Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: LUCKY IN LOVE by Kasie West

It’s no secret I love Kasie West’s books. They’ve consistently been among my favorite reads in previous years. I haven’t really thought about my list for 2017 yet (although I should start!), but there’s a good chance this latest book will be included. LUCKY IN LOVE is a complete delight. Without any further ado, here’s the cover and description.

Lucky in Love by Kasie WestMaddie’s not impulsive. She’s all about hard work and planning ahead. But one night, on a whim, she buys a lottery ticket. And then, to her astonishment—

She wins!

In a flash, Maddie’s life is unrecognizable. No more stressing about college scholarships. Suddenly, she’s talking about renting a yacht. And being in the spotlight at school is fun…until rumors start flying, and random people ask her for loans. Now Maddie isn’t sure who she can trust.

Except for Seth Nguyen, her funny, charming coworker at the local zoo. Seth doesn’t seem aware of Maddie’s big news. And, for some reason, she doesn’t want to tell him. But what will happen if he learns her secret?

And here are the five things I loved most.

1. The dialogue – I love the interaction between Maddie and Seth. It’s so adorable I had to re-read it sometimes. Here’s an example.

Seth put his arms out to either side. “Hold the phone, Maddie.”

“Hold the phone? Did you really just say that?”

“I did, and I’m owning it.”

“You can have it. It’s up for grabs from where it was left in nineteen seventy.”

“People have used it more recently than nineteen seventy.”

“I’d like recorded proof of that.”

2. The premise – I mean, what would you do if you won the lottery? I really liked how Kasie West handled it. There’s a range of reactions from those around Maddie, from those who who are clearly just after her money to those who seem unphased by her improved financial situation. I thought it was all very realistic.

3. Maddie’s family – I thought the portrayal of Maddie’s family was also quite authentic. I’m biting my tongue here because there’s something I really want to say about how the lottery affects the family, but I’ll just let you all read it, and I’m sure it will be obvious to you.

4. Maddie’s facts – I love how Maddie collects facts. It’s such a cute trait that singles her out. Maybe it also has to do with me liking interesting facts …

5. Maddie’s growth – I liked how Maddie figured herself out in the course of the story. She started out very influenced by everyone around her and had to discover who she was and what she wanted.

So, basically, another fantastic Kasie West novel. Go grab it!

Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber

I did not read nearly as much as I thought I would on our trip to Australia, but it’s because I was busy doing things like holding koalas and feeding kangaroos.

Actually, I ticked those off my bucket list on our first day there while visiting the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary outside Brisbane. I highly recommend the experience if you’re ever in Australia. It was the highlight of the trip, although a close second was singing on the stage of the Sydney Opera House during our backstage tour. Sorry, I don’t know you all quite well enough to post that video here :).

I could share a hundred more pictures, but the purpose of my blog is to share either writing or book reviews, and today I want to talk about the last book that came through on my Kindle during the trip. I didn’t actually read it in Australia, but since I downloaded it there, I felt like that gave me an excuse to share a couple of pictures. Anyway, here is the cover and description for CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber.

Caraval by Stephanie GarberScarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their ruthless father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the legendary, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

Then, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation to Caraval finally arrives. So, Tella enlists a mysterious sailor’s help to whisk Scarlett away to this year’s show. But as soon as the trio arrives, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nonetheless soon becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with her sister, with Legend, and with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The sisters – The relationship at the core of this story is a sisterhood. Their relationship is complicated, and they’re oh-so-different, but at the core is love. It was great to see a novel with a sibling relationship at its center.

2. The descriptions – The writing is just gorgeous. It’s easiest to just give you an example.

The sky was black, the moon visiting some other part of the world, as Scarlett took her first step into Caraval. Only a few rebel stars held posts above, watching as she and Julian crossed the threshold of the wrought-iron gate, into a realm that for some would only ever exist in wild stories.

While the rest of the universe had suddenly gone dark, the grand house blazed with light. Every window shimmered with buttery illumination, turning the flower boxes below into cradles full of stardust. The citrus scent from before was gone. Now the air was syrupy and thick, still much sweeter than the air on Trisda, yet Scarlett only tasted bitter.

3. The romance – I’m a sucker for a rascal of a love interest. It must be all those romance novels I grew up reading. Anyway, I loved how the romance built between the two characters. There was just the right amount of tension.

4. The twists – Wow. It seemed that with every new chapter, a new twist was being revealed. Honestly, I was second-guessing every character–and I LOVED IT! It made complete sense within the world Ms. Garber built. None of the twists were gratuitous. So well done!

