Reading: Looking Back at Books Read

I’ve always enjoyed book recommendations from other readers and writers. It’s fun to see what you’re reading, and it’s a great way to add new-to-me authors and books to my TBR. Last year, I logged in 59 books read over at Goodreads and you can see those books here: Barb’s 2020 Goodreads Challenge.

What I’m going to do is go back and pick a few of my favorite reads from last year, and post them here on the blog under Book Reviews. Up first is: SCRITCH SCRATCH by Lindsay Currie.

I read “Scritch Scratch” by Lindsay Currie in September 2020. Fantastic middle-grade ghost story!

The following review was written and posted to Goodreads on September 5, 2020.

I had been looking forward to reading SCRITCH SCRATCH by Lindsay Currie for months (I had my preorder in back in January) and I’m super excited to report that I loved this book every bit as much as I thought I would when I first read its blurb! I thoroughly enjoy a good spooky ghost story, and always have.

This is totally a book 11-year-old me would have devoured in one sitting (took adult me two because life/responsibilities) and then pre-teen me would have gone back at reread it a week later (I’m thinking I’ll do my reread in October on a dreary day while snuggled under a blankie & sipping some hot chocolate.)

[And did she actually reread it in October? Yes. Yes, she did, enjoying it just as much the second time.]

SCRITCH SCRATCH is set in my favorite city: Chicago! Author Currie gives a well-constructed story told from the POV of 12-year-old, budding scientist Claire who has a mom with a baking business, older brother who can be annoying, and a dad who’s obsessed with Chicago ghost stories. It’s her dad’s obsession and job as an author of historical ghost books and the operator of a ghost-themed Chicago bus tour that throws Claire into something that takes her out of her comfort zone. One night when helping her dad during the ghost-themed bus tour, Claire actually encounters a ghost.

When that ghost begins to haunt her at home and at school, she’s faced with a tough decision: tell her dad and suffer the world’s worst embarrassment when he makes a huge deal out of an actual ghost (something she does not want her classmates to know) or try to figure out why she’s being haunted by a little boy ghost dripping with water before the spooky stuff hurts her or her family.

There’s so much to like about SCRITCH SCRATCH–from the haunting scenes that took me straight back to my own kid fears of being alone in my room thinking I wasn’t actually alone to the family dynamics, on-point middle school anxieties and friendships, and Claire, a character that I genuinely liked and who kid-me would have loved to hang out with years ago.

Lindsay Currie has a distinctive writing style and I thoroughly enjoy her books. If you’ve not read her PECULIAR INCIDENT ON SHADY STREET, grab a copy. There’s even a nod to its ghost in SCRITCH SCRATCH. You can feel the love Currie has for Chicago and its rich history, in particular some of its forgotten history. I highly recommend SCRITCH SCRATCH for kids who love to read spooky stories and for adults too–totally a book that should be on the classroom fiction shelf and in the school library.

Book Review: “Amari and the Night Brothers” by B. B. Alston

book cover for Amari and the Night Brothers on e-reader

AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS by B. B. Alston officially ranks as one of my fav middlegrade books. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent reading it and when I finished, I wanted more—so glad it’s the first book in a series. Its title is listed by HarperCollins as Amari and the Night Brothers: Supernatural Investigations: Volume Number 1. 

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

There was much to like about the book, so here’s a bit of the what’s-what:

Amari Peters isn’t from a posh neighborhood and is on scholarship to her private school, a place where she’s bullied. Her older brother Quinton has gone missing, and now she’s in trouble at school for standing up to the bullies. Things are a mess. But when she receives a strange briefcase from her missing brother and a nomination for a place in the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, Amari goes on the hunt for Quinton. 

At the Bureau, she’s enrolled in the summer tryouts for Junior Agent and learning all about the supernatural and magical world that’s filled with magicians, dragons, fairies, sasquatches, and even talking elevators with their own distinct personalities. She’ll compete for a spot in the program against kids who’ve grown up in this fantastical world, while dodging enemies, and learning who she can and can’t trust. Not everything or everyone is as they seem. 

Amari worries she won’t have what it takes to make it through the Junior Agent trials, stand up to the bullies in her training class, learn how to use her own magic, and find her missing brother. 

So why did I like the book so much?

