Monday, December 12, 2011


by Dede Crane. Groundwood Books, House of Anansi press. Young Adult. 214 pages, trade paperback, 2009.

Buy the book

Would you be willing to rearrange your entire life, to the point of alienating your peers, on the slim chance that doing so would save someone else's life?

Dede Crane takes the political and makes it uncomfortably personal in this engrossing book. Main character Gray Fallon is a middle-class teenager who enjoys getting high, chasing girls, and hanging out with his friends. He also likes to torment his younger sister, Maggie, who he calls Maggot. The abuse is not one-sided; Maggie calls her brother "Graydumb" (his full name is Graydon) and makes him feel intellectually inadequate. Maggie is a middle school scientist who is happy studying pictures of insects or experimenting with jars of rice.

The family dynamics are skewed when Maggie's mysterious pain leads to a doctor visit and a grave diagnosis. Gray's parents focus all their energy on Maggie's care. His mother neglects her silk-screen business. His father, a career academic, faces the crisis with sheer logic and facts. Gray becomes obsessed with finding the cause of Maggie's illness. He convinces his mother to jettison every product in their house which contains potentially dangerous chemicals. This includes cleaning products, shampoo, and meat- the family goes (mostly) vegetarian.

Crane gives her readers a crash course on environmental hazards and green living. Telling the story through Gray's eyes keeps Poster Boy from reading like a lecture or polemic on the dark side of consumer culture. He is basically insecure, with longish hair and a stoner's sense of humor hiding his real desire to help those around him. His attempts to hook up with popular girl Natalie and lose what he calls his "v-card" form an interesting subplot. Gray's friend Davis tries to overcome his own father's abuse by growing pot plants and spinning endless Chuck Norris jokes. It sort of works, just as Gray's efforts to clean up his lifestyle and raise awareness sort of work.

Gray eventually retreats from everything he knows. He comes to believe that his house, school, and part-time job at a theater are all fraught with danger. It is hard to argue with Crane's research. Our world is in need of help, and there are ways to reduce one's impact without going to the extremes that Gray eventually does. But in the end, this book is less about activism and more about acceptance. Each member of Gray's community must deal with the trauma of Maggie's illness. For Gray, this means coming of age and understanding that his family's need for him is greater than his need to make a statement.

Dede Crane, who has taught creative writing at the University of Victoria, said in an interview that she second-guesses her writing, marking up her own copies of her books with perpetual edits and revisions. As a writer, she is never satisfied with her knowledge or her decisions. She keeps writing anyway. That contradiction forms the central theme and conflict of Poster Boy. Gray will never live a perfect life, succeed in all his endeavors, or even answer his questions about life and death. But in attempting the impossible, Gray gains a life worth living and becomes compassionate. It is a necessary message for teen readers as well as adults.

Monday, December 5, 2011

5 Things I Learned...

from reading The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger

This is another of the books Stephanie from Chick Lit Club suggested for me back in September. The first one was Bridget Jones' Diary, which I wrote about earlier. Since completing The Devil Wears Prada, I have started on Angels by Marian Keyes.

Once I finish Stephanie's suggestions, I hope to have enough of a knowledge base to choose my own chick lit books and authors. In the meantime, I will write about the books on her list.

Now for my list:

1. Appearance vs. reality is still one of the best conflicts in literature. If any of the characters or events in this book are based in real life, the fashion world is an ugly place.

2. Chick Lit might owe some of its archetypal foundations to the romance genre, but the similarities end there. I won't talk about the ending of The Devil Wears Prada, but it is partially ambiguous. There is no ambiguity in a romance novel; in fact, I'd be disappointed if I didn't get my happy ending in one. Chick lit can be more reflective of real life.

3. That company that sells four hundred dollar scarves? It's not "her meez." It's "air mezz." Now I won't look like such an oaf at parties and stuff.

4. I knew reading chick lit would change my views on books, but now it's affecting other mediums of literature. I mean... I really want to see this movie! I have seen enough pieces of the movie to know that Meryl Streep is perfect as the evil Miranda Priestley, and I kept seeing her as I read the book.

I want to see the Bridget Jones movie, too. How else can I compare it to the book? Next thing you know, I'll be looking for the Sex And The City DVD's on Amazon.

