Something for Halloween

In the mid 1980’s, I was a year out of high school and learning the equine trade as a working student on a Pennsylvania horse farm. One of the chores on our lowly student list involved checking the barns’ inhabitants, doling out extra groceries to the hard keepers, topping off water buckets, and generally making sure that all were bright eyed and healthy. It wasn’t a job any of us enjoyed, but we took turns and always went with a partner to cut down on the time sacrificed from our evenings.


One cold winter night, another student and I finished checking the first barn without incident and were walking down hill to the next–home to most of the young stock– when we noticed a dark colored horse standing stark against the moonlit snow in a paddock where we knew no horse should be. Noting the broad white star on its forehead, we tentatively identified her as an older mare named Seance, who was certainly a black horse with a white star, lived in the farthest pasture with the lesson horse herd, and was known as something of an escape artist… although she seldom ventured this far from her friends.

As we watched, the escapee mare paced the fence line restlessly and neighed her displeasure. Ellie, one of the yearling fillies kept in the barn we were about to check, neighed back. This, to our unamused surprise, kicked off a non-stop conversation between the two loud enough to wake the dead. (Or at least, the farm’s owners who lived in a house nearby.)

Deciding that we couldn’t leave Seance where she was–since she was obviously agitated and egging Ellie on–we ducked into the barn and fetched the usual loose-horse paraphernalia: halters, lead ropes, and buckets of grain with which to bribe compliance. Then it was back out of the barn, a slog through knee-deep snow, and a struggle to open two mostly unused gates through the drifts before we reached the paddock.

The now empty paddock.

The now empty paddock which wasn’t just devoid of a fence-line pacing horse, but was equally lacking any indication of hoof prints in the pristine expanse of new snow.

We looked at the snow. Looked at each other. Looked back at the barn where Ellie had finally ceased her whinnying.

And made what I would like to think of as a strategic retreat.

The next morning, we presented a highly sanitized version to the farm’s owner. Thought we saw a loose horse. Must have been mistaken, but Ellie was acting up in the barn, so she thought she saw it too. Ha ha.

The owner listened with a half smile and said, “Black mare? White star? Middle paddock?”


“That was Edeltraum. We lost her to a lightning strike last summer in that same paddock. We buried her there. Ellie was her last foal, not yet weaned when we lost her mother.” She reached behind her, pulled a photo album off a bookshelf, and casually flipped through several pages before pushing it across her desk for us to see.

And there she was.

The exact same horse.

There were more sightings after that, but they stopped after Ellie was sold and left the farm the next year.

True story.

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I ain’t dead…

Rumors to the contrary can be dismissed, as yours truly was spotted in public at two awesome events: a multi-author book signing at the library in Wautoma, WI, followed by a reading and presentation with my great friend (and award winning author) Julie Eger at the Patterson Memorial Library in Wild Rose, WI on August 2nd.

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Why I Can’t Write A Sex Scene. Yet.

Yesterday evening, it occurred to me that I have a short novel (based on my 2013 National Novel ImageWriting Month’s literary blathering) which is practically finished, except for one small issue. I haven’t written in the sex scenes yet. Okay, I know that most novels don’t need to portray nookie in any of its many forms. And, I know that when nookie is required within my own work, I have a tendency to get my characters only so far and then I politely shut the bedroom door for the main event. Maybe I’m becoming a prude, or maybe I’m just totally disenchanted with stock phrases like “the throbbing steel of his manhood.” (What, did someone smack it with a hammer?)

But this story is different. Why? Because while the plot is more or less romantic as it is, my intention was to write it as –ahem- erotica. Why? Well, the fact is that I’ve shied away from writing such things for several years. This is an indication to me that maybe I should. It’s good for a writer to leave the comfort zone occasionally. It’s good to set a challenge for oneself.

For instance, when I wrote THE BLUFF, I named only one—yes, one—character. That character was not even the protagonist. It was intentional for many reasons, but believe me when I say it was also really hard to do. In SERVANT TO THE WOLF, the challenge was to write about a slave who actually liked being a slave, and to do it in such a way that it made sense while in no way promoting what was (and is) a vile institution. I’d like to believe I accomplished that.

I thought this challenge would be easier.

