Monday, March 13, 2017

If You Enjoyed Masterpiece's Victoria…

I fell in love with Princess Victoria’s story when I first watched Young Victoria (2009).  I always pictured this queen as boring and dowdy until I learned how much she overcame as a young teen to be taken seriously as queen. I also love that she is short (like me!). Recently I’ve been enjoying Victoria on Masterpiece Theater, which is like Young Victoria, but in more depth. If like me, you’re having Victoria withdrawals, here are some young adult titles to keep you firmly immersed in this time period.


Synopsis (from Goodreads):

In 1837 London, young daughters of viscounts pined for handsome, titled husbands, not careers. And certainly not careers in magic. At least, most of them didn't.

Shy, studious Persephone Leland would far rather devote herself to her secret magic studies than enter society and look for a suitable husband. But right as the inevitable season for "coming out" is about to begin, Persy and her twin sister discover that their governess in magic has been kidnapped as part of a plot to gain control of the soon-to-be Queen Victoria. Racing through Mayfair ballrooms and royal palaces, the sisters overcome bad millinery, shady royal spinsters, and a mysterious Irish wizard. And along the way, Persy learns that husband hunting isn't such an odious task after all, if you can find the right quarry.

This is a historical fantasy take on young Queen Victoria’s ascent to the throne, a magical explanation for real history. Like all of Doyle’s work, it is lush and descriptive with tons of authentic period details. This is my favorite of the Leland sister’s novels, probably because I related to Persephone the most and because of Queen Victoria's story line. 


Synopsis (from Goodreads):

London, 1838. Sixteen-year-old Liza's dreams of her society debut are dashed when her parents are killed in an accident. Penniless, she accepts the position of lady's maid to young Princess Victoria and steps unwittingly into the gossipy intrigue of the servant's world below-stairs as well as the trickery above. Is it possible that her changing circumstances may offer Liza the chance to determine her own fate, find true love, and secure the throne for her future queen?

While Bewitching Season gives us insights into Victoria through an upper class girl’s viewpoint (albeit one who can do magic), Prisoners in the Palace shows us what it was like to be “downstairs” in Princess Victoria’s house. I loved the meticulous historical detail in this one, and the way Liza helps the Princess to find her strength. 

If you enjoyed PRISONERS IN THE PALACE, also check out MacColl’s historical mysteries about Victorian British and American authors: Always Emily (Emily Bronte), Nobody’s Secret (Emily Dickinson), and The Revelation of Louisa May (Louisa May Alcott).

Did you watch the new Victoria series? What are your favorite books set in the Victorian time period?

Monday, March 6, 2017

MMGM: The Mozart Season

I’m back! I didn’t mean to take such a long break, but a lot has happened in the past few months. I’ve had a wonderful time celebrating the holidays and lots of birthdays over the last few months (my grandma, a poet herself, turned 90!). In January, I started substitute teaching, so it’s been a bit of an adjustment working outside the home, even part time, for the first time in fourteen years. But I am enjoying being back in the classroom and soaking up lots of first-hand research.

This book came to my attention when Gail Carson Levine mentioned it as one of her favorite authors—and a good mentor text—on her blog. I was immediately intrigued by the title and the premise. Although I am an amateur musician myself, I love books about music.

Here is the synopsis (from Amazon):

"Remember, what's down inside you, all covered up―the things of your soul. The important, secret things . . . The story of you, all buried, let the music caress it out into the open."

When Allegra was a little girl, she thought she would pick up her violin and it would sing for her―that the music was hidden inside her instrument.

Now that Allegra is twelve, she believes the music is in her fingers, and the summer after seventh grade she has to teach them well. She's the youngest contestant in the Ernest Bloch Young Musicians' Competition.

She knows she will learn the notes to the concerto, but what she doesn't realize is she'll also learn―how to close the gap between herself and Mozart to find the real music inside her heart.

What to love:

1.    It’s set in Portland! While I now live outside of Portland, I lived in Portland for a year—and managed to survive without a car by using my bike and public transport. The book happens to take place right near where I used to live, so the parks, the outdoor concerts, etc. are places I have been. It’s not often that I find books set in places in the U.S. where I’ve lived or spent a lot of time.  For this Northwesterner, these “I’ve been there!” moments were delightful.

2.   Rich characters. I can’t think of a middle grade with as rich and developed characters as MOZART SEASON. I think NEWSBOY would come close. The little details (like the mom collecting dead bugs) all serve a purpose—they are never insignificant. And you will not meet any cardboard, stereotypical characters in Mozart. Prepare to be amazed.

