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Monday, March 26, 2012

Action Alert Review

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If you have children, and they have access to the computer at all, I'm here to tell you, you can NOT be over-protective enough!  We live in a day and age where so much information is available just at the click of a button that it's common for everyone, even children, to turn to the internet to gather any information they might need.  The problem is that one mis-typed web address or one query for an innocent word with a not-so-innocent alternate meaning and your child can get WAY more education than you expected.  Enter Action Alert!
Action Alert offers free Parental Control software and was designed to be very easy to use and provide maximum protection with a minimum amount of effort on your part.   Just download the program and you have several different tools at your disposal to monitor your children's computer usage.

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It's won a few awards and gotten lots of attention...
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But how does it work?  Action Alert is free to download.  Yes, that's right.  FREE!  You can get most of the features that Action Alert is capable of for free.  That's how seriously they take their mission to help parents to protect their kids.  Then, you can go in and adjust the level of monitoring by either blocking websites or creating a list of allowable websites.  Even if you don't do this, it has a preprogrammed list of offensive sites that are blocked.  There is an optional Action Alert search engine home page that you can set as the default for your child as well. 

Action Alert is available 2 ways- FREE or a paid "Maximum Protection" version.  If you are wondering what the difference is, here's what they have to say:

Free Version - Action Alert offers a 100% free version that many parents feel gives them the amount of protection and peace of mind they need - and for good reason!  Our free version offers more protection than you would otherwise pay $40 per year for or more with other products.  It includes a web filter to ensure safe searches, website blocking that prevents access to a constantly updated list of websites, time use controls – it even sends texts or e-mail alerts when dangers are detected.  All of this PLUS free tech support where calls are taken at our Arizona based support center by our friendly staff.    

Maximum Protection – Action Alert sends a message to your cell phone or e-mail when an event occurs that you should be aware of.  This message lets parents know they should take a look at the computer and probably have a talk with their young computer user.  

The Maximum Protection version simply gives parents a much more complete set of tools to see the details of the missteps their child or teen took online, or in some cases provides usable evidence of interactions when they were targeted by a wrong doer.  From the moment our 100% free version is installed, our technology goes to work recording the computer activity of your protected user.  If needed, you can activate Maximum Protection and watch everything that happened like watching a DVR.   

It’s our hope that kids never make mistakes online or that those that misuse technology to target kids fail in their efforts.  Fortunately most of the families that use Action Alert don’t find the need to upgrade – but whether it’s an innocent mistake by the user or the results of a wrong doer that results in an Alert, the Action Alert Maximum protection recording viewer provides a valuable tool to head off dangers and educate young computer users on responsible use of technology.

The Pros:  Hello, it's FREE!  I really appreciated that parents can see what your child has been doing by reviewing a log of all the keystrokes they have made.   It's also very helpful that you can set time allowances for internet usage by either the day/hour or by giving them an amount of minutes each day.  And since I have one child who has gotten into trouble visiting some sites that he's not supposed to, I loved the enhanced protection offered by the paid subscription.  I got e-mail notices every time he typed something Action Alert or I deemed inappropriate (although it was always fine-he plays on a lego-figure type game with military scenarios, so most of the time he was typing things like "stop killing me", but "killing" would be flagged and e-mailed to me).  And the ability to see exactly where he has been and what he's done was great.  I could even check up on his math that way since it saves screen shots and he uses Teaching Textbooks for math.  Oh, and if your computers are set up with multiple users, you can limit specific users and allow others to surf the web without Action Alert's restrictions.

