Review | Keeping it Real by Paula Chase

Marigold Johnson is looking forward to a future full of family, friends, and fashion–but what will she do when it all explodes in her face? When she discovers that her entire life is a lie?

Paula Chase, the author of So Done, Dough Boys, and Turning Point, explores betrayal, conformity, and forgiveness–and what it means to be family–in this stand-alone novel perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Rebecca Stead, and Ren�e Watson.

Marigold Johnson can’t wait to attend a special program at her family’s business, Flexx Unlimited, for teens who love fashion. But Mari quickly realizes that she’s out of place compared to the three other trainees–and one girl, Kara, seems to hate her on sight.

As tension builds and the stakes at the program get higher, Mari uncovers exactly why Kara’s been so spiteful. She also discovers some hard truths about herself and her family.

Paula Chase explores complex themes centering on friendships, family, and what it means to conform to fit in. Keeping It Real is also a powerful exploration of what happens when parents pick and choose what they shield their children from. Timely and memorable, Paula Chase’s character-driven story touches on creativity, art, fashion, and music. A great choice for the upper middle grade audience.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I haven’t read anything by Paula Chase before, but I fell in love with this one. I really enjoyed that this is more of an upper middle grade age, which is something that you don’t see a lot. The writing style and overall narrative voice were well crafted and had a really good flow, I didn’t really have any spots where I felt like the pace slowed down.

The characters were also well crafted and I really enjoyed the portrayal of different aspects of familial and friend relationships, different youth experiences based on class regardless of friendships and the cultural aspects in the novel. While there were definitely parts of this story that I personally couldn’t identify with, it was still a beneficial story for me to read and experience. Overall this was a great story, with a few twists that were heart wrenching, but so wonderful to read. I will definitely be checking out more of Chase’s writing in the future.

Happy reading!

Review | The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

A fantasy about a kingdom beset by monsters, a mysterious school, and a girl caught in between them.

If no one notices Marya Lupu, it is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread.

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy–a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself–things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

First and foremost I really enjoyed the world that Anne Ursu created in this story and could see other stories set in it, the world building and setup were really wonderful (even if the society didn’t have the best standards or norms when it came to the place of females). I enjoyed the theme within this book where Marya isn’t will to accept what society expects of her and other females. It very much lends to breaking expected gender role and challenging societal norms. She’s not willing to just go along with things and is constantly questioning the expectations set upon her.

Ursu’s writing is beautiful and while the pace isn’t super fast, the language used and phrasing is a pleasure to read. There were a few sections that I felt were a tad slow, but the writing more than made up for that. The characters are fully fledged and have multiple layers to them, making them seem more real and easier to identify with.

This story is full of strong themes of feminism, knowledge is power and bucking societal norms, which was nice to experience in a fantasy setting. Though it is longer than most middle grades, it is a great story that I’m sure younger readers will devour.

Happy reading!

Review | The Mermaid Queen by Alane Adams

Abigail and Hugo have just helped restore the balance of power in Orkney by defeating the powerful alchemist Vertulious when Abigail discovers that Capricorn, the mermaid queen she trusted to help them, has unleashed the powerful Midgard Serpent named Jormungand―who, years ago, encircled the world of mankind and held it captive until Odin banished it to an underwater prison. Capricorn is determined to force Odin to make her goddess of the seas over Aegir, and she’s ready to use the massive serpent to bend him to her will―threatening all of Orkney. Abigail and Hugo must embark on an adventure across the seas to Odin’s island sanctuary to find a way to stop Capricorn and return Jormungand to his watery cell. But when Abigail finds that her powers are not enough, she has to tap into her dark magic again and again. As she is drawn further down this path, a dark presence makes itself known to her―one that may alter her path forever.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

First and foremost, make sure you check out my reviews for the last three books in the series:

Also, happy book birthday to The Mermaid Queen!

This book picked up almost immediately after the ending of the 3rd book, so things in Abigail’s world were pretty bleak while no one else thought anything was wrong. It was great to see her friends band around her to lift her spirits and find out what is wrong. While Abigail was still the main character, it seemed like her friends were able to take on more central roles which was nice. I also liked that with each book we seem to get more figures from Norse mythology. I really enjoyed the story and feel like this series with its mythology driven story will be loved by younger readers. Abigail is easy to identify with, especially with how human she is with her emotions, self doubt and more – but other characters such as Hugo, Calla and yes, I guess even Endera have qualities that can be identified with and understood. Another fast paced and exciting installment to this series – I can’t wait to read more!

