Monday, June 13, 2011

Cousins, Identical Cousins...

Well, not really. But I have been struck over the last couple of years at how much my son, Z, is like two of my cousins, Ben and Kevin. (There surnames are not Roth so I’m pretty safe using their first names.) They are the sons of my only maternal aunt who I grew up calling DeeDee. Her name is nothing like DeeDee. She became DeeDee in a convoluted set of circumstances that involved both my mother’s and my own in ability to pronounce her name correctly. My mom distorted it, it sort of stuck, and then my toddler speak distorted it even more.
The older of my aunts boys are is about eight years younger than me. I was ring-bearer at her wedding since we had no boys in the family at that time. Yes, my grandfather was thrilled by this fact. His infamous, “Baby dolls again,” remark upon the birth of my cousin Lisa—granddaughter number four—is family legend. The farm set he had purchased for his grandson, complete with barn, plastic animals and real metal John Deer tractors waited for nearly 10 years under the bed in the spare room. Of course after Lisa it was 13 or 14 years before another girl would be born in our family. Again, I digress. Because of the age difference, I felt very much the grown up around the babies that were my cousins. I helped change diapers and even babysat them when I was a bit older and they were too. Funny how perceptions change. If you ask Ben and Kevin, they’ll tell you I was a mean babysitter. If you ask my uncle’s kids, Lisa and Jeff, I was fun. Hmmmm…does that say something about me, or them?
(Yes, by the way, I am ADD and I do tend to ping.)
Now that I have a young son of my own, I’m watching him grow and am amazed at how much he is like Ben and Kevin. The comparison to Kevin is easy. Kevin was the child who gave my aunt every gray hair she dyes. By the time he reached middle school he’d broken bones, poisoned himself twice, nearly hung himself (literally and accidentally) and risked getting squashed by actually playing in the road. (If you wanted to drive that street, be prepared to pay the toll.) Kevin stories filled the conversation in family gatherings and are retold again and again despite the fact he’s now reached middle age, has a child of his own and wishes we’d all stop. Not likely buddy.
From early on I made comparisons between Z and Kevin, most recently when Z went running naked through the yard after swimming in his pool. Yes, that’s another Kevin story. But yesterday, for the first time, I noticed similarities to Ben. Ben was the quiet, thoughtful, gentle boy who knew exactly what he wanted and who he wanted to be. Then he went out and did it. I adore Ben. He’s always been very special to me because he was a bit like me in that we could both argue our way through life and would stubbornly defend our beliefs, and they were usually on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Our cocker spaniel has been very ill the last two days. So ill we weren’t sure she was going to make it. She’s been sleeping quietly in a crate we moved into the front room so she could be with us. Now, Z and Shiloh are not the best of friends. They’ve knocked heads since he first started lying on the floor for tummy time. As a toddler, it can seem like all out war. He harasses her, she harasses him. He tugs and pushes her; she knocks him down and steals his snack. Yet I only began to see that there is a bond between them this weekend. With her crate uncovered in my bedroom so I could watch her at night, I noticed her lumber to her feet and pace whenever he made a sound during the night. He keeps track of her, he’s wanted to know why she was in her house instead of chasing him around stealing his graham crackers or Cheerios. We explained she was sick, she had an owie in her tummy. After thinking about this for a few moments, Z announced, “I sick, too,” and has maintained his infirmity for the past two days.
Here in comes the comparison to Ben. My aunt took us three older girls when my mom had to have surgery when I was about 8 or 9. Within days we all three broke out in chickenpox. Here is a young, new mother with a toddler who suddenly has three older girls who were supposed to be “helpful” to her during their stay and now she’s taking care of them too. And she did. We took oatmeal baths several times a day, she coated our ichies with Calamine, we read books, curled up on the couch under blanket and had ice cream. Little Ben saw all this and began to demand that he get “spots” too. Two weeks later we were back home and the chickenpox gone. We get a phone call and my aunt puts Ben on the phone. He proclaims we need to take our spots back, he doesn’t want them any more.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Were things better when we were kids?

