Category Archive: Book Reviews

How to Write Respectful Reviews

Writing book reviews is always a hot topic with writers. We realize reviews can make or break book sales, but as reviewers there are times we just can’t offer a glowing recommendation. What then?

Do we stay mum? Or write honestly and hope for minimal fallout?

Heather and I have always embraced the write-an-honest review stance; and we support other authors who strive to do the same thing. Today we are sharing some of our tips for turning a lackluster review into a helpful commentary about storycraft and not something that makes the author feel like we knifed them in the back.


1. Make opening a dialogue your primary goal:
Book reviewers understand they must entertain; if they don’t, people aren’t going to read their blogs. But for some reviewers, the mission to entertain overrides common courtesy. Their negative reviews are fodder for insults in the name of writing amusing copy. When you perceive reviewing as a form of discussion, you approach the process differently. You try to make the review about something bigger: the book’s role in society, the way the writer uses language, how the writer tackled a plot twist, or if they made you think about something differently. These are all valuable aspects of literary culture and worthy of discussion even when a book doesn’t live up to your expectations.

2. Use specific examples:
If you have a point to make, make it! Don’t skirt the issues with indistinct chatter. If the story feels too derivative of another famous story and that made it impossible for you to remain engaged, say that! Don’t say that the book was “boring” or it “put you to sleep.” These comments are too vague and don’t convey what your real complaint is. Besides it’s likely someone reading your review will love retold stories, and they will jump at the chance to read the book you didn’t enjoy. That helps turn your review into a potential sale for the author. Best of all, you stayed true to yourself and your honest opinions while doing it.

3. Distinguish between writing mechanics and your opinions about those mechanics:
Both aspects are important, but one is objective (the book has typos or it doesn’t) and the other is subjective (typos throw you into a whirlwind of revulsion). I can enjoy and even rave about a book with some mechanical issues; however, too much data dumping makes me crazy! Break the two issues apart. Describe the mechanical problem and then give your opinion of how prevalent and disruptive the issue was to your enjoyment of the story.

4. Fact check like your life depended on it:
If you want to comment on any emotionally charged topic (race, religion, etc.), make sure you can support your claim with some hard data. When in doubt, stop writing and start researching. If you don’t have time to learn more about the subject, talk about your impressions in an open-ended way. Ask questions of your readers and invite someone closer to the topic to comment. You might learn your interpretation was correct, or that you were dead wrong. Either way, you have opened a meaningful discussion about the subject, and perhaps that’s exactly what the author intended by broaching a challenging topic.

5. Never make it personal:
A book review is not about the author. Never speculate that the author’s real life is bleeding onto the page, or attempt to make the actions of the characters a reflection of the writer’s state of mind. I know many wonderful people who write ghastly horror stories with high body counts; yet I can assure you they are not secretly planning to do anyone harm. Except maybe Stephen King. I’m sure they would love to take a great big bite… out of his bank account.

6. Back away from rebuttals:
When you write a low-star review, someone might come gunning for you. This someone might be the author, or the author’s fans. The best policy is don’t engage. You have written your review, let it stand. If you feel you must say something, thank the person for reading your review and leaving you a comment expressing the wide range of opinions a book can generate. Even if the person comes back and does their level best to drag you into a fight, don’t do it. If you stay silent, the angry person should eventually move on to the next reviewer.

You didn’t think your bad review was the only one, did you?

7. Link with caution:
You took the time to write a review and you want people to read it. That’s normal, and I bet you drop blog links everywhere you go. But stop for a moment and think. How will your link look to other people? When I go on Amazon or Goodreads and see a rating with a solitary sentence (usually something overly sensationalized) with a “read this review at my blog” style link, I immediately dismiss the review as link bait. Any links on Amazon or Goodreads should include at least a paragraph to show the review is genuine.The absolute worst possible link is the one that looks like the review was written to boost the reviewer’s book sales. Be mindful of reviewing any books in the same genre as your own work. Any negative reviews might be perceived as unfairly running down the competition.

8. Don’t review a book you haven’t read:
Every so often this situation crops up in force. It often revolves around a book some group wants to ban and I consider it a form of reviewer fraud. No matter how much you know  you will hate the book, or how many people have told you unpleasant facts about the book, stay away from rating or reviewing the book. That’s not to say you can’t review a book you didn’t finish, you absolutely can, as long as you’re clear about where and why you put the book down.

9. Avoid reading books you suspect you’ll hate:
I read reviews all the time, and I’m just as likely to be put off by positive review as I am caustic one. That’s because I look at the reasons the reviewer cited, not the number of stars. I know my reading taste and I understand what factors will bother me. I take care to avoid reading those books. Just as you shouldn’t review a book you haven’t read, why bother reading a book you’re sure will disappoint you? Just so you can write a negative review? Take the higher road — life is too short to be that reviewer.

