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.


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.)


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. 


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?"


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


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)


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.


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, 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 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, 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. 


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.


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. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Life as a Published Author: A Guest Post by Jean Hall

For over ten years Jean Matthew Hall and I have encouraged each other as writers. I was delighted when she received her first publishing contract for Bountiful Blessings Series with Little Lamb Books. I hope you take a minute to read my review of her first book in the series, The Blessings of Fall. Jean's words are lyrical and the illustrations by Olya Badulina's are beautiful. 

In this post, Jean shares what it's felt like to enter into the world of being a published author. 



Becoming an official author is an emotional roller-coaster!
My family thinks I’m up there with James Patterson and is celebrating my “fame!” I love them and their enthusiasm for this time in my life.
I feel excited to be in the spotlight right now – no matter how small that spotlight is!
Gratitude to God swells up in me each time I read the book, God’s Blessings of Fall on real paper with real ink. God does give us dreams in our lives, and He helps us make them a reality sometimes. This experience is a dream come true for sure.

Writing friends are high-fiving me on social media, at conferences, via email. It’s fun to have a tribe ya-hooing with me. 
Current friends are excited to think they know a REAL author! My Sunday School class have no small children, but they are rushing to Amazon and Barnes & Noble to order copies of the book.

I especially enjoy my visits to kindergarteners, first and second graders in Christian schools. The kids are excited. The teachers are excited. I’m excited. So much enthusiasm for what the Lord has done.
And for a few moments I feel like a celebrity.
The school visits are tiring for this old lady, but I love them. Such wonderful memories rush back as I stand or sit in front of dozens of adorable kids glued to the pages of the book. Many thanks to Olya Badulina and Little Lamb Books for creating gorgeous artwork to bring the text to life. 

I might sing a childhood hymn with the little ones as they keep rhythm (“All Things Bright and Beautiful” or “This Is My Father’s World”). Or we might make paper plate owls together. I help kindergarteners cut large paper leaves and string them up. Teachers get the fun of figuring out how to suspend them from the ceiling.
It’s all fun! And that is what reading is supposed to be. I am glad for every class, every school, every opportunity to share with children:
  • The beauty of God’s creation
  • The language of art
  • The beauty of words
  • The joy of reading
  • The fun of sharing

If you write books for young children find some schools that will let you in!
There’s a lot of work and preparation for each visit, but it is so worth it. If you write for older kids, you can share the fun and hard work of writing and creating with students. Most of them are hungry to learn. And they are fascinating by the writing and publishing process.
Teachers are, too.
So, dive in! Hunt down the schools in your area. Make a spreadsheet of contact info. Spend a few hours on your phone and email. You can do it. 
Then you, too, can feel like a celebrity.
And share God’s blessings with the next generation of readers and writers. 


Jean is giving away a copy of God's Blessings of Fall to one fortunate blog reader. Leave me a comment (make sure you leave your email address!) and I'll enter your name. For an additional chance to win, post this on social media and let me know what you did. Giveaway ends November 7. Continental United States only. 

Jean Matthew Hall has spent most of her life singing songs, reading books, playing games, cutting, coloring and gluing with children of all ages. And, she loves it! Creating encouraging board books and picture books is her idea of fun, but her favorite times are spent with her eight grandchildren. 
Contact Jean or learn more about her here:
Facebook                     Jean Matthew Hall Author
Twitter                         Jean_Hall
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