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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

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

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

My Progress:

27 / 51 states. 53% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Monday, May 30, 2011

Newest Karen White Novel Not Quite Up to Snuff

(Image from Indiebound)

When her friend Monica Guidry dies unexpectedly, Julie Holt's surprised to find herself guardian of the two things Monica valued most - her 5-year-old son, Beau, and a beach house in Biloxi, Mississippi. Unsure what to do with either, Julie sets out for the Gulf Coast with the vague plan of settling into her new property while drumming up the courage to confront Monica's estranged family. She knows Monica had a compelling reason for leaving her family behind, but considering the circumstances, Julie figures the Guidrys deserve to know of her death. And of Beau. The little boy needs a home and family now more than ever.

Julie receives another shock when she nears Monica's beloved River Song. Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina five years before, all that remains of the beach house is bare boards and the porch columns that used to welcome the Guidrys to the shore every summer. Unmoored by the destruction of the place Monica loved so dearly, Julie flees to New Orleans, intent on getting advice - and answers - from the Guidrys. Not an easy task, especially when Monica's grandmother insists on revealing the family's story at her own, leisurely pace. With no home or job to return to in New York, Julie moves into the Guidry's house, allowing the family to get to know Beau while she works to restore River Song the way Monica would have wanted it done.The more time Julie spends with Monica's family - especially her attractive older brother - the closer she grows to them. It's the kind of closeness Julie craves since her own family started to disintegrate after the disappearance of Julie's younger sister 17 years ago. She's even beginning to feel at home in the Gulf Coast, despite all of Katrina's warnings against settling in such a dangerous clime. Most intriguing of all are the secrets Julie's uncovering, secrets that have her wondering if getting close to the Guidrys is really such a good idea after all.

If you've read other books by Karen White, you'll recognize her damaged-woman-finds-healing/redemption-in-revealing-long-buried-family-secrets formula. I'm usually more than down with that, but the familiar plot got a little tedious for me in White's newest, The Beach Trees. The novel kept my attention, even though it ran long, it was just the little things that bugged me - the characters never really came alive for me, some of the plot twists seemed illogical, and the book's Julie-can-survive-her-trials-because-Katrina-victims-didn't-give-up-in-the-face-of-theirs seemed a bit heavy-handed. I also puzzled over things like Julie's decision to up and move to Mississippi without even seeing the house she inherits and the way the Guidrys welcome a complete stranger into their home, not blinking an eye when she questions them about sensitive issues from their pasts. Then, there's Julie's complete devotion to Monica, a character who might as well be a paper doll for all we know about her. So, yeah, I had some issues. All in all, though, I enjoyed the read, just not as much as I wanted to.

(Readalikes: The Lost Hours by Karen White; The Memory of Water by Karen White; Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagen)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs) and a small amount of sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Beach Trees from the lovely ladies over at TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Friday, May 27, 2011

School's Out and I'm Hopping for ... Joy, Yeah, That's It

Even though I already posted today, I wanted to get in on this week's Blog Hop. I always love hopping around the book blogosphere checking in on blogs I love and discovering new ones. It makes me happy, especially since I'm currently mourning the ending of the school year. Not that I don't adore my kiddos. I just foresee a very long summer full of arguing and "I'm bored"s. Since I need a little cheering up (and because I really, really want to get to 500 Followers), I'm going to start hopping. Join me, won't you?

This week's question is: Which book-to-movie adaptation have you liked? Which have you disliked?

- The movies that first come to mind are the Harry Potter ones. I thought the casting was incredible - the actors brought the characters to life just as I'd pictured them in my head. And with the sets, the adaptation and everything else, well, magical is all I can say.

As far as movie adaptations I didn't like, the two that stand out are Twilight and Stardust. If you've seen the former, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's so bad, it's funny. Stardust just didn't do the book justice. Loved the book, detested the film.

What about you? Which have you liked? Which didn't work for you? I'd love to know.

Thanks for stopping by BBB. Please leave me a comment and a link to your blog so I can hop by and visit you. Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Allende's Newest Sumptuous and Satisfying

(Image from Indiebound)

I don't know about you, but these days I fly through at least 2-3 books a week. Rarely do I spend a whole seven days on one book. Unless, of course, it's a super busy time of year (like, say, the last week of school), or I have a sick toddler, or, my kids have at least one activity every single night or all of these things occur at the same time I happen to be reading a book by Isabel Allende. If you've ever read the author, you know her sumptuous writing can't be skimmed or rushed. It must be experienced fully in order to truly be appreciated. So that's what I did. For a whole week, I just ... enjoyed. Not that Allende's newest makes for easy reading. Quite the opposite, in fact. Still, it's a rich, moving story that grabbed my attention and kept it for every one of its 457 pages.

