Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: FLASHBACK by Shannon Messenger

Today I’m thrilled to have my ten-year-old join me for a review of book seven in MMGM founder Shannon Messenger’s KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES series, FLASHBACK. We were especially excited about the release of this book because Shannon visited St. Louis last week, and we got to see her in person. I met her once before, when she came through for EXILE, the second book in the series, but it was my son’s first time meeting her, and he was ecstatic. I would share a picture–because he and his friend even went in costume and it was awesome–but I don’t post pictures of my kids publicly, so sorry. However, I am going to let my son take the lead on this review, because while I love these books, he has far surpassed me, reading the earlier books at least three times now. But first, here’s the cover and description, so if you haven’t read the other books in the series, SPOILERS AHEAD!

Still here? Okay then …

Flashback by Shannon MessengerSophie Foster doesn’t know what—or whom—to believe. And in a game with this many players, the worst mistake can be focusing on the wrong threat.

But when the Neverseen prove that Sophie’s far more vulnerable than she ever imagined, she realizes it’s time to change the rules. Her powerful abilities can only protect her so far. To face down ruthless enemies, she must learn to fight.

Unfortunately, battle training can’t help a beloved friend who’s facing a whole different danger—where the only solution involves one of the biggest risks Sophie and her friends have ever taken. And the distraction might be exactly what the villains have been waiting for.

On to the review, in the words of my ten-year-old super-fan. I did ask him to follow my five things format :).

This book is amazingly awesome, complex, and adventurously fun. But, warning: a lot of romance! Noooo! Well, it’s still really good.

Here are the things I loved most.

1. The alicorns – They are so energetic and exciting, and they’re always willing to help out Sophie and her friends just when they need them most. There’s some exciting drama with the alicorns in this book and I’m excited to see how it works out in the next book.

2. The Ballad of Bo and Ro – Once you read this book, this sentence will make a lot more sense. Keefe makes up this funny song, even though you don’t get to actually hear it, about the ogres Bo and Ro.

3. The butterbursts – Even better than custard bursts, mallowmelt, and rifflepuffs combined, found only in the secret teacher’s lounge of Foxfire, I would love to have these gooey treats and choose it over any dessert.

4. Tarina – A really cool and excellent bodyguard – a troll bodyguard – that helps Sophie with a tricky problem, Tarina is an awesome addition to FLASHBACK.

5. Meeting Shannon – Shannon Messenger is really, really nice. She loves cats and actually has a cat named Marty like Sophie in the first book. She hides cool meanings in the book, like Fitz’s name means “son of the king,” Sophie means “wisdom,” and Keefe means “good-looking.” I love what she said about how you should never let anyone tell you what you can’t read. Overall, I love her books, and I hope you read them.

So there you have it, a review from my ten-year-old. There are at least two more books expected in this series, although Shannon said at the event that a tenth is a possibility. After the cliffhanger at the end of FLASHBACK, we’re already anxious for book eight in the Mason house!

Reading, Review, Young Adult

BEHELD and A Few Other YA Books You Should Read

For the past few months, I’ve been posting some mini-reviews on Instagram (you can follow me there @michelleimason). As I don’t want those books to be neglected here on my blog, when I have a few built up, I plan to do a roundup like I’ve done in the past. So here goes.

A few years ago I reviewed Alex Flinn’s modern fairy tale retellings, and I noticed she’d added another I’d missed. BEHELD follows Kendra, a witch, through four different tales over hundreds of years, starting with the Salem Witch Trials. I really enjoyed these four very different stories, held together by an over-arching story about Kendra searching for her lost love. Tales included were “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” and “The Ugly Duckling.” As with her previous fairy tale retellings, there is a focus on beauty skewing perception, and the characters are far from perfect.


I appreciate when a book ends with a sense of hope, and both THE GIVER and THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR left me feeling hopeful for the characters. In each case, the situation leading up to the ending seemed pretty hopeless, and I wasn’t sure how the author could wrap up the story in a way that would seem believable and satisfying. These two books are very different, and while neither of them tied everything up in a bow at the end or assured me everything would turn out perfectly for the characters, I felt optimistic, and that was enough.


I loved the now and then format of LOVE SONGS & OTHER LIES by Jessica Pennington, which I couldn’t put down because I had to find out what happened in the past *and* how things would turn out in the present. Plus, I love anything with music, whether it’s rock stars (as here) or classical.

 


FEARLESS, book 3 in The Deception Game series by Kristin Smith, is a fast-paced read that will have you flipping–or swiping–quickly through pages. If you haven’t read this series, start at the beginning with CATALYST. Kristin writes jaw-dropping twists, swoon-worthy love interests, and page-turning action.

