Monday, August 19, 2019

FAKE by Donna Cooner

Thanks to the @kidlitexchange network for the review copy of this book - all opinions are my own.

Fake by Donna Cooner is a unique take on the high school popularity game. Maisie is tired of being ashamed of her overweight body and tired of hearing the popular kids make cutting remarks about how she looks. When she’s forced to be lab partners with Jesse, the king of these insults, she’s determined to make him suffer. She creates a fake online profile for a pretty girl she names Sienna, and gets to work making all of the popular kids believe Sienna is real. Maisie, who already escaped real life by drawing comics, now puts work into developing Sienna’s internet presence. Before too long, even Maisie has trouble remembering what is real and what happened online. She’s scared at being found out, but she‘s hooked on feeling popular and accepted.

Personally I was drawn into this book because Maisie is overweight and uncomfortable with it. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE all these YA books with overweight main characters who love their bodies and have confidence oozing out of every pore, but that wasn’t my experience. I was a chubby kid and struggled with weight and body image all through high school, and I wasn’t comfortable with it or confident about it. I always wanted to see that reflected in fiction, because otherwise I felt even worse about myself. Why wasn’t I confident about my size like other characters? Why was I so nervous about standing in front of the class and letting them see my whole body instead of being like other characters? I love that Maisie lets body conscious teens feel seen and understood, then empowers them in a realistic way. 

I highly recommend you check this book out for yourself when it releases on October 1, 2019!

Monday, August 12, 2019

The King of Kindergarten

Plot Summary
Today's a big day - the first day of kindergarten! The story is told in second person, with "you" being the little boy starting school. He wakes up, gets ready, has breakfast, and is encouraged by his parents to be kind and strong. He goes through the routine of the school day, which is brand new and exciting to him, such as "the never-ending mystery of numbers". Everything is (appropriately) described in terms of royalty, from the school bus being a "big yellow carriage" to sitting at "your round table". 

Critical Analysis
The illustrations in the book are colorful, vibrant, and convey the excitement of the text. The royalty humor will appeal to adults as much as to children, who so often love imagination play and making grand pronouncements about their everyday tasks. The words have great rhythm in their simplicity; they explain the first day of kindergarten with concise happiness. The children and adults in this book are realistically diverse.

Personal Response
Today is my son's first day of kindergarten, so I love the timing of this book's release! We went to see author Derrick Barnes at a local bookstore a week ago, and it was fantastic to hear him read his own work. He also talked extensively and candidly about his writing life. He was also very open about his family, as this book is based on and dedicated to his youngest son. (Crown was also written about and for an older son.) I love the language used in this book because my son definitely repeats new words he learns, and there are very vivid, descriptive words for him to integrate into his vocabulary.

Reviews and Awards
From Publisher's Weekly: "When a mother gives her son the titular nickname, it inspires him throughout his first day of school—the child imagines that a chalk-drawn crown is sitting on his head as he walks through the 'towering doors' of the 'grand fortress' and into his 'Kindergarten Kingdom.'"
     Kirkus Reviews notes, "The playful illustrations use texture and shadow to great effect, with vibrant colors and dynamic shapes and lines sustaining readers’ interest on every page. Text and visuals work together beautifully to generate excitement and confidence in children getting ready to enter kindergarten."

Connections and Activities
At the book signing, we were given promotional crowns, as seen in the top picture. A fun craft would be for new kindergartners to decorate their own crowns. You could start from scratch with white paper and colors, or use gold paper and have them add stickers and jewels.
Kindergartners can also talk about their own first day, or if they haven't started yet, they can talk about their expectations and how they imagine their days might go. This activity can be continued on paper, with students drawing themselves as kindergarten royalty, their school as a castle, their own personal carriage, etc.

Read it for yourself!

Barnes, Derrick. 2019. The King of Kindergarten. Ill. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.

Monday, August 5, 2019

First Camp Nano in the Books!

July was my first time participating in Camp Nanowrimo, though I've tried to participate in Nanowrimo every year since 2007.  I always love having a push to write, which has been my favorite thing about Nanowrimo, even when I didn't win. But participating in Camp always felt like too much - I don't know if it was the timing or just my mindset.

Summer is actually a great time for me to write, because work is a little slower and my kid is up playing longer, since the sun's out later, so that gives me time to explore my ideas. Since I started pushing myself to write daily this year, and have actually been writing daily since June, this seemed like a good way to continue my streak.

Spoiler alert: I won!

I put a little more at stake for Camp Nanowrimo, though. I challenged myself to a 20,000 word short story... but really, I wanted write about 1,000 words of fiction most days. One day I knew I'd be off work, so I set a goal for 1,500 (and didn't reach it - that'll teach me!), and one day I knew I'd be meeting my overall goal of 20,000 words, so I relaxed to 500 words. Since my 20,000 goal would be reached before the end of the month, my more informal goal was to complete that one short story, and at least start two more. I want to aim towards finishing more so I can start submitting like I did in college (and have hardly done since then, whoops).

