Professor Walter Mayhew has always been weird, but an explosion in his backyard lab sends him over the edge. Soon afterwards he disappears in bizarre circumstances. Then three of his youngest and cleverest students - thirteen-year-olds Max, Jian Xin, and Cleo - start getting cryptic messages which seem to be the plans for a nuclear device - one that could solve all of mankind's energy problems.
At first they welcome the opportunity to make something spectacular for the upcoming ExpoFest science fair. But this machine, if it works, will be worth a fortune, and Max soon becomes the target of a criminal gang. As the day of the ExpoFest approaches, the pressure increases until Max is forced to choose between completing the task or saving the life of his best friend.
"Cool Nukes" is a well-chosen title - it immediately signals that the book is aimed at young people, and that the genre is almost certainly going to be science fiction or similar. Book titles are important in getting the reader's attention, and this one certainly succeeds here. During the course of the book, it is revealed that Cool Nukes actually refers to two of the key characters.
Max, Jian Chin (also known as Jensen), and Cleo are three gifted thirteen-year-olds who attend the same high school where extension opportunities in multi-level courses are offered to appropriate students. This is not easy for the younger class members as they are resented by some of the older students who regard them as show-offs! This is a situation often faced by talented students who may be more capable that their elders, but do not have the maturity or life experience to deal with it.
The three youngsters take on a challenge which must be solved within a given time frame. Although they did not choose to do it, events conspire to make it impossible for them to refuse - and the resulting complications result in a fast-moving and exciting adventure story which makes for compulsive reading. The scientific details of the challenge are described in simple terms so that the average reader can understand them without the need for prior knowledge.
Young people who have had to cope with their own difficulties will find it easy to relate to Max, Jian Lin and Cleo and the issues each of them is facing in his or her own life; it is reassuring to realise that they are not alone, and that there is always a way to cope with personal issues. Max has a large birthmark on his face, something which causes him embarrassment among his classmates and encourages other students to tease him. Jian Chin has ambitious parents who insist that he spends his spare time studying with tutors and cramming for his exams. Cleo is bossy and unpopular because she comes across as a know-all; now she has to work with Jensen and Max in spite of her lack of people skills.
I did have one reservation about "Cool Nukes". It is important that young people are exposed to the best possible examples of prose so that they absorb good habits in their own writing. It was disappointing, therefore, that there were several proofing errors in the first few chapters - there were none apparent in the rest of the book which makes me wonder whether the proofreader skipped several chapters by accident. Hopefully these will be sorted in the second edition!
Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to teenage readers. It carries some strong messages about being proud of who you are and having the strength to follow your own dreams, and does not pull any punches in describing complicated ideas to extend the reader's knowledge.
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"Ever notice that 'what the hell' is always the right decision?"
Marilyn Monroe (1926 - 1962)