Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: MY PLAIN JANE by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

MY LADY JANE by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows was my favorite read of 2016, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting their next book. They call themselves The Lady Janies, so their three planned books are all about famous Janes–the first, Lady Jane Grey; the second, Jane Eyre; and the third, Calamity Jane.

So, I’m going to be completely honest and admit that I’m a sad excuse for an English lit major on this one because I’ve never read JANE EYRE (ducks). I have the book on my shelf, but the one class where we discussed Charlotte Bronte, we read VILLETTE instead. I think my professor just wasn’t a fan of JANE EYRE. 🤷‍♀️ I’m not sure whether this helped me as I read or not, but just like with MY LADY JANE, mostly it left me more intrigued and looking up information about both Charlotte Bronte and her famous heroine. (After reading the synopsis of the classic, this version sure sounds like a lot more fun!) In any case, maybe I’d better just get into the review …

My Plain Jane by The Lady JaniesYou may think you know the story. After a miserable childhood, penniless orphan Jane Eyre embarks on a new life as a governess at Thornfield Hall. There, she meets one dark, brooding Mr. Rochester. Despite their significant age gap (!) and his uneven temper (!!), they fall in love—and, Reader, she marries him. (!!!) Or does she? 

Prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportions, in which all is not as it seems, a certain gentleman is hiding more than skeletons in his closets, and one orphan Jane Eyre, aspiring author Charlotte Brontë, and supernatural investigator Alexander Blackwood are about to be drawn together on the most epic ghost hunt this side of Wuthering Heights.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The pop culture references – I mean, why shouldn’t a pre-Victorian story include sly references to Ghostbusters, The Princess Bride, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and several more twentieth (and twenty-first) century movies and books. Of course, they aren’t overt references. You could easily miss them if you aren’t familiar with key lines from these famous works (I’m sure there were some I missed!), but those that you do know will cause a chuckle.

2. The ghost world – I enjoy a good ghost story anyway, but I loved that this one included a royally sanctioned ghost-hunting society with agents who wore masks all the time and people just accepted that as normal. And how the ghosts all thought Jane was beautiful while the rest of the world saw her as plain and this ended up leading to an absolutely perfect twist. There’s also a really funny scene with Alexander relocating a ghost by bopping him on the head with a teacup …

3. The romance – This book includes the most adorable romance, and I don’t really want to say much about it to avoid spoilers.

4. The asides – I love how the authors would describe something in the character’s voice and then add their own thoughts in parentheses.

Most of the men of this era had a mustache or, at the very least, sideburns, but he had neither. Jane wouldn’t call him handsome. (In the pre-Victorian age, a truly handsome man should be pale–because being out in the sun was for peasants–with a long, oval-shaped face, a narrow jaw, a small mouth, and a pointy chin. We know. We can’t believe it, either.)

5. The ending – Like I said, I’ve never read JANE EYRE, but I did have a general idea about it. However, this story wasn’t just about her. I really liked how everything was tied up for not only Jane but the two other main characters and even the secondary characters.

Have you read MY PLAIN JANE yet? If not, you should definitely pick it up!

Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: ROYALS by Rachel Hawkins

When I finish a book with a huge grin on my face, it obviously deserves a review. But it’s more than that–I raced through Rachel Hawkins’s ROYALS in two nights, laughing out loud much of the time. I’m not surprised. I loved her Hex Hall and Rebel Belle series (and she’s also written a middle grade I’m sure we should all check out). Anyway, here’s what it’s about.

Royals by Rachel HawkinsMeet Daisy Winters. She’s an offbeat sixteen-year-old Floridian with mermaid-red hair, a part time job at a bootleg Walmart, and a perfect older sister who’s nearly engaged to the Crown Prince of Scotland. Daisy has no desire to live in the spotlight, but relentless tabloid attention forces her join Ellie at the relative seclusion of the castle across the pond.

