Monday, January 31, 2011

Who is Your Favorite Character in a Book?

This is getting hard. These daily topics are either too similar or too difficult to make this fun, but I did say I was going to do this and keeping my commitments is important to me. Even little, seemingly insignificant commitments. Commitments that don't matter to anyone else in the world.

So Day 14: Favorite character in a book (of any sex or gender)

Okay, first of all, any sex OR gender? Wow, that just opens up all sorts of possibilities.

This is a tough question for me. I have lots of favorite characters in books, all for different reasons. My reading tastes are varied. I don't read just one kind of book, so it's not like I can stroke my chin for a minute and say, oh, sure, Anne Tyler's Maggie Moran from Breathing Lessons. It has to be her. Or almost any one of Susan Howatch's characters. She brings every one of them so brilliantly to life, they're each my favorite when I'm reading from their point of view.

Maybe I should default to George Fayne from the Nancy Drew series. Nancy was swell, but George was my gal. I also loved George Harrison best of all the Beatles, but that's a topic for another day.

A sweep of my keeper shelf helps me narrow my search for Favorite Character of all Time down a bit. I have a few keepers on the shelf, including other books I've mentioned during this challenge, but some of my prize books (besides Nancy Drew, of course) are my collection of Agatha Christies. And that narrows down my options down considerably.

Marple or Poirot?

For me, it's gotta be the delightful Miss Jane Marple. She was sharp. She was an amateur. She solved complex crimes based only on her ability to notice things about people, and everyone underestimated her.

What about you? Who is your favorite character in a book? Of any sex OR gender? 

Friday, January 28, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 13

Day 13 - Favorite Childhood Book OR Current Favorite YA book (or both!)

Favorite childhood book. I've already talked about my love of the Nancy Drew mystery series, so I'm going to go with a book I loved when I was even younger. Raggedy Ann Stories by Johnny Gruelle. Oh, what a magical world the author created for me in this book and its companion, Raggedy Andy Stories.

I loved the idea of my toys coming to life when I wasn't around. Dancing and moving and playing and talking and eating and doing all the things I secretly knew they did, even before anyone told me. My dolls and toys were so real to me when I was little, and Johnny Gruelle understood that. 

I'd almost forgotten how much I loved the idea of my things coming to life until a few years ago when the movie Night at the Museum was released. The idea was slightly different, but I watched that movie eagerly, waiting for that same magical world Johnny Gruelle created for me years ago. 

I wonder if any adult experience can truly match a childhood memory. 

What do you think?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Today's Challenge: Name the top 10 things you like to do in the winter. This might be easy for some of you, but it's really difficult for me because winter is not my favorite time of year. In fact, it's right there at the bottom of my list--which is one of the reasons I moved from Utah--where winter is a big thing (Greatest Snow on Earth!)--to Florida, where winter is just like summer, but a little cooler and a lot less humid.

Kind of like spring or fall used to be in my old life.

I was born in Utah, but moved to Montana when I was just 3 weeks old, which means that in my heart, Montana is home and Utah's sort of a step-home. But even though I was born, bred, and raised in states where snow rules, winter is lost on me. I've never enjoyed it and, in fact, every year I used to ask myself why I still lived in a state where snow covers the ground half the time and spring, summer and fall are entirely too short.

So what are the top 10 things I like to do in winter?

10. Walk the dog wearing just a t-shirt and jeans. I love the fact that in my new home state, I don't have to worry about slipping and sliding on the ice, falling down and hyper-extending my knee -- again.

9. Get in the car and drive without having to scrape snow and ice off the windows.

8.  Walk across parking lots without worrying about slipping on the ice.

7. Open my windows and let in the breeze coming off the Gulf.

6. Crochet. I love making new things for friends and family. I've gotten a bit behind lately, but here's my latest project--a baby blanket for good friends whose baby was born a few months ago. Now I'm working on an afghan for my niece's oldest son, promised to him so long ago he's probably forgotten all about it.