Honesty is the best policy when reviewing, but it’s not the only consideration. Show respect, and be polite, especially when the review isn’t packed with praise.

Do you write reviews of books you didn’t like? Let’s hear your thoughts (pro or con) in the comments.

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What We’re Reading: SHADOWSHAPER

Fall Reads

shadowshaper_coverSHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older

Paint a mural. Start a battle. Change the world.

This is the author’s first YA book, and it’s urban fantasy at its finest. When I classify this book as an urban fantasy, I mean that the city setting of the novel is almost a secondary character. Brooklyn is alive and critical to this story; I loved the neighborhood descriptions. From an all-age Latin dance club, to the community newspaper offices, to Coney Island, I understood how much the lead character, Sierra, loves her city. And I could relate to the protagonist’s pain as she watched her streets slowly change and become more gentrified. The setting in this book jumped off the page, and wrapped me in the textures and energy of New York.

The book developed a fantastic new magic system called shadowshaping, infusing spirits into artworks to make the art come alive. The author expanded on the history and laws of the magic system gradually, and by the end of the book I believed. It seems perfectly logical for a secret society to be bonding the spirits of their late family and friends into public murals. I think this is some of the best magical realism I’ve read in a long time.

More importantly, this book is packed with outstanding character diversity. Sierra is Afro-Latina and her Hispanic family is realistically depicted. I appreciated how the author remembered to include all the extended family dynamics so common in Hispanic culture. Sierra’s family relationships are complicated, she fights with her aunt who likes to downplay their race, and she worships her godfather who embraces it. She even respects and reveres the local Hispanic business owners who serve as her community elders. All these characters reminded me of people I have encountered in my own life. Sierra’s friends are just as interesting and diverse, including two of her best friends who are involved in a same-sex relationship with each other.

I gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads and honestly I wanted to give it more, but there were a few murky plot issues that kept me from giving that last star. It’s a perfect pick for even younger teens. There are some scary moments and one make-out session between Sierra and her boyfriend, but it’s not extreme. For a reading group looking for a good book to start a discussion about writing inclusive characters and for weaving strong, but non-preachy messages into young adult fiction, this book is a great fit. And it’s perfect if you’re craving a slightly spooky read for a cold night.

Story Blurb:
Sierra Santiago planned the perfect summer vacation. She would paint a huge mural next to the junkyard near her Brooklyn home. She would hang out with her friends. She would finally talk to the new cute guy from school, a fellow artist named Robbie. But the murals in her neighborhood begin to move, and weep tears. Later a reanimated corpse crashes the first big high school party of the summer, and he seems to be looking for Sierra and Robbie. Sierra’s in trouble and Robbie knows more than he’s saying. Everyone is leaving Sierra in the dark about a troubling family secret, and that could get her killed.

Sierra and Robbie are shadowshapers, people who can infuse ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. And someone is systematically killing off all the shadowshapers to gain their powers. It’s up to Sierra to stop the killer. To do that, she must decipher her grandfather’s riddle and defeat an army of reanimated dead. If she fails, it might mean the end of all the shadowshapers and the enslavement of the spirit realm under the power of a madman.


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Reviewing a Friend’s Book on Amazon?

ReviewingIt makes sense that when your book comes out, you turn to your writer pals for a jump-start on those much-needed reviews. Except a few months later you notice those friend reviews on Amazon are gone, along with most of your other good reviews. And those were from people you’ve never even heard of. Worse of all, an email to Amazon confirms they not only know about all the missing reviews, they removed them.

In the last few months Amazon launched a fresh wave of review purging and a number of authors were hit hard. These purges have been going on for several years, one of the first rounds I ever heard about was way back in 2012.

The reason these authors were targeted?

Amazon felt the reviews showed signs of the author having a relationship with the reviewer. Amazon never discloses how they define a relationship, perhaps they just ran a Google search of the two names together. Remember everything you and I have ever done since the dawn of time is being indexed 24/7 by robots. Chances are your name has been linked to your writer friend’s name any number of times, in a tweet, on Facebook or in a blog post. For Heather and I, the shared history stretched on for dozens of Google pages.

Let me start off by saying I feel it is unwise to review a friends’ book on Amazon. It is against their reviewer rules, and I do not believe my review is worth the risk. I would not want to be the person that sets off Amazon’s alarm bells and causes my friend to lose half their reviews in a single day. Plus, an ongoing climate that encourages authors to review their friends’ books will only breed more suspicion and reaction from Amazon. If you want to review a friend’s book, I suggest you put that review on a platform other than Amazon or Goodreads.

