Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Life is a highway, as Amy and Roger learn on their Epic Detour (A Review)

Review of Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour - a YA novel by Morgan Matson

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much of this book.  The cover shows a guy and girl holding hands, walking down the road.  I thought that pretty much said it all.  Why read the book?  Obviously, it’s the story of a boy and girl who fall in love on a cross-country road trip.  Right?

Well, only partly.  This is actually a story about two people who are lost.  Amy has retreated far into herself after the recent death of her father.  Her twin brother has been sent away to rehab for his drug addiction and her mother has moved to Connecticut for work and Amy’s been alone for a month while finishing her senior year and waiting for her parents' house to sell.  She has forgotten how to smile and has withdrawn from all of her friendships.  She is a shadow of her former self – buried under a mountain of guilt and grief.

Roger, the son of a family friend, arrives to pick up Amy and drive her mother’s car across the country for her, as Amy refuses to drive after her father’s accident and Roger needs to get to Philadelphia to spend the summer with his own father.  Roger – the seemingly charming, affable traveling companion - is hiding his own hidden pain and has an ulterior motive for accepting the offer to drive Amy to her destination.

For both of them, the trip is a journey of self-exploration.  When they leave California, they are fighting with the inner demons of pain and rejection.  As they drive, and make the irrevocable decision to take a detour from her mother’s very specific traveling route, they are forced to confront their emotions and reevaluate the people they have become.  This is the road trip of self-discovery.  It is really a coming-of-age story.  For the first time, they are defying authority and recognizing the power of free will.  They experience the freedom of making their own decisions and the responsibility of living with the consequences.

While it took me a little while to get into the book – mainly because of personal distractions - once I had the time, I read for hours.  The author of this book added pictures, Roger’s musical playlists to accompany their drive through each state, and commentary from Amy as she created a scrapbook of the journey along the way.  These additions brought the journey to life and as a reader, I really felt that this trip was happening.  I could imagine the author, Matson, traveling the route herself, taking pictures and writing as she drove to make the novel authentic.  And with Amy’s commentary and Roger’s musical selections, it truly was authentic. Their personalities emerged.

Another aspect that made this book special were the characters Amy and Roger met along the way.  Sometimes people come into your life very quickly and leave it just as fast, but they make lasting impressions.  These characters offered Amy pieces of wisdom that helped her to see her world more clearly and with these strangers, she was able to find her voice again.  She was able to face the reality of her father’s death.  I found this realistic.  It is often easier to tell strangers our troubles than it is to talk with the people we love.  They offer an unbiased, nonjudgmental perspective that makes us feel safe and less vulnerable.

Once she has found her words and begins to talk, Amy feels lighter.  The mountain of pain and guilt lessens and eventually, she is even able to tell Roger her darkest secrets, as he confides his own.

This isn’t some cheesy romance novel.  It isn’t just a book about cross-country adventures.  It is actually a story about two people who find themselves again after they’ve lost their way.  And the best part is that even after they’ve reached their destinations, they’ve learned that life will continue to be an unpredictable journey, but now they know they have the strength to face the unexpected.

It is a really sweet story with a great message about life and making it through the tough times.  It makes you think about what “home” really means and how and why we become the people we are, and what we truly want out of life.  Sometimes, it isn't what we think it is.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Happy Memorial Day! Thank you, service men and women!

Homecoming from 2nd Deployment to Iraq

“Courage brother, do not stumble, though thy path be dark as night: There is a star to guide the humble, trust in God, and do the right. Let the road be dark and dreary and its end far out of sight. Face it bravely, strong or weary. Trust God, and do the right.”

~Norman Macleod

Friday, May 27, 2011

Science Fiction and Fantasy emerging as fan favorites - and even for critics!


