Monday, January 31, 2011

Boy Book Review - Leverage

LeverageLeverage by Joshua C. Cohen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2011 is going to be such a great year for books. I went to the ALA meeting in January, and just the sight of this cover reached out and grabbed me. The book did not disappoint. Gut-wrenching drama aptly describes this coming-of-age story about bullying and fear and two young men, opposites in so many ways except for their need to uncover the courage inside themselves.

Kurt, the football player, has ugly scars on his face, a debilitating stutter that leaves people questioning his intelligence and him preferring to keep silent, and a desire to be big. Big enough so that no one can hurt him the way he and his friend had been hurt by the man he calls "Crud Bucket," the man in charge of the boys home he once lived in. Kurt's desire to be big and strong is fed by a high school football coach who freely dispenses steroids in the quest for a winning tram.

Danny is a sophomore gymnast still waiting for puberty so he won't keep being mistaken for a lost kid from junior high. His future plans include being team captain by his junior year and getting a full-ride to college to prove to his father that his "recitals" aren't child's play. His major event is the high bar where he has perfected a gravity-defying move that leaves even his coach (and the fifteen or so spectators that come to the gymnastics meets) shaking.

People fear the football team co-captains with good reason as their steroid induced rages grow more cruel and violent. After the gymnastics team faces them down over their treatment of one young boy, things escalate until a member of the gymnastics team pays a horrible price.

Kurt, the boy who can't talk, and Danny, the boy whose only real weapon is his voice, become targets of death threats. Kurt struggles to find the courage to trust that Danny won't let him down when his own bulk cannot save him. Danny struggles to believe that sometimes courage means forgetting that what you are about to do feels like suicide, but you have to do it anyway.

By the end they learn that it's not about how many muscles you have or how big you are or how fast you talk. It's about trust and a belief that with the right leverage you can indeed change the world. Oh yes, there is a girl. And both guys need to learn that "Girls Rule." Especially in the smarts department.

You don't have to care about sports to love this young adult story that comes out in February.

View all my reviews
Boy Book Review

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Traffic School

I decided to kill the proverbial two birds with this post. I belong to a writing group that puts out regular writing prompts and for February the prompt is ... traffic problems. For me, that means writing about my day in traffic court.

Let me admit that I did break a rule. And everthing the instructor said during the four hours of traffic school was good information. But does it change anything for me? No.

The instructor was shocked to find that less than half of us were there for speeding.  While one woman did use a cell phone in a construction zone, most of us were ther providing the state with additional revenue for more minor offenses. Mine involved a bonehead mistake, I tried cutting through a vacant lot to get around the "traffic control device."

I already classify as one of the old, fuddy duddy drivers. Maybe five miles over the posted speed limit, but ten - no. And when someone tailgates me, I slow down, I get nervous seeing those cars too close to me rear. But I sat through the lectures and videos, discussed the scenarios with the other unfortunates present, took my certificate and left.

Actually, it ended up being a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. I even picked up some personalities and tidbits of information I'll use in my writing. Best of all, we started exactly on time, took frequent breaks and the instructor sped through the last section to make sure she gout out early.

What more can one ask?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Boy Book Review - YOU

YouYou by Charles Benoit

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

YOU should have been an impossible book. Second person, present tense, "book noir" YA novel. Give me a break.

That's what I thought when I first heard the author describe his book last summer. I looked at the cover and saw nothing that interested me, so I passed it by. I saw it again on a shelf last week, and on some whim I picked it up and read the first line:

"You're surprised at all the blood."
I was immediatly bonded to fifteen-year-old Kyle Chase. Different from any other YA I have read, the second person narrative somehow worked. Second person is more likely found in advertising, text books and training manuals - "You do this" and "You do that". Somehow the use of second person blended with the dark, suspenseful atmosphere fit with this work of fiction. I felt like I was deep inside the head of an all too normal teen hurtling toward self-destruction. I felt his doubts and fears, his every emotion anc crisis became mine. And by the time I joined him in the unexpected end that is as bloody as the beginning, I, Like Kyle, could only wonder, when did it go wrong?

Surprisingly, nothing felt contrived or forced. This book hit me at a visceral level. Kyle was likeable even while being annoying (typical teen boy) and felt each of his triumphs and disappointments I rooted for him, which made the final pages gut-wrenching. That second person writing made me feel like Kyle's co-conspirator.