5. Chick lit is infinitely complex, and reading any of it is rewarding. I will never again make fun of a book just because it has a swirly pink cover or a cartoonish thin woman holding a tiny handbag. The best chick lit books define the genre and push the edges of it at the same time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Missing Men's Books

The title of this post is a little misleading. I have thought about it, and I can honestly say I do not miss men's books.

Yesterday I was flipping through channels on TV when I saw a preview for one of the Rabbit movies. The Rabbit books were a series by John Updike. Rabbit Engstrom starts out as a young college basketball player. By the end of the series, he has grown old.

"That looks interesting," I thought, flicking past the preview, "but it's not really my thing."

Being reminded of the Updike books gave me no desire to read Updike. To give you some background, I work at a used book store. We have thousands of books, and quite often I used to pick up a book and thumb through it or even read it all, just because it looked interesting or something reminded me of the author.

That still happens, but usually the book with the intriguing cover, or the familiar author, is by a woman.

Maybe I am becoming sexist towards men. I don't know if that's even possible for a man, but I find women to be better writers. I know it's all personal preference.

So I don't miss men's books. Maybe a little. What I miss more is the autonomy to choose my own books. I only read books that other people recommend for me. I still want to pick up books I'm supposed to be shelving, flip through them, and perhaps borrow them. I have to stop quite a bit and remind myself- "you can't read that. Nobody told you to."

It's hard, but it's getting easier. And it makes me a better employee- I'm working instead of reading.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: I'll Be Watching

Pamela Porter. Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2011.
Young Adult. 280 pages, paperback.

Buy from House of Anansi

About the author

Winter, 1941. Canada has entered World War II. Resources are scarce in the small prairie town of Anger. How long can four children, ages 7 to 16, survive in a house with no electricity, running water, or living parents to provide for them?

Though Addie, Jim, Nora, and Ran Loney have simple needs- food, firewood, education, love- Porter’s book about them is complex and intricate. It is a young adult novel, but it is also a prose poem along the lines of Ellen Hopkins’s Crank. It is a coming-of-age story, a work of historical fiction, and a ghost story, since the Loney kids’ parents Margaret and George stick around and add to the ongoing dialogue after their hardscrabble existence claims both their lives.

That dialogue is mostly one-sided narration, though recalled conversations between characters are important too. At times the book seems like a court document, with each character explaining how she or he helped or abandoned the Loney children in their time of need. If Porter ever decides to write a true oral history, of any era or event, I will want to read it. She has crafted a credible fictional one here.

The large cast of characters, and Porter’s efforts to combine so many different types of books, are sometimes problematic. For example, the citizens of Anger persecute Franz Lahr, the town’s schoolmaster. He is of German descent and was only begrudgingly tolerated even before the start of the war. In one scene, Franz tries to teach the children about propaganda and is met with blank stares. Since the subject never comes up again, and since Franz is soon removed from the narrative, one wonders whether Porter wants to make a point or is just giving her townspeople reason to further ostracize the unfortunate teacher. Either way, I would have liked to see Franz’s story developed more fully, and to see how his students dealt or failed to deal with the subject of propaganda.

In spite of such shortcomings, Porter does a superior job of pulling components from diverse types of texts and integrating them into a seamless unit. I could not find a reading level label on I’ll Be Watching, but I recommend it for eighth graders and up. Its multiple viewpoints and sparse exposition can discourage younger readers. I would definitely use it in my classroom to teach genres, voice, poetic devices, and even types and elements of sentences.

Friday, November 18, 2011


By Teresa Morgan. Self-published, 2011.

Kindle ebook.

Buy on Amazon

Follow Teresa on twitter

When Teresa sent me this book, I did not know there was such a thing as sheikh romances, or that Teresa’s other book, Handcuffed to the Sheikh, was the number two sheikh romance on Amazon. I didn’t know that self-publishing, under the right conditions, could be more lucrative for an author than the traditional route. I certainly didn’t know that I would love Cinderella and the Sheikh as much as I do, or that this book would mark a turning point in my relationship with romance novels. I learned all these things from talking to Teresa and reading her book.

