Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Series Review: The Agency by Y.S. Lee

So, I’ve had a little time to read lately…

But in all seriousness, one of my reading goals for this year was that if I read the first book in a series and liked it, I would go ahead and read the rest of the series instead of getting distracted by other books on my TBR in between. Anyway, the series I started a couple of weeks ago has been out quite a while (the first book came out in 2010), but I’m really glad I chose it off my library wish list. (There are currently 125 books on there, so it’s not surprising some of them are from 10 years ago.)

I know I usually post reviews on Mondays, but seriously, who knows what day it is anyway? 🤣

So, today’s review is for The Agency series by Y.S. Lee, set in Victorian London. It’s listed as YA historical, although it feels more adult after the first book, as she jumps ahead many months in each one. Granted, I often feel that way about YA historical, since teen characters at that time were essentially treated as adults anyway. But here are the covers, followed by the description of the first book to give you a taste.

A Spy in the House by Y.S. LeeThe Body at the Tower by Y.S. LeeThe Traitor in the Tunnel by Y.S. LeeRivals in the City by Y.S. Lee

 

Orphan Mary Quinn lives on the edge. Sentenced as a thief at the age of twelve, she’s rescued from the gallows by a woman posing as a prison warden. In her new home, Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, Mary acquires a singular education, fine manners, and surprising opportunity. The school is a cover for the Agency – an elite, top-secret corps of female investigators with a reputation for results – and at seventeen, Mary’s about to join their ranks.

With London all but paralyzed by a noxious heat wave, Mary must work fast in the guise of lady’s companion to infiltrate a rich merchant’s home with hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the Thorold household is full of dangerous secrets, and people are not what they seem – least of all Mary.

Here are the five things I liked most:

1. The premise – I’m always a sucker for spy novels, and I also really love books set in Victorian London, so it was a double whammy for me. It was interesting that Mary’s situation added the intrigue of having been condemned to death for stealing.

2. The romance – Ms. Lee does an excellent job stretching this romance out over four books. The characters are 17 and 19 in the first book, and I kind of lost track by the end of the last book, but I think about two years had passed. James Easton is the perfect foil for Mary.

3. Mary’s character growth – While this description doesn’t give a hint of some of the issues Mary has to deal with, I don’t think it’s spoiling things too much to say that Mary is half-Chinese but has passed as fully English with few questions. A significant part of her character arc throughout the four books is accepting who she is.

4. The historical details – I love it when I read a historical novel and feel like I’m truly living in that time. From the mundane to the huge (construction of Big Ben), these books were so well-researched. I’ve read a lot of books set in Victorian England, and I learned new things :).

5. The mysteries – I really enjoyed the mysteries in each book and how they wrapped up. Truly fun reads!

What have you been reading lately?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

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!

Reading, Review, 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?
Interviews, Middle Grade, MMGM, Review

MMGM Interview & Giveaway: THE MULTIPLYING MYSTERIES OF MOUNT TEN by Krista Van Dolzer

Hi, friends! I’m on a giveaway spree! In case you’re curious about which two books I gave away from my 7th blogiversary giveaway last week, I ended up choosing two books with a connection to me. The first was THE GREAT SHELBY HOLMES by Elizabeth Eulberg, who is published by Bloomsbury, my publisher! And the second was MASCOT by Antony John, a fellow St. Louis author. But let me tell you, it was very hard to choose, especially since so many people who entered the giveaway just said any author would be great :).

Now on to this week. I’m thrilled to once again welcome my friend and critique partner Krista Van Dolzer to the blog with her latest release, THE MULTIPLYING MYSTERIES OF MOUNT TEN. And hey, it’s also published by Bloomsbury :). Here’s the amazing cover–which Krista’s going to talk about in answer to one of my questions–and description.

The Multiplying Mysteries of Mount Ten by Krista Van DolzerTwelve-year-old painter Esther can’t wait to attend Camp Vermeer, the most prestigious art camp around. But when her stepdad accidentally drives up the wrong mountain, she lands at Camp Archimedes–a math camp!

Determined to prove herself to the other campers, she tackles a brain-teaser that’s supposed to be impossible–and solves it in a single day. But not everyone is happy about it…someone wants her out of camp at any cost, and starts leaving cryptic, threatening notes all over the camp’s grounds. Esther doesn’t know who to trust–will she solve this riddle before it’s too late?

Featuring tricky logic puzzles readers can solve along with the characters and starring a unique, smart, and crafty young heroine, this story has just the right mix of mystery, humor, and wit.

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

1. Readers who pick up this book may not realize Esther was a character in one of your previous books, DON’T VOTE FOR ME. What made you decide she needed her own story?

Esther was one of my very favorite characters in DON’T VOTE FOR ME, so the thought of writing her a book was certainly appealing. I think what really sealed the deal was that I’d been trying to come up with a math mystery for a while, and when I realized I could do it as a (very) loose retelling of the biblical story of Esther (just as DON’T VOTE FOR ME is a (very) loose retelling of the biblical story of David and Goliath), I jumped in with both feet.

2. It’s evident within the book how much you love math—and how much disdain Esther initially has for the subject, despite her affinity for it. What was your inspiration for setting this story at a math camp?

