Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Couple of Things and a Book Review of The Summer of Hammers and Angels

 "I can't understand why a person will take a year to write a novel when he can easily buy one for a few dollars." ~ Fred Allen

I’m old enough to remember Fred Allen, so thought I’d pass this little quote along. It made me smile. And wonder about my sanity just a little.

I also have a couple of little gifts for the writers among my readers. The first is an interesting blog about not blogging. Not kidding. It’s an thought-provoking read. The second is a site that has a wealth of information for writers. Check out her blogroll and categories on the right-hand side. Wow. This is definitely worth bookmarking and checking often.

Now to the meat of the blog post this time. I had an email from an author recently who asked if I might read her new book and possibly review it on my blog. Since I hope people will do the same for me someday soon, I’m always happy to take a look. It’s a risk, because not every book published is a great read. I’m happy to say, in this case, I had a fun time reading the book and have lots of nice things to say about it.

The Summer of Hammers and AngelsThe book is The Summer of Hammers and Angels. The author, Shannon Wiersbitzky, had the good fortune to work with ├╝ber editor Steven Roxburgh on this book, and it shows. It is a tight little page-turner of a coming-of-age novel with one of the strongest voices I’ve run across in a long time.

Young Delia, living in the small town of Tucker’s Ferry, West Virginia, is the only child of  her single mother who works as a waitress at the local diner. Mama isn’t much of a housekeeper and certainly not a home-repair maven. The house is pretty much falling down around their ears. A home inspector shows up unexpectedly and serves them with notice that if a long list of things isn’t fixed and soon, he will have no choice but to condemn the place. Incidentally, he doesn’t seem to mind that he has no choice.

Needless to say, Mama is furious. That night, a storm of equal ferocity comes to town. Lightning strikes the house, and Delia finds her mother unconscious with burns on her hand. A small fire has started, and Delia can’t move her mother or get her to wake up. Delia runs to the Parkers’ house next door to find help. Thus begins a long, long journey for young Delia.

The Parkers are good people who take Delia in. The only problem is her nemesis, Tommy Parker, is their son. We are never told the exact age of these children, but one must guess it is somewhere around ten or eleven, a time when boys and girls gag at the very thought of each other. This, of course, sets up a strong secondary conflict in the book.

Shannon Wiersbitzky
Delia calls on her best friend, Mae, to help her fix her house while Mama lingers in an unconscious state at the local hospital. These two young girls are resourceful and bring great energy to the project. They take on odd jobs to earn money for the materials needed, and we meet some of the interesting people in Tucker's Ferry. But the reality is, the girls know little about fixing anything. Tommy Parker shows up and, it turns out, he has mad skills at fixing things. The children get to work and make some real progress. Tommy gets a little full of himself, drags a ladder from his house, and, over the protests of the girls, climbs to the roof to take a look around. You know this can’t be good. But I don’t want to ruin anything for you, so let’s just say things get worse before they have any chance of getting better.

Delia learns much about herself and the people around her as she trudges through this troubling summer. She is an engaging character, one the reader will be rooting for the entire way through this charming story. Delia’s telling of this story in her own words is absolutely convincing. You will hear her Southern twang clearly in your head and recognize the thoughts and feelings of a young girl from a small town on a mission from which no one can deter her. I recommend this book wholeheartedly. Take a little trip to Tucker’s Ferry, West Virginia and enjoy the summer of Delia’s dilemma. Let her introduce you to the quirky characters in her hometown and tell you the story herself.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Magical Highlights Retreat

It has been a while since I’ve posted, but I’ve been away at a writer’s retreat and have been far too busy to blog –in a good way.

First, some news – I want to announce I had a poem (one that I really think is a rhyming picture book) called The Monster Hairy Brown, chosen to be included in an anthology called Fifty Funny Poems for Children to be published in England next year. I guess that will make me an internationally published author!

Last week, I flew to New York and was picked up at the airport by a driver for Highlights Magazine, the wonderful Pam Box, and whisked away to Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania, to the original homestead of the founders of the magazine. This is a magical place. I have attended two workshops and two writer’s retreats there. You can read about one of the workshops by clicking here. I always make great progress in my writing and learn a great deal when there. This time I spent a week with six other writers and Carolyn Yoder, editor and teacher extraordinaire. Five of us were in a similar retreat last year and all intend to be in another such next summer. In fact, I think all are already signed up. I know I am.

Each of us had our own little cabin with good work space and lots of quiet time. The people from the Highlights Foundation treat us like royalty. They pick us up when we arrive from whatever airport we get to. If you come from the west coast as I do, they are happy to have you come in a day early and, if necessary, leave a day late. No extra charge. The meals are spectacular – always made with fresh, local ingredients and great imagination. When I say great food, I’m not foolin’. Even the oatmeal is the best I’ve ever had!