I mean, I really have written Insert Tab A into Slot B scenes before. Years ago, as I said. And while my love/sex life is currently about as exciting as three week old roadkill, in the distant past I was married and even managed to procreate twice. So yes, I do have a hazy recollection of the fundamentals, and I have a vivid imagination, and I’m not dead. I can even read erotica, and if it’s very well written erotica (which is to say not Fifty Shades Of Ridiculous) I occasionally enjoy it.

So, anyway, last night I determined that as soon as I woke up today, I would toddle to the computer and launch right into writing raw unbridled full-on passionate explicit f-dash-dash-dash-ing. By my count, I need to write four orgasmathons and a quickie.

Right on schedule, I woke up and toddled to the computer. Checked the news quickly, because if the world is ending, even good erotica is probably not going to have much of a market. It’s good to be prudent. Oh, and I had to get some schmucks to harvest my wheat on FarmTown, and since I’m on FarmTown, I’m also on Facebook, better check statuses. Sometimes that’s the only way I know my children are still alive. Anyway, I did drag myself away from that in less than an hour. Time to write.

Except that I need coffee. It’s a writer thing. No coffee = no productivity.

And, as I set up the coffeepot, I decide logically that I should have some breakfast too. It’s the most important meal of the day. I have bananas, but…no. Not bananas.

So, bacon. Bacon is good. But I nuke bacon in the microwave usually, and to do that, I need paper towels, and the roll in the kitchen is down to the cardboard. This is not a problem since I store ample back-stock of paper towels in the basement.

But if I’m going into the basement, I should probably take the laundry basket with me. It’s full and it’s my day off, so laundry should happen. I go back into my bedroom and grab the laundry basket.

And think to myself that if I’m doing laundry, I should probably wash my jammies. Which I’m still wearing. Okay, that makes sense, and besides, the house is a little cold so putting on more clothes will ultimately keep me from becoming distracted while my characters are taking off theirs.

As I change, my junior cat, “Neuroti-Kitty” jumps onto my bed and prances across the comforter, apparently delighted to realize that Food-Dispenser hasn’t gone to work. As she prances, I can hear one of her claws catching at each step with a dainty little ripping sound that does not bode well for the bedding. Neuroti-Kitty’s talons grow somewhat unevenly.

So I catch her unawares and trim the talons, much to her squawling dismay. Senior cat Bartholomew (who likes a good spectacle) has jumped onto the bed to watch the martyrdom, and since I have the clippers and he’s in range and laughing at me, I trim his claws too. He is more gladiator that martyr. I bleed, but only a little. It only takes a minute or two to clean the wound and apply a band-aid.

I take the laundry basket into the basement. While I’m loading the washing machine, I automatically check all the pockets. I’m usually pretty good about emptying them before they hit the basket, but to my surprise, I do find an ancient lottery ticket in a pair of jeans. I can’t remember if I’ve checked it. I can’t actually remember when I bought it. So, after I start the washer, I bound upstairs and hop back onto the internet. If I’m a millionaire, I might take the day off from writing after all.

I’m not a millionaire.

And I forgot the paper towels.

Back into the basement I go.

I cook the bacon. It is good. While  eating, I think that this morning’s activities, culminating in the lack of my characters’ activities, could be a nifty little blog entry, so I type away at the computer and chug coffee.


Of course, now the blog entry is done, and the bacon is done, and the coffee is done, so I can definitely start writing what I promised myself I’d write…

…except that it’s time to put the laundry into the dryer.

It’s okay though. I’m sure I’ll get to those scenes.


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Dear Bunnies…


Dear Bunnies,

We need to talk. I understand that we are in the middle of a terrible drought. In deference to that, and because I love little woodland creatures…at least those who don’t try to sting, bite, or maim me…I have conscientiously provided you with clean, fresh water every day. And I rejoice with you that my trees provide enough shade to keep at least some of the lawn green and snackable for you. I have watched you with interest and, in the way silly humans do, I’ve even given you dopey cute names. Yes, Stripey, Brindle and Scamper, I am talking to you.

