Front and Center

Title: Front and Center (Book 3 in Dairy Queen)
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Publisher: HMH Books
Release Date: Apirl 4, 2011

After five months of sheer absolute craziness I was going back to being plain old background D.J. In photographs of course I’m always in the background . . .
But it turns out other folks have big plans for D.J. Like her coach. College scouts. All the town hoops fans. A certain Red Bend High School junior who’s keen for romance and karaoke. Not to mention Brian Nelson, who she should not be thinking about! Who she is done with, thank you very much. But who keeps showing up anyway . . .
Readers first fell in love with straight-talking D. J. Schwenk in Dairy Queen; they followed her ups and downs both on and off the court in The Off Season. Now D. J. steps out from behind the free-throw line in this final installment of the Dairy Queen trilogy.

I think the sign of a good series is when you are satisfied with the outcome and the final ending, but the sign of a great series is when you love the ending so much that you want to know what happens next even if the story is all tied up. That’s how I felt about this finale of the trilogy – there were no loose ends from the story, but I still have that anxiety of wanting to know more about what happens next with the characters!

D.J. is a fantastic character, and tells her story so well. I love her voice, and I feel as though her way of putting feelings into words is just amazing. Murdock perfectly describes exactly how D.J. feels so that as a reader, I’m right there with her. When D.J. is nervous and on the verge of breaking down, so am I; when she actually broke down into tears, so did I; when she was touched by little gestures or angry at her older brother, so was I. It was an experience reading this book, because I can’t recall ever being so fully embedded in a character’s head before. Murdock was extremely successful in this aspect of her series.

I loved the plot, too. D.J. continues to grow up, with her family and friends to guide her. She makes mistakes, gets hurt, learns about herself, and is emotional, just like any normal teenager. I love the realism and the way the relationships between the characters make the plot matter just as much as the characterization.

The romance part of the book didn’t exactly head where I had wanted it to, especially since I really wasn’t a fan of Brian at the end of The Off Season, but somehow Murdock pulled it off without getting me too upset. (That might be due to the fact that it didn’t upset D.J. overly much, either). However, D.J. has a future, that won’t be described to me in a book (at least not specifically in a book about and narrated by D.J.), so I can use my imagination until I can get my hands on Murdock’s book Heaven is Paved with Oreos about Curtis’s girlfriend Sarah!

I highly recommend this series – the books are relatively quick reads, but are excellentely written and take you on an emotional journey with D.J. and the Schwenks that you will not regret.

~Yours Truly

The Off Season

Title: The Off Season (Book 2 in Dairy Queen)
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Publisher: HMH Books
Release Date: May 22, 2007

Life is looking up for D.J. Schwenk. She’s in eleventh grade, finally. After a rocky summer, she’s reconnecting in a big way with her best friend, Amber. She’s got kind of a thing going with Brian Nelson, who’s cute and popular and smart but seems to like her anyway. And then there’s the fact she’s starting for the Red Bend High School football team—the first girl linebacker in northern Wisconsin, probably. Which just shows you can’t predict the future. As autumn progresses, D.J. struggles to understand Amber, Schwenk Farm, her relationship with Brian, and most of all her family. As a whole herd of trouble comes her way, she discovers she’s a lot stronger than she—or anyone—ever thought.
This hilarious, heartbreaking and triumphant sequel to the critically acclaimed Dairy Queen takes D.J. and all the Schwenks from Labor Day to a Thanksgiving football game that you will never forget
.

This sequel to Dairy Queen was fantastic! I liked the change of setting, considering that there were a lot less scenes that involved cows present and that there are only so many thoughts a person can have while milking. The book focused on other issues, including family, sports, injuries, love, friends, and much more that you’ll have to read the book to find out about.

The story kept up it realism, which I appreciated. D.J.’s family had it’s own brand of dysfunctionality, but it gave a better sense of them to the readers and developed their characters a lot more. I liked the fact that D.J. was essentially the same person, but her changing outlook on life that had started in the first book continued in this one. I also called the fact that this book had a lot more of Win in it, although it turns out that I like Bill better as an older brother. D.J.’s metaphors and comparisons also have a lot of relevance, again, and there are things that she figures out and puts into words that I know certain people could use to listen to and take to heart. She also grows up a lot in this book, dealing with her family and all the problems that they face; there are young people and even full-grown adults I know who wouldn’t not have been able to deal with her life in the capable way she did, despite the emotional roller-coaster she experienced.

The romantic aspects of the book were interesting, but a little predictable at the same time. I’m sort of glad it happened the way it did; without giving too much away, I hope my prediction for the next book and D.J.’s romantic interests are right and that things continue the way they seem to be heading. D.J. needed this romantic experience, as well as the strength-of-character experience that she both learned and gained from it.

