Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Children's Book Highlight: What to get your own child or friend's infant/toddler for Christmas

Don't know what kind of book to get your own kid or friend's kid for Christmas? You aren't alone. It may be fine if it's your or your friend's first child, as we have the time told favorites like Goodnight, Moon or the Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc, but the likelihood is that someone else will beat you to the punch or he/she already has that book. With Christmas (and now 10 kids I need to get gifts for) right around the corner, this dilemma is very much on my mind. Olivia's now almost 14 months, and I am continually learning about good children's books for her age group. Sadly, there aren't many. But there are a few gems out there that your friend AND the baby/toddler will absolutely love.

The book I want to highlight today is called the Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. This is definitely one of the New York Times Bestsellers that deserves its hype.

Amazon.com's description:
The Pout-Pout Fish
Deep in the water,
Mr. Fish swims about
With his fish face stuck
In a permanent pout.
Can his pals cheer him up?
Will his pout ever end?
Is there something he can learn
From an unexpected friend?
Swim along with the pout-pout fish as he discovers that being glum and spreading "dreary wearies" isn't really his destiny. Bright ocean colors and playful rhyme come together in this fun fish story that's sure to turn even the poutiest of frowns upside down.The Pout-Pout Fish is a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Rating: 5 couches

Review: This is a delightful book that one of my friends at work recommended. It's a sad but true realization that rhymes in children's books are generally not very good. This is one of the rare exceptions. There is wonderful alliteration and rhythms and the flow of the words is very soothing to the infant that doesn't even know what you're saying. The words are difficult, but as another reviewer stated, that's hardly the point. The story makes sense (and is quite wonderful), and kids love the way the words sound, and the illustrations are terrific-- especially ones with the fish as he goes into his familiar refrain. I won't say it here to not spoil you, but if you are around parents or kids with this book, you'll know what I'm talking about. And it's rare that an infant/toddler book can surprise an adult. But I distinctly remember my husband's reaction as he turned to the final pages without any prompting from me-- and let out surprised laughter. And he doesn't get that reaction very often! So this awesome book has become a staple in our household, it's one of Olivia's favorite books, and I've bought it for every friend that I know (even ones without kids as I know they'll find a kid to read it to). So this is a perfect Christmas gift for that favorite baby in your life!

What is your favorite infant/toddler book that you would recommend to my readers? 

I would really appreciate your comments! I will also give more recommendations for the holidays as they are coming upon us.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Why I love a good villain: A Review of The Young Elites by Marie Lu

20821111Dear All:
It's been an embarrassingly long time since I've written a post, but fortunately, I promised Penguin I'd write up something for The Young Elites, by the amazing Marie Lu (which by the way, is an honor because this book is freakishly awesome!) so in the face of a deadline, I'm finally getting back to this at least for this post (hopefully for semi-regular posts).

I'm hoping to get back to blogging regularly in January. My last post was March (gasp!) and I think I've read a total... yes, gang, a TOTAL of 5 books this entire year. I told Crystal of Bookiemoji this fact and she was horrified. I just started a new job in July, and am submitting a huge grant Monday, and spend the remainder of my time chasing after my increasingly active 13 month old, Olivia! I have a lot of great ideas for posts for the future-- to highlight the few but amazingly good kids books, the wonder of the graphical novel, and how we can get our kids more interested in reading (and one day my favorite genre, YA!) so tune in for those! And of course, there will always be giveaways :-)

All right, back to the task at hand. I received this paperback copy of The Young Elites by Marie Lu in exchange for an honest review.

Goodreads Description: I am tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside.

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 couches

My Review: I'm thanking my lucky stars that this book was one of the five that I've managed to read all year (and by the way, I've been really lucky in the ones I've read, they've all been fantastic but all drastically different). I loved Marie Lu's Legend series, and so I was thrilled (and also nervous) to see she had started another series. I'm sure it's also totally nerve-wracking to be an author who has published a New York Bestselling Trilogy and then have to follow it up with something equally good or better. It must be petrifying.

