My Favorite Reads of 2016

I know it’s only Dec. 22, but I’m flying away to California (!!!) on Saturday to spend Christmas with family, so I’m knocking it out early. The last time I posted this list early, I ended up binge-reading a series the final week of the year that totally would have edged out something on my list, but oh well. That’s the way it goes. If I read something completely amazing within the next nine days, I’ll just write a special review for it in January.

As in previous years, these aren’t necessarily books published in 2016, just books I read in 2016. I’ve read 110 books so far, but I will have a lot of reading time flying across the country TO THE WARMTH. Yes, I’m excited to leave cold Missouri! (Although the forecast says it will be warmer here on Christmas day than in San Diego. I think it must be wrong.)

Middle Grade

My middle grade count remained lower this year, but there were some real standouts. Also, there were several books I was able to share with my eight-year-old son. I expect I’ll return to reading more middle grade as he demands that I read along with him so we can discuss :).

5. COUNTING THYME by Melanie Conklin – I usually tend toward adventure and humor with my middle grade, but I loved this story about a family who moves to New York for the youngest boy’s treatment. It has so much heart, and the truths about friendship and family are so relevant for MG readers.

4. THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner – So, I actually have two pretty serious MG books on this list, because THE SEVENTH WISH deals with addiction. It’s handled so well, and as someone who’s had to explain addiction to my children, I appreciate having stories like this out there.

3. STORY THIEVES: THE STOLEN CHAPTERS by James Riley – I am a huge James Riley fan. His HALF UPON A TIME fairy tale series is genius, and the STORY THIEVES series is fantastic, too. This book is the second in the series, and it’s amazingly inventive in its storytelling style, in addition to being hilarious as usual. My son helped me out on this review :).

2. THE SLEEPOVER by Jen Malone – My kids begged me to read this book out loud to them after I brought it home from the NESCBWI Conference, and we were all laughing out loud throughout the book. My kids are already asking if there will be a sequel. I cringe at the thought of what else Jen Malone could do to those poor girls!

1. LODESTAR by Shannon Messenger – It’s probably no surprise that my favorite middle grade book of the year was the latest installment of Shannon Messenger’s KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES series. I wait impatiently for these books to come out every fall, and she delivers every time. I can’t even believe there are still two more books to come. I didn’t write a review for this one because I was immersed in revision when I read it, but it BLEW MY MIND!!!!

Young Adult

It’s always super-hard for me to choose my top five young adult reads of the year because it’s what I read the most of, but here are the five that I can’t get out of my head.

5. The Selection series by Kiera Cass – I gave this an honorable mention last year because I started reading it the last week of 2015, but since I read three of the five books (if you count the spinoff books) plus all of the novellas in 2016, I’m going to count it for this year. Because I really do love this series and feel the need to mention it again :). I devoured the original series within a week and then waited to read THE HEIR until THE CROWN came out (so glad I did that!). This reminds me that I should check out Ms. Cass’s other available book, THE SIREN.

4. IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU by Stephanie Kate Strohm – Yes, I just reviewed this book, but the reason it makes my list is because it pulled me out of a long reading slump where I liked the books I was reading but wasn’t in love with them. It’s clever, funny, and has great romantic tension. What’s not to love?

3. UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee – It took me a while to get to this book–I think because of the western setting–but once I started reading I was kicking myself for the hesitation. I love any book with girls disguising themselves as boys, but what I loved most about this story was the friendship. And the romance didn’t hurt either :). Now I’m wondering why I haven’t read Ms. Lee’s latest yet. Getting on that now …

2. P.S. I LIKE YOU by Kasie West – Since discovering Kasie West last year, I’ve devoured all of her books. I eagerly awaited the release of P.S. I LIKE YOU, and it delivered above and beyond what I expected. I mean, it’s a YA version of You’ve Got Mail. How could sworn enemies falling in love via letters not deliver?

1. MY LADY JANE by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – I had no idea what to expect going into this book, but it was the most delightful thing I read this year. Magic, romance, humor–it has it all, with complete irreverence for the real history, and yet it had me looking up the history, so I guess that means it’s doing history a service? I’m not really sure, but I want more books like this one!

We’ll see how many books I get through before the end of 2016. I’ve already loaded up my Kindle with some reads for the plane. Notably, my favorite YA read the past few years has always been a book from Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series. I’m reading her new standalone, HEARTLESS, right now, so we’ll see how it stacks up!

What were your favorites this year? Do we share any of the same? Let’s discuss!

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YA Review: IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Hello there!

Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever been away from the blog this long. Sorry about that. Almost immediately after I finished drafting, I started working on a revision that has completely consumed me. And as for reviewing, well, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. It’s not that I haven’t read anything good. I have, it’s just that I’ve been so focused on revising that reading–and thus reviewing–haven’t been a priority.

Until now. Because this book? It was so fantastic that I wanted to get back to it while I was revising, so obviously it deserves a review. And since it’s been sooo long since my last review (Oct. 17! Yikes!), I’m not waiting until my usual Monday.

It's Not Me, It's You by Stephanie Kate StrohmAvery Dennis is a high school senior and one of the most popular girls in her class. But a majorly public breakup with the guy she’s been dating causes some disastrous waves. It is right before prom and Avery no longer has the perfect date. She runs the prom committee, how could she not show up with somebody?

Post-breakup, Avery gets to thinking about all of the guys that she has ever dated. How come none of those relationships ever worked out? Could it be her fault? Avery decides to investigate. In history class she’s learning about this method of record-keeping called “oral history” and she has a report due. So Avery decides to go directly to the source. Avery tracks down all of the guys she’s ever dated, and uses that information along with her friends, family, and even teachers’ thoughts, to compile a total account of her dating history.

Avery discovers some surprises about herself and the guys she’s spent time with just in time for prom night.

Here are the five things I loved best.

1. The format – I love unique formats, and this one was especially unusual, told as a record of Avery interviewing her past boyfriends, with assistance from her best friend, her lab partner, and various people around them. I especially enjoyed her editor’s notes, commenting on what people had said as she gained new perspective on her own past.

2. The voices – It’s hard enough to master one or two voices, but this book had maybe twenty? I didn’t go through and count them :). But they’re all unique, and there’s heart in so many of them. I love how Avery’s best friend, Coco, is obsessed with JFK; her lab partner, Hutch, is full of science references; and his friends are all into the tabletop role-playing games.

3. The humor – I laughed out loud so much at this book, and that’s a main reason why I had to review it right away. There were many passages that got me, but here’s one I made a special note of.

HUTCH: Let the record show that this clown made a horrible kissing noise that was audible over a transcontinental phone connection, like a cartoon chef presenting a plate of tortellini.

4. The boyfriends – I loved all the boyfriends, especially the one in the band, the Italian, and the one with the secret hobby. Each one showed how Avery grew, which I think was the point of the project for her :).

5. The romance – I came across this book on a list of romantic comedies, so I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying there’s a romance. I love how the process of cataloguing Avery’s failed relationships gives the reader an inside look at a developing relationship. It’s absolutely adorable!

By the way, I picked this up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, along with an unusually large stack of books. I bet I’ll have many more reviews from my haul in the coming months! And if I don’t have another review before the end of the year, I will definitely post a roundup of my favorite 2016 reads before the end of the year.

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Writing in Reverse: The Beginning

I’m finished drafting!

Cupcake

I treated myself to this cupcake after a draft a few years ago. I really wish I had it now …

Anyway, my draft came out at 55,716 words, which was not quite as low as I expected. I had set an initial target of 70,000 words, but as I stated earlier, I’m fine with a sparse draft. I know I’ll add when I revise as I tend to leave out important parts like setting descriptions.

If you missed my first two posts in this series, you can find them here:

I realize the way this panned out, I’m only writing this a week after my last post, but I still feel I have some worthwhile lessons to impart as I finished the draft.

I no longer feel the need to jump right into revisions. Last week I was riding on the high of a brilliant twist I’d decided to implement in the first plot point. And I do still believe it’s brilliant and will greatly improve the tension throughout the rest of the manuscript, but since I forced myself to move on, I no longer feel the burning urge to jump into the revisions immediately. So it turns out that was a short-lived fury.

If I hadn’t outlined so completely, I would have rushed to the first plot point much too soon. As I’ve been drafting, I’ve been reading a lot, and much of that reading has been on my Kindle. It’s so handy to have that little percentage marker in the bottom left-hand corner. And I’ve noticed something. I can actually pinpoint an inciting incident around twelve percent and a first plot point at twenty-five percent and a pinch point around thirty-three to thirty-seven percent and so on. And working backward has given me a unique perspective on this, being able to think about what is happening in each scene and then go to the scene immediately before and make sure what happens then provides the right framework. I can tell that if I hadn’t done it this way, I would have a first plot point around fifteen percent, and the problem would be that readers wouldn’t care enough about my character yet, or they wouldn’t be meeting the important secondary characters at the appropriate time. I am sure this method is going to benefit me in the long run.

