Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Green Glass Sea

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, published by Recorded Books, 2007.

Excellent audio production on this historical novel. If you haven't yet discovered audiobooks, I highly recommend them. Listening during a commute is a great way to fit more books into your life. (once again, so many books, so little time!)
But, back to the story (a finalist for the Quill Award and winner of many state awards). The alternating point-of-view of two girls from very different backgrounds thrown together at Los Alamos during World War II provides the reader with a more complete picture than could be achieved with just one narrator. The vivid descriptions create a spellbindly complete world for complete reader immersion.
I've not yet had a chance to read Klages' sequel, White Sands, Red Menace but I look forward to it. 

Writing Goals and Resolutions

Updating my blog on a regular basis ranks very high on my list of writing goals for 2010.
I've read a mountain of books in 2009 (I'd guess somewhere around 125 since I average 10 a month) but I've fallen behind on sharing those.
I took the time today to figure out how to make doing that a little more simple and I'm all set to start out the new year - the new decade - with lots of children's book recommendations. I hope to also share a bit more of my own writing news throughout the year.

In the meantime, hope everyone has a safe and happy New Year's Eve. Here's to writing and reading in 2010!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Perfect Chemistry

Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles published by Walker and Company, 2009.

Elkeles has done a fabulous job in this modern take on the Romeo and Juliet story. Instead of Montagues and Capulets, she has Latino Blood and Country Club. She tells the story in alternating first-person point of view and both co-protagonists are fully fleshed out, intriguing characters.

Both characters grow and change, providing a strong internal arc. But the book also has a very solid plot.
Elkeles makes excellent use of foreshadowing.  Doses of humor break up the tension. Thoughtful use of Spanish words and phrases in the text was extremely well done.

The sequel is due to come out in May, 2010. You can bet I'll be getting it.
Here's a sexy book trailer for Perfect Chemistry.

More Personally
Enjoyed meeting authors PJ Hoover, Michele Bardsley, Jordan Dane and fellow Vermont College student Stacy Nyikos at the Red Dirt Book Festival in Shawnee, OK. The community coming together to talk about books can be very inspiring. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on their books soon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Magician's Elephant

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, Candlewick, 2009.

DiCamillo uses omniscient third to put the reader in everyone's mind, including the elephant. The vague location and lack of an exact time add to the fairytale feel of this story that is sure to charm readers.
Here is a video of DiCamillo reading the first chapter

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don't Look Behind You

Don't Look Behind You by Lois Duncan, published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, 1989.

Being told that life as you know it is over, that you have to move to another state and assume a new identity might indeed seem like the end of the world. Especially if you're seventeen and Prom is just a couple weeks away.
Told in first person, this story definitely falls into the category of suspense rather than traditional mystery as April and the reader wait for the hitman to catch up with her family. Following the story of a teen forced into the witness protection program because of her father's testimony is a compelling setup. April (who later becomes Valerie) makes several mistakes that results in the hitman finding the family's home. 
I found this was also made into a TV movie starring Patrick Duffy in 1999. Several of Duncan's other books have also been made into movies including Hotel for Dogs.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator

Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator by Jennifer Allison published by Recorded Books, 2005.

First off, I was very impressed with this audio production. Jessica Almasy brings an excited, breathless quality to her reading that fits the protagonist's quirky, effervescent personality. With funky costumes, wigs and an irrepresible optimism, Gilda is someone I'd love to be, although I'm a little too shy to pull it off.

In the opening book of this series, Gilda finagles a trip to San Francisco and ends up investigating a cousin's suicide.

The POV was omniscient third which allowed the reader to have a better understanding of everything going on.

As for the sidekick relationship in this one, Juliet acts as Gilda's sidekick in a completely platonic relationship, providing the skeptical, logical approach to balance Gilda's more mystical outlook.
Gilda has a strong voice and her longing for her late father move this book into the literary mystery category.

I'm eager to read the other books in this series.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tender Morsels

I haven't been keeping up with my blogging this summer. (Shame on me!)

But I have been spending my time wisely. I had a glorious ten days at the Vermont College of Fine Arts working on my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

One fabulous part of my residency was hearing a lecture from Margo Lanagan, author of Tender Morsels. Ms. Lanagan is from Australia, which I guess is about as far removed from Oklahoma as you can get. But, her gregarious nature and bubbly personality made it seem like we were neighbors.
Tender Morsels is a richly complex book. It does deal with some rather dark subject matter (incest and rape) but it wraps these subjects in a fantasy world with a few degrees of separation from our own. I found it very interesting that for some of my classmates, these subjects immediately moved the book out of the category of what they thought teens should be reading. But, I have to disagree. Teens (and all of us, for that matter) should have a means of addressing difficult subjects. Is there a safer place than between the covers of a book?
I also think that Lanagan did a brilliant job of letting the reader know what happens without pausing on any graphic details. And, perhaps that is part of why the book is raising such a stir - Lanagan has left room for the reader to fill in those details with their own imagination. Apparently, those imaginations can be terribly lurid!

