Sitting Room Chat: With Author Karoline Barrett

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Karoline Barrett and I talk genre, being published, and getting published.

I am super excited to bring you the first of hopefully many sitting room chats!

I have been blessed with some talented friends, and it’s one of my dreams to have a bookshop where I can invite them to show off their wonderful works to the public. I haven’t got a bookshop yet, but it occurs to me that I have a blog that can stand for now as the sitting room for my salon, inviting in a larger audience than any sitting room that I could ever want to have to tidy or clean.

I know a lot of my readers are aspiring writers. Today, these questions are for you as much as they are for me and for my first guest, who I hope will be kind and patient with us as we hope to learn from her experience.

Today, I’m introducing Karoline Barrett. With a book out already, her second book—the first in her Bread and Batter series—is due in November.

Let’s start with the question that I know I most hate being asked. Pitch me your books. What are you writing? What are they about?

Thank you so much for inviting me to be on your blog, Kathryn! Right now, I’m writing book three (as of now unnamed) of my Bread and Batter cozy mystery series.

I came to write cozy mysteries at the suggestion of my agent. I was floundering around, trying to figure out what to write next, when she asked me what I like to read. I replied, “Mysteries!”  She suggested I write a cozy mystery.  I immediately began what is now named Bun For Your Life. I have to say it’s been a lot of fun, from getting to know my characters, to deciding where to place my series, to all the research.

Maybe I should explain a few things about a cozy mystery.  I’ve come across a lot of people who have no idea what that term even means.  Think Murder She Wrote. Cozies usually feature a female amateur sleuth who lives in a small town. Most of the plot takes place after the murder.  There is no profanity, bloody gore, or explicit sex.  There often is, however, a lot of humor, of which I am a big fan. And lots of interesting plot twists and turns!

My series centers around Molly Tyler, who along with one of her best friends, Olivia Williams, owns Bread and Batter Bakery in the small fictional upstate New York town of Destiny. Bun For Your Life centers on the death of local orchard owner, Calista Danforth. Strangled to death with a Bread and Batter t-shirt, Molly is named a prime suspect. Now Molly and Olivia must whip some answers quickly before the future of their bakery crumbles.  It’s due out November 2015 by Berkley.

Wow. You foresaw a lot of the questions that I’d had for you. I’ve heard the term “cozy mystery” thrown around, but I’ve never known what characterized the genre, so thank you for your description. You say that you weren’t sure what to write next. Was your first book a cozy mystery as well or were you working in another genre? Did your first book help you find your agent? Or did you have an agent before getting your first book published?

18515738My first book was The Art of Being Rebekkah and is women’s fiction. Yes, it did get me my agent; however, when she was unable to sell it, she formed her own publishing company (E-Lit Books) and published my book as well as others!

That’s fabulous. It must be fantastic to have an agent willing to go to such lengths to get you published. Does the “E-“ in E-Lit mean that her books are (and by extension your book, The Art of Being Rebekkah, is) currently available only in e-format?

I know a bunch of us are dying to know, how did you find such a dedicated agent? Did she also help you get your contract with Berkley for the Bread and Batter series or did you query Berkley on your own?

And too…“women’s fiction” is another of those genre titles that I’ve heard bandied about but for which I’ve never had a definition. What would you as a writer in the genre say characterizes women’s fiction?

My questions are coming hard and fast now, and I apologize for that, but you have answers to a lot of questions that I’ve wanted to ask. I hope you don’t mind terribly.

The Art of Being Rebekkah is available both in e-book and “regular” book form from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and you can also order it through Indie bookstores.

Finding an agent was a long process!  I had already queried 120 agents when I found her. “Her” being Frances (Fran) Black of the Literary Counsel. And yes, she is very dedicated to her authors. She is always very encouraging and inspirational!

Yes, Fran did get me my two-book cozy mystery book deal with Berkley. I’m working on book three of the series, so I hope everyone loves the first two, and Berkley asks for more!

Women’s fiction to me means books that focus on a woman’s life journey. The books are primarily written for women, although I’ve had two or three men read The Art of Being Rebekkah.

120 queries shows a lot of dedication on your part. What advice do you have for writers beginning the quest for publication? How did you keep from becoming discouraged? Are there any resources that you found particularly helpful as you were starting out and looking to get published—or do you have favorite resources that you use now as you’re writing?

My advice to writers beginning the quest for publication is polish your work and don’t give up. Rejections are a part of being a writer, but don’t give up after one or two rejections. I started out writing short stories. I kept submitting them until they all found a home. Make sure you submit to the right publisher, or agent, for your work. If you have a young adult novel, don’t submit it to an agent who is looking for historical romance. Make sure you follow the submission instructions perfectly—it could mean the difference between “Hey, we love your work and we want to publish it” and “Wow, this person can’t follow directions.”

Feeling discouraged is also part of being a writer. The trick is not to stay discouraged! Sometimes, that means working on another writing project, or taking a day for yourself to unwind. Study other writers and their voice. What do you like about their writing? What makes it shine? Write something that is totally out of your comfort zone. I tried poetry for a while. It wasn’t bad, actually.

