It's the time of year when everyone is looking for gift recommendations, and what better gift can you give than the gift of a good book (or two or four or ten)? As an author, I frequently get asked for my opinion on what books to buy people. Here are a few suggestions for readers across a variety of genres and interests--a smattering of new and old, classics and eclectic favorites. A little something, I think, for everyone...
For Your Little Readers (Picture Books):
SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE
Starting with a classic! This is a book I loved to read as a child. Light on magic and whimsy, and with just enough weird scariness to keep your child on the edge of their seat, SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig will not disappoint.
CLICK, CLACK, MOO (COWS THAT TYPE)
Absolutely all Doreen Cronin's books are delightful, but CLICK, CLACK, MOO (COWS THAT TYPE) is my favorite. The perfect balance of that style of humor that tickles adult and child fancy alike, this book is a national treasure. (Illustrated by Betsy Lewin)
THE JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE (non-fic, faith-based)
If you're looking for a story-a-night type picture bible for your picture book age readers, the options can seem overwhelming. I highly recommend Sally Lloyd-Jones' JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE, which presents each biblical account as a chapter in a connected narrative that leads to Christ. (Illustrated bu Jago)
For Your Young Readers:
THE BAD GUYS series
I will admit up front that I have not personally read this series, but THE BAD GUYS series of books, by Aaron Blabey, is one I have to recommend for young readers (or middle grade readers who struggle with reading) because my reluctant reader LOVES this series, begs for each new book, and reads them cover-to-cover as soon as he has one in hand. He doesn't do that with any other book, period.
EPIC DEVOTIONS (non-fic, faith-based)
It can be difficult to find a devotional book for that transition age between picture bibles and when kids and teens feel comfortable reading the bible on their own. That's where EPIC DEVOTIONS comes in. With clear biblical content tying each story in a narrative arc that leads to Christ, and a graphic novel structure that makes reading it fun and engaging for young readers, Aaron Armstrong's EPIC DEVOTIONS is the perfect book to give a child who wants to start the spiritual discipline of a self-driven devotional time. (Illustrated by Heath McPherson)
I love finding lesser-known titles by well-known authors, and that is what ROVERANDOM by J. R. R. Tolkien is. Published posthumously, this is the tale of a toy dog that finds its way to the moon and back. First invented by Tolkien to console his son, Michael, over a favorite lost dog toy that got left on a beach vacation, it is full of whimsy and puns and fancy and Tolkien's characteristic wit. Adults and older children can easily read this short story in a single sitting, or it makes for a wonderful family read-aloud. I hightly recommend!
For Your Middle Grade and Tween Readers:
THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN
I am forever recommending this series. Although Lloyd Alexander's THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN have been around for decades, have sold millions of copies, and have won prestigious awards, it seems as though the tale of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper is one that causes perennial confusion when I bring it up. So here I am, recommending it again. This series is pure delight, with some of the most truly delightful characters I have ever encountered in any fiction, ever. The fourth book, TARAN WANDERER, is one of the most profound books I have ever read. Buy this series for your middle-grade reader, and then read it yourself.
THE BOOKS OF BAYERN
These books, by Shannon Hale, were such an enjoyable discovery. A mix of traditional fairy tale retellings and original stories--all sharing the same story universe--THE BOOKS OF BAYERN contain and elevate the sort of virtues and virtuous characters any parent would be happy to have their tween child reading. Slow and thoughtful stories, they are a pleasant corrective to our fast-paced world. (Series starts with THE GOOSE GIRL, but they can be read in any order.)
I know this feels like an obvious recommendation, but I keep running into people who haven't read THE HOBBIT by J. R. R. Tolkien! The perfect time to introduce your child to this most excellent work is during the middle grade/tween years. Hobbits, dwarves, dragons, wizards... Need I say more? This is a classic tale everyone should at least be given the opportunity to read.
THE GATEWAY CHRONICLES
Of course I'm going to recommend my own books! It's my blog, after all. :) THE GATEWAY CHRONICLES start with a cast of characters who are age thirteen and struggling with all the difficulties that particular age brings as they go to summer camp--and then stumble through a magical gateway to another world. Even though the characters age up with each book, the stories stay focused on a younger audience. Most YA books are aimed these days at the 17+ audience, so finding age-appropriate tales for your middle grade and tween readers can be tough. My books fall into that gap!