Finally, I have to mention the complex point of view shift Lanagan employs. Some of the book is written in first person, some in third person. Oh, and the first person narrator isn't always the same character. Sound confusing? I have to admit, I thought so at first. But then I caught on to what Lanagan was doing - the point of view is actually a commentary on patriarchial society. The men in the story (even if they are secondary characters) believe they are the hero of the story - it is all about them in first person. While the women (who are the focus of the novel) have no voice, their story is told in third person. I felt so smart when I figured this out!

Here is an interview with Lanagan
And here is the link to her blog

Monday, June 22, 2009

Girl, Hero

Girl, Hero by Carrie Jones published by Flux, 2008.

I feel like I'm a little behind in reading this book. I started to read it back in January when I attended my first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Carrie Jones was one of the awesome graduate assistants who helped guide us during our stay in Montpelier. Well, during the course of the semester, I got sidetracked by reading all those mysteries. My primary creative project for the past year falls into the mystery genre, so I've tried to read as many of those as I can. And, unfortunately, Girl, Hero fell to the bottom of my reading list.

Now, I can't tell you how awful I feel about that.

Especially because, reading it could've really helped me with what I've been working on. It's not a mystery, but it does feature a girl who is trying to figure out who she is and also deal with Dad issues. Except, this girl-hero has multiple men filling that father figure position – talk about upping the ante! This book is great. It deals with about a dozen issues in a real life way (not like in a talk show, to quote Lily, the protagonist.) It is also incredibly creative. Throughout the book, Lily writes letters to John Wayne. Yes, that John Wayne. Lily's late step-father watched John Wayne movies with her. I think writing these letters helps her feel closer to the dad she's lost. But you should read the book and draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

No Book Review Today

I have to give credit to Carrie Jones for blogging about the potential impact US bloggers might have on the situation in Iran.

In Iran, many people are using blogs, Twitter and Facebook to communicate their dissatisfaction about the recent elections. If you don't know about that, open up just about any news site, like MSNBC and you'll find plenty of articles about it.

But, back to the potential impact of US bloggers. The Iranian government has set out to censor the protest blogs in Iran. And how do they find those blogs among the gazillion in cyberspace? I'm told they do a search and check the time zone setting for the site.

So, until further notice Playing With Words, along with lots of other kidlit blogs is now set for GMT + 4.30 - Tehran time.

Also in solidarity with the Mousavi campaign, I've turned my avatar green as suggested by Faeirie Drink Review site.

And finally, I want to say Thanks to those dozen or so folks I saw holding "FREE IRAN" signs this afternoon when I left the State Capitol Builing in OKC. It takes alot of guts and stamina to stand out on Lincoln Blvd in the heat with the aim of moving Okies to action. You Rock! (and it worked on at least one person)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Goddess of Yesterday

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B Cooney published by Random House and Recorded Books, 2003.
We're taking a break from mystery today and stepping back in time to the ancient world.
I was vaguely familiar with the Trojan War from selections I’d read in high school and college (why was it again that I took Latin in high school - oh yeah, it was so I could wear a toga at the Junior Classical League competitions!)
I was fascinated by Greek mythology stories during my childhood and that movie, Clash of the Titans.
Trust me, this book is SO MUCH better than that. I was very impressed by the way Cooney is able to explode a scene with description, building a complete image from the sparse passages of the old stories. Cooney also has a gift for revealing character – long before Helen is unfaithful, the reader learns she is not to be trusted. Likewise, the character of Andromeke is revealed with just a few sentences as a comforting friend for the protagonist Annexandra. I was sad to leave this story when it ended. Cooney also includes an author’s note explaining just which parts of the novel came from the traditional myths and which parts she invented. I listened to the audio version, which was excellent. A paperback edition was just released last month.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Young Cam Jansen and the Lions' Lunch Mystery

