Another Lesson From Mom


John Here:

Kate and I refer to our late mother, A. Carman Clark, quite frequently in our blog entries. Mom was not only one heck of an interesting woman, she was extremely talented and it was a given that sometime during a conversation, she would say something or ask a question that stuck with us. Since she was a writer, we often bounced ideas off her or helped her with something she was in the process of writing. She started her first novel, called Granton, way back in the 1960s. Between my father’s deriding comments, the need to earn some survival money, raise three kids, etc. the book was put on the back burner for a long time. After her success with From The Orange Mailbox, Mom went back to Granton. After 40+ years, it needed plenty of massaging, but it eventually morphed into The Maine Mulch Murder which was published by Larcom Press when she was in her eighties.

Whenever I start to doubt my ability as a writer (on those awful days when the drunken bleacher chorus in the back of my head holds up whatever manuscript I’m working on and starts the ‘You Suck’ chant), I start thinking about Mom’s tenacity as a writer. If I’ve learned anything as an author, it’s that the days filled with self-doubt pass. I had one today and wisely stopped trying to do any editing.

Mom also gave us another gift, one that will be especially valuable as we get older. She flat out loved to read. In her later years, we’d usually find her in the living room at Sennebec Hill Farm, sitting on the couch, squeezed into a small spot on one end, while a monster pile of books and magazines occupied the remainder. In hindsight, I wish I had asked her how many books she read in a year. I have no doubt it was between 100 and 200. Mom was partial to mysteries, but read a lot of nonfiction, especially books dealing with nature and gardening.

Last Christmas, my daughter Lisa and I challenged each other to read 100 books in 2013. She won’t make it. Getting married and starting a new job, coupled with trying to rescue an almost incorrigible shelter dog, consumed a lot of her free time. I, having more than a sprinkle of OCD, ran with the challenge. I hit the 100 book mark sometime in late August and am at 128 as of this afternoon. One of my ulterior motives in pursuing this goal has to do with retirement, something that will happen in the next two years. As crazy as it might sound, I wondered whether I might read myself out if I read too many books. Well, it’s not gonna happen.

In fact one of the epiphanies that accompanied my reading binge was the realization that I couldn’t wade through my To Be Read stash no matter how many books I read this year. It was too big, there were too many other things on my plate and I was discovering too many newly published books that begged to be added. I bit the bullet, cataloged half the pile and put them on the library shelves.

There are some neat perks that come from reading so much. First, I can make an awful lot of informed suggestions to library patrons and friends. Second, I’ve written reviews on most of what I’ve read and posted them online. Third, I’ll never run out of authors whose work I enjoy.

With Christmas approaching, here are some reviews to give those among you who have teen/juvenile readers on your list some gift ideas.


1-Cellular by Ellen Schwartz.Orca Books, 2010 ISBN 9781554692965. $9.95. Brendan couldn’t figure out why he was tired all the time. He went from being the star on his H.S. Basketball team to riding the bench. It took a really embarrassing moment with his girlfriend to get him to agree to see a doctor. When he’s diagnosed with leukemia, his world unravels. During treatment, he meets Lark. She’s almost skin and bones because two courses of chemo haven’t worked. She’s getting ready for the last chance at recovery, a bone marrow transplant. Brendan can’t figure her out. Why isn’t she as angry as he is? She teaches him how to turn his anger into something healthy. Sad ending, great book. Very good choice for struggling readers. For teens (and adults) who want an industrial strength edition of this plot, buy or borrow John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, Dutton Books, c2012. ISBN 9780525478812. I defy anyone to read it and not cry.

the distance between us

2-The Distance Between Us by Kasie West. Harper Teen, 2013 ISBN 9780062235657. $9.95. 17 year old Caymen Meyers has never met her father, knows her grandparents disowned her mother when she got pregnant and worries about not doing enough to help her mom keep the collectible doll store they run afloat. She loves math and science, but has decided to put off going to college for a couple years because of financial worries. Her social life is also limited by her having to leave school at noon to help run the store, not to mention having no spending money. When an obviously rich teen named Xander comes in to buy a doll for his grandmother’s birthday, Caymen pegs him immediately as someone she wants nothing to do with. Unfortunately, his smile and reaction to her natural sarcasm are totally not what she expected and it isn’t long before sparks start flying.

