Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Buddies, Bullies, and Baseball: A Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won ANY GOOD THING from last week's blog.

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REVIEW

This week I have a short book (just under 100 pages) that would be perfect for the 2-4th grade boy who either a) loves baseball or b) is struggling with being bullied.

In Buddies, Bullies, and Baseball, author Phyllis J. Perry authentically portrays the problems that Jack, a fifth grader and avid baseball fan, encounters at school every day. 

Here's the opening paragraph:
"I squeezed my eyes together as tight as I could, praying that when I opened them again, the two distant figures that I saw leaning against the fence wouldn't be there. But I knew better." (p.1)
From that point on, Jack is confronted with Steve and his sidekick, Cliff, who harass him every day. He chooses not to tell his friends or his parents about how they tease him, take his lunch, and how he doesn't stick up for himself.
I didn't want Dad to know I was a coward. I was afraid he'd be so disappointed in me if he found out that I was letting Steve bully me, and that I didn't even try to stand up for myself. And nothing could be worse than disappointing my dad. p. 10-11
Jack tries several different ways to avoid Steve and Cliff, but avoidance doesn't work and he ends up more disappointed in himself for not speaking up. At the same time, he is appointed to help out a new student, Hans from Germany, who helps him see the situation differently. 

When Jack finally speaks his mind to the bullies it's over something that matters to him even more than his own reputation--his beloved baseball glove that his uncle gave him. 

At the end of the book the reader discovers what many adults know: young bullies often see bullying in their families or are victims themselves. 

When Jack finally confides in his parents that he didn't want to be a tattletale or disappoint his parents, his mother's response is one I wish all parents in this situation would echo:
"I probably wouldn't know what was best to do about it either," Mom said, "But I'd never think you were a coward for avoiding a fight with two bullies." (p.77)
One of my favorite lines is when Jack prepares himself to come face to face with Steve and Cliff. "...I wasn't really scared. It was funny, but I was over that. Part of being scared is not knowing what to do." (p. 80). Jack also helps a boy younger than himself confront his fears. That is a sweet demonstration of Jack passing along what he has learned.

This would make a great elementary school classroom read. The book's (unfortunately) current topic makes it accessible to older reluctant readers also. 


GIVEAWAY


I'm giving away my copy of this book. Leave me a comment (with your name and email address if you are new to my blog) and I'll enter your name. Share this on social media (and tell me what you do) and I'll add your name a second time to the proverbial hat. Giveaway ends January 18. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Any Good Thing: Adult Contemporary Fiction Review & Giveaway

Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who won an autographed copy of SNAKES AND STONES.

Any Good Thing is Joy Rancatore's debut novel and clearly she poured herself into writing and publishing her first adult book. From the cover design through to the acknowledgments at the end, Joy's passion for her characters and topic shine through. 





REVIEW

The book dramatically opens with 15-year-old Jack Calhoun's life permanently altered: a teenage drag race ends in death and disaster. From that point onward, Jack shoulders the guilt of four deaths--compounded later by two other deaths for which he takes responsibility. 

In the first chapter the reader meets Jack's girlfriend, Rachel Burns, her father Ben, and Jack's mother, Becky; the three people who are his trinity of support as Jack wrestles with demons from his past. 

Jack's father abandoned the family when Jack was young and Ben becomes a father figure to him. Quickly after the accidents, Jack descends into alcoholism; Ben helps him to get into a rehab. There, Jack confesses his motivation to get over his addiction: "I want to be better for my mom and the people who've stuck by me...despite all I've done." (p. 43)  

Although this refrain is repeated throughout the book, Jack's fatal flaw is that he believes the only way he can help the people he loves is to remove his poisonous influence from their lives. "No more would he sit by and watch people he loved get hurt by whatever curse had claimed him as its host. The final tendrils of the sun's red hair slunk before him as he headed west." (p. 90)

With this faulty conclusion guiding him, he joins the Marines and vows to make something of his life and become a source of pride to his mother. 

Jack's internal conversation shows that he sees himself as a failure, but at the same time the author portrays him as a successful carpenter and outstanding Marine who is consistently promoted. Even when he feels responsible for his best friend, Tray's, death in Iraq, Tray's mother forgives him, but he doesn't forgive himself. 

Jack feels hopeless when he returns home after taking a bullet in his right arm. His days as a Marine Scout Sniper are over and he refuses to get help. He enters into a bleak, near-suicidal time of roaming through North Carolina. His only help for the reoccurring PTSD anxiety is a stray, shaggy hound, Scout, who provides the companionship which Jack desperately needs.  

For me, the most powerful part of this book came in the last one hundred pages. An unexpected encounter with his father helps Jack begin his journey home, eventually leading to his emotional and spiritual healing. Rachel's unconditional love is poignantly portrayed. Jack's self-absorption (which is the lie behind "I'm too bad for even God to love me") is shown in the last few pages. Although Jack's coming to faith was predictable, it provides a satisfactory resolution to Christian readers.  

