Category Archives: Reviews

Summer Teen Reading Party, the Karmapa, and a Villainous Sale

The Month of May I’ve joined the Summer Teen Reading Party!  Get your kindles and nooks loaded up with a bunch of brand new YA and MG novels to get ready for summer.  I know a few of these authors personally, and I’m super excited to meet the others!  You can view the whole event here or check out a list of all the authors involved.  There’s prizes, book giveaways, sales for books for $1.99 and $0.99, and loads of great interviews and excerpts to enjoy.  I’ll be joining the fun and tweeting about the event all month as well.

On my own blog I’m interviewing Penny Estelle on May 5th.  Interviewing Barbara Ehrentreu on May 17th.  Then I have a guest post from Marva Dasef on May 20th, and a guest post from Kate Fuentes on May 28th!  I’ll also be giving away a copy of one of my books on each of those days on their blogs where I’m featured in return.  I’ll post those links on the day each person is hosted as well, but check out the full schedule for a bunch of giveaways and prizes.

This last week I was sick, which is why I failed to blog last Monday, but I made up for it by reading a great deal.  Among a lot of reading old favorites (Earthsea books and The Enchanted Forest Chronicles) I also ready a fascinating non-fiction book “The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa” by Mick Brown.  Now, prior to reading this, I had never heard of the Karmapa, a religious figure similar to the Dali Lama who escaped with him originally when he fled Tibet.  This Karmapa though was the next one, a child identified in Tibet who grew up under Chinese supervision until at the age of 14 he also fled the country.

I picked up this book with several from the library about Tibet for research on my new project, a fantasy novel that steals elements from Chinese and Tibetan history.  It however, reads more like a memoir than a history.  About half the chapters cover the 17th Karmapa’s childhood, identification, troubles  in China, and eventual escape.  Every other chapter was about church politics between the students of the 16th Karmapa who disagreed over if the right boy had been chosen.  I thought that would be boring, but found myself fascinated instead… and now inclined to write a different book about church politics… it’s been very helpful for another project I have with a priest character of a fantasy religion.

The one caveat is the book is written by a western follower of Tibetan Buddhism, so while he’s fair and balanced in talking about the politics between different monks, he has a few places he gets rather overly sentimental about both the Dali Lama and the Karmapa.  However, the memoir tone of the book made this feel not as out of place as it might be in a history book and the tone generally worked for making it an easy and enjoyable read.

Finally, for the month of May, “A School for Villains” is on sale for $1.99 at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.  Amazon should price match in about a week.

What I learned from Bill Peet’s Autobiography

Growing up, I was in love with Bill Peet’s picture books.  My mother’s dislike for their “cartoony” illustrations and “preachy” messages only seemed to fuel my enjoyment of them and my desire to check them all out of the library (she would not buy us any of them).  That and Babar, which she also hated.  I liked the energy of Bill Peet’s pictures, especially his monsters, and the depressing tone to many of the tales didn’t bother me.  If there was anyone who knew what kids liked, it was certainly Bill Peet.

My brother is lending me a bunch of books because he’s going off to college and so needs somewhere to store them for four years.  One of his books, which I’d browsed when visiting him, is “Bill Peet: An Autobiography.”  Since it had been good when sampling it, I asked to borrow it, and ended up reading the whole thing yesterday evening.  It’s wonderfully readable, in part because each page has at least as much illustration as words, a picture book for adults.  It makes the autobiography about the size of a coffee table book, but its a delight to flip through, and the text is large and easily accessible.  I can’t tell if it’s meant for adults or children, in that it’s so easy to read, and yet he is so frank about adult life issues, poverty, raising children, and office politics under Walt Disney.  I think it’s the sort of book anyone could read, but you get a lot more out of as an adult reader.

Several things stood out to me from reading it.

  • Bill Peet never stops drawing.  He drew constantly from a young age to the present.  Drawing is like breathing for him.
  • Writing didn’t come naturally to him.  Peet was convinced he was horrible, until Walt Disney in a fit of weird temper started insisting he write full length animated screen plays.  For some reasons, Peet had no trouble doing this, and it gave him confidence in his story telling on his own.  He also kept practicing writing to improve, even though it took years and he tended to fall back into drawing instead out of frustration
  • Peet always had a back-up plan, even if it kept changing, other than working for Disney.  He knew the job was unreliable and would eventually drive him nuts, even if he kept doing it for 27 years or something.  It was inspiring and fascinating to hear him talk about the various back-up income plans he worked out and his failures before his children’s books took off.  The main thing is, he never kept looking for a way out, the next step to what he wanted to do for his career.

