Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Title: Children of Blood and Bone
Author: Tomi Adyemi
Age Level: Young Adult
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Part of a Series?: This is a debut novel, but it has a subtitle of “The Orisha Legacy”, so I am guessing it is meant to be the first in a series

*I was provided an electronic copy of the first six chapters of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This novel features a strong-willed heroine in a world where magic used to exist but disappeared. Non-magic users have great fear and hatred of the should-be-magic users (diviners). As a result, the non-magic users have created a society where diviners are less than human. The racial tensions and hatred in the first six chapters are clear, well-done, and very appropriate for our current world climate. The magic aspects of the book are mentioned in passing and appear to be diverse, but have not really been a part of the preview file I received.

Overall Impressions:
The tension in this book is well-done. The book starts out with a bang and keeps rolling at a steady clip for the entire length of this preview. I most definitely hope to read the rest of this book at some point.

The Nitty Gritty:
The characters in this book are magnetic and emotional: all of the main characters and many of the supporting characters (as best as I can guess based on six chapters, anyway) elicited visceral reactions from me. I was rooting for them, mentally jeering at their actions, or mourning for the way racism was impacting their lives. I am eager to find out how their personalities and lives develop over the course of however long the author writes this world.

The one concern I have–and it may be fixed by being able to read the entire book–is the ambiguity of the visual details. There are several creatures mentioned, all evidently large, but I was unable to clearly understand how big they were in relation to each other. Even when they were given a size reference–trees–there was no frame of reference for how big the trees were. There was enough there that I had a sense of it being a rich, full world in the author’s mind, but not quiet enough for me to feel as if I were actually seeing it.

Special Parenting Concerns:
The themes of this book–racism and hatred–are heavy and dark. It is important for parents to be aware of this. The first six chapters handled it well, and I believe that if the rest of the book maintains this tone and skill in handling it, this book could provide excellent opportunities for dialogue on these topics. Each parent is the best judge of their children, but for the most part, as long as parents are aware and ready to discuss these issues with their children, this is an excellent approach to the topics. In fact, it could be a great book for parents and children to read together.

You Will Like This If…:

  • You like books featuring magic
  • You want an accessible and approachable way to explore, learn about, and expand your thinking on racism

My Rating: 4 Stars

I am giving this “only” 4 stars because it is only a partial review; I don’t know exactly how the plot will work out or which of the book’s drawbacks will get straightened out. If nothing changed, however, the book would receive 4 stars. It’s exciting, fast-moving, and emotional. And that’s just in the first six chapters. I even found myself entangled with multiple characters, including ones I am guessing are going to have a smaller role in the overall novel. Some of the language felt “purposefully elevated”, rather than natural, as if the author were trying to enhance the historical feel of the world. But then some of the language also produced goose-bumps. This is certainly a book I hope to finish and, I am fairly certain the chances are high that my rating would go up once I have the entire book to read.

*this partial book review is also posted on Goodreads and NetGalley


World of Books: E-Readers

A look at my current e-reader.

Today I am adding a new type of post: “world of books”. These posts will include anything that has to do with books that isn’t a specific book review. Today I am “reviewing” e-readers.

When most people review a wonderful new discovery, it’s quite commonplace to hear “It’s the best thing since sliced bread!” (which, by the way, was invented by fellow Iowan Otto Frederick Rohwedder in 1928). And as far as technological revolutions go, e-readers have probably had the biggest impact on the world of books since, well…since the printing press was invented in 1452. But are e-readers the world of books’ “best thing since sliced bread?”

I suppose that depends on your perspective. Before we get into the pros and cons of them, however, lets take a moment to talk about what they are:

According to the definition found on, an e-reader is a handheld electronic device designed to be used for reading e-books and similar material. For a history on the development of electronic books and e-readers, check out this article by The Guardian. Today, this can be a device that is made solely for e-reading (such as the Kindle Paperwhite), a tablet, or even your smartphone. You are even able to sync your location in a single book across multiple devices. Which brings us back to the question: are hard-copy “book books” or e-books and e-readers the superior format?

