Monday, March 28, 2016

The Hired Girl: A Review and an Audio Giveaway

One of the highest compliments you can give an author is to finish their book and want to read it all over again. In the case of The Hired Girl, by award-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, that's exactly what I did; happily spending hours on a recent car trip reliving the world of Janet Lovelace, hired girl. 
Pour yourself your favorite beverage and take a few minutes for this review. I'll try hard not to include too many spoilers. 

Fourteen-year-old Janet, who changes her name from Joan Skraggs when she arrives in Baltimore in July, 1911, is a character female readers of all ages will enjoy. Raised on a Pennsylvania farm, there is little she cannot do-- pluck chickens, beat rugs, or put up food for the winter. But her insatiable desire to become educated, "noble and courageous" irritates her father. When he burns her books because he believes reading takes up too much of her time, Janet receives the catalyst she needs to leave home.  

Janet's beloved school teacher's end-of-the-year gift is a journal. This diary becomes Schlitz's vehicle to tell Janet's story. Although some readers might find this contrived, I loved it. I was totally immersed in her deep POV. Janet's longing for her dead mother; frustration over her father and brothers' rejection; desire to be a "proper young lady" who frequents the opera, museums, and fashionable department stores; her head-over-heels infatuation for a most unsuitable love interest; her melodramatic observations about herself and other characters; plus her plucky and hopeful attitude, create a totally authentic and often humorous young woman.

She comes to Baltimore to find employment as a hired girl. She arrives too late to find a room in a boarding home and resigns herself to having to spend the night on a park bench. Fortunately for her, she meets a young gentleman, Solomon Rosenbach, who brings her back to his home with the hopes that his mother will allow her to stay. One of my favorite lines is when Janet waits outside their home and she hears Mrs. Rosenbach say to her son, "Oh Solly, it used to be cats and dogs." That gentle, motherly reproof tells the reader a lot about Solomon and his mother; and is in fact, something which haunts Janet later.

The Rosenbach's elderly housekeeper, Malka, is most loved by the family but can no longer do heavy housework. Although Janet is Catholic and Solly's parents are concerned she might "have anti-semitism" (despite the fact that Janet has no idea what the word means but is willing to learn it if that would make her a more desirable worker) she is hired to help Malka. Mrs. Rosenbach warns her that she'll need to be tactful so Malka (who Janet initially thinks of as a "black fly of a woman") doesn't feel old and unwanted; Janet admits that tactfulness might not be one of her strengths. 

Alas, this is true. Janet's lack of tact (sprinkled with a healthy dose of hired girl eavesdropping) gets her into trouble. 

She finds an ardent supporter in Mr. Rosenbach to whom she pleads, "I want to better myself." He admires her drive and supports her by giving her access to his library. "Edifying" books "take her into another world" where she imagines seeing the cities, monuments, and architecture pictured in The Picturesque World. 

Janet battles with the fact that she is seen only as the hired girl and her own desire to be more than that. Recounting a scene where she attempts to intercept Solly so she can thank him for rescuing her she says, "I tried to express my gratitude in elegant phrases so he would see that even though I am a hired girl, I am not just a hired girl." She adds, "I could tell he wanted me to stop talking."
 Later in the book she observes, "I don't think of myself as a hired girl. After all, I'm not going to be a servant all my life. I plan to be a teacher someday." 

I loved Janet's evaluation of her world: "The best thing about my servitude is that people are pleased with me...So different than life on the farm where no one was pleased and things never stayed clean."

And I appreciated her observations of the people around her. This is her description of Mimi, the Rosenbach's youngest daughter: 
How can that child look pretty when she is not? It's partly the way she moves, I guess. She's so light on her feet. She's like a bit of bright paper being blown over the grass. I wish I were like that. 
 As a young Catholic who has never met a Jew ("except for Rebecca in Ivanhoe," as she tells the Rosenbachs), she is introduced to the world of a different religion. Since I am a Jewish Christian, I thought readers would get an interesting window into a religious Jewish household--complete with a young Catholic's perspective on the High Holidays, keeping kosher, and yiddish idioms (shiksa, anyone?). Although I am not Catholic, it appears that Schlitz did her homework in portraying that part of Janet's background and practices accurately. 