If you live in the world of Facebook, tweets or even chain emails you’ve seen something like this before:
Agree w/ this post? -My curfew was the lightning bugs, my mom didn't call my cell, she called my name, I played outside with friends, not online. If I didn't eat what mom cooked, I didn't eat. Sanitizer didn't exist, but you COULD get your mouth washed out w/ soap. I rode a bike w/out a helmet, getting dirty was okay & neighbors cared as much as your parents. Re-post if you drank water from a garden hose & survived."
This popped up on my Facebook page today because I “liked” a local radio personality named Jenn Hobby from the Bert Show. It’s off topic, but if you live in the metro Atlanta area, Nashville or near Indianapolis you should check them out. Most days they are an entertaining crew during the morning commute. I’m missing Melissa Carter, who left them recently, but…well, I digress.
One of the people who commented on this post called foul. He said it was garbage and that we were just trying to make ourselves feel better about having lived through an inferior time. My knee-jerk reaction was to call him a jerk and argue. And I did—argue, not call him a jerk. But I thought about it. Why do we feel that the time we grew up in was better? Is it just nostalgia?
I do think that nostalgia plays a big part in it. No one likes to get older and see the world change. Change can be exciting and stimulating, but I think there is a piece of most all people that fears change and longs for things to be the way they were. Even children removed from terribly abusive situations will cry for their missed parents though what they are going to may be a million times better. We all feel sad when a love affair ends even though we know it was for the best. Why?
I think there is something other than nostalgia at play. When you read these posts and you read people’s responses, most mention something about things seeming simpler then, seeming safer, less stressful or confusing. I don’t think this is nostalgia, nor do I think it is self-delusion or wishful thinking. I think it is all about filters.
We see the world through a filter. All of us. There are no exceptions, we all see what is around us through a filter that is unique to us. No two filters are exactly the same. Impressionism understood this as it tried to capture the world as the filter of the artist saw it, still recognizable to the rest of us, but changed by the individual through whose eyes and mind we were now seeing it. I could go on to add that we were seeing their filtered view through out filters, but that’s a big metaphorical merry-go-round that I don’t even want to get started on.
Our filters are more than just unique to us, they are changing, shifting at every moment. When we are a child, our filter is stronger and tends to weed out those things we don’t understand or can’t connect with. We may hear our parents talk about struggling to make ends meet, we may go without or know we are poor and that things are not all sunshine and roses. But the filter we see things through is a child’s filter. It allows in the simple and the easy to understand. Because they aren’t relevant to us as a child, we filter out the things we didn’t really understand. I think these memories we create are the strongest our filters will ever be. We see our childhood through the eyes of the child we were. We see the world as being delight at chasing and collecting lightening bugs or other insects and small animals, or riding out bikes with reckless abandon, peddling as fast as we could down the steep hill and then jumping off right before we would crash. We see the world as playing outside, sitting in a secret hiding place with a favorite book while eating apples. We see the times we slept in sleeping bags in the backyard, giggling with our friends and telling ghost stories.
We didn’t see the dead bugs or think about their extinguished lives as a result of our childish selfishness. We didn’t see or hear the stories our parents heard about a friend of a friend’s child who ended up permanently injured, or worse, because they didn’t get clear of the tree or curb in time. We didn’t hear the stories about that girl down the road who was sitting in her special place, reading her book when she was attacked. We didn’t see our parents sitting up all night by the backdoor or the upstairs window, watching us as we played at having an adventure.
As we got older, we became the parents who are living in fear for our own children. We are the generation who has pushed helmets and pads, panicked when our toddler got out of sight for just a moment so we created backpacks with leashes on them, cringed when our kids climbed that tree and got too high. Why do things seems so different now? Because we are different. Because we now see things through the filter of adulthood, parenthood and fear. The filter of childhood has gone for us and when we look back on the memories we made through that filter, it all seems so much easier, simpler and safer.
But it wasn’t. The thing that worries me the most about how the world has “changed” is the fear that we aren’t as good as our parents were at helping our kids keep their filters of childhood in place as long as possible. I worry that we’ve become a society that doesn’t allow them to see things through those same rosy lenses we were allowed to use. In our quest to make the world safer we’ve taught them stranger danger, don’t trust people you meet on the street. And we wonder why they prefer to text, tweet and Facebook. We’ve taught them to fear being isolated and vulnerable. And we wonder why they prefer to be joined to their cell phones at all times. We’ve taught them our fear.
Or maybe I’m wrong about this last part. Maybe they don’t see our fears. Maybe they will also grow up remembering the past through their own filter of childhood.
*The pictures used here are available as free wallpaper from and are by the artist Donald Zolan.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

IMHO-In my humble opinion

Rather than do full reviews one at a time, I started doing group reviews. The opinions here are just that, my opinions. I have no intention of insulting an author or trying to persuade or dissuade a reader from reading these books. That's the great thing about books. There are enough out there that everyone can find something they like.