It seems science fiction and fantasy authors have never garnered the same respect as other genres – particularly literary fiction, which many critics think of as the true art of the literary world.  But times, they are a-changing.  With the emergence of popular science fiction hits, such as Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series (which transitioned into the hugely successful HBO series True Blood) and the newly released A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the lines between the genres are becoming blurred.  Suddenly, science fiction can be considered literary.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl received rave reviews and was named one of the best books of the year in 2009 by Time Magazine, Publishers Weekly, and the Library Journal.  Bacigalupi’s creation of a futuristic world of bio-engineered plagues and calories as currency was compared to the creative world of 1984.  Admittedly, the book was a bit over my head, but my husband really enjoyed it (and he’s not even a regular reader!). 

According to a study by Stuart Johnson and Associate and Simba Information cited in The Wall Street Journal, the number of sci-fi/fantasy books on the bestsellers list in 2010 more than doubled since 2006 – evidence that this is a growing trend in publishing.  Check out the link to their article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304520804576343310420118894.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

If you take a walk through the teen fiction section of any bookstore, it is quite clear that supernatural fiction is hot.  There are shelves upon shelves of books about vampires, werewolves, zombies, fallen angels, etc.  Christopher Paolini and his Eragon series, Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series, J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series, and most recently, Suzanne Collins and her Hunger Games series, have paved the way for other authors to jump outside their norms to create crossover books with imagination and depth that will be well-received.  It was only a matter of time before this supernatural obsession would find its way into adult literature.

I, for one, am thrilled that science fiction and fantasy authors are finally beginning to get the respect they deserve.  Stephen King has sold over 350 million books.  Dean Koontz has sold 450 million books.  Numbers don’t lie.  These books are popular for a reason.  Now authors whose works have always been considered literary fiction are branching out in new directions – with success and accolades! 

What does this say about readers?  I think we’re looking for an escape from reality.  We’re looking for more creativity from our authors.  Literary fiction will always be highly praised and will remain a big seller as well, but the sci-fi/fantasy authors are proving that their work can be just as insightful and profound.  As a lover of all genres of fiction, science fiction and fantasy have remained my favorite since I was young.  It’s the reason the novel I’m currently working on is YA science fiction.  I love it and I’m thrilled to see that this genre is finally gaining the recognition and praise it deserves. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Good advice to writers from Scott Eagan: Literary Agent (check out his blog!)

This agent always has really sound advice and it’s great to get an agent’s perspective when it comes to the writing business.  His blog is definitely worth checking out.
Regarding this current post, his words are a much needed reminder that our writing isn’t always perfect, even if we put our heart and souls into it.  That doesn’t mean we always have to toss out an entire manuscript after some negative criticism, but it does mean that the critique is worth listening to and the piece probably does need revision.
My first experience with a critique group was enlightening.  I went into it believing that my story was really good and that everyone would be really impressed.  Not so.  While the writing group members liked the story itself, it needed a makeover in order to draw the readers in.  I did far too much “telling,” rather than showing.
Their words were hard to hear.  I’m not going to lie, I went home and cried.  Then, I set the writing aside for a day and faced it again the next day.  Their words hurt a lot less after a night’s sleep and I was able to separate their advice from my emotions.  They had great suggestions.  I may not have taken every piece of advice, because in the end, I have to live with it, but I did heed most of it.  In fact, because of the criticism I was more motivated to prove to them that I could write well.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the situation), I can be quite competitive and instead of giving up, I saw this as a challenge.
I’m happy to report that they were completely right.  While I still love my original version in its own way, the new revised Chapter One of my book is MUCH better.  And I never could have done it without some harsh criticism.
It is hard to open yourself up to criticism, especially after putting your heart and soul into a project, but in order to grow, it’s necessary.  These are words I’m going to have to tell myself time and again as I get negative criticism, because while I’ve also received great feedback, I’ll never be perfect and some of my work will be better than others.  I even know this as I’m writing it.  Sometimes, it just isn’t working.  But that’s why I belong to a writing group.
I am lucky enough to have found a group of people with a true love of writing.  Their ages and backgrounds vary, which provides me with different perspectives and opinions and a lot of wisdom on writing.  As an English teacher, I would be a hypocrite if I couldn’t take criticism when I myself dole it out to my students.  And yes, while I may have to take a day and cry about it before returning to it for revisions, I know that I am benefiting at the end of the day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What was the first book that changed you?

