WRITER’S SHELF: The Popsugar Reading Challenge 2015 & 2016!

Okay people, I’ll lay it out for you – I didn’t complete the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge in it’s entirety. I just wasn’t strategic enough and chose 500 plus page books I ended up hated for slots that should have held fun page turners. I won’t make that mistake again with our brand new Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2016. (Click here for a printable list).
Our categories, dear comrades:

A book based on a fairy tale
A National Book Award Winner
A YA Bestseller
A book you haven’t read since high school
A book set in your home state
A book translated into English
A romance set in the future
A book set in Europe
A book that’s under 150 pages
A New York Times bestseller
A book that’s becoming a movie this year
A book recommended by someone you just met
A self-improvement book
A book you can finish in a day
A book written by a celebrity
A political memoir
A book at least 100 years older than you
A book that’s more than 600 pages
A book from Oprah’s Book Club
A science-fiction novel
A book recommended by a family member
A graphic Novel
A book that is published in 2016
A book with a protagonist who has your occupation
A book that takes place during Summer
A book and it’s prequel
A murder mystery
A book written by a comedian
A dystopian novel
A book with a blue cover
A book of poetry
The first book you see in a bookstore
A classic from the 20th century
A book from the library
A book about a road trip
A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with
A satirical book
A book that takes place on an island
A book that’s guaranteed to bring you joy

The 2016 categories are pretty daunting to me, but I’ve learned from this years literary missteps and am determined to complete every.single.one. (God help me).

Now I still have a few books I did manage to finish in 2015 so let’s take a looksee.

Book #20
Heart Shaped Box

Popsugar Slot: “A book that scares you”
Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel
by Joe Hill
I’d heard a lot of positive buzz about this horror novel and I was intrigued to see if Stephen King’s son could step up to the challenge of writing horror with the ghost of his father looming large. Speaking of ghosts, I found the one in this story to be quite scary and Joe Hill did an amazing job of making me identify with the main characters and rooting for them to survive. Overall the book was well written and had some really lovely descriptions about music. My only small qualm was that the pacing felt a bit off in some places, but it was so minor that it really didn’t impact an otherwise great book.
“All the world is made of music. We are all strings on a lyre. We resonate. We sing together.”
It doesn’t matter how scary your villain or “big bad” is – the reader needs to care about what happens to the main character. They need to feel their pain, their injustices, their insecurities, and most of all what they want the most. If you do that successfully, any danger will seem terrifying.
This will be an unexpected choice, but “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was the most terrifying story I’ve ever read. You watch a woman go slowly insane and over time she starts to see people moving inside the yellow wallpaper in her room.   She’s been locked because of her “condition” which was basically just being a woman in a time when women had as many rights as a piece of furniture. It’s painful and visceral and something everyone should read.

Book #21
The Invisible MAn
Popsugar Slot: “A book more than 100 years old”
The Invisible Man
by H.G. Wells
I’d always wanted to read this book but never actually got around to doing it. I feel like I learned so much. Putting aside the danger an invisible man could pose, there’s actually a ton of comedic potential. I don’t know why it never occurred to me, but if the guy’s not trying to kill you, his making stuff float around and people trip over themselves is pretty funny. Now onto the big question, was the Invisible Man a psychotic douche before he turned invisible, or did the invisibility drive him to it? It’s a question for the ages, but my vote is once a douche, always a douche.
“Great and strange ideas transcending experience often have less effect upon men and women than smaller, more tangible considerations.”
Things can be both funny and terrifying, and that combination can be quite entertaining to write about.
“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens is one of my favorite books. It’s the original soap opera and the image of Miss Havisham with her ragged wedding dress and dust covered banquet table is one of my most vivid literary recollections. It’s worth the page count, trust me.

Book #22
Why Not ME
Popsugar Slot: “A nonfiction book”
Why Not Me?
by Mindy Kaling
I got this book in a Popsugar sub box and while I’d never seen “The Mindy Project”, I’d found Mindy’s persona to be fun and intriguing so I thought this would be a funny read. Turns out Mindy and I have a lot in common: our age, hatred of weddings and writing aspirations. Generally I enjoyed her style and point of view, although like many super successful people I’ve known there are moments were you know they’ve lost the ability to truly understand the “everyman/woman” plight. It brought to mind a grad school event where a really successful writer a few years ahead of me was asked what her biggest challenges were. She said something along the lines of dealing with all the hassle of travel for the book tours. She was clearly in a different place and league than most of the people there. I got that same vibe from certain parts of this book – Mindy kept saying “I’m just like you” and I kept feeling “Oh honey, you so are not, but I appreciate the attempt”. On the bright side, it inspired me to watch Mindy’s show which turned into my latest Hulu addiction.
“I will leave you with one last piece of advice, which is: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And if you don’t got it? Flaunt it. ‘Cause what are we even doing here if we’re not flaunting it?””
Remember your audience. They want to identify with you, not feel a huge distance between their place in the world and yours.
I really don’t read much Nonfiction since it goes against my deepest impulse to escape to imaginary places and hang out with imaginary people, but if I have to choose one, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote is a compelling nonfiction read.  (As a bonus it will make you sound well read if you discuss it at parties.)
Book #23
Lost & Found
Popsugar Slot: “A book with Antonyms in the Title”
Lost and Found (Lost & Found Book 1)
by Nicole Williams
I’m going to be honest here, I chose this book because it fit the slot and was free on Amazon. This is a YA romance and for most of the book it’s just painful to read. The instant attraction between our protagonist, Rowen Sterling (yes that’s her name, and no this isn’t a fantasy book) and her “cowboy” is unearned, particularly since she is one of the most unlikeable narrators I’ve come across in a long time. The voice here also feels exactly like an adult writing as a teenager. Rowen always knows her motivations and why she behaves the way she does. It’s like half her brain is a therapist and the other half is an angsty teenager – you know those two voices you most want to read in a romance novel. The book does pick up toward the end and there are some lovely descriptive passages but the characters are poorly drawn and the plot nearly nonexistent.
“I didn’t let myself hope either. That was the real poison that put the vacant expression in so many people’s eyes.”
Unlikeable narrators don’t work well in the romance genre. You don’t like them and you have no idea why anyone else would either.
I got nothing. It was hard enough for me to find one book with Antonyms so you’ll have to come up with this one on your own.

