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Review: Send Me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt

Friday, December 28, 2012
2.5 Stars: A Good Read
Hardcover: 284 Pages
Publication: October 2, 2012 by Walker Books for Young Readers

Mia is always looking for signs. A sign that she should get serious with her soccer-captain boyfriend. A sign that she’ll get the grades to make it into an Ivy-league school. One sign she didn’t expect to look for was: “Will I survive cancer?” It’s a question her friends would never understand, prompting Mia to keep her illness a secret. The only one who knows is her lifelong best friend, Gyver, who is poised to be so much more. Mia is determined to survive, but when you have so much going your way, there is so much more to lose. From debut author Tiffany Schmidt comes a heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting story of one girl’s search for signs of life in the face of death.

Mia's a popular, pretty, smart girl with everything, and then her life begins spiralling downward when she's diagnosed with leukemia. Mia could have kept her friends and much of her normal life if she'd admit the truth to everyone, but her mom convinces her to fake at normalcy--and that begins her life. Pretending that she's okay and denying everything else. Having been perfect all her life, Mia doesn't know what to do when she's not the golden girl anymore.

Mia makes a lot of wrong decisions. She hides her cancer from her friends. She falls into the wrong arms out of loneliness. She wants everyone else to make the important decisions for her. I can understand that Mia would be scared and rely on signs to tell her what to do, but she's too busy worrying about herself to see how much she's hurting the people close to her. Her mom doesn't help at all. Mia's mom is overly involved in Mia's life and presses all of her expectations on Mia. While Mia is trying to figure out her life with cancer in it, her mom is busy trying to pretend that everything is okay to notice Mia's pain and need to clue in people on what's happening in her life. To choose the right boy instead of the one her mom wants for her.

The gems in this story are Ryan and Gyver. At first, I thought that Ryan was with Mia because he wanted to get into her pants, but he turns out to be really supportive and caring. In fact, I felt sorry for him because of how Mia was stringing him along, wanting to find solace in his kisses without committing to a relationship. The same goes for Gyver, except that I liked him all along. These two guys are Mia's rocks in her confusion, and the nice guys that they are they didn't deserve to be used like they were.

I love sad stories, and this sounded like it would be for me with Mia dealing with the big C. In ways, it is. I appreciate Mia's struggles coming to terms with her life after cancer. Her character growth has its ups and downs, but she does figure things out in the end. At the same time, it takes too long for her to realize what was really important to her, and she lashes out at the world in the process before realizing her mistakes. I would have also liked to see more of the medical sides to leukemia and how it impacts Mia. Mostly, this book is centered on the characters and their development, which would have worked if I was able to like Mia more. Unfortunately, between Mia's mom and Mia herself, there was too much drama for me. As much as I liked much of this book, it ended up not being for me. However, for those who are able to sympathize more with Mia, I'm sure they'll find a gem in this book.

An ARC was provided by Macmillan for review.

Author Interview: Lenore Appelhans & Giveaway

Thursday, December 27, 2012
I'm delighted to be interviewing with Lenore, author of Level 2, the first book in The Memory Chronicles.

Since her untimely death the day before her eighteenth birthday, Felicia Ward has been trapped in Level 2, a stark white afterlife located between our world and the next. Along with her fellow drones, Felicia passes the endless hours reliving memories of her time on Earth and mourning what she’s lost—family, friends, and Neil, the boy she loved.

Then a girl in a neighboring chamber is found dead, and nobody but Felicia recalls that she existed in the first place. When Julian—a dangerously charming guy Felicia knew in life—comes to offer Felicia a way out, Felicia learns the truth: If she joins the rebellion to overthrow the Morati, the angel guardians of Level 2, she can be with Neil again.

Suspended between Heaven and Earth, Felicia finds herself at the center of an age-old struggle between good and evil. As memories from her life come back to haunt her, and as the Morati hunt her down, Felicia will discover it’s not just her own redemption at stake… but the salvation of all mankind.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became an author. Your fun facts show that you've been writing since an early age. When did you know that you wanted to become a published author?
I’ve been blogging about books since 2008 at my blog Presenting Lenore. I started blogging at the same time I started reading YA fiction, so even though pre-blogging I read mostly adult literary fiction, YA became the focus of my blog.

Blogging led to meeting a lot of authors and to realizing that publishing a novel of my own was an attainable goal. Also reading hundreds of YA novels was a brilliant education in plotting, pacing and developing characters and voice. I started writing the type of novel I wanted to read, and it just all came together.

I saw that the idea for Level 2 came out of an argument with your grandmother. Would you elaborate more on this?
I loved my grandmother dearly, but she and I had different priorities. She didn’t think spending all my money on travel (I’ve been to nearly 60 countries to date) was a great investment. It got me thinking about what is really important in life and I imagined an afterlife that would justify my own choices with a kind of currency for memories of experiences. In such an afterlife, people who had travelled a lot would likely be “richer” than those who didn’t.

What did you enjoy most with the world building for Level 2? Could you tell us a little more about Level 2 itself and its prisoners?
Before I started writing, I researched the afterlife visions of major world religions. To create the world of Level 2, I mixed what I know of the Christian theology of heaven with elements of other religions, the Greek mythology of the underworld and a healthy dose of imagination.

