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A children's writer's blog about life as an author. Learn about upcoming conferences, work, how to write a great manuscript, tips from the book launch road and more!
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1. The Book Review Club - Belzhar

Belzhar
Meg Wolitzer
YA

In the spirit of the cold winter months' clamor for a good book to curl up with, I present Belzhar. I had the great pleasure of listening to Meg Wolitzer speak at BEA in May. She is an author of predominantly adult books who's tried her hand at YA and delivered a strong, new voice to enjoy.

Belzhar is the story of Jam who has basically given up on living after she loses her boyfriend. She stops functioning at school and becomes so depressed her parents and therapist send her to The Wooden Barn, a school for teens struggling with traumatic issues in Vermont. There, Jam is enrolled in a special English class that changes her life. Not only does she meet a new boy but also, at the same time, gets to communicate with the boy she's lost in a world unlike any other. Jam makes friends, rebuilds her life, but cannot move forward until she not only faces but relives the trauma that imploded her old life.

Woltizer's writing is strong, her characters both flawed and endearing, and her alternate reality within reality a great hook that entices the reader throughout the story.

There is an interesting trend, almost rule, within YA that the story is written in present tense. This is to make the reader feel closer to the events happening, and to mimic how very much teenagers are affected and live in the "now". It has made me wonder how exportable present tense storytelling is. I've used it in a picture book, just to try it out, to get a feel for the effect of tense. In a way, present tense makes even the past seem very present. It speeds up action and imbues what is happening with novelty, urgency and unpreditability. There's no telling how the story can end, especially if it is in first person POV. I just ran across a chapter of present tense in an adult novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Man Booker Winner 2014). The story up until that moment had been told in simple past, then suddenly, present tense appears. It was a jarring, blast of air that pulled me out of the observer's position and into the narrative.  I straightened and listened more closely. This had to be important. What a difference a tense can make.

For more great books to balance out the hustle and bustle of the end of the year,  check out Barrie Summy's site. Happy reading and a wonderful new year!

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2. The Book Review Club - Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
science fiction

I am a closet-case sci-fi fan. Or, as multiple book reviews on this blog have probably revealed, maybe not so closet case. I looked forward to reading Ancillary Justice when I'd seen it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. I cut my sci-fi teeth on the likes of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Frank Herbert's Dune in between installments of Little House on the Prairie. That is the seventies in a nutshell. And I figured, if Leckie could beat Andy Weir's The Martian, which I love, in the awards category, I was about to fall in love again.

Let's just say Ancillary Justice and I got off to a rocky start. It was not love at first sight. In fact, the novel frustrated me  (incidentally, it was the same when I first met my husband).

Basic plot - a space ship decides to take revenge on the leader of the culture that made - and ultimately attempts to destroy - it (Ancillary Justice, not my marriage; it's still happily intact).

It's fascinating stuff. AI taken to a whole new level. However, the AI can't decipher female from male and so refers to everyone as "she". Sometimes, gender is specified, but then the ship reverts to calling said characters "she". For me, it made connecting with characters really hard. And that made me wonder, why does gender matters in story? Or rather, does gender matter in story? Should it matter? What does Leckie gain by making her story more or less gender neutral?

I haven't finished figuring all of this out, but I have come to the conclusion that for the story, by making everyone gender neutral, characters become sentient beings. That's it. They have flaws and quirks, but in remaining gender neutral, they never became much deeper than that. This may, in part, have to do with the boundaries of my hermeneutics. I live in a world in which, for the most part, the gender of any person I interact with, is clear. With that comes mounds of unspoken data.  Without that, I have to rethink my world. That is what Leckie forced me, as a reader, to do in her novel. I had to see it through a different lens, a new lens, one I haven't completely finished sanding down yet, and won't, without further interaction.

The absence of gender imploded my hermeneutic structure of interpretation. It made me feel uneasy. And it's kept me feeling uneasy. And thinking. In other words, it's genius.

For more great reads, visit Barrie Summy's website. She's got a bushelful!

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3.

Maggot Moon
Sally Gardner
YA

I used to say I was a closet case trekkie, but this is my second post about a story with a scifi bent in less than a year. I think I've trekked out of the closet...in a Dr. Who sort of way. But that's another story.

Maggot Moon, truth be told, is less science fiction than alternate reality (along the lines of Vaterland). Basic premise - England (or something very near it) has been taken over by an fascist authoritarian regime that wants to put a man on the moon to prove its prowess to the rest of the world. Snag - the moon is too radioactive. Any possible human visitors would fry in orbit. It's a minor technicality for the Motherland. One easily solved with good old-fashioned smoke, mirrors, and Egyptian brutality. However, they don't count on Standish Treadwell (oh, the symbolism in that name!) to stand in their way.

I enjoyed Gardner's mash of alternate reality, conspiracy theories that the United States' moon landing was a hoax, and flawed, painfully human main character. She does an excellent job of building foreboding, of making sure the reader knows this cannot end well without, however, knowing how the story will end. Writing genius.

The chapters were also amazingly short, reminiscent of Kevin Henke's Olive's Ocean. The effect was, for me, choppy. However, both author and main character are dyslexic, and that much white space can be a godsend to a struggling reader. So, my discomfort may actually be a struggling reader's greatest comfort.

The additional illustrations throughout the book of the rat and fly give visual reinforcement to the decadence inherent in the world in which Standish is caught.

The issue that's kept me mulling is Standish's character and his development. I like Standish. He's real. He has real problems. He doesn't seem to have any real personality flaws, however. Yes, Standish has all of these problems - parents have disappeared, dyslexia, different eye colors, outcast of society, grandfather who's been reeducated, evil, brutish teachers - but they aren't personality flaws per se. He struggles with them because the world around him sees them as issues that make him less of a person.  He is basically the good guy fascist systems destroy, not the conflicted protagonist whose personality shortcomings lead to destruction and, out of that, growth, such as Sara Louise in Paterson's Jacob I Have Loved. 

Ah, characters. They come in all shapes and sizes!

For a cornucopia of fall delights, check out Barrie Summy's website.  

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4. The Book Review Club - Anna Was Here

Anna was Here
Jane Kutz
middle grade

I'm stretching ye olde reviewing skills again with my first review after the summer siesta of the Book Review Club. Fortunately, Jane Kurtz makes my work so much easier. Anna was Here was a fun, entertaining, timeless story. Dare I say, it's a meat and potatoes book cloaked in chocolate pudding. They don't get any better than that!

Plot synopsis: Anna, daughter of a minister and university professor, must move to Kansas when her father accepts a temporary post as pastor to an ailing church in a small town. Catch: the small town is filled with relatives and uneasy family history.

