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An Unwilling Heroine, a Ruthless Champion, a Dying Queen . . . and Epicness ⇉ Review of The Reluctant Queen by Sarah Beth Durst

Thursday, August 10, 2017
A world where the very elements of the land are out for human blood? Where young women must put their lives on the line to train to become the next queen that protects humanity? Speak no more and let me read this awesome book in peace.

That's how I started my review of The Queen of Blood. The feelings hold strong for The Reluctant Queen, the second novel in the Queens of Renthia series by Sarah Beth Durst.

Even better? Because the main heroine is new, you don't necessarily have to have read book one to read this one. (But I highly recommend reading it because it is wonderful.) I love books that combine the perspectives of new characters while keeping us in touch with the old. Some series I love that do this include Tamora Pierce's Tortall books and Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles.


WHAT I LIKED


Don't trust the fire, for it will burn you.
Don't trust the ice, for it will freeze you.
Don't trust the water, for it will drown you.
Don't trust the air, for it will choke you.
Don't trust the earth, for it will bury you.
Don't trust the trees, for they will rip you, rend you, tear you, kill you dead.


- a child's chant in Renthia

A Believable World
Sarah Beth Durst does solid work building the world that the people inhabit. It has its lores, its rival countries (well, there's one other country that's beginning to exert itself), and its people and their concerns.

With the introduction of Naelin, we get to learn about people who don't care about the politics of this world and just want to live their lives in peace. And we get to peer, if only for a short while, into the lives of people living on the outskirts. Daleina was in a hurry to start training, so we didn't get to look much into outside life.

Some other new characters are introduced as well (with some old ones returning for a more prominent role). Through them, the story is rounded out even more. I enjoyed seeing how different characters contribute to the plot and keep it moving forward.

An Unwilling Heroine

I love books where characters go on epic quests and do great things for their people. Alanna from Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness and Daleina from The Queen of Blood are two such people. They want to do great things and serve their country. If I personally had to choose, however, I want to keep my peaceful life. I want to make a change in peoples' lives but on a smaller scale in my local community (and possibly farther out through my blog, but that doesn't require leaving the comfort of my home).

Naelin is an unwilling heroine because she doesn't want any fame or glory. From her perspective, such people live short lives, and all she wants to do is live a quiet life with her children. I can relate to Naelin, but I also understand why the country needs her. Our new heroine is another complex character that will appeal to readers.

Another Complex Villain(?) (Who I Actually Want to Like)
This time around, one of our old friends and rivals comes back to haunt us. This is a young woman that I want to like; she's charismatic, and I want her to be a friend. For a while, we're kept guessing as to how the situation will turn out, and I still feel like it could go in several different directions. I understand her situation, and I wish that something can be done to help her while keeping the peace.

THE FAMILY IS STRONG IN THIS ONE!!! (#familygirl)
Longtime readers of the blog know that I love books with strong familial ties. That hasn't changed. Family is so important to who we are. More often than not, people tend to like their family, and it's always been weird to me how family often disappears in novels.

I love how family is such a strong force in this book. We have members from several different families featured in this book, and family influences the decisions of some other characters.

A Breathtaking Cover 
I love the gorgeous artwork that's been done with this series. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, I believe in fantasy covers that showcase the world and give us insight into the world that the people inhabit. I'm looking forward to the cover for the third book!!


WHAT I DISLIKED


Do we really need a guy to make us feel alive?
There's a situation where a character asks her romantic interest to help her feel alive; they start kissing, and it's implied that they have sex. I'm not opposed to romantic relationships, but I do believe that our sense of purpose can't depend on love. If we're in a situation where we feel dead (or fear death), sex isn't going to solve the problem. We need to find purpose elsewhere.

That Plot Armor
The ending felt a bit happy go lucky and cheery for what I'd come to expect following the tragic end to book one. (The outcome is strange and novel.) That said, it does feel like the plot is moving forward, and I'm most definitely interested in seeing where Sarah Beth Durst takes us next.


FINAL THOUGHTS


Things are rushed in this novel, but they have to be given the circumstances. That said, I didn't feel rushed as I did in the first novel, where time would fast forward without warning. Sarah Beth Durst has created an interesting world with characters I want to like (as terrible the deeds they have done are) and a story that is hard to put down until I have read all that I have in my hands. (Where's book three???) The ending has me asking many, many questions that I hope to see answered in the next book.

I recommend this series to fantasy lovers, especially those who enjoy good world building and epic adventures (though we don't travel very far in this one).

★★★★☆


Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .
And those spirits want to kill you.
It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.


Not long ago, Daleina used her strength and skill to survive those spirits and assume the royal throne. Since then, the new queen has kept the peace and protected the humans of her land. But now for all her power, she is hiding a terrible secret: she is dying. And if she leaves the world before a new heir is ready, the spirits that inhabit her beloved realm will run wild, destroying her cities and slaughtering her people.

Naelin is one such person, and she couldn’t be further removed from the Queen—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her world is her two children, her husband, and the remote village tucked deep in the forest that is her home, and that’s all she needs. But when Ven, the Queens champion, passes through the village, Naelin’s ambitious husband proudly tells him of his wife’s ability to control spirits—magic that Naelin fervently denies. She knows that if the truth of her abilities is known, it will bring only death and separation from those she loves.

But Ven has a single task: to find the best possible candidate to protect the people of Aratay. He did it once when he discovered Daleina, and he’s certain he’s done it again. Yet for all his appeals to duty, Naelin is a mother, and she knows her duty is to her children first and foremost. Only as the Queen’s power begins to wane and the spirits become emboldened—even as ominous rumors trickle down from the north—does she realize that the best way to keep her son and daughter safe is to risk everything.



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For whom would you lay down your life to protect?