Shelter’s of Stone- Jean Auel

I loved the Earth’s Children series right up to The Plains of Passage. It was arguably a filler book, but in my humble opinion, it wasn’t needed. We didn’t need to retrace Jondalar’s footsteps after we’d read about his journey in detail during Valley of Horses. Shelters of was the long awaited next edition, written after Auel walked away from her writing due to a personal tragedy. That in and of itself makes me loath to point out that while her writing is still excellent, her editors and betas failed at their jobs. The book is overly long and repetitive. The song the clan sings about the origins of the earth and it’s people (and it’s one long epic poem) is repeated in near entirety at least four times. Every blade of grass and piece of rock are needlessly described in minute detail. While I loved the first three books in this series and would recommend them to anyone, I’m not sure I’ll be continuing to read it.

Turn Coat- Jim Butcher

This was Butcher's usual good solid writing, but I only gave it three stars instead of four on Shelfari for a couple of reasons. First, the story took a long time to set up and drug a bit even with rapid fire events. They were there, quick and bloody, but just not that interesting. Secondly, Laura Raith is becoming a caricature of herself, especially in the early part of the book where we hear her tired old "ooh, I'm going to seduce you if I want to," crap. And the "I can give you want you want...freedom from the pain and responsibility," wasn't compelling, just ridiculously reminiscent of Star Trek V as Spock's brother encourages everyone to share their pain.

Finally, I would have preferred if the resolution hadn't been so damned predictable. Sticking with the Star Trek analogy, we all know it's the new guy who shows up who will be the bad guy. The "villain" was easily identifiable from the moment he showed up and Anastacia's part in what happened was also predictable. Still, the Harry Dresden series is one of my favorites period and is definitely tops in urban fantasy. If you haven’t read it, go pick up Storm Front, the first, and you won’t regret it.

Proven Guilty- Jim Butcher

Yep, it was a two Harry Dresden sort of time the past couple of months, mostly because I have a horrible commute and the series is now on audio book read by the lovely and luscious James Marsters. Damn! I love me some Spike.

In this installment Harry is faced with the task of reconciling his role as a Warden after once being target number 1 of same group and with finding a black magic practitioner, a warlock, who is preying on people’s fears and causing psychic damage. Mix in a good deal of Unseelie and Seelie intrigue and meddling, one teenage daughter of Harry’s best friend, Michael (uber arch-angelesque good-guy who slays evil), tensions with Harry’s half brother and poor Wizard Dresden is having a really rotten couple of days.

The end did seemed to drag on for just a bit too long. The whole icky final scenes with Harry and Molly were just...well, icky. It doesn't matter what did or didn't happen, the truth is Butcher just didn't need to go there. It was more of a pandering to forbidden desires while letting Harry keep the high road. It just plain didn't need to be done. And can we stop with the final, let's all sit down and remind the reader of all the bad things still out there at the end so we can justify the need for the next installment? We love Harry. We want more stories about Harry. But we don't need the recap at the end of every novel.

Born of Night-Sherrilyn Kenyon

When Nykyrian decides the League of Assassins that has been his whole purpose for existence has finally asked too much of him, to kill a child, he rebels and quits. Only, no one quits the League. One may commit ritual suicide, but no one walks away. Now, hiding from the League with his own band of for pay assassins, Nykyrian takes the contract to protect a dancer whose father’s political connections have plagued her life.

While I'm a fan of the author, this book was just okay. I suppose if I'd read it in its true chronological order (first, before I'd read any other Kenyon books) I'd have liked it better. It is clearly an early book from and author who had not reached her potential. The series was published many years ago and held hostage to a failing publishing house until the rights reverted back to Kenyon a couple of years ago. Polished up and reprinted, the League series was eagerly awaited by her fans, though some of us wondered if she really needed another series.

As a fan of her Dark-Hunter books, it was fun to play "spot the character". She has recycled charactesr from this series and names for her Dark Hunters: Nykyrian is a mix of Acheron and Kyrian, names such as Julien and Syn make appearances. Though they have different names, even Nick, Liza, and Styxx make appearances. It is fun for fans and will give you a Kenyon fix as you wait for the next DH book, but it is really only okay.

A Brush With Love- Jo Barrett

This is a nice little book if you don't want to think too much. This is the second book I've read by this author and it has the same weaknesses and strengths. The characters are likable and fairly well drawn. However the plot is so trite and "convenient" that it is irritating. Why was it necessary to make the heroine's paralysis the result of PTSD? And curing it with a little tantrum and her declaring she wasn't a loser after everything else she'd endured ruined the entire story. Why can't the hero love her and have happily ever after with her still in a wheelchair? Why do we need a completely laughable and ridiculous recovery to end this book? As with her other book I read, the author writes herself into a storyline then uses a silly, hackneyed, and trite plot development to end her story.

