TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
With the huge disclaimer right up front that I am not a fantasy fan, I found "The Mysterious Benedict Society" to be all sorts of awesome! Given that level of enthusiasm, providing a basic plot outline — four children who answer a newspaper ad promising "special opportunities" form a secret team that tries to saves the world from a brainwashing campaign — fails to capture the essence of this sometimes silly, sometimes touching, always fun book.
Our hero (well, if an 11 year old can be a hero, which I answer with an emphatic yes) is Reynie Muldoon, an orphan who's a whiz at solving complicated puzzles. Reynie is also brave and clever in an unassuming way, and, under Mr. Benedict's care, he becomes the leader of the Society, which is basically just a small group of kids with diverse talents and heaps of old-fashioned gumption. The other members of the Society are the bald genius George "Sticky" Washington, so named for his amazing recall of facts; Kate Weatherall, a tough girl with a bucket full of handy tools; and the tiny, petulant Constance Contraire, who sleeps and complains with equal vigor.
The children pose as students at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.) on secluded Nomansan Island, hoping to discover Institute head Ledroptha Curtain's (hee!) exact plans for his nefarious Whisperer device (hint: it involves world domination, of course). While on the island, the kids snoop around in places they have no right to be, meet under cover of darkness each night, communicate with Mr. Benedict and his friends using morse code (with a flashlight!), and narrowly escape danger time and time again. Cool, right?
The great thing about "The Mysterious Benedict Society," aside from all the neat spying and sleuthing by a resourceful band of kids, is the winning combination of humor and emotion that plays out here. The kids bond as true friends, revealing vulnerability, courage, and heart at wholly unexpected yet incredibly touching moments. All this tender feeling is nicely counterbalanced by humorous interludes, offbeat illustrations, wry insights, and often laugh-out-loud descriptions. If the plot becomes a bit convoluted, particularly as Mr. Curtain's schemes are revealed in more depth, it's easy enough to overlook. The story itself is so unfailingly enjoyable, with thrills, secrets, sly jokes, and emotion to spare, that most middle school readers — even those non-fantasy folks like me! — should adore it. Look for the sequel, "The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey" in late May. Enjoy!