Book #24
Popsugar Slot: “A book written by someone under 30”
Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (A Memoir)
by Maya Van Wagenen
When I saw the premise for this story I was super intrigued. A teenager picked up a vintage book on how to be popular and decided to follow the antiquated rules to see if it would work for her today (pearls, anyone?). I imagined lots of ridiculous adventures, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a very touching memoir. Maya’s inability to fit in at her mostly Hispanic school because she wasn’t Hispanic enough felt so similar to my own high school problems that I was instantly drawn in. Maya’s personal struggles are set against the harsh realities of going to school in a border town that faces so much crime and poverty. It’s an engaging and beautifully written book.
“”I wanted popularity; I wanted other people to like me. But it turns out most people are waiting to be discovered too.”
The stories hidden inside and around the one you are telling can often be the most compelling.
“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. Yes it’s dark, but also deeply moving and written before Sylvia turned 30.

Book #25

Popsugar Slot: “A book set during Christmas”
There’s Something About Christmas
by Debbie Macomber
Since it was Christmas, I figured why not go all in and find something frilly and sugary and full of empty calories – cue the schmaltzy Christmas romance. And this one, was all about fruitcake. Yes, you read that right. Fruitcake as a metaphor for life. How could I say no? What elevates a trashy or syrupy sweet romance to something worth reading is the chemistry between your lead characters and sadly these two had none. Oliver’s dialogue to Emma felt really creepy, as she kept turning him down for dates and he kept telling her she wanted him. I kept envisioning that scenario in real life and me advising Emma to get a restraining order. There was no interaction or explanation for why playboy-esque Oliver suddenly wanted Emma but he just did, because..? Even if you love romances, heck because you love romances, skip this one.
“Have you noticed that people either love fruitcake or hate it?” she said companionably. “There doesn’t’ seem to be any middle ground.””
You can have a character fall inexplicably in love with another, but it has to be earned in some way. It can’t just be there without anything to make it work.
“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. This is my absolute favorite story of all. It has the best opening line in all of literature and it’s overarching story of redemption has been mirrored in so many subsequent tales.

My Full 2015 Popsugar Reading List

Book #1 A book based on or turned into a TV show Outlander Gabaldon, Diana
Book #2 A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet Every Day Levithan, David
Book #3 A book with a number in the title Room 702 Benjamin, Ann
Book #4 A book of short stories Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories Capote, Truman
Book #5 A book with magic A Darker Shade of Magic Schwab, V.E.
Book #6 A memoir As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride Elwes, Cary; Layden, Joe
Book #7 A book at the bottom of your to-read list Bel Canto Patchett, Ann
Book #8 A book that came out the year you were born The Neverending Story Ende, Michael
Book #9 A Pulitzer Prize-winning book Middlesex Eugenides, Jeffrey
Book #10 A book with nonhuman characters End of Days (Penryn & the End of Days Series) Ee, Susan
Book #11 A trilogy The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (The Mara Dyer Trilogy Book 1) Hodkin, Michelle
Book #12 A trilogy The Evolution of Mara Dyer (The Mara Dyer Trilogy Book 2) Hodkin, Michelle
Book #13 A trilogy The Retribution of Mara Dyer (The Mara Dyer Trilogy Book 3) Hodkin, Michelle
Book #14 A book you can finish in a day The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Novel Haddon, Mark
Book #15 A graphical Novel Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened Brosh, Allie
Book #16 A book with a one-word title Ticker Mantchev, Lisa
Book #17 A book by an author you’ve never read before Doll Bones Black, Holly
Book #18 A book that became a movie Paper Towns Green, John
Book #19 A Classic Romance Persuasion Eyre, Jane
Book #20 A book that scares you Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel Hill, Joe
Book #21 A book more than 100 years old The Invisible Man Wells, H.G.
Book #22 A nonfiction book Why Not Me? Kaling, Mindy
Book#23 A book with antonyms in the title Lost and Found (Lost & Found Book 1) Williams, Nicole
Book#24 A book written by someone under 30 Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (A Memoir) Wagenen, Maya Van
Book #25 A book set during Christmas There’s Something About Christmas Macomber, Debbie

Overall, I read 25 books and 8,763 pages. Not the best showing I must admit, but this was my first attempt trying to adjust my reading habits to match the categories so I think I’ll have a much better time in 2016.

How about you? Did you complete the Popsugar 2015 challenge or did you flounder like I did?

WRITER’S SHELF: The Popsugar Book Challenge Update! Paper Towns, Clockwork Hearts, Doll Bones & More!

