Monday, April 19, 2021

MMGM/#IMWAYR: On the Other Side of the Island

I’ve sort of been on a dystopian reading binge lately. But honestly, I’ve started many books in this genre and have not been able to finish them because they are just too dark.

On the Other Side of the Island was different. And even if you’re not usually a fan of dystopian, I think you might still like this book. It raises interesting questions about control, individuality, and family loyalty.

*While I’ve seen this title listed as YA in some places, the main character is 10 when the story starts and the voice is decidedly MG.

Synopsis from Amazon:

In the eighteenth glorious year of Enclosure, long after The Flood, a young girl named Honor moves with her parents to Island 365 in the Tranquil Sea. Life on the tropical island is peaceful—there is no sadness and no visible violence in this world. Earth Mother and her Corporation have created New Weather. The sky is always blue and it almost never rains. Every family fits into its rightful, orderly, and predictable place…
Except Honors. Her family does not follow the rules. They ignore curfew, sing songs, and do not pray to Earth Mother.  Honor doesn’t fit in with the other children at the Old Colony School. Then she meets Helix, a boy with a big heart who slowly helps her uncover a terrible secret about the Island:  Sooner or later, those who do not fit disappear, and they don’t ever come back.  

Honor knows her family could be next, and when the unthinkable happens, she must make the dangerous journey to the Other Side of the Island—before Earth Mother comes for her too…

What I liked:

1.Lyrical prose. One of my pet peeves with dystopians is that they often have lots of action, but little attention to the actual writing. Goodman’s writing is beautiful, and she creates such a rich mood and atmosphere. I felt like I was there on this island.

2.The importance of names. One of the major plot points of this book is about Honor’s name. In this society, kids from the same birth year are named with the same letter. While Honor’s name does start with H, the h is silent. I loved how her name showed so much about her parents and later was instrumental in the story’s conclusion.

3.Conformity vs. being unique. This theme is often common in dystopians, but I liked Honor’s character arc of how she grew from wanting to be like everyone else, which tweens will relate to, to fighting the system.

4.Awesome parents. You know how much I love good parents. These parents are nonconformists, even when Honor urges them not to be. They embrace originality and art and are working hard to remember the real past—and trying to get Honor to remember too.

5.Nods to class literature. It’s very unusual to find classics in dystopian books. One of my favorite parts of this book was when Honor discovers that the real Wizard of Oz really has a tornado in it. (In a world where bad weather has been eliminated, books about storms are banned.)

6.Open Ending. This book has gotten some complaints about its ending. I don’t mind an open ending as long as it works for the book. Not every plot question is answered at the end, but that made it all the more believable.

For my writer friends:

This is not a MG, but I just finished the most amazing craft book, Story Genuis by Lisa Cron. If you ever struggle like I do with crafting your protagonist’s misbelief, this book is genius (couldn’t help myself with that pun)! It’s a great step-by-step guide on how to build your plot from the inside out with an emphasis on the character’s internal struggle and character arc.

Highly recommended.

What books have you loved lately?

If you'd like to read more middle grade reviews or join in the MMGM fun, go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Monday, April 12, 2021

MMGM: Death Cloud




We’re a huge fan of mysteries at our house. When we have a long car trip (which admittedly doesn’t happen as often now), we usually listen to Sherlock Holmes on Librovox. Monk is a family favorite. My 16 year old son (reader extraordinaire) got the Complete Tales of Sherlock Holmes for his last birthday and has read it cover to cover multiple times. I was really drawn to the idea of a young Sherlock Holmes.

If you like a plot-driven tale with lots of nods to Holmes, you will love this book! And it’s the first of a series, so you could be busy for a long time.

Synopsis from Amazon:

It is the summer of 1868, and Sherlock Holmes is fourteen. On break from boarding school, he is staying with eccentric strangers―his uncle and aunt―in their vast house in Hampshire. When two local people die from symptoms that resemble the plague, Holmes begins to investigate what really killed them, helped by his new tutor, an American named Amyus Crowe. So begins Sherlock's true education in detection, as he discovers the dastardly crimes of a brilliantly sinister villain of exquisitely malign intent.