Thankfully, Lu has amazingly managed to do that in spades. In The Young Elites, she chronicles the rise (and fall?) of Adelina Amouteru, who has been abused physically and emotionally by her father, who only sees his children as commodities. On the first page, we find that she's been jailed and her execution date is set. From there, with a quick and daring rescue from the Elites, we find out simultaneously about her past and quickly moving present, which I think was an important and very tricky decision by Lu. Adelina's power stems from darkness, and she has to be a mixture of scared for her life and angry in order to call upon this power. Other than her sister, whose presence lurks behind every page although she's not seen for much of the book, players that gain importance in Adelina's life include the handsome and dashing Enzo, who Adelina likes more than she wants to, Teren, who threatens to take away everything she cares about, and finally, and probably the most interesting character, Raffaele, a gorgeous courtesan, who warns Enzo to kill Adelina before she can become a threat, but ends up training her per Enzo's request.

The setting is fascinating and gorgeous, and the writing is as moody as the atmosphere. The tension builds from page one, and I found myself equally fascinated with her past and her present, because the two are inextricably intertwined. Adelina herself is set up as an antagonist-- much like Breaking Bad, she doesn't start off as a bad person, and it's not clear if she's gone to the dark side completely at the end of the book, either. But there is darkness emanating from every page, and it's clear that she can easily slide into the darkness. Lu has a difficult job, making Adelina accessible to the reader-- we want to like her, and we can understand where she comes from, but she doesn't always make the right decisions. I still don't know how I feel about her at the end of the book, which I think is exactly how Lu wants us to feel. There are twists and turns to the book that I did not predict, but when I came to them, I felt they were exactly right. And my favorite part of the book wasn't even part of the story-- it was Lu's personal journey with this book. She started with Enzo, I'm guessing, as the main character, and something just wasn't quite right. Then her agent suggested that Adelina, her bad girl supporting character, was actually the star.

My favorite character, if you haven't guessed, is Raffaele. While Enzo and Teren are rather standard supporting characters, Raffaele is a bit of a chameleon and neither Adelina nor I quite know what he's thinking, how he feels about other people or situations, or what his true motives are. I have a feeling he'll play a large role for the rest of the trilogy, and am eager to see what Lu has up her sleeve.

I wonder if this would even be as big of a hit if Lu had not written the more standard and easy story of Legend first (side note: I also love that backstory of how she wanted to do a story modeled after Les Miserables) because having a villain as a main character is a very risky move. I'm just glad that Lu is worthy of her star power, and she'll continue to be a force in YA with every book she writes.

Other favorite villains include (you can get the gist that I'm a sucker for a tragic villain, one that has a complicated backstory that makes them more real and sympathetic): Javert from Les Miserables, Iago from Othello, Dr. Octopus from Spiderman, Evil Willow from Buffy, Angelus from Buffy, Daniel Shaw and Alexei Volkoff from Chuck, Sylar from Heroes, Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Raistlin from DragonLance.

I think the scariest villain is one who starts off as a regular human being but because of unfortunate circumstances gets sucked into a path of evil.  This particular villain is frightening because I can see how any one of us might do the same...

Don't forget to order your copy of The Rose Society, the highly anticipated sequel of The Young Elites, which comes out Tuesday, October 13th!
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Monday, March 23, 2015

#LiarsINCBook Twitter Party with author Paula Stokes and TONS of prizes (INT)!

Hey all! I'm so excited to help out Paula Stokes with a Twitter Party for the release of her amazing book, Liars, Inc! It's a terrific novel and everyone needs to get their hands on it pronto!

Liars, Inc.