As I’ve said in my social media posts, I think AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS is immersive, imaginative, and thoroughly engaging to read. I was drawn in from the opening pages and had to read more. Amari is a kid I would have loved to have had as a friend when I was a kid. She’s smart, brave, compassionate, and fun. 

The magical elements in the book were fun and unique. I particularly fell in love with the elevators and I love Amari’s roommate’s inventions, especially the sneakandle. 

I most definitely recommend reading AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS by B.B. Alston. You can read more about the book here.

What Am I Reading?

I started reading The Shadow War by Lindsay Smith today. I’m about 100 pages in and loving it. This young adult novel is an alternate history story described as:

Inglourious Basterds meets Stranger Things in this dark and thrilling tale of power, shadow, and revenge set during World War II.

The first pages completely sucked me in and I’m anxious to see where it’s all going to go. I’ll let you know my final thoughts when I’ve finished. In the meantime, I highly recommend hopping over to author Lindsay Smith‘s site and checking out this book and her other work.

So Here’s What Happened

Last year at this time I had just been through the Pitch Wars Showcase and was beginning a journey querying my first middle-grade book. Then the pandemic hit full force. Everything seemed to come to a screeching halt. Like many of you, my focus shifted. There was so much uncertainty and worry.

I decided to stop querying my book and focus on work and family. In the interim, I sought and received editorial and agent feedback. With that feedback, I took the book back into deep revisions. It has finally re-emerged! Shiny new words, deeper POV, and even a new title.

Between last March and today, here are just a few highlights:

  • Joined a new critique group (virtually) with members from my regional SCBWI
  • Attended several webinars for writers via SCBWI (a great way to connect with others during the pandemic)
  • Completely rewrote my Pitch Wars book
  • Started writing an adult cozy mystery (my first!)
  • Outlined and began writing a new middle-grade fairy-tale retelling (I’m so excited about this one!)
  • Had the privilege to read several ARCs as well as beta reading some books that I can’t wait for you all to be able to read as well

During it all, I continued to write as a freelancer, although by the end of 2020 I had significantly scaled back the amount of work I contracted. I much prefer fiction writing and am all in on this publishing journey.

#PitchWarsParty2019

It’s here!

Today the 2019 Pitch Wars Mentee Class is kicking off our showcase party! We’ve all been working hard for three months making our manuscripts shine and now the mentors have submitted our official Agent Showcase entries, so it’s time to celebrate! The showcase entries go live on the Pitch Wars website on February 5. From the official website:

February 5-10, 2020: Agent Showcase

  • February 5: Adult entries are live on the Pitch Wars site
  • February 6: MG entries are live on the Pitch Wars site
  • February 7: YA entries are live on the Pitch Wars site

Today’s #PitchWarsParty2019 prompt is to introduce myself and my manuscript.

Hi, I’m Barb—MG writer, freelancer, avid reader, lover of the 3 C’s: chocolate, coffee, & cats. MURPH MEETS A DEMON is my showcase entry, a fast-paced contemporary fantasy about a 7th grader who learns she’s part of a demon-hunting family.

If you’re following me on social media (and you are following me?) I’ll be posting through Feb. 10 and you can get to know a bit more about my middle-grade book MURPH MEETS A DEMON.

Book Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

“Where do all these things start? Once upon a time. And you just . . . go from there.”

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Chapter 26

The beautiful cover of The Hazel Wood caught my attention, but the story by author Melissa Albert is what kept me captive.

The book falls into the young adult category with its 17-year old main character Alice. She’s lived a unique life with her mother Ella, never staying in one place for too long—the shadows of misfortune haunting each step and often the reason they must pick up and move on. Ella’s mother is Althea Proserpine, an author who’s only book is an out-of-print collection of odd fairy tales. Alice has never met her grandmother and her mother won’t let her read the book with its stories about the Hinterland.

Alice’s journey is dark and at times terrifying. She’ll lose her mother, her only friend, and even her life. Author Melissa Albert creates dark twists and turns throughout the world as we think we know it and the one just beyond, where the stories pulse with their own life.

I found The Hazel Wood to be immersive, imaginative, and a book I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys the darker side to fairy tales. There is plenty of intrigue and mystery, and while the pace isn’t breakneck, the story kept me turning pages long after my eyes begged for sleep.

You can find out more about The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250147905

The sequel to The Hazel Wood is The Night Country, and it releases January 7, 2020.