What I liked:

1.   Great sidekicks! I really enjoyed Matty, a street-smart orphan. Sherlock treated him as his equal, and Matty was important to the plot and solving the crime. In Conan Doyle’s books, Sherlock takes the lead in detection, but I liked how Sherlock needed his friends in this book. Victoria, a sort-of sidekick and love interest, was an equal partner in facing down the villain as well.

2.   An interesting villain. The villain’s backstory, his particular weaknesses, and the why behind his actions were some of the most interesting parts of the book. Behind every good plot is strong villain!

3.  A large canvas. It was fun that the plot took place in lots of locations—London, the countryside, a boarding school, France, a water boat, a tunnel under London.

4.   High stakes. The bad guys are really bad and do not shrink from trying to harm a child. This makes this book a little on the violent side for MG, but the high stakes led to a fast paced read.

5.  Great fun for Holmes fans! It’s always fun to imagine your favorite character in another setting. Although at times he was less eccentric than the original Holmes, I really enjoyed reading about Sherlock at 14. Mycroft makes a few appearances as well!

Minor Quibbles: Due to the multiple murders and attempted murders, I would classify this as upper MG and not for sensitive readers.

What mysteries have you loved lately?

If you'd like to read more middle grade reviews or join in the MMGM fun, go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

ISWG: What I Learned About Writing From Atomic Habits

Every few years I pick up a time management book. I'm always hoping that it’s going to help me be more organized, write more, and well, do all the things. Like New Year’s resolutions, my new habits generally only last for a short while. But reading these books, which tend to say the same things in different ways, always prods me to get writing.

Recently, I read Atomic Habits. I guess it’s quite popular, but I’m not one to really pay much attention to bestseller lists.

I thought he had a lot of great points and good reminders—like good habits are not about will power, but about making the good habit more attractive and easier. 

So true. I write better when I have a cup of Earl Gray and listen to the La La Land Song Track. “The Fools Who Dream” song inspires me every time.

But my biggest takeaway from Atomic Habits was: “The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.”

His point was that we often think that people are successful because they “really want it” or “have a lot of passion,” so when we get bored or don’t feel passionate about our dreams, we feel like we aren’t passionate enough. But the truth is, those people who are successful don’t always feel passionate or excited about their work either. The difference is that they keep showing up, even on the boring days.

Perhaps this is another way to say BIC (Butt in Chair), but what I liked about is that I often beat myself up because I feel so-so about writing. Sometimes I wonder why I’m even writing or maybe if I was more passionate, more driven, or more (fill in the blank), I would be farther along by now.

But it’s not true. I have a very busy life. But I am plugging away one word at a time. And that’s what I’ve learned is important. I am doing the other things he suggested too. Making writing easier for me—putting my laptop  where it’s easy for me to access. Having an accountability partner.

But even more important (and this is not in the book) is giving yourself grace when writing doesn’t go as planned. When you’re not super excited about your plot. When you’re stuck. It’s still showing up or maybe giving yourself permission to step away or do “research” instead.

Because passion will wane, but if you can keep working even when it’s boring, you will finish that book, story, poem, or article.

Do you think passion or conquering boredom is more important to writing success?

 To read more ISWG posts or to sign up, go Insecure Writer's Support Group.

The awesome co-hosts for the April 7 posting of the IWSG are 

PK Hrezo, Pat Garcia, SE White, Lisa Buie Collard, and Diane Burton!

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

Monday, March 29, 2021

MMGM: Echo Island

I know my blogging has been sporadic of late. It's been a very busy school year, and I keep thinking I'm going to catch my breath, and something else comes up. Until summer, I will be posting 2-3 times a month instead of every week. Thanks for understanding!

On to my post:

I’m not sure how to describe this book. It’s not really like anything I’ve read before. And though by the ages of the protagonists, it’d be generally classified as YA, I think advanced MG-ers would enjoy it as well.

Echo Island has been described as Stranger Things meets C.S. Lewis, but I think the movie Stranger than Fiction might be a more apt comparison.

