Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book Review: Since You've Been Gone

While Since You've Been Gone, by Morgan Matson, had a captivating plot device, it ended up being just a good, but not a great, read. I appreciated that the language and events remained clean. Although I liked the main character, I was more intrigued by the missing one and not much was really revealed about her until the very end, and even then, my response was sort of "meh."

The teaser from the front cover sucked me in: "It was Sloane who yanked Emily out of her shell and made life 100% interesting. But right before what should have been the most epic summer, Sloane just ... disappears.  All she leaves behind is a to-do list.

"On it, thirteen Sloane-inspired tasks that Emily would normally never try. But what if they could bring her best friend back? Apple picking at night? Okay, easy enough. Dance until dawn? Sure. Why not? Kiss a stranger? Um...

"Emily now has this unexpected summer, and the help of Frank Porter (totally unexpected), to check things off Sloane's list. Who knows what she'll find?"

So, there's a list of thirteen off-the-wall activities for Emily to cross off. All of the activities take her out of her comfort zone, but she ends up making new friends in the process and finally comes to discover some clues to help her locate her missing friend. There's a little romance between Emily and Frank, complete with the friction of a girlfriend away at a summer program at Princeton. Emily begins to be brave on her own and to stand on her own two feet, without the assistance of Sloane.

But what about Sloane? Who just up and leaves a best friend without any word besides a list of things to accomplish in her absence? Who doesn't even bother to answer her phone to let the friend know she is okay? The mysterious Sloane annoyed me. It was the part of the book I liked the least. Even though the situation resolved in the end, it still left a bad taste in my mouth. Sure, both characters grew throughout the process, but I just wasn't as on board with the way the growth took place.

The one person I kept thinking of while reading this book was my blogging friend, Amy. Since she is a runner who listens to playlists while running, and Emily and Frank bond mostly through their morning runs, I thought perhaps this would appeal to Amy. For me, I didn't recognize many of the songs (just not a pop music kind of person) and thus, felt totally in the dark about the significance of the titles and bands.

I don't want to imply that it was a bad read. It wasn't. The writing was smooth. The plot moved along at an amiable pace. There was just enough conflict to keep the reader engaged and interested. I guess, in the end, it was a decent read but just okay, and at 449 pages, it was a lot to invest for an okay read.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: No-Drama Discipline

As soon as I saw this book by the authors of The Whole-Brain Child, I wanted to read it. I am a big fan of their previous book and read with interest their many guidelines for nurturing your child's brain. The full title of this book is No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. Both books share similarities: outstanding structure, clearly defined strategies, explanatory stories and illustrations, and solid information on how the brain works.

I will have to say, I have friends who parent in this manner consistently. Their discipline is always gentle and mindful, their relationship with their children strong and respectful. Although I'm not around them often (especially now that we live in a different state), they have never lost their patience with one of their children in my presence. I have often thought that I would like to be more like them in my parenting style.

This book encourages parents to engage their children more fully in the task of discipline. The principles are simple. First, connect with your child, then redirect their behavior. Connecting serves three purposes: 1) "it moves the child from reactivity to receptivity," 2) "it builds a child's brain," 3) "it deepens your relationship with your child." While connecting, you must ask why the child is misbehaving and what they need, then you must think about how you say what you want to say in response. This slows down the process and takes away some of the knee-jerk reactions which often lead to ineffective parenting models. Plus, it allows the child to get to a point of being receptive to what you wish to say.

For the redirect portion of the instruction, the authors provide an acronym:

Reduce words
Embrace emotions
Describe, don't preach
Involve your child in the discipline
Reframe a no into a yes with conditions
Emphasize the positive
Creatively approach the situation
Teach mindsight tools

I know, personally, I have a tendency to use too many words (which end up being processed as "blah, blah, blah," to preach, and to fail to involve the child in determining the best way to resolve the problem. I often do react in the moment with my own big emotions (lower brain) without tapping into the more rational perspective (offered by the upper brain). Even just the act of slowing down my response time will do wonders for my own discipline with my children. I appreciated the emphasis on remaining calm and reasoning out what needs to be taught.

