Category Archives: book reviews

Madhattan Mystery is Booklist’s “Review of the Day”!

It’s Mystery Month on Booklist Online, so I was hoping…with fingers crossed (which makes it very difficult to type)…but hoping, nonetheless, that my middle-grade novel MADHATTAN MYSTERY might be lucky enough to be featured as their “Review of the Day.” Well, this morning I received an email from my editor at Walker/Bloomsbury announcing that–zippity-doo-dah–my book has actually been selected! I’m basking in the glory, but I have to be quick about it–24 hours goes by so quickly. Don’t forget to check out their incredible site!

THANK YOU, Booklist, for my very first starred review! 

Madhattan Mystery.
Bonk, John J. (author).

May 2012. 304p. Walker, hardcover, $16.99 (9780802723499). Grades 5-8.
REVIEW. First published May 1, 2012 (Booklist).

The title rightfully includes mad because this is a madcap mystery—and a delight in every way. Lexi and her brother, Kevin, are staying in Manhattan while their father and his new wife are on their honeymoon. The kids’ theatrical Aunt Roz has signed them up for City Camp, which they’ll attend with Roz’s neighbor, Kim Ling Levine. That’s the plan, anyway. Coming into Grand Central Station, Lexi thinks she overhears information about a jewel heist in the Whispering Gallery. When she learns that a cache of Cleopatra’s jewels, scheduled for a Met exhibit, has been stolen, she puts two and two together. But has she come up with five? Some mysteries concentrate on plot, while others focus on characters, with the actual mystery an afterthought. What Bonk does so well here is give each its due. The who, why, and how of the missing jewels lead the kids through deliciously dark tunnels, busy train stations, and Central Park at night, and come complete with a nice turnaround. However, equally as developed is the cast. Would-be journalist Kim Ling is bright, caustic, and knows how to toss in a Yiddish word when appropriate; Kevin is the quintessential 10-year-old; and Lexi’s dynamic first-person narrative shows her evolution—to readers and herself. That it also beautifully fits in the story of Lexi’s late mother gives this caper even more heft.

— Ilene Cooper

The Hero’s 2 Journeys–that’s right, TWO.

I happened upon a great audiobook entitled, The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler on iTunes. (Also available on CD and DVD.)  Renowned screenwriter/teachers Hauge and Vogler deliver a lively presentation examining both the inner and outer journey of the protagonist, referencing popular movies along the way. (They use Shrek as one of their go-to examples, which I love.) It’s based upon Joseph Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey but, oh, so much more. First, they cover the outer journey—the essential structural principles driving every successful plot; and then they take you step-by-step through the protagonist’s all-important inner journey, distinguishing between his identity and true essence. When the two “journeys” are melded together, it’s guaranteed to take your story to the next level. (Well, they don’t actually offer a guarantee.) Geared mainly toward scriptwriters but novelists will benefit heaps of knowledge as well since the basic recipe is the same. You’ll feel like you’re right there in Hollywood with the rest of the attendees, who undoubtedly paid a huge fee to get into this sold-out event (not to mention dealing with L.A. gridlock) but you get to listen to it at your convenience via your iPod, iPad, or iWhatever—and for a reasonable price. It’s a goldmine of information, maybe a bit too formulaic, but ridiculously insightful and with plenty of solid takeaways. A must have for any fiction writer!

A Novel Approach

Flaubert once said, “Words, like hair, shine with combing” and I have to agree. (Not  that I  really know who Flaubert was. I’m guessing he ended up bald but accomplished.) Something that helped me whip my last novel into shiny, sellable shape was a little gem of a book called Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise by author/teacher Darcy Pattison. 

Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise Novels with Creative Writing Tips, Tools, and Strategies

It’s a paperback work-book filled with helpful tips that guides you through a thorough examination of your already finished novel. I mean, you’ll really strip it down to the studs and rebuild it into a much stronger piece. But be prepared to work your pencil off! Plot, character, language, setting, voice – you’re really going to delve.

One exercise that takes you out of the work-book is a technique called the Shrunken Manuscript where you print out your entire novel single-spaced in the tiniest font possible and lay it out across the floor to view it as a whole. (At first I thought, Yeah, right – that’s not gonna happen. But I followed through and it turned out to be fun and fruitful.) You use colored markers to highlight the strongest chapters so you can see the proportion of text in them compared with the weaker chapters. But that’s just for starters. According to Pattison, “You can use the Shrunken Manuscript to evaluate anything that you want to visualize across the novel: settings where two characters interact, the percentage of dialogue, places where you repeat a certain setting, places where the theme is made obvious, etc.” Very cool. Just make sure your kitty is locked in another room when you do this or things can get ugly.  

Another particularly enjoyable aspect of this book is that you’re encouraged – no, required to write all over the pages just like grade-school workbooks. Very hands on. Truth be told, I was always sneaking out my miniature-golf sized pencil and scribbling through exercises while I served on a Grand Jury (during downtime only, I swear – and there was plenty of downtime.) But since I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I did notice quite a few typos in this book – like, “I did done a good job of using active verbs…” Eesh. Come on, copyeditors. Other than that, they did done a good job!  

Check out Darcy’s blog, FICTION NOTES, at