3.   A “quiet” book that’s anything but boring. If you want to write a book that’s mostly about characters (and no one saves the world from destruction), this is one to study. I couldn’t stop turning the pages even though it was about a very ordinary girl in an ordinary family. Being a musical prodigy and having parents in the symphony is perhaps not ordinary, but the interactions in this family were ones I could relate to.

4. The major thrust of the book is not about recovering from something terrible, but about reaching for something wonderful. It was refreshing to read a character-driven book that was centered on a violin competition. Character-driven doesn’t have to be synonymous with depressing.

5.   Music, music, music. I loved the music in the books—from the very realistic descriptions of what’s it’s like to play a violin to  Allegra’s struggles to get the music right to what it’s like to turn pages on a windy day. I loved the atmosphere of competition (coincidentally, my sister, a pianist, has played in the same competition as Allegra). It was obvious that the author was a violist and knew her instrument well.

If you like music, Oregon, competitions, or character-driven books, check out THE MOZART SEASON! You won’t be disappointed.

Have you read any good books about music?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Blogging Break

I was meaning to put this up earlier this week, but alas, with the holiday I didn't get this posted. I've decided to take an extended break from blogging for the holidays. I will be spending time with family, working on meeting some writing goals for 2016, and reading some books outside my usual genre. I hope to be back refreshed in 2017 with more posts. Until then...
Pumpkins, candles and books--a few of my favorite fall things.

Monday, October 24, 2016

MMGM: Turn of the Tide

When I see Roseanne Parry’s name on the cover of a book, I know I’m in for a treat. There’s a rare depth, heart, and honesty in all her books. As she’s a member of my local SCBWI, I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting her a few times, and she’s as nice as she seems. I was so excited when I heard about her newest book, THE TURN OF THE TIDE. Not only is this a great cousin story (how often do cousins feature in books?), but it’s set in beautiful Astoria, one of my favorite spots on the Oregon Coast.
Brace yourself. This is a good one.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

On a beautiful day in June, the ground broke open.

In Japan, you’re always prepared for an earthquake. That’s why Kai knows just what to do when the first rumbles shake the earth. But he does the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do: He runs. And then the tsunami hits.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Kai’s cousin Jet sets sail off the coast of Astoria, Oregon. She knows she should have checked the tide—she always checks the tide. Except this time she didn’t.

When the biggest mistakes of their lives bring them together, Jet and Kai spend the summer regretting that one moment when they made the wrong decision. But there’s something about friendship that heals all wounds, and together, Jet and Kai find the one thing they never thought they’d have again—hope.

My favorite things about TURN OF THE TIDE:

1.   A book about cousins: Siblings and friends feature prominently in kidlit, but I can’t think of another book that deals with cousins. As I never had any cousins my own age as a kid, I felt like I got to live vicariously through Jet and Kai’s friendship. Hooray for working together and family loyalty!

2.  A warm, interesting family: Jet’s family is the kind of family you’d love to hang out with—I loved their teasing, their inside jokes, and their boisterousness. There was something about them that seemed so real—like they might live next door.

3.  The Japanese element: I have stayed away from reviews of this book, trying not to spoil it for myself, so I didn’t know Kai was Japanese and affected by a tsunami till I hoped the book. The cultural differences, his heartache over his family, and the way he comes to terms with his dad’s Swedish-American heritage was really well done. And I loved reading about Japanese culture, food and traditions.

4.  Interesting minor characters: Jet’s dad and his brother have to be some of the most memorable characters I’ve read in awhile. I loved how Dad fills up a room with his booming voice and mannerisms—and Oliver, Jet’s kid brother! Who couldn’t love this kid who dreams of being a pirate and reads book like THE THREE MUSKETEERS?

5. A satisfying ending: I won’t give it away, but I’ve noticed in Parry’s books that’s there’s always an element of sacrifice in the climax. I love what this leaves with the reader: even the main characters’ goals are not more important than helping others.

6.  Setting: It’s set in Astoria, Oregon, home of the Goonies! I'm always excited to read books set in my home state. It’s pure fun reminiscing about some of the places she mentioned.

If you’ve enjoyed Parry’s other books, you will probably enjoy this, although like her other books, it's unique in its own way. I think it would compare most closely with HEART OF THE SHEPHERD, but with a treasure hunt boat race!

