Review: Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

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I haven’t had much of an appetite for reading lately—I’ve got such big changes going on in my life and while decisions have been made, things are still in a transition phase (I’ll write more about that in a later post, once things have settled down) and some days it feels a little like limbo. And when that happens, I feel restless, and when I’m restless I can’t focus. Which means reading hasn’t been tempting me.

But then one day I was pacing aimlessly around the place, and my eyes lit on Book Scavenger, which I had out from the library.

I’d seen it earlier this year on NetGalley, but it was only available for UK reviewers. I’d liked the book’s description so much, I checked my library, found they had it on pre-order and put a hold on it. Then I forgot about it until it came in for me a few weeks ago.

I picked it up and reread the blurb. The plot, which is a mystery, centres around a book-hiding game called Book Scavenger. And it sounds like a really awesome game: you hide books and find others’ hidden books using codes and ciphers—kind of like Book Crossing taken to a whole new—gaming—level.

Reading the blurb, I remembered why I’d put a hold on Book Scavenger in the first place.

A mystery about books. And puzzles. Who can resist this?

I certainly couldn’t. Even in my restless state, I sat down and began reading. And I was hooked right from the start, which begins with the rules of the Book Scavenger game.

Oh, how I wish such a game really did exist! It would be so much fun!

I also loved Emily, who’s so unused to having friends because her parents are on a quest to have 50 homes in 50 states (a theme which they’ve turned into a successful blog of the same name). And James, the puzzle whiz who has affectionately named his cowlick Steve. The mystery is intriguing, the way the two kids are involved is very credible, the stakes are high and the puzzles are sheer fun.

Book Scavenger is like a delightful combination of Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, a book I absolutely adore, and Blue Balliett’s wonderful, intelligent arts-related middle grade mysteries (The Wright 3, The Calder Game and Chasing Vermeer)—but with a personality all its own.

I enjoyed Book Scavenger so much, I’m now reading it again with my son.

Reading Short: A Short Books Reading List

It occurred to me the other day, when I received a DM on Twitter from a book blogger/writer friend, that it’s been “radio silence” from me online lately, both here on the blog and also on Facebook and Twitter.

So a quick update: I’m fine, but I’m also going through some big personal life changes, which I’ll probably blog about at a later date, when things have settled down into more of a rhythm.

With everything that’s been going on (including an upcoming, very very big move), I’ve been feeling a lack of focus, a restlessness that makes it hard for me to sit still and actually do anything. And believe me, that’s been having a huge impact on my reading.

The last time I talked about my reading, I was in the midst of three chunksters. Needless to say, I haven’t picked them up for a while!

So the other day, I found myself thinking about “reading short”: books that are 200 pages or less. With that in mind, I decided to put together a Short Books Reading List. Looking around online, I saw several such lists, but they were all heavily weighted toward literary fiction, which isn’t really my cup of tea (not unless there’s more than a dash of mystery, suspense, horror or fantasy in them).

Here’s what I’ve put together so far:

1. A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen

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I’m cheating a little with this first one, as it’s not fiction. But it is by a novelist, so that sort of counts, right? And since it weighs in at 64 pages, it definitely makes the page count criteria.

2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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This book, which weighs in at a slim 160 pages, has been in my TBR pile since forever. I love Shirley Jackson’s short stories, so it’s about time I read this, I think.

3. Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

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This one just squeezes onto the list at 192 pages, and while it’s not a genre book, I’ve been intrigued by its unique writing style ever since I first heard about it.

4. Heartburn by Nora Ephron

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Confession: Nora Ephron is the reason I diligently massage face cream onto the back of my neck every night. :) I’ve had fun reading her novels in the past, and at 179 pages, Heartburn has a solid place in my Short Books Reading List.

5. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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So okay, at 208 pages this book shouldn’t have made the list. But I’ve been wanting to start The Southern Reach Trilogy for a while now, so this seemed like a good way to do it.

