Caving in to peer pressure …

… and this time with pleasure. A couple of fellow bloggers (find their posts here and here) have brought my attention to a reading challenge for 2015 (from Goodwill Librarian on Facebook), one that requires new reading experiences that should be enjoyable rather than burdensome.

Here it is:


A quick skim of the list shows that I can already check off two of these, including the  book of 500+ pages. Some, however, will be difficult: A book with antonyms in the title. A book based on or turned into a TV show. A book at the bottom of my to-read list. (That list has no bottom!)

I’m also adding my own requirement: no books that I’ve already read will count.

Since I intend to focus more on my writing this year, my posts about the books I read for the challenge will be brief, but (I hope) tantalizing. Perhaps someone somewhere will find a way to collate the titles people across the world have read for each category — it would be a marvelous compendium. At any rate, I’ll be following the progress of (and possibly cribbing from) Calmgrove and Suffolk Scribblings throughout 2015.

Join us!

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New year: Enter, writing

Not so memorable, but better than “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

Photo: Oklahoma Tall Grass Prairie, by Dan Satterfield (

Oklahoma Tall Grass Prairie, by Dan Satterfield (

I have ambitious writing goals this year, which include completing the final editing stages of my current project, writing a first draft of my historical epic, and starting a YA novel that draws on memories of growing up in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma project will be a shift for me: it’s set in the world we know, using first person narrative. It’ll take place in the late 50s or early 60s, when home computers were but a glint in some hardware designer’s eye, and portable phones the stuff of TV sitcoms. Those devices, although so convenient these days, make it impossible for anyone to get lost, fall out of touch with other characters, or spend time alone. I need my characters to be truly on their own, and there’s nothing so lonely as a small town in the middle of the 20th century, in the middle of nowhere.

Yet I have no plans for a dark or frightening plot. It will be a YA comedy. Male protagonist, about 14 years old, raised by his mother, who likes to travel. Quirky local characters. A love interest — possibly two. Probably a fight scene.

In addition to all this writing, I have a new course to plan and teach: “The Child and Adolescent in American Fiction.” The reading list is not as ambitious as last spring’s YA lit course, for which we read 30 books. Also, replacing the fantasy genre are articles by Piaget, Erikson, Bettelheim, and other psychologists and child development experts. This may not seem like a fair trade-off, yet it does leave plenty of ‘scope for imagination’, as Anne Shirley would say. Keep an eye on my ReadersAreLeaders2014 blog for posts about the books and class discussions.

To all my readers here and elsewhere: Best wishes for a year full of good cheer, success in all your endeavors and, of course, nothing but excellent books.

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The sea, the sea, the sea

4Before continuing, set the soundtrack for your reading here (but only if you don’t mind reading with some music playing in the background).

The Wanderer (2000), Sharon Creech

“The sea, the sea, the sea.” When she first writes these words, Sophie, 13 years old and eager to leap into adventure, is preparing to sail across the Atlantic in a 45-foot vessel (The Wanderer) with her two cousins and three uncles. Her journal entries before and during the trip often start with these same words, a repeated paean to a life at sea, but with each iteration gradually revealing more of what that life demands.

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, Courtesy Tate Images

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, Courtesy Tate Images

Their voyage starts easily, although with conflict among the crew, both across and within generations. Sophie and her two cousins, Cody and Brian, are on one side of the generation gap. Uncles Mo (Cody’s father), Stew (Brian’s father) and Dock are on the other. The three uncles are brothers, and a history of rivalries and comradeship is revealed at various moments. Cody and Brian, not much older than Sophie, are at times allied with their fathers and at other times rebelling against them. Sophie, as the only girl and with no parent aboard, tries to stay out of it all.

When they start off through Long Island Sound, Uncle Stew sets their first task: each crew member must teach the others something. Brian teaches points of sail, Cody (whose dog-log entries alternate with Sophie’s throughout the novel) teaches juggling, and Sophie teaches the stories their grandfather taught her.

Waves Breaking against the Wind, Courtesy Tate Images

Waves Breaking against the Wind, Courtesy Tate Images

Early on, Sophie learns how to kill and gut fish, repairs the bilge box, and is the only crew member light enough (and fearless enough) to get to the top of the mast via the bosun’s chair. At sea, the chair swings out over the water as it rises or falls, and Sophie loves the feeling of flying out over the waves.

As is usual for Creech, behind the tale of adventure lies an exploration of family ties and belonging. Sophie’s an orphan, and the people she’s traveling with are part of her adopted family. The stories she tells come from their grandfather. But how does Sophie know this man’s stories? He isn’t her grandfather. He had moved back to England before the family adopted her. When her cousins ask pointed questions, she changes the subject or leans over the rail to stare at the ocean. The adults know something but won’t tell the two boys.

David Morse and Ciaran Hinds, 2006

David Morse and Ciaran Hinds, The Seafarer

For me, Creech’s book sets off echoes of old English poetry, Iris Murdoch’s novels, Conor McPherson’s 2006 play The Seafarer, Turner’s seascapes (for instance, the two paintings above) and Debussy’s music (which you might be listening to right now). Creech prefaces her novel with a brief quote from “The Seafarer“, an Anglo-Saxon poem at least 1000 years old:

This tale is true, and mine. It tells/How the sea took me, swept me back/And forth …

The lines below, from the same poem, remind me of Sophie in her bosun’s chair:

And now my spirit twists/out of my breast,/my spirit/out in the waterways,/over the whale’s path/it soars widely/through all the corners of the world – /it comes back to me/eager and unsated;/the lone-flier screams,/urges onto the whale-road/the unresisting heart/across the waves of the sea.