Even if Cinderella and the Sheikh had taught me nothing, I would still recommend it. It opens with this line: the happiness of one woman was a small sacrifice compared to the fate of a country. It is part of Sheik Rasyn ibn Bakr ibn Rahman al Jabar’s internal monologue as he watches Libby Fay from across the dining room of a restaurant. Rasyn has come to New York City from his home country of Abbas to find a bride. He does not need a queen; he wants to marry a “commoner” so he can be disgraced and avoid inheriting his uncle Anwar’s throne. Rasyn has no confidence in himself as a leader.

From the beginning, Rasyn deceives Libby about his true motives. She believes she is the obsession of a generous but somewhat uncompromising man. The reader knows this is not quite true, but Libby does not. The irony drew me in, and so did that opening line. I knew no romance novelist would let her male lead get away with such an elitist attitude. I was not disappointed- Libby falls for the exotic Rasyn and gradually uncovers his scheme at the same time. Along the way, she upsets a few Middle Eastern rulers, makes valuable alliances, and even gets Rasyn to update some of his thinking. My favorite romances always include a male lead who is willing to evolve.

I say this book is a turning point because, before I read it, I saw romance novels as part of my project. I want to learn about women’s books; romances are women’s books; they are part of my research. But as I told Teresa, Cinderella and the Sheikh compelled me to put aside my other readings until I finished it. I want that experience again. I used to get it from authors like Stephen King or John D. McDonald. Now I get it from romance novels. They are my favorite books, and I would read them even if I didn’t have a blog called “Women’s Lit Book Club.”

I wanted to document how reading women exclusively would change me. This is the first evidence of that. I am starting to think of my commitment to women’s books as a permanent thing, not a temporary project. Will I ever go back to men’s books? No, not as my first preference. The word that keeps coming up is balance.

How do you decide what books to read? Do you have a bias towards a certain gender? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Q&A With Daniela Sacerdoti

Daniela Sacerdoti's novel Watch Over Me is now available on Amazon. This is Daniela's first novel. She lives in Glasgow, where she writes and works as a teacher.

Stevie: What is the book about, and what do you think readers will like about it?

Daniela: The book is about a woman looking for a place to belong, for love and motherhood. It’s also the story of a mother’s fundamental impulse to look after her son even after her own death, and of a man who’s struggling with loneliness. I think readers will be able to identify with Eilidh, Jamie and Elizabeth and the characters around them because the book talks about life, really.

Stevie: Many writers nowadays are choosing to self-publish. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to signing with a publisher instead?

Daniela: I have never self-published, so I can’t give an informed answer in terms of the advantages and disadvantages. I know that I wouldn’t look at self-publishing because I’d find the distribution and marketing a nightmare. I’d definitely stick with traditional publishing, also because of the advantages of the creative relationship with your publishers when it comes to editing.

Stevie: Do you write primarily for women, or is it something you don't think about?

Daniela: Not at all, I write the stories I want to write, and I’d love men to read and appreciate my book too, though it’s less likely for them to pick up a story about love. But then, why not? Why should men be less interested in these matters? Most men are partners and fathers, and all men are sons: their lives are very much steeped in this sort of stories, as much as women’s.

Stevie: I saw in your biography that you have a degree in classics. Has that informed your writing or helped you to evolve as a writer?

Daniela: Very much so. I’ve studied Latin and Greek since I was thirteen, and it gave me a great love of language and stories. Also it gave me a head start when it comes to languages, which was a help when learning English.

Stevie: You have been given a magic wand that will make every man on the planet read any 3 books. What books will you choose, and why?

Daniela: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, to open their eyes about prejudice; Lord of the Flies by William Golding, to unmask the mechanism of tribalism and aggression; and 1984, by George Orwell, to warn against totalitarian regimes and how easily they can come about. Very political, I know...but I think it’s important that all women and men are aware of these issues.

Visit Daniela's Website

Follow Daniela on Twitter

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bridget Jones's Diary

I finally finished this book a few days ago. Stephanie at Chick Lit Club suggested it for me back in September.

I was supposed to like this. I know enough about chick lit to know that Fielding's book is a basic text. Bridget created some themes and motifs that show up in nearly every work of the genre. Bridget is a fish out of water who does not feel at home at work, with her family, or in an intimate relationship. Her only salvation is her friends. They are her chosen family.

