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.

Reviews, Young Adult

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!

Instagram, Reviews, Young Adult

10 BLIND DATES and A Few Other YA Books You Should Read

I intended to have another MMGM this week–this time from my fourth grader–but some other school work took precedence, and my sixth grader didn’t have another one prepared to jump in. However, I’ve been catching up on my own reading and realized I’d piled up quite a few mini-reviews. So here are a few young adult books I really loved. If you’d like to see these reviews as I post them, you can follow me on Instagram at @michelleimason.


10 Blind Dates by Ashley ElstonI’ve been intending to read 10 BLIND DATES by Ashley Elston for months. I finally started it last week—and finished it within a day. The story’s about Sophie, who stays home from Christmas break to be with her boyfriend—only he breaks up with her. Her huge family decides to console her by setting her up on 10 blind dates (giving her Christmas Eve and Day off). I was already on board from this setup alone, but here are the five things I loved best about it.

1. The dates! From participating in a nativity to bowling in costume, these dates were hilarious and sometimes cringe-worthy. I loved how creative they were and couldn’t wait to see what the family members would come up with next.
2. The guys – I half-expected every guy picked out to be awful, but that wasn’t the case at all (I mean, some were). It was a really great representation of different types of guys.
3. The love interest – If you pick up this book, the description does not give anything away about who she ends up with, so I won’t here either, but the chemistry was fantastic.
4. Sophie’s family – So crazy but also wonderful. Also, I really loved the dynamic with her cousins and how she regained her closeness with them throughout the book.
5. Sophie’s sister – There was a more serious side plot going on with Sophie’s sister on bedrest, about to have a baby. I think sometimes writers are afraid to include a serious note in a romantic comedy, but it added a really great balance to the story. After all, that’s how life is.

So, that’s my take on 10 BLIND DATES, a thoroughly enjoyable and quick read. If you’ve read it too, let me know your thoughts!


Lovely War by Julie BerryI really enjoyed the unique storytelling of LOVELY WAR by Julie Berry. It’s a YA historical with a fantastical twist, told from the viewpoints of Aphrodite and other Greek gods. Interestingly, the gods are in the time of World War II, looking back on two love stories from World War I. Hazel, a shy pianist, meets James, an aspiring architect, right before he ships off for the front. Aubrey, a talented jazz musician and part of an all African-American regiment, meets YMCA volunteer Colette, who has lost her entire family and first love to German brutality. I loved the short chapters and back and forth between the gods debating the importance of love, war, and music versus the actual stories of these young people living through an unspeakable time.

Every one of these characters was compelling. I was drawn to their stories and hoping they would have happy endings, even while I expected the worst in a brutal war that took so many lives. I really appreciated how this story was told and highly recommend it.


I kept seeing this book all over Instagram, and the title alone was enough to make me want to read it. I’m a total sucker for clever titles. But then I read the description, and TWEET CUTE by Emma Lord is basically like YOU’VE GOT MAIL.

Pepper runs her family fast food chain’s Twitter account, and when the chain steals Jack’s family deli’s grilled cheese recipe, he engages in a Twitter war with her. Meanwhile, at school, they’ve never gotten along, but start getting to know each other and maybe even fall for each other. Add in an anonymous app they’re talking to each other on, which the reader is clued into.

I seriously couldn’t put this book down. I read it in a single day, despite currently drafting a book, starting eLearning with my kids, and everything else that goes with all of us being home. So that should tell you something about this book. It’s smart, fun, fast-paced, and a great escape from the anxiety and worry around us. Check it out!


I read the first book in this series, A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY, last year and loved it. I loved this one even more.

I found it interesting that with the exception of a couple of brief chapters, this book is written from two completely different points of view, leaving the reader wondering what’s happening with the two original characters. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I was quickly drawn into the stories of Grey and Lia Mara. They are both incredibly well-developed characters facing really tough choices. But I also really appreciated the secondary characters. With a couple of them, I wasn’t sure whether I should be rooting for them too or not. I was turning pages quickly to find out!