The cons:  I don't love that their search "home page" has a huge ad for Kelloggs on it.  I'm sure that's how they make some money since the basic service is free, but I really don't want my kids to have ads on their homepage.  Also, you can still get to some "questionable" stuff even using their search engine, but I am very conservative, so my standards my be different than those of others.   I think creating a list of allowable sites would be the safest route if you really want protection.  And unfortunately, while I loved getting the messages about questionable words my son had typed, the link for me to click and disable his internet can have a lag time of 10 minutes, so if my son really was getting into things he shouldn't be, 10 minutes is quite a window, and he (or any of my children) could see an awful lot in 10 minutes that I wouldn't want them seeing.  He's complained about lag time in his favorite online game ever since this was installed, but it doesn't seem to make any non-internet functions slower on his computer. Finally, I wish the text log also told what website he was on when he typed that text and not just the day and time it was typed!  And I really, really wish I could view the logs of his activity from the comfort of my own computer instead of having to go log into his to see it.

The bottom line:  I think it's well worth it to check out the FREE version of Action Alert.  It's not perfect, but as a company they have expressed their willingness to keep improving their product, and it is still a good starting place to protect your kids.  And if you have a child who has had past issues online, I think the monitoring offered by the paid version is worth it.  At least, it's been very helpful to me to be able to see that my son really is making wise choices now about his internet usage.

To download the FREE version of Action Alert or to buy the paid version, go HERE  To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say, go HERE.

Legal Disclaimer:  As a member of the TOS Crew, I received a free download of the maximum protection software for the purpose of providing my honest review.  That download is the only compensation I received.
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Friday, March 16, 2012

The Art of Argument Review

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My daughter Mimi is a born debater.  In fact, her dad and I frequently joke about how law school is in her future (it's only a joke because our desire is for our girls to be keepers of their homes).  But no matter what her future occupation, or the occupations of my other children, all of them would benefit from learning more about what makes a valid argument.

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Now, I know what you are thinking...what kids need help with arguing?  But this type of argument is about logic and reason, not the type that most kids engage in :-).  Below is what their website has to say:

Junior high aged students will argue (and sometimes quarrel), but they won't argue well without good training. Young teens are also targeted by advertisers with a vengeance. From billboards to commercials to a walk down the mall, fallacious arguments are everywhere you look. The Art of Argument was designed to teach the argumentative adolescent how to reason with clarity, relevance and purpose at a time when he has a penchant for the "why" and "how". It is designed to equip and sharpen young minds as they live, play, and grow in this highly commercial culture. This course teaches students to recognize and identify twenty-eight informal fallacies, and the eye-catching text includes over sixty slick and clever, “phony advertisements” for items from blue jeans to pick-up trucks, which apply the fallacies to a myriad of real life situations.

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The Art of Argument, an Introduction to Informal Fallacies,  comes in a student version and a Teacher's Edition.  The student version has 3 units-one for each type of fallacy-relevance, presumption, and clarity.  The units are further divided into chapters (6 in all) that teach more about how each of those fallacies is used.  Overall, 28 different fallacies are covered.  The chapters have many questions for the students to answer along the way, so the book could be consumable unless the student just writes their answers on paper.  And every chapter ends with a review that the students fill out (like a test, but they don't call it that).   The master of logic, Socrates, joins a college student Tiffany and her boyfriend Nate to talk about the fallacies in an easy to read dialogue that explains each concept in everyday language.  The Teacher's Edition contains the same information as the student version with the addition of answers to the questions in the text and a bunch of test and quiz options in the back of the book.  The optional CDs, shown below, feature 4 students and 2 adult teachers discussing topics from each lesson.  They are NOT built into the syllabus of the books, so they are not at all necessary, but they offer good information.

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The pros:  The book is full of (made up) examples of how each of these fallacies is used in the advertising our kids are exposed to every day.  The insight they offer about ads and politics and the legal system is invaluable.  While targeted at junior high students, I think high schoolers would almost be better suited to being able to learn and retain all the information the book has to impart. 

The cons:  While I LOVE how the book teaches how to identify invalid arguments, I think it has too much information.  Keeping track of 28 fallacies and what makes each one unique is challenging.  It seems like it would make a great class at a co-op, but it was hard to enjoy fully with just a few students all at different ages.  In fact, I think it was a little too smart for all my students, at least at their current ages (14 (but delayed), 12, and 10).  My daughter did not think some of the examples were appropriate, like the fake beer ads or the example story that stated "Mr. Johnson is a drunk". 

