Magan: Ink is Thicker Than Water by Amy Spalding

Book Review of Ink is Thicker Than Water by Amy SpaldingInk is Thicker Than Water by Amy Spalding (website | twitter)
Books Read by This Author: The Reece Malcolm List (Estelle’s Review)
Publication Date: December 3, 2013
Publisher: Entangled: Teen
Pages: 320
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: diverse families, adopted siblings, newspaper staff, older boyfriends
Format Read: ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley. (Thank you!)

Summary: Kellie’s always been a little uncertain of her place in life — she’s the underachieving sibling and the less attractive friend. When Kellie’s best friend, Kaitlyn, suddenly drops her for the popular crowd, and her older sister connects with her biological mother, she’s forced to discover who she is and what her passions are. And maybe, just maybe, that includes a boy named Oliver.

Yesterday in our Nailed It post, I teased you guys with hints of why I really enjoyed Amy Spalding’s secondary novel, Ink is Thicker Than Water. The family dynamics were absolutely one of my favorite aspects of the entire book. Kellie is a girl who doesn’t really know her place in her diverse family — her older-by-a-year, adopted sister, Sara, is extremely gorgeous and über smart. Kellie is most like her mother, but she’s scared that she won’t figure out who she is until much, much later in life, just as her mom did. And while he has the best intentions, her dad is always pressuring her to apply herself more and comparing her accomplisments to Sara’s. Her step-father Russell is a gem because he seamlessly fits into the family, but doesn’t overstep his bounds. Finn, Sara and Kellie’s half-brother, is this four-year-old ball of adorableness that everyone loves to take care of.

Is this family flawed? Yes. Do they have some issues? Absolutely. Do they fall-to-pieces because of them? Well… not necessarily, but things do get interesting when Sara’s biological mom emerges out of thin air. Everyone tries to give Sara the space to figure out her relationship with her mom without interfering, but just imagine how hard that would be without feeling like you’re being replaced. Kellie’s mom is the biggest proponent of personal space and there not being “gossip” amongst the family — she wants everyone to be open and honest, but when Sara begins distancing herself, no one knows how to navigate this bumpy road.

Aside from the family, there are some pretty strong secondary stories woven into Ink is Thicker Than Water. To make her dad happy and to quit being such a wallflower, Kellie immerses herself in the school newspaper, an activity she finds both a bit nerdy and uncool, but still intriguing. Meanwhile her best friend, Kaitlyn, suddenly transforms into this gorgeous babe that makes Kellie feel a little inferior, especially when Kait decides to try to connect with the popular crowd. There’s so much self-discovery woven into the pages of Ink; how does Kellie find her place amongst her family and how does she deal with the abandonment of two people she’s closest to — Sara and Kaitlyn?

Romantics, you may be wondering where the love interest comes into play. Oliver is a guy Kellie met several months prior, but didn’t keep in touch with. When they run into each other again at a local diner, the text and chat marathons begin. Except Oliver seems to come on a little too strong; his intensity level is set to high and Kellie’s a little unsure of how to talk with Oliver about his eagerness. While I am typically so invested in the love lives of main characters, I felt like something was askew with Oliver and Kellie’s relationship. I wasn’t fully invested, but maybe that’s purely because I was so concerned about how her family dramatics would work out. It’s really difficult when I’m extremely interested in one storyline and another doesn’t quite capture my attention in the same way. The romance was definitely there, but my heart wasn’t.

Despite the few things I felt needed to be finessed a little more, Ink is Thicker Than Water was an enjoyable read that allowed me to disconnect and relax in exactly the way reading should. And if you haven’t read Amy Spalding’s The Reese Malcolm List, you absolutely should. Both Estelle and I give it our stamps of approval.

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Magan: Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

Warning: There may be a hint of a spoiler for Heist Society (book 1). Proceed with caution.

book cover for Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter (website | twitter)
Series: Heist Society, Book 2
Publication Date: November 12, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 272
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: robberies, teenage robbers, Cleopatra Emerald, best friends falling in love
Format Read: Paperback purchased from Barnes & Noble.