5. The pacing – I couldn’t put this book down. I was reading it during my son’s birthday party with a bunch of nine-year-olds running and screaming around my basement, so obviously that classifies it as unputdownable. I think it’s in large part due to what I mentioned about the twists, but also because there was a ticking clock–always a good strategy for keeping you reading!

Also, the ending was a perfect teaser for the next book in the series, so I’m anxious to read on. I sort of hate reading the first book in a series when it first comes out for this very reason, but oh well. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it. If you’ve read CARAVAL, I’d love to discuss it further with you in the comments!

Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: P.S. I LIKE YOU by Kasie West

I don’t know where the month of August went reading-wise. I guess I spent it reading that romance novel series I mentioned in my post about reading just for fun :). I have to admit that as much as I was enjoying my romance novels, it’s quite a long series and I started longing for YA again, so I took a break in the middle to binge-read a YA series I’d never read before–the Ruby Oliver series by E. Lockhart. I’m not going to review it because Ruby’s boy-crazy antics sort of drove me crazy, even though I couldn’t stop reading for four books, so … I have to admire Ms. Lockhart for keeping me engaged despite my frustrations with the character. There’s a lesson there, I’m sure. But the purpose of this post is to rave about a book I absolutely adored. I expected to because I’ve loved every other book of Kasie West’s. I’m so glad P.S. I LIKE YOU lived up to the long wait for a new Kasie West book!

P.S. I Like You by Kasie WestSigned, sealed, delivered…

While spacing out in Chemistry class, Lily scribbles some of her favorite song lyrics onto her desk. The next day, she finds that someone has continued the lyrics on the desk, and added a message to her. Intrigue!

Soon, Lily and her anonymous pen pal are exchanging full-on letters — sharing secrets, recommending bands, and opening up to each other. Lily realizes she’s kind of falling for this letter writer. Only who is he? As Lily attempts to unravel the mystery, and juggle school, friends, crushes, and her crazy family, she discovers that matters of the heart can’t always be spelled out…

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – I mean, Kasie West basically found a way to turn You’ve Got Mail into a YA novel, without going the obvious route of texting. I’m sure there’s a way that could have worked, too, but I really liked the letters. Actually, they could be a whole point themselves, but I’ll let them tag along with this one. I loved how the anonymity of the letters allowed Lily and her pen pal to know each other on a deeper level without the usual insecurities you have face to face.

2. The backstory – Wait, what, you’re saying? I’m not sure I’ve ever listed backstory as something I love in a book before, but it’s so relevant in this one. These characters have some major hangups that prevent them from moving forward. Without that backstory, this would be a short story instead of a novel. It’s very well done. *slow clap*

3. The friendship – I love Lily and Isabel’s friendship throughout the book. It’s solid at the beginning, and yet there are still some obstacles they have to figure out how to deal with to make sure they stay solid.

4. Lily’s family – They’re big and crazy, but they also love each other. I especially enjoyed Lily’s parents, who ask their kids to vote on who makes a better necklace or pie. And all of the sibling dynamics rang true, with both the love and frustrations of being one of four kids.

5. The romance – I already mentioned the letters, but obviously that’s not all there is to the romance. I don’t want to risk giving anything away, so I can’t gush too much. Suffice it to say the romantic tension is off the charts.

I really loved this book, maybe even more than THE FILL-IN BOYFRIEND. Or not–it’s so hard to choose. Fortunately Kasie West’s next book is coming in February, so it’s not that long of a wait. If you’ve read P.S. I LIKE YOU, what did you think?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: COUNTING THYME by Melanie Conklin

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Melanie Conklin’s COUNTING THYME for what seems like forever. We’ve been Twitter friends for years, and she even read a partial of one of my manuscripts once (thanks again, Melanie!), after which she recommended I read THE BURNING SKY by Sherry Thomas. Love the whole series! In any case, COUNTING THYME completely lived up to my expectations, and I’m thrilled to review it for MMGM.

Counting Thyme by Melanie ConklinWhen eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The title – Yes, there’s a reason her name is Thyme, and it’s explained. But this title has multiple meanings and I love the play on words. It’s just perfect on so many levels.

2. Thyme’s family – I loved every member of this family, from Thyme’s mom trying to hold everyone–including herself–together, her dad maintaining some fun where possible, her sister acting out, and her brother surviving. And where did that leave Thyme? That central question invested me from page one.

3. The friendships – There were multiple friendship stories happening within the book: Thyme and her best friend back home, Thyme and the girls at school, Thyme and the boy at school, Thyme observing the friendship between the girls at school. I liked how Thyme had to sort out these friendships and discover how she fit into each one.