The bottom line:  I like the concept of this curriculum, but it just didn't work for us at the present time.  I think it would make a wonderful self taught high school level logic class, but for junior high it would work better in a group setting with guided instruction. 

To order The Art of Argument go HERE.  The student book is $21.95, the Teacher's Edition is $24.95, and the DVDs are $54.95.  A bundle of all of the above is available for $88.95. 

To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say, go HERE.

Legal disclaimer:  I received the above books and DVD 1 of a 5 part set in exchange for my honest review.  Those products are the only compensation I received for this review.
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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Science the Painless Way


When my children were little, my favorite science resource was life.  I mean, all you have to do is go outside and turn over a log to find enough bugs to keep you (and your children) busy for hours.  Fill a bird feeder for regular visits from your fine feathered friends.  Lie down on a blanket and watch the clouds go by.  God's creation is the best resource for early childhood science.  And it's free!
 
Then the kids got a little older, and we got theme park tickets.  I know what you're thinking, but Sea World is the best marine mammal unit study you could ever want!  And Disney's Animal Kingdom?  Well, there is every type of mammal, reptile, bird, or fish you can think of.  In spite of my desperate desire to have more than one season a year, it does pay to live in Central Florida!

Then the kids got, well, even older.  And I had the good fortune to review Apologia Science right around that time.  I fell in love.  Having not received an education with a Christian worldview myself, it was imperative for me to find a curriculum that taught solid science with an emphasis on the Creator of it all.  It's a mastery approach, meaning you learn about each topic in depth instead of a little bit year after year.  But it's so beautifully written and always points back to God as the masterful designer of it all-no matter what area you are studying.  But because it's the mastery approach, the questions are sometimes little "too smart" for my children.  And that's what brings me to my favorite science resource...

Live and Learn Press's Learn 'N Folders .  If you are familiar with lapbooks or notebooking, they are similar to that.  But of all the different companies who make companion products for Apologia (including Apologia itself), these are the ones I like the best.  They make science painless.  There is something much more palatable for each of my children (ages 14, 12, and 10) about filling out a mini-book than there is about answering the same question straight out of the book.  I don't claim to understand it- I just can tell you it works.  And with mini-books, I can easily edit which questions I want them to answer by only giving them the corresponding mini-books, meaning I can tailor it so that the questions aren't "too smart" for the child I'm giving them to.  I tell you, I'm smitten.  At the end or the year, we have a notebook full of mini-books with all the important information from whatever book we have studied.  The kids can go back and easily review and we can look them over year after year to keep the information fresh (if we want to).

So there you have it...my favorite science resource is Learn 'N Folders from Live and Learn Press.  To see what other members of the TOS Crew consider to be their favorite science resource, go HERE.
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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Happy 7th Birthday Sari!

Today, my baby turns 7.  It seems so impossible that it was 7 years ago when she was born right here in this house (yes, on purpose).  She was a delight from the very beginning and completes our family quite nicely.  She's endlessly imaginative, and loves to play with Littlest Pet Shop animals, or with Barbies, or with baby dolls.  Her favorite is her new American Girl Kanani doll that she got for Christmas.  Sari loves little children, and especially babies.  She's a born nurturer, and she'll be a great mom someday.
My baby girl and I

Spending time with Gram


Fun hats at Universal

Ditto :-)

Striking a silly pose.

The Sari I know and love.
Happy Birthday Sari :-)
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Sunday, March 4, 2012

K5 Learning Review

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K5 Learning is an "online after-school study program" (and homeschool reinforcement program) for kids in kindergarten to grade 5.  The focus is on building "reading, math and study skills to last a lifetime".   There are over 3000 interactive tutorials and activities for your student to work on at their own pace, and thanks to assessment tests, they can work at their specific level, too. 

