Review: Living with Your Past Selves

Living with your Past Selves by Bill Hiatt is my latest entry in The January Project. I picked this up on a free day and it embodies the opportunities and risks in self-publishing like few other books I’ve encountered. Read on as I try to explain what I mean.

This novel, aimed at teen readers dips into the Arthurian legends and Welsh mythology and pulls them into the modern era, but defies easy genre classification. Although magic appears in the form of witches, spell-casting and shape-shifters, I wouldn’t call this paranormal, nor Magical Realism. Fantasy seems the best descriptor to me, but I don’t read a lot of fantasy.

There is so much to like about this book – the concept, a modern day teen discovers he is the reincarnation of Taliesin and that someone or something from his past life is trying to destroy him, is fresh. There are some terrific moments of dialogue between the teen characters and even the football players are allowed to have depth. I noticed one typographical error in the entire 600+ book, which is significantly less than this blog post will have.

And yet….. Something was off in this book and I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the long paragraphs full of introspection disengaged me. I tried to see them as part of the fantasy world building, but some paragraphs extended over two pages and the ideas got lost within them.

Or maybe I’m not used to being inside the head of a teen-male character. Plenty of books for the middle school audience feature male narrators, but I’m not aware of so many for teens, except Catcher in the Rye. Tal resists his hormones too much for him to be confused with Holden Caulfield, but when he does, we get a page long paragraph about why he’s trying not to be insulting to women. I was more insulted by the cardboard female characters than by Tal’s page long discussion of why he tried not to look at boobs.

What pulled me out of the story world the most was that I couldn’t ground the story temporally. Living with Your Past Selves felt dusty. Tal’s friend Stan is a computer wiz who designed the mayor’s website, but it works plausibility wise, but none of the teens have a cell phone. If you have a group of twenty odd teens, you will smart phones. They will take selfies, they will take video unless they are characters in this book. The author took such time with building the mythology but nothing explained the lack of normal teen behavior.

I checked when the book was released. 2012. These kids should be comparing their iPhone models, instead this technology isn’t mentioned until half-way through the book and then once. The author could have handled this so much better. If the manuscript were an old one dug out from a box beneath the bed, then put a date at the start like “Fall 2000.” Another option would be to keep the present day, but have the town’s magic cause it to be a cell-service black hole.

Authors will make their own choices. That is their right as artists and content producers. Living with Your Past Selves is Mr. Haitt’ book, not mine, but as a reader, I couldn’t buy into this particular story world. Sorry.

Review: Flirting with Fangs by Peg Pierson

I swear I’m not a vampire book reader and yet every January, it seems one has fallen into my lap that looks intriguing and needs reviews. This year I found an autographed copy of Peg Pierson’s Flirting with Fangs that probably came in a raffle basket.

Flirting with Fangs is a high concept farce. Heroine Bailey Hamilton writes a successful series of vampire romance novels until her mojo ups and leaves alongside her cheating husband. When a bit of magic brings her brooding vampire hero, Torin Kane, to life complications arise for Bailey’s heart and career.

Brutal honesty – I didn’t care for this book at first. I almost stopped twenty pages in because I hadn’t connected with the book and I’m not sure why. The concept amused me (I happen to be a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series). I kept reading because I noticed a quirk in the writing that impressed me. Pierson’s use of language changed in a meaningful way. The segments Pierson wrote as a novel by Bailey Hamilton incorporated a more flowery and melodramatic imagery than presented in the story’s “present day.” Torin’s dialogue as Torin-not-written-by-Bailey introduced a third linguistic style.

The contrast between these styles kept me engaged enough that I read on to see how my observation played out. I’m glad I did because the last third of this book is a rollicking laugh out loud farce that combines violence, scatological humor, sex, Halloween, public disaster, public drunkenness and Satan. Yeah, it’s that kind of book. In a standard rating form, I’d give the first part of the book a 3, well written and clever, but not my taste. The later portion full out 5 star absurdism.

I would not be a fan lining up to buy Bailey Hamilton’s books, but I’m open to reading more Peg Pierson.

You can pick up Flirting with Fangs at Amazon    or Barnes & Noble.

Review: The Confection Connection by Monica Tillery

After one false start, I’m finally posing my first review for The January Project 2015. First up, the brand-spanking-new contemporary romance The Confection Connection by Monica Tillery.

The Confection Connection conforms to not only the essential element of romance – the happily-ever-after but also to a tight focus on the primary romance and how the characters grow and change within and because of that relationship. In this case, Carly Piper and Michael Welch are rival bakers from the same geographic region who once competed for top cake honors in an eliminations style cooking show. A high profile wedding sets them in conflict but in a misunderstanding, the bride-to-be decides they are a couple and she wants her wedding cake made by them.

