Book Review: Our Castle By the Sea by Lucy Strange – 4.5 stars – Available April 30th

I loved this book! Strange tells the beautiful story of a little girl who taps into her own strength, her family’s live and the lord of her community to make a huge impact in World War II.

Petra Zimmermann Smith lives in a lighthouse on the cliffs of England with her mother, father and sister. As the younger sister, she is the more timid and oft overlooked one. As the war encroaches on her family and her life, however, Petra is forced to deal with unbearable uncertainty and pain with incredible faith and resilience.

As we watch Petra’s story unfold, we are also watching the story of racism, fear and national pride that invaded England with the German invasion. Petra’s observations of her family and her town are quietly observant, if sometimes naive. As her mother, father, sister and health are stripped from her in different ways, we see Petra’s quiet dignity and grasp of her heritage turn her into the hero that her community needs.

Strange is a master craftsman with this story. Her characters and plot are rich and believable. The setting is beautiful and palpable. The fear, doubt, suspicion and joy that she evokes through her story are palpable. And the way she touches the reader’s heart through this little girl’s quest to come to terms with both the past and the future is breathtaking.

Some of the themes that Strange touches upon in Our Castle By the Sea are strikingly contemporary and relevant. The delineation of people by ethnicity is not so foreign a concept in our modern times and Strange’s words encourage the reader to consider those lines through her rich and graphic prose. I found this book to be as gorgeously written as it is emotional and educational.

While this booked is billed as children’s fiction, it was a delight for this adult reader. It’s truly historical fiction at its finest and it reads like a more poetic version of The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Having never read (or even heard of Strange’s first book, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, I was delightedly surprised to discover this work from Strange. At 336 pages, it’s on the long side for the 8 and up crowd but would make a great parent-child read aloud, in my opinion. You can bet I’ll be doubling back to check out Nightingale Wood in the very near future!

I can’t say enough about Our Castle the Sea! It releases on April 30th from The Chicken House. I highly recommend preordering a copy for yourself, your favorite tween or to share!

To preorder your copy, click on the link below:

Our Castle by the Sea

Book Review: The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler – 4 stars

I recently received an electronic Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler and was excited to have the chance to read it. The cover is fantastic (as you can see above) and I truly believe that a great cover is the first step toward drawing in the reader. The Magnetic Girl is 280 pages and I found it to be a quick read. I really enjoyed the book and have to say it was a sleeper for me…by which I mean that, I’ve found myself thinking about it a great deal more than I thought I would now that I’ve finished it.

The Magnetic Girl is a fictionalized account of the life of Lulu Hurst – a performer in the late 1800s who entertained crowds by performing ‘tests’ on stage that would demonstrate movement in her volunteers via her ‘magnetic touch.’ While Handler did research Hurst through her 1897 autobiography and other sources, key elements of the book are made up. I had no problem with that: the details of Hurst’s life were interesting but did not, to me, seem to be the point of the book. Rather, The Magnetic Girl is, in my opinion, an exploration of beliefs, motives and what we will do to ‘belong.’

Handler’s book is written in a couple of different time periods. It begins with some history from before Lulu was born and then focuses almost exclusively on Lulu’s life. The only difficulty I had with this novel was that, even after it settled on the timeframe of Lulu’s life, it switched back and forth from first person (Lulu’s perspective) to third person intermittently. While I’m not a person with a bias for a certain perspective (I’ve heard people say, ‘I hate books written in first person’) I do feel like there needs to be a discernible reason for switching it up randomly from chapter to chapter. I found it a little jarring to go back and forth without explanation. Nevertheless, I found Handler’s characters well-drawn and sympathetic and her plot unfolded in a way that drew me along. I love good characters, a good story and a book that leaves me thinking.

With regard to The Magnetic Girl’s story, Lulu Hurst is depicted as a rather naive country girl from Georgia who is impacted early in her childhood by an event that takes place with her younger brother. The trauma she experiences from that event sets the stage for much of what happens after. She discovers, accidentally, a book about ‘mesmeric influence’ hidden in her father’s study and begins to believe that she has certain special powers that allow her to captivate others and begins to quietly study the art of mesmerism in secret.