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When your child begins with K5, you can have them start at grade level, or take a free assessment to place them according to their skill. Above, you can see a sample report that shows the results from a student's assessment.  Your child is given a score based on their results, and that score determines where they fall in the grade level spectrum.  Mastered subjects are removed from instruction, and remedial support is given for areas that are not up to grade level.

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The lessons are fun and engaging, but not mindless games.  They focus on real skills, and seem to provide some "meaty" instruction.  The lessons are also broken up into very short segments.

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A math facts component allows for short drills of math facts in a fun environment, and there is a similar spelling component. Some people will find it reassuring that children cannot work below their level, or repeat things they have already mastered.

The pros: I like that there are no ads, no commercial messages, no external links and no chat.  It is a very safe environment, and I have not, as of yet, come across anything objectionable (content wise).  Parents can go in and enter specific lessons for their child to work on.  Lessons are short, and not overwhelming.  I loved the online reading assessment and the opportunity to see how my children were doing.  And I think they are one of the best systems of parental reporting I have ever encountered with an online program.  There is a lot of information available to you, the parent, about what your child has done.

The cons:  As much as I enjoyed the assessments, they left me with more questions than answers.  My son, for example, tested above grade level in reading, but a full grade level behind in phonics.  But he reads and Comprehends a full grade level above, and he speaks clearly and reads aloud well and correctly, so I'm at a loss as to why he tested low in phonics, and I can't seem to get more information.  And my oldest daughter, who is technically 6th grade, tested in grade level for math, although each of her individual scores was below grade level?  I just didn't understand it.  And she felt that the assessment didn't necessarily help her placement-her first math lesson was on reading time on the clock, which she felt was a bit beneath a 6th grader's level.  My other con comes from her as well....because the lessons are broken up into segments, it's really hard to know when you are finished with a lesson (if you don't, as a student, realize that each lesson ends with a quiz).  She worked through 3 "lessons" in 4 minutes, and thought she had actually done 3 lessons, when she had just done segments of lessons.  She was looking for a "you're done with that now" sort of indication. My youngest, who is the child I really intended to use the program, seemed to enjoy it, and she scored well in each lesson and has shown some improvement.

The bottom line:  Following this link gets you a free trial of K5.  No credit card info is required-free is really free.   That may be the best way to see if K5 is right for you.  The monthly fee is $25/month ($199/year) for your first child and $15/month ($129/year) for each additional child, so it is a financial commitment you want to be sure will benefit your child. 

To check out K5 for yourself, go HERE.  To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say, go HERE.

Legal Disclaimer:  As a member of the TOS Crew, I received a 6 week free subscription to K5 Learning so that I could evaluate it and offer my honest opinion.  That trial was the only compensation I received.
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Friday, March 2, 2012

Reading Eggs Review

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This has been an exciting time in our house!  If you've read my last few reviews, we have really been blessed in the past few weeks to receive a few products that I've truly loved and that have benefited our homeschool SO much.  I don't want to be redundant in my praise, but Reading Eggs is another one of those products!

Reading Eggs is an online reading program designed for 4-8 year olds.  It was developed by teachers, educational writers, animators, and web developers.  Currently, it has the ability to take a child from being a non-reader to reading on a 1st grade level, and more lessons are in the works.  There is also a companion site, Reading Eggspress, for children ages 7 – 13 years old. It features more than 700 books in the library, 200 big comprehension lessons, 100-level quest-style game and a stadium with real-time contests against players from around the country and around the world.

When you first sign your child up, you can chose to either start at the beginning or take an assessment (for children with some reading skills already)-seen below.
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After that, your child begins on their own map.  Each dot is a lesson that covers a particular sound (phonogram), or sound combination. 
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Within each lesson, an animated character like Sam the Ant (below) models the concept for them and then guide the student through activities to ensure they understand.  A student must get 7 correct answers before moving on.  After that, there is a connect the dot activity for the letter or sound, and then upper and lower case letter recognition.  Then the student does some vocabulary based activities that prepares them for the biggest component-reading an e-book.  The books have audio support, and are also available in print form so you can use them when you are not "plugged in". 