6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

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I’ve always wanted to read this book, and the 160 page count in this volume actually includes three other short stories, so it’s well within my page count criteria. Kind of makes up for Annihilation, right?

7. The King by Donald Barthelme

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“King Arthur is rediscovered doing battle with the Nazis, and the grail to end all wars appears to be a bomb.” Need I say more? (157 pages)

8. The Madman of Bergerac by Georges Simenon

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It’s been a really long time since I last read an Inspector Maigret novel. This one, book 15 in the series, weighs in at 144 pages, so it’s a perfect fit for my list.

So that’s what I’ve come up with so far. I don’t know if I’ll actually get to any of these books, but it feels good to know I have some short reads on hand for just in case. If you have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments – I’d love to expand this list!

Meg Cabot’s Royal Wedding

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For Princess Mia, the past five years since college graduation have been a whirlwind of activity, what with living in New York City, running her new teen community center, being madly in love, and attending royal engagements. And speaking of engagements. Mia’s gorgeous longtime boyfriend Michael managed to clear both their schedules just long enough for an exotic (and very private) Caribbean island interlude where he popped the question! Of course Mia didn’t need to consult her diary to know that her answer was a royal oui.

But now Mia has a scandal of majestic proportions to contend with: Her grandmother’s leaked “fake” wedding plans to the press that could cause even normally calm Michael to become a runaway groom. Worse, a scheming politico is trying to force Mia’s father from the throne, all because of a royal secret that could leave Genovia without a monarch.  Can Mia prove to everyone—especially herself—that she’s not only ready to wed, but ready to rule as well?

Writing this post feels a little like writing about “some funny things happened on my way to the (book)store”. I’ve always enjoyed Meg Cabot’s books, so when TLC Book Tours asked if I’d like to be a part of the Royal Wedding blog tour, I jumped at the chance. I mean we’re talking Meg Cabot, we’re talking Mia all grown up, we’re talking about the transition of a much-loved YA character into the bright shining world of the New Adult.

How could I  say no?

You know how sometimes you’ve decided to do something, but challenges keep popping up, obstacles that turn what is normally an easy, well-known road—get a book, read it, write about it—into a path fraught with obstacles? That about covers my book encounter with Royal Wedding.

First, I had problems with the courier company getting the book to me. I swear, I think Trish from TLC Book Tours sent Royal Wedding to me at least three, maybe four times. In the end she bought me a copy of the ebook—and then, the next day, the last book she sent actually arrived.

July’s been a busy month for me, but I really wanted to do this blog tour, so when she said she still had some dates available (since my original date had long slipped past), I picked the very last date she had, figuring that would give me time to read the book.

Which, unfortunately, I failed to do. Things just got too busy, with my writing course with Kelley Armstrong, and then with the aftermath, which has added a chunk of fiction writing time to my daily routine. So yes, I am writing this blog post having read only the first few chapters of Royal Wedding.

And last of all (because, of course, these things generally come in threes): My blog tour date was yesterday. I had added the date to Google Calendar—but for some reason, I didn’t get any reminders, which probably means I forgot to set the reminders. But still, at the beginning of this past week, I knew I would be writing this blog post. For Friday, July 31.

Then Thursday (and then Friday) rolled around and I forgot. So yes, I am a day late with this post.

See what I mean?

But I am here now, and ready to tell you more about Royal Wedding. And yes, I’ve only read a few chapters, so you’re probably wondering, what on earth can Belle tell us when she’s only read the first couple of chapters? But if you’re a Princess Diaries fan, I can tell you this: it’s Mia! She’s back! She’s grown up, but at her core, she’s still the same Mia we know and love. Just a little older, with more adult things on her mind.

It’s something each of us can relate to, I think.

I can already see the conflicts that are building up for her, and I’m eager to head deeper into her story—just need to find some time to grab so I can plunge in.

