The Great Greene Heist

I picked up The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson in March at my school’s spring book fair. I finally decided to read it this week. (I was in the mood for something a little lighter than the other books I was reading.) I finished it earlier today, and I now want to settle in for an Ocean’s 11 movie night. That’s a good thing.

If you’re looking for a contemporary middle grade novel featuring a diverse cast of characters, The Great Green Heist is what you’re looking for. If you want to read a book about kids scheming, using their wits, and getting one over on bullies–both kids and adults–this is the book for you. And, if you’re in the mood to read a light-hearted novel that has some marked similarities to the Presidential election, you’ve once again got a winner in The Great Greene Heist. (Note: This book was published in 2014. I doubt the author meant the book to so closely resemble the 2016 election, but it does nonetheless.)

Jackson Greene was one of the greatest con artists Maplewood Middle School had ever seen. Due to fallout from his last con, however, Jackson has put his conning days behind him…or has he?

When word gets out that Keith Sinclair, a nemesis of Jackson’s, is running for Student Council President, Jackson knows he has to step in. You see, Keith is running against Gaby de la Cruz, Jackson’s former best friend. Jackson knows Gaby will be a great president and run an honest campaign. Keith, on the other hand, is sure to use every dirty trick in the book–including blackmailing the principal–to make sure he wins.

As Jackson gets more proof that Keith is up to no good, he assembles a crew to pull off the greatest election showdown in middle school history. Their mission is to make sure Gaby wins the election and expose Keith Sinclair for the rat he is. If Jackson happens to get back in Gaby’s good graces in the process…well, that’s a bonus.

Will Jackson and crew be able to pull of such a complicated con? Will everyone stick to the plan? Who will win the school election, Gaby or Keith? Find out when you read The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. It was entertaining from start to finish, and there was a fair amount of geeky humor that I absolutely adored. (I’ve always wanted to learn Klingon, and this book may have given me a push toward making that happen.) All of the characters are smart in their own ways, and, in my opinion, use their intelligence for the greater good. Definitely Starfleet Academy worthy.

The book also invites discussion on the election process–be it school, local, or national–and what characteristics qualify someone to be a public servant. I definitely saw similarities between Gaby, Keith, and our two current Presidential nominees. I have a feeling other readers will as well. (Is there a real-life version of Jackson Greene behind the scenes of our national election? I guess that remains to be seen.)

I would highly recommend The Great Greene Heist to readers in 4th or 5th grade on up. Some of the humor–particularly the nerdier stuff–may not resonate with younger readers, but they’ll still find much to enjoy in the antics of Jackson and his crew.

For those who think this book is their cup of tea, there’s more to love. The second book in the series, To Catch a Cheat, is already out. Perhaps I’ll buy this one at my next book fair (which is coming up in November).

If you’d like more information on The Great Greene Heist, visit author Varian Johnson’s website. You can also connect with him on Twitter.

The Bronze Key

A word of warning: Proceed with caution if you haven’t read both The Iron Trial and The Copper Gauntlet, the first two books in the Magisterium series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This post might be a little spoilery if you’re not totally caught up.

This may not be my standard post. I’ve been awake since 3am, and I’m having a little trouble keeping my eyes open, much less stringing sentences together. I’ll do the best I can.

Yesterday, I finished reading The Bronze Key, book three in the Magisterium series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This book continues the story of Call, Aaron, and Tamara, three young mages trying to figure out this whole magic thing. They are students at the Magisterium, and Call and Aaron are both Makars, or mages with an affinity for chaos magic.

As The Bronze Key begins, Call, Aaron, Tamara, and their frenemy Jasper are being honored for their action against Constantine Madden, known as the Enemy of Death, and his minions. What most people don’t know is that the soul of the Enemy of Death is very much alive…and residing within Call.