Because I knew I wanted to write a fun math mystery, the math camp just made sense, but your question made me realize that some of Esther’s feelings are autobiographical. I was always good at math, but I didn’t really fall in love until I studied it in college. That might have been because, for the first time in my life, math wasn’t easy-peasy. It was challenging and stretching, and I actually had to apply myself. Doing something hard is great for your self-confidence.

3. The cover for this book is amazing! I love all of the detail, and I think it would be great if you could tell us a little about the significance of some of those details.

The cover is amazing. I absolutely love Danielle Ceccolini’s design, and Iacopo Bruno couldn’t have done a better job executing her vision. One of the first details I noticed was the sneaky yellow balls scattered around the illustration. In addition to the weight in the bottom right corner, the yellow balls make an appearance in the first puzzle in the book. I also love the tube of paint and the palette in the background that ties everything together, both of which, of course, are nods to Esther’s artistic side. And the ruler! And the compass! And the abacus in the title treatment! So many little details make my mathematical heart sing. 😊

4. The mystery in the story—interlocked with a logic puzzle—is super fun. What tips do you have for writing a mystery, particularly for a middle grade audience?

First tip: don’t write a mystery that involves a logic puzzle. 😊 Every time I fiddled with one clue, I had to fiddle with the others. Thank goodness for great copy editors who spotted so many mistakes!

Second tip: don’t be afraid to let your imagination loose. Adults dismiss so many clues to so many would-be mysteries because they don’t want to take the time to try to figure them out, but kids always take the time. They want to find something extraordinary hidden in the ordinary, so let’s give them just that!

5. I love the group of math nerds. How did you go about developing the personalities of the kids who would be at the camp? Did you create them to complement Esther or develop them independently of her?

Getting to know the math nerds was one of the best parts of writing this story. Angeline and Brooklyn distinguished themselves right off the bat, and Munch, Graham, and Marshane came along easily, too. I loved how self-assured Munch was from the very start, and the friendly rivalry that developed between Graham and Marshane inspired me to make their back stories overlap. So I would say I let their personalities take shape as the plot grew and evolved. By far, the trickiest part was making sure they were distinct (and in fact, we downplayed some roles so this most important group would have a better chance to shine).

Thank you, Krista!

I love this book so much I want to pass along a copy to one of you, and Krista has also offered a signed bookmark as well. To enter, comment below or click on the Rafflecopter link for additional entries.

Note: This giveaway has ended.

Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

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?

Middle Grade, Reading, Review, 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!

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: MARIE ANTOINETTE: SERIAL KILLER by Katie Alender

Happy January! Sorry for the delay in putting up a review. I have been reading, but I’ve also been busy with some other news, as you may have seen from last week’s post. If you missed it, my debut book will be published in 2021!

In any case, today’s review is for Katie Alender’s MARIE ANTOINETTE, SERIAL KILLER, which I picked up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. One of the reasons I love the warehouse sale is that I find books that have been out a while to feature and hopefully bring back to readers’ attention. It also gives me the opportunity to find new authors I sometimes miss. Here’s the cover and description for MARIE ANTOINETTE, SERIAL KILLER.

Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie AlenderColette Iselin is excited to go to Paris on a class trip. She’ll get to soak up the beauty and culture, and maybe even learn something about her family’s French roots.

But a series of gruesome murders are taking place across the city, putting everyone on edge. And as she tours museums and palaces, Colette keeps seeing a strange vision: a pale woman in a ball gown and powdered wig, who looks suspiciously like Marie Antoinette.

Colette knows her popular, status-obsessed friends won’t believe her, so she seeks out the help of a charming French boy. Together, they uncover a shocking secret involving a dark, hidden history. When Colette realizes she herself may hold the key to the mystery, her own life is suddenly in danger . . .

And here are the five things I loved most.

1. The setting – It’s in France! Um, how many books have I reviewed on this blog that are set in France? I don’t even know. Probably enough to make it a category :). In any case, I love that they visit Versailles and the catacombs (I’d rather do that one in a book) and the Eiffel Tower. I’m just biding my time vicariously until I can return for real.

2. The history – Is it real history? Well, not really, but like many twists on history, there’s enough of the real history in there to make me curious and go look it up, and there was an author’s note in the back telling you which part was for real and which part was made up. I love it when an author takes something from history and says: But what if …

3. The ghost – And for this book, the author said, but what if Marie Antoinette came back as a ghost and started killing people? I don’t think I’m giving anything away here. It’s in the title, people. I’m just not going to tell you why because that’s the mystery you have to unravel as you read.

4. Colette’s character arc – There’s a moment at the beginning of the book where Colette’s brother does something nice for her and she basically says she’ll owe him. He says, “You don’t do nice things for people because you want to get something from them. You just do nice things to be nice.” She doesn’t understand this concept at all, and it’s a very important lesson for her to learn, not only as a person but for her final confrontation with the queen.

5. The relationships – I loved how this book was very much about friendship and how it should look and how Colette’s view of it changes as she grows. But I didn’t just label this point “friendships” because her other relationships change as a result too.

This book was a fun murder mystery sort of book on the one hand, but there was real character development happening that edged it into a read I will come back to again.

Have you read MARIE ANTOINETTE, SERIAL KILLER? What did you think?