Series Recommendation: HEX HALL by Rachel Hawkins

You know how sometimes you start reading a book and you can tell from the first page that you’re going to not just like it but love it? That’s how I felt when I started reading HEX HALL by Rachel Hawkins. I was cracking up on page two and devoured the first book in an evening and two nap times (yep, still part of the Disney read-a-thon). I was dying to read the other two books, and of course the library only had those as hardbacks, so I had to wait until we returned, but I’ve now finished the whole series. So, here’s the description for the first book, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free.

Hex Hall by Rachel HawkinsThree years ago, Sophie Mercer discovered that she was a witch. It’s gotten her into a few scrapes. Her non-gifted mother has been as supportive as possible, consulting Sophie’s estranged father–an elusive European warlock–only when necessary. But when Sophie attracts too much human attention for a prom-night spell gone horribly wrong, it’s her dad who decides her punishment: exile to Hex Hall, an isolated reform school for wayward Prodigium, a.k.a. witches, faeries, and shapeshifters.

By the end of her first day among fellow freak-teens, Sophie has quite a scorecard: three powerful enemies who look like supermodels, a futile crush on a gorgeous warlock, a creepy tagalong ghost, and a new roommate who happens to be the most hated person and only vampire student on campus. Worse, Sophie soon learns that a mysterious predator has been attacking students, and her only friend is the number-one suspect.

As a series of blood-curdling mysteries starts to converge, Sophie prepares for the biggest threat of all: an ancient secret society determined to destroy all Prodigium, especially her.

Here are the five things I loved most about this series:

1. The humor – As I mentioned at the beginning, this book had me laughing from the very beginning. It starts with a prom that goes very wrong thanks to Sophie’s magic, but it is hilarious, and there are many more crazy situations to come.

2. The voice – I almost put this down as sarcastic voice, but there’s more to it than that. Sophie has a smart mouth that sometimes gets her into trouble and other times makes people laugh, but it’s her unique way of looking at the world, drawing on pop culture and history, that create the complete package. Here’s a line from the third book that won’t spoil anything but gives you a hint of the voice. In response to deciding whether or not to run away, she says, “…that’s like putting a Band-Aid on Marie Antoinette’s neck.” Who thinks to say something like that? I love it!

3. Archer – Once again, my weakness for obnoxious boys shines through. Archer is the perfect foil for Sophie. I love their conversations. They’re like something out of a Katherine Hepburn movie. If I still had the first book here I would give you an example, but anything I included from the third book would be spoilery, so you’ll just have to go read the books yourselves.

4. The twists – Oh, you all know I love a good twist. They keep coming in this series, and while I anticipated some of them–because Ms. Hawkins did an excellent job hinting so they didn’t come out of nowhere–there were still some surprises.

5. The pacing - These books were very quick reads, and I was impressed with how Ms. Hawkins kept up the pace, managing to introduce so many new elements without it getting confusing. It was very well done.

I loved this so much I had to read the spin-off book, SCHOOL SPIRITS, right away. I might have loved it even more, but I’m going to hold off on a review until there are more books in the series. Rachel Hawkins has another new book that’s completely unrelated to this series, so I’m off to read that, too …

Who are some of your favorite authors, the ones where you have to read everything they write? I’m always looking to add more to my list!

 

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MMGM Series Recommendation: Real Mermaids Series by Helene Boudreau

Hey look! It’s only been two weeks and I have another MMGM!

This one is thanks to my Disney World reading spree. I read the first book in the Real Mermaids series a few years ago, but my local library didn’t have the second book. I requested it, along with the subsequent installments, and finally read that second book last year. But then my reading list piled up, and I didn’t finish the others. When I was browsing the ebook section of the library to stock up for vacation (it’s much easier to carry a single Kindle than several physical books!), I discovered they now had the last two books electronically, so I was able to finish the series on my trip. Yay! To avoid spoiling, I’ll only include the description from the first book.

Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe RingsFreak of nature takes on a whole new meaning…

If she hadn’t been so clueless, she might have seen it coming. But really, who expects to get into a relaxing bathtub after a stressful day of shopping for tankinis and come out with scales and a tail?

Most. Embarrassing. Moment. Ever.

Jade soon discovers she inherited her mermaid tendencies from her mom. But if Mom was a mermaid, how did she drown?

Jade is determined to find out. So how does a plus-size, aqua-phobic mer-girl go about doing that exactly? And how will Jade ever be able to explain her secret to her best friend, Cori, and to her crush, Luke?

