Monthly Archives: July 2010

shiny new idea + procrastination = doom?

After several weeks of decent writing progress/general sense of contentment related to all-things-creative, I have once more reached a sticky stage with the “really long story.” (That’d be a novel… shhhh… that word will be scary until I finish my first one).

There has been a little procrastination.

I have contemplated jobs like washing out cupboards and clearing through my files. Honestly. Aspects of the following video hit close to home:

(Thanks Tanita, for that link. I feel less alone).

And then, this morning, the worst thing happened.

While procrastinating, a shiny new idea showed up. Just like that. There it was. It floated before me all pretty and tantalizing. It said, “Look at me! I am new! I am not messed up! I will never keep you awake at night or make you feel like a dummy or cause you to bake excessively to avoid me! Yoo-hoo? Over here…” (The wise and ever-fabulous Laini Taylor calls these sorts of new ideas “newts”: “a New Weird Thing, that is, a writing project that is usurping the place of another writing project. Also known as a “slutty new idea”. Newts are to be discouraged, despite their unfailing awesomeness.” )

Thankfully, I remembered these words of wisdom. I considered the shiny new idea for two minutes (okay, maybe five), and then I wrote it down and shut it away and turned back to my oh-so-imperfect project.

And I kept on going. Doom is not an option.

So says the Elf.

By the way, sometimes when you procrastinate, you find pretty things that perk you up and make you want to keep working on saying something worthwhile about the endlessly surprising, every-so-often heart-filling world we live in. Here’s one thing like that:


The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows

Do you tend to like a book more, or less, if it reminds you of a beloved book? This is a question I’ve been pondering since finishing Jacqueline West’s debut MG mystery The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows. I think I’m in the “less” camp, but I haven’t really decided, and it might depend on the beloved book in question.

I ask this because The Shadows is incredibly Coraline-esque. Coraline is one of my all-time favourite children’s books. I love how whole-heartedly terrifying that book is in places. I double-love the cat, how sarcastic and gutsy and aloof he can be. Of course, I am blown away by the creativity of the premise, and the super-spookiness of the button eyes. I read Coraline to my class last year, and I remember being a bit uncertain about whether or not it would be too scary for some of them. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have given it a moment’s worry. Note to self: most kids love being totally freaked out.

So when I read the back of West’s book, and the caption said, “In the tradition of Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman, Jacqueline West weaves a tale at turn haunting, moving, whimsical, and darkly funny…” I knew I would have to read it, and immediately I had very high expectations. Verdict? While it was a pleasurable, speedy read that is sure to engage kids, I don’t think you can put it in the same category as Dahl and Gaiman’s stories. The series may develop to become more memorable as a whole, but at the moment, I think the main reason this book is being compared to Coraline is because they both share many plot points: an odd child with indifferent, busy parents moves into a creaky old house, girl discovers she can access an alternate world inside the house, evil force is out to get her, she has to save the day, and talking cats. When you look at that list of similarities, it’s no wonder that I was constantly waiting to be dazzled as I was when I read Coraline. Perhaps I kept on forgetting that I wasn’t reading Coraline?

Certainly West can write. There is some clever and evocative description, and moments that are sharply funny. The three cats are vividly drawn. I will read the next book in the series, because I would like to see where West goes with it, how she develops the story and the characters. The Shadows would be an excellent classroom read-aloud for its brisk pacing (also good for reading under the covers, I should think). I must mention the outstanding, creepy and atmospheric illustrations by Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene. You can steal a look at a couple of the illustrations at his blog, here. Wonderful.

Take a look at the trailer:

and there’s a slick website with much more, for kids to explore.

The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows is published by Dial Books for Young Readers.


Lynne Cox is the sort of person who makes you feel like you need to do more with your life. Not only has she set records for open-water swimming all over the world (beginning at the tender age of 14), she’s been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and in her free time, she’s written two remarkable, best-selling books. One of them is Grayson. It is a thrilling adventure, a dear fable, and a remarkable true story, and it kind of makes me wonder what other tremendous things have happened to Lynne Cox that she just needs to write down.

Grayson isn’t a long book, which makes it perfect for reading in one sitting. (I did, and I think you will too). In the opening chapter, Cox describes a training swim she completed very early one morning when she was 17 years old. It was no ordinary swim because something was in the water with her, swimming close by. Something big. Turns out it was a baby gray whale who had lost his mother somewhere in the vast Pacific. The whole of the book focuses on Lynne’s experience swimming with Grayson, as she tried to help him to find his mother. It’s magic. Really. If you are at all inclined to enjoy an animal story, or you’re up for some brilliantly evocative nature-writing, this book is exactly what you need.

