2021 in Review: Mark Buxton, Staff Reviewer’s Top 5 books



2021 in Review
The team at YAbookscentral.com have worked hard all year reading wonderful books and creating insightful reviews to help readers find their next great read. 
The staff has reflected on their top 5 favorite books of 2021.  We hope you are inspired to check out these great books too! Feel free to share your Top 5 books in the comments as well!
Today we are featuring Mark Buxton. He is a Staff Reviewer at YABC. 
Here are his Top 5 books of 2021 (In no particular order):

Avalina Jones and the Eye of the Storm by Lori Adams


About This Book:

Avalina Jones, the Last Heir of the infamous pirate Davy Jones, has never heard of Sea Magic, flying dinghies, Pirate Heir schoolships, phantom islands, undead pirates, or creatures called Half Ones. And she has never understood her strange connection to water. But when a beautiful woman arrives in a swirling waterspout, Avalina’s life explodes with more adventures than she can possibly imagine. She takes her rightful place aboard a giant Pirate Heir schoolship teeming with Heirs of the world’s most nefarious pirates.

Raised as a Landlubber, Avalina quickly realizes bizarre and danger are normal aboard Pirate Heir schoolships-food fights back, school supplies giggle or explode in your face. And not everyone can be trusted.

When Avalina is accused of a terrible crime, she must prove her innocence or risk being banished from the schoolship forever-and this in the middle of a crucial Treasure Hunt!

Avalina races to unlock secrets of the ship, and makes a dangerous discovery that threatens everyone aboard. With the help of her new friends Charlie, Pippa, and Bummy, Avalina draws closer to the truth, unaware that a deeper, darker fate awaits.

*Mark’s Review*
Magical adventure on the high seas!
What worked:
Avalina’s been living in an orphanage since the age of four but later discovers she’s the daughter of magical pirates. Both parents have died, and now Avalina is retrieved and taken into the world of pirate Heirs. Magical pirates may sound strange, but their world is similar to most stories with unusual and amazing events and characters. The pirates don’t go around casting spells, although some have unique abilities, life on the pirate ship school is full of magic. Below the deck, readers will find a world of caves, beaches, and classrooms that are magically enhanced to reflect the mood and needs of the ship. The setting underneath the ship’s deck is clearly larger than the size of the ship itself.
Avalina lived most of her life as a Landlubber, so she’s not readily accepted by many of the other pirate students and Heirs. Plus, she may, or may not, have the family curse, and she’s rejected by the bullying Renegades, the house of pirates she was assigned to. Luckily, she’s accepted by her new friends in the Buccaneers. She has a natural connection to water (she can breathe underwater), so she wonders if it might be evidence of the curse. In addition, the ghost of a treacherous, dead pirate captain has sworn to kill every last relative of Davy Jones, and Avalina is the last one still living. The threat of his attack looms throughout the entire book.
Rather than writing two separate books, the author divided the book into two parts. The first half deals with Avalina’s efforts to graduate from Pog to Shellback, and problems and characters complicate things for her. She’s blamed for everything that goes wrong due to thoughts about her curse, and she’s charged with a serious crime that could expel her from living among the pirate Heirs. Avalina recognizes one teacher is not as nice as she seems, and this teacher seems out to get Avalina. She’s the one who accuses Avalina of the crime. The second half of the book sees the crew in a contest with three other pirate ship schools to decode a treasure map and retrieve the long-lost booty. Avalina is a key member of a select group trying to figure out the clues, even though the prejudices against her continue. Mysteries thrive as the plot progresses, and several surprises spring up as the events near their climax.
What didn’t work as well:
The Renegades are presented as antagonists in Avalina’s life, but they come off as more annoying than actual threats. They tease her whenever possible, and some skirmishes arise during the course of events. They especially enjoy when the teacher mentioned earlier punishes Avalina, usually unfairly. The Renegades aren’t as evil as they could have been, but maybe that’s due to a pirate code of loyalty. Treating other pirates dishonorably is something most of the characters avoid, lest they be kicked off the ship.
The final verdict:
Magical adventure on the high seas! The story can be compared to other books where characters discover an unknown world of magic or fantasy. The addition of pirates creates some interesting and unique twists, and the story feels fresh despite its similarities to other middle-grade books. Overall, lovers of speculative fiction will enjoy this book and will anxiously yearn for the sequel once it’s published.

