Book Review: JUST A DROP OF WATER

I only recently got the change to read JUST A DROP OF WATER by Kerry O’Malley Cerra and let me tell you–I’d been missing out!

Here’s the blurb:

JustADropOfWaterEver since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart–and outrun–the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. But the final blow comes when his grandpa’s real past is revealed to Jake. Suddenly, everything he ever knew to be true feels like one big lie. In the end, he must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

A gripping and intensely touching debut middle grade novel by Kerry O’Malley Cerra, Just a Drop of Water brings the events of September 11, which shook the world, into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event. 

This novel is a Florida Book Award winner, winner of the Crystal Kite Award, and named to VOYAs Top Shelf Fiction for Middle Readers’ 2014 list.

I read JUST A DROP OF WATER in one day because I could not put it down. The chapter headings count down to that fateful September 11, 2001, which really increases the tension. It’s a day I remember vividly, and it’s tackled in just the right way for the target audience who did not live through it. There were so many poignant lines in it. One of my favorites is this: “Anger can lead us to a place of hatred and intolerance. And if we get to that point, then everything that really matters is already lost.” Anger–and what to do with that anger–is a constant theme in this novel, and it’s handled beautifully without being preachy. This is one of those stories I will read again and again.

JUST A DROP OF WATER is powerful and timely and it should be on all middle school lists. Jake and Sam are two best friends whose lives and friendship are turned upside down as a direct result of the horrific events of 9/11. It’s the story about friendship, doing what’s right, and not giving in to anger and fear. The storyline is gripping, the characters heartfelt and flawed, the voice on point, and the writing beautiful.

At our latest SCBWI Florida conference this past January, Kerry accepted the Crystal Kite Award with a touching and moving speech–there was not a dry eye in the house! It’s a testament to the heart that she brings to everything she does, including her novels.

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Book Review: OLIVIA TWISTED

If you like retellings, Vivi Barnes‘ OLIVIA TWISTED is for you! It’s Oliver Twist with computer hackers. With alternating points of view, and tackling themes of abandonment, abuse, and hope–and of love and loss–Vivi delivers a novel that is emotionally true.

Here’s the blurb:OliviaTwisted

Olivia

He tilts my chin up so my eyes meet his, his thumb brushing lightly across my lips. I close my eyes. I know Z is trouble. I know that being with him is going to get me into trouble. I don’t care.

At least at this moment, I don’t care.

Tossed from foster home to foster home, Olivia’s seen a lot in her sixteen years. She’s hardened, sure, though mostly just wants to fly under the radar until graduation. But her natural ability with computers catches the eye of Z, a mysterious guy at her new school. Soon, Z has brought Liv into his team of hacker elite—break into a few bank accounts, and voila, he drives a motorcycle. Follow his lead, and Olivia might even be able to escape from her oppressive foster parents. As Olivia and Z grow closer, though, so does the watchful eye of Bill Sykes, Z’s boss. And he’s got bigger plans for Liv…

Z

I can picture Liv’s face: wide-eyed, trusting. Her smooth lips that taste like strawberry Fanta.

It was just a kiss. That’s all. She’s just like any other girl.

Except that she’s not.

Thanks to Z, Olivia’s about to get twisted.

What I loved about OLIVIA TWISTED most were the characters. The novel is told in alternating POVs from Olivia and Z’s perspective. When done well, I really enjoy dual POVs because they add depth to a work. Vivi did it well! The chapters headings contain the characters’ names, so we know immediately whose POV we’re in, but honestly, I didn’t need them. Olivia and Z’s voices were distinct enough that I just knew. This is so hard to pull off (I know–I’ve tried! lol) and Vivi did a fabulous job with channeling both characters. I loved Olivia. She was strong and stubborn and a quick-thinker–and the computer hacking part was so cool! I admit I know zilch about it, but the way Vivi works it into the plot, through the characters, was seamless. Z was mysterious and though he had this bad-boy exterior, his complexity was awesome. Sam was so much fun, too! I loved her.

