Free Books and Such

If you’ve thought The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice sounds like the perfect book for your daughter or niece or granddaughter or for a prize for the Sunday school class you teach or for the classroom of your teacher friend, I have good news. You can win a free copy. A number of bloggers in the recent Children’s Book Blog Tour are holding drawings and the links are available at Kidz Book Buzz.

And if you’ve followed the tour, you might consider voting for the Best Blogger of the tour (see the poll in the left sidebar).

Speaking of polls, today is the last day for you to vote for the CSFF February Top Blogger Award because it’s scheduled to close Saturday at 8:00 AM (Pacific time? I’m not sure, so to be safe, don’t wait). The one exception would be another tie as we had last month.

starfireBack to free books, by participating in Stuart Vaughn Stockton’s contest introducing his upcoming release, Starfire, you’ll be eligible to win a set of Brandilyn Collins books, a copy of Stuart’s book, a copy of By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson (see my review at Speculative Faith), and more.

By the way, Volume 3, Issue 2 of Latest In Spec is now available. If you would rather not wait or would rather receive a copy sent to you via email, subscribe by leaving a comment here or at the LIS site.

Back to contests. I’m thinking we’re overdue for another version of The Fantasy Challenge. I’ll need to contact a few authors and see what prizes might be offered. The challenge is going to center on you telling others about the 2008 or 2009 Christian fantasies you think are worthy of some buzz, so let me know what books you’d like to have on the list.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?

(Opening lines from the 1966 Dionne Warwick song “Alfie”)

I can’t help but ask that question about fiction. What am I doing and why am I doing it? The hours I put into writing and the hours someone else puts into reading – what’s it add up to?

Here’s Sally Apokedak‘s conclusion of the middle grade novel we just toured, The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice:

The Year the Swallows Came Early is a beautiful book that gives a deep message with a light touch. Readers will take from it much or little depending on what they are ready to take, but they will grow from reading it. Because the characters in the book grow.

That’s the way I want to write. I want to create a story with a deep message, but I want to do so with a light touch so readers, all readers, will grow as they are ready to. Not because I tell them what to do but because they see the change in my characters. They see something winsome, something worthy, something satisfying, something that rings true and builds on what they know to be so.

From my analysis of The Year the Swallows Came Early I saw an amazing attention to detail that contributed to the creation of “a light touch.”

Now I’m wondering, do deep messages ever really “emerge,” or are those that do so, doomed to be light messages?

Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 2:01 pm  Comments (5)  
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Children’s Book Blog Tour, Day 3 – Theme in The Year the Swallows Came Early

To vote for the CSFF Blog Tour’s February Top Blogger, click here.

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This is the final day of the Children’s Book Blog Tour for the wonderful middle grade novel The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. If you’ve read any portion of my last two posts, you know this is a book I love.

The thing is, the more I examined The Year the Swallows Came Early to write these posts, the more I found to love. But time and space crowded from my review some of the book’s notable strengths. For example, I didn’t include any mention of Groovy’s delightful voice, reminiscent of great fiction such as To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn’t mention the beautiful language, so unforced, so natural to the characters, it’s easy to overlook, though it contributes to the mood, the characterization, and to the themes.

In short, I think The Year the Swallows Came Early is a book that deserves attention because it does so much so well. It’s the kind of book would-be writers would do well to study.

In that vein, I want to look at theme. I mentioned in my review that the themes in The Year the Swallows Came Early, woven into the fabric of the story, comprise one of the book’s strengths. Just a quick warning: of necessity, I will be discussing aspects of the story that might be spoilers, so please consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Earlier I mentioned “themes,” because in reality, this book says much. At the core is forgiveness, but that’s accompanied by not judging on outward appearances and by the importance of trustworthiness. Yet never are these issues delivered in such a way that the reader feels as if the author is talking to him. In fact, rarely is there mention of the key issues. So how did Ms. Fitzmaurice communicate her themes?

One way she did so was by using what I’ll call book-end symbols. Chapter 1 is entitled “Coconut Flakes” and the metaphor at the bottom of the first page explains it:

And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

While mention of coconut occurs on several other occasions, the most memorable instance is in the last chapter entitled “Caramel”:

Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.

So coconut pictures the hard things in life, but by looking at chocolate candies no one can tell if the inside holds coconut or caramel.

The plot reinforces this early image. Daddy, who is taking Groovy to work with him, holding her hand, is arrested. Mama, who seems absorbed with her own needs, shows she’s concerned for Groovy’s life and heart and passion. The minor characters echo the theme. Crazy Mr. Tom is the one who delivers wisdom and who doesn’t look so crazy when he’s cleaned up and off to move into his new trailer. Frankie’s mom, who appeared to have deserted him, comes back to explain what really happened.

