Wednesday, March 30, 2011

MISTWOOD by Leah Cypess: My Review

Ooh, pretty cover. You might need to see it bigger to get the full effect. I'll see what I can do about that....
Mistwood Book Cover
Add it on goodreads


The blurb: 
The Shifter is an immortal creature bound by an ancient spell to protect the kings of Samorna. 
When the realm is peaceful, she retreats to the Mistwood. But when she is needed she always comes. 
Isabel remembers nothing. Nothing before the prince rode into her forest to take her back to the castle. Nothing about who she is supposed to be, or the powers she is supposed to have. 
Prince Rokan needs Isabel to be his Shifter. He needs her ability to shift to animal form, to wind, to mist. He needs her lethal speed and superhuman strength. And he needs her loyalty—because without it, she may be his greatest threat. 
Isabel knows that her prince is lying to her, but she can't help wanting to protect him from the dangers and intrigues of the court . . . until a deadly truth shatters the bond between them.
Now Isabel faces a choice that threatens her loyalty, her heart . . . and everything she thought she knew. 

The author's website:

The review:

This book is twisty!! I'm a little rusty in the pure fantasy department, but this book (and Graceling, which I'll review this week) was the perfect remedy to ease me back into my old childhood haunt: Castles, forests, and dungeons. Isabel believes she is one thing and discovers she's something much more ambiguous. Where the Shifter should be ruthless and impenetrable, Isabel finds herself vulnerable and full of doubt. It's a great story for all of us because everyone must discover who she really is and where she fits in her world. The entire book masterfully keeps readers in the dark about Prince Rokan. Can he be trusted? Are his apparent feelings for the Shifter genuine? In the end, Isabel must make some very difficult, heartbreaking decisions between two people she loves. It's only by discovering who she is that she is empowered to make those decisions. 

I loved the characterizations. Even the side characters have depth, and I almost wept when one of my favorite supporting characters was killed suddenly. Another character drove me nuts with her snarky comments and intrigue. I never knew if I should trust her, either. The magicians were sometimes nefarious and other times charming. The nobles of the court with their suspicions and power plays were another layer on the cake. 

With this book, I learned to expect the unexpected. 

The descriptions glow on the page, especially whenever Mistwood is the setting. Leah Cypess' words just exude magic. If you like fantasy, you'll love Mistwood. I give it FIVE STARS. 

A companion novel will be available May 31st, called Nightspell. Even though it's filled with different characters, I'm looking forward to this addition to the magical world Leah Cypess created.

P.S. I'm featured on Kai Strand's lovely blog today in an interview about my top 3 favorites in books, authors, and writing tips:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

THE CLEARING by Anne Riley: My Review

*Happy sigh*

Yeah, I liked this book that much.

After I read the author's blog--and liked her so much I snagged her for a guest post over at The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog--I started to worry about the inevitable moment of truth: What if I read her book and didn't like it? After all, there are no guarantees about any given book, even those published by the big houses and buzzed all over the place as the next HP or Twilight! So what would I do if I didn't like THE CLEARING? This anxiety kept me from reading it at first, even when I had the lovely paperback sitting on my night stand. It waited patiently for me to grow a spine, which I did, thankfully.

All my stress, it turns out, was for naught. In fact, Riley's debut novel is right up there with the best in the urban fantasy genre. THE CLEARING boasts a suspenseful, spooky plot and relatable, tortured characters. I thought about it for days afterward. I wished for a sequel or companion novel to continue in the unique world Anne Riley created. I cried multiple times as the protagonist Natalie dealt with such serious issues as bullying at school and her parents' deaths. The twists are sublimely surprising, and the magical escapism enchanted me. Doesn't every girl hope deep down that she's special? Especially those of us who were bullied relentlessly in school!

And that is as specific as I'll be with the spoilers. :)

My one complaint, which I repeated on goodreads, is that I really wish the publishers that courted Anne had completed the sale. She ended up self-publishing with the blessing of her agent after multiple near-successes (which I think is admirable), and her book has received very positive reviews on goodreads, amazon, and smashwords. However, after reading it, I felt a bit of righteous indignation on Riley's behalf. I wanted THE CLEARING to get the royal treatment of comparable books! I wished it had been covered in the beautiful art that made me pick up Mistwood or any of Cassandra Clare's books. It needed something spooky and Druidish, ancient and compelling. I don't mean to insult the author's current cover, but it doesn't dress for the occasion. One might very well believe he's picking up a literary novel rather than a YA urban fantasy with commercial, mainstream appeal.