A Ring of Endless Light

I’ve always believed that every person has one book that will trigger his/her love of reading.  It’s that one book that shows you that reading can actually be fun!  I know I mentioned it before, but the books that started my love of reading were the Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High books. 

But, what about the books that truly moved you?  What about that book that wasn’t necessarily your “trigger” book, but it was the book that made you learn, think, and most importantly, made you feel?  It touched the very depths of your heart and soul.  Calling it your favorite book seems insignificant.  Maybe I should ask, what was the first book that changed you?

For me, it was A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle.  What a beautiful, powerful story about living and dying.  L’Engle made me think about life – and death - differently.  She tickled my imagination, allowing me to ponder life’s possibilities and what it all means. 

If you aren’t familiar with the story, the main character, Vicky Austin, and her family visit her grandfather one summer for the last time as he is dying of cancer.  Death seems all around her, hanging over her head like a deep, heavy fog.  As she watches her grandfather face his death with faith, one hand constantly clutching the wisdom of his bible, her friend/love interest Zachary seems to be chasing it.  A thrill-seeker, bordering on suicidal, he drags Vicky into his battle with his own inner demons. 

Fighting for something to believe in, but surrounded by questions and sadness, she can’t seem to escape her overwhelming confusion and despair, except when she is in the presence of her brother’s friend, Adam, and the dolphins he is studying.  She glimpses the true meaning of life through her experiences with these intelligent and enchanting creatures.

L’Engle melded life’s hardest realities with a touch of magic realism to create a story about facing, understanding, and overcoming grief by exemplifying the hope, faith, beauty and mystery that is the circle of life.  

I read this book many times as a teenager.  Being young, I was curious about death and being, at the core, optimistic, I loved that this book provided possible answers to life’s questions and a touch of magic to appeal to the dreamer in me. 

If you haven’t read it, I recommend it to you, or to your kids.  It’s simply a beautiful story.  

Now, tell me.  What book changed you?

Friday, May 20, 2011

In the Woods - Mystery that left me haunted!

Review: In the Woods
by Tana French

Looking for more variety in my reading, I picked up this mystery novel, which has been prominently displayed throughout bookstores. I’ve always been a lover of mysteries, but haven’t read a good one in a while (the Sookie Stackhouse series being the exception!).
This novel is immediately intriguing as it becomes clear that the main character, Detective Rob Ryan, is the sole survivor of a childhood tragedy. The novel is set in Ireland and while Ryan no longer lives in the suburb of his childhood, he is still haunted by the unsolved mystery of the disappearance of his best friends in the nearby woods. Particularly unsettling to Ryan is the fact that he has no recollection of what happened, although he had been with them at the time of their disappearance and was found clutching a tree with blood soaking his socks – not his blood.
The tragedy forces his family to move and Ryan is sent to boarding school where he takes on his middle name (Rob, instead of Adam) so that he can disassociate himself from the event and move on with his life.
Fate brings Detective Ryan and his partner Cassie back to these woods when a young girl is found murdered. Ryan’s inner demons rise up and he becomes lost in his search for answers from his youth as well as the identity of the present day murderer. Are the two events linked?
Ryan is a damaged character with commitment issues and lingering ghosts from his past, but he is likable. The author, Tana French, develops his character in a way that makes readers feel sympathy and fascination for him, even while some of his actions can be frustrating and shocking. He is human. He makes mistakes, but he acknowledges them and that makes all of the difference.
I will admit that I knew the identity of the murderer midway through the novel, but I didn’t know the details and I was still intrigued as to how there might be a connection to Ryan’s childhood tragedy.
The ending of this book will not satisfy all readers – especially those who love happy endings and clear resolutions. And while there is a definite conclusion, some unanswered questions could gnaw at you. Personally, I enjoyed the ending. It left me feeling slightly haunted, but because of this, I know I won’t forget the book any time soon. Besides, any book that leaves you feeling has achieved some measure of success, hasn’t it?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Poetry Contest

Children's Writer Poetry or Verse Contest

If you’re a children’s writer or poet, you may want to check this out.  The contest is for poetry – one poem or a collection of poems, up to 300 words.  According to the site, the poetry can be targeted for children of any age.
Best of luck!