Invincible: The Chronicles of Nick- Sherrilyn Kenyon

Yeah, it was also a two Kenyon sort of month. This book isn't great literature, but let's face it-- we don't read Kenyon for great literature. Be honest, how often do most of us really sit down to read "great literature"? It is good solid YA. The story is interesting, and the characters are well drawn and likable when they are supposed to be likable and not when they're not. There was a good deal less action in this particular installment of the series but it's still a good story.

I like this series for one main reason. It gave the fans of Kenyon's adult series back the Nick we knew and loved before she turned him dark and totally unlikable. I have become a bit worried about the effect of introducing this series on younger readers. My students are reading it too and have begun asking about the "Dark-Hunter books". Those are not appropriate for the middle school and up that this series is targeted at. Let's all just hope none of them pick up "Acheron".

As a long time fan of SK's adult Dark-Hunter series there are things about this alternate universe, or rather the universe as it exists according the the "original" Nick now known as Ambrose, that really irritate me with their cryptic nature and what it implies about well loved characters like Acheron. For example, Savitar shows up in this book and taunts Ambrose with something to the effect of Well let's ask Acheron... oh wait that's right we can't because of you. What exactly is he implying Nick/Ambrose has done to Acheron? Personally, I'd really like to smack Ambrose, but then I've wanted to slap him since Dark Side of the Moon. Kenyon has taken Ambrose/Nick's gigantic self pity party way too far and has turned him from dark, brooding and misunderstood hero to a sniveling little brat. Thank goodness this new Nick is a charming and lovable as the old Nick was.

She Walks in Beauty- Siri Mitchell

A nice little story of the late Victorian period in New York and it's society with rules that would out do even the strictures of London's Regency period. It was an entertaining read full of the silly "misunderstandings" that often are used in the place of detailed plot development. This is an inspirational/Christian fiction that seems to be minus the Christian fiction and inspiration except toward the end when it becomes a very heavy handed addition to the plot, almost as if the writer had written a nice little historical fiction story with a character who goes to church on Sunday and was told she needed to strengthen the inspirational elements, so she tossed them all in at the end.

Not to mention the over sudsy soapbox about corsets that gets dumped on the reader. Okay, corsets bad. But the broader message that one should love and accept one’s appearance does come through well, not with the horrors of the corset being slammed about the reader’s ears, but in the simple act of Clare’s taking off the corset, curling up in her dressing gown and reading her book toward the end and her shocking declaration that she would need to be remeasured because she was not wearing the corset ever again.

Somewhere to Belong- Judith Miller

Johanna and Berta are two very different young women. Johanna is a life long resident of the Amana colony and a model of young womanly behavior. For this reason she is chosen to help newcomer, Berta, to adjust to the communal, collective, God-centered life of the Amana colony after having lived her life as the daughter of a prominent Chicago physician. And to say the spoiled and selfish Berta is not happy about her new living arrangements would be a gross understatement.

Set just a few years after the Great Fire of Chicago, this historical novel is an example of a good inspirational book. Spirituality is present, woven through the fabric of the story without seeming overbearing or in your face. The only problem I had with this story, why I didn't give it 5 stars, is that the character of Berta was thoroughly unlikable for far too long in the story. More than half-way through and I still wanted to put aside the pacifistic, loving world of Amana and slap that girl silly. Even reminding myself she was very young didn't help. Miller handled Berta's transformation well. Often in such a book there is a lightening bolt moment when the character changes radically and conveniently. Berta's transformation was slower and had it's moments of backsliding. Her world was shaken a part and then a serious event occurs that is believable as the catalyst for her change.

This is an excellent departure from the usual Amish setting of the Bonnet novel.

You Don’t Even Know Me- Sharon G. Flake

This is a bit different than the books I usually read and review but I am such a fan of Sharon Flake that I couldn’t wait to pick it up. It's a good companion to What Am I With Out Him, which tells the stories of teenage girls and their relationships to boys in their lives. The problem is this book, despite it's cover, is not really one that can be sold to boys. As a middle school teacher, I can tell you that I may be able to convince a boy to take this book, but they would never finish it. Instead it will be read by girls.

