I’m enjoying the cool mountain air today for a little break from reading, writing, and summer activities. I’m also getting ready to attend a summer writing conference this weekend. For the first time I’m turning over ALWAYS in the MIDDLE to another blogger. What a pleasure for me to introduce Justin from JUSTIN TALKS BOOKS and his review of SPY SCHOOL by Stuart Gibbs. Thanks for giving me a break!

Take it away Justin …


Hello everyone, my name is Justin Doan, self-blogger at justintalksbooks.blogspot.com. I started blogging when I was just 11 and now I’m 14 and have amassed over 12 thousand views. I write all about middle grade and a little about YA, especially about my favorite author, Stuart Gibbs. Here is my review, on one of my favorite books, Spy School.

Summary: Benjamin Ripley, a 12 year old living your average middle school life is being 11750648recruited for a science academy, secretly a spy school. Oh it’s just another typical recruitment with a top-notch spy appearing in your living room after a long day of school. Ben has a “cryptography” skill and even though he bombs his SACSA’s (basically a pre-assesement in self-preservation) he’s kept in the school because of his “talent” for cryptography. Along the way he meets Erica Hale- the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen, the best student in spy school’s history, and a legacy (she’s even related to all time spy legend Nathan Hale) But the introverted isolated Erica reaches out to Ben and reveals he has no skill whatsoever. Instead, he’s being used as bait for something called Operation Creeping Badger, a plan created by the CIA to weed out the mole in Spy School. Ben decides to hop on the train for one main reason: getting to spend time with Erica. I mean for three years she’s practically been lonelier than a rock on a deserted island and now she reaches out to a nerd like Ben? Not only does it bring us his coolness by a mile, but spending time with your crush is the best feeling ever. But is it worth if it you end up being dead? Follow Stuart Gibbs’s fantastic thriller through elaborate plans, midnight escapes, and lots of gun fighting as Ben and friends try to answer the question: Who’s the mole? Oh and try to not get killed in the process.

What I liked: Everything? But seriously, it’s just a well-written book. Humorous moments were weaved well into the diverse book. Lots of actions scenes, which of course you’d expect from a James Bond-esque book. I definitely liked the inclusion of a legacy in a book. I mean if you think about it any time you read about a private school there’s always someone “who’s great grand-father was the founder” or something like that. Not only is Erica’s deceased relatives the founders of the school, but the country in general has been at the mercy of their family. I could talk for about 10 pages of how this book is awesome, but I feel like there wouldn’t be any point to it.

What I didn’t like: Let me just start out with saying: the cursing. Yes, there are bad words in this novel, but keep in mind this: I talked to the author himself and he said that he only stuck in the various language because it could give some character to the book. He was advised to do so by somebody (an editor I think?) and so he did and he received a million hate comments for it. He’s removed all bad language from the rest of his books (unless you consider “stupid” “dumb” and “idiot” bad words) Another thing I didn’t like was the classic format for all middle grade books. While it varies, in MG if we’re talking about a kid and school it’s always: There’s a loser at blah blah school. Suddenly he catches a break and he talks to his crush. For half the book everything is really awesome with only minor flaws. Then there’s a huge conflict at the end. The ending is either “YAY! We made it!” or “Aw, we lost” I feel like I could explain the plot of this book at a general level using the normal MG format, and while it’s not bad, it’s just overused.

Final Thoughts: A really, really, really great book with some minor flaws but nothing enough to make it bad.

Rating on ‘the scale’: 9.5 out of ten

Why? Minor flaws but nothing major. Really a great books that keeps things exciting and fresh.

Related: Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs/ Playing w/ Fire series by Bruce Hale/ Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead


Thanks Justin! I’ll be back for another round of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. Have a great weekend.

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THE DRAGONFLY EFFECT for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

Yes, I’ve been meaning to rave about THE DRAGONFLY EFFECT for a year, but it was lost 24000720in the shuffle of reviews to post.  I realized my failed posting error after reading Gordon Korman’s newest, SLACKER (Bonus mini-review below).

I have now read the complete series including  THE HYPNOTISTS (2013), and following up in 2014 with MEMORY MAZE. Whoops. I was going to review those, too.


51B3teCr8vL._AC_UL320_SR220,320_Anyhow, this finale wraps things up rather nicely in a thrilling conclusion. I’m referring to three kids barging in on the general assembly of the United Nations. Of course they get in with their mind bending (hypnotist) abilities in an attempt to stop chaos from occurring in every corner of the planet. No spoilers here but be ready for an exciting horse ride, a police station destroyed, and lots of interesting hypnotic suggestions.