Even little things sharpen this point: Mama’s turning to makeovers as a solution to problems, her belief that hot weather was earthquake weather, even chocolate covered strawberries that play such a prominent role in the story.

Another way the themes are woven into the story is through what the characters learn. The importance of forgiveness comes out because of both a negative instance and a positive. The negative is two fold. First Frankie holds a grudge toward his mom, but it eats him up inside, beautifully played out by his popping Tums at times when his mother comes up in the conversation, and beautifully resolved in the end by Groovy’s supposing:

I imagine one day when his mama hugs him, he’ll put his arms around her, too. That these letters she sends are paving the way to family dinners together. That maybe the next time Frankie sees his doctor, the doctor will say, “Frankie, I have good news. You have been miraculously cured of stomachaches.”

Of course Groovy goes through her own dark night of the soul and must come to forgiveness too. The climactic scene is so rich, I wish I could post the whole thing, but here’s part:

Mr. Tom shook his head. “You don’t want what Frankie has. All that anger will turn you to stone … He reached to touch my shoulder and stared into my eyes, then squinted. Not from the sun, which was shining hard off the ocean just then. But from the story he must have seen, and the girl I knew I would become if I chose not to forgive. Because I could see that he knew all about people not showing forgiveness from his wrinkled-sheet face, the way his eyebrows slanted down on the edges, the sadness they whispered.

Again, there is more, more, more, so much more, but I think you get the idea. The themes of this story are integral to it. There would be no story without these themes. They are at the core of the plot, they are what determines how the characters develop. They are reinforced with symbolism and developed through dialogue (one of the things I’ll save to discuss another day). But never does the author turn this back on the reader or spell it out as a universal life lesson. Is it a universal life lesson? The reader must come to his own conclusions.

You won’t want to miss what the others on the tour have to say about The Year the Swallows Came Early:

Children’s Book Blog Tour – The Year the Swallows came Early, a Review

Those interested in voting for the CSFF Blog Tour’s February Top Blogger, can find the necessary information here.

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As part of the Children’s Book Blog Tour, I am happy to feature The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. This is a middle grade novel with a girl protagonist, a coming of age story—quite frankly, not a book I would usually be drawn to. But if you read my post yesterday, you already know the main character quickly drew me in.

The Story. If you visit here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction and have read some of my other reviews, you know I hate to give a story away. Part of the fun of reading, as I see it, is discovering What Will Happen Next. Summaries, by definition, encapsulate the story, but for those of us who don’t want to know how it turns out before we start on page one, summaries can kill our interest before we start. Not everyone feels the same way. Some people (horror! – 😮 ) even read the last page first! If by some (sorry) chance – 😉 – you fall into this category, I refer you to some of the other blogs on the tour that did a good job of summarizing the story: Dolce Bellezza’s Day 1 post or Cafe of Dreams’ Day 2 post. Here’s my shorter version.

Groovy Robinson’s world turns upside down the day her father is arrested, in no small part because her mother won’t answer her questions. At least not at first. When she does explain, she creates more questions than she answers, and eventually Groovy wonders who she can believe, who she can trust. At a point of despair, she discovers that all is not as it seems and people are both more and less than what they appear to be. In the end, she must decide if she can forgive … or not.

Strengths. Certainly characterization has to rank high on the list of good things to like in this book. Not just Groovy, either. Although Groovy’s father spends nearly the entire book in jail, I come away feeling like I know him so well. Groovy’s mother takes center stage more and also comes into clear focus as a believable character—one with her own problems and quirks and needs, but also as one who loves her daughter very, very much.

Best friend Frankie is also beautifully drawn, especially because his story mirrors what Groovy experiences. (I’ve seen this done, or should I say, overdone, in an obvious, distracting way, but Ms. Fitzmaurice avoids stumbling here. In fact, Groovy having identified Frankie’s problem earlier makes her own situation and decisions much more poignant).

Then there are the minor characters like Pastor Ken, Marisol, Felix, Luis, and Mr. Tom who add much more than background color. They are integal to Groovy’s development. And they are each believably drawn.

As much as I liked the characters, I give equal praise to the story. I kept reading because there was tension, and conflict. I had questions I wanted to discover answers for. I cared about Groovy and wanted to know how things turned out for her. Ms. Fitzmaurice did a masterful job telling a masterful story.