It’s time again for an update on my 2015 Popsugar 2015 Book Challenge. It’s a reading challenge that lists books from various categories that you need to complete (like a scavenger hunt).  I’m overdue for my next batch of reviews.

End of Days
Book #10

Popsugar Slot: “A book with nonhuman characters”
End of Days (Penryn & the End of Days Series)
by Susan Ee
This is actually the third book in a trilogy, so you’ll want to read the first two before diving into this one. You’ve seen post-apocalyptic YA before, but rarely do you see the cause of it as Angels declaring war on humans. This series gives us a main character that steals an archangel’s sword, names it Pooky Bear and then sets out to save a world filled with angels, demons and all kinds of strange hybrids. Romance plays a key element amidst the action and horror sequences, so if you like your fights with pangs of forbidden love, this series might be for you.
“Power is best held by the ones who don’t want it.”
When writing a series pace the overarching story so that your final installment isn’t in a rush to tie up every loose end and cap off every relationship. Build some of that into the earlier books.
Vampires have a bad rap in the literary world, but the Elemental mysteries series by Elizabeth Hunter has a fresh and well written spin on our favorite undead species. Mixing historical detail with a unique take on vampire abilities, it brings a new spin to the genre.

Mara Dyer Mara Dyer 2 Mara Dyer 3
Books #11 – #13

Popsugar Slot: “A trilogy”
The Mara Dyer Trilogy
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (Book 1)
The Evolution of Mara Dyer (Book 2)
The Retribution of Mara Dyer (Book 3)
by Michelle Hodkin
This is a three for one deal. It follows the story of “Mara Dyer” as she discovers unsettling and horrifying secrets about herself, her family and those around her. The pacing of the first book was very slow and it was hard to connect with the protagonist. I’m not sure I would have stuck with the series if not for this reading challenge, but I’m very glad I did because the second book was amazing and the third was extremely enjoyable. This is a YA read that promises horror and romance and really starts to deliver in the second book. There are some lovely passages and the central theme of struggling with one’s own monstrosity deeply resonates. It’s definitely worth a read if you can make it past the first book.
Book #1:I twisted my arm to curl him behind me and he unfolded there, the two of us snuggled like quotation marks in his room full of words.”
Book #2: “This was the boy I loved. A little bit messy. A little bit ruined. A beautiful disaster. Just like me.”
Book #3: “Kill the right people and you become a hero. Heal the wrong ones, and you become a villain. it is our choices that define us, not our abilities.”
Pacing is of the utmost importance in a trilogy. The first book has to make you want to keep reading, otherwise we’ll never get to the awesome and compelling second and third novels.
Another trilogy with uneven pacing but very interesting themes is “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman. It can be a bit dense to get through at times, but there are some brilliant ideas and a must read for science fiction buffs.

 Curious Incident
Book #14
Popsugar Slot: “A book you can finish in a day”
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Novel
by Mark Haddon
This was one of those books that had always been on my “to read” list but I’d never gotten around to actually reading. Our narrator is a young autistic boy and it’s his voice that makes this story so compelling. The book gives you an in depth understanding of someone with a completely different way of viewing the world and its possibilities.  Very compelling.
“I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about.”
One of the greatest things we can hope to accomplish as writers is giving someone a view into the world in a way they’d never been able to imagine or understand without our help. Someone who’s never seen the ocean can feel the sea breeze against their face as they captain a ship, and someone who’s never even met an autistic child can understand the unique challenges they face when interacting with the world.
For a quick read, “Warm Bodies” by Isaac Marion is a lot of fun and strangely touching. It’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet but with zombies, and that’s as awesome as it sounds.

 Hyperbole & a Half
Book #15
Popsugar Slot: “A graphical Novel”
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
by Allie Brosh
This is a graphical novel about struggling with depression. It’s an offshoot of the wildly successful blog “Hyperbole and a Half.” I’ve really enjoyed  the website so I assumed I’d love this book as well. I liked this book and its cute drawings but found it to be too much of a regurgitation of the blog. I had expected more new material so I was a bit disappointed.
“Fear and shame are the backbone of my self-control. They are my source of inspiration, my insurance against becoming entirely unacceptable.”
You can’t keep telling the same funny anecdotes and have them be funny. You either need to change them up or get some new material.
I don’t read a ton of graphic novels, but “Blankets” by Craig Thompson is lovely and is another book that deals with deeper emotional issues in an interesting way.

Book #16
Popsugar Slot: “A book with a one-word title”
by Lisa Mantchev
This book had the coolest premise ever: a girl with a clockwork heart. It was Steampunk and had good reviews so I was positive I would love it.   As so frequently happens when overconfident- I was wrong. This book was only 276 pages. Some of the longest pages I have ever read (and I once took a graduate class in “stories without stories”).   The narrator is unlikeable, the sentences have an awkward cadence and the Steampunk elements are shoved down your throat. There are some really interesting story ideas, but they are lost amid endless discussion of cakes, unnecessary abbreviations for things and the narrator’s penchant for stupid behavior. Someone physically weak (with a bad heart) constantly throwing herself into danger for no foreseeable reason is a selfish idiot. Brains can often be more useful than brawn, a lesson our flighty narrator never learned. There is also a romance which is not in the least bit romantic. It’s 276 pages of missed opportunities and cakes.  (For a book about appendages being replaced with clockwork versions, there is a surprising amount of discussion about confections.)
“Fall in love with me, not the idea of rescuing me.”
Do not let a stylistic element of your story take it over. No matter how compelling a setting or style can be, it needs to feel seamless with the plot and dialogue. If not, it becomes a running gag and distracts from the actual story.
I’m always on the lookout for a well-written Steampunk book and I really enjoyed “Gears of Wonderland” by Jason G. Anderson. It combines Alice in Wonderland, Steampunk and just a hint of Neil Gaiman for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Doll Bones
Book #17