Island Beneath the Sea concerns Toulouse Valmorain, a 20-year-old Frenchman who comes to the island of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) in 1770 to help his father run the family's sugarcane plantation. He doesn't plan to stay. Then, his father dies and Toulouse's fate is sealed. Saint-Lazare, the plantation his father has almost run into the ground, now belongs to him. Toulouse gets to work setting the place to rights, making himself wealthy in the process. As a white plantation owner, one of the grands blancs who run the wild, backward island, he has enough money, power and influence to do whatever he pleases.

When Toulouse decides to marry, he asks his favorite courtesan to find his new wife a maid. Violette Boisier suggests young Zarité, known as Tété. The slave girl's scrawny and nappy-headed, but Violette sees potential in her quiet, graceful ways. Soon, Tété's serving the demanding Eugenia Valmorain, a position that keeps her in the big house, away from the cane fields and the brutal overseer who runs them. As she grows into her beauty, Tété cannot escape her master's eye. Or his bed. She doesn't want to be Toulouse's concubine, doesn't want to bear his children, but she's trapped. Her only path to freedom lies in pleasing the insatiable Frenchman.

When a massive slave revolt led by the infamous Toussaint Louverture forces Toulouse Valmorain and the other grands blancs off the island, he sails to New Orleans. To protect her daughter and Valmorain's son, whom she's raised since infancy, Tété goes with him. In America, Tété hopes Toulouse will make good on his promise to free her. But in Lousiana where "abolitionism was considered worse than syphilis" (318), the path to liberation will be fraught with danger, sacrifice and heartache. Maybe more than Tété can bear.

In Island Beneath the Sea, Allende employs deftness and detail to paint an affecting portrait of slavery. Through Toulouse Valmorain, she brings to vivid life all the hatred, hypocrisy and hubris of the institution. With strong, stalwart Tété, she proves the tenacity of the human spirit. Mostly, though, the story is about freedom - what it costs, how it inspires, and what, in the end, it really means. Evocative and eye-opening, the novel requires an investment of time, but it's worth a week. And more.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of a little of Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language (no F-bombs), violence and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Island Beneath the Sea from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Didn't Hate It, I Just Didn't Like It Very Much ...

(Image from Indiebound)

Since I can't figure out exactly how to describe Savannah Grey by British author Cliff McNish, I'm going to use the summary on its jacket flap:

Savannah Grey needs to keep moving. She doesn't know why, but she can't let herself get tied down by too many people. It's almost like she's being chased by something. And now something strange is happening with her neck - with her throat.

Savannah Grey never thought she'd meet someone like Reece - a guy who seems to understand her. He even knows about her neck. The same thing is happening to him. It's as if their voices are becoming weapons, warming up for some kind of attack.

Savannah Grey has no idea what might be chasing her or why her voice suddenly feels like the most powerful weapon on the planet, but she's about to find out.

Nature is preparing for battle with the universe's ultimate monster. The time to fight is almost here.

The weapon is Savannah Grey.

My mom always advised me that if I couldn't say anything nice, I shouldn't say anything at all. So, maybe, I should follow that counsel and leave this book alone. Not because I hated it. I didn't. There were just too many things that got in the way of me enjoying it. Like what, you ask? Behold the handy dandy list below:

  • None of the characters displayed even an iota of personality. Flat, dull characters make for flat, dull stories.

  • McNish never described the throat weaponry well enough for me to form a picture in my head - Are they physical protrusions? Or just menacing sounds? I remain confused.
  • Savannah's home life wasn't consistent. She had a loving foster mother who let her hang out on all night on the streets of London because, as Nina explains, "Annette didn't understand what was going on with me, but she did grasp that whatever it was, I needed to go through it alone" (173). What the what?
  • The incredibly annoying overuse of adverbs (like 2-5 on every page). This is Writing 101, people - adverbs exist to support weak verbs. Instead of tacking an adverb onto every wimpy verb, find a strong verb instead.
  • Lots of other stuff.
  • The bottom line is I finished Savannah Grey, but almost everything about it made me crazy. Not everything. I liked the idea behind the story. I liked having the monster's perspective. And I kind of liked Reece's role in the book. Everything else? Pretty much drove me insane.

    'Nough said.

    (Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything. Can you?)

    Grade: D

    If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for scary images

    To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Savannah Grey from the generous folks at Carol Rhoda LAB. Thank you!

    Monday, May 23, 2011

    Armchair BEA: Because I'm Lazy Like That

    I wasn't going to do Armchair BEA, mostly because I'm just too lazy to post every day, but I feel like I'm missing out on all the meeting/greeting fun. I should be able to handle the first post at least. So, here goes:

    My name is Susan and I blog from the excessively sunny state of Arizona. Since I grew up in the excessively rainy state of Washington, I still feel a little blinded by all this sunshine. Maybe that's why I spend so much time sitting inside (where there's AC and ceiling fans) reading books. Or maybe it's because I just love to read - always have, always will.

