Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Review: Story Fix

I have been pursuing a goal for several years now. At first that goal was simply to complete a first draft of a novel. When I discovered Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), it freed the inner editor that had long plagued me and, with diligent effort back in November of 2009, I reached that initial goal. Every November since then, I have dedicated the month of November (and sometimes into December) to completing another rough draft. I spend the rest of the months in the year refining the manuscripts and shopping them out to various agents, editors, and publishers.

While I've had nibbles (agents requesting manuscripts, editors reviewing manuscripts, and a publishing house actually requesting two book proposals), I haven't achieved success in finding a place for my manuscripts. Many people urge me to self-publish, but I feel deeply committed to the process of seeking a traditional publisher. Perhaps I will feel differently in a few years, but for now, I continue to look to the loftier goal of finding an agent or a publisher for one of my seven manuscripts.

Enter this life-changing book by Larry Brooks. Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant was a fantastic guidebook to turn to as I begin the process of refining and editing my most recent manuscript. It is one of the best books on novel writing I have ever read. I took six pages of notes and feel like I learned a treasure trove of information about how to milk the most success out of my rewriting efforts. While I hadn't really viewed my manuscript as "broken" prior to reading this book, I have certainly come to see many of its flaws and weaknesses more clearly. I think this book will really benefit my coming efforts for this particular manuscript.

How discouraging to read at the outset of the odds against me. Brooks cited that 990 out of every 1000 manuscripts are rejected. Yikes! Brings to mind The Hunger Games and the image of the woman at the reaping calling out to Katniss and others, "May the odds be ever in your favor." How lame a sentiment in the face of such challenging opposition.

Still, I was hungry to learn. Brooks breaks down the problems into two categories: 1) story strength (is the story proposition strong enough?) and 2) craft execution (is the execution of the tale effective enough to carry the strong story idea?). He then offered up 12 story elements to evaluate when judging your manuscript (concept, dramatic premise, dramatic tension, vicarious reader experience, compelling characterization, reader empathy, thematic weight, structure, pacing, scene execution, writing voice, and narrative strategy).

Brooks sets out to teach his readers what sorts of things kill a story. He encourages the writer to approach their manuscript with honest evaluation and see if it is really a manuscript worth spending time refining. As he so eloquently articulates, "The author's primary job [is] to suck readers into the hero's quest on multiple levels, make them live and feel the journey itself, make them fear or respect the consequences (stakes) that drive it all, make them fear and loathe the villain, and make them hang on every scene ... so they can see how it turns out."

I think I learned the most from the section on structure. It was sobering to read that an author should always know the end before beginning to write. If I am honest, I have always been a "pantser" and have started most of the time without a clear view of how the story ends. Still, I do not despair because now that the end is in sight, I can and will go back and refurbish the story with that knowledge. Perhaps in the future, I will approach my November efforts with more organizational intention (then again, maybe I won't be able to muster the organizational intention I desire). No matter what, I will have a clearer view of how my stories should be structured in order to reach the reader's three main goals - 1) intrigue, 2) emotional resonance, and 3) vicarious experience.

If you are hoping to beat the odds and write a novel that will be accepted by agents and publishers, you should definitely take time to read this book. The wisdom in these pages is presented in a clear-cut fashion and will change the way you view your efforts as a writer. It may cause you to see that your manuscript simply isn't worth refining or it may help you to give your very best effort in altering what you have into something someone else will want to read. I will begin my novel revision on February 1st. Now that I have read this book, I believe I stand a much better chance of whittling it into something of lasting value.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book Review: Wonderland Creek

Reading Lynn Austin's Wonderland Creek made me sad. It made me sad because it is a book I would surely recommend to my mother if she were still able to focus and process books. She would have loved this book. How I wish I could recommend it to her and then call her after she read it so that we could discuss our shared love of the book. I had recommended Lynn Austin as an author to keep her eye out for back in 2011, when I read and reviewed her book, Though Waters Roar. I'm not sure if my mother ever checked out an Austin book or not. I'm surprised I haven't checked out another book by this fine author since 2011.

