Book Review: “Life As We Knew It” by Susan Beth Pfeffer

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41q2QectsSL__AA160_Maybe you’re already familiar with this book – judging by the number of Amazon reviews, it’s pretty well-known, and I understand that it’s required reading in a number of schools.  But I haven’t been anywhere near a school reading list in a loooong time, so when I happened to spot it on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, it was something new.

Giant moon on the cover.

Yes, the full moon is something cool, and more often than not it sends me running for the binoculars.  It’s also one of my great bugaboos – most of my seriously creepy nightmares involve an enormous moon looming there in the sky.  (I’m talking BIG.  Like on the book cover.  Giant, look out, I-am-not-kidding-you moon.)  But we try to conquer our fears, right?  The tag line (“The weather finally broke…for good.”) was awesome, and the book wasn’t a typical size.  When I picked it up, I liked the heft of it, and the old-school cheap paper it’s printed on.  $8.99?  Sold.

Story?  In a nutshell: an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it askew, and its new position in the sky begins to wreak havoc on Earth.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic explosions.  The skies fill with ash and the sun more or less disappears.  All of this is observed by a 16-year-old girl and chronicled in her diary.

Yes, some of the science is suspect.  With no alphabet soup attached to my name, I can’t speak to how bad it is; I will say some of it had me doing an “Eh? What, now?”  Ditto some of the everyday stuff.  As someone who frets every single winter about losing power because it will mean my heat – natural gas, but the thermostat is electric – goes off, I was baffled by how Miranda’s furnace somehow works long after the electricity has failed.  (About 3/4 of the way through the book, she finally explains that her father rigged up “a battery thing.”)  It’s also somewhat bewildering that no one attempts to invade Miranda’s family’s home to steal their food and water.  There is no anarchy in her town.  Everyone’s polite, and other than one desperate plea from a neighbor, they all go about their own business, starving or freezing to death without ever running amok.

But… eh.  I’ll let the author have that.  Maybe there are places where the people would remain civil during an apocalypse, places where nobody would bust into your house with a gun and steal food away from you and your kids.  Who’s to say?  The more important thing to look at is the voice of the young narrator – an honest 16-year-old whose typical high-school life has been completely torn apart.  A number of the Amazon reviews complain that she whines too much.  That the story is boring.  I suppose they expected those missing home invasions… or maybe some zombies.  Instead, the story revolves around one of my favorite themes: quiet desperation.  As things grow progressively worse, Miranda begins to remind herself that she should seize the day, no matter how bad it is, because tomorrow…

Maybe there won’t even be a tomorrow.

It’s thought-provoking.  A reminder that we’re all at the mercy of things that could change on a dime.  If you had a matter of hours to stockpile things that would keep your family alive for months – what would you grab?  Would you realize right away that things you’ve valued will be useless tomorrow?  It was of course of great interest to me that Miranda’s mother insists that family is all that matters – and to see how Miranda responds to that.  Her story is a good one.  Maybe not flawlessly told, but – I think – truly told.

Would you survive what’s essentially a nuclear winter?  Would your family?

If you did… how would you feel when the lights came on again?

4 stars.  Very family-friendly (no cussing that I remember; no sex).  If your kids have to read it for school, grab a copy and talk about it with them.  And let them know that nobody’s likely to survive if all they’re eating is canned vegetables.

Interviewing… me!

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Writing, the theme of family, inspiration, Stephen King, and my time on the U.S.S. Enterprise… blogger Judy Goodwin has interviewed yours truly!  Here’s a brief intro:

1. What first drew you to writing?

DITW smallThe short answer would be… love.  Thanks to my dad, I’m a TV baby, and I found myself wanting more stories about my favorite TV characters, so I started to write them myself.  This being back in the pre-computer days, I did all my writing in spiral notebooks with a ballpoint pen, and sometimes I churned out so much material that it caused my hand to cramp and burn — all for something that had a readership of one.  (Me.)  Years later I found out that what I was doing was called fanfiction, and that thousands of other people did it too.  What a revelation!  I’d always thought I was the only one.

