Luckily… (a review)

September 8th, 2021

Here it is. A book that was SO written for me!
There’s mystery, intrigue, tons of WHAT THE #@*$ for the main character. Oh, and puzzles! It’s a book I would have read and reread as a kid, and I would reread it now, but my To Be Read pile is stacked way too high. Luckily …

Wait. First, let me tell you about THE INHERITANCE GAMES by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

High school junior Avery Grambs, whose mother has died and whose father is out of the picture, lives with her older half sister … or she occasionally lives in her ancient Pontiac when her sister’s abusive boyfriend come to stay. Avery’s strategy – in between shifts at the diner to make ends meet – is to get good enough grades to secure a college scholarship, study actuarial sciences (the closest she can come to major in both poker and math), and carve a better life for herself.

But everything changes when a stranger in Texas – far from Connecticut – dies, and leaves her $46.2 billion… IF she can live for a full year in his enormous, multi-winged mansion with shrouded secrets, hidden passageways, enigmatic messages. And especially with the Hawthorne family, who both expected to be the rightful heirs to the fortune and who suspect that Avery has pulled some sort of con job. It’s Avery’s new focus to find out why her, what it will take to stay there, and what it will take to stay alive.

I love THE INHERITANCE GAMES for its twisty characters, puzzling challenges, and impending sense of mortal danger. (Did I mention Avery has a bodyguard?) And for so many page-turning details and discoveries that launch you from one chapter to the next. I shouldn’t be surprised. Jennifer Lynn Barnes is becoming a favorite of mine for that very reason.

Now, typically, I wouldn’t review a book that’s already been a New York Times Bestseller, but I’m doing it today because of that word I left dangling – LUCKILY. Luckily, there’s a sequel to this book. THE HAWTHORNE LEGACY hit the shelves just yesterday. My copy is waiting for me at The Novel Neighbor. But I’m not allowing myself to pick it up until I meet my editor’s revision deadline. Once I do, clear the decks and leave me alone. I’ll be reading about Avery, her sister, the four Hawthorne grandsons, the games, and all those billions.

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First Up in My Genre of Choice

February 3rd, 2021

Growing up, I couldn’t get enough Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown…
Then, because YA wasn’t yet a big thing, I launched directly into Agatha Christie and continued to gobble up a huge variety of mysteries and thrillers.

So, I’ve been asked, if I’ve always gravitated toward those genres, why don’t I write in them? Honestly, I didn’t dare. I couldn’t possibly have the chops to pull off such stories.
But that was then.

Now, it’s another story. I’ve summoned enough courage to try my hand at writing one. Due diligence, however, starts with reading. And my recent mystery/thriller reading started with THE NATURALS (Little Brown) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

In this, book #1 of the series, 17-year-old Cassie Hobbes is recruited by the FBI to be part of a classified, cold-case-solving program comprised of kids with natural crime-solving skills. Chosen for her ability to make spot-on conclusions from seemingly inconsequential details, Cassie is, in essence, a natural-born profiler. Moving into the house with other kids whose talents are as unique as her own, Cassie is driven by the hope of solving a personal cold case, her mother’s disappearance and probable murder. As she goes through her training, veering off-task for her own benefit, circumstances turn dangerous, and she finds that everyone in the program has secrets, some much more lethal than others.

While officially billed as The Mentalist meets Pretty, Little Liars, The Naturals first grabbed me with its evolution/process story, leading me through the FBI’s first contact with Cassie to her being part of the group. In that regard, it reminded me of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, which I read long, long before I even considered the possibility of writing a thriller of my own. There are twists, there are turns, there is everything you expect in a thriller. And if you fully guess the ending, you’re a smarter person that I am.

The Naturals is a very fast read with unique characters that will have you wanting to follow them into book #2. Beyond that, through books 3-5? Time will tell. But if I were betting, we’re headed all the way to the end. Oh, and I just heard about Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ latest and supposedly greatest, The Inheritance Games. Excuse me while I beg my bookseller to get it to me fast.

One more thing. Click the link below for other February reviews.

