Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Blog, New Contest

I've got a NEW BOOK REVIEW BLOG, Ms. B's Book Swarm:


(Don't worry, I'm keeping up with this one. Just felt the need to separate my writing and review blogs!)

I'd love for you to join me and a little bribery is in order!

Three books, three winners: Meg Cabot's INSATIABLE, PC and Kristin Cast's BURNED, Sarah Rees Brennan's THE DEMON'S LEXICON are up for grabs at my new blog. (It's not anything as exciting as an ARC but you've got a great chance of winning and what's better than free, good books? Nothing! Well, maybe chocolate but it'll melt in the post.) I'm looking for some people to join me in discovering fantastic, mainly young adult and middle grade books (I'll branch out some in the summer. Variety is the spice of life, after all).

Now, there are already many fantastic YA/MG book bloggers out there who offer wonderful perspectives. However, I'm hoping to add a little more in the form of student reviews. Most of the reviews will come from my eighth graders (who range in age from 12-15) but I'm hoping to add in sixth and seventh graders as well as ninth graders (some great students I taught last year), so we'll have a whole range of readers writing about the books they like...or don't like.

I'd love to start the school year with a pile of readers (the better to convince my students to EDIT their reviews--and that others care about their opinions), so come over and join the book swarm!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

To Bark Or Not To Bark

That is my current obsession. My friends are trying to convince me that two dogs are better than one. "What's one more dog?" they say with a shrug as their two dogs cavort in the back yard. One of my pals, Sandy, keeps sending me pictures of local shelter dogs looking for homes. Why, yes, she is evil.

So, why am I hesitating? Because my dog LOVES being cock of the walk. King of the hill. The One. The Only. When he wants attention, my lap is clear. When he wants to be walked, he's in charge of the pace (Some of the time. I'm not overly patient with long sniffs.) He can eat his kibbles anytime he wants to, without worrying about someone else getting to them before he does. And he doesn't have to share his boogie board with anyone.

I love dogs and, if I could find the right fit, I'd be all over it. So, here's what I'm looking for:
male or female,
25-45 lbs,
short & stocky (don't know why but I love the short & stocky ones!),
playful (though not exhausting for me. Someone for Finn to play with, to get him more active),
does NOT bark a lot, and
gets along with Finn (of course) but won't take any crap from him (he's a humper. naughty boy!).

We'll see. Finn may remain an only child. Which he'd probably enjoy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Nike has it right

Sometimes, you just have to do it. Whether you want to or not. Whether you're ready or not. Whether you're in the right frame or mind or not. Whether you've got a plan or not. (Rereading this, it sounds so much dirtier than I meant it to be! Geeze, get your mind out of the gutter!)

When it comes to writing, sometimes, you just have to turn to a new page or open a new document and let it the words fly. Write something. Anything. It may turn out to be something that's great or total and utter crap. Either way, you're writing.

It goes back to what I try to instill in my reluctant writers (and there are a lot of them!): that the more you write and make it a habit, the easier it seems (Note the "seems". It's still not easy. It's just a habit.). A couple of times a week, I have my students do 10-minute journal writes. Sometimes, I'll give them a topic; sometimes, it's their choice. Ten minutes isn't a long time to write. It's barely enough time to think about the topic, much less write coherently about it.

And, actually, that's the point. It's to get the blood flowing, the words moving. Then, next time they have to write, it's easier to jump in and begin. If they fuss or are staring at a blank page for more than a minute or two, I have them start out their writing with exactly the words they complained with: "I don't know what to write." Just getting words on the page, marring all that open whiteness, kick-starts the writing process.

Make writing a daily habit, even if it's just ten minutes. It makes your writing life so much easier to establish a solid pattern, rather than to write when you feel like it, especially if you're anything like me (and, by that, I mean a type-A, list maker who loves her calendars!).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chicago Highland Games

I'm so excited--I'm back in Chicago for a couple of days and today's the Chicago Highland Games!

