Monday, January 27, 2020

Middle Grade Monday: Twerp (audio book)


Title: Twerp
Author: Mark Goldblatt, read by Everette Plen
Publication Info: 2013, Listening Library. Hardcover 2013, Random House
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Blurb:

It's not like I meant for him to get hurt. . . .

Julian Twerski isn't a bully. He's just made a big mistake. So when he returns to school after a weeklong suspension, his English teacher offers him a deal: if he keeps a journal and writes about the terrible incident that got him and his friends suspended, he can get out of writing a report on Shakespeare. Julian jumps at the chance. And so begins his account of life in sixth grade--blowing up homemade fireworks, writing a love letter for his best friend (with disastrous results), and worrying whether he's still the fastest kid in school. Lurking in the background, though, is the one story he can't bring himself to tell, the one story his teacher most wants to hear.

Inspired by Mark Goldblatt's own childhood growing up in 1960s Queens, Twerp shines with humor and heart. This remarkably powerful story will have readers laughing and crying right along with these flawed but unforgettable characters.

My Review:  

This book was on the short list for the BOTM read for my Goodreads middle-grade books group, and since I needed something to read, I nabbed a copy. The theme for the month was bullying, and this one looked interesting (okay, half the books on the list ended up on my TBR list).

The book is more than interesting. Much of the story reads like a typical middle-school kind of story. Sixth-graders doing 12-year-old things, sometimes stupid, sometimes a little more self-centered than nice. But behind it all, as Julian writes his journal-like story, lurks the thing that he doesn't want to admit. Doesn't even want to think about.

Most of the time the reader can forget that there's something not yet revealed. The traumas of 6th grade--especially the whole things with girls--seem enough to make an engaging and mostly kind of fun story. In retrospect, when the author is done with the gut-punch of the thing Julian and his friends did, some of those incidents were steps on Julian's way to understanding difference. In that sense, the story feels maybe a bit more modern than its 1960s setting--it felt a bit like Restorative Justice. And maybe that concept isn't as new as we like to think it is.

I think this story works especially well as an instructive tale about bullying precisely because Julian isn't a bully. But then he does something--and he is. He is also a kid who is too willing to follow others, and there is just enough hint that he gets that, and in the end manages to move beyond it.

The audio is well done, the narrator's style felt a little too "6th grade" to me--a little too slow and a trifle stilted, kind of the way Julian himself might read it. Which is fine in some ways, but I'd have preferred a smoother read in some places. Not a turn-off, just not how I'd have read it.

My Recommendation:

This would make an excellent book for a class read, especially in a class (I'm thinking of Eldest Son's 6th grade class) where there's a  bit of a bullying problem. If it doesn't get kids to think about their own behavior, they may beyond thinking.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Twerp out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Writer's Wednesday: Editing

This week, since I'm not really in a different place than for my last "Writer's Wednesday" post, I thought I'd share some thoughts on that first edit. The NaNo people have been sending out a lot of stuff on that topic, and I've even looked at some. Go take a look if you can--some of what they say is pretty basic, some is possibly helpful.

Every time I hit this point in a novel (i.e., the first draft is done and has steeped for however long I allow it), I find myself re-inventing the editorial process. The reason, of course, is that editing is hard, and there's no magic formula. But I have found a few things that seem to be good places to start. In my list below, "you" really means "me." Your results may vary.

1. Create a detailed outline. No, not before you write. An outline, scene-by-scene, of what you actually wrote. This time, I started adding location and time to the header for each scene, and halfway through, I realized I needed to include the weather (so embarrassing if your character mentions it's been raining for a week, but three scenes back the sun was shining).

2. Insert notes in the text (I use Bold brackets [ ] to make them easy to find) about things you think need fixing. At this point, struggle to avoid trying to fix them.

3. This is where I get fuzzy... how best to fix the problems? Maybe I can't find a neat plan for it because it's a unique process each time, depending on what needs fixing (in the current WIP, for example, I have a couple of characters who need to appear sooner and more often. I have to figure out where I can put them, and how that changes everything... ugh).

4. After a lot of revision, I get back to stuff I'm pretty clear on. At this point, usually 1-3 rewrites in, I send the book to my beta readers, and do something else while they work on it (I recommend writing short stories. What I usually do is go hiking, which is also a pretty good approach. The key is just not to fret about the story while it's out of your hands).

