April 1, 2015

Binge Reading: The Testing Trilogy


Last year I read Joelle Charbonneau's book The Testing and really enjoyed it. It's a little Hunger Games, a little Divergent, but with it's own unique twist. I just love the strong female characters we're finding in the YA dystopian future realm these days. It makes me happy to see literary role models out there in popular, main stream fiction that personify strong women: strength of character, physical, mental and emotional strength, intelligence, common sense, caring and humanity (no mention of beauty, thank you very much)...all the characteristics of good people and good leaders...all in young women. It's a beautiful thing.

Plus they're fun, fast-paced, enjoyable reads. Bonus!

Anyway, I finally tracked down the remaining books in Charbonneau's trilogy at a local library and promptly binge read books 2 and 3 (Independent Study and Graduation Day, respectively) in the course of one week (and I wasn't even on vacation...I was trying to escape my own life, though, so...and I do love a good binge reading episode).

And they delivered.

Some of the ever-popular trilogies really flop on book 2 (like The Maze Runner...book 1 was good, but book 2...flop!...I didn't even make it to book 3), but I thought Charbonneau did a good job. She kept the story moving forward at a good clip through all of the books, and kept my interest throughout--as evidenced by how quickly I devoured these books. Book 1 was still the best (as it almost always is), but the entire trilogy is worth the read.

Here's a blurb about the trilogy from Charbonneau's website:

THE TESTING TRIOLOGY

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that what they say?
But how close is too close when they may be one in the same? 

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it.  But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies – trust no one. 

But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.

So, if you like YA dystopian future novels...if you enjoyed The Hunger Games and Divergent...if you like a good, fast-paced, fun read...then I recommend reading The Testing Trilogy. Check it out.

Until next time, happy reading!



P.S. Booklist says it's for Grade 7 and up.


March 26, 2015

Life Lessons (a journal entry)


Do you ever have that feeling, when you're in the middle of some crummy life "thing," that you've been there before? Emotional deja vu. It may not be the same place or even the same people, but it's the same experience and the same feeling.

Have you ever taken a step back and realized, I've been through this before. And I hated it the first time around...and the fourth and the fifth. Why am I here again? Why does this keep happening to me?

Do you then have a moment where you think, maybe there's something I'm supposed to learn from this that I haven't yet learned. One of those connect-the-dots epiphanies where something that wasn't at all clear to you before suddenly is.

Yeah, me too.

So, I've moved again. (Okay, over a year ago, but clearly I haven't adjusted yet.) And I'm miserable...again. It's been a roller coaster ride for me since this started almost two years ago, varying widely from "things are fine" to "I am miserable." Maybe it's the long winter. Maybe it's a need for a change of scenery. Maybe it's the recent loss of our dog. But I am solidly in the "I am miserable" camp right now. Regardless of what is exasperating the situation right now, the foundation for my misery is clearly my lack of adjustment to our new location.

During my childhood, my family lived in 3 different states, 5 different cities, and 9 different homes. I went to 8 different schools (11 if you count colleges). Since I went off to college my parents have moved 3 more times, and since I graduated from college I have moved 4 more times. That's a fair number of moves and a whole lot of starting over. I am a tree with no roots. More of a moss-free rolling stone.

But I have never liked moving. It's always been hard for me. I've have always longed for a "home town." A place where you "come from." A place where people know you and have your back. Roots for my tree. A place to be planted. A garden to grow in. But I've never had it. And I've always been envious of people who do. I have friends who have lived in the same general area their whole lives, or most of their lives, and they have these great networks of friends and family around them. Not me.

And as I've gotten older I've found that I've become more and more of a homebody. I prefer to be home than most anywhere else. I have become less and less adventuresome. Branching out, reaching out, striking out seems harder and harder to do. I've noticed that once I find a vacation spot I like, I like to go back there every year, rather than try a new place. I like being places that I know. Places where I feel comfortable. Places that feel a bit like home. And I just realized that, without intending it, two of the three children's novels I've recently written have a main character who has recently moved and is struggling with settling into a new place. I just had to watch my oldest go through the pain of moving just like I did so many times as a kid. And I hated it.

And yet, I keep moving. Only two of those moves (the ones in my twenties, when I moved for my own job) were driven solely by me. It has mostly felt like something that keeps happening to me, not really a choice I'm making. But regardless the reason, I keep packing my bags and my boxes and my life and hitting the road.

So, I was sitting on the couch last night, half reading a book and half thinking about the funk I've been in and how to get out of it. When all of a sudden I saw the bigger picture of all of these moves.

