It’s Monday & this is strictly a reading update #IMWAYR

November 13, 2023

It’s been so long since my last update because I have been traveling a ton, so this will be strictly a book update. To the books!

Life is FunnyLife is Funny by E.R. Frank
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Super engaging and raw. I kind of loved it a little bit.

So now that’s why I’m sitting here, because I have to be alone to try and figure out two things that are getting on my nerves, bad. One of them is what do I do to stay out of fights at least for the next seven years until I’m done with high school because I’m supposed to graduate and my aunt Eva will kill me if I don’t, but everybody’s always wanting to fight and then you get suspended and kicked out and all that mess. And then the other thing is what do I do if I don’t want my brother, Nick, to be touching on my privacy every night and he comes and does it anyway?

Life Is Funny by E. R. Frank is about eleven teens and spans seven years. The cover says that it’s a novel by E. R. Frank, which is an interesting marketing technique, especially considering that it’s a series of interrelated short stories. I’m not saying it’s not a novel because it most certainly has a clear beginning, middle, and, end (and I like the linear progression of the story, but that’s a discussion for a different bullet point), but, you know, it’s really a collection of short stories.

What I Liked

– I love the way the book is set up. Lots of times, interrelated stories connect in obvious ways or just have one connecting element like the same high school or whatever. But in this book, it’s the relationships that drive the connections. The kids’ lives overlap in seemingly innocuous, but usually heartbreaking ways, and the progression for characters is easily followed even when they kind of drop out of the picture because their stories are over. But that’s the thing. Their stories are never over. They continue.

– The breakout quote above highlights one of my favorite things about the book. Frank deftly shows how kids’ concerns all run together, from the seemingly inane to the completely, devastatingly serious. At the same time, Frank shows how serious everything is when you’re that age. A bathroom fight can lead to a serious stress about friendship, but the real issue is a dark family secret.

I also chose that quote because it hit me in the gut.  It made me suck in my breath and reread it several times to make sure I read it right. And while there are other things that happen to the different characters, that was the first moment I knew the book isn’t just about how teens see things from different perspectives, but that it’s about how they deal with the different levels of pain in their lives.

– I’m making the book sound maudlin, but it’s not. There’s a lot of humor in this book, and, as tends to happen with YA lit, hopefulness. It’s not a bleak read. If anything, it does show that life is funny–both funny ha-ha and funny weird/strange/unpredictable.

– The characters are fantastic, and, like I said, even within the short story format, they are allowed to grow and change. They’re also all likable or have something good about them to cling to. Which may be the point Frank, a clinical social worker, may be trying to make.

Since I have no real complaints about the book, here is where I talk instead about the fact that it’s one of the top 100 challenged books of the past decade. According to the ALA website, the top three reasons books are challenged are because they are deemed sexually explicit, have offensive language, and are unsuitable to age group. And I gotta say this book has sexually explicit and offensive language. Which, I guess, makes it unsuitable to age group–or at least to middle school students, since this a book that was actually removed from a middle school library because of  a sex scene.

I know it is a little crazy to think that teens have sex and/or talk about it using dirty words instead of referring to it as “making love” and such. And it is really, really, REALLY crazy to think that middle schoolers are not familiar with any of these terms or ideas. I mean, I know when I was in middle school, we didn’t even know that sex was called anything but “making whoopee” (oh, The Newlywed Game, how sly you were) and that Lucy and Ricky made a baby sleeping in separate twin beds.

(That was sarcasm, by the way.)

I have to say, I do not think this book is appropriate for my sixth grader, and I would tell her as much. What I would not do is tell an entire school full of children, some of whom are probably 14, that they shouldn’t read it or have access to it because it has sex in it. Especially if I read the whole book and not just a passage taken out of context and understood that this book may offer hope to a girl who has been molested that she can have a positive sexual experience. Or that I understood this is just two teens’ experiences out of many, several of which don’t focus on sex, and many of which focus on recovery from trauma.