Young Cam Jansen and the Lions' Lunch Mystery by David Adler (author) and Susanna Natti (illustrator)Viking, Penguin Young Readers Group, 2007.
This is book is for younger readers and could be described as an early chapter book. There are about 14 books in this “young Cam” series at present, aimed at readers in first – third grades. Author David Adler also has a series featuring the same character for slightly older readers with nearly 50 titles published. He has great resources for classrooms and book discussions online.
I was surprised by how well Adler developed the characters in less than 30 pages. The story's protagonist, Jennifer, is nicknamed Cam (short for Camera) because she has a photographic memory. Her ability allows her to solve the mystery of where class clown Danny left his lunch during a field trip to the zoo.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Case of the Missing Marquess

The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer, published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2006.
Told in first-person, this novel shares the story of Sherlock Holmes' younger sister, Enola Holmes. I was impressed with the clever use of corsets and bustles to conceal large sums of money. I was also intrigued by the complex emotions the protagonist has regarding her older brother, the famous detective. She yearns for his approval, but his dismissive attitude angers her. This historical piece will resonate with young feminist readers.
This is the first book in the Enola Holmes series, and the fifth in the series, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline was just released last month. Perfect summer reading for a young sleuth.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Night Tourist

The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh published by Scholastic Audiobooks, 2007.
The protagonist in this mystery is a classics prodigy and solving the mystery revolves around him using clues discovered through his translation of ancient Greek plays. The setting is the underground of New York City, which just happens to be where recently deads – including Jack's mother – resides. All that, combined with a potential romantic interest make this a great read. This book won the Edgar award in 2008.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Because of Winn-Dixie

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo published by Scholastic, 2000.

I love this book. It flows so well. I'm impressed with how much DiCamillo is able to convey about the characters and their relationships with her easy to read prose. It is clear that every word was chosen with great care. It won the Newberry Honor Award in 2001. If you haven't read this, you should. It is destined to be a classic.
Here's an interview with DiCamillo from 2007. I want to be just like her when I grow up.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


The Lionboy by Zizou Corder published by Highbridge Company (audio), 2003.
I loved the language and adventure in this book. But it may not be what you expect.
This is definitely a genre-bender. Its near future setting and scientific research plot points might make it science fiction, but the protagonist being able to communicate with felines (everything from housecats to lions) puts it into the fantasy category. However, the UK writing style combined with trains, the circus and handwritten letters give it a historic feel.
I have to admit, I picked it up because of my fascination with big cats that started with my Tiger Troubles article for Ozarks Magazine. (sadly, no longer in publication)
Lionboy was fascinating and I was angry that it was a trilogy because I have to know what happens next! Zizou Corder really hooked me and I definitely intend to listen to the next two.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Seer of Shadows

The Seer of Shadows by Avi, published by HarperCollins, 2008.

This historical fiction starts off with a photographer trying to perpetrate a fraud by putting ghost images into portraits. But, in an ironic twist, real ghosts begin to show up in the photos taken by his apprentice, Horace, the novel's first person narrarator. I won't give it all away, but there's more to it than just the ghost wandering through while the picture is snapped.

I was attracted to the novel for the similarities to my current work in progress, a mystery with a ghost revealed in photographs.

Avi's story moves along at a good pace and the plot and characters are solid. Set in New York in 1872, the language is sometimes a little formal, but nothing insurmoutable.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, published by Scholastic, 1997. Won the Newberry Award in 1998. It is a novel, composed of a series of poems in free verse.
I read this book primarily because it is set in the Oklahoma Panhandle in the 1930s and my next mystery is likely to take place in that location.
I just completed a four page essay dissecting the decision to focus more on an improbable, horrific accident than the natural disaster plaguing the area at the time.
I won't share that here, but I will say that this book is beautifully written. The white space on each page is reminiscent of the wide open spaces of the High Plains. Those who called that place home had a grit and tenacity that is hard to imagine in our world of creature comforts. It was a bleak time that challenged the toughest people. Severe drought, extreme temperatures, relentless dust storms and food shortages weakened bodies and drained spirits.
To this mix, Hesse added a tragic accident that centers around the main character's pregnant mother mistaking a pail of kerosene for a bucket of water. The mother dies a painful, agonizing death and the main character is badly burned. Her burns rob her, at least temporarily of the only thing that brings her joy - playing the piano.
I asked myself over and over why the author felt it necessary to heap tragedy upon hardship in a time when the simple act of breathing could be deadly.

Friday, May 8, 2009

And the Winner Is...

Okay, I'm a little bit late in posting this, but CONGRATULATIONS to Tony Abbott for winning the Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for The Postcard.