For Your Young Adult and New Adult Readers:
THE WRATH AND THE DAWN duology
Being a retelling of "1001 Nights" and with main characters who are 16 and 18, THE WRATH AND THE DAWN falls solidly within the YA audience readership. If you are unfamiliar with the basic premise of "1001 Nights," it is the story of a murderous caliph who marries a new bride every night, just to have her executed at dawn--and the woman who volunteers to wed him and saves her life by telling him stories that stay her execution. Renee Ahdieh's retelling uses the framework of the original tale and reworks it to tell a story of love, personal responsibility, and of the futility of vengeance. I find very few YA books truly excellent these days, but this one I've read and re-read. (THE WRATH AND THE DAWN is part 1 of 2. THE ROSE AND THE DAGGER finishes the story.)
THE LUNAR CHRONICLES
I love a good fairytale retelling, and Melissa Meyer's THE LUNAR CHRONICLES is just that, with the fun twist that it is a futuristic, science fiction story that is quirky and a little weird... and it somehow still works. Each book in this series focuses on a different character from known fairytale lore, so there is someone for everyone to relate to. My personal favorite is CRESS, but I enjoyed all of the installments. These are great reads for the YA readers in your life.
The fate of humanity rests in the gaming abilities of a boy named Ender in this classic science fiction/dystopian novel by Orson Scott Card. ENDER'S GAME is one of my absolute favorites, and could also be read by an advanced middle grade reader (when I gave it to my eleven-year-old, he finished it in a day). Having one of the best surprise finales I've ever read, it presents for contemplation all the great questions about life that a good dystopian novel should.
THE BREEDER CYCLE
I'm back to my own books! (Can you blame me?) My own dystopian series, THE BREEDER CYCLE, is intended for a YA and NA (new adult) audience. It is thematically similar to books like THE GIVER and BRAVE NEW WORLD that examine the ethics of humanity and life in a distant future where human procreation is strictly controlled by a totalitarian regime. The trilogy that begins with BREEDER stands alone as a contained story, and HUNTER is an added story that can be read at any stage.
For Your Adult Readers:
BRAVE NEW WORLD
I'm starting with a classic! BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley can be a polarizing read. Some people love it; others find it perplexing and depressing. I fall into the loving it camp, and I furthermore think it is some of the most beautiful prose writing I have ever encountered. Love it or hate it, BRAVE NEW WORLD is a cornerstone classic of the modern age and a must-read for any reader in your family who enjoys classics, science fiction, dystopian, philosophy, theology, politics, ethics, sociology... Buy it, read it, gift it, discuss it!
THE SPACE TRILOGY
C. S. Lewis is unarguably one of the most well-known and widely read authors of the modern age, so it is always a surprise to me when I encounter so many people who are unaware that he wrote a science fiction trilogy. THE SPACE TRILOGY (or THE RANSOM TRILOGY) is a brilliant collection of stories about a man named Ransom, his travels to known planets, and his encounters with various angelic beings and malicious forces. These books combine Lewis's profound wordsmithing abilities with his unique talent for telling a speculative tale that is crafted with such care it feels as though it could be real.
Karen Hancock's ARENA is one of those rare books that manages to toe the line between allegory and speculative fiction without being too heavy handed. It is an extremely difficult thing to write a book that somehow feels part PILGRIM'S PROGRESS and part The Matrix, but Hancock manages just that in ARENA, and it's a favorite of mine I've returned to again and again over the years since it's initial release. A rare Christian fiction gem, for me, Hancock's work has always been worth returning for.
WRITE BETTER (non-fic, faith-based)
I do not read hardly any nonfiction, so when I do, it is saying something if it ends up being a book I could not put down. That was just the case with Andrew Le Peau's WRITE BETTER. Addressing the writer as a whole person, WRITE BETTER works in both form and function as Le Peau ably and whimsically instructs in the art of writing--and discusses the writer as a participant in the cultural mandate. Even if you are not a writer, but just someone interested in the arts, this makes for a fantastic read. (Winner of Christianity Today's 2019 Book of the Year in Arts & Culture, for which I acted as one of the reviewers.)
I love all books by Jane Austen, and some I find more enjoyable than others, but in my opinion the best of all her works is one of the least often read. MANSFIELD PARK tends to be under-appreciated, but it is the most mature, theological, and profound of all Austen's excellent books. There is a story within a story happening between the pages of this book--the last one written by Austen before her death (although not the last published)--and it all doesn't fall together until the end. Gift it to your classics-loving reader this year!
THE HISTORIES (non-fic)
Once upon a time, I was a classical history teacher. During that time, I read through and taught THE HISTORIES by Herodotus yearly. Considering I did this with a group of eighth graders, I feel confident recommending this work in my Adult Readers section. If you have a reader on your list who loves history, mythology, and classics, and they have yet to read Herodotus, then this is an absolute must-read addition to their library! Filled with well-known stories about characters like the Oracle at Delphi, Cyrus the Great, and Xerxes, and a delightful mix of unreliable historical fantasy and reality, THE HISTORIES is not only the most well-known account of The Persian Wars (and everything that led up to it), but also a genuinely fun and exciting read. The Penguin Classics edition is very readable and the version I highly recommend.
I stayed up all night last night at my computer, tapping in the final words to the draft of a novel that has been five years in the making--more, if I count the years the story concept simmered in my mind while I finished writing The Gateway Chronicles. I'm sure I've blogged about it elsewhere, but I'm frankly too tired to look it up now, and seeing as how I've written over 10,000 words in the last twenty-four hours (and roughly 35,000 in the past five days), I hope you can forgive me for not digging up the actual genesis of the idea.
Because it has been a long time. Too long. The Breeder Cycle should have been finished years ago, but with the dissolution of my publishing house in the middle of writing the series, I found myself without a publishing home and with two books of a trilogy complete--with disappointed readers hanging on by a cliff-hanger thread at the end of CRIMINAL, desperate to know what happened next, and no way to bring them the book that made any real sense whatsoever. I was teaching full-time with four sons (one of whom was a toddler, another an infant). I had no time, or resources, to write and self-publish a third book that would exist... out there... for sale (with a non-matching cover!) while the other books (books I didn't yet have the rights back for) slowly disappeared from circulation.
It didn't make sense, and I felt stuck.
The only option, as I waited for the rights to revert to me from my publisher for the first two books in The Breeder Cycle was to look ahead to my publishing future--to what I could do with my career. So I wrote another book, one that belonged to me and was not bound to an existing series. I wrote The Girl in the Sea. And I began the process of querying agents, a year-long process that resulted in my represented by Ben Grange with the L. Perkins Agency.
During that year, though, I continued to ponder what I should do about The Breeder Cycle, as I never intended to leave that series unfinished. In the months before I signed with Ben, my husband and I took a road trip to Washington, DC--a key setting in CLONE and someplace I'd never been--so I could take a few notes and get a feel for the location. While driving through the mountains of Virginia, the idea came to me for HUNTER, a prequel novel tied to the trilogy of The Breeder Cycle but standing alone. Something I could, hypothetically, self-publish independent of the rest of the series as an add-on to the universe I'd created. HUNTER arrived to me fully formed, and I started working on it on the drive. I finished it just a few months later.
Once I signed with Ben, of course our focus became working on the new book. The Girl in the Sea needed edits and revisions... about eight months of focused work went into that book before we sent it out on submission. And in that time, I finally got all the rights back to all my previously published works. Eight books--The Gateway Chronicles and the first two books of The Breeder Cycle--had reverted to me. But I was still faced with a question of what to do with them.
It was mid-late 2017 and I had written ten books. Eight of those had been previously published. One was (heading) out on submission, and one was a prequel novel tied to an incomplete trilogy that was a fit of my own fancy. Despite having sold well in indie markets and having won multiple indie awards and all my speaking and outside writing credentials, for all intents and purposes when it came to Big 5 publishing, I was (am) an unknown, and those backlisted books were not going to be of great interest to any larger publisher, now that they had already been out for some time, and (in the case of The Gateway Chronicles) been through a couple iterations.
But I still had readers contacting me about my books, often weekly. Sometimes daily. The longer my books were off the market, the more people wanted to find them. I took that as a good sign, and a sign that I needed to take steps to make my backlist available again, through whatever means I could--even if that meant self-publishing them while also working ahead with Ben on future projects.
In early 2018, Ben and I chatted about what I should be working on next, and that is when I pitched to him my idea for a Middle Grade Science Fantasy series. So from February to April of 2018, I wrote what I will just call O---, the first book of a new series. And after I turned that in, I set to work on re-releasing my back-list in the order I had first released it with my previous publisher--with updates, revisions, and new scenes. That's when the re-releases of The Gateway Chronicles came out from May-September of 2018.
In fall of 2018, Ben and I decided The Girl in the Sea needed a rewrite to make it more appealing for the submission process, so I deeply overhauled the book. It became A Silence in the Deep (still a working title, as these things usually are). After that, and a first round of deep edits on O---, I returned to the re-release project in spring of 2019 and managed to finally get BREEDER and CRIMINAL back out.
And, at last, I was finally able to write CLONE--the manuscript people always ask me about. The one I had started a long time ago and abandoned for all these reasons listed above. I wrote all summer and through the early fall to finish it, pausing here and there just for my other writing obligations. I would love to say it's been easy, finishing this book, since I've known the end for so long, but I knew it was going to be hard. Bringing a series to an end is often like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole: you know it will fit, but you might have to shave off a few corners and wiggle it a little in the process. This was always a complicated story, and I never could have made it work if I didn't plan so meticulously from the very beginning. I do have to say, I am thrilled with how the story has turned out. I've been holding the threads of the resolutions together in my mind for so long, I just hope they are as fulfilling for everyone as they feel, and have always felt, for me.
So... when will the book be out? Well, I've promised a 2019 release for both this story and HUNTER, which has been done and edited for two years now. I am sticking to that, even though the year is slipping away. The manuscript will be off to my fabulous and selfless editor Hayley after I dig in and do some HARD revising this week. Between now and the end of the year, I will work as diligently as I can to make CLONE the best it can be before I release it, at long, long last.
For now, I am sitting back, a little dazed that I finally am done with the draft. Amazed that it took me until 2019 to finish writing this series that I started in 2014 and definitely first dreamed up in 2012 or earlier. Astonished that I wrote three more books and over fifty articles in between CRIMINAL and CLONE. But... happy. Happy with how it's turned out. Excited, and nervous, to share it with the world.
As many of you reading this may know from reading my newsletter, I've been preparing my backlisted books for re-release this summer, 2018. This project is HUGE, as my backlist comprises of 8 titles across two series, and since I have the opportunity to re-release them on my own terms, I'm taking full advantage of this opportunity to edit, update, revise, and basically bring my old titles up to my new standards. I've been writing professionally for many years now, and I've learned a lot, so (as you can imagine), looking back on my earliest books has always left me with a desire to apply what I've learned to the stories I still love in order to make them better. What I'm able to do now with these books, and most particularly with The Gateway Chronicles, is, therefore, really a gift.
I do want to assure any of you who are fans of The Gateway Chronicles and are reading this post with any worry or dismay: I am not changing anything that is fundamental to the story. My edits, revisions, and updates have more to do with cleaning up the manuscripts than anything else, so here follows a basic rundown of what I have been doing on books 1-2 (and will continue doing to books 3-6) for the past 8 weeks.
#1 - Fixing sloppy writing, such as creative dialogue tags
When I first started out, I didn't realize how lazy and amateur certain writing habits, like the wide use of creative dialogue tags, are. In my edits, therefore, I am deleting most of them and/or replacing them with "said" or some sort of "showing" action. I'm also cutting many ly-adverbs, fixing "telling" scenes, cutting usages of "that" and "just," fixing any voice inconsistencies I find, etc. Minor "house cleaning" details like that.
#2 - Cutting redundancies
Redundant writing is also a plague of the inexperienced writer, and I've found a lot of it in my earliest manuscripts. Expressions such as "She nodded her head," or "He shrugged his shoulders," or "She covered her face with her hands," or "He sat down." All of these are needlessly wordy because the added clarifiers are redundant. How else can one nod but with your head? Shrug, but with your shoulders? I suppose you can cover your face in your arms, but if that really needs to be said, then you can clarify that. When you sit, you sit down. So: "She nodded." "He shrugged." "She covered her face." "He sat." If you can say what you need to say in fewer words, it's almost always best to do so.
Redundancies also show up in dialogue, especially when dialogue is paired with action. I find that I, personally, tend to be redundant when I'm having characters explain things because I'm an over-explainer. It probably comes from being a teacher.
#3 - Simplified and clarified passages of explanation, while cutting needless exposition
Speaking of being an over-explainer, I have some passages in both The Six and The Oracle that go overboard in the explanation department, and probably, I think, to the detriment of actually understanding what it is I'm trying to have the characters explain. In my read-throughs, I noticed how often, and in how many ways (for example) I tried to explain the time travel, or how two narks inhabit one body. These things are actually not that complicated, so I cut some of the explanation and simplified how I have the characters talk about them. I also cut back a bit of the history section in The Six.
#4 - Cutting down on self-indulgent writing
Because "Cedar Cove" is based on a real place, and Darcy's experiences at the camp and her interactions with her friends are heavily influenced by my own friendships and interactions at the real camp, I tended to slide into self-indulgent storytelling when I wrote The Gateway Chronicles. This works in the places where it lends that inner consistency of reality that the reader craves from any story, but where I wax on with descriptions of rocks and trees and paths and the lodge and the campgrounds and, and, and... It gets to be a bit much. The story shouldn't read like a personal camp memoir, so anything that doesn't actively build setting, develop characters, or move the plot forward got cut in these edits. (*I received some very impassioned pleas via e-mail from some of my lovely newsletter subscribers asking me NOT to cut too much from my camp descriptions, as this is part of the appeal of the series, and I want to assure everyone that I really, truly, have only cut those portions that went above and beyond. If it was EXTRA, it went. I don't think even my most avid readers will even notice what is missing here, unless they do a page-by-page comparison of the old and new manuscripts!)
#5 - Smoothing time transitions
This was something that was passed on to me as feedback from some newsletter subscribers, and it really only has applied so far to my edits on The Six. Some of the time jumps in the book are a little jarring, most particularly the one near the end (which I don't want to spoil). In response to the feedback, I took some care in going back over my transitions and attempting, at least, to smooth them over. I can't/couldn't add more scenes to expand the timeline of the story so there aren't those time jumps (I really can't have the books turn into 500-page tomes!), but I hope the small additions and changes I've made will have everything read a little smoother.
#6 - Expanded a few scenes to enrich relationships
Hopefully this editing note will be exciting for everyone! No, I didn't just make cuts in these edits, and YES, there will be new material to read! In particular, I've expanded a few scenes here and there in order to enrich relationships. The ones I've focused on are Tellius and Darcy, and Darcy and Yahto Veli (but I've made a few other tweaks here and there). I haven't added whole scenes (again, length restrictions), but I have added dialogue and some exposition. Tellius, in particular, doesn't get a lot of time and space in books 1 and 2, but after I got into the second half of the series, back when I was first writing it, and I saw how his character had developed, I always wished I had given him a little more in the first books. So now I have! Not massive additions, but hopefully enough to be excited about.
#7 - Brought the story into 2018
Since I'm rebooting and re-releasing, I thought, "Why not reboot this as a 2018 story?" I'm hoping many new readers will pick it up for the first time, and I thought they might be confused if, for example, the teens in the story didn't have smartphones. A few vernacular, thought, and fashion tweaks here and there in addition to things like giving them smartphones. Updating the dates for when Eleanor Stevenson went missing from Cedar Cove. These are small, but important details.
SO, again, these are the basic things I've been working on, and (honestly), I'm a little exhausted just reading back through all this! Phew. The Six has been the hardest, as it was my first book and needed the most work (and I'm very thankful for the volunteer efforts of a couple friends who have lent their eyes and expertise to it in the past month and a half, too!). The Oracle has been easier, and as I'm just starting my edit on The White Thread, I'm finding I really did improve incrementally with every book I wrote and every year I worked with my excellent editorial team. I'm confident I can get these books all finished to my standards and re-released this summer, and I hope you consider purchasing a new set and sharing them with your friends!
Please let me know if you have any questions at all about what I am doing or have done with The Gateway Chronicles, or the editing process in general. And if you really want to keep up with my re-release news as it's happening, be sure to subscribe. Thanks for reading!
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