Summary: Months after Kat and her team pull off one of the greatest robberies in the world, her team is reunited for another impossible task — to steal the Cleopatra Emerald. Though her uncle would disapprove of their actions, they move forward and create plans that take them all over the world.

Why, hello Hale. And Kat, too, of course.

You know that feeling when it’s just so incredibly nice to be reunited with characters you love unconditionally? Even when they’re acting in ways that may make you want to punch them once or twice so they stop acting like fools? I have so much love and affection for the entire Heist Society crew and couldn’t help but fly through Uncommon Criminals.

After pulling off one of the biggest robberies ever in Heist Society, Kat sort of disappears for a while. She disconnects from her friends and family and travels the world on her own secret mission. Of course for this tight-knit group, that doesn’t really fly. Hale is understandably irritated that Kat would feel she can do so much on her own. But what he may not realize is that Kat has a lot she needs to sort through. How does she feel about him — there’s chemistry there (obviously), but does she want to risk ruining their friendship by seeking something more? One thing I love about Hale is he just doesn’t deny his emotions; he doesn’t go through hypothetical play-by-plays of what-ifs. He has feelings for our beloved Kat and doesn’t withhold them. I find that so refreshing and am reminded of the beginning days when I first started dating Dustyn. (He told me on our second date that he loved me.)

Once Kat finally turns back up, she is approached about another big, big job. Stealing the Cleopatra Emerald is something that’s been attempted several times before, unsuccessfully. Why is Kat approached? Her uncle would flip his lid if he knew the risks she and her team are taking and the danger they face. Furthermore, the Emerald is thought to be cursed. Isn’t that enough to make anyone run in the opposite direction? But who can back down when it seems like the wrong you’re being asked to commit will right so many past faults and land the gem in the hands of the rightful owners?

The major appeal of Uncommon Criminals continues to be the around-the-world travel, the strong character connections with spot-on dialogue, and the increasing pressure to see if Kat and Hale can pull off the job they’re facing before time runs out. I so desperately want to circle every place they visit on a map and hop on a plane as soon as possible. The scenery is delightful and Carter does a fantastic job transporting her readers around the world, desperately trying to solve the puzzle.

I mentioned wanting to smack a character a time or two while reading. Sometimes main characters get a little bit of a savior complex and take on so much that it bears down on them. Understandably, Kat begins to feel responsible and guilty for a few things that haphazardly occur. While I may have been frustrated that she dragged her feet and couldn’t get over the punch to her ego, I find myself thinking her reactions were extremely realistic. Who wouldn’t need to grovel after you’ve fallen victim to … oops, not going to finish that sentence. So not going to be that spoilery person. Read it and find out for yourselves, friends!

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book review of Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch

Magan: Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

book review of Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert MurdochDairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (facebook | website)
Publication Date: May 22, 2006
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Pages: 275
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: girl playing on male football team, milk farm, sports and training
Format Read: Audiobook purchased from Audible.com

Narrated by: Natalie Moore

Summary: D.J. isn’t the smartest girl there ever was, but one thing she certainly knows is her way around her family’s farm. D.J. was a star basketball player until her family hit a few speed bumps and she was forced to quit the team to help out more. Her father’s friend, Jimmy Ott, recruits D.J. to train his lackluster quarterback, Brian, which leads to a surprising turn of events when D.J. decides to try out for her school’s football team.

Thanks to the fantastic Lori at Pure Imagination, Dairy Queen was on my radar. It’s been out in the wonderful world of published books for a few years (a 2006 release) so when I saw her audiobook review, I knew that a) I HAD to read the book, and b) I needed to use one of my audible credits to listen to it as an audiobook. I’m very new to the world of listening to books. In fact, this is only my second to finish. But before I begin chatting about the audio aspect of Dairy Queen, let’s get into the nitty gritty details of D.J.’s life.