My biggest resource when I was starting out were the two courses I took from Long Ridge Writers Group. It’s a school in Connecticut, but you take the courses from home. I did their Breaking Into Print Course and their Novel Writing Course. They were both awesome and I learned so much. There are also tons of agent and writing websites out there that are immensely helpful. Right now, I keep it simple. I write in Word. Sometimes I outline, sometimes not.   

I didn’t realize that you’d published short stories before your first novel. Where can we find those? How long have you been writing? How did you find the writing and publication process for short stories and novels similar or dissimilar?

I started writing around 2001 (I think!!). I started with short stories then went on to novel writing. Here are a couple of my short stories if you’d like to share:

“Aunt Felicity and James Dean”

“Life Running By”

I find novel writing completely different than short story writing. I much prefer the novel writing experience. It gives you a bigger canvass to paint on. There is much more character development, more sense of time and place, and the reader is more invested in your characters.

How did you come to writing? What were you doing before? What was the worst job you had to do prior to finding your writing career? (This last question I’m borrowing from Writer’s Digest’s interview with Patrick Rothfuss because I found it really reassuring to hear that even a really successful writer had first to work an uncomfortable job.)

I’ve always been an avid reader and writing comes naturally to me. One day, I got a card in the mail for a class at Long Ridge Writing Group and the rest is history!

I actually don’t have a “before” my writing career. I am not making (yet!) enough money to stop working full-time yet, so I sadly cannot call writing my career. Someday, hopefully! My day job is being a pension administrator. I’ve been doing that for thirteen years now. Math is not my favorite thing, so don’t ask me how I fell into that! I don’t really have a “worse” job. My working history goes back to 1978, so I won’t bore your readers with all of that…

I think that’s one of the myths that get perpetuated among aspiring writers: “If only I can get this novel published then everything will be okay. I can quit that job I don’t like, and I won’t have to worry again about paying rent.” I’m hopeful—I think many of us are hopeful—that that’s how writing a book ends. Were you expecting that to be the case?

Now, you have an agent, do you also have an editor or do you handle all the edits yourself? How do you personally know when a piece is ready for publication?

When my first book was published – The Art of Being Rebekkah – I wasn’t sure what to expect. I did a lot of book signings and blog tours, but the sales haven’t been enough to let me quit my day job, unfortunately.  I hope my Bread and Batter series will do much better. For that series, I do have an editor at Berkley. I should be getting edits back for Bun For Your Life from her soon. I can’t exactly explain how I know when a piece is ready for publication.  For me, it’s instinct. Often, I write the ending while the story is still in the middle stages!

And I think I have just one more question for you: You’re on several social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, besides having your own website and blog. Several agents I’ve found want to know upfront what promotion you can do on your own for a potential book. Which sites have you found most helpful in promoting your books and why?

My favorite social media is Twitter because it’s short and concise. For my first book, I used Facebook and Twitter for promotion and did a few guest blogs and virtual book tours. Hoping to do the same for my mystery series.

Karoline, thank you so much for joining me! Thank you for answering so many questions for me.  And thank you especially for agreeing to be the first of my interviewees.

Readers, I hope this has been helpful for you all too. Support Karoline by following her on one or more of her many social media sites and hear more about her writer’s journey. Buy a book. Tell your friends.

We’ll do this again. I hope.

Recipe: Spaghetti Squash Casserole–Made Easier

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I have tried this recipe several times, and it’s been cheered by a number of people. This is a great vegetarian recipe. It’s not a recipe I found online, but a recipe provided to me by my mother, who got the original recipe from her old Moosewood Cookbook (her exact version of the cookbook seems now to be out-of-print), then modified by me to better suit my laziness and my preference for nonperishable ingredients, so let’s put an ingredients list up front, shall we, especially as it’s a long one? Get ready to raid your spice cabinet and messy the kitchen.

  • 1 whole spaghetti squash
  • 1 cup of chopped onion
  • ½ lb (8 oz) of sliced mushrooms
  • 2 medium cloves of crushed garlic (or garlic powder)
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 tsp basil
  • thyme
  • ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley (or 2 tsp of parsley flakes)
  • 2 fresh tomatoes (or a small can of diced tomatoes to save time)
  • 1 cup of breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup of cottage or ricotta cheese (I’ve always used ricotta)
  • 1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese
  • Parmesan cheese to taste
  • butter or cooking spray (I usually use cooking spray, and anywhere that I say to “butter” in these instructions, you can substitute “lather with cooking spray.”)

*If you’re missing some of these spices, don’t fret overly much. I would try it anyway. I’m not sure I’ve once made this recipe with parsley because for whatever reason it’s not in the house.

Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to find spaghetti squash on a deep discount at your local grocery store—and when you do, this becomes a fairly inexpensive but impressive crowd-pleaser.

I learned by sheer accident that in a dry cabinet, a spaghetti squash will keep for several months. These pictures are from this past June. That squash had been in our cabinet since probably February at the latest.

I was particularly fortunate in this hardy squash. It was more squash than I could fit in just one of my baking dishes, and I had to scrounge in the cabinets to find a second—meaning I got lots of meals out of this one night of baking.

First, a good, long knife is needed to cut the squash in half, lengthwise. Perhaps some of you will be strong enough to manage this Herculean feat without a hack, but I am not, though I keep trying. I liberally poke holes in the squash skin with a fork, the way you do when baking a potato. Then I microwave the whole squash for about two minutes. This softens the squash enough to make it easier to coax a knife through—even if it still requires some wiggling and leveraging to crack the squash.

