I’m working full time this semester and have been too busy to write for this blog or to do any writing at all. Hopefully that will change in the spring when I am back to teaching part time. I’m still reading like crazy, though. Look for my Best of 2018 post in early January.
News #1: A month or two ago I mentioned that Syncopation: A Memoir of Adele Hugo was named a “diamond” and that a review on the Discovering Diamonds website would be forthcoming. The review is up, and it is lovely.
If you have already read Syncopation, consider writing a review of it on amazon: all reviews are welcome, whether you loved it or hated it. After all, no book is for everyone, and shoppers should know if it is a good match for them or not.
Discovering Diamonds is a book review site for historical fiction, bringing attention to well written books published by small presses or self published. The reviewers read many independently published books, and most are not designated a Diamond. I’m stunned and honored that Syncopation is receiving this accolade.
Discovering Diamonds is a wonderful resource for readers of historical fiction who would like to find new books, especially exceptional books overlooked by mainstream publishers. I encourage you to visit the site, to find and read some of the other Diamonds they have discovered.
Every year in January, the American Library Association gives the Newbery Award to the author of the “most distinguished” American children’s book published in the previous year.
I’ve been reading books that others believe are Newbery contenders. In this post (and my last post), I review those books and give my own thoughts. I am not a member of the selection committee and my thoughts on these books are my personal opinion only.
Wishtree by Katherine Applegate
Applegate won with The One and Only Ivan a few years ago, and this book is just as good. Her ability to give credible voice to unusual narrators is amazing. Ivan sounded like a broken-in-spirit silverback gorilla. Red sounds like a several-hundred-year-old oak tree in danger of being cut down. Beautiful book and an easy read. Highly recommended.
Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan
I enjoyed this book a lot, but I’d be surprised if it won the Newbery. My friend is reading it to her 4th grade class who like it. The main character is a tween girl who is mourning her dog and who signs up with her younger brother to be in a children’s theater, semi-professional, summer production of The Wizard of Oz. Because she is short, she is cast as a Munchkin. Because she is older than most of the kids, she gets to be a flying monkey and makes friends with the adult actors. Funny, touching. Well worth the read.
The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish
A serious story about a boy who had a best friend that something horrible happened to. His family moves to Georgia and he slowly makes another friend, who is hiding things just like he is. It is during a hurricane, when everyone’s lives are in danger, that we the reader find it all out. There were a few things that didn’t ring true for me, and it was a little darker than I can take right now. Might win some awards.
The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
A boy with OCD who is afraid to leave his room watches his neighborhood out his window. He is the last to see a toddler before the child disappears from a nearby yard. He decides to solve the mystery, which pushes him to confront his illness. The mystery doesn’t end the way I expected, which I found both disappointing and disconcerting and, eventually, pleasing. Probably not a Newbery, but a great book for kids who like mysteries.
The Someday Birds by Sally J.Pla
I read this right after reading The Goldfish Boy, and thought… another OCD boy? But the stories and characters are different. In The Someday Birds, the boy must accompany his siblings and babysitter on a cross-country trip to where their father, who suffered a head injury in Afghanistan, is in a hospital. The main character deals with germs and hardships by trying to focusing on his obsession: birds, and trying to find the birds on the list he and his father made before his father was injured. Touching, funny, and I learned a lot–about birds and other things.
Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King
At the backyard stream he cleans up every day, a boy discovers a new species that eats plastic and poops toxic waste. Suspenseful and hard to predict, I enjoyed the story more than I expected. A little preachy. I don’t see it catching the Newbery, but it would probably make for some good classroom discussions/activities on pollution and the environment.
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
The main character (who probably has Asperger’s) builds a rocket and goes on a road trip alone (well, he brings his dog) to try to win a rocket-launching competition. Just because a book’s main character is a kid, doesn’t mean the book is for kids. I enjoyed this book, but too much of the story is about the adults circling the main character, who is a bit too naive, and who narrates what the adults say and do without understanding what they are saying or doing. As an adult, I found the story interesting and intriguing, but I would not recommend it for children–not because it is inappropriate, but because, I think, they’d find it boring. I’d love to hear from kids or anyone who read this with kids and disagrees. I’ve been reading more and more books-for-children-that-are-really-for-adults, and so I’m planning a future blog post on this topic.
Possible Newbery contenders I have not yet read:
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart
Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books and my contenders list. Did you hate a book I loved? Love a book I didn’t love? Am I missing a book you think could win the Newbery? Let me know in the comments below.
Today I welcome Callie Bates to my series of author interviews. Callie is the author of the soon-to-be-released The Waking Land, a young adult-crossover fantasy novel. Her book release party will be in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, on June 27th at the North Lakeland Discovery Center. I was lucky enough to read parts of The Waking Land in a critique group a few years ago and was not at all surprised when Callie sold the book to Del Rey Books. I’m so excited to read the whole story!