Once again, the authors have provided an excellent refrigerator chart containing the principles explained. Thus, even if you didn't have time to read the whole book, you could begin to incorporate the wisdom simply by reviewing the handy chart. Plus, they humbly offer up an addendum with examples of some of their own parenting failures. They gently offer hope to any parent who wishes to be more mindful as they discipline their children.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nanowrimo Winner 2014

I can check off Nanowrimo Number Six. I completed the final words on my Nanowrimo manuscript on Friday morning, topping the manuscript out at 51,824 words. I am very happy with how it turned out and really can't wait to dig in for the revision stages (although I will put it off for at least six weeks in order to approach the manuscript with fresh eyes).

I also recently took one of my YA manuscripts to a member of my Young Adult book club for her review. She came back with wonderful comments, saying I really caused the action to come alive in her head and that she truly fell in love with my main character. She said that I nailed the voice of the male narrator well. She added that she hopes I plan on working on a sequel to that novel (something I haven't considered and don't know if I will because I, myself, don't see the main character further along than where his trials have taken him thus far).

Now, I can relax and enjoy the holidays, knowing I have another rough draft manuscript to return to in the new year. My friend Anne has written two more children's books and I agreed to be a member of her launch team for each of them. I finally feel like I have time to devote to reading her manuscripts and providing some feedback and reviews for her. Let the holiday shopping, Christmas card sending, house cleaning and decorating begin! I'm in a good spot for it! Plus, there's a present in the mail, since I ordered a Nanowrimo winner t-shirt before I even completed the challenge (I was pretty sure I could do it again).

Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Review: Other People's Rejection Letters

I think I was expecting something a bit different from this book, although if I had read the subtitle, I wouldn't have gone into it thinking it would primarily be about rejection letters received by other writers. The entire title is: Other People's Rejection Letters: Relationship Enders, Career Killers, and 150 Other Letters You'll Be Glad You Didn't Receive. The book covered a far wider spectrum of rejection than I was anticipating, but it was still a somewhat enjoyable experience to eavesdrop on other people's disappointments and rejections (I almost feel guilty saying that ... almost).

Although many of the letters are downright lame, I think my favorite part was a small section at the end of the book where several of the letters are explained more fully and the reader learns what happened after the rejection. For example, there were three hilarious Water Frog Certificates where the poor little girl was refused admittance to the next level up in her water training because she could not master the face float. She went on to earn an MVP title with her high school swimming team. The biggest belly laugh of all arose from eight rejection letters received by a Mr. Richard Barrett after he supposedly sent a manuscript titled, Insanity of War, to the most bizarre recipients (including Texas Instruments, Charlton Heston, Walter Cronkite, The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, General Motors, King Hussein of Amman, Yale University and the Vatican). One recipient actually responded with "We have reviewed the material and are unsure of your purpose in sending it to us, so we are returning it to you for safekeeping." Another man received fifteen rejection letters from NASA, but was accepted into the program on his sixteenth try.

By far, the strangest entry was a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald, written to his daughter Scottie while she was away at college. The letter is sharp and critical and full of vitriol. But, the caustic tone isn't what renders it amusing. I was fascinated because the letter is so poorly written. He urges her to read it twice because he wrote it twice. You'd think he'd have communicated better after going over it a second time. You'd be wrong.

As with one writer who rejected the editor by failing to send any rejection letters, the topic of rejection caused me to think. She writes, "I don't have any rejection letters in my possession and it's not because I always have excelled at everything I've done, I think it's because I haven't put myself out there enough - haven't taken enough chances." In a similar way, I don't think I've put myself, or my writings, out there enough. I receive a few rejections and immediately withdraw from the process of sending things out. I must remedy this. The rejection needs to propel me to try harder (yet with wisdom, not willy-nilly like Mr. Barrett - ha) and to fail to shrink back from the repeated failure. Who knows? Maybe on that sixteenth try, someone will bite and a publisher will offer to take my work on. I mustn't give up at attempt number six. I must keep putting my work out there for consideration. And, I must keep writing regardless of any rejection letters I may receive.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: Out of the Easy

After seeing Ruta Sepetys's book, Out of the Easy, on-line a few times, I encountered it again on Sheila's blog, The Deliberate Reader. She declared it "fantastic." Thus, when it was offered up as our November read for my young adult literature book club, I was eager to dive in.