Jax makes a fine protagonist and with the return of his friends from the first books, it is a fulfilling conclusion. If you want to jump right in and read this one, it stands on its own. Several plot lines from the first two books are woven in so you won’t be lost. If you look into the eyes of Jax on the front cover though, he is bending your mind to read all three. A very smart kid.


FULL PLOT (From Gordon Korman’s Website) THE DRAGONFLY EFFECT is the thrilling conclusion of THE HYPNOTISTS trilogy. Jax has been recruited by the U.S. Army’s Hypnotic Warfare Research Department. But Dr. Elias Mako has escaped from prison, and this time he has a plan to use mesmeric power to bring the entire world to its knees.


  1. The ending is one of the more exciting, page turning finishes to any MG book. It leaves you breathless.
  2. Lock your doors if this ever happens – the idea children could hypnotize anyone they want. Dangerous for sure, but oh so much fun here.
  3. Stanley is a a welcome new character – an eight your old mind bender who is even better than Jax at hypnotizing.
  4. Quite a few sophisticated themes running about here: global terrorism and the difference between the right and wrong time to use such a fantastic ability. It’s a problem Jax struggles with to the last page.
  5. All the plot lines came to one satisfying ending, but I’ll have to admit… THE DRAGONFLY EFFECT was my favorite of the three.

FAVORITE LINE:  Before he had a chance to think about what he was doing, he was staring into her careworn eyes, bringing all of his mesmeric power to bear. It was a betrayal – no question about it. He had promised never to hypnotize his parents. This was in exchange for their promise to stop looking away every time he glanced in their direction.

AUTHOR QUOTE:  (Gordon Korman is the author of over 80 books. Here’s a question he answered on his Reader’s Forum from Sara S., a new fan:

Sara: So, I’ve been reading around… but I’m still new to your wealth of literature. Can you give me a top five list, please?

Gordon: As for choosing my 5 best, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite among my kids. It can’t be done. Besides, picking a favorite book is a very personal matter. You might be indifferent to what I consider my best work. That’s human nature.


BONUS MINI-REVIEW: SLACKER by Gordon Korman26892065

If you are looking for a good story, Mr. Korman never lets you down. His newest is a lively tale about Cameron Boxer, a slug of a 13-year who cares only about his video game conquests and the gaming cave he has set up in the basement. When the ziti he is responsible for burns to a crisp his life changes. The fire department axes their way through the front door while Cam can barely pull away from his games to find out what’s going on. His parents force him to find other pursuits. Cam creates a fake club that supposedly does good deeds. It’s actually just a front for his slacker ways so he can continue disappearing into his video game world. The scheme backfires to say the least, including attempts to save the beaver pictured on the front cover.

The only problem I had with the story was telling it in multiple viewpoints. I can take a story with 2 or 3 viewpoints but here we exceed that by double digits. Cameron takes the lead in about a third of the chapters. The others are given to a wide cast of characters: his two best friends, the guidance counselor, the principal, his sister, and various members of his fake club. I’d have preferred the action stay with Cam the entire way, but that’s just  me. Anyway, I’m looking forward to Korman’s next adventure.


Make a comment if you have time. I enjoy reading all of them. Click on the comments link below.

Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


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Do you have any books with more pictures than words? The question came to me from a 12-year-old who is more into sports than reading. I knew exactly the book to recommend. This new title from National Geographic is filled with gorgeous photographs and enough words to explain what you are looking at. Here are a few sample pages that may have you racing out to get this one:



The 11 chapters are organized perfectly with such titles as Marine Mammals, Whales and Dolphins, Ocean Habitats, and 20 Ways You Can Protect The Ocean. These huge topics are given their proper due in the large format 9×12 inch book. Simply spectacular!

The official blurb for OCEAN ANIMALS: Who’s Who in the Deep Blue by Johnna Rizzo (ages 8-12) is an oversized book and it needs to be!  Featuring huge, stunning underwater photographs this book covers it all — from life in coral reefs to sharks and rays, to bizarre creatures of the deep and even sea birds — and all the favorites from Disney’s Finding Dory including, sea lions, octopus, beluga whales, whale sharks and of course clown fish and Dory herself — blue tangs!


I’ll be adding this one to my Blogging Anniversary Celebration Giveaway coming up soon. Your chance to be one of three winners of a stack of MG titles and a gift card. Details coming soon!

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THE DRAKE EQUATION for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

This is a wildly imaginative story with science fiction pushing the plot forward. 26245966Noah is a boy who loves birds. He tracks them with his binoculars in hopes of adding to the list of birds he’s spotted.