When her father discovers her secret practice, he confides in her that the book she discovered was written by her maternal grandmother and convinces her that she has inherited that grandmother’s special powers. He teaches a backward, shy Lulu to perform her tricks for an audience and takes her and her mother on the road so that she perform and make money for the family.

Lulu learns a great deal on the road – not least of all about herself and her family. In being exposed to various people in cities big and small, she begins to gain confidence and seek agency. The developments that occur as she grows into herself will leave you thinking about her choices and those of the people around her long after her journey is over within the pages of The Magnetic Girl.

I learned a great deal about society in the late 1800s through this book and got to read about developments in our country at that time (technological, political and social.) I found it very rewarding to gain that learning through the lens of a heartwarming yet heartbreaking story of a young woman’s coming of age. I recommend The Magnetic Girl to anyone who wants to explore a ‘real-life’ account of growing up and explore their thoughts about family, self and the choices we make for each.

The Magnetic Girl was released on April 9, 2019. To get your copy, use the following link:

Book Review: Once a Liar by A. F. Brady – 4 stars

As promised last week, I finished Once a Liar by A.F. Brady and wanted to share my thoughts with you!

Let me start off by saying that this book is DARK. If you are looking for cuddly characters who warm your heart with whimsy…this is NOT your book. I love a good warm, whimsical novel myself but, let me tell you: I can get behind a look into the minds of some really evil folks. I really loved this book and it had a level of ‘couldn’t put it down’ ness that I really appreciated!

In Once a Liar, we follow Peter Caine…a hard-charging, cut-throat defense attorney who prides himself on his ability to be ruthless in getting his clients off of any and all charges against them. Caine has secrets, as you can imagine, and has used his charm and good looks to enchant the Manhattan upper echelons. There is nothing charming, however, beneath his handsome exterior.

Caine is not just a liar…he’s a cheater, a thief and a philanderer. So, when he’s implicated in the death of the daughter of one of his primary rivals…it’s easy to imagine that he’s heartless enough to have done it. He maintains his innocence, however, and fights to maintain his secrets while defending himself.

I was fascinated by how Brady developed her characters. This may sound sexist (and I’ll own my implicit bias) but it wasn’t until halfway through the book that I realized that the author was a woman. That revelation blew my mind in that I expected descriptions of such socio- and psychopathic thinking and behavior to come from the male mind. After reading the author bio in the book, I realized that Brady is a psychotherapist and has likely gained her understanding of these personality types from working with patients. If you like truly horrible characters, Brady draws them with precision!

You won’t know for sure until the very end whether or not Caine did it…and I, for one, love being kept in the dark. A number of possible suspects are presented throughout the book and I found myself chasing down each and every lead. Not many of the book’s characters are particularly sympathetic (even the victim herself is pretty sleazy) so it was easy to make a case in my mind for how any of them might have ‘done it.’ Often, in these kinds of books, I find the ending trite and too contrived. This one, however, kept me guessing but left me satisfied that justice would be served.

As I said, this is neither the ‘feel good’ book of the year nor perhaps the most profound work in the literary sense, but it is both riveting and truly disturbing. If you like a good mystery with a dose of pure evil, (and really, who doesn’t now and then? ) pick up Once a Liar and prepare to be enthralled!

hOnce a Liar is the Bethany Beach Books’ Book Drop ‘Books for Coffee’ April 2019 selection. I love getting a surprise book from The Book Drop every month and can’t say enough about their ability to pick great titles for every single box. If you’d like to get a subscription of your own, (the pricing is already fantastic!) go to and use code MAMAPANDA to get 10% off. Your subscription will likely start in May or June but, if you want to get your hands on Once a Liar before your other new books start flowing in, go to and use PASTDROP to get 10% off of it as well!

Author Interview: Scott Reintgen – author of the Nyxia Series

Nyxia Uprising Released Today!

Kindle Versions of Nyxia and Nyxia Unleashed $1.99 today! See links at bottom of post!


It’s a big day at my house! Nyxia Uprising was released today!  Spencer and I LOVED Nyxia and Nyxia Unleashed so we’ve had Uprising on order for at least 6 months!  I think we’re both ready for bedtime already so we can dig in!

