Ben Braver and the Incredible Exploding Kid

by Marcus Emerson
First Sentence: “Sixty miles per hour.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series (it’s probably better if you read this first): The Super Life of Ben Braver
Content: There’s fart and poop jokes (of course). There’s also lots of illustrations and white space with short chapters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is a second in a series, and for many reasons (well, time mostly) I didn’t read the first. From what I can tell: Ben Braver is a perfectly normal kid who got sent to this boarding school for kids with superpowers. And he saved them from an evil supervillain. Except no one at the school knows that Ben doesn’t have powers (well, except for the Headmaster — who’s about as reliable as Dumbledore — and his best friends). It’s the new year, and there’s a new menace — sort of — and Ben’s doing his level best to hide his lack of powers while he gets more and more popular.

Actually, this one is more about the ability of fame to go to one’s head. Ben gets SUPER obnoxious while he gets more and more attention, but (of course) everything comes crashing down around him. And when the real threat presents itself, he does what he can to save the other students, but in the end, it’s an outside person (whose appearance was explained away in a sentence) who solves the problem. (Yeah, I have a problem with easy solutions like that.)

I really wanted to like this one more than I did. I think I was hoping for something fun and funny, and while there were some amusing points (humor is REALLY hard to do), it kind of all just fell flat for me. (There was one one-page comic that made me laugh, but that was it.) It’s probably great for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid crowd (I didn’t like those much either) and for those reluctant readers who want a lot of illustrations in their stories. But it really wasn’t my thing.


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The Deceivers

by Kristen Simmons
First sentence: “Some parents tell their kids they can be anything.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 5, 2019
Content: There’s some pretty intense kissing scenes, and some drug use and drinking by teenagers. There’s also a bit of mild swearing. It will probably be in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to 7th graders who were interested.

Brynn wants nothing more than to get out of her crappy Devon Park neighborhood, out under the thumb of her mom’s drug-running boyfriend, out of her crime-ridden neighborhoods, and into a better life. She knows that college is the key, but money is an issue. She doesn’t want to peddle drugs for Pete (that’s the boyfriend) so she takes to something … better: conning rich people out of their money. She’s saved up a hefty chunk when two things converge:  Pete finds the stash, and she follows a good-looking boy to an “audition” to get into the prestigious (and little-known) Vale Hall. Get into Vale, he tells Brynn, and your future is set.

What that good-looking boy neglected to mention was that Vale Hall is a school for con artists. Their job is primarily to discover (and divulge) secrets of the rich and powerful in their Chicago-like city (it’s not called Chicago, but it might as well be Chicago…). And soon Brynn finds out that the cost of having everything is, well, Everything.

Oh. My. Gosh. I couldn’t put this one down. Yes, I am a sucker for heist books (The Great Green Heist or Heist Society anyone?)  but this was a particularly good con book. Seriously good. There were long cons and short cons and cons that I didn’t see coming (though the clues were there). There were characters to root for (Brynn and Caleb) and love (more Henry!) and villains to root against. It was engrossing and readable and dang if I didn’t just love every moment spent at Vale Hall.

So, yeah, watch out for this one. And I would not mind spending more time with these characters at all!

Truly Devious

by Maureen Johnson
First sentence: “Fate came for Dottie Epstein a year before, in the form of a call to the principal’s office.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 16, 2018
Content: There’s a smattering of mild swear words, and a couple f-bombs. It’ll probably be in the YA section of the bookstore.

This is the story of a boarding school, Ellingham Academy,  with a sordid past – in 1936 a girl was murdered and the founder’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and never recovered. Which makes it the perfect school for Stevie Bell, a true crime aficionado who thinks she can solve the decades-old crime. But when she gets to Ellingham, things aren’t so simple as waltzing in there and putting the pieces together. There’s friendships and relationships to navigate, and then more… sinister things start happening.

I’ve loved Johnson’s work for a while, and her ability to capture the quirkiness of teenagers. I loved Stevie, and the friends she made. Though this book is less about friendship and more about the mystery, which Johnson also does really well. She wove the 1936 mystery through the book as the contemporary mystery was unfolding, which helped with the air of creepiness, and kept me looking for parallels between the two. (I’m a terrible mystery reader; I never pick up the clues.)

My only complaint was that I was hoping it would be a stand-alone. (Johnson does have a problem with starting a series and then not finishing them. I’m still waiting for the last Suite Scarlett book…) But, alas, it’s not. It comes close; one of the two mysteries solved, sort of, but there are still lots of questions to be answered. Which means, I’m waiting for the next one. Here’s hoping it’ll come soon!