Although much of what the author loves is packed into 418 pages--southern food, the Marines, small southern towns, romance, and the peace of Christ--the constant point of view shift from omniscient narrator to one of the characters, was distracting. In the author's desire to include seventeen years of Jack's life, I had to frequently remind myself what his age was; many of his thought processes make him seem older than his stated age. 

Overall, I would recommend this book for the reader who loves fiction which carries a character through the dark spots of his life to Christian victory. 

GIVEAWAY


Please leave your name and email address if you interested in entering the giveaway for an autographed copy of Any Good Thing.  Giveaway ends on January 11. 


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Snakes & Stones: A Middle Grade Review and Giveaway

I hope you enjoyed your holiday as much as I did. Mine was full of family and good food; now I'm back into my writing routine including sharing more books with you. Sandra Warren won Miep and the Famous Diary and Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc. Barbara Younger won Everyone Says Meow and Susan Rice won America, Here I Come! 

I'll start the new year with a review of Lisa Fowler's debut middle grade book, Snakes and Stones (Sky Pony, 2016). I'm holding onto my copy so I can review Fowler's great use of dialect, narration, and voice, but see below for Lisa's generous offer. 





REVIEW

You may have heard how a book's setting can act like a character in a story. Although the setting for this book changes as twelve-year-old Chestnut Hill and her younger triplet siblings (Hazel, Filbert, and Macadamia) and their traveling salesman father go from southern town to southern town peddling his elixir, it also stays the same. It's 1921 and their old horse-drawn circus wagon is their home, storefront, and stage for their "show." Chestnut's job--which she hates--is to testify that the elixir has worked for her and to spot the doubters in the crowd.

When her family isn't working a crowd, Chestnut tries to keep order among her siblings, convince her father that selling his fake elixir is a lie, and somehow make it back to their mother--who will fix everything. All of this is told in Fowler's love-for-the-North Carolina-mountains voice. Chestnut's Southern narration helps create the setting for the book. Here's an example from the beginning:
I'm crouched in the corner of the wagon, huddled on top of the triplets the same way a mother hen would gather her brood up and under her wings for protection--way too much responsibility for an ordinary twelve-year-old in a dirty, torn dress, frumpled hair, and shoes with holes in them the size of Missouri. Especially a girl that's been snatched from her mama against her will. (p. 2)
Her father gets run out of one town after another and Chestnut devises a plan to help her mother find them. She tacks up flyers in each town with a picture of their wagon with the name of the elixir painted on the side, and the name of the town they're headed to. She's not proud of keeping a secret from her father, but rationalizes he's the one who taught her to lie.

Her desire to find her mama rules her day and night and leads her to a decision she regrets. Alone in a store, she sees a wide open cash register with more paper money than she can imagine. An internal dialogue ensues:


But you  need that money to buy a train ticket to get back to your mama. Girl being with her mama's not wrong. Girl going back to where she was when she got snatched away from her home's not wrong. Stealing's wrong but only if you don't have a good enough reason. (p. 115)
Suddenly, life gets a lot more complicated as Chestnut's guilt eats a hole in her gut. The family is joined by Abraham, an old friend of their father who worked the coal mines with him before they lost their jobs. He provides another perspective.


"Mama didn't do nothing. It was Daddy who stole us away. Mama went to town, and while she was in the store, Daddy run off with us." 
"You sure 'bout dat?" Abraham asks with raised eyebrows and more questions than answers on his face. 
"Well yes, sir; I was there." 
"Maybe you was, but things not always de way dey seem. You think about dat, missy. Jes' you think. Dat's all ol' Abraham say." (p. 157)

Abraham reveals that he and her father were raised together in an orphanage. Slowly, Chestnut begins to see her father in a new light. When he is put in jail because he's falsely accused of stealing the money which Chestnut took, her life unravels. 

Without including a spoiler, her mother's return isn't at all what Chestnut imagined. Truth is spoken between her and her father. Forgiveness is given and received. The reader is left with a sense of closure for a story that will resonate in hearts and minds after the book ends.

Lisa Fowler's apt use of similes and metaphors makes the book a pleasure to read. Descriptions like, "My face is as hot as a fresh-pulled log from a fire." (p. 129); "Once we're in the heart of town, Daddy hops from the wagon and weaves like a bobwhite in an open field, trying his best to see if anyone's watching." (p.66); "Everyone knows adults stick together like warts on the back of an old toad." (p. 181) inspire me as a writer and add to the authenticity of this middle grade historical fiction. 