Alice Grace Ripley loves books to abstraction (my kind of protagonist). When her intense love of words and books comes between her and her beau, Gordon, causing him to break up with her, Alice is distraught. On top of that, because of the Depression, she loses her job as a librarian. With nothing to do and a strong desire to flee Gordon's presence, Alice decides to hitch a ride with her aunt and uncle and deliver several boxes of donated books to a librarian she has been corresponding with in Kentucky. They drop her off in the small Kentucky town and promise to return for her in two weeks after they visit a spa in the south. Imagine Alice's surprise when she discovers the librarian she has been writing to is a man with a feminine-sounding name and the town is so small there isn't even a hotel or cafe. For the first time in Alice's life, her once boring story begins to take on a plot of enormous proportions. Alice plunges further and further into family feuds, hidden treasure, and saddle-back book deliveries.

Once again, Austin has provided a gripping story (although perhaps not as gripping as in Though Waters Roar).  I loved the supporting characters. Within minutes of Alice's arrival in the small town, the reader is sucked into a whole new world full of interesting characters, colorful landscapes, and daunting obstacles. Even though the Christian message in the book was hammered a bit more than I remembered from the last Austin book (a pet peeve of mine - I hate it when Christian authors put the message before the story, rather than the story before the message), I was still able to focus primarily on the story.

The end of the book offers several discussion questions. The final question read: "If you could write the next chapter in Alice's life, what would it be?" I loved the characters so much that I immediately began to contemplate where life will take Alice. It would be so much fun to write the next chapter in Alice's life.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review: What She Knew

What She Knew is exactly the kind of book my blogging friend Sheila wouldn't pick up. It contains her book kryptonite of something horrific happening to a young child. I, myself, was deeply saddened when the initial germ of this book actually played out in national news this week with the disappearance and eventual discovery of Noah Chamberlin. When the what if you've created for the sake of a story, is so entirely plausible and possible, it kicks the story up a notch. While I was able to disconnect and read without putting myself in the narrator's shoes, it was still an uncomfortable, haunting story.

When Rachel Jenner's husband left her and married another woman, she was left with a deep ache and the daunting task of primary custody of their eight-year-old son, Ben. It is her husband she is thinking of when Ben asks if he can run ahead during their walk in the woods. He would encourage the boy's independence, so she makes the decision to allow him to run with his dog to the rope swing on his own. It is something they've done every Sunday for months and months. He certainly knew the way. Yet, somehow, he is now missing and every hour that passes submerges her deeper into a mother's worst nightmare.

The story is told from multiple perspectives through blog entries, therapy transcripts, newspaper clippings, and the dueling narration from the mother and the chief detective on the case. I thought it was somewhat cumbersome, but did understand the author's purpose in selecting that format. In this manner, the reader is allowed to see multiple perspectives. Moreover, social media response is typical in this day and age, so its inclusion was entirely understandable.

While I didn't dislike the book, it wasn't a book I feel compelled to encourage others to read. The writing is good and the premise is enticing, but I didn't come away with an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the tale. Here's what I liked: the author does an outstanding job of getting inside the mind of a parent who is facing such a devastating loss and mystery. I appreciated the page-turning suspense of the story. I was so absorbed in the story that I became unaware of the author (this is definitely the mark of good writing).

Several areas simply bothered me. It felt like the story barely progressed at all in the first 200 pages. Once the premise was set in motion, no progress on the case was made and it was simply providing background information on the characters (who they are and where they are coming from). At the 200 page mark, the story kicked into gear and became the page-turner it is billed as on the back cover. But, even with more action and deeper trails into the mysterious disappearance, the details felt sensationalized. There are multiple characters who have a dead child in their background. The carnage of human baggage each character carries just got to be a bit too much to believe. There's a revelation about a long held secret. The detective battles his demons. His partners have equivalent demons in their backgrounds affecting their actions. I began to feel there wasn't a single normal (untraumatized) person in the entire story. I began to think "Okay, what is the author going to throw at us next in an attempt to wrangle an emotional response from the reader?"