Scoop out the seeds (so it looks like the squash half on the left).

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Butter a cookie sheet (usually just one suffices—unless like I did, you find yourself with a rather enormous squash) and bake the squash, hollowed inside down, at 375 F for about 30 minutes.

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It will come out super hot, and you will need to be able to handle the squash before you can finish the process. Like too many of my recipes, this one always takes longer to prepare than I expect it to—waiting for the squash to cool especially takes longer—and I am slow to learn. I think ideally, these first steps ought to be done the night before and the squash set aside to cool. The process could probably be sped by putting the squash into the refrigerator. I am impatient and frequently end up handling my squash gingerly through oven mitts—which keep me from being burnt, but the squash is still uncomfortably hot.

Now you’ve got your squash baked. How about some fixings to make this a proper casserole?

Sauté 1 cup of chopped onion (which is about ½ of a small onion) with two medium cloves of crushed garlic (or a liberal dusting of garlic powder), salt and pepper to taste, ½ pound of sliced mushrooms (this is one of those 8 oz packages—I use fresh mushrooms, not canned), ½ tsp of oregano, 1 tsp of basil, a dash of thyme, and if you have it, my mother’s recipe calls too for a ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley or 2 tsp of parsley flakes.

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When the onions are soft and beginning to become more translucent, add the freshly chopped tomatoes—or I usually use a can of mostly drained diced tomatoes. Continue to cook the lot in the pan until most of liquid evaporates. I’m pretty sure it’s almost impossible to overcook this, but if it starts to blacken, you’ve probably left it on too long. Still, I left mine on the stove a good long while this past time after not draining my canned tomatoes enough.

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Good? Got all that cooked up?

Scoop out the insides of the squash into a big old bowl (you can toss the skins) and combine everything: the squash, the sauté, the breadcrumbs, and the cheeses (except the Parmesan—that’s for later). Stir it all up.

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Pour all that into a buttered casserole dish (or two if you need to do). Top the lot with Parmesan because more cheese is never a bad thing and because it’ll give the casserole a nice, crispy, golden brown crust.

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Bake all that at 375 F, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, and your vegetarian casserole should be ready to wow. It’ll look a little soupy in places. It’ll be a little soupy in places. But it’ll be delicious—or I hope you’ll find it so.

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All photos are mine and can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Foretelling the Reception of Lee’s Second: Go Set a Watchman and The Casual Vacancy

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As you may or may not know, today marks the release of Harper Lee’s second published book, Go Set a Watchman, a companion to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird. Barnes & Noble prior to its release treated the book with a secrecy and suspense to equal their response to a new Harry Potter book. While the American company, Barnes & Noble, has been treating Go Set a Watchman with the utmost secrecy, The Guardian, a British-born newspaper (they’ve had an online American edition since 2007), released online Friday the first chapter of the book, a thing they wouldn’t have dared to do for any of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. As I woke up to open the story three hours early for the throng of people that Barnes & Noble expected to rush to buy the book, I started thinking of J. K. Rowling.

Following the runaway success of her Harry Potter series, Rowling, a British author, released The Casual Vacancy, a book condemned as “too British” by too many Americans and by many worldwide as not enough like Harry Potter. Her reviews were tainted by fans expecting another Harry Potter, never minding that the two books were written for different aged audiences.

I can’t claim any knowledge of how The Casual Vacancy was handled by bookstores in the U.K. or frankly of how it was handled in the U.S., but I wonder if the very American nature of Lee’s prior novel meant that the British newspaper felt Go Set a Watchman deserving of less sanctity than did the American company, Harper Lee being something of an American heroine.

I don’t think I would be alone in citing To Kill a Mockingbird as one of “the great American novels.” The novel deals with America’s historic and present problems of racism and classism and lauds the purported American ideal of individual worth. The more innocent parts of young Scout’s childhood are nostalgically read by many Americans. It is one of the bestselling novels of all-time by an American author. (It is soundly surpassed by only seven other novels by American authors.*)

I think Go Set a Watchman is Lee’s Casual Vacancy, certainly in the way it will be received. Already I had one customer tell me that she had heard that reviews complained about Lee “ruining” her characters (an impossibility, really, since Lee as the author is the only authority on her characters), comparing the novel to To Kill a Mockingbird without consideration not only to the history of the manuscript (which is an interesting one to say the least) or the intended audiences of each novel, which I believe differ, though I wouldn’t swear to it.

To escape such colored reviews of her next book following Casual Vacancy, Rowling published under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Since outed as Galbraith, Rowling has done a decent job of slipping beneath the radar. Her latest publication, a hardbound copy of her 2008 commencement speech for Harvard University, I discovered only after it had been put on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, the publication having been subjected to no hype whatsoever.

As Go Set a Watchman uses the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird, it would be impossible for Lee to have chosen a pseudonym, but I wonder if she might wish that she had been able to do so. Were she to publish a third book with a different set of characters and a different setting (unlikely sadly), I would be unsurprised to see her try to distance from the Finches and from Maycomb by choosing a pseudonym as Rowling did to distance herself from Harry and Hogwarts. I fear, as it did for Rowling with The Casual Vacancy, the hype and love for her first book will ultimately hurt the reception of Lee’s second.