You can find the rest of the interview at Judy’s blog.  Take a look!

Jessica Randall – Paying Homage to “My People”

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Jessica L. Randall is the mother of 5 — so she’s certainly familiar with the challenges and inspiration that go along with FAMILY!  She began e-publishing earlier this year and has two popular novels under her belt already.  She’s another KBoarder I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with… especially getting some inside info about her husband’s famous peanut butter and chocolate chip Monster Cookies!

71U1ZxUr9rL__UX250_I was raised along with nine siblings right next door to my grandparents, so I think it’s safe to say that those people had a large part in shaping who I am. They have definitely colored my writing, and even set me to the task in the first place. Several years ago I began pondering what made my family and my upbringing unique. As I thought about the mannerisms and the crazy anecdotes, I realized that “my people,” as I used to call them, needed to be immortalized. I was sure they’d make the perfect characters. However I didn’t have enough faith in my abilities until I saw people I knew writing and self-publishing books. I was also encouraged by the idea that if I was proud of what I did, I could send it out into the world rather than leave it sitting in a neglected file on my computer.

41+vLtB4ttL__AA160_For my first book, Goldenhood, I chose to write a twisted tale. It was helpful to have the rough outline of a story to work with as I learned. I quickly found that family members not only inspired my characters, but that family became a theme of the book. Elise loves healing others using herbs as did many generations of Roux women before her, but she also finds herself drawn to the dark magic that claimed her grandmother. She has to learn which parts of her inheritance she should develop and be proud of, and which elements are meant for her to struggle with and conquer. There are also a couple of characters that have to learn to accept a new role in their family when tragedy strikes. The ties of family are strong, and often demanding. Their loyalty is what makes their struggle such a difficult one.

519g7fxIzYL__AA160_After I had successfully written one book, I wanted to challenge myself to create a new story. The Obituary Society is that “heart story” I’d wanted to write for years. The book was a way for me to pay homage to the people that I love, and even tell some of their stories. One reviewer said, “There is so much subtle love written in this book — love for small towns, love (and acceptance) for the older community, love for the simpler way of life.” When I read that I was thrilled that someone understood. The love that came through was for my family, my grandparents, and the homes I loved.

The theme of family came out in this book as well, as Lila’s great desire is to feel she belongs somewhere and to learn as much as she can about her family, even though there are some family secrets that are hidden for a reason.

Right now I’m in the midst of a book that is a sequel of sorts to The Obituary Society. It’s about two sisters and love and good food in a small town, those themes that I believe will show up in my work again and again.

Happy Birthday, Mr. B!

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Me and ScottThis man’s work inspired me to write. First, a series of fanzines called “A Dozen Points in Time” — a collection of fifty-odd stories and novellas. Then, because my friend Candy Camin said, “You either do this, or I’ll kill you,” I said hello to the editor of the Quantum Leap tie-in novels… and a year later, I became an officially published author.

When I told Scott Bakula that my enjoyment of his work had allowed me to publish a book, he said quietly, “The most I can hope for in my life is to inspire other people.”

So… happy Throwback Thursday. And happy 60th birthday, Scott Bakula. You’re one of the kindest, most thoughtful and genuine people I’ve ever met, and I’ll never forget that you inspired me to take my own Quantum Leap.

Kyoko M – True Companions

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Kyoko M is another of the terrific authors I’ve been getting acquainted with via KBoards.  She’s the author of the urban fantasy series The Black Parade – a continuing story that revolves around a “made” family.  Here, she offers some background on her series and the idea of true companions.

61oc8puX9cL__UX250_Saffron: Everybody plays each other. That’s all anybody ever does. We play parts.

Mal: You got all kinds a learnin’ and you made me look the fool without even trying, and yet here I am with a gun to your head. That’s ’cause I’ve got people with me, people who trust each other, who do for each other, and ain’t always looking for the advantage.    — Firefly

Often, we authors tend to have laser-focus on our main characters—their development, their doubts, their fears, their flaws, and their strengths—but one thing I’ve learned through writing my urban fantasy series is that one of the most effective ways to measure your protagonist is through their family. After all, no man is an island. However, what happens when your lead is an orphan? Is blood the only thing that makes family? I beg to differ.

