The Summer of Reading

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Some summers are all about travel, while others are all about relaxing. For me, this was the summer of reading. I plowed through my To Read pile and even found myself having to make bookstore runs to get more books to read.

From May 26 to August 1, I read a total of 15 books. Not only is this a new summer record, but it made a huge dent in my Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge. There’s only six more books to go until I reach my goal of 35.

Here’s a rundown of the first half of the stack, along with short reviews. Overall, I enjoyed some really great reads, but nothing could top Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series. If you haven’t read it, you simply must!

Lord of Shadows (Dark Artifices #2) by Cassandra Clare

One of the things that always amazes me about Cassandra Clare’s work is her ability to make the Shadow World mirror the real world. In Lord of Shadows, the arrival of The Cohort and it’s desire to return Shadowhunters to a position of power at the expense of Downworlders has so many parallels to our world today, I’m eternally grateful that so many young people will be reading it, (and will hopefully take it’s message to heart. Social commentary aside, the sequel to Lady Midnight does not disappoint as it delivers heavy doses of love in every way possible -forbidden, brotherly, heartbreaking, old and new – while also continuing the story of how one warlock’s fascination with necromancy leads to the search for The Black Volume. So begins the race to find it before all hell breaks loose (quite literally). The search for the Black Volume leads to the Unseelie and Seelie courts, Malcolm Fade’s enchanted cottage, London, and to Idris itself. In true Clare fashion, the last 30 pages of the book are emotionally traumatizing in every way imaginable. I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” whenever I finish one of Clare’s books. It’s the only way to remind myself why I keep coming back for more.

Shadowhunters and Downworlders: A Mortal Instruments Reader Ed. Cassandra Clare

An interesting read for any fan of the The Mortal Instruments series, but in particular for those who love to overanalyze every single element of the books and the characters. Simply put, this is a book for hardcore fans that want to hear what other YA authors have to say about the series. My favorite essays in the collection include Diana Peterfreund’s “Sharper Than A Seraph Blade (which offers unique insight into Jace’s humor as a weapon), Michelle Hodkin’s “Simon Lewis: Jewish Vampire, Hero” (an enlightening piece that parallels Judaism and Vampirism), Gwenda Bond’s “Asking For A Friend” (digs deeply into the importance of friendship), and Sara Ryan’s “The Importance of Being Malec” (anyone who doesn’t understand why Malec matters so much needs to read this and you’ll never look at Magnus’s wardrobe the same way again). I would not recommend this for casual fans as it goes into sharp detail – you need to know your stuff for these essays to have maximum impact.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

(Not in the stack as I already traded it in)

It’s a new world where the color of your blood determines your status. Silver bloods have special gifts and hold the highest ranks. Red bloods are nobodies relegated to servitude, conscription, and poverty. Mare Barrow is a Red who finds herself swept into Silver court life thanks to a chance meeting with one of the crown princes. When its discovered she possesses the ability to do something no Red blood should be able to do, palace intrigue and rebellions abound. The resounding theme of betrayal from every direction makes it hard to know which characters to trust and root for. However, the last quarter of the book is action packed and finally draws the line between good and evil – sort of. As a commentary on social classes, discrimination, and subjugation the story is a bit heavy handed and relies on blatant violence to make a point, yet it’s a point well made.

Spellcaster by Claudia Gray

Captive’s Sound is slowly dying thanks to old, dark magic. When Nadia arrives, she has no idea that she could be the witch that can actually save this small town. Nadia is not a fully trained witch, but she is powerful thanks to inadvertently finding her Steadfast, (an individual that amplifies her power when in close proximity). This comes in handy when she faces off with the witch who is responsible for the dark magic strangling the life out of Captive’s Sound. As always, Claudia Gray weaves a tale filled with magic, intrigue, and the power of friendship.

Steadfast (Spellcaster #2) by Claudia Gray

Nadia only thought she defeated a powerful witch from bringing death and destruction upon Captive’s Sound, but evil rarely goes down so easily. It turns out there is something far more sinister on the horizon and it’s trying to break free from the depths of hell. Nadia finds herself in the middle of a tug of war between sticking with white magic or making the ultimate sacrifice to dark magic in order to save those she loves. The bonds of friendship and love reach their breaking point in a tale that only Claudia Gray can spin.

