Monday, September 26, 2016

MMGM: FRAMED (A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery)

I picked up this story because I have a soft spot for art history mysteries. Chalk it up to hours listening to my art history professor wax eloquent about Gothic arches, but I certainly would've been an art history major--if my first love hadn't been writing. 

FRAMED  joins the likes of CHASING VERMEER, EDDIE RED AND THE MUSEUM MILE and UNDER THE EGG; it’s a rich art history mystery with fun characters and an intriguing plot line.

A book that will appeal to kids and grownups alike!

Synopsis (an excerpt from Amazon):

Florian is twelve years old and has just moved to Washington. He’s learning his way around using TOAST, which stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It’s a technique he invented to solve life’s little mysteries such as: where to sit on the on the first day of school, or which Chinese restaurant has the best eggrolls.

But when he teaches it to his new friend Margaret, they uncover a mystery that isn’t little. In fact, it’s HUGE, and it involves the National Gallery, the FBI, and a notorious crime syndicate known as EEL.

Can Florian decipher the clues and finish his homework in time to help the FBI solve the case?

 What to like:

 1.  A smart, quirky kid as the main character. Of course, it’s every kid’s fantasy to actually work for the FBI! Florian isn’t your typical kid. He’d lived most of his life in Europe and has a Holmes-like eye for noticing seemingly insignificant details.

2.  A great boy/girl friendship. While I tend to think boy/girl friendships don’t always seem realistic in MG, this one really worked. Margaret’s sensible nature was an excellent foil to Florian’s quick mind. Their dialogue was always snappy and fun.

3.  Two intact families.  I thought it was great that both Florian and Margaret’s families were intact, supportive and loving—and it was nice seeing grownups respecting the kids and their ideas.

4.  Insider details about FBI training and art museums and art theft detection. Part of the fun of reading books like this is learning about what goes on at FBI training or what being undercover really entails. I loved how Florian’s trainer was petite but tough!

5. An open ending. I cheered for the open ending on this mystery--which means they’ll be more adventures with Florian and Margaret!

14-year-old boy's take: "This is hard to put down!"

If you loved mysteries about art history or anything about the FBI (think SPY MICE by Heather Vogel Frederick but without animals), you need to check out FRAMED. I’m always excited to find more smartly written, intriguing mysteries like this!

And if you do pick it up, I dare you to try not to see the significance of small things!

Have you read any good mysteries lately? 

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, only because it's easier for me to post book covers that way. Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

MMGM: Audacity Jones to the Rescue

I picked this up because Kirby Larson is one of my favorite authors—and I know her historical fiction will never disappoint. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop on voice she led at my local SCBWI conference. How appropriate that should be teaching a class in voice, a skill she excels in, especially in AUDACITY JONES.

Prepare to be inspired by a very talented writer if you pick up this book!

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Audacity Jones is an eleven-year-old orphan who aches for adventure, a challenge to break up the monotony of her life at Miss Maisie's School for Wayward Girls. Life as a wayward girl isn't so bad; Audie has the best of friends, a clever cat companion, and plenty of books to read. Still, she longs for some excitement, like the characters in the novels she so loves encounter.

So when the mysterious Commodore Crutchfield visits the school and whisks Audie off to Washington, DC, she knows she's in for the journey of a lifetime. But soon, it becomes clear that the Commodore has unsavory plans for Audie -- plans that involve the president of the United States and a sinister kidnapping plot. Before she knows it, Audie winds up in the White House kitchens, where she's determined to stop the Commodore dead in his tracks. Can Audie save the day before it's too late?

What to love about Audacity:

1.  Language: There is so much to love not only in the voice in this book, but in Larson’s fun word play. For example (about President Taft): “To meet with such largeness!...Beatrice was not referring to the nation’s twenty-seventh president’s girth—which was astounding, that could not be denied—but his political stature.”

