Monday, July 29, 2019
Guys, I think I've found my vocation. In an interesting way, it's a return to the volunteer work I did while I was in university in England. For three years, every Wednesday during term time, I would visit a housebound senior and do her shopping for her. I would return for cups of tea and for a chat. (38 years later, this dear soul's daughters still keep in touch with me.)
I love being around seniors, listening to their stories, and helping them with the activities of daily life which are made harder by infirmity and diminishing eyesight. And, as I told my wife after my first week on the job, after years of rejection in the writing world, to get compliments from my clients and positive comments from my employer is a tremendous boost.
My work schedule has meant I now have little time for writing and even less time for blogging. Interestingly, as my children age and as my time is now spent with seniors, I have found myself moving away from my beloved middle grade. My latest project (in the research stage) is to write a family saga loosely based on my mother's youth. The daughter of a White Russian family, she spent her early years in Shanghai and then had to flee once more from the Chinese communists. Stateless refugees, the family was taken in by the government of Panama and made a life for themselves in that country, far from their native land. In this age of hard-heartedness towards refugees, it feels like this is a story whose time has come.
Because of all these other fulfilling parts of my life, it remains to be seen how much work I can produce for this blog. I hope it doesn't go dark for good, because I have really enjoyed reading and reviewing the work of many talented authors and making connections with many middle grade readers and writers who, I have to say, are the salt of the earth. Let's just see what the future holds.
But for now, missives from me are going to be sporadic. Thanks again to all my blog followers and supporters over the years. I look forward to supporting you going forward. Please keep in touch! Ciao for now!
Monday, April 29, 2019
What It's About (from jacket cover):
Twelve-and-three-quarter-year-old Felix Knutsson has a knack for trivia. His favorite game show is Who What Where When; he even named his gerbil after the host. Felix's mom, Astrid, is loving but can't seem to hold on to a job. So when they get evicted from their latest shabby apartment, they have to move into a van. Astrid swears him to secrecy; he can't tell anyone about their living arrangement, not even Dylan and Winnie, his best friends at his new school. If he does, she warns him, he'll be taken away from her and put in foster care.
As their circumstances go from bad to worse, Felix gets a chance to audition for a junior edition of Who What Where When, and he's determined to earn a spot on the show. Winning the cash prize could make everything okay again. But things don't turn out the way he expects. . . .
November 27, 12:05 a.m.
My leg jiggled up and down. I shifted from one bum cheek to the other. My palms felt damp and my heart was pounding. "I've never been interrogated before."
"You're not being interrogated, Felix. We're just having a chat."
Why I Loved It:
My kids have read books by Susin Nielsen before (Word Nerd; Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom) but for some reason I've never before done so. That has all changed because I adored No Fixed Address and am currently sneaking into the kids' bedrooms to steal those other titles off their shelves.
Nielsen has written a fantastic book with complicated characters about homelessness and hope. From the very first sentences, Felix is endearing. He also has to endure his mother, Astrid, who lies, cheats, and steals. As Felix says of her: "My mom is really good at making friends, and even better at losing them." As with most people like Astrid, there is fierce love and also fierce anger from Felix at all the situations she gets them into. But, masterfully, Nielsen reveals reasons for why Astrid is who she is. Both Felix and Astrid are two of the most wonderfully drawn characters in recent middle grade literature.
As Felix moves from school to school, he eventually reunites with an earlier friend, Dylan Brinkerhoff. I loved the friendship--the silly jokes and the way these two boys enjoyed one another. They even make room for Winnie Wu, a Hermione Granger type character, with whom Felix awkwardly goes to the prom.
Initially, it seems that Felix might be too ideal of a character, but he is capable of lashing out at his friends, even when he knows they are trying to help him.
I loved the insights into Swedish culture, as well as the other parts of Felix's heritage. (His father is part Haitian and part French.) There were also insights about dealing with depression, and trying to make it as an artist. And you could learn a lot of information from accompanying Felix in his cramming sessions for the quiz show.
If I were a 5th-grade teacher, this wonderful, complex, funny, and tear-making novel would be one of my "read-aloud" books. I read it almost in one sitting, and have been raving about it all week--so much so that it now looks like my wife is planning to sneak to my bookshelves and steal it for herself. So, in a way, we are all Astrids in this mafioso household!
If I had three thumbs, this would be a three-thumbs-up book. As I have to make do with two, two-thumbs-up will have to do. Terrific job, Susin Nielsen.
About the Author (from the jacket copy):
“This is the first day I’ve written in a diary. The reason I am, is ‘cos I love writing stories, and if I do grow up to be a famous writer, and later die, and they want to get a story of my life ... I guess I should keep (one).” SUSIN NIELSEN wrote this poorly constructed sentence when she was eleven years old. And while she isn’t exactly famous (although she likes to think she’s ‘Big in Belgium’), and no one has written the story of her life (maybe because she isn’t dead yet), she did predict her future. She got her start writing for the hit TV series Degrassi Junior High, and went on to write for over twenty Canadian shows. More recently she turned her hand to novel writing. She is the author of five critically-acclaimed and award-winning titles, including Optimists Die First, We Are All Made of Molecules, and The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen.
Nielsen has been called the John Green of Canada. She once had a dream that John Green had been called the Susin Nielsen of the United States. She lives in Vancouver, BC with her family and two naughty cats.
Monday, April 22, 2019
Confession: Rosanne Parry is a mentor and friend of mine. So I'm letting the Don have his way with the keyboard this week. Take it away, Don Corleone.
What It's About:
Twelve-year-old Danny O’Carolan arrives in New York City with nothing but his father’s songs, his brothers’ dance steps, and his his older sister, Kathleen. Driven from their home in Ireland, they must find work or they’ll end up at the dreaded orphan’s asylum. But there’s no steady work for boys, except joining the Union Army as a drummer. So Kathleen finds a job in domestic service for herself and her younger . . . sister. Danny reluctantly pretends to be a girl to avoid the workhouse and the battlefield. But when he’s not doing the backbreaking work of a housemaid, he sneaks off without his disguise. Roaming the streets of New York, he discovers how many different kinds of people live in its neighborhoods. Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, as well as free black people. All poor. All competing for the same jobs. All softened, Danny finds, by a song and bit of footwork. But the draft is on the horizon, threatening to force more Irishmen into the army. As tensions threaten to spill over into violence, how can Danny—the last bearer of the O’Carolan name—stay true to his family’s legacy and find a safe place to call home?
Granny says I'm seven devils in one pair of shoes. She doesn't know the half of it. Trouble is always nipping at my heels."
The Don's Verdict:
So I was looking over the latest book shipment Michale gets from them publishers, and this Last of the Name cover took my fancy. Then, Michale started all this drivel about conflict of interest, so I told him to head downtown for a cappuccino and a pastrami sandwich. He's got no work ethic, so that'll keep him out of the office for at least half a day.
I rolled up my sleeves and jumped right in. What can I say, fellas? This is one good book. Oh I know it's about the Irish, but one of the main characters is also an Italian, and he kind of saves the day. Plus, there's music and dancing and nuns and newspapers: it's all about New York, New York, bambini.
I know youse are sayin' "Don, you're not a literary man," but that ain't true. I can tell a story with the best of 'em--just look at that tale I told Puzo about mi famiglia, as well as the way I bankroll this here blog. (If Michale wasn't so hoity toity about people touching his precious laptop--which I bought him by the way, just saying--I'd be writing these reviews much more often.)
This Rosanne Parry knows her stuff. She must be a history teacher, because she sure knows what New York was like in 1863. She brings the place alive. From the ship to the docks, to the houses of the rich, to the orphanages and theaters and alleyways: she had me right there, 100 percent. The only thing missing was an Italian restaurant, but you can't win 'em all.
The characters are like real people. If you've ever had an older sister, you'll recognize Kathleen. Boy, can she boss. And young Danny is a spitfire--I'd make him an honorary grandchild of mine in a heartbeat. These two are resourceful and resilient and Signora Rosanne writes about them with warmth and wit. This tale's got a lot of heavy things going on in it, but she still made this old Don laugh. Her dialogue is great, and this story moves along at a cracking pace.
And if that hasn't convinced you to stick your schnozz between the pages, I'll do you one better. I'll send you Michale's copy, signed by Signora Rosanne, and youse can see how great it is for yourselves. Tell everyone the Don sent it to you. (Just leave a comment down below, and I'll pick one random winner.)
Michale said he was going to edit my post when he got back, but time waits for no man, especially one who's burning through my business account and is probably spoon deep in a tiramisu. So I'm just going to tell you a little something about Signora Rosanne, and then I'll push the publish button.
About La Signora:
Rosanne Parry is the author of many award winning novels including Heart of a Shepherd, and The Turn of the Tide. Her newest novels are Last of the Name and A Wolf Called Wander, both on sale in the spring of 2019. She and her family live in an old farmhouse in Portland, Oregon. She writes in a tree house in her back yard. WEBSITE TWITTER
Monday, April 1, 2019
NO SLAM DUNK by Mike Lupica
What It's About (from Goodreads):
Wes' father always told him that there was only one ball in basketball. That you had to know when to take it yourself and when to give it up, that finding the right balance was key. So at every practice and game, Wes tries his best to be a good basketball player and, above all, a good teammate.
As the season kicks off, Wes finds that not everyone on his team has the same idea. All-star player and the Hawks' point guard, Danilo "Dinero" Rey seems determined to hold the spotlight and the ball, even if it means costing his team the game. If Wes is to lead the Hawks to the playoffs, he'll need to find new ways to dish out an assist--even if it means his most important one comes off the court.
Everybody always says there's only one ball in basketball.
Now one had just hit Wes in the side of the face, making him feel like somebody had slapped him.
What I Liked About It:
I like novels about sports, even those I never had a clue about when I was a schoolboy in England many moons ago. (Basketball has since become a world-wide sport, so I would have no excuse nowadays.)
There's no doubting that Mike Lupica knows what he's doing when it comes to sports. The guy was a celebrated broadcaster for many years, and his descriptions of the game are spot on. But what makes a sports book top-notch is when the plot goes beyond the sport itself. In this novel, Wes is dealing with a father with whom he was once close, a father who was a basketball mentor for him. But his father has seen horrors in war, and has come back from active duty battling demons (including alcohol.)
This is deftly handled, and one feels for Wes as he tries to succeed both on the basketball court, as well as dealing with the way his family has been fractured. Lupica's secondary characters are well-rounded (Wes' best friend, Emmanuel, and his mentor, Mr. Correa.) There is also a great rivalry going on with Dinero Rey. Dinero is a bit of a show boat, and has his own issues. Can he be part of a team, with a player like Wes, who is equally as good, or will Dinero give in to ball-hoggery and bring the team down?
My 12-year-old is an extraordinary basketball player, and we read this novel aloud together, Here's what he thought: No Slam Dunk doesn't just tell you about what's on the court, it also tells you about what's happening off it. It really makes you see these characters in another way. I like the story and the conflicts and the way they solve it. I would give No Slam Dunk a 9 out of 10.
(Editor's note: The 12-year-old wrote the above paragraph himself, and changed his bio from 'great' to 'extraordinary.' He's as humble as his old man!)
About the Author (from Amazon):
Mike Lupica began his newspaper career covering the New York Knicks for the New York Post at age 23. He became the youngest columnist ever at a New York paper with the New York Daily News, which he joined in 1977. For more than 30 years, Lupica has added magazines, novels, sports biographies, other non-fiction books on sports, as well as television to his professional resume. For the past fifteen years, he has been a TV anchor for ESPN's The Sports Reporters. His previous young adult novels, Travel Team, Heat, Miracle on 49th Street, and Summer Ball, have been New York Times bestsellers. Lupica is also what he describes as a "serial Little League coach," a youth basketball coach, and a soccer coach for his four children, three sons and a daughter. He and his family live in Connecticut.
Monday, March 18, 2019
Michele Weber Hurwitz may be one of my favorite middle grade authors. I loved both Calli Be Gold and The Summer I Saved the World... in 65 Days and was honored to do a cover reveal of Ethan Marcus Stands Up. So, when Michele contacted me about reviewing her new book, I jumped at the chance.
And the Don and I were not disappointed! Read on:
What It's About:
Siblings Ethan and Erin Marcus may be only eleven months apart in age, but they're a million miles apart in every other way. Ethan's laid-back and doesn't plan beyond his next snack, and Erin's intense, super organized, and super serious. So when these two polar opposites both receive invitations to attend a prestigious tech/maker camp during winter break of seventh grade, complications are bound to happen. Erin's arch rival is attending too, and she's focused on beating him. But when neither of their inventions are working, Ethan and Erin realize the only way to succeed is to team up. Easier said than done.
Ethan: As worst days go, the Monday after Thanksgiving break is right up there with the last day of summer vacation.
What I Loved About It:
Michele Weber Hurwitz has an unerring ear for how middle schoolers express themselves, and she understands their world view. I loved how she told this story through multiple points of view (and if you are a writer attempting this, I would recommend this as a prime example of how to do this successfully.) Not only does Weber Hurwitz narrate through both laid-back Ethan and his sister, the intensely intense Erin, but she also has chapters in the voice of Ethan's best friend Brian, and Erin's friend, Zoe. Most importantly, we also get a POV from Marlon Romanov, whom Erin can't stand after he beats her in a science competition. In Erin's opinion, Marlon is arrogant and rude. But when we see things through Marlon's eyes, we understand him and feel for him. This could only have succeeded through this narrative strategy.
Michele Weber Hurwitz also gets full marks for her depiction of adult characters, and she does a great job of describing setting. As Ethan and Erin attend the tech/maker camp, Weber Hurwitz tantalizingly reveals that things are not what they seem.
This novel is full of Michele Weber Hurwitz's warmth, charm, and empathy. Her dialogue is spot-on, and the novel ends satisfyingly. This is a great school and sibling story, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it for readers who love true-to-life stories.
About the Author:
Michele Weber Hurwitz is also the author of two middle grade novels; The Summer I Saved the World... in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold. Both have been nominated for several state reading awards. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.
You can find more info about Michele on her WEBSITE, which I am a big fan of. Ciao!
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
The Mafioso has to admit straight-up that he counts Paul as a friend--and that Paul was a member of the group blog Project Middle Grade Mayhem, which I managed. This, of course, has made The Don wildly happy. As he was famously quoted by Mario Puzo, "Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family."
And, as he just told me, "You should be doing nuttin' but writing 'bout your friends. 'Cos, when I'm gone, that's all you'se gonna have left. Capice?" I guess that's a strong green light.
What It's About (from Goodreads):
Natural disasters and a breakdown of civilization have cut off Alaska from the world and destroyed its landscape. Now, as food runs out and the few who remain turn on each other, Travis and his younger sister, Jess, must cross hundreds of miles in search of civilization.
The wild lands around them are filled with ravenous animals, desperate survivors pushed to the edge, and people who’ve learned to shoot first and ask questions never.
Travis and Jess will make a few friends and a lot of enemies on their terrifying journey across the ruins of today’s world—and they’ll have to fight for what they believe in as they see how far people will go to survive.
"With any luck we'll be gone by tomorrow," Dad says.
I nod and keep stuffing the tent into its sack, looking forward to getting out of this ash bucket but not to the four hundred mile walk north. And not to cramming my six-foot frame into a small tent with my mom, dad, and sister."
Why I Loved It:
Paul Greci lives in Alaska, and seems to have taken the land into his very sinews and bones. As in his debut middle grade, Surviving Bear Island, the setting is a character in itself. Around Fairbanks, the land has been ravaged by fires, and what is left of society is living on the very edge.
The characterization is great. Paul deals with a large cast of characters, but the ones who truly matter are made indelible by his deft descriptions. 17-year-old Travis chafes against his father's hard-nosed commands, but comes to an understanding of why his father was the way he was. His ten-year-old sister, Jess, misses her mother deeply, yet Jess shows amazing grit and resolve as she keeps up with the older characters as they make their way through many miles through treacherous terrain. The main antagonist, Dylan, is a truly frightening character because he seems to have some sort of power to read the land and sense what's going on.
There are many high-intensity scenes and, at times, I was on the edge of my seat. (At one point, a chapter ended with a cliffhanger when it looked like Dylan would make a surprise reappearance. I defy any reader not to scream.) [I told the Don I was screaming because his favorite soccer team, Juventus, had just scored a goal. He believed me.]
The issues of climate change, environmental destruction, and the collapse of society hang over this masterful YA dystopian novel--but it is never a polemic because the characters are so well-formed and the writing so self-assured. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel to all those who love survival stories, heart-pounding thrillers, and novels set in wild places.
Because I know Paul, I was able to bug him with some questions I was curious about. Here are his answers:
MGM: Was there anything in particular that sparked your idea for The Wild Lands?
Paul Greci: I spend a lot of time in the Alaska wilderness and love writing wilderness survival stories. I am fascinated both with survival and with climate change, so putting the two together was a story idea that resonated with me.
MGM: How long did you work on the novel?
Paul Greci: The Wild Lands took about ten months from the first word of the first draft to a final draft where I was offered representation by a couple of agents. When we finally found a publisher a few years later, I did a couple revisions based on the notes I received from my editor. In contrast, Surviving Bear Island, my first novel, went through about 50 revisions over a ten-year period before it was published.
MGM: Are you writing a sequel?
Paul Greci: I have ideas for a sequel for The Wild Lands but am not actively writing one right now. I am working on revisions for Follow the River (the sequel to Surviving Bear Island) which is due out sometime in the late fall 2019 from Move Books, and on revisions for another YA Alaska wilderness thriller (title forthcoming) due out in January of 2020 from Macmillan. (MGM: Sounds like a busy man!)
And, if you're wary of taking my word for it, because of this friendship thing, this is what some others have said of The Wild Lands:
This fast-paced book contains all the hallmarks of a classic wilderness survival novel (deadly terrain, vicious predators, literal cliff-hangers) and the best of the postapocalyptic genre ... The author’s decades of Alaskan wilderness experience is evident throughout ... A great high-stakes wilderness survival tale.” ―School Library Journal
“This rugged survival story places a group of teens in a dark, burned-out post-apocalyptic nightmare. Your heart will pound for them as they face terrible dangers and impossible odds. Gripping, vivid, and haunting!” ― Emmy Laybourne, international bestselling author of the Monument 14 trilogy
“A compelling story that wouldn’t let me stop reading. Greci has created both a frightening landscape and characters you believe in and want to survive it.” ― Eric Walters, author of the bestselling Rule of Three series.
“Heart-racing... A rugged wilderness lover's post-disaster survivalist tale.” ―Kirkus Reviews
About the Author (from Macmillan Publisher's page):
About the Author (from Macmillan Publisher's page):
Paul Greci has lived and worked in Alaska for over twenty-five years as a field biology technician in remote wilderness areas, a backpacking trip leader for teens, and a naturalist for several outdoor education programs. His middle grade adventure novel, Surviving Bear Island, was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a Scholastic Reading Club Pick. WEBSITE Twitter Facebook
Monday, January 28, 2019
As chance would have it, I'm reviewing this the week after Greg Pattridge featured it on his Always in the Middle blog--which goes to prove that, at least for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, there is absolutely no collusion.
But... The Don was rather miffed I got pipped at the post by Greg.
The Don: What's this I hear, Michale? This Greg guy, he runs the show, and he also gets to be the first talking about this friends- going-to-war book? Great title, by the way. What'cha going to do about it? Want me to send in the boys to pay this Greg a little visit?
Middle Grade Mafioso: I don't want any trouble, Boss. Greg's a great guy, and he's just a little bit more organized than I am.
The Don: Organized? You're part of an organization, ain't ya? This organization. Now, you want out, you just say the word. There's plenty of little fishes in the sea, just sayin'.
MGM: No, no, Boss. I'm happy doing your bidding. Now, you wanna hear about this book? I'll read it to you while you eat your antipasto. Look, we've got some cured meats, olives, peperoncini, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, various cheeses... That's right, buon appetito!
(Phew! The rest of you--don't forget to read this review to the background sound of contented munching.)
What It's About (from the Penguin Random House website):
Grace and Ellie have been best friends since second grade. Ellie’s always right in the center of everything–and Grace is usually happy to be Ellie’s sidekick. But what happens when everything changes? This time it’s Grace who suddenly has everyone’s attention when she accidentally starts a new fad at school. It’s a fad that has first her class, then her grade, and then the entire school collecting and trading and even fighting over . . . buttons?! A fad that might also get her in major trouble and could even be the end of Grace and Ellie’s friendship. Because Ellie’s not used to being one-upped by anybody. There’s only one thing for Grace to do. With the help of Hank–the biggest button collector in the sixth grade–she will have to figure out a way to end the fad once and for all. But once a fad starts, can it be stopped?
Flying from Chicago to Boston by myself hasn't been as big a deal as my dad said it was going to be. But nothing ever is. The second I turn on my phone, it dings with three texts from him.
Why I Liked it:
Andrew Clements is a master of the middle grade voice, and he's picked a topic all those of us who live with middle graders are intimately familiar with: the all-consuming fad. Whether it be fidget spinners or Fortnite, something always seems to flood the market and literally everyone seems to be doing it or having one.
In this particular story, it's buttons. Grace, the main character, finds a stash of buttons on a visit to her recently widowed grandfather--and it's game-on after that. What brings in the conflict is the fact that Queen Bee Ellie has to get into the action and one-up Grace. This felt realistic, also. At this age, friendship and rivalry can be different sides of the same coin--and who among us hasn't had what the kids these days call a "frenemy?"
The novel reads very quickly, the middle grade voice is perfect, and the characters are fleshed out. I liked Grace's sweet relationship with Hank, and the fact that the ending was a lesson in the consequence of making bad decisions. I can't wait to see what Andrew Clements will come up with next!
About the Author:
Andrew Clements is the New York Times bestselling author of the beloved modern classic Frindle,which has sold over six million copies, won nineteen state awards (and been nominated for thirty-eight!), and been translated into more than a dozen languages around the world. Called the “master of school stories” by Kirkus Reviews, Andrew is now the author of over eighty acclaimed books for kids. He lives in Maine with his wife, Becky. They have four grown sons and two rascally cats. Visit Andrew online at andrewclements.com.
MGM: Okay, Boss, I see you liked this one too. What shall we read after dinner? I guess we'll all know soon enough. Till then, ciao!
|Photo: © George Clements|