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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review (and an interview!): These Girls

Hey Folks, it is time for another Book Review (it is the week of reviews, what can I say?).  Today I am so excited to finally talk about Sarah Pekkanen's new one, These Girls.  I loved it.  I previously reviewed her first two novels and I can honestly say this one is her best.  She just gets better and better.

Now I do not like to give away plot points.  As a librarian, that idea makes me nuts.  However, what good is a review without some plotting?

Cate and Renee are roommates who both work in the fast-paced, cutthroat world of women's magazines.  Both of their careers seem to be on the right track, but each woman struggles with something she feels would ruin her.  For Cate, it is a secret from her past that really could end her career, and the stress of it undermines her confidence and puts up barriers in her relationships.  For Renee, it is something more obvious, yet just as difficult.  Unlike seemingly all of New York, the successful elite, at least, Renee is not a tiny size 2.  She is a healthy, curvy weight, but as a rising beauty editor, she feels her size could jeopardize her career.  Again, confidence is her enemy and she takes drastic steps to conform to her idea of beauty.

Cate and Renee's lives are also shaken by the addition of a new roommate.  Abby is the sister of Renee's crush, the devastatingly handsome Trey.  Once a grounded, happy graduate student and live-in nanny, Abby appears on Trey's doorstep, sobbing and lost.  As Trey's job takes him out of town, Abby moves in with Cate and Renee.  In the act of caring for the wounded Abby, Cate and Renee become closer and begin to reach resolution in their own struggles.

Pekkanen's These Girls is masterfully crafted.  While my poor summary of the plot makes it sound like just another New York novel, that is just my inadequate descriptive skills.  The characters are so real, so relatable that I felt the stress of their struggles, and the joy of their triumphs.  They could easily of been friends.  I was completely drawn into their lives (to the point that when I misplaced the book on a trip I felt mildly panicked!)  I highly recommend this book!

As part of her blog tour, Sarah graciously answered some questions for me!

The three main characters in These Girls seem the most real, most relatable of your characters so far.  When writing characters that seem so very close to the truth, do you ever have people in your life who feel they were your inspiration, whether true or not, flattering or otherwise?  Has that created any unintended conflict in your life and if so, how do you resolve it when you write?

Thank you - I'm so glad you related to Cate, Renee and Abby! As for whether people suspect they're the inspiration for my character, the answer is a resounding yes. One woman told me she thought I'd based a character named Gary on her husband, because they had the same name. Another friend approached me with wounded eyes to ask if I'd created a character who baked inedible muffins as a message to her (this woman is an amazing cook and I love the muffins she makes!) It's odd, because I never base a character on anyone I know, but people definitely see their reflections in fictional characters, even if no one else recognizes them. I always explain that my characters are pure fiction, and I hope people believe me.

I think every mom/writer is asked this question, but the answer always fascinates me.  How do you balance writing with parenting young children?

The kids come first - that's one of my golden rules. The other is that I bring my laptop everywhere; if I'm not carrying it, I feel like I'm missing a limb. And whenever I get a little pocket of time - say, in the waiting room at the orthodontist's office - I write. I just turned in my 4th book and was under the tightest deadline of my life; I only had about 6 months to write. So twice, I checked myself into a local hotel for one night. I did nothing but hunch over my laptop for 24 hours, and I got so much done! Plus, getting to sleep through the night without small people climbing into bed with me and kicking me in the head was blissful.

In Skipping a Beat, the female protagonist, Julia, has a scary encounter with a man that could have gone very badly.  You have mentioned a similar scene from your own life where you saved another woman, a stranger, from an attacker.  Can you tell us about this moment and how or if it has helped you define who you are and/or impacted your writing?

Wow, I'm impressed that you remembered! I was in college, walking home with a friend one evening. And we looked down the alleyway next to our building and saw a guy wrestling with a girl. My first instinct was that something was wrong, but then I quickly overrode that thought and told myself she must be joking around with her boyfriend (bystanders often convince themselves what they're seeing isn't actually real - it's a surprisingly common experience). Still, something prevented me from moving on. A moment later, the girl yelled, "Help!" and I ran toward them, screaming for my friend to go call the police. I hoped the guy would hear, and he'd run away. He looked up as I approached, and froze, and the woman got in a good kick, and he stumbled away. So really, she saved herself - I just assisted her. The experience stayed with me, and a few years later I became a rape crisis counselor and went to hospitals and police stations to provide support to survivors. I prefer the term "survivor" to "victim," because rapists have the potential to murder. Anyone who lives through a rape made the best, smartest possible choices during the attack - whether they fought or submitted - because those choices allowed them to live. 

How has social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) affected your writing/career?