Publication Info
  • The Reluctant Queen by Sarah Beth Durst
  • Published by Harper Voyager
  • On July 4, 2017
  • Genres: Fantasy
  • Pages: 400 Pages
  • Format: Hardback
Series: Queens of Renthia
Mature Content
  • Kissing, making out
  • Implied sex
  • Violence & death

When Life Hands You a Heavy Bag of Heartache, Write About It ⇉ Review of Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Thursday, August 3, 2017
I enjoy contemporary novels that feel like they could have taken place "for reals." Like they aren't just a story with drama added for the sake of drama. Letters to the Lost provides just that.

Juliet and Declan are from different walks of life. In another time and place, their paths probably wouldn't have crossed. (Okay, that part is pretty cheesy.) What's pretty neat about this book is that it shows us how death and grief have the power to cross social barriers and unite hurting people. Juliet is more than the girl whose mother died, and Declan is more than the boy who got thrown in jail. They are real, living, breathing humans who are hurting so much that they don't know what to do with their grief except to write about it.

What I don't like so much is how the two become so reliant on their anonymous letters to each other. It's understandable given their age, but it has a cautionary Romeo & Juliet feel (except there is no caution involved). They feel very strong emotions; without another outlet, it all comes pouring out in their letters to each other. I don't think another human can solve all of our problems. When something happens, to whom can we turn?

I do like how family members active players in the characters' lives. The parents in this novel have the power to hurt and to heal. Juliet and Declan also have good friends who are constants in their lives. (They don't disappear!!! Though one is more active than the other.) Many contemporary issues are addressed in this novel as well. These issues cause some drama, but it's done well and, despite some blow ups, the teens handle the end transitions pretty well for their age.


FINAL THOUGHTS


Overall, in spite of some parts with which I don't agree, I enjoyed this novel. It is well written and addresses many contemporary issues that are relevant to teens today. I would recommend this novel to those looking for a darker contemporary that addresses contemporary issues.

★★★★☆


Juliet Young always writes letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother's death, she leaves letters at her grave. It's the only way Juliet can cope.

Declan Murphy isn't the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he's trying to escape the demons of his past.

When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can't resist writing back. Soon, he's opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither Declan nor Juliet knows that they're not actually strangers. When life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, sparks will fly as Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart.



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CHAT WITH ME


If you were to write a letter to a family member, living or deceased, what would you tell him or her?



Publication Info
  • Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer
  • Published by Bloomsbury USA Children's
  • On April 4, 2017
  • Genres: Contemporary
  • Pages: 400 Pages
  • Format: Hardback
Series
  • N/A
Mature Content
  • Language
  • Alcohol, underaged drinking
  • Death & Grief
  • Fostercare
  • Some violence
  • Kissing
  • Nudity / bed scenes described once - not the teens though

Evocative Imagery and Powerful Allusions . . . But There Were Some Major Dealbreakers ⇉ Review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Thursday, July 27, 2017
I read and loved The Graveyard Book and Coraline. When I mentioned that I wanted to read more Gaiman books, friends highly recommended The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I still love Gaiman's masterful writing, and Ocean is a well-written novel. However, due to several reasons, Ocean is not for me.


WHAT I LIKED


Evocative Imagery
Neil Gaiman is a master with words. His writing is as beautiful and compelling; it lingers in the mind and brings the world to life without extending into long, rambling sentences.

Powerful Allusions
As with the imagery, Gaiman's choice use of allusions brings the world to life quickly and powerfully without needing much to be said.

Creative World Building
I love magical realism for its ability to convey a realistic portrayal of the world while slipping in magical elements in such a natural way that it feels believable, like its always been a part of the world. Neil Gaiman does just this in Ocean. The world is creative and, more importantly, believable. This gives more weight to the themes interwoven into the plot.


WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE (AS MUCH)


Mature Suggestions
The synopsis tells us that frightening, dangerous things happened to the narrator as a child. I was prepared for terrible things, and I agree that terrible things happened to the narrator. That said, I was not prepared for some of the more graphic visuals; I didn't need these details and definitely wouldn't want a child reading them. (There's a reason, besides the theme of hopelessness, that this is classified as an adult novel.)

Themes of Powerlessness and Helplessness
One message that this novel conveys is that we are powerless and helpless to make a difference in some situations. The ending in particular left me wondering if anything could have changed the fates of the characters involved in the events that took place in the narrator's childhood.

In the end, is it better to be left in the narrator's situation forty years after the events of his childhood, or is it better to keep fighting for the optimal situation?

What's the Point in Reading Ocean?
I'm sure there are people who will read this and come up with great themes and messages to apply to our lives. I was left wondering what was the point in reading this book. What am I supposed to get out of this novel? Perhaps that is the point: to get us thinking about the novel is trying to tell us.

Perhaps.


FINAL THOUGHTS


There's no question about Neil Gaiman's mastery of his craft, and I'll likely continue to read his novels. However, I'm not sure that I'm as big a fan of his adult novels as his children's novels. I love the themes of hope to be found in children's novels. This novel was a 180-degree turn into helplessness. That said, this is the first Gaiman adult novel that I've read. I'll give some more of them a try before I come to a final decision on this point.

★★☆☆☆


Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.



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Do you enjoy books with magical realism? Have you read a Neil Gaiman book before? What are your thoughts?



Publication Info
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • Published by William Morrow
  • On June 3, 2014
  • Genres: FantasyMagical Realism
  • Pages: 195 Pages
  • Format: Paperback
Series
  • N/A
Mature Content
  • Domestic violence
  • Nightmarish creatures
  • Suggestive, visual, sexual images in the context of an affair
  • Suicide
  • Violence

Harry Potter Meets The Princess Diaries ⇉ Review of The Crowns of Croswald by D.E. Night

Thursday, July 20, 2017
Deeply buried secrets. A magical school. A quest to save the kingdom . . .

