The Magical Book

When I was a second grader, my school held a fundraiser to fill some empty shelves in the school library. Rather than just asking parents for money, the school had each child select a volume from a table filled with new books, take it home and ask Mommy and Daddy to puhleeeeze buy their sweet little offspring a book. After reading their new acquisition, the child would to donate the book to the school library so it could be enjoyed by all.

As class 2-A herded past the book tables, my ADHD brain locked on to a book wearing a bright yellow dust jacket with the title in bold red letters:100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz.

The cover illustration closed the deal: Four kids making a huge mess while popping mass quantities of popcorn. The random messiness made those kids seem more like me, and the fun they were having made me want to be more like them.


However, when the day arrived when we were to donate our books, it became apparent that I hadn’t been properly briefed on the etiquette of school fundraising, for I committed the mortal sin of refusing to surrender my book to the librarian.

I’d already developed somewhat of a reputation by then (in 1962, ADHD was still known as “Rotten Little Brat Syndrome”), so when I made a bit of a scene over the librarian attempting to steal my book, the case was automatically escalated to the principal’s office. I’d already spent so much time there that I wouldn’t be surprised if even today there’s a chair in the waiting area bearing a brass name plate in my memory.

When my case came up on the principal’s docket, I stated my position in clear and certain terms: It was my book. I’d chosen it from the book table with my own grubby little paws. I paid for it with cash my mother gave me to buy a book. I’d even written my name inside the cover with a red pencil (though I don’t recall if I wrote it before or after they pressed me to donate it). I loved my little book, and the librarian couldn’t have it. End of discussion.

The battle escalated, as such battles are wont to do. When gentle reasoning failed, the principal hinted at the possibility of eternal damnation (being a Catholic school, they  could get away with that), and when all else failed, she pulled out the biggest weapon of all: a call to my parents. That threat almost worked, but one glance at my book’s cover renewed my resolve to endure any punishment required to win my case. After the threatened call, my father grudgingly agreed to buy a second copy for the library. He later extracted the price from my hide.

What drove me to fight so stubbornly for that book?

Reading 100 Pounds of Popcorn had revolutionized my eight-year-old life. Before that book, I thought everyone in the world was just like me. I had no idea that other families were different. In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz transported my tender heart to a world very unlike the one in which I lived.

To most, the Taylor family would seem unremarkable. A father, a mother, eleven-year-old Andy and his eight-year-old sister Sally Jean. On the way home from the beach, they see a huge bag of popping corn fall from the back of a truck, and being a moral, law-abiding type Mr Taylor tries to return it to its rightful owner. The owner isn’t able to retrieve the bag before it would spoil, and offers to let the Taylors keep it if they would like. Andy sets out to start a popcorn business with the help of his kid sister and several friends, and they all learn the hard way that there’s a lot more to selling popcorn than they thought.

Okay, so it’s a nice little story. How did that revolutionize my life?

The first time I read that book, I waited with tense anticipation for what I knew would happen. I waited, but what I expected never came. I read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Then I read it again just because I didn’t want to leave the magical world.hidden in those pages, a world  where Andy’s father never yelled at him, never threw things in anger, and never once hit his wife or either of his children. Andy made some mistakes and learned lessons the hard way, but his father never called him stupid or any of those other names I’d expected. And Andy never once had to stop and discern whether his father was drunk or sober and adjust as needed to avoid his wrath.

In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz gave me a most wonderful gift. A glimpse of a world where children were free to be children, to learn and grow and live with all the hope and possibilities they could handle. I couldn’t explain it then as I can now, but that brief visit to normality changed me. It awakened my ability to dream, to imagine, to envision a better world than the one in which I’d existed.

Is it any wonder I fought so hard to hold on to such a magical book?

When God started talking to me about writing for children and young teens, I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit the wounds of my childhood. A dear friend and mentor (and highly successful children’s writer) finally took me aside and told me that those wounds equipped me to write things that nobody else can write, not even her. She then gently but firmly kicked my backside and asked me to quit making excuses and start doing what only I can do. (Thanks, Nancy. I needed that.)

