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Smoke Screen by Terri Blackstock

Title: Smoke Screen

Author: Terri Blackstock

Published By: Thomas Nelson (2019)

Synopsis: One father was murdered. Another was convicted of his death. All because their children fell in love.

Nate Beckett has spent his life fighting wildfires instead of the lies and rumors that drove him from his Colorado hometown. His mother begs him to come back now that his father has been released from prison, but it isn’t until he’s sidelined by an injury that he’s forced to return and face his past. But that means facing Brenna too.

Fourteen years ago, Nate was in love with the preacher’s daughter. When Pastor Strickland discovered Brenna defied him to sneak out with Nate, the fight between Strickland and Nate’s drunken dad was loud—and very public. Strickland was found murdered later that night, and everyone accused Roy Beckett. When the church burned down not long after, people assumed Nate set the fire to get even for his father’s conviction. He let the rumors fly and left town without looking back.

Brenna is stunned to learn that the man convicted of murdering her father has been pardoned. The events of that night set her life on a bad course, and now she’s fighting a brutal custody battle with her ex and his new wife where he’s using lies and his family’s money to sway the judge. Brenna is barely hanging on, and she’s turned to alcohol to cope. Shame and fear consume her.

As Nate and Brenna deal with the present—including new information about that fateful night and a wildfire that’s threatening their town—the past keeps igniting. Nate is the steady force Brenna has so desperately needed. But she’ll have to learn to trust him again first. (Taken from Goodreads)

Review:

Terri Blackstock delivers again! Smoke Screen was a carefully crafted novel with a very original feel. I adored the characters and the storyline had me hooked.

I cringed a lot reading this novel purely due to how awful Brenna’s life is, but that also meant I couldn’t put the book down. I was very skeptical of Nate when he entered her life, mostly with the timing, and I still feel like their relationship moved way too fast for someone who’d just gotten divorced, but, I was also simultaneously cheering them on. 🙂 The double POV was done very well, with Nate and Brenna having very distinct voices.

I thought Brenna’s addiction was portrayed excellently, as well as her struggle in overcoming it and her desire to make things right. It sometimes feels like everything that can go wrong does for poor Brenna, and while it made for a difficult read, it also made for an incredible payoff. Brenna and Nate both were easy to emphathize with.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book (though, what Terri Blackstock book do I not enjoy?). It was an original, creative, pull-at-your-heartstrings story full of real struggle and an even more real God. 4.5 stars.

A Thousand Perfect Notes by C.G. Drews

Title: A Thousand Perfect Notes

Author: C.G. Drews

Published By: Orchard Books (2018)

Synopsis:

An emotionally charged story of music, abuse and, ultimately, hope.

Beck hates his life. He hates his violent mother. He hates his home. Most of all, he hates the piano that his mother forces him to play hour after hour, day after day. He will never play as she did before illness ended her career and left her bitter and broken. But Beck is too scared to stand up to his mother, and tell her his true passion, which is composing his own music – because the least suggestion of rebellion on his part ends in violence.

When Beck meets August, a girl full of life, energy and laughter, love begins to awaken within him and he glimpses a way to escape his painful existence. But dare he reach for it? (Taken from Goodreads)

Review:

I’m not crying, you’re crying!

A beautifully sweet and short novel, I read this in nearly one sitting. I was enthralled from the beginning. The story is so straightforward and simple, and yet with so many complex elaborations and undertones along the way. Beck was a very easy character to understand and very authentic. His family life was complex and detailed, easy to picture, easy to empathize with. I’ve read some reviewers that found his mom too stereotypical, too much, too expected, but I didn’t think that whatsoever. It was intense and at times did feel a little dramatic/over-the-top, but it didn’t affect my overall appreciation.

I LOVED August. Her and Beck’s relationship was actually the sweetest thing ever, and also so beautifully innocent. I absolutely loved how this was done, I could not get enough of it! The balance of the story was perfect: while a dark story in its own way, with some serious themes and difficult struggles, August provided a lighthearted aspect that took the edge off the intensity and in turn made it easier to see the fuller picture.

This is definitely an “emotionally charged” story that will pull your heartstrings; ultimately, the themes in the end were incredible, filled with soooo much hope. This took me for a rollercoaster of a ride but AHHH did I love it in the end. 5.0 stars!

Recommended 14+ because of domestic violence, few swear words, and mature themes about abuse and depression.

 

Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Title: Shouting at the Rain

Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Published By: Nancy Paulsen Books (2019)

Synopsis:

Delsie loves tracking the weather–lately, though, it seems the squalls are in her own life. She’s always lived with her kindhearted Grammy, but now she’s looking at their life with new eyes and wishing she could have a “regular family.” Delsie observes other changes in the air, too–the most painful being a friend who’s outgrown her. Luckily, she has neighbors with strong shoulders to support her, and Ronan, a new friend who is caring and courageous but also troubled by the losses he’s endured. As Ronan and Delsie traipse around Cape Cod on their adventures, they both learn what it means to be angry versus sad, broken versus whole, and abandoned versus loved. And that, together, they can weather any storm. (Taken from Goodreads)

My Review:

Another beautiful work from Lynda Mullaly Hunt! The story is unique, yet so simple and so carefully put together! There are so many aspects at play—so much tangible real life and real characters that come together to show the reader some unmistakably important themes about life. 

