EVERY LAST WORD and A Few Other YA Books You Should Read

I’ve found myself in more of a roundup mood than a full-on review mood lately, and I have a few more books to recommend, so here we go.

I’ve read several books recently dealing with mental illness, but the one that struck me most particularly was EVERY LAST WORD by Tamara Ireland Stone. Perhaps it’s because the author drew Sam’s specific form of OCD so well that I truly identified with her struggle to both hide it and live with it. Plus, this book had some great twists, and my regular readers know I love an excellent twist!

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland StoneSamantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.

Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.

Caroline introduces Sam to the Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more “normal” than she ever has as part of the popular crowd . . . until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear.

Ally Carter’s ALL FALL DOWN was one of my favorite reads of 2015, so obviously I was dying to get my hands on the sequel, SEE HOW THEY RUN. The second book in the series delivered a different brand of tension. While the first book focused on Grace’s unreliable mind, the second is more about her relationships and figuring out who she can trust. But there’s still a twisty path of intrigue to follow with high stakes and a cliffhanger ending. The final installment can’t come soon enough!

See How They Run by Ally CarterFor the past three years, Grace Blakely has been desperate to find out the truth about her mother’s murder. She thought it would bring her peace. She thought it would lead her to answers. She thought she could put the past to rest.

But the truth has only made her a target.

And the past?

The only way to put the past to rest is for Grace to kill it once and for all.

On Embassy Row, power can make you a victor or a victim, love can turn you into a fool or a fugitive, and family can lead you forward or bury you deep. Trust is a luxury. Death is a very real threat. And a girl like Grace must be very careful about which secrets she brings to light.

When everyone on your Twitter feed is talking about a book, it follows that you should read it. That’s why I picked up AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir, and it didn’t disappoint. Talk about tension on every page! There was A LOT of death, torture, maiming … So, yeah, if you don’t like that sort of thing, this isn’t the book for you. But I will be picking up the next one to see how these characters possibly survive!

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa TahirUnder the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

This last one is actually a book I read years ago, but I didn’t have a blog then, so I never wrote a review. Since I decided to re-read it a couple of weeks ago, it’s fresh in my mind, and I think it deserves a mention on the blog. Because, basically, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS is one of the best contemporary young adult romances out there, and if you haven’t read it, you should. It takes place in France–FRANCE!–and features a swoon-worthy but all-too-human boy. Plus, the romance builds out of a friendship with many missteps along the way that just make you want to pull your hair out. Anyway, read it!

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie PerkinsAnna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris–until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all…including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?



So those are my latest recommendations. What have you been reading lately? Anything I should add to my list?

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Quick Tip: Visualizing Your Feedback

One of the hardest decisions to make as you start receiving feedback on agent submissions is whether you should stop querying and revise. The tricky part of the equation is that the publishing business is subjective, and it’s challenging to sort through the comments you’ve received and determine whether they’re leaning toward “Yes, you definitely have to fix this!” or “It’s a judgment call.”

It’s even more complicated because agents don’t always comment on the same aspects of the manuscript, and you’re more likely to receive feedback on what didn’t work for them than what they loved about it. However, it’s important to take note when they do comment on the positive because, again, what one agent loves may be what another agent doesn’t.

I’ve found it especially helpful to look at feedback visually by making positive and negative feedback charts in Excel. I’m not going to share feedback on my current manuscript here on the blog, but in order to show you what I mean, I’ve created charts for the old manuscript I am revising. I should mention, though, that this manuscript was initially a middle grade novel, and after a revise & resubmit from an agent, I aged it up to young adult. The feedback on these charts is from both versions so it’s a bit skewed, but it will still give you an idea.

Duet positive comments

As you can see, some agents commented on the emotional journey being a strength, Duet negative commentswhile others felt I needed to work on character depth. Also, one agent complimented my pacing, but another had issues with it. Subjectivity–the bane of every writer’s existence!

For this particular manuscript, I didn’t need a chart to know I had to fix the alternate reality scenes and the voice. The other issues? I needed to figure out how to keep the positive and address the negative. It took me a couple of years to figure out how :). My point is, visualizing your feedback can help you decide whether a particular issue is something you need to step back and address or if it’s a matter of opinion. Because if you are getting positive comments as well as negative on a particular issue, it might be the latter. Perhaps the next agent will be the one where all the pieces fit together just right.

