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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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


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…


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!

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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).


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!

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!

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is going to be on the short side, and while I should be going straight to sleep, I have to make this transition from end of book to the mundane (have I mentioned I like that word?).

I just finished The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and I had to take a deep breath. This was a toughie for me. I spent the good first half of the memoir shaking my head and wondering whether I really wanted to keep reading through this dysfunctional family. I kept wanting the Department of Children and Families to go in and swoop the four kids away from those reckless parents. But then again, it wouldn’t have left as much of an imprint, I think. By the end of the memoir, I want to know what happens and I’m rooting for Jeannette and her siblings to get out of that oppressive hole.

The Glass Castle is certainly a memoir about acceptance. Where Eat, Pray, Love contained a self-conscious, woe-is-me tone, Walls writes without blame. She is matter-of-fact, here is what happened, and she doesn’t succumb to lamenting her childhood. It proves how strong she really is.
It’s also a memoir about love, in a dysfunctional, different kind of way. It astounds me that two brilliant people like her parents could be so irresponsible. I have an almost-three-year-old son and I could never imagine doing the things Walls’s mom did. I shook my head many times during this past week, while I read her memoir. I shook my head in incredulity.
I brought out my imaginary pom-poms, though, when she finally had enough and told her mom and dad off, and when she and her sisters and brother broke free. The parents became the children and the children the parents. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, and in The Glass Castle it certainly was obvious.
But the end. Oh the end. The part when her dad asks to speak to her and, in the same call, asks for a bottle of Vodka – that part reminded me of my dad. Not because of the alcohol, because my dad didn’t drink, but because my dad’s addiction to smoking was just as bad as her dad’s with alcohol. In the end, I gave up fighting his smoking habits and indulged him. It killed him indirectly, in the end, but I still indulged him.
So I definitely recommend this memoir, but it’s not for the faint of mind. Those with children, beware, because it has you clutching on to your own kids more dearly. I’m still amazed that after going through such a childhood, Jeannette Walls came out brilliant and overcame the set backs in which she was born.
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Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and, in simplest terms, I loved it – but it’s complicated love. I bought the book right before my Disney cruise, hoping to spend time rekindling my romance with the written word. I haven’t read much lately that didn’t have to do with essays, stories, poems, and even a graphic memoir – all for school. For work. Pleasure reading has been nonexistent. I think the last reading I did just because was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and even that book I will be using in my classes. I started reading Isabel Allende’s The Sum of my Days, in Spanish, but that is sitting now in my bookshelf, the Tinkerbell bookmark sitting about one-third of the way, collecting dust. It’s not happening.

So I decided to indoctrinate myself into my summer “vacation” with a memoir (my genre of choice) that could balance between chick-lit and seriousness, romance and truth, dreams and reality, humor and spirituality. I think I’ve hit the mark with Eat, Pray, Love.

I had received numerous, mixed reviews from friends who’ve read it (and a somewhat Sparks Notes report from a student) and I was intrigued. But I hadn’t really read what it was about. Not really. I envisioned a plot similar to that of Under the Tuscan Sun, only transcending three countries.

My reading journey began a few days before we left for Cape Canaveral; I just couldn’t wait to start reading. And I was disappointed – at first. I started reading, expecting a literary fluency akin to Madeleine Blais’s Uphill Walkers, and I was disappointed. The language was okay. The writing was at times clichéd. At one point I felt I was reading my students’ papers. It was a disaster.

But so was Gilbert’s life at that point. I think there was a correlation. During the time she spent in Italy, in pursuit of culinary pleasures, the writing was superficial and basic. But there was humor, and her story surrounded me, transported me, and soon I was forgetting about whether the metaphor was silly or whether her description was basic, and I was immersed in her experience. When I finished the first third of the book, aboard the Disney Wonder in the Bahamas, I was sad to say good-bye to Italy. I love Italy, and my desire to learn Italian intensified.

And then Gilbert took me to an ashram in India, a place I have never thought of visiting – ever. I actually have very limited knowledge of Eastern meditation and religions. And when I say very limited, I literally mean very, very limited. I know of Hinduism and Buddhism, but that’s it and on the surface level. Gilbert’s account in this ashram in a remote village of India, and her explanations of spirituality, captivated me more than the pleasure of eating pasta in the many historic Italian cities and towns. It left me yearning and wanting that spiritual peace. And her way of making sense of the diversity of religion and how it’s all the same – and how in that ashram, people of all religions were there in order to get closer to their Gods (Christian, Jewish, Muslim – it didn’t matter) – it made sense to me. Actually, a lot of what she said during her spiritual journey made sense to me. Not all, but a good amount. We’re all in this search for divinity, for spiritual and religious belonging, whether we want to admit it or not. We need something, and what we call that something varies. We are so focused on our location in the map of society that we become lodged on this canvas, without realizing that it’s not flat, but round, ever existing, ever changing, ever merging into itself. We have the freedom to move – yet we don’t. It’s an interesting concept. This section also made me think of the juxtaposition of those two terms we sometimes use interchangeably: religion and spirituality. They’re not interchangeable. They’re different. One can be uber religious and not find spiritual peace. Crazy concept, I know, but think about it. We all know someone who prays every day, attends religious services all the time, and proclaims to be “holier than thou” but at closer inspection, the spiritual storm that exists in this person’s heart is tumultuous and it’s seen in actions, in words, in subtle hints that alert us to the true spiritual nature of this person. He is not at peace with himself, his life. She is not at one with her creator, whoever that creator is for her. Different words for the same thing – this is what I took from Gilbert’s experience in the Ashram in India. Let go and let God is what I learned at an Emmaus retreat. Let go and let God, in different words, is what Gilbert learned in the second section of the book.

And her writing was changing skins, just as she was changing, rising through meditation from her worldly suffering to the divine.

The concept of “same-same,” as her Balinese Medicine Man, Ketut, says it, is brought to the center in the third and final section of Eat, Pray, Love. In Indonesia, Gilbert attempts to find balance in her life. After four months in Italy searching for pleasure (non-carnal pleasure as she’s on self-imposed celibacy), and after four months in India searching for spirituality, she arrives in Bali equipped with some newfound confidence and ease of being with and by herself. She sets off at figuring out how to combine pleasure and spirituality, and in doing so, stumbles on love.

Her writing style towards the end is different, or maybe I was so engrossed with the story that I forgave. Maybe there was a purpose – write for the masses with humor, especially for women who are hurting – and the style is overlooked. In reading reviews, I saw some call her writing a form of whining, and at times, I agreed. But I think it was needed. When we’re so neck-deep in our own pit of sorrow, it’s hard not to whine. In the beginning of her book, Gilbert was in that place. The wallowing, self-pity, snot-inducing place. By the end of the book, she wasn’t, and her ascension to that place of contentment becomes evident in her writing. It was well done, I think.

In another post, when I have some more quiet time, I’ll point out a few passages I absolutely loved – especially one in which Richard from Texas explains his theory about soul mates to Gilbert. It’s definitely one of those things that make you pause and ponder.

So now I want to read Committed which, lucky for me, was recently published. It starts where Eat, Pray, Love left off, and I can’t wait. I’m also looking forward to the movie, starring Julia Roberts, that’s due out this summer.