Monday, May 16, 2011

YA Novel about PSTD and its affects on the family

Review: The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt

The realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t often hit home.  Most of us go about our day-to-day activities without thinking about the deployed men and women who risk their lives and sacrifice their time with their loved ones for the sake of our country.  We see images splashed across the television.  Occasionally, we read news updates on the internet, but it all can seem distant – as if it’s happening in another life, so far away from our own.  Besides, if we constantly thought about and felt the tragedy, danger, and terror that exist during these deployments, these wars, how could we cope with our everyday lives?

But the real question is, how can the soldiers who live it cope?  In this novel, Dana Reinhardt tackles the emotional devastation war can cause a returning soldier and the toll it can take on his friends and loved ones.

Levi is angry when his older brother, Boaz – the hometown star athlete and scholar – gives up multiple college scholarships to enlist in the military.  He feels abandoned and witnesses, in the course of his brother’s three-year commitment, the unraveling of his family.  His parents are constantly worried.  They seem to pay him little attention, because all of their energy and emotion is sucked up by their all-consuming anxiety for Boaz. 

At first, Boaz keeps in contact with his family through letters, but slowly they stop coming.  When on leave, he comes home seeming distant, until he stops using his leave time to come home at all, breaking his family’s heart and fueling Levi’s resentment.

When Boaz finally arrives home for good, he is not the same person.  According to Levi, instead of leaving a boy and coming back a man, Boaz “left a man and came back a ghost.”  Boaz seems unable to bear the trivialities of day-to-day life and struggles to make conversation when once he was the life of the party. 

But Levi really becomes worried when he discovers Boaz has been preparing a secret trip to Washington D.C.  Terrified of what Boaz has planned, Levi follows Boaz on a journey that becomes an awakening for both brothers, and ultimately, the entire family.

Reinhardt tells a touching story of true heroism and the unbreakable bond of brotherhood.  Levi is awkward, shy, innocent, and yet brave in an understated way.  It is difficult for an author to tell the story from a point of view of the opposite sex, but Reinhardt handled it well.  As I’m not a boy, I can’t say exactly how well, but Levi seemed believable, if a bit naïve at times.

Boaz’s struggle to face his demons is heart-wrenching, but it emphasizes the true inner battle soldiers face, particularly with post-traumatic stress disorder.  It is a moving tale that is an all-too-real issue in this country. 

As a military wife, the book hit home.  When my husband was deployed, there was always a part of me that worried he would return a stranger.  I’ve been very lucky – mostly due to the fact that he is a pilot and does not witness the up-close horrors of battle, but I know there are things he has done or seen that I will never hear about. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon among our returning heroes.  And unfortunately, it too often goes unseen or untreated. This is a novel that needed to be written and my belief is that it will provide insight and offer hope to soldiers and their families who struggle with this disorder, particularly those younger brothers or sisters who may not understand the change in their sibling.

A recommended read! 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

P&E: How to find credible publishers, agents, and writing contests

Don't be fooled by a pretty face (or tempting offer)!
 Find out who to trust in the writing industry at Predators and Editors (website).

Predators and Editors Website:

My writing group recommended this website to me when I asked them how they knew a publisher, editor, agent, or contest was reputable.  As someone new to the industry, I have found this site to be a tremendous treasure chest of recommendations, advice, contests, magazines, book publishers, and much more.  The site is dedicated to helping writers in all aspects of the publishing process and industry, and also at giving tips on uncovering which companies/agents are trustworthy as well as questions to ask in testing their credibility.
Truly, I could spend hours on this site!  Whether you are new to the industry or a veteran, check it out.  There is something for everyone.