Here are some stats for my month of Camp

  • I wrote 31/31 days!
  • I wrote 25,956 words total.
  • I reached my 20,000 word goal on July 19th.
  • I wrote an average of 837 words a day.
  • My biggest writing day was 1630 words.
  • My smallest writing day was 76 words. (Let's be honest - I barely tried that day. It was a big day and I was drifting off to sleep before I remembered I hadn't written, and I didn't want to break the streak. But I'll allow it.)
  • I wrote 11 fiction pieces - four are complete. I have ideas on how to finish 3 others. The rest... who knows! I'll have to look them back over after some time away.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Dahl Study: Mr. Botibol

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Mr. Botibol" from Collected Stories (read 7/14/19)

Mr. Botibol has lunch with a businessman who wants to buy his father's business. He accepts the first offer, even though the businessman threw a number out there to get the bidding started. The businessman is excited about the deal and orders lots of drinks for the two of them. Mr. Botibol isn't used to drinking, and the alcohol goes to his head. He starts talking about success, and how he's never had any. He gets home and listens to the radio, which is playing a symphony. He is overcome by the music and pretends to conduct it from his chair. It makes him feel good, so he stands up and gets into it with his whole body. He's exhausted when it's over, but feels proud of himself. He pretends that he composed the work and just conducted it, and the audience is demanding more. He looks up when more symphonies will be on the radio, and conducts those, too.
     This all makes him feel so good that he decides to convert a room in his home into a theater. He installs theater seating, a small stage, a box for the conductor, and special record players and speakers. He gets records of different kinds of applause, and buys a variety of symphonies to conduct. He loves acting like a famous composer. Botibol then decides to get a piano so he can pretend to play. He goes to the store to get one rigged to be silent, then goes to buy more piano records. There he meets a woman who starts talking about what music she loves. Never really having relationships, he awkwardly invites her over to his house to listen to music. She agrees and comes over and he explains his hobby to her. She doesn't seem to think it's weird, and pretends to play the piano while he conducts her. When he invites her back, she says she can't come because of work. She reveals that she's a piano teacher.

"Mr. Botibol's First Love" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/14/19)

The episode was pretty much the same as the written story. Overall it was an interesting story to read, because it seems like a pretty strange hobby. I thought it was amusing at one point - who hasn't danced as if they're onstage, or sang into a fake microphone and pretended they're a famous singer? But once the woman came over, I saw it from her point of view and realized how strange I would have thought it was if a man acted that way on a "date". The visual version of the story wasn't as interesting, but that's just my personal opinion.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Dahl Study: Genesis and Catastrophe

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Genesis and Catastrophe" from Collected Stories (read 7/5/19)

This story is pretty excellent. There's a great twist... but it's not really a twist because it's a fictional interpretation of real life events, so if you know history and obscure facts about political leaders, you might already know the story based on context clues.

A woman is worried about her new baby, because she has lost her three other young children in the past 18 months. The doctor assures her that the baby is fine, healthy, a bit small, but will make it. The mother can't look, she keeps talking about her other children and how they died. (It's here that history buffs might make the connection - the mother is named, and names the other children that have died.) The doctor then calls the mother by her full name, which I won't say here because it's a pretty good twist. She then gives the baby his famous names, and prays for him to live, and it's so deliciously ironic!

"Genesis and Catastrophe" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/12/19)

This episode had a lot more to it than the story, but it didn't necessarily add to it. It made it more interesting for TV, I suppose, but that's about it. It starts with a young boy running to tell the father that his baby is being born, but the man won't go to his wife. He doesn't want another dead baby. Much of the episode is the same as the story, but with a lot more from the man's point of view. He wasn't much of a sympathetic character in the story, but he is in the show. I don't think the twist packed as much of a punch as in the written story, either, so definitely read the story first.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Ten Years After

Ten years ago I was winding down my life as a graphic designer, packing up my belongings, and moving just outside Washington, DC to study fiction writing as an MFA candidate. I can think back to that time and feel everything so clearly, honestly from January 2009 until August, to include the anticipation of the MFA acceptances or rejections. I applied to ten or eleven schools, and was accepted to two - one with no financial package, one with a full ride and TA position. I picked the school that offered me the most, of course, and was grateful for it.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, scribbling in marble notebooks and keeping them in a "real" leather briefcase. (Yes, I was that kid.) I never stopped writing stories, even though I never really finished one until my first creative writing workshop in undergrad. I ended up there after thinking I should major in journalism, because it was writing. I didn't know creative writing was a thing you could study, take classes in, get graded on. Once I discovered that, I was gone. I was so sure I was going to grow up and become an author. It seemed real to me, just by having a concentration in the college catalog.

I stuck with my MFA program for one year out of three. I didn't like how certain workshop professors pushed us to write in a specific style first, and once we mastered that, we would be allowed to experiment. I couldn't handle having to read three short story collections a week for one class. I loved my classmates. I loved the other tutors I worked with in the Writing Center, and I loved the Writing Center itself. I loved working with other students. I loved editing papers and helping them find their focus while writing.

I don't regret my year in the MFA program. I don't regret quitting after a year.

I have friends with MFAs who are writing and publishing and working as professors and love it. I have friends without MFAs who are writing as publishing and working as [fill in the blank] and love it. And I always felt like I was somewhere in between. That by being enrolled in a program and quitting meant I had failed. But I didn't fail - I made a choice. And I need to be kind and honest with myself and realize that I am one of those without an MFA who is writing and publishing and working... period. I am doing so many things I never thought I would be doing ten years ago.

When I started that chapter of my life, ten years ago, I couldn't really picture the future. I could see myself writing at all hours of the night, because I could hardly sleep if the sun wasn't out. I couldn't picture myself as a professor. I couldn't picture myself as a partner or a mother or anything beyond that hazy image of a person huddled over the table writing... something.