I was surprised by how suspenseful the first chapter was, given that I obviously knew what was swimming with her. It’s the strength of the writing. The author’s simple but flawless style and often poetic descriptions make you feel like you are right there in the ocean with her, seeing everything she saw, feeling it all. It is unbelievable that someone could have the mental and physical endurance to stay in 50-degree water for that length of time. You’ll be left in no doubt that Cox is a crazy/gusty individual, truly one of a kind. If you really want to get a sense of Cox’s unusually bold (some might say insane) sense of adventure, you have to pick up her first book, Swimming to Antarctica, another real eye-opener.

This great book will make you want to go swim in the ocean, or the less adventurous might choose to visit an aquarium. Grayson is an ode to nature’s mysteries and majesty, a moving small-scale portrait of the connection between humans and other creatures on Earth.

Grayson is published by Harcourt.

(This is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire).

Front and Center

Front and Center marks the end of Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s fantastically funny, heart-warming (and I think as close to perfect as you can get) Dairy Queen trilogy featuring D.J. Schwenk.

Just a sec… I need a moment. (Is it really the end? Really?)

The story picks up after D.J. has been away from school, dealing with her brother Win’s life-changing spinal-cord injury. She heads back to Red Bend High School hoping to fade into the background, D.J.-style. This is not what life has in store, however. Her basketball coach is pushing her to take more of a leadership role on the court so that she can make the best impression on college scouts. Her friend Beaner is becoming more than just a friend, which is kind of weird but also nice, and then there’s Brian. As much as she is trying not to think about Brian, D.J. finds this is hard to do when he keeps on showing up in her life. Suddenly, she’s getting a lot of attention, and she’s not sure she can handle the pressure.

Hilarity and heart-ache and happy-endings ensue. But you have to start with books one and two to fully appreciate the amazing realism of these characters, particularly D.J. From the beginning with all three of these books, it’s D.J.’s voice that will draw you in. She’s funny and smart and honest, and she struggles when life throws her curve balls (or tackles her, or steals the ball from her and trips her… or whatever. I do not pretend to know much about football or basketball). But one of the best things about this book, and the others, is that D.J. never veers towards the yawn-inducing, woe-is-me kind of self-absorption that you so often encounter with some main characters in YA. D.J. is as real and likeable as a character can be, and you can do nothing but cheer her on throughout the trilogy.

I am already planning a back-to-back Dairy Queen – The Off Season – Front and Center marathon sometime this summer. Guaranteed reading bliss. Thank you Catherine, for D.J. We’ll miss her.

the heat made me do it

Alright, so I read this:

Actually, I listened to it. Does that make it better?

I think I can sum it up in a few words: trashy, trashy and um… trashy.

And yet, I kept on listening, probably because this is 100% the kind of book I would never have been allowed to read as a teen, so adult me was reading it because nobody could stop me, to prove a point (or something).

It made The Luxe series seem like Jane Austen. In some ways, it was reminiscent of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but without the pants, and with a dead girl. I can get the appeal, and I know the audience. I get that Gossip Girl fans will eat it up and that it’s meant to be fluffy entertainment, pure and simple. But honestly. I read a review somewhere that said that readers were sure to “relate to” at least one of the girls. Again… honestly? If these girls are “relate-able” I am obviously way out of touch with normal teen life.

There is now a TV show. Of course. Check out this review. Best quote from said review: “There also appears to be a decided lack of vampires, and these days that’s got to count for something.” True enough. Points for no vampires.

If the heat wave continues, I might just be crazy enough to keep on listening.

Tell Me a Secret Blog Tour

I’m delighted to welcome Holly Cupala, debut author of Tell Me a Secret, to Shelf Elf for a stop on her Worldwide Blog Tour. She is funny, she is cool, and she is super-talented. Welcome Holly! The theme for our interview today is “The Secrets Behind Tell Me a Secret.”

What do you think are some of the secrets to success as a YA author?

Goodness, I wish I knew! When I was early in the learning process of writing, I would go to every conference, workshop, and class in the hopes of finding out the secret to writing. I definitely learned a lot from such amazing writers as Kirby Larson, Janet Lee Carey, Randy Powell, and others, but there was no one secret to writing. Just giving yourself time and space to figure out the process, that’s a secret. From there you can write the best story it is possible for you to write, and hope it strikes a chord with readers. I think it’s also good to connect with them. The TMAS readers have been amazingly wonderful!

What’s your secret cure for writer’s block?

I have one now! I used to be hopeless at overcoming it, especially with Tell Me a Secret—perhaps because it was a very intense novel to write. The hounds of doubt were always biting at my heels. For the second novel (which is nearly as intense but less personal), I discovered I could outrun the hounds! It was quite by accident—during the half-NANO (that’s my half-cheeked way of tackling National Novel Writing Month), I was way behind. One day I decided to write 5K words, and I set the timer for 15 minutes with a goal of 300 words. I wrote 450! I kept it up for the rest of the day and ended up surpassing my goal. I thought it was a fluke until it happened again, and friends joined in.