Ms. Tillery aptly handles the conventions of romance and the path from “They hate each other” to “They love each other” is a believable and satisfying journey.  The characters are complex and well rounded. Michael in particular will remind readers of some of their favorite Food Network personalities. The bride-to-be grew on me after my initial dismissal of her as a crackpot. She is a fun secondary character handled deftly, not obtrusive, but integral to the plot. If you watch a lot of cooking shows on TV, put down the remote and pick up this book, especially when something boring is on, i.e. a recipe not involving sugar or butter.

From the cover and the character professions, I expected this would be more of a foodie book.  For better or worse, it did not make me run to my closest cupcakery for a buttercream fix. When I read food scenes in any book, I want to salivate and vicariously enjoy forbidden treats like peanut butter (I’ve written elsewhere about food allergies in my family).  That’s more my issue as a reader than the fault of the author.

 

 

Do it yourself movies

After I typed that title, I realize some people might get the wrong idea. Sorry – go check out something on tumblr.

The rest of you enjoy my 7 year old son’s directorial debut courtesy of  Lego Movie Magic class he took after school. Yes, there are random hands, some his, some his fellow first-grade partner in animation. I like to think of them as an  statement regarding art vs. artifice. This short work seems to have been influenced by French New Wave cinema, even though my son has yet to see Godard’s Breathless.

And because his technical prowess is greater than mine, you have to click this to see it. http://youtu.be/1RdpFq6WCU0

My son enjoyed making this movie and hopes his friends and family will like it too.

My best reads of 2014

In the annual tradition of useless best of lists, I hereby present my best reads for 2014. As per my reading habits, this does not mean books that came out this year, only books I read for the first time over the past twelve months.

As I reviewed my reading list for the year, a couple of generalities jumped out. First, I enjoyed a number of shorter works. I also started a lot of crap novellas and short stories that weren’t worth finishing. Second, there are some terrific books appropriate for middle schoolers out there. Gail Carriger, Rebecca Stead and Nick Bruel are far more age level appropriate than was the Stephen King I devoured at age 11–which was about the age I was when I first read The Shining. What goes around, comes around…

Without further ado:

10) Bad Kitty Drawn to Trouble – Nick Bruel – Once again, Bruel takes a complicated subject (in this case story craft) and breaks it down into easy to understand components all while engaging in a battle of wills with Bad Kitty. I will read his Bad Kitty books even when my kids outgrown them.

9) Fiend – Peter Stenson – Audio book read by Tom Haberkorn. I specify audio book, because I understand some people take issue with the grammar. The narrator, Tom Haberkorn brought a manic energy to Peter Stenson’s tale of a zombie apocalypse. The survivors are all meth-heads who will succumb to the zombie disease if they don’t get their fix. This book is as close as I wish to get to the urgent crush of addiction.

8) Austinland – Shannon Hale – plenty of authors have tried to write a regency and played with the tropes of Jane Austin’s books and life with varying degrees of success, but Hale’s view of Jane Austin theme park flaunts the anachronism and absurdity of an obsession with all things Austin. I picked this up because of the publication backstory. The content beat my expectations and kudos to Hale for sticking with her vision.

7) The Boys of Summer – Sarah Madison – The historical M/M romance read as part of 2014’s January Project stayed with me all year. I read a handful of other M/M historical in literary and romance categories. John Boyne’s The Absolutist got more attention, but Madison’s was the superior book both in character and story execution.

6) Gulp – Mary Roach – I’ve said it before and I hope I will say it again, I will follow Mary Roach anywhere her curious mind takes her. I laughed and learned, even through the squeamish bits.

5) Dr. Sleep – Stephen King – The man is the master. And I expect a sequel featuring the grown up Abra Stone in about twenty years.

4) Marshlands – Matthew Olshan – In this slim volume of a story told in reverse order hides beautiful language, history lessons and thoughtful meditations on colonialism, otherness, dictatorships, war, brutality, torture and forgiveness. This book deserves a wider audience.

3) Etiquette and Espionage – Gail Carriger – Is it literary sacrilege to say I’d rather attend Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality than Hogwarts? This steam punk adventure follows young Sophronia’s as she and her mechanimal navigate the floating school, avoid Picklemen, and learn how to kill someone with a handkerchief.

2) Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn – It lives up to the hype and is better than the movie.

1) We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson – this book has been around since 1962. HOW DID I NOT KNOW OF ITS EXISTANCE PRIOR TO 2014!!!!! An instant all-time favorite.

