Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM Sixth Grader Review: A WISH IN THE DARK by Christina Soontornvat

I’m back with another MMGM review by my sixth grader this week. On March 24, we spent much of the day enjoying the digital launch events for Christina Soontornvat’s A WISH IN THE DARK. She had everything from a sketch-off with Max Brallier (LAST KIDS ON EARTH series) to weird stuff in her house with Stuart Gibbs (SPY SCHOOL and other series). If you’re interested, you can still find those on her YouTube page here. Authors are finding a lot of great ways to connect with readers while everyone’s stuck at home!

I’m actually halfway through the book and really enjoying it myself, but since my son already finished it and he’s the target audience, I’m going to let him do this week’s review again. But first, here’s the cover and description.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina SoontornvatAll light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.

So now I’ll turn it over to my sixth grader.

I really liked how A WISH IN THE DARK displayed a fun, magical-ish world that’s nothing like anything we have here. But it has real people with real desires and it feels true.

It has some very good character development. The main character, Pong, was born in a prison, and the main leader there believes “Trees drop their fruit straight down” so children have to stay in the prison until they’re 13. Pong knew that was unfair and started out always protesting, but he developed into a more mature character. He learns how to focus on fixing the things he can.

There’s also the other main character, Nok, who is from one of the rich families. Her dad is the warden of the prison that Pong is in. She doesn’t see the unfairness of the rules because her family is wealthy and the rules were made by those families. So before Pong fully develops into his character, he escapes, and Nok starts trying to track him down. She goes from being kind of inflexible with the rules to realizing some things aren’t fair and that some families can’t do anything else. She realizes she needs to fight back too.

I really liked the setting. It happens in this world full of different lights and canals. It’s definitely different from the cities we have, but there’s also other places that are peaceful villages and temples up in the mountain. It’s a good mix of fun and peaceful, and the description is very good.

From what I’ve read so far, I second all of his points. The description is fantastic, and I’m really enjoying the characters. So definitely check this book out!

Since my son averages four to five books every week and has extra time on his hands at the moment, I’ll probably have another one of these for you next week–unless my fourth grader decides she wants in on it 😉.

Drafting, Writing

It Is Finished! My Longest Draft Ever

Hey, friends! So, it’s been a really long time since I’ve posted an update about my writing. I looked back through my posts and found one about revising YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED from October, and then there was one about how I tried pantsing a book last summer. (That sounds really strange if you aren’t a writer, but the writers DO know what I mean 😉.)

Anyway, that book I was writing last summer? I ended up setting it aside because I just couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I do intend to go back to it, but sometimes you just need some distance. What this means is that for the first time in quite a while, I went more than a year without finishing a draft. In fact, the last time I finished a first draft was May 2018, when I finished writing YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED. Of course, I have done a lot of revising on that in the meantime 😀.

Last September, while I was still trying to figure out that other project, I had an idea for a new one and jotted down a few thoughts. Over the next couple of months, I added more ideas for it, and in December, I decided to sit down and draft for real. For me, this means setting an end deadline in Scrivener that gives me daily word count goals. Generally, I set my deadline so that I’m writing about 1,800 words per day.

I know many people find it hard to create in an anxious or stressful environment. For me, the best way to cope with anxiety and stress is to have goals. As much as I hate drafting, it gives me focus, and I’ve needed that for the past several months. As I already shared here on the blog, in early December, my best friend suffered a massive brain bleed while on vacation. Her family has shared her story and updates on a GoFundMe page here. At the end of December, she was transported back to Missouri, and I was able to start visiting her at the hospital. I wrote a significant portion of this book sitting in her hospital room, sometimes brainstorming ideas with family members or talking aloud to her, even when she was sleeping. With COVID-19, I can’t visit her right now (she moved to a rehab hospital a few weeks ago), but she’s still on my mind constantly.

And then there’s COVID-19 itself. Everyone in my family has stayed healthy so far. My kids have been home from school since March 13, and my husband started working from home a week ago. It’s a change for all of us to be here together, but we’ve gotten into a pretty good routine. It’s definitely a blessing that my kids are old enough to manage most of their school on their own. But I’d be lying if I didn’t think initially about how having everyone here might affect my drafting momentum. I had decided at the beginning of March to step it up to 2,000 words per day, despite what Scrivener was telling me, and I was able to stick to that, even with everyone here, plus overseeing eLearning and general anxiety about what’s happening in the world.

So, here I am on April 1 with a finished draft. It’s my longest draft ever at 90,983 words. It’s also messy, as all first drafts are. I’m going to let it sit for a few days, and then I will get back to the part I love most–REVISING!