If you don’t agree with my personal review philosophy, and you also don’t want to shove your writer friends into the oncoming path of the next Amazon review bulldozer, I’ve isolated the four types of review content that sets off my inner red flags. I think it’s safe to say that if they stand out for me, they might stand out for others. Perhaps even those potential buyers the reviews were aimed at enticing.

Tip 1:
Think about the demographics and write for the buyer.
As a parent shopping for kid’s books, nothing triggers my reservations faster than reading a review all about the book’s theme, prose and characterization. It’s a clear indication this reviewer is not a typical consumer of kid’s books. If they were, they’d mention the aspects of the book parents care about. They would say if the story has cute illustrations, or teachable moments, and what age child enjoyed the book. If the aim is to write a review to help the author sell books, tell the buyer things that help them make an informed choice, not what you noticed as a fellow writer.

Tip 2:
Tone it down a notch.
Unfortunately, some people think every review needs to convince buyer this book is the next Pulitzer. Consider mentioning elements other readers might not like, for example if the book has triggers for abuse victims, graphic sex or child murders. By including these aspects you’re actually doing the other author a big favor. Even if these story issues didn’t make you drop the book in horror, someone else will! And that person might leave a 2000 word 1 star review to demonstrate their shock and outrage. Plus, overly gushing reviews almost never sound realistic.

Tip 3:
Don’t exchange reviews.
Even if the other author is not a close friend, reciprocal reviewing, even with sincere and honestly written reviews, can make both parties look bad. And it’s something Amazon is especially against. I realize big publishing houses do this all the time, but it’s an unwise practice for everyone else. There are many other ways to support your fellow writers besides reviews.
Here are six ideas just off the top of my head:

  1. Support their book launch party on Facebook, or other social media.

  2. Offer to give their book away in a contest on your blog. Offer to give them copies of your books for a contest giveaway on their blog if they prefer.

  3. Help out with a book signing in your area, or help promote the event with your local contacts.

  4. Offer to interview the other author for a newspaper.

  5. Encourage your book club to read their book.

  6. Buy a copy (or two) for your local library.

Tip 4:
Disclose any connections.
If you don’t know the author personally, but have an innocent connection to them or with their book, you should disclose it. That means if you won the book in a contest, received an ARC from the publisher, live in the same small town, or share the same agent or editor, say so. This makes it possible for anyone reading your review (perhaps an Amazon employee) to weigh that information and act accordingly if they deem it necessary. It’s better to have a single review thrown out, than to create lingering suspicions of misconduct that might end up tarnishing all the reviews.

As I mentioned before, we don’t know how readers (or Amazon staff) are judging book reviews for a lack of neutrality, but these tips are a common sense approach based on my experience as a reviewer, and as a review reader.

Have you ever had your reviews purged by Amazon? Or do you worry about a purging wave hitting your own book’s reviews? Tell us about your experiences, or send us more reviewer tips in the comments.

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Book Review: One of the Guys

oneoftheguysONE OF THE GUYS by Lisa Aldin

Publication date: February 10, 2015. It’s out just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The Story: Tomboy, Toni Valentine, would take horror movies, monster hunts and burping contests with her three male best friends, Lock, Cowboy and Ollie, over high heels and makeup any day. But when a summer prank goes wrong, Toni is sent to the Winston Academy for Girls, and it turns out Hell looks a lot like a place where you wear a plaid skirt, and learn to be ladylike.

At her new school Toni meets Emma, a girl with boyfriend troubles. Trying to bond with her first female friend, Toni volunteers one of her male BFFs as a pretend date to make Emma’s boyfriend jealous. When word spreads across the school about Toni’s access to good-looking guys, Toni and Emma form a Rent-A-Gent service. It’s a plan that can’t end well, not when Toni is secretly in love with Lock, the company’s most sought-after escort.

The good: This book didn’t make the mistake of focusing all the attention on the crush. Yes, Toni wants to understand her first brush with teen love, but she’s also mindful of losing her best friend by changing the terms of their relationship. Toni worries about school, her friends problems and her uncertain relationship with her new stepfather. I appreciated the author’s efforts to round out Toni’s character, and to create a history for all three boys. Also, this book looks like a standalone, something that makes me happy. I’m getting sick of books that don’t have a resolution at the end.

The bad: The characters are all seniors in high school, immersed in the big rush to get admitted into a prestigious university, yet everyone in the story reads younger. A lot younger! I would have found these characters more believable as sixteen-year-olds. The story gets slow in the last third, but by then I was firmly invested and wanted to see it to the end.

I enjoyed this book, which says a lot since contemporary YA romance is not my first choice as a genre. It earned four stars on Goodreads from me. It was a quick, lighthearted read, with interesting supporting characters and a solid, if predictable, plot. If you’re looking for a contemporary YA romance, this is a good pick. Frankly, I liked it better than Isla and the Happily Ever After and just as much as This Is What Happy Looks Like. Although there is a small amount of underage drinking, and the mention (no descriptions) of sex, I would still give this book a PG13 rating, making it suitable for younger teen readers.

