rex attempt to clear her father's name before he is arrested.

 Although it's not specifically spelled out, Ruby and Rex appear to be in 7th or 8th grade.  They attend the Lab School, located on the university campus.  Using their proximity to the labs, and the knowledge of and familiarity with campus that is intrinsic to a custodian's daughter, Ruby and Rex begin to ferret out the whereabouts of everyone present on the evening of the murder, monitoring the comings and goings of employees and grad students through a labyrinth of access points. However, more difficult than discovering who may have had opportunity, the pair must learn the science behind toxicity, absorption and concentration.  Exactly what was it that killed Dr. Ramachandran?  When? and Why?

To truly enjoy Poison, readers should be prepared to think.  There is the science of forensics to ponder, as well as the internal musings of the three main characters - Ruby, Rex, and Mrs. Whitmore, the retired toxicologist in apartment 925,

"Why, hello," said Mrs. Whitmore, opening her door.
     The young faces looked so different up close, she thought, and it seemed that the boy was more then (sic) merely anxious.  He was searching her face so intently that she averted her eyes.
     "Welcome," she said, stepping aside. "Do come in."
     The untied sneakers, the shuffling way they walked, the shifting eyes; like no one had taught these children the proper way to carry themselves.
     "I made some cakes," Mrs. Whitmore said abruptly.
"Pudding cakes.  Would you like some?"
     She disappeared into the kitchen and overheard the boy whisper, "It's the left one.  See how it bulges a little?"
     "No more than your big bug-eyes right now," the girl replied. "Jimmy's pulling your chain. He's got no idea."
     "Ruby," the boy said, "Why do you think they call him the Minister of Information if -- Oh, hello."
     Mrs. Whitmore marched back in with a tray from the kitchen and nearly dropped it on the coffee table in front of the couch. A piece of cake, and the boy -- Tex, was it? made to lunge for it and then recoiled, glancing oddly at her face and turning away, moving back toward the window.
    "This is real nice," he said in an alto voice that surprised her. "You can see all the way past DeWitt through here."
     "Yes, it's quite a view," Mrs. Whitmore said.
     Silence held them in place until the girl -- Ruby, with that pile of golden hair -- said, "This is so much bigger than our little window. It's like there's a whole village down there."
     Mrs. Whitmore smiled and felt the air return to the room.
Though this passage contains the unspoken musings of Mrs. Whitmore, at other times, readers will be privy to the thoughts of Ruby and Rex.  This style of writing places the reader squarely in the moment, illuminating feelings and motivation, and underscoring the danger of the youngsters' clandestine forays into restricted areas of the university. Struggling readers, however, may have trouble with Benedict's free-flowing style.

Not strictly a science-themed murder mystery, the back story in Poison Most Vial is Ruby's adjustment to her new life. Originally from the rural south, Ruby's father brought her north in search of better employment. His modest wage has landed them in the Garden Terrace Apartments, a dilapidated housing project in a neighborhood of rival gangs, closed stores and wig shops. At first, Ruby's only friend is T. Rex, a good-natured Jamaican boy from the large family in apartment 1113, but in the quest to solve Dr. Ramachandran's murder, she and Rex make some surprising new friends.
With the current educational focus on S.T.E.M. topics, and a current popular interest in C.S.I., it's hard to see how this book could not be a hit.

Today is S.T.E.M. Friday.  Check it out.

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