Big news!!!

Today I’m pleased to announce that I have signed a book contract with Vinspire Publishing! They will be publishing my debut young adult novel. I’ve dreamed of this day for so long that I think I’m still in shock that it’s actually happening.

The past few months have been very hectic as I’ve read over the contract details while preparing for a pilgrimage to Rome and somehow making lesson plans for the days I’ll be gone.

Still a lot left to do before my trip, so you’ll just have to stay tuned for more details on my upcoming book!

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Monday Book Review: One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

This is the third in my series of reviews of the nominees for best juvenile mystery for the 2014 Edgar Awards, and so far it’s looking like a top contender.

One Came HomeTitle: One Came Home

Author: Amy Timberlake

Genre: mystery (historical)

Age group: upper middle grade

Synopsis: In 1871, Georgie Burkhardt has plans for one day running her grandfather’s store with her older sister Agatha, but those plans take a turn when Agatha disappears.  It happens after a thunderous flock of pigeons invades their small town in Wisconsin, using it as a nesting place. Agatha has two local men interested in her, but she suddenly leaves one day with a group of “pigeoners” who are out to hunt the birds and follow them wherever they nest. Days later, the sheriff returns to town with an unidentifiable body dressed in Agatha’s blue gown. Everyone assumes the worst except for Georgie. She’s convinced her sister’s still out there, but can she find her before it’s too late?

I’ll fully admit to being envious of those writers who can create an authentic voice for a character in a historical piece, and Amy Timberlake does just that. Georgie is a full-fledged, gun-wielding tomboy of the late nineteenth century. Her narrator voice sweeps us up in her search for her sister.

I also admired how Timberlake creates suspense without being flashy or overly dramatic. I found myself reading late into the night and yet wondering how I could be so invested in a book where “little happened.” This isn’t an action-packed book, yet I found myself caught up in the  mystery of what happened to Agatha and what would happen to Georgie. I think part of the suspense-building is due to the way Timberlake works the pigeons into the story. They are a dramatic part of the setting of this story, and their presence is based on the fact that in 1871 south-central Wisconsin was home to the largest nesting of passenger pigeons ever. Of course, one can’t help but think of the Hitchcock movie The Birds, and then you get a sense of how intimidating a giant flock of birds can be.

This is only the third of the Edgar nominees for best juvenile mystery I’ve read so far. It’s been a busy spring, but I hope to finish off the rest of the nominees before the awards next month!

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Monday Book Review: Saving Yesterday by Jessica Keller

When I first met Jessica Keller at an ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) meeting, I learned that she wrote adult Christian fiction. What I didn’t know right away was that she had a YA book in the works. When the book was released last month, I jumped at the chance to snatch a copy so that I could share it with all of you.

Saving YesterdayTitle: Saving Yesterday

Author: Jessica Keller

Genre: Speculative fiction (I love that in the dedication she thanks her dad and brother for making her watch Star Trek and all those sci-fi shows.)

Age group: YA

Synopsis: Gabby Creed never knew her mother, and she’s been forced to act like a parent to her alcoholic father. However, on her seventeenth birthday, her life is really turned upside-down. A bracelet mysteriously appears on her wrist, and she is sucked back into time. She finds herself during the Civil War with a boy who can also time travel. Eventually, she learns that they are both Shifters, time travelers who switch time periods at the whim of a man known only as Nicholas. When they time travel, Shifters are expected to protect humans and their history. But that’s not easy to do when the Shades (creepy creatures with melting faces) want to feed off human despair and capture Gabby for their own evil purposes.

As I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, I figured Jessica Keller and I were kindred spirits when she mentioned things like Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austen novels, and having to take away someone’s nerd card when they confused Star Wars and Star Trek. (No problem for me there. While Jessica only has one brother, I have four brothers to indoctrinate teach me in the ways of the Force, show me how to give a Vulcan salute, and know not to confuse the two!) However, after reading Saving Yesterday, I’m absolutely sure we’re kindred spirits.

The book moves at a great pace, the characters are sympathetic, and the plot is intriguing. Even though we lost an hour of sleep Saturday night, I stayed up late to finish! Saving Yesterday is the start of a series, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Parents of teens: No need to worry about inappropriate language and such here.