But really, in general I was turning pages quickly to get to the end of this book. I was reading this at a time when I had very little reading time due to other commitments, and this book made me snatch time whenever I could to find out what would happen next. I was so worried the characters would make the wrong decisions—and that they might not have any other options. The stakes are so well done. I can’t wait for the finale. Well done, Brigid Kemmerer!
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Also, super excited this book is from my publisher, Bloomsbury 😍.


I love getting so sucked into a book that I read it long into the night, which is what happened to me with THE AFTERLIFE OF HOLLY CHASE by Cynthia Hand. There was one night I had 100 pages left at 11:15 and almost went for it. But I do have kids to wrangle in the mornings :).

I read this book right before Christmas, and it was a perfect read during that time. A Scrooge retelling, it follows Holly Chase, who was visited five years ago by the three Ghosts and didn’t mend her ways, so she died. Ever since, she’s been working for Project Scrooge as the latest Ghost of Christmas Past, and she stays frozen at seventeen while her family and friends go on without her. She’s pretty miserable, until the latest Scrooge is unveiled as a seventeen-year-old boy with a story very similar to her own and she embarks on a quest to make sure he doesn’t make the same mistake she did.

I loved how Cynthia Hand approached this retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, updating it for a modern audience. Holly was an interesting character to me because she wasn’t very likable for much of the book—but then, she was a Scrooge, so that makes sense. Her character arc is what makes this book great. One of the reasons I couldn’t put the book down was that I wasn’t sure how it would all end, but I finished it satisfied. Even though the holidays are now over, I still highly recommend this book. If you aren’t up for reading off-season, grab it and hold on until this December!

Middle Grade Review, Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

And here are the five things I loved most:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews, Young Adult

YA Review: FAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS by Kasie West

One of my goals for May was to really figure out Instagram, which obviously is an ongoing process, and so I’ve been participating in a challenge. (If you’d like, you can follow me there @michelleimason.) One of the prompts early in the month was to post about an author you admire, and I chose Kasie West because I’ve loved all of her books and often featured them in my favorite reads of the year. However, when I went over to my bookshelf, I realized I was actually behind on her latest. There was one I’d read from the library and just hadn’t added to my permanent shelf yet, but she had two more books out that I hadn’t read yet. My TBR list is crazy, folks. I keep an ever-growing wish list at my local library (currently at 135 books), plus I have a stack of physical books I’ve either purchased or were gifted to me (currently at 13), plus I like to mix in re-reads as I’ve been trying to weed books out of my shelves downstairs to make more room–and often I still end up keeping the books I re-read since there was a reason I kept them in the first place. It’s a good thing I read fast!

But on to the Kasie West book! I sped through FAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS in two days. It’s a companion novel to LOVE, LIFE, AND THE LIST, which I also enjoyed, but that one made me cry, which is not my favorite thing, so I’m going to bump this one up higher on my Kasie West list 😀.

Lacey Barnes has dreamed of being an actress for as long as she can remember. So when she gets the opportunity to star in a movie alongside one of Hollywood’s hottest actors, she doesn’t hesitate to accept the part.

But Lacey quickly learns that life in the spotlight isn’t as picture perfect as she imagined. She’s having trouble bonding with her costars, her father has hired the definition of a choir boy, Donavan Lake, to tutor her, and somewhere along the way she’s lost her acting mojo. And just when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, it looks like someone on set is deliberately trying to sabotage her. 

As Lacey’s world spins out of control, it feels like the only person she can count on—whether it’s helping her try to unravel the mystery of who is out to get her or snap her out of her acting funk—is Donavan. But what she doesn’t count on is this straight-laced boy becoming another distraction.

With her entire future riding on this movie, Lacey knows she can’t afford to get sidetracked by a crush. But for the first time in her life Lacey wonders if it’s true that the best stories really do happen when you go off script.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The zombie movie – I love that throughout the book there are snippets of the script from the zombie movie they’re making and that it’s so campy. It’s also fun how Lacey’s zombie makeup is incorporated into multiple aspects of the story–the mystery, her acting, and the romance.

