Monday, July 20, 2015

MMGM: The Detective’s Assistant

Historicals and mysteries are probably my two favorite genres (if I had to choose...). But together in one book! How could I resist? When I saw this cover highlighted at my library, I knew I had to read it. A feisty heroine intent on solving the mystery of her father’s death and tagging along with her real life detective aunt?

I’m in!

Here is the synopsis (from Amazon):

The incredible tale of America's first ever female detective and her spirited niece!

Eleven-year-old Nell Warne arrives on her aunt's doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows. If her Aunt Kate rejects her, it's the miserable Home for the Friendless.

Luckily, canny Nell makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate...and not just by helping out with household chores. For Aunt Kate is the first-ever female detective employed by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Nell has a knack for the kind of close listening and bold action that made Pinkerton detectives famous in Civil War-era America. With huge, nation-changing events simmering in the background, Nell uses skills new and old to uncover truths about her past and solve mysteries in the present.

Based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, this fast-paced adventure recounts feats of daring and danger...including saving the life of Abraham Lincoln!

What I loved:

1. Two great female leads with an interesting bond: The orphan who’s taken in by the less-than-enthusiastic relative has been done a million times in kidlit, but there was something unique about this pair. Their banter and camaraderie was real, heartfelt and just plain fun. The relationship had a wonderful character arc, but more than that, I liked that they were compared to sisters, a relationship I don’t see as much as I’d like in kidlit.

2. Real life historical figures: Nell Warne is the only fictional main character in this book. Her aunt, the other detectives, and of course, Abraham Lincoln, are real people. It’s great fun to see cameos like Lincoln, but even more to learn in depth about one of the first female detectives—and know that a lot of this story is based on real historical events.

3. A larger mystery to be solved along with episodic mysteries: The structure of this mystery is a bit different than most modern kids’ mysteries. Nell and Kate solve several smaller mysteries before they tackle a more dangerous one at the end. But what holds all these episodic mysteries together is Nell’s search for the truth of her father’s death. That mystery in particular kept me reading.

4. A story told in letters and narrative: The main story with Nell and Kate is told in narrative, but most of the mystery with Nell’s family is told in letters between Nell and her best friend, Jemma. I thought that this was an intriguing way to introduce backstory and keep this plot going.

5. Ciphers! One great bit of fun about the letters with Jemma was that they included ciphers between the girls. These were a lot of fun to figure out (and who doesn’t read a mystery to solve puzzles?) and would greatly appeal to kids. If you have trouble with any of them, thankfully, the answers are in the back.

I could go on and on. I loved the atmospheric writing, the attention to detail, and the subtle humor. This book would appeal to kids interested in the Civil War, historicals, and mysteries. It’d be a great addition to a unit on the Civil War, especially since it gives background on the Underground Railroad, Lincoln’s inauguration, and the beginnings of the Secret Service. It would appeal to fans of The Wollenscraft Detective Agency, which I reviewed here, another great historical mystery with strong female leads.

Have you read any good historical mysteries lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

* Blogging note: I'm going to be taking the next two weeks off from blogging to celebrate my older son's 13th birthday and enjoy time with my family. I'll be back in early August. See you then!

Monday, July 13, 2015

MMGM: Half a World Away

I first heard about this book on Greg Pattridge’s site, and I knew immediately that I had to read it. First, it is about overseas adoption. But not only that, it is mostly set in Kazakhstan. While I haven’t been to Kazakhstan, I lived for several months in the Crimea and have a special affinity for anything set in the former Soviet Union. In fact, parts of this book (i.e. the uniform apartments) brought back lots of memories.

But it truly was Jaden, the protagonist, of this moving book, that made me read on, hardly able to put the book down.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

A kid who considers himself an epic fail discovers the transformative power of love when he deals with adoption in this novel from Cynthia Kadohata, winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award. 

Eleven-year-old Jaden is adopted, and he knows he’s an “epic fail.’ That’s why his family is traveling to Kazakhstan to adopt a new baby—to replace him, he’s sure. And he gets it. He is incapable of stopping his stealing, hoarding, lighting fires, aggressive running, and obsession with electricity. He knows his parents love him, but he feels...nothing.

But when they get to Kazakhstan, it turns out the infant they’ve traveled for has already been adopted, and literally within minutes are faced with having to choose from six other babies. While his parents agonize, Jaden is more interested in the toddlers. One, a little guy named Dimash, spies Jaden and barrels over to him every time he sees him. Jaden finds himself increasingly intrigued by and worried about Dimash. Already three years old and barely able to speak, Dimash will soon age out of the orphanage, and then his life will be as hopeless as Jaden feels now. For the first time in his life, Jaden actually feels something that isn’t pure blinding fury, and there’s no way to control it, or its power. From camels rooting through garbage like raccoons, to eagles being trained like hunting dogs, to streets that are more pothole than pavement, Half a World Away is Cynthia Kadohata’s latest spark of a novel.
What I loved:

1. The strong voice and interiority of the narrator: Jaden is hard to love, because he’s not a very nice kid at the beginning of the book. But I had no problem getting attached to him right away. I think this is in part to Kadohata’s skillful deep 3rd person perspective. Because we're in Jaden’s head throughout the story, we understand his deep pain when he acts out.

2. A spark of goodness from the beginning. A strong character arc, when the main character is less than sympathetic, is hard to pull off. What Kadohata did well, though, was showing us that Jaden had those sparks of goodness. He loved from the beginning, even though he couldn’t name it as that. That’s what made me fall for this character.

