Thursday, May 30, 2013

Free Books for Review

I've been mentioning recently this new website I've discovered called "Story Cartel."  The idea is that you are able to download books for free as long as you agree to write a review.  I'm super excited because I just learned that Dalaina May's wonderful book, Yielded Captive, is available for free for the next 20 days if you are willing to write a review of the book after reading it.  You can see from my review here that I really loved this book.  If you are interested in reading Dalaina's excellent story of a missionary taken captive in the jungles of Peru, then you can head here and sign up for Story Cartel yourself.  Yippee!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: You Are a Writer

One of my fellow writer's group writers led me to Jeff Goins and I have been receiving his updates regularly since then.  I read his Writer's Manifesto, but didn't really feel led to write a review.  He recently started a new website called "Story Cartel," which allows readers access to manuscripts for the purposes of reviews.  I decided to check it out and the first book I selected to read and review was Jeff Goin's book, You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One).

I think this book would be extremely useful to someone who is just beginning to follow their dream of becoming a writer.  Every writer starts out not fully believing that they have what it takes to make other people want to read their words.  Jeff provides a pep talk encouraging the newbie to really believe they already are a writer and to buckle down and actually do the work of writing (after all if you call yourself a writer, but never write ... hmmm).  I suppose I already believe myself to be a writer, so the pep talk didn't exactly seem necessary.

Still, I think Goins had great things to say and would be encouraging to the newbie.  He emphasizes the importance of following and writing what you are passionate about.  This is the only way to find your authentic voice and your authentic voice is what the world needs to hear. 

I do think his encouragements are primarily targeting non-fiction writers.  I have no desire to go out there and write articles (apart from my book reviews), but I give myself wholeheartedly to my fiction writing (as he suggests).  The key thing I received from this book was the message to follow my passion, build connections with potential readers, and believe in the art I was meant to create.  On the whole, every writer could stand to hear another pep talk.  While nothing was brand-new to me, it was still encouraging and motivating.

The only additional thing I will add is that there are millions of people in the world who have something to say.  As the Bible says, "of making many books there is no end." (Eccl. 12:12)  I don't think you will necessarily excel as a writer because you put into practice these offered steps.  I think it does come down to timing, your willingness to show up and do what you need to do, and God's desire to make something of those words.  The process could break down in any of those spheres.  Who knows.  The important thing is to show up and be willing to be a vessel.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: The Redeemer

Jo Nesbo's The Redeemer isn't the kind of book I would normally read.  In fact, it is kind of amazing that I continued reading despite the filth included in this book.  My interest was piqued because the book is about a Salvation Army soldier who is murdered while standing at a kettle at Christmas time in Norway (the author is Norwegian and has apparently been translated into 47 languages).  I think I wanted to see if the author really did his research and got the presentation of Army people correct.

My analysis?  He failed to accurately portray The Salvation Army and their constituents.  He presented a shell of Salvation Army terms and concepts adorned with entirely worldly attributes (lust, greed, corruption, immorality, etc.).  Of the eight or nine soldiers presented in the tale, all but one give in to sexual misconduct or some other form of ethical misconduct.  I think the author saw using The Salvation Army as an interesting device, with little concern for accuracy in presentation.

I can understand the appeal of his books.  He writes well.  In the almost 400 pages of this book, he keeps the reader guessing clear up to the end as to who is responsible for the hiring of the hit man. Although confusing at times, because it jumps around from character to character, the pacing in the book was perfect.  The solution to the puzzle was an interesting premise.  The story carried you along, anticipating the climax and resolution.

The characters, however, were entirely immoral.  The book was full to the brim with casual sexual encounters, lewd homosexual acts, rape, and the like.  The sad thing is that this tale could have been told without all that filth.  The premise was worthwhile.  The thought of a religious organization being targeted is intriguing. The police investigation was gripping.  Sadly, it was all overrun with despicable behavior.

If this author interviewed Salvation Army officers for his research for this book, I can imagine that they would be horrified to know what came of his research.  They would not be happy with his presentation of The Salvation Army.  As a former member of The Salvation Army, I'm disturbed by the images presented in this book. 

Obviously an author has fair game for inventing story lines within any segment of society, but sadly the Army was presented in a bad, completely erroneous light in this fictional tale.  Then again, one cannot expect an author with no religious moorings to portray true Christianity or even a hint of the depth of meaning behind true redemption.  As a crime writer, he nailed his subject, but his religious commentary was far from the mark.  What's sad is that people buy into this presentation as if it is accurate.  For example, a writer for the Daily Telegraph declared it "a complex story, impossible to second-guess, which proves that greed, lust and a desire for revenge lurk within the saintliest of folk."  While I admit that even the saintliest of folk can be susceptible to sin's allure, such attributes are the exception, rather than the rule and Army people, on the whole, are more interested in being a light in the darkness than in acting in the manner this author presents.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: Twisted

I've only read two other Laurie Halse Anderson books, Speak and Wintergirls, but knew this book would be good.  She is certainly a gifted author of young adult literature.  She gets the voice down perfectly, speaks their language, and knows the dynamics of the problems they face.

