Review: The Devil’s Backbone by Rae Ann Parker (@raeannparker)

Complimentary copy received from the author in exchange for my honest review

Rae Ann Parker is one of the lovely Nashville authors I met through SCBWI. She has always been kind and generous in all my dealings with her. She also makes some killer iced coffee. So when she asked if I’d be interested in reviewing her debut, The Devil’s Backbone, a middle grade historical mystery centered around the Natchez Trace Parkway, of course I was happy and excited to read.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

David Baxter takes the blame for the graffiti on the school gym doors to keep his friend out of trouble and earns a three-day suspension. His dad, the juvenile judge, forces him to go on a roadtrip to redemption on the Natchez Trace Parkway. What his dad doesn’t know is that David meets a ghost carrying the last letter of Meriwether Lewis – the piece of evidence that may solve the 200-year-old mystery of Lewis’s death. Thanks to the ghost, David just might figure out how to relate to his dad and forgive his wayward mom.

My Thoughts

The Devil’s Backbone is a quick, easy read, with clean writing and a unique concept. David Baxter is an instantly likable character, and I happily followed him through the pages of his story as he traveled down the Natchez Trace. The pace is steady throughout, and kept me engaged as I learned more about David, as well as the historical mystery he sets out to solve.

Speaking of which, the mystery is actually fairly light, as both the letter-carrying ghost and the unsolved death of Meriwether Lewis serve more as backdrops to David’s own personal journey than the central force of the story. It’s not all dropped clues and careful deduction; the ghost and David work through their questions and what needs to be done in a straightforward and simple manner. The ghost adds a bit of fun and intrigue to the story, without making it the slightest bit scary or spooky. The real meat of the narrative is David’s relationship with his father, and his feelings about his relationships. Through the course of the story, David realizes what’s truly important to him, and is able to be more honest with his father about his concerns and choices. 

Rae Ann’s love of the Natchez Trace Parkway is evident in the pages of The Devil’s Backbone. The Trace becomes almost as much a character as David and the others. Through a journal David keeps, she manages to weave historical facts into the story that highlight interesting and curious pieces of the Trace’s past. The way the modern story intertwines with the historical trivia would make this book an excellent addition to any middle school teacher’s classroom library. As a Tennessee resident myself, I found myself itching to travel the Trace, to experience the same beautiful scenery and bits of history that David discovers as he travels with his father.

Overall, The Devil’s Backbone was an enjoyable, educational book, uncovering some lesser-known pieces of American history through the eyes of its relatable teen protagonist. I’d recommend it especially to teens (and teachers and parents!) in Tennessee and the surrounding states, but I’d happily recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and a love of compelling characters.

Review: The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen (@nielsenwriter @Scholastic)

It’s no big secret that I loved the first book of Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince. So I was thrilled to finally get my hands on the sequel, The Runaway King. But would it be able to stand up to its predecessor? After all, one of my favorite things about The False Prince was the amazing twist ending, and I wasn’t sure if a sequel could hold up without a similar lightning-strike moment. Then again, if the characters and the story and the writing were still strong, did it need a twist? Maybe not.

Warning – this review will contain spoilers from The False Prince. Proceed at your own risk.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?

My Thoughts

The Runaway King picks up almost immediately after The False Prince ends, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good because it plunges you straight into the action (and there is quite a bit of action in this one!); bad because if you’re like me and haven’t read TFP in nearly a year, it can be a little confusing to hit the ground running without time to catch your bearings. I might have had to go brush up on the last couple chapters of TFP before continuing on. But that’s okay. You know why? Because the last couple chapters of TFP are awesome.

All the big players from TFP are back in some capacity, as friends and conspirators and spies and villains. Jaron is still the same dangerously cocky youth pulled from the streets, but with a big exception: he is now the king. And the fate of his kingdom rests on his shoulders.

As in TFP, Jaron’s narration is the main driver of the story. If he was a girl, I’d say he’s sassy. Actually, who cares. He’s sassy. He is a swaggering, secretive, sassy boy with a savior complex and trust issues. He comes brimming with strengths and shortcomings, and a lot of the time, he is his own worst enemy. His convoluted plan probably does not need to be nearly as convoluted as it is, but since he’s determined not to show his hand to anyone — even those that could help him — he sets himself up for difficulty. It can be frustrating, especially as other characters are telling him this is a fault and he’s refusing to listen — but at the same time, it’s incredibly true to the character. Everything he does makes sense to him, and that’s the most I can ask from any character in any story.

The supporting characters came and went throughout the story. Probably one of the most important was Imogen, his friend from TFP. Her moments are some of my favorites, as she is smart and strong, yet isn’t afraid to use her perceived weakness as a female to her advantage. Her friendship with Jaron isn’t fair and isn’t balanced, and really, he doesn’t deserve her. Yet she’s there anyway, and he appreciates her for it, in his own way.

The action is plentiful, and there’s never that long of a break between tussles and sword fights. Jennifer Nielsen’s depiction of the action is vivid and allowed me to play the fights out in my head like a movie, which isn’t easy. I did find a couple of the scenes toward the end a bit far-fetched, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a bit. The things Jaron does are not impossible — I don’t think — just improbable. I can deal with improbable.

There’s only one character motivation head-scratcher moment, and it’s toward the end. A character switches sides, and it seemed a little too easy. It wasn’t nearly as large a twist as the first book in the series, but it was still unexpected, and I’m not sure it was foreshadowed sufficiently. It’s a fine line to walk, revealing enough details to make the twist believable, without tipping your hand. I feel like this book was almost there, but not quite.

However, those minor complaints aside, I still very much enjoyed this story. It’s the kind of book and series I imagine would get kids — boys and girls alike — excited about reading. It’s clever and funny and has enough action and heart to interest a wide variety of readers, with a fabulously well-developed protagonist and intelligent plotting. Whenever the conclusion to The Ascendance Trilogy hits shelves, you can bet I’ll be at the front of the line.

Review + GIVEAWAY: The 13th Sign by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb (@ktubb @MacKidsBooks)

Received a complimentary copy from the author as part of her blog tour.

I met Kristin at a blogger/author dinner a couple months back, as she is yet another Nashville author (I know that one day I will probably tire of saying “WHO KNEW SO MANY AWESOME AUTHORS LIVED IN NASHVILLE?” but today is not that day). I hadn’t read any of her books yet, as I don’t read a lot of middle grade, but Kristin was so much fun that I decided to make an exception for her first fantasy, The 13th Sign. I went to her launch party on Friday, and judging by the fabulous turnout, I’m not alone in thinking this book was a lot of fun.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

What if there was a 13th zodiac sign?

You’re no longer Sagittarius, but Ophiuchus, the healer, the 13th sign.

Your personality has changed. So has your mom’s and your best friend’s.

What about the rest of the world?

What if you were the one who accidentally unlocked the 13th sign, causing this world-altering change—and infuriating the other 12 signs?

Jalen did it, and now she must use every ounce of her strength and cunning to send the signs back where they belong. Lives, including her own, depend on it.

My Thoughts

Okay, I feel like this book needs a few things going into it. You either need to really believe in astrology — like, a whole lot — or, if you don’t believe in it, you have to be completely willing to thoroughly suspend your disbelief. I fall into the latter category. But how many fantasy worlds do we really believe are actually real? Um, if you’re like me, none of them. So I was totally willing to jump into the fantasy world of this book, where personalities really are determined by your Zodiac sign, even though I personally don’t buy into it in the real world.

You also need to remember it’s a middle grade, not YA. And as such, it reads like a book for 13-year-olds, not 18-year olds. And that’s what it’s supposed to do. I’ve read some reviews that seemed to want it to skew older, and that’s just not its purpose. It’s the whole “don’t judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree” thing.

Disclaimers aside, I thought this book was a lot of fun. I honestly have never paid much attention to the Zodiac — I couldn’t even tell you any of the defining personality traits of my sign (Virgo) — but as each of the signs manifested and challenged Jalen, I found their different personalities really interesting. I also loved the New Orleans setting (because who doesn’t love a New Orleans setting?) and the non-stop action.