So what have the children from that school missed out on, seeing that at least one of the challenges on this book was successful? An opportunity to think about what’s really going on with the boy or girl in their class and trying to understand that they all have different experiences. But more importantly, an opportunity to know that THEY ARE NOT ALONE. There is someone else out there who feels stupid but isn’t, who has messed up parents, who has great friends, who has lost friends, who can find a great boyfriend or girlfriend in spite of his or her other experiences, who doesn’t have money but goes to college, who loves his or her parents, who hates his or her parents, who doesn’t have parents and on and on.

It’s no accident that the book starts with the characters aged eleven and twelve years old.

REREAD: OCT 20, 2023

I am reading interlinked short story collections (short story cycles) as part of my sabbatical research.

My review from before still stands. I don’t have much to add except that in Frank’s updated bio, it says she’s a psychotherapist with a specialty in trauma, which makes even more sense for why she wanted to tell the stories she did in the way she did.

I also appreciate that the book starts and ends with kids who are well loved and have relatively healthy/functional families, though they have their own kind of grief. They’re nice bookends to the other stories that are more about trauma inflicted by adults or other family members.
Save the Cat! Writes a Young Adult NovelSave the Cat! Writes a Young Adult Novel by Jessica Brody
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have Save the Cat! Writes a Novel at home, so I checked out the audiobook of Save the Cat! [STC] Writes a Young Adult Novel because of course I did. (Please, I can’t explain why I am the way I am any more than you can.) I mean, it’s probably because I am currently working on a YA novel, but still.

I was actually pretty familiar with most of the beats explored here because I took the HEA WTF Workshop (highly recommended for anyone interested in writing any kind of romance into their stories) and author Amy Spalding uses the beats as part of her outline/novel prep process. However, I had not yet been exposed to the STC story genres, so I appreciated the look at those. I found those really helpful in thinking about story and extremely helpful when it comes to writing a logline. I also really liked the fact that author Jessica Brody provided detailed analysis of books and how they fit both the story genres and the beats. I may not have agreed with all of her classifications (stories can sometimes fit more than one category, by which I mean most YA is technically rites of passage, for example) but generally they all seemed to fit where she said they did.

I should also point out that I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by the author, and I thought she did a good job. She was certainly engaging and easy to follow.

All in all, I found this extremely useful and am glad I have the paper version of the original STC novel writing guide to refer to as a reference. If I didn’t, I would definitely buy this one.

Oh and not for nothing, but the breakdown in here made me want to reread The Hunger Games, so there’s also that.

You're Not Supposed to Die TonightYou’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight by Kalynn Bayron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is actually scary, which makes it perfect for spooky season or anyone who loves horror. It was legit like watching Friday the 13th. It is also a pretty sweet update on (view spoiler), but that’s not revealed until the end of the book, hence the spoiler tag. But if you know, you know.

And when I say this book is scary, I mean I had planned to finish it on Halloween, but I was in a remote location with no cell service (wi-fi: yes, bars: no) and as the no bars thing is a significant part of this novel, I thought it probably best I not read the book lest I freak myself out or have terrible dreams. (This turned out to be a good call because it seemed like a pack of teenagers was out howling at the moon or something that night as well, but I digress.)

This also has one of the best book openings I’ve read in a long time. If you teach creative writing, it would be a great example of how to immediately set the mood/tone of a story. Because even that was genuinely scary.

Loved the diversity, loved the twist at the end (though I didn’t love the final, final twist). Charity has a great voice. Also, if you, like me, read The Final Girl Support Group and were, like me, disappointed at Hendrix’s treatment of the Black female character, then definitely read this as it corrects his failings of that character in a major way.

Instructors: I would also put this in the hand of any reluctant readers because I think even they would have a hard time putting it down.

ALSO: perfect cover is absolutely perfect. I am obsessed.