And here I am. I am a mother with a wonderful child. I read in all my spare time, and I share books with him every day. I completed a Masters degree in Library Science. I'm an elementary librarian sharing books with students and their parents. I wrote and published a book. I have been writing nearly daily for over six months. I have been completing stories even without a deadline in my face. I am gearing up to teach an elementary creative writing club in the fall. It might not be what I dreamily thought would come, but, ten years after, I think I'm in a good place - maybe just a logical evolution from what I thought I wanted back then.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Dahl Study: The Umbrella Man

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"The Umbrella Man" from Collected Stories (read 7/5/19)

A young girl and her mother are in town when they get caught in a rainstorm. They were trying to flag down a taxi when an old man came up to them. He was well-dressed with a nice umbrella. He told them that he didn't have his wallet, but needed money for a taxi fare. He had walked to town, but was now too tired to walk back home. He wasn't begging for money, but rather wanted to sell them his umbrella. He told them it was silk and cost him twenty pounds, but he'd sell it for one pound, just to get taxi fare. The mother bought the umbrella and she and her daughter huddled beneath it to stay dry. The daughter noticed the old man practically running down the street, and commented that he didn't seem as tired as he claimed he was. The mother is suspicious, and they follow the man down the road. He disappears into a pub, so they stand in the window and watch him. He orders a drink at the bar, pays with the mother's pound, and downs the drink. As he leaves, he snags an umbrella from the stand near the door. The girl and her mother watch him walk down the street to sell that umbrella to another unsuspecting stranger, then head towards another pub to do the same thing again.

"The Umbrella Man" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/12/19)

I like the show version of this story better than the written one. It starts from the Umbrella Man's point of view, though of course we don't know him as such at this point. He is just checking into an inn, asking where he might find a list of the nearby pubs. He goes up to his room and marks a map of pubs, then listens to the radio, getting frustrated to hear it's supposed to be a beautiful day. The next day, we are shown a man and his wife waiting for a train. Another man walks in and purposefully puts his umbrella on the table and settles next to the couple. They all know each other, but when the husband leaves to check on the train, it is revealed that the wife is having an affair with the other man. The man wonders if the husband suspects anything, but the wife assures him her husband is oblivious. They all get ready to get on the train and the man makes a point of coming back to grab his nice umbrella.
     The woman gets her hair done and it starts pouring as soon as she leaves the salon. The Umbrella Man finds her huddled under and overhang and offers to sell his umbrella to her. She takes him up on it. Later the husband and the man having an affair with his wife meet while waiting for the train home. The man is soaking wet and the husband asks what happened to his umbrella, since he was so smart to bring one that morning. The man said it got stolen at a pub. He then mentions something about the wife getting her hair done, and the husband laughs that she will look like a drowned rat since she thought it was going to be a beautiful day. The wife comes up at that moment, looking wonderful and holding the umbrella. She tells her husband to not get mad because she didn't buy a new one at full cost, and starts to tell him the story. He cuts her off and gets angry because he has suspected an affair, and now this is proof to him. He thinks she and the man met at lunchtime and he let her use his umbrella that afternoon. He starts a fight and the wife insists a man sold it to her and tells her husband what the Umbrella Man's game was. She drags him to the police station to prove it.
     While at the police station, the man insists his umbrella was stolen and he would never have an affair with the man's wife because he loved his own, etc. It hurt the woman's feelings, so when the Umbrella Man is brought into the station, she says it wasn't him. She lets her husband leave talking about a divorce, and the man she was having an affair with is mad she denied it and got him in trouble, too. She realized neither man cares about her.

Monday, July 15, 2019

My Writing Life

It's been seven and a half months since I challenged myself to write every day.

In January, the goal was to write two pages a day. I wrote one short story, started two others, and wrote really bad, long poetry. I wrote 28 out of 31 days.

In February, I wanted to wake up a little earlier every morning to write, in hopes of not missing those three days. I did wake up earlier, but I still missed three days, writing 25 out of 28 days.

March got off to a strange start, because I somehow missed the first day. Then I wrote every day of my Spring Break vacation (literally out-of-town vacation, and I still wrote), but then stopped once I returned home. Go figure! I only wrote 16 out of 31 days.

April was the A to Z Blogging Challenge, so I had 26 posts to write for Allison and Her Camera, plus my weekly Sunday posts - so I blogged every day that month...  But I only wrote 24 out of 31 days.

May was my game-changer. I started reading The Artist's Way, which recommended using morning pages as a brain dump. You wake up and write three pages of anything that's on your mind. I recapped the day before, wrote down strange dreams, plotted out the hours the stretched before me - anything and everything. I wrote 29 out of 31 days!

Which ramps up nicely to June - I wrote every day! I wrote morning pages of brain dump and then spent evenings starting short stories and scheduling blog posts. I thought writing every day would monopolize my time, but it actually made me feel even more ready to write other productive things. 30 out of 30 days!

That means for the first six months of writing daily, I wrote 152 out of 182 days. Not too shabby!

For July, I decided to participate in Camp Nanowrimo for the first time. I try to compete in National Novel Writing Month every year (to varying degrees of success), but with my writing finally getting on track to a daily habit, I wanted a new challenge. My Camp goal was to write a 20,000 word short story - one that's been kicking around in my brain for awhile. I started it, and I've been doing a lot of work on it, but some days I just could not handle working on that. My brain melted just thinking about it. So I'd start something new. Then something else. Then something else. Until I had five short stories making up my Camp word count.

