Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

One to the Wolves by Lois Duncan

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When I taught middle school, Lois Duncan’s suspense books were ones I went to frequently to hook those students who hadn’t yet met a book they liked. More times than not those students would become readers after being drawn in by relatable teenage characters facing danger and intrigue. Duncan packed in more drama and suspense to keep my students turning pages.

Last week Duncan sent me a review copy of her latest book, One to the Wolves: A Desperate Mother on the Trail of a Killer (Planet Ann Rule, LLC, 2015). This nonfiction book is every bit as suspenseful as her earlier novels, but even more horrifying in that every word is true.

In July 1989, Duncan’s daughter Kaitlyn Arquette was shot and killed on a street in Albuquerque. The police classified it as a random drive-by shooting and arrested a few suspects they later let go for lack of evidence. They considered the case finished even if unresolved, but for Duncan, too many pieces did not fit together.

She began a decades long search for the truth of what happened to her daughter. She first wrote Who Killed My Daughter? in hopes that presenting the evidence she had discovered would encourage people to come forward with new information that might answer their questions and bring Kait’s killer’s to justice.

One to the Wolves tells the story of what came during the following years. People did come forward–with information about Kait’s life and death as well with information about many more suspicious deaths in and around Albuquerque. The deeper Duncan looked, the more she realized that many of the deaths were connected by people and places and events. The Real Crimes website gave families a place to share their information and get word out.

With the work of private investigators, Duncan uncovered evidence in Kait’s case that pointed toward organized crime involved in insurance fraud and drug imports. Many people hinted at involvement of VIPs in a drug ring, but no one was willing to name names. At every turn, law enforcement in Albuquerque blocked progress on the case. In more recent years, What do you do when you learn that some of the people who are supposed to serve and protect you are the ones who are thwarting justice.

Duncan and her family used every means possible to learn what really happened to Kait that night. They hired private investigators and interviewed witnesses. They consulted psychics, including Betty Muench and Robert Petro. Skeptical at first, Duncan has seen many of the details from their readings confirmed by other sources. She also shares dreams she had that felt like more than just a dream–a message from Kait after her death.

Once I started reading, I had a hard time putting down the book. I can’t imagine the pain and horror of losing and child to such violence and then learning that law enforcement was not on your side. I hope that Duncan and the other families will soon find answers and justice for their children.

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

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Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper One 2014) will stay with me a long time now that I have finally finished it. Barbara Brown Taylor invites readers to join her on her journey to explore what darkness–both physical darkness and metaphysical darkness–has to teach. As I read, I kept stopping to reflect on my own experiences with darkness and wanting to learn more.

I was fascinated by sheer number of facts I didn’t know about physical darkness. Did you know there are three twilights to end each day? Did you know that humans’ sleep patterns changed with the invention of the light bulb (and not just with less time for sleep)?  Did you know that you could dine in the dark in restaurants that block all light while you eat your meal? Did you know that most people in the United States can no longer see the Milky Way or even many stars at all? I can remember seeing the Milky Way once on a Girl Scout camping trip. I have never forgotten the sight and would love to see it again. I want to share it with my daughter and hope we can find a dark enough place on a clear night with a new moon (and nowhere we have to get up and go early the next morning).

I thought even more about the aspects of spiritual darkness Brown explores. My childhood reading was filled with fantasy that pitted good against evil, often in terms of light over dark. Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace fought the Dark Thing to rescue Meg’s father on Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time. In Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Will joins the Old Ones in the fight of the Light against the forces of the Dark. The Biblical stories and images I grew up with also associate God with Light and evil with darkness. I had heard of St. John’s dark night of the soul (and knew it was an experience I did not want to spend time with), but I didn’t know much of the history of or John’s thinking about the experience. Now I’m not so sure. It still sounds like a difficult experience, but maybe one I could learn from.

I am already seeing changes in myself as a result of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the darkness rather than trying to shine a light through it to shut it out. I’ve always been fascinated with watching sunrises. I took a couple of evenings to watch the sunset. The changing play of light is beautiful–and darkness takes a long time to fall. I’ve also resisted turning on lights in the house after I’ve gone to bed. Once I paid attention (and didn’t flip the light switch), I was amazed at how many lights glow from buttons and dials and even reflect off the clouds from town.