5. Watch people wearing down-filled vests and fur-lined boots when it's 60 degrees outside -- and then realize that after a year of living here, I'm becoming one of them!

4. Ride my bike. Because I can! 

3. Read. I love to do that all year round, so maybe it doesn't count. But even here there's something really nice about curling up with a book and a blanket and losing yourself for an hour or two.

2. Enjoy a nice, hot cup of cocoa, preferably while reading a good book, watching a good movie, or snuggling with a grandchild. Or all of the above :)

1. Go to the beach. Okay, it's a little nippy here some days, and you probably wouldn't want to go to the beach in your bikini and flip-flops, but you can go to the beach as long as you're bundled up appropriately (see #5 above).

Monday, January 24, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 12

Day 12 - A book or Series of Books You’ve Read More than Five Times: 

Hmmm. I'm not sure there is such a thing. I have a few keepers on my shelf, but I tend not to read books again unless I really, really love them. Really. Right now, I've listed 62 books on my "Favorites" shelf on but of all those books, I can't find a single one I've read five times. Penmarric and Cashelmara by Susan Howatch probably come closest with 3 times each. And my Agatha Christies. And Gone with the Wind. But though there are some books I really enjoyed on that list, most of them are one shots only. 
I've tried re-reading some old favorites, but that's ruined a few books for me. They were favorites at the time, but my reading tastes have changed and I didn't enjoy them the second time around. So now I'm kind of hesitant to take the chance. I like the memories I have. I don't want to ruin them with my current reality.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 11 A Book that Disappointed

Day 11 - A Book that Disappointed You:

Unfortunately, I have a lot of possibilities here, but I'm going to pick just one. Once Upon a Town by Bob Greene. I read this book for a book club several years ago. In theory, it sounded like a pretty good book club book. Turns out, it was a pretty good book club short story stuffed with a whole lot of filler. 

I had a really tough time getting all the way through it, simply because nothing happened. Or maybe I should say, the same thing kept happening over and over. Like I said, it would have been a nice, inspiring short story but a book? Not so much. 

How about you? Read any disappointing books lately? 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day #10

Day 10 - A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving

This one's an easy answer for me. At the risk of being stoned by 90% of the romance-reading world, I'm going to admit that I'm not a huge fan of Nora Roberts' books. I am, on the other hand, a huge fan of Nora, herself. I love that she's forthright and pretty down-to-earth considering how rich and famous she is. But the books are too inconsistent for me. In fact, up to a certain time in my reading history, I'd never actually finished a book by Nora.

I'd tried. Oh, how I'd tried. Millions of readers can't be wrong, I told myself. Obviously, the woman delivers on many levels to not only win, but keep, so many fans for so long. But book after book ended up moving from my To-Be-Read stack to my Not-Gonna-Happen...Ever stack, and my confusion kept growing.

What was it about her books that kept readers shelling out so much money year in and year out? I just didn't get it. And worse, I began to feel a little bitter over her numerous RITA Award wins. I suspected that some judges automatically marked her books high just because of who she was. 

One year, in my role as judge for a published author contest, I received a box of books to judge and among them was Nora's Birthright. Eager to give the book the score I just knew it would deserve, I plunged in. And within just a few pages, I was hooked. I can't say that I was forever hooked on all of Nora's work, but I can say that I've since found several of her books that I not only finished reading, but liked a lot.

When she's good, she's very, very good.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 8 and/or 9

Day 08 - A book everyone should read at least once

Seriously? I think I've answered this question already, haven't I? David McCullough's JOHN ADAMS. Moving on. 

Day 09 - Best Scene Ever 

I don't think I can come up with a best scene ever. I'm not 16 anymore. There is no best ever of anything in my world, but there are lots of goods, a very few exceptionals, and way too may mediocres. So instead of the best scene ever, how about a scene that had a great impact on me?

A few years ago, like everyone else who was old enough to read at the time, I read The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. I loved the book, so I immediately picked up September when it came out. Didn't love it with quite the same fever pitch, but it was pretty good, so I picked up Winter Solstice when it came out -- but never got around to reading it. At least not for a very long time.