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The final part of each lesson is the cracking open of an egg which reveals a critter for their collection.  For example, Catty Cake is the Reading Eggs critter for the letter Cc and everything about her reinforces the letter that was worked on.  In the "My Critters" section of the website, a matching card shows that Catty Cake lives on a cosy cushion, is friends with a cow and a camel, eats corn and carrots, and loves to cook cakes.

Students can repeat lessons whenever they want.  They also earn spendable eggs as they play, and can use them for items to decorate their own house or buy clothes for their avatar.  For fun, they can play games at the Arcade, or visit Puzzle Park, or the Playroom, or once they unlock them, several other activities like Driving Test.  All these "fun" things also reinforce the learning they have done up to that point. 

While Reading Eggs is the main area I looked at because I have a beginner reader, since others on the TOS Crew with older kids were gushing about Reading Eggspress, I just signed my son up for a free 2 week trial of that, so I can give a little information about that too.  Like Reading Eggs has it's own virtual setting, Reading Eggspress takes place on a floating island.
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When you begin, you take an assessment to see where you are at in terms of reading level and comprehension, and I was pleased that my son tested just a hair above his current grade!
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After that,  you begin playing.  Each person has an avatar, although these are more "real" looking people than the Reading Eggs ones.  Again, you can customize the look of your avatar and decorate your living space with the money you earn in-game by completing reading tasks.  Below is a screenshot of the Comprehension Gym.
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The pros:  As soon as I saw Reading Eggs on the list of upcoming reviews, I decided to check it out, since I had heard lots of good things about it from various places.  They offer a free 2 week trial, so we actually got a jumpstart on reviewing this.  My daughter LOVES it.  Really, truly, loves it.  She would do Reading Eggs all day if I would let her.  As the youngest of four, she often is done with her school work long before her siblings, and Reading Eggs has really come to the rescue with a safe online learning environment that is SO much fun she doesn't even know she's learning.  But she is!  She's on level 56 already, and making progress every day.  She loves the songs the best, and has even learned some of those typical grade school songs that I never seem to teach my kids, like The Grand Old Duke of York or The Ants Go Marching.  Her favorite one is something about a floppy scarecrow?  I don't know, but it makes me laugh to watch her do it and listen to her sing along.  She is having SO MUCH FUN with Reading Eggs, and learning while she's doing it.  As I mentioned, TJ just started on Reading Eggspress, but he reports it's fun too, and I know it's challenging, because I've seen him get a few wrong answers on the comprehension questions!

The cons:  You should know that the Reading Eggs avatars are all whimsical, like people or animals in partially hatched shells.  You can customize them, so your child's avatar could have T-Rex arms and a human head if they designed it that way.  Some of the background characters might be a little weird, with pumpkin heads or fantasy creature like attributes.  And while the Reading Eggspress avatars are more "human" there are background creatures there that are mythological or fantasy based that might bother some people.  My only person con is that it can be pricey for homeschool families if you have multiple children wanting to do it.  The cost is $9.95 a month, and is less if you pay buy the half-year ($49.95/$8.33 a month) or year ($75/$6.25 a month).  I don't see where there is a family pricing structure, so that would be per child. 

The bottom line:  Anyone who knows me knows how frugal I am, but I have to say, I'd PAY for Sari to keep using Reading Eggs.  That's how much we like it.  Unfortunately, now that I introduced TJ to Reading Eggspress, I think he'd like me to pay for that for him too, and I'm not sure that's nearly as justifiable since he reads above grade level :-).  I do want to encourage you to sign up for the free 2 week trial because you have nothing to lose, and you don't even have to give them credit card info to get your trail-I love them for that fact alone!  And keep your eye out for codes that provide even longer access.  I know The Old Schoolhouse just had one that gave you a free month.  You can only use so many codes per child, but it definitely helps.  And Reading Eggs offers 2 free weeks for each referral you send their way, so that's helpful too. 