2.  Multiple point of view—that works: I tend to prefer a single point of view so that I can get into a character, but not when multiple point of view is handled like this. Since this is a mystery, dipping into other people’s heads gave the reader an insider’s view that Audacity doesn’t have, which upped the suspense. Also, every character’s voice and thoughts were distinct in each point of view and seamlessly transitioned. Plus the omniscient narrator often had funny commentary on the events of the story—which gave the story an old-fashioned feel, like it was written at the time of the setting.

3.  A setting close to my heart: I am in love with pre-World War I settings—chalk it up to wondering what life was like for my great grandmother,  who was born in 1900. It was fun reading about Taft—a president who never gets as much airtime as Teddy Roosevelt. In this book, he's trying to live under Teddy's huge shadow. Tons of fun!

4.  Well-drawn characters: Not only is Audacity interesting because of her “longing” for something different in life and her naiveté at times, but her friends at the Home for Wayward Girls, Miss Maisie, Juice the newsboy, and even the antagonists are well-rounded with detailed histories and back stories.

5.  Heart, warmth, and humor: As you may see from the quote, this book is filled with heart, warmth and humor. I loved how the kids save the day by working together and the theme of friendship that runs throughout. 

My only caveat with this book is that the time period was a little hard to determine until you were well into the book. The  cover doesn't reflect accurately reflect the time period, and there's no mention of which president she meets on the backflap, but these are minor things in light of a very good read. 

If you enjoy books with lyrical language and omniscient narrators, like INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE or Larson’s other books, especially THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL,  you will love Audacity Jones! And if you love Audacity, there is a sequel (featuring Houdini!) coming in 2017!

How can you resist a girl like this? Audacity: “And my mathematics are appalling. Here I am eleven and I can barely do calculus.”

Have you read any fun books lately? How do you feel about omniscient narrators?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, only because it's easier for me to post book covers that way. Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

MMGM: The Potato Chip Puzzle and The Puzzler’s Mansion

I first discovered THE PUZZLING WORLD OF WINSTON BREEN a few years ago, doing research for a middle grade mystery I was writing at the time. This summer, I suggested it to my older son, who loves chess and math and word play. He loved it and discovered there were more! Of course, I had to finish reading 
about Breen’s adventures.

What’s not to like about a kid whose passion is solving puzzles?

Here are the synopses (from Amazon):


When a local potato chip tycoon invites area kids to an all-day puzzle hunt, Winston Breen is psyched. But it turns out the day is not all fun and games. Their teacher is being overly competitive, the puzzles are hard (even for Winston), and someone in the contest is playing dirty in order to win the fifty-thousand-dollar grand prize! Trying to stop the mystery cheater before it's too late takes an already tough challenge to a whole new level. . . .


Winston Breen and his friends Mal and Jake accompany Mr. Penrose for a weekend of puzzles and games at the mansion of a famous musician. Over the course of the weekend, some guests’ prizes and belongings inexplicably disappear. As the group continues with the elaborate puzzles—which the reader is invited to solve too—some of the guests try to figure out who is stealing things, and others become suspects. But in the end it’s Winston who stumbles upon several clues, and eventually discovers the real culprit. A fast-paced whodunit, this latest Winston Breen installment will have readers hooked!

What’s fun about Winston Breen:

1. Puzzles! I love how the reader gets to solve the puzzles right along with Winston. The puzzles that have to do with the main plot are solved in the text, but Winston is often doing other puzzles, which are inserted in the text with answers in the back. My son was bent over a piece of paper solving them all while he read.

2. Eccentric adults: Part of the fun of both these books is how an eccentric adult sets up puzzles for other characters to solve. I thought the potato chip tycoon and the famous pianist were some of the most interesting characters—especially the pianist in Puzzler’s Mansion.

3. Realistic middle school friendships: I liked how Winston and his best friends have each other’s backs. Boy-girl friendships are more common in kidlit (not so common in real life, I think) for this age, so I found that Winston's dude friends very realistic. His crushing on a beautiful older woman and a pretty girl his age also fit his age. 