51692sJGRvL__AA160_Jordan Amador started out as just another happy little girl with a single mom, Catalina, until she was five years old and her mother was taken away to a psychiatric hospital. Jordan was sent to live with her mother’s older sister, Carmensita, and unfortunately, Aunt Carmen was not mother material. It turns out there was extremely bad blood between the sisters and Aunt Carmen only took Jordan in to exact her revenge through physical and verbal abuse. Jordan later ran away and started her own life, but fate had something planned for her. After accidentally murdering a Seer, Jordan finds out that she has the ability to see and hear ghosts. She is sentenced to help a hundred souls with unfinished business cross over or she’ll go to Hell. A couple years later, only days from her two-year deadline, Jordan bumps into Michael: a handsome, sarcastic poltergeist who is the final soul that will save her soul. Unfortunately, his case busts open Pandora’s Box—robbery, murder, a deadly conspiracy, and bloodthirsty demons with an ax to grind.

51uJTLZy6zL__UY250_Jordan spent most of her life as a teenager and twenty-something on her own. She’s very closed off emotionally thanks to being raised in a broken home and missing her mother, who died not long after she was committed to the psychiatric hospital. As the story continues, she bonds with the archangel Gabriel, who occasionally drops in to check on her progress with the souls she saves and later becomes like an older brother to her. He offers advice, teases her about her peculiar relationship with Michael, and gently reminds her to have faith in herself when times get rough.

Jordan’s best friend and fellow waitress Lauren Yi also has a large impact on her life, primarily as a playful voice of reason. She is fully aware of Jordan’s crotchedy personality and knows how to prod the truth out of her when she’s being hardheaded. Whereas Gabriel is always polite and appropriate, Lauren gives Jordan candid advice and won’t take no for an answer when she tries to deflect attention away from something that’s bothering her, like any good sister would. Plus, Lauren has a six-year-old daughter named Lily who looks up to her “Auntie Jordan” and is a beacon of light in Jordan’s mostly dark world. They are constant reminders that in spite of all the violence and the sacrifices the life of a Seer requires, there are still simple, beautiful things to live for.

Writing family has never been a challenge for me, as I have been fortunate to have a loving, supportive, colorful family. They might not see it right away, but many of my family’s interactions with me have influenced how I write Jordan’s true companions. We make fun of each other, but we do it out of pure affection. It’s a lot easier to keep your head above water with your family as your life raft. Just as I wouldn’t have made it this far without my family, neither would Jordan, and I think that’s what makes the best fictional characters. Family can show the many shades and layers of a character, whether implicitly or explicitly, and that’s why they’re vital to any story, fictional or not.

Lucy Varna – On the Nature of Family

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One of my definitions of “family” is that group of people you bring into your life as friends – sometimes intentionally, and sometimes simply because they’re there.  During my 14 months as an indy author, I’ve gotten to know some terrific, fascinating people… simply because they were there.  Lucy Varna is one of those – a fellow member of KBoards who responded to my request for guest blog posts on the subject of family.  Here are her reflections.  I think you’ll agree after reading them that she’s someone you’d like to know better.

My son was born in 1997. At the time of his conception, I was unmarried. His biological father left within days of learning of the pregnancy. A couple of years later, I married the Army, and five miserable years after, divorced it.

I dated. Sure, I did, once seriously for about a year. The relationship inevitably dissolved, and when it did, my then nine-year-old son bowed his head and said he’d miss my boyfriend because with him around, “It was almost like we were a family.”

The Enemy Within - 2 - CopyThis staggered me. Through all of our ups and downs, I had always held tight to one belief: my son and I were a family, stronger than any I’d ever known. He was my heart and my life, and I his, yet he believed we were incomplete without a father figure. To this day, I don’t know why he thought that. Had his early childhood with a stepfather conditioned him to believe that a father was a necessary part of a family, or had our conformity-driven educational system inculcated this notion into him, or…? It was a puzzle I never solved.