Just a couple of reminders for the party: 
WHERE: Twitter, use #LiarsINCBook to join
WHEN: Tuesday, March 24, 9-1030pm EST/8-930pm CST/6-730pm PST. If you are INT or in other time zones in the US, please calculate when the party is using this app: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html
WHO: The Twitter bookish population!
PRIZES: Tons of prizes donated by the wonderful author, Paula Stokes, ALL INT prizes!
They include...
1) Liars Swag packs
2) Control or Catalyst by Lydia Kang
3) The Cemetery Boys by Heather Brewer
4) Hemp Necklace
5) Finished copy of Liars, INC and huge prize pack TBD!

Tips for the party: 
1. You should have a twitter account.
2. You should be following me @CAhnBooks and @pstokesbooks to ensure that we can see your tweets and can contact you with prize information.
3. After each comment, you should end it with #LiarsINCBook or else we won't see it.
4. If you win a prize, I'll be sending you a google document to fill out. I will confirm your prizes after the party!
5. The EASIEST way to follow a twitter party is to hook up your account to a chat program. I use http://twubs.com All you have to do is put #LiarsINCBook at the top of the page where it says "Enter hashtags." It should prompt you to link up your twitter account. Say yes. Then you should be good to go! The other nice thing about this is that you don't have to type the hashtag after each comment, the program automatically does it for you. And you don't have to search for the hashtag, it automatically just follows the convo.
The other way is Tweetchat, with similar instructions.
6. To those poor souls who don't have a twitter account. It's totally EASY. Get a twitter account! I finally got one for my blog, and it took literally seconds to set up. I'm so sorry, but if you don't have a twitter account, you won't be eligible for the prizes.
7. All of the prizes will go to winners of the 6 contests held throughout! Each of the prizes are great so you should all stay for the whole thing!
8. We may have some extra secret prizes if you are all lucky, and I usually like to give one to someone who has been participating a lot, so even more incentive to stay the whole party long! :-)
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Thursday, March 19, 2015

#Mysterytwittertheater - Ensconced in Death... Find my Killer... and get some awesome loot while you're at it!

Something’s not right. I can’t explain it. I just feel…strange. And where am I? Why is it so dark? I don’t know what time it is. I can’t remember what I was doing before, well, right now. I remember leaving work. I planned to go to the library, bookstore, and coffee shop. But I’m not sure if I made it to all three. I’m not even sure if I made it to any of those places.

And now I’m…nowhere. Wait, what’s that over there? On the ground. It looks like…Oh no, could it be? It is—it’s me! And I’m so pale. I’m not breathing. “Wake up, Ensconced! You’ve got books to read!”

But I don’t wake up. I’m not Ensconced in Lit anymore. I’m Ensconced in Death.

Figure 1. Me. Ensconced. Preserved in an action pose. Or a deathly one. Whatever. Sue me, I'm dead.

I don’t know who did this to me, but I know why. I had this epic prize pack from Paula Stokes—all kinds of LIARS, INC. stuff and mystery crime scene prizes too. And now it’s gone. Someone took it, and I’m betting that someone is the killer.

Figure 2. LIARS, INC. prize pack includes a hand-painted LIARS tote bag from Pivot Book Totes, a signed finished copy of the novel, a notebook for writing down all your clues, a mini flashlight for investigating in dark places, a crime scene lanyard so no one crosses you while you’re hunting for evidence, crime scene candy, bookmarks, postcards, magnets, and special mystery gifts.

Hey. You there. You look smart. Are you good at figuring stuff out? If you help find my killer, you can bring him or her to justice and make sure no one else gets hurt. Oh and you can also recover the LIARS prize pack and keep it for yourself! I bet Paula is already trying to hunt down this criminal. Head over to her blog to get more information and start gathering evidence. Good luck!

Oh, but watch your back. The killer could be almost anyone…

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Tips with Paula Stokes, author of The Art of Lainey and Liars, INC: How to be a great beta reader and a HUGE giveaway!

Hey, everyone! I’m so excited to host this next blog post with my wonderful author friend Paula Stokes! We’ll be discussing how to be a great beta partner and some dos and don’ts to help make it a success!