Disclaimer: NetGalley provided me with a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



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Incarceron: A Mother/Son Book Review

IncarceronINCARCERON by Catherine Fisher

This fantasy novel was recommended to my son (just turned 13) and since I’d never read it, we decided to do a Mother/Son review.

The synopsis: Trapped without any memories of how he got there, Finn is stuck inside a vast, living prison called Incarceron. Plagued by fragmented visions of his old life, Finn struggles to survive in the harsh, lawless environment Incarceron fosters. Claudia is the only daughter of the warden. He’s a ruthless and ambitious man. In a bid to increase his own power, the warden arranges for Claudia to marry the next heir to the throne, a boy she detests. Finn and Claudia find their paths converging in unexpected ways when they stumble upon a pair of magical keys. Soon it’s clear they will need each others’ help to escape the horrible fate life dealt them.

Son: The story featured lots of twists and turns that kept me guessing. Additionally, the characters felt real. Their desires and regrets are incredibly realistic, and as a reader, I could actually care about them as if they were alive.

Mother: I was less enraptured by the main characters. However I found several of the supporting characters engaging and I wanted to know more about them. Finn’s blood brother, Keiro, struck me as someone with a secret from the earliest part of the story, and I wasn’t wrong. Claudia’s determination to save herself, Finn, and the Kingdom she loves is admirable, but I never connected with her. She always seemed a bit cold and impersonal to me.

Son: There was one thing I did not like about this book: the violence. I know that the author wanted to make it clear that Incarceron was a dangerous and vicious place, but in the beginning, there was just too much of it, and it seemed mostly like unnecessary violence, such as kidnappings, betrayals, and one killing.

Mother: There are about half a dozen killings before the one my son noticed. I’m not sure what that says about the book. Did the author downplay the early killings too much? Did they mean less because they happened to characters we didn’t know that well? Also, the killing that bothered my son the most, while the most gruesome in terms of description, was a bad guy. The earlier killings were all innocents, just people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Son: Mom said when she started reading the book, she was unsure whether Finn and his friends were good guys or bad guys, a feeling I had too. I’m still not sure as many of the characters have both good and bad traits.

Mother: Absolutely true. These are not black and white characters. We see the seeds of good and evil in each one. This is something I tend to love in books. I don’t like my characters too squeaky clean. I’m also a fan of books with lots of characters, and on that score, the book didn’t disappoint.

Son: Besides that, everything else was very good, and I am now reading the sequel, Sapphique. I love it.

Mother: My son flew through this book and the sequel in a few days, whereas I struggled to stay interested and to finish the book. While I usually enjoy books told in dual viewpoints, this one didn’t mesh well. It often picked up a bit too far along in the story, and I spent the first few pages of the new chapter thinking I’d missed something and I should go back and reread. Although my son didn’t catch it, I guessed the big dramatic mid-book development of the plot just a few chapters in. So I felt let down rather than excited when my theory proved correct.

Mother & Son: We understand this book has been slated for a movie adaptation, and we both can understand why. The world building of the different prison wings is truly noteworthy. The book would make for some amazing cinema, and the fact that the characters read a bit distant (in Mom’s option) would be mitigated by casting some charismatic actors.

Mother: I think the book is best suited to hardcore middle grade or younger YA readers that don’t mind some violence in their stories. It’s also best for those who, like my son, are pretty easygoing about their fantasy books and don’t look too closely at the little plot holes.

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Teen Me reviews “The Handmaid’s Tale”

I’m having a little fun with a new blog series of “Teen Me Reviews” where I rehash how I felt about a book when I was a teenager and compare it to how I feel about it now as a grown up…

Teen Heather’s reaction to The Handmaid’s Tale:

HS Photo ID


Oh my gawd, this book is soooooo boring! Nothing happens. Why doesn’t Offred leave? Why doesn’t Offred fight? Why isn’t this book about Moira? She’s way more interesting. Moira actually rebels and escapes and tries to resist the cruel regime. Offred does nothing except what she’s told to do. I don’t like Offred. I do not care about Offred. I do not care about how many beautiful metaphors are in this novel’s prose. Is my English teacher trying to torture me?


Dear Teen Me,

No, your English teacher is not trying to torture you, she’s just following a curriculum that dictates you learn about metaphors and similes and analogies. Would English be more interesting if the class discussed Atwood’s depiction of a dystopian patriarchal society? Sure. Would you have liked the book better if you talked about its social significance? Probably not.

Because you just don’t enjoy literary fiction.

