Introducing…Ella Wood

ella woodMany of you know I’ve spent the winter working on a new volume of historical fiction. Ella Wood is a sequel to my middle grade novel, The Candle Star. (It’s free. See my sidebar.) Due to reader request, I decided to follow Emily Preston home to South Carolina and continue her story. However, as Emily is now 16 and standing on the brink of Civil War (and as most of my readers continue to be grownups), I choose to make Ella Wood young adult instead of middle grade. As such, I’ve doubled the length and added some romance. It will be the first in a trilogy that takes Emily all the way through the end of the war.

Ella Wood has been stretching me in ways I hadn’t imagined. First, I’ve never been much of a romantic, so including a love triangle has proven extremely challenging. Also, though I’ve written several works of historical fiction, they’ve never been of such ambitious lengths. In addition, there’s a good deal of research required, as you can well imagine. I love it, but it takes copius amounts of time. Then, of course, I have to be careful to write inside that historical box. I’ve even found that characterization changes when you have twice as long to illustrate a personality–and you end up with twice as many characters! Definitely a stretcher for me. But I am thoroughly enjoying the challenge.

I still have some work ahead of me. I hardly dare give a release date more specific than “May”. It’s a whole new ballgame and none of my estimates have proven accurate. It will be done when it’s done, and that won’t be till I’m completely satisfied with it. But I thought it was time to make introductions anyway.

Over the next weeks, I’ll be including a few posts about Ella Wood‘s creation. I’ll let you in on some of the background details and share a few fascinating tidbits I uncovered in my research. My husband and I also journeyed to Charleston, South Carolina at the end of last year for some on-site exploration. I’ll share some of the highlights (and some great pictures!). I hope, through my chronicle of posts, that you can get an idea of what goes into the production of a novel and that you’ll share my excitement for its upcoming release.

First post coming soon! I’ll collect them all in the “Ella Wood” category way down my sidebar.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883

Treasure_Island-Scribner's-1911We tackled another classic as part of our homeschool reading curriculum, Treasure Island. I knew the antiquated language would prove plenty challenging for my tween boys, but I really wanted them to experience the original instead of an abridged version. So I read it to them. It was a good move.

Treasure Island is classic adventure story. Pirates, treasure, suspense, a dangerous voyage. It’s right up a boy’s alley. My guys ate it up. I had to explain some vocabulary. And there were plenty of times, especially when the pirates were talking, that the vernacular got pretty crazy. At those moments, I plowed through and then gave a brief explanation the end of the paragraph. They enjoyed the sound of the old pirate words, even if they couldn’t always follow the train of thought. I enjoy the language because it’s so colorful and inventive without being crass.

We sometimes had to stop and discuss the characters as we went along. They needed some guidance on who were bad guys and who were good guys. Long John Silver is a particularly dynamic character, deceptive and sneaky but so charming. I helped them locate clues in the text to sort out motives and then make predictions about what Silver was really up to. Once they identified personalities and motives, my boys had no trouble following the characters through all the twists and turns, and, yes, violence. An awful lot of fellows meet their demise in this one, good guys and bad guys alike. It’s not terribly bloodly, but the pirates are pretty horrible, greedy, callous individuals.

So this brings up a really good question…if it’s so difficult and so violent, what age recommendations would I make for Treasure Island? As far as an independent reading level, unless your child is an exceptional reader, you should probably save it for junior high. The old language makes for tricky reading, and you really have to follow carefully in some parts to understand that slippery fellow, Silver. As far as graphic content, it’s not terribly bloody for all the violence. And I actually appreciate that pirates are portrayed realistically, as the nasty outlaws they were. Long John Silver is not an eccentric, loveable Jack Sparrow. He’s evil. So I’d probably say seventh grade for independent reading, but as a guided read aloud, third or fourth grade should be fine.

Thumbs up for this old-fashioned boy adventure. It was not an easy read. It required some explaining and some critical thinking, but we all enjoyed the adventure. There is historic and literary value in a book that has stood the test of time. I think it’s worth a little effort to mine out the gem.

