Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Summer Reads

I’ve been posting about my summer reads on Instagram but that doesn’t do these fab books justice. So … here’s what I’ve read so far, what I’m enjoying now, and what’s on deck. Check it out and let me know what YOU’RE reading, I’m always looking for recommendations.

You’re probably thinking, “Way to keep it light, Maria,” when you see this scary black cover, and okay fine, this one is anything but light. But it’s sooooo gooooood! Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe is a must-read if you like history, especially Irish history. 

Focusing on the 1972 murder and disappearance of a young Belfast mother, Jean McConville, Say Nothing examines the conflict in Northern Ireland by using the mystery surrounding her death as a starting point. It’s history, but reads like detective fiction. Many of the players in this drama I recall from reading news accounts at the time, but Keefe brings them to life so that they pretty much leap off the page. You won’t want to miss this one.
Moving on to an actual detective story … Almost Midnight by Paul Doiron is a Maine-must-read for summer. It’s the 10th in his Mike Bowditch-crime-solving-Maine-game-warden series, I’ve read them all and this might be one of my favorites. Paul is a native Mainer, a registered Maine guide, the former editor of Down East Magazine and a damn good writer. He tells a great tale and writes about the Maine woods so, so well. His descriptions are spot-on and beautiful and his fast-paced, wonderfully plotted books a lot of fun. His characters are NOT the stuff of “The Way Life Should Be” promotional brochures, so pick this series up if you want a peek at a grittier side of Vacationland.

In June my publisher, Algonquin Young Readers, hosted a group of us at the ALA (American Library Association) Convention in Washington and I got to meet my fellow #FierceFightingGirls Fall 2019 authors. We all have books featuring strong female protagonists coming out this fall, so we celebrated their spirit at a fun gathering with librarians and other Algonquin authors/staff.

Anyhow, while at ALA, in addition to signing lots of Advance Copies of How to Build a Heart, I picked up a stack of new middle grade and young adult novels. The first one I read was In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Set in 1950s Atlanta, Georgia, this novel is based on an actual hate crime which took place in that city. It’s about a Jewish girl and her family who move to Atlanta following the death of her father … and her struggles to fit into a cadre of wealthy, well-connected young people who don’t socialize with Jews. It’s a fascinating peek at a culture and a time period gone by, with a dash of romance (and plenty of pastel dresses) thrown in to lighten things up. Thing is: beneath the lovely manners and the beautiful clothing lives some ugly truth, which the book does a good job of exploring. 

My favorite-summer-cover is hands down Nicole Melleby’s middle grade novel, Hurricane Season. Honestly, sometimes while reading I’d just close the book and stare at the cover! So gorgeous. And so perfect for the story (hint: if it reminds you of a Van Gogh painting, you’re on to something!) It’s the story of Fig, an 11-year old who lives alone with her father, a gifted musician/composer who struggles with bipolar disorder. Her mother left them right after Fig was born (!) and it’s been up to Fig to keep their lives in order whenever her dad has bad periods.

I’ll confess: this one made me cry. It paints a convincing picture of how a child must feel if the “responsible” adult in her life is mentally ill. My heart was broken for Fig, and I felt her fear and confusion. There are also some LGTBQ elements to this story (Fig has feelings for another girl; her father falls in love with the man next door) but to me the mental health theme of this book was the most resonant. 

Speaking of gorgeous covers: check out Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small. Pow, right? I can’t stop staring at it. Better yet: the words behind that cover.

Set at a highly competitive ballet school in Paris, this is the story of two best friends, Kate and Marine, who are vying for the same coveted spot in the company’s corps de ballet. When the body of a student is discovered, dead, early in their final year, the girls are forced to confront the question which has been percolating since they began their training: how far would you go to achieve your dream?

As someone who loves ballet but can scarcely touch her own toes, I’m fascinated by this world and in awe of what ballerinas can do with their bodies. My second novel, Jersey Tomatoes are the Best, features a girl attending a competitive ballet school, and one of the things I did while researching was slip on a pair of pointe shoes and try to go on pointe.

Oh. My. God. Such pain. How do they do it? It made me understand why ballet dancer’s feet are practically deformed. 

Author A.K. Small is a dancer herself, so she writes what she knows and does it so well! I’m still reading this one, but please: if you know a teen reader who’s interested in dance, hand them this one.

Finally, “on deck” is As Many Nows as I Can Get, a debut young adult novel from Maine author Shana Youngdahl. Shana teaches writing at U. Maine Farmington and this novel, which launches in August, is getting pretty good reviews. It’s described as “a timely, searing, and unconventional romance,” so … I’m in! 

Stay cool and read on, folks! And let me know what else is out there I don’t want to miss.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Cover Reveal!