    I'll read just about anything (unless it involves math, politics, or idiotic celebrities), but my favorite books are mysteries; nice, thick family sagas; and anything dystopian. For me, reviewing books is almost - almost - as fun as reading them.

    In my real life, I'm also a wife (of 14 years) and a stay-at-home mom (of 4 kids). When I've got a spare minute (and my nose isn't buried in a book), I also like to cross-stitch, listen to music, play word games (Scrabble, anyone?) and attempt to write fiction.

    Welcome to Bloggin' 'bout Books, which I've been writing for about 5 years (Really? Whew.). I review all kinds of books in an honest, tell-it-like-it-is fashion that some people find refreshing and others find, well, mean. Which is weird, since I'm totally not. Mean, that is. I love finding new book blogs, so please leave a comment with a link to yours and I promise to come visit.

    Happy Armchair BEA!

    Middle Grade Historical Ultimately Forgettable, But Fun Nonetheless

    (Image from Indiebound)

    As a member of the infamous Button clan, 12-year-old Tugs knows she's destined to live out the same kind of luckless existence experienced by all her relations. After all, Buttons don't win things, they don't accumulate wealth or titles, heck, they don't even dream of traveling beyond rural Iowa. What chance does Tugs have of being any different? Some, apparently. At least that's what she thinks when she wins two competitions in a row - a feat unheard of for a Button. With the scent of possibility in the air, Tugs reexamines everything around her, wondering for the first time who she really is. Is she "just a Button" like everyone says, or something more?

    Buttons aren't, as a general rule, solvers of mysteries. But when Tugs meets Harvey Moore, a dapper entrepreneur from Chicago, she knows there's more to him than he's sharing with the unsuspecting residents of Goodhue. His plan to bring a newspaper to the small town seems fishy. Especially since it involves Goodhue residents investing heavily in the project. Tugs can't prove anything - Buttons aren't detectives, for heaven's sake - but that doesn't stop her from trying to outwit the mysterious Mr. Moore. Armed with her new Brownie camera, she's determined to do a little investigative journalism of her own. It's not a very Button-like pursuit, but then, Tugs isn't an ordinary Button. Not anymore.

    By saving her town from a slick con artist, Tugs aims to prove she's more than a stereotype, more than just a hapless Button. But are her assumptions about Harvey Moore correct? Or will her investigation turn into the kind of flop for which her family is famous?

    The Luck of the Buttons, a middle grade novel by Anne Ylvisaker, brings the 1920s to life in a fun romp of a story. The period detail, plus the engaging main character, keep the book lively, despite a rather generic plotline. Tugs' voice isn't quite strong enough to make the story really stand out, but the book is a quick, entertaining read, even if it is ultimately forgettable.

    (Readalikes: Reminded me a little of The Danger Box by Blue Balliet)

    Grade: C

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

    To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of The Luck of the Buttons from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

    Saturday, May 21, 2011

    About Time For Some Hippity Hoppin'

    I haven't done this for a few weeks, so I thought it was about time for some hoppin'. You can join in the fun by heading over to Crazy for Books. It really is a good time and it's always exciting to find awesome new book blogs.

    This week, Jen asks: If you were given the chance to spend one day in a fictional world (from a book), which would it be?

    - Hm, this is a tough one. I've been reading a lot of dystopian lately and none of those worlds sound at all appealing. So, I guess I'd have to go with Harry Potter's world - not the cupboard under the stairs one, but the Hogwarts one. Even with He Who Shall Not Be Named on the loose, it would be a thrilling, magical place to be.

    How about you?

    Thanks for hoppin' by my blog. Have a look around, leave me a comment, and be sure to leave me a link to your blog so I can hop by and check you out!
    Friday, May 20, 2011

    Chilling Lost Girls Another Creepy Mystery from Jennifer McMahon

    (Image from Indiebound)

    If creepy books disturb you, may I suggest giving anything written by Jennifer McMahon a wide berth? And by wide, I mean don't even look at the covers (they're disquieting, anyway), don't read the plot descriptions on the jacket flaps, and definitely don't skim the first pages. If you do, you'll be stuck. Then, you'll hate yourself for reading something so ... creepy. I'm not talking creepy in the familiar vampire/zombie/demon/werewolf way either, I'm talking about the worst kind of creepy - the kind humans perpetrate every day.

    Consider yourself warned.

    Island of Lost Girls begins with recent college graduate Rhonda Farr, who stops at the local gas station to fill up before heading to Burlington, Vermont, for a job interview. She's got so much on her mind - the job she doesn't really want, but needs for her resume; Peter, the man she wants, but can't have; the constant-ness of life in small-town Pike's Crossing; Peter, Peter, Peter - that she doesn't realize she's witnessing the kidnapping of a small child until it's too late. When Rhonda describes the kidnapper to the police, they seem a little skeptical. A 6-foot tall white rabbit snatching little Ernestine Florucci? At the gas station? In plain sight? But Rhonda knows what she saw. She also knows, with terrifying certainty, that she's seen the rabbit costume before. Thirteen years before, to be exact, right before her childhood friend, Lizzy, disappeared. Never to be seen again.