Not hooked yet? Well, turn the page and before you know it Noah has found a round disk that fits in his hand. From there the mystery unfolds as to the purpose of this strange object. It’s like a weird phone or a video game with a menu of confusing words. Of course any curious kid  would try it out, and Noah’s choices bring some amazing results – both good and bad.

A believable group of friends and enemies add to the fun and intrigue. There are also several unexpected twists throughout. I couldn’t wait to reach that final page to see how all of this mayhem would get solved. My reward for finishing the story was the familiar smell of a sequel. Noah solving one problem leads to another and readers are left hanging at the end with questions.

Other than that ending, I enjoyed this one like a little kid at the movies with a big tub of popcorn. A tasty treat for sure.


FULL PLOT (From AMAZON) Noah Grow is a bird-watcher. If you’re picturing some kid in a big floppy hat, peering up into trees through giant binoculars . . . well, good job. That’s exactly what he does. Right now, Noah is on a quest to find a wood duck. According to his calculations, aka the Drake Equation, the odds are good-really good-for spotting one.

That’s why he gets off the bus at the wrong stop. And that’s how he ends up running down a hill, crashing into a fence, and landing right next to a strange, glittery disk.

Noah and his best friends, Jason and Jenny, soon discover that the mysterious disk is, well, mysterious. It gives Noah peculiar powers. As things go from odd to outrageous, Noah is swept up in a storm of intergalactic intrigue and middle-school mayhem. There’s much more at stake than Noah realizes.


  1. Noah is a likeable protagonist who catalogs everyone, both birds and humans. Each time a new character enters the story we get a look at Noah’s field notes describing the person’s appearance, voice, plumage, range, social behavior, and status. Fun to read, and I’m sure they were fun to write.
  2. Noah’s parents are quirky and so different from any other parent in the neighborhood. Their job is designing playground equipment which makes for some amusing and surprising interactions with their son.
  3. The dialog is witty especially when its between Noah and his middle school crowd. Those years as a teacher served Bart King well.
  4. Aliens, but not like ones you’ve ever experienced in print before. I’m sure kids will be smiling like I was with their appearance.
  5. The mix of contemporary issues with science fiction works well. You’ll even learn a few things about birds along the way.

FAVORITE LINES:  A thrill swept over my scalp to my toes (even my right big toe, which was sticking through a hole in my sock). Goose bumps covered my arms. I had to tell someone – anyone – about this right away.

And so another domino fell. How was I supposed to know that such a little bird would lead to such BIG trouble?

For a look into the mind of Bart King visit his blog. There are always several interesting and often hilarious videos.


Make a comment if you have time. I enjoy reading all of them. Click on the comments link below.

Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


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This handy guide is filled with facts, fakes, and fun. More than 50 6302405scenarios are presented. To start things off you read the background of the event accompanied by splashy colorful pictures. The next step is to use your reasoning skills to determine whether the event was REAL or FAKE. I correctly answered on most of them but several stumped me. What do you think?

A robot hitchhiked across Canada.

Spaghetti grows on trees.

A spacecraft landed on a comet.

Elephants use their ears, feet and trunks to hear.

Once you decide on REAL or FAKE, a turn of the page reveals the truth along with a thorough explanation. What a great way to fill those bad weather days or for those car and plane trips that seem to drag on forever. You can extend the fun by going online to watch the ten episode game show also called REAL OR FAKE.

Here’s the official blurb for REAL OR FAKE? by Emily Krieger: (ages 8-12) – NEW SERIES ALERT! –  Can you mail an unpackaged coconut via the United States Postal Service? Are tiger cubs born furless and without stripes?  Did China build a secret city for 1,000 people on the sea floor? Is there really a type of bird with tiny, useless wings, hairlike feathers and nostrils at the END of its beak or is it just a hoax? Real or Fake tests your detective skills to determine which stories are real and which, in fact, are fake (oh, and yes, you CAN mail a coconut, China did NOT build an underwater city and that bird is not a hoax!  It is a kiwi!).  Also included are history’s greatest hoaxes, secrets behind a good fake, internet urban legends, and crazy headlines. 


Shhh. I’m not age 8-12, but I sure enjoyed these truthful and untruthful facts, photos, and fibs. And that’s no fake!

I’ll be adding this one to my Blogging Anniversary Celebration Giveaway coming up soon. Your chance to be one of three winners of a stack of MG titles and a gift card. Details coming soon!

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WAITING FOR AUGUSTA for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

This year in MG has seen a flood of endearing characters that you are thankful to have spent time reading their story. Benjamin Putter is one of those characters. His father’s waiting-for-augusta-9781481448390_hrwish before he passed away was to have his ashes scattered on the famed August National Golf Club’s 18th green, home of The Master’s tournament.