While the dashing young Miles has been appointed to teach Daisy the ropes of being regal, the prince’s roguish younger brother kicks up scandal wherever he goes, and tries his best to take Daisy along for the ride. The crown–and the intriguing Miles–might be trying to make Daisy into a lady . . . but Daisy may just rewrite the royal rulebook to suit herself.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The voice – From the opening pages, I just loved Daisy and how she describes everything. Here’s a particularly funny passage when she first meets Sebastian, her future brother-in-law’s younger brother.

He’s tall, his entire upper body is so perfectly v-shaped that I think geese probably study him to get their flight formation just right, and he’s wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt and jeans that were clearly crafted just for him, possibly by nuns who’ve devoted themselves to the cause of making boys look as sinful as possible so the rest of us will know just how dangerous they are …

The whole book is like this and it’s just perfect!

2. The banter/dialogue – I just wanted all of the characters to keep talking, all the time. Every word they said was so spot on. I especially love the interaction between Daisy and Miles, but really her parents were awesome, and so were all the Royal Wreckers (Sebastian’s friends). I just want to study and it and figure out how to do it myself :).

3. The humor – You’ve probably already figured out from my mentions in the voice and dialogue that humor is a huge part of this book, and it’s woven into the words themselves, but it’s also situational. Daisy gets herself into some crazy debacles, sometimes due to what she says, but also because she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was laughing non-stop.

4. The tabloid articles – Interspersed throughout the novel are short articles from royal-watchers that did a great job conveying background information about the various players in the story and moving the plot forward without having to show Daisy experiencing it. I really liked how these were used.

5. The romance – Love, love, love! I’m a sucker for hate-to-love romances and also another trope included here that I don’t want to mention because it isn’t brought up in the blurb. But this romance is so stinking adorable and really why I had the huge grin on my face at the end.

I can’t wait to see what Rachel Hawkins writes next because she’s batting a thousand for me. If you’ve read ROYALS, let me know what you thought in the comments!

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: HERE LIES DANIEL TATE by Cristin Terrill

As I sat in the airport, silently weeping at the fact I was leaving Disney World behind, I picked up a book for the first time since we’d arrived at the most magical place on Earth. (I think I could live there, guys. That’s how much I love Disney World.) Anyway, thank goodness for this book, because I was immediately drawn into the twisty tale of Cristin Terrill’s HERE LIES DANIEL TATE. Here’s the description.

Here Lies Daniel Tate by Cristin TerrillWhen ten-year-old Daniel Tate went missing from one of California’s most elite communities, he left no trace. He simply vanished.

Six years later, when he resurfaces on a snowy street in Vancouver, he’s no longer the same boy. His sandy hair is darker, the freckles are gone, and he’s initially too traumatized to speak, but he’s alive. His overjoyed family brings him home to a world of luxury and comfort he can barely remember. In time, they assure him, he’ll recover his memories; all that matters now is they’re together again.

It’s perfect. A miracle. Except for one thing.

He isn’t Daniel Tate.

He’s a petty con artist who accidentally stumbled into the scam of a lifetime, and he soon learns he’s not the only one in the Tate household with something to hide. The family has as many secrets as they have millions in the bank, and one of them might be ready to kill to keep the worst one buried.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The unreliable narrator – It’s really hard to pull off a successful unreliable narrator, but Ms. Terrill does it extremely well. So well that in the opening pages the narrator says he’s a liar and I still wanted to believe him. I found myself three-fourths of the way through the book, still wanting to believe he was lying about particular plot points and that the ending would turn out differently than I suspected. That’s some masterful writing!

2. The mystery – Wow! I’d like to say I figured out everything because I’m usually pretty good at spotting clues, but I was surprised along with the narrator at the complete picture revealed at the end. I had parts of it but not everything. I’m a suspicious reader, so I was impressed!

3. The family dynamics – The Tates are so complex I won’t even attempt to describe them, but I really loved how Ms. Terrill delves into the multiple sides of each character. Nobody is all good or all bad. They are well-developed, multi-faceted characters who feel deeply and make choices–whether right or wrong–based on those emotions.