Sorceress (Spellcaster #3) by Claudia Gray

The One Beneath is one step closer to entering our realm thanks to generations of spells from an evil sorceress. Saving Captive’s Sound (and the world) falls on the shoulders of Nadia and her friends, Verlaine, Mateo, and the lovelorn demon servant, Asa. We have nothing to worry about, right? Book 3 of the Spellcaster series is a fantastic conclusion to what has been an enjoyable series overall. In Gray’s world witchcraft is fueled by emotions and memories, which makes Nadia’s battle with The One Beneath all the more meaningful. In addition, Gray explores the concept of hate, stereotyping, and discrimination with a gentle, yet firm hand as a reminder that we all deserve to be seen for who we are on the inside.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Rachel Chu has no idea what she’s in for when she travels to Asia with her boyfriend. To her, Nick is a fellow professor and just an ordinary guy. It turns out he’s the furthest thing from ordinary as he is the chosen heir of one of the wealthiest and prestigious families in Singapore. What should have been a fun summer trip through Nick’s hometown turns into an outrageous introduction into the catty world of Singapore’s elitist culture. At the center of it all is Nick’s often pretentious and judgmental family.

Kwan’s satire slices right into an utterly preposterous world that is far removed from the reality where most of us reside, which makes it all the more irresistible and hilarious. In many ways it’s reminiscent of Wuthering Heights; a world filled with detestable characters that bring disaster upon themselves and you just can’t look away. Kwan, however, turns the detestable into a hysterical spectacle that perfectly blends dry British humor with spot on commentary of Chinese culture. This combination is particularly strong in Kwan’s sometimes snarky, but brilliant footnotes. A great beach read, while also inviting deeper contemplation of social norms and class society.

China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2) by Kevin Kwan

The crazy is back with China Rich Girlfriend, only this time the spotlight is more on the Mainland than Singapore. Rachel and her husband Nick are headed back to Asia to meet her newly discovered family, which ushers them into the crazy rich world of Shanghai. Singapore may have been all about old money and family lineage, but Shanghai is all about the glitz of new money. Spur of the moment shopping trips in Paris, super fast sports cars, and ostentatious interior decor fill the days and nights of the Shanghai’s elites. Rachel once again charms everyone, but she refuses to be fully swept up in the unreality that surrounds her, (which is why she is so likable and our guide through this largely unrelatable world).

Scandal hits from all angles as marriages fall apart, reputations disintegrate, and family squabbles turn wildly public. It’s all about image or lack thereof and Kwan’s biting satire once again cuts right into all the ridiculous behavior. At the same time, Kwan explores the family dynamic and Chinese culture with a tender hand and ruthless (and hysterical) commentary. This volume moves a bit slower than Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s still a highly enjoyable read.

Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians #3) by Kevin Kwan

Alamak, this can’t really be the end! The third book in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series gives a fitting conclusion to what has been a highly enjoyable jaunt into Asia’s elitist culture. Characters who deserved it got their happily ever afters (for now) and those who needed a slap in the face got what they had coming. The funeral of the century sends everyone into wild speculation on how much money is up for grabs and who will inherit what. Somewhere beneath all the flash is a story of family and forgiveness. Kwan’s usual hilarious satirical edge is still in play and he aims it squarely at the concept of “saving face,” (as long as it looks good, that’s all that matters). When all the money and social standing is stripped away, these otherwise unrelatable characters suddenly become very human. Everything we’ve been assuming since the beginning is called into question as not everyone and everything is as it seems. It makes for a surprising, hilarious, and heartwarming final chapter.

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Reviews for the second half will go up next week. 🙂

Did you read anything good this summer?

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c.b.w. 2017

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Plugging Along

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Summer’s reprieve from the day job leaves me with a lot of time to relax (which I desperately need no matter how much I try to deny it) and dig into the To Do List I created instead of New Year’s Resolutions. As with all lists, some items are easier than others!

Item #1 Declutter

It’s a work in progress, but I have made some headway. Two out of three closets at home are cleared and so is most of the junk I was hoarding in my classroom. I’m pretty sure my colleagues thought I was losing my mind – I tossed out an entire three-drawer file cabinet of handouts and folders, (all for classes I no longer teach). Then, I got rid of a ton of stuff from my supply cabinets, bookshelves, and office storage area.

