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Monday, May 2, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: BOOK SCAVENGER by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

BOOK SCAVENGER by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman ( Henry Holt, 2015)

What It's About (via Goodreads):
Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold's attackers make them their next target.

Opening Lines: 
"Garrison Griswold whistled his way down Market Street, silver hair bobbing atop his head like a pigeon wing. He tapped his trademark walking stick, striped in Bayside Press colors, to the beat of his tune."

Things to Love:
Book Scavenger was another middle grade Cybils finalist, and it's very easy to love. Bertman has come up with a super concept--a book scavenger hunt--and who among us didn't love clues and ciphers and treasure hunts when we were young? (I mean, some of us may still do!)

The setting--in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities--is great. (There's even a chase down Lombard Street. How cool is that)

Book Scavenger reminded me a little of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, but I found the friendship between Emily (the main character), and her neighbor James to be better drawn than in the latter title. Bertman does a great job of describing what it feels like for a 12-year-old to be moving all over the country and the loss of stability that engenders.

Also, if you're a Poe fan, you will really enjoy all the Poe details and allusions. I can't wait to read the sequel (which is scheduled for January 2017!)

About The Author (from website):
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman writes stories with a bit of mystery, a bit of humor, and a lot of fun. Her debut novel, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt for Young Readers), was an Indie Next Kids’ Top Ten Pick, a Junior Library Guild selection, and one of five titles chosen for Publisher’s Weekly Best Summer Middle Grade Books for 2015, among other accolades. A sequel titled The Unbreakable Code will be published in 2016, followed by a stand-alone middle grade mystery in 2017. She has an MFA in creative writing and worked in publishing for over a decade before becoming a children’s book author.

Photo by Joseph Jestes

Monday, April 25, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai

LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai (Harper, 2015)

What It's About (from Goodreads blurb):
A California girl born and raised, Mai can't wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai's parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn't know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.

Opening Lines:
"I whip my head toward the airplane window as soon as Dad scoots into my row. There's nothing to see except clouds and more clouds, but anything is better than looking at his fakey sorry-to-do-this-to-you face."

Things to Love:
Mai/Mia (her parents have given her one name she can use at home and a more anglicized-sounding name for school) is a completely believable teenager--in that everything in life revolves around her. She starts off huffy and snotty (after all, she wants to spend summer on the beach in California, rather than accompanying her grandmother to grandmother's country of origin: Vietnam.) But once in Vietnam, she begins gradually to appreciate the country, through her experience of village life, in a completely believable way, even to making friends with the oddest girl in the village. Listen, Slowly is many things: humorous, insightful, profound. It is about a journey to understanding one's past and one's present by means of listening, slowly.

Thanhha Lai's debut, Inside Out and Back Again, was a powerful novel-in-verse. In my opinion, her first prose work, Listen, Slowly is just as powerful. I loved it.

(Listen, Slowly was a finalist for the Cybils' middle grade section.)

About the Author (from the book jacket):
Thanhha Lai was born in Viet Nam and now lives with her family in New York. Like the father in Listen, Slowly, Thanhha has been buying bicycles for poor children in Viet Nam since 2005. To learn more about Thanhha and her charity, Viet Kids Inc., visit

Thanhha Lai, photographed by An-Lai Omer

Monday, April 18, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: PILFER ACADEMY by Lauren Magaziner

PILFER ACADEMY by Lauren Magaziner (Dial Books, February 2016)

What It's About (from Amazon):
Troublemaking George has never heard of Pilfer Academy, a top-secret school for cultivating young crooks, until he's kidnapped as its newest student. The teachers are kooky at best, and naughty does not even begin to describe his sneaky, smart, and morally bankrupt new classmates. Between disguise classes, cracking safes, and DIY gadgets, George becomes an expert bandit and finds true friendship with Tabitha, his new partner-in-crime. But everything is ruined when George comes to a shocking realization: He is just too good-hearted to be a thief!

Unfortunately, not thieving is not an option at Pilfer Academy, and "misbehaving" students face Dean Deanbugle's favorite punishment—the Whirlyblerg! In order to gain their freedom, George and Tabitha must pull the biggest heist the school has ever seen and reveal their true colors not as thieves, but as kind (and, okay, mischievous) kids.

Opening Lines:
"The small truck had parked two houses away from George's home so as not to arouse suspicion. But the neighbors kept looking at it, tapping their feet expectantly before getting frustrated and moving on."