I could go on and tell you about how Janet's love for romance leads to her "eternal embarrassment" and "mortification" or how the reader glimpses the fulfillment of Janet's desire to become an educated woman. But, I don't want to spoil the book for you. Let me just say that despite Malka's grim and at times sullen exterior, she is the secondary character whose love for Janet brings me to tears, even now as I write this review. 

Homeschool educators and teachers would find this an interesting book for studying the time period, comparative religions, as well as for analyzing the author's world view.

This audio book is performed by talented Rachel Botchan who does an outstanding job with all the different characters. Even though I was tempted to keep this book and listen to it again, I'm going to give it away courtesy of Recorded Books  (valued at $88.00) to one fortunate blog reader. I will pick a winner on Friday, April 1. I will enter your name for each time you share this on social media, and an additional time if you become a new follower. MAKE SURE you leave me your email address if you are new to my blog and tell me what you have done. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Plotting," Pansting", and the Act of Discovery

Congratulations to Linda Phillips who won WONDER and Mary Jane Nirdlinger  who won ORCHARDS. Thanks to all of you for leaving comments here and in Talking Story. More great giveaways coming up!

In the ongoing conversation about plotter vs. panster I've discovered that I work somewhere in between these two camps. On the one hand, I can't work without an outline next to my computer.

My current 33 page
chapter-by-chapter outline

Perhaps this is because Half-Truths is my first novel. Or maybe it's because it's from 2 POVs and I needed to create character arcs for each girl, plus an arc for their friendship. How in the world could I do that without a road map?

My outlining process two years ago.
(I guess I've come a long way since then...)

Given the state of my brain, I am happiest when I can open Scrivener, consult my outline, and see where I'm supposed to go.
But... in the last few weeks I've discovered the joy of not knowing everything ahead of time. I've been surprised by the things my characters do, say, feel, and remember within the confines of each chapter.

A few months ago I realized that after my daily writing time, I enjoyed reviewing in my mind what I had discovered that day. I started posting these discoveries on Facebook and thought I'd share several of them here--just in case you missed them. 

In no particular order: 
  • Kate's grandmother bought her this tweed suit and hung it in her wardrobe. Kate hates the suit but wears it in order to wheedle something out of her grandmother. (Author's note: I just figured out she was wearing this in the scene I wrote today while I was composing this post!)
  • Lillie represents the New South where women aren't necessarily maids and servants to whites. But as much as her grandmother, Big Momma, supports Lillie's dreams of making something of herself, she is still grounded in the Old South where blacks serve whites and white is right. 
  • "This quilt is soft with washing and at night sometimes I still curl up and hug it to my chest." Kate
  • Kate's first "half-truth" covers up one of Lillie's secrets.
  • Lillie's realization that Kate lives in a family divided by the Civil War.
  • Kate's realization that her father (an engineer in the US Army in Korea) is making money in a job involving killing people. She associates that with Lillie's father, an undertaker, making money off people dying.
  • From Lillie's POV: "The library is quiet. The only sounds are Mr. Dinsmore turning the pages of his paper and tapping his pipe occasionally into the ashtray and Miss Anna Katherine scribbling in her notebook. Every so often she pauses with the pencil by her mouth, looks over at me, smiles, and starts writing again. We’re certainly nowhere near being friends like Big Momma’s frets about. But there’s a thread between us that I think we both feel. Maybe it’s that we both want Eileen to get better. Or, maybe it’s just because we’re both teenage girls. Either way, when I imagine working here without Miss Anna Katherine being around the place, it wouldn’t be the same.
  • When Kate doodles she draws open and closed eyes. 
  • Kate loved hearing The Ugly Duckling read to her and Granddaddy has some half-truths of his own.
"The Ugly Duckling"
The original uploader was LaSylphide at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

This is my FIFTH full draft of Half-Truths and I'm still finding out new things. And you know what? This act of discovery is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of writing. 

