Book Review: Eleanor and Park


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Eleanor and Park gets filed under: Books I wish I wrote. It is easily a new favorite. It won a Printz honor award, and I boldly declared on some social media site that it should have won, admitting I hadn’t read the others. I’ve read another of the honor books, which I’ll review soon. I did love the other one, Maggot Moon, but Eleanor and Park still holds a special place in my heart.

ImageI picked up Eleanor and Park in a local bookstore in Frankfort, Michigan, in the summer of 2013. It was in the window display. Since I have an Eleanor, I immediately scanned the jacket and became even more interested in the story, and of course, I was excited to see that it was YA fiction.

What captured me was the characterizations. Eleanor was insecure and somehow it didn’t annoy me. The awkward truths that bubbled out of her were remarkable yet simply stated. Park was equally awkward, but his earnestness was endearing. Rainbow Rowell took wonderful care in delicately and indelicately building Eleanor’s and Park’s relationship with each other, reminding us exactly what it’s like to fall in love for the first time when you feel like the worst version of yourself. I loved following them through their wonderful terrible days. Rowell gives a nod to Shakespeare as Eleanor and Park discuss Romeo and Juliet in class and hits us clearly on the head that this is–at its heart–the same story. Just look at the cover, and it’s clear that Eleanor is our Romeo and Park our Juliet. Park wears the eye liner in the relationship and Juliet remarks more than once that “Park is the sun.”

Now, here’s where I admit that my own Eleanor had to point out to me that Park was Juliet, noting the references to Park as the sun. Eleanor is a far more insightful reader than me, and this is the book where I learned that. It was one my favorite moments with my daughter, ever. Rainbow Rowell, if you somehow ever see this, thanks. You not only touched me and my daughter with your wonderful book, you gave us a connection through it.

But back to the book, our Romeo and Juliet here have an expectedly sad ending, but there are sparks of hope for them as individuals that make the story perfect for young adults looking to understand what it means to be an individual, looking for love, and trying to navigate the nuances of happy and sad, ugly and pretty, good and bad, permanent and transient, comfort and hurt.

Rainbow Rowell gets bonus points for the gym suit scene. It is my all-time favorite scene in a book, ever. It is perfection. And I’ve recently learned that the movie rights were sold on this book, so they better not screw up that scene! Hell, I may not even watch the movie; the book was so raw and rich and perfect. However, it does help to know Rainbow has been asked to write the screenplay. If you haven’t read this one, you most definitely want to before the movie hits the screen!


A Couple Killer YA Books


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killer YA booksI don’t tend to read by the season, but this year I’m reveling in the Halloween season in all sorts of ways, including aligning my reading with the horror of Halloween. Part of the reason I’m excited about the holiday this year is because this will be our first Halloween in our new home, and my neighbors say we can expect to get anywhere from 500 – 1000 trick-or-treaters. Instead of getting overwhelmed, Josh and I decided to get a keg to go along with the more than 15 pounds of candy we’ve amassed for the event. Treats for everyone!

Another reason I’m excited about Halloween is because it coincides with my dear friend’s zombie book launch. Middle-Grade Ninja is not only a true friend, but part of my critique group. We’ve aptly named ourselves the YA Cannibals; we’re never afraid to eat our own, manuscripts that is. Our group is committed to honesty about our work both beautiful and ugly as manuscripts are wont to be. We don’t stop reworking our manuscripts until they are ready to be properly devoured by readers across the world. So to get to the point: after much cannibalization and rebirth, Rob Kent has published, “All Together Now: a Zombie Story.”

It is a truly fun and disgusting story with a bit of heart. The expected darkness of a zombie story prevails, and “All Together Now” exhibits the flavor of a young adult book–awkward and honest about the world. The zombie genre is perfect for exploring how becoming an adult often feels like giving away your brain and yourself is inevitable. It’s a perfect Halloween teen read.

Next, I’ll be reading a book called Ten. I haven’t read reviews. I’ve never read anything else by the author–Gretchen McNeil, and I don’t normally read horror. Ten appears to be the classic Oh-shit-there’s-a-killer-on-island-and-no-way-to-leave kind of books, except that it’s for teens. I’ll let you know what I think and if reading it during the Halloween season made it better than, say, reading it during summer.