Popsugar Slot: “A book by an author you’ve never read before”
Doll Bones
by Holly Black
I thought I’d sneak in a middle grade book for this slot.  Holly Black is an author with a lot of good reviews that I hadn’t yet had the privilege of reading and since Doll Bones is a Newbery Honor winner, it seemed like a great choice. This book uses the story of three friends and a mysterious, creepy doll to explore the changes children go through as they move into adolescence. It’s eerie and  beautifully written although I did wish for a bit more closure at the end.  Still that’s a small complaint against an otherwise wonderful book.
“”It made him feel, for a moment, like maybe no stories were lies…Maybe all stories were true ones.”
Quiet lyrical prose can elevate an interesting story into art.
“So B. It” by Sarah Weeks is another beautiful lyrical story that focuses on the difficulties of being a child in a unique situation.

Paper Towns
Book #18

Popsugar Slot: “A book that became a movie”
Paper Towns
by John Green
You know when you open up a John Green book that you are going to get a narrator that feels too smart for his age and full of insights most adults wouldn’t have. Unfortunately, Paper Towns feels even more indulgent on those two points and as a reader, I could feel John Green trying to press his ideas into my brain versus having an interesting story whisper them to me. I loved the idea of  chasing this crazy girl on a pseudo-scavenger hunt but sadly most of the book was our narrator just making poetic observations.  Most characters felt like they’d been stolen right from John Green’s other novels (Looking for Alaska, in particular). The prose is beautiful and eloquent but this book felt like a shiny Christmas ornament: Gorgeous on the surface, but ultimately hollow.
“It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined.”
You need to show a reader the way to a beautiful realization – your story needs to earn those bits of gorgeous prose, otherwise it’s just a sermon wrapped in a pretty bow.
There are lots of books made into movies, so I’m opting for a slightly unexpected choice: “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” by Winifred Watson. I thought this was full of interesting characters, a relatable protagonist with a compelling backdrop (1920s).  It’s a fabulous retro read.

Book #19

Popsugar Slot: “A Classic Romance”
by Jane Austen
This is another revelation that will probably make you question my writing degree, but I’ve never actually read a Jane Austen novel. (Did a thousand dead Lit teachers just roll over in their graves?) Her work seemed a good fit for the “classic romance” slot so I opted for “Persuasion” because the story was unfamiliar. To summarize the plot for a modern audience: #richpeopleproblems. Lots of rich people talking about how they aren’t rich enough (but don’t worry they’re still rich) and who should marry whom. I get it’s satire but I just don’t have the stamina for that much exposition.
“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning.”
You have to make at least one character likeable, in at least some small way, otherwise the battle is lost before you started.
For my list, I went with a classic novel to fill the “classic romance” slot, but for my suggestion I’m going a different route. Now try not to roll your eyes but I’m suggesting Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook.” Serious, I’m totally serious. When you hear the word romance you want a box of gooey chocolates, not a plate of broccoli (Sorry, Jane). “The Notebook” is honestly the only Sparks’ novel worth reading and for all it’s faults, it is absolutely romantic.

I’m still trying to decide on the “A book a friend recommended” so I’d love to hear your book suggestions and what you’re reading!

WRITER’S SHELF: The Popsugar Book Challenge, Cary Elwes dishes on The Princess Bride & a Publishing Surprise!

It’s a freezing, rainy October weekend (thank you Hurricane Joaquin) so I’ve spent the day taking photos for the blog, making recipes for the you (prepare yourself for my attempt at food blogging) and realizing it’s been hella long since I’ve done a Writer’s Shelf feature and I’m overdue for some catch up.

Now before I jump into the books for my Popsugar 2015 Book Challenge, I have a big announcement to make. After forever and a day, (roughly), I have finally sold my first book! My middle grade fairy tale adventure novel, “The Ice Maiden’s Tale” will be published by Xist Publishing in 2016!   Prepare yourself for more writing features that will actually feature my own novel.

Because I’m behind, I’ll be grouping books together.

Book #6
Popsugar Slot: “A memoir”
The Princess Bride
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride
by Cary Elwes & Joe Layden
The Princess Bride is my absolute favorite movie, and coincidentally my soon to be published novel was inspired a lot by it. This book is about the making of the movie and it was fun, quick read. The highlights include that Robin Wright (Buttercup) and Cary Elwes (Westley) had a bit of a crush on each other, Cary Elwes actually was knocked unconsciously when he was hit on the head by the 6 fingered man, the swordfight scene took an epic amount of training, and Andre the Giant was the nicest, coolest dude ever.  (He really deserves his own book).  If the movie is one of your faves, add this to your must read list.
“As you wish” – Could I really choose anything else?
Apparently it took eons before someone could get the Princess Bride made into a movie and it didn’t find its audience until it was released on video after which it became a cult classic. The lesson I’ve learned from this and (my own struggle with publishing) is that eventually your story will find it’s way to the right audience. Sometimes you just have to wait it out.
I don’t read many memoirs but I was moved and intrigued by Ekaterina Gordeeva’s book, “My Sergei: A Love Story” which detailed her life in skating with her late husband. It’s an oldie, but still good.