However, what I’m most proud of is thinning out my Barbie collection. I’ve been collecting for most of my life, which lead to amassing more than 120 dolls and accessories. To say I’m attached to them is an understatement. Yet, I realized that my preferences as a collector have changed, so I sold or gave away 24 dolls and there are more I’m looking to clear out. It was surprisingly easy to do once I made the choice to let them go.

I still haven’t touched the DVD or CD shelf. Yikes – they are pretty daunting.

My writing area is better, but not organized. Everything is in a box until I decide what to do with all the shelving units in the guest room.

Item #2: Publish Something

I’ve made some good headway on this front, too. The summer actually started with a piece of fan mail from an avid reader of my poetry blog, Haiku Tree. She wanted to know if I had any books out and that gave me quite the boost to work on my chapbook! So far, I have 75 haikus selected from my journals. The goal is to get to 100, so I’m getting close. I’m writing all new pieces for the last 25.

Last month, I attended a query package workshop at Phoenix Comicon. It ended up being the kick in the pants I needed. I rewrote my query letter, cranked out a synopsis, and compiled a new list of agents. This week, I started putting together query packages with all my new materials for each agent on my list. While the sting of rejection is imminent, I’m jumping in head first. Let’s do this!

Item #3: Read 35 Books

I’m right on track according to Goodreads! At the moment, I am reading Book #17.

Item #4: Survive National Board Certification

Done. I’m still alive. I finished the final component last month, but I won’t know until November or December if I scored high enough to be certified. Fingers crossed!

Item #5: Take Better Care of Myself

Working on it. Being away from the day job is helping, but finding my mojo after such a stressful year has been challenging. I’m using some of my summer time to rediscover all the things I gave up during the school year.

One thing is certain, when the school year starts up again, I am determined to protect myself and my time.

Item #6: Go Somewhere

This is delayed. The furbaby needs a lot of special care. If that means staying home, then I’m staying home for the time being. Meanwhile, I will be planning a future adventure! I finally sent my application to renew my passport.

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How are your goals To Do List items going?

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c.b.w. 2017

The Annual Trek To Book Heaven

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There’s nothing more a bibliophile loves more than a HUGE used book sale. Every year, I get to bask in the largest book sale in the state and it never gets old.

I arrived with empty bags and a lot of hope that I’d find something good. However, I had to somewhat behave this year given the fact that I just decluttered my bookshelves. I didn’t want to just fill them right back up again and undo all of my decluttering progress!

My first stop was the craft section. Over the last couple of years, I’ve come home with some amazing finds in knitting patterns – especially vintage. This year was no different. I found a great array of knitting magazines, but also a sweater pattern book and needlecraft how-to guide from 1945. The patterns in these books are pure gold as they are simple and timeless.

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The selection of knitting books was a little more sparse this year, but I still found a few good ones. My favorite is, Knit Your Own Dog. I’ve seen this book before and always wanted it.

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While I was combing through the rest of the craft section, my mom was in the collectibles section. She spotted this great visual reference guide for collectible Barbie and held onto it for me. It is beyond amazing!

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I hit the fiction section next. This is where I really had to control my inner urge to snap up any book that looks remotely interesting. That’s tough to do when most are only $3 or less! I decided to only pick up books that are on my to-read list or can pass the first page test (i.e. I can’t fight the urge to turn the page and keep reading). I ended up with small, yet intriguing group of books.

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Last, but not least, I hit the poetry section. My goal is always the same: haiku anthologies. They are tough to find! At the same time, I was looking to find anything inspiring or interesting in short verse poetry. Two of the books I found are pictured above with my fiction finds. Art and Wonder pairs poetry with famous works of art –  I can’t wait to read it!

In the haiku realm, I managed to find two anthologies and a couple of interesting takes on modern Japanese poetry. Flipping through them, I can see they are inspired by haiku, but other forms as well. I’m looking forward to exploring them.

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The grand total for my treasures? $24.25. All in all, it was a great day at the book sale!