Shortly after I returned home from the conference where that discussion occurred, I spotted my ragged, dog-eared copy of 100 Pounds of Popcorn on my bookshelf, took it down and read it again, just as I’ve done hundreds of times before. And I remembered the magic.

And then I started writing for tweens and early teens—because somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl who needs that magic.

Review: Promises by Jude Deveraux (A VOOK for iPhone)

iphone_promises2There’s been a little buzz lately about a new e-publishing concept called the Vook, a supposed marriage of video and text. If you believe all the press releases, the Vook is the future of publishing, the salvation of readers everywhere, and the best thing to happen for authors since the invention of movable type. Of course, if you believe press releases, you need a serious reality check.

I wanted to know what this “Vook” thing is about, and after reading several conflicting comments from reader/viewers I decided I’d check it our myself. Within minutes of that decision, I popped $4.99 to download a Vook to my iPhone.

I chose a Romance Novella as my test case, Promises by Jude Deveraux. As always, the App Store made it way too easy to drop five bucks on a whim. The download took a while—at 108MB, this is HUGE compared to most iPhone apps—but it installed without any complication or complaint.

The complaints began shortly after a quick look-see, when I went to the online Vook site and discovered that buying the iPhone edition gave me absolutely nothing if I wanted to read my purchase on the web-based platform. To evaluate the web version of the same book I’d just bought for my iPhone would cost me an additional $6.99. In a world where I can buy an e-book from Amazon and in moments I can read that book on my iPhone while Sharon reads the same book on her Kindle 2, I found that unacceptable and refused to play (or pay). That’s really a shame, because from what I’ve seen, the web-based platform is much more video-integrated and has more potential than the iPhone version. If someone from Vook would like to toss me a comp, I’ll be glad to take a separate look at the online platform–but the inability to read the same purchase on both platforms is a real deal-killer for me.

Exploring  Vook for iPhone

Unpromises_SS5smlike most of the other e-books I’ve read, Vooks are stand-alone applications (as opposed to reader apps that can select from a library of books). When you launch the app, it displays the lovely title screen shown above. It’s good that it’s a pretty screen, because unless you read the entire vook in one uninterrupted sitting, you’ll get to see this screen a lot. On my iPhone 3G, it takes around ten seconds of this screen before the app loads.

After the App loads, it presents a chapter listing and demonstrates what is, to me, a serious weakness. The Vook app can’t remember what you’ve read, the way virtually every other e-reader app can do. This is a major annoyance, particularly if you’re the type who likes to sneak in a page or three at slow trpromises_SS4smaffic lights or while answering nature’s call. You can’t even fold down the corner of a virtual page.

Once a chapter is selected, the user enters the actual reading interface, a straightforward screen where all the usual iPhone finger movements work to change pages. Vook, however, does not support landscape mode. To view videos (which only play in landscape mode), the reader touches the play buttons when they appear.

Vook uses the built-in iPhone video player, which means leaving the reader to view video, then returning to the reader. The lack of video integration makes for a nasty roadbump that pulls the reader out of the story every time he or she views a video clip. That might be okay for non-fiction, but for fiction, it’s quite disruptive.

The Story: Promises by Jude Deveraux

Promises is a Romance Novella, and like most romances is horribly predictable. I found that disappointing. I expected a story written specifically for a new, cutting-edge platform to be a bit more creative, or even a little outside-the-box.

Promises is written in an omnipotent point of view, meaning that the narrator can see the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of every character in a scene. This isn’t the first romance I’ve read that does this; Nicolas Sparks comes to mind as another best-selling author who’s fond of this method. What I find interesting is that all the modern mentors who are molding the writers of next week spend a great deal of time spanking new writers for doing exactly the same thing (they call it “head-hopping”). I seldom read omnipotent POV, and when I do I find it annoying. I occasionally have to stop and go back a few lines because an abrupt head change has jarred me out of the story. Personally, I think it takes a lot more skill to tell a story one head at a time, but you may feel free to disagree.

