My Three Favorite Books of 2017

  1. The Heart’s Invisible Furies By John Boyne

The author of The Boy in Striped Pajamas wrote another tour de force that tugs at your heartstrings, forcing readers to examine their own values and judgements. A man who was adopted by upper-class yet eccentric parents discovers he is a homosexual in post-World War II Ireland. At this time homosexuality was forbidden and punishable by hard labor. The man must navigate his way through life with his secret while struggling to find stability and happiness.

  1. A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles

A Russian aristocrat who is now declared a “non-person” by the new Soviet Communist regime becomes a prisoner in the famed Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The life experiences, personal character and wisdom he imparts upon his readers made this novel a runaway hit with readers. I always felt joy when I had the chance to read it and despite almost 500 pages, was disappointed when it ended. A man that was used to the best life had to offer is now relegated to a small room and the freedom and luxuries he once enjoyed severely curtailed. The gentleman handles his reduced circumstances with grace, wit and courage.

  1. Grant by Ron Chernow

Historian Ron Chernow, author of the much celebrated Alexander Hamilton, triumphs yet again with an account of the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was moral and upright but not a particularly ambitious man who nevertheless rose from impoverished businessman to army general and then President for two terms. He fought a life-long battle with alcoholism and although astute in battle, he was naive in his judgment of character. As President, many people surrounding him took advantage of his trusting nature, which led him to make several poor decisions while in office. Still, his support of the newly-freed black slaves was unwavering and admirable.

Progress!

I was so pleased to read that the efforts of human trafficking prevention groups have yielded success! For years now, pimps have been forcing young girls and women into sexual relations with strangers in hotel rooms while hotel owners and staff would often look away. Krista Torralva of the Orlando Sentinel reported that a  bill is being prepared for the Florida Legislature to approve that would allow human trafficking victims to sue hotel workers who ignore these crimes.

Another bill would require hotel staff members to receive training in recognizing the signs of human trafficking. If these bills pass, it would greatly impact the 400 hotels in Orlando and the many more in the surrounding areas.

A similar bill was already passed in Pennsylvania in 2014 when a human trafficking victim was able to sue a Philadelphia motel when staff members ignored her travail when she was forced to sleep with hundreds of men.

According to The Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking organization, Orlando, Florida is ranked number three in calls per capita to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Let’s hope to see more progress throughout the world in combatting the proliferation of human trafficking. It is everyone’s responsibility to spot the warning signs and act to prevent this crime.

To learn more about The Polaris Project, log onto https://polarisproject.org. The phone number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

Self-Publishing: A Learning Curve

As this year draws to a close, like many people, I am taking stock on how the year went. It was exhilarating to publish my first novel, True Mercy, although there were many snags with the interior formatting. But fortunately, the book was ready by the time of my launch party on January 11th, which is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. I was able to sell 24 books at that launch party, which I’ll always remember as one of the highlights of my life.

As my novel was getting published, I kept reading that marketing was even harder than writing the book. At first, I couldn’t believe it—writing the first draft of True Mercy felt like an epic accomplishment. Editing it felt like a marathon, but when the book was published, I finally understood how marketing is even harder. After all, an estimated 1 million books get published every year. The trick is how to stand out. I originally thought writing the best story I possibly could suffice, but I was wrong. Writers have a tremendous task getting their book discovered among all the competition. This is where writer conferences and writing groups are so important: writers need resources and ideas on how to get their books discovered. It is not a job a writer can accomplish alone.

I am grateful for the family and friends who came out to support me, bought the book and told others about it. I have also become immersed in support groups for the prevention of human trafficking because it is a much larger and growing problem than I ever realized when I wrote a story about a young woman from Moldova who is kidnapped and escapes from a human trafficking ring. Also, as difficult and challenging it is to have a child with autism, I hope my focus on the sweetness and innocence of the 18-year-old with autism in True Mercy gives families and caregivers a reason to appreciate those inflicted with this neurological disorder despite the hardships.

