Middle Grade Review, Reviews, Young Adult Review

OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS and A Few Other Books You Should Read

I have quite a mix of books in today’s review roundup–YA time travel, adult dual timeline, contemporary middle grade, YA historical fiction, and YA contemporary. So that should offer a little bit of something for everyone!


The Opposite of Always by Jason ReynoldsAs soon as I finished OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS by Justin A. Reynolds, I knew it would be one of my favorite reads of the year (you can hold me to that in December). I mean, it’s a YA involving time travel, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone 😉.

But in case you aren’t familiar, OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS is the story of Jack and Kate, who meet at a party and instantly bond. Over the next four months, Jack falls for Kate, but she dies, and he’s zapped back to the moment he met her. He’s set on a Groundhog Day-type loop—only four months long!—trying to figure out how to save her. In addition, he’s navigating his relationships with his two best friends, Francisco (Franny) and Jillian, and messing things up with both them and his parents at different points.

First off, I love the question this premise poses: If you could do things over, how would you change your actions? But then, what ripple effects do your actions have on others? How many times does it take for you to get things right so that everything turns out the way it needs to? Justin A. Reynolds handles this all so brilliantly. I loved every single character. None of them were perfect—except maybe Jack’s parents. I do love it when characters have awesome parents. Jack makes a lot of mistakes and has a lot of growing to do. It just makes you think.


I posted last week that I love books with dual timelines, and I just finished a good one that happens to be—gasp!—an adult book. THAT SUMMER by Lauren Willig was actually my reward from the summer reading club through the St. Louis County Library last year, and I just now got to it because, well, adult books just aren’t my first choice anymore. But this one was fantastic.

The story alternates between 2009 and 1849. In 2009, Julia has just inherited a house outside London from a great-aunt she never knew. When she goes to start cleaning it out, she discovers a painting hidden in the false back of a wardrobe, and the story reverts to 1849 and Imogen, trapped in a loveless marriage but about to meet an intriguing painter.

The story skillfully switches between Julia trying to solve the mystery of the painting and following the actual story of Imogen. Quite often when I’m reading adult books these days they just seem so LONG, but this one flew by. The pacing between the two plots was fantastic, and both Julia and Imogen had compelling stories. I was rooting for both of them, hoping they’d get a happy ending. I won’t spoil it, though 😉.


From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae MarksI don’t read as much middle grade these days (only 10 out of 109 books in 2019), so when I do it’s usually something that has really caught my attention. I’d seen several people talking about FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks, then I read the description and was immediately intrigued. I also knew my daughter would love it; throughout the book she kept stopping to tell me what she thought would happen next. I do enjoy when we read a book together! On to the description…

On her 12th birthday, Zoe receives a letter from her father, Marcus, who’s in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. She decides to write back, determined to uncover the truth, even though she has to hide the investigation from her mom and stepdad. They think she’s worried about her bakery internship and proving she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge. Will she discover Marcus is lying?

I loved the letters between Zoe and Marcus, and I really liked Marcus as a character. From the description, I expected it to be Marcus trying to convince Zoe of his innocence, but it really was more that he just stated it and accepted where he was, while she was driven to prove it. The supporting cast of characters was fantastic, especially Zoe’s grandma and estranged friend Trevor. Both relationships are so well-drawn, as are her parents. It’s a story about family and friendship and not giving up on the search for justice, even when it seems like it’s too late. I encourage everyone to read this and then to give it to a young reader.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the baking—because that part is awesome too. 🧁


Hood by Jenny Elder MokeDo you have a favorite legendary character? I’ve always loved the tale of Robin Hood, starting with the Disney movie when I was a child. “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” is another favorite. Fun fact: I once sang “Everything I Do I Do It For You” at a wedding. Yes, I can totally claim the title of wedding singer 😉.

But back to the reason for this review, which is the recently released HOOD by Jenny Elder Moke. This latest Robin Hood retelling follows Isabelle of Kirklees, hidden inside a convent with her mother, Marien, since birth. At sixteen, Isabelle is arrested by royal soldiers for defending innocent villagers, and her mother helps her escape and sends her to find her father, Robin Hood.

The story is full of action, and I love how Isabelle is both a strong character but also experiences fear and makes missteps throughout the story. The surrounding cast of characters is also fantastic, focusing mainly on the younger members of the Merry Men but of course with appearances from those we’d expect from the traditional tale. I’m really hoping there will be more stories to come from the world of this re-imagining!


Jackpot by Nic StoneAfter reading DEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone, which is quite a serious book, I wanted to try one of her other books. I was interested in the central question of JACKPOT: What would you do if you won the lottery?

After Rico, the main character, sells the jackpot-winning ticket, she enlists the help of wildly popular and rich classmate Zan to help her track down the ticket holder, who hasn’t claimed the prize.