As far as psychological thrillers go, this is probably considered a good one. It did keep the reader guessing about the truth and how the conflict will finally resolve. I didn't grow fond of any of the characters, but I was eager to get to their true identities. You wonder why the police officer is suffering from PTSD. You wonder if Rachel is, indeed, who she says she is. But, still, I came away unconvinced. Thus, even though the writing was sound, the story just didn't appeal to me in the final analysis.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review: My Age of Anxiety

I checked this book out way back in November, in the hopes of reading up on what someone with social phobias experiences because the main character in the novel I wrote in November-December suffers from social anxiety. Even though I am not working on revising the first draft yet (it still needs to simmer for a few weeks before I begin to tackle that monumental task), it was an excellent read to prepare me for presenting a believable character. The author not only outlines his struggles with anxiety disorders, but also provides historical accounts of the attempts of philosophers and scientists to understand this perplexing condition.

This was a far more academic memoir than the previous book I read for research purposes, Wish I Could Be There. Although Stossel's experiences with anxiety are peppered throughout the book, it is more a history book than memoir. The historical bits were informative and interesting. The memoir parts were shocking and devastating. Parts of the book were excruciating to read. I had to read aloud to my husband the bits about the author's intense fear of vomiting (a fear my husband experienced as a child) and the therapy attempts to minimize the intensity of the fear. My heart went out to the poor author as he recounted a particularly embarrassing bathroom fiasco.

While I doubt this book will be on many people's radar (unless, of course, you struggle with anxiety disorders or have a close friend or relative who does), it was an interesting read and perfect for my research purposes. I gleaned beneficial passages explaining exactly what happens in a panic attack. Moreover, I was able to see how social anxieties diminish when real fears step in (as in the examples he cited of Holocaust survivors who lost their social anxieties during the horrific events, only to have them resurface once the real threat was over). At this point, my character still struggles with some of her anxieties in the midst of the real terror and perhaps I will need to change that in the manuscript. I'm glad this book was available to inform my treatment of the character.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review: Switch

It must be so difficult to write a sequel book. Once you've hit the big-time, readers are bound to come at every following book with great expectations. Ingrid Law hit the mark with her first book, Savvy, a book I reviewed back in 2009 with great enthusiasm (truly a masterpiece). When I chanced upon the second book, Scumble, in the library, I felt sad that it didn't quite live up to the greatness of the first book. It was still a good book, just not as magnificent as the first. Now, I feel the same way about the third book, Switch. I'm deeply committed to the characters (the strange Beaumont family) and their unique traits (when they turn 13 they receive a savvy, a special magical ability), but the story wasn't quite as stunning and note-worthy as the introductory book, Savvy.

In Switch, we meet Gypsy Beaumont, who has recently gained a savvy she seems unable to control - the ability to see into the past and the future. I'm still not quite sure what happened to cause the switch, but somehow everyone's savvy gets turned topsy-turvy when Grandma Pat is slated to come live with the Beaumont family. This is devastating news, as Grandma Pat has always been so opposed to the magical nature of her son's acquired family. However, because of her recent decline due to "Old-Timer's disease," it is necessary for the Beaumont family to go retrieve her and take her under their wing. Gypsy sees a vision of Grandma Pat's future and embarks on a desperate journey to save her from a frightening fate. She takes her brothers Samson and Tucker, and also the neighbor girl, Nola, along for the ride.

There are many great attributes to this book. It approaches the subject of kids living with the fallout of mental illness (dementia and Alzheimer's) in an understanding and instructive way. The characters are colorful and unique. The pacing is good. And, once again, the author reminds kids that everyone has unique abilities and can shine. It is a very affirming book and provides valuable lessons for children and tweens.