At least...until I get a publishing contract! 

For more of my WIP discoveries, friend me at Carol Federlin Baldwin on Facebook. Meanwhile, are you a plotter or panster? Have you found any recent discoveries in your WIP? Please share them in the Comments section. 

Did you ever stop to consider if you are a plotter or panster in "real" life? In this recent blog post by Becky Levine she considers some of the surprises she's discovered in her life as a writer. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Orchards: A Review and a Giveaway

This is a two-for-one week as I review and give away two books on the theme of bullying which Joyce Hostetter and I tackle in the spring issue of Talking Story.

From the number of novels-in-verse that I review, you may guess this is a genre close to my heart. Ever since I was in high school and poured my heart out in free verse, I've admired this genre. But there is more than a world apart from my attempts and beautifully written novels such as THE GOOD BRAIDER, BLUE BIRDS, CRAZY, THE KISS OF BROKEN GLASS. I am consistently impressed with these authors' ability to tell well-plotted stories using succinct, figurative language.

Let's add ORCHARDS by Holly Thompson to this list.  

(Please note that the line spacing in the following excerpts are not an exact replica of the book's poems. I had difficulty formatting these poems for this blog.)

Half-Japanese, half-Jewish American, Kana Goldberg is sent to her mother's ancestral home in Japan for the summer. A bullied eighth grade classmate (Ruth) committed suicide at the end of the school year and although Kenna wasn't the bully, she didn't stop it from happening. Working in her mother's ancestral mikan orange grove, she deals with her anger, guilt and grief and comes home a stronger young woman.

because of you, Ruth
I'm exiled
to my maternal grandmother, Baachan,  
to the ancestors at the altar 
and to Uncle, Aunt and cousins 
I haven't seen in three years-- 
not since our last trip back 
for Jiichan's funeral 
when Baachan  
told my sister Emi 
she was just right 
but told me I was fat 
should eat

less fill myself eighty percent 
no more each meal
                    but then I was small
                    then I didn't have hips
                    then was before this bottom inherited from my father's 
Russian Jewish mother  (p.9)

Initially, Kana experiences problems fitting in.

I try to learn fast 
make up for my 
non-Japanese half 
but Uncle makes  
remarks like after I set the breakfast table-- 
how are we supposed to eat... 
with our hands?

I rush to set out chopsticks...  
too late
they seem to think 
I can just switch
          one half of me
       on and leave the other 
       half of me 
       off but I'm like
       warm water
       pouring from a faucet
       the hot
       and cold
       both flowing
       as one (p. 24-5)

In Japanese school, Kana tries to reach out to a girl she perceives is an outsider, because that's what her school counselor had said she and her friends should have done for Ruth. 
but instead of opening up to me 
instead of warming to me 
instead of reaching out 

in return
she pivots 
and walks away.
after that 
not everyone is so eager 
to get to know this New Yorker not everyone so hot 
to try their English 

I don't care 

groups don't matter 
so much to me now 
maybe because I know 
most atoms aren't as stable
as they seem (p. 53-54)
She has a negative opinion of her deceased grandfather, but when she realizes he was operating out of his own hurt over her mother's leaving Japan, she recognizes there are two sides to every story.
I think 
there must be at least 
two sides 
to your story, too, Ruth,
and maybe knowing 
more of Lisa's side
          how she lived 
       with her godparents
       not her parents
       who were I don't know where
       might help explain
       why she was so mean to you

       and why we all 
       her lead (p.96)

When school ends Kana works long days in the family orchard. There she thinks about Ruth:
everyone knows 
Lisa didn't mean it 
everyone knows 
when a person says certain things 
they don't meathe words 
they say 
in the note you left 
for your parents
         and brother
      you said
      life was too hard
      they could never know
      what it was like
      for you at school
      where you were ostracized                           
                                 left out                           
and where 
just that day 
in front of all us girls 
after Jake handed you 
a piece of paper 
Lisa had given you 
a look  
and said 

I hope you die

I saw you glare  
at Lisa 
hard, I thought 
mean, I thought 
bitch we all said

hurt, I now realize 
as you crumpled that note into a  
tiny ball that was still 
in your jeans pocket
         when you were found in Osgood's orchard (p.110-111)

Kana's grief doesn't stop there; her world continues to painfully unravel. But by the time she returns to New York she has found a new home with her mother's family and a new way to go on living. 