4. The sound production team – How cool that Thyme found a project in the midst of everything else she was going through. I enjoyed reading about her experiments finding everyday objects that would make the desired sounds for the play. It was an interesting subplot that also fit very well into the overall story as she had to decide where this Thyme project fit into her family.

5. Mrs. Ravelli and Mr. Lipinsky – I loved both of these characters. They were polar opposites, and yet they both played critical roles in helping Thyme adjust to life in New York and giving her purpose. Plus, they’re both extremely well-written characters. I’d really like to try that cake Mrs. Ravelli baked for the Owens …

If you haven’t read COUNTING THYME yet, I suggest you do so. I have a feeling this one will be getting some award attention.

Giveaways, Interviews, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review, Interview & Giveaway: FALLS THE SHADOW by Stefanie Gaither

Two years ago, I read the QueryTracker success story for Stefanie Gaither’s FALLS THE SHADOW and thought, “Wow! I have got to read that!” Well, fast-forward two years and I’ve finally had the chance. And, bonus, Stefanie agreed to answer my questions about the five things I loved best and has offered to send a signed copy to one of you lucky readers. Details are at the end of the post. But first, here’s the cover and description for those of who you didn’t read that query :).

FALLS THE SHADOW by Stefanie GaitherWhen Cate Benson was a kid, her sister, Violet, died. Two hours after the funeral, Cate’s family picked up Violet’s replacement. Like nothing had happened. Because Cate’s parents are among those who decided to give their children a sort of immortality—by cloning them at birth—which means this new Violet has the same smile. The same perfect face. Thanks to advancements in mind-uploading technology, she even has all of the same memories as the girl she replaced.

She also might have murdered the most popular girl in school.

At least, that’s what the paparazzi and the anti-cloning protestors want everyone to think: that clones are violent, unpredictable monsters. Cate is used to hearing all that. She’s used to defending her sister, too. But Violet has vanished, and when Cate sets out to find her, she ends up in the line of fire instead. Because Cate is getting dangerously close to secrets that will rock the foundation of everything she thought was true.

And here are Stefanie Gaither’s answers to the questions I posed about the five things I loved most:

1. I love this premise. I’m sure you’ve been asked before, but where did you come up with the idea for a world where clones are a reality?

Part of it was the science geek in me wondering about that sort of world, but there were personal reasons for wanting to tell this story, too; as someone who had lost quite a bit of close family by the time I was Cate’s age, I can really relate to that desire that some of the people in this world have to give their loved ones an immortality through cloning.

2. Yay for parents who aren’t dead! And yet … there were definitely complicated family dynamics. I’m curious: did you plan Cate’s parents and their histories in advance (in particular her mother’s), or did that develop with the plot?

I had an idea of what Cate’s relationships with her parents would be like from the beginning, but as the story progressed, I had to think more and more about how those relationships came to be so that it would (hopefully) read more realistically. And that involved a lot of thinking about what her parents had been through, which led to backstory, which, of course, ultimately influenced the plot. So, I guess you could say it all sort of developed simultaneously? I’m not much of a linear thinker when I’m writing, so it’s hard to say which details came first.

3. The relationship between Cate and Violet was fascinating. Obviously the story’s from Cate’s point of view, but how much did you get inside Violet’s head to figure out how she would react in various situations?

A lot. Fun fact: when I first started writing the book, it was actually a dual pov that switched between Cate and Violet’s narration. There were a few scenes later on, too, that I at least partially drafted from Violet’s pov so that I could try to see things through her eyes. It was especially challenging with her because she’s essentially two people—the old Violet and the new one—and those two people are constantly warring in her head. So I spent a lot of time in that head, trying to figure things out.

4. I loved all the action! What kind of research did you have to do for the fight and chase scenes? Or are you secretly a ninja?

I may have been known to dabble in ninja-ry every now and then :). But other than that, most of the research I did for those scenes had to do with the weapons used, and medical stuff re: what would actually happen if someone, say, stabbed you in the stomach. There was some hands on stuff, too; when I’m writing out an action scene, I like to act it out to help myself visualize it. My poor husband usually gets roped into the act too. But he’s usually a good sport about me kicking him around and putting him in chokeholds, at least ;).

5. And I have to mention the romance, of course. I loved the way you threw Cate and Jaxon together in a life-or-death situation, and yet there’s history on both sides. How did you decide what kind of guy would coax Cate out of the shadows?

