Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book Review: Go Ask Alice

When I checked this book out in the library, several library employees commented on reading it as a teen and it being very influential on them. I picked it off the shelf and started reading it without knowing its history, and I was drawn into the story.

"Go Ask Alice," by Anonymous was first published in 1971. The era is sometimes evident in the clothing choices made, but that is such a small part of the story. It is the horrific story of a teenage girl from a good family getting caught up in drug abuse that eventually leads to her demise. It is written in diary form, from beginning until her last entry.

According to Snopes, this book was the product of Beatrice Sparks, who produced several novels depicting teens in situations that ruined their lives, including AIDS, pregnancy, satan worship and eating disorders. It is clearly not an authentic diary of a teenage girl, but it is convincing enough to keep a reader interested, and clearly made an impact on some young readers (or so I heard at the library).

It is a short, quick read, and the main character is easy to relate to. Whether it is authentic or not, it does speak of the trials of finding friends, keeping friends, doing stupid stuff and all that comes with being a teen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Today Is the Day

Gangbanger is released today!

Ze Vang could count on his friends to have his back....until things get deadly.

Now available in ebook or paperback form on Amazon or in ebook form at Solstice Publishing.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

On Friendship

The world has a way of slapping you in the face, kind of like that song by Sheryl Crow, "Isn't It Ironic."

Less than a week after I posted about my upcoming book on friendship, my very best friend from middle school to about 10th grade had a cataclysmic event and has been in ICU fighting for her life ever since. I pray for her daily, hoping she hangs in there, thinking about the people in her life who love her, hoping she can come back from this.

We haven't been friends for a long time, but you don't forget the bonds of best friends. We did everything together, and most of it was stupid, like eating cake mix out of the box, or braiding each other's hair so we'd have kinks, getting sunburned and peeling each other's back. Those were some good times and I never laughed as much as I did when I was with Shelly.

I had to dig deep through the archives in the basement, searching through boxes of photos of my life since Shelly and I were friends. Wedding photos, vacations, multiple albums for our children. My own childhood nearly forgotten at the bottom of a box tucked deep into the storeroom, with photos from a time before digital.

I have one photo of me with the girl who inhabited my everyday for four years, and it is nothing but a Polaroid from 1985. This is Shelly and I sitting on Santa's lap. My eyes are closed and I look characteristically awkward in my jean jacket with buttons that say whatever I had to say at the time, while she looks as cool as a cucumber. She was always the cool one, while I was awkward and weird.

And, because I found a lot in that box, I have to give a shout out to Pennie, who I accompanied to prom night for a school that wasn't ours. This was probably 1986, and feathered hair, puffy sleeves and satin dresses were cool.

And finally, I have to give a toast to the best friend who got me through the rest of high school, my rock, my friend, my Taco Time partner, Linda. We haven't been in each other's world enough lately.

Best friends mean a lot. I'm sure there is a saying out there that you only need one good friend, and that friend is precious. Celebrate yours, the friends then and now. And please, pray for Shelly. She has some tough odds, and she is a special light in this world. Best friends need to live forever.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

This Is Out of My Hands Now

Final copy is sent. Cover art is done. Vague blog and twitter posts explained.

I have a new novel coming out. The official release date is November 15, 2016.

This is a story about the power of friendship. Because sometimes in life, and especially in teen lives, friendship is everything, even more powerful than family. Please share your feelings about friendship on Twitter with #ForFriendship.

Ze Vang was raised to take over for his father, as the eldest and only son of a Hmong immigrant family. Then he does the impossible, he leaves, with a little help from his friends. When things go terribly wrong, Ze needs to make an impossible choice.

Gangbanger coming November 15!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I am a huge Harry Potter fan, and stood in line at midnight many times for the release of the next book in the 2000s, although I was never the sort to stay up all night reading it and could have easily bought it at Target the next morning while running errands. That isn't as much fun, though. Standing in line at 11:35 pm and chatting it up with folks in costume makes a book release an event.

I felt a whiff of that excitement when I saw the new book, "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child", which bears JK Rowling's name and is most definitely based on her body of work, but is actually a play written by Jack Thorne.

Some are put off by the structure, as it is a screenplay, with little detail. At first, I didn't mind it at all. As time went on, I realized I didn't read this book in 24-48 hours like I did the series. While the sparse details and focus on dialogue of the screenplay format made it easier to move the plot, it didn't allow me to sink in and be absorbed in the story in a way that I couldn't put the book down.