This story is as much about mending broken ties in a community and family as it is about the change and discomfort that comes from a big move and new start. What struck me is how evenly balanced this story is. All of the parts - character, plot, setting - work in harmony. None is louder than the others. They each take center stage for appropriate but not prolonged solos.

While there is a religious element to this story, Kurtz does an excellent job of, again, balancing. Religion doesn't take over. The story doesn't become about religion, or faith, or belief, or what one person believes in lieu of another. Rather, it remains another story element, nicely blended, fulfilling the role Kurtz sets out for it, which is, interestingly, both dividing and unifying. 

All of that got me to thinking about voice. I've heard the term described as so many different things, not the least of which is the tone of a piece, or an author's style. Anna was Here made me rethink those. After all, they already have their own iconic terminology. But voice is still missing its fundamental definition (at least for me, it was). So I came up with my own: voice is the result of a writer's blend of style, tone, character, setting, plot, and the various other parts of story. In other words, voice isn't any one thing. It's what is created when all of the parts are blended and create something greater than the sum of those parts = voice.

I'm pretty sure I haven't reinvented the definitional wheel on voice, but it finally makes sense to me. Thanks Jane Kurtz!

Other fall delights, are a finger's stretch away at Barrie Summy's blog. Happy reading!

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5. The Book Review Club - We Were Liars

We Were Liars
E. Lockhart
YA

I had the great pleasure of listening to a panel on which Emily Lockhart spoke at BEA. She is an adroit, strong, well-spoken writer. I was intrigued and decided to end my year of book reviews with one about her latest, We Were Liars.

Lockhart has a style all her own, somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway - parsimonious, yet emotionally sated. Style alone - doing a lot with so few word - is reason enough to read We Were Liars. Plus, there's that whole, it's a "damn fine story" aspect. Is one allowed to curse in book reviews? I wonder. Ah well. This is YA people. Cursing happens.

I very much like Penguin's recap of this book, so I am shamelessly stealing:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate,
 political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

Again, parsimonious, almost free verse.

Lockhart builds in a nice, other worldly experience into the book that the book blurb doesn't reference, and of the four friends, three are cousins, but otherwise, the synopsis captures style and story very well.

I've only met one reader so far who didn't pick up on the other worldly experience early in the story. I'm not sure you're not supposed to pick up on it. In fact, I think you're supposed to sense it but not be sure, paralleling the experience of the main character. There are parallels to M. Night Shyamalan's visual work. 

My oldest has to read two novels for the summer for her Fall Sophomore class English. I've pressed this one on her. Think of all of those coming of age stories you had to read - Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye - that's where this book belongs, only written in today's vernacular and thus readily accessible to today's youth without becoming weighty. This could also make a great beach read since it happens in summer, at least partly on a beach.

For other great summer treasures, Barrie Summy's website marks the spot for  reads galore. Have a great summer!

  

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6. The Writing Process Blog Tour

The Spanish Inquisition has found me! Ack!

Okay, okay, it's not the Spanish Inquisition exactly. It's the Writing Process Blog Tour, but you see the parallels, right? Introverts kissing and telling all in an open forum. I shudder and wish for tea. 

The idea behind this whirlwind tour is that after one writer confesses her deepest darkest secrets about how she really does what she does, she tags two other writers and so on and so on, until there are no untagged writers left. Again, there are parallels.

I add my confession to the long list of venerable writers who go before me, starting with Annemarie O'Brien, fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) alum and author of the middle grade novel, Lara's Gift, who tagged me. You can read her deep dark writing secrets here.

Want more juicy tidbits? Just follow the link in Annemarie's post to Lisa Doan, to Kelly Jones all the way back to the first Divulger of the kidlit writing secrets. Who is it? Ah, you must follows the Confessors to find out. Or, jump forward to next week's pair. They're a wily duo of rose-snipping, pen-twirling swashbucklers if I've ever met one. See below for blurbs on each.

So, without further ado, thumbscrews please:

What am I currently working on? 
A couple of different things. I'm in the marketing stage for two picture books that release this year - Toby and Waggers - which takes up A LOT of time, but is fun because I get to talk to real people in real time! Heady stuff. 

I'm researching a project set during WW II that is loosely based around my grandfather's canoe trip down the Mississippi from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico and into the World War II, working title H. I am revising a YA novel that is a retelling of Moses in a Blade Runneresque world, Skin Deep. And I'm writing two new picture books - Tour de Trike and The Four Tenners. I like to mix things up. It keeps me sane...or so I tell myself.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 
Man, that's like asking me how my fingerprint is different from someone else's. Let's see. I don't like boxes. The idea of writing only one form or one type of story is Dante's special level of hell for me. I am the Potpourri Writer. Whatever the story is, that's what I'm following and working on. It's all about the story and improving my writing. And my writing gets better the more I cross-write. The brevity of picture books tightens my novel writing. Dialogue heavy film scripts improve my novel dialogue. Novel plots hone my skills for descriptive, scene setting. Poetry reminds me to value the weight, feel and sound of words together and alone.

Why do I write what I write?
I write what peeks my curiosity, worlds I want to live in, worlds I don't understand, subjects I want to learn more about. Writing gives me the chance to explore and understand our unbearable lightness of being and reimagine it.

How does my individual writing process work?
I'm on the rack now!  For me, writing is messy - process and logistics. I tend to write by the seat of my pants. I'm not a big outliner...unless I'm doing a film script. I'm not sure why. It could be that scripts are so dialogue heavy, I need the outline to know what my characters are going to say. I don't outline for picture books. Novels vary. I can go either way, but if I outline, it's more of hastily road map than a cartographer's masterpiece.

As for focus,  I don't ever work on just one project...mostly. Ironically, months into a novel ms, that's when picture book ideas crop up like night mushrooms. I usually take an afternoon or morning off to get them down. Sometimes that blossoms into a week. And then I go back to the novel. It's messy.

And finally, logistics - still messy.  I'm at my desk every day from 8:30 - 6:00, but there are varying unavoidable breaks in there to pick kids up from school or ferry them to after school activities. I get in at least 4 hours of solid writing a day - in between the breaks. I hope for inspiration. It meanders in some days. More often, I curse the writing gods and plow on.

Secret weapon - a secret drawer of chocolate AND gummy bears for those really rough days. FYI  - Gummy bears cannot type. You can, however, make really neat crime scenes with them without ever having to leave your desk. Not that I do...much.

Next week's Confessors:

Marsha Diane Arnold
Marsha has been called a "born storyteller" by the media. Already an award-winning author, 2013 was a banner year. She sold four picture books to Neal Porter Books, Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin, and Tamarind, UK. Her Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books has helped many writers develop strong, spunky characters. She grew up in Kansas, walking barefoot and climbing trees, and still loves bare feet and trees.
For her kiss and tell answers to the questions above, click here.




