NOTE: I don't post to this blog super-duper often anymore, because I'm busy writing, well, books. (Read more about that here.) For more up-to-date, day-to-day ramblings, visit my Facebook page.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Pub info: Amulet Books, 2013; 387 pp
Genre: YA ghost story / historical 

Second up on my list of TBR books this year is Cat Winters's debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I finished it up in about 48 hours.

Goodreads summary:
In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.

Status: Finished 1/25/14

My impressions:
I love a good historical novel, and I love a good ghost story. In the Shadow of Blackbirds succeeds on both levels. On the realistic side, there's the suspenseful, horrifying true stories--the harrowing Spanish flu pandemic that claimed millions of lives worldwide in 1918, and the devastating conflict that claimed millions more and changed the face of warfare forever. You'll be immersed in that world: fearing to leave your home without your protective mask; eating onions and garlic to ward off the sickness until your sweat smells of them; chilling at the sound of the ambulance sirens, praying they don't come down your street; afraid to read the papers for fear of seeing another young boy's name on the lists of the war dead. Cat Winters's writing, told from heroine Mary Shelley Black's point of view, plants you front and center in 1918. Her research seamlessly interweaves with the grief and stories of real people. In that way, it reminded me of Laurie Halse Andersen's Fever 1793, a story of the yellow fever pandemic in the eighteenth century.

But this isn't just a tragedy. The grief that swept the nation that year fed the Spiritualism craze, and both laypeople and scientists flocked to seances, seeking confirmation of life after death. When the dead start speaking to Mary Shelley, this already gripping tale takes on a new layer of horror, and the mystery deepens. Can her true love's brother really photograph the dead? Does the answer lie in the letters and mementoes of a dead soldier? Is Death really just waiting for Mary Shelley around the next corner?

I was pulled into this story from the start, and the further in I sank, the faster it yanked me along, like a runaway train. Sprinkled throughout with period photographs, this gripping, suspenseful novel chills with its verisimilitude. In the Shadow of Blackbirds is fantastic. 

  • a finalist for the YALSA 2014 Morris Award 
  • a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013

About Cat Winters:
Cat Winters was born and raised in southern California, near Disneyland, which may explain her love of haunted mansions, bygone eras, and fantasylands. She received degrees in drama and English from the University of California-Irvine. She lives in Portland with her husband and two children. This year, she will  publish The Cure for Dreaming (Amulet Books, Fall 2014), another early-twentieth-century paranormal tale. And, like Stefan Bachmann (see the last review), she's a contributor to the upcoming YA horror anthology Slasher Girls & Monster Boys (Dial, 2015).

Online: Visit Cat's website here, and the website for the book here. Connect with her here on Twitter.

To follow my progress as I bulldoze my way through a stack of 51 to-be-reads this year, search for the tag 2014 TBR Shelf. Read all the reviews here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

TBR 2014: Book No. 2

Next up on my clearing-the-TBR-shelf goal: In the Shadows of Blackbirds by Cat Winters (Amulet Books, 2013)!

I've been meaning to read this book for ages, and today's the day I start it! Cat Winters's debut novel takes place in 1918: The world's nations are at war--not only with each other but against the deadly influenza epidemic that spreads like a modern-day plague. Mary Shelley Black's sweetheart is on the battlefields of France and her aunt thinks Mary holds the power to contact the dead. Can she?

"Words like 'unputdownable' and 'irresistible' are simply not enough for Cat Winters's In the Shadow of Blackbirds."
--author Saundra Mitchell (Shadowed Summer)

Don't tell me you're not hooked. I know you want to join me on this reading journey!

That's right: I've committed to reading all the books on my TBR shelf  this year. First up was Stefan Bachmann's The Peculiar. Read the review here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: THE PECULIAR by Stefan Bachmann

