Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: NIGHTFALL by Shannon Messenger

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review on the blog. My life has been a little consumed by Pitch Wars, and I now have my manuscript out in agents’ hands, awaiting their verdicts. But I did pre-order the Barnes & Noble special edition of Shannon Messenger’s NIGHTFALL, the latest installment in her Keeper of the Lost Cities series, so I thought that would be the perfect book to jump back in with a review.

If you haven’t read the first five books in this series, you should stop reading now! Even the description for this book includes spoilers for the previous books, as will my review.

Okay, if you’re still here, on to the description.

Nightfall by Shannon MessengerSophie Foster is struggling. Grieving. Scrambling. But she knows one thing: she will not be defeated.

The Neverseen have had their victories—but the battle is far from over. It’s time to change tactics. Make sacrifices. Reexamine everything. Maybe even time for Sophie to trust her enemies.

All paths lead to Nightfall—an ominous door to an even more ominous place—and Sophie and her friends strike a dangerous bargain to get there. But nothing can prepare them for what they discover. The problems they’re facing stretch deep into their history. And with time running out, and mistakes catching up with them, Sophie and her allies must join forces in ways they never have before.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The crushes – Okay, so I am way too involved in the love lives of these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. In fact, my nine-year-old and I got into an argument about which team we were on. (Yes, there are teams.) But that being said, I love how well Shannon Messenger portrays the confusing emotions Sophie feels toward the boys and how she sorts through them. It’s so authentic and how I remember feeling at that age. And if you’re wondering, yes, even though the characters have gotten older, the romance part still sits firmly in middle grade.

2. The twists – NIGHTFALL is the sixth book in this series and so you’d think Ms. Messenger wouldn’t be able to keep surprising readers, but she continues to come up with new twists in every installment. I was pleased with the new turns in this latest book, and I can’t wait to see what she does in book seven and (maybe?) eight.

3. The special bonus – I ordered the Barnes & Noble special edition in order to get the bonus section from Keefe’s point of view, and it was so worth it! Granted, Keefe is basically my favorite character aside from Sophie, but I loved how it showed a different side of him.

4. Amy – I loved that Sophie’s human sister was a part of this book and how Sophie’s relationship with her added another layer to her character. It was fun seeing the elvin world through her eyes.

5. Ro – The ogre princess is an awesome addition to the cast of characters. She’s hilarious and also brings a new dimension of understanding to a species the elves have only seen a certain way up to now. Love her!

Every year I’m dying for the next book, and then as soon as I finish it I wish I could somehow force myself to wait longer so I wouldn’t be anxious for the next one as soon as I finish. Because, of course, this book ended with another cliffhanger. Although it wasn’t as bad as the end of NEVERSEEN. I might never forgive Shannon Messenger for that one :). Okay, I do forgive her since she fixed it in LODESTAR, but still. I have a total love-hate relationship with cliffhangers.

What about you? Have you read NIGHTFALL yet? What did you think?

Middle Grade, Reading, Review, Young Adult

WRITTEN IN THE STARS and A Few Other Books You Should Read

I haven’t been in the right state of mind to do a full review the past few weeks, but I have been reading some excellent books, so I decided to do a roundup. I usually try to do all young adult or middle grade at once, but I don’t feel like waiting until I have three or four of one or the other :).

First up is WRITTEN IN THE STARS by Aisha Saeed. For some reason, my Kindle didn’t pull up the description when I started reading, and it had been a while since I added it to my reading wish list, so I didn’t remember what it was about. When the suspense part of the story kicked in, it really took me by surprise, and then I couldn’t put this book down. The pacing is fantastic, and I felt so strongly for Naila. It’s a powerful read, and I encourage you to pick up this book now!

Written in the Stars by Aisha SaeedNaila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.


The next two books are both by authors I heard speak at the NESCBWI Conference in 2016 and have had on my to-read list for quite a while. Padma Venkatraman gave a seminar on voice, and one of my critique partners specifically recommended I read her verse novel, A TIME TO DANCE. I picked it up at this year’s Scholastic Warehouse Sale, and I’m so glad I did! I tend to shy away from books I fear will be sad, but this book surprised me. Although Veda faces many challenges that could defeat her, she finds the strength to persevere.

A Time to Dance by Padma VenkatramanVeda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.