2. The dialogue – Kasie West is a master at dialogue. I always love the banter between her characters, and this book is no different. For example:

“I have to convince audiences everywhere that a zombie loves a zombie hunter. So far, it’s not happening. So far, the only thing future viewers care about is that I’m not someone else.”
“How do you know this?”
“The internet.”
“The internet?”
“Well, people on the internet. Mainly Grant’s fans.”
“You know what a wise philosopher once said?” he responded.
“What?”
“You have to shake it off. Shake, shake, shake it off.”
I smiled a little. He did know how to tell a joke. “Because the haters are gonna hate?”
3. The romance – I mean, what would a Kasie West book be without a swoony romance? And FAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS didn’t disappoint me in this area either. I loved how the romance developed between Lacey and Donavan.

4. The mystery – This part surprised me, even though the description talked about there being someone disrupting the set, I’ve never seen this sort of element in a Kasie West book, and I really enjoyed it. It fit perfectly with the whole movie set, and I loved how it was all resolved at the end.

5. The family/friendships – Normally I’d separate these two things out, but I’m down to my last point, so here we go. Lacey’s complicated relationship with her dad, plus the changing relationship with her mom, were really well done. I also really enjoyed how she navigated the new friendship with Amanda, and it was fun to see Abby and Cooper from LOVE, LIFE, AND THE LIST again.

Have you read FAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS? What did you think?
Reviews, Young Adult

YA Review: FINALE by Stephanie Garber

I have a bit of a book hangover as I’m writing this because I stayed up until after midnight to finish reading FINALE, the final book in Stephanie Garber’s best-selling Caraval series. I’m not surprised, though. Each of the books in this series have been impossible to put down, so when I learned Stephanie was coming to town, I made a point of getting to her event, even though I had a commitment for one of my kids right before. As a result, I was the very last person in line to get my books signed, but it was worth it, and I now have a complete signed set of Caraval books. If you haven’t read this series, then you’re in luck because it’s now finished and you won’t have to wait for any of them like I did :). Start with CARAVAL, next comes LEGENDARY, and then FINALE.

Finale by Stephanie GarberA love worth fighting for. A dream worth dying for. An ending worth waiting for.

It’s been two months since the Fates were freed from a deck of cards, two months since Legend claimed the throne for his own, and two months since Tella discovered the boy she fell in love with doesn’t really exist.

With lives, empires, and hearts hanging in the balance, Tella must decide if she’s going to trust Legend or a former enemy. After uncovering a secret that upends her life, Scarlett will need to do the impossible. And Legend has a choice to make that will forever change and define him.

Caraval is over, but perhaps the greatest game of all has begun. There are no spectators this time: only those who will win, and those who will lose everything.

Welcome, welcome to Finale. All games must come to an end…

If you haven’t read the first two books, you might want to stop here because this review could be spoilery.

Still here? Okay …

Here are the five things I loved most about FINALE.

1. The twists – I saw some of the twists coming in this book, but I think that’s because I’d already read the first two books in the series and was anticipating them. Stephanie Garber still managed to surprise me with quite a few twists, though, and it’s what makes these books so hard to put down.

2. The love triangle – Honestly, I’m not always a huge fan of love triangles. I usually have a really clear idea of who the character should end up with and just want them to decide already. However, there was enough frustration with all points of this triangle for me to be okay with the ongoing indecision and the final resolution worked for me.

3. The Fates – If you’ve read LEGENDARY, you probably, like me, expect the Fates to be all evil in this book. A lot of them definitely are, but I enjoyed how nuanced they were as characters overall. That’s really all I want to say to avoid spoiling anything about that.

4. The quest – While there wasn’t a Caraval in this book, there was still a quest to complete, and just like in Caraval, the rules kept changing and the stakes kept ratcheting up.