I loved Delsie, our main character; she was so easy to love, so easy to relate to. She has authentic struggles, but she plows on anyway, and comes out stronger, something very inspirational to read about. Even though there is a wide cast of characters, they each are unique in their own way. Spiteful Olive; hardworking, loving Henry; thoughtful Esme; spunky Ruby; I could go on and on.

I absolutely adored the theme/message of, “Some friends are glitter, some are glue” and I think the author communicated this very well. Sure, some of the aspects, such as the close friend who changes and chooses the other friend, and the broody boy who becomes the new best friend, are frequent in middle grade and thereof it was fairly predictable, but it was still fun to read about. I loved Delsie’s grandmother—she was so different but also so realistic. 

I love the anagrams, I love the “shouting at the rain” mindset and theme, and I also really enjoyed how the story’s plot just carefully progressed across real life, without a ton of action or drama. You can’t always get away with that, but this book executed it marvelously.

A few negatives: some scenes were too long in my opinion, and at the beginning, characters narrated events too much, saying exactly what was happening and talking in ways people never actually talk, which annoyed me a little. I also almost feel like the book could have ended four chapters before it did.

Overall, I wasn’t blown away, mostly due to the predictability, but it was still an important novel carefully crafted and I would recommend it, especially for readers middle-grade and younger. 4.5 stars.

Lydia Green of Mulberry Glen by Millie Florence

Title: Lydia Green of Mulberry Glen

Author: Millie Florence

Published By: Sprouting Pen Press (2019)

Synopsis:

Lydia Green never had reason to worry much before.

She lived in a timeless Glen on the edge of the Valleylands with her mismatched family of fairies, philosophers, and two troublemakers known as the Zs.

But now, at age eleven, her world is turned upside down when rumors reach Mulberry Glen about a mysterious Darkness that dwells in the forest Tenebrae.

Lydia knows it is nothing to be trifled with, but, fiery and headstrong, the Zs have other ideas. A foolish choice puts their lives in danger, and although she is no hero, Lydia realizes that family is something she is willing to fight for.

But among the shifting library shelves and lonely stone towers of her quest, Lydia is chased with more questions than answers. The Darkness of the forest lurks within her own mind, and how can you fight something which is all in your head?

In her second novel, Millie Florence weaves a tapestry of passion, heart, and magic. Lydia Green of Mulberry Glen is a pure, hopeful fantasy for both parents and children alike. (Taken from Goodreads)

My Review:

Lydia Green of Mulberry Glen is such a heartfelt and inspiring novel, from the creative storytelling, to the lovable characters, to the powerful thematics. Millie’s tangible writing style draws you in like a cup of warm tea, and her lovable characters wrap their arms around your heart. The story is uniquely told, with many instances of, “Dear reader,” which made for a tale feeling much like a fairytale. The storyline weaves intricately, telling a careful tale of a young girl resisting change, and the themes that unravel are ones that readers young and old will resonate with.

The story follows young Lydia, who has never left the Glen, her treasured and well-loved home, but times are changing, and she is about to be apprenticed. Dreading this change with every fiber of her being, she suddenly finds herself leaving of her own accord when the Zs, who are family to her, disappear on a fruitless mission and Lydia knows she must stop them. Along the way we are met with a traverse band of characters—spunky, logical Prehna; sweet Coran; sly Cole; and many others. As Lydia journeys, we also watch as she takes an inward journey, too: a journey of character, strength, determination, and loyalty. 

At certain times scenes droned for a bit longer than I felt necessary, but outside of that, the story was excellently structured. I was absolutely blown away by how the thematics of light vs darkness manifested in this novel. Lydia’s character arc was also incredible. Every character was so carefully crafted and brought the story together through all their different personalities, and I absolutely loved it. The story demonstrates incredible talent and I can’t wait to see what Millie comes out with next!

Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Recommended To: All ages!

The Long Ride by Marina Tamar Budhos

Title: The Long Ride

Author: Marina Tamar Budhos

Published By: Wendy Lamb Books (Coming Sept 2019)

Synopsis:

In the tumult of 1970s New York City, seventh graders are bussed from their neighborhood in Queens to integrate a new school in South Jamaica.

Jamila Clarke. Josie Rivera. Francesca George. Three mixed-race girls, close friends whose immigrant parents worked hard to settle their families in a neighborhood with the best schools. The three girls are outsiders there, but they have each other.

Now, at the start seventh grade, they are told they will be part of an experiment, taking a long bus ride to a brand-new school built to “mix up the black and white kids.” Their parents don’t want them to be experiments. Francesca’s send her to a private school, leaving Jamila and Josie to take the bus ride without her.

