Favorite Reads of 2017

Ah! New year, new books!

New reading challenges, new debuts releasing, exciting sequels we’ve been waiting FOREVER for, all to add to our ever-growing beloved TBR piles.

What’s a reader to dive into first?

Before we get too caught up in all the shiny new books coming out this year, or just in case you’re looking for some great reads to help you survive until that to-die-for sequel FINALLY arrives, here are some of my favorites from last year, in no particular order.

THE YOUNG ELITES Series by Marie Lu

 

 

 

 

I’ve been dying to read this series ever since I met Marie Lu last summer and received my signed copy of the first book. I absolutely loved her LEGENDS series and couldn’t wait for more. She didn’t disappoint! Adelina is such a fascinating, complex character, and a baddie you’ll love to route for. I thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through her for awhile. The complex relationships that don’t all turn out the way you think they will (or dare I say, hope they will?) add so many delicious layers to this wonderful series. I couldn’t read fast enough! And those gorgeous covers, ah! Love them.

Plot summary for THE YOUNG ELITES:

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

Learn more about Marie Lu here.

Follow Marie on Twitter here.

Follow Marie on Facebook here.

Follow Marie on Instagram here.

 

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

browngirldreaming-4medals-3001I don’t think any more awards could fit on the cover of this book. Still, I was struck by the title. I was transported by the imagery and moved by the emotions they evoked. Beautiful book.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, I always felt halfway home in each place. In these poems, I share what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.

It also reflects the joy of finding my voice through writing stories, despite the fact that I struggled with reading as a child. My love of stories inspired and stayed with me, creating the first sparks of the writer I was to become.

WHERE IT TAKES PLACE:

Columbus, Ohio, Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York

WHERE I WROTE IT:

In all of those places but mostly in Brooklyn.

WHY I WROTE IT:

I wanted to understand who my mom was before she was my mother and I wanted to understand exactly how I became a writer. So I started researching my life, asking relatives and talking to friends – and mostly, just letting myself remember. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Jacqueline Woodson here.

Follow Jacqueline on Twitter here.

Follow Jacqueline on Facebook here.

 

DUMPLIN’ by Julie Murphy

Loved everything about this book! Willowdean is amazing and I wish I’d had her confidence when I was younger. Face what scares you head on and throw in a dance number! Honestly, what’s not to love? Cue “Jolene” on repeat.

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American-beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

Follow Julie on Twitter here.

Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

Follow Julie on Instagram here.

Follow Julie on YouTube here.

 

SIX OF CROWS Duology by Leigh Bardugo

 

 

 

 

I enjoyed Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy and I was thrilled to return to her Grishaverse in this new storyline. The characters were exciting and so dynamic. I loved the Kaz/Inej relationship – so different, so touching and painfully strained. Great adventure tale that I ripped through in record time. And did I mention the gorgeous design? Red and black pages. And those covers! I’m a sucker for great design.

It inspired me to reread the original Grisha series. I’m sure I’ll reread these stories again soon.

Plot summary for SIX OF CROWS:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Learn more about Leigh Bardugo here.

Follow Leigh on Twitter here.

Follow Leigh on Tumblr here.

Follow Leigh on Facebook here.

 

THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

I  met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at last year’s SCBWI LA summer conference where I got her book signed and I’ve been dying to read this ever since. It did not disappoint. I absolutely loved the premise and her characters were just divine. Loved it so much, I did a full post on it. Read full discussion here.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.

Follow Martha on Twitter here.

Follow Martha on Facebook here.

Follow Martha on Tumblr here.

 

BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

My SCBWI OK group read this for their monthly book club. Although I couldn’t attend, I still wanted to read along. Wow. What a fascinating story! I loved the way she used magical realism – so well done. I loved the idea of a town full of gaps where people could just disappear, slip through.

The twist of the main character was so interesting, I didn’t see it coming. Loved it.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Laura Ruby here.

Follow Laura on Twitter here.

Follow Laura on Facebook here.

Follow Laura on Tumblr here.

 

THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

I read this ahead of the SCBWI LA summer conference because Nova Ren Suma was one of the speakers. WOW! This book! So amazing! It was surreal and dark and twisty in the best ways.