But we have a problem. You know those three tomato plants I have by the garage? The ones that I also conscientiously provide with water? And check twice a day? And treat with love and affection because let’s be honest, tomato plants are among the very few plants in the universe that I don’t kill just by looking at them? Well, I couldn’t help but notice that the two tomatoes that were just starting to ripen broke out in a rash overnight. It was a funny rash that almost looked like bunny teeth had raked through them over and over and over again. Not that I’m making accusations or anything. It was merely a coincidence, I’m sure.

plus tomatoes…

Here’s the deal. This afternoon I spent thirty bucks and a solid hour under the blazing sun purchasing and putting up chicken wire and posts and landscape timbers and various oddments around those tomato plants; not to offend you, but to set up sort of a…a tomato ICU. To keep the rash away. And also to discourage any strange bunnies—not you three, of course, because you know better—that might wander in and try to steal a nibble or two.

Anyway I just wanted to let you know what I was doing, and no hard feelings or anything. As a neighborly gesture, I hope you’ll keep an eye on things and make sure that the more ignorant of your brethren know not to try and dig under the fence or touch the tomatoes. Because out of all the snackable plants in the yard, the tomatoes, and only the tomatoes, are mine.

Oh, one last little thing. If the fence receives any abuse, or if the rash comes back, you can expect landmines, claymores, and possibly a machine gun nest. It will get very…tactical. This may be Wisconsin, but I’m from Philly and I know people. People who don’t like little bunnies. People who have connections with other people who don’t like little bunnies. People who demand respect, cause if you ain’t got respect, you ain’t got nothin’. Capische?

Do you understand now?

I’m glad we had this little talk. Have a great evening.

The Landlady

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That Book


My rather large collection of books could politely be called “eclectic.” Impolitely, you might accuse their owner (me) of suffering from a multiple-personality disorder, because there’s no way that some of those suckers should exist in the same universe, let alone the same bookshelf. Fact is, I sample giddily from many different genres and a wide variety of authors. In my library you’ll find everything from high-brow literary tomes to … well, paperbacks that feature words like “heaving” and “throbbing.”

I’m not proud of that.

Though I sometimes try to organize my collection, several of the books have apparently become migratory over the years. For the life of me, I can’t explain how Jeffry Eugenides’ Middlesex ended up next to Retired Racing Greyhounds For Dummies. And just the other day, I found my lost copy of The Hunger Games hiding beneath Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Among the stacks and shelves there are some books that I seem to gravitate back to again and again and again. Sometimes I do that because they’re brilliant, although many of them certainly are not. Sometimes, it’s because of a neat plot twist or marvelous dialogue. Sometimes, I have to admit, it’s because a book crosses my mind and I can’t believe just how awful it was … so I go back and read it again to verify that YES, it really was that awful. It’s like a perpetual state of denial. (I regularly go back to certain restaurants for the same reason.)

The point is that every so often I get a craving for that book. That specific book. And heaven help me if I can’t find it, because I will tear the place apart until I do. They’re like my comfort food for the brain. They’re like popcorn. Only made out of paper. And you don’t eat them. Okay, so it was a bad metaphor.

Anyway, I thought that it might be interesting to occasionally share a few selections from my That Book list,  along with a very brief explanation or at least a mea culpa. Mind you, the criterion for these books is that they are still in my reading rotation after at least five years. Some of them I’ve had for over twenty years.

I hope you’ll tell me about your version of the That Book list too! Seriously, don’t leave me hanging out here all alone with only my embarrassment for company! Please?

In no particular order:

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In Soviet Russia, book writes author! Seriously, Solzhenitsyn spent years incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp, and it shines through in this stark ‘day in the life’ account.  I must have read it a hundred times and I still feel a sense of suspense as to whether Ivan will somehow manage to get on the sick list.

Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett

Granny Weatherwax is possibly the greatest character in the history of characters, and Nanny Ogg can be Robin to my Batman any old day. The Time Of The Thing With The Bulls is side-splittingly funny. Honestly, pretty much all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels (those published prior to 2009) are destined to remain on my That Book list.

Debt Of Honor Tom Clancy

In my experience, books written by Tom Clancy must breed with each other. Seems like you can’t hit a garage sale or thrift shop without finding several Clancy books lurking on the shelves and looking furtive. I also have to say that Clancy’s series around character Jack Ryan used to be pretty good, until he ran out of ideas or started using a ghostwriter or something. Then they sucked.Out of all of them, I give this one the nod because it has a good balance with a fairly credible story and a nice ensemble cast of characters.