R.A. Costello

R.A. Costello mostly writes fiction for and about LGBTQ teens who are figuring out who they want to be - and be with - while fighting against the jerks and bigots that stand in their way. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is hard at work on his debut YA novel, The Shelter Sea.
For his kiss and tell answers to the questions above, click here.

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7. The Book Review Club - Cinder, Scarlet & Cress (The Lunar Chronicles)

Cinder, Scarlet & Cress
Marissa Meyer
YA

This review has me torn. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Cinder. On the other hand, I had a hard time moving from book 1 to book 2 because main protagonists change. Is this a revolutionary way to avoid the sequel slowdown? Or does it kill the reading momentum?

But one thing at a time. First, Cinder.

Basic premise: A retelling of Cinderella as a cyborg/lunar girl living in a future Beijing in which the Queen of the Moon threatens to attack and enslave (or destroy) earth. Cinder, a mechanic and adopted daughter of the archetypically evil stepmother and one evil stepsister and one nice stepsister, is (spoiler alert!) secretly the rightful heir to the lunar throne. She doesn't know it yet. She thinks she's just a mechanic, who is also partly cyborg, and thus despised by most. Cyborgs are considered de-humanized by the cybernetic parts. Add to that, earthens suffer a plague caused by a viral strain introduced by runaway lunars.

As Fate would have it, the crown prince, Kai, is looking for the lost lunar heir, and comes to Cinder to repair  a broken android that may hold the answers to the lost princess's whereabouts. Cue: meet-cute.

The rest of the book is action-packed unraveling of the plague, who the princess is, the love interest between Cinder and Kai that all lead up to the annual ball where (spoiler alert!) the princess does not get her prince. In fact, he sacrifices her to the Lunar Queen to save earth.

Despite how much is going on in this story, it held my attention and was a fun read. Definitely a dessert book. My youngest loved the book so much, she asked if we could get the second book. We listened to both as audio books. We got it. We almost didn't get through.

Scarlet begins with a wholly different protagonist, namely, a character based on Little Red Riding Hood, with a parallel story about the people who helped Cinder escape from the moon, hide her and transform/heal her as a cyborg. It was very jarring to trade out one main protagonist for another, and in this instance, Scarlet is a very angry 18 year old, which makes it hard to feel empathy for her. She constantly lashes out. But we stuck with it (partly due to a very long car ride) and eventually, about halfway through the book, were able to listen without checking the clock.

I'm not sure I'd have bought the third book, but Scarlet ended in the middle of said long car trip, so we did. Cress follows the same pattern as Scarlet, introducing yet another new main protagonist and another retelling of a fairy tale, Rapunzel.

All of the main female lead's stories are connected and interwoven. The writing is tight and filled with action. And I admire Meyer for coming up with a novel way to avoid the sequel slowdown. I'm not sure introducing a new protagonist as the lead works particularly well. The reader is forced to alter heroes from one protagonist to another, while also following the original protagonist's main story as it unfolds in a sort of b-story role.  Clearly, these books have sold exceptionally well, so something is working. Maybe it's my misperception that I'm getting hung up on. This isn't a trilogy. These are chronicles, loosely related stories that are nevertheless connected and do move forward toward a common goal. Still, it was jarring to move from book 1 to 2. And yet, here I am on book 3. Like I said, these books have me torn.

For other great May treasures, click on over to Barrie Summy's website. Happy reading!

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8. Blog Tour de Toby Turtle 2014!

Pack your snorkel and fins. It's time for the Toby blog tour!

Toby is my upcoming picture book about a plucky sea turtle's adventures from egg to nest. I'll be signing books, talking turtles, divulging my innermost rhyming secrets (and just how many pencils I chewed through to finish this story!).

Without further ado, here is the tour call out:

Award-winning author Stacy Nyikos will be hosting a blog tour June 8-14, 2014, to celebrate the launch of her new book Toby.

Stacy is offering blog interviews, guest blogs, and a limited number of books for review and giveaways.  About Stacy Nyikos – In a quiet little office/at a comfy little desk/Stacy Nyikos chews on pencils/and scribbles silliness…when she’s not plucking splinters from her teeth, that is. Stacy holds an MFA is Writing (silliness) for Children from Vermont College. She spends her days chasing—or being chased—by stories. Toby is her latest catch. He sees it the other way around—catching her in the form of two very curious but courageous rescue sea turtle’s she met during a behind the scenes tour of her local aquarium. Either way, a lot of pencils got crunched writing his story.

About Toby - Birds, and crabs, and crocs - oh my! - stand between Toby and his new ocean home. Can he outslip, outslide, out-double flip and dive them? Join this plucky little sea turtle on his adventures from egg to ocean to find out!


Interviews and guest blogs should be completed prior to May 31, 2014.  This is a perfect opportunity for students, librarians and bloggers to access an award-winning author at no cost.  Bring the arts to life; involve students in the interview and blogging process.

If you require a book/book review prior to an interview, please let me know your mailing address.  We have a very limited number, so contact me right away.

The tour will be publicized by Provato Events through a press release prior to the event.  All interviews will be listed on the Provato Events Website and on Stacy Nyikos’ Blog with links to the blog sites. 

To participate in the blog tour, please contact me today. 

Thank you!

<!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE <![endif]--> Michele Kophs
15114 NW 7th Ct. | Vancouver, WA 98685
360.597.3432 Direct | 646.219.4841 Fax
http://www.provatoevents.com/blog/Toby.html

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9. The Book Review Club - The Martian

The Martian
Andy Weir
Science Fiction - Adult

Pop quiz:
1) Do you ever stare at the night sky wondering if there is life out there?
2) Ever tried to levitate something with your mind?
3) Have you ever secretly (or not so secretly) watch Star Trek?

Houston, we have lift off. You like science fiction!

Science fiction has been fascinating readers from the moment Mary Shelley brought Frankenstein's monster to life. And writers of science fiction have been working to keep their edge ever since that first breath of life into their genre. Today, they're getting a little help from actual, real life physicists. Science fiction has become your basic rocket science.

How can this be? Some brilliant people at Tor had the great idea to pair up science fiction writers with NASA scientists. The result is a new list of science fiction titles, headed up by Andy Weir's, The Martian.

Basic premise: Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

More details: Mark Watney, a member of the Ares 3 Mars crew, accidentally gets left on Mars during the middle of a sandstorm. He has a habitat. He has oxygen and water. He has some food. But he doesn't have enough to last until the next Ares mission arrives. Cue creativity. How will Mark survive? Will NASA be able to help?

