The Royal Gift: 2019 Two Giftens Edition by Drae Box- ARC Review


                  Five days to save him.

Five days to find a thief, rescue her village’s one line of defence – a magic dagger – and return home. Could Aldora do it? She didn’t know the first thing about tracking a thief, and barely knew any of the kingdom’s geography.

Accompanied by a talking Prince of the Cats and a law enforcing soldier that’s a trouble magnet, Aldora’s future is forever changed. (taken from Amazon)

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion. This book is available now.

This was an interesting experience for me. I did not care for it myself, but I think that the author will improve and the next endeavor might be really good. The ideas were creative, but the execution needed a little work.

First of all, the reader is dropped right into the middle of the story without any setup or explanation. I was actually confused enough to wonder if I’d missed a previous book that explained everything. While it does clear up as time goes on, it was a very disconcerting start.

I did appreciate the uniqueness of the book. The Prince of Cats was a fun character, although, like the others, he needed more development. It felt as though I was reading a first or second draft and not the finished book.

That being said, the premise is interesting, but the end product needs tweaking. I didn’t hate the book, but it wasn’t for me.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Frozen Secrets by Myles Christensen

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He has trouble following the rules on Earth. But this trip to Jupiter’s moon could kill his curiosity for good…

Thirteen-year-old Max Parker is a grounded Earthling with the soul of a space explorer. So when he learns his family is relocating to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, he readily agrees to stay out of mischief. But his promise is soon forgotten, and his snooping lands him on a shuttle doomed for a fiery disintegration.

Convinced someone sabotaged the craft to cover up the theft he witnessed, he digs into the incident. Why was this robbery worth attempted murder? Dodging a series of deadly accidents, he follows the clues to an abandoned outpost and discovers a secret that could blow the lid off a moon-wide conspiracy…

Can Max solve the mystery before his interplanetary escapade gets him killed? (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to the author for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This book will be available in January.

Funny story: I couldn’t find this book one afternoon. I looked in all the usual places that I “lose” things, but I still couldn’t find it. Guess where it was? In the hands of my sixth grader, who was very interested in reading it. That’s a pretty high recommendation for the book just right there. I have a feeling he’ll be curled up with it soon.

This book follows Max and his best friend Jonathan. They’ve just moved with their families to Europa, as part of a colonization. The two best buds manage to get themselves into trouble on a pretty regular basis, but their usual hijinks give way to the possibility of real trouble when they notice that things seem a little off. What did they stumble on? More importantly: will they survive?

Max was a fun character to read about. Trouble follows him, but he’s not a bad kid. He was actually really sweet. Both he and Jonathan were very believable and- I’m sure- easy for middle-graders to relate to. Their relationship was a joy to read.

This book is full of action, very rarely pausing to explain things. This is perfect for someone like my son, who is able to glean any background information that is included among other things that are happening, and prefers his stories to be action-packed. There’s never a dull moment.

Frozen Secrets is the beginning of what I think will be a highly enjoyable series. If you’ve got a middle-grade/YA reader who likes sci-fi, this is not one to miss. Keep this book in mind if you’re looking for something fun to give as a gift.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas 2019- Middle-Grade Books


The other day I listed some picture books that would make fantastic gifts (you can find that post here.) In this post, I’m moving on to upper elementary and middle-grade books. After all, it’s good to continue to cultivate a love of reading.

The Origami Yoda Files by Tom Angleberger

My oldest has read this series multiple times. He loves these books! They’re fun stories, and have directions to make cute and simple origami Star Wars characters.
Cool side note: my son has written two fan letters to Tom Angleberger- and received two handwritten notes back! I’m more than happy to support authors who not only write quality books, but take the time to answer their fan mail. My oldest was over the moon.

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Not so long ago, in a middle school not so far away, a sixth grader named Dwight folded an origami finger puppet of Yoda. For class oddball Dwight, this wasn’t weird. It was typical Dwight behavior. But what is weird is that Origami Yoda is uncannily wise and prescient. He can predict the date of a pop quiz, guess who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and save a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice. Dwight’s classmate Tommy wonders how Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so clueless. With contributions from his puzzled classmates, Tommy assembles this first case file in the blockbuster bestselling Origami Yoda series, hailed bySchool Library Journal as “honest, funny, and immensely entertaining.” (taken from Amazon)

Oddmire #1: Changeling by William Ritter

I’m hoping to grab this one for my oldest this Christmas. It’s the perfect blend of adventure and excellent character development. The story follows two brothers- one of which is a changeling- as they brave the Wild Wood to become magical heroes. What sets this story apart from many other fantasies is the subtle themes of friendship, loyalty, and learning to be proud of who you are. I loved it and I know my oldest will too (find my review here.)
Incidentally, William Ritter is also the author of the fabulous adult Jackaby series.