Flash Forward several years. I'm struggling through a personal crisis, and like a lot of people when they're in personal crisis, I was praying for answers, guidance, and help. A lot. One day I woke up and had the strong impression that I should leave the TV off. And the radio. And everything else that made noise. I spent the next 30 days in silence, doing what I felt prompted to do at any given time. I played the piano, cleaned my house, and I read. 

The first book I felt guided to read was Winter Solstice.

I started the book, but just couldn't get into it, so I put it down. A couple of days later, I again felt strongly that I should pick up the book and finish it. 

After the third time the feeling hit me, I finally listened. I picked up the book and I read. I struggled to keep reading because the book just wasn't connecting for me, but I only have to get hit upside the head a few times before I pay attention. 

The main character was an older woman who (if memory serves) takes in a young relative for the Christmas holiday season. The older woman has just moved to a village in the UK where she also meets an older man who (again, I'm not sure I remember) recently lost his wife. He's the organist for the church, but he hasn't played since his wife died.

The book is definitely a character study because not much happens except that each of the characters is struggling with something. I didn't understand why I was supposed to read that book until almost the final chapter when the old man plays the organ in the church for the first time since his wife's death. And then I knew what I was supposed to get from that book. There was, buried beneath the fiction, a message of healing that I needed at that time.

It's been several years since I read the book and felt the chills of truth revealed in that scene, but I can still remember the feeling. So maybe it does qualify as one of the best scenes ever.

What about you? Is there one scene you'd list as the best ever? Or can you remember one scene that had a profound impact on your life?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The 30-Day book Meme: Day 7

Day 07 - Least favorite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise.

Bickering. It's not really conflict, they're just sniping at each other for no good reason. There's no believable motivation for the sniping. People just dislike each other on sight. And it's almost always followed by I-hate-you-but-I-can't-keep-my-hands-off-you-sex.


But wait, maybe this isn't the answer since the key phrase in this questions is books you actually enjoyed otherwise.

Once the couple starts bickering, the actually enjoyed otherwise part of the equation disappears. I can't enjoy sniping for the sake of comedy or someone's idea of sexual tension. Bickering isn't sexy or interesting or cool. It's childish and annoying.

But back to the actual question. Least favorite plot device overused in books I'd otherwise enjoy. Hmmmm.

[Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock. Check nails. Look at Twitter feed. Run to bathroom. Pour fresh Diet Coke into my glass . . .]

  • Serial killers. So-o-o-o-o overdone and they all sound the same. 
  • The absence of conflict. Lots of thinking about the potential for conflict. Lots of posturing to avoid conflict, but no actual conflict. I recently read a book that fell into this category and I complained about it for days.
Ah! I've got it! 
  • Serial killers in books with no conflict, stalking bickering characters who repeatedly engage in I-hate-you-but-I-can't-keep-my-hands-off-you-sex! 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 6

Day 06 - Favorite book of your favorite series OR your favorite book of all time

Is it just me, or does this feel like we're repeating ourselves? It's been way too many years since I read several Nancy Drew mysteries in a row, so it's hard to talk about which book from that series might qualify as my favorite. I can remember a little thrill of danger whenever I looked at the picture of Nancy Drew inside the moving van in The Secret of the Old Clock, and something about The Mystery of Larkspur Lane has always drawn me to that book. But I also loved The Hidden Staircase and The Message in the Hollow Oak and The Clue in the Diary. And let's not forget The Mystery at Lilac Inn

I could fudge a little and pick an Agatha Christie novel, but I run into the same trouble there. I mean, first I'd have to decide whether I liked Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot better, and how do you make a choice like that? Okay, I may lean a little toward Miss Marple in general, but Hercule was so delightfully flawed in his utter perfection, he's hard to resist. 

So do I move instead to my favorite book of all time? How do I pick that? 

So many books hold special places in my heart. 

