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.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Deadly Little Lies More Shiver-y Than Freaky ... And That's Okay With Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Deadly Little Lies, it may inadvertently reveal plot elements from its predecessor, Deadly Little Secret. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order. You wouldn't want to miss anything!)

Sixteen-year-old Camelia Hammond hasn't quite gotten over the trauma of being stalked and abducted by her creepy classmate, Matt. The fact that he's in faraway Louisiana - even though he should be in jail - should allow her to rest easy. But, she can't. Ben, her psychometric kinda boyfriend, took off and she misses him desperately. Things at home are strained because of Camelia's Aunt Alexia, who seems to be tottering on the brink of insanity. Plus, Camelia's stalker seems to be back. Either that, or she's as crazy as her aunt.

When Ben returns to school, Camelia's ecstatic. She needs to talk to him, be close to him, but he refuses to touch her, insisting it's better if they spend time apart. Except it's not. Camelia's lonely, confused and frightened. Strange things are happening - it's almost as if Ben's psychometry is rubbing off on her. Or maybe PTSD is causing her brain to go haywire. Whatever it is, it's freaking her out. The only thing that can calm her is sculpting at Knead, the pottery store where she works. Adam, Knead's attractive and very interested new employee, makes her laugh, something she hasn't done much of lately. Compared to Ben's intensity, Adam's a welcome - not to mention good-looking - distraction.

And if Camelia ever needed a distraction, it's now. The creepy notes, weird premonitions, and a general feeling of being watched, are making her jumpy. Her friends, her school counselor, even Ben, tell her to let it go, that it's probably someone's sick idea of a joke. Why, then, does she feel so afraid? The voices in her head are warning her - about impending doom or her increasingly fragile grasp on reality, she's not sure.

While the stalking, the premonitions, and the hint of more psychos on the loose should make Deadly Little Lies as freaky as Deadly Little Secret, it doesn't exactly. The second book has more depth (especially with the inclusion of Alexia's diary entries), which makes it a different kind of creepy. It's just more ... shivery than scary (except for the almost-end, which is, indeed, freaky). I liked the development of Camelia's character in the newer book, as well as the fact that Lies is "cleaner" than Secret, but I didn't love Ben in this one. His wishy-washiness annoyed me as much as it did Camelia. I wasn't wild about the ending of Lies either, but that's small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. The books draw me in and keep me reading. And that's saying a lot these days.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: Yeah, yeah, I got this for free. Disney/Hyperion sends me review books all the time. Some I like, some I don't. The grades I give are based solely on a book's merits.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Talking LDS Lit (Again) and I'm Not Done Yet

(From left to right: Julie Wright, Janette Rallison, Josi S. Kilpack)

(Thanks to Sandra, our fearless book club leader, for the photos. If you don't recognize me, I'm the dorky one on the top row with the glasses and oatmeal-colored sweater.)

LDS book clubs are a funny thing. A lot of them started a few years ago when Relief Society (the church's organization for women) was restructured and we were urged to plan small group activities. I think most of the clubs have moved away from church "sponsorship" for various reasons, but still exist as groups of friends who want to read books that are in keeping with their common morals. I'm not sure exactly how The Bookworms got started - I've only been in the ward (my local congregation) for a year and a half - but I've enjoyed my brief association with these ladies.

Since our group's been a little defunct as of late, our leader organized a fun kick-off. We gathered to hear Josi S. Kilpack and Julie Wright, two LDS authors, speak. Since they were staying with Janette Rallison (who, I didn't realize, lives here locally), she came along as well. The trio talked about their lives, their writing, and the unique experience of writing for an LDS market. It was fascinating, even though I have only read Kilpack, and only one of her books.

Some of the interesting things they said were:

Josi talked about how writing her own novels has stolen much of the pleasure out of reading others' books. She mentioned a 50-page rule - if a story hasn't grabbed her by then, she abandons it. I know a lot of us bloggers do this, too. My question, though, is this: Have you had this same experience with blogging? Does reviewing books steal some of the pleasure out of reading? It has for me, although I feel like critiquing others' work has been more instructive than destructive. What do you think?

Someone asked how the authors "found" the time to write. I thought Julie's answer was interesting. She said she writes in 15 minute increments. I don't know about you, but I can take just about anything for 15 minutes, be it a sports competition or a dentist drilling (which are equally torturous for me). Her advice has inspired me to work on all those novels that have been germinating in the back of my brain.

Mostly, I appreciated hearing the women talk about why it's so important to them to write clean novels. My reading always vascillates between G reads and R reads, but I love the fact that I can walk into a church bookstore knowing I don't have to worry about the content in the books I choose. Now, you know how I feel about LDS lit, but listening to these ladies convinced me to give it another go. I love that there is this new crop of writers who are making the genre better and better every day. So, for those of you who are sick to death of hearing me talk LDS lit, I apologize, because I'm not done yet :)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cookin' the Books: Sadie's Better Brownies


Sadie's Better Brownies (from Lemon Tart by Josi S. Kilpack)

(Sorry about the poor quality of the picture - food photography is A LOT harder than it looks)



24 oz. (1 1/2 bags) semi-sweet chocolate chips (using 1/2 mint chocoalte chips is delicious!)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

6 large eggs

2 cups granulated sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 t. salt

1 cup walnuts (pecans are better than walnuts though Shawn hates both)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and melt chocolate chips and butter in a double boiler. (Or melt in microwave in 30-second increments, stirring between each heating until smooth.) Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs and sugar. Mix in the melted chocolate and the vanilla. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt to the chocolate mixture and mix well. Pour into a 9 x 13 greased pan and bake for abotu 35 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out with just a few moist crumbs. Remove from oven and let cool before cutting into 2-inch squares

Makes 24 brownies.

(Parentheses indicate notes from Sadie Hoffmiller, the fictional baker/sleuth in Lemon Tart.)

My thoughts on the recipe: I'm strictly a brownies-from-the-box kind of girl, but this recipe sounded so good I couldn't pass it up. If you like from-scratch brownies, you're going to think you've died and gone to heaven when you bake these babies up. This recipe makes a very rich, cakelike brownie. Mine turned out nice and moist, just the way I like them. Just be sure to have a tall glass of milk on hand, because these are super, super sweet. Yummy.