 


Since LOVE, LIFE AND THE LIST is about an artist, I snapped a picture of it with a painting I picked up in Montmartre from a street artist. This book, though … it made me cry, and that is rare. I loved it anyway. As much about friendship as anything, it’s another fantastic Kasie West book!

 


Have you read any of these? If so, let me know what you thought! I always like to discuss :).

NetGalley, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: LOVE À LA MODE by Stephanie Kate Strohm

I’ve read a couple books by Stephanie Kate Strohm now–in fact, IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU was one of my favorite reads in 2016–so I was thrilled when Disney-Hyperion approved my NetGalley request to read an ARC of LOVE À LA MODE. I mean, they’re attending culinary school in PARIS–this book checks off so many boxes for me, and fortunately it delivers. First of all, here’s the description.

Love A La Mode by Stephanie Kate StrohmTake two American teen chefs, add one heaping cup of Paris, toss in a pinch of romance, and stir. . . .

Rosie Radeke firmly believes that happiness can be found at the bottom of a mixing bowl. But she never expected that she, a random nobody from East Liberty, Ohio, would be accepted to celebrity chef Denis Laurent’s school in Paris, the most prestigious cooking program for teens in the entire world. Life in Paris, however, isn’t all cream puffs and crepes. Faced with a challenging curriculum and a nightmare professor, Rosie begins to doubt her dishes.

Henry Yi grew up in his dad’s restaurant in Chicago, and his lifelong love affair with food landed him a coveted spot in Chef Laurent’s school. He quickly connects with Rosie, but academic pressure from home and his jealousy over Rosie’s growing friendship with gorgeous bad-boy baker Bodie Tal makes Henry lash out and push his dream girl away.

Desperate to prove themselves, Rosie and Henry cook like never before while sparks fly between them. But as they reach their breaking points, they wonder whether they have what it takes to become real chefs.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The meet cute – Rosie and Henry’s meeting on the plane to Paris is just so adorable. I enjoy the sparks-flying, rub-each-other-the-wrong-way kind of setup as much as the next reader, but it’s refreshing to read about two characters who immediately connect because they have something in common and genuinely like each other.

2. The developing romance – I have to admit I got frustrated sometimes with the two protagonists as the story proceeded because they wouldn’t just TALK TO EACH OTHER about what was going on. However, I also felt it was completely believable, and so even thought it was frustrating, this falls into the category of something I love about the story. It felt real to me that these two characters were struggling through life and didn’t quite know how to share it.

3. The food! – I’m not an adventurous eater myself, but I love reading books about cooking. It’s my way of branching out into more interesting foods, and this book definitely delivers on that front. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the pastries, and I just want to fly to Paris right now and visit Chef Petit’s boulangerie …

4. The friendship – The friendships both Rosie and Henry developed were an integral part of the book, and I loved how well-developed the characters were.

5. The family – Both Rosie and Henry had complex family situations that led to them studying at the École. In Henry’s case, his relationship with his mom and what she expected of him exhausted him mentally and physically. I really appreciated the unexpected depth this added to the story.

LOVE À LA MODE comes out Nov. 27 (hey, that’s my birthday!), and I do highly recommend it. I haven’t been posting as many reviews lately because I’ve been busy with writing stuff, but this one really stood out to me as a fun read. Hopefully I’ll have others soon. Thanks again to NetGalley and Disney-Hyperion for the read!

Character, Reading

On Sequels Ruining the Original

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, ever since an eagerly awaited sequel came in the mail this summer and from the first few pages had me going, “Whaaat?” I’m not going to call out this book specifically, which is part of the reason I waited so long to post about it (since I do list everything I read here on the blog).

In any case, I really loved the first book of this duology, enough that it has a review here, and I even pre-ordered the sequel so I wouldn’t forget about it. The first book left off on a total cliffhanger, but almost immediately the second book veered off in this completely disturbing direction. The further I read, the less engaged I was with the main characters. Based on everything they’d experienced in the first book and how the author had set them up, I found myself checking out more and more. By the end of the second book, the first book was completely ruined for me too, because with the cliffhanger ending of the first, you really can’t keep one without the other–a real bummer!

I’ve noticed this sequel issue with more than books. I had another experience recently that I wish I could erase, and I will totally call this one out. It was the musical “Love Never Dies,” which is a sequel to “Phantom of the Opera.” I love Phantom. I sang one of the songs as a solo in our senior showcase in high school, and the stage production is always amazing. I was skeptical about a sequel, but I should have avoided it entirely because it was extremely disturbing on so many levels. Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom all acted in ways that seemed at odds with their behavior in the first musical, and there were plot points that really warped events in the timeline of “Phantom” as well. If you have the opportunity to see “Love Never Dies,” DON’T. (This might be the first negative review I’ve ever written on my blog, but I’m still traumatized a month after watching it.)

Finally, while it isn’t exactly a sequel, I recently stopped watching the second season of a very popular TV show for the same reason the first book I mentioned bothered me so much. I binge-watched the first season. The characters were engaging, and the mystery kept me wanting to discover the solution. As I began watching the second season, I was increasingly disappointed. The mystery wasn’t so believable, and the characters started making decisions that didn’t line up with how they’d been established in the first season. It finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to follow their journeys anymore.

So why this rant about sucky sequels? As writers, I think we must be careful about the promises we make to readers in our books, and if we do write sequels or series, we must be consistent. As I mentioned above, what turned me off most was when the characters were inconsistent. I understand characters might change, but if they’re behavior goes completely off the rails, you have to make me believe it or I will check out as a reader/viewer.

I’ve never written a sequel myself, but that’s partially why I felt it was important to document these thoughts. Perhaps somewhere down the line an opportunity will arise where I’ll have a story that isn’t finished after one book. If it does, I want to remember the importance of character constancy and maintaining the essence of the first book. I think those are the keys to turning readers into true fans.

Have you had any experiences with sequels that have turned you off a book or other media series?

Agents, Querying, Writing

I Have An Agent!

Dear friends, I have been waiting to write this post for SEVEN YEARS! If you’ve been following me for a while, you already know that, but if you stopped by because you love how-I-got-my-agent posts, this current story might seem like a bit of a fairy tale, and I want to make it clear that it’s come after a very long wait. I refer you to my July post, What I’ve Learned in Seven Years of Querying. There are six more posts before that, one each on the anniversary of the day I started querying.

Okay, now that the cautionary tale is out of the way, I’ll return to the much more exciting current story, which does bear the lightning fast and unbelievable characteristics of a fairy tale. On Sept. 5, the same day I wrote my Love Letter to My Complete Manuscript, I started querying YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED. Interestingly enough, I discovered the other day this is almost exactly one year after I first jotted down my initial notes in my phone for the idea that would turn into this manuscript, although I didn’t draft it until this spring.

Anyway, I usually send out queries in waves and wait for responses so I can tweak my query or pages accordingly (I’ve documented this here on the blog before). However, with the show MANIFEST coming out on Sept. 24–about a plane jumping forward in time, although not the same amount of time and with a seemingly supernatural vibe–I wanted to be agents’ first impression. So I just started going down the list of all the agents with whom I’d be interested in working. Almost immediately, I knew this querying experience would be different; I was getting a number of requests, and even the few rejections were personalized.

On Sept. 13, one week and one day after I started querying, Agent A asked for a call the following week. Nobody was home in my house, and I seriously screamed, startling my dog and two cats. By this time, I had only received nine rejections from all the queries I’d sent out, so while I was overjoyed, thrilled, in shock at the prospect of an offer (SEVEN YEARS, friends), I was also a bit daunted by the prospect that I would have A LOT of agents to notify if it was, indeed, an offer.

It was sort of agony to wait five days to talk to Agent A, but it also gave me time to get myself together. I researched what questions to ask and the etiquette for nudging other agents, getting all my ducks in a row before our conversation. (Of course I’d read these sorts of posts before, but it’s different when you actually need them.) I set up templates for everything in advance. Here are the resources I used:

On Sept. 18, I talked with Agent A, and she was wonderful! For the first time ever, an agent truly loved my book! She offered me representation, and I proceeded to call my husband and parents and check in with my longtime CPs who were waiting to find out if it really was an offer. Then I started nudging the MANY agents who had already requested my manuscript as well as those who had my query, because my oldest query was twelve days. Agent A suggested I give the other agents two full weeks, which gave me a bit of anxiety because I would be traveling that day, but it was also the amount of time several of my writer friends had recommended, so I went with it.

Holy smokes, guys! Sept. 18 was one of the craziest days of my life. First the offer and then the most amazing correspondence with agents ever. I received several more requests from agents, plus a number of the nicest complimentary step-asides. I’ve heard from other writers that step-asides still hurt, but in my case, each one just gave me a nice glow. That first day I also received a note from Agent B, who said she was in the middle of my manuscript and would get back to me ASAP.

On Sept. 19, several more requests rolled in, and then … Agent B emailed and asked if we could talk that week, saying she’d love to work with me and why, right there in the email. I started hyperventilating a bit because I already loved one agent. How would I be able to choose between two? Plus there were all these other amazing agents requesting. I really didn’t want a ton of offers. I mean, I can’t even decide where to go to dinner when my husband asks! And I am horrible at telling people no …

I talked to Agent B on Sept. 20, and as much as I’d loved Agent A, there were some things Agent B said that really resonated with me about the heart of my character and my book. I felt like she really got me as a writer. I spent the next couple of days contacting clients for both Agent A and Agent B and making a spreadsheet comparing the two (surprising no one who knows me). It was very helpful to ask the same questions of each agent and the clients because I could line up the answers next to each other. When I had it all laid out before me, there was definitely an agent who seemed like a better fit for me, supporting my gut feeling from the call, but I still had ten days left before my decision and about 18(?) other agents considering. (The question mark is due to the timing of those other agents requesting.)

During the next week, I received a couple more requests from agents who were just seeing the nudge (a reason to do two full weeks!) as well as some of the nicest step-asides ever on the fulls. And each time someone stepped aside, even when they were agents I had the highest admiration for and would have loved to work with, I felt relief. To me, this meant that I felt entirely confident in the choice I’d already made between the first two agents, and yet I reminded myself to stay open to the possibility that another great agent might still come in and sweep me off my feet.

Then, on Friday, Sept. 29, I received a request from Agent C, who asked if she could read over the weekend but that if she was interested in offering, we’d have to talk on my decision day, Oct. 2. Perhaps this was the feet-sweeper–because she was a really fantastic agent. On Monday, Oct. 1, I woke up to an email from Agent C, asking for the call on Oct. 2. Fortunately, I was able to get references from two of her clients in advance, and they were both glowing, of course. In the meantime, I had nudged the remaining eight agents I still hadn’t heard from, and most of them stepped aside on Monday. One even called me late Monday afternoon, and we talked about a particular point that concerned her. She was completely lovely and told me to call her if things didn’t work out with whomever I chose.

So, I flew to New York on Tuesday, and my stomach was in knots, guys. I wasn’t nervous about the call itself but about the decision afterward. Because choosing an agent to represent you is a huge decision! And for the past week I’d had a series of super-nice step-asides until at the last minute (but for understandable reasons Agent C had explained), there was another offer. I talked to Agent C for an hour and a half, and once again I was left with an amazing conversation and an agent I could envision working with.

My husband was in meetings until 5 p.m., which was when I had said I would make a decision–not to Agent A on our initial call, but to the agents I had nudged on Sunday and to Agent C. Plus, I was in New York, and I wanted to actually enjoy my time there. So I called one of my longtime CPs (hi, Kip!) to hash it all out. I entered all of the information for Agent C into my spreadsheet and compared them.

Here’s the thing. You hear advice all the time that an agent relationship is personal and it’s different for everyone. After talking with three really fantastic agents who have different styles but are all agents who I believe could sell my book, I totally get that. I could have seen myself working with any of them and having a good relationship with them, but there was one agent who just felt like the best fit. I guess that’s what people mean when they say to go with your gut. Plus, there was my spreadsheet, where I didn’t really have any Cons listed for any of the agents, but I definitely had more Pros listed for a particular agent, possibly also a factor of the way I’d felt during our call and correspondence …

So, I’m delighted to announce that I’m now represented by Elizabeth Bewley at Sterling Lord Literistic. As an extra bonus, since she is located in New York, I got to meet her for lunch on my trip! I can’t wait to get to work with her on YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED. And I am so grateful to the other two agents who offered and every other agent who has read and given me feedback over the past seven years. Every single one of them has helped me become a better writer.

If you’ve been in the query trenches a long time, don’t give up! I said a few months ago that it’s about perseverance. I’m on to the next part of this journey now, but I know it certainly isn’t over. There will be more rejection along the way–although I’m just going to celebrate over here for a bit :).

Giveaways, Interviews, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM Interview & Signed Hardcover Giveaway: EARTH TO DAD by Krista Van Dolzer

I’m thrilled to once again host my friend Krista Van Dolzer for her third middle grade book, EARTH TO DAD. With each book, she gives a glimpse into a new world, from the 1950s in THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING, to contemporary middle school in DON’T VOTE FOR ME, and now the future! Krista has graciously offered a signed hardcover to one lucky reader, and you definitely want to get in on this giveaway, but first, let me tell you about the book.

Earth to Dad by Krista Van DolzerThe distance between Earth and Mars is more than just physical.

No one knows that better than eleven-year-old Jameson O’Malley. When Dad left for Mars, Jameson thought technology would help shorten the millions of miles between them, but he’s starting to realize no transmission can replace his father.

When a new family moves onto Base Ripley, Jameson makes an unlikely friend in Astra Primm, who’s missing a parent of her own. But as their friendship grows stronger, Jameson starts seeing the flaws in his own family. Mom is growing distant, and something is wrong with Dad. He’s not sending transmissions as frequently, and when he does there are bags under his eyes.

Soon Jameson realizes there’s more to the story than he knows–and plenty people aren’t telling him. Determined to learn the truth, Jameson and Astra embark on a journey exploring life, loss, and friendship that will take them to the edge of their universe.

Here are Krista’s answers to questions about the five things I loved most.

1. The premise of an asteroid sending Earth off-orbit so it’s steadily moving toward the sun is intriguing. How did you research the science of what that might be like?

Suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time clicking around NASA’s website (and quite a few other scientific organizations’ websites, too). 🙂 First, I looked for ways to put Earth’s future in jeopardy. Then, once I decided to give Earth a decaying orbit, I looked for ways to mess with the solar system’s equilibrium. As it turns out, Jupiter plays a pretty crucial role in holding the rocky planets in place, so if you mess with Jupiter, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll mess with Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, too.

2. I love the friendship angle of the story, how more than anything what Jameson longs for is a best friend. What made you decide to focus on that as the central relationship in the story?

I tend to write children’s books with lots of adult characters, so to balance out that imbalance, I hone in on the relationships between my child characters. It worked especially well in this case, since I wanted Jameson to learn how to live a richer, fuller life and that’s what his friendship with Astra is all about.

3. I love the variety of your stories, how you’ve written historical (THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING), contemporary (DON’T VOTE FOR ME), and now futuristic. How do you put yourself in the mindset of kids from each of these different time periods?

I certainly try to vary my characters’ vocabularies so they don’t sound anachronistic, but beyond that, I don’t really think about it overtly. Kids are kids are kids, whether they’re living in 1952 or 2047. Though the trappings of their lives might change, kids from every age and walk of life probably still worry about the same sorts of things: finding friends, dealing with parents, and figuring out where they belong.

4. Astra is such a fun character. Did you develop her independently of Jameson, or were you particularly thinking of her as a foil for Jameson?

I’m so glad you liked Astra! I must have a soft spot for spunky tween girls. 🙂 I definitely wanted her personality to contrast with Jameson’s, so in that way, yes, I did write her as a foil for Jameson. They have so many things in common, but they process those experiences in such different ways.

5. I love the feeling of MAYBE throughout the book. As an adult, there were several scenes I read thinking “there’s no way this will work, but maybe … ” What tips do you have on retaining that optimism that kids have as they’re reading while still keeping the plot believable?

One thing I always remember is that kids’ brains aren’t fully developed—I don’t think a person’s brain is considered to be fully developed until, like, age twenty-two—so something that might seem completely ludicrous to me might seem plausible to a twelve-year-old (or, you know, a twenty-one-year-old). I think that gives us writers a certain amount of leeway when it comes to plotting. 🙂 That said, we did end up cutting and/or tweaking several scenes just to boost their plausibility. Maybe if the book becomes a runaway best-seller, I’ll have to share the scene in which Jameson steals a spacesuit…

Oh, I’d like to read that scene!

And if you’d like a chance to read EARTH TO DAD, you can enter by commenting below. For extra entries, click on the Rafflecopter. North America only, please. Open until next Monday, Sept. 17.

Whether you win the giveaway or not, definitely add EARTH TO DAD to your TBR list!

Writing

A Love Letter to My Completed Manuscript

In June, I wrote a love letter to my work-in-progress, when it was still shiny and new to me, before I sent it out to my first round of readers. Since I love this manuscript even more now that it’s no longer in progress, I thought it deserved another love letter.

Dear Manuscript,

When I sent you off to those first several readers a few months ago, I was buoyed by the sense that you were the best thing I’d ever written. That everyone who read you would love you as much as I did.

Of course, they saw your flaws. Those first readers, and the second, and the third. They pointed out where you floundered, looking for purpose, where you didn’t make sense, where you needed more tension. BUT, they also saw your strengths and what I loved about you. They gave me insightful comments about how to make you shine before I sent you out into the much broader world.

So now, instead of that blush of first love, we’ve been through months of hard truths and tricky problems. We didn’t always solve them on the first try, but we kept at it. We have survived, and you are so much stronger for it.

I loved you before, dear words, but now I love you even more. I’m sure you still aren’t perfect, but you are as ready as you’ll ever be. Not everyone will love you, and that’s okay.

I will always love you, dear words …

Michelle