There’s nothing in the plot that hasn’t appeared in other teen romances, but it’s the way they’re blended and served up that make this so much fun to read. You can’t help but like both kids and want them to get together. There are situations near the end that come close to ensuring that Caymen says the heck with the whole deal. Readers will be happy she doesn’t.


3-Sylo By D.J. MacHale. 9 CDs. 10 hours, 40 minutes. Dreamscape Media, LLC. 2013 ISBN 9781624068546. $59.99.

Prepare to be pulled in, taken for the ride of your life and spit out after the last disc has stopped. Tucker Pierce is an average teen, living on Penderwick Island, 5 miles off the southern Maine coast. He likes it there a lot more than in Connecticut where he and his parents lived before they came north. The story opens with Tucker sitting on the bench at a high school football game. When the star running back drops dead after scoring, things begin to accelerate. Before Tucker knows what’s happening, he’s been introduced to Ruby, a mysterious substance that changes the user into a superhuman. It also killed his teammate.

Shortly after, a mysterious military force (Sylo) invades the island and people start getting rounded up or killed. Tucker and Tory, a lobsterman’s daughter, realize something is terribly wrong and they must reach the mainland so the rest of the world can hear what’s happening. People are killed, mysterious planes engage the U.S. Navy in wild battles, Tory gets shot, and they have a wild ride through a naval blockade. When they finally reach the mainland, they discover an even bigger mystery that will be solved in the 2nd book.

There are minor plot holes, some strong language and the main characters use the same exclamations a bit too frequently. None of these detract from the grip this book exerts, thanks in large part to Andrew S. Bates’ excellent narration It will grab adventure lovers of any age. Also available in print from Razorbil Books ISBN 9781595146656.

let the sky fall

4-Let The Sky Fall by Shannon Messinger. Simon Pulse, 2013 ISBN 9781442450417 $17.99. Imagine you have vague memories of the day a horrific storm killed your parents, memories that include a mysterious girl who had something to do with your survival. That was ten years ago. Your adopted parents are loving, you have friends and a sorta girlfriend. This is your introduced to Let The Sky Fall by Shannon Messinger. Suddenly this hot girl with a mega-attitude shows up and tells you that the world is going to turn to awful unless you get your act together as master the fourth wind. She’s gotta be nuts, right. Maybe, but when she starts doing things like pulling up a wind that ruins your date and leaves you spluttering, it’s time to pay attention.
Meet Audra, guilt ridden wind spirit tasked with whipping Vane Weston into fighting shape before both of them are torn to shreds by the Stormers who are determined to destroy what few good wind spirits remain. The interaction between these two is wary at the beginning, but is great fun to follow as Vane realizes how much he likes Audra. Her vows to train him and save him for the one the honcho wind spirits have selected (He’s their future king, provided he doesn’t get vaporized first), are tearing her apart because she’s just as hot for him, but can’t even consider going there. Combine teen attraction, wild battles, wind magic and cool dialogue and you have a winning recipe. This book has all of them and leaves readers hanging until the sequel arrives in March, 2014.


5- A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley. Knopf, 2010 ISBN 9780375860966. I’ve always had a fondness for Australian YA authors. Cath Crowley’s two books reinforce that sentiment. Both are told from the viewpoint of different characters in alternating chapters.

In A Little Wanting Song, Charlie knows she doesn’t fit in at all. In fact her only friend, Dahlia has been pulling away for months and when Charlie loses her bikini top at a pool party where she hoped to impress a hot guy, that only makes things worse. Things at home are probably drearier. Her Mom died a while back and her father pretty much shut down shortly after in terms of paying any real attention to his daughter, so Charlie is surviving on daily imaginary chats with her dead mother and the positive energy she gets from working at a music store and composing her own songs. Too bad she is too tightly wound to sing them when anyone else is around.

This is the state we find her in when she and her father head out on Christmas holiday to spend several weeks at her grandfather’s place in a small town far from the city. Gramp’s a lost soul himself these days, having buried his wife not long ago. Charlie has been coming here every year since she was little and every summer she’s been tormented by Rose who lives next door to her grandfather.

