Saturday, December 22, 2012

Top Ten Christmas Traditions

These are my favorite traditions, but I love to hear about other traditions - from around the world or just homegrown traditions specific to each family. (Here's a great collection.)

10. Making Christmas cookies. We always make sugar cookie cut-outs in the shape of snowmen, trees, bells, gingermen and stars, and frost them with almond or anise-flavored icing. We don't just put sprinkles on the icing - we douse the entire cookie in sprinkles. Bonus: Christmas cookie exchanges where you can trade some of your cookies for a selection of other people's favorites.

9. Counting down with an advent calendar. I'm still a kid at heart, I love to open the little paper windows or look in the pockets each day and see what's inside.  Bonus: many German advent calendars have chocolate inside!

8. Christmas tree cutting. If you don't have National Forest nearby where you can go find a tree like we do now, you might have a Christmas tree farm nearby. It's worth the extra effort to get out into the woods and tramp around the woods with a saw, looking for the perfect tree, and then drag it home, drenching your home in spicy piney scent. We do this every other year and sometimes it turns into a real adventure/disaster but that's all part of the fun, too.

7. Rediscovering all the decorations that have been hidden away for a year. It's like seeing old friends again. My mom has a collection of little decorative rocking horses and glass angels. She still has the tree-topper star that I remember unpacking every year and having my dad lift me up to put on the top of the tree. I've started my own collection of nutcrackers and Christmas village pieces. There's always a few that you've forgotten about, until you uncover them.
my collection of nutcrackers

6. Wrapping shoeboxes full of toys and goodies for Operation Christmas Child and Angel Tree and local charities. We try to make a big deal about this for our kids to get them just as exciting about giving to others as getting gifts themselves.

5. Singing Christmas carols at bed time. When I was a kid I would go caroling around the neighborhood with my Girl Scout troop, and when my kids are little older I hope to continue that tradition. In the meantime, I started my own tradition of sitting in their room with a flashlight, singing them to sleep out of  a book of forty different carols, three carols each night plus one of my three favorites: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, O Holy Night and Silent Night, of course.

4. Evening candle-light services at church. The beautiful flickering light of a hundred candles... and sometimes when church is over and you head outside, there is a layer of new fallen snow - perfect.

3. Driving around to see neighborhood Christmas lights and then coming home to your own lights. When we lived in south for a few years, back before electric lights had become really popular, our neighborhood would line their driveways and sometimes even the streets with luminaria, paper bags weighted with sand, each holding a candle.

2. Getting together with friends and family. The Christmas spirit lends an extra special touch to family gatherings. I'm an only child, so growing up we always had lots of friends over before and after Christmas day. White elephants exchanges and other Christmas games, delicious dinners, Christmas movies (It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite), breaking out the ugly Christmas sweaters...

1. Reading (and sometimes acting out) the story of Jesus' birth and celebrating His birthday. Sometimes this is as simple as setting out a nativity scene and talking about each of the figures. Buying gifts can get stressful, especially if you're on a budget, but the story of the baby born in a stable, laid in manger, always grounds me again and brings a deep abiding peace.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  Luke 2:10-12

Do you have a favorite Christmas or holiday tradition? 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Superlative debuts this year

Today I'm sharing my favorite debut reads this year (authors who published their first book in 2012) for the YA Superlative Blogfest hosted by Katy Upperman. I loved the categories she gave us for today's part of the blogfest. 

Most Envy-Inducing Plot (or, the plot you wish you'd thought of yourself)

Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff.  The premise hooked me: Japanese-flavored steampunk with wicked chainsaw katanas and furious mythical creatures. The plot is so layered in with the world-building, and yet so simply brilliant, that I can see why there's so much buzz about this book. 

Is it YA? The main character is sixteen years old, so I *think* it's YA. But it has view points from much older adults, too. Also, it's much denser than most YA's (but I don't mean that in a negative way. Maybe "richer" would be a better word than denser?)

Most Formidable World (or, the setting you definitely would NOT want to visit)

The Unsea in Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo. This world is based on tsarist Russia, which had such a deep rift between the nobility and peasantry it eventually caused a bloodthirsty revolution. But Shadow and Bone adds even more angsty divisions among people (the Grisha vs. the non-gifted). And then it adds this horrific place called the Unsea. Is that a cool name or what? Within its dark borders, there be terrible, terrible monsters, the volcra, who feed on humans. But there's something about the Unsea even worse than that, too. 