To celebrate, today we’re going to make cupcakes. Usually I treat myself to a gourmet cupcake as a reward for finishing a draft, but making them ourselves has the added bonus of a family activity 😍.

How are you all doing with your writing? Have you drafted anything new lately? How do you celebrate milestones?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM Sixth Grader Review: MY LIFE AS A POTATO by Arianne Costner

Hi everyone! With my kids home from school, I’ve invited them to participate in reviews. First up is my sixth grader with a review of MY LIFE AS A POTATO by Arianne Costner. This book just came out last week, and as I’m sure you can imagine, debuting during quarantine is quite challenging. We are excited to help spread the word about this awesome book!

First of all, Arianne sent out some amazing pre-order gifts, and last I heard, she still had some extras available due to canceled events. You can see details on her Instagram here. But here’s a picture of my son with the book and swag, followed by a description of the book.

Ben Hardy believes he’s cursed by potatoes. And now he’s moved to Idaho, where the school’s mascot is Steve the Spud! Yeah, this cannot be good.

After accidentally causing the mascot to sprain an ankle, Ben is sentenced to Spud duty for the final basketball games of the year. But if the other kids know he’s the Spud, his plans for popularity are doomed. Ben doesn’t want to let the team down, so he goes to great lengths to keep it a secret. No one will know it’s him under the potato suit . . . right?

And now I’m going to hand this review over to my sixth grader. He’s going to switch up the format from my usual five things, so here we go…

All right. MY LIFE AS A POTATO was an amazing book. I couldn’t put it down, and I finished it in a day. Ben is a seventh grader that moves to the school in Idaho. He makes you feel what it is like to be a new kid in a new school where things are different, even if you’ve never been a new kid before. Ben gives the story the feeling that it actually is real and influences the story in so many ways.

It made me laugh when he dressed as Steve the Spud, fell down, and rolled into the cheerleader pyramid, and all the cheerleaders screamed as they fell on top of him. That’s just one example of the funny stuff that happened in the book.

It was an always-be-yourself moral, but it was more about having good friends by your side who won’t care what you’re doing. It’s important to be yourself and if your friends are good, they’ll support you no matter what. I really liked that moral.

Arianne Costner really helped the story come to life by using description that made you feel like you were in the story.

I can’t wait to read this book myself! I’ll be bringing you more sixth grader reviews–and maybe a fourth grader review or two–while we’re at home. Thanks for stopping by!

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Series Review: The Agency by Y.S. Lee

So, I’ve had a little time to read lately…

But in all seriousness, one of my reading goals for this year was that if I read the first book in a series and liked it, I would go ahead and read the rest of the series instead of getting distracted by other books on my TBR in between. Anyway, the series I started a couple of weeks ago has been out quite a while (the first book came out in 2010), but I’m really glad I chose it off my library wish list. (There are currently 125 books on there, so it’s not surprising some of them are from 10 years ago.)

I know I usually post reviews on Mondays, but seriously, who knows what day it is anyway? 🤣

So, today’s review is for The Agency series by Y.S. Lee, set in Victorian London. It’s listed as YA historical, although it feels more adult after the first book, as she jumps ahead many months in each one. Granted, I often feel that way about YA historical, since teen characters at that time were essentially treated as adults anyway. But here are the covers, followed by the description of the first book to give you a taste.

A Spy in the House by Y.S. LeeThe Body at the Tower by Y.S. LeeThe Traitor in the Tunnel by Y.S. LeeRivals in the City by Y.S. Lee

 

Orphan Mary Quinn lives on the edge. Sentenced as a thief at the age of twelve, she’s rescued from the gallows by a woman posing as a prison warden. In her new home, Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, Mary acquires a singular education, fine manners, and surprising opportunity. The school is a cover for the Agency – an elite, top-secret corps of female investigators with a reputation for results – and at seventeen, Mary’s about to join their ranks.

With London all but paralyzed by a noxious heat wave, Mary must work fast in the guise of lady’s companion to infiltrate a rich merchant’s home with hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the Thorold household is full of dangerous secrets, and people are not what they seem – least of all Mary.

Here are the five things I liked most:

1. The premise – I’m always a sucker for spy novels, and I also really love books set in Victorian London, so it was a double whammy for me. It was interesting that Mary’s situation added the intrigue of having been condemned to death for stealing.

2. The romance – Ms. Lee does an excellent job stretching this romance out over four books. The characters are 17 and 19 in the first book, and I kind of lost track by the end of the last book, but I think about two years had passed. James Easton is the perfect foil for Mary.