I completely agree with Sheila. Even if I wouldn't have expected to like a book about New Orleans or one filled with prostitutes, it was a wonderful book of historical fiction and left me wanting to know more of the main character's story. She is off on a new adventure and I'd love to see a sequel so that I could find out how things work out for her. I came to love her just as much as Sheila did.

Josie Moraine lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1950's. Her mother is a prostitute, working for the Madam Willie Woodley. Despite making her own way in life, living above a bookstore and working there for the owner in exchange for her board, Josie is still tied in many ways to her despicable mother. Josie works cleaning house for Willie after the johns have left in the morning. But her real goal is to get out of New Orleans and head to the east coast to attend an upper class university. She might have the grades, but she certainly doesn't have the connections. While trying to establish some way of getting in and getting there, Josie uncovers information about a murder which might just implicate her mother. She wants to do the right thing, but so often finds herself spouting more and more lies and getting herself caught in the thick of things.

With a little bit of love, a little bit of friendship, and a whole lot of heart, Josie faces her obstacles with grace, dignity, and courage. She is the only one who can chart her course, but she does get by with a little help from her friends. The reader cannot help be cheer her on. By the end of the book, Josie is in a mess of trouble and the reader is desperate to find out how she will get out of the mess and make her way out into the world. Thank you, Ruta Sepetys, for transporting me into another world and making me love the characters within it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review: Allegiant

I went into this book with some reservations. I have a few friends who had voiced their disillusionment with the final installment of Veronica Roth's Divergent series (to the point of saying they wished they had never read the books!) and I was worried I would feel the same sense of disillusionment. I didn't want to end a great series with a bad taste in my mouth. I anticipated being duped in some way, finding out that the ground I stood on wasn't really what I had been led to believe it was. Thankfully, it wasn't really that which led to their feelings of dissatisfaction. They merely didn't like the ending. While I wonder what it would have been like, had it ended differently, I wasn't as bothered by the ending as other people have been. To me, it seemed like the final bits made sense and needed to happen to remain true to both character and plot development.

This book was different from the other two, at the outset. Instead of merely getting the perspective of the main character, Beatrice Prior, we are now given an alternating narration by Tris and Tobias. It was interesting to get into the head of a male character as the final actions played out (although it could be argued that there isn't a whole lot of difference in voice between the two characters). Despite understanding the reasoning behind the switch, again I find myself wondering what it would have been like if Roth had simply kept with the first person narration from Tris. Then I wonder whether the author foresaw this necessity for two narrators from the outset or if the books simply progressed as they did and the plot line dictated a switch in viewpoint. Did she know things were headed this way? Did she know, while writing the first, that the third book would end in this manner? I cannot help but read like a writer and want to know what the experience was like during the process of unfolding the story.

In this third installment, the factions which gripped their world have disbanded, but the society is no better off. They are still on the verge of war as various individuals fight to claim power over the remaining citizens. A group rises up, called "the Allegiant," with the purpose of returning to the outside world to discover what it was they were meant to do with this crumbling society. Of course, Tris and Tobias are part of the Allegiant and thus, they are the key ones who attempt to make sense of the new information they are given about their world and they must determine the best course of action to help their old society.

I enjoyed this trilogy. It was a very thought-provoking series. It raised questions of identity, the value of virtues, the damage of weaknesses, the frailty of the human personality and the importance of love, over all. The phrase used to pitch this series is "one choice will define you." I am grateful to discover, in thinking about this book and in reflecting on my own life, that one choice will not define you entirely. You are made up of far more than single aspects of who you are. You are a blend of good and bad, and your choices render consequences which carry both good and bad. I especially appreciated the many thoughts in the book on the subject of forgiveness. Roth brought forward some profound observations about life and grief and relationships. I would happily read this series again. Despite being pitched as a young adult series, it is definitely a worthwhile read for adults as well, if you can give in to the fact that you might not agree with or like the ending. I still think it was worth exploring all these interesting ideas about human nature, despite the questionable ending.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: The One

The One is the third installment in Kiera Cass's The Selection series. I think I liked the first book best of all and each following book less so, but have still enjoyed the series and loved getting sucked into the story. The characters were engaging and the plot kept pace. It has been an enchanted fairy tale world for me to escape into.

Cass is a master at maintaining suspense. I really thought the big reveal would come sooner in this book. Throughout the entire book, you are left wondering whether America will be selected as the new princess. Finally, the resolution comes in the final five or six pages (and even that feels rather rushed and chaotic). Up until that point, it is just a roller coaster of up and downs as political plans are revealed and relationships are tested. I think the author is to be congratulated on her skill in drawing the reader along for three solid books, still wanting the answer to the seminal question of who is finally chosen in the selection.

Although I had a hard time buying into the political fervor in this magical kingdom, and could barely bring myself to believe that a future United States would look this way, I was still able to go along with that part of the progressing plot. Moreover, I will admit that I was a bit irked with America for stringing along both young men in order to assure that she will have someone in the end. Despite my misgivings in these various areas, the series kept my interest throughout and it was a delightful read. I don't know if I liked it well enough to pursue the other two novellas centered around the other characters in the story. I think I'll be happy enough with the three books in this series and consider the story well-done.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nanowrimo - Half Way In

Yesterday morning, I made it to the halfway point in my November book. I surpassed 25,000 words. Of course, this doesn't mean the book is halfway done because I always try to keep writing clear to the final word, which almost always is well beyond the 50,000 word goal. But, still, I feel encouraged that it is going so well.

I'm going to try to have another 4000 word day today because I know I will be gone for much of the morning and afternoon tomorrow. I'll be playing my horn with a small ensemble to kick off The Salvation Army's kettle campaign in Indianapolis. It is supposed to be cold, so I hope my horn valves don't freeze up. I have purchased hand and foot warmers because I remember how cold my feet were last year.

I'm finding my morning walks around the high school track to be especially productive. I have resumed that practice and left off walking on the treadmill while listening to books. Thus, due to the writing and track-walking, I haven't been getting in as much reading. Still, I'm close to finishing one book and halfway through another.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book Review: The Wonder of All Things

The inside cover declares: "On the heels of his critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Returned, Jason Mott delivers a spellbinding tale of love and sacrifice." I thought his what-if premise for the first book was intriguing and he has done it again with another interesting idea. This time the reader is asked to consider what might happen if a young girl had the power to heal someone else by laying hands on them, but diminished in her own strength with each healing action.

The Wonder of All Things begins on an ordinary day, when an air show is taking place in the small town of Stone Temple. Suddenly something goes wrong and the plane dives to the ground, hitting spectators and field alike. In the rubble of the debris, two young teens are found huddled together, the boy, Wash, with a pipe through his side, and the girl, Ava, looking desperately alarmed. While someone films on a cell phone, Ava pulls the pipe out and puts her hands on Wash's side. Miraculously, the wound heals completely. As would be expected, the coverage goes viral. All manner of rabble descend upon the little town of Stone Temple.

Everyone wants healing from the little wonder girl. Questions are raised about her responsibility to utilize the gift she has obviously been given. The story follows the development, in one line, of the girl's relationship with her deceased mother, and in another line, of the girl's relationship with her beloved friend, Wash. While Ava's father tries to determine the best way to protect his daughter, Ava herself must determine when and how she will use her remarkable gift, despite the personal cost.

While there were many interesting concepts raised for contemplation, the story followed a predictable arc and it still left me not quite as sucked in as I would have liked. Of course, I'm assuming some of that might be due to my own focus on my intense writing schedule at the moment. When you are eating, sleeping, and breathing your own story, it can sometimes be hard to let go and fully get engrossed in another story. It was a worthwhile tale and I expect more great things from Mott.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Nanowrimo - One Fifth In

I am one fifth of the way through in my goal to write 50,000 words this month. I have been trying to write 2000 words a day, but managed to crank out 4,300 today. I guess I just hit a flow point. Having done this before, I know that the beginning often takes off well and then you hit the middle and begin to lose steam. We shall see how it goes.

While I'm not overly thrilled with what I've written so far (it rambles a bit and lacks focus), I haven't had trouble knowing what to write about, so that is good. I don't really know what to call it. It is fiction based on personal experience. I think I've nailed the voice, but not the structure yet. Thankfully, the blessing of Nanowrimo is getting the words down and worrying about structure and refinement at a later date. If you are participating in Nanowrimo, I wish you all the best. It was instrumental in helping me to finally finish a manuscript (after years of starting and then abandoning projects). Viva la Nanowrimo!

Book Review: Fearless Confessions

Because I was toying with the idea of working on a memoir, I checked my library's holdings to see what other books they had besides the Beth Kephart one I read awhile back, Handling the Truth. Once again, just like with Kephart's book, I'm doubtful that this is the best out there in terms of books about writing memoir. Even though I haven't found it, I'm certain there's a book which would make me stand up and say, now that is some practical, helpful, well-organized advice on writing a memoir. Although, this wasn't it, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, does do a decent job of discussing the genre and what it takes to bleed out a memoir. The author has written two memoirs, so she has experience with the genre.

I certainly benefited from reading this book. I think it helped me in my start, anyway. I was reminded to focus on sensory imagery and also to plan the arc of the story or plot how the book will be laid out. Each chapter concluded with helpful writing exercises and, while I didn't take the time to participate in these exercises, I felt they were well-done. Another benefit of the book is the mention of many memoir titles (including an extensive reading list at the end of the book, divided into categories by subject), a defense for writing memoir, and examples of some quality memoir-styled writing (most of these were personal experience essays, since she couldn't exactly include whole memoirs, obviously).

I came away from this book encouraged to admit that I do, indeed, have a story to tell (everyone has a story within them waiting to get out in some way or form). I'm still not sure whether I will share my story in memoir form or simply in a fictional form with an autobiographical foundation. As Silverman observes, it does take a certain sense of fearlessness to put one's self out there in a brutally honest memoir. Even if I have an important story to share, I'm not sure I have the guts for fearless confessions.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review: Now I See You

I have both a friend who is losing her sight and a brother-in-law who is dealing with an endless nightmare related to a detached retina. My friend is an artist. She makes mosaics and when I think of her, I cannot help but wonder how terrifying it must be to lose the gift of vision. My eyes are not what they once were. I have to wear glasses and will eventually be fitted with bifocals, no doubt, but I don't live under the sentence of significant vision loss. I can only imagine how terrifying that must be.

Thus, I put myself in another's shoes by opening this book, Now I See You, a memoir by Nicole C. Kear, who is in the process of losing her sight while still in her thirties. At the tender age of nineteen, she was informed of a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, an untreatable condition which promises to render her blind in a little over a decade. How devastating to receive such dire news at such a young age. In her tale, she explains how she fought acceptance of the disease tooth and nail. She is basically big into denial and refuses to admit that anything is amiss, choosing instead to live life with gusto.

This story was well-written and carried me deep into a landscape I've never known. If I think about it, though, I doubt I would have responded in the same way. I'm guessing that I would have wanted other people to know what was going on with me, both for their support and for their understanding when things would seem amiss. Then again, I've never been in those shoes, so I cannot say with certainty that I would take the road of confession over the road of denial. Even if I couldn't relate to the desire to keep others in the dark (ha), I could certainly relate to the longings of human nature for the opportunities to see her children and to achieve her dreams. It was an eye-opening read and affirmed the truths that obstacles can be overcome and that life is precious despite the set-backs we face.