It makes me wonder, what goals do I want to set for myself and work?  When do I give up and when to I press forward?  And it makes me grateful that I don’t have Walt Disney for a boss, even if also sounds like he challenged him in positive ways.  He didn’t make him sound like he was someone it was easy, or nice, to know personally.

It also makes me think that I should take up drawing again.  I’m the opposite in that I write constantly, and when I try to draw I give up and just write instead.  But maybe if I stuck with it a bit longer, I’d be more satisfied with my work.  I also feel the need to go to the library… and check out as many Bill Peet books as I can find.

The Power of Practice

My mother brought home a fascinating book that she got in the airport while looking for something to read on her recent vacation called Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.  While the title is purposely provocative, I think a more accurate description of what it is about would be “practice makes perfect.”  The book looks at how top performers of music, chess, and sports all practice, how practice effects their brain, and why its necessary to be truly great at anything.

Even if there’s a lot of duh practice makes you better, the book does a great job of showing how a specific sort of focused practice works while doing the same thing over and over does.  You have to constantly critique yourself, evaluate your performance, and keep trying to improve specific pieces of it.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book for me though, was the section on Benjamin Franklin and how he taught himself to write.  As a teenager, after his father gave him a critique about his argument writing, pointing out what was good and what needed improvement, a rather normal sort of critique you might get at a writing workshop online, if you find a good one.  But instead of just using this advice, like I’ve done (to generally good effect), Franklin decided to chose several well-known and excellent essays above him in craft and use them in a fascinating new way to practice and grow his writing.

While reading the essay he would take notes on the meaning of each sentence, then several days later, try to reconstruct the essay from his notes in his own words.  The compare it to the original and look for his faults and how to fix them.  One area he found he was lacking in was vocabulary, so he rewrote the essay into verse next, then back into prose, and then again compared it to the original.  To work on organization, he would write each note on a separate piece of paper, shuffle them, and waited a few weeks until he forgot the essay, then tried to order and rewrite it as best he could and compare again to the original.

I’ve consider the idea of how to “practice writing like music” before and only came up with possibly sentence diagramming as something like musical scales (and then never tried it), so I was really amazed and pleased to read this approach.  There’s a few problems taking it over to fiction.  First, the elements that make a good fiction novel are more widely varied.  Secondly, I remember what I really exceedingly well, so I’m not sure a few days/weeks would be enough to make me forget the actual way it was worded, especially when taking notes.  I’ve had to edit out sentences now and then from my work that sound too much the same to something I once read (even if it was unconnected and long ago).

Still, Franklin’s method is inspiring.  I could design my own practice program doing something similar.  My brain is still humming about it… tossing about possibilities.  Sentence diagramming is still a good idea, but for plot, characterization, narrative tone, description, theme, symbolism, etc I’m going to need a lot more tools.

First though… who am I learning from?  Writing varies greatly.  I was stuck a little while, since I want to find my own voice, not just end up like writer x or y… but then I hit on it.  What I’d like more than anything is to win a Newberry Award, so what I should do is I should read all the Newberry books out there and pick them apart with my various tools, find out what make them tick.  While all very different, they all represent works that won the top award in their field, the field I want to be great in.

This week my task will be to figure out precisely what I’m going to do that qualifies as practice with each Newberry winner, and get a copy from the library of the earliest ones.  Then hopefully I can refine my learning program as I make my way through them and really improve some of my basic writing skills.  I do know I’m going to start in 1922 and work my way to the present, through all of them.   And I’m know I’m faced for some difficult practice ahead when that means my first book is going to be the dubiously titled: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon.  That’s certainly not one I’d have picked up for any other reason than this project.

 

Sylvanians, Twitter, and two book reviews

Writing itself has sort of gotten stuffed to the back of my closet the last week as I’ve tried to push through other things, including “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” a book recommended to me by Merc (an excellent read) and more of “Getting Things Done” which has seemed to result in me getting a ton of things done, but all of them non-writing things I’m forever putting off.