Have you read any books with a lot of heart lately?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link.  Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

MMGM: The Last Great Adventure of the PB & J Society

Before I attend a workshop, I like to read the presenter's books. But this time, it wasn't me attending a workshop, but my son. My fourteen-year-old has developed a taste for creative writing lately and likes writing screenplays and poetry. I've been taking him to workshops led by our local SCBWI. Each month a different author tackles an element of writing (plot, dialogue, character development, etc.) for kids. October's topic was humor.

And let me tell you, Janet Sumner Johnson knows her stuff. I dare you to read through a chapter without rolling on the floor laughing. I can also vouch for her book having a similar effect on its target audience. 

If you like to laugh, you're in for a treat.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

When her best friend's house is threatened with foreclosure, young Annie Jenkins is full of ideas to save the home: selling her appendix on eBay, winning the lottery, facing down the bankers . . . anything to keep Jason from moving. But Jason's out-of-work dad blows up at the smallest things, and he’s not very happy with Annie’s interventions, which always seem to get them into more trouble. But when Annie tracks a lost treasure to Jason's backyard, she's sure the booty will be enough to save Jason’s family. Pirate treasure in the Midwest seems far-fetched, even to Annie, but it could be the answer to all their problems. Now all she has to do is convince Jason. As the two hunt for answers and the pressure gets to Jason and his family, Annie discovers that the best-laid plans aren’t always enough and there are worse things than moving away.

What I loved about PB & J:

1. A likeable and hilarious heroine: So much of the humor in this book springs from Annie, self-described as a little impulsive. Often it’s her childlike interpretations of grownup's words. “…even though I had no idea what traffic had to do with it, I was pretty sure she meant my kidney was officially off the market.” Sometimes it’s her crazy ideas to help. (Note to Annie: not all plants with spiky leaves are aloe!)

2. A warm family and community: Although Annie doesn’t get along with her siblings, she has a warm relationship with her dad and mom. I also loved how Annie was able to inspire her community to do a kind thing near the end of the book.

3.  A plot obstacle that did not involve a parent dying: This character-driven book tackled a problem that’s far more common than parents dying: unemployment and foreclosure. I also found Annie's feelings about her mom going back to work very realistic. I was about the same age when my mom returned to teaching, so I could relate.

4. Characters learning that who they considered “bad” are not all that they seem: If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know how much I love redemption in children’s books. I enjoyed seeing Annie learn more about people and their real motivations, often becoming friends with former enemies.

5.  A realistic ending: I’ll try not to give it away, but though it’s not entirely happy, this was a fitting ending, which always wins points in my book.

At the workshop, Janet shared a list of different types of comedy with the kids. HERE is a link to the Janet Phelp's website where the list originated. If you're a writer and are looking to incorporate more comedy into your writing, this website is a great place to start.

Writers, how do you incorporate humor into your writing?
Readers, have you read any funny books lately?

(This post contains an Amazon affiliate link.  Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

MMGM: If You Like the Betsy-Tacy Books …

Bear with me as I take a break from my usual highlight of modern, just-published kidlit to travel back to the last century to share a beloved author with you...

I discovered the Betsy-Tacy-Tib series  in elementary school. Like Betsy, I wanted to be a writer and had a friend like Tacy, a girl who loved to play pretend and listen to my stories. She’s still a treasured friend after all these years...and I still love these books.

Betsy-Tacy doesn’t get as much attention as Anne of Green Gables or Laura Ingalls, but she should. Like those books, Lovelace offers a character-rich slice of life in different era. But if like me, you can't get enough of Lovelace, did you know she wrote other children's books--some set in Deep Valley?

Picture Book

The Trees Kneel at Christmas

After Grandmother explains why the trees in Lebanon kneel at Christmas, Afify and Hanna hope to witness a similar miracle in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. (synopsis from Amazon)

This is a picture book Christmas story about Lebanese refugees and their traditions, a beautiful book written with Lovelace's wonderful ability to portray children's experiences in thoughtful ways.

Middle Grade

Winona’s Pony Cart

Winona Root is almost eight years old. More than anything in the world, she wants a pony for her birthday. She wishes so hard for a pony that she's sure to get one--at least, that's what she tells her friends Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. It's only when the exciting day grows near that Winona begins to wonder: What if her father meant it when he said she couldn't have a pony? (synopsis from Amazon)

This is the most “middle grade” of the extra books about Deep Valley. While I love Winona in the Betsy books, especially how she stands up to Betsy in elementary and is full of fun in high school, I didn’t love her in the Pony Cart. Like a lot of girls, Winona wants a pony, and her parents respond in an interesting way. However, I didn’t like how this story ended. Not my favorite of the “extra” books.