A string of moves, a string of low points where I struggle to adjust to the new place.

Why do I keep moving when I hate it so much? Why haven't I been allowed to settle in and put down roots? Why don't I have a hometown?

And that's when I wondered this: if I keep buying a ticket to this particular show, there must be something I want to see...something I need from it. But what? What am I supposed to be learning from these moves?

I'd like to think that I started this post with an end in mind. (I bet you'd like that too.) But not unlike how I write books, I'm not a plotter. I don't always know where I'm headed when I start out. I just tend to go where the writing takes me.

So here we are. We know I move a lot. We know there's some life lesson I'm supposed to be learning from all of it. And I'd like to think that once I truly learn whatever the lesson is, I might get to stay put...or maybe moving will become easier. But what is the lesson?

Any ideas?

Seriously, if you have any ideas, please let me know.

I don't know. It's almost always a lesson in fear. So many life lessons seem to be about moving beyond fear. So likely I'm afraid of something. But what? Maybe it's a lesson in letting go. Maybe I hold on to things too tightly, afraid I'll lose them if I loosen my grip. Maybe it's fear of change. (Though that seems too obvious.) Maybe fear of being alone. Maybe the opposite, maybe fear of depending on others. The nasty side effect of becoming too independent...the "no man is an island" lesson. I could probably twist it into fear of failure if I tried...that's always a good one to go with.

Maybe I need to see a therapist. (I know, we're all thinking that.) :-)

Maybe I'll figure it out soon. Maybe I'll find the lesson ladder that will allow me to climb out of this hole I find myself in. Maybe this glorified journal entry I've posted on my blog will help me work through it. And maybe it'll help you see something in your own life that deserves examining.

Maybe.

Until next time, when you find yourself frustrated or struggling with something in your life, take a step back away from the trees and look at the forest. Is there a pattern there somewhere? Is there a life lesson hidden in your struggle? If so, I hope you find what you need from it and head down the path of happier times.

I'll follow you.




March 17, 2015

In Loving Memory of My Dog Cooper

My Sweet Cooper

My heart feels both leaden and constricted, at once both insurmountably heavy and squeezed tight as a furious fist. My eyes, surrounded by swollen lids, burn. My head aches. My legs are antsy. My stomach churns. I am agitated, with flat affect. I can't concentrate. I can't sit still. I feel dissociated from my surroundings, except for the times when something triggers the wellspring of sadness that lives in my chest and the tears spill once again.

I know this is grief. I know this is normal. I know this will ease with time. I know that he was so sick and I know that he was suffering and I know that that is over now. I know that it would not have been right to try and keep him with me. I know he is better off now.

And I like all of the pictures people share with my imagination: Cooper with angel wings, Cooper running in a field with other dogs, Cooper getting ham sandwich shaped dog treats from God, Cooper crossing a rainbow bridge, Cooper young and healthy and pain-free. These are all gifts.

But those are thoughts in my head. My heart is not understanding the cerebral stuff very well right now.

I know that I sound so dramatic. I feel so dramatic. I am a soap opera version of myself. But I can't stop it. I feel like my eleven year old self when our family dog died...all bad poetry and melodramatic journal entries. But I remember more anger back then. Not now. Now it's just sadness. I am oozing sadness. So I will indulge myself for now, on this awful day when even the skies are crying. And I will talk about my sweet Cooper.

We had a rocky start to our relationship, my Cooper and I, which I regret and often chastise myself for. We adopted Cooper from an animal rescue organization in Akron, Ohio. They told us he was 2-3 years old, a stray with unknown history. He turned out to be 4-5 years old, according to our vet. They had called him Watkin because they didn't know his name or if he'd had one. Since he did not answer to Watkin, we renamed him Cooper and we brought him home with us.

He was crazy. And I was just three months post-loss of my beloved "first baby," a beagle-lab mix of doggie perfection, Jack. Cooper had tough shoes to fill. And I probably had no business adopting a new dog so soon after the long illness and traumatic loss of Jack. But I was lost without a dog in my house. So I convinced myself (and my husband) that it was time.

Cooper was sweet, but as I said, a bit crazy. We did obedience classes at the pet store and he responded well. He learned to heel and became my best ever walking partner. But he was still crazy. There were times that we considered taking him back to the rescue organization. But we didn't. We stuck with him. But bonding was a long time coming. First I had to get over the loss of Jack, then we had to wade through the addition of a new baby to our family. But finally things began to click. It may have been during our long evening walks when my dad was sick and my mom and I were on the phone for hours each night. I'm not sure, but it finally happened.