YOU is not a walk-away-feeling-happy kind of book. It will have you rethinking your own life and your own choices and the consequences those choices can bring. Following Kyle from the beginning to the unexpected and yet inevitable ending left me wondering just how free free-will really is.

If you like happy, light-spirited endings, this may not be your book. But readers of any age looking for suspense, and twists-and-turns, and peering deep inside a characters soul to uncover both the good and the bad, may find this book gives them that, and a lot more.

Final note - I did not understand the cover until after I read the book. Once I had finished the story it was easy to see that the cover was appropriate, but when I did not know the book the cover actually turned me away. This is another "don't judge a book by" type of cover.

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 23, 2011


It is possible to have too much of a good thing, including books.  Earlier this month I returned from the American Library Association Midwinter conference in San Diego with boxes of books. I now have books on the sofa and in the kitchen, more books than I could read in a year while I still struggle to find time to write the sequel to PULL. Just as I congratulated myself on having no problem finding a book to review every week this year, another package of books arrived.  Six books that I have to read in as many weeks as part of a commitment I made last year to judge in the 2011 RWA RITA® contest.

The, yesterday came the coup de grace. I attended the ALA Booklist & Book Links Editor's Review event sponsored by the The Center for Teaching through Children's Books.  Twenty-five lucky attendees had yellow stars under their chairs. Wouldn't you know it, I found star #24 which entitled me to ... drumroll please - another ARC.  I now have an autographed copy of Rotters by Daniel Kraus, a book about a boy who discovers his father is a grave robber.

Surely my cup runneth over.

I'd love to hear your comments about anything you've been overblessed with lately.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What I learned from querying

Here’s the bad news: agents and editors are looking for reasons to reject your query. Not because they are bad people, far from it. I’ve met a number of agents and editors over the years. They are great people, personable, likeable, businesslike – and horribly overworked. Like any other business man or woman, their first loyalty has to be to their existing clients. They make deals, negotiate contracts, read requested manuscripts, forge relationships with editors and other agents…and then look through the huge haystack of queries and partials that arrive daily in the hope of finding a glowing needle. Most of it is unusable. They know that from experience. And the time they have to spend with the pile is limited. So yes, the truth is they look for reasons to reject quickly, because if this is not something they are going to want to represent, why spend a lot of time on it?

If that sounds cold, spend a few minutes imagining opening your email to see 300 new messages in your inbox each and every week. Even at a minute each that’s five hours of work. You too will want a way to work through the pile as quickly as possible. Hence you look for reasons to reject as soon as possible to give you time to devote to the one or two that show something you want to see more of.

When we send off that query, lets not give them any obvious reasons to reject.
  • Nothing addressed “To Whom It may Concern.”
  • No Historical novel sent to someone who only reps Paranormal (because no matter how good yours is, they have no way to fit that into their overfull agenda), or other genre mistakes
  • No typos, because if they see problems with the one-page query they will have difficulty trusting the quality of your manuscript.
And be sure you have a full manuscript ready. Agents hate spending time looking over a project and deciding it’s wonderful and then learning that it doesn’t really exist. The author who tells them to hold on and wait is the author soon forgotten about.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review - Cyborg

Confessions Of A Cyborg (The Clone Codes)Confessions Of A Cyborg by Patricia C. McKissack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I have not read book 1 of this series I didn't need to to enjoy this fast-paced story. This MG/YA book quickly plunged me into an alternate future filled with fun characters and a suspenseful dilemma, all in about 100 pages.

The future includes human beings - Wholers, Cyborgs and Clones. Wholers are considered the only true human beings with no artificial parts. Cyborgs are former wholers who have three or more artificial parts like the hero sixteen-year-old Houston Ye turned into a cyborg after a childhood boating accident. They are also considered uncivilized and only 3/5 of a human being. Clones are considered the lowest form of humanity, and believed to be incapable of emotions, reasoning or abstract thinking. Thirteen-year-old clone Leanna Beberry is poised to prove them wrong. These two, along with their Whole friend, ten-year-old genius Carlos, and the AI spaceship RUBy, become the rallying point for clones, cyborgs and wholers who believe people are people.

