Monday, October 24, 2016

The Master of Middle Grade Returns: The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart | Goodreads

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release: September 27, 2016
Source: The wonderful Kathy Ellen Davis
Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author and E.B. White Read Aloud Award winner Trenton Lee Stewart returns with a captivating, heart-stopping adventure about thrilling secrets and dangerous mysteries--and the courage to reveal the most frightening of truths.

Eleven-year-old Reuben spends his days exploring, hiding, and practicing parkour among the abandoned buildings of the Lower Downs as a way to escape the rough times that have befallen him and his mom--but his discovery of an extraordinary antique pocket watch changes everything. When Reuben finds that the watch has the power to turn him invisible, he's propelled on the adventure of a lifetime.

Now Reuben is being pursued by a group of dangerous men called the Directions, and someone--or something--ominously called The Smoke. They all want the watch, and with the help of new friends, it's up to Reuben to unravel the mysteries surrounding it and protect the city from evil.

New York Times bestselling author Trenton Lee Stewart's latest novel will enthrall old and new fans alike with the twists and turns of an inventive and compelling adventure reminiscent of The Mysterious Benedict Society series.
I loved this book. I've been staring at my computer screen for the past ten minutes, trying to contort my words to cleverly convey just how brilliantly The Secret Keepers shines, but no combination of adjectives seems to do the story justice. So instead I'll simply say exactly what I mean: I loved this book.

The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy currently reigns as my favorite modern middle grade story (a spot it shares only with Louis Sachar's Holes), so when I first heard tell of The Secret Keepers, I spent several minutes jumping up and down, alerting everyone who I thought might share my excitement. It's been at the top of my TBR ever since, so as you may imagine, my expectations soared astronomically high. I had little worry that I'd be let down, and as soon as I started reading, I realized what worries I did have were unfounded; The Secret Keepers is a magnificently-plotted masterpiece of a middle grade novel that will delight old fans and readers new to the author's work alike.

Every major character in this novel—from the protagonist who aims to unravel the mysteries of an abandoned watch to the villain who inexplicably seeks it—lives up to the quirky-and-memorable standard that Stewart's previous works have set. The story's main adversary, The Smoke, could have used slightly more backstory development in terms of what led him to begin his search for the watch in the first place, but this flaw doesn't diminish his eccentricity and mysteriousness—and, more importantly, his dangerous determination to get what he wants. The two young characters who join the protagonist's mission to uncover the origins of the watch don't show up until surprisingly late in the plot but nonetheless add an engaging theme of teamwork and some additional bravery.

And, of course, we have Reuben. Reuben, who, much like the members of the Mysterious Benedict Society, is intelligent and inventive well beyond his years. Reuben, who still manages to make miscalculations and mistakes, repeatedly moving himself into harm's way. Reuben, who—through luck, through skill, through help from his friends—decides to gamble on risky decisions to meet his objectives. From the very first chapter, he becomes a lovable hero readers will care about and cheer for relentlessly, through his triumphs and ill-advised close calls alike.

Due to the endearing nature of its protagonist and the sinister nature of its villain, the plot of The Secret Keepers is a thrill ride packed with twists and turns and revelations and dilemmas. At about 550 pages, The Secret Keepers requires a bit of a time investment, but I wouldn't have cut out a single second of action. The two weeks I spent reading this novel brimmed with an ever-present ache to allow myself just one more chapter as well as several dreams based on the book's storyline (which shows how deeply Reuben's story engages readers). I could not wait to find out what new discovery would bring Reuben closer to his goal, what setback would send him into the throes of despair, and most of all how his schemes would turn out in the end.

And behind everything towers a memorable setting: the fictional city of New Umbra. Although it is not a real geographic location, this city is described in detail, from the socioeconomic status of specific neighborhoods to the stranglehold The Smoke has on the citizens and the law enforcement. The result is a vivid, believeable backdrop that seems like a place I could jump on a plane and visit.

I wish I could discuss every detail of The a Secret Keepers, but I can't say much more without the risk of spoiling the twisty plot. But I will say that I highly, highly recommend this novel—and, more broadly, this author in general—to readers from middle graders to adults. While The Mysterious Benedict Society is still my favorite Trenton Lee Stewart book, this one now occupies a spot high on my best-middle-grade list (and even best-in-general list). Again, I loved this book, and if you like shrouded mysteries, clever plotting, and prodigious characters, I'm sure you will too. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Waiting on Wednesday {2}

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases we can't wait to read.

Life update: college is hard. Ever since the start of my freshman year, I haven't had nearly as much time to schedule posts, comment on other blogs, or talk about books on Twitter. That's why I'm so glad I decided to participate in the occasional Waiting on Wednesday—it's a quick, easy, and fun way to spotlight books I want people to know about. And for my second post, I'm featuring a book that I'm so excited to read and that I hope lives up to my expectations.

Literally by Lucy Keating

Release: April 11, 2017 from HarperTeen
A girl realizes her life is being written for her in this unique, smart love story that is Stranger Than Fiction for fans of Stephanie Perkins.

Annabelle’s life has always been Perfect with a capital P. Then bestselling young adult author Lucy Keating announces that she’s writing a new novel—and Annabelle is the heroine.

It turns out, Annabelle is a character that Lucy Keating created. And Lucy has a plan for her.

But Annabelle doesn’t want to live a life where everything she does is already plotted out. Will she find a way to write her own story—or will Lucy Keating have the last word?

The real Lucy Keating’s delightful contemporary romance blurs the line between reality and fiction, and is the perfect follow-up for readers who loved her debut Dreamology, which SLJ called, “a sweet, quirky romance with appealing characters.”
Literally sounds original, absorbing, and downright weird. In other words, it sounds like the perfect book for me. I can't remember the last time I read this sort of meta-fiction (I think the closest match would be Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer, which I read four years ago), so I can't wait to see how Lucy Keating tackles this unusual setup.

Plus, I'm a huge fan of the cover. I love the minimalist look and the clever illustration of a girl peeking out from behind a curtain of words, as if trying to escape the story that has been written for her. April seems so far away, but this book is sure to be worth the wait.

What are you excited for this Wednesday?

Friday, September 30, 2016

September 2016 in Review

In my last wrap-up post, I mentioned that August was so busy, so full of new experiences, that it seemed to span several months rather than just one. Well, if August was three months long, September made up for it by being approximately one week long. I'm still busy, but the blurring kind of busy that involves scheduling my days to the minute and makes time absolutely fly. It seems like yesterday that I was celebrating the first of September by retweeting dancing pumpkin man GIFs and gazing longingly at my sweaters. But now it finally feels like fall here in Indianapolis (the first 90% of the month was so hot it might as well have been July), and it's time to recap the month of September.

highlights from my reading list

(And by "highlights from," I mean the "entirety of" because, outside of an ethnography about child nutrition in Mali that I read for my anthropology class, I only managed to finish two books.)

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart
I had been waiting with impatience and excitement for another Trenton Lee Stewart novel ever since I read The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy (one of my favorite middle grade stories of all time). I was absolutely thrilled when a wonderful listener of my podcast, A Novel Chat, offered to send me an ARC, and the book completely lived up to my expectations. It features the author's signature intelligent and resourceful children and high-stakes, high-energy plotting. I loved this book, and I can't wait to post my full review soon. I can't recommend it enough to young readers or anyone looking for a fantastic story.
Please Don't Tell by Laura Tims
I picked this book up expecting a thrilling mystery involving murder, blackmail, and deception—and that's exactly what I got. I raced through Please Don't Tell as quickly as my schedule would allow (which, unfortunately, wasn't too quickly), desperate to find out which character committed each nefarious deed. But this book also features a sensitive side centered around sisterhood and emotional scars. Laura Tims beautifully weaves together suspense, real-life social issues, and personal obstacles in this story about a set of twins, each with daunting challenges.

highlights from my life

  • I've continued to power through my first semester of college. My days are busy, but I have plenty to show for it: I have As in all my classes, I've joined a few student organizations, and I'm getting along quite well with my roommates and the other friends I've made. 
  • As I mentioned above, I joined campus organizations. I was elected secretary of my school's chapter of Women in Business, which means I've been making flyers and sending emails on behalf of the club. I also joined the Honors Arts and Culture Society, a group that meets to enjoy the cultural offerings of downtown Indianapolis. We went to a retro duckpin bowling alley in the Fountain Square neighborhood for our first event, and I can't wait to further explore the city together. 

How was your September? For those of you who are also students, how has the semester been so far?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Five Lessons I Learned in High School (And Five Books to Accompany Them)

In case you haven’t heard, I recently graduated from high school and started my first year of college. And as most current or former college students can tell you, the first few weeks of your first semester are difficult. There are so many new routines to learn, so many new experiences to be had, and so many new responsibilities to be dealt with.

I’ve been having so much fun, but I’ve also been feeling slightly overwhelmed and disoriented as I try to make sense of the new lifestyle I’m now navigating. As a result, I’ve been thinking about my freshman year of high school, reflecting on how much I know now that I didn’t know then, and wondering who I will have become four years from now.

Obviously, now is not the time to talk about college-graduate me. (I can barely manage college-freshman me.) But it’s the perfect time to look back my high school experience. So here are five lessons I learned in high school, complete with books (of course, because what would be the point otherwise?) that reinforce each message.

Think about the person you are right now. Do you think you’ll be more or less the same ten years from today?

Now think about the person you were ten year ago. Especially if you’re on the younger side, like I am, your personality has probably undergone significant changes. What’s to say your personality won’t evolve just as much in the years to come?

Several experiences in high school reminded me that people and plans constantly change. For example, freshman year, I thought show choir would define my high school experience, but I ended up singing in my school’s top concert choir—and quitting two weeks into my senior year. And even though my future ambitions are highly defined and concrete right now (I’ve been working toward the same career goal for several years), I can’t wait to see how they may change throughout college.

the book: The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson: When Andie’s perfect internship falls through, she spends the summer living spontaneously and learning that plans can be broken—and that’s fine. Complete with an adorable romance and brilliantly-written friendships, this book is perfect for any incoming college student.

The idea of being cliché gets a bad reputation, but some of my favorite high school memories come from common, “stereotypical” experiences. I got involved in school organizations and went on multiple trips with them. I not only went to prom, but ran a campaign to get my friend elected prom king. (It ultimately failed, but not before we had plenty of fun.) I stressed about exams, knowing students around the world were doing the exact same thing. I resented or skipped some of the clichés (pep rallies and parents-aren’t-home parties? not for me) but overall I had no problem living the classic high school experience.

the book: Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid: In a hilarious romp that made me nostalgic for my own senior year, best friends Dave and Julia set out on a mission to accomplish every high school cliché they’ve been avoiding over the past four years.

Throughout middle school and high school I met English teachers who made me feel embarrassed for reading YA books, friends who disapproved of the music I liked, and people who generally thought my tastes in entertainment should be more like theirs. It took me a while to stop being annoyed by these people, but now I’m confident enough in my own preferences to ignore the naysayers.

the book: Getting Over Garrett Delaney by Abby McDonald—Sadie’s been smitten with Garrett for years, pretending to enjoy the same obscure literature, films, and music he enjoys in an effort to capture his romantic attention. But when she decided to get over her drawn-out crush, her empowering, funny engaging journey is centered around the realization that her tastes are just as valid as Garrett’s—and if he doesn’t understand that, he’s not worth her time.

When I was younger, I thought I hated writing, but through my blog (and through encouragement from my freshman-year history teacher), I realized it doesn’t have to be a chore. It’s not easy, but finding a novel way to send a message is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. While I’m not a traditional creative writer (I don’t write fiction or poetry), I’ve grown to appreciate the power of words and love creatively conveying ideas on my blog, my podcast, and more.

the book: And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard: Not only does this book’s protagonist create the best poetry I’ve ever seen from a YA character, but she uses writing to overcome a tragic event in her past. She is a testament to the ability of humans to heal; her writing a testament to the importance of language.

No matter how ready you are for college, if you have an even remotely good relationship with your family, high school friends, or neighborhood, leaving for college will take an emotional toll. When I was younger (even one-year-ago younger), I 100% wanted to move far away for college. My dream school was in Boston, and I undoubtedly would have enrolled there if it hadn’t been for the cost.

But while studying on the East Coast would have been a great experience (and I’m not here to discourage anyone), now that I’m in college, I’m becoming more and more glad that I only live 20 minutes away from home. Not only has my proximity to my parents made the move to college significantly easier in terms of logistics, but I appreciate the ability to meet up with my family more than I realized I would.

the book: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner: Set in a small, close-minded Tennessee town, The Serpent King features a character who is desperate to leave for NYU. But throughout the story, the author realistically and emotionally portrays the sadness and nervousness that she, her family, and her friends all feel regarding her departure.

High school and college graduates: what lessons did you learn during your years of education? And what have you learned about yourself or about life since graduation? Let me know in the comments—I'd love to hear about your experiences!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Three Reasons to Read The Fixer

I've been a huge fan of Jennifer Lynn Barnes's contemporary thrillers ever since my good friend Summer introduced me to The Naturals series—which follows a group of extremely skilled teenage behaviorists—back in 2014. So, as you might guess, I was ecstatic to finally pick up the first installment of a new series that sounded equally fascinating, especially with its political twist. The Fixer quickly lived up to my expectations, jumping into the action during the first chapter—and while I may not have loved it quite as much as The Naturals, I read it over the course of only a few days. But be warned; the ending contains quite the cliffhanger, so make sure to have the recently-released sequel on hand before reading the last chapter. But aside from that warning, I would recommend picking up The Fixer as soon as possible (especially as political drama ramps up here in the United States).

the book

The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release: July 7, 2015
Source: Library
If the elite of Washington, DC, have a problem that can't be solved… they go to the Kendricks.

When sixteen-year-old Tess Kendrick is sent to stay with her older sister, she has no idea that the famed Ivy Kendrick is the capital's number-one "fixer." For powerful people looking to make a scandal disappear, Tess's sister is there to help—for a price.

And no sooner does Tess enroll at the prestigious Hardwicke School than she unwittingly finds herself following in Ivy's footsteps. Tess never thought she and Ivy had much in common, but when her new friends at school need help, she discovers that her talents quickly make her Hardwicke's go-to high-school fixer.

Secrets pile up as each sister lives a double life—until their worlds come crashing together in a conspiracy that reaches from the halls of Hardwicke to Capitol Hill. Suddenly, there is much more on the line than good grades, money, or politics.

The odds are stacked against Tess, and the price for this fix might be more than she can pay.

three reasons to read it 

I love stories about highly intelligent problem solvers who use their brains to get what they want, an obsession that is evidenced in everything from my middle grade preferences (recommend me a book in the vein of The Mysterious Benedict Society and we'll be friends for life) to the most recent television show I binge-watched (if you haven't seen Scorpion, you should give it a shot). Both Ivy and Tess match this description to a T. From the first chapter onward, Ivy is efficient, commanding, and brilliant at devising solutions to complex problems—and Tess quickly becomes more and more like her sister as she takes on her own high school-level cases. By the end of the book, I wanted to be more like the two sisters, both in terms of their powerful presence and their practical problem-solving abilities.

Despite Tess's intelligence and natural knack for being a fixer, she still has much to learn. She can handle simple cases without much trouble, but when a high-powered political mystery falls into her hands, she knows when to turn to her sister. Ivy picks up on nuances and dangers Tess would have missed—not by virtue of superior intelligence, but because of superior experience—and while Tess continues to gather evidence, she also recognizes when certain aspects of the investigation are simply over her head. Through this collaboration between Ivy and Tess, Barnes portrays the truth that, while newcomers to a field are often intelligent and talented, they usually require training and guidance from an individual with a longer résumé. In a genre that frequently features inexperienced 16-year-olds saving the world in the face of a dystopian government or other catastrophe, this realism makes The Fixer shine.

Aside from its thrilling mystery plot line, The Fixer also spotlights a fairly broken family fraught with emotions. Tess's parents died when she was young, the grandfather who was her legal guardian for several years is now succumbing to Alzheimer's, and she harbors a resentment toward Ivy for leaving three years ago and barely keeping in touch ever since. Barnes beautifully portrays the emotions corresponding with each relationship, creating periodic refreshing breaks from the main storyline. Even better, the family drama becomes increasingly complex and exciting as the plot moves along and secrets are revealed.

All in all, I loved The Fixer and am on the lookout for more books with a similar psychological writing style. Have you read any of Jennifer Lynn Barnes's books? What other political dramas would you recommend?