If you’re struggling with contradictory feedback or just want to see how your comments line up, try making these charts. It’s also nice to go look at that positive chart for an ego boost!

If you have any other ideas for sorting out feedback, I’d love to hear them.

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YA Review: BECOMING JINN by Lori Goldstein

I’ve been meaning to read BECOMING JINN for a while, particularly as I enjoy Lori Goldstein’s posts on YAtopia and I like to support authors who share their knowledge with those of us still in the trenches. I’m so glad I finally did! Let’s jump right into it.

Becoming Jinn by Lori GoldsteinAzra has just turned sixteen, and overnight her body lengthens, her olive skin deepens, and her eyes glisten gold thanks to the brand-new silver bangle that locks around her wrist. As she always knew it would, her Jinn ancestry brings not just magical powers but the reality of a life of servitude, as her wish granting is controlled by a remote ruling class of Jinn known as the Afrit.

To the humans she lives among, she’s just the girl working at the snack bar at the beach, navigating the fryer and her first crush. But behind closed doors, she’s learning how to harness her powers and fulfill the obligations of her destiny. Mentored by her mother and her Zar “sisters,” Azra discovers she may not be quite like the rest of her circle of female Jinn … and that her powers could endanger them all.

And here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – I’ve read about many paranormal characters, and yet somehow I’ve never read a story about a genie. I’m sure others exist, but this was the first to catch my attention. With my preconceptions being Aladdin, it could pretty much go wherever; I was just along for the ride!

2. The friendships – I loved the way this book looked at friendship from so many different angles. Azra had closed herself off after the loss of her best friend as a child, losing out on potential friendships from many different avenues. During the course of the story, she has to figure out what friendship means and how to be a friend.

3. The twists – Admittedly, I anticipated a couple of the twists, but Azra didn’t see them coming, so they worked. Sometimes those are the best kind. And they kept coming right up until the end, so I’m anxious to see what happens in the sequel.

4. The stakes – Just when Azra thinks she’s figured out what’s at stake if she doesn’t follow the rules, she discovers the consequences are even worse than she thought. The stakes keep ratcheting up throughout the novel, both physically and emotionally. Very well done!

5. The romance – I always love a good romance, and her crush in this book is so sweet. Then there’s her best friend, a boy who could possibly be more as well. I’ll be interested to see what happens next, as there were many complications for the romance at the end of the book.

Have you read BECOMING JINN? What did you think?

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Remembering a Friend Lost Too Soon: Ashley Gammon

It’s not often I diverge from writing topics on the blog, but the unexpected death of a friend last Friday compels me to express my grief the best way I know how–with words.

I first met Ashley Gammon in 2006 when I interviewed her for a job at the public relations firm where I then worked. She was graduating from Mizzou, and her professionalism, bright spirit, and, of course, writing ability, impressed me. My boss agreed, and we hired her.

We were a small firm, so we worked in close quarters, and most days those of us in the younger generation ate lunch together. (I was the oldest of that group :) ). In some situations, your co-workers just remain the people you work with and you never go any deeper, but that wasn’t the case in our office. Sure, we had surface discussions about the latest TV shows or which clients drove us crazy, but we talked about our lives and our dreams and what we hoped to achieve in the future. And when lunches weren’t enough, we had game nights. Ashley was usually on my husband’s team, and he claims they won more than my team, although I don’t remember it that way …

The point is that these girls became so much more to me than co-workers. When my son was born, they came to the hospital along with family and a few close friends to hold him. Which means Ashley was one of the first people to hold my newborn son. That’s more than someone I worked with. By the time my daughter was born, Ashley had moved to Washington, D.C., but she returned for another co-worker’s wedding (still more than co-workers!) and made a special point to come meet my daughter even though she was only in town a couple of days.

Ashley herself explained this friendship best in a 2009 Facebook post. I’d forgotten about it until someone commented on it again today. Titled “My Sweet 16,” the post listed sixteen things you might not know about Ashley. No. 15 was:

I wouldn’t trade the experience of [my first job] for the world. I met the most amazing women there that I consider my family.