Before I go on, let me state that, yes, every child needs a father in his or her life. I’ve known many wonderful men who were excellent dads: my father, his stepfather, my mother’s father, various uncles and family friends.

It just so happens, though, that no one was ever a great father to my son. Not his biological father, who abandoned him, or his stepfather (and ditto), or that one guy I dated seriously, and none of that was ever my son’s fault. So we soldiered on, me and him, a family in spite of everything else.

Before I became an author, I was a professional genealogist. During the decade I spent in that career, I studied historical families in depth and at length, and I saw a lot of variances on what a family was. Today, we talk about blended families. That’s really a very modern term, but it applies well to families across the ages. My own father was raised in a “blended” family. His father died during World War II while my father was in utero. A few years later, my grandmother remarried to a truly wonderful man who raised my deceased grandfather’s sons as if they were his own.

Not all families were so lucky. One of my ancestors, James R. Roberts, married twice. He and his first wife had one son and four daughters. After her death, James remarried, and not long after, the children by his first wife were forced to move into a separate home, headed by the eldest son and his wife. Upon James’ death, that son administered his father’s estate and the second wife, well… Let’s just say that she made her stepson’s life difficult and leave it at that.

On the other hand, there was the sad case of the children of Pierce Alford and his wife, Amanda. Pierce died during the Civil War when his youngest child was a toddler. Amanda remarried and, not long after, passed away, essentially consigning her children to the state of penniless orphans. Fortunately, their stepfather was a kind man, or at least a responsible one. He reared Pierce and Amanda’s children, caring for them until they were old enough to care for themselves.

As a writer, I continue to explore the nature of family on an everyday basis. My current work in progress, Say Yes, is a romance. The story world is based on the result of a simple question: what if the Amazons of Greek mythology were real? Levi, the hero of Say Yes, is descended from the Seven Sisters (the progenitors of the Amazons in this story world). His love interest, Sera, is a single mom who has built a wonderful family out of the ruins of a bad relationship. Is it any less of a family because her son’s father chose to leave and her family contains only two individuals? No, nor is it any more of one.

Family is what we make of it. It might be a father struggling to raise two children after his wife’s death, or four generations working together to build something good and strong, or a single man caring for his elderly neighbor whose children have abandoned her. What binds a family together is what’s in the heart, nothing more and nothing less. Without the heart, the ties of blood are meaningless, but with it, a family can weather all storms, regardless of the depth of kinship or lack thereof.

In the post-modern world, we’ve been conditioned to believe that norms and averages are absolute. When it comes to family, there’s no such thing. There is no normal. There is no absolute. Each family is as unique as the individuals of which it is comprised and the strength of their hearts. It’s a lesson we all need to remember, and one I’ve tried very hard to teach my son.

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Lucy Varna is a former professional genealogist with a special interest in researching the historic rural poor. Her first novel, The Prophecy (Daughters of the People, Book 1), was published in February 2014. She lives in rural northeast Georgia with her son in the midst of a large, extended, and often eccentric family.  Her author website is LucyVarna.com.

John D. Ottini – Family First

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ad911279f4b10a82390848_L__V339211050_SX200_John Ottini is new to e-publishing — his first book appeared just this past March — and like many of us, he’s still learning the ropes, hoping to reach a wider audience and boost those sales!  Luckily, he’s got the support of a loving family to help him along the way…

Before I began taking my writing career seriously, I decided that my family would always take priority over the writing. Of course, when the family consists of a wife and a cat, it does make the obligation a bit easier to manage.

I enjoy writing late at night, preferably after everyone is asleep. I’m fortunate that my wife is not a night owl and is usually in bed by 10:00 p.m., and my 3 year old cat sleeps whenever and wherever she pleases.

61xzFC4yStL__AA160_Weeknights we usually do family things after dinner, like relax and read our Kindles, watch a movie, go shopping or take a walk, all of which leaves plenty of time for me to put in a couple of hours of writing before bed.  On weekends it’s much easier because I can write into the wee hours of the morning without worrying about getting up for work the next day.