GIVEAWAY

Lisa is giving away a personally autographed copy of this book. Please leave me a comment (with your email address) by 6 PM on January 4th to enter. Share this on social media (or follow my blog) and I'll enter your name twice. 



Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Three Picture Books for You or for Your Classroom


I've bombarded your inbox this week because of some timely reviews and announcements. I'll be taking a short blogging break, but will be back soon with more giveaways and reviews.


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I'm the fortunate recipient of many fine picture books to review and give away. Here are three that I think would be great resources in a classroom library --although you are welcome to try and win them for a beloved young reader!


America, Here I Come!


The author, Kyra Burton, is passionate about helping child immigrants transition to living in the United States. Her story follows Anna and Artem who live in Odessa in the Ukraine--"the most beautiful place in the world"--and a city that has beautiful butterflies. The children are upset when their parents announce they are moving to Raleigh, NC, where both of them have obtained jobs. The siblings dread having to make new friends and going to new schools; Anna finds some comfort by expressing her feelings in a journal. After getting settled in their new home, both Anna and Artem make new friends at a neighborhood park. On the way home they spot a butterfly and Anna points to it and thinks, "This butterfly is almost as pretty as the ones...back home." See Kyra's website for more resources on making America home. 



Miep and the Most Famous Diary: The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank's Diary


Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is a classic that's informed a world of readers of the atrocities of the Holocaust. But, who knows the story of Miep Gies--the woman who put her own life on the line in order to save Anne's family and several other Jews? Miep and The Most Famous Diary written by Meeg Pincus and illustrated by Jordi Solano, gives a different perspective on this famous story. The day that her friends are arrested is one that Miep has dreaded for two years. After they are carted away by the Nazis, Miep finds Anne's diary, knowing that Anne dreamt of publishing it after the war. She hides it and refuses to read it. But when Mr. Frank returns after the war, Miep gives him this wonderful reminder of his intelligent, hopeful daughter. 



Everybody Says MEOW 


Readers of my blog aren't strangers to Constance Lombardo and her love for all things feline (Mr. Puffball, anyone?). In her debut picture book, Constance has written and illustrated a fun, colorful picture book that is short on words, but big on a lesson about inclusivity. Toddlers will enjoy identifying the different animals and repeating the noises that each make. Great pre-reading skills are reinforced for first readers.



GIVEAWAYS

Please leave a comment by 6 PM on December 14. Leave your NAME and email address (I don't know who UNKNOWN is!) and which book you'd like to receive. Both America, Here I Come and Everybody Says MEOW are autographed by the author. I'll mail them on Monday and hopefully you'll get them in time for Christmas. 

Monday, December 9, 2019

Give the Gift of Writing

Do you know a teen or tween who dreams of writing a book? Or, perhaps your spouse or best friend is a budding poet. Either way, Write2Ignite has the perfect gift opportunity!

Starting in January, Brenda Covert and I will be giving writing workshops in several South Carolina Hobby Lobby stores.

The cost for each two-hour workshop is $25.00. But, if you purchase a workshop by December 31, it is only $20.00. (See payment details below.)

Cracking the Core of Fiction Writing: Character and Conflict for Teens and Tweens


Date and Time: January 11, 1:00 PM-3:00 PM

Location: Hobby Lobby, 1511 Woodruff Rd, Greenville, SC 29607

Supplies: Notebook and a pen. Or, use a journal from Hobby Lobby and a special set of colored pens!

Description: If you’re between the ages of 11-17 and love creating stories, then this is the workshop for you. Join North Carolina author, Carol Baldwin, for a fun and informative workshop that will help you create memorable characters with conflict—the driving force of a riveting story. Whether you’re writing fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or a contemporary story, the principles you’ll acquire will move you forward on your writing journey.

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Date and Time: January 18, 1:00 PM-3:00 PM

Location: Hobby Lobby, 7816 Charlotte Hwy, Indian Land, SC 29707

Supplies: Notebook and a pen. Or, use a journal from Hobby Lobby and a special set of colored pens!

Description: If you’re between the ages of 11-17 and love creating stories, then this is the workshop for you. Join North Carolina author, Carol Baldwin, for a fun and informative workshop that will help you create memorable characters with conflict—the driving force of a riveting story. Whether you’re writing fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or a contemporary story, the principles you’ll acquire will move you forward on your writing journey.


From the Heart: The Gift of Poetry 


Date and Time: January 25, 1:30- 3:30

Location:  Hobby Lobby, 7816 Charlotte Hwy, Indian Land, SC 29707

Supplies: Notebook and pen, laptop, tablet, or whatever you're most comfortable writing on.  Or, use a journal from Hobby Lobby and a special set of colored pens.

Description: This poetry writing workshop is for teens and adults who want to craft the perfect poem for Valentine's Day. Brenda Covert, author of a teen poetry curriculum, will help you find your poetic voice so that you have a poem suitable for framing and gift-giving. A gift from your heart is the best gift of all!