E-Reader Pros:

  • Portability: E-readers, by their very nature, are slim and lightweight. If you use your smartphone as your e-reader, it is even smaller than the vast majority of books. And the real pro here is that no matter how many books you download to your e-reader, it maintains the same size and weight. Want to carry one of these 10 behemoths with you in your carry-on luggage? No problem. Your Kindle is still a slim .36 inches thick and 5.7 ounces in weight. Want to carry an entire library on your next vacation? No problem. Your Nook is still a slim .39 inches thick and 8.8 ounces in weight.
  • Convenience: An e-reader packs a lot of punch in the convenience category. You have instant gratification when you purchase a book (depending on the download speed of your internet connection, of course) and you have access to thousands of free books. Since you can carry your books with you where ever you go, you can also read where ever you are. Have a few minutes in the waiting room of your doctor’s office (and who doesn’t)? Pull out your e-reader and get in a few more pages of that Stephen King novel. Have a commute to work in a standing-room only subway car? You can easily read and turn pages with one hand while maintaining your balance with your other hand. Having trouble reading the font size? Well, e-readers will allow you to change things like the size of the type and the contrast of the screen. It even provides you the convenience of heightened privacy: without a book cover to share your secrets, you can read that trashy romance novel, the steamy erotic thriller, or the somewhat silly, but entirely relaxing, middle-grade graphic novel your son’s been talking about non-stop.

E-Reader Cons:

  • Nostalgia: For those of us who have hard copy books taking center stage in some of our fondest memories and our most revered relaxation techniques, the plain and simple fact of the matter is that e-reader’s Just. Aren’t. Books. They don’t feel the same, they don’t smell the same. They don’t allow our oldest friends (otherwise known as our favorite books) to catch our eye as we walk by. We don’t get to gush exuberantly as we hand over a new favorite to our closest friends–after all, lending books on an e-reader is hard work, and even if we do get it figured out, all we are sharing with our friends is an electronic file. There won’t be a moment of physically exchanging the book, passing possession and care off to another warm body. It’s not different than shooting off a quick email or text. Since there’s no such thing as a “used” e-book, there’s also no triumphant victory of finding that perfect new afternoon companion (known as a novel to the rest of the world) after a long search through used book stores, garage sales, or Goodwill book shelves.
  • Lower Retention: Reading books on an e-reader lowers the readers ability to retain what they are reading. This is because e-readers can only provide weak facsimiles of the things we do to print books–folding dog ears, underlining, writing notes, feeling the pages read get thicker as the pages to read gets thinner–to help our brain create sign-posts for recalling what we were reading. Most e-books also provide that ever tantalizing connection to the internet, providing ample opportunity for us to get distracted. This keeps us from really “listening” to what we are reading and prevents us from truly mulling over and processing the new information, whether it be the latest battle in our epic fantasy novel or the newest scientific research on climate change.
  • Health Repercussions: The light from e-readers can cause eye-strain, headaches, and, when read at night, even interfere with our body’s sleep mechanisms.
  • Authors Make Less: In most cases, the amount per book that an author makes in a contract with a publishing house will be lower for an e-book than for a hard copy, print version.
  • Higher Theft Rate: Unless you run across an eccentric thief, or carry rare books, a thief is much more likely to steal the e-reader that you left on your towel while you took a dip in the ocean than he or she is to steal that book book that your best friend left right next to it.
  • No Signatures: It’s very, very hard to build up a collection of books signed by the author when all you have for them to sign is the hard metal case of an e-reader.

So…are e-readers the world of books’s “sliced bread”? For me, the question is simple. I love hard copy books. I always have and always will. You don’t become a Book Wyrm with a hoard of books by hating them. But e-readers have their place. Long trips with limited luggage space? I’ll be downloading books onto my smartphone apps and reading them that way. Need a book that I don’t anticipate reading more than once or twice? I’ll get that as an e-book for my husband’s sake (he’s not at the hoarding level, unfortunately). But my favorites? Those are going to be given honored space on my bookshelves, in hard copy form, and will be visited and revisited many, many times. Because for me, even though the pros of e-readers are really big positives, when I am reading from a hard copy book book, the world around me begins to fall away as soon as I feel and smell the book. With an e-reader, I have to wait those few extra moments longer before I get my escape.

E-reader: 4 stars
Book Book: 5 stars

Question for the reader: Where do you fall in this debate? Is your hoard primarily electronic or hard copy?

Craft Study: A Close Read of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

goon squad

Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Genre: Fiction
Age: Adult
Part of a Series?: No

This book was suggested to me by a mentor, Sarah Braunsetin, during my first semester of my MFA program. My goal was to select one small section of the book–paragraph or chapter–and study it in exacting detail. Of all the chapter’s in the book, my favorite was “Chapter 13: Pure Language.” While there were many layers and subtleties throughout the book, it was in this chapter that the point of the book as a whole finally managed to shine through for me.