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Muse

Yesterday, I rambled on about my writer’s block and today, I’m happy to report that I’m cured!  How did this happen so quickly, you ask?   Well, for one, I had a good night’s sleep.  And two, and most importantly, I found my muse again.
Where was this mystical entity hiding???  On my couch, it turns out.
Yep.  My husband is my muse. (For today, at least.)  He was my sounding board.  I was having issues with the logic of the sequence of events – the plot – leading up to the end of the book.  People keep telling me that it’s okay to take liberties because it’s fiction, but the power of my story comes for the possibility of it being real.  How can I ask my readers to stick with my character and her escapades if they’re too unrealistic or disjointed, or simply illogical?   I want to base the story in fact, or at the very least, science-based theory.  No matter what genre you’re writing, the plot has to flow and make sense, right?  And, if my character is, say, trying to escape something, then I want to know that my escape plan is probable.
So, in the end, I turned to my husband to talk about my concerns and we brainstormed together.  I researched some of our ideas, reported back to him, and we continued to nail down the details.  As we always tell people about our relationship, I am all heart and he is all logic.  Together, we’re a perfect team.  He doesn’t really get my love of books (he’s all about planes and anything on the Discovery Channel) and doesn’t always understand how all-consuming writing can become.  But, man, I’m lucky he’s a great listener.
Thanks, honey.  You’re the BEST.
(Now you can go back to watching Deadliest Catch.)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Writer's Block (sigh)


I’m nearing the end of my novel and am having trouble moving forward and pulling all the pieces together.  This is writer’s block, I guess.  I have already planned for the end result, but getting there is proving to be a challenge. 

My answer to my students has always been simply to keep writing (and frankly, stop over-thinking things) and see what comes out.  I always remind them, this is the rough draft stage.  I think someone used the term “madman” writing.  I like that.  Write now and make sense of it later.  Crazed, passionate writing. 

Good advice, right?  Except that I seem to be finding more and more reasons to stay away from my computer.  There are suddenly a million other tasks that need to be completed.  And not enough time in the day.  Excuses, excuses.  I know.

Avoidance.  Denial.  Procrastination.  My passive-aggressive side is rearing her ugly head.

Most of the time music helps.  Themed music, of course.  My husband knows that I’m working on my novel when he walks into the room and hears what he refers to as “nerd music.”  I’m writing YA sci-fi so I play haunting techno-trance music to set the mood.  Besides, what other type of music would a “word nerd” listen to?

But music isn’t helping.

I read over previous chapters, outlines, timelines, and random jotted down ideas I’ve stored on my computer, but nope. Nothing. 

So, what’s the solution?

Probably stop blogging and get focused, for one.  And two, listen to that smart teacher who says to stop over-thinking and just get writing.

And that’s what I’ll do.

Starting tomorrow.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bookish.Com - New site for Avid Readers

Hachette Book GroupPenguin Group (USA), and Simon & Schuster will be debuting a new website (http://www.bookish.com) this summer that is dedicated to connecting readers with authors and new books.  It is a site that will inform avid readers on author news and new books from various genres and allow readers to make recommendations to others.

It sounds like a great way to stay up-to-date with the literary world and get feedback from real people on worthwhile reads.

It definitely seems worth checking out.  Read the above link to find out more.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Children's Book Week!!! Still Time to Celebrate!

Ahhh!  I’m terrible!  It’s Children’s Book Week and I just found out TODAY!  What kind of children’s lit lover am I? 

I apologize profusely for my oversight, but it’s not too late to make things right. Right?

This year Children’s Book Week is May 2nd-May 8th.  What a great time for all of us (teachers, librarians, parents, kids, teens, etc.) to take a break and sit back with a good book.  Basically, it’s time to celebrate children’s lit and promote literacy.