JACKPOT is a quest to find the ticket holder, and there are a lot of fun elements, but it also takes a hard look at class and money, as well as frank discussions about race. So the book still ended up being more serious than I expected, but in a good way. I loved Rico’s younger brother, Jax, and Rico’s growing friendships during the book. There was also a really unique element with interlude chapters from inanimate objects—totally makes sense when you read it :). I stayed up until midnight to finish JACKPOT because I had to find out how it ended! Not going to give it away.


So that’s what I’ve been reading lately. How about you? Anything interesting I should check out?

Middle Grade Review, Reading, Reviews, Young Adult Review

TRULY MADLY ROYALLY and a Few Other Books You Should Read

It’s time for another roundup of mini-reviews! In light of recent events, I took a hard look at my reading habits and realized that while I certainly wasn’t reading all white authors, I wasn’t making a concerted effort to read and support Black authors–or to bring those books to my kids’ attention. So as a family, we are working to expand our reading lists, and today’s roundup reflects some of the amazing new authors I’ve discovered, along with a couple of books I already had on my TBR list.


How often do you start reading a book and immediately know it’s going to be one you truly love and will read again? That’s how I felt within the first few pages of TRULY MADLY ROYALLY by Debbie Rigaud. I’d had this book on my TBR list since it first came out, and now I’m just sad I didn’t read it sooner.

It’s about Zora Emerson, who’s just enrolled in a prestigious summer program, and unexpectedly clicks with Owen Whittelsey, prince of a small European country.

Basically, I loved EVERYTHING about this book. Zora is a strong teen girl who loves her community and doesn’t let obstacles keep her from going after her goals. The chemistry between Zora and Owen is adorable; their corny jokes are the best. And then there’s a great cast of additional characters—Zora’s best friend, Skye, Zora’s family, the kids at her program, and the new friends she makes at school. As a writer, I also loved the plotting—so well done! I’ll definitely add this book to my re-read list, PLUS I discovered Debbie Rigaud has other books available, so I’m going to check those out.

Read this book because it’s awesome. Also because it showcases a Black teen being awesome.


Is there a place you love so much you’ll read pretty much any book set there?

For me, that place is Paris. I’ve only been there once, but it was a magical visit, and I can’t wait to return, so if a book is set there, I’m on it! But when I read the description for THE PAPER GIRL OF PARIS by Jordyn Taylor, I was additionally intrigued by the dual timelines. The story’s about Alice in the present, who has just inherited a mysterious apartment that has been locked for more than 70 years. Once she enters, she discovers her grandmother had a sister, and the story flashes back to Adalyn during World War II, working in the French Resistance against the Nazis.

I loved how this book followed two distinct, heart wrenching family stories—Alice struggling with her mom in the present and Adalyn heartbroken over keeping secrets from her sister (Alice’s grandmother) in the past. The tension within each timeline and even between the two was fantastic. I found myself completely stressed out over Alice’s concern about what her great-aunt was involved in. Plus, there was a really sweet love story in the present and a deeper one in the past. The resolution was very satisfying.

I highly recommend this book, which came out in May. Such a fantastic read!


I got NEW KID by Jerry Craft for my kids to read (mainly my daughter, who loves graphic novels), and they both finished it within 24 hours. Actually, my daughter grabbed it with the words “My best friend read this!” and read it in less than three hours. My son then tore through it by the next morning, so that was a good sign I should read it too.

It’s about Jordan, whose parents enroll him at a prestigious private school where he’s one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. I loved Jordan’s character—his passion for art, love for his family, and struggle to figure out how to fit his different friends and worlds together. This book tackles many different aspects of racism, outright and careless, from other students AND teachers. By seeing it from Jordan’s viewpoint, it’s clear why ALL of those are hurtful and offensive. Even while there are many characters who don’t get things right, there are also hopeful moments throughout the book.

I especially loved the chapter titles and Jordan’s journal entries. I learned so much from this book, and I will definitely be picking up the companion novel, CLASS ACT, this fall.

This book is great to read and discuss with your kids. Also funny and a book kids will re-read.


DEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone is about Justyce McAllister, a good kid, an honor student, always there to help a friend—none of which matters to the police officer who handcuffs him over a misunderstanding. Justyce begins studying the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and writing letters to him in a journal, seeking answers. One day, he’s riding in the car with his best friend with the music turned up really loud, sparking the anger of an off-duty cop in the truck beside them. Shots are fired.

I don’t want to get into what happens next because I encourage you to read the book yourself, but this book is extremely powerful and explores a number of different viewpoints and experiences. It delves into several aspects of racism, from daily encounters at Justyce’s school, to his black friend raised mainly in a white community, to the police bias. But it’s also more than just a look at race. It’s about friendship and falling in love and figuring out what you believe about the world and your place in it. It’s extremely well done and I highly recommend it.