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*





 The Boy Who Failed Show and Tell by Jordan Sonnenblick


About This Book:

An unbelievably hilarious middle-grade true story from bestselling author Jordan Sonnenblick.
In a typical school year, every kid has one or two things go wrong. But for Jordan, there’s A LOT going wrong ALL THE TIME.

Take this year. Here are some of the thing going wrong:

— His teacher hates him. Like, really hates him. Like, is totally out to get him even when he’s trying to be good, and is willing to fail him on the simplest things, like show and tell.

— He has a slight breathing problem because of his asthma. And breathing is never really an optional activity.

— His pet snake has given birth to way, way, way too many baby snakes, all who need a home.

— He is finding that becoming The World’s Best Drummer in no time whatsoever is maybe not the easiest goal.

— There are bullies ready to stomp him when all he has to defend himself with is a lunchbox.

And all this doesn’t even include the freak swing set accident, the fears inside his head, or the funniest class presentation ever.

By keeping his cool (some of the time), banging on the drums (a lot), and keeping his sense of humor (all the time), Jordan’s going to try to make it through the year . . . and grow up to write a book about it!

*Mark’s Review*
The Heartfelt Struggles of a Fourth-grader
 What worked:
The heartfelt story of a young boy’s struggles through another school year. The events of Jordan’s fourth-grade year are most likely based on the author’s real experiences, and they’re typical of life in a common elementary school. Except for the teacher. The book opens with the nervous uncertainty of meeting a new teacher, and then Jordan’s worst nightmares come true. The author effectively describes the emotional turmoil, as Jordan tries to learn from a teacher who dislikes his uniqueness. His issues are compounded by severe anxiety for his mother’s safety. The story balances the seriousness of Jordan’s problems with the humor arising from being an intelligent, curious fourth-grader. The author’s casual, storytelling style suits the book perfectly, as it feels like you’re experiencing the emotional rollercoaster right along with Jordan.
Jordan’s unique issues make learning difficult. His main problems result from asthma medications that make it hard to stay focused and sit still, but he also has trouble dealing with stress. He’s intelligent, but he doesn’t show it in ways his teacher appreciates. She doesn’t have much patience for “JORR-dan”, and she doesn’t like student behavior that isn’t perfect. Jordan’s character becomes more endearing, as he cares for his pet garter snake named Hector. This story is cuter when Jordan discovers Hector is going to need a different name!
It’s a relief when Jordan’s situation changes later in the book, although the circumstances are disturbing. It’s satisfying to see something good finally happen to a misunderstood, young boy. The author reminds us there are still bumpy roads for him, but hope is allowed to enter the story.
What could have been improved:
The author slowly develops Jordan’s issues by sharing his experiences starting a new school year. Consequently, the conflict isn’t clear right away, so the early chapters feel like isolated experiences. They’re still entertaining and set the foundation for Jordan’s problems.
It would be nice for Jordan to have a close friend to confide in, although that would have changed much of the story. Jordan deals with most of the problems on his own, and his frustrations when things don’t work out create the whole plot. His older sister Lissa provides support when she’s aware of a problem, but that’s not very helpful when he’s in school.
The Final Verdict:
This book tells a powerful story of a young boy’s challenges to become a successful student. Humor and drama are expertly woven together to create a story that stimulates a wide range of emotions. It’s a surefire winner that will make connections with all readers.

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*




The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh by Helen Rutter


About This Book:

When life is funny, make some jokes about it.
Billy Plimpton has a big dream: to become a famous comedian when he grows up. He already knows a lot of jokes, but thinks he has one big problem standing in his way: his stutter.

At first, Billy thinks the best way to deal with this is to . . . never say a word. That way, the kids in his new school won’t hear him stammer. But soon he finds out this is NOT the best way to deal with things. (For one thing, it’s very hard to tell a joke without getting a word out.)

As Billy makes his way toward the spotlight, a lot of funny things (and some less funny things) happen to him. In the end, the whole school will know —

If you think you can hold Billy Plimpton back, be warned: The joke will soon be on you!