So I advise my readers not to believe what the cover is telling you. Imagine ancient symbols and a Druid cross encrusted with jewels or a girl and a boy embracing in a forest clearing with a spooky light glowing around them. Imagine Anne Riley's name in a script-and-scroll font, disappearing into the darkness on the bottom.

And once you've done all that, crack open this pleasure read and enjoy! It gets FIVE STARS from me. Well done, Anne! I hope to enjoy many more books with your name on them.

The blurb on goodreads:
Natalie Watson doesn’t believe the reports about the way her parents died. In fact, she’s not sure she believes in much of anything these days. But after moving from her home in Georgia to her aunt’s boarding school in Maine, solving the mystery of her parents’ deaths is just one of several things on her mind. When she’s not fending off attacks from the popular kids or taking refuge in the pages of a novel, she ponders the rumors circulating about a certain boy in her math class… a boy with fiery red hair who never speaks to anyone.  
Despite suspicions that he may have murdered his sister a year earlier, Natalie finds it impossible to stay away from Liam Abernathy – especially when he confesses to knowing something about her parents. Soon she’s following him into the forest, where things happen she doesn’t understand… things that shouldn’t be possible…. 
As Liam’s story unfolds, Natalie realizes she’s more connected to him than she ever thought – and not everyone she counts as a friend can be trusted.   

Friday, March 25, 2011

Learning from Literature

There are two ways to learn a trade:


Me, I prefer the apprenticeship model. :) Of course getting a degree is difficult and wonderful if you can afford it, but I've always admired people who took the initiative to learn a trade from an expert, like my friend in college who went into the carpeting business (complicated trade, that one) or the radio DJ who never majored in broadcast journalism but worked his way up from the coffee-getter position all the same. There's value in learning from real life, just as I believe there's value in learning from real books (vs. text books). My kids will use text books only for math; that's how strongly I believe in the power of learning through life and literature.

As a writer, this perspective has helped me to grow and improve. I read obsessively, taking both the reader's catharsis and the writer's insight. I'm like a plant, soaking up every drop of goodness I recognize. And the more I read, the more I understand what it is that elevates my favorite stories above the rest. In fact, I'm musing about Devastating Your Reader over on Operation Awesome this morning after a night-long read of GRACELING by Kristin Cashore.

Meanwhile, I keep on writing, hoping to write enough bad fiction that there'll be nothing left in me but phenomenal fiction by the time I'm fifty. My writing grows by practice. But it grows even more by observation. We humans are a naturally critical bunch. We spot typos (even if we're not English majors). We see plot holes and non sequitur. We see beauty and ingenuity and talent. And we're generally very good apes. Copy cats. It's how a child grows into an adult, and it's how an amateur grows into a professional writer.

So my question for you today is, what have you read lately? And are you reading enough?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Five Happy Things

Why? Because I like lists. :)

1) I finished my first draft on a YA Urban Fantasy with sci-fi elements last night!! Go me!

2) My (raving) review of MY JANE AUSTEN SUMMER is up on The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. Just looking at that pretty pink and green cover makes me smile.

3) I'm halfway through reading my tenth novel of the year, including classics, bestsellers, and unknowns. The numbers don't matter, but it sure makes me feel good to read so much.

4) The 18-month-old is potty training much more easily than his older brother did (knock on wood).

5) The big earthquake predicted to hit California this week hasn't happened (knock on wood again).

What makes you happy today?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Full Speed Ahead

It's time to finish this novel. I've brainstormed and outlined and re-outlined until I'm completely lost and sick of the story. But I've let myself wallow at this impasse long enough and it's finally time. With six thousand words to my target word count, I can almost taste that finish line. And you know what that means.

Yep! Final sprint, baby! Here I come.

So this is the week. If I don't have this novel finished by Saturday, I want you to beat me up. Hold my hands behind my back and slap me with Writing the Breakout Novel while shouting, "It's just a first draft! Stop obsessing over it!"

Thanks. That should do it. (My status bar is in the sidebar.)

UPDATE: Just typed THE END, or rather, 'nothing ever ends' at 57,300 words. Ready for my initial revisions now. Thanks for the support, all!!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reader's Log: March 20th

Pic from

I'm supposed to be marveling at the Supermoon right now, but God thought it might be fun to send us a spattering of rain to keep the cloud cover going instead. :) He loves to tease me. So instead I'm updating my reading status on goodreads and wetting my lips for the next books in my TBR pile.

