Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade

Johnny Constantine, the Early Years!

The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher: A Johnny Constantine Graphic Novel, by Ryan North/Illustrated by Derek Charm, (June 2021, DC Comics), $9.99, ISBN: 9781779501233

Ages 7-10

More DC Comics for Kids! You know how much I love this middle grade series, and introducing hard-bitten demonologist John Constantine – one of my favorites! – to kids with a kid-friendly background makes me SO happy. Don’t fret, none of his dark backstory or unattractive habits show up here. Johnny Constantine is a kid who just happens to know magic and knows a handful of demons in his native London, but when he’s sent to boarding school in America, he discovers that his magic isn’t as easily accessible here. Johnny, who prefers to be called “Kid”, is a loner with no patience for friends, but a fellow student named Anna is too interested in Johnny’s abilities when she sees him manifest a pencil out of thin air. Turns out, Anna likes magic, too! The two new friends also have some concerns about one of their teachers, who seems to have it out for Johnny and who may or may not be a witch.

The story is hilarious and so well done. We perfectly get the feel for Johnny’s loner, antihero character, a guy who learned in childhood that you push people away before they can reject you, or run screaming from your abilities; whatever happens first. It’s a guessing game, and a few well-known and loved DC characters make appearances, making this a book kids and their parents can enjoy together (still thrilled that The Secret Spiral of Swamp Kid introduced my then 7-year old to Swamp Thing). There’s magic mixed with the struggles of being a kid – making friends, enduring school, staying out of the way of a teacher who doesn’t like you – and will appeal to graphic novel readers in a big way. I’m really hoping I get to see more of Kid Constantine.

Author Ryan North is a comic book writer who kids will know from his Eisner- and Harvey Award-winning run on Adventure Time. Sign up for his newsletter at his author page. Derek Charm is an Eisner Award winner whose work you’ll recognize from Star Wars and Archie Comics.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Teen, Tween Reads

More #BooksfromQuarantine, Graphic Novels edition

I’ve been tearing through my graphic novel stash now that I’m back at work two days a week. Here’s some from the new crop.

Supergirl: Being Super, by Mariko Tamaki/Illustrated by Joëlle Jones, (July 2020, DC Comics), $16.99, ISBN: 9781779503190

Ages 12+

The latest DC YA graphic novel is a collection of the 4-issue Supergirl storyline, Being Super (2018). Caldecott winner and YA graphic novelist powerhouse Mariko Tamaki and Eisner winner Joëlle Jones, whose work I’ve really loved on Lady Killer and Helheim, join forces here to tell the story of Kara Danvers, a teen who’s got BFFs, irritating parents that she totally loves, and a ginormous zit. She can also lift a car with one hand, and runs slower than she really can on her track team, but who cares? She loves her life in Midvale… until catastrophe strikes, and leaves Kara with more questions than answers about her past.

What I’ve been enjoying about DC’s YA graphic novels is the relatability. The super powers take a back seat to the relationships and the frustrations of adolescence; here, it’s Kara’s struggle to discover who she is, and the decisions she makes as she seeks that answer. Coping with grief is a secondary theme running through the story. Joëlle Jones’s  artwork is expressive, bold, and eye-catching. Being Super is a Newsweek Best Graphic Novel of the Year.

 

Child Star, by Brian “Box” Brown, (June 2020, First Second), $19.99, ISBN: 9781250154071

Ages 13+

This documentary-style graphic novel gives a look into the life and times of fictional child star, Owen Eugene. From his overbearing stage parents and his sitcom catchphrase to his post-fame struggle to steady his life, this is a story we can see – have seen – unfolding on reality TV. It’s all in here: interviews with co-stars, hangers-on, and former loves; the parents who felt they had a right to Owen’s money; the D-list reality TV shows that feel like the last stop on the road to obscurity. Readers familiar with some of the bigger child star stories will recognize them in Owen Eugene’s story. A sad look at the collateral damage of 1980s pop culture, Child Star is great reading, written by graphic novelist and biographer Brian “Box” Brown, award-winning writer and illustrator of Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, and Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.

Child Star has a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

One Year at Ellsmere, by Faith Erin Hicks, (July 2020, First Second), $14.99, ISBN: 9781250219107

Ages 10+

Originally published in 2008 as The War at Ellsmere (thanks, ComicBeat!), Faith Erin Hicks’s boarding school story gets some updated art and some color. Juniper is a new student at the prestigious (read: snobbish) Ellsmere Academy, an exclusive boarding school where she – daughter of a single mother with thrift store clothes – is quickly labeled “the project” by the school’s Queen Bee, Emily. Juniper and her roommate, Cassie, quickly bond over being outcasts in a school full of Mean Girls; something that helps Juniper as she endures Emily’s brutal bullying. Running through this boarding school story is a touch of magical realism surrounding the forest next to the school. I loved the character development, the fantasy touch with the forest story, and how both elements come together to make yet another great story from Faith Erin Hicks.