Call worries that he’ll become an evil overlord one day, but that’s only part of his problem at the moment. At the party honoring Call and his friends, one of the Magisterium students is mysteriously killed and another attempt is made on Call’s life. It’s clear that someone is out to get him, but why? Does someone know his secret, or has he outlived his usefulness as a Makar?

Soon enough, Call and company are back at the Magisterium, and the mystery deepens. There is a spy in their midst, and it could be anyone. Call doesn’t know who to trust, and he even looks at his best friends with a certain degree of suspicion. He’ll have to figure out what’s going on fast before he–or someone else–meets a rather sticky end.

I’m going to stop there before I give too much away. It’s enough to tell you that some bad stuff goes down in this book, and it wallops you in the heart before all is said and done. I, for one, wish I could dive into book four, The Silver Mask, right now so that I could see where things go from here. Sadly, that is not going to happen.

Speaking of The Silver Mask, it is set to be released sometime in 2017, but I’m not sure exactly when. My guess is early fall.  The fifth and final book, The Enemy of Death, will follow in 2018.

For more information on The Iron Trial, The Copper Gauntlet, The Bronze Key and the rest of the Magisterium series, visit the official website. It’s got lots of interactive goodies that you may enjoy.

Note: The Iron Trial is a nominee for this year’s South Carolina Children’s and Junior Book Awards. In my opinion, the entire series is a good fit for fantasy lovers in upper elementary grades and up.

Leave Me

Note: Leave Me is not a book for kids or teens. This one is for the grown-ups.

I’ve been reading almost nothing but children’s books for the past month, so I decided to change things up a bit. Thanks to NetGalley, I was able to do that with Leave Me, the first adult novel by Gayle Forman.

Like me, you may know Gayle Forman from her outstanding YA novels–If I Stay, Where She Went, Just One Day, Just One Year, and I Was Here–but she’s writing for an older audience in her latest book. Leave Me, which will be released on September 6th, is a great read for anyone who has ever been overwhelmed by the worries and responsibilities that come with being an adult. For those who’ve thought about escaping and leaving it all behind. For those who’ve wanted to just think of themselves, even for a little while.

In Leave Me, readers meet Maribeth Klein. Maribeth knows what it is to be busy, to have every part of her day claimed by her job, her husband, her children, and all of the other things that come with being a working mother. Maribeth is so busy, in fact, that she scarcely has time to notice that she’s having a heart attack.

When Maribeth realizes what’s happening, she’s justifiably terrified, but she really doesn’t have time for this. Who will get the kids where they need to be? Who will ensure that the taxes are paid on time? Who will take care of her deadlines at work? Who will make sure things are running smoothly? This heart attack is inconvenient…for everyone, it seems.

After Maribeth is finally released from the hospital, she feels like those around her expect her to bounce back immediately. They want her to go back to being the same old Maribeth, the woman who takes care of everything. Her husband is eager to go back to work and leave the kids with Maribeth. Her kids want their mom to be able to read them stories, take them to school, and be just as involved as she was before. Even Maribeth’s mother, who has moved it to “help” while Maribeth recuperates, doesn’t understand that Maribeth can’t yet do the things she once did.

Maribeth feels overwhelmed by her frustrated attempts to recuperate and her family’s demands on her, not to mention the fact that she’s been essentially replaced at work, so she does something that, even in her own eyes, is inconceivable. She leaves. She leaves her home, her husband, her kids…everything. For the first time in a long time, Maribeth needs to focus on herself, and leaving it all behind is the only way she sees to make that happen.

While she’s away, Maribeth, now using a new name, reflects on her life and what led her to this point. She recalls both the good and bad times. She thinks about how much she still loves her kids, her husband, and her best friend. With the help of a new, enigmatic doctor, she finally begins to heal. She enjoys some unlikely friendships. And she finally begins to get answers to several questions that have plagued her for years.

As Maribeth gets better, both physically, mentally, and emotionally, she wonders about the life and people she left behind at home. How are they faring? Do they miss her? Do they hate her? Do they want her to come home? Is she even ready for that?