So, obviously this isn’t a review, since one can hardly review a book on the strength of a few chapters read. But if you’ve read and loved the Princess Diaries series, what I can say is this: Royal Wedding gives you the chance to enter Mia’s world again, and while she’s not a young adult anymore, her voice is just as endearing and engaging as always.

Snapshot: July 26, 2015

Time: 8:20 pm

Feeling: Productive, even though I really haven’t done much today. But I FINALLY got around to getting some pictures taken so I can have a decent social media picture, instead of either the one that’s years old, or the one where I’m hiding behind my 12-year-old Dylan or the one where I’m on the edge of the picture with all three of my kids.

It turns out I was using a different picture on different social media sites. Once I uploaded to Facebook, it took me another ten minutes to log in and change my pictures on all my other social media accounts and all my email accounts, too. Phew! But I’m glad I finally got it done.

It was quite the family affair. I got Dylan to take several shots of me, and then today when I met my daughter Hayley for an early dinner, I got her to select the shot she liked best.

This was actually the picture I personally liked, but I guess it doesn’t work well as a social media profile pic, does it?

Me trying to grab the phone

Eating: I went with Hayley to Queen Mother Café here on Queen Street West. They had a smaller menu than normal when we went, but Hayley was very pleased with her Ping Gai (boneless chicken marinated with garlic, coriander and black peppercorns, grilled crispy and served with a spicy lime and coriander dipping sauce, salad and  jasmine steamed rice) and I was quite happy with my arugula and smoked cheddar cheese salad (baby arugula, toasted pumpkin seeds, pickled red onion and  grape tomatoes, in a lime spinach and Dijon dressing, topped with grated smoked cheddar cheese). I also added grilled chicken to it so it would be more substantial.

Reading: Maybe it’s a summer thing, but I seem to be drawn to chunksters right now. There’s Atlas Shrugged, which I want to read for the #AtlasRAL. And there’s my book club read, The Name of the Wind (I know! It’s so exciting—I’m in a science fiction and fantasy book club!).

What’s really gotten my attention lately, though, is Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. What a great book! I’m about a third of the way through, and I’m really liking it.

Listening: I haven’t had a chance to get back to Ernest Cline’s Armada, which makes me quite sad because I’ve really enjoyed the few chapters I’ve listened to. I find I haven’t had as much time for audiobooks because when I’m not doing something I’m trying to keep noodling over bits and pieces of the story I’m working on. I used to do this all the time—I’d go off on a daydream about whatever book I happened to be writing, any time, any place—but it’s something I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing over the past four or five years. Which has been detrimental to my writing but very good for my audiobook stats.

Writing: Yes! I am still writing! Although I’ve now written all the scenes I’ve thought up, so the past few days I’ve been brainstorming instead of actually writing any new scenes. But I’m brainstorming in a “writing journal” file specifically for this book, so I’m counting it even if the word count can’t be added to my actual writing word count. Because really, while actually writing the words of your novel every day is a good goal, there’s some prep work that needs to be done and if I didn’t count it as “writing” I’d feel pretty down on the days when I didn’t “write” even though I was still working on my story. Right?

Working: This is a bit of a heavier week coming up for me. I’ve got three deadlines to finish up, plus it’s my older son’s birthday this Thursday. The tabletop board games I ordered for his birthday did arrive in time, which is good. He wants to have biscuits and sausage gravy for his birthday dinner, so we’re trying to find a restaurant around here that has that on its menu.

Creating: Nothing yet, but I’ve got a nice big stash now of adult colouring books, and I’m just waiting for a bit of time so I can pull out my Prismacolor pencils and start colouring!

I’m writing!

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I was going to write a post titled “10 things I learned from Kelley Armstrong’s Dark Fantasy class”, and I probably still will later this week, but in the meantime … I’m so excited because I’M WRITING!

I think the biggest thing I got out of Kelley’s class was motivation. When class ended on Friday, I was all fired up. I was going to WRITE. Yes, I was.