While Francesca is testing her limits, Josie and Jamila find themselves outsiders again at the new school. As the year goes on, the Spanish girls welcome Josie, while Jamila develops a tender friendship with a boy–but it’s a relationship that can exist only at school. (Taken from Goodreads)

My Review:

**I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review**

While it felt genuinely well-intentioned, this book fell very flat for me.

Positives:

The main character’s voice was very authentic. I liked the concept of dealing with segregation and mixed-race kids, and I thought addressing school system issues and middle graders was a great idea.

Negatives:

I was confused by most the book. The plot really went nowhere; the book ends exactly where it starts, with the characters not having grown or changed at all. Scenes jump without scene breaks, characters appear and disappear without notice, and characters draw conclusions not supported by the text, making it a very difficult story to follow. Random interactions occur consistently that do nothing to move the storyline, and the story is full of random and pointless events. No conflict is overcome, it just fades away without resolution or growth.

The story was just incredibly weak, as much as I feel bad saying that, strongly lacking morals or themes. There was nothing inherently terrible per se about it, but it was just a really weak novel. Things were explained poorly or not at all; I’m still confused on the setting, and if not for a few—and I mean a few, like maybe three—lines about the girls being mixed race and segregration, I wouldn’t have even be able to tell this time period. The whole concept of switching schools was never fully explained; why they were an experiment, never really explained; just almost nothing was explained. Like the reader is just expected to understand, when in reality, we’re utterly lost. There are instances of misbehavior and references to sexual behavior, but no morality—again, the story strongly lacked in the moral and theme department. 

Not recommended.

Rating: 2.0 / 5.0

6 Great Book Series for Middle Graders (And Beyond!)

PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson

This Peter Pan retelling is intense, but so good! Crazy dramatic storylines full of action and nonstop adventure; deep characters with flaws, relatability, and complex arcs; and a little bit of darkness, too (though not celebrated or promoted – the whole series is a fight of light vs darkness). . It’s definitely deep/dark/intense enough to be enjoyed by an adult, but this was read to me when I was 8 and my brother was 5 – so while it is intense, there is nothing that is inappropriate or too much for the younger audience (they just may not understand the depth as much). 

The Series: Peter and the Starcatchers; Peter and the Shadow Thieves; Peter and the Secret of Rundoon; Peter and the Sword of Mercy; and spinoff novel, The Bridge to Neverland.

SAVVY by Ingrid Law

I didn’t read this series until a few years ago (so it’s not a childhood favorite of mine, per se), but I was so impressed by it! The characters are just SO much fun and the story is equally as enjoyable and captivating. The magic is gentle and unlike magic you typically read about in stories, and there are some very subtle but really cool themes that line up with Christianity as well. Wholesome and fun, and just so creatively written!

The Series: Savvy, Scumble, and Switch

 

 

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket

Classics in my opinion, this series is just so unlike all middle grade novels. I have yet to find a writing style as distinct, unique, and quirky as Snicket’s. There are fantastic themes about growing up and independence, trust and loyalty. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are excellent role models, full of flaws no doubt, but yet demonstrate incredible bravery and integrity even under the most harrowing of circumstances. Highly recommend.

The Series: The Bad Beginning; The Reptile Room; The Wide Window; The Miserable Mill; The Austere Academy; The Ersatz Elevator; The Vile Village; The Hostile Hospital; The Carnivorous Carnival; The Slippery Slope; The Grim Grotto; The Penultimate Peril; The End.

THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart

Another example of a series full of fun adventures that teach characters valuable lessons, and a series full of genuine characters easy to root for. Well written and thorough, this was such a great series and I enjoyed it so much. Just so masterfully executed!

The Series: The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. **There is a prequel and a 4th book in the series, but I have read neither. 

 

THE DOLL PEOPLE by Ann. M Martin & Laura Godwin

This series was the epitome of my 8yr old self’s imagination. The story follows a family of dolls and how they keep their lives hidden from their owners, the kids, and have all sorts of grand, but dramatic, adventures. Fantastic reads for young imaginations, but yet rich stories even for older readers.

 

The Series: The Doll People, The Meanest Doll in the World, and The Runaway Doll

ON THE EDGE OF THE DARK SEA OF DARKNESS by Andrew Peterson (The Wingfeather Saga)

The Wingfeather Saga pretty much contains my favorite books of all time, ever. I read it for the first time when I was 8 and loved it, and have reread it countless times since, finding more to love about the series each time I read through. I cannot recommend this series enough. Here’s the synopsis: Once, in a cottage above the cliffs on the Dark Sea of Darkness, there lived three children and their trusty dog Nugget. Janner Igiby, his brother Tink, their crippled sister Leeli are gifted children as all children are, loved well by a noble mother and ex-pirate grandfather. But they will need all their gifts and all that love to survive the evil pursuit of the venomous Fangs of Dang who have crossed the dark sea to rule the land with malice and pursue the Igibys who hold the secret to the lost legend and jewels of good King Wingfeather of the Shining Isle of Anniera…

The Series: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness; North! Or Be Eaten; The Monster in the Hollows; The Warden and the Wolf King