Jan/Feb book report

I’ve decided to change things up a bit this year with my book reports — instead of writing about all the books I’ve read in a given month, I’ll highlight my main recommendations. You can still follow my reading pile on Goodreads, and I do try to write reviews now and then over there if something really moves me, but I’ll post my faves here every month or so and try to focus on one audio book, one read aloud, and one recent release.

In January I listened to In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. A friend of mine had recommended it, and I am drawn to memoirs of survival, particularly when they involve breaking free from an oppressive culture. I love books that are difficult to read and stay with you long after they end. This was no exception. Parts of the book made me cringe as I listened to Park detail the hardships she faced while living in North Korea and then being forced into human trafficking in her attempt to escape. It is impossible not to be moved by her perseverance and resiliency, and of the sacrifices made by her mother. I appreciated the fact that she explained the history of her home country, the honesty with which she told her story, and the bravery required to openly speak out against a place that is known for its treatment of traitors. Park’s story is only one. There are no doubt other stories, some more extreme and painful. And as global citizens, it is our duty to listen.

My younger son and I read the second book in Todd McClimans’ American Epochs series, a book called Time Underground. I met Todd on Twitter when I won a copy of his first book in the series, Time Traitor, which I read aloud with my older son. The series follows two boarding school friends who discover a time machine and travel back in American history. McClimans, history teacher turned principal, knows his stuff, and I love the fact that I can use literature to bring history alive to my sons. I even recommended the series to our school librarian, who loved it. Time Underground is about the Underground Railroad, and when one of the main characters discovers a distant relative did not survive his attempt to escape slavery, she goes back in time to try and save him. The present day chapters in the beginning were a little slow, but once she travels in time it was definitely a page turner, and the boy let out a loud, “NOOOO” each night I closed the book and said it was time to go to sleep. A sure sign of a good read.

Lastly, a new release I stumbled upon and enjoyed was Brave Deeds by David Abrams. I’ve started a new writing project and the main character works as a funeral guard for the Navy Reserves. I discovered the novel while searching the library catalog for research materials. I’m a sucker for a good, gritty military story, especially ones that showcase war’s effect on humanity. Brave Deeds follows a group of men on a day long journey to the memorial of their leader, and what I liked most about the book was its unique use of first person plural narrative. I’ve only seen that done once before (in The Weird Sisters) and it was the perfect way to show how the men were separate individuals functioning as one unit. I noticed some reviewers complaining that the narrative was disjointed, jumping around from present to past, but I think that was a deliberate and effective story telling device for this piece. The language is raw and realistic, and Abrams does a wonderful job weaving in each character’s back story wound. I will definitely be checking out his other work.

As always, happy reading everyone!

October book report

October was a good month for reading. Oh who am I kidding? Every month is a good month for reading! I decided to let my most recent novel do a bit more marinating before I dive back into revisions and have been working on a YA book written in verse. A very fun project, but in an effort to do it well I have been reading a lot of verse books. Which take about a day or two to read depending on the amount of distractions in my life. The few I have read so far have managed to give me all the feels, which hopefully I’ll be able to do with my work as well.

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan
My older son read Riding Freedom and Esperanza Rising in school and I read them too – I told him that anything he reads in school I will try to read as well. Loved them both. Echo was on his suggested summer reading list, and I hoped if I started listening to it in the car he would get hooked and want to read it on his own. He didn’t get hooked, but I did. The story follows three different children in three different parts of the world, all around the time of World War II. There is also a fourth story in the beginning that reads like a fairy tale and holds the stories together with a single object: A harmonica. So of course the audio version has harmonica music. Which was a lovely touch and made the book even more enjoyable. I recommend the audio version for that reason and think this a great story for young and old!

Right Here, Right Now edited by Jody Biehl
A few years ago I joined a book club that focuses on local authors. When possible, the author comes to our meeting (or joins us virtually) and it is a wonderful way to not only discuss great books but also gain insight into the writing process. This year started out with an anthology of Buffalo stories, and although I live in the suburbs, I’ve been here most of my life and found it fascinating to read each story and uncover the different perspectives.

Sweet Madness by Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie
This book ended up on my TBR list when I applied for Pitch Wars in 2015 because it was written by one of the mentors. And of course because I love all things Lizzie Borden. When I taught high school English, we did a multi-genre project that involved researching a famous person in history and then writing various pieces based on their life. I used Lizzie as a model and wrote one of my favorite poems. Sweet Madness looks at the story from the point of view of the Bordens’ maid, Bridget and explores what may have happened and why. I can definitely appreciate all of the research that must have been involved.