Weir's characters are wonderfully diverse and wickedly smart without being so smart they become inaccessible. The plot is scary believable. Accidents can happen, especially on a mission to a place as far away and foreign as Mars. The scientific does not way down the story, but rather, enhance it. Admittedly, there were moments when I did zone a little. Then again, that could have been the elliptical machine getting the better of me. I have books I "save" for work outs only. This was one. But I found myself sneaking more of The Martian whenever I could, like a secret stash of chocolate. And more than once that I had to remind myself this is NOT REAL. It's "just" a story (so stop crying!).

Tor has more books in the line up. One is about an elevator from earth to the international space station. Finally, a true fix for my science fiction addiction. I can't wait to see what they imagine up next. And...um...if it's not too much to ask, does anyone know how to get in the super secret society of writers who get to work with these amazing scientists?

For more April fling reads, check out Barrie Summy's website!


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10. The Book Review Club - MidwinterBlood

MidwinterBLOOD
Marcus Sedgwick
YA

It's one of my favorite times of the year - kids' book awards! I waited with baited breath for the new Printz and Newbury winners and the resulting pile of spanking new stories to discover.  I started with the Printz winner, MidwinterBLOOD, by Marcus Sedgwick, and oh, what delicious fun!

Multiple, seemingly unrelated tales spanning thousands of years but that nevertheless all take place on the same island with two repeating character names slowly reveal themselves as the stories of the multiple lives of two star-crossed lovers that culminate in their final breaths. And even throws in a vampire and a WW II aviator.

Yum.

This sort of storytelling mesmerizes me. It takes the short story and incorporates it into novel length. It's a two for one that cleverly takes short stories arcs and layers them into a longer, overall novel arc.  It's pretty cool how Sedgwick pulls that off. How he takes elements in one story and reworks them, nevertheless expanding and revealing backstory in another about those elements, and the two characters they revolve around.

There were a few stories in the set that I understood less quickly and had to reread, but I'd say this is a reread all the way around, it's that rich with story and new author tools to tell story.

For other stories that will put a spring in your step before we tumble forward this weekend (hopefully out of the snow and into the flowers!) check out Barrie Summy's site. Happy reading!

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11. The Book Review Club - Boxers and Saints

Boxers and Saints
Gene Luen Yang
Graphic Novel

I got hooked on graphic novels when my second daughter was diagnosed with a convergence defect. This basically means that her eyes do not move from object to object at the same time. One is a little behind the other, which makes focusing an interesting challenge...and reading, a nightmare. While she went through eye therapy, I attacked the reading challenge. I tried a Kindle so she could increase letter size. I tried easy readers. But it was graphic novels that did the trick. The minimum amount of text, yet sophisticated story line with artful, detailed illustration helped her become the reader she is today. And has made a graphic novel junkie out of both of us.

Yang's most recent masterpiece, Boxers and Saints, looks at opposing faces of war, specifically the Boxer Rebellion in China during the late 1800s, depicting both sides in characters we grow to love and empathize with, and then leave us wondering how two such deep, passionate individuals can hate each other so profoundly. The story also gives explanation as to why the Boxer Rebellion occurred, what happens when cultures clash, why both sides had their reasons for going to war. It never ceases to amaze me how a book format with so few words can do so much.

Overall, I find the prose in graphic novels less inspiring than the illustrations. It's rawer, less refined, and I may seriously be missing the boat. It may be necessary for the text to be less artful so as not to overwhelm the text.  Is this the nature of heavy dialogue - which graphic novels tend to be - that and transitional text, i.e. meanwhile, back at the ranch... Still, if you've got a recommendation for a graphic novel where the text is as breathtaking as the illustrations, please pass it on. Maybe one of these days I'll understand words well enough to collaborate with them effectively in any format. Here's hoping!

For more great challenges, scroll over to Barrie Summy's site. Happy reading!

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12. The Book Review Club - Lara's Gift

Lara's Gift
Annemarie O'Brien
middle grade

I thought about doing this book set in Russia in February since  the coldest days I've ever spent in the world were in Russia in February, but this story is too good to wait a month.

So here we go!

If you love dogs, if you love conflict, and if you love visions, you'll love Lara's Gift. The basic premise - Lara, daughter of the kennel master for an aristocratic breeder of borzoi in Russia living shortly before the Russian Revolution wants to grow up to become the kennel master, an almost unheard of feat, given she is a girl. She also has prescient visions about the dogs, which, given the role Rasputin and his "visions" played in Russian politics makes for a dangerous situation for Lara.

The story begins with the birth of a litter and Lara's vision about the runt, Zar, her father would put down. Lara convinces him otherwise, but in return she must raise the dog, a challenge she readily accepts. Flash forward 3 years and Zar's and Lara's stories begin to unfold together as her family attempts to prepare her for marriage, but her visions of Zar begin to come true, putting him, her, and other dogs in the kennel in danger.

Spoiler alert  (for all of you who love books about dogs, or have readers who do, but worry about the dead dog factor) - This book does have a dead dog, BUT, it's not Zar, and it's also not a dog we really come to care about, which makes it a lot more bearable.

The setting of this book is such a breath of fresh air in kidlit. Russia! How many children's books are set in Russia?!? Culturally, it's a smorgasbord of other. Also, it's way more accessible for the slightly older audience, who enjoy Russian literature but, say, gave up after 500 pages into War and Peace and called a truce. 

Stylistically, O'Brien interweaves multiple, related plots with ease. Her characters are genuine, believable and interesting. And she is gifted in her ability to make a foreign culture so accessible. At the climax, however, I felt the emotional conflict inside Lara gave way to pragmatism perhaps a little too easily. Without spoiling the ending, let me say (rather vaguely), Lara's sacrifice isn't given enough emotional weight, which diminishes what would otherwise have been a far more bittersweet (Russian?) and satisfying ending for me.

I understand the O'Brien's plot choice. The audience isn't predominantly an adult one. How far can we go as children's writers to do justice to the emotional reality of choices without overwhelming our younger audience?

Full disclosure -  I know Annemarie from my MFA at Vermont College; however, I was not solicited to write a review and purchased this book with my own rubles. 

For more warm winter wonders, sled on over to Barrie Summy's website!

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13. The Book Review Club - The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars
Peter Heller
Adult ("Guy" Book)

I don't know about you but picking out holiday presents for the men in my life is like going fishing. I never know if I'm going to land a keeper, or... a guppie. The Dog Stars is THE guy book of the year, and by guy, I mean, actual manly men who do manly things. Not only that, once your giftee finishes, you can mine the book for all kinds of thought-provoking writer tricks.