I adore social media! I go on Facebook and Twitter (@sarahpekkanen) every day and involve my readers in every step of my publishing process. The other day I was stuck for a book title for my fourth manuscript and a reader suggested a song by Billy Joel, and in those lyrics I found a title (THE BEST OF US) that my editor really liked! It may not end up on my final book cover, but for now it's the official place holder. And I'm sending that reader a signed advanced galley of my book the moment I receive one. I've had people on Facebook help me name characters, too, and Facebook is the first place I go when I have news to share (well, I do call my husband first. So Facebook is the second place I go!) Please find me on Facebook if you haven't already!

And now the question you have expected (because I asked you on Twitter): How has your writing process evolved over the course of your career?

I've studied plotting pretty carefully, since it was my weak point, and I designed a broad outline for The Opposite of Me, my first book. For my second one, Skipping A Beat, I outlined even more carefully. These Girls was the first novel I ever wrote on deadline, and that made me nervous because even though I don't get blocked, I wanted to be sure I turned in my book on time. So I plotted out this novel in minute detail before writing a single word. I bought index cards in different colors - yellow for Renee, rose-colored for Cate, and blue for Abby, because for me, each of those colors conjured up something essential I wanted to convey for my characters. I detailed my scenes on the cards before spreading them out on my dining room table. By the time my table was completely covered, I had the bones of my book in place, and I felt a lot more confident about writing! But for my fourth book, which I just turned in - the working title is THE BEST OF YOU - I veered in a completely new direction. I trusted that I'd absorbed the fundamentals of writing a book, and I didn't plot out much at all! Instead, I was constantly surprised by the things my characters did and said. It was a really neat experience, and it made me realize that there might not be one perfect process for me as an author. I have to do new things and stretch and grow - and that's also the beauty of this job.
Thanks so much for having me today!
SKIPPING A BEAT ~ "Top 10 Titles to Pick Up Now" - O, the Oprah Magazine
THE OPPOSITE OF ME ~ "Engaging, fresh" - People magazine
THESE GIRLS (coming April '12) ~ "Bittersweet, laugh-out-loud funny, and painfully real"- NYT bestseller Jodi Picoult

 Thanks, Sarah!  (isn't she awesome?!?)  Now everyone go out there and read These Girls!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review - Song Remains The Same

I am supposed to review a new book today by

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bird Brain

This is what I do at some point each day. 

I go online and look at my "shopping cart."  I don't buy anything, but I look.  Periodically my cart goes away and then I get to "shop" again.

See I am just totally in love with the idea of raising chickens.  I talk about it, dream about it, and I stare at my cart and wish I could get started.

It would be so easy to just click purchase and then move forward.  But I am trying to be a good little homesteader.  And a better wife.  Which means that this needs to be a joint decision.  Husband thinks we should have the coop planned out before we order, and ready to go once the chicks arrive.  He feels we should have a solid idea of our Chicken Budget.

I would rather jump in right away.  It is so much more exciting that way.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Fail

Let me say upfront that I am not a fan of SOPA or PIPA, which attempt to police the internet.  Nor am I a fan of internet piracy that seeks to subvert legal copyright.  One can believe both things.

That said, here at the Homestead, we try to pinch some pennies.  So we don't send our dollars to cable or satellite, instead we use a Roku box, and Netflix.  Generally, we watch a whole lot less TV than we used to, so it is a win-win.  But the times when we miss traditional TV the most are when we want sports.  Live sports are hard to get on the internet, and sometimes one must turn to a less-than-official site to watch a live-broadcast.  However, if given the choice between an official broadcast and a pirate-y broadcast, we would like to choose the official one.  Which is why we were so excited that the NFL would be streaming the Super Bowl this year. 

The Super Bowl just ended, and I have to give the NFL and NBC a fail.

Let's talk about what could have been, first.  NFL and NBC created a unique opportunity here.  I think they recognize that a lot of people want streaming sports.  And that scares them.  What if people don't watch it on regular TV?  How will they make their money?  So they tried the streaming experiment.  Now what they could have done is provide a high-quality, steady streaming experience.  One that clearly matched the live broadcast.  One that kept you riveted to your window.  One with clickable stats and interactive features.  They could have bilked their advertisers for specialty spots - they could have made more money by selling advertising that only the internet folks could see.  They could have given us something to talk about.  It could have been a glorious, money-making, fan-pleasing adventure.

What we got, was a whole lot of suck.  Pardon my vernacular, but there it is.  The streaming was hurky-jerky.  That could have been my internet, but I don't think so.  We tested it.  We stream just fine thankyouverymuch.  There were no interactive features.  I did see a streaming twitter feed, but since I was also watching twitter on my smartphone (and getting better, up-to-date-info from it), I didn't pay attention.