    Rhonda's so shaken up by the whole experience that she can barely function. While she gives statements to the police and helps look for the missing girl (even though the child's mother accuses her of being involved in the crime), Rhonda searches for clues that will lead to Ernie's rescue. She refuses to believe what others in town are saying - that Peter is involved - but the more evidence she finds, the worse things are looking for her old friend. And if Peter's capable of hurting little Ernie Florucci, could he have done something to Lizzy all those years ago? Torn between her feelings for Peter and her desperate need to know the truth, Rhonda will solve the mystery of the lost girls, even if it means losing the man she loves forever.

    Books about missing children don't tend toward the warm and fuzzy. Island of Lost Girls is no exception. It's a chilling story about stolen innocence, hidden guilt, and belated redemption. McMahon writes with a deft hand, bringing small-town Vermont into sharp focus, making even repugnant characters interesting. The plot could use some originality, however, since few of its twists and turns surprised me. Not that a little predictability stopped me from flying through the novel. It didn't. In the end, though, it left me a little disappointed with the overall story. If I'm going to take a creepy ride, I want it to be worth it. Know what I mean? So, while Island of Lost Girls kept my attention, it didn't quite satisfy. Will that stop me from reading more McMahon? Probably not. Unfortunately.

    (Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Tomorrow River and Whistling in the Dark, both by Lesley Kagen)

    Grade: B-

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

    To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Island of Lost Girls from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011

    The Ninth Wife Leaves Me Awfully Ambivalent

    (Image from Indiebound)

    It's bad enough that Bess Gray's turning 35, but to make matters a whole lot worse, she's facing the milestone alone. No husband. No kids. She always figured she'd have both by now, plus a house in the suburbs to boot. That was how she planned to spend her thirties. Not that the last 35 years have been a complete bust - she's got a job she loves, several close, devoted friends and a karate class that's keeping her svelte. She just hasn't found Mr. Right. Yet.

    In an attempt to remedy the situation, Bess agrees to host a singles party at her Washington, D.C. apartment. She's not expecting much, certainly not a trip to the ER, but that's what she gets. In the melee, she also meets Rory McMillan, a 46-year-old Irish fiddler. With his irresistible accent, good looks, and laidback personality, Rory seems close to perfect. It's only when he pops the question that Bess learns a shocking truth about this ideal man: not only has he been married before, but he's been married eight times before. Reeling from Rory's revelation, Bess starts to reconsider everything she's been anxiously considering since the moment she met Rory. She would be insane to become someone's ninth wife, wouldn't she? Even if that someone is a sweet, handsome, gem of a man?

    Torn between her feelings for Rory and the obvious implication of his eight failed marriages, Bess embarks on a head-clearing road trip across the country. Only there's not a lot of quiet contemplation time with a van full of needy passengers. Along for the ride are Bess' best friend, Cricket, whose usual flamboyance seems to be flagging; Cricket's Shar-Pei, Stella; Bess' bickering grandparents; and a mannequin named Peace. While she sorts out their problems, Bess also tracks down as many of Rory's ex-wives as she can find. Rory knows nothing of her investigation into his sordid past and Bess is not planning to tell him until she has enough evidence to make up her mind about his proposal.

    Crossing the country with her quirky passengers will be an illuminating experience for Bess, who learns a great deal about love, life, and most of all, about herself.

    The Ninth Wife, the first adult book by YA author Amy Stolls, is a zany novel that delves into so many issues, I'm not sure how to even begin dissecting it. I'm also not sure how I felt about it. The story pulled me in, but went on for so long that I got a bit bored, even with all the curveballs the plot threw at me. It kept me guessing, that's for sure. Still, I never felt any real connection with the book and the ending didn't surprise me in the least. So, I don't know, I'm feeling awfully ambivalent about the whole thing. Didn't love it, didn't hate it, don't know whether or not to recommend it. How's that for helpful?

    (Readalikes: Hm, I can't really think of anything. Can you?)

    Grade: C

    If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, depictions of illegal drug use, and sexual content

    To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Ninth Wife from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written. Thank you!

