Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: Cherry Cheesecake Murder

Even if I've tired somewhat of the formulaic stories in Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen mystery series, I continue to check out the audio offerings my library has available. They provide an easy story to get engrossed in while walking on my treadmill. Nothing too heady to wrap my mind around; just a simple story with the added plus of some tasty recipes thrown in the mix (I always say I'm going to check out the hard copy of the book so I can access the printed recipes, but never seem to go back and do that).

In this episode of the series, Hannah Swenson, owner of The Cookie Jar and unofficial town investigator is excited to welcome a Hollywood production filming in her very own Lake Eden, Minnesota. This provides an added wrinkle to Hannah's already complicated love life (she is pondering not one but two proposals from the previous book). One of the members of the movie team happens to be an old college friend, Ross. No longer with his college sweetheart, Ross has set his eye on Hannah and attempts to woo her while they are together focused on the movie project (a woman with two proposals is a stretch, but add in a third beau and the believability really begins to be stretched thin). When the difficult director, Dean Lawrence, attempts to give direction to one of his actors to demonstrate a suicide scene, all are stunned when the gun actually fires and kills him. Hannah, true to form, feels compelled to solve the mystery and determine whodunnit!

The only recipe offered in this book that tempted me was the one for peanut butter and banana cookies. I enjoy a good peanut butter and banana sandwich and the thought of incorporating this blend into a cookie sounds enticing. Once again, I say I'm going to check out the book so I can copy down this recipe. We shall see if I actually do or not (although, I'm leaning toward not, since I'm still trying to shed some unwanted pounds prior to my blood lipid test). If my library didn't have the next few books in the series in audio form, I probably would give up on reading further (this is book 8 out of 20 in the series).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Review: A Faraway Island

This was another situation where I checked out the second book in a series (Annika Thor's The Lily Pond) only to discover that it was a series book and I had missed the first installment. To remedy this, I sought out the first book, A Faraway Island. Although I couldn't secure this one in audio format (I enjoyed listening to the story that way for The Lily Pond), it was a quick and easy read.

In the summer of 1939, twelve-year-old Stephanie Steiner and her seven-year-old sister, Nellie, travel from their home in Vienna to a small island off the coast of Sweden. The two Jewish girls are expecting to be refugees there for only six months, until their parents can obtain the necessary paperwork for the family to flee to America. Lodging with a quietly, stern woman, and feeling beholden for every hand-me-down she is given, Stephanie tries to bear up under the weight of homesickness and anxiety for her parents.

I think my favorite part of the story is when Stephanie decides to walk across the frozen water all the way to the mainland in an attempt to get someone to hear her pleas for help for her parents. If I were a nail-biter, I would have been biting away. Unaware of the danger she is in or the path she is following, Stephie finds that she has merely circled around the island and returned to her starting point.

This coming-of-age book deals with displacement, familial bonds, the devastation and fear brought on by war, and questions of identity. I love the cover, with its beautiful photo of two sisters in braids (and cringed at the part in the book where another child accidentally-on-purpose burns the bottom of Stephie's braid, requiring her to cut her hair short). I love that the Lucia festival (something I participated in when my parents were stationed at a Scandinavian Salvation Army corps) is presented in the book. Another great option for a read-aloud if your children are wanting to learn about Jewish experiences during the war. I believe there are four books in the series, but my library doesn't have any more of the books available. Too bad, because it is a lovely story.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Book Review: Ordinary Grace

Oftentimes I cull titles of good reads from our book club's search for our eleven selections each year. In December, the leader gathers all our suggestions, looks up a few of her own, and produces a long list of possible books to explore. Ordinary Grace, a New York Times bestseller and winner of several other awards, was on this year's list but didn't make the list of book selections. This is a book that will stay with me a while, bouncing around in my brain.

Here are the snippets of story teaser that sucked me in: "New Bremen, Minnesota. 1961.... For thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.... When tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family - which includes his Methodist minister father, his passionate, artistic mother, Julliard-bound older sister, and wise-beyond-his-years kid brother - he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal..."