So, without further ado, basic premise: Man vs. Nature, Man, and Himself. Use this as your lead line when said present is unpacked. It will hook 'em. When asked for further details by other (likely female) interested parties - Hig, a survivor of a pandemic flu that wipes out the known human race, retreats to the community, now deserted, around the air strip where he keeps his plane, with his dog, Jasper (warning, Jasper is old), and fights to survive. He makes an ally, who is a weapons master. They are attacked by unfriendlies. Hig eventually leaves to find more survivors, cue - Eve. 

This book has got everything a guy reader could want - guns, planes, dogs, fishing, hunting, fighting for survival, Adam and Eve (note: this is NOT a kids' book), even poetry. Didn't see that coming, right? Neither did I, but Heller uses it boldly and uses it well.

What can the writer can take away from this piece? Heller is a poet, so the very style of word on page is as unique as a fingerprint. Rules of grammar aren't just bent or broken, they've been reinvented. For instance, Heller uses no italics to set off dialogue. Often, he doesn't even set it off at all. That made reading, at times, a little harder. It also, for me, distanced the story from the here and now. On the other hand, his overall style came across as journaling, so for some, it could make the telling more intimate. At the very least, not using "quotation marks" is a very nifty tool, if you can figure out how to use it. I'm still working on that part.

For more great stocking stuffers, bob over to Barrie Summy's site, and stock up for a very Happy New Year!

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14. The Book Review Club - Magic Marks the Spot

The Very Nearly Honorable
League of Pirates
Book 1: Magic Marks the Spot
by Caroline Carlson
Middle Grade

To say I have been waiting for this book's release like a dog waiting for a mouthwatering steak is, well, an understatement. Caroline and I were fellow classmates at Vermont College. Go Extraordinary League of Cheese Sandwiches!

I had the awesome pleasure of getting to hear an excerpt of Magic Marks the Spot during our last residency. To say the deck was stacked in favor of my liking this book is to state the obvious. But don't let my bias sway you (much :-) My girls were there too, and they were literally lining up to buy the not-yet-sold ms before the reading was over.

This is one of those books you dream about coming along. The one you'd dearly love to write and happily disappear in when you found someone else has.

Basic plot: Hilary wants to be a pirate. Her father, the admiral, is for obvious reasons grandly opposed. Her mother, a member of high society, is swooningly opposed. Hilary's magical gargoyle, and sidekick, is swashbuckingly not. The two escape boarding school to try out their piratical-ness on the high seas and find adventure galore.

Got your google browser open to download a copy?

Carlson keeps the reader magically entertained while at the same choosing Pirates of the Caribbean humor over blood and gore, which, for young readers, is such a godsend. There is no persisting nightmares in which dementors chase said child, or take up residence in her closet (which happened many many nights to my youngest after we read one of the Harry Potter books). Instead, there is laughter and merriment and general tomfoolery all around. 

From a writer's perspective, admittedly, the lack of gore and ever present possibility of sudden death  gentles the emotional ride for readers. At the same time, a young reader isn't emotionally put through the ringer either.

If for no other reason than authorly curiosity, read the story and ask yourself, what does this mean to have a plot that doesn't hinge on pain of death, but rather, uses humor to skirt the darkness that could overwhelm? It's definitely had me thinking for a long long while.

While I sit in my ivory tower and mull, check out Barry Summy's website for an autumnal gourd o' reading plenty!

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15. The Book Review Club - Ender's Game

Ender's Game
Orson Scott Card
Age Group: ?

With the movie quickly approaching, I got my hands on a copy of this almost cultish book. As a kid, I gobbled up science fiction - Dune, anything by Mary Stewart, Martian Chronicles, every Stars Wars book ever written. But Ender's Game came out way after my science fiction phase. I was well into battling my way through such wonders as the far more scientific (than fictional) Charles Monod's Chance and Necessity. Sigh. Hours of my life I'll never get back. 

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure yet, Ender's Game is a battle heavy book about a boy who has to save humankind from the perceived threat of an alien race, much like the Borg for all you trekkie fans, that have attacked earth twice. There will be no third invasion. Instead, we're taking the battle to their home world and Ender must lead the attack. 

Despite a zillion fight scenes and at times unsettling brutality, I enjoyed Ender's Game. The premise was intriguing and the characters all Byronic heroes in their own way, but more than anything what kept me coming back for more was that the writing perplexed me. Card defies boxes.

Ender is a child who writes, speaks and acts like an adult. Entirely. There is nothing childlike about him. Either this is genius on Card's part, a particularity of the genre science fiction (there are no childlike characters) or an inability to create a child protagonist. Either way, unchildlike child protagonists are definitely Card's calling card, which has led me to theorize as to what good they do. I've come up with three: 1) this kind of character holds up a mirror up to the way we treat children in war zones; 2) this character portrays the way children view themselves, and 3) these characters create stories that defy categorization.

Three intrigues me most because Card's protagonist appeals to young audience and well as older ones, and has created a cultish following among none other than teen readers. How's that for defying/embracing all categories at once? Seems like  genius on Card's part. His work defies the neat boxes publishing has attempted to erect and neatly divide books into. In getting rid of the boxes and making a jederman character, Card's stories unsettle me, and in unsettling me, challenge me as a reader to think, reassess, reenvision the world around her, and as a writer to challenge boundaries too. Yep, definitely genius.

For more great reads check out Barrie Summy's website. It's brimming with temptation!

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16. The Book Review Club - Parched

Parched
Melanie Crowder
Middle Grade

Summer has come and gone so quickly, fortunately packed with a lot of amazing reads. Which made choosing this first Fall review hard! I decided to go with my fellow Vermont College friend and amazing writer, Melanie Crowder's first book, Parched. You might argue that I'll be slightly biased in my review of this work, but this story, from its inklings to final version, won a few prestigious VCFA awards, landed Melanie her agent and first book contract. It doesn't need my bias. It stands... shines... all on its own.

Very succinctly, the story chronicles the struggles of a girl surviving on the parched African savanna and a boy escaping a d(r)ying city in search of water.

In only 160 pages, Crowder develops characters and situations so powerful they have followed me throughout all of my other reads. It's a little bit magical how she does this. It's as if she discovered Hemingway's secret for parsimony. The writing is sparse but fully packed. In some ways, it's as if poetic style has been applied to prose. For that reason alone, if you're looking for tricks of the trade, Crowder's work will keep you up nights deconstructing to figure out just how she does it.

POV is used extremely deftly. Whenever the story follows either child, POV is omniscient/close 3rd. However, this is interspersed with an unusual 1st person perspective from the POV of the main hunting dog. These short chapters are like a raw, direct, honest emotional punch that jolts the reader and pulls them deeper into story.