4. Interesting, climatic endings: Both books had memorable climaxes, from riding lawnmowers and secret passages to a race against the clock to stop bad guys at a picnic. I was on the edge of my seat!

5. Inspiring themes: I loved the themes of honesty and loyalty in POTATO CHIP PUZZLER and the theme of finding a balance between real life and your passion as a creative person in PUZZLER’S MANSION. As Richard, the pianist and owner of the mansion, says: "Whatever your passion is--even if you're great at it--it can't be the only thing you do."

These books reminded me a lot of MR. LEMONCELLO'S LIBRARY They would appeal to kids who love puzzles—and not just math puzzles, but word puzzles as well—and kids who like puzzle mysteries like THE WESTING GAME.

Have you read any good puzzle mysteries lately? Do you do puzzles? (If you haven't already guessed, I'm a word puzzle girl.)

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, only because it's easier for me to post book covers that way. Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

ISWG: Not Waiting for Lightning

Finding time to write. That is the question.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot—and not just because it’s the ISWG’s question of the month. As summer draws to a close, I know my life will get extremely busy soon. And there’s always the question of how am I going to squeeze in writing?

Often I think of my writing life in terms of Before and After. Before I took a class on writing a novel, I had one way of writing: the struck by lightning method. If an idea hit me over the head or I was inspired, I wrote. If it didn’t, I didn’t. I didn’t write every day. I didn’t usually revise my work. Stories often came to me fully formed. But I never got beyond chapter three of any novel I started.

Getting inspired--Before

 After that class, I took my writing more seriously, or maybe I should say, I took myself more seriously. I finally thought I could do this writer thing. Although I still sometimes write in fits and starts—I started doing something revolutionary to me at the time: I write even when I didn’t feel like it. 


And that made a huge difference.

Fast forward to now. I still struggle with finding time to write. Ideally, I write best during the day, but that’s not usually when I can write. I write at night when the house is quiet—and it’s rare that I have more than an hour altogether, so I’ve learned to do what I can with what I have. Even if I only have fifteen minutes—that’s something.

I don’t have a set word count, but if I’m drafting, I try to write one scene or if I’m editing, revise one scene or chapter. But I also count other things as my writing time. In my book (excuse the pun), research counts, even though I’m always anxious to get back to stringing words together.

I’ve also learned a lot from EAT THAT FROG (Brian Tracy). I try as much as possible to do the hard things first. I don’t watch a lot of TV. I keep my schedule simple, because if I’m running this way and that, I cannot write.

It’s hard writing at night. I’m often tired after a long day and just want to curl up and watch Netflix. Pulling out the computer, switching gears to open my document is like swimming against the tide.

But I’m always glad I did.

The strange thing about writing when you don’t feel like it is that only the first five minutes are hard. I usually have to bargain with myself. Just open the document and look at it. Just read what you wrote yesterday. Just revise that one paragraph. But I never stop at that. And when I’m through, I’m happy. Happier than I would’ve been if I had done nothing, waiting for lightning to strike. 

How do you find time to write in your busy day?

What is Insecure Writer's Support Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter hashtag is #IWSG 

The awesome co-hosts for the September 7 posting of the IWSG will be C. Lee McKenzie, Rachel Pattison, Elizabeth Seckman, Stephanie Faris, Lori L MacLaughlin, and Elsie Amata! 

photo credit: 505 Blink of an Eye via photopin (license)

Monday, August 29, 2016

MMGM: Rainy

I picked up this book because I’ve been doing some research on ADHD for my work-in-progress. While I like to read memoirs to get an insider’s view, sometimes it’s also effective to read fiction to see how other authors have tackled the same issues. This summer I read three novels with protagonists with ADHD, but RAINY by far was my favorite.