Honorable Mentions:

Fun for the whole family edition: The Sasquatch Escape, and The Lonely Lake Monster both Suzanne Selfors, When you Reach me – Rebecca Stead

Short Story edition: Bug Stuff – Vicki Batman – for a quick laugh, La Llorona – Leslie Garcia – a haunting ghost story.

Other contenders: Lost in Shangri-La – Mitchell Zuckoff, Bad Traveler – Lola Karns, January Thaw – Jess Lourey, Shine, Shine, Shine – Lydia Netzer

Any suggestions for next year’s reading? Post them below.

Kids, boxes and wonder

It’s been so long since I posted, I bet you forgot about me. Sorry. I’ve been busy doing things away from the keyboard. This past weekend, I went to one of the coolest school functions I think I’ve ever seen, so of course, I remembered you and wanted to share the moment.

For the past six weeks, my daughter has been all abuzz about the “Cardboard Carnival.” Under the guidance of Ms. Lunetta, students in the Vision 21 program used recycled and found materials to create games. The whole thing was inspired by “Caine’s Arcade” and the Imagination Foundation.

Some of the students made their games during the school day working in groups of two or three or even doing solo creations. Other students worked outside of the school day and had access to some way cool duct tape. The arcade games varied in size from hand held marble tilt mazes to ones that towered over six feet tall. The designs ranged from the simple to the complex.

I don’t like to post pics of the kiddos here, but I have to share a few of my favorite designs.

This game is the inspiration for one we will do at a birthday party.

This game is the inspiration for one we will do at a birthday party.

This game had motion in addition to the bold color

This game had motion in addition to the bold color

My daughter's football toss - described as "so hard but so fun I want to play again and get a better score" by more than one player.

My daughter’s football toss – described as “so hard but so fun I want to play again and get a better score” by more than one player.

Kids of all ages (and yes, I’m including myself) had so much fun. The inventors loved showing off their creations almost as much as I enjoyed playing the games. My son didn’t want to leave, but he’s excited he can play his big sister’s game anytime he wants at home.  Better yet, my children have sat foreheads together and paper in front of them plotting how to make an even better game for next year.

A huge thanks to Principal Brad Gustafson, Ms. Lunetta and all of the participants who made this such a terrific day of play.

Life with food allergies

This morning I flipped on my computer to the discover the latest moment of internet outrage.  The Yahoo/Babble headline screamed “2-Year Old Suspended from Daycare over Cheese Sandwich.” Below the article a lengthy list of comments began with phrases like “When I was a kid, no-one had food allergies….” and “It’s just a sandwich.”

On the one hand, the school rules seem a bit extreme, allowing no outside food. I say this because I’m used to providing outside food for my child. The practice has been one of the easiest ways for me to keep her safe in a world where food can be lethal.

I wish some of the people calling out the absurdity of the policy and wondering why everyone has to suffer for the right of one person could spend a day in the place of a parent with a food allergy.  When my daughter was younger, we had to avoid three groups of allergens. Now, we are down to peanuts and tree nuts. My trips to the grocery store are longer. With produce, I have to consider where and how nuts are stored and if they are likely to contaminate produce one typically doesn’t peel.  I have to read the ingredient lists carefully and decide whether the brand is trustworthy in their description of “processed in a shared facility using good manufacturing practices.”   I wonder what their cart would look like if they did their normal shopping and then at the checkout line were asked to sort out products that cause an anaphylactic reaction.

Maybe, just maybe, if everyone did that, I wouldn’t be subjected to moans and groans when the flight attendant announces “This will be a peanut free flight” or the hateful looks from another parent when I ask if their child could please keep their peanut butter sandwich on the picnic table rather than smearing the contents all over the slide at the playground. Maybe more people would offer financial support to researching why food allergies are on the rise and what can be done to halt this epidemic. Maybe we could all enjoy a world where food doesn’t kill.

If you wish to make a change, consider a donation to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Wouldn’t it be nice if no child were suspended for a sandwich? And nicer still if no one died from one?

End rant. Stepping off my soap box.

The January Project, a summay

Since today is the last day of January, I thought I’d offer a brief wrap up of how it went.

My main motivation was to provide reviews. Seven authors have benefited from my at time slap-dash reviews.  Two authors reached to thank me personally and one offered an ARC of another book for review.  I’m humbled. I don’t know if any of my blog readers have been persuaded to read any of these authors, but I sure hope so.