The Text & Video Marriage

The big question with which I began this exploration concerned how the video content and story content would merge in a Vook. The video content was well-produced and highly creative, but when married to the text it not only didn’t enhance the story, it detracted from it. Every time I stopped reading to launch a video, it knocked me out of the story. While this may be less the case with the video more integrated into the text (such as the web version), I found another phenomenon: The video images sometimes conflicted with my own mental pictures. I’m a very visual reader (and writer), and I create my own visualizations of settings and characters. Frankly, mine are better than the filmmaker’s, because they’re mine. They reflect my thinking, life experience, and personal creativity. This was my greatest disappointment with the concept.

The Verdict


  • Pocket size
  • Colorful and pretty
  • Lots of potential for non-fiction application


  • No interplay of iPhone and web-based formats; you have to pay twice for the same product to use both readers. Vook claims it’s because the two use different selling platforms, but Amazon seems to have worked this out with the Kindle.
  • No capability to bookmark last read page.
  • Lack of video integration jars reader from story
  • Videos pull reader out of the story and conflict with reader’s imagination

The Vook is an interesting concept, and I can see its application for non-fiction, particularly in how-to, travel, and history books. For fiction, it’s a flop. The web-based version may be better (I haven’t experienced it), with text and embedded video displayed on the same screen.

Hmm… text and embedded video on the same screen. Interesting idea.

I think Vook may have invented the web page.

Book Review: “The Restorer” by Sharon Hinke

The Restorer (The Sword of Lyric)

As a responsible adult and ever-vigilant protector of all that is good and true, I feel it imperative that I issue a stern warning about The Restorer by Sharon Hinke.

This is a very dangerous book. Reading this book will upset your place in the time-space continuum. It will suck you into its pages like a portal into another reality, and then drop you back into our world hours later, potentially leaving entire days unaccounted for. And, if you are given to reading in the bathtub, be warned: it is nearly impossible to put this book down long enough to towel off, and you may find yourself trapped in a tub of room-temperature bathwater with more pruney wrinkles than a bulldog.

Established CBA Mom-Lit author Sharon Hinke has accomplished something incredible in The Restorer–a successful fusion of Mom-Lit and Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Allegory genres. Like any fusion of extremes, hard-core advocates of either genre will have to adjust a little. The hard-core Mom-Lit fans may find it challenging at first to get their heads around the alternate universe that burned-out soccer mom Susan Mitchell falls into; portals into alternate realities aren’t exactly the norm in Mom-Lit. Likewise, hard-core Fantasy readers may be challenged by the interpretation of that alternate reality through the eyes of a suburban soccer-mom. However, those who have the creative vision to see this fusion for what it is and approach without presumption will find The Restorer to be a wondrous journey with a truly unique twist or two and more than a few surprises as soccer-mom Susan grows into her calling in the alternate reality, and in the process rediscovers herself.

Be warned that once you open this book and start reading, you might slip through the portal right behind Susan. I did, and I want to go back. It’s a good thing this is the first of three (and who knows, maybe more) in the Sword of Lyric series. I’ll soon make the return trip with The Restorer’s Son.

Book Review: “Lightning and Lace” by DiAnn Mills

Click here to buy this bookI have to admit that I’m not a speed-reader like my wife Sharon. It’s downright scary how fast she can zip through a book. Me, I read just like I write–the way I speak. I can read faster if I have to, but it’s like recording a dramatic reading and playing it back at high speed. The words are there, but it loses something. SO, when I read a book, particularly with the schedule I’ve been keeping lately, it can be a long-term commitment.

Then along came a copy of Lightning and Laceby DiAnn Mills.

I started to read this book just like I’ve read many books before. A chapter over lunch. A chapter when I’m too tired to write but too wound up to sleep. Then yesterday at lunch, something almost magical happened. I had been reading for almost an hour when I realized that they had never brought my sandwich. In fact, I think there was a shift change somewhere around chapter ten. After a polite but firm inquiry they made me another Thai Chicken Wrap and delivered it apologetically. I hope that whoever ate the first one enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the chapters I had for an appetizer. :mrgreen:

When I got home from work, I headed straight for my favorite chair with book in hand, pausing only long enough to answer the door and eat. I’m not sure what was on TV last night. It was on, and Sharon watched something, but I wasn’t there. I was in Kahlerville, Texas, wishing I could reach out and choke the daylights out of Lester Hillman . . . in Christian love, of course. I went to bed sometime after midnight, and then only because I could no longer keep my tired eyes open.

One of the things I’ve had hammered into my head as a fiction writer is the importance of “hooking” your reader, drawing them into the story so thoroughly that they can’t stop flipping pages and can’t wait to see what happens next. DiAnn Mills knows how to do it. I just finished reading Lightning and Lace a few minutes before starting to write this review. I read most of the book within 24 hours. It may be a new personal record.

Did I enjoy this book? You betcha. I laughed, I cried, and on several occasions I did both in the same breath. DiAnn’s characters came to life in my mind, almost as though I were watching the story rather than reading it. Not every author has that ability. I can tell you from my own experience that it can be a lot of hard work. DiAnn Mills did it masterfully.

If I have any criticism, it is that it took me a little while to figure out that the story takes place in the past. There’s nothing on page one that smacked me in the face and screamed “Hey, Dan! This is historical!” Of course, that may be because I wasn’t bright enough to notice that this is the third installment in the “Texas Legacy” series. Duh. Legacy = “from the past.” Apparently, the publisher expects readers to pay attention to such things. 😀 Between the train, horses, one-room schoolhouse and the lack of cellular service, I did eventually figure it out.

Perhaps the best thing about Lightning and Lace is that it is a story of restoration, healing, and renewal. The themes of grace and forgiveness are skillfully woven throughout the story without being “preachy” (except for the parts where the preacher is . . . well, doing what preachers do). It’s a warm, wonderful romance that explores not only the love of man and woman, but also of the perfect love of our perfect God and His imperfect people.

Even if you don’t think you like romance novels, you ought to read Lightning and Lace. Click here to buy your copy!

Book Review: “Renovating Becky Miller” by Sharon Hinck

Click here to buy this bookIt was a simple enough assignment. Read a newly released book and write a review on my blog.  I’m a guy, and the book is “Women’s fiction.” No problem. Although there may be some men who aren’t secure enough in their manhood to swim in the estrogen pool, I can handle it. After all, I’m writing a romance novel, and the primary target for that genre is women.

There’s just one thing I didn’t consider. I never expected “Mom Lit” like Renovating Becky Miller to actually “speak to me.” I didn’t anticipate the possibility that God could use Women’s Fiction to minister to man–but He most certainly did.

You see, I know Becky Miller. I understand her. If I were a woman, I could be Becky Miller. She’s a “fixer.” If you met her in a supermarket checkout line and told her that you were an alien from another galaxy looking for parts to fix your spaceship, Becky Miller would feel obligated to find the needed parts, fix your spaceship, and send you on your way with a couple of sandwiches for the road. Becky Miller is a dreamer. She’s convinced that once she gets past her crisis of the moment everything in her life will be storybook perfect. Becky also doesn’t know how to say “no” without feeling guilty. She raises living in overload to an art form–and I know “living in overload.” She’s also highly skilled in the art of denial, an important life skill for someone who wants to take an already overcrowded, over committed life and add on doing major renovations to an old, run-down farm house.  

In other words, If I lived in Minnesota, Becky Miller and I could be in the same twelve-step group.

One of the greatest challenges for a novelist is creating characters that are not just believable, but are so believable that they come alive and stay with the reader after the book has been closed. Sharon Hinck has done a masterful job of creating living, breathing characters in the pages of Renovating Becky Miller. I found myself wanting to fix Becky and all of her equally (but differently) flawed friends and family.  I heard God speaking to me about my overcommitted life at the same time that he spoke to Becky about hers. God even pointed out to me ever-so-gently that He really doesn’t need me (or Becky Miller) to accomplish His work, and the earth will not fall out of its orbit if I slow down once in a while and say “no” when I need to say it. I even set a few tears free during the last chapter–but then again, I also have been known to weep during Hallmark commercials. 🙂

Whether you are male or female, Renovating Becky Miller is a great read, and if you’re a compulsive “fixer” who can’t say no, Renovating Becky Miller  is an absolute must read book. I highly recommend that you click here and pick up a copy today.

Book Review: “Taps, a Novel” by Willie Morris

Taps, a NovelI finished reading Taps: a Novel by Willie Morris last night. Actually, to be more accurate, it was early this morning. I had been working on it for a while now, sneaking in a partial chapter at lunch (Morris seems to prefer long chapters), or while waiting at the doctor’s office, or while Sharon perused clothing in a store while I waited in the car and read. Life has been busy lately, and I don’t get as much reading time as I’d like. Somewhere around the midpoint of this 338 page novel (a point I reached Saturday while sitting in the car waiting outside the dress shop), Willie Morris managed to get his characters so thoroughly embedded in my imagination that it was hard to put the book down to drive (though Sharon insisted). Last night, I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep if I hadn’t finished, and finish I did, around one o’clock in the morning, in tears.

Taps is a powerful yet tender story of a young man coming of age during the Korean war in the small Mississippi delta town of Fisk’s Landing. Sixteen-year old Swayze Barksdale is pressed into the solemn duty of playing “Taps” at the funerals of the young men who perished on the Korean battlefields. Swayze’s father had died some years before, leaving him with a neurotic mother who taught tap dancing and occasionally drank too much. At a time in his life when young Swayze most needed the counsel and guidance of a wise man, Swayze was fatherless, sickly and surrounded by tap dancing women.

His unexpected call to duty thrust Swayze into new situations and new relationships, at times hilarious and at others tragic, always thought provoking and real. Willie Morris did a masterful job of opening Swayze’s heart to the reader, accurately depicting the inner thought life and sometimes gut-wrenching emotions of this boy on the cusp of manhood. Gradually, Swayze learns about some of the stark realities of life, some taught by his experience with the WWII vets and funeral workers with whom he serves, some by young men who came home from the war maimed and scarred, and some by the young men who returned to Fisk’s Landing in steel gray boxes with official documents attached. In the course of the year, Swayze learns what it means to be a true patriot, to serve selflessly even to the point of death. He learns about being a son, a friend, and a lover. Swayze learns what it means to be a man.

Taps  is a unique product of Willie Morris’ passion for writing. He conceived the idea very early in his writing life, even before he published his first book, North Toward Home,  in 1967. Willie spent over thirty years working on Tapsliterally the rest of his life. When Willie Morris died in August, 1999 at the age of sixty-four, one of his last requests made of his wife was that she “get Taps  together.” Those who knew him personally have said that Taps  speaks powerfully to Willie’s core beliefs and values, that it contains his heart and soul. I, of course, never knew Willie Morris personally, though after reading My Cat Spit McGee and Taps I can honestly say that I wish I had. I can somehow see myself sitting on his porch in Mississippi and drinking sweet tea while talking about writing and ideas and life. I feel as though I would be a welcomed guest there, as long as Spit McGee approved.

If you love novels with powerful word pictures that can “suck you in” and be hard to put down, I heartily recommend Taps: a Novel by Willie Morris. Click here to order Taps from


To the vocabulary-challenged reader, Willie Morris’ writing style can be either educational or difficult. Morris was a complex man, a “good old boy” with an impressive literary pedigree. Every time I read his writing, I add a few words to my vocabulary and gain experience with my favorite on-line dictionary. If you don’t like learning new words, you won’t like this book. Than again, you probably wouldn’t have read this far, either. 🙂

Taps is not a CBA book. If you are easily offended by coarse language or the things high-school age jocks brag about in locker rooms, you might find this book offensive. There were no words used in the book that I hadn’t heard many times over by the time I was Swayze’s age, with the possible exception of the word Yankee as a derogative. The language didn’t offend me in the least, in fact without it the situations would have seemed inauthentic. Your mileage may vary, so if you’re easily offended you’ll want to read something else instead.