See You at Harry’s: A YA Must Read

See You at Harry’s has been on my radar and on my TBR list for a few months now, thanks to my Nerdy Book Club friends via Twitter. I had to wait a few weeks after buying it last month before I could read it, but it was totally worth the wait.

I have been a big fan of Jo Knowles for a while now and loved her novel Lessons from a Dead Girl. You can read all about it here.  As I read See You at Harry’s, I began wearing various hats: mother, young teenage girl, sister, and writer. I experienced a slew of emotions as I continued reading, sometimes stopping because I had to catch my breath and let my eyes rest—not from strain, but from tears and swelling.

I feared I would run out of tissues.

This book touched my heart in ways not many books do. Knowles has an incredible talent for writing, and for getting to the heart of things, for tapping into our emotions, grabbing them, and not letting go. Not even when the book is finished.

As a writer I always wonder how other writers craft scenes that tear your heart out, and I wondered this over and over as I read See You at Harry’s. I wondered how Knowles captured such raw emotion and handled it in such a genuine and delicate way. I marveled at how she handled such sensitive issues and captured the essence of this family, which could be anyone’s family really.

I want to be like Jo when I grow up. She’s freakin’ awesome.

A Little Victorian Lit Is A Good Thing

Can you believe it’s already nearing the end of September? I can hardly believe it myself! My kids have been in school for over a month now and so have I. Although I’m not teaching in my own classroom right now, I have been subbing for my local school district and am enjoying it immensely. I still get to do the teacher thing, but have no papers to grade or lesson plans to make. It’s a pretty sweet gig right now.

These days I am up to my eyeballs with my grad school readings and course work, but I really don’t mind it most days. I’ve read a couple of really good books from the Victorian era so far: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskill. I have to admit I was unsure how I would like Victorian lit, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

There is one book on my Victorian Lit horizon I’m not super excited about reading: Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I’ll let you know how that one goes, but in the meantime, I’ll tell you a little bit about the two books I did like.

The Moonstone is hailed as the first detective novel, and while I love television police procedurals like NCIS and Hottie Hawaii Five-0, I’ve not read many mystery or detective novels. The Moonstone focuses on the theft of the famous Moonstone diamond that brings with it a curse from its native India. The novel’s narrative is shared by multiple, and very distinct, voices that must follow very strict rules during their turn to narrate. Wilkie Collins did a remarkable job with the narrative voices as he wove them together in a seamless fashion. The plot is interesting, and just when you think you’ve figured something out, you realize you really haven’t.

If you’re a Jane Austen fan like I am, you will very likely like (or in my case, LOVE) Wives and Daughters. This novel follows two families: the Gibsons and the Hamleys as they navigate life, love, and marriage in English bourgeois society. It is so unfortunate that Gaskill died before it was completely finished, as I desperately wanted to know more about Molly Gibson and Roger Hamley, and also Cynthia Kirkpatrick (Molly’s step-sister) and her husband. One thing I find fascinating about the book, is the fact that the two marriages we as readers are most interested in are the two marriages we know little or nothing about. Perhaps this is a result of Gaskill’s death prior to the completion of the novel, or maybe for her it was the girls’ journey to marriage that mattered most. We will never know for certain, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the beauty of this novel.

Oh, I almost forgot! It’s International Book Week!! I’ve seen this all over Facebook this week:

It’s International Book Week!! The rules: grab the closest book to you, turn to page 52, post the 5th sentence as your status. Don’t mention the title. Copy the rules as part of your status. Here’s the quote from the book I grabbed:

“The corners of his lips turned up, yet despite his smile, the pain on his face made my eyes well with tears.”

Feel free to leave yours in the comments!

The Not So Secret Secrets of Writing

When I think about writing, I get all tingly and, if I’m not careful, can get lost in the fantasy of being a world renown author who has millions of fans waiting breathlessly for my next novel to hit the shelves of their local bookstore. I have book signings and my adoring fans wait for hours for a few moments with me and have a photo taken together. I am financially secure and can easily afford to send my kids to college; I have a cozy writing cottage (a la Laurie Halse Anderson’s, but without all that snow) or some other really great writing space with a door that is mine alone. No boys allowed. No kids allowed. Just me. And maybe my dog.  Ah! It’s good to have dreams, right?