Interestingly enough, this was the book my 18 year old, who doesn’t normally read a lot of fiction, devoured. My 16 year old didn’t like it. “It’s weird,” was his only comment.

If you like speculative fiction in the truest sense of the word, you will enjoy this book.

Synopsis from Amazon:

When four recent high school graduates return home from a weekend of camping, they expect to go back to life as usual. Instead, the boys discover empty streets, abandoned cars, and utter silence—everyone has disappeared.

As the friends attempt to solve the mystery, they stumble upon more questions than answers. Why won’t the electronics work? Where did the wind go? What do the notebooks full of gibberish mean? With each new discovery, they learn that nothing was ever quite what it seemed on Echo Island and that a deep secret is drawing them in—if only they would surrender to it.

Join Bradley, Jason, Archer, and Tim on this exploration into myth and mystery. Uncover exactly what happened on Echo Island and what these four friends’ story has to do with God, the meaning of life, and the nature of reality.

What I liked:

1.  Four teenage boys who sound like teens. Although publishers are always talking about how they want to find books that appeal to boys, I have found that books that actually appeal to boys are few and far between. It’s also rare to find realistic boy friendships in MG/YA fiction.

2.  Character arcs. Now some reviewers have complained that not every character has an arc in this book. But that's point. One of the themes of this book is whether you can change your life's trajectory. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to change, and I like how that’s reflected in these characters.

3.  A twist that really threw me, but in a good way. I thought I had this story figured out about 10 pages in. But I was wrong—or at least mostly. About ¾ of the way through the book there is a major twist I never saw coming. And I think there’s still a lot I don’t quite understand about the book. But I think that’s a sign of good writer. He got me thinking.

4.  Lots of allusions to Greek classics, Dante, and Lewis.  If you are a reader of Dante, the Greek myths, or Perelandra (Lewis’ space trilogy), there’s a lot of allusions here. These allusions threw me off though and made me think I knew the story, when I didn’t. Not many kids are familiar with these works, so they may not pick up on them. But for those who are, this will be an Easter egg hunt of familiar characters and stories.

5.  Existential themes and questions. Although death (especially of parents) is an epidemic in kidlit, surprisingly, I don’t see many books that deal with the existential themes—like what does life really mean? This book deals with some of those questions in a way I’ve never seen in MG or YA fiction.

Minor Quibbles: None. But this book is not for everyone. I know I will be thinking about it for a long time.

Content warning: This is fairly violent in parts and does include an instance of teenage drinking.

What books have you made you think lately?

If you'd like to read more middle grade reviews or join in the MMGM fun, go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Monday, March 15, 2021

MMGM: The Dreaded Cliff


The Dreaded Cliff was sent to me by Terry Nichols for review. She’d seen my previous review of Green Ember and asked if I’d like to read another book about talking animals!

This is no ordinary talking animal book. Terry has given each animal unique traits, which reflect their characteristics in the natural world. You can tell she did her research. Plus, these characters are just so much fun! I adored Flora the Packrat, who likes to use big words (though most often incorrectly!) and is a foodie of sorts.

If you like books about talking animals, where the characters are grounded in the real world, you will love this book!

Of course, it was much enjoyed by my younger son, fan of Green Ember.

Synopsis from

Flora is an ordinary packrat. She’s never flown through the air. She avoids strangers, especially singing porcupines and rude rabbits. She’s never met a king of the kangaroo rats, and she would never talk with an owl—because everyone knows owls can’t talk. Besides, they eat packrats.

Flora’s predictable life is all about snuggling in her treasure-packed nest and “snibbling” snacks with her packrat pal.

Life is perfect—except for the dreaded cliff. “Beware!” warn other packrats, and Flora’s stomach twists into knots.

All this is about to change when Flora learns about the ancestral packrat home, stuffed in a dark crack in the cliff, where countless packrats have raised their young. But a killer lurks there, driving packrats away.

The story haunts Flora, even as she tumbles into a faraway canyon where her life turns topsy-turvy.