My wife is my number one sounding board and the first person who reads my book once it’s complete. She is very detail-oriented and always manages to help me straighten out discrepancies in my timeline, or discovers missing, misspelled or misused words in my manuscript. She plays a big part in my success and that’s why I dedicate each book to her.

whats-upMy cat Bella is my buddy and writing partner. She likes to sit on my desk and curl up next to my laptop while I write. Occasionally, she will interrupt me to make sure that I give her the appropriate petting or scratching behind the ear. When I’m not paying attention, she taps on the keyboard and tries to add her own twist to the novel. She’s not a very good speller, but her heart is in the right place.

The best thing about my family is that I know they love me whether I sell one book or a million. In their eyes I’m already a bestseller.

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John’s author page on Amazon is here, and his author blog is here.

Want to score some free books?

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freeI’ve got a milestone birthday coming up — so I’m having a party!  And I’m giving stuff away.  Good deal, right?

I’m going to be giving away FIFTY COPIES of my books, and a bunch of my terrific author friends will be offering giveaways as well.  You’ll have to surrender your e-mail address (via PM), but we promise: your address will be used ONLY to send you your free book(s).  No worries!  You won’t be added to any lists, and you won’t get spammed.

You can check my books out via their individual pages here at my website.  The other authors who’ll be participating also write in a variety of genres: SF, horror, romance, paranormal romance, dystopian — something for everybody!  We’ll be spotlighting new releases, Halloween-y horror (ghosts! werewolves!), running some contests… and we’ll let YOU talk about your e-book wish list.

Mark your calendar for October 29th, 2:00-10:00 pm EDT.  The location?  Right over here, at Facebook.  The event is open to anyone on Facebook, so please do tell your friends!  The more the merrier.  Hope to see you there!

Aaron Hubble: Messy Blessings

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One of the benefits to sharing my stories and my thoughts via the Internet is having the opportunity to become acquainted with a lot of terrific people.  SF fan and author Aaron Hubble was one of the first readers who reached out to me after I began indy publishing, and has been a huge supporter of my modest efforts — so I’m looking forward to seeing his debut novel go “live” on Amazon sometime soon!  In the meanwhile, Aaron, a devoted family man, is here to offer his thoughts on writing and the people he loves best.

“Which one of these things is not like the other?”

That song from my childhood has been playing through my head ever since Carol invited me to write a few thoughts on family. For crying out loud, I’ve read and enjoyed books by the other posters and yours truly has a grand total of zero books published.

They’re coming.

And the reason they’re coming is because of the messy blessings that live in the same house that I do.

Now when I call the ladies I live with messy blessings, it’s not a disparaging comment. It is just that life is…messy. It rarely ever goes the way I have neatly planned it out. There are bumps, potholes and washed-out roads that require deviations in the aforementioned planned route.

Recalculating…

Sharing the same space as my wife and two daughters can be chaotic at times, but they do a good job of putting up with my need for quiet time and my unhealthy love of Star Trek and all things science fiction.

Tracie_and_I_for_CarolMy wife, Tracie, has been a part of my life since I was eighteen. It is getting to the point where I don’t really remember what it was like when she wasn’t there. She is my Amy Pond, witty and beautiful. She is my Spock, logical and with the ability to walk around to the other side of a problem and say, “Have you looked at it from this angle.” There was a time when this college graduate was cleaning toilets, working as a janitor and feeling pretty hopeless. Life had gone sideways and I couldn’t see how things were going to change. When I expressed an interest in writing, she encouraged me even though I had done very little since high school. No matter how many times I stopped and started, she was always there telling me that what I wrote was actually enjoyable to read. Now that I’m seriously writing, she is my sounding board and first reader. I value her opinion above all others. For several years she told me I should start a blog. I always said I didn’t know what to write about. Now I blog and love every minute of it. Turns out I have a lot to say about life, family and Star Trek. So now I’ll publicly say, “Honey, you were right.”