One of the excellent points the book makes is that a cluttered space lowers our willpower.  People in a messy lab scored lower on quizzes or accomplishing things than people in a tidy lab.

One of these things was to go look at our stuff in the attic that my husband and I are storing at my parent’s house, only to find the roof leaked on it, which meant sorting all of it before they get back from their vacation.  I’ve spent the last three days rather astounded at some of the stuff I’ve saved… (old movie tickets from high school? really? and those old striped sheets, eww, I don’t know how I ever liked them)

Then finding some of the stuff has inspired some of my other hobbies emerging once again…

I’ve collected Sylvanians for years… small animal dolls that were hugely popular  in the 1980s, and apparently stayed popular (unknown to me) in Japan, which is why they resurfaced later renamed in the US anyway, as Calico Critters.

I keep telling myself I have enough of them (does a collector really ever have enough) but then would see some here and there and fall in love with them.  Well, i found a pack of used ones at Value Village the other day and just had to have them.  Most of them, however, lacked clothing.  So, I tried to sew some… and got some rather iffy results (the first shirt looks more like those things they make you put on at the emergency room).  While the green dress looks alright from the front, it doesn’t close in the back either.

Store clothes compared with mine.

After turning to the internet for help I finally found some patterns.  While the instructions are all in Japanese, the pictures are easy enough to follow and you can see a huge difference in my new results.  The shirt both fits and closes in the back and the dress looks remarkably like the store made ones, which pleases me.

I also finally figured out Twitter… I mean I know it’s not supposed to be complicated, you just follow people and type very very short messages, but I sort of felt lost by the whole format.  I did find a group on She Writes of self-published women who were all posting Twitter handles though, and so by adding them I finally got the sense of the why to Twitter.  Everyone was so nice and friendly when I added them.  It helps they also decided to copy Google plus in their format, which threw me off at first but then made it easier to find things. I’m looking forward to staying connected with a great group of authors.

Also, I received a wonderful review from Gina, Diane Saleri’s daughter on her blog In High Spirits and another great review from Good Book Alert last week.  I’m thrilled they enjoyed it so much.

Perhaps all this productivity will finally this week translate into some writing.  That’d be nice.  I’m partway through a novella connected to “A School for Villains” that I’d like to finish and start on its way to publication.

A Reading Vacation and the New Year

Happy New Year everyone!

So, the week before Christmas was insanely busy, so I didn’t get a post up (or anything else done), and then, on Christmas itself, my sister was given “The Hunger Games” trilogy (which I had not read yet).  There’s a reason that I ration my reading, because well, I can get pretty consumed with it.  Despite knowing I should make myself work first, as soon as I was done with the two day relative seeing that Christmas involved, I started in after her, making a second week of effective complete vacation.  Not that it took me more than a day per a book, but my sister is a slower reader, so I had to wait for her to finish the previous one.

It feels kind of odd to have not really used the internet, nor to have written anything for a full two weeks.  I’m hoping, as I now get around to the business of plotting my writing goals for the next year, that this will be a good thing and an energizing thing.  I’m looking at a multi-front attack on publishing next year, with the goal of a book out on submission to agents/publishers, a book to small press, a book to a Christian press, and a second indie publication all by the end of the year.  Put Nanowrimo with that, and that’s five books, which I think will be challenging, but keep me moving.  I’m going to go for 3 books being picked from my stash of already written books and 2 that need to be written.  Then there’s marketing and the blog, but I’m hoping to keep my goals simple there, the same once a week update, getting out the books to review blogs, and probably a few sales.  After all, what I hear is best for marketing is having more books out, so that should be the first order of business.

Now, usually I don’t like giving thorough book reviews, because I want to support fellow authors, not complain about the short comings of books… and I’m usually a fairly critical reader.  But “The Hunger Games” has already made its million, so I feel giving my thoughts after finally reading them won’t set anyone back, and I do recommend them as generally well-written, if grim.  Honestly, the series reminded me a lot of “Ender’s Game” in that the events are so grueling and the MC so broken by the end that you finish feeling a bit raw.  The theme of cruel games mixed with war is also very similar.  Also, um, if you haven’t read these, spoilers abound here.