*Mark’s Review*
When Reality Clashes With Dreams!
What works:
From page one, the story focuses on a young boy’s struggles with stuttering. This disorder is very traumatic for Billy, as he hopes for a miracle cure before his first day of middle school. He comes up with creative ideas to avoid talking and makes lists of ways to get rid of stuttering. He works with a speech therapist once a month, but he’s frustrated nothing has helped. She wants him to speak as much as possible, especially in uncomfortable situations, but that doesn’t make sense for a boy terrified to reveal his stutter in school. The author effectively describes the myriad of emotions experienced by Billy, including his excitement when sharing jokes. He aspires to become a comedian even though it seems impossible for someone with a stutter. Therein lies a huge conflict!
Supporting characters contribute to the plot in different ways. A class bully amplifies Billy’s problems and stress. He quickly identifies Billy as a victim, and the stuttering draws him like a moth to light. However, their relationship transforms in unexpected ways. Several new friends greet Billy on the first day of school and can form a support group if Billy will only speak to them. Ironically, one of the boys has a hearing disorder and can’t hear Billy’s stutter. Skyla is a friend from Billy’s previous school, and she has always helped him in the past. She’s willing to step in when Billy needs help, although he’s not sure why. Her own issues are slowly revealed as the story moves along. Close friendships are something new for Billy, and the skills needed don’t come easy for him. He’s going to need all the friends he can get in dealing with disappointment, anxiety, and the death of a loved one.
The story is written in the first person, which is perfect to express a character’s thoughts and emotions, especially when that character doesn’t want to speak. Fear of what others will think, love for his grandmother, and passion for humor consume Billy’s mind. The positives of love and passion are overshadowed by fear. Billy’s is blinded by perceived negatives about himself, so he fails to consider what others might truly think about him. His teacher is invaluable in nurturing the positives and helping Billy become happier and more confident.
What I might have changed:
The title implies the book will be funny, and every chapter begins with a short joke. However, the seriousness of his stutter takes over the plot, and Billy is forced to face many different complications in his life. The conflicts are really quite severe, especially for a boy starting sixth grade in a new school. His stammer, the bully, his friends, his grandmother, a talent show, and comedy each take over the story at different times. The author is able to manipulate the events toward a most satisfying and happy resolution. Readers with feelings of self-doubt will be able to make connections with Billy’s character.
Skyla is critical to Billy’s mental wellbeing, but her character isn’t developed much beyond the basics. She’s forced to care for her mother at times, but the rest of her family life is a mystery. It always seems like there’s a lot going on in her mind even while she’s talking to Billy or pushing him to take risks. She creates a gift later in the book that exemplifies her empathy.
The Final Verdict:
A heartwarming journey where reality clashes with dreams. Billy’s underdog story will impact readers emotionally with humor being a common thread throughout. I highly recommend you give this book a shot!

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*




Explorer Academy: The Dragon’s Blood (Book 6) by Trudi Trueit


 About This Book:

Still reeling from the life-changing discovery he found buried in the mysterious archive, Cruz Coronado grapples with an important secret as the gang heads to China in search of the second-to-last piece of the cipher. Under the watchful eye of a new adviser, life on the ship returns to almost normal…Almost.

Just as things seem to be going smoothly, a familiar face shocks Cruz back into reality, and the final piece in this life-and-death scavenger hunt veers toward a dead end.

Explorer Academy features: Gripping fact-based fiction plot that inspires curiosity with new technology and innovations; amazing inventions and gadgets; a cast of diverse, relatable characters; secret clues, codes, and ciphers to track down within the text; vibrant illustrations, Elements of STEAM; National Geographic explorer profiles in The Truth Behind Section.