BookCover-Handmaid'sTaleMargaret Atwood is a brilliant writer and Canada’s literary pride, and it pains me to confess we don’t love her books. You will spend years fighting with people that tell you that you just don’t “get” these books and only super smart people understand literary fiction. Despite your straight A’s, you will wonder if this is true… are you stupid? No. You just have different taste in books. That’s all. There’s nothing wrong with this (to each their own, right?), but people will still try to make you feel bad about it. And it hurts because you want to be smart and sophisticated – after all, once you finish high school, you’re moving to the big city! But you’re not sophisticated and you hate literary fiction. You like blockbuster movies and teen TV of the supernatural genre. You want action! You want proactive protagonists! You want a goddamn resolution! (You will never forgive Atwood for not telling readers what happened to Offred, no matter how much you disliked her character.) But literary fiction does not promise these things. In fact, it seems to purposefully withhold them to piss you off. But you only think that now because you’re a self-involved teenager. No one is trying to piss you off, they’re just writing books in a genre you don’t enjoy.

But guess what? There are lots of genres you do enjoy: mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, Young Adult, etc. And outside of school, you can read whatever you want, though when you’re grown up some will still mock you for reading “teen lit.” You don’t care. You’ll take Katniss over Offred any day.

So chin up! High school doesn’t last forever. And don’t let English class ruin your love of reading. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must finish the Legend trilogy – I’m dying to know what happens!


Adult Heather

Up Next from Heather (on Monday)… More writing craft! I talk about Character Motivation and two common story tropes that lack it.

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What We’re Reading: Friday Reads Bonus Edition

Starting in 2015 the WriteOnSisters will be doing their best to add more book reviews to the the blog. Today we jump-start that commitment with this bonus Friday Reads review of two Young Adult books.

Robin’s Pick: THIS IS WHAT HAPPY LOOKS LIKE by Jennifer E. Smith

I’m no15790873t traditionally a big fan of love stories, but this one got to me. This is a smart funny book that opened with a clever hook and just kept right on delivering.

When Ellie O’Neill gets a misdirected email asking her to walk a pet pig, she quickly responds back to clear up the mistake. What follows is an exchange of emails that soon has Ellie confiding her biggest dreams and aspirations in a total stranger. Over time an online relationship evolves and Ellie counts on her mystery friend for moral support and guidance.
When the summer brings a movie company to Ellie’s small Maine town, she and every other teenage girl is talking about the film’s star, Graham Larkin. What Ellie doesn’t know is Graham is her longtime pen pal. He’s come all the way from California to arrange a meeting with the witty, charming, “real” girl he’s fallen for. Of course Ellie has secrets of her own and being thrust into the spotlight of a teen hottie’s paparazzi-filled lifestyle is the last thing she needs.

This book has all the feels, solid friendships, loving parents and even a pig named Wilbur. Ellie is everything a teen girl should be: smart, funny and self-assured. She is never willing to change who she is or what she wants for Graham’s sake. Graham is a nice guy who respects Ellie and wants what’s best for her. Together they make a few mistakes and show some poor judgment but overall these are kids any parent would be proud of.

As I said, I’m not a huge romance fan, but I wanted these two to work things out and get their happy-ever-after. This book is sweet and well-suited to even younger teen readers.


Heather’s Pick: RED RISING by Pierce Brown

BookCover-RedRisingLike Robin blogged about here, I too have had a string of disappointing reads. Even “Best Of” lists don’t guarantee I’ll love – or even like – the book. But with fingers crossed, I selected RED RISING from Goodreads Best Of YA Fantasy list.

I was not disappointed. This book is a tour de force, a mix of HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, but with a world so unique and a story so well crafted that it can’t be shelved under “just another YA dystopia”. Nope. This novel is epic.

It takes place hundreds of years in the future on Mars. The main character, Darrow, is the lowest caste of human – a Red. He lives and works miles underground in the mines preparing Mars for human inhabitation, until he discovers that Mars has been inhabited for decades, maybe centuries, and the Reds aren’t preparing it for civilization, they’re simply slaves. Thus begins the journey of turning Darrow, a powerless Red, into an impressive Gold (top caste) so that he can infiltrate and take them down.

It’s a classic underdog-takes-on-the-world story.

A lot of people die in this book. There’s violence and cruelty. But there’s also redeeming transformation when our hero figures out how to overcome instead of surrender to the Golds’ worst characteristics. In my opinion, this is what makes the book great. It’s not just exciting plot twists, duplicitous characters and clever reveals, though I enjoyed all that too, it’s that the hero grows. This makes Darrow a hero worth rooting for!

If you love epic fantasy or political intrigue or action thrillers or all three, this book is for you. I’m actually going to read it again so I can study the expert plotting of the story. Yep, it was that good.