It was all a matter of knowing Cate first and foremost, and knowing how she would react to different people and personalities and different kinds of attempts to, as you put it, “coax her out of the shadows”. I couldn’t see her, for example, opening up to a guy she just met, because she’s too guarded for that. So I decided they had to have some sort of history, and as much of a pre-established connection as the quiet Cate would have allowed. And I couldn’t see her opening up to someone as loudmouthed as say, Seth, either. She has enough drama in her life dealing with Violet, so it made sense to me that she would seek comfort in someone like Jaxon, who to me is ultimately (even in spite of a few mistakes) the strong, steady and sweet type. Basically, it just comes down to seeing her as an actual person, and thinking about what other sort of actual person would complement her best.

Thanks, Stefanie, for stopping by! I love these answers. If anyone wasn’t already dying to read this book based on the description, I bet they are now!

And on that note, to enter the giveaway for a signed copy of Stefanie Gaither’s FALLS THE SHADOW, click on the Rafflecopter link below. North America only, please.

Rafflecopter Giveaway

Next week I’ll have another interview–with Kimberley Griffiths Little and her new young adult novel, FORBIDDEN–so be sure to come back for that one!

Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: ALL FOUR STARS by Tara Dairman

It’s only been two weeks and I have another MMGM. Can you believe it?

I’ve been waiting to read ALL FOUR STARS ever since October 2011, when it was entered in the same Secret Agent contest as my first middle grade manuscript. That first page is pretty similar to what I remember :). About six months after that–after Tara Dairman had signed with her agent and had a publishing deal–she offered critiques for all of the entries on Krista Van Dolzer’s Writer’s Voice team for my second manuscript, so I’ve had more than one encounter with her, although she might not realize it. In any case, I’m excited to review her book today. Here’s the blurb.

All Four Stars by Tara DairmanMeet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated, but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world. But to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret. Easy as pie, right?

And here are the five things I loved most about ALL FOUR STARS:

1. The food – I’m not a foodie by any stretch of imagination. In fact, I’m a pretty picky eater (although nowhere near as picky as Gladys’s friend Parm), but I loved living vicariously through Gladys and her descriptions of exotic foods. Hey, if you can have adventures through books, you might as well experience new foods through a book!

2. The parents – Poor Mr. and Mrs. Gatsby. They have no idea what to do with their daughter’s hobby. Seeing them through Gladys’s eyes is comical, and yet by the end of the story, she comes to appreciate them more.

3. The friendships – At the beginning of the book, Gladys is so wrapped up in cooking she doesn’t care much about friends. The cooking ban forces her to branch out and make new friends, which she finds in surprising places. I really enjoyed what she learned about finding things in common with the most unexpected people.

4. The disasters – The book starts out with a disaster, and they keep piling up. Nothing seems to go right for Gladys–with the exception of the fluke that gets her the reviewing job–and this provides some excellent humor in the story. There were several laugh-out-loud moments.

5. The ending – All I can say about this is that the ending fit perfectly with everything else that happened in the book. Ahhh, Gladys!

Have you read ALL FOUR STARS yet? What did you think?

Reading, Young Adult

YA Review: TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE by Jenny Han

I’m saving up my middle grade reviews for when Shannon Messenger returns in a couple of weeks with MMGM, so today I have another young adult review. As soon as I read the description for TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE by Jenny Han, I knew I had to read it!

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanLARA JEAN keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her, these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved.

When she writes, she can pour out her heart and soul and say all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only.

Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

And here are the five things I loved most about this book.

1. The premise – Can you imagine writing something for yourself and then having it go out to the subject? But as horrifying as it is, the timing coincides perfectly with another change in Lara Jean’s life and sets her on a path to grow as a person. I expected this to cause craziness with each of the boys involved, and there is some of that, but the story surprised me by going in another direction.

2. The innocence – I love a snarky, self-aware girl as much as the next reader, but I liked that Lara Jean wasn’t as worldly as many of the characters out there. She has an appealing innocence, and while she loses a bit of it during the story, she still has a refreshing outlook on the world.

3. The sisters – This book is as much about the relationships between the sisters and how that changes when one goes off to college as it is about the letters. It’s about growing up and figuring out your place in the family when the dynamic changes.

4. The romance – This story wasn’t the comedic romance I expected it to be, although there were some moments that made me laugh out loud. I liked the way the romance grew over the course of the story and was based on them getting to know each other without focusing on the physical side of things.

5. The ending – Points to Ms. Han for not tying everything up in a pretty bow at the end but still making it satisfying. I usually like to know exactly how everything turns out, but this ending was perfect for this story.

If you haven’t picked up this book yet, I highly recommend it!