5. The ending – You know how when you pick up certain books you have a pretty good idea how they’re going to end? With this book, I really wasn’t sure. I was only about sixty percent on how the love triangle would turn out and wasn’t placing any sort of bets on where things were going with Valendia. I loved that Stephanie Garber was able to keep me guessing and leave me satisfied with the ending.

Have you read FINALE yet? What did you think?

Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM: RUBY & OLIVIA by Rachel Hawkins

Get ready, friends, because I think I might be on a bit of a middle grade spree coming up. Two writer friends just had middle grade books come out, so I definitely plan to feature their books in the near future, but I also happened to pick up RUBY & OLIVIA by Rachel Hawkins, and I absolutely adored it. I’ve featured several of Ms. Hawkins’ young adult books here on the blog, but this is the first middle grade book of hers I’ve read. It’s equally delightful. Here’s the cover and description.

Ruby & Olivia by Rachel HawkinsRuby is bold and opinionated, while Olivia has always been respectful and well behaved. But Olivia’s good-girl image is tarnished when she takes the fall for her twin sister’s misdeed. And now Olivia is stuck with Ruby all summer—at a community service day camp for troublemakers.

To kick off the spirit of service, the campers are tasked with cataloging the contents of Live Oaks, a historic mansion in their town. Sorting through objects in an old house sounds boring, and working together is the last thing the girls want to do, but the stuff is actually kind of cool. There’s everything from mink stoles to golf clubs to antique dolls . . . and . . . wait . . . is that doll watching them?

It isn’t long until little tricks—like mysterious music playing, doors slamming, and shadows rising—start to spook the girls. They’d like to think the other campers are pranking them, but they soon realize that this empty mansion might not be uninhabited after all. To solve the mystery at Live Oaks, Ruby and Olivia will have to put their old grudges aside and figure out how to be a team.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The friendship – These two girls are so different, and their path to friendship is further complicated by the fact that they have history–Ruby used to be close friends with Olivia’s twin sister, Emma. This friendship is messy and prickly and the girls both get hurt along the way, but it’s honest and real. It’s very well done.

2. The families – The dynamics in both family relationships are excellent and unique. Ruby is dealing with the loss of her grandmother and is very close to her mom, while Olivia has a sticky relationship with her twin after taking the fall for something she perhaps shouldn’t have, leaving her alone with her parents for the summer for the first time ever.

3. The humor – Humor is a staple of Rachel Hawkins’ books, and this one is no exception. Ruby is the main source in this case, as humor is her default, although Olivia steps up sometimes too, once she feels comfortable with Ruby.

4. The mystery – A spooky house with creepy dolls, taxidermied animals, and doors that randomly close? Yes, please! I loved how the girls decided to investigate.

5. The resolution – I really enjoyed the final resolution to the mystery. It wasn’t one of those stories where you could figure it out entirely on your own. There were hints where it was headed, but you had to wait until the end with the characters to find out what was truly going on, and it was a great payoff.

I will definitely be looking for other middle grade books from Rachel Hawkins. I know she has one other. If you’ve read RUBY & OLIVIA, what did you think?

Reviews, Young Adult

YA Review: THE DECEIVERS by Kristen Simmons

I love entering giveaways, and I love it even more when I win–especially when the book shows up in the mail and I didn’t know I’d won. Best surprise ever! That’s what happened with THE DECEIVERS by Kristen Simmons, and it arrived with a really cool swag pack (pictured below). I started reading this book on the last day of our cruise and had it almost finished by the time we got off the plane home. It’s a super fast-paced read. Well, let me give you the description first, and then I’ll get on to the review :).

Welcome to Vale Hall, the school for aspiring con artists.

When Brynn Hilder is recruited to Vale, it seems like the elite academy is her chance to start over, away from her mom’s loser boyfriend and her rundown neighborhood. But she soon learns that Vale chooses students not so much for their scholastic talent as for their extracurricular activities, such as her time spent conning rich North Shore kids out of their extravagant allowances.