Read Faith Erin Hicks’s webcomics at her author website.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

The Gray Twins reunite in The Whispers in the Walls

Scarlet and Ivy: The Whispers in the Walls, by Sophie Cleverly, (May 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492634065

Recommended for readers 8-12

When we left Ivy Gray at the dismal Rookwood School, she had just found her lost twin, Scarlet; hidden away in an asylum by the tyrannical headmistress, who told her family that Scarlet was dead. Masquerading as Scarlet, Ivy attended Rookwood and discovered the truth about a great many secrets. The Whispers in the Walls picks up just as Ivy reunites with Scarlet and they go home, only to have their spineless father and cruel stepmother send the two girls back. Back to the school that hid one daughter in an asylum and lie about her death. Their father drops them off with a “But it’s different now, it’s still a very good school with a new headmaster”, and has the nerve to tell them he loves them after that, securing a Father of the Year award sometime in the future, I’m sure.

Things aren’t wonderful back at Rookwood. Penny, Scarlet and Ivy’s tormenting nemesis, is still there, and she’s worse than ever. Violet, Penny’s best friend, and bullying accomplice, the girl who was also hidden away at the same asylum, is sent back to Rookwood, but is quiet, withdrawn, and now rooming with Ariadne. Scarlet is insufferable to such a degree, Ivy finds herself distancing from her twin. The headmaster, the sinister Mr. Bartholomew, is a fanatical disciplinarian whose punishments go beyond reason.

The girls are thrown back into this maelstrom, with most of the student body none the wiser. But there are new secrets discovered at Rookwood; secrets about Mr. Bartholomew himself; a secret group of students from the past that may include Scarlet and Ivy’s mother, and another girl rescued from the asylum, hiding in the school.

The Whispers in the Walls is a good follow-up to The Lost Twin, but Scarlet is nearly insufferable. She’s difficult for the mere sake of being difficult, and may put off readers as much as she does her twin sister. Ivy remains a strong character who continues developing through the story; I hope she rubs off on Scarlet for future adventures. The new headmaster, Mr. Bartholomew, continues the tradition of awful school management – Rookwood seems set to go through headmasters and headmistresses like Hogwarts goes through Defense of the Dark Arts professors. There are several story threads presented in The Whispers in the Walls, only a couple of which are resolved; I’m looking forward to seeing where the third book takes us.

Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Boarding school thriller: Assassin Game

assassin gameAssassin Game, by Kirsty McKay, (Aug. 2016, Sourcebooks Fire), $10.99, ISBN: 9781492632757
originally published July 2015 as Killer Game

recommended for ages 12+

Cate attends an isolated boarding school where, every year, a select few are chosen to play a secret game called Killer. One person in the group is designated the Killer, who will play pranks on the rest of the group, “killing” them – put a rubber snake in a desk, a brightly colored water pistol fired at just the right time – as long as it doesn’t get out of control or disrupt classes, the faculty and staff tolerate The Game. Cate is thrilled to have been chosen, because she feels like she finally belongs in this school of “superkids”: geniuses and rich kids, all. At first, the game progresses as normal, but soon, one of the players has taken the Game too far, and Cate is next on the Killer’s list. Can she figure out who the Killer is in time to save herself?

I love good thrillers, and if they take place in an out-of-the-way location like a school, library, old hospital, even better. The Assassin Game has a great setting: a Welsh boarding school in the middle of nowhere, and an interesting cast of characters, but it does take a little while to build up steam. It’s a quick read, and there are some great pranks, plus high school friendship/relationship drama to bring things to a simmer and add some fuel to the whodunit fire. There’s not a lot of depth to the characters, but there doesn’t really need to be; that’s not what this book is about. You learn what you need to about them, and you learn enough to try and figure out motivations and who would have reason to burn whom.

If you have readers that like a slow-burn thriller with a satisfying payoff, give Assassin Game a shot.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

The Lost Twin: A boarding school whodunit

the lost twinScarlet & Ivy: The Lost Twin, by Sophie Cleverly, (May 2016, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $16.99, ISBN: 9781492633396

Recommended for ages 9-13

Ivy is still grieving the death of her twin sister, Scarlet, when the letter from the school comes: a spot has opened up, and she can expect to be picked up immediately. Ivy is indignant – how rude and cold, to be referring to her sister’s death as an “opening” – and it only gets worse once the imperious headmistress, Miss Fox, comes to collect her. Miss Fox tells her that Ivy’s expected to become Scarlet – a face-saving measure for the school. Once at the school, Ivy finds herself in the thick of a few mysteries, all having to do with Scarlet and her disappearance from the school. Can Ivy unravel all the mysteries surrounding the school and learn what really happened to her sister?