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ICYMI…You’ll Want to Find It Now

December 9th, 2020

The particulars of what you’re reading happened because of this Facebook post. Above the picture, it says, “My current TBR pile. What should I start first?”

I’d been leaning toward FINDING LANGSTON by Lesa Cline-Ransome because at 104 pages, I could inhale it in one day. That fit my current mood. And a recommendation in the Facebook comments sealed the deal.

Even before I opened to the first page, I had no intention of reviewing Finding Langston. Books with two stickers* on their covers have already received much greater attention than I can give. When I finished reading, I thanked the person who recommended it, agreed it was a beautiful book, and that would have been that if not for a subsequent comment. Another friend — one without kids and without ties to the kidlit world — bought it and read it and loved it on the basis of that brief exchange. Then it dawned on me. Why wouldn’t I share such a beautiful book with those who might never have heard of it before? So, I’m sharing.

Langston, our main character, dreams about being back home in rural Alabama. That’s where his family is. His friends. The food he loves. That’s where life was seemingly easy. But following the death of his mother, his father joined the post-WWII Northern Migration and moved the two of them deep inside urban Chicago, where everything is hard, from making unburnt toast to his grouchy neighbor to the bullies at school. In escaping the nasty trio one day, he runs out the back of the schoolyard and finds himself in front of a library. The only library he’d ever seen back home was for whites only. When Langston steps inside and finds he’s welcome there, he also finds he’s one step closer to a whole new set of dreams.

This is a beautiful book, both in its writing and in its story. When I turned the last page, I wanted to spend more time with Langston, but I also knew this was just the right ending. Then…I discovered some great news. The companion book LEAVING LYMON came out last January and the third in the trilogy BEING CLEM is scheduled to release next summer. And you know, I’ll be revisiting that world soon.

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*Scott O’Dell Award and Coretta Scott King Honor Book

Speaking for Coo

November 11th, 2020

Dear Teachers, Librarians, Parents;
Dear Aunts, Uncles, Friends;
Dear Anyone In a Position to Influence the Children of this World,

It’s a book. It’s a main character.
It’s also pigeon-speak.
In sum, they tell a wonderful, beautiful, engrossing story that’s also extraordinarily suited to help people of all ages — ALL ages — understand the concept of empathy even more deeply than they suspect they already do.

COO by Kaela Noel (HarperCollins/Greenwillow 2020)

Imagine coming to a civilization where language and habits and habitats – everything you take for granted in daily life – are very foreign from yours. That’s what Coo must do.

Where has she come from?
Before I answer, I urge you to suspend your disbelief.

As an infant, Coo’s mother left her on a factory doorstep. The pigeons that lived on the rooftop above were so concerned for the human child that they lifted her up to their home and continued to care for her. They would scavenge for “clothes” and food and every necessity to help her survive. One day, however, Coo’s closest pigeon ally was injured. For the first time, 10-year-old Coo must go into the human world to seek out the one person who might be able to save him. And so begins – for sometimes worse, but mostly better – Coo’s life with beings like her.

I’ve said this before, but books with animals, well, they’re not my thing. Before bookstores were open for browsing again, however, I trusted the wonderful Melissa Posten at The Novel Neighbor to choose a variety of middle grade books for me. And there it sat in its stack. Finally, reminding myself of Melissa’s excellent taste, I opened COO. Then, I barely put it down, as much for the story as for my fascination of Kaela Noel’s artistry, giving us a master class in empathy, one that’s subtle in many regards, but powerful at every turn.

I don’t know if Kaela Noel intended for this to be an immigrant story, but at its heart, that’s exactly what it is as it highlights so many different facets of that experience. Regardless, this is a must-read of the year, a story you’ll want to pass on to any children in your life.

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No Matter the Title: A Review

October 7th, 2020
Don’t let the title scare you 🙂

I was at a writing conference years ago when Lisa Yee and I met. It promised to be one of those fleeting moments. It was just me in line to have her sign my book. She paused to let me know about about a thing we had in common. Since then, our paths have crossed at numerous conferences, and starting with her Millicent Min series, I’ve forever been a fan. Except (and sorry, Lisa, if you’re reading this) I long ignored one book. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around its title. I won’t go into the reasons – that’s not the point of this post – but I wouldn’t have the book cover on my site unless I really loved The Kidney Hypothetical Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days  (Scholastic/Levine).

Higgs Boson Bing leads a perfect existence. He’s poised to be his class’s valedictorian, has the ideal girlfriend, an acceptance letter to Harvard, and a sure-thing career as a dentist in his father’s successful practice. There’s just one thing he doesn’t have: the “right” answer to a hypothetical question. If I needed a kidney, his girlfriend asks during a senior class day-cruise, would you give me one of yours? That’s when Higgs rocks the boat and refuses to say what she wants to hear. Now, his girlfriend won’t talk to him, his best buddy has been banned from being his friend, his nemesis on the debate team has ambushed him, and that’s just the start. Suddenly, Higgs needs to question every little thing in his life, especially whether his future, once set for smooth sailing, is what he really wants.

I loved this book on two levels. As a reader, quite simply, this is a funny, quirky, utterly honest YA that explores the meaning of living an authentic life.

As a writer, I came away inspired to be braver in dealing harshly with my main characters. For the record, I read much of this story squinting through my fingers, not wanting more horrors to befall our hero. But they came and they came and they came and they came. And while I, personally, have a hugely hard time putting my characters into ugly and unwise predicaments, The Kidney Hypothetical, like no other book, convinced me to be meaner to them. It made the ending that much more rewarding.

So thank you, Lisa, for a fun, perfectly uncomfortable, honest, squirm-inducing, completely satisfying read. Sorry it took so long. I’ll be first in line to buy your next book, no matter the title.

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(As always, thanks to Barrie Summy for organizing her awesome book review club.)

The Escape I Didn’t Know I Needed – A Review

September 2nd, 2020

It was late February this year when I decided to give a book to each kiddo, age 5 through late teens, who’d be coming to a family gathering. The plan was to return from a mid-March getaway and spend a day in the bookstore, going wild, picking out just the right titles. (Then I’d read them – carefully turning the pages – before I gave them away.)

At the top of the stack of books from The Novel Neighbor

We all know what happened to 2/3 of that plan. The gathering was canceled, the in-store visit didn’t happen, but I could still buy the books. I asked my friends at my nearest indie, The Novel Neighbor, if they’d do my shopping. And that’s how I came to read A Wish in the Dark (Candlewick Press, 2020) by Christina Soontornvat. Without bookseller Melissa Posten picking this middle-grade out for me, I might never have noticed it on my own. (Those booksellers are amazing, right?)

Bottom line, A Wish in the Dark is one of the most compelling books I’ve read in years.

Part fantasy, part thriller, and all heart, this riff on Les Miserables is the story of the orphan Pong, who pulls off an escape from Namwon prison. Born to an inmate there, which literally marks him forever, he ventures into the world all alone, trying to carve out a new, and perhaps impossible, life. In pursuit of him is Nok, the warden’s daughter, looking to restore the dignity of her family, which was marred by the disgraceful escape. Set in a Thai-inspired world, where light is owned by one man, Pong’s journey takes on desperate twists and dangerous turns in a struggle for justice, not just for himself, but for all the marginalized people living in this society.

A Wish in the Dark is the type of book I’d normally race through to the ending, but I so loved living in this story – rooting for Pong and his allies as the necessary confrontation drew closer – it took me double-time to savor every chapter, every scene, every page.

There have been few silver linings during this pandemic, but I’ll always count A Wish in the Dark, both the book and the bookseller who brought it to me, as one of them. It was the perfect escape as we wish for brighter times.

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And Bears! Oh, My!

June 3rd, 2020
Now with a new cover!

Almost never do I pick up books with animals in their titles or on the covers. I was one of those students who was inundated by that required dead-animal reading in school: Rascal, Sounder, The Yearling, and others I’ve since blocked out. In fact, one of the books I most relate to? No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman. Haven’t read it? Do, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Read me!!!