*Yeah, so Wikipedia’s not the best source, but according to Wikipedia, those novels are Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, and Johnston McCulley’s The Mark of Zorro. This list excludes non-fiction books, of which there were three by American authors that sold better than To Kill a Mockingbird according to this same source.

Full disclosure: I’ve not read even the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, but I have been following the drama surrounding its publication.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Accommodation (288 words)

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PG-13!  Potential TRIGGER WARNING for survivors of sexual assault.

They gave her a suite of rooms, all her own, large, elegantly furnished, and with a guard stationed outside the door. The guard was a woman, and she never came in. Justus only came in after knocking and asking for her permission. Most of the time she was alone.

She spent most of the time in just a corner of the suite. The bed alone was nearly as large as the whole of the van. Walking to the room where she was expected to tend to necessities seemed a formidable trek. She tried to remember the layout of her home and couldn’t. She suspected that these rooms were at least as large—and she knew that they were nicer, richer, stronger.

They were safe rooms.

But she still didn’t feel safe.

Justus came, and he tried to wheedle her into conversation. He brought her books. She had learnt to read before she had left home. Or learnt to read a little. The books he brought were full of strange words that she didn’t understand, and she read more slowly than he seemed to expect. He’d ask her opinion about the ending when she was hardly a quarter of the way through the story.

He never touched her. He had promised that he would not. He had promised that no one would. But she kept waiting for him to. She waited for him to force his lips to hers and suck her dry. She waited for him to force himself between her legs and leave her wet. He never did. After days of this, she wondered if he even wanted to. Was it possible she had been found by someone who did not? Did he like her so little?

I’m teetering on the edge of apologizing for exposing this character’s pain and subsequent confusion.  She hurts.  She’s hurt for a long time.  I do not find her to be emotionally healthy, but I love her to her core.

I stole this line from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who wrote “Black Sun” (1697 words).  It’s late, but she knows why.  I wrote this section of the story in time for at least Sunday.  I had every intention of returning to it to make it into more of a story, but I seem to have misplaced this thread and my motivation, and I promised to update by midnight tonight.  Perhaps later there will be a Part 2.

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad stole this line to write “The Right Fit.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Protection.”

Book Reviews: June 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Frustrated Fathers and Anxious Children, But I Promise Happy Endings

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Puzzle Pals: Kiki the Kitten by Egmont. Sandy Creek, 2014. Intended audience: Age 3.

This is an intriguing concept for a book. Pieces of the illustrations are removable and become puzzle pieces to form when put together a complete image of the title character, Kiki the Kitten. Kiki is never named except for in the title. She is not much of a character, but perhaps a fairly stereotypical cat. The story—call it that—is exceedingly short, having only four pages of text, and each page having only a sentence, maybe two. I found the cover sadly pink and “feminine.” In our gender polarized world, it’s hard to imagine most boys wanting such a book, though there is nothing inherently feminine about a cat, even if it is a female cat. While I am impressed by the ingenuity of the illustrations, that’s about all I can really give this book.

*

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Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grades PreK.

I knew very little about this book before its release. We had signs up at the store that displayed the cover, but gave no description. Honestly, I expected something very different—and I was glad to hear from a coworker that I wasn’t the only one. I thought not of the paternal pet name when seeing “DADA” but of the modernist art movement. I expected a book lauding Dadaism. Instead I was given a book of adult (presumably paternal) animals pleadingly or with frustration saying “dada” only to have their children blithely answer with their stereotypical animal sound (“moo” for a cow, for example). At the end all of the children look mischievously at one another and cry aloud, together “dada!” I can be impressed by Ordóñez’s expressive illustrations, though I’m not sure that I like the association with frustration (which expresses itself fairly like anger) and fathers, however accurate the emotion may be when trying to get a child to say a specific word. Ordóñez also uses good, pastel colors, which I believe are still recommended for the very young, especially as being soothing around bedtime. I may have liked this book better without the hype, without the chance to expect a book on Dadaism. On the whole though, it’s an animal sounds primer, and nothing much special beyond that. It’s hard to be outstanding with a primer.

**

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is a classic to be sure, and as such, one I really feel incapable of fairly rating. This duo has had incredible staying power, most of their collaborations surviving today, being reprinted in numerous formats, still selling well, and being displayed prominently. This, I believe, was one of their earlier collaborations, maybe the first, and one that started a series of similar books that can serve as primers for animals. This one doubles as a color primer as well. Some of the animals are their natural colors. Some like the blue horse and purple cat are less so. Carle’s illustrations are fairly realistic, and yet his style is unique and recognizable. The story ends with the goldfish seeing the teacher and the teacher seeing the children and the children seeing all of the animals that had been previously mentioned, so there is the repetition of the lesson to help cement the words in the mind as well a crack in the fourth wall, of which I am always a fan. Carle includes children of many races, which was probably particularly radical in the 1960s, but we still need that diversity.

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It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr. Little Brown-Hachette, 2014.