I had to remind myself to insert backstory in the early chapters. By the time I got to the first couple of chapters, where the characters were being introduced, I had to remind myself to insert bits of description and backstory to ground the reader in the world. Because I’d been writing about these characters for six weeks already, I knew them so well that I definitely wasn’t putting too much in. But I was right about knowing the voice and mannerisms. That part is good. As to whether it means I nailed the first chapter more quickly? Well, that will be up to my CPs to determine.

I still spent more time on the first chapter than the others. I just wrote it today, but whereas I drafted the other chapters quickly and wasn’t as worried about the first lines, I carefully considered every word of this first chapter, even in draft form. But I do think it was easier writing the first chapter last. Because I not only knew how their stories played out but had already written the details of them, I had a much better sense of what needed to happen at the beginning–who the readers need to meet and what they need to know about my main character and how she’s been shaped by the people around her. I wasn’t feeling my way into her the way I have been in the past. Because I already did that in the last chapter :).

So what’s next? I’m going to let this manuscript sit until after Thanksgiving. I usually do a month, and depending on what else lands on my plate, I may still give it until mid-December, but I definitely need to let it settle. Either way, I’m definitely glad I decided to write in reverse. Drafting is always a struggle for me, and although I still had to sit and force myself to do it some days, I had better direction this time around.

How about you? Have any of you tried drafting in reverse? Did you like it or not?

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Writing in Reverse: 45,000 Words from the End

I’m actually getting pretty close to the beginning of this draft. (I apologize to those of you just starting NaNoWriMo, but I did start a month before you.) Here are a few more things I’ve learned since the check-in at 25,000 words.

No matter how much you plan, you’re as likely to come up with a new twist writing in reverse as you are writing forward. This actually just happened to me, and what I find interesting about it is that it will require the same amount of revision either way. The difference is that instead of the twist occurring to me later in the story and having to go back and plant seeds in the revision, it’s something that occurred to me to change early in the story and I now will have to deal with all the ripples throughout the rest of the story. But having already written what comes later, I can see how this early change will make the middle stronger.

When you make a change early on, it’s so much more tempting to fix everything that comes after in the draft. Usually when I’m drafting I just want to get to the end. Occasionally when I make a change I’ll be tempted to go back and fix something it affects earlier in the story, but it’s usually just a twinge. I’ve had a different mentality drafting in reverse. I’ve been going through and adding to the later scenes–still not revising the existing text–if something in an earlier scene calls for it. This twist I just added in the first plot point has me itching to go through the whole manuscript and revise–because everything that comes after is already there waiting. But if I do that I’ll never finish the draft, so I’m putting it in writing here so I will keep moving forward to the beginning.

I’m probably not going to be able to let this draft sit. Because of the above point, I have a feeling this first draft will turn into a draft 1.5 before I’m able to let it sit. But if the reason for that is an inconsistency I already know I wrote in that I can fix before I set it aside for a month, I can live with messing up my usual system. Then when I return to it after that month, it will be a stronger draft to attack.

I think that’s it for today. Probably my next post in this series will be Writing in Reverse: The Beginning!

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Writing in Reverse: 25,000 Words from The End

I started writing my new project at the beginning of October as planned, and I’m now 25,000 words in (or back?), so I figured it was time for an update on how this writing in reverse method is going. As I mentioned in my pre-drafting post, I prepared to write in reverse by creating a much more detailed outline than I’ve ever used in the past. I structured it using K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL. First I placed the three acts with the major plot points, then I layered in the scenes within those major plot points, working backward from the resolution and climax. Yes, that means I outlined in reverse as well. I found thinking backward very helpful from the standpoint of figuring out what needed to happen to get to the climax.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far and some predictions as well.

There’s less pressure writing those first sentences. Well, obviously the end of the novel is important, but it doesn’t have to grab the reader the way the opening lines do. By starting with the end, I didn’t have to worry about what backstory should be loaded into the first words I wrote, how soon certain characters should be introduced, etc. Instead, I got to wrap everything up (because you all know I don’t like sad stories, right?). It was a much easier place to start.

It takes time to get in a groove with your character’s voice whether you start at the beginning or the end. I fill out character worksheets before I start writing. I’ve been doing that for the past few manuscripts, so it’s not new to this one. But even with that prep, it still takes a while to get into a groove with the character’s voice. I was feeling her out in the closing few chapters, but writing her is familiar now. By the time I get to the beginning, I’ll have the main character’s voice down so well that those opening pages should really flow. And when it comes time to revise, it will be much easier to fix any inconsistencies at the end.

