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Notorious by Gordon Korman – Book Review

  • Title: Notorious
  • Author: Gordon Korman
  • Publisher: Balzer + Bray
  • Release Date: January 7, 2020

RATING: 3.5 STARS

Keenan is used to a fast-paced, independent life as he travels the world with his mom, an international schoolteacher. But when he is sidelined by tuberculosis, he winds up on the seemingly sleepy island of Centerlight with his dad. Situated right on the border of Canada and the US, the island’s thrilling history of gangsters and gunfights appears to be just that – in the past. Yet, when a local resident, Zarabeth, befriends Keenan, their friendship takes them on a suspenseful adventure and brings that history roaring back to life.

Gordon Korman’s Notorious is a fun read as it threads together Prohibition Era history, the death of the infamous dog Barney, and quirky, adventurous characters. Korman’s choice of setting and a portrayal that brings Centerlight to life effectively adds it to the cast of characters. Such development is no small feat, but Korman perfects it in Notorious. The novel has much going for it, including eclectic characters, a compelling setting, a unique conflict, and mystery, all of which are skillfully tied together, but readers may struggle with the plot’s pacing and certain narrative choices. Suspense builds a little too slowly until the very end and random chapters told from adult perspectives unnecessarily brought readers out of Keenan and Zarabeth’s worlds. Both factors contribute to the pacing issues that detract from the quality of the great story being told. Still, readers will persist because the mystery is tantalizing, and when they near the end, they will not be able to put the book down. 

Middle grade readers will undoubtedly enjoy Notorious, and the book would have many uses. It would be a great addition to book clubs or exchanges, a worthwhile supplement for early finishers, a good summer read, or suitable for a unit that explores the Prohibition Era and its infamous gangsters. All told, the novel has something for everyone, and as a thrilling  tale, it will grip students.

Classroom Applications

  • Cross-curricular Study – Teach the novel in conjunction with a nonfiction study of the Prohibition Era
  • Book Club or Book Exchange – Share the novel with students that enjoy reading historical fiction or mysteries.

Nonfiction Connections: The list below outlines topics that will enrich your students’ understanding of the novel.

  • Prohibition Era
  • The “real” Centerlight

Book Companions: The following are great books to pair with Notorious. In parenthesis are the specific aspects students could explore when synthesizing across the texts.

  • Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko (Character Connections, Thematic Connections, Nonfiction Connections)
  • Holes by Louis Sachar (Character Connections, Thematic Connections)

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