Newbie Post #3 – Yeah, about that hobby thing . . .

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In Newbie Post #2 I discussed how I became a stay-at-home mom and decided to make fiction writing my hobby. For anyone who’s been bitten by the writing bug, you know how laughable this is. It didn’t take long before I realized that my hobby was actually an insatiable desire to put thought to paper, feeding my spiritual being with the stories in my head and having the ultimate goal of sharing those pieces of my soul with the world. A little dramatic? Yes, but a rather accurate representation of how I feel on many occasions.

So, while my daughter tumbled and flipped her way through four hour gymnastic practices, I researched and typed and scribbled. When there weren’t any cookies or brownies to bake for my son’s classroom, I plotted and planned and developed characters. Every night as I lay there trying to fall asleep, I’d imagine scenes from my book and what I was hopefully going to write the next day. My appetite for reading became voracious, devouring everything and anything that was either research for material, or comparable MG titles. My inspired novel was MG, so I convinced myself—and anyone who asked—that I was doing valuable research. I might of just liked reading. 🙂

At what point was writing no longer a hobby? I can’t remember.

. . . I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once. – John Green, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

Oh, how I love that line! It can describe so many things in my life, and especially writing. Let’s hope my writing career has a happier ending than Hazel Grace, but if it doesn’t:

. . . I can not tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. – John Green, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

On the next Newbie Post I’ll discuss what’s written in Sally Green’s acknowledgements for HALF BAD . . .

Newbie Post #1
Newbie Post #2

You know you’re a Mommy when: Reasons #1-10

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#1 – You don’t even flinch when your toddler eats a Cheerio off the floor, even though you haven’t feed him those in days . . .

#2 – There are more child car seats in your vehicle than open seats for other people . . .

#3 – You’ve put formula in your coffee . . .

#4 – You announce, “Big truck!” every time you see a semi, even if your toddlers aren’t with you . . .

#5 – Adult movie night culminates in you and your husband asleep on the couch by 10pm, only halfway through the film . . .

#6 – You’ve resorted to duct tape when your toddlers break the child safety locks . . .

#7 – Your small child has ever shouted, “Mommy’s juice! Mommy’s juice!” when you stroll down the wine aisle . . .

#8 – Hotdogs wrapped in crescent rolls has become a gourmet meal . . .

#9 – Handprint butterflies are the best forms of art hanging in your house . . .

#10 – You have multiple cups of dandelions in varying stages of decomposition placed strategically around your kitchen . . .

Book Review – The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau


Buy The Testing on Amazon.com
Add on Goodreads

Title: The Testing
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Age Range: 12 and up
Grade Level: 7 and up
Series: The Testing
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers; First Edition edition (June 4, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0547959109
ISBN-13: 978-0547959108
Goodreads: 3.95/5 stars

***WARNING*** There is one spoiler, but I point it out just like this, so you should be able to skip over it if you wish. ***WARNING OVER***

I purchased this book at Barnes and Noble

Book blurb as seen on Goodreads.com:

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

*sigh* If you check out THE TESTING on B&N, you’ll scroll down into oblivion with all the positive critiques, publisher credits and accolades about this book. I know those are designed to sell books, and they aren’t going to give you the negative reviews, but still, it makes me wonder if I’ve been so spoiled by good writing (Rowling, Collins, Lowry, Stiefvater, Green and many more) that I’ve become too critical to enjoy anything that doesn’t measure up.

This here, started out as a rant on how teens need well-written books, but I backspaced it all. I’ll save it for a not-so-far-in-the-future post. Like maybe the next thing I write. Suffice it to say that Ms. Charbonneau could learn a lot from the many Show-Don’t-Tell articles I have pinned to my Pinterest board, The Business of Writing.