Twisted is another book written from a male protagonist narrator's point-of-view.  This one was very well done.  I will say that I found the narrator (perhaps because of the way the audio presenter performed the book) to have a stilted manner.  The sentences were short and choppy.  I'm sure this was intentional to assist in conveying the sense of personality and voice.  At times, I found this to be annoying.  Just me.

Tyler is a high school senior who is recovering from a bit of trouble.  After a fairly anonymous existence, he asserts himself one day with "the foul deed," when he spray-paints a message on his school building and earns probation and community service.  This "foul deed" has shifted the way he is perceived by his classmates, even to the point of earning the attention of the girl of his dreams, Bethany (the daughter of his father's boss).  But, one night, after Bethany invites him to a party because she likes him, he finds himself in a whole world of trouble when he is accused of something he didn't do.  Life appears to be so twisted that he contemplates his escape options.  In the end, he grows up and takes responsibility for some of the things he wants from life.

I think it was great the way the book highlighted how one action can alter the perceptions of others and create a whole climate of expectation for future behavior.  The protagonist had a clear antagonist (Bethany's twin brother, Chip) and even provided further complications created by the triangle of involvement his father and his father's boss presented.  I was satisfied with the resolution, although it felt like it could have used a bit more oomph (things sort of resolved on their own once the narrator began taking responsibility for what he wanted).  Moreover, I was thrilled to see the main character really grow and mature through the events of the book.

On the whole, this is a book I would recommend to teen readers and especially reluctant male readers.  The author provides enough character development to make the reader care about what happens.  Moreover, any teen will be able to relate to the situations that unfold in the story.  Once again, Anderson has a true gift for getting inside the teenage brain and confronting modern conflicts that are believable and dynamic.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Prom Pictures

I'm not a photographer.  Just not my skill-set.  I tried, I really did.  I took three pictures of Bryce before he headed out the door to his date's house for a pre-prom gathering (we were invited, too, but felt too exhausted and uncomfortable to attend - since I'd been gone all day at a music day event and we don't really know any of the other parents).  For weeks, I've been asking Bryce to see if we could get some pictures from his date.  Not the best solution, to ask your teenage son to intervene.  Alas, nothing happened.  Finally, I sent a FB friend request to his date's mother and requested a photo that way.  So, with no further ado (or babbling about my insufficiencies) ...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Review: Trapped

I picked up Michael Northrup's new book, Trapped, because it features a male protagonist narrator (the very point of view I am trying to master in one of my manuscripts).  The back cover boasted plenty of accolades: "An ALA/YALSA Reader's Choice List Selection," "An ALA/YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers," and "A Spring 2011 Indie Next List Selection."  USA Today calls it "compelling," Publishers Weekly calls it "a gripping disaster story," and Booklist promises "the pages will turn like wildfire."

Trapped tells the story of Scotty Weems and six other students who are trapped in their isolated high school building during a horrifying and lengthy blizzard.  If they have to spend the night in the school, at least there is a consolation prize of two hot girls thrown in the mix.  The final sentence in the back cover blurb proclaims, "As the days add up and the snow piles higher, the chances of survival seem to be slipping away, and Scotty and his friends are forced to make some devastating decisions..."

I will admit, I wondered if things were going to get so bad that the characters were going to turn on one another.  In the end, the story could basically be summed up by the blurb on the back cover.  The romance was limited and primarily featured Scotty's buddy, instead of Scotty himself.  As for the harrowing experience, it just felt predictable. 

I don't know why, but I blame myself again for not finding this story to be more "compelling."  I think my reading drive is stalling out for some reason.  It was a good book, just not as great or compelling as I expected.  I do think the author did an excellent job with voice for the narrator, but the characters seemed somewhat cardboard to me. It was a typical mix - reluctant jock, average Joe, pretty girls out of their league, nerdy weird kid, and gruff bully.  Yet, the interactions between them were fairly tame (apart from one fight based on a misunderstanding).  I tried really hard to put myself in the shoes of the characters and their dilemma, but never quite connected with the story as much as I had hoped.  I would give it 3.5 stars.  I do think it would appeal to reluctant teen male readers.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: Hooked

When you start querying agents for representation of your writing, you begin to realize how small your window is for attracting the desired attention.  In other words, they usually only request to see the first five to ten pages of the novel with the query.  That's not a lot of words to entice with.  You have to be really high on your mark to pull the agent-reader in.