Perhaps even more exciting, however, is what I alluded to in my post last week:  author Scott Reintgen agreed to take questions from both Spencer and me and I have a really cool interview with him to share with you today!  

For those of you unfamiliar with the Nyxia Series, (Wha?  Where have you BEEN?) the story centers around a group of young people who have been selected by a huge corporation (Babel) to leave Earth and compete for the chance to live and work on the secret planet of Eden. If selected, they and their families will be inordinately rich and they will work for Babel to mine the most valuable substance in the universe:  Nyxia.  The crew selected for the competition is as vivid as it is diverse:  they span ethnicities, genders, sexualities and abilities.  The one thread that binds them all is their youth:  adults cannot survive on Eden.


The competition amongst those selected is fierce and the secrets and conspiracies that they face are legion.  No one knows for sure what Babel is up to but each of the competitors has been selected with carefully curated criteria in mind.  We meet Emmett Atwater, the series protagonist, and watch throughout the first book as he fights to win, survive and build relationships with those he is fighting so hard to beat.  Along the way, he bonds and spars with other amazing characters and strives to determine his own path:  will he fight to the death or try to win in a way that allows him to stay true to himself.  

In the second book, Nyxia Unleashed, we find some of the original crew on Eden and learn about what it means to be an emissary of Babel to a race of amazing and unknown beings – the Adamites.  The Genesis crew, as the Earthlings are called, struggles to figure out who to trust…each other?  Their fellow Earthlings at Babel?  The Adamites?  They also face challenges to their physical safety as well as threats to what they believe they know about what it means to live a good life!  Ultimately, the Genesis crew is trapped between the warring forces of Babel and the Adamites and we are left to wonder whether or not they will make it out alive.  Left with that cliffhanger, you can hardly wonder why we’ve waited impatiently for 6 months for the final installment in the triad! 


The final book, Nyxia Uprising, is billed as the Genesis crew’s opportunity to save the world for both the Adamites and their friends and families back home on Earth.  While navigating the twisted plans of their sponsor, Babel, and the rough terrain of Eden, they must find a way to return to their launch station and win control of the Genesis ships.  Everything hangs in the balance and we’ll read with bated breath as we already know the devious and challenging capabilities of both Babel and Eden.

With all of that in mind, Spencer and I got the opportunity to interview the Nyxia mastermind himself last week and this is what we learned from Scott Reintgen about the books, the characters we love and the future Genesis and other amazing creations coming from Reintgen’s imagination in the future!

Interview with Reintgen:

Shannon:   Did you know the arc of your story across the three books when you started or did you start with one book and then expand?

Scott:  I really tend not to plan that far ahead. I knew the end of the first book and that’s it. From that point on, I was mostly trying to let my characters guide the story as much as possible.

Spencer:  Where do your character names come from?  We are particularly curious about Morning and Speaker.
Scott:  I wish I was the cool author who has significant meaning behind every name… but… I don’t. I mostly pick a name that sounds really cool and if it fits the character, it sticks. I did teach a student named Morning at one point, which might be a small inspiration for that particular name.

Shannon:  What was your favorite book when you were growing up? Middle school?
Scott:  The very first book that transformed me into a reader was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Until that point, I really wasn’t a big reader at all. All it takes is one right book!

Spencer:  Did anything in your real life inspire something in the books?
Scott:  Of course! Most of the book is inspired by people I know and situations I’ve seen in real life. Some of our best fiction comes when we drink in the real world around us and alter it slightly.

Shannon:  Did you find it hard to write female characters? What are the challenges? 
Scott:  It’s always difficult to write outside of my experience. Generally, though, I try to think of the women in my life and channel them into the characters I’m writing. There’s also a backdrop of “everyone is human” that you can play with. We all experience fear. We all experience hope. Some of that can really cross those barriers.