(This recipe was used with permission from Josi S. Kilpack.)

A Hidden Winner

So, my son turned 5 yesterday. I remember his emergency C-section vividly (well, not the procedure itself as I was heavily - and I mean heavily - drugged, but the before and after). Since he weighed only 3 lbs. 3 oz., he spent a month in the hospital, coming home when he was barely over 4 lbs. I'm amazed to see the big, healthy boy he's become!

Apparently, I was so amazed that I completely forgot to draw the name of the winner of The Hidden by Tobias Hill. Sorry about that. Without further ado, here she is:

Congratulations! If you'll shoot me an email with your mailing address, I'll get it to you as soon as I can.

Don't forget to enter my new giveaway - I have 4 copies of Deadly Little Secret by Laurie Faria Stolarz that need good homes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

New Culinary Mystery Series Has Me Salivating

So, you may recall my slight aversion to cozy mysteries. You may also recall my determination to get over said aversion. Well, I think I have. The key? Giving into that willing suspension of disbelief thing. Before cracking open this type of book, I give myself a little pep talk: "This is most likely going to be predictable, contrived fluff. Don't get your panties in a twist, just try to enjoy it." It helps. I know this is never going to be my favorite genre, but I like a taste now and then, especially of the ever-popular culinary mystery. They're just ... fun.

When I first started seeing reviews of Lemon Tart, the initial book in Josi S. Kilpack's new culinary mystery series, popping up in the blogosphere, I added the title to my extensive list of Books To Be Read. After which I promptly forgot about it. Then, I noticed reviews of the second book, English Trifle. It also ended up on my list. It also ended up forgotten. Then, I got an email from the leader of my somewhat-defunct book group announcing that Josi and another LDS writer had agreed to come speak to us while on their book tour. I always love to hear writers talk about their craft, so I stuck the date on my calendar. Wanting to study up a little (being a highly professional book blogger and all), I headed to my local Deseret Book, where I shelled out $17.99 (gulp) for Lemon Tart. Grumbling something along the lines of, "This better dang well be worth my money," I took it home (along with a couple unplanned book purchases - honestly, I should not be allowed into bookstores). Long story short: I just finished reading the book and while I would say that it's a very typical culinary mystery, I'd also say that it's about on par with genre favorites penned by the likes of Joanne Fluke and Diane Mott Davidson.

Our heroine is 56-year-old Sadie Hoffmiller, a widowed substitute teacher who doubles as the neighborhood busybody. Since not a whole lot happens on Peregrine Circle, Sadie spends most of her time baking, volunteering in her small Colorado community and getting to know her boyfriend, Ron. One morning as she's busy making applesauce, she spies a police cruiser pulling up to her neighbor's house. The home has been recently rented by a young, single mother whom Sadie has taken under her wing. Alarmed, Sadie rushes over, looking for answers. What she learns chills her to the bone: Anne Lemmon has been murdered. Her 2-year-old son is nowhere to be found.

As one of Anne's only friends, Sadie appears to know more about the woman than anyone else in town. What she knows isn't much - the dead woman never wanted to talk about the past she was trying to escape - but she's desperate to help the police find Anne's killer. Handsome Detective Cunningham's interested in her opinions - his angry partner wants Sadie arrested for interfering with the investigation. How can she make them understand that she's not trying to interfere, she's trying to help? Can she help it if her probing keeps leading her into trouble? It's also leading her to suspect the man she's supposed to trust above all others - her future husband. Could Ron really have something to do with Anne's death? If not him, then who? And where is 2-year-old Trevor? Sadie won't rest until she finds the answers - the killer won't stop until he silences her. Forever.

Like many culinary mysteries, Lemon Tart isn't terribly original or sophisticated. The plot's been done a million times and the characters aren't developed enough to really stand out. Sadie Hoffmiller could pass for Goldy Bear Schulz' fuddy-duddy aunt or Hannah Swenson's much older, much duller sister. I mean, she's nice - principled, generous and devoted - but she's also in desperate need of a personality. Because Sadie and her fellow players all tended toward flatness, I never felt any real emotional connection between the story's players. The fact that the plot is unrealistic and contrived goes without saying - this is a cozy, after all. So, with my disbelief willingly suspended, I'm just going to ignore the little voice in my head that kept saying, "This would never happen in real life." Because, like I said, culinary mysteries are just ... fun.

Before I use the other word I normally associate with cozies - predictable - I have to give Kilpack kudos for surprising me. The killer was not the character I had pegged for the dirty deed. Speaking of, did anyone see last week's episode of The Office? Let's just say, Anne's murderer was someone I only "medium suspected." I wasn't wowed by the overall plot, but the book had enough twists and turns to keep me interested. While I think Sadie needs more development, I also think she's more genuine than characters like Goldy Bear and Hannah Swenson - at least she has the decency to feel faint when she finds her neighbor dead. The aforementioned ladies tend to regard their constant body-findings with a disturbing nonchalance. Mostly, though, I like that Lemon Tart is a nice, clean, entertaining read, the kind I can safely recommend to my 94-year-old grandma. And did I mention the recipes? They look simple and scrumptious. So, while I'm not exactly drooling over this series, I am salivating just a little - I think it's got great potential and I'm anxious to see where Kilpack takes it. Darn it, I guess that means another trip to Deseret Book. Anyone want to loan me $17.99?

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought Lemon Tart with my own, hard-earned cash (and I didn't make it reviewing books, either).



(Book image from Josi Kilpack's blog)

Author Chat: An Interview with Josi S. Kilpack

Today, I'm welcoming Josi S. Kilpack to BBB. She's the author of a number of LDS mystery/suspense novels as well as a
series of culinary mysteries written for general audiences (as in, no mention whatsover of those pesky Mormons). She's currently on tour with Julie Wright. If you live in Arizona and you'd like to hear Josi and Julie speak, they will be appearing on Tuesday, November 17, at 7 p.m. in the Relief Society room of the LDS church building on McDowell and 78th St. in Mesa. You can also check here for local book-signing events. If you have any questions about Tuesday night, feel free to email me.

Welcome to BBB, Josi!