And there were only 3 commercials.  Two for a phone, and one for a confusing movie starring Navy seals.

That's right.  No commercials.  Well, that isn't fair.  There was also a constantly repeating something with a man who looked a whole lot like Rainn Wilson, but couldn't have been, who kept encouraging us to click on a link to watch the commercials, but Who Does That?  Why make it harder to advertise to us?  Why make it harder to earn your money?  Bad business, NFL.  Bad business NBC.

But, wait, that's not all.  Guess what else was different about the streaming experience.  No Halftime show!  Yup.  So while I could read all about it on Twitter (and get proof that the streaming was on a 3-minute delay), I couldn't watch Madonna look like skeletor, or melt into a puddle, or something about Betty White and Clint Eastwood.  No, I don't know what I am talking about, because the NFL didn't stream it.

Now, I am sure there were intensive discussions about marketing, and residuals, and market-share, and money money money.  I don't care.  What we ended up with is a fan experience that sucked.  Big time.  How is that good business?

And it doesn't make me want to buy from your advertisers.  Or get cable.  Or even get an antenna.  It makes me want to blog about it. 

You know, marketing experts have a saying: a happy customer will tell two people.  An unhappy one will tell 20.  This one will put it on the internet.

Oh, and why didn't I just switch to my favorite not-quite-legit site for streaming, a site where I would see the ads and maybe be inspired to spend some dough?  Ads from which NFL and NBC were making money?  Because the feds shut down most of them last week.  That is the power of the NFL.  I think we should all be a little worried.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Make a List - 2012

OK, here is my list of New Year's Resolutions.  In no particular order, I present:

Jen's List 2012
  1. Weight loss.  Lose 10 lbs by February 25th (special event), and 25 lbs by May 15th.  Maintain weight thereafter for rest of year (and onward).  I have been tracking my calories through Live Strong, and it has been a great resource.
  2. Exercise.  Work fitness needs into daily schedule.  For almost half of 2011, I went to the gym 5 days a week.  Then I went back to work and couldn't fit it in.  Right now, I am aiming for 3 days/week, with at least one Zumba class.  I have missed Zumba.
  3. Fitness, part 2.  Once I am in shape and feel confident in keeping it up, no later than June 15th, expand fitness horizon.  This one is deliberately vague. There is a new fitness trend I read about that I might like to pursue as a trainer.  No one does it in my area, and that would be a huge, HUGE leap for me.  But I like having it in my goals.
  4. Chickens, dammit!  I am saving my personal money to buy chickens this Spring.  The household will need to budget for the hen house and fencing, but the chickens are coming out of my money.   I already contacted a breeder.  Dammit.
  5. GardenSigh, gardening.  How I love you.  I have to find a way to fit gardening successfully into this year.  Maybe raised beds.  Maybe truckloads of soil.  Probably a combination of both.  But we need a real commitment to growing out own this year.  The garlic is already planted.  Now I need to order some seeds, and plan out where everything will go.  Realistically.  Reality is hard.
  6. Family/household structure.  This one is already off to a great start!  We are making a real effort to eat our meals at our kitchen table, instead of in front of the TV, which was our habit for much of last year.  So far the kids are responding really well to it and we are actually talking and enjoying each other's company.  And the kids are relearning their manners.  (yay!)  Homework is also happening there, too.  The kitchen table is becoming the heart of our household and I love it!
  7. Laundry.  Ugh.  I hate putting away clothes.  Washing, folding, and wearing clean clothes don't bother me.  But actually putting them away always seems like too much.  So I am going to fold laundry the night it comes out of the dryer, and put it away within 24 hours of folding it.  Let's be realistic!  
  8. Painting.  I want to paint the living room by February 10th, so it will be finished by my younger son's birthday.  I just need to figure out colors.  I love painting.  And I hate the builder-white of that room!
  9. Painting, part 2.  And then the kitchen.  By Christmas.
  10. Finances.  This one is ALWAYS on my annual list.  I fall off the wagon and have to drag myself back up.  But we are in good shape and have these goals planned out.   We have some improvements already budgeted, too.  I don't talk money, in general, so suffice it to say that we will be more in control of our money.
  11. Goats.  A girl can dream, right?  Goats would require a much bigger commitment than chickens so this may have to wait another year.  We need fencing, shelter, etc.
Here's wishing you all a happy, successful, and fun 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

End of Year Recap

My gosh the blog is dusty!  I guess I better open some windows and let in a little fresh air.  Apologies to anyone who was actively following the blog.  The year just got away from me.

I wanted to look back at how I did on last year's resolutions, so here is a brief retrospective.  (AKA, how Jen dropped the ball and/or changed her mind so very many times!)