I did think some of the challenges Jalen faced were a bit too easy, and the solutions a tad bit contrived, but again, had to remind myself that given the intended audience, they were fitting. And I liked the “altered” version of some of the characters’ personalities better than the original versions. Which…that could be a pro or a con, depending on your perspective. I enjoyed the creativity, the little puzzles Jalen had to solve, and just the overall charm of the book. There was just something fun and refreshing about it.

By far, my favorite thing about this book was the break-neck pace. It honestly had no good stopping point, which is why I read the whole thing in a day. When Kristin saw I had finished it the day after receiving it in the mail, she said, “Wow, you’re a fast reader!” My response: “Well, you didn’t give me a good place to take a break!” The characters literally spend the entire book running and fighting. It’s crazy.

If you want a fun and original fast-paced middle grade fantasy, this could be the book for you.

And now for the giveaway! As I have a shiny finished copy, I no longer need my *SIGNED* ARC. So I’m giving it away to a lucky reader! Enjoy it yourself, or give it to the young reader in your life. Giveaway ends 1/28/13. U.S. only. Must be 13 or older to enter.

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Top Ten Tuesday (July 24) – Top Ten Most Vivid Worlds/Settings In Books

It’s Top Ten Tuesday again, hosted by the fabulous folks over at The Broke and the Bookish! And the topic this week is one of those things that I think helps set “great” books apart from “good” books.

Top Ten Most Vivid Worlds/Settings In Books

World building! That feeling that you’re actually in the setting of the story instead of simply reading about it. Sometimes a book has a really interesting plot that engages me, but I have a hard time picturing the world, making the book simply “good.” Other times, I feel transported to a different time or place, and those are the books that really stand out to me.

So here are my Top 10 books that have the best world building, in alphabetical order:

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Defiance by C.J. Redwine

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb (Yes, this is technically the same world as Assassin’s Apprentice, but the two series focus on totally different aspects of that world, so I think it’s valid to include both)

Feature & Follow (June 22) – Book I’d “Unread”

Welcome to the Feature & Follow Hop, hosted by Parajunkee’s View and Alison Can Read!

If you’re new to my blog, welcome! I’d love it if you could follow via one of the options in my sidebar (LinkyFollowers, Networked Blogs, email or RSS). Be sure to let me know your follow method in the comments so I can return the favor!

I’ve also got a snazzy button you can grab. If you wanted to put it on your blog, that’d be groovy.

Today’s question is:

If you could “unread” a book, which one would it be? Is it because you want to start over and experience it again for the first time? Or because it was THAT bad?

Okay, this question was oddly hard for me. I started to approach it from the “book that was so bad I’d want to unread it” angle, but honestly, I’m pretty picky in what I read. I don’t read a lot of bad books. And those I do read are not so bad that I completely regret the time I spent reading them. Normally, even when I don’t like a book, I’m still glad that I read it to know I didn’t like it.

So I’m going to come at it from the angle of awesome. What book was just so amazing that I wish I could re-read it again, for the first time? (BTW: The obvious answer here is Harry Potter, but I’m going to try to think outside the box).

I tried to think of a book that I not only thoroughly enjoyed the first time through, but that contained an element that simply could not be experienced the same way in a re-read. A book that managed to knock my socks off and make me yell or jump or stay up way past my bedtime because I needed to finish.

And this is a pretty recent release, but it meets all of the above qualifications. In spades.

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen is the first book of the Ascendance Trilogy. It’s a mid-grade fantasy about a group of boys reluctantly training to impersonate a prince. And it’s phenomenal.

I was happily enjoying this book the first time I read it, and then all of a sudden it blew my mind. And while I wanted to re-read it again immediately after finishing, the experience wouldn’t have been the same as that first time.





It’s like knowing that Malcolm was dead the whole time.

It’s like knowing why Andy wanted the rock hammer and the poster.

It’s like knowing who Keyser Söze is.

It’s like knowing what’s in the box???

It’s like knowing he never left the bank.

It’s like knowing that he is Tyler Durden.





It’s just not the same the second time.

For my full (glowing) review of The False Prince, go here.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’m excited to see what you picked as your “unread” book (either so I can have the awesome first-time reading experience, or so I can avoid it like the plague, depending on how you approached the question).

(Bonus points if you can name all those movies)