Sunday, May 4, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: CIRCA NOW by Amber McRee Turner

I recently had the opportunity to read Amber McRee Turner's latest novel CIRCA NOW to be released on May 27th, 2014.  Last year I reviewed (and adored) Amber McRee Turner's debut novel SWAY, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on CIRCA NOW.  Though I predicted I would love it, I was not fully prepared for the emotional journey I would experience right alongside the main character, Circa.
The Premise (as described on Good Reads): Twelve-year-old Circa Monroe has a knack for restoring old photographs. It's a skill she learned from her dad, who loves old pictures and putting fun digital twists on them. His altered "Shopt" photos look so real that they could fool nearly anybody, and Circa treasures the fun stories he makes up to explain each creation.

One day, her father receives a strange phone call requesting an urgent delivery, and he heads out into a storm. The unimaginable happens: a tornado, then a terrible accident. Just as Circa and her mom begin to pick up the pieces, a mysterious boy shows up on their doorstep, a boy called Miles who remembers nothing about his past. The only thing he has with him is the photograph that Circa's dad intended to deliver on the day he died.

As Circa tries to help Miles recover his identity, she begins to notice something strange about the photos she and her father retouched-the digital flourishes added to the old photos seem to exist in real life. The mysteries of the Shopt photos and Miles's past are intertwined, and in order to solve both, Circa will have to figure out what's real and what's an illusion.

With stunning prose, captivating photographs, and a hint of magic, Circa Now is a gripping story full of hope and heart.

What I Loved: CIRCA NOW begins with a sudden and tragic accident befalling Circa's father, and yet it is not a story about dead ends and lost things, but about hope and infinite things.  Every chapter swells with possibility, and magic, and promise.  I love that the story begins with an ending and unfolds into a beginning - however unexpected it happens to be.  Woven throughout the universal and heart gripping themes of love and loss, is a fantastic array of characters: introspective and creative Circa, her plucky and loyal best friend Nattie, the mysterious Miles full of untold stories (very much like each one of us), and Circa's mother (who journeys bravely, hand in hand with Circa, through the ups and downs of anxiety - such a sensitive and genuine portrayal).

Readers will also be as enthralled as Circa in her dad's unique hobby of creating "Shopt" photos - wild and wacky altered images made complete with even wilder and wackier stories - so much FuN!  I loved how through these photos Circa's father (and his legacy) remained a very present part of the story.  It offered such a meaningful and tangible way to understand how it is possible to move forward without ever letting go.  Finally, Circa's world was simply one that I loved to be lost in - even despite the tragedy swirling about, the things that grounded her (family and friends and faith) were proven to be that much BIGGER.     

What I Learned: That magic does not always occur as we expect it to, and that there is magic in the real, which is perhaps the most hopeful message any of us could receive. 

Three Words to Describe This Book: Creative, Magical, Hopeful

Recommendation: I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone.  CIRCA NOW is an incredible combination of the heart and emotion that often characterizes quieter novels along with a hefty splash of mystery and intrigue that will keep readers of all ages captivated.  I also love the extra "oomph" that seems to accompany all of Amber McRee Turner's novels - whether it be through playing with photos or toying with words, she has a knack for infusing the special.  I hope everyone has a chance to pick up this beautiful and unforgettable book!

I also couldn't finish this review without sharing that Amber McRee Turner is as tremendous of a person as she is a writer.  It is such an honor to share my love for her beautiful stories!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Picture Book Month

I am so excited to put together a post celebrating Picture Book Month.  I first heard about this from my friend Katy Upperman (check out her wonderful post here), and I knew I had to participate. 

Each week me and my girls (ages three and five) make a trip to the local library.  We eagerly comb through the racks and always leave with at least fifteen books.  It is hard to imagine life without the gift of a library.  Especially since reading time is one of our most favorite parts of the day. 

I love seeing what books resonate with my girls; I love seeing their faces grow serious when characters face complications, trials and obstacles; and I love the discussions that come out of reading time as we talk about main ideas, how the books made us feel, and what may have surprised us. I honestly couldn't imagine our day without curling up together with a new world spread wide before us and ready for exploring.

Because I have a list of so many picture books we've loved, I'm going to highlight five recent favorites and will hopefully be making this a regular part of my blog (along with continued spotlights on my favorite middle grade reads, of course).  I hope you have a chance to pick up these books, and I would love to hear your recommendations, too!