I also recommend THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas along these same lines.


This photo shows my expression when I finished reading AURORA BURNING by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. I had stayed up until 12:15 in the morning to finish the book, and it was a total cliffhanger! But still, the book was an amazing sequel to AURORA RISING, and I can’t wait for the finale!

If you aren’t familiar, the series is about a squad of misfits trying to save the galaxy from an ancient race that assimilates entire planets in its path. The characters are all hilarious, plus there are bonus romantic story lines and tons of action. If you don’t like cliffhangers, wait until the last book comes out to read these 😉.


Now that I’ve told you about some awesome books, I wanted to share a great resource. On June 4, I tuned in to the absolutely fantastic #KidLit4BlackLives Rally on Facebook Live, hosted by The Brown Bookshelf store. If you missed it, there’s a recording on The Brown Bookshelf YouTube Channel. The Brown Bookshelf has put on additional events since, and you can check those out on their Facebook page. One of my key takeaways has been that it’s important to read books that deal with racism directly, but it’s also vital to read and promote books that show Black kids and teens living joyfully.

If you have other book recommendations for me and my family, please pass them along!

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM: EPOCA THE TREE OF ECROF by Kobe Bryant and Ivy Claire (a middle schooler review)

A couple of weeks ago, MMGM host Greg Pattridge at Always in the Middle informed me I was one of the winners of a box of 10 middle grade books for his 1,000th post giveaway. Since my son has been doing the MG reviews lately, I suggested he address the box to him, and today he’s decided to review one of those books.


EPOCA: THE TREE OF ECROF is an amazing read. It was written by Ivy Claire but was created by Kobe Bryant. I don’t exactly know the difference between written and created, but I think that Kobe Bryant came up with the idea and story while Ivy Claire wrote the book off of that idea. I would like to thank Mr. Pattridge for giving the book away; I had a lot of fun reading it. There were many things that I liked about it and I think you will too.

Set in an alternate classical world dominated by sports and a magical power called grana, EPOCA: THE TREE OF ECROF is the story of two children: the lowly born Rovi and the crown princess Pretia who uncover and battle terrible evil and discover their inner strength along the way.

EPOCA: THE TREE OF ECROF takes place at the most elite sports academy in the land, where the best child-athletes are sent to hone their skills. When Rovi and Pretia arrive, each harboring a secret about themselves, they begin to suspect that something evil is at play at the school. In the course of their first year, they must learn to master their grana in order to save the world from dark forces that are rising.

So, here are some of the things that I like about it.

  1. The pages are colorful. While this is not important to the story, it made me happy looking at unique, colorful pages instead of the regular white pages. This is what the pages look like.  ➩
  2. I liked the characters. The character building was great. They always had a motive. You felt like what they were doing was right in a way that even if it hadn’t happened to you, you understood.
  3. I like the setting. While there are a couple different places in the book, mostly it is on the island where the elite athlete academy is held. It has many strange and exciting things, yet are relatable and you can visualize exactly what they are.
  4. Everyone has this magical power to them, called grana. In a society based around sports, the more powerful grana you have, the more famous you are, the more achieved you are, the more known and loved you are. I have always liked the idea of superpowers, especially those special to you, so this was one of the most prominent points that stuck out to me during the read.
  5. I liked that it had sports. Even though some of the sports I hadn’t heard of or didn’t understand, I still appreciated what they put in there. I rarely get to read a good fiction book about sports.

I hope you enjoyed this review, and I hope that it causes you to read this amazing book. So, have a good day and happy reading!


Sounds like he needs some recommendations on books with sports. If you have some, please pass them along!

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM: THE UNWANTEDS: ISLAND OF SILENCE by Lisa McMann (a middle grader review)

As promised, my middle grader has moved on to book two in THE UNWANTEDS series this week. As of now, he says he’s going to continue reviewing the rest of the series. However, I know he already finished re-reading all of them, so we’ll see if he decides to switch to something else he loves in the coming weeks 😉. But I’ll turn it over to him now.


Hello, everyone! Just to let you know, like all sequels, THE UNWANTEDS: ISLAND OF SILENCE (Book 2) will not make sense unless you’ve read the first book (THE UNWANTEDS). So, because of this, if you read this review it will spoil some of the things in the first book. If you have not read the first book yet (I gave you a week so you should have), then you need to right now. If you’ve read all of them and are just reading this as a refresher, then you should just read them yourself, that’s the best refresher. And re-reading lets you dive deeper and read in between the lines. (We learned about that in ELA this year.) If you have read the first book this week, then good job and you are allowed to read this before you read book 2, ISLAND OF SILENCE. If you truly want to read this and you’ve read THE UNWANTEDS, then I suppose you may if you wish. Now that that’s all over and only people who have read the first book are reading this, let’s begin!