Of course, the title sucked me in as well. Even though sometimes you can read a book with "grace" in the title and find it has nothing to do with God's grace, in this case the story really did present a view on what is both called the "awful grace of God" and "ordinary grace." Although it is not a Christian book and certainly isn't proselytizing, the book causes the reader to consider God's role and response in our suffering. This is a coming-of-age tale where the narrator must grow up quickly because of the many things he sees and learns in the space of one summer. It is full of reflections on sin and suffering and the grace that can be revealed through these things.

I did figure out the ending long before it played out, but it was still an enticing read getting there. Moreover, I thought it portrayed grief very well. Readers will certainly be able to relate to the sentiments and emotions portrayed in these pages. In many ways, the words were delicious. I enjoyed the book, though not enough to label it a highly recommended book.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: P.S. Longer Letter Later

I've been in a bit of a reading slump. I simply haven't had any desire to bury my head in a book. Still, I know this occurrence is temporary. This too shall pass.

Thus, I could only rouse myself for a very simple book this time around. P.S. Longer Letter Later is a book co-written by the famous writers Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin. The book contains a story told in letters between two twelve-year-old girls, Tara and Elizabeth. It is my understanding that Danziger wrote Tara's letters and Martin wrote Elizabeth's. Together they create a world that tests the bonds of friendship and family.

When Tara Starr moves away, her best friend Elizabeth is determined to keep in touch. Thus begins a year-long correspondence between the two girls. Each girl pours out victories and woes to the other. For Tara, life is changing because her parents have become more responsible adults (they had her when they were both teens and haven't always been reliable). While Tara's world becomes more stable, Elizabeth's solid world is crumbling. Her father loses his job, begins to drink more, purchases things they cannot afford, and runs from his responsibilities.

This was a sweet, tender tale of friendship. I'm always a sucker for epistolary novels. I'm eager to begin the sequel (I accidentally checked it out first and then discovered our library didn't have this first book). It will be interesting to have the story move up to a more recent time frame, since the second book is titled Snail Mail No More.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Review: Love Letters

I've been enjoying Debbie Macomber's Rose Harbor Inn series. The stories, while simple, are pleasantly engaging and always uplifting. Once again, in this third installment, Macomber manages to weave a few stories of reconciliation and healing.

While the inn's owner, Jo Marie, is busy trying to ferret out more information about her mysterious handyman, Mark Taylor, she also plays hostess to several visitors at the inn. The young Ellie Reynolds comes to Cedar Cove on a mission her mother fears is destined for danger. She is meeting, in person, a man she met on the Internet. Her over-controlling mother phones repeatedly to make sure that Ellie is safe and secure, but neither Ellie or her mother are prepared for the events this meeting sets into motion.

Maggie and Roy Porter have come to the inn for a weekend away in the hopes of restoring their crumbling marriage. With hurts on both sides, they attempt to reconcile and forge a better relationship. Before they can do that, they are presented with a bit of news that threatens to shake the very foundations on which they are attempting to rebuild their marriage.

In each of these stories, including Jo Marie's own story, love letters are exchanged bearing expressions of love forged in difficulties. These written words hold the power to provide healing. Sadly, the letters have to be received and fully believed in order to work their magic. If you are looking for an inspirational series full of redemption and hope, you cannot go wrong with this series of books. I'm anxiously looking forward to the fifth and final installment, Sweet Tomorrows, due out on August 2nd of 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There

Generally, I really like Bill Bryson's books. I remember laughing out loud while reading A Walk in the Woods. That was a travel book. Neither Here Nor There promised to be a travel book about his experience travelling through Europe. I thought I would really enjoy it (enough so that I recommended it to someone when I was just a few pages in). I thought I would get a good chuckle here or there. I didn't.

Perhaps it was that it frequently descended into vulgarity and coarseness. Perhaps it was that I quickly tired of hearing about drinking sprees and lousy food. He seemed to rip on every country he visited for a variety of reasons. Attempts at humor left me feeling like he tried too hard. All of that sounds rather harsh for an author often lauded as an outstanding humorist.