Characters:
The characters were interesting, though there were a lot of them. Too many to fully develop and the attention given to those who did receive character development consisted of things like the character(author) telling us things like I was raised to do this . . . or in my Colony we believe this . . . or in another place the character thinks something along the lines of Tomas is always helpful and kind. He’s never encountered anything else. I’m totally paraphrasing because I didn’t take the time to write things down as I read. I’ll work on that for next time. Point is, the author told us things about the character instead of letting us see their traits through their actions. She didn’t trust us to be smart enough or intuitive enough to see for ourselves. I bet you thought my rant was over. You’re probably in for some more.

I liked Cia and Tomas, the main characters, and there’s no love triangle so that should please those of you who are fed up with love-geometry. Cia is smart, driven and resourceful. I enjoy her going from a wide-eyed girl who sees her world as a good place and wants nothing more than to attend the University, to a young woman who trusts no one but a handful of people and who wants nothing more than to protect her family and friends. Tomas is more interesting in my opinion, because though he is pretty bland as a character, we don’t see the story through his view point and there is an unsolved mystery by the end of the book that brings his character into question. It leaves you wondering what happened, and wanting to know the story through Tomas so we can see what he sees.

As far as the other characters, I’m hoping Cia’s brother, Zeen, plays a bigger role later on, and I’m interested to see what happens with Will. I don’t want to give anything away, but Will has a story I care to hear. Okay, I can’t help it, here’s a spoiler, so don’t read if you don’t want me to give it away ***SPOILER*** Will seems like a really great guy, but turns out to have an evil streak. Still, he can be slightly redeeming and you can almost understand his motivation. Since his memory is wiped of everything he does, he still thinks he’s a good guy. It’ll be fun to see where Charbonneau takes that plot thread, ***SPOILER OVER***

Plot:
Plot is were this book is strong. Cia must pass The Testing in order to advance to the University. It means financial advantage for her family, though that’s not a drive for her. Mostly it’s about pride in herself, making others proud of her, and her quest for knowledge. Really, Cia is a bit selfish if you think about it. Not in a bad way, but her reasons are a bit more shallow than the kids whose families are starving back home. They’ve worked hard to get selected, not because of vanity, but because of the difference it can make for those they love. Unfortunately, getting selected means possibly never seeing your family again.

What Cia doesn’t know is that the tests are mentally brutal at first, and physically so later on. Failure can mean death or leaving the Testing, and Cia suspects those that leave are permanently disposed of. Not only does she have to do her best to survive, but she has to watch out for her fellow Testing candidates, including some who will do anything to succeed. Almost the entire last half of the book is a action-packed fight for survival that keeps you turning page after page. The stark, harsh world Cia must travel through, badly damaged by many years of war and ravage, presents many challenges in the form of mutated animals, lack of water, dangerous Testing candidates and encounters with mutated humans as well. It’s frightening and not at all unimaginable in the dystopian world Charbonneau creates.

Romance:
As I said before, there is no love triangle, and the romance aspect is pretty subdued. Cia and Tomas have known each other their whole lives, and they have had previous missed opportunities to explore their connection, but like true-to-life young people, they haven’t always taken the initiative. Their affection and relationship grows naturally and even though Tomas’s integrity is questioned in the end, you are still rooting for them. Though the emotional connection could have been better written, it was at least satisfying in leaving out insta-love, one-true-love and love triangle issues, giving us a couple whose relationship is built on years pf getting to know each other, mutual respect, and affection not rooted in lusting after physical appearances.

THE TESTING calls into question what people will do to survive and succeed, and whether the ends justifies the means. In this, it’s much like The Hunger Games, pitting teenagers against each other in a death-duel to the finish line. It demonstrates what an autocratic society can do to ensure it’s own survival, even at the expense of the lives of children, and makes you think about what is right or wrong when you’re trying to protect the world from the dangers inflicted by the mistakes of past leaders. Charbonneau examines what qualities make up a leader—the good and the bad—and how people think differently about each of those qualities.

Once I got past the C+ writing (I’m being generous), I really enjoyed this book. The story line is captivating and I’m already reading the second book INDEPENDENT STUDY. Doesn’t look like Charbonneau took any writing classes between the two books, so we’ll see if the story carries me through. There’s also a novella THE TESTING GUIDE, but I think Charbonneau and HMH Books already has enough of my money, so I’ll hold off on the e-prequel. I’ll be sure to let everyone know how I feel about the second book soon.