I also liked the conflict that came up with football, and even though I wish things had turned out differently, everything was realistically set and I got seriously invested in D.J.’s future, all things considered. Basically, this was a fantastic sequel, and I can’t wait to start in on the third book; the author has done an awesome job, and I can’t imagine it getting better (even though I’m sure it will)!

~Yours Truly

*Note: Due to mild sexual content and profanity, I do not recommend this book to readers under the age of 12.

Dairy Queen

Title: Dairy Queen (Book 1 in Dairy Queen)
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Publisher: HMH Books
Release Date: April 30, 2006

When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said.
Harsh words indeed, from Brian Nelson of all people. But, D. J. can’t help admitting, maybe he’s right.
When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said.
Stuff like why her best friend, Amber, isn’t so friendly anymore. Or why her little brother, Curtis, never opens his mouth. Why her mom has two jobs and a big secret. Why her college-football-star brothers won’t even call home. Why her dad would go ballistic if she tried out for the high school football team herself. And why Brian is so, so out of her league.
When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said.
Welcome to the summer that fifteen-year-old D. J. Schwenk of Red Bend, Wisconsin, learns to talk, and ends up having an awful lot of stuff to say.

This book was fantastic. The author set a good pace, and the writing was awesome and very easy to get into with the first person POV. D.J. was a very likable character, and almost immediately I found myself rooting for her. The way that her story-telling develops the plot is intriguing and is definitely the hook for readers. She’ll say things describing a problem and then say, “but I won’t get into that now,” even though you’re dying to know what it is that happened to create that problem. D.J. is a character that strings you along, and you very willingly run to catch up to her – no leash-tugging necessary.

The other characters were great, as well: her mom, Brian, Amber, her dad, and Curtis. I liked Bill’s involvement, too, and even though I wish that we saw a bit more of Win, I have a feeling that he’ll have a more significant presence in the future books. Which is another thing I liked – even though neither Win nor Bill were physically present for most of the book, I felt like they were because of the memories that D.J. shared. I think part of the reason I wanted them in the story so much is because D.J.’s desire to have them back in her life was rubbing off on me, the reader.

The book is a very nice reflection of real life – full of imperfections and errors, but beautiful moments, too. The things that D.J., a relatively simple girl, saw, made so much sense. Her comparisons of people to cows, even though they weren’t exactly elegant (“what if a cow decided one day to climb a tree?”) made complete sense in context and was a perfect metaphor for certain life lessons, like Don’t follow the crowd, but in a way that made the reader want to hear it and make that connection. So although this book was probably aimed at readers a bit younger than me (maybe ages 13-15) it really is a great book for older readers, too.

I’m very excited to start reading the second book, which I actually have right next to me, so I’ll be posting another review soon! I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in contemporary stories, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

~Yours Truly

*Note: Due to mild sexual content, I do not recommend this book to readers under the age of 12.

Gathering Darkness

Title: Gathering Darkness (Book 3 in Falling Kingdoms)
Author: Morgan Rhodes
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: January 1, 2014

War brought them together. Love will tear them apart.
 Alliances form across Mytica and beyond as royals and rebels alike race to hunt down the Kindred—the four elemental crystals that give their owners god-like power. The stakes have never been higher for Magnus and Cleo, who are brought together by a life or death decision that will lock their fates and change the course of the kingdom forever.

 THE REBELS forge ahead. Princess Cleo slays with sweetness—and a secret that might control Lucia’s magic—as she and vengeful Jonas lead the hunt for the all-powerful Kindred.
 THE KRAESHIANS join the fray. Ashur and Amara, the royal siblings from the vast kingdom across the Silver Sea, prove to be just as ruthless as they are charming as they manipulate their way to victory.
THE WATCHERS follow Melenia out of the Sanctuary. They ally, in the flesh, with King Gaius, who vows to use Lucia’s powers to unveil the Kindred.
And which side will Prince Magnus choose, now that everyone he’s been betrayed by everyone he’s ever loved?
The only certainty in the dark times is that whoever finds the magic first will control the fate of Mytica… but fate can be fickle when magic is involved.

As the third book in the series, everything about the first and second is just as true about this one. It is a breathtakingly insane journey back and forth between the three tenuously united countries and the four inexplicably connected main characters. The internal struggle within the relationships they have formed even in brief meetings has grown significantly throughout the series. Magnus is finally learning the truth about himself, parts of his character that I’ve realized long before he was willing to say it aloud; Cleo has realized that things aren’t always as black and white as she might wish they were, and has grown up a lot; Jonas is figuring out the difference between love, friendship, and alliances; and Lucia, despite her struggles with trust and finding her purpose, has become independent and strong, although perhaps not in a way that is very comforting to readers. The mysteries surrounding Mytica and the Kindred are slowly but shockingly being revealed, and I hope that the insanity never stops; it certainly makes for a fantastical and surprising story.