4. The character development – It was fascinating to watch the narrator caught in his own con and how it changed him as a person. Up to this point, he’d lived his life entirely for himself. What decisions would he make now that he’d lived the life of Daniel Tate?

5. The pacing – Like I said, I couldn’t put this book down. I started reading it on the plane, and I finished it the next evening, staying up until midnight because I had to see how the mystery unraveled and what happened to all the players. The ending was not exactly what I expected and yet entirely perfect for the book.

Have you read HERE LIES DANIEL TATE? What did you think of the ending? Since I asked, anyone who hasn’t read yet beware of the comments :).

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: THE FIXER by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

I’ve returned from Disney World, truly the most magical place in the world. I mean, my kids love it, but let’s be honest: half the Disney movies in our house belong to me. And where else can you meet Chewie? (Okay, yes, I could go to a Star Wars convention, but in my world, Disney is easier.) The last time we visited Disney, my kids were still young enough they had to nap in the afternoon and we took several-hour breaks. This time, our breaks were much shorter, so I didn’t read multiple books during the trip. However, I did finish one book on the way there. I only had five pages left when we got off the plane, so I stood in the Disney Express line finishing it while my family focused on making sure we moved toward the bus :). That book was THE FIXER by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, one of my Scholastic Warehouse Sale finds from this past December.

The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

When sixteen-year-old Tess Kendrick is sent to live with her older sister, Ivy, she has no idea that the infamous Ivy Kendrick is Washington D.C.’s #1 “fixer,” known for making politicians’ scandals go away for a price. No sooner does Tess enroll at Hardwicke Academy than she unwittingly follows in her sister’s footsteps and becomes D.C.’s premier high school fixer, solving problems for elite teens.

Secrets pile up as each sister lives a double life…until their worlds come crashing together and Tess finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy with one of her classmates and a client of Ivy’s. Suddenly, there is much more on the line than good grades, money, or politics, and the price for this fix might be more than Tess is willing to pay.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The pacing – The short, cliffhanger chapters kept me reading well past my bedtime for several nights in a row. I didn’t want to put this book down, but there were several nights I just had to or end up re-reading what I was half-asleep for :).

2. The stakes – In line with the pacing, the stakes kept ratcheting up throughout the book. Every time a new development was introduced, the tension grew.

3. The twists – This book included a number of fantastic twists. Some were planted in such a way I anticipated them, but I’m not sure all readers would. Others were quite surprising.

4. The secondary characters – I especially loved Vivvie and Asher, but all of the secondary characters were very well-drawn.

5. Tess herself – I found myself equally frustrated with Tess for continuing to dig when I could see it was going to get her into trouble and wanting the information myself as a reader. I also thought the way Tess handled the situation in relation to Ivy made complete sense–trust has to be earned, and Ivy hadn’t earned her trust based on their past relationship.

This book was left hanging a bit, and I’ve already ordered the next one. I hope it’s a bit more tied up as I did a bit of research and saw that there isn’t a third one planned. However, I will be checking out more books by Jennifer Lynn Barnes since this one kept me turning the pages quickly!

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST by Ally Carter + Bonus Writing Tips

When I first read the Publishers Marketplace description for NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST–a gender-swapped YA Romancing the Stone–and that it was by Ally Carter, I didn’t even need to know anything more about it to want this book as soon as it came out. Lucky for me, Ally Carter had St. Louis on her tour schedule. I actually met her five years ago when she came through for PERFECT SCOUNDRELS, but I was so unprepared then for the megastar that Ally is. This time I expected the large crowd of teen girls still asking questions about Gallagher Girls even years after the series has ended. I thoroughly enjoyed the event and didn’t mind waiting an hour to get the book signed even though I strategically sat where I thought I’d get in the front of the line and then they sent it in a completely different direction. (Okay, so maybe I was a bit annoyed, but you know what? Between getting there early for a seat and waiting in that line, I’d read nearly half the book by the time I got up there :).)