The Unwanteds: Island of SilenceThe magical barrier between the dreary land of Quill and the fantastical world of Artimé is gone. Now residents from both places are free to mingle, but suspicions are high. The artistic warriors of Artimé struggle to forgive those in Quill who condemned them to death, while the Quillians attempt to recover from the shock of Artimé’s existence, the loss of their leader, and the collapse of their safe, orderly world. 

Alex Stowe has recovered from his wounds since his death-defying role in Artimé’s victory, but his confidence is shattered. He battles self-doubt after Artimé’s beloved mage, Mr. Today, makes a stunning request, which is further complicated by the mysterious arrival of two silent orange-eyed teenagers. Meanwhile in Quill, Aaron is devastated by his fall from grace. Spurred by rage, Aaron devises a masterful plan of revenge that will return him to power… If no one gets in his way.

So, it sounds interesting, doesn’t it? So now that Artimé has defeated Quill, both sides of the island are mostly at peace and are visiting each other. But, multiple people, including the Stowe twins, are having reservations about what happened. Aaron is now trying to re-take his position and climb higher, to lead Quill. And, he won’t let anything get in his way… Alex is completely unsure of himself. He feels like almost dying has highlighted all his vulnerabilities and therefore he is not good at magic at all and is the worst person at magic ever. Mr. Today wants to teach Alex more about magic because he can see that Alex is great at magic, but Alex won’t let him. Mr. Today devised a plan. To get Alex to learn more magic, he asks him to learn the magic to support Artimé while he goes on a vacation. But along the way things start to go horribly wrong and Artimé starts to get desperate…

THE UNWANTEDS: ISLAND OF SILENCE is an amazing book that I know you will enjoy. I hope you love it just as much as I have. Goodbye and happy reading!


I hope he does continue these reviews because book 2 was where I stopped reading this series, for whatever reason. However, he is going to camp the next few weeks–with temperature checks and masks and sanitizing and social distancing!–so we’ll see how he keeps up with reviewing. He’ll still be reading for sure 😀.

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM: THE UNWANTEDS by Lisa McMann (a middle schooler review)

While my son has read the entire Unwanteds series by Lisa McMann–including the spin-off books–several times, today he decided to focus on the first book for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.


The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann was a great story. It’s so good that I’ve read this series four times. There are seven books in the Unwanteds series. Today I’m going to review the first one. Despite being rather long, they are easy books to get into.

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMannEvery year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their deaths.

Thirteen-year-old Alex tries his hardest to be stoic when his fate is announced as Unwanted, even while leaving behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted. Upon arrival at the destination where he expected to be eliminated, however, Alex discovers a stunning secret–behind the mirage of the “death farm” there is instead a place called Artimé.

So, the Unwanteds is about the twins Alex and Aaron Stowe. This book is basically about Alex learning to have feelings, for the people of Quill are supposed to suppress their feelings, as well as learning to be creative. It is also, however, about Aaron as he tries to fit in as a Wanted without feelings, dreams, or anything that the Quill leader, High Priest Justine, doesn’t like. Which is especially hard while he struggles with a connection with Alex, who he thinks is dead. Alex is changing as he learns that the “Death Farmer,” whom he now knows as Mr. Today, has actually saved all their lives as he brings them into his colorful world full of music, art, and laughter. But, a shadow hangs over it all, because if Artimé is found out, Justine will surely kill them all for tricking her all this time.

The reason I keep coming back to this book is the world building. Artimé is an amazing and wonderful world. Also, I like the characters. Especially Alex. He is awesome.

I know this review was shorter, but sometimes short and sweet is the way to go! I really liked figuring out all the things when I first read it, so I don’t want to ruin the extra surprise for you when you read the book. (By the way, you really should read the book.) Also, after I’ve reviewed all of them, I’m thinking about just talking about what I liked best about the whole series, so some of the stuff in this book might be talked about then. I hope you liked this review! Bye!


Hmm. Sounds like he might be planning to review more of these books. I guess we’ll see in future weeks, although I won’t hold him to it as I expect by the end of next week he’ll already be on book five or six 🤣.

To learn about other middle grade books, visit the Marvelous Middle Grade blog hop at Always in the Middle…

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM: The Jack Blank Series by Matt Myklusch (a middle schooler review)

My son read another whole series this week! I’ve actually read this one too, and it’s fantastic. Let’s see what he has to say.


So now that I know how to actually do a series review, I don’t think I’m going to do mini reviews. Last week it took me 4 hours to do the review and I don’t have that time. But, this time I am going to highlight some of my favorite things. So, here’s my overview of the series.