Things you should know about D.J.:

  • Her family owns a milk farm. She single-handedly keeps it running and this has forced her to quit her high school basketball team and be pretty distanced from “normal” high school activities.
  • Her brothers are college athletes — athleticism runs in their genes. However, her family’s kind of at an impasse, feuding over something silly and mundane.
  • D.J. isn’t the smartest cookie; she failed her Sophomore English class because she couldn’t possibly keep up with the farm work and school.
  • D.J. attends Red Bend’s high school. Their arch-rival is Holly.

One day D.J. is approached by Jimmy Ott, the Holly football coach and her father’s best friend, about training Brian Nelson. Jimmy suggests that maybe Brian can do some conditioning and farm work so that he can get in better shape, build his character, and simultaneously lend a hand to a family who desperately needs the help. Brian and D.J. are practically complete opposites. He’s popular and well-known. D.J. has a bit of a reputation as a hick. Brian’s got the big headed attitude of an awesome athlete, but he’ll never become more than the backup quarterback if he doesn’t train more. D.J. has raw, natural talent, but the opportunity for her to participate in sports has been taken away from her.

There’s this fantastic dynamic between Brian and D.J. as they try to figure out how two rivals can work together. And you know, of course, there’s this amazing chemistry that flares up but both of them want to ignore. BUT Dairy Queen offers more than just a tense relationship. There’s so much happening with D.J.’s family; they don’t really speak or communicate well. Why is that? And why is D.J’s best friend, Amber, having such a difficult time with D.J. training Brian? Amber has always been a say-what’s-on-her-mind kind of girl, but the things she’s blabbing to D.J. are becoming hurtful.

So there you have it: a rocky friendship with a questionable best friend, a family that needs a little fixin’, and an awesome dose of two very unlikely characters spending tons of time together.

As for the audio, it was spot on. I loved the narrator, Natalie Moore. She really got into D.J.’s character and I think I probably laughed out loud more than I would have if I were speed reading through the pages. Moore captured my husband’s attention, too, as I asked to listen to Dairy Queen while we were driving to Florida. I had to pause the book and explain the characters, setting, and plot so he could follow along with me. (He was asking a million questions.) We both really enjoyed the story — not too girly for him and not too heavy on the football/farm setting for me.

One bonus? There are two more books following Dairy Queen. I didn’t realize there was more when I finished listening, but I’ve just added The Off Season and Front and Center to my audible shopping cart because I’m so anxious for more D.J. and Brian. (And the rest of the gang, too.)

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young adult book review of dirty little secrets by jennifer echols

Magan: Dirty Little Secret by Jennifer Echols

young adult book review of dirty little secrets by jennifer echolsDirty Little Secret by Jennifer Echols ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: July 16, 2013
Publisher: MTV Books
Pages: 288
Target audience: Mature Young Adult
Keywords: country music, Nashville, family drama, hot guitar player
Format read: ARC received from the publisher. (Thank you!)

Summary: After a year of breaking all her parent’s rules, Bailey is living with her grandfather. Though she’s not allowed to play her fiddle or even consider joining a band, her grandfather helps her get a job playing in a tribute band… where she meets the mysterious Sam.

If your interest is even slightly piqued by any of the below, I strongly suggest you purchase Jennifer Echols’ newest upcoming release, Dirty Little Secret. Just look at all that’s in store for you…

♥ Steamy scenes.
♥ Hot love interest.
♥ Strong-willed main character.
♥ A little bit of country music in the great city of Nashville, TN.
♥ A big helping of family drama.

After Bailey’s younger sister is signed to a mega-record label, her parents focus all their attention on making Julie’s career a success. This means removing Bailey from the music scene (even though the sisters used to be a duo, playing shows together all the time) so no one catches wind of the ripped-apart-sisters-storyline that could ruin Julie’s career before it’s begun. Bailey, over the course of a year, morphs into a girl that’s only an inkling of who she used to be. She chops her long, blonde locks into an asymmetrical cut and dyes her hair black; she begins dressing sexier and edgier than ever before. Bailey wants to be badass.