All Quiet On The Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

A tale of young German soldiers in the trenches of World War I, this book is even less uplifting than Ivan Denisovich, which just should not be possible. But it’s an insightful and unflinching masterpiece of writing. If it didn’t hit a required reading list for you in High School, and even if it did, I do sincerely recommend it.

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

As a rule, I don’t like anything hinting of Chick-Lit. I just can’t relate to the genre at all. But I like Bridget Jones a lot! I love the self-deprecation of the writing and the great dialogue. (Although sometimes I get lost in the British-ness of it all.) Bridget’s meticulously kept daily log of lost/gained weight, cigarettes smoked, and alcohol units consumed just cracks me up.

A Good Day to Die (Star Trek: I.K.S. Gorkon, Book 1) – Keith R.A. Decandido

Yes, this is one I ought to be ashamed of.

It’s a Star Trek book.

Actually, it’s a book about Klingons.

Klingons with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Captain Klag throws his head back and laughs heartily. Doctor B’Oraq tugs on her braid which happens to be adorned with a pin of her family crest. Commander Kurak grasps her right wrist with her left hand when she’s irritated … which is always. Lieutenant Leskit’s Cardassian neck-bone necklace rattles when he moves. These things happen EVERY SINGLE TIME one of these characters appears in any scene in any book of the I.K.S. Gorkon series. It’s a wonder there’s room for a plot. But doggone it, I do love that Klingon perspective and for some reason, I just … keep re-reading this series.

How about you? What’s on your That Book list?

Categories: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , | 14 Comments

Top Twenty? Holy Cow!!!

It’s been a pretty cool day here, and while it isn’t in my nature to pat myself on the back … I’m doing it anyway.

The screen shot is a capture of today’s Product Details for my eBook  SERVANT TO THE WOLF. Click on the picture if you can’t read it, but it basically says that at this moment, the book is ranked #20 in Kindle’s Children’s Historical Fiction-Ancient Civilizations section.

For added entertainment value, there’s a little artistic license on my part with a smiley face. And…okay, now you know that I keep a Firefly theme on my Firefox browser. That just makes me extra cool, right? Can’t go wrong with Nathan Fillion!

Anyway, it isn’t every day in the life of an author that you see one of your books on any sort of top twenty list at Amazon, (unless you’re J.K. Rowling) so I’m putting it here for posterity’s sake.  Also because I think it’s frickin’ awesome. (Although being 61,710 seller overall seems like a pretty sad number, it’s not so bad when you think about just how many hundreds of thousands of books are there.)

If you haven’t read SERVANT TO THE WOLF, I sure hope you give it a try! There are lots of links to download sites on its page. And if you have read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Post Script: I just went back and looked again. Dropped to #22. Fame is so fleeting!

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Somewhere In The Middle

Nope, somewhere in the middle is not a commentary on my political views, my social status, or even where I like to sit in a movie theater. Somewhere in the middle represents my philosophy on storytelling.

I was raised, and I’ll bet you were too, on the sorts of tales that began with “Once upon a time.” We always had a nice run up to the plot in those days, right? There’s this princess, beautiful of course, born in a castle in a fair land, and her parents loved her, and they were all happy—even the servants and serfs and vassals and…and the gosh-darn vermin were happy! But the queen apparently dropped dead of gangrene from an injury sustained in a loom malfunction, or from inbreeding, who knows? And the king got lonely and married some vindictive cow with a touch of the eldritch who doesn’t like kids, and NOW we’re going to find out what the actual story is all about.

(Note: If it’s a movie version, the story begins when the narrator finally shuts up. Unless the narrator is Morgan Freeman, in which case screw the story and let the man talk! I’d listen to Morgan Freeman narrating a shopping list.)

With all respect to the old traditions, it’s just not my thing. If I’m going to put my readers through an elaborate set-up, I make very sure I have a good reason for it. Otherwise, I’d rather start things off like this:

“That’s going to leave a mark.”

First line of my short story (novel-in-progress) Choreography.

The gun felt reassuring in my hand.

First line of the first chapter of my novella, The Bluff.

I tossed my duffle bag into the trunk, slammed it shut with more force than necessary, then turned.

First line of the short-short story, Volition.

His breath was stale. She would never forget that.

First line of my current novel-in-progress.


See what I did there? Four different stories, of varying lengths, with diverse points of view and completely different plots, but I drop kicked you straight into the middle, didn’t I? You don’t know these characters. You don’t know their names, their ages, their backgrounds, and with one exception you don’t even know their genders. These things don’t actually matter at this juncture. What you do know is that something is going on.

What’s going to leave a mark? Why does that person need the reassurance of a firearm? Someone tossing duffle bags and slamming trunks with more force than necessary is clearly a person with something on her (or his) mind…and wouldn’t you like to know what that something is? And hey, he of the stale breath is certainly making a memorable impression on her. Why?

If I’ve done my job right, I sprinkled a little itching powder across those introductory sentences. I’ve generated a question or two in your mind. And the only way you’ll be able to scratch that itch is to read the next sentence.

If I’d started with a vast meandering lead-up to the problem at hand, you still might read the story, but it’s also possible that you’ll wander off to play Angry Birds or check email or trim that pesky toenail that keeps snagging your sock or something. Instead, I’ve generated a sense of immediacy by dropping you in the middle instead of easing you through a beginning. Think of it as the difference between the beach and the ocean. You can stand on the beach forever and not even get wet, but if you get dropped smack into the water, I bet you’re going to start swimming.

At least, I would.

Oh, but in the interest of complete honesty, I have made one notable exception to the middle rule. I’ll talk about that another day.

Throwing out a question for the writers and readers out there: How do you like to start off a story?

Categories: Writing Life | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Writers On Writing – Three Favorites

There are a lot of good books out there by writers, for writers. None of them, let’s be honest, will turn you (or me, or the crazy cat lady down the street…oh wait, that is me) into the next Big Name Author. When push comes to shove, it still comes down to you and the dreaded blank page.

But the thing about reading advice by authors is that they also know what it’s like to sit down to the dreaded blank page, and they have a track record of having wrestled it into submission.

This interests me.

In any case, I’m going to share three books (and a bonus book) that I’ve found myself going back to time and again. I would love it if you, in turn, would share your gems with me! Mind you, these are books that I consider inspirational as well as instructive. You won’t find Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style here…but hopefully you’ve got that one on your bookshelf already. Right?

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King

Two things right off the bat. Number one: I don’t read King’s fiction. In fact, I don’t like the horror genre. Never have, never will, prefer to sleep at night thank you very much. Number two: If you never read any other author-to-author advice book in your entire life, read this one. You can even skip the memoir-y parts if you want and skip to the section that explains the nuts and bolts of the craft. But READ that section. Several times. Use a highlighter pen if you have one. In fact, post-high school, this is the only book I have ever used a highlighter pen on, and I would do it again. King is chock-full of terrific, pragmatic and accessible advice. You need this guy.

How To Write With The Skill Of A Master And The Genius Of A Child – Marshall J. Cook

This is definitely a lesser known book, especially in comparison to the aforementioned one, but it’s a good one. Marsh Cook spent many a long year as a writing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he’s published everything from magazine articles to murder mysteries. (Not to mention, Your Novel Proposal From Creation to Contract : The Complete Guide to Writing Query Letters, Synopses, and Proposals for Agents and Editors co-written by Marshall Cook and Blythe Camenson. There are times when I cling to that book like a drowning man clings to a friendly passing dolphin.)

Anyway, Marsh (I can call him Marsh, he signed my copy that way) writes with a very clear style; teaching and encouraging but never condescending. With equal parts common sense and good-natured humor, he gives a writer new things to consider and several ways to think outside the box. If you’re really stuck, there are even a few optional writing assignments and exercises to play with

Granted, there are a lot of writing books out there that cover much the same territory as this one, but out of them all, this is the one that has a permanent place on my book shelf and gets put through its paces on a regular basis.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Ann Lamott

For sheer inspiration and earthy fun, not to mention a terrifically well-crafted read, I go back to Ann Lamott time and time again. She makes me thoughtful, she makes me laugh, she is unflinchingly honest about the trials and tribulations of the craft, but she knows (like I know) that writers write. It’s what we do, and even when we hate it, we love it. Her humor is earthy and down to earth. Not too many books have one chapter called “Broccoli,” and another called, “Shitty First Drafts,” but they are both well worth reading. The best thing about Bird By Bird? When I put it down, I am inspired not just by Lamott’s advice, but also by her writing style. She is a writer who truly charges my batteries and makes me want to throw aside my self-doubts and serial-procrastination habits and just get on with conquering that dreaded blank page. Heck, it’s probably not so dread-worthy after all.

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Click To Buy From Smashwords!

 One chance meeting. A pact made. Two lives irrevocably changed.

And they didn’t even know each others’ names.

Sometimes a passing encounter with a stranger sticks in the mind forever. But what happens when, long after they’ve gone their separate ways, the actions of one completely disrupts the life of the other?

Cassidy Creek Bridge. April in Wisconsin.


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Review Day: Connie Hullander’s Snowstorm!

Not long ago, I stumbled across new author Connie Hullander’s website, read her short story, If Something Happens To Him, and was quite honestly blown away. On the strength of those two thousand or so words, I waited impatiently for her new book, Snowstorm, to be released. I didn’t even care that it was geared for young adult readers. A really good writer can transcend the boundaries of genres and markets, and I thought Connie might just fit that bill.

She does.

Click on image to order.

On the first page of Snowstorm, we meet our teenaged protagonist, Carly Blackstone, as she’s being processed into a mental hospital as its newest patient. She’s scared, she’s angry, she’s on the combative edge of defensive and she’s only there because some jaded judge railroaded her for no better reason than a drunk and disorderly charge. Granted, it’s a pretty impressive drunk and disorderly charge involving a trashed bar, nudity and an apron, but that doesn’t make her nuts, does it?

Well, no, it doesn’t. And yes, it does. And maybe just a little bit of everything in between.

What I love most about Connie Hullander as an author is that she has a very intuitive and pragmatic perception of the human condition. She gets what makes people tick, and she also gets what happens to that tick when someone is—for lack of a better metaphor—dropped from a significant height, or dunked in the deep end, or simply over-wound until the spring snaps. Connie understands that there is no black and white when it comes to the human spirit, but rather that every person exists in a kaleidoscope of grays. For Carly and the other kids in the facility, those kaleidoscopes are ever-changing, ever spinning, sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly.

Because life is both beautiful and ugly.

Click on image to visit Connie's Blog!

Carly, who is not just our heroine but also our narrator, is an absolute gem. She’s smart, she has a scathing wit and her view of the world is perfectly appropriate for her age and experience. That’s important to me: that Carly is never more wise or insightful than she should be. Other YA authors should take note. Sure, Carly is tough and smart, but she’s heartbreakingly vulnerable too. She has no super powers and no fairy godmother. All she has is a gritty perseverance and the personality flaw of too often getting in her own way. From my perspective as a mom, I went through the book wanting to give Carly a big hug, but also wanting to give her space, because there was always such a fine line between what she needed and what she seemed able to accept. I can’t compliment a character more than to say that she was real enough to leave me not just emotionally engaged, but conflicted on her behalf.

Maybe that’s the key word here. Connie Hullander keeps it REAL. In every way. Her settings are appropriate, her dialogue is nicely tuned, every character’s motivations are logically laid out, and even her second-tier characters are so on target that I swear I’ve seen them walking the halls at the local high school. In fact, she is so adept in the way she weaves layer upon layer and creating depth throughout the story, that the very few scenes that might have blipped on my “whoops, that’s over-the-top” radar were both believable and absolutely justified.

The only real question mark I had in my mind when I agreed to review Snowstorm was how an author who is comfortable and competent in a short story format would do with novel length. That question was certainly answered. Snowstorm started out as a page turner, never lost momentum and ended in a way that left me completely satisfied.

Snowstorm, in short, is a book that should please readers of all ages, and it’s crafted so well that I could easily see it being used in a classroom alongside of the known classic coming of age novels. As for Connie Hullander, I hope we’ll be seeing much more of her work in the future.

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