Series Overview

The Jack Blank series is a trilogy by Matt Myklusch. It is about a boy named (guess what!) Jack Blank. The book names in order are: THE ACCIDENTAL HERO, THE SECRET WAR, and THE END OF INFINITY. In these books, Jack Blank finds himself to be in a horrible orphanage only to be taken by surprise when he turns out to be from this magical place called the Imagine Nation and has superpowers. But then, things really start to happen… I’ll leave you at that! This is a review, I’m required by law to get you to read the book. So if that means I stop talking about it at certain points to hook you, then that’s okay! I have to do my job. Anyway… let’s get on to my “What I Liked” paragraph.

What I Liked

  1. I really liked the characters. In this book, Jack, as a character, is amazing. He’s just the right person to keep the story moving, and he reacts very well to everything happening around him. And, for people like me, he is agreeable with his actions even when sometimes they get him in trouble. It’s not like you’re thinking “[Grumbling voice] Oh Jack, why ever did you do that.” Also, another character, Smart, who you meet just as he gets to the Imagine Nation, is really good at making Jack’s life hard and causing the needed problems along the way. Skerren and Allegra are some of my favorite characters in the whole of all the books. They are people Jack meets and are skeptical at first, but become great friends.
  2. I liked the plot. Now, for this one, I’m not going to go into too much detail because I don’t want to spoil the book. But I will say that you’re already getting surprised in the 3rd chapter.
  3. I don’t know what to say. It’s just a great book. I think I’m going to stop before I strain my brain too hard trying to find specific things that don’t give anything away and start to give things away.

End

So, I forgot to do my job throughout it so… you really need to read this book. And that’s not just me saying that because of a so called “Job” that I think I’m important enough to even have a job. But go read this book right now. So, thank you for giving me your time to read this review! Bye!

The Accidental Hero by Matt MykluschJack Blank doesn’t know who or where he comes from. He doesn’t even know his real last name. All Jack knows is his bleak, dreary life at St. Barnaby’s Home for the Hopeless, Abandoned, Forgotten, and Lost. Everything changes one morning when Jack receives two visitors. The first is a deadly robot straight out of one of Jack’s favorite comic books, that tries its best to blow him up. The second is an emissary from a secret country called the Imagine Nation, where all the fantastic and unbelievable things in our world originate, including Jack.

Jack soon discovers that he has an amazing ability— one that could make him the savior of the Imagine Nation and the world beyond, or the biggest threat they’ve ever faced.


A little different from last week’s review, but having read this series, I’ll just add that it is full of twists, and it would be very easy to give too much away, so I can understand his hesitation.

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Middle Schooler Series Recommendation: Balance Keepers by Lindsay Cummings

As this is Memorial Day, I want to take a moment to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

And now I will turn the blog over to my son, who no longer needs an intro.


First of all, my mom is going to put middle schooler review instead of sixth grader review because we realized that I’m not going to stay in sixth grade forever, the school year is already over, so… yeah. That’s that. Also, is it correct grammar to say schooler? Is that even a word? Anyway… when my mom asked me to do a series review, I thought “What even is a series review”–and I still don’t know. But, I’m going to give it my best shot and please let me know if you liked it, or, even better, tell me how to do a real one.

So, the series I read was the Balance Keepers series by Lindsay Cummings. It is a trilogy that I really enjoyed and had a great time with. All three of them took me about four days to read; they were that good. It is about this wonderful world full of mystery and magic. These books are for everyone. If you like animals, there are magical companion creatures. If you like magic, well, I’ve kind of said magic over and over again, so there you go! If you love adventure, then this book is absolutely perfect for you! And, if you want a book with great friendships and character change, then this book has that too. And if you like all of that, like I do, then you need to stop whatever you’re reading and buy or check this book out from the library right now! Stop reading this, and read these books. The setting is at the core of the Earth, which is the gateway to the realms underneath the Earth’s crust that help balance what is happening on the surface. Here are some of the things I liked about the series:

  1. Well, what I said above: the animals, magic (:there’s that word again:), adventure, and friendships and character change. They all are relevant and put new, cool things into the story.
  2. The villain. At first you don’t realize there is a villain. But throughout the series… They start to reveal themselves…
  3. Its plot. The plot is complex, but in a good way.
  4. The entire series. What I mean by this is the end. You can look back at the entire series and think “That really makes sense now” and “Ohhhh… I get that now!” It just has a great ending.

So, now I am going to include individual book reviews for the books. I have them separate so that you don’t see any spoilers. Well, I’m not going to give spoilers, but if you read the 2nd book review before you read the 1st book, then it might accidentally spoil it for you. Also, I don’t want to overload you or myself, so these reviews are mini reviews and not complete full-sized reviews.

The Fires of Calderon by Lindsay CummingsWhen Albert Flynn follows a mysterious map deep into the woods, and then under the woods, he discovers he’s a Balance Keeper—someone with special magical skills for keeping harmony in fantastical underground worlds. Together with his teammates Leroy and Birdie, Albert must master his magical talents in time to stop the fires in the Calderon Realm from destroying New York City above.