I attended a session with Jess Keating on killer openings, and man does she deliver in HOW TO OUTRUN A CROCODILE WHEN YOUR SHOES ARE UNTIED. I was laughing throughout the book, and even when I didn’t identify with the way Ana felt, her character was so well-drawn that I got it. Also, I loved the animal facts at the beginning of the chapters. There are two more books in this series, and I will definitely be picking them up.

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied by Jess KeatingAna didn’t ask to be named after an anaconda. She didn’t ask for zoologist parents who look like safari guides. And she definitely didn’t ask for a twin brother whose life goal seems to be terrorizing her with his pet reptiles. Now, to make matters worse, her parents have decided to move the whole family INTO the zoo! All of which gives the Sneerers (the clan of carnivorous female predators in her class) more ammunition to make her life miserable-and squash any hope of class tennis stud, Zack, falling in love with her. Ana tries to channel her inner chameleon and fade into the background, but things are changing too quickly for her to keep up.


I’ve mentioned before how much I love the Sammy Keyes series by Wendelin Van Draanen, but it’s worth bringing up again. There are eighteen books in this series, so I’ve been stretching them out. I just read book four, SAMMY KEYES AND THE RUNAWAY ELF, and it added a new depth to Sammy’s character as she saw someone she’d previously resented in a new light. I don’t want to give anything away, but I really loved how Sammy grew in this installment.

Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf by Wendelin Van DraanenChaos at the Christmas parade leaves Sammy Keyes on the hook for a wealthy woman’s dognapped Pomeranian, and a young girl mysteriously vanishes. The blackmailer and the dog owner are definitely naughty, and Heather is back with a vengeance and is certainly not nice. But it’s the missing girl and Sammy’s cranky neighbor who help Sammy put the pieces together.


So there’s a bit of what I’ve been reading. What about you? Anything to recommend?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: WILL IN SCARLET by Matthew Cody

Earlier this year our school librarian was thinning out the shelves to make room for new books, and I quickly scooped up a book by a familiar author. I’d read two books by Matthew Cody before–POWERLESS and THE DEAD GENTLEMAN–and I’d been meaning to read WILL IN SCARLET. I mean, who doesn’t love a Robin Hood story? Anyway, it completely lived up to my expectations, and I’ll be passing it along to my son, too. Here’s the cover and description.

Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

Will Scarlet is on the run.

Once the sheltered son of nobility, Will has become an exile. While his father, Lord Shackley, has been on the Crusades with King Richard, a treacherous plot to unseat Richard has swept across England, and Shackley House has fallen.

Will flees the only home he’s ever known into neighboring Sherwood Forest, where he joins the elusive gang of bandits known as the Merry Men. Among them are Gilbert, their cruel leader; a giant named John Little; a drunkard named Rob; and Much, an orphan girl disguised as a bandit boy.

This is the story of how a band of misfit outlaws become heroes of legend – thanks to one brave 13-year-old boy.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The history – I love how the setting comes to life in the story through both Will and Much’s points of view. The reader gets a clear sense of what it was like to live in the twelfth century, and I especially appreciated how Will goes from his privileged life of nobility to seeing the plight of the serfs and wanting to do something about it.

2. Will himself – I really enjoyed Will as a character. He felt very true to me as a thirteen-year-old trying to be a man–particularly in a time when you had to be a man much sooner–and yet still with so many of the sensibilities of a boy. I loved his sense of justice and how that played out in multiple plot lines.

3. Much – Much, the other POV character, was also fantastic. I mean, I’ve mentioned before that I love when girls disguise themselves as boys, right? But this story wasn’t a romance; it was Much finding a way to keep herself alive. I loved her spunk and her fierce determination to prove herself.

4. The action – This story is full of action–hunting wolves, sword fights, sneaking into castles–everything you’d expect from a tale involving Robin Hood. Only Will is the one initiating most of the action rather than the legend. The action isn’t without cost, but it’s exciting!

5. The pacing – As soon as I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. The pacing is fantastic, with Will and Much jumping from one adventure to another. A definite page-turner!

I highly recommend WILL IN SCARLET for anyone who loves a good adventure story. If you’ve read it, let’s discuss in the comments!