While Jessica is an author of Christian fiction, there is no overtly Christian talk in this book. However, it’s a “safe read,” and there are definitely some Christian themes running through it.

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Monday Book Review: The Thief by Stephanie Landsem

I’m taking a break from reading the 2014 Edgar Award nominees to bring you a great Biblical fiction book just perfect for some fun Lenten reading! That’s right, I said, “fun Lenten reading.” Don’t think it’s possible? Check out Stephanie Landsem’s The Thief.

The ThiefTitle: The Thief

Author: Stephanie Landsem

Genre: Biblical fiction

Synopsis: With a father addicted to gambling and a mother addicted to wine, Nissa survives the only way she knows how, with the help of a talented thief named Mouse. Without Mouse’s help, Nissa and her blind brother Cedron would starve. However, getting help from Mouse gets complicated when Mouse is nearly caught by Longinus, a Roman centurion who wants nothing more than to catch the little thief who escaped him. Meanwhile, rumors spread around Jerusalem about a new teacher who can heal. When this new prophet brings sight back to Cedron, Nissa hopes to find a new way to survive, but the miracle of Cedron’s sight only brings further problems as tension mounts in Jerusalem over this new prophet.

As you can probably guess, the prophet/healer is Jesus, and Landsem expertly works in various Bible stories leading up to and including the passion and death of Christ. What I liked about The Thief even more than The Well (the first book in the Living Waters series) is how many different Biblical stories Landsem is able to weave into one narrative. It’s fun to see familiar Gospel stories fleshed out and pieced together in surprising ways. Like she did in The Well, Landsem has a way of introducing you to a character and only later do you realize you “know” that character from a Bible story. For example, when you first meet Cedron, you might not realize he’s the one who will have his eyes covered in mud and then told by Jesus to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. You’ll have to read the rest of The Thief to find out what other Biblical figures appear!

For me, one of the most surprising parts of the story was how much it helped me picture the political tensions of the time. In school, they taught us about how the Pharisees believed Jesus was just another trickster and how the Zealots wanted a real revolution, but seeing that tension depicted in a story made it so much clearer to me.

So if you’re looking for a new way to get into the passion narrative this Lent, pick up Stephanie Landsem’s The Well. It goes on sale tomorrow!

Visit Stephanie Landsem online here.

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Monday Book Review: Strike Three You’re Dead by Josh Berk

I grew up with four brothers, and that meant summers spent either watching the Cubs on TV or playing ball out in the yard. So I was excited to read the middle grade baseball mystery Strike Three You’re Dead.

IMG_4252Title: Strike Three You’re Dead

Author: Josh Berk

Genre: mystery

Age group: middle grade

Synopsis: Baseball fan Lennie Norbeck dreams of one day being the announcer for the Phillies. After winning a contest, Lennie gets the chance to announce one inning at a game, but his dream is cut short when a new pitcher mysteriously dies on the field in the middle of the game. Lennie and his friends (the two Mikes) decide to investigate the case.

I would recommend this mystery to kids who enjoy baseball. As an avid mystery fan, I was able to guess “whodunit” well before Lennie did, but I enjoyed the twists and turns in the story along the way, and I think most middle schoolers would be surprised by the ending.

Another thing I think middle schoolers would enjoy is the voice in this story. Lennie definitely sounds like a preteen, and Berk’s characterization of his two best friends (affectionately known as Mike and Other Mike) are spot on for middle school boys.

One note for parents: because this is written from the perspective of a middle school boy, you can imagine that he views his parents as being rather stupid (despite the fact that they’re both doctors) and embarrassing. In other words, typical middle school perspective; however, I know that bothers some parents, so I thought I’d mention it.

This is my second review for the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery. To read my first review, click here.

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Monday Book Review: P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man by Caroline Lawrence

It’s time to start reviewing this year’s nominees for the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery! First one up is a historical mystery that takes place in the Nevada Territory during the time of the Civil War.

IMG_4251Title: P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man

Subject: Caroline Lawrence

Genre: mystery

Age group: middle grade

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old P.K Pinkerton has just opened his own detective agency in Virginia City (Nevada Territory). A young former slave girl asks for his protection. Last night, she witnessed the murder of her mistress Short Sally, a local “Soiled Dove” (prostitute). Now she’s worried the murderer is after her to keep her quiet. P.K., with his autistic-style “eccentricities,” decides to take on the case.

Ms. Lawrence creates a great voice for the character of P.K. Pinkerton. Although the word autism is never used, any teacher familiar with some of the common traits of autism would be quick to catch on. P.K. has trouble reading people’s facial expressions, and he always tells the truth to the point of being blunt.

I also enjoyed some of the historical aspects of the story, from the references to the far-off Civil War to the inclusion of Sam Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain).

Many of the parents who read this blog want to know about age appropriateness, so I’ll reveal that the swear words are fairly PG. Since we’re dealing with the “wild west,” you’d expect a lot of the adult males to curse. “Hell” is written as “h-ll” and “damn” is written as “dam.” Any further swearing by adults is simply described by P.K. as “profanities unfit for publication.”

Some parents may also be concerned about the fact that the murder victim is a prostitute. The word prostitute is never used in the book. Instead, the women are described as “Soiled Doves” who accept “Gentleman Callers.” Parents will have to decide how comfortable they are with that.

As a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, I always find it interesting when “secular” books include the Christian faith. P.K. describes himself as “50% Lakota Indian but 100% Methodist.” The Methodist minister in the book is painted in a favorable light, and P.K. does resort to prayer on several occasions in the book. The inclusion of his faith was woven rather seamlessly into the story and seems historically appropriate for the time. (Side note: I can’t imagine trying to be a Christian minister during a time and place where such lawlessness prevailed. They had their work cut out for them!)

Overall, I enjoyed the mystery. The chapters are short, and Ms. Lawrence does a great job of leaving little cliff hangers at the end of each chapter.

Will it win the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery?  I don’t know. I’ve got several more nominees left to read!

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2014 Edgar Award Nominees

It’s that time of year again! The Mystery Writers of America have announced the nominees for the 2014 Edgar Awards. As I did last year, I’ll be reading through the YA and juvenile nominees, reviewing them, and then posting my predictions for the winner.

Edgar Allan Poe

Here’s the list of nominees. Have you read any of them? I haven’t yet!

BEST JUVENILE

Strike Three, You’re Dead by Josh Berk (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking by Erin Dionne (Penguin Young Readers Group – Dial)
P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man by Caroline Lawrence  (Penguin Young Readers Group – Putnam Juvenile)
Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Disney Publishing Worldwide – Disney-Hyperion)
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)

BEST YOUNG ADULT

All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry (Penguin Young Readers Group – Viking Juvenile)
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy (Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (Penguin Young Readers Group – Razorbill)
Ketchup Clouds by Amanda Pitcher (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

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Monday Book Review: The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson

Time for the first book review of 2014! And I’m pleased to be talking about Melanie Dickerson‘s The Captive Maiden, an imaginative re-telling of the Cinderella story. As you may know, versions of the Cinderella have been around for centuries in many cultures throughout the world. Dickerson’s tale takes only the basics elements of the story and turns it into a new tale of adventure and romance.

IMG_4239Title: The Captive Maiden

Author: Melanie Dickerson

Genre: fairytale retelling

Age group: YA

Synopsis: Gisela had a happy childhood until her father died. Now she’s forced into a life of servitude for her stepmother and stepsisters, a fate she never expects to escape. So when she meets Valten–the duke’s handsome son–and finds out he’s giving a ball, she decides to attend even if it means disobeying her stepmother and only temporarily getting a taste of another life. Unfortunately, another man has his eye on Gisela, and he’s intent on her not enjoying the ball–nor any other days–with Valten.

This is the second of Ms. Dickerson’s books that I’ve read. I’ve also read The Healer’s Apprentice, but I enjoyed this one much more. You might think this one would be rather anti-climatic since we all know the Cinderella story so well. However, I found myself reading through it quickly because the story takes several turns that aren’t in the Disney or even Grimm Brothers’ versions that most of us know. In other words, despite expecting a happy ending, I was worried about how how main characters would get there. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that there’s no glass slipper ending here.

If you enjoy fairytale re-tellings, check out Melanie Dickerson’s The Captive Maiden.

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Writing Wednesday: What’s the difference between “maybe” and “may be”?

One of my brilliant sixth graders asked this question recently. Don’t underestimate kids. They ask great questions!

May be (two words)

When may and be are written separately, they are both being used as verbs. May could be acting as the helping verb, and be could be acting as the main verb.

For example: This may be our last chance to buy a turkey before Thanksgiving.

Or, the two words might both be acting as helping verbs in front of a main verb.

For example: She may be arriving late for Thanksgiving dinner.

And as today is the day before Thanksgiving, may I wish you all a Happy Turkey Day!

Maybe (one word)

When maybe is written as one word, it is an adverb that means “perhaps” or “possibly.”

For example: Maybe we will take a nap after eating all that turkey.

Still not sure what to use? Test it!

If you’re not sure which version to use, try putting “perhaps” or “possibly” in its place. If it works, write it as one word. If not, write it as two words.

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Monday Book Review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Just over a year ago, I wrote a review of Divergent, the bestselling YA dystopian book by Veronica Roth. I also included my hopes for what the finale in the trilogy would be like. Now that the finale’s out, it’s time to see if the book lived up to my expectations.

IMG_4092Title: Allegiant

Author: Veronica Roth

Genre: dystopian

Age group: young adult

Summary: Normally, I’d give you a summary here, but honestly, the book’s too complicated. If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, don’t bother picking up this one until you do.

Spoiler alert! I’m going to give away major details on this book, so stop reading now if you haven’t finished the book yet or are planning on reading it.

Last year, I posted these thoughts about what I hoped would happen in the third book. Although some of my predictions came true, the book didn’t quite meet my expectations.

First, I posted last year that I thought moms might not like their kids reading about all the violence in these books. The violence continues in book three, and it’s not just someone getting hit, it’s people getting killed. And by our heroine, nonetheless. Right toward the end, Tris kills a couple guards. Sure, she’s on her way to do something heroic, something that will probably save hundreds if not thousands of lives. However, I still hate that she had to kill people in order to save lives. The worst part is that Tris doesn’t seem to feel that bad about it. Yes, she feels bad about killing her old friend Will when he was basically under mind control, but she doesn’t feel about bad about killing anyone else. I want a heroine that is smart enough that she can find a way to save lives without having to take others.

The second thing I mentioned was that I hoped Tris learned what it means to be selfless.  This part does come through in the end. Tris does learn about self-sacrifice. However, there’s one thing this book is missing that makes it different from other books where the main character is willing to sacrifice himself (or herself). In all those other books (BIG SPOILER ALERT HERE), the main character “resurrects.”

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan resurrects after his self-sacrifice. In Harry Potter, Harry “resurrects” from the train station scene with Dumbledore in order to face Voldemort again. Even the characters in The Lord of the Rings head to the “Undying Lands” when their time is up.

The reason why I think so many people are disappointed with Veronica Roth is that there’s no resurrection scene in Allegiant. Whether non-Christians like to admit it or not, we all really like our heroes to be like Christ. We want them to be willing to sacrifice themselves, but we all want to have hope in the resurrection. We need to see that the hero’s sacrifice was worth it, and we want the hero to be around to reap the rewards of his (or her) greatest contribution.

Another thing I had mentioned in my previous post was that Tris needed to learn that there was value in all of the factions and that the factions need to work together. This is sort of included in the final book. The factionless take over, but the leader of the factionless turns out to be just as tyrannical as any other government leader. (Side note: This so made me think of Animal Farm. In fact, one of the characters in Allegiant even says at one point that they seem to just keep moving from one bad government to the next. Yep, my thought exactly!)

In the end, my feelings about Allegiant are quite ambivalent. On the one hand, Ms. Roth came up with a fantastically vivid and complex world. I only wish I had such an imagination. Her writing is good, and she really had several good things to say in this series. Toward the end, Tobias comments on what different forms bravery can take, and Tris has a few nice lines about maybe believing in the same God her parents did.

On the other hand, I wanted something more. I wanted more of the characters to have a clearer understanding of what makes a good civilization.  I wanted Tris to be smart enough she could “save the world” without having to kill others. And I wanted more hope at the end; this could probably have been accomplished with a resurrection scene.

If you’ve read the series, let me know what you thought of the ending in the comments below.

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