If you have a child who is dealing with the changes, in a loved one, brought on by dementia, then this is an outstanding choice of reading material. If you are looking for a book that delves into magical territory in a positive manner (without witches and wizards and demonic associations), you cannot go wrong with Law's books. Even though I didn't care for Switch as strongly as for Savvy, I will certainly be on the lookout for a fourth book (my prediction is that it will be called Shrink because Gypsy prophesies an image of her youngest brother, Tucker, shrinking as his savvy takes hold on his 13th birthday). The story germ is a good one, ripe with possibilities, and Ingrid Law has the writing chops to take on just such a challenge. Hopefully, she'll knock another one out of the park with quote-worthy blurbs and well-turned phrases, as she did in Savvy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book Review: A Night Divided

The last book I reviewed, The Husband's Secret, began with a bang, with these sentences: "It was all because of the Berlin Wall. If it wasn't for the Berlin Wall, Cecelia would never have found the letter, and she wouldn't be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open." Thus, my brain was already cogitating on the Berlin Wall before I went to pick up a held book someone else, I cannot remember, had recommended, called A Night Divided. This book is more directly about the Berlin Wall, specifically about a 12 year old girl whose family is separated by the sudden appearance of that wall.

Gerta's father had taken her middle brother, Dominic, to the western side of Berlin to look for work. Then, suddenly, the wall went up and Gerta was stuck on the Eastern side with her mother and oldest brother, Fritz. As the story unfolds, Gerta recounts their lot in life, held prisoner within the walls of their own city, her father suspected of crimes against the state, and her friendship with Anna crumbling because of suspicion and distrust. When Gerta sees her father on the other side pantomiming the act of digging, she is unsure what exactly it is that he wants her to do. Following his supposed recommendation might cost Gerta her life and the lives of those around her.

I couldn't help but skim through whole paragraphs because I was eager to know whether or not Gerta would succeed or fail. The pages fell away. I liked Gerta and her family and I felt sorry for her horrible predicament. If you have a tween who is interested in historical fiction, they would probably really enjoy this book. It follows an intriguing what-if of "what if you were living in East Berlin when the wall went up overnight and divided you from half of your immediate family?" What would you be willing to do to seek freedom and a reunion with your family?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Book Review: The Husband's Secret - Highly Recommend

Sheila, of the Deliberate Reader blog, has been mentioning several things that are, for her, bookish kryptonite. These things will draw her away from a title rather than suck her in. I'm sure every reader has their own criteria of elements that will immediately turn them back from consideration of a book. For me, a deadly blow comes if I think there is too much of an emphasis on sex and sexuality in a book. It might have a great hook, but if I think it will delve too deeply into responses to sex and sexual activities, then I tend to ditch the book. And I was tempted to ditch at the outset of this book, when one of the primary characters, Cecelia, begins to ruminate on her sex life with her husband, John Paul. But, I held on because I had a feeling that their recent difficulties in the bedroom might be an important piece to the initial hook of the story. I'm glad I did because I felt the writing was well-done, the plotting and pacing precise, and the resolution full of raw emotion.

When Cecelia stumbles upon a letter written by her husband to her, to be opened upon his death, she is torn between warring impulses to leave the letter alone or to open it and discover her husband's dreaded secret. Of course, my own impulse would be to open the letter, so I kept listening hoping to find out what the husband had to declare to his wife only upon his death. The answer to that hook leads the reader into a murky world of secrets full of the power to implode the lives of not only John Paul and Cecelia, but also their children's lives and many other lives.

At the same time, Tess O'Leary, is learning of her husband's new love interest, her very own cousin and closest friend, Felicity (someone who has been incorporated into their lives since the beginning of time, but has recently lost a ton of weight, altering her outward appearance). As they sit her down to declare their love and excuse it by saying they haven't acted on their desires, Tess must decide on a course of action and determine whether she wants to fight for what she had always thought was a good marriage or not. After she returns to her mother's home, with her son, Liam, she is further tempted by an attraction to an old boyfriend (see, the book is riddled with sexual liasons and sexual emphasis).

Meanwhile, Rachel Crowley is dealing with a deadly blow from her son and his wife, when they explain that they are taking her grandson with them and moving to New York City. She has already lost a daughter, who was murdered, and a husband, who died of natural causes, but left her alone to deal with the pain of the loss of their child. She doesn't know how she will cope with this further loss of her beloved toddler grandson.