Here’s the synopsis:

A vivid portrait of a girl with a hyperactive mind

Rainy isn't thrilled about going to camp, away from her family and her beloved dog, Max. Without her family there to help, how will she stay focused when her thoughts start bouncing around her brain like ping-pong balls?

Once Rainy finds friends who can handle her extreme energy, she decides that camp is great. She's even gotten good at keeping track of her things. But when bad news from home floods her head with too many thoughts, she forgets the rules and sets off on a dangerous journey.
With her signature mix of humor and heart, Sis Deans explores the hectic world of a girl learning to live with ADHD.

What I liked about Rainy:

1.  A character with a lot of heart: It was hard not to fall in love with Rainy, who gets lost when she finds something interesting and is always misinterpreting what adults and other kids are saying to her. For true-to-life kidlike thinking and behavior, this book gets a 10+.

2.  An authentic ADHD character: Rainy felt like the friends, students, and others I know who struggle with ADHD. 

3.  A book without the moral, “everything will be okay if you just take your meds.” I think one of the reasons I was dissatisfied with some of the other books is that the conflict or main problem was solved once the main character  with ADHD got the right dosage. While drugs do help some children, I liked that the author did not use this as a plot device. Rainy's parents do not want her on drugs, so she must learn coping techniques on her own--often with humorous results.

4.  A camp setting: Need I say more? I’ve read a few novels set at camp this summer—and there’s something about the nostalgia for my own camp days that made this such an enjoyable read.

5.  Interesting format: I loved how Deans interspersed Rainy’s “unedited” letters home throughout the text. This gave us another peak into Rainy’s mind.

Parental/teacher warning: My only caveat about this is book is that there is some language, which I found a bit out of place for a ten-year-old girl.

As I was reading this and reflecting on some of the other novels I’ve read this summer about kids and teens with disabilities, I’ve noticed a not-very-surprising trend: people who have the disability in question tend to write more authentic books. In her author’s note, Deans talks about how she grew up in the 60s when Ritalin was not used, so the book in many ways reflects her own experience. 

What are your favorite books about kids (or adults) with disabilities?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, only because it's easier for me to post book covers that way. Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

MMGM: The Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King, and a Pickpocket Squirrel

To be honest, I’m a bit of a reluctant fantasy reader or maybe it’s just that I came to fantasy late in my adult years. I never read fantasy as a child (except for the Narnia series), and though I tried very hard to make my way through the Hobbit, I never could through the lush description. However, then I discovered “light” fantasy--that is fantasy with a realistic touch—and the retellings of Gail Carson Levine and Shannon Hale. I love that kind of fantasy, where the setting is like the real world with a few differences.

I’m so happy to find a new book that fits my fantasy ideal, THE MAGIC MIRROR, one of the most immersive reads I’ve had in a while.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

The twisty-turny journey of a girl searching for her heart’s desire—glimpsed in a magic mirror. Perfect for fans of Rump or Catherine, Called Birdy

A foundling girl with a crooked leg and a crutch doesn’t expect life to be easy. Indeed, Maggie’s dearest wish is to simply not feel so alone. So when she spies a man behind bars in a magic mirror said to show one’s truest desire, she feels sure he is the father she’s always longed for—and she sets off on a quest to find him.

Along the way, Maggie meets both kindly pilgrims and dastardly highwaymen. She discovers she bears a striking resemblance to the princess Petranilla. Their connection is so remarkable that Petra believes Maggie must be her lost sister who fell from the castle wall and was swept downriver as a baby.

What a turn of fate! From reviled foundling to beloved royal! But being the lost princess turns out to be more curse than blessing given the schemes of the current king...  And if Maggie’s a princess, then who is the man she spied in the magic mirror?

This is a grand middle grade adventure story full of mistaken identities, lost loves, found families, and a tantalizing tinge of magic

What to love about MAGIC MIRROR:

1. A fantasy set in a lush, realistic setting: While the names and places of the book are purely fictional, the details of the time and place are not. Like Karen Cushman’s work, this book oozes with medieval details. Let’s just say I’m thankful that the days of having fleas and nicks as your daily companions are over.