Paula: There’s a lot to being a writer besides writing. One of the things I spend a lot of time on is beta reading for other writers. You don’t have to do this, if you don’t want. I know a few writers who never show their manuscripts to anyone before their agent sees them, but I’ve always felt that feedback from a few trusted colleagues helped raise the level of my work. You might think the best beta-readers are editors or published authors, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Some of my most valuable feedback comes from my unpublished beta readers, including the critiques I get from Christina. I hope my feedback on her work is equally helpful. Today we’re both sharing our tips on how to be a great beta—both as a reader and recipient.

Tips for giving feedback:

Paula: Highlight both things that are working well and potential problems. I know stopping to make a comment like “Oooh, nice metaphor!” takes time, but everyone needs a little positive feedback. If your comments are 99% negative, even if they’re really insightful, you’re bound to discourage your partner from revising the manuscript. I’ve worked with all skill levels at Manuscript Critique Services and I’ve always found plenty of things to compliment. If you seriously can’t find anything nice to say, having a beta-partner might not be for you.

Christina: This is a great tip. I’ve definitely been on both the giving and receiving sides of this. I remember one of my first beta reads. I worked on the novel for 15 or so hours and thought I did such a great job, literally patting myself on the back. When the author responded back, I expected him to be so grateful for the hard work I put into his manuscript. Instead, what I received was “Ouch. I guess I should be careful what I ask for.” At the time, I was so offended. Here, I had offered a lot of great suggestions, and he just chalked it up to me being mean. When I looked back later at my comments, however, I realized I should have pointed out more of the positives of his work too. There were a lot of great things about his story, but it’s easy to just gloss over those and only point out the problems. Receiving critique feels so personal because your book is purely your creation, so you have to remember that authors are human and need encouragement for what they do right. After all, if you don’t point the good out, they may not repeat what they did right the first time and even worse, try to correct what is already good.

That said, as a beta reader, don’t be scared to give your opinion. A dear friend of mine once said that if all a beta reader does is pat you on the head and say what a good job you are doing, you should never use that person again. A beta reader is someone who helps you push your boundaries and makes you feel uncomfortable with your manuscript—in a good way. It makes you think beyond yourself and put yourself into the mind of the reader. They will give you invaluable comments that you can’t see yourself because you are too close to the story. So remember that as you are giving critique. Your opinion is important.

Paula: Tailor your critique. The goal is to push your partner to improve his/her writing craft with each revision, not necessarily to perfect the manuscript or elevate it to a level where it’s ready to be sent out to agents. You don’t have to be at the same place in your publication journey as your partner, but you do need to recognize approximately where he/she is at. If you took me out to help me learn to play tennis and I’d never held a racquet before, you wouldn’t start by teaching me a topsin serve, right? You’d start by showing me the basics. Don’t obsess about high-level minutia with someone who’s not ready to tackle it yet.

Christina: What a great thought. I guess I’ve mostly beta read for books that were on the road to publication. I have worked with some stories at the beginning of the process, and that was really fun. It’s more of a brainstorming session and when done right, it can be such a great process of discovery. At that point, the prettiness of the prose doesn’t matter, like Paula said. You just want to know where the story is going.

Something that Paula and I have talked about in the past has been really helpful to me as a beta reader. Ask the author what they want to get out of the critique. This will help you tailor your critique. Some authors want every single detail—pick out all of the mistakes, typos, badly phrased sentences. Others just want a big picture read. Still others have very specific questions that they want you to think about before you dive in—such as, does this character come off a certain way? Does the epilogue make sense? Did the point of view work for you? If you have these in your head as you read or even after you read, it can help the author get what they want out of your critique, which is ultimately the whole point.

