Author: Pseudonymous Bosch
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Themes: Good vs. Evil, Friendship
Age Range: 3rd-6th Grade
Summary: from Goodreads
Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he'd love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn't want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn't want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.
This book felt very much in tone like the A Series of Unfortunate Events books. There is a presumably adult narrator who continually breaks the "fourth wall" (though maybe that's only a television and movie reference) to speak directly to the reader. Throughout the book the narrator makes sure the reader understands that reading the book puts them at risk of danger, and purports to have changed the names and places as much as possible to "protect" us from the deadly secrets contained in the book. It's a cute literary device, if not terribly original.
The story itself is well done. Cass and Max Earnest are characters I think kids could relate to. Cass is so traumatized by her father's sudden death that she begins to seriously prepare for any emergency that may befall her and her loved one, going so far as to carry a backpack full of survival supplies everywhere she goes. Most kids may not have done that, but I think that child readers would be able to empathize with the fear of losing a parent. Max Earnest has a pretty obvious case of ADHD, though it is never called that in the book. Either way, kids will recognize a part of him in themselves, or in some other kid they know (possibly the one that sits next to them at school and won't stop talking!). I thought that the specific magical elements were interesting...the idea that using smell to do magic is one I don't remember reading before. There are some interesting Egyptology references, and the villains are deliciously villainy, as only the best caricature of an evil person could be. This is the first in a series, which is always helpful if you are trying to hook a young reader, though the story does have a definite ending, and could be read as a stand alone. I think this is a good book to have available in your classroom library for independent reading, which is how we use it at the school where I teach.