Entries in It has turned her brain (63)

Thursday
Dec012011

What Think Ye?

I have a large collection of Christmas-themed picture books; there are at least thirty different titles in the stack on my shelf. One of our December Family Home Evening traditions is to read two of those books every week--one of which tells the Christmas story. Whether it's through my repeated readings of the four Gospels, or having memorized and sung various Christmas cantatas, or from having participated in many lesson-and-carol-style Sacrament Meeting programs--I have the story of Jesus' birth as told in the scriptures memorized. And I want my children to know it by heart, too.  So we read the Christmas story, in as close to the original form as we can get.

The book we read next can be silly or spiritual, as the mood strikes me. We might read a version of Clement C. Moore's "The Night Before Christmas" or one of Hans Christian Andersen's Christmas-themed fairy tales. (If that last happens, Patrick has to read. I can't get through "The Little Match Girl" without sobbing--no exaggeration.)

This past Monday, we read a gorgeous book with text from the King James Bible with photographs of medieval triptychs for illustrations. That was a treat to ponder.

But then we read one of the loveliest books in my entire collection, What Think Ye of Christmas?  Ester Rasband (who happens to be the wife of my former mission president) wrote the thought-provoking words, and her neighbor, Jana Winters Parkin (who happens to be one of my dearest friends in the entire world) painted the exquisite illustrations.

This book is special, and not just because I am privileged to know the co-creators. What I love about it is that it turns the familiar complaint of observant Christians--"Christmas has gotten so commercial," or something similar--on its head.  Yes, the secular nature of the world's December festivities--and sales and promotions--can overwhelm. But with a little thought, we all can "put Christ back in Christmas," as the Knights of Columbus remind me via billboard every year.

I read the book slowly to the family, pausing frequently so that they could examine the illustrations. We then had one of the best Gospel discussions we've ever had during Family Night. We talked about how Santa Claus can be seen as a type of the Savior; we marveled over how Jesus is both Shepherd and King. I loved the insights my children had and shared, sparked by the words and pictures before them. It was a truly memorable experience.

So--if you were at my house looking through my pile of Christmas books, and you asked me which of them I would most recommend that you buy--it would be this one. Buy a copy to treasure; buy a copy to give to someone you love. We bought several copies last year and gave them to the families whom we caroled last year on Christmas Eve--and every single one of those families (whether religiously observant or not) told me later how much they loved this little book.  It truly is a gift that keeps on giving.

Friday
Nov112011

Book Bomb Contest Results

You people amaze me. I feel honored to be associated with you. The online community has great power to do good, and yesterday you did a lot of good for Rob Wells. He posted last night on Facebook that he felt a little like George Bailey, and I can see why.

I checked Variant's Amazon ranking on Wednesday night before I posted my contest post. It was listed at #7,643--which is not bad for a debut national hardcover. Last night, when I went to bed--just a little over 24 hours later--Variant was at #56.

#56!!!!! That is more than a 10,000% increase! Rob Wells surged up the Teen sub-lists as well, ending up well into the Top Ten company of Suzanne Collins, Christopher Paolini, and Stephenie Meyer. Finally, Variant ended the night at #1 on Amazon's "Movers and Shakers" list.

Any book that breaks into Amazon's Top 100 gets noticed and has great potential to gain sales momentum, so your purchases have helped in more than one way. HUGE thanks to all of you for every hardcover purchased, every Kindle edition downloaded, every post and tweet and plurk. You made a difference.

Counting up the contest numbers this morning, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for your generosity. Some of you chose to email me your report, feeling shy about posting in public. That's fine; if you did that, I happily included your entries. Altogether, I counted almost 200 entries, which floors me. When I came up with the contest idea on Wednesday evening, I didn't know whether anyone would enter. I wondered whether the $50 I would put toward the grand prize would be better spent on just buying four more copies of the book.

Um, no. Participants in this contest bought a whopping 104 copies of Variant--and those are just the folks who reported to me. I know that your spreading the word generated many, many more sales. Thank you. I am near tears as I type this. Thank you.