The Stone of Valhalla, by Mikey Brooks

valhallaWow! I’m afraid I might have to do a little gushing on this one. This is middle grade fiction at its best. An epic adventure I’d put side-by-side with names like Spiderwick and Fablehaven.

I actually listened to this one as an audiobook from to give myself a break during our read aloud time. Narrator Shea Taylor is a wonder. The way he creates a distinctive voice for each character and flips between them so effortlessly left me in awe. Seriously. I really enjoyed listening. Unfortunately, I’m such an extreme visual learner that I miss a lot when I only take in info through my ears. So after listening with my boys, I’d sneak off and reread the chapters.

Funny enough, I was a little apprehensive going into this one only because my brain resists when it enters a world not familiar to me, where the rules all change. Such is the case in the two other books I’ve read by Brooks. I always struggle with abstract Otherworld settings. But in Valhalla, the Otherworld is akin to our Middle Ages. It’s comfortable. It’s solid. I’ve studied a lot of history, and stepping into this book felt like stepping into a world of times past that I love so much, only with magic. The world building was one of my favorite elements.

Another is the trio of heroes. Aaron comes from our world, so when he befriends Bran and Rosella, some great moments of humor arise. Yet they all find a common denominator in simply being kids, and they keep a tight friendship despite some, uh, shall we say undesirable circumstances? For the three of them are each keepers of a piece of the all-powerful Stone of Valhalla, which the Goblin King will do anything (and does!) to claim for himself.

Squeaky AwardSamarlidi the crotchety old wizard (love him!) and Klara, an equally crotchety old lady, make for a great secondary plotline. The dialogue between them is filled with snarky comments that sometimes made me laugh out loud. The plot is well thought out, with some twists and turns I didn’t see coming. And as for style, I give this one bonus points. There are some lovely, poetic moments, yet Aaron is so darn unassuming that his point of view adds an honesty and innocence to the thoughts being presented and magnifies their beauty.

This is fine literature, suitable for ages 9+. I give it my absolute highest honor by bestowing a Squeaky Award. It is among the few and proud.

Grab a copy! Kindle editions are only .99, and audiobooks are currently an amazing 1.99.


The Selection (Selection Series, 1), by Kiera Cass

selection cvrPrintOne_final

I just finished a really cute young adult novel that’s been called a cross between Hunger Games and The Bachelor. I’d call it more of a Miss America pageant with intrigue. It is a romance, and you all know by now that I don’t go there often, but since I’m including a bit of romance in my current YA manuscript—believe it or not, I am!—I figured it wouldn’t hurt to dip into some in my free time. Call it research. ;)

Actually, I was feeling the need for a break from middle grade, so I hopped on Goodreads and tracked down a “best of…” list, and this series happened to be on it. The blurb caught my eye.

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in the palace and compete for the heart of the gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn’t want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.

Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she’s made for herself- and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.

Believe me, it wasn’t the “glittering gowns and priceless jewels” that got me. It was America’s reluctance. And (shhhh) the hint of a love triangle. I like romance to take a back seat to the action, but if it’s going to be predominant, the tension of a love triangle works way better for me than simply meeting Prince Charming in the first chapter so that I predict the rest of the book. At least keep me guessing!

Ms. Cass pulls this story off pretty well. I was a little critical at first. We’re introduced to America’s world, with its restrictive cast system, as well as to her hopes, her dreams, and her boyfriend. The flow wasn’t quite as smooth as others I’ve read. And when she enters the royal competition, the reasons felt like just a bit of a stretch. But I accepted them and moved on…and then I got sucked in.

I loved the interaction at the castle, and especially how America insists upon being herself. She won’t change, even for royalty. And she’s wonderfully forthright with Maxon. She’s not there to marry him. She’s there for the food! It sets the stage for a unique friendship and fabulous, witty dialogue in the midst of an elimination round. I love them together, even though the prince is a bit of a schmuck. He’s not as stuffy as America thinks he’ll be, but as a reader, he is a bit too perfect. Still, I had to find out who she’d choose, Prince Maxon or her old flame, Aspen. I didn’t find out by the end, so I already ordered book 2 from the library.