I once entered a young adult novel contest where you submitted the title and the first 500 words.  That's an even harder task to appeal with.  You need to present the best possible use of your words to enchant and hook the reader.

Thus, when I noticed Les Edgerton's book on Amazon, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go, I knew I wanted to read this book.  It is a skill I'm determined to master.  I will take all the advice I can find.

A major emphasis in this book is the argument concerning the importance of a great beginning.  I think I already grasped this, or I wouldn't have purchased the book.  Still, the author did have some good points to make.  He emphasized the need to start at the right place, a place of action rather than rumination or back-story.  He talked a lot about the inciting incident.  I think what I gained most from the book was the idea that you must know what your driving conflict is for your novel.  If you don't know what is driving your book, then you can't possibly deliver the kind of beginning that will prove to be irresistible.  The first few sentences have to be labored over enough to stand out for the reader.  Oftentimes, a reader will only give a novel the first few sentences to see whether they are indeed interested in reading further.

I will admit, I don't tend to open books to the first sentences.  What hooks me is the paragraph blurb, on the back or inside cover, which tells what the story is going to be about.  But still, I embrace the importance of those first few sentences for shaping the direction of the story.  You cannot be wasteful with words!

The author provided many examples of excellent openings, but I didn't find very many of them to be compelling to me.  Which really supports the truth of subjectivity.  Oftentimes, it is just finding the right agent at the right time with the right story and not every story is right for every person.  What he considered to be enticing, often didn't draw me in.

Plus, he outlined several rules to follow when striving for a solid beginning, but with every rule provided examples that violated the rules, yet were still stellar.  There is an exception for every rule!  In other words, best to follow the standard rules for a great beginning, but know that the rule doesn't apply in every case.  Ha!

Here are a few of the sentences I underlined (I found myself no longer underlining during the second half of the book and really began to lose interest in the writing):

"The inciting incident is the crucial event - the trouble - that sets the whole story in motion.  It triggers the initial surface problem and stars to slowly expose the protagonist's story-worthy problem."

 "The story shouldn't really begin at any time other than when the trouble begins.  The story simply doesn't exist before that point."

"A true story-worthy problem is closely associated with the protagonist's inner self."

"[The antagonist's] goal has to conflict with the protagonist's goal.  That's where the conflict and tension in the story usually comes from."

All in all, I'm glad to have read this book for more insight into developing a great beginning.  But, I did find myself slogging through it in spots.  Now, I will try to put the lessons to work as I refine my openings in a few of my novels.  Apparently, I did reach the mark with one, since an agent requested one of my manuscripts several weeks back.  In that one, I'm sure that I presented the inciting incident within the first page and developed it with a fairly strong voice.  We'll see what happens.

I loved his advice on the final page: "Don't fall victim to paralysis by overanalysis.  Take what works for you from this book and forget what doesn't.  Trust your instincts."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

And the Blog Went Silent

Three quick reasons:

1) I've been obsessively re-writing one of my young adult novels in order to submit a query to an agent who is looking for strong voice from a male narrator.  The novel is a mystery and was written in third person omniscient (so that the reader could hear the thoughts of every character and could glean information about the case from all sides).  Talk about tough.  It is quite challenging to still convey important information while limiting the reader's insight  down to one primary character's perspective.  Thank goodness for small town gossip ... otherwise, I don't think I could have completed this re-write.  I finished the first person version today.  Now I will obsessively begin editing the re-write (especially aiming for an enticing beginning).  Yippee!

2) I think I've lost my reading mojo.  When a Newbery Award winner seemed to inch along for me, I was already on the alert to something being up.  Now, I am slogging through a book about ... creating enticing openings for a novel.  Somehow, the writing isn't very enticing, even though it is talking about inciting incidents and being enticing to a reader.  Then again, as I said, maybe it's just me.

