Monthly Archives: April 2009

Monday’s Zen Moment: Picture + Poem


On this, my second “Zen Monday,” I’m offering a picture and a poem to invite you to take a few minutes away from working / planning / doing.


Someone left the gate open
and went ahead
along the grassy path into
the misty day.

There it is,
an invitation
to follow or else
to walk away
taking the mystery
with you.

(Copyright K. Millar, please do not reprint without permission)

(Photo attribution: ARendle)


Author Interview: Eric Berlin


As promised, here is my interview with author and puzzler Eric Berlin. He’s just released The Potato Chip Puzzles, a follow-up to his first novel about puzzle-expert, Winston Breen. Before I get to the interview, I am happy to announce the winner of yesterday’s puzzle contest, posted here at Shelf Elf. The winner receives a signed copy of The Potato Chip Puzzles. Your prize will be sent to you via Eric.

THE WINNER IS… Laura Jewell! Congrats Laura!

Read on to discover why puzzles matter and learn Eric’s best puzzle memory ever.

Welcome Eric! So, why do puzzles matter?

Well, they do and they don’t. I’m a total puzzle addict, so don’t get me wrong, but I’m not about to equate crosswords and sudoku to the applied sciences. What they are, first and foremost, is fun. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, especially when I’m talking to kids.

However, secretly, I think puzzles matter a great deal. And that’s because everything is a puzzle when you really think about it. I got through my years of math by pretending all those algebra problems were puzzles. Every single day, people who couldn’t possibly care less about puzzles go to their offices… and solve puzzles. How can I treat this patient? How can I improve my company? Where am I supposed to put all these boxes? We’re all constantly faced with challenges that require fast, flexible, logical thinking. Puzzles help prepare your brain for everything else it has to deal with.

How has solving and creating puzzles changed your life?

My love of puzzles led me to discover the National Puzzlers’ League, the nation’s oldest organization of puzzle-lovin’ folks. For certain people, it takes about fifteen seconds of hanging out at an NPL convention before you look around say, “Wow, I am home. I’m going to be friends with these people for the rest of my life.” I am one of those people.

What’s your favourite type of puzzle to solve, and to create?

I love to solve “puzzle hunts,” very much like what I’m presenting this week with Winston’s Puzzle Party. Multiple, varied puzzles, each with its own answer… and then all answers tie together in some way to give you a final, winning solution. I love solving these by myself, and I love solving them with teams of friends. I travel quite a bit each year to puzzle events of just this kind.

And I like creating puzzle hunts, too. Winston’s Puzzle Party was a lot of fun to put together. I’ve created events for the passionate puzzlers at Will Shortz’s annual crossword tournament (you can even buy that one, if you’re so inclined), and I’ve created events for high school students who didn’t care all that much about puzzles but wound up having a lot of fun. I’m starting to explore doing hunts for younger kids now, so if you’re a school or library and want to do a puzzle event for your kids, contact me.

What’s your biggest tip for novice puzzlers with short attention spans?

Don’t worry if you can’t solve something to its completion. Nobody’s watching you, nobody’s judging you. Do the puzzles you enjoy, do them for as long as you want, and don’t worry about what anybody else thinks. I’ve got stacks of half-completed logic puzzles around my house, because I’m not great at logic puzzles even though I enjoy attempting them. I’d rather start afresh with a new one than sit there trying to figure out where I’ve made a mistake.

Your best puzzle memory:

Oh, there are so many. But let’s go with this one: At a puzzle event I created for my local high school, I turned the entire science wing into a sort of “wordplay maze.” I wrote a number of words on each blackboard, and solvers had to go from room to room, looking for particular words. They’d have to anagram them or performing some other feat of wordplay, which would then lead to the next word they had to find.

It was chaos. We had over a hundred kids participating in the event, and at one point I think they were all working simultaneously on this one puzzle. Kids were running around like crazy trying to find the right words. Time and again, I watched kids trying to find a particular word look right at the word they needed and go zooming past it, because they were moving too fast to think properly.

In the middle of all this insanity, there was a team of three girls. They had pulled a number of chairs together and were sitting quietly. They had gone from room to room, writing down the words on each blackboard. That done, they were able to sit calmly while everybody else was running around like a bunch of lunatics. They solved the puzzle in about five minutes—most teams took half an hour or more. I was proud of them like they were my own kids.

Thanks for the interview Eric! Good to know that half-finished puzzles are allowed after all!