Update: RED RISING was voted Goodreads Best YA Debut! Yay! I’m not the only one who loved this book.

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What We’re Reading: Goodreads Best of 2014

Like most writers, we at WriteOnSisters are all big readers. The end of the year brings reflection and a sense of accomplishment; we have navigated another fun and rewarding year of books and blogging. To do something a bit different this month, we decided to pick books off the Goodreads Best Books of 2014 list.

Robin’s Pick: ISLA AND THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER by Stephanie Perkins

isla-and-the-happily-ever-after for webThis is the third (and reportedly last) companion book in the Anna and the French Kiss series. This time we follow high school senior Isla. Super smart, but socially awkward, the shy little Isla finally attracts the attentions of Josh, the slacker, bad boy artist she’s adored from afar since freshman year.

Although opposites, the pair fall madly in love and the book is really about their rocky path to a Happy Ever After ending. On the plus side the book is set in a host of wonderful locations: Paris, New York, and Barcelona. I found the few chapters set in Barcelona represented the best of the book’s settings, and I really enjoyed that section. Also all the lead characters from the first two books make cameos for a handful of pages at the end of this book, which I’m sure delights fan of the series.

I had high hopes for this book, but sadly it lacked enough action or conflict to keep me interested. Granted any book that tells me up front it ends in a HEA isn’t aiming to keep me on the edge of my seat, but I do expect a bit more than I got in the way of plot. I’m willing to concede lots of other readers found Josh very crush worthy and Isla adorable, so if you’re already a fan of the series, my bet is you will want to see it to the end. However, don’t expect to be as entertained by Isla’s journey as you were by Anna’s.

Heather’s Pick: RED RISING by Pierce Brown

BookCover-RedRisingLike Robin blogged about here, I too have had a string of disappointing reads. Even “Best Of” lists don’t guarantee I’ll love – or even like – the book. But with fingers crossed, I selected RED RISING from Goodreads Best Of YA Fantasy list.

I was not disappointed. This book is a tour de force, a mix of HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, but with a world so unique and a story so well crafted that it can’t be shelved under “just another YA dystopia”. Nope. This novel is epic.

It takes place hundreds of years in the future on Mars. The main character, Darrow, is the lowest caste of human – a Red. He lives and works miles underground in the mines preparing Mars for human inhabitation, until he discovers that Mars has been inhabited for decades, maybe centuries, and the Reds aren’t preparing it for civilization, they’re simply slaves. Thus begins the journey of turning Darrow, a powerless Red, into an impressive Gold (top caste) so that he can infiltrate and take them down.

It’s a classic underdog-takes-on-the-world story.

A lot of people die in this book. There’s violence and cruelty. But there’s also redeeming transformation when our hero figures out how to overcome instead of surrender to the Golds’ worst characteristics. In my opinion, this is what makes the book great. It’s not just exciting plot twists, duplicitous characters and clever reveals, though I enjoyed all that too, it’s that the hero grows. This makes Darrow a hero worth rooting for!

If you love epic fantasy or political intrigue or action thrillers or all three, this book is for you. I’m actually going to read it again so I can study the expert plotting of the story. Yep, it was that good.

Caryn’s Pick:  SKIN GAME by Jim Butcher

BookCover-SkinGameI adore Harry Dresden. He’s my favorite type of male protagonist: smart-mouthed, sarcastic, irreverent, flawed… and hot. Oh! And he just happens to be a wizard!

Jim Butcher’s newest installment is number 15 in the well known urban fantasy series: The Dresden Files. I haven’t read them all, mostly I’ve bookended the series, a few at the beginning and now this last one.

The story begins on a mysterious island where Harry has been ordained as the warden of a frozen prison for some of the Underworld’s most notorious creatures. Butcher paints a vivid world to wander through, not over-doing description, but bringing you into his fantasy world with skill and aplomb.

Harry is also saddled with the dubious job of being the Winter Knight to Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. Mab trades Harry’s skill to pay off one of her debts and forces him to help a group of supernatural villains break into a high-security vault. The one in Nevernever. It’s a smash and grab job to recover an important artifact in the vault that just happens to belong to Hades, Lord of the Underworld. But Harry suspects that there is another game afoot that no one is talking about. And he’s dead certain that he and his crew will not survive the experience.

I’ll admit a lot has happened to Harry since the first few books, when he was a struggling private eye type, not a semi-supernatural string-puller who hangs out with deities on a regular basis. It seems that Butcher is now writing something more like… epic urban fantasy, rather than paranormal investigation.

I didn’t find the antagonist terribly threatening or scary, more like a mobster than a supernatural creature, but the other monsters? Definitely. Butcher has the uncanny ability to dream up creepy beasts who do terrible things to humans, and wizards too. The kind that will give you nightmares.