Now, to announce the winners! I used the random number generator at RANDOM.org and came up with the following results:

The Grand Prize winner of a $50 Amazon Gift Certificate is Karen Merrell!

The Runner-up Prize winners of a signed copy of my cookbook Comfortably Yum are

Erin

and

Emily M, who contributes at Segullah!

Congratulations! And thanks again to all who entered. Winners, I will email you privately for your addresses.

Now that the Book Bomb is over, there is more you can do. Read the book and post your reviews of it on GoodReads, LibraryThing, and Amazon. Choose it to discuss in your book groups. Recommend it to your librarians and the English teachers at your middle and high schools as a great book for reluctant readers--especially boys. And above all, continue to pray that Rob finds complete and lasting relief from his Severe Panic Disorder soon, so that his life can get back to normal.

All yesterday, as I saw Rob's numbers rise, I thought about what Camilla Kimball said often, "Never suppress a generous impulse." Bless you all for taking her words to heart and living them.

Thursday
Sep222011

Cozy with a Side of Creepy

Full disclosure: Josi Kilpack and I are good friends. She has been the chairperson of the Whitney Awards Committee for the past year and a half, and I have been one of her happy assistants during that time. She's a talented and generous friend.

But that's not why I like her latest book, Pumpkin Roll, and it doesn't color my assessment of her writing at all.  There are lots of people whom I like personally, but whose writing is not my cup of tea. Josi is not one of those people.

Last night, I finished Pumpkin Roll--the sixth and latest in Josi's best-selling Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mystery series--and it was a Thumping Good Read. There are a lot of reviews and cool interviews of Josi floating around the blogosphere, so I thought I'd take this post in a different direction and analyze the book using Larry Brooks's Six Core Competencies model. Can I dissect a book and find within it a formula for success? Let's see.

Larry's first Core Competency is Concept, which he defines as the asking of a compelling "what if" question. A story's concept is different from an idea or a premise. To clarify the concept of concept (meta!), Larry writes,

A non-story example: An idea is to travel to Florida. A concept is to travel by car and stop at all the national parks along the way. A premise is to take your estranged father with you and mend fences while on the road.

What's the concept of Pumpkin Roll? Let me take a crack at it, with advance apologies to Josi, in case I don't get it quite right: "What if an aging, just-turned-pro detective finds that the only solution to a mystery may be admitting the reality of ghosts and witches?" Intriguing, yes? I thought so. Concept? Check.

Character is the second Core Competency, one with which readers and writers are familiar. Josi's protagonist, Sadie Hoffmiller, is quirky, believable, and utterly sympathetic. When I first met her in the pages of Lemon Tart, I liked her immediately. She loves to cook, she knows her recipes are outstanding, and she firmly believes in the healing power of a plate of brownies. We have those things in common. :) Sadie's a little obsessive, a little stubborn, and doesn't mind rolling up her sleeves and doing a bit of research. She's sounding more familiar all the time, now that I think about it...except Sadie's 12 years older than I am....

Josi's villains are just as real and believable. I can't illustrate that without spoilers, however. You'll just have to trust me. And Josi's character arcs work both on the book level and over the whole of the series. She's got Character nailed.

Next in the Core Comp lineup is Theme. How does theme differ from concept? In the writing gospel according to Saint Larry, theme = meaning. It's how the story relates to the reader's life; it's how the writer touches her audience.

In Pumpkin Roll, Sadie involves herself in the life of a troubled neighbor--with life-or-death consequences for everyone involved. Is it good to risk your safety to help someone in need? Is it right to trust your instincts when authority figures are telling you that you're dead wrong? Is it necessary to follow through on promises, even when it's difficult? Since Josi's mysteries fall into the cozy category, you can probably guess the answers to these questions, but that doesn't mean it isn't important to ask and answer them. Josi does this with satisfying results.

Fourth comes Story Structure. I've written before about how important structure is to a novel, and it's clear that Josi agrees with me. Pumpkin Roll is tightly plotted, with twists, turns, and pinches in just the right places. 