I cannot find adequate words to express the skills this author demonstrated in weaving three separate tales into one cataclysmic climax. The reader is literally pulled along and sucked deeper and deeper into the stories until they converge in a moment that found me weeping as I scrubbed my kitchen floor while listening to the story. Not only is the story a good one (deeply entrancing), it is ripe with things to contemplate and I couldn't help but put myself into the positions of several of these characters as their lives played out in the story.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I listened to it in audio form (it did get several low reviews by readers who felt it was predictable, and I did guess bits of it prior to the end, but I never anticipated the climax). I was enticed from the very first sentences. I walked more miles because I wanted to listen longer. Moreover, it was delightful to listen to the Australian accent for the reading of this book set in Australia.

I am hoping that my book club selects this as a 2016 read because I am desperate to discuss this book with someone else. It was a tour de force and a conversation-worthy topic. Despite the sexual content of the book, I cannot help but highly recommend it. For the most part, the inclusion of sexual content is necessary for the story line to play out in the way it does. Thankfully, the details are never graphic and never really made me terribly uncomfortable, just slightly uncomfortable. This will certainly make my top ten list at the end of the year. It was a fascinating, deeply disturbing, thought-provoking read. It will take a long time for my brain to let go of these characters and their troubled lives.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review: Sugar Cookie Mystery

Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen series is my guilty pleasure. Although I know it is by no means literature of substance and it doesn't lead to deep thoughts, I still seem to enjoy the series. Even as I read along, I find myself picking apart little things in the story (in this particular one, Hannah is told not to inform others of the murder, yet she proceeds to blab the information to almost every single person she interviews or talks to). Yet, I'm still hooked on the main character and hanging on to find out which beau she will choose in the end (is there an end yet? I think there are nineteen to date). I can't imagine reading all nineteen, since the books are extremely formulaic (Hannah wavers between her attractions to the two men, a body shows up, the authorities rely on Hannah's detective abilities, the murderer is ferreted out and multiple delicious recipes are divulged). Nonetheless, I'm always glad when I can find another one in audio form, to walk to in the morning, and even when I have to physically read the books (as I did this one), the read goes by very quickly (read this one in one afternoon).

In this installment, Sugar Cookie Murder, Hannah is gearing up for a dinner to showcase the recipes for the Lake Eden Holiday Buffet Cookbook. A member of the community is returning to town with the new wife he found in Vegas. Sparks will fly as the old wife attends the dinner where the new wife is set to be introduced. Not surprisingly, Hannah discovers a body in the parking lot and everyone is kept indoors on the pretense of a blizzard that is blowing through. While everyone is trapped inside, waiting out the storm, Hannah investigates and - voila - solves the murder.

This was probably my least favorite in the series. It was a bit too neat and tidy. There were so many arguing voices in my head. The actual detectives do next to nothing while Hannah solves the mystery. A five year old writes a letter to Santa that is quite unbelievable and sophisticated. The blizzard doesn't seem to impede their progress when Hannah's sister goes into labor and has to be rushed to the hospital. The suspect list was quite flimsy. The solution to the mystery seems to simply fizzle at the end.

And yet, here I am intending to look up book seven, Peach Cobbler Murder, to see if my library has it in audio or bound form. Something keeps drawing me into the stories and I cannot look away. If you are looking for a series of fluffy, cozy mysteries - look no further. Hannah Swensen is the gal for you (but don't start with this one). And if you are at all interested in trying new recipes, then you've hit pay dirt. In this book, the recipes even went further afield than desserts, as it provides a variety of recipes from the Lake Eden Buffet Cookbook. The only ones I'm interested in trying are the recipes for Spinach Quiche and E-Z Lasagna, but over fifty recipes in various categories are offered at the end.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review: The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge

Even though Christmas is over, I couldn't help but pick up this little volume by Charlie Lovett extending Charles Dickens's beloved A Christmas Carol. I'm not sure what I was expecting. I guess I was thinking it might bring the story up to the twenty-first century, but it really didn't. If felt more like a simple retelling of the well-known, age-old tale.

First off, the novella takes place in the summer and that seemed an odd choice for a follow-up tale to extend the Christmas Carol.  I get that the author wanted to demonstrate Scrooge's vow to keep the spirit of Christmas all year long, but it was a bit over the top, his prancing around wishing everyone a Merry Christmas in the sweltering summer. Moreover, I thought the impetus for the visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future would be something other than the original need for Marley to lighten his chains in death. Scrooge is intent upon changing the lives of more people and thus he brings the ghosts to several individuals (his nephew and his partner, Bob Cratchet - a man I could not imagine requiring the assistance indicated in this telling - and two bankers - whom he names Mr. Pleasant and Mr. Portly, which felt very Dickensian).

Once again, understanding is gained and hearts are softened. Spoilers: The nephew is encouraged to become a member of Parliament in order to take action against poverty and injustice. Cratchet's workaholism (really? Cratchet ... father of Tiny Tim, guilty of never spending time with his family?) is countered as he begins to realize he is missing the lives of his children and grandchildren by refusing to take time off his work. The bankers recognize the need to find a philanthropist who is willing to cover Mr. Scrooge's unfunded checks to aid societies (had the Scrooge of this tale been more balanced, he could have funded the checks with ease).

I love the works of Dickens and I loved the numerous nods to Dickens throughout this telling. Still, I wanted a bit more from this sequel. I wanted it to go deeper or further afield. While I think it was a valiant effort, I don't know that I would declare it a must read for the holidays. If you are a big fan of Dickens, it might be worth your while to read this imitation of Dickens, but the original hits the mark well enough on its own.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Book Review: If

Ever since I read Mark Batterson's book, In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day, I've been a big fan of Batterson's writing. In 2014, I highly recommended his outstanding book, The Circle Maker, about praying circles around our problems, dreams, and goals. Thus, when our library acquired another title by this Christian author, I signed up and waited for my turn to come around.

If you've read other books by Batterson, then entering the world of this book, If: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God's What If Possibilities, is pretty much a deja vu experience. There were countless times when I felt like I'd already been there, heard that. Indeed, it feels like a variation on a theme. The same theme Batterson follows time and time again - God wants us to dream big (because small dreams diminish God's return), step up (because nothing is impossible with God), and follow hard (because He is most worthy of our devotion). Chase your lions into a pit. Circle your dreams with prayer. Trade your regrets for His possibilities.

At times the book feels like the author simply wants a platform to promote his own great accomplishments and dreams. While he does acknowledge God as the source of every success, he does wax on about his successes a fair amount. He has his favorite sayings, that is for sure. But, all in all, he has good things to say and he promotes a God agenda rather than a self-agenda.

I did glean some beneficial quotes from the book:

Batterson quotes Goethe, saying "Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can be and should be and he will become as he can be and should be."

Once again, Batterson seems to nail things with clever turns of phrases: "God wants you to get where God wants you to go more than you want to get where God wants you to go. And God is awfully good at getting us there! So take a deep breath and relax. He is ordering your footsteps, every single one of them. Your job is simply this: 'Keep in step with the Spirit.'"

"Almost like your checking account, your suffering will one day be reconciled."

"The next time you have a need, try sowing a seed at your point of need."

"If you do little things like they're big things, someday God will do big things like they're little things."

"What if everything in your past is God's way of preparing you for something in your future?"

My library copy came with a copy of the accompanying 76 minute DVD and a participant's guide (think workbook). While I did not take the time to watch the DVD or work on the exercises in the workbook, I do think it would be a beneficial task. One of these days, I'll follow Batterson's advice and chart an extensive bucket list of dreams and goals.

In the meantime, I appreciated the pep talk to pray more, fast (something I haven't done often enough), delve into Scripture (to reframe my mind after the mind of Christ), and believe in His promises and His love. I enjoy his writing style, even though my husband kind of pooh-poohed the book, saying "another author encouraging people to think God wants them to do BIG THINGS when all He wants is their heart." Of course, he didn't take the time to read the book before making that assessment. If you are looking for something new from Batterson, you might not find it here, but if you appreciate inspiration to dream big and live hard for God, then you'll benefit from this book.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book Review: Dumplin'

This young adult novel has several things going for it. First off, I believe the author nailed an authentic voice. It is told with great candor and honesty from the perspective of an overweight teenage girl. It is equal parts sad and humorous. And finally, the plot keeps you hanging on to find out what will happen to this dynamic main character.

