Book Review: ORPHAN MONSTER SPY by Matt Killeen

It’s hard to think of a novel I’ve read recently that seems more destined to make the leap into film than this one. Orphan Monster Spy–about a blonde and blue-eyed Jewish girl who becomes a spy at a Nazi boarding school after her mother’s murder in 1939–is a thrilling, risky, messy, wonderful firecracker of a novel. Dialogue is a weak point, and sometimes the novel’s little nods to the rise of Naziism in the U.S. today threatened to pull me out of this ostensibly historical fiction. But I can’t be too harsh–Matt Killeen works magic on every page, and Orphan Monster Spy is unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s technically YA, but I’d recommend it for anyone who loves taut, cinematic thrillers in the vein of Atomic Blonde (a.k.a. The Coldest City) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

You can read my full review below.


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Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

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  • publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 432 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Finally, the car came to a stop. With difficulty, Sarah opened her eyes, blinked to clear her vision, and looked up from her hiding place in the footwell. Her mother was slumped in the driver’s seat, her head against the top of the steering wheel. She was gazing through the spokes to where Sarah crouched. Her mother’s eyes were almost the same, wide and pretty. Her pupils were so big Sarah could nearly see herself in them. But now they seemed dull. Her mother was no longer in there.

Orphan Monster Spy, page 1

Sometimes one book makes me fall in love with all books all over again. Orphan Monster Spy is that kind of book, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a damn good read. Its almost unbearable tension and sadness is balanced with humor and small victories that had me pumping my fist as much as I was biting my nails.

15-year-old Sarah doesn’t keep kosher or go to synagogue, and she even has a “good Aryan” Gentile father, but she can’t erase her mother’s Jewish heritage. Trapped in the Jewish ghettos of Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s, blonde and blue-eyed Sarah and her actress mother are targets of the increasingly hostile Nazi government. When they try to make a run for the Swiss border in 1939, just before Germany invades Poland, Sarah’s mother is brutally murdered, and Sarah finds herself on the run.

That’s where the book opens, and from there, the plot moves at the speed of light. Sarah saves an enigmatic British spy from suspicious Nazis, and in turn, he protects her, employs her, and places her undercover at an elite Nazi boarding school where she must befriend the daughter of a scientist building a “grapefruit bomb” (nuclear weapon) that could level whole cities in minutes.

The setup is quick and direct, leaving plenty of time to dig deep into Sarah’s character (fascinating) and life at the Nazi boarding school (even more fascinating). The high-stakes final act, in particular, is breathtaking.

I love the breadth and depth of YA novels that exist now, more than existed even a few years ago when I was a teen. (I’m only 23!) I don’t read much YA anymore, but I picked this one up because I like WWII history and literary-ish thrillers. Boy, was I not disappointed. I was shocked at how much depth and historical detail Killeen managed to cram into this book without compromising the taut, gritty narrative. It’s a YA book that feels perfectly YA (as I define it: young protagonist, fast pace), but it’s unique and edgy enough that I’d also recommend it to someone who thinks they’re above YA. (Like myself, sort of.)

A couple of things don’t ring so true, though.

One, Killeen does the thing I hate in multilingual novels: he has characters say things in their native language (mostly German, here) and then has them immediately “repeat it” in English. It doesn’t make any sense and I wish authors would either only use words that I could pick up through context clues or would just use the English versions. I know it’s set in Germany; I don’t need to be constantly yanked out of the story by something that feels like the author being clever instead of being authentic to the characters.

Two, speaking of being authentic, this book is at times heavy-handed with its social commentary at the expense of its characters. I struggled with how to phrase this criticism because Orphan Monster Spy’s subject matter is inherently timely and social justice-y and I don’t want to ding it for that. That’s part of why I chose to read it, after all, and I wish more stories faced anti-Semitism and oppression as head-on as this one does. Still, there are times where it’s so blatant it practically breaks the fourth wall.

For example, in one conversation with Elsa, the Nazi scientist’s daughter whom Sarah is tasked with befriending, Elsa lets slip that America is full of Nazis. Sarah, deep in character as another good Nazi girl, reminds Elsa that America is not to be trusted. Elsa just laughs and tells her that American Nazis are even more dangerous than German ones because they have to hide their true colors.

I mean, I can’t fault Killeen’s accuracy on that count, but it’s such a transparent aside that it felt like it had been sung out by the gospel Greek chorus from Hercules(It certainly doesn’t feel like natural conversation.)

In the end, though, this book is so dazzlingly ambitious, smart, and compulsively readable that those things barely impacted my enjoyment of it.

Orphan Monster Spy is a desperate book for desperate times; its mission statement–take down Nazis, get revenge, survive–shouldn’t feel so relevant in 2018, but it does. For those tired of fighting the good fight, this book is a heady infusion of entertainment, energy, and pure steel. 4/5 stars.


My copy of Orphan Monster Spy came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.20.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a YA novel about resilience, the Civil War, and zombie slaying (a killer combo!) and a nonfiction book about ten great cultural critics in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


Dread Nation: Rise Up by Justina Ireland

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9780062570604the premise: In Justina Ireland’s vision of the past, the American Civil War was never won because zombies rose from the battlegrounds of Gettysburg, forcing America into an uneasy peace, united against the undead. The Negro and Native Reeducation Act forces Black and Native people–many just children–to train to protect white people from zombies, and protagonist Jane McKeene is training as an Attendant to protect the wealthy–a cushier gig than the front lines, at least. She dreams of someday returning to her Kentucky home, far from the privilege and intrigue of the East Coast…until she accidentally gets tangled up with enemies even more dangerous than the undead.

why I’m excited: Like Orphan Monster Spy in last week’s Friday BookbagDread Nation: Rise Up is an explosive YA novel that tackles history and oppression from a fresh new angle. I love alternate history (even the zombie-infected kind) and I can’t wait to get lost in Ireland’s world, which seems to have a lot to say about our own world, too.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780802125095the premise: Sharp tells the story of ten cultural critics who have (according to the inside flap) “what Dean calls ‘sharpness,’ the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit.” Those women are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. In Sharp, Dean blends biography with her own cultural criticism and commentary.

why I’m excited: Dean’s chapter on Joan Didion was excerpted in Buzzfeed as “How Joan Didion Became Joan Didion,” and it was excellent, so I requested this book from the library right away. I love history, I love feminism, I love literary criticism, and I love the inside baseball of literary criticism. This book looks to have all four, which makes it a must-read for me.

I’ve been hoping to improve my cultural criticism skills (I play around with them on this blog, but I’d love to do more work with actual media outlets with editors someday), and though Sharp isn’t a how-to book, I think I could do worse than to read about the greats. Plus, Dean’s own work as a journalist and critic is really great.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Friday Bookbag, 2.16.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I am, frustratingly, still very sick, so I didn’t make a library run. Instead, I got a great deal on an e-book I’ve had my eye on for awhile. Let’s go!


9780062457790They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: I purchased the e-book.

why I’m excited: I don’t read much YA anymore, but They Both Die at the End sounded so perfect I decided to buy it anyway. I’m going to include the publisher’s description below so I don’t accidentally botch its quirky premise:

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today.

Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure–to live a lifetime in a single day.

It sounds creative and wacky and almost unbearably sad (which is sort of my literary sweet spot). I love books that weave in modern technology (smartphones! apps!) in thoughtful new ways; additionally, I always struggle to find good books about queer characters, which gets tiring, since I’m queer myself–and since Silvera is known for writing great books about queer people, I’m very excited to read this.


Is They Both Die at the End on your to-read list? What else are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!