And Her breakout session on Unreliable Narrators? Outstanding! I can’t wait to get to my manuscript with a certain unreliable character, now. Huge fan for life!

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?

In prose that sings from line to line, Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence, and of what happens when one is mistaken for the other. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Nova Ren Suma here.

Follow Nova on Twitter here.

Follow Nova on Facebook here.

Follow Nova on Tumblr here.

Follow Nova on Instagram here.

 

I CRAWL THROUGH IT by A.S. King

So fantastic. A unique experience – like walking into a Dali painting and being able to speak the language of the inhabitants.

Fabulous King at her best.

Four accomplished teenagers are on the verge of explosion. The anxieties they face at every turn have nearly pushed them to the point of surrender: senseless high-stakes testing, the lingering damage of trauma, the buried grief and guilt of tragic loss. They are desperate to cope—but no one is listening.

So they will lie. They will split in two. They will turn inside out. They will build an invisible helicopter to fly themselves far away from the pressure…but nothing releases the pressure. Because, as they discover, the only way to truly escape their world is to fly right into it.

The genius of acclaimed author A.S. King reaches new heights in this groundbreaking work of surrealist fiction; it will mesmerize readers with its deeply affecting exploration of how we crawl through traumatic experience—and find the way out. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about A.S. King here.

Follow A.S. King on Twitter here.

Follow A.S. King on Facebook here.

Follow A.S. King on Instagram here.

 

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander

Nothing but net. So good! Couldn’t put it down until I reached the end. I picked up this book while in LA at the SCBWI Summer conference and had the pleasure of hearing Kwame Alexander recite some of his poetry. He makes it come alive and breathe like a living thing. It’s amazing. This book read just like that.

“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander (He Said, She Said 2013).

Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Kwame Alexander here.

Follow Kwame on Facebook here.

Follow Kwame on Twitter here.

Follow Kwame on Instagram here.

 

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE (#1), THE WAR I FINALLY WON (#2) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

 

 

 

Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and just so touching. I’ve always wanted to know more about the kids who were evacuated during the war. Ada, what a kid after my own heart – fantastic character! This is the perfect story for that. Loved this book! And the sequel!

Plot summary of THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE:

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

Learn more about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley here.

Follow Kimberly on Twitter here.

 

DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

Fantastic storytelling. Absolutely loved it! As a Tulsan, also appreciated this part of our history being told so thoughtfully.

Some bodies won’t stay buried. Some stories need to be told.

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past, the present, and herself.

One hundred years earlier, a single violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Jennifer Latham here.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter here.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook here.

 

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

Brilliant. Powerful storytelling.

One of my favorite reads this year by far. Absolutely loved Starr and her whole family. Such wonderful characters.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

 

Learn more about Angie Thomas here.

Follow Angie on Facebook here.

Follow Angie on Twitter here.

Follow Angie on Instagram here.

 

What were YOUR favorite reads of 2017?

What are you looking forward to reading this year?

Kim Ventrella – Author Interview

I’m so happy to be interviewing the delightful Kim Ventrella, today. Kim is an SCBWI Oklahoma region member I’m just getting to know, and I’ve been dying to ask her some in-depth questions. Like what’s behind her extensive skeleton collection? How much does her dog, Hera, actually help her writing process? And more importantly, what inspired her highly anticipated debut novel, SKELETON TREE, which comes out this month?

Let’s find out.

 

About Kim

Kim lives in Oklahoma City with her faithful furry companion, Hera. She moonlights as a children’s librarian when she’s not writing books, fighting crime, or killing houseplants. (I’m beginning to think her bio has been padded. That houseplants thing is a little far-fetched, if you ask me.)

She has been know to actually seek out places where skeletons dwell. To even pose for pictures with them, and dress them up in fancy hats and wigs. Some might call that weird, I call that amazing! How else would we get such an awesome-looking book?

 

Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Kim’s book:

SKELETON TREE by Kim Ventrella

Release Date: September 26, 2017

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy

BOOK AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER:
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Plot Summary:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize.

But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton…one that only children can see.

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird–Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates.

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)


 

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Your debut novel, SKELETON TREE, has such an intriguing premise, what sparked the idea for this story?