In this chapter, Egan shows us the point of view of a character we glimpsed briefly (through Sasha’s eyes) in Chapter 1: Alex. Bringing us back to this character does several things. First, it provides a sort of bookend feeling to the storyline, pulling everything together simply by ending in (the almost) same place as we started. This was accomplished “visually”, physically, and emotionally.

The “visual” bookend is pretty straightforward: both characters appear at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book. The reader “sees” them right after opening the cover and right before he or she closes the cover. Physically, each chapter was set in New York City. On a smaller scale, each chapter included related locations: Sasha’s apartment was described in both chapters, Alex was in her apartment in Chapter 1 and outside her apartment building in Chapter 13, and both interacted in a location that belonged to Bennie Salazar. Finally, there is a slightly more subtle emotional bookend. In Chapter 1, Eagan tells the story from Sasha’s point of view. Sasha spends a great deal of the chapter thinking about Alex and Bennie Salazar. In Chapter 13, Alex spends a great deal of the chapter thinking about Sasha and Bennie Salazar. This causes the characters to be connected in thoughts and emotions; each one is thinking about the other one, as well as their boss Bennie Salazar.

Overall, the bookend pair of chapters provides the reader a very direct connection that ties characters together and shines a light on the theme of the novel. With this tool in place, the reader is then able to go on and use that light to examine other aspects of the book and find the threads that tie all of the other characters to each other and the theme. It is a display of masterful skill that not only excited me as a reader, but also excited me as a writer. When I finished the book, I not only wanted to dissect each chapter, paragraph, sentence, and character, but I also discovered that I had another book (and author) to put on my “Inspirational” shelf at home.

The first place I applied my scalpel and microscope was to a scene (pages 323-325) within this same Chapter 13. The first thing I noticed when I read it through the first time (with my scalpel and microscope in hand, anyway) was the dialogue tags used by Egan. After all of the skill that I had witnessed when reading the book, I was surprised to find that Egan used a variety of dialogue tags:

  • Cara-Ann, Alex’s toddler-aged daughter, “proclaimed with guttural indignation”
  • Rebecca, Alex’s wife, “asked in the oversolicitous…way she often spoke to their daughter”
  • Cara-Ann later “commanded” and
  • Alex “barked”

These tags were all telling (as in show versus tell) statements that “repeated” what Eagan had already managed to convey through other, less-noticeable, less-obtrusive, ways. I also noticed that she had a similar habit of occasionally telling actions that would have been conveyed (showed) through the dialogue. For example, Rebecca “looked quizzically” at Alex (which was something that would easily be added or assumed by the reader due to the fact that she was asking a question of Alex in response to an unusual request made by their daughter).

Once I noticed these things, I found it hard not to stop noticing them and thinking about them, instead of being totally inside the story. I even began thinking about how often I use them and, consequently, had to resist the urge to run off to my computer and begin deleting them from my own work. I did, however, manage to resist and instead turned my attention to what is, perhaps, my favorite section of the entire book: Alex and his family watching the sunset.

To begin with, these three paragraphs have some beautiful language:

  • the wall’s rampart was exuberantly boarded
  • the sun [was] still poised, ruby-orange and yolk-like
  • they craved [the sunset]
  • a hush enclosed the crowd
  • the sun slipped away
  • the lees of sunlight on his face
  • ears full of the slosh of a passing ferry

Reading over and examining these snippets of language, along with the knowledge of other phrases and sentences that had stayed with me after reading them, I noticed several interesting techniques.

First, Egan used a high number of phrases with subtle alliteration. In addition to when the “sun slipped,” this chapter also included:

  • stretching from her sling and stabbing her pointer
  • stuttering scarecrow steps
  • Alex felt paralyzed, as if the disclosure had already been poisoned
  • the skyscrapers fell away, and the slanted sun was upon them
  • the sea of sacs and slings and baby backpacks
  • its fluorescently lit vestibule visible behind scuffed Plexiglass
  • clicking heels on the pavement punctured the quiet

While some of them were more obvious (like “stuttering scarecrow steps”), I noticed that even the subtler ones (like paralyzed and poisoned, which were far enough away from each other some people wouldn’t even count them) managed to bring the image which they created into a sharper focus. In some cases, they even managed to control the pace at which the words and the images went through my mind. “Stuttering scarecrow steps” was actually a little more difficult to say/read, causing me to slow down and really read the words and picture the way a toddler walks. “Sea of sacs and slings and baby backpacks” had a faster rhythm to it and made me picture the frenzy and confusion of a crowd, as well as they way a person’s attention will dart from one thing to another when in a crowd.