This summer is about to get a lot more interesting…

Here are the five thing I loved most about this series:

1. The premise – I know there other mermaid books out there, and certainly other books where a girl finds out she’s not who she thinks she is, but this one felt different. I think it has to do with how Jade doesn’t embrace her new identity with arms wide open. She’s a reluctant mermaid, and yet she does what’s necessary to help the people she loves.

2. The awkwardness – You get a glimpse of the awkward situations Jade encounters in the description above, but the part it doesn’t mention? She has to call her dad into the bathroom to help her, plus the whole thing is related to female issues. Talk about embarrassing! And something like this crops up in every book.

3. The friendship – Ah, the ups and downs of friendship in middle school and beyond. Jade and Cori have to navigate everything from changing priorities to mean girls to figuring out when to take sides in a friend vs. boyfriend debate. They work through it all in a sometimes sloppy way but remain friends in the end.

4. The mysteries – In each book, there is a mystery Jade has to solve in order to save/protect people she cares about. Jade’s a reluctant detective at first, but midway through the series she becomes pretty adept at following the clues.

5. Jade’s growth - It’s interesting to see how Jade changes as the books progress. She ages during the story from middle school to high school, and she matures as well, learning how to judge people by more than surface appearances. She also becomes more confident in herself without completely eliminating her insecurities. It’s a very honest portrayal.

Who else has read this series? What did you like most about it?

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How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words

So I’ve written about crutch words before. On my last manuscript, weeding out crutch words was my final step before querying agents. I decided to address them much earlier in the process this time, while I was waiting for feedback from my first round of readers. I realize that I’ll be making significant changes to the manuscript, but I expect I’ll be much more aware of my word choices as I revise, so I don’t think it’s too early in the process.

Because I was in waiting mode instead of anxious to start querying, I went much more in-depth with this step than previously, and although it was a tedious process, I know the manuscript is stronger for it. As before, I started by creating a Wordle:A Boy Could Wordle 032514 copy

Next, I set my Scrivener window to show the full manuscript as a continuous document. Starting with the largest words that weren’t proper names, I searched for each word individually. I love the way Scrivener highlights them so I can just page down. It’s easier to see when the words occur in close proximity than, say, using the find function in Microsoft Word. Here are the words* I covered:

back, get, didn’t/don’t, something, like, know, just, could/couldn’t, away, way, one, time, really, go/going, want, was/were, would, right, need, think

These are the words I instinctively write in a first draft. Sometimes they’re the right words, but often there are stronger words that could take their place and convey the same meaning more powerfully. The tricky thing about crutch words is that you don’t want to strip them entirely or it can strangle your voice.

Because I was doing a word search instead of reading chronologically, I was forced to consider each word carefully in the context of who was saying/thinking it. Often a synonym would work in the context, but I still had to consider whether it was appropriate for the character. I asked myself questions like:

  • Is the antagonist more likely to say “I get it” or “I understand”?
  • Would the MC’s father say “I don’t think sorry is good enough” or use a more definitive statement such as “Sorry isn’t good enough”?
  • Would a teenager ever say “as though” in place of “like“?
  • Would this character say “going to” or “gonna”?
  • Is “want to” or “could” necessary before this verb?
  • Does it makes sense to contract “she would” to “she’d” or “would have” to “would’ve”?
  • Is there a negative verb I can use instead of modifying a positive verb with “don’t/didn’t“?
  • Can the sentence be reworded/rearranged to avoid the use of “was“?
  • Can I delete the word entirely without changing the meaning of the sentence or the voice?

By the end of the process, I felt confident each of my characters had a more unique voice, and I also cut 1,000 unnecessary words from the manuscript. Interestingly, as I got down to the smaller words, I sometimes found a word I’d swapped out earlier (i.e., “need” instead of “want”) and decided the original word really was the best choice. The nice thing about doing this earlier in the process is that I will be reading through the manuscript several more times, and I will be much more alert to these particular words and how they relate to the character involved.

How do you eliminate crutch words? Do you struggle with the same words I do?

Other posts in this series:

*You may notice I held off on words related to body parts–head, eyes, see, hand, etc. That’s because I plan to go through and analyze my beats separately. I recently purchased “The Emotion Thesaurus,” so I’m hoping that will help me clean those up.

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JUNIPER BERRY winner!

Unfortunately I don’t have another MMGM this week, but I do have the winner of the paperback copy of JUNIPER BERRY. And the winner is …

*drum roll*

Amy!

Congratulations, Amy! Please email your mailing address to me at mfaszold(at)hotmail(dot)com and I’ll send the book your way.

wd059wdw201407855480840So, I’ve had a week to recover from our epic Disney vacation. Here is pretty much the only picture that doesn’t include my kids, who I don’t show on this blog.