Most Wanderlust-Inducing (or the setting you'd happily run off to)

Scarlet, by A.G. Guaghn. Because who wouldn't want to hang out with Robin Hood and his merry men for a few days? Sure, the hygiene leaves a little to be desired in medieval England, and the local sheriff is a real downer. But aside from that (and as long as I had access to chain mail for safety)... I'd go back in time to meet Robin's gang in a heartbeat. 

Loveliest Prose

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. A YA author who is not afraid to use big scholastic-aptitude-test-worthy words and long sentences. And she puts them together beautifully along with her grand new vision of dragons who can turn themselves into humans. 

Bonus: this book not only has a lovely way with words, but it also has quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. It has the funniest cast-of-charaters descriptions in its appendix. And speaking of the cast of characters, they are all freakishly and adorably memorable like the cast from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. 

Best First Line

I'm totally cheating because I just came across a first line that hooked me without knowing a single thing about this book. The problem is, it's not a 2012 debut - it's a 2013 debut. 

"What do you want your name to be this time?"

Is the first line from The Rules of Disappearing, by Ashley Elston, about a girl in a witness protection program. Bummed that I have to wait until May to read this one.

Most Dynamic Main Character

Eva/Addie from What's Left of Me, by Kat Zhang. Because the premise of this book is about two souls living in one body. A dual personality makes for a pretty dynamic main character, indeed. 

Most Jaw-Dropping Ending

A Spy Like Me, by Laura Pauling. I would so LOVE to tell you about this ending but it would a big spoiler. However, I can tell you about the first chapter, in which Saavy takes revenge on a boy who tricks her into a date just to get information out on her. Saavy ties him up and strips him down to his underwear, and leaves him next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris! One of the funniest first chapters I have ever read and the jaw-dropping ending is - ah - well - darn. I really can't even give a hint without giving too much a way.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

The Darkling in Shadow and Bone. Oh my trembling knees, the Darkling! The ultimate love/hate character. But I already mentioned Shadow and Bone so I'll also give you a close runner-up: Matthew from the Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna. He was an intensely powerful and scary antagonist. I couldn't believe how much I hated him and how scared I was for Eva because of him. The last 1/3 of this book was so intense I think I was twitching from nervous tics while reading it.

Best Use of Theme

Never Gone, by Laurel Garver.  This book runs several themes as it tackles sensitive subjects such as grief, addiction, presumptions and misunderstandings, and religion. It's all woven together beautifully and without making any big dramatic statements. This book, toward its end, could also qualify for the "loveliest prose" category. 

So there you have it, 8 wonderful 2012 books by debut authors I highly recommend, and one bonus for 2013. 

And as a parting shot, I can't believe I haven't mentioned the Hobbit on my blog yet, and the movie has been out almost a whole week already!  The movie wasn't perfect but there were many, many things I loved about it. Here in a few weeks (when I don't have to worry so much about spoilers) I'm going to post my top ten favorite things about the Hobbit movie! (And then I'll have to do a top ten on the Lord of the Rings movies, too). I could never do just a top ten for the books - that would be more like my top 100, ha ha.

One last thought. The recent school shootings are still heavily on my mind. Keeping the families of the victims in prayer, especially during the holiday season which will be anything but a holiday for them. I was driving when I heard the news on the radio of the shootings, and I had to pull over because I was sobbing so hard.  I still vividly remember where I was when I saw the World Trade towers fall, and I'm afraid I'll always remember where I was with these Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, too. Where you when you heard what happened?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Top Ten books read in 2012

Death's handmaidens, bibliophilic dragons, the Big Bad Wolf vs. a smug cat, death's bells, polar bears vs. trolls, a kidnapping king, blue biogel, the Unsea, girlfs and boyfs and going mal were some of favorite things this year. 

Top Ten Tuesday is  an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish blog with a different top ten list theme (all related to books) every Tuesday (see the full list here). 

Feeling a little shame-faced, but all my top picks were fantasy and science fiction. While I also read some wonderful contemporaries and historicals, they just didn't sing to me the same way. What can I say? I'm a SF/F geek to the core. 

There are only three books on this list that were actually new in 2012; most of my top ten list are famous older books that I just now got around to reading. And if you haven't got around to reading them yet, go do so. There is a REASON why they popped up on my radar years after the fact; these are stinking good books.