Elizabeth: Callie, welcome! Can you tell my readers about The Waking Land?
Callie: Thank you so much for having me! The Waking Land is about a young woman who’s raised as a hostage for her father’s failed rebellion—but when she’s framed for murdering the king, she has to go on the run. Meanwhile, she struggles to understand her repressed, forbidden nature magic. Basically, it has intrigue, romance, revolution and, hopefully, lots of fun!
Elizabeth: How did the first idea of the story come to you?
Callie: I’ve been tinkering with Elanna’s character for years, and she has evolved enormously over that time! I wanted to write a story about a girl forcibly raised away from her home, but who still possesses a deep and undeniable connection to the land and people she comes from—and who, at the same time, is determined to forge her own identity. But, because I didn’t really know what I was doing, it wasn’t until after I wrote a rather long and rather awful multi-point-of-view manuscript that I realized she could have a solo story in her own right. And that I might even be able to figure out how to write an ending for that!
Elizabeth: In what ways is Elanna like you and in what ways is she different?
Callie: We are both stubborn and snarky! However, Elanna is infinitely more hotheaded than I am, has PTSD from childhood trauma, and is much more attached to her perceived truths. (In case anyone wonders: I do not have Stockholm Syndrome!)
Elizabeth: How has living in the Northwoods of Wisconsin influenced this story?
Callie: If I gave Elanna anything of myself, it’s my love of the natural world. I’m deeply rooted in the place where I live. Here, trees outnumber people, and it’s easy to see the land as a character in its own right. I have always been baffled by people who put human needs before the needs of the environment, especially in the era of climate change, instead of seeing us as an interdependent whole. Elanna’s magic is an attempt to unite the experience of being human with the living experience of the land itself.
Elizabeth: How did you get your agent, and how long did it take you to get published?
Callie: Quite simply, I cold queried, and I’m here to tell you that it does work! My agent asked to see a revision of The Waking Land in 2014 and, because I am nothing if not thorough, I took my time and completely rewrote the manuscript in a different voice and tense. Fortunately, she loved it and offered representation. That was in early 2015; we sold the manuscript a few months later. So, it’s been 3 or 4 years since I first wrote this book. However, since I’ve been wanting to publish since I was 11, you could say it’s taken me almost 20 years to get there!
Elizabeth: Congratulations! I am shocked that a cold query worked! Good for you! Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
Callie: I draft by hand in a notebook, then move on to working in Scrivener and Word. My drafts are often too short and skimp on some important moments, so I am often adding word count even in late edits. (Which is not what most writers recommend, but it seems to be how I roll.)
Elizabeth: What are you working on now?
Callie: I’m just finishing up the second book in the trilogy, The Memory of Fire! It jumps to a new narrator—and, for the most part, a new part of the world—though I can’t say too much without giving spoilers for The Waking Land…
Elizabeth: What book(s) have you read recently that you feel passionate about?
Callie: I’m currently reading two I love—The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, which is a wonderful middle grade fantasy, and A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab, which is the culmination of an epic trilogy. I highly recommend both!
Elizabeth: I love The Girl Who Drank the Moon! I’ll put A Conjuring of Light on my TBR list. Tell us more about yourself.
Callie: Aside from writing, I’m also an occasional harpist. I play the folk harp, and I’m also a certified harp therapist, trained to play one-on-one or in group settings at hospitals, nursing homes, and the like, to facilitate the healing process. Unsurprisingly, I’m an outdoor enthusiast. I love to travel, too; many of my better story ideas come to me while I’m ambling around somewhere new. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, studied creative writing in college, and stubbornly persisted until I had a book ready to go out into the world.
We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Elizabeth: Pizza or salad?
Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?
Callie: TEA. Black, milk, no sugar.
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Elizabeth: Tree house or doll house?
Callie: Tree house!
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?
Callie: Darcy…but Heathcliff is more exciting…
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Callie: Loooooove scene!
Learn more about Callie from her social media sites:
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/calliebates
You can pre-order / buy a copy of The Waking Land here:
The Historical Novels Society 2017 Conference is in June, and as part of a blog-blitz of promotion, I get to interview Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, HNS secretary and conference liaison for agents and editors.
ElizabethCF: Hi Elizabeth, welcome to my blog! How did you first get involved in the HNS?
ElizabethKM: I first heard about HNS way back in 2011 when I received an email asking if I was interested in attending the San Diego conference as a blogger and author. I had never heard of HNS before but I was immediately intrigued and ended up joining. I had no idea that a group existed that shared my love of historical fiction. It was like the best kept secret. I’ve been a member ever since.
ElizabethCF: One of the wonderful things about the HNS conference is that all writers attending have the opportunity to pitch to an agent or editor. Can you tell us what exactly your job as Agents and Editors Liaison entails?