Book 1:

I can see from reading it, why this series has been so popular.  Book one was excellent in its pacing and characterization.  The whole thing sizzled and moved and was by far the strongest book of the series.  No wonder it was so popular.  I had a great time reading it.

BUT, the reason I didn’t try this book sooner than now, despite thinking it sounded interesting, was because I’d heard it ends on a cliffhanger.  I have real issue with ending books on cliffs, I feel like it’s a cheap trick on the author’s part.  We don’t read sequels because a book has a clever cliff-hanger, but because the whole book was so brilliant and the characters so compelling, we’d like more.  Plus, from an artistic point of view, a novel should be at thematic unit.  It should tie and hold together.

I was surprised to find “The Hunger Games” as resolved as it was, but could see why readers I knew had been annoyed (including my sister, who had read book 1, and then never came back to the series by the time the second book came out until she got the whole thing).  The author added an unnecessary sense of unresolved issues at the end, where the narrative and ending a tad sooner would have made the book far more resolved.

I think she should have had Katness only realize she needed to work out her feelings for her two non-boyfriends, and resolve to talk to Peeta, tell him she needs time to sort it out, and not actually yet get around to do it.  That feels like it’d be as resolved as possible.  Instead, showing them fight and be estranged right before ending was a bit annoying and I can see why anyone who didn’t have book 2 already sitting on their shelf was frustrated by that.  It was needless conflict the last few pages of the book and should have been saved for the opening of book 2.  It made me wonder, okay, are any of these books going to have an actual end?

Book 2:

This book was nowhere near as tight and brilliant as the first book.  The first third of this book dragged.  It lacked direction in the character arc, the events seemed a bit day to day without much direction, and while it was supposedly developing the characters, I mostly found them just plain annoying during this section.  Honestly, it felt like the author wasn’t sure of the direction of the story, flailed around a bit to find it, and left that writing process there for us to read.  Sigh.

Plus, there was one major issue of characterization I just couldn’t buy… that Katness was really so dense as to not realize that the comments she was getting and all the mockingjay symbols she was getting shown were in fact symbols of the revolution she unwittingly started.  It seemed rather clear, especially from the president’s threat in the beginning that not only was revolution brewing, but she was considered the poster girl for it.  Her taking most of the book to figure that out didn’t feel realistic to me.  That and Prim, who had felt like a vibrant character in book one, felt more like an empty little symbol waved at the reader to remind us of the sister relationship now and then… I’d have liked some real characterization, which I felt was reasonable, considering that despite not seeing her much in book 1, she always felt three dimensional.  She didn’t in this one.

Thankfully, once I got through that to the second 2/3 of the book, we went back to tightly plotted character arcs and snappy writing.  Katness’s second game was different in both events and character arc from book one that I was not at all bored having yet another game and the new characters in the game were delightful.

The ending, however, was abysmal as far as cliffs go, twice as bad as book 1, and a reminder that some authors simply cannot be trusted when it comes ending a book.  Also, I felt like what could have been an excellent opportunity for symbolism (the “baby” Katness is caring could symbolically be the revolution) was passed up.

Despite all my beefs with it, I had a good time though and was eager to read on.

Book 3:

This book was also not as well plotted as book 1, but had the opposite problem from 2… it started off great.  The revolution itself was a bit unfocused, but the characters were nice and strong, so I felt the book was moving, even if I didn’t have a good sense of where it was going with the plot.  I was cruising along until I hit the final battle for the capital, and was shocked to find it was boring.  The action was repetitive, the only truly likeable character in the group at that point with Katness (Finnack) was killed off, and it seemed we got random attack after random attack, without any of them being all that interesting.  There were a few good character bits, like the conversation between the two boys about who she’d pick, but for the most part the action really didn’t live up to the earlier battle scenes in the novel.  I put down the book several times, but wanted to keep going, so did.

Then, the whole bombing the children scene felt random, not well-described, and didn’t follow logically from everything else that was going on.  I felt unsure why either side needed to do it, whichever side it was that had… and while book 3 had done a better job of making Prim a character, it wasn’t enough I felt particularly anything about her death.  The novels have had just so many times of Katness also going unconscious and then working through a medical haze of treatment, especially with book 3, that I was also tired of that as much as I was of random booby traps in the city killing people.

