As seen in the August issue of Uncaged Book Reviews
Uncaged: You write in the Young Adult and younger genres. What inspires you to write for the younger generations?
Like others, I find it fun and interesting to go back and be young again. I wouldn’t want to “really” do that, but being able to capture a time when I could climb trees and skin my knee and lick from a spoon coated with cake batter is a treasure. That first kiss and the rush of any first time is so exciting. I get to experience all of that when I write stories about middle graders and young adults.
Uncaged: What do you have coming up next that you can tell us about?
I have two books with an agent at the moment. One is about justice, or maybe injustice. I’m always keen on people getting a fair shake. The second is about a senseless killing that alters many lives.
I’m currently working on something I said I’d never write—a young adult fantasy. So how did that happen? Who knows? But I’m always curious about why people treat those who are different from them so badly, and so this story popped into my head and stuck. It will be about being shunned because of fear and superstition and being different. I’m at 43K at the moment.
Uncaged: Are you nervous, scared or excited (or all three) when you release a new book?
I used to be all three. Now, I’m just excited. I know more about this business after having published eight books, but I love launching a new one. Here’s what runs through my mind: Will anyone like it? Will I get rotten reviews? Here’s my answer: Who cares? I loved the process, and whatever happens will be how it is. Just release the story and enjoy the experience, Lee. That’s what I tell myself.
Uncaged: Do you read your reviews? What do you take away from them?
I read them when I need to “steal” their language and use them for my promo. Some reviewers are darned good writers. 🙂
Uncaged: What is one of the nicest things someone has said to you about your books?
I think the best thing that people tell me is that they want to read more stories about my characters. I thought writing a middle grade trilogy was enough, but some readers have asked for a fourth book. I’ll have to think about that. And, while I write with a younger reader in mind, I find my fan base is an older group. I didn’t expect that either.
Uncaged: What is your favorite parts about being an author? What have you found to be the least favorite?
This is a great question because it’s easy for me to answer. I love telling myself stories. That’s the best part. The least favorite is sitting. I have the darnedest time gluing my pants to the chair. I’m an outdoor person, so I often find I have to take a hike with a pad of paper and a pencil just to keep writing.
Uncaged: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? Where is one of your favorite places on Earth?
Wow! The first question is easy. The second not so much. When I’m not writing, I’m hiking or practicing yoga. As I said above, I’m an outdoor person, so I take to the trail whenever I have a chance. And to from getting down or stressed, I practice yoga.
Now about that favorite place…I have so many: Istanbul (I have friends there and have visited several times), South of France (It’s like northern California with an accent. Love it. Oh and it has castles, which I adore—they are in some of my books), where I live is also a favorite place. I’m on the edge of a redwood forest and when I look out my window all I see are trees. I’m not a city-dweller, so this is a perfect place for me.
Uncaged: What can you tell us that is very unique about you?
I’m not sure I’m unique in any way. I’d like to be, but I’m pretty much a standard issue person. One thing people often remark on is that I don’t eat sweets. Does that count as unique? I’ve never liked candy much. I’ll eat dates and peaches, but cake and cookies are far down on the list of things I enjoy. My family suffered because of this and often resorted to bringing their own desserts home. They knew I would totally forget to have any.
Uncaged: What would you like to say to fans, and where can they follow you?
If there are people who enjoys reading what I write, “Thank you.” There’s nothing more rewarding for writers (including me) than readers who “get” them.
I’m very fortunate to have some great five star reviews from readers and reviewers. And I’m really pleased that I’m learning this business. Promotion has been my biggest challenge. I’ve had to learn how to schedule, so I can still write and do the promotion I need to do for my other books. It’s a full-time job.
When I’m not writing I’m practicing yoga, doing sun salutations in my garden (AKA weeding) or scratching my head over how all of this writing stuff started. I’m still not sure, but the ride has been exhilarating and so much different than I’d expected.
C. Lee McKenzie
Cleo has struggled to heal after her baby sister’s death, but the flashbacks to the accident won’t go away. With the move, she vows to keep her tragedy a secret and avoid pitying looks.