3. Mary’s character growth – While this description doesn’t give a hint of some of the issues Mary has to deal with, I don’t think it’s spoiling things too much to say that Mary is half-Chinese but has passed as fully English with few questions. A significant part of her character arc throughout the four books is accepting who she is.

4. The historical details – I love it when I read a historical novel and feel like I’m truly living in that time. From the mundane to the huge (construction of Big Ben), these books were so well-researched. I’ve read a lot of books set in Victorian England, and I learned new things :).

5. The mysteries – I really enjoyed the mysteries in each book and how they wrapped up. Truly fun reads!

What have you been reading lately?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MG Review: WINTERBORNE HOME FOR VENGEANCE AND VALOR by Ally Carter

I can’t believe it’s already March and I haven’t posted a single review this year! But it has been a very busy year. If you saw my other post with the mention of my best friend, she has moved to a rehab hospital, and there are further updates on the GoFundMe page started by her parents. She still has a long road ahead but is improving!

I didn’t quite get this review together in time to submit it for MMGM, but I still wanted to post it today. It’s no secret I love Ally Carter’s books, so when I discovered she was writing a middle grade book, I was super excited my kids would finally be able to read one of them. I took my son, who just turned 12, to her signing here in St. Louis on March 1. It was the first tour stop for WINTERBORNE HOME FOR VENGEANCE AND VALOR. My son was totally in this picture, but he doesn’t like having his picture posted, so I cropped him out, and he was the one holding the book :). But on to the review!

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally CarterApril didn’t mean to start the fire. She wasn’t the one who broke the vase. April didn’t ask to go live in a big, creepy mansion with a bunch of orphans who just don’t understand that April isn’t like them. After all, April’s mother is coming back for her someday very soon.

All April has to do is find the clues her mother left inside the massive mansion. But Winterborne House is hiding more than one secret, so April and her friends are going to have to work together to unravel the riddle of a missing heir, a creepy legend, and a mysterious key before the only home they’ve ever known is lost to them forever.

And here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – This book is described as Annie meets Batman, and it’s an absolutely perfect description. I was hooked on that alone.

2. The pacing – Here’s how quick a read this book is: We bought it on March 1, and both my son and I have finished it already. When we met Ally, she particularly asked if I’d let her know how he liked it (guessing she doesn’t have a lot of 12-year-old boy readers), and he loved it. As soon as he was finished, he handed it to me and asked me to read so we could talk about it after. We’re both now anxious for the next one :).

3. Gabriel Winterborne – So, I haven’t been on Twitter a lot the last few months, but some of the other Ally Carter fans in the audience had, and I guess Ally had already prepped them with her love for Gabriel. Honestly, my son was a bit uncomfortable with that part of the book discussion ;). Basically, Gabriel has been presumed dead for 10 years and is hiding out for reasons you discover during the course of the story. He’s broody and tough but also cares a lot more than he wants the kids to know. I totally got his appeal :).

4. The kids – I loved this group of kids who became April’s family as she got to know them. From Sadie the inventor to Tim the protector and Colin the grifter, they were all great additions to the team and her family. Oh, and we can’t forget sweet Violet the artist.

5. The mystery – Quite a bit was wrapped up in this book, but there was a mystery from the very beginning that never was solved, and I loved how the very end of the book left more than one point open. I’m definitely ready to read more!

I love that Ally Carter has branched into middle grade. I’m sure this is going to be passed on to my daughter as well before long. Looking forward to the next one!

Instagram, Writing, Young Adult, Your Life Has Been Delayed

Author Life Month on Instagram

Hi, friends!

Sorry I’ve been absent here on the blog. My best friend’s been in the hospital since early December, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with her. If you would like to read her story, her family is sharing it on this GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/chrissy-stricker.

But I did want to check in here as well since all of January passed without me posting anything at all. This February, I’m participating in #AuthorLifeMonth on Instagram, which is a great way to meet other authors and learn their stories. I’m going to include my first week of posts here, but I hope you’ll come check me out there as well!

Day 1: Me!

This is the shot I’m planning to use as my author photo, which I sort of snuck out there as my profile photo a while ago. My husband took it, and I just really love it. Looks like future days will have me talk more about what I write, but in general it’s YA with a twist of something more.


Day 2: My books!