Me: I know you didn't start writing in earnest until just 10 years or so ago. So, did you ever dream that you would be a published author? As a child, did you like to read and write? If yes, what were your favorite books?

JSK: I didn’t begin to enjoy reading until I was 13—until then reading a book was pretty much like weeding the garden; to be avoided at all costs and suffered through if it became unavoidable. At 13 I read “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” and fell in love with stories. I enjoyed writing in school, but never had a teacher tell me I was particularly good at it and I never did more than I had to do for school. For me, my writing really was a dormant gift that stayed quiet and hidden for a long time; until I found myself in circumstances that allowed me time to explore myself a little bit. It’s been a completely unexpected journey.

Me: You've published a number of LDS mystery/suspense novels. What made you decide to write for the LDS market, especially in the mystery/suspense genre? How does writing for an LDS audience differ from writing for a more general one?

JSK: I write for the LDS market because I find the balance between in the world and of it to be a fascinating one. I have enjoyed exploring the Mormon experience very much and like writing about ‘my people’ to ‘my people’. I write mystery/suspense because that’s what I love. I like to read fast-paced stories about characters I care about, so I try to write the same type of story. The differences between an LDS audience and a general one is mostly in expectation. LDS readers, for the most part, expect the bedroom door to stay closed and the violence to not get out of hand. I’m very comfortable with this and it makes the LDS market a good fit for me.

Me: I generally shy away from LDS fiction because it never seems to address "real issues," but you've tackled topics like infertility, Internet predators, inactivity in the church, etc. How do you write clean books about offensive/touchy subjects? Why do you think it's important that LDS books reflect the "real issues?"

JSK: While we, as Mormons, live in the world, not of it, we are IN it and I think we do a disservice when we believe that modern issues don’t affect us. If we manage to escape some of the pitfalls of our society, our loved ones might not. My books address many issues of Mormon culture that are not quite as ‘celestial’ as they ought to be and while I don’t mean to pass judgment on any of us, I think that it’s important for us to be aware, so that we can be compassionate and charitable. Ignorance is just that, ignorance. I love books that make me stretch; books that teach me something I didn’t know. I really hope that my ‘issue’ books do that for my readers, and I hope to get back to them again one day.

Me: You've said that you don't enjoy reading culinary mysteries, so what in the world inspired you to write not just one, but a whole series of them? And how do you think your series differs from others on the shelves?

JSK: When I first started Lemon Tart, it was just a mystery novel with a quirky, domestic ‘sleuth’ - it wasn’t until after it was accepted that one of us (either my publisher or myself) suggested putting recipes in. I had heard of culinary mysteries, but never read any. After that I picked some up and never even finished them. Die hard culinary mystery readers assure me I just got the wrong ones, and maybe they're right, but the ones I got just didn’t resonate with me. They were too gourmet, or they were about characters I didn’t care about. I think my books are different because Sadie is an average woman. She doesn’t cook super fancy stuff, but it’s good, and she genuinely loves to feed the people around her. There are very few recipes that require special ingredients or knowledge, which I think makes her more relatable to those people that read about her.

As for the series, I originally thought that Sadie would make a great repeat character. Once Deseret Book read Lemon Tart, they agreed. We originally planned on three books in the series, but we’ve extended that to five. From there, we’ll see where it goes. I’m not sure I can keep Sadie clever and alive much longer, but we’ll see.

Me: Do you enjoy cooking as well as baking? How did you learn to bake? What's your favorite thing to bake?

JSK: I love, love, love to bake. Cooking...is alright, but baking is awesome! I learned to bake from my mom, who baked everything. The first time I had an Oreo cookies I cringed, it wasn’t nearly as good as a homemade cookie and while I hated homemade bread growing up, I crave it as an adult. As for what’s my favorite thing—cookies. You can go from pulling out the recipe to eating your creation in half an hour. That’s awesome!

Me: How do you choose which recipes to include in your culinary mysteries?

JSK: There’s always the main recipe, which serves as the title of the book, and the others come in a variety of ways. I’ve had readers suggest something, I’ve simply gone through my cookbooks looking for something that would fit, and then I also have a test kitchen: a group of 7 cooks who suggest ideas and then make each of the recipes so that we can get it just right. They have given me many suggestions and it’s very helpful, I don’t know what I’d do without them.

Me: I know you've addressed this on your blog, but how do you juggle marriage, motherhood and other obligations with your writing career?

JSK: I like the word ‘juggle’ better than ‘balance’ because I’ve come to the conclusion that balance—for anyone—is a myth. There is always something up in the air, something plummeting to the earth and something in hand. It becomes a give and take. Sometimes my family sacrifices for my writing (like now, when I’m gone for two weeks) and sometimes my writing sacrifices for my family. Sometimes exercise is sacrificed for school projects, and sometimes reading is put off for yard work. It’s impossible to give 100% to everything, and so I simply try very hard to be objective enough to see what is currently plummeting to the earth so I can catch it before it falls. Sometimes the balls are moving faster than others and things are intense, and sometimes I find a really good rhythm. I try very hard to keep my family from suffering, and yet at the same time I can’t do it without their support. It’s a tricky game, one that doesn’t always work, but one I continue to work at. But I don’t think it’s any different than any other woman. There is simply so much to do in life—if all we did was temple work, our lives would fall apart just as surely as if all we did was bake, or write, or lift weights. It’s all about keeping the ball from hitting the ground—that’s my goal every day. Most of the time it works.

Me: I ask this of every author I interview simply because I find the answers so intriguing: What's your writing routine? Do you write every day or just when the mood strikes? Do you outline or let the ideas flow freely? Where do you write? Is there anything you absolutely HAVE to have by you when you're writing? Can you concentrate if you're wearing your PJ's or do you have to get dressed to feel like you're really "at work?"

JSK: Oh, how I fantasize about a writing schedule! I have tried for ten years to get one. I’ll find a routine that works for a few weeks and then life happens, and it spins into the abyss and I find myself trying to find a new one. The fact is that my life is crazy and the season where I can have a set schedule is not yet here. As it is, I simply do the best I can to carve out time as often as possible. Rather unromantic, I know.

Me: Tell me about your Book Tour '09. How's it going? What has been the best part of it? The worst?

JSK: The Book Tour is doing great. We are exhausted, but in a good way; kind of like after a party when you’ve put so much time into it, your feet are killing you, but you smile when you think about it because everyone had such a good time. We’ve met so many people: readers, bookstore employees, etc. and it’s been a rich experience to come to them and live in their worlds for a little bit. We get to rub elbows with readers who have never heard of us, and some that have followed our careers. That is the best part—the people. The worst part is traffic! Julie lives in a town with a population of 600. I haven’t lived in a ‘city’ for years. Now we are on California freeways, white-knuckling our way through a spaghetti bowl of freeways. The traffic is horrible and we are finding ourselves driving twice as long as we expected. We both hate that so much. But, we’re surviving :-)

Me: Lastly, I grew up near Portland, so it made me laugh when you said that it's your fantasy city. Powell's Books - what more do you have to say, right? Seriously, though (and this may just be the most important question I've asked you so far), what is it about rain that is so appealing to us bookworms?

JSK: I think the rain gives us permission to stay inside—and if we’re inside, well, why not read a book? Or write one? There is no more perfect afternoon than snuggling into the corner of the couch with a good book and a mug of hot cocoa. I think every avid reader can agree that is a perfect day. And I am so jealous of you having lived in Portland. It was honestly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Me: I absolutely agree - just talking about it makes me homesick :( Thanks so much for hanging with us at BBB today, Josi!


(Author photo is from her website.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Me and My Deadly Little Secret (I'll Give You a Hint: It Starts with Give and Ends with Away)

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

Camelia Hammond should be dead. After all, Gloria Beckham's car came barreling straight toward her in the school parking lot. If it hadn't been for a handsome stranger saving her Edward Cullen-style, she'd have been a goner. She hasn't seen the guy since, but Camelia can't forget him, especially the strange electricity she felt when he placed his hand on her stomach. She tries to dismiss the whole episode, but she can't deny the weirdness of it - guy comes out of nowhere, saves her from sure death, touches her stomach, looks alarmed and takes off on his motorcycle before the ambulance even makes it to the school. Definitely an abnormal experience.

Three months later, Camelia sees her mystery man again. It's the first day of school and Ben Carter's just registered as a new student. His reputation has preceded him, however - rumors are already swirling about his alleged involvement in the death of a girl he was dating. Camelia's never been one for gossip; besides, he saved her life, he deserves a thank you. Only he denies he was ever in the school parking lot that day. She knows it was him - if nothing else, she recognizes the scar on his arm - but his strange denial is not the only odd thing about Ben Carter: He does his best to avoid people, even Camelia, who's been nothing but friendly. Still, there's something about him she can't resist, something about the way he keeps purposely touching her that she finds intoxicating. Her friends warn her away from the alleged killer, but she can't stay away. No one believes her, but the more time she spends with Ben, the more she believes in his innocence.

And then things get really weird. Someone's sending Camelia photos of herself adorned with hearts and freaky little notes. Then, there's the gift on her windowsill, the message on her bedroom mirror, and the anonymous phone calls. Is it someone's sick idea of a joke? Or is Ben Carter really the psychopathic killer everyone says he is? Could she be next on his hit list? Camelia knows Ben's different - in fact, she's the only one who knows exactly how different - but a murderer? It doesn't seem possible. Still, someone's watching her every move. Someone's sending her warnings. Someone wants her all for himself ...

Deadly Little Secret's the first book in a chilling new YA series by Laurie Faria Stolarz. It's a creepy story about obsession, paranoia and the fragility of the human mind. A hint of the paranormal makes it even eerier. The characters are simply, but skillfully drawn. Even though I found some of them annoying (especially Camelia's best friend, Kimmie), most of the players come off as round and real. I had Camelia's stalker pegged pretty early on, but the story still held me spellbound. I raced through it in a couple of hours, after which I immediately cracked open the sequel. My only real complaint about Deadly Little Secret is the abundance of sexual innuendo - I'm sure it's commonplace in the average high school, but still, it got distracting. All in all, though, this one really sucked me in. I enjoyed the fast-paced, deliciously chilling read.

I'm not sure how I feel about book trailers, but this one dramatizes Deadly Little Secret pretty well (even though the acting leaves much to be desired):

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for heavy innuendo and some violence

To the FTC, with love: Disney/Hyperion provided me with 5 copies of Deadly Little Secret, but no monetary compensation.

Okay, now for my little secret. Thanks to the generous folks at Disney, I have 4 copies of Deadly Little Secret to give away. These are beautiful, brand new hardcovers. All you have to do to win one is comment on this post by midnight on November 24. Tweet about the contest or mention it on your blog and I'll give you extra entries. That's it - I won't even make you answer a question. This giveaway is open internationally. Oh! Please, please, please leave an email address if you don't have a public blog. I need a way to contact the winners. Thanks and good luck!


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shiver v. Twilight? Which Will Win In My Knock-Down-Drag-Out-Take-No-Prisoners Review?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I never should have read Twilight. Or the Harry Potter books for that matter. Why not? Well, it's like this: I know Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling didn't invent the YA magical/urban fantasy genre (or did they?), but I hold them dually responsible for making it so BIG. And, because I consider them the genre leaders, I can't read this kind of novel without comparing it to those penned by Meyer and Rowling. Am I the only one with this problem (Please tell me there's a support group out there somewhere ...)? In one way, I think these inevitable comparisons make authors up the ante, pushing them to be ever more imaginative and original. On the other hand, I feel kind of bad for YA authors in the post-Twilight/HP world, as any similarity in plot or characterization between their books and the biggies always feels like literary thievery. So, yeah, I wish I could cleanse my palette between tastes of Twilight/HP and samples of their many, many successors.

All of which brings me to Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. I'd heard so much about this book that I immediately put it on hold at the library. Then, I waited. And waited. I swear we must have the slowest readers in the country! When it was finally my turn, I delved right into the book. Was it worth the wait? Well, that's the burning question, isn't it? And guess what, because I'm cruel like that, I'm going to make you wait for the answer. Mwah ha ha! (You could always just scroll down to see the "grade," but that would ruin all the fun, now wouldn't it?)

Shiver stars high school junior Grace Brisbane, a girl who's obsessed with the wolves that creep through the woods behind her house. She should be terrified of the animals - when she was a child, a pack dragged her off her swingset, snarling and nipping at her vulnerable body. They clearly intended to kill her. And they would have if it hadn't been for their yellow-eyed brother, who came to her rescue. He should have inspired terror in young Grace, but he didn't. He seemed kind, almost human. Since then, she watches the woods for her special wolf, waiting anxiously for his grey pelt and kind eyes to appear at the edge of the trees. Is he, perhaps, as obsessed with her as she is with him?

When one of Grace's classmates dies from a wolf attack, her Minnesota town goes on high alert, determined to drive the animals out via hunting rifle. Grace knows she can't let harm come to her special wolf, but how to stop it? When the shooteing brings her face-to-face with a pair of familiar yellow eyes on an unfamiliar human body, she realizes just what she's dealing with: werewolves. Only "her" werewolf - Sam Roth - is no monster. He's sweet, sensitive and devoted to "his" human. With Sam furiously trying to keep his human form, the town in a frenzy to hunt down every wolf, and Grace desperate to keep the boy she loves by her side, things are exciting, frantic and heading toward a very frightening conclusion. The more impossible their love seems, the harder Grace will fight to save it. But what if her all isn't enough? How much will she sacrifice to be with Sam?

Okay, obvious Twilight parallels: Teenage junker-driving girl meets boy of a different species; said girl and boy fall in love - mad, obsessive, wholly consuming love; their "intimate" relationship (which includes Sam sleeping in Grace's bed, but only sleeping, because "he's not an animal" [although they end up going a tad bit farther than Edward and Bella]; said intimacy is made possible because of distracted/absent parents; Sam's pack includes members with differing feelings about his involvement with a full-time human, at least one of which is enraged enough to take action; and ... that's it.

Stiefvater v. Meyer: In a war of words, I think Stiefvater would win, as she's clearly the better wordsmith. Her writing gets downright poetic at times. Plus, I just love this book quote:

"As the hours crept by, the afternoon sunlight bleached all the books on the shelves to pale, gilded versions of themselves and warmed the paper and ink inside the covers so that the smell of unread words hung in the air" (8).

The "smell of unread words" - I'm drooling here. I do think, though, that Meyer did a better job of creating a believable world. Shiver left me with all kinds of questions, whereas Twilight answered all the whys and wherefores of the vampire/werewolf worlds. Now, this could be because I've read 3 of the 4 Twilight books and only 1 in Stiefvater's series (Shiver's sequel comes out in the Fall) and to be truthful, I can no longer distinguish between Twilight and the others, so I could be misremembering ... still, I felt that there were some glaring plot issues in Shiver. Also, while I enjoyed most of the characters in Shiver, many of them (including Grace) came off as rather flat.

Shiver v. Twilight: Funny enough, I liked and disliked both books for virtually the same reasons. Shiver's just as engrossing as Twilight - it's atmospheric, dramatic and compelling. Both feature likeable characters (in fact, I think I prefer rugged-good boy Sam to coolly-polished Edward) and passionate love stories. I raced through both novels, dying to know how it would all turn out. Although I feel like Twilight has more substance, Shiver offered enough surprises to keep me interested. It's definitely a pageturner that will appeal to teen girls (Teen boys? I'm thinking, not so much) as well as adults. Also, Stiefvater keeps things almost as clean as Meyer, emphasizing emotional intimacy over physical, which I always find refreshing.

On the flip side, I think both books emphasize teenage love a little too much. Yes, it's achingly romantic, but it's also obsessive. Both Grace and Bella shirk off friendships, family relationships, and outside interests to be with their beloved as much as possible. Unhealthy? I think so. Sure, they're all supposed to be soulmates, but meeting the one person for you while you're in high school? How often does that happen? It does, of course, but I also think it's dangerous to put forth the idea that teens should commit themselves to their high school crushes. Just the mom in me talkin', you know? Speaking of, although I appreciate the "clean" romance, I don't think couples as passionate as Bedward and Gram could really be in the same bed every night without "getting in trouble" PDQ. And where in the world are the parents in these books?

My conclusion: Finally, right? I enjoyed Shiver. More than Twilight? Not really, but it definitely held my attention and I'm absolutely interested in what's going to happen next. Would I have liked it more if I had read it before Twilight? No, I really don't think so. Twilight wowed me, Shiver didn't. Who do I think is the better writer? I'd go with Stiefvater. I want to read her not just because of what she says, but because of how she says it. Plus, Twilight's over, Shiver's just getting started. It's got a whole lot of potential. I'm anxious to see where it goes. If it heads into blood-sucking territory, though, I'm SO out of there ...

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some language and sexual content (it's not graphic, but it's there)

To the FTC, with love: How do I love thee, library? Let me count the ways ...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Green Books Campaign: Any Other Woman By Monica Kidd

(Logo by Susan Newman)

I've mentioned before that I'm a bit of a slacker when it comes to environmental responsibility. It's not that I don't care about Mother Earth, it's just that she's not my top priority. Before you start forming that angry mob, I can boast about a few things: I don't litter, I do recycle, and I just started growing my own vegetables in a little container garden behind my house. I know it's not much, but it's better than doing nothing, right? But I have to assuage my guilt somehow, so I joined The Green Books Campaign, a project headed by Raz Godlenik, CEO of Eco-Libris.net. His idea is simple: To promote publishing practices that are environmentally friendly, book bloggers will simultaneously post reviews of 100 books that have been printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper on November 10 at 1 p.m. EST. Because I am both a book lover and a tree lover (not to be confused with a tree hugger) who firmly believes that the two can co-exist peacefully, I joined up.

If you've never heard of Eco-Libris, head on over to its website. The group works to "green up" the book industry by "promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books." Search the site for more information on how you can help Eco-Libris with this important cause.

The following review is my very small way of contributing to the promotion of environmentally-friendly practices in the book industry. This biography is printed on recycled paper:

(Book image from Amazon)

Anyone who's ever been bitten by the family history bug will relate to Monica Kidd's book, Any Other Woman: An Uncommon Biography. In it, she describes her long, frustrating search for information about her great-grandmother. As any geneaologist will attest, such a quest is almost always filled with equal parts aggravation, triumph and providence (which Kidd refers to as Rosencratz moments and LDS researchers believe is divine intervention). Kidd's experience is no different.

Monica's journey begins with a story: Early in the 20th Century, Andrew Zak, a Slovakian immigrant proposes to Rosalia Patala in a letter. Although she has never met this suitor, 16-year-old Rosalia agrees to marry him. She travels from New York to Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, and weds a virtual stranger. This hopelessly romantic beginning leads to what can only have been a difficult existence for the new couple - Andrew labored in a coal mine, while Rosalia kept house and struggled to bear healthy children. Captivated by her great-grandparents' bare bones story, Kidd nonetheless sees its many holes. Did Rosalia really just sail off into the sunset with a man she didn't know? Why would she leave a steady job in New York to come to the barren north? Did she grow to love her husband? Or did she resent him for all the hardships she must have endured as a frontier wife? Did she miss Slovakia, a country she also called home? As a journalist, Kidd finds the mysteries irresistible. Rosalia haunts her, as if demanding that her story be pulled out of obscurity.

Finding the truth behind family lore proves to be a difficult task. Scouring vital records, employee lists from local mines, headstones and any other possible leads, Kidd struggles to find anything useful. Through interviews with family members, historians and strangers, she gets some details, but certainly not enough. A life-changing trip to Slovakia brings significant discoveries, including the deep, uncanny connection she feels to the land. Despite the fact that Kidd carries none of Rosalia's Slovakian blood (she's adopted), she feels the energy of the earth on which her ancestors once stood. She explains:

"Genetics has nothing to do with the power this land holds over me, just as it has for anyone who has ever longed for a piece of earth. Without Rosalia, my own life would not have unfolded the way it has. Without this land, there would have been no Rosalia. Therefore, I choose to call this my own.

She's one of ours.

What's so special about this place? Nothing. Everything" (139).

While Kidd's account feels unfocused and unfinished, it's nevertheless a testament to the lure of geneaology, the impact of family, the great influence of our past on our present. It also provides an intriguing glimpse into the lives of those brave women who tenaciously carved out a place for themselves on the merciless Canadian frontier. While I'm not sure Kidd really has enough material for a satisfying biography, I think Rosalia's story would make an excellent novel. The alternating chapters, in which Kidd beautifully fictionalizes Rosalia's experience, prove she's more than capable of producing a compelling historical. Whether or not that happens, I still feel richer for having "met" Rosalia.

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for references to nudity

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from Eco-Libris in exchange for writing a review. Even though this book is "green," I didn't receive any for evaluating it.

Monday, November 09, 2009

New Book Reveals P.B.'s Nefarious Plot

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

[WARNING: This review does not contain spoilers for This Book Is Not Good For You, but it may inadvertently spill the beans about plot elements from its two predecessors. My advice, as always, is to read the books in order. You wouldn't want to miss anything important :) ]

I have a bone to pick with Pseudonymous Bosch, the mysterious author of The Name of This Book Is A Secret and If You're Reading This, It's Too Late. See, he says he doesn't want us to read his books. He warns readers away with cautionary titles and cryptic blog warnings about imposters and nefarious schemes now afoot. This is all well and good (after all, he does tell a dangerous story, which, for our own safety, we really should ignore), but then P.B. goes and does the unthinkable: He writes a story about chocolate. Sweet, creamy, delcious chocolate. As if anyone could resist an entire book about this delectable confection. To make the matter even more distressing, he titled his newest This Book Is Not Good For You. Everyone knows that nothing makes a thing more alluring than knowing it's not good for us. Suspicious, no? What do you think it all means? I have a theory: I think P.B. actually wants us to read his books. You're gasping. I know, it's unbelievable. But true nonetheless. The question is: Why would he want innocent people to read about that evilest of organizations - the Midnight Sun - if he didn't have ulterior motives? Are his "warnings" some kind of perverse reverse logic? Is describing the group's foul ways his sordid method of recruiting new acolytes? Curioser and curioser, wouldn't you say? I'll let you be the judge ...

When This Book Is Not Good For You opens, our young heroine is researching. As a survivalist, Cass has looked up many questions - How do you survive an encounter with a bear? How does one accurately identify toxic waste, just in case it should be lurking in the schoolyard? What tactics are most useful for obliterating the murderous mold growing under your sink? That sort of thing. But this question is altogether different. This time, she wants to know who she really is. She now knows she's adopted, but she doesn't have any of the details. And she really, really needs the details. So, she's searching her grandfathers' junk shop for the crate in which she arrived as a baby on their doorstep. She's certain it holds clues to her true origin. Although Cass' best friend, Max-Ernest, believes the search to be hopeless, he agrees to help her look. So it is that the two of them are in the shop when a box of magazines lands with a thump on its doorstep. A glance inside reveals a clue of another sort, one that points to where leaders of the Midnight Sun may be hiding. Before they know it, Cass, Max-Ernest and their friend, Yo-Yoji, are swept up in another whirlwind adventure courtesy of their membership in the Terces Society.

The escapade begins with an ancient object: a tuning fork that can create the most extraordinary tastes out of the most ordinary of foods. Why the Midnight Sun wants the fork remains a mystery. The lengths to which they'll go to find it does not: the heartless Sunners kidnap Cass' mother. Desperate to rescue Melanie, Cass and her friends set out in search of their enemies' new hideout, where they hope to find not only Cass' mom, but the tuning fork, and some way to take down the foul organization. The Midnight Sun, however, has its own motivation: it will stop at nothing to get the precious Secret. And when I say nothing, I mean, nothing. No one is safe from Ms. Mauvais and her gang, not Melanie, not the trio of kids, not the world. It's another wild, exciting adventure for our favorite survivalist and her friends. Will they live to see another?

With his usual zany humor, Pseudonymous Bosch continues his adventure series in high style. The books are witty, engaging and downright contagious. This Book Is Not Good For You is no exception. While it's not my favorite in the series, it's still an awful lot of fun (Oops, P.B. doesn't like it when I use that word - let's pretend I said dangerous). Seriously, though, this book is good, clean, lighthearted fun. I highly recommend the whole series (although I really shouldn't, because it's dangerous, remember?).

*Not surprisingly, P.B. has issued a rebuttal to my accusations - you can read it here. Just don't believe it. *

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for moments of danger that might be scary for younger children.

To the FTC, with love: Another gem from my local library. With the amount of money I've paid them in fees this year, they should soon be adding a new wing in my honor.

Friday, November 06, 2009

My (Probably Very Over-Ambitious) Plan for Holiday Reading

So, it's come to my attention that 2009 is winding down (I'm nothing if not quick). October is always my warm up for the holiday season; by November, I'm in a full-on sprint until about February. Three of my kids have birthdays this month (even though none of them were due in November), the other's is in January. Then, of course, we have Thanksgiving, my birthday, Christmas and all the activities that come along with that. It's a busy, hectic time. A fun one, no doubt, but also stressful. So, I thought it might be helpful to decide which books I'm going to finish before the year's out. Based on what I've done so far, I figure I'm reading about 12 books a month (Seriously? Crazy.), but with all that's going on, I'm going to guess that I will only finish 20 more by January 1. Here's what I'm thinking:

This Book Is Not Good For You by Pseudonymous Bosch - reading for the elementary school

Any Other Woman by Monica Kidd - reading for Green Initiative book bonanza thingie

Now & Then by Jacqueline Sheehan - reading for a virtual tour

Loyalty's Web by Joyce DiPastena - because I promised the author I'd get to it before Christmas

The Ball's In Her Court by Heather Justesen - a review book that looks interesting

The Amanda Project: invisible i by Stella Lennon - a review book - I'm anxious to see what all the buzz is about

The Diplomat's Wife by Pam Jenoff - because I loved The Kommandant's Girl and because Jenoff is sending me a copy of her new book to review. Yay!

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater - because it's FINALLY in at the library. Woo hoo!

The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti - because I just discovered this author and want to see what else she's written

Lemon Tart by Josi S. Kilpack - because I'm going to hear her speak next week and want to know more about her work

Eyes Like Mine by Julie Wright - same as Kilpack

The Atherton Trilogy by Patrick Carman - because the publicist kindly sent me a set for me and a set to give away and I haven't done it yet. Shame on me.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall - because I'm reading the second book for the school, but want to read the first book first.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall - Like I said above. I'm trying to get the school's books back before Christmas (oh sorry, Winter) Break.

The Christmas Shoes trilogy (I think it's a trilogy) by Donna VanLiere - I have a copy of The Christmas Blessing to give away, but want to read the other books first. Plus, I need a little holiday reading.

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly - because I loved A Northern Light and people have told me the "Rose" series is even better. Plus, eventually, the library's going to want it back.

We'll see how it goes. What are you planning to finish up before 2010 arrives?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Saving Sammy Hard to Believe, Even Harder to Forget

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
"I look in the mirror, and I see a stranger. I look at the green eyes that used to sparkle back. All I see is sadness and exhaustion. If I look long enough, they fill with tears, but I don't have time to look. I am in a constant state of motion. I'm dispensing meds, or ordering meds, or trying to remember something about the meds. I'm e-mailing doctors and asking questions. I'm trying hard not to scream at them with the words I type. I call my friends and sob, but not for me. I sob for him: that life could be so unfair, that he could be so brilliant and so trapped. Then he calls to me and I go to him, and I know that I will lie again and tell him there is hope" (138-39).

How many times have you heard someone laugh off his eccentricities with a flippant, "Oh, that's just my OCD coming out?" How many times have you chuckled knowingly, remembering your own neuroses - the way you have to make your bed just so, or how you can't stand it if the toilet paper is on the holder in the improper position, or the way that you can't stop yourself from sweeping up every crumb that hits the floor as soon it lands? I dare you to laugh about OCD after reading the first four pages of Saving Sammy: Curing the Boy Who Caught OCD by Beth Alison Maloney. You won't. I guarantee it.

Maloney's story begins the summer her middle son, Sammy, turns 12. A smart, happy child, he enjoyed competing in mathathons, playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, and hunting for treasures along the shoreline near his home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Then, Maloney buys a new home, moving herself and her three boys away from the beachfront rental home they'd come to love. His parents' recent divorce, plus the stress of moving, seems to traumatize Sammy. Beth watches as he takes up strange behaviors - walking around with his eyes shut, navigating only with his hands; refusing to sleep in his new bedroom; avoiding physical contact; spinning, hopping and jerking at odd times. What begins as puzzling soon becomes alarming. Sammy's compulsions start to take over his life - he can't leave the house without performing a complicated routine; he won't shower, brush his teeth, or change his clothes; he can't stand having windows open or the sight of bare feet or the sound of loud breathing. He apologizes constantly for inconveniencing his family, but he can't seem to control his need for things to be a certain way.

Terrified, Beth searches for a doctor willing to see Sammy, finally landing in the New Hampshire office of psychiatrist Dr. Drill. His diagnosis? Obsessive compulsive disorder. The answer makes sense, but Beth's still troubled. With its sudden onset and no family history of OCD, she can't fathom how her son ended up with the condition. Still, she follows the doctor's advice. As Sammy's symptoms get worse and worse, Beth knows there's more to it than OCD. Second diagnosis? Tourette's. Despite the usual medications used to treat the disease, Sammy's still no better. His obsessions keep him confined to the house, where the family has to walk on eggshells so as not to disturb his fragile psyche. Exhausted, depressed and terrified, Beth vows to help her son. No matter what it takes. When her research leads to a controversial study linking OCD to strep throat, she thinks she's finally found her answer. The only problem lies in convincing Sammy's doctors. With stubborn determination, she braces herself for war, battling doctors, researchers and anyone who stands in the way of her son and the cure she knows is out there. Long after others would have given up, she fights. She won't stop until she has her Sammy back. And she doesn't.

Saving Sammy is an incredible, absorbing story that is as troubling as it is inspiring. My heart ached for the boy whose compulsions made his life a living hell; for his brothers, who dreaded being at home; and especially for Beth, whose agony is palpable. Her story is a rebuke of the doctors who stubbornly refused to look beyond their beloved studies, letting patients suffer before allowing themselves to move past their foregone conclusions. It's a call-to-action, urging parents everywhere to stand up for their sick children. Mostly, it's a testimony to the strength and perserverance of a mother who refused to back down. And to the boy she brought back from the very brink of insanity. It's a story you're not going to believe, and one you won't soon forget.

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: I received Saving Sammy from TLC Book Tours. The fact that I received the book free of charge has nothing to do with the way I graded it - I gave it an A because that's exactly what it deserves.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Charming The Book of Story Beginnings Awakens Readers' and Writers' Deepest Fantasies

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Every would-be writer knows about story beginnings - those ideas that sit in our computers, middleless, endless, going nowhere. Somehow, although we know just how to start the tale, we're not quite sure where to go from there. And so, a potential story sits and sits, perhaps wholly forgotten, perhaps lingering somewhere in the back of its creator's mind. But, imagine if there was a place - a magical place somewhere between reality and fantasy - where these story fragments got a chance at life, where your abandoned characters decided their own fates. How would their stories end? How would yours?

The Book of Story Beginnings by Kristin Kladstrup starts with the mysterious disappearance of 14-year-old Oscar Martin, who vanishes in the summer of 1914. Although his sister Lavonne insists she saw her brother exit the house, climb into a rowboat, and paddle out to sea, it's obvious that grief is making her hysterical. After all, the Martins' big white house sits smack in the middle of Iowa farm country. No ocean for miles and miles. It's much more likely that the lad, tired of farm chores, has run off to seek his fortune in some more exciting locale. Whatever happened, Oscar's never heard from again. Despite Lavonne's never-ending search for her brother, his fate remains an unsolved mystery.

Nearly a century later, Lucy Martin is fascinated by the old story about her great-uncle's midnight boat ride. Especially since she and her parents will soon be living in the very house from which Oscar disappeared. Lucy's not thrilled about trading her apartment in the city for a farmhouse in the country, but her family needs a change, especially since her father's just been denied tenure at the city college where he teaches. Her mother's constantly worried about money - inheriting a house will go a long way toward easing the family's financial burdens. Luckily, The Brick, which has been in the Martin Family for years, turns out to be a more interesting home than Lucy ever imagined. While her mother's locked in her office working, and her father's in the attic trying to turn lead into gold, Lucy's left to explore. She discovers a pile of her great-uncle's writings. Among his things is an old leather-bound volume called The Book of Story Beginnings. In it, more than one writer has scribbled his ideas. When she comes across this passage, she gasps in recognition:

Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a farmhouse high on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Below the hill lay endless fields of corn and more corn, divided by long, dull roads that went on forever before they came to anywhere that was somewhere. The boy liked to imagine that his house was surrounded by the sea and that he could sail forth from his home to find adventure. Such thoughts seemed no more than a dream to him. Then one night, as he sat alone in his room, he had a feeling that something strange had happened outside. When he went to look, he saw that his dream had come true. His house on the hill was surrounded by a great black sea. And in the moonlight, he saw a little boat waiting for him on shore" (58-59).

Not fully understanding what she's found, Lucy decides to start her own story, never imagining that an innocent sentence like "Once upon a time, there was a girl whose father was a magician" (63) could turn out to be so dangerous. Soon, Lucy's in the middle of her own tale, her long-gone uncle by her side, on a perilous journey to find her father. It's a madcap adventure through time and space, a voyage full of magic, mischief and menace. Can Lucy and Oscar navigate their way through the strange world of their fictionalized hopes and dreams well enough to rescue Lucy's father? Can they orchestrate a happy ending for themselves or are they at the mercy of a fairy tale gone awry?

I have one word for The Book of Story Beginnings: Charming. It's a book lover's book, all about the power stories have over us. It's the kind of tale that awakens the deepest fantasies of readers and writers, teasing us with the possibility of traveling inside our favorite fictional worlds, even those that we, ourselves, have created. It's imaginative, enchanting and fun. A timeless adventure story for dreamers of all ages, The Book of Story Beginnings is not to be missed.

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for fantasy adventure/peril

To the FTC, with love: Another freebie - What can I say? I heart my library.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Hidden: It's Not For Me, But It Might Be For You (With a Giveaway)

(Image from TLC Book Tours)

Don't you hate it when you're sure you're going to love a book, but you just can't seem to get into it? That's how I felt about Tobias Hill's new novel, The Hidden. The premise sounds interesting: Ben Mercer, an Oxford student running from a doomed marriage, joins up with a ragtag group of archaeologists searching for the secrets of ancient Sparta. The back cover's blurb hints that "there is more to the group's dangerous games and dynamic than he [Ben] understands. And there are things that should always remain hidden." Intriguing, no? Unfortunately, the book moves so slowly that I never got to the mysteries promised by the blurb. I gave the book 50 pages (which I feel is generous considering how many books I've got waiting for me), then abandoned it. My ambivalence has nothing to do with the writing itself. In fact, I quite enjoyed the excerpts from Ben's "transcripts" that are interspersed throughout the story. I just couldn't make myself care about the characters or plot, and I didn't see them growing on me either. So, that's that. Except I feel a little guilty. I always do when I can't finish a book I promised to review.

Because I don't want the book to get short-changed just because it's not for me, I'm going to offer it up to one of you. This is an almost-new trade paperback that came to me courtesy of TLC Book Tours. All you have to do to make it yours is answer this question (and win the drawing, of course): What books have you been sure you were going to like, only to find out you, well, didn't? Or vice versa: What books have you been certain you were going to loathe only to find yourself really liking? I'll draw the name of one winner on November 16 (my son's birthday). Contest is open internationally. Good luck!

Here's the rest of the blurb from the back of the book:

In nothern Greece in 2004, a close-knit group of archaeologists searches for the buried traces of a formidable ancient power. A student running from a failed marriage and family, Ben Mercer is a latecomer to their ranks, drawn to the charisma of the group's members - to the double-edged friendship of Jason, the unsettling beauty of Natsuko and Eleschen, and the menace of Max and Eberhard. Bun Ben is far too eager to join the excavation project, and there is more to the group's dangerous games and dynamic than he understands. And there are things that should always remain hidden.

A novel of astonishing grace and power from award-winning author Tobias Hill, The Hidden brilliantly explores the secrets we keep, the ties that bind us, and the true cost of fulfilling our desires.

It really does sound good, doesn't it?
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