Book #7
Popsugar Slot: “A book at the bottom of your to-read list”
Bel Canto
Bel Canto
by Ann Patchett
A classmate of mine in grad school, Morgan Matson, gave me this book to read. I started and for some reason I put it down and didn’t pick it up again. It’s been quite a few years since then and the books in my “to read” basket quickly covered this one up. It was literally at the bottom. It’s a beautiful, lyrical story about how humans behave and treat each other in extreme circumstances, using music as a link between them. As a musician,  that aspect was quite compelling and I found this book to be an inspiring read.
“She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.”
Sometimes focusing on one sense (like sound or scent) can make compelling descriptions and are interesting ways to link emotions to the scenes unfolding.
I can’t really suggest something from the bottom of your personal “to-read” list so I’ll suggest a book I loved where music played an important part. “When Venus Fell” by Deborah Smith is one of my favorite romance novels and features heroine Venus Arinelli, a concert pianist.

Book #8
Popsugar Slot: “A book that came out the year you were born”
The Neverending Story
The Neverending Story
by Michael Ende
I was born in 1979 and before I started googling, I was concerned at what I’d have to choose from. Turns out, 1979 was a great year for books and included such gems as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, “The Dead Zone” and “The Elephant Man”. Because I am obsessed with children’s lit and fantasy adventure, I opted for “The Neverending Story”. This was originally published in German and follows the adventures of the chubby, bullied Bastian as he escapes to and out of Fantasia. I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the Germanic origin, but the book felt almost as though it were written more for an adult audience than for children.  That being said, I do think the world of Fantasia would be enchanting for all ages.
“”He didn’t like books in which dull, cranky writers describe humdrum events in the very humdrum lives of humdrum people. Reality gave him enough of that kind of thing, why should he read about it? Besides, he couldn’t stand it when a writer tried to convince him of something. And these humdrum books, it seemed to him were always trying to do just that.”
Never try to convince Bastian of anything.
But seriously, you have to be sneaky when you want to teach someone a lesson in your story. Nothing is worse than preachy prose.
1979 was a great year for literature both the highbrow and of the more sensational variety. “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews is my suggestion as it built an entire genre. Even if incestuous romance stories aren’t your thing, you need to read it just for the OMG factor.   (Plus it’s one of the few V.C. Andrews books actually written by her.)

Book #9
Popsugar Slot: “A Pulitzer Prize-winning book”
by, Jeffrey Eugenides
Sometimes I think “real” literature is wasted on me and when I don’t love award winning books I’m afraid the Lit police are going to show up at my door and confiscate my writing degrees. I’d been wanting to read Middlesex for a long time and considering all the current discussion about gender and the role it plays in an individual’s life, this seemed a timely choice.   It had some great spots but I really wanted to hear more about our hermaphrodite narrator, Calliope/Cal and how she/he matured through adulthood  rather than hundreds upon hundreds of pages about grandparents and parents and even about sperm. It took me a ridiculous amount of time to finish it and when I finally did it felt like I’d been let out of jail.
I’m sorry. Please don’t take away my MFA.
“Jerome was sliding and climbing on top of me and it felt like it had the night before, like a crushing weight. So the boys and men announce their intentions. They cover you like a sarcophagus lid. And call it love.”
You can’t tell every story even tangentially related to your main story without losing something. Backstory is important but not at the cost of your main story and lead character.
I’ll admit I haven’t read tons of Pulitzer winners as a lot of the stories just don’t quite appeal to me. However, To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is perfection. I’m actually a little afraid to read “Go Set a Watchman” because I don’t want it to mess with my feelings for Lee’s first book.

I’ll be back soon with another bunch of books from my list.
If you’re participating in the challenge I’d love to hear your choices for the various categories and if you’re not, I’d just love to hear your recommendations for books!



WRITER’S SHELF: THE POPSUGAR 2015 BOOK CHALLENGE! Book #5: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

So it’s time again to take a break from subscription boxes and catch up with my Popsugar Book Challenge. I’ve been plugging away at my reading scavenger list and I’m long overdue for another book review.

Awhile back I reviewed the awesome YA book subscription box, OwlCrate which included was the fantasy book “A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab. I opted to use this book to fill my slot for “a book with magic” (I know, you totally couldn’t see that one coming).
Book 2
This was a new author for me and I was intrigued by the Dickensian setting that felt simultaneously familiar and completely foreign. The book begins with Kell, one of the last of the travelers, a magician who uses his own blood to travel through the different Londons. Yes, Londons with an “s”. There are 4 different Londons: Grey London, dirty, boring and without magic, Red London, a place where magic and life are revered (and where Kell was raised), White London, where people fight to control magic and the battle drains the life from the city and the lost, Black London that was cut off from all the others and is never spoken of. You follow Kell’s adventures as he travels between the Londons and meets up with the crafty Delilah “Lila” Bard, a thief who dreams of far away adventures.

This book is beautifully written and starts off a bit slow, but picks up speed once we are introduced to the compelling Lila. I found her easier to relate to and more intriguing than Kell, but this is the first book in a series so the hero of the story still has a long way to go. Unfortunately, we don’t get to visit Black London (which I spent the whole book dying to see), but I guess that’s a story for later in the series.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a mix of Dickens and Harry Potter, and it worked well for the storyline.  The one thing that detracted from the story was that the pacing felt a bit uneven, however that’s often the case in books that start a series. They have to set up an entire world and introduce characters that will last for possibly thousands of pages but still have a compelling story. It’s a heavy burden for a book and V.E. Schwab handles it well.