Then Saturday came and I kind of twiddled it away. I researched RPG games (I want to play them with my youngest, which means I have to learn how to play them, since I’ve never played a role-playing game before). And then I researched tabletop board games, for my oldest’s birthday at the end of the month. Which basically meant sitting there with my youngest watching Wil Wheaton play a bunch of really fun-looking games on his YouTube show Tabletop.

I really like this one. I mean really? Surviving a zombie apocalypse? Count me in!

And then I spent Saturday night listening to Wil Wheaton narrating Ernest Cline’s Armada. So yes, I guess you could say it was a Wil Wheaton kind of day. And not a writing kind of day.

But on Sunday? I did it. I decided I wasn’t going to do anything else until I actually made myself sit down and write.

And I did.

Same thing yesterday.

Today it was a little harder. I’d written myself into (yet) another corner. And you know what? I actually contemplated killing off that particular character. Make things easier for me, you know?

But I stuck with it. I sat down and ended up writing over 2,000 words. And in the process wrote myself out of that corner. I even left off partway through a second chapter, a trick several famous authors recommend (Ernest Hemingway was one, I believe).

I feel determined. I’m not getting any younger, and I have all these stories inside of me. Plus I get new ideas all the time. Kelley’s feedback has shown me, yes, I can write, and write well. So now what I need to do is get those stories down.

I need to finish my novels.

I’m going to do this.

So there you have it.

I’M WRITING!

Snapshot: July 16, 2015

Time: 9:25 pm

Feeling: A little sad, because tomorrow’s the last day of my Dark Fantasy writing class. And tired, because for some reason I was wired last night and had trouble falling asleep. Before I started feeling tired, I was actually feeling motivated, so I’m hoping if I get a good night’s sleep tonight I’ll go back to being motivated again!

Reading: I haven’t had much time to read this week. I did read a few pages of Meg Cabot’s Royal Wedding, since I need to post a review at the end of the month for the book’s blog tour, but what with being tired it was hard to get into it.

Listening: 

Armada

My Armada audiobook preorder came in earlier this week! I haven’t had a chance to transfer it over to my iPod, and I’m not going to do it tonight because I’m just way too tired to listen to it without falling asleep. So it will have to wait until the weekend.

Writing: Nothing, but hey, I’ve been in writing classes all this week! But I’ve started daydreaming scenes, which is good. I’m hoping to start a new writing schedule (that I’ll stick to) this weekend. Taking this writing class makes me feel I will finally start finishing my novels, so I want to tap into this motivation for as long as it lasts (hopefully it will last and last and never go away …).

Working: I’ve got one big index and one small index due next week, so in addition to starting a new writing schedule this weekend, I’ll also be working. Sigh.

Looking forward to: My last day of class tomorrow!

Character Development with Online Quizzes

I know, I’m blogging a lot this week! I can’t help it—I’ve been learning so much at my Dark Fantasy writing class and I’m coming home each day just buzzing with stuff I want to share.

Yesterday’s assignment was to take an online quiz as one of your characters and note which question gave you the most difficulty. This should give you an idea of where you need to learn more about your character.

I’ve never enjoyed doing those character worksheets you’ll see a lot of writers talking about. Whenever I did them, it felt very forced to me. Sure, I’d have notes on what kind of food my character liked to eat, whether she wore classic clothing or grungewear, or what kind of handbag she carried, but I always felt like I was just grabbing things out of thin air rather than having my character develop in a more organic manner.

Well, I just have to say, this online quiz assignment just blew me away. Unlike filling in a worksheet, where the questions are all pretty standard (favorite food? childhood incident that scarred your character? favorite color?), the questions in a lot of these quizzes are fun (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever taken one you saw someone post on Facebook). And I could actually feel myself thinking like my character—being my character—as I took the quiz!

And best of all, after you’re done you get an assessment which pretty much lays out what your character is like about certain things, and (at least when I did it) it was pretty spot on to what my character really is like—plus it gave me an idea what he was like in areas I’d never really thought about it.

Taking the quiz added to my knowledge of my character in a way that felt very organic to me. And it was fun.