We have enjoyed several of the Ladybug Girl books by David Soman and Jacky Davis, but we especially enjoyed LADYBUG GIRL AND BUMBLEBEE BOY.  As a mama of two girls that dress up on a daily basis, we love Ladybug Girl's imagination.  We loved even more seeing what she did with her imagination on the playground.  Learning how to play with friends, to compromise, and to be brave enough to share ideas are such relevant topics.

PLEASE SAY PLEASE! PENGUIN'S GUIDE TO MANNERS by Margery Cuyler and Will Hillenbrand was a hilarious read for my three-year-old.  I am not sure if this is mostly due to her age or because she happens to have a very silly side, but she couldn't get enough of Penguin's friends who made the most outrageous choices.  This is a great way to introduce kids to manners, and also to give them a boost of encouragement because even the youngest are bound to know at least a bit more than Penguin's friends. The repetition of the question-answer pattern in the story also made this a great read-aloud.   

NO BEARS by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge - about a girl who is bound and determined to tell a story beginning to end without the appearance of a single bear - was such an entertaining way to introduce the power of creative storytelling to my girls.  It was fascinating to ask my girls which characters they have become used to seeing in stories and which characters (if they happened to be the storytellers) they would choose to see more or less of.  I loved seeing their imaginations at work.

MILO ARMADILLO by Jan Fearnley was a heartwarming story about friendship, sacrifice, and embracing who we are.  These powerful themes coupled with the very familiar longing for a particular birthday present made this a very engaging story for my girls.  It was easy to see how priorities can slip out of order and how what we think we want often doesn't truly compare to the blessing of what we have already been given. 

LITTLE SWEET POTATO by Amy Beth Bloom and Noah Z. Jones is an adorable story about finding a place to fit in and never giving up.  I think it was the main character's determination that drew my girls in the most.  It isn't easy to be rejected over and over (though this can often be the case in real life), and Little Sweet Potato kept rolling along fueled by a hope for the future.

Thank you so much for stopping by to celebrate Picture Book Month.  I hope that you and your friends and family have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What's Up Wednesday

I am so happy to be participating in this week's What's Up Wednesday fun!  If you would like to learn more about this fun, weekly meme created by Jaime Morrow and Erin Funk, click here to visit Jaime's website.

I <3 this cover!!
What I'm Reading: This week I finished RUMP by Liesl Shurtliff.  As soon as I heard about this twist on the classic fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, I knew I had to read it.  I adored it!  It was fun to see some familiar characters ("Red" is one of Rump's best friends), but Ms. Shurtliff's story and the world surrounding it is original and fresh and so much fun!  Full of adventure and centered on a MC with a tremendous amount of heart and courage in the face of universal obstacles, this is a fantastic read for kids of all ages.

Will melt even a dog lover's heart!
For picture books this week, I would love to recommend MR. PUSSKINS: A LOVE STORY by Sam Lloyd.  This book absolutely captured my heart, telling the story of a very (amusingly) disgruntled cat who is convinced he leads a dreadfully boring life.  When he sets off to find adventure, he comes to discover that maybe being loved is the greatest (and best) adventure of all.  The drawings are so expressive, and, with relatively short text blocks on each page, this book should likely captivate even very young children. 

What I'm Writing: I am currently working on two different projects, and I can't seem to decide which one is tugging at me the strongest.  Though I really would like to commit to one (preferably soon!), I am admittedly enjoying having my imagination bounce around between two places I hope to be spending lots and lots of time exploring in the future.

What's Inspiring Me: Family, friends, and new beginnings.  New beginnings are sometimes scary, but it's also a chance to lean on and hold tighter to loved ones, and to gain a greater insight as to those personal truths that are unshakable.  For me, one of those truths is that I love to write.  And the more I write, the more I love it.  Today, I am going to hold tight to that and give thanks for words and sentences and imaginations and hope <3   

Fun in the bounce house!
What Else I've Been Up To: Three small things for this week :)  I made my first seasonal batch of Trader Joe's pumpkin bread, yum, yum!  We took our annual family trip to the pumpkin patch and had a blast watching the girls bounce, get their faces painted, and sift through lots and lots and lots of pumpkins.  And, lastly, the other day when I picked my three-year-old up from preschool she leaned in close for a hug and sniffed me.  When she pulled away she grinned and told me that I "smelled like writing."  She could smell the coffee on my clothes from being at Starbucks (she knows mama's favorite working spot!), and I think I melted.  As life-long lover of reading and writing, to know that my sweet girl actually has a smell associated with writing is so very special to me. 

I hope you all have a wonderful week!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What's Up Wednesday?

I am so happy to be back with my first What's Up Wednesday post since my girls started school!  I can't believe it's taken me nearly a month to catch my breath, but I am ready to jump back in :)  If you want to learn more about What's Up Wednesday and join in on the fun, click here to visit Jaime Morrow's website.

What I'm Reading: I just finished reading THREE TIMES LUCKY by Sheila Turnage.  This is one of those books that I have seen recommended over and over and heard rave reviews about.  I am not exactly sure what took me so long to pick it up, but when I discovered a copy at our local library, I was thrilled to dive in.  I ADORED this book.  I was pretty much in awe of this book (I gushed so much at the return counter, I convinced the librarian to start reading it over lunchtime!).  Mostly because there seem to be some authors that have a stand-out voice, and some authors that have an incredible gift for pacing and plot, and this story had both to the highest degree.  I learned a lot in reading this book, and am honestly just thankful there is such a talented pool of authors out there that us aspiring authors can learn from :)

I also have a picture book to recommend! Beginning this past summer, me and my girls have been checking out nearly twenty books a week.  The library is a fun and exciting place for us and - with the girls' required twenty minutes of nightly reading for school - we have been continuing to visit and keep a fresh supply of books moving through our house. It is such a gift for the girls and me!  And, in reading so many picture books, I have fallen back in love with them the same way I did as a child.  BRONTORINA by James Howe and Randy Cecil is just one of a long list I have to recommend.  My biggest reasons are: a giant dinosaur, ballet, an impossible dream, and the power of believing. I also loved that a voice was given to both the pessimistic and believing friends because kids see that even a lovable hero faces (and overcomes) obstacles that they too might be familiar with.

What I'm Writing: After finishing my Ready, Set, Write! project (thanks to CP Katy Upperman's STELLAR comments - so, so thankful!), it is now in the hands of my agent.  I am waiting and trying not to be too anxious, though it's really hard!  I do have a new contemporary WiP I recently began and am very excited about, but I also sense a fantasy/adventure project trying to lure me away, so I might just have to dabble with both for awhile. 

What's Inspiring Me: This week I loved seeing the cover reveal for Rebecca Behren's middle grade novel WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE.  I have heard so many wonderful things about Rebecca's book and feel privileged to have been following her from the time her book deal was first announced and now the unveiling of the the absolutely adorable cover.  I am so happy for her, and so thankful each time a new cover is revealed as a reminder that writing dreams do come true.

What Else I've Been Up To: Life has been pretty busy at the Beltz household! We had a job change for my husband (a big life-changing one which we are so thankful for), my five-year-old is loving kindergarten, and my three-year-old is sticking with preschool even though drop-off is always a bit dicey (oh! so hard to see those tears).  I think the only thing that helps me push through is knowing her big sissy went through the same thing and seeing her big smile when I come to pick her up.  I also am getting super excited for fall and have been happily lighting my pumpkin scented candles :)

I hope you have a wonderful week, and thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What's Up Wednesday?

I love so much participating in What's Up Wednesday!  What's Up Wednesday is a fun, weekly meme started by Jaime Morrow and Erin Funk.  You can learn all about it and join in the fun here.

Boy, do I love this cover!
What I'm Reading: So I was able to make that library trip with my girls this past week and I found two books that I have been wanting to read for a very long time: THREE TIMES LUCKY by Sheila Turnage and MAY B by Caroline Starr Rose.  I began MAY B a couple of days ago, and I'm already hooked!  It's a novel in verse (I read INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN - another verse novel - this summer and adored it!) and the first word that comes to mind so far is gripping.  I also am in awe of the author's careful attention to historical detail and beautiful, emotional use of words.  I can't wait to finish this one!

What I'm Writing: I am continuing work on my middle-grade fantasy adventure WiP.  I have to admit though progress is a bit slow (almost to non-existent!).  It has been a little hard to concentrate with so many back-to-school preparations for my girls.  Meet the Teacher days, back to school nights, and all those last minute scrambles to assemble forms, supplies, etc, has kept me hopping!  It's admittedly hard to go days without writing much, but I know these are special times in my girls' lives and I don't want to miss out!

What's Inspiring Me: This seems like a really small thing (and my hubby will actually be reading about it for the first now since I didn't say anything at the time), but this past week my hubby did something that made me feel special.  In just a few weeks we'll be hosting at our home a small group for young families at our church.  We were asked to submit a bio and some pictures so that families looking for a potential group could learn a little more about us.  When filling out the questionnaire for occupation my hubby wrote for me "homemaker/author" and never even blinked.  You can bet I did though!  Because still after all this time it is hard to call myself an author.  In my heart I know that I am, that this is my passion, and what I spend nearly all of my very limited free time doing, and that I have no plans of giving up, but I haven't sold a book yet, haven't made a single penny yet, and there is no guarantee how long this journey might be.  So to have that kind of support from my best friend was just awesome <3

What Else I've Been Up To:  I know I must be sounding like a broken record so I'll just say one word and then let the picture speak for itself - School :)

My Loves!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What's Up Wednesday?

Wow, guys! I can't believe it's the final Ready, Set, Write! version of the What's Up Wednesday post.  The summer has flown by and - thanks to all of you amazing writers - has been an unexpectedly productive one.  I have had so much fun participating this summer that I think I may keep going with the What's Up Wednesday meme created by Jaime Morrow and Erin Funk.  It's such a fun and engaging way to write blog posts :)

What I'm Reading: I finished HALF UPON A TIME by James Riley this week and loved the ending just as much as I did the beginning and middle.  I will definitely be turning to the next two installments of the series, but first may browse the library shelves to see what I can find this week. 

What I'm Writing: The WiP draft I completed during Ready, Set, Write is now officially in the amazing hands of my super awesome CP Katy Upperman (yay, Katy! And yep, I know how lucky I am).  So . . . I am trying to get my mind off of being completely nervous and am just embracing that this is my story's next and necessary step.  My new WiP has been doing a good job of distracting me too.  If, of course, it doesn't drive me crazy first!  I have already switched directions (yet again), but something inside of me (which I truly hope is not pure stubbornness) won't let go.  For the time being, I'm going to indulge myself :)  

What's Inspiring Me: I read two posts this week that I loved.  Please don't miss YA writer Ghenet Myrthil's encouraging post.  Also, for all of the MG enthusiasts, I cherished this thoughtful and insightful post by writer Anne Ursu.  So much to think about. 

What Else I've Been Up To: My girls start school next week!!  After a long, fun, and busy summer I am definitely finding it hard to switch modes to earlier bedtimes, selecting lunch packing foods at the grocery store, and just being prepared to send them off with hugs and kisses to adventures all of their own.  I am excited and proud and a teensy bit nervous. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What's Up Wednesday?

Happy Wednesday, everybody!  Today I'm participating in What's Up Wednesday, a fun weekly meme started by Jaime Morrow and Erin Funk.  You can learn more about it here.  I also am so excited to be a participant in the Ready, Set, Write! summer writing intensive hosted by these wonderful ladies: Katy Upperman, Alison Miller, Jaime Morrow, Erin Funk, and Elodie.

What I'm Reading: Right now I'm reading HALF UPON A TIME by James Riley.  You guys, this book is SO much fun!  It's a comedic, fractured fairy tale that's heavy on adventure and heart.  After lots of serious reads this summer (and much work spent on a serious-toned WiP), this book has been the perfect escape.  I think it would be a fantastic read-aloud for middle-graders.  Plus, it's a series so the fun can go on and on.  Or at least for two more books :)

What I'm Writing: After completing my first set of revisions on my latest WiP, I'm still taking a few deep breaths.  I'm also trying (not all that easily!) to let it sit for a week or two more before sending it off to CPs.  That being said, I started a new project!  Well . . . kind of.  I began again a new draft of a story I have written maybe four complete drafts of and several incomplete drafts.  Yikes.  Even writing that makes it sound like a bit of a nightmare, BUT there is something about this story I can't let go of.  So, I'm rolling up my sleeves, diving back in and, so far, really enjoying the familiar yet new feel of the first few pages.  This week I completed 1500 words on my new/old project.

What's Inspiring Me: I loved this post by Shannon Messenger.  I try not to miss her blog, and I'm a big fan of her wonderful middle-grade series KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES.  Her post this week really spoke to me.  I hope you enjoy it too!  You can read it here.

What Else I've Been Up To: School starts for my daughters in two weeks!  My three year old is going to be in preschool three days a week, and my five year old will be starting kindergarten.  With our house move last spring, it has been a very long summer for us, but now that it's coming to an end I have mixed feelings!  I know it will be great to have extra writing time (and my girls are SO excited about starting their new school), but I have grown so used to being with them all the time that our new schedule will definitely take some getting used to.  Until then, I'm going to be keeping busy playing pretend, making crafts, having them "style" my hair, visiting the library to check out a million books (really, you should see our stack, but what's a mama writer to say?), watching their living room dance recitals, working on puzzles, and cuddling up to American Girl movies.  Just a few of our favorite things* <3 

*Ooh! I can't say that line without thinking of the Sound of Music!  Does that happen to you too?  Maybe not, but I guess in any case, it's okay because the Sound of Music is also one of our favorite movies :)