Cover design by Connie Gabbert
I paint with a light brush when describing what my characters look like. I try instead, especially through dialogue, to convey who they are. In terms of physical description, I only give readers a few specifics, and leave the rest to their imaginations as the story unfolds.

So I was fairly gobsmacked when my editor shared artist/designer Connie Gabbert's cover depiction of Izzy, who is the main character and narrates How to Build a Heart.

"Oh my god. It's her!" I exclaimed. Out loud, to the empty room, as I stared at my computer screen. Well, maybe Frisbee (The Dog) was there. But probs not. I talk to myself. A lot. I'd like to tell you it's an occupational hazard (Writer Who Spends Too Much Time Alone) but I've been doing it for years.

But I digress.

I. Love. This. Cover. The expression on the girl's face completely conveys what Izzy feels most of the time. That will change as the plot unfolds, but for most of the book ... that's her.

Intrigued? Head over to Bustle for the first chapter! And if you want more, mark it as a To Read on Goodreads!

How to Build a Heart is a Fall 2019 book, with an on sale date of January 2020.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Almost there ...

So you've seen the spine ... and a bit of the inside ... and now here's the BACK of the galley. Call me ridiculous, but you know: a lot of work went into putting all that together! And I'm not talking about the novel itself:  a whole bunch of people are working hard to get this Book Baby out into the world.

So to the whole crew at Algonquin Young Readers and Workman Publishing: THANK YOU!!

Cover reveal and first chapter tomorrow, Friday 4/5 online at Bustle!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


Hogan's Heroes
Stories come to me from a whole lot of directions, but I think it’s fair to say How to Build a Heart draws most heavily, of all my books, from my personal experience and from family. Not only the one I grew up in, but also the one I chose. Meaning: my husband.

Conrad Gustav Schneider is a Southern boy from North Carolina. He loves Tar Heels basketball, barbecue and biscuits. With a name like his, you’d expect him to be from Mainz or Berlin, but he grew up in Davidson, with a mom who could trace her roots back to Andrew Jackson.

His dad, however, was Fritz from Berlin. Long story about how he met Conrad’s mom, but suffice it to say it wasn’t easy growing up with a German dad and a name like Conrad when one of the most popular television shows at the time was Hogan’s Heroes. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure: this was a sitcom set in a Nazi POW camp, in which the hilarious, clever allied prisoners constantly outwit the bumbling, ridiculous Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz. It ran from 1965 to 1971: Conrad’s prime “growing up” years.) 

I won’t detail the bullying he endured, but his perceived outsider status, combined with being part of the first class of North Carolinians to attend integrated, “bused” public school from grades K through 12, has always helped Conrad see the world differently than people for whom identity was clear and simple and inclusion unquestioned. 

The first page of a galley often includes an author letter, where we have a chance to share what inspires a particular book. As I said, I can’t point to just one starting point for any of my novels, but without a doubt the immigrant experience and the challenges of learning a new language and finding your place in a new culture … which were part my family’s story as well as Conrad’s … played a big role in How to Build a Heart.

Most readers will never read the galley, or this letter, so as part of the run-up to the cover reveal on Friday, I’ll share it here:

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Shorter is Harder

Page Proofs
Synopses slay me. Honestly? I'd rather write War and Peace than draft a 250-word summary of my latest book.

Choosing the important details and figuring out what to leave on the editing room floor (sorry: that's a metaphor from the pre-digital age, back when we cut tape with a razor blade) is sooooo hard.

So I'm in awe of the publishing pros who have brought my books into the world and SUMMARIZED them brilliantly, in promotional materials and book jackets and ... most recently ... the back-of-the-galley copy.

How to Build a Heart is at that "galley" stage, stepping tentatively out into the world (is it unfortunate that Mary Shelley's Creature from Frankenstein just popped into my head?) with a shiny new cover and a few residual typos. Galleys are basically pre-publication advertising in book form, and while I'm pretty sure THIS cover (coming Friday!!!!!) won't change, in the past I've had galleys with covers that ultimately changed or ... in the case of Jersey Tomatoes ... no cover at all.

I'm incredibly grateful for all the folks at Algonquin Young Readers who are working with me on this latest novel. There have been moments when I've felt they understood my characters better than I did!  Here's what you'll find on the back of the galley for How to Build a Heart:

        All Izzy Crawford wants is to feel like she really belongs somewhere.

Her father, a Marine, died in Iraq six years ago, and Izzy’s moved to a new town nearly every year since, far from the help of her extended family in North Carolina and Puerto Rico. 

When Izzy’s hardworking mom moves their small family to Virginia in Izzy’s junior year, all her dreams start clicking into place. She likes her new school — even if she is careful to keep her scholarship-student status hidden from her well-to-do classmates and her new boyfriend. And best of all: Izzy’s family has been selected by Habitat for Humanity to build and move into a brand-new house. Izzy is this close to the community and permanence she’s been searching for, until all the secret pieces of her life begin to collide.