My manuscript is still out with readers, so I spent last week weeding out crutch words. Even though I’ve written on this topic before, I plan to do another post later this week with some new thoughts. I also may have another series recommendation or two as I read six books during our trip. That’s what happens when your kids need afternoon naps and decent bedtimes on vacation–unless you take my husband’s route and sleep with them :). I don’t know what I’ll do when they’re old enough to go all day. I treasure that extra reading time. For me, that’s one of the best parts of vacation. Ok, that’s it for now!

 

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MMGM Review & Giveaway: JUNIPER BERRY by M.P. Kozlowsky

I’m so excited to jump back into MMGM today. I’ve been on a bit of a YA kick lately, so it was great to return to middle grade.

A few weeks ago I did a poll to see which of my Scholastic Warehouse Sale finds I should read and give away next. JUNIPER BERRY was the winner, so here we go!

Juniper Berry by M.P. KozlowskyThe house was a mansion, the lake was a pool, Kitty was a dog, and Juniper Berry was an eleven-year-old girl. Such is life for young Juniper: a series of contradictions. She is the daughter of the world’s most famous film stars, and yet she is alone. She lives on a palatial estate, but she feels trapped. And even though she is closer to her mother and father than anyone, she couldn’t feel more distant from them. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Berry have been cold and disinterested and cruel, not at all themselves lately. And lonely, imprisoned Juniper and her equally beset friend, Giles, are determined to find out why.

On a cold and rainy night, she follows her parents as they sneak out of the house and enter the woods. What she discovers is an underworld filled with contradictions: one that is terrifying and enticing, lorded over by a creature both sinister and seductive, who can sell you all the world’s secrets bound in a balloon. For the first time, Juniper and Giles have a choice to make. And it will be up to them to confront their own fears in order to save the ones who couldn’t.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – This has to be one of the most creative and creepy premises I’ve read in middle grade. And when you find out what is going on with the balloons … well, let’s just say I will never look at a balloon the same way again.

2. Juniper’s hope – I loved the way Juniper was able to hold onto her memories and stay hopeful despite her rather bleak existence.

3. The parents – M.P. Kozlowsky found a unique way of taking the parents out of the picture without killing them off. At the same time, their condition was quite horrifying for Juniper, and it made her quest even more emotionally impactful.

4. The friendship – I assumed from the book description that Juniper and Giles were already best friends. Instead, we get to see the friendship develop, and I really enjoyed that.

5. The illustrations - I don’t read many books with illustrations, but I’ve found that when a middle grade book includes them, they’re just perfect, and that was the case here.

I want to share JUNIPER BERRY with one of you! To enter for a paperback copy, leave a comment by noon on Sunday, March 30. I’ll announce the winner on Monday, March 31. United States and Canada only, please.

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Revisions: Let It Go

Like many of you, I have “Let It Go” on a constant loop these days, and I can’t always blame my three-year-old :). But as I was getting ready to write this post, I realized how apt the title is for the current step in my revisions. As I shared in my last post, the revisions on this manuscript have taken a lot longer than usual. Yesterday I reached the point where I couldn’t look at it another minute, which meant it was time to let it go. I’d done everything I could without getting outside opinions, so it’s now with my first round of readers.

It’s interesting how my view of sending off a manuscript has changed over the past few years. I remember this tight knot in my gut the first time I sent off pages for a stranger to read. I hit send and thought, “I hope they love it!” I wanted a critique–that was the whole point after all–but I also wanted them to tell me how great it was. I have to say, that first critique I received made me want to curl into a ball. BUT, it was so on-target. I needed to hear what that other writer had to tell me.

I was much better prepared the second time around. Although I still wanted my readers to love it, I expected the notes would hit hard. But I had more to learn because I had a tendency to jump in and change everything. I revised that manuscript to try and please everyone, including an agent who asked for an R&R (revise and resubmit). Unfortunately, the revision was very specific to that agent, and she left agenting before reading the manuscript. Obviously it wasn’t meant to be.

For my third manuscript, I learned another important lesson–how to cull out the comments that resonated with me and ignore the notes that didn’t feel right. It’s a hard line because any time there’s a comment, it’s possible that an agent will feel the same way as that reader. However, I’ve learned that I have to stay true to what I believe the manuscript should be, so for that manuscript, I carefully considered every comment and determined which ones felt right. It’s still out there with agents, so the final verdict isn’t in, but I know it’s the story I want it to be–until I have an agent to work through any remaining issues with me :).