This fast and easy read pays tribute to both Dr. Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama as it examines prejudice and the quest for non-violent change and a chance for people to live in harmony. I was sucked in to the point where I almost wished I could get one of those cyborg "biofe" eyes and ears.

View all my reviews

Friday, January 14, 2011

YALSA Quick Picks For Reluctant Readers

I am proud to be published by WestSide books, especially now, when books by two of my sister authors have been selected by YALSA for special honors.

Scars by Cheryl Rainfield (ISBN 978-1-934813-32-4) was named the #1 book on the 2011 Top Ten YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers!  And Hope in Patience by Beth Fehlbaum (ISBN 978-1-934813-41-6) was also named to the full list of 2011 YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers! Congratulations to both the authors and to my publisher, Evelyn Fazio.

Both of these books deal with the effects of sexual abuse on young girls.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My life as a romance writing contest judge

I just read an interview of Lisa Cron, a story consultant and agent, in the January 2011 issue of The Writer. She recommends reading bad books, and I thought, why on Earth would anyone waste their time on that?

Then I read her reason. "Because you don't really know what your expectations are until they aren't being met."

I realized I agreed. As a writer, I need to understand my own expectations and those of my potential readers. In fact, that's a big reason why I judge in writing contests.   I've been a contest judge since I first begn writing over three years ago. I judged in eight different contests in 2010, including the Golden Heart. I can truthfully say that ever time I judge I learn something, sometimes it's something I should be doing in my writing, mostly it's things I must be sure never to do.

When judging an entry, I read it for enjoyment first. Then I do a second read while asking myself what did and did not work, and why. I look for the impression left on me as a reader and don't go around with a checklist of the so-called rules of writing and grading like some accountant.
  • If the first page yanks me into the story, wonderful, even if they manage to do it with backstory.
  • There is no magic number about POV's or how often they change.  If an author switches POV a dozen times in as many pages and it works for me, then it's good.
  • If he or she can make me feel the setting I don't care which senses they used or didn't use.
  • if a prolog fits and actually enhances the story instead of distracting or just being a history dump, that's excellent.
When a story is good, I am happy. I only worry about the rules of writing when I find problems and want to give feedback that could help the author improve.  I know judging horror stories exist. Mine include being told by a judge that she would never let her child read my book (and if her child is young enough to need Mom to pick out his or her reading material I agree, they are too young for a book intended for YOUNG ADULTS).

If you have any horror stories that you would like to share, feel free to leave a comment. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Return from ALA

Today's a big day for me. First, I've just escaped the warm, balmy land of San Diego, Ca following my book signing at the American Library Association (ALA) conference (where I met some really cool teen readers), and now I am back in the land of living cold, Chicago, where a storm is set to begin soon. What more could I ask for?

Second, I picked up dozens of new books there, trust librarians to get all the best stuff, so my reading and reviewing cup runneth over.  Some real gems are coming out this year, especially in the YA book realm.

Third, I met a great bunch of teen readers at the conference, including one I'd swear was a dead ringer for PULL's heroine, Yolanda Dare.  The conference was a major experience.

Members of Teens Read at the book signing for PULL

I finally had a person-to-person with PULL's Editor - Evelyn Fazio at the ALA
 Last, but absolutely not least, I am guest blogging today at  I hope you'll stop by, learn a little more about me and PULL and leave a comment. One lucky commenter will receive a $10 border's gift card on Friday, so if you stop by include a way I can reach you.

P. S. I did not forget to report on my challenge, but this week has been a blur - that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. I did make it to the gym twice, and I spent a lot of time at the hotel hot tub trying to ease muscles sore from walking the exhibit floor at the ALA so that has to count for some exercise.  But with both Friday and Monday being airplane days, I did not get to do everything I wanted. But I'll be back on track this week, and that's a promise to myself.

Friday, January 7, 2011

ALA Midwinter conference

This Saturday, January 8, I have been invited to be a guest at the San Diego, CA chapter of Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.  I'm looking forward to making new friends among other Children's book writers.