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011

    Too Little Detail Makes for Shaky Dystopian Foundation

    (Image from Indiebound)
    "Even the human race can't claim to be natural anymore. We are fake, dying things" (119).
    After World War III demolishes most of the world, human life becomes more precious than ever. With females dying at age 20 and males living only five years longer, the race to repopulate the Earth with enough bodies to ensure the survival of the species is on. It's a desperate battle against time, against genetics, and, sometimes, against the wills of potential mothers. To ensure that healthy young women perform their child-bearing duties, roving bands of Gatherers kidnap desirable girls, force them into polygamous marriages, and "encourage" them to produce offspring. Those who resist, die.
    Sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery lives with her twin brother in a city once called Manhattan. The duo live on the mean streets, doing whatever they can, whatever they have to in order to survive. When Rhine wakes up one day in a dark van filled with whimpering teenage girls, she knows her luck has finally run out. She's been taken. As much as she wants to fight her captors tooth and nail, Rhine's got enough street smarts to know the best way to live through her kidnapping is to cooperate. Even if it means marrying a complete stranger. Even if it means sharing a husband with three other girls. Even if it means carrying a child. As long as she's alive, she'll look for a way to escape. One day, she'll taste freedom again.
    Considering how bleak the outside world can be, life in captivity isn't nearly as bad as Rhine believed it would be. She has a spacious room in her husband's mansion, plenty to eat, beautiful clothes to wear, and an attendant whose sole purpose is to do Rhine's bidding. To relax into such luxury would be easy. But deadly. Rhine can't let her guard down, no matter how bright her new world glitters. After all, she's still a prisoner. And something is very, very wrong in the mansion that looms around her.
    As much as I love dystopian novels, I found Wither by Lauren DeStefano disappointing. The premise behind the book holds some intriguing possibilities, but this first novel in the trilogy doesn't set up DeStefano's dystopia clearly enough to make it seem logical. She never explained things like how prevalent polygamy was in this world; if people were allowed to choose for themselves when and whom to marry and why girls needed to be kidnapped when, surely, there were some who would choose forced marriage to a wealthy man over starving to death on the streets. These unanswered questions irritated me almost - but not quite - as much as Rhine's growing complacency over her imprisonment. And then there's the big finale. Oh boy. It's so easy, so anticlimatic that I wanted to throw the book against the wall.

    Wither's yet another example of a highly buzzed about novel that just doesn't quite deliver. I expected and really, really wanted a whole lot more from it. I'm still invested enough in the story that I'll probably read the sequels, but I won't be posting any countdown widgets on my blog. For these, I can wait.
    (Readalikes: A little like Delirium by Lauren Oliver and a teensy bit like Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien)

    Grade: C

    If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), violence and mild sexual content
    To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find
    Monday, May 16, 2011

    Story Makin' 2011

    I've been meaning to post about the LDS Storymakers Conference ever since I got back, but I had reviews to catch up on, then I couldn't find my camera, and, suddenly, a whole week had flown past. All the clever things I planned to say seem to have flown away as well. A summary, then:

    Boot Camp: Since my favorite part of last year's conference was attending Boot Camp, I knew I wanted to participate again. This year, the event got a whole day to itself, which I liked, even though it turned into a very, very long day. Still, I enjoyed my group, which was led by Lisa Mangum, author of The Hourglass Door trilogy. Even though I didn't love The Hourglass Door, I really liked Lisa. She was fun, upbeat, down-to-Earth and right on in her advice to all of us wannabe writers.

    Although everyone in my group was writing YA, the mishmash of genres provided some interesting reading. My fellow groupies were very kind and complimentary about the chapter I shared. I got some good suggestions from them. I also came away from the experience feeling encouraged and excited to keep writing this story.

    (A funny: After seeing an IM chat between me and my friend Robin, in which we discussed Boot Camp, my 9-year-old daughter asked, "What's Booty Camp?" She didn't understand why I snickered or why my husband said, "Aha! So THAT's what you're really up to!")

    Classes: Since I attended the conference with Robin, who fully intends to be a published author within the next year or so, we took lots of classes on finding agents, writing query letters, self-editing, and managing all the millions we'll be making when our books finally see the light. I could have used a You've Finished Chapter One, Now What? class, but my loyalty (not to mention the fact that I have no sense of direction and would have gotten completely lost without my "cruise director") kept me close to my soon-to-be-a-bestselling-author friend. We both enjoyed the classes we took. My favorite, I think, was Lisa Mangum's on writing killer first pages.

    One of the query classes Robin and I took was taught by YA novelists James Dashner and J. Scott Savage. The former was pretty quiet, while the latter was ... not. As Savage explained, "We make a good team because James can write and I can teach." True, that. Needless to say, the class was very entertaining.

    Attendees were supposed to bring query letters to be workshopped by Team Dashner/Savage. I haven't written a second chapter to my novel, let alone a query letter, but Robin and I spent the week before the conference working on hers. When our teachers asked for someone to volunteer their query letter, Robin made sure hers was the first hand in the air. She's fearless like that. Considering how much we'd worked on her query, I figured the men wouldn't have much for us except their highest praise. Yeah, not so much. Really, though, they were kind and offered Robin some good advice.

    The picture below cracks me up since it shows my always intrepid friend looking a little intimidated while James Dashner reads her query letter out loud to the class.

    The videos: Not only does Sarah M. Eden write sweet, fun romance novels, but she also makes the funniest videos. Since she emceed the whole conference, we got to see several of her productions. This one - in which her daughter defines different book genres - is hysterical:

    The authors: Lots of fun authors were milling around the conference. I chatted with some I've met before, like Angela Morrison, Elana Johnson and Janette Rallison, but I also met a bunch of new ones, like Kimberley Griffiths Little, Becca Wilhite, Lani Woodland, Tyler Whitesides, Jaclyn M. Hawkes, and more. All of them were very friendly and fun to talk to.

    Me and Kimberley Griffiths Little, who won a Whitney Award for The Healing Spell, a book I adored.

    Me and the very sweet Lani Woodland, whose first book, Intrinsical, came out last August.

    Everybody else: Not only did I get to meet tons of new people, but I also got to see a whole bunch of people I previously only knew online. It was a pleasure, Chantele Sedgwick, Donna Weaver, Christy Dorrity, Karlene Browning, etc.

    To top it all off, I sat next to two fantastic ladies on the airplane ride home to Arizona. I had fun visiting with Valerie and Tamara, both of whom live near me. They were even gracious enough to invite me to join their writing critique group. Thanks, girls!

    The First Chapter contest: Let me make this clear right up front - I had no grand illusions of winning with the first chapter I turned in for the contest. However, I was really looking forward to getting some "professional" feedback on my writing. Imagine, then, my disappointment when I discovered that not only did my submission not win anything, but it had never even made it into the judges' hands. Apparently, I mistyped the email address to which my submission was supposed to go. Oops. Another duh moment.

    Moving on ...

    The Door Prizes: I didn't go home empty-handed, though. Like last year, I was lucky enough to snag an awesome door prize. This year, I took home Seeing Japan by Charles T. Whipple and Winning Mr. Wrong by Marie Higgins. Thanks to those authors for their generosity.

    A Summary of the Summary: All in all, I had a fabulous time at the conference. It's always a good time hanging out with other people who love books and writing. I love the boost I get from this event - it's refreshing to hear that my writing does not, in fact, suck as badly as I think it does.

    A Summary of the Summary of the Summary: If you haven't gone to the LDS Storymakers Conference, do. It's totally worth it. And note to self: Let's invest in some fat-sucking and face-lifting this year, shall we?

    Friday, May 13, 2011

    You're Bringing Me Down, Man

    (Image from Indiebound)

    When Sarah Price's novelist husband sells a book early critics are calling the best of his career, she's thrilled for him. Sarah's spent the last four years working so Nathan could write full-time, keeping the kids under control so they wouldn't kill his focus, and giving up her own dreams of publishing in order to make his come true. His success is her success. Even the title of the book - Infidelity - doesn't faze her. Until Nathan confesses that his soon-to-be bestseller is not entirely fictional.

    Nathan's revelation sends Sarah reeling. Even though he swears the affair was a one-time deal and that the other woman means nothing to him, Sarah's not sure how to react. His confession makes her doubt everything she knows to be true about her husband, her marriage, and herself. As she grapples with Nathan's trangression, Sarah tries to remember the woman she was before marriage, before motherhood, before real life began. Startled to realize how much she's changed, Sarah embarks on a trip into the past that could change everything about her future.

    It's difficult to summarize Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart because, truly, not a whole lot happens. Nathan confesses. Sarah reacts. And reacts. And reacts. And reacts. Then she decides - once and for all - whether or not she should stay with her husband. The rest of the story consists of Sarah's ruminations on life, love, marriage, maternity, idealism and identity. While some of these reflections are poignant, even poetic, none of them really endeared me to Sarah. In fact, I found her weak and whiny. It wasn't until Chapter Fifteen, which finds her struggling to deal with two needy children in a crowded McDonald's, that I finally felt some connection to her. That prolonged disconnect, coupled with the book's overall gloominess, made Husband and Wife a real downer for me. I took to calling it "the depressing book" because, despite Stewart's skilled prose, that's what this book was - completely depressing. The subject: depressing. The characters: depressing. Sarah's tedious thoughts: depressing. Frankly, I couldn't wait to finish the book and move on. 'nough said.

    (Readalikes: Um, I can't think of anything. Suggestions?)

    Grade: C

    If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, depictions of illegal drug use, and sexual content

    To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Husband and Wife from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011

    Mormon Mentions: Diana Spechler

    I haven't done a Mormon Mention in awhile, so let me quickly explain the concept: When a non-LDS author mentions Mormonism in a book, I highlight the comment here. Then, I explain my thoughts on it. Complex, I know. Really, it's just a fun way to look at how we Mormons are perceived out in the world. It also allows me to clear up any misconceptions about my religion, to defend myself, if needed, and to laugh about the (sometimes crazy) impressions Mormons make on other people.

    In Skinny by Diana Spechler (reviewed here), one of the characters writes:

    "And don't blame your fat on your religion. Yes, thirty percent of Southern Baptists are obese, and the Mormons deploy "wellness missionaries," and sure, I know the Jewish jokes - the jokes with no edge; the soft, plump, low muscle-tone jokes about Jewish mothers overfeeding their children and Jewish holidays revolving around food. But these are not excuses. Excuses are worthless" (84).

    Frankly, I don't understand this line. Not the Mormon part, anyway. I think it's a joke. At any rate, I've never heard of "wellness missionaries." Has anyone else?

    I will say that members of the LDS Church abide by a (fairly) strict health code known as the "Word of Wisdom." It prohibits us from taking harmful substances - coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, lots of red meat, etc. - into our bodies. Although the code says nothing specific about soda (the "Word of Wisdom" was given in 1833), most church members abstain from drinking any caffeine at all. Naturally, we also stay away from illegal drugs, overuse of prescription medications, and anything else that might lead to addiction or damage to our physical/mental/emotional health.

    Breaking this health code does not mean excommunication from the church, but most of us live it rather strictly, especially the coffee/tea/tobacco/alcohol part. Caffeine is another issue. For some of us, anyway. Not naming any names. Ahem. Maybe that's what the "wellness missionaries" are - a secret police force that storms Mormon pantries in search of Coke products. Let's hope not :)
    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Skinny Oozes Quirky Humor, Lots of Heart

    (Image from Indiebound)

    When Gray Lachmann's dad dies of a heart attack, she feels responsible. Wracked with guilt and grief, the 27-year-old New Yorker turns to the one thing that always brought comfort to her obese father - food. By the time Grey finally feels steady enough to deal with her duties as the executor of his will, she's toting around an extra fifteen pounds. And a bingeing habit that's taking over her life, sucking away every ounce of self-worth she possesses. It's only when Grey finds the name of a mysterious woman in the will that she wakes from her calorie-induced stupor.

    Gray never knew her father cheated on her mother, had no idea he fathered another child. Now, she's determined to find Eden, her teenaged half-sister. Taking a job at the North Carolina summer weight-loss camp Eden will be attending seems to be the perfect kill-two-birds-with-one-stone solution: Gray can work off her spare tire and bond with her sister at the same time. Simple. Except that it's not. Battling her own hunger is difficult enough, but she also has to break up fights between drama queen dieters; deal with the mantra-spouting joke of a camp director; and keep her hormones under control whenever Bennett, the sexy physical trainer, comes around. As the flabby barrier she's built around her heart begins to melt away, Gray must find the courage to face some harsh truths - about her body, her family, and herself.

    Skinny, Diana Spechler's sophomore novel, surprised me with its quirky humor and raw, but sympathetic exploration of obesity. The characters come on strong, yanking the story in all kinds of crazy directions by the sheer force of their personalities. It's a warm, zany book, that's easy to relate to and difficult to put down. I enjoyed it. And quite thoroughly, too.

    (Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Plus by Veronica Chambers)

    Grade: B

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

    To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Skinny from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

    Monday, May 09, 2011

    In the Spotlight, Or, What I Do When I Completely Space A Review

    So, somehow in all the chaos of trying to write a decent first chapter to workshop, getting my home/family ready to handle three days without me, and actually attending the LDS Storymakers Conference last weekend, I totally spaced a review I was supposed to do. Ack! I hate it when that happens. Luckily, Tracee over at Pump Up Your Book Promotion is a forgiving sort and asked only that I post a spotlight of I Am Going Where I Belong by Hans Lindor. I'm happy to perform such a meager penance to make up for my complete lack of professionalism/responsibility/brainpower.

    Here's a quick summary of the book from Amazon:

    I am Going Where I Belong is a gripping journey through the plight of a once wealthy immigrant family. Chriscile Leger, mother of two, is forced to flee her native country with her children after her husband is brutally assassinated during a coup d'etat. I am Going Where I Belong is filled with heartrending turns of fate that, through their believability, make each character vibrantly engaging for the reader.

    A native of Haiti, the author has used his extraordinary life experiences to inspire his fiction, poetry and screenplays. He is also a motivational speaker, who talks to students about the dangers of drugs, guns, and violence.

    I'll be reviewing this book when I get a chance. I'll also be recapping my experience at LDS Storymakers. And giving you my thoughts on more great books. Just as soon as I chug some Tylenol and take a nap. Stay tuned ...
    Tuesday, May 03, 2011

    Debut Pioneer Story A Little Too Cliche

    (Image from Barnes & Noble)

    When Giselle VanKomen joins the Mormon Church in her native Holland, her whole life changes. She's finally found the faith she's been searching for, but not everyone understands her attraction to the strange, new "American" religion. When her parents disown her, Giselle knows it's time to leave Europe and join with the rest of the Saints in the place they call Zion. It's a long and difficult journey, more dangerous than the 17-year-old could ever have imagined.

    The minute Trace Grayson spies Giselle on the boardwalk in St. Joseph, Missouri, he's taken with her. She's young, beautiful and seems to have a bright sense of humor. When he finds out that she's to be on the wagon train he's leading west, Trace can hardly beleive his luck. Not that he's interested, of course. As soon as he unloads his Mormon travelers, he'll head to California. And he's not planning on letting anyone - especially not a Mormon someone - distract him from that path.

    Only things don't work out quite that way. Before the wagon train even gets rolling, there's trouble. To protect Giselle from a vindictive mobster, Trace agrees to a sham marriage that will be annulled as soon as they reach the Mormon settlement. With that problem out of the way, they finally roll out of Missouri - only to be hit with worries like illness, bad weather, Indians stalking the wagon train, and squabbles between the travelers. Meanwhile, Trace and Giselle must battle the emotions warring in their hearts. The closer they grow to each other, the more they know it will hurt when the time comes to say goodbye forever. Can their love survive the trials of trail life? Will Giselle make it to Zion? And what will happen when Trace is forced to choose between the woman he loves and his dreams of California?

    Any kid who's been through Primary can tell you what it was like to be a Mormon pioneer crossing the plains to reach Zion (Utah). They can describe how the travelers gathered buffalo chips to fuel campfires, pulled their wagons into circles each night for protection, chased off marauding Indians, stomped over treacherous mountain passes, and risked their very lives and limbs to find a place where they could practice their religious beliefs in peace. These tales are as familiar to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as the noses on their faces. So, the question becomes, how do you tell a pioneer story in a way that's historcially accurate but original enough to keep the reader's attention? The answer is: You weave the familiar details into the stories of complex, original characters struggling with difficult, life-altering problems. Voila! Problem solved.

    The characters Jaclyn M. Hawkes introduces in her debut novel, Journey of Honor, are, unfortunately, not of this variety. Both Giselle and Trace are good, honest, forgiving people, which makes them likable, but bland. They fail to develop, they fail to change - in fact, they fail to do anything surprising at all. Which explains why the tale is nice, just not anything special. I think in trying to create an inspirational, faith-promoting novel, Hawkes makes a handful of rookie mistakes (making the characters too perfect, not giving the romantic relationship enough conflict, letting the story wander down predictable paths, not giving the characters strong enough motivations, etc.) that bog down what had the potential to be a very entertaining book. With some intensive editing, it could have been a much more affecting novel. As is, it's just a little too blah, a little too cliche, a little too forgettable for my tastes.

    Grade: C-

    If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for scary images and vague sexual references

    To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Journey of Honor from the generous folks at MediaGuests, for whom this review was written. Thank you!

    Monday, May 02, 2011

    How-to-Cook Book A Quick, Helpful Resource for First-Timers

    (Image from Indiebound)

    Getting married? Moving out on your own? Suddenly feeling the need to learn how to cook? Well, Salt Lake City chef Shawn Bucher's got you covered. Or, at least he will once he finishes his entire series of First Timer's cookbooks. He began writing the series to answer the many cooking questions he gets every day. Frustrated with the lack of simple, effective how-to-cook books currently on the market, he decided to write his own. The books in the collection will all feature simple, step-by-step instructions for performing basic food preparation/cooking techniques as well as large, colorful photographs to help illustrate the concepts being discussed.

    The First-Timer's Cookbook, the initial entry in the series, covers a lot of material, but focuses mostly on preparing the three main portions of any meal: meat, vegetables and starches. Bucher talks about how to select the best of each, prepare them most easily and cook them most effectively to ensure superb taste. His explanations are, indeed, easy to follow, even for the most novice of cooks. The included photographs also work well, demonstrating important ideas, like how to tell the difference between cooked and undercooked meat. While some of the information seems a little too basic, most of it will come in handy even for more experienced cooks.

    My main issue with the book is that it's not actually a cookbook, or at least, it includes no recipes. I would have liked some simple, beginner-type recipes that utilized the techniques being taught, as a way for the reader to try out or practice things like making a roux or flavoring a dish with herbs.

    Other than that, I found the book to be a quick, helpful resource that, I think, will give new cooks the confidence to keep honing their skills in the kitchen. Those with more years behind the stove will likely find The First-Timer's Cookbook too simplistic, but may want to keep it in mind for gifting to new brides, grooms, college students, or anyone who wants to learn the fine art of cooking.

    (Readalikes: Nothing is coming to mind. Any ideas?)

    Grade: B-

    If this were a movie, it would be rated: G for nothing offensive

    To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The First-Timer's Cookbook from the generous folks at MediaGuests, for whom this review was written. Thank you!

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