Reading, Review, 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, 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, Middle Grade, MMGM, NetGalley, Reading, Review

MMGM: THE REVENGE OF MAGIC by James Riley

I’ve loved every book James Riley has written. Both the Half Upon a Time and Story Thieves series are wonderfully unique and hilarious, and so I was very excited to see the announcement of his new series, The Revenge of Magic, for–count ’em–SEVEN books. Thank you so much to Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing and NetGalley for letting me get an advance read on this book. It comes out March 5, and while the tone is a bit different than that of James Riley’s previous books, it is a fantastic story full of twists and turns that will keep readers engaged and hungering for the next book.

The Revenge of Magic by James RileyThirteen years ago, books of magic were discovered in various sites around the world alongside the bones of dragons. Only those born after “Discovery Day” have the power to use the magic.

Now, on a vacation to Washington, DC, Fort Fitzgerald’s father is lost when a giant creature bursts through the earth, attacking the city. Fort is devastated, until an opportunity for justice arrives six months later, when a man named Dr. Opps invites Fort to a government run school, the Oppenheimer School, to learn magic from those same books.

But life’s no easier at the school, where secrets abound. What does Jia, Fort’s tutor, know about the attacks? Why does Rachel, master of destructive magic, think Fort is out to destroy the school? And why is Fort seeing memories of an expelled girl every time he goes to sleep? If Fort doesn’t find out what’s hiding within the Oppenheimer School, more attacks will come, and this time, nothing will stop them!

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. Fort’s father – Since I read an advanced reader copy, I can’t give you any quotes for this book, but please believe me that Fort’s father is entirely quote-worthy. The book begins with Fort and his father touring the Lincoln Memorial, while Fort’s father tells anyone within hearing distance about the wonderful feats Fort will accomplish someday. It’s both embarrassing for Fort and completely endearing. As the story progresses, Fort continues to hear his father’s voice in his head, as a sort of bolstering presence.

2. Cyrus – Cyrus, the student who practices clairvoyance, is the perfect foil for Fort. Every insult and strange look just slides right off him. Plus, he’s just awesome, and the rest of the kids don’t even recognize it. I expect he will continue to become more awesome as the series continues.

3. How the magic isn’t as expected – What I love most about James Riley’s books is that you’ll be reading and you think you know how things are going to work, and then he throws in a twist that turns everything around so you have a completely different perspective. THE REVENGE OF MAGIC is no exception to this rule, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say, Fort has to rethink both his own goals and the overall strategy against the beings who attack (sorry, purposely vague).

4. The secrets – Everyone is keeping secrets from everyone else in this book. Some of them are because they’ve been told to keep secrets, others out of fear or to repress bad memories, but the end result is chaos. Fun times! Actually, since this is the first of seven books, I think the secrets are necessary. I expect there will be many more reveals.

5. The ending – I was not surprised to find James Riley leaving this book on a cliffhanger. It was like–bam!–here’s something for you readers to hold on to until the next book arrives. Very well done, Mr. Riley.

I did mention at the beginning of my post that this book’s tone was different from his others, and so I do think I should address that. One of my favorite things about his other books is the humor, and that’s not a big part of this one. It’s not completely devoid of humor, but it’s not a main focus like in the other books, I think because Fort is dealing with grief and anger during this book. Humor would seem out of place. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it does come into play as the series progresses. Regardless, I still very much enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

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!