Top 10 YA Books I Read in 2015

As soon as I typed that title, I knew I’d leave someone’s book out of my list. If it’s your book, please forgive me. My memory isn’t the best, and I failed to keep a definitive list of what I read this past year!

But even if some amazing novel is missing from my list, I vouch that the following books are worth reading. Here are my favorite YA novels I read in 2015.

1. Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (fantasy). The Reds are commoners, while the elite Silvers have special powers and rule the country. Except when Mare starts working in the palace, she discovers a power of her own — which could throw off the balance, endanger her life, and threaten her family and her heart.

Not only does this book have a fabulous cover, the story within is a compelling tale of fantasy, relationships, romance, and betrayal. It’s a pretty entangled plot, but more than that, I enjoyed the characters who kept me guessing what they would do and how things would turn out.

2. They All Fall Down by Roxanne St. Claire (suspense). Kenzie somehow got voted onto a list of the hottest girls in high school. Every year, that list is the ticket to popularity, parties, and romantic perks. This year, however, if you’re on the list…you have a target on your back. When girls on the list start dying, Kenzie must figure out who’s behind it before someone takes aim and kills her first.

What a concept, right? And St. Claire pulled this off very well. Kenzie is a relatable character, and the plot twists and ticking clock keep you on your toes and cheering for her to figure out who’s behind the killings. There’s also interesting friends, a cute boy, and more. Just a great read.

3. Powerless by Tera Lynn Childs and Tracy Deebs (superheroes). Kenna lives and works in a community of superheroes who oppose a society of villains — yet she is powerless, an ordinary. When she encounters a band of villains seeking to save one of their own, she finds a way to fight against them. But the encounter leaves her questioning her view of heroes and villains and what it means to be good.

When I picked this up, I admit thinking to myself, Seriously? What more can be said about superheroes? Yet Childs and Deebs approached the subject in an original way, infusing the story of superheroes with deeper questions, interesting relationships, and stellar dialogue. Powerless is the first in their Hero Agenda series, and I will be reading the next one.

4. The Murder Complex by Lindsey Cummings (dystopian). In this dystopian society, the murder rate is higher than the birth rate — by design. Meadow has been taught by her father to fight back and survive, but when Zephyr, a government-programmed assassin, puts Meadow in his sights, she’s thrown into an entirely new challenge that requires all her skills, courage, and determination. Not to mention her heart.

I’ll warn you now: The body count in this novel is high. This is a dystopian society on steroids. But I loved this fast-paced novel with fresh characters, plot twists, and high stakes. It’s the first in a two-book series, and I immediately read the follow-up, The Death Code, which I also recommend.

5. Find Me by Romily Bernard (thriller). Wick’s got a promising new foster home, courtesy of her dad being arrested for his felonies. She’s also got amazing hacker skills, a snarky attitude, and a cop in her heels who’s convinced she helped Daddy Dear with his crimes. But when a former friend’s diary ends up in Wick’s hands with the words Find Me, Wick’s hacking skills and criminal contacts might just help her find Tessa’s killer.

Wick is the kind of resilient teen I love to read about. She has a billion ways life has kicked her in the butt, yet she wants a better life for herself and her sister. Bernard weaves a marvelous thriller plot in with deep emotional stakes for Wick and those around her. This was that kind of novel that made me push my bedtime way late into the night to read “just one more chapter” again and again.

6. Winter by Marissa Meyer (sci-fi fantasy). Winter is a sci-fi retelling of Snow White, right along with the super-bad stepmother and a huntsman who isn’t willing to kill the princess. But the whole story is set in a futuristic setting with Earth and the Moon at war and weaves in characters from the three previous retellings of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel.

This is the fourth and final book in the Lunar Chronicles, which began with Cinder. Whether you know anything about the classic fairy tales, these retellings are highly engaging — but the way Meyer weaves details from the fairy tales into her world is nothing short of brilliant. This is the series I have most recommended to friends over the last couple of years.

7. A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin (historical). It’s the age of Napoleon, but Georgiana’s biggest problem is her parents sending her to a severe boarding school after a few of her science experiments went slightly awry. The rumors about Stranje House promise a life of both poise and punishment, but the school holds more far more interesting secrets. And Georgiana might fit in after all.

Great setting, smart heroine, intriguing characters, page-turning plot, and brilliant writing. I can’t wait for book 2 in Baldwin’s Stranje House series!

8. Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee Alexander (contemporary). Charlie is a math genius, but definitely not a genius at love. Until he meets an unusual girl in a donut shop who defies all logic and captures his heart. But when the new girl Charlotte turns out to be dealing with a serious illness, Charlie’s world isn’t just lopsided — it turns upside down.

