2013 Holiday Gift Guide for Teen Readers

I rarely emerge from my office at work, especially during the holiday season. There’s too great a chance that I’ll be stopped by a customer and asked a question for which I have no good answer. That’s the problem with working off the floor at a bookstore, I’m mostly oblivious when it comes to knowing things like product location and which book is Karen Kingsbury’s latest. I could probably solve that by visiting the sales floor more often, but again, that raises the chance that I’ll be asked a question by a customer. It’s a vicious cycle of ignorance, but I’m pretty happy inside of it.

That is, until I get thrown under the bus by my coworkers. It’s happened twice in the last week that one of my coworkers has called me out to the sales floor to help a customer with a product recommendation. Fortunately, the customers in question were trying to find books for their teenagers and my coworker knows that I read a lot of YA Fiction. In each instance, I was able to guide the customers to some products that might suite their needs.

I’d like to do the same for you. Here are my book recommendations for 2013.

For fans of the Hunger Games or Divergent

9781441261021The Staff and the Sword Series by Patrick Carr – Although getting into this series took me a few chapters, it wasn’t long before I was hooked. The first two books (A Cast of Stones & The Hero’s Lot) are available now and book three (A Draw of Kings) comes out sometime this Spring. Fans of the fast-paced, weapon-filled, society-on-the-brink-of-revolution genre will appreciate the struggles of Errol Stone as he tries to navigate each new threat, be it from foe or friend.

For fans of the Hobbit or Chronicles of Narnia

edge-bookThe Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson – First and foremost, Andrew Peterson is a gifted storyteller. Whether it comes through in his prolific musical career or his youth fiction, Peterson’s ability to incite mirth as well as sadness ranks him among the greats in fantasy literature. The first three books are out now, with the final installment coming this Spring.

For college-bound readers

4981 168668Catch-22 by Joseph Heller or Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – These books won’t be for everyone. To be honest, less than half the people to whom I have recommended them actually appreciate the message or the tenor of the writing. But these are classics for a reason. They are anti-war books that transcend specific grievances against military debacles and cause the reader to ask the age-old question central to growing up: Have I been sold a lie? These titles get to the core of what it means to be independent, so I’ll keep on recommending them to people. Because, whether you like them or not, they will make you grow up.

For a bit of Christmas fun

Hhogfatherbookogfather by Terry Pratchett – Things are a little different in the Discworld. For one thing, the world is flat and propels through space on the backs four elephants standing atop a giant turtle. For another, there is no Santa Claus. There is the Hogfather. And things are about to get messy when an “uncommonly psychotic member of the Assassin’s Guild” vows to kill the spirit of Hogswatchnight (Christmas) himself. This novel features some of my favorite characters (Death and his granddaughter Susan) in a clever and fun take on most wonderful time of the year.

As for recommendations for fans of books like Twilight and the like, I recommend reading better books. Hope this short list is helpful!

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Likeability and Transformation

I recently finished the third book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (just over 1,000 pages long) and was looking forward to reading the next in the series, but my wife had just finished reading The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens and couldn’t wait to discuss it with me, so I put Martin on hold. The Fire Chronicle is the follow-up to The Emerald Atlas and is just as exciting and well-written. I read when I was able (my wife read it aloud to me while I was unable) and within a couple of days, the book was done (so our discussion could begin).

9781441261021I’m looking forward to getting back to A Song of Ice and Fire, but since I’m already on a break (and the next installment is another 1,000 pages or so), I decided to try an author that I’ve never read before. The author is Patrick W. Carr, and I’m reading A Cast of Stones, the first in The Staff & The Sword series from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group (which owns Baker Book House (where I work)). I got the book free as one of my perks for working at the bookstore, and I really want it to be good, both because it will help the company who pays me and because it lends credibility to the genre in which I hope to publish.

Reading a new author is a lot like going on a blind date. You have no idea if you are going to be compatible or not, whether you will enjoy their stories, their voice, or how detail-oriented they might be. But if you love reading and are willing to put yourself out there every now and again, you might just find someone who you really like.

Of course, sometimes it takes a bit of time to get to know them. That’s how I feel right now. If reading were speed-dating, Patrick’s book and I would not be leaving together. The first chapter didn’t thrill me. I’m going to finish the book since I want to give it a real chance, but I want to focus on why we got off on the wrong foot.

In the first chapter, the main character is introduced by being thrown out of a bar. He is drunk before 10am. He a jealous man with internal problems. And that is fine. But he doesn’t start as a likeable guy. He seems more sad than anything. And as in dating, if your first impression of your blind date is that they are sad, jealous, and haunted by some horrible baggage, you probably looking for an excuse to leave early. But what do you do if the plot of your novel requires the reader to see the character before their redemptive transformation?