To sign up for Reading Eggs, go HERE.  To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say (some with way more experience with Reading Eggspress than I had), go HERE.

Legal Disclaimer: I received a multi-week online membership for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
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Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Guardian Duke Book Review


The Guardian Duke is award-winning novelist Jamie Carie’s most exciting story yet, a uniquely arranged Regency-era romantic adventure where hero and heroine know each other through written letters but have yet to meet.

Gabriel, the Duke of St. Easton, is ordered by the King to take guardianship over Lady Alexandria Featherstone whose parents are presumed dead after failing to return from a high profile treasure hunt. But Alexandria ignores this royal reassignment, believing her parents are still alive and duly following clues that may lead to their whereabouts. Gabriel, pressured by what are actually the King’s ulterior motives, pursues her across windswept England and the rolling green hills of Ireland but is always one step behind.

When they do meet, the search for earthly treasure will pale in comparison to what God has planned for both of them.

About the author:
When she was six, Jamie’s parents met Jesus and soon after started a church. It changed everything. Road trips with her dad—to and from Bible studies across Indiana—were filled with talks of things beyond earth’s bounds – creation and the fall, God and Jesus and the rapture, the earthly walk compared to the spiritual walk, and how we are born for more than what we can see or touch.

The highlight of those nights was stopping at a truck stop in the middle of the night where her dad would spend a little of the offering basket on two slices of pie and a couple of Cokes. Nothing ever felt so special as a middle of the night slice of pie with her dad. And nothing could stop the writing pouring out of her.

As Jamie’s relationship with God grew, she discovered her heart was filled with songs and poetry. During high school she wrote lyrics for her brother’s band. (And she sang them too!) After college, Jamie married, had two sons and decided to stay home with them. While she homeschooled she wrote skits, poems, plays and short stories for school and church.
When her eldest son turned five she dove into the world of novels. She’d read romance novels for years, but couldn’t relate to the flawless, saintly heroines in Christian romance novels. So she decided to write her own.

Snow Angel was born on a frosty night in an old farmhouse in Fishers, Indiana, where the cold floor gave plenty of motivation for the snow scene. Jamie loves to write late at night when the house is quiet and the darkness seems alive. Elizabeth and Noah had been playacting in her head for a long time, so the story went fast.
Ten years later Snow Angel was published and won the ForeWord magazine Romance Book of the Year winner, was a National “Best Books 2007” Awards winner, and a 2008 RITA Awards® Best First Book finalist. It was the beginning of her dream career.

Jamie and her husband Tony have been married for twenty-one years and live in Indianapolis with their three sons and a giant of a dog named Leo.

If she could only say one thing to her readers it would be, “Live the dreams God has destined you for!”

Want to know more?  Watch this clip!

You can buy The Guardian Duke from Amazon or check it out on Facebook

One Blessed Mamma says:  I liked this book.  The characters were well thought out and believable and there is a nice balance of lighthearted moments and serious conflict.  Set in the Regency Era, it is an insightful look into the landed gentry of the British Isles.  The Duke and his charge are caught in a cat-and-mouse pursuit that keeps you turning pages and ignoring how heavy your eyelids are getting.  My greatest disappointment is that Gabriel and Alex only meet at the very end of the book, and only realize each other's identity after they have parted company, so the book ends with a HUGE cliffhanger that leaves you thinking this summer, and the release of the second book in the series, can't come fast enough.  It's like when your favorite TV show ends with a colossal cliffhanger of a season finale, and you have to wait all summer for the next season to start!  I will definitely be checking out the next book and can't wait to find out what happens with Alex, Gabriel, and Alex's quest to find her parents.

Best of all, I have a copy of The Guardian Duke to give away to a lucky reader!  Just follow the instructions below.


a Rafflecopter giveaway




Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally 
and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
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