4 Blog Updates, 1 Household Hint and A Song

(Originally I planned to include three updates to previous blogs. But then something really surprising happened, so it’s four blogs to update.)

Blog Update #1. Last week I blogged about the book on writing, Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotinik and Mr. Plotnik himself commented on it! In that post, I had noted twelve words, the meanings of which I wasn’t sure, from The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. This week I am re-reading Freedom, Mr. Franzen’s most recent novel. Naturally, I’m finding more words that are I’m not familiar with, and since I am reading on my Kindle, I note it (handy Kindle feature) so I can look up those words later, and re-examine the sentences in which they appear.

As Mr. Plotnik says: “What if a word is likely to be outside the reader’s active or half-known vocabulary? Then even undefined it should lend some special aura, some majesty or exoticism, to the context.” So even if the reader couldn’t give the exact meaning of a word, the sentence in which it appears is crafted such that he still gets it.

This was a really big deal to me, that Mr. Plotnik commented on my post.

Blog update #2. I reviewed the excerpts from the finalists in the ABNA 2012 Contest in both the General and Young Adult Fiction categories. I did not predict correctly in the General category but in the Young Adult, I did.

A Beautiful Land by Alan Averill wins for General Fiction. It started out with a good hook but ended with a bad simile, the one about the Poe boarder.

But my pick for best Young Adult did win, On Little Wings by Regina Sirois. And the really exciting thing (to me) was that this author actually found the review and commented on my post. Think my post had anything to do with her winning? I doubt it, but I’m glad for her. It’s a good story.

Last year, I was 0-for-2. This year at least I got one right. Congratulations to both winners. What an accomplishment!

Blog update #3. Last October, I published The 24 Most Annoying Phrases for 2011 but I need to bump that up to 25. This phrase has been in use for a while, so it still applies to the year 2011.

Reach out!

This is how you make initial contact with someone in business-speak. You can reach out to someone in many ways: phone call, e-mail, instant message, or just bumping into the person who needs to be reached out to in the salad bar line at the cafeteria. Probably want to skip the rest room for any serious reaching out, but anywhere else is fine.

This phrase is so annoying that I made a solemn vow never to let these two words fall from my lips, consecutively, in the same sentence. Other assemblies of the two words in the same sentence are not considered offensive as long as there is at least one word between “reach” and “out”.

Alas. I was once upon a time on some sort of conference call and after much reaching out was being attempted by others, and before I had the proper amount of time to correctly formulate my thoughts, I heard the phrase “reach out” come out of my mouth. I had said it. Gagh! I have yet to forgive myself for it. I will go to my grave knowing that I once said “reach out” and meant it. (It’s perfectly okay to say it if you are being sarcastic or joking around, but if you say it and mean it, this is a vile happening indeed.)

One commenter on the post mentioned this phrase should probably be included in the list and I realized he was absolutely right, that this is one of the worst offenders and yet I had mistakenly omitted it. My apologies, Reach Out, for not including you, and kudos to you for being one of the most ridiculous, silly, meaningless buzzphrases of all!

Blog update #4. I once wrote a blog about marketing strategies that I didn’t think worked and one of them was the Jos A Banks “Buy 1 get 4 Free!” advertising methodology. They recently sent four coupons to my husband “in honor of his birthday”. How they got that information, I don’t know.  

Yippee! Each coupon was for $25 off on a $125 purchase. Okay, that’s nice. And there are four coupons remember. Or instead, says Jos, take $100 off a $500 purchase! But wait, that’s, uh, yeah, that’s 4 times $25 and 4 times $125… Got it! Obviously they think people can’t multiply. Come on, Jos, your customer base is buying cashmere coats and merino wool suits and silk ties. Which is a real good indicator that they aren’t Joe The Plumber and probably are educated and affluent and they can multiply a couple of numbers by 4. Geesh. It isn’t even insulting, it’s just stupid on their part.   