There was a twist, which I sort of saw coming, but I wasn’t 100% correct. The pacing was perfect–I read this in practically one sitting, and Vivi had the perfect combination of tension and romance and action that kept me entertained, emotionally engaged, and reading because I NEEDED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. I was hooked.

Vivi Barnes is one cool kid. She’s hilarious and sweet and so much fun to be around–just ask anyone who knows her or who’s met her at an SCBWI Florida Conference. (Every year, I look forward to seeing what elaborate costume she comes up with for the next conference ball!) You can follow her on Twitter or check out her website for updates. Her new book, PAPER OR PLASTIC, comes out winter 2015 from Entangled Teen! I can’t wait to read it!

I may have been late to OLIVIA TWISTED (it debuted Nov 5, 2013 and I didn’t get to read it until May 2014), but I’m so happy I finally did!

Book Review: GILDED

GildedOne of the best things about summer vacation is that I get to read to my heart’s content. Stay up late? No problem. I can sleep in or nap the next day. All semester long, I accumulated this fabulous TBR pile that, because of work and revisions, I couldn’t get to, but oh how I wanted to.

I broke my reading fast with GILDED by Christina Farley. I met Christina at the 2013 SCBWI Florida Mid-Year Workshops. Actually, it was during the Elixir Mixer, where my friend Larissa introduced us. We got to talking about multicultural books and myths and the richness of other cultures when she told me about her debut novel, GILDED, a YA contemporary fantasy which features Korean mythology. She gave me her card, and I immediately started following her on Twitter. When her book released on March 1, I cursed I couldn’t read it immediately. When I finally did in early May, though, I was not disappointed!

Here’s the blurb:

Sixteen-year-old JaeHwa Lee is a Korean-American girl with a black belt, a deadly proclivity with steel-tipped arrows, and a chip on her shoulder the size of Korea itself. When her widowed dad uproots her to Seoul from her home in L.A., Jae thinks her biggest challenges will be fitting into a new school and dealing with her dismissive Korean grandfather. Then she discovers that a Koreandemi-god,Haemosu, has been stealing the soul of the oldest daughter of each generation in her family for centuries. And she’s next. But that’s not Jae’s only problem.There’s also Marc. Irresistible and charming, Marc threatens to break the barriers around Jae’s heart. As the two grow closer, Jae must decide if she can trust him. But Marc has a secret of his own—one that could help Jae overturn the curse on her family for good. It turns out that Jae’s been wrong about a lot of things: her grandfather is her greatest ally, even the tough girl can fall in love, and Korea might just be the home she’s always been looking for.
***
What I liked best of this novel is how Christina seamlessly weaves South Korean mythology with a fast-paced plot filled with tons of action. I couldn’t stop turning the pages and read the book in practically one sitting. We get some wonderful city views of South Korea and feel the energy of the setting. Just as impressive is the world of the demi-gods. As far as characters, Jae Hwa Lee is a strong, likable protagonist who finds herself face-to-face with the things legends are made of–and she kicks demi-god booty in the process.I can’t wait for SILVERN, the sequel to GILDED, which will pick up where GILDED left off in a brand new adventure. It’s set to release September 23, 2014!

Happy Book Birthday to Laura M. Kolar!

Last summer, I had an amazing opportunity to take an online course in LitReactor with literary agent Mandy Hubbard. It was inspiring and informational with awesome critiques. But the best part was getting to meet some fabulous writing friends. In fact, many of us have remained friends and have become critique partners.

One such friend is Laura M. Kolar, who today celebrates the release of her debut novel, CANVAS BOUND (Book 1 in the Captive Art Series).