I’ve already figured out my character’s issues. This point sort of goes along with the one above, but when I outlined the story and filled out my character sketch, I had a particular character arc in mind for her. As I wrote the end and started working backward, I realized there was another issue she had to work through. If I’d started at the beginning, I wouldn’t have laid the foundations for that flaw, and it would have been something I had to solve in revision.

The first draft is going to be short. I always write sparsely in a first draft, but thanks to my detailed outline, I see that I’m not going to be anywhere near the word count goal I set. Which is fine. I’d rather know that everything I’m putting in this draft is essential to moving the story forward–which is what my outline tells me–than be trying to figure out what scenes have to be cut later. And that’s what I’ve had to do with every manuscript in the past, I think partially because I didn’t outline enough, but also because I was working toward a word count goal and thought I needed to fill the space. Looking at my outline as I draft, with the major plot points in front of me, I’m not tempted to try and fill the MS with unnecessary scenes that won’t add to the forward momentum of the story.

I’m adding as I go, but it’s ok. Usually when I draft I don’t allow myself to go back and revise any chapters I’ve already written, but I’ve been more flexible with this one, and it’s entirely due to the reverse nature of the drafting. I find that I’ll write a new scene, and because of something that happens in that scene, I now need to add to the later scene. But because I’m writing in reverse, it’s not really an edit. It’s more that I left something out of the later scene because I hadn’t written the earlier one yet and didn’t realize the character needed to reflect on a particular incident or hash something out with another character. Because even with my outline, there’s still flexibility for little incidents to be added. I’m sticking to my guns about not changing any text that’s already there, but adding more totally works. Plus it helps with my sparse draft :).

I’m less likely to give away information too soon. I noticed this benefit within the first few days of writing. When you’re writing forward, you’re planting seeds for a later reveal. Writing backward, you get to just put it all out there right away, and it’s a lot easier not to talk about it the further back you go because you know you’ve already written it and the characters either don’t know or can’t talk about it yet. I love this! I already feel like things are being revealed at the right times to produce the most conflict, so as I keep working toward the beginning, I’ll be creating more tension as I find ways for my characters to stay in the dark. Plus, I’ll know exactly where to plant those seeds.

I still look ahead (or behind) when I begin writing for the day. I worked with a much looser outline in the past, but I would glance ahead to see what I was working toward before I started writing each day. Since I’m writing backward, I look at what I’ve planned for the scenes leading up to the ones I’m writing each day. That way I have an idea what the characters were doing immediately before the scene began–what their emotions should be, where they physically are, what they’re working toward. I thought this might be trickier working backward, but with the outline, I’ve found it only takes me a few minutes to get in the right mindset for a new scene.

So, with the manuscript close to halfway drafted (at least according to my outline–I said it was going to be short!), I’m pretty sold on writing in reverse. Now, I’ll be completely honest. I still don’t love drafting. I have to make myself sit at my desk and do it every day, and I stop when I reach 2,000 words, even if I’m on a roll. I do that because if I’m in a great place, it will be easier for me to start again the next day. I don’t think I will ever be a writer who loves drafting, but at least this method is helping me feel good about where this draft is headed.

Have you ever tried drafting in reverse? If so, how did it work for you?

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YA Review: TWO SUMMERS by Aimee Friedman

I love books–and movies, for that matter–that play with time and space. When I came across the description for TWO SUMMERS by Aimee Friedman, I was intrigued by the premise. How much difference can one decision make? I really liked the way this story explored the question.

Two Summers by Aimee FriedmanONE SUMMER in the French countryside, among sun-kissed fields of lavender…

ANOTHER SUMMER in upstate New York, along familiar roads that lead to surprises… 

When Summer Everett makes a split-second decision, her summer divides into two parallel worlds. In one, she travels to France, where she’s dreamed of going: a land of chocolate croissants, handsome boys, and art museums. In the other, she remains home, in her ordinary suburb, where she expects her ordinary life to continue—but nothing is as it seems.

In both summers, she will fall in love and discover new sides of herself. What may break her, though, is a terrible family secret, one she can’t hide from anywhere. In the end, it might just be the truth she needs the most.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The title – I so love a clever title, and you can’t get much more perfect than this one. Because her name is Summer and it’s summertime, so she’s experiencing two summers and there are two Summers in the two realities. Anyway, I’m sure you got it before I explained it :).

2. The descriptions – I loved the descriptions, particularly of France (a country I’d love to visit again), but also of her home town, and the way Ms. Friedman would slip in the slightest hint each reality could be a dream.

