Monthly Archives: November 2009

Shelf Elf’s Swap-er-ama: Day 1 – Once Was Lost

I realized two things this morning:

1) My book piles are getting seriously, dangerously out of control.
2) I still want more books.

So, I have hatched a brilliant plan to address both of these issues:

Everyday this week, I will offer up a book that I have read and enjoyed to swap with one lucky reader. I’m talking good books here folks.

I will link to my review, just to prove that it is, indeed, a book worth swapping for.

Then you, dear elf-y readers, will leave a comment, offering me a book in exchange.

You will receive extra special consideration if:

a) you link to a review you’ve written of the book you’re offering to trade
b) you can tempt me with one of the books on my Wish List of Happiness, although I am entirely happy to receive other fab suggestions for a trade!

The Wish List of Happiness
Newsgirl –  Liza Ketchum
Princess of the Midnight Ball –  Jessica Day George
Hold Still –  Nina LaCour
The Indigo Notebook – Laura Resau
Into the Wild Nerd Yonder – Julie Halpern
The Season – Sarah Maclean
Ash – Malinda Lo
Angus, thongs, and full-frontal snogging – Louise Rennison (been stuck on my TBR list for years!)
Something you think I just have to read

At the end of the week, I’ll get in touch with the winners, and we’ll arrange the swaps. I will also send every trader a tiny surprise something along with the books, just to say thanks for joining in on the Swap-er-ama.

So… let’s get going. The first title I offer for the Swap-er-ama is…

Sara Zarr’s Once Was Lost is one the best YA books of the year. Read my review here, and my interview with Sara here.

Then, drop off a comment with your name, your suggested swap title and your review link (if possible).

(Note #1: Open only to residents of the US and Canada, since the Elf’s penny supply for shipping is limited.
Note #2: Ms. Elf lives in Canada, so that’s where you’ll be mailing your book).


To Kindle or not to Kindle…

This morning I read an article in the Globe & Mail by Ian Brown, in which he more or less trashes the Kindle. Towards the end he writes:

I whizzed through four chapters of Twilight on Kindle, inhaling screenfuls of text at a single glance. She’s a very readable writer. But that’s also the secret of Kindle: It’s brilliant for popular stuff, for the kind of genre book that delivers reliable, not-too-radical thrills you can absorb with half your brain elsewhere. Kindle is a marketing gadget that could make the consumption of certain kinds of book more convenient and efficient. Unlike its battery, a life of the mind is not included.

Read the full article here. I’m not getting one (not that I was considering it before reading Brown’s piece). I like books, the old-fashioned way. The only thing that tempts me in this technology is the cut-back on paper consumption. I wonder what the user demographics are with this device? It seems like more younger techy types might want one, but it would be interesting to see who is actually buying them most of the time. Are booklovers and avid readers buying Kindles? Older people who want to take advantage of the text to speech feature?

Any bookworms out there who are Kindle believers?

Winter Blog Blast Tour Final Day

Phew! Here we are after a week packed with absolutely fantastic author and illustrator interviews for WBBT 2009. A giant thank you to Nova Ren Suma, Beth Kephart and Laini Taylor for their stops here at Shelf Elf. You spoiled us by spilling lots of secrets and stories.

For a full round-up of who said what when and where, visit Colleen’s day-by-day listing here, at Chasing Ray.

Now don’t fret, you’ve still got six more outstanding interviews to enjoy today. Here’s the schedule:

Lisa Schroeder at Writing & Ruminating
Alan DeNiro at Shaken & Stirred
Joan Holub at Bildungsroman
Pam Bachorz at Mother Reader
Sheba Karim at Finding Wonderland
R.L. LaFevers at Hip Writer Mama

It’s been fun gang!

WBBT: Laini Taylor – Characters, Creativity & Clementine Pie


I am so, SO excited to be hosting Laini Taylor today for WBBT. *dancing elf* I am a giant, GIANT fan of Laini’s books, Blackbringer, Silksinger, and the National Book Award nominated, Lips Touch. Laini is one miraculously talented writer, and she’s an artist too. All of Laini’s novels have earned places on my “special shelf.” You know the shelf where you put the few books that you actually embraced once you finished reading them? Laini’s writing is that special. Laini blogs about her art and writing and other things besides at Grow Wings, and today she’s right here, chatting with me about creativity, her characters, and her pixie-faced baby daughter, Clementine Pie.

You might want to start off by reading my reviews of Laini’s books, just to get in the general spirit of celebration and excitement: my review of Blackbringer, my review of Silksinger, my review of Lips Touch. Good. Now we’re ready.

Welcome Laini!

In Silksinger, your latest novel in the Dreamdark collection, Whisper is a phenomenal character. She’s more than she seems. She’s a creative force. She’s bold when she needs to be. What do you most admire about her, and what was the first scene you imagined her in?