Anyway, I am going to give you a review, but first, for my writer friends, I jotted down a few notes from Ally that I thought I’d share.

  • She said there’s always a point where her characters can rush in and be heroes or call the proper authorities, which is also a point where her book can be interesting or her characters can be smart. She finds a way for both to work.
  • When asked about voice, she pointed out that she used different tenses for her different series–first past in Gallagher Girls, third past in Heist Society, and first present in Embassy Row. (I thought this was interesting as I hadn’t particularly noticed.)
  • Her first drafts are basically a screenplay–outlines with dialogue. (As much as I hate first drafts, this really appeals to me!)
  • When I told her I’m a querying writer, she said her best advice is that you want the right “yes,” not just any “yes.”

Now that I’ve gushed about Ally and the event, I’ll move on to the book itself.

Not If I Save You First by Ally CarterMaddie thought she and Logan would be friends forever. But when your dad is a Secret Service agent and your best friend is the president’s son, sometimes life has other plans.

Before she knows it, Maddie’s dad is dragging her to a cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness and into a totally different life.

No phone.
No Internet.
And not a single word from Logan.
Maddie tells herself it’s okay. After all, she’s the most popular girl for twenty miles in any direction. (She’s also the only girl for twenty miles in any direction.) She has wood to cut and weapons to bedazzle. Her life is full.

Until Logan shows up six years later . . .
And Maddie wants to kill him.
But before that can happen, an assailant appears out of nowhere, knocking Maddie down a cliff and dragging Logan to some unknown fate. Maddie knows she could turn back and get help. But the weather is turning and the terrain will only get more treacherous, the animals more deadly.

Maddie still really wants to kill Logan. But she has to save him first.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The setting – And it’s only because I don’t have to be there. It’s funny, because Ally said she decided to set a book in Alaska because she went on a cruise with her family, and during a tour the guide told her even the ground water had poison in it. I didn’t even need that to convince me I never wanted to return after our own family cruise. The cold in the middle of June was enough (sorry, Alaskans!). Anyway, there’s a letter Maddie writes to Logan that perfectly sums up why this setting is so perfect for a YA thriller.

Well, [Dad] brought me to a place where he leaves me alone all the time and where pretty much even the AIR can kill you.

Seriously.

Things that can kill you in Alaska:

-animals

-water

-snow

-ice

-falling trees

-more animals

-bacteria

-the common cold

-hunger

-cliffs

-rocks

-poorly treated burns, cuts, and scrapes

-boredom

I may definitely die of boredom.

I’m not going to tell you how many of those she ends up using in the book.

2. The stakes – Going along with the setting, there were so many opportunities for the circumstances to get worse for Maddie and Logan, and the great thing about it was: they couldn’t call for help. So that point I mentioned before, about Ally Carter wanting her characters to be interesting and smart? When you’re in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, it’s pretty hard to call 9-1-1.

3. Maddie herself – Maddie is such an awesome character. She knows how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, but she’s still a girlie girl (which is why she has a bedazzled hatchet). In addition, she knows how to use those stereotypes about teenage girls against the men who intend to hurt her and Logan. She’s smart, resourceful, and strong–exactly the sort of girl the bad guys will underestimate.

4. The twists – I love good twists, and this book is full of them. There were several that took me completely by surprise and others that I didn’t see coming until right before they did. Very well done!

5. The dual POV – I really liked hearing from both Maddie and Logan in this story, getting both sides of what they were feeling. It was complicated but also completely believable how they each approached both their relationship and the situation.

So, to sum up, NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST is another fantastic book from Ally Carter, and I highly recommend you pick it up. Just a note that this one is a stand-alone. Also, if Ally’s coming through your city on tour, take the time to go meet her! She’s funny and lovely in person.

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: BLOOD WATER PAINT by Joy McCullough

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen this tweet a little over a week ago:

But a tweet really isn’t enough gushing for Joy’s book. I was trying to remember exactly when I “met” Joy, and so I turned to my email (where I keep EVERYTHING). Anyway, I was reminded that Joy reached out to me during WriteOnCon in 2013. I knew it was a long time ago because she read my MG sci-fi, THE DEXELON TWINCIDENT, but wow!