Egan also had a habit of using sensory heavy words. Reading through this book as a whole, and this chapter specifically, I noticed that there are words beyond onomatopoeias that easily invoke a sensory response from the reader.  In Chapter 13 alone I found the following words and phrases: shucked, hush, slosh, smell of baby flesh, chemical tinge, porcelain, an itch of aggravation, craggy, jagged, light that stabbed their eyes, blaze of heat, flogging the air, slicked, twanging, delicate silk, incandescent, sticky, lowing of trucks, and fiddling. All of these words, when taken in the context of their sentences, transmit multiple pieces of sensory data. When you truly look at these words, they tend to evoke a response from multiple senses. A “blaze of heat” brings to mind both the physical sensation as well as the visual image of a flare of brightness. The word “slosh” brings to mind both the sound of sloshing and the specific visual image of what water looks like when it is sloshing (versus when it is slapping or pounding, for example). “Jagged” brings to mind specifics that are both visual and tactile (sharp and rough, which can be applied to both the senses of touch and sight). While I have always known that words can evoke senses, and that a writer should try to describe things by covering the observations of multiple senses, I had never really thought about how I could do both things with one word or phrase. Egan, however, is an expert at such targeted, highly impactful words.

Finally, I saw that it was possible to use bigger, older, and less common words to great effect without having to run the risk of sounding old, snobbish, or like the piece was written with a thesaurus close at hand. In fact, when I came across words that aren’t part of society’s everyday language (like “rampart”), I found that they actually did an amazing job of evoking emotional connotations as well as providing a more specific description. In the case of rampart, the fact that I normally associate it with castles caused me to think about times when life was harder for humans to survive, protection, confinement, thick and impenetrable walls, and even separation (separating what is inside the wall from what is outside the wall). Other parts of this scene had already managed to convey the idea that life in Alex’s world (a somewhat futuristic New York) was not as safe or predictable as the world we live. Choosing to describe the Waterwalk, where everyone gathered to watch the sunset that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see, as “the wall’s boarded rampart” simply drives home the differences between Alex’s life and the reader’s life. What must it be like to live in a world where people must be protected from something at the expense of being separated from the beauty of a sunset?

You will Like This if…:

  • You are looking for a thought-provoking story that may take more than one read through to grasp everything
  • Like multiple points of view (this story not only switches point of view characters every chapter, but also switches from first person to third person and even second person)
  • Like books with many different point of view characters

Goodreads Reviews: 3.63 Stars (13,422 Reviews)
Amazon Reviews: 3.5 Stars (902 Reviews)
My Rating: 5 Stars
I have to say, I really love this book and plan to read it many times over the coming years. That said, this book is not going to be for everyone. It is unique–bordering on odd–for the majority of the book, and only (for me) made sense at the very end. However, there is some beautiful poetry, great social commentary, and very strong, creative techniques used in the writing of this novel. If you are willing to work at reading a book and/or waiting until the end before everything clicks into place, this book is definitely worth the effort.

Bending All the Rules by Savannah Rylan

bending all the rules

Title: Bending All the Rules
Author: Savannah Rylan
Age Level: Adult
Genre: Erotic
Part of a Series?: Yes (the A List series, Book One)

*I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Breccan Laughry is an extremely well-off actor. He believes he is an easy-going man with simple tastes (…”I gave you three rules, Valerie!”…), but somehow seems to have gone through four assistants in just four weeks. Now he has to find one in the very short period of time before he flies off to film his latest movie in Hong Kong.

Enter Cora. Recently arrived in Los Angeles, Cora is an aspiring talent agent who just happens to be the sister of Breccan’s talent agent, Simon. With filming fast approaching (and an offer of $8,000/month salary), Simon convinces Cora to temporarily take on the job of being Breccan’s personal assistant.

In quick succession, they meet, sparks fly, and they head over to Hong Kong on Breccan’s private jet. This book is a short introduction to their story, but the majority of it takes place in Hong Kong, while Breccan is filming.

