Monday, July 19, 2021

#IMWAYR/MMGM: Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea and The Explorer

It’s been a little while since I’ve made it to my computer to write up a middle grade review. We’ve had the usual end-of-the-school year busy-ness, and last week we went to visit some friends in Eastern Oregon.  Along the way, we stopped to see the beautiful Painted Hills (one of the seven wonders of Oregon!) and dug for fossils. Summer must include a few adventures!

The famous red hill from the Painted Hills.

Today, I wanted to share two summer reads with you. I read them awhile back, but they stayed with me. They both have adventures, perfect for summer. 

Synopsis for Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea by Lynne Rae Perkins (synopsis from the author’s website):

Alix and Jools are off on a family vacation. It’s their first vacation ever that isn’t about visiting relatives. And even though it’s also going to be the first time they see the ocean, in real life, Alix is pretty sure she knows what it will be like.

But of all the things that happen, not a single one is something she expected. Because you just never know what amazing thing will happen next.

I was a little unsure of this book at first because I wasn’t a huge fan of Perkin's Criss Cross, but I’m so glad I picked this one up. So many middle grades deal with things that couldn’t happen in real life, but this is a sweet read about the ordinary adventures of a family on vacation.

When my kids were younger, I often worried they were bored because we “only” went to the beach for vacation most summers and never anywhere exotic. This book is a good reminder that adventures can be had anywhere if you look for them.

Favorite quote: “They would do this for a week, then come back home and remember it forever.”

The Explorer by Kathleen Rundell (synopsis from Amazon):

From Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Katherine Rundell comes an exciting new novel about a group of kids who must survive in the Amazon after their plane crashes.

Fred, Con, Lila, and Max are on their way back to England from Manaus when the plane they’re on crashes and the pilot dies upon landing. For days they survive alone, until Fred finds a map that leads them to a ruined city, and to a secret.

I picked this up because I have loved almost everything by this author, especially Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms and The Roofkeepers. The Explorer reminded me a little of Hatchet, but with a larger cast and an Amazon setting, including sloths and tarantulas. But what I liked best the theme of what makes someone an explorer. (It's not what you think.) This book would be perfect for animal lovers and kids who are interested in the Amazon rainforest.

What books have you loved lately?

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

ISWG: What Would Make You Quit?

This month's question: What would make you stop writing?

Note: This post is updated content from my June 7, 2017 ISWG post.

I have many different times in my life when I wanted to quit. The longest stretch was about twelve years ago. I had a lot going on in my personal life (my younger son required two surgeries within the space of a few months), and I’d gotten some discouraging feedback on a new project. I’ve since learned never to let anyone see my first drafts, but I didn’t know that then. I was so discouraged I set that book aside.

That’s when the writer's block started. For a few months, I just wrote, “I can’t write anything,” in my journal. At least I was writing words, right?

About five years ago, I almost quit again. I had gone back to work full-time after many years at as a stay-at-home mom. I didn't see where I could squeeze writing in. 

How did I find my way back?

Both times, I asked myself what I really wanted to write if I didn’t have to worry about anyone else reading it. This led me to tackling a YA retelling, a book of my heart. Now I'm working on a YA sci-fi I'm really excited about. Instead of writing for the market, I wrote just for me.

That book didn’t sell, but I got a lot of good feedback on it. It served its purpose though. I found my love of writing again. Because if I don’t enjoy writing, why am I doing this anyway?

I’ve since learned that I’m often most vulnerable to giving up when life presents me with a mix of writing obstacles and difficult life circumstances. But now dealing with those bad days or or months when writing comes harder is easier. I know they won’t last forever.

All I need to keep in mind is why I’m writing in the first place: What do I like to read? What do I like to write?

If that’s my focus, I won’t give up for long.

Is there anything that would make you quit writing?

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!

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 - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

 To see more IWSG posts, go here. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

#IMWAYR/MMGM: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire!

I have another bunny book for you today! I can’t believe how long it took me to discover Polly Horvath, but if the rest of her work is like this enchanting chapter book, I have a new favorite author!

Not only is this a mystery, it’s hilarious, and it includes bunnies (of course!) But it’s also set on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in the Puget Sound, near where I grew up. My husband and I went to the Gulf Islands on our honeymoon. They are rustic and beautiful—and I’ll never forget seeing a pod of Orca whales a few feet from our kayaks.

But on to this fabulous story.