Paula: Learn to differentiate between what’s not working and what you just don’t like. This one can be tough because most people think that others like the same things they like. So if I dislike your plot twist or unreliable narrator or epilogue where Harry Potter gets gray-haired and boring (OMG I HATE THAT EPILOGUE) then it’s a problem that needs to be fixed, right? No. Apparently plenty of people really liked that epilogue. Sometimes your dislikes are just about you.

Christina: Exactly. There are certain structural issues that every author should at least think about—such as, you should probably put an inciting event in the first 20% of the book. However, there are other “triggers” for you that may just be personal preference. I don’t really enjoy suicide books. My sister hates any book that has really old people (such as super old vampires) dating 16 year old girls. But these are personal opinions. By the way, I totally hated the epilogue of HP too. I will restrain from ranting about it :P

Figure out how to clearly get your ideas across to the author. Try to keep in mind 3-4 big things you’d like them to know—critiques can quickly dissolve into overload. I like to structure my critiques as an editor would. I write a 1-2 page cover letter that goes over the big ideas that I think are most important to deal with—I try to include things that I really loved about the book as well as big problems that I had with the manuscript and why. I also like to ask probing questions that may push the manuscript further. In addition to this, I also offer in line critique if the author wants. Here, I’ll use track changes and add comments in the margins.

Paula: Don’t force your suggestions on your partners. I used to struggle with this one too because I sometimes feel really strongly about things. But if you mention something once and read a subsequent draft where your beta-partner has opted not to address one of your points, let it go. You’re not the boss of their book. Being pushy might mean they don’t feel comfortable sharing future work and good beta-readers are worth their weight in gold.

Christina: I also feel strongly about things, but honestly, the most important thing is that the author at least thinks about what you’ve said. If you’ve been heard, truly heard, then your job is done. Anticipate that less than 50% of your comments will be incorporated. Even that amount is really huge. It’s nothing personal, just as your comments to their work weren’t personal. Always remember it’s not your book, it’s theirs, and they have the ultimate decision making in the end.

Tips for receiving feedback:

Christina: My first tip, one that I didn’t follow myself to my chagrin, is to not bug the beta reader constantly after sending them the manuscript. Meaning, don’t nag them to read your book. You are excited to share your work, but these people are busy and have a million other things to read and write. They are doing you a huge favor. Give them the time without the pressure of you asking, “Did you read it? Did you read it?” If you are under a time pressure from a publishing company or editor or deadline, you can say that upfront. That way, beta readers won’t agree to read your manuscript unless they have the time to do it before your deadline. Plus, if they take forever (more than a month unless they update you) or never read it, you shouldn’t use them again as a beta reader anyway.

Paula: My number one tip is always to utilize a cooling-off period before responding to a critique or making decisions about a manuscript. Read the feedback. Then do something else for a couple of days. When Christina gave me input on LIARS, INC., it had been beta-read about seven times and gone through two rounds of edits with HarperTeen. I was kind of expecting an email full of praise. (*sigh* Yep, sometimes I’m that girl.) So when she had three or four suggestions (while at the same time saying it was a 4-star read for her as is) my brain immediately did something like:

Why doesn’t Christina like my book? I tried so hard and still she found these problems. Why is she so picky? I bet no one else would care about these things. What if it’s really a 2 star read for her and she’s just being nice? What if it’s a terrible book? I’m already in ARCs. Making these changes will be hard. But wait, I don’t even know if I need these changes…

It’s easy to let your emotions overwhelm your rationale brain when someone gives you critical feedback, no matter how kindly. So I didn’t do anything for a couple of days, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Christina’s suggestions. Not only did I decide she was right about all of them, I realized I could easily address her issues with a couple of added sentences here or there. And my book is better off for it. And because I didn’t send her a wailing emotional email, she (hopefully) doesn’t think I’m crazy and will continue to offer her expert advice.

Christina: LOL! I still tease Paula about this. It’s especially funny because the fact that I had no more than 3-4 comments shows how much I liked it already. But Paula is a perfectionist, so I wasn’t too surprised! I totally agree with her tip. I would even suggest if you have time and aren’t on a pressing deadline, especially if this is the first critique on your book, take a break for a few months before diving back into revisions. Write something else or work on a new project. If you are too close to the book, it’s very hard to be objective.