In 2018, I plan to continue to seek help and advice on marketing my novel while working on my second one. Marketing True Mercy has been trying, yet I’ve been making progress the more I learn. What I must keep in mind, as everyone who faces a new challenge, is not to give up—however difficult it is, luck can always change and the rewards can be just around the corner.

Wishing Everyone a Happy, Healthy, and Successful New Year!

Woods Winter Wonderland Holiday Market

Kaleb and I are selling True Mercy at the Woods Winter Wonderland Market.

This past weekend my family and I sold my novel True Mercy at the Woods Winter Wonderland Market in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Woods is an educational and residential center for individuals with various disabilities, including autism, brain injury, developmental disabilities, emotional and behavioral challenges and Prader-Willi Syndrome. It was founded in 1913 by Mollie Woods, a Philadelphia teacher who began the school for children with special needs. Woods is now a 350-acre campus and services 700 residents.

While selling my book, I observed a warm community environment with fun activities for all, including pony rides, face painting, and holiday lights. Booths were set up selling holiday crafts by local artisans and a choir sang holiday songs. Vendors served food and warm drinks.

I spoke about one of my novel’s goals as giving readers a peek into the stresses and challenges of taking care of a loved one with autism. Despite the hardships, these individuals have a sweetness and innocence that others find endearing. Adam, the eighteen-year-old character with autism in my novel, always managed to put a smile on people’s faces as he played an instrumental role in saving a woman’s life.

Everyone had a pleasant day at the holiday market and I was pleased to talk to so many people about True Mercy.

Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow

In the ranking of Presidents, I had always learned that President Ulysses Grant was ranked one of the worst. However, after reading Ron Chernow’s thoroughly detailed biography, I came away with a different perspective. Before becoming the general leading the North in the Civil War, Grant was a failure at every business venture he undertook. But he never gave up. After leading the Union army to victory, he became President of the United States and had a mixed record: Grant displayed great bravery in trying to protect newly-freed black slaves in the South and defeating the Ku Klux Klan, yet he naively surrounded himself with corrupt cabinet members. He had a tendency toward alcoholism but spent most of his life overcoming his addiction. Grant himself was an honest man, but his judgment was often flawed in maintaining loyalty to close friends who betrayed him. Despite his shortcomings, I came away with the utmost respect for Grant as both a brilliant general and an upright man. A life of many failures and successes, he demonstrated that luck can change.

Truckers Lending a Hand to Fight Human Trafficking

Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT)

http://www.truckersagainsttrafficking.org/

A few weeks ago, I happened to find an article about a truck driver who rescued young girls enslaved in human trafficking at a truck stop. This led me to discover the organization Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT). It is a very active organization designed to train members of the trucking industry as well as individual truckers to recognize the signs where human trafficking is taking place. It is heartening to know that millions of truckers on the road are joining the fight against this underground criminal industry. A representative for TAT was quoted as saying, “Those in the trucking industry are in a unique position because the traffickers are transient and often stop at truck stops.” Indeed through spreading awareness, truckers have rescued countless victims.

TAT educates truckers to recognize the signs where trafficking may be taking place. These include the following:

  • CB chatter about quotas
  • Unaccompanied minors
  • Minors looking fearful
  • Signs of branding

TAT advises people to ask these minors the following questions:

  • “Are you traveling by yourself?”
  • “Who are you traveling with?”
  • “When is the last time you saw your family?”
  • “Do you get to keep part of the money?”

The average age of these girls is only 13-15, and everyone should do their part to lend a hand in rescuing these trapped young girls. If you suspect this is happening, the hotline number is 888-3737-888 or you can text BE FREE (233733). REPORT IT IMMEDIATELY IF YOU SEE IT. IF YOU’RE WRONG, THAT’S OK. TAT cautions people not to try to save the girls themselves because this could be dangerous.As a spokesperson for TAT put it, “Trucking and law enforcement are working together to put these guys out of business.”