Butcher had me intrigued, wondering what the valued commodity hidden in that vault was and why they are so desperate to steal it. The ending has an interesting twist, and the book definitely kept me hooked until the very end.

I have a confession to make: I always thought this was a YA series. Maybe it’s because it’s written in first person like so many YA novels and the tone is similar too. So when I read an explicit sex scene (which turns out to be a dream…I hate that!), I took pause. The early books seemed safe for a YA reader but now that I’ve done a little research I understand it is an adult fantasy series…more of an adult Harry Potter.

Overall, I recommend this book, and the entire series. One of these days I might just snuggle in and catch up on Harry’s escapades over the last few years. Did I tell you how much I love Harry? Oh yeah. I did.


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What We’re Reading: Writing and Life

76788Writing advice often can be taken as life advice. Today we share some books that connect writing and life.

Kathy’s Choice: Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande.

Oh, the dollars I have spent trying to find the one piece of advice that would turn me into a genius writer. I must have two dozen books on the craft of writing.

Annie Lamott’s book Bird by Bird reviewed by Sister Sharon below was my first, and it has some great technical and motivational advice; when I finished, I thought, “I can do this!”

Wish I had found this book along with it. Brande talks not so much about how to write, but how to be a writer.

Dorothea Brande presents us.

Us in that she focuses on what she calls writing magic, which comes from the marriage of our technical skills and our inner genius. This will not be accomplished in creative writing classes, she says, but by focusing on ourselves, our subconscious, and letting our genius out when we are stuck.

For someone who was a Psych major and later became a therapist, this one caught my attention. I swear if I had read this first, I would have gotten into good habits earlier, gotten the story out, and fussed with it later.

This is about us.

Dorothea Brande wrote her book Becoming a Writer in 1934 and it was reprinted in 1980.

“The book is for those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well a they are able, that they will have taken (and are still taking) every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.”

So she assumes you know what you are doing.

According to her, there are four types of issues with writers:

  • Those who can’t write at all: “The full abundant flow that must be established if the writer is to be heard from simply will not begin. The stupid conclusion that if he cannot write easily he has mistaken his career is sheer nonsense.”
  • The one-book writer, “The writer who has had an early success but is unable to repeat it.”
  • The occasional writer, “a combination of the two: there are some writers who can, at wearisomely long intervals, write with great effectiveness.”
  • And the uneven writer “is the inability to carry a story, vividly but imperfectly apprehended, to a successful conclusion.” She admits this may be a technical issue, but she convincingly tells us there is a real possibility that this may not be so much a technical issue but one of a personality trait.

We have dual personalities, we artists. There is the emotional, childlike side we harness to create our craft, and the adult— the workman and the critic. Brande says they must exist beside and through each other in balance in order to create meaningful art. She advocates morning exercises, similar to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, taking advantage of the not-quite-awake, childlike consciousness that allows the inner genius to come out.

She has exercises for you to perform to corral your inner genius. She says the creative writing classes are for the weak, that true originality and creativity comes from within, that we have roadblocks set up by our own subconscious that get in the way of true artistry. She says we can all write, and write well, the words flowing, our genius coming forth, but not without putting in the work.

She can be heavy-handed, which I actually liked. “Do this…you must…follow this rule…form this habit…” or go bag groceries for a living, because without this discipline you will not succeed. (Paraphrased.)

Such a refreshing read. She offers so much more in this small, wise book that I cannot begin to present here. Go get it. You won’t be disappointed.


Sharon’s Pick: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne LamottBird-by-Bird-image1

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was one of the first, it may even have been the first book I read about writing craft! What a way to start!

Her authenticity, honesty, and practicality led me to think all writing craft books were like this. Not!

And perhaps her book stands out because she wrote as much about life as about the writing life. They seem inextricable in her work. She writes both non-fiction and novels and each book I’ve read is honed to near perfection. She simply has an amazing way with words. Okay, you’re right. I’m a groupie!

The title of Bird by Bird comes from a family story. Her brother, having procrastinated on a school project about birds, sat surrounded by books and overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. He didn’t even know how to begin. The wise father sat by his son and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

And that is a writing lesson as well as a life lesson. How do you accomplish what might seem impossible to do? Bit by bit, step by step, bird by bird.

Here are ten tips and my take on them, picked from Bird by Bird that should resonate with other writers as they did with me:

1. Write regularly. Everyone says it and so does Anne Lamott. You simply must practice your craft whether you feel like it or not, whether it’s good or not. Writing is your job. With the job that pays you money, you can’t just not show up because you don’t feel like it. You go to work. So, go to writing-work at the same time every day.

2. Pay attention. Writers notice and note everything. A good bit of writing is collecting life around you. The aromas on the air. The conversation snippets. The tension in a room. Notice then note what you noticed in the notebook you always have at hand.