Young Adult (though these might appeal to middle grade readers as well)

Carney’s House Party

It is the summer of 1911, the Carney Sibley is back home in her beloved town of Deep Valley, Minnesota. She's looking forward to hosting a month-long house party, with guests including her Vassar college roommate Isobel Porteous and old chum Betsy Ray. With lots of the old Crowd and a new friend--wealthy, unkept, but loveable Sam Hutchinson--around, the days are filled with fun. And romance seems to be in the air. But Carney can never be romantic about anyone but Larry Humphreys, her high school sweetheart, who moved to California four years ago. Then Larry returns to Deep Valley and sets the town abuzz. Will Larry purpose? And will Carney say yes? (synopsis from Amazon)

This was the book I expected not to like. A book about a month-long sleepover? But it is so much more than that. I loved the depictions of early days at Vassar (an all women’s college at the time) and the resolution of the Carney-Larry question. But mostly, I found Carney to be an interesting character. She's one of the smartest of the girls in the “crowd” and attends an exclusive college, even though she just wants to be a housewife. In Lovelace books, girls can like embroidery and be smart. The romance in this book is very sweet and gives an interesting glimpse into dating rituals of those times.

Emily of Deep Valley

Emily Webster, an orphan living with her grandfather, is not like the other girls her age in Deep Valley, Minnesota. The gulf between Emily and her classmates widens even more when they graduate from Deep Valley High School in 1912. Emily longs to go off to college with everyone else, but she can't leave her grandfather.

Emily resigns herself to facing a "lost winter," but soon decides to stop feeling sorry for herself. And with a new program of study, a growing interest in the Syrian community, and handsome new teacher at the high school to fill her days, Emily gains more than she ever dreamed... (synopsis from Amazon)

This is probably my favorite extra book, if not my favorite Lovelace book. Emily sacrifices her dreams for her family and is put upon by her insufferable high school friends. But eventually she learns to make the best of staying home from college by reaching out to the Syrian refuges in Deep Valley. It inspires me every time I read it to bloom where I’m planted.  Well worth your time.

Have you read the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books? What is your favorite classic author for children or adults?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links.  Thank you for your support!)

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

ISWG: Is it Ready?

When I saw the question for this month, I felt an extreme bout of writer’s insecurity coming on. I’m not sure if I’m the best person to write about this. You see, I don’t have a great track record with figuring out when my work is done. Chalk it up to the lack of objectivity about my own work at times.  And then I’ve often rushed.

Also, there’s picture perfect hindsight.  I can look back at manuscripts I submitted and always see something that needs to be fixed. It’s just that I didn’t know it then.

I always sent what I thought was my best work at the time. It’s only now that I realize it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.

So, I guess the question isn’t for me, how do I know it’s ready, but how do I know I’ve done my best work?

Here are the clues I look for:

1.  I don’t have any nagging doubts. I don’t know how else to describe it, but with some of my previous manuscripts, I’ve always had parts that I was insecure about. So with this book, when I didn’t have those doubts, I knew it was close.

2.  I’ve crossed almost everything off my revision to-do list. Yes, I make one of these, from big picture (plot, character) to small stuff (narrative patterning, grammar issues). It’s beyond satisfying to x them off one by one.

3.  Beta readers aren’t giving me big picture things to fix anymore. More than once I’ve had betas suggest I totally rewrite a manuscript, so I’m used to that kind of feedback. It’s when their notes are about minor stuff that I start to think it might be ready.

4.  The story in my head made it to the page. I’ve learned recently the importance of this. I used to run in circles revising because I didn’t know what I was trying to achieve, and I was hoping someone else would tell me when my work was “good enough.” Now I figure out what my vision is and use others’ comments to gauge whether I achieved it. No one can tell you if you’re writing is good enough anyways. Darcy Pattison had a great post about this:

P.S. Thank you so much to everyone who commented last month on finding time to write. Publishing my plan for writing and hearing from you was what I needed to keep accountable for September. I am now at 15,000 words on a brand new manuscript—and this is from generally writing about ½ hour a day from 500-1,000 words. Baby steps do work!

How about you? How do you know when your work is ready?

What is Insecure Writer's Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Looking for more insecure writer's posts? Check out the links here: