Tag Archives: fiction

Gooney Bird and All Her Charms, by Lois Lowry

Gooney Bird and All Her Charms by Lois Lowry (illustrated by Middy Thomas) – This chapter book is part of an award-winning series. Gooney Bird is an eccentrically dressed second-grader with a Type A personality . She is surrounded by a number of outspoken prankster classmates and an infinitely patient teacher. Think Pippi Longstocking in Kindergarten Cop.

In this book, Gooney Bird’s great-uncle, Dr. Oglethorpe, happens to be a prominent professor of anatomy. He visits when her class is studying the human body, surprising everyone by bringing a ‘gift’. He loans the class the human skeleton from his own classroom for a month, to be used in their studies. The kids name it Napoleon. It causes quite a stir among the student body and some of the parents.

The class sets out to involve everyone by setting it up in different locales with different accessories to emphasize the part of the body being studied. All goes well until someone makes off with Napoleon.

Maybe it was because chapter books are not my genre, but this book seemed contrived and self-consciously cute. There was educational value in the content, but it was disguised in outrageous behavior and coincidence. Even Gooney Bird’s charm bracelet of the title, bought at a garage sale, seems pasted on to tie everything together. But the illustrations are highly imaginative and entertaining.

YA Reads for January

This month for the SCBWI meeting, I’m reviewing three really engaging and well-written Young Adult books. They have a number of things in common besides their reading group.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart – This National Book Award Finalist (nominated the same year as Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath) is a YA novel set in an upscale boarding school. Frankie is a legacy. She is privileged, smart, and ambitious. Previously a bit of a geek, she blossomed over the summer and comes to the attention of the charming, handsome, and somewhat self-effacing leader of the inner circle at school. As Matthew’s girlfriend she gains entre to the seniors’ table. Matthew is leader by default of wealth and position, and because the more exotic Alpha was expelled the previous year. Frankie recognizes Alpha from an encounter at the beach. But perhaps because she is with Matthew, he pretends not to know her. Nevertheless, the two have more in common than she has with Matthew. He is born to privilege, whereas she and Alpha are outsiders.

Frankie quickly discovers the guys are co-leaders of the secret society known as the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, ‘known mostly for silly pranks and a history of male-only membership’. Frankie is aware of the Bassets because her father and his friends were members, teasingly referring to it but never revealing its secrets. Frankie, intellectually their equal if not their superior, becomes fixated on the fact that she can never be included. While Alpha is away, she creates an email address. Posing as him, she sends out detailed instructions for a Basset Hound prank. It is so successful that upon his return, Alpha takes the credit.

Matthew fails to confide in her. This only pushes her to bigger and riskier pranks, manipulating the boys of the group until she almost gets Alpha expelled. When she steps forward and takes responsibility to save him, Matthew drops her and freezes her out of the inner circle. She pays the price, but is triumphant rather than apologetic. She will never settle for being the leader’s girlfriend.

This book is well-written with multi-layered characters and relationships. It uses stereotypical personas at times to challenge the status quo. The threat of her own disgrace and expulsion is introduced at the beginning and the rest of the book is a flashback, with that danger ever present.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher—This 2007 international bestselling YA novel is an emotional rollercoaster. The two main POV characters of this book, Hannah Baker and Clay Jensen are teenagers in the same high school. Hannah, the victim of a series of seemingly unrelated slights, snubs, cruel lies, vicious gossip, bullying and rape has committed suicide. But she has left a series of audio tapes that accuse her tormenters and explain the events that drove her to take her own life. Thirteen people will receive the tapes and spend a tortured evening listening to the criminal behavior and thoughtless cruelty perpetrated on their classmate—and recognize their part in it. As each finishes, he/she must forward the tapes to the next person on the list or risk another set of tapes being sent to the newspaper.

Popular Clay Jensen liked Hannah very much, but allowed rumors of promiscuity to prevent him from acknowledging his feelings until a fateful party shortly before her death. Quietly mourning her, he is uncertain why he’s received the tapes or how he fits into the story, but he follows the map and listens to the painful details of Hannah’s account only to discover the girl he fantasized about was half in love with him. At the end of the night, Hannah is still dead and Clay will never be the same. He must forward the tapes and go back to school, seeing some of his classmates in a whole new light.

Masterfully written and gut-wrenching, this book will keep you up all night, just as the tapes keep Clay wandering the streets of his town into the pre-dawn hours.

Getting Over Garrett Delaney, by Abby McDonald—Published 2012, this novel follows young Sadie through a love crisis. At fifteen she met Garret Delaney, a new kid in town, and she was mesmerized by his good looks, easy charm and intellectual take on all things artistic and literary. Over the last two years she has lost contact with her previous BFF and become a permanent appendage to the dazzling young man she considers her soul mate and best friend. Supporting him in all things and propping him up every time he thinks he’s fallen in and out of love—she keeps hoping against all odds that he will wake up and fall in love with her. Think Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts in the John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful.

Scheduled to go to writer’s summer camp together, Sadie hopes a summer in the country, living the literary life will seal their fate as lovers. But her mother started her in school a year late and although seventeen, as a sophomore going into her junior year she is rejected at the last minute. Garrett blithely goes off to camp and leaves Abby to pine.

Forced to look for a summer job by her life counselor mother, Abby falls into a job at her favorite coffee house. There she meets new friends who are older and more experienced, if not necessarily wiser. She very nearly loses the job she loves after a public melt-down precipitated by a call from the blissfully ignorant Garrett. Her humiliation was witnessed not only by her co-workers but by her former friend, Kayla. Instead of abandoning her to her misery, they help her take a leaf from her mother’s playbook and devise a project plan to ‘get over’ her obsession for Garrett Delaney and discover who she is without him over the summer. It’s cold-turkey withdrawal of all things Garrett, but it forces her to try new experiences, haircuts, and clothes. She explores other options in an effort to find out what she thinks, feels and likes, uncolored by Garrett’s rather snobbish viewpoint.

It’s a struggle but she succeeds admirably in discovering herself, until Garrett returns early. He seems ready to fall for her now that she no longer needs him. She is sorely tested and momentarily weakens. But from her new perspective, Sadie becomes painfully aware of Garrett’s self-absorption, condescension, and arrogance. Not only does she manage to save herself from more years of abject servitude to a mythical Garrett, but her journey helps her friends to recognize their own weaknesses and pursue their dreams as well.

All three of these novels are engaging, well-written and have characters of a similar age, social group, who need to be loved or admired for themselves. Each deals with peer pressure to some extent and the unspoken social structure in high schools, whether public or private. They are all about self-realization, the perception of others, and how our relationships define us. I would recommend each of them.


Cultural References as Shorthand

In one of my three critique groups, we came up against a common issue in all our writing—using cultural references that don’t work for everyone in your audience. By cultural references, I mean quotes or plot devices from movies, books, TV shows; popular actors or fictional characters; and popular slang.

A number of writing books suggest that using cultural references can be shorthand for communicating a lot about the character, situation, or place. The caution being that it not be too recent or too faddish. If you use the latest slang for your Middle Grade novel or the latest teen heartthrob in your YA novel, it will be dated by the time you get it to your agent, much less published.

A broad spectrum of people may recognize a reference to Jennifer Aniston in Friends, but a much narrower group will understand a reference to Luke Perry in 90210. My PBS-watching friends all quote Downton Abbey, but only a few would recognize quotes from the equally iconic Upstairs, Downstairs.

Sticking to the classics seems to trump the popular. A quote from Jane Austen or Hemingway is probably going to appeal to a wider audience than a quote from Harlan Coben or Janet Evanovich, no matter how many bestsellers they write. The same goes for classic movies, but be careful about assumed knowledge. One of our group is writing a book heavily steeped in Hollywood history and legend, with both real and fictional characters. We occasionally have to remind him that a quote without attribution either in dialog or POV commentary sails right over our heads and makes us feel ignorant. Not what you want your reader to experience.