The Crowns of Croswald is part Harry Potter (with the chosen one and magical school setting) and part The Princess Diaries (with the MC Ivy being a strong heroine in the process of discovering and learning about her special heritage, and also embracing her gender and enjoying a pretty dress).


WHAT I LIKED


A School Life Story
Though it is a story about a heroine learning about her role in saving the world, The Crowns of Croswald is also very much a school story in which the heroine must attend to her role as a student even as she searches for clues to her identity. I love magical stories that take place in a school setting. It's so much fun to learn about the world with the students as they attend class and, of course, sneak off on secret adventures.

A Compelling Mystery
Though Ivy's heritage is pretty apparent from the beginning, there are many mysteries surrounding her situation, and more mysteries continue surfacing as she searches for answers. These mysteries kept me in suspense from start to finish, and even though most of the questions have been answered, there is enough left to keep me in anticipation of the next book in her story.

The Promise of Adventure
The Crowns of Croswald is filled with adventures in and out of class, and it ends with the promise of more to come. I like how this book sets the stage for the next part of Ivy's journey.


WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE (AS MUCH)


Un-Memorable Characters
While I have a soft spot for some of the characters, none of them were particularly memorable in the end. They're one dimensional and lack complexity; there are opportunities for the characters to show vulnerability and depth to them, but instead they continue moving forward as they have always done. Ivy, in particular, continues to exude self confidence and charisma in moments when she could have opened herself more to the reader and shown more to her character.

As for the supporting cast, we don't see enough of any of them to get to know them beyond what is their relationship to Ivy (and how she views them). There were lost opportunities to flesh out their characters. An example: As much as we love to hate on Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, he's still endearing—that's because we see more to his character than someone who cares about the purity of a wizard's blood. In comparison, Ivy's "rival" is only portrayed as someone who loves attention as much as she enjoys tormenting Ivy.

A Harry Potter Retelling (for the first half or so)
There were many details in the first half or so of the novel that felt like they came straight out of Harry Potter. (Some examples - highlight to see: the chosen one who never knew he she had magical abilities, ghosts in the dining hall, the magical shopping district, the diminutive professor who needs a stack of books to be seen . . .)

For some time, I wondered if I was reading a Harry Potter retelling or fan fiction. Eventually, the differences did make themselves clear, but I do get a strong Harry Potter vibe from this book. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but there were a few too many strong similarities such that I wonder how large an influence the Harry Potter books were in the writing of this novel.

How or When Did This Happen? (Missing Explanations and Awkward Time Skips)
There are several incidents in which some things seem to happen without cause or an action was missing to explain a situation. There are also some awkward time skips where a summary of events would have helped facilitate the transition through the passage of time. The same awkwardness goes for descriptions of characters and the setting. For the most part, these incidents don't hinder the reader's understanding of the text, but they did make the difference of a star in my final rating.


FINAL THOUGHTS


Though the characters have yet to prove themselves to be particularly memorable, the plot and world building is interesting enough that I'm open to revisiting this world with the next novel in the series. As this is a first novel, there is room for the writing to mature. I look forward to seeing what D.E. Night brings to us next!

★★★☆☆


In Croswald, the only thing more powerful than dark magic is one secret...

For sixteen years Ivy Lovely has been hidden behind an enchanted boundary that separates the mundane from the magical. When Ivy crosses the border, her powers awaken. Curiosity leads her crashing through a series of adventures at the Halls of Ivy, a school where students learn to master their magical blood and the power of Croswald’s mysterious gems. When Ivy’s magic—and her life—is threatened by the Dark Queen, she scrambles to unearth her history and save Croswald before the truth is swept away forever.








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CHAT WITH ME


If you owned a magical crown, what special ability would it allow you to wield? (Possible answers: transform into magical creatures, set things on fire, freeze water. . .)



Publication Info
  • The Crowns of Croswald by D.E. Night
  • Published by Stories Untold
  • On July 21, 2017
  • Genres: YA Fantasy
  • Pages: ??? Pages
  • Format: Paperback
Series
  1. The Crowns of Croswald
  2. TBD
Content
  • Bullying / Snobbery
  • Someone is locked in a box in a closet (found afterwards)
  • Someone seemingly disperses into gold glitter

A Whimsical Adventure with Family at Its Heart ⇉ Review of The Queen is Coming to Tea by Linda Ravin Lodding + #GIVEAWAY

Thursday, July 13, 2017
The Queen is Coming to Tea is a delightful, whimsical read in which a young girl visits many different countries in search of delicacies to serve the queen at tea. I enjoyed joining Ellie on her journey. It took me back to my childhood days when my brother and I would create new worlds and go on imaginary journeys. Seeing the queen and Ellie together at the end was a sweet moment. I enjoy books that show mother-daughter moments. (highlight to see).

This is a book that mothers will enjoy reading with their daughters. The end suggests that there will be a sequel that fathers can share with their daughters. In a future companion story, I would love to see siblings go on adventures together! Growing up with my brother was an important part of my life.


★★★☆☆


One day there was a knock at Ellie's door. There stood the Queen's Footman. "A message from Her Royal Highness." He offered Ellie a note on a silver tray.
May I please come for tea?
Sincerely yours,
The Queen Herself


When Ellie finds out the Queen is coming to tea, she snaps to attention! After all, the Queen deserves the best: cake from Paris, tea from China, lemons from Italy... "Pish posh," says Ellie. "We can do it!"

But will the Queen patiently wait? And what exactly will be waiting for the Queen?





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Fancy Nancy Tea Parties by Jane O'Connor


CHAT WITH ME


What were some of your favorite moments with your mother (or another parental figure) growing up?