Another strange thing, was that by the time we got down to figuring the romance out, I didn’t care enough anymore.  Gale sort of disappeared, despite physically being there, leaving me a bit … at the rather sudden disintegration of their relationship, and I could have used more emotion and sense of relationship tugging between her and Peeta, in trying to rebuild his memories… so that I actually could feel something happy about them finally working it out.  It was like the chemistry in both relationships fizzled during the grueling city battle and never really repaired itself.

Thankfully, the novel rallied for a strong finish plotwise and, shockingly, a firm and thematic ending.  Despite my ranting, I was satisfied, although I think I like “Ender’s Game” better still.  It certainly brought home for me how difficult it is to write a series, even with a strong premise and a brilliant book 1, and I do hope the author will try something new, now that she’s been so successful, because she’s certainly an excellent writer.  The only mechanical issue was some of her narrative transitions were a tad abrupt.

Now, I have to try the book I got for Christmas… “Foundling.”  Only first, need to get back into the swing of writing and hammer out which books will be my chosen ones for this years goals.

Ten Fabulous MG/YA Books I Read in Critique

One of the best things over the years about being a member of my favorite critique group (Critique Circle) is the many fabulous books I’ve encountered in helping other authors. Sure, when I read them in critique, the majority of books are deeply flawed and in need of help, but that’s why they’re in critique. They aren’t yet ready. But by the time they’ve finished there they’re strong works that stick with me for years.

So, here are ten middle grade or young adult books I critiqued in formation (in various levels) that have made their way to publication and why they’ve stuck with me. Sadly, there’s many more that haven’t reached publication, but I can always hope at least some of them will (perhaps a topic for another day). Also, I’ve enjoyed a number of fantastic adult novels in critique as well, but since I’m a children’s writer, I like to keep the blog focused on that genre. I must say, reading such a wide variety of stuff is one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about critiquing other authors.

Despite all being middle grade or young adult, these vary greatly in subject and taste, because as a reader I’ve got a wide interest. But what they all have in common is I’ve thought of them long after reading them. Also, most of them are new releases this year, some with sequels planned for next year!  So I’ll have to do this blog topic again sometime soon!

Lost in Lexicon by Pendred Noyce– Ivan and Daphne, bored with their great aunt’s house, wander into an alternate universe where a thesaurus is an animal rather like a llama and punctuation can cause pest-like problems.  Both words and numbers weave magic in this “Phantom Tollbooth”-like world.

I totally loved critiquing this one, and it excited me to have something like one of beloved childhood favorite novels.  I was thrilled when Penny self-published it and even more thrilled when a publisher picked it up.  This book is both educational and entertaining, plus fully illustrated with whimsical art.  Be prepared to be challenged with both word and number puzzles, but if you aren’t into that, there’s also a great story and two well-developed main characters to enjoy.  And, I’ve critiqued the forthcoming sequel as well and can hardly wait for it to get released.

Hannibal’s Elephant Girl by Ariion Kathleen Brindley– Liada is pulled from the river by the elephant Obolus, and adopted into a bustling military camp and all the traders who operate in it.  She searches both for who she used to be, and who she wants to become, while getting to know the young man who will soon begin his famous march on Rome.

This one is a classic historical fiction middle grade novel, and one I think ought to win awards, but I don’t know how much the author has managed to submit it to any contests, unfortunately.  The characters and setting is vivid and reminded me of such Newberry winning historical classics as “Yung Fu of the Upper Yangtze” or “Daughter of the Mountains.”  The one thing I wanted more of, was more scenes with Obulus, the elephant, although I’m guessing the sequel has plenty of that.  Unfortunately I haven’t gotten to read it yet.  I have read a couple of Brindley’s other, adult novels though, and they’re also excellent.

 The Odd Job Squad by Karl Fields — Ander runs a middle school revenge business with his small group of quirky friends.  They pride themselves on getting back at the school bullies without getting caught.  But when they stumble into some adult secrets with large ramifications, they find themselves in deeper trouble than they ever imagined.

