Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: FLASHBACK by Shannon Messenger

Today I’m thrilled to have my ten-year-old join me for a review of book seven in MMGM founder Shannon Messenger’s KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES series, FLASHBACK. We were especially excited about the release of this book because Shannon visited St. Louis last week, and we got to see her in person. I met her once before, when she came through for EXILE, the second book in the series, but it was my son’s first time meeting her, and he was ecstatic. I would share a picture–because he and his friend even went in costume and it was awesome–but I don’t post pictures of my kids publicly, so sorry. However, I am going to let my son take the lead on this review, because while I love these books, he has far surpassed me, reading the earlier books at least three times now. But first, here’s the cover and description, so if you haven’t read the other books in the series, SPOILERS AHEAD!

Still here? Okay then …

Flashback by Shannon MessengerSophie Foster doesn’t know what—or whom—to believe. And in a game with this many players, the worst mistake can be focusing on the wrong threat.

But when the Neverseen prove that Sophie’s far more vulnerable than she ever imagined, she realizes it’s time to change the rules. Her powerful abilities can only protect her so far. To face down ruthless enemies, she must learn to fight.

Unfortunately, battle training can’t help a beloved friend who’s facing a whole different danger—where the only solution involves one of the biggest risks Sophie and her friends have ever taken. And the distraction might be exactly what the villains have been waiting for.

On to the review, in the words of my ten-year-old super-fan. I did ask him to follow my five things format :).

This book is amazingly awesome, complex, and adventurously fun. But, warning: a lot of romance! Noooo! Well, it’s still really good.

Here are the things I loved most.

1. The alicorns – They are so energetic and exciting, and they’re always willing to help out Sophie and her friends just when they need them most. There’s some exciting drama with the alicorns in this book and I’m excited to see how it works out in the next book.

2. The Ballad of Bo and Ro – Once you read this book, this sentence will make a lot more sense. Keefe makes up this funny song, even though you don’t get to actually hear it, about the ogres Bo and Ro.

3. The butterbursts – Even better than custard bursts, mallowmelt, and rifflepuffs combined, found only in the secret teacher’s lounge of Foxfire, I would love to have these gooey treats and choose it over any dessert.

4. Tarina – A really cool and excellent bodyguard – a troll bodyguard – that helps Sophie with a tricky problem, Tarina is an awesome addition to FLASHBACK.

5. Meeting Shannon – Shannon Messenger is really, really nice. She loves cats and actually has a cat named Marty like Sophie in the first book. She hides cool meanings in the book, like Fitz’s name means “son of the king,” Sophie means “wisdom,” and Keefe means “good-looking.” I love what she said about how you should never let anyone tell you what you can’t read. Overall, I love her books, and I hope you read them.

So there you have it, a review from my ten-year-old. There are at least two more books expected in this series, although Shannon said at the event that a tenth is a possibility. After the cliffhanger at the end of FLASHBACK, we’re already anxious for book eight in the Mason house!

Character, Reading

On Sequels Ruining the Original

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, ever since an eagerly awaited sequel came in the mail this summer and from the first few pages had me going, “Whaaat?” I’m not going to call out this book specifically, which is part of the reason I waited so long to post about it (since I do list everything I read here on the blog).

In any case, I really loved the first book of this duology, enough that it has a review here, and I even pre-ordered the sequel so I wouldn’t forget about it. The first book left off on a total cliffhanger, but almost immediately the second book veered off in this completely disturbing direction. The further I read, the less engaged I was with the main characters. Based on everything they’d experienced in the first book and how the author had set them up, I found myself checking out more and more. By the end of the second book, the first book was completely ruined for me too, because with the cliffhanger ending of the first, you really can’t keep one without the other–a real bummer!

I’ve noticed this sequel issue with more than books. I had another experience recently that I wish I could erase, and I will totally call this one out. It was the musical “Love Never Dies,” which is a sequel to “Phantom of the Opera.” I love Phantom. I sang one of the songs as a solo in our senior showcase in high school, and the stage production is always amazing. I was skeptical about a sequel, but I should have avoided it entirely because it was extremely disturbing on so many levels. Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom all acted in ways that seemed at odds with their behavior in the first musical, and there were plot points that really warped events in the timeline of “Phantom” as well. If you have the opportunity to see “Love Never Dies,” DON’T. (This might be the first negative review I’ve ever written on my blog, but I’m still traumatized a month after watching it.)