The Heroine's Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop CultureThe Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am very glad I read this book as part of my craftapalooza as it–much like Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping–will inform the way I teach creative writing and literature going forward. Like Matthew Salesses, Carriger reminded me that I am writing in a tradition and that tradition is not white male centric seize the day manifest destiny as the heroine’s journey is NOT concerned with revenge and glory but IS concerned with family and community–found or otherwise. Just like with the hero’s journey, a heroine can be male or female, but what determines the type of journey is the main concern of the heroine (or hero), i.e. whether they’re basically in it on a primary solo mission or if their journey depends on networking and relationship building AS WELL AS what isolation means for the character (if it pushes them forward–hero; if it means danger/death–heroine) because the heroine’s journey is primary concerned with the restoration or building of a network. That is a clumsy explanation, but there are graphics available on Carriger’s website (and there’s also, you know, the entire book).

I would highly suggest this to anyone who has found the hero’s journey seemed to be lacking a certain something that the stories you write (or read!) contain or that the journey doesn’t quite seem to match. Also, if you constantly get told to use the hero’s journey to “fix” your story, you probably want to check this out. Plus also, just if you are a writer since the heroine’s journey like the hero’s journey is not gender specific but story-type specific. I’ll be buying a copy of this for my personal library.

Also, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Starla Huchton and I…did not love her reading style. I honest to God thought I was listening to a screen reader because it sounded stiff and robotic. I also had to listen to the book on 1.5x speed because otherwise it was painfully slow. That said, I did listen to the whole thing, so it must not have bothered me that much. Book is five stars, audiobook listening would be two, but I’m going to stick with my rating of the book itself here since I was in it for the content which did not disappoint.

The Secret of Lillian Velvet (Kingdoms and Empires)The Secret of Lillian Velvet by Jaclyn Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had the same problem with the beginning of this one that I had with The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar From Elsewhere in that I found the beginning too choppy, but, just like last time, it made perfect sense within the narrative. Unlike in the other book, the reason became clear a lot sooner, which is a good thing.

There is so much I loved about this book, but mostly I loved, loved, loved how clearly Moriarty shows that growing up with a super critical parent–even one who never physically abuses you–causes so much fear in children. I mean, the ways I related to Lillian are a lot.

“Lillian,” [character] said, speaking softly and sadly. “Who speaks to you in this way?” He paused and then continued: “And how does it make you feel when they speak to you this way?”

That is the whole crux of the book right there. Well, that and this:

“You’re the most frightened person I’ve ever seen, yet you do not know it yourself.”

When I read that, I was like, oh so this is going to be a killing me softly with his song book. And I was right because this also happened:

“If you jammed your fingers this was your own fault…You know perfectly well not to do that.”

The number of times I heard something similar growing up is more than a lot. So I deeply appreciate what Moriarty is doing here: showing children that adults who treat them this way are not being kind and it makes perfect sense that they’re scared of messing up. I mean, Lillian basically gets yelled at no matter what she does, so she tries to do everything right and even that isn’t enough.

Okay, enough about me, let’s talk about the rest of the book. Since this is part of the Kingdoms and Empires universe, Lillian encounters the Mettlestones throughout her adventures. So part of the fun is figuring out how/why her life is so intertwined with theirs. Lillian is a determined and fierce protector who does what she can to help people, even though she is so afraid.

Moriarty is out here dropping gems:

“And [character] had been raised by a violent father who presented himself to the world as a kindly pet shop owner. She knew about hidden evil.”

