Island of the Unknowns by Benedict Carey
Suggested Audience: Upper elementary, middle school
(out of 5)
Island of the Unknowns is an adventure novel with a strong mathematical core. The novel follows Lady Di and Tom as they seek to unravel a number of mysteries in their hometown of Folsom Adjacent, a fictional, ramshackle town with a motley assortment of offbeat residents.
There are some really wonderful things about this book, and some that don’t quite reach the level of excellence for which I was hoping. I loved the characters: Carey spends a lot of time in character development, and we come to know Lady Di, Tom, and a few other residents of Adjacent very well. We understand their motivations, their fears and hopes, and how they play a vital part in the drama that unfolds. The town itself is, in a way, a major character, and we come to understand the frustrations and struggles of the people as well as the unusual geography that is so integral to the story.
Unfortunately, Carey spends too much time describing the town, the characters, and everyday life in Adjacent, and as a result parts of the middle third of the book start to drag. The underlying mystery in the novel is creative and original, and there are a number of very suspenseful scenes; I wish there had more of these scenes.
The mathematics in the novel is very rich. Throughout the story the main characters follow a series of clues left by their math tutor who has mysteriously disappeared, and these clues require the use of right triangles, the Pythagorean Theorem, pi, and perfect numbers. At the end of the book is a brief but well-written Activity Guide which goes into these topics in a little more detail.
All in all I can recommend this book as a decent adventure novel with some interesting mathematics integral to the story. It might not be a best read of the year but it’s worth the time.