It was Lila’s longing for a different life that made her character so endearing to me. “Lila knew what it felt like to want something, knew the way it whispered and sang and screamed in your bones.”….“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

In Fantasy, the world is another character. Fantasy stories, more so than any other genre, demand that the world and setting carry as much weight as the characters in the story. People want to visit these exotic and foreign destinations with all of their senses and it’s important to put in enough detail that they can touch, taste, see and hear the world.

For another great book with magic and a young hero, try John Connelly’s “The Book of Lost Things”.

Do you like books with magic? If so, what are your faves?

WRITER’S SHELF: THE POPSUGAR 2015 BOOK CHALLENGE!: Book #4 – Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories

For those of you that joined me for the Popsugar Book Challenge, a reading scavenger hunt, you know that I am long overdue for some updates and reviews. I promise, I’ve been plugging away at my reading list even if I haven’t had a chance to tell you about it.

When I started this challenge, I decided to let myself be open to book choices come from all kinds of random places and experiences. A few months ago I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time. Don’t ask me how I made it to 35 without ever seeing it before, but needless to say that as soon as I did, I promptly fell in love. (Audrey Hepburn and her perfect eyeliner can have that effect on a girl). I was surprised at how modern the characters and setting felt and how NYC (and its mix of odd ducks and “rats”) remained largely unchanged–particularly the Upper East Side. While I’ve read other books by Truman Capote, I’d never picked up Breakfast at Tiffany’s and so it seemed a natural addition to my list. I ordered “Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories” from Amazon and let this book fill the slot for “a book of short stories”.

The other short stories in the book weren’t nearly as compelling as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, although I did enjoy “A Christmas Recipe”, which painted a sweet picture of the bond between a young child and his older, mentally challenged relative. Of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was well written and Holly Golightly was as compelling as ever. But…this may be blasphemy; I preferred the movie version, (gasp).  It’s just that I have a deep desire for stories to end with the boy getting the girl, or the girl getting the boy—or somebody getting somebody.  Unfortunately, the short story doesn’t have much in the way of a love story. The narrator is just another person intrigued by Holly’s unique charm and never gets close enough to see beneath the dazzling façade. There is no romantic ending, and of course no Audrey Hepburn singing a melancholy Moon River, but still it’s a wonderful snapshot of NYC and still felt shockingly relevant.


In particular, Holly’s opinion on marriage seemed to be especially meaningful: ““A person outght to be able to marry men or women or–listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it.

The world would be a much better place if everyone listened to Holly Golightly.

Sometimes a character is the whole story. I’m one of those writers who loves a good plot—give me some pirates, albinos with wheelbarrows, and an epic adventure (that’s a hint for one of the other books on my list), but sometimes a character is so rich and full, that they are a story all by themselves. If you’ve created someone that is larger than life and leaps from the page, don’t feel like you have to force a complicated plot on them. Just let them talk and breathe and they’ll give the story life.

For another piece of classic literature set against the backdrop of New York City, with a narrator who falls under the spell of a unique and colorful character, go for the perfection that is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Have you recently read any literary classics for the first time? If so, what did you think?

WRITER’S SHELF: THE POPSUGAR 2015 BOOK CHALLENGE! – Book #3 – Room 702 by Ann Benjamin

It’s that time again for one of my book reviews for the Popsugar Book Challenge. After my last review, I was approached by an author, Ann Benjamin, who asked me to review her novel, Room 702. I thought it was a great idea to include a self-published author in my list.  As a struggling writer, I feel it’s important to support new authors, so I opted for Room 702 to be my “book with a number in the title”.
Book Cover
This book presented an intriguing concept. Our perspective on the story is from a single hotel room as various people move through it. This brings us many characters and stories; some of which intertwine and develop while others will only appear in isolated flashes.

The book starts off with an unfortunate and overly detailed description of the hotel room that reads like a giant advertising brochure. There are pages and pages of unnecessary detail—even down to the brands of toiletries.  These all basically just tell us that this is a super-fancy pants hotel suite in a super fancy pants hotel. As readers, we’re going to spend over 300 pages in Room 702, so there will be many opportunities to describe the bedspread or the mini bar.  A shorter, simpler description could have described the luxury in a more compelling way.

We get introduced to a lot of characters and stories, some are successful, many are not, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some storylines receive more attention and others don’t. My favorite was one of the smallest, where a gay couple is supposed to have a romantic weekend and instead get ill together. It’s a short flash, but the dialogue and scenario felt far more authentic than some of the recurring stories like the NBA basketball player who receives counseling.

Unfortunately, the unique construct of the book is what ultimately makes it unsuccessful. It tries to be too many things all at the same time – quirky romance novel, spy thriller, ghost story, and literary drama.  To make the ordinary moments more compelling you need super tight dialogue and a knack for lovely prose and while Benjamin’s writing is satisfactory it doesn’t have the heft to make those quiet moments sparkle. And because we are constantly being introduced to new characters, there is a ton of exposition which slows the book down. With this type of setup, the characters need to shine through actions and dialogue otherwise we’re reading page after page of backstory.

After reading through the many different types of stories, I felt that the author was most at home with the more romantic exchanges (particularly the lighthearted and comical ones). In my opinion, this is where the writing and story seem to have the best flow and I’d love to see Ms. Benjamin focus on that type of tone.

