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.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: THE SONG OF THE QUARKBEAST by Jasper Fforde



Title: The Song of the Quarkbeast
Author: Jasper Fforde
Pub info: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013
Genre: MG fantasy, 289 pp

Having just finished The Last Dragonslayer, I had to move on to The Song of the Quarkbeast, the second book in Fforde's Chronicles of Kazam series. It was just as much fun as the first.

Goodreads summary:
Long ago, magic began to fade, and the underemployed magicians of Kazam Mystical Arts Management have been forced to take any work their sixteen-year-old acting manager, Jennifer Strange, can scare up. But things are about to change. Magical power is finally on the rise, and King Snodd IV, of the Ununited Kingdoms knows that he who controls magic controls everything. Only one person stands between Snodd and his plans for a magic-grab--and that's Jennifer.

Yet even smart and sensible Jennifer would have trouble against these powers-that-be. The king and his cronies will do anything to succeed--including ordering a just-might-be-rigged contest between Kazam and iMagic, Kazam's only competitor in the magic business. With underhanded shenanigans afoot, how can Kazam possibly win?

Whatever happens, one this is certain: Jennifer Strange will not relinquish the noble powers of magic without a fight.
Status: finished 3/19/14

My impressions:
Last week I reviewed the first book in the Chronicles of Kazam, and this novel is a fantastic follow-up. With the world-building securely in place and our already-beloved characters ready for action, this book proceeds more smoothly than #1 and gives us a bit more substance to chew on alongside the humor. There's plenty of action, too, if not quite as much magic. And I can't lie that I was overjoyed to see the word Quarkbeast in the title, considering some plot points from Book #1 that I won't reveal here. I loved learning more about Kazam's wizards as well as the fascinating origins of the Quarkbeast itself.

And here's a perhaps oft-overlooked plus: Jasper writes wonderful, believable, strong female characters. While that perhaps shouldn't be a big deal, it is--because not enough male writers can pull it off. Kudos!

Finally, one of the things I love best about these books is the extent to which the reader's imagination is engaged: It's up to you to imagine exactly what a Quarkbeast looks like, and yet I have a clear picture of it in my mind, just like I know precisely what Jennifer, Tiger, and the Transient Moose look like. And I love them all.

About Jasper Fforde:
Jasper Fforde is a novelist living in Wales. He is the son of John Standish Fforde, the 24th Chief Cashier for the Bank of England, whose signature used to appear on sterling banknotes. His published books include a series of novels for adults starring Thursday Next, including The Eyre Affair (2001) and  Lost in a Good Book (2002). Jasper also writes the Nursery Crimes series for adults, in which Detective Jack Spratt solves crimes inflicted by and upon nursery-rhyme characters (The Big Over Easy, 2005). The third book in the Chronicles of Kazam is called The Eye of Zoltar and is coming in October. (Note: Pub dates are for the USA releases; Fforde's books release earlier in the UK.)

Online:
Visit Jasper's very busy website here for fun stuff and news about his books and appearances. His Twitter page is here, and you can find him here on Facebook.


Want to win a free copy of this book? Next week I'm giving away your choice of the 5 books I reviewed during Middle Grade March Madness (oh yeah, and one adult novel too). Pick your fave, enter, and win!

SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.

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.

And be sure to visit Shannon Messenger's blog to see more fun links to great middle-grade reads and giveaways!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: TESLA'S ATTIC by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman




















Title: Tesla's Attic (Book 1 in the Accelerati Trilogy)
Author: Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman
Pub info: Disney-Hyperion, 2014; 256 pp
Genre: MG sci-fi

I can't count this as one of my 2014 TBRs because I just bought it on impulse this month and read it right away. But I can't not tell you about it. It's just too good.

Goodreads summary:
After their home burns down, fourteen-year-old Nick, his younger brother, and their father move into a ramshackle Victorian house they've inherited. When Nick opens the door to his attic room, he's hit in the head by a toaster. That's just the beginning of his weird experiences with the old junk stored up there. After getting rid of the odd antiques in a garage sale, Nick befriends some local kids--Mitch, Caitlin, and Vincent--and they discover that all of the objects have extraordinary properties. What's more, Nick figures out that the attic is a strange magnetic vortex, which attracts all sorts of trouble. It's as if the attic itself has an intelligence . . . and a purpose.
Status: finished 3/23/14

My impressions:
I truncated the Goodreads plot synopsis above because I think it reveals too much of the story without quite taking the fast train to Spoiler Town. This book is best read if you don't know too many details. Suffice it to say that Nick, who has just lost his mother and whose dad is still shell-shocked by the experience, is on his own in this new town and has to deal with a lot of strange goings-on thanks to the junk in his new attic. The rest, as they say, is mystery.