Puzzling with Eric Berlin and Winston Breen

Puzzle folk have always intimidated me. They’re smart. Sometimes scary smart. You know, the type who does the weekend crossword every Saturday in your local coffee spot while you’re looking at the Style section of the newspaper? When I worked at the bookstore, there was this older customer who came in pretty frequently and over time, tried to turn me into a crossword puzzle person. She was so sweet and patient and was obviously a true puzzle afficianado. I tried not to let her down. I read some books about cryptic crosswords. I worked at it. Let’s just say I’m not a natural. I do remember feeling this awesome rush when I would actually get one of the words after an embarrassing length of time. It was exhausting.

Today I offer a special puzzle-related treat. Eric Berlin, puzzle-master, author and super-smart guy, has written a second book in his series about Winston Breen, mystery-solver and puzzle-addict. The first book, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, was met with great reviews. The sequel, The Potato Chip Puzzles (Putnam, May 2009)  is every bit as ingenious and entertaining as its predecessor, and is sure to be intellectually-stimulating for puzzlers everywhere.

Eric has put together a “Puzzle Party” to celebrate the upcoming release. Here’s how it works. Each day he’s posting a puzzle at a blog (my blog today!) and you have the chance to solve it. When you solve it, send your answer to At the end of each day of the party, one randomly drawn correct answer with receive a signed copy of The Potato Chip Puzzles. Cool, yes? You’ll want to save your answers along the way because they will help you to solve the final puzzle on April 22nd. The randomly drawn winner of that last puzzle will be super lucky and receive more than 2 dozen titles from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Wow! Here’s the schedule:

April 16th: A Patchwork of Books
April 17th: Fuse #8
April 18th: Shelf Elf (HERE!! NOW!! TODAY!!)
April 19th: Books Together
April 20th: Bookshelves of Doom
April 21st: Chicken Spaghetti
April 22nd: Oz and Ends

If you have a question about the rules, chances are it is answered here. Who knows? Perhaps I will find renewed inspiration and turn into a smarty-pants puzzler after all.

So, here is the link to today’s puzzle:’s Puzzle Party – 3 – Treasure Hunt.pdf

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting an interview with Eric about his love of all things puzzley, and I will also announce the winner of today’s particular puzzle contest.

Get to work!

King of the Screwups

You know what they say, “Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something.” What if your “thing”, your big talent, was screwing up over and over again? Meet Liam Geller, King of the Screwups. To be fair, Liam is good at lots of things, like knowing how to put together the perfect outfit, and having girls fall for him, and being Mr. Popularity without even working at it. Unfortunately, none of these things matters to his dad, the super-successful CEO of MoneyVision. He wants Liam to smarten up, stop his “delinquent” behaviour and start seriously thinking about his future. All of this comes to a crisis point when Liam crosses the line in a big way and gets caught in the act. He gets kicked out of the house and his father’s brother, a gay glam-rocker DJ, gives him a place to stay for a while. The place? A trailer in upstate New York. His new roommate? “Aunt” Pete. Liam decides this is exactly the opportunity he needs to become the son his father always wanted. He is going to be a huge nerd and make his father proud… or will he screw that up too?

K.L. Going succeeds brilliantly with King of the Screwups, offering readers pure satisfaction in this hilarious and charming portrait of imperfection. Liam’s story might seem like one you’ve read before, the “coming-of-age / stuck-in-a-small town” narrative that is built for both comic and heart-warming moments, but Going takes it all to a new level. A huge part of the strength of the story is Liam’s voice – he’s sharp, super-funny but still realistic, and self-deprecating. He’s not the only memorable character. “Aunt Pete” is a complete original, and the relationship between uncle and nephew is one of the most entertaining and heartwarming aspects of the novel. This novel offers more than great comedy. It takes a critical look at how parental expectations can damage a kid’s sense of identity and really mess up a family. I also think the book could inspire interesting conversation about definitions of masculinity and what it means to be popular. Bottom line? A book that makes you think and entertains on every page.

King of the Screwups reminded me of the best kind of quirky indie movie, where the character keeps struggling because he can’t get out of his own way, but then in the end, he realizes that his way of doing things has been the right way for him all along. Read King of the Screwups to find out how Liam stumbles his way to enlightenment.

(This post is cross-posted at GuysLitWire)

Class of 2k9 Interview: Cheryl Renée Herbsman


Debut novelist and Class of 2k9 member, Cheryl Renée Herbsman joins me today to discuss her YA novel, Breathing. Set on the Carolina coast, it tells the story of Savannah, who longs for romance to find its way to her one summer. It’s about young love and having the courage to embrace life’s adventures.