Girls_and_I_for_CarolLillian, eleven, is my reserved bookworm. I never see her without a book or her Kindle (which she saved up her own money to buy) in hand. She has a remarkable memory. Once she views a movie, she can recite it to you verbatim. Her imagination inspires me. It is vast and deep. Lillian has the ability to create complicated worlds in her head and then articulate those worlds verbally. I was never so proud as when she showed me the prologue to the book she decided to write. It’s good. I mean really good. I’m thinking I need to lock her into a long-term book deal before someone else snaps her up.

When I look at nine year old Claire, the word that comes to mind is sweet. And goofy. But mostly sweet. She is one of the most generous people I know. Sharing has never been a problem for her and she delights in giving gifts to people. I envy her empathy. She feels deeply. When someone else is hurting, Claire hurts with them. That is something I lack and it shows in my writing. What comes naturally for her, takes several rewrites for me to convey on the page. She is a free spirit with her own sense of style, who enjoys writing poetry and wants nothing more than a little farm full of animals. She reminds me to not be so serious and enjoy the messy blessings around me.

Yeah, I would get a lot more words written in a day if Tracie didn’t need to tell me about her day shut up in the house homeschooling the girls. I could get a couple more chapters done if I didn’t need to watch Lillian play soccer. The first draft of that second book would be completed if Claire didn’t want me to play another game of badminton.

In fact, I would be a book-churning-out machine if it was just me.

But what would be the point. The reason I get up early to write, the motivation that drives me toward the goal of publishing is those three beautiful ladies that share my space. Without them this is just another self-indulgent exercise. With them, it is so much more. They give my writing color and life. Every word I write is for them in some way. Either to entertain them or hopefully provide for them.

That’s why I do this. I do it for my family. I do it for my messy blessings.

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You can find Aaron’s popular blog, Three Minutes to Neptune, right here.

Quick tip for newbie writers: it’s all in a name

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My dad’s told me many times that he and my mom chose my name very carefully.  I was originally going to be Karen, but our neighbors had their baby first… and decided she was a Karen.  So I became Carol: a name that’s tough to misspell, and tough to make a nickname out of, both of which were important considerations to my dad.  When my brother came along a few years later, my parents took one look at him and decided that the name they’d chosen didn’t fit him, so they switched his first and middle names.

name badgeNew parents face that same situation every day: what to name this new little person?  Something old-fashioned, or quirky?  Something that will sound professional, suited to someone who becomes a lawyer or a doctor?  Or something that will say, “This person is a LOT of fun to be with”?

It’s no less important to choose the right name for your characters.  If you pick the wrong one, it won’t ruin someone’s life, or make them the target of ridicule — but just as it does in real life, saddling your fictional “child” with a name that’s too fussy, too quirky, too old-fashioned or too complicated will give the wrong impression to your readers.  A story about a married couple named Ralph and Ethel will attract different readers than a story about Tyler and Alexis.  (Think about it: without being told anything else about these four characters, how old would you guess they are?)  It’s fun to play against type with names — and it can give an extra layer to your character — but unless you plan to build that into the story, it’s best not to name your high-powered business exec “Timmie” (even as an homage to your best friend from grade school).

baby me

Not-Karen!

Speaking of friends: be wary of naming a character after someone you know.  If that character drinks a little too much, is unscrupulous in their business dealings, or cheaters on their partner — that won’t go over well if others in your circle (or your friend’s, or family member’s) look at your story and go, “OMG! Is Dave really having a little sump’n-sump’n with the girl in IT?”  Or, “Did Cathy really have a baby when she was 15?”  Along those same lines — you may loathe that guy down the street, the one who loves to blare music all night long and hasn’t mowed his lawn in ten years, but it might come back to bite you if you name your serial killer after him and include enough shared characteristics that your other neighbors can easily identify him.

Long story short: treat those characters like your babies!  Give them the best start in life that you can.  Get to know them for a while before you send them out into the world, and make sure their names fit them like a glove.  If you’re lucky, they’ll end up being as memorable as Scarlett, Harry, Ebenezer, Huckleberry, and Katniss!

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