My Review: 3/5 stars

Note: I know I said I wouldn’t be buying the e-prequel, but when I went to link it to this page for others to see I discovered it was free, so naturally, I downloaded it on my Kindle! I’ll give a quick review in conjunction with INDEPENDENT STUDY when I’ve finished.


Buy Independent Study: The Testing, Book 2 on Amazon.com


Buy The Testing Guide on Amazon.com

Coming June 17th, 2014 . . .

Buy Graduation Day (The Testing) on Amazon.com

Dear Soldier . . .

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Dear Soldier,

Every year we Americans remember Memorial Day. Okay, so some of us just grill out, go camping or spend the day on the beach, but most of us remember what this day is about. We remember the lives that were given to ensure the safety and freedom of our country. We remember that not every soldier agreed with every war, but you went anyway, you enlisted anyway, and you sacrificed anyway.

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But not every soldier’s sacrifice ended in giving his life, though it is the highest price you could pay. Being the sister of a military veteran, I know intimately what our men and women give up to serve their country. My brother entered the Army shortly after high school. I was very saddened to have my big brother leave home for the first time. We’d never been apart for more than a week. He was my friend, sometimes my enemy, but my ally in a broken home. When he left, I felt alone and somehow abandoned. But this isn’t about me, and my brother has never been good at communicating his feelings, so I don’t even know how he felt at that time. Maybe he was scared, or lonely, or maybe he just saw it as another adventure: his first chance to venture out on his own and see what the world held for him.

Well, the world had a lot in store. He met his wife in Tacoma, WA, about as far from our hometown as you could get in the continental U.S. He married, completed a tour in Saudi Arabia in 1994, and then they called to say they were expecting. This child would be the first grandchild in our family and we were all excited for the birth, even though my brother, his wife and expected child were all the way across the country. We would have to be satisfied with pictures rather than holding that baby in our arms. Then we got another call: my brother was being deployed. This time it was South Korea. Safer than the Middle East at least, but he was there for almost a full year. He would miss the birth of his first child.

My nephew was born, my brother was able to come home shortly after to greet his child, missing the birth by a mere twelve hours, then back to Korea. Time passed, he returned, and life went on. We still didn’t see much of him. None of us back home could afford the airfare to make it out west, and my brother certainly couldn’t on military pay. Cards and pictures through the mail, the occasional phone call, were all we had to go on. When we received the call that they were expecting again, we all joked, “When are you getting deployed?” Turns out, it wasn’t a joke. In 2001 my brother was off to the upheaval in Kosovo.

Once again, he missed the birth of his child, a daughter this time. He was able to come home for a short while after the birth, but then it was back to Kosovo.

When the call came in 2003 to say they were expecting again, we didn’t even joke. We knew he would be deployed. The Iraq War had begun. My niece was born in October, and my brother was able to come home a few weeks later for leave, then back to Iraq.

I think of the births of my own children and know what my brother missed. When the pain is over and the task complete, the euphoria and joy wash over you at the first cries echoing through the sterile delivery room. I remember the moment of crushing affection that envelops you when your tiny infant is placed on your chest. The thought that you could never feel so much love, and the joy of the moment is almost painful in its intensity. I know he experienced moments like this, but never those first breaths, first cries, eyes peeping open at a new world for the first time.

Over the years, my brother and his family did what every military family must do, traveling from base to base wherever they are assigned. They changed houses and schools, made new friends and kept in touch with the old. My sister-in-law raised three children by herself while my brother was on his many deployments and my brother missed so much while he was away: first steps, first smiles, first teeth. He wasn’t always there, though I know he wished he could be, so he wasn’t able to see school plays and band concerts or sing happy birthday or watch them blow out their candles. He wasn’t always able to say goodnight or get a hug good morning, things many of us take for granted.