Tell Me a Secret took four years to write (with lots of stops and starts). Street Creed (tentative title, for Fall 2011) took four months. I’m hoping the third book will take four weeks…

Your most essential, secret snack while writing is…

Trader Joe’s strawberry licorice. I could eat barrels of the stuff and try not to, because I have clothes to squeeze into!

What scene/moment/character came to you first before you actually started writing your novel?

The whole novel idea—characters, major plot points, conflicts—came to me in an instant, like a movie trailer in my mind. I’m kind of an overview person, so the details, how to get from scene to scene, came a little at a time. I didn’t have a handle on Miranda’s voice until she spoke to me in the middle of the night (rather inconvenient, since I was a sleep-deprived new mom). The first sentence popped into my head, and suddenly I knew exactly who she was. I got up to write and ended up writing what are now the first three or four pages of the novel.

What was secretly the hardest part about writing this book?

Because it grew out of some difficult events in my own life, I think the writing process was painful but necessary. I’d always envisioned TMAS as a story about hope, and I remember when it turned that corner. Such a happy day! Conflict and dialogue are immensely difficult for me to write. I really loved the secret moments of comedy—the Q-tip costumes, the tuna sandwich, the Thanksgiving turkey. I hope readers like those little moments of joy!

What are the 5 things (ideas / books / songs / objects / people) that most inspired you as you were writing TMAS?

Ideas: you can’t find yourself in other people, and the reasons for life-changing events may be in the future and not in the past.
Books: Speak and Weetzie Bat. Lots more, but I’ll leave it at that!
Songs: *Splashdown’s “Ironspy,” Universal Hall Pass’ “Katrina Josephina,” lots more.
Objects: labyrinths, birds, doors.
People: Oooh, I could get in trouble for this, right? A couple of characters were a tiny bit inspired by real people, but not people I know. (Sorry, it’s a secret.) 😉

*Here’s a secret: the soon-to-be-released book trailer will feature a Splashdown song!

We’d love to know about a scene that didn’t make it to the final draft. Is there a scene that was especially hard to let go of, or perhaps one that you were happy to toss out during editing?

I will read it to you! I loved it because it showed the dynamics of Miranda’s family when her sister Xanda was still alive, and it always made me laugh.

What do you secretly hope readers will take away from your book?

I think the ideas in question #6—you can’t find yourself in other people, and sometimes reasons may be in the future and not the past. To me, those are revolutionary ideas that continue to fascinate me, even into the next book.

Thank you so much for inviting me to visit Shelf Elf! I invite you all to comment here and at my blog for chances to win this week’s prizes: signed books, t-shirt, music and more!

(Told you folks that she’s delightful, didn’t I?) Thank you for making a stop here Holly, and all the best with Tell Me a Secret and all the stories still to come!

Tell Me a Secret

Tell Me a Secret is readergirlz diva Holly Cupala’s debut YA novel, and it establishes her as a talented new voice in YA, worth following.

Miranda Mathison’s sister died five years ago, and since then, Miranda (Rand) has never stopped wondering what really happened the night Xanda died. Still, she’s ready to pursue her dream of becoming an artist, she has great friends and a fantastic new boyfriend. All of this changes when she finds out she’s pregnant. Suddenly she has to make the most difficult choices of her life, and she finds that she must face the past to shape her future.

Cupala’s novel focuses mostly on a topic that I believe to be overdone for this audience, but the writing is accomplished and the emotional intensity of the narrative never flags, taking what could be just another book about teen pregnancy to a much more nuanced and satisfying place. Tell Me a Secret is a page-turner. You will be drawn in by the voice. I enjoyed how the past and present intertwine in a way that helps readers to understand Rand’s identity and motivation more deeply. I believed in her reaction to her situation. Xanda was well-developed for a character who existed only in her sister’s memory. She was a real presence. I think it is easy for a novel about teen pregnancy to quickly turn predictable or overdone, but I didn’t feel this with Cupala’s book.

I would have liked to have had more Kamran (love interest / mysteriously wonderful boy character). I think the story could have slowed down in the beginning when they were falling for each other. There could have been even more about their initial bond so that you could believe in the strength of their early relationship a bit more, before things crumbled. *Spoiler* I thought that mom’s reversal at the end stretched believability, since she was a supreme witch from the start. The turnaround was difficult to accept, and seemed too happy-ending-ish to feel right, given the tone of the book to that point.

Small things though, in a story that is sure to satisfy teens for its emotional force and intense subject matter. Tell Me a Secret is about discovering who you are, goodness, betrayal and being true. Join in at readergirlz in August, when it will be the featured title all month long.

Tell Me a Secret is published by Harper Teen.