I absolutely loved this book. I've never read either of these authors (I know, I know!), and I adore their writing. On one hand, this is a paranormal, sci-fi-ish tale about fantastical happenings, but it also explores love and loss as well. It's certainly not heavy, but neither do the characters blithely go about their business--tra la la--even though Mom has just been killed in a fire. The relationship Nick forges with his new friends--and I use the term loosely--is interesting all by itself, as well as the dynamics of middle-school life. There's a lot of good story even before you throw in the weird stuff. And come on, I love weird stuff. Tesla's Attic can be read as a standalone, but several unanswered questions and loose ends will compel me to snap up the second book in the trilogy as soon as it comes out. A nicely layered story, some genuine creeps, good writing. Sold.

About Neal & Eric:
Award-winning author Neal Shusterman grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has made his mark as a successful novelist, screenwriter, and television writer. His many books include the Skinjacker Trilogy (Everlost, Everwild, Everfound) for young adults.

Eric Elfman is the award-winning author of books for kids and teens, including Almanac of the Gross, Disgusting & Totally Repulsive; The Very Scary Almanac; the Three-Minute Thrillers series, and three X-Files novels. He has also written movies, TV shows, animation, and more.


Online:
Indulge your need to know all Neal info at his website, and follow his Twitter musings here. Visit Eric's world of UFOs and other weird and gross happenings at his website, here. You can also follow him on Twitter here.



Want to win a free copy of this book? The first Monday of each month features a giveaway of any of the titles I've reviewed the previous month. Pick your fave, enter, and win!  Next giveaway: April 7.

SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writer Wednesday: Tips for Kidlit Fests

Yesterday I wrote about the great experience I had at the University of Central Missouri's Children's Literature Festival. I haven't been to loads of writers' events, so I can hardly be called an expert. But I've learned a few things that I've noted down to remind myself of, and I'll pass them on to you too.

1. Think About Your Clothes.
No, really. I don't mean, Think about what you'll look good in; think about what purpose your clothes will serve. I've noticed that authors presenting to kids don't normally dress up much. Nice jeans are perfectly fine, and you'd better like your shoes a whole lot, because they'll be working hard for you. During presentations to kids, I wore my tennis shoes--they're comfortable, casual, and they send the right message, i.e., I'm not your teacher. And I stand up in them for session after session as well as tromp up four flights of stairs and all over campus in them. I wore a kind of snazzy-looking top with the jeans, but a quirky T-shirt would've been okay too.

I also packed something a bit nicer for the meet-and-greet/book signing. If it had been warm enough, I'd have worn this pretty lavender sundress, but as it was, black jeans and nicer shoes, another snazzy top. And layers! Some rooms will be sweltering (especially with 75 little bodies jammed in with you), and some will be cool.

2. Do Your Homework.
If you can, learn something about the other writers before you go. I looked up all 30 websites of the authors at the UCM Fest. I tried to note a few books they'd written. I even copied their photos and info into a document. I didn't refer to it like crib notes, but just doing that cemented their faces in my brain and made introductions so much easier.  
 
3. Get Involved in Everything.
I'm not a joiner. I'm an introvert. I don't mingle, I don't do small talk. And yet for this event, I turned all that on its head. I'd have happily holed up in my hotel room after a day of presentations, but instead I did the quirky shoe-store-visit-followed-by-bar tradition established at this festival. (We bought shoes, then went drinking. It's a thing.) I got to know my fellow writers. I ate no meal alone, not even coffee. I hung out in the lobby after dinner and chatted. I exchanged email addresses. Why? Because if you're part of the group, you're more likely to get invited back. And the added bonus is that other writers get you. You'll get advice from experienced folks and share bewilderment with fellow newbies. Writers are great people, and you don't get to see them that often. Take advantage of every opportunity. You can collapse when you get home.

4. That Said, Know Your Limits.
I did socialize far more than I was used to doing at UCM, but I also allowed myself a blissful period of alone time each day. I woke up early and read a book or went over my notes. I took a few deep breaths in the bathroom before starting the day's presentations. I enjoyed the silence of my room after 9:30 pm. Fill yourself up. You'll be glad you did.

5. Be Gracious. And Then More So.
Help out the others. Offer a ride or an extra pair of hose. Let Writer X know if the kids you saw gushed about her presentation. Buy other folks' books at the sale and get them to sign them. This isn't to earn points; it's about being a human being. Even the "famous" writers you meet have insecurities and may be nervous about doing presentations or speeches. Everyone has faced the blank page and the blank stare of an audience.

