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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

- Alabama
- Alaska
- Arizona (1)
- Arkansas
- California (4)
- Colorado (1)
- Connecticut (1)
- Delaware
- Florida
- Georgia
- Hawaii (1)
- Idaho
- Illinois (4)
- Indiana
- Iowa
- Kansas
- Kentucky (1)
- Louisiana (1)
- Maine
- Maryland (1)
- Massachusetts (1)
- Michigan (1)
- Minnesota (1)
- Mississippi
- Missouri
- Montana
- Nebraska (1)
- Nevada (1)
- New Hampshire (1)
- New Jersey (1)
- New Mexico
- New York (3)
- North Carolina (1)
- North Dakota
- Ohio (6)
- Oklahoma
- Oregon
- Pennsylvania (1)
- Rhode Island (1)
- South Carolina (1)
- South Dakota
- Tennessee
- Texas (1)
- Utah (1)
- Vermont (2)
- Virginia (3)
- Washington (2)
- West Virginia
- Wisconsin
- Wyoming (1)
- *Washington, D.C.

Australia (2)
Canada (3)
England (6)
France (1)
Ireland (1)
Switzerland (1)
The Philippines (1)
Wales (1)

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
(Hosted by Yours Truly!)

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: My Year in Books

Wow! Another year down ... Book blogging has continued to be tons of fun for me. I love reading books, writing reviews, exploring your blogs, reading comments, writing comments - everything. Thanks for hanging out with me this year. I hope you keep coming back throughout 2010 and beyond!

Here's how my reading year played out (according to a highly-respected statistician me):

Total books read: 140 (25 more than last year)

Of those:

104 were fiction; 36 were non-fiction

71 were adult books; 36 were middle grade/children's books; and 33 were YA (I don't count picture books as part of my yearly total)

106 were written by women; 30 were written by men; 2 were written by a male/male team; 1 was written by a male/female team; and 1 was written by various authors

124 were written by Americans, 11 of whom are African-American, 1 of whom is Indian-American; and 1 of whom is Chinese-American.

5 were written by Canadian authors; 5 by English authors; 3 by Irish authors; 1 by a German author; and 1 by a Jamaican-born author.

10 of the books were written by LDS authors.

71 of the books I read were review books (51%); 47 came from the library (34%); and 22 came off my personal bookshelves (16%).

The books I listed as favorites are:

The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo
In Their Own Voices by Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda
Second Chance Pass by Robyn Carr
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Enna Burning by Shannon Hale
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
The Likeness by Tana French
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
Bad Girls Don't Die by Katie Alender
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Honolulu by Alan Brennert
Schooled by Gordon Korman
Paradise Valley by Robyn Carr
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
While I'm Falling by Laura Moriarty
The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
If You're Reading This, It's Too Late by Pseudonymous Bosch
Savvy by Ingrid Law
I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do) by Mark Greenside
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff
Willow Run by Patricia Reilly Giff
The Body Finder by Kimbery Derting
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Marley & Me by John Grogan
The Book of Story Book Beginnings by Kristin Kladstrup
Invisible i by Melissa Kantor
How to Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

My conclusion? My reading is not nearly as impressive as I think it is :) I feel like I spent every second of my spare time reading, but I only finished 140 books. Hmm ... and I didn't read as diversely as I wanted to. I guess it's not surprising that most of the books I read are by white American women - since that's what I am - but I feel as if I should be branching out just a little.

How did your reading go this year?

I've asked you all to tell me your bookish resolutions for 2010; here are mine:

- Mail out books to the winners of past contests. I'm doing this today since my husband has the day off. Yay!

- Read more. I'd really like to get up to 200 books a year. Do you think I can? I don't know. We'll see.

- Go easy on the challenges. Once again, I failed all the challenges I signed up for this year. It was only 1, but still ... This year, I'm only going to allow myself to sign up for challenges with no deadlines. Those are the only kind I seem to complete :) I also need to work on my own, personal challenge, My Light and Fluffy Fluke-a-Thon.

- Host an event. Again, this will just be a personal thing, but I'm pretty excited about it. My plan is to celebrate Black History Month (February) in a big way. I've discovered several new African-American authors this year, and I'm hoping to find lots more. Since adopting my daughter (who is bi-racial), studying black heritage/culture has become important to me. It may not be possible to post a review every day in February, but I'm sure as heck going to try. If I come up with some good giveaways, we'll do that, too. Sounds fun, right?

In order to be reviewed during Black History Month, a book needs to be either: 1.) written by an author who is Black or bi-racial; 2.) about a Black person/have a Black main character; or 3.) about a subject relevant to Black history, heritage or culture. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them. I'm going to list "proposed" books on BBB's companion blog, More Bloggin' 'bout Books, so you can see what I've got in mind.

- Interact more with my readers, blogging friends. My Google feeder is so overloaded that I may never catch up, but I'm going to try.

- Keep on having fun.

Happy New Year, everybody!
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Books in Santa's Bag

What's better than finding books under the Christmas tree? Maybe a Border's gift card? How about both? And a small stash of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? Yes, I am the luckiest girl on Earth. I'm not even going to try to deny it.

First, the books that were actually under the tree:

Take Your Best Shot by Austin Gutwein - Austin is actually my neighbor. I'm super excited to read this book about the charity he started to help families in Africa. The Gutweins gave me an extra copy (that Austin has promised to sign) to give away. It will all be happening later in the month, so stay tuned ... In the meantime, check out his website here.

Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld - My husband bought this one for me. We all need to eat healthier, so I'm going to give deception a try ...

Lion House Bakery cookbook (not pictured) - I love these cookbooks published by Deseret Book. The Lion House is a cozy restaurant in Salt Lake City, housed in the home Brigham Young built for his family in 1856. The food is excellent, the recipes are easy to follow and it's all just YUM.

My 5-year-old got this one for me, since he was my Secret Santa this year. He looked a little confused when I thanked him for it as he'd never seen it before. Hee hee. Sometimes you have to help your Secret Santa out a little, you know?

Books purchased with Border's gift card:

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett - I know little about collecting rare books (although I know all about loving books too much), so I thought this true story would make an interesting read. It's all about a book thief, the people he ripped off and the detective who hunted him down.

If A Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko - This one was all of $3. I love Choldenko's books about Al Capone, so I figured I'd give this one a try.

How NOT to Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman - What I really need to know is How TO Write A Novel, but I think that's actually what this one's all about. Someone on here recommended this to me - I'm excited to read it.

Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes - I didn't know this until I saw an article about Rhodes in The Arizona Republic, but she is a local author. This is the first book in Rhodes' Marie Laveau series. It's all about a voodoo priestess in mid-19th Century New Orleans. It sounds fascinating.

Ruined by Paula Morris - I didn't realize this one was also about New Orleans, but it is. It's a ghost story, and I'm already loving it.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier - Does this one really need an explanation? After all the hoopla over this one, I'm curious to see what I think.

How about you? What bookish goodies did you find under the tree?

Speaking of bookish goodies, tomorrow's the last day for my 500th post celebration giveaway. You could win the book of your choice from Amazon. So, click on over and enter. Good luck!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

... And My Love/Hate Relationship With Culinary Mysteries Continues ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ahhh ... the culinary mystery. My love/hate relationship with this genre continues ...
I actually picked up Catering to Nobody, the first book in Diane Mott Davidson's popular series, last summer. It's been living in the master bathroom ever since. Apparently, I need to eat more fiber.

The book begins with the apparent suicide of Laura Smiley, a beloved elementary school teacher. Gertrude "Goldy" Bear is hired to cater the postfuneral luncheon. Being inside Laura's house reminds Goldy of what a funny, happy person the teacher always seemed to be. Could she really have taken her own life? With a hungry crowd to feed, Goldy doesn't have much time to ponder the question. Still, it nags. Pretty soon, though, she's got her own problem to deal with: Her ex father-in-law has collapsed after drinking coffee she prepared. Suddenly, she's not only the suspect in an attempted murder, but she's also out of a job. The city has shut down her catering business - the only source of income she has to support herself and her son - until further notice. The only way to get herself out of this mess is to find out who really had it in for Dr. Fritz Korman. And Laura Smiley. Are the cases connected? In a town as small as Aspen Meadows, they almost have to be.

To support herself, Goldy takes on cleaning jobs. And amateur sleuthing. Fortunately, suspects in Korman's case are not hard to find. The real question is who doesn't want to kill the philandering OB/Gyn? There are his two ex-daughters-in-law (one of whom is Goldy), his alcoholic wife, a host of clients, and at least one person obsessed with making him pay for the mistakes of his past. While trying to ferret out information from the residents of Aspen Meadows, Goldy realizes that her two "roommates" know a lot more than they are saying. Exactly how she's going to get her moody preteen son and her lazy, young renter to spill their guts is a mystery in and of itself.

Goldy's renegade investigation is gaining her a great deal of attention. Detective Tom Schulz obviously finds her appealing, while the killer just wants to shut her up. Can she get to the bottom of the crimes before she finds herself in a shallow grave?

Probably because I read it over a period of 6 months or so, Catering to Nobody seemed really disjointed to me. I enjoyed the characters, especially the sassy Goldy, but I found the plot pretty predictable. Writing wise, I'd call Diane Mott Davidson average. The book includes seven recipes, none of which look that great to me. All in all, I found the book disappointing and probably will not pick up any of the other titles in the series.

I feel as if I've already lowered my standards pretty far, and yet I'm still disappointed in this genre. Will I ever find the perfect culinary mystery series? Or should I just give up and admit the genre's not for me? Thoughts?

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for language and references to adult situations

To the FTC, with love: Bought this mass market paperback from Border's. Wish I could say it was worth the money.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Medieval Soap Opera Good, Clean, Courtly Fun

(Image from Deseret Book)

Although I don't read a lot of books about the Medieval times (let alone a romance), I just couldn't pass up Loyalty's Web by Joyce DiPastena. It's not the cover that grabbed me, nor the plot summary (although it did sound intriguing), but the author herself. DiPastena is LDS, an Arizonan and just a fascinating person all around. She holds a Bachelor's in history, with an emphasis on medieval history - a course of study I never even knew existed. She also earned a Master's in library science. With a book lovin' expert on the Middle Ages at the helm, I figured I couldn't go wrong with Loyalty's Web. Even if it is a romance.

The story is grounded in real history: It's 1176 and England's King Henry II is struggling to control his ambitious sons, all of whom are vying for control of lands promised to them by their father. Since the peaceful division envisioned by Henry involved one brother bowing to another, jealousy and anger ensued. The Angevin empire (which, according to Wikipedia, stretched from the Pyrenees to Ireland at its peak), presented an especially difficult problem for the king. Here's where the fiction begins: When Loyalty's Web opens, the king has issued a peace treaty in an attempt to rein in his rebellious son Richard. He's sent the Earl of Gunthar to the Poitou region of France to ensure compliance with the treaty, especially among wealthy land barons who support Richard's position. While there, the earl will wed the beautiful Clothilde de Laurant, a strategic move that will bind Laurant to the king.

Almost immediately, the king's plan goes awry: Someone (or several someones) is trying to kill the earl; Gunthar's no more impressed with the fragile Clothilde than she is with him; and Helene, Clothilde's older sister, is being blackmailed into undermining the earl's mission.

While Clothilde's many graces make her the desired sister, it is Helene who is the true heroine of the story. Unlike her sister, she's neither beautiful nor graceful. What she does possess is intelligence, bravery and loyalty. It's the fire in her eyes that catches the attention of Gunthar, the earl. Helene knows such a powerful man can only be teasing her with his flattery, but she can't get him off her mind. As if she has nothing else to think about. With a spy on the loose in the castle, her own impending nuptials to escape, and a childhood friend locked in the tower, she has plenty to occupy her brain. Her schemes will bring her in direct conflict with Gunthar's orders, which will not please the earl one bit. Still, Gunthar and Helene come to an agreement: They need to work together in order to flush out the traitor inside the Laurant castle. Both are fiercely loyal - Gunthar to the king, Helene to her family and friends - something that will stand firmly in the way of their mutual attraction. Will the pair find a way to be together? Is Gunthar just amusing himself by exploiting Helene's naivetee? Can Helene wed another when her heart belongs to the earl? Can Gunthar and Helene find the spy in time? Or are they all doomed to suffer the king's vengeance?

The plot becomes complicated and confusing, with lots of political detail as well as a large cast of characters. It took me a chapter or so to get into the story, but once I did, I did in a big way. The story's action-packed, with lots of courtly intrigue, romance and family tension to keep it chugging along. We know from the beginning that Gunthar and Helene belong together, but DiPastena manages to instill enough doubt that the reader is kept guessing right up until the finale. Unfortunately, that doesn't hold true with the spy mystery - I realized the traitor's identity right away. Still, though, I enjoyed the story, especially the feisty, but tender relationship between Gunthar and Helene. Loyalty's Web has some issues - all in all, though, it's a fun, gripping tale that will keep you entertained until the last sentence. It's not my usual fare, but I enjoyed it anyway. Romance and all.

The Laurant sisters' story continues in Illuminations of the Heart, now available at Deseret Book and Stay tuned for my review - coming soon!

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence and very mild innuendo

To the FTC, with love: Joyce DiPastena kindly sent me a copy of Loyalty's Web to review. Thanks, Joyce!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Need Some Fresh Twilightesque Goodness? Look No Further Than Carrie Jones.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If Stephen King hasn't convinced you yet, maybe Carrie Jones will: Maine is one spooky state. King introduced us to a car that came to life, pets that return from the dead, a psycho fan who holds her favorite author hostage, and all kinds of other freaky residents of The Pinetree State. In the grand tradition of her fellow state mate, Jones gives us a chilling tale about even more strange creatures.Need, Jones' YA tale of the supernatural, convinced me what King already had me suspecting: the bitter cold just does something weird to those people up north.

In Jones' Need, Zara White figures this out almost as soon as she steps off the plane in Bangor. Still grieving the death of her beloved stepfather, Zara knows she's not exactly herself - which is the whole reason her mother shipped her off to her grandmother's in the first place - but she's pretty sure a freaky, pale guy is stalking her. She sees him standing in the middle of the road to her grandma's house, on the campus of her high school and in the woods around the small town of Bedford. Her new friends seem as creeped out as she is, but their theory is about as whacked as the idea of some random guy following her around. Still, as Zara settles into her new life in Maine, she can't deny that something is very wrong in Bedford. Even her stunningly gorgeous boyfriend seems a little ... unworldly. What exactly is going on in the sleepy little town? Why are young boys disappearing? What's with the trails of gold dust everywhere? And why is Zara being threatened? The questions are bizarre enough, but the answers will challenge everything Zara has ever known about herself, her family and her destiny.

Despite obvious Twilight comparisons, I think Need adds some freshness to a genre that's fast becoming a big, old copycat fest. It steps away from vampires - thank goodness - to flesh out some less-explored beings. Jones turns popular notions on their heads by villainizing a creature most people find about as sinister as a butterfly. Likewise, it spins the peaceful beauty of a Maine winter into something appropriately eerie. Above all else, it's this shivery sense of place that stands out. The novel's plot is less original, but the story definitely speeds along fast enough to keep the reader's attention from flagging. Need's cast could use some developing, as could its "otherworldly" elements. Without any real foreshadowing, the whole magical thing almost comes out of nowhere, making it all a little confusing. Other than that, the book's got a little bit of everything - an engaging heroine, a sweet romance, family secrets, a spectral landscape and a shivery mystery. Need didn't blow me away, but I still flew through its pages, anxious to discover Zara's fate. News of a sequel coming in January might have even made me squeal a little bit. Need doesn't go as deep as Twilight, but it's a fast, entertaining read that will appeal to Stephenie Meyer groupies and other fans of the genre. The Maine Tourism Board? Um, not so much.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and some violence

To the FTC, with love: I checked this one out from the library, and I've got the overdue fines to prove it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

BBB Banishes the "Bah Humbugs" With A Little Bookish Goodness

Wow! I don't know about you, but I've been busy this week. With last-minute Christmas shopping, houseguests, a cousin's wedding, my birthday (which was wonderful, thanks!), our annual day of doughnut-making, and lots of parties and such, I'm exhausted. And it's not over yet. I hope you're all having a wonderful week full of family, friends and holiday fun.

I loved all of your responses to the question of what "secret" you'd like to find waiting under the Christmas tree. I so wish I could wave a magic wand and grant all your wishes, especially for Jody's little niece and for Marilu, who's having trouble feeling the Christmas spirit this year. This year has been so rough for so many people that I just hope we can all find peace and joy in the new year. A little prosperity wouldn't be so bad, either!
I do have good news for Jody and Jenna, both of whom won a copy of The Christmas Secret by Donna VanLiere. Congratulations, ladies! If you'll email your mailing addresses to blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTCOM, I'll get the books out to you as soon as I can. Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway. I have more fun ones coming up, so stay tuned ...

Since I'm still working on Loyalty's Web, a fun medieval romance by Arizonan Joyce DiPastena, I'm going to save that review for next week. Today, I want to tell you all about a wonderful author/illustrator I just discovered. Her name is Nancy Tillman, and I'd never heard of her until I saw her featured in BookPage. The illustrations in the sidebar just enchanted me, so I bought both The Spirit of Christmas and On the Night You Were Born. Both books are beautiful - the pictures have this vivid, but dreamlike quality that just really speaks to me.

On the Night You Were Born is my favorite, so I'm going to start with it. The book celebrates the birth of a child. I couldn't even get through the first sentence without feeling tears well up in my eyes:
"On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, 'Life will never be the same.'"

Between celebrating my daughter's first birthday this year and remembering the birth of the Christ child, I felt the power of that sentiment echo in my heart.

The rest of the story touched me in a similar way as it talked about trumpets blowing in heaven, birds staying on the windowsill, bears dancing at the zoo, and geese honking in the sky all to herald the arrival of a new baby. It's a story that will make every child feel unique and special. If you can read it to your little ones without sniffling a little, then you're made of stronger stuff than I am.

On the Night You Were Born is the perfect gift for a young child or a new mother. It's sweet, beautiful and tender. I adore it.

Grade: A

The Spirit of Christmas is also sweet and beautiful, but it's not quite as impactful as On the Night You Were Born. I made it through its opening lines without any tears:

I had just nodded off, at a quarter past four, when the Spirit of Christmas stepped in through my door.

The "Spirit of Christmas" goes on to teach an important lesson about the true meaning of the holiday. It's a familiar message:

"That's when the Spirit of Christmas smiled. 'Remember, this all began with a child. Because it took nothing but love to begin it, it's not really Christmas if love isn't in it.'

Your tree may be large as the room will allow with a big yellow star on the uppermost bough, but of one thing I'm certain, I'm sure of one thing.

It is love that makes the angels sing."

Although The Spirit of Christmas didn't capture me as much as On the Night You Were Born, it's still a lovely book with incredible illustrations that will capture the imaginations of children big and small.

Grade: B

(Book images are from Barnes & Noble; BookPage excerpt is from Nancy Tillman's website.)

From little ole me here at BBB to all my readers, wherever you may be - MERRY CHRISTMAS! May you find all kinds of wonderful secrets under your tree, between the pages of a book, and in the smiles of family and friends. Have a wonderful holiday.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Out With the Old, In With the New (With A Giveaway)

Remember my old organizing system for review books? No? Take a look below. This was what my TBR (To Be Reviewed) pile looked like - well, this is about a third of it, but you get the idea. Piles. Literally. My little work space was packed full of them.

The first time I wandered through this house, I almost gasped aloud over a little nook off the family room. At the time, it held a wet bar and a very large parrot. In my mind's eye, though, I could see its destiny - my office. I envisioned bookshelves, cabinets, and organizational accessories galore. When we moved in, I (well, not me, but some strong men) stuck my small, peeling, Office Max-special desk into the space. I knew it was only a matter of time before my visions of organizational bliss became a reality.

My husband and I looked at all kinds of desks - in furniture stores, in office supply stores, in catalogs, on the Internet - but we couldn't find the perfect desk for the perfect price. I really wanted a big, beautiful Stone Creek creation, but they aren't exactly affordable. We finally came to the conclusion that the only thing we could really do was have a desk custom built to fit my little nook. Well, on the day I was going to meet with the builder, my husband (who had been faithfully scouring Craigslist), found it - a Stone Creek desk that fit the nook (with only about a foot to spare), was in great shape, and didn't cost an arm and a leg. We were a little worried that it might be "hot" since the Mexican guy who answered our call was so anxious to unload it, but he told us later that he and his wife had just lost their house. They were living in a trailer, trying to sell off their possessions to make enough money on which to live. It always makes me happy when my greed works in someone else's favor.
Anyway, I thought you might like to see my little nook. Ignore the very bare, very white walls. Trust me, it will look perfect ... eventually. Notice, though, all my beautiful review books. You can't really tell from the picture, but this desk is massive, around 6 feet long and 8 feet high. ALL of my review books fit on it. I may have overloaded the shelves just a tad - I notice in the photo that they're sagging a little even though I had them reinforced. Hmmm ... Anyway, adult fiction books are on the top shelf; the middle holds YA fiction, with adult non-fiction on the sides; and the bottom has children's books, with books for giveaways on the left and my library books on the right. On the surface of the desk (to the far left) are my writing/reference books and the magazines I just never seem to get to in a timely manner.

I just can't get over being able to see all my review books. *Sigh* Incidentally, my 7-year-old bookworm used all the empty boxes from my old system and constructed a set of "bookshelves" for herself. Like mother, like daughter, huh?

So, I didn't write this post only to brag about my nook. It's also my 500th post. Wow! I can't believe it. I started this blog in August of 2006 as a way to record my thoughts on the books I was reading. It was only ever intended to be seen by myself and a few close friends and family, but look at it now. It's come a long way, baby. I've had such fun being a part of the book blogging community. Meeting all of you, chatting with authors I admire and reading a whole lot of great books - does it get any better than this? Yeah, okay, a nice, big salary would make it better, but still ... it's been fun!
To celebrate, I thought I'd do a little giveaway. I know what you're thinking: "Lady, you haven't even mailed the books to the winners of your last contest." Yeah, have you seen the lines at the post office? I promise all books will be mailed by the first of the year. Pinkie swear. Anyway, I stole this idea from Kristi over at The Story Siren:
Because I'm so thrilled with you all for making Bloggin' 'bout Books such a fun venture for me, I'm going to buy one lucky winner the book of their choice. Yep, yep, yep - you heard me right. I wish I could offer more than that, but after paying for my behemoth desk, Christmas and my 11-year-old's braces, well, one book for one person is about all I can afford. The good news is, that one lucky person might be you.
Here's the deal: Comment on this post by December 31, telling me your bookish resolutions for the new year, and you'll receive one entry into my giveaway. Tweet/post/email - whatever you want to do to spread the word - and I'll give you one extra entry per method of "advertising." That's it. Well, okay, there are a couple of other things: The book must be $20 or under (book blogging isn't exactly a lucrative career choice). Also, I reserve the right to refuse purchase of books of an offensive, pornographic or anti-LDS nature. Also, please make sure your book of choice is available on Amazon. Contest is open internationally. Other than that, it's "easy cheesy," as my kids like to say.
Thanks again for making book blogging so much fun for me. Merry Christmas!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Celebrity Encounters of the Coolest Kind

Once upon a time I gushed over men like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Viggo Mortensen (he's delicious in Lord of the Rings) - these days, I get more excited about celebrities of another sort: Neil Gaiman, Pseudonymous Bosch, Lief Enger, and so on. I may have gone a little far when I told Evan Marshall that chatting with him was like meeting my favorite rock star, but it's true. I freaked out when I saw his e-mail in my inbox. Just ask my friend, Robin. Well, she might not remember my freaking out because of her own freaking out. We may be mature thirty-somethings, but when it comes to Mr. Marshall, we're like crazed groupies.

Why, you ask? Well, it's like this: He's a genius. Seriously, though, I've been trying to write a novel since I was around 7. Sometimes I came up with a great opening, sometimes a fascinating character, occasionally, a great plot, but I could never stay with it long enough to turn all the elements into a story. A few years ago, I had a story idea germinating in the back of my head. In my brain, the whole idea sounded brilliant - unique, clever and engaging. So much so that I was entertaining Susan-as-J.K.-Rowling fantasies. It wasn't until I actually started typing up the story that I realized how silly it all sounded. Frustrated, I headed to my friendly neighborhood Borders to get some help from real writers. I came home with two books in hand: The Marshall Plan for Novel-Writing by Evan Marshall, and its accompanying workbook. In the former, Marshall basically boils the modern novel down to a formula, even going so far as to tell the wannabe writer how many pages should be in his beginning, middle and end. He stresses the importance of good plotting, focusing on its essential ingredient - conflict. Then, he shows the novelist-in-training how to use Action/Reaction sheets to plan out each section of the book. Doing so helps the writer plan out her book, work out plot kinks, and make sure each part of her novel works in harmony to accomplish the story's goal. The workbook basically takes the would be novelist through each of these steps. It contains forms about everything - characters, plot, story goal and so on - that can be photocopied and filled out. Once the whole novel has been sketched out, it basically writes itself.

Needless to say, I fell hopelessly in love with The Marshall Plan. It helped me see right away that my brilliant novel idea needed a little ... work. I eventually abandoned that idea, but I've remained loyal to my man, Marshall. My only complaint about his system had to do with all the photocopying and filling in forms by hand. The cost of paper and ink, plus the hand cramps made outlining not only expensive, but also tedious and painful. Just a few months ago, I decided to give my novel another go (this time with a different brilliant idea). As I was printing out a pile of Action/Reaction sheets, I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could just type up all the information on my computer, then print it out?" I even scoured the Internet to see if, perhaps, Evan Marshall had had a similar thought. I found nothing.

Then, I happened to mention Mr. Marshall in a blog post. The next thing I know, he's not only contacting me, but offering me the very thing I had been longing for a short few months ago: The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing software.

True story.

Being the Marshall fanatic that I am, I downloaded the software immediately. Registering and looking around took a few minutes, but within 10, I was hammering out the physical characteristics of my main character. The software isn't fancy - there are no graphics or flashing icons - it's basically an automated version of the workbook. Still, it's organized, user-friendly, and so much better than writing everything out by hand. Like the workbook, the software takes you through all the aspects of your novel - you fill out sheets about the protagonist, the antagonist, the romantic interest, the minor characters, the main plot line, subplots, etc. Once you've plugged in the names of your main players, the software shows you how many sections should be devoted to each character. It also walks you through the fine art of juggling plots and subplots. The greatest advantage is this: the software creates a template of your novel based on the information you supply. You will know exactly where your novel's going, exactly what the goal of your story is, and exactly how to achieve it. If you think The Marshall Plan takes all the creativity out of writing, guess again. It simply provides you with an outline. In fact, my only real complaint with the software is that it doesn't write the novel for you. It comes pretty darn close, though.

Marshall, author of eight mystery novels, with more on the way, was so concerned about the software staying true to his program, that he spent three years learning computer programming so that he could write it himself. After three years, it's now available for download at . You can also learn more about Marshall (the rock star) and co-author Martha Jewett on the site. If you're interested in joining a community of writers using The Marshall Plan, check out The Marshall Planet.

If you need a last-minute gift for the writer in your life (yourself, perhaps?), you've found it. At $149, I admit the software's a little spendy, but it really is worth it. If you can't cough up that much, at least treat yourself your favorite writer to The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing and The Marshall Plan Workbook. I'm just going to warn you now, though: As soon as you start photocopying workbook sheets and filling them out by hand, you're going to want this software. You might as well just buy it now and save yourself the trouble. I'm serious - this software elevates my man, Marshall, from a rock star to a God. I'm not kidding. I love it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Leisurely Pacing Echoes Setting in Debut Novel ... And That's Not A Bad Thing. Not At All.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Next to a cast of nice, round, colorful characters, nothing pulls me into a book better than a vivid setting. I'm not just talking about pretty backdrops, I'm talking about story places that are so real, so complete, so vibrant that I not only want to visit there, but I want to buy up every acre of available real estate. For me, it's less about connecting to the landscape and more about bonding with the people, the rhythms, the very pulse of a place. When an author uses all the other elements of her story to echo and reinforce her setting, well, I'm pretty much a goner. I guess that explains why I found Leslie Goetsch's debut novel, Back Creek, so entrancing.
Although Goetsch's setting is fictional, she grew up in a similar Tidewater Virginia community. Her passion for these creekside enclaves is obvious from the way she describes her setting. She laughs at its backwater tendencies, pokes fun at its eccentricities, and hints at the danger lurking beneath its placid surface - but she does it all with such a gentle hand that it only adds to the charm of the place. The creek comes alive so well that it really takes center stage. All the other characters seem to exist only to support the real star - Back Creek.
Queen of the supporting actresses is 18-year-old Grace Barnett, who lives on the shores of the creek in the same home that has sheltered generations of her family. She awakens on the last day of May 1975 to the sound of a boat roaring through the no-wake zone outside her window. When she flies to the window to remind the boater to slow down, she witnesses a horrifying scene - the Boston Whaler barrels right into a pier. Although the police rule it an accident, Grace isn't so sure. Regardless, Tommy White is dead. The creek people plan a funeral and get on with life, ignoring any indication that a native son might have intentionally killed himself. For Grace, the funeral is a pivotal moment. She knew Tommy, of course, but it's not the tragedy itself that changes her life so irrevocably - it's who his death brings out of the woodwork, namely her sister, Lillian.
Like the creek itself, The Barnett Family has some murk churning below the surface. Not only has the eternally rebellious Lillian returned with a secret in tow, but Grace's father is drinking too much and her mother has gone on an extended visit to the country. It's her mother's absence that bothers Grace the most. Although Mother takes frequent trips back to her family's North Carolina tobacco farm, this trip has an ominous finality about it. With everything that's going on, it's exactly the wrong time for her to take off. Grace has only one person in whom she can really confide: 23-year-old Cal, a Vietnam vet, whom everyone knows is crazy. Still, he's got a weird steadiness that attracts Grace, even though her family warns her not to get to close to him.
Despite all the turbulence in her life, Grace decides The Barnetts are overdue for some community action. When the family shows up at the annual 4th of July barbecue, no one says a word about their topsy-turvy existence, because:
This was the way of the Creek, and we understood it. They had sized up the situation immediately, but knew it was against the rules to talk about it. We were allowed only polite conversation: the depths below the surface were better left dark and murky (131).
For bookish Grace, who prefers to spend her time on the moors with Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, the summer of 1975 will be a time of facing the dirt below her family's surface. It will be a time of growing up, of tackling the grim realities of life. It will be a time of truth. It will be a time to put aside storybook travails, to live life as Grace never has before. Or, in her own words:
...I knew I had been thrust into the middle of this mess, and I was beginning to sense that I would have to be the one to put the pieces together. These were not the romantic tragedies and comedies of fictional characters. This was the even stranger fiction of real people, and I would not be allowed to just sit back and experience it vicariously. I would have to live it right along with them (65).
As Grace deals with the conflicts of real life, she comes of age in a way that matures and strengthens her. For her, the summer of 1975 changes everything.
The thing I especially like about Back Creek is the pacing. It mimics the ebb and flow of the creek - mostly peaceful, but always with an underlying current of trouble. Compared with most modern fiction, the pace is definitely slow or leisurely - yet, the story never becomes boring. There's enough mystery and depth to keep it interesting. Goetsch's prose has a lovely subtlety that, once again, echoes her beloved creek. Her characters are real, her plot authentic, and the sense of place superb. All of this combines to create a memorable first novel. Back Creek's a different kind of book, but that's not a bad thing. Not at all.
I do have two issues with the book, only one of which really has to do with the novel itself. My problem is with the ending. It leaves a number of issues unresolved, making the story feel incomplete to me. No one likes finales that wrap everything up in tidy little boxes, but I do like to have a sense of closure when I finish a book. Back Creek's ending didn't quite accomplish this for me. My other complaint - confusion may be a better word - has to do with marketing. I can't understand this book's classification as young adult. Yes, its protagonist is a teenager, but even she admits that she doesn't relate well to people her own age. With its old-soul narrator, slower pacing, and timeless feel, I don't see Back Creek appealing to modern teenagers. Its bucolic cover certainly won't attract youthful attention. Again, this isn't a bad thing - in my opinion, Back Creek is an adult novel with a teenage narrator. It works. Quite well, in fact.
So, while Back Creek didn't fully satisfy my every literary need, it came close. It's unique, vivid and worthy. Even with danger lurking beneath, Goetsch proves that creekside is not a bad place to be. Not at all.
Grade: B+
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, underrage drinking (18 may not have been considered underrage in 1975, but it is in 2009), adult themes and nudity (although no real sex)
To the FTC, with love: I received a review copy of Back Creek from Bancroft Press' Harrison Demchick, who is, quite possibly, the nicest editor/screenwriter/marketing associate/odd jobs guy in the biz. Not that that had any influence on my review. I'm just sayin' ...
Thursday, December 10, 2009

(Totally Random) This and That

So, yesterday was a very bookish day for me. Remember Alexander and the No Good Horrible Day? It was a lot like that. I started the day in the dentist's chair getting a brutal teeth cleaning, then got my blood drawn by a phlebotomist named True, and it only got better from there. Of all the no good horrible things that happened to me though, guess what was the worst? I forgot my book at home. I know, right? Stuck flipping through magazines when I could have been doing some real reading. Not that I don't love magazines - I do, as you'll see in a moment - but books always come first. Ah, well. That's just the way my day went. Hopefully, today will be better.

I'm still feeling overwhelmed and scatter-brained - I'm afraid this post is really going to reflect that. Sorry in advance. I just wanted to mention a few "bookish" things:

- If you caught my review of Saving Sammy by Beth Maloney (you can read it here), you will want to watch The Bonnie Hunt Show today. Beth will be there to talk about her experience with her son's OCD, which she detailed in her book. You can find more info here.

- I've only had a few people enter my giveaway for Donna VanLiere's The Christmas Secret. Click here to sign up, then tune into Lifetime, which will be playing the three movies that were made out of VanLiere's Christmas books. On December 13, The Christmas Shoes will air at 4, The Christmas Blessing at 6 and The Christmas Hope at 8. You can see the full schedule for its holiday movies here.

- Remember how fascinated I was by Dave Cullen's Columbine (read my review here)? The only thing I still didn't get after reading it was how the shooters' parents could have been so oblivious to what was happening in their sons' lives. According to Cullen, those parents refused to be interviewed; thus, no one knew much about them or their relationships with their sons. In November's issue of Oprah Magazine, Susan Klebold tells her story for the first time. You can read it in its entirety here. Interesting.

- Did you read my extensive response to Shannon Hale's thoughts on the responsibilities of writers and readers? In this month's issue of The Writer, novelist Randall Silvis states my thoughts exactly (and much more eloquently than I did):

... It is not the reader's job to work hard; it is the writer's job to work hard to provide the reader with an evocative experience...

The notion that the reader is in any way responsible for a story's effectiveness simply can't be justified except on a purely egotistical level. Because the truth is,we read fiction primarily for enjoyment - whether it is the delight we take in a writer's use of language, the vicarious pleasure of watching a new world unfld, or the titillation of being perched on teh edge of our seats nad leaning forward with all senses cocked. So why should we as readers be forced to struggle to comprehend a story when we can be quite confident that the writer, unless she has spend the last 30 years in Tibet learning how to levitate, is probably not going to reward our labors with some startling insight?

The best that any of us can hope to do with our writing is to present to the reader a piece of the world, and to do so with honesty and clarity and gratitude. The best we an hope to do is to extend an invitation to the reader to see and feel the worlds we create inside our heads. The irony of writing is that , although conducted in solitude, it is an act of communion between the writer and her readers. Not a contract that impries a conscious mutual agreement, but an inexplicable connection between hearts that will probably never meet. (15-16)

- Speaking of writing, I mentioned The Marshall Plan for Novel-Writing by Evan Marshall in my last post. I discovered this book a couple of years ago while browsing for writing books at Borders. It's quickly become my favorite, because it boils the whole mysterious process of fiction writing down to an easy-to-follow formula. I have used the workbook several times to outline stories. Well, Marshall let me know that he has now developed software that makes the workbook even easier to use. I'll be reviewing it soon, but you can get a sneak peek here. I told Marshall that chatting with him is like meeting my favorite rock star - really, I love him that much.

- Finally, check out's Second Annual Holiday Blogs feature, in which a bunch of authors - including Barbara Delinsky, Sandra Dallas, Kristin Hannah, Donna VanLiere and more talk about the holidays.

P.S. Yes, some day I will post a real, live review of a work of fiction ...

See, totally random. Have a great day, anyway!
Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Fiction Writing 102

So, in case you're wondering, my novel-writing isn't going so well. I'm trying, but man, it's tough. Things are crazy busy with the holidays, but that's only part of my problem. I've discovered what a "bleeder" I am - I write very slowly because I want every sentence to be perfect, even on the first draft. I'm trying to write as fast as I can and not "bleed" over every line. It's tough. Plus, I'm plagued by self-doubt - Why does everything I write sound so dumb? Why are my characters so stiff? Who's ever going to read this piece of crap? And so on ... The weirdest thing is that I can read someone else's book and tell you exactly what's wrong with it, but I'm having trouble making my own idea work. I've said to myself a million times, "I could've written that and much better, too," but can I, really? I'm not so sure anymore.

A funny: The other day, my 7-year-old daughter asked me to read a story she's been working on. She told me, "Mom, I know that parents always tell their kids that everything they write is good, but I want you to be honest. Do you really like it? Is there so much description that it's boring? Or is there not enough description? I really want to know and I really want to be a published author. Do you have some, you know, editor friends who would look at it for me?" How is it that she, at 7, is so thick-skinned and self-aware when I, at 33, cringe at the thought of anyone actually reading my pathetic attempt at fiction?

ANYWAY, the thing that's been great about this process is that I've been reading some really helpful writing guides. They've helped re-teach me the craft of fiction writing. My favorite so far has been How to Write A Damn Good Novel, but I know there are more great ones out there. Anyone have any recommendations?

All this rambling really is leading up to a book review, I promise. Here goes ...

(Teensy tiny image from Barnes & Noble)

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham is exactly what it says it is - 38 chapters on errors many writers make on the road to publication. As a novelist (according to Wikipedia, he wrote the book that inspired The Apple Dumpling Gang - I used to love that movie!) and writing professor, he looks at book creation from the standpoints of students, beginning writers and professionals. If you're expecting the book to reveal the great mysteries of what publishers really want, you're going to be disappointed. Bickham focuses on the basics: clear story goals, tight plot structure, dynamic characters, etc.

The most instructive chapter for me is 27: "Don't Criticize Yourself to Death." The following really gave me something to think about:

The most common formof lethal self-criticism, it seems to me, is often heard in the young writer's wail, "This story I wrote is really dumb!" Or, "This whole plot line is dumb!"

What writers who uter such lines are relaly saying, I think, might be paraphrased as follows: "This is the best I can do, but I'm deathly afraid it isn't slick and clever enough, and therefore you are going to think I'm a stupid person for having written it."

Such fears are as much a part of writing fiction as headachs, wads of crumpled paper on the floor, and rejection slips. When you write fiction, whether you realize it or not (and at some level you probably do), you are risking revelation of your dreams and deepest emotions. It's frightening to reveal yourself this way, even indirectly. Further, the act of writing is tied very close to a person's ego structure; I have seen students shaky with even a brief paragrpah of factual material. "Criticize my work, criticize my personal essence," the feeling seems to be. The most humdrum piece of writing somehow represents the writer's worth as a person sometimes. Small wonder, then, that the writer of a story or even (horrors!) a novel often gets worried sick - literally - about whether the reader may think it's dumb. Because if it's dumb, the writer is dumb. And if the writer is dumb, he is also, ipso facto, worthless, an object of potential ridicule ... doomed.

Thus, it's perfectly natural for you to worry that some character or bit of dialogue or plot line you just wrote may be "dumb."

It's natural - but it's also dangerous ... So stop it. (77 & 80)

While I didn't find Bickham's book nearly as entertaining as How to Write A Damn Good Novel, I still found it instructive. The chapters are short and to-the-point, but still cover a lot of ground. Much of what he says, especially about scene structure, reminds me of another of my favorite writing books, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall.

Like How to Write A Damn Good Novel and The Marshall Plan, Bickham's book was written in the pre-Internet years. I wonder how the CyberSpace Age has changed the craft, if at all. What's your opinion? And what other writing books should I be reading?

What I'm finding from all these books is that writing fiction really is a no-brainer. Follow the formula and voila! You've got yourself a book. All you published authors make it look so easy ...

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

To the FTC, with love: I bought this one with my own hard-earned money, and I didn't make it reviewing books. Actually, I didn't make it at all ... my husband did. And not by book blogging, either.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Happy Birthday (to Me) Giveaway

Are you getting any reading done in December? I looked back at my post outlining the reading I planned to get done before the new year, and laughed. So. Not. Happening. My reading has been almost totally eclipsed by the craziness that is December. I've been putting up Christmas decorations, thinking about getting cards mailed, shopping for gifts, and dealing with a very full schedule. I love this time of year - the cool weather, the Christmas lights, the feeling of joy and giving in the air - so why do I start and end the day feeling overwhelmed and headache-y? I swear, next year I will be more organized so I can actually ENJOY the holidays.

I really don't have anything to complain about, though - I have a beautiful home; a wonderful, healthy family; strong faith in God; and more blessings than any one person really deserves. Life's good - I just need some Tylenol and a nap :)

Anyway, on to the important stuff: books. I'm reading Back Creek by Leslie Goetsch, and really enjoying it. Goetsch does a remarkable job of pulling you into the setting, not only with the way she describes everything but with the very pacing of the story. I feel like I'm living creekside - it's actually very calming, something I need desperately right now. I'm hoping to have a review up by the end of the week. We'll see if it happens ...

In other news, I'm still waiting to hear back from Beth, who won a copy of Deadly Little Secret by Laurie Faria Stolarz. Beth, will you please email me (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM]) your address? If I don't hear from her by Sunday, I'll have to choose another winner. To the other winners, I will get your books out as soon as I can. Thanks for your patience.

Speaking of giveaways, I have some fun ones coming up. You know Invisible i, which I've been raving about? I'm going to have copies up for grabs soon. I'm also planning a little something-something to celebrate my 500th post on BBB (this one is #495), so keep checking back for more fun and free books.

While we're on the subject of free books, I'm giving away a little holiday cheer today. I was going to wait until I read and reviewed it, but that may not happen this year, so here goes: I have 2 copies of The Christmas Secret by Donna VanLiere to give away. This is the 5th in her series of holiday books, although I'm not sure "series" is the right word since the stories aren't interrelated as far as I can tell. I've never read VanLiere, but her books seem to be sweet and heartwarming. You can find out more about the author and her work on her website (link is above). Deadline for this one is my birthday, December 22. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post telling me what Christmas "secrets" you hope to find under your tree. Dream big, people! Blog, Tweet or announce the contest in some other way, and I'll give you an extra entry (1 extra entry per post, Tweet, or whatever). Contest is open internationally. Good luck!

(P.S. Copies of The Christmas Secret are courtesy of The Book Report Network. Thanks, Anne.)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Frey's Writing Tutorial A D@#! Good Book

I rarely say this, but the only thing I don't like about James N. Frey's How to Write A Damn Good Novel is the title. I mean, it's catchy and all, but leave it laying around the house and you're going to get some flak. My 7-year old said, "Mom, I can't read cursive very well, but I'm pretty sure that book has a bad word on it." Then, my 11-year-old hit me with, "Mom, if a book has bad words in it, why are you reading it?" Ahem. My response of, "Because it's a @!$! good book" didn't impress them. In reality, I mumbled something more along the lines of, "Oh, uh, yeah, hm ... good point."

Anyway, Frey's novel-writing tutorial (first published in 1987) covers the basics of fine storytelling in an engaging, easy-to-read manner. It's a slim volume, but it hits all the important points, like: working with a solid premise, telling the story from the most interesting viewpoint, the necessity of continually increasing conflict, writing snappy dialogue, and plenty more. If it's been awhile since you've taken Writing 101, I suggest reading this book - it provides an excellent refresher course. There are several other books in Frey's "Damn Good" series, all of which I'm putting on hold at the library right now.

Since I've been fooling around with my own novel, I found this passage particularly funny (it's long, but worth the read):


If you go to dental school you will take a state exam when you finish and, upon passing, you will be given a license to practice dentistry. In order to take the test, you must have first submitted to a rigorous course of study, done thousands of hours of supervised work in people's mouths, taken hundreds of exams, and paid a lot of money. When you're finished, you will be called "Doctor," and your cup will runneth over with drilling, filling, and billing. If you do good gold crowns, play soft music in the waiting room, have a receptionist with a sympathetic smile and a soothing voice, you may even become rich.

In the course of your studies you will have been transformed from an ordinary citizen into a Doctor of Dental Surgery. You will even begin to think of yourself as something more than an ordinary citizen. Someone will ask you who you are and you will say, "Sam Smoot, Doctor of Dental Surgery."

For novel writing, unlike dentistry, there is no course of study you can pursue and, when finished, say "I'm a novelist." You can get an M.F.A. in creative writing, or a Ph.D. in the modern novel, but that won't make you a bona fide novelist. To be a novelist, you have to get published.

Being an unpublished novelist has about as much social acceptability as being a shopping bag lady. Should the word get out about you, your friends will snicker. Your neighbors will whisper about you. Your Uncle Albert will try to talk you into becoming a chiropractor. Your Aunt Bethilda will take you aside and lecture you on the grim realities and responsibilities of adulthood. Your creditors will break out in hives. Your mother will be sympathetic, but late at night her eyes will flood with tears as she tries to figure out where she went wrong.

It's a sad fact of life, but to be an honest-to-goodness novelist you must have that honor conferred on you by a publisher. But remember this: each and every bird is first an egg, and each and every published novelist is first an unpublished novelist - even the great ones, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce included.

There are several strategies for avoiding the stigma attached to proclaiming yourself a would-be novelist. One is to tell people you are a writer, but not to admit that what you're writing is fiction. Suppose you're writing a murder mystery in which the victim is a prostitute and the murderer is a college professor. You can tell everyone you're writing a book about sexual mores and morbidity in academia. That sounds like a good subject for a nonfiction book. Your friends will be impressed. It's okay to be a nonfiction writer because it's assumed that nonfiction writers are hard-nosed practical people who take life seriously. Besides, it is popularly believed - possibly with some justification - that anyone who can spell well can write a nonfiction book, so no one will doubt that your project has merit.

Another way to camouflage your novel-writing pursuits is to enroll in an English Literature degree program someplace and take only snap courses. As long as it looks as if you're working for a degree no one will ask what you're doing locked in your study all day and half the night. If they ask why you're banging away so hard on your typewriter, tell them you're writing a thesis. Everyone knows that's a sensible thing to do.

Some novelists at the beginning of their careers go completely underground. These "closet" novelists tell no one. They hide their manuscripts behind the refrigerator. They write in longhand so no one will hear the clacking of typewriter keys. Nobody knows the closet novelist even reads novels, let alone wites them. Their spouses may think they are keeping a lover in the basement or garage, or wherever it is they "do it."

Any of these methods will work. The alternative, the "John Wayne Solution," is a bit tougher. The John Wayne Solution is this: grit your teeth, rock back on your heels, stick your thumbs in your belt, and just say it - I'm writing a novel, nad if you so much as smirk I'll punch your lights out, pilgrim.

You get the idea.

I've been dreaming of writing a novel since around kindergarten, so I've read dozens of books about creating fiction. Somehow, I missed the gem that is James Frey. I love How to Write A Damn Good Novel, bad words and all.

Grade: A-

If this was a movie, it would be rated: PG for some language and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: Although an author (Janette Rallison) recommended this book, I bought it with my husband's hard-earned money. He fervently wishes I was being paid for this review. As do I.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Rocky Time Travel Tale Leaves Me On the Fence

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

So, let's talk cover art. What do you think of the one above? It's cute, right? The lady's smiling, she loves her dog, everything's hunky dory. You're expecting something Marley & Me-ish, right? Wrong!

I almost never start a book without reading the blurb on the back, but apparently I didn't do that before I cracked open Jacqueline Sheehan's new novel, Now & Then. Judging from the cover alone, I expected a sweet, heartwarming dog story. What I got, at least in the first couple chapters, had little to do with sweet and nothing at all to do with animals. Confused, I turned to the plot summary, where I discovered that the book in my hands was actually a time travel adventure story. Believe me, that's the only thing that kept me turning pages. I couldn't wait to see how the book's rocky 21st Century start segued into a "mystical, charming, and fantastic" tale of 19th Century Ireland.

Despite a rough transition, the story took a definite turn for the better once it hit 1844. Sheehan warmed to her subject, bringing old Ireland to vivid life. Her American characters bugged me throughout the entire book, but the Irishmen and women were, for the most part, friendly, lovable folk. I enjoyed the middle of the book, all of which took place in The Emerald Isle, much more than I liked either the beginning or the end.

Wow, I must be tired because this review is all over the place. Let me back up ... Now & Then stars thirty-something Anna O'Shea, who is touring an Irish castle when the book opens. She's newly divorced, devastated by her husband's unfaithfulness and her apparent inability to bear children, and exhausted from her work as a lawyer. A vacation is just what she needs. Near the end of her trip, a strange old woman gives her a wrapped gift, which she pockets and promptly forgets. Back in Massachusetts, Anna hasn't even had time to unpack before she's rushing to the hospital. Her brother's laying in a coma following a severe car accident. Since Patrick is unconscious, it's up to Anna to retrieve his teenage son from the New Jersey jail that's holding him on suspicion of committing grand theft auto. When Anna gets 16-year-old Joseph back to her apartment, things quickly go from bad to worse. Before she's really had a chance to process what's happening, Anna's waking up on a craggy shore in the middle of the night wearing nothing but her ex-husband's boxer shorts. Joseph is nowhere to be found.

Anna receives a rude awakening when she realizes she's been thrust into Irish life circa 1844. Getting home will prove to be difficult, as will almost everything else she experiences. She's frantic to wake up from her nightmare, find Joseph and get him back to his injured father. How? She has no clue. She's not even sure he survived the trip to the past. All she knows is that she has to stay alive somehow despite threats of small pox, starvation and the crushing poverty in which she now finds herself. With the help of some kindly rescuers, who are not exactly what they seem, Anna discovers great truths about her family and herself.

Everybody likes a good adventure story, right? So, what did I think of Now & Then? I'm going to do this Melissa (at One Librarian's Book Reviews)-style:

What I liked: Once I got into the story (around Chapter 10), I enjoyed it. It had some surprise elements that kept it fresh and exciting. While I didn't care for any of the American characters, most of the Irishmen/women completely won me over with their charm and pluck. I also found the folksy mysticism of the Old Country interesting.

What I didn't like: Now & Then begins oddly, travelling in strange, contrived directions. It's rough, choppy and just ... disjointed. Around Chapter 10, the story finally comes together. The ending, though, fails to wrap things up in a clear and logical manner. Sheehan's hurried explanations of the whole time travel thing felt cheap and unsatisfying.

So ... yeah, I'm kind of on the fence about this one. Do I wish I'd abandoned it at the 50-page mark? Not necessarily, I just wish the story had come together better. It didn't. Ah, well ...

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, sexual content and mature themes

To the FTC, with love: This one came from TLC Book Tours, for which I prepared this review. Obviously, the price of the book (free) didn't do much to influence my opinion.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Notable & Quotable: Anton Ego on Critics

The other night, my kids wanted to watch Disney's Ratatouille. It's not my favorite Pixar film (all those rats - ewww), but it's still a fun one. I've seen the movie a few times; evidently, I never paid attention to the ending. The story concludes with Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole), the most fearsome restaurant critic in Paris, reading the review he writes about Gusteau's. The speech is so interesting, and definitely applies to us book reviewers. Here's a YouTube video of it as well as the text of what he's says (I transcribed it myself, so there may be errors):

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends ...

Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."

Interesting, right? What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Discuss.
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Invisible I: So Fun, So Clever, I Wish I'd Written It Myself

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Have you ever read a book so fun, so imaginative, so clever that you wish you'd written it yourself? That's pretty much how I feel about invisible i, the first book in Stella Lennon's new series (I'm definitely book-crushing over here). If you haven't heard of Lennon, there's a good reason: she doesn't exist. The name encompasses a group of YA authors (including Laurie Faria Stolarz and Peter Silsbee) who will alternate writing the books in this series. Invisible i is by Melissa Kantor, who's penned popular YA novels like If I Have a Wicked Stepmother, Where's My Prince? (my review is here) and Confessions of a Not-It Girl. Its September debut launched a unique, interactive fiction experience called The Amanda Project. Readers can follow the mystery in the books, then hop online for more clues, puzzles and fun. But, I'm getting ahead of myself ...

Invisible i concerns Callie Leary, one of the ninth grade's popular I-girls. Even though she doesn't consider herself model-beautiful like her friends, she's somehow part of their very in group. They can talk about everything - clothes, makeup, cute guys - well, everything except what's really important, like the fact that Callie's world is falling apart. How can she admit, even to her best friends, that her mom took off and her dad's drinking himself into a daily stupor? How can she tell the group, at least one of whom lives in a sprawling McMansion in the best community in town, that she's afraid she'll come home to no electricity, no food, no house? They wouldn't understand.

When Callie's summoned into the vice principal's office, she receives a shock: her friend, Amanda Valentino, is missing. As if that isn't strange enough, Amanda decided to spray paint the vice principal's car, implicate three other students (including Callie) in the prank, then disappear without a trace. Callie thought nothing about Amanda could surprise her - after all, the girl wore outrageous costumes, couldn't speak without quoting something, worked math problems like some kind of genius, and flitted around at all hours without any parental supervision whatsoever - but this really takes the cake. The weird thing is, as Callie and her supposed cohorts clean the paint off the VP's car, they all come to the same conclusion: Amanda must be trying to send them a message. But figuring out what that message is becomes a strange, frustrating quest. Is it possible that none of them really knew her at all? Clearly, the question they should be asking is not "Where is Amanda," but "Who is Amanda?" Clues keep appearing out of nowhere, but they don't seem to be leading anywhere.

As the search for Amanda consumes Callie, she knows she has to keep her interest hidden from the I-Girls. They would never understand her friendship with Amanda, a girl they'd quickly labeled "freak," and they definitely wouldn't get her desire to play Nancy Drew with super nerds Hal Bennett and Nia Rivera. The more Callie searches for her friend, the more she realizes how much she misses the free spirit who, she's realizing, made a huge impact on her life. Along with Hal and Nia, she's determined to answer the big questions: Who is Amanda Valentino? Where has she gone? What does she want from Callie, Hal and Nia? And most important of all: If she needs help, why doesn't she just ask?

I've been wracking my brain for anything I didn't like about this book and well, I got nothin'. The plot gallops along at a perfect pace with plenty of curves and cliffs to keep it exciting. It's not all action, though - the story has a surprising amount of depth. It delves into the importance of being true to oneself, not being too quick to judge, and looking behind the mirages so often created by wealth and popularity. All of the characters, even the most minor ones, come off as complex and intriguing. The author creates a very real, very absorbing story that just gets everything right. Kantor's got me dying to know: Who is Amanda Valentino? Sequel, come quick!

(To learn more about The Amanda Project, check out its website. You can get additional clues, hang out with other Amanda devotees, even write your own stories [some of which will be published in the subsequent books or in an online 'zine]. I don't know if I like the idea of story people hopping out of their books and into my computer, but it's an interesting concept. You'll definitely want to check it out. Oh, but read the book first - you'll be glad you did!)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and a teensy bit of innuendo

To the FTC, with love: This is another gem from HarperTeen. Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Deadly Little Birthday Gifts

Happy Birthday to my baby girl today. She's 1 year old! I can't believe it. Guess it's time to change my profile photo - check out how much she's changed in a year. Wow!

Since we're celebrating today, I thought I'd give away some books. The winners of my 4 copies of Deadly Little Secret by Laurie Faria Stolarz are:

Congratulations, ladies! If you'll email me (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom) your address, I'll send those ASAP. I will be going to the post office today, so if you get them to me right away, I can sent out today. Yay!

If you didn't win this time, don't despair. I've got more giveaways to come, including a little something-something to celebrate my 500th post. More on that later ...
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Who You Calling Soft?: Playing Hard Ball With Heather Justesen

It has been suggested by some that I'm going "soft." Really? Me? Your friendly neighborhood tell-it-like-it-is book reviewer? Well, maybe I have been giving out more A's and B's than usual. I think it's because this time last year, I was getting ready to fly to Louisiana to pick up my newly-born daughter. Adopting her has been a life-changing experience, one that's been so tender and joyful that it's affected every aspect of my life - even blogging, apparently. It's impossible to look at the sheer happiness in her eyes and not be softened just a little. She makes me want to be a kinder, gentler person - maybe not the best traits for a tough book reviewer like yours truly :) Since my baby's turning 1 tomorrow, I guess now's a good time to get back to those hard-hitting reviews you know and love ...

You can tell I'm feeling all sentimental inside, because I really don't want to say anything bad about first-time novelist Heather Justesen. Judging from her photos and blog, she's like the nicest person in the world. This makes it so much harder for me to say this about her debut novel, The Ball's In Her Court, but the fact remains: Someone should have edited the heck out of this novel before it came anywhere near publication. I know. It's a harsh thing to say. And the two readers who reviewed the book on Amazon did not agree with me at all. So, here's the good, the bad, and the really, really ugly (in my humble opinion, of course); you can judge for yourself.

The Good: I like the premise of the book:

Computer programmer Denise DeWalt has an enviable life - she's got a loving adoptive family, a great job, fierce basketball skills, and now, a handsome, very interested man. Rich Jensen seems perfect; even though he's her boss, she finds herself attracted to his kind, easygoing manner. He obviously feels the same way, but Denise can't stop the panic that rises in her every time he tries to get close to her. If he only knew about her tumultuous childhood, he'd realize she's not the perfect Mormon woman he's seeking. If he knew what she'd been through, he would run away as fast as he can. Flashbacks and nightmares plague her every waking moment - if she can't stop them by facing her past, she could lose everything, including the only man she's ever loved.

When I read the synopsis of Justesen's book on her publisher's website, it intrigued me. Both the adoption and foster care issues appealed, especially since issues like those are rarely addressed in LDS fiction. I love it when authors trade cookie-cutter perfect Molly Mormon heroines for characters who are more true-to-life. It makes for far more rounded, interesting story people. Since Justesen and her husband have fostered 15 children, she definitely has an insider's view of the foster care system. It shows in this book.

The Bad: Did I mention the editing? It's not so much the misspellings and typos that bugged me as the content. The story's in desperate need of condensing, shaping, and tightening. It reads more like a first draft than a final version. Flat characters need to be fleshed out; run-on sentences, paragraphs and pages need to be whittled down; and all the dull telling needs to be transformed into vibrant showing. I think its length could also be cut down by half. It dragged on so long that I kept telling my husband, "This book just doesn't end." A good editor would have a field day with this book. I wish one would have, because The Ball's In Her Court could have been a much more engrossing, effective novel.

The Really, Really Ugly: There's a HUGE coincidence in the ending of the book that just made me roll my eyes. The "surprise" is not just contrived, it's obviously, ridiculously contrived. Not that I was loving the book up until that point anyway, but still ... ugh.

The Upside: Since this is Justesen's first novel, we can expect her to improve, right? I believe there's a sequel to The Ball's In Her Court coming out soon. Also, my opinion isn't the only one out there (It's not? Really?) - you can get different perspectives by reading reviews here, here and here. Finally, I haven't been feeling really well this morning, but the book trailer gave me a much-needed laugh. It's hysterical. Sorry, but it is.

I know, I know, I'm a terrible person.

My friend and I are planning to attend the LDS Storymakers Conference this April. Do you think I'll survive? I have a feeling I'm going to be beaten up by an angry mob of LDS authors. In my defense, I can only say that it's never my intention to ridicule any book or author. I always try to "grade" books fairly, pointing out both the book's positives and negatives so that readers can judge for themselves whether or not it's the kind of book they want to read. I've gained a reputation as an honest reviewer who tells it like it is (just call me Dr. Phil) - I don't want to let down my readers, so that's exactly what I do. Always remember that my opinion is not the only one out there (Really? It's not?). My real aim for this blog is to promote books and reading. If I've learned anything, it's that no two people are ever going to read the same book the same way. To each his own, I always say.

Authors, you can take comfort in the fact that you've got a published book to your credit and I don't. Plus, you know where I'll be come the end of April. I'll be the one in body armor.

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mature themes

To the FTC, with love: I got this book for free from Cedar Fort. Obviously, that didn't influence my opinion of the book.

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