I appreciate the level of effort that went into this book and I think Ms. Benjamin had a wonderful concept that just needed a lot of editing and revision. I commend her for attempting a book that would be difficult for even the most experienced and talented of writers to successfully complete.

Don’t let a unique concept or idea hold your writing hostage.
As a writer, you’ll be struck by great moments of inspiration that push you to do things like write your entire story in 2nd person or decide that having 10 different first person narrators will be awesome.  You have to temper that unique idea with staying true to your characters and your story. Sometimes those great, wonderful ideas can hold you back and no matter how amazing they *could* have been, or how much time you spent fleshing them out, you just have to let them go.

Because of the myriad of characters and stories, it was too hard to find a quote that felt like it jumped out at me. So instead, I’m going to grab one from Robert Browning that highlights the great aspirations of this book. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

If you’re looking for another book with a number in the title and a unique construct try Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

So what are you currently reading for the Popsugar Book Challenge?


WRITER’S SHELF: THE POPSUGAR 2015 BOOK CHALLENGE! – Book #2 – Every Day by David Levithan

So it’s time again for a book review for my Popsugar Book Challenge. After my intensely unhappy experience with Outlander, I decided that I needed to choose a category that was more likely to lead to a book I’d enjoy. I opted for “A book from an author you love” with the desperate I hope I wouldn’t somehow end up with another accidentally rapey book.

I chose David Levithan not just for his amazing writing abilities, but for his teaching as well. I was privileged to attend the graduate Creative Writing program at the New School and David Levithan was the professor for all our children’s literature classes. From the mockery of the ellipsis abuse in “Go Ask Alice” to our Q&A with authors like John Green, my time in his classes remains among the most remarkable experiences of my writing career. That’s why he was the perfect author to fit this category on my list.

I am embarrassed to say that Every Day has been on my “to read” list since almost forever, so I knew it was the one to choose.
Book Cover“We all contain mysteries, especially when seen from the inside.”
This book begins with a most intriguing (and unsettling) premise. Imagine every day you wake up in a different body? In a different stranger’s life? You could be a boy or girl, gay or straight, a broken loner or the Queen Bee. Every day your life reboots and you’ve never known anything else. You have never had your own face, or family, or home. All you’ve ever done is borrow little bits of other people’s lives for a day at a time. The concept itself is both exhilarating and terrifying.

This story starts with A, who isn’t a boy or a girl, but a conscious entity that moves through lives trying to be of as little disruption as possible, until A meets Rhiannon and falls in love with her. Like Cinderella, when midnight hits A will be pulled from one life to another, but after A falls in love, one day is just not enough.

While this book is a love story, it grapples with larger issues of identity and how we as humans discover who we are. Imagine you don’t have your father’s eyes, or your deep voice? Imagine that you’re not a girl or a boy? Imagine the place you sleep every night is not the place you will wake up. The world is both full of possibilities and yet somehow missing something inextricably precious.

This novel was beautifully written and interspersed with so much lovely prose. A’s plight will break your heart especially when A describes being a child and arguing with different Mommys that “goodnight” means “goodbye”.  There are a lot of niggling unanswered questions that I hope will see some resolution in a sequel and at times A was a bit hard to relate to, but overall this book was moving and thought provoking. The story and prose will stay with me for a very long time and I recommend it to anyone interested in literary YA.

Make every word count. Descriptions should flow and have a music of their own. When you hit just the right words at just the right moment in a story, it’s magic. Sometimes that means being brave and cutting phrases and words you love, but always remember the sacrifice is for the greater good.

I could fill this entire post with quotes I loved from this book, so here’s just one of the many beautiful passages:
“He was the corner that her eye always strayed toward. When she closed her eyes to go to sleep, it was thoughts of him that would lead her into her dreams.”

If you’re looking for another Young Adult book that has supernatural elements, (along with a body jumping narrator) try Laura Whitcomb’s “A Certain Slant of Light”.

So what are you currently reading for the Popsugar Book Challenge and what did you think of it?

WRITER’S SHELF: THE POPSUGAR 2015 BOOK CHALLENGE! – Book #1 Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

For 2015, I added a writery blog feature and christened it with the Popsugar Book Challenge. I know a bunch of you were excited to join me in this reading treasure hunt. For those who missed it, we’ve got a list of book categories we need to complete before the year is out. It’s not too late to join us, so if you want in, head over here for a printable list.

For my first book I decided to tackle the category of “A book based on or turned into a TV show”. I’d heard so many amazing things about Outlander (both the book and the show) so I was certain I would love it (which is almost always the setup for disaster). I mean romance, time travel, and a hot ginger hero, what’s not to love?
Book Cover

Now before I begin, if you love Outlander, and Diana Gabaldon is your favoritest author to ever author, then look away now. Come back when I’m talking about awesome mascara, or the latest Birchbox. Seriously, I’d like to be friends when this is all over.

Now for those of you left, here’s what you should know going in. This book has more attempted rape in it than a maximum security prison. Attempted rape pretty much sums up the entire plot, except when we get to the successful rape. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First let’s start with the most unlikeable heroine I have ever encountered in a romance novel. Claire is cold and detached and at first I thought this was a set up so that we would see her blossom as she time travels from her boring 1940s life with her kind, (but unexciting), husband to 1700s Scotland and the younger, hunkier Jamie. But once again I was wrong. Claire’s reaction to time travel is the following: “They must be doing a reenactment. Oh wait, no one would use real bullets in a reenactment. I must have traveled back in time.” The end. That’s it. Imagine for one damn second, that you just went poof and were back in time. YOU WENT BACK IN TIME. MAGIC IS REAL. YOU ARE ALONE WITH NOTHING IN THE 1700s. What the hell is running through your mind? What is the first thing that hits you? The smell. IMAGINE IT. There is no running water. There are no regular toilets and you can die of gangrene faster than you can blink. Where is the panic? Claire is very, very (very!) frequently almost raped and she reacts to this with as much alarm as you might reserve for a hang nail.