Overall Impressions:
This book was not what I expected, really. Surprisingly for this genre, it turned out to be more–and that is why it received the rating I gave it:

  1. The book was not comprised of sex scene after sex scene, with some loosely connected fluff in between. There was only one sex scene (although there were several “off-stage” sexual encounters overheard by Cora) and there was real purpose to the scenes between the sex.
  2. There was a real story line at work here, complete with the impression of a full back story for each of the main characters.

The Nitty Gritty:
Bending All the Rules is a short, fast-paced erotic romance. It opens with a short scene from Breccan Laughry’s point of view and then spends the remainder of the book in Cora’s point of view. I found it nice to start from the male POV for once, but I did find him to be arrogant and short-tempered; more than one chapter of his POV would probably have been too much. The one really juicy plot point in this book does, however, come from his chapter–although it is not raised again during this book. I am hoping that Breccan’s mysterious room and treasured wooden box show up again in book two (Breaking All the Rules).

Cora seems to be a much more multi-faceted character: she has some worries, some dreams, and, mot importantly, some intelligence and spunk. She isn’t your typical erotic fiction heroine, jumping into bed with the male lead the first time she sees him. There is definitely some give and take going on here; her body is attracted to him, but her head knows better. Despite being erotic, this book is not just all about the sex. There is some character development, up beats and down beats, and even plot.

That being said, there is also plenty of sex, of sorts, to keep those looking for it satisfied: Cora overhears some loud-neighbor sex, is greeted by a naked woman who’s clothing got ripped during sex, and overhears Breccan having sex. There is also one fully-on-stage sex scene. It is not what I expected when committing to reading an erotic romance, but it is enough to get the pulse going faster.

There are two things I wish would have been different. First, there was a LOT of swearing. While I can understand the point of view that there are other ways to get those emotions across other than swearing, I am also not against swearing in books. I just want it to be more than swearing. It should help build the character, it’s the best word for the situation, raises the stakes, etc. Bending All the Rules has enough swearing in it that, for me, it looses its impact and, at times, makes me wonder why the character would have such a dependency on the words.

Secondly, I wish there was more to it. Yes, there is a second book, but I wish that Ms. Rylan had slowed down and expanded just about all of THIS book. Seeing more character development and, more importantly, the development of the relationship that Cora and Breccan have formed by the end of the book, would have made the emotional connection with the book–including the one on-stage sex scene–much stronger. And as much as I look forward to seeing what happens next now (which is a fair amount), I would have been dying to read the next one if I had spent more time with Cora and Breccan in this book.

Book Club Chatter:
If you are adventurous enough to do this book as part of a discussion group, you can talk about any of the following things:

  1. The difference between how we see ourselves and others see us
  2. Defending another versus defending yourself

You Will Like This If…:

  • You like erotic fiction–but don’t need it to be one sex scene after another
  • You like contemporary romances

Goodreads Rating: 4.11 (3 Reviews)
Amazon Rating: 4 (4 Reviews)
My Rating: 4 Stars
The writing is solid and the one on-stage sex scene is well-written (important in an erotic novel!). I liked the switch-up of starting with the male POV and that Cora was hesitant about acting on her attraction to Breccan (fairly unique in the erotic novels I have read). The story could have been stronger with a slower pace and less swearing, but, overall, this book delivered more than I expected based on its status as erotic fiction.

Other Books by this Author that I have Reviewed:
Forbidden by Savannah Rylan

Craft Study: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

lovely bones

Title: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold
Genre: Fiction
Age: Adult
Part of a Series?: No

One of the great things about going to graduate school was the chance to look at books in a new way. In some cases, I would be reading a brand new (to me) book. At other times, I would be rereading a book I had already visited at least once, looking at it through the eyes of a writer rather than simply reading it. This review came out of one such assignment: a second read through of the first “straight” (non-fantasy and science fiction) fiction book I had read and enjoyed. I chose The Lovely Bones due to its rich setting, the fact that it covered a large span of years, and because I wanted to see how the book looked to me after having had children of my own. Of course, I was also wanting to see what elements of craft stuck out at me.

One of the first things that I noticed was the way Sebold started and ended her chapters. It is something that had been bothering me about my own writing. Ending a chapter on a cliff hanger or big reveal is one of my strengths under normal circumstances. However, my stories usually have a heavy dose of action, fighting, and mystery. That makes it relatively easy to end chapters in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading. But in my effort to expand my range I had chosen to try a piece more inspired by family history, and things were much more calm. I was instead focusing on the exploration of emotions, dreams, and relationships.