Kim Ventrella: I wondered what would happen if a boy discovered a finger bone growing in his backyard. The story evolved from there, becoming much more than I had anticipated.

VL: What a great beginning. I can’t wait to read where the story goes from there!

I absolutely love the book trailer for THE SKELETON TREE, what can you tell us about it? (You can view the book trailer below.)

KV: Artist Jerry Bennett and Filmmaker Zac Davis did an amazing job putting together the trailer. I had gone to see their award-winning short film, Even in Death, and after that I knew they would be perfect for the job. It captures just the right mix of wonder, spookiness and whimsy.

VL: You seem more than fascinated (dare we say obsessed?) with skeletons – I love following your hashtag #skeletonspotting, by the way – where did this deep interest in skeletons come from?

KV: I don’t know if it’s a deep interest (ha!), but I have always been fascinated with the macabre. Scary stories are a great way to confront monsters in a safe environment. Readers can learn from the character’s journey that it’s possible to overcome those spooky skeletons we all have in our closets.

VL: So true! Better to tackle them in the pages of fiction than in real life. (Checks closet for skeletons.)

Your story tackles the difficult subject of death, one not many adults are comfortable dealing with. Talk about why you thought it important to address this issue in a children’s book.

KV: My grandfather passed away suddenly not long before I started Skeleton Tree. I didn’t initially intend for it to be a book about death, but that was just how the story unfolded. It became a sort of canvas on which I could put forward my own vision of how Death could look, if we chose to experience it through a different lens.

I wanted to create a Death full of meaning, beauty, friendship and understanding. I strongly believe that books are one of the best ways for children to make sense of the world around them, to experience tough topics in a safe space, and that includes dealing with death.

VL: How beautiful. That’s quite an homage to your grandfather, too. I just love that.

What were some of your biggest fears as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

KV: I was very scared of ghosts in particular when I was a child, which is perhaps why I embraced the macabre. I used to have night terrors, night paralysis and visual disturbances (i.e. I very vividly ‘saw’ ghosts on several occasions as a child).

For me, reading scary stories has always been the equivalent of performing a big Riddikulus spell on those creepy real-life monsters. Seeing others triumph over evil, whether it’s watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or reading Roald Dahl, gives me confidence that I can also defeat the big baddies out there.

VL: Wow! Very in touch with your spooky side, even as a kid. Destined to write this genre! I love that seeing others conquer their fears in books gave you courage, too. Books are so powerful!

You discussed in a post recently that you like to begin writing a story by thinking about its emotional catharsis and working back from there. That’s almost like starting at the ending and working your way back to the beginning. I love this idea. Can you expand on this?

KV: My writing style has changed and continues to change a ton. I always used to write completely organically, with no plotting ahead of time, like with Skeleton Tree. Now that I have to send off proposals for stories before I start writing (for the most part), I’ve started thinking more strategically.

In the end, the important aspect of a story for me is what emotional impact readers will feel after they turn the last page. Has the book changed the way they see the world? Has the character’s journey taught them something about themselves?

Starting with that in mind can speed up the process, but it’s not always possible, because sometimes you can reach a more powerful conclusion if your destination is unplanned.

VL: Excellent advice, to focus on the emotional impact.

Your dog Hera features prominently in your Instagram posts, how does she factor into your writing process? (I have heard tale that you like to write in her dog bed.)

KV: Yes, I wrote Skeleton Tree sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. I now have an office chair, ha!, but my dog is still a big help. I even mention her in the acknowledgements of my book. She’s sweet, silly and scared of everything, but most of all she’s the perfect co-writer.

VL: Who were your childhood heroes/role models?

KV: I don’t know about role models, but I was obsessed with Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin. I also loved Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and his sidekick, Hastings. The Addams Family was another huge favorite, as were Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.

VL: What a wonderfully eclectic collection! I’m also a huge Agatha Christie fan! I read so many of her books when I was a kid.

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

KV: I love The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan. It’s a sad, happy, heartfelt story about a poet who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. It’s practically my life story.

VL: Beautiful cover. Thanks for recommending it. 🙂

And thank you so much for joining us, today, Kim! It’s been such a pleasure talking with you and getting to know you better!