That's fine with me. I know pushing myself to work on something I'm not feeling just means I'll make the choice to not write instead. So my "secret" goal was to write 1,000 words a day (which, if you can math, adds up to more than 20,000 words). I wanted to complete the story I've been thinking about for so long, but also start another. I want to start the submission process again soon, so I need to have some work for that. So far, only one of the five stories is finished, and it's not the one I really wanted to finish, but there's still time! And now that I've stuck with this habit for two months, I'm hoping it will only get more ingrained.

What have you been writing lately?

Friday, July 12, 2019

Dahl Study: Nunc Dimittis/Depart in Peace

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Nunc Dimittis" from Collected Stories (read 1/13/19)

A man who has been seeing a woman for a long time finds out that she has been telling people in their circle that he is boring. It embarrasses him and makes him so mad, he decides he wants revenge. He secretly commissions a painter to paint his girlfriend's portrait. The painter is known for painting in layers - as in, he paints a woman nude, then adds her undergarments, then adds her dress. Once the painting of the girlfriend is complete, the man, an art collector, carefully uses turpentine to remove the top layer of paint. He hangs the portrait of the woman in her undergarments in his dining room and invites all of their rich friends over for a dinner party. He slips away from the party right after the painting is unveiled. He later finds out that his revenge backfires - everyone hates him. The girlfriend forgives him, though, and sends some of his favorite caviar, which he eats - then feels ill.

"Depart in Peace" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/4/19)

The episode is called "Depart in Peace" even though the short story was titled Nunc Dimittis, which means "Now you dismiss." I like that the new title is a variation of the same sentiment, and I like how both versions of the title add meaning to the end of the story. The short story was originally published as "The Devious Bachelor", which also applies to the story, but isn't as clever as the two later titles.
          The show is the same as the story, but with a bit more clarity. The man doesn't leave when the paint is unveiled, but rather makes eye contact with the girlfriend and watches as she faints. Later, she comes to him in person to forgive him and say she loves him and always will, and he must not listen to gossip from people in their circle. She gives him the caviar and he makes a cracker for her and then eats his own. He starts to feel strange, looks at her, and she puts her uneaten cracker back on the tray with a smile. She leaves and he walks away, towards the painting of her (for reasons I didn't understand, if there are any). He's basically hiding behind a curtain without really hiding when the butler comes in to clean up the tray. The butler looks around, sees no one, and sneaks a bite of the caviar. He is walking to the door when the man falls from behind the curtain. The butler drops his tray and falls into a chair, as if he is also feeling ill. The woman comes back into the room, looks at both men, and smiles at what she's done.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Matilda the Musical

Last weekend I saw Matilda the Musical at Playhouse on the Square. I originally saw it at the Orpheum in January 2016, and fell in love!

About that performance, I said:
I was only halfway through [re-reading] the book when we went to see the play, but I liked it that way - I couldn't remember the original ending, so the play was still somewhat suspenseful. 
          [The play is] hard to review because... it's amazing. I would have gone to see it again the next night if I could have! The stage looks fantastic with all the letters and colors and blocks, and it pulls you right into Matilda's world. The actors are perfect in their roles. We saw a native Memphian play Matilda on opening night, so that was a nice perk!
          The musical differs quite a bit in that Matilda's mother has a different hobby, which doesn't add much to the story, in my opinion. Matilda also tells an ongoing story she's made up, which is overly sentimental and also doesn't add much to the story, especially since Miss Honey's backstory is explained so concisely in the book. But I am a huge Tim Minchin fan, so I appreciate how these divergent storylines help develop the musical side of the story. Tim Minchin's songs are very clever and add jokes and wit to the story.

Besides being excited to go with a group and show off my photography exhibit in the cafe lobby, I was excited to see how it was interpreted for the smaller stage at Playhouse. The set was pared down, of course, and the letters were projected with lighting instead of being hung all over the stage. One thing I love about smaller theater performances is how much they do with limited sets and space. Using the doors and blocks for multiple purposes was really creative. The actors themselves were all fantastic, and there's nothing that makes me tear up faster than young locals blowing an audience away, and having that audience cheer like crazy. (I think there were lots of family and friends in the crowd that night, but still.)

Everyone I was with really loved the musical, and as someone who saw it years ago and has listened to the soundtrack countless times since, hearing the songs performed onstage was almost like seeing a band in concert. I loved hearing the music live again!

As far as I could tell, the show was sold out, and so many local businesses and families had wanted to sponsor the show that I hope it's performed here again before too long. I think it's great that it's based on a book, of course, but it seems like several plays each season are book-based at Playhouse. I think I mostly love how there were people of all ages there, and everyone seemed totally into the story and songs. I think Dahl is a timeless author, obviously (see: Author Study), and I've enjoyed some of the movies I've seen based on his work, but I do love that he's being updated and exposed to more people by having his stories transformed into plays and musicals.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Dahl Study: Georgy Porgy

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Georgy Porgy" from Collected Stories (read 1/11/19)

A vicar has never settled down, and all of the "spinsters" in his parish are after him. He resists, but one finally puts something in his drink and gets him alone. The vicar had a traumatic experience as a boy - watching a mother bunny eat her newborn, and then thinking his mother was going to do the same to him. He ran away from his mother at the time, and she ran after him but got hit by a passing car. In present day, when the spinster leans forward to kiss the vicar, he freaks out about her mouth. She apparently actually eats him and he lives inside her?