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: DEAR POPPY by Ronni Arno

With the NESCBWI Conference having happened over the weekend, it seems appropriate for me to review a book by an author I met at last year’s conference. No, I didn’t go again–it’s a bit of a trek for me–but I’m pleased to have found many authors last year whose books I will be picking up as they come out. Ronni Arno is one of those. I thoroughly enjoyed RUBY REINVENTED, and her second book, DEAR POPPY, is equally delightful.

Dear Poppy by Ronni ArnoWhen twelve-year-old Poppy moves to the country, she discovers a secret stash of letters that give her a unique connection to her late mother in this M!X novel about friendship, first crushes, and family drama.

City girl Poppy has always wanted a best friend, but never felt enough of a connection with anyone to gain BFF status. Even without a BFF, Poppy is horrified when her father decides to move her and her older brother out to the family farm. Away from her beloved city and away from memories of her late mom—a fresh start for everyone.

And after a weird first week at her new school, Poppy is convinced she is destined for a boring year—until she finds a stack of letters from 1985 hidden in the barn of the old farmhouse that they move into. Even better? Those letters are addressed to Poppy…from her mom. Poppy doesn’t know what supernatural event brought these letters to her, but she doesn’t care. All she knows is that she finally has the connection she yearns for. Plus, her mom seems to understand everything that Poppy is going through: not quite fitting in, the desire to put down roots, and the heartbreak of losing a loved one. Has Poppy discovered the friend—and acceptance—she’s always wanted?

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The opening – The contrast of the first two sentences immediately drew me in, so I’m going to share them here. I think they not only show you a lot about both Poppy and her brother, but they also demonstrate something about the nature of grief, which is a theme in the book.

My brother is smiling so hard I think his cheeks are pinned to his ears. This would be fine, of course, if we weren’t at my grandad’s funeral.

2. Poppy’s dad – I love how Poppy’s relationship with her dad changes throughout the book, as he transforms from Old Dad to New Dad (also love that she makes that distinction). It’s a tough lesson that sometimes parents take a long time to come out of their grief, but it’s a true one.

3. The letters – The letters from Poppy’s mom were so perfectly timed to what was happening in Poppy’s life and a perfect example of how middle school is the same whether it’s 1985 or 2016. (Wow, this sounds a lot like my last review for ONCE UPON A KISS, except swapping out high school for middle school.)

4. Britt and Brody – I love how there is so much depth to these two characters. You see the surface of the cute popular boy who doesn’t like confrontation and the rebel outcast who’s all about trouble, but when they’re at home the twins have a lot of the same interests–including Poppy and gardening.

5. The resolution – Poppy has a very clear idea of why she’s in the country and how everything should turn out. As a reader, I had a different idea of where the story was headed. I won’t tell you who was right, just that the ending was very satisfying :).

I will definitely be picking up Ronni Arno’s next book. Actually, the next one on her site is an anthology featuring another favorite author of mine, Jen Malone. Looking forward to BEST. NIGHT. EVER!

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS by Lisa Schroeder

I love anything to do with Paris, so I was predestined to love this book. I even have a picture that looks very similar to this cover. Wow, I’m really young in this picture. It’s from 2007, before kids, although just barely as I realized I was pregnant while we were there. Anyway, one of the lovely side effects of reading MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS by Lisa Schroeder is that it led me to pull out my photo album and relive the trip with my six-year-old, who has now decided that she must go to Paris like the main character in the book. As much as I would love to take her, that’s a trip you should be a little older to appreciate. But I’m sure you’re ready to hear about the actual book, so here’s the cover and description.

My Secret Guide to Paris by Lisa SchroederNora loves everything about Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to chocolat chaud. Of course, she’s never actually been there — she’s only visited through her Grandma Sylvia’s stories. And just when they’ve finally planned a trip together, Grandma Sylvia is suddenly gone, taking Nora’s dreams with her.

Nora is crushed. She misses her grandmother terribly, but she still wants to see the city they both loved. So when Nora finds letters and a Paris treasure map among her Grandma Sylvia’s things, she dares to dream again…


She’s not sure what her grandma wants her to find, but Nora knows there are wonderful surprises waiting for her in Paris. And maybe, amongst the croissants and macarons, she’ll even find a way to heal her broken heart.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. Nora’s grief – I realize it’s odd to say Nora’s grief is something I loved about the story, but the reason I list it here is that I appreciated how well-drawn her grief was in the story. Grief is such a complicated emotion, and it hits everyone differently. You can be crying one minute and the next wanting to enjoy something you used to do with the person you lost. It’s handled well here.