Level 2 is meant to be a waiting room, a place where souls prepare themselves for the next stage of their journey in the afterlife. It’s not exactly purgatory, since all souls go here and not just troubled ones, but I guess it could be seen as similar. Basically, the guardians of Level 2 have trapped souls here for a specific purpose. Prisoners are addicted to viewing their happy memories and the happy memories of others – and they don’t face the memories that they would need to in order to move on to the next level.

What traits do you admire most in Felicia? Julian?
When we meet Felicia in the afterlife, one of her main driving forces is her loyalty to friends. Through her reliving of memories, we learn that she wasn’t always so loyal. So I really admire Felicia’s willingness to learn from her mistakes and work on her faults.

Julian is bit of a mystery, and it’s difficult to figure out what his real agenda is. But I do admire his focus. Whatever it is that he really wants, he’s definitely hell-bent on getting it.

If you could download memories, what would you like to see?
I find the idea of reliving memories so fascinating, because so much of what we remember is what we want to remember and we forget so many details. I reference the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder several times in my novel, and I’m always intrigued by the conversation Emily has after her death with the dead residents of Grover’s Corners. She can relive one of the days of her life, and though she initially insists she’d choose a happy day, the residents urge her: “Choose the least important day of your life. It will be important enough.” Why? Because while reliving something, you also know what happens in the future, and that can be intensely painful. If I relived a memory from my childhood, it would be so amazing to spend time with my mother again, but I’d also know the entire time that she doesn’t have much longer to live (she died when I was a teen).

What are you working on right now?
I’ve finished the draft of Level 2’s sequel (tentatively titled Level 3), and I’m waiting on feedback from my editor. I’m also working on a second picture book with my illustrator husband (our first together, Chick-o-Saurus Rex, under the name Lenore Jennewein, comes out in July 2013), and a super secret new novel that I’m really excited about.

Lenore's Website | Blog | Twitter
Lenore Appelhans is the debut author of a YA novel Level 2. She is addicted to travel and has swum with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, walked with lions in Zimbabwe, fed anteaters in Tikal, Guatemala, braved fire ants in Australia, chased a puffin across a black sand beach in Iceland and narrowly avoided stepping on a snake in Burma.

Review: Tempestuous by Kim Askew & Amy Helmes

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

3 Stars: An Entertaining Read
Series: Twisted Lit #1
Hardcover: 224 Pages
Publication: December 18, 2012 by Merit Press

KimAmy | Goodreads | Amazon | Kindle
Recently banished, unfairly, by the school’s popular crowd, former “it girl,” Miranda Prospero, finds herself in a brave new world: holding dominion amongst a rag-tag crew of geeks and misfits where she works at the Hot-Dog Kabob in the food court of her local mall. When the worst winter storm of the season causes mall workers and last-minute shoppers to be snowed-in for the night, Miranda seizes the opportunity to get revenge against the catty clique behind her social exile. With help from her delightfully dweeby coworker, Ariel, and a sullen loner named Caleb who works at the mall’s nearby gaming and magic shop, Miranda uses charm and trickery to set things to right during this spirited take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Miranda gives off the spoiled rich girl vibe. She feels entitled to power and enjoys manipulating people with her charm and wit. It doesn't help that she feels sorry for herself getting stuck with a job sellling hot dogs at the mall's food court. Once you get to know her, however, her softer side comes out. The public-school kids who also work at the mall are open about coming to her for help with their problems, and complain as she might about this, she takes the time to come up with solutions for them. She's also fiercely protective about her naïve, home-schooled friend and coworker Ariel.

There are a lot of stereotypes in this book: Miranda's hot and dumb ex-boyfriend, her bitchy ex-friends, and some dorky mall workers. There are also the stereotype breakers: Clint, the hot, sweet, smart jock working at an athlete store, and Caleb, the swarthy, intelligent non-gamer who works at a Game Store and also happens to be in a rock-n-roll band. Mix the 'cool' kids and the 'public school' kids with one night stranded at the mall and a criminal, possibly well-armed, running around and you have the stage for a drama filled with laugh-out-loud moments.

Sure, some things didn't ring true to me. I still fail to comprehend this big scandal that sent Miranda from her position as Miss Popular to Miss HotDog Girl. It doesn't seem like a valid reason for her to get into so much trouble with her school, especially when she's not the one who turned her online dating service into a cheating hookup site. If she's such a goody goody, wouldn't the school be able to tell who's the real culprit? At minimum, aren't the cheaters the ones at fault, so why does she have to pay them back? I don't know much about things like this, but it just doesn't feel real to me. There are also certain characters' sudden changes in heart and some messed up moments with the characters randomly deciding to do some things. These I didn't mind so much because (1) certain characters are brainless and mostly add to the comedy and (2) again, this is a comedy and meant to be read for the humor.

This is a light, highly entertaining read. Once I got past the overly heightened dramatics, I couldn't stop laughing. This is a fast-paced read about absurd twists in events that give Miranda the opportunity to get revenge on her ex-friends, get over her dumb, what-did-she-ever-see-in-him boyfriend, and find a new love, while taking out an armed criminal and gaining dominion over public and private schoolers alike.

I recommend reading this by the fireplace in the midst of a raging blizzard if possible. If not, this book is still a wonderful holiday read. Yes, I recommend this.

An ARC was provided by Merit Press for review.

Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Monday, December 24, 2012
5 Stars: Incredible / Keeper
Hardcover: 313 Pages
Publication: February 14, 2012 by Knpof Books for Young Readers

Author  | Goodreads  | Amazon | Kindle
I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?

R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

It's a rare and beautiful feeling when I close a book with a sense of completion. That's what Wonder is: rare and beautiful.

The language is simple, at a level that a ten-year-old child can easily read. It suits the book not only because that's how old Auggie' is but also because it lays everything bare to the reader. It isn't hiding anything. All the characters' emotions and actions are laid out for us, from superficial behavior to their innermost thoughts, from their doubts and guilt to their happiness and bliss. After all, it's not easy being around someone with such an obvious disfiguration even if it's someone as sweet as Auggie.

Auggie is a funny character. As in he's witty and says the funniest things ever in a matter-of-fact tone. It makes me wish I were his friend, so I can banter around with him. He lacks courage and self-esteem at the beginning of the novel because he knows how bad his facial deformities are. It's to the point that he grows out his bangs because if he can't see people's reactions, then he doesn't feel so bad. At least, that's what he tells himself. In truth, he can guess at what people think about him; he sees the whispers, gestures, and furtive looks. Then he makes friends--real friends that stick up for him--and he's able to open up and show his peers just what a wonderful kid he is. And it's so wonderful to see people grow to accept him.

I hadn't expected the multiple perspectives, and it was a wonderful surprise. I was glad to see that Auggie's perspective kep reappearing, but other people whose lives he touches jump in from time to time. And it's a great way to introduce things that we wouldn't have known if only Auggie's perspective was given. There is Summer, who joins him at lunch out of pity and grows to like him as a person. Jack, who first talks to him at the Mr. Tushman's request but also grows to cherish his friendship. Auggie's older sister Via, whose fierce protection over her little brother is something I can relate to. Her boyfriend Justin. Her friend, ex-friend, friend Miranda who loves Auggie as if he were her own brother. Auggie is surrounded by many loving people, and though his deformities make him look like a "freak," to quote idiots in the book, he has one of the kindest hearts out there. He makes me feel like I can be a better person.

This book really hits home because it makes you wonder what you would do if you went to school with a kid like Auggie. Would you go against the crowd to sit down with him and have a nice chat? Would you jeopardize your 'friendships' with other people to stand up for him or her? It's a lot easier for us when we're older to stay true to ourselves, though it's still not effortless. I don't want to admit this, but the ten-year-old me probably would have stuck with the neutral camp. I wouldn't want to be mean to him, but I wouldn't stand up for him either. Heck, the teenage me may not have had the courage to try to talk to him like a normal person. And that's why it's so horrible.

When I think about it, a bully is someone you can stand up to. Someone who ignores your existence is harder to push away because there's nothing there in the first place. I wouldn't want people to treat my existence like the Plague. What we need to remember is that sometimes it's not what we do but what we don't do that really hurts. Auggie wants to be accepted for himself, but there are kids who won't spend more time than necessary with him even if they're neutral and it really hurts him. At the same time, courage is necessary because Auggie needs to make the first step to help people acknowledge that he's a person--and a cool one at that. It takes going to middle school, speaking up to people, and standing up for his friends like they stand up for him.

This easily takes the spot of the middle grade book of the year for me. I recommend this for everyone.

A copy was provided by Random House for review.

Review: Winter White by Jen Calonita

3 Stars: A Good Read
Series: Belles #2
Hardcover: 368 Pages
Publication: October 9, 2012 by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Author  | Goodreads | Amazon | Kindle
Isabelle Scott and Mirabelle Monroe are still reeling from the revelation that they share more than just the roof over their heads. The media has pounced on their story and the girls are caught up in a flurry of talk-show appearances and newspaper interviews. They've put on a happy public face, but someone is leaking their true feelings to the press, and while it seems like the world is watching their every move, at least they have each other.

But with cotillion season right around the corner, Izzie and Mira have barely had time to process their newfound sisterhood. Mira has dreamed of making her debut in a gorgeous white gown forever-now, if only she could find an escort. Izzie, meanwhile, is still struggling to find her place in Emerald Cove and it's seeming ever more impossible with EC mean-girls, young and old, doing their best to keep her down. As cotillion preparations heat up, though, there are dance steps to learn, manners to perfect... and secret initiations to complete? As if sophomore year wasn't hard enough!

It's time for the gowns to go on and the gloves to come off.

Once again, the belles of Emerald Cove entertain us with wit, charm, and fun. I'm not usually fond of books set in superficial societies where politics play a large role in everyday life. However, I had a blast reading about cotillion and the initiations that the girls go through. Mira has lost her friends with recent turns of events. She and Izzie are growing closer together, but she's still struggling to recover from losing her position at the top of the social ladder. Though this book is also told from Mira and Izzie's dual perspectives, this is Mira's book.

Izzie and Mira didn't touch my hearts as much as before, and the main reason is because of their stubborn refusal to make up with Mira's father for hiding what he does from Izzie for so long. It doesn't seem like a big deal to me in the long run, and it's not like he isn't sorry or trying his best to make up to them. They still live with him, and they're still related to him. Most importantly of all, he had their best interests at heart. Mira was my favorite of the two this time around. She's the more superficial of the two. However, she still has a good heart, and I feel as though I got to know about her. On the other hand, Izzie is becoming more of a rebel, in a bad way. She's so desperate to hate EC and its traditions that she listens to people she barely knows (Dylan), she loses faith in her boyfriend and lashes out at him instead of talking things out, and she doesn't think about how maybe she could try and fit her ideals into EC society.