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c.b.w. 2017

A Plan For NaNoWriMo

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Over the last few days, I’ve asked myself if it’s actually a good idea to do NaNoWriMo. My schedule is already ridiculously full and my stress level is already off the charts. Do I really need to add writing 500 words a day to my insane list of things to do?

In a word: YES. Writing is actually a stress reliever for me. Just like knitting helps me sleep (the repetition helps to slow down the thought train in my brain), writing lets me escape everything giving me a headache.

The only thing I’m worried about is having a enough time to complete 500 words. From past experience, I know I can punch out 500 words in an hour if I’m really focused. During the work week finding that kind focus will be challenging.

To deal with the work week challenge, I’m giving myself the freedom to have variant word count days as long as I hit a weekly goal of 3,500 words (which works out to 500 words/day). Some days I’ll be happy to get 200 words, while on others I might get up to 1,000. I know this isn’t how NaNoWriMo traditionally works, but I know what will work best for me!

I have several days off in November due to Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. I’ll be using those days off to their full advantage, along with weekends. Hopefully, I’ll be able to work ahead whenever the day job isn’t taking up 12 hours of my day.

We’ll see how it goes. While I’m motivated to dig into my novel, I’m also realistic. If I make my goals, great. If not, I’m not going to beat myself up over it. This is supposed to be a fun stress reliever, not a source of stroke inducing deadlines!

In any case, I hope my favorite coffee shop ordered extra mocha so they can keep me happily caffeinated while I write!

Stay tuned for updates on progress!

What’s your plan for NaNoWriMo?

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c.b.w. 2016

And We Go Back

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It’s been very quiet on the novel front (even though my muse has been very chatty on the sequel!), but that’s about to change. I’m ready to take another dive in the literary agent pool, despite the ever growing odds against me.

I spent the summer waiting for query responses that never came – the silence was deafening – and evaluating both my novel and query package. After another round of rejections, I can’t help but ask myself if some of the changes I made were doing more harm than good.

The last round of query packages included a new query letter and a full Chapter 1 rewrite in the novel. Both changes were prompted by several rounds of rejections. There’s only so many rejections you can take before you consider that maybe there’s something wrong with the product.

Prior to the changes, I was averaging about 75% actual responses and 25% no response to my query package. While it is gratifying to receive some sort of a response, the fact of the matter is they were all rejections.

After the changes, the stats changed significantly and not in a good way. In the last round of querying, less than half of the agents I queried responded. The rest offered nothing but silence. This was either a really bad stroke of luck or I need to rethink the tinkering I did on my novel.

Given the drastic change in statistics, I’m thinking it’s time to get back to basics. It’s obvious the rewritten first chapter isn’t grabbing agents’ attention (all that I queried requested the first chapter as part of the query package), so I’ll be scrapping the rewrite in favor of the original version.

After comparing the two this weekend, I can honestly say I like the original version better. It moves a bit slower, but it offers a stronger introduction to the lead character. Furthermore, it provides stronger contrast to the character she evolves into as the novel progresses.

As for the query letter, that’s where it gets a little tricky. I like my new query letter better than the original, yet it’s also part of the package that incited little or no response. So, now the question becomes, was it it the query letter, the rewritten first chapter, or both that turned off so many agents?

Yeah, that’s a sticky wicket.

I went back and read my original query letter and there’s a lot to like about it, but it’s not that exciting. The new query letter has a little more personality and leaves a little more room to personalize it for individual agents. The logical solution to pull the best elements of each and combine them into one new query letter. Yet, I’m left asking myself if that’s really necessary. The original letter has a great track record for getting responses – why mess with it?

If I’ve learned anything in this process, second-guessing yourself can be disastrous. I’ve believed from the start that my novel is something special and I can’t afford to lose that focus. The plan moving forward is to submit the original novel (as structured by me and my editor) and to utilize both query letters. As I research agents, I’ll decide which query letter might be the best fit for each agent on my list. Social media, blogs, and websites for prospective agents offer a lot of insight on personality and preferences.

I’ll consider this last round as yet another lesson learned. We’ll just add it to the lengthy list of things this process has taught me! Despite the constant failure, I remain optimistic. My novel will find its way into print – it’s just a matter of when.

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c.b.w. 2016