 *Mark’s Review*

The search for the cipher nears its end.
What worked:
Cruz is focused on figuring out a cryptic message left by his deceased mother that will lead him to the seventh piece of a stone cipher. The completed cipher will reveal the recipe for a serum that will change the future of medicine and health all over the world. Cruz’s mother had an accident while she was pregnant, and the serum has given him amazing healing powers; he may be immortal. Nebula is determined to stop Cruz from finding the cipher, and it’s willing to go to any lengths to stop him. Cruz tries to make wise and just decisions, but maneuvering through confusion and suspicions is difficult. Plus, he has feelings for Bryndis, and everyone else on the ship knows they’re a couple. His various friendships in the Explorer Academy are complicated by the fact that he doesn’t know who to trust.
The plot includes a number of mysteries and uncertainties to keep readers wondering. Obviously, the clues to finding pieces of the cipher are cryptic, so the explorers are never totally certain they’re on the right track to finding them. The most interesting problem concerns Nebula’s spies within the academy and aboard the Orion, the ship acting as a mobile school for the students. Cruz and his friends know two spies are on board, code-named Zebra and Jaguar, but that only makes them suspicious of everyone not in their group. Cruz even suspects his own aunt might be Zebra. Every few chapters, the setting focuses on Nebula, so readers gain some insight into their plans. These pages also reveal distrust and sabotage among the antagonists, as the players position for power.
Each book in the series focuses on an ecological mission, and this one deals with finding a marsupial scientists assume is extinct. However, a video surfaced one year ago that seems to show a thylacine wandering through the forests in Tasmania. This book includes information about other rare animals, along with colorful photographs, as well as geographical and historical facts regarding Borneo, China, and Tasmania. Specifically in China, the book displays knowledge of the thousands of statues in the Terra-Cotta Army, the Xi’an City Wall, and the lantern festival. The facts shared throughout the plot don’t interrupt the flow of the story, and some of it’s important to how events progress.
What didn’t work as well:
This book is the sixth in the series, and a lot has happened. References are made to past events, but many holes are left for readers to figure out. Nebula is the evil organization trying to locate pieces of a cipher, while Cruz and his friends follow the clues left by his mother to find them first. Details surrounding Nebula and the Explorer Academy are missing, but reading the previous books will solve those problems. Readers probably won’t miss the information, but it’s helpful in understanding the overall situation.
The Final Verdict:
The search for the cipher nears its end. It’s recommended readers begin with the first book in the series, The Nebula Secret, to appreciate the full story. The science-based adventure is full of mystery and intrigue, as Cruz tries to fulfill his mother’s quest. The Dragon’s Blood should appeal to all middle-grade readers, especially lovers of nature, ecology, and science fiction.

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*




 The Fowl Twins Get What They Deserve  (A Fowl Twins Novel, Book 3) by Eoin Colfer


About This Book:

For almost two years, Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye, the Duke of Scilly, has been plotting revenge against the Fowl Twins, who humiliated him in Book One. Teddy plans to give them exactly what they deserve: permanent death.
He threatens Myles with his weaponized jet and Beckett and Specialist Lazuli succeed in disarming the aircraft and causing an accident that kills the duke. But does it really?

Ghosts, clones, and fairy magic come to play in this ultimate and ridiculous showdown between the twins and their worst enemy.

*Mark’s Review*
The final confrontation between archrivals.
What Worked: 
The format is very similar to Artemis Fowl books, so fans of that series should readily enjoy this book too. The intelligence of Myles rivals his older brother, and he frequently informs readers that he’s actually the smartest Fowl. His twin brother Beckett is more physically gifted and likes to trust his instincts, so the pair make a formidable team. As in the Artemis Fowl books, the twins work with an officer from the LEP, but she’s off dealing with her own problems and has a less visible role with the Fowls. Her subplot may become more prominent in a future book.
The author consistently puts the twins in impossible situations and lets them escape through ingenious/lucky events. Myles accepts an impossible challenge from ghosts in order to keep his head attached to his body. Most of the time, Myles is able to think through situations and come up with “logical” plans to resolve them. Beckett has an innate ability to quickly calculate angles and time in order to react at just the right moment. Together, they make an amusing pair and add funny banter with other characters.
As the title implies, the major conflict centers on Lord Teddy’s diabolical plans to get revenge against Beckett and especially Myles. Myles admits that Teddy’s plans are truly devious and match what he might have devised himself. Lord Teddy shares needless antagonist banter that allows Myles time to figure out a solution. Adding humor to the scenes, Lord Teddy is aware he’s giving Teddy an opportunity to escape, and the characters make fun of this flawed tradition among bad guys. Their relationship might be compared to classic enemies in old cartoons, like Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.
What didn’t work as well:
As mentioned above, LEP officer Lazuli spends much of the plot dealing with her separate story. She seems impossibly lost and near death in a totally different part of the world, so it’s challenging to keep her character connected with the twins. The assumption is that she’ll eventually reappear to save the day, but this thought drags on. Rest assured, the characters are reunited, but you’ll need to imagine the circumstances until you read the book.
The final verdict:
The final confrontation between archrivals. The Fowl twins are creative, resourceful, and humorous, and they create a wildly entertaining adventure. This book is the third in the series, but it can be read independently. Readers who have enjoyed Artemis Fowl will surely love The Fowl Twins Get What They Deserve too.

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*



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