Household Hint. The e-cloth! Found in Real Simple magazine, this is a great way to clean up. These cloths contain millions of tiny fibers which supposedly grab on to all kinds of household gunk and remove it. You can clean anything with just water. Tile, showers, porcelain, glass and there’s even an eCloth for polishing your wine glasses. There are packs for the kitchen, for the bath, for the car, or “all purpose” eCloths. Dust cloths are used dry, all the others use plain water. No more chemicals. It’s fast and it works.

I have been trying to find a way to clean black granite for years – Voila! The eCloth was the solution. Highly recommended.

A great song. Coast by Eliza Gilkyson. It plays regularly on my Emmy Lou Harris Pandora station. Listen to how beautiful it is, how melancholy. Very moving.

ABNA 2012 Young Adult Fiction Reviews

Below are my reviews of the three novels chosen in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – Young Adult Fiction. This category isn’t too easy for me to review, since many times the stories are quite far out of my realm of reason, as in, who does this appeal to anyway? The answer is clear. Young Adults, those who embraced the thousands of vampire, zombie, and werewolf books, not to mention fairies and angels for those young people who will mature into adults who read inspirational novels.

This year I rather liked two of the three. That would probably be for a couple of reasons including (but not limited to): there were no vampires, there were no zombies, and there were no werewolves. Are they going away finally?

I was majorly intrigued by one, less-majorly but still intrigued by another, and the third was not interesting to me at all, but that’s my genre bigrotry again, as I find it impossible not to be influenced by genre.

The judges have read the entire manuscripts and they usually post a review which tells what the book is about. Then they say what they believe is right or wrong with it, and then (and I wish they wouldn’t do this) they will say if it is their pick for the winner. The winners are chosen by the voters, but still, I wonder how much the votes will be influenced by what the reviewers have said.

Out of Nowhere by Rebecca Phillips. The first line:

I wasn’t sure what would kill me first—the nagging pain in my head or Dr. Kapur.

It’s a first line that is okay, but after further reading, it seems contrived. The narrator borders on hypochondria so in hindsight, the sentence is an exaggeration and is probably meant to be a good hook. I felt marginally cheated. Riley’s father died unexpectedly while microwaving a plate of lasagna a few years back, and she is not dealing with it well, and can’t walk on the spot in the  kitchen where he had fallen. It is also apparent that she is a loving sister to her seventeen-month old half-brother, by a man who is in and out, but mostly out, of her mother’s life. She disapproves of him thoroughly. It is well-written and I did like the author’s voice. But based on this excerpt, which is all I have, I would have to say it was only marginally interesting to me. It could get better but then the job of the author is to hook me immediately.

On Little Wings by Regina Sirois. The first line:

The DNA of mice and humans is 98% identical.

I like it. I liked the whole first paragraph. I found the first paragraph to be funny and witty, and even though it didn’t really tell me about the story to come, I was very much hooked and wanted to read on. 

Jennifer finds an old photo of a woman who looks uncannily like herself, tucked into the back of an old paperback from her mother’s bookshelf. She instinctively knows this woman is someone important to her, but her parents had said they were both only children. I would have liked it better if the revelation hadn’t been quite so dramatic, but turns out, this woman is her mother’s estranged sister, who her mother insists is a terrible person and who killed their mother. Jennifer then goes to see her best friend, to tell her about it. End of excerpt. The backstory of the best friend is well done, unique, an exaggerated ugly duckling scenario which was very entertaining. I liked this, loved the author’s voice. It promises to be a very satisfying story.

Dreamcatchers by Cassandra Griffin. The first line:

Two things occur to me at the same time.

As a first line, it is fine. This wouldn’t be a case of the standard first-sentence hooker because it doesn’t say too much but still, it’s fine. The first paragraph goes on to reveal the two things, an earthquake has happened, and our narrator appears to have amnesia. Uh oh. Not uh oh about these two things, but uh oh that amnesia is so lame. How many books have been written using that sorry clichéd storyline?

The earthquake unlocked the doors to some sort of hospital/mental institution (we aren’t quite sure) so the person with the amnesia was able to excape (though barely) into the night, clad in a hospital gown. She manages to score a blanket and escapes into a very bad neighborhood where she is threatened by a Very Nasty Person. She manages to get away from him by clocking him on the head. It is written in present tense, which I have come to like very much, and flows well. But it reads too much like a teen action flick for me to be able to connect with it too much. This is certainly my particular limitation, but then, I get to do that here.