I have the best memories of going to the library with my mom the summer she realized I was too grown up for kids books. We wandered through the stacks while she showed me books she'd read and loved, and I read and loved almost all of them myself. Since then, I've read Edna Ferber's Giant several times, and I'm still fascinated by the book. I think it may qualify as my favorite of the books my mom helped me choose at the library that day and certainly ranks right up there near the top of my list. But is it my very favorite book of all time?  

If I chose the book I've read the most in my lifetime, I'd have to say it's Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Yes, I know it's a horribly insulting depiction of African-Americans and paints an unrealistically rosy picture of the lives they lived, and for that I truly do apologize for including this book on my list. But my love affair with it exists in spite of all that. I've never considered GWTW a romance, and still don't. But I do consider it a fascinating character study in self-delusion on several levels. Scarlett O'Hara was a deeply flawed character whose reality didn't even come close to matching anyone else's and I go back to Gone with the Wind as a prime example of how to write an unreliable narrator and make her sympathetic enough to keep readers connected.

And besides, I thought Clark Gable was hot. Even if he was dead long before I ever saw the movie or read the book. 

And what about Penmarric and Cashelmara by Susan Howatch? Or Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers?  Or Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse? That book was recommended to me several years ago by Mrs. Wilson, my youngest daughter's 6th grade teacher. It's a poem cycle that reads like a novel. The language is sparse but beautiful, and Hesse wrings emotion from me with every line. Every time I read it, I'm amazed by what she accomplishes with so few words. 

I don't know. I can't choose. In fact, I could probably add several more books to this list if I had the time. 

What about you? What's your favorite book in your favorite series? Or do you have a favorite book of all time? I'd love to hear about yours.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 5

A Book or Series you Hate:

Seriously? Hate? answer to this one has to be N/A. I don't hate any books or series. Sure, there are some I don't particularly enjoy reading, but like I said before, anything that gets people reading is okay by me. I applaud the author, the publisher, and the readers, even if I don't particularly enjoy the books. My reading tastes are pretty broad. I like just about everything if it's done well.

I have abandoned a few series over the years, usually because I think the author has gotten lazy or because I think they've compromised the integrity of the series, or because the main character has simply become too unlikeable for me to spend time in his/her head. I've read a few books that have made me seriously consider abandoning a series that I've previously enjoyed, but I usually give the author another chance or two because I know that life sometimes gets in the way of your ability to turn out a page-turner. Trying to write your next funny cozy mystery after your father has died, for example, isn't easy. So it takes two or three seriously mediocre books for me to bail on an author.

I've also picked up a lot of books that I simply can't get through for one reason or another. Simplistic writing. Such weak motivation propelling the character through the book that I can't relate. Too much telling (wa-a-a-a-ay too much telling). No conflict. I recently read a book that fell into this last category by an author whose books I usually love. The main character strolled through the entire mystery anticipating trouble, but only occasionally encountering anything to throw her off her path. Nobody refused to talk to her. Nobody tried to get her to stop investigating. Nobody created any trouble for her at all until around pg 200. She just kept running into people and thinking about that person's history until I felt my eyes roll back in my head. I didn't care what happened but I kept reading because, like I said, I've loved the author's books in the past, but it wasn't my favorite book on her shelf, by any means.

But hate? Nope. It just doesn't apply. How about you? Which series or books are your least favorite?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 4

Today's question is a tough one: 

Day 04 - Your favorite book or series ever

Seriously?  Ever? How does a person decide that? 

I think I have to say the Nancy Drew series. No other series of books has had such an impact on me ... ever. They were the books that helped me realize that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be Carolyn Keene and write Nancy Drew mysteries when I grew up. Of course, I later found out -- much to my dismay -- that Carolyn Keene didn't actually exist, which was about as devastating as being told that Santa ... well, you know. 

I might have been 9 or 10 when my mother enrolled my sister and me in a Nancy Drew book club. What bliss! What joy! Every few weeks a package would arrive containing two brand new, delicious adventures. Sandra took one and I took the other, and then we'd switch. I can still remember the smell of the pages, the feel of that glossy cover under my fingers. I can even see the typeface in my memory. 