Having just come off the heels of George R. R. Martin and John Stephens, two authors who write incredibly likeable characters, I have some thoughts.

Likeability has little to do with good vs. evil

Martin handles this with ease. When first introduced, most of his characters are either starkly good or bad, but they are all intriguing. We like the good characters because they are innocent, upright, and inspiring. And we like the bad characters because they are mysterious, mischievous, and ultimately relatable. Often, we are curious where they went bad, because very few are wholly evil, just a bit twisted.

Transformation requires a shift in the reader’s perspective, not necessarily a shift in the character’s actions.

In The Fire Chronicle, Stephens re-introduces a character from the first in the series, but in a completely new light. We are given insight into the motivations of the character, rather than a change in any of the character’s actions. As readers, we better understand the “why” without changing the “who”.

Consider a different starting point.

If I’m not going to like the “before”, do you really want to lead with that? An unlikeable main character doesn’t make a good hook and the only people who are going to continue are either optimistic or stubborn. Maybe you should ask yourself if you can reveal your likeable character’s unlikeable past in another way. Perhaps a flashback, or a tale around a campfire, or anything other than a bad first impression.

These are only three ideas. If you have others, I’d love to hear them below. Now, off to give my own characters and stories the gimlet eye to make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes.

A Call for Guest Posts

Isn’t she cute?

As some of you may know, my wife and I are expecting another little girl in a few weeks (or less). What you may not know is that new babies are a bit time-intensive. I’ve done well enough so far of making sure that there is new content everyday, but that will be difficult on little sleep and Daddy time.

I’ve never been too proud to ask for help, and here’s the proof.

I could use a hand with some guest posts. If you are interested in sending me a post that I could use sometime in the coming weeks, please send me something using the form below. I’d love for my readers to have new content and be introduced to new bloggers.

Please include your proposed blog subject and a link to your blog. I’ll get in touch with you if your proposal is something that I think I can use. Thanks!

Flash Fiction Challenge | Before, But After…

The last contest I did was fun for me, but it lacked in participation. Maybe my prize wasn’t good enough. Anyway, here’s the new contest:

Before, But After… – A One-Sentence Biography.

Craft a single sentence that provides a bit of depth on a character of your creation. Each biography should follow the format below.

Before he was arrested for tax evasion, but after his time as Lieutenant Governor  of Maryland, Jeff Small worked as the greeter for a major retail chain.

or

Before her body hit the bottom, but after she jumped from the heights of the Grand Canyon, 23-year-old Jennifer Bennington discovered that she was happiest when falling.

The one-sentence biography can be about an existing character or a completely original character to this contest. You also don’t have to be a writer to enter the contest, just willing to participate.

To enter, just leave your sentence in the comments of this post. A winner will be chosen at random from among the participants.

The prize: This set of books.

Set includes The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, and The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens.

What are you waiting for?

The contest ends July 20th, 2012. All comments must be in by then. And like usual, I can only ship within the continental US.

The Writing Processes of Vonnegut, Pratchett, Gorey, and Tolkien in Links

In an interview this week with a fellow blogger, I was asked who inspires me. I answered with four different authors, each chosen for a different reason (in order to find out what those reasons are, you’ll have to read the interview). This week, I decided to seek out any wisdom that my four favorites might have to share on the topic of writing.

I was introduced to the writing of Kurt Vonnegut in an ethics course offered by the Lee Honors College at Western Michigan University in my freshman year. We read Slaughterhouse Five and explored the morality represented within its pages. I’ve always enjoyed books, but I haven’t always enjoyed them when they were required reading for school. When I first read Slaughterhouse Five though, I couldn’t put it down. I think I read it twice before the due date and then again before the end of the semester. “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time…” Even just talking about Vonnegut’s work now makes me want to pick up a copy and read it over again. The link here features Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing. If you are a writer, I hope you click through.

It was sometime in my first year of working at Baker Book House when a coworker exposed me to the genius of Terry Pratchett. I think we were talking about sci-fi and fantasy stories when she told me that she was doing a paper for one of her literature classes on the topic of rule consistency when creating a fantasy world. “It doesn’t need to be just like it is in the real world, but it needs to be consistent within itself,” she said. She went on to tell me that she was using the works of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as an example of consistency. When no flicker of recognition flashed on my face, she insisted that I read some. The next day, she brought me three books. “When you finish one of these, you are going to want another to start on right away,” she said. She was right. This link is for an interview that Pratchett did a few years back, and the relevant portion for writers begins about midway down the page.