It didn’t really help me see where I needed to learn more about a character, because I don’t normally do much character work before I begin writing, other than the occasional back story. But what a great tool for getting to know your character better!

So I’m adding this to my writer’s toolbox now. I’m also putting together a list of online quizzes that will be helpful for developing characters. So far I’ve got the following:

Myers-Briggs Test The classic psych personality test, this is the initial one I had my character take.

You Just Get Me With this one you answer 40 easy questions and you get a personality “bubblechart” when you’re finished.

Enneagram Test This one will place your character as one type among nine different types.

Which Three Words Best Describe You This one probably works best when you’re first starting out developing your character and know very little about her.

What Would Be Your Fate in the Hunger Games? Okay, this one is mostly pure fun, but my character did find out he’d win the games through sheer cunning.

What Career Should You Actually Have? Another fun one, but the little blurb they give you on why you should have that career is interesting.

The Sorting Hat Quiz This one isn’t on Pottermore but has all the questions from Pottermore. Aside from getting sorted, going through the questions as your character is very helpful because there are a lot of character revealing questions. My character belongs to Ravenclaw. I kind of knew that going in.

What about you? Have you come across any personality test or online quizzes that might be helpful for building a fictional character?

Where I Discover I’m Terrible at Loglines

Today in Kelley Armstrong’s Dark Fantasy writing class we talked about loglines.

The term loglines comes from the movie business. All scripts need a logline; apparently this is what movie producers and studios read first, rather than the actual script itself, in order to decide if they’re interested.

Here’s a logline I bet you’ll be able to identify (courtesy of Writing Good Loglines):

A police chief, with a phobia for open water, battles a gigantic shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open.

And how about this one?

A young farmer from a distant planet joins the rebellion to save his home planet from the evil empire when he discovers he is a warrior with legendary psychokinesis powers.

Pretty recognizable, right?

It turns out, though, that writing loglines isn’t easy. At least not for me. I wish I’d found the Writing Good Loglines page last night, when I was attempting to put together a logline for today’s class. It might have helped me a little!

This is the logline I ended up writing. I didn’t like it at all when I finished writing it—first, it was too long. And second, it made my entire story sound so trite and boring.

When a series of abductions and brutal murders rock the quiet town of Market Crossing, the forces of good and evil must work together to defeat an ancient enemy that threatens to annihilate all life on Earth.

After Kelley wrote my logline on the board, she pointed out the three tropes or clichés I was using. Yes, that’s right—not just one, or two, but THREE tropes.  “The forces of good and evil”, “defeat an ancient enemy” and “annihilate all life on Earth”. No wonder my logline made my story sound so boring!

Luckily, both Kelley and my fellow classmates had suggestions and ideas. I used their feedback and came up with this revised logline:

When abductions and brutal murders devastate a quiet town, two teens must team up with the human embodiments of ancient forces.

Much shorter and no clichés. But I felt like it was missing something. So after class today I worked on it some more and came up with this:

Two gifted teens must join forces with a guardian spirit and a demon lord to solve a series of abductions and brutal murders devastating a quiet town.

I think that’s a little better, because it’s more specific. And it’s more specific because I finally made myself sit down and figure out who exactly one of my characters was. I still don’t quite know who she is for sure, but at least I know a bit more.

The best thing about this logline exercise? It made me see more clearly the story I’m writing. Since I don’t outline, this is pretty invaluable. I already have some revisions in mind!

First Day of My Dark Fantasy Writing Class

So most of you know how nervous I’ve been about taking my first ever writing class/workshop. Nervous isn’t the right word, actually. Petrified is more like it. And stressed. Totally and absolutely stressed.

Well, I had my first day of class today. And while I was waiting for the elevator, I took a deep breath and told myself to think of it as an adventure. Which, strangely enough, really helped.

Despite this, I missed my subway stop. Fortunately, I was early, so that just made me a little less early.

And guess what?