These quotes are all kind of heavy, but I guess what I liked the most is the way Moriarty offers hope to kids who may be suffering the way Lillian does. She gains a lot of strength from the adults in her life who are/have been kind to her. She gets out of her isolation by indulging in her fantasies (she loves reading adventure books, naturally), which ultimately help her every time she gets to the Kingdoms and Empires. And, ultimately, she learns that:

“luckily, as life goes on, you can choose new families”

Moriarty also shows how Lillian’s strength of character (as well as other characters in the books) is no accident. There’s this beautifully perfect passage that just made my heart warm:

“Most people wish for gold, say, or a puppy, or for their grandma to stay healthy…But *sometimes* a person is miserable and despairing. The person lies flat on their back in a grassy field, gazes at the stars–and there is *no wish.* Instead, there’s a sudden burst of determination, from deep within that person, a burst so powerful that it shoots up to the sky, sends a star spinning through space and time, sends the starlight cartwheeling, cracking into pieces–before looping and twirling back into the heart of the person on the grass. Do you know what that is?…It’s a *wish upon yourself.*

* denotes emphasis in original quote

My only real complaint about this book is that I read it on my Kindle, but I wish I had a paper copy so I could flip back and forth between the different incidents in the book. This book is a masterclass in set up and payoff, and I say that because every single detail mentioned has a payoff, and I wanted to go back to certain parts to reread to see exactly how the set up was mentioned. But alas! The Kindle made that extremely difficult, so my suggestion would be to read this one on paper.

As previously noted, this is a Jaclyn Moriarty stan account and this book just further solidified that.

(Oh and my only other small complaint is that there has, as of yet, been no crossover with the characters or worlds from A Corner of White even though that also takes place in the Kingdoms and Empires [that I’ve noticed–if I’m wrong, someone please correct me] . However, I suppose when middle grade readers graduate to YA, they will be thrilled to encounter that world again. So, I shall just have to let that go and not complain about it anymore.)

4.5 stars, rounding up

This Year You Write Your NovelThis Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the end of the book, Mosley says that this is everything he knows about writing in 25,000 words so if the goal was to do a craft book in those few words, then he definitely delivered. This hits on all of the main things most craft books do but in a pared down, straightforward yet conversational way. Mosley offers plenty of examples and encouragement since he emphasizes time and time again that the goal is a finished draft, not a perfect one.

Some of his advice (write for 1.5 hours every day, even on holidays and weekends; the way to get an agent) may not work for everyone and is defintely male-centric, so I would say use what you can here and ignore what won’t work for you and your writing life. But if you only have a short amount of time to read a craft book before starting a project, this is probably the one you want.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dion Graham, and he is fantastic. I need to listen to more books he narrates because I was wholly engaged, and the man reads with swagger. So, yes, I will be finding and listening to more stuff he narrates. Four stars for the book, five stars for the narration.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake (Winner Bakes All, #1)Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because I was looking for a light/cozy read, and I love baking shows and especially The Great British Bake Off (GBBO). This did not disappoint except I did have a little bit of a hard time getting into it at first, mostly because Rosaline is a single mom who got pregnant at nineteen and spends the first quarter of the book (a) lying to Alain about it and (b) constantly harping on and on about how people look at her funny and question her choices, etc. Which. I am a single mom who also had my daughter at nineteen, and it is not that big a deal and ALSO I found it completely insulting. Then I realized that she lied to ONLY Alain about it (and also gets found out very quickly) and that her big problem is that she cares too much about what other people think. But I was seriously about to put the book down right at the point Hall points that out because it annoyed me so much. That said, once the narrative (and Rosaline) got over that point, the book picked up considerably for me.

I would categorize this less as a romance and more of a romcom because it gets into love triangle territory (which is fine), but it definitely delivers on being a light, cozy read–which, honestly, it better have considering it’s in a GBBO kind of world–with a lot of humor and heart. I found almost all of the characters (aka the ones that were supposed to be) charming, and I appreciated the relationship between Lauren, Amelie, and Rosaline. Surprising no one, I loved Anvita and would read a whole novel about her and Nora (separately or together). I also think the characterization of Alain and Harry are really well handled, especially the slow reveal of the kind of people they really are versus who Rosaline assumes them to be at first meeting.

As a bonus, there are recipes included at the end of the book written in the characters’ voices, which I thought was–pun intended–a nice treat.

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Have a great week, everyone!

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