He still was crazy sometimes. He still gave us pause. ("That dog is weird," my husband would sometimes say.) But he became part of our family. I knew it for sure when we moved. He got loose in my parents' neighborhood when we arrived at their house for a mid-move visit. I thought he was gone forever and I was so distraught. I bargained with God as I drove the streets calling his name. I remember vividly that panicked feeling that he was gone. It was awful.

When he got sick last fall, I was prepared to do whatever it took to get him better (just as I had done with Jack). And we did. But it didn't work. Instead we got months of constant worry: Is he in pain? How bad is it? Is he about to pee on the floor? Is the medication helping? How much longer do we have? How bad will it get? How will we know when it's time? Is it time now?

And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Because he was a gift.

Here's what I carry in my heart:
- His never-ending devotion. His willingness to always be by my side, regardless of my mood or how many nice (or not so nice) words I had tossed his way. In fact, his desire to not just be by my side, but to be in my lap. Always. He was plucky like that.
- His companionship. I like to be alone. But not completely alone. I cherish a silent companion, someone to share my space and bring warmth, but just be with me. I liked nothing more than to have him curled up beside me as I read, or laying at my feet as I wrote. But, most especially, I loved going for walks with him. I will cherish our walks forever.
- His soft snore. I know it sounds crazy, but I miss it. I'm having trouble falling asleep without it. The white noise of the fan is nice, but I miss my wheezy dog.
- His special way of sitting down in the middle of a room and then backing up until he ran into something, or preferably someone, he could lean against. The side of the couch would do, but he liked best to sit on your foot and lean against your leg (assuming your lap was unavailable, that is).
- His silky smooth hair. Running your hand along his sides, or his ears (oh, his soft, floppy ears!)...it was like petting a piece of heaven. God created this sensory experience to soften the hearts of men...and counteract the stink of dog breath. (Cooper had truly terrible breath.)
- His joy. (Oh the joy of a dog...second only to the joy of a child.) Laying in the grass in the sun sniffing the breeze. Greeting his family when they came home. Seeing Grandma or his buddy Brian. Getting treats. Eating carrot peels from the floor. Going for a walk. Being allowed up on the couch or bed. Getting love and attention.

So simple. So true. It makes me wonder how we humans have gone and mucked a lot of things up by complicating them so. Dogs, like my sweet Cooper, are here to remind us of what is really important. Joy and Love. Food and Rest. Fresh Air and Exercise. Companionship and a Pat on the Head. There really isn't that much to it.

Until next time, peace be with you. And go love your pet. Pet your dog. Give him a treat and take him for a walk and cherish what he brings to your life. You are lucky. I was too.

Me and My Boy

Other posts on Cooper:
http://mamamanagement.blogspot.com/2015/01/guilt-sadness-today-grief-loss-on.html
http://mamamanagement.blogspot.com/2015/02/dog-spoons.html

March 12, 2015

A Thank You Note to Stephen King

The book does not typically have a
homemade mom sticker on it.
That's just my personalized copy

Dear Mr. King,

I'm writing to thank you for your book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I know that you won't actually read this thank you note, but I feel the need to send the sentiment out into the world. That's how much I appreciate what you wrote.

I am in the midst of a big chunk of writer's block. Stuck in a place where I'm scared to edit what I've already written. A place where that fear has dribbled over into my writing time too. It is such that I either sit and stare at the empty page unable to pull up a single sentence, or, worse, I avoid the page altogether. After years of feeling this same fear, to finally overcome it and write, only to succumb to it once again, has been painful. The only difference now is my confidence that I'll find my way back to writing soon. For the longest time I didn't believe that. Now I do. But still, I've been stuck.

So I picked up your book. And somewhere around page 103 I felt renewed. Excited not just to write, but to edit (gasp!). Suddenly editing didn't feel so daunting. It felt like an opportunity. And I felt like I had a little guidance. It's still intimidating, but instead of feeling like I'm floating in the middle of the ocean in a dingy with no oars, I feel like you've handed me oars. I have a long way to row, but at least it feels in my power to do it now.

So I want to thank you for your gift. I want to thank you for the idea that writing is telepathy. For connecting with me in 2015 from your desk in 1997. Thank you for reminding me that I need a daily writing goal (oh, right, that's why NaNoWriMo worked for me), and that writing "isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world...but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks." Thank you for sharing your deep dislike of adverbs. (I always kinda liked them, but I will be more judicious with their use from now on.)

Thank you for the reminder that to be a good writer you must read a lot and write a lot. (Thank you also for the excuse to read a lot.) I'll repeat the part that I sometimes forget...you must write a lot. A. Lot. Thank you for this gem: "Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's." I love that. Thank you for saying that a story should be about something. It should have a reason for being.

Thank you for the concept of the Ideal Reader, the person you're writing the book for, the person you most want to love it. I didn't have the name for it, but my ideal reader is, at least in part, why I started writing again. Thank you for the editing equation: 2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%. And the tough love edict that you must "kill your darlings" when editing: if it doesn't move the story forward, cut it.

But most of all I want to thank you for demystifying what you do. For making it seem not that much different from what I do. From a guy who makes a lot of things very scary (I'm still afraid of It.), you made writing and editing a lot less scary.

So thank you, Mr. King. Thank you.

Sincerely,
Amy Lorbach



March 7, 2015

On My Birthday


Birthdays are funny things. Especially as I get older.

I think I'm in this limbo land right now. I exist somewhere between the excitement of a child and the nonchalance of an older adult. I'm between "OH MY GOD IT'S MY BIRTHDAY WOOOOOOOHOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!" and "What? It's my birthday? I thought it was just Saturday. Well, that's nice. I could eat a cupcake."

As a full time mom of two young children I relish the idea of a day that's all about me. Like many moms, I get two a year: my birthday and mother's day. That's it. And I mean that is REALLY it. Every other day...most seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months...all those measurements we use for time ticking by...is about other people. And most of the time that is quite okay with me. Most of the time I relish a life focused on others. I spent the first thirty years focused primarily on me. It's been kind of nice to not have time to dissect (worry, ruminate over) every little thing in my life. I sleep better. Or, I would if small children didn't keep waking me up.

But sometimes it's nice to be given permission to do what I want without any guilt. It's nice to get breakfast in bed and cups of coffee delivered to me wherever I am, whenever I want. It's nice to get sweet homemade cards and extra hugs and I love yous. It's nice to get thoughtful presents and cards addressed to "my beautiful young wife." And that's what gets my WOOOOHOOOOO!!! Today I will read and write and enjoy a few minutes of peace and quiet...as much as the kids will allow. I won't have to cook or clean or wipe kid bottoms. And all kinds of lovely people will wish me happy birthday. (Thanks, Facebook....and text messages and FaceTime.)

The best thing about having a birthday in early March is that this "Day of Amy" comes at a time when I most need a special day. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) When I am sick of cold and snow and snow days and kid-crazies and illnesses and I have a nasty case of cabin fever. I SO NEED THIS DAY.

February was a mildly shitty month, so I'm psyched to leave it behind.

Here's to my special day! Here's to an awesome March-- the dawning of Spring, the peeking of sun, the melting of snow, the shedding of heavy coats. Here's to walks outside and seeing the neighbors again. Here's to no more school delays and snow days. Here's to reestablishing my coffehouse schedule and writing routine. Here's to the joy of spring. And here's to another year of good health and prosperity and love and joy and all the good things of life.

On my birthday, it serves me well to take a little rest and a little time to reflect on me and my life. Not to worry and ruminate like the days of old (When will I get married? Will I have kids? Does my butt look big in this?), but to reflect. To think. To ponder. To refocus on what's important to me. And to refill my tank with gratitude for the amazing life I am blessed with.

Sometimes it's easy for me to get bogged down in the frustration of days that don't go as planned, of things not accomplished, of kids not behaving as I'd like, of no "me time" for mommy, of crappy weather, of a sick dog, of too much to do...

Sometimes it's easy for me to lose sight of what's really important and get sucked into the vortex of to do's, the black hole of multitasking.

Today is a day to stop, adjust my trajectory, and get back on the path I meant to be walking.

So, thank you, Rolland, for time to myself to be quiet and think (and for Chipotle for lunch and all of the other things). I will hit the reset button while I sit here in the quiet. And tomorrow I'll worry less about getting the laundry done and more about doing that big art project with Portia and play camping with Holden and playing video games with Rolland and getting an hour of writing in and...

(But I'll still get the laundry done. I'm refocusing, not turning wild, folks.)

So I'm going to go now, to continue enjoying my lovely little me day. Read a little. Write a little. Be still a little. Watch a movie with my family. Pet my dog. Snuggle with my kids. Cuddle with my husband. And whisper thank you to the cosmos.

Until next time, go hit your own reset button wherever you need it most. It doesn't have to be your birthday to adjust your trajectory. I'm happy to share mine.