I ran across Edward Gorey in college on a random excursion with my roommate, friend, and sometime muse, Adam. Together, we would visit Barnes and Noble and search through the bargain racks for anything that looked interesting. I picked up one of the Amphigorey books and was instantly in love with the mixture of dark humor, brilliant illustrations, and tales that forced the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. Alas, I could not find any advice to authors from Edward Gorey, but this link is for his book The Unstrung Harp or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, in which Gorey illustrates the creative process of novel-writing though at the time he wrote this story, he himself had never written a novel. Still, it isn’t far from the truth.

My last author for this list is actually the one that I read earliest in my life. My dad handed me a copy of The Hobbit when I was in 7th or 8th grade and told me that I might enjoy it. I devoured it. Tolkien’s style, characters, and voice drew me in (as they do for anyone who dares to read The Hobbit). After that, my dad gave me a copy of The Fellowship of the Rings which I breezed through as well. And then I hit The Two Towers and got bogged down along with Frodo and Sam in the Dead Marshes. Sadly, I set the series down for a full year before attempting another go. But by that time, I had forgotten half of the details of the story, so I decided to start the whole thing again from the beginning. The Hobbit, check. The Fellowship of the Ring, check. The Two Towers, I powered through it this time, check. After I finished The Return of the King, I was sad the journey was over. LOTR was all I could talk about with my dad for weeks. And then he asked if I knew about the Silmarillion, which I hadn’t. So I decided to start again with The Hobbit, plowed through LOTR, and picked up the Silmarillion. Oh man, I was in nerd heaven. So many things in LOTR were explained, origins of the races, where the wizards came from, what a Balrog is, tales from the first and second ages of the world before the third age (when LOTR is set)! I am helplessly a Tolkien fan, so when I saw this post on Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers by the wonderful blogger, Roger Colby, I knew that it was going to be good. Colby culled through Tolkien’s writings and interviews where he discussed his craft and came up with a solid list for writers to use as a reference. Be sure to check it out, as well as the rest of his site.

How I did this week. Also, fun links!Last, for my writing report card, I’m going to give myself a B+ for the week.

I got the most hits in one day to date on Wednesday, I did a blog swap with another blogger, and I had fresh content everyday. The only thing was that I didn’t get a chance to write much on my novel, but I’m not going to let that get me down. Good job, me!

Book Review | The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee StewartThe book this week, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, is the first in a trilogy. I’ve chosen this book for two reasons. One, I think it’s a great book. And two, the prequel to this series (The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict) just came out. If either of these titles are new to you, my suggestion would be to start with The Mysterious Benedict Society, as it will provide a good introduction into the world of Mr. Benedict.

The plot summary goes like this: Reynie Muldoon is a gifted orphan who excels at problem solving and puzzles. Through a series of tests, Reynie meets three other children as gifted as he. Together, they are tasked by Mr. Benedict, their genius benefactor to thwart the plans of the mysterious Mr. Curtain. Going undercover at Mr. Curtain’s school for gifted children, Reynie and his friends encounter bullies, traps, and peculiar devices and they must work together with all of their abilities to achieve success.

The first time I learned of Trenton Lee Stewart’s books was in a bookstore after asking a clerk whose opinions I valued what she was reading. She instantly brought me a copy of The Mysterious Benedict Society and told me to read it. As a writer, I want to feature four things that made me appreciate Stewart as an author. If you are a writer, you should think about involving these elements into your own work.

The protagonists represent 4 ways to problem solve. Though the reader sees the story primarily from the Reynie’s perspective, each member of the Mysterious Benedict Society shows a different way to approach a problem. Reynie is a master of logic puzzles, Sticky remembers everything he sees, Kate is a human Swiss army knife, and Constance is obstinate. Readers will enjoy seeing a problem from different perspectives and may pick up on how to approach their own problems in a different light.

The supporting cast members are colorful and each has a back story. Stewart gives each of the background characters a unique feature to help the reader remember them. We know that Number 2 looks like a pencil, Milligan is sad and doesn’t remember his past, Mr. Benedict is a narcoleptic. In addition to being interesting, because of this extra information, each of the characters is instantly likeable. Details make the difference.

Not all the loose threads get tied up neatly. Though the main plot points come to an end, we know that the story must continue. It is a great formula to use when you want readers to anticipate the release of your next book. In my experience, readers don’t want everything to work out perfectly anyway, as it feels too distant from their own life experience.

The author uses a wider vocabulary than most children’s authors. In writing a story about gifted children, Stewart uses words that encourage kids to expand their vocabulary, thereby making the reader a little bit more like the protagonist. If you want to appeal to a smarter reader, use smarter words.

Again, I really enjoyed this book, and I think you will too.