2. Well-rounded characters: This novel is like a tapestry with many interesting threads. Each character is so real with a well-developed personality and back story. While there is a lead character, Maggie, there aren’t minor or secondary characters in the usual sense. Like a Dicken's novel, each character's journey intersected with others.

3.  Multiple points of view: Now typically I’m not a big fan of multiple points of view, but it really worked well for this novel. First, it allowed for several different stories in different locations to be going at once, and it also allowed depth of characterization for all the characters.

4. Faith was not sidelined: Now this is not a religious book per se, but I’ve often read books set in the Middle Ages where faith is not part of the story at all. This doesn’t ring true for me, since faith was central to this time period. In MAGIC MIRROR one of the main characters, who’s an orphan, is an apprentice to a monk, who was once a soldier.  This felt very realistic for that time—as there were few places for orphans to go but to the church.

5. A story that keeps you guessing: There were a lot of twists and turns in this story and once I thought I had it figured out, something would change. There are a lot of fantasy stories about commoners who don’t know they are princesses, but I loved how Long turned that trope on its head.

By the way, I was very happy to see that the author, Susan Hill Long, is an Oregonian like me. I’m always happy to support my fellow Northwest writers.

I think MAGIC MIRROR would appeal to fans of Karen Cushman, Gail Carson Levine or Shannon Hale. Enjoy!

Have you read any interesting fantasies lately?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, only because it's easier for me to post book covers that way. Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

MMGM: Stars of Summer

I’m a bit late to the game reviewing this one, since it came out last summer, but when I saw that the third book had come out, I knew I needed to read this one first. The thing about sequels is that sometimes they can be a real let down and when I saw this was about Gladys going to camp, I wasn’t sure how this would pan out.

Could it be as fun as ALL FOUR STARS? Which I reviewed here.

It was!

The synopsis (from Amazon):

In this charming sequel to All Four Stars, eleven-year-old foodie Gladys Gatsby now has her first published review under her belt and is looking forward to a quiet summer of cooking and reviewing. But her plans quickly go awry when her friend Charissa Bentley delivers Gladys’s birthday gift: a free summer at Camp Bentley. As Gladys feared, camp life is not easy: she struggles to pass her swim test and can’t keep the other campers happy while planning lunches. The worst part is she can’t seem to sneak away for her latest assignment—finding the best hot dog in New York City.  Could this summer be the end Gladys’s reviewing career?

What to love about STARS OF SUMMER:

1. Character development: I loved how much Gladys changes in this book, learning not just one, but two big lessons about herself. I also liked how a problem from book one is nicely wrapped up in book 2.

2. Gladys and her parents grow closer: Admittedly, one of the fun parts of this series is how Gladys’ parents seem more like the kids and she the adult, but what I loved about this book is how that begins to change. While they didn’t understand her at all in book 1 (and she them), there is more understanding in book 2.

3. The humor and the play with words: As I mentioned in my review of Book 1, Daiman’s writing is a pleasure to read. She’s not only incredibly good at situational humor, but in word puns and plays on words. It’s not often that I find myself laughing through a book as I did with this one. Tons of fun!

4. The way the “romance” was handled: I loved how Gladys stayed true to herself—or at least learned to—by the end of the story.  This has to be the best ending to a middle grade “romantic” subplot I’ve seen in awhile.

5. Friendships: I love how Gladys is surrounded by such interesting and great friends, but I especially loved how her relationship with Charissa (the former antagonist) deepened in this novel.

If you enjoyed ALL FOUR STARS, you will love this. The humor reminds me of Dahl (Matilda, anyone?), but also of the great humor and characters in Andrew Clements work. I can’t wait to get my hands on number 3: STARS SO SWEET!

 Have you read any humorous books this summer?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link, only because it's easier for me to post book covers that way. Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.