Ben is determined to make that happen despite never connecting with his golf loving, barbecue obsessed dad when he was alive. He also thinks his dad never understood his own obsession of painting pictures. Still though, his dad’s wish must be fulfilled. Ben runs off with a mysterious girl carrying the urn and in a wild series of events makes his way toward his goal hundreds of miles away during Master’s golf week.

Of course golf is the backdrop for the story and lovers of the game will enjoy the references to the great players of the past and the description of Augusta National. Don’t worry if you aren’t a fan. Set in 1972 this is less about golf than it is about a father-son relationship, friendships new and old, and critical issues of the time like desegregation and racism.

Funny, heartfelt, and quirky. I’m scoring this a hole in one.


FULL PLOT (From Jessica Lawson’s Web Site)

A month ago, Ben Putter’s dad died, and (crazy idea or not) Ben’s certain the lump in his throat is actually a golf ball. The lump won’t go away and it turns out Dad’s not quite gone either. Still warm in his urn, Ben’s father suddenly speaks up to ask why he’s in Alabama instead of sprinkled on Augusta National Golf Club’s 18th hole, the way he always wanted.

Ben might be going a little crazy, but escaping Hilltop, Alabama, sounds like a darn good idea (and just maybe it will make that lump go away). As he makes his way to Georgia, Ben partners up with a mysterious runaway named Noni, and they embark on a journey full of adventures at every turn.

Between Dad nagging to be put to rest, Noni keeping suspiciously tight-lipped about her past, security patrolling at all hours during the famed Masters tournament, and the lump in his throat staying put, creeping onto Augusta National may not be as easy as Ben originally thought. And letting go of a Dad who’s finally listening is going to be even harder.


  1. Noni is a girl with a mysterious past. She is a strong companion for Ben, hilarious at times and also has unresolved issues with her dad. Noni is one you won’t soon forget.
  2. This book is intended for the 8-12 year old MG reader, but those of us years or decades older should also give it a go. It’s poignant theme will have you thinking of the  your own dad and the relationship you have or had in those early years.
  3. A touch of magic is weaved into the time period. It’s done so well you never see the twist at the end until it smacks you in the face. You wipe your eyes and know you’ve experienced something special.
  4. I never thought how the rules of golf can pertain to real life. A great theme throughout.
  5. The chapters become hole numbers in a unique way to organize the story.

FAVORITE LINE:  There’s nothing like giving your father a piggyback ride to his dream destination to make you feel like your life has gotten a little mixed up.

AUTHOR QUOTE (From Jessica’s blog)I’m a lover of books, especially middle grade and young adult fiction. Mom and stepmother (the non-wicked kind) to 4 kiddos, author of THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER, NOOKS & CRANNIES, and WAITING FOR AUGUSTA, wannabe home owner and watcher of HGTV, current Life Satisfaction Level on a scale of 1 to 10: 9.3


Make a comment if you have time. I enjoy reading all of them. Click on the comments link below.

Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


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I can’t get enough of these great new titles from National Geographic. This one is perfect to fill those long summer days when you hear the drawn out cry from an 8-13 year-old… “I’m bored.”

The official blurb for 125 WACKY ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS: Ever since the car was invented in the late 1800’s, roadside businesses have been trying to catch the eye of behind-the-wheel consumers as they zoom past.  An underwater mailbox, “Carhenge,” walls of gum, the Paris Sewer Museum, a hotel here you sleep in an igloo, the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a brain shaped phone booth, the world’s tallest bridge and breathtaking natural wonders are just a few of the amazing destinations packed into 125 Wacky Roadside Adventures.  These bizarre landmarks from around the world are not only fun to read about, but they also tickle the funny bone and touch upon history, science and the natural world. For an added dose of inspiration, Nat Geo Young Explorer Marissa Gaiwel recently hit the highways and shares her experience of her 4000 mile trek through the United States to document and learn more about these unique destinations.


A handy worldwide map follows the contents list and is a good spot to start. Once you find the page you want you’ll find splashy colorful pictures with a paragraph description. I had to start with the 27 foot boxing crocodile in Humpty Doo, Australia.boxingcroc Closer to home in Cottonwood, Idaho I found the DOG BARK PARK INN B&B where you can book a room right in his belly.


I’m not the target age for this book but once I got started it was hard to look away. You’ll smile, laugh, and shake your head at the creativity and true wackiness present in our world.

I’ll be adding this one to my Blogging Anniversary Celebration Giveaway coming up soon. Your chance to be one of three winners of a stack of MG titles and a gift card. Details coming soon!

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