Welcome Cheryl!

What inspires you? (People / Places / Music / Art …)

…people who live in a soulful way, beautiful places in nature that are calm, quiet, and rich, music that comes from the heart, art that has movement and life hidden within it.

Describe your writing process.

I usually write while my kids are at school. I light candles and sometimes incense to set the time apart from the rest of the day. Then I sit on my bed with my laptop or sometimes pen and paper and listen. I try my best to avoid thinking up what is supposed to happen or what would make sense. Instead, I try to listen to what wants to be written and try to avoid critiquing it. Revisions come later. If I let that part of my brain get its foot in the door, I lose the flow.

What’s your cure for writer’s block?

Getting my inner critic out of the way. Usually if I’m blocked it’s because the thinking/critiquing side is taking too strong a role. If I can get that part to step aside and let me have a little time to be, the writing usually finds its way.

Tell us about the moment you learned you were going to become a published author.

Well, there was a lot of screaming involved. I warned my kids before I started screaming so they wouldn’t think something bad had happened. I was like, “I’m really happy and so I’m going to scream now.” And then proceeded to shriek, while they looked on, amused.

What surprised you most about publishing your first novel?

Lots of things surprised me. I think the most surprising was how long the process takes and how many people are involved. It’s really a major undertaking for a publishing house.

What was the most challenging thing to get right in Breathing?

The timeline was most difficult. The story takes place in one summer and it was challenging to make sure the timing of everything made sense. In particular, the issue was the program in the mountains that Savannah applies for. In the first draft, she didn’t find out about it until much later in the story, which made the steps she had to go through to apply too compressed. So pulling back the initial idea of it to right at the beginning of the story, and then spreading the steps through the story, worked better.

How are you and Savannah similar?

Well, we are both hopeful romantics and dreamers. I also did very well in school and tried too hard to be responsible as a kid.

Speaking of romance… here’s a picture Cheryl sent that shows her as a teen on the beach with her first love, Oded, who turned out to be her true love. She and her husband are celebrating 20 years of marriage.


Savannah is quite the bookworm. What books did you read as a teen?

I read a lot. As a teen I particularly liked long books, the kind of sagas that went across generations. I liked reading romance and also Marion Zimmer Bradley, Paulo Coelho, and the spiritual fiction of Richard Bach. But I would read almost anything.

If you could be an invisible observer in a room full of teen readers, what are some of the things you hope they might say in their conversation about your book?

I hope they would like the story and the characters and that they would get why I included the dialect. But mostly I hope they’d feel inspired by the idea that love can be real and dreams can come true.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story that takes place at summer camp that is about friendship and self-discovery, and of course, romance 🙂

Thanks so much Cheryl for taking the time to answer these questions!

(Breathing is published by Viking)

Winston Breen Puzzle Party

Eric Berlin has masterminded the coolest promotion for his new book, The Potato Chip Puzzles. It’s the sequel to his first mystery, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen. He has planned a “Puzzle Party” / blog tour, where puzzlers travel about the kidlitosphere, collecting and solving puzzles and then entering to win some awesome book prizes. Here’s Eric’s explanation of how it’s all going down:

Librarians! Teachers! Booksellers! Parents!

Winston loves to puzzle his friends and classmates, and now he’s got some puzzles for you! Solve the puzzles and submit your answers, and you can win…

– A signed copy of Winston Breen’s latest puzzling mystery, The Potato Chip Puzzles.

– Or the grand prize: Every single one of G.P. Putnam’s Sons Spring 2009 children’s and YA books, plus advance reading copies of numerous Fall 2009 books!

Every day from April 16th to April 22nd, there will be a new puzzle waiting for you on a different blog:

April 16th: A Patchwork of Books
April 17th: Fuse #8
April 18th: Shelf Elf (that’s me!)
April 19th: Books Together
April 20th: Bookshelves of Doom
April 21st: Chicken Spaghetti
April 22nd: Oz and Ends

Go to every blog! Solve every puzzle! Submit your answers by the end of each day to Every day, one randomly drawn correct answer will win a signed copy of The Potato Chip Puzzles!

And save your answers — you’re going to need them to solve the final puzzle on April 22nd. One randomly drawn person who submits the right answer to that puzzle will win not only The Potato Chip Puzzles but over two dozen other books, courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons!

Get ready to start solving! The party begins April 16th!

Those are the basics. So hey… April 16th! That’s today! Head over to the first stop to find the first puzzle and get solving. I’ll see you here on April 18th when I’ll be hosting the party.