That is not to say the story isn't compelling. It is, it really is, but perhaps only to a Harry Potter fan. If you haven't read another Harry Potter book, this one might not make any sense at all. For fans, it is a fun escape to see what might have been, and see some old friends. Although I have heard and agree the exclusion of Luna Lovegood was a disappointment.

The story, itself, is compelling and interesting, and leaves me wondering what will happen next every step (act) of the way. I don't know if I would buy another one (who am I kidding, of course I would!) I also looked into what plane ticket to the UK would cost, just for the chance to see this play on stage.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Publishing and other forms of insanity

A fellow author offered a link to a blog entry on useful hashtags for writers on Twitter. It was a good article, and if you are interested in writing and Twitter, you can find it here.

What fascinated me was the title at the top of the blog... Publishing... and other forms of insanity.

Insanity. We've all heard about the creative folks who were insane. Creativity has gone hand in hand with insanity since the beginning of time, fair or not.

For years, publishing was what I was working toward. I wanted to publish a book, and I achieved that in 2012 with the release of my first novel.

The experience was exhilarating, but what surprised me is how exposed I felt, and vulnerable, like standing naked on a street corner.

Writing is an intimate practice. Authors craft their novels in relative solitude. I have drooled over writing sheds in backyards or writing retreats in cute B&Bs away from the trials of family life. We get to know our characters' deepest flaws, their desires, what they always thought of themselves that is wrong. And let's face it, some of those flaws come from personal experience. We often have to feel what the character feels to write it well.

So you dive deep into your soul and you feel all the things and put them on the page. Then you send it off for public consumption, where everyone, including your mother, your aunt, your enemy can read it. And you don't do it for riches. There are some authors who break out and make big money, but they are few and far between. Most authors I know aren't in this for the money.

This very much sounds like insanity.

Yet I can't imagine NOT writing. As I write this blog post, I have been in editing for an upcoming novel (news coming soon!) and not working on my WIP. This is making me cranky. Editing is still part of writing, but different. I have to change gears and focus on this novel that I finished ages ago, and debate changes, and as an experienced novelist, I realize every change or suggestion can become the permanent record, in the book everyone will read, maybe even quote.

Take a look at your Twitter feed, I bet there are literary quotes on there that go back for decades, maybe even more. Talk about pressure.

Publishing is insanity, or causes insanity, or only the insane would pursue this.

It will be worth it.

Soldier on, my writer friends, through the insanity, at every level of this process.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: Eleanor & Park

Rainbow Rowell captures the intensity of first love between an unlikely pair in Eleanor & Park, but it isn't all rose petals and dreaminess. It comes with self conscious and awkward feelings, doubt, fear, and despair.

Eleanor is the new girl at school after having spent the last year in foster care. She is self conscious about her weight and appearance, and is received with cruel taunts from her peers. Park's first impression is that she is a weird girl who dresses funny, but he soon admires her for her quirkiness as a romance builds bus ride by bus ride.

The story is sweet, sad, foul mouthed and authentic to how it feels to be a misfit in love. Although I do wonder if today's teens would recognize references to Ozzy Osbourne and commercials that aired before they were born.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Celebrating Other's Successes

When my kids were small, I often heard the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child." It felt very true and I was very thankful for my circle of supportive moms, especially in the early years. Since then, I have been thinking a village is useful for more than just raising children. I think we need a village for many of our ventures. Artists of all kinds, including writers, need a village for support, exposure, advice, inspiration, and to feel a part of something.

The best way to support any artist is to spread the word, and the easiest way to do this is write a review. Reviews on Amazon or Goodreads boost an author's reputation. Have a bad review? Well, I can tell you that authors don't like them, but they happen. Not everyone likes the same thing;) They still count toward review counts, which is a thing at Amazon.

Along with giving more reviews, I have started tweeting and sharing news of other author's successes. I went through a time when I wasn't having many successes of my own, so it felt good to celebrate others. I made it my job to promote other people's publishing news, and it made me feel more successful. I was more connected to my writing community. It made me believe that anything was possible again.

I went to conferences without the belief that I would be discovered. I went to meet people, make friends, make connections, and maybe learn something in the sessions. You know what? I want to go to more conferences, because I want to see those people again. I want to keep working at those relationships. Not with agents or editors I met (although that would be nice and happens sometimes), but with the other creators.

You might not even realize it. The woman who wrote a middle grade novel about snot who sat next to me in one of the sessions, I voted for your book in the Crystal Kite. Sorry you didn't win, but you had at least one vote.