Soon enough, Maribeth will get the answers to some of those questions, and those answers may just make it possible for her to return home. Discover how leaving everything behind helps Maribeth find her way home when you read Leave Me by Gayle Forman.

I feel like I’ve given way too much away here, and I apologize for that. Sometimes I don’t know when to stop. Even so, I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for this book, and I hope you find it as enjoyable and thought-provoking as I did.

Even though I don’t know what it’s like to be a working wife and mother, I do sympathize a little with the character of Maribeth. Being an adult–at least a responsible, semi-functioning adult–is often overwhelming. The responsibilities and worries get to you, and escaping it all is the stuff of fantasies. I can only imagine how much more pressure a spouse and children can add to that. (Actually, I don’t want to imagine that. I can barely handle taking care of myself.)

Leaving like Maribeth did, an action many readers–myself included–will view as unthinkable, is also understandable, especially given the circumstances. How would you react in the same situation? Reading this book may make you think about that.

If Leave Me sounds like a book you would enjoy, I encourage you to pick it up on September 6th. For more information on this book and others by Gayle Forman, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with the author on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.


I’m usually not one to go for books with dogs on the covers (as I believe I’ve mentioned here before). I threw that out the window, though, when NetGalley gave me the chance to read an early copy of Wish by Barbara O’Connor.

I was first introduced to this author’s work when I became an elementary librarian back in 2010. Since then, I’ve come to rely on O’Connor to provide both me and my students with heart-warming, relatable characters and charming, well-written stories. Wish, which will be released on August 30th, delivers on all counts.

In Wish, readers are introduced to eleven-year-old Charlie Reese. Charlie believes in the power of wishes. She’s been making the same wish for a long time, and she’s convinced that it will come true one of these days. She is ever hopeful.

Due to several issues with her parents, Charlie has been uprooted from her home in Raleigh and sent to live with her Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus–people she’s never met–in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Charlie is not happy about this situation, and she makes her displeasure known to nearly everyone. She can’t wait to leave these hillbilly kids behind and get back to where she belongs.

Well, not everyone takes Charlie’s attitude at face-value. Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus are thrilled to have Charlie in their home. They treat Charlie like their own child and do whatever they can to make her feel welcome. There’s also Howard, a young boy who never lets anything bother him. He’s assigned to be Charlie’s Backpack Buddy on her first day in a new school, but he takes it few steps further and tries to become Charlie’s friend.

Charlie doesn’t quite know what to make of these people being so nice to her, and she lashes out at them quite a bit. She eventually comes to realize, though, that they’ll still be there no matter how mean she is to them. Maybe this place and the people here aren’t so bad after all.

As Charlie begins to adapt to her new surroundings, she also crosses paths with a stray dog. Charlie feels a kinship with this dog–who she names Wishbone–and she’s determined to give him a great home. Charlie knows that Wishbone longs for a family and a place to belong just like she does.

Days and weeks pass, and Charlie grows more and more comfortable with her new life with Bertha, Gus, Howard, and Wishbone. What will happen, though, when it comes time for her to return to Raleigh? Will she have to leave behind the family and friends she’s found in the mountains? Is returning home to her parents really what’s best for her now?

Charlie doesn’t know which way to turn, but maybe all that wishing she’s done–with an assist from those who really love her–will help everything to turn out for the best. Find out how one girl’s special wish comes true–but maybe not in the way she expected–when you read Wish by Barbara O’Connor.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. I laughed, I cried, and I reflected on my own childhood. Like Charlie, I spent my summers weeding the garden, picking vegetables, and going to Vacation Bible School. Those are experiences my students continue to have.

Then there’s the food. Aunt Bertha’s cooking in Wish makes me think of my mom’s cooking. Fried green tomatoes, cobbler, potato salad, biscuits, etc. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. (Seriously, there’s nothing like good ol’ Southern food.) I’m betting many readers will feel the same way.