Joyce Hostetter and I are giving away this book in conjunction with Talking Story's current issue on bullying. You can leave a comment either here, or through the newsletter. Do both, and your name will be entered twice. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

WONDER: A Review and a Giveaway

Congratulations to Clara Gillow Clark who was over-the-top excited to win Darcy Pattison's book, 30 Days to a Stronger Novel.
I am late to the party celebrating WONDER’s impact on the literary world. I’d heard of the book but didn’t cross paths with it until I received a copy at last year's mid-year SCBWI-Florida conference. It was unopened on my “To Be Read” shelf until I saw it on a list of recommended books about bullying. Since that is the topic of the spring issue of Talking Story coming out this week, I decided it was time to finally read it.

I’m not sure what I am more impressed with: R. J. Palacio’s blunt portrayal of a courageous young boy, August, with extreme facial deformities; her spot-on ability to show the eight different point-of-view perspectives on August (including his own); or, the additional ending, “The Julian Chapter” which Palacio added two years after publication giving the back story behind Julian’s bullying August. All are equally superb.

Born with mandibulofacial dysostosis (also known as Treacher Collins syndromeAugust had twenty-seven operations to try and repair his facial deformities. You get a glimpse of his strength of character on the first page:
I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go.....I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse. (p.3)
After being homeschooled, his family decides that it is time for him to enter school. Although he's used to being stared at, after his first day he breaks down:
"Why do I have to be so ugly, Mommy?" I whispered. 
"No, baby, you're not...." 
"I know I am." 
She kissed me all over my face. She kissed my eyes that came down too far. She kissed my cheeks that looked punched in. She kissed my tortoise mouth. She said soft words that I know were meant to help me, but words can't change my face. (p. 60)
Normally Halloween was August's favorite holiday since he could hide his face and blend in with other trick-or-treaters. But hidden in his costume he overhears a conversation between his one friend, Jack, and Julian, the leader of the popular crowd. He is crushed when Jack says, "if I looked like him, seriously, I think that I'd kill myself." (p.77)

Each change in point of view begins with backstory showing how the secondary character knows August. Using this device, R. J. Palacio not only shows how August impacts other people's lives, but creates a more complete story. August's POV weaves in and out if the other characters' accounts.

The second section is from Olivia, August's older sister, POV. It is obvious that Via loves her little brother but as she enters high school, she has her own set of problems to deal with: a broken friendship with her best friend; miscommunication with her mother who always puts August first; and generally figuring out where she fits in. 

Plus, there is the added stress of knowing she carries the mutant gene which is the partial cause of August's deformity. But Via shines through as a truth speaker in August's life. When August decides not to return to school after the Halloween incident with Jack, she confronts him. "Now unless you want to be treated like a baby the rest of your life, or like a kid with special needs, you just have to suck it up and go." (p. 115) Her tough love works, and despite his fears and misgivings, August returns to school.