Thanks so much to SparkPress for sending me the books in this series so I could review them all. Happy reading!

Review | Witch Wars by Alane Adams

Abigail’s second year at the Tarkana Academy has been an all-out disaster. She’s just unwittingly helped Vertulious, an ancient he-witch and powerful alchemist, destroy Odin’s Stone and restore his powers, and now all of Orkney is caught up in the threat of war as the witches prepare to destroy the helpless Orkadians. Determined to set things right, Abigail and Hugo set off for Jotunheim, the land of the giants, to find a weapon to restore the balance. All they have to do is track down the God of Thunder and convince Thor to turn his hammer over to them.

When their former-friend-now-foe Robert Barconian arrives with a band of dwarves, intent on stopping them, Abigail and friends must unite to prevent a war that will destroy them all. But has Abigail made the biggest mistake of all by trusting in the wrong ally? 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

So far this is my favorite book of the series. While Abigail, Hugo, Endera and others are still children, their emotional depth has grown as is really evident in this story. Abigail especially is struggling with the weight of what her decisions and actions have contributed to and suffers from a lot of personal guilt – while Hugo is steadfast in helping her and being her lifeline. Once again they go on an exciting adventure in order to set things right, which tests the bonds they have with each other and others. We see some familiar characters, but also some new ones along with way, as well as more figures from Norse Mythology which I thought was a nice touch. As with the other books in the series the book was fast paced and a fun read.

Happy reading!

Review | The Rubicus Prophecy by Alane Adams

Abigail has just started her second year at the Tarkana Witch Academy and is already up to her ears studying for Horrid Hexes and Awful Alchemy! Worse, Endera’s malevolent spellbook has its hooks in her, whispering in her ear to use its dark magic. Meanwhile, the entire school is talking about the Rubicus Prophecy; a sign has arrived that the chosen witchling is among them, the one who will one day break Odin’s curse over them. When an Orkadian warship arrives carrying troubling news, Abigail and her friend Hugo are swept into a new mystery after a young boy from the ship, Robert Barconian, asks for their help retrieving a missing item.

Along with the former glitch-witch, Calla, the four friends end up deep in the catacombs beneath the Tarkana Fortress—a place where the draugar, the living dead, wander about. Abigail discovers there is more to the Rubicus Prophecy than anyone ever imagined. Can she stop it in time before she and her friends are destroyed?

Filled with magical spells, spine-tingling ghosts, and visits from the Norse gods, The Rubicus Prophecy pits Abigail against a sinister power greater than anything she has ever imagined.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, The Blue Witch, and I liked this one just as much if not more. I was a little worried that it could suffer from being a bridge book, but it definitely different. In this book we definitely see a lot of growth (both good and bad) in the characters. I felt like Endera definitely solidified in her character in this book, but after the events of this book we will see what happens with her in the future. Abigail is definitely struggling between good and evil, feeling the draw of the darkness, but knowing that it’s not what she wants. In this book we saw her friends (old and new) more cemented around her and supporting her, which was really nice to see even as they dealt with their own issues. As in the first one, Adams’ writing style flows really well and made this a quick and exciting adventure.

Happy reading!

Review | The Blue Witch by Alane Adams

Before Sam Baron broke Odin’s curse on the witches to become the first son born to a witch and the hero of the Legends of Orkney series, his mother was a young witchling growing up in the Tarkana Witch Academy. In this first book of the prequel series, the Witches of Orkney, nine-year-old Abigail Tarkana is determined to grow up to be the greatest witch of all, even greater than her evil ancestor Catriona. Unfortunately, she is about to fail Spectacular Spells class because her witch magic hasn’t come in yet. Even worse, her nemesis, Endera, is making life miserable by trying to get her kicked out.
When her new friend Hugo’s life is put in danger by a stampeding sneevil, a desperate Abigail manages to call up her magic―only to find out it’s unlike any other witchling’s at the Tarkana Witch Academy! As mysteries deepen around her magic and just who her true parents are, Abigail becomes trapped in a race against time to undo one of her spells before she is kicked out of the coven forever!

Rich in Norse mythology, The Blue Witch is the first of a fast-paced young reader series filled with magical spells, mysterious beasts, and witch-hungry spiders!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I went into this one knowing very little about it other than I’ve liked previous books by the author. This was an absolutely adorable story and a great beginning to a series. I enjoyed getting to know Abigail, Hugo and the others as Abigail starts her learning. I also really liked the little tidbits of figures from Norse Mythology and little tidbits of mythology here and there. It is definitely Abigail’s story, but also shows signs of tying into an even bigger mythos. Adams gave each character distinct voices and personalities, showing how some of them weave together really well. Abigail doesn’t always make the right decisions and sometimes stumbles – but has friends who are willing to help, even when those friends are from unlikely places.

