Jackson is a middle schooler who comes from a family of cons. His dad is a lawyer now and is on to Jackson every time he starts a scheme. Grandpa taught his grandsons the art of duping others. While, Samuel, Jackson's brother is off to college, Jackson is just coming out of a four month grounding due to some con job he pulled at school the year before. A job that went all wrong. He lost Gaby, his best friend and girlfriend, and has to meet with Principal Kelsey once a week for behavior reports. He's not your typical con man. He wears a red tie to school and runs the Botany club. He's sworn off con jobs and has supposedly gone clean. When his ex-girlfriend runs for Student Council president and his arch enemy, Keith Sinclair, gets on the ballot after the deadline, Jackson knows something is up and comes out of stealth mode.
An elaborate heist ensues that is believable enough to keep me flipping the pages waiting for the twist at the end. In an unpredictable climax, Jackson is saved in an unlikely way and the answer to the previous con job gone awry is pretty funny. I kept thinking I was reading a sequel because of the way the author unfolds the plot. He jumps into the action and characters so that it isn't clear what happened during the fallout between Jackson and Gaby. Bits and pieces are tossed to the reader until the very end when it comes together. While I liked how this added tension throughout the story, I felt confused at the start by the references to characters involved in it.
Strong female and male characters make for a multicultural mix that is global. Jackson is African American, while Gaby is Latino. Both are excellent basketball players and care about school. Gaby is passionate about the environment and Jackson likes horticulture. Their classmate Carmen is odd but that doesn't mean Gaby doesn't see her strengths. Gaby is willing to work with her and Carmen becomes invaluable to the campaign with her great manipulation of crowds through different media. Hashemi and Victor are Asians that are perhaps more stereotyped but I was thrilled to see two Asian minor characters so I don't give a hoot. Hashemi is the tech wizard on the team that turns into a drooling mess around classmate, Megan, until they start talking Klingon together. Honest. Didn't see that coming. Megan is a cheerleader, Caucasian and president of the Tech club. I get a bit tired of the stereotypical mean, narcissistic cheerleader, so it was great seeing Megan break the mold. She adds great humor by responding to stressful situations by speaking Klingon. Hashemi starts to interpret at one point. The first time she calls Jackson a not-so-nice name in Klingon, he wisecracks, "Didn't know the school offered that language elective." Gaby's brother is Jackson's best friend and he loves to make up names for everything giving it pizazz. So does Bradley, another member of the heist team. My favorite is when he says, "Three cheers for Gang Greene."
The author mentions the movies, "Ocean's 11" and Star Trek, as influencing him. For sure he mirrors the diverse cast in those movies with his characters. He works in his admiration through his characters, especially Star Trek. The pop culture references added to the humor for me and it was subtle enough to not take away from the plot. The racism of others is subtle too and I liked how the author handled that as well. Jackson goes into the administrative office and the secretary asks if he is there for his weekly meeting or is he in trouble again because "boys like you" do that. "Jackson looked at his skinny brown hands. He never quite knew what Ms. Appleton meant by 'boys like you.' He hoped she meant something like 'boys named Jackson' or 'boys who are tall,' but he suspected her generalizations implied something else."
While Principal Kelsey is more of a one dimensional villain, Keith has more depth. Keith begins like a buffoon willing to rely on the Dr. Kelsey, but becomes increasingly paranoid, sneaky, and tactical as the story goes on. His motivations are understandable, but misplaced as he wants to cheat the system rather than be honest. Principal Kelsey shows that he has a different agenda toward the end that makes for an interesting plot turn. He is confident, corrupt, and powerful becoming more and more greedy as time passes. Jackson, Keith, and Dr. Kelsey are all trying to outsmart each other and their power play moves become more desperate and unpredictable by the end. Of course, in a good heist they've played into the hands of the hero if the reader is familiar with this type of trope. But all three of the men are somewhat dorks in the end and Gaby gets the last laugh. She says that boys are as "dense as a box of rocks." A fun book. Go Team Gangrene!