Something’s strange about the abandoned house across the street—flashes of light late at night and small flickers of movement that only someone looking for them would see. Everyone says the house is deserted, but Cleo is sure it isn’t, and she’s sure whoever is inside is watching her.
In one night, Belleza’s life changes forever. So famous, her only choice is to hide her secret from the world so she can silence small town bigotry.
Then Cleo happens.
I was glad my window looked onto the street and faced south, so I didn’t get morning light, but lots of afternoon sun. Still, I wasn’t crazy about it looking directly into the house across from us. Every time I glanced outside, I remembered back to a few months ago when we first came here, and I was sure I saw movement inside that second-story window. Thinking about that sent goosebumps trickling down my arms, but all I saw now was an empty derelict, sagging into the ground.
The first morning in my new room I stayed in bed, thinking that by the following week I’d be getting up early and walking to school—a new school, where nobody knew anything about Cleopatra Brown. It wouldn’t be like at my old school, where everybody stared at me after the accident, even when they tried not to. I wouldn’t have to shut myself away like I did at Buena Vista High. I could be a normal junior.
“It will take time to heal, Cleo,” the counselor kept saying. “Leaving your old house will help, but it’s up to you to move on, to let go of the past.”
“Move on,” I said. “I’m trying.” Only, it was hard to move on. It was like I’d be leaving Aziza behind. I wanted her with me, with us, again. I wanted Dad with me, with us. I wanted— “Mail!” Mom called from downstairs. “Dad’s sent us a letter. Come down.”
I threw off the covers, grabbed my robe and pounded down the steps. This was the first news outside of short emails from Dad since he left, and I couldn’t wait to hear what he’d written.
Mom waved the letter and sat at the dining room table as I hurried in. Her face was lively and flushed. I could almost hear her heart beating, rapid fire, inside her chest.
Grandpa was already there, reading the morning paper. His thick glasses rested at the end of his nose, and he peered over the rims at me as I pulled out the chair across from him.
Grandpa believed in rising early. When I was five and he told me, “It’s the early bird that gets the worm,” I turned up my nose with an “Eww!” We didn’t agree on when to get out of bed, any more than we agreed about Clyde. At least that morning, Grandpa didn’t have his pet. Mom had set some rules: Clyde stayed in his cage until after breakfast. Clyde was never to come to the table.
“Things sound like they’re going well,” Mom said. “Listen.” She began to read: “‘Here I am up to my ears in Afghani sand and potatoes. Yes, I said potatoes. My colleague, Dr. Hamidi, has hit upon a brilliant idea for recruiting the farmers to our side. We’ve arranged to buy potato crops, providing the farmers will store the artifacts they’ve unearthed. I’m hearing everything through an interpreter, but the farmers seem happy, and so does my colleague. Now these valuable finds will have shelter until we can build a museum to house them. There’s so much to do here if we’re going save these irreplaceable pieces of history, and our progress is painfully slow. Please take good care of each other. Don’t let Clyde eat Nefertiti, okay, Pops? All my love, Derek, AKA, Dad, AKA, your son.’”
I loved that Dad’s spark of humor came through in this letter. It was the first time he’d sounded like himself in such a long while. Maybe he’d answer one of my emails now. The last time I tried to contact him, he only wrote, “I miss you” –– he never answered my question about when he planned to come home.
Mom swiped her eyes. Grandpa used both hands on the table to push himself to his feet. He didn’t shuffle like many men at seventy-five, but his gait was stiff for the first few steps. Like he said, he needed to idle a bit before his motor warmed up. Sometimes he still made me laugh. “Walk,” he said and he pulled on his coat, set his beret so it dipped over one eye and left through the front door.
“He’s worried about your dad,” Mom said.
Her voice was heavy with worry, too. I hated how what had been a happy moment shifted into another sad one. My eyes teared up, so I hurried into the kitchen and, at the sink, splashed water on my face.
It had been a terrible and very long journey from that tragic Christmas to now, and I couldn’t think about losing another one of us. We’d each done all we could to live without Aziza. Dad went as far away as possible from where the accident happened. Mom sold our house and moved us to a new town. Still, we weren’t over that December day.
Mom buried herself in her work for long hours.
Grandpa pulled into himself, wearing that glazed look he’d adopted before the funeral.
I was almost sure he’d wear that look for the rest of his life. He loved Aziza. And what wasn’t there to love? Beautiful golden girl, my mom called her, forever poking her four-year-old nose around the corner daring any of us to chase her. Teasing, begging for attention, which we gave because we couldn’t resist her.
Grandpa loved my sister a lot. I was afraid he loved me very little now.
I wasn’t so fond of myself, either. I shut out all of my Buena Vista friends and started running alone.
From the window over the kitchen sink I watched Nefertiti as she sat on the step, preening in a sunny spot around the back of the house. I went out to sit with her, stroking her fur and surveying the weedy backyard that Mom hadn’t had time to think about. She kept saying she planned to hire a gardener, but there was always something that derailed that plan. In September, it was the new show at the museum that she had to set up by October. She was in charge of staging the Egyptian pieces coming on loan, but she was shorthanded and putting in extra time to make up for only having two assistants. It was going to be a while before the toilet and other debris disappeared.
It was all too depressing to look at, so I walked around to the front and for a minute glanced at the windows of the house across the street. I almost expected to see someone staring out at me. I couldn’t shake the creeped out feeling I got every time I looked at that place.
I knelt to check my laces, and then I was racing down the street, hoping to shed old fears, old thoughts . . . at least for a while. I was at the end of the block, deciding which way to turn, when I spotted Grandpa. I went in the opposite direction, so neither one of us had to pretend that everything was all right since that letter from Dad.
The high school was only four blocks away––one of the reasons, Mom said, she chose this location. It also had one of the best academic ratings in the valley. Another reason she told me she zeroed in on our cozy cul-de-sac.
When I reached the school, I stared up at the two-storied building where I’d spend my last two years of high school. Then what? Junior college, or a job at K-Mart? I worried that I’d bomb on my SAT’s. I’d bombed on almost everything, hadn’t I? My grades, my friends––being a sister.
I walked up the stone path, leading to the main doors, imagining that first day here, my stomach balling up with worry just on the edge of dread. That first day was going to be the worst.
Off to my right, a thick oak sheltered tables with benches, so I jogged across the lawn and sat on the wooden slats and thought about how it was going to be when school started. Everything new. Everything different. The stares all newbies get. Nobody would know who I was or why I was here. They wouldn’t know my mom was famous for her books on Egypt, or that my dad was an archeologist—the one people called when they dug up important ancient anything in the Middle East. But they’d know something was different about me the minute they heard my name. Cleopatra wasn’t on any baby name list they’d ever read. Neither was Aziza, but she was too little for her name to embarrass her. She’d only just learned what it meant. Precious. And she was that. She was.
A very well written young adult that throws in a bit of a mystery. Cleo’s family has been torn apart by an accident that killed Cleo’s baby sister. Her mother buries herself in work, her father has been in Afghanistan as an archaeologist, and no one knows if or when he’s coming home, and Cleo’s Grandpa barely communicates. When Cleo’s mom moves them to a new town, in a new home, Cleo starts at a new school. She’s lucky though, she makes a few new friends and things seem to be looking up. But the crumbling house across the street that is supposed to be abandoned since the fifties, Cleo has seen lights flicker in the windows, and a van that pulls up every single week.
I like the author gave us great characters to latch onto, Ethan, the handsome jock with his own skeletons and his girlfriend Stacy, who turns out to be the bestie everyone wants, and of course Rudy. Maybe not the most handsome boy in school, but perfect for Cleo.
You’ll have to read the book, but the last 20% of the book, really made this one. I have to admit, it was a bit slow going in the beginning, but the ending pulled a higher rating out of me. Will Cleo’s family ever pick up the pieces? Will the mysteries of the house across the street ever be discovered? The ending was a bit abrupt and it could have been pulled out a little more, but overall, this is an entertaining read and worth the time. Reviewed by Cyrene