Finally, while it isn’t exactly a sequel, I recently stopped watching the second season of a very popular TV show for the same reason the first book I mentioned bothered me so much. I binge-watched the first season. The characters were engaging, and the mystery kept me wanting to discover the solution. As I began watching the second season, I was increasingly disappointed. The mystery wasn’t so believable, and the characters started making decisions that didn’t line up with how they’d been established in the first season. It finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to follow their journeys anymore.

So why this rant about sucky sequels? As writers, I think we must be careful about the promises we make to readers in our books, and if we do write sequels or series, we must be consistent. As I mentioned above, what turned me off most was when the characters were inconsistent. I understand characters might change, but if they’re behavior goes completely off the rails, you have to make me believe it or I will check out as a reader/viewer.

I’ve never written a sequel myself, but that’s partially why I felt it was important to document these thoughts. Perhaps somewhere down the line an opportunity will arise where I’ll have a story that isn’t finished after one book. If it does, I want to remember the importance of character constancy and maintaining the essence of the first book. I think those are the keys to turning readers into true fans.

Have you had any experiences with sequels that have turned you off a book or other media series?

Reading, Review, Young Adult

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the five things I loved most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: THE FIXER by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

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

The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

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

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

Here are the five things I loved most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: STORY THIEVES: WORLDS APART by James Riley

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

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

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

Still reading? Okay then.

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

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

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

Here are the five things I loved most.

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t it?

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

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

Middle Grade, Reading, Review, Young Adult

My Favorite Reads of 2017

As I began preparing this post, I was a bit shocked to see that I’ve read less than 100 books this year, although I have 11 days left, so I might be able to squeeze four more in :). However, one of the reasons I’ve read less in 2017 is that I returned to another passion–the violin. While I’ve been playing in my church orchestra for years, I missed playing classically. So in August, I joined a local symphony orchestra, and a number of hours I used to spend reading each week are now devoted to rehearsals and practicing my violin. So it’s a good reason for diverting reading hours!

The other factor is that I’ve been mixing in more adult books from my collection downstairs, going along with my post from August 2016 about the importance of reading just for fun, but incorporating these old favorites decreased the number of books I finished since adult novels are significantly longer.

If you’re new to my favorite reads list, these books weren’t necessarily published in 2017–I just read them in 2017. Also, I read fewer MG books, so I’m going to mix them in with the YA, and I’m not going to rank them. I’ll just list them in alphabetical order by author, with links to my reviews. I do love to alphabetize 🙂 …

My 10 Favorite Reads of 2017

Caraval by Stephanie Garber  Follow Me Back by A.V. Geiger   Nightfall by Shannon Messenger  

CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber – I love that a sibling relationship centers this book, but it also features a tension-filled romance, gorgeous prose, new twists in seemingly every chapter, and terrific pacing. Looking forward to the next book!

FOLLOW ME BACK by A.V. Geiger – I read this book in one day thanks to its unique format, gasp-out-loud twists, fantastic pacing, and an ending that has me anxiously anticipating the sequel. Actually, I just paused writing this post to pre-order it, and I’m sad it won’t arrive until June :(.

NIGHTFALL by Shannon Messenger – If you’ve been following my favorite reads lists, this one won’t surprise you. Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series consistently ranks among my favorite middle grade reads every year, and this year’s installment delivered with the same level of humor, adventure and intrigue. Can’t wait for the next one!

Once Upon A Kiss by Robin Palmer STORY THIEVES: SECRET ORIGINS by James Riley Geek Girl by Holly Smale

ONCE UPON A KISS by Robin Palmer – I am such a sucker for time travel books, but add in humor, friendship, and romance, and I’m sold!

STORY THIEVES: SECRET ORIGINS by James Riley – I don’t know why I don’t have a review of this book. I think I must have read it during a time when I was too busy to write one, but this whole series is amazing, and you can read my review of the first book here. In this third installment, James Riley delivered jaw-dropping new twists, and he amazes me with his continued ingenuity. The next book is choose your own adventure :).

GEEK GIRL series by Holly Smale – While I’m not ranking these books overall, I’m going to make an exception for this series and say it was my favorite read of the year. I picked up the first book at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale last December and didn’t get to it until the summer. Once I started reading, I COULD NOT STOP. And there are six books, plus novellas. And this became an issue because they are British and weren’t all available in the U.S., and I had to wait TWO WEEKS for books four and five and it was agony. Anyway, these books made me laugh and cry, which is very rare. I only cry over relationship drama, so I really cared about these characters. I’ll stop now. Just … you should read these.

