Talking to college students about artists’ collaboration

Taking to students is such an amazing honor, and it’s especially awesome to do it in the classroom of a friend. I met Professor Kristin Gjerdset (bottom left in first photo) when she signed up for my speedskating class. When I learned she taught art at Wisconsin Lutheran College,  a gem of a school, I told her about my illustrator husband, Jeff. She soon asked him to speak her students. He had the best time.

This year, Kristin invited both of us to speak to her class, specifically about creative collaborations. Jeff and I have collaborated on so much, even more than I realized before preparing for this talk. We support each another in our respective fields in a ton of ways, like brainstorming projects, reference modeling, critiquing, story ideation, copyediting each others’ writing, publishing together, and, our biggest collaboration by far, creating Fantasy Art Workshop, our week-long illustration retreat.

The students seemed to enjoy seeing how much our creative endeavors have intertwined, and we loved their enthusiasm and their superb conversation. These are special kids with clear talent. We were lucky to get to meet them. 🙂

 

 

Image shows book cover -- a cat from the shoulders up, it wearing a business suit, against a black background, the book title in yellow typeface.

What I’m Reading – The Cat Who Saved Books and Starter Villain

Here are a couple of recent reads with cats on the cover. Just coincidentally.

Image shows book cover -- a drawing of a cat walking through a book.THE CAT WHO SAVED BOOKS by Sosuke Natsukawa, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. This was an interesting story about a young boy who inherits his grandfather’s bookstore and the magical cat who takes him on otherworldly adventures to save books in other realms. Each adventure speaks to how certain characters value or devalue books, how they judge their worth, and inward reflection on one’s self. This book was marketed to young adults in Japan, yet marketed to adults in the U.S. It’s a short, light read well tailored to lovers of cats and books.

 

Image shows book cover -- a cat from the shoulders up, it wearing a business suit, against a black background, the book title in yellow typeface.STARTER VILLAIN by John Scalzi. Inheriting his uncle’s supervillain business was more complicated than our protagonist expected, particularly after discovering who’s running the place. There are longtime, traitorous flunkies, sentient cats, foul-mouthed dolphins, a mountainous evil lair, and a cohort of rival supervillains out to snatch thrones, er, inheritances. Our poor every-man is in over his head. I woke my husband laughing so hard at one point. Very highly recommended.

 

(The above links are Amazon Affiliate links, meaning I make a few pennies off the sale of each book, at no cost to you.)

Image shows the cover of the book "KILLERS OF A CERTAIN AGE." Cream-colored background, the title words in red, a red hand holding a black knife.

What I’m Reading – Killers of a Certain Age, Grave Reservations, Flight Risk, and more

I’m reading of assassins and murders. Fiction, of course.

As a caveat, I generally don’t read true crime stories because, as a former journalist, I saw too much pain and horror from true crime. But fictional crime, especially cozy mysteries, I can find entertaining. That’s just me. (Cozy has a lot of different meanings to different people, but I categorize it as having amateur sleuths and off-the-page crime. So we hear of the crime, maybe even see some of it, but we’re not subjected to traumatizing horrors.) So what have I read and enjoyed?

Image shows the cover of the book "KILLERS OF A CERTAIN AGE." Cream-colored background, the title words in red, a red hand holding a black knife.

KILLERS OF A CERTAIN AGE by Deanna Raybourn, in which four female former assassins find themselves as marks of their former organization. To save themselves from an untimely demise and be able to enjoy their well-earned retirement, they rely on their tried-and-true, low-tech skills to survive the day. Honestly, I loved this book. It was such a fun ride, featuring older women who weren’t portrayed as superheroes. They actually have to keep up with their yoga routine to be limber, haha. And I adore stories about female friendships as opposed to mean-girl dynamics. I was rooting for these ladies. Recommended.