When her sister leaves to go on tour, Bailey is asked to move in with her grandfather. Though she’s been forbidden to play her fiddle or participate in any shows, her grandfather pulls some strings and lands her a job where she plays in tribute bands at the mall. Some days she plays with Elvis Presley, others with Dolly Parton. The day she plays with the Johnny Cash band, she’s challenged by the guitar-playing-boy who pushes her to play harder and better. The boy named Sam who she thinks she’s met before. The boy who invites her to play with his band… and for some reason, even though Bailey should, she just can’t turn down.

Oh, holy smokes, you guys. Bailey and Sam’s connection was on fire. These two, from the moment they met, were flirty and sarcastic. It did take me a minute to accept how quickly their relationship developed, but I’d consider that a minor bump in the road. (And I was only concerned because WHOA BUDDY was there a steamy, steamy scene pretty early on and I felt so protective of Bailey.) Sam’s charismatic and quite a charmer, but he also has a story that made me cock my head to the side and squint my eyes at the pages because I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure him out.

Sam’s suspicious storyline, plus Bailey’s family drama that was slowly unfolding, and the way these two seemed to magnetically be connected completely absorbed me. Another minor hesitation was that when the climax of the story arrived, I felt like Echols could have explored the resolution a little bit more. It felt a little like, “OH CRAP! THINGS ARE ABOUT TO GO DOWN.” … *fade to black* … All is better now. I fully believe Echols has the ability to dive into those tough situations and provide an example of how these messy moments can be resolved, but it just didn’t happen here as much as I wanted.

Despite my hesitancy with areas of the story, I believe Jennifer did a lovely job with the Bailey and Sam’s story. And heck, she even got me listening to country music. (I would have said pre-Dirty Little Secret that this was darn near impossible.)

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Be sure to check out the playlist for Dirty Little Secret on Jennifer’s website too!

Book Cover for Heist Society by Ally Carter

Magan: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Book Cover for Heist Society by Ally CarterHeist Society by Ally Carter (website | twitter)
Series: Heist Society, Book 1
Publication Date: February 9, 2012
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Pages: 287
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: robbers, world travels, ultimatums, falling for a best friend
Format read: Purchased the paperback.

Summary: As much as Katarina would like to escape the “family business,” she’s forced to rally a team together to help clear her father’s name of a crime he didn’t commit. So much for distancing herself and starting over.

Is there something about your family that you really wish wasn’t true of yourself? For me personally, my grandmother is Negative Nancy; I desperately want to be as positive and upbeat about things as I can be because the negativity really brings me down.

For Katarina, she wants to remove herself from the family business … of thievery. To do so, she’s enrolled herself in a prestigious boarding school and all is going well until she’s suddenly facing expulsion for a crime she didn’t commit.

Enter her friend Hale.

He framed Kat for the crime in order to pull her back into the business. Her father is being sought after by a super scary man who believes her father is the person who stole his private collection of priceless art. Kat knows there’s no way he could have pulled it off (especially not without her). Her uncle is warning her to leave things alone and not get involved in the situation, but there’s no way she can let this go.

Heist Society was highly recommended to me by Elena (of Novel Sounds). I was really in the mood for something different than my typical contemporary romance or angsty, issue books. What a nice and refreshing surprise this book was! As Katarina and Hale try to solve the mystery of who really stole the paintings, they hop from country to country. We get to see how intelligent, worldly, and connected these characters are. Sure, they’re in the business of stealing things, but there’s something intriguing about them too — Is everything they do bad? It doesn’t seem like they’re in the mafia with bad guys, so why are they stealing? What are they getting out of it? — I became absorbed in their world (and desperately wished I was the one hopping on private jets.)

And oh!… there’s Hale… who is smart and brooding and good looking. There’s some unfinished business between he and Kat, and we readers aren’t exactly clued into what their history is. (Read: there’s plenty of sexual tension.) He’s drawn to the world she was born into and she questions why he would want to be part of it when he can have anything else he wants (he comes from a very wealthy family). I appreciated how there was a lot of back story that left me itching for more details — I wanted to know everything I could.