The amount of violence has only increased in this series; I’ve found that very few characters make it through an entire book, so it’s heartbreaking when the author tricks you into believing that perhaps this one that you like will live, when in reality he/she gets killed off in the next chapter. “Expect the unexpected” is definitely a good rule for this book, as well as the idea that a character will serve a purpose and then die after that purpose is fulfilled. Again, shock value is huge in this series. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gasped or started to cry due to the death of yet another character that I could easily see a future for. This emotional investment, along with the intellectual challenge of keeping all the facts of who knows what in the story straight, has kept me excited to know the end – I can’t wait for the next book!

~Yours Truly

*Note: this book is not recommended for readers under the age of 13 due to mild sexual content, violence, and profanity.

Rebel Spring

Title: Rebel Spring (Book 2 in Falling Kingdoms)
Author: Morgan Rhodes
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: November 27, 2013

The road to power…is paved with blood and magic.
Cleo
is now a prisoner in her own palace, forced to be an ambassador for Mytica as the evil King Gaius lies to her people.
Magnus stands to eventually inherit the new kingdom but is still obsessed with his feelings for his adopted sister, Lucia.
Lucia is haunted by the outcome of the breathtaking display of magic that allowed her father to capture the kingdoms.
Jonas watched at the palace gates a troop of rebels behind him, waiting for him to tell them how he plans to overtake King Gaius.

After a bloody siege, Auranos has been defeated, its young queen orphaned and dethroned. The three kingdoms—Auranos, Limeros, and Paelsia—are now unwillingly united as one country called Mytica. But the allure of ancient, dangerous magic beckons still, and with it the chance to rule not just Mytica, but the whole world over….
At the heart of the fray are four brave young people grappling for that magic and the power it promises. For Cleo, the magic would enable her to reclaim her royal seat. In Jonas’s hands, it frees his nation, and in Lucia’s, it fulfills the ancient prophecy of her destiny. And if the magic were Magnus’s, he would finally prove his worth in the eyes of his cruel and scheming father, King Gaius, who rules Mytica with a punishing hand.
When Gaius begins to build a road into the Forbidden Mountains to physically link all of Mytica, he sparks a long-smoking fire in the hearts of the people that will forever change the face of this land. For Gaius’s road is paved with blood, and its construction will have cosmic consequences.

This book was even better than the first! Everything in it – the new and unrequited love, the betrayal, the violence – was magnified, and there were plot twists that I did not see coming (cough cough, Queen Althea, the new royal visitor, the new thing with Lucia and Cleo, just to name a few). The characters were a lot more developed, the story kept up the pace, and there were so many tense moments where I wasn’t sure who was going to survive! It reminded me of The Hunger Games with the introduction of characters with important roles but their just as quick death. It may have seemed arbitrary at certain points, but it certainly kept me on my toes!

The only negative point I have to say about this installment of the series were that certain plot points were a little sudden and undeveloped. There were a few short chapters whose only purpose seemed to be these really short aspects of the story that aren’t at all unimportant,  but there’s no lead up to it even though it has a huge effect on other characters.

I really liked how many different characters got to have a say in this book. It wasn’t just Magnus, Lucia, Jonas, and Cleo telling the story; Gaius, Althea, Lysandra, and others also had their parts to tell so the reader got a fuller, more omniscient version than the characters. This really heightened the tension when the reader knows something the other characters don’t! There were a ton of places in the story, too, where I was just as clueless as them, though, so this back-and-forth, instead of being annoying, merely kept me interested in the book.

If you enjoyed the first book, then this second will be even better; I’m on my way to read the third!

~Yours Truly

*Note: this book is not recommended to readers aged 12 & under due to violence, mild sexual content and some profanity.

Falling Kingdoms

Title: Falling Kingdoms (Book 1 in Falling Kingdoms)
Author: Morgan Rhodes
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: January 1, 2012

It’s the eve of war…. Choose your side.
Princess: Raised in pampered luxury, Cleo must now embark on a rough and treacherous journey into enemy territory in search of magic long thought extinct.
Rebel: Jonas, enraged at injustice, lashes out against the forces of oppression that have kept his country cruelly impoverished. To his shock, he finds himself the leader of a people’s revolution centuries in the making.
Sorceress: Lucia, adopted at birth into the royal family, discovers the truth about her past—and the supernatural legacy she is destined to wield.
Heir: Bred for aggression and trained to conquer, firstborn son Magnus begins to realise that the heart can be more lethal than the sword….

In the three kingdoms of Mytica, magic has long been forgotten. And while hard-won peace has reigned for centuries, a deadly unrest now simmers below the surface.
As the rulers of each kingdom grapple for power, the lives of their subjects are brutally transformed… and four key players, royals and rebels alike, find their fates forever intertwined. Cleo, Jonas, Lucia, and Magnus are caught in a dizzying world of treacherous betrayals, shocking murders, secret alliances, and even unforeseen love.
The only outcome that’s certain is that kingdoms will fall. Who will emerge triumphant when all they know has collapsed?

I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years since this book was first released. I remember reading so many good reviews, seeing the awesome cover, and putting it on my TBR list immediately. And now that I’ve finally read it, I am just amazed at everything about it!

The writing style was really cool – the third person but from the point of view of the four main characters was really cool, but the unique voice and insight into each character was what truly enraptured me. Every scene showed more about their personalities and unique situations, making it so hard to be emotionally invested in them when they were all fighting against each other. This was an aspect of the book that surprised me because usually there’s two sides in a story – good and evil, basically. But this book added in a third side to twist it all up and complicate it. This made for an exciting, unpredictable, and unique story that hooked me in for the entirety of the book and triggered this insane urge I have for wanting the second book in my hands now!

I just couldn’t root for one character. I also couldn’t root for just one character. Each of them tugged on a different heartstring, and there was a certain shock at seeing them and their outer personas through the eyes of the other characters versus their inner feelings that were revealed during their own chapters. It was also emotionally challenging due to the series of realistic but heartbreaking events of the story. I’ll warn everyone now, even though this book was fantastic, it is not for the reader looking for an uplifting, encouraging story. It is a story of hardship, loss, struggle; a tale of self-discovery and getting through the toughest times imaginable. It starts and ends with violence, filling in the middle with difficult journeys, both physically and spiritually. It was certainly an unusual book in this regard, but it just made me want to read the second book even more!

The story and the characters just meshed really well. Although I’m not usually a fan of multiple narrators or so many main characters, it really worked in this story. The author was focused on all the right parts of the plot to make me interested and to keep up the pace. It started out really fast, and slowed down a little, but it was never actually slow. The pace picked up again towards the middle and end, and I really hope it continues in the next book! I highly recommend this story to any reader over the age of 13 looking for an intriguing, one-of-a-kind fantasy tale.

~Yours Truly

*Not recommended to kids ages 12 & under due to violence and some vague sexual content.

On the Run

Title: On the Run (Book 1 in The Moriya Chronicles)
Author: I-Lanaa Twine
Publisher: self-published
Release Date: August 31, 2014
Ebook

Isn’t it amazing how in a mere split second, the very essence of who you are can change forever? That in just an instant your entire life can be ripped to shreds?
One night, three years ago, my mother was torn from us. Gone, without a trace. And just like that, nothing was ever the same.
Thrust into a world of darkness and danger, my father and I were forced to flee a past that haunted us and the beasts that hunted us.
As the black walls of despair closed all around me, I felt eternally lost…
Until I found him. And he helped me find myself.
Derrick Harris was a beacon of the purest light, guiding me straight into the warmth of his heart.
But sometimes the past has a way of finding you. Lies have a way of catching up to you. And secrets never seem to stay secret for very long.
Now all that I hold dear is at stake, and I must fight to survive, or my entire world will crumble before my eyes.
I am on the run…

I’m torn on how I feel about this book. For the most part, it was good – I liked Jade, the main character and narrator, and the majority of the plot. The prologue was pretty fantastic; I liked how it wasn’t told from Jade’s POV. It made it more unique, as well as intriguing. The mystery of how everything fits together started almost immediately because of this. I also enjoyed Jade’s father. He was a great character – a sweet person, but not without his own faults and blemishes.

There were also some parts of the book that I thought were dangerously close to being too much, or sometimes even crossed that line but then regressed so that I wanted to continue reading. For example, with the mystery of Jade’s necklace and the spirit that she dreams. Some of the intrigue that came with that was great – figuring out the whole Varanthia thing and connected some dots here and there. But the fact that it was almost constant, and the transition between Jade’s dreams and reality were so abrupt, that occasionally I got annoyed because it appeared that the author didn’t care about that aspect; she was just throwing it in instead of tying it into the story, and that happened with a few other events, too.

I also read another review of this book by Jackie G. Mills, and I couldn’t help but agree that I didn’t really like Derrick. From the synopsis, the book seems like more of a romance than it really is, and Derrick wasn’t all that great. I also agree with her that the story didn’t really hold my interest until Nuption and Lathos. However, even that was written with choppy parts here and there, so I still didn’t love the book.

What I did like, though, was that the author incorporated several elements into the story: there was a little romance, a little sci-fi, and a lot of action/adventure. There are some grossly descriptive parts with some violence, but for the most part, this was the most balanced part of the novel. I also enjoyed the epilogue; not knowing what would happen next, being kept in the dark about so much, and figuring out the new narrator, was all fun and made me want to read the next book, even though this novel would not break the top 100 books I’ve ever read.

~Yours Truly

*Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My views on the book are entirely my own (except where outside influence by another review has been noted) and have not been influenced by the author or publisher in any way.