Trouble Makes a Comeback

troublemakesby Stephanie Tromly
First sentence: “I don’t believe in Happily Ever After.”
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Others in the series: Trouble is a Friend of Mine
Content: There’s some drinking by other teens in the book, but it’s mostly off-screen. The book is in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Digby has been gone for six months and Zoe’s moved on. Popular friends at the school, dating a football player, living the “life”. And then, Digby shows back up. (Of course.) Still looking for his sister, he’s back in town to, well, stir up some more trouble. And, of course, he ropes Zoe into it. While the over-arching plot is trying to find out what happened to Digby’s sister nine years ago, there’s a nice little subplot involving a steroid ring on the football team. So, with two mysteries to solve (one of which they do, and the other they get closer to figuring out), Zoe and Digby are on the case again.

Much like the first book, this was a lot of fun. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud fun, but it was entertaining. I like the Zoe-Digby push and pull, and I like the way Tromly handles the situations she puts the two of them into. It’s nothing deep (though the unfolding story surrounding the sister’s disappearance is turning into a sad one), but it is entertaining.

Which is really all anyone can ask for. Right?

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I am Princess X

iamprincessxby Cherie Priest
First sentence: “Libby Deaton and May Harper invented Princess X in fifth grade, when Libby’s leg was in a cast, and May had a doctor’s note saying she couldn’t run around the track anymore because her asthma would totally kill her.”
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Content: It’s a bit intense at times and there is some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Libby died three years ago in a car accident. May knows this. She’s moved on (sort of). But, when she’s back in Seattle the summer before she’s 17, she starts seeing stickers around town. Ones of a princess in a pink dress, red Chucks, and wielding a katana sword. The spitting image of the comic that Libby and May created in fifth grade. At first, it seems like a coincidence: maybe someone got a hold of all the pages Libby left when she died. Or, maybe — just maybe — Libby’s still alive.

After reading the webcomic, May is convinced of the latter. She’s convinced that Libby’s mom was murdered, that Libby was kidnapped, and that she’s the only one who can find Libby. She enlists the help of a recently-graduated computer geek (with a bit of a dark side), Patrick, and together they follow the clues May says are left. The thing is: what started out as an innocent investigation becomes increasingly more dangerous the further they get involved.

Ohmygosh! I don’t know why this took me too long to read this!

Seriously though, people: it’s a tight, interesting thriller, one that kept me guessing along as May and Patrick figure out and follow the clues. It gets intense at times and it definitely kept me turning pages.  THIS is what a good YA mystery is about. No extra lame love story. Cool characters. A fantastic mix of graphic and prose. So, so very good.

Can you tell I liked it?

A Curious Tale of the In-Between

by Lauren DeStefano
First sentence: “Pram died just before she was born.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some slight romance and a few scary moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to the older end of that range.

Pram sees ghosts. She has ever since she was a little girl, the theory (of the narrator, anyway) is that it’s because her mother committed suicide when she was 9 months pregnant and the doctors had to revive Pram. But, thankfully, all that’s taken care of in the first chapter of the book, and it’s pretty vague so that it would probably go over most kids heads.

Anyway.

Pram’s best friend is a ghost, Felix. They do everything together because Pram’s aunts have decided that she needs protecting from the world and homeschool her. But then, the State decides that Pram needs to go to school, and so off she goes. Where she meets Clarence, whose mother has just died. (So many dead mothers.) He convinces Pram (much to Felix’s distress) to go searching for a spiritualist in order to contact his mother. It turns out, however, that this spiritualist is not a nice person. Like INCREDIBLY not nice. And so Pram has to figure out how to get out of the clutches of a greedy, evil woman.

This is a weird book. On the one hand, I liked the ghost angle, how Pram could see ghosts and communicate with them and see their memories. Even the creepy weird spiritualist was intriguing and I thought that DeStefano played around with memories and the afterlife was quite original. But the whole relationship with Clarence was a little… odd. It wasn’t quite a romance, but it wasn’t quite just friendship either. I suppose some kids will like it, but I thought it was a bit out of place in a ghost story.

But, aside from that, it was a good book. Not a great one, but a good story.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Monstrous

by MarcyKate Connolly
First sentence: “I will never forget my first breath.”
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Content: It’s long and slow and while the romance is fairly age-appropriate, it’s not just alluded to. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d gear it to the older end of the age range/young YA.

Kymera is a newly formed creation of her Father’s.She’s part girl, yes, but also part bird and part.. something else with a scaled, stinging tail. Her purpose, her father tells her, is to rescue the girls that have been imprisoned by the wizard. She heads into Bryre every night, stinging the guards and bringing out one girl which her father then tells her is being taken to the safety of Belladoma, a nearby country.

If you’re not getting huge creeper undertone vibes from this, I’m really not doing it justice. See: everything is not what it seems. One of the best things about the first half of this book is the unease that Connolly writes into it. I just KNEW something wasn’t right, that Kymera was being too trusting (then again, being new-born she didn’t know any better), that something would go horribly wrong.

And, once she meets a boy, Ren, against her father’s wishes, it does.

I  won’t tell you how it all unravels; the twists and turns are best left to surprise. So, even though this is a slow book, with a lot of internal dialogue and musings, I was still interested enough to keep reading. I loved the dark Frankenstein-like aura it has, though it has a very Grimm-like overlay. Like Connolly couldn’t decide whether to tell a fairy tale or a monster story. But, the mashup works.

Until the end.

See, it turns fairy tale in the end, and I think we were supposed to be Moved by the ending, but I felt cheated. I suppose I wanted some sort of middle-grade happily ever after, and I should be happy Connolly refused to give it to us, but it felt… forced. And that made me dissatisfied.

But, overall, it was a well-done, dark middle grade fantasy.