Aside from summer life and food, Wish also addresses things like friendships (with both humans and canines), dealing with anger, and what home and family really mean. Charlie has to come to terms with all of these things, and she does so in her own special way. Those around Charlie help her to see that things may not always turn out like she expects, but that doesn’t mean that her life is lacking in any way. With friends and family who love her, she gets everything she ever wished for.

I can hardly wait to share this wonderful book with my students and teachers (which I guess is good since I go back to school tomorrow). I’m now even more excited that Barbara O’Connor is visiting my school in October, and I hope my excitement is shared by everyone in my school. I plan to buy a copy of Wish for all of my 3rd-5th grade teachers so that we can all share the love prior to this special visit. I’m confident that everyone who reads it will adore Wish as much as I do.

To learn more about Wish and other books by Barbara O’Connor, visit the author’s website.

Happy reading!


Anybody Shining

As another school year draws near, I’m once again scrambling to finish all of the current nominees for the South Carolina Children’s Book Award. As of today, I’ve managed to read 17 of the 20 titles, and I started number 18. Can I finish the rest before next Tuesday? We’ll see.

Anyhoo, I finished reading Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell, one of this year’s SCCBA nominees, this afternoon. Historical fiction is not typically my go-to genre, but I found this book to be a quick, moving read that I think many of my students will enjoy.

Anybody Shining takes place in the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1920s, and the language used definitely reflects the setting. To be perfectly honest, I felt like I was reading something that one of my older relatives could have written. I still hear some of the same vocabulary encountered in this book, and I’m willing to bet that many readers, particularly those who’ve grown up in the South, will be able to relate.

Arie Mae Sparks wants just one friend to call her own. She’s hopeful that her cousin Caroline, who lives all the way in Raleigh, will respond to her letters one of these days–and be the friend she’s always wanted–but it’s not looking good at the moment. Still…Arie Mae keeps on writing, telling her cousin about everything happening in Bone Gap, North Carolina.

Though Arie Mae despairs of ever finding one true friend, newcomers in her little town may provide some hope. These new folks–who’ve arrived all the way from Baltimore, Maryland–have come to the mountains to learn about the nearby settlement school. Almost immediately, Arie Mae sees the potential for friendship in Tom, a boy who has a special shine about him.

Even though Tom has a bad leg and can’t do everything the other kids can, he and Arie Mae form a fast friendship. He doesn’t care at all that Arie Mae is not as fancy as his sisters or that her family doesn’t have as much as his. He simply wants to hear her stories and go on adventures with her.

Arie Mae is all for seeking adventure, but she soon learns that Tom has more difficulties than just a bad leg. His mother warns Arie Mae that her new friend has a weak heart and shouldn’t exert himself too much. Arie Mae worries about this, but Tom is determined to do just what he wants. What’s a friend to do?

Through her continuing letters to her cousin, Arie Mae reflects on her friendship with Tom, her feelings about his condition, her family and their life on the mountain, and all sorts of other things. She thinks about what makes her world so odd to some and so special to others. Can people be true friends when they see the world so differently?

Learn more about the power of friendship, reaching out, and overcoming differences when you read Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell.

Like some of the other SCCBA nominees this year, Anybody Shining is an excellent book for exploring the concept of voice. Arie Mae’s voice, in both her letters and the book’s narrative, shines through, and I think readers will delight in how she views the world around her. I’m hoping they’ll even follow her example and write their own friendly letters, allowing their own distinct voices to shine.

To learn more about Anybody Shining and other books by Frances O’Roark Dowell, visit the author’s website.

I’m hoping to have a book trailer up for this book soon. You can check my school YouTube channel for that in the near future.

Serafina and the Twisted Staff

Warning: Read Serafina and the Black Cloak before proceeding. Spoilers ahead.