 

The Trailer

And now for your viewing pleasure…

The official book trailer for Skeleton Tree!

Local talents Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis created this trailer for Kim. They both worked on the award-winning short film, Even in Death. Jerry is an amazing comic book artist and illustrator who’s done work for companies like Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Topps. Zac Davis is a filmmaker and program director for Invisible Layers productions, a pre-employment program for young adults on the autism spectrum with an interest in film, video production, or animation.

Enjoy the trailer!

 

Don’t forget to pre-order Kim’s book SKELETON TREE! It releases on September 26th!

 

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Learn more about Kim Ventrella here.

Follow Kim on Twitter here.

Follow Kim on Facebook here.

Follow Kim on Instagram here.

 

 

 

Book Review – KIKI AND JACQUES by Susan Ross

I received a copy of KIKI AND JACQUES from the publisher, Holiday House. This is a debut novel for author Susan Ross that was featured in their Fall catalog.

Kiki and JacquesKIKI AND JACQUES by Susan Ross

Published by: Holiday House

Release Date: August 17, 2015

Genres: Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

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Plot Summary:

Twelve-year-old Jacques’s mother has passed away, his father is jobless and drinking again and his grandmother’s bridal store is on the verge of going out of business. Plus he’s under pressure from an older boy to join in some illegal activities. At least Jacques can look forward to the soccer season. After all, he’s a shoe-in for captain.

But the arrival of Somali refugees shakes up nearly everything in Jacques’s Maine town, including the soccer team. So Jacques is surprised to find himself becoming friends with Kiki, a cheerful and strong-minded Somali immigrant. Despite their many differences they are able to help one another triumph over problems with friends, family and growing up.

 

While the description above sounds intriguing, and I actually began reading the book with high hopes, I was left disappointed on many counts.

I wanted to like Jacques, the POV main character, but I never really got to know him. Even when he made references to missing his dead mom, I didn’t feel the emotional connection. There was something lacking for me.

The story was entertaining enough, but fairly predictable and nothing too extraordinary happened. I didn’t feel the characters struggling. The big question of “What’s at stake?” didn’t feel big enough or maybe I just didn’t connect with the characters enough.

With a title containing two character names, you would expect this relationship to be pivotal to the plot of the story, but it’s not exactly the main focus, which I found disappointing.

Most of the problems resolved too quickly, and many not by Jacques himself taking decisive action. The shake up of the town with the arrival of the refugees, which wasn’t really shown, resolved with one social event at the church.

Overall, there were too many missed opportunities that would have made this tale exceptional. Instead, for me it was just okay.

 

Learn more about Susan Ross here.

Follow Susan on Twitter here.

Follow Susan on Facebook here.

Book Review – CLAYTON STONE, AT YOUR SERVICE by Ena Jones

I received a copy of CLAYTON STONE, AT YOUR SERVICE from the publisher, Holiday House. It’s one of the new releases from their Fall catalog. I love a good middle grade mystery. Throw in some fast-paced action, along with a surprisingly large dose of heart, and you have the makings of a pretty good story.

Clayton Stone has suffered through a lot of loss in his family. With the death of his grandfather, and both of his parents before that, it’s just him and his grandma. And the guys on his lacrosse team. He does okay most days, but then some small thing happens and he feels the loss all over again. That’s when he goes up to his grandpa’s old office to hang out with Bart the stuffed buffalo. Then a mysterious phone rings…

 

Clayon Stone coverCLAYTON STONE, AT YOUR SERVICE by Ena Jones

Published by: Holiday House

Release Date: September 15, 2015

Genres: Middle Grade, Mystery, Action/Adventure

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Plot Summary:

When the President calls asking him to help catch a kidnapper, 12-year-old Clayton’s life is hijacked into the family business his grandmother has worked hard to keep him out of—the secret agent business.

In an instant, Clayton’s world has changed. As the mystery of finding and catching the kidnapper escalates, it begins to mean even more than risking Clayton’s life. It means lying to his best friend, putting the lacrosse season in jeopardy, liking the girl he hates, and then risking his life again. 

Join Clayton as he races against time to save a senator’s family.

