A Few Great Middle Grade Books for Your TBR List

After I finished patting myself on the back for reaching my 2015 reading goal in June in this post, it occurred to me that a few of my recent reads weren’t getting the “air time” they deserve. So while really enjoyed Cinder by Marissa Meyer and The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater, you don’t need me to tell you they’re good. The Twitter chatter and award nominations speak for themselves. Let tell you about a few books that are great but not getting the buzz they deserve.

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Present day England is haunted by ghosts that threaten the population every night and can only be seen by kids. Teenaged Anthony Lockwood starts a Psychic Detection Agency and hires Lucy and George to help him take on cases to rid clients of the spirits haunting them. But while other agencies are run by adults, Lockwood & Co decides to face the ghosts on their own, and their methods are sometimes not the most conventional. Will their psychic senses and rapiers save them from being frozen by the ghost-touch? Lockwood & Co has great world-building, humor and is down-right creepy.

Space Case by Stuart Gibbs

What could be more interesting than getting a spot living in the first space station on the moon? A lot of things, according to 12-year-old Dash Gibson. But when the base’s top scientist turns up dead, Dash doesn’t believe the story that it was suicide. Dash and his family are trapped in the base with the killer, making life much more interesting. Dash launches his own investigation, but soon finds himself in hot water. The Space Case has great characters and enough action to distract a gamer from his iPad.

At Your Service by Jen Malone

Twelve-year-old Chloe Turner’s dream is to be a concierge at a top NYC hotel, just like her dad. She’s well on her way, serving as junior concierge under her father. She handles the hotel’s smallest and sometimes most demanding guests. Organizing back-stage visits with the Rockettes is right up Chloe’s alley. But when Chloe loses a visiting princess on the streets of Manhattan, can she find her before the king finds out? Or the press? At Your Service is a great romp through the tourist spots of New York, as well as a story about having a dream and working hard to achieve it.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Okay, you’ve heard of Huck Finn, but when was the last time you read it? For me, it was probably high school. I bought the audio book because it was assigned for one of my son’s summer literary art projects and I was worried that my twelve-year-old would have trouble getting through a classic over vacation. I was so wrong! Huck has a hilarious voice that while very different from the way we talk today, is nonetheless approachable. Huck, Jim and Tom Sawyer get themselves caught in one mess after another and their schemes for escape generally make things worse rather than better. This book got two kids and I through 20 hours of driving to and from a visit to Grandma’s. ‘Nough said.

What’s your favorite recent middle grade read? (The comment button is right under the post title.)

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How I Hit My 2015 Reading Goal in June.

2015 was the first year I had a goal for the number of books I wanted to read. In previous years, I read books, but not as many as I would have liked. There were always books that came up in writerly discussions that I felt I should have read, but hadn’t gotten to. I had all the typical excuses: “I don’t want to cut into my writing time” and “I read a lot for critiquing and beta reads.” But I decided that this year I was going to get past the excuses and pick up the pace.

How did I do it?

I set an achievable goal. Well, as it turns out, I set my goal way too low. I saw other writers on Twitter talking about their goals to read 50 books. A book a week? It just didn’t seem possible with writing and critiquing and kids/family commitments and life. I set my goal at 25.

Clearly my goal should have been 50. I read 27 books before June 30th and I haven’t even had my beachy, read-a-thon vacation yet. I’ll easily hit 50 books easily by the end of the year. But if I set my goal at 50 initially, I wouldn’t be able to write this blog post…so there’s that.

I tracked my progress. I set up a simple excel spreadsheet where I could type in a new title as I started a book and mark it as read when I finished it, then get excited about the next title I was going to add. It’s the tiny rewards in life that keep us plugging away.

I read in all formats. At any given point in time I have a few different books going. I have a physical book I’m reading, I have an audio book I’m listening to when I’m driving or when chopping vegetables (see my post on Why Writing Podcasts Are Better Than Brocolli to find out more about my love of anything that turns errand time into productive time), and I usually have a second audio book I’m listening to when my kids are in the car. The “kids’ book” strategy started when my son needed to make it through Tom Sawyer as a summer read. Too classic for a 12 year old boy, I thought, but not so! We all loved it and listened to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as well. “Reading” in the car not only cuts down on squabbling in the back seat, but also means my kids are reading more too. Audio reading with my kids means that there are more 39 Clues titles in my “read books” list than I would care to admit. I love Halli Gomez’s voice in this series, but still would have dropped it after book 3 if it weren’t for the back seat’s insistence.

Since I had a little spreadsheet tracking my books, I also tracked the format of the books I was reading. Seven were hard cover, 4 were paperback, 2 were kindle and a whopping 14 were audio books. My take-away is that for me, this “made” reading time from listening to audio books is key to getting more books read.

The 27 books I read even include 2 on craft. I’m pretty bad about spending precious reading time on craft books rather than getting lost in a novel, so I’m particularly proud of having had two on my list. I have to credit this to awesome critique partners who gave me great recommendations: Bird by Bird and Save the Cat. Both were great! In fact, I’m sure I’ll reread Save the Cat since I’m trying to get better at plotting

What will I do differently in the second half of the year?

From July on, I’d like to be a bit more mindful about the audio books I suggest to my kids. Too many 39 Clues titles. ‘Nough said.

I’m considering an Audible subscription. I’ve held off on buying audio books because they’re more expensive than Kindle or paperback. Of the audio books I read in the last 6 months, one was purchased, the others were borrowed from the library. But my little study of how much more reading I can do when listening rather than having to find time to sit down with a book makes it pretty clear that audio books helped a lot.

The Audible subscription comes down to being mindful about listening to the books that will be the most enjoyable and will most help me improve my writing. While browsing the library’s audio catalogue led to some great finds, it also limited me to their catalogue.

Next week’s post will be about the books I most enjoyed over the first 6 months of 2015.
Do You Have a Reading Goal for 2015? How’s it going? Feel free to leave a comment! (The comment button is right under the post title.)

Why Writing Podcasts Are Better Than Broccoli

It’s a happy day when I can curl up in an armchair and get lost in the story of a kick-butt heroine or the little guy taking on the forces of evil. But while I cringe to admit it, I am awful about setting aside precious reading time for books on craft. They are the broccoli at the buffet.  Sorry, the fettuccine alfredo and triple fudge cake have filled up my plate. No room for you!

So I was incredibly excited to find a way around this conundrum of needing to focus more on craft and not wanting to give up fun reads…writing podcasts. Writing podcasts are like getting Hermoine to lend me her time-turner. They take boring errand time – driving to the bus stop to get the kids, grocery shopping, and even chopping vegetables for dinner – and turn it into time to focus on craft. They even provide encouragement to get over those days when the cursor seems to be taunting me, and insight into business aspects of publishing. What could be better?

The Writing Excuses tag line is “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.” But show’s four hosts, Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells, are that smart. Their podcast for newbie fiction writers focuses on one topic on craft or the business of publishing each week. They are in their tenth season of this podcast, so there’s a lot of good stuff in their archive. Since the hosts’ writing ranges from horror to epic fantasy to online comics to historical romance, they approach each topic with a variety of perspectives and great insight. You can find Writing Excuses at  http://www.writingexcuses.com/ and on iTunes.

Mur Lafferty hosts I Should Be Writing: The Podcast for Wannabe Fiction Writers. Mur is amazingly forthright about the ups and downs of writing life. She talks about everything from getting rejections to writer’s block in a way that makes you feel like you’re not alone, wasting your time slogging away at your computer. Mur wants you to keep writing great stories. For some of Mur’s Momma Hen encouragement, find I Should Be Writing at http://murverse.com/podcasts/ and on iTunes.

A relatively new podcast I’ve started following is Ditch Diggers. Mur Lafferty hosts this podcast with Matt Wallace. While I Should Be Writing is targeted toward newbies, this show is focused on the realities of making a living as a writer. Mur’s openness about the good and the bad of writing as a career are pushed to brutal honesty by Matt’s pull-no-punches style. And these guys take on the issues no one talks about in public: when your agent doesn’t like your new book, when your publisher decides to change the terms of your already-signed contract. They’ve had great guests, including Kameron Hurley and Chuck Wendig. Mur promises that Ditch Diggers will show up at murverse.com, but it’s not there yet. Look for it on iTunes.

For a podcast that goes deep into craft, turn to Helping Writers Become Authors. K.M. Weiland puts tons of research into her podcasts, delving into a different craft topic each week. You can find Helping Writers Become Authors at http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/resources/podcasts/ and on iTunes.

So from me, here’s a big thank you to Mary, Brandon, Howard, Dan, Mur, Matt and K.M. for making learning about craft and the business of writing more like chocolate fudge cake than brocolli. And you, reader, have no more excuses. Go download some writing podcasts today.