Book Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

“Where were you when the dead were following me home?”

Alex Stern. “Ninth House” by Leigh Bardugo (Chapter 6)

Her name is Galaxy Stern but she goes by Alex. A California native, Alex dropped out of school and left her hippie mom’s home to run with her sketchy drug dealer boyfriend. By the age of twenty, Alex has seen it all. Then things go from bad to worse—she becomes the only survivor of a brutal murder. And the killer is still out there. But she receives a special visit during her hospital stay, a benefactor that offers to take her away from L.A. It’s a chance for a new beginning, far from her old life. Of course there’s a catch.

Alex arrives in New Have to begin a new life at Yale. She’s been enrolled as a freshman, but her benefactors have also given her a job. Alex now is part of a mysterious secret society. Yale is home to eight of these active and highly-secret societies who regularly perform rituals of magic to satisfy their wants and needs. Her job is to work with the others of Lethe House to “police” the societies and make sure protocols are followed and campus and New Haven stay safe.

When a town girl is murdered, Alex finds herself on the hunt for the killer. She fights ghosts, powerful magic, and more as she tries to unravel this mystery of this murder as well as one that happened decades earlier. Everything in New Haven is connected. She also has to face the truth about her own past and special abilities.

I enjoyed reading Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. It is atmospheric and a suspenseful thriller with enough mystery that kept me turning pages. Alex may be flawed, but Bardugo had me rooting for her. Alex’s evolution throughout the story was nicely rounded and believable. There really was a lot to Ninth House and it’s well worth picking up. For me, it was a different look at ghosts and how they may interact with the living. I especially like the Bridegroom; as I don’t do spoilers, just take my word, he has his merits.

Ninth House had plenty of twists and turns, a couple that surprised me and that was fun. While the ending was satisfying, I do like that it’s obvious that this is the start of a series and I look forward to reading the next book.

You can read more about Ninth House at Leigh Bardugo’s website.

Pitch Wars: One Month Update

One month ago, I found out I had been chosen as a 2019 Pitch Wars mentee. It was a supremely exciting moment and for several days I felt like I had to pinch myself, because surely, this couldn’t be really happening to me.

But it was. And it is.

The last few months of the year always are busy for me as freelancer. My clients seem to have more work for me, often with shorter deadlines. I don’t mind and it’s something I’ve learned to expect, which means I build extra blocks of work time into my schedule to accommodate. 

Except this year, it’s different. Because: Pitch Wars.

I’m in the process of revising my middle-grade fiction “Murph Meets a Demon” with help from my mentor, Jessica Bayliss. So far we’ve video-chatted, and despite some technical wonkyness, we accomplished a great deal. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have someone like Jessica for guidance, to point out potential issues, inconsistencies in plot or character actions, and to just have that support. To have someone in your corner. That’s what Pitch Wars can offer. It’s the community—the mentees, mentors, and admin. What a fabulous group!

Now I’m extremely fortunate, I have an amazing writing community that I’ve been part of for a while. This includes my CP’s (critique partners) and writing friends that I connect with daily via phone, IMs, or social media. They are always there for me, and I’m so grateful. But, I’m also grateful to have my fellow Pitch Wars mentees. We are taking a very specific journey together and I have to say, our 2019 group is pretty awesome!

I can’t wait for their books to be out there and for everyone to get to read them. So many incredible stories! You’re going to be adding many to your TBR list. 

Also, if you follow me on Twitter, and you ARE following me right? 😏

Anyway, I’ve been sharing Pitch Wars mentee/mentor interviews. This is a great way to meet the different mentees and their mentors AND learn a bit more about their books.

Mine with Jessica posted November 22 and you can read it here through this link: https://pitchwars.org/pitch-wars-team-interviews-with-barb-hopkins-and-her-mentor-jessica-bayliss/

This post has rambled a bit, but that’s how it goes today. All day long my brain is always at least halfway with my book as I write other stuff, do chores, or grab 30 minutes for a walk outside on some of the last warm-ish days of the year. I’m really excited about “Murph Meets a Demon” and I can’t wait to share more with you. I promise, my next Pitch Wars update will delve a bit deeper into my book and my 12 1/2 year old MC: Audra “Murph” Murphy. She’s quite the kid!

I’m a Pitch Wars 2019 Mentee!

