Monday, January 25, 2016

What makes a teaching read?

Some books include facts so naturally you wonder afterward where you learned these things. Experiencing life like a different character, we learn, perhaps, where snow falls deepest or how to soothe the savage beast. But other books offer their lessons more directly, like children's picture books with a moral to tell. Of course, if the book happens to be a children's picture book, the lesson's expected. But how much information is too much information in a novel? Or, at the other end of the scale, how much information is needed to make the situation real? Is it a question of teaching the right things, or how they're taught, that makes the difference between an enthralling read and a teaching one? I'd love to know what you think. Meanwhile, here are some more book reviews of stories read in the period around and after Christmas. Pull up a chair, pour a coffee, and remember the ratings are for what sort of coffee (and read), not what brand or value.

Off the Chart by Smith McCartney Hagaman is a thriller set in a world of terrorist hijackers, army rebels, back-street gangsters, abused women and more. After a plane crash, the survivors come together to escape an Arctic wasteland filled with perils, and the reader learns how to make an international distress call, engineer a murder to look like accident, hack the wings off a plane, and much much more. The characters come with long and complex backstories, making the book read somewhat like a TV series. Enjoy with some dark five-star coffee, but keep many cups to hand as it's a long read.

The World's Greatest Psychic by Harriet Smith Guardino and Barbara J. Guardino also has many lessons to teach, as readers follow the thoughts of those impacted by a fake psychic's life. The persuit of money and power is contrasted with the faithfulness of a mother's love. Imagined promises contrast with genuine dreams and visions. And faith perseveres even through rejection as David's life comes off the reals. It's a sad dark read, but it's hopeful too, and filled with wise promise for parents praying for children, or friends despairing of those they care for. Enjoy some dark five-star coffee as you follow this tortured life through to eventual hope.

The Bear who Loved Chocolate is a picture book by Leela Hope, in which the author teaches that wise lesson to eat more varied foods. It's sweet, like chocolate, and fun, nicely illustrated, and a good simple read. Enjoy with some mild crisp one-star coffee.

And finally, A day with Moo by Kerry McQuaide s a picture book of a child's real, believable life with a toy called Moo. Lessons are simply everyday life in this one - not as rhythmic as some, but nicely illustrations. Enjoy with some more mild one-star coffee.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What makes a soothing, gentle read?

Some books haunt you with thought-provoking questions and characters. Some relax you with the familiar. Some annoy. Some... well, maybe books are like friends and inspire the whole gamut of emotions. But today's reviews are of books by "old favorite" authors - which is not to the say the authors are old - just that their books are well-read. I know before I open the pages that I'm in for a pleasant ride, that I'll meet a wealth of pleasing characters, that I won't be taken too far from the comfort of my thoughts... but these aren't books that pander - they're too slick to be gentlemanly, and make for sugar-coated reads. So that's the different between soothingly gentle, and sugar. Perhaps it's the spice. A soothing gentle read has to have some spice to bring it to life.

Alexander McCall Smith is a favorite for me. The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe fitted the bill as soothingly gentle - never letting me worry that things wouldn't somehow work out, but never soaking me in sugar either, as real questions are asked, in a distant land, that impact my thoughts here at home. Abuse and deportation aren't gentle ideas, but the book deals with them honestly in a soothing gentle read. Enjoy with some fine well-balanced three-star coffee.

Another favorite author is Jan Karon. My Mum and I shared her latest Mitford book, Come Rain or Come Shine, and both thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, there are serious issues to be seen through very human eyes. Prejudice and child abuse stand side by side with the question of how to arrange a wedding in a barn, and it works. Soothing, gentle, and serious enough to be well worth the read, Rain or Shine brings back old favorite characters and well-worn beliefs, making them pleasingly relevant and new. Enjoy with some more well-balanced three-star coffee.

An Amish Christmas at North Star combines the writing skills of several Christian romantic authors to create a single novel, built from four novellas, filled with interesting hints of Amish life, pleasing romance, and that Christmas sense of good endings or happy beginnings on the way. You might want to save it to read next Christmas, or else read now in memory of Christmas gone by. Enjoy with some pleasingly balanced three-star coffee.

Steena Holmes' Sweet Memories come close to being too sweet, but adds its spices in just the right amount. Communication's the key, whether a parent is sick, or a child is angry, or a gesture is misunderstood. It's a short romance, with serious chocolate overtones, but it's worth another well-balanced three-star coffee and it's a good read.

Destiny's Second Chance by Kate Vale is a pleasing blend of family drama and romance, again with a sense that it's bound to turn out well. A mother who gave up her child at birth longs for a lost relationship, but finds herself combining love for child with love for a new man in her life when she receives Destiny's contact information. Meanwhile the mother who loved Destiny from birth to adulthood is afraid to lose a relationship that's already floundering on the rocks of adulthood. It's another one to enjoy with some well-balanced three star coffee, and the last of this collection of soothing, gentle reads.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What makes a real read?

Did you get any books for Christmas? Print books? Ebooks? Real books? Or are all books real?

I've just been offered the chance to review the next book in a series  I love. The author asked if I wanted print or kindle, and I just knew I'd love to have a print copy. But that wouldn't be fair would it? I write enough to know it's free, or almost free, to share a kindle copy. But print and postage involve the payment of cash. So is that what makes writing real - the hard cash behind it? Or perhaps the payment in blood sweat and tears over the keyboard.

The author told me she too prefers print. "Print novels stay in the mind longer," said she, which got me wondering the whys behind that too. Is it that tactile memory thing, like knowing where the keypad buttons are for a phone number, without knowing the digits? Is it the look of the cover, so easily ignored when reading an e-book? Or is it something to do with the fact that a book would never be in print unless its words were worth printing?