The first book is amazing. At first, it seems like the character is a regular character, and the town is a regular town, but as the story progresses… Suddenly Albert, the main character, gets invited to a whole new world full of wonder and magic. I really am using the word magic a lot. When he gets to the Core, he gets to pick a tile. These tiles grant the user special powers and can only be used by that person. Albert gets a tile unlike any other, a tile that can do anything if he needs it to, but requires extreme concentration to wield. This will help him on all his journeys. Oh! Remember those realms I told you about? Well… there are three of them. Calderon, Ponderay, and Belltroll. These realms keep the world stable. But… when these realms go out of balance or something happens to them, then it affects the world above too. So, of course, when Albert happens to go down there, discover some new friends, and get a pet dog named Farnsworth that he loves, an imbalance happens. While Albert is new to the realms, and other more experienced people can come and stop this, Albert and his friends Birdie and Leroy get chosen because they prove themselves in the pit. The Pit is the training grounds for balance keepers. I will let you figure out exactly what happened on your own, but this is the overview of what happened.

The Pillars of PonderayAlbert Flynn is psyched to return to the Core, the magical world at the center of the earth where Balance Keepers fix problems in three underground Realms. Last term, Albert and his Balance Keeper teammates Birdie and Leroy saved New York by fixing the Calderon Realm and were crowned First Unit, aka the Coolest Kids in the Core.

Now Albert and his teammates have been called to the Core for an emergency training session…along with their archenemy, Hoyt. There’s a horrible Imbalance in the Ponderay Realm and they have only seven days before California will be swallowed by hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Worse yet, it’s rumored there’s a traitor among them who is causing all this chaos.

Will Albert, Leroy, and Birdie discover who’s been putting the Core—and the world above—in danger? Can they save Ponderay before California becomes an underwater wasteland forever?

Now that you already went back and read the first one (Just Kidding-You don’t have to read it yet, if you need some more convincing, maybe the promise of these sequels will have you read them) let’s get on to the second one. The Pillars of Ponderay gets even better. Albert, Birdie, and Leroy are called back in an emergency to the core to train for Ponderay in the case they have to go in and fix it. However, Argon, the team who are their arch-nemesis, is there as well. Let me elaborate on Argon. Argon was another team that was competing in the pit to go into Calderon. And they were doing really good and winning. But when Albert and his team (called Hydra) beat them, team Argon was upset and they were never nice to each other since. So this would be like the last book except now, they are on a time limit of 7 days. They have little time and, worse, team Argon is beating them over and over in the pit. They have one last shot in the pit to win and go into Ponderay-and Argon gets confused as Hydra wins. So Hydra is feeling sure of themselves as they prepare to go into Ponderay. But then it was decided that as the second best, Argon would go with Hydra too. You see, even though Calderon was basically on fire all the time, Ponderay is more of a physical, energy sapping realm. While they go into Ponderay and start solving the imbalance, other things start to happen… Stay tuned for Book #3! Well, they do go to the surface, but it’s better for me to explain what happened during my overview of book 3.

The Traitor of BelltrollAlbert and his Balance Keepers teammates have been called back to the Core for immediate action! There’s a serious Imbalance in the fantastical underground Realm of Belltroll, and without intervention everything from New York to Yellowstone above could be swallowed by earthquakes. It’s clear the mysterious traitor who caused last term’s chaos is at it again, and with a vengeance.

Albert’s super-magical Master Tile helped fix the Ponderay and Calderon Realms in previous terms, but now it seems the Tile may be more trouble than it’s worth. Because if it’s Albert’s Tile the traitor is after, there will have to be a battle sooner or later, and only one of them can win…

So, if you’ve been reading the book description, you will find something very important that was mentioned in the book 2 and 3 descriptions. If you haven’t read them go back and read them now… it’s fine I’m writing this before you’re going to read it so when you do read it, it won’t matter to me… Alright. You found it? There is a traitor involved! So, there is a traitor. This traitor has been behind the scenes causing the imbalances and wants to steal the master tile to harness the power for himself. Also, as you can imagine, the traitor has gotten pretty mad that none of his earlier traps in the imbalances have worked, so he is truly putting everything he can to kill Albert and take the tile for himself. When the traitor kidnaps his friends to lure Albert in, Albert actually beats him! So, there is the Balance Keepers Series.


Wow! When I asked my son to write a series review, I had no idea he’d go into this much detail, but he sure made me want to read this series! (I actually did read the first book years ago, so it would be more accurate to say he’s made me want to go back and read the rest.)

He’s committed to write a review every week this summer, and as he said, we’ve decided we’ll now call these middle schooler reviews (Merriam-Webster confirms it’s a word) since he finished sixth grade last week. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

Reviews, Young Adult Review

IF THESE WINGS COULD FLY and A Few Other Books You Should Read

Last week was a little crazy for my kids so I gave them a week off of reviewing, but I do hope to have a series review from my sixth grader next Monday. However, he will officially finish sixth grade this Thursday, so now I’m wondering if that means I have to start calling him a seventh grader. What do you think?