6. Follow Up, and Soon.
Send out those "glad to meet you" emails right away. If you promised someone a signed book, get it to her. And always send a thank-you note to the festival organizer. She worked long and hard to make the event worthwhile. And if she's anything like UCM's Naomi Williamson, she's worth her weight in Judy Blume books.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fun at the UCM Kidlit Fest

I'm still very much a newbie at this author gig, blogfrogs; I'm still conquering a lot of firsts. This past week was my first children's literature festival.

This is the best kind of festival to go to because there's something for everyone. On Sunday, more than 30 kidlit authors had lunch at the University of Central Missouri student union, and we invited kids and parents to join in. Kids sat at tables with their fave authors and asked all kinds of questions while we chowed down at a marvelous pasta buffet. Illustrator Henry Cole gave a keynote speech that had everyone snorting their milk through their noses. He is seriously funny, and in high demand as a speaker.


the gorgeous author centerpieces created by Naomi Williamson & Cathy Clear


Then, after lunch, visitors were welcome to collect author signatures and browse the book sale, which featured middle-grade thrillers like Roland Smith's Chupacabra and YA tales like Terry Trueman's Printz Honor-winning Stuck in Neutral and Antony John's supernatural Elemental. Picture book authors and illustrators were liberally represented, ranging from Michelle Markel's Brave Girl to Brad Sneed's Thumbelina. Well-known authors like Mary Casanova, Mary Downing Hahn, and Stephanie S. Tolan stood beside newbies like myself and Regina Sirois, whose beautiful novel On Little Wings won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2012.

Now while Sunday was a superfun day, the real heart and soul of this festival are the two session days on Monday and Tuesday. This year, the festival hosted about 3,600 students in grades 3-8 who came to hear their favorite authors speak. Each student attended four presentations a day (and at least one class came on both days!). For us authors, that meant delivering 8 presentations in two days, but what fun it was! I was able to address a total of about 450 students in sessions of 30-75 kids each. They were incredibly well behaved and enthusiastic.

signing a student's T-shirt

In the evenings, authors had a chance to kick back and get to know each other. This group was among the nicest I've been part of.

Mary Casanova & Roland Smith
Terry Trueman presents a Mock Oscar in the ceremony honoring the festival staff

I came home very tired but so grateful to festival organizer Naomi Williamson and all the volunteers. If you love kidlit, keep an eye out on the festival website to get updates on next year's festival. You won't want to miss it.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: THE LAST DRAGONSLAYER by Jasper Fforde




















Title: The Last Dragonslayer
Author: Jasper Fforde
Pub info: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2012
Genre: MG fantasy, 287 pp

This is the first book in the Chronicles of Kazam series. Two are out so far, and thank goodness they don't end on cliffhangers.

Goodreads summary:
In the good old days, magic was indispensable—it could both save a kingdom and clear a clogged drain. But now magic is fading: drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and magic carpets are used for pizza delivery. Fifteen-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians—but it’s hard to stay in business when magic is drying up. And then the visions start, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, everything will change for Kazam—and for Jennifer. Because something is coming. Something known as . . . Big Magic.
Status: finished 3/13/14

My impressions:
I remember reading and laughing along with Jasper Fforde in his Thursday Next books, a series in which the detective solves crimes that occur within the pages of literature. (It's complicated and hilarious.) Fforde's voice in this new MG/borderline YA series comes through loud and clear: Here are his trademark array of zany characters (wizards with names like the Mysterious X and Full Price), quick satiric humor, and quippy dialogue. The Last Dragonslayer was a fun, whimsical fantasy with lots of real-world references thrown in, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The humor distanced me a bit from the characters--I can't say I was wholeheartedly invested in them, because some seem more like archetypes than real people. Still, for light fun and humor, you can't beat this clever author.

About Jasper Fforde:
Jasper Fforde is a novelist living in Wales. He is the son of John Standish Fforde, the 24th Chief Cashier for the Bank of England, whose signature used to appear on sterling banknotes. His published books include a series of novels for adults starring Thursday Next, including The Eyre Affair (2001) and  Lost in a Good Book (2002). Jasper also writes the Nursery Crimes series for adults, in which Detective Jack Spratt solves crimes inflicted by and upon nursery-rhyme characters (The Big Over Easy, 2005). The third book in the Chronicles of Kazam is called The Eye of Zoltar and is coming in October. (Note: Pub dates are for the USA releases; Fforde's books release earlier in the UK.)

Online:
Visit Jasper's very busy website here for fun stuff and news about his books and appearances. His Twitter page is here, and you can find him here on Facebook.