 

A Human Trafficking Awareness Event, The Liberty Bell and A Book Review

Screening of the Film Chosen and Discussion

Last week I attended a screening of the human trafficking awareness film Chosen. Two young women speak about their nightmarish experiences. Chosen demonstrated the most common method teenage girls get lured into human trafficking: older men pretend to be their boyfriends, lavish them with expensive gifts, take them to strip clubs, and from there force them into prostitution. In most cases, the older men had been stalking them for months, so if the girls refuse to cooperate, their so-called ‘boyfriends” threaten to harm them and their families. At the end of the film, girls are advised to tell others what is happening and to take action as soon as something looks wrong. Men in their twenties or older have no business being around thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls.

The speakers at this forum informed the audience other alarming information:

  • Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world. The first is the drug trade.
  • More than 50% of victims worldwide are estimated to be underaged.
  • Sex trafficking occurs most often in the states along the coast.
  • Girls will now most likely meet their first connections to traffickers on the internet.
  • Trafficking takes place in bathrooms at middle schools.

What you can do:

  • Educated yourself and others in your community about human trafficking.
  • Advocate for laws preventing trafficking and contact your state’s representatives to push for new measures to prevent trafficking.
  • Volunteer and donate to organizations that fight trafficking and provide support to survivors.

Report Suspicious Activity to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (24/7 150+languages)

1888-3737 or Text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733)

Philadelphia

Earlier this month, I traveled to Philadelphia for the Bookbaby Writers Conference. Before it started, I visited the Liberty Bell. Inside the building, there was information posted about the Liberty Bell’s history. It was first used to symbolize freedom during the Revolutionary War, and later it was used to mark the efforts of African-Americans and women’s fight for equality. After leaving the exhibit, I felt it should also now symbolize the fight against human trafficking.

Inscription on the Liberty Bell:

Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof Lev. XXV. v X.
By Order of the ASSEMBLY of the Province of PENSYLVANIA for the State House in Phila
Pass and Stow
Philad
MDCCLIII

Book Review

On a more pleasant note, I just finished reading the fantastic book The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, US air traffic was closed. Over 250 airplanes carrying 43, 895 passengers were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland. The residents of Gander opened their homes, cooked endless meals, and donated clothes, toiletries, towels, and bedsheets to the stranded passengers once they landed. Their hospitality was astonishing. Reading the book restored my faith in humanity.

Book Review of A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel to Savor

Every so often a novel comes along that takes the public by storm and deservedly so. One cannot help but be astonished by how a writer can spin a mesmerizing tale with mere words. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking) is an example of such breathtaking talent. And this novel is certainly reaching the masses: after I received this book recommendation, I had to wait months before it arrived at my local library. I was unable to finish it in two weeks, so I put it on reserve again. The librarian told me, “You’ll have to begin reading the book over again because you’re 94th on the waiting list.” Very fortunately, someone loaned the book to me with the most reassuring words a reader can hear: “Take your time.”

I savored reading every page of this novel as one savors every bite of a gourmet meal. It is full of the experiences, keen observations, and wisdom of the main character. One such example was when he was told he must relinguish the majority of the possessions his family has held unto for generations: “From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family….It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well,…But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends.”

The novel begins in the year 1922. The Russian Revolution has triumphed and Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is placed under house arrest at the world-renowned Metropolis Hotel in Moscow. The Count, who had been already residing there in a suite consisting of “an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square” would now be moved to a room in the attic formerly housing butlers and maids. How luck can change.

The Count’s reaction to his reduced circumstances is to accept it with grace and good spirits while maintaining his sharp wit. The Count retains his dignity despite his changing fortune while at the same time, reflecting on his privileged life and the nostalgic luster of bygone days.Whereas before the Revolution he traveled widely and experienced the best life has to offer, the perks of being born into the aristocracy, he eventually is forced to work as headwaiter at the Boyarsky, the hotel’s restaurant. The Count must take orders from the hotel manager, a Communist-party member from a working-class background who relishes the fall of the aristocratic class, making the Count his obvious target.

In the middle of the story a little girl is placed in the care of the Count, who never married and has no experience with children. Once again, he rises to the occasion by bringing her up and sheltering her from the chaos and corruption as the Communist Party enforces their harsh edicts of farm collectivitzation, punishing those who object to the system, and abolishing the aristocratic class by execution or declaring them”former persons.”

Two criticisms of the novel is the seemingly effortless road the Count has in bringing up the child—the girl has no periods of rebellion, she is loved by everyone on the hotel staff, and the author Towles portrays her as exceptionally brilliant, poised, and beautiful. In other words, this portrayal feels unrealistic. The ending is also ambiguous, which is disconcerting for readers who have gone through so much of the Count’s history in this 462-page tome.

However, aside from these drawbacks, on the whole, A Gentleman in Moscow provides the reader a rich, engrossing experience. The Count maintaining his dignity and character as he recounts the bygone days of Russian aristocratic life while facing the stark reality of the Soviet Union is an enchanting tale not to be missed.

My Writing Journey Part I

Writing and finishing the novel True Mercy was a major achievement in my life. I wrote about issues that I care deeply about and I always love a thriller, a story that I cannot put down. So I decided to use this blog to write about how that journey began. Every writer has a story about their personal writing journey and all are unique in how they reached the point of writing a book.

When I was younger, I never thought I could make a living writing, so I pursued other careers. When I wrote papers for college, people remarked I was a good writer, but I never thought it would lead anywhere.

I didn’t try to actually write a book and get published until my twin sons were born. I would read them children’s picture books every day when they were still babies because educators told me this will help them develop a love of reading. We read children’s classics like Where the Wild Things Are, Berenstain Bears, and my childhood favorite, Hats for Sale. Reading to them was our special time as they would sit on my lap, stare at the pictures, and listen to my voice. What ended up happening was the more I read to them, I more convinced I became that I could write a children’s book myself.

Once I made this decision, I checked out books from the local public library on how to write children’s books and get them published. One resource I remember very well is the Writer’s Digest Children’s Book and Illustrator’s Market. I also subscribed to Writer’s Digest magazine and poured over it every month. I learned that the children’s market is very competitive, it is important to carefully read the requirements of each publisher, and I needed to become familiar with the word length for each age group.

While visiting the public library one day, I met a librarian who was a retired kindergarten teacher. She told me about her interest in writing children’s books, particularly the story she always dreamed of writing: when she was still teaching, a student once came up to her and asked, “What would you do with me if you were my mother?” So she and I began collaborating on this picture book for young children. Naturally, both of us had different ideas, but we were able to coalesce our versions together to write a story. We researched the Children’s Book and Illustrator’s Market and began sending it out.

We received many rejections.

Undeterred, we kept on writing children’s stories. We composed three stories about a character named Petey that we believed had potential.

But again, more rejections.

A few years later, although I moved to a different town, I still continued to edit and send out the Petey stories. I would inform my writing collaborator what I was doing and we remained hopeful. Unfortunately, she passed away, but I still tried to get the book published. I figured her name would appear on the cover posthumously and her four children would be paid half the profits.

It was only when I went to a Writer’s Digest Fiction Writing Conference in New York City that editors and agents informed me they didn’t see these stories getting published. And when I read them to one of my writers’ groups, they didn’t appear impressed and hearing myself read it, I knew it still needed some work.

More years went by. My twins grew up and I lost interest in writing children’s books. I even gave up trying to get published—I compared the odds of getting published to winning the lottery. But despite all the discouragement, I continued writing. My writing goals shifted; I became interested in writing an adult novel. After many fits and starts, I finally completed one. And that will be the subject for my next post of My Writing Journey. But I will end on the positive with a quote from Confucius:

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the thriller novel True Mercy.

Notice to readers who are also writers: I would be interested in learning how you began your writing journey.

Facts About Autism

I put together this sheet that I bring with me to presentations of True Mercy. I hope readers will find it informative. 

Note: As everyone can understand, life is very busy. With editing my new novel, marketing True Mercy, and improving my website, I have decided to post articles on my blog every other week instead of once a week. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that is marked by two unusual kinds of behaviours: deficits in communication and social skills, and restricted or repetitive behaviours.

Symptoms include the following:

  1. Aversion to displays of affection and a preference for solitary play
  2. Speaking later than norm
  3. Speaking in a robotic tone or an exaggerated singsong, odd tones or speech patterns
  4. Limited eye contact or limited use of gestures to communicate a need to describe something
  5. Monopolizing conversations while showing little capacity for reciprocity or understanding

Restrictive or Repetitive behaviours:

  1. Repeating actions and rituals
  2. Fixating on minute details
  3. Troubled by changes in daily routine
  4. Putting toys in order instead of playing with them
  5. Consuming interest in a specific topic or object

Information is taken from “Quick Facts on Autism” from Child Mind Institute

Statistics

  • Autism now affects 1 in 68 children
  • Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls
  • More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder
  • About 40% of children with autism do not speak. About 25%-30% of children with autism have some words at 12 to 18 months of age and then lose them. Others might speak, but not until later in childhood.
  • Autism greatly varies from person to person (no two people with autism are alike)
  • The rate of autism has steadily grown over the last twenty years
  • Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, yet most underfunded
  • Children with autism do progress – early intervention is key

Two Common Myths about Autism:

  • Individuals with autism are not affectionate. Not true. Although they may be oversensitive to touch, they can and do show affection.
  • Individuals with autism are not interested in social interaction. Actually, while they often struggle with knowing how to make and keep friends, they do like people around and are capable of interacting socially, but they need to be explicitly taught the hidden social rules.

Information is taken from the National Autism Association, Autism Society, and we-care.com (blog)

The North Korean Crisis

(Note: Last week I was unable to post an article due to the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

The recent crisis with North Korea has led me to research and reflect on the outcome of the Korean War of the early 1950’s. More specifically, could this international tension have been averted 67 years ago?

First I need to give a short recap of the war based on my research: On June 25, 1950, 75,000 soldiers from the pro-Soviet Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north crossed the 38th parallel, which is the boundary between North and South Korea. The invasion surprised the United States, for South Korea was and still is a pro-Western nation. This invasion is considered the first military action of the Cold War. President Harry S. Truman sent American troops under UN auspices to the Korean peninsula in August 1950. He appointed World War II hero General Douglas MacArthur to lead the forces to protect South Korea. General MacArthur and his troops pushed the North Koreans back and landed at the Battle of Inchon toward the Yalu River, which is the border between North Korea and China. Alarmed, the communist Chinese sent troops to warn the Americans to stay away from the Yalu River unless they were prepared to go to war.

MacArthur’s plan was to go ahead and attack China’s supply bases near the Yalu River, but Truman feared this would provoke World War III. When MacArthur’s plan was leaked to the press, Truman fired him. From then on, the fighting continued for two more years as both sides attempted to reach an armistice. When it was finally achieved and signed on July 27, 1953, both sides agreed to draw a new boundary at the 38th parallel. As a result of the war, 5 million people died: more than half were civilians. 40,000 American troops lost their lives and 100,000 were injured.

Although the fighting ended, both North and South Korea are still in a state of war. No peace treaty was ever signed and each side considers themselves the only legitimate government of Korea. In the years following the Korean War, North Korea has committed numerous human rights violations, including using its resources to develop nuclear weapons rather than feeding its people. Free speech is nonexistent in North Korea and there are occasional skirmishes with South Korea along the border. The imprisonment and tragic death of Otto Warmbier, a US student who visited the country, only highlights the nefarious intentions of North Korea. The testy threats between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un has only increased the already tense atmosphere. It appears something has to give.

Did Truman make the right decision at the time? General MacArthur’s plan was no doubt reckless and dangerous, and Truman, of course, wanted to prevent World War III. To think there may have been a possibility that this conflict could have been resolved somehow 67 years ago may be wishful thinking on my part. If only there was some way to undo all the damage over the years.

Information for this blog comes from history.com and Wikipedia.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the thriller True Mercy. Read more of her posts on www.luckcanchange.com.

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