In any case, I have several young adult books to share with you this week. It’s quite a mix of serious and lighthearted contemporary, along with a historical mystery. I hope you find something you’d like to read!


If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauleyDo you tend toward lighthearted or serious books? I definitely prefer to laugh and in general shy away from books I fear could bring on tears. The exception is when I know the author—and it turns out a lot of my writer friends like to tackle serious topics!

IF THESE WINGS COULD FLY by fellow #PitchWars17 mentee Kyrie McCauley is yet another example of why it’s so important to read books outside your normal comfort zone.

The book is set in small-town Pennsylvania, which is being invaded by tens of thousands of crows. They don’t bother seventeen-year-old Leighton, who already lives in a house that inexplicably repairs itself every time her father loses his temper and breaks things. She’s focused on finishing out her senior year and deciding whether going away to college is worth leaving her sisters. While her father’s rage and the crows both increase, Leighton allows herself to get close to her charming classmate Liam. (Note that Kyrie includes a content warning on her website that the book includes realistic depictions of domestic violence that may be disturbing for some readers.)

Yes, this book tackles the very serious topic of domestic violence. It addresses how both the characters experiencing it and those who know about it—or suspect—respond, which is a very important conversation to have. It’s something we should be thinking about and aware of. So, yes, it’s hard, but if it’s a topic you can handle, then it’s worth reading.

But IF THESE WINGS COULD FLY is much more than an issue book. There’s sisterhood with all of its complications, first love with its mix of confusion and exhilaration, and a girl finding her internal strength. PLUS, there are the crows, which I’m not even sure exactly how to describe. There’s a sense of magic to the crows and yet Leighton also finds scientific explanations for much of what they do. It’s fascinating. Both the crows and the house are rich metaphors throughout the book.

I’m so glad I read this book and will be continuing to think about it. I definitely recommend it, with the caveat about the content if that may be an issue. What a powerful read!

I’ve been making a more concerted effort this year to read books by debut authors, and THE SILENCE OF BONES by June Hur is one that caught my attention early on. Set in 1800 in Joseon (Korea), the story follows 16-year-old Seol, indentured to the police bureau as a damo. She must assist a well-respected young inspector investigating the murder of a noblewoman. She forms an unlikely friendship with the inspector, but when he becomes the chief suspect, she might be the only one who can discover the truth—a challenging prospect in a time and place where a young girl is expected to be silent and obedient.

I’m always intrigued by a good mystery, but this book had the added element of a setting I’d never experienced before. I’ve read a lot of historical, but never in this specific part of the world. It was both interesting and frustrating to read Seol’s experiences. In addition to the investigation, Seol had a separate goal—to find her brother, who had left home a decade before and never returned. The two stories kept weaving together in unexpected ways. And the investigation itself ended up twisting in a number of directions, exploring both personal and political relationships. At times the book was quite harsh to read, but it was also very well done. I really enjoyed how well everything all fit together and the final resolution.


Moment of Truth by Kasie WestI read MOMENT OF TRUTH by Kasie West in less than 24 hours. It’s no surprise, since I’m a huge Kasie West fan and basically love every book she writes.

It’s about 16-year-old Hadley Moore, whose whole life is dedicated to swimming. And the story starts off with an important meet being disrupted by a guy dressed up as a Hollywood action hero crashing it. This masked hero has made a habit of going around town performing crazy stunts, but it’s the first time he’s messed with her. So of course she makes it her mission to discover who he is.

I really enjoyed the mystery of the masked character—and the eventual solution (which I totally figured out way before Hadley did). But as with all of Kasie West’s books, what I enjoyed most was the friendship, family, and love story. Hadley had a lot of self-discovery to go through in this story, and it wasn’t an easy path for her to follow. I’m also a sucker for a jokester love interest, but that’s all I want to say about that since even the description doesn’t say much about the love interest 😉.

I think I am STILL behind on Kasie West’s books. But hey, it’s something to aspire to as a writer—that readers can’t keep up!


What I Like About You by Marisa KanterI’ve wanted to read WHAT I LIKE ABOUT YOU by Marisa Kanter ever since I read the description and sample in PitchWars in 2017. It’s so gratifying when a book delivers on the premise, and this one totally does. I read the whole thing in a single day, while my family was participating in an at-home camping trip. I definitely belonged inside with a book while they were cycling 15 miles in the rain and camping in the front yard!

The premise of WHAT I LIKE ABOUT YOU is that three years ago Halle Levitt created a pseudonym when she started her cupcake-themed book blog. None of her online friends—including best friend Nash—know her true identity. When she moves in with her grandpa for senior year, she meets Nash in real life but is too scared to tell him who she is, embroiling herself in a love triangle with herself.