Finally, this story itself works like a dip into the pool of all the story that is going on around the characters. Crowder shows only what needs showing, while nevertheless belying a sense of extreme depth to her characters.

Spoiler Alert: Dogs do get hurt in this book. Yes, it is another dead dog book. My kids may never forgive me for buying it for them and urging them to read it. Protest signs against parental evilness line the walls of our house. I can think of no greater compliment for Crowder. She pulled them in. She made them care. She made them mourn and KEEP READING.

Move over Where the Red Fern Grows. There is a new contender for greatness. 

For more great reads, stroll over to Barrie Summy's site. She's serving them up cool and refreshing!

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17. The Book Review Club - The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
Katherine Applegate
middle grade

Let me say right off the bat that I really enjoyed this book. Really enjoyed it. There were some craft aspects I had my issues with, but the the emotional connection was so complete, it was impossible to walk away from the story unchanged. 

Basic plot - a silverback gorilla, Ivan, struggles to find a way to transfer a new, baby elephant, Ruby, that's been added to the circus mall where Ivan lives to a zoo.

The story is very loosely based on a real silverback gorilla named Ivan who lived in capitivity in a mall for almost 30 years. During that time, our understanding of primate needs grew exponentially until public unrest pressured Ivan's owners to put him on permanent loan to the Atlanta Zoo. Consequently, there's real behind the fiction.

Applegate does an amazing job of creating Ivan's world, bringing unspoken depths to his and the other characters' emotions, and bringing the audience into the world of captive animals. Ivan seems so very real. He has friends - a dog and an older elephant. He has animals he doesn't care for - a poodle. He's well-rounded emotionally. He also has an artistic side that ultimately helps save Ruby. I won't say how. No spoilers! Here is a very character driven story.

Yet, from a craft perspective, I had a little trouble getting through the very beginning of the story. It is intensely introspective and, at times, well, a bit of an expository dump. In Applegate's defense, she somehow had to build the story around this gorilla, but there was a lot of terminology and backstory in the beginning that got a little long. I did listen to this on tape, so length may shorten if one is reading. Still, as a writer, I wondered how the section got left as is. There had to have been a way to change it up some, to add some action to the telling, telling, telling.

On the upside, there is hope fellow writers. One does not have to create a perfectly crafted piece to create a perfectly amazing one.

For other great reads, saunter over to Barrie Summy's website. It's loaded with temptations!

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18. The Book Review Club - Aliens on Vacation


Aliens on Vacation
by Clete Barrett Smith
middle grade

Perhaps it's the alien state of my house under demolition/renovation that made me identify so completely with the shock David experiences when his grandma's B&B turns out to be a hotel for aliens. Others might argue it's that I have a teenager in the house, a veritable alien in our midst. Could be both.

Not to mention the excellent writing.

Basic premise: Twelve year old David, a.k.a. Scrub, spends the summer with his fraternal grandmother in the Pacific Northwest, far from his home in Florida. His grandmother lives in a sleepy little town well of the beaten track and David is sure summer is going to be majorly boring...until he discovers his grandma runs a hotel for aliens vacationing on planet Earth.

Let the fun begin!

Every dressed up an alien to "go native" on planet Earth?
How about bought groceries for them?
Or played a game of b-ball?

Scrub's life isn't all fun and games. Sheriff Tate suspects more goes on in the Intergalactic B & B than meets the eye. Seven foot guests and Scrub's ginormous squid "pet" he takes for walks have gotten his attention. They've gotten Amy, his daughter's, attention, too. She hides in the bushes to catch the truth on film. Scrub does his best to keep Amy from the B&B to protect his grandma's secret, but Amy isn't so easily put off. She's a space buff. Plus, she's friendly. And, well, Scrub kinda likes her.

This is a fun science fiction romp bursting with creativity and imagination. My daughter would NOT let me stop reading at night. And when we finished, the first words out of her mouth were, "When's the next book coming out?" She is in love with this series. She wants to email the author every other day as if he were her buddy.

What's really great for the adult in me is that there is meat to the grammar and word choice of this story. It's a great transitional book for kids who do chapter books but are ready for more demanding novels. The story keeps them entertained while challenging their linguistic and comprehension skills.

From an author's perspective, I really enjoyed the close third POV. At times, I forgot the book was in third person. It felt that much like first person. Which is really another reason it works so well as a transitional, tweenish book for kids graduating on to harder reads.

The one thing I wasn't completely sold on was the ending. I like them short and sweet. The last chapter ends that way, but then there's an epilogue. I think the story stands well without it, but I'm hashing literary hairs. It certainly doesn't make the piece any less fun to read. And given the fact that my daughter never wanted me to stop, it was helpful for her to fade away, rather than cut.

For more Spring flings, hop over to Barrie Summy's site!

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19. The Book Review Club - Waiting to Forget

Waiting to Forget
Sheila Kelly Welch
middle grade

Because of the age of the protagonist, I've tagged this as middle grade, as did the publisher, namelos; however, it seems wise and fair to point out that this is the story of a current day child-survivor of abuse and neglect. This isn't a light read. It's tough. It's a great book for talking through and exploring emotions, but I wouldn't send a child off to read this alone.

Basic plot: T.J.'s little sister, Angela, fell from the second story balcony into the entryway of their new adopted parent's home. While T.J. waits at the hospital to find out if his sister will be all right, he tells their story in flashback. It's a heartrending account of a mother who neglects her children, has a string of boyfriends, some nice and some less than nice, that ultimately lead her to abandoning her kids to follow her man, who has abused the children. The children then cycle through various foster homes until they're adopted. The transition to a new home is difficult, wrought with feelings of guilt and distrust and the fear of loving anyone again.

The story alternates between present tense for the here and now and past for the story leading up to the hospital. For a young reader, changing tense can be confusing. Yet another aspect of the story that makes it well-suited for group reading and discussion.

As I was reading this book, I asked myself many times "what's the point" of a story of this nature. I'll readily admit, I'm sometimes a bit slow in getting it when it comes to gritty fiction about scarring abuse for a young audience. I faced a similar paradox with the aspect of double dead parents in my own middle grade, Dragon Wishes. For me, the theme felt too heavy as a stand alone. Thus I added a second story to the first, a fantasy, that broke up the heaviness of the main, present day story, while intertwining with it to push plot forward. That was my personal choice because the topic, death of both parents, just felt too heavy all by itself for a young audience. In Waiting to Forget, there is no break from reality. The distant past is painful, the recent past is jumbled and painful, and the present is scary painful. Angela may die.

Is this a story worth telling? Absolutely. However, it's probably one that's best read and shared together for the story to have its true effect, i.e. helping children either to cope with abuse in their lives or to understand abuse and its effects on their peers.