My pick? Definitely On Little Wings. One out of three reviewers agreed with me. Not a good sign, but I’m sticking with my pick.

ABNA 2012 General Fiction Reviews

The six finalists for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award have been chosen. Interesting. There are only two categories, general fiction and young adult fiction. The general fiction finalists are all men, and the young adult fiction finalists are all women.

What does that say? Probably nothing.

I read the excerpts of the general fiction entries and they were all good, and all had a hook and all made me wonder what would happen next. But since I don’t have access to the entire manuscripts, I am basing my reviews on the first few chapters of each one.

Then I’m going to predict the winner, based on which I liked best, which is going to be difficult because I liked all three, but didn’t love any of them.

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill. This starts out with a great first line hook.

Tak can’t answer the phone because the noose is too tight.

Great, I like that. The deal is, Tak has decided to do himself in and has set up this elaborate suicide event, but the ringing phone distracts him. It turns out to be a strange call, but so interesting that Tak decides to put his suicide plans on hold. Next chapter we meet, Samira who is suffering from PTSD and tells her therapist that Tak was her friend from high school, but that he killed himself four years earlier. But wait, he didn’t kill himself, so what’s going on? That’s another hook. That, of course, is the end of the excerpt. It’s interesting that many authors are using present tense, which never used to be done much. I like it. I believe this book is going to veer off into a nearly sci-fi genre, including time travel and alternate realities so I don’t think it will be something I would ultimately be too interested in. And I found a really bad metaphor.

A clock ticks softly from Carrington’s desk, muffled under a pile of paperwork like the beating heart of a boarder in a Poe story.

Do you hate that as much as I do? Classic case of TTH. (Trying Too Hard).

Grace Humiston and the Vanishing by Charles Kelly. This one is a historical mystery which takes place in 1917. It is fiction, but based on the true story of Mary Grace Winterton Humiston.

I like the voice of this author, told in the first person (but not present tense this time) by the sidekick of Grace, who idolizes her investigative methods (not to mention her physical attributes and accoutrements) from afar – he being a bit of an unseemly sort which he readily admits – and Grace being a very much the lady, well-educated, and married. It promises to be a good story, the case of a missing girl known as the White Slave Case. The excerpt ended with Grace being asked by the narrator if she will find the missing girl, to which she replies “Yes. But, I fear, not alive.”

I am curious to know why she felt that way. I believe I would enjoy this book, and I found no distasteful metaphors in the excerpt.

A Chant of Love and Lamentation by Brian Reeves. This had a good opening line too, similar to the first entry.

These are the last minutes of Charlie Kalenhano’s life.

Charlie is on some terrorist mission, perhaps suicide bomber in Hawaii, as part of a plot to regain Hawaiian independence. The excerpt doesn’t explain it. That must come later. It’s well written and I was mildly curious to know if the bomb went off or not, since Charlie had a few problems on his way to detonate the device, which is in the trunk of his cab. Bad weather, a fender bender accident, locking himself out of the car, late to arrive, etc. The excerpt, while good enough, didn’t grab me sufficiently to get me excited about reading the book when it is finally published.

Actually I liked the entries last year better than these, but my pick is Grace Humiston. We’ll see.

ABNA Winners and The Incredible Shrinking Man

Firstly, I was 0 for 2 in my ABNA winner predictions. The winner in the General Fiction category was East of Denver and in the Young Adult Fiction category, Spookygirl. So, even though I did say I picked Dog Christ narrowly over East of Denver, and Spookygirl would have been my second choice, still 0 for 2. Bummer.

Posting early this week, as an experiment to see if I can generate any more traffic in the middle of the week rather than on the weekend. If so, I’ll change my posting schedule. Now that I am Retired, (capital “R”), I can do that.

One of the people I follow on Twitter is Roger Ebert. He is a very good writer, and is straight forward about his condition and how it affects his life. He has a way of writing that is clear, unpretentious, and sometimes so beautiful and honest, it is very touching. He can also be mildly obscene and funny too. His blog today was called the Incredible Shrinking Man, and dealt with the fact that sometimes, well, almost always, we shrink as we get older, and he has lost about 2 ½ inches of his height.

The post was littered with pictures from the film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, filmed in 1957 and starring Grant Williams and April Kent. This is one of those movies that has always stuck with me, a true horror film, so unbelievably scary it makes my heart pound even now thinking how afraid I was when I watched it back then. Here is a snippet from the movie – Viewer discretion advised!

Scott Carey (who is 6 ft 1 in) is on a boat with his wife, Louise, when he is surrounded by a peculiar mist, which turns out to be an atomic waste fog. Louise is below deck, rustling up some “refreshments”. Wasn’t that always the way in the 50’s? The womenfolk providing the vittles, while the guy stayed above board? But in this case, Louise is the clear winner, because she avoids the mist.

Six months later, Scott notices his shirts seem too big. He suspects it must be a dry cleaner malfunction at first and doesn’t think much of it. But he continues to get shorter, and lose weight, until he can no longer deny it. He’s shrinking. He is told that all of his cells are shrinking and there is no cure, he will always be the size he now is (about three foot tall at this point) but is given an antidote, which may halt it and seems to work. But the antidote stops working after awhile and he continues to shrink.

He sells his story to the media, and so becomes a curiosity, with reporters lurking in the front lawn day after day. Finally, he lives in a doll house, and is accosted by the family cat, gets chased into the basement where he has to fight a spider to the death. In the end, he crawls through a square in a screen and the ending narrative says, basically, I may be small, but I still matter.

This movie is effective because many scenes start with a shot of Scott, and then pans away so you see him in relation to other people, furniture, etc. and you see how much smaller he’s become since the last scene. It’s shocking, done that way. The movie is funny in that 50’s way we laugh at now, but this movie is one that I have never forgotten, probably because it scared me so much when I was a little kid.

It’s a great piece of film noir, I just had to share it. Movies have come a long way, but this one still has impact, and, in fact, has a bit of a cult appeal. Even watching the sample here, made me feel the way I did back then. Scary!

This brought to mind other movies I had watched at The Haven Theater in Olean, New York, with my grandmother. I can remember snippets of some of them but not enough that I can Google to find out what the actual titles were.

One I’ve never forgotten starred a dark-haired actress, and she was evil and an alcoholic. There was also a lovely blonde woman (Doris Day maybe?) in the film and the Evil Brunette and the Good Blonde (oh, isn’t that always the way), are in love with the same man, and when the EB learns the man has chosen the GB, she throws something and it overturns a candle, starts a fire and the house burns down and she dies (I think). But GB’s house is right next door and I think it’s called The Pink Palace. It burns too. Does anyone remember this movie?

ABNA – Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (Young Adult Reviews)

Well. Things have changed since Anne of Green Gables. Remember that series? And the Cherry Ames, Nurse series? And Nancy Drew and The Bobsey Twins?

There are three finalists in the Young Adult Fiction category. I thought the first two had clichéd back stories. The third, I plain didn’t get.

The first, Spookygirl (by Jill Baguchinsky). Young girl’s Mom dies, father can’t take care of girl, girl goes to live with Bad Aunt, girl comes back to live with father. This has been done before, many times. The only difference is that this father runs a funeral home, and the girl helps the father with makeup on the faces of the corpses and also paints portraits of them when they are dead, but before the funerals. And oh yeah, there’s this ghost named Buster who lives with them and he has to be caged up sometimes, but if you leave him in the cage too long, he gets really pissed and makes a mess of things. Really? Is this what the younger set likes these days? Oh wait, yes it is. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, and, I guess, ghosts. The writing seemed to be fine, and strives to be humorous but to me it sounded like an older person trying to appeal to a younger person. I could be wrong, I’m not sure of the age of this author. I was moderately hooked though, on one aspect of the story. Seems Mom died under suspicious circumstances, and it appears some believe it was Dad who did it. That’s interesting, and would be enough to keep me reading.