CanvasBound

About the book from Amazon:

“Sixteen-year-old Libby Tanner’s art comes to life. Her painted skies turn from day to night, leaves rustle on trees, and sometimes, a mystery boy appears. While attending England’s Aldridge Art Academy, Libby meets charming Brent Henderson, a performing arts student who showers her with attention. But his rival, gorgeous Dean James, is the one who occupies her mind, even though he’s very much attached to his current girlfriend. Libby soon learns there’s more to both Brent and Dean than she ever imagined. In order to save her future and the boy who’s captured her heart, she must unlock the secrets behind her art by entering the most dangerous place of all… the world within her paintings. But once she steps into the canvas, she risks being trapped forever.”
I had the privilege of reading CANVAS BOUND early on and I’m dying to read the final product. Laura’s book was the first I beta-read, and the first I saw to fruition, which makes me double–no, triple!–excited. But the thing is, it’s a wonderful read. There’s romance. And magic. And mystery. And romance (wait, I already said that!) When I read it, I couldn’t put it down because I HAD to know what happened. I loved Libby and Dean and Brent and the whole cast of characters. And I loved the magic because seriously, how cool is it to have paintings that come to life!
So if you like YA fiction with a touch of magic, go buy it! And then go follow her on Twitter!

The art of working hard

Our culture seems to have an aversion to working hard. Everywhere I turn, there’s a clamor for instant gratification. Forget sweating, forget busting our behinds. We have a dream. We have a vision. This is what we’re MEANT to do. But we don’t want to wait. We don’t want to do the dirty work. We don’t want to put in our time and effort to get there. We want it, and we want it NOW. And we want it easily.

Reminds me of a toddler cranking up towards a massive meltdown.

The thing is, the only way to get to that dream, for it to really mean something, is by working hard. By paying our dues. I was talking with a friend and former colleague, author Christine Kling, many moons ago about writing, and she said something like this: to get close to having something ready to publish, you have a million-word internship. In fact, she wrote this post about The Million Word Rule. And I believe it because, as clichéd as the saying is, it’s true that practice makes perfect (or better yet, practice makes better.)

Sometimes, I’ll hear well-meaning friends say, “Hurry up and write it!” Or family will want me to finish, but don’t understand the time I take away from them. But if I don’t sit on my behind and write, if I don’t spend the time to develop the characters and the world, to run through the steps that it takes to start and finish a draft, and then to revise it (over and over and over again) until it’s ready to send out, it won’t happen. I’ll have a half-finished story, a draft full of possibilities that’ll simply evaporate because I didn’t put in the time and effort. A book’s not going to write itself.

And on the same note, a first draft will NEVER be good enough. It can ALWAYS be better. It’s not called a shit-draft for nothing! I drill this into my students: the importance of writing multiple draft, of reading and re-reading and revising to polish their work. I take this to heart, and it’s what’s allowed me to silence my inner editor temporarily while I get the story down into that first, exploratory draft. But again, this is work. It takes time, dedication, patience, and endurance.

I haven’t reached my dream yet of being published, of sharing my writing with the world. I also don’t have an agent…yet. But I’ve seen how much I’ve grown in the past five years since I started taking writing seriously, as a career. Every class I take, every workshop and conference I attend, every critique I receive and every story I write puts me that much closer to reaching my goals. That’s what I have to do. If I want this with every cell of myself, then there’s no other option but to keep on writing, keep on trying, keep on paying my dues so that eventually, it will happen. And when it does, the prize will feel that much sweeter because I reached it with my own effort.

i-did-my-waiting-gif

Sure, there are days where it’s harder than others, days where the inner doubt creeps in and tries to take over. But that negativity is just an excuse. It’s a way of trying to take the easy way out, which I guess we’re programmed to want. So stuff a pillow in doubt’s mouth and keep going–the only way to reach that dream is by persevering! You can do it. And when you think about quitting because it’s just too hard, remember this:

“There’s only one thing that can guarantee our failure, and that’s if we quit.” – Unknown

And these:

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

“It’s when things get rough and you don’t quit that success comes.” – Unknown Quote

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touchdown.” – Ross Perot

Keep going, keep writing (or keep doing whatever it is you need to do to succeed)!