Shannon:  Why was it important to you to include so many different kinds of people in your work?
Scott:  It was important because that’s the reality of our world. We live in a diverse world, even if we’d often rather pretend most people are like us. That diversity should be celebrated and on the page. The writers who ignore that reality in their world are starting from a poor foundation.
Shannon:  Do you have a favorite book that you don’t think gets the credit it deserves?
Scott:  My favorite short story collection is by Stuart Dybek. It’s entitled The Coast of Chicago. Most people have never heard of him, but he writes some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve ever read. His story Nighthawks is a particular favorite of mine.
Spencer:  What experiences in your life made you want to be a writer?
Scott:  Several things played into the decision. First, I played a lot of video games. Every game had stories in the backdrop, and I always found myself wanting to know more. Eventually I began writing them myself. The second part of this is that I am fairly shy. Kind of an introvert. Writing books is my way of having a voice when I might otherwise be too afraid to speak.
Shannon:  Is this the end for Emmett and the gang’s story?  What should we expect from you next?
Scott:  This is the end of Emmett’s tale. I feel like it reaches a satisfying conclusion, and I’m ready to move on to new worlds. I have a middle grade book coming in September. It follows a young girl who is attending Protagonist Preparatory to learn how to be a character. Unfortunately, she fails her auditions and lands in the side-character track. She wrestles with what it means to fail as she begins her first semester at the school. Then in January I have a book entitled Ashlords coming. It has a lot of what my fans loved about Nyxia. It follows three riders who are competing in a competitive phoenix horse racing competition. The horses they ride live for a day, die at night, and can be resurrected each morning using alchemy. The fastest rider, smartest alchemist, and most skilled fighter usually wins the Races and takes all of the glory. It comes out in January of 2020.
We are super grateful to Scott for taking the time to answer our questions and super excited for the release of Nyxia Uprising today.  If you haven’t read either of the first two books, the Kindle versions are on sale for $1.99 today!  (Links below) Grab them and devour them so you can start Uprising ASAP!  You can also order Uprising today in the hardback, paperback, audiobook and Kindle versions.  Use the links below to get your copies!

Nyxia (The Nyxia Triad)

Nyxia Unleashed (The Nyxia Triad)

Nyxia Uprising (The Nyxia Triad)

Book Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. 4.5 stars

We’re going backlist today and I have to start with the story of how I came to own this book. I had heard a lot about this book and seen copies of it everywhere 2 years ago when I was on a business trip. On a layover at Chicago Midway, I sat down next to an empty seat that had a copy of the book resting on its arm. My flight was delayed for 2 hours and no one came back to the seat for the entire 3 hours that I was sitting there. I kept peeking at the book and finally figured that 3 hours was the beyond the ‘statute of limitations’ for book abandonment so, when I got on the plane, I took it with me! I felt a little guilty but, by the time I reached Columbus, I was more than halfway through it!

Let me say upfront: this book is trigger-rich. If you are particularly sensitive to topics of suicide, homophobia/bi-phobia, hate violence, mental health issues, or fat shaming…More Happy Than Not should be approached with a lot of self-care!

I had heard two primary things about this book when it ‘fell’ into my hands: 1) that it was super inclusive and 2) that it was super emotional! I’ll tell you upfront: I found both to be true. The primary thing I didn’t know about this book when I started reading it is that it’s actually categorized as both contemporary YA and science fiction. I would definitely still say that it was more contemporary YA than sci-fi, that label might have put me off if I had known about it upfront. I loved this book so don’t let that deter you: I love YA and while I have come to learn that there’s a lot of sci-fi that I really enjoy, I generally don’t think of myself as a sci-fi fan!

Silvera takes on the topics of sexuality, community and the role memory plays in shaping our lives by telling the story of Aaron Soto, a young Puerto Rican man living in a tough NY neighborhood. Soto is dealing with the recent loss of his father to suicide and, with the help of his mother and girlfriend, Genevieve, is trying to overcome his own grief and recent suicide attempt. Early in the story we: 1) are introduced to Thomas, a new guy in the neighborhood who befriends Aaron and 2) come to learn about the source of the book’s sci-fi element: the Leteo Institute its newly developed memory-alteration technology.

Aaron’s girlfriend goes away fir the summer and he proceeds to get closer with Thomas, ultimately falling in love with him and coming to see himself as gay. Subsequently, he is forced to face his sexuality in terms of the rough, Hispanic neighborhood in which he lives. The tenderness of his relationship with Thomas stands in stark contrast to the violence he experiences from others and he is left considering the Leteo procedure to help him forget his homosexuality and go back to fitting in in his community. While those developments alone would be enough to keep Silvera’s alive and enjoyable, the masterful way he introduces surprising elements to the plot make this book one you won’t likely forget soon!