I realize, though that before that can happen, I have to get a grip on my own writing skills and nurture them. I must hone those skills and do my best to master them. I know what I do well and what my strengths are, and I also know where my weaknesses lie. I know what you’re thinking….yes, I do have weaknesses in my writing, but I’m not going to tell you what they are. Cheeky, I know.😉

I have figured out some secrets along the way, though. Okay, so they’re not really secrets. I know I should join organizations for writers and attend writing conferences and workshops whenever I can. I need to build and maintain an active web presence that engages social media so I can continue to build a solid network of writers, agents, and editors who may be willing to help me get closer to my goal of publishing.

Mostly though, I need to sit my butt down and WRITE my novel. I also have to be a better juggler of the kids, the husband, the insane amount of reading I have to do for my Masters program, and all of the research and academic writing I must do. Oh, and there are these pesky little tests (known in graduate circles as the dreaded Comprehensive Exams that are the final determinates as to whether or not you graduate) I have to prepare for next spring.

I must confess that after doing my academic reading, writing, and preparing, all I want to do is watch Big Brother and eat chocolate. And maybe sleep a little. And then watch an NCIS marathon.

I hate that since school has started I’ve lost the momentum I had this summer when I was so energized with Teacher’s Write! and all the support and encouragement that went along with it.

BUT, the most obvious thing I have to do if I want to get that novel finished, or take the smallest step toward its completion, is MAKE the time to write.

It’s okay. You can call me Captain Obvious. I won’t be mad. I promise.

**Oh yeah, I almost forgot: I have a WRITER/AUTHOR page on Facebook now, so you can come on over and join me there if you like. Please do. I’d love to see you there!

Necessary Things in Life: Unconditional Love and a Can of Whoop-Ass

I know it’s pretty normal to stop and reflect from time to time on the things we are thankful for in this life. You know: things like our families and friends, jobs, health, etc. While I am extremely thankful for these things, I have reason to pause of late and really reflect on the things I am most thankful for. Things I am truly grateful for and would never want to live without. The last several weeks have been very trying for me personally, and this is a rather personal post.

The focus of this post, however, is not me and my woes, and believe me, I could write a rather LENGTHY post outlining all of the things that have made the last several weeks tough for me. I am, instead, going to write about something that is weighing heavy on my heart right now.

We found out in early October that my sister-in-law Tammie had acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which is a very aggressive form of leukemia. She is in her mid-forties and has a husband and three beautiful children who depend on her. She underwent months of treatment in Kansas City at KU Med Center’s Cancer Center. Tammie’s body fought hard though she was tired, but she DID NOT give up. After completing her chemo, monitoring her counts closely, and having “clean” bone marrow scrapes, she was officially in remission.

Tammie went home and resumed her life. She began a much healthier life style and joined an exercise group in her community to help her stay connected to people, stay active, and have the extra support she needed. Tammie was doing well.

And then she wasn’t.

Her counts started falling and Tammie found out two days ago that her AML is back and she must have a bone marrow transplant.

The other shoe we hoped would never drop, dropped with a thud that shattered that hope in a single instant.

Fortunately, when Tammie was first diagnosed with AML, her siblings were tested to determine if any of them might be a match should she need a transplant in the future: three of them were matches. We couldn’t believe it. From what we understand, it’s lucky for one sibling to be a match, but to have three matches is pretty remarkable, and now one sister and two brothers are her lifelines.

My husband is one of the matches. He went to Kansas City the evening we found out Tammie’s AML was back along with two

Photo credit: CafePress

of his sisters, one of whom is also a match, so other tests could be performed to determine which of the three siblings is the best match for Tammie’s transplant.

My husband himself is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in early January 2003. He had surgery to remove the cancer and underwent months of chemo. In late July of 2003, he was officially in remission and continues to be cancer-free nine years later. We were incredibly lucky, and I am so thankful our children still have their father and I have my husband.

Thinking about this, and trying to process the sheer gravity of it all, is pretty overwhelming. While it’s a no-brainer that whichever one of them is the best match will donate the necessary bone marrow without question, and his or her part of the procedure is clearly the easier of the two physically, the emotional toll involved will still be great.