AGT



February 26, 2015

My First Writing Critique in...Lots of Years



This week I submitted my first piece of writing for critique in a very, very long time. Very, very long.

I remember submitting pieces for critique in my college creative writing class, but I also remember it feeling more like a typical assignment...I was in the habit of submitting work for evaluation then because I was in school. I did it all of the time. And I seem to recall still having a glimmer of the cockiness of youth on my side, which can make things like this a little easier, initially, at least. (Though it's possible that that particular class knocked the last of that cockiness right on out of me. Bastards.)

Then I remember a little writing group in my early twenties where I shared a few small pieces. But there was less critique and more encouragement there. It was a very safe space...but not necessarily a very productive one.

Now I am in my first real writing critique group. There are a few very inexperienced writers, but none of them are submitting work for critique quite yet.  The rest of the writers, the ones who will be critiquing my work, have been published or have self-published or are in the process of self-publishing. They are writers who have been doing it longer than me. This means that five or six of these writers will read a 4000 word selection from one of my first draft NaNoWriMo books and critique it.

No one else has read these books.

No one.

So I'm pretty terrified to learn that they are giant piles of crap (at least from anyone's perspective other than my own six year old daughter).

I am worried that they're crappy. But I'm also worried that having adults who do not regularly read children's chapter books critique writing meant for 6-10 year olds will not be a success (three of these writers are men over 50...and I think all of them write mysteries).

But I'm hoping for the best. I'm hoping for some positive feedback and encouragement. And I'm hoping for some helpful suggestions and guidance on how to make these books better.

Still, I'm scared. I'm not really known for dealing well with criticism.

And right now, I tend to waffle between feeling really good about what I've written and feeling very shy about it. I know we're not talking about seminal pieces of literature here. (Not yet, anyway. I'm just (re)starting out.) But it would be nice if they didn't totally suck.

The thing is, I know the pieces need revision. I know they need work. And I've been stuck.

Actually, saying that I've been stuck is a massive understatement. I have been struggling to edit and struggling to write for weeks now. I just keep staring at the printouts of the rough drafts of the books I've written, and at the computer screen with the first pages of the new ones I'm starting.

But.

Nothing.

I can't figure out how to get my writing mojo back. So I just keep staring and avoiding.

Which is super helpful. Very productive.

So, here's hoping that the feedback from this critique group will get my synapses firing again and help me move forward.

And that it won't be too painful.

I'll find out on March 10th.

Fingers crossed, everybody.

Fingers crossed.

Until next time, send me good vibes, friends. Thanks.




February 24, 2015

A Quick Book Reco: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd



Okay, I know I've been on a bit of a middle grade novel recommendation bender, but when I read a good book I just can't help but share it and for whatever reason I've been most drawn to the middle grade novels on my to-read list lately. So here we go...

The last two books I recommended had a few things in common. This one is different. Though our main character is similarly aged at 12 years old, the storyline, tone and writing style are very different from Wonder and Counting By 7s. But once again, I loved this book!

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd is a novel about a love of words (and I love words) and finding your home. 12 year old Felicity Pickle (I want to change my name to Felicity Pickle.) is a word collector. She sees words everywhere-- in bubbles over people's heads or as birds on their shoulders, dripping down windows with raindrops, and in the stained glass of church windows. She catches and saves as many words as she can by writing them in her special blue book (or on her tennis shoes or her hands), and sometimes she spins them into funny little poems for her little sister, Frannie Jo.

Felicity has traveled the country and had lots of adventures and she's happy to have shared it all with her mom and her sister. But Felicity longs to settle her mother's wandering heart and put down roots in her mom's home town of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee. Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place filled with magical people who could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers, but that was before a long ago curse drove much of the magic away. Now Felicity, with the help of her new friends, must figure out how to break the curse and bring the magic back to Midnight Gulch and mend her mother's broken heart.

What I love about this book is its playfulness and its love of language and its sweet, quirky characters. Its story is heartwarming and uplifting and, for me, it was a ray of sunshine in my own cold and cloudy February world. It made me want to lay in the grass on a sunny, summer day beneath a shady tree listening to the birds and watching the clouds roll by. It also made me want to find ways to do nice things for other people (read the book and you'll see why).

If you're looking for a light-hearted, fanciful and fun read that is appropriate for all ages, check out A Snicker of Magic. I think you'll be glad you did.

Until next time, happy reading.



P.S. Since we last talked, I also read Four by Divergent trilogy author, Veronica Roth. I liked getting another perspective on a familiar story and characters. I just wish there had been more to it. Still fun, if you've read the trilogy. Onward!