Posted in Reading

Review: Greenglass House

 

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Greenglass House by Kate Milford

It’s only February, and already I know what one of my favorite books this year is going to be. Honestly, I knew it on January 19 when, only a hundred pages in, I closed my library copy of Greenglass House and decided to buy my own. I knew it again a few days later when I found myself belly laughing and then crying—big tears rolling down my cheeks—both while reading the same chapter. Sometimes stories get to us in the moment, but their effects fade over time until we look at a Goodreads rating months later and think, “Really? I don’t remember it being that good.” But I gave Kate Milford’s novel 5 stars without a doubt in my mind that the score will stick. Greenglass House is just that kind of book.

What It’s About:

Milo lives at Greenglass Inn with his parents, who adopted him when he was a baby. He loves his home—a huge quirky inn of stained glass that sits atop a hill overlooking a harbor and is known for housing smugglers—and he loves his parents, even though he can’t help but wonder about his other family, the one he’s tied to by blood. These wonderings cause him heavy guilt, so he tries to suppress them, with difficulty. Although Milo loves his home, he looks forward to winter break when the inn is empty and quiet and he gets his little family all to himself for a few weeks of snow and holiday magic. But this winter break, things are different because strangers—strange strangers—keep showing up at the inn during the off season, and soon the house is filled with mysterious guests and mysterious stories and mysterious objects which all seem to have something in common—Greenglass Inn itself. Milo’s tidy world is tipped on its side, and he’s close to having a meltdown, but when Meddy, the cook’s daughter, suggests they try to solve the mysteries by going on a campaign via an old role-playing game called Odd Trails, Milo’s vacation is salvaged. He discovers that creating a character only loosely based on himself (a blackjack named Negret) helps him to learn his own strengths and allows him to fantasize about his past without betraying the ones he loves. Milo/Negret and Meddy/Sirin take the reader on a delightful and touching adventure full of as many colorful facets as a stained glass window.

What I Loved About This Book:

The Setting – Greenglass Inn has everything a kid could want in a house—multiple floors, an attic full of interesting old stuff, fire escapes, creaky stairs, and mysteries to solve. Plus, it’s snowing outside, and about every four pages, Milo drinks some hot chocolate by a fire. (Warning: This book will make you want hot chocolate. A lot.)

Milo’s Parents – In so many children’s books, the parents are aloof or unbelieving or too busy to notice the adventures their kids are having. I think the idea is that you have to get the parents out of the way in order for adventure to be possible. Not so in this book. Milo’s parents are so loving and caring and understanding, and yet they don’t seem the least bit cheesy or flat. I love them. And Milo loves them. And they love Milo. And despite all of this, Milo still feels guilty when he thinks about his biological family. Why? Because kids are kids and they worry about things they shouldn’t worry about. That’s life. This book is a love letter to adopted children and to families in general. It says it’s okay to be happy and to wonder at the same time.

The Gaming Aspect – I’ve recently started dabbling in role-playing games myself (I’m playing a 6th level Elf Druid named Gleep in Pathfinder if you must know) and it was so much fun to see that world come alive in this book. I loved it even more that Meddy is the one who introduces it to Milo, chipping away at that stereotype that “girls don’t play games.”

Chapter 10 – The chapter about Christmas Eve begins with a hilarious scene in which an unlikely pair attempts to bake a cake together. Then it develops into an extremely touching moment that involves some very special Christmas gifts. I laughed, I cried, I loved this book even more.

The Little Details – The description of the pull-string lights in the attic, the tradition of the silver bells on the Christmas tree, the way Milo’s idiosyncrasies are apparent but not over the top… I could go on, but I won’t. Just know that there is more to this book. Surprises lurk in its pages. You’ll just have to read it to discover them all. I found myself wanting to re-read it as soon as I was done.

Any Complaints?

The only negative thing I can think to say about this book (and I’m not sure why I’m even looking for something) is the chapters are pretty long. Most are around twenty-five pages with some up to thirty-five, which is a little odd for a children’s book. It wasn’t a problem for me, but I’ve found that short chapters appeal to many kids, so some younger readers might be intimidated by the length between breaks. If your child or student is struggling with the chapter lengths, tell them it will be worth it. Or read the book to them instead. I think this is a perfect novel for families to read together.

One More Reason to Buy This Book:

I learned about Greenglass House on Nerdy Book Club’s list of 2014 Nerdy Awards for Middle Grade Fiction, and I decided to check it out from the library. Less than halfway through, I knew I needed to buy it. When I went to Barnes & Noble, there were no copies on the shelves, so I asked about it. I was told there were three in the back and the sales clerk went to get me one. When she came back with my copy she said I was lucky because the books were being sent back to the publisher but hadn’t shipped out yet.