Late last night, I finished reading Serafina and the Twisted Staff, the sequel to Robert Beatty’s acclaimed Serafina and the Black Cloak. I kind of knew what to expect going into this second book, but I don’t think I was prepared for exactly how terrifying it would be. If the first book was dark, this one was pitch black. I read the bulk of this book at night, and I was jumping at every little sound I heard. (If you know me at all, this is not surprising. I’m a wuss.) At any rate, Serafina and the Twisted Staff definitely delivers if you’re looking for a good story and a good scare.

Our tale begins almost immediately following the events of the first book. The year is 1899, and the Biltmore Estate is beginning preparations for Christmas.

Serafina, now known to all who inhabit the Biltmore, is searching for her place in the world, but she doesn’t know exactly where she belongs. Is it with Braeden Vanderbilt and her pa at Biltmore? Or is it with her mother and the catamounts in the surrounding forest? And how can she possibly find a measure of peace when her home is once again in danger?

While patrolling the forest surrounding Biltmore one night, Serafina notices that animals are fleeing the area. What could possibly make so many animals behave so oddly? Serafina isn’t sure, but she thinks it has something to do with the strange man and his vicious wolfhounds who attempt to kill her. She’s saved by her mother and a new ally, but it’s clear that the forest is no longer safe…for anyone or anything.

Serafina knows the old man in the forest is not working alone. He comes onto the scene at the same time that a mysterious carriage arrives at Biltmore. But who is in the carriage, and what danger could this person be bringing to Biltmore?

As odd things begin happening at the palatial estate–and Serafina is blamed–she grows more convinced that danger is afoot, but she doesn’t know how she can help. Someone is trying to drive Serafina out and tear her from her one and only friend. But who? And why?

Serafina leaves Biltmore and tries to find some solace in the forest, but danger surrounds her on all fronts. She soon realizes that there’s no way to escape the horror unfolding, and she will have to do everything in her power to save both Biltmore and everything and everyone around it.

Who will join her in the fight to come? Who will betray her? And will Serafina finally be able to unleash her true self before the evil forces targeting Biltmore succeed in their ghastly mission? Read Serafina and the Twisted Staff to find out!

I’ve left a ton out of this post, but it would take forever to cover everything. I don’t have that kind of time (and I’m ready for my Sunday afternoon nap). Read the book for yourself. You can also check out the official book trailer below. It’s a little spoilery, but it covers a lot of what I’ve left out.

Given how this second book ended, I’m confident that we’ll see more of Serafina in the future. At this time, however, there’s no word yet on a third book.

For more Serafina fun, visit author Robert Beatty’s website or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

And I Darken

Yesterday, Kiersten White’s newest book, And I Darken, was released into the world. I was lucky enough to get an early copy via NetGalley, but I didn’t manage to finish the book until last night. You know how it is–vacation, work stuff, naps–all of that got in the way.

Anyhoo, I did finish this first book in a planned trilogy last night, and I can say with absolute certainty that it’s unlike anything I’ve read in recent memory. It is a batcrap-crazy ride, and I mean that in the best way possible. And I Darken defied all of my expectations, and I cannot wait to see what awaits the characters I encountered in this book.

So…what’s it all about? While some sources have And I Darken listed as fantasy, I wouldn’t be so quick to attach that label…at least to this first book. There is no fantasy involved…unless you maybe want to call alternate history a type of fantasy (which I don’t). This story takes place during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and it is the tale of the children of Vlad Dracul (the inspiration for Dracula, of course).

Now, in this telling, Vlad is not exactly the fearsome ruler of legend. He’s still in charge of Wallachia (part of Romania), but he’s weak and under the thumb of the Sultan. He essentially offers his children, Lada and Radu, as collateral to the Sultan.

Radu is a gentle, handsome boy who goes virtually unnoticed by others…unless they’re pointing out his apparent weakness. Forgotten by his father, Radu seeks solace in Islam and finds a measure of peace in his new circumstances.