At some point in my childhood, my mother sold my beloved Nancy Drew books so she could buy the Hardy Brothers books for my brother. Which I understand logically. But Gordon never really liked the books. I can't even remember seeing him read them. Or maybe I just wasn't paying attention. I do know that he didn't love them the way I loved my Nancy Drews. I'm not bitter about it. Much. I understand that a mother's gotta do what a mother's gotta do. But still.

A few years ago, my daughters bought me the first 10 books in the Nancy Drew series so I could start building my collection again. I keep them in a place of honor, and every once in a while I pick one up and turn back the clock to a simpler time. A time when I could truly lose myself in a book without thoughts of characterization, motivation, plot and conflict. A time when I could lie in the grass and dream about being one of the characters. (Loved Nancy, but George was my favorite.) 

I guess it wasn't such a hard decision after all.

What about you? What's your favorite book or series ever? I'd love to know.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 3

Day 03 - The best book you've read in the last 12 months:

 It's a toss-up for me, really. My first instinct was to say THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett but since that was the answer to the previous question, I don't want to be boring. 

I'm going with Lorna Landvik's ANGRY HOUSEWIVES EATING BON BONS for this one. Yeah, I just read it in 2010. I'm slow. What can I say? 

Any woman who has ever been through the fire and found herself supported by a group of women friends is going to love this book. Women who haven't yet found that group of friends will either read it wistfully, wishing they had friends like these, or they'll toss it aside, believing these friends are nothing but a fairy tale. For those who think friendships like these don't really exist, I hope you find out someday soon that they do. 

The whole way through this book, I thought of my three closest friends and all the mountains and valleys we've struggled through together over the years. I thank God for them, for their friendship and their patience. I love that they know everything about me -- and they like me anyway. That's what friendship's all about. 

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 2

Day 02 - A book or series you wish more people were reading and talking about. 

Hmmmmm. Guess I can't cheat and say "mine" again, can I? I think I'm going to have to go with the best book I've read in a while:

Stockett's voice is pure and clear and true to the people she's writing about. I recently moved from the West, where I've lived my entire life, to the South, where my dad was born. In Stockett's characters, I heard whispers of my grandmother's voice along with the voices of new friends and neighbors. Her cadence was spot-on. The narrative was crisp and easy to read, and the story was compelling and kept me eagerly coming back for more. Stockett writes about a touchy topic with humor and compassion. And yeah, I know a lot of people are talking about this book already -- but like I said, it's the best book I've read in a while.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The 30-Day Book Meme: Day 1

I stumbled across this book meme somewhere a few months ago and thought it might be interesting to try. Thirty days, thirty questions. I may not hit it every single day, but I'm going to try!  The first question is: 

A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just freaking end already (or both!)

A book series I wish had gone on longer? Hmmm. Mine! Duh! 

A book series I wish would just freaking end already? Well, shoot! That's not as easy to answer as you might think. There are series I don't particularly like. A few of them, in fact. I'm not all that fond of cats who solve murders, for example, but do I want the series to freaking end already? No! 

If readers like the books and they're willing to buy the books and the author earns his or her royalties for all the hard work they did (and believe me, writing a book is just plain hard work!) and people are reading, then I don't care what the book is about, or what it's like, or how it's written, or whether or not I want it on my personal TBR stack. I salute the books, the author, and the readers. And I sincerely hope the series will go on forever. Because I have a secret weapon I use on books I don't like. I don't read them. I read something else instead and I don't waste my passion or my creative energy on getting upset over someone else's choice of reading material. 

Ergo, cats can go around solving murders for another millinium or two and it won't bother me a bit. 

Monday, January 03, 2011

Thinking About Voice

I spend a lot of time thinking a lot about the craft of writing. If you’re going to teach other writers about the craft, you have to think about it. A lot. Lately, the subject of voice has been in the front of my mind. Specifically, what is “Voice,” and why is it so important?

Simply put, voice is you. It’s your unique way of speaking, of thinking, of communicating. It’s your background, where you live, and how you feel. It’s what you know and what you think. Voice is made up of dialect and word choices, but it’s so much more. It’s your unique view of the world.