In The Lovely Bones, however, I noticed very quickly that I always wanted to read more. I began writing down the opening sentence and closing sentence of each chapter. and what I discovered was that Ms. Sebold had a pattern: most chapters opened with a statement of an oddity (Susie talking about how something wasn’t like it normally would be) and most chapters ended with a revelation of what Susie had learned (almost like a summation of the chapter’s theme). It is encouraging to know that there are other ways to grab a reader’s attention. And not only was it attention grabbing, but it helped make the story more personal and emotional.

As I was taking my notes on beginning and ending chapters, I also noticed that The Lovely Bones was told in first person. Not only was it told in first person, from Susie’s point of view, but it turned out that it was also an omniscient point of view. Although Susie is telling the story, she is literally able to tell what her family and friends are thinking when she is watching them. I found this extremely unusual, to the point that I haven’t even heard of “First Person Omniscient” as a category that is recognized as a choice for writers.

However, once I noticed that all characters’ thoughts came through Susie, I began to wonder if she truly knew what they were thinking or not. Did dying grant her the ability to see inside other peoples’ minds or did she just assume she knew what they were thinking and then state it as fact? Once the question occurred to me, I began looking for clues that would provide me with an answer and was unable to find any. This in itself was unusual, since the majority of Susie’s personal growth occurs as she learns more about her heaven. Although it is woven throughout the length of the novel, heaven becomes a rather well-defined setting.

Continuing through with my investigation of the first-person omniscient point of view, I then began to wonder whether it even mattered to the story if Susie was accurately hearing the thoughts of her family and friends. My final decision was that it didn’t matter. This book is about people–including the deceased–coping with death. Susie’s ability to cope with her death is based on her ability to watch her family, seeing their actions, listening to their conversation, and hearing their thoughts. It doesn’t really matter if she is hearing the truth; what matters is that she hears what she needs in order to grow and come to terms with her death.

Goodreads Rating: 3.74 (32,610 Reviews)
Amazon Rating: 3.9 (3,877 Reviews)
My Rating: 5 Stars
On the surface, this book is lovely and heart-wrenching. And when you look closer, this book is a marvel of creative, unique approaches to writing technique being used to deepen the reader’s connection to the characters and the situation. This book is a difficult story to follow, but it is worth the read. Whether it was when I read this book as a young adult marveling at all the opportunities Susie wouldn’t get to experience, or as a young mother choking on the sorrow of loosing your child…this book sank into my soul. This book became a part of my personal library. This book became a part of me.

Letter to the Author: Bird by Bird By Anne Lamott

bird by bird

Title: Bird by Bird
Author: Anne Lamott
Genre: Writing Advice/Memoir

*Note: On occasion, I would like to offer a different sort of review. Rather than simply saying how much I like a story, I would like to look at a specific element of craft (such as characterization, pacing, or point of view), how the book fits into a series as a whole, or even how a film adaptation relates to its book–and which I liked better. The “Letter to the Author” series of reviews is exactly what it sounds like: I have written a letter to the author as if we were in the same room together and I could share my experiences reading their novel with them. A little less formal and a little more focused on my emotions as a reader, rather than plot, characterization, or other craft choices. Below is the inspiration for this series: one of my very first assignments at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program. It was originally written in February of 2013 for my then mentor, Sarah Braunstein. I have made some minor changes before posting it here:

Dear Ms. Lamott,

I recently finished reading your book Bird by Bird for the second time. The first time I read it I was 19 and in undergraduate school. I have to admit, I did not like it the first time around. At the age of nineteen, most of the life lessons you talked about learning were beyond my ability to truly connect and empathize with. The rest of the book–the words that covered blatant writing advice–was also difficult to engage with. It seemed to speak primarily of dealing with the difficulties of a writer’s life rather than the tips I wanted for making the road to publication easier.

However, after having the book recommended again, this time by my graduate school, I felt that it was time for me to revisit you. I am more than ten years older, have had many more successes, as well as many truly difficult times. My writing has more depth and breadth, and I have realized how much I still have to learn. I no longer view writing as a hobby, but a craft that is necessary for me to be me. In short, if my outlook on writing had changed, perhaps I would get more from your book this time around. And so I revisited Bird by Bird.