This is more than your average spy guy story. Clayton is such a wonderful character. You really feel his struggle as he tries to work through the discovery of this exciting new world before him, how he can connect with the lives of his parents and this grandparents,  and yet how not to disappoint his friends who don’t understand why he’s suddenly changed and why he’s letting them down.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

I’m up in my grandpa’s office hanging with Bart, the stuffed buffalo, after a long, wet afternoon at lacrosse practice. The third floor was a better place to hang out when he was alive.

Sometimes I can even forget that Bart’s the only to talk to up here, but then there are other times. Like right now, when I tell him the guys are coming over tomorrow and we’re gonna play some video games and order burgers from Big Stone’s, the diner my family owns. Gramps would have gotten real excited, maybe asked if he should run out and get the latest Madden for us. Bart just stares at me with glazed, indifferent eyes.

Gramps’s office is in the attic of my grandparents’ super-old stone house, with a view over the treetops. In the winter, if you stand on your tiptoes and find the exact right angle, you can see the Potomac River.

I don’t do that anymore.

Anyway, after a couple of turns at Gramp’s indoor putting green, and a few throws at the dartboard, I slide across the wide-planked floor in my socks. I can smell Gran’s pot roast, and the thought of a good dinner is making my stomach gurgle. Practice today was tough. and I am hungry.

Photos and awards line the long attic walls, so thick I can barely see the whitewashed plaster underneath. When I was little, Gramps used to carry me from one end of the room to the other and point out all the important people he and Gran were photographed with. “This is the secretary of state in 1982.” and “This is the president of France.”

I don’t get why so many important people wanted a picture with the Pickle King of the world. If they only knew how much Gramps hated the pickles that made him rich!

I’m looking at a photo of Gran and Gramps with the first President Bush when a ringing phone startles me about two inches off the floor. Even though it’s an office, I’ve never heard a phone up here before. Seriously, never.

My sock and I slide over to Gramp’s desk, and I pick up the receiver. But all I get is dial tone. The phone rings again. The sound is coming from across the room…Gran’s desk? If I’ve never heard a phone ring up here, I’ve twice as seriously never seen my grandmother sit at that desk. And I’d swear on a stack of Bibles she hasn’t been inside this room for the last year. She won’t even come up the stairs.

I fly across the room – well, not literally – and land in the chair so hard it rolls backward. I scoot forward and scan the top of the desk. I still don’t see a telephone, and the high-pitched ringing seem sot be getting louder. The sound is coming from somewhere inside. I tug at the top drawer. It’s locked, and so is the next one. The third drawer opens, and there’s nothing. Until I look more closely.

In the back left corner gleams a small gold key. I grab it – could this be what I need? Only one way to –

Ha! The key turns and the top drawer opens, and there it sits: a plugged-in cell phone flashing a red strobe light and blaring long streams of noise.

Something about the ring feels wrong. My stomach forgets about the pot roast downstairs long enough to tighten, warning me to leave the phone where it is; telling me, Don’t even touch it. And for sure don’t answer it.

But I’m stupid that way. I bring it to my ear.

“Uh, hello?” I say.

– Text © 2015 by Ena Jones

 

You want to know what happens next, right?

It’s a great story, and a fast-paced read that I finished within a few days. If you love this story and want more from Clayton Stone, fear not! There’s a sequel coming soon!

CLAYTON STONE, FACING OFF  release date is scheduled for Fall of 2016.

Learn more about Ena Jones here.

Follow Ena on Twitter here.

 

2015 TBR Challenge – MOON OVER MANIFEST Review

2015tbrbuttonMy seventh review for the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge is MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool.

The goal of this challenge is “to finally read 12 books from your ‘to be read’ pile within twelve months”. To qualify for the challenge, books must be read and reviewed before the year is over, and all selections must have publishing dates from the year 2013 or older. (Here are the books I’ll be reading this year.)

I first heard Clare Vanderpool speak at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference a few years ago. When she gave the keynote address, she discussed the universal need for stories. She said, “We learn more not by dissecting books but by immersing ourselves in stories. We all have this need for a connection to story. It is through stories that we find our bearings.”

I loved that.

This belief really comes across in her own writing – connection and emotion. After all, if I don’t feel something as a reader, I’m not going to care about the story.

Needless to say, I did feel and I did care.

On to the Review!