I'm not ready to give up on his books. This just wasn't a hit with me. I wish I could take back the handful of hours it took for me to digest this book. I sincerely wish his humor had been cleaner and more appealing. I was really hoping for a good laugh or two. Instead, it left me shaking my head in dismay.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Andy Warhol was a Hoarder

This book, Andy Warhol was a Hoarder, is fresh from the presses. Our library acquired it in February. I could tell it was a 2016 publication because the author referred to the neurologist Oliver Sacks in the past tense (he died in August of 2015). My fascination with the brain and how it works extends to mental illness and how it influences our lives. This book promises to take you inside the minds of history's great personalities.

Author Claudia Kalb selected twelve individuals to present in this book about how various famous people would probably be diagnosed today. She explores Princess Diana's eating disorders, Abraham Lincoln's clinical depression, Frank Lloyd Wright's narcissistic personality disorder, Charles Darwin's anxiety disorder, George Gershwin's probable ADHD, and Einstein's possible Asperger's Syndrome (among others). Each chapter focuses on the celebrity and their accomplishments, then delves into their particular neurosis.

I especially liked one particular passage that spoke of the very premise my most recent novel is attempting to convey, that the world would be a very shallow place if it attempted to strain out all the irregularities and limitations presented by certain "illnesses" or "diseases." Where would our world be without the Lincolns, the Gershwins, the Einsteins of our past? What if doctors attempted to eradicate their quirks by medicating them for their ADHD or anxiety disorders? Would the medicine rob us of the great achievements such hardships and challenges often produce? Our limitations are part and parcel of who we are. This book offers a key-hole look into very interesting lives and the disorders that challenge even the greats among us.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Book Review: Audio Re-read of All the Light We Cannot See - Highly Recommend

What a magnificent book! When I first read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, I loved it so much that I went on Amazon and purchased a copy to be sent to my mother. I don't know if she and my dad ever read the book, although they did say that she was planning to read it aloud to him on some upcoming trip. The words flow like silk and the characters loom like specters (in the sense that they rise like ghosts become material, not in the sense of being threatening or menacing).

This time around, when my book club selected this as our April read, I decided to seek out the audio version of the book and listen while walking on my treadmill. The benefit of listening is that the words simply flow out and sound more like poetry when spoken aloud than it seemed when I read the book to myself and the words were simply passing across my consciousness. It was, again, a magical experience and no less potent because it was the second time around.

Doerr skillfully weaves the stories of the lives of two young people, a German boy and a French blind girl, across the years of World War II until they collide in one riveting scene in the midst of the war. Werner Pfennig is a deeply intelligent boy who has a knack for fixing radios (something very handy to the German cause). Marie-Laure is the daughter of the key master for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. When the war breaks out, her father is sent away with one of the museum's most valuable possessions. Since three duplicates were produced and sent out as well, Marie-Laure and her father cannot know whether they carry the valuable piece or not, but one German Commandant is determined to find the real stone.

Apart from a plot that thickens and thickens causing the reader to remain riveted in the pages of the book (I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading when I read the book physically the first time around), the prose is simply stunning. The book took ten years to write and you can tell that the author spent that time honing and fine-tuning until the words were presented like the jewel he describes (The Sea of Flames), a marvelous thing to behold.

The book brings forth so many things to think about. The futility and brutality of war. The transient nature of our lives. The importance of kindness and love. The importance of fully living one's life. The strength of the bonds of family. The misplaced value we often put on things over people. The question of the impact of fate or destiny. I could sit and think about this novel for hours and I'm really anticipating great discussion on the night of our book club. It truly is a must-read!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Pitchapalooza 2016

Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) helped me turn a corner as a writer. Once I joined in the annual November festivities of attempting to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month's time, I released my inner editor and actually began finishing manuscripts instead of writing three or four chapters and then abandoning the work when the next idea took hold. It was like a gate opened up at the races and I poured out of it determined to cross the finish line.