This book is also a great example of weaving themes into the story. Without whipping out an explanatory speech, Ms. Fizmaurice showed Groovy’s changes, her mother’s changes, her father’s changes, and ultimately Frankie’s changes, all reinforcing themes of love and trust and forgiveness and mercy and not judging from outward appearances.

I even have some favorite lines. Here’s one:

And here’s what I thought: I wished I’d never found what was in that box because feeling mad at Daddy was a million times worse than feeling sad.

Little truth statements like that, observed as from a child’s perspective, are powerful.

Weaknesses. I’ve got one tiny thing here. I wouldn’t normally mention it, but I don’t have anything else, and I believe in giving a balanced review. Early in the story, afternoon fog rolls in. It’s mentioned on page 43 and again on 48, 56, 58, 60, 61, 63, 72, and 90. Then that same night, with no warning, Groovy and her mom are walking home and look up at the stars. Groovy says all she could see was the Little Dipper though she knew her mom could name all the stars. My first thought was, what happened to the fog? Maybe a wind came up, but we aren’t told so. It’s a small thing, but it jerked me out of the story for one brief moment.

Addendum. Well, now I have to backtrack on the weakness. A closer reading shows that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the stars being out: “… she raised her fists high toward the lone stars peering through the leftover fog in the dark sky.”

I even thought about this after posting the review, how the fog had mirrored Groovy’s confusion and lack of understanding why her dad had been arrested, then after her mother tells the story they come out to a starry sky. If I hadn’t missed the “leftover fog” line, I would have thought the use of fog quite mood enhancing. The weakness was mine, not the story’s.

Recommendation. Needless to say, I think The Year the Swallows Came Early is an outstanding book. It is a must read for women, for girls, for middle grade children. I highly recommend it to dads.

Take time to see what others on the tour are saying:

Buzzing Kids’ Books – The Year the Swallows Came Early

Announcements. I have an unusual number of these, so please bear with me. There is actual content below.

First, I participated in an email discussion about Christian speculative fiction, initiated by Mike Duran. He has posted the first part today at Novel Journey. (Warning: the discussion has taken a turn on a statement I made about what CBA’s target audience—women. Evidently my remark was controversial. Well, I hadn’t intended it to be so, but I’m pretty sure the comment I left, is! 😮 )

Second, I posted a review of an upcoming Marcher Lord Press release, By Darkness Hid at Speculative Faith which I hope you’ll take time to read.

And lastly, you’re invited to vote for the CSFF Blog Tour’s February Top Blogger.

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The Children’s Book Blog Tour, of which I am a member, is featuring Kathryn Fitzmaurice‘s debut novel, The Year the Swallows Came Early.

Tomorrow I’ll give a full review of the book, but today I want to think a little bit about what makes a character draw readers in, perhaps even become memorable.

Eleanor Robinson, AKA Groovy, is just such a character. I found she drew me into the story on the first page:

We lived in a perfect stucco house, just off the sparkly Pacific, with a lime tree in the backyard and pink and yellow roses gone wild around a picket fence. But that wasn’t enough to keep my daddy from going to jail the year I turned eleven. I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

So here’s what I learned about Groovy, even before I knew her name. She considered her house perfect. Her father went to jail. She has a best friend who evidently is a boy. She thinks about things more deeply than you’d expect an eleven year old to think and even came to a wise, truthful conclusion. And she doesn’t like coconut.

Only that last part is a negative, as far as I am concerned. That her father went to jail makes me feel sad for her, and curious about why. That she has a boy best friend makes me think she’s not a spoiled-princess type. And that she’s likable enough to have a best friend. The coconut thing, I think she’s just wrong, but I’m willing to let that slide because I know there’s a whole set of people out there who don’t like coconut.

A little further into the story, I learn that Groovy had a special relationship with her father and that her mother loves her. I learn that those two facts seem to be in conflict and maybe in doubt. That she suddenly feels like she doesn’t know one of her parents as she always thought makes her even more sympathetic.

I also learn that she has One Great Desire and a particular talent. Before too long, she comes to realize that others have a similar passion to hers and this changes the way she perceives those of like mind. OK, I’m trying intentionally to be circumspect because I don’t want to give away too much of the story. The point is, Groovy doesn’t have a closed mind.

Eventually she shows that she is also kind, that she appreciates others for their kindness. In other words, she’s aware of others at the character level.

Is she perfect? Not at all. She makes some independent decisions that lead her into a real tailspin, and while it looks for a time as if she might get stuck, she makes another change that is probably the best of all, one that just might make her a memorable character.

I invite you to see what others on the Children’s Book Blog Tour have to say about The Year the Swallows Came Early:

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