On Sunday January 9 at 10:00 I will be at the ALA Midwinter conference, also in San Diego signing copies of PULL.If you are there, stop by the WestSide Books booth #2024 to get one autographed.  I'd love to see you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Boy Book Review - Yummy

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside ShortyYummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my first foray into both reading a graphic novel and reviewing one. Although I grew up in Chicago and spent part of my childhood in Roseland, the neighborhood where this story occurred, seeing the title struck no bells at first. But the cover did what all good book covers should and made me look. Once inside the pages I found myself remembering the Chicago of 1994 and the neighborhood I both loved and was eager to escape. A picture really can speak a thousan words, and the powerful illustrations showed me the reason behind the popularity of graphic novels.

Even without the personal connection, this book is compelling. Yummy could be classified as creative non-fiction, with an invented classmate who narrates the last days of the real-life "southside shorty." Yummy's real name was Robert Sandifer, a killer...and a victim. The nickname came from the eleven-year-old's addition to candy. The fictitious narrator begins by showing his love for his family and pride in "Chi-town," even though Roseland is a virtual war zone. The pictures in this book show Rose-hell and a Yummy who is sometimes old-man hard and sometimes eleven-year-old sweet. When not eating candy and sleeping with his teddy bear, Yummy joins a gang, gets a gun, aims at an enemy gang member and kills a 14-year-old girl he once sang with in the church choir. Four days later police find his body. All this is history. In the book, the youthful narrator tries to uncover the events lthat made Yummy the contradiction that he was, and how he spent those last awful days.

A graphic novel is the perfect format to diplays this child's short, troubled life. We see the victim, the families, the neighborhood's grief, and the talking heads on TV news playing the blame game. We also feel the narrator's worries about his own older brother, a gang member and his struggle to understand what could have caused this tragedy.

Todays's youth may not feel the story in their guts the way this reader did, but I defy anyone to escape being enmeshed by the story of the boy who loved his teddy bear and the girl who wanted to be a hairdresser and the summer they both had to be buried. Thankfully the author understand the true virtue of Young Adult literature and privides a reason for hope at the end of the book, a light at the end of a very large, very dark tunnel.

Yummy is a page turner in every sense of the word, an easy read that makes the reader think.

View all my reviews

Monday, January 3, 2011

Not a Resolution - week 2

Here's my first keep myself honest post. Since last Monday I have visited the gym every day except Thursday and Sunday. The real test comes this week, when all the resolution people crowd in and take up the parking spaces around the gym and the class slots.  My weight - gulp - no change. I suppose it's too much to expect a dip after only one week, but still, I hoped for something.

I'm still writing, I've done thirty pages of edits in the last week, I'm determined to finish my next YA, tentatively called BAMF (I really need a new title, but the teens I've spoken to about it seem to love it as is - and so do I) The hero is Malik Kaplan, the really bad bad boy from PULL. I need to explain him and make him see the error of his ways.  BTW - I woke up Sunday and realized something about my main character - his recently deceased older brother tried to kill him.  That explains a lot about why Malik is the way he is.

Like I said, my continued writing and my trips to the gym are my challenges to myself, and have nothing to do with any all-too-breakable New Years resolutions.

How are you guys doing? Anyone want to share?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Writing contest

Today I am going to shill for a contest. Don't worry, I won't be offended if you stop reading right now.

Still here? Good.

A few months ago I did what people always tell me not to do, I voluntered for something. Now I need to follow through.  I am the 2011 contest coordinator for the 13th annual Chicago North RWA Fire and Ice romance writing contest. [13 - isn't that the unluckiest number?]

Anyway, starting today, January 1, 2011, and continuing until Feb 16, unpublished writers can submit up to the first twenty (20) pages of a romance manuscript to the F&I contest. Finalists will be announced in April and winners announced at the RWA National Convention in June. The F&I contest has six categories and the finalists (top three point getters in each category ) will be submitted directly to the Editor or Agent who has agreed to be the final judge and determine the winner.

So, as we say at Chicago North:

Does your novel light a FIRE in the reader’s heart?

Do the pages sizzle with enough heat to melt ICE?

Then take a look at what the 13th annual Chicago North Fire and Ice Contest has to offer you!!

If you think your story has what it takes, I'd love to see you as one of our contestants. All the information on submitting, eligibility and costs can be found at Chicago North RWA Fire and Ice contest webpage.

Just remember: The decisions of the judges are final.