Nevermoor

by Jessica Townsend
First sentence: “The journalists arrived before the coffin did.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 31, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some scary moments, and it’s a bit long (almost 450 pages). It will be in the Middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Morrigan has grown up thinking she was cursed. Everyone — from the townspeople to her own father — blames her for everything that goes wrong. No one speaks to her, and worst of all, she is slated to die on Eventide. It’s a miserable existence.

So when, on Eventide, a mysterious man named Jupiter North swoops in and takes her away (with permission; but that’s a long story), Morrigan doesn’t know how to react.  She’s swept away to a city called Nevermoor to not only live with Jupiter in a magical hotel, but to compete in the trials to become part of the Wundrous Society, an exclusive magical society/school. There are conflicts and challenges, and Morrigan makes friends as she goes along.

So, I know what you’re thinking: it sounds an awful lot like Harry Potter. And you’re right: it is. But, it’s also its own thing. It’s not just that it’s a different sort of magic, it’s also lighter. More like Sorcerer’s Stone, even though that’s darker than this one is. Nevermoor is a delightful sort of fantasy, with a wonderful world kids can fall into. Yes, this is a beginning of a series (argh!), but it’s also a complete story on its own. There are delightful characters to meet and get to know, and the trials themselves are interesting and fun.

In short: it’s a fun read. Definitely hand this to those Harry Potter fans.

The Magicians

magiciansby Lev Grossman
First sentence: “Quentin did a magic trick.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs, some references to drugs and sex (off screen). It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

I’ve been told for years that I would like The Magicians. It’s been billed as Harry Potter for adults, and I’ve been curious about it. So, I finally got the time/nerve/inclination to pick it up, just to see what all the fuss is about.

And it’s everything I hate about adult fiction: pretentious kids, a complete lack of plot, inadequate world building, covered in “good” writing.

Ugh.

I admit: I bailed less than halfway through. I just didn’t care enough to  keep going. It was, quite frankly, Boring.

I’ll stick to Harry Potter, thanks.

Smoke

smokeby Dan Vyleta
First sentence: “‘Thomas, Thomas!’ Wake up!'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a bit of violence and some swearing, but aside from it’s length (it’s huge) there’s nothing I wouldn’t expect a high schooler to be able to handle. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Imagine a world where everyone’s bad thoughts, awful actions, impure intentions come out of the body as smoke. The more wicked the action, the darker the smoke. And it doesn’t just come out of you, it stains you, eats away at your heart. Grim, no?

Thomas is a latecomer to the posh boarding school for the upperclass where they teach you how to control your smoke. It’s not really working for him; he’s convinced that because his father murdered someone, he’s destined to be black at heart. He makes friends with Charlie, a son of a prominent Lord. Everything is going as well as can be until Thomas and Charlie make some discoveries, and their lives change forever.

It’s a weird conceit: a Dickens-era London with this smoke (is it magic? It it destiny?). It’s getting at class issues (the more upper class, the less likely you are to smoke for various reasons), and issues of pre-destiny. It’s interesting. It’s an interesting bit of story weaving; there’s some dark characters, and a bit of twisty action. Even so, I found myself impatient with the book. It’s really long. Like REALLY long. I get impatient with really long books. But, I persevered. And, while this won’t be my favorite book this year, it was interesting. And I’m definitely intrigued with the ending.

So, maybe it was worthwhile.

The Raven King

ravenkingby Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: “Richard Gansey III had forgotten how many times he had been told he was destined for greatness.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, Blue Lilly, Lilly Blue
Content: Like the others, this is intense, heavy on the swearing and violence.

I’m always a little sad when a series I’ve loved for years comes to an end. I get so invested, waiting for each one, that it almost feels anticlimactic when it actually comes to an end. I feel let down that I no longer will get to look forward to visiting with characters I love, following their story through pages.

Sometimes, my expectations are too high and while I like the ending, I’m not wholly satisfied with it. However, this was not the case with the last in the Raven Cycle. (No, I didn’t read the others in anticipation. Maybe I should have.) Maggie Stiefvater has come up with an ending that is so perfect for the series, that captures everything, that ends it so wonderfully, that I am genuinely sad that I will not get to visit this world again. (Well, I mean, I can always re-read, but there will be nothing NEW.)

The plot is really immaterial: there’s something attacking Cabeswater, Blue and the boys are dealing with Great Things and small things. There’s a new character, Henry, who has showed up as a minor character before (or at least I got that impression, since, you know, I didn’t reread), but I fell in love with him as much as I do Blue and the boys. He melded perfectly into the Raven Boys, and played a pivotal role in the narrative; he wasn’t just window dressing. And while the psychics weren’t as much a part of this — it is a YA novel after all — I did love them and Mr. Gray when they showed up. The sum total? It really was everything I could have hoped for in the end.

Maggie’s going to be at Watermark Friday night. I’m going to be a basket case, gushing at her about this. It’s going to be wonderful as this ending.