Now that I have finished your book, I find that it was more than worthy of being recommended time and time again. You addressed insecurities I had but had been unable to crystalize or share. You not only gave labels to my anxieties, but tips on how to get around them as well. And there were brilliant, beautiful phrases and thought-provoking insights into life. In short, you intimidated me. As I turned page after page, I grew more and more fretful about how I would write this letter to you. What could I, as a beginning writer, discuss with you in a way that wasn’t already something you had thought of or heard from someone else? Even if I have been writing since I was in second grade, I have only been purposefully honing my craft for a year.

But then I remembered some of the things you said in the introduction of your book. On page xx you wrote “…I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge.” and on page xxvi you pointed out that “Writing turns out to be its own reward.”  And then later, on pages 26 and 27, at the end of your chapter on shitty first drafts, you talked about the different voices in your head. There was a “vinegar-lipped Reader Lady” and an “emaciated German male” and even “parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion.”

Even though it resonated with me, the import of these paragraphs did not sink in immediately. When it did, I realized that when you boil us down to our most concentrated form, the substance that is left is the same. And once I realized this was the case, the distance between us become almost non-existent and the paranoia that was raised at the thought of writing to you melted away.

This, perhaps, turned out to be the greatest lesson I got from your book. Each writer may write in a different genre, with a different voice, using a different set of rituals and methods to get the job done, but when it’s all said and done, we are the same; we are a community of people joined by a common passion and we all have something to give to the community, whether we are a rookie or a veteran.

During the course of the past year, as I have devoted myself to my writing, one of the things that I have been putting a great deal of my effort into has been writing every day. As I’ve endeavored to accomplish this goal, I have noticed that I have a hard time writing without stopping to edit as I go. While many of the craft books I read this year stress that you should write now and edit later, none of them had said it as bluntly and clearly as you did.

It wasn’t so much the idea of shitty first drafts themselves (although the bluntness with which you stated the idea makes it humorous and easier to remember during the writing process). Instead, it was what followed that really brought the idea home: “All writers write [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” (pg 21). To be able to think about Stephen King or my mentors or Jules Verne having shitty first drafts reinforces the idea that I am not alone. I am not the only writer who hates their first attempt at making a wonderful idea into reality. It always makes me feel better to realize I am not alone and, in this instance, it even helped me put my internal editor off until I am ready to unleash her.

Later on you share the way a friend looks at the various drafts. The first draft is “…the down draft–you just get it down,” the second draft is “…the up draft–you fix it up,” and the third draft is “…the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.” (pgs. 25-6). I believe that, just like the idea that all writers have shitty first drafts, separating and clarifying the intent of each draft during the revision process will help me to become more efficient by giving my internal editor routines and procedures to follow.

Of course, I also wonder if most writers truly do have only three drafts. When I am working, I have my first attempt where I write down whatever seems like it will paint the picture I have in my head. I then print it out and revise it once, share it with my mother, revise it again, and then consider it my “first draft.” I have yet to have actually completed a draft (as I have only this year managed to have a “novel” with a plot, climax, and resolution in it), but I find this process to be natural and even exciting. Having read your book, however, makes me wonder more about the entire process other writer’s go through. Thankfully I am confident that this process works for me, at least at this stage in my career, and I am left merely with curiosity and not with anxiety.

I was also drawn to the concept of small assignments. In the past, the closest I’ve gotten to a plot is that I know I want the characters to rebel against their religion based government or save their species from being the subject of scientific research and other equally broad ideas. I have the idea and then sit there wondering how to get my characters from everyday life to saving the world. I’ve been looking at very big concepts and getting hung up on them.

Lately, however, I’ve started doing an outlining process that uses scene capsules. Each scene capsule is one to two paragraphs long and very roughly sketches out what happens in that scene. Then when I go to write a scene, I have an idea of what is going to happen. I can look at what I wrote last in the previous scene and think about what small action would come next, working towards what’s in the scene capsule one step at a time until I have completed it. Only then do I worry about what is in the next scene capsule.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was essentially using the one inch picture frame to come up with a plot outline. The nice thing about having read your book was the fact that your idea of a one inch picture frame gave me a point of reference for understanding what I was doing, an idea for how to refine it a little, and a vocabulary for sharing the concept with other writers.