"Georgy Porgy" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/4/19)

This was... pretty different from the story in terms of specifics and story building. I didn't remember the story that clearly, but it didn't stand out to me as weird or unsettling, besides the odd ending that didn't seem typical for Dahl. But the show version was very strange, and I felt uncomfortable the whole time I was watching it. The vicar is weird from the start, kind of twitchy, and it kept showing him clench his fists behind his back while preaching and singing. There were flashbacks showing how off her rocker his mother was - she really messed him up. To the extent that the father was shown nearby in all the scenes, and I wanted to scream at him "Why aren't you stopping her?!" She was so inappropriate with her son. 
          The woman of interest in the show wasn't a spinster from town, but rather one of their younger, female, married, relatives. This woman spikes the vicar's drink, and when she leans in to kiss him, he freaks out as he did in the story. But in the show, he strangles her. She falls to the floor, bleeding from the mouth, and two spinsters come to see what happened. He yells about his mother and runs past them. The strangled woman is still alive on the floor, and then we are shown the vicar in a straitjacket, talking to a therapist about where in the woman's body he is living now.
          I wonder if this was how the story ended. I remember the writing explaining that the vicar is living inside the woman because she ate him, but maybe I read it wrong, or didn't read into it enough, and it was actually him in therapy talking about it.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Reading Life: 2nd Quarter 2019

I've read 48 books this year, which sounds pretty good until you consider my Goodreads goal is 120 books - that means I'm about 11 books behind where I should be. But I'm reading more often - on my lunch breaks and before bed, if nothing else. And I'm reading books that are hitting me in different ways. 

I've recently discovered Kent Haruf, and reading his work makes me feel like I'm in college again. I mean that in a good way - it reminds me of getting new-to-me short stories to read and dissect for workshops, analyzing fiction in literature seminars, and trying to apply what I've learned to my own writing. Haruf is direct, no flowery language, but the stories he tells are so compelling - maybe even moreso by the sparse writing. 

Take this line from Plainsong (which I'm thisclose to finishing) for example: "It was evening when they got home. The early dark of late December." Isn't that so good? It's so descriptive - you can picture exactly how the evening light looks. And I love the quiet poetic opposites of early and late. Anyway, I read that sentence during my break and was frantically searching for a scrap of paper - I had to write it down!

I'm dying to apply his style to my own writing, but it will definitely have to wait until the editing process. I'm so wordy with first drafts, but I can edit like nobody's business. 

Anyway, that's what my reading life has been like this past quarter. Trying to find the books with the writing that will move me and the stories that will blow me away.

- - -

Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering. This book blew me away. It was so real, so well developed, and so intriguing. Many of the characters made me think of real people, which was both good and bad considering the main male character was a psychopath. I could hardly put this down.

Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen. Originally read April 2011: This story followed a woman as she left her abusive husband, bringing her son along as they started a secret new life. There were vivid flashbacks, but also a lot of current action. It had a good narrative structure, but overall felt very stream-of-consciousness, which worked perfectly. As the woman adjusted to her new life, you were living day-to-day right along with her. When she was struck by fear of her husband finding her, you were jolted into that emotion as well. It was very powerful, very realistic, and very suspenseful. The prose was beautiful in many parts, but never too flowery. The characters were realistic and likable, and I find myself thinking about them even after finishing the book. 
     Re-read June 2019: I had read this years ago, and watching Big Little Lies made me want to read it again. The suspense and waiting were palpable and so well done. I had totally forgotten the ending so I have to say it gutted me and I was definitely weeping for the last bit of the book. So amazing. I can’t wait to forget the ending and read it again.

The Alcatraz Escape by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. I absolutely loved this book. Sometimes sequels and trilogies can get tired, or you can tell the author is running out of ideas. Not the case with Bertman. This book was AMAZING, and might even be my favorite of the Book Scavenger trilogy yet! I love the Alcatraz history and that twist, my goodness! PERFECTION.

The Seven Husbands of Eleanor Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. After reading more of Jenkins Reid’s work, I think my favorites are her novels that are presented as false memoirs. This book was amazing - so many good twists that were not written in just for the sake of being twists; they actually helped the plot and character development greatly. The ending twist took a bit to sink in for me - I hadn’t been keeping much track of the timeline of Hugo’s life and how it related to the current story, so it took a minute to have some impact. Reflecting back on it now, it’s SO good.

The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf. I “discovered” this author thanks to #bookstagram, and then found out my dad is a huge fan after he saw me with one of the books! If it weren’t for these ringing endorsements, I don’t know what I ever would have picked this book, but I’m so glad I did! I checked all of Haruf’s books out from the library, but wanted to go in order just because. The Tie That Binds was a compelling story told in a conversational way, and at times I kept wondering why it was being told that way, why it was framed as a conversation, but… it didn’t matter. It was just good, and the sentences were so impactful and powerful without being over the top and trying too hard. Very eager to move on to Haruf’s next book.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Dahl Study: My Lady Love, My Dove

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"My Lady Love, My Dove" from Collected Stories (read 1/11/19)

A man and his wife invite a couple to their home for the weekend to play bridge. The wife doesn't like the couple, and wants to bug their room to listen in to their conversations and activities. The man goes along with her idea, because it's easier than fighting. The couple arrives, and they all stay up late playing really good games of bridge. When they go back to their rooms, the man and wife listen in to the couple as they talk and get ready for bed. They realize that the other couple has a very detailed and polished system for cheating. The wife thinks it's brilliant and wants to copy it to do with her husband when they play.