You may not believe me since I didn't get it up here ahead of time, but The Postcard was my favorite among the finalists. The story resonnated deeply with me. It was actually the first of the finalists that I read and gave me the idea of reading the others before the winners were announced.

I listened to the audio version of the book and I highly recommend it. The reading is good and the production doesn't distract from the story. (The book I'm listening to now occasionally has music in the background. It's a nice idea, but...)
On a personal note, I had a little winning excitement of my own. The opening of my middle grade mystery manuscript, Betrayed, won first place at the Oklahoma Writers Conference last weekend. Also, the opening chapters of a young adult nonfiction manuscript about tigers in the United States won first place in its division. This recognition has been an excellent motivator in getting me back for the final polish on the mystery and to consider exactly what to do next with the tiger manuscript.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Enigma: A Magical Mystery

Enigma: A Magical Mystery by Graeme Base, published by Harry Abrams, 2008.

The amazing illustrations in this book are masterpieces in themselves. Base cleverly presents several puzzles in Enigma, first the straightforward mystery withing the text, second, the clues hidden in the illustrations and finally, a secret to decode using the key at the back of the book. This decoding requires reading the story, finding a hidden clue in the picture and then turning three wheels to the correct position to unlock the decoding key. It was great fun.

This is the last Edgar finalist review in the "juvenile" category. Although this book was grouped with the others, it is definitely in a class by itself. The other finalists were all definitely middle grade novels, while this decidedly falls into the picture book category. Perhaps the Mystery Writers of America should consider adding a middle grade category or a picture book category to give these books a fair chance.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff, published by Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, 2008.
I had very mixed feelings about this book. I kept asking myself why it was that I didn’t become emotionally attached to Sam, the protagonist and his new friend Caroline. Sam was likable enough and even appears to have dyslexia, something that would normally garner a reader’s sympathy. Sam discovers a newspaper clipping that said he was a missing child. He spends the book trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs.

I was also disappointed by Giff’s handling of the dyslexia. Although she does a superb job of describing it, “the words a bunch of loops and whorls that seemed to jump as Sam looked at them,” Giff misses an opportunity to really explore this topic.

I was also a little put off by they way she concludes this arc of the story. Sam decides he has to learn to read. He goes to the reading teacher who has been helping him. They talk about how much time he had spent building a castle for another class and that sometimes reading is also that hard. She says, “We’ll keep at it, work on it; we’ll really try.” I realize that she is acknowledging that he is making a commitment now too, but somehow it seemed dismissive of his learning disability. An implication that by putting some effort into it would make it go away.

This book is also a finalist for the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Postcard

The Postcard by Tony Abbott, published by Little, Brown Young Readers, 2008.
I was captivated by the way this book switched back and forth from being a mystery to being a contemporary coming of age novel. Jason is coping with his father’s drinking, his parents failing marriage and the death of a grandmother he never knew.
While helping his father pack up Grandma’s Florida home, Jason stumbles upon a 1940s magazine with the first chapter of a hard-boiled detective story. Chapters of this Chandleresque story are interspersed with the modern story and seem to mirror real events. This proved to be an interesting technique. I wondered at times if the “adult” story was something the author had written previously and recycled.
At times, Jason and his new friend Dea appear to be in real danger, this provides a lot of tension in the story. But in the end we learn those who were following them never really intended to hurt them.
This book is a finalist for the Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cemetery Street

First The Graveyard Book, now Cemetery Street. Sounds like I'm going goth. I do have a fascination with cemeteries, but trust me. It is purely coincidental that I'm doing these two reviews back to back.

I wrote a critical essay about Cemetery Street as part of my graduate studies at Vermont College. I've included the bulk of it here.

Magic Ants to the Rescue
Writing a mystery’s conclusion may be the most difficult part. So much room exists for error, offering so many ways to disappoint the reader. A writer on deadline may scramble to wrap up the plot quickly to get the book sent to the publisher. A desperate writer will search for something, anything to solve her dilemma. Unfortunately, this can often result in rash decisions. If the author calls upon the reader to stretch too far in suspending their disbelief, the reader will feel like time was wasted on this protagonist. The reader thought this was a hero’s journey to solve the mystery and set the world right. But without careful attention, this journey may lead to nowhere. Hammering the last nail into her protagonist’s heroic coffin, Brenda Seabrooke summons up a deus ex machina to wrap up Cemetery Street.

In a fantastic twist, Seabrooke robs Courtney of the apprehension of her kidnappers. The publicity-seeking, demon-impersonating criminals who killed her brother’s puppy and locked her in a crypt are done in by organized insects. Courtney tracks down the kidnappers and chases them to their van, just as it pulls away.