Synopsis from Amazon:

In this hilarious chapter book mystery, meet a girl whose parents have been kidnapped by disreputable foxes, and a pair of detectives that also happen to be bunnies! When Madeline gets home from school one afternoon to discover that her parents have gone missing, she sets off to find them. So begins a once-in-a-lifetime adventure involving a cast of unforgettable characters. There's Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who drive a smart car, wear fedoras, and hate marmots; the Marmot, who loves garlic bread and is a brilliant translator; and many others. Translated from the Rabbit by Newbery Honor-winning author Polly Horvath, and beautifully illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner Sophie Blackall, here is a book that kids will both laugh over and love.

"National Book Award-winner Polly Horvath's latest, a rabbity romp complete with whimsical illustrations and a quirky cast of characters, has both the look and feel of a classic children's book," raves The Washington Post.

What I liked:

1. A girl who’s smarter than her parents. Oh, this kind of character is one of my favorites! Think Matilda or Gladys Gatsby from All Four Stars. Madeleine is a regular kid and very practical, but her ex-hippie parents are rather clueless at times.

2. Animals that have defined personalities! Mr. Bunny thinks making car noises will start a car. Mrs. Bunny is the straight man for his jokes and wants to adopt poor Madeleine. Then there’s the marmot who likes to be called “The.” And many more!

3.  Unique mystery plot: In most mysteries, the reader is trying to piece together the clues to figure out what happened. In this book, due to multiple POV, the reader knows what happened, but the suspense is whether these rabbits, who think being a detective means wearing a fedora, can rescue Madeleine’s parents.

4.  Canadian setting: This book is infused with the atmosphere of the Gulf Islands. I also liked the importance placed on Prince Charles’ visit and how different characters viewed this event. This was clearly a Canadian story.

5. Lyrical, humorous writing: This book reminded of the Roald Dahl books I loved as a child. It’s rare to find a children’s book that doesn’t take itself seriously and understands how children think. Horvath has a firm grasp on what makes kids and adults laugh.

And there’s a sequel, which I currently have on order. Lord and Lady Bunny—Almost Royalty!

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. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

ISWG: Letting the Paint Dry


If there’s one thing I’ve learned over this writing journey is that you can’t rush.

When I first started writing, I different goal posts in mind. Get published by x age. Or after x years. Somehow I thought that meant success.

I definitely made the mistake of rushing—and not shelving—that first draft of my first novel. With each novel, I’ve learned the importance of taking a step back.

It’s like watercolor painting. You have to let each layer dry before you add another layer. And like in painting, you also have to know when to stop. I’m always amazed at the difference between a wet painting and a dry painting. What I thought was awful is not so bad when it’s dry.

Writing is like that too.

Yet with each book I have a different process. Sometimes I’ve written a messy first draft all at once, no stops. Other times, like now, I’m writing and revising and plotting and brainstorming all at once.

Which one is better? I’ll let you know.

For now, for longer works, I generally take at least a month off. Although more time is even better.

For shorter works, I take less time. But it really depends. Short works also tend to get the back burner.

But no matter how much time, the key is not to rush. The more I step back, give it time, and see it as a whole, the better it is.

Other writing news:

If you haven’t had a chance to see it, Amy Tan’s Unintended Memoir, is very inspiring. It’s still on PBS online, but you might have to have a PBS passport to view. Here is the trailer:

Savvy Authors Courses: I recently took my first course with this site.  These are self-paced courses (for a certain length of time, usually 4 weeks). It takes place via discussion board. The teacher posts content and exercises twice a week. It’s really helping me hone in on my WIP. And these classes are very affordable ($30-40). No, I’m not an affiliate or anything. It’s just so hard to find affordable writing classes. Highly recommended!

Last but not least, I have passed the 10,000 word mark on my WIP. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been in the drafting stage on a new novel. I consider the reason I got this far is due to the wonderful Story Genius book and the support of an in-person writing friend, who’s keeping me accountable by meeting me for coffee and the reading of chapters every week.

To learn more about ISWG or to sign up, go to the ISWG website.

What about you? Do you take a certain time away from first drafts?

Monday, May 17, 2021


I have another dystopian book for you today. I plan on branching out to other genres soon, but this one was too good to pass up.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Everyone gets the Mark. It gives all the benefits of citizenship. Yet if getting the Mark is such a good thing, then why does it feel so wrong? 