5. When you've studied the readers'/editors' notes, you get to either return to step 3, or move on to polishing.

6. I have several well-established steps for polishing, which I *thought* I had already written about. I can't find those posts, though, so I'll list them here.
    A. "Final" read-through to tinker with sentences and word choices (repeat as necessary).
    B. Use the "search" function to find and deal with about 15 problem words (some of these are common to most writers, some are personal. I think the list is a post for another day). This is also where in my Pismawallops PTA mysteries I now do a search to make sure that JJ's son Brian didn't become "Brain" anywhere.
    C. Read it aloud, making fixes and adjustments as I go. Ideally, I'd also do this a few steps back, but it's not my favorite thing to do (danged effective, though).
    D. When I'm really sure I'm done, I send it to my proof-reader. When she's done, I'm not allowed to mess with anything more (unless someone tells me about a typo or similar small problem--no rewrites that would let new issues sneak in).

That's pretty much the plan (with that giant hole in the middle where the real work happens). I'm considering trying something the NaNo Revision Guide suggests (see chapter 7): actually rewriting, or retyping the story. They suggest that you open a new file and rewrite the story. Not copy and paste, but type the words again. Even ignore that first draft and (using the much more detailed and reorganized outline and notes you created in Steps 1 & 2 above) rewrite it from scratch. It seems a bit radical, but also maybe fun? Maybe just another way to procrastinate, too--I wonder if I'd get anything any better the second time around?

What I want to know--has anyone tried that radical rewriting approach? Let me know how it worked--or didn't!

Monday, January 20, 2020

Cozy Mystery Review & Author Interview: Dead Week

Dead Week (A Cassandra Sato Mystery)
Cozy Mystery
2nd in Series
Setting – Nebraska
Publisher: Emerald Prairie Press (December 7, 2019)
Paperback: 322 pages
ISBN-10: 1733742425
ISBN-13: 978-1733742429
Digital ASIN: B07ZHN2SMS

Publisher's Blurb:
Will Dead Week kill Cassandra’s career? VP of Student Affairs Cassandra Sato has a desk full of problems and it’s not even Thanksgiving break. A student’s injury and a deaf advocacy project brings national media attention to underfunded Morton College. Cassandra’s new boss talks to her dead husband. Cassandra’s mentor thinks he’s a superhero in a senior citizen’s body. And Cassandra, recently moved from Hawai’i, can’t crack the code of what to wear during November in Nebraska. Is there more to the Vietnam-era story of a student’s death? Cassandra’s search for the long-buried truth stirs up the wrath of those who want to keep the past forgotten.

My Review:
Cassandra Sato is back, and so is chaos and disruption at little Morton College. Academia has a long memory, and Cassandra is caught in the middle when a student starts something too big for her to handle. The mystery that develops is partly about a long-ago student's death, and partly about who is so upset about it and why. Brakenhoff does a great job of creating a compelling mystery without much of a body-count, because she is really writing about humans and their motivations.

I enjoyed the story, which was a solid puzzle (as with the first, I had a pretty good inkling about who did what, but enjoyed watching Cassandra work out the details). I also appreciate the continuing concern with deaf rights and advocacy. The author's sympathies are clear, and well-presented. The book skates at times perilously close to being an "issue story" but dodges that bullet--the deaf rights issues are truly central to the story because they are central to the characters.

And that, I think is the key to why the Cassandra Sato books are so satisfying: they are really about people. This time, the author fleshed out the secondary characters more fully. In some cases that happens gradually, as Cassandra stops seeing them as "types" and recognizes their motivations and needs. The romance element continues to be a bit of background complication, rather than a dominating part of the story. Cassandra seems to be at a point where she needs to examine her life and her choices. She seems to be at least thinking about doing so--I look forward to seeing how she resolves her many personal tensions.

For those interested, I reviewed the first book in the series here

My Recommendation:
Pour a cup of hot cocoa and settle down with a blanket and the book. Even if it's not cold where you are, you'll feel that Nebraska wind blowing right through you while you enjoy the story!

FTC Disclosure: I received an ARC of Dead Week from Great Escapes Free Book Tours, and received nothing further from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."   

And now--we are pleased to have the chance to share our interview author Kelly Brakenhoff!

NL: Thanks for coming by! We'll start with the easy one: When did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or did you stumble into it later in life? 
KB: You know how adults constantly ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always said, “Writer.” Usually accompanied by a shy shrug.

However, armed with an English degree from college, writing jobs were few and far between. Instead I followed my love of language and Deaf Culture into the ASL interpreting field and focused on raising my family for many years.

Cassandra Sato’s story began as a NaNoWriMo project in 2014 while my youngest kids were finishing high school. I toiled for more than four years revising and editing the first novel until it was finally published in spring of 2019. Checking a major dream off your bucket list is pretty exhilarating.