Lada is fierce and sees being a woman as a liability. She knows that she is equal–if not superior–to any man. She is at once Radu’s protector and tormentor, and, even though she hates that her father has abandoned them to the Sultan, she remains loyal to her homeland of Wallachia.

Eventually, the siblings encounter another child who would become central to their lives. This boy is Mehmed, and he is the Sultan’s heir. Radu is immediately drawn to Mehmed, and the two quickly become friends. Radu is tormented by his feelings for Mehmed and confused about what those feelings might mean.

As for Lada, she soon becomes Mehmed’s confidante. He can drop his shields around her and simply be himself. Yes, he will be Sultan soon, but with Lada, he can simply be Mehmed. Lada resists getting involved with Mehmed. After all, attachment and emotion are signs of weakness. Her primary goal is survival…by any means necessary. As time passes, though, Lada and Mehmed grow closer, and Lada realizes he is becoming an essential part of her life. She does wonder, however, if she is equally important to him.

Set against a background of political maneuvering, betrayal, fighting, and even murder, Radu and Lada must decide what each of them are willing to lose to achieve their own ends. Will Radu be able to suppress his own desires and give up his only family to remain by Mehmed’s side? Will Lada abandon her goal of returning to (and ruling) her beloved Wallachia to form some semblance of a life with Mehmed (and his harem)?

Love and loyalty will be tested in these tumultuous relationships. What–or who–will be sacrificed in the process? Read And I Darken, the first book in The Conqueror’s Saga, to find out.

Like so many before it, this post doesn’t come close to capturing just how rich, dark, and satisfying this book is. (I almost feel like I just described a piece of dark chocolate.)

And I Darken is an intense read that makes a person think about just what they’d be willing to do to serve their own ends or even the good of those around them. Would you be willing to betray the person who means the most to you? Give up your family, faith, or future? Walk away from everything and everyone you’ve ever known? Kill? Those are just some of the things facing the characters in this book, and these situations and how they play out could lead to some very profound discussions.

Other discussions might come when talking about the characters themselves, especially Radu and Lada. In Radu’s case, there’s the issue of coming to terms with his sexuality in a time and place that didn’t even address anything other than heterosexuality. (Apparently, it’s okay to have multiple wives and concubines, but being gay is taboo. Another potential topic to explore there.) How have things changed since the time of the Ottoman Empire? Have things changed at all in certain parts of the world? Is being gay still considered being something “other” even in the so-called “modern” world? So many questions to ponder.

And then there’s Lada…

Lada is a warrior. She buries her feelings deep and displays very few outward signs of weakness. She is vicious and determined to get what she wants. She does whatever she must to survive and protect those she cares for, but she knows that her ultimate goals conflict with those of Radu and Mehmed, and she has to decide what to do about that. Lada is a complicated character, one who rarely even understands herself or her motivations, but she is absolutely fascinating to read about. Lada’s character could lead to many discussions on what it means to be feminine; how women have been viewed historically and in the present, especially as it pertains to fighting, defying expectations, and dealing with patriarchal societies; and even something like negative reactions when women put their own needs and desires first.

I’m curious to see what will happen with Lada in the next two books, and if she’ll truly become the brutal inspiration for a very different legend of Dracula. Should be interesting.

Speaking of future books, I have no idea what the title of book two will be. I’m assuming it will be released about this time next year, but that’s just a guess at this point.

If you’d like to learn much, much more about And I Darken, please visit the book’s official website. I’ve only explored it a little, but it has lots of information to offer, including character descriptions, a book trailer (which I’ve also included below), an author bio, and more.

Lastly, for those wondering if And I Darken is a good pick for the middle grade crowd, I would have to say no. While this book is extremely compelling, I think many of the themes and situations are more suited to a high school crowd. As always, though, read it for yourself to determine if it’s a good fit for your students/patrons.