PDF Creation in Quark 7MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool

Published by: Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Release Date: October 12, 2010

Genres: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Mystery

Plot Summary:

The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby. I closed my eyes to the dusty countryside and imagined the sign I’d seen only in Gideon’s stories: Manifest—A Town with a rich past and a bright future.

Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”
Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.

Powerful in its simplicity and rich in historical detail, Clare Vanderpool’s debut is a gripping story of loss and redemption. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

The setting and the voice of this story were just fantastic. I love the way Vanderpool weaved the past in with Abilene’s present so seamlessly. You felt her heartache with the absence of her father, and you felt that same heartache for the town that had lost so much years before. The way Abilene’s journey through the past leads to her own understanding and to the town beginning to heal itself is rich and beautiful – just what you’d expect from a Newbery winner.

Learn more about Clare Vanderpool here.

 

My Writing Process Blog Hop

This is a delightful blog hop that’s making the rounds right now, and I was tagged a few times by some lovely people.

Jenny Perinovic, part of my TGNA family, first tagged me in this blog hop and I accepted her challenge,

then my fellow SCBWI Oklahoma friend, Sonia Gensler tagged me and finally,

Jadyn Knight one of my #writemotivation peeps added me to her chosen few.

Thank you all for including me in this fun challenge.

Pic From Unsplash by Sonja Langford
Pic From Unsplash by Sonja Langford

So here we go:

1. What am I working on? I am revising two completed manuscripts at the moment. One is INSTITUTIONALIZED, a YA contemporary novel about a teen who gets admitted to Whispering Sands under false pretenses and must navigate the unfamiliar world of deviants and sociopaths by pretending to be crazy so she can get out in time to save her sister from the real psycho in the family. The other is NIGHT OF THE MUSEUM CRASHERS, a Middle Grade Mystery about a boy who stumbles upon a crime in process – thieves swapping out paintings with fakes. But when the police arrive, there’s no trace of foul play; no one believes him. He decides to solve the crime himself and prove he was right.    

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? With the contemporary YA story, the twist is that the main character isn’t mentally ill, or at least she doesn’t think she has any reason to be locked up. In my Middle Grade story, my character is afraid of everything in the beginning – not exactly the dashing adventurous type that relishes the idea of solving mysteries. He’s thought of as mentally unbalanced – fragile, even, by the adults. That’s kind of an anti-hero for mystery stories. I do seem to be fascinated with the inner workings of my characters’ lives and I do like them damaged; they all seem to need therapy. Read into that what you will.

3. Why do I write what I do? Books meant everything to me as a kid. While some let my imagination soar, some helped me navigate the awkward world of puberty without always having to ask my single dad embarrassing questions. (I know I’m not the only one who owes a heap of gratitude to the amazing Judy Blume.) Writing stories that shed light on difficult issues and let someone else not feel so weird about themselves, like they could be the hero of their own story or even help someone else understand what a different way of life may be like – I don’t know, I just like exploring ideas that spark conversation. 

4. How does my writing process work? I’ve discovered this fabulous new word recently – “planster”. I’m not quite and pantser or a planner, but a planster. And a binge planster at that. I don’t write every day, but even on the days I’m not writing, I do spend a good chunk of time mulling over my stories or thinking about my characters. I spend a lot of time in my own head. Once I do sit down to write, everything else falls away. Distractions like food, people, time all get filtered out. Before I know it, I’ve been writing for hours on end, the sun has disappeared, and my family has written me off as lost for the day. I find myself surrounded by discarded drinks and food items scattered about as offerings to the enthralled author-who-could-not-be-disturbed. This is one of the many ways they love me and my crazy writerly self.

As far as the actual writing of the story process, for me, the situation and the character always come first. An idea pops into my head while having a discussion with a friend or while reading an article or listening to an interview on the radio. I may jot it down so I don’t forget it, or I may just mull it over in my head for a few days. If it sticks in my brain and I can’t stop thinking about it, I begin to play around with it, with the character, and see if this could be something worth pursuing. I start writing some pages. And more pages. Once I get into the story and realize it has teeth, I may sketch out a bell curve outline of major plot points or scenes I want to include. That’s probably as much outlining as I’ll do, with the exception of the mystery story. I did have to outline more to keep track of clues and red herrings, there. For that story, I did a chapter by chapter outline after I knew the story would work and where the story was going.