Want to win a free copy of this book? The first Monday of each month features a giveaway of any of the titles I've reviewed the previous month. Pick your fave, enter, and win!  Next giveaway: April 7.

SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.

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.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

TBR 2014: Books No. 8 and 9



Upping the ante! Next up are two books by Jasper Fforde: The Last Dragonslayer (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2010) and its sequel, The Song of the Quarkbeast (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013). If I don't like the first one, I'll likely ditch the second, but knowing Fforde's strengths as a writer, I'll probably gobble them both up.

“Features the same delightful mix of magic and everyday absurdity that characterizes [Fforde’s] other books. . . . Readers both young and adult will get hours of pleasure visiting these Ununited Kingdoms.” —NPR Books, online review

"Fforde's foray into children's books will delight readers who like their fantasy with a dash of silliness.”  —Publishers Weekly, starred review

I'm excited! You?

That's right: I've committed to reading all the books on my TBR Shelf this year--and blogging them! Click here to read the reviews I've posted so far.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writer Wednesday: Calling Kid Writers

Are you a kid who likes to write? Or maybe you know a kid who likes to write? There are plenty of places to publish kids' writing and artwork, whether in print or online. Below are some places to get started (click on the titles to learn more about them):

Inklings Book Contest (grades 1-8)
Stone Soup magazine (ages 8-13)
Creative Kids Magazine (ages 8-16)  
New Moon Girls magazine (ages 8+, girls only)
Teen Ink (ages 13-19)
Push Writing Contests (grades 7-12)
Scholastic Art & Writing Awards (grades 7-12)

 

Some Tips for Submitting Your Work

 1. Study the target.  Whether you're submitting to a website or print magazine, read as much of it as you can before sending in your work. Read a few issues cover to cover. Ask yourself honestly if what you're offering fits with the other material. If you're a poet and the magazine contains no poetry, don't waste your time. If all the fiction on the website centers around ordinary kids and their everyday lives, maybe your sci-fi space drama isn't what they're looking for. That's okay. There's a place for you elsewhere.

2. Follow the directions! If the site says they want work submitted via email, don't mail it in. If they require a signed form from a parent/guardian, include it. Take note of due dates for contests and follow them. The easiest way to earn a rejection slip is to blow off the requirements.

3. Proofread, proofread, proofread.  Don't assume your word processor's spell checker will do the trick. It won't catch words you've left out or extra words you've left in. Here's a hint: Print your work out to read it. Read slowly and carefully. Put it away for a few days, then print it out again, but this time use a different font. You'll probably catch mistakes you missed the first time. I know it seems environmentally irresponsible, but you can always use recycled paper that's been printed on one side. This is your work--be proud of it.

4. Keep Trying. Every writer, I don't care who they are, has experienced rejection. The hardest thing is that often publishers won't tell you why they turned down your piece. Some possible reasons:

  • they've just accepted something similar to your story/illustration
  • your work is good, but it doesn't suit the tone of the publication
  • your work is too long / too short for the publication
  • your piece needs a bit more polish

As long as you keep submitting work, you're an artist. That's what artists do. It can be hard to find your niche, but successful creative people are only successful because they don't give up. Ever.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, NATE! by Tim Federle




















Title: Five, Six, Seven, Nate!
Author: Tim Federle
Pub info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014; 304 pp
Genre: MG/YA contemporary, ages 10+

For me, this does qualify as a book I've been meaning to read for a while (TBR Book No. 7) because Tim was kind enough to give me an advanced readers' copy at last summer's ALA Conference. (We shared a time slot at the Simon & Schuster booth, but believe me, the fans were all at Tim's table!) If you're interested in this book, I'd recommend you read the first, Better Nate Than Ever, before reading Five, Six. It's not strictly necessary, but it's definitely more fun.

Goodreads summary:
Nate Foster's Broadway dreams are finally coming true. Armed with a one-way ticket to New York City, small-town theater geek Nate is off to start rehearsals for E.T.: The Broadway Musical . It's everything he ever practiced his autograph for! But as thrilling as Broadway is, rehearsals are nothing like Nate expects: full of intimidating child start, cutthroat understudies, and a director who can't even remember Nate's name. Now, as the countdown to opening night is starting to feel more like a time bomb, Nate is going to need more than his lucky rabbit's foot if he ever wants to see his name in lights. He may even need a showbiz miracle.