I discovered this book—as honestly I do most of these books—by pure accident. Most of them I find while cleaning up after customers. This one was in a section that I know to be less frequented (the parenting section just outside of the children’s section), and I would if I could, move it to a more prominent location. I think I might even move it out of the children’s section altogether. Though marketed for the very young, I feel as if I have more insecurity as an adult about making the mistakes given as examples in this book than I ever did as a child—maybe because as an adult I feel the pressure to succeed and to conform more than I did as a child, and I know that my consequences may be more devastating in that they may result in losing a job and being unable to pay my rent or feed myself rather than being kicked off an extracurricular team or being called to talk to the teacher. How many children care if they put on mismatching socks? How many adults worry that a manager or potential employer will notice their mismatched socks and think less of them because of they grabbed the wrong clothes in the dark, rushing out the door to be on time? The other examples given in the book are more universal across the ages. It’s always important to know that you don’t have to know the answer. It’s always good to be reminded that you might discover something new by trying something different. Honestly, I think I would sell more copies of this during graduation season alongside Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! than during any other time or to any parents of smaller children. I actually think that this book would go nicely just beside Bradley Trevor Greive’s in my room—books to read when feeling discouraged.

I’ve read several of Todd Parr’s books, and I find him enchanting. His colors are beyond Crayola vibrant. His vibrant colors create a universality that leaps across racial barriers and his childlike drawings sometimes surpass gender barriers besides. Animal characters also help to create a universality of reader. Parr leans towards second person text, directly addressing the reader, again lending a more universal feel to the story.

The illustrations are fairly simple, his faces being noseless, little more than smiley or frowny faces. The characters, figures, and backgrounds are all fairly blocky with a few lines to illustrate movement when necessary.

Parr ends his books with a brief summary of his idea and his “Love, Todd” signature.

****

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Hector’s Shell by Thomas Radcliffe. Little Bee-Bonnier, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Hector misplaces his shell while playing at the beach and goes in search of a new one, coming up with many creative solutions, including an origami shell, which turns mushy and leaves smudges of ink all over his body. It was enjoyable turning the page to see what new idea Hector would try and how it would inevitably go wrong. There was a lot of text in this book, making it better for an older reader. In Hector’s joy at finding his shell, there was a touch of a message about positive body image. After the fantastic build up, [SPOILER] it was a little bit anticlimactic for Hector to find his shell in the place that he’d left it. [END SPOILER]

*** 0763675954

Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett. Templar-Candlewick, 2015. First published 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

Orion is scared of a lot of things—but especially of the dark. Fed up one night he yells at the dark, and the dark descends in a humanoid shape to show Orion why he shouldn’t be afraid of the dark and how much fun can be had in the dark. There’s even more text in this book than there is in Hector’s Shell. As with Hector’s Shell, a lot of the text is outside the story thread. For example, the sounds that Orion hears in the dark are written out. Examples of Orion’s fears and his ideas to escape the dark are also written into the illustrations. One of the cleverer aspects of the book is several pages where a flap is pressed towards the previous page to create a different image and reveal the text of the page. One page like this makes Dark shake Orion’s hand. A later page allows Dark to wrap his arm around Orion. It is a touching effect. The book is gentle and gently humorous, laughing at Dark’s fears of Dad’s snore and elbowing adults with references to the stars of Orion’s Belt. A Booklist review rightly compares the illustrations with Oliver Jeffers, who ranks among my favorite illustrator-authors. Emma Yarlett may become another illustrator for whom I watch when shelving new picture books.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: A Dance with Dragons: The Plot is Dark and Full of Terrors

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I’d forgotten how involved I become in George R. R. Martin’s very vast and deep world of Westeros and its surrounding countries. When I picked up A Dance with Dragons, fifth and latest in A Song of Ice and Fire, it had been almost a year and a half since I’d finished Book 4: A Feast for Crows. I fell right back into the world, if I was glad to have the dramatis personae with brief descriptions of each character in the back of the book—especially for minor characters who’d died or only been seen several books back.

The main story threads are these: [If it needs to be said: SPOILERS!] Tyrion Lannister is on the run across the Narrow Sea. Daenerys Targaryen is queen of Mereen, and Mereen is at war and under siege. A bunch of characters (Tyrion, Victarion Greyjoy, Quentyn Martell) are racing to her side. Jon Snow is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and his radical decisions are destroying his men’s trust in him. Bran Stark finds his three-eyed raven, but he is neither what Bran expected nor are the raven’s powers what he expected. Cersei Lannister is a prisoner of the High Septon, Asha Greyjoy of Stannis Baratheon, and Theon Greyjoy of the Bastard of Bolton, who has been named trueborn and is on the road for lordship. Another long-lost Targaryen, with a better claim to the throne than Dany, moves on Southeastern Westeros. Arya Stark is still in Braavos, on the path to becoming a servant of the Many-Faced God (Death). Jamie Lannister has nearly finished negotiating the surrender of the Riverlands to the Iron Throne. Westeros is still embattled. The king on the Iron Throne is still the young Tommen, but the tales in this story concern him very little. [END SPOILERS]

I include all the last names because one of my friends helped me recognize that this series is not a series about characters in the way that most series are about characters. Even Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most epic of the series that I’ve ever read, tells the story of the Fellowship, the defenders of all that is good in this world, more than it does the story of Ring or of the world, I would argue. Perhaps I have this sense because the Fellowship feels safer and more protected than any character in A Song of Ice and Fire. The focal point of A Song of Ice and Fire is the Iron Throne of Westeros, and the characters are only the hustle and bustle around this one stationary point, the only seemingly sure thing being that at the end of this all the Iron Throne will be there, the world will be there (though I really wouldn’t put it past Martin to tear down both before this story reaches its conclusion, to have this story end in true apocalypse, the destruction of mankind or of the sun or some such). The story actually really does look a lot as Sesame Street depicts it, the chair not moving and everyone else circling.