The third point of view is Summer, a girl in August's class who befriends him for no other reason than she wants to. Initially she feels sorry for him, but eventually she concludes he's funny. She gets up her courage to ask him about his face and he answers:
"The main thing I have is this thing called man-di-bu-lo-facial-dys-os-tosis--which took me forever to learn how to pronounce, by the way. But I also have this other syndrome thing that I can't even pronounce. And this things kind of just morphed together into one big superthing, which is so rare they don't even have a name for it. I mean, I don't want to brag or anything, but I'm actually considered a medical wonder, you know." 
He smiled. 
That was a joke," he said. "You can laugh." 
I smiled and shook my head.
"You're funny, Auggie," I said
"Yes, I am," he said proudly. "I am cool beans." (p. 129-30)
The fourth POV belongs to Jack. Readers get a glimpse into his initial motivation for becoming August's friend, how he ends up enjoying him ["he laughs at all my jokes,...I can tell August anything...if all the guys in the fifth grade were lined up against a wall and I got to choose anyone I wanted to hang out with, I would choose August" (p. 143)], why he lets Auggie down, and then how he comes to his defense and they are re-united as friends. I was touched by how Palacio authentically portrayed the boys' friendship and conflicts. August is the target of more bullying from Julian after Christmas break, but this time Jack is on his side and they weather it together. 

The next POV is from Justin, Via's boyfriend. A shorter section, but poignant. Justin's parents are divorced and he sees Via and August's family in a totally different light. 
for as long as I can remember, i've felt like my parents could hardly wait for me to be old enough to care of myself. "you can go to the store by yourself." "here's the key to the apartment." it's funny how there's a world like overprotective to describe some parents, but no word that means the opposite. what word do you use to describe parents who don't protect enough? underprotective? neglectful? self-involved? lame? all of the above? 
olivia's family tell each other "i love you" all the time. 
i can't remember the last time anyone in my family said that to me. 
by the time I go home, my tics have all stopped. (p. 192)
Miranda, Via's best friend, provides a different outsider's perspective on Via and August in the sixth POV. 

Without giving a spoiler, circumstances shift during the spring and Julian finds himself on the outside rather than being the kid everyone wants to be friends with. August experiences a triumphant close to his first year in public school and with that, the original text ended. But two years later R. J. Palacio added The  Julian Chapter which shows why Julian was mean to August. He spends a vacation with his grand-mere in France, hears her family secret, experiences remorse over his attitude towards August, and apologizes to him.  

Including this last section is a stroke of genius. Every bully has a back story: pain in his or her life which leads to picking on others. WONDER is a triumphant story of a young boy who is courageous in the face of his deformity. It is also a story about taking responsibility for oneself and forgiveness. 

I am giving away my copy of the updated version of WONDER through the spring issue of Talking Story. Leave a comment here and I'll enter your name once. If you are interested in subscribing to the quarterly newsletter which Joyce Hostetter and I publish, leave your email address and I'll send you the link to the newsletter. Leave a message through the newsletter and your name will be entered twice. If you are new to this blog, PLEASE leave me your contact information in case you win. Winner will be drawn on March 21. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

An Interview with Darcy Pattison and a Giveaway: 30 Days to a Stronger Novel

As a blogger and former attendee at a Highlights Writing workshop, I received an email assessing my interest in hosting one of their instructors. Always on the lookout for interesting blog material, I checked out The Highlights Foundation schedule and contacted Darcy Pattison. Darcy is not only a prolific author, but also the instructor for the upcoming Highlights "Master Class in Novel Writing." Read on to find out more about this workshop and about her book she's giving away. 

1. What are your goals for your students for this workshop? What are you hoping they will leave with? 
Since 1999, I’ve traveled and taught The Novel Revision Retreat, one of the first whole-novel retreats. It targets beginning writers who needed to understand their craft better, as well as intermediate writers who are close to breaking into publication, but just need a small boost. I’m pleased that the retreats have helped dozens of writers find acceptance for a debut novel.

But I’ve always had a passion for the intermediate to advanced writer, the target audience for the Master Class in Novel Writing 2016.

In every craft, the top artists say that they are constantly learning new things, even after they’ve achieved a level of success. Yet in writing, it seems we find fewer ways to do this than in other crafts. I want to challenge successful writers to try something different, to see a technique a different way, to stretch their craft, to go home excited and hopeful that they can at last try the novel they scares them silly, scares them because they worry that they can’t do the story justice.

This isn’t a workshop for the faint at heart! We’ll be looking at The Rules and challenging them—for good reasons—and finding times when breaking The Rules better serves the story. We’ll role-play the editor’s and reader’s roles and how you might answer objections. We’ll talk and argue and laugh and pour words onto the page. I hope we’ll have writers with different strengths, opinions and challenges because it will force us out of our comfort zone.

Cynthia Oznick once said, “Writing is an act of courage.” We’ll find the courage to tell our stories—our way. That’s my goal: for writers to find the courage necessary to write their stories, their way. And in learning to control their voice, they’ll find a wider acceptance for their stories.

2. Looks to me as if you have a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, and writing resources under your belt. That’s very cool! Do your different projects feed one another? Which came first—nonfiction or fiction? (I’m asking because I started with nonfiction and am moseying over to fiction now. :) 

For me, fiction came first. Nonfiction came along because I wanted to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you look at Arnold’s career, he had successful action movies that alternated with successful comedies. From “Terminator” to “Kindergarten Cop,” it seems like a big stretch. I admired his ability to find a very different second genre in which to work. It widened his career, and it stretched him as an actor.

I thought about what sorts of books I could write as an alternate career and decided to try science/nature picture books for kids. It’s been a happy place for me. Wisdom, the Midway Albatross received a Starred Publisher’s Weekly review, and Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma was named a 2015 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book. But my first love is still fiction.

3. Pretend you are talking to a perspective workshop student. How would you sell him or her on taking your class? 
Are you complacent with your career and the direction it’s going? Then this workshop isn’t for you. This is for the brave-at-heart who wants to be challenged to go beyond their best, to surprise even themselves.

4. Can you give some details about the morning lectures or activities?  
I’m excited with the two topics we’ll discuss this summer, plot and point of view. The topics will be interwoven with alternating activities that challenge writers to reach beyond their present understanding. Articles that challenge the traditional understanding of point of view and its implications for stories should stimulate discussion and experimentation. Tight plots, loose plots, plot twists, subplots, three-act structure, four-act structure—we’ll attack plotting from many directions until writers find a unique way through the maze of connecting scenes in meaningful ways. We won’t find one answer, but many answers to the question of how to plot. One of those answers, though, will feed a particular story for each writer in unexpected ways. I’m planning readings, discussions, role-playing, writing, sharing writing, lively and interactive group activities. It should be fun, exciting and challenging. I expect the writers to challenge ME to think and to write something new. And that makes me very excited.

5. What is your current project and how does it feed your teaching?
My current novel is a science fiction trilogy with this high concept as a starting point:

Earth finally gets a message from space. “You only live on the land; allow us to live in the seas.”

This story is challenging me in new ways as I connect a plot across a trilogy and experiment to find the right point-of-views for each scene. I often say that the only reason I can teach writing is that I’m in the trenches myself, struggling to tell a compelling story that won’t leave me alone. In spite of many family upheavals, I come back and come back to this story. It won’t leave me alone. That struggle—even if I ultimately fail—is what allows me to reach out and encourage other writers with the stories that haunt them.

I hope you take a minute to visit Darcy's website and blog. The Highlights description says that attendees for her workshop "must have either attended one of her previous Novel Revision Retreats or be a published novelist to attend. Our aim is to challenge the established writer to step out and take new risks, to work in a new direction. Some advance reading required before the workshop." 

I asked Darcy if writers who like myself have not previously attended her workshop or published a novel may attend. She said, "I'm glad to consider anyone's writing. If you've been seriously working for a couple years on your craft, you'll be a good candidate."
As I mentioned, Darcy is generously giving away a copy of her book, 30 Days to a Stronger Novel, which she uses in her video course.

To enter this giveaway, please leave me a comment by noon on Thursday, March 10. If you are new to this blog, make sure you leave me your email address. If you decide to follow my blog, or share this giveaway on social media, I'll enter your name twice. Just make sure you tell me what you do.

THE NIGHT WAR: A MG Historical Novel Review

  By now you should have received an email from my new website about my review of THE NIGHT WAR by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (It'll com...