For other great reads, hop on over to Barrie Summy's site. They're in full bloom!

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20. The Book Review Club - Jefferson's Sons

Jefferson's Sons - 
A Founding Father's Secret Children
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Grades 6 - 9

Brubaker Bradley brings to life the story of the four children - Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston - that researchers have, after much prodding, historical research and DNA analysis, acknowledged Thomas Jefferson had with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

Brubaker Bradley's story begins through the eyes of Beverly Jefferson, the eldest of the four children who survived into adulthood, and follows the story through Madison Jefferson, the middle son, and finally, Peter Fossett, the son of the blacksmith, Joe Fossett, who was sold after Jefferson's death.

It is told from close third from just one character's POV at a time. When Beverly becomes a teenager, Brubaker makes an ingenious transition from his POV to Madison's. So much so, my ten year old exclaimed, "Mama, it's Maddy's story now!" It was like a magic trick that the audience sees but still marvels at. Brubaker Bradley is a pro. I learned a few new tricks.

The story revolves around family. In this particular case, a mother, Sally, who was a slave, yet became, for all intents and purposes, the second wife of Thomas Jefferson after his first wife died. And a father, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote all men were created equal yet kept his own children as slaves. And four children who were the slaves and children of one of the United States' most revered but, as we learn through walking in these children's shoes, hypocritical founding fathers.

Brubaker Bradley spent three years working on this book. It shows. She has taken so much material and blended it so seamlessly. The story is suffused with childhood, slavery, history, philosophy, politics, historical figures. They all come to life.

My youngest daughter and I listened to the audio of this book while in DC and Charlottesville for Spring Break. About halfway through the book, we went to Monticello, Jefferson's home. My daughter's been there before, but it hadn't stuck. This time, though, the home wasn't just one more historical building we walked through. My daughter looked for traces of Hemmings' family members, and Fossetts and Hearns. History wasn't boring. It was alive and had faces. It was so cool. We even listened to a part of the story while sitting on a bench on Mulberry Row, where the slave quarters were at Monticello. Afterwards, when we were listening to Jefferson's Sons again in the car, my daughter said over and over, "oh, yeah", as she remembered the places that were a part of the story. 

This is a book you don't want to miss. The writing is superb. The subject matter begs to be discussed. And the last scene is unforgettable. 

Read it.

There are so many excellent books that have come out for children that take historical facts and weave them into fiction that breathes with life. Another, for slightly younger readers, that embraces an African American wedding tradition, jumping the broom, that is inherently tied to slavery but may actually predate it is Ellen's Broom by Kelly Starling Lyons.

I've never been much of a history fan, until now. Through these two books, I feel as if I've discover

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21. The Book Review Club - Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back
John Corey Whaley
YA

Where Things Come Back is the story of a seventeen year-old and how he and his community deal with the disappearance of his fifteen year-old brother. At the same time, a supposedly extinct woodpecker is sighted near the small Arkansas town of Lily where the story takes place, which essentially overshadows the disappearance of Cullen's brother, Gabriel. Concurrently, Whaley tells the seemingly unrelated story of misguided religious zealot/missionary, Benton Sage, his loss of faith and ultimate suicide and its domino effect on his college roommate, Cabot Searcy, which ultimately ties into Gabriel's disappearance.

The story is told from multiple POV - first person for Cullen, moments of second person when he dissociates himself from the pain of his brother's loss and explains what he feels as an observer that nonetheless pulls the reader in as the "you", as well as omniscient narrator for the sections about Benton, Cabot and ultimately Gabriel. They are masterfully woven together and well executed.

At the beginning of the story, I often found myself wondering why Cullen talked, contemplated, expressed very rarely how he felt about Gabriel's disappearance. He seemed more interested in girls. I suspect, however, this is one of those gender differences, i.e. for women, it's about our emotions. For men, it's not, not so overtly. Cullen's emotions come out in backhanded ways, e.g. the vignettes when he observes himself. Suddenly, the reader gets insight into his darkest feelings, the ones he keeps bottled up. As time passes and Gabriel is gone longer and longer, those dark emotions come to the fore more and more and invade Cullen's day-to-day life in first person. Thus, the argument could be made that, in fact, the character's emotional development is incredibly well done, just from a guy's point of view. Women take note!

While this is a complex interweaving of multiple stories, Whaley pulls it all together in the end. He ties all of the loose ends neatly together in one, intricate, interrelated knot. The ending itself is superb - a Lois Lowry's The Giver leaves-you-wondering sort of conclusion. It makes the reader stand back and think, ultimately questioning whether she is a glass half-empty or half-full sort of person? An idealist or a realist? The effect is heart-breakingly sublime. This is an ending worth reading to get to. Where Things Come Back is a book worth taking time to explore both as a story and as a writer. There are slights of craft all over the place worth unearthing and examining.

For more great reads cinco de mayo your way over to Barrie Summy's site!


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22. The Book Review Club - The Buddha in the Attice

The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka
Adult

There is a dark truth about writers. When we read good stuff, we get itchy fingers. Yep, we are word thieves, looting others work for nuggets of amazingness. My fingers weren't just itching by the time I got done with The Buddha in the Attic, they were all aflame.

Why, pray tell? Otsuka pulls off what few have pulled off well - the perfect first person plural POV story. Can you believe it? An entire story told in first person plural, as in - "On the boat, we were mostly virgins." Or - "That night our husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly."

At this point, I should probably sum up the plot - this book is about mail order brides from Japan in early 20th century U.S. - lest you get the impression this is the eastern version of Fifty Shades of Grey. It's not. It's that rare literary creature - high concept that is literary. Otsuka proves they are not mutually exclusive terms.

Otsuka also seems to know instinctively exactly where the plural first person POV can begin to wear and breaks it up with short, individualized experiences - "He's healthy, he doesn't drink, he doesn't gamble, that's all I needed to know." They give the story traction since much of it works like a Greek chorus chanting en masse. The effect is to make the experiences of the thousands of mail order brides represented in this story a conglomeration of infinite, unique facets that blend into one voice retelling history.

So, if you are looking for a meaty read, or your fingers are itching for a good steal, get The Buddha in the Attic. It won't disappoint.

For other great Fall harvests, skip over to Barrie Summy's website. The gourd of good reading is overflowing this season!

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23. The Book Review Club - Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity
Elizabeth Wein
YA

I have the very distinct impression I may be coming a little late to the Code Name Verity fan club, it's that good. Nonetheless, I can't not write about this story either. It's that riveting. It's historical fiction solidly based in history. It's storyline is so genuine, the reader is left wondering, "did it really happen"? Yet its characters are so relatable to today's young adults, there is no disconnect due to time period. Plus, the author put together an amazing author's note that explains what's real and what's not.