GIVEAWAY


As a part of the tour, we're giving away 2 Ceramic Tea Sets and copies of The Queen is Coming to Tea.
a Rafflecopter giveaway




Publication Info
  • The Queen is Coming to Tea by Linda Ravin Lodding
  • Published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
  • On February 7, 2017
  • Genres: Children's Book
  • Pages: 32 Pages
  • Format: Hardback
    Series
    • N/A
      Content
      • N/A


      Friendship Forged and Real-World Issues Explored in the Australian Wild ⇉ Review of The Fallen Star by Tracey Hecht

      Thursday, July 6, 2017
      I loved animal books as a child, so when I had the opportunity to review this series, I knew I was in! For reviews of the first two books, click on the links in the table at the bottom of this post!


      WHAT I LIKED


      Introduces New (Australian!) Animals
      Each book of the The Nocturnals series has introduced new animals that can be found in Australia. I've enjoyed learning more about different kinds of animals. This book provides a good opportunity to research more about Australian animal life with your young reader.

      Enemies That Aren't So Bad After All
      As with the previous two novels, The Fallen Star reveals that individuals can make bad decisions that hurt others for innocent motives, motives with which we can identify. I love how these books show young readers how to consider things from the other party's perspective, forgive wrongdoings, and move forward together.

      Provides a Safe Place to Explore Real World Issues
      As I hinted above, there are real world issues in this book. Because the story is fictional and told through animal life, The Nocturnals books provide a safe place for young readers to explore real world issues. In particular, this book portrays the following: gluttony, keeping secrets, insecurity, friendship, and talking before you think.


      WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE (AS MUCH)


      Bismarck is Still One Rude Marsupial
      Bismarck often gets himself and his friends into tough spots because of his tendency to talk before he thinks. He's rude to those he doesn't like and / or who disagree with him. That said, he's also a good friend and will quickly change attitudes when he realizes there's a problem.

      Superficial Characters
      To a certain extent, the characters are still pretty superficial. We don't get to know the animals outside of the main trio. Dawn is the brave leader and the least developed. Bismarck has some depth in that his brash attitude forces him to learn a lot of lessons the hard way. In this book, Tobin shows more complexity because of his inner conflict. Overall, however, we don't get much complexity. (That said, it's for the most part age appropriate.)

      Where's the Old Cast?
      I realized in writing this review that we don't really see old comrades make an appearance outside of the original trio. While I enjoy meeting new Australian wildlife, I would love to see old friends make a reappearance. It would help connect the books and give a stronger feel of consistency. Thus far, the books feel episodic in nature (which isn't altogether bad—it means you can pick any book after the first book and not worry about having to read the rest of the books—but I would like to check in on old friends).


      FINAL THOUGHTS


      I enjoyed this book much more than the first two books. The conflict was intriguing and had me worried about the fates of the forest animals. It actually felt like they were in danger, and there was a real mystery here. I would recommend this book to young readers who love animals and would be interested in reading an animal book that takes place in a foreign country!

      ★★★☆☆


      In The Fallen Star, Dawn, Tobin, and Bismark awaken one evening to a disaster: all of the forest's pomelos have been mysteriously poisoned! As the Nocturnal Brigade sets out to investigate, they encounter Iris, a mysterious aye-aye, who claims monsters from the moon are to blame. While the three heroes suspect a more earthly explanation, the animals of the valley are all falling ill. And then Tobin gets sick, too! The Nocturnal Brigade must race to find answers, and the cure, before the pomelo blight threatens to harm them all.



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      Dawn, Tobin, and Bismarck help other animals who live in their forest. What activities do you enjoy doing with friends?



      Publication Info
      • The Fallen Star by Tracey Hecht
      • Published by Fabled Films Press
      • On May 2, 2017
      • Genres: Animals, Juvenile
      • Pages: 208 Pages
      • Format: Hardback
      Content
      • A deceitful villain uses other animals (lies to some, hypnotizes others).
      • A death is mentioned
      • Some intense scenes in which the heroes are captured and fight for their lives.

      Overcoming Death and Stereotypes ⇉ Review of What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum

      Thursday, June 29, 2017
      When I was in school, I would have friend groups for different situations. I met people in certain activities, and our interactions were limited to those situations. Or if we did go out and do something different, only people from that group attended. The older I get, however, the more I appreciate having a stable friend group that does life together.

      The initial appeal of What to Say Next is that it breaks these "class lines" and puts a girl from the "in" crowd in the time and place as a boy from the "out" crowd. In the process, we're reminded of the unifying nature of our humanity. We don't have to be one or the other. As long as we put aside preconceived stereotypes, we can be just human.


      WHAT I LIKED


      It's the Small Details (that bring the characters to life)
      In a fiction writing class I took in college, the professor told us that small details make a story more realistic. I was reminded of this early in What to Say Next because it is filled with small details about the characters from their mannerisms to beauty marks (like the cluster of freckles David notices on Kit) to their thoughts. Such details made them real to me and helped invest me in their lives.

      Crossing Social Boundaries
      High school is a microcosm of the "real world," and the social hierarchy is no different. Kit belongs to the "in" crowd (though she's not feeling very "in" right now) while David belongs to the "out" crowd. What's interesting is that Kit isn't very comfortable in her own skin while David is comfortable watching everyone from afar. Their worlds collide when . . . something happens to spark an unlikely friendship between them (see how I avoided spoilers by drawing from the synopsis below?).

      I like how the story crosses social boundaries to examine how life could be if people set aside their differences to find common ground. Okay, this might not be the original intention of the author, but it's there and it's real. It makes the story real and relatable.

      Also of note: Kit is of a diverse background, and it actually plays an important role in her life and how she perceives her identity. It's not mentioned and left forgotten like I've seen in other books. David has been diagnosed with Asperger's (and he has a problem with it being swallowed into the autism spectrum in the DSM-5, another little detail that brings his character to life).

      Invests in the MCs' Stories
      All of the above drew me into the MCs' lives. (This story is told in alternating perspectives between Kit and David.) Some parts were cheesy: like the party and what happens at the party, and like what happens in the last scene of the novel (I would've thought it'd take more time to get over what happened almost immediately before that).

      However, Kit and David feel like real people, and they deal with very real-world problems. I'm sure many readers can relate to their feelings if not the problems they deal with.

      Brings Together the Pieces
      There's a big reveal at the end (because what's a contemporary novel without big reveals?). To be honest, I could deal without another piece of drama added to the mix, but to give author Julie Buxbaum credit, this one was well done. I like how it made a lot of inconspicuous events from earlier turn into foreshadowing. If you're into rereads, it'd be worth giving this one a shot after you've seen the big reveal, so you can see how Buxbaum builds up the big reveal.


      WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE


      Some Loose Threads
      There are some plotlines that don't get developed much or get an ending. For a time, they seemed important, but they get dropped after the plot twist is revealed towards the end.

      The Content: Language & The Afterlife
      I have a list of content in the table towards the bottom of this post, but I'll be addressing a couple in more detail here.

      Language in particular comes up frequently in What Happens Next. Enough that I felt uncomfortable.

      From various details in the novel, it seems that the author is more secular minded. For example, a conversation on life after death uses a paradigm in which science and religion are considered mutually exclusive, and the characters agree that there is no life after death. While I love how the story explores real world issues, I would think twice about recommending this book because of the values expressed.


      FINAL THOUGHTS


      What to Say Next has some of the most real characters I've seen in a contemporary novel, and it explores real world issues with which we can relate. Readers who enjoy a book with well-developed characters will enjoy this one. That said, I would caution readers to check out the content in the book before delving into it as some readers, especially more conservative readers, may not be comfortable with the content. (See content list in the table at the bottom of this post.)

      ★★★☆☆


      Sometimes a new perspective is all that is needed to make sense of the world.

      KIT: I don’t know why I decide not to sit with Annie and Violet at lunch. It feels like no one here gets what I’m going through. How could they? I don’t even understand.

      DAVID: In the 622 days I’ve attended Mapleview High, Kit Lowell is the first person to sit at my lunch table. I mean, I’ve never once sat with someone until now. “So your dad is dead,” I say to Kit, because this is a fact I’ve recently learned about her.

      When an unlikely friendship is sparked between relatively popular Kit Lowell and socially isolated David Drucker, everyone is surprised, most of all Kit and David. Kit appreciates David’s blunt honesty—in fact, she finds it bizarrely refreshing. David welcomes Kit’s attention and her inquisitive nature. When she asks for his help figuring out the how and why of her dad’s tragic car accident, David is all in. But neither of them can predict what they’ll find. Can their friendship survive the truth?



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      Publication Info
      • Eliza and Her Monsters by Julie Buxbaum
      • Published by Harper Collins
      • On May 30, 2017
      • Genres: Contemporary
      • Pages: 400 Pages
      • Format: Hardback
      Series
      • N/A
      Content
      • Frequent Language
      • Kissing, making out
      • Thoughts of female nudity (not explicit)
      • Death & Descriptions of a Car Accident
      • Aspergers / Autism Spectrum
      • Bullying
      • Fight scene (not entirely explicit; it's mentioned later that some students get sent to the hospital)
      • Mentions of an affair, divorce papers, and couple therapy
      • Underage drinking / house party
      • Questions on life after death. Science and religion are treated as mutually exclusive entities. Determines there is no life after death.

      Learning to Love Yourself and What You Do ⇉ Contemplations on Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

      Tuesday, June 20, 2017
      Francesca Zappia has a talent for bringing characters and their emotions to life. I started reading this book intending to enjoy some light reading before bed . . . and stayed up flipping through the pages, intent on finding out how things develop between Eliza and Wallace after he sees her artwork.

      The high school me could relate with Eliza. I didn't like school and had a hard time communicating with my peers. Reading and writing were my means of escape from reality. I never created an online fandom like Eliza, but I did hang around the Inkpop forums before Figment took over. Given this shared experience and how the Internet has become such a large part of our culture, I was interested in seeing how Francesca Zappia would bring the two worlds together.

      I like how Francesca Zappia integrates pages from Eliza's popular webcomic Monstrous Sea, comment threads, and text messages into the novel. It gives us a broader picture of Eliza's life and how much more real her online community is to her than her offline life, where everything that can go wrong seems to go wrong. (At least, to the teenage mind.) Because of this broader picture, I can empathize with how Eliza puts more energy into her online life. It's so much easier to invest into something that's going well, especially after all our past efforts with the alternative seem to have failed.

      Regardless of whether you consider yourself an artist, I believe we can all relate to Eliza's creativity and passion. We've all felt passion for something at one part in our life. Whether or not we continued to feed that passion is another story. (Or maybe you found another passion: I can relate to that one. I was the child who tried different things but found a hard time sticking to any one thing. Anyone else relate?) I enjoy reading YA lit because of the hope it lights up in the midst of challenges. It fuels my drive to delve into my passions and create something.

      The ending of Eliza really hits home for me. There will be times when we fall into slumps. When we want to give up and let go of everything. Even after we overcome one obstacle, we may face another one later on. Eliza's continued passion for her creation in a time of trial reminds me never to persevere through the challenges. When we can get through them, the result will be so, so rewarding.

      (Her story also reminds me that authors are human too. There are authors who go on long hiatuses. Eliza reminds us that authors don't belong to their fans; they need time off too for personal reasons. I appreciate the time that authors take with their craft. Some of my favorite authors tend to take their time with their works, and the quality of their writing is worth the wait!)

      Of course, no story is perfect, and the reasons will differ from reader to reader. Some things that I didn't love so much were....

      1. The language
      It's not pervasive, but there are times when cuss words pop up

      2. The romance
      There are some intimate moments behind closed doors. (Thankfully, nothing that involves clothes coming off, but I did feel like I was invading their private space).

      My bigger problem, however, is how Wallace handles the big reveal and what he says to her the next time they see each other. (I don't consider this a spoiler because we know the reveal is going to happen eventually). Though he seems to try to be understanding, in the end, he's thinking about himself, and his backstory was developed enough for me to empathize with the way he treats her. In the end, I still don't see how they got resolve everything other than the fact that they're teenagers. (It still would have been good to see them communicate more. Too much is done at the end out of moments of passion.)

      3. Where's Monstrous Sea?
      I was looking forward to seeing the story of Monstrous Sea interwoven with that of Eliza's offline life. While we do see some of the story, it's so sparse and infrequent, that I wouldn't remember what I'd last seen of Monstrous Sea by the time the next section came around. I'm also confused as to how the storyline all fits in together. I needed to see either more of Monstrous Sea (so I could make the connections ) or less of it (so I could remember what I did see).

      4. Underdeveloped Family Relations
      While I like how Eliza's family plays an important role in her life (as under appreciated as they are in the beginning), things wrap up a little to nicely at the end. I feel like Eliza isn't given the chance to grow as much as she could have as a daughter and sister.

      Yes, her family didn't try as hard as they could have to understand her and support her, but Eliza also fails to try to understand them and assumes that they hate her. I love how her brothers take action at the end to move things forward, and I wish that more pages were dedicated to showing her respond in kind. This was a great opportunity to show character growth and shine the spotlight on the family.


      FINAL THOUGHTS


      Eliza's story is one with which many readers can relate no matter where they come from. We often think that other people live more glamorous lives than ours or judge us more harshly than they do. Who better to show us this than Eliza, whose online life is scrutinized by millions of fans? While I did have some problems with plot development (especially the later stages of the romance), I enjoyed following Eliza's high school troubles and the nostalgia of my own high school life (not that I enjoyed high school much when I was a high school student). Eliza's story is a remind that, no matter how tough things get, as long as we push forward with hope for the future, we will find joy in the midst of trials and come out a stronger person.

      Lastly, I do need to shout out the references to anime. I love anime and cartoons in general :)

      ★★★☆☆


      Her story is a phenomenon. Her life is a disaster.

      In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, she’s LadyConstellation, the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves the online one, and she has no desire to try.

      Then Wallace Warland, Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer, transfers to her school. Wallace thinks Eliza is just another fan, and as he draws her out of her shell, she begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile.

      But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart.



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      Publication Info
      • Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
      • Published by Harper Collins
      • On May 30, 2017
      • Genres: Contemporary
      • Pages: 400 Pages
      • Format: Hardback
      Series
      • N/A
      Content
      • Language
      • Kissing, intimate couple moments (no sex scenes)
      • Fan work involving BL (boy love)
      • Contemplations of suicide
      • Panic attack

      The Ominous Eye by Tracey Hecht ⇉ Furry Friends and Big Dilemmas Will Encourage Young Readers to Reconsider What They Know about Right and Wrong

      Friday, June 16, 2017
      The Nocturnals are back for another adventure! Who else enjoys reading books featuring animals as the protagonists?


      WHAT I LIKED


      Friendship Focus
      The focus of the Nocturnals has always been on the strong friendship that Dawn, Tobin, and Bismark share. I like how their friendship is put to the test in this novel because it shows young readers that good friends can fight and doubt each other, but they will continue to care for each other and put in the effort to make up.

      Blurs the Line Between Good and Evil
      Like the first book, The Ominous Eye blurs the line between good and evil. Oftentimes, we look at someone's actions and judge their character based off a specific behavior at a specific point in the time, but we don't stop to question the motive behind their behavior. The Ominous Eye calls us to consider the other side's perspective.

      Caricature of the Real World
      The actions of the nocturnals in this novel reflect the actions of real-world people when bad things happen and no one knows what to do. This book provide a safe place for children to consider how they would act (or who in the novel they want to act like) should something similar take place in their lives.


      WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE (AS MUCH)


      Superficial Characters
      As in the first novel, the characters stay nicely packaged in their respective personas. While events cause tension within the heroes' relationships with one another, even the quarrel isn't very persuasive and lacks depth.

      The Characters' Attitudes and Actions
      On top of what I didn't like from the last novel, I really didn't like Dawn and Bismark's attitudes in this novel. The new major player in this novel was also pretty big "know it all." Young readers may find their attitudes and actions interesting, but as an older reader, I wanted to see more to the characters' personalities.


      FINAL THOUGHTS


      Overall, I appreciate how the Nocturnals books introduce young readers to new creatures and teaches them about friendship, hope, and perseverance through hardships. In exploring real-world concepts through animals lives, the book gives young readers the opportunity to consider the right thing to do when faced with a moral dilemma.

      ★★★☆☆


      They're baaaccckkk for another mysterious action filled Nocturnal adventure!

      Join Dawn, Bismark and Tobin as they set out to investigate the source of a violent jolt that fractures the earth! Along their journey, the Nocturnal Brigade meets an unfamiliar reptile—a tuatara named Polyphema—who reveals that a giant beast caused the destruction and will soon strike again. Polyphema with her special insights, is the only one who can help the Nocturnal Brigade stop this fearsome predator… but can she be trusted? With help from an owl, the jerboas, and some kiwis, the animals set a trap since surrender is not an option against this relentless beast.



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      Publication Info
      • The Ominous Eye by Tracey Hecht
      • Published by Fabled Films Press
      • On September 20, 2016
      • Genres: MysteryMiddle Grade
      • Pages: 208 Pages
      • Format: Hardback
      Series: Nocturnals
      1. The Mysterious Abductions
      2. The Ominous Eye
      3. The Fallen Star
      Content
      • Some violence

      Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel for review. All thoughts expressed are my personal honest opinions.

