4 out of 4 stars
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Imagine a story where Oliver Twist got caught up in the wild world of spying in an attempt to catch his father's murderer and take down the CIA's most wanted criminal. That gives you a good idea of Code Name: Dodger by Eric Auxier! It's streetwise teen + James Bond + the wild ridiculousness of something like Home Alone all mixed together in the best of ways.
Justin Reed is a teenaged orphan at the North Brooklyn Juvenile Home. Life isn't awful, but it certainly isn't great either. More than anything Justin wants to return to LA where his mother drowned when he was only six and his dad was murdered a few years back. He'll do anything to get back, even steal a school bus and try to drive all the way across the country - something he actually tried recently with his friend Randy! So when a mysterious man comes by and says they'll drop all the charges against Justin if he undergoes "a psychological experiment", he has little choice in the matter.
Soon after this mysterious man shows up, Justin is brought to his home and told to call him Bob. He's driven to DC, has new clothes bought for him and finds out that he's not actually a part of any experiment, he's being brought to CIA headquarters because he's a key piece of an investigation that is somehow linked to his own father and a former CIA spy who goes by the name Pharaoh. Can Justin help capture Pharaoh and the man who murdered his father? Can he even make it out alive?
More than anything, Code Name: Dodger is a fun book. The humor and energy in it are akin to things like the aforementioned Home Alone or 3 Ninjas. While the plot is actually far more solid than these types of movies, it's still like 80% fun, 20% serious. Despite that, I was surprised just how much the various subplots, characters and backstories worked together and I never felt that "ugh this is so unrealistic" vibe, something far too frequent in those types of movies.
When it comes to a book where death is on the line, you have to care about the characters. In Code Name: Dodger I absolutely did - Justin is a cool, relatable kid with a good heart who struggles with the reality of hurting or even killing others. Bob, the CIA man who effectively takes Justin in, is especially wonderful and makes for a great father figure. His friends at the juvenile home, especially Randy, are good kids too (even if they are quite the troublemakers who like to riff off of one another!). There are even a few potential romance seeds planted in the book for the sequels.
Speaking of sequels, this is the first volume of the Code Name: Dodger series. I read and reviewed the fourth book - Yakuza Dynasty - September 2016, so I already knew some of these characters. Eric's characters are so fun and vibrant that they stayed with me for that long, and I'm even more interested in the other two entries in the series now. I'm giving Code Name: Dodger the same review score I gave Yakuza Dynasty - 4 out of 4 stars. This isn't for those who like serious James Bond-style spy stories, but for those who like fun YA spy novels with a surprising level of backstory and a quick pace, give this one a shot!
Code Name: Dodger
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