This one had me laughing the whole way through, yet also really caring about the characters. Like “Dairy of a Wimpy Kid” or the “Bad Girls” series, I felt totally immersed in the world of junior high school while reading.  The setting in San Francisco is very vivid as well; I’ve only visited the city a couple times, but felt the novel really captured the sense of it.  Also, plenty of plot twists and turns and a thought provoking commentary on what’s appropriate and what’s not trying to stand up to bullies.

Bad Spelling by Marva Dasef — Katrina can’t spell, a terrible problem for anyone, but made worse by the fact she’s a witch.  All her spells go wrong, no matter how hard she works, while her younger brother is extra talented.  It’s enough to drive any girl crazy.  But when she sets out find the nature of the curse that hinders her magic, her brother turns out to also be her biggest supporter.

A lively mix of humor and sincerity, this adventure is one I critiqued from its first draft, and I’m thrilled that it finally got picked up by an e-publisher this year.  The characters are dynamic and the sibling relationship my favorite part of this story.  There’s also some great plot twists and hilarious moments I don’t want to spoil.  And while this is my favorite of Marva’s books, I’ve also helped critique and am a fan several other middle grade novels of hers, including “Eagle Quest,” “The Tales of Abu Newas,” and “First Duty.”

The Mirror of N’de by LK Malone — Hadlay, a gutsy child of an enslaved people, wins a chance to join the Emperor’s elite magical school.  She hopes by winning the prince’s attention she can better her people’s plight, yet swept away by competing desires for revenge and glory, finds herself wrapped up in court politics that go deeper than she could have ever imagined.

Think “Narnia” meets “Harry Potter” with a twist of horror, or at least in my mind when I consider how grim some of the spectacular twists in the story take it. (Then again, “Goosebumps” is my level of horror novels.) I would consider it a 12 and up novel, depending on how well the kids can take horror, but well worth the read.   Part of it is the vivid quality of events that really bring the fantasy world presented here to life.  Also, I don’t mind a bit of allegory in a story, especially one with such strong plot and characters.  It makes its theological points, but it’s all within the framework of the story events.

Hero’s Choice by A. Merc Rustad — Dark Lord Mrkota discovers the newborn fated to kill him in fifteen years, conveniently marked with a blue star on his forehead. But flouting tradition, he decides to adult him instead of letting him float off downstream in a basket, because “I’d rather have my heir learn how to rule my empire the proper way if he’s going to kill me and take over.” Everyone else, however, seems bent on making fate come true, whatever Mrkota and his son might want.

This is a wonderful young adult humor novella in the tradition of “Dealing with Dragons,” only this time it’s the villain who’s taking a stand against fairy tale traditions. It’s published with the young adult online magazine “Silver Blade,” and currently FREE. If you haven’t read it yet, go do it, while it’s still available! Although I hope the author will put it up on kindle when the magazine is done with it, because this is one of my all time favorites.

The Dragon Box by Katie W Stewart — James is drawn into another world by a small devise belonging to his quirky neighbor and has to work out his real world problems in a parallel fantasy world.

While I don’t love this one as much as the author’s forthcoming “The Mark of the Dragon Queen,” it’s a strong middle grade novel that will resonate with kids.  The characters are dynamic and entertaining and the well worn themes are presented in a lively manner that’s quite appealing. And who wouldn’t fall in love with this cute little dragon?

 

Unchosen Mage by M. Norton —  A wizard locked in a Merlin-esque state of suspended animation might be the only hope for Lanterra as evil forces seek to destroy the world. Two young wizards in training, one the top of his class, the other the class dropout, are forced by events to go looking for a way to end the enchantment.

This classic high fantasy novel was one that I shredded early on it its life. Instead of ignore me of worse, being crushed, Marti gave me almost everything I asked for! And believe me, what I asked for was a complete rewriting of events. How awesome is that for an author? And one of the scenes I asked her for ended up being a trust fantastic scene, but since it involves the climax, I’m going to keep quiet about exactly how awesome it is. It’s a young adult novel in the same vein as “Eragon,” but with great friendship between the two main characters at its center that keeps it much more vivid as far as characterization.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin — When a supervolcano at Yellowstone explodes, it sends a large section of the United States into chaos.  Dark ash covers everything, blotting out sunlight, and things fall apart quickly.  Alex, left home on the fateful afternoon by himself while his family went to visit relatives, journeys across the ash-covered landscape to attempt to reach them.  It is a battle for survival.