Basic plot line - two young British women, one a pilot, the other nobility, become friends while working in the British war effort. Queenie, the Scottish noble, becomes a spy whom Maddie, the pilot, flies her - as well as broken and repaired planes, other spies, soldiers, etc - around England and ultimately, over the Channel to France, where Queenie is caught and interrogated - first half of the book. The second half is about how Maddie, who had to crash land in France, tries to escape back to England.

The book is brimming over with fast-paced plotting and harrowing, edge of your seat, reading. 

The format is interesting in that it is essentially a journal novel written from Queenie's and Maddie's POV. By alternating POV, the reader gets a more well-rounded, yet intimate viewpoint of what is going on both behind enemy lines and allied ones.

One of the aspects of the writing that most appealed to me is that Wein made each character human. That is, each has wants and desires, both abominable and universal. It's an interesting aspect to this particular novel. It wasn't easy to hate anyone flat out, except one secondary, but high-ranking Nazi official. Wein did a great job of character development, and in so doing, in bringing to life the intricacies of war and how enemy and ally aren't as one-dimensional as the history books of my young adult years painted them. The effect is something akin to that of The Reader, remaining long after the story itself is finished and begging for further discussion.

For other great Fall diversions, stop by Barrie Summy's website!

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24. The Book Review Club - The Mighty Miss Malone

The Mighty Miss Malone
Christopher Paul Curtis
Middle grade

After all the fiscal cliff diving the United States media has practiced in the last forty-eight or so hours, this book seems incredibly fitting to review. Christopher Paul Curtis revisits the height of the Great Depression in Indiana/Michigan - site of his Newbery-winning Bud, Not Buddy - in The Mighty Miss Malone.

The story follows the lives of twelve year-old Deza Malone, her brother Jimmie and parents Peg and Roscoe as their lives spiral downwards into shanty town destitution after Deza's father leaves town to find work, her mother loses her job, and the family, their house.

What happens to a family torn apart by poverty? The Mighty Miss Malone draws a very stark picture. It's not so stark that a young audience will feel overwhelmed, but it is very eye-opening. I watched the effects on my daughters every morning on the way to school (we listened to this book on tape). The enlightenment that life can be very very different, was and, today, is for over fifteen million children nationwide reflected on their faces many mornings.

Curtis provides both a forward and an afterward, first grounding the story in the roots of unshakable family bonds and then providing hard-hitting facts such as the number of children living below the poverty line in the U.S. today. He does a good job of weaving a story that entertains, awakens curiosity and provides information.

From a craft perspective, The Mighty Miss Malone, while solidly built upon characters so real I feel  as if I've met them before in my life, follows a plot that is less satisfactory and somewhat random. This could be meant to reflect the very real randomness which wreaks havoc on the lives of so many living at the edge of or in poverty. However, this randomness makes the ultimate resolution to the family's financial woes almost like a deux ex machina. Again, in many ways, finding work during the Great Depression may very well have felt like a deus ex machina. I remember my dad telling me stories about his grandmother, mother of ten children during the Depression, walking down the street and finding a dime and breaking down into tears because she didn't have any money to buy food until she found that dime. So take my comments with that grain of reality salt.

Add to that, however, that Deza does very little to change her plight, unlike Bud, in Bud, Not Buddy, who himself strikes out to find his lone surviving relative. Nor does she solve the internal, emotional struggle, i.e. reuniting the family. Does it matter? Because both the external and internal problems are solved by someone other than the main character, those resolutions are not as intense, nor do they feel as earned. Deza, like the main reader, is along for the ride. We feel with her. We feel acutely. Curtis does an excellent job with that, but we don't ultimately feel satisfied with the story's resolution because Deza hasn't done much to make to it happen. She's suffered, but her suffering doesn't buy her the golden elixir. It's suffering that could continue on indefinitely if someone else (both her mom and her brother) hadn't bought the golden elixir with their actions. Ultimately, it's a bifurcated hero's journey with many hero's solving problems, but none of them is the main protagonist.

Don't let that stop you from reading The Mighty Miss Malone. It's a story worth reading, a time in our history worth revisiting. Maybe if a few members of Congress were to do so, fiscal cliff diving might take on an entirely different meaning.

Oops. Mixing politics with book reviews. Bad, bad reviewer!

For other warm winter reads, plow on over to Barrie Summy's website. Happy 2013!

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25. The Book Review Club - Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets
William Alexander
middle grade

It's been a while since I've really sunk by teeth into the craft of a book, partly because I listen to so many audio books and it really is a different experience. However, I read Goblin Secrets out loud to my eleven year-old. It was our evening reading book. I will readily admit that my craft feelers were more fine-tuned than when I read a book that hasn't won The National Book Award. Spoiler alert - my expectations are higher for award winners.

Very briefly, the story is about an orphaned boy, Rownie, living in a magical world that includes goblins, who were once humans who have changed, machines that use the hearts of anything from fish to humans as fuel, and mechanical creatures that are also part organic.

Rownie wants to find his brother, we discover somewhat into the story. He starts out the "grandchild" of a witch but runs away and joins a troupe of goblins, who, it turns out, are also looking for Rownie's brother. They eventually find him. He's been turned into a puppet, i.e. his heart has been removed and with it, his will. Rownie, however, saves his brother and keeps the river from flooding the city of Zombay.

This story is packed with creative imagination in a wholly invented world like nothing I've ever experienced before. For exactly that reason, I would have loved a little more world-building. I was left wondering about the shape and breadth of this particular world. Tolkien set the bar so high when it comes to world-building. In this book, world-building was more of a sketch. We are left with many incomplete ideas. How does a person become a goblin? Why is acting outlawed? How do the hearts fuel stuff? Who is the mayor? How did this world come to be? Why are the goblins looking for Rownie's brother? What are dust fish? How do they exist? Can you eat them? Are there other magical creatures, or just goblins? Why goblins?

Does it really matter?  My eleven year-old didn't worry about all this. She was perfectly content with the world as it stands.

Desire lines were there, but also a little under-developed. For instance, Graba craves power so she dislikes the goblins, who have their own kind of power. This could be developed more. As it stands, it's very archetypal. It works, but there isn't much meat there. This is typical of many desire lines, including Rownie's. He wants to find his brother, but that doesn't come out until a few chapters into the story, and as such doesn't feel like THE heart's desire of the book exactly.

Of course, as with any good story, weaknesses are easily forgiven if we're swept into the fictional dream and stay their voluntarily. I was and I did. This book deserves to be read not just because it sweeps the reader into that dream but because there is enough, both good and bad, crafting to make the writer think and learn.

For other great winter treats, slide over to Barrie Summy's website!




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