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!