I dreamed up Whisper alongside Magpie and Poppy, before I even started writing Blackbringer. They were a trio, but I decided to save Whisper for another book—her own book. I knew that she would be a singer of flying carpets who [mild spoiler alert!] gets captured and held prisoner, and I knew she would be completely different than bold, brave Magpie. The first scene I imagined her in was in prison, though in the early conception, the power of her voice was even greater: she could whisper open passageways in solid rock. Which made it difficult to keep her prisoner, obviously. When writing magic, one must be careful not to give characters too much power, or there can be no tension! So, I scaled back Whisper’s power. (As for Magpie, she has to have a slow learning curve with her power, or else no villain would ever be a match for her.)


(Here’s a picture of the paper dolls I made that were the earliest incarnation of the characters, before I even thought of writing the books. Left to right: Poppy, Magpie, Whisper; I drew and oil-painted them, with multiple outfits, and turned them into fully articulated dolls. I was obsessed with them for months!)

Something I admire about Whisper is her tenacity. From the first chapter of the book she’s thrust completely outside of her sphere of experience, into a nightmare, really. It’s so overwhelming and terrifying she really just wants to give up and join her loved ones in the Moonlit Gardens, but she doesn’t. She musters her courage and she tries. And tries. And tries.

It’s not a bad metaphor for writing a book! Here’s a great quote:

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur

In your acknowledgements in Silksinger you reveal the rather serendipitous way you found the name for your spooky devil general Ethiag. How do you name your characters? Do you have different sources of inspiration of do the names just come? How is naming a character the same as / different from naming your own child?

Yes, the word verification function on blogs is kind of a pain when you’re commenting, but I have gleaned quite a few cool-sounding words from it. So far Ethiag is the only one to find its way into a story.

I love naming characters. When I was a kid this was my favorite part of writing, and often was as far as I got. Now, I have lists in various notebooks—weird names I hear in the news or see in film credits; made-up names; names from other cultures, including languages I’d never even heard of until I stumbled upon them doing research—like Tamazight, the Berber language spoken by a character in my current book). Dreamdark names mostly come from nature: birds, plants, etc. Some are nature words in other languages. Kipepeo is Swahili for butterfly, and briefly mentioned in Blackbringer, Bellatrix’s mother was the Ice Princess Fidrildi, which is Icelandic for butterfly. (Do they have butterflies in Iceland?)

As for baby names, that’s so much harder than character names! With characters, you know you can always do a search/replace and change their name at the slightest whim. With babies, it’s got to stick. Jim would probably tell you I wasn’t fun when it came to naming Clementine. He was always thinking up new names, and I was always shooting them down. By the time I went into labor we had two to choose between and it took us a couple of days in the hospital to finally settle on Clementine. It’s inspired by Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is also what inspired me to dye my hair, so I guess that movie made quite an impact on us. As for her middle name Pie, it’s in honor of Magpie, of course. We didn’t come up with that one until after she was born, when the other options we had in mind seemed suddenly not cute enough.

Lips Touch is a collection full of strong and complex female characters: Kizzy, Estella, Anamique, Esme, Mab and the Druj Queen. Who was the trickiest of these to create? Who would you especially like to write more stories about?

Each character presented their own challenges. Anamique was difficult because she doesn’t talk. It’s hard to give a character “voice” when they literally don’t speak! And the Druj Queen was tricky because she’s incredibly unsympathetic, but I still wanted the reader to care what happens to her. Kizzy was the character who came the most naturally, because I was sort of channeling (and exaggerating—slightly) my own long-ago teen angst and longing.

I could see continuing Kizzy’s story, because of the way it ends. I’m curious to know how readers take the ending: does it seem ambiguous, or do you have a pretty solid feeling of authorly intent there? What I was shooting for was ambiguity that leans in one particular direction, that is, where the reader comes away feeling, “This is probably what happens to Kizzy.” Still, I think there’s room to play there, and maybe some day I will pick it up and make Goblin Fruit the beginning of a novel. I’d like to see more of Kizzy, Cactus, and Evie, and certainly more of the goblins.

Anamique’s story feels complete to me so I don’t think I would revisit it, but I do hope some day to write a whole [unrelated] novel set in Raj-era India. I’m fascinated by that period, but I need to do a lot more reading and I need to travel in India before undertaking such a thing. Historical fiction is daunting; this was my first stab at it. What I’d really love is if someone could please invent a time machine just for writers of historical fiction. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?

As for Hatchling, I will certainly be writing more stories about the Druj. I have lots of ideas! Continue reading

WBBT: Pay attention to Beth Kephart



I am honoured to be able to treat all of you to my amazing recent chat with Beth Kephart, for the Winter Blast Blog Tour. In my opinion, Beth is one of the most gifted authors writing for young adults right now. Her books are richly poetic and I love every one of them. Lots. Read my reviews: of Undercover, House of Dance, Nothing but Ghosts, and the upcoming The Heart is Not a Size.