In the process, I have discovered a wonderful, new to me author, Sarah Madison. I’ve also been impressed with the high quality work of several independent (or self-published) authors, including Lara Nance and Christine S. Feldman.

One erotica book triggered too many of my personal hot-button issues and I opted not to finish it. My limited experience with the genre has by and large left me cold, even though I know a number of charming, sane people who write erotica.

I have one book in progress, Joanna Lloyd’s Shadow Beneath the Sea and will include a review later.

Will I do this again? Oh yes. And I will make it a point to leave a review for everything I read that has less than 300 reviews on Goodreads.

Review: For the Love of Big Orange by Leta Gail Doerr

From the quirky cover, I assumed For the Love of Big Orange featured a quirky, retro-lovin’ heroine in a light story.  Leta Gail Doerr’s book surprised me with its gravitas and ability to keep me hooked.  Lacie Joe bounced through Kentucky’s foster care system until a rural judge and his wife took her in.  Her reputation as a troubled teen made her a target and an outsider in the small town.  When an accident occurred shortly after high school graduation, Lacie Joe left town in her orange truck and reinvented herself in the big city of Lexington.  When the judge’s health fails, Lacie Joe returns to look after him.  Her past and present collide as she makes amends with those she wronged in the past, including ex-boyfriend Jay Hayworth, and salvage her Lexington based program for at-risk youth.

Lacie Joe is a complicated character, one who tries hard but doesn’t always make the right decision. She had blind spots in her personal and professional life and may be guilty of self-sabotage.  In other words, she is perfectly relatable.  The light mystery element played out in a predictable manner, but didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment.  This novella was a charming way to spend an afternoon and all for less than a cup of coffee at a fast food chain.  It’s hard to say too much about the plot without giving away the story and you know I try to keep spoiler free. If you want a slice of life escape, take a ride in Big Orange.

I also want to add that this probably would be considered a New Adult based on the lead character’s age, but to me it read more like women’s fiction.  Romance isn’t front and center and the heroine isn’t bed-hopping to find her true self (a plot device that seems to have taken over the New Adult genre). This is more about the heroine’s journey to understand her place in this world.

I make no money reviewing books in The January Project, but if this one sounds good to you, here are some buy links.

Amazon:

Review: Getting a life… by Beth Watson

Getting a Life, Even if You’re Dead (No Going Back, Book 1) by Beth Watson is the next entry in The January Project, my one month effort to give authors reviews.

I love the title and cover for Getting A Life, Even if You’re Dead and I enjoyed a previous book by one of Beth Watson’s alter egos so picking this up on a Kindle free day was a no brainer.  Two female leads narrate. Kendra isn’t happy about being dragged along on her mother’s trip to photograph cemeteries in Paris.  How will operation get a boyfriend succeed if she’s not at home? Soon, Kendra has bigger problems in the form of her best friend, Amber. Amber (the other narrator) is dead and has been long before meeting Kendra three years ago.  Amber implores Kendra to help her with two lost souls, one alive, Pierrot and one dead, Loic. Loic doesn’t remember his death, but blames his brother Pierrot. To help Loic pass on to the afterlife, Kendra needs Amber to navigate mysteries in a physical world.

Great concept, but something fell a little flat for me in the execution and I wish I could pinpoint the issue. From a technical standpoint, I have no quibble with the book. The plot buzzed along.  The setting made me feel as though I were creeping around a Parisian cemetery and traipsing through the streets.  The hook at the end makes me want to read the next book in the series. A number of pity one liners prompted my husband to ask “Why are you smiling?” All the elements are there. I think the hiccup for me was a failure to develop a deep relationship with the characters.  It may be because I read this concurrent with the deeply emotional satisfying The Boys of Summer by Sarah Madison.  The dual narrators may have thrown me for a loop. I only connected with Amber in the last few chapters. Maybe I’m too old to relate to this young adult/teen novel? Perhaps if I had dreamt of Paris or viewed it as a romantic city rather than one where I battled waves of tourists and couldn’t get service at restaurants, the story would have resonated more.

In my reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I’ll go with a 4/5 although a 3.5 more accurately reflects my reaction.  If my daughter is interested, I’d share this book with her. The story is wholly appropriate for the intended audience of later tweens and teens. I suspect the failings to fully enjoy this novel fall more to this reader than the author.  Besides, due to that hook, I am looking forward to more of this series.

I make no money by offering these, but here are the buy links:

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Life-Even-Youre-Going-ebook/dp/B00G4BJ06O/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1390153644&sr=1-1&keywords=beth+watson

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/getting-a-life-even-if-youre-dead-beth-watson/1117229236?ean=9780989521949