Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Book on Every Bed

Yes, I am one of those people who read advice columnists on a regular basis. I’m usually looking for pointers on coping with the world and the human condition. I was thrilled recently when columnist Amy Dickinson’s devoted her entire space for the promotion for literacy: Starting with children! Thrilled because I gave books to my great-nieces and great-nephews this Christmas. Books are the presents that get opened and quickly put down, so the youngster can attack the next wrapped present. They’re probably hoping for something with batteries that will entertain them with the modern version of bells and whistles that can possibly leave out a very important ingredient—human interaction. A book on every bed is a great project because it unites a young reader with a parent or other adult and could provide a perfect part of any day. That kind of magic is real.

Sharing your favorite picture books is not just for babies and younger children, it’s possible to find books that might entice teenagers to read on their own. I found one such gem with the latest volume of “The Atlas”, a publication by teens for teens that is created through the Midwest Writing Center’s YEW summer program. YEW stands for Young Emerging Writers, and yes, every summer a whole new crew learns how to write, edit, and publish a magazine that’s all their own work. Another reason the Midwest Writing Center is a valuable resource for the Quad-City area.

Learn more about starting your own “book on every bed” tradition by going to childrensreadingconnection.org or Amy Dickinson’s Facebook page: facebook.com/ADickinsonDaily.

The current volume of “The Atlas” is available for $10 at The Midwest Writing Center: http://www.mwcqc.org/books/the-atlas-13/

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review for The Boys in the Bunkhouse

I’m go to a lot of book clubs through the Davenport Public Library: Shorts & Sweets, Stranger than Fiction, See YA, and the West End. I have to confess the reason I joined all these clubs is because I get intimidated whenever I walk into the library or a book shop—I’m overwhelmed by all the choices. Is that fear of the unknown or laziness? I can’t do the research? Whatever, it’s a long-standing problem I solved by having someone else pick out the books I read. I’ve only had a few that I couldn’t finish. Many have been wonderful discoveries.

The perfect case in point was reading The Boys in the Bunkhouse by Dan Barry for Stranger than Fiction. It’s a new-this-year book club. I’ve found the selections a bit of a rocky road for me. These non-fiction books can be totally eye-opening or not, an easy read or a challenging one. Reading about the boys from the bunkhouse in Atalissa, Iowa, practically in my back yard, was definitely an amazing experience that I wouldn’t have had any other way.

I enjoyed Dan Barry’s writing for both style and the in-depth research. He found the most amazing tidbits of information and skillfully wove them into the fabric of his text.

Thank you, Bill Fuhr and the rest of the Davenport library staff, for a great experience.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Review of the Replacement

Author Bianca Sierra-Luebke uses masterful plotting to create a believable world that’s a blend of science fiction and fantasy. The Replacement: Book 1 of the Replacement Series is an ambitious world-building introduction to seventeen-year-old Angelica Franklin as she transitions away from her humanity. Angelica’s captors use their own blood to mold her into a being that’s supposed to be a replacement, a Lymerian that will find a place in their highly-ordered society. They don’t get the what they were expecting. Angelica emerges strong, fearless and wanting answers for the years of secrets and lies. The ending is a cliffhanger that gives the reader a hint at the answers yet to come.

The above is what I wrote when I finished the book and wanted to get something posted to Amazon and Goodreads to let the author know she had one more review. She’s up to twelve. Not bad.

What I didn’t talk about in my haste to get the posts up was how impressed I was with her writing style. It’s crisp, clean and hits all the important plot points without overdoing it. That’s good in this case because she has a lot of action to cover timewise, fifteen years’ worth, in the small space of this book. On top of that she’s worldbuilding a complex society of aliens that aren’t necessarily all that alien anymore. She’s introducing new terminology. And, of course, laying the groundwork for all kinds of conflict: between individuals, between the main groups, between the long-lived Lymerian’s and those pesky humans who aren’t as primitive as they once were.

Did I mention Author Bianca Sierra-Luebke wrote her book in first person PRESENT tense? It’s something YA authors strive for these days and not all can pull off with consistent good results. It works well here, and I was quite a way into the book before I caught on. Kudos for that.

My only problem was losing track of who was speaking occasionally. Backtracking on dialog tends to drop one out of the narrative. Using a lot of “He says” or “She says” is a pain, but it keeps the reading pace going and they really don’t register after a while.

Now, the ending. The fact that this is part of a series was made clear up front. I can’t find fault with that. The ending is good. We readers have a lot more to find out about our protagonist. And there were a lot of juicy, tantalizing hints aimed at a great world-changing struggle ahead, but I must admit I wanted a bigger ending for this first book. However, I’m thinking that when the series is complete maybe all the books can be combined into one volume—the story line will be fluid and connected and grand—an epic saga in its own right. One can hope.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Questions to Start a Discussion for Any Book

Questions for a book discussion
1.     How did you experience the book? Were you drawn into the story early or later? How did you feel while reading it—amused, sad, confused, disturbed…?
2.     Do you find the characters convincing? Are they believable?
3.     Which characters do you particularly admire or dislike? What are their primary characteristics? 
4.     What motivates a given character’s actions? Do you think those actions are justified or ethical? 
5.     Do any characters grow or change during the novel? If so, in what way? 
6.     Who in the book would you like to meet? What would you ask, or say? 
7.     If you could insert yourself as a character in the book, what role would you play? You might be a new character or take the place of an existing one.
8.     Is the plot well developed? Is it believable? Do you feel manipulated along the way? 
9.     Consider the ending. Did you expect it or were you surprised? Was it manipulative or forced? Was it neatly wrapped up—maybe too neatly?
10.  If you could rewrite the ending, would you? In other words, did you find the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
11.  Can you pick out a passage that strikes you as particularly profound or interesting? 
12.  Does the book remind you of your own life? An event? A person—like a friend, family member, boss, co-worker? 
13.  If you were to talk with the author, what would you want to know?