My brother's band, City of Chicago (Yep. They're a bunch of COCs. lol) is playing. (It isn't really a competition for them because they're the only grade 2 band playing today. And, for those of you unfamiliar with the pipe band rating system (and who would be, really?), bands range from grade 5 (they sound like multiple cats being run over while getting skinned) to grade 1 (manna to the ears).)

This is City of Chicago at the Alma Highland Games (Memorial Day weekend, in Michigan) playing their medley:




Also, a bunch of my friends, most of whom I played with in my old band (moment of silence for Midlothian Scottish, which disbanded after 30-some years. *sniffle*), are in a grade 4 band and are  competing today. I think there's something like 15 bands competing in grade 4. Grade 4 bands can actually sound pretty good--not ear-manna but not dying cats, either. This is Chicago Celtic in Alma with their competition medley:



 Not as clear or well-tuned as a grade 3 or 2, the music isn't as tough, the harmonies are simple, and there are usually some pretty obvious mistakes in the tunes. But that's why they're grade 4 and not grade 2 or 1. While some of the grade 4's are working their way up to a higher grade level, many, like Chicago Celtic, are just around to have a good time. They love to play, they enjoy hanging with each other, and they're all about a good time. Sounds pretty good to me!

I'm all about cheering for them then heading off to the beer tent, emerging only to see my brother compete. Well, play. Whatever.

Should be a gorgeous (though hot--especially if you're wearing wool socks and a wool jacket. Yeah. The whole wool uniform thing works much better in Scotland where the summers don't usually get hotter than 80 or so.) day! Hope you're doing something fun this weekend.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Up Wit Dat?

So, you may have noticed that I've been doing a lot more reviews and talking less and less about writing (not that I don't like doing the reviews--there are some fantastic books and movies out there in the world!). Well, there's a reason for that.

I haven't been writing.

At all.

And it's killing me. But each time I sit down to put pen to paper (or the modern equivalent: fingers to keyboard), my mind goes into overdrive. I can't hear my characters' individual voices, and I don't have a clear picture as to where they're headed due to the cacophony of voices. I am loathe to call it writer's block because I don't think it's "writer's block". There's a reason I'm not writing.

It could be that this was a super-tough year for me (I tend to internalize a lot of what goes on in my life, presenting a strong, smiley front. One of the ladies I work with even calls me "Mary Sunshine".) and my brain is still recovering, now that I'm on summer break. It could be that I have three WIPs I keep ping-ponging between. I want to write them all NOW but that's just not possible. (Pick one already, Mary! Geeze!) It could be that, although I've decided to trunk my YA urban fantasy, I still feel like if I just tweaked it here. Or there. Or changed this. Or added that...it would be great and I'd get an agent who loved it and I'd sell it and the kids would love it. But, truly, I just need to trunk it for now and move on. (Come on, brain. Acknowledge that and move on. We can always come back to it. Later. Much later.)

However, I haven't been ignoring my WIPs altogether. I've done some research for the one set in Paris. I've re-organized the order of events for Dash's story. I've made collages for all three of them (and it made me feel like a kid again--I used to love to create collages. In fact, my collages decorated my assignment notebooks from 7th-11th grade. I was too cool for them by senior year. Until I went to college, joined a sorority and found myself making collages for sisters as one of our "bonding" activities. And the worm turns.) I think that, after my long weekend in Chicago this weekend, I'll be back to it. I can feel it. Maybe I'll even get some writing done while I'm here! That'd be awesome.

So, let me ask you. Have you ever taken an extended writing break? What are some of your techniques for getting your characters to speak to you again?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Couch Potato Strikes Again!

Yeah, buddy--finally got my Nextflix working though my Wii and, therefore, on my TV. I know, I know. It sounds stupid to get so excited about it but I'm absolutely thrilled. Technology does that to me. Of course, it also helps that I'm easily amused. And there's a ton of great stuff available to stream: documentaries, TV shows, movies...yeah, this is a serious time-killer. But it so rocks.