3. Setting, setting, setting. It was obvious Kadohata did her research. The setting—from the  apartments, to shopping at the market, to the scene with the eagle, to how the driver drove. All these rang true to me.

4. Interesting characters. Every character had many layers, although Sam, the Turkish driver, was definitely a favorite of mine. Kadohata did an excellent job of giving a glimpse of other characters through Jaden’s eyes, but also showing that he didn't fully understand them.

5. Adoption from the inside out. I really enjoyed getting an insider’s view on the overseas adoption process, especially in a country like Kazakhstan. I think this book would appeal to kids whose parents are adopting and they’re wondering, like Jaden, where they fit with the new sibling. And this book is worth reading just for how Jaden meets Dimash, a toddler at the baby house.

I’m not sure what book to compare it to. It’s very unique, or I just haven’t read much like it. I think it would appeal to kids who like more literary fiction or books with “issues.” Although this book is so much more than that!

Have you read any books that really moved you lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Monday, July 6, 2015

MMGM: Stella by Starlight

I hope you all had a happy Fourth! And Happy Canada Day to my Canadian readers!

I’m sure I first heard about Stella by Starlight on a Monday Middle grade blog, but I heard it praised on so many, that I can’t even remember where I first heard of it. Nevertheless, I knew I had to read this book, not only because it’s about racism in the 1930s, but also because it’s by one of my favorite authors, Sharon M. Draper.

Stella is much different than Draper’s last book, Out of My Mind, which I reviewed here, but equally amazing in its own right.

Here is the synopsis:

When the Ku Klux Klan’s unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella’s segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper, the New York Times bestselling author of Out of My Mind.

Stella lives in the segregated South—in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community—her world—is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end.

What I loved about this book:

1. A thoughtful pace: While it doesn’t have as fast of a pace as a lot of middle grade books, I thought its slower, somewhat meandering pace, really fit the story and time period. Don’t look for every character and interaction to have a purpose to the main plot. This book has lots of texture instead.

2. Stella is an insecure writer. There are a lot of protagonists who are aspiring writers in kidlit, but Stella is the first one I’ve met who struggles with writing and practices, because she thinks she’s no good at it. Of course, she doesn’t see the whole picture. As her dad says to her: “Bad writers don’t practice, Stella. It’s the good ones who care enough to try, who worry about getting the words just right.”

3. Stella’s writing is interspersed throughout the text. This was an interesting format choice: Stella’s writings and school essays form chapters or parts of chapters. I thought it worked well. I enjoyed how Stella crossed out her mistakes as she went along.

4. A well-developed antagonist: Although the antagonist never gets off the hook, through his daughter we see why he is the way he is. I think understanding his motives and character really helps to drive home the point that not all whites were racists, and that the doctor had a meanness to him that affected every area of his life.

5. Braveness and grace in the face of adversity. This book left me with a lot of hope. Both Stella and her father acted heroically in the face of racism, never sinking to the level of the evil around them.

While I was reading Stella by Starlight, I was reminded of ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, which was also about a girl coming to terms with racism in the 1930s. While I love both books, Stella would be more appropriate for sensitive readers. It has less violence and a more hopeful ending.

As a writer, one thing I found interesting in the author’s note was that Sharon thanked God for helping her through a period of “wordlessness” just prior to writing this book, which goes to show that sometimes the best writing can come out of periods of dryness.

Have you read any good historical fiction lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

ISWG: Rushing

How many newbie mistakes did I make with my first book? Oh, so many. But the worst one, and the one I regret the most, is rushing.

I went to my first conference with a complete manuscript, but not a completely edited manuscript. The first chapter was stellar, but the rest, not so much. I was completely surprised to get requests. 

My writing mentor at the time advised me not to hurry, and even suggested asking the editor/agents for more time.

Did I listen? Of course not. I had some strange notion that I must get this book out, even if it wasn’t in good shape, or… (cue: the end of my writing dreams).

You probably can guess the end of the story. Of course, I got rejected, and I’m just surprised that one of them gave me helpful feedback.

I swore that I’d never do that again.

But the thing is I have. It seems like with every manuscript I’ve submitted so far, I’ve jumped the gun. If it’s not a conference, it’s a contest that catches my eye. It’s like this pretty little babble hanging in front of me: “Enter me. Enter me.” I lose all rationality. I think, “I’ll just give it a whirl and see how it goes.” I totally ignore all my misgivings about plot points not working or less than polished prose.

I’ve learned a lot from contests and conferences. I’ve learned how to pitch, how to craft a query, how to make that first page shine. I’ve experienced the high of people in the industry complementing or requesting my work.

But I still haven’t mastered not rushing.

I’m starting to feel the temptation again. I’m very close to finishing my revisions on yet another manuscript. The end is in sight. And though I know I need to do at least one more beta round, I’m starting to feel that itch again.

Summer means contests. “Enter me. Enter me.” I start justifying. Nobody needs to look at this again. It will just take too much time. I don’t need to set it aside for a month to cool off. It’s fine as it is. And on and on.

Maybe just posting this here will keep me accountable. No more contests or conferences or pitch sessions until I know that it’s ready.

Because if I’ve learned anything, you can’t sell a manuscript off a first page.

I really want to stop treating writing like a race to the finish. 

What about you? Do you feel the temptation to rush just to get your manuscript out there?

What is The Insecure Writer's Support 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!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

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