The second, Lost in Thought (by Cara Bertrand). Here BOTH of girl’s parents die in a car crash. Now I suppose this does, in fact, happen to a few people, but I have read a lot of books with this back story. I am not sure why an interesting book can’t be written where the heroine’s Mom and Dad remain intact, not dead, and not divorced either. Add to this, neither of our heroine’s parents had any family but, luckily, Dad was very successful in his short life (I put him in his twenties when he died) and made a lot of money, such that our heroine is endowed with trusts and millions of dollars. It is a little vague how he accumulated this vast amount of wealth, lucky stock buying maybe, which I guess if you are a teenager, isn’t really important, but to us older, cynical individuals, we want to know. So, how did that happen exactly that he made so much money at such an early age? Heroine lives with an “Aunt” (a Nice Aunt) who is really Mom’s college friend. Hmm. Okay, this could also happen. Oh, one more thing. Our heroine sees dead people. Remember the movie, Sixth Sense, “I see dead people”. Word for word. Good writing, and a pretty good hook though. Our heroine, who is subject to fainting spells and migraine headaches due to the fact that she sees dead people, sees the same car which was responsible for her parents going off the road into a roll, which ultimately killed them.

The third, Devolution (by Richard Larson). This one did not have a clichéd back story at all. But that’s because I couldn’t understand a word of it. I couldn’t figure out where we were, or why we were there, or what we were doing there. An example from the third paragraph:

Virus outbreaks were handled meticulously. The self-replicating programs never made it very far into the system before security software found them and walled them in: once that happened, a quarantine zone was established.

Are we inside a computer? Not sure. There are some references made to electronic nodes in the backs of skulls, so maybe not really. At any rate, I was clueless as to what was going on. This is really not my genre, maybe there are people out there who actually get this, but do not count me among them.

And one more thing. I was taught that dialog attributions should always be “said” or “says”. Don’t use cried, exclaimed, repeated, yelled, or whispered. Just “said”. He said, she said. It is only to let the reader know who is talking, it should never try to describe how the person is talking, that should be done through other means. This author violates those rules. “I was there before the sirens,” Dimas grinned. No. Dimas said those words, and may have been grinning while he said them, but nobody ever grinned a sentence, to my knowledge. Here’s another one. “… the shop-keeper lowed”. Lowed? Later his characters, continue, and point out, snort, rumble, demand, lie and protest. And there is a generous use of adverbs, which should be used, if not never, rarely. As in “Dimas said dryly”.

I’m trying hard to read other genres, but in the case of YA, it’s difficult. I’d have to give Lost in Thought my vote here. I like the title, and I was moderately hooked, and the writing is good.

The results will be in tomorrow, and I’m going to be logging on early to see how well I did with my reviews. Did I like what the general population liked? Or not?

ABNA – Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (More Reviews)

This week I read the remaining two excerpts in the General Fiction category.

The first is Dog Christ by Lucian Morgan. I don’t believe the judges for the award care too much about formatting issues and other general editing malfeasance. It’s a good thing because this one needs some work in that regard. But other than that, this was the maybe the most compelling of the three, one of the best hooks I’ve ever encountered.

I loved it. As it begins, I thought it was going to be a story about some sort of ancient structure, the way it was worded.

The Man and the Woman live on the side of a mountain in a house built entirely of stones brought by ships from Italy. There are no stones left in Italy because of their house. Silkworms have perished from the earth making curtains for their windows.

The author continues to describe the construction of the stone house and it becomes apparent it is no ancient structure, (and I wasn’t too sure when there were first “curtains”) but a modern house built by a couple, Lillian and Otto, on the side of a mountain. The house and view is described in such a humorous way, that I was hooked, despite the lack of whitespace (i.e. the second paragraph of the first chapter is quite long). Lengthy paragraphs are usually not encouraged, especially on the beginning page of a novel, but the editing issues and non-whitespace issues can’t undermine this author’s very funny, and fresh voice.