THE CLEARING by Anne Riley is finally on top (YES!), so I'll be starting that tomorrow or Monday. A few nights ago, I read MISTWOOD by Leah Cypess, which was just plain awesome! I haven't read a straight-up fantasy in so long, and this was the perfect one to draw me back into castles and magic. I pulled an all-nighter last night to finish MY JANE AUSTEN SUMMER by Cindy Jones, which was a real page-turner--especially if you're a Jane Austen fan. I'll be contributing a review to BDCWB very soon. I'm having a little trouble with the review because it's the kind of book that makes me want to analyze and discuss! But since it's not technically out until March 29th, it wouldn't be fair to readers for me to wax poetic and literary about the ending. Blah! Hurry up and read this one so we can discuss it, guys! Meanwhile, I'll try to come up with a way to end my review without sighing loudly over the surprise ending.

After THE CLEARING, I'm looking forward to either I AM NUMBER FOUR by Pittacus Lore (not a real name) or GRACELING by Kristin Cashore. I'm excited about I AM NUMBER FOUR because I already saw the movie (awesome), read my friend's twitter reviews (favorable), and heard a lot of gossip (scandalous). GRACELING has my attention because it's a library copy due back in two weeks, but also because the sweet teenage girl standing beside me in the aisle when I picked it up told me it was her favorite book... ever.

And of course I have my nap time book with the preschooler, number two in the MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY series. Hey, you gotta start 'em young. My kid is going to know so much about morse code subterfuge and high-tech spy buckets.

What are you reading? Is the TBR (to-be-read) pile getting any smaller at your house or do the awesome books just keep piling up? I hope for both.

UPDATE: My review for MY JANE AUSTEN SUMMER by Cindy Jones is now available for viewing on The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Who Did Kathleen Ortiz Pick? Mystery Agent Winners!

Yesterday I wrote about the Perks of Fellowship for Novelists. Today we have a prime example of that over on Operation Awesome!!

MARCH MYSTERY AGENT REVEALED!! (And eight--EIGHT--winners from whom she requested manuscript pages)

Seriously, you guys have no idea the joy it gives me to see a) the talent of you writers, b) the generosity of our mystery agents, and c) the excitement generated when the two come together.

My mom asked me once if it was hard to support all these published authors we interview, or to watch other people earn what I really, really want. I told her it isn't. It's fun. Of course I hope it will happen for me someday, and I know hard work is the answer to that 'someday' time frame. But while I'm in the fox hole, I'm really loving my company.

Most of all, I'm grateful for you. Thanks for reading and participating with me in this decade of online writerly awesomeness.

p.s. I have a new article up on The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog: Research for the Novelist

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Perks of Fellowship for Novelists

Who Could Say No to Perks Like These?

I'm having a great 2011 so far. It all started in 2010, really. Someone wrote to me on the forum wondering if I'd be interested in forming a critique group with her.

Best. decision. ever.

Coming out of the writer closet and joining the online writing community (and this is true of any writing community, really) started a snowball of epic sugary goodness. Here are some of the perks I've enjoyed:

  • Having my work read by people who GET IT!
  • Getting feedback that makes my writing stronger.
  • Feeling less insane because everybody else is going through similar struggles (and blogging about them).
  • Getting to read riveting stories BEFORE they're published!
  • Being involved in making said riveting stories even better.
  • Reading and writing a review for a friend's book (better than a backstage pass).
  • Moral support during the query process (and when I get there, the submission process).
  • Interviewing literary rock stars and generally getting to know some amazing writer people.
  • Living vicariously through the successes of others.
  • Being asked to contribute to a couple incredible writing blogs.
  • Cyber-meeting literary agents and seeing how truly nice/savvy they are.
  • Helping to match agents to writers through super fun contests!
  • Brainstorming sessions with writers who love the same kind of books I do. 
  • Getting a kick in the pants when I slack on my wordage or editing--motivation to keep going.
Is it any wonder I'm always extolling the virtues of a writing group? And hey, you don't even have to sell your soul. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Middle-grade love: THE MIXED-UP FILES review

It's so fun reading middle grade and children's books. I especially love reading older classics that feel so different from today's books. Oh, I love modern kid's books, don't get me wrong. Books from previous decades supplement my biblio-diet with long-term carbohydrates, like potatoes and rice. It's a warm, comforting experience. That's how I felt reading FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER with my son.