At first, Brynn jumps at the chance to help the school in its mission to rid the city of corrupt officials—because what could be better than giving entitled jerks what they deserve? But that’s before she meets her mark—a senator’s son—and before she discovers the school’s headmaster has secrets he’ll stop at nothing to protect. As the lines between right and wrong blur, Brynn begins to realize she’s in way over head.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – I’m always a sucker for secret schools where kids are developing special skills, even if they’re conning people. What’s interesting about this one is that Brynn has to consistently confront her own sense of right and wrong–which isn’t so clearly defined to start with–and decide what her limits are.

2. The pacing – I already mentioned it above, but this book was a really quick read. The stakes kept ratcheting up in each new chapter, plus …

3. The twists – They just kept coming! I loved how layered this book was. It almost felt like the author had started at the end and layered all the clues on top of each other toward the front. That’s how well all the pieces fit together. It’s very well done.

4. The romance – The initial attraction, the uncertainty, the ex still somewhat in the picture, the complication of having other people you’re conning thrown into the mix–quite a lot to add into a teen romance. And this one gets a bit steamy.

5. The ending – It’s the perfect ending to start off a series. I wanted more but didn’t feel like I was left on a total cliffhanger. I will definitely be picking up the next book when it comes out.

If anyone out there reading this has taken a liking to that swag pack, let me know! I’m going to keep the book, but if you’d like the patch or Vale Hall letter/syllabus, I’d be happy to mail it to someone. Just send me a note in the comments or email me. First person to ask gets it, but please North America.

Middle Grade Review, Reviews, Young Adult

ENCHANTÉE and A Few Other Books You Should Read

Hello, friends! I have returned from vacation, where I spent many hours reading, and once again I find I’ve built up a few mini-reviews on Instagram and even one on Twitter, so I’m going to compile them here. Before vacation, I was in a total daze from a combination of my first round of edits and serving as the cookie mom for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. I’m actually planning a post about what happens after the book deal for later this week, but on to the mini-reviews!

Despite being far from eighteenth century France on the beach in Cozumel—or the Belize countryside, or my cabin in the middle of the Caribbean Sea—I felt completely entrenched in the setting of ENCHANTÉE thanks to the beautiful writing of Gita Trelease (at one point my kids were begging me to play Spades, and I was like, “No, there’s a duel happening!”). I thoroughly enjoyed how magic was mixed into the history of the French Revolution, plus there’s a lovely romance thrown in, along with the main character making increasingly terrible choices. The ending was quite satisfying as well. Highly recommend!


So, I picked up Brigid Kemmerer’s A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY because she’s a fellow Bloomsbury author and I had been hearing great things about this book. WOW, WOW, WOW! I was in the middle of my edits, and when I’m not on deadline, I usually stop working about an hour before the kids get home to read every day. I SOOO wanted to do that with this book, but I resisted because I knew I had to finish my edits before vacation. Instead, I ended up reading the last half of this book on a Friday night into Saturday. Oh my goodness, the twists, the romance, the stakes! If I hadn’t been so entrenched in edits and Girl Scout cookies, I would have written a full review here on the blog. (But, Michelle, you did have full reviews on the blog during those weeks, you might say. Guess what? All written and scheduled before Feb. 11.)


 

Somehow I read all of THE DATE TO SAVE by Stephanie Kate Strohm without realizing its connection to IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU, despite the fact the latter was one of my favorite reads in 2016. Let’s blame it on the 189 books I read in between—although it made soo much sense when I read the acknowledgments why certain aspects of the book seemed familiar. Like the interview format and variety of voices and the humor. Plus this one included a fun mystery. I recommend you read the two together, which is what I’ll do when I come back to them again in the future. And isn’t that the best sort of recommendation—that you want to read a book again?