3. Decide you are a writer. Not a wanna-be writer. Not a person who used to write. Not someone who used to yearn for writing time. You are a writer because you decide to be one and then you actualize that. It’s amazing how many people say they want to write but …. (fill in the blank). Just do it. Don’t talk about doing it. As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

4. Make time to write. This is, of course, related to tip three. We all have the same twenty-four hours to spend. How we choose to spend discretionary hours (or what we prioritize to create more discretionary hours) is up to us. Yes, life happens. Yes, others will suck you dry if you don’t establish limits. But if you DECIDE to be a writer then you must jealously protect your writing time. I have author friends with kids, happy marriages, and volunteer efforts who crank out good books regularly. So can you, IF you choose to do so. You might be your own worst writing-time enemy.

5. Write down scenes and snippets of dialogue. No doubt you have already imagined part of your story even though you may not yet be aware of the story arc. Capture these inspirations. Write them down to store for later access. These insights and flashes are the fuel to power you through the project. It doesn’t matter when they will occur. You’ll find the place. For now, preserve them as you get them.

6. Break the task down to manageable bites. Examine the project. Is it your historical fiction novel with an astonishing revelation about the lost years in Lincoln’s life? What will it take to get that done? List components you need to work on (research, plotting, character sketches, story treatment, and so on) so you can see the scope of the project and cross them off as you do them.

7. Get over yourself. NO ONE writes a perfect first draft. What makes you think you’ll be the first to do so? If you go into this knowing that the first draft is going to need serious work later, you’ll be much happier. It is, in fact, a basic premise in the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month. Just write. Take time later to put the lipstick on your pig. (Well, hopefully it’s not a pig.)

8. Draw on your past. While not everyone has a dramatic or traumatic childhood, we all experienced failures and successes and frustrations and joys. Use the emotion from your experiences to write more authentically. Sister Kathy wrote about delving deeper than she ever had into her father’s death as a way to tap into that energy.

9. Deepen your soul through reading and writing. We need not just physical nourishment, but our spirit thirsts and hungers, too. Regular reading and writing fills up your soul. Replenish yourself or you shrivel and die. Replenishment through reading is obvious. But writing also feeds the soul if you are thoughtful, reflective, and probing as you write.

10. Care about your characters and get to know them. The best plots come from character development and change. You must show your vulnerabilities to make your characters vulnerable. Live in their skin and the dialogue reveals itself to you.

Oh, it was hard choosing only ten things I learned! Read Bird by Bird. I promise it will resonate with you, too. Then make your own top ten list.

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Halloween Treat – Edgar Allan Poe

poe_coverSo, we have crisp fall nights. We have costumes. We have buckets and pillowcases brimming with treats. We have pumpkins grinning and flashights swinging. We have screams, haunted houses, whisps of dry ice floating around ruby red slippers, cowboy boots, and superhero tights.

We have arrived at All Hallows’ Eve. Bwahaha.

I’m not a big fan of horror, but I have to admit the impact of writers like Anne Rice, Steven King, and other modern authors, even Lemony Snicket, who got kids reading and scared the bejesus out of them.

But I have to give props to the best of the best, the man who started it all, Edgar Allen Poe. Remember reading The Raven in English/Literature class in high school? That was SO COOL, and scary, and awesome. I didn’t sleep for weeks. I stayed away from Poe, but my brother got into him and read everything and used to tell me parts of the Telltale Heart and other scary stories to the point I’d put my hands over my ears and scream.

Mom said to stop scaring the little tyke.

Poe died before the Civil War, so his writing is somewhat formal, and it fits the genre, but he didn’t always write horror. He wrote about adventure on the high seas, buried pirate treasure, and a famous balloon ride. He virtually invented the detective story with tales like “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”. Sherlock Holmes and other fictional detectives would later be based on the characters that Poe created. Poe wrote love stories and even a few strange little comedies. But mostly, he indulged in gothic horror.

A few spooky quotes to get your Halloween on:

“It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.” from “Silence – A Fable”

He pointed to garments;-they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand; –it was indented with the impress of human nails. He directed my attention to some object against the wall; –I looked at it for some minutes; –it was a spade. With a shriek I bounded to the table, and grasped the box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open; and in my tremor it slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor. From “Berenice

There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated. From “The House of Usher”

Poe was indeed a troubled man; some said he was insane, and his writing certainly may prove that. All his stories and poems point to death, alcoholism, and troubled souls. The Black Cat is narrated by what is described as an “unreliable narrator”. We question his sanity from the start, and by the end we are quite sure he is not altogether sane.

Poe was reviled for his day; some quotes tell us his writings were laughable and badly written

Your treat for tonight? Read The Raven.

indexSleep well.

You’re welcome.





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