What Jonathon Franken does to the middle class, this author does for the nouveau riche. I am particularly fond of this – poking fun at individuals who feel they must conform in some way to ever-changing values.

It’s clear Otto has made a lot of money and he’s the kind of character we love to hate, and his wife Lillian, a fool we can hardly suffer. What isn’t clear is the narrator, who is he, and how does he fit into the household? At first, I wondered if it could be a dog (because of the title) but no, it seems he is a disabled individual, in a chair, though he can walk a bit. It isn’t spelled out and I want to know.

It was a great excerpt, I read it twice, thinking I might pick up some additional clues about the narrator. But it still isn’t clear to me. It seems he is the son of Otto and Lillian, but then why does he live in the garden shack? I can’t wait to find out.

The last excerpt of the three finalists is I am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith. The editing and formatting in this sample was very precise, but that’s where it ended for me. It is historical fiction and begins around the time the Senators plotted the demise of Caesar.

It seemed contrived to me. It didn’t seem believable. Normally I’m not a fan of historical fiction anyway, but occasionally I have tried it and liked it. The writing didn’t grab me as much, although it’s good. Likely other readers who like this genre will appreciate it more than I did.

When I read East of Denver, I was sure it would be the one I would vote for. But I ended up voting for Dog Christ, by a tiny margin. I think this book is a winner.

We’ll see. The winner will be announced on Monday, June 13th.

ABNA – Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is a contest sponsored by Amazon in conjunction with Penguin USA each year to discover the next best-selling author. In two categories, General Fiction and Young Adult, it is open to 10,000 entrants, 5,000 in each category. There are several stages of elimination, which go from February until June.

Each applicant submits a pitch letter, an excerpt and the full manuscript. The judges read the pitch letters first and they pick the best of the lot. You have to pitch your novel, as if you were pitching an agent. I never get past this point, because I hate writing pitch letters, and I’m no good at it and it shows. After the pitch letters have all been read, they pick 2,000 entrants to continue.

Second, they read the excerpts and 500 quarter-finalists are selected. Third, the whole manuscript is then read and 100 semi-finalists are announced. At that point, industry professionals read these 100 manuscripts and select the top 3 finalists in each category. Readers can now read the excerpts and vote for their favorite.

I like to watch the progress of the contest, and visit the forums frequented by the authors who have entered and read the comments of those who get to stay in and those who are eliminated. I’d like to try this contest again, maybe in February 2012.

There are six finalists, three in General and three in Young Adult. I read my first one today, called East of Denver by Gregory Hill. His is the first I’ve read, but Wow! I hope the others can compare to this one, I loved it. It’s quick, it sets the hook, it’s funny, and it looks like a great read, although it is kind of a sad, hopeless story in parts. I doubt it will be the most uplifting of tales, but that’s okay.

It starts with the story of a cat, who didn’t live with the main character, but in the same vicinity. An independent, unnamed cat eventually done in by, the main character (also unnamed, at least in the section that I read) suspects are evil children with time on their hands. The cat succumbs and the main character takes the dead cat to his father’s farm to bury it.

Dad’s senile. This is a direct quote, after Dad says some funny things. The main character buries the cat, with his father’s help, and realizes that his dad can no longer live alone. He moves in with his dad.

The author reminded me of E. L. Doctorow, who wrote Ragtime, among others. Short choppy sentences that are complete thoughts in themselves. Interesting sentences that make you want to get to the next one. Here are the first few of the novel:

I was driving from Denver to the farm with a dead cat in the back seat of my car. She was a stray I used to feed off my back step. She slept outside. She walked in the rain. Once, after a blizzard, she spend a month trapped in the sewers where she survived by eating baby raccoons.

To me, that’s a pretty good hook sentence. A dead cat?

And I liked this too:

I didn’t mind cats but I hate cat-lovers. I loved this cat.

I know I’ll read this book when it becomes available. It’s funny and sad at the same time. It promises to be a winner, no matter if Mr. Hill wins the contest or not.

Next week, I’ll have at least one more entry to review. And I’ll keep you posted on who wins!