It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility to bear when you think about it—this bone marrow donation is potentially the difference between life and death in the most literal sense possible. I pray one of them will be able to help Tammie open an old-fashioned can of Whoop-Ass and kick this leukemia right out of her body and stand next to her in victory shouting “AND DON’T COME BACK…EVER!!”

Yesterday we found out that my husband’s brother was the best match and he would be the donor. Today, we found out he has a heart condition that will prevent him from donating. The heart condition is not life-threatening, but it is enough to eliminate him. My husband and his other sister must go back to Kansas City early next week to undergo a battery of tests to see which one of them will be the donor.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like for them or anyone else who has been there. Or those who will inexplicably find themselves in the same situation someday. I don’t know how Tammie stays so positive, although I’m sure she has moments when it all seems like the worst possible nightmare. And it is.

One thing I know for sure is this dramatic turn of events definitely makes me more grateful for my family, my health and that of my family, and unconditional love. And great big cans of whoop-ass.

Whatcha Reading?

So it looks like I’ve been neglecting you again. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about you, because I have. A lot actually. Please forgive me for not taking better care of you.

Well, I’ve been posting quite a bit on Facebook, Twitter, and my brand new writer/author page (also on Facebook) lately about some great books that I’ve recently read and/or have recently received in the mail and just started reading (or will be reading soon), and I thought I’d share them here as well.

What I’ve read in the last couple of weeks:

First up is John Green’s Looking for Alaska. This is John’s first published novel, and it is pretty damn amazing. John is also the author of the brilliant The Fault in Our Stars, which I read earlier this year.

Next up are a couple of short stories: Unstrung by Neal Shusterman and Ryann in the Sky by Jammie Kern. (Jammie NOT as in pa-jammies, but as in Jamie with an extra “m.”)

Unstrung is an interlude between Unwind (my favorite Shusterman book to date) and Unwholly (book two in the Unwind trilogy), which is due out August 28, 2012     *squeeeeee!!!!*

Ryann in the Sky is a cool modern spin on the myth of Orion and is part of a forthcoming anthology of short stories entitled Mythology High. Jammie has two additional short stories that will also be a part of this anthology, and I’m anxious to read them!

                        

What I’m reading now:

I’m juggling a few books right now: two for grad classes (The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskill) and two for fun. I’m reading Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford in anticipation of meeting him at the KATE (Kansas Association of Teachers of English) conference in October and Danny’s Mom by Elaine Wolf. Danny’s Mom isn’t due for release until November 1, 2012, so finding an advance reading copy in my mailbox earlier this week was a happy surprise. I’ll post a review later this fall.

                  

What I’ll be reading in the not so distant future:

Drum roll please……

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles! I’ve been so anxious to read this book, and my friend Kelly who lives in Indiana tells me I better have lots of tissues handy as I read. Don’t worry my friend, I do.

 

So, what are YOU reading?

The Best Laid Plans Usually Get Thrown Out The Window

Has it really been nearly a month since my last post? And when did August get here?

I’ve had a crazy busy month that left little time for things like blogging and what not. Oh, and  I just finished a graduate class on eighteenth-century Restoration British literature, which kept me immersed in reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing. The upside is I wrote a damn fine paper on eighteenth-century marriage practices and theories, which just may turn into the Master’s thesis I never intended to write.

Aside from taking this class, I’ve had a lot going on over here and I haven’t really talked about it in this forum. I’m talking BIG changes, and I’m not quite sure where those changes will take me. But here it is in a nutshell: I turned in my resignation for my teaching job in March and have no new teaching job to go to in just a few short days. YIKES!!

Now before you start trippin,’ this was not something I did on a whim or without TONS of consideration, soul searching, or many, many, many long conversations with my husband. Truth be told, I was pretty miserable in my middle school teaching position. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE teaching. With all of my being. But I teaching middle school just isn’t for me, and I pretty much knew that all along. I attempted to move into a high school teaching position for over a year within my own district, but never got anywhere; it became clear that I would need to make a clean break if I were to have any luck achieving my goal of being a high school English teacher.

Unfortunately, even with several interviews that went quite well, I was not offered a position. I knew when I resigned in March this would be a possibility, but I was fairly sure I would score a new position before the new school year began. I was wrong. Now, I’m a smart girl (really I am—in spite of what you’ve just read) and did not go into this without a Plan B. I just didn’t want to have to implement said Plan B.

