The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (ISBN 0-316-00395-6) was actually recommended to me by my 12-year-old son. We have fun reading the same books so that we can talk about them, and this will be no exception.
The story focuses on four parentless children recruited to infiltrate a school that is using children to control minds. It uses the common YA themes -- kids who are special and underappreciated, ongoing humor, and the like. The children are found by Mr. Benedict through a very special test, one advertised with the enticing ad "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"
However, the book is good fare for the thinking reader. The story is almost all problem-solving, though done in several ways. The test to join the team includes several puzzles, the mission itself is mostly creative problem-solving, and the only help that the heroes can get from their patron, Mr. Benedict, is in the form of riddles.
Completing their mission requires falling back on information from the beginning of the story, and it requires that the four children work together, even when the don't want to. One character in particular is thought of as the least important member of the team, but the others remember the advice from Mr. Benedict that her particular skills might prove to be indispensible. They do, hilariously.
As with other of my favorite YA novels, I'd say that this appeals most to the somewhat-brainy kids. At nearly 500 pages, it's not a light read for a lot of kids ... it has a specific target audience, and it is a good story for them.
Although it's an adventure book, there is little violence. Even as the story climaxes, the only person hit by one of the heroes is the victim of a falling pail (though it does happen to be full of water and is descrbed as being as heavy as a bowling ball).
The story teases the reader with information. Morse Code, for example, is a prominent part of the story, and it's made clear that no one knows Morse Code anymore. Except, of course, the heroes. Even the villains don't know Morse Code. The smartest of them becomes suspicious of a coded message, but that's it.
Therefore, this book presents its readers with a golden opportunity to learn something special and unique to themselves. It doesn't teach Morse Code or much of the other information not strictly vital to the plot, but it invites kids to learn it.
A little bonus for learning Morse Code does exist, though ... A note in the back of the book (purportedly handwritten by Mr. Benedict) states that people have asked his first name. You can find that name if you use your Morse Code, and find where it's written.
I heartily recommend this book for advanced middle-school readers. My son, in 7th grade, loved it. It might lose appeal once the reader is high-school-aged, since the characters are younger, so this really is targeting the advanced readers. (Might I add a hearty "Hurrah!" to the author for doing that, as well!)
It's not a bad read for adults, either. I greatly enjoyed it. If you're an adult whose favorite TV spy is MacGyver, this might well be appealing. Stewart did a good job of presenting some serious issues to the kids and letting them deal with them.
One final note -- The quotations on the book didn't do it justice. The book is compared to the writings of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, and J. K. Rowling. I suppose that this is to draw much-deserved attention, but I would argue that The Mysterious Benedict Society carves its own niche and owns it.
One of those quotes, though, did hit the nail on the head. The quote from Horn Book states that it's, "Real flashlight-under-the-bedclothes material." That it is.
This book richly deserves every one of its five stars out of five.