Re-reading that about made me cry, especially as in tagging me she said some very nice things and also wanted me to know she edited the note at least 5 times. I could tell, Ashley :).

We mostly talked through Facebook during the years Ashley lived in Washington, D.C., so I was thrilled when she moved back to St. Louis to serve as PR director for the United Way. We set up a time for her to come over for lunch, and even though she wanted to watch her favorite Disney princess movie, “The Little Mermaid,” she let my daughter talk her into “Frozen” instead.

IMG_1556Ashley celebrated her 30th birthday last May, and that is the last picture I have with her. She’s the one in the center, while the girl on the left is our friend Alisha, who Ashley got us to hire, too, and was one of Ashley’s best friends. I wish our other friend Megan were in the picture, but she had already left when we took it. Anyway, I only saw Ashley one time after that, when Megan and I had lunch with her, along with my son, one day last August. We were supposed to plan another movie day–maybe to watch “The Little Mermaid” this time.

I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Ashley is gone, and I am just one person who knew her. Countless Facebook posts show how much she impacted people, from the casual acquaintance to the lifelong friend. And her impact extended beyond those she knew personally. After she left our agency, she chose work for causes she believed in, from the Obama campaign to her most recent work for the United Way. From a professional standpoint, I was so proud to see her excel.

My heart is breaking for her family. Her love for them was evident in nearly every conversation I had with her. She had a unique bond with her parents and clearly counted them among her best friends. When she sent me a slideshow of pictures from the rest of her 30th birthday festivities, her parents were right there with all of her friends. I loved that about her.

I debated whether I should post this, because I don’t want it to be about me. There are so many people who were closer to Ashley–her family, her group of best friends and long-time friends who knew her much longer and better than I did. I honor her memory in the best way I know how, and I continue to pray for those who knew her best and are grieving in ways I can’t even imagine. If you are someone who prays, I ask that you do the same.

But I also want Ashley’s family and close friends to know that when they are ready to hear the stories, here is another one. Ashley impacted me and my family. My husband remembers her infectious smile and loving heart. My son says, “Ashley was fun!” My daughter says, “Ashley was pretty!” And she’s right–Ashley was beautiful, inside and out.

I will miss Ashley. I cherish the time I spent with her and am so glad I knew her. I wish God hadn’t called her home, but I know that’s where she is.

And if you’re reading this, Ashley, I edited it at least five times.

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YA Series Recommendation: The Selection by Kiera Cass

Well, I already told you this recommendation was coming in my favorite reads of 2015 post. I actually ended up finishing two of the three books before the end of the year, so it’s probably a good thing I gave The Selection series an honorable mention for 2015. It wouldn’t be quite fair to list it for 2016, except I guess the series isn’t technically over, but for the purpose of this review, I’m covering the original trilogy. Anyway, as is usually the case when I review a series, here are the cover and description for the first book:

The Selection by Kiera CassFor thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in the palace and compete for the heart of the gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she’s made for herself—and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.

Here are the five things I loved most about the series.

1. The world – Yes, it’s another dystopian setting, but I found it interesting that this future reverted to a monarchy. The politics of it were quite disturbing, and after finishing the series, I can understand why Ms. Cass decided to show what happens in the next generation. I’m definitely interested in reading on for not only the characters but to see how things play out in the world.

2. The romance – Actually, I’m putting this on here even though I kind of hated it, too. Maybe that was the point! I just wanted the characters to get over their issues and get together, but then it might not have been a series :). In any case, I liked the way they grew together. It certainly wasn’t insta-love!

3. The premise – So, I’m actually not a fan of The Bachelor, and perhaps that’s why I struggled a bit with the romance side of the story, but even so I was drawn into the premise of the girls competing for Prince Maxon. I think what I liked even more was that America wasn’t initially there for him and had to be coaxed into the race. Besides, I’m always up for a story where girls get makeovers–I think it’s that whole Cinderella fascination.