Status: finished 3/7/14

My impressions:
It should come as no shock that I adored Five, Six, Seven, Nate! After all, I fell head over heels for Nate in his first book, Better Nate Than Ever (S&S Books for Young Readers, 2013). This isn't a typical story--how many novels for preteens have you read about a theatrical debut?--and yet it is. The beauty of Tim Federle's story is that he takes ordinary preteen angst issues--a first crush, bullying, trying to fit in, longing to live your dream--and drops them into a world that few readers will have firsthand knowledge of. So the ground is familiar enough for readers to grab hold and say, Yeah, that's me, but new enough to sustain their ever-wavering attention.

And because it's Tim Federle, you can expect Nate's second tale to make you laugh and warm your heart with very real characters. From best friend Libby to pampered Broadway star Jordan, each one will at first bring a nod of recognition and then, like real people do, they'll surprise you. And an added bonus: This book has perhaps the sweetest first kiss I've ever read.

So, yeah. I love Nate. As a mom, I want to adopt him and yank him away from provincial Jankburg, Pennsylvania. (And bring him where? Provincial Shawnee, Kansas?) I can't do that, but I can remember, as we all should, that everyone's dreams are legitimate, and everyone has the right to play them out, whatever their ends. Enjoy this book. You certainly won't forget it.

About Tim:
Tim Federle grew up in San Francisco and Pittsburgh before moving to New York to dance on Broadway. Tim's debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever, was featured on several Best of 2013 lists, including the New York Times Book Review, Slate.com, Amazon.com, and Publishers Weekly. Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, Tim's novelty recipe guide, was voted the #1 Cookbook of the Year on Goodreads. Currently Tim is working on a new book series about kids at theater camp.

Online:
Visit Tim's website here. He's also active on Twitter, where he's just as funny as he is in real life. You can view a trailer for Five, Six, Seven, Nate! right here.


Want to win a free copy of this book? The first Monday of each month features a giveaway of any of the titles I've reviewed the previous month. Pick your fave, enter, and win! Next giveaway: April 7.

SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.

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.




Check out more great MMGM links at Shannon Messenger's blog!

Friday, March 14, 2014

TBR 2014: Book No. 7



I'm already up to Book No. 7 on the 2014 TBR List! It's Tim Federle's fantastic Five, Six, Seven, Nate! (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014). And no, I'm not about to take a bite out of it in the photo above; I'm laughing my #$%! off. This sequel to the absolutely hilarious Better Nate Than Ever (S&S BFYR, 2013) follows young Nate in his Broadway debut starring in ET: The Musical. Tim is a fabulous, funny writer who has already made a big splash in his writing career.
“[W]ill appeal to every budding theater geek. Encore!”  Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Nate will sing and dance his way right into readers’ hearts."  --Kirkus (starred review)

Even if you've not read Better Nate Than Ever, the sequel looks like it can stand on its own. Come on, blogfrogs! You gotta dance--and you gotta read!


That's right: I've committed to reading all the books on my TBR Shelf this year--and blogging them! Click here to read the reviews I've posted so far.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Writer Wednesday: 6 Books to Boost Your Creativity

It's a trick writers are fond of: Read a lot about writing and it will almost seem like you're working. You're "honing your craft." You're "learning from the masters." Substitute your own favorite trope. Whatever you call it, there are in fact some great books out there to help you do your writing job. Read them in small doses, as morning inspiration or as a reward for a good day's work. These are my own favorites:



Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013)
Is it unfair to choose the book I'm just now reading as a favorite? I don't care, because Shapiro's lyrical, calm essays--part writing-life memoir, part writerly advice--are just so good. In her quiet way, she reminds us what good writing should look like and sound like. It's a joy to hold this small, perfectly designed volume, to read the essays which are just the right length for a prewriting dose of sanity.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000)
King's collection of essays is also part memoir, but it's told in a more linear fashion. The first section is a "here is my life" report, followed by the second part, which tells you what works for King as a writer. In typical SK fashion, he doesn't pull punches. "I like to get in your face," he said recently at a Q&A session at University of Massachusetts-Lowell. He's not shy about the struggles he's overcome, nor about his rules for writing. You won't follow all of them--nor should you--but they're great to have and to try. And, you know, I guess they worked out all right for him.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Writer's Digest Books, 2001)
Lit agent and author Donald Maass writes a wonderful nuts-and-bolts guide to taking your writing to the next level, whether you're a beginner or a midlist author trying to make it big. These aren't inspiring essays; these are outright instructions. He'll have you look at each element of your book--premise, setting, characters, the all-important stakes--and help you see where you're falling short. It's the clearest guide I know to making your book better. He doesn't include writing exercises here, but if that's your thing, the companion Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is ideal.