You might think this is The Fault in Our Stars, but it’s not. Yes, there’s a sick girl, a lovesick boy, and a romance. But much of the book is the unfolding of their relationship and intriguing twists about these characters. It sounds totally cliché, but yeah, I laughed, I cried, I loved it.

9. Made You Up by Francesca Zappia (contemporary). Alex is a normal teenager in many ways with concerns about school, family, and love, but everything in her world is also colored by her daily struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. How can she know what’s real and what’s not? And can she somehow find inner peace and romantic love?

Amazingly written, Made You Up also lets you see all these events through the unreliable point of view of someone with paranoid schizophrenia. What The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time did to help readers understand Aspergers, Made You Up will do for this poorly understood mental illness. I felt the challenges Alex faced and couldn’t help but root for her throughout.

10. Finding Paris by Joy Preble (contemporary). Sisters Paris and Leo must rely on each other; they certainly can’t rely on their flaky mother or gambling stepfather. But when Paris goes missing from a Las Vegas diner one night, Leo and a brand-new friend must track her down with clues Paris has left around the city. Why has Paris disappeared? And what family secrets does she hold?

I’m not a re-reader of books. Once I’ve read a novel, it’s rare for me to go back and read it again — even years after. Yet as soon as I finished Finding Paris, I wanted to turn back to page one and read the whole thing again. I resisted the urge at that moment, but I have every intention of re-reading this quirky, intense, wonderful novel in 2016.

That’s it! My top ten.

What did you read in 2015 that you recommend others read in 2016?

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No Second First Impressions: Book Covers

You’ve heard that line:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

I read a great book years ago, still on my bookshelf, titled You’ve Only Got Three Seconds, about making that first impression in your business and social life. It was written by Camille Lavington, a woman whom executives hired to “enhance” their image. As Camille presented it:

“Get used to it. The real world has your number. It only takes people three seconds to know where you’re coming from. Within a few seconds they can size you up. It’s not a comforting prospect to be judged so hastily, but that’s the way it is.”

She goes on to describe how quickly and automatically we really do size each other up, trying to glean information about others from clothing and hairstyle, posture and carriage, grooming and accessories, manners and mannerisms, etc. Of course, we hope to adjust our impressions as we learn more or discover discrepancies with our assumptions, but if we think we aren’t making those snap judgments, we’re fooling ourselves. Some scientists suggest this tendency is a survival instinct, which allowed us to quickly determine friend or foe and act accordingly.

Like it or not, we draw conclusions based on first impressions. And we give first impressions too — intentionally expressing our personalities and priorities by how we wear our hair, what clothing we put on, the jewelry we choose. The expensive-suited man with custom cuff links and well-trimmed hair driving a Jaguar is saying something about himself to the world, while the black-clothed, multi-tattooed and pierced man riding a motorcycle is saying something else altogether. And while it’s only a glimpse into who they are, it still suggests something about the person inside.

Which is why book covers matter.

Book cover examples
Stories I’ve Read Recently

Of course, the book cover is just a glimpse, but it makes a first impression — another promise about what the novel itself will be. You can even look at many covers and know their genre. Otherwise, why bother with the shirtless, muscular man and his swooning, bodice-ripping lady? Or the warrior holding a gleaming sword? Or the rusty ax and the blood-dripping font?

I’ve been following a marvelous series of blog posts from the marvelous Melinda VanLone of Book Cover Corner about book covers and what they should include. I encourage writers to check it out: The Amateur’s Guide to a Professional Book Package: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four to Come. As a book cover designer, Melinda understands the importance of making that first impression and gives authors specific tips on what to look for when designing or requesting a cover.

Book covers have also been on my mind because my local RWA chapter, Houston Bay Area RWA, hosts the annual JABBIC (Judge A Book By Its Cover) contest. Official judging of submitted covers has ended, but now it’s time for Reader’s Choice voting. I encourage you to vote your own first impression on the book covers there. Here’s the official announcement:

Judging for the Readers’ Choice Award in Houston Bay Area RWA’s 2013 Judge A Book By Its Cover contest is now open. The Readers’ Choice winners will be featured on HBA RWA’s website at hbarwa.com.

Anyone can judge, so spread the word. Voting will be open until midnight CST on February 9, 2014. We will announce the Grand Prize Winners, judged by booksellers, as well as the Readers’ Choice Winners on February 10, 2014.

The following link will take you to the Readers’ Choice page. Follow the instructions there to vote on all the covers.

https://jabbic.hbarwa.com/readers/

Vote quickly. Judging ends tonight at 12:00 midnight Texas time (CST).

ROW80 Update

Speaking of judging, I’ll let you be the judge of how I did with my writing goals this week. Following is my regular update for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Here are my goals for the round:

1. Read 12 books. I finished book #6, Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza (fiction), and also read half of #7, Making Love in the Microwave (nonfiction), by Aja Dorsey Jackson. On track.

