Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Enjoy a Little Mystery With Your History


So, it's 11:10 on New Year's Eve and my 6-year-old bookworm is reading to stay awake. She just finished Secrets on 26th Street by Elizabeth McDavid Jones. It's part of the American Girl History Mysteries series. She loved it and wanted to share her thoughts with you. Without further ado, here is the very first post by Miss Heather:
susans mother takes in a border that causes them terrible problems
AllI can say Is that it is a wonderful book. My favorite part was when each mystery was solved. I like susan I like it because its a mystery book.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008: My Year in Books

This has been an exciting reading/reviewing year for me. I discovered some excellent authors, chatted with lots of writers, hosted some awesome giveaways, and had a ball. I felt a bit guilty about dropping out of all the challenges I so optimistically joined this year, and I'm still feeling guilty about the mountains of books I still have to review. Still and all, it's been a good reading year. I'm looking forward to more fun this year on BBB. Thanks so much for all of your support in 2008 - I hope you'll stay with me for 2009 and beyond!

Here's how my reading year turned out:

I read 116 books in 2008 - 50 more than last year!

Of those, 37 were written by men, 77 were written by women and 2 were written by a man/woman combination.

15 of the books I read were non-fiction, 101 were fiction.

46 were YA/children's books.



Of the books I read this year, these were my favorites:

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger
The Rackety-Packety House by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
The Grace Valley trilogy by Robyn Carr
Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs
The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
Virgin River by Robyn Carr
Taken By Storm by Angela Morrison
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Will Get Under Your Skin and Stay There

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas began with a vision: author John Boyne saw "one single image, of two boys sitting on either side of a fence, having a conversation. And I knew where that fence was. I knew those two boys really shouldn't be there" (from author interview, p. 4). The fence forms a barrier between the Commandant's home and the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. The boys are Bruno, the 9-year-old Commandant's son, and Shmuel, a 9-year-old Jewish prisoner. Though divided by nationality, culture and a strong fence, the boys form an unlikely and dangerous friendship.
Both of the boys have been brought to Auschwitz against their will. Bruno liked his life in Berlin - he had a big house, 3 best friends, and plenty of space for exploring. When the "Fury" (Fuhrer) appoints Bruno's father to take over command at "Out-With" (Bruno's word for Auschwitz), the family has little choice but to comply. Like his mother, Bruno is not pleased with the move, especially when he sees the "empty, desolate place" (11) that is to be his new home. The area feels cold and unfriendly - worse, there are no other houses nearby, and thus no other children with whom to play. Shmuel, of course, has been forcefully removed from his home and corralled in the camp like all the other Jews. Although Bruno despises his new home, he finds Shmuel's endlessly fascinating. He longs to wear his pajamas all day and play with the crowds of children on the other side of the fence. In his innocence and ignorance, Bruno is even a little insulted that Shmuel has not yet invited him over to tea.
Although Bruno knows he is not supposed to go near the fence, he really can't understand why. How can an explorer like himself resist such an adventure, anyway? Shmuel's a true friend, and Bruno enjoys bringing him food and listening to his stories. They are united in their loathing of sadistic Lieutenant Kotler, but Bruno can't fathom why Shmuel would dislike his father. After all, the Commandant is a great and powerful man. When Shmuel arrives at the fence, frantic because his father has disappeared, Bruno suggests they appeal to the Commandant for help. Even after spending long hours with his friend, Bruno does not understand why Shmuel would veto the idea. Still, he likes Shmuel's suggestion better - the Jew will smuggle an extra pair of striped pajamas through the fence, Bruno will don his costume, sneak under the fence, and help Shmuel find his father. The guileless Bruno has no idea the kind of danger he's facing as he happily digs under the fence, ready to experience his grandest adventure yet.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an astounding story that juxtaposes childlike innocence with the worst kind of terror imaginable. Bruno's inability to believe the truth, even when he's seeing it with his own eyes, underscores the absolute horror of the Holocaust. The shocking ending hammers home the story's moral: In the end, regardless of race, color, or creed, we are all the same. Brilliant, beautiful and touching, this is a book that will get under your skin and stay there, long after you've turned the last page.
Grade: A+
(I haven't seen the movie yet, but it looks excellent. You can see the trailer here.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Poetic Home of the Brave Will Make You Cheer

You may have noticed that I don't read a lot of poetry. Scratch that. I don't read poetry. At all. Correction - there are poems I enjoy, but most of them are straight forward and rhyming, a la Henry W. Longfellow. As for vague, abstract, brain-taxing verse, count me out. So, when I first picked up Home of the Brave, a YA novel by Katherine Applegate, I almost put it right back down. After all, it's written in stanzas, so it greatly resembles a poem. A few pages into the book, however, I was hooked. That's about when I realized the story offered all the things I like about poetry - impactful imagery; lyrical writing; and engaging subject matter - without being abstract or difficult to understand. If it is poetry, it reads like a novel - the words are just prettier.

Applegate's lovely words can't erase the horrors that have befallen Kek in his native Sudan. Before boarding the "flying boat" to America, he lost his father and brother to bloodthirsty soldiers. He survived because his mother screamed at him to run. Because he was so frightened, he clutched her dress - now all he has left of her is a piece of blue and yellow fabric. Kek knows the odds are against it, but he's certain his mother will come for him.

In Minnesota, Kek is overwhelmed by strange and baffling sights. With the help of his new friend Hannah, he discovers the wonders of washing machines, chocolate milk, and the grocery store with its "answers to prayers on every shelf" (156). Still, Kek gravitates to the one thing that is familiar - a cow he spies at a ramshackle farm. He has always had a way with cattle - his father owned many in Sudan - and the animal is the one thing he understands in his confusing new life. Kek uses his own ingenuity to make his way in his world, but he's still haunted by the loss of his family. Although his friend Dave is checking for his mother in refugee camps, he cannot find her. Kek knows he has to be brave, but sorrow weighs him down. Without taking part in his tribe's ceremony, he doesn't know if he can find the strength to be a man.

Although the story sounds depressing, Kek is nothing if not hopeful. He's a sympathetic and engaging narrator, whose determination and ingenuity make him an interesting and inspiring character. His wide-eyed wonder will make readers smile, his misadventures will make them laugh, and his undying hope will make them root for brave young Kek. The immigrant experience has been addressed many times before, but Home of the Brave seems fresh somehow. Whether or not it adds anything new to this crowded genre, it's a quick, touching story that will leave you cheering for a brave young boy named Kek and a tired old cow called Gol.

Grade: A

(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Secrets Abound in Pitch-Perfect Southern Novel

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Every family has its secrets - skeletons shoved inside closets, ugly truths hidden behind concealing smiles, damning evidence blocked from memories. But what happens when the skeletons creep out of their closets? What happens when suppressed memories resurface? What happens to the family whose lies can no longer be contained? Adie Jenkins, heroine of J.L. Miles' Cold Rock River, is about to find out.

Adie is 7 when her little sister drowns in Cold Rock River, a tragedy that tears her family apart. Her father drinks away his sorrow, while her mother grows more and more distant from her remaining children. No one will talk about little Annie, and Adie doesn't want to think about her own part in the nightmare that stole her sister's life. Besides, she has another life to think of now - the one that's growing inside her.

It's 1963. Adie is 17 and pregnant. She has little choice but to marry Buck Jenkins, the father of her baby. Unfortunately, he comes with a sharp-tongued mama and not much else. Despite the long hours he spends working at the Five, Dime & Penny (in the company of the owner's pretty daughter), Buck's not much of a provider. Luckily, Adie's got enough pluck to save herself and her baby. She finds a shack to rent, scrubs it down and settles in, determined to keep Buck in his own bed by playing the perfect wife. Before she knows it, she's also a mama to sweet Grace Annie.

Adie's plan doesn't find a lot of success, but life's at least bearable thanks to several key people: Murphy Spencer, her kind-hearted neighbor, whose constant aid seems motivated by something more than just neighborliness; Willa Mae Satterfield, Murphy's sassy surrogate mother; and Tempe Jordan, a slave girl, whose diary Willa Mae loans to Adie. Although the girls are separated by 100 years, Adie relates to Tempe's hard-scrabble life. Reading Tempe's words brings solace to Adie, who's struggling with an unfaithful husband, a scheming mother-in-law, a chicken herd gone wild, and the sweet, forbidden love that dances just out of reach. As if that wasn't enough, long-suppressed images seem to be taking over Adie's mind - images that suggest she was directly responsible for her sister's death. Secrets - from her family, Buck's, even Murphy's - threaten to rip her apart. When brave Adie finally demands the truth, it changes the way she sees everything - and everyone - in her life. Some secrets she learns too late, and some just in time, to save herself and the people she loves. "Secrets," she says

are like stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They're short, or long or in between, and they all take on a life of their own. Some go on and on, when you'd rather they not. You can close the book anytime, but it doesn't mean you are finished. And you may think you know where they are going, but you never know for sure until you get to the end and unravel it. (264)

This is a story about the unraveling, and the almost irreperable destruction caused by secrecy and lies.

From the first line of Cold Rock River ("I was five that Spring Annie choked on a jelly bean" [11]) the reader gets sucked into Adie's tale of life in rural Georgia during the tumultuous '60s. She narrates with humor and a naivete that will endure her to all readers. Tempe's voice is just as compelling, perhaps even more so as she describes her "Massah" selling her children, children he sired himself, away to a slave trader. The women's voices speak in perfect harmony as they talk of sorrow, injustice and the dangerous secrets every family hides. Despite these things, their stories radiate strength, hope and healing. Suffused with Southern softness and humor, this is a beautiful story about truth, lies and the ever-conquering power of the human spirit. I couldn't put it down.

Grade: B+

Monday, December 22, 2008

Taken By Storm Not Your Mother's LDS Novel (That's Why I Like It)

You know all the words I usually use to describe LDS novels? Adjectives like preachy,

sentimental, unrealistic, and cheesy? Well, I'm proud to say I won't be using them in this review. That's because Angela Morrison's YA novel Taken By Storm does what most LDS books don't - it takes a Mormon character and explores her life with realistic language, realistic challenges, realistic emotions and, most of all, realistic resolutions. In short, it bypasses all the gooey stuff and lays the story out with unflinching honesty. Words like "skank" and "condom" actually appear. Did I mention this isn't your mother's LDS novel?

(A quick aside: I should probably qualify the term "LDS novel." I consider a book written about Mormon culture by a Mormon author to be an "LDS novel." Most of these are published by Deseret Book, which requires stories to be clean and uplifting (you can read their author guidelines here). Many authors find this too restrictive, so they publish in the mainstream press. IMHO, Deseret Book - type novels are written more for church members, while those published by mainstream presses have wider appeal to readers who are not LDS. I don't know if that makes sense, but I wanted to mention that Taken By Storm was not published by DB. Thus, I struggled with labeling it a "clean read" - it's not graphic by any means, but it is much more realistic than the average LDS novel. That's why I enjoyed it so much.)

Anyway, the book revolves around two high school seniors: Leesie and Michael. Their worlds collide when Michael moves to Leesie's podunk hometown of Tekoa, Washington. A fierce tropical storm has stolen his parents' lives, leaving him deeply scarred. The brooding teenager spends all his time fighting the memories that threaten to engulf him - he's really in no mood to make friends. Leesie knows she shouldn't be so interested in Michael. Not only is he not LDS (and therefore not boyfriend material), but his grief makes him dark and dangerous. Besides, she's just biding her time in the boonies - as soon as her acceptance letter from BYU arrives, she'll run and never look back. But, there's something about Michael that sucks her in, threatening to drown all her resolve to be a good Mormon girl.

It doesn't take long for them to develop a deep, intense relationship. Michael falls for Leesie's farm-fresh innocence, which soothes his troubled soul. Her "rules" drive him crazy, especially the no-sex one, but he's confident he can melt the "Mormon Ice Queen." Even if he can't, he still needs her - she's the only one who can keep his sorrow at bay. Leesie can't help wanting to save Michael's grief-stricken soul, but he has no interest in the Gospel that guides her life. Still she's drawn to him. Too drawn. Her body screams more, more, more, even though she knows she has to resist. It's obvious he's been with girls before, but Leesie's determined not to be one of them. She loves Michael, he wants her to prove it, and, God help her, she wants to show him, but she can't. Besides, she's got a bright future to look forward to - Michael's concerned only about the past and present. How much will Leesie have to give up to love him? Can Michael hang on when she refuses to give him what he needs? The situation takes Leesie to the brink of her faith, threatening to steal everything she believes in, everything she's lived for. It will also try the limits of Michael's patience, toy with his fragile psyche, and browbeat his already shattered heart. Does their impossible love even stand a chance?

The thing that will scare off some LDS readers is the thing I enjoyed most about Taken By Storm - its honesty. The emotion is raw, intense and, at times, so dark it's depressing. It's also very relatable. Through chat room conversations, poetry, and entries in Michael's Dive Log, readers come to know the characters well. Regardless of their religion, readers will recognize Leesie's desire to "be good" in the face of overwhelming temptation. They will also find sympathy for bad-boy Michael, who can't find peace no matter where he looks. Kids who have been spoon-fed cheesy LDS literature, will find Taken By Storm refreshingly real. They'll appreciate that the novel is both hopeful and faith-promoting, but not preachy or wrapped up in a sappy, predictable package.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there are a couple of things that bugged me about it. Number One is the cover. Ick. I never would have picked up this novel based on its cheesy art, which makes Taken By Storm look like a silly romance. This is a serious novel - it begs for a provocative cover. Less important are these two things: (1) The novel is very intense, with lots of dark, raw emotion. I would have liked a little light here and there. And (2) Leesie's extreme Goody-Two-Shoes-ness makes Mormons look a little freaky. Just for the record - most LDS girls live pure lives without acting quite so buttoned-up. These are minor complaints (well, except the rant about the cover - I know I said I wouldn't use the word, but it really is cheesy), because the novel is engrossing, honest and edgy enough that teens will actually want to read it. I, and probably plenty of LDS readers, have been waiting for a book like this. Here's hoping Morrison will continue to publish ... and often.

Grade: A

(Note: Taken By Storm will not be available until March. However, if you sign up to become a Teen Reviewer, you can get your very own ARC right away. Trust me, you want to do this.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Author Chat: An Interview with Angela Morrison

(Image from Angela Morrison's Official Website)



Me: Taken By Storm is set in your hometown of Tekoa, Washington. From what you wrote in the book, I gather there aren't too many Mormons 'round those parts. What was it like growing up as one of the only LDS kids in town? Leesie is definitely taunted for her beliefs - did you experience anything similar?

AM: Tekoa is tiny. There were sixteen kids in my graduating class. The only thing you can find in abundance is wheat. There were usually a couple LDS families in town, but for several years, my family was it. When you are the only ones, you can't be lukewarm. You are watched and challenged every day. You either get strong or leave the church. The youth in our branch were drawn from three high schools hidden in the wheat fields along the highway going up to Spokane. We had a good time together. The kids in my grade showed me a lot of respect even though I was such a puzzle to them. But, a group of guys in the grade ahead of me decided I was pretty good sport. When I started writing TBS, I gave Leesie way too many of those experiences. She was smothering and couldn't grow into a unique character. Ron Koertge, my first Vermont College mentor, told me I needed to change Leesie up if I ever wanted a "New York editor in her DKNY dress" to "warm to this." I cut back a lot, but some of my personal experiences survived the many drafts I wrote. The scene on the bus on the way home from the field trip is straight from my journal--except I didn't have a Michael to run to. It was cool to write a noble guy into that episode.

When I left Tekoa at eighteen, I was eager to get away, but now I go back as often as I can--even if its only in my imagination.

Me: From where did the idea for Taken By Storm come? Why did you find the idea of these star-crossed lovers so compelling? In other words, why did you write this book?

AM: Several years ago, my husband and I were scuba diving off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico. Halfway through the trip the weather turned nasty. Dark skies. Rain. We still dove. Darker than usual, but nothing stops divers. In between dives, we huddled on the boat getting rained on. To the south of us, a thick band of wicked clouds blocked up the sky. A newsy guy informed us our rain and those clouds were what was left of a hurricane that had just hit Belize. He told us the hurricane had capsized a boatload of divers and most of them drowned. None of us believed him. Divers don't drown. He insisted--and he was right. A large live aboard yacht docked in what they thought was a safe port. They were wrong.

Over the next several months, I followed the story closely. I found news articles on the Internet and watched the memorial grown on the website of the dive club who hard charter the boat and lost so many. I felt a kinship with those dead divers. The clouds that killed them rained on me, too.

I began asking myself, "what if?" What if the only survivor of a similar fictional accident was a guy whose parents drowned? How did he survive? What happened to him after? Who would he live with now? Where would he go?

And, most important, who would love him?

When I started my MFA, Michael's voice emerged during a free-write. I stirred around the pieces of my life in my memory, and picked up my Grandmother's house in my tiny home town. I sent Michael there and introduced him to the only Mormon girl in town who was living in my old farm house. They started talking in my head all time. I scribbled as fast as I could to keep up. It's really their story, not mine.

What I did was revise, revise, revise--with the help of my MFA advisors, critique pals, editors who rejected me, and at last the editor who fell in love with Michael and Leesie just like I did. If you go on my website (http://www.angela-morrison.com/) or YouTube site (http://www.youtube.com/AngelaTheAuthor) and watch the trailer, you can see pictures of all the places I used for settings.

Me: Your book is the edgiest LDS novel for teens that I've ever read. What made you take such an honest, unflinching approach? How do you think readers, both LDS and non, will react to the story?

AM: I tell LDS readers, TAKEN BY STORM is a standards night they won't put down. My inspiration for this novel was all the young women I'd had in my seminary classes over the years who live what Leesie lives in the novel, but LDS readers weren't my first audience. TAKEN BY STORM was my creative thesis for my MFA at Vermont College, so I had to craft a novel anyone could pick up and sink into.

When I started writing TBS, I knew Michael was a sexually active guy, and Leesie was a faithful Mormon girl committed to the law of chastity. When I put them together, I was led to scenes and discussions that I had to deal with honestly and frankly. I owed that to my characters and my readers. At first, I flinched a lot. The sensitive, passionate scenes took many, many revisions, lots of handwringing and prayer. I could not have written them without divine assurances and many wise earthly critiques.

At Vermont College I worked with some of the finest young adult authors and poets in the field. They taught me to be honest. Fiction is truth repackaged as story--but truth must be at its heart. Teens live these situations. They experience these feelings, and I refuse to talk down to them or deny that they have those feelings. I remember the agony of it all way too clearly. As the novel continued to evolve, Leesie's voice became her private poetry. That has to be no honest if I wanted to pull the reader deep into her psyche.

Before the TWILIGHT revolution, it was hard to find YA novels that didn't contain sexually explicit scenes, obscene language and guys that creep you out. Stephanie Meyers has shown that clean, romantic novels with noble heros have great appeal. For me, it was a challenge to write those steamy make-out scenes, but they are not explicit. There is a line I won't cross. I want my readers to know that. When they pick up a novel with my name on the front, they'll get authentic characters, lots of great kissing scenes, a frank discussion of teen sexuality with a moral side to it, and they won't have to skip pages or put down the book. They are safe. I care about that. Teens run into the destructive forces of soft porn disguised as music videos, movies, TV shows, magazine articles and even books daily. They won't be bombarded with it from my novels.

Reader reaction? From the stumbling chapters I sent to Ron Koertge, my first advisor in my MFA program at Vermont College, non-LDS readers have been fascinated with the authentic look deep into a faithful Mormon girl's life that Leesie affords them.

LDS girls can't put it down and give it to their friends. LDS moms want their daughters to read it before they start dating. The realities of Leesie's world are the same realities all LDS young women deal with. TBS shows them how someone as wonderful as Michael and something as precious as love can hurt them. Jack Weyland says reading it was like, "watching two trains racing toward each other." He went on to say he was, "quickly drawn into their story, hoping for the best for both of them, but not really knowing what that would be."

Everyone, female at least, falls head over heals for Michael. The YA specialist at Blue Willow Books in Houston, TX admitted to having a crush on him. She wrote that she sent her family out for dinner and ate a bowl of cold cereal so she could finish reading it.

Me: It seems that mainstream publishers are only interested in "Mormon stories" if they are tell-alls about polygamy or other controversial issues. How were you able to attract interest from a national publisher in a story about a good LDS girl who's trying her best to keep her nose (and the rest of her body) clean? Was it a tough sell?

AM: Tough sell? Oh, my word. Where do I begin? I need to count up all the rejections in my file. It's a good inch thick--and that doesn't include all my email rejections. I just got another one the other day. I began marketing it when I graduated with my MFA in July, 2004. I sold it in January, 2008. Three and a half years? Very tough. One house read four revisions before slamming the door shut for good.

Two things happened that made this novel possible. First, Stephenie Meyer single-handedly transformed the YA market. Then, I met my editor, Lexa Hillyer, at SCBWI's Sequester north of Paris. She's a young, beautiful poet and author in her own right. I rewrote Michael's opening dive log journal entry specifically so she'd fall in love with him. It worked!

At first, Lexa and her boss at Razorbill weren't sure if the "Mormon angle" would work for their list. After they read the whole novel, they decided Leesie's Mormonism was an exciting hook that would entice curious readers. Miracle? I kind of think so.

Me: I really didn't find your book preachy, but every story has a moral, so here's my question: What do you hope readers learn/take away from TBS?

AM: I wrote my MFA critical thesis on how to write about faith and NOT be didactic and lectured on the same topic--so I'm pleased you feel it isn't preachy. Different readers will take away different things. Some might be introduced to the possibility of purity, their right to say, "no." Others might find themselves validated through Leesie. Some might taste the spiritual world for the first time. Others may see it as a cautionary tale.

I hope everyone comes away from these pages knowing that love is real, fervent, and will change your life--even at seventeen.

Me: TBS is your first published novel, correct? Tell me a little about your writing life previous to TBS. Did you always want to write? I know you had a teacher who influenced you big time - who else has influenced your writing? Why do you write?

AM: In kindergarden, I wanted to be a veterinarian, then I learned how to write in first grade, and my world changed for good. In high school, I spent all my savings on a correspondence course in writing for children. My English teacher, Mrs. Daniels, helped me get into week long fiction workshops held near Port Townsend, WA. Beaches, kelp, waves, a blonde guy with green eyes who gave me a shell and was a writer, too. Finding people who suffered from the same addiction I did was heaven. I also got to meet Peter S. Beagle, a fantasy guru, who dissed a fellow author as a "futurist," leaned forward and said, "You and I--we're writers." I studied English at BYU with Eugene England, Douglas Thayer, and even got to take the first course poet, Leslie Norris, taught at BYU. My favorite classes, other than creative writing, were grammar and usage.

When my kids were in grade school and junior high, I started student book presses and a lit magazine at several different schools. When I finally published a short story in THE FRIEND, I joined the Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators. Their newsletters and conferences showed me the real world of publishing and put me on the path to Vermont College. After my MFA I moved to Switzerland, and SCBWI's conferences kept me in touch with writers and I continued to meet editors and agents--until I met Lexa.

My mentors at Vermont College were Ron Koertge, Sharon Darrow, Louise Hawes, and Susan Fletcher. I workshopped with YA legends like M.T. Andersen, Norma Fox Mazer, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

My idol right now is Markus Zusak.

Why do I write? Many writers say they feel called. I share that sense. Besides, I'm miserable and grumpy when I don't.

Me: Along those same lines, here's a question I ask every author I interview, just because I find the different answers so fascinating: What is your writing process? Do you write every day or is it hit and miss? Do you draft manuscripts on the computer or dash them out by hand? Do you outline obsessively or just let the ideas flow? Where is your favorite place to write? Is there anything you HAVE to have next to you when you write?

AM: I start my writing day scribbling morning pages--yes, I'm an ARTIST WAY fan. Sometimes I can start when I first wake up and capture what's playing in my brain--that's the best. Other days I wait until the house is quiet, take a relaxing bath, and crawl back into bed to scribble my pages.

I draft by hand on pale pink blank sheets using a medium point black gel pen on a kidney-shaped wooden lap desk. Then I take the scene to the computer and type it up. I try to put an assignment by my bed at night so that's where I can start in the morning.

The handwritten draft of the scenes is usually half-baked--mostly just dialogue. I add stage directions and emotional reactions when I type it up.

From that beginning I go over and over it trying to make it better. I revise on the screen and print it and make handwritten edits. I try to apply everything I learned studying poetry to my prose, so read what I've written aloud is essential. I have to be the only one home when I do that. My kids already think I'm crazy.

Me: Who are your favorite authors? What books are on your nightstand right now?

AM: I'm a huge fantasy fan. I've loved Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy since I was a teen. Ah, Ged. The wounded hero. What a babe. And of course, one must homage Tolkein. Mary Stewart is another fantasy favorite. She wrote a bunch of great, stiff upper lip Brit romantic suspense novels decades ago I read until they fell apart. My Jane Austen collection looks like that, too. Will Cather is my favorite American author. I discovered Chaim Potok's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV when I was at BYU. And fell in love with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. WAR AND PEACE is the ultimate romantic novel. I also love the Hornblower books. This fall I've been reading the more obscure Bronte novels. I read Anne's novel and really enjoyed its tenderness. I was addicted to Edward and Bella like everyone else. When I finally got the first three in the series, I read them all in one weekend.

I tell everyone I meet to read Markus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF.

And if your LDS readers haven't discoered Martine Leavitt, google her instantly. Her National Book Award nominated, KETURAH AND LORD DEATH is a must read, but don't overlook THE DOLL MAGE--it's amazing.

Katherine Paterson is my ultimate model for middle grade and young adult novels. She writes with so much faith and meaning. I learned so much studying her.

And no one writes with as much painstaking beauty as my wonderful advisor, Susan Fletcher.

Me: I've heard rumors that there may be more books about Leesie and Michael. Where would you like their story to go? What else do you have in the works?

AM: When I finished TBS, Michael and Leesie kept chatting online with each other in the middle of the night, and I kept scribbling. I have two more books planned for them--UNBROKEN CONNECTION and CAYMAN SUMMER. Tragedy hits Leesie in UNBROKEN CONNECTION, and Michael helps her put her life back together in CAYMAN SUMMER. Razorbill needs to see how their investment in TAKEN BY STORM turns out before they will commit to a sequel. So now it's up to the readers . . . and kind reviewers like you.

I signed a two book contract with Razorbill, so this fall I've been working on another tragic teen romance for them. It's called SING ME TO SLEEP and, if all goes as planned, it will come out Spring 2010. SING starts Beth, an ugly duckling singer who gets a massive makeover when she ousts the soloist in her competitive girls' choir. Beth's great performance lands the choir a place in the Choral Olympics where, Derek, a mysterious star of a neighboring boy's choir, sweeps her off her feet. She gets home to find the sweet boy who has always been her friend now wants to be more than that. Beth is committed to Derek, but she's torn. He's hiding something scary, and she can't get behind his perfect facade.

Derek composes and Beth writes lyrics so Lexa asked me to sprinkle lyrics all through the book. That was a challenge. I sent the first draft to Lexa at Thanksgiving. It made her cry "copiously" by the end. I'll spend the next several months revising it.

I also have a heartbreaking historical love story, THE COLLIER LAD'S LASS, and a middle grade time slip adventure for boys, THE TIME ASSASSIN, looking for kind editors.

Me: Besides being an author, you're also a voracious reader, a scuba diver, a pianist, a dancer and a world traveller. If you were forced to participate in only 2 of your hobbies for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?

AM: Writing is my vocation--not a hobby, so I'm not counting that in the two, okay? My family would be thrilled if they didn't have to listen to my halting piano playing, so I could give up that, but I'd miss it. This year we're spending in transit in Singapore I don't have a piano and it is driving me crazy. It helps to pound away when I get stuck in a scene. I listen to music now, but it's not the same.

I've travelled the world quite enough for awhile. I must, must read, so that's the first one. So that leaves scuba and dancing to choose from to keep me moving. If I could dance every day, I'd do that. Scuba every day would kill you, but I love to swim. That would be great, too. Hmm . . . I think I'd choose dance. You see, my wildest fantasy is to be fifteen years younger, taller, thinner, coordinated, famous, and . . . "Dancing with the Stars."

Me: Thanks so much, Angela!

Friday, December 19, 2008

All I Want For Christmas Is ... A Few Good Books

A troubled economy, coupled with the general decline of reading in America, means troubled times for the book industry. Everyone, from booksellers to authors to publishers to bloggers, is pitching in to spread the word: Buy books for Christmas. Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, sent out an email recently urging everyone to check out http://www.buybooksforchristmas.com/ and help support those who make our favorite hobby possible. Since I think this is a fabulous idea, I thought I'd toss in my 2 cents.


Since I'm a big reader and both my kids' grandmas are retired teachers, books always seem to make their way into our stockings and under our tree. On Christmas Eve, I present each of my kids with two gifts: a new pair of PJ's and a book. Then, I hustle them all off to bed, where they can snuggle up and read while I take care of last minute Christmas things. I remember burrowing under my quilts as a kid, reading to wile away the hours until my parents allowed us to open presents. While I don't encourage them to stay up all night, at least I know the kids are spending their sleepless hours reading! With the kids safely tucked away, I'm usually downstairs slipping a book into my own stocking. Even though I know which title I've selected, I'm always eager to extract it from my stocking and get my nose in a nice, new book. If I'm lucky, I might find more books under the tree - everyone knows about my little obsession :)

Of course, there are some (crazy) people out there who might prefer toys or clothes over books. However, I firmly believe that even non-readers can enjoy a book, if it's on a favorite subject. Case in point: One year, I saw a book about the history of the Seabees. I thought it would be perfect for my BIL, who is, in fact, a Seabee. I wanted to make sure he would like it, so I asked my sister what she thought. "Oh, he's not much of a reader," she replied. When I told her what the book was about, she said, "Well, he'd probably read that." Whether he did or not, I don't know, but the point is there are books out there for everyone.

Another way to revive the book trade is to raise a new generation of readers. Kids love books, especially when they are carefully chosen to match a child's interest. Presentation can also be key. My MIL excels at this - she loves pairing a great book with a corresponding toy. One year, she gave my kids copies of Dorothy Cronin's books with a stuffed animal representing characters in the book. Another time, she presented them with a dinosaur story and finger puppets so they could play along. You can also match books to events which are happening in the child's life. Last year, when we took my daughter to The Nutcracker for the first time, her grandma gave her a picture book of the story. A year ago or so, she took them to a butterfly garden, after which they received books about butterflies. If you've got a kid who already loves to read, you can gift new books in his favorite series', books by favorite authors, or gift certificates to bookstores. More about encouraging kids to read later ...

I know what you're thinking - books, especially of the coffee table variety - are expensive. In this economy, we're all pitching pennies, so try some of these tricks: (1) Get yourself on the mailing lists of all your favorite bookstores. You'll get coupons and special offers throughout the year. (2) Sign up for frequent buyer programs. Stores like Borders, Deseret Book and others allow you to earn points each time you shop that you can use toward future purchases. (3) Use points earned from reward sites to buy books or gift certificates to favorite bookstores. If you haven't checked out MyPoints, e-rewards and others, you should. (4) Enter all those giveaways you see on blogs. You have a better chance of winning online because there are fewer entrants. (4) Pay attention to the book orders your kids bring home. Scholastic, especially, offers great deals on children's books.

Okay, well that was more like a dollar than 2 cents, but there you go ...
__________

If you have a reluctant reader, you have a friend in best-selling author James Patterson. He's all about getting kids to read by offering them good, entertaining stories. He recently created a website called ReadKiddoRead, where he recommends great books for kids of all ages. Choose an age range, and he suggests books appropriate for that age level. The books range from classics to newer choices and include both fiction and non. If you click on a book, you can see a brief review, plus suggestions for other books you might like. The site also offers author interviews, helpful articles, message boards, and a community forum. ReadKiddoRead is an excellent forum for finding books to delight the next generation of readers.

Patterson recently chatted with Al Roker about the website. You can watch the video here.

Check out ReadKiddoRead, find some good suggestions, and get to a bookstore now!
_____

And, finally, because Christmas is all about the birth of a child (and because I can't resist any excuse to show off my beautiful new baby), here are a few photos:






Happy Holidays from my family to yours.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tunnels Offers Intriguing Premise, Poor Execution


Fourteen-year-old Will Burrows is not your average London teenager. For one thing, he's pale as milk, from his skin to the hair on his head. For another, he's a friendless soul, who prefers tunneling under the earth to hanging out "Topsoil." His family life doesn't exactly scream normal, either. His father spends his days manning a dusty museum, filling it with items from his unofficial archaeological digs. In his free time, the eccentric tunneler hides out in his home's cellar, a place where the rest of the family is not allowed to come. Will's mom gets through the day by zoning out on tv, ignoring her family obligations in favor of sitcoms and police procedurals. His sister keeps the house running with obsessive precision, offering the slovenly Will little affection. No, Will is definitely not your average Joe.

In Tunnels, the first book in a new series by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, we find Will performing his own clandestine tunneling. He's got a sidekick, a misfit named Chester, who is also his only friend. The two boys spend their time digging under the city, hoping to find pieces of London's past. It's a (relatively) harmless diversion, until the boys stumble upon something they can't explain. Before they know it, Will's dad is missing, they are being chased by strange, sinister creatures, and the only answers seem to lie far, far under the earth. Will knows his father was working on something big before he vanished, but he also knows the police will never believe his crazy theories - it's plain to see that Will is the only one who can find his father.

Will and Chester set out on the biggest adventure of their lives. Descending into the labryinth of tunnels beneath London, they discover a whole other world, a land where humans live, work and breathe - under the city. Most of the underground dwellers don't take kindly to "Topsoilers," so Will's search for his father leads him into trouble of all sorts. He finds himself racing through tunnels trying to outrun the dreaded Styx; being mauled by bloodthirsty animals; having his mind pilfered; and much, much more. As dangerous as it is, Will can't shake his fascination for the underground world - there's something so familiar about it all. Far beneath the city, Will's search for his father will lead to answers about his own identity.

Tunnels, which starts out a little slow, picks up once the boys are underground. By the middle of the book, you'll have trouble setting the story aside. It still drags in places, but overall, it's an action-packed adventure that will keep you turning pages. The novel suffers from clunky writing - an over-reliance on adverbs plus some flow issues kept me from really sinking into the story. My biggest beef with Tunnels, however, is all the questions it leaves unanswered. I realize the authors had sequels on the brain, but I still think the story needs enough resolution to leave the reader satisfied. The debut book in a series also must leave the reader thirsty for more, and this one just ... didn't. Although I'm curious about what will happen to Will, I doubt I'll pick up the next book. I love the premise of the series, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired.

The authors have a cool website dedicated to the series - check it out here.

Grade: C

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

We'll Have Fun, Fun, Fun 'Til Daddy Takes the Computer Away

I've been trying to update this blog, but my computer keeps crapping out on me. It waits until I'm right in the middle of doing something super important (like checking my Facebook), then announces that "The monitor is going to sleep" and shuts itself down. My resident computer expert says he gives up - anybody know what's wrong with it? I shouldn't complain - after all, we have 4 (yes, 4) computers in this house - but my computer is perfect. Boo hoo. If I can't bribe my friend into fixing it, I might have to convince Santa to buy me a new computer for Christmas.
In the meantime, I'm forging on with my attempts to update this blog. No, I don't have a review to share (I will next week - never fear), but I do have some fun stuff to chat about ...
(1) First off, I thought you might like a peek at the little someone who has been comandeering my life (and my heart) lately. This isn't a fabulous picture of her (her eyes are closed) or of me (I had been on a plane all day), but I still love it. If my computer ever boots up again, I will try to post more pictures of her :)

(2) Even though I've never read Elle Magazine in my life, I picked up a copy today. Guess whose name appears - not once, but twice - on Page 75? Oh yeah, that would be mine. Even though Elle is a fashion/beauty magazine, it has a pretty decent book section - at least in the January 2009 issue. Check it out. I'll be signing autographs all weekend. Ha, ha.
(3) I've gotten some fun emails lately about Christmas goings-on in the online book community:
- If you're searching for the perfect book to give/get this holiday, check out Bookreporter.com. Not only are they counting down the reasons to gift books this year, but they also have a nifty What to Give/What to Get guide. While you're there, enter to win a basket of books.
- Speaking of Bookreporter, I just got an email from Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, talking about the new gig he has going on - every month, he will be posting about his discussions with book groups. I just got Josh's book in the mail, and I am so excited to read it. I tried so many times to win it from other bloggers, so I was thrilled when he offered me my own copy. If you would like your very own copy, stay tuned - I will be holding a Matrimony giveaway in February.
- Also stay tuned for my review of Taken By Storm by Angela Morrison. Angela is the sister of a friend of mine, so I was hoping and praying that her book didn't suck. It's hard to write scathing reviews when you sorta know the author. Luckily, the book was really good. The story involves an LDS teenager who's trying hard to live the way her church dictates - no drinking, no smoking, no pre-marital sex, etc. When she and the hunky new kid hit it off, she suddenly finds herself wanting to give into temptation. This is not your mother's LDS fiction (I'm not even sure it's considered LDS fiction since it's being published by a national publisher) - it's realistic, edgy, and engrossing. This one will appeal to all those kids - Mormon and non - who are trying to be "good" despite all the pressure they face on a daily basis. Taken By Storm won't be available until March, but you can check out Angela's website now. Angela's really interesting, so keep your eyes open for my interview with her as well as my review of her novel.
- I just got my first catalog from Bas Bleu. They have lots of fun bookish gifts - I'm especially coveting this. I also noticed that they pay $25 for book reviews. Interesting.
(4) To those who won books in my last giveaway: I will do my best to get your books in the mail before Christmas, but considering the huge lines at the post office and my attempts to keep the baby away from crowds and germs, that may not be possible. So, thank you in advance for your patience!
(5) Okay, I can't remember anything else. I hope you are all enjoying the pre-Christmas frenzy. I escaped Mommy duties last night and headed to the mall for some shopping. The place was packed, but guess which store had the longest lines? Borders. Great news - looks like lots of readers will be getting just what they want for Christmas!
I've got a baby who's rooting around for her bottle - I better get Her Highness some refreshment. Happy reading, everyone!


Monday, December 08, 2008

It's 2 a.m. and I've Got Some Winners!

So, it's 2 a.m., the baby's asleep and I'm wide awake! Since I didn't get a chance to choose any giveaway winners yesterday, I plugged the info into http://www.random.org/, and voila!




These two ladies won a copy of The Reincarnationist: Linda and Caseykelp



These two ladies won a copy of The Memorist: LazyDaisy0413 and acrisalves

Congratulations to the winners. If you will send me your snail mail addresses (blogginboutbooks[at]gmail[dot]com), I will get your books out to you ASAP.

Thanks to all who entered this contest. I had a blast reading your fun and creative answers to the question about past lives. Thanks also to M.J. Rose for her generosity.




Sunday, December 07, 2008

Guidebook Doesn't Do Jackson Justice

If you've never driven to Yellowstone Park via Jackson Hole, Wyoming, you should start planning a trip. The landscape ranges from dramatic (the Grand Tetons) to serene (Yellowstone itself) to jaw-droppingly beautiful (Jenny Lake). Sightseeing isn't the only thing to do in the area, though - there's fishing, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, white water rafting and so much more. After a full day outdoors, travelers can also enjoy museums, nature talks, and dining choices that range from gourmet to bistro fare. How do I know all this? Is it because of all the time I've spent in the region, consummate traveler that I am? Well, no. I read all about it in Nina Lary's Jackson Hole: A Comprehensive Guide to Jackson and the Grand Tetons.

Now, I have been to (or rather, through) Jackson Hole a few times. I've also visited Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. So, while I'm no expert on the area, I can at least vouch for the scenery. Gorgeous. As for hotels, restaurants and entertainment, well, that's where the guidebook comes in. Lary breaks her book into sections on the city of Jackson, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, with Jackson getting the bulk of the attention. The information is further broken down into sections on lodging, dining and activities. Under each heading, Lary lists local offerings. The lists are not exhaustive and don't offer "best-of-the-best" recommendations - they simply give a sampling of what is available. Phone numbers, website addresses, general price ranges, and interesting tidbits are also given.

Besides basic trip information, the guide also gives a little bit of the area's colorful history. Especially in the Yellowstone section, it also delves into ecology and geology. Despite Lary's lackluster prose, I found these areas of the book fascinating.

I'm no expert on travel/guidebooks - since the dawn of the Internet, I haven't seen the need to buy or read one - but I think Jackson Hole: A Comprehensive Guide to Jackson and the Grand Tetons is only average. The guide holds only basic information, a few grainy black and white pictures, and no really out-of-the-ordinary suggestions. I didn't sense any real enthusiasm in Lary's writing, which is probably why Jackson's IRL charm just didn't come through well enough in this book.

So, while I think Lary's guide is useful, it just doesn't do justice to Jackson and the surrounding areas. To really show travelers what the area is all about, the perfect guidebook would need lots of full-color photos, lively writing, and the kind of recommendations that make you jump up and down with excitement. This one was good, just not that good.
For more information on this title and guides to other U.S. destinations, check out the Tourist Town Guides website here.

Grade: C
(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Uncommon Reader A Book Lover's Delight

I'm always on the lookout for clean reads to press into the hands of my 93-year-old grandma.

After skimming some reviews of The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, I thought it would work. A few pages into the story (after some homosexual references and some language issues), I realized I wouldn't be putting this one under her Christmas tree. I wouldn't describe the novella as graphic - it's more like irreverent - but there is definitely a bit of "color" to the story.

The plot is pretty simple - one fine day, the Queen of England chases her yapping dogs across the palace grounds. They - and she - end up in front of the City of Westminster's bookmobile. Curious, the queen steps inside. Although she reads, of course, "liking books was something she left to other people" (6). On this occasion, she decides to check out a book just to avoid the awkwardness of the situation. Armed with a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, she heads back to her home. Soon, the queen is visiting the bookmobile every week, checking out books by all kinds of authors on all kinds of subjects. She just can't get enough. The queen's advisors, however, are not quite as enthusiastic. Since discovering books, the queen has been performing her duties with considerably less elan - she waves listlessly from her car, while hiding a book on her lap; fakes colds to further her reading time; and asks unprepared dignitaries for book recommendations. One of the servants sums it up nicely: "Her Majesty is getting to be what is known as a handful" (42).

The queen's staff plots ways to distract her from reading, but she will not be put off her new hobby. Her interest will have funny and interesting consequences throughout her household and kingdom.

Bennett's novella charms in so many ways, offering a humorous plot, colorful characters, and surprising insight. Any voracious reader will recognize him/herself in the queen, and revel with her as she discovers the joy books bring. As long as they can handle a little "color," The Uncommon Reader should delight bibliophiles of every stripe.

Grade: A

P.S. Since this one didn't make the Grandma cut, I'm still looking for a clean read to give her for Christmas. Any ideas?

(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Recovering Charles: What Will Be Lost and What Will Be Found in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After reading Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright, I vowed never to choose this author again (you can read my "scathing" review of the book here). Then, I started hearing some buzz about Wright's newest novel, Recovering Charles. My reader's brain went, "Hmmm ... Could I be missing something here?" Then, a few people (including my mom) recommended I read it. Still, I refused. When the leader of my book club (an enthusiastic Wright fan) selected it for last month's read, I realized I was done for - I stopped resisting, and read the darn thing. And guess what? Much to my surprise, it wasn't half bad.

The story stars Luke Millward, a photographer living in New York City. Luke's life is good, if a bit hollow. His career is going well, he's got a nice apartment and a beautiful best friend who would love to be more. Luke's future is almost bright enough to outshine the pain of his past. Then, he receives a phone call that brings old anguish screaming into the present: His father is missing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Charles Millward is nowhere to be found.

Although Charles' friend, Jerome, begs Luke to come to New Orleans to search for his father, Luke hesitates. After all, they haven't spoken since the last time Charles called pleading for money. He said he'd try to quit, promised to stick with AA this time, but Luke had cut him off, told his father not to contact him again. Once a "brilliant musician," (2) who "bled his heart through [his] saxophone" (159), the old man had disintegrated into a drunken, musical failure, saddled with debt and heartbreak. He communicates with his son for one reason only: money. Now, the older man is missing, possibly dead. Luke can't quite convince himself not to care, so he heads out to New Orleans.

In the ravaged, desperate city Luke finds a refuge in Verses, the bar where Charles played saxophone to pay the rent. The Verses family - including Charles' fiancee, his musician buddies, and a pretty Tulane student - describe a Charles Luke never knew. Is it possible the old man really changed his ways? Luke ponders the question as he sifts through Katrina's detritus to find his father. Is Charles alive or dead? Will Luke get a chance to reconcile with his old man? Does he even want to? As Luke grapples with his emotions, the most compelling question emerges - Who, really, is lost, and who, truly, needs to be found? In a crumbling city, Luke must launch a desperate search to find the answers - for his father and for himself.

The kind of sentimentality that ruins Christmas Jars exists here, but it's balanced by a gritty backdrop and the raw emotion devastation usually inspires. The story's ultimately hopeful, but also painfully realistic. I found the main characters likeable (although Luke was a little cold for me), even though they could have been fleshed out more. Too many minor characters overwhelm the reader, stealing focus from the major players. I also think Wright verges on preachy when he tries to make certain points - like the fact that not all of Katrina's victims were poor and uneducated - and this also distracts from the story. Wright does deserves kudos for an unexpected, (although still somewhat predictable) ending, which made me cry despite some cheesy overtones.

All in all, though, I found Recovering Charles a compelling and inspirational read. It's a much better effort than Christmas Jars, probably because it actually required effort. Since I'm nothing if not forgiving, I even put Wright's The Wednesday Letters back on my TBR list. I'm hoping for another pleasant surprise.

Grade: B


Blog Widget by LinkWithin