Two kids, a sister and a brother, escape a perfectly normal home to live in a museum. Now that's high concept! Even better, they uncover a secret about a recently acquired statue's origins and worth. But the real gems in this story are the moments when Claudia and James uncover secrets about themselves: why they do the things they do, and what they really want to become. Basically, it's an honest book about secrets. The brother-sister relationship feels authentic, with Claudia's taste for the dramatic and glamorous and Jamie's perfect timing for ruining the mood with pragmatism. Readers will love them, even if they do talk funny by today's standards. Now I know why the top middle-grade book blog took on the title From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors! A book this delightful and deep deserves such a tribute.

Yes, I should have read this book as a child. Yes, I'm somewhat ashamed of my lack of culture. And yes, I will be reading more of these missed jewels in the future. (Recommendations?)

But next up on our nap time reading list is something much more recent: the second book in THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY series. I can't wait to find out what happens to these four remarkable children on their next adventure.

Also on my nightstand: MISTWOOD by Leah Cypess, THE CLEARING by Anne Riley, and MY JANE AUSTEN SUMMER by Cindy Jones

What are you reading today?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Moon and Me

Pic from this site
Everything in our known world is subject to phases, most notably the moon. We plan our lives around it, the month to month motion of the great silver goddess. My life is no different. The last phase was Writer Fest--an almost manic, certainly absorbing portion of the last year in which I've been able to accomplish a lot, meet some amazing people, and edge closer to my writing goals. But now, with life-altering events happening in far-away lands, my life is shifting again into another phase.

This doesn't mean I'll stop writing.

Just like the Writer Fest phase, when I still maintained my home, my family, and--by a thread--my health, this new Family Strong phase won't kill my writing. The moon never really disappears. The visible part shifts and my visible priorities must also shift.

This is not really an announcement; simply a musing, a reflection. Operation Awesome continues to spread the awesome with contests, connections, book love, and writing tips. The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog continues to provide up-to-the-minute writerly news. And I'll continue to contribute to these worthy endeavors any way I can. But my heart is more fully invested in my kids today. My mind is preoccupied by matters of mortality, survival, and safety. I don't know when this phase will end, or even if these phases have a bolded line between them.

Today I'm seeing my goals the way I see the moon--as a constant whole, highlighting a half-circle here, a quarter-circle there, sometimes forgetting to highlight anything at all. But always in motion, always part of a larger dance.

How have the recent disasters affected your priorities?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Books I want to hug

This is my just-for-me read right now. My book candy, if you will. I'm just beginning the read, but so far it's been a wild and startling ride. Can't wait to find out more about this mysterious person in the woods. I sort of recently friended Leah Cypess on facebook, and am finding out what a delightful person she is-- the kind of person who spends so much time in the library, the librarians let her check out her books without a card. This makes me even more excited to finish Mistwood. People who read a lot make the best writers!

This is my pre-nap read with my four-year-old. He may be a little young for middle grade, but the rhythm of my reading helps him calm down after a boisterous morning and exposes him to a much wider range of vocabulary than I use daily. ("Wash your hands and stop sitting on your brother!") For vocabulary, this is a great one because it's got this old world feel with allowances counted in cents and children correcting each other's grammar in ways they wouldn't dream now. ("Hide out in? What kind of English is that?" -sister to brother) The story is kind of sad so far from a parental perspective and I missed the chance to read it as a child, but I'm sure children would love the idea of running away with such finesse! 

I'm staring at this lovely book right now. It just arrived in paperback from and I can't wait to read it. Anne is something of an inspiration to me for working her butt off through the traditional publishing route and sticking with her novel when it didn't quite fit the lists of publishers.

The blurb sounds so compelling and I've sampled Anne's wonderful writing (she's written a guest post for us at The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog you can read HERE).

THE CLEARING has received great reviews on goodreads.

So you can see I've got my reading palate covered for a while. Now spill! What's on the top of your TBR (to-be-read) pile?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March Mystery Agent Contest is CLOSED! Thank you!

As of this posting, there are 0 spots left in the twitter-length book pitch contest. Do you have what it takes to nab our Mystery Agent's undivided attention? See if you can pitch your novel in 140 characters or less.

Enter the contest here!

Can't wait to see what you've got.

The contest has ended with 75 awesome twitter-length pitches! Thanks, everybody! We'll post the results soon after we hear from our Mystery Agent!