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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, I’d like to read that scene!

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

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

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: THE TRAIN OF LOST THINGS by Ammi-Joan Paquette

Hello, MMGM friends! It’s been a bit since my last flurry of reviews and even longer since my last middle grade review, but I was in the revision cave and then at the Lake of the Ozarks enjoying time with my family. On the way back, I started THE TRAIN OF LOST THINGS by Ammi-Joan Paquette and ended up finishing it that evening. Despite the fact it deals with a sad topic, it was a quick and engaging read that I couldn’t put down. My ten-year-old son also read it a few days later and enjoyed it as well. But on to the description.

The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan PaquetteMarty has always loved to hear his father tell the story of the Train of Lost Things: a magical engine that flies (yes, flies!) all around the world, collecting children’s lost objects. Then one day, Marty loses his most precious possession–a jean jacket packed with memories–which was given to him by his dad, who’s now very sick. Marty is devastated. He thinks the Train of Lost Things is just a story–but what if it’s real? Marty embarks on a desperate adventure to find the train, which is now his only link to the irreplaceable jacket.

To Marty’s shock and delight, he learns that the train is real! But it’s also gone out of control. Instead of helping return the lost items, the train has become an ever-growing heap of toys, trinkets, and memories. Along with Dina and Star, two girls he meets aboard the train, Marty sets about to learn what’s going on and to help put it right. And hopefully find his jacket in the process.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The jacket – What a wonderful idea to create a jacket full of memories, every pin and patch a representation of an activity Marty and his father had done together. My heart dropped with Marty’s when the jacket went missing.

2. The magic – I love the concept of a place where all the lost treasures go. Who hasn’t lost something at some point, something you’ve never been able to find again, no matter where you looked? It’s nice to think it might be out there, waiting for you.

3. The descriptions – I’ve read several of Ammi-Joan Paquette’s books now, and I always love her descriptions. Here’s an example of Marty climbing up to the top of the train.

It was a weird feeling, hiking up a tiny curlicue staircase on a moving mystery train. The steps were so narrow that Marty almost had to take them sideways. The whole thing was a bit like watching–no, like being–a fizzy bubble zooming up the inside of a bottle. Like he said, weird. With an extra dose of super weird on the side. Especially because he got to the top faster than he expected, and before he knew it his head and shoulders had oozed right through the opening window hatch, and then he was half in and half out of the train, and for a second his eyes blurred over because it was literally the craziest thing he had ever experienced.

4. Marty’s journey – Marty was such an authentic character to me. I felt so deeply what he was going through with his dad as well as the distance he felt from his friends. I appreciated how his adventure on the train helped him.

5. The ending – I expected this story to be sad based on the premise, but I was very satisfied with the resolution of the story. Now, my son had one more thing he wanted to happen at the end, but overall he was good with it too.

Have you read THE TRAIN OF LOST THINGS? What did you think?

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, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: STORY THIEVES: WORLDS APART by James Riley

Hello, MMGM! Long time no see. But my kids have been hounding me to read along with them more, so I expect I will be peeking back in more often.

Of course I can’t resist reviewing a James Riley book, and that is what would bring me back into the fold. I held off on reading the fourth book (PICK THE PLOT) in the STORY THIEVES series, mainly because I wasn’t super-excited about it being a choose-your-own adventure story. I don’t know why. I loved those books when I was a kid, and I know what a genius James Riley is at turning any preconceived ideas you may have on their head. And it was totally awesome, just like the rest of the series. But I’m still glad I waited until the paperback of PICK THE PLOT came out because it ended on a total cliffhanger, and then I didn’t have to wait to read the series finale, WORLDS APART. Side note: I was in the middle of another book when it arrived, and my ten-year-old beat me to it, so he kept telling me how awesome it was. Then, once I started reading, he needed constant updates about where I was in the story. I love how we can enjoy stories together!

Fair warning before you read this review, it includes SPOILERS for the earlier books. If you haven’t read them yet, you should stop before the description. Or just click over to my review for the original STORY THIEVES and start there.

Still reading? Okay then.

Worlds Apart by James RileyOwen and Bethany try to find their way back to each other after the fictional and nonfictional worlds are torn apart in this fifth and final book in the New York Times bestselling series, Story Thieves—which was called a “fast-paced, action-packed tale” by School Library Journal—from the author of the Half Upon a Time trilogy.

Bethany and Owen have failed. The villain they have come to know as Nobody has ripped asunder the fictional and nonfictional worlds, destroying their connection. Bethany has been split in two, with her fictional and nonfictional selves living in the separate realms.

But weirdly, no one seems to mind. Owen—and every other nonfictional person—have lost their imaginations, so they can’t picture their lives any differently. Then Owen gets trapped in a dark, dystopian reality five years in the future, where nothing is needed more desperately than the power to imagine.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The pacing – I read this book in two days. In fact, I was so into it, I stayed up really late to finish it, and then when I got ready to write this review, I was like, “Wait, did that really happen at the end?” Turns out I was so sleepy I missed a few things. But that just meant I got to read it again :). James Riley accomplished this fantastic pacing using the same technique he implemented in ONCE UPON THE END. For most of the book, Owen and Bethany were separated, and the chapters switched between their points of view, leaving the reader on a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. It made it very hard to stop reading.

2. All the characters – It was the perfect reunion of my favorite characters. Okay, there was one particular character I really would have loved to see again (mentioned in my STOLEN CHAPTERS review), but I can see how she wouldn’t fit here. I don’t want to give away who all does return, except that of course Kiel is included. I mean, he’s on the cover :).

3. The conflict – I can’t even explain exactly what Nobody has done if you haven’t read the book. They’re not trying to save THE world; they’re trying to save multiple worlds. It’s so meta James Riley pokes fun at it in the acknowledgements (one of the funniest parts of the books, actually).

4. Bethany’s character arc – Well, actually, I guess it’s two character arcs since there are two Bethanys? I sort of hated both Bethanys. My son and I had a rather heated discussion about this because he liked one of them. But I think the whole point of splitting Bethany was that she wasn’t meant to be two halves of herself, and I thought it was interesting that James Riley approached it with each half thinking they were better off alone (a plot point you discover in the first chapters).

5. The ending – Well, like I said, I had to read it twice to make sure it really happened the way I thought it did. This ending was completely crazy and yet satisfying. I’m still reeling a bit from one particular plot point that I can’t believe he left that way, but hey, it’s fiction.

Isn’t it?

If you really are just telling Owen and Bethany’s story, Mr. Riley, my son would love to go hang out with them sometime. I’ll keep their location secret :).

I can’t wait to see what James Riley writes next. We’re all fans in this house!

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.