Despite the fact that I've ingested a myriad of hours of TV, I've never been able to just sit in a chair and stare at the screen. (I think I'm a little ADD in that way. Multi-tasking is the only way I watch without getting bored.) I've done collages for three of my WIPs in an effort to get back in the writing saddle. One is going to need a serious overhaul (I'm gonna have to dump the first couple of chapters 'cause I started the story way too early. I tend to do that. Oops.) and two are still gelling in my brain and on the paper. Many choices and now, I've got the time (better use it while I've got it, huh?).

Now, I'm sure you're dying to know what I've watched so, instead of book reviews, I'm going to give y'all a couple of TV/movie reviews (You're excited, right? I know I am!).

WEEDS: Season 5
If you haven't seen this show, I highly recommend it (Get it? HIGHly? Geeze, I crack myself up.). A little background: When Nancy Botwin's husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with two boys and a monster mortgage, Nancy must find a way to make money and fast. What does she do? She turns to the profitable business of selling pot to bored soccer moms and dads. Fast forward a couple of years and Nancy's gone hardcore. She's pregnant with the son of a Mexican drug lord, her oldest son has turned into a pot cultivator, and her youngest is the main dealer on his high school campus (including one of his teachers). Her brother-in-law (Andy) is still around and is in love with her but he's trying to distance himself from her (she is, after all, involved with the drug lord). Alanis Morrisette joins the cast as a clinic doctor and Andy's love interest. Great show. Lots of fun--I watched the whole season in one night because I wanted to know what happened. Nancy was not as interesting or, well, "there" as she had been the last four seasons. It was almost like she was going through the motions. Despite that, the rest of the characters and their troubles are more than enough to keep you entertained.

FINAL GRADE for WEEDS: 86/B (And so not for kiddies. Too much with the drugs and the sex and the cursing.)

DR. HORRIBLE'S SING-A-LONG BLOG
God, I love Neil Patrick Harris. Too bad he plays for the other team. And I truly do adore Nathan Fillion, especially as a smarmy, too-big-for-his-britches hero (The Hammer--and he's not talking about his hands, he says...). Great, quick little show (only 40 min, if I remember correctly). Made me laugh out loud as Dr. Horrible tried to get into the League while lusting after the girl of his dreams who is swept off her feet by The Hammer. Gotta warn you though, it's a tragi-comedy. I wasn't expecting the ending. *sniffle*

FINAL GRADE for DR. HORRIBLE: 93/A

FARSCAPE: Season 1
Such a trippy show (My students laugh when I call something this. But I can't help it--when it seems like the writers were smoking a little of Nancy Botwin's product or the show just gets into your head, I gotta call it.). John Crichton, a human scientist, is out in space testing a theory when he gets shot through a wormhole to an entirely new area of space. He winds up aboard Moya, a leviathan ship, as she escapes the Peacekeepers (the bad guys) with three escaped prisoners. The group travels the universe, trying to get home while evading the Peacekeepers. There are some very well-developed characters here with great back-stories. No Mary Sues among them and several are really anti-heroes. I really love Crichton's snarkiness as he tries to relate to the craziness he's been thrust into. And his pop-culture references are priceless, especially since they merely baffle his shipmates. It's a little cheesy at times (one of the main characters is a muppet, for goodness' sake), but that's part of its charm.

FINAL GRADE for FARSCAPE: 90/B

Yay for Netflix streaming and time to kill!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shame, shame! Know your name!

I...did not...finish a book.

And not just any book. A book by one of my favorite authors. A book that's been nominated as a YALSA Best Fiction Nominee for Young Adults (2010). One that's consistently earned four and five stars on Goodreads.

I couldn't finish WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green and David Levithan. (Contemporary YA, 310 pages, library copy)

*hangs head*

The premise is good. Two Will Graysons, one straight and one gay, meet one night and their lives change because of it. John Green (*fangirl squeal* even though I didn't like his latest book) and David Levithan each wrote from a Will's perspective, filling each chapter with their own unique spin and personality.