Book Hangover

book-hangoverThis is me right now, still hungover on Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. To say it’s awesome is an understatement. The characters…wow. And the setting…amazing. And the costumes… sigh. And the writing…lovely.

Okay, I’ll stop. I’m not very eloquent right now. 😉 I promise to come back with a review, though, once the semester’s officially over.

In the meantime, I’ll keep dreaming with Alina, Mal and the Darkling. 🙂

SKYLARK by Meagan Spooner

Late last week, I downloaded Meagan Spooner’s debut SKYLARK into my iPad’s Kindle. I was eager to start reading, though I was in the midst of grading (grades are due by tomorrow morning—eek!) and my own MS revisions. So I started slowly. One chapter at a time, squeezed in between all else.

But it wasn’t enough.

The problem with me (is it really a problem? I beg to differ) is that once I’m hooked, I can’t stop. It was torture reading just one chapter at a time, and finally, I couldn’t do it anymore. I told my husband, as he went to sleep last night, “I’m just going to finish this chapter and then go to sleep.” Because I was exhausted. But I didn’t. I kept reading, enthralled in this magical, dangerous world, each chapter ending in such a way that I had to read just one more chapter. And so it went until I finished it a little past 1 AM, when my iPad’s battery had only 4% juice left and my eyes were blearing from exhaustion.

Here’s the book description from Amazon:

“Vis in magia, in vita vi. In magic there is power, and in power, life.

For fifteen years, Lark Ainsley waited for the day when her Resource would be harvested and she would finally be an adult. After the harvest she expected a small role in the regular, orderly operation of the City within the Wall. She expected to do her part to maintain the refuge for the last survivors of the Wars. She expected to be a tiny cog in the larger clockwork of the city.

Lark did not expect to become the City’s power supply.

For fifteen years, Lark Ainsley believed in a lie. Now she must escape the only world she’s ever known…or face a fate more unimaginable than death.

In Meagan Spooner’s compelling debut, magic, technology, and human frailty collide in a brilliant new world.”

Oh my. To say that I love it seems inadequate! I LOVED it! And here’s why:

For one, I’m a sucker for gorgeous language and descriptions. Her prose is lyrical and beautiful and takes me right there. I could picture the scenery, the buildings, the forest, the characters. It was such rich and vivid imagery.

The world is unlike any other and yet it was familiar. I understood it and feared it. From the city in which Lark lives, cut off from the rest of the world, to the vast unknown world Lark encounters on her journey, Meagan Spooner delivers. She brings to life the beautiful and dangerous, the friendly and lethal. And the magic. Wow.

I love Lark. She’s strong and fights for what (and whom) she loves, even if it means taking the hard way out or sacrificing herself. And Oren. ❤  🙂 And Tansy and Nix (awww love Nix!). Even Kris. These characters have heart and soul and that makes me love them and root for them. I’m so anxious to see what happens to them in the next book! I’m invested in the characters, even the bad guys.

I also really liked the pace, which quickened and slowed in natural progression, as well as the sense of discovery that accompanies Lark’s entrance into an unfamiliar landscape.

Definitely recommend this book!

Veronica Rossi’s UNDER THE NEVER SKY

At the SCBWI FL Mid-year conference, I learned about Veronica Rossi’s debut novel, UNDER THE NEVER SKY. I watched the book trailer, and knew immediately I needed to get this book. Like, now. So I did what any other impatient reader would do: I bought the Kindle edition and, as soon as I could (this past Monday), I started reading it.

It did NOT disappoint! I fell in love with the characters–Aria and Perry are my new fave couple!– the world, and the story. It’s captivating, from start to end, and I couldn’t put it down. The only reason I stopped reading at 2 AM Tuesday morning was because my phone (w/Kindle) only had 2% battery left! I woke up at 7:30 the next morning and kept reading until I was done. It was that good.