      5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior by Mark Siegel ⇉ Full Color Illustrations, Unlikely Heroes, and a #GIVEAWAY

      Friday, June 9, 2017
      Five worlds at stake. Three unlikely heroes. . .

      The Sand Warrior has the basics to one of my favorite plotlines in fantasy worlds. Furthermore, it's told in graphic novel format. Though I typically favor prose reads, I enjoy a good graphic novel and opened this one in anticipation of how the illustrations would bring the story to life.


      WHAT I LIKED


      Full Color Illustrations
      The Sand Warrior is filled with full color illustrations from start the finish. I appreciate the use of full color because it brings the fantasy world to life in a way that wouldn't have been possible with black and white illustrations.

      The Political Intricacies
      With the fate of 5 worlds at stake, there is unrest and political intricacy as expected. Different races fight for a say in their fates, there are power struggles, and there is the daily fight for survival. In the end, the story makes the reader question who is in the right and if there is a way to resolve everything in a way that respects all the parties involved. The twist in the last battle of The Sand Warrior further expands on the political intricacies and the moral dilemmas faced by the characters.

      Creative World Building
      Though only a few of the characteristics of the 5 worlds are explored in The Sand Warrior, it is clear that each world possesses its unique elements. The ability of the sand dancers is the focus in this first book. Oona's troubles in the academy will be relatable to many young people; I wish that her time there was explored in more detail.

      Strong Mentor Figures
      The main characters are still children. Though they must take action on their own at times (being the heroes), they do not do everything on their own. At times when they don't know what to do, they turn to their mentor figures, who play instrumental roles in providing them with shelter, important information, and learning opportunities. I am always appreciative of books with strong mentor figures. No matter how old we get, we always need them!!

      Contemporary Issues in a Foreign World
      Bullying and name calling . . . social unrest . . . political intricacies . . . racism . . . many contemporary issues are raised in The Sand Warrior. Given that events take place in a foreign world, this presents a safe place for young readers to explore these issues.


      WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE


      Does Not Build a Firm Foundation
      Soon after the start, events take place one after the other without pause. I felt like a puppet being dragged from one place to another without understanding the point of the mission. Yes, this may have happened because the characters themselves don't know what's going on, but without a clear focus, the readers will become lost as well.

      This first book certainly does its job of setting up the premise. However, it was a simple introduction and nothing more. As a first book, it's weak and doesn't have the power to stand alone, something I expect from a strong first book in a series.

      Flat Characters
      Outside of the twist introduced towards the end, The Sand Warrior fails to invest my interest in the characters' stories. The characters felt bland and cookie cutter. They fit nicely within the stereotype presented and don't act much outside of it. Though the panels will focus on their faces now and then, their expressions weren't readable and didn't tell me anything about them.

      I expect that later books will teach us more about the characters and the worlds they inhabit. That said, we shouldn't have to rely so much on sequels to let us get to know the characters, especially if they were introduced early into the novel and play a pivotal role in events.

      What's the Message?
      Lastly, because there isn't a coherent plot and the characters don't take much of an active role in pushing it forward (instead being led by others), this first book last a decisive message to pull it together. Again, I expect to see a clearer plot as the later books bring the plot threads together, but we shouldn't have to rely on later books to bring it all together. Each book should still have a clear purpose.


      FINAL THOUGHTS


      All in all, The Sand Warrior is a weak first book but sets the stage for the sequels to come. I enjoyed the full color illustrations and the creative world building. There is much intrigue in this book, and I am interested in seeing where the plot twist at the end takes us.

      If you're interested in reading more (or know someone who would enjoy reading this book), remember to enter the giveaway at the end of this post for a chance to win a copy of The Sand Warrior!




      The Five Worlds are on the brink of extinction unless five ancient and mysterious beacons are lit. When war erupts, three unlikely heroes will discover there s more to themselves and more to their worlds than meets the eye. . . . The clumsiest student at the Sand Dancer Academy, Oona Lee is a fighter with a destiny bigger than she could ever imagine.

      A boy from the poorest slums, An Tzu has a surprising gift and a knack for getting out of sticky situations.

      Star athlete Jax Amboy is beloved by an entire galaxy, but what good is that when he has no real friends? When these three kids are forced to team up on an epic quest, it will take not one, not two, but 5 WORLDS to contain all the magic and adventure!





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      Akiko and the Planet Smoo by Mark Crilley



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      Publication Info
      • The Sand Warrior by Mark Siegel
      • Published by Random House BFYR
      • On May 2, 2017
      • Genres: Graphic Novel
      • Format: Hardback
      5 Worlds
      1. The Sand Warrior
      2. The Cobalt Prince
      Content
      • Some violence

      Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author. All thoughts expressed are my personal honest opinions.



      GIVEAWAY


      Thanks to the publisher, I have the following to give away to a blog reader!

      PRIZES
      The Sand Warrior by Mark Siegel

      OPEN TO...
      The United States

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      Author Interview with Sara Pascoe (Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn't Ask For)

      Saturday, May 27, 2017
      Today, I'm delighted to host author Sara Pascoe on the blog with an interview. I recently read and loved her latest novel Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn't Ask For.

      Welcome to the blog, Sara! Tell us a little about yourself.
      I come to writing fiction after a career in psychology. I had a lot of interesting and inspiring experiences from teaching chimpanzees language, to working in the US Congress. I am originally from the US and moved to Great Britain in 2004, where I now live on the south coast where we run a B&B for English Language students.

      The main characters travel through space and time in your latest novel. What did you learn in writing Being a Witch?
      I learned quite a bit about the history of both England and the Ottoman Empire around the time of the story, the mid-seventeenth century. What I found particularly fascinating was the stark contrast between the two places in the mid-1600s. Things were awful in England at this time. There were food shortages due to long-term weather conditions, the water was so dirty it was safer to drink ale, the average lifespan was 16 years of age, and ordinary folk, both men and women had very few rights.