And it wasn’t just his kids he missed, though that was the most important loss for him. Even when he was in the U.S. the distance was usually insurmountable for us to get together as a family. Rare were the holidays when we could all be together, opening presents on Christmas or enjoying my grandfather’s amazing dinner on Thanksgiving. He missed countless pool parties at my uncle’s pool, but we all thought of him as we enjoyed Fourth of July barbecues and Memorial Day swims. But it wasn’t the same.

So, dear soldier, thank you. Thank you for the lost days, the missing smiles, the absent hugs. Thank you for the time you spent sleeping outside, baking in the desert sun or drowning in the incessant rain. Thank you for all that you’ve given, all that you give, and all that you will give in the future. Thank you.

Sincerely,
A grateful American Citizen

Full Disclosure

You may notice when you read my book reviews that the book picture will link you to Amazon.com, as will the words below Buy XXX on Amazon.com. I want to let everyone know that I signed up as an Amazon Associate, meaning if you purchase a book through the link I have provided I will receive a small commission. In no way do I expect my readers to purchase the books I review, and if they wish to buy then I hope you feel free to do so through whichever venue is best for you. If I benefit from a sale I will be appreciative, but if not I don’t mind either. My purpose here is to share my love of books with others. I hope my Amazon link in no way offends my readers and thank you so much for viewing.

Jennifer Austin

Newbie Post #2 – Dreams Awakening . . .

So where were we? Ah, yes, I’d dedicated myself to being a mother, wife, and engineering technician at a company creating museum exhibits. If you check out my previous post Five-Not-So-Easy Steps, you can get an overview of what happened between Newbie Post #1 and Newbie Post #2.

In 2006 I moved my two kids, (Minions #1 & 2) 160 miles to be with my boyfriend (now husband). He’d taken a job almost two years earlier and we’d muddled through a long distance relationship all that time. It was a big step: quitting my job, moving from a house that had come to represent a haven and accomplishment for us, changing schools, friends, leaving family, and finding a new gym for my daughter’s gymnastics training. The upheaval was huge, but we met it head-on, excited for the changes and welcoming a new chapter in our lives.

But what was I going to do with my time? I’d always worked. Even when I was going to school and raising Minion #1, I worked. Not working or having a career had never even been a goal—or thought— of mine. I new my boyfriend liked the idea of someone staying home with the kids, and I was open to it because I felt that when it was an option it was best for the kids to have a parent to raise them. It had just never been an option for me, and realistically, it would have been better for my boyfriend to be the stay-at-home parent. I love my kids, but he was far better suited mentally to the task. Unfortunately, we were moving for his job in the first place, and he made far more money than I did. So I decided to give this stay-at-home mom thing a try.

At first, it was pretty easy. Both kids were in school, and having the option to volunteer in their classrooms and on field trips was fantastic. I baked cupcakes and read stories, planned birthday parties and supervised class parties. For my daughter’s new gymnastics team I was the go-to mom that made posters of the gymnasts and encouraging little presents before meets. Why not? I had the time and I wasn’t going to sit around doing nothing all day. Besides, it gave me an excuse to do less cleaning!

Being the perfect Martha Stewart mom wasn’t the only thing I did, though. Having all this extra time on my hands, and being able to dictate my own schedule for the first time in, well ever, made me think, “Hey, I could try writing a book now!” I’d read a book about J.K. Rowling’s life, and I thought, “If she can do it, I can to.” Besides, it was just a hobby, right? It was something to fill my spare time. Everybody has hobbies, and I had just as much right as the next fisherman, knitter, quilter, or baseball card collector to spend time on my hobby. I would write one book, and if nothing came of it I would set it aside having lost nothing but my time. In the next Newbie Post: Yeah, about that hobby thing . . .

Newbie Post #1

Five Not-So-Easy Steps

Several years ago I participated in a Real Simple magazine essay contest looking for the answer to this question: When did you first understand the meaning of love? This is the essay I submitted (but didn’t win) though I have edited it for this blog. Reading it so many years later I can see why it didn’t win. 🙂 At least I know I’ve learned to write better!