But I couldn't get into it. One Will (John Green's, I think) was kind of a sad loser who claimed to not even have chosen his friend Tiny (who was flamboyantly gay and seemed like a great guy) and didn't seem enthused with the friendship, despite Tiny being his only friend. Tiny tries to set Straight Will (and I say "Straight" this way because it was made painfully obvious that he was straight and his friend was gay. Or maybe it just seemed that way.) up with a sweet girl, who Will doesn't know what to do with, mostly because he's not good with girls.

The other Will (David Levithan's, I believe) was a seriously depressed character. Diagnosed. On meds. (Poor kid. It's hard enough being a teenager without all that thrown in there, too.) He hates the world. He's mean to his mother. Gay Will (and, once again, his sexuality is made extremely obvious, even though Will isn't flamboyant about it. He just likes guys over girls.) finds love over the internet with a boy named Issac. Doesn't sound too bad, right? It's not. However, his chapters are written in lowercase. Everything. Each sentence beginning and proper noun. I hated this style with a passion and each time I got to his chapter, I had to force myself to read it, all the while fighting the urge to get out my purple pen (hey, what can I say, I'm an English teacher!).

Anyway, Will and Issac decide to meet in real life and that's when the two Wills collide. But I couldn't read any more. I didn't like either Will at this point. I didn't like the girls who were in this story. The only character I really liked was Tiny (who, of course, wasn't actually tiny. That's irony for you.). And I didn't care so much what happened to anyone, except Tiny. He's the reason I skimmed the last chapter, so I could find out how it ended.

I truly hate not finishing a book. Especially one that's well received on all fronts, by great authors. But c'est la vie, right? On to the next one!

FINAL GRADE for WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON: Did Not Finish

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Travel Bug

About this time every year, I get the travel bug. But I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to leaving the comfort and safety of my house. (I think it's known as "Couch Potatoitis".) It's not like I don't travel--I've been to Canada, Scotland, England, Columbia (well, the airport, which was an experience in itself. Lots of guns.), and Brazil. Still, travel isn't always in the cards so I have to satisfy my cravings in the next best way: books. So far, I've gobbled down two and plan on ingesting more this summer.


GROUNDED: A Down To Earth Journey Around the World by Seth Stevenson
NF Travel; 274 pages; purchased

Seth and his girlfriend, Rebecca, decide to leave their jobs and circumnavigate the world. Yep, the whole wide world. They set two initial rules for themselves: 1) To cross every longitudinal line, plus the equator, for the circumnavigation to count, and 2) Not to fly in airplanes. Ever. To get across the pond, Seth and Rebecca book a passage on a container ship and head off to Antwerp for the first major leg of their journey.

Crazy, right? After reading this book, I'm thinking maybe not. Air travel just isn't all that much fun anymore, what with the random pat-downs, long lines, and the chance to catch a raging fungal infection on your bare feet. It's harder, takes a little more effort to get where you're going but, as Seth points out, you also get to see all the good stuff that you're just flying over. With slow travel, the traveler has time to appreciate the world around him or her.And Seth writes about it with humor and imagery.

Most of the travel stories I've read, the folks did use a lot of ground transportation (cheaper, of course) but they also used planes to get across the pond. Seth provided a completely different take on around the world travel and almost inspired me to leave the lake this summer!

FINAL GRADE for GROUNDED: 93/A

THE LOST GIRLS: Three Friends, Four Continents, One Unconventional Detour Around the World by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett, and Amanda Pressner
NF Travel; 538 pages; purchased

These three girls, all in their late 20's, are feeling the pressure. Working at high-stress jobs in NYC, they're on the road to adulthood (husband, promotions, kids, etc) and they're freaking out. So, after a girl-bonding trip to Argentina, they decide they want to ditch it all and travel the world, so they can find themselves. In honor of this search, they dub themselves "The Lost Girls".

Traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and through dozens of countries (many of which have never been on my itinerary), the girls never have the epiphanies or ah-ha moments they're looking for. What they do find are deep bonds of friendship, an appreciation for what they have, and an understanding of the world beyond their front doors.

This was a fun read--I plowed through it in about a day and a half, looking forward to each step of their journey. I also liked how the book was laid out: each girl wrote about her individual experiences, with her own voice. The reader really gets to know each person and how she grew during her travels. Jen realized she was in a relationship that wasn't good for her and that she could find love elsewhere; Holly took a more spiritual journey, became a certified yoga teacher in India, and got more in touch with her spirituality; and driven Amanda learned how to relax and enjoy her life while still succeeding.

The only thing that irked me was that Jen (Jennifer Baggett) tended to dwell on her age, how she was getting so old, and how she thought anyone over 30 was ancient. (Of course, thinking back, I probably had the same beliefs as her about age. Ah, 28. So young. So naive.) Otherwise, I really enjoyed their stories.

FINAL GRADE for THE LOST GIRLS: 95/A

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bring on Summer!

OMG--I can't tell you how happy I am that it's summer break. While I loved my students this year, my brain might have imploded if it weren't for the summer.

Of course, I have many, many plans. Lists, even. (Yeah, I tend to get carried away with grandiose plans at the beginning of break. Those usually fall to the side as I spend more time at the lake and get into recharge mode rather than work mode. But I've got to get what I can done while I'm still in work mode.)

Daily reading and daily writing are things I won't let slide, though. Plus, I won't forget about you all! As my TBR pile has now morphed into three three-foot piles (which doesn't include the 10 books I currently have on hold at the library), I'm going to post reviews of all my summer reads.

I don't know about you all but I don't like long reviews. I'm sure they're great but I'm usually blowing through a couple hundred blog posts at the time (yeah, I subscribe to a ton of blogs) and don't have the time or attention span for the biggies. Plus, I don't want to know that much about a book. I look for the basics--a couple sentences about the book and a little bit about what the reader liked/didn't like. Plus, a quick rating system works well for me.

So, since school got out on Saturday (Teacher workday. Moved rooms! Again! Cleared out big ole closet--found a record player that was older than me! Busy day.), I've read three books (besides spending hours on the lake and a few more at a local pool. *sigh* I love water.) so far. Barely a dent in the TBR.

DEMON HUNTS by C.E. Murphy
This is the fifth book in Murphy's Walker Papers series and poor Joanne Walker has barely had time to breathe, much less learn how to properly use her shamanistic powers. Now, it's a cannibalistic killer who's caught her attention. But she doesn't know how to find or battle this. She needs help.

I've really enjoyed this series. Murphy does a great job with developing Joanne's character, making you root for her while simultaneously wincing as she fumbles her way through learning how to use her skills while still doing her job as a police officer. The other characters are also well developed, good foils for Joanne. I like that the story is complete--no cliffhangers in this series, although Joanne's character continues to grow and change in each new book. Can't wait for the next one!

FINAL GRADE for DEMON HUNTS: 95/A
This book was purchased.

I'll review the other two tomorrow, 'cause they kinda go together.

P.S. I'm on the lookout for GOOD historical YA novels--ones that my students will enjoy. (We have some at school but they're just okay. I'd probably grade most of them no more than a C and I want some A-level books.) If you can think of any, let me know. 8th grade level, 12-15 year olds. (So, no blatant sex, minor cursing is okay, and there can be violence. They LOVE violence. The more blood and death, the better.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Free eBook

I'm not sure if you've read Julie Kagawa's fantastic book, The Iron King (I highly recommend it, if you haven't. It's well worth your time). Anyway, if you have, Julie's giving away a free download of her novella "Winter's Passage" here: http://enterthefaeryworld.com/ironfey2/#

Run out & download it now!