Monday, February 23, 2015

MMGM: The Castle Behind the Thorns

I picked up this book, because it was a Cybil’s nominee. The title alone intrigued me—it would’ve something I would’ve been drawn to as a kid. (And, no, despite the title and cover--this is not a Sleeping Beauty retelling.) Although the first few chapters were somewhat slow, once I got to chapter four (and a second character entered this story), I was totally hooked.

I am glad I persevered, because this story was interesting and unique, a deftly woven tapestry of history and magic.

Here is the synopsis (from Amazon):

This magical adventure in an enchanted castle surrounded by thorns tells a tale of the power of memory and story, forgiveness and strength, and the true gifts of craft and imagination. By the acclaimed author of The Princess Curse and Handbook for Dragon Slayers, this original fantasy is perfect for fans of Gail Carson Levine, Karen Cushman, and Shannon Hale.

When blacksmith apprentice Sand wakes up in a ruined castle, he has no idea how he got there, but the thorny brambles that surround the walls prevent him from leaving. As he begins to fix up the castle in order to survive, everything he touches somehow works better than it should. Then, as he continues to explore, Sand discovers the castle's secrets, including its long-lost heir, Perrotte. Together, they must fully repair the broken castle if they ever want to leave.

What I loved about this book:

    1. Magic that was based on history. I am pretty picky about what fantasies I read. But if it’s based on fairy tales or history, I’m all in. The magical aspects of this book were so well-grounded in the reality and history of the Middle Ages that it was easy to suspend my disbelief.

    2. A well-developed theme and symbols. Sand is learning the power of mending, while Perotte is learning about forgiveness. The symbols the author uses: a castle behind thorns (for unforgiveness and bitterness) and the power of blacksmithing (and mending) really added a lot to the story.

    3. Equally strong male and female protagonists. Throughout most of the book, Sand and Perotte are the only characters. I find that sometimes when you have a strong female in kidlit, it often means the boy is not as strong. I liked how strong both these characters were, equally matched for sparring (at the beginning) to friendship at the end.

    4. Friendship. Although there are hints that someday there might be something more between Sand and Perotte, the focus was really on their friendship, which was forged (excuse the pun) in the difficulties of the castle. Their friendship and loyalty to each other made this one of the most believable boy-girl friendships I’ve read in awhile.

    5. It was set in Brittany! I am a fangirl of anything set in France, which is probably due to being raised by a mom, who’s a former French teacher. I loved how the author brought in elements of Brittany culture. This part of France is not written about much and that added to the book’s uniqueness.

Quibble: Although I enjoyed the ending, there wasn’t a typical climax.  The character arcs were satisfying, but I was hoping for more of showdown between the protagonist and antagonist. But still, that didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of this book.

Most of the historical fantasy I've read has been YA. It was interesting to see how this genre could be handled for younger ages. With its authentic historical details, CASTLE BEHIND THE THORNS would appeal to fans of Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, or Jessica Day George.

What are you favorite fantasies with historical elements for the middle grade set?

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

MMGM: The Madman of Piney Woods

I have a friend who reads mostly classic novels, and we often discuss what she’s reading. One day she made a comment I thought was rather profound: “These books are hard work to read, but the benefits are huge.”

Her comment made me think of the Newberry winners. They are not often fast reads, but well worth the effort.
Christopher Paul Curtis’ THE MADMEN OF PINEY WOODS is like this. It is filled with well-drawn, multifaceted characters that I’ll be thinking about for some time. 

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Bestselling Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis delivers a powerful companion to his multiple award-winning ELIJAH OF BUXTON.

Benji and Red couldn't be more different. They aren't friends. They don't even live in the same town. But their fates are entwined. A chance meeting leads the boys to discover that they have more in common than meets the eye. Both of them have encountered a strange presence in the forest, watching them, tracking them. Could the Madman of Piney Woods be real?

In a tale brimming with intrigue and adventure, Christopher Paul Curtis returns to the vibrant world he brought to life in Elijah of Buxton. Here is another novel that will break your heart -- and expand it, too.

Here’s what I loved:

     A dual-POV that worked. I am generally not a fan of multiple POV, especially two 1st person narrators. Either the voices are not distinct enough or one person’s story is more interesting than the other, so I find myself skimming one POV to get back to the other. But in MADMAN, both Red and Benji’s stories are intriguing on their own, their voices are distinct, and woven seamlessly together once they meet.

     Interesting parents and adult characters. It’s always refreshing when adults don’t disappear in middle grade novels, but are integral to the plot and fascinating in themselves. You must read this just for Benji’s punishments in the Amen corner and Grandmother O’Toole’s cane with a bell.

     Humor woven with tragedy. As Benji’s mother says, bad news may come in threes, but “…good news rides on the same horse.” Although this novel dealt with the harsh realities of the black regiments in the Civil War and the Irish coffin ships, it was also filled with humor and hope.

An opportunity to revisit Buxton. I adored Elijiah of Buxton, so I was excited to be back in that world. Christopher Paul Curtis is one of a few authors that I automatically read, because I know whatever he writes will be amazing. It’s also nice to see an established writer continue to outshine himself with each book.

     A powerful conclusion and theme. I loved that Curtis showed how adversity can either make you bitter or stronger. A wonderful message, powerfully done.

For writers: One of the things I found interesting about this novel was how it threw you into the world and the action with very little explanation. This was a bit disconcerting at first, especially in the first chapter, but after I got used to it, it really worked for this story. Don’t expect any explanations. Curtis shows you the dialogue, the characters, and the actions and respects you enough as a reader to let you draw your own conclusions.

I’m curious what other readers and writers think about this. I’ve read some novelists who write this way that leave me confused, which I don’t like. If you’re a writer, do you tend to overexplain or underexplain? I tend toward the later, so it was interesting to see how it could be handled well.

If you loved ELIJIAH OF BUXTON or any of Curtis’ other works, you will love this. Its humor is more understated than the WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM, and it is a bit more violent, but most of the violence is off-screen or told in narrative and flashbacks.

Have you read any powerful middle grades lately?

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

Monday, February 9, 2015

MMGM: All Four Stars

I’m not sure if it was the cheery, Mary Englebreit-like cover with cupcakes (!) or the premise that drew me first to ALL FOUR STARS, but I knew from the moment I heard about this book that I had to read it.

I love nothing more than books about kids with big dreams and the dream of being a food critic was new and fresh. Not to mention that I love books where interesting food is center stage.

And with its sugary cover, wouldn't it make a great Valentine's read?

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world.

But in order to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret! Easy as pie, right?

What I loved about ALL FOUR STARS:
-- An antagonist who is more than she seems. When I first met Charissa Bentley, I thought, oh no, not another prissy, rich antagonist. But there’s a whole lot more to Charissa. I loved how her deeper side comes out in the end, and yay for food bringing the gap between people.

--Writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously. You can tell Dairman had a lot of fun writing the opening scene when Gladys makes curtains brûlée, naming her characters (Parm is Gladys’ best friend and Charissa’s cronies are all named after cars), and writing Gladys’ parents’ lines about their bad cooking.

--Gladys’ reviews throughout. I loved how Dairman inserted Gladys’ reviews of her experiences with food in her diary at the beginning of the book to the reprints of her article at the end. This added a lot of flavor. (Pun intended!)

--A child with big dreams. Although some of Gladys’ escapades were far-fetched and difficult to believe (Could a child really pull of writing for a newspaper?), I still found myself cheering right alongside her, wishing that it were possible for a child to be taken as seriously as she was.

     --A main character who is reluctant and real. Writers are often advised to push their protagonists not to be larger than life. But what I loved about Gladys is that she was ordinary, shy, and sometimes afraid. She didn’t always act in the biggest way, but in the truest way to her character. I think that ordinary kids, or adults who were once ordinary kids (like me!), will find this refreshing.

As I was reading this, it kept reminding me of THE SCHOOL STORY (Clements), another book about a child who follows her big dreams (and succeeds!). If you enjoy Clements or books about food, kid writers, or dreamers with a hint of whimsy, I think you will enjoy ALL FOUR STARS.

As for me, I’d give it five.

The sequel to ALL FOUR STARS, THE STARS OF SUMMER, is coming out May 5th!

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ISWG: Being a Writer Means Having a Large Trunk

I attended a writer’s retreat last month. One of the first things we did was go around the room and shake hands with everyone, saying, “Congratulations.” As the presenter, Darcy Pattison, pointed out, we’d all just finished a novel. That was a big accomplishment, something to be proud of.

It wasn’t much later, though, that I was sitting in my small group and we were talking about how long we’d been writing. I was embarrassed to admit the truth:
“This is my fifth novel.”

Why was I embarrassed, even after I’d just been congratulated?

I think it has to do with the fact that I see those other four novels as failures. Yes, they may have gotten some requests, even some positive feedback, but I just see the nos.

I don’t see the fact that I finished five novels, some of which have been rewritten more than once.

I forget that often when I tell a nonwriter friend that I’m a writer, I hear, “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

In that moment, I forget this profound truth: just by finishing a book, I’d done something that most people want to do, but never accomplish.

At the end of the retreat, Darcy Pattison read an excerpt from Art and Fear (David Bayles & Ted Orland). One thing she read in particular stood out to me: “The function of the majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”

My early novels—most of them will never see the light of day again. They most likely will not be published, at least not in their present form. But that doesn’t mean they are wasted.  I couldn’t have written number 5 without them. And if it does soar—it’s because of all those words I wrote before it.

Do you have manuscripts you have trunked? Are you embarrassed or proud of them?

If you haven't heard of it, here's a little about 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. Be sure to link to this page and display the badge in your post.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter hashtag is #IWSG

Monday, February 2, 2015

What I Learned from the Darcy Pattison Revision Retreat

There are two reasons I’ve been dying to go to a Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat:

1.     I keep getting requests for my work, but rejections on my full manuscripts. I know I’m doing something right with my premises/first chapters, but I need to get better at executing a whole novel.

2.     I tend to spin my wheels when I revise. My process so far is: 1. Write novel 2. Revise till I’m sick of it. 3. Send to critique partners. 4. Revise some more. 5. Repeat ad nauseam. I knew there had to be a more organized approach.

I’m happy to say that I now finally have better revision tools, thanks to Darcy.

First, a little bit about the retreat. This has been the most intensive retreat I’ve ever been to. Prior to the retreat, I read two books on craft, finished a full draft of a novel, and read three manuscripts from the people I’d been working with at the conference. Whew! And most of that reading occurred during December, a busy month to say the least.

My wonderful small group:
Clockwise from the back: Sabina Rascol, me, Christina Larrechea, Johanna Wright
But all that prep work was worth it. At the retreat, you were placed in a small group with the three people who had read your novel. The retreat was structured so that we had whole group time, where Darcy would discuss a particular topic in terms of revision (plotting, characters, setting, etc.), then we’d have time to analyze our own novels for how we did on that particular trait, and then we’d have small group discussion time to discuss how we each did on that trait and how we could improve.

I have to say that those discussions were amazing. I’ve been in critique groups and I’ve traded full manuscripts many times, but to be able to brainstorm and discuss your whole novel with three people who know it really well—that was amazing. I went home with ideas on not just what was working/what wasn’t, but how to fix it.

In addition to the small group time, I think my biggest aha was the shrunken manuscript. If you haven’t heard of it (are you hiding under a rock?), it is a method of reducing the font and white space so you can print your whole ms out in 30 pages or so. Directions are on Darcy's blog.

Here’s mine:

It was nerve wracking to lay mine out for not only Darcy, but the whole group (20 people) to comment on. What I gleaned: I have a sagging middle, I need to beef up my protagonist and antagonist’s interactions, and I have a lot of talking scenes back-to-back. I don’t think I could’ve seen anything of these things with my usual method of analyzing my manuscript, which is writing an outline of the scenes.

Now I’m home and the hard work begins, but what I love about this retreat is that I now have a plan. I will continue to utilize my amazing beta readers and critique partners, but I no longer feel like I am dependent on their input to see problems in my manuscripts.

Me with my friend Kristin Bruschell, one of my regular critique partners
As Darcy said at the retreat, her goal was for us to be able to self-edit our work. I think I can finally do that now.

If Darcy is not offering a retreat in your area, another option if you’d like to replicate it at home is to use her Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise, 2nd edition. Everything from the retreat is in that book—you’d just need to find a few people to trade manuscripts to discuss things for the small group sections. I guarantee that just doing that will up your game as a writer and reviser.

 Have you tried the shrunken manuscript method? What is the most helpful writing event you've attended?