2. Complete two drafts of short stories. I wrote a little more on one short story, but not as much as I’d hoped. A little off track.

3. Take care of ROW80 sponsor responsibilities. Visited blogs on Sundays and Wednesdays. What’s amazing about this particular challenge is to see writers at all stages of the journey: from first draft of first book to multipublished authors! And everyone supporting each other each step. On track.

4. Edit at least once through Good & Guilty, young adult mystery. Deep edited two chapters. I also won a first chapter critique from a fellow author, so I sent those pages to her for feedback and received some great tips. On track, but I wish the train moved faster.

What’s your opinion of book covers? Are you swayed to read a book or even the book blurb based on a fabulous cover? And how was your week?

Should You Gift These Books for the Holidays?

Welcome to Scarlet Thread Sunday, the day I share something I’ve learned in the labyrinth of life.

Well, my recent labyrinth has been Christmas shopping, and I’ve gotten lost somewhere among the hedges. Yoo-hoo! Do you see me?! Somehow or other, I’ll get out of here. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share a few gifts ideas that I came across while online shopping at ThinkGeek.com (which is a really cool site, by the way). I wonder if anyone you know could use one of these books:

Cookbook cover The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook: From Lamb Stew to “Groosling”–More than 150 Recipes Inspired by the Hunger Games Trilogy by Emily Ansara Baines. Before now, I was simply worried about being able to actually kill anything with my bow and arrow that I didn’t consider how to make my prey taste good when I got it home. Now I realize what an important step I overlooked.

Babies cover Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid by Shaun Gallagher. I thought that’s what YouTube was for. But apparently, there are real science experiments you can use to “test your baby’s ability to understand and interact with the world around them.” Ah, now that sounds so much better.

Hungry Zombie cover The Very Hungry Zombie: A Parody by Michael Teitelbaum. In case you’re getting tired of reading and re-reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to your kids, you can always switch over to this book. Same principle really. The zombie eats and eats and never feels full. I wonder what the punchline is, though. What is this zombie’s “leaf”?

And speaking of things you can do to your kids . . . 

Traumatize cover How to Traumatize Your Children: 7 Proven Methods to Help You Screw Up Your Kids Deliberately and With Skill by Bradley R. Hughes. I’m glad he included the subtitle, because I wouldn’t be interested if the methods weren’t proven or didn’t require skill. Actually, this book is a warning to not be those parents who totally screw up their kids. I’m personally okay with embarrassing my children, but not traumatizing them for life.

And now speaking of books . . . 

Here’s this writer’s weekly progress report for A Round of Words in 80 Days.

ROW80 Update

1. Finish YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, by completing three chapters each week. Wrote. Not enough.

2. Take Short Stories 101 course from Young Adult RWA. Took the course and wrote two short stories. They each need some editing and polish, but I plan to publish them in 2014.

3. 10 2 fiction books and 2 -1 nonfiction books. I read Scandal in the Night by Elizabeth Essex, the third in her Reckless Brides series.

Also read this round: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer, A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers, Dangerous and Unseemly by K.B. Owen, Taking Chances by S.J. Maylee, Haunted Spouse by Heather MacAllister, Real Vampires Have Curves by Gerry Bartlett, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater (all fiction), and Breasts by Florence Williams and Competability: Solving Problems in Your Multi-Cat Household by Amy Shojai; and Grace-Filled Marriage by Tim Kimmel (nonfiction).

Honestly, this isn’t nearly enough progress for me this week. If I explained how much I got done on some other needed projects, maybe it wouldn’t sound so bad. Yet we have less than two weeks left in this round, and I want to get a lot more done this coming week and finish strong.

So what odd books have you seen on the shelves this holiday season? Would you like any of the books above? And how has your week gone?

4 Reasons Why Book Trumps Movie

The Hunger Games was released in theaters on Friday, March 23. Like many others, I saw it on the same day. The reviews have since been rolling in. I personally enjoyed the film and give it a hearty thumbs-up . . . yet I still believe that reading the book is a superior experience.

As I pondered this question again, I decided to re-run an early post of mine for Deep-Fried Friday. I have tweaked the post slightly, but here it is.

You’ve been waiting for this moment for months! You have purchased your ticket, bought your popcorn, found a seat in the exact center of the theater, and made it through twenty minutes of previews. The film begins.

Two hours later, you toss the last popped kernel into your mouth, lazily stretch, and shuffle down the aisle desperately wanting your two hours back. I mean, really: Did the filmmaker even read the book!

It’s a proverb we can all quote: The movie is never as good as the book.

Why is that? Here are a few reasons:

1.  Dramatic License. The phrase “dramatic license” is often an excuse for the screenwriter, director, or producer to cast a whole new vision on a familiar book to communicate whatever is burning in their hearts or brains. If, however, you loved the book, you don’t want the filmmakers to vary drastically from the original. If they have a different tale to tell, they should make a different movie!