For all the drama going on, there is not as much as in Belles. There aren't any massive life-changing situations, though the introduction of a new character at the end of the book may provide more dire circumstances with the third book. This book is all about cotillion and fun. Yes, there is romance, and it plays with the girls' hearts. However, this book is mostly about power plays and the girls working out the new social ladder and where they fit in it. This is a light-hearted chick flick series that I recommend if you're looking for some good fun and plenty of drama.

A copy of this book was provided by Little Brown for review.

Related Posts
Review of Belles (Belles #1)

Imagine Weekly: Imagine My Mailbox (40)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Week in Review
Book Reviews

Kat Zhang & Sophie Littlefiield

Best I've Read in 2012 Overall


* Check out more book hauls at Tynga's Stacking the Shelves *

What did you get this week? Leave a link in the comments section, and I'll check out your week's haul!

Review: Sacred by Elana K. Arnold

Saturday, December 22, 2012
1.5 Stars: Not For Me
Hardcover: 368 Pages
Publication: November 13, 2012 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Author | Goodreads | Amazon
Growing up on Catalina Island, off the California coast, Scarlett Wenderoth has led a fairly isolated life. After her brother dies, her isolation deepens as she withdraws into herself, shutting out her friends and boyfriend. Her parents, shattered by their own sorrow, fail to notice Scarlett's pain and sudden alarming thinness. Scarlett finds pleasure only on her horse, escaping to the heart of the island on long, solitary rides. One day, as she races around a bend, Scarlett is startled by a boy who raises his hand in warning and says one word: "Stop."

The boy—intense, beautiful—is Will Cohen, a newcomer to the island. For reasons he can't or won't explain, he's drawn to Scarlett and feels compelled to keep her safe. To keep her from wasting away. His meddling irritates Scarlett, though she can't deny her attraction to him. As their relationship blossoms into love, Scarlett's body slowly awakens at Will's touch. But just when her grief begins to ebb, she makes a startling discovery about Will, a discovery he's been grappling with himself. A discovery that threatens to force them apart. And if it does, Scarlett fears she will unravel all over again.

The synopsis is mysterious. I didn't know if this was going to be a contemporary book or a paranormal book. I didn't know where it was heading, and that intrigued me. What I didn't realize was that I would finish the book still not knowing what happens.

This was a confusing book for me. There doesn't seem to be a focus for the plot except that Will and Scarlett were meant to be. The beginning was okay. It wasn't outstanding, but I could see a general course for the novel. Scarlett is depressed, anorexic, and self harms by denying her body's needs. However, the plot doesn't end with Will saving her and righting her life. It introduces a paranormal element with Will's abilities. This may still have worked with the plot; instead, it leads to difficulties in their relationship and a lot of drama that doesn't make much sense in hindsight. In short, despite the paranormal aspect of the book, this reads like a normal high school drama and not even a good one at that. There is the exposition and some rising action; however, I can't name a definite climax or change happening, the falling action takes forever, and there is no real sense of resolution. By the end, I was skimming pages in the hopes of finding some interesting development.

Honestly, Scarlett annoyed me for the most part. She doesn't treat herself well, and her relationships are a mess. She stays with Andy, though she isn't attracted to him anymore, if she ever was, and he's a jerk whose only purpose for being with her seems to be getting into her pants. She and Lily and best friends, but they mostly only hang around, talk about guys, and dress up. She is inexplicably drawn to Will from the start, and they're perfect for each other. I could overlook the instalove because Will's abilities pull him towards her, but the changes in his behavior after they begin dating are out of character. Normal jealousy I can understand, but Will typically has such good control over his behavior that his actions seem groundless and unbelievable.

In fact, the main characters are relatively unstable in their attitudes and motivations, they don't show much, if any, growth, and they fall flat for me. I do understand some of Scarlett's feelings at the beginning. However, I couldn't feel her emotions. It may have helped to know how close she was to her brother, but little information is given other than the circumstances of his death and a few other details. I can't get a feel for him as a person and how his loss would impact his family so severely.

With no clear sense of direction in the plot and with flat, unrelatable characters, Sacred rambles through a time of change in Scarlett's life. I say rambles because that's what it feels took place. There are no major developments in Scarlett's life after she dumps Andy and dates Will, and there are no periods of intense emotions that made me feel as though I was there with Scarlett. Overall, this book fell flat for me along with its characters. It just wasn't for me.

Content: Sacred deals with depression, and there is anger and some violence.

A copy of this book was provided by Random House for review.

Imaginary Chats: Best of 2012 Edition

Friday, December 21, 2012

I've procrastinated on writing this post out of fear that I'll leave out an essential read. Then I thought about it some more and realized that I'm bound to leave something out anyhow because I didn't read it--some out of the fear that I'm going to be disappointed by my expectations. These include Carnival of Souls by Melissa Marr, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, and The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna. I also haven't read some books because I'm waiting for more sequels to come out, so I can indulge myself all at once: The Golden Lily by Richelle Mead to name.. the only one I can think of right now. (I'd add Clockwork Princess to the list of books in a series I'm waiting to near completion, but it's not out till 2013.)

So, here is the list of ten of the Best I've Read in 2012 in no particular order:
Click on title links to read my reviews.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Somebody tell me why I waited until DECEMBER to read this book. About accepting yourself for who you are and creating a place for yourself among your peers, Wonder is a beautiful read and easily takes the place of best middle-grade book I've read this year.
*I haven't posted my review yet, so I don't have a title link to provide yet.

Wings of the Wicked by Courtney Allison Moulton
I've read many amazing paranormal books this past year, but Wings has to take the prize for the most epic paranormal read of the year. Ellie is back with a lot of kickass action, hot makeout scenes, and bigger bad guys. Plus, there are more Cadan scenes (yes, I love Will, but Cadan is just so freaking hot). And that killer of a cliff hanger... it made me so angry that I didn't have the third book on hand.

Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris
Unraveling takes the prize for best debut of 2012. There is action and the fate of the world on the line; at the same time, Janelle is a girl. Elizabeth Norris does a wonderful job of keeping up with the suspense while showing us who Janelle is as a person, as a sister and daughter, as a friend, and as a girl in love. This book can stand perfectly fine on its own, but I have to say that I'm delighted to hear that there's a sequel coming out in 2013. I'm looking forward to seeing more of my favorite characters.

Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown
I'm a sister, and there a few things I like to see more in literature than a family with strong bonds. Unraveling has it, and so does Perfect Escape. OCD also plays a large part in this book in how it impacts Kendra's family and their relationships with others. This is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally loaded books I read this past year. Sometimes, a road trip is really what we need to help us clear our minds and think about what we need.

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
This is a heartbreaking novel. Elliot is a tamer character compared to other dystopians I've read, but she's just as stubborn and can hold her own amongst them. I appreciate her sense of duty to the workers on her family estate and how social mannerisms play a role in her everyday life. I also love how Elliot has to make a choice once again at the end, and as much as I adore the ending, I could have seen her go either way.

Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor has a gift for writing in a beautiful, oftentimes poetic manner. She also doesn't shy away from the brutality and darkness of war. The fight scenes are epic, but the aftermath is gruesome. At the same time, Zuzanna and Mik provide much necessary humor and light. And, wow, the ending! If I though fighting for some semblance of equality was big, I thought wrong. It seems as though book three will be bigger and badder than before.

Every Day by David Levithan
This is a complex and beautifully written novel. Everything flowed smoothly and with grace, giving insight into A's life and what it means to be human and to love.

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Incredible. I didn't know what to think when I started this and found out that Tinker Bell was the narrator, but now I can say that it was the right decision. She's a mostly reliable narrator and gives us insight into the brutal reality of adolescence: the joys and sorrows of first love, the conflicts between who you are and who others want you to be, and the ultimate passage from childhood into adulthood. This is a phenomenal read.

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale
Shannon Hale has a talent for coming up with incredibly real and relatable heroines and for telling stories in a fairy-tale like manner that readers of all ages can appreciate. Another wonderful thing about this book is the ending. I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read this yet, so I won't talk about it.

Wanted by Heidi Ayarbe
Heidi Ayarbe is a master at delving into the human psyche. Mike's world in this book is bleak with no delusions of innocence. This is a real, gritty book about how one slip in such a world can cost you everything.

More to come under specific categories next week.

How about you? What are some of the best books you've read this year?

Review: The Bully Book by Eric Kahn Gale

4 Stars: A Great Read
Hardcover: 240 Pages
Publication: December 26, 2012 by Harper Collins

Author | Goodreads | Amazon | Kindle
The rules governing middle school are often a mystery, but for Eric Haskins, they’re a mystery he needs to solve, and fast. He’s a normal, average kid, until sixth grade starts. For some inexplicable reason, the class bully and his pack make Eric the Grunt. Even his best friend since first grade turns on him. Eric can’t figure out why he’s the Grunt until he hears about the Bully Book, a cryptic guide that teaches you how to “make trouble without getting in trouble, rule the school and be the man” and how to select the Grunt-the kid who will become the lowest of the low.

Eric Haskins may be this year’s Grunt for now, but he’s determined not to stay at the bottom of the social ladder forever. Hilarious and compelling, The Bully Book is a must-read for every tween, tween parent, librarian and educator!

Eric Haskins always prided himself on being normal, but it begins to haunt him when kids in his class begin tormenting him, isolating him from his would-be friends and allies. And so begins his search for clues to The Book's creation and, most importantly, why he of all people was chosen to be the Grunt. Eric is a nice guy, funny and charming when he tries. Nobody would peg him as the kind of kid who'd get picked on, which is one of the big mysteries of the book. The other mystery is who wrote the book and for what reasons?

There were things in this book that shocked me. One was how cruel Jason and his gang were to Eric and how quickly the other kids joined in. You'd think they remember Eric from past grades and how he didn't do anything to deserve being bullied, but no. As soon as Jason & co. begin picking on Eric, the other kids join in with taunts and jabs of their own. Then I remembered third grade and when the other kids began making fun of this girl in my class for no apparent reason. Of course, sixth grade is a world away from the third grade. It's the transitioning point between grade school and middle school. It's the time when kids start worrying about appearances, when the idea of dating becomes more of a reality. When bullying becomes more serious. I was also surprised and intrigued to look into the lives of older Grunts and how being socially ostrichized affected them. It serves to bring home just how much our social relationships affect us and what bullying does to people. It gives more credibility to Eric's fears and the desperation with which he searches for The Book--THE BOOK that changed (ruined) his life.

What makes this story unique is how it alternates between pages from the bully book and pages from Eric's journal. It's mind-blowing to jump from the sensible way The Book talks about how to rule one's grade to the fears, despair, and rage of Eric's journals. The Book gives order to the mess that Eric's life has become and predicts what will happen to him next. Without Eric's journals, the callousness of The Book wouldn't have been so stark on paper, and without The Book it would be difficult to make sense of the weight of Eric's fears.

The language is simple and straight-forward, but the grace with which it is written and the way its message comes through the pages is phenomenal. There may be no real book out there, but every book has an author and bullying is a reality. The Bully Book paints a realistic and eye-opening portrait of bullying at the middle-grade level and how it impacts the victims. I recommend this book to readers of all ages.

An ARC was provided by Harper Collins for review.

Review: Prophecy by Ellen Oh

Thursday, December 20, 2012

3 Stars: A Good Read
Series: The Dragon King Chronicles #1
Hardcover: 312 Pages
Publication: January 2, 2013 by Harper Teen

Author | Goodreads | Amazon | Kindle
The greatest warrior in all of the Seven Kingdoms... is a girl with yellow eyes.

Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope...

Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy, but the missing treasure of myth may be the true key. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king.

Intrigue and mystery, ancient lore and action-packed fantasy come together in this heart-stopping first book in a trilogy.

Being the fantasy lover that I am, I tend to be harsh on fantasy books. Prophecy doesn't have the extensive world building that I like to see in fantasy books. It's set in the Seven Kingdoms era, and it's clear that the time period has been researched and developed. However, I had a hard time picturing the world in my head. This book has an MG feel to it and often does a lot of telling. The writing is simple and not overly ornate, and it does do a good job of conveying the elegance and some of the formalities of the era without getting bogged in details. Given the simplicity of the language and the reading level, this is a good fantasy book for middle-grade readers and younger teens whereas readers in the upper teen range may find it lacking.

That said, I still found myself thoroughly engaged in the plot. I love high fantasy, and I appreciate the Korean setting with so few books out there set in Asia. The plot may be archetypal with the prophecy, the hero and his group, and all, but the characters are new and refreshing. Kira is a fierce demon slayer with a strong sense of duty as a warrior and as a family member, though her sense of duty as a female is lacking due to her warrior upbringing. Being from an Asian background, I really appreciate her sense of duty to her family, though I find it harder to relate to her tendency to charge into things when overcome by her emotions. And it did become annoying when it kept happening. Othertimes, she has sharp senses from her heightened sense of smart to her intuition as a warrior, so it added inconsistancies to her character.

My favorite characters have to be Taejo Jaewon. Taejo is the sweetest boy ever, and I can understand Kira's protectiveness over him. He's really naive, and his insistence to take part in the action often leads the group--or at least Kira--into grave danger. However, he has a strong sense of honor and duty, and I have to remember that he's a boy who has to grow up too fast too soon. Even more than the sweet little boy, I have to like the casual potential love interest. Love doesn't play a huge role in the story with Kira determined not to marry. When a passing traveler takes an interest in her and joins the group, however, who knows what will happen in the future? Jaewon adds humor to the novel. He always has a witty remark on hand. I like the guy and hope to see a lot more of him in the future.

Things get really predictable as the story progresses with Kira taking a lot of the action for herself. At least characters were getting killed off. As cruel as it sounds, when royalty is getting killed off, there have to be high stakes, which means a lot of people are going to die, and I appreciate the realness these deaths add to the story. That said, while I did enjoy reading this book, it didn't really stand out to me either. I couldn't feel any intensity to the emotions of the characters, though so many tragic things keep taking place on after another, including the deaths of so many loved ones. I didn't empathize with Kira's pain at being treated with such hostility from the people she protects, and I didn't understand the characters' motivations much of the time, such as Jaewon's decision to stick with the group.

This is a fairly quick read that some will enjoy and some will not. If you like fantasy and/or historical Korea, then I recommend giving this a try.

A copy provided by Harper Collins for review.

Author Interview: Sophie Littlefield

Today, I'm delighted to be interviewing with Sophie Littlefield, author of Hanging by a Thread.

Summer is the best part of the year in Winston, California, and the Fourth of July is the highlight of the season. But the perfect town Clare remembers has changed, and everyone is praying that this summer will be different from the last two—that this year's Fourth of July festival won't see one of their own vanish without a trace, leaving no leads and no suspects. The media are in a frenzy predicting a third disappearance, but the town depends on tourist dollars, so the residents of Winston are trying desperately to pretend nothing's wrong.

And they're not the only ones hiding something.

Clare, a seamstress who redesigns vintage clothing, has been blessed—or perhaps cursed—with a gift: she can see people's pasts when she touches their clothes. When she stumbles across a denim jacket that once belonged to Amanda Stavros, last year's Fourth of July victim, Clare sees her perfect town begin to come apart at the seams.

In a town where appearance means everything, how deep beneath the surface will Clare dig to uncover a murderer?