 

Image shows cover of the book GRAVE RESERVATIONS. Blue background behind a graphic of a white female with bright red lips, wearing red sunglasses reflecting a crime scene. Yellow title.GRAVE RESERVATIONS (Book #1 of the Booking Agents series) by Cherie Priest. This was a fun mystery with smart, capable characters. The lead is a clairvoyant and travel agent who saves a police detective from an ill-fated flight. Recognizing her unusual skill, he enlists her help to jumpstart a lagging case. Intrigue and deceptions come from all sides, yet our protagonist’s powers come through. For some reason, perhaps conditioning (?), I sort of hoped the protagonists would become a romantic couple, but then perhaps the story would fall into romance, which it doesn’t. I found myself questioning why I expected that, but it’s obvious because they do seem like they’ll make a great couple. Maybe that’ll blossom throughout the series. At any rate, this author has an easy, contemporary voice, and the novel features super karaoke. Recommended.

 

Image shows graphic image book cover of FLIGHT RISK. Purple sky, green mountains, white girl with purple lips, wearing sunglasses reflecting part of the crime scene. Title in purple text.FLIGHT RISK (Book #2 of the Booking Agents series) by Cherie Priest. I won this book from my book club leader after giving its predecessor the highest rating. I didn’t know my favorable rating would lead to a prize, so that’s nice. This sequel brings another mystery, with wholly different motivations, to our trusty characters. It was another enjoyable mystery.

And I’ve also had the pleasure of reading several as-yet-unpublished manuscripts to provide back-jacket blurbs. those recommendations you’ll find on the back jacket of the books once they come out. I’ll let you know when.

Until then, keep reading, folks!

 

(The above links are Amazon Affiliate links, meaning I make a few pennies off the sale of each book, at no cost to you.)

Image shows a bookshelf with books

Tallying the year

Image shows a bookshelf with booksI genuinely love end-of-year lists.

Best of. Worst of. Most this or that. The year 2023 at a glance. I like being reminded of all that’s transpired in the past 365 days. I forget a lot of it and like revisiting with the benefit of hindsight.

One of the lists I always see is “How many books I read this year.” I keep track too, but I don’t feel any strong need to share it. I made the list for myself, not to later share in the hopes to impress or shame. Plus, I like to see how many books I read and actually enjoyed. See, those are the only books that make my list. My tally would be much, muuuuch higher if I included all the books I started but didn’t finish.

That’s the point of this post. If you need permission, I’m hereby granting it. You do not need to finish books you aren’t enjoying. The book police won’t come get you. The creators involved won’t be any the wiser. No one will know what you did or did not finish unless you tell them. There are too many books in the world to read them all, and you have too little life force to expend on entertainments that don’t feed you.

So, keep a tally, if you feel so inclined. Or don’t. Finish that book. Or don’t. But of course I’d always advise you try another. A year without books would be a tragedy indeed.

Here’s hoping your new year is bountiful with spectacular reads.

I’ve joined a book club–and I love it!

Picture of poster showing a girl holding a red book in front of her face. The poster reads, "That's what I do. I read books."I know, I know. It’s shouldn’t be big news if an author is part of a book club. But can I confess something here? **looks around sheepishly** I’ve never taken part in a regular book club.

As a kid, I read the books suggested by my school or library, but I didn’t join group discussions about them. I guess I didn’t want to hear people potentially criticize a book I enjoyed. What can I say? I was fragile. Then, as I got older and talked endlessly about books, I joined short-term clubs led by publishers or literary agencies or even clubs with the focus of having the creators attend. So I’d get to meet the authors or illustrators or editors, etc. That’s amazing, right?

But a club with readers who aren’t publishing-adjacent? Not until November 2023 when I joined one of the many monthly book clubs offered by Boswell Books, my local independent bookstore. I’ll post reviews of those books soon, but for now, I just want to say how fun it is to read books outside of what I may have chosen and then talk with fellow readers about them. Further, it’s fascinating to hear from readers who speak freely about a story (because the creator isn’t right there to hear what they have to say) and expound on other elements of a book (because they may not have thought about industry reasons for certain publishing choices). PLUS, a couple of fellow authors whom I’ve invited to join have, so it’s an overall lovely time.