Welcome to my first post chronicling the 2014 TBR Shelf. As I mentioned, I've set a goal to read (or attempt) all the books on the To Be Read Shelf in my office. There are 51. First up is a middle-grade fantasy called The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (Greenwillow Books, 2012).
Goodreads summary:
Don't get yourself noticed and you won't get yourself hanged.
In the faery slums of Bath, Bartholomew Kettle and his sister Hettie live by these words. Bartholomew and Hettie are changelings--Peculiars--and neither faeries nor humans want anything to do with them.
One day a mysterious lady in a plum-colored dress comes gliding down Old Crow Alley. Bartholomew watches her through his window. Who is she? What does she want? And when Bartholomew witnesses the lady whisking away, in a whirling ring of feathers, the boy who lives across the alley--Bartholomew forgets the rules and gets himself noticed.
First he's noticed by the lady in plum herself, then by something darkly magical and mysterious, by Jack Box and the Raggedy Man, by the powerful Mr. Lickerish . . . and by Arthur Jelliby, a young man trying to slip through the world unnoticed, too, and who, against all odds, offers Bartholomew friendship and a way to belong.
Part murder mystery, part gothic fantasy, part steampunk adventure, The Peculiar is Stefan Bachmann's riveting, inventive, and unforgettable debut novel.
Status: Finished January 18, 2014

My impressions:
Anyone who knows anything about my reading habits knows that I love middle-grade fiction, especially fantasy (I mean, I write it, after all). I'm also a sucker for a truly original twist on the old favorites as well as beautiful crafting of English prose. I swoon before a book that can do all three.

So yes, The Peculiar is swoon-worthy.

I love the details of this alternate-reality London, with its steam-powered carriages and slums full of faery folk. I could almost taste what Dickens called the city's "palpable brown air" (A Christmas Carol). I had a clear picture in my head of the kids, the lady in plum, the strange little houses and Parliamentary meetings where faery and human effect an uncomfortable co-existence. What a rich, fabulous world!
The plot moves along at a brisk pace, beginning as a bit of a mystery and racing along towards the end thriller-style as the honorable Mr. Jelliby and Bartholomew attempt a daring rescue. Things don't turn out as you might expect, which is why you'll want to race right out and get the sequel/companion novel called The Whatnot (Greenwillow, 2013).
About Stefan Bachmann: Stefan was born in Colorado and now lives in a hundred-year-old house outside of Zurich with his parents and siblings. He is a student of classical music at the Zurich Conservatory. He is currently working on a YA novel, Dead Man's Palace, due out from Greenwillow/HarperCollins in 2015, and a story for an upcoming YA horror anthology, Slasher Girls and Monster Boys (Dial, 2015).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Trailer Reveal!

Why bring out a book trailer for The Key & the Flame ten months after the pub date? Well, luckily, book trailers don't really function like movie trailers. Yes, they serve as a novel's "preview," but books often sit on the shelves for a long while before any given person knows they exist. Schoolteachers or librarians, please use the trailer to introduce the book to your students or patrons. The rest of you may want to direct other readers to it.

In other words, share!

So without further ado, here's the lovely trailer created by the fabulous Phoebe North:

About Phoebe: She's not only the trailermaster. She's also an author in her own right. Look for Starglass, a fantastic YA sci-fi novel, in bookstores now.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why I'm Nice on Goodreads

I admit, blogfrogs, that I really do like Goodreads. I say "admit" because a lot of authors are fed up with the Wild West atmosphere of backbiting and cruel reviews and way-too-personal contact with readers. But I choose to participate mostly as a reader, not a writer, and I like seeing the pretty covers of all the books I'm reading and setting goals to read more.

I also must admit that I'm not entirely up front on Goodreads. You'll notice that I don't rate any books below 3 stars. I don't love everything I read, but as a writer, I don't want to trash someone's average rating by throwing a bitter one or two stars their way. If I truly dislike something, I don't rate it, because a rating of 0 won't throw off the average. And I won't trash a book with a cutting review, either. The transparency of the medium makes that seem, well, mean.
So I talk about the books I like--the good reads, if you will.
And this blog isn't really an objective reviewing medium, either. I have a tag called Recommended Reading, and it's just that--books that I recommend. For my own purposes, and to catalog my library, I use LibraryThing, which you might consider checking out for similar uses. I think of it as more of a database than a review site. (It also isn't owned by Amazon. It's nice that something isn't.) I use it to catalogue all my books and to pen scathing reviews of books I hate. But you'll never know, because my shelves are private (sorry). Nothing I say there is going to hurt anyone's feelings.
That said, because I'm going to try to chronicle my 2014 To Read Goal on this blog, I will tell you here if I think a book is worth your time. But I won't get snarky, and I won't apply any ratings.
That's me being nice. Take note.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Lofty Goal

So, it's 2014. You may think I'm a bit late to the New Year's party, but do consider that I was madly preparing for three author presentations that I gave on January 10-11, and then collapsed with a cold that had been barking up my shins for some time. But hey, I'm here now, and who hid the champagne?