Despite this book looking like one I’d never pick up, I actually enjoyed it. Maybe I’m more of a sap than I like to think. See?? I’m even posting this the week of Valentine’s Day. Oh, my reputation is slipping… Anyway, moms, physical relationships are kept within safe boundaries, though there are a few minor profanities sprinkled throughout the text. I’d give this one a 13+ age recommendation. It’s a fun, light-hearted read.

Grab a copy!


brown girl dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

brown-girl-dreaming-541x800Today the 2015 Newbery Award is scheduled to be announced. I’ve heard on good authority, from a fellow in tight with the School Library Journal, that brown girl dreaming is high on the list. In his opinion, it is the most deserving book of the year. I have not read all the entries, but I have read brown girl dreaming. I thought this would be an appropriate day to post my review.

First, I have to mention that I’ve always been adverse to stories written in verse. I’ve never liked rhyming picture books, and I don’t care for the format in novels, either. Woodson writes in free verse, which is far better than rhyme, but still found the oddly spaced lines of text extremely distracting. The ideas she protrays, however, are quite remarkable. There is absolute, drop dead, gorgeous beauty in her imagery and in the creativity of her word choices.

brown girl dreaming is an intimate look at Woodson’s own life. It starts with her birth, follows her youth through the tumultous years of the civil rights movement. It is a story of innocence, of wonder, of confusion–a struggle to form an identiy. Her years were split between the North and the South, shifting between accents, feeling home was in two places and never sure to which she belonged. Forced to the back of the bus in one place. One of many races in the other, with a best friend who speaks Spanish. Martin Luther King. Malcolm X. A brilliant sister one grade ahead. Struggles with a reading disability. Disappointed teachers who expected more Woodson brilliance. And always, stories. Stories in her head. Redeeming stories wherein she eventually does find her brilliance.

It is an amazing journey, a vulnerable laying out of the girl who became the award-winning author, Jacqueline Amanda Woodson. It is an amalgamation of her experiences, of her person, a portrait of her. Yet her final pages felt pretty nebulous. She merges a multitude of contradictions designed to level everything and everybody. Some of them make absolutely no logical sense. A belief in everything is basically belief in nothing. I suppose I’m much too philisophical for such a feel good ending.

Despite the ending, despite the verse, I give this book a high recommendation because the artistry within is so incredibly, breathtakingly beautiful.

 Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

the midwife's apprenticeI’d read this book many years ago. I happened across it in the library and picked it up for some Christmas break reading. Winner of the 1996 Newberry, it is a story of failure, courage, and finding that everybody is somebody, no matter how low their beginnings.

Brat had no name. Cold and hungry, she welcomed the sharp tongue and heavy hand of the town’s midwife, provided they also came with bread. Belittled by her new mistress, bullied by the boys, and treated with contempt by the entire town, Brat, now dubbed (dung) Beetle, did her work without complaining and little by little learned the skills of her new trade. After a man’s kind comment, she also dared to hope she might have some small importance in just being herself. “This face,” she said, “could belong to someone who can read. And has curls. And could have a lover before nightfall. And this is me, Beetle.” At that point, she also gave herself a real name. Alyce. Just when she was beginning to find a measure of confidence in her new skills, she fails.

Midwifery provides a keen metaphor for the growth taking place within Alyce. For just as her profession bring new life into the world, so must she be newborn. “Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean you know nothing,” a friend tells her. As she struggles with her shortcomings, Alyce learns to sing, she finds beauty beneath the dirt of her skin and her life, and she discovers courage and tenacity within her. “Jane Sharp! It is I, Alyce, your apprentice. I have come back. And if you do not let me in, I will try again and again.”

Moms, the book does contain a few earthy references to sexuality (the married baker is caught kissing Jane, the smith’s daughter cuddles the pig boy who “gathers his breeches” and runs). And there is plenty of ale and a few drunks. But it’s also chock full of imagery, colorful characters, witty dialog, medieval context, and the resiliance of the human spirit. I enjoyed it even more my second time through.