2.  Incompatible Casting. If you envision a character a certain way after reading the book, and someone completely incongruous with that image is cast in the movie role, it can throw off the movie’s rhythm like giving a toddler a pair of drumsticks.

I submit that the reasons I could not watch more than the first film of the Twilight series and Lord of the Rings trilogy are Kristen Stewart and Elijah Wood. Both of them struck me like limp toast acting on screen. I couldn’t get past not believing either one of these actors in their roles. It’s entirely my opinion – and there will be opposition to it – but ultimately, the actors cast in the movies didn’t suit the picture I had drawn in my mind from reading the novels.

3.  Too Much Editing. Face it, an amazing 700-page novel cannot be properly conveyed on the screen in two hours. One of the complaints that Harry Potter fans have voiced is that there is SO much left out of the movies that appears in the books. Well, of course. Let’s say you have a 300-page novel (maybe 75,000-ish words). Quick internet research informed me that screenplays are about 100 pages (20,000-ish words). That’s a big discrepancy.

I know the saying that “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But not really. Some things simply must get left out when retelling a story on screen. Unfortunately, what gets omitted may be something which made that book so delightful to you in the first place.

4.  Imagination vs. Reality. Imagine your perfect man. (Didn’t we do this back in high school?) He’s tall, broad-shouldered, rippling muscles, and athletic; intellectual, well-read, poetic, and creative; rich, generous, well-respected, and successful; romantic, sensual, attentive, and downright delicious. Yeah, I can describe him, but that doesn’t make him real. It’s like Paul Simon declared, “If you took all the girls I knew when I was single, put them all together for one night, they could never match my sweet imagination . . .”

When you imagine a story, it’s better than the reality. Our imaginations are wonderful things. When you read a brilliant novel, you can picture the whole thing, and it’s exactly how it should be. Then someone renders a reality version. And it isn’t the same. It simply isn’t as good as your imagination.

By the way, when it comes to picking a husband, I recommend going with the real thing (Does that guy on the front of the Harlequin cover know how to change diapers? My hubby does!). But for books, imagination is superior.

Actually, I have a few tips for helping you to enjoy a movie made from a book you’ve read:

1.  Make sure it’s been a while since you read the book. If you still remember specific dialogue, plot details, and character quirks, it’s too soon to see someone else’s interpretation. Wait for the film to come out on DVD.

2.  Prepare yourself that the filmmaker may have had to cut out plot points, mesh a few characters into one, or ditch background story or world building in the interest of time. You can still enjoy the surface story that the movie relates while separately cherishing the depth of the book.

3.  Find others who can relate (or commiserate). It can be refreshing to discuss things you liked and didn’t like in a film compared to the book. I have these discussions with my kids from time to time, asking what was different about the movie, how they would have cast the roles, and what they enjoyed about the book that didn’t show up in the film.

So now it’s your turn!  Do you have any additional reasons why the movie is never as good as the book?  Do you have examples of movies that were as good as the book, or that were not worth the cost of popcorn compared to the book?

Have You Always Been a Writer?

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday where today’s topic is about fiction and writers. I’ve read quite a few author interviews, and one of the questions often posed is along these lines: “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” “How long have you been writing?” or “Have You Always Been a Writer?” Typically, the author answers with something like:

Everyone told me in high school that I was going to be a great writer. Each day, I would go home and write for hours, letting my fantasy world of H’jarka and the evil ministers of Dra’mn come alive on the page. I had most of my trilogy finished by the time I graduated.

Back in junior high, I wrote a quirky romance novella, printed and stapled it together, and sold it for 10 cents a copy. I sold out my first print run of 50 copies. That’s when I knew I had the writing juice.

I’ve always been writing. I penned my first short story in elementary school with a permanent marker on my cardboard Lunchables container.

As a baby, my first word was “plot” and my first sentence was “Show, don’t tell.” As soon as I could pick up a crayon, I drew stick figures with captions to tell a story in three acts.

Hyperbole, of course. Yet writers do often say something along the lines of always knowing that they wanted to be a writer or having written stories almost as long as they can recall.

Published authors who have written on the craft of writing also give the same message. Stephen King’s On Writing begins with a memoir in which he recounts writing from an early age and his repeated attempts to get words on a page and get others to read said words. Others are fond of saying that writers must write; they simply have no other choice, as writing is like breathing!

From shakespeareshoppe at http://www.zazzle.com

I disagree. I can sit here doing absolutely nothing, and my body will continue to inhale and exhale. In fact, I have to try hard to hold my breath for longer than about 10 seconds. Then that pesky automatic breathing thing kicks right in again.

Writing, however, is a decision, a voluntary action, a mental and physical activity. I have to choose to write.