Welcome to Shelf Elf Beth!

You wrote a post at your blog recently about the huge popularity of series like Gossip Girl, The Luxe and The Clique, which you described as “write-by-numbers” books. I feel like your YA novels exist at the completely opposite end of the writing spectrum, with their richness of theme and immaculate poetic language – almost like antidotes to Gossip Girl. What’s it like to write books like yours when it seems like so much publicity and media pushes girls towards the write-by-number reads?

Oh, what a great question (and what a hard one, too). I was responding, in my blog, to the fascinating New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead titled “The Gossip Mill,” which featured Alloy, the entertainment packaging company behind the wildly popular series you mention here. I was wondering out loud whether I would have the skill to write such concoctions, and I was deciding, rather assuredly, that I would not. I write what I know how to write. I write the stories that interest me, the characters I understand, the scenes that are most alive and vivid, either in memory or in the imagination. My novels are about young people facing the big questions—identity, loss, secrets, anxieties—and it is difficult for books that dwell in those themes to gain traction against books that have been explicitly conceived and crafted for a well-researched market. My books are not advertised or toured; they must be discovered. My books are not off-the-chart sellers; I am in jeopardy, with each new book I write, of finally being told, You know, you are just not hitting the numbers; you are no longer an author we can support. (Indeed, I have been told that; miraculously I have been saved again and again by an editor willing to take a risk.) My writing life is full of uncertainty, therefore, but I know of no other way to work the page.

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people / hobbies) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

This young girl who became a character in Heart:


Dance, in all its beauty:


Chanticleer (the setting of Ghosts), and the young writers and readers who teach me:


Kids learning to see the world:


Dreams keep me alive:


Your books are, in my opinion, about how everyday life can be miraculous – full of mystery and beauty and sadness all at once. I think that Nothing but Ghosts is about this in so many ways. You write, “Beauty and sadness can both live in one place.” I think this is a huge truth contained in this novel. If you could identify other “truths” that readers might discover in Nothing But Ghosts and The Heart is Not a Size, what would they be?

The importance of being an authentic self. The power of honest conversation. The understanding that emerges from well-told stories. The danger of secrets. The power of friendship and love. Continue reading

WBBT: Meet Dani Noir, and debut author Nova Ren Suma



Aren’t you the lucky ones, that today, for another fab stop on the 2009 Winter Blog Blast Tour, you get to meet the lovely Nova Ren Suma, debut author of the 100% wonderful Dani Noir (which I loved, muchly: read review right now).

I’m so excited to have Nova here, because she is a cool gal and a wonderfully talented fresh new voice in kids’ books. Welcome Nova! Thanks for hanging out with me here today.

I read in another interview that your motto is “What if?” How does this motto influence you as a writer?

First, before I answer all these great questions, let me take a second to tell you how thrilled I am to be interviewed here on Shelf Elf. I’m so glad you enjoyed DANI NOIR!

Now on to the interview… When it comes to writing, I can’t help but keep the question “What if?” in the back of my mind. Even when I’ve outlined an entire novel and think I know exactly what I’m putting down in every chapter, I still can’t be sure if I’ll follow it when the time comes. My characters tend to do things I don’t expect, and I wouldn’t want to stop them. What if she says this? What if she’s hiding that in her pocket? What if he saw? What if…? There are so many ways a story could go, and it comes most alive for me when I keep my mind open to the possibilities. DANI NOIR definitely has a lot of these “What if?” moments.

I ended up asking myself this question in my writing career, too, back when I was struggling to get an agent for an adult novel. It was hard, I won’t lie, but when it wasn’t working out I thought, What if I tried something completely different? And that’s how DANI NOIR came to be. The irony is that writing for tweens and teens turns out to be the perfect fit for me, so maybe I should ask myself the “What if?” question way sooner and far more often.

At the outset of your book, film is an escape for Dani. Later it helps to inform how she sees people and the world and leads her to recognize what is interesting about her own life. Then she is able to step back into real life and in a way, start fresh. How do you experience film – as an escape, as a window to the world, a mirror to your own life…?

Watching a good film is one of my only true escapes. When a movie is on, you usually stay put and watch it all the way through—everything else falls away and you see and hear only what’s up there on screen. When I’m stressed, I want to slip into a movie for a while and forget what’s bothering me. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve been known to procrastinate up to the very edges of a deadline by taking a break to watch a movie.

I guess that’s why the movie theater is an escape route for Dani at the start of the story—it seemed so natural to send her there. Where else could she be so completely transported out of her boring small town where nothing ever happens (or so she thinks…) if not at the movies?