Set in a future North America that is struggling to recover after famine and global war, Swipe follows the lives of three kids caught in the middle of a conflict they didn’t even know existed. United under a charismatic leader, every citizen of the American Union is required to get the Mark on their 13th birthday in order to gain the benefits of citizenship.  

The Mark is a tattoo that must be swiped by special scanners for everything from employment to transportation to shopping. It’s almost Logan Langly’s 13th birthday and he knows he should be excited about getting the Mark, but he hasn’t been able to shake the feeling he’s being watched. Not since his sister went to get her Mark five years ago . . . and never came back. 

When Logan and his friends discover the truth behind the Mark, will they ever be able to go back to being normal teenagers? Find out in the first book of this exciting series that is Left Behind meets Matched for middle-grade readers.

What I liked:

  1. World building: The key to a good dystopian, fantasy, or sci novel is the world building. And for me, the backstory of why the world is the way it is has to make logical sense. (Don’t get me started on the dystopians where they banish stupid people!) Angler did a great job with including some fun elements (houses are built in stories since land is too expensive), while having logical reasons for why the world worked as it did.   
  2. Sympathetic Main Characters: I thought both Logan, with his anxiety and missing sister, and Erin, with her interest in spying and longing to get her family back together, were well-drawn and realistic. Having completely different ways of looking at the world added to the tension. 
  3. A dystopian that’s really a mystery. If I were to categorize this book, I’d put it more firmly in the category of mystery, but with a dystopian setting. I liked discovering along with Logan and Erin what was really happening to those who took the mark, who the Dust were, and what happened to Logan’s sister. 
  4.  A main character you can look up to: I read a book with a similar plot line where the main character didn’t rise to the challenge when faced with a difficult choice. But this book was different. By the end of the book, Logan wasn’t satisfied to hide and stay safe. He was willing to risk his life to find out the truth about his sister—and that’s the kind of hero I love. 
  5. An ending that gave closure, even though it’s a start of a series. It’s frustrating when the first book of a series ends on a cliffhanger that doesn’t tie up any lose ends. This book had a clear climax and resolution, but left a few open threads for the next book, which I’m reading right now.

Minor Quibbles: This book is multiple point of view. While I felt like that worked most of the time with Erin and Logan, when other characters’ POVs were included, it got a little muddy for me. But this was a small thing.

 Book trailer:

About the author (from the author's website):

Who is Evan Angler?

Evan Angler is safe, for now. He lives without the Mark, evading DOME and writing in the shadows of Beacon.

As a kid he was quiet and well-behaved, having grown up in a town not unlike Spokie, where he enjoyed music, drawing, hover-dodge, astrophysics, hiking, virtual reality . . .

None of that matters now.

Evan Angler is the author of the Swipe Series. But if anyone asks, you know nothing about it, and you didn't hear anything from him. Don't make eye contact if you see him. Don't call his name out loud. He's in enough trouble already.

And so are you, if you've read his books.


                                                Evan Angler  


Don’t you just love that bio?

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. 


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

ISWG: The Surprising Effect of Your Own Words


I still remember the first time  my writing affected someone else. My aunt died of leukemia when I was in junior high, and I wrote a very thinly veiled short story about someone dying from cancer. I gave it to my best friend, and she cried.

As clich├ęd as that is, that was one of the first sparks that made me what to be a writer. Not that I wanted to make people cry, but I wanted my writing to affect people.

Over the years, I’ve often gauged my writing skill by people’s reactions. There was the time I attempted to create heroine with a very big character arc. Well, she was unlikable and her character arc paltry, and I’m thankful for the critique partners who told me so—to my surprise.

There have been many other times that people’s reactions stopped me short and made me rethink my story or my characters.

I’m not sure if this is a sign of growth, but I’m finding that the longer I write, the less I am surprised by people’s reactions. Of course, most of my audience is other writers, but I’m finding more and more when I write a funny scene, other people do laugh. Except for my teenage friend, I don’t know anyone else who cried.

I will keep working on this—trying to make what emotion I want to evoke on the page actually come across to the reader.

That is the hardest task of writing, but the most satisfying.

Has your writing affected other people in surprising ways?

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 - and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post. And please be sure your avatar links back to your blog! Otherwise, when you leave a comment, people can't find you to comment back. 

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG. Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say. 
Remember, the question is optional!

May 5 question - Has any of your readers ever responded to your writing in a way that you didn't expect? If so, did it surprise you?

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.