When a writer completes the 50,000 word goal (and most of the time, for me that is only part-way to the end of the manuscript, so I often write into December until that first draft is completed), Nanowrimo sends out alerts of various winner offers. This year, one of the offers jumped out at me. It was a pitching contest called Pitchapalooza, presented by The Book Doctors, the husband and wife team of Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry.

You are only allowed 250 words or less, so I hammered and honed a pitch for my most recent Nanowrimo effort, my YA novel entitled The Probability Code, and sent it off. The Book Doctors review the pitches and randomly select 25 to critique on their website. Writers are encouraged to visit the site, review the pitches and critiques, and then vote for their favorite one. The popular vote is announced and The Book Doctors also select their favorite. The popular vote winner receives a free one hour consultation with The Book Doctors and the top winner is introduced to a publisher/agent who is a fit for that particular pitch. It is a great opportunity to learn about pitching your work (enticing an agent or publisher to read your whole manuscript).

This year there were 758 entries. Sadly, my pitch was not randomly selected for critique. But, there was another offer. If you purchase The Book Doctors' book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It ... Successfully, and present evidence of the purchase, you will receive a free twenty minute consultation with The Book Doctors, worth $100. Knowing the chance was slim that my pitch would be randomly selected for critique, I opted to buy the book.

Today was my consultation with The Book Doctors and, although the time went very quickly, I was able to present my pitch for The Probability Code and to receive David Sterry's opinions on its viability. Here is my pitch:

"For fourteen-year-old Kamal Malone life is anything but easy. While everything seems to drop into place for her older sister, Cosmos, for Kamal, just going to school fills her heart with dread. Besieged by social anxiety, walking through the crowded halls of her high school produces the same adrenaline rush most people experience during the running of the bulls. Only for Kamal, it is simply terrifying with none of the excitement factor.

"And now, thanks to the Population Control Council, Kamal's anxiety is at a fever pitch. Due to the perfect storm of food, water, and energy shortages, the Council has instituted the Probability Code Exam. This exam is supposed to determine an individual's probability of societal success. Cosmos passed the exam with ease the previous Spring, but now Kamal's name is on the list and seeing her name there brings on a full-blown panic attack.

"Those with the highest scores are culled to work in the Nurturing Program, flooding genetically rich infants with stimulation to encourage brain development. Thus, Cosmos is paired with the handsome and intelligent Ned Finnegan to work with Clay Taylor. But those who score in the lower ten percent on the exam will be shipped off to segregation communities with minimal resources. Will Kamal's test anxiety keep her from revealing her true potential? Can Cosmos and Ned help Kamal fight the anxieties that hold her hostage? If she doesn't pass the exam, how will she possibly handle life in the mysterious segregation community?"

Here was the primary observation David offered me: The pitch is telling ideas but not presenting actions. I need to make the reader root for the character more and get more inside the character's mind and emotions. Thus, I offered to read to David the first paragraph of the novel itself:

"She would die of a heart attack right there on the locker room floor. She wouldn't even be allowed to die alone. No. It would have to happen right there with Penny Schumacher standing at her locker staring at her, open-mouthed, as she crawled along on the floor gasping for breath, trying to ease the painful throb deep in her chest."

He seemed very pleased with that snippet, announcing that it revealed good writing, an enticing voice, and the full range of emotions presented so that he could actually feel what the character was feeling. He encouraged me to rework the pitch so that I condensed the action and emotion of that first paragraph of the actual novel into a nugget. He reminded me to think of the pitch as a movie trailer, presenting a scene economically and then pulling back to present the world the character is inhabiting and the obstacles she faces. I simply need to show it more clearly, instead of telling the ideas behind the novel. Once I rework the pitch, he encouraged me to road test it by sending it out to ten people. He suggested that I join the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), where I can meet others who could provide me with valuable feedback and also come in contact with editors who might be enticed by my pitch.