ElizabethKM: My job involves being a liaison between the conference and the editors and agents. I initially contacted all eight editors and agents who are attending this conference this year. Several of the editors and agents such as Irene Goodman, Anna Michels and Kevan Lyon have attended the conference before but several are new to the conference. I’m also responsible for putting together the pitch schedules for each editor and agent which involves a great deal of juggling.
ElizabethCF: Who are all of the agents and editors attending the conference this year?
ElizabethKM: Our editors this year are Anna Michels from Sourcebooks, Lucia Macro from Harper Collins, Bess Cozby from TOR books, Martin Biro from Kensington. Agents include Irene Goodman, Kevan Lyon (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency), Jennifer Weltz (Jean V Naggar Literary Agency) and Erin Harris (Folio Lit).
ElizabethCF: You are the author of the blog Scandalous Women. Launched in 2007, the site has averaged over 20,000 hits a month and was named on the the 50 Top History Blogs by Zen College Life. Can you tell us what prompted you to start this blog?
ElizabethKM: Frankly I was bored blogging about myself. I’ve always been a huge fan of biographies and historical fiction since I was a child, particularly the novels of Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton. It seemed natural to start blogging about all these fascinating women that I was reading about. And everyday I would discover more and more women that I had never known about. It was really a labor of love from the very first day.
ElizabethCF: Do you have a favorite scandalous woman–or one you would enjoy telling us about?
ElizabethKM: Wow, that’s really hard. All of the women that I’ve written about are my favorites. But if I had to choose one, it would be a toss-up between Anne Boleyn and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were hugely controversial during their lifetimes, misjudged, and misunderstood. Anne Boleyn, of course, Henry VIII’s second wife who ended up losing her life after less than three years of marriage, but gave the world Elizabeth II. And Mary Wollstonecraft traveling to France to see the Revolution first hand, wrote “The Vindication of the Rights of Women”, gave birth out of wedlock, and managed to make a living as a writer in the 18th century. It took huge courage for her to leave the safety net of a job as a governess to create an independent life for herself. And course she was the mother of Mary Shelley.
ElizabethCF: How do you go about researching each of the stories?
ElizabethKM: For any of the women that I’ve written about, I start off with what I can find on the Internet, read several biographies before I sit down to write. Some of the women I’ve written about such as Gertrude Bell and Lady Hester Stanhope were so fascinating that I could have gone on researching them forever. I’m really looking forward to watching the new film about Gertrude starring Nicole Kidman, Queen of the Desert.
Elizabeth CF: After several years of success as a blog, Scandalous Women became a book: Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women, published in 2011 by TarcherPerigee. Was it difficult choosing which women to include in the book?
ElizabethKM: Yes, it was terribly difficult. I wanted to include several of the women that I had already written about on the blog, but it was also important to have new content for readers. My agent and my editor wanted to make sure that there was a nice mix of women that were recognizable along with many women who might not be. Also, my word count was only 75,000 so I had to limit the number of women that I profiled. I think that 35 turned out to be a great number. I went back and forth on several women who ultimately didn’t make it into the book including Princess Diana, Patty Hearst and Gloria Steinham.
ElizabethCF: Can you tell us anything more about yourself?
ElizabethKM: I’m a former actress and producer, mainly classical theatre. Also, in my spare time I like to dance. It relaxes me. Ballroom dancing in particular especially American Rhythm, rumba, cha-cha, mambo, East Coast Swing, bolero and samba.
Elizabeth CF: Thanks, Elizabeth! It was great to learn more about you, Scandalous Women and the HNS Conference.
Today I’m welcoming Martin Lee to my series of author interviews. Martin writes historical crime novels under the name M. J. Lee. His books include the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, the Danilov series, and the Pepys series.
Elizabeth: Welcome, Martin–or would you prefer to be called M. J. ?
Martin: Hi Elizabeth, Great to be here. Martin’s fine. Unfortunately, there are about six other Martin Lee’s writing: that’s why I use my initials.
Elizabeth: Your latest mystery, The Somme Legacy features Jayne Sinclair. Can you tell us a bit about this novel and why this series is labeled as “genealogical” mysteries?
Martin: The Somme Legacy is set in the years around the first World War. It’s a follow up to The Irish Inheritance. I was drawn to the story because it was such a dramatic time for people in England; women were demanding the vote, the nation went to war and, caught up in this maelstrom, are two young lovers, David Russell and Rose Clarke. Jayne Sinclair is trying to prove they actually married in order for an ancestor to claim an inheritance. You’ll have to read the book to find out if she succeeds!!
I love genealogy, history and crime stories so these genealogical mysteries are my way of wrapping my three loves all in one book. They are a joy to write, and, I hope, a pleasure to read. At heart, genealogy asks the question ‘Who are we?’ In a more and more dislocated age, where ‘fake news’ abounds, answering that question becomes truly important to our sense of self. And besides, there are some wonderful family stories out there.