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Date and Time: February 1,  3:30-5:30

Location: Hobby Lobby, 6007 Wade Hampton Blvd, Taylors, SC 29687

Supplies: Notebook and pen, laptop, tablet, or whatever you're most comfortable writing on.  Or, use a journal from Hobby Lobby and a special set of colored pens.

Description: This poetry writing workshop is for teens and adults who want to craft the perfect poem for Valentine's Day. Brenda Covert, author of a teen poetry curriculum, will help you find your poetic voice so that you have a poem suitable for framing and gift-giving. A gift from your heart is the best gift of all!

TO PURCHASE A WORKSHOP AND REGISTER


Email Cathy Biggerstaff.  Let her know which workshop you are purchasing and who will be attending. She will then send you a PayPal invoice. DEADLINE for the discount is 12/31/19 but participants can also pay when they come. Checks should be made out to Write2Ignite. Questions? Contact me or Brenda Covert.

Coming in March: Self-Publishing with Sandra Warren and Gretchen Griffith in Hickory, NC.


Date to be announced.

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc - An Audiobook Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Jo Lynn Worden who won Sandra Warren's book, Obsessed By A Promise.

If you want to read a masterful portrayal of deep POV from multiple perspectives (as well as from the perspective of objects) then I recommend that you get hold of a copy of Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc. Not only will you have a great mentor text for deep POV, but you'll also experience multiple types of poetic forms from the medieval period. Plus, you'll discover what life was like for Joan of Arc

Kudos to author, David Elliott. I can't imagine the research needed to write this short book in beautiful, classical poetry. 




REVIEW


Joan's story is told through herself, her mother, father, different witnesses at her Trial of Condemnation and testimony from the posthumous Trial of Nullification. But that is far from all. Charles VII also has a voice--one that is filled with his embarrassment over a young maid who said he needed her to rescue France from the English. 

Joan was a diligent, virtuous daughter, who could spin and mend better than any other woman in her village. But she was bored by these common, household tasks that bound her. In her fierce loyalty to her king, Charles VII, she believed that she could help him win the Hundred Year War. Around the age of thirteen she reported that she started receiving visions from saints and angels. They were her guides as she left home on her passionate journey to save her country. The archangel Michael has a voice of his own in the narrative. 

The author personifies both objects which Joan encountered as well as concepts. For example, here are parts of the poem from the voice of Joan's needle which she used as a young woman:


In the circle of women, is where I am found. Stitching and hemming and mending. I've been handled by many both maiden and crone...No one could touch her, the girl they called Joan. Ferocious, focus, strong-willed. She was a warrior,  the linen her foe. I was her weapon, her sword in her hand.

Other objects had voices. A pitchfork used by a farmer turned soldier, ("Why did he take me away from the farm?");  a 700-year-old sword she requested be brought to her ("How did she find me? Why did she take me from my rest?"); the alms she gave to the poor ("I felt precious in her hand"); the cattle she cared for ("Why did she see angels?"); her hair ("Cut off to her ears because it was too alluring to men"); the arrow that missed its target; the crossbow that found her thigh; her red dress she always wore and the tunic that replaced it; her virginity, and lust. Dramatically repeated was the somber voice of Fire: burning, soaring, and ready to devour. 

Because of the graphic and intimate portrayal of Joan's life and death, I recommend this for mature teens and adults. It would be a remarkable gift for someone who fits that category of readers.

Outside of Nikki Grimes' books, I rarely listen to a book and recommend that the audio version is the best way to "read" the novel. But in this case, I can't say enough about the dramatization that the three narrators, Saskia Maarleveld, Celeste Ciulla, and Luis Moreno provide. Their voices give a rich depth to the characters and objects that populated Joan of Arc's last years. Here is an audio snippet


GIVEAWAY

To enter, please leave a comment by December 12 with your email address if you are new to my blog. This is another giveaway courtesy of Recorded Books. Continental Unites States only. 


Monday, December 2, 2019

Obsessed by a Promise: A Review, Author Interview, and Autographed Giveaway

I blogged about the Orphan Train at the time that I reviewed Rory's Promise. When Sandra Warren told me about her new book, I was intrigued to find another book on the subject, this time from the perspective of an adult. 



REVIEW


In this multi-point-of-view "rags to riches" story, the reader meets a young boy, nicknamed Blue, who in 1929 is left in charge of his younger brother, Bo. Blue is devastated when they are separated and he promises that he'll find Bo. This obsession drives Blue (who later goes by his initials, JT) for fifty years. 