Happy reading!

Review | The Curse of the Crystal Cavern

The rollicking Pathfinders Society treasure hunt continues as the five campers from Mystery of the Moon Tower get swept away in a new adventure. This action-packed graphic novel is full of fun, magic, and friendship–sure to appeal to fans of the Last Kids on Earth and Lumberjanes series.

Fresh from their hair-raising adventures in The Mystery of the Moon Tower, Kyle, Vic, Beth, Harry, and Nate are now hot on the trail of something big! A secret staircase leads down into the unknown, setting them on an exciting chase for clues left by the wealthy explorer Henry Merriweather, who was rumored to have hidden away a priceless treasure. Are the legends real? Where will the five friends end up? And what dangers will they encounter along the way? Because as they’ve come to learn, everything comes at a price…

In this exciting graphic novel adventure series, richly illustrated by Eisner-award-winning artist Steve Hamaker, the Pathfinders go ever deeper into the labyrinthian Merriweather mystery–and hope they’ll come out the other side!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating this one since I read the first book and am so glad I grabbed it! I’m not going to go too much into the story as it picks up right after book one finishes, but we are following the same group of pathfinders as they are continuing to decipher the riddles left behind as well as deal with occasional time jumps, dangers from outsiders and more. I really liked how they came together even more in this one and leaned on each other for their unique strengths. This is a great middle grade adventure story and I can’t wait for the third one to come out.

Happy reading!

Q&A | Ally Malinenko

Happy release day to Ghost Girl by Ally Malinenko! To celebrate its release I’m excited to bring you all a Q&A I was able to have with Ally about the book and her writing experience/process. If you haven’t already make sure you check out my review for Ghost Girl. Also, huge thanks to Ally for answering my questions and thank you to the publisher for reaching out to me about reviewing this title!

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Ally Malinenko is a poet, novelist, and librarian living in Brooklyn, New 

York, where she pens her tales in a secret writing closet before dawn each day. Connect with Ally on her website at www.allymalinenko.com

Now let’s get to the questions!

It says that this book is based on some of your own experiences, could you share a little bit about that?

Yes! I can see ghosts! Just kidding. Ghost Girl is based a lot on my childhood in the Hudson Valley. My best friend and I would spend a lot of time making up stories and wandering through the woods. Even drawing eyes on trees to mark our favorite spaces as protected. Like Zee I loved spooky stories the most. I practically memorized everything in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Also though I have two sisters and Zee only has one, my sisters and I are very close and I wanted to show that between Abby and Zee. 

How long did the writing process for this book take?

I wrote this book quickly actually. Probably about six months. But I wrote it to nurse a broken heart after the YA science fiction book I spent 7 years on, the one that landed me an agent, was rejected by pretty much all of publishing. I felt like a failure. So I decided to go back to the stories I loved the most. The stories that made me love books and dream about being a writer. All of those stories were middle grade, many of them were spooky. 

Could you tell us a little bit about Monroe and how it inspired the setting of Ghost Girl?

Monroe is a lovely small town nestled in the heart of the Hudson Valley but when you’re a kid and you can’t drive and you live too far to bike to the center of town where the library is, you get a touch bored, much like Zee does. The development I grew up in is surrounded by woods so, my best friend and I definitely spent a lot of time in there, making up stories and pretending. Monroe is a little bit bigger than Knobb’s Ferry but sadly, it is lacking a giant cemetery. 

Do you have any upcoming books in process?

After GHOST GIRL my next book is called THIS APPEARING HOUSE also published by Katherine Tegen Books. It’s the story of a young girl and her best friend who get trapped in a haunted house that is more than it seems. It’s also an exploration of trauma and illness that was compared to A Monster Calls. It’s a very personal story for me so I’m both excited and nervous about it being in the world. 

There are a lot of powerful themes in this book that many kids deal with in real life, what would you say to your readers who are struggling with things such as gender roles and fighting common stereotypes?