4. The friendship – Going into the story, I wondered how the relationships between America and the other girls would be handled. The friendships evolved throughout the books, and they were just as important as the romantic relationship as far as America figuring out who she would be. That really added to the overall depth of the series.

5. America’s growth – Perhaps my favorite part of the whole series was how America grew into someone worthy of not just Maxon but Illea. She starts out a rather selfish person–although not without her positive qualities, of course–and slowly learns what it means to be a princess. I liked that she created her own definition for that title.

I will definitely be reading THE HEIR and the upcoming THE CROWN, so perhaps these books will still make it onto my 2016 list of favorite reads. It’s still early! In any case, I highly recommend the series. Are you a fan of The Selection series? If so, let’s chat!

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My Favorite Reads of 2015

As of today, I’ve read 116 books in 2015. I’ll probably finish one more before the end of the year, but it’s an adult book, so it wouldn’t apply for my favorite reads list anyway :). So here are my top middle grade and young adult reads of the year, not necessarily published in 2015. In fact, one comes out next year!

Middle Grade

I didn’t read as much MG this year, but the few I read were real stand-outs and deserve to be called out again. Also, I should mention that my kids have reached an age where I’ve started reading some MG books out loud to them, so that also affects a couple of these rankings.

5. YOU’RE INVITED by Jen Malone & Gail Nall – I loved the humor, the themed parties, and the unique voices in this book, which is the start of a new series. I will definitely be checking out the others!

4. SEABORNE: THE LOST PRINCE by Matt Myklusch – I’ve been a fan of Matt Myklusch since his Jack Blank series, so I was anxious to pick up SEABORNE, and it fully met my expectations. Pirates, a lost prince, adventure–what’s not to love?

3. THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING by Krista Van Dolzer – You might think a book about bringing a Japanese man to life in the 1950s has little relevance for today’s kids, but this book–I can’t stress how pertinent this story is for today. And it’s also just gorgeously written. Note: I’d also like to give an honorable mention to Krista’s other 2015 release, DON’T VOTE FOR ME, which I also loved and am now reading aloud to my son. Completely different tone as it’s a contemporary but equally as good.

2. Whatever After series by Sarah Mlynowski – I read the first two books in this series myself in 2014 but re-read them aloud to my kids this year and they were hooked. We have now read the first six books, and my 7-year-old was so hooked on book six he absconded with it to finished it more quickly on his own even though the 5-year-old had spent her money on it at the book fair. That alone puts these books on my list. The covers might appeal more to girls, but the characters are boy-friendly, too. (If you’re reading this, Ms. Mlynowski, my son would like a story from Jonah’s point of view.)

1. NEVERSEEN by Shannon Messenger – So, I didn’t review the fourth book in Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series, but only because there’s not much new for me to say–and maybe I was a little bitter about the ending :). I loved the book; it definitely was my favorite MG read of the year, and I can’t wait for book five. Actually, Shannon needs to write a lot faster! (And check out my reviews for KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES, EXILE, and EVERBLAZE.)

Also, I would like to give an Honorable Mention to STAR WARS: JEDI ACADEMY by Jeffrey Brown. I haven’t read it myself, but this book was the first ever that my son didn’t want to put down, so it deserves a special mention. It flipped a switch for him and now he loves to read. Thank you, Jeffrey Brown!

Young Adult

I read a ton of YA this year, and there were many books I loved or thought were especially gorgeous, but these five rise to the top of the list as books I simply could not put down.

5. WANDERLOST by Jen Malone – I just reviewed this book last week and it edged out another one I had planned to include on this list but for good reason. How can you not love a book that takes you through Europe AND has a snappy romance with a ton of tension on every page? Besides, that other book is the second in a trilogy concluding next year, so I’m sure it will be on my 2016 list :).

4. THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS by Sherry Thomas – A satisfying end to a thrilling series. The first two books were my top reads of 2014, so I highly recommend you check out this series now that it’s finished. Make sure you start with THE BURNING SKY!

3. PIVOT POINT and SPLIT SECOND by Kasie West – PIVOT POINT was the second book I read in 2015, and I knew even then that it would be in my top five for the year. That’s how engrossed I was in this dual timeline sci-fi, and the sequel was equally as good. Note: I’d like to give an honorable mention to THE FILL-IN BOYFRIEND, which I could not. put. down. I mean, I would have listed it in my top five, but it didn’t seem fair to list two from the same author, and PIVOT POINT edged it out.