I would add, get several opinions from people you trust on your manuscript, but not too many. You need more than just one person reading it, but you also don’t want 20 people reading it—it quickly gets overwhelming. If you think receiving feedback is tough from one person, think about how crazy feedback is from 20 different people with different opinions. “But the last five readers liked that character. Why does this person hate him?”

Paula: Be receptive and open-minded, but in the end, trust your gut. Before I had an agent, I once redid the first page of a manuscript for a first-page conference critique. I sent this revised page to three trusted betas, and all of them responded that they liked the old version better. But me, I liked the new version—I loved it, in fact. I submitted my new version at the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop in 2010 and the entire room of people burst into applause at the end of the reading. Jennifer Laughran made a point of saying I should query her. I did, and even though she rejected that book, she took me on with my next manuscript, THE ART OF LAINEY.

Christina: I completely agree.

My last tip is related: just take a deep breath when you look through your critique, and remember, ultimately, this is your story. Going back to some of the previous points in this post, just remember that you don’t need to change everything your beta reader suggests. Sometimes they’re wrong. Their job is mostly to make you think, not for them to rewrite the story for you.  This is your story, and you need to remember that the story begins and ends with you, the author.


Paula: Because it wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t a giveaway, right? Enter the Rafflecopter below for a chance to win a finished copy of either LIARS, INC.  or THE ART OF LAINEY. Christina has expertly beta-read both of them, so really, you can’t go wrong ;-)
a Rafflecopter giveaway
About Paula:
Paula Stokes writes stories about flawed characters with good hearts who sometimes make bad decisions. When she's not writing, she's kayaking, hiking, reading, or seeking out new adventures in faraway lands. Paula is the author of THE ART OF LAINEY, INFINITE REPEAT, LIARS INC., and several other forthcoming YA novels. She loves interacting with readers. Find her online at authorpaulastokes.com or on twitter as @pstokesbooks.

About Liars, Inc.:
It all starts with one little lie…
Liars, Inc.
Max Cantrell has never been a big fan of the truth, so when the opportunity arises to sell lies to his classmates, it sounds like a good way to make a little money and liven up a boring senior year. With the help of his friends Preston and Parvati, Max starts a business providing forged permission slips and cover stories for the students of Vista Palisades High. Liars, Inc. they call it. Suddenly everybody needs something and the cash starts pouring in. Who knew lying could be so lucrative?

When Preston wants his own cover story to go visit a girl he met online, Max doesn’t think twice about hooking him up. Until Preston never comes home. Then the evidence starts to pile up—terrifying clues that lead the cops to Preston’s body. Terrifying clues that point to Max as the murderer.

Can Max find the real killer before he goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit? In a book that Kirkus Reviews called “Captivating to the very end,” Paula Stokes starts with one single white lie and weaves a twisted tale that will have readers guessing until the explosive final chapters.

16068910About The Art of Lainey:
Soccer star Lainey Mitchell is gearing up to spend an epic summer with her amazing boyfriend, Jason, when he suddenly breaks up with her—no reasons, no warning, and in public no less! Lainey is more than crushed, but with help from her friend Bianca, she resolves to do whatever it takes to get Jason back.
And that’s when the girls stumble across a copy of The Art of War. With just one glance, they're sure they can use the book to lure Jason back into Lainey’s arms. So Lainey channels her inner warlord, recruiting spies to gather intel and persuading her coworker Micah to pose as her new boyfriend to make Jason jealous. After a few "dates", it looks like her plan is going to work!  But now her relationship with Micah is starting to feel like more than just a game.

What's a girl to do when what she wants is totally different from what she needs? How do you figure out the person you're meant to be with, if you're still figuring out the person you're meant to be? 

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