Celebrating other people who work in your field is working on your own career, even if your career stinks at the moment. You have some good people to rub shoulders with.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Book Review: Raymie Nightingale

I recently read "Raymie Nightingale" by Kate DiCamillo. Young readers looking for something to read are likely to find something written by DiCamillo, who has penned, "Because of Winn Dixie," "The Tale of Desperaux," "Flora and Ulysses," and "The Mysterious Journey of Edward Tulane," among others.

Raymie Clarke is a 10 year old with a plan to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire to get her picture in the paper and lure her father to come back home after he ran off with a dental hygienist. She meets her competition at baton twirling lessons, Louisiana Elephante, who is an orphaned daughter of performers, and Beverly Tapinski, who plans on sabotaging the contest. The three of them, dubbed "The Three Rancheros," do a series of tasks to heal their individual wounds and bond them as friends. 

The details are the delight in this story, as each piece has a place, from a drowning dummy doll to multiplying bunny barrettes in Louisiana's hair. This imaginative journey comes to a satisfying end for each of these kids dealing with the serious issues. It is about dealing with loss, friendship, and our ever growing souls.

And the story makes me want to say, "Pfffffffft" far more often.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Wooden Giraffe

These have been strange times, as if we are in the midst of change, and not the good kind. Doubt and anxiety grip my creative life, and I know those emotions have overshadowed my passion for the work, and for some time. My day job, which has been a blessing in keeping me busy and getting steady paychecks appears to be coming to an end. I am seeing relationships end and friends in crisis. I am watching age and its cruelty affect loved ones. And then there is Britain.

Something finally snaps, in the form of several bones in my son's wrist, four days before we were scheduled to leave for a very active vacation. With surgery pending on his wrist and a useless right arm, we have to change our plans. All the sights and activities I had carefully planned for those seven days have to change, and I don't know what it will look like. Just like I don't know what a lot of our lives are going to look like in a month, a year, five years.

Then I see this wooden giraffe, sitting quietly under a tree, and I felt better.

This giraffe was carved with remarkable detail from a rather large log or stump, the base of the giraffe revealing a glimpse of its former self. Few things have more sense of permanence than a tree. They stand in the same spot for hundreds of years. They can become a reference point for other things around it, a meeting place, an important part of memories. Yet they change all the time. They grow, the leaves change color and drop in fall, new leaves form in spring. The tree is constantly in flux.

But you may have not imagined a tree would become a giraffe. For that to happen, the tree had to face the ultimate change. It had to die. The tree lost everything, its leaves, its growth, the place where it put down roots. I can't imagine a more bleak place than that, but if that didn't happen to this tree, it never would have become a charming giraffe that made me smile today and fear change and the unknown a little bit less. Because as scary as it is to march forward into the unknown, as hard as it can be leave behind everything we thought we needed in this life, it can lead us on a path to become something unexpectedly beautiful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review: The Five Flavors of Dumb

I kicked off my summer with a rocking YA novel, "The Five Flavors of Dumb," by Antony John. The premise of the story is the reason I had to read it. High school senior Piper Vaughn finds herself as manager for a rock band. Piper is a good high school student, who steers clear of trouble, does well in her classes, has few friends, and she is deaf. Before opening page one, I am wondering how she is going to manage a rock band when she can't hear the music.

The book does not disappoint. I can't say it had me on the edge of my seat, but it was a fun read with some nods to the rich music history of Seattle, including Jimi Hendrix and the grunge era Nirvana. It also shows that you don't have to hear the music to feel its power. Now I want to listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Gardening Takes Over

My vocation is that of a writer or editor, which is a dream come true, but this time of year becomes a challenge, because this is the start of the planting season. In addition to being an author, I am a Master Gardener, and there is a lot going on in that world this time of year.

Something new I am trying this year is Straw Bale Gardening. You probably heard of this, or maybe you didn't. It is a movement started by Joel Karsten that has taken off as a new way to garden that has minimal weeds and can make some plants very happy. I have quite a history of weeds in my garden, along with voles who live in the stone wall borders. I am hoping straw bale gardening is the answer for me.

This is a picture of my garden pre-planted. "They" recommend you lay landscape cloth or corrugated cardboard over the soil to smother the weeds. I had neither, so I used paper grocery bags. We have a vole problem, so we needed some hardware cloth. My spouse got a little wild about wrapping that first bale with hardware cloth. It took him two hours to do that. I am not kidding. He refuses to admit it took that long. I refused to let him continue with that, which he didn't complain. He thought the rest of them should be unprotected (because he didn't want to spend two hours on each bale and create a hazard for me working with that bale). For the rest of the bales, we rolled out the hardware cloth underneath, but over the paper bags. It is a simple, easy solution, and so far, the voles are there, but not inside the bales.

