'Top 10 Clues You're Clueless' echoes Nancy Drew, 'The Breakfast Club,' and Meg Cabot

Six teens are confined in a room. One of them stole $10,000. But who? The clock is ticking....

Top Ten Clues You're Clueless By Liz Czukas HarperCollins 304 pp.

Dear list-makers of the world: your new favorite book has arrived, and it is wonderful.

Liz Czukas’s new novel, Top Ten Clues You’re Clueless, is a sweet and bouncy story, freckled with lists and listicles (a la BuzzFeed and Upworthy). It won’t break your heart (like "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock") or realign your mind (like "We Were Liars"); instead, it’ll go down easy with a sweet aftertaste. Less like bran flakes or meatloaf, more like Starbursts – snappy, colorful, juicy, and zesty.

The last thing Chloe wants to do on Christmas Eve is go to work as a cashier at GoodFoods Market. At least her crush, Tyson, will be there as a bagger. If she can figure out how to flirt without babbling or blushing furiously, there’s a chance the manic shopping day will go smoothly.

(Sidenote: by sheer coincidence, I read this entire book directly after grocery shopping a week before Christmas. Nothing could have put me more in the mood!)

It turns out to be maybe the worst workday ever. When the store manager ceremoniously opens a charity donation box and finds it empty, he accuses the six teens on shift, including Chloe and Tyson, of stealing $10,000. They’re hustled into “work jail” (break room lockdown) to wait for the police. It’s a low-fi case, so it takes hours for a police detail to show up.

While waiting, all six of them swear they’re innocent. So who accused them, and why? Chloe taps into her inner Nancy Drew and goes to work.

Let’s meet the suspects. There’s spiky-haired Sammi, a skateboarding chainsmoker with a bristly attitude. Quiet, self-contained Zaina, so beautiful that it’s actually off-putting. Our gal Chloe, clandestine diabetic and new girl in school, nervous babbler and voracious reader of mysteries.

Next there’s Tyson, funny, sweet, laser-focused on earning enough money to pay for college. Gabe, a sarcastic goofball who loves gossiping about customers. Micah, a guileless, home-schooled prodigy, straw-haired and wide-eyed like a young Anakin Skywalker.

They’re detained with no books or music (except the store PA blasting “Feliz Navidad” for the 763rd time), afternoon lengthening into evening while their credibility hangs in the balance. To break the tension, they start to talk.

The ensuing peek into their psyches is dexterously unfolded. Czukas doesn’t pigeonhole anyone, and neither should we.

Each teen starts off assuming the others are one-note sambas, caricatures easily reduced to first impression and stereotype. But they all realize their mutual depth of complexity and their manifold hues of character and motivation. There’s some surprisingly frank talk about racism, sexism, harassment – they own up to their own assumptions about people and have to face the assumptions made about them in return.

“Top Ten” beautifully employs the screenwriting principle of “lock or clock,” something I studied in college. Writers can propel plot and character growth by confining characters to one location or pitting them against time limitations. In that constricted setting, people are forced to confront their own flaws and make tremendous developmental leaps in a short amount of time.

Once you think about it, “lock or clock” covers a broad swath of stories and scenes. There are easy examples like “Panic Room” or “24,” but try a little harder: you’ll find the concept in “Cinderella” (midnight curfew, tick-tock), “Apollo 13” (which uses both), and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (it’s right there in the title, guys).

This book vibrates with momentum. Sometimes it’s a gallop, sometimes a suspended lull or hush, but the humming tension of time and place never lets up.

Czukas’s authorial voice is flush with wit and whimsy. She peppers the plot with hilarious eavesdrops into backroom goings-on, like games of Guess The Groceries or an ongoing competition for weirdest combination of items. (FYI, second place goes to diapers, a bottle of gin, cat litter, and three dozen eggs. I guarantee you cannot guess the winning combination.)

What mind comes up with these?? It makes me wish I’d been there for the brainstorming sessions!

Chloe’s many mental lists are alternately wry, neurotic, swoony, and introspective:

  • “Top Ten Weirdest Clothing Items Seen on GoodFoods Customers.”
  • “Things That Are Less Awkward Than Getting Caught Riding Through the Store in a Shopping Cart in Front of Your (Angry) Bosses.”
  • “Ten Signs Your Blood Sugar is Getting Too Low, or Raise Your Hand if You Have All Ten of These Symptoms Right Now, Chloe, You Idiot.”

Or, a personal favorite, “Top Ten Worst Mom Phrases,” included in full for your sympathetic reading pleasure:

Top Ten Worst Mom Phrases

10. “Young lady…”

9. Anything including your middle name.

8. “I thought you were dead! Or worse!”

7. “I worry about you!”

6. “You know, when I was your age…”

5. “You’re not going out like that, are you?”

4. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that again.”

3. “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?”

2. “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

1. “Do what you think is right. I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.”

“Top Ten” is a YA watercolor where you’ll find splashes of Nancy Drew, “The Breakfast Club,” Clue, and anything by Meg Cabot (whose 2002 book “All-American Girl” also featured a semi-obsessive list-maker).

If you’re traveling or just looking for a breezy delight, pick this book up immediately – it’s the perfect length and pace for a trip, and the ending is clean, tight, and satisfying.

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