While the book is quite gritty in places and may stir up emotions for readers both tender and controversial, Silvera’s depiction of Aaron’s struggle feels true and insightful. I felt both emotionally wrecked and somehow more ‘woke’ to challenges I’m not forced to face when I finished this book. While the book is billed as YA, I find it highly enjoyable as an adult and would recommend it only for teens on the older end of the YA spectrum.

Memory and how we define ourselves in terms of others are key to the message of this story. Love takes many forms and Silvera does a masterful job of asking his readers to consider their feelings about all love in this amazing novel.

This book was also the June 2016 YA selection from the Bethany Beach Books’ Book Drop subscription. As you know if you follow my blog, I’m a Brand Ambassador for The Book Drop and this book (from before I even began receiving my subscription) just goes to show that they make amazing selections fir their boxes month after month! To learn more about The Book Drop and get 10% years off of your own subscription, go to and use code MAMAPANDA when you subscribe!

To buy More Happy Than Not directly, use the link below to find it in the hardback, paperback or Kindle editions.

More Happy Than Not

And We Have a Winner…


Thanks to those of you who voted, The Mana Panda Bear Virtual Book Club will be reading The Only Woman in the Room for the May book club session on May 14, 2019 at 8:00 pm EDT!

It’s fine to get your copy of the book and start reading! Can’t wait to talk to you in May! Dial-in instructions will be provided closer to the date of the session!

The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel

Book Review: Man Mission by Eytan Uliel – 4 stars

This is the first time I’ve ever been given an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of a book to promote as part of a blog tour (thank you, Sage!) and I’m really glad that this was my first choice!

Man Mission, is Eytan Uriel’s true coming of age story told through a recounting of fifteen years of ‘guy trips’ that he took with his three best friends. Not only is the book well-written (you’ll be in awe of the descriptions of the amazing places to which these guys travelled) it’s emotional and thought-provoking.

We meet Eytan, Sam, Alec and Dan in college…they are embarking on their independent lives and exhibiting all the signs of early 20s young men; they are full with both hope and hubris. Over the next fifteen years, we get 15 chapters (one representing each year of the Man Mission trips they take) interspersed with stories surrounding the trips: they find careers, get married, have children and find their own struggles.

The trips that the 4 men take are as ridiculous as they are amazing: they are completely unprepared to do things like arduous hikes in New Zealand and sail in Thailand but the descriptions of their tenacity and the landscapes around them are incredible!

More incredible, perhaps, is the fifteen-year bond that develops between the 4 men and the insights into their hearts and minds that we are given by Uliel. As a woman, wife and ‘boy mom,’ I was fascinated by the men’s camaraderie, behaviors and perceptions of themselves. I learned a tremendous amount about the pressure that men place on themselves and their notions of what it means to be a man.

Along the path, I was often frustrated by the chauvinistic, chest-thumping activities the men engaged in but appreciated Uliel’s willingness to portray himself and his friends in an unvarnished way. The story, with all of the men’s sensitivities and flaws, rang true in a way that kept me reading to the end.

I found myself rejoicing in each man’s triumph’s and cringing at each man’s struggles. There were certainly triggers for me around some of the heartless, misogynistic behavior that is portrayed in the book but I considered it a fair trade-off for a glimpse inside these men’s hearts and minds.

The framework of a fifteen-year tradition was a great construct for allowing the reader to watch these 4 men grow up. I was especially taken with Uliel’s tongue-in-cheek ‘statistics’ at the end of every chapter. For example, these from Spain where one of the men discovers that his father has passed while he is on the trip:

MM VII Vital Statistics

Country: Spain

Location: White Villages of Andalusia

Mode of transport: Hiking

Distance covered: Sixty miles

Tine taken: Six days

Accommodation: Guesthouses

Injuries sustained: Sunburn and grief

If you have a love of travelogues and memoirs, this book provides the best of both worlds. As I mentioned, I read an ARC and it did not include any photos but if the final copy includes any photos of these ‘blokes’ and their adventures, I can only imagine that those would be great fun as well!