"My Lady Love, My Dove" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/4/19)

The premise was slightly different - the woman is very rich, and this is her third husband. He doesn't work, but listens to music all day and is good with sound systems. She says she's bored and doesn't want the couple to come this weekend, but they're already on their way, so she wants to have fun with them. She bribes her husband to wire their room - he really doesn't want to, but she threatens him and says her second husband is working elsewhere as a salesman, and that threat pushes the man to do as she wishes. The rest of the show is the same as the story.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Dahl Study: Taste

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Taste" from Collected Stories (read 1/11/19)

A wine connoisseur comes to a man's house for dinner. The man loves to challenge the connoisseur to identify his wines, and this time he thinks he'll have him stumped. He wages a bet to make it interesting. The connoisseur keeps raising the stakes, and since the man is so sure the connoisseur won't guess correctly, he keeps agreeing. If the wine connoisseur loses, he gives the man two houses. If the connoisseur wins, he gets to marry the man's daughter. The connoisseur takes his time identifying the wine, building suspense, and eventually guesses correctly. Everyone is dumbfounded, until the maid brings the connoisseur his glasses from where he left them in the study when he went in and looked at the wine bottle's label before dinner.

"Taste" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 6/4/19)

This episode was just like the story. It was somewhat jarring to see how young the daughter was and how old and creepy the wine connoisseur was, but I guess that just adds to the suspense of the marriage bet. I think there was a little more foreshadowing about the study in the episode, because it's mentioned several times. The man is initially in the study before the wine connoisseur comes for dinner. When the wine connoisseur comes over, he asks for soda water to cleanse his palate, and goes away to use it privately. It is discussed at dinner that the study is the best place for wine to breathe, and that the man determined that location with help from the wine connoisseur. So it was not surprising when the maid brought in his glasses and said she found him in the study. It made sense that they would be there and that the wine connoisseur knew where the wine was kept, but still packed a punch for the ending of the story to realize what happened and that he's a cheater.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Dahl Study: Poison

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Poison" from Collected Stories (read 1/11/19)

A man comes home and finds his roommate stuck in bed, unmoving, because of a venomous snake that crawled onto his stomach and fell asleep. The suspense is interesting and unique, with the ticking timebomb of the sleeping snake, being quiet and motionless to not wake him up, and trying to figure out what to do about the whole predicament. The man gets a knife ready so he can cut the bite and suck out the poison. He calls a doctor who brings a somewhat ineffective serum, but they try anyway. After using chloroform to keep the snake sleepy, they pull the sheet back and find nothing! It's implied that the roommate imagined it all, possibly due to PTSD. 

"Poison" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 6/4/19)

The episode was similar to the story, though I don't remember if the man brought a woman home. I don't think he did, because later in the episode she steals the doctor's car, and I don't recall that from the story. I think she was added into the episode to make it more dramatic. The bulk of the episode is the same as the story, with the added aspect of the woman hiding in the kitchen so the roommate and doctor don't see her and tarnish her reputation. After the sheet is pulled back and there's no snake, the doctor asks the man if the roommate might have imagined it all. When the doctor sees his car is gone, stolen by the woman brought home, he gets angry. The man tries to calm him down and says he knows where his car is, and that he'll take him there. After they leave, the roommate gets up and goes to the liquor cabinet. He wants something strong to take the edge off his anxiety from the snake. He reaches for a bottle and the snake coils around his wrist and bites him. He dies. I loved this ending so much more than the story, though I like being able to compare them both, because I think it makes the episode's twist stand out that much more.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Learning How to Move Plot Along from TV Shows

One of my biggest problems with fiction writing has always been the plot. I have no problem creating characters and putting them in certain situations, but I often have trouble raising the stakes from there. Or I have trouble getting them out of problems I've created for them.

I've been reading less lately, which is not the best thing to admit on a book blog, but I'm happy to announce the shows I've been binging on Netflix has great plots that move right along and keep me hooked (hence the binging).

First up was Dead to Me on Netflix, at the recommendation of some coworkers. The concept was compelling enough, but the secrets revealed towards the end of each episode made for perfect cliffhangers. I know cliffhangers are necessary for shows, especially season finales, and sometimes for book chapters. But cliffhangers can be well done, or they can be so overly dramatic that, when they're resolved, you feel like you were duped. Like when the resolution turns out to not be a major plot point, but just a fake-out. And I think there were one or two of those in this show, but overall I felt like the use of suspense and slowly letting the viewer learn secrets was perfectly done. The season finale was also a nice balance of suspense, but believable events.

I recently saw that there will be a second season, though no date has been set yet. I'm eager to see what happens - and if you haven't seen the show yet, you have time to catch up before anything new is out!

After finishing Dead to Me and wanting more, More, MORE!, I turned to Good Girls.

Season one of this show is on Netflix, and I recommend you watch it... but try to have a way to watch season two, because you'll be hooked and wanting more! I was able to watch a few episodes of season two through a friend's on demand account, but now I need more! The last few episodes of season two are on Hulu, but I haven't been able to find 1-8 on any streaming service.

Viewing difficulties aside, this show is amazing. It's a little more over the top to me - it's somewhat realistic, but three women planning a major robbery and getting away with it (to the point I've seen, anyway), is a little tough for me to believe just because there were so many witnesses and secrets coming out. Once the gang gets involved, things get a little more unbelievable for me, but I love the show so much I'm more than happy to suspend my disbelief and escape into their crazy world for a binge.