2. ALL FALL DOWN by Ally Carter – Basically I love anything Ally Carter writes. She’s a genius, and this new series set on Embassy Row in a fictional country with an unreliable narrator had me second-guessing every theory I devised. Just brilliant.

1. WINTER by Marissa Meyer – Oh. My. Stars. This conclusion was so amazing. I both wanted to devour it and for it to never end. I’m sort of sad that it did, although there’s a short story collection coming out this spring, so it’s not totally over. Lunartics rejoice!

I have to do one more Honorable Mention because last year I read a whole series–Gennifer Albin’s Crewel World series–during the final week of 2014, and it totally would have made my list if I hadn’t posted early. So, I started THE SELECTION series by Kiera Cass over the weekend, and I can already tell it will be a favorite. (Yes, I know I’m way behind on this one :)). However, I’m only giving it an honorable mention because I haven’t read the whole series yet. I’m sure I’ll do a review in the next week or two once I finish it. Anyway, loved the first book!

So what were your favorite reads of 2015? Do we share any of the same?

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YA Review: WANDERLOST by Jen Malone

A couple of years ago my critique partner Kip Wilson told me about this sweet romance by Jen Malone that I would love–because she’d read it in advance. So when an opportunity arose to enter for an ARC of WANDERLOST, I was all in. Imagine my joy when I won and got to read this book five months before publication! This is actually the fourth book of Jen’s I’ve read now, and I might have asked her to do something more with it, but I wanted to squeeze in a review before the end of the year so I could include this one on my favorite reads list next week :). (Other books by Jen Malone: AT YOUR SERVICE, YOU’RE INVITED (with Gail Nall), MAP TO THE STARS.)

Wanderlost by Jen MaloneSeventeen-year-old Aubree has always idolized her adventurous older sister, even while utterly content to track Elizabeth’s antics from the cozy comforts of home, in the tender care of doting parents. So when Elizabeth gets herself in “a touch of trouble” and, for the first time ever, actually needs Aubree’s help, Bree is flattered but insistent.

There’s no way she can do what Elizabeth is asking. Impersonate her recent-college-grad sis all summer, just so Elizabeth can score the recommendation she needs to land her dream position? Nope, nope, not gonna happen.

ESPECIALLY when Elizabeth’s summer job is leading a bus tour.
A bus tour across Europe.
A senior citizens’ bus tour across Europe.

And that’s even before Bree finds out that the tour owner’s super-cute son (who is decidedly NOT elderly) will be a last-minute addition.

Bree would have to be crazy. Or would she?

And here are the five things I loved most.

1. The setting – The hills are alive with the Sound of Music … Loved the musical tour! And every other stop on the trip. I felt like I was cruising through Europe along with the bus–and now I really want to visit these places!

2. The seniors – Each of these characters is unique and well-drawn. They aren’t just thrown on the bus as background for the story. I love how Aubree learns something about herself from each of them. It was different to have the friends in the story be senior citizens :).

3. Sam – I love Sam! He’s the perfect foil for Aubree’s shy, sheltered, needs-to-be-pulled-out-of-her-shell character. He also interacts so well with the seniors on the trip.

4. The romance – Aubree and Sam are so completely adorable together I can’t even describe it. The way their banter starts out … well, I just realized after reading the description again that if I actually tell you how it starts out I’ll kind of spoil things so I won’t. But trust me, it’s adorable.

5. Aubree’s character arc – I love the way Aubree grows throughout the story, especially since she didn’t even realize she needed to. Often you start out in a story and it’s clear that the character has an issue he/she needs to overcome, and in this case, maybe Aubree would have been fine or figured it all out later, but it was great to see her come into her own.

I actually could come up with another couple of points but I’ll let you find out for yourself. You can pre-order WANDERLOST at one of these handy links provided on Jen’s site. Or, she tweeted yesterday that bloggers can request review copies through Edelweiss at this link. Either way, make sure this book is on your list for 2016!

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