2. The treasure map – I loved the places Nora’s Grandma Sylvia sent her around Paris, and when I do return someday, I’ll have to re-read this book so I can check out the ones I didn’t know about. It’s fun to see Nora experiencing Paris with her grandma even though she can’t be there with her.

3. Phoebe – Isn’t it great when two people meet and they just click? Even better when it’s a friendship. I loved how Phoebe encouraged Nora to be strong and carry through on what she already wanted to do. And I’m excited to see Phoebe has her own story :).

4. The mother-daughter bond – I really enjoyed watching how Nora’s relationship with her mother changed during the story, but also how her perception of her mother’s relationship with her grandmother changed. There was some growing up Nora had to do during the course of the story, but twelve’s old enough for that.

5. The buttons – I loved the jar of buttons Nora’s grandmother had given her. She carried one with her every day, and it always seemed to connect to something that happened. In the end, the buttons had a deeper meaning for Nora, but I won’t give that away.

Basically, I’m dying to return to Paris now, and I’m years away from it, but at least this book gave me a taste. I guess I’ll go read Phoebe’s story and relive the London portion of that same trip :).

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Movies, Reading, Review

MMGM: THE SWAP by Megan Shull

Last fall I watched a Disney TV movie called “The Swap” and thought, Wow, I wish I could read that as a book. Turns out it was based on a book! (Also, have I mentioned before how it’s my dream to have one of my books made into a Disney TV movie? Because, honestly, that’s the type of book I write.) Anyway, when I spotted Megan Shull’s THE SWAP at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, I immediately threw it in my shopping cart. (Yes, a literal shopping cart.) Interestingly, the movie was aged up from middle school to high school, but I can understand why. The story is completely appropriate for middle grade readers, BUT it is not a book I’d recommend to younger kids reading up due to some of the gender-swapping content. For example, my six and eight-year-old kids watched the movie and thought it was hilarious, but my son would be freaked out reading about the boy in the girl’s body learning about a girl getting her period for the first time.

Yeah. Not ready for that talk. Moving on. Here’s the description for the book.

The Swap by Megan Shull

ELLIE spent the summer before seventh grade getting dropped by her best friend since forever. JACK spent it training in “The Cage” with his tough-as-nails brothers and hard-to-please dad. By the time middle school starts, they’re both ready for a change. And just as Jack’s thinking girls have it so easy, Ellie’s wishing she could be anyone but herself.

Then, BAM! They swap lives – and bodies!

Now Jack’s fending off mean girls at sleepover parties, while Ellie’s reigning as The Prince of Thatcher Middle School.

As their crazy weekend races on – and their feeling for each other grow – Ellie and Jack begin to wonder if maybe the best way to learn how to be yourself is to spend a little time being somebody else.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The premise – I already had a thousand scenarios of how this premise would play out in a book after I watched the movie, and it was different in the book. References to puberty aside–and really, how could that be avoided?–it’s all handled very tastefully and hilariously.

2. The voices – I have to be honest here. Half the time, I had no idea what Jack’s brothers were saying. They have their own language, but I applaud Ms. Shull. I think she actually exaggerated it for the purpose of showing how different the two characters are, but it works.

3. The character arcs – It’s hinted at in the description, so I’m not giving anything away by saying that Ellie and Jack discover themselves by being someone else. I love how they learn more about who they are inside while they’re taking a break from being themselves on the outside. It’s rare to get a glimpse of how others see you, but that’s what the magic of this story allows.

4. Ellie & Jack’s relationship – Not only do they get to know themselves, but they also get to know each other, since they’re living each others’ lives for a weekend. It was fun to watch how close they become, and how they can use that knowledge to help each other.

5. The humor – I tried to find a good example to post, but they’re all too long. Mostly the humor is situational and related to Ellie or Jack being completely confused about what’s going on in the other’s life and having to wing it. I was laughing out loud through much of the book.

I highly recommend this one, but as I said, if you have a younger MG reader, be aware there is talk of bodily functions related to puberty–for both boys and girls–in case you haven’t had those discussions yet.