I LOVED the class. Every last bit of it!

First of all, Kelley Armstrong is an awesome instructor. Simply and absolutely awesome (I’m not supposed to be using all those adjectives but I can’t help myself). She’s very down-to-earth and that was inspiring in and of itself—sometimes when I think about writing, it feels so precious. Too precious. And that’s when I stop myself from sitting down and actually writing. But Kelley talks about writing so matter-of-factly. There is no magic or mystique. It’s just about spending time doing what you love to do, and that’s something I lose track of sometimes.

We spent a bit of time talking about giving and receiving critiques, which I found extremely helpful. And then some of us read two pages of our opening scenes. I was NOT expecting this, and when I read my scene my voice quavered and my hands shook.

But it was worth it. The criticism I got was really good. Most of it was on point. Some things I wasn’t sure about, and a few things I knew weren’t right for me. Kelley had pointed out that approximately 85% of the comments she gets back from editors gets a clear “yes” from her, 10% she’s not sure about, and 5% are a clear “no”, and that was roughly how it panned out for me.

So now I have this list of things I want to change when I do my revisions. AND I’m all fired up about my story again.

Plus I feel like a writer. I feel I can do this, commit to my stories, get them finished and start the querying process.

But the most surprising thing for me? I ended up chatting with several of the other students, and it was such a wonderful feeling talking with other people who also love to write fiction. I tend to think of myself as an introvert, but I didn’t feel introverted at all today. It turns out, when you have a common ground like writing—especially when you enjoy writing the same kind of stuff—conversation is a breeze. Everyone I talked to was so interesting; I wanted to learn more about them, about what they’ve been writing, about their writing process.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow, and the rest of the week. At the end of the course, we can submit revised pages of our work to Kelley—AND she’ll give us detailed comments if we’d like. I absolutely would like!

I have not felt so fired up about my writing in a long while. This class is definitely a good thing for me.

[TSS] The #Bookmail Post

 bookmail

It’s #bookmail time! I don’t often get book mail, but I recently won a couple of giveaways, I’m participating in a book tour at the end of the month and a publisher offered me a book I couldn’t resist. So here they are, in no particular order (or rather, in the order I stacked them in, I guess):

royal weddingMeg Cabot is one of my favourite authors, although I haven’t read anything new by her for a long while—years, actually. I’m not sure why. So when Trish from TLC Book Tours asked me if I wanted to participate in the book tour for Royal Wedding I said, “Yes!!” Trish had some shipping issues on her end—I think she tried to send me the book four times. I’m not sure what happened, but fourth time lucky (and I guess there’s a chance I’ll eventually end up with three more copies as they wander my way from wherever they ended up …).

hungry ghosts

The nice folks over at Simon & Schuster Canada emailed me to see if I’d like a copy of Hungry Ghosts, the third book in Peggy Blair’s Inspector Ramirez series. Know what I love about the publicists over at Simon & Schuster Canada? They seem to have a real feel for my reading tastes; they almost always send books my way that I’m really interested in reading.

Inspector Ramirez is a Cuban police inspector, and the stories in each of the books in the series takes place in both Cuba and Canada. I’ve enjoyed the first two books in the series, and I’m really looking forward to reading this third book.

jonathan strange

I won the book of my choice from Book Depository from Andi earlier this year during Dewey’s Readathon. I had SUCH a hard time choosing, which is why I didn’t receive my prize until just recently. I finally opted for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; it’s been in my to-read stacks for ages. I have it in audio, too, so I’m thinking I might try both reading and listening to this one at the same time.

mapmakers children I was SO excited when Kathy (BermudaOnion) told me I’d won the giveaway on her blog for Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children. I’m friends with Sarah on Facebook and we’ve had some delightful chats on Twitter, but I’ve never actually read one of her books. This one sounds like a lovely read—I’ve been on hold at the library for it for quite a while now, and it will be nice to be able to cancel that hold!

So that’s it for my #bookmail. What books have come into your place recently?