[I always strive to acknowledge the sources for my quotes and for material that isn't my own. The source for this list of questions came from an internet search. I couldn't find a definitive author. It appears that they, the questions, are often used as a springboard to personalize discussions for many books. In that spirit I altered them for my use and to fit onto one page.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Tale of Two T-shirts

I have two t-shirts that I don’t wear very often. Well, hardly ever. I had to buy them. They were mementos from two of the three writing conferences I went to last year.

I always take lots of notes at the workshops and panel discussions I attend; they help me remember the important points, the tips on writing, and the things I need to research later. Notes make nice keepsakes, but the overall festive mood let me get hooked on purchasing commemorative apparel from the out-of-town venues: Nashville and Chicago.

So, I have two shirts and they’re both black. Black may be popular but it’s not my color, … and I brought them home anyway. They’ve sat in my closet, pretty much untouched, ever since. I did use one for a play where I needed to dress all in black as a sort of a neutral background color to set off a red hat and scarf that were my main props. Turned inside out and with the tag trimmed off the T with the least amount of printing passed quite well.

Not wearing a garment leaves it in great condition for an upcoming event such as my reading at RIVER LIGHTS BOOKSTORE in Dubuque this coming Saturday. But do I have the courage to wear a black shirt that has “KILLER NASHVILLE” splashed across the front in blood-red lettering? At least it has “Writers’ Conference” sedately written underneath the crimson headline. The bonus feature is the large moon that peers ominously over the silhouette of the Nashville skyline. This is important because there’ll be a full moon around 4 PM Friday afternoon. Saturday would have been better, but I’ll take what I can get.

I still must find the bravery to actually wear this shirt in a public place where I’ll quite likely be asked to explain it all. The four-day conference. The fact that my novel is a COZY MYSTERY and not some of the hardcore stuff other people write. At the very least, it will give me a starting point in my talk. It will all be good. 

That leaves the "MURDER AND MAYHEM" shirt for another author-ish occasion.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Guidelines for a Productive Critique

Here are some guidelines for reading and doing the workshop letters. Best, Amy
Fall Novel Writing Workshop with Amy Parker, 2012.

Writers: When you submit your work, please make sure it’s in 12-point font and double spaced.  Number the pages so we can refer to them in discussion.  Please include a synopsis for context if the pages you submit are from the middle of the manuscript.

Readers: read the material twice. First go through with a “magazine read”, reading as you would if you just picked the story up and were reading for pleasure.  What’s your first impression? Read like a reader. On the second read, read like a writer. Go through the story and mark up the manuscript—mark passages that delight you, things that confuse you, areas where you have questions. Write comments in the margins. 

The letter: write a letter to the author, about a page. The letter should do the following:

First, describe the story. On the most basic level, what happens? (We do this so the author gets a sense of what the reader understands. It may seem obvious, but sometimes readers pick up on things the author didn’t intend, and the author should investigate why). Where do you think the story is going? 

Next, note what the story does well. What do you admire? What moved you? What worked and why?  Be specific. Quote as necessary. (Few things are more pleasurable than having one’s work quoted.)

Finally, what confused you? Where does the story need developing or clarifying? Are there gaps, inconsistencies? Is the language unclear? Are there scenes that could be compressed, or summaries that need to be amplified? What questions do you have about the material? 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sue Grafton’s X

When anyone asks me who’s my favorite author I’m at a loss to pick one person out of lifetime of reading. I’ve gone through a lot of phases, like reading the science fiction greats, focusing on animals of various kinds, and the searching out the books behind the movies I’ve seen. This amounts to odd assortments of things for pleasure, school, and work. I liked things and found value in my reading, but I can’t say I found an all-time standout favorite among all those authors.

Now, when I decided to write a novel and chose it to be a mystery I launched into a campaign of reading other mystery writer’s first books, which is where discovered Sue Grafton’s work.

I read the first three letters of the alphabet series before skipping on to later letters. I admired her skill at descriptions, her attention to details, and her grasp of human nature, and I still have S on my bookshelf because of her author’s note about maps. After that, I took another break.

Then I heard she won’t be finishing the alphabet; there would never be a Z. So, when I found a copy of Sue Grafton’s X marked down and too much of a bargain to walk away from, I had my chance to get caught up with Kinsey Millhone.

I totally enjoyed the experience of reading a mature author in high form. Grafton sets an excellent example of how to weave multiple characters, plots, and subplots together into a satisfying whole. She never compromised her standards.

Here’s a list of quotes I had presence of mind to flag:

·       “… he had a wen beside his nose …" [It’s like a boil.]

·       “Memory is subject to a filtering process that we don’t always recognize and can’t always control. We remember what we can bear and we block what we cannot.”

·       “Silence allowed me time for reflection and helped to quiet the chatter in my head.”

·       “I pressed the button that lowered the driver’s-side window and then put both hands on the steering wheel where he could see them. I could write a primer on how to behave in the presence of law enforcement, which basically boils down to good manners and abject obedience.”

·       “They’re disconnected and cold and lack any semblance of humanity. Symptoms typically manifest in adolescence, which is when you start seeing aggression and antisocial acting-out.”

·       “You can’t make someone else do anything, even if you know you’re right.”

·       “Just because I couldn’t solve my own problems doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a go at yours.”

Since Sue Grafton is the one author I’ve come back to more than once, or twice, I have to say the verdict is in: she’s my favorite.