Magic is fading from the Wild Wood. To renew it, goblins must perform an ancient ritual involving the rarest of their kind—a newborn changeling. But when the night arrives to trade a human baby for a goblin one, something goes terribly wrong. After laying the changeling in a human infant’s crib, the goblin Kull is briefly distracted. By the time he turns back, the changeling has already perfectly mimicked the human child. Too perfectly: Kull cannot tell them apart, so he leaves both babies behind.

Tinn and Cole are raised as human twins, neither knowing what secrets may be buried deep inside one of them. When they are thirteen years old, a mysterious message arrives, calling the brothers to be heroes and protectors of magic. The boys must leave their sleepy town and risk their lives in the Wild Wood, journeying through the Deep Dark to reach the goblin horde and uncover who they truly are. (taken from Amazon)

The Return of King Lillian by Suzie Plakson

This absolutely wonderful book tells the hero’s journey from the perspective of a female. It’s charming, and has life-lessons subtly woven in. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good adventure. Find my review here.


When Lillian, the one and only heir to the throne, is cast out of her kingdom by malevolent forces, she accidentally wanders into the Forest of Forgetfullness, where she is rescued by wolves and raised by an eccentric old wise woman. When she comes of age, she is called by Destiny to return home. The trouble is, when Lillian steps out of the Forest, she has no memory of who she is or from whence she hails. Undaunted, the spirited, self-reliant young woman sets off into the unknown, determined to rediscover her long lost self and to reclaim her stolen birthright. Most of the tale is told by Lillian herself as she chronicles her extraordinary adventures. (taken from Amazon)

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Full of a delightful cast of characters, this madcap mystery/cover-up is great for any age. It’s perfect for upper elementary students as the macabre level is extremely low (nothing like a tasteful corpse, ha ha!), and this book is as far from creepy as a book can get. In fact, it’s pretty stinking funny. Find my review here.

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There’s a murderer on the loose – but that doesn’t stop the girls of St. Etheldreda’s from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce.

The students of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home – unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong. (taken from Amazon)

Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire by Delilah S. Dawson

My son loves this book! He devoured it and highly recommends it to anyone who likes Star Wars.
Interesting side-note: this author also wrote Kill the Farm Boy, an adult book that I really enjoy.


After devastating losses at the hands of the First Order, General Leia Organa has dispatched her agents across the galaxy in search of allies, sanctuary, and firepower – and her top spy, Vi Moradi, may have just found all three, on a secluded world at the galaxy’s edge.

A planet of lush forests, precarious mountains, and towering, petrified trees, Batuu is on the furthest possible frontier of the galactic map, the last settled world before the mysterious expanse of Wild Space. The rogues, smugglers, and adventurers who eke out a living on the largest settlement on the planet, Black Spire Outpost, are here to avoid prying eyes and unnecessary complications. Vi, a Resistance spy on the run from the First Order, is hardly a welcome guest. And when a shuttle full of stormtroopers lands in her wake, determined to root her out, she has no idea where to find help.

To survive, Vi will have to seek out the good-hearted heroes hiding in a world that redefines scum and villainy. With the help of a traitorous trooper and her acerbic droid, she begins to gather a colorful band of outcasts and misfits, and embarks on a mission to spark the fire of resistance on Batuu – before the First Order snuffs it out entirely. (taken from Amazon)

Are you planning on buying any books for your middle-grade reader in the next month? What are some middle-grade books that you’d suggest?

Secrets of the Great Fire Tree by Justine Laismith- Blog Tour

Today is my spot on the blog tour for Secrets of the Great Fire Tree by Justine Laismith. I’m so excited to talk about this magical little tale, one that is both charming and touching. My thanks go to Olivia at

This book is about a boy named Kai, who is told that his mom will be leaving to work for a family in the city, in order to provide for their family. He will stay in their village with a neighbor, and won’t see his mom for a year. The story follows his choices, and what he’ll do to bring his family together again.