The bales need to be conditioned over the course of two weeks. You add fertilizer and water to break them down and make them habitable environments for plants. After two weeks of conditioning, you cover the top of the bales with potting mix and shove your plants in.

I have two bales conditioned and planted with strawberry plants. I shoved a mint plant into the side (with was no small feat, my bales didn't seem to "break down" that much. I heard they look nasty in the meantime, but mine look the same. But the strawberry plants have been there for a week now and haven't died. The mint shoved into the side looks amazing. Mint does well anywhere, though, right?

We'll see how this goes. I promise I am writing as well, but my creative projects shift a bit during the growing season:)

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Book Review: Finding Winnie

I don't usually do reviews on picture books, but Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear, by Lindsay Mattick (author) and Sophie Blackall (illustrator) took me by surprise and deserves to be read by young and old alike, especially the old. There is a nostalgia factor going on in this book that kids may miss out on, but the story is incredible enough that they will enjoy having this read aloud without the long memories.

The set up feels very amateurish with a mother telling a son a bedtime story, and I could do without the interjections from the child, but they make sense in the end. Once the story gets rolling, it gets better and better. Just when I think it is over, there is another part of the story, as if I am not already blown away by a military bear.

I did not read what this story was about before cracking it open, and I am not going to tell you what it is about either. You can choose to read the blurb inside the front cover, or not.  The discovery is half the fun, and I will save you that, "Aha," moment.

Monday, April 11, 2016

First Drafts Are Almost Always Bad

Writers have a picture in their heads on how their story is going to look, but it doesn't always come out that way. Sometimes...maybe most of the time, it doesn't look like that for awhile. Maybe a long while. The first draft probably doesn't look like it belongs in the same room.

And that's ok.

I recently gave a talk about writing to a group of teens and tweens during which I encouraged them to write their stories, and finish their stories, even if they are very, very bad. Almost every first draft is bad, I said. Even Rick Riordan writes bad first drafts (my apologies to Rick Riordan for using him as an example. I have no idea of his writing process. I am just guessing and knew there were some fans of his in the crowd).

The first draft only needs to exist. It doesn't have to be anything but a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end. Everything else can be fixed.

I wondered if this was good advice, and what I heard from my writing cohorts is that is something they learned later in their writing life, and the realization that what you produce does not have to be good can be life changing. It allows the freedom to write badly. You can fix it later, make the prose shine, work on the elements of your story, but you can't revise a blank page.

It seems writing badly is part of the process. Even the best of the planners, the ones with outlines of every chapter, probably have a lot to work on once the work is complete. Writing a novel is a journey, and things come up, sometimes for the better, sometimes down a rambling path of who knows what. 

I had to take a dose of my own advice recently, as I am currently writing a first draft and I am in the unfortunate position where this is all I have to bring to my critique group. Accepting your own limitations to write a terrible first draft is one thing, it is terrifying to bring pieces of this pile to be critiqued. My critique partners are knowledgeable, honest and kind, and I know their notes will help a ton during revisions, which is another big process that seems to have no definitive guide.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again

This semi autobiographical tale by Thanhha Lai is about a young girl's experience fleeing Saigon under siege. Her father is missing, and the family makes the heartbreaking decision to leave without him.

Ha's thoughts about her home do not include the bombs and war, but of papayas and the flowers her father grew. Her new home in Alabama challenges her as she struggles to fit in and deals with teasing from classmates and distrust from neighbors.

The details in this National Book Award winning novel are terrific and appropriate for middle school readers. It is written in verse, which makes it an easy, lyrical read. The main character charms with a heart big enough to let go her only possession to make her brother feel better about losing his. I am rooting for that girl, and it sometimes hurts to see what happens to her. Yet there is always a spring of hope, like the flower seeds saved from her father's garden. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Paws of Life

This is Otis.

He may be the most annoying cat on the planet. He loves babies and toddlers and rushes to them and insists on being by them and playing with their toys, then he bites them and chews holes in the diaper cream tubes in their bags. He will drink coffee out of the cups of guests with gusto and extreme impoliteness. He knocks over any water glass he can find, and if Otis is in your room in the morning, you can forget about sleeping past 5 a.m.

We adopted Otis from a rescue organization more than 14 years ago and were told he was returned twice due to "allergies." One family kept his brother though.Yeah, they weren't allergic to Otis' brother. He must have gotten a different kind of cat fur. I think Otis was returned because he was mischievous with a specialty in being really annoying.