This is the book description from Amazon:

“Since she’d been on the outside, she’d survived an Aether storm, she’d had a knife held to her throat, and she’d seen men murdered. This was worse.

Exiled from her home, the enclosed city of Reverie, Aria knows her chances of surviving in the outer wasteland—known as The Death Shop—are slim. If the cannibals don’t get her, the violent, electrified energy storms will. She’s been taught that the very air she breathes can kill her. Then Aria meets an Outsider named Perry. He’s wild—a savage—and her only hope of staying alive.

A hunter for his tribe in a merciless landscape, Perry views Aria as sheltered and fragile—everything he would expect from a Dweller. But he needs Aria’s help too; she alone holds the key to his redemption. Opposites in nearly every way, Aria and Perry must accept each other to survive. Their unlikely alliance forges a bond that will determine the fate of all who live under the never sky.

In her enthralling debut, Veronica Rossi sends readers on an unforgettable adventure set in a world brimming with harshness and beauty.”

Okay, so here’s what I loved.

The characters: They were real. I loved the dual POV as it allowed me to get into both Aria and Perry’s heads. And the love story…swoon!!! The entire time I kept rooting for them, and I still am! But it’s not just Aria and Perry. It’s the entire cast of characters.

The world: what an intriguing world it is, and I love that she gives us just what we need to know and doesn’t bog us down with explanations that slow the story down. There’s no need for it (and I’m taking notes for my own story!) She creates a futuristic/post-apocalyptic world that is not, in some ways, too unlike our current one.  And she describes it vividly.

The story: I care about a good story, with a plot and characters that pull me in and don’t let go of me until the end, and even then, I can’t stop thinking about them. So much so that I have to pick up the book and start reading it, again. THIS is what UNDER THE NEVER SKY does. It’s the story of two unlikely pairs who are thrust upon each other, much to their dismay. It’s the story of fighting to survive. It’s the story of love conquering obstacles. There’s action and suspense and love and betrayal and sacrifice. There are surprise twists that leave you gasping, wondering, how can that be? It’s fast-paced, but it slows down at just the right moments.

One of my favorite lines: “She absorbed the terror and beauty of him and his world. Of every moment over the past days. All of it, filling her up likes the first breath she’d ever taken. And never had she loved life more.”

So now I wait and twiddle my thumbs and peek at any updates about the next book, THROUGH THE EVER NIGHT. My 2013 reading list is growing!

Peeking in…

I’ve been quite MIA here, I know. It’s been a whirlwind of a month, but a great one! From my son’s preschool graduation, to an amazing SCBWI conference, to staring an online YA Class with Mandy Hubbard, to getting accepted into Lynn Hightower’s Novel IV class at UCLA Extension, to a week in Orlando. Add to that summer classes ending and prepping for the new term that starts Mon (all during vacation), and you have a recipe for craziness. But I’ll come back soon, and I may just elaborate more on some of the above.

Oh! And I added my Twitter feed on here in case you want to follow me! I update that a little more lately. Something about bite-sized messages I can do from my phone makes it easier to update. 🙂

In the meantime, I’m sharing this pic from our trip. Hubby is getting into photography. He takes the camera everywhere and is always taking pictures of everything, especially nature and architecture (and he’s pretty good!). So for Father’s Day, I signed him up for a Nature Photography class. He was super excited! Anyway, on one of the afternoons after my conference, we took a walk. We were staying at Disney’s Yacht Club and the walk consisted of making the loop through the Boardwalk, where my son begged and begged for a disposable camera. He also loves taking pictures! We got him one and he spent the rest of the walk stopping with hubby to take pictures. In this one, two bunnies were in the grass and it was such a cute shot of them both, father and son, both with cameras in their hands.

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My newest obsession: The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices

Surgery and recovery were really good for one thing: reading. I started with Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy and then, feeling the need for another world and story, I turned to Cassandra Clare’s books in The Mortal Instruments  (TMI) and Infernal Devices (ID) series.