I was shocked. I’m not the only person who loved this book. You can read multiple glowing reviews on Goodreads and it has an average rating of over 4 stars. But apparently people don’t know about it. I was so heartbroken that these books had been removed from the store’s shelves that I wanted to buy them all, to save them. In the end, I didn’t.

But you can. Buy Greenglass House for yourself or your child or your friend or your classroom. It deserves to be read and shared.

Posted in Reading

Review: The Schwa Was Here

The Schwa Was Here
The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure why I avoided The Schwa Was Here for so long. (It sat on my bookcase at school for years without me reading it.) And it’s hard to say why I finally picked up the audio version at the library. To be honest, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly why I liked it so much. (I just know that I did.)

If you’ve read Neal Shusterman’s middle grade novel, then you’re probably chuckling at my intro, because the story is about a kid you can’t quite put your finger on. He’s there, but he’s not. He’s standing right in front of you—maybe he’s even waving—but you can’t see him. Or you do see him, but when he’s gone you sort of forget he was there. He exists in your periphery, at the edge of your memory, and he’s convinced that someday he’ll disappear completely. They call him “The Schwa” when they remember to call him anything at all.

See? Already this book sounds interesting. Why did I never read it? I don’t know. But wait, there’s more. A lot more.

The Schwa is not even the main character. The story is told from the perspective of Anthony “Antsy” Banano (Is that a great name or what?) and he’s a lot of fun too. He’s a fully developed character, with a strong family dynamic, friend issues, problems of his own, and yes, even a love interest, who happens to be blind. (Hooray for #DiverseBooks!) Antsy is hilarious and has a great voice and, just for the record, so does the author. Shusterman narrates the audio book himself and does a FANTASTIC job. Now, whenever I’m reading a novel with a first person male narrator, I hear it in Neal’s voice. That includes my own novel draft, which is kind of weird.

But wait, there’s still more.

This book really kept me on my toes. When it started, I thought, Okay, so this is a story about a boy who no one sees and the problems and funny escapades that happen because of that. Cool! Then a couple of chapters later, I thought, Oh, that’s just one story line. The book is really about the bond that forms between Antsy and a grumpy old hermit who makes him walk his fourteen dogs, who are all named after the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. Great! Then a couple of chapters later, I thought, OH! The book is REALLY about the love triangle that forms between Antsy, the Schwa, and the hermit’s blind granddaughter. Interesting! Then a couple of chapters later, I thought OH! The book is REALLY about… and so on.

There are so many little twists and turns in this book that I cannot imagine how many hairs Shusterman must have pulled out trying to write the one-page synopsis for it. I mean, this review is already a page long and I haven’t even gotten the chance to mention the Schwa’s awesome paperclip collection or the fact that the book begins with a group of boys trying to destroy a plastic mannequin named Manny Bullpucky.

There’s just too much good stuff to mention.

Despite the plot twists, everything flows together smoothly in The Schwa Was Here. The story is an easy, enjoyable read from start to finish. I liked it so much, I’m thinking about buying a paperback copy to put on my bookshelf again, just so I won’t forget about it. (You wouldn’t think I could forget such a good read, but the Schwa effect is a powerful force.)

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Posted in Life, Writing

Endings, Beginnings, and Middles

Hello blogosphere!

I’m sorry about my recent lack of posts. It’s been a big couple of weeks here in my little writing world. Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and settle in. I’ll tell you all about it.

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Excuses, Excuses

I was determined to finish my middle grade novel by mid-June. (That was, of course, after I had been determined to finish it by the end of May and by the beginning of May and by the end of 2013. But, you know, things happen.) I was working really hard, but at the end of each day there was always still more to do—more chapters to finish, more scenes to write, more words to put on the page.

Finally, on Thursday, June 19th (which is totally still considered mid-June, definitely, just like how at thirty-seven-and-a-half I am totally still in my mid-thirties) I had the feeling that it was THE DAY. I worked all morning at one of my favorite coffee shops (#4 actually) with my friend Lori. In the afternoon, when my brain was fuzzy, I decided to head home for a change of scenery and then I was going to FINISH MY NOVEL, all caps.

I wanted a change of scenery and I got it.

Whoops! I should have told you to set down that cup of coffee or glass of wine before I showed you this picture. Sorry. My bad.
Whoops! I should have told you to set down that cup of coffee or glass of wine before I showed you this picture. Sorry. My bad.

When I came home, my dog and I found a snake in our backyard. A HUGE snake. At first I freaked out, thinking it might be a rattler. I grabbed Uno by the collar and put him inside. Then, I went back out to investigate from a safe distance. (In my flip flops.)