I love the balance of humor, crime, and mystery, which makes me think of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series or the early books in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I like serious dramas sometimes, but the humor in Good Girls is perfectly timed and dry, and always elicits a genuine laugh from me. I love humor and comedy, period, and have typically attempted to use it in my own writing, but felt like it was hard to pick up on unless someone shared my sense of humor. This show helps me see that it's always worth adding humor, and if someone gets it, they get it. If not, it's just over their heads - it doesn't detract from anything if it's well done.

Both of these shows have been teaching me a lot about what a good plot is made up of, and how to create one without going over the top into unbelievable territory, or being underwhelming with a slow moving story. And while reading definitely teaches me all of these things, too, I love watching quality shows that help me become a better writer when I'm not in a reading mood.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Dahl Study: Fat Chance

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Fat Chance" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 6/4/19)

This episode was unique because there was no matching story in Collected Stories. The story is actually written by Robert Bloch, but since it was part of the series I still wanted to view it and see how it fit in. Dahl does introduce the story on film, as he does with his own.

The episode has a good, but fairly common concept, but of course with a nice twist. A pharmacist is having an affair with his wife's best friend. He and this woman act in local plays together, so no one seems suspicious of them. While this is going on, the wife is going to a weight loss clinic because he husband calls her a compulsive eater. She's often shown eaten candy hidden in her purse while he's at work all day. She hides the report cards from the weight loss clinic, but the pharmacist knows where she hides them and always checks - she's not losing weight. He's frustrated with her, and the mistress is frustrated with their relationship. She tells the pharmacist he needs to leave his wife, but he's reluctant to change anything.

The best friend/mistress goes to visit the wife and plants seeds that the husband is cheating on her. The wife gets mad and says she'll take him for all he's worth. When the husband hears this, he and the mistress both agree he can't divorce her, because then they'd be poor. The mistress implies that he needs to kill her, and that he can since he's a pharmacist and has the knowledge of what might work, and has access to lots of pills.

The wife always asks the husband to bring home low calorie treats from the pharmacy, but one day he surprises her with a box of chocolates. He injected the chocolates with a drug and carefully covered his tracks so she'd eat them. She's happy but puts them aside for the night. The next morning, the mistress comes to the husband at work and says she's going away for awhile, and will only come back if the wife is out of the picture. When the pharmacist comes home his wife is stretched out on the couch; she looks dead, but wakes up when he leans over her. He asks if she ate the chocolates, and she excitedly tells him that she's realized she's not losing weight due to her own lack of willpower, and now she's determined to lose weight. He asks where the chocolates are, and she says she gave them to the best friend/mistress when she came over to say goodbye.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Dahl Study: The Hitch-Hiker

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"The Hitch-Hiker" from Collected Stories (read 1/10/19)

A man in a fancy car stops to pick up a hitch-hiker because he remembers hitch-hiking and getting passed by. The hitch-hiker convinces the man to top out the speed on his car, so they get to 120mph before a cop pulls them over. The cop writes a ticket and threatens jail time, and writes the hitch-hiker's name on his notepad because his face looks familiar. The men drive away and the driver worries until the hitch-hiker proves he is a fingersmith (pickpocket) and stole the cop's ticket book and notebook, which they pull over and burn.

"The Hitch-Hiker" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 1/10/19)

This was similar to the story but with a much better ending! While getting the bonfire ready, the hitch-hiker asks the man to get more sticks. When the man comes back, the hitch-hiker has stolen his car!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Family Book Clubs

I'm posting this well after the fact, considering I hosted these book clubs for School Library Month in April, but I've just started thinking about my next round of book clubs and was excited to share these.

April was National School Library Month, with the theme of Everyone Belongs @ Your School Library. To welcome "everyone" (of course just the extended school community, with safety and privacy concerns), I hosted Family Book Clubs for each age level.

Early Childhood students (3-6 years old) read The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Families read this book at home, and I sent home two emails of talking points, articles of interest, and discussion questions. 

Parents and children were invited to share their answers at the book club meeting. We also made a craft - a Beekle crown out of metallic gold paper! I created bookmarks of other books written and/or illustrated by Santat. This age group is the largest population in our school, so having a more informal book club meeting with a few questions/talking points, a craft, and of course snacks(!) was perfect.

Lower Elementary students (1st-3rd grade) read The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl. Just like for the younger students, families read the book at home. For this age group I wanted to pick a book that was more challenging than a picture book, but wasn't so long it seemed daunting. I also wanted the book to be one that parents and children could read together, or independently. I sent emails out with talking points and discussion questions.

There are fewer students in these grades than in Early Childhood, so their questions asked more of the students - more imagination, more room to talk and draw. I knew our club time would be a little more structured and that they would be able to explain themselves more... let's say concisely than the younger ones. 

We had snacks at the meeting, of course - books and snacks just go hand-in-hand! We also made a craft - an Enormous Crocodile magnet clip!

Upper Elementary students (4th-6th grade) read Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. This is the smallest group of students in our school, and of course the oldest. I sent out two emails (in code), challenging them to code secret messages and create their own codes. I was blown away by this group! I had reports from parents and teachers that all they were doing at home and on the playground were creating codes! We had so much fun at our book club meeting, cracking either others' codes and answering each others' secret questions. I also had a scavenger hunt based on trivia questions from the book. I hid clues around the library and let them loose with the first clue, coded of course. The hunt branched off from there, and the winner got a hardback copy of the second book in the series, The Unbreakable Code!

I had so much fun planning these book clubs and sharing the stories with students and their families. I'm already planning another set of book clubs for the fall, with the hopes of holding them every fall and spring, instead of just during School Library Month!