Having this revelation early in my read-through put a perhaps different spin on the story for me, and while I was upset by the surprises that Martin left for me, I was not as upset as I might have been because I realized that characters—however much I care for them—and I do care about some of them quite a lot—are not Martin’s story, that they weren’t what I am supposed to be watching most closely as I read the book series. It gave me some distance—and by distance, I mean emotional padding.

This story more than any of the others, I think, is dark. Each book has been dark, but in this, more primary characters than not have been imprisoned or besieged. The one character who through the book is at no time either imprisoned or besieged—Jon—feels enslaved to the Wall and to the vows that he took as a Night’s Watchman, and so he remains stationary. Schemes in prior books have been towards a goal, and much of that scheming has been on some level successful. Much of the scheming in this book has been away from failure instead, desperate grasping to hold onto past successes at best. Jon, again the outlier, moves towards a goal—peace in the North—but his peace is upset by the schemes of others. Bran Stark actually reaches his goal, but doing so grounds him, makes him stationary, and prevents him from yet intervening in others’ plots.

I realize that I said that the wider story is not the characters’ but the Throne’s and that I’ve yet said very little about the Iron Throne in my discussion of the book’s plot. The Throne is the goal of almost all of the characters in the book, whether it’s sitting on the Throne him- or herself or seeing the right person or the right family sitting on the Throne.

The possible exception is the Night’s Watchmen, who have sworn to take no sides. The Night’s Watch has problems in the North that drive their attention away from King’s Landing and the Iron Throne, but even so they are drawn in this book deeply into alliance with Stannis Baratheon, a claimant of the Throne, and into the struggle for Northern dominance among the Northmen of Westeros.

I spoke of a true apocalypse. If that apocalypse comes, it will come from the North, Beyond the Wall, and that is why the Night’s Watch’s story is still relevant to the story of the Iron Throne. The threats that they face are the only ones that could interrupt the game of thrones. And if no one defends the Throne from those threats, then apocalypse will come unheralded. And that may be the threat of the next book, The Winds of Winter. But let’s leave supposition there. I’ve done enough of it in this post.

****

Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam-Random-Penguin Random, 2013. First published in 2011.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Bantam Books, or Random House Publishing Group, or Penguin Random House, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: My Goldfish Ran Away Today (153 words)

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Mommy says my goldfish ran away today. He was gone when I came back from preschool. Mommy says a goldfish circus came to the house, and they thought Freddie was the best swimmer they’d ever seen. They wanted Freddie to join their circus and give him all the food flakes he could eat. Freddie jumped into the potty to join them. Mommy kept looking at the potty when she told me. He really wanted all the food flakes he could eat, she says. And he loves swimming. He swims all the time.  He’s the best I’ve ever seen too.

Mommy may think that a goldfish circus took Freddie away, but I know she’s wrong. Goldfish don’t jump into the toilet to join the circus.

They go to visit the ocean and swim with whales!

I hope Freddie meets a nice whale.

Maybe Freddie will bring the whale back with him to visit me!

Mine was the stolen line this week.  I’ve been fiddling with the idea myself for a while.  This is the best that’s yet come out of it.

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Mad Science,” and it is adorable and clever.  Go read it.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Big Girl” (823 words).  It is also adorable and clever.  I have adorable and clever friends.

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Vanishing Trick,” a much more serious story.

Check back later for some posts by more thieves.

First Lines: A Study: Part 2: The Most Memorable Lines

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Well, I did that first study, and I thought to myself, These books may merit five stars, but some of these first lines do not, so it seems only fair to remedy this with a post of five-star first lines.

I’ve decided to exclude from this study any first lines from texts meant to be experienced orally because those are intended to be memorized, seeming to give them an advantage over those meant to be read in print.

Excluding those mediums, five first lines of fiction I have memorized or all but memorized. These seemed to merit highlighting here. If I of doubtful memory can retain a first line verbatim or even near verbatim, the author has probably struck some heartstring. It is possible though that these books have the advantage of being among some of my favorites and of having been reread. I have read every book the first line of which is on this list at least twice.

This makes me suspect that this study is less objective than I usually hope that I am with book reviews or as I was able to be when my lines came from the merit of the books as a whole. I went through my shelves and read and rated first lines of each book that I’d read and that I owned. There were some certainly that deserved honorable mention, but I could not rate them as highly as those that I had memorized; they just did not have the same pull upon me.

My roommate, Eileen, owns a mug from the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild of “Great Literary Openings.” These will be on my mug:

This line introduces a character and begs a question, creating a hook.

The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis.

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

What awful things has the character Eustace Clarence Scrubb done to deserve such a name? Read on to find out, or put down the book and never know. Talk about a hook. We’re also introduced to our opinionated narrator. A narrator’s voice isn’t discussed enough in creative writing classes.

This hook introduces characters and hints at setting.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.

“ ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

I’m hoping that the unnecessary comma here is merely the symptom of the post-publication editing that occurred to compile all five books together for my edition of the sequence. (It’s also possible that in 1973 when this text was first published, this was still an acceptable comma.) Grammar aside, this line leaps the reader into a conversation between the speaker and another character, sets us near a building, and begs the reader to question as Will does in the next line, too many “What?” That question will lead the reader into the conversation, and the conversation into the relationships between the characters, and through the relationships, into the stakes of the novel.

This one gives us characters and setting, but we’re told a lot with just a little. Specificity can be helpful.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.

“Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

We are introduced to married characters, the Dursleys, male and female. We sense the sort of stuck up, feather-ruffled personalities that accompany the Dursleys’ normality from the “thank you very much” and from the “proud,” maybe even from “perfectly.” We are further dropped into a setting: number four, Privet Drive. We are not told where (yet) to find Privet Drive, but we can make some guesses as to the sort of neighborhood where we might be. Privet is a type of hedge used often to create boundaries between neighbors and—as its name may suggest—to create privacy screens. Number four has neither a whimsical or a grand and an ancient name associated with it, but does have a standalone address (not an apartment number), giving us both a notion of the Dursleys’ middling status and their displeasure for whimsy. Another clue to the middle class status is that they are not ashamed to own the address. The “thank you very much” is a brief dip into second person that helps to draw the reader in. The reader herself has offended the Dursleys by suggesting that they might be anything other than normal or suggesting that they would wish to be anything but normal.

This one is a promise of future action and drama, gives us genre, and hints at least at setting.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

“The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.”

This sentence forecasts an exciting, climactic event that promises us adventure and gives us reason to tolerate the backstory that opens the story. Riordan’s works are always fast-paced adventure, and by his fifth book, I think he knew that his readers expected and wanted that fast pace. He was able to more gently ease himself into the action, spending a little more time on relationships between the characters, by appeasing us with this promise. This model should be used with care. One can give away too much of one’s story in a promise. This being the last book, the series having been building towards an epic battle, we knew to expect apocalypse, or at least the possibility of an apocalypse. Later books in The Heroes of Olympus series use similarly modeled sentences (“Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day” (Book 1: The Lost Hero)) to forecast the first conflict of the novel, usually a struggle that happens within the chapter and even within pages of the first line. Some forecast an event that happens within paragraphs. This one from Book 4: The House of Hades drops us right into the action by citing the “third attack”: “During the third attack, Hazel almost ate a boulder.” Breaking the line from The Last Olympian down farther, the “car” puts us in a modern setting (20th century or later). “Car” further is the American word, “auto” being the British. “Pegasus” lets us know that this is a fantasy novel. In modern fantasy, the pegasus as a magical creature has become more pervasive, but it has its origins in Western and specifically Greek mythology. This series of course happens to be about Greek mythology specifically, but I would hesitate from the isolated line, at this point in literary history, to suggest that that might be the case. Putting both “car” and “pegasus” together tells us this is low fantasy, fantasy set in our world.

This also may be a promise, but more certainly is a “universal” statement that refuses to be denied.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Comma usage was different in Austen’s day, I think, marking a breath instead of following a rigid set of rules. In some ways, this famous first line also forecasts later events: We are promised that at some point this will become the story of a man wanting a wife. I say this, of course, with over 100 years of 20/20 hindsight. We all know now that this novel is about the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy, and so when I say that we are promised a man of good fortune seeking his wife, it may be that I just know this as certainly as I know the novel from which this first line comes. The line itself however, more objectively, accepts no challengers. Let’s talk about the narrator’s voice here. We are forbidden from denying the truth of her statement about men. There is strength in these words.

Honorable Mentions

Having reread with a mind towards this study all the first lines of the books that I own and have read, these in particular stuck with me, even though I don’t have them memorized:

This line gives us a character, makes us sympathetic towards her, and gives us setting.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz.

“On the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

A promise of what’s to come, a character with a full name, a setting (an American outhouse), and an attitude of defiance that I think likely to make most readers sympathetic to Maud immediately—as if being locked in an outhouse were not enough to do so. Still, the singing transforms my sympathy from “Poor Maud” to “Rock on, Maud!” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is an American song, more widely known now, I’m sure, but it hints at an American setting, and tells us that we are post-1800. The chorus as we know it developed around 1850 and the lyrics as they are best known in 1862. It is a markedly Christian song. Look at all that detail!

This line is sneaky second person, a hook, and humor.

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor.

“‘DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.’”

This is a sneaky, sneaky use of the second person to capture the reader, because you find out shortly after that this first line comes from a pamphlet being read by a third person character. Readers are of course encouraged to ask what were the circumstances of this death. There’s an element of dark humor here too in the exam question that pertains to “my” death. And one wonders how it is possible to answer questions pertaining to one’s own death.

This line gives us character, setting, and the character’s physical state—and makes use of poetic technique besides. (This last book I haven’t actually read, but it is among the books that I’ve bought based on their first few pages (I am one of the readers that cause editors to suggest a first five pages hook). I have recommended this book, this series, and this author almost solely on the strength of this line and its following first few pages.)

Beyonders, Book 1: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull.

“The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep.”

The poetry! The alliteration! The pain. So there’s a character, a prince—a male from a monarchal society and the highest socioeconomic class then—who is chained in darkness (presumably in a dungeon—presumably in an ancient dungeon if the manacles within it are ancient, so there’s our setting), trying to sleep, so maybe it’s night, or maybe he has nothing else to do, or maybe he’s exhausted from previous acts. We also get the character’s physical state: in pain, aching, possibly exhausted. Then of course the question, why is this man in the dungeon? Who’s holding him?

From this study we might actually be able to draw some conclusions: The best lines are ones that multitask. A line like “Elizabeth was a beautiful princess” or “It was night again,” while succinct enough to be memorized are not of the type that one feels compelled to memorize. Many of these memorable first lines include a hook: either a question posed or drama promised. Several of them use second person cues to help to draw in the reader, but I’m not sure that I would recommend this; such use of the second person has always seemed a bit of a cheat to me, much like using first person; I like a challenge. Many of these too include memorable details, and it’s probably those details that make anchors in my memory, helping me to recall the line later.

There are, of course, no real rules. What works on me won’t necessarily work on all readers, as perhaps is proved by the fact there is only one line that overlaps between my survey and the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild’s. The previous study proves too that the best books do not necessarily have the best first lines.

Still here are some examples to consider when trying to craft the best sentence, wherever it might appear in whatever you’re working on.

What first lines do you have memorized?

Book Review: A Wizard of Mars: My Argument for the BroTP

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By the ninth book in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, the young wizards aren’t so young anymore. I’m not sure that I wholly approve of the latest sign that Kit and Nita are growing older. For at least seven of the previous eight books if not all eight, these two characters have fought within the text against the worlds’ supposition that any male-female partnership has to be sexual if not romantic, and I was all aboard their ship—their BroTP ship. Yet in this most recent book, A Wizard of Mars, the two of them are becoming more romantically attracted to one another. If this pair becomes an OTP, I may just have to jump overboard and head for the nearest desert isle, not because Kit and Nita (Kita? Nit?) are a terrible or even unlikely pairing, but because I was happy thinking that somewhere in the sea of teen fiction there was a ship that did not need a heart-shaped sail.

The world—our world—the literary world has too many romances and too few male-female friendships untroubled by romance. We do not celebrate singleness, and we over-romanticize romance to the detriment of friendship. By doing so we undermine friendships. I have noticed in my interactions with boys, in my friends’ interactions with boys, in boys’ interactions with me and with my friends that we are damaged by this pervasive idealization of love. There are obstacles put in front of male-female friendships unnecessarily. It ought to be as uncomplicated for me to have male-female friendships as it is for me to have female-female friendships, but it is not. We ought not to have to second-guess every action or word when interacting with the opposite sex. We ought not to feel pressured to feel things toward one another that we may not, and we ought not to believe that any positive feeling towards a member of the opposite sex is romantic.

In a world where too early and too incessantly we are bombarded by the ideals of marriage, true love, romance, and sex and our bodies are sexualized too often and too early, Young Wizards’ male-female BroTP was a breath of fresh air—and a very much needed one.

That all being said, this does not feel like a forced romance and if a romance had to be introduced, I think Duane did so skillfully here. It made sense within the context of the novel, paralleling as it did with a Romeo-Juliet (or Oma-Shu) romance that was important to the action of the plot, so that the romance did not seem jarring. The characters’ thoughts about one another seem… realistic and… earthy. Kit surprises himself when he notices that Nita is “hot.” Nita notices Kit noticing other girls. She has touches of jealousy and general confusion as her feelings towards him begin to shift from platonic to romantic. These thoughts follow gender stereotypes that may have at least some basis in our reality—and by that I mean the reality created by eons of societal expectations. I am glad that there were eight books of a male-female friendship without any stirrings of romance, not only because it provides an example of healthy male-female friendship, but because this romance, if I must now live with it, comes then not from a lightning strike, love-at-first-sight cliché, but a real back and forth, friendship, and slow engendering of greater attachment and attraction. At least then, if romance this must be, it is a more realistic romance than some of the fluff pumped into bookshelves.

Diane Duane I have always admired both for her prose and her blending of science and magic and word. In speaking to a coworker about why she was unable to get into the series, I commented that sometimes I feel like I need an understanding of basic physics to understand this series. If you enter into the series thinking it’s a straight fantasy, as she did, it will be jarring. Reading this book, I noticed, having finished George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons just prior, that I had to look up more words used by Duane than Martin. Some of those were scientific jargon, but the majority of words that sent me to a dictionary were not. The vocabulary level in these books is high, and I say that more to their credit than their denouncement. I appreciate authors who push readers, particularly their child readers, because too often that audience is underestimated, if not in fiction, then in the world at large.

This is the first of the books I would hesitate on some level to recommend to a younger child—not because I think them unable to handle the content or the language but because I think Duane’s intended audience is now teens. She all but says so in the final pages of the book when one of the Senior Wizards explains to the gathered young wizards the shift in wizardry and in the manifestation of the Lone One that comes with maturity—and explains that they’ve just faced one of these more mature trials. This being said, there is nothing in this book any more explicit or complicated than is in the fourth Harry Potter book or any of the later books in that series, so if your child is ready for Goblet of Fire, they’re ready for A Wizard of Mars.

****

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars. New York: Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.