Living on the streets of New York City, JT gets a lucky break and is taken in by a storekeeper, Mr. O. The kindly man realizes that JT is smart and responsible and gradually gives him more and more responsibility. At the height of the depression a rich man, Mr. Trasinski, comes to the store wanting to sell apples. JT makes a deal with him that saves Mr. Trasinski and his family--something Mr. Trasinski never forgets.

Fast forward two decades, and JT is like Mr. Trasinski's son, working hard for his land development company.  Although JT marries Mr. Trasinski's beautiful daughter, Adrianna, his marriage and the subsequent birth of their son, Jake, is marred by JT's incessant search for Bo. Even his business trips become excuses to find his brother. When he realizes that Bo was taken west on the Orphan Train, JT hopes his search is almost over.  It's not until JT risks losing Jake that he realizes the mistakes he made always putting Bo, his "phantom brother" before the people he truly loved. 

Two unexpected twists at the end bring the story to a satisfactory close. This well-researched family saga is full of love, the price of success, grief, and regret. 


AUTHOR INTERVIEW

CAROL: What drew you to the story of the Orphan Train?

SANDRA:  The idea that children, most homeless but not all, could be taken from the streets, put on trains and shipped across country, lined up on a stage and given away, auction style, to couples who asked for them, surprised and horrified me. Even though the concept was developed with good intentions, all I could think of were the pitfalls. When I learned siblings were often separated, the story of Blue and Bo began to unfold. 

CAROL: How did you research and for how long? 

SANDRA: My introduction to the Orphan Train was back in the late 1990’s. The Internet was in its infant stage of development when I began writing the screenplay so I had to rely on the resources listed in a book I found. My research revolved around the basic facts and a few personal accounts as well as information about the era between 1929 and 1979. Twenty-two years later, when the novel finally came together, the Internet was immensely helpful in fine tuning time and place aspects of the story. 

      CAROL: Why did you choose different POV? 

SANDRA: The story was first written and optioned as a screenplay. Having developed it as such, each character had motivations, flaws, and purpose. It seemed a natural progression to write the novel from different points of view. For me, it was the easiest way to weave the basic facts into the story, allowing each character’s side of the issue to come forward. 

CAROL: What were your challenges writing in this manner?

SANDRA: Each character had to appear and behave in a manner different from the others, yet consistent with their role in the story. Having it first written as a screenplay helped tremendously. 

CAROL: Who is your readership? 

SANDRA: The screenplay was written with adults in mind. However, I’ve had two agents tell me it fit the young adult (YA) genre and what is now called a crossover book. 

CAROL: As a self-published author, how are you marketing the book?

      SANDRA: The trick is to be creative in getting the word out.        
  1. Social Media; Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest, my website, podcasts, radio interviews, etc.
  2. Collaboration with other authors.
  3. Personal appearances: exhibits, holiday markets, artists galleries, bookstores, festivals. I use personal appearances to get the word out about my presentations. 
  4. Presentations: schools and local organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Historical Societies, Veterans groups, Newcomers, festivals, church groups, etc. 
  5. Offering workshops and classes. 
  6. Revising the screenplay and pursue options again. Obviously, selling the screenplay will lead to many book sales. 

ONE LAST WORD FROM SANDRA: Writing Obsessed By A Promise made my respect for novelists grow immensely. Previously, the longest books I’d written were non-fiction and military memoirs where I gathered the facts and make them readable. It was super challenging to have to create the scene, give it a sense of time and place without appearing to do so, as well as develop characters that can tell the story I wanted told.  

GIVEAWAY 


Sandra is giving away an autographed copy of Obsessed By A Promise to one fortunate reader. It would make a great holiday gift for the history lover reader on your list. Leave me a comment by December 5 for a chance to win. Double your chances by sharing this post on social media or following my blog. Make sure you leave me your email address and let me know what you did. Continental United States only. 


Monday, November 25, 2019

We are All That's Left: A Review and a Great Audio CD for You

Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who won BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME from last week's blog.

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always enjoy sharing amazing books and a young adult author who I'm unfamiliar with. That's what you'll find if you read, or listen to, Carrie Arcos' book, We Are All That's Left (Philomel, 2018).  Both narrators, Laura Knight Keating and Elisabeth Rodgers, perform the book with clarity, fervor, and excellence. (Please keep in mind that quotes may not be exact; I took notes as I  did other tasks.)





REVIEW


Told in dual points of view, Ms. Arcos provides readers with an intimate look at the effects of the Bosnian War as well as a very personal experience with modern day terrorism. If you're not familiar with this civil war, you might want to read about it first.

The book opens with a view of the River Drina and the bridge that crosses it. The bridge plays an important part in the story and also symbolizes the connection between Zara and her mother, Nadja. 


Quickly, the reader discovers that Zara feels shut out from her mother's life. Although Zara knows that her mother lived through the Bosnian War and she hears the screams from her nightmares, Nadja never speaks about it. Zara doesn't go anywhere without her camera, but her mother can't stand the sound of a camera clicking. Zara concludes, We have nothing in common except our sea green eyes.


Then, a terrorist attacks.

On a summer day, Zara and her brother Benny are at a farmer's market with their mother. Without warning, a bomb goes off, their lives are shattered, and Zara is left holding her mother's yellow ballet slipper.


At that point, the novel switches to Nadja's story in 1992. She's a teenager in love with a Serb teen photographer, Marco. They both plans to study in Sarajevo. And even though they are different ethnically, who cares? They are both Bosnians.


Then, war breaks out


The story flits back and forth between the present in which Zara deals with severe physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological wounds, and Nadja's heart-rending, horrific story. Nadja is in a coma as a result of the attack and Zara experiences a wide range of emotions. Their silence seems no different than what is normal between them, but Zara fears that her mother will die and they'll never truly know each her. 

Before the attack, Zara had enrolled in a photography class. Although she feels like a freak with bandages across her face, she decides to attend. Each student must create a photo story. The instructor prompts: "What do you want the viewer to feel? Look for stories around you. What story are you in?"

Zara finds a box full of old letters and photos that Marco took. She feels like she's discovered a treasure which leads her to anger and grief over the grandparents (and uncle) she never knew. I’ve peaked over an abyss I didn’t know existed.

The book holds a sense of timelessness. The events are different in time and place, but Zara grapples with the violence her mother experienced and the ISIS attack against her community haunt her day and night. My emptiness is all that's left. 

Zara meets Joseph who is also searching for meaning in suffering. Zara wonders how God allows terrorist attacks. Joseph shares his spiritual journey, but more than anything, becomes a friend with whom Zara can unburden herself. By listening and understanding he helps Zara put back together the pieces of her broken self and her shattered life. 

I listened to this at the same time that I was reading For Black Girls Like Me. Mother abandonment is a theme in both books and both fathers are overwhelmed and not quite sure how to help their daughters. At one point Zara's father tells her: "People fear what they do not know." Even though it is true, that hardly satisfies her emotionally.  

Zara's photography teacher asks the class to consider their photo stories and ask, "What is the character’s narrative and is it true?" Her photography project bridges the gap between mother and daughter and brings healing to their relationship. 

When Nadja comes out of the coma, Zara spends hours in the hospital talking to her and hearing her mother's story. Zara concludes, "Maybe God is love. I have no choice but to use the suffering. Love and forgiveness go hand in hand. I survived and am still surviving." 

Here is an audio snippet so you can sample this powerful book. 



GIVEAWAY

I'm going to give away this book in conjunction with the January issue of Talking Story on Eastern Europe. Leave me a comment (with your email address if you are new to my blog) and I'll add your name to the list. Hang in there--this book is worth waiting for. But if you don't want to wait until then, get a copy now for yourself or the young adult reader in your life! (Continental United States only.) Giveaway ends January 20.

Monday, November 18, 2019

For Black Girls Like Me: A Review and a Giveaway


In 2018 I read Nancy Johnson's article on Writer Unboxed encouraging writers to figure out what their novel's big question is. I saved it on my desktop and went back to it several times as I wrote Half-Truths. That question is in my mind and shaping the sequel.

So, it's no coincidence that after I finished reading For Black Girls Like Me (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019) by Mariama J. Lockington one of my thoughts was, "What is the big question this book answers?"

I don't know if Ms. Lockington has this in her mind when she wrote this middle grade book, but my question for this book would be, "What does a black girl experience who was adopted into a white family and never knew her birth mother?"



REVIEW

Using free verse poetry and poetic prose, the novel provides powerful insight into eleven-year-old Makeda June Kirkland's reality. Readers are immersed into the life of a girl whose hippie mother named her after an Ethiopian girl who died in a famine. Makeda's response: "I like Keda for short. I am not a dead girl." (p. 8)

The book opens with Keda, her older sister Eve, and her used-to-be-concert-violinist mother driving across country to New Mexico to meet their father who has taken a job as the principal cellist in the New Mexico Symphony. "Mama is up front with one hand on the wheel. Her violin in the passenger seat. The neck tipped down like a bottle being emptied into the seat." (p.3) This image poetically foreshadows  Mrs. Kirkland's battles.

Music, according to their father, is their legacy. Forced to play piano, but loving singing more, Keda wonders if she sounds like gibberish when she sings since her father outlaws the gibberish of  rap, hip-hop, and R and B. Keda's constant question is, "Where do I belong?" 

I love Ella and Billie Holiday and oh I just can't get enough of Nina Simone. These women sing and I feel like they are talking to me. Like we are speaking the same language. Like they know what it is to feel loved and lonely all at the same time. (p. 18) 
Although Keda realizes her parents love her, that knowledge doesn't stop her from wondering about her birth mother. "Even though these days I can't help feeling like I'll never be whole. That somewhere out there is a woman with my face. Another mother. Missing me the way I miss her." (p. 33)

Keda's voice is in the songs she makes up. 

.... I try to imitate different instruments with the sound of my voice. I don't sing any real words. I just open myself to the sounds and sing what I feel. I close my eyes and sway back and forth. I like to think about notes as colors and shapes. I like to swish the notes around in my mouth. Taste them on my tongue. Then I try to fill the whole world with my breath. With my sound.

In Albuquerque, Keda misses her best friend Lena (who is Haitian and was adopted by a white family) and has problems at her new school. Although Keda is used to people staring at her parents and then at her, trying to figure out where she came from, this time it is particularly painful. A teacher assumes she is from Africa, a fellow sixth grader calls her the N-word, and Keda's fragile new world breaks apart.  

A brief stint of homeschooling is followed by a disastrous summer. Her father goes on tour, her mother pulls away from the girls and into her own world, and Keda stops hearing from Lena. In a manic turn of events, her mother suddenly decides to take the girls on a trip to Colorado which ends in her attempted suicide--for which Keda blames herself. 

The end of the book is a symphony of clashes between the sisters that climax with new empathy and forgiveness. The ways in which the family pulls together after Mrs. Kirkland's hospitalization are painful, tentative, and yet authentic. 

I loved one of the final scenes when Keda's mother's violin-playing invades Keda's dream--and she realizes that it's not a dream. After her mother ends her impromptu concert, the two speak honestly about her mother's mental illness and her mother suggests that Keda take formal voice lessons. That night Keda sleeps better than she has in months. In the morning her fantasy friends who she calls the Georgia Belles, sing their last song to her ending with:

Peachy girl

You are ripe

You are

Your own magic

You don't need us to be free

All you need is a song

Diddlee-do-ee 

So I fling my blinds open, I open my mouth. I smear my ripe voice all over the morning. And let it ring. (p. 316)

GIVEAWAY

I am giving away my autographed copy of this book. If you are interested in receiving it, please leave me a comment (with your email address if you are new to my blog) by November 14. Want an additional chance? Post this on your social media of choice or start following my blog. Please let me know what you do and I'll add your name twice. Continental United States only. 




Monday, November 11, 2019

Meet My New Experts: Four Korean War Veterans

Congratulations to Jo Lynn Worden who won an autographed copy of "God's Blessings of Fall." Thanks to everyone who entered this popular giveaway.

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I've been plotting and thinking about my next book, which is tentatively titled, TOXIC. It will be a sequel to HALF-TRUTHS with Kate's younger brother, Woody, as the main character. In the beginning of HALF-TRUTHS, Kate and Woody's father (Ben) leave for the Korean conflict. One of the ways that Kate connects with Lillian, her grandmother's housemaid, is that Lillian's brother, Isaac, is also in Korea. 

TOXIC take places a year after the Korean War ends, after Ben and Isaac return home. I realized that I needed to better understand what Korean soldiers experienced during the war and when they returned. Following Joyce Hostetter's apt advice, I went looking for some Korean vets. Here are my new experts who generously shared their experiences.


DICK RIDLEY

Dick Ridley, October, 2019

When I contacted Dick, he told me that his story was boring and that he had it "soft."  He was in the artillery and helped man a howitzer that was 4-7 miles away from the front line. 

As the picture below shows, it wasn't easy work and the noise was intense and caused hearing loss in later years. But, as Dick said, "We didn't feel a sense of danger. We were young and stupid. I never saw any wounded." 


Dick Ridley, 1951

One of the eight men in his gun crew refused to pull the lanyard. He would load and aim it, but never fire it. 



This was a letter which Dick received many years later, along with the medal hanging around his neck in the top picture. 

Dick worked as a senior designer for Ford and Pontiac in Michigan and then at Freightliner Trucks in Charlotte, NC. In his retirement Dick volunteers in the Carolina Room at the main library. He enjoys scanning documents, maps and pictures and wonders what the story is behind the images. 


JOE CURTIS GLOVER


Joe had hoped to go into the Army because he'd heard the Marines were rough and tough and he wanted accounting training. But when he enlisted, they needed more men to fill a Marine platoon and the decision was made for him.  

Although he reported that he was generally treated equally as whites, he could tell by the way in which the drill instructors spoke to him and the four blacks (out of 64 men in the platoon), that they were prejudiced. He was assigned to the Motor Transport along with many other black soldiers. His job was to bring men, ammunition, troops, and supplies to the front and take back the wounded or the dead. 

"When I wasn't driving, I was in a fox hole." Joe told me about a time in which he hid in a fox hole when the enemy was attacking, along with another soldier. Like other accounts I have read, much of the fighting took place at night. "There were explosions of light. I couldn't see anything and would just shoot towards the sound. I didn't know if I hit somebody or not."

Later, he realized that his fellow Marine in the fox hole got shot. "I didn't know he was dead until I felt his blood."



This letter of commendation hangs on the wall in his den.

Joe stayed in the Marines and was in the Motor pool for several years. He kept pushing to take accounting classes but was often told that the classes were full. His wife Dorothy added that he was not treated with respect when he returned to the States. Joe's persistence paid off. He received the training he wanted, worked his way up, and became a fiscal officer in charge of a large budget, reporting to a Major. 
Dorothy and Joe Glover, October, 2019
Joe retired from the Marines, worked for the Postal Service, and is now retired in Travares, Florida. He and his wife have 27 great grandchildren.


PRESTON WOODWARD

Preston Woodward, November, 2019
Preston Woodward's family estimated that he had 100 pieces of shrapnel in his body--many of which were never removed because the surgery would have damaged his body. Unashamed, Preston told me to feel the 2-inch bump in his arm and showed me scars on his legs. 

Preston joined the Marines right out of high school. "It was the right thing to do," he said. "They needed people and the Marines was the roughest outfit."

When he was unloaded off the ship in Korea, the men were marched straight to the front. It was the middle of the night, the men were hungry, and the terrain was difficult. He was a part of a nine men fire team; he carried the BAR (Browning automatic rifle).

"They wanted us to confront civilians and jump off to take a small hill. It took so many casualties to accomplish what we were supposed to [do]. It was all mixed up with people coming and going. Wounded going out and new Marines coming in. We weren't trained right, we thought we were ready, but we weren't. Seeing the real Marine Corps changes you."

When Preston got hit in his leg from an explosion, he bandaged it himself. "Small fragments would scatter and hurt you. The corpsmen were busy and I was no wimp. I kept going  and prayed it would cease." As far as he could see, the war had grown on either side of him. "I used to think, 'Why do people line up on two sides and kill each other?'"

As we talked, Preston's shoulders, neck, and legs jerked and twisted. He still has a lot of pain from the shrapnel and some of his memories were jumbled. As far as I could tell, after a severe bombing, he laid out on the field wounded for 4-5 days. If he moved, the enemy would lob more grenades. The force of the explosions from the concussion grenades flipped him over. 

Preston was captured and taken to a Chinese medical station.  After that he was a prisoner-of-war for "one year, ten months, and sixteen days" until the war ended. Although Preston doesn't remember much about that imprisonment, he relayed that he was interrogated and threatened with death. He didn't have the information they were looking for, but they attempted to brainwash him. 

After the war, Preston returned to Florida and had multiple operations. "I was fearful of loud noises like a shotgun. I'd jump up and think someone was coming at me." He had nightmares and drank too much. His parents taught him to be courageous, his father told him that his anxiety would end, and his friends advised him to go back into fearful situations. Seeing what alcohol did to his buddies helped him to quit; he did resume hunting and got over his fear of loud noises. 

Preston had difficulty staying on the job because of his physical limitations due to his injuries. He was widowed three times and now lives in an assisted living facility in central Florida. Parked out front is his Ford black pick-up truck that he would love to drive. 



After we talked, Preston carefully tucked his cap inside his belt. "That's what we used to do," he told me with a smile. 


CURTIS KOJO MORROW


My last expert to highlight in this post is not someone who I have interviewed. Rather, I "met" Curtis Morrow in the pages of his memoir, What's a Commie Ever Done to Black People? (McFarland & Co., 1997). 

Curtis was 17 when he enlisted in the Army and joined the 24th Infantry Regiment Combat Team. This unit, originally known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was the Army's last all Negro unit; it was deactivated in 1951 when black soldiers were officially integrated into the other units in Korea. 



I will most likely review this book, so let me just say that it is raw, authentic, gritty, and memorable. It is not for the faint of heart, but it illuminates the Korean conflict through a young, vulnerable, and courageous black teenager. The word pictures that Mr. Morrow painted have stayed with me long after I read them. 

Photo from Facebook, taken in 2014

Mr. Morrow is an author, artist, and freelance photographer who lives in Chicago.

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These men sacrificed more than I can imagine. Now, their stories will inform mine. As I write TOXIC, I'm thinking about the horrors which Woody's father, Ben Dinsmore, saw in Korea and how that will shape Woody's life.  What did Isaac Harris see and experience? When he comes back to Charlotte, what will his life be like, and how will he influence Woody?

I'm using One Stop for Writers to explore these characters' backstories. I hope you hang in there with me as I build a new story. 

Stay tuned. 

Buddies, Bullies, and Baseball: A Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won ANY GOOD THING from last week's blog. ******* REVIEW This week I have a short ...