Now, I knew going into the book that Sadie would prevail; a flip to the back, where a sample chapter of Banana Split awaits the reader, confirmed that. But Josi's genius is this: even though I knew Sadie would be all right, I got scared throughout her exploits. Nervous. A little jumpy. Heart pounding, quickly turning page after page, I was completely involved. The outcome was not in question; the how had me in its grip. Yep, Josi has structure down.

Numero cinco: Scene Execution. One of the tricksiest things for new writers is how to figure out what's most important in their narratives, and what can be cut out for maximum effectiveness and power. Each scene needs a purpose, with both resolution and new or escalating conflict embedded within. Scenes need to illustrate Concept, Character, and Theme and must keep Structure moving along at a precisely defined pace. Not easy.

Here, Josi's experience serves her well (Pumpkin Roll is her fourteenth novel, if my calculations are correct). There is no excess, not a single extra word. If anything, the reader is left wanting more--which is exactly the effect a writer (especially of a series) works hard to achieve. A+

Last, but not least, is Writing Voice. I believe voice is impossible to teach. You either have one, or you don't. Can you improve your voice through diligent practice and show off its strengths to their very best advantage? Absolutely.

As with singing voices, writing voices can be gravelly or silky-smooth; bluesy, twangy, or operatic. Every successful writer's voice is unique.

Josi's honed, polished voice is up-front, personable, and humorous--a lot like the in-person Josi, actually. Have you ever met someone with whom you clicked right away, and you felt like you had been friends for a very long time? That's how I have felt when reading Josi's books--and I read one of her non-Sadie books and felt that way long before I ever met her in the flesh. That's the power of writing voice. Well done, friend.

Ah, but Josi has a BONUS COMPETENCY, one that Larry Brooks does not address: Culinary Expertise. Each of the Sadie Hoffmiller books includes several delicious recipes. Josi takes these as seriously as she does the stories themselves. I know this because when she was writing Blackberry Crumble, she asked me to create a recipe for her--something that would suit the book's setting in the American Northwest.

I came up with a Salmon and Wild Mushroom Casserole.  Josi and I both made it several times, with our families as (mostly) willing guinea pigs, until it was just right--rich, savory and satisfying. Now my mouth is watering. I know that her testing has been just as rigorous with all of "Sadie's" other recipes.

If you're new to Sadie's stories, start with Lemon Tart and work your way through the series--though I think Pumpkin Roll could definitely be read as a stand-alone, it's more fun to go through all of Sadie's adventures sequentially. If you're a Hoffmiller veteran, know that Josi gets better with each book, and Pumpkin Roll is the best one yet. Can't wait for Banana Split!

And now for some exciting words from Josi and her publisher:

In conjunction with the release of Pumpkin Roll, the author, Josi S. Kilpack, and the publisher, Shadow Mountain, are sponsoring a contest for a new iPad2. To enter, leave a comment in the comment section of this blog before November 1, 2011. Winners will be announced and notified November 3, 2011.

For additional ways to enter, go to www.josiskilpack.com.

Monday
Jan242011

I'm Still Standing: The Best of 2010

Our amazing kids, December 2010, from left to right: Hope, Tess, Anne, Christian, Daniel, and James

2010 was the toughest year of my life.  It was a great one, too; highlights include our trip to London in August and the realization of my birthday goal in November.*  But a lot of last year was a struggle. 

I can’t complain; I have my health, my family, my faith, excellent friends, and so many comforts and privileges.  And I made it through!  The year didn’t kill me, so it must have made me stronger, right?

I didn’t experience as much media last year as I usually do, but here’s what I enjoyed the most.

Best Movies I Saw

1. True Grit

2. Inception

3. Robin Hood

4. Toy Story 3

5. Harry Potter 7.1

Best Songs I Downloaded

1. “Closer to the Sun,” by Slightly Stoopid

2. “Harlem River Blues,” by Justin Townes Earle

3. “Rise Like Smoke,” by Cypress Hill

4. “Tennessee Me,” by The Secret Sisters

5. “You! Me! Dancing!” by Los Campesinos!