So now we come to today. Instead of wanting my readers to love my manuscript as it is, I want them to love its potential and help me whip it into shape. It’s kind of like sending a kid off to Kindergarten. You birth them (write), mold them (revise), and then you need someone else to teach them the things you can’t. (Obviously this analogy doesn’t work if you home school your kids.) You prepare them as much as you can, and then a teacher (reader/CP) tells you which areas need improvement. The revision notes are the homework, except in this case there’s not just one right answer.

If we stick with the school analogy, I’d say I’m close to graduation. Like anything else, writing toward publication is a learning process. With each manuscript I’ve advanced to a higher level of feedback from my readers.

Let me jump over to the critiquing side to explain. I have this internal monitor tracking how much I think the writer can take, a sort of thermometer measuring how much feedback I can give. So if the writer is at a level that needs a lot of grammatical or technical feedback, I’m likely to focus on that and leave off some–not all–of the bigger picture issues. But if the writer has already mastered things like showing instead of telling, eliminating adverbs, etc., I have more space to go deeper into the story and characters. I’m sure the people who read for me take the same approach, and as a result, I get much deeper feedback when someone reads for me now than I did when I first started. Does that mean those early readers weren’t going deep enough for me? Not necessarily. The truth is, I probably wasn’t ready for it. Now I can take it.

So, as Elsa sings:

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door

Well, I’m not really going to slam any doors, but I am going to forget about the manuscript while it’s out of my hands.

If you’re around the same stage as me, have you noticed a change in your attitude to critiques?

Posted in Critiquing, Revising, Writing | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

YA Review: THE UNBOUND by Victoria Schwab

I reviewed the first book in this series, THE ARCHIVED, after meeting Victoria Schwab at an event last year. I loved the book and so picked up the sequel as soon as it became available. I think I might have loved this one even more!

If you haven’t read THE ARCHIVED and intend to, the following review will have spoilers for the first book, including the description below. Ok, you’ve been warned.

The Unbound by Victoria SchwabImagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books. Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Last summer, Mackenzie Bishop, a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive, almost lost her life to one. Now, as she starts her junior year at Hyde School, she’s struggling to get her life back. But moving on isn’t easy, not when her dreams are haunted by what happened. She knows the past is past, knows it cannot hurt her, but it feels so real. When her nightmares begin to creep into her waking hours, she starts to wonder if she’s truly safe.

Meanwhile, people are vanishing without a trace, and the only thing they seem to have in common is Mackenzie. She’s sure the Archive knows more than they are letting on, but before she can prove it, she becomes the prime suspect. Unless Mac can track down the real culprit, she’ll lose everything: not only her role as Keeper, but her memories–and even her life. Can Mackenzie untangle the mystery before she herself unravels?

Here are the five things I loved most about this book:

1. The use of flashbacks – This might be colored by the fact that I recently read another book that played with time in a disorienting way, but I really liked how Ms. Schwab used flashbacks in order to explain encounters that happened in the time between the first and second books. It enabled her to jump ahead to the real start of this story and still show what we missed in the time gap.

2. How self-contained it is – While set in the same world and with some of the same themes, this book has a very different focus than THE ARCHIVED and also a self-contained story arc. Often I read a series and think it’s really just one long book broken into three or four. That’s not the case with THE UNBOUND. The funny thing is, when I looked back at my review of THE ARCHIVED, I asked: How could things get any worse? Well, now I know. This book went places I never could have anticipated. I was saddened to hear that the publisher hasn’t signed a third book, but more on that at the end of the review.

3. The new characters – Another nice side benefit of this story being so different from the first is that a whole new cast of characters was introduced. I loved Mac’s new friends at The Court (does this remind anyone else of “Never Been Kissed”?), particularly Cash and Amber.

4. Wesley Ayers – Oh, Wes, I still love you. He surprised me in the first book by not being what I expected, and he surprised me even more in this book. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted to solve the whole mystery. Unfortunately, Wesley’s history is one of the few things left hanging at the end of the book. Even more reason to want a third installment!

5. Mac’s emotional journey – I’m going to repeat one of my points from the first book here. THE ARCHIVED was about Mac learning to open up to others, and for the most part, she demonstrates in THE UNBOUND that she is more enlightened in this area. However, she has a whole new struggle to overcome in this book. I still experienced moments of frustration where I just wanted her to tell someone what was going on, but I completely understood why she didn’t. It reminded me that just because a character drives you crazy, you’ll stick with them as long as you believe it’s what they’d do.

If you can’t tell, I really want more of this series! Ms. Schwab said on Twitter that she plans to write a third installment with or without publisher support, but she has many other contracted books in the works, so it may be a while. In the meantime, go read THE ARCHIVED and THE UNBOUND!

 

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