How to Build a Heart is the story of Izzy’s journey to find her place in the world and her discovery that the choices we make and the people we love ultimately define us and bring us home.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Stuff's Getting Real

Spine for How to Build a Heart

Also known as Advance Reader Copies. Uncorrected Proofs.


In other words: my next book, How to Build a Heart, toddles out into the world this week. On Friday, April 5th, Bustle will reveal the cover and first chapter. Meanwhile, reviewers/book bloggers/bookstore owners/other bookish folks will receive their paperback Advance Copies from my publisher, Algonquin Young Readers. I’m not a NetGalley subscriber, but probs you’ll find it there as well. 

It’s my fifth book but wow, this never gets old. My editor popped a few copies in the mail to me and I just keep … petting them. I know, it’s weird, but that’s what I do. I stand there, stroking the cover in semi-disbelief.

Speaking of: artist/designer Connie Gabbert created the beautiful cover for How to Build a Heart. You might recognize her work from the terrific cover she did for Erika Sanchez's I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter:

When I visit schools and talk to students about writing and publishing (I mostly like to talk about writing; they mostly like to hear about publishing) they are always amazed that the vast majority of (traditionally published) authors don’t choose the covers for their books. A small army of art, sales and marketing experts pretty much steers that ship. So … it’s huge, absolutely HUGE, when they decide on a cover and … you like it. Or, if you’re lucky, LOVE it.

Which I can honestly say, I do! I am in love with the cover Algonquin has found for How to Build a Heart. I can’t wait to show it to you!

In the meantime, the photo above is a bit of a “spine teaser.” Throughout the week I’ll share other parts of the Galley, including the book description, a brief letter describing my inspiration for this story, a scan of the back and finally … the cover.

Stay tuned …

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Plot Follows Character

It’s not my idea. Anne Lamott, in her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird, taught me that the first rule of writing fiction is developing your characters.

Once you know who they are and what they want, the rest follows.

I was recently visiting a high school creative writing class in Freeport, Maine, pushing the “Plot Follows Character!” message (I should really emblazon that on a tee shirt … ) and that very night opened Fredrik Backman’s Beartown and WUMP! There it was. And so well done.

Beartown is the story of a down-and-out, rural town where hockey is practically a religion. The local hockey club wields a disproportionate influence on every aspect of life, hockey players are demigods, and because there isn’t much else happening economically the community’s fortunes are linked to one particular team’s success and the potential for attracting a hockey training camp to Beartown.

Fully the first third of the book introduces us to a large assortment of characters, from current teen players to their parents to local business owners to coaches, former players … Backman slowly fills in the various canvases of their personalities, their histories, their desires and fears, step by step, as if each were a paint-by-number. At times it felt like I was peeking into Backman’s writer’s notebook. You know, the place where we work things out? All the words we need to write as we get to know our characters? Of course, it wasn’t as rough as my notebook, which should never be read by anyone except me …

By the time the big game approaches, we can well imagine how each of these characters will react, win or lose, and what the stakes are for each. But of course, that’s not enough. We need higher highs and lower lows. So Backman throws a Molotov cocktail into the mix, and we watch what happens. 

Well, PLOT happens. But it’s a plot that will unfold based on all the careful, intentional character details the author has given us. We know how each character will react and what he/she will do based on who they are, and what they want.

Folks have been urging me to read this book for ages because I wrote Wrecked, which dramatizes the aftermath and various character reactions to an accusation of campus sexual assault. Beartown’s Molotov cocktail is a rape: the daughter of the hockey club’s manager is raped by the club’s star player. Her accusation is made public the eve of the Big Game.

“Explosive” doesn’t go far enough to describe how the town’s citizens react. What’s so, so good, however, is that while we can’t PREDICT what each will do … when they do it, it makes sense. Because they’ve been so well-depicted from the beginning of the book. Our hearts break for them and we turn pages FAST, because we know these characters and we’re invested, we’re bought in, we care. Deeply.

That’s good writing.

As a novelist I’m mindful to read like a writer. Not necessarily with a pencil in hand, but with an eye toward craft, and how another novelist is pulling it off. I’d say Beartown is an outstanding example of Plot Follows Character.

I’m between my own novels right now, having just put copyedits on my latest to bed. I’m waiting for page proofs, which are always fun to read (it looks like a book!) but also SLOW to read because you check for mistakes and typos. I tend to review page proofs with a ruler under each line, and even read the sentences backwards … just to make sure nothing’s out of place. Excruciating, but necessary.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and just finished Lauren Groff’s collection of short stories, Florida. 

What’s in your stack?