Another year, another opportunity to reflect on favorite moments and memorable reads! These are my highlights:
- The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen
- Once and for All by Sarah Dessen
- Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
The queen of YA romance has outdone herself repeatedly with her latest 3 books—all intense, emotional beauties. I’d rank them in reverse release order, but if I had to pick just one, it would be The Rest of the Story. The audiobook brought me to tears during my commute!
The Rest of the Story: Emma Saylor’s mother died when she was 10, so she has lived in her father’s world for as long as she can remember. Then, fate finds her spending a summer in her mother’s world—on the lake where she grew up. As Emma’s family history unravels, she forges new relationships and rekindles old ones while rediscovering a dormant side of herself. The impromptu visit to her “other home” leaves her with an altered life outlook in an immensely retable and satisfying character arc. Dessen must have an endless supply of love interests who are thoroughly sweet “good guys” without falling into cliché traps because I was head over heels! I loved how equal time devoted to the “good” and “bad” sides of secondary characters made them feel like real, well-rounded people who you care about because of their flaws, not in spite of them. Plus, there was the addition of a thrilling element with the life or death disaster scene. This volume made me feel every emotion in a deep and exhilarating way. My new all-time favorite Dessen book!
Once and for All: The daughter of a successful wedding planner (and marriage cynic, ironically) meets her match in this light, fun, hilarious beach read—that is, until the bomb drop that is signature of Dessen’s novels. Unlike her usual approach, the tear-jerker element is kept a mystery during much of the story. The full details of this plot thread are interspersed artfully, with flashbacks throughout, until the big reveal at the end. The cynic-turned-believer theme was heartbreakingly believable, though I laughed out loud at the wedding planners’ cynical banter. Their well-thought-out business model is one I’d like to emulate! I relished everyone getting their own happy ending. Dessen’s saddest and deepest book yet, this beauty made me laugh and cry in equal measure.
Saint Anything: Dessen’s dozenth novel is her most psychologically probing. Living in the wake of her charismatic yet reckless brother’s shadow, Sydney feels responsible for his most recent crime, one he cannot escape this time. The consequences shake up their family and leave Sydney feeling lost and isolated. The delicate depiction of grief is masterfully done, populated with Dessen’s signature well-developed characters. The novel begins with a hooking en medias res opening just before introducing piles of backstory, the kind only Dessen can pull off. I found myself entranced by the beautiful, tender love development and flawless last line.
- My Life with the Walter Boys by Ali Novak
In the wake of a sudden family tragedy, an irrevocably Type A teenage girl is taken in by a family of 12 children—all boys—with “trouble” as their middle names. It’s the perfect combination of chaos to disrupt Jackie’s perfectly structured world. I loved watching their lives collide in hilarious and heart-warming ways. This romcom has everything I love in a YA novel: relatable overachiever protagonist, unique concept, well-developed cast of characters, and love story to root for.
- Need by Joelle Charbonneau
In this page-turner, a sinister social network takes advantage of small-town teens’ desire for material gain in exchange for a negligible price. But as “harmless” spirals into “deadly,” the teens learn the hard way that you can’t get something for nothing. I couldn’t put this thriller down! I desperately needed to keep reading, thanks to Charbonneau’s expert use of multi-POV, which is notoriously hard to do well. She masterfully weaves 10 POV’s consequences together, each with effortless character development across brief 2- to 3-page spurts. It would make an equally specular film, especially given the eerie “it’s not over” ending. I’m craving a sequel!
- Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis
Touted as The Fault In Our Stars meets Grey’s Anatomy, this tale of star-crossed lovers tugged at my heartstrings while shedding light on the little-known, deadly disease cystic fibrosis. When teens Stella and Will learn they must remain 6 feet apart at all times to stay alive, they find a happy medium by bending the rule to 5 feet instead. Relatable Stella and swoon-worthy, hilarious Will captured my soul. Both have well-developed personalities and grow as they influence each other for the better: Stella to loosen up and live a little, and Will to take the gift of life more seriously.
The story’s unconventional genesis is also intriguing: the screenplay was written first, followed by a search to find the right person to pen the novel adaptation. The winner was a recent college grad whose former professor (an established novelist) encouraged her to apply. Based on her sample first chapter, Lippincott was chosen to complete the project, which became her first novel. It’s not every day there’s a commission for a YA novel! Lippincott was the right gal for the job, which is evident in her impeccable pacing and character development. There is a little suspension of disbelief required when it comes to germ theory, but this was easy to overlook, especially in the film. Launching the two mediums nearly simultaneously was a clever marketing move. Plus, the film stars my favorite actor: Cole Sprouse!
- The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by the editors of Writer’s Digest
I picked up this gem on a whim at my local Barnes & Noble, and it lived up to my expectations. I was initially drawn to it because it combines the craft of writing with the business of publishing, which is rare and unique for a manual like this. I appreciated the breadth of topics covered and structural breakdown in this invaluable resource from my favorite trusted experts at Writer’s Digest.
While I didn’t quite make it to 50, which seems to be everyone’s yearly reading goal these days, I was so pleased to reach 30 books this year! That’s about my average when I was a voracious reader growing up. I realized I had hardly read for pleasure in about 4 years—the duration of my time in college. I was forever reading as a college student, but textbooks and assigned novels were all I could carve out time for. My literary mind went on impromptu, forced hiatus, and I forgot how much I missed reading for fun! Plus, it’s hard to brainstorm story ideas when you aren’t reading frequently. Weirdly enough, hearing others’ stories sparks ideas for your own—ideas which end up unrelated to what you just read, yet would not have occurred to you otherwise . . . you writers out there know what I’m talking about!
This year I also discovered the audiobook, which is a godsend for commuter life! Will I break 50 this year? Perhaps. I’m keeping my bookshelf open, content to revel in the delight of reading for myself again.
The Closing of a Chapter
The city of Crystal Lake lost our Barnes & Noble in August. It was bought out by Binny’s Beverage Depot and joins the ranks of the fallen Borders establishments. While many of us saw this coming, it doesn’t make them closing their doors any easier. There isn’t another B&N nearby, so it will be difficult to obtain books in the future without resorting to online shopping, which—less face it—isn’t the same. Nothing can replace the allure of a comforting local bookstore and holding a soon-to-be impulse buy in your hands, flipping the pages and taking in that fresh new book scent. Still, the print book will not die out. We would never let it!
The Northwest Herald newspaper ran a lovely tribute to the closing, with community members chiming in. My parents are included, weighing in on its impact on our literary family, including how the start of my author career occurred within its walls. That first event at B&N as a teenager was a dream come true: SRO, books sold out in a heartbeat, and people were ordering more. It still feels amazing how they took a chance on me as a new author when I joined a small press as a teenager. Just one of many great memories at the store. So, here’s one last shout out to my local B&N: Thank you for the role you’ve played in my life as a reader, writer, and author. So long, friend.
First Literary Festival
I had a fun day in downtown Chicago in June at Printers Row Lit Fest! I reconnected with old literary friends, made a GIF at the Writers Museum tent, and met a woman who was writing personalized poems.
New Author Spotlight:
I’d like to introduce Alyssa Wees, a Crystal Lake native and fellow Crystal Lake Central High School alum who debuted with the Big 5 in March this year. The Waking Forest is a lush, YA fantasy that details the collision of two vastly different lives—a girl with disturbing visions and a witch who grants wishes from atop her forest throne. Alyssa is an author to watch in 2020!
A Book Birthday
If my book baby were an actual baby, it would be receiving a high school diploma this year. My debut historical short novel The Kiss of Death turned 4 years old with my publisher, Kellan Publishing! Thank you to everyone who has shared a kind comment over the span of this little book’s life. Every single one continues to make my day.
“English Historical Fiction Authors” Guest Feature
Interested in learning more about one of my favorite time periods in history: the bubonic plague? I was a guest author on the lovely English Historical Fiction Authors blog. In my guest post, “Deadly Plague: How It Devastated One-Third of Europe’s Population,” I explore the plague—its origins, its types, and the devastation it caused. I enjoyed compiling my research for my novels into this one-stop-shop article. To top it off, when the article went live, The Kiss of Death was EHFA’s Book of the Day!
This was an exciting year of events! Some highlights:
Infographic: 2019 by the Numbers
Elementary/Middle School Events
I returned to Bernotas Middle School for a second time to speak to the full 7th grade. I also visited with the full 7th grade at Parkland Middle School, as well as the full 5th grade at Conley Elementary. Then I returned to Heineman Middle School for the second year in a row to teach 8th grade Literacy classes narrative writing tips for their short stories!
High School Event
It was an honor to be part of the guest speaker lineup for Cary-Grove High School’s 4th annual Writers’ Day in its beautiful Fine Arts Center. Plus, what a joy to speak at my alma mater’s sister school! I learned quite a bit from my fellow YA authors’ presentations, too. I would have loved to attend an event like this when I was in high school!
I went on a road trip to Des Moines, Iowa to speak at my alma mater Drake University—my first university presentation! My former professor invited me to teach her students. Alumni and current students even sat-in on the class, which was well-received by all. What a wonderful experience to return to campus and share what I’ve learned with current students to help them prepare for their careers!
Adult Public Library Event
Since my most popular audience is students, my most requested venues are schools; however, I was delighted to hold my first event open to the public in 3 years at the Huntley Library this year! My presentation was well received by the (mostly) adult audience. It was a full house—30 attendees who braved the thunderstorm to learn about publishing!
Learn more about my upcoming events or invite me to speak at yours here.
Wise Words from Middle Schoolers
I received a package of thank-yous from the Heineman Middle School 8th graders I spoke with about strategies for developing their short stories! I appreciate each of them taking the time to write me and am touched my visit made an impact. Some even described their takeaways from my visit. What a thoughtful surprise!
A New Addition to the Family
Got fleas? I do! This year I ordered a plush flea from GIANTmicrobes to join my family of props. I was so excited when he finally arrived in the mail! He comes in handy when I describe how the plague entered medieval Europe via trading ships. Plus, he’s super cute! Audience members love him.
- Northwest Herald Newspaper Mention (Aug 2019): “Barnes & Noble’s closure marks end of chapter”
- McHenry School District 15 Feature (May 2019): “Local Author Informs and Inspires Parkland 7th Graders”
- Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 Feature (Jan 2019): “Local Author Sarah (Natale) Mondello Inspires 7th Graders at Bernotas”
- High School District 155 Feature (Jan 2019): “Crystal Lake Central Alum Speaks with senior Creative Writing Classes”
An Internship for the Books!
This year I had the exciting opportunity to work at one of my dream book publishers, Sourcebooks in Naperville! Sourcebooks is the largest woman-owned publisher in the U.S. and largest independent trade book publisher in the Midwest. I rotated between the Editorial, Production, and Marketing departments with weekly instructional summits. I had the opportunity to contribute to every stage of a book’s life across all company imprints, including high-profile authors Marie Benedict, Claire Legrand, and Matthew Emerzian. One of my favorite roles involved writing a synopsis of A-list author Marie Benedict’s anticipated 2020 title Lady Clementine for the sales team—which meant I got to be one of the first readers to experience one of the new year’s hottest titles!
From the very first day to the farewell lunch sendoff, the company went out of its way to make my experience warm and welcoming. Thanks to my wonderful intern managers, this exciting learning opportunity helped launched me toward my day job career goal of becoming a Book Publishing Professional—helping writers bring their books into the world—while still pursuing writing my own on the side.
Intern Turned Full-Time Hire
At the conclusion of a simultaneous internship with another publisher, they decided to keep me! In May 2018, I graduated from Drake University with degrees in Public Relations, Creative Writing, and Graphic Design. The very same day this year, I started my first full-time position as Assistant Editor & Marketing Associate at Quintessence after an 8-month internship. While walking down the aisle to receive my diploma, I never imagined what I’d be doing at that moment in one year: starting my career as a book publishing professional. I’m thrilled with the way the story turned out.
Building My Portfolio
I’ve discovered that one of my new favorite activities is content marketing: writing monthly blog articles integrating research and interviews. This involves interviewing authors and then diving into their books to pull out insightful tidbits. After learning several different writing styles, I’d describe this type as a cross between writing a journalism feature article and writing a research paper. It had been awhile since I’d written for the Drake University newspaper and magazine, and I’d forgotten how much I love article writing!
That’s a wrap! I look forward to tackling my TBR pile with a sledgehammer this year and reviewing each casualty in the amazing Reading Planner journal I received from OwlCrate as a Christmas gift. The no-pressure incentive to jot down my thoughts on each read is a godsend. Now that I’m no longer in English class, it’s up to me to exercise my literary analysis brain cells!
You may have noticed that this year’s reflection was more focused on my favorite reads than on what I’ve been up to—that’s because reading, analyzing, and plotting has taken over my mind. (Welcome back, words!) As literature becomes my main thing again, you’ll likely be seeing more of that!
By the way, if anyone happen to know where you can buy a Reading Planner, drop me a line. I’m a huge planner nerd but had never come across one for this particular purpose, and I’d love to continue my newfound reading planning in 2021!
New to the blog? Check out My 2018 Year in Review for last year’s highlights.
~ Sarah (aka Resident Word Nerd)