The wind rustles the leaves on a lemon tree above us. I feel detached from the table, separate, watching myself having a conversation with this handsome French boy. That can’t be me, I think hazily. It’s another Summer. One who isn’t scared. Over Jacques’s shoulder, I notice a tableful of girls blatantly staring at us, their mouths half open. I totally understand their shock. I share it.

3. The friendship – In both realities, Summer experiences the uncertainty of a changing friendship. It’s much more confrontational in the Hudsonville storyline, but it’s still there in the Provence storyline. On the other hand, there’s another relationship that’s much more prominent in the Provence storyline, but explaining that would give away a major plot point.

4. The romance – There are two very different romances happening in the two storylines, and yet I found them both sweet in their own unique ways. As with the other point, I’m really holding back here so I won’t give anything away.

5. The ending – I loved the ending of this. The story is set up as: here’s what could happen if she goes to France or doesn’t go to France. Certain events happen on certain dates no matter what, and then you get to the end and … well, it’s just brilliantly done. Enough said.

Have you read TWO SUMMERS? What did you think?

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MMGM: THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE Interview & Giveaway!

If you don’t know I participated in The Writer’s Voice contest in 2012, then you’re probably new around here :). But the reason I bring it up–again–is because one of the entries from that contest is now a real, live book! I had the privilege of reading Erin Petti’s THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE after the contest (although I think the title was slightly different then), and I’ve been so thrilled to watch Erin’s journey to publication. To celebrate, I’m giving away a copy to one lucky winner, but first, let me introduce you to Thelma Bee.

The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma BeeEleven-year-old Thelma Bee is never bored. In fact, she has curiosity and adventure in her blood. She spends her time running science experiments, practicing Spanish, and daydreaming about exotic landscapes. But Thelma gets more than she bargained for when a strange woman sells a jewelry box at her father’s antique shop. That night, a ghost kidnaps her father, and the only clues are the jewelry box and a word the ghost whispered in her ear: “Return.” Now it’s up to Thelma to get her dad back, and it might be harder than she thought—there’s someone wielding dark magic, and they’re coming after her next.

I asked Erin to answer questions about my five favorite things–with a little help from my eight-year-old son, who actually snatched this book and read the finished copy before me :).

1. I love Thelma’s interest in science and the use of the scientific method throughout the book. What made you decide to make this a focus for her character?

It may sound silly, but I think that Thelma kind of told me about herself. Since beginning drafting (about a hundred years ago) her voice was always strong and I knew she wanted to investigate things – this led pretty naturally into a scientific disposition. Once that groundwork was laid, her notes became a really helpful tool in telling the story!

2. The illustrations are fantastic. How did you determine THELMA BEE would be an illustrated book?

I love the illustrations, too, thank you! I had no idea that the book would be illustrated. Even after I signed with Mighty Media and had conversations about the direction of the book – it was a real surprise to me when I saw the care that they took integrating all the internal drawings. Kris Aro McLeod is a gifted artist and I feel so lucky that we got to work on this together!

3. The supporting cast of characters—from Alexander to Izzy to Eugene—is so strong. Did you plan out each of these characters in advance, or did they come to you as you were writing?

In my outline, I planned most of the characters, but Menkin was a surprise to me. She just showed up in one scene as I was drafting and became an important part of the story.

4. I love the setting. It’s so spooky and well drawn! How did you research the area, and/or is it familiar to you?

Thank you! The town of Riverfish, MA, is based on the town of Maynard, MA, where I lived when I began drafting. Thelma’s house on the river was my house on the river! The area around Maynard, Lincoln, and Concord, MA, is rich in woodlands and history. It was a giant inspiration!

5. The ending is satisfying and yet leaves the story open for more. Do you have additional adventures in mind for Thelma? My eight-year-old particularly wants to know the answer to this question!

First, a big-huge thank you to your 8-year-old for reading! This is so new to me still and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to imagine a kid connecting with my characters. And yes! More Thelma on the way. A draft of book two is with the publisher right now, and we should be hearing more about Thelma’s adventures very soon! The problems get a little bigger, Thelma learns more about who she is, and RVPS might even get some new members!

That’s great news about additional Thelma Bee adventures!

Now on to the giveaway. I will send a copy of THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE to one lucky winner. North America only please. To enter, click on the link below or leave a comment. I’ll choose a winner next Monday, Oct. 17.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Whether you win or not, I hope you all check out THELMA BEE!

 

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