Voice is important because unless you find and embrace the way of communicating with the world that is uniquely yours, you may have a hard time inviting readers into the worlds you create, whether in fiction or non-fiction, short story or novel.

We know, of course, that physical voice is the way we know who’s speaking when we pick up the phone, or overhear a couple of friends talking. But your soul’s voice is deeper than that. As a writer, our voices are also made up of what we believe is important, what we find funny, how we view and judge others and our philosophies about life in general.

That philosophy of life is where our creative voices begin to differ. That’s what makes Jerry Seinfeld different from Jerry Lewis. What sets the comedian Gallagher apart as he smashes watermelons while dishing on the world in general and stupid people in particular. It’s what made Larry the Cable Guy famous and what helped Oprah soar to heights most of us can’t even imagine.

Compassion for the less fortunate made Red Skelton unique. Mister Rogers had a far different voice from Bozo the Clown. Listen to the Beatles music and you’ll hear how they went from just another long-haired boy band to adult men with deep observations to make about the world, and their views of the world set them apart from songwriters everywhere.

Even within the Beatles, you can tell the difference between a John Lennon song and one written by Paul McCartney. If you know classical music, you’ll know there’s a very big difference between Beethoven and Mozart, between Mozart and Chopin, between Chopin and Brahms.

That’s voice.

Disney has voice. You know what you’re getting when you go to a Disney movie, and you know a Disney movie when you see one, even without the mouse ears to clue you in.

Quentin Tarantino has voice. Spike Lee has voice. Norah Ephron has voice. Ron Howard has voice. If you see a movie with any of these names on it, you know what you’re in for. The projects aren’t identical. No one would have any trouble telling the difference between Splash!, Cocoon, Far and Away, and Apollo 13, but there are similarities in all those movies—and those similarities are voice.

Likewise, Jennifer Cruisie has voice. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has voice. Curtiss Ann Matlock has voice. Anne Tyler has voice. Victoria Holt had voice. Suzanne Brockman has voice. Deborah Smith has voice. Taylor Caldwell had voice. James Michener had voice. Whether or not you like what they do, you always know what you’re getting when you pick up one of their books.

But that’s not true of everyone out there writing books today. If you spend much time judging contests within the romance world, you’ll know that many, many hopeful authors are opting for a “safe” voice in an effort to break in with that first sale.

A few years ago, I judged over 70 contest entries within a very short period of time. Before long, I started to realize that nearly every entry sounded almost exactly like the one before it, and almost exactly like the one that came after it. Those contest entries were so homogenized, it was almost impossible to tell them apart. None of them made a positive impression on me as I read and, in fact, the only detail I remember from that whole pile of entries was that a frightening number of authors had even chosen the same basic plot setup to write about that year. In fact, the only thing that kept me from thinking that they’d all been written by the same person was the occasional use of a different font or header format.

In our rush to get published and do things “right,” some of us are losing the very thing that makes us unique, but it’s that unique voice that might land the publishing contract we’re so anxious to get.

There was nothing wrong with those contest entries. The writing in all of them was pretty good and technically correct in almost every aspect—but “pretty good” writing doesn’t win publishing contracts, although it might win contests because, after all, someone has to be awarded first place, even if every entry is mediocre.

Voice goes deeper than word choice and sentence structure. Voice is life philosophy. You don’t pick up a Janet Evanovich book or one by Donna Andrews if you’re not in the mood to laugh. You know that even when they’re tackling serious subject matter, they’ll treat it with humor.

Their outlooks on life are light and somewhat irreverent, and they write about people who live their lives with the same outlooks. Voice is why one screenwriter gets us smiling while we watch a movie about dying wives and heart transplants, but the next guy sends us out of the theater feeling raw and empty.

Voice is not generic. It is always, always, always unique. That means that if your work sounds like the work produced by the person sitting next to you, you probably haven’t found your voice yet.

This is getting kind of long, so I’ll stop here for today. Check back for more on Thursday!