Do you want to make more friends in the new year? Join a book club. Or another club focused on a hobby or passion you enjoy. I hope joining adds fun and friendship to your life. As for my new enterprise, so far so good. 🙂

What I’m reading – Under the Blanket Sky, Restart, Twerp, The Devil Particle, and The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet

Yaaaay! I am so glad to be back blogging. I’ve spent the past month recovering from elbow surgery, which kept one hand in a support brace, so I’ve refrained from too much typing, except for the ineffective, one-handed variety, haha. But now I’ve been cleared to type with two whole hands again (huzzah!), which is incredibly important in most aspects of my life, so yay! I’m back! 🙂

During my convalescence, I did (and am doing) quite a lot of reading. It’s also summer, and I always say I want to spend more time reading in the summer. Here are some of the gems I’ve hit upon.

UNDER THE BLANKET SKY by Tim Fischer (picture book, May 2023, DoubleDay). A lonely boy is visited by a mysterious owl (perhaps imaginary?) who spends summer with him enjoying playful adventures before it must eventually move on.

This quiet, gentle book feels like a hug to lonely kids everywhere, or maybe to kids who find themselves alone at important moments and wish they had a forever friend to share them with. I was touched by the unspoken themes of time, friendship, and bittersweet goodbyes, leaving me a little breathless afterward. The illustrations are soft, ephemeral, luminescent. And another thing I loved about it: the boy wears glasses. I know it seems small, but there aren’t enough books with kids who wear glasses, and it is so affirming for kids to read about others like them. This picture book is simply lovely. An Amazon Editors’ Pick. A new classic. Recommended.

 

RESTART by Gordon Korman (middle grade, March 2018, Scholastic). A boy suffers amnesia after falling off a roof and gets a rare second-chance to reset his life’s trajectory.

I’m a bit late to reading this considering it came out five years ago and is published by Scholastic, where I recently worked. But hey, definitely better late than never! This Amazon Teacher’s Pick hits so many themes I can’t resist: unreliable narration due to memory loss, discovering who you are compared to what others expect, restarting yourself after new experiences, joy, regret, processing an emotional renaissance. It’s all there. I can see why this book is a teacher’s favorite, and I can see why any kid who feels stuck might cling to it like a lifeline. You can change. You can start anew. You can reset your life. It’s never too late. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

TWERP by Mark Goldblatt (middle grade, May 2014, Yearling). A 6th-grade boy in 1969’s New York City is given a choice by his teacher to either keep a journal and write about what got him and his friends suspended or write a report on Shakespeare, which the boy is sure he’d flunk.

Again, I was late to the party on this one, but I’m so glad I discovered it. TWERP feels to me like a (lower stakes, gentler) middle grade CATCHER IN THE RYE. We see the world through the eyes of a genuinely likable boy who knows he made a bad choice — well, several, most of which he’s willing to admit, except for the story his teacher most wants to hear. The protagonist has a good heart, though, and cares about his friends and family. You can’t help but root for him and you’re so glad when he comes to terms with it all. I’m about to start the sequel, FINDING THE WORM. TWERP is good stuff. Another Amazon Teacher’s Pick. Recommended.

 

 

THE DEVIL PARTICLE by Kristin A. Oakley (young adult dystopian, June 2023, self-published). A 17-year-old boy living in a post-apocalyptic world competes to save humanity by becoming the single vessel containing all the world’s evil.

Whew, that’s some heavy stuff, isn’t it? And who would want to do such a thing? It turns out there are plenty of altruistic, caring youth who vie for the chance to change the world, to better the planet, to save others. But first the candidates must compete in The Trials, with its cruel and deadly challenges. There’s plenty to chew on in this book. Who’s to blame for evil — and evil acts? How can we as a society and world curtail it? Would we be willing to sacrifice one innocent for all people when that innocent  is someone we know and love? And are The Trials what they appear to be? Fans of THE HUNGER GAMES and a good race to the finish will enjoy sinking their teeth into THE DEVIL PARTICLE. Recommended.

 

 

THE HEAT WILL KILL YOU FIRST: LIFE AND DEATH ON A SCORCHED PLANET by Jeff Goodell (adult nonfiction, July 2023, Little, Brown and Company). The planet’s temperature is rising, the reality of climate change is hitting home, and heat is already becoming the world’s first-order threat.