I’m so glad you asked me that because talking about gender, and specifically about breaking gender barriers was really important to me. Zee spends a lot of time aware that she is expected to be quiet and small as a girl and that doesn’t fit how she feels inside. There is even a scene where she smashes mirrors in a symbolic breaking of the glass ceiling. One of the other stereotypes that was important to me is Elijah’s weight and his body positivity. Elijah’s father struggles to connect with his bookish son and instead wants him to do more things with his hands – more things that are stereotypically male. He winds up focusing on Elijah’s weight thinking that if he were fit they would be able to connect more. I wanted kids to see all kinds of bodies in Ghost Girl and it was very important to me that while Elijah was hurt by his father’s actions, it was clear that he himself was not ashamed of who he was. 

So to any of the kids that might be struggling with these kinds of things, I want them to know that they are GREAT the way they are and they, like Zee and Elijah and Nellie, should always stand up for themselves and their friends. There is room in this world for every type of person.

What are your favorite writing tools?

So I know a lot of people love books like Save the Cat but I’m a terrible pantser (the opposite of a plotter) and never really know what a book is really about until I’m halfway through it so to be honest one of my favorite writing tools, outside of my occasionally temperamental laptop, are my feet. I walk five miles to my librarian job and whenever I am stuck on a plot point or a new chapter, it is always on these long walks that things really start to come together for me. I highly recommend to other writers when you’re stuck and you’re done crying on the floor, throw on your sneakers and go for a walk. It really frees your brain up.  

Could you tell us a little more about your secret writing closet?

Yes! So my husband and I are both writers and when we moved to NYC many years ago we could only afford a one bedroom. I figured I would just stick my little desk in the corner of the living room and that would be fine. But while the agent was showing us the apartment, he opened a door to a walk-in closet/storage space and my eyes fell out of my head. It had a bunch of built in bookshelves that the last person crafted and a little spot underneath that fit my desk perfectly. It was wired with electricity and it became my little writing nook where I wrote everything for the last 14 years. I loved it. We recently moved and have since upgraded to a second bedroom so now my little closet is an adorable little room that I also love. But I will always have fond memories of all the poems and stories and novels, including Ghost Girl, that I wrote in my secret writing closet.

What takeaways do you want your readers to have from this book?

Oh that’s a good question. Well ultimately, I hope that kids love it and have a spooky adventure in the realm of what I call “safe-scared.” Meaning, it’s fun because you can always walk away from the scares. But beyond that I hope this book shows kids that the way they are is the way they’re meant to be. That, even thought it’s scary, standing up for your friends is important and that sometimes the kids who are the meanest might also be struggling. So be like Elijah and choose kindness.  

Who would you recommend this book to?

My book was recently reviewed by School Library Journal and they cautioned that this is not a book for a kid who claims to want horror but really wants suspense or an adrenaline rush. And I have to agree with that. I wrote a spooky book, emphasis on the spooky. So the best reader of Ghost Girl would be a kid that loves to get scared, knowing they can always close the book, and loves a good adventure with a lot of heart. If you want to root for some characters, Zee, Elijah and Nellie will definitely give you the chance. 

Lastly, do you have anything else you want to share with readers regarding this book?

I’ve had a few people raise an eyebrow when I tell them that I write horror for children. Something in that expression doesn’t compute. And I get it. But I also worked as a children’s librarian and I know the kids that have read every copy of Goosebumps 1500 times. The thing is kids know that the world is scary. Scary books provide a safe place to navigate that. A place to be the hero. Kids need to explore fear in a safe way because it’s already a part of their lives. Scary books let kids examine their fear and their anxiety. They get to hold it up to the light and understand it. These are valuable lessons and when we shame kids for liking horror we’re just telling them that their fears are something they should be ashamed of. 

Scary books let them defeat the monsters on the page so that they’ll learn how to recognize the ones that will – inevitably – appear in their lives one day.

Check out Ghost Girl on Goodreads!

Again I want to give a huge thank you to Ally for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope you all had as much fun reading her answers as I did. Make sure you check out Ghost Girl!

Happy reading!

Review | Ghost Girl by Ally Malinenko

Perfect for fans of Small Spaces and Nightbooks, Ally Malinenko’s middle-grade debut is an empowering and triumphant ghost story—with spooky twists sure to give readers a few good goosebumps!

Zee Puckett loves ghost stories. She just never expected to be living one.

It all starts with a dark and stormy night. When the skies clear, everything is different. People are missing. There’s a creepy new principal who seems to know everyone’s darkest dreams. And Zee is seeing frightening things: large, scary dogs that talk and maybe even . . . a ghost.

When she tells her classmates, only her best friend, Elijah, believes her. Worse, mean girl Nellie gives Zee a cruel nickname: Ghost Girl.