Skink No Surrender

by Carl Hiaasen
First sentence: “I walked down to the beach and waited for Malley, but she didn’t show up”
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Content: Even though the reading level isn’t very difficult, the nature of this book solidly lands it on the YA (grades 6-8) shelves. Not for the young or the faint of heart.

Richard has grown up in a little beachside town in Florida his whole life. And it hasn’t been a bad life; even though his father died in a freak accident a few years ago, Richard has his mother, older brothers, an okay stepfather, and his best friend — his cousin Malley.

Richard and Malley had a long-standing nighttime ritual on the beach: walking and looking for turtle nests. Then one night, two things happen: Malley doesn’t show up, and Richard meets former-governer-turned-ecoterrorist Clint Tyree, otherwise known as Skink.

It turns out that Malley has run away with a guy she met online in a chat room. And even though it started out okay — there was video of her willingly getting in his car — it took a turn south. And the people on tap to rescue her? Richard and Skink.

I wanted to like this. And sometimes, I did. I really did laugh at the oddness of Skink, at the adventures that Richard found himself in. But I couldn’t get past the whole SHE RAN AWAY WITH A GUY SHE MET IN A CHAT ROOM problem. And it’s corollary: SHE NEEDED A GUY TO RESCUE HER. Aren’t we past all this? I do have to give Hiaasen one bonus point: when the guy tried something on Malley she punched him in the nose, breaking it. She also said that he needed to be caught and punished because the next girl might not be as strong as her. So, she’s not completely helpless. And Richard rescued her not as part of some macho thing, but because he truly cared for her. So, there’s that as well.

And I did like the environmental trivia that Hiaasen threw in, as well; he really does make Florida come alive. So, I didn’t hate the book in the end. I just wish there was a better premise for it.

The Shadowhand Covenant

by Brian Farrey
First sentence: “It was exactly the funeral Nanni always wanted.”
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Others in the series: The Vengekeep Prophecies
Content: There’s some intense action-related moments, and a small amount of violence, but nothing else. It’s perfectly happy in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

When we last left our fair Grimjinx family, they were trying to leave behind thieving. Jaxter was off to the Dowager’s estate to become apprentice to her, and the rest of the family was becoming (mostly) clean. Six months later, things aren’t exactly happy. Jaxter and the Dowager are fighting and he’s seriously considering giving up the internship altogether. So, when he heads back for Nanni’s “funeral” (it’s Par-Goblin custom to throw a funeral when a thief retires), he’s pretty much sure that he’s going to try and find another line of work.

But then, he, his Ma and Da get summoned by the Shadowhand, a super-secret organization of thieves. Someone’s making them disappear. And it seems to be tied up with valuable relics that were stolen from the High Laird. And the Sarosans — a group of gypsy-like people who are against magic and the Palatinate, the group of mages who seem to be grabbing too much power.

Of course, Jaxter gets involved (though not because he wants to; his hand is kind of forced), and he uses his knowledge of plants and powers of deduction to help him — and his friends — out.

Much of what I loved about the first book in this series is back: I adore the Grimjinxes as a family. They’re fantastic. It’s not very often that you have amazing parents in middle grade, but Ma and Da are them. Sure, Farrey has to find a way to separate Jaxter from them so he can have adventures. But they’re so supportive and just plain good people (thieving aside, of course). And I still love how bookish Jaxter is. He’s not athletic, and he’s terrible at magic, but somehow he makes his book knowledge work for him.

I also liked the action in this one; Farrey has a good sense of action sequences, and there were a couple of moments when I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what’s going to happen next.

And Farrey does a series right: each of these books have their own plot, wrapping it up by the final pages, while having a slower over-arcing plot weave them together. The writing’s smart, the characters fun. It’s fantastic.

Slated

by Teri Terry
First sentence: “I run.”
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Content: It’s a pretty intense book, and I think the plot would be a bit difficult for younger readers to understand. But there’s nothing “objectionable” it. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kyla has no memory beyond the past six months she’s been in the hospital in London. See, she’s been Slated by the government: a process done to criminals and terrorists to remove their memories. It’s most effective the younger you are — Kyla is only 16 — and after the process, they tie your consciousness to a device called a Levo, which monitors your endorphin levels. If you get too low, you black out. And die. Obviously, it’s supposed to reform the people who have it done, make them happy, productive members of society.

Except it didn’t quite work on Kyla.

While she doesn’t have any memories of her former life, she has nightmares. And she’s not as compliant as she should be. And so, back with her “Mom” and “Dad” in their small village outside of London, she starts noticing things. Noticing things which leads to questions. And we all know that in books like this, questions are never good.

This is a much less futuristic dystopian fantasy than most, and that’s one of the things, I think, that make it stand out. (The other being that it’s set in London. It’s nice to know that Big Brother is happening over there, too!) Sure, it’s set in the future — roughly 30 or 40 years — but there’s a lot that ties it to contemporary culture. The anti-terrorism movement, which leads to a really broad definition of “terrorist”. A government that seeks to control their population. The other thing that made this one unique for me is that Kyla wasn’t (for this book, at least; it might change) a lynchpin on which the Revolution of the Evil Government resides. She’s a girl who’s lost her memory but retained her consciousness. And it’s not until her friends start disappearing that she feels she needs to take action.

That lack of action is also a downside. I’m hoping that this is mostly just a world-building book, and that there’s more going on in the next one. While I did find the situations Terry put her character in fascinating, by the end of the book, there was more unanswered questions then there were answered ones. Additionally, I think the love interest was a bit forced; there was no need for her friendship to end up as a romance, and because of that, there was no underlying chemistry between the two of them.

That said, it was unique enough to hold my attention, I am curious to see where the next book goes.