My racing heart calmed down a bit when I determined two things: 1) This was not a rattle snake or any type of venomous snake and 2) it couldn’t bite me anyway because it currently had another snake in its mouth. (!!!) The eater (from here on referred to as Snake #1) was, we think, a coachwhip and it was about six feet long. The eatee (from here on referred to as Snake #2) was probably a checkered garter snake and may have once been up to three feet long, but I never got to see it in its entirety. The sight was so gruesome/ interesting/ horrifying/ cool/ creepy I had to get my camera. (Still in my flip flops.)

I was taking pictures of the awesomeness of nature happening in my backyard, feeling proud of myself for my bravery and my lack of fear of non-venomous snakes when Snake #3 arrived. (!!!) It was another coachwhip, also close to six feet long. This one was moving fast and had nothing in its mouth to prevent it from biting. And that’s when I flipped out and ran screaming back to the house. (Flip flops flying.)

I eventually calmed down enough to venture out again (this time in cowboy boots) but by that time, the snakes were leaving. Snake #1 and Snake #3 slithered through my back fence into the greenbelt area behind our house and curled up together. “Cuddled” is really the best word to describe it. Snake #3 protected Snake #1 while he/she digested Snake #2, and then they left. They don’t, presumably, live in my yard, but had just come here to dine.

What Does This Have to Do With Your Novel?

Right… my novel. Nothing. Snakes have nothing to do with my middle grade novel about a quirky boy who starts a game club at his school. Nothing at all. And that’s why I was unable to finish my novel on June 19th, because if I had, it would have ended with, “AND THEN THREE GIANT SNAKES CAME AND DEVOURED EVERYBODY!” and while that is indisputably a great ending for a book, it was not the right ending for my book.

The End

On June 20th, with no snakes in sight, I finished my novel. The Legacy of Bamboo Bilski was complete.

I wrote all that! Well, not The hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams wrote that. I wrote the thing in front of it.
I wrote all that! Well, not The hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams wrote that. I wrote the thing in front of it.

The Beginning

One week after finishing my book, I attended my first big writing conference, the Writer’s League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference here in Austin. If anyone is considering attending next year, I highly recommend it. The WLT staff did an excellent job organizing the event. It was easy to navigate, even for a first time attendee, and the speeches and panel discussions and presentations were all interesting, relevant, and inspiring.

Plus, the faculty was amazing. There were agents, editors, and publishers from Folio Literary, Sterling Lord, The Gernert Company, ICM, Dystel & Goderich, Polis Books, Scholastic, Henry Holt & Company, Carol Mann Agency, Foreward Literary, and more, as well as several local authors. The conference was set up in a way so that there was plenty of time to talk to these leaders in the business both formally and socially. (My favorite part was listening to them talk about the BBQ they ate for lunch. For the first-time visitors to Texas, I think it was an eye-opener!)

During the weekend, I pitched my novel to three different agents and editors and received positive responses and good feedback. One agent (superstition keeps me from revealing who) was very excited about my idea and asked me to send her pages, which was, of course, extremely exciting. (I’ll be working on that query right after I post this!) For me, this is the beginning of another exciting step on my road to publishing—sending my work out into the world. I hope the world is kind to it.

Somehow, this is the only conference-related photo I took. I think I was too absorbed in the information to think about taking pictures.
Somehow, this is the only conference-related photo I took this weekend. I think I was too absorbed in the information to remember to take pictures.

It wasn’t just the industry professionals that I enjoyed meeting. The conference gave me a chance to get to know other writers of all genres and backgrounds and stages in the writing process. I came home with business cards from several local writers who I can’t wait to connect with again.

If you do plan on attending the WLT conference, get your tickets and consultations early because this year they sold out of everything—conference tickets, keynote tickets, 10-minute consultations—EVERYTHING. Take advantage of their early-bird offers if you can.

The Middle

Finishing my novel was a huge accomplishment, and I celebrated it accordingly, with beer and horror movie sequels. (I’m saving the champagne and party for when I get it published.) But even while flinching at the scares in Insidious 2, I knew that this was really less of an ending and more like the start of the middle, because my work is far from done.

As I think about the revising that lies ahead of me, my mind keeps coming back to that image of the snake. As I dive into the inevitable cutting and chopping and rearranging of my story, I picture myself as Snake #1. Deleting text or characters will likely feel a bit like devouring one of my own. While each “bite” I take out of my novel will hopefully make it stronger, I imagine that the process will leave me feeling a bit helpless. Luckily, I’ve got good friends like Snake #3 who I know will support me along the way.

(Did I seriously just turn that creepy snake-eating-snake photo into a sweet/cheesy metaphor about writing? Why, yes I did. As Jason Pinter, founder of Polis Books, said after making a “meat cake” metaphor in his presentation about publishing, “I stand by it.”)