Elizabeth: I assume your Pepys series features Samuel Pepys, seventeenth century English diarist. Can you tell us about these mysteries?
Martin: I love Samuel Pepys. An auntie gave me the edited diaries when I was 15 and I loved the wit, bonhomie and sheer bravado of the man. I’ve now read the complete diaries three times, so I thought it was about time I brought him to life. He was such a great observer of human nature; he would have made a great detective. If fact, he did organize an investigation into his own wrongful imprisonment in 1688.
Elizabeth: Your third series features Inspector Danilov of Shanghai; tell us more about the detective and the setting.
Martin: Talking about this, I’m beginning to think I write too many series!!! Danilov came to me when I was working in Shanghai. One night, I was walking through the art-deco area behind the Bund. The area went quiet, and I suddenly imagined I was back in the middle of 1930s, with jazz pouring out of clubs, flappers on the streets and long, streamlined Studebakers prowling. Danilov was born and demanded to be written. The third in the series, The Murder Game, will be published on March 31st.
Elizabeth: You have lived in many places: Shanghai, London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, and Bangkok. How has this influenced and informed your writing?
Martin: All my novels have a very strong sense of place. The cities are characters themselves. This is just as important to me as plot, voice, structure and all the other elements of the novel.
Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your stories?
Martin: A lot but hopefully it isn’t too obvious. I love research and took a research degree in history. I’m very comfortable working with original documents. For example, my novel, The Irish Inheritance, is set partly in the Easter Rising of 1916. We’re very lucky as there is an extensive archive of interviews with the participants in the Rising at the Irish Archives, the Bureau of Military History, on RTE, the state television station, the Pension service, as well as many memoirs for the period from the likes of Eamonn O’Malley. The Bureau of Military History in Dublin contains over 1200 interviews from people involved in the Easter Rising, transcribed in the 1950s. These are a wonderful trove of original material which I used extensively to ensure the events I described actually took place. Historical accuracy is incredibly important to me, but I’m writing a novel not a work of non-fiction. The imagination comes into play when I see the events through the eyes of my characters, with all their eccentricities and flaws.
Elizabeth: You worked for more than 25 years in advertising before becoming a novelist. How do you feel that background has helped or hindered you as a historical mystery writer?
Martin: Definitely helped. I’m used to working to deadlines and creating under pressure. I never (touch wood) suffer from writer’s block or anything like that. I sit down in front of my PC and the words flow. And working in advertising means I enjoy editing: shaping and refining something to make it better.
Elizabeth: What is your writing process?
Martin: I’m sort of half a plotter and half a pantser. I usually plot the first 30,000 words and then listen to the character and the story, letting them take me where they want to go. If a novel is all plotted, it can feel very formulaic, lacking those twists and turns that keep a reader reading.
Elizabeth: What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?
Martin: I did a lot of research on the suffragettes for The Somme Legacy. And, having a young daughter, I find it amazing that women are still arguing for the same rights and treatment as men 100 years later. How can it take until 2050 before we approach pay parity? How can we have boardrooms dominated by men? How can women still be unequal in this day and age? It defies belief.
Elizabeth: Yes, it defies belief. I could go on and on about that injustice, but instead I’ll stick to our interview. Can you tell us more about yourself?
Martin: I was dragged up in Manchester and both my parents were Irish. Unlike most people I think I was a pretty crap writer at school despite the ministrations of countless good teachers. Writing sort of grew on me as a way of expressing what I love. I went to University and got a degree in History, going on to do a research degree which I never finished. Mrs Thatcher saw fit to cut my grant. For the rest of my life I have been working and traveling. Every seven years, I took a sabbatical from work to do what I loved at that time; traveling, writing, being with friends. I think the worst thing one can do with a life is work. I mean, how many people when they hit 60 wish they had spent more time in the office? Do what you love and love what you do.
Elizabeth: Excellent advice! We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?
Martin: Both. Coffee in the morning and Chinese tea to keep me going.
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Martin: Mountains, there’s always another to climb in the distance.
Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?
Martin: Hiking every day of the week. I shop once a year and only if I have to. Bookshops, of course, don’t count as shopping.
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Martin: Violin. Anything by Bruch.
Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?
Martin: Mystery. Although I am a great Game of Thrones fan.
Elizabeth: Scarlett O’Hara or Jane Eyre?
Martin: Jane Eyre. Scarlett was a spoilt brat…
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Martin: Death scene. Love scenes are so hard to write convincingly…
Elizabeth: To buy Martin’s M.J. Lee books or to learn more about him and his writing visit these sites:
The official website for M.J. Lee
Martin has also just published a novel under his full name, Martin Lee, called The Fall, set in Singapore during World War II. Learn more about The Fall at Endeavour Press.