With Dead Week, and my recent children’s book, I’m making up for my late start! I love my day job and my family, but writing books feels like coming home to myself.

NL: Congratulations on that accomplishment! I know the feeling--I'm most fully "me" when writing. Speaking of your day job, you're happy with the one you have now. But... what is the strangest job you’ve ever held?
KB: In college I worked at an outbound telemarketing sales place where we had to call random strangers and sell them a credit card offer. This was the days before robocalls and fancy technology. I lasted two weeks. I couldn’t handle people hanging up on me or yelling at me.

NL: I don't think I'd last a day at that. You're tough! So now that you're safe from telemarketing, what's the best thing about being a writer?  
KB: Looking at the world through a writer’s lens! When I go to a party, spend a day at work, or just talk to people, book and plot ideas pop into my head all the time. Usually friends will say something funny and I’ll jot it down so I can use it in a book. Or I’ll read a newspaper story and think to myself, what if? Taking a kernel of a true story and tweaking it to fit my plot is so much fun. For example, last weekend I attended my husband’s holiday party. While watching his co-worker, it occurred to me that someone like him would be a great supporting character in my next book. I also listened to how people spoke and imagined how I’d describe their looks in print. My brain is always working on the next book.

Now probably if my friends read this interview, I won’t be invited to their parties anymore. Lol.

NL: It's an occupational hazard! Just in case your friends all dump you thanks to that confession, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? 
KB: In the Tuscan countryside, east of Florence, Italy. In an old farmhouse amid the grapevines. Maybe not forever, but wouldn’t it be fun to rent a place there for a year or two? Imagine how many books I could write amidst all that quiet beauty! And plenty of wine for leisure time!

NL: Hmm... I'm not sure. Great scenery and wine sounds like a recipe for staring out the window, not for writing! So you get your old farmhouse, and now there's a spider in the corner of the room, do you a) panic, b) have to drop everything until it is removed, or c) hope it’s planning on eating the more annoying bugs that get in?

KB: A then B then STOMP!

NL: Poor spider! Now back to writing... Do you draft your books longhand or compose at the keyboard?  
KB: My notes are often on sticky notes and scraps of paper or notebooks. When it comes to drafting the actual book, I’m all keyboard.

NL: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to research for one of your books? KB: For Death by Dissertation, I needed my stalker to have a past arrest for harassing a former girlfriend, without physically harming her. Naturally, I turned to Google and typed something like “Creepy stalker stories not murder.” My search feed filled with very disturbing scenarios that I gingerly picked through until I found one I could read without losing my lunch. Photos of weapons and cringe-inducing stalker articles popped up on my social media feeds for weeks afterwards.

NL: Ugh! That's the creepy side of the internet. Do one little search for something, and all the algorithms assume it's your main interest!
You're done the research... now, do you use a detailed outline before you start writing, or… ? 
KB: For all my books I’ve written extensive outlines and character sketches. Every wacky idea and the kitchen sink, too. Pages of notes and basic structure. But once I started writing, things changed, characters did the unexpected, and my carefully laid plans often had gaping plot holes. Thank goodness no one has to read the first few drafts while I’m sorting all that junk out.

My writing goal for 2020 is to keep learning how to write cleaner first drafts. I’m always studying how to improve as a writer, and better outlines is a great starting point.

NL: Good luck with that quest. Every time I think I've found the secret to a clean first draft, it blows up in my face. I still embrace planning and plotting and even outlining.
Thanks for stopping by the Ninja Librarian's blog! Before you go, is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about you?
KB: While many authors are introverts who hide in their writing lairs, I’m very extroverted. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by receiving photos of readers enjoying my book while lounging at the beach or watching their child’s softball games. I’d love it if you followed me on Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, Amazon or wherever you like to hang out. Because I love talking about books!

NL: Thanks again, Kelly!  We'll pop those author links in here, along with a bit of a bio...

About the author: 
Kelly Brakenhoff is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. Her first novel, Death by Dissertation, kicked off the Cassandra Sato Mystery Series. She also wrote Never Mind, first in a children’s picture book series featuring Duke the Deaf Dog. She serves on the Board of Editors for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf publication, VIEWs. The mother of four young adults and two dogs, Kelly and her husband call Nebraska home. Her first mystery, Death by Dissertation, released April 22, 2019.  

Author Links:
Website –
Amazon – Https://
Instagram –  @kellybrak
BookBub –
GoodReads  –

Purchase Link – Amazon 

 And, if all this isn't enough--we have a Rafflecopter giveaway!  Win your own ebook of the mystery and read it for yourself!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

All images and text ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2020, unless otherwise indicated.
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!