Each day we came together for meals and cocktails. We each had one-on-one time with Carolyn every day but one as well. No kidding! Every day. Everyone came with work in progress and many of us started new projects while we were there. It was such a collaborative effort. Supper every evening was followed by a critique session. When we read our latest version or chapter or story, we received lots of kudos and helpful suggestions. Everyone there was a published author – some more than others – trying to improve their craft.

I spent most of my time working on two projects – my middle-grade historical novel, The Incredible Journey of Freddy J. and an article for possible submission to Highlights called The Princess Who Wouldn’t Take “No”. I made a LOT of progress on my novel and…Tah Tah Ta Dah…Carolyn took my article to Highlights for submission. That means she liked it and I’m over a big hurdle with it. Fingers crossed!! She also mentioned to someone that I had sold my article on FDR to Highlights! She submitted that last year, then asked for a rewrite. I think there is still one more person who has to give it the thumbs up, but it is looking very good for both articles.

I also started a new picture book. It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile and have completed some research , but had kind of gotten stuck. Besides getting great help from Carolyn, one of the attendees was particularly helpful to me. Lois Huey, an archaeologist and writer with lots of notches on her writing belt and who was at the retreat last year, was someone willing to share her knowledge and expertise and even write to experts she knew to help me with that project. She is still sending me info by email (as well as a great cookie recipe!). She also took extra time to proof some work for me and offered great suggestions. And my picture book is coming along, largely thanks to her and Carolyn.

One of the other attendees, Nicole Groeneweg, also an accomplished and many-times published writer working on an amazing book about Eisenhower, was so generous with her time helping me prepare for some submissions – proofing and offering excellent suggestions. When I didn’t have a return envelope with me (What was I thinking?), she interrupted her writing to take me to town and buy what I needed. Wow. And you heard me right. Submissions – plural. That poem the Brits are publishing next year, that I always thought of as a rhyming picture book, The Monster Hairy Brown, has now been submitted to Boyds Mills Press as a picture book with Carolyn’s approval, which, I am sure, carries some serious weight. I know that it will at least get a close reading, and I can’t ask for more than that.

Upon SecrecyI’d like to give a shout out to the other attendees – Selene Castrovilla, Tracy Helixon, Norma Lewis, and Lisa Idzikowski. All were generous with their time and ideas. In addition to learning more about my own writing, I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War thanks to Selene (Check out her many books – great stuff!), Air Force One and the Kennedy assassination thanks to Tracy, life in 19th century Alaska from Norma, and sooooo much about Thomas Jefferson from Lisa.  

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.We had visits from editors from the press and from the magazines, as well as the much-published author Kate Messner who brought each of us three of her books and graciously signed them for us. Watch for reviews of those books here in the coming weeks.

Yes, it was another magical week at Boyds Mills. Unfortunately, my trip home wasn’t quite so magical. My left knee dislocated during my charge through Kennedy Airport, and I am still nursing that. The pain is unbelievable, especially after physical therapy or my exercises. Ice is my new best friend. But this too shall pass and I will be left with the memories of my magical time at the retreat and my much bolstered writing career!

 If you are reading this in your email, don’t forget to click on the headline to go to my blog. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do. And please leave a comment. I love to hear from you.

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Gifts: Links for Writers and Reviews for Readers: The Emerald Atlas and The Fourth Wish

If you are a writer, I have three gifts for you today – three valuable blog links. If you are a reader, I have two gifts for you – book reviews for great summer reading.

If you write picture books or have ever wanted to try writing picture books, you should know about a terrific blog run by a woman named Christie Wright Wild. She has lots of valuable information. Every month she runs a contest for picture book writers who can submit their manuscripts and, if they are chosen, get a free critique. Check out Write Wild out by clicking on the title. If you click on the Picture Book Contest blog you can find the monthly contest. (I haven’t won a critique yet, but I’m going to keep on trying.) Spend a little time looking around. There is much to enjoy and learn on Write Wild.

The Speculative Salon, one of my favorite blogs, has a great post this week called 101 Sites to Distract or Help You. Writers and others, you will love this one. Click the title and it will take you there. So much fun! Thank you, Elizabeth.

My good friend and fellow writer and blogger, Michelle Fayard, can be found blogging at Bird’s-Eye View. She always has something interesting going on on her blog, but recently had a particularly valuable post for bloggers – a guest post by Theresa Milstein about getting blog comments to work for you. Click HERE for the link.  I learned a good deal from this post and from many others Michelle has posted. Poke around while you’re there. You can also read some of Michelle’s fabulous work in progress, The Underground Gift, if you click on her aptly named Work in Progress button.

The Emerald Atlas (Books of Beginning)Now for the first suggestion for a great summer read. My friend and critique partner Morgan Mussell (who blogs wonderfully and prolifically at the First Gates) has been raving about a book for some months. Morgan writes fantasy, very well I might add, and I don’t write fantasy, that is. In fact, I hardly ever read fantasy. I may be the only human on the planet who hasn’t read all the Harry Potter books. But Morgan reads a lot of it and he has spoken very highly of The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens. I resisted for awhile, but last week picked it up. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a lot on my plate last week. This is one of those books that once you crack the cover, you won’t get much else done.

The book opens with three small children being handed off to a stranger. The oldest, four-year-old Kate, is told by her mother she must protect her brother, Michael, and sister, Emma, and keep them together and safe until their parents can come for them. They wander through a string of orphanages, each worse than the last, and keep being sent on and on until they end up going to the last possible place that will take them, seemingly at the end of the earth.

The pier was long and narrow and had many broken and rotted slats; it stretched out past the shelf of ice and into open water, and the children walked to the end and huddled there, pulling their coats right and leaning together like penguins against the bitter wind blowing in across the lake.

John Stephens
The orphanage is a rickety old mansion and they are the only orphans there. Kate is now fourteen; Michael, twelve; and Emma, eleven. Of course, they have to explore. They find what looks like a laboratory and there come across a green book with blank pages. Michael drops a photograph between the pages and BAM! They find themselves transported through time. A beautiful witch, known as the Countess, has a child in her hands and threatens to drop her to her death in a lake. The children of the town, Cambridge Falls, have been separated from their parents by the witch who is searching for something. The fathers are forced into heavy labor in search of the item and the mothers are kept away from their families. 

Cambridge Falls is in a magical place and the surrounding area is populated by all sorts of beings. There are dark creatures called Screechers who terrify and control everyone, a wizard, hoards of dwarves (who are very funny and gross – something kids will love and I did, too), a giant named Gabriel, and the most terrible salmac-tar.

Its skin was a translucent, gooey white and dotted with greenish sores. Its arms and legs were hideously long and thin, its back curved from generations of moving through low-ceilinged tunnels. Its claws tapped the floor as it advanced, and Kate saw the milky, sightless eyes and huge, bat-like ears. The salmac-tar made a gurgling hiss deep in its throat…

This book, like the Harry Potter books, is marketed as a middle-grade book, but I think anyone who enjoys fantasy or a really compelling story with great characters that will take you away from your everyday life will love The Emerald Atlas. It, like Potter, will be widely read well beyond the middle-grade audience.

The second book I want to tell you about is The Fourth Wish. This book by Elizabeth Varadan is soon to be released as an e-book on Amazon, but you can still buy it in printed form. Elizabeth is a good friend and critique partner. She blogs at Elizabeth Varadan’s Fourth Wish  and posts lots of wonderful book reviews. Stop by and say hello.

The Fourth WishThe Fourth Wish is a middle-grade book set in Sacramento. It opens with four kids (siblings Melanie, Cory, and Erin, and a neighbor, Arthur) going to a magic show and movie. We learn the three sibling’s father had recently left, and they are having a hard time dealing with the loss. On their way to the magic show, the four encounter a strange old woman, Mrs. Seraphina. The bag she is carrying breaks and the kids help her pick up the strange objects that have spilled out. She gives each of them a wish box, but they must all agree on a wish. You know the old saying: Be careful what you wish for… Cory gets the first wish and it is that The Great Mondo will do real magic, not just tricks. Well, once this particular rabbit is out of the hat, it’s pretty hard to get it back in. The domino effect of this wish is quite something. Mondo’s magic show goes completely out of control and he loses his job. Of course, the kids feel it’s their fault and set about trying to fix everything by finding the mysterious Mrs. Seraphina and using the other three wishes to put things back the way they should be. They learn just how specific every wish has to be as things go wrong with each try.

Elizabeth Varadan
This is quite a romp through modern-day Sacramento. The setting is dead on and the children have normal lives with normal problems, yet there is plenty of funny stuff going on and enough of a mystery to keep the pages turning and turning. Kids from nine to ninety, will enjoy this fun summer read.

There isn’t much summer left for summer reading. I hope this and some of my earlier blogs have given you some good choices for filling your time. If you are reading this in your email, don’t forget to click on the headline to go to my blog. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do. And please leave a comment. I love to hear from you.