This gripping disaster novel kept me glued to it each time it went through the queue. It is on the more mature end of children’s books for violence, language, sex, and the sorts of situations presented. Like “Lord of the Flies” we get some of the darker aspects of human nature, but for the right young adult (and adult readers like me), will have a lot of appeal.

Morgaina, Her Magic Horse, Ghosts and Gods by Carolyn Chambers Clark — Morgaina has been languishing in an orphanage (that is driving everyone crazy with her pranks), until the ghost of her mother shows up to deck her out in full battle gear and send her off to Valhalla on her first quest.  Turns out her mysterious father was a Norse god and quests are a family tradition.

I’ll admit the cover is awful, the title could be better (I liked the original one more), and it probably needs more copy editing than this poor book got, but this is a great story for the target audience of 9-12 year old girls.  I laughed and smiled all the way through critiquing it, the characters are lively and fun, the setting whimsical, and honestly, the age group is pretty forgiving of bad cover art. So, while I’m hoping the author will hire an artist who can really make this shine, it’s still a fun read.  I’m always going to remember it fondly.

***

Also, in honor of the holiday season, I’m having a SALE on my own middle grade novel.  From now until Christmas, “A School for Villains” is only 0.99 on Smashwords!  So pick up a copy while it lasts!

The 1002nd Arabian Night (and better weather)

The winters rains have settled down in Oregon.  The best thing to do in the cold and gray is to curl up with a book, and what would be better than a book about a warm place, like Arabia and Persia.  I’ve become more interested in this area of the world since visiting it, the land of the 1001 Arabian Nights.

Djins, magic carpets, mythical beasts from Arabia and Persia, it’s a great fantasy setting that’s a distinct flavor.   I’ve read a number of real life ethnographies that dispel the traditional fantasy tales into the complexity of real life, which is great, I enjoy learning about the cultures both good and bad, but I’ve always got a soft spot for an excellent fantasy adventure.

Fortunately, I’m not the only person who grew up loving those myths.  There’s some great middle grade and young adult fiction that takes Arabian Nights and goes a bit farther with it.  Here’s the ones that first come to mind.

First, there’s people who follow Shahrazad herself in a retelling of the famous frame tale.  I’ve always liked follow Oregonian Susan Fletcher’s “Shadow Spinner”, which follows a young girl named Marjan who aspires to be like the famous Shahrazad, a story teller herself, and ends up in a position to help aide her hero.  Full of side-stories, like the original myth, the characters are compelling and sympathetic.

A slightly older version, aimed more at YA, is Cameron Dokey’s “The Storyteller’s Daughter”.  Shahrazad is blind and actually “reads” the stories off of long pieces of woven cloth using a magical ability in an interesting twist of the tale, and her stories told in the novel are new ones, made to match the reworking of the legend.  The magic is inventive, although I don’t believe it’s as well written as “Shadow Spinner”, I ended up keeping my copy and rereading it.

Next are a couple of authors who instead of focusing on Shahrazad, just use her devise, the frame tale.  Using the mythos they branch off.  I recently read “The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha” by Lloyd Alexander.   The shiftless Lukas spends his one coin on a storyteller and gets more than he bargained for, ending up the main character of the story itself in a strange foreign (and rather Persian-like) land.  Filled with Alexander’s usual characters, they’re all vibrant and engaging with some surprising depth reminiscent of his award winning fantasy based on the Welsh myths.

Noticing he’d also written yet another Arabian type novel, I then tried Alexander’s “The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio.”  Again, it had all the usual suspects as far as characters you might expect, but in a slightly different combination, and was a fully enjoyable ride.  The plot had a few more serious edges to it, but was still well within a middle grade novel despite that, but I’d recommend the older end of that, 11 or 12 and up depending on the child.

By chance, a week after reading this, I read another frame tale version by Marva Dasef (another fellow Oregonian).  In “The Tales of Abi-Nuwas” we take the same format with a much kinder story teller who befriends a poor girl named .  He tells her the story of Setara, an Aladyn-like tale with a Jinni who answers wishes literally rather than by intent, forcing Setara to constantly pin him down to get what she wants.  Also lively and with sparkling characters it uses the Arabian night heritage to good use with cameos by some of mythological figures weaved in.