Since then, Joy has done so much to give back to the writing community, and I’m thrilled to do even the smallest bit to promote her book. I read BLOOD WATER PAINT on a three-hour car ride from Springfield, Mo., to St. Louis, then carved out an extra half hour to finish when we arrived home. And then I had to go search online for extra information about the main character, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was a real person. I guess maybe I’d better share the description :).

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCulloughHer mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost. 

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence. 

Here are the five things I loved most about the book.

1. The art – I’ve always loved art. My favorite period is Impressionism, but I enjoy strolling through museums and exploring art through the ages. I loved reading Artemisia’s point of view as she tackled various subjects and attempted to solve challenges of perspective and color.

2. The structure – I expected this novel to be completely in verse, but it surprised me with narrative sections written in the voice of Artemisia’s mother. These stories of Susanna and Judith were perfectly woven into the broader story of what Artemisia was experiencing, giving her strength and comfort.

3. The verse itself – I was hooked from the very first lines.

Everything begins from here:

the viewing point,

the place where you stand,

your eye level.

That single point on the horizon

where all other lines

converge.

4. The message – What an amazing story of a young woman who doesn’t back down, continuing to defend herself even when she’s publicly ridiculed and physically tortured by the court. It made me heartsick to read what was done to Artemisia, and yet parts of her story–the ridicule and disbelief after a rape–are unfortunately not just a tale relegated to history.

5. The hint of the supernatural – Beyond the memory of her mother, Artemisia is not alone, but I don’t really want to give away anything more than that.

I highly recommend this book. However, as mentioned above, it does include a rape, and while it’s not described in detail, that could still be triggering for some. If you’ve read BLOOD WATER PAINT, I’d love to hear what you thought too.

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD by Jane Nickerson

I came across Jane Nickerson’s STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD on an agent website and decided to check it out. I’m so glad I did because it was the sort of book I didn’t know I was looking for but absolutely loved. I couldn’t put down this southern Gothic historical and was sneaking chapters during the car ride with my kids on spring break. Here’s the cover and description.

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane NickersonWhen seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

And here are the five things I loved most.

1. The villain – STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD is a retelling of the tale of Bluebeard, and I confess I’m not familiar with it, so I went and looked it up (I totally should have waited until afterward so I wouldn’t have spoiled anything). But anyway, I really loved the character Ms. Nickerson created with Bernard de Cressac. He’s a perfect villain because of his charm. He puts a sort of spell on Sophie so that even while she knows he’s reeling her into a dangerous web, she keeps convincing herself he’s really not who she suspects. So well done!

2. The setting – I felt like I was in Mississippi with Sophie, experiencing the mosquitoes and the humidity, exploring the ancient abbey transported across the ocean. All of M. de Cressac’s extravagant touches came to life in each scene, and I was transported to another time. Gorgeous!

3. The tension – I wouldn’t call this a fast-paced book, and yet I was compelled to keep turning pages to find out how Sophie would handle each escalating tightening of the noose on her life. And while the tension was physical, it was more than that. Sophie had to decide how much of herself she would give up, walking on eggshells with M. de Cressac with each demand he made. While in today’s society, we might think it would be easy to walk away, it was not an easy decision for her.

4. Sophie’s growth – Sophie spends a significant portion of the book in self-denial, and while it was frustrating at times, it was also understandable based on her background and situation in life. I enjoyed watching her figure out the truth and come into her adulthood during the story, both in regard to standing up for her principles (there’s a subplot regarding slavery) and herself.

5. The mystery – The thread of mystery throughout the story was fantastic, as Sophie followed the clues about M. de Cressac and ultimately solved it. Going along with the Gothic theme, there were some supernatural elements, which were very well done and fit perfectly with the story.

There are two other books that follow STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD, and I will definitely be reading these as well. Have you read these books? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!