This year, things are different, although Charlie doesn’t know that yet. Rose is very smart, but has parents who stifle her because their own dreams got squashed when she happened thanks to an encounter in the back seat of a car when they were teens. She’s in love with science and even went so far as to sneak off to apply for a big school in the same city Charlie lives in. Now that Rose has been accepted, she’s desperate to win Charlie over as a friend so she can talk her into giving her a place to live so she can achieve her dream. If she can’t secure a place to live, goodbye dream, goodbye scientific career, hello not having a life.

Complicating things are two boys, Rose’s self-destructive boyfriend Luke and his buddy Davie. Charlie’s seen Davie look at her in a nice sort of way, something none of the guys back home have ever done, but she’s clueless as to how to do anything that might take things to the next level. She’s also wary of Rose’s intentions. After all, it’s been years since the two of them had anything like a friendship.

Cath Crowley’s skill is in her ability to weave two points of view seamlessly so readers understand the dynamics among the four teens, as well as between them and their parents. This, coupled with how Charlie and Rose come to realize that both of them are partially at fault for where they find themselves near the end of the story, makes this a very satisfying read. In fact, I liked it so well, I bought her second book to read right after I finished this one. Teens with shyness and social awkwardness issues will really relate to Charlie, as will kids who have lost a parent or who feel like their family has forgotten they exist.

graffiti moon

6- Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. ISBN 9780375869532

When I finished Cath Crowley’s first book A Little Wanting Song, I liked it so much I wanted to read this book. I wasn’t disappointed. Her first book was a wonderful read, this is even better. I thought about the best words to describe. Liquid, luminous and poetic all came to mind. It’s the sort of book you could hand to any teen and not worry about them liking it. Granted, there is profanity in it, but the story and the characters transcend that very nicely.

The book takes place in one night while Lucy, Jazz and Daisy celebrate the end of year twelve. Lucy is obsessed with a graffiti artist named Shadow who has left his artwork all over the city. Something about it stirs her in ways which mirror her own artistic journey as a beginning glassblower and her desire to meet him borders on obsession. When the three girls meet up with Ed, Leo and Dylan, the plot starts getting complicated. Daisy and Dylan have been an item for some time, but today was her birthday and he forgot it, pelting her with a carton of eggs instead. Jazz has her eye on Leo, but he’s still messed up from the fallout from his previous relationship that ended up with him being arrested after he and Ed painted the side of the girl’s house. Ed, who is Shadow, went out once with Lucy, but she broke his nose when he grabbed her butt. There were expectations each had for that date which were never verbalized and the spark between them remains despite the fact that the date night ended so badly. There are a bunch of unresolved and unspoken issues among these six teens, not the least of which is Ed really wanting to come clean with Lucy about his secret identity. It takes the entire book for this to happen, but the ride and all the events these kids experience in a twelve hour period make for delightful reading.

Each of the teens comes to realize important things about themselves as well as people iwho mean a lot to them. Lucy realizes that love isn’t some cookie cutter process when she begins to understand her parent’s marriage is loving and solid, even though they fight and her dad is living in the garage. Ed comes to realize that his art transcends the fact that he has so much trouble reading and never knew who his father was. Leo realizes that having been burned in a relationship isn’t fatal and wanting to write poetry openly as a guy is an okay thing. Daisy and Dylan discover that each has flaws, but their attraction a lot stronger than any of them.

Here’s a bit of dialogue from the book to give you an idea of why I like it so much. “I tell Ed the things I want to tell Shadow. I tell him about my folio, The Fleet of Memory. It started from the tangles I drew in class. While I was watching Al and Liz and Jack work, I’d draw the hollow I get inside when I see a moon I could drink right out of the sky, or the spinning yellow of the sun that happened between Ed and me on the day he asked me out.”

“Those tangles shifted and changed, like the glass Al made, and eventually I had a page of bottles that looked kind of like boats floating on an ocean. After I’d spent two weeks watching and drawing, Al asked to look at my sketchbook. “They’re like a fleet of memories,” he said, and when he did, I knew that’s what they were.”

“They were all the things I thought and all the things I remembered. I liked the idea that in the canals under my skin, those strange shapes were moving through, slick with color.”

not a drop

7-Not A Drop To Drink by Mindy McGinnis. Katherine Tegen Books, 2013. ISBN 01018752. I love the Hunger Games Trilogy, but this book makes what Katnis Everdean went through seem tame. Lynn and her mother live in the cellar of their house and guard the small pond nearby. Water has become the most precious commodity in their post apocalyptic world. So much so that anyone trying to take water or threaten them is shot. When a horrible accident leaves Lynn all alone and evil people are moving near, her way of surviving has to change. How is does, who she meets, what additional heartbreaks are in store for her make this a white knuckled and compelling read. One hell of a good debut novel.

living with jackie

8-Living With Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles. Candlewick Press, 2013. ISBN 9780763662806.

This is the sequel to Jo’s Jumping Off Swings which came out in late 2011. That told the story of what happened after Lonely Ellie had sex with Josh, who was desperate to shed his virginity, in the back of his father’s van. Ellie got pregnant and Josh had an emotional meltdown.

This book picks up just before school begins for Josh’s senior year. Ellie made a decision to give up the baby for adoption, something that has really messed Josh up. He’s been in a total guilt-ridden funk all summer, alternating between wondering if the baby he saw briefly in the hospital nursery was his and beating himself up for abandoning Ellie. The combination has effectively paralyzed him. It doesn’t help that his father deals with everything by drinking himself into a stupor and pretending he’s still going to make it big as a musician.

When it becomes apparent that Josh is in no shape to start school where he lives. He’s shipped off to spend his senior year living with his father’s younger brother, a karate instructor and certified Jackie Chan fanatic. Larry’s one of the most likable characters you’ll encounter in a YA book this year. Granted his slogans and enthusiasm seem cheesy at first, but his kindness, compassion and enthusiasm grow on you very quickly.

Josh’s convoluted path leading out of his funk is further complicated by the fact that the gay couple living on the third floor just adopted a baby boy and every time he cries, Josh starts to lose it big time.

Larry convinces Josh to help teach karate classes. He also convinces Stella, the girl who lives on the fourth floor of their apartment building to help out, too. Josh might be at his emotional nadir, but he can’t help but start to feel small sparks developing between him and Stella. She has a boyfriend, Britt, who’s popular, confident and rich. It doesn’t take Josh long to realize that Britt is very controlling, almost to the point of being abusive to Stella. The more he sees this going on, the more it bothers him. It eventually gets under his skin enough so he starts asking Stella some really pointed questions about her romantic relationship.

By doing so, a couple things are set in motion. She starts getting defensive and avoiding Josh, but she also starts to push him to open up about the real reason he’s living with Larry. When Britt does something unthinkable, Josh is forced to get out of himself in order to take care of Stella. Since Larry has gone away for a few days and Stella’s mother has left her pretty much alone in their apartment, she feels frightened and they end up spending most of their time together in Larry’s place. In the process, They start to let some of the built-up layers of sadness, loneliness and defensiveness each hide behind dissolve, leading to Josh finally opening up and talking about how he feels. He expects Stella to be repulsed. Instead she tells him he must do something, something that when he really thinks about it, makes perfect sense in terms of his healing.

This is an excellent look at how teen pregnancy can affect the guy, as well as how a controlling relationship can turn ugly for a girl. Josh and Stella are people you can really care about as is Larry. What happens at the end of the book is totally feel-good.

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5 Responses to Another Lesson From Mom

  1. Linda Lord says:

    John, I enjoyed your article very much! I too am convinced I will never run out of things to read. I did give just a moment’s pause when I read the following quote in a gift catalog recently. It is purportedly from Louisa May Alcott: “She is too fond of books and it has addled her brain”. Well, so be it!

  2. Nancy Miller says:

    Three cheers for addled!

  3. Lil Gluckstern says:

    I fear that much of my living space is filled with my TBR pile. And I just added “Cellular” to it. Yes, you can write, and I will read your story in “Stone Cold” and enjoy it. YA stories seem to touch something in us older folk too.

  4. Lelia Taylor says:

    I’m a big fan of YA and love your list. Some of the choices are on my list of good books and some have now joined my TBR list. Thank you!

  5. Mae Corrio says:

    Hi John. I hate to read your blog because there are always wonderful books I don’t have reviewed. Then I want to buy them and I’m out money and space! Can’t believe you are actually talking about retiring. Mae

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