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.

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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!

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?

When a Book Grabs You and Doesn’t Let Go

As a teacher, I really look forward to two things in the summer: 1) getting to read A LOT, and 2) getting to write A LOT. Okay, so I actually look forward to more than just these two things during the summer (I do love not having to answer to the alarm clock most days).

I am a self-proclaimed bookaholic, which my husband and children will attest to, and I bought a book (Lessons from a Dead Girl) a few months ago that had been on my ever-growing To Be Read (TBR) list. I lost track of the book between taking it to school and bringing it back home again, so when I found it again a few days ago I was excited to finally be able to read it.

Here’s a quick review of Lessons from a Dead Girl, a damn fine book written by one of my Teachers Write! mentors, Jo Knowles.

From the book jacket:

Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.

Lessons from a Dead Girl focuses on Laine, and how she reconciles the death of Leah (her former best friend for life) and the guilt, hatred and shame she felt as a result. The friendship they shared was convoluted, unforgiving, and binding; bound by secrets fueled by years of abuse in various forms. Laine struggles to understand why Leah does the things that she does to her—why she abuses her and their friendship—over and over again. It isn’t until the night of the fatal accident that Laine learns the horrible truth behind the abuse. After the tragic accident that claims Leah’s life, Laine begins to piece everything together and discovers their story has two victims.

Jo Knowles wrote a difficult story, a story which clearly needed to be written. This story grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I had finished the very last word. I read this book in one sitting, which is something I hadn’t done since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I couldn’t stop reading. The characters of Laine and Leah were real and flawed and masterfully created. Knowles did an amazing job crafting Leah, and try as I might, I just couldn’t hate her. Instead, my heart broke for her. And for Laine. But most of all, for all the kids who have suffered in silence, bound by secrets.

Thanks, Jo, for writing a story that needed to be told and for giving me the inspiration to do the same.

Two Kids, Some Gravity, and A Messenger

I didn’t realize how long it had been since I have talked YA lit and shared some thoughts on the matter. If you’ve been following along over the last couple of weeks, you know I’ve been talking up #TeachersWrite and have been pouring a lot into my writing. I’m still doing that writing thing (and loving it, btw), but I’m also still reading a lot of fabulous YA lit.

In case you’re wondering why I read so much YA lit (even while working on my own), I read it for three reasons: 1) because I LOVE it!! 2) to make good recommendations to my students, and 3) reading good YA lit helps me be a better writer of YA lit.

I finished two gems in the last week or so: The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner and I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak.

First up is The Pull of Gravity. I really love a good coming of age story, and this one fits the bill. I LOVE the two main characters: Nick Gardner (the narrator) and Jaycee Amato, who are very real and with whom readers will easily identify. Plus, its many references to Star Wars and Yoda will appeal to Star Wars fans, and I really dig the incorporation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (which makes it a great mentor text). *Good job, Gae!!*

Here’s a small excerpt and synopsis from Gae’s website:

“Nick? Yes or no? Are you in?”
I shake my head at how crazy it all is, but even as I do, I know.
“Jaycee, why are you even asking? Do I really have a choice?”
“No,” she smiles, “No choice at all.”

While Nick Gardner’s family is falling apart, his best friend, the Scoot, is dying from a freak disease. Enter Jaycee Amato, a quirky girl with Siberian-husky eyes and an odd affinity for Of Mice and Men. She’s made a seemingly-impossible promise to the Scoot, and wants Nick’s help to keep it.

Armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, the beauty of Steinbeck, and the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set off on a secret, whirlwind journey to find the father the Scoot has never known. When everything goes awry, will the pull of gravity be enough to keep them together?

And hey! Check out the book trailer!


The Pull of Gravity is a coming-of-age story about friendship, first love, and the true nature of family.

 

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak is quite different from his other AMAZING book The Book Thief. One thing that is similar, though, is Zusak’s ability to make words form sentences and phrases that I wish I’d written myself.

Meet Ed Kennedy—underage cabdriver, pathetic cardplayer, and useless at romance. He lives in a shack with his coffee-addicted dog, the Doorman, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first Ace arrives. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. . . .

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary), until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Book Trailer!!

Happy reading and I’ll catch ya later!

Get Off Your Butt and WRITE!!!!

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other. I’ve been a bit busy with the winding down the school year, my son’s high school  graduation, school events, etc. School is now out for me, so the spinning of my head has slown down a bit.  Here’s what’s on my mind right now, so let’s get to it. Shall we?

I was reading my new Twitter/Facebook friend Gae Polisner’s blog today when a realization whompped me upside the head: I dream of the day when I get invited to be a part of a book festival! Oh, wait! That will require me to finish my book and find an agent and get published and… *cue the Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away voice saying, ARRRGGGG!!!!*

Sheesh! That’s not a tall order or anything. It just means I’ll have to get off my butt (actually it means I’ll have to get off the Interwebs and TV) and focus, focus, FOCUS on FINISHING my book!

Here’s the deal: I started off really strong last summer and pounded out a good 12,000 or so words over the course of 2-3 weeks. That might sound impressive, and I guess it kinda is, but since then, I’ve only added another 3,000-4,000 words or so. You do the math. No matter how you add those words together, they don’t add up to a finished draft, much less a finished novel.

In my defense, I do have four kids, all of whom have been in school, I’m a teacher, wife, mother to two dogs, and a student. I am a very busy person. But still… I lament a great deal about not having enough hours in the day to do all the things I need to get done, when the truth is you make time for what’s important to you. I manage to find time to plan and grade my students’ work,  read all the amazing YA books I love (although that is truly a part of what writers do), and I ALWAYS find time to watch NCIS.  ALWAYS.  So…why can’t I find time to write? Why can’t I find time to finish this manuscript (wow! I’ve never referred to my novel as a manuscript before), which is very important to me?

Why indeed? What IS stopping me? I’m pretty sure it isn’t one single thing. No, I’m pretty sure it’s more like seventy-two  things. Mostly, though, I think it’s fear. Fear of success and fear of failure. Fear that I won’t be able to piece it all together because I’ll run out of words or I won’t be able to connect with the right agent/publisher/audience. I mean, who’s going to want to take  a risk on this Kansas girl no one has heard of?

Then I wonder if my YA writing idol Laurie Halse Anderson ever had similar worries. Or Neal Shusterman? Jay Asher? Gae Polisner? Suzanne Collins? You know her. She wrote those Hunger Games books. You know, the WILDLY successful Hunger Games books!! So. I guess it’s really possible that someone out there will someday be willing to take a chance on me and my manuscript. Once it’s finished, that is…

How I Became a Reader

My love for reading began with Max and his line, “Let the wild rumpus start!” I remember listening to my favorite story Where the Wild Things Are and classic Dr. Seuss: “I will not eat them, Sam I am. I do not like green eggs and ham!” and Horton Hears a Who. I only hear faint whispers of the childhood voices who read to me now as they have been replaced by my own as I read to my own children and to my students.

Growing up though, we never had book cases in our house.  Well, that’s not true.  We had them, they were just called knick-knack shelves, but there were always books in the house.  They were in stacks, though, and didn’t seem to warrant enough importance to be prominently displayed like the knick-knacks.  My mom was usually reading what she referred to as “trashy” Harlequin Romance or a novel by Stephen King. I read Salem’s Lot when I was twelve and had nightmares for weeks, but I loved scary stories. After Salem, I met It, and he scared the hell out of me. Now that I think about it, that super creepy clown is probably why clowns still creep me out today. But Cujo didn’t make me hate dogs. Huh. I may have to ponder that for a moment…

I loved reading—it was my refuge, it helped me escape a home-life that was not always pleasant. Truth be told, my home-life absolutely sucked much of the time. Reading, and later writing, probably saved my life; I was able to delve into other people’s lives and escape my own. Through books I was able to see that things would get better—eventually. This is precisely why I am such an advocate for the active use of YA lit in the classroom.

In my early adulthood, I didn’t do much reading beyond Glamour magazine, Sunday funnies, or my daily horoscope (I’m a Scorpio in case you were wondering). When I started college, my reading was basically limited to required college texts. I did, however, LOVE the Intro to Literature class I took at Emporia State when I was still an Elementary Education major in the early 90s. I didn’t start reading again on a regular basis until my first child was born, and then it was limited to baby books and parenting magazines.

As my family grew and my kids grew, I exposed them (and me) to books that matched their various stages of reading readiness. Even though I was reading these wonderful books with my kids, I still wasn’t reading for the sake of reading. Before I started teaching, I spent about eight years working in the mental health field. I was working with adolescents, and in an effort to connect with them, I started reading what they were reading—young adult fiction. During this time, I met Harry Potter and fell in love with books all over again, because these were books that appealed to me. Since that time, I have built quite an extensive library at home and in my classroom. Books surround my children and have an impressive presence in their lives and mine.

I have taken a stab at books written for adults and have found Jodi Picoult to be a skilled writer, but many of the books I read seemed fairly repetitious, so I moved on. I did really like The Pact (which I would argue is YA), and I do intend to read My Sister’s Keeper, The Tenth Circle, and Ninteen Minutes someday. For now, my focus remains on young adult fiction. Some of my favorite “modern” YA authors are Laurie Halse Anderson, Neal Shusterman, and Chris Crutcher. These seasoned authors write novels that resonate with me in ways that adult novels can’t.

In the past couple of years, I have read some remarkable and not so remarkable YA lit. I loved The Hunger Games trilogy and consumed them in about a week and a half. I read the Twilight Saga and proudly pledge my allegiance to Team Edward (no judgments, please). I have discovered that I like Science Fiction, as long as it’s not of the Star Wars variety. I read Crank by Ellen Hopkins, and she just may be a new favorite. I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. EVER. Wonder by R.J. Palacio and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green moved me to tears. I am currently reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

My “to read” list is VERY long, and I fear I may never reach the end. But that’s okay. I’ll just keep reading until I can’t read anymore.

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