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into writing.
I grew up in the Midwest, in a family that valued books and reading. My dad was a professor and my mother was an artist, and we spent every Saturday at the public library. I wrote my first “book” at the age of eleven, a post-apocalyptic tale where a girl discovers that she is the only person left on the planet - in the middle of a shopping mall. I think I might have watched a little too much Twilight Zone!

I never stopped writing after that, though I majored in computer science in college and took a job with an accounting firm. When I married and had children, I stayed home and wrote when I could. It wasn’t until my kids were almost teenagers that I was able to start working seriously towards publication. I landed my agent, Barbara Poelle, in 2008 and she sold the ninth book I wrote. Hanging by a Thread was my tenth published book.

What draws you to the thriller/crime genres?
My earliest reading passion was fairy tales - the dark ones, where witches and sorcerers and cruel kings can only be defeated by a heroine who possesses wits as well as beauty and purity of heart. Somewhere along the way, I decided that wits were the most interesting of these three qualities.

Crime fiction showcases the most dramatic aspects of the human psyche, often unearthing secrets that ordinary people - the ones we encounter in our everyday lives - keep hidden away. I’m always more interested in what people are feeling and thinking on the inside than on what they are presenting to the public.

Winston is a town that values appearance. What is the importance of this as the setting for the murders and Clare's story?
Just like individuals, entire communities often strive to preserve a false appearance. In the case of a tourist community, keeping up appearances is meant to help boost the economy, but it mirrors the unhealthy desire to cover up trouble that, left unattended, can get out of control and lead to tragedy.

In Winston, the deaths of two young people have had a negative affect on the tourist industry, so people work hard to pretend that nothing is wrong - even if that means risking another death.

Why did you decide to give Clare a unique ability to help her in solving the mystery of the murders?
My prior young adult novels (Banished and Unforsaken) explored the gift of healing, which I found to be a fascinating exercise. Giving a character such a gift is a double-edged coin, and exploring how the gift both complicates and enhances her life makes a story richer. The challenge is to make the gift work seamlessly with the murder plot: it can’t be superfluous to the story - it has to be critical to resolving the mystery.

Most people would run away after encountering a clue to a murder. Why does Clare persist in pursuing the murderer?
As the mother of a teenage daughter, I’m constantly reminded how much empathy young people really have for each other. Often books and movies cast teen girls - especially the popular, pretty ones - as competitive and unfeeling. In reality, I think almost every girl is highly sensitive to others’ emotions, and genuinely care for their welfare, even if sometimes there’s a layer of insecurity and awkwardness that keeps it from being expressed. Clare, like the girls I’ve known, can’t turn away from someone in need without trying to help.

I love the vintage aspect of Hanging by a Thread. What inspired you to make Clare a seamstress and one that specializes in redesigning vintage clothing?
Sewing was my hobby for many years before I became a full-time writer. I don’t sew garments any more, but I made clothes and tailored vintage pieces when I was in my twenties. I thought it would be fun to create a character who channeled her creativity into a craft that I knew well.

What is your favorite vintage clothing?
I own a blouse that my mother made by hand when she was in high school. Every stitch is perfect - I’m sure she got an A on it! I also own her wedding gown, which she made. She had a tiny waist - I would never have fit into that gown.

What are you working on right now?
I am just wrapping up my next young adult novel, which features a boy and girl infected by a deadly virus. And as far as sewing goes, I just hemmed some curtains and mended my son’s favorite shirt!

Sophie's Website | Facebook | Twitter
Sophie grew up in Missouri, attended Indiana University, and worked in technology before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She lives in Northern California. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Barry, and Crimespree awards, and won the Anthony Award and the RTBookReviews Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Mystery.

Author Interview: Kat Zhang

Wednesday, December 19, 2012
I am delighted to be interviewing with author Kat Zhang, author of What's Left of Me, book one in The Hybrid Chronicles.

I should not exist. But I do.

Eva and Addie started out the same way as everyone else—two souls woven together in one body, taking turns controlling their movements as they learned how to walk, how to sing, how to dance. But as they grew, so did the worried whispers. Why aren’t they settling? Why isn’t one of them fading? The doctors ran tests, the neighbors shied away, and their parents begged for more time. Finally Addie was pronounced healthy and Eva was declared gone. Except, she wasn’t...

For the past three years, Eva has clung to the remnants of her life. Only Addie knows she’s still there, trapped inside their body. Then one day, they discover there may be a way for Eva to move again. The risks are unimaginable-hybrids are considered a threat to society, so if they are caught, Addie and Eva will be locked away with the others. And yet . . . for a chance to smile, to twirl, to speak, Eva will do anything.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into writing.
I'm currently a senior at university, a bit of a film geek, and a professional dabbler :) I've been writing since I was very little, which seems to be relatively common for us author-folk. I started in poetry, which I got into through a book of the complete collect of Winnie-the-Pooh, which had a collection of A.A. Milne's poetry for children in the back. After that, I moved on to some really terrible plays, and finally, prose :)

Speaking of plays, I saw that you used to write play adaptations for your stuffed animals. Would you tell us a little about one of your favorite adaptations and who the stars were?
Ooh, I can hardly remember most of them, now! The one I recall best is the one I mention in my bio--about the Wizard of Oz with some switched out characters because I lacked the right stuffed animals ;) My friend and I must have been about 8 or 9, and we built a little "theater" in the corner of my room out of plastic crates, using a towel for a stage curtain. I can't remember who/what we used for Dorothy :P

I remember creating worlds for my stuffed animals with my brother when we were young. Why did you decide to set What's Left of Me in an alternate universe, and what has the world building process been like?
Well, the idea for What's Left of Me was born from the idea of someone trapped in their own body, and then the notion of people with two souls. So the world would always have to be some kind of fantasy! I never really considered putting the story in a world too different from our own, though. I always wanted the setting to be pretty much our world, but with a few relatively major historical differences.