      But in Istanbul (called Constantinople by Europeans) life was amazing. There was hot and cold running water! Proper toilets! There were soup kitchens for the poor, schools for boys and girls, free hospitals for people and animals. It was considered a good deed to feed stray cats :). Women could own businesses, and bring cases to court. I read quite a few (translated) original court documents, and diaries of European women who ran away to Istanbul for a better life. I also read original writings by two of the real-life historic figures in the book, Matthew Hopkins, the notorious witch hunter in England, and Katip Celebi, the celebrated scientist and scholar of the Ottoman Empire. I am happy to send anyone the links and references for any of the research.

      It's neat how much you can learn while writing a novel! What life experiences did you draw from in the writing of Being a Witch?
      There were two main areas of personal experience that fed into the book.
      1. Foster Kids. I'd worked with foster kids over many years in my role as a psychologist. And I always was, and continue to be, very moved by what this is like. You never have a 'forever' home. You know the grownups can throw you back if you're just that much too much of a pain. And then, at 18--flick--you're out on your own.
      2. Traveling to Turkey. We visited friends in Izmir, where there is now the Katip Calebi University, and in Istanbul. That had been my first time in Turkey, and I adored it. I had been in the middle of writing the book, and decided to bring the story there, so I had a good reason to learn more about this amazing place and the history still gloriously evident.

      While reading Being a Witch, I found myself wondering what other kinds of skills witches could learn. If you had a speciality as a witch, what would it be?
      To always be patient and in a good mood! My life is just lovely, and I am so lucky in so many ways, but I can easily slip into getting caught up in any of life's ordinary frustrations and setbacks. So, I would give myself the superpower of Constant Greater Perspective!

      I understand completely. When life happens and ruins our carefully laid plans, it can be so easy to get frustrated and let it ruin our day. Describe your witch familiar.
      Ooo, I don't think I could limit myself to just one. Of course, I'd have a trusty cat familiar who would suss out people who aren't who they seem, or pretend to be. But I also adore rats, and find they are a very under-appreciated species, so I'd have a rat familiar who would ride on my shoulder, and I think they would sense oncoming danger from natural things such as food that's gone bad, storms, earthquakes and the like. And I'd have a goat familiar whose power would be to draw in wonderful friends. It would be a very well-behaved goat who could go on walks, and people would be drawn in to him or her, to say 'hi', as people do with dogs.

      I agree. Rats are really intelligent and underappreciated. One of my first pets was a rat, and I loved playing with her. What's your favorite baked good? Do you have a recipe to share?
      Wow, another hard choice. My favourite at the moment is a banana cake with cream cheese icing. It's a big hit at gatherings and a good one for making ahead. (You'll see the part about putting it in the freezer right after baking -- this is correct. You can just freeze it from there, then thaw it out and ice it on the day you want it.) I've attached the recipe for all to enjoy. This is my altered version; the original was from another writer, Della Galton.

      That sounds delicious. I'm looking forward to trying out your recipe! If you could visit any time period, which would you visit and why?
      I may have this wrong, but I think I'd like to go back to the 1920s in the US or Europe. From what I know, this was a time of hope and expansion both culturally and socially, with the Impressionists, some of the early greats of photography, and the start of real, and positive developments for ordinary working people. It was after the horrors of losing millions in World War I, but before the global hardships of the Great Depression. Jazz was coming into it's own, the dancing was great. And they had cool clothes :).

      I love jazz music. What are you working on right now?
      Sabrina Jones' Blog from the Future (working title) is a science fiction novel aimed at adults. Sabrina, in her late twenties, lives in a entirely self-contained high-rise 'hive' where food is grown on the roof, your TV tells you when your brain chemistry is off, and sex is no longer taken personally. But her life is turned upside down when her boss is found dead, and she accidentally uncovers a government cover-up to hide the President's brain damage. The President's behaviour is putting the whole world in danger, but will anyone believe her?

      That sounds like an interesting book. I look forward to checking it out when it's released!

      Blog readers, don't forget to scroll down and enter the international giveaway of Being a Witch (and a cool pen to go along with it!).

      About Being a Witch and Other Things I Didn't Ask For



      When you’re fourteen and life has been nothing but hurt and disappointment, maybe it’s time to strike out on your own. But after leaving the boring village and foster home for the excitement of London, Raya finds out she’s a witch, with this annoying habit of time-travelling – by accident. And this sarcastic witch’s cat Oscar tags along for the ride. But why would she fling herself into the midst of the Essex Witch Trials in 1645 England? After being arrested by Matthew Hopkins, one of history’s most notorious witch hunters, her social worker and witch mentor Bryony goes back to try to save them from the gallows. But returning to present day London remains out of reach with Raya’s powers still out of control when they find themselves in 1645 Istanbul/Constantinople. There, life is more amazing than she ever dreamed. Can she stay? And at what cost?





      AUTHOR BIO

      Sara Pascoe came to writing fiction after a career in psychology. She's had great fun in a lot of interesting jobs including bicycle mechanics, teaching chimps language, studying brains under the microscope, and working in the US Congress. She also worked as a clinical psychologist, which she found to be rewarding and moving.

      After living on in various parts of the United States, she now resides in the United Kingdom, where she runs a B&B with her husband for English Language students in a beach town. Of course, she also writes.

      For more information, visit her website. You can also connect with her on GoodreadsFacebook, and Twitter.



      GIVEAWAY


      Thanks to the author, I have the following to give away to a reader of the blog. The giveaway is open internationally!

      PRIZES
      Being a Witch and a Being a Witch pen

      a Rafflecopter giveaway