Witches by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is hands down my favorite children’s author. I’ve read many of his books multiple times and never tire of his off-beat humor and in-your-face-but-still-subtle life lessons. My youngest did not laugh quite as loud as his brother when I got to the dog’s droppings part, but he still enjoyed the book very much and it was the perfect thing to read as we prepared for Halloween. Such a good read aloud, as long as you can trill your “r’s”.

Heartbeat by Sharon Creech
Sharon Creech is another favorite (stay tuned for the November book report to learn what I’ve been reading with my older son) so I naturally turned to her when starting to read verse books. Heartbeat is a sweet story about a girl who loves to run and the complicated bits that come with growing up. A wonderful weekend afternoon read.

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
I found this gem online when I did a “writing books in verse” search. It tells the story of a young girl on the prairie sent to help out another family and subsequently abandoned just as winter sets in. She suffers from dyslexia (I assumed, it was not directly stated) and struggles to teach herself to read while figuring out how to get back home. Oh, the feels.

Far From You by Lisa Schroeder
More feels. As I said, these verse books are tearing me apart! I sat on the couch next to hubby and bawled. It’s about a teenage girl who has lost her mother to cancer and has a not so great relationship with stepmom and new baby sister, until they end up in a situation that changes everything. (Sorry, trying to stay vague to avoid spoilers.) The characters are so well fleshed out using sparse and beautiful language. I can only hope to do the same with my piece!

Phew! Always reading, always adding books to the piles (both the virtual one on Goodreads – come find me! and the physical stack on my nightstand). The cooler weather is sure to bring more nights curled up under the blanket, faithful kitty by my side, lost in a good book. Happy Reading!

Research and Reconnection

There’s a saying about people being in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. I’m not sure if I’m completely sold on that idea, but I do know there is a small handful of people who will be in my life forever, even if we only see each other once every few years. One of those people is my friend Sam (I’ve changed her name out of respect for her privacy). We met in high school on the bus to a soccer game. She was a sophomore, I was one of only three freshman on the team. While I can’t remember what we talked about that first day, I do remember that I knew right away we would be friends. She was funny and sweet, and she spoke her mind. My kind of person. Together we navigated the tumultuous teenage sea, had plenty of adventures and misadventures, and became die hard Monty Python fans.

Fast forward several years. Sam moved to North Carolina after college. We had remained friends, and I went down to visit her a few times. But then life happened. We kept in touch, but the time between phone calls stretched larger and larger, and I worried that she no longer considered me a friend. It was no one’s fault really, it happens to most of us. And now social media makes it easy to check the box of, “I posted on so and so’s wall for their birthday and commented on a picture of their kid – we’re caught up.” But there is something to be said about seeing a good friend in person. Giving them a hug. Seeing their space. Knowing that they will be in your life a little longer.

Sam’s brother lives in town, and last summer he told me that she was getting married. I knew I needed be there, no matter what. And I was. Plane tickets were too expensive, so I got in the car at 4am and drove twelve hours to see my friend. Totally worth it.

On the way down, I decided to take a quick detour to the 14th Quartermaster Detachment Memorial in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Part of my current project was inspired by an Army Reserve unit that suffered the greatest causalities during Desert Storm. I wanted to see the memorial, for research purposes, and also to pay my respects to the soldiers who were killed or injured. I want so much from my writing, and one of the things I hope to accomplish is to give a voice to untold stories, to remember the sacrifices of not only the men and women who fight, but also the family and friends who love them. Sam’s dad was deployed during Desert Storm, and while he survived the war, he did not survive the cancer that followed. We cannot forget that war does not end on the battlefield, especially now when battlefields are not clearly defined.

I didn’t make it to his funeral. Work, life… excuses… and it is something I deeply regret. I wasn’t there for my friend when I should have been. Maybe that’s why I needed to go down for her wedding. But it’s more than that. Friendship isn’t easy for me. I can be insensitive without meaning to, and I don’t like to be vulnerable (translation: you need a lot of explosives to knock down my walls). There are a handful of people in this world that I truly, deeply love. That will be my friends for a lifetime. Time passes, but that feeling doesn’t change. So I’m taking some time this week to try and reach out to people who have shaped me, changed me, loved me back despite my myriad of faults. And I encourage you, my beautiful readers, to do the same.

Because in the end, we need people who know us. Truly know us. Who will be there in tragedy and celebration. But we should also continue to expand our circle, to reach out to someone who may be lonely or hurting, to ask for help if we’re the ones lonely or hurting. Let’s travel on this road together.