The short stories in the anthology are really character sketches, portraits of young urban boys trying to find themselves and their path in the increasingly confusing and dangerous streets of major US cities. One shows us a boy whose obese adoptive father loves him like no one ever has, yet is a source of worry, fear and embarrassment for the youngster, We see a young man helping a new girl move into his building and discovers that she has a similar problem to him…a hot young mom. Both teens are faced with mothers who are still young and sexy and want to flaunt it, but the problem comes when the new mom on the block sets her sights on flaunting it with him. How does a young man say no to that, even when he knows it will hurt the woman’s daughter and his own mother. A unique look at what some would call a lucky break and others would call child abuse. A third young man struggles with the restrictions put on him by his police officer stepfather when he really just wants to get out on the street and hang with the other boys. But if he does, who will watch his two younger sisters? Where does his responsibility lie? To his family or to his own right to be young and have fun while he’s young.

This might be a great book for a boy’s literature circle, but you want to be prepared for the conversations to get uncomfortable.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Exposing the Exposition

As a writer I can tell you I’m definitely not an expert. But as a reading and ELA teacher I can tell you that there is a bit of science to writing a story. For example, a story has five basic sections and all must be present and must transition, one to the other, fluidly. I'm not speaking of the elements of plot, the characters, setting, conflict, complications, climax and resolution. I'm speaking of the way a story is laid out, a line to follow in fitting it together. It is the first of these elements that I'd like to address as it is often the most abused.

One of the most vital parts of a story, and one that is often botched by authors for reasons ranging from lack of skill to rushing to lack of adequate editing is the very first part. The Exposition.

The Exposition:

The exposition is the hook of a story. This is the beginning portion of a book that is supposed to allow the reader to become invested in the story. A solid exposition will pull in a reader who must know more about what will happen. The exposition is the Who, Where, When and What. The Why and the How come later.


A good exposition should introduce the protagonist, antagonist and the primary characters who will act upon the story. This doesn't have to be done as a big, simplistic meet and greet and the antagonists name doesn't even have to be mentioned. But he and any characters who will be central to the plot must be present. The shadow of their presence, their power, their affect, must be present. This can be through foreshadowing, through a revelation of actions or even a hint of their involvement even if they are never identified for the reader.

Where and When

Where does this story take place? Even if your settings will change or the main characters will be transported to another place and time, there must be the over-arching image of where and when this story is going to take place. Some time travel books include a prequel that occurs in the time the character is going to or hint at the future time by something the character is interested in, an object he or she handles or sees or by the discussion of an important event or person from that time period.


The what is critical. We don’t need to know what and how, but your reader should have a vague notion of what the basic conflict is of your story by the time the move from the exposition to the rising action portion of the story. The writer doesn’t even have to tell the reader the truth. Misdirection can lead the reader down one path they think the writer is following only to have the true path revealed later. But the hints of the truth must be there.

Remember the Sixth Sense? Ninety-nine percent of people watched that movie with no idea what the real “problem” was that Bruce Willis’ character had to solve. Yet when this was revealed, we could all look back and go, “Duh!” There was this hint, that hint, and several more along the way. We were surprised and even blindsided. That’s good, the truth was there all the time and the writer used misdirection to fool us. However, he didn’t pull the real “problem” out of his backside at the end.

As I said, I’m not an expert and the truth about rules of writing is that the best and brightest among us break them…or seem to break them all the time. But as I tell my students, you can’t break the rules until you fully understand what they are and why they are there. Then you will understand the difference between breaking them and twisting them in a way that delights and engages your reader.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Characters who drive you crazy.

I'm reading a book right now set in the Amana Colonies. (They in themselves make for a unique and interesting setting for those tired of the usual Amish bonnet stories.) One of the two lead characters, Berta, is driving me mad. She is such a spoiled, deceitful, disrespectful girl that I want to slap her...hard. On one hand, when you are meant to dislike a character, this can be a stellar achievement for a writer. Creating a character that people so connect with and personalize that they hate them is difficult to do. More so, I think, than creating a character that people love.

Back when we were writing fanfiction together, one of my favorite authors--Jennifer Hudock--wrote a character called Perpetua who I grew to loathe. So much that when a friend issued a challenge in a writers group both Jenn and I belong to to write a story about a character you disliked, I chose not one of the usual fanfiction characters, but her Perpetua. In my story I took all my frustration out on the woman, leaving her alone and miserable while flaunting the happy ever afters of the men she had manipulated and hurt right under her nose. I think Jenn got a kick out of the fact that she'd written a character that could elicit such strong feeling from someone... at least that's what she said.

Does this mean I'm praising the author's wretched little wench, Berta? No. I'm pretty sure at some point I'm supposed to like her or sympathize with her but personally I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to stand the little brat long enough to finish the book.