My debut novel, YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED, is forthcoming from @bloomsburypublishing in winter 2021, and I couldn’t be more excited! It’s about 17-year-old Jenny Waters, who gets on a plane in 1995 in New York and lands in St. Louis in 2020. Everyone on the plane has stayed the same age, but everyone on the ground has aged 25 years. I love this book so much and can’t wait to share it with all of you!


Day 3: Writing Fuel!

Basically… caffeine. When I was younger and didn’t care about calories, I drank multiple cans of soda a day. I now limit myself to one can per day, which makes me sad because I really love my soda. However, I also love tea—especially Pure Leaf—and coffee. A couple of years ago my husband bought me a Keurig, and I didn’t think I’d be that into it, but it’s so perfect for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Pictured are a few of my favorite flavors 😀.


Day 4: My Biggest Fan

In all honesty? My kids! But since I don’t post photos of them here (although my 9yo would love it if I would!) and my book isn’t out in the world yet to accrue reader fans, I’ll go with the fourth graders I presented to last week. They made me the nicest “compli-mats” full of notes about how they’re excited to read my book when it comes out. I mean, they’re just a tad below my target age, but they’ll be awfully close by the time the book hits shelves 😉.


Day 5: A Shelfie.

I really love my bookshelves. When we moved into this house, the basement had basically been party central. Like, the walls looked like an Applebees. Our painter said he’d never had to fill so many holes 🤣. And man, did it stink. So we had to overhaul it, and as part of that, we had these beautiful bookshelves built. I very quickly filled them up, and I’ve been trying to weed out some of my old books to allow room for my continuing book-buying habits. There’s still a little space…


Day 6: Inspiration.

I sort of hate the question, “What inspired you to write this book?” YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED is the seventh book I’ve written, and most of the time I can pinpoint what triggered the idea, but in this case, I don’t remember. I just know that one day I had this question:

  • What if a girl got on a plane and landed many years later?

And when it comes down to it, “What if…” is what really inspires anything I write. Sometimes it’s a movie I watch and I think, “That’s cool, but what if…” Or maybe I’m walking around at an event and see an interaction and think “What if…” I’ve written numerous stories based on questions that start right there. Some of my favorites have been:

  • What if twins were separated at birth by alien abduction?
  • What if a magical violin pulled you into the story of the music you were playing?
  • What if a girl is the star of the biggest reality show on the planet—and she doesn’t know?
  • What if a girl discovered her babysitter dead right after she texted her a death threat?

I am never short of “What if” questions.


Day 7: Swag/Stationary

As a pre-published author, I don’t have any swag yet, and I’ve never invested in fancy stationary. However, thanks to my kids’ schools requiring us to buy new notebooks every year that never get filled up, I have an endless supply of half to three-quarter empty spiral notebooks. So I use those for my to-do lists, writing notes to people, brainstorming, and anything else I want to keep note of at my desk.

When I do have swag, bookmarks are high on my list as many author friends have told me they’re the most beneficial. I’m not sure what else. I’d love ideas! If you’re a reader, what swag do you most love getting? If you’re a writer, what swag have you had the best feedback on?


Come see my entries for the rest of the month at https://www.instagram.com/michelleimason/!

Middle Grade, PitchWars, Reading, Review, Young Adult

My Favorite Reads of 2019

My reading was back up this year. I finished 101 books, with a good mix of young adult, middle grade, and adult. I’ll include the breakdown at the bottom of the post. But on to the fun part–my ten favorite reads of 2019! They’re listed in alphabetical order by author.

In Some Other Life by Jessica BrodyIN SOME OTHER LIFE by Jessica Brody – This book is from a couple of years ago, but I just got to it in 2019. I love books that consider the question of what your life would be like if you’d made a different choice. This particular story follows Kennedy as she discovers what her life would have been like if she’d gone to a prestigious private school instead of staying at the public school. That decision has ramifications for many people in her life, and I loved seeing it play out.


Finale by Stephanie GarberFINALE by Stephanie Garber – The first book in this series, CARAVAL, was one of my favorite reads of 2017, and the finale (😉) makes it on the list for 2019. I was fortunate enough to meet Stephanie Garber when she came through town, and since I was the last person in the signing line, I started reading. The book kept me completely gripped and up late reading, not completely sure how it would all turn out. It’s the best kind of anticipation.


Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay KristoffILLUMINAE by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – I don’t know why I hadn’t read this book before. It’s one of those that I’d seen everyone talk about and I just hadn’t gotten to. Now that I have, I totally get why it’s so popular. I read this book in less than 24 hours. I loved the unique dossier format. I loved the characters. I loved how the stakes just kept getting higher and twisting in new directions. I haven’t had a chance to get to the other two books in the series yet due to general life craziness, but they are very high on my list for 2020!!