Compare those with an excerpt from Sophie’s journal:

And still the sea called, Come out, come out, and in boats I went — in rowboats and dinghies and motorboats, and after I learned to sail, I flew over the water, with only the sounds of the wind and the water and the birds, all of them calling, Sail on, sail on.

Sophie and the crew of The Wanderer sail on, and the strength of this novel is in how each faces the challenges of their journey.

Posted in Adventure, Newbery Award, YA Lit | Tagged | 8 Comments

NaNoWriMo ends, a new task begins

After a few days of rest (and way too much TV), I think I’m ready to get back into my usual routine. The semester will end in 3 weeks, which means I have papers to grade. I’m also giving a final exam, for the first time in several years. It’s take-home (I really detest the panicked atmosphere of an exam room during a timed test), and the students have had the questions for a month. They’re even allowed to talk with each other, as long as they cite their discussion partners in a bibliography. They’d better do well!

The good news: I won NaNoWriMo! (Remember, winning only means writing at least 50K words during the month of November; every NaNoWriMo-er can be a winner.)


As you can see in my NaNo widget, I made it past 51,000 words before Thanksgiving, which meant I could take it easy for the holiday, but I didn’t. Instead, I moved to the next steps: editing and getting feedback. I deleted the rubbish (I realize that’s a subjective assessment — there’s probably plenty more rubbish that I can’t see), and sent it out to my writing group members. They’re reading now, and I feel a bit like a college applicant waiting for the letters that will decide my future. With their feedback, I’ll start another round of revisions/edits, and then move into the query process. This new book is another fantasy, with dragons but no magicians.  You can find out a bit more about it under the “My books” page above.

The better news: I have the energy to start my historical epic. “Start” may, perhaps, be misleading. For last year’s NaNo I wrote a first draft and found myself mired in historical minutiae. The going was slow and painful, and I was happy to set it aside. After this past summer’s travels, however, I’m ready to leap back into it. I’ll read more YA historical fiction, taking notes on how other authors mix plot and history.

And now I really must grade those papers!

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Hunger Games and Protest

Lizzie Ross:

From my other blog. I’m wrapping up my NaNoWriMo 2014 project — I’ve already passed my 50K-word goal, but I need to do some major revising to have it ready to submit to my writing groups. Stay tuned for more news come December.

Originally posted on Readers Are Leaders 2014:

220px-Hunger_gamesThis morning’s Weekend Edition/Saturday on NPR included a brief interview with Stephen Carter, a professor and novelist who discusses how Suzanne Collin’s massively popular series of books and movies mirrors much of what’s happening lately, so much so that the District 12 Salute is being used by protesters around the world.

I generally like to wave at everyone on the bandwagon as it passes me by, so the universal fascination with Katniss et al. gave me the reason I needed to leave these books in the bookstore. (NB: I was well into Harry Potter before the world went mad.)

I didn’t like the first book in Collins’ series, yet forced myself to read it a second time and found it a bit more tolerable. Even so, I was not inspired to finish the series. One, there are an awful lot of really good books for adults that I haven’t yet read. Two, the idea of children killing children…

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Still here

Hey fan base! I’ve been busy, but not too busy (in other words, no all-nighters). Here’s my progress so far:

Screen shot 2014-11-16 at 9.50.05 PM


Once they get their system set for a few hundred thousand users, NaNoWriMo does a great job of keeping track of how much I’ve written. That graph on the right is just what I need to force myself past the moments of thinking I’ve made a huge mistake. As long as that brown bar stays above the grey line, I know I’m on track.

There are plenty of moments when I think perhaps this writing gig is too much like work, but I’ve learned to ignore them. NaNo provides advice from pep-talkers like Tamora Pierce (she suggests making your protagonist do something stupid to see how they cope), and several dozen discussion forums with writing prompts such as this one from “Pachelbel”:

Imagine your character going about his or her mundane daily tasks and finding something unexpected that brings about a strong reaction. It must be a physical object that creates either a physical or mental threat, or a mystery, whether real or imagined.

Pachelbel has another 200 or so of these suggestions, enough for 6 per day if needed. NaNo is about discovering your story and who your characters are, so everything is acceptable, even if later it gets edited out.

Anyway, I’ve passed the halfway point, so I encourage myself by saying the rest is a downhill ride. Yet halfway isn’t all the way, I have two big scenes coming up, including the obligatory battle between the goodies and the baddies, and I know that days of grinding away with no idea of where I’m going are still ahead of me. And then I get to edit it into a novel!

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading: 5 Mapp & Lucia books (including 4 not written by E. F. Benson!), a bit of Thurber, Augustus Carp, more Thurber, and now Diary of a Nobody.

Posted in NaNoWriMo, writing | 2 Comments

A Turning Point

Lizzie Ross:

From Julia Lee’s blog. She’s the author of The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth, STILL not available in the US. What is her publisher waiting for?

Originally posted on Julia Lee Author:

autumn leaves of London Plane tree

The leaves are falling from the London Planes. I always notice them. They are quite unmistakable – pointy-fingered leaves in clearly differentiated shades,

bright green, or the colour of lemon peel, or at most a light golden brown, like roast potatoes. And all the size of plates – tea plates, dessert plates, even dinner plates. His eye, as he walked down Kilmartin Road, scanned to find the biggest – and yet bigger – leaves upon the pavement and in the gutter between the parked cars. He longed to pick up the biggest he could find and take it home. That would be an autumn leaf.

Why am I writing about this, and what am I quoting?

The fall of the plane leaves always reminds me of my first experience of publication, and prize-winning (writing as Julia Widdows). It was a turning point on my path as a writer and such…

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