Fast forward to the day when Kim Baker asked if I wanted to read an ARC of her then-forthcoming book, I gave an enthusiastic YES.

Then I received it. it’s called THE WATER BEARS. Bears. Bear on the cover.

Oh, no. But I said I’d read it, so I yanked off the Band-Aid and jumped right into the first chapter. I didn’t stop. Turns out, I had nothing to fear. No pet bears die in this book.

it’s all about Newt Gomez’s personal journey, a year after he survived a bear attack. And it jumps headlong into a story of hope and fears and wishes.

All Newt wants for his 13th birthday is a new bicycle. And to go to school on the mainland. And to stop having nightmares about the attack that caused the scars and pains in his leg. But instead of a bicycle, his family surprises him with a former taco truck he can drive around. Yes, at 13, he’s driving an old truck (and it makes sense in the story)! Because of the truck, Newt is now carting around a life-size wooden bear that washed ashore. Turns out, this bear might grant wishes, one per person. But just as Newt has decided on his wish, everything changes.

What I loved most about this book – aside from the very real characters, the extraordinarily unique setting of Murphy Island, and an awesome sense of family – it reminds us that if we wish and wish hard, our wishes just might come true, but not necessarily the way we envision them.

Thanks, Kim, for a wonderful, heartfelt read.

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Once Upon a Time…

April 1st, 2020

… years ago, during that decade when I envisioned myself as a picture book author, I checked out book after book after book from the library, reading and learning … and eventually learning I had way too many words in me to be a picture book author. But it wasn’t in vain. It had been lovely. Especially with this one book.

If checking out the same title, time and again, entitled you to own that book, Marianna May and Nursey would have been ours long before it went out of print and I had to hunt it down.*

Marianna May and Nursey may not be Tomie dePaola’s most popular work, but it was the most popular book in our house. I still remember the toddler begging me to read it several times each night, even during a bout with acute laryngitis. She wouldn’t rest until I croaked it out. Twice.

Tomie dePaola, a wonderful teacher, mentor, personality, and force passed away earlier this week. While we usually use Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club to highlight new books, today, I urge you to remember than some of our best literature has already been published.

And if you can spare a few dollars, consider honoring the memory of Tomie dePaola by buying one of his titles for yourself, for the little ones in your life, or to donate to schools or libraries in need. I plan to.

Years after we fell in love with the book, I was so fortunate to meet Tomie and have him do this.

*I just saw. Marianna May and Nursey has been reissued!

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One Scary Story (for two reasons)

February 5th, 2020

Here’s a middle grade novel that scared me even before I read it. The Ghost in Apartment 2R by Denis Markell (Delacorte Press 2019). It’s not that the title or the thought of ghosts freaked me out. No. I blanched because I recently finished a full 70,000-word first draft of a book, and the concept of Markell’s story seemed way too close for comfort.

I ran right out to get a copy. Then it sat on my table for one day. For two. I circled it again. Again. Finally, I grew the guts to pounce. I’m happy to report that I’m not writing the same book. I’m nearly as happy to report that this is a fun, approachable, conversational read with much to love.

Danny swears there’s a ghost in his apartment. His parents and his friends swear it’s an emotional reaction to changes in his life. His brother has left for college, and Danny’s parents had always promised he’d get to move from his literal closet of a bedroom – and yes, he’s heard all the Harry Potter jokes – to his brother’s room when that happened. But when his parents decide to rent out the bedroom to make more money for college expenses, that’s when the (maybe) ghost starts showing up.

While readers will root for Danny’s attempts to convince his friends and parents to believe in his ghost, it might be the setting that wins us over the most. This ghost story is also a love letter to Brooklyn and its cultural richness history. All the sights and sounds and smells and tastes come fully alive and have me craving to revisit Brooklyn – specifically, the area where Danny lives – the next time I come to NYC.

It’s all so real. So are the characters and the relationships – both peer-to-peer and cross-generational. Denis Markell has wonderfully captured the varied and interesting and quirky personalities that make this book stand out.

I picked up The Ghost in Apartment 2R, hoping I’d read something different. I did. And I’m glad, for me, but especially for the readers.

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