Middle Grade, Reading, Review, Young Adult

My Favorite Reads of 2016

I know it’s only Dec. 22, but I’m flying away to California (!!!) on Saturday to spend Christmas with family, so I’m knocking it out early. The last time I posted this list early, I ended up binge-reading a series the final week of the year that totally would have edged out something on my list, but oh well. That’s the way it goes. If I read something completely amazing within the next nine days, I’ll just write a special review for it in January.

As in previous years, these aren’t necessarily books published in 2016, just books I read in 2016. I’ve read 110 books so far, but I will have a lot of reading time flying across the country TO THE WARMTH. Yes, I’m excited to leave cold Missouri! (Although the forecast says it will be warmer here on Christmas day than in San Diego. I think it must be wrong.)

Middle Grade

My middle grade count remained lower this year, but there were some real standouts. Also, there were several books I was able to share with my eight-year-old son. I expect I’ll return to reading more middle grade as he demands that I read along with him so we can discuss :).

5. COUNTING THYME by Melanie Conklin – I usually tend toward adventure and humor with my middle grade, but I loved this story about a family who moves to New York for the youngest boy’s treatment. It has so much heart, and the truths about friendship and family are so relevant for MG readers.

4. THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner – So, I actually have two pretty serious MG books on this list, because THE SEVENTH WISH deals with addiction. It’s handled so well, and as someone who’s had to explain addiction to my children, I appreciate having stories like this out there.

3. STORY THIEVES: THE STOLEN CHAPTERS by James Riley – I am a huge James Riley fan. His HALF UPON A TIME fairy tale series is genius, and the STORY THIEVES series is fantastic, too. This book is the second in the series, and it’s amazingly inventive in its storytelling style, in addition to being hilarious as usual. My son helped me out on this review :).

2. THE SLEEPOVER by Jen Malone – My kids begged me to read this book out loud to them after I brought it home from the NESCBWI Conference, and we were all laughing out loud throughout the book. My kids are already asking if there will be a sequel. I cringe at the thought of what else Jen Malone could do to those poor girls!

1. LODESTAR by Shannon Messenger – It’s probably no surprise that my favorite middle grade book of the year was the latest installment of Shannon Messenger’s KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES series. I wait impatiently for these books to come out every fall, and she delivers every time. I can’t even believe there are still two more books to come. I didn’t write a review for this one because I was immersed in revision when I read it, but it BLEW MY MIND!!!!

Young Adult

It’s always super-hard for me to choose my top five young adult reads of the year because it’s what I read the most of, but here are the five that I can’t get out of my head.

5. The Selection series by Kiera Cass – I gave this an honorable mention last year because I started reading it the last week of 2015, but since I read three of the five books (if you count the spinoff books) plus all of the novellas in 2016, I’m going to count it for this year. Because I really do love this series and feel the need to mention it again :). I devoured the original series within a week and then waited to read THE HEIR until THE CROWN came out (so glad I did that!). This reminds me that I should check out Ms. Cass’s other available book, THE SIREN.

4. IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU by Stephanie Kate Strohm – Yes, I just reviewed this book, but the reason it makes my list is because it pulled me out of a long reading slump where I liked the books I was reading but wasn’t in love with them. It’s clever, funny, and has great romantic tension. What’s not to love?

3. UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee – It took me a while to get to this book–I think because of the western setting–but once I started reading I was kicking myself for the hesitation. I love any book with girls disguising themselves as boys, but what I loved most about this story was the friendship. And the romance didn’t hurt either :). Now I’m wondering why I haven’t read Ms. Lee’s latest yet. Getting on that now …

2. P.S. I LIKE YOU by Kasie West – Since discovering Kasie West last year, I’ve devoured all of her books. I eagerly awaited the release of P.S. I LIKE YOU, and it delivered above and beyond what I expected. I mean, it’s a YA version of You’ve Got Mail. How could sworn enemies falling in love via letters not deliver?

1. MY LADY JANE by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – I had no idea what to expect going into this book, but it was the most delightful thing I read this year. Magic, romance, humor–it has it all, with complete irreverence for the real history, and yet it had me looking up the history, so I guess that means it’s doing history a service? I’m not really sure, but I want more books like this one!

We’ll see how many books I get through before the end of 2016. I’ve already loaded up my Kindle with some reads for the plane. Notably, my favorite YA read the past few years has always been a book from Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series. I’m reading her new standalone, HEARTLESS, right now, so we’ll see how it stacks up!

What were your favorites this year? Do we share any of the same? Let’s discuss!