Ohhhemmmgeeee…. I have found a new obsession! I fell in love with her language, her descriptions of New York and Victorian England (TMI and ID respectively), her characters, and the world of the Shadowhunters. It is magical and hauntingly beautiful.

I started with CITY OF BONES, the first in TMI. I read it in a day. Granted, I was recovering, mostly in bed without having (or being able) to do much else, and I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning because I just could not put it down. As soon as I finished, I downloaded the next book, CITY OF ASHES, immediately, and started reading it the next day. So began my obsession. I finished the next three books (CITY OF GLASS, CITY OF FALLEN ANGELS, and CITY OF LOST SOULS) in the week that followed, skimping on sleep because I just had to find out what happened. When I finished the last book, I was temporarily distraught because the sixth and final book, CITY OF HEAVENLY FIRE, is not set to be released until March 2014. That is so long from now.

So I went online and devoured website after website, looking for extras and more information about Cassandra Clare’s world. I was pleasantly surprised that her website included a section with wonderful extras, and I hungrily read these.

It was there I started reading about the Infernal Devices trilogy, which is a prequel to TMI, and which remains in the Shadowhunter world, only in Victorian England. I bought the first book, CLOCKWORK ANGEL, and just like that, I was again pulled into this amazing world, and hooked. I just finished reading the second book, CLOCKWORK PRINCE, and have found that I am, again, despairing because the final book, CLOCKWORK PRINCESS, will not be available until March of next year.

I haven’t been so fully immersed into a world since J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the books I’ve read. Some of them are okay (Trylle trilogy) while others are very good (The Hunger Games, Divergent series), but none has completely enthralled me like HP and now TMI and ID.

Why do I love her books so much? I think it starts with the writing. It is really good. Yes, there are a couple typos I caught in theKindle versions. I didn’t catch these in the printed book of CLOCKWORK ANGEL, so I don’t know if that is a print vs eBook problem. But those typos were minor. Cassandra Clare has a gift of description. She brings the setting and the characters to life. New York City and Victorian England are as much a character as Clary, Jace, Tessa, Will, Jem, et al. My world dissolved and I was an invisible bystander as the action unfolded. She really shows us her world. The dialogue is, also, realistic and believable and in tune with the characters. Her characters are three-dimensional; there’s no ambiguity to them. There is some angst (and sometimes I did get a tad annoyed with some of the characters), but those moments were few in the scheme of things. And they’re teenagers. I’ve read my journals from my teenage years–I annoy myself!

Then there’s the world she’s created. Like Rowling’s HP world, TMI and ID world is complex and full of mythology. I think Clare does an amazing job in drawing us into the world of the Shadowhunters, Nephilim (products of man and angel) who are sworn to protect the world from demons, and Downworlders (vampires, werewolves, faeries, warlocks, and shape-changers), magical creatures who are part-human, part-something else. There’s a hierarchy and discrimination, much like our “real” world. The question of what makes us “human.”

Then there’s the mythology at the base of this world. Old world mythology which is especially explored in TMI. It’s fascinating. though perhaps I’m more enthralled with it because my current project involves a certain mythology as well. After I finished TMI,

in the brief reprise between TMI and ID, I looked up some of these myths, of Lilith and such. Fascinating, I tell you. Like memory begets memory, this series has brought about some exploration into religious myths and the current battle between Catholic and Christian faiths.

And of course, there’s the romance. I’m a sucker for romance, and Clare does a good job in writing the relationships with the characters, pulling us into them and making us feel what they’re feeling.

Each of the series has its strengths. Between the two, I think I like ID better, perhaps only because of the lure of Victorian England and because two of its characters love literature and books and the series is replete with literary references of the era. I was reminded of other literature of the era and of my British lit courses I took as a grad and of the romanticism associated with the era.

Both of these series deserve 5 stars. I (im)patiently await the final books in both, and a new series Cassandra Clare has in the works, also of the same world.