Catalyst by Kristin Smith At First Blush by Beth Ellyn Summer

CATALYST and FORGOTTEN by Kristin Smith – A futuristic world with genetically modified teens, a sizzling love triangle, and twists that just keep coming! This series is yet to be complete, and I can’t wait to see how it ends. Kristin was one of my mentors during Pitch Wars, so I was privileged to work with her one-on-one and to interview her about the books.

AT FIRST BLUSH by Beth Ellyn Summer – I love the famous-boy-falls-for-unimpressed-girl trope, plus there’s an inside look at life as a teen YouTuber and a great friendship story. Beth was my other Pitch Wars mentor, and she also granted me an interview about her fabulous book.

Lucky in Love by Kasie West Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

LUCKY IN LOVE by Kasie West – I predicted when I reviewed this book a couple weeks ago that it would make my list, and sure enough, here it is. An adorable romance, believable family dynamics, and a fun premise make this an excellent read. But really, Kasie West books make my list every year, so it’s no surprise :).

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING by Nicola Yoon – A book I put off reading because I thought it would be depressing and I was SO WRONG. It has humor, a romance with fantastic tension, and a unique storytelling structure. It delivers on so many levels, and there’s even a movie to go with it :).

So that’s it. What were your favorite reads this year? Any of the same?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: NIGHTFALL by Shannon Messenger

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review on the blog. My life has been a little consumed by Pitch Wars, and I now have my manuscript out in agents’ hands, awaiting their verdicts. But I did pre-order the Barnes & Noble special edition of Shannon Messenger’s NIGHTFALL, the latest installment in her Keeper of the Lost Cities series, so I thought that would be the perfect book to jump back in with a review.

If you haven’t read the first five books in this series, you should stop reading now! Even the description for this book includes spoilers for the previous books, as will my review.

Okay, if you’re still here, on to the description.

Nightfall by Shannon MessengerSophie Foster is struggling. Grieving. Scrambling. But she knows one thing: she will not be defeated.

The Neverseen have had their victories—but the battle is far from over. It’s time to change tactics. Make sacrifices. Reexamine everything. Maybe even time for Sophie to trust her enemies.

All paths lead to Nightfall—an ominous door to an even more ominous place—and Sophie and her friends strike a dangerous bargain to get there. But nothing can prepare them for what they discover. The problems they’re facing stretch deep into their history. And with time running out, and mistakes catching up with them, Sophie and her allies must join forces in ways they never have before.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The crushes – Okay, so I am way too involved in the love lives of these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. In fact, my nine-year-old and I got into an argument about which team we were on. (Yes, there are teams.) But that being said, I love how well Shannon Messenger portrays the confusing emotions Sophie feels toward the boys and how she sorts through them. It’s so authentic and how I remember feeling at that age. And if you’re wondering, yes, even though the characters have gotten older, the romance part still sits firmly in middle grade.

2. The twists – NIGHTFALL is the sixth book in this series and so you’d think Ms. Messenger wouldn’t be able to keep surprising readers, but she continues to come up with new twists in every installment. I was pleased with the new turns in this latest book, and I can’t wait to see what she does in book seven and (maybe?) eight.

3. The special bonus – I ordered the Barnes & Noble special edition in order to get the bonus section from Keefe’s point of view, and it was so worth it! Granted, Keefe is basically my favorite character aside from Sophie, but I loved how it showed a different side of him.

4. Amy – I loved that Sophie’s human sister was a part of this book and how Sophie’s relationship with her added another layer to her character. It was fun seeing the elvin world through her eyes.

5. Ro – The ogre princess is an awesome addition to the cast of characters. She’s hilarious and also brings a new dimension of understanding to a species the elves have only seen a certain way up to now. Love her!

Every year I’m dying for the next book, and then as soon as I finish it I wish I could somehow force myself to wait longer so I wouldn’t be anxious for the next one as soon as I finish. Because, of course, this book ended with another cliffhanger. Although it wasn’t as bad as the end of NEVERSEEN. I might never forgive Shannon Messenger for that one :). Okay, I do forgive her since she fixed it in LODESTAR, but still. I have a total love-hate relationship with cliffhangers.

What about you? Have you read NIGHTFALL yet? What did you think?