Scarlet and Ivy: The Lost Twin is a well-paced, consuming boarding school mystery, set in 1935 England. The characters are interesting and the intrigue keeps pages turning, while getting readers riled up at the injustices Ivy endures. There are so many little mysteries entwined with larger ones – once a thread gets pulled, you’ll be consumed with following it to see where it goes. Fox is an awful human being that loves corporal punishment a bit too much to be in charge of children; Ms. Cleverly has given us a truly hissable villain here (she and Professor Umbridge would get along swimmingly). You’ll root for Ivy and her friend, Ariadne, and the ending leaves you bouncing up and down with the knowledge that we’ll be getting more adventures in the future.

According to Sophie Cleverly’s Twitter, the third Scarlet & Ivy book is out – pretty sure it’s only out in the UK, but let’s be really, really nice to Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Ms. Cleverly, so they’ll bring the further adventures of Ivy, Ariadne, & Co. to us here in the States.

The Lost Twin is a good summer reading choice for middle grade readers who enjoy a good mystery with a few well-placed plot twists. I’ve got a lot of kids asking me for good mysteries, so I’ll add this one to my booktalks, along with The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee and Audacity Jones.

Posted in Science Fiction, Teen, Uncategorized, Young Adult/New Adult

Caragh M. O’Brien’s The Vault of Dreamers is an unsettling YA thriller

cover46937-mediumThe Vault of Dreamers, by Caragh M. O’Brien, (Roaring Brook Press, Sept. 2014). $17.99, ISBN: 9781596439382

Recommended for ages 14+

In a not-too distant future, environmental upheaval and economic collapse have left many Americans in poverty. For creative teens who want a way out, the Forge School is the answer. A school for the most creative minds, and a reality show all at once, The Forge School/The Forge Show accepts students and keeps 50 out of 100 based on their “blip rate” – how many viewers watch their feed. After making it past the first cut, students’ popularity allows them banner ad income that they can receive, upon graduation, along with opportunities for success. Rosie Sinclair, aspiring filmmaker, is a student at the Forge School, and has discovered that the school has some big secrets. What is going on while the students sleep?

Vault of Dreamers is one of those books that takes a few chapters to build as O’Brien builds a solid story. We learn about Rosie’s background and the backgrounds of other students; we see family dynamics come into play, and we understand the motivation for many of these students to take part in a reality show that not only films you everywhere but the bathroom and shower, but a school that distributes sleeping pills to the student body on a nightly basis to assure that they will have a full 12 hours of sleep for maximum creativity. By the time the story kicks into high gear, we see what Rosie risks in order to learn Forge’s secrets: she’s putting her future and the future of her family on the line.

By the time we understand all of this, the story goes white-knuckle, non-stop. Is Rosie an unreliable narrator? Who can we trust? The reader is just as thrown off as Rosie is, and the need to know what was going on consumed me. The reality show setting will click with teens who have grown up with reality TV and popularity based on “likes” and approval ratings.

The ending nicely sets up a sequel, and even as a standalone work, offers a conclusion that will fuel some great discussions. You may howl in frustration, but you’ll be waiting for the next installment of this series.

The Vault of Dreamers will be published on September 16, but you can pre-order it from Amazon now.

Posted in Adventure, Espionage, Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction, Steampunk

Book Review: Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger (Little, Brown, 2013)

etiquette and espionageRecommended for ages 13+

Gail Carriger, author of the Parasol Protectorate series, kicks off her YA Finishing School series, set in the same universe as the Parasol Protectorate series, with Etiquette & Espionage.

Fourteen year-old Sophronia is driving her society lady mother crazy. She climbs trees. She takes apart things to figure out how they work. She lines her books with rubber from a dumbwaiter in the house. Fed up with Sophronia’s antics, she sends her to finishing school – Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, to be precise.

What neither Sophronia nor her mother bet on, though, was that this is no ordinary finishing school – when they say “finish”, they mean “finish” – the students learn how to curtsey and flutter their eyelashes, but they also learn about poisoning, espionage, and weapons placement. Sophronia is learning to be a spy and an assassin in addition to being a lady. But she also stumbles into a mystery involving one of the students as soon as she boards the coach to school – what is really going on at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, and what does her newfound nemesis have to do with it?

While I am a big fan of the Parasol Protectorate series and went into this series with high hopes, I was a little let down here. I understand that this is the first book in a new series, with much to be established, but I felt there was an overall lack of plot to drive the story forward. It seemed more a collection of “look what Sophronia’s got herself into now” moments, with some vague subplot surfacing to give her an archenemy in future books.

The dry humor is there, though, and that kept me reading. I love the way Ms. Carriger writes, and I enjoy her stubborn heroines who can lock horns with a werewolf and then stress about their state of dress and look for a cup of tea. I enjoy the Parasol Protectorate universe, and there’s paranormal and steampunk aplenty here, with werewolves, dirigibles, and automatons for all. There are a few pleasant surprises for Parasol Protectorate fans, too.

If you’re a fan of Carriger’s, you’ll at least enjoy the universe and references. I look forward to the next book in the series.