My Siamese meows at my door for breakfast. Otis won't meow. Instead he barges into the room and knocks everything off the nightstand....everything. My son Elliott doesn't have a nightstand, so Otis knocks over his garbage can and paws at it, making that crinkly sound of paws against plastic lining and making a huge mess in the process.

Meowing would be easier, cleaner, and MUCH less annoying.

Otis once escaped and lived on the lam for four months during the coldest winter in Wisconsin. Somehow he survived. He found a four year old boy to take care of him. I wonder if he ever bit him.

He is about 15 years old now. It is hard to tell exact age with rescue cats. We noticed he was getting kind of scrawny, especially along his spine. The vet told us to prepare ourselves. We may have to make a decision about Otis soon.

It is hard to imagine the end of Otis. Our pets barge into our lives and are bigger than life. Logic tells us their time is short. The lifespan of a tabby cat is somewhere between 12 and 20 years. My vet told me he is definitely geriatric. He and I both know it. We ignore it. I put extra blankets on the couch for him, and when he can't get on the couch, I put a heating pad under his cat bed. I chop up his prescription food for his old cat disease and add a little water to keep him hydrated. We are all a little more careful with Otis, not dropping him from our arms anymore, but setting him on the ground to save his joints the shock of landing. But we still depend on him to patrol the house and yard for pests. He is the best mouser we ever had, and he still has a great nose.

The neighborhood kids know Otis, because he is pressed against the door when they come over, trying to escape between their legs in the most annoying of ways. We recently had eight middle school boys sleep in the basement for the night and Otis chose to snuggle up with the warm bodies on the floor, perhaps hoping to find a dropped Flaming Hot Cheetoh in the process.

I don't know how to live without that. Life without Otis would be a lot less annoying. Folks can drink coffee in peace and water glasses will not longer be in peril. Babies are safe from attack. We can sleep until seven and get out of bed without having to pick up a mess or trying to find where our glasses were tossed on the floor.

Someday we will have to make a decision about Otis, but it is not today.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: Mockingbird

Mockingbird is a middle grade novel by Kathryn Erskine about a child with Asperger's trying to cope with the violent death of her brother due to a school shooting. Caitlyn is a believable character trying to deal with life by Looking At The Person and other tricks she learns from Mrs. Brook. In the course of the novel, Caitlyn learns about empathy and making friends, most notably with the young son of another shooting victim and a more tepid friendship with a relative of the shooter.

The story is entirely told by Caitlyn's perspective, which reveals some beauty as she tries to understand other people, their emotions, and works toward finding closure for herself and the people around her, especially her new friends who were also affected by the tragedy.

The ending is moderately satisfying, but this is worth a read for the perspective. Erskine does a magnificent job of seeing life through the lens of a child with Asperger's syndrome.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Valentine's Day fun!

I saw a post on Pinterest about showing your appreciation for your loved ones by posting hearts on their doors with reasons you love them every day for the first 14 days of February. I decided to try this with my kids. (Note: this picture was taken on Feb. 3, so only three hearts were on the door.)

My entire family has loved this! I have teenagers who don't like to talk to me or anyone else in the family, but they race to read each other's doors every day and joke about what was posted today. They laugh about me running out of ideas if two have the same message. I post these hearts for my spouse as well, and he quoted one of my heart messages recently, letting me know he read them and appreciated them.

These new "conversation" hearts are making my family stand a little taller, seem a little more happy, talk a little more and maybe feel more confident this Valentines day season. Who doesn't like to be complimented every day?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Book Review: Fish in a Tree

I have spotted young people reading Lynda Mullaly Hunt's "Fish In a Tree," with great interest, so I knew it had to be good. It did not disappoint. This award winning book has earned its accolades, including the Schneider Family Book Award and the SLJ Best Book 2015.

Ally struggles with school, and more specifically, reading and writing. This lands her a regular seat in the principal's office until an understanding new teacher, Mr. Daniels, comes and recognizes that Ally has dyslexia and gives her the tools to master her universe. Ally learns a lot about herself and her fellow students.  As she copes with her dyslexia, she also takes a new approach in dealing with mean comments from classmate, Shay.

The jewel in the story is the description of Ally's dyslexia....how words are like butterflies on the page and just how long it takes for her to write a few paragraphs she won't be able to read the next day. The insight into what it is like to have dyslexia is intriguing, and Ally is an ally to anyone who ever felt lonely in a room full of people.

Although I must admit, Albert is my favorite character.

Even if you have no interest in dyslexia, this book is worth a read as it tells the story about people beneath the surface. In the end, Ally and the reader can find sympathy even for the mean spirited Shay.