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 1992)
I can hardly believe that this book is more than 20 years old. For a long time, it was my lifeboat in a sea of creative doubt. Don't be put off by the word spiritual; this isn't a preachy book. The spirit Cameron talks about is your inner spirit, the spirit of the artist. If you feel lost, can't get your mojo back, or are wondering where the heck people even find creative mojo, this is the book for you. Through a series of gentle exercises and essays, Julia makes even the toughest creative road navigable. I learned many lessons at her side, but the greatest of these was the practice of morning pages--writing every day, on any old topic--and artist dates, which gave me permission to get out of the office and soak up life and inspiration. She's written three books in the Artist's Way series, all of which I've read, as well as her Right to Write and The Sound of Paper, but this book started it all.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Anchor, 1994)
Shapiro's book is often compared to Bird by Bird, I suppose because both are a mixture of writing wisdom and memoir. But both are worth your time. Lamott's voice is distinct, irreverent, marvelous. Not a grain of self-pity comes through the narrative of her struggles, and you'll come out of them thinking, If she can write after that, surely I can. Writing is putting one word after another, then one sentence after another, until finally you're stringing together paragraphs and chapters. Anne Lamott will help you get there.

Zen in the Art of Writing Releasing the Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury (Bantam, 1987)
Few writers can claim the success of Ray Bradbury, who wrote dozens of stories and novels through his long and wonderfully creative lifetime. In this short guide he shares some of his best secrets. I love how he takes the mystery out of fiction writing; do more of it, and you'll get better. Sit around and wonder if you might get better isn't going to work. Bradbury's always kind and funny voice comes through loud and clear like an old pal's. Trust me, you could make worse friends.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool




















Title: Moon Over Manifest
Author: Clare Vanderpool
Pub info: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010; 368 pp
Genre: MG historical fiction, ages 10+

Book No. 6 on the 2014 TBR List is not only a Newbery winner, it was written by a fellow Kansas native! It's been sitting on my shelf awhile, and I'm so glad I finally sat down and read it.

Goodreads summary:
Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.

Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”


Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.

Status: finished 3/6/14

My impressions:
I'd say, first of all, that the Goodreads summary above is a little misleading. The mysterious spy is not a huge plot in this novel. The real mystery is the heart of Manifest and its people. Now a dusty town beaten down by the Great Depression, Manifest was once a thriving town of immigrants with secrets. I love the format of the book: Abilene's first-person narrative is interspersed with stories from 1918 as told by her new friend Sadie and punctuated by clippings from a 1918 town newspaper. While not a fast-paced novel, the writing is light and easy and the characters so endearing that I opened it each day with a happy sigh, knowing I was in for a treat. Parts of it echoed strains of To Kill a Mockingbird, as I suppose many small-town stories do, but it's neither a paean or a ripoff. Manifest tells its own lovely, quiet story, one that readers will enjoy immensely.

About Clare Vanderpool:
Clare Vanderpool is a resident of Wichita, Kansas. She has a degree in English and elementary education and enjoys reading, going to the pool with her children, the television show Monk, and visiting the bookstores in her town. She won the Newbery Medal for Moon Over Manifest, her debut novel. Her second novel, Navigating Early (Delacorte, 2013), won a Printz Honor award for excellence in young adult literature.


Online:
Visit Clare's website here


Want to win a free copy of this book? The first Monday of each month features a giveaway of any of the titles I've reviewed the previous month. Pick your fave, enter, and win!  Next giveaway: April 7.

SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.

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



Check out more great MMGM links at Shannon Messenger's blog!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

TBR 2014: Book No. 6



For shame, Claire! A fellow Kansas writer, a Newbery award winner who lives in your state, a wonderful lady who even attended your book signing in Wichita--and yeah, I've never read her debut novel. Okay, enough lashing! I'm reading Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool!

Vanderpool weaves humor and sorrow into a complex tale involving murders, orphans, bootlegging, and a mother in hiding. With believable dialogue, vocabulary and imagery appropriate to time and place, and well-developed characters, this rich and rewarding first novel is "like sucking on a butterscotch. Smooth and sweet." --Booklist (starred review)

Replete with historical details and surprises, Vanderpool's debut delights,
while giving insight into family and community.  --Publishers Weekly (starred review)
So far, I am loving this book. It's rich and interesting and wonderfully written. Come on, read it with me!

That's right: I've committed to reading all the books on my TBR Shelf this year--and blogging them! Click here to read the reviews I've posted so far.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan




















Title: The Lifeboat
Author: Charlotte Rogan
Pub info: Regan Arthur Books, 2012; 278 pp
Genre: adult period fiction / adventure/survival (fine for ages 12+)

Book #5 on the TBR list--done! I'm plowing through this shelf, blogfrogs. Reading The Lifeboat, I had to ask myself: How would I manage to survive in an overcrowded lifeboat on the open sea?