I am up to the minute on this read! The book came out 15 days ago as one of the most anticipated books of the season and is already an Amazon #1 Bestseller and a New York Times bestseller. This fascinating, fast-paced, well-researched book looks into and explains the many climate-related terrors we’ve been experiencing the past few years, from deadly heat patterns to apocalyptic, orange skies laden with wildfire ash. Guggenheim fellow and bestselling author Goodell shows how even the privileged few among us will grapple to escape the cascading catastrophes of global warming. And he notes what’s impossible to ignore on the horizon (blistering, deadly heat; rising seas; crop failures; social unrest; mass starvation; large migrations) if action isn’t taken immediately. I’m not finished reading it, but so far it’s an incredible read. Highly, highly recommended.

I’ve listened to a few audiobooks lately too, and there’s one I’m really enjoying so far, so I’ll talk about those soon. I find it lovely to have stories read to me.

Hope you’re also enjoying some good reads this summer. 🙂

 

(The above are Amazon Affiliate links, meaning I make a few pennies off the sale of each book, at no cost to you.)

 

 

What I’m reading: The Clackity and Save the Cat!

I spent all of November and more than half of December toiling away at my Work in Progress. I say toiling because it’s the first draft of a complete rewrite, and oy are first drafts rough. So, when I thought I’d finished the first draft, I took a break to enjoy the holidays and some just-for-fun reading. I’d heard good things about The Clackity  by Lora Senf and decided to give it a go.

Cover of book called The Clackity, by Lora Senf. Shows girl in front of creepy tree.

 

It is now one of my favorite middle grade books and at the top of my list in the spooky/horror category. In it, a young girl lives with her aunt in a town overrun with hauntings, some mild, some humorous, most harmless. However, Evie is told to follow one rule: stay out of the old slaughterhouse at the edge of town. When her aunt senses trouble there and disappears within its walls, Evie decides to go after her. The new world she discovers — and its dangers within — challenge any hope she has to rescue the only remaining member of her beloved family.

Inventive and spooky. I highly recommend The Clackity for lovers of fright.

 

 

Image shows the book cover of Save the Cat Writes a Novel and depicts a cat hanging from a rope.

In January, I started reading (actually, re-reading) Save the Cat! Writes a novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody. I bought this in 2018 when it came out, thanks to great reviews by people whom I respect. When I first tried reading it, though, I wasn’t in the right place with my writing and so I had a hard time getting out of it what others had. I knew I had to wait until the information would hit me more directly. I’m glad I did. With the first draft completed (so I thought) and heading into revision, I was in the mood for reading about story structure. This time, the info hit right. I see I have more to add to my first draft, but the book’s story beats will help guide those additions and future revisions. I’m so glad I revisited it.

Save the Cat! is a solid and fun guide to story structure, fundamentals, and spark. Recommended for readers who want to know how stories tick.

 

I’ve also been listening to more and more audiobooks the past few years. I haven’t really posted much about them, but let me say, it’s a joy to relax and have a story read to you.

I wish you happy reading in 2023.

 

(The above are Amazon Affiliate links, meaning I make a few pennies off the sale of each book, at no cost to you.)

 

 

SCBWI’s faaaaaabulous Fall Luncheon

A weekend away can seem like an extravagance, but sometimes it’s worth every penny.

I’ve been in a bit of a creative rut. I allowed myself time this summer to read, but as September rolled around, I felt a bit stymied with my writing. Months ago, I suspected I’d appreciate an in-person writing event come October, and wow, was I right. This weekend was g.l.o.r.i.o.u.s in so many ways.

Sunday was the SCBWI-Wisconsin Fall Luncheon, an event just a few hours long, in which writers meet up, enjoy a lunch, and hear a single speaker. Sara Schonfeld, editor at HarperCollins imprint Katherine Tegen Books proved to be an excellent speaker. More on this later.

Backing up, I decided to make a whole weekend of it. I booked a three-day stay at the hotel. The drive north was wonderful, all by itself. I think this is one of the most colorful Wisconsin autumns I’ve ever seen. Does that correlate with today’s early, first snowfall of the season? I have no idea, but the drive to Door County was stunning. Feast your eyes.