I highly recommend Uriel’s debut, Man Mission, for its look at the world: the ones both beyond our gaze and behind our eyes!

To get your copy (at the time of this writing, the Kindle version is only $3.99!) click on the cover below!










Pick the book for the inaugural Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club Meeting!

Mama Panda Bear Book Club

The inaugural Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club will take place May 14th, 2019 at 8:00pm EDT.  That gives us a little more than a month to pick and read a book that we want to discuss as a group!

To help us out with that, I’ve narrowed the list to 6 books:  2 Contemporary Fiction, 2 YA and 2 Middle Grade, all that have been published in the past year.  I’ve included a poll below with the names, authors, book types and page counts for each of the books you can vote on.  Each book selection also includes a cover image.   I’ve included the link to each book below the poll so that you can read more about them/make a purchase as necessary.

Based on your feedback yesterday, the meeting will take place via video conference.  It’ll give all of us a chance to interact verbally and see and respond to one another.  The book club meeting will last an hour and I plan to get us together with a new book every month!

Please cast your vote below!  I’m terribly excited about each and every one of these books and can’t wait to see what you pick!

Woman 99

Mystery of Black Hollow Lane

The Only Woman in the Room

The Similars

Look at Me

Iron River

A Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club?

Who would like to join me for a Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club?  I don’t currently have a book club IRL and I know that many of you are book lovers just like me!  I’m thinking of selecting 5 books each month and creating a poll.  Readers would vote for their favorite title and, a month later, we would ‘get together’ to discuss the selected book!  Books would be like those I usually review, generally Contemporary, Literary or Historical Fiction with the occasional YA or Middle Grade title thrown in for variety!

I’ve created a poll below to see what method most folks would prefer to use to communicate monthly.  I’d love it if you’d weigh in and let me know how you’d like to ‘talk’ about books with me and other book lovers who visit my site!

Book Review and Author Visit: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Spencer and I had the opportunity to listen to and meet Newbery Award-winning author, Kwame Alexander at Upper Arlington Public Library tonight. We had a wonderful time: Alexander is engaging, interesting and entertaining and, as you’ve probably heard, his work is amazing! if the name is familiar but you can’t place the books he’s written…think of any YA book about sports or music, written in prose, that you’ve heard about in the past 5 years! The Crossover, Booked, Solo, etc…that’s Kwame Alexander!

About 200 people (kids, parents, educators and librarians) gathered at the library this evening to interact with Alexander and hear him read from some of his most popular books. He was joined in front of the audience by musician, poet and former teacher, Randy Preston who accompanied him on the electric guitar. Alexander told stories about his childhood, his family and his writing career and engaged the audience in participatory readings from a number of his works. He was incredibly funny and humble and the audience really responded to both him and Preston. We got to hear about everything from his idols (Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni) to what he eats in his tour bus (cookies and gluten free Godiva cheesecake!)

Alexander shared parts of about 8 of his latest books with the audience tonight but referred to The Undefeated, his latest picture book (released April 2) that honors the triumphs and struggles of Black Americans, as his favorite. He read it to us, start to finish and accompanied by Preston and a slideshow of the illustrations. The content was incredibly powerful and the illustrations breathtaking! I dare you to move past the word ‘unspeakable’ without gasping! The cover is beautiful but the way that Alexander and Nelson have woven together words and illustrations inside the book is not to be missed. I could imagine framing many of the pages of this book for a child’s room!

Asked about diversity in his writing during the Q and A tonight, Alexander seemed less focused on making a point about writing diverse characters and more focused on writing his experience. His goal, it seems, is to give access to different people’s stories to as many different kinds of readers as possible. He asserted that the more we know about each other, the harder it is to harm one another and said, ‘Can you imagine a white cop who read Jacqueline Woodson when he was 4? That would be a totally different story!’

Alexander also indicated during his talk this evening that he has another book due out later this year. It’s called How To Read a Book and it releases on June 18th. His audience this evening knew most of his books by heart and there’s no doubt in my mind that they (and Spencer and I) will be queued up to purchase anything else Alexander chooses to write! We hear there’s even a TV pilot of The Crossover in the works!

To get your copy of Alexander’s latest book, The Undefeated, follow this link: