Sunday, May 30, 2010

Birthmarked Awakens My Inner Annie Wilkes (Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


Of the 68 books I've read so far this year, guess how many had me frantically turning pages until the wee, wee hours of the morning? One. Guess how many kept my heart pumping, my pulse racing and my breath trapped in my lungs for paragraph after paragraph after paragraph? One. Guess how many made me want to go all Misery on an author and demand a sequel at gunpoint? Okay, more than one. All I know is this: as I turned the last page of Caragh M. O'Brien's Birthmarked, I wanted to scream. I just couldn't decide whether to yell "Yes!" because my beloved heroine was finally safe (albeit temporarily) or "No!" because the book was over. Of course, I didn't scream anything since it was 1 in the morning, but I really, really wanted to. Birthmarked is that intense.

The story takes place 300 years after the world as we know it has been fried by severe heat. On the shores of what used to be Lake Superior, people eke out a life as best they can. Outside the wall, they live like pioneers, using candles for light, building open fires for cooking, and collecting rainwater for bathing and drinking. It's a hard, dirty existence, but the people make do. Occasionally, the laborers receive precious Travaltar passes. The tickets allow them into a theater to view movies about the people inside the wall. Although it's just up the hill, the Enclave is as foreign as the moon - its residents grow fat from abundant food; glide through carpeted hallways; bathe in water that comes from a faucet; and dress themselves in clean clothing. Naturally, the gleaming city is protected by armed guards. Outsiders are not allowed in and insiders don't care to leave.

Gaia Stone's scarred face guarantees that the closest she'll ever get to the glittering inside is the north entrance guard tower. She's a freak, but one useful to the Enclave. Like her mother, she's a midwife. Like her mother, she's required to hand over the first three babies she delivers every month to the Protectorat. Ripping newborns from their mothers' arms isn't easy - even if it's a woman's duty, even if they're bound by law, even knowing the children will want for nothing as they mature inside the Enclave, even then, it isn't easy. But Gaia knows her job, knows she'll be rewarded for her loyalty.

Everything changes one night when the Protectorat's soldiers come for Gaia's parents. Jasper and Bonnie Stone are hardly radicals - she's a hardworking midwife, he's a simple tailor. Gaia can't imagine either one angering anybody at all. Then, the unsettling Capt. Grey comes to interrogate her. His queries startle her into questioning everything she's ever known about her family, herself and her devotion to the Enclave. One thing is clear: Her parents have information, something valuable enough to scare the Protectorat. And they aren't talking. If Gaia doesn't uncover their secrets soon, it will be the noose for all of them.

Gaia knows she should flee into the wasteland, save herself, but she can't leave her parents to rot in prison. She has to get inside the Enclave. Doing so means breaking every law in the book, but she has no choice. It doesn't take long for Gaia to become the most hunted fugitive in the land. With guards on her tail and outraged citizens searching for her everywhere, Gaia must unscramble her parents' ciphers to uncover the truth the Protectorat's so desperate to find. Only armed with this knowledge can she save her family, herself, and every mother who ever lost a child to the Enclave. Now Gaia, whose imperfections have earned her a lifetime of mockery, could be the one to save them all.

See what I mean? From its very first sentence, Birthmarked gallops along at a furious pace. It's gripping, it's horrifying, it's completely absorbing. And the plot's not even what makes the story most memorable. The characters demand attention with their subtle complexity, their world comes alive in acute detail, and the ethics of their situation makes for a completely riveting story. This is an absolutely stunning debut from an author I'm now stalking. Just call me Annie Wilkes - Caragh M. O'Brien, I'm your biggest fan. Feel free to run.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of The Line by Teri Hall and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence, intensity and some sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, May 28, 2010

Starting the Summer Off Right (With a Winner)

So, yesterday was my older kids' last day of school. My preschooler's been out for a week. I think classes had been out for a whole hour before I heard the first "I'm bored." At that second, I realized: this is going to be a verrrrryyyy long summer.

At least I got to sleep in this morning, right? Um, no. My husband's getting over pneumonia, so he was coughing up a storm last night. After tossing and turning for an hour, I decided to let him hack it up in peace. I had just settled in on the game room couch (that's how it seemed, anyway) when I heard a loud banging noise. The clock said 6:15 a.m. The banging was actually frantic knocking coming from the front door. Since my 8-year-old had threatened to run away last night after not getting the DVD she wanted at Blockbuster (no, she's not dramatic AT ALL), you can imagine the kind of thoughts that were running through my head as I dashed down the stairs. Thankfully, it was just my little drama queen. She locked herself out when she went to get the newspaper. Why she decided to fetch the paper at 6 in the morning, I couldn't fathom. As I made my sleepy way back upstairs, I cursed the idiot who created summer vacation. Seriously, was it created just to make my life miserable?

A couple hours later, I made my way back downstairs. My 11-year-old was busily sweeping the kitchen floor, my 18-month-old was chattering adorably, and there on the kitchen table sat a plate of cookies with a handmade card from my 8-year-old telling me sorry for her behavior at Blockbuster last night. Next to the cookies lay the newspaper. It made me all sniffy to think that my little girl had locked herself out of the house while trying - in her sweet and innocent way - to apologize. I don't know if I made the stinkers feel super guilty for acting out at the movie store or if they're just good kids. Either way, I win. Maybe this won't be such a bad summer after all ...

And what better way to start off the summer than to announce the winner of Princess for Hire by Lindsey Leavitt? It's ... drumroll, please ...

Congratulations! If you'll get me your mailing address, I'll send the book to you ASAP.
Have a great Memorial Day, everybody!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

After Ever After: Jeffrey Alper Survived Cancer, But Can He Make It Out of 8th Grade Alive?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Have you ever fallen in love with a book only to discover that there's one little thing about it you can't stand? That's how I feel about Jordan Sonnenblick's new novel, After Ever After. I was smitten with the book after about, oh, two sentences. The story really does have it all - an original premise, lively characters, an unexpected romance, underdogs overcoming their challenges, etc. All the good stuff. I loved it. Except for the ending. I hate spoilers, so I'm not going to go into details, but let's just say, the book did not finish up the way I wanted it to. Dang it.

Meet Eighth Grader Jeffrey Alper, also known as: The Boy Who Had Cancer, Official Town Cause, and Captain Spedling. Even though he's no longer the poster boy for leukemia, Jeffrey's still feeling the effects of his disease - cancer drugs have left him with a limp and a chemical-soaked brain that makes him a little spacey. At least he's not the only one who's "special." Tad Ibsen, Jeffrey's best friend, fought his own battle against cancer. Now, it's the Cancer Twins against the world. Or the school. Or just the 8th Grade. Actually, Tad's the one with the big mouth - all Jeffrey wants to do is graduate from junior high.

Jeffrey's not looking forward to another year of struggling with classes, trying to keep Tad from alienating the entire student body, and dealing with parents who never seem to know quite what to do with him. It would be easier if his big brother was around to talk to, but no, Steven's off in Africa banging on drums and "finding himself." Things start to look up - way up - when Jeffrey meets Lindsey Abraham. Not only is the new girl gorgeous, but she's the only one in the school who doesn't know every detail of Jeffrey's sordid, cancerous past. And - miracle of miracles - Lindsey seems to like him. Like, like him like him. Maybe the year won't be so bad after all.

Then, comes the big news: Every Eighth Grader is required to pass an intense standardized test in order to progress to high school. Even with the extra test-taking time alloted to "developmentally delayed" kids like Jeffrey, there's no way he can pass an exam like this. But, what's the alternative? Letting high school bullies mess with snarky, wheelchair-bound Tad? Watching older guys flirt with Lindsey? It's a hopeless cause, but Jeffrey has to try.

Suddenly, making it out of 8th Grade alive is more difficult than beating leukemia, especially when Tad's acting weird, Lindsey might be breaking up with him, Steven's still not around, and the whole school seems to be in on some big secret that no one's telling Jeffrey. Life was tough enough when he was warring with leukemia, but 8th Grade is becoming downright impossible.

I know you're thinking, "You said this story was original. What's so fresh about cancer?" Nothing, right? It's the oldest tear-jerking device in the book. Except when it's explored in new ways. I don't know about you, but I've never encountered a book about teenage boys grappling with the after effects of their disease. And I've certainly never seen it done without bitterness and sentimentality. Until now. Sonnenblick uses a light, funny touch to make his scenes subtly poignant. One thing shines through, the one thing that matters most: heart. A whole lotta heart.

The ending is an issue, though. Everything else about the book is so different, so original, that the finale disappointed me with its predictability. If I hadn't been reading the book in public, I probably would have yelled, "Don't do it! Don't you dare!" Alas, I didn't, and he did. And the book's "grade" dropped from an A to a B. What can I say, Sonnenblick? School's rough. Just ask Jeffrey Alper.

(Readalikes: I can't think of any. Can you?)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and light sexual innuendo; Since the main characters are in 8th Grade, I consider this a middle grade novel. However, it's probably most appropriate for kids 12 and over.

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Singin' the Blues

You know how some people get all depressed when the weather's cold and drizzly? I'm kind of the opposite. Not that I'm depressed, exactly - constant sunshine just kind of zaps me. Not only does it herald swimsuit season (horror of horrors), but it means the end of the school year, plus blistering hot days to come. *Sigh* Even though my kids are very patient with my reading habit obsession, I'm not sure how many of these ding dang ARCs I'm going to be able to plow through this summer. I have a serious inability to say no. How can I, really, when there are all these free books to be had? And don't even get me started on BEA. Let's just say I'm insanely jealous of all who get to go. Worst of all, my favorite show came to an end this week. I know, right? These crises in my life are enough to put me into serious therapy. Hee hee.

Okay, to combat the blues, I offer solutions:

- There's not much I can do about the weather, unfortunately. However, I do have a big, nice pool in my backyard which means that not only do my kids and I have a place to swim every day, but we can do so in privacy. No public displays of me in a bathing suit. You're welcome.

- The ARCs: I shouldn't whine about this. Reviewing books is one of the funnest things I've ever done, and people are so generous about sending me books. It does get overwhelming, though. If book blogging's getting you down, check out Book Blogging Blues. Just the name makes me laugh. It's actually a really helpful resource, though. Check it out.

- BEA. I'm totally going next year. Seriously. I'm saving my pennies. In the meantime, have you heard about Armchair BEA? It sounds like lots of fun.

- Now we come to LOST. The. Best. TV. Show. Ever. Many moons ago, my husband and I watched the pilot episode. We were entranced. Somehow, though, we didn't remember to watch the next installment. By the time we next thought about the show, we were so LOST that we decided not to watch that season. Eventually, we caught up on the first two seasons. We watched the DVDs one right after the other, often staying up way, way too late because we couldn't stop ourselves from viewing "just one more episode." We've watched LOST projected on the wall of our bedroom, on the beach in Jamaica, in the airplane (not the best idea, BTW) and from a condo balcony in San Diego. The thought that I'll never watch a new episode again makes me decidedly sniff-y.

If you've never seen LOST, you're completely out of the loop, not to mention certifiably insane no worries. My friend, Brodi Ashton, has composed a series of limericks to explain it all.

To me, the finale was no big surprise. I'm proud to say that the hubs and I had it all figured out several seasons ago. I did like what Matthew Fox said on Jimmy Kimmel Live about the finale being open to interpretation based on people's different beliefs, religions and philosophies. After all, if the show gave clear-cut answers to anything, it wouldn't be LOST. I also enjoyed all the montages - there were a lot of plot lines I'd forgotten about over the years, and plenty of characters I missed (Charlie, especially). Ah, memories.

Mourning LOST has made me think about the t.v. shows I've loved over the years. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Favorite TV Shows of All Time, divided into shows I loved as a child and those I've adored as an adult. Here goes:

Childhood 5:

Little House on the Prairie
Inspector Gadget (cartoon)
Perry Mason (Seriously, I used to watch this ALL THE TIME)
The Cosby Show
Wonder Woman (I remember praying fervently that bad guys would come crashing through our front door so I could turn into W.W. and save us all.)

Adult 5:

ER (stop laughing!)
CSI (Las Vegas)
Freaks & Geeks (WHY this one got cancelled before it even really had a chance to get off the ground is beyond me.)
M*A*S*H
Scrubs/Everybody Loves Raymond (technically, this isn't 6 choices - it's a tie)

What are your Top 5s? There are plenty that I've liked over the years, but the above are the ones that sprang to mind when I thought of favorites. I'd love to hear yours ...

- One more thing, people: If you haven't signed up for my Princess for Hire giveaway, please do. I'm offering one shiny, new hardcover of the book. It's a sweet, fun, clean read that will appeal to girls of all ages. If you have a tween girl in your life, sign up now! All the details are here.

Alright, I'm done with my whining. I need to get off the computer and make sure my kids get out the door for one of their last days of school. At least I'll be able to sleep in past 6 on Friday. Nothing to complain about there!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

My Fair Godmother A Fun Read Full of Simple Wisdom

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"'Did you think wishes were like kittens, that all they were going to do was purr and cuddle with you? ... Those type of wishes have no power. The only wishes that will ever change you are the kind that may, at any moment, eat you whole. But in the end, they are the only wishes that matter.'"

- Chrysanthemum "Chrissy" Everstar, Fair Godmother (Page 243)

A fairy godmother is one thing; a fair (as in not excellent, not great, not even good - just fair) godmother is quite another. Ask Savannah Delano. She's stuck with Chrissy Everstar, a ditzy, shopping-obessed fairy who didn't exactly make the honor roll in Fairy Godmother School. Nevertheless, she's standing in Savannah's bedroom ready and willing to grant three wishes. And Savannah's got wishes. Boy, does she ever. She doesn't need beauty - she has that - or friends - she's got those, too. She doesn't even really need to wish for male attention - she could probably find a prom date on her own - but ever since Hunter Delmont dumped her (for her older, smarter sister, no less), her self-confidence has taken a major nosedive. Arriving at Prom on the arm of a prince would change that. If she made Hunter jealous in the process - well, she wouldn't complain.

When her basic Cinderella wish goes horribly wrong, Savannah realizes that fairy tales might not be all they're cracked up to be. Castles, knights and royal balls are nice, but so are electricty, daily showers, and cell phones. Cleaning chimneys, cooking for dwarves, dining on hard bread, dodging angry goats - well, where's the magic in that? After her Cinderella and Snow White adventures, Savannah's ready to wash her hands of the whole godmother mess once and for all. There's just one problem: thanks to another blunder from Chrissy, Tristan Hawkins is now stuck in medieval times. And it's all Savannah's fault. She has no choice, she has to help him get home.

A little magic and poof! she's back in the smelly, rat-infested Middle Ages. This time, she's not after a prince - her one wish is for Tristan to return home safe and sound. The only thing standing in her way is the mysterious Black Knight. And a fire-breathing dragon. And an evil queen who's trying to kill her with a poison apple. And an ogre. Well, at least she brought shampoo.

Each misadventure teaches Savannah something new about her own talents, strengths and weaknesses. Chrissy's screwed up royally, make no mistake, but the closer Savannah gets to the kind-hearted Tristan, the more she wonders about her fair godmother - Could the airheaded fairy be wiser than anyone ever suspected? Does Savannah really have all the magic she needs inside herself or is that another one of Chrissy's tricks? There's only one way to find out. Unfortunately, it involves a dragon. A big, scary dragon. All she's got is a bottle of Pantene and a godmother who couldn't perform a spell to save her own life, let alone Savannah's. What's a 21st Century high schooler (with very shiny hair) to do?

My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison is one of those sweet, light-hearted stories that's just fun to read. It's got a little big of everything - comedy, adventure, romance, mystery - thrown against a delightfully twisted fairy tale background. Despite being both pretty and popular, Savannah is a surprisingly sympathetic character. She's spirited, likeable and brave. Rallison keeps the moralizing light, imparting simple wisdom through dingy Chrissy Everstar. While nothing about the book really knocked my socks off, I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful romp through fairy tale land. It also taught me a valuable lesson: Be careful what you wish for and always pack shampoo.

(Readalikes: reminded me of Princess for Hire by Lindsey Leavitt and a little of Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG simply because it's a teen romance most suitable for readers 10 and older (although my 8-year-old loves it)

To the FTC, with love: I bought this book with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Hee hee.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Unforgettable Escape-From-Polygamy Story Is Not To Be Missed


(Image from Barnes & Noble)

With her braids and ankle-length dresses, Kyra Leigh Carlson looks like she just wandered off the set of Little House on the Prairie. And it's not just her clothes that are different - the 13-year-old has never flipped through an issue of Seventeen, never roamed the mall, never experimented with makeup, never texted a friend. She's not like other teenagers. She's one of The Chosen.
Along with other members of the sect, Kyra lives in an isolated compound surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Although cut off from the world, she's not entirely unhappy. She excels at piano, dotes on her younger sisters, and treasures every moment she spends with her kind, handsome boyfriend. She's surrounded by a large, loving family, which consists of her gentle father, his three wives and their 21 children (with two more on the way). As one of the older kids, Kyra's expected to help cook, clean, tend the garden, watch her younger siblings, and care for her pregnant mother. It's constant work. It's also hands-on training for the fast-approaching day when she will marry and run her own household.
Kyra doesn't dare complain. Not out loud, anyway. Criticism of The Prophet is never allowed. Whatever he says, goes, no questions asked. Everyone knows what happens to those who disobey - the God Squad makes them disappear. So, Kyra keeps her sins to herself. No one knows about her whispered mutterings against The Prophet, no one witnesses her clandestine trips to the mobile library, and only Joshua knows about their stolen kisses. Until Kyra dares to defy The Prophet. Maybe God really does speak to their unyielding leader, but Kyra doesn't care - she's not going to marry her 60-year-old uncle.
Her refusal sparks fury among The Chosen's leaders, but they've dealt with rebellious girls before. There are ways to make them submit. The Prophet speaks for God - and God's commandments will be fulfilled. No matter what. If it requires beating the fire out of young girls until they stumble obediently to their marriage beds, then so be it. If it means forcing teenage boys out of the community to get rid of any competition, it will be done. Even if it means making some people vanish, it's worth it to keep The Chosen compliant.
Even as her mothers cut out the pattern for a wedding dress, Kyra plots her escape. But, how can a 13-year-old evade a force as powerful as the God Squad? Can she survive the many dangers of the surrounding desert? Does she really want to shame her family by running? How can she possibly fit in among the crude, flesh-bearing heathens of the real world, anyway? Is she safer inside her cloistered community? God cursed her with a fierce spirit - will she let it guide her to freedom? Or will she allow the weight of oppression to stomp it right out of her?
Carol Lynch Williams' Whitney Award-winning novel, The Chosen One, tells an escape-from-polygamy story that's both familiar and unique. There's the oppression, the tyranny, and the exploitation we've come to recognize through recent news coverage. However, by giving Kyra a family that cares for her, Williams allows that not all unorthodox situations are as horrifying as they might seem at first glance. She proves that fanatics are not always lunatics - sometimes, they're normal people who have been so browbeaten that they trade blind obedience for independent thought. Still, Williams maintains that no one, least of all a child, should be robbed of their own free will and choice. Even if mandated by "God."
Most of all, The Chosen One is the chilling tale of one girl's fight to live her own life. This "ripped-from-the-headlines" story brings the plights of exploited children everywhere forcefully home. Kyra speaks for them all in a tale that's so compelling it captured my attention from the first sentence, keeping me riveted right up until its last. I read it in one sitting. It was only when I closed the book - then, and only then - that I finally remembered to breathe. Powerful, heartbreaking and absolutely unforgettable, The Chosen One is not to be missed.
(Readalikes: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff)
Grade: A
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence, tense/suspenseful scenes
To the FTC, with love: I bought this book from Amazon with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What's All the Fuss About Ender's Game? Updated

Update: Well, you all have convinced me - I'm going to finish Ender's Game. Just not right now. Thanks for all the comments. Keep them coming - I love to hear your thoughts!

Seriously. I want to know. Why does everyone love this book so much? And I do mean everyone. Have you ever dropped the name Orson Scott Card in a conversation? I guarantee, someone will gush, "Oh, I love him. You've read Ender's Game, right?" I've whispered, "Um, no" as shamefully as if I was confessing to torturing small animals.

So, a couple years ago, I decided I should finally read the book. It's such a cult classic that I decided to buy the thing rather than borrow it from the library. Even the cashier at Border's was enthusiastic - "You haven't read this yet? Oh, you're going to love it!" Her enthusiasm wasn't enough, apparently. I seem to have returned from the mall and promptly shelved Ender's Game somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of my game room, never to be seen again.

While I was in Utah last month, I spent the night with my friend and her family. Theirs is my favorite kind of house - one filled with books, and not just for display purposes either. Naturally, bookish conversations abound in such a fertile environment. Knowing sci fi was a favorite genre of the household, I should have been wary of outing myself as a Card ignoramus, but no, I quickly found myself on the receiving end of an incredulous, "You haven't read Ender's Game?" from my friend's younger brother. When he insisted, "It's the next book you read. No, not after that one" - with a contemptuous glance at my current pick - "The. Next. One," I agreed. It was time.

Because I hate to let anyone down, I'm really, really trying to get through Ender's Game. I'm on Page 95, even though I've been tempted to put it down several times. Now, I admit, I never ever in a million years rarely read pure science fiction (In fact, just typing the word "science" makes me want to fly upstairs and hide under my bed). Maybe that's the problem. Or maybe it's because Card can't show a story to save his life, he has to tell, tell, tell. His "style" makes me crazy. The premise of the book is interesting - the government is making kids into uber soldiers to combat a fierce alien threat - but the characters are flat (Ender's an arrogant little brat - that's about as far as his personality goes), the dialogue is stale (to say the least) and the writing is just, just ... I don't know ... irritating.

For those of you who have read and loved Ender's Game, give me a reason to keep going. Why do you love this book? Do I need to be a male sci fi geek to really appreciate Card's genius? Help me out here!

Incidentally, I'm also reading Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. It, also, has received an extraordinary amount of positive buzz. I'm not forcing myself through it the way I am with Ender's Game, but I'm still wondering, "Exactly when am I going to be blown away?"

Maybe it's just the end-of-the-school-year blues that are making me snipey. I don't know. What do you think?

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Like The Most Brilliant Tornados, The Stormchasers Starts Slowly, But Quickly Gathers Speed ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It takes a special kind of person to track violent storms. A chaser has to be endlessly curious, flexible, fearless, passionate and yes, a little crazy. Charles Hallingdahl fits the bill perfectly. He's a chaser extraordinaire - brilliant, brave and more than a little unhinged. Chuck recognizes the wild, electric sizzle of an oncoming tornado, feels the storm gathering as keenly as he does his own shifting moods. No medication, no therapy, no nothing makes him feel as alive as standing in an open field tasting the charged air, eyeing the dramatic sky, and quivering in the wake of a storm's majestic power.
The same beautiful chaos that inspires Chuck's frenzied obsession strikes fear into the heart of his twin sister. Shrieking tornado sirens always open the floodgates to memories Karena Jorge wants desperately to forget. Specters from that dark, crazy night will haunt her forever. Even so, all it takes is a call from a mental hospital to get her rushing into the heart of Tornado Alley. Karena hasn't seen her brother in 20 years, but she knows all too well what he's like when he's off his meds. She has to find him before he endangers himself or someone else. Without a cell phone number or home address, there's only one way Karena can find Charles - she has to follow the storms. If there's a tornado brewing on any horizon, he'll be there.
Using her position as an investigative reporter for the Minneapolis Ledger, Karena joins a professional stormchasing team for a two-week tour. As she gathers details for her "story," Karena finds herself growing more and more fascinated with storms, her fellow chasers and their intrepid guides. Well, one in particular. Kind, funny Kevin Wiebke seems as smitten with Karena as she is with him. There's only one problem - he insists on complete honesty before he'll even consider letting a relationship go beyond the flirting stage. As much as Karena wants to spill her guts, she can't risk losing the only man who's managed to warm her frozen heart in a very, very long time. Maybe he'll understand her real reason for stormchasing, but if he ever discovers what she and Charles did on that crazy night 20 years ago, he'll never forgive her. Torn between protecting her brother and trusting a friend who's quickly becoming a whole lot more, Karena has to choose what to reveal and what to keep secret.
All the while, storms are stirring. The closer she gets to their cores, the closer Karena comes to finding her brother. How far will she go to protect her twin? Can she keep shielding him the way she always has or has he finally gone too far? And what will happen when the secrets of the past creep into the present?
Although vastly different in tone and style, Jenna Blum's second novel asks the same questions as her first. Both Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers inquire: How far would you go to protect the person you love the most? How much of your own happiness would you sacrifice to salvage another's? Through sympathetic characters, affecting description and an apt understanding of the human psyche, Blum examines the very complicated answers to these most important of questions.
The Stormchasers starts slowly, but just like an oncoming tornado, it quickly takes shape - gathering speed, building mystery, and spewing danger - until it finally releases its fury in a beautiful, terrifying, heart-pounding conclusion. Like the most brilliant of storms, this one is not to be missed.
The Stormchasers will be available on May 27, 2010. It can be pre-ordered now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other booksellers.
Grade: B+
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language and sexual content
To the FTC, with love: I received The Stormchasers from the generous folks at Dutton. Thanks!

Author Chat: An Interview with Jenna Blum


I'm thrilled to have author Jenna Blum hanging out with me today on Bloggin' 'bout Books. Jenna's the author of two novels - Those Who Save Us (read my review here) and The Stormchasers (which will be out on the 27th of this month. You can read my review of it here.


Welcome, Jenna!

Me: Tell me a little about your path to becoming a published author. I know you've wanted to write since you were a child, but how did you actually make it happen?

JB: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I can remember. My dad was a writer, a broadcast newswriter for the networks, and my earliest memories have a soundtrack of his typewriter (remember those?). So from the time I could scribble, I was writing stories. I wrote my first novel, about my crush on my Social Studies teacher, when I was 11. (I shopped it around and got encouraging remarks but, much to my annoyance, no publishing contract.) I won the Seventeen Magazine national fiction contest when I was 16, and I published a lot of short fiction in college, all of which combined to give me the idea that the world owed me a living in writing fiction. What happened was, I graduated, worked in food service for about a decade, wrote and marketed more short stories, had some published, received many many rejections, and kept pollinating the world with work. My mantra, a Winston Churchill quotation I had on my wall, was—and is—“Never give in, never give in, never give in.” THOSE WHO SAVE US, my debut novel, was published the traditional way: I wrote it, published some excerpts from it as short stories, revised the whole to the best of my ability, sent it out, got an amazing agent, the agent sold it. This was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I am very, very lucky and grateful.

Me: Your first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US, is about the experiences of the German people during WWII. What inspired you to write about this time period, especially from the perspective of non-Jewish Germans?

JB: You can find the long answer on my website, http://www.jennablum.com/, but the short answer is that while I was researching THOSE WHO SAVE US, I went to Germany with my mom, who has German relatives on her side of the family. Neither of us speak German, nor did we have a plan; basically, we tooled around the country visiting sites and asking each other, “How could the Holocaust have happened here, in this beautiful place? How could people—from the country that gave the world so many great composers, musicians, writers, artists and thinkers—have aided, abetted, stood by, let this happen?” One day we were driving from Buchenwald, which we had just visited, to neighboring Weimar, and I was struck by the fact that from the camp, you could see the city—so from the city, the citizens must have been able to see the camp. What did the Germans tell their children when ash fell from the sky in May? I asked my mom, “If you had lived here during the war, what would you have done?” Because I’m half-Jewish, I would have been sent to the camps with my Jewish dad, but my mom would have been considered a full-blooded Aryan. She said thoughtfully, “I don’t know. I hope I would have been brave enough to help my Jewish neighbors, but if the Nazis caught you they would kill you, and if I had you kids to care for….I just don’t know.” That’s when the character of Anna came to me, on the road from Buchenwald to Weimar: an ordinary German woman caught in the crucible of circumstance and forced to make terrible decisions.

Me: What kind of research was involved in the creation of the book? What did you learn from the Holocaust survivors you interviewed that surprised or touched you most?

JB: To write THOSE WHO SAVE US I not only went to Germany three more times with my mom, I engaged in what one reader kindly called “method research” and others might call “insanity.” I read everything I could about the time period, but I also tried to immerse in my characters’ lives as much as possible. I listened to German music. I took German classes. I baked everything that appears in the novel, which was no small undertaking considering half the novel is set in a bakery. For a while, I even dressed like Anna, my heroine, when I was writing—wearing a dirndl skirt, my hair in braids. (But only inside the house. Except on Halloween.) Of course, I was privileged to be able to interview survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, and although I didn’t consider that research per se—it was an honor unto itself—this blessed experience did inform the novel. I did NOT use any survivors’ stories in the book, because I believe those are hallowed ground. But what astonished me over and over was how generous the survivors were. Here was this stranger coming to their homes to ask them to excavate their worst memories, many of which they had not talked about in fifty years—even to their children, even to their spouses, even if those spouses were also survivors. And what did they do? Fed me. “Eat,” they would always say to me, settling me at their kitchen tables. “Eat.”

Me: How have readers responded to THOSE WHO SAVE US, especially those who lived through the events described or lost loved ones in the war/concentration camps?

JB: My readers have been incredibly generous in their reactions to THOSE WHO SAVE US. I have had several interesting dialogues with readers about the graphic sex in the novel, which to me is intrinsic to the story of Anna’s realistic wartime treatment at the hands of her captor, the Obersturmfuhrer, and her subsequent shame—which so strongly affects her daughter as well as herself. Readers often write to me about this aspect of the book with varying degrees of discomfort, but I am grateful to say these emails have become conversations about writing choices and what happens to women in wartime. Otherwise, I have been humbled by how many readers have written to me to say THOSE WHO SAVE US has touched their lives by explaining to them why, maybe, their parents didn’t talk about what they endured during the war. I think the book has become sort of a lightning rod for the second generation struggling with their parents’ experiences, and I feel very grateful that it has brought some readers solace by providing an exploration of how people act when they’ve survived trauma.

Me: Your second novel, THE STORMCHASERS, is vastly different from your first. Did you purposely plan to publish such diverse books? How did both stories come about?


JB: Actually, THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS share very similar thematic ground—which speaks to your next question as well. THOSE WHO SAVE US is obviously a historical novel, and THE STORMCHASERS is contemporary. But both novels are set partially in “New Heidelburg,” the fictional Minnesota town based in part on the southern Minnesota town where my mom and grandmother were born. So readers who read THOSE WHO SAVE US will be able to revisit that landscape in THE STORMCHASERS. Both novels pose a moral question: what would you do, how far would you go, to save somebody you love? THOSE WHO SAVE US tests a mother’s love for her daughter; THE STORMCHASERS asks this question of a twin trying to care for her mentally unstable brother. Both novels are about people whose lives have been swiftly devastated by enormous forces beyond their control: the Nazi regime, mental instability. And with both novels, I aimed to give readers a good story, well told.

Me: Will fans of THOSE WHO SAVE US find anything familiar about THE STORMCHASERS? What similarities are there between your two books? What differences?

JB: Since I’ve discussed the similarities already, I will say that one difference between the two novels is stylistic. For instance, although I didn’t use quotation marks in THOSE WHO SAVE US because I wanted the novel to have an austere, almost sepia atmosphere of memory, there ARE quotation marks in THE STORMCHASERS. This should please a lot of readers who weren’t so happy about their omission in the first novel! Also, with THOSE WHO SAVE US, I aspired to give the writing a formal cadence, almost as if the language had been translated from German. With THE STORMCHASERS, my goal was to be able to capture the storms in the novel—atmospheric, mental, and emotional—in as simple and descriptive a manner as possible, so their enormous power would speak to readers for itself.

Me: I know you did extensive research for THE STORMCHASERS. Tell me what got you interested in the subject in the first place, and then what your research involved.

JB: I’ve been fascinated with severe weather since I was four years old, when I saw a tornado at night in my grandmother’s southern Minnesota hometown. While everyone else was asleep, I hid under the living room couch and watched a black rope twister move slowly across the picture window, left to right. This experience—which I transposed into THE STORMCHASERS—was terrifying, but to a little girl so obsessed with the Wizard of Oz she would answer only to “Dorothy,” it was also terribly exciting. I spent much of my adult life trying to see another tornado, chasing as an amateur when I lived in Minnesota in my 20s, often with my poor mom in tow. The results were predictably disastrous, like we’d end up cowering in a barn with a severe storm coming on and all the animals running like heck in the other direction. Finally it occurred to me that it would be much safer and more effective to chase storms with people who knew what they were doing, so when I started researching THE STORMCHASERS in earnest, I signed on to follow the professional storm tour group Tempest Tours, the model for Whirlwind Tours in the novel, as their media correspondent. I’ve been tailing Tempest for five years now and am about to take readers on a storm tour this June—check out http://www.tempesttours.com/ if you’ve ever wanted to stormchase! We will keep you safe while we take you on the big weather safari—and I’ll tell you how my experiences translated into the book. There’s also a photo and video gallery and audio about my close calls—I had a few really hair-raising ones—on my website, http://www.jennablum.com/.


But the real heart of THE STORMCHASERS is bipolar disorder—the novel is about twins, a brother and sister, and the brother, Charles, is bipolar whereas his sister Karena isn’t. Like many of my readers, I have beloved people in my life who are bipolar, and for years I’ve watched them struggle with the unspeakable conundrum the disorder presents: either take medication to comply with polite society and run the risk of not feeling like yourself, or don’t take medication and feel like yourself but risk alienating family and friends. While researching bipolar disorder, I was struck by how often it is likened to storms—mania is literally caused by a storm of electrical energy in the brain. The brother in the novel, Charles, believes he is a sort of human storm, that his rapid-cycling moods enable him to understand severe weather better than anyone else, and I wanted to explore how he and his twin grapple with the disorder in this context—through describing Charles’s storms in the mind’s eye and their consequences.


Me: How would you describe the *crazy* people who are obsessed with chasing storms? What did you learn about them that surprised you?

JB: That actually, they’re not crazy! From what we see in movies and on TV, we have the idea that all stormchasers want to do is hurl themselves into the heart of a tornado, screaming the entire time. That’s not true. There are a few “yahoos,” as chasers call them, who want to do very dangerous things so they can post the footage on YouTube and get famous. But really, what we fear is what they’ll get is dead. The chasers I know are a super-responsible bunch of scientists, meteorologists with master’s degrees and PhDs. They drive the speed limit. They’re veteran chasers of 10 years or more. They’re cabinet salesmen, supermarket managers, graphic designers with a summer hobby about which they are extremely passionate. Most chasers chase because they love the extraordinary majesty of big weather—simple as that. They love the awesome experience of being in the great lonesome Back Of Beyond, watching a cloud grow from a cumulus puff to a sculpted supercell. How does this happen? Why does one storm put down a tornado and another not? Chasers want to know this, and we also provide a public service by calling dangerous storms in to emergency management—on my Facebook page, there’s a video of my doing this during a recent chase on May 12th! Finally, it comes down to what my stormchasing friend Leisa said once: “I’m not a religious person, but chasing makes me think I could be; it’s like communion, to be one with something so much bigger than yourself.”

Me: You've taken readers to Nazi Germany and to Tornado Alley - where are we going next? What are you working on now?

JB: I’m sorry to say that’s a secret for now :) I do have another book in mind, and even when I’m not actively writing, I’m thinking about it—which to me is actually a big part of writing! But if I talk about the story now, it will dissipate. As the witch in The Wizard of Oz says, “These things must be done delicately, or you break the spell.”

Me: Finally, I ask this of all the writers I interview because I'm so fascinated by the variety of answers I receive: What is your writing routine? Do you write at the same time every day or do you wait until inspiration strikes? Do you outline or just let your ideas flow? Where do you write? What do you have to have (food, music, lucky charm, etc.) in order to write? How do you handle writer's block? Of the 24 hours in a day, how many do you spend writing?

JB: Oh, gosh. Well, I’m a crop-rotation writer; my writer’s life occurs in seasons. There’s the season of rest, when I don’t write much of anything except journaling and correspondence, and this is typically when I am miserable to live with because I always feel I should be writing. But in my wiser moments I remember this fallow-feeling period is actually very productive and necessary, because it overlaps with the information-gathering season: I’m traveling to research, I’m forming and discarding and considering ideas. Then there is writing season, when I’m actively working on a project; I go into lockdown, immerse totally, write and talk about and think writing 24/7. For instance, while I was writing THE STORMCHASERS, I moved to a motel in the small town the book is set in, lived there for two months with my black Lab Woodrow, so I could write without distraction until the novel was done.


In order to write, I need strong coffee, Ultra-Fine black Sharpies, canvas-covered notebooks from Borders to write longhand in, and my MacBook Air to actually write the scenes. I also need Woodrow for ruminating walks.


Because I can’t imagine setting out on a journey without a map, I always, always outline, although the outlines always change; for THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS, I had at least 11 outlines apiece! Finally, when all the writing and revising is done, it’s promotion season, as it is now. This is the delightful time when I get to go out on the road to bookstores, book clubs and events to meet the readers who have been so wonderful and supportive to me and my books. I very, very much hope everyone will come out and let me introduce them to THE STORMCHASERS, and I hope you will love my second baby as much as I do.

Me: Thanks so much, Jenna!


JB: Thank you!


(Author photo from Jenna Blum's Official Website)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Those Who Save Us Still Haunts My Soul

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
"'Who among us is not stained by the past?'" (page 371)
When Anna Schlemmer gets the cold shoulder from the church ladies of New Heidelburg, Minnesota, she's not surprised. Hurt, yes, but hardly shocked. After all, she can tell by the looks on the faces of the farmer's wives exactly what they think of her: She's a Nazi, a Jew-hater, an enemy. Anna doesn't correct them. Let the Americans think what they may - whatever crimes she's committed in their lurid imaginations can never compare to what really happened. Not that Anna will ever spill her secrets. She left her past behind in Germany, and that's exactly where it will stay.
Fifty-two years later, history professor Trudy Swenson takes on a daunting research project - she aims to record the experiences of regular German citizens during the war. Did they know what was happening to their Jewish neighbors then? How do they feel about it now? Although Trudy takes on the assignment reluctantly, she hopes it will give her an excuse to learn the one story she really wants to know - her own. She was born in Weimar, Germany, in 1940, then immigrated to the U.S. in 1945. Thanks to her mother's tight-lipped refusal to discuss the war, the bare facts are all Trudy has. And the flashbacks, the frightening images that dart through her mind, leaving her wide awake and trembling. What do they mean? Only one person can explain them: her mother, Anna Schlemmer.
In alternating sections, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, tells the story of these remarkable women. Anna's tale begins in October 1939, when she's a young woman coming of age in Weimar. Germany's just invaded Poland, but Anna's got a more pressing dilemma - how to keep her distant, demanding father happy. One wrong move can send him into a cold rage, something she's learned to avoid at all costs. So, she hides her romance with a Jewish Doktor, disguises the result of their union, and never, ever speaks of what she's hidden away in a secret room. Every day, the streets of Weimar grow more dangerous. Every day, Anna's panic grows. When everything dissolves, the young mother is forced to do the unthinkable to save herself and her daughter from S.S. retribution. Survival trumps all in a world gone mad. She sees the glares of her neighbors, hears the gossip of her "friends," but she knows her shameful secret is the only thing keeping her alive.
When Anna and Trudy arrive in America after the war, Anna forbids her daughter from speaking of the past. Anna did what she had to do. Period. But when Trudy discovers the horrifying truth, she balks. How could her quiet, unassuming mother have done what she did? Was it really only about survival? Or is there some darker reason hidden beneath her mother's placid surface? Can Trudy break Anna's 50-year silence to figure out what really happened back in Weimar? Or will the horrors of the past paralyze the women forever?
Blum's first novel dissects the complexities of the human heart with an honesty that's grim and gut-wrenching. Through vivid characters, lyrical prose and exacting detail, the author brings to life every horror of war, examining each atrocity with eyes both sympathetic and damning. It's a moving portrait of ordinary people making impossible decisions in the most desperate of times. Mesmerizing, heartbreaking and truly unforgettable, Those Who Save Us continues to haunt my soul. It's not an easy read, but it's an absolutely stunning one.
Grade: A-
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence and sexual content
To the FTC, with love: I purchased Those Who Save Us from Border's, using some of the millions I make as a book blogger. Hee hee.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Few Things On A Friday

Whew! Where has this week gone? For that matter, where has this month gone and this year? Everything's whizzing by in one big blur. My kids have less than 2 weeks of school left, then it's onto a long, hot summer. Heaven help me.

Anyway, it's Friday. I wanted to mention a few things:

- Don't forget to sign up to win a copy of Lindsey Leavitt's debut, Princess for Hire. It's a cute, clean middle grade read that will make you smile. The contest closes on the 27th. Click here for more information.

- I've spent the last couple of days having a Jenna Blum read-a-thon. Several people recommended her debut book, Those Who Save Us, to me. It's a heartbreaking, but thoroughly compelling historical about a young German woman's experience during WWII. I highly recommend the read. I'll be reviewing it soon. Blum's second novel, The Stormchasers, comes out on the 27th. It's vastly different from Those Who Save Us. It's also completely engrossing. You can pre-order it now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Watch for a review of that one coming soon, as well as an interview with Jenna Blum.


- Have you heard about the Blog Blogger Hop, a weekly event sponsored by Jennifer at Crazy-for-Books? It's a fun way to find new book blogs and drive traffic to your own blog at the same time. Even though I have hundreds of book blogs on my feeder, I discover new ones every week at the Hop. Check it out.

Jennifer wanted us to mention blogs we've found through the Hop. Here is a very small sampling of my discoveries:


- Because I haven't done a meme in a while, I thought I'd do this one about reading habits that's been floating around. I've seen the meme all over the place, but this particular version came from Kristin at Always With A Book. Here goes:

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack: The short answer is yes. I shouldn't eat while I read, but I do. Consequently, many of my books have food smudges in them. Gross, I know.

What is your favorite drink while reading?: My favorite thing to drink - period - is ice water. I'm rarely found without a glass of water beside me, that includes when I'm reading. A funny: When I was in college, I carried bottled water with me everywhere. One day, I forgot my beloved bottle. A friend passed me while I was studying with my stuff spread out all over a table. "Oh!" he remarked. "I almost didn't recognize you without your water bottle." Ha ha.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?: *shudders* Absolutely. Not. The only books I've ever marked in were textbooks. If I find a passage I love, I copy it down on a piece of paper like a civilized person.
How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?: I use bookmarks or the flaps of a book to mark my place. If I'm desperate, I'll lay it flat. I know - another bad habit I need to break. Dog ears? *Shudder* I'd die before abusing a book in such a manner.
Fiction, non-fiction, or both?: Both, although I prefer fiction.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?: I definitely have to read to the end of the chapter, or at least to the end of a section. Never in the middle of the action.
Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?: Although I've been mighty tempted to lob books at the wall, I'd never actually do it.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?: Nope, never. If I can't decipher the meaning from the context, I skip it.

What are you currently reading?: The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum. It's really good :)
What is the last book you bought?: Actually, my MIL bought a cookbook for me for Mother's Day that I already own. So, yesterday, I went to Deseret Book and exchanged it for Being Sixteen by Ally Condie. Since I always go crazy in bookstores, I also picked up Imprints by Rachel Ann Nunes and From God's Arms to My Arms to Yours, an adoption keepsake book by Michael McLean.

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?: I can only concentrate on one at a time.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?: Nope. I'll read any time, any place. Usually, you can find me reading in a recliner in my family room with my feet up and a glass of water by my side.
Do you prefer series books or stand alones?: I love series' because they let me get to know characters I love more intimately, but I adore stand alones, too.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?: Sure. Classics like Anne of Green Gables, Gone With the Wind, Jane Eyre, etc. Also, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Peace Like A River by Leif Enger, the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs, anything by Maeve Binchy, I could go on and on ...

How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.): Organize my books? Yeah, that would be a good idea. I shelve like with like - adult fiction, adult non-fiction, YA fiction, YA non-fiction, etc.

I'd love to hear your answers to the meme. Let me know if you decide to do the meme on your blog.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tired of Helpless Heroines? Then, Mistwood's the Book For You.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Is anyone else growing tired of the helpless "heroines" who seem to populate every paranormal romance? You know, those beautiful, clueless girls who get themselves into all kinds of scrapes just so they can be rescued by some hunky half-man/half-some-kind-of-mystical creature? Do you ever wish for female leads who contribute more to the story than just a pretty face? Well, you're in luck. Mistwood, a debut novel by Leah Cypress, stars a woman who's tough, smart, and, oh yeah, did I mention she's the king's bodyguard? See, I told you you were going to like this one ...

Isabel knows she's a shape shifter, a creature who lives only to serve the king she's sworn to protect. Human weaknesses, petty emotions, silly courting games - none of these things penetrate the heart of the Shifter. She's focused, determined, and so attuned to her master that she recognizes a threat almost before it materializes. At least that's how it's supposed to work.

As soon as Prince Rokan rides into the mystical woods, Isabel knows her duty - she must guard his life with every fiber of her being. Still, something about the would-be king troubles her. Confused images flash into her battered memory, but she can make no sense of them. Something happened long ago to make her wary, to tamp down her powers, to cripple her confidence. What was it? None of it matters as much as protecting Rokan, except that she's having trouble even doing that. As much as Isabel longs to change herself into a wolf, an eagle, or a sly cat - bodies she remembers inhabiting - she can't. Fear she shouldn't feel haunts her every move. As fuzzy as her memory is, she knows she's failed before. She can't let Rokan down, can't let another king die because of her.

Piecing together clues about herself leads Isabel to some startling discovers about who she is, what she is and why she is. What it doesn't tell her is how to deal with everything she's suddenly feeling - fear, jealousy, envy, love. The Shifter has no right to experience anything that will distract her from duty, or does she?

If you haven't guessed already, I loved everything about Mistwood. It's a fast-paced story filled with adventure, mystery, and plenty of courtly intrigue. Isabel's character captured me - she's tough without being hard, vulnerable without being weak, and cool without being arrogant. The minor characters could have used some fleshing out, as I didn't care about any of them nearly as much as I did Isabel.

Now, I know you're thinking, "This chick never loves everything about a book," and you're right. If pressed, I'd have to admit that Mistwood gets a little predictable. Not enough to be bothersome, but enough that the big reveals aren't that big. Still, Mistwood provides the kind of fun, exciting - and clean - adventure that I'm always thrilled to find in a YA novel. It's not perfect, but it will do. Very, very nicely.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of The Bayern series by Shannon Hale; the back of the book compares it to Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books)

Grade: B+

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

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Princess for Hire A Fun, Fresh, Cliche-Busting Debut

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's pretty much a given that any book bearing a bright pink cover littered with frou-frou is going to be a little girly. Even if it is an anti-princess book like Lindsey Leavitt's Princess for Hire. I mean, seriously, no guy's going to come within 10 feet of this thing. Young girls, however, they're going to be lining up just for a peek. And well they should - this debut novel is fun, original, and delightfully cliche-bending.

Our heroine is Desi Bascomb, a teenager from Nowhere (okay, Sproutville) Idaho, who dreams of a life filled with the kind of glamour only found in old movies starring people like Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman. Instead, she's stuck at the mall hounding out coupons in a groundhog suit. Even out of the ridiculous costume, she's scorned - her father helped convict a popular girl's dad, leading to the rapid death of Desi's social life. All Desi wants to do is sink into a bathtub full of bubbles and forget her troubles.

Luxuriating in the tub doesn't turn out to be quite as relaxing as Desi had hoped. Before she even has time to lather up, a strange lady pops out of a giant bubble. To Desi's utter amazement, the woman invites her to join an agency that provides doubles for princesses around the world. Playing royalty beats impersonating a groundhog any day. Desi takes the job, ecstatic to finally let a little dazzle into her humdrum life.

It doesn't take long for Desi to realize that the princess dress-up gig isn't quite as enchanting as it sounds. In fact, the job is turning into a royal pain. As she's whisked from assignment to assignment, Desi has to face problems that are a lot more complicated than choosing which tiara to wear to the ball: There's a conniving older sister to deal with, a wandering prince to win over, and an angry mob of cannibalistic tribal members to outrun. And she has to do it all under the critical eye of her sourpuss agent. Living in spudville hasn't exactly endowed Desi with courtly manners, but it's given her a much more powerful kind of magic - the ability to think for herself. Quick decision-making and swift action are the two things that are going to save Desi's hide. Or get her sent straight back to Idaho.

Princess for Hire tells the familiar story of a young girl who longs for more than her pedestrian existence. I expected Desi to follow the cliche by hopping into a fairy tale world, discovering that palace life is not all it's cracked up to be, and springing back to her own land content to be the mere commoner she's always been. Nope. Leavitt busts the cliche wide open, allowing for a very broad definition of the term "princess." Her story takes us to surprising venues, forcing Desi to grapple with problems we never see coming, providing a nice, fresh take on the whole tired princess theme.

At times, I feel like Leavitt tries a little to hard to be funny, but otherwise, this is a charming book that will appeal to girls of all ages. Guys? Not so much.

(Readalikes: This isn't the kind of book I typically read, so nothing's coming to mind. Any ideas?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG - While I consider this a clean book, it's more appropriate for older middle-graders (say, 10+) only because it uses some terms I wouldn't want to have to explain to a younger child (love triangle, panty lines, etc.).

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!

Author Chat: An Interview with Lindsey Leavitt (With a Giveaway!)

Today, I'm pleased to introduce Lindsey Leavitt, author of Princess for Hire. Welcome to Bloggin' 'bout Books, Lindsey!



Me: You've said that you were a bit of a tomboy growing up, so what prompted you to write a princess book? It's an anti-princess book, but still ...


LL: Ha! I don’t really know why I’m the chick writing the princess books. Ideas just kind of come and you go with them. I fought it a bit, actually, because I didn’t think I could do it justice! Someone else with the same idea would have written a totally different story, but I do think my tomboy ways add a unique perspective.


Me: Since you were THAT girl in high school (the one who was popular and involved), how do you tap into the kind of insecurity/angst felt by kids like Desi, who are picked on and not part of the in crowd?


LL: Oh wow, maybe I should revise my website bio. Involved at my high school did not equal popularity. It just meant I really wanted to get into college and so spent more time padding my resume than my bra. So I still had plenty of insecurities, ESPECIALLY in junior high. I felt like everyone was watching me and that I never measured up in comparison. That was really easy to go back to because emotions at that age felt so BIG. And the more I talk to people about their adolescence, the more I find these feelings of alienation and invisibility are sadly universal.


Me: Why did you include the Old Hollywood themes in PRINCESS FOR HIRE? I'm in my 30s and I barely recognize the names Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, Ingrid Bergman, etc. Do you think modern kids will be able to connect with this old-time glamour?


LL: I didn’t want to date the story—if I would have included celebrities hot right now, they might not be hot next year. Old Hollywood has a timeless quality that more closely resembles the elegance we associate with royalty. AND I wanted Desi to be a little quirky, to have interests that don’t match her peers. Modern kids don’t have to know who Ingrid Berman is to appreciate that. (and to learn more, I’ll be featuring a different Old Hollywood screen siren every month on http://www.princessforhire.com/)


Me: How did you come by your love of Old Hollywood? What are your favorite classic movies?


LL: I used to watch them with my dad. I remember one time REAR WINDOW was on and he pointed to Grace Kelly and said, “You know, she left acting and became a real princess.” How cool is that? I was hooked.My favorite movie when I was younger was SABRINA with Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. Does the love triangle thing like no one’s business.


Me: Since we're talking favorites, who are the authors you like to read? Which writers have inspired/influenced you most?


LL: I seriously read all over the map. I’ve been reading lots of tenners books lately (debut authors in 2010) because I’ve made friendships with lots of these authors and am interested in their work. Some I’ve read recently from that group that I really enjoyed are PROPHECY OF DAYS by Christy Raedeke and TORTILLA SUN by Jennifer Cervantes. Oh, and another that won’t be out until fall is THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff. Chilling and delicious.


I grew up a reader, and my favorite writers inspired me to give writing a go—Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen... we could be here awhile.


Me: You've got several projects in the works. Tell me about them (I know you like to be cryptic, but we want DETAILS).


LL: Well, I have to be cryptic about the second book in the PRINCESS FOR HIRE series because I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t read the first! Plus, I’m still tweaking it and thus don’t want to say there will be a zombie mermaid because zombie mermaid might not make final cut.


Another book I have coming out next March is called SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD and I’m so excited about it! It’s a little older than P4H and straight contemporary. Here’s a bit about it…After discovering her father’s big Multiple Sclerosis secret, Payton Gritas’s structured life crumbles. So begin her excruciating ‘chats’ with Ms Callahan, a school counselor aiming to save Payton from drowning in denial by encouraging her to write Focus Exercises on any random object. Payton chooses Sean Griswold, her alphabetical connection since kindergarten. More specifically, she chooses his somewhat over-sized head.As Payton’s research grows into something a little less scientific and a little more crush-like, it spawns more and more questions about Sean and his dome. Like what’s with the scar? And why is a fifteen year old training to be the next Lance Armstrong? Payton finds answers to these questions by getting inside Sean’s blond head, while Sean somehow finds a way into her guarded heart. But when Payton realizes her Sean obsession won’t ultimately mend her battered relationship with her dad, she must shift her focus to the one person who can find the way forward – herself.


Me: Okay, The Tiara Tour - how much fun did you have on your first book tour?


LL: You know, I was warned that tours aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And it’s true, it’s pretty nerve-wracking walking into a store and not knowing if anyone is going to come. Still, it was a blast—blogged about it here http://lindsey-leavitt.livejournal.com/124255.html. It’s been so wonderful to meet readers and potential readers and booksellers and teachers and librarians. Writers spend so much time behind the computer, it was lovely to step out and talk with real life PEOPLE for awhile (but just awhile. Gotta get back to those fictional characters, after all).


Me: How has your life changed - or not - since you've become a real, live, published author?


LL: The main thing that's changed is I have a career now (It still feels funny using that word. Like when I first signed with my agent, I dropped her name All The Time). A career gives me legitimacy to family, friends, and anyone else I have to tell to leave me alone so I can hole up and write. I’ve also had to take on some more authorly roles (interviews, fan mail, book signings, ect) but the writing is the same. I still need to hammer out the next story.As far as day to day living goes, everything is really the same except now there’s a book on a shelf (and okay, maybe I go visit said book about three times a day).


Me: Lastly, I ask this of all the authors I interview, because I'm always amazed by the variety of answers I get. How do you write? Is there a certain time of the day when you prefer to work? Do you write every day or just wait for the mood to strike? Do you outline or just let the ideas come as you're writing? Is there anything - chocolate, perhaps? - that you have to have by your side in order to write?


LL: My best writing usually happens late at night, but lately, with three little kids, I’m finding I’m just too tired to go with the muse most evenings. Now, I write WHENEVER I CAN. As I type this, my baby is sleeping and my other two (6 and 3) are playing Play-Dough at the table with me. I find I can do businessy stuff when they’re around, but save real writing for when I’m alone. When I have a deadline, I hire sitters or hubby helps out. There isn’t a set schedule, I just kind of get by and do what I can when I can. I prefer to let my ideas take me where they may, but with a series, that can really turn into chaos. So I’m starting to outline more than I have in the past and I keep charts so I can keep track of details for continuity purposes. Chocolate is always readily available in this home. Always. That and a laptop and I’m good to go.


Me: Thanks so much, Lindsey!

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Thanks to the generous folks at Disney, I have a beautiful, hardcover copy of Princess for Hire to give away. To enter, all you have to do is comment on this post, answering the following question: If you could be a princess (or prince) for one day, how would you spend those 24 hours? Post about the contest on your blog, Tweet (I'm @bbbforme) about it, Facebook, whatever - I'll give you one extra entry for each method of spreading the word. I will draw the name of one winner on May 27 (my last day of freedom before my kids are out of school for the summer!). Giveaway is open internationally.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tender, Beautifully-Illustrated Adoption Book Just Right For Birthmother's Day

(Image from Amazon)


Amidst all the cards, flowers, candy and hoopla surrounding Mother's Day, another holiday quietly slips by. You may not even be aware of the fact that today is Birthmother's Day. We, in the adoption community, celebrate these women who first loved and nurtured our children. The decision to place a child for adoption is never, never an easy one - the women who selflessly choose a better life for their offspring deserve a day of acknowledgment.

It's only appropriate, then, that I use today to talk about Once Upon A Time: An Adoption Story by Ashley Hansen Bigler. After Bigler adopted her daughter, she searched and searched for the perfect picture book to read to her at night. She wanted a story that mirrored her little girl's experience, explained how difficult it is for birthmothers to release their children into the arms of another, and reassured kids that adoption plans are orchestrated by a loving Heavenly Father who cares deeply about his children. No such book existed. So, Bigler decided to write one herself. The result is her first book - a tender, beautifully-illustrated picture book about the wonder of adoption.

Written in question-and-answer format, the book is a conversation between a little girl and her mother. As the child asks about the adoption process, her birthmother, and the day she was born, the mother describes all the pain, excitement, joy and sacrifice that are part of adopting a baby. Each situation is different, of course, and the story reflects a very basic adoption. Still, it shows the many sides of the experience - the physical ("Mommy wasn't able to make a baby in her tummy, and we were very sad."), the emotional ("She [the birthmother] loved her baby very much") and the spiritual ("We just knew you were in Heaven waiting for us," "We prayed every night asking God to help us find a way to bring you home," etc.). While it has a religious bent (Bigler is LDS), the story is appropriate for all children.

I particularly loved the illustrations. Amy Hintze uses live models to create soft, lifelike paintings. The emotions that go along with an adoption are clearly expressed on the faces of everyone in this book. My favorite illustration is actually on the last page of the book - once you see it, you'll know why :)

Amazingly, there aren't a lot of adoption storybooks on the market. Once Upon A Time helps fill the need not only for adoption books, but for stories that reflect the spiritual components of building a family. Even if you want to leave God out of the equation, this book shows how difficult, joyous and loving an adoption can be. It helps adopted children feel unique and special (in a good way). In fact, when my 8-year-old (biological) daughter read it, she sighed and said, "I wish I was adopted." Children ask me questions about my baby's adoption all the time - if I could, I'd give each one of them a copy of this book so that they could understand what it's all about, so they could comprehend the wonder, the miracle, the absolute blessing that is adoption.

(Readalikes: Letter of Love from China by Bonnie Cuzzolino and Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis)

Grade: B+

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

To the FTC, with love: Ashley Hansen Bigler generously provided me with a copy of her book. Thank you!

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To the woman who brought my amazing daughter into this world and to all of the others who bore children only to place them into the arms of another -- Happy Birthmother's Day!


If you are pregnant with a child you cannot raise, please consider adoption. You can find a wealth of information about adoption on the Internet - It's About Love.org is a particularly valuable resource. For more information about birthmothers, read my friend Tamra's very moving story here.

Author Chat: An Interview with Ashley Hansen Bigler

Hi Ashley! Welcome to Bloggin' 'bout Books.


Me: If it's not too personal, can you tell me a little about your path to adoption? What made you decide to adopt?


AHB: After years of infertility and the heartache that goes along with that, I came to a cross-roads of either spending lots of money to do IVF procedures without a promise of it working, or giving up on the idea of having a child naturally and moving my focus toward adoption. After much prayer, I decided that it didn’t matter how my children get here, only THAT they get here. So we stopped trying to get pregnant and set our minds on adoption. Once I made that decision, I finally had hope. I could actually see light at the end of the tunnel for the first time and I was happy.


Me: You said you wrote ONCE UPON A TIME because you couldn't find "the perfect book" about adoption to read to your daughter. What does your book say that other books didn't? When you were writing the book, what ideas/themes were you most passionate about getting across to your readers?


AHB: I was looking for a book that helped my daughter (and all adopted children) to see that their adoption journey was orchestrated by a caring Heavenly Father who loved them. I was most passionate about giving adopted children a feeling of being wanted and loved by everyone involved. Birthmothers are not usually mentioned in adoption stories. How could there even be an adoption story without a birthmother? It was important to me to have my daughter know how hard it was for her birthmother to make an adoption plan.


Me: This is a similar question, but what do you think adopted children need to know about themselves? What do you think the general public needs to know about adoption?


AHB: Adopted children need to know that their journey is a spiritual one and that even though they didn’t grow in their mommy’s tummy, they are as much their real child as if they had been. I’m glad that adoption is no longer taboo around the community. My children actually feel sad for their friends that aren’t adopted because they feel pretty special.


Me: How have readers - especially those within the adoption community - responded to your book?


AHB: It has actually been received better than I expected. My favorite quote was from a grandchild of a reader. She said, “Grandma, will you read me this book because every time Mom reads it to me, she cries.” I actually hear stuff like that a lot. Not that I want my readers to cry, but it does mean that it must have brought back all the wonderful memories of their adoption story and that’s what I was hoping for. The original title for my book was Happy Tears: An Adoption Story, but I later found out that there was another book by that name already in print.


Me: Tell me a little about the art in ONCE UPON A TIME. You said illustrator Amy Hintze allowed you to "photograph my vision for each page" - how did that work exactly?


AHB: As I wrote this book, I had a vision of what each page would look like. I cannot draw at all so the idea of doing the art myself was out of the question. I spent days going through books looking at illustrations to see the style that I wanted. As soon as I came across I Chose You, which was illustrated by Amy Hintze, I knew I had found the illustrator for my book. Her artwork was so real and so beautiful. It took a few days to track her down, but when I did and she said she would love to work with me on my book, I was ecstatic. Wait, that wasn’t your question. =) Amy likes to use photos as models for her paintings and since she lives close enough to me, we decided to work together to create the pictures. Because this is my daughter’s story, I wanted her to be the main character. So we spent several days setting the scene for each page. Her paintings are amazing. Although she has never adopted, she captured the emotion of each person as if she had been there to feel it. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.


Me: One of the most unique aspects of your book is its question-and-answer format. Why did you decide to write the story this way?


AHB: I didn’t actually set out to have it written that way. I knew what I wanted it to say and the message that I wanted to share. I just didn’t know the best way to do that (I’m not a writer by trade). After about three tries, I finally came up with this format. I was really happy with the dialog and the way it flowed. Plus, it is a conversation I have had with my daughter several times so it made it feel more real.


Me: Tell me about writing ONCE UPON A TIME. Did you outline the story or did the words just come to you? Did the story require a lot of revision? How did you decide which information to include and which to leave out?


AHB: I knew the basics of the story. That part was easy. The hard part was making it fun for children to read while still getting the message across. It was also hard staying in the word number/ page number guidelines of children’s picture books. I did have to revise it several times because it just didn’t “feel” right. 32 pages took me 4 years to write! That tells you how much a struggled with it. I wanted ALL of the information to be included and that was hard to do in only 32 pages. But once I started with the last draft, I knew it was right. It really just flowed at that point.


Me: You've said that you love children's literature. What are your favorite books to read to your children?


AHB: Wow, so many, but if I had to name my all-time favorites they would be: Goodnight Moon; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; There’s a Nightmare in my Closet; Ira Sleeps Over; Who’s Making That Smell?; Hop on Pop; If you see a Kitten; Where the Wild Things Are


Me: What are you working on right now?


AHB: Well, right now, my husband and I are about to adopt a 6-year-old boy from Taiwan. I hope to be traveling in the next few months to bring him home. I told myself while publishing Once Upon a Time: An Adoption Story that if it went well, I would write another book about an international adoption. I’ve been gathering information and taking notes about this journey that we’re on in the hopes of using it for my next book. We’ll just have to see what happens with the reception of this book first.


Me: If you could send one message about adoption out to the world, what would it be and why?


AHB: I’m sad when I hear people say that adopted children were “given away” or “given up” by their birthmothers. I have sat with a wonderful young girl on her last night with her new baby boy before placing that child into the arms of his adoptive mother. I have seen the pain that they feel in doing what they know is best for their child whom they love deeply. Their decision to place is a total sacrifice on their part. My message is that adoption is a loving choice and that the Lord helps build eternal families through loving birthmothers who are following the Spirit to do what is best for their unborn child.


Me: Thanks so much, Ashley!
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