Quirky critters, scary predators, and daring adventures impact her search for home, leading to surprising discoveries. And she learns she’s not such an ordinary packrat after all.

Instead of my usual 5 things I liked, Terry agreed to share about how she developed her amazing characters.

My question: 

One of the things I liked best about The Dreaded Cliff is how the animals had animal traits, like in Charlotte's Web.

Can you tell us about the research you did for these animals and how you used that to create their very unique personalities?


Terry's answer: 


I researched written articles, field guides, professional papers, video clips, anecdotal stories, and drew on my personal experiences to create the animal characters in The Dreaded Cliff.
Paco’s singing talent was inspired by online videos of Teddy Bear, a porcupine in a wildlife refuge who gnashes corn with gusto and clucks, yelps, squeaks, and argues with a range of inflections and slobbery yum-yummy sounds. I figured if a real porcupine has that kind of voice, then surely Paco sings opera. And of course, loves to eat. But Paco is also shy and doesn’t quite know what the fuss is about regarding his quills. I imagine a lot of young porcupines have a similar experience—they don’t know the power of what they’ve got until they actually use it. 

A kangaroo rat is a small package of spunk, adaptability, and resourcefulness. With his oversized rear feet he’ll pound the ground, kick sand in an attacking snake’s eyes, or bound away in amazing leaps. I see a lot of bluster and exaggeration in these solitary creatures. My armchair psychologist stepped in when I created King Cyrus. He’s perhaps compensating for his diminutive size, deep-seated fears (justified, when it comes to owls and badgers), and isolated lifestyle. Yet he has a caring, generous heart and yearns to connect with others—enough to welcome a lost packrat to his burrow.

Great horned owls are superb night hunters, with acute hearing, keen vision, and the ability to swivel their necks 270 degrees. Their silent flight and aerial perspective contributed to the story’s owl character. In its injured state, the owl appeals to my hero’s deeper sense of shared connection with the animal world, demonstrating qualities of a broader vision, wisdom, foresight, and mercy.
I’ve enjoyed the curiosity and intelligence of packrats for years and have had lovely face-to-face encounters with them. Hefty Grandma Mimi was inspired by the blubbery-looking packrat I caught in a livetrap once, who I imagined yearned for the protection and comfort of her ancestral home while she waited for me to release her. 

Flora is the packrat who “snibbled” my eggplants all summer long, scattered the compost pile across the landscape, and built her den in the ’79 Volkswagen van. Since that packrat was so fond of the compost buffet, I’m quite sure she was a food critic. Flora’s world of word play, treasure collecting, and food exploration is enough until the story of the ancestral packrat home stimulates her yearning for something bigger. And with her journey afar, she’s nudged to listen to her deeper self and is challenged to stay true to the essence of a packrat—who doesn’t just collect stuff—but collects stuff for a purpose, building on and joining in the bigger story of her packrat ancestors.

Thank you for sharing about the background of your characters! I love how Flora was inspired by your real experiences with packrats. 

To learn more about Terry and to download the great resources she has for teachers, parents, and book clubs, go to her website, Terry Nichols.

What books have you enjoyed lately?


If you'd like to read more middle grade reviews or join in the MMGM fun, go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle blog.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

ISWG: Why I Read Outside My Genre


At the writeoncon conference a few weeks ago, one of the presenters talked about reading outside your genre. I’m not sure if I’ve quoting correctly, but something like: “Read romance for character development. Read mystery for plotting. Read sci fi and fantasy for world building.” I love that. 

And Gail Carson Levine, one of my writing heroes, said that she didn’t read much anymore except for research. She tends to analyze books too much, so she can’t get lost in the story. I can relate. 

While there was a time when I read almost exclusively middle grade and YA fiction, I find I now alternate that with other books. I’d like to say it’s to learn from other genres, but mostly my mind just gets tired and on a weekday the last thing I want to do is read books that feel like work.

Here are the categories I read now:

Comfort reads: These are generally mysteries from the Golden Age (Dorothy Sayer, Patricia Wentworth) or old-fashioned romances (Austen, Georgette Heyer, or Grace Livingstone Hill). These are the books that don’t require a lot of thought, and I can get lost in. Weekday reads.