My Take:
Quite simply, this is a romp. Having been locked away educated in an English boarding school myself, I am a fan of boarding school stories and this one has a delicious twist: it's set in a stolen French chateau and the sole academic focus is in training young thieves. Our hero, George, is a miscreant and has been chosen (and kidnapped!) for the incoming class. The faculty is a bunch of misfits, and a lot of humor derives from their antics.

Great cover, too.

Lauren Magaziner has written a well-paced novel that hits the middle grade motherlode!

About the Author:
Lauren Magaziner is originally from New Hope, Pennsylvania. Her first book, The Only Thing Worse than Witches, was an Indie Next List Pick. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes full time. Website  Twitter

Have a great reading and writing week, everyone! Ciao!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

I'm on the DIYMFA Street Team! (And announcing the winner of THE TURN OF THE TIDE)

Dear Readers,

Have you heard of DIYMFA? It's the brainchild of Gabriela Pereira, and you can read about the origins of it HERE. The website is beautiful, and there are a ton of tools for writers. I signed up for Gabriela's newsletter a couple of years ago, and jumped at the chance to join her "street team" to publicize the DIYMFA book which is coming out from Writers Digest later in 2016.

Gabriela is great at building community, and the Street Team has a Facebook page and a weekly writing prompt. This week's prompt was: "What is your origin story," meaning "how did you become a writer?"

I'm sure most of us writers can point to a love of words from our earliest days. As a child, I always had my nose in a book, (I still do, actually) and I particularly loved mysteries. I read both Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys (later it was Agatha Christie, and Georges Simenon, and John le Carré.) And in 4th grade, I was determined to write a story for my school magazine.

At the time, I was a student at the Intercommunity School of Zurich in Switzerland. The students came from all over the world, which was fascinating. My 4th-grade teacher, Mrs. Benz, was American and a little intimidating, but she worked us hard and I remember loving her reading program. She reviewed my story and said she thought it was good enough to submit.

The story itself was lushly written. At that age, I had never met an adjective I didn't love--and the more the merrier. I piled them on as I described an old, abandoned house and a weed-choked garden upon which my three young sleuths had stumbled. An unearthly scream drove them away. My readership--because, yes, this story was published--was enthralled. I still remember an older girl asking me suspiciously "did you really write that?"

I can attest that seeing one's name in print is a great thrill!

When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

P.S. The winner of THE TURN OF THE TIDE by Rosanne Parry is Greg Pattridge. Congrats, Greg!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE TURN OF THE TIDE by Rosanne Parry (Plus interview and giveaway)

THE TURN OF THE TIDE by Rosanne Parry (Random House, January 2016)

Today I have the great good fortune to feature the latest novel by someone who is a friend in real life, Rosanne Parry. Rosanne and I have known each other for about 20 years, and are in a critique group together. I have benefited immensely from her wisdom and skill--and it's been wonderful to see the process her books go through for publication. Rosanne is the Revision Queen.

I told the Don about my feature today and that I was worried about nepotism. His response: "Nepotism makes the world go round. Tell Rosanne she's part of the family."

OK, Boss! (Also, I haven't done a giveaway for a while, but I have an autographed copy for one lucky commenter. Just leave a comment, and an email address if it's not linked to your blog profile. Grazie!)

What It's About (via Goodreads):
On a beautiful day in June, the ground broke open.

In Japan, you’re always prepared for an earthquake. That’s why Kai knows just what to do when the first rumbles shake the earth. And then he does the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do: He runs. And then the tsunami hits.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Kai’s cousin Jet sets sail off the coast of Astoria, Oregon. She knows she should have checked the tide—she always checks the tide. Except this time she didn’t.

When the biggest mistakes of their lives bring them together, Jet and Kai spend the summer regretting that one moment when they made the wrong decision. But there’s something about friendship that heals all wounds and, together, Jet and Kai find the one thing they never thought they’d have again—hope.

Opening Lines:
"When the earth broke open, there was a noise that came before the quake. It was so deep Kai felt it on his skin before he heard it. It came before the crack of broken trees, before the hard rain of broken glass, even before the pop and whoosh of blue fire when the transformer behind the playground blew."

Six Things I Loved:

  1. Not many authors can write emotion like Rosanne does. If you've read her Heart of a Shepherd you'll know exactly what I mean. She writes about loss in such a perceptive way that before you know it, you're shedding a tear or two. 
  2. But she's also got great humor, often brought out in the interactions between characters. Jet and Kai are great foils for one another.
  3. The cultural differences between the US and Japan are handled deftly. (I can say that, having lived in Japan for three years.)
  4. I know absolutely zip about sailing, but found those sequences to be riveting. Disaster is often a tack or two away. (Yikes, who put that big ship there?!) Rosanne writes adventure stories that appeal to both boys and girls. This is a great one.
  5. I loved the cover the moment I set eyes on it in draft form. The colors and the font are eye-catching--it certainly stands out on a crowded book shelf.
  6. It's set in Oregon!

I also got the chance to ask Rosanne some questions. I hope you enjoy this short interview:

1) What sort of research about Japan and Astoria did you do for your novel?

The Astoria research was relatively easy. Astoria, Oregon about an hour from home and all the places mentioned in the book—the museum, the comics shop, the sailing club—were easy to visit.

Japan was trickier because I can’t afford a trip to Japan, as much as I wanted to go. But I had two critique partners who had lived in Japan for several years who were great about helping me get details about Japanese school culture right. Thank you Mike, and also Amy Baskin, for your patient and through reading of many drafts of this story!

My daughter's Japanese teacher was also terrific. She checked all the language in the book to make sure I was using it clearly. What’s more, her family lived near the area of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami so she was able to help me understand how the trauma of that day has played out in the short and long term for her own family and how Japanese culture has shifted in response to the disaster.

I’m a chatty person and so I’m always gleaning little bits of information even when I’m not formally researching. Years ago a talk at the Portland Japanese Garden about the similarities in climate and fauna between Japan and western Oregon gave me an insight into what Kai might be feeling as he climbs Saddle Mountain. A brief chat with a chef about Japanese cuisine helped me think about what flavors Kai would be most homesick for. A childhood friend who spent every summer in Japan with his grandparents gave me some insight into the relationship Kai has with his Ojii-san and Obaa-san.

2) Are you a sailor in real life? A geocacher?

My husband and I both read and loved The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin which made us both want to be sailors. Years ago we bought a broken sailboat and fixed it up and taught ourselves to sail. I don’t go sailing nearly as often as I’d like, but the Saga in my book is modeled on our own boat, the Selkie.

When my children were younger we hiked a lot and did geocaching as a part of our family hikes all the time. This spring I’ve been hiding geocache boxes near bookstores and filling them with mini-books and an invitation to visit the local bookstore. There are six million geocachers world-wide so it’s a great way to get tourists to stop by the bookshop. And I love the little messages finders leave in the geocache log about their favorite books.

3) As a bookseller as well as an author, do you have recommendations for other MG adventure books, sailing or not?

Linda Sue Park has a brand new fantasy series called Wing and Claw about two cousins who are animal-loving apothecaries and uncover a sinister plot in a forest kingdom. If you like an adventure story that’s not fantasy, Dan Gemeinhart’s Some Kind of Courage is about an orphaned boy who risks everything to rescue the horse he loves from horse thieves. If you loved Heart of a Shepherd, you should definitely give it a try.

Bonus Question: What's your favorite thing about book signings?

My favorite thing to happen at a school book signing was when a seven-year-old boy came up to me, eyes alight, clutching my newly published book in his hands. “Eragon is my favorite book ever!” he said. “Will you write Christopher Paolini’s name in this book?”  Because, to a seven-year-old, authors are all basically the same person. 😃  I don’t mind signing another person’s book with my name but plagiarism just felt wrong so we had little conversation about what an autograph is and he was SO disappointed. I told him he could ask for the autograph of any person he admired and he took my book straight to the school custodian!  Isn’t that awesome! I was smiling all day.

About the Author:
Rosanne Parry is the author of the award winning novels Heart of a Shepherd; Second Fiddle and Written in Stone. Her newest novel for young readers is The Turn of the Tide (Random House, January 2016.) Rosanne has taught writing at schools, conferences, educational non-profits, and on-line at the Loft Literary Center. She and her family live in an old farmhouse in Portland, Oregon. She writes in a tree house in her back yard.

Thanks, Rosanne! To learn more about Rosanne Parry, you can visit her website. She's also active on Twitter: @RosanneParry

Thanks, everyone! Happy Monday, and Happy Writing. Ciao!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE by Janet Fox

THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE by Janet Fox (Viking, March 15, 2016)

What It's About (from Goodreads):
Something is not right at Rookskill Castle, a rundown Scottish manor shrouded in mystery. The castle is a temporary boarding school for children escaping the Blitz, but soon it’s clear there is something terribly wrong. There are clues hinting that a spy is in the house, and there are undeniable signs of a sinister magic. When the children in the castle’s temporary boarding school begin disappearing one by one, it’s a race against the clock for twelve-year-old Kat Bateson, her two younger siblings, and their new best friend.

Opening Lines:
"It is 1863.
The winter winds shriek and moan around the castle turrets as the nightmare finds him, poor cat-boy John.
He runs from room to room until he finds a place to hide, and then he hears but two things: the clattering and the ragged hish, hish of his own breath."

Five Things to Love:

  • Can you say "atmospheric?" This takes place is a Scottish castle, whose corridors are maze-like. The weather is suitably Scottish (a.k.a. foul), and sinister things are afoot. What's left of my hair positively curled, as I read along.
  • Kat Bateson is an independent, skeptical child. She's given a chatelaine by her great-aunt, and told by said great-aunt that the chatelaine is magic. Rational Kat, however, doesn't believe in magic. That is, until the horrors of Rookskill Castle unfold.
  • Speaking of sinister, Lady Craig--referred to as "the Lady"--is one of the creepiest creations of children's literature. She is a soul-stealer, with a chatelaine of her own, and Kat and her younger siblings are her targets.
  • I loved the way the novel shifted effortlessly between time periods--from the 1740s to the 1860s to the 1940s. The writer got all the period details just right.
  • Janet Fox isn't British, but she sure fooled me (someone who's a Brit by birth.) Her feel for British language and idiom was superb. If I ever have the honor to meet her, I'll have to ask her how she does it!
Janet Fox kindly agreed to be my next victim  interviewee:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
Oh, boy. Where do I start? (Where do I end?) I started to answer this and the list got so, so long...let's just say I hate to miss any of my favorites. Let's just add that I love middle grade. And there are so many fabulous middle grade authors and books out there right now. But I'll say this much: I dedicated THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE to Kathi Appelt. Not only has she been a friend and mentor, but I turn to her books (especially THE UNDERNEATH) for gorgeous language, great character, and richly layered plot.

2) What's on your nightstand now?
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'm attaching a photo of my towering pile, which is just where it starts.

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.
My favorite scene is kind of a spoiler, so I'll leave some things unsaid, but it happens near the climax. My protagonist, Kat, sees the antagonist in a new light. Kat recognizes the potential beauty in the hideousness. This is a scene that came to me during a workshop with Donald Maass, and it turned my entire notion of how to create a twist right on its head (if you can follow that weird metaphor combo.) It also causes Kat to hesitate at a critical moment which...well, no spoilers! (MGM: Agreed! That is a magnificent scene. In fact, the whole climax is magnificent.)

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....  
finding things. I call it my superpower. I have an uncanny knack for locating lost items, especially those of other people. And I'm really, really good at finding four-leaf clovers. (MGM: Oh my goodness, that is a great talent. You would be in high demand at my house with my three "where is it?" boys.)

5) My favorite breakfast is...
bacon and eggs. With blueberries and yogurt. And strong, strong coffee. And, if I'm really indulging, a chocolate croissant, warmed up a bit so the chocolate is melty. Yum. 

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?
I'm going to pick a place I haven't been: New Zealand. It looks so gorgeous in photos. It's on my bucket list. (MGM: New Zealand does seem to be a perennial favorite of my interviewees. Maybe we should all go on a writing retreat there...?)

Janet Fox has also produced a series of eerily cool videos about each of the charms of the chatelaine. As I'm the sixth stop on the tour, this video reveals the 6th charm. (To follow along with the video reveals, see the list of blog tour participants on Janet's website):

About The Author:

Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. Her published works include the non-fiction GET ORGANISED WITHOUT LOSING IT (Free Spirit, 2006) and the YA historical romances FAITHFUL (Penguin 2010), FORGIVEN (Penguin 2011),  and SIRENS (Penguin, 2012). Her debut middle grade novel, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE  is a historical fantasy set in 1940 Scotland. Janet is a 2010 graduate of Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Website (where you can play her truth or dare game!)  Twitter

Well folks, that was a fun book to review on my birthday! Off to celebrate. Ciao!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE MORRIGAN'S CURSE BY Dianne K. Salerni

THE MORRIGAN'S CURSE by Dianne K. Salerni (HarperCollins, 2016)

Preamble: I'm writing this on Sunday afternoon, befuddled by Daylight Saving's time and peeved by the fact that my laptop's hard drive died this morning. I wish the Don could just take over the world, and decree an end of DST as well as mechanical malfunctions. I was on the verge of going off to sulk when I realized the old and barely used computer downstairs was still chugging along--and I had received some wonderful answers this week to my questions from Dianne Salerni. This immediately put me in a better mood, and hence you have an MMGM from me today. Huzzah!

What It's About (from Goodreads):
The battle between Kin and Transitioners that's been brewing for centuries has finally come to a head. The sinister Kin have captured Evangeline's younger sister, Addie, a descendant of Merlin whose presence will allow them to reverse the Eighth Day Spell and free themselves. Addie doesn't realize the full consequences of her cooperation. She's been helping the Kin because they value the strength of her magic—something Evangeline never did. The feeling of power coursing through her veins is impossible to resist.

Meanwhile, Riley, Evangeline, and Jax craft a plan to rescue Addie from her captors. But the Kin's unstoppable magic, and a rebellious Addie, force Riley to reconsider whether saving Addie is worth sacrificing everyone who lives in the seven-day week. Jax won't let Evangeline's sister be used as a pawn, so he risks it all in a secret mission of his own. With the Morrigan pushing both sides of the war toward annihilation, Addie must decide where her loyalties lie, while Jax, Riley, and Evangeline confront the possibility of losing Addie to save the world.

Opening Lines:
"Normally, Addie Emrys didn't like heights, but in this case, the view was worth it. Leaning on the wooden railing of a second-floor balcony, she watched waves crash against rocks on the shore below, blasting themselves into wild sprays of foam."

The Love List:

  1. The Cover, right? I love all the covers of this trilogy, by artist Mike Heath. They are eye-catching and arresting.
  2. If you want to see how to deftly introduce a new book in a series, study Dianne Salerni. There's no massive info dumping. Instead, the story starts off at speed, with occasional reminders of what has gone before. Brilliant!
  3. The world Dianne Salerni has created. I loved the settings, the wild weather, all of the Eighth Day magic. (And boy, what I sometimes wouldn't give to have an Eighth Day of my own! Except I'd probably spend it taking a nap instead of fighting for survival.)
  4. All of the old characters, as well as some new ones. Dianne Salerni is great at creating villains, too--which leads me to...
  5. In every book of this trilogy, Dianne has had some breathtaking, climactic fight scene. The Morrigan's Curse is no exception. This time, it's Addie, with her fear of heights, having to do battle on top of a water tank. It gives me goose bumps just thinking of it. Dianne Salerni is a master.
I was lucky enough to have Dianne answer some of my most probing questions:

1) What's the hardest thing about writing a series?

The hardest thing for me was the build-up of characters over the course of the books. I had a lot of characters in Book 1. Most of them appeared in Book 2, along with a new cast of villains and potential allies. By the time I got to Book 3 and needed to introduce another new set of characters for the conflict, I felt as if I had a cast of thousands! I started wishing I'd killed off more characters in the first two books, lol. (Mafioso's note: Well, you handled them all deftly!)

2) Is the Morrigan a real legend, or did she spring from your imagination fully formed?

The Morrigan is a real mythological character -- or as real as any mythological character can be! She is known as a 3-in-one deity linked to fate, war, and destruction. For my book, I took the barebones of her legend and refined them to serve my story, giving unique names to each of her incarnations: the Girl of Crows, the Washer Woman, and the Old Crone.

3) Will there be a book 4?

I hope there will be a Book 4 and a Book 5, but that's up to the publisher. They told me they would make a decision later this year, so keep your fingers crossed for me! (MG Mafioso: I certainly will!)

Bonus Question: What's your favorite thing about book signings?

My favorite thing about book signings is when a young reader comes having already read one or more of my books and has a long list of questions to ask me about the plot. Sometimes I have to think on my feet when they start digging deep into the story! 

Thanks for featuring me at Middle Grade Mafioso!

Thanks for creating such a great story-world, Dianne. I hope we all get to read more about Jax, Riley, Evangeline, and the rest of the cast soon!

You can read my Middle Grade Mafioso reviews of The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor's Mark, as well as visit Dianne at her web page and follow her on Twitter. Ciao!