3) One of the blogs I follow recently went private.  The author explained why - because she was receiving numerous hits from one location and they were clicking on photos of her sons extensively.  I would have been creeped out, too.  As I read of her experience and related my own, with a stalker from Michigan who used to view my blog almost hourly (and stopped the minute I drew attention to the stalker on my blog), I began to notice that a few different IP addresses from Russia are repeatedly hitting my son's art blog (two posts in particular - a birthday card he made for me and a post about getting a fake I-phone and finding a snake).  These seem like innocuous posts.  I can't understand how they would appeal enough to return to every other day.  Now, they're also hitting my blog.  While I'm not intending to go private (then there would be only one person reading my book reviews - my mother), I'm still a bit put off by it and don't really know what, if any, action should be taken.  Stat Counter can be a blessing and a curse.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Book Review: Wedding Night

I'm a big fan of Sophie Kinsella's books. I loved her from the very start of the Shopaholic series.  While this book was a bit more risque than I am used to, and perhaps not my favorite Kinsella book, it was still a delightful, fun romp of a tale.  I'm not sure why the sexual bits didn't bother me like they do in other novels.  I guess it is because she handled it in such a lighthearted manner and didn't wax overly-graphic.

In Wedding Night, we meet two sisters, Lottie and Fliss.  Lottie is convinced that her boyfriend is preparing to propose to her.  He has arranged a special dinner to "ask her something important."  She is all prepared to give her older sister, Fliss, a play-by-play as it goes down, but then it doesn't go down quite as she expected.  His "important question" is just about using airline miles.  Enter Fliss, who has watched Lottie go off the deep end after every other break-up and anticipates her making another "unfortunate choice," like getting a tattoo or quitting her job to go to graduate school.  Fliss is determined to head off another unfortunate choice.

Fliss has her own baggage, as she is still in the process of negotiating a tedious divorce and finalizing custody arrangements for her seven year old son, Noah.  Thus, she is all the more determined to keep Lottie from making a mistake, when Lottie informs Fliss that an old boyfriend from her past has shown up and proposed out-of-the-blue.  Lottie feels the arrangement was meant to be and is living in the romanticized past.  Fliss makes it her goal to keep the couple from enjoying their wedding night at all costs (thus the risque nature to the book) in the hopes of pursuing an annulment.  What ensues is a rip-roaring comedy of errors (reminiscent of Shakespearean comedies).

There was one bit I had to relate to my husband because it was so funny (an overheard and misinterpreted phone conversation).  Despite touching on sexual activities repeatedly and being fairly predictable, I still have to say I enjoyed this novel.  The characters were endearing, the dialogue genuinely funny, and the scenarios preposterous, but thoroughly entertaining.  Although I was uncomfortable with the degree of moral relativism when it comes to sexual behavior in the book, I was at least mollified by a few brief arguments for the wisdom of pursuing love, then marriage, then sexual relations.  And, as in Shakespearean comedy, "all's well that ends well."

Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: When You Reach Me

I blame myself for not liking this book more.  It is a Newbery Award winner, has received great reviews, and Gemma Cooper (an agent I intend to query regarding one of my manuscripts) says, "One of my all time favourite books is WHEN YOU REACH Me by Rebecca Stead. I love that it blend genres, has an amazing voice and literary feel to the writing." So why, with numerous accolades, blending genres, an amazing voice, and a literary feel, didn't I like it more? Well, I think it is because it took me so long to complete the book. This was one I picked up in audio form and, frankly, I just didn't get all that much audio time in over the last month (twenty minutes here or there when washing dishes and only when the boys weren't around because they are bothered by the volume I need in order to hear it over the running water). So, in addition to finding the pacing somewhat slow, I made the trek even slower by listening to this piece-meal over the space of three or four weeks. Not the best way to approach a book, I'm sure.

Miranda and Sal have been friends for forever, but something has shifted.  First, Sal gets punched out-of-the-blue by a boy they don't know for seemingly no reason.  Then, Sal begins to shut Miranda out of his life, choosing to spend time with his basketball instead.  Miranda tries to pick up the slack by befriending some other girls in her class and even meets and befriends the bully who attacked Sal. But in the midst of all of this, she begins receiving weird messages on small slips of paper.  The first message announces the intention to save her friend's life, but she must write a letter.  Add in the presence of a crazy man on the corner who calls her "smart girl" and you've got the beginnings of an intriguing mystery.

I did enjoy the references to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.  It was appropriate for the book and added support for the mystery element.  I also enjoyed the incorporation of the game show, "The Ten-Thousand Dollar Pyramid."  Each chapter title was worded in the format of the game show (although I don't think kids would totally get that connection). The characters were well-drawn and the voice was solid.  It was a bit hard to get into at the beginning and hard to follow at times, because I was listening in such small snatches.  Moreover, I did find the narrator's voice on the audio version to be a bit whiny in spots (especially when voicing the mother's dialogue). Still, I'm game to try another book by this author and plan to look for Liar & Spy next. I'm guessing I'll read it myself instead of listening, so I can hasten the process. Another plus, Liar & Spy looks like it is intended for boy readers, so I might discover another future book to read with my little guys in a few years.