Note: I will refer to my kids as Minions #1-5 in most cases, but not in this post. Changing Katie to Minion #1 would have ruined the poignancy of the writing, at least for me.

We experience many kinds of love through out our lifetime: the unconditional love a child holds for a parent; the insatiable passion of a new romance; or the quiet, steady love of a life-long friendship. Understanding self-less love, for me, wasn’t an epiphany or a magic moment. It was a series of events and experiences in five not-so-easy steps.

Step one happened at the age of eighteen. I was in my first semester at the University of Detroit studying architecture, full of optimism and anticipation. I’d done everything right in high school: good grades, athletics, clubs. Between my academic scholarships and financial aid, nearly everything was covered. A diploma would be earned in five years with only $13,000 in debt. Not bad compared to what others faced when they sought a job. But I never made it that far. All my carefully thought out “right” steps veered sharply down the hill of poor planning. I was pregnant.

The world seemed to crumble around me. It wasn’t written yet, but the song by Kenny Chesney There Goes My Life (written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher) could have been about me:

All he could think about was I’m too young for this.
Got my whole life ahead.
Hell I’m just a kid myself.
How’m I gonna raise one.

All he could see were his dreams goin’ up in smoke.
So much for ditchin’ this town and hangin’ out on the coast.
Oh well, those plans are long gone.

[Chorus:]
And he said,
There goes my life.
There goes my future, my everything.
Might as well kiss it all good-bye.
There goes my life…….

To confirm the home pregnancy test I took in the community dorm bathroom, my boyfriend and I went to a walk-in-clinic. “What are you going to do?” the doctor asked in a bored voice after he gave us the positive results. How many times a week—or a day—did he ask this very same question to terrified teenagers in this sterile, imposing room? In Detroit, I had to believe too many. But I wasn’t like those kids, was I? I had dreams and ambitions. I was going places. I had potential!

He was staring at me, his unsympathetic eyes waiting impatiently for a response, options ticking across his brain and preparing the appropriate advice. My boyfriend sat as mute and stunned as I was, but someone had to say something.

“Tell my dad?” I ventured.

“I was talking about the baby,” he mono-toned, as if my stupidity bordered on ridiculous.

Oh, the baby. Well, what was I supposed to do? Then it hit me. He was talking about abortion. That wasn’t an option. My plans were not more important than this life I had created.

So what should I do? I’d seen other students, living in the cramped married-couple’s dorms, raising a child on an inner-city college campus. It didn’t seem like a great environment for a young family. There was an upper classman who left her young daughter playing in the hall of the Architecture Department during our four-hour studio sessions which took place five days a week. Even before I was pregnant, the what if’s of that situation bothered me. What if she wandered away? What if she fell down the stairs? What if someone with evil intent came by?

And how would I raise a child and go to school full-time? College isn’t a cake-walk. You have to study and work hard. I’d already spent several all-nighters in my studio, readying a project for the next day, and I was only a Freshmen. Even with the help of my boyfriend, soon-to-be fiance, the enormity of raising my child far from the support of family was frightening.

Everyday for the rest of that semester, I walked around campus, past the fountain dyed red by the Young Republicans and blue by the Democrats, and I talked to my baby. I apologized for bringing it into this world under such circumstances. The things I might never be able to provide, the standard of living I couldn’t achieve. I couldn’t feel the baby yet, and other than some horrible morning sickness, there was no evidence of its existence. But I made a promise to that tiny life growing inside me: I would love that child with all my heart and soul, though I didn’t yet know what that would mean.

In the end, there was only one thing for me to do. I was self-aware enough to know that I could either be a good, dedicated student of architecture, or a good, dedicated mother. I couldn’t do both. One or the other would suffer and I couldn’t allow it to be my baby. I dropped out of college, packed my grandpa’s truck full of the things I had only moved to Detroit three months ago, and headed north for home.