Anyway, for the past few years, I've set reading goals, thanks to Goodreads and their niggling little, "Don't you want to set a reading goal?" question. Last year, I exceeded my goal--not 75 books, but 81 books!--so I know that giving myself a challenge does work.

(Yes, I know that some of you breeze through 200 books a year without even blinking. Goody for you. I'm a slow reader.)

But alongside my shiny new 82-book goal, I've decided to set a secondary goal: Read all the books on my To Be Read shelf this year.

Now, I'm not talking about the Goodreads "To Read" list, because that would be insane--I drop books onto that list a half dozen at a time. I'm talking about the shelf(ves) in my home office that contain the 50-some-odd books in my library that I haven't read. Physical books. Sitting there, staring me in the face each day, taunting me with, "Thought you were gonna read me. Someday."

So my stated public goal here is to read every book on that shelf--or at least, give every book a decent shot. Let's say 50 pages. If I can't get into the book after 50 pages, I'm donating it. Why keep a book that I will clearly never read? And since it's very hard for me to admit defeat to a book ("confound it, I will read you, I WILL, even if it's torture!"), I expect that the vast majority of these will get read. (And yeah, they count toward my 82 books. Sheesh.)

If you'd like to look at my 2014 TBR Shelf, it's right here. And here's another, perhaps less attainable goal: I'll blog each book I read off that list. I know. Wow.

First book off the shelf that I'm reading: Stefan Bachmann's The Peculiar. So far, I love it.
BLOGFROGS: What are YOUR reading goals for the year?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Visit to Stilwell

It's a little bit mad to schedule author events the week after New Year's. But school schedules can be tight, and I didn't want to miss the chance to visit Stilwell Elementary, home of the Mustangs, on January 10.

The kids and I had a fantastic time. First, I spoke to the 3rd-5th graders about how I came to write The Key & the Flame--my early writing, lack of art talent, early failures, and the eventual publication of the book. We also talked about what makes a good story and keeps readers turning pages.

With the kindergarten, first, and second graders, I took a different approach, assuming that 6-year-olds wouldn't be keen on hearing about all my rejection letters. We talked about story in general--how to brainstorm characters and setting--and then we created a story right on the spot with several talented actors from the audience.

 In both groups, I was amazed at how attentive the kids were and what great questions they asked. Thank you, Stilwell, for such a warm welcome!

Next month: Off to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to visit with the Grizzlies of Vandergriff Elementary! Find a complete listing of upcoming events here. For info on arranging an author visit to your school, click here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pet Peeve: Email Subjects

You know how when January 1 comes around--a completely arbirtrary day, by the way, by any stretch of the lunar or solar calendar--you take stock and rethink your life? You make promises to do better--eat better, exercise more, learn Swahili, whatever.

Well, here's something to add to your to-do list: Label your emails with something useful.

I'm surely not the only person on the planet wading through waist-high floods of emails. I actually don't mind getting them, unless they're shopping me a Russian bride or offering to enlarge body parts that I don't possess. If you're writing me, great! Love to hear from you! But I'd love it more if I knew what the heck you were about to say. Here are some examples of poor email subject lines:

From: x
To: Claire
re: you

From: x
To: Claire
re: me

From: x
To: Claire
re: from your mom

From: x
To: Claire
re: that thing

Believe it or not, blogfrogs, these are examples from actual emails. Names have been redacted to protect the whomever, but you know who you are. How about this?

From: x
To: Claire
re: that new YA book we discussed

From: x
To: Claire
re: your kid's failing grade

From: x
To: Claire
re: want to do lunch?

Get the idea? Also, if we've started a side conversation off a group thread, it's nice to stop using the group thread's topic as a subject line, as in:

From: member of group x
To: Claire
re: want to do lunch? (NOT: next week's meeting; I'm no longer getting updates about that)

Not a huge deal, folks, but I suspect you'll all get more response out of your emails if you're very specific about what the email entails. Oh, and a final tip: Don't use Russian Brides as your subject line. That will end up in my junk box.

Just FYI.

image: Vladimir Putin and his bride, Lyudmila Aleksandrovna Putina, now divorced. Courtesy of Wikipedia.