One idea that I am drawn to is that of practicing courage. Yes, there can be things in the darkness that are harmful, but often we let our fears overwhelm us when there is not anything to be afraid of. Even more, we often shield our children from the opportunity to practice being brave by rushing in to turn on physical (or metaphysical) lights for them and for ourselves. I am trying to practice more courage in my life and allow my daughter the opportunity to practice as well. (She is not thrilled with this idea at all.) For me, I would like to experience the “Green Meditaiton” Brown describes from an article she read by Clark Strand. The experiment is to find a place like a shallow cave (or even an apartment building) where you can let natural light and darkness determine your sleep and rest. Maybe as you do, the darkness will listen to you. We have a campsite that is in the woods that I could spend the night at. It would be a good chance to practice courage and meet the dark.

Now that I have read Learning to Walk in the Dark, I want to catch up on Brown’s earlier two books–Leaving Church and The Altar in the World.

What are your experiences with dark?

Disclosure: I participate in the Amazon Associates Program. If you decide to make a purchase by clicking on the affiliate links, Amazon will pay me a commission. This commission doesn’t cost you any extra. All opinions are my own.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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My mom passed on her copy of I Am Malala (Little, Brown and Company 2013) to me over the Christmas holidays. I have been thinking about Malala’s story ever since. I had heard on the news about the Taliban shooting her and two of her classmates. I had heard about her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace this past year. Those brief accounts on the news don’t do justice to Malala’s story as told by herself.

I have to confess that I know very little of Pakistan, much less the region of Swat, where Malala lived. She opened my eyes to a country and culture that is filled with beauty and wonder, yet also suffers under poverty and oppression. Malala was blessed that her father rejoiced in her birth (in a land where sons are usually celebrated much more) and encouraged her education.

Encouraged by her father, who spoke out against the Taliban, Malala found her voice and spoke out as well. For years before she was attacked, she found ways to speak out on behalf of peace and education–especially for girls. She wrote (under the pen name of Gul Makai) of her experiences living and going to school under Taliban rule for the BBC Urdue website. She and her father gave interviews about the need for all children–including girls–to have an education. Woven in with the accounts of her political actions are descriptions of daily life with her family and friends under the most trying of circumstances: an earthquake, Taliban executions in the town square, curfews imposed by the army, the sounds of battle and explosions, even travel as displaced persons.

I am most impressed with Malala’s attitude of peace and joy throughouth. Even though she at times lived in fear, she doesn’t let the fear control her life or limit her opportunities. She wants peace for her homeland and is willing to work to help bring it about. I am inspired by her courage and determination.

I wish the students I had–those who complained about school and thought it a waste of their time–could listen to Malala’s story and see how valuable education is. It is not a surprise that groups who want to oppress people go after schools first. Without education, people can easily be misled and controlled. Education–the ability to read, write, think, and understand the world–is the first step in creating a better life. I am glad Malala is speaking out for education for all, and I hope she is one day able to return to her homeland to bring that dream to reality.

Disclosure: I participate in the Amazon Associates Program. If you decide to make a purchase by clicking on the affiliate links, Amazon will pay me a commission. This commission doesn’t cost you any extra. All opinions are my own.

In My Hands by Irene Gut Opdyke

in my handsI have always been drawn to read literature from the Holocaust, both fiction and nonfiction, but especially memoirs of people who lived through it. I sometimes wonder at my fascination. Why do I enjoy reading about such a dark period of history? I think reading these stories forces me to ask the question, “What would I do?” Would I have been able to cling to the best of my humanity–hope and kindness and love–as did many survivors of the ghettos and concentration camps? Would I have had the courage to help my neighbors by hiding them or sharing food? I like to think that I would, but I honestly don’t know since I have never been confronted with such choices.

Irene Gut Opdyke (with Jennifer Armstrong) shares her journey of becoming a resistance fighter and smuggler of Jews in her memoir In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (Laurel Leaf Books 1999). She didn’t start out to become a hero, but she is a hero. I don’t know how I could have survived the horrors that she experienced as Germany and Russia invaded her homeland of Poland. It didn’t matter which side of the border she was on, the conquering armies made life miserable for all of Poland, but she still found the compassion and courage to protect those who were being hunted down.

As I read, I kept coming back to Irene’s words: “You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis, all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence” (143). Irene did not stop with hiding food under the fence. She listened as she served Nazi and SS officers their dinner and passed along news of raids to her friends in the ghetto. She transported Jews in a horse and buggy to hiding places in the deep forest. She hid a dozen Jewish men and women in the basement of a German officer’s house. Not bad work for someone who was “only a girl.” While the Germans may have underestimated her, the Russians considered her a dangerous Partisan resistance fighter–and she was.

I may not be faced with life or death decisions this week, but every day I am given the choice to act with kindness and love–or not. It is in making those small decisions that I can develop the habits and character that would lead to the courage to do the right thing in more desperate circumstances. I hope that I will one day show the courage that Irene did.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, 3rd edition by Harold D. Underdown

complete idiot's guide to publishing children's booksHarold D. Underdown gives a complete peek behind the curtain of the children’s publishing industry in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, Third Edition (Penguin 2008). I have picked up much of the information over the years from following the blogs of some of my favorite writers, but I still learned much about the process, especially what happens once the writing and editing is done.

I found some of the most valuable parts of the books to be the references to additional resources, whether book titles or websites.  My copy of the book has a rainbow of sticky notes poking out the side, marking all the places I want to go back for reference or to save as bookmarks on my computer before I have to return it to the library.

Like other books in the Complete Idiot’s series, the information is organized for easy access and packed with information. Sidebars add even more information with definitions of industry terms, “Class Rules” that explain aspects of the publishing business and secret tips.  My favorite parts are the playground stories, which share anecdotes from working writers and illustrators. Through it all, Underdown emphasizes the need for writers and illustrators to be professionals and to take their careers seriously. It is difficult to make a career out of writing and illustrating for children, but it is possible with hard work and a little bit of luck.

Even though the book has been out for just six year, the rapid changes in technology have made some sections seem outdated already. Self-publishing–especially with ebooks–is still fraught with pitfalls, but it offers a different  landscape nearly every week. The section on author visits doesn’t mention Skype, which I used in my classroom to connect my students with authors.

Even so, this is a valuable reference for anyone interested in writing or illustrating for children.

History Is So Bugged!

buggedI’ve been around long enough to learn that my history classes in school left out a lot of history. Kings and generals, battles and revolutions certainly shape history, but did you know that tiny bugs played their role as well? Nope?  Neither did I. Or at least I didn’t until I read Sarah Albee’s Bugged: How Insects Changed History (Scholastic 2014).

It is indeed “swarming with facts,” as the cover proclaims.  Not just any facts–it is packed with facts that are shocking and disgusting and gross.  There is mayhem and death and destruction on every page that is guaranteed to make you itch–if you can manage to scratch between peals of laughter. Did you know that bugs were once used as a form of execution? (Read all about it on page 100). You may even discover that your favorite red sports drink or cherry ice cream or pink blush contain dyes made from squashed bugs. (Read about it on page 20.)

Bugs have done dastardly things–devour food crops and spread deadly diseases–that have changed the course of battles and wiped out large numbers of people.  Albee digs to find the traces of bugs behind some of the most dramatic events of history, from ancient times to modern history, and from the Far East to the New World. I just wish my history textbooks in class could have been as much fun to read as this one was.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It’s Monday! What are you reading? Is a meme sponsored by Sheila at Book Journey.  Kellee at Unleashing Readers and Jen at Teach Menor Texts gave the meme a kidlit twist.  It’s a great way to reflect on what you’ve read and reviewed the last week and plan what you want to read next.  Join up with us and discover what good books other people are reading.


I got some writing done, I canned more tomatoes and pasta sauce.  I battled yellow jackets and baby snakes.  I even read some.  Here are the books that joined me through this week.

I finished…

cup of our lifeThe Cup of Our Life by Joyce Rupp – I’ve been using this book for my morning devotions the past six weeks.  I’ve used it before, but since I’m at a different place in my life, the reflections are still fresh and relevant.  Once again, I am moved by the symbolism of a cup for many things in my life.

staff of serapisStaff of Serapis by Rick Riordan – I found this one while poking around on Amazon looking for something else.  I still have to wait until October for The Blood of Olympus, but this long short story–or is it a short novella–might hold me over until then.  This time Annabeth Chase and Sadie Kane come together to defeat a monster that combines Greek and Egyptian elements.  The question remains, is Riordan just teasing us with these shorts, or is he planning another series joining the Greek demigods and the Egyptian magicians?

I’m currently reading…

les-miserablesLes Miserables by VIctor Hugo – I know this is one reason my reading (in terms of number of books) has slowed down.  I have spent quite a bit of time this week with Gavroche (a Paris street urchin) as he rescued his unknown younger brothers and escaping from prison with Thenadier.  He may be a rascal and the “master of the house,”  but he does have street smarts.  I am now 67% of the way through.  I’m still working to finish it by the end of the year.

code name verityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – I am almost done–just 25 minutes or so left.  I loved Morven Christie’s narration of Queenie/Julie.  She wrung every drop of emotion out of the character without being overwrought.  Then when Lucy Gaskell started narrating Maddy’s/Kitty Hawk’s part, I was blown away.  Her voice brought Maddy to life in my mind.  I will be sad to finish with this story again.

2014 childrens writers market2014 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market edited by Chuck Sambuchino – I have learned so much from reading the articles and interviews–making the most of conferences, creating compelling characters, taking the plunge into self-publishing, and more.  I am almost through the informational part for writing craft and business and to the list of publishers, agents, editors, magazines.

buggedBugged!  How Insects Changed History by Sarah Albee – I am having too much fun reading this one.  I have to bite my tongue to keep from sharing gross facts about bugs and the diseases they spread at inopportune times.  Even though much of the information is groww, I find myself laughing, too.


How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals by Mal Warwick – This one is due back at the library today, and I think I’m going to hand it back in unread.  My heart is with writing stories–both fiction and nonfiction–not in copywriting.  If that opportunity presents itself, I know where I can get the book if I want to learn it later.

Coming up…

I am nearly finished with several books.  I’m not sure what I what I will grab off the shelf next.  I will choose another audio book from the ones I downloaded from Sync YA earlier this summer.  I’m looking for something lighter after the intensity of Code Name Verity.  I’ve also been picking up Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, so it may be next up, too.

Praying in Color by Sybil MacBeth

praying in colorPraying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God is not just a book to read.  Sybil MacBeth invites you to grab some markers or colored pencils or pens or even crayons and a sheet of paper and give expression to your prayers in a new way.

I appreciate how she shares her own spiritual journey in coming to doodle as a form of payer.  I often feel inadequate when I pray.  Sitting in silence didn’t often work for me unless I had a pen and notebook and could write my prayers.  Even though I do write to express myself, sometmes words don’t seem to be enough to still my frantic thoughts.

I dug out and sharpened my color pencils.  I grabbed my notebook.  I began to doodle and pray in color myself.  It is not instantly comfortable for me, but I am finding value in it.  I have to remind myself (and MacBeth emphasizes the point) that artistic talent is not the point.  The point is to hold someone or something in the presence of God.  In some ways, the practice reminds me of the exploring I’ve done with using doodling as a means of taking notes on what I read or hear.  The visualization is a different way of thinking as well as praying.

I found the book easy to read.  The short chapters are focused and sprinkled with many examples–both in anecdotes and in actual icons created by praying in color.  She starts with her journey of using doodles to pray for others.   As the book continues, she shares many other ways to doodle with other ways of praying and entering into Scripture.

Not only do I look forward to what I will learn from this experience, but I am also excited to share it with the teenagers in the Sunday School class I teach.  I hope they find it a way to come before God, too.


It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It’s Monday! What are you reading? Is a meme sponsored by Sheila at Book Journey.  Kellee at Unleashing Readers and Jen at Teach Menor Texts gave the meme a kidlit twist.  It’s a great way to reflect on what you’ve read and reviewed the last week and plan what you want to read next.  Join up with us and discover what good books other people are reading.


Now that school is back in for my daughter, I’m back to trying to balance my reading and my writing…and gardening.  The tomato plants have exploded with ripe, juicy Roma tomatoes that we transform into salsa and pizza sauce and pasta sauce.  Let’s not even talk about the fresh corn, cantaloupe, bell peppers, zucchini, and cucumbers.  We even still have broccoli!  Even so, I managed to finish two books last week and make progress with more.

I finished …

handbook of magazine article writingWriter’s Digest of Magazine Article Writing edited by Michelle Ruberg – Some of the information in this guide repeated what I had read in my previous books in my freelance writing crash course.  Not surprising since the people who wrote the books I read earlier contributed to this book as well.  I appreciated hearing it again (It’s starting to sink in.), and there was enough new information to make it worth while to read.  Following the advice I’ve been reading, I received my first assignment from an editor last week!

praying in colorPraying in Color:  Drawing a New Path to God by Sybil MacBeth – Not only did I finish reading this book, I’ve been exploring praying in color myself.  It is a very different way for me to pray since I have always been more comfortable with writing than drawing, but I am eager to explore more.  I plan to write a more thorough reflection on the book and my explorations later this week.  Meanwhile, I’ve sharpened the colored pencils!

I’m currently reading ….

les-miserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo – The story is picking up again and so is my reading.  My favorite part from this week’s reading was when Jean Valjean stopped a pickpocket in his tracks and then gave the thief the purse he was trying to steal.  Then the thief lost the wallet to a young pickpocket, who gave the purse to an old man who had nothing.  My goal is to finish this by the end of the year.  I will need to spend more time with it than I have been.

code name verityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – The audio is excellent and gets better by the minute.  I’m nearing the end of Queenie’s story, and the narration is heart-wrenching to listen to.  I can’t wait to hear how Maddie’s story is narrated.

2014 childrens writers market2014 Children’s Writer’s & illustrator’s Market edited by Chuck Sambuchino – I knew this was a comprehensive list of publishers, agents, and magazines for the children’s market, but I did not realize how much practical advice and tips it contained as well.  I’m learning so much!

buggedBugged:  How Insects Changed History by Sarah Albee – i don’t know how it happened, but nonfiction today is much better than back in the day when the children’s librarian at my public library had to beg me to read nonfiction.  (I reluctantly tried mythology and biographies, but not much else.)  I always thought I would want to write fiction (and I do), but I would also love to write nonfiction like this.  It’s not only “swarming with facts” (as the cover proclaims), but it’s funny.

Coming up …

how to write successful fundraising appealsHow to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals by Mal Warwick – It’s another book in my crash course (almost all of them from my local library).  The copywriting I am most interested in doing is for not-for-profits.  Having worked for both secular and religious not-for-profits, I know fundraising is a fact of life for them.  I like the idea of using my writing to help causes I support, too.  Since I keep putting off opening this one, I know where I want to spend my time writing.

What are you reading this week?

“The President Has Been Shot!” by James L. Swanson

imageI was not yet born when John F. Kennedy was President, but I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents and their friends talk about the impact his assassination had on them.  Each one could remember the details of when and where they were when they first learned of it.  Every national tragedy of my childhood was compared to that impact, from the assassination attempt on Reagan to the Challenger explosion, was compared to–and found to fall short of–the Kennedy assassination.

James L. Swanson gives an account not only of that November day in Texas, but he also provides the context.  Part I of the book introduces John F. Kennedy.  After a brief survey of his early life, Swanson focuses on the important events in his short Presidency and portrays a little of the Kennedy mystique that enthralled the country.  Part II details the events leading up to and following the assassination, tracing the actions of the Kennedys and of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I did not find this book as compelling as Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, but I think that had more to do with Oswald himself than with the writing. Swanson gives no credibility to any of the conspiracy theories that swirl around the assassination.  (He does list a few books that explore conspiracy theories in the bibliography with the disclaimer that their inclusion “does not mean that I endorse any of them or support any of their theories.”)  So little is known about Oswald’s motivation or even the details of how he planned that it is hard to find him a compelling character.  We simply don’t know what was going on inside his head.

In addition to giving an overview of the historical events and context, “The President Has Been Shot!” is packed with photographs, diagrams, and copies of original documents.  The appendix shares a list of important places connected with the assassination and lists a bibliography for further reading.

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