I try not to revise while writing the first draft, but I do start a page or two back from where I started the day before and I may tinker a bit with things before moving forward. I’m trying to allow myself to write those messy first drafts and wait for revising until I get to the end of the first draft. I do love revising. I know my work only gets better the more I do it. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop revising. Probably when the next exciting idea calls to me.

I haven’t tagged anybody for this blog hop as most of the people I would tag have already been tagged, so if you’d like to share your writing process feel free to join in the fun. I have enjoyed reading about everyone’s process. One thing I have gleaned from all of the different stories is that there is no right or wrong way to write, only that you do it.

So here’s to all of you, trudging through your revisions and first drafts, battling your demons of self-doubt. Remember that perseverance is key.

Keep writing!

 

See You at Harry’s – A Book Review

There are books that have sad moments, there are books that have funny moments, and then there are books that touch you so deeply, that ring so true they stay with you forever. See you at Harry’s by Jo Knowles is all of these books in one. This is the first book I’ve read by Knowles, and I now want to read everything she’s ever written.

Here’s the plot summary:Big See You at Harrys

Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. It seems as though everyone in her family has better things to do than pay attention to her: Mom (when she’s not meditating) helps Dad run the family restaurant; Sarah is taking a gap year after high school; and Holden pretends that Mom and Dad and everyone else doesn’t know he’s gay, even as he fends off bullies at school. Then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, the center of everyone’s world. He’s devoted to Fern, but he’s annoying, too, always getting his way, always dirty, always commanding attention. If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s calm and positive best friend, there’d be nowhere to turn. Ran’s mantra, “All will be well,” is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe it’s true. But then tragedy strikes- and Fern feels not only more alone than ever, but also responsible for the accident that has wrenched her family apart. All will not be well. Or at least all will never be the same. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

The family dynamic was so well-written, so believable you’d almost wonder if she’d sat at your breakfast table and took notes – just the right amount of bickering and irritation and love. Fern’s voice did remind me of my own twelve-year old self – torn by feelings of self-doubt, guilt for letting the family down, irritation at being responsible for one’s younger siblings, etc. She also had a boy for a best friend, just like I did.

Here’s a short passage from early on in the book where the main character Fern tries to talk to her brother Holden about him being gay:

We’re quiet under the pine, smelling Christmas in summer and listening to the traffic on our street pick up as people start getting home from work. It’s my favorite thing about Holden, being able to sit quietly together and not talk. Just think together and not have to say a single word. But today, for the first time, I feel something floating between us, a question I’m sure I know the answer to. I feel the weight of the answer separating us for some reason I don’t understand. If it doesn’t matter to me, why should it matter to him?

“I don’t care if what Sara said is true,” I tell him quietly, hoping my words will make the floating thing go away. He takes a deep breath like it hurts. I wait for him to say something, but he just sits there, staring at the pine needles. And it almost feels like the floating thing has swallowed him up, leaving me all alone.

I was blown away by how heart-wrenching this book was. Just when I thought I knew where this story was going, WHAM! It pulled the floor out from underneath me. I saw the tragic event coming about two steps before it happened and internally I screamed NOOOO!!! I ached for this family. I felt their grief in a very physical way. UGH! I just can’t tell you much about the plot without spoiling it, and I don’t want to ruin this perfect book for you one little bit. All I can say is that even after I set the book down and walked away, I cried. A lot. This is definitely a two tissue box book. I have never had a story move me like that before. Ever.

I LOVED LOVED LOVED this book. Insanely loved it.  I know you will, too.

Jo Knowles mentions in the acknowledgements of the book that it was her agent, Barry Goldblatt, who encouraged her to write a story about growing up in the restaurant business. I can’t imagine he’d have thought such an amazing tale would’ve come to fruition from that bit of advice.

The actual family restaurant/ice cream factory that may have inspired this story. (Picture from author's website.)
The actual family restaurant/ice cream factory that may have inspired this story. (Picture from author’s website.)

Learn more about Jo Knowles’ books here.

Read Jo’s Live Journal entries here.

Follow Jo on Twitter here.