Wisconsin's fall foliage, Oct 2022

Wisconsin's fall foliage, Oct 2022

Wisconsin’s glorious fall colors (captured at a rest stop, don’t worry). 🙂

When I got to the hotel, my room was ready early, thank goodness, and I quickly settled in to write. Wow! I wrote like a person possessed. A change of scenery can induce that? You betcha. Mission accomplished by Day One.

Add, that my room was beautiful. Add, that I got a few hours socializing with great friends before the event even started. Add, that I learned to play pickle ball and, omg, it was so much fun! And add, our group’s first in-person event in three years. It was heavenly, this weekend. Truly.

Sailboat on Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

A sailboat on Sturgeon Bay beside where we played pickle ball. We were having so much fun, we forgot to take a group picture!

Sara gave a well-presented, insightful talk on revising like an editor. No one could walk away without at least one (but likely many) new tactics to try when they get to that stage. I thoroughly enjoyed both her talk and getting to know her. She’s a delight.

photo shows a group listening to Sara Schonfeld, editor at HarperCollins imprint Katherine Tegen Books

Sara Schonfeld of Katherine Tegen Books and Deb Buschman, leader of SCBWI-Wisconsin

Sara Schonfeld of Katherine Tegen Books and Deb Buschman, leader of SCBWI-Wisconsin (photo courtesy of author Sandy Brehl)

Here are a few more photos of the luncheon. Special thanks to Deb Buschman and all SCBWI volunteers for putting on an outstanding event.

photo shows authors Silvia Acevedo, Amanda Zieba, and Christy Wopat

photo shows authors Pat Zietlow Miller and Kate Penndorf

photo shows attendees at the SCBWI-Wisconsin Fall Luncheon

The previous three photos are courtesy of author Sandy Brehl

photo shows Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, during the autumn of 2022

photo shows Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, fall of 2022

Just outside the ballroom, the view of Sturgeon Bay

If you’re thinking that your creative endeavors could use a change a scenery, you may be right. I recommend giving it a try. I’m so grateful I did. 🙂

 

 

WWA Anthology is out!

Image shows cover of the book "Wisconsin Writers Anthology 2022."I just added another title to the Books page of this website, and I’m thrilled that it contains my first published horror short story. Creepy short stories are definitely my bag. I love reading them. I love writing them. And I’m thrilled that my short story won an Honorable Mention in the Wisconsin Writers Association’s Jade Ring Contest and publication in its anthology.

This paperback is just $6.99 as of the date of this writing. That’s a bargain for 113 pages of original writing by Wisconsin creators, so order your copy here and support WWA and local authors!

 

*This post contains affiliate links, meaning I get a few cents if you order through that link, at no charge to you.

What I’m reading – Other Terrors and Less is Lost

It’s fall, and, while I typically try to hunker down and get writing again when the colder winds start to blow, I’m still heavily reading, so here’s what I’m enjoying (with $affiliate links).

Image shows covers of the books LESS IS LOST and OTHER HORRORS

OTHER TERRORS; AN INCLUSIVE ANTHOLOGY. This is a collection of creepy tales from critically acclaimed, diverse authors with a broad spectrum of diverse and contemporary characters. These wonderfully inclusive and modern tales are not only riveting but also manage give a reader creepy crawly chills. Whooeee, some of these stories really strike a nerve, and others will leave you seeing circumstances in a whole new light. I especially loved the story Waste Not by Alma Katsu because, ooh, what a line it crosses; also, Idiot Girls by Jennifer McMahon and The Turning by Hailey Piper. Shivers and shakes. Highly recommended.

LESS IS LOST by Pulitzer Prize winning author Andrew Sean Greer. Its prequel, LESS, had me in stitches when I first read it in 2018, and I gave it five stars on Goodreads. I just reread it, and it still hilariously holds up. It’s the story of a struggling novelist who receives an invitation to his former lover’s wedding, and, rather than go, decides to accept every harebrained literary invitation he’s received, from places around the world, to escape. I’m only a few pages in to the sequel, and I can’t wait to see where Less takes us next.