Best of all? Ally Carter builds this amazing story that has your heart pounding as you fear for Kat and her team with each day that passes, but she doesn’t give you all the answers. She doesn’t fix everything or make anything predictable either. There are some loose ends that need to be tied up, some feelings that need to be sorted out, and maybe more things that need to be stolen. Good thing this is a series, huh?

On a final note, I have to mention that I began Carter’s Gallagher Girls series last year and didn’t find myself drawn into the story nearly as much as I did Heist Society. I saw so many strengths and so much growth in Carter’s writing since I read I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You. Definitely, definitely check out this series if you’re looking for something a little different with intelligent characters, strong writing, and a captivating storyline.

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Estelle: A Fool’s Gold Christmas by Susan Mallery

A Fool’s Gold Christmas by Susan Mallery ( website | tweet )
Part of the Fool’s Gold Series
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 350
Target audience: Adult
Keywords: holidays, small town, Christmas, family drama, dance!
Format read: ARC from NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: The town of Fool’s Gold will not let you forget the holidays are here — the events, the charity work, the cheer — it’s everywhere you turn around. But Evie and Dante refuse to fall into the Christmas trap, and instead, intend to get through the holidays together. (But you know… it’s not serious between them… not at all.)

I’m willing to bet I’m one of the biggest Christmas enthusiasts you will ever meet. I know I complain about fall clothes being out before summer is even half done, or the Halloween decorations jam-packing the aisles before school even starts… but I get a secret thrill when I see my first bit of Christmas merchandise or get my first email that tells me tickets for the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall will be going on sale soon.

What I’m trying to say is… why not read a Christmas novel in October?

Susan Mallery’s latest, set in the adorable, California town of Fool’s Gold, focuses on two people who resemble Scrooge more than Buddy the Elf. (What?! I refuse to understand this behavior!) Evie has unwillingly returned to FG after an unfortunate injury ended her cheerleading career, and Dante has no choice but to relocate to FG after his business partner (and Evie’s brother) settles down there.

While the novel switches between the two, the story mainly focuses on Evie as she struggles to come to terms with a mother who never seemed to want her around. Evie’s background resembles a Lifetime movie – the product of a one-night stand, a father she never knew, and a mom and brothers who never made her feel very welcome in her home. Obviously these factors have had lasting effects on her own life (she went off on her own pretty young) and also her relationships (never let anyone get too close!).

…I’ll be honest: I’ve heard a little about Evie in the other books in the series and I never bought her background story. It seems so far-fetched but hey, sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

Dante, on the other hand, loves how Evie looks in her dance teacher gear and has his own secret childhood challenges as well. They bond over their lack of love for the holidays, how Fool’s Gold turns into its own version of the North Pole, and even the different relationships they’ve had with their families.

A Fool’s Gold Christmas is a sweet romance sprinkled with just enough holiday cheer that it didn’t seem crazy to be reading it in the fall but could be equally fun when the snow is falling and you’re nursing a cup of hot chocolate. More than any of the other novels in this series, Fool’s Gold shines for all its merriment and the supportive and good-natured people of this town. I could absolutely picture all the antics in my head, and I wished I lived in a similar place.

Out of the three leading ladies I’ve met in Mallery’s books, Evie is hands down my favorite. She’s sarcastic, no nonsense, and she totally made me chuckle a few times. She was more than a caricature and more like your favorite down-to-earth friend. While Dante’s storyline was thin, he was no doubt super sexy and surprisingly thoughtful. I really liked watching these two get together and start to let their guard down for one another. (But beware, like any romance novel… something will come between them!)  The author also does a better job of incorporating past characters… it felt more natural in this setting and not as overwhelming. (Although, Evie’s mother, May, came off too mopey and emotional and instead of her monologues feeling sincere, they felt annoying.)

I think the smaller details in this particular book – a cat with personality, the big dance performance, and how the women come together time and time again – make this a favorite in the Fool’s Gold series for me. While it was just as addicting as the others, Christmas played a great supporting role and the characters felt more than just sugarplums dancing in my head.

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