Name 3 films that have changed your life (and tell us why!)

Heathers: So in this cult classic, there’s a clique of three girls named Heather plus one lone Veronica who ends up taking them down. In school—I am not kidding—I did have three friends named Heather, and of course my name is Nova, so I didn’t really fit, but that was just a simple coincidence; “Heather” was a very popular name back then. Really, this movie taught me some meaningful lessons about being a misfit. I’ve learned that I’d rather NOT fit in than turn evil just to be part of the in-crowd. Actually, I don’t even want to be part of a perfectly sweet and non-evil in-crowd. I’d much rather be a Veronica.

Edward Scissorhands: (OK, someone really likes Winona Ryder.) I’ve always loved fairy tales—my favorites, as a kid, were “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Snow Queen”—and this movie brought to life a fantastical modern-day fairy tale in the midst of the suburbs. I love that kind of contrast. It’s movies like this that change me as a writer and inspire me to push boundaries, which is just what I’m doing in my next book.

Gilda: Clearly this movie changed my life because it’s what inspired DANI NOIR. I was floundering with the first chapter, not sure which direction the story should go in, when I saw Gilda, really saw it, for the first time. There was something about the moment when Gilda, played by the fabulous Rita Hayworth, first appears on screen that stopped me in my tracks—I remember standing in the middle of my living room, staring at the TV. All these emotions play across her face—an entire story in a few seconds. I was completely energized. Here’s that moment if you’re curious:

Describe Dani. What kind of girl is she?

Dani is thirteen. She’s got a little bit of an obsession with old black-and-white noir movies, and if she could be anyone in the universe she’d be a mysterious and glamorous femme fatale, like her favorite movie star Rita Hayworth. Only thing is… in real life, Dani’s no femme fatale. Not even close. She gets herself into messes and makes mistakes, says a whole lot of things she shouldn’t, and ends up grounded so she can’t even go out at night like any self-respecting femme fatale should. Dani’s trying hard to be someone she’s not, but in doing so she starts to figure out who she maybe really is. Continue reading

The Heart is Not a Size

heartThe Heart is Not a Size is a book that will make you want to go out in the world and do something that matters. It will take you into a community that you likely will never visit, and it will make you think about how much you have and what you really need. No surprise that the writer behind this inspiring and thought-provoking novel is Beth Kephart. It’s not released until March 2010, but you should put it on your TBR list right now. Books like this don’t come along every day.

The Heart is Not a Size was inspired by a trip Beth took a few years ago to a squatter’s village called Anapra, near Juarez, in Mexico. Like the characters in her novel, she went there with a church group of teens and adults, to build a community washroom. Her experiences led to this story. First, take a look at some photos Beth took in this short video, where she reads from the novel:

It’s a testament to the strength of Beth’s writing that her words brought to mind so much of what you see in those images – the openness of the children and their smiling faces, the dust everywhere, the shacks made of cast off materials. I’ve never been anywhere like Anapra, but I could imagine it through Beth’s words. The Heart is Not a Size is about a teen named Georgia, who convinces her best friend Riley to go on a trip to Anapra with an organization called Good Works to do community service. Georgia wants to go to Anapra to get perspective and to start believing in herself. Everyone thinks she’s a grounded, reliable sort of girl, and Georgia isn’t sure. She’s ready for something, but she isn’t even sure what that something is. So when she finds a flyer about Anapra she makes a choice and she wants Riley to come too. Riley is vulnerable in her own way, and the girls’ friendship is deep and complicated. When they get to Anapra, things that they used to be certain about start to change.

The Heart is Not a Size would stand up to rereading, so that you could feel you were getting everything out of it. It’s a quiet book that sneaks up on you. You’ll meet so many characters that are complex and present enough to make you imagine their whole life stories – even secondary characters who appear only briefly stand out more than many central characters in other novels, like Socorro, the little girl who hovers outside the compound where the visiting group is living. The novel is divided into two parts, which I think reflects the way Georgia’s experiences in Anapra have really changed her. There was her life before Anapra, and then after. This is a novel about the potential in people, and not just in the people who go to Anapra to do what they can to contribute to that community, but the potential and worth of the residents of Anapra as well. Almost at the end of her time in Anapra, Georgia thinks, “there was no measure for the people we were becoming, no limit to what we might become.” She sees the possibility of her own life and the lives of the people of Anapra too. The Heart is Not a Size is a novel worth thinking about. There is nothing moralizing about it. Rather, the characters experience first hand how life is messy and brutal and beautiful and the opposite of simple. Georgia doesn’t find easy answers in Anapra and we don’t get the sense that she finds just what she expected, but her experience gave her what she needed nonetheless. Give this book to a teen as a graduation gift. I wish I’d been able to read it when I was 18.

The Heart is Not a Size will be published by Harper Teen in March 2010.