Now, putting aside these issues a romance novel lives and dies on its sex scenes. An awesome first kiss or steamy sex scene can totally transform an otherwise mediocre book. The scenes in Outlander move from clinical disinterest to violence with not much in between. I don’t need the flowery language that pervades too many romance novels, but no sex scene needs the word “testicles” in it. Ever. Sorry, it’s just not sexy and it never will be. Also, I mentioned Claire is married before she time travels from the 1940s, right? Because she forgets this 99.999% of the time. In fact she marries the hunky Jamie, bangs him like a billion times and doesn’t feel guilty until halfway through the book. Halfway through a 642 page book. So it took her over 300 pages to feel bad about cheating on her husband with her new husband. (And yes, I actually read all 642 of these terrible pages, for you people, just for you).

You know the best part of time travel books, where you watch the main character struggle to deal with the dramatic changes in the world? Yeah that never happens. She just easily adapts. We never hear much about her difficulties with hygiene or anything she misses from her old world. After 300 pages she finally does freak out about the possibility of bedbugs. But at this point she’s been living in the 1700s for months. I mean just think of how much you miss your own bed after a trip? Imagine losing your entire world? For example, I caught the Vh1 show Hindsight the other day that also features a time-traveling heroine, except she’s only going back 20 years (from 2015 to 1995). It was gloriously entertaining to watch her try to explain to her best friend that you can watch anything on your phone at any moment and listening to her friend ask if we finally have flying cars in 2015. The fish out of water experience is the BEST DAMN part of a time travel story. And we get 642 pages and none of it. Sigh.

Okay so back to the rape, which you will never leave for long in this book. We also have many many many many (did I say many) whippings. And our villain, well, he’s a homosexual and it portrays being gay with this type of gleeful evil that is hard to stomach. And don’t worry you’ll get lots and lots of details about that successful rape. You know, because graphic, violent rape is why we all pick up romance novels.

Because this is my writer’s feature I figured I’d include some writer extras with each of my reviews including: a book suggestion, interesting quote and something I learned about writing. Thankfully you can often learn more from books you hate than ones you love, so no story is ever a waste.

This book is written in first person, where the viewpoint is of a character writing or speaking directly about themselves. This is a great perspective to use when you want to put the reader right into a character’s thoughts and emotions. Unfortunately, it means that when you don’t give us a character’s feelings/ reactions it can make that character unlikeable and distant. If this book had been written in a third person view, it might have been far more successful at creating likeable, engaging characters. I think that stories really have a will of their own and each one has a perspective that works best for that particular tale. If you can’t figure out if your story should be in first or third person, try writing a page in each format and see what feels like home.

This book has some pretty prose from time to time and I thought this quote was lovely.
“Those small spaces of time, too soon gone, when everything seems to stand still, and existence is balanced on a perfect point, like the moment of change between the dark and the light, when both and neither surround you.”

If you’re looking for a time travel romance that has a bit more well, romance, try Jude Deveraux’s Knight in Shining Armor.

So what did you choose for your first book of the Popsugar Book Challenge and what did you think of it?


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2015 with my own resolution. This year I’m focusing on progressing my writing career and to celebrate that I’ve decided to add a new feature to the blog called Writer’s Shelf. This will highlight my literary adventures along with the bumps and turns in the road to becoming a published novelist.   But fear not, I have not forgotten my sub box roots so you’ll be seeing plenty of box posts as well.

For my very first feature of 2015, I’ve got a great Reading Challenge from the folks at Popsugar (who you may know from the Popsugar Must Have Boxes). If you want to be a good writer, the first step is to read a lot—including things you hate or things you’d never imagine grabbing from a shelf. This challenge asks us to read books from all the categories listed below. I’m challenging myself to complete a book from each category (so I’m not letting one novel count for more than one slot). If reading more is on your list of resolutions, I invite you to join me.   Here’s a printable list from Popsugar so you can check off as you go.  I’ll be posting with my choices and some book reviews so be sure to check back if you want some suggestions.  Happy Reading!


A book with more than 500 pages
A Classic Romance
A book that became a movie
A book published this year
A book with a number in the title
A book written by someone under 30
A book with nonhuman characters
A funny book
A book by a female author
A mystery or thriller
A book with a one-word title
A book of short stories
A book set in a different country
A nonfiction book
A popular author’s first book
A book from an author you that you haven’t read yet
A book a friend recommended
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book
A book based on a true story
A book at the bottom of your to-read list
A book your mom loves
A book that scares you
A book more than 100 years old
A book based entirely on its cover
A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t
A memoir
A book you can finish in a day
A book with antonyms in the title
A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
A book that came out the year you were born
A book with bad reviews
A trilogy
A book from your childhood
A book with a love triangle
A book set in the future
A book set in high school
A book with a color in the title
A book that made you cry
A book with magic
A graphical Novel
A book by an author you’ve never read before
A book that takes place in your hometown
A book that was originally written in a different language
A book set during Christmas
A book written by an author with your same initials
A play
A banned book
A book based on or turned into a TV show
A book you started but never finished


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