The van’s doors opened at the same time. Dr. White rolled out one side, Leindorf the other. They rolled in the parking lot and screamed as they tore at their clothes (Seabrooke 184).

We learn shortly that “very angry ants” are the cause of all this rolling and screaming. As explanation, Seabrooke offers Bucky’s Halloween bag tossed in the back of the van.

Giant ants may work for Indiana Jones in South America, but Seabrooke made absolutely no mention of ants at any point in the previous 184 pages. If ants had spoiled the picnic, if Courtney had been bitten by an ant or if she had taken time to watch ants travel, then this might have had a whisper of credibility. But, as presented, it is completely fantastical.

Others may argue that this ending works. Perhaps Seabrooke was trying to counteract the darkness of the animal murder and the suspected Satanism in the book with a lighthearted approach to catching the criminals. At least a few notable people must have taken this position, Cemetery Street is a current finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

The first half of Cemetery Street is a tightly woven web of mystery and suspense. The reader is enchanted by Courtney, we sympathize with the challenges she faces and root for her success from the beginning. We worry about the impending danger that seems to be headed her way. But we’re confident that her wit and ingenuity will ultimately lead to justice prevailing.

We will never know if Courtney was brave enough and resourceful enough to foil the criminals because Seabrooke snatches the opportunity away from her. When writers resort to outlandish means to resolve the situation, it undermines the entire book. Although the language, character development and pacing of Cemetery Street was excellent, this disappointing ending will be the thing readers remember most about it.

Here's a book trailer for it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman's Newberry winning novel, The Graveyard Book, opens with a man named Jack murdering an English family. But the youngest child, a toddler, escapes to a nearby graveyard. There he is taken in by the inhabitants of the graveyard who raise him as their own. This story is superb. The mystery is tight and the graveyard ambiance is maintained throughout the book.

I do wonder if Mr. Gaiman was inspired by the saying, “You don't know Jack.” He's right, we don't. (and aren't we glad?)

I listened to the audio version of this book, which is read by the author. If you pick this up, you are in for a treat. Not only do you get Gaiman's aristocratic British accent, you also get exactly the inflection he intended in writing the book. Directly from his lips to your ears – it doesn't get any better than that.

And with any luck, I'm all high-tech today and here is a book trailer for The Graveyard Book.

Plus, here is an interview with author Neil Gaiman on The Colbert Report.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Neil Gaiman
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorNASA Name Contest

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Is he cool or what? This was part of the egg rolling Easter celebration at the White House.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Witches of Dredmoore Hollow

By Riford McKenzie, published by Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2008.

If you are a fan of the Addams Family, you will love this novel. It is a kooky story about witches and curses and awful aunts who kidnap young Elijah, hero protagonist. But I won’t tell you why. That’s part of the mystery.

McKenzie maintains first person narration throughout this novel through the point of view of Elijah. The story is creepy, but in a fun, lighthearted way and although there is the threat of serious violence, none of it is taken too seriously because the tone and humor are spot on and put the reader at ease.

This book has been nominated for an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America. I say it is a serious contender.

I’ll be reviewing all of the nominees in the juvenile category before the awards are announced on April 30.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Room One

Obviously, it has been far too long since I've posted or shared any of the great books I've been reading.

And, let me tell you, as a student in the MFA program at Vermont College, I've been doing A LOT of reading. Since I already have this huge store of books to share, I should be updating on a much more regular basis.

So, let's get started.

Clements, Andrew. Room One. New York: Simon & Schuster: Audioworks, 2006.
I listened to the audio version of this book and really loved it. The cover seems a little young for the story, I was expecting about a fourth grade book, but I found the mystery a very compelling middle grade read.

Clements used third person to tell this story and about 90 percent of the book is from Ted’s point of view, but he does shift to other points of view occasionally. Unfortunately, he didn’t take full advantage of the shifting view points by using them only to convey important information that the reader wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, much of the resolution of the story is conveyed through the epilogue using various methods including news reports and articles. It seems entirely possible that he could’ve stayed with Ted’s POV, making the reader identify more with the character.

Clements also wove the family impact of the Iraq war into the story, making the book very topical. I was particularly interested in that aspect, since it is a subplot in the manuscript I am currently revising.

I highly recommend this book. While the protagonist is a boy, the story features a very strong girl, providing appeal for both genders. You can bet I'll be adding more of Mr. Clements books to my reading list.

This book won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2007.