But whatever the storm washed up isn’t going away. Everyone’s most selfish wishes start coming true in creepy ways.

To fight for what’s right, Zee will have to embrace what makes her different and what makes her Ghost Girl. And all three of them—Zee, Elijah, and Nellie—will have to work together if they want to give their ghost story a happy ending.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was not expecting to fly through this one as fast as I did, but it was definitely a one sitting read. I really have a soft spot for Zee as she tries to navigate school, friendships, bullies, the death of her mother and absence of her father and more. Elijah was also a wonderfully crafted character as he dealt with the pressure he experienced at home and with expectations that are laid upon him. A lot of the characters in this story had clear voices and were able to be seen easily in the mind’s eye as they went about their daily lives while also trying to figure out what was happening in their little town. There are a lot of real issues that kids deal with featured in this book and honestly I think a lot of people in the target audience would be able to see themselves in at least one of the characters.

Malinenko’s writing is easy to read and flows really well, while there are clear breaks between chapters and scenes, everything flows together really well. I also felt that the three main characters she put together played off each other really well, even if they struggle to be friendly at times. This is definitely a great spooky middle grade that is fun for young readers while still having depth and real world issues woven in.

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Ally Malinenko is a poet, novelist, and librarian living in Brooklyn, New 

York, where she pens her tales in a secret writing closet before dawn each day. Connect with Ally on her website at www.allymalinenko.com

Thanks so much to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review. Make sure to check back on release day, August 10th, for a Q&A with Ally!

Happy reading!

Blog Tour | Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne | Review

Meet Josephine, the most loveable mischief-maker in Barbados, in a magical, heartfelt adventure inspired by Caribbean mythology.

Eleven-year-old Josephine knows that no one is good enough for her daddy. That’s why she’s desperate to make it onto her school’s cricket team. She’ll get to play her favorite sport AND make sure her fisherman daddy is too busy attending her matches to date.

But when tryouts go badly, the frustrated Josephine cuts into a powerful silk cotton tree and accidentally summons a bigger problem into her life . . .
The next day, Daddy brings home a new catch, a beautiful woman named Mariss. And unlike the other girlfriends, she doesn’t scare easily. Josephine knows there’s something fishy about Mariss–she sings in a strange language, eats weird food, and seems to exert mysterious control over everyone she meets.

Josephine knows that Mariss isn’t what she seems … she might not be human! But who’s going to believe her? Can Josephine convince her friends to help her and use her cricket skills to save Daddy from Mariss’s clutches before it’s too late?

Book Links | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Book Depository | Indigo | IndieBound

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What can I say about this book that doesn’t start with the fact that I loved every second of it? It’s rich with culture, heritage and folklore – as well as a main character who speaks with such a clear voice that she’s practically three dimensional. It was such a fun and compelling read from start to finish with writing that just flew by and was completely immersive. There were so many times during this book that I was laughing and I truly enjoyed the glimpse into modern Barbados life and culture. I also really loved the dynamic between Josephine and her father, and the talk of her father’s heritage since he was from Guyana. This book was packed full of so much that I loved and I will definitely be looking for more from this author in the future.

Shakirah Bourne is a Barbadian author and filmmaker. Her first feature film, the comedy-drama, PAYDAY, was screened throughout the Caribbean, USA and UK. She has written three films since its debut in 2013: Two Smart (writer/co-director), Next PAYDAY (writer/producer) and A Caribbean Dream (writer/director). A Caribbean Dream is distributed by Verve Pictures and had a cinema release in London in 2017. The film won several awards, including Best Drama at the National Film Awards UK,  Best International Feature at the Charlotte Black Film Festival and best UK Feature at the London Independent Film Festival.

Her short stories have been featured in many literary journals (see below). Her self-published collection of short stories, IN TIME OF NEED (2013), won the prestigious Governor General Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction. She was a finalist for the BURT/CODE Award for Caribbean Literature in 2018. The Caribbean edition of her middle grade novel, MY FISHY STEPMOM, was published by Blue Banyan Books (2019) and the North American edition, JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA, will be published by Scholastic in 2021.

She was  a Part-time Lecturer at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, and is a Part-Time Lecturer in Screenwriting at the Barbados Community College. She currently holds Certificates in Screenwriting from the Barbados Community College and the University of Edinburgh, and an MA (Hons) in Arts and Cultural Management from Queen Margaret University.

Author Links | Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Facebook

Make sure to check out the other stops on the blog tour here!

Happy reading!