I thought I was bulletproof when I likened the office of my heroine’s divorce attorney to Sam Spade’s office in The Maltese Falcon. One of the group, who is British-born of Indian descent innocently asked, “Is Maltese Falcon a song?” It served as a reminder that American popular culture is not globally recognized.

I was mystified when her main character acted on her desire to escape an abusive marriage and a life-threatening situation by going shopping with her husband’s credit cards. I didn’t see how it moved the action forward or solved her problem. She patiently explained that upper class women in Indian society were generally submissive and meek and this was seriously acting out. I immediately flashed to the hotelier mother in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I don’t know if either extreme is commonly true of Indian women these days, but I recognize that I am culturally illiterate when it comes to this part of our society and readership.

Reading Louise Penney’s ‘A Great Reckoning’

As you know, when not writing you need to be reading. I try to read the spectrum of mystery fiction. But I have my favorites. This weekend I got to read the much anticipated twelfth book in Louise Penney’s series about former Chief Inspector Gamache.  It did not disappoint.

On back-order for several months, it arrived as I left for Bouchercon, where I picked up three bags of books to read.  But this one stayed at the top of my pile.

Fans will know that Armand Gamache is the former Chief Inspector of the Homicide division for the Sûreté du Québec.  Having almost died cleaning up the corruption in the famed police force, he has retired to the sleepy village of Three Pines, which figures greatly in most of the books. Seemingly recovered but bearing the scars, both mental and physical, he passes up grandiose positions to become the new Commander of the Sûreté Academy. It is the last bastion of the evil and decay that almost overwhelmed the division. In what seems an act of insanity, he brings two of his fiercest enemies onto the faculty. The struggle for hearts and minds inevitably leads to a murder and the investigation that targets him as a suspect gradually peels away layers of scandal that shock even Gamache.

Penney skillfully intertwines the central story with a historical thread, following a mysterious map through twists and turns worthy of Dan Brown. But, as always, it is the finely, almost poetically-drawn characters and the rich heritage of Québec that holds us riveted, not the tightly structured plot.

If you are a novice to this fabulous Canadian author, sprint to your nearest used bookstore to find the first book of the series, Still Life.  It is not always available at your local box store.  Begin at the beginning and follow the twists and turns of the progressive relationships between the varied and wonderful cast of her books. No one stands still;  they all grow and evolve, and make terribly human mistakes. My only small disappointment in this book was that Clara, the resident artist of Three Pines played so small a role.

Fans of Louise Penney will know that the release of the last two books were somewhat delayed by the onset and increasingly devastating dementia of her husband, Michael.  That she can still write such beautiful prose while coping with this is extraordinary. It is especially poignant since many of Gamache’s most endearing qualities are those she based on her beloved husband.




Cue the Murder

The door slapped shut in my face. The bus lumbered forward, belching its obnoxious toxic diesel fumes.  Picking up the pace, I banged on the door, but the driver flogged the bus through the first three gears.  I caught a glimpse of his slight smile in the rear view mirror as it picked up speed.  My vintage Samsonite case chose that moment to break at the hinge.

Public transportation really sucked! I worked five jobs and had a schedule like a stack of Mah Jong tiles—pull one out and the whole pile crashes.  Being dependent on Metro left no margin for error in my life. Especially, when I’d just learned I was being laid off of job number three.

I teetered on the edge of tears, but I was too furious and too out of breath. Bent over double, a projection of the Milky Way danced across the back of my eyelids. I thought I might throw up.

A compact sedan turned off Kirby and pulled up to the curb beside me. The electric window glided down with a mechanical whisper.  I looked into grey-blue eyes and the concerned face of a blondish man in his late thirties or early forties.  “Are you OK?  Do you need a lift?”

I’m not the naïve kid that moved to Houston from the sticks. I know better than to get into a strange car.  But his was a nice face.  Not beautiful, not rugged, but really nice.

And I was really pissed. Continue reading