I encourage each one of you to pick up a children’s or young adult book this week to read yourself or read aloud to a child.  It is so important that we hook children into reading now so that they can grow into perceptive, knowledgeable, tolerant, creative, inquisitive adults.  Don’t let the opportunity pass you by!

Here are some great links for recommended books and ideas on incorporating author studies and children’s literature into lessons at home or in the classroom.

And if you’re interested in e-books, here is a site one of my writing group colleagues recently got published on.  Actually, she was runner-up in a book contest (she is author and illustrator).  Check out Who is the Most Beautiful Bird in the Barnyard?  and other children’s books:

As for me, I’m going to take a break from my current read – the adult mystery novel In the Woods by Tana French (although it’s very good!) – and head out to my library to grab a YA novel. 

Enjoy your reading!  Remember, it’s a celebration!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Congratulations to Cassandra Clare!

City of Fallen Angels is a success!


This April, Clare’s newest installment of the Mortal Instruments series, City of Fallen Angels, hit bookshelves (and e-books) around the country.  It was an immediate success, appearing on the New York Times bestseller list at #1, The Wall Street Journal fiction bestseller list at #1, and the USA Today bestseller list at #2.

That’s great news for Clare, publishing giant Simon & Schuster, and fans of the series. 

While City of Glass was intended to be the final book in the series, the success of the series convinced Clare and her publishers to continue the story.  Instead of focusing solely on former main character, Clary, the point of view of this book is divided by the perspectives of Clary, Jace, and most particularly Simon.  The main story surrounds Simon’s gradual transformation into and acceptance of  life as a vampire.  When tensions between Downworlders and Shadowhunters escalate, it is the reluctant Simon who must work to bring peace.

Buy or check out a copy of City of Fallen Angels at a bookstore or library near you.  I know that I will!  Let’s see if the fourth book lives up to the reputation of the rest of the series.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Spooky New Thriller by Lisa McMann - Recommended Read YA Fiction

Cryer’s Cross by Lisa Mcmann
A Review

This YA book definitely offers some spine-tingling thrills and excitement.  It is a paranormal thriller about a town whose teenagers are slowly beginning to disappear without a trace.  That, in itself, is spooky, but add to that fact a desk in an old classroom which seems to call out to whoever is sitting in it and it makes for nonstop, page-turning suspense.

Kendall lives in a small Montana town where her family owns a potato farm.  In the town, everyone knows everyone.  There are few secrets.  Kendall is unique as a heroine because she has OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), but manages to hide her illness from most of her classmates, with the exception of her best friend, Nico.  When Nico disappears, it is Kendall’s OCD that leads her closer to some answers and the risk of her own tragic disappearance. 

Kendall knows where every desk in the small classroom of high school students belongs and who sits in each and every desk, as she sneaks in early every morning to straighten up the rows, the whiteboard markers, and wastebasket.  She also knows every word of graffiti on each of these desks.  After Nico vanishes without a trace, she notices that the desk he had been sitting in once belonged to another girl.  The girl who disappeared the spring before Nico did.  What’s more, there seems to be new words etched onto the surface of the desk, begging for help – as if Nico himself is calling out to her. 

Confused and concerned about what she’s witnessed, Kendall questions her sanity and also questions the innocence of a tough new guy whose family’s arrival in town coincides with the first girl’s disappearance.  Unwillingly, she finds herself falling under of the spell of both the new guy, Jacian, and the supernatural persuasiveness of the desk’s messages. 

This book is immediately engaging and remains captivating throughout.  Kendall is likeable as a girl struggling with a fairly common mental illness who is trying to understand herself and her own desires, as well as come to terms with the loss of a lifelong friend.  The book is full of mystery, suspense, and not a little creepiness. 

The ultimate explanation for the paranormal activity doesn’t completely satisfy me, as it defies basic logic and I was a bit disappointed by this.  However, overall, I found the book to be enjoyable and it is definitely a quick read.

If you enjoy a little horror and the paranormal in your reading, I recommend this book to you.  It was a fun ride.

Author's Website: