Friday, December 30, 2011

The Next Door Boys...Loving a book is rarely this easy!

(I will preface this by saying I'm really getting sick of seeing my own mug on this blog. For years I didn't post any picture of me and lately... well, ugh. But I have this thing about books by people I know. It's important to show I have the book, I own it... I'm so excited to hold THEIR book in MY hand. It's become tradition. So here I am again.)

The Next Door Boys by Jolene Perry.

I'll tell you a true story. I've read 48 books this year, all literary fiction and memoir, and felt buried under the weighty stuff of school for the better part of the last 12 months. People recommend fun books, I put them on my Goodreads list and make a mental note to come back to them in another year. But there's no time for just fun stuff now. If it's not on my reading list, it pretty much doesn't get read.

Until I was chatting with Jolene late, late one night (I live in Virginia and she in Alaska, so it was probably not that late for her), and we got talking about her books. I am a huge fan of Jolene's blog - she makes me laugh like crazy - and her emails crack me up. I am a huge fan of Jolene. But I'd never read any of her writing, and she offered to send me one of the manuscripts her agent was shopping.

I told her sure, send it on, and I'll try to read it at the end of the semester, when all my other books were finished. I absolutely could not read it right now...

So she sent it with the words "whenever you get to it is fine," and I opened the document just to peek at it - to make sure it came in readable format and all that - and then I caught the first sentence... and couldn't stop. I finally finished it around three in the morning, bleary-eyed and surrounded by tear-filled kleenex. I wrote her back and said, "You HAVE to get this published!! There are people I NEED to give this to!!"

It was, and remains, one of my favorite books I've read this year. Sadly for you, that book is not available yet. :(

Luckily for you - her first book IS! And it is equally hard to put down!

The Next Door Boys is about a girl named Leigh who, coming off a year of cancer and the resulting treatments, escapes her parents' overly protective home to attend college and find her independence again.

Leigh struggles with the same things we all did at that age: finding our own self, transitioning from child to adult, learning that as much as we want to stand on our own, it's okay to need others. But she does it with the perspective of someone who has touched death, giving this book a sense of depth unlike so many other young adult books I've read.

Jolene does a fabulous job with characters. They feel entirely real and fully dimensional... there's not a flat cardboard character in this book, which is chock full of characters. especially Leigh, who wants her independence and normal life back so much that she puts her own health in peril. There are a lot of nice people in this book, which is, frankly, refreshing. The fact is, nice people can add complexities to a situation as well, and Jolene's cast of characters bring their own well-intentioned but nevertheless frustrating roadblocks to Leigh's desire for a normal life. Besides her own housemates, Leigh has to contend with the "next door boys": her watchful older brother, a handful of boys with crushes on her, and a tattoo-laden guy with a past and the secrets that go with it.

I liked that faith was also an integral part of Leigh's story. I think faith is important to a lot more people than books tend to show, and Jolene manages to make Leigh's faith so seamlessly a part of this story that it doesn't feel like an added element, but rather one the story could never have been written without. In fact, the importance of family in the LDS church plays a huge role in how Leigh sees herself and her future, knowing the cancer has robbed her of the ability to have children.

This book is both fun and heart-wrenching, and impossible to put down. While I would say it was an easy read in the fact that I fairly flew through the pages, it was also definitely thought provoking, and the kind of book that stays with you long after you finish. And as a young adult book, I was thrilled it had no language or sexual content that would keep me from giving this to my kids to read.

I highly recommend this book, and any other book Jolene writes. I, for one, will be the first in line for the next one!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Workshop Letters Are In! (and other things)

You know you've found the right grad program when you literally leap for joy when you get homework.

We wrapped up last semester in mid-November, and since then I've transitioned - at least activity-wise - to holiday mode. I've gone to Christmas parties with my husband at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum:

I've gone to Christmas concerts with my mom in Williamsburg:

I've spent an incredible weekend in DC with friends, walking around downtown and going to the Army/Navy football game:

I've attended band and choir concerts of my kids:

I've baked dozens and dozens of cookies, two batches of fudge, five batches of Chex Mix. I've decorated and cleaned and shopped and wrapped.

What I have not done is read or write. Which isn't to say I haven't been thinking about those things... and missing them.

So last week, when emails starting flurrying around that the administration had organized our workshop groups for January residency, I was a little more than distracted. I think it's possible I hit "refresh" on my inbox more than when I was waiting for query responses.

And this week it finally came. And I couldn't be more thrilled.

For one, I know almost everyone in my workshop, which is pretty darn cool. It means I'm not so much a newbie anymore. And the writers in my group are phenomenal. Which leads me to hyperventilate and worry about my own submission a bit, but I try to ignore that part. I'm just glad I get to be with such talented people... that can only be good for my own writing.

And the workshop leaders are AMAZING. Pete Fromm, for one... whose book How All This Started blew me away when I read it a little over a year ago, and was one of my top books of the year until I read his next book, As Cool As I Am. I'm not one to fawn over writers, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I get a little speechless around him.

And Katherine Dunn, my other workshop leaders. She wrote Geek Love, a National Book Award finalist that I've been mulling over for a year or two. It's dense and disturbing and utterly unique... a masterpiece. The fact that I get to even sit in the same room as her is astounding to me.

In two weeks I will be winging my way to Oregon again, to my own little oasis of writerly heaven. Before then, I need to read and critique my seven new workshop pieces, finish reading a book, revise a chapter in my novel that's been bugging me. And, oh yeah, celebrate Christmas.

Life is good.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Something Both Literary and Festive, and the Contest Winner!

I saw a picture on the internet of something like this and loved it so much, I thought I'd try it myself. It works better if you can build from the floor up, and have a lot of room, but I used my MFA reading list, a stack of Shakespeare books, and a desk. It's not that elegant, but I LOVE it! What's more festive than a Christmas tree made out of books?

As for the My Memories Suite digital scrapbooking contest, the contestants were thin, but worthy! I am so proud to announce the winner of the software as Lynn, from "Connecting Stories" and her photography blog, "LPS Designs." Lynn is both a fabulous story teller and an incredible photographer, so she is the perfect person to have won this, and I am so excited to see what she will do with it! Congratulations!!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Interpreting Facebook:What Do Those Cryptic Updates Mean?

Facebook is such an individual thing. Everyone uses it differently, which is, when not annoying, pretty cool. For some, it's their political soapbox. For some, it's the place to show off cute cat YouTube videos. Others use it to brag about their kids or to crack inside jokes no one will get other than that one tagged friend.

And some are personal.

Sometimes, frankly, too personal. I'm all about expressing your individuality, but when you need to detail the progression of your diarhea, I'm hiding you for a few days. No offense, it's not that I don't like you... I just don't want to hear the amount of trips to the bathroom you're taking, and what your poop looks like.

And no, I'm not making that up.

But hey, if you feel the need to detail that, I'm not going to criticize you for it. It's your page. Write what you want.

Some people feel the need to post every move they make, every action they take.  "Went to the thrift store and dropped off my old computer monitor and then went to Target and bought a red ribbon for my mailbox, a box of diapers because my four year old won't sleep through the night without wetting the bed (still!), a pack of two 9-volt batteries for my smoke detectors, and nail files because my thumb nail is all ragged. Then I came home and took a two hour and ten minute nap."

I'm not making that up, either.

I'm less.... specific. It's not that I don't want you to know me. I just don't think you care about all of that. 

But if you do, here is the translation to a couple of my recent posts... just so you can know what I really meant when I wrote them.

Update: They should call Chex mix what it really is: puppy crack-cocaine.
Translation:  I am making Chex mix because my daughter promised her teacher I'd make it for their party, and the puppy decided it was really his, knocked the bowl over, and now I have Chex mix all over the floor and have to go out to the store to buy more cereal because I used the last of the Wheat Chex. Also, the puppy is deliriously happy about this development and is frantically running around licking at the floor, his tail knocking over the plant in the corner. Now I also have to vacuum. And repot a plant.
Update: The best part of having to go out in the cold-enough-to-snow night? Bun warmers. Have I mentioned how much I love bun warmers?
Translation:  I am running errands after dark. This sucks. I should be at home with my family, eating dinner, watching The Grinch That Stole Christmas, but instead I am freezing my tail off running my kids back and forth to music practice that is more indicative of a professional Nutcracker performance than a church sing-a-long. But I have bun-warmers in the car. So don't say I don't find the silver lining when I need to.
Update: Went outside to walk the pup and wondered why I could hear the sounds of the ocean. It's the creek in our backyard. It totally sounds like the beach. Which is both cool.... and scary.
Translation: It's been raining freakin' 48 hours straight. I get it. I need to build an ark. And up our flood insurance. I'm rethinking the fact that we bought a house with a meandering creek behind it. That creek is now a raging rapids. And also, I'm walking the dog in the freakin' rain. So I am cold and wet, and rethinking having a dog.
Update: We have coyotes in our yard.
Update: I caught three snakes in the house.
Update: We trapped five mice in the basement in two hours.
Update: A bear was sighted in our neighborhood!
Translation: I may live in the woods and work by myself from home, but don't think I don't have reinforcements if you show up on my door trying to rob me.

(Translation: I have no idea how to end this post, and I have one more thing to share that is semi-related but I can't find a way to make it sound like a natural follow up)
Here's a Christmas Facebook video I love. Maybe you've seen it, but I thought it was good enough to share. 
Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Christmas Giveaway: My Memories Suite Digital Scrapbooking Software!!

I don't do giveaways very often on this blog. Not that I don't love y'all, but it's just not my thing. For one, I'm terrible at mailing stuff. It requires showering, putting on makeup, wearing decent clothes, getting in my car, driving 20 minutes to the post office... and all that is only if I manage to get whatever I am giving away in an envelope, address it, and stamp it.

Yeah. Not likely.

But when My Memories asked if I wanted to offer my blog readers a digital download of their scrapbooking software, I thought, heck yeah!

I did a lot of scrapbooking years ago, but I admit that in the last five years or so I've done almost none of it because I don't have room or time to drag all the papers, scissors, stamps, embellishments, templates, brads, markers, ink, etc, out. I'd start a project and the dining room table would be a mess for the better part of a month or two before I'd have to put it all away unfinished so we could eat again.

Also, all my photos are digital, and getting them all uploaded to some photo site and printed was not happening. Not when I take 1300 photos at Disney, 600 at the beach, 300 on Christmas day.

A few years ago, I got a digital software program for doing scrapbooks on the computer. I thought the idea was brilliant. No more having to print up all of my photos! No more having to figure out how to make a 4x6 print fit a 5x7 space, or a 3x3 space. No more dining room messes. No more buying expensive papers and embellishments. Perfect!

Except it didn't work with my Mac and I rarely got on the desktop we keep in the basement. Also, my pictures were on my Mac, not the desktop. It just didn't happen.

So when My Memories Suite contacted me, I decided to try theirs out. It works on a PC or a Mac, comes with tons of pre-made templates that can be used exactly as is or completely customizable, works with any free papers and frames and embellishments I download off the internet, and can be used for any size project - both in height and width, and in pages.

Here's a few things I played around with:

(a quick note - I took screenshots of them rather than upload the full-sized pages, and so some have the dimensions in the corners. Obviously this is not what shows up in a real album!)

This is from their pre-made template. I just plugged in my own photos.

On the second one, I added the quote - their program lets you choose from any size and any font on your computer, any color, any layout you want, including adjusting the space between the lines - and I changed the photos to black and white. It was so easy peasy. This album is pages and pages of this same look - the red and white and simple block photos. I just picked two to give you an example of how easy and beautiful it is.

Here's another set:

In this first one, I just chose a classic layout that worked with the photos I wanted to put in. The two smaller photos were bigger than the template, so I changed the size of them to fit. The snowflakes were something I'd found for free off the internet.

In the second one I thought I'd add background paper. I chose a textured blue one, but it was a little dark for me, so I changed the opacity on it to 50% to lighten it up.

This is another example of creating my own page:

There are infinite kinds of background papers. You can choose any of their pretty good free selections that come with the program, buy more (they have a TON of great kits), find ones you like from online (there are thousands of free and for-sale ones), or just choose a color (any color at all). You can change the opacity of any of the above, so it can be as bold or as subtle as you want.

I made of collage of some of my cherry blossom photos - something that would have been very hard to do with prints, because I would have needed lots of different sizes.

 As you can see, I like things pretty clean and simple. I like straight lines and not a lot of fluff. But that's just my style. You can certainly bring your own style to it. Like this:

 The above is one of their templates. I plugged a photo in and saved. Less than ten seconds. The one below is made with a free packet off the internet that I found. There isn't a template here - I just mashed a bunch of things together.

The program is really easy to figure out, too. It didn't take much time for me to be zooming around in it. The layout looks like this:

It's not just for scrapbooking, though. You can make photo books, cards, videos, add music, etc. I initially hoped I could make blog headers and banners with it, but I couldn't figure out how to do it, although it would be simple enough to make an entire blog template. I have a feeling there are a lot of things you can do, though, that I just haven't had time to figure out.

Here's the great thing: My Memories has offered a $10 off code through this blog, so if you want to buy the software, you can do it at a steal of a price by clicking on the banner below and using the code STMMMS14934 in the checkout.

OR.... You could win it!

I am offering one person a FREE DOWNLOAD of the entire digital scrapbook software - a $39.97 value. Just click on the My Memories banner below, browse the kits and leave a comment in this post telling me which you like best.

For extra entries:
  • tweet about it (1 entry)
  • post on facebook (1 entry) 
  • +1 this on Google+ (1 entry)
  • or all of the above! 
You can do all of these by just clicking the buttons at the bottom of this post.

Make sure to put all of your entries in the comment section!

Next Monday (December 19, 2011) I'll post one winner. If I don't already have your email, make sure you leave that as well, so I can get back to you!

Good luck!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


"My happiness is so great at this moment I wish I could die...because in the midst of happiness grows a seeds of unhappiness. Happiness consumes itself like a flame. It can't burn forever; sooner or later it must die. And that knowledge destroys the joy for me, right at its peak."  

from A Dream Play by August Strindberg

When I first read this play in college, I thought it was so depressing... and yet so wise. Or maybe just insightful, because the older I get, the more this is how I subconsciously think. When I am the most happiest, I am the most aware of how happy I am - of how grateful I am for the people and things in my life, of how blessed I am - but also the most aware I am of how fragile those things are, and how quickly they can be taken away.

It's been three years this month that my friend died suddenly, brutally. This week, I got news that a dear man who has greatly influenced our oldest daughter, died Sunday morning. Another beautiful, amazing woman who taught my youngest daughter in pre-school and attended Bible study with me was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. Another mother I adore got word that her daughter has not long to live.

It was a rough weekend.

And in their pain I am acutely aware of my own happiness - of my family, my kids that are my whole world and my husband who is the love of my life, the every breath I take. My parents who make aging look easy and graceful. My friends who stick by me through everything, who encourage me and love me. My opportunity to go to school, to write. The feeling of being healthy and pain-free. The pile of presents under the Christmas tree.

In the store today I saw an elderly couple shopping together, lovingly bickering over cuts of meat and loaves of bread, and my heart broke for the incredible woman who just lost her husband this Sunday and now faces a future that does not involve growing old with him. And the thought of the possibility of not growing old with my own husband makes my heart clench.

There is a part of me that thinks this is ridiculous of me - to spoil joy with sorrow that isn't even real. And  yet, another part of me thinks this is how it should be - how it must be. To not be aware of how every day is not a given, every tomorrow is not destined, is to not fully appreciate how miraculous life is. It's not really that I am letting loss taint my happiness, so much as great happiness comes at the price of acknowledging the possibility of loss.

That's my philosophizing for the week. This is the kind of thing my mind rumbles around when I stop writing. Too much living in the real world and not enough in the imaginary one, I suppose.