Making a Revision Leap


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leapThank Rob for writing day! And the SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest conference I attended last month. The YA Cannibals had another very successful session of sitting around and actually working on our fiction this past weekend. So I finally used the notes I made from one of the sessions by Kendra Levin, editor for Viking Books.

One of Kendra’s many revision recommendations was to take a first draft of a story and do a brief summary of the plot–not just one, but at least 10. She gave us a simple template to work with. We were to fill in the blanks of the this sentence:

“After _____ (inciting incident), a _____ (protagonist description) must _____ (main action) or risk/while risking _____ (the stakes) [during _____ (setting, if unique)].”

So, I took my draft outline of my work-in-progress, IF I WERE ME, and tried to plug it in to this literary mad lib. It told me a lot about what was wrong with my draft. My first attempt was this:

“After laughing at her grandfather’s death, a confused teenage girl must grapple with if she’s losing her mind to a disease only clones can get while risking giving up her individuality and life instead of succumbing to the disease.”

So, several problems here. The main ones are:

1. My inciting incident isn’t that big of a deal and puts the focus on her grandfather instead of the main character.
2. All teenage girls are likely confused. This doesn’t really make us interested in my main character.
3. The main action is good, but the description is anorexic. We don’t see the real horror of the disease.
4. The stakes are like what? What is going on? What’s her individuality have to do with losing her mind. I’m trying to consolidate the stakes too much.5. Could the stakes be higher? I did say “give up her life,” but in what way?

So, I did my ten versions with this in mind. I kept refining. I let myself make a good sentence instead of trying to cram what I already drafted in my manuscript into the mini-mad lib. Here’s what I finally landed on:

“After showing symptoms of a deadly brain-destroying disease only clones succumb to, Tam must decide to ignore it and attempt to live her normal life trying to enjoy first love and her college hopes or risk being diagnosed so that she can make plans to end her life before becoming a weak, deranged and dying version of the helicopter mom she hates.”

Better right? There may be more work to do there, but at least now you can see more characterization and identify about five things that are going to go terribly wrong. You can see the struggle Tam is going to have in the book. What’s cool for me is that this informs my new draft in some pretty exciting ways. In the first draft of the manuscript, Tam thinks she’s going nuts and becomes horribly depressed and wants to kill herself. But the way I’ve framed the next draft because of the above mini-mad lib, Tam is more empowered to grapple with decisions instead of simply self-destructing. She has clearer high-stakes choices. SPOILER ALERT: She’s going to make some bad ones. Obviously. (I’m rude.) And also, the inciting incident is going to be bigger and much more impactful to the main character and therefore the book.

So now I have to go write it. I’ll check back in with a progress report in a few weeks! Cheers.

Don’t Rent from Bryant Company, Indianapolis


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ImageDear Bryant Buschmann,

Your company sucks.

The customer service and support we’ve have received from Bryant Company is the most egregious I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been a renter for over 15 years in four states and have rented 6 properties from 6 different rental agencies and I’ve never been treated this poorly by a company or home owner. I will never use or recommend your services to a friend or family member and have in fact warned and will continue to warn people away from getting involved with Bryant Company and any your rental properties.

The most recent insult came when you emailed a letter on March 19th asking if we intended to renew our lease. I responded within the time frame you requested in written form, as you requested, and asked if we could rent month to month. This request went unanswered. Today there is a lock box on our door and sign in our yard. This lack of communication is just one in a long list of unanswered communications we initiated. We haven’t had outdoor lighting since August of 2012, for example. We’ve sent numerous emails, which eventually resulted in a lackluster apologies and no resolutions. I hope the next tenants don’t care about having no outdoor lighting because surely this will never be fixed, along with plenty of other maintenance issues we’ve long lived with. And I hope they never feel free to ask to rent month to month or for anything because those requests, too, will go unanswered and unsolved.

Because the sign in the yard and lock box on the door have forced me to assume we cannot rent month to month, I will leave behind along with the keys to the home, the worst impression possible of Bryant Company. You should be ashamed of how you treat your tenants. Indianapolis renters should be ashamed of you.

Jody Sparks Mugele

Book Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


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ImageI have this prejudice against “dying child” books. Basically, I feel like it’s cheating. Dying children is a sad topic; and as an author, you don’t have to work very hard to make me cry. If I’m going to cry, I want to be moved by a depth of character or deeply complicated plot that leaves me wishing I’d written the thing. I’ll still read a “dying child” book, but it’s going to have to work extra hard to make me love it.