I chose to start writing fiction in my late 30’s. Before that time, I had only written stories for classes. I certainly hadn’t created worlds of characters, written chapters, or asked others to read my work. I was past 40 when I wrote my first book. I’ve only been doing this — writing novels — for a few years.

This leads me to question the underlying assumption that one is born to be a writer. Is it that simple? Or do we come to this point through different avenues?

The truth is that I’ve had stories swirling through my head for as long as I can remember. I told myself tales in my darkened bedroom as I fell asleep at night, imagining characters and scenes. I read books and thought long and hard about their plots, their people, and the magical minds and fingers behind the stories. I pondered how breathtaking it must be to create a work of fiction that communicates so deeply to an audience the author has never met. But I never wrote stories down. That came later, much later.

I wrote poetry, songs, school essays and research papers, deposition summaries (paralegal job), newsletter articles, web content, and more. Yet a novel was something I expected that I needed special fairy dust to create. Having not received an overt visit from Tinker Bell or “The Muse,” I didn’t know that I could be a writer.

Until one day, when I sat at my computer, looked at a blank screen, and wrote a chapter. Most of it sucked. Some of it didn’t.

Time passed.

I came back a few months later and wrote something else. It probably sucked more than the first one . . . but again, not all of it.

Then Hurricane Ike hit, causing us to retreat from our home and its crumbling roof. Faced with extensive time on my hands and no library card in the city we were visiting (and no eReader then), I wrote a new chapter with a new idea. I really liked it.

It could have ended there. Because I don’t think writing for everyone is a do-or-die kind of thing. If tomorrow, something in the universe shifted and I could not write another word, I would miss it horribly because I love writing fiction. However, I’d be a happy person. I have an amazing family, a great life, and lots of other things I can do (anyone need a lead singer for their rock band?). But I chose to write.

I set aside time every day and added to that first chapter. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, word by word, I wrote until one day I had a completed first draft. No longer was I considering being a writer or “aspiring” to write a novel, I had written one. I was a writer.

To my mind, everyone who writes chooses to do so. There are so many other things you could do. I bet some in your extended family think you should do something else. Whenever you get bit by the writing bug, it isn’t as easy as breathing. You decide each and every day that you write to do so.

Some knew that decision early on, just as some declare that they want to be schoolteachers or veterinarians or lawyers at young ages and go on to do just that. Some do not decide until later.  Some even appear to stumble around for a while and only know that it’s the perfect job when they land in the middle of the fiction meadow, lie back in the grass, and hear themselves say “aah.”

For my graduate degree, I worked a career counseling internship, and I know that some people find their niche early and others later in life. Such epiphanies can occur at age 5, age 25, or age 55.

I am a writer. I didn’t always know it, but I am. (And I think I’m a pretty good one too, or I wouldn’t keep doing it.)

Now tell me: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing? If you are recent to fiction, did you have other indications that writing, or at least storytelling, were “in your blood”?

At-Least-3 Reading Challenge for 2012

Castle reads. Oh yeah.

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday! Today’s topic involves fiction.

One of my fabulous Christmas gifts was a book journal from my mother, in which I can record what I have read and my thoughts on each book. When I saw blog posts from others listing their favorite books of 2011, I realized that I don’t remember what I read last year. Yes, I recall some titles, but I don’t know all of them. And my memory gets worse and worse every year with children.

With my new tool in hand (yeah, book journal!), I am ready for a new year of reading and keeping track. Or am I? Do I even know which novels I want to pick up in 2012?

I read about Jess Witkins’ To Be Read Pile Challenge on Jenny Hansen’s blog – a throw-down-the-glove challenge to read 12 books in 2012 which have been sitting on your TBR list for way too long. A great idea. Then I discovered A Novel Challenge – a whole blog dedicated to suggesting reading challenges, along with some cool prizes for some of them. I perused these choices as well.

But based on what I want to accomplish, I’m developing my own reading challenge, which may be best called My At-Least-3 Reading Challenge. I resolve to read at least three titles from each of the following categories in 2012.

Classics – from the following list:

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Hunger Games - read that one.

Young Adult Bestsellers

Books from 2009-2012 which topped the Amazon or NY Times bestsellers list.

Indie or Self-Published Books

I haven’t read enough of these, and there are some great authors out there. I’m leaving it open for what genre I’ll read among the indie and self-pubbed titles.

Mystery Masters

There are several mystery icons whose works I haven’t read. In developing my list, I relied somewhat on K.B. Owen’s blog to enlighten me on what I should be reading. Among the titles I’m considering are:

Of course Sherlock reads.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason) by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Fer de Lance (Nero Wolfe) by Rex Stout
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes) by Arthur Conan Doyle
I, the Jury (Mike Hammer) by Mickey Spillane
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James
The Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie

Fiction Powerhouses – titles from at least 3 of the following authors who top the bestselling authors ever list (and whom I’ve never read):

Mary Higgins Clark
Jackie Collins
Michael Crichton
Roald Dahl
Dean Koontz
Louis L’Amour
James Michener
James Patterson
Nora Roberts
Danielle Steel

Not My Usual Genre

Don’t we tend to read certain genres far more than others? Hand me a young adult novel, a cozy mystery, or paranormal fantasy, and I’m all over it. Romance? Not usually. Science fiction? Rarely. Horror? Never.

But there are some terrific reads in other genres, and I surprised myself by enjoying several in 2011. I would like to stretch myself and read more.

I do have the standing caveat that any novel I start gets 50 pages to engage me. If I don’t care one bit what happens to the characters after 50 pages, I hurl set aside the book and pick up another. At this point in my life, I’ve decided that there are far too many great books that I could be enjoying to waste time finishing one I don’t care about. Sometimes, the reason is that the book is poorly written, but far more often it simply isn’t my cup of tea. No criticism to the author; just not a match of writer and reader.

So what’s on your list of to be read novels in 2012? Have you taken on any reading challenges for the new year?

What Would You Put in Your Fiction Museum?

I have probably mentioned before – maybe a dozen times by now – that Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favorite films. (Ignore all sequels; by comparison, they suck.) In Raiders, an object takes center stage as archaeologists and villains compete to be the ones in possession of the ancient and powerful Ark of the Covenant.

I started thinking of books in which an object is a central part of setting or a symbol for the character. What fictional objects do I wish were real and I could see and touch?

So for Deep-Fried Friday, I am opening my own museum.

Welcome to Julie’s Novelties of Novels!

Enter inside and see what is featured in today’s exhibit.

Sherlock Holmes’s Pipe

While Sherlock Holmes is best known for smoking a Callabash pipe, this type is not mentioned in the short stories or novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the most commonly referenced pipe is a churchwarden, which Sherlock smoked often when contemplating problems and solutions.

Image: pipetobacco.com

Source: PipesMagazine.com

The Hatter’s Top Hat

Lewis Carroll never referred to him as the “Mad Hatter,” although we all know him as such from the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Instead, he was merely The Hatter. His tea parties were quite the event, so why shouldn’t one look dapper wearing a Victorian top hat?

Sources: Several, including Lenny’s Alice in Wonderland site

Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak

This item is heavily guarded due to its magical powers. Used by Harry Potter and friends in the series by J.K. Rowling, invisibility can come in quite handy from time to time.

Image from thlog.com

The Wardrobe to Narnia

Although we often picture a rather ornate wardrobe for the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis only specified that it was big and had a looking glass in it. This Victorian wardrobe is the portal into the land of Narnia where animals talk and a lion rules.

Image from antiques-atlas.com

 Sleeping Beauty’s Spinning Wheel

First told in the 17th century, the tale of Sleeping Beauty involves jealousy, an evil woman with a spinning wheel, and a curious young woman who cannot resist this fascinating gadget. Prick, sleep, and wait for a handsome prince. Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky each told the story in their own way.

Image from The Canterbury Auction Galleries

One Ring to Rule Them All

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

Thus is the inscription in Black Speech on the ring featured in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. The volcano ash has been polished off the ring for its display here.

Image by Marios Tziortzis

The Cat’s Hat

The mischief maker from The Cat in the Hat maintained his distinctive look with this red-and-white hat which towered above his devious feline mind. Dr. Seuss’s tale has been a beloved one since its printing in 1957.

Image from Okie Book Woman’s Blog (cute Seuss stuff)

Now it’s your turn: What would you put in your fiction museum? What items stand out to you in stories, books, television, or movies?

Friday Fiction: What Are Y’all Reading?

I recently combed through our Borders store a second time looking for going-out-of-business bargains and walked away with another stack of books. This time, most of the books were for my family; however, I did add to my To Be Read pile – which currently resembles Jack’s beanstalk to the clouds.

In the queue are several non-fiction books (primarily on writing and language) and fiction selections as well.

For today’s Friday Fiction, I’m sharing what’s coming up on my list and asking what y’all have been reading.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This book was recommended by mystery writer Jayne Ormerod. I had seen this title several times and it piqued my curiosity, but not enough until Jayne gave it a 5 out of 5 rating.

From the back cover: “January 1946: Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German Occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.”

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. Two good friends have recommended this book, and one finally loaned me her copy (which I’ve now had for months!). I’ve probably put off reading it because it sounds like a tearjerker, and this mama isn’t sure she wants to go down that road. But the plot does sound compelling and with the recommendations . . .