Goodreads summary:
Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.

In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she'd found. Will she pay any price to keep it?

The Lifeboat is a page-turning novel of hard choices and survival, narrated by a woman as unforgettable and complex as the events she describes.

Status: finished 2/27/14

My impressions:
This book has gotten a lot of press since its publication--enthusiastic reviews, a nod from Hollywood, a spot on quite a few "Best of 2012" lists--and that can be worrisome, in a way. I'd almost rather know nothing about a book rather than get my hopes up too high. A novel should be an intimate conversation between reader and writer. Not a parade.

Were my hopes hyped too high? Maybe a little, but Charlotte Rogan's debut novel is unquestionably good--suspenseful, certainly, and an interesting study of character and how it changes and adapts to extreme circumstances. The struggle for power and control in the boat between a salty crew member (who's the only person aboard who knows anything about sailing) and a domineering mother figure is the book at its most interesting. It's the sort of story you can't help putting yourself in: Would  you sacrifice the weakest to save the rest of the passengers? Could you volunteer to drown? Would you give up and drink seawater until you died?

I know, I know--but these are the questions that kept burning as I read the book. Rogan sets the scene so well in 1914 that I as the reader could feel the strictures of that society and time period, and how those strictures begin to break down as day after day passes in the lifeboat. The writing is tight and riveting and kept me turning pages.

I was less interested in Grace's trial, at least as it was depicted. I wanted to see more of the courtroom and less of the life in the cell. And while a good deal of the novel takes place in Grace's head, in some ways, I wasn't convinced I knew why she did what she did aboard the lifeboat. What, exactly, compelled her to act in a way that seemed so counter to her own principles? The author does try to explain, but I needed a bit more there. I'd have liked to get to know a few more of the passengers, too.

But these are small issues. The novel makes for compulsive reading and is a stunner, especially for a first-time novelist. I highly recommend it.

About Charlotte Rogan:
Charlotte Rogan graduated from Princeton University in 1975. She worked at various jobs, mostly in the fields of architecture and engineering, before teaching herself to write and staying home to bring up triplets. Her childhood experiences among a family of sailors and the discovery of an old criminal-law text provided inspiration for The Lifeboat, her first novel. She and her husband live in Connecticut.


Online:
Learn more about Charlotte and The Lifeboat at the author's website, here. Follow Charlotte on Twitter here, and on Facebook here. And check it out: Actress Anne Hathaway and Working Title are teaming up to adapt the book for the big screen!
 

Want to win a free copy of this book? The first Monday of each month features a giveaway of any of the titles I've reviewed the previous month. Pick your fave, enter, and win!  Next giveaway: April 7.

SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.

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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: THE CHRONICLES OF HARRIS BURDICK by Chris Van Allsburg

















Title: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales
Authors: Chris Van Allsburg (editor and illustrator); Lemony Snicket (introduction)
Pub info: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2011; 195 pp
Genre: MG fantasy/paranormal

The fourth book on this year's TBR shelf is an anthology--not my usual style, but I love the concept. Here's the scoop:

Goodreads summary:
Best-selling storytellers share tales inspired by the thought-provoking illustrations in Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick in a volume that includes contributions by such writers as Kate DiCamillo, Stephen King, and Jon Scieszka.

Status: Finished 2/28/14

My impressions:
Er ... augh! I have to confess that I wanted to love this collection more than I actually did love it. I remembered while reading it why I so rarely read short stories anymore. I used to love them, back in my high school and college lit courses, where they abound. But nowadays, I'd prefer to immerse myself wholly in a story for an extended period of time, not take a quick dip in and be forced out of the pool just as things get interesting.

The other problem with anthologies is that they're bound to be uneven, and this one is no exception. I was surprised to find that the stories by my favorite authors weren't necessarily the best in the collection. For example, I loved "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" by Tabitha King, an author I'd never read before, but I was underwhelmed by Lois Lowry's "Seven Chairs." Other highlights include "Missing in Venice" (Gregory Maguire), "The Harp" (Linda Sue Park), and "Another Place, Another Time" (Cory Doctorow).

I can't fault the writing of any of these stories, only how well they engaged my interest. Some ended too abruptly, as if the author had wanted to write a novel but was shoehorned into too brief a format, and one was very reminiscent of a popular film I recall from years back. (I won't say which film, because that would give away the premise, but you'll know if you read it.)