Plan B entails subbing in my local schooldistrict—which is not the district I worked in—and going to school full time to finish my Master’s degree in English, which I could conceivably finish in the spring. I’ve also been kicking around the idea of getting an MFA in creative writing, but that would add at least another year to my program. Additionally, I have been looking to the future, and the fact that I would really like to teach at the college level—not necessarily the university level, but a community college where I could teach literature classes or creative writing would be fine with me. Okay, so I really DO want to teach at the university level, but that requires a PhD and the thought of writing a 300+ page dissertation makes me want to run away screaming. Loudly. Oh, and it would also mean I would have to have multiple publications by totally legit publishers. Ugh! But who knows? Maybe someday.

But for today, I will simply move forward and reach a couple of goals I have set for myself: finish my Master’s degree and focus on my writing. I have a novel to finish, remember?

Music: Even Characters Have Their Own Playlists

Last week over at Teachers Write! camp, one of our writing prompts involved using multimedia to help us with character development. The guest author supplying this prompt is Julie Kingsley, and one thing she suggested doing is choosing songs that reflect your character inside and outside—really find songs that represent the character.

The cool thing about this prompt was that I was already doing this, but this prompt really helped me see how doing things like this give our characters depth they may not have had before. It will also help readers connect to these characters in unique ways, which is great for establishing an audience.

I discovered that my main character, Lauren, has an eclectic taste in music, ranging from Taylor Swift style country to 80’s bands like AC/DC and The Cure, and John Hughes movie soundtracks (think Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller, and The Breakfast Club—NOT Uncle Buck).

Lauren also likes Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Etta James. She likes early U2 and The Smashing Pumpkins; she even insisted I download $9.90 worth of songs from Rotten Apples, The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits, which I did. (Lauren and her Muse are pretty of bossy, you see.)

I discovered she’s not crazy about Journey and Foreigner, and she hates 80’s hair bands, much to my chagrin. I’m not sure where I went wrong here…

BUT, she does love Adele, The Fray, Fleetwood Mac, and The B-52’s.

Whew! I’m not sure I could’ve taken it if she didn’t. Seriously.

I’ve since created a few playlists for Lauren and I listen to them as I work on this novel, and I’ve been amazed at how much easier it is to capture her and her story. I would encourage you to do the same. It really does make a difference!

I’ve yet to share any excerpts here, so I decided to share a short (and fairly unrevised) excerpt from my current work-in-progress, a young adult novel tentatively titled Closer to Nirvana. I think this excerpt does a decent job of illustrating how weaving in a character’s musical tastes can add to character development.

The longer I sit here thinking, the more pissed off I get. I slip in my earbuds and turn on my mp3 player. I never did see the sense in spending all that money on an iPod. I am so not an Apple girl. Nope. Just your average run of the mill mp3 player for me. Within seconds, the melodic sounds of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” fill my ears. I take some deep breaths and wait for that edgier guitar that comes in about half-way through the song. That’s how I’m feeling these days…edgy. And I hate it.

I sit with my eyes closed, listening to the music. Feeling the music. My body begins to relax, and the tension reducing sounds of 311’s covers of classic Cure and songs by Coldplay certainly do the trick. I’m feeling less irritated now, and I can’t help thinking of that adage about music soothing the savage beast. I can’t help snickering a little at that thought. God knows I’ve had some beastly moments lately.

I still can’t believe I bit my mom’s head off like that over something so stupid. I never do that. I mean never. I know she was only trying to help me get organized for school, and it was just a stinking comforter for crying out loud. And my apology was so lame. I’ve got to figure out a way to make it up to her.

I’ll figure it out. I will.

I open my eyes and notice the time. It’s lunchtime. My stomach grumbles on cue, so I decide to heat up some Spaghetti O’s in the microwave. I take a few bites and I’m surprised by the sweetness of the tomato sauce. Has it always been this sweet? I’m pondering this thought as a Taylor Swift tune shuffles in. Normally, I would welcome Taylor, but right now, I’m simply not in the mood for her or anything soft and gushy for that matter. It’s an easy fix. I skip that song and the next three. I stop skipping songs when I hear “Cherub Rock,” another Pumpkins tune. There is something calming about this music. It makes it easier for me to think somehow.

It’s still pretty rough, I know, so be gentle. 🙂

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