Eighth-grader Tess finds that algebra can come in handy in and out of the classroom. She uses it as a secret code in her journal, as shorthand for social status . . . and as a tool to help her solve two mysteries that shes right smack in the middle of.
Told in the first person, this debut set in an Oakland, Calif., middle school sacrifices telling details of setting and character to competing plot lines and a tricky premise involving math. Thirteen-year-old Tess uses the idea of numerical ranking ("inequalities") to describe how her relationship changes with handsome, athletic Richard once she discovers he has stolen a test ("I'm a 7, he's a 4"). Then, she uses graphs to explore possible scenarios related to the suspicious death of the wife of a friend of her artist mother ("breathing rate" over "time"). Oh, what's a girl to do? Then, there's her annoying neighbor, a best friend who can't keep her mouth shut and the selection of a dress for the winter formal (try Venn diagrams!). Although this could have used a tighter focus, tweens may actually relate to the playground politics, get caught up with the suspenseful plot and appreciate the accessibility of arithmetic, thanks to Lichtman's lucid descriptions and drawings. (Fiction. 10-14)