Friday, May 24, 2019

Dahl Study: Galloping Foxley

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Galloping Foxley" from Collected Stories (read 1/10/19)

Mr. Perkins is an old man who loves his daily routine and commute is shaken when a stranger starts taking the same train as him. Something about the stranger seems familiar - his looks, the way he talks... It makes Mr. Perkins feel slightly afraid. Then he realizes this man was his school bully! He remembers all of the awful things this bully did to him, and is determined to politely embarrass the bully. He introduces himself, and the bully introduces himself back - it's not the bully.

"Galloping Foxley" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 1/10/19)

The film was pretty similar to the story, with some changes to make it more visually appealing. At the end, Perkins told everyone the awful things that happened at school before asking the man to introduce himself, and it turned out the man wasn't the bully. I liked this more than in the story where Perkins only introduced himself. Though I'm still half convinced, in the film version, that the man WAS the bully, and was just lying because that's the type of person he is. Who would listen to those awful things being said about them and then admit they are that person??

Friday, May 17, 2019

Dahl Study: Skin

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Skin" from Collected Stories (read 1/9/19)

A man meets a young artist and commissions the artist to paint his wife's portrait. One night the three get drunk together, and the husband has the artist tattoo a large portrait of the wife on his back. Years later, the man has lost touch with the artist, but sees his name in a gallery window. The man is old and poor and dirty and almost gets thrown out of the gallery because of how he looks, before he takes off his shirt and shows everyone his tattoo. They recognize it as the artist's work, and a bidding war starts - they want his skin! Finally, he chooses a man who wants live art at his resort - the resort owner wants the man to live at his resort and be pampered, as long as he walks around with his shirt off so all the guests can see the artwork. Later the skin is shown framed and hung.

"Skin" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 1/9/19)

The film followed the story well, except it seems like the artist and the wife he painted had an affair. In the story, the artist lusted after the wife, but I don't think she reciprocated.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Library Volunteers - available today!

My book, Library Volunteers: A Practical Guide for Librarians, is being released in the wild today! You can order it from the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, or on Amazon.

The book is a handbook about how to create and maintain a volunteer program. While the specifics, such as job duties, focus on library volunteers, this handbook can truly work for any organization that can benefit from volunteers. And let me tell you, from my experience, almost any organization can benefit from volunteers! You can read more about my writing and researching process here.

I pulled from my background of creating the volunteer program for a nonprofit to lay the groundwork, so that information applies to any organization. Sample paperwork is even include, which can be copied directly from the book, or tweaked a bit for specific organizations.

I genuinely think this book can benefit many organizations. It's not a book that I would ask friends and family to buy to show their support, but please consider recommending it to your local library or any nonprofits you know that use or could use volunteers! That's the best way to help this book make a difference.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Parallel Universes in Realistic Fiction

I first read The Other Life by Ellen Meister in 2011, shortly after it came out. I loved the concept and the writing, and loved Meister's other books when I read them later. But the overall concept of The Other Life stuck with me. Quinn finds a portal in her laundry room that allows her to travel between the life she used to live with an old boyfriend, and her current life with her husband and son. I've previously written about the book:
There is a supernatural element of the portals that take Quinn from her "real" life to her other life, but they are explained very well, and it was easy to picture the fissures and Quinn's travel without feeling like you'd been displaced into a sci-fi novel. The portals are logically discussed before the end of the book, and with the focus being more on people and relationships than the paranormal, I would say this book is literary fiction more so than being classified in any sub-genre.

I loved the concept because I always liked wondering what would happen if. I remember being a kid at my grandparents' house, spacing out and wondering what things would feel like if I didn't exist. I wouldn't even know what I was missing. Pretty strange thoughts for a seven-year-old, but I think that's where all my wondering started. Every time I've made a big decision relating to moves, jobs, schools, etc, I take a few minutes to imagine how each path might turn out. I know there's no way to really know how things will be until you're in the moment, but some of my decisions have been drastic enough (like being offered two jobs in dramatically different fields) that I can speculate.

Then the TV show Community rocked my world with "Remedial Chaos Theory", a remarkable episode of television, especially for a half-hour sitcom, that approaches the concept of parallel universes. Each time the dice are rolled, a different outcome plays, showing everyone all the things that could have possibly happened if one thing was changed. 

I recently got hooked by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and loved her book Maybe In Another Life. It was more like The Other Life than "Remedial Chaos Theory", but it was really well done. Hannah has been feeling adrift in her life, unsure of everything from what career she should pursue to what city she should live in. When a friend convinces her to come back to her hometown of LA, Hannah is willing to try, partially because her high school boyfriend still lives there. On her first night back, Hannah goes to a bar with her friend to have a "welcome home!" party. In one universe, she goes home with her high school boyfriend to rekindle their romance. In the other, she goes home with the friend she's staying with. The chapters alternate from that point on, and the story develops so beautifully.

By the end, I did have a few questions about some of the "meant to be" aspects in one universe that didn't seem to completely apply in the other, so I need someone else to read this and talk to me about it! The last couple of chapters also had some of the same paragraphs copied and pasted - I know it's to show how things can be the same in both universes and still be "right" in each separate one, but as a reader, I don't want to see the exact same verbiage twice. I skimmed those paragraphs, but that was my only minor "issue" with the book.

Last year I started writing down some of my bigger decisions that led to one thing and could have gone a totally different way. It was my goal to write poems about what might have happened if I made the opposite choice. I haven't been able to find a good starting point, but reflecting on these books and episodes might be giving me the creative kick I need.