Midsummer's Mayhem by Rajani LaRoccaMIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM by Rajani LaRocca – 2019 has been an exciting year for my fellow 2017 PitchWars mentees. It’s been fun to watch books that were in the contest out in the world. With its premise of baking meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM was one of the PitchWars books I was most looking forward to, and Rajani totally delivered. I loved how well the plot of the Shakespeare play was incorporated into the modern world and seamlessly explained for a middle grade audience. And the baking throughout the story just made my mouth water. I can’t wait for Rajani’s next book!


Crown of Coral and Pearl by Mara RutherfordCROWN OF CORAL AND PEARL by Mara Rutherford – I’d been anxious to read this book since I first read the description. Nor and her identical twin sister, Zadie, live on the floating village of Varenia. Every generation, the most beautiful girl is chosen to go marry the crown prince of Ilara and move to land. Zadie is chosen, but when she’s injured, Nor goes in her place. I do love a good twin story! This book was completely engrossing from the first page, and the stakes kept changing and getting higher. I really loved how it was almost like two stories—the first half a story of sisters and the second full of intrigue on land with danger and romance. Nor is a strong female character I was rooting for throughout the story, and while the love story was great too, it didn’t take over from her main goal, which is protecting her home. I can’t wait to see what happens in the sequel!


Scars Like Wings by Erin StewartSCARS LIKE WINGS by Erin Stewart – So I’m that reader who will generally shy away from a book if I think it will make me cry, and I was afraid that would be the case with SCARS LIKE WINGS, but it surprised me in the best possible way. It’s about burn survivor Ava, who lost her parents and was severely burned in a house fire. Now she’s going back to school. The very first line set the tone for the book: “One year after the fire, my doctor removes my mask and tells me to get a life.” I could tell from that opening that there would be more than just sorrow in the story, and I’m so glad I read this book. It’s hard at times, but even so it’s one I’d read again.


Across a Broken Shore by Amy TruebloodACROSS A BROKEN SHORE by Amy Trueblood – With her second book, Amy once again delivers a well-researched historical novel with a strong young female character who stands up for herself believably within her time. The story follows Willa, whose family expects her to be a nun, but who feels called to a career in medicine. It’s set against the backdrop of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1936. I love how well Amy portrays Willa’s family and her struggle to meet family obligations while also staying true to herself. Amy is a wonderful friend to the writing community and to me personally. If you haven’t already read this book, add it for 2020!


The Multiplying Mysteries of Mount Ten by Krista Van DolzerTHE MULTIPLYING MYSTERIES OF MOUNT TEN by Krista Van Dolzer – I love how Krista captures the middle grade voice so well, and this book was extra-fun thanks to being set in the unique location of a math camp. I was privileged to read an early copy, and she let me work out the logic problem included ahead of time. Yes, I was a total math geek in school and you might have even found me on the math team in junior high :). But definitely check out this book. I mean, if nothing else, the cover should sell you on it.


Fame, Fate and the First Kiss by Kasie WestFAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS by Kasie West – Somehow I didn’t have a Kasie West book on my list of favorites last year after her being on my list for several years in a row, but this year she’s back on there with FAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS. I loved that the frame of the book was the character making a campy zombie movie based on a book series. As usual, the dialogue and romance were top-notch, as well as the supporting cast of family and friends. I know I’m behind on one of Kasie West’s 2019 releases, so maybe that one will end up on my 2020 list.


White Rose by Kip WilsonWHITE ROSE by Kip Wilson – Kip is my longtime critique partner and I’ve already shouted about this book quite a bit this year, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it makes my list of favorite reads. From the moment Kip first told me about WHITE ROSE when we were sitting in a hotel room at NESCBWI in 2016, I was immediately gripped. The story of Sophie Scholl, a young German college student who challenged the Nazi regime during World War II as part of The White Rose, a non-violent resistance group, it’s compelling, heartbreaking, and moving. It’s beautifully told in verse, and as a result it ends up being a pretty quick read, yet you’ll want to go back and read it more slowly to absorb it all over again. Others evidently agree, as it’s been named a School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019.


So those are my ten favorite reads this year. Of the 101 books I read, here is the breakout:

Young adult: 63

Middle grade: 10

Adult: 25

Non-fiction: 3

The high number of adult books is due to me continuing to weed out books from my shelves. Found quite a few this year I won’t be keeping to make room for more YA :).

Do we have any of the same favorites this year? Let me know in the comments!