Am I glad I read the book? Sure, and I'm happy to own the hardcover edition, because the illustrations are beautiful and again, I like the idea of the book. I'd recommend it, but be aware, you may well love some stories and think others are a bit meh.

About Chris:
Chris Van Allsburg was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has been writing and illustrating children's books since the publication of his first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in 1979. Since then, Chris has written and illustrated 15 books and has illustrated three others that were written by Mark Helprin. He has won two Caldecott medals for his books Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985). He lives with his wife and kids in Providence, Rhode Island.

Online:
Visit Chris's very fun and interactive website here.  Watch an amusing trailer by Lemony Snicket here.


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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

TBR 2014: Book No. 5



Next up on the TBR Shelf is a book for grownups! Yes, I do read them. This one was a best seller a couple of years ago: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books, 2012). In this novel, a young woman recounts a harrowing fortnight aboard a lifeboat after a Titanic-like shipwreck.

"Tantalizing.... A tremendously fast-paced read... A psychological horror story, this novel makes a fine period piece.... Rogan steers The Lifeboat with a remarkably assured hand." --Mary Polls, Time

"An enthralling story of survival at sea.... One hell of a debut."  --Jonathan Raban, New York Review of Books

Best part: You don't have to be hungry or thirsty while reading it! I've been snacking compulsively throughout. Come along for the ride, and I'll share my thoughts when it's over.


That's right: I've committed to reading all the books on my TBR Shelf this year--and blogging them! Click here to read the reviews I've posted so far.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Sweetening the Pot with Giveaways

So yeah, having run low on blogging topics, and wanting to add some accountability to my reading goals for the year, you may have noticed that I'm reviewing more books this year. Specifically, I've challenged myself to read all the books on my To Be Read (TBR) Shelf in 2014. You can read all about that here. And to make it more interesting, I've decided to

HOST A GIVEAWAY EVERY MONTH!

Every month I'll put up a giveaway here on the blog of one of the books I've conquered in the previous 30 days. There won't be a ton of choice--I'm only blogging a few books every month--but there will be a mix of adult, young adult, and middle-grade titles. Pick your favorite and enter the giveaway, which will last for a week, and I'll send the winner his or her very own copy of said favorite book. If no one enters, well, too bad. On to the next month.

And no, this is not a way for me to clear my shelves. You'll get a brand-new book from Amazon.com.

We've already lost two months of 2014, so this giveaway is a double. I may well do a double-month giveaway at other times in the year, depending on how much time I need to devote to, you know, writing. Here are the books for this giveaway. Click on the links to read my reviews, then click below to enter.


THE PECULIAR 
by Stefan Bachmann
fantasy, ages 8+

BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE
by Kate DiCamillo 
contemporary, ages 8+


MADE FOR EACH OTHER
by Meg Daley Olmert 
adult nonfiction / animal behavior & biology 

IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS
by Cat Winters 
paranormal novel, ages 12+ 















GIVEAWAY RULES:
1. U.S. entrants only, please.
2. Be sure to note the book you want to win AND WHY.
3. Giveaway prizes will be brand-new books delivered to you via Amazon.com. They will be paperback editions unless the book is still only available in hardcover.
4. There's a new giveaway every month! CLICK HERE to receive a brief email every time a new giveaway is posted on the blog. 


GIVEAWAY #1 ENDS MARCH 10, 2014
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, March 2, 2014

TBR Reading Goal Update


Yeah, I know--you're just sitting up nights wondering how I could update my original TBR 2014 Reading Goal. Will she wimp out? Will she sneak a few books off the shelf and pretend they never existed? Will she ever get to the point?

No, no, and yes. Here I thought I was being so original, blogging about my progress through the 2014 TBR Shelves, but it turns out plenty of other people are doing it too. So to add to the fun, I'm joining the challenge on the Bookish blog, which is doing, well, the same thing I am--only with more pizazz.

So, take note! I'm officially joining the Bookish 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge, which you can learn more about here. The level I'll aim for is 41-50 books ("Could This Be Love?"), because although I've got 51 books on my list, it's possible I'll abandon some of these books 50 pages in. (I think 50 pages is a fair shot. Really.)

You can head over to Bookish to see a list of other bloggers who've joined the challenge, and to join yourself! Most of my books are middle-grade and young adult novels, though I've got a few for adults thrown in too, but if your taste runs to more adult books, you'll find plenty on the Bookish list.

My review coming up this week: The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, an anthology of middle-grade short stories edited by Chris Van Allsburg.

See my full list of TBRs right here.

Read reviews of what I've read so far on the list here.

Read on, blogfrogs!