That being said, Jesse Andrews didn’t try through typical means to give his main character, Greg, a meaningful connection to the dying girl. The connection between them wasn’t the point. The way he went about trying to be friends with her (his mom forces him to) put Greg in an increasingly brighter spotlight at school. This is Greg’s greatest fear. This unique way of pushing Greg to be something different and better by book’s end kept me engaged. And I left behind my prejudice for the “dying child” plot device.

The plot was piled over by a long and windy trail of descriptions of people, back-story, and self-deprecation by Greg as he tells his tale. And while the voice was admirable and probably very true to teenage boy, I found it at times distracting. He often referenced how bad a writer he is. Occasionally, I grew antsy and impatient with Greg telling me I probably wanted to punch myself in the face. Overall, the voice was funny and the whole reason I read it was because my 15-year old cracked up the whole way through this book and begged me to read it next. I’m glad I did. I was a great book.

One last thing: I especially like that the characters were carefully unique–misfits without knowing they were misfits, or at least no one was shouting or overtly angsty about not fitting in. Their qualities and traits felt real. Both my teenager and I love a book that makes an outsider so quietly accessible.

The Little Perfections


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bedJosh and I often marvel at the wonder of how good our bed feels. It’s not a special bed. We don’t have fancy sheets or expensive pillows. But climbing in after Josh’s busy shifts is one of his favorite things in life. For me, it’s watching him wind down and become downright giddy about the escape he’s about to make from the toughness of the day (or night). Hard work and exhaustion look good on a man. And I think we are both in one of our most content moments when we are together on the brink of sleep.

It also makes me feel like the wealthiest of people. So much comfort and happiness must only be for gods and kings. And in this modern world where I’m well-fed and educated and own property and pets and have the love of my children, I’m aware of the golden age I’m in.

You know what else makes me feel like that? Reading! I’ve missed it so much. This weekend I’ve read two books, critiqued a short story, and begun critiquing a novel for a critique-mate. It’s the most sustained reading I’ve done since surgery, and I’m not without the weirdest little zips and zaps of nerve pain in my head. (Not my face, though. It remains pain-free!) But, the point is, I feel back to my reading self. I can hole away for three days and quench my thirst for reading. I’m trying to pinpoint the satisfaction of it. What is it that is so sweet? I think it has something to do with how I daydream. I don’t know about you, but when I daydream, it tends to be a mishmash of images and memories–frustrations and delights strung together in the most random of ways. But fiction focuses my imagination, and my daydreams and imaginings as I go along become a full organized worlds of wonder, beauty, heartache, and hope. And when I’m done with a book, I feel that same feeling as getting into my bed. I am part of something little and perfect in a world that is better than it has ever been before.

Rest and Recovery


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recoveryHi. Nearly a month has passed and I’m finally writing something longer than an email. Hooray for progress!!

I’m doing very well post surgery and recovering as expected. Reading and writing are still taxing. Focusing takes A LOT of effort and seeing letters and words move quickly across the screen makes me motion sick.

It’s strange not to be able to read and write, those are my relaxation methods of choice. So I’ve been watching a ton of TV. Thankfully new episodes of How I Met Your Mother came out on Netflix. I’ve also watched The Tudors and both Elizabeth movies, which I enjoyed. My summation of the Tudors: The torture was as intense as the sex and I have no idea how historically accurate it was. Also, modern medicine rules. It is my life-theme for the month.

I’ve seen three movies at the theater. Sliver-Linings Playbook – good. Lincoln – good. Anna Kerinina, art design – good, plot – plbt.

Being at home is so nice. Snuggling the dogs and children has been wonderful, especially with the Christmas tree up and Josh around for a few days. He’s been doing such cool shit that, really, it’s too bad he isn’t blogging anymore. His would be far more interesting!

So, I’m off to find a new show to get involved in. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments. Know that I’m doing well and will be enjoying a pain-free Christmas!

Dear Brain Surgeon, Please Add _______


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Five days until brain surgery.

In order to remain the least amount of scared, I’ve been making jokes. I like to joke about the things I want my doc to nip and tuck while he’s in there. My top choices are different from Josh’s. We didn’t get too far into his list before it suddenly became less funny and more personal. I guess I get a little touchy when anyone besides me picks on my skill set and personality. Huh.

I’ve been on brain meds for about a year. Short list of side effects that I’m ecstatic to leave behind include: ear-ringing and forgetfulness. I’m nervous about the latter because I’m inherently a forgetful person. Even if I improve, I’ll still be a C+ rememberer at best. And part of me thinks, what if that’s just who I am now? A person with fewer words. Someone whose ideas flash out as quickly as they appear?

And also: how do epileptics and others on these meds cope with their side effects for life? Isn’t it bad enough that they deal with epilepsy?

It gets me thinking about how people suffer in ways that they keep hidden. It makes me love people for being flawed. I get proud for the people who suffer because they have to be more loving toward others. They just have to. More patient. Kinder. More generous.

I hope that is little bit more of who I am for having endured these strange cycles of pain. Whether the surgery works or not, I hope the experience of dealing with Trigeminal Neuralgia improves me.

Now back to horsing around about it! (winks at coworkers) Here are some of the things I want my brain surgeon to add. Which of them would you choose?

Brain Surgery is Motivating


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I dig that slug reading a book, even if that is one of my least favorite creatures on earth. What does it have to do with brain surgery? Not much, I suppose, but see how absorbed it is in that book?

That’s how absorbed I am in writing my newest manuscript. And I think the reason I’m so absorbed in it is because I’ve scheduled brain surgery for November 14th. I finished another draft of Poverty Island on Sept. 16th, and sent it off for an agent’s review. So, that I wouldn’t check my email incessantly, I decided to outline my next book. By Sept. 28th, I had an outline done and 11 pages drafted. The fact that I even did an outline is a Sparks-Mugele miracle. As of today, just three weeks later, I’ve written 160 pages–over half the manuscript. I think I’ll have an entire draft done by my surgery date, just three weeks away.

Here’s why I’m going under the knife, if you missed that post.

Brain surgery! Crazy right? Turns out that even non-dying people have it sometimes.

Still, with great surgery comes great recovery. I’m supposed to take six weeks to recover. And six weeks is the perfect rest-time for a first draft too. So, we will rest together, giving each other plenty of room to stretch out–no touching. That only leads to revising, and that’s right out.

There’s also just something reassuring about having a complete first draft before having surgery. I mean, it’s BRAIN surgery. What if I forget where I was trying to go by the time I can write again? What if I come out with the ability to do high math (I keep hoping) but can no longer think up neat angsty fiction for teenagers?

Here’s another thing: having a doctor for a husband may lead you to think I have all this reassuring inside info about the surgery itself and what I should actually be worried about, but no. The extent to which Josh’s inside knowledge played a role was as follows:

Me: I’ll be at Methodist. You had a neurosurgery rotation there, right?

Josh: Yes.

Me: So, which doctor should I use?

Josh: Well, I couldn’t tell you who’s a good surgeon, but I could tell you who’s not an asshole.

So, it’s good to know my doctor’s not an asshole, at least. You may have noticed this non-assholian surgery happens on the day before my birthday. So, after about 12 hours of surgery, I’ll be turning 38 in the ICU. Am I bitter? Not one bit.

If you wondered what the best gift I could ever receive for my birthday was, I’d say, read this post. But, since I’ve already received that gift, I’d say having this surgery. To be honest, I think I’ve hid my pain pretty well from the world outside of Josh, Eleanor, and Magnolia. So, it may seem drastic and terribly unpleasant to think of me having surgery so near my birthday. But, trust me, it’s a gift.

Now, back to writing!

Author Interview: Nick Hupton


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Hey guys!! Blog time no see, eh? I’ve been revising POVERTY ISLAND and actually visiting some of the places I describe in the book, namely the upper peninsula of Michigan! It was fantastic. I officially love it there. Which in the U.P. would sound like, “I officially love it dare.” But, that’s a blog post for another time.


Today I’m very pleased to introduce you to Nick Hupton. He’s the author of, If I Know it’s Coming, his debut novel published by North Star Press, Inc. Here’s an official blurb:

“How are kids affected when a parent goes off to war?  Especially if it’s their mom? IF I KNOW IT’S COMING is a powerful story of a young boy trying to get his adolescent feet on the ground when his mother isn’t there to help him and the rest of his family is spinning out of control.  When his mother comes back to the U. S. because she’s a war casualty, he heroically sets out to help her.  An endearing story of family and hope.”


You all know I have a special interest in books about the military and war stories, so Nick found my site and I’m glad to share part of his story about becoming published. Here is my interview with Nick Hupton:


Jody: Do you have family in the military? What sparked your idea for this book?


Nick: First, and foremost, I am not a military kid (unless you count the fact that my dad was in the army in the 1960s before I was born). I always try to make that very clear when I speak about this book. I came up with this idea for the novel while I was taking a Master’s Degree class at Hamline University in St. Paul. It was a Young Adult novel class taught by Mary Logue. One of our first activities was to create a new character. That’s when I came up with Tim Hansen, the protagonist in the book. One of his unique characteristics is that he was going through a parent separation of some sort. That is something I am very familiar with. I went through my parents’ separation as an adolescent. However, I was also very interested in writing about the war in Iraq. At that time it was in full swing and very much on my mind. So, I decided to combine those two ideas and I realized that we hear a lot about the situations soldiers face overseas, but not as much about the “wars” going on in the homes of deployed soldiers. I also thought it would be interesting to have Tim’s mother be the one deployed. This gave a feminine twist on the story.


Jody: What was the hardest part about creating this book?


Nick: There were two very difficult things about writing this book (aside from the multitude of difficulties writers are always faced with). The first issue was plot: I felt confident getting into the mind of a 13-year-old. I taught middle school for nine years (I teach high school English now) and I drew a lot from those adventurous experiences. So, I felt good about the emotional aspects of the novel- separation anxiety, day-to-day adolescent issues, etc. But how was I going to create that story arc to keep readers interested in the plot? My two advisors, Mary Logue and Pat Francisco (this was originally written as a Master’s thesis) warned me about those difficulties, so creating that adventure took some time. The second big issue was research. Because I am not a military kid, I wanted to make sure I did this story justice. I spoke to a number of kids whose parents had been deployed and listened to their stories. I also did a lot of reading about the affects of deployment on families.  Finally, my wife and I traveled to Walter Reed Medical Center (it was still in operation at the time) to speak to some administrators. That was eye-opening to say the least.  So, all of that research took some time and I was constantly going back to revise based on information I found.


Jody: How long did it take you to get it published — from ideation to publication?


Nick: I began writing this novel in 2007 during that YA novel class. It was published in June 2012.  So, about 5 years to publish or so. Many revisions took place during that time and many rejection letters came back to me from agents and publishers.  Getting published is a daunting task. The day North Star Press, Inc. sent me my contract was a pretty special day.


Jody: Describe your middle school self.


Nick: My middle school self had a little of everything I think. I had quite a few friends, but wasn’t necessarily the most popular. I got good grades and did pretty well at sports, but like Tim Hansen, I wasn’t necessarily spectacular at any of those things. I got into my share of trouble, like most adolescents, but also knew not to go too far most of the time. I would say middle school, for me, was a generally positive experience, which I realize, most adults would not say. And, oh yeah, I went through a bit of a hippie stage in 8th grade.  I remember wearing tie-dye shirts and growing my hair out. I was a drummer in a band. Pretty cool…


Jody: Grab the book nearest you, turn to page 90 and fine line 20. Recite. What book?


Nick: P. 90; line 20- “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.” The book is Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is one of the example stories in the book.  This is pretty funny actually. I was rereading some of this when I got your email. I needed to refresh my memory about some writing staples. Tim O’Brien is one of my favorite authors. Coincidence that that page came up.


Jody: If I gave you $100 buck to spend for fun, what would you buy? No books allowed.


Nick: If I had $100 to spend for fun, I would spend it on music in some way. I would either go see a good show or buy some music for my iPod. Music is one of my great passions.  It’s a release in so many ways for me.


Jody: Do you have other books planned? If so, please blurb us.


Nick: I am working on a new book as we speak. I expect to have the manuscript into the publisher by early November. It is a much different premise than If I Know It’s Coming. The working title is The Ridge: A Zach Sutton Mystery.  

Here is a quick blurb: Zach Sutton’s little brother has been missing for over a year.  His parents have divorced. The police have found no clues. But it isn’t until Zach travels to Minnesota’s north woods on a field trip that the mystery really begins.  Faced with supernatural visions and ghostly images, Zach finds himself in a scary adventure he couldn’t have dreamed.

Jody: Congratulations on both books! Very exciting. And thanks so much for stopping by Sparks and Butterflies. It was great getting to know you.

Nick: Thank you.