All in all, it was a very encouraging and beneficial critique session. He seemed to feel that my idea was a solid one, worth devoting the time and energy to refine and pursue. He said that my first paragraph revealed what he felt would probably be the ability to pull off the ideas presented in the pitch. Best of all, he offered to accept further correspondence (I know he was under no obligation to give me another moment of his time) when I have refined the pitch. He believes he knows several appropriate agents he might pass the pitch along to for consideration. That was really encouraging. Oftentimes in the publishing world, you need to find that someone who knows someone who might be interested in reviewing your work. Connections can be key.

Now, I have several goals before me. I need to finish a few revisions of the novel to make it the best possible manuscript it can be. I need to rework the pitch to provide more action and entice more with the character's emotional response to the conflict. I need to find a few beta readers for the revised manuscript and find ten people to review the revised pitch. And, I agree that I should probably join the SCBWI (where some of those readers might be waiting).

This encouraging consultation came at just the right time. A few weeks ago, I finally heard back from the agent who had requested my If Bones Could Speak manuscript almost a year ago. He wrote: "after some deliberation I've decided your work just isn't quite right for me.  As I'm sure you know, whether or not to take on a client is a very personal decision, and has as much to do with an agent's personal preferences as it does an author's writing abilities."

I will admit, it was discouraging to hear that this agent wasn't a good fit for representation of my manuscript. I had to fight those inner demons yelling, "Just give up. Just quit writing. You obviously aren't any good at this and nobody is ever going to say yes." Now I can fight back against those defeatist attitudes with the encouragement from David Sterry. He seemed to think my manuscript holds great promise. He believes in it enough to offer to pass my work on to someone who might bite (after I revise the pitch further, of course). The hard work will be in getting it polished to the point where I don't believe I can polish it further and learning how to present the best pitch possible (although I do feel I'm not far off because I've enticed two agents and two editors to request my manuscripts based on previous pitches/queries).

If you are a writer you might consider checking out The Book Doctors' book and free consultation offer. Moreover, they are holding a free webinar tomorrow. The links for that are found on their website. As for me, I'm hoping I can listen in so that I can glean even more wisdom about presenting the perfect pitch and pursuing publication for my writing.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Book Review: Perfect

When I saw that Rachel Joyce, author of one of my favorite books from two years ago, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, had another book out, I was thrilled. It must be hard to be a writer whose break-out book hit bestseller lists and reigned in reader's popular favorites. I certainly wouldn't want that pressure, that expectation that everything produced from there on out would be gold. This wasn't gold, but it wasn't bad either. I suppose I ended up just feeling so-so about it. It held my attention. It explored the human psyche. But, it didn't dazzle and take me on a similar journey to the one I experienced with Harold Fry.

Eleven year old Byron Hemmings is an inquisitive boy. It is 1972 and his friend James informs him that they will be adding two seconds to time to make up for adjustments caused by the leap year days. He is blown away by this concept and struggles to understand what that means for the accuracy of time. Then, when something happens, in what he perceives to be the two added seconds, he is sure that his whole life has gone on an alternate trajectory and cannot be turned around. His mother seems oblivious to what has happened and yet it will impact her significantly.

The book, Perfect, has interesting characters (one with OCD, another a mother who is suffocating in a tidy world). It explores interesting ideas: what might happen if a mistake made in the matter of seconds shattered life as you knew it? How does a child's perception of life alter when faced with very adult situations and complicated consequences? Moreover, it resonates with the reader quite well.

I certainly ached alongside Byron as his family's world began to shatter. I was emotionally moved by the story. Yet, it didn't quite live up to the emotional stirring of her previous books. While I don't regret having spent the time reading it, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly, the way I did with Harold Fry's story. I'm not writing this writer off, but this wasn't quite up to the standards of her other two books.

Furthermore, I wasn't thrilled with the cover art for the library's copy (see above). I much prefer two other ones found on the author's site:

In the end, I guess it just wasn't as "perfect" as I would have liked.