I started reading LEGENDARY over Christmas break and actually finished it on Christmas evening, as the kids were all running around the house. As I expected, I am now on tenterhooks awaiting FINALE. LEGENDARY included all of the gorgeous writing and page-turning twists of CARAVAL (one of my favorite reads of 2017) but had a different sort of tone coming from the viewpoint of Tella instead of Scarlett. As a result, the romance was a bit more steamy, but it fit Tella’s character completely, and I’m quite curious to discover how the romances of both girls will conclude in the final installment. Not to mention all the other threads left hanging … Is it May yet??


I thoroughly enjoyed SEALED WITH A SECRET by Lisa Schroeder. A companion to MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, which I reviewed in 2017, this book follows Phoebe through London as she tries to fulfill the steps of a magic spell she finds in an antique makeup compact. It’s full of friendship, sisterly struggles, other family dynamics, and London sights. I’ll be holding on to this one for my daughter to read in a year or two!


Okay, that’s it for now, but I may have a full review next Monday. We’ll see how the rest of the book I’m reading shapes up :). Happy reading, everyone!

Reviews, Young Adult

YA Review: IN SOME OTHER LIFE by Jessica Brody

I’ve been on quite the reading/review spree lately! Honestly, though, it feels fantastic, because for a while I felt like I had read quite a few books that I liked but didn’t wholeheartedly love and want to review. Anyway, the cover of IN SOME OTHER LIFE by Jessica Brody first caught my attention, but I’ve also read other books by the author and so knew I would be in for a good story, especially once I read the description. Here goes.

In Some Other Life by Jessica BrodyThree years ago, Kennedy Rhodes secretly made the most important decision of her life. She declined her acceptance to the prestigious Windsor Academy to attend the local public school with her long-time crush, who had finally asked her out. It seems it was the right choice—she and Austin are still together, and Kennedy is now the editor-in-chief of the school’s award-winning newspaper. But then Kennedy’s world is shattered when she walks in on Austin kissing her best friend and she wonders if maybe her life would have been better if she’d made the other choice. As fate would have it, she’s about to find out . . .

The very next day, Kennedy hits her head and mysteriously awakes as a student of the Windsor Academy. And not just any student: Kennedy is top of her class, she’s popular, she has the coolest best friend around, and she’s practically a shoe-in for Columbia University. But as she navigates her new world, she starts to question if this alternate version of herself is really as happy as everyone seems to believe. Or is it possible this Kennedy is harboring secrets and regrets of her own?

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – What if you could see how your life would look if you chose differently? Everyone has something in their life that they wish they’d done differently–because no one makes perfect choices all the time. But the trick is: would you really be better off? It’s such an interesting question. I loved watching it play out.

2. Frankie – I love Kennedy’s little brother. He’s the perfect constant in both worlds. It’s adorable how he keeps asking her questions to try and figure out how he’s different in the other reality, when what neither of them realizes is that she needs him to be the same.

3. Kennedy’s dad – I also love Kennedy’s dad and the role he plays, particularly in the original version of her life, but the contrast in the second life is an important part of her character growth. I just appreciate it when parents are portrayed in a positive light, and Kennedy’s dad is a really great character.

4. The newspaper – Kennedy’s devotion to her newspaper, The Southwest Star, is admirable on a couple of levels. One, it’s something she’s super-passionate about. And two, it shows her determination and dedication to succeed. These qualities manifest in both realities but result in different outcomes.

5. The ending – I have to admit I wasn’t completely satisfied with one aspect of the ending on the relationship side, but overall I really liked how the ending resolved from the point of Kennedy growing as a person and figuring out where she’d made mistakes in both realities so she could be stronger where she ended up. Can you choose a different life? Well, I’m not going to tell you the answer to that. But you can definitely choose to be a better person.

Is there some choice in your life you wish you could see the other option play out? There’s a particular post-graduate scholarship I went for that I feel like I tried the wrong route. I don’t regret it because if I’d gone the other route and gotten it, I might not have moved back to Missouri and met my husband. But I guess I’ll never know. That could have been my IN SOME OTHER LIFE!