Best Books I Read (or Re-read)

1. Hold On To Your Kids, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté

2. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

3. A Course in Weight Loss, by Marianne Williamson

4. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

5. Misery, by Stephen King

6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

7. The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkowski

8. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

9. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Maté

10. Mr. Monster, by Dan Wells

It was the year of non-fiction!  I've never had more than half of my top ten list be non-fiction before.  The top three rank right under the level of scripture for me, though, and I refer back to them often.  Highly recommended.

Yarn of the Year: Sunflower Yarns Franconia in the May Flowers colorway

I knit more than ever last year (knitting is an excellent stress-reliever for me), and I hope to build on that momentum.  Sunflower Yarns beat out other excellent contenders for YotY, including The Sanguine Gryphon and Fiber Optic.  Yarns I look foward to using this year include those by madelinetosh, Three Irish Girls, and Wollmeise

Best Meals I Ate

1.     Winvian, Morris, Connecticut

2.     Charingworth Manor, Chipping Campden, England

3.     db Bistro Moderne, New York, New York

4.     Byron Burger, London, England

5.     Robert, New York, New York

6.     Picnic lunch, Hampton Court Palace, England

7.     Livebait, London, England

8.     Blue, Liverpool, England

9.     Picnic lunch, Arundel Castle, England

10.   Memphis Mae’s, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

Yes, Virginia, there is great food to be had in England.  It's one reason I'd go back in a heartbeat.

* My birthday goal: I decided back in May that I wanted to run 4.4 miles in 44 minutes on my 44th birthday, which was November 4th.  I was copying my dear friend Shauna, who had done the same on her birthday. 

There was only one obstacle in my path: I wasn’t a runner.  I hated to run.  I had never run even a mile without stopping.  Not.  Ever.  Why I would choose such a goal boggles my mind even now.

My homegal Anne (remember Brillig?) told me about the Couch-to-5K program, and she and our bosom buddy Jana and I signed up and got going.  It’s a great program; you start very small and build on tiny, incremental successes over the course of nine weeks.  On July 19th, I ran 5K without stopping to walk once.

After that, my awesome sister Angie, who is a veteran marathoner and the fittest person I know, made me a training schedule.  I stuck to it religiously; I believe that from May to November (not counting our time in England in August), I only missed one running session.

To do so, I had to make room in my life.  I got up at 5:15 a.m.  I made the kids’ lunches the night before each school day.  I made sure I was in bed by 10:00 every night.   I faithfully took my vitamins and supplements.  And I made new running music mixes often—the music got me through some very tough moments, I can tell you.

Right up until my birthday, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to attain my goal.  I prayed; I visualized; I told all of my friends what I was doing so that I could marshal sheer pride if all else failed. 

And I made it.  Afterward, I laughed and cried and felt a little like throwing up; I still can’t believe I did it.  Even more incredibly, over the course of my training, I learned to hate running less (and now that I’ve switched to running in these, I actually like running).  The side benefit?  I lost 20 pounds.  Apparently, burning 500-800 calories several times a week for six months will do that to you.

I’m still running, alternating it with rowing on my Concept 2 rower, which I've loved for years.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever take running to “the next level”; at this point in my life, I just don’t have the time. 

This last part may sound like a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason.  I learned that, with planning, consistency, the support of good friends, and a fair amount of grit, I can do things that I would have thought were impossible.  And gaining the gift of that knowledge during the hardest year of my life came in very, very handy.

2011? Bring it on!



Tuesday
Mar232010

Read this book.

Woman with Infant Flying, Brian Kershisnik

I have just finished reading an excellent book.  It's so good that it will surely rank very high on my Top Ten Books list of 2010, even though it's only March.  It's called Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté, M.D.  (I get nothing for linking to the Amazon page.)  I read a lot about attachment theory when my big boys were small, but this book was a revelation for me.

Read it if you have a terrorizing toddler or a spirited preschooler.  Read it if you have an eye-rolling tween or a distant teen.  Read it if you have struggles with any of your kids, or no struggles at all, in which case I'm sure you'll feel very validated.  Read it if you are a school teacher or work with children in your church.  It's amazingly helpful.  I borrowed it from my wise friend Melissa, but yesterday I bought my own copy, which I plan to mark up and dogear heavily.

Read it, then email me so that we can discuss!  You will not be sorry, I promise.

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