Monday, March 14, 2016

MMGM: Close to the Wind

This was a book I didn’t plan to like. I’d heard bad reviews, saying that the fact that it wasn’t set in a particular country didn’t ground it. As I don't usually enjoy books without a specific setting, I thought it wouldn't be for me.

But there was something about this story that drew me. Maybe it was the graphic cover or that the unnamed country sounded a bit like Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union—and I am sucker for books about those places. Though I never left at a time of war, leaving  Ukraine for a family emergency on short notice took a bit of verbal acrobatics. So, I could relate to Marek’s story—the insecurity, the intensity of not knowing if you’ll get on that boat (or in my case, a plane).

This is a suspenseful book, and it pulls at your emotions—even if a setting is never named.

Synopsis (from Amazon):

A simple, resonant, and utterly heart-shattering debut about greed, love, trust and what matters most when your world falls apart.

A war-torn country . . . only one way out.

Ten-year-old Malik's world is falling apart. Soldiers have invaded town, and his mother is missing, leaving Malik with his grandfather, Papa. Along with a thousand other refugees, their hope for escape to a new life lies in gaining passage aboard one ship--but the demand for tickets is high, and so is the cost. Can they make it on? And will they find Mama before the ship departs? When things don't go as planned, Malik must summon all of his courage and resourcefulness to survive.

A heart-wrenching and suspenseful story of sacrifice and resilience, Close to the Wind confronts the realities of war in a timeless and accessible way.

What I loved about this book:

1. A sympathetic main character. In many ways, Malik seemed younger than most American kids his age, but then, in others, he did not. I immediately felt for him, because of his missing mother and the obvious love they had for each other. He’s not sarcastic, he feels deeply, and he can outsmart villainous grown-ups. He’s a protagonist you won’t soon forget.

2. The relationship between Malik and his grandfather. This on so many levels reminded me of the film Life is Beautiful, although perhaps young readers won’t see the motives behind the grandpa’s behavior as much as I did. His self-sacrificing nature and his deep love for the boy—unforgettable.

3. Simple language. One thing that really struck me about this novel was how simple the language is. No fancy flourishes, very straightforward, not much description. This is not surprising, considering the author is a former screenwriter. But this very direct style fit the story well.

4. An impressive arc. Both the character and the story arc were so satisfying in this novel.  It was interesting to see how a magic trick introduced subtly at the beginning reappears in the climax.

5. An interesting villain. Although Malik had many obstacles, not all of them people, the main villain in the story was formidable and complex in his own right. The story wouldn’t have been so satisfying without him.

If you like books about war-torn countries, refuges, and family relationships, this is the book for you. Look past the unknown country and enjoy this book for what it is: a simple, sparse, and suspenseful story of a boy’s escape from a war-ravaged country.

What do you think about books with unnamed settings? Does it add or take away from the story for you?

(This post contains an affiliate link.)

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

Monday, March 7, 2016

MMGM: Catch You Later, Traitor

This was a book I picked up for a number of reasons. One, I haven’t read anything by Avi that I didn’t like.Who else can write about anthropomorphic animals? Make historical time periods come alive? Write can't-put-it-down mysteries? This guy has range. But I also picked it up because of the subject matter.  I’ve talked before about my soft spot for anything Russian or Soviet,  and so, of course, when I saw this was about the Red Scare, I knew had to read it.

Here’s the synopsis (from Goodreads):

Twelve-year-old Pete Collison is a regular kid who loves Sam Spade detective books and radio crime dramas, but when an FBI agent shows up at Pete’s doorstep accusing his father of being a Communist, Pete finds himself caught in a real-life mystery. Could there really be Commies in Pete’s family? At the same time, Pete’s class turns against him, thanks to similar rumors spread by his own teacher; even Kat, Pete’s best friend, feels the pressure to ditch him. As Pete follows the quickly accumulating clues, he begins to wonder if the truth could put his family’s livelihood--and even their freedom--at risk.

In the tradition of his Newbery Honor book Nothing But the Truth, Avi’s newest novel tells a funny, insightful story packed with realistic period detail of a boy in mid-twentieth-century America. Its unique look at what it felt like to be an average family caught in the wide net of the Red Scare has powerful relevance to contemporary questions of democracy and individual freedoms.

Here’s what I loved:

1. An excellent beginning and ending line. I suppose I’ve been paying attention to this more, since I’ve been learned about techniques like mirroring and narrative patterning. But if you get a chance to read this—read the first and last line. Masterful!

2. A narrator who writes like a crime writer. One of my favorite parts of this book was how the narrative was written (by the protagonist) in the style of Sam Spade. This was a great way to show the scenes through Pete’s eyes, build his character, and make otherwise boring descriptive passages more interesting.

3. Lots of twists and turns. This was a book that was hard to put down, because reveals were built on reveals, each more interesting than the next. As a writer, it shows me how much a solid and interesting back story matters.

4. A time period I didn't know much about. I learned a lot from this book, especially about communists during the Great Depression. Fascinating.

5. Family-centered plot. Since most MGs involve characters escaping their parents, it’s always refreshing to read about a protagonist who’s fighting to preserve his dad’s good name, standing by his family at great cost.

If you liked any of Avi’s other books, especially his historicals or mysteries, like MIDNIGHT MAGIC, I think you would love this. It would also appeal to fans of Gary Blackwood, who also writes suspenseful stories that just happen to take place in other eras. Readers interested in McCarthyism and the Cold War would enjoy this. Check it out!

Have you read any great historical mysteries lately?

(This post contains an affiliate link.)

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

ISWG: Baby Steps

I had every intention of getting a blog post up for January (and February)'s ISWG group, but as they say, the plans of mice and men….December and January have been difficult months. In the midst of cold and flu season, I think I was only well for one week of those months. Sitting down at the computer has not been on my priority list. In fact, I got quite discouraged about my writing, because I wasn’t doing much of it.

Then with the difficulties with yet another cold starting, I decided to just write for as long as I could stand it. I figured I would last 5-10 minutes, but I lasted an hour. It felt good to accomplish something, even if it was small.

My plan for my January ISWG post was to write about January goals. Looking back on 2015, I set my goals too high. I planned to finish revisions on two projects (!) and start a third. I only finished (or nearly finished) revisions on one manuscript. There’s been many times I’ve felt bad about that, especially when I talk to other writers, who are faster writers (or perhaps just faster revisers) than I. It’s easy for me to forget that finishing one manuscript is still something to be proud of. And I’m glad that I took that amount of time, because if I had rushed, it would not be as strong of a manuscript. I know it’s not perfect, and I am too close to have true objectivity, but this is the first time I’ve written a manuscript where I don’t have those nagging doubts in the back of my mind. Nagging doubts that I hope an editor, an agent, or even a critique partner will overlook.

So what does that have to do with writing while I’m sick? It is the small steps that count. I have always loved What About Bob? (Yes, in addition to fancy period pieces, I love silly movies.) But those baby steps have been so true for many parts of my life—from saving money to raising kids to writing books. We can’t rush it (or at least I can’t), but if you do the next thing, no matter how small, it eventually adds up to something significant.

What about you? How do you deal with discouragement when everyone else seems to be writing faster than you?

P.S. Since I wrote this post, I did finish my revisions! If anyone's keeping track, this is my shiny new manuscript. It may no longer be quite as shiny, but I'm finished. (That post was from 2014 while I was working on the first draft. I started this project in 2009, set it aside for 5 years, and revised it for a little over a year.)

Insecure Writer's Support Group

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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.

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