Last weekend something amazing happened.

Actually, many amazing things happened because I spent Friday through Sunday morning at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) Middle of the Map conference. It was a phenomenal conference and I hope to share a bit more about my experiences in another post.

Saturday night, we were just finishing a session of roundtable critiques, and it had been awesome. Great people, fantastic stories, helpful critiques. My phone buzzed and I saw I had an email.

From Pitch Wars. 👀 

My heart stopped. 💓 I debated about waiting and opening the email later when I was alone in my room. But I’m not good at waiting. I had to know. I opened. Read and scrolled. Scrolled some more. 

And shrieked. I might have happy-cried a bit too. Okay, yes, I totally happy-cried and my wonderful SCBWI friends gave me hugs and congratulations. I was in!

I had been chosen to be a 2019 Pitch Wars Mentee! https://pitchwars.org/pitch-wars-2019-the-mentors-picks/

And what is Pitch Wars and why is this such an exciting thing?

I’ll share with you directly from the Pitch Wars site:

“Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each to mentor. Mentors read the entire manuscript and offer suggestions on how to make the manuscript shine for the agent showcase. The mentor also helps edit their mentee’s pitch for the contest and their query letter for submitting to agents. Mentors can participate solo or pair up and co-mentor.

During the agent showcase, each mentee is featured on a post that includes their pitch and the first page of their manuscript. . . . Participating agents view the posts and make requests. 

Over the past seven years, Pitch Wars has changed many lives. Countless authors have been matched with agents and even gone on to book deals and successful careers. . . . But most importantly, Pitch Wars has grown the writing community to connect author with author, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie as we go through all stages of revision and publishing.”

You can read more about Pitch Wars here: http://pitchwars.org/new-start-here/

My mentor is the amazing Jessica Bayliss and I’m crazy-excited to work with her. She writes young adult thriller and horror. Definitely go visit her website here: http://www.jessicabaylisswrites.com/

During the revision process of Pitch Wars I will be working on my middle grade urban fantasy: MURPH MEETS A DEMON. I can’t wait for you to read it, and meet Murph—she’s sassy, kind, and has just learned the women in her family are demon hunters. 

I’ll be posting here as the Pitch Wars revision process moves forward; as often as I can. There is a lot of work involved in revising/polishing a book to get it ready for the agent showcase, but it’s so worth it.

There are so many people that have supported me along the way during this journey, and I’m extremely grateful. Thank you!

Keep an eye out for updates!

Book Review: The Daybreak Bond by Megan Frazer Blakemore

“Maybe fate and superstition were just our brains’ way of making sense of the world around us, creating a story to explain events.”

The Daybreak Bond by Megan Frazer Blakemore (Chapt. 5, page 34)

The Daybreak Bond by Megan Frazer Blakemore is the sequel to The Firefly Code, a middle-grade science fiction story set in the future. I love a sequel, especially when the first book captivated me with its story and characters.

Everyone is back in book two, Mori and her closest friends from Firefly Lane in Old Harmonie, the community run by KritaCorp. By the end of book one, we know new girl Ilana is a form of AI and the scientists from KritaCorp have decided to disassemble her. The kids decide to intervene and run away from Old Harmonie with Ilana on a mission to save her life. The Daybreak Bond opens with the Firefly Five outside Old Harmonie and on their own trying to make their way to Cambridge and the campus of MIT. At MIT, they hope to find Dr. Varden, the one scientist that may be able to help keep Ilana alive. 

I like stories where the characters/heroes are on a journey and must overcome obstacles, and The Daybreak Code delivers on that. Blakemore gives the reader five kids who leave their “utopian” community to brave the wilds of the countryside and rough cities where they know no one. On the 24-mile journey the face everything from dangerous dogs to electric fences and kids who know how to survive outside a KritaCorp community. Things get rough and not everyone comes through unharmed. However, the Firefly Five meet new friends and learn to trust others outside their group, while choosing to follow their hearts.

The Daybreak Code is a solid sequel to The Firefly Code, effortlessly combining lite sci-fi with dystopian elements and the universal truths of childhood friendships. I definitely recommend both books for middle grade readers and teens. As an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed the stories and as a parent it’s nice to have books that you can enjoy with your kids.

Be sure to visit author Megan Frazer Blakemore’s website for more information about her books.