Marva has a second book set in the world as well, “Quest for the Smurgh” which is also enjoyable, but felt a bit like a Lloyd Alexander book in that I recognized all the characters as familiar faces in a slightly different setting.  Still, it’s a fun and cozy adventure in a warm place that fills out her fantasy world a bit more.

Then of course, there’s simply telling a new tale in the familiar setting.  My aunt gifted me last Christmas with “The Legend of the Wandering King” by Laura Gallego, which reads like it could be on of those tales in 1001 Arabian Nights itself.  We watch the main character embark on both an inner and outer journey as he lives out a rather epic story.  It’s a bit distant in the narrative tone, but the colorful world it paints makes up for that and the older style of narration makes it seem even more like a fairy tale.

And hopefully it’ll work out for me to take a real life break between all this reading this winter to actually go visit my friend Dubai again.

Her Hair was Often Snarly

Recently I changed my author photo because I had a hair epiphany. For the first thirty years of my life, my hair was a constant battle. Now, post-epiphany, my hair causes me no trouble at all in what feels a bizarre unreality. Who would have thought?

So the saga starts with the fact that I was born with a full head of gorgeous (or so everyone told me) blond curls. Perfect strangers loved to say to me as a child, “Oh, I wish I had your hair! You’re so lucky!” Um, yeeeeah, if your hair involved being held down and having a brush ripped through it while you screamed, you would not consider yourself so lucky. Naturally, I resisted all brushing attempts.

My hair made good dreadlocks, or large mats right behind my ears, like a Persian cat someone let outdoors. My mother tired to manage it by snipping it off periodically, but that’s about as far as she got. As I got older, I made attempts, but after the 3 hour ordeal of untangling it, I usually was so tired of struggling with my hair, that I would not bother for a week and then have another ordeal. I kept planning to cut it, but that would involve going to a hair place, and I didn’t want to when it was tangled and since it was almost never untangled… well, it was a self-sustaining cycle.

So I embraced the persona of this lovely little card by Terrea L. Bennett of Friday Harbor, WA. I sort of found a balance with my hair at medium length and wetting a brush to get it through my hair every morning and it was a decent compromise, but depending on the weather, my hair would snarl, sometimes more sometimes less, as the day went on.

Then, one day my aunt, who’d always in my mind had wavy to straightish hair, showed up with her hair cut short and in curls. When I asked her about it, she talked about some book she got at the library and doing weird things that included no shampoo and not brushing it. Not brushing it, hah! I’d tried that… but not sans shampoo. So I went ahead and tried the book, figuring I didn’t have much to lose.

Surprisingly I learned a ton about my hair, which pretty much did what the book said it would when I followed the direction.  Leaving me quite impressed with “The Curly Girl Handbook” by Lorraine Massey.  It’s never been easier to be curly-haired.

5 star review for Chosen Sister

E-book It Reviews has given me a very uplifting 5 star review on “Chosen Sister.”  It feels wonderful to have someone really understand what I was going for with the novel and I’m really excited a kid got to enjoy it.

One thing that’s been a bit frustrating with e-books is how few kids have readers yet, but I’m hoping that will keep shifting and more and more kids will be reading e-books.

Review on Nayu’s Reading Corner

Nayuleska has give Chosen Sister a 9 out of 10 at Nayu’s Reading Corner.  I really like her way of suggesting other similar books at the bottom because I haven’t read either of those and they look great.  It makes me think I should try to list out all my favorite books with fun sibling relationships.

As the oldest of eight children, my ups and downs with my brothers and sisters growing up is something I remember quite well.  I like stories that show those sorts of family relationships and explore them, one reason I came up with the whole idea for “Chosen Sister”.  When one of my younger brothers or sisters got to do something special I was always jealous, but easily moved to be protective if they ran into trouble.  While I grew up with stories like Joseph and his brother’s in the bible, I could never imagine of being so jealous of my own brothers and sisters that I would want to harm them like that.  I feel like most older sisters and brothers would be more inclined, despite the disappointment of not getting the special treatment, to look out for their younger siblings.  I had fun exploring the emotions and limits of that though in my novel.