Over all, I think that the vocabulary your book provided me with is perhaps the most important gift that I received from what you wrote. I have already used what I learned to help several of my writing friends to get past a block they thought they had. I also have recommended the book to several people. I am very grateful that you took the time to write it and that several people took the time to suggest it to me. This is a book that I will keep on my bookshelves for a long time to come, referencing it whenever I feel like I need some inspiration.  From here on out, I will approach my writing as short assignments, plot treatments, and down drafts, up drafts, and dental drafts, each approached head on as they should be: bird by bird.


the Busy Busy Bookwyrm

Goodreads Rating: 4.22 (44,654 Ratings)
Amazon Rating: 4.5 Stars (926 Reviews)
My Rating: 5 Stars

Its Name Was Joy: Callie Cat, Ice Skater by Eileen Spinelli

Title: Callie Cat, Ice Skater
Author: Eileen Spinelli
Illustrator: Anne Kennedy
Age/Genre: Children’s Picture Book

*This review was originally posted, with minor differences, at my author’s blog.

One of the great things about books is that they are so much more than “just” a story. They can be portals to another world, lessons for life, a chance to work through difficult emotions, and a chance to build memories. All of these things can be as important in the reviewing of a book as the words written and the techniques used.

Several months ago, I read the picture book “Callie Cat, Ice Skater” by Eileen Spinelli to my children. I remembered buying it two or three years ago, but I don’t know where my daughter happened to find it in their big pile of books for this particular night. She chose it because it features a cat (her favorite animal) wearing purple (one of her favorite colors) and ice skating (something Bria is quite enamored of, almost as much as she is ballet). Turns out it is a pretty nice book. It even made me choke up and get a little teary.


Now, I know what you’re thinking and no, I do not tear up every time I read my kids a book, despite what my Girl Who Loved Wild Horses post on my author’s blog would seem to indicate. But I did that night, and for good reason: this book has an excellent message and a superb ending! Even better, it resonated with me on a level that I have only recently discovered. And all that in just 28 pages.

What was the message, you ask? Well, in “Callie Cat, Ice Skater”, Callie is a cat who loves ice skating. She skates every night during the week and all day long on the weekend. And “Whenever Callie skated, she felt a melting sweetness” that she cannot name. Callie’s friends don’t understand why Callie is always ice skating. They are always trying to get her to do other things, until one day, they notice there is a competition with many great prizes for the winner. They spend the next few weeks “helping” Callie get ready for the contest. When the competition rolls around, they all head into town, Callie’s parents telling her to do her best, while Callie’s friend are telling her to win.

The excellent message comes from the fact that it doesn’t matter whether Callie wins or not: she does her best, her parents say they are proud of her for doing her best, and Callie goes home and continues to enjoy skating. The superb ending comes from Callie learning what the melting sweetness is: “Its name was joy.” It is such a sweet book, and I love that it shows a girl chasing a dream–through hard work and dedication–and that winning isn’t what makes her enjoy her craft.

I am sure you are sitting there reading this and thinking “Wow. Cute. But how did it possibly resonated with a grown woman who was soon to be graduating with an MFA?” Good question! The answer is this:

First, there is some beautiful writing: “…when the sun was bright and the wind sang through the tall stalks of thistle” and “her sun-dazzled blades crisping across the ice” are two of my favorites. Of course, there are also some silly phrases (such as “She’d be a banana not to” [want to win]) for the kids to enjoy, but over all, it was beautiful to read aloud. Eileen Spinelli cares about her craft and pours over every word. That is a level of craftsmanship I have been working hard to achieve and learn to analyze and critique during the past two years. I could connect with the effort that Spinelli obviously put into the creation of this book.

Second, and most importantly (as far as my getting teary-eyed goes), when Callie starts skating the morning after the competition: “She knew that the melting sweetness came from doing what she loved…doing…was the best prize of all…”

Wow. What a great message to give to kids. What a great message to give to adults. A message I have had trouble holding on to in the middle of all the wonderful and awful things that I’ve dealt with in the past several years. I actually stopped doing, stopped writing, at one point. And I lost my prize. A prize I was searching for when I applied to the Stonecoast Creative Writing program. A prize that, every time I sit down to read, review, or write, I hope to teach my children to reach for.

A prize with a name: joy.

Goodreads Rating: 3.98 Stars (85 Ratings)
Amazon Rating: 5 Stars (15 Ratings)
My Rating: 5 Stars