Willowdean Dickson's beauty queen mother calls her "Dumplin'" as a term of affectionate playfulness because Willowdean is large and fleshy. While she has always been comfortable in her own skin, Willowdean begins to question things about herself when she falls for Private School Bo, a fellow workmate at the Harpy's fast food joint. He seems equally attracted and instead of giving her confidence a boost, it throws Willowdean off center. Is Bo's interest true or is he primarily focused on keeping her a secret from his friends?

While her mother is preparing to direct the annual Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant, Willowdean is wondering why she can't enter the competition as well. Together with several other misfits, Willowdean enters the pageant as a statement about the beauty in all figures and shapes. She begins to channel the confidence she hopes to have ("fake it until you make it").

There were several quote-worthy moments: "There's something about swimsuits that make you think you've got to earn the right to wear them. Really, the criteria is simple. Do you have a body? Put a swimsuit on it." And - "First kiss. It's the fastest thing that lasts forever." And - "All my life I've had a body worth commenting on. And if living in my skin has taught me anything it's that if it's not your body, it's not yours to comment on. Fat, skinny, short, tall, it doesn't matter."

Heads up: There are discussions of sexuality. The subject of losing virginity is treated as simply a normal thing that happens to teen girls. The girls visit a cross-dressing gay bar. So, there are some unsavory bits, but the story is still a valuable one.

The book will cause you to question your own responses to overweight people. Would you respond with skepticism the way Willowdean anticipates others responding to her pairing with the eminently attractive Bo? The book's premise is simple: we are all equally deserving of happiness, no matter our shape or size. Differences aren't good or bad, they are simply different and it is imperative to come to terms with whatever appearance we've been given and to shine with confidence from internal worth that has nothing to do with external appearances. This book is an important manifesto for teens who struggle with self-confidence because of the reactions of others to their differences. It is well-written and painfully honest. It touches on grief, self-esteem, prejudice, and parental acceptance. Despite the heavy subject matter (sorry for the pun), the message shines through with humor and lighthearted fun.

Friday, January 8, 2016


Even though I live near a large metropolitan city, I have hardly ever felt unsafe in my rural neck of the woods. That is, until now. On Wednesday, I ran my weekly errand to a nearby town (where they have an Aldi, Meijer, Target, and Big Lots - ha, the list of stores that draw me to this particular town makes me sound pathetic). I tend to shop out there once a week, even though it takes me 20-30 minutes to get there.

As I exited the Meijer, my purse dangling loosely from my shoulder, I looked to the right and saw a woman on the ground at the other entrance and a car speeding towards me. I stepped out of the way of the frantic car and thought perhaps it had been a domestic dispute and the driver had pushed the woman out of the car and raced off to leave her behind. Within seconds, shouts began to clarify things, as the car sped off out of the parking lot and onto the main road. The woman on the ground yelled "He grabbed my purse." (I'm guessing the thief leaned out of the passenger window, grabbed the purse, and then dragged the woman along until she released her hold on the purse.) A woman walking behind me yelled, "It was a black Kia. He was driving a black Kia. Call the cops!" I saw a man put a phone to his ear, but by that time the Kia was already entering the main road and speeding off. It sounded like the woman had placed her car keys in her purse, because she cried out, "He got my keys, too." She took up the hand of a small child and began entering the building.

When I walked to my vehicle, I was overcome with a mixed feeling of dread and relief. I was so shaken I had to call my husband to replay the events for him. It was just too close for comfort. Two thoughts stood out. 1) That could have been me in just a few seconds' time if the original target of the crime hadn't been there. 2) They could have run me over in their attempts to flee the scene quickly (I had jumped out of the way just in time).

I have to admit, I have no desire to return to that town. I'm fearful of walking into that store with my purse on my shoulder. If I return I will probably only bring my cash or card in my pocket or will clutch my purse to me as if my life depended on it. I wondered all day whether the woman was able to retrieve at least her keys so she could drive her small child home. Did she have children in school she needed to return home for or pick up? Did the criminals ditch her bag once they withdrew the money and credit cards they were after?

It reminded me of three other events that left me shaken even closer to home. One, when a lunatic driver came barreling down the road behind us and threatened to crash into us or run us off the road (I sped up and did get off the road only to find an accident later on down the road when we got back on). The second, when Trevor was almost hit (within a few inches of contact) crossing the street to board the bus by a driver who failed to slow for the bus stop sign on our street where cars zoom past at around 40 or 50 mph. I saw that from our front door and was equally shaken. The third time, Trevor was on his bike and his pant leg caught in the chain and he continued on across the road (thanks to his guardian angel, no cars were approaching). Near misses all. Too close for comfort. This world is a dangerous place!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Book Review: A Wrinkle in Time

As I finished re-reading A Wrinkle in Time, I was struck by how appropriate it was that I selected this book to be a book my main character is reading in the novel I just completed last month. There are so many parallels between the character sentiments, theme, and quotations of the book with those in my book. I ended my book with a verse of Scripture (even though it is not a Christian young adult book - it was simply an appropriate quote for the moment of closure) and that same Scripture is quoted in Madeleine L'Engle's book.

This book brings great strength and emotional fortitude to my main character as she faces the challenges before her. It is a book about two children attempting to save a family member and my book also is about a sister attempting to save a sister. L'Engle's book emphasizes the importance of differences in a world bent on eliminating individuality and illness, just as my book does. What a perfect fit for a reference.

Margaret Murray has great difficulty managing her life in school. People think both she and her younger brother, Charles Wallace, are dumb, while they simply have a different way of thinking and perceiving and reacting to things. Their father, a scientist who has mysteriously vanished, is rumored to have run off with another woman, although Meg knows that cannot be true. When Charles Wallace and Meg meet the three strange ladies, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, their lives are thrown off balance and they travel on a mysterious trip to attempt to rescue their father from another dimension.

This is a classic tale of good versus evil. It demonstrates the underdog triumphing over the enemy. Great meaning is drawn from beneath the story. Although I'm not feeling sucked in enough to want to continue with the series, it was certainly a perfect read for a followup to my novel writing.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015 Reading Graph

I'll give a nod to Sheila at The Deliberate Reader blog, who always starts a new year with multiple charts and graphs analyzing her reading tendencies from the previous year. I decided to try my hand at it, in a minimal way, by charting the various categories of books I devoured in 2015. It would have been interesting to see the percentage of audio vs. bound books or borrowed vs. books owned, but that would be a time-consuming task going back through to divide up the categories.

In terms of categories of grown-up literature, non-fiction was almost neck and neck with fiction. Plus, I was surprised to see that I spent more time reading tween/children's literature than reading young adult literature. This is especially surprising since I make a determined effort to read YA because I write YA novels. Moreover, I had at least 12 titles prescribed for me because of my participation in a young adult book club (which has sadly disbanded - although it was in serious decline for quite a few months).

So, here's my chart, outlining the categories of books read in 2015:

Out of 136 books read, 43 were fiction, 41 non-fiction, 27 tween/children's titles, 21 young adult, and 4 short story books.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Best Reads of 2015

This year I'm taking the easy route. I'm simply identifying the eight books I labelled as Highly Recommended. There were four tween/YA books:

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Wonder by RJ Palacio

I highly recommended three non-fiction titles and one fiction title in the adult category:

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Thirty Million Words by Dana Suskind, M.D.

Here's the list (with links) of all the books I read in 2015 (although I'm sad because I usually publish this blog post for my mother, so she can write down book suggestions from the lengthy list, and this year she is dealing with dementia and unable to jot down book suggestions or focus long enough to consume a book):

My goals for 2016 may seem surprising. I hope to read less, blog less, journal more, and find some project or job to work on outside the home to provide me with more stimulation. I want to continue to pursue publication of one of my novels and I'm desperate to edit and prepare my most recent novel to send out into the world of publishing for consideration. I hope that with fewer titles, I will be more selective and choose more books to highly recommend. I hope that with less blog writing, I will spend more time in personal writing. We shall see what 2016 brings for my reading and writing goals.