It's interesting to consider how different our world would be just by making little tweaks, like having two souls share a body. When did you realize that What's Left of Me was going to be the first book in a series?
I started getting the idea when I got to the end of the first draft and realized the ending wasn't truly the end :P But I wasn't positive there were going to be more books until we sold the series as a trilogy.

There's a saying that two heads are better than one, but things must get complicated when both share a body. What challenges did you face while writing about two girls trapped in one body?
Pronouns can be a hassle! (this is even more true when I'm dealing with multiple hybrids!). I also had to be careful about some of the metaphors I used. Eva can't "feel sick to her stomach," for example, unless Addie is feeling the same way.

That's an interesting thought. We rely so much on bodily sensations, but I've never considered what it'd be like if my thoughts were at odds with my physiological processes. If you were trapped in a body, unable to move and without company except for the other soul in your body, what would you do?
I imagine I'd make up a lot of stories to keep myself entertained ;)

And then you'd have a lot of awesome stories to share with the world once you found a way to get your thoughts out there! :) If you were to friend a Hybrid and visit the Hybrid's world for a week, where where would you go and what would you do?
Well, to be honest, there isn't a ton to do in the Americas that can't be done in our world. In fact, they're "worse" off because they don't have things like internet, or cellphones, and they've got fewer movies, and things like that. I think I'd just hang out with my main characters and ask them why they get into so much trouble :P

Haha... let us know when you find that out! What are you working on right now?
Book two of The Hybrid Chronicles!

Kat Zhang spent most of her childhood tramping through a world weaved from her favorite stories and games. In addition to writing, Kat also performs as a Spoken Word poet and contributes to Pub(lishing) Crawl, a site for aspiring writers to talk about books, storytelling craft, and the publishing process. When she is not exploring the world of her characters, she is exploring her own. To date, she's had the pleasure of visiting five countries, including more than half of the United States. She hopes to always keep writing and traveling.

Related Posts
Review of What's Left of Me

Review: Hanging by a Thread by Sophie Littlefield

Hanging by a Thread is a dark read for the disturbing visions that Clare gets in her pursuit for the truth behind Dillon and Amanda's deaths.

4 Stars: A Great Read
Hardback: 288 Pages
Publication: September 11, 2012 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Author | GoodreadAmazon | Kindle
Summer is the best part of the year in Winston, California, and the Fourth of July is the highlight of the season. But the perfect town Clare remembers has changed, and everyone is praying that this summer will be different from the last two—that this year's Fourth of July festival won't see one of their own vanish without a trace, leaving no leads and no suspects. The media are in a frenzy predicting a third disappearance, but the town depends on tourist dollars, so the residents of Winston are trying desperately to pretend nothing's wrong.

And they're not the only ones hiding something.

Clare, a seamstress who redesigns vintage clothing, has been blessed—or perhaps cursed—with a gift: she can see people's pasts when she touches their clothes. When she stumbles across a denim jacket that once belonged to Amanda Stavros, last year's Fourth of July victim, Clare sees her perfect town begin to come apart at the seams.

In a town where appearance means everything, how deep beneath the surface will Clare dig to uncover a murderer?

Clare is a unique character with a flair for resdesigning vintage clothing. She also has a gift for looking into people's pasts when she touches a piece of their clothing. She doesn't have control over when or where the visions take place, only sometimes the visions are so powerful that they compel her to take action. Upon returning to Winston, Clare finds herself pulled into a murder mystery closer to home than she would have thought possible.

As a heroine, Clare doesn't stand out much other than her way of dress. She's the best friend, nice and unassuming. She hangs out with the in crowd but doesn't take part in the hard-core partying; she lives in a single-mom family; and she feels inexplicably drawn to trouble-boy Jack. Overall, she falls flat as a character and doesn't grow much as a person over the course of the novel.. Clare never interacts enough with any one character for a defining relationship to emerge; though she seems to be close with certain people, her relationship with them is complex, oscillating between trust mistrust. Her relationship with Jack also moves quickly in spite of her doubts of his trustworthiness, doubts that don't linger long.

More than the characters, the plot is what drew me into the story. The mystery behind the crimes does take time to unfold. Looking back, the twists aren't all that big or exciting; however, the way that they're handled heightens the tension and intrigue surrounding the mystery. There were so many directions I could see the plot heading in that I didn't see the truth until it was practically upon me. By the time the plot reaches its climax, I was creeped out and ready for the murderer to be caught, so my poor heart could rest. Clare's gift adds a nice supernatural element to the story that gives us insight into events and emotions we wouldn't have learned about in such vivid detail otherwise.

Overall, the story flows well, the plot is nicely handled, and the characters likable. This is a quick read that I would recommend to those looking for a good crime novel with a supernatural element.

A copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher.

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