Jen's List 2011

  1. Knit or sew one project per week.  Well, this one lasted until about May, when I started my new job.**  I did manage to knit a dog (pictures coming), some toys, and created a pattern for an arm sling for my mother's upcoming surgery.  So the year wasn't without projects.  I just lacked the vision and time to keep motivated.  And the Etsy shop I created for my knitting has completely stagnated.  Chalk one up to wasted effort!
  2. Chickens.  This one got shunted to the side for a year.  We needed to do some other projects first, and then the well broke, and the van died and we had to buy a truck, and then the heatpump died and we had to get it fixed, and then ...  You get the picture.  But next year, baby.  Next year.  And goats.  Maybe.
  3. Wood-burning stove.  Well, Last year I stated that "the heat pump just can't hack these winters."  It turns out that the heat pump has a major leak.  It can't hack anything!  So we had it tuned up and decided to delay the wood-burning stove and see if the heat pump could actually function for a winter.  So far, so good.  The house is warm enough and the energy bills are reasonable, so far.  But it will need to be replaced in the next year or so.   And the thought of that sets my blood pressure rising.
  4. Financial end. Isn't this always a work in progress?  Fell off the wagon a bit this year, but still moving forward.  Enough said about that.
  5. Financial, part two.  Um, yeah.  See above.
  6. Garden!  The garden did pretty well this year, but suffered from some neglect, potato bugs, and clay soil that still needs some work.  Our seeds didn't wash away, but I think next year I am going to buy seedlings.  Growing the seeds myself was a lost cause for a lot of things (ahem, squash!)  We did have an amazing bumper crop of okra, which I pickled and canned.  And we had potatoes.   I had to go and buy a supplemental crop of tomatoes just to have some to can, but it is all gone, already.  Our garlic came up great (but is long gone), and I have already planted next year's crop.
  7. Rain barrels.  I don't know why this project didn't happen, but all that we have done with our barrels for now is try to keep the hornets from nesting in them!
  8. Mud.  Grr, mud.  This project was a total success!  Husband created a wonderful stone patio that has completely solved the mud problem.  Very cool.  I should post pictures.  The dogs are happy, I am happy, everything is sunshine and roses!
  9. Then I am getting the carpets cleaned!  Or not
  10. Keep trying one new dinner recipe per week.  This fell completely apart as I readjusted to working full-time.  But it is a great resolution to carry over into 2012.
**Oh, I haven't mentioned my new job?  Well, it seems that I was in desperate need of a good serving of my own words  So I ate them! 

Last October, I was offered a position at a local library.  For reasons of my own, I turned them down.  Then, in March, they contacted me and asked if I would reconsider.  It seems that the person they had hired when I declined didn't work out.  So I reconsidered.  After a lot of thought and discussion, I accepted and am so glad I did.  It is funny what a little time and perspective can do.  I now have a wonderful job in a great community, my kids are in a fun afterschool program, and it all worked out well.  It has been a hard adjustment for me, getting back into the full-time swing of things.  My craft projects were the first to suffer, but my exercise and diet focus also suffered.  Which means that while I am feeling very proud of my work, I am not very proud of myself. 

2012 will be a year for finding balance between work and home, wants and desires, fitness and relaxation, and homesteading and modern living.  Finding that balance should be interesting.  Maybe I will even find the words to blog about it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Well I'm not asking for one!

I recently sat around with a group of women and the talk inevitably turned to birth stories.  As usually happens, the group talked about the size of their children at birth, the humorous side stories, and our husbands.  When it was my turn, I told how my first child was 9 lbs 2 oz, and I delivered naturally.  One woman laughed with derision and said, "you know they don't give out medals for having a natural delivery.   That is why they make drugs."

I didn't respond, but what I wanted to yell was, "I'm not asking for a medal!"  But I do want the right to express my full birth story without judgment from the other women present.  This isn't the first time I have heard this sentiment, and I admit I don't fully understand it.  Why the hate, ladies?

I chose to have a natural delivery; I chose to deliver in a birth center, with a midwife.  I made informed choices based on my wants and beliefs.  What I didn't do was make any statement whatsoever about anyone else's choices.  Truly there is no competition or judgement here.  Every woman has a different experience: a hospital delivery, home birth, midwife delivery, epidurals, emergency C-section, inducement, natural labor, slow labor, fast labor.  Your story is your story, not a commentary on the way birth should be

My story is mine.  And I have a right to be proud.  As any woman who has ever delivered a child from her body knows, it is a life-changing experience.  Not just because you made a person, but because you chose to put your body through something difficult and stressful and came out stronger at the end of it all.  Because deep down, we all wonder if we can do it. 

Part of my story includes that I labored and delivered without drugs.  And that my children were large!  My choice; my story; my equal voice in the community of women telling birth stories.

That is all the medal I want.