10. Feed, by M.T. Anderson (2004)
Titus doesn't have a girlfriend; he has a girlf, and a typical teen insult in his time is to tell someone they are "completely unformatted."  Here at the end of 2012, iPhones are so "over" and Galaxies are now in the limelight, but such gizmos are completely redundant in this ironic SF future where everyone is directly hooked up to the internet, the Feed. Inundated with amazing tech and with instant access to everything desirable, it turns out that nothing remains desirable.  This book is brilliant and sad and addictive.

9. The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary Pearson (2008)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Jenna Fox Chronicles, #1)
I dropped the book at one point in a "no way!" kind of surprise. But I immediately picked it back up and didn't set it down until I finished. Like Feed, this science fiction book has a contemporary young adult feel to it that sort of lulls you through the SF stuff until it smacks you across the face. Unlike Feed, there's also a lot of heart in this story, too.

8. East, by Edith Pattou (2005)
This is one of those wonderful fairy tales with princes and castles and trolls and enchanted creatures - but with a interesting twist on all the traditional elements. The trolls are not ugly, for instance. The castle is buried inside a mountain. In a nutshell, it's the Scandinavian version of Beauty and the Beast, where Rose, the youngest daughter in a family fallen into unfortunate times, is taken away by a great white enchanted bear under a curse.  There were so many things about this story I loved. The dress made out of aurora borealis. Story knives. An epic quest to the North Pole. Five points of view orchestrated like a symphony. I nearly cried when it was over because I did not want it to end.

7. His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novak (2006)

His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, #1)
Temeraire has become my most beloved dragon, among a very rich playing field of famous dragons like Smaug, Toothless, Ramoth, Maleficent, Draco, Eustace, Saphira, Yevaud, etc...  He's a co-main-character, with even more page-time than Saphira from Eragon, so that certainly helps. He is innocent and wise, deadly and noble, a lover both of books and battle tactics. To top it off, he exists in a Jane Austen meets Master and Commander fantasy version of Regency England and the Napoleonic Wars.

6. Sabriel, by Garth Nix (1996)
Sabriel (Abhorsen,  #1)
It probably sounds really wrong to say this, but I have never found death so fascinating. Sabriel can travel into death - a world all of its own - to retrieve the dead and sometimes even bring them back to life. But there's a price to be paid for crossing death's borders. I loved the charter magic in this book, the free magic (especially Mogget!!), the marks, the sendings, the bells, the wall between the old kingdom and the new, all the intricate world-building that is slowly, deliciously dribbled out in a way that is riveting instead of overwhelming.

5. The Iron Knight, by Julie Kagawa (2011)
The Iron Knight (Iron Fey, #4)
Full of delightful contrasts: icy, noble Prince Ash versus irreverent  prankster Puck; the smug know-it-all cat Grimalkin versus the angry, relentless Big Bad Wolf. This is a story of a faery prince on a quest to gain a soul, without which he cannot join his mortal beloved. Both a fantasy quest of highest adventure as well as an inner-quest of soul-searching, this fourth book of the Iron Fey series also stands out brilliantly by itself.

4. Grave Mercy, by R.L. La Fevers (2012)
Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1)
Two words: killer nuns. If that doesn't raise an eyebrow, then how about a girl who can see which people who are marked for death, is immune to poison, and is trained as an assassin? And is often forced to assume very un-nun-like roles? A most riveting historical fantasy, set in medieval Brittany, rife with court intrigue and various assassinations and attempts. Topped-off with a great love-hate, I-don't-dare-trust-you-but-I'm-sure-tempted relationship between Ismae and Duval.

3. Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo (2012)
Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)
Ah. The Darkling, the Darkling, the Darkling. For every 20 books or so I read, there appears one character that grabs you by throat and won't let you go. You catch yourself smiling at thoughts of him (or her) at odd and unexpected moments. The Darkling is a character you want very much to love, even when you know you should fear and hate him. And there's plenty of other good stuff in this fantasy version of tsarist Russia, too.

2. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman (2012)
Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)
To date, the longest review I have ever written, over 3000 words, goes to this absolutely stellar debut. This book is not for everyone: it's very cerebral. There's not a lot of action. But, it has unique dragons. Wait, you say, dragons are so overdone.  The sheer brilliance of this book is that the dragons break every stereotype but are still completely every stereotype that you love about dragons. Large, fiery, dangerous, gold-horde-ing, Smaugish, they are all that but also 10 times more complex and fascinating. And they can turn into humans. The implications of that! Well! Go see for yourself. 

1. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (1987)
Either I just say one thing about this book; or I endlessly rave about it. I shall spare you. The one thing I shall is: "Can I pleasssssse be kidnapped by Corlath??? Please?"
The Blue Sword (Damar, #1)

So these are my top ten, but fortunately I discovered this YA Superlative blogfest which allows me to share some more great books that released in 2012 tomorrow, by category (e.g. best first line, best setting, etc).

Meanwhile, I would love to hear what your favorite books this year were!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Creating a villain with empathy

Today I have a guest post from Laura Pauling, introducing her new book! I absolutely adored her first book, A Spy Like Me, and am eager to read its sequel and this new "How To Survive" book!

Published by Pugalicious Press
When Bianca and Melvin brave the jungle to rescue their grandfather, they stumble upon the ancient Maya city of Etza, where the people haven’t aged in 2,000 years. They must learn to work together as they face loincloth-wearing skeletons from the underworld, a backstabbing princess, and an ancient prophecy that says in three days the city will be destroyed. No problem. They’ll find Zeb and zip right out of there. The fact that a crazy king wants to serve Bianca up to the gods as an appetizer is just a minor technicality. But this ancient evil dude has finally met his match.

Creating a villain with empathy.

Before I started writing How To Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings, I knew the antagonist or the villain would be an Ancient Maya king. Of course, he’s not the only antagonistic force. Bianca, the main character, struggles against her dad’s disbelief in her theories when it comes to her missing grandfather. She also has a tendency to make impulsive decisions based on the emotion of the moment. She’s loyal to a fault and will sacrifice anything for those she loves. Sometimes our greatest strengths are also our flaws.

But this Crazy King, this all-powerful kind of villain, especially one with the tag of Crazy, came with its own built-in flaws. It was too easy to focus on the big, bad king and the threat he poses to Bianca. I never wanted to forget that he also has a heart.

As the pages turned and the story developed, I wanted readers to have that aha moment where they understood him. Where if they were to see the story from his point of view, if only for a second, they would struggle with what to do. I needed that for this story. I worked extra hard at it because I didn’t want a stereotypical cliché Maya king that rips hearts out due to his blood lust and the demands of the gods. Of course, he’s that too because it was part of the culture.

But the biggest thing I learned through all the research is that the Ancient Maya weren’t too different from us. We might not sacrifice live people by chopping off their heads and watching it roll down steps, we might not filet the skin off of our enemies and wear it over our shoulders in a victory dance, but there are definitely things we sacrifice to the gods/idols in our own lives as a nation/world and as an individual. Have you ever been so passionate about something that you take it a step too far? That you don’t know when to stop? That’s when a character steps over into the role of villain. And for the best villains, it’s just a matter of perspective.

Thanks, Margo, for hosting me on the tour! 

How To Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings released in November. Pugalicious Press did a fantastic job, and I’m extremely happy with the results. This book would make a fantastic gift for boys or girls who enjoy adventure stories with lots of excitement! You can purchase it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can read the first chapter here. Check out the teacher's guide. Thankfully, my journey is just beginning and I’m excited to see where it leads. Click here for the list of blog tour stops! Enter to win these prize packages!

Prize Package One (signed paperbacks)

Prize Package Two (signed paperbacks)

Prize Package Three

Refresh the page if you can't see the Rafflecopter form! a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, December 7, 2012

Memorable characters: sometimes less is more

On the hunt again for what makes characters memorable.

So far this year I have read 58 books, and out of curiosity, I scanned down my Goodreads list looking at those 58 titles and tried to remember NAMES of characters from each of those books. It's just a quick test: if I can remember a character's name, it's a sure bet that it was a memorable character to me (not counting sequels).

The results were surprising. Some best-selling books that I really enjoyed, like the Night Circus, and Cinder, didn't pass my quick test for the memorable character list. (Cinder is particularly funny because I didn't remember the main character's name was Cinder, even though the book's name is Cinder!)

In fact, there were only 7 books* that immediately registered names and made me go, "yup. I loved that character and the way he/she did such and such."

From this list of seven, there is a character called the Darkling from a recently published YA fantasy that tied for the top of my list of memorables. He's in the best-selling Shadow and Bone by debut author Leigh Bardugo. Maybe it's because I'm an analyst at my day job, but I immediately had to analyze what made this guy so memorable for me (and for many others... just look at the number of images tagged as "the Darkling" on Google or Tumblr already, and this book has only been out since June! Btw, here's my favorite.)

First, some background on Shadow and Bone:

Set in a fantasy world version of tsarist Russia, Alina is an orphan who inadvertently uses a special power to save her best friend's life. The Darkling, leader of the Grisha, an order of magician-warriors, takes Alina under his wing to employ her power to supposedly re-unite their divided country.

Right away the book establishes the Darkling as the most powerful of the Grisha, the magician-warriors, the only one of the Grisha permitted to wear black. He's also rumored to be "the strongest Darkling in generations." Here's some other striking things about this character:

1) he's mysterious; no one knows how old he is, but he appears young and he has the sex appeal of a dangerous and powerful man. He goes only by his title, and no one knows his name.

2) he has a scary reputation: "the Darkling had once ordered a Corporalki healer to seal a traitor's mouth shut permanently. The man's lips had been grafted together and he had starved to death"

And this:
"So I'm the Darkling's prisoner?"
"You're under his protection."
"What's the difference?"
Ivan's expression was unreadable. "Pray you never find out."
Oh, and this:
"I hope you don't expect fairness from me, Alina. It isn't one of my specialties."

3) He saves Alina's life in a very dramatic and uh, rather uniquely gruesome way (sorry, can't say, spoiler).

4) He wants something very much (again, sorry, spoiler). He has been waiting for it for a very long time. Do not underestimate the power of want in a character. The greater the want, the more extreme it is, the more implications it has, the more compelling it makes the character. This is amplified because we're not sure about his motives, WHY he wants this thing so badly. It could be for the good of the country. Or for his own selfish use.

5) Despite his power, mysterious and fearsome reputation, he has a vulnerability he tries to hide (but Alina catches a glimpse of it. She wonders about it... which makes us wonder about it).

6) He disappears from his court for lengthy periods of time, for mysterious reasons, and returns unexpectedly (or appears in unexpected places), keeping everyone on their toes. Including the reader.

7) The Darkling appears in 12 scenes in the story. Based on the number of chapters and a rough estimate of scenes per chapter, there's about 60 to 70 scenes in this book. He doesn't show up a lot, which makes him all the more memorable when he does show up. Less is more.

I think there's hundreds of ways to make memorable characters, since the other six books accomplished this in very different ways, and obviously some traits will be more memorable to some readers than to others. What would you list for one of your most memorable characters?

* Six other books that passed my remember-the-name test this year: Grave Mercy (Ismae), Seraphina (Orma), the Blue Sword (Corlath), Shatter Me (Juliette), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Lisbeth), Sabriel (Mogget).

Monday, December 3, 2012

What's harder, beginnings or endings?

Most people start a new novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). That's what you are SUPPOSED to do, according to the rules.

I used it to finish a novel, this year (my YA SF, Star Tripped).

I thought it would be...easier. I already know my characters (or so I thought). I knew my setting. I knew *most* of my plot. Granted, all these things are constantly evolving during the writing process, but having a detailed outline to work off of and a good handle on the first half of this novel, I was sure NaNoWriMo this year would be a breeze.

Cue sighs of frustration, hair-pulling and the constant temptation to buy chocolate and cheetos to get me through yet another difficult scene. For one agonizing stretch of three days, I couldn't write at all (except in a journal format, possibly breaking more NaNoWriMo rules).

I managed to get through it, with much brainstorming and several scenes written purely on a "trial and error" basis, and some frantic stretches of writing to get caught up.

And now I officially think endings are harder than beginnings, because:

1) you have to tie your character's internal arc into the plot's turning points or high and low points

2) you have to ratchet up the tension near the end to breathless levels

3) you can wing a lot of things in the first half of novel because you're assuming you'll have it all figured for the second half. Hah.

4) you have to tie your plot strings together logically. Defensibly. Hah hah.

5) you have to account for all your characters and sub plots. How did this get so complicated?

6) your outline fails you at the end. You thought you had it all worked out, but when the rubber hits the road, it's a whole different story.

Almost literally, a whole different story.

One thing I am still sure of: NaNoWriMo rocks. I love my NaNo buddies. Leslie Rose, Highland Writer, Susan Kaye Quinn, Sunshine 21, Vicki Tremper, you guys and your progress bars kept me going. Really. Thank you, even when I wanted to kill you for almost always being ahead of me. (Except for Susan. Everyone needs a come-from-behind hero).

And you know that feeling when you write the last sentence of your novel?  If you don't, keep at till you get there. Because it is amazing. There are no words to really capture it - and I've been through 50,000 words lately.

here's my last line:

“Don’t worry,” I say with a smile, sure of myself. “He’ll come back.” 

So what do you think is harder, beginnings or endings?
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