In many ways, this book was very sad. Kai is dealing with many changes, and misses his mother terribly. It’s balanced well, though, and never becomes too much. The caring people in Kai’s village help with that.

Being an American, there were some cultural things that I wouldn’t have understood without the glossary of words, and short explanations that were scattered throughout the book. I found it very interesting, and it’s always cool to learn about the way things are in other places.

The magic is more of the everyday kind than fire-breathing dragons, but it was magical nonetheless. This is a great book for upper elementary aged kids.


 Q and A with author Justine Laismith

– Who are you?

I grew up in Singapore and studied Chemistry in London. After my PhD, I worked in the pharmaceuticals industry. Since then I have also worked in the chemicals and education sectors. I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I was in industry, I wrote scientific papers. While I did write fiction occasionally, it really only took off around the time I returned to Singapore in 2010. Then I entered a local writing competition. As a winner, my children’s book The Magic Mixer was published. It’s a chapter book about two women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) At that time, I was already in the midst of writing Secrets of the Great Fire Tree. This was the encouragement I needed to keep going.

– When did you want to become an author?

I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven. However at school I never did well in languages or literature. When it came to choosing subjects, I would have had to make the difficult decision of choosing what I liked, or what I was good at. My teacher saved me from this. She had expected me to take the Art/humanity subjects because ‘girls are better at them, and boys are better at Math and Science.’ Right there and then I chose the science options to prove a point. Over the years, even though I pursued a science career, the enjoyment of turning blank pages to words never left me. I continued to write poems and stories as and when they came to me, but they were for my eyes only. I also channeled this into my work and wrote scientific papers on my research. After some years, I took a career break. With a break from science, the logical part of my brain took a back seat and let the creative side of my brain dominate. I started writing in earnest.

-What inspires your work?

My inspiration comes from all around me. I now pay a lot of attention to my surroundings and how it makes me feel. Then I challenge myself to describe it in words. When I watch a movie or show, I don’t just take a seat and enjoy the ride. I think about what makes me root for the characters, or hate them. I also analyse how and why two personalities who started off with nothing in common come together as the story develops. When I’m out and about, I take pictures of nature and buildings. You can check them out on my instagram account (www.instagram.com/justinelaismith). The collection might seem like random lots of pictures, but they help me crystallize my thoughts on the setting in my stories.

-Can you tell us how Secrets of the Great Fire Tree Came About?

I grew up in Singapore, a country proud of its multicultural identity. This exposed me to a plethora of languages and Chinese dialects. I’m also part- Paranakan, which is a unique blend of two cultures: ethnic Chinese who speak and practice Malay customs. To give my heritage its representation, I subtly incorporated these diversities in a story that’s supposed to be set in China. A native Singaporean might spot these ‘anomalies’. Nonetheless, because I wanted to make this story authentically Chinese, I carried out a lot of research. I enjoyed going right back to my roots. Ultimately, the Chinese diaspora’s experience of their culture will be different from the indigenous Chinese. Part of this research included a trip to China, where I made several notes about their lifestyles. I’ve documented them in a series of blog articles (www.justinelaismith.wordpress.com/great-fire-tree/setting).

What are you most excited to share when it comes to Secrets of the Great Fire Tree?

I am most excited about sharing the rural life in China. As I mentioned earlier, I see myself as a third-culture kid, who never really knew her roots. China holds a quarter of the world’s population and consists of over fifty ethnic minorities. Naturally, I cannot tell everything in one story, but I hope I managed to give a flavor of this fascinating culture. 

Middle-Grade Gems: Interview with a Sixth Grader

About six months ago, I interviewed my oldest about books he was loving at the time. He devours books (not literally; that would be cause for concern) and I love hearing his opinions. I figure the time is ripe for round two. So, here are his current favorites:

The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan

Why he liked it: “It’s a very good adventure and fantasy book with good characters. There’s a ton of books in the series so it doesn’t end super fast. There’s a lot of awesome action and it’s just a really good series.”

The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan

Why he liked it: “It’s awesome that it’s Egyptian: it’s got a good mythology behind it. It’s got some good comedy, but a lot of good action too.”

Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed

Why he liked it: “This book is full of great action, great characters, and a great story! My favorite character was Wyl Lark, a determined pilot with a knack for flying.”

Star Wars: Blackspire Outpost by Dlilah S. Dawson

Why he liked it: “This book is full of action, importance, and great, engaging characters that really drew me in. Ten out of ten.”

Loki’s Wolves by K.L. Armstong and M.A. Marr

Why he liked it: The book is about Matt, who is a descendant of Thor; Fen, a descendant of Loki; and Laurie, another descendant of Loki. Together, they must stop Ragnarok! My favorite character is probably Fen. He’s not like the other characters. He’s a bit more wild than the others, but he’s also a good brother, and I like that.”

Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger

Why he liked it: “One of my favorite things about this book was how believable the characters are. I haven’t read any other books like this. It’s really nice to see such a unique book. I really liked it.”

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe

It wouldn’t be October if I didn’t talk about Bunnicula. This was one of my favorites growing up, and I’ve passed the enjoyment down to my oldest. I’m looking forward to the day when my youngest reads them too.

Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery is an easy chapter book. It’s told from the point of view of Harold, a pet dog. He’s shaggy, lovable, and rather gullible. He lives with his family, the Monroes, and a well-read cat named Chester. One night the Monroes go to a late-night showing of Dracula and bring home a surprise: a rabbit they name Bunnicula. Chester is convinced that Bunnicula is a vampire, sucking the juice from vegetables, and that only he can save the world from the evil machinations of the vampire bunny.

This series, of which Bunnicula is the first, is very special to me. I read it with my sister when we were younger and it was a wonderful way for us to bond. We’re still very close to this day, and we talk about those Bunnicula books from time to time.

This book is hilarious. I have no idea how the authors managed to come up with so many funny situations, but it had me in stitches when I read it, and my son reacted the same way when he read it. He’s reread the entire series several times, and will probably read them again this month.

This book is perfect for reading aloud (maybe a chapter or two a day?), or for readers just gaining confidence in their skills. My oldest and I took turns reading pages aloud the first time he experienced Bunnicula. It is one of my favorite memories. There are illustrations every few pages, but they are few enough that children are required to paint the pictures in their minds. I highly recommend this book, and October is the perfect time for a not-spooky “spooky” read. Enjoy!

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

There’s a murderer on the loose–but that doesn’t stop the girls of St. Etheldreda’s from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce. 

The students of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home–unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong. (taken from Amazon)

                  This book is scandalously fun! The girls at St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls find themselves hiding a murder in an attempt to prevent themselves from being sent back to their respective homes. The girls have become incredibly close, and don’t want to be separated.

What makes this book such a blast to read are the clever, and ridiculously funny, characters. There’s “Dull” Martha, called that because she’s a bit of a spaz; “Pocked” Louise, the “scientist” of the group; “Dear” Roberta, so called because she’s such a sweetheart; “Disgraceful” Mary Jane, who has a penchant for flirting; “Stout” Alice, loyal friend; “Dour” Elinor, who was a little like Wednesday Addams dialed down; and “Smooth” Kitty, the leader of their little collective. While that’s a huge group of important characters to remember, their individuality made it easy to keep track of who was who.

Dour Elinor was my favorite character. Her doom and gloom attitude, not to mention her love of gothic literature, made her so much fun to read! I also enjoyed Stout Alice, although I felt bad for the situations she got pushed into. They were hilarious situations, though.

The way things quickly snowball, and the ridiculous events that kept escalating were incredibly entertaining. This book is a fast-moving romp, one that’s perfect for middle-grade readers, or for anyone who wants a giggle.

Fairy Tales for Fearless Girls by Anita Ganeri- ARC Review

This inspiring collection of 15 stories from around the world showcases narratives that celebrate strong, independent women. These heroines aren’t reduced to being wives or witches! They run free and possess the qualities we would hope for in our daughters and friends: self-confidence, strength, wits, courage, fearlessness, and independence. They live freely, happily ever after, without restraint or narrowly defined roles. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book, in exchange for my honest opinion.

I adore fairy tales. I grew up on them, and firmly believe that you’re never to old for them. So, of course I was excited to read this collection. Some of the stories I already knew, such as Feng Mian, the Head of the Family, but many were new to me.

Alas, while I liked this book, I didn’t love it. I think the reason I enjoyed it but don’t feel the urge to gush is simply the arrangement of the stories in the book. The first two or three are incredibly similar, which diminished my enjoyment a bit. If they’d been spread out among other, different types of tales, I would have liked each one much better.

There were a few tales that I felt were much more interesting than others: Unanana and the Elephant being one. It follows a mom, first of all, and she’s both clever and determined. I could relate to her willingness to do anything to protect her kids. I also really liked Tatterhood and Dacia, which teaches a lesson about the importance of personality over looks.

Where this book really shines is in the gorgeous illustrations. After I finished the book, I went back through just to see them again. Khoa Le captured the feel of each story in a fascinating and original way.

Even though I didn’t love it, this book is still a worthy addition to any fairy tale collection.

2019 Mid-year check-in

It’s been a pretty dang good reading year so far. Sure, there have been some less than satisfactory reads, but those have been few and far between. Being a newbie blogger (less than a year old), I’m still getting into my groove, but a mid-year post sounds fun and encouraging. So, without further ado, here goes:

According to the lovely Goodreads page, I’ve finished sixty nine books so far this year. I haven’t been counting books I read to my kids, or anything I’ve read for school, but it’s a pretty accurate count of my “me time” progress.

I’ve seen other posts listing top three books read, or even one favorite, but I don’t think I can possibly pick just one. Instead, I’m listing my top reads below, complete with links to any posts I’ve written. These are not in any particular order.

Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire by Ganesh Nair: blog post forthcoming.

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The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parr: you can find my blog post here.

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Two Like Me and You by Chad Alan Gibb: You can read my glowing review here.

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Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan: I waxed enthusiastic about this book. You can read my post here.

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Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky: Read the many wonderful things about this book here.

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For the Love of Books: Stories of Literary Lives, Banned Books, Author Feuds Extraordinary Characters, and More by Graham Tarrant: The only thing I didn’t love about this book is its name. Read my review here.

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Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This book has shown up on many lists of favorites I’ve seen, for good reason. Here is one more glowing review.

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Changeling (the Oddmire Book 1) by William Ritter: This book is fantastic and I loved every minute of it. Read why here

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The Return of King Lillian by Suzie Plakson: The one is wonderful! Its release date is next Tuesday and I highly recommend it. Read my review here.

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The Twisted Tree by Rachel Burge: This was a fun, spooky book. Check out my blog post here.

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There are several other books I’m looking forward to reading this year, not to mention any unexpected treasures that I’m sure to meet. Happy reading!

The Return of King Lillian by Suzie Plakson- ARC Review

Final Audiobook Cover
Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book, in exchange for my honest opinion. It will be available July 9th, 2019.

So, why the manly moniker in tandem with the womanly name?

“The Firstborn Child of The Emperor-King Inherits the Ruling Crown, the Title of Emperor-King and All Powers Thereof.” (Item 37, The Royal Manual) 

Enter Lillian, the firstborn child of said Emperor-King. Cast out of her Kingdom by malevolent forces, mysteriously waylaid by Destiny, the spirited, self-reliant Lillian sets off on an exuberant journey to find her way home and claim her birthright. As she travels through marvelous and mystical lands in search of her origins, Lillian encounters and befriends a kaleidoscopic cast of characters. Most of the tale is told by Lillian herself, as she chronicles her extraordinary adventures. (taken from Amazon)

Simply put, this book was marvelous. I loved every single word.  It is told in Lillian’s own words, written in her Book (I capitalize it because she did in the story). It’s the hero’s journey, of course, but told in a new and original way.

Having grown up in the Forest of Forgetfulness, Lillian naturally remembers nothing about who she really is or where she came from. One day Destiny calls and Lillian answers, traveling into the wide Whirld to find answers. But Destiny is a funny thing, and she finds much, much more than she expected.

Lillian is the best protagonist I’ve read in a very long time. She’s spunky and has a habit of speaking her mind- whether she should or not. I love that sometimes it gets her in trouble, but in other times it’s just what’s needed. The language used in her narration is absolutely charming and natural-feeling.

Another wonderful thing about this book are the life lessons Lillian (and the reader) learn along the way. They’re beautifully disguised as different adventures, and not as heavy-handed as lessons are in a book like Little Women. For example, there’s the Narcissus, the vicious creature that attempts to defeat Lillian by telling her all her “many faults”. The way Lillian wins this encounter is nothing short of brilliant- and a perfect, subtle lesson about appearances and self-esteem.

This book is at once sweet, funny, and empowering, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s perfect for older kids navigating that hard time between childhood and everything else, fantasy lovers, or anyone who just wants a good book. I highly recommend this one.