Step two was forced upon. Christmas was far from festive that year. Deeply depressed I moped around the house doing nothing. Morning sickness was more like twenty-four-hour sickness and I saw no path for myself. Years of planning and working and studying were swept away with one act of irresponsibility. What was the point in doing anything now? My father was barely speaking to me, and when I told my mom I was pregnant, she left the house without a word and didn’t come back for hours. My parents were divorced, bu they could agree on two things: you need to get a job and go back to school.

The thought of leaving the house and facing the world was enough to induce a panic attack. On top of everything else, I also suffered from social anxiety. I was sure everyone I knew was whispering disappointment behind accusing hands. I had let them all down: teachers, mentors, family, friends. But at that time, I didn’t say no to my dad. With the help of my best friend I enrolled in the local community college and my boyfriend—now fiance—orchestrated an interview for me in the kitchen and bath design department of a lumber yard.

Having a purpose besides feeling sorry for myself brought me out of my paralyzing lethargy. I had responsibilities to my child beyond just carrying it for nine months. “Tsk. Tsk. Babies having babies,” followed me around the office, but I did my job, earning the money we would need for an apartment. During class, I held my head high, despite my growing waistline. It was my Scarlett Letter. Not that having sex was the sin. Allowing myself to get pregnant and shatter all my possibilities was unforgivable. I endured all the imagined censure from my classmates, achieving “A” grades. A bachelors in architecture was out of my reach for now, but I could at least achieve an associates degree and get a decent job in the industry. I needed to provide for my baby.

Step three was really just the growing love for my unborn child and placing the baby’s needs before my own. Swallowing my pride, I applied for WIC, a food program for needy women and children. We settled in our first apartment, a dank, dark basement unit which was all we could afford, and furnished it with hand-me-downs: the couch from my fiance’s parent’s basement; a beat-up table for the minuscule dining room. Garage sale finds and cast offs populated the tiny space, and I put no effort into decorating. Except the baby’s room.

With a south-facing window, it was the only room brightened by sunlight. I scrubbed the garage sale crib and ran the bedding and fabric wall hangings that came with it through the washer. It wasn’t much, but it made the room cheery and finished, and along with my love it was the best I could give my baby.

Step four was brutal. Natural child birth is painful, and I did not handle it well, but concerned about the effects of drugs on my unborn child I refused an epidural. I don’t regret that, but two-and-a-half days of labor pains coupled with no sleep makes for an excruciating experience. At 2:18 pm on the Fourth of July, my baby girl was placed in my arms and all the pain and misery were forgotten in that one beautiful moment. My little firecracker was born.

Step five was the gradual progression of little Katie’s prominence in my life. What Katie wore was important; what I wore was not. Wherever we went, friends and family swarmed around the baby, while my fiance and I barely received a greeting. And it didn’t bother me at all, as long as Katie was being loved. The joy of Christmas that year was found not in the presents I received, but in giving Katie her first doll. It was small and inexpensive, but neither of us cared.

So those were my five steps, but actually, I was being facetious. Those were just the highlights and I didn’t even include the realization—after the birth of my second child—that my husband and I couldn’t provide the stable emotional environment I wanted for my children; struggling to keep a positive attitude during my divorce (and sometimes failing) so my kids wouldn’t suffer any worse; or watching my second husband fall madly in love with his first born child and experiencing the joys of a new baby through his eyes.

Understanding love isn’t something you just get one day. And you’re never finished learning. Katie’s sixteen now and I’m learning more about love than ever before: Trusting her to drive a car and make the right choices; finding value in her friends and boyfriend because she does; and talking about her future so she can find that balance between a promising path and following her dreams. All the while wanting to keep her locked up safely at home. But that’s another important lesson of love: being able to let go when all you want to do is hold on tighter.

I’m looking forward to the greater understanding love has in store for me. I know there will be some amazing lessons from my younger sons, during my husband and my’s empty-nest years, and the day when that first grandchild melts my heart. I can only hope I never stop understanding love.

Note: Katie is now eighteen and has completed her Freshman year of college. Letting go is indeed difficult, but rewarding just the same.