Just finished: Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

Hard books: These are either tough-to-read classics or books that tackle difficult topics. I tend to read more of these in the summer, and it generally takes me a long time to get through these books as my brain can only handle them in small bites. Also in this category are non-fiction books I’m reading for research. Weekend/summer reads.

Currently reading: The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass and God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China by Liao Yiwu

Books in my genre (kid lit): I always have at least one from this group going, and I alternate between these and my other books. I tend to read these when my mind is fresh, because not only do I analyze these as a mentor text, but I write reviews for my blog. Anytime reads.

Currently reading: Echo Island by Jared D. Wilson (YA Speculative Fiction) and Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud by Andrew Lane (MG Mystery)

What have you been reading lately? If you’re a writer, do you read in your genre or outside of it?

What is 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!

March 3 question - Everyone has a favorite genre or genres to write. But what about your reading preferences? Do you read widely or only within the genre(s) you create stories for? What motivates your reading choice?  

The awesome co-hosts for the March 3 posting of the IWSG are Sarah - The Faux Fountain Pen Jacqui Murray, Chemist Ken, Victoria Marie Lees, Natalie Aguirre, and JQ Rose!

Monday, February 22, 2021

What I Learned from Living in the Crimea


Aerial view of the coast of Crimea near Yalta

Since the corona virus and the subsequent lock down hit the US last spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about the four months I lived in the Crimea in the spring of 1994. Crimea was a Russian-speaking area of Ukraine when I lived there, but since March 2014, it is part of Russia.

It was one of the defining moments of my life. When I returned home, I would never look at my closet brimming with clothes, full grocery store shelves, reliable electricity and water, and my genuinely easy life the same again. And whenever I hear a few words of Russian, I feel homesick.

My experiences in the Crimea help me keep perspective when life gets tough. 


A Crimean party for a dog's birthday. My late Russian professor Lyudmila and myself.

What I learned from living in the Crimea (the short list):

1.  Appreciate the simple joys of life: One day my host father brought home a single orange (fresh fruit was very rare), and my host sister, who was six at the time, ate each segment slowly, as if it was an expensive piece of chocolate. I have learned to appreciate the small joys each day last year: eating food from my backyard, going on walks, and laughing at Mr. Bean antics with my teenage sons.

2. People rise to the occasion. I love the stories of how Russians secretly stood against communism through their music and art. (I think of Achmatova's Requiem, an elegy poem to her husband and son, both arrested by the NKVD.). They became adept at making jokes about Soviet propaganda (when I was there, every joke had a spy in it). Here in the States, I have enjoyed seeing how creative people can be in turning this difficult situation to good: making Youtube movies, repairing or fixing up their homes, baking bread (although I wish they’d leave some flour and yeast for me!)

3. We have lost the illusion of control. We have enjoyed a very long time of peace and prosperity as Americans. So we begin to think we can plan on our lives only getting better. But the truth is, so much of life is out of our control. I’ve been trying to be thankful for each day and what it brings. I wonder if saying something like “If the Lord wills…” when we talk about future plans will become more common.

4. Separating my happiness from world events: When I saw one of my Russian professors in 2014, Russia had just taken over Crimea. She said, “I left as a Ukrainian, I return as a Russian.” She has lived through communism, perestroika, Yeltsin, and Putin. But she continues to find joy in her life, enjoying her time with her grown children and teaching foreigners like me to speak Russian. Just because the world is going crazy doesn’t mean you have to let it make you crazy. Find joy in the things you can control: your relationships, your work (even if it’s working around your home), and making great art.

 Goodbye Party for my professor Irina (center) in 2014. I'm joined by Rachel Humphrey Fleet (left) and Darcy Franzen Syme (right), two other American students who studied in Crimea.

What about you? How do you keep your perspective and joy when life is crazy?

Photo credits: Crimea photo from Vimeo. All other photos are my own or from Rachael Humphrey Fleet, Jennifer Steele, or Darcy Franzen Syme.