From the back cover: “This stunning novel begins on a winter night in 1964, when a blizzard forces Dr. David Henry to deliver his own twins. His son, born first, is perfectly healthy, but the doctor immediately recognizes that his daughter has Down syndrome. For motives he tells himself are good, he makes a split-second decision that will haunt all their lives forever. He asks his nurse, Caroline, to take the baby away to an institution. Instead, she disappears into another city to raise the child as her own.”

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. My mother-in-law passed this one off to me. She has read quite a few historical novels and is good at spotting an excellent one.

From the Amazon.com book description: “In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.”

The Cat, the Lady and the Liar by Leann Sweeney. Mystery author Leann Sweeney lives in my town! But although that’s how I heard about her, I’m not reading her books for that reason. She’s a great storyteller. This one is the third in her Cats in Trouble series. I have also read her Yellow Rose Mysteries, which were a lot of fun. If you like cozy mysteries, pick up one of Leann’s novels and give it a shot.

From the back cover: “When cat quilter Jillian Hart tracks down the owner of a gorgeous stray cat, the trail leads her to none other than fabulously wealthy, undeniably quirky Ritaestelle Longworth. The gossips in town are questioning Ritaestelle’s sanity, and the high-society grande dame isn’t helping matters with her wild accusations that someone is drugging her to keep her away from her beloved cat. Before Jillian can get to the bottom of Ritaestelle’s charges, a body turns up in the lake behind her house – and her cat Chablis discovers Ritaestelle standing nearby. Can Jillian’s three wise cats aid her in solving a mystery with roots that are decades old?”

Rainwater by Sandra Brown. This bestselling author was the keynote speaker at the DFW Writers’ Conference held last spring by the DFW Writers’ Workshop. As part of her presentation, she described her two latest books, and this title sounded fascinating. I have only read one other novel from her– a romance from some years ago. I’m curious to see how her writing has evolved and to simply delve into the story.

From Publishers Weekly: “Bestseller Brown brings Depression-era Texas to vivid life in this poignant short novel. At the recommendation of Dr. Murdy Kincaid, Ella Barron, a hardworking woman whose husband deserted her, accepts David Rainwater, a relative of the doctor’s, as a lodger at the boarding house she runs in the small town of Gilead, Texas. As the local community contends with a government program to shoot livestock and the opposition of racist Conrad Ellis, a greedy meatpacker, to poor families butchering the meat, Ella grows closer to David. Meanwhile, David becomes a special guardian angel to Solly, Ella’s nine-year-old autistic son. Dr. Kincaid has gently suggested Ella put Solly in an institution, but she refuses to do so. Brown skillfully charts the progress of Ella and David’s quiet romance, while a contemporary frame adds a neat twist to this heartwarming but never cloying historical.”

Which of these titles have you read or want to read? So what’s up next on your reading list? Do you have recommendations for must-reads?

Who Wrote It? Author Franchises

So you pick up yet another book from an author who has churned out four this year already, excited to crack open the spine and yet wondering how he manages to write so many novels.

But then you discover, he didn’t. Although his name is on the cover, someone else substantially wrote the book. The famous moniker has become a branded franchise.

James Patterson is the poster boy for author franchising with 39 of his 78 novels including a “written with” acknowledgment. A former advertising guru, Patterson has made millions by collaborating with other authors to churn out several novels per year to his loyal readership. Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club, Maximum Ride, and Daniel X are among his series. His fellow authors are not permitted to disclose the terms of their working relationship,but Patterson has stated that they write the first draft and he writes subsequent ones. (Time Magazine article.)

Janet Evanovich, author of the popular Stephanie Plum series, wrote romance novels for the Full series with collaborator Charlotte Hughes. Explaining her reasons, she said, “I had a lot of ideas in my head that I just didn’t have time to put on paper . . . I had started writing romance novels at the same time Charlotte did. She’s a great writer with her own distinct sense of humor. I thought she was the perfect person to help me start a new romance series.” (Crescent Blues interview). How much of the novels did each of these women write? I don’t know. But make no mistake, when you go looking for the novels, it’s Evanovich who features prominently on the cover, even though Ms. Hughes’s name appears below.

It’s hard to track which bestselling authors have contracted out some of their work. Some credit collaborators on the cover, others inside. And others do not reveal the extent to which a ghost writer lent a hand –literally. But if you are still turning out books while turning over in your grave, that’s definitely suspicious.

Several dead authors continue to put out novels, not from their ghostly gravesite but through the collaboration of other authors willing to write under a bestselling author’s name. Matt Christopher died in 1997 but his sports-themed children’s books continue to hit the shelves, and the bio section on the author’s website (Matt Christopher) does not mention his death. V.C. Andrews wrote seven best sellers, then died in 1986; yet the publisher has since released thirty-three novels in her name. Louis L’Amour, popular Western fiction author, died in 1988 but has had several novels published posthumously. Robert Ludlum, thriller author who died in 2001, has also been credited with novels written by ghost writers at the behest of his estate. His Bourne series has been continued by another author, Eric Van Lustbader, with Ludlum’s name on the cover as well as Lustbader’s.

I have been quick to point out to my sons when a novel is co-written with someone else, even if the bestselling author is the one credited on the cover or on reading lists. But admittedly, they don’t remember the name Adam Sadler like they do James Patterson (Demons & Druids). Patterson has become a franchised brand, like Domino’s Pizza or Jiffy Lube.

And while Domino’s Pizza’s earnings for the year are up, so are Patterson’s. According to Forbes, James Patterson took in $84 million dollars in 2010 – $49 million dollars more than the next bestselling author on the list, Danielle Steel.

My precious manuscript!

Is the bottom line what is important here? Sure, authors want to make money. At least most of us would like to do something more than bury our manuscripts in dresser drawers or wrap them in our Gollum-like hands and refer to them as “Precious.” We want others to buy and then read our stories. Making a living from writing means you can keep writing and turning on the lights in your house. And the idea of making so much money that you can write your next novel while on vacation in Greece certainly sounds cool, too.

But what do you think about hiring out some portion of the writing to other authors? Do you care whether you favorite writers have actually written the book in your hands, as long as it’s good? Do you think that hiring collaborators or ghost writers affects the quality or personality of a work? Do you think that estates and publishers should continue putting out books in the name of a deceased author? What do you think generally of author franchising? Is it a good idea?

Larger than Life Characters

It’s Friday Fiction time!  I recently read a great post by Literary Agent Kate McKean (top ten things agents and editors want to see every day of the week) and noticed a phrase she used to tell people not to wallow over their rejection: “Don’t go all Havisham over it . . .”  Of course, having read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, I knew immediately what she meant. Miss Havisham was a character who grieved desperately for years over a lost love. It didn’t hurt that I had also read Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde in which Miss Havisham also plays a significant role.

Miss Havisham, a purely fictional character, is well known and has come to represent extensive self-pity. I wondered about other fictional characters who are indeed larger than life – those concoctions of an author’s mind who take on their own identity and become conversational touchpoints.

I could nominate a few:

Don Juan & Donna

Don Juan. The famous lover was likely first introduced by Spanish dramatist (and Roman Catholic monk) Tirso de Molina, who wrote a play which included Don Juan. More famous renderings are Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan, Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and Don Juan de Marco, a film starring Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, and Faye Dunaway (which I love). Say “Don Juan,” and we all think of a consummate seductor and lover.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Should this count as one character or two? We hear this one in conversation quite a lot as well, indicating a split personality – one of which is a-okay, while the other is certifiable. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is related by a London lawyer who investigates the strange goings-on involving his friend Dr. Jekyll and the evil Mr. Hyde. But we use the phrase not really to talk about the psychiatric condition of dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality), but usually someone who inexplicably changes tone or manner.

Sherlock Holmes. Typically, it’s just Sherlock . . . as in “No duh, Sherlock!” (Or “No ___, Sherlock!”) Arthur Conan Doyle brought us the brilliant, if odd and opium-addicted, detective who solved numerous mysteries for Scotland Yard with Dr. Watson at his side. The first published work, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in 1887 and spawned four novels and 55 more short stories. “Elementary, my dear Watson” is a common phrase, and references to someone being Sherlock means they are truly brilliant, or you are using irony to mock their stupidity. Either way, we all know what you mean.

The Cheshire Cat. Lest you think me homo sapien-centered, may I suggest that the Cheshire Cat is larger than life as well? Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass popularized the Cheshire Cat and his tell-tale grin, even though “grinning like a Cheshire cat” was used beforehand. Yet, a regional phrase like that might have died out but for the fictional character who gave us a mental picture of a large smile, so big that the cat even disappears before its grin.

"...with some fava beans and a nice chianti."

Hannibal Lecter.  Hannibal Lecter is a cannibalistic serial killer introduced in The Red Dragon and memorialized in the sequel and movie, The Silence of the Lambs.  If you mention Hannibal in a conversation about hunger, people know exactly what you are talking about.  Hannibal Lecter has come to stand for cannibalism itself.  And for crazy as well.  But don’t the two things go hand-in-hand?  We can thank horror author Thomas Harris for bringing us this character and reprising him in two more novels, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising.

Ethan Hawke as Starbuck

Starbuck.  Little did Herman Melville know that his fictional character of Starbuck, the first mate to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, would become the name of an international chain of coffee shops.  But it does make me wonder what the Seattle partners, Gordon Bowker and Terry Heckler, would have named their restaurant instead.  And wouldn’t we miss out on seeing that mermaid on the cups?  So thanks, Melville.

What do you think?  Are there are fictional characters whose presence is so impactful that they have joined our vernacular?  Their names have become representative of a concept or condition?  Who would you add to my list?