I really enjoyed how Halle grew during the story, learning what it means to be a friend and also working through her grief (a major plot involves the fairly recent death of her grandmother). Also, the take on books was really interesting. I’d love to see one of these cupcake cover recreations!


THE PERFECT ESCAPE by Suzanne Park truly was the perfect escape from all the craziness in the world. It’s about Nate Kim, a Korean-American teen who works at a zombie-themed escape room, and Kate Anderson, an aspiring teen actress with an over-controlling dad. Together, they team up for a survivalist competition for a huge cash prize.

I’m always up for a zombie story—real or imagined—and this one delivered. But it also dealt with a number of real-life family issues for both characters. They come from very different worlds, and yet they share a love for zombies and campy jokes, and their survival skills are the perfect complement for each other. Their love story isn’t an easy one, but it feels real. I really appreciated the resolution for everyone involved.


I just realized that four of these are 2020 debut books and two are PitchWars 2017 classmates! I can’t afford to buy every book I’d like to, but I’m trying to support other authors however I can during these times. I hope you are too!

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Fourth Grader Review: THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM by Sarah Beth Durst

My sixth grader spent last week reading The Hunger Games trilogy, which isn’t really a fit for MMGM, so I recruited my fourth grader once again. One of the good things that has happened during stay-at-home orders is the availability of online content from authors. On April 9, a group of authors celebrated International Unicorn Day with live readings and interactive events. My daughter participated in several of these and has since discovered four new authors. Sarah Beth Durst is one of those, and here is my daughter’s review of THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM.


The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth DurstSophie’s favorite place in the world is the hidden shop beneath her parent’s bookstore where dreams are bought and sold to select and secretive strangers. Sophie is fascinated by dreams — weird, scary, or magical — in part because she has never had a single dream of her own.

When the shop’s dreams are stolen and her mother and father go mysteriously missing, Sophie must unravel the truth to save her parents. Together with her best friend — a wisecracking and fanatically loyal monster named Monster — she must decide who to trust with her family’s carefully-guarded secrets. Who will help them, and who will betray them?

THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM is a story that takes place in a shop and a house. The main character, Sophie, lives there in the shop, and there is a house in the upper levels. In the house, they go on an adventure. The setting is important. I like how the setting is not all over the place, there are two main settings. The shop and the house. Dun dun daaaaa!!!! (Mysterious music plays.)

Sophie is cautious and smart, yet also very brave. Sophie will face things that some kids do not know about. Sophie’s friend, Monster, is a monster. He is protective and funny. He is probably my favorite character. The people in this story are amazing!!!

The story overall is awesome. It involves action, fights, monsters and friends. I could go on about what awesome things it has. I would recommend this book. It made me fall in love with the characters and the friends. If you like all the things I listed, you will like this book. I loved it!! (This is when everybody reads this book.)


Ha! Is this when you go read the book? I hope so!

To learn about other middle grade books, visit the Marvelous Middle Grade blog hop at Always in the Middle…

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Fourth Grader Review: GHOST SQUAD by Claribel Ortega

Last week I promised a review by my fourth grader, and I’m excited she’s here to talk about GHOST SQUAD by Claribel Ortega. The book just released April 7, and we ordered it from our local independent bookstore. Side note: if you haven’t already entered the giveaway for my 8th blogiversary, it’s still open through this Friday, May 8. You can win a $50 gift card to the independent bookstore of your choice. They really need our support!

But now I’m going to hand the blog over to my fourth grader for this week’s MMGM review.


Ghost Squad by Claribel OrtegaCoco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters in this action-packed supernatural fantasy.

For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business.

Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.

I really like the book GHOST SQUAD. It is adventurous, it has action, and amazing characters!! It is so fun to read and it feels like you are actually there. The first thing I am going to talk about today is the setting. It takes place in a small town. In it the main characters, Lucely and Syd, go to cemeteries, school and so many other places!! The setting is an important part.

Next I will be talking about the characters: Lucely, Syd, Babette, Chunk and Simon.  Syd is fun and brave. She is also so happy; I like that. Lucely is cautious and kind. She is a very good friend. Babette is just the type of character that you love–she is strict, yet awesome. Chunk is a cat, a cat that goes on adventures with Lucely and Syd. Simon is a loving dad, and he believes in ghosts. These are character traits of some of the characters.

If you like books that have action, ghosts and awesome characters, then you will like GHOST SQUAD!! It is a fantastic book with magic and imagination! It is one of the best books I have read! GHOST SQUAD is something that I would recommend reading. I hope you will read GHOST SQUAD, and let me tell you, you will not be disappointed, I was not. It is awesome.


So there you have it. I’m not sure which kid reviewer I’ll be featuring next week. We’ll see who is most enthusiastic about what they’ve read this week!