This book, when I receive it, will be real and would still be real, were it print or e. I shall look forward to reading and reviewing it. Meanwhile, looking at the reviews I'm about to post, I'm guessing real might have something to do with characters real enough to make the reader care, and situations real enough to demand a resolution: Strangers who come to life, stay in the mind, and want to be revisited - stories that want to be re-read - dreams that demand to be listened to again...

I'd love to hear your opinion of real writing - says she, remembering the day I was given a pen at elementary school and told I could "do real writing" now, which meant "joined-up" and not too many errors to be crossed out.

While you're thinking about it, grab a real cup of coffee and enjoy some reviews of real books, print and otherwise, all received (or remembered) around Christmas and read as soon as I could get to them afterward.

First is Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin, an amazing novel that's so beautifully complex and simple both at once, like a puzzle where every piece is perfectly cut, or a diamond I guess. Sometimes the art of a literary novel might overwhelm the tale, but this novel's got the balance just right, with wheels within wheels, stories within stories, characters that are larger and smaller than their parts, and a story that enthralls, compels and entrances. I love it; can you tell? Enjoy with some wonderfully rich, elegant, complex four-star coffee.

NW by Zadie Smith is artful too, with different fonts and styles for its characters, and a curiously experimental feel - which perhaps makes sense as outsiders experiment with trying to fit into London's NW. One section worked particularly well for me. Others might work better for other readers. It's a complicated read, driven by character and art, best enjoyed with an artful, intense five-star coffee.

Do Not Find me by Kathleen Novak is smoothly constructed, artful and interesting. The author interweaves her stories as a young woman prepares to dispose of her father's estate, while her father's past comes to life Secrets, love, and betrayal bring the stories full circle as each learn the payment required for following the lure. Enjoy with some more complex elegant coffee, four-starred for flavor.

For young adult readers, Pyre by R B Kannon, is another beautifully constructed tale, with well-designed myth and history, beautifully evocative and hauntingly thought-provoking. A child, trapped in a temple, finds release and imprisonment in the voice of its power. But now she must strive to find her own self while the other seeks to guide her. A lovely blend of myth and storytelling, this is one to enjoy with some seriously elegant four-star coffee.

For slightly younger adults, Krim Du Shaw by Talia Haven offers a myth of its own, in telling of the last unicorn. Dark like the old traditional fairytales, it's an ebook, imperfectly edited, yet seriously "real." Pour some more rich four-star coffee as you settle to read.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sex Greed Drug-Abuse and Chicago's North Shore

Today I'm delighted to welcome Dean Economos, author of A North Shore Story, to my blog. It's an intriguing, fairly short YA novel, set among the high-schoolers of Chicago, where... well, you'll have to read on to find out...

Welcome Dean, and over to you.

Sex. Greed. Drug-abuse, by Dean Economos

Now that I have your attention...

Everyone has a hidden vice. We hate to admit it to others; sometimes worse, we hate to admit it to ourselves. We’re attracted to the allure of it, kind of like how you kept reading this blog post after I named a few common vices. Yet we hide our obsessions in secrecy like an addict and, at the end of the day, get engulfed into the lies we’ve created.

A North Shore Story is a combination of three storylines intertwined into one. It includes adolescent struggles, like the ones named in the first line, as well as love and relationships. It delves into how the consequences of one’s actions can affect the other people in their lives. Vices like these, whether we choose to hide them or not, are something everyone can relate to in some form.

While the book is fictional, real-life influences came into play when writing A North Shore Story. The most publicly known situation is a priest embezzling money from a Midwestern church of over $100,000. The media will always grab hold of stories like these because it’ll shock the public and get people talking. While this caused people to gawk and gossip over this unfortunate event, this was the original spark that got my gears turning into an idea for a story.

Another influence of A North Shore Story were from real-life situations growing up. My group of friends and I thought we were that cool and always talked about how we should have a show like Laguna Beach or The O.C. With the endless possibility of what I could create, I decided to go for it.
I had never written a book before. I had no idea what I was doing. In retrospect, that’s probably the best way to do anything so you’re not limited to any boundaries. My life was very “Work. School. Sleep. Repeat.” I was looking for something different to break up the monotony: a creative outlet. So it was fun for me to start writing down ideas for the story. I developed some character backgrounds, but nothing too in-depth. Then I began to write the first chapter.

As I wrote, I had no idea what would happen next. I figured I’d cross that bridge when I got there. In doing that, these characters took on a life of their own in my head. I would get so involved that I’d think of them by name as if they were real people. While that probably sounds like characteristics of a psychotic person (and I probably was at some point in this process), the story turned out much better because of it.

What I learned throughout this whole process may seem kind of cliché. However, if you want to do something different than your everyday life, go for it. If you had asked me three years ago if I would be releasing a book, I would’ve laughed in your face (and my friends and family would’ve probably laughed harder). But if I never tried anything different for fear of failing or terror of what others thought, I’d regret not doing it for the rest of my life and nobody would be able to enjoy the escapades of A North Shore Story.

Want to know more about A North Shore Story, by Dean  Economos and Allysa Machinis?

For the teenagers of Chicago’s North Shore, everyone has something to hide.
In a daring attempt to impress the elusive Sophia, Michael makes the biggest decision of his life, stealing over a hundred thousand dollars from St. Theodore Community Church.
That same night, Nichole’s insecurities are finally forgotten with a drug she soon won’t be able to control.
When Michael makes his getaway, he sees his friend Joseph cheat on his girlfriend with the priest’s daughter and knock over a candle that sets the church ablaze.
As the consequences of that night unfold, Joseph is blamed for the fire and the missing money. Can the teenagers of the North Shore confess their vices to help their friend? Or will their greed, infidelity and jealousy change all their lives forever?

Want to know more about the authors?

Read the Q&A below and enjoy!