Also, Bridget is on a quest. She wants to love and be loved, to have a career where she is fulfilled, and to be comfortable in her own skin. She imagines she can accomplish these things by losing weight, quitting smoking, learning to cook, and generally turning herself into the kind of woman she believes men will find desirable.

She is wrong, of course, and that is what saves Bridget from being a caricature. She is our Gilgamesh- one of the first characters to exemplify the elements of chick lit, and an archetype who has a presence in other works of the genre.

That's why I say I was supposed to like Bridget Jones's Diary. I am a student of women's books, and this is an important part of that canon. I will probably revisit this book at some point, but this time it was a struggle to get through. I kept wanting Bridget to see how worthwhile she was and stop making herself vulnerable for the wrong people (like her boss Daniel, if you've read the book).

What about you? What was the last popular book that you found challenging? Is there more to Bridget Jones than I can see?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

5 Things I Learned...

from reading Shallow Water, by Cathryn Grant

1. Paper books are over. I was able to follow Cathryn on twitter, download her book for only $1.99, and start reading it immediately from my computer. Also, paperback romance sells for 6 or 8 dollars at my local bookstore; I can get Carina Press ebooks for less than half that. In twenty years paper books will be like vinyl records are now.

2. I need to support indie authors. Cathyrn's book is just as readable as anything by Sue Grafton, and Cathryn herself recommended Shallow Water to me. I haven't found many well-known authors who will reach out to their fans this way.

3. Woman detectives are very human. Madison doubts herself, struggles to quit smoking, and worries about whether her current crush likes her back. She is also pushing thirty and still single. I know how that can be in American society from talking to friends. I can't imagine one of James Patterson's leading men expressing such vulnerability.

4. Novellas are good. My kindle is weird, so I don't know exactly how many pages Shallow Water is, but you can easily read it in one sitting. It is still a fully developed story, with realistic characters, suspense, subplots, and conflicts. It must be challenging to write something that way; all writing is a challenge, but brevity creates special problems.

5. I might never go back to men's books. They used to be my comfort zone, but not anymore. Reading women has had an effect on what I want from a book. And there are women writers in every conceivable form of literature (except maybe Westerns). I could never read them all in a lifetime.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book Review: dancergirl

Carol M. Tanzman

Release Date: 11/29/2011; HarlequinTEEN. 249 pages.

The internet is a fantastic tool for teaching and learning, but it can also be dangerous. Teenage dance enthusiast Alicia Ruffino learns firsthand just how true this can be in Carol Tanzman’s gripping and compelling new young adult novel. The book is a good cautionary tale for young people, but Tanzman’s voice is never preachy. Her approach makes dancergirl suspenseful enough to captivate even jaded readers.

Alicia’s problems start when she agrees to let a friend tape her dancing at a party. The friend- with Alicia’s permission- posts the video on a youtube-like site, where it garners thousands of views almost overnight. Alicia finds the attention frightening but exhilarating as friends point out the value of publicity for her future dance career.

As she becomes instantly recognizable, Alicia’s luck takes a turn for the worse. Videos she never agreed to start popping up. They include some of her dancing in her bedroom. She and her friends investigate, knowing there has to be a hidden camera and a digital peeping tom somewhere. Against Alicia’s will, her fame multiplies with each compromising video.

In one scene, a stranger at a restaurant approaches Alicia and asks, “aren’t you dancergirl?” before snapping Alicia’s picture. Alicia knows this picture will go on the internet. She cannot stop it. That aspect of the story gives it a postmodern quality- how do we define our identities when others make those decisions for us without our consent?

This question, and the tension of not knowing who is spying on Alicia, lead to a frightening climax and a conclusion that is worth the effort of reading. Tanzman uses misdirection and subterfuge to keep the reader in the dark along with Alicia. This book will resonate with high school students who might be grappling with self-image and internet boundaries. It is engaging enough for adult readers, including teachers and parents who have an interest in protecting young people online.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Q&A With Michele Gorman

Michele Gorman's book, Single In The City, was launched in the U.S. on October 27th, 2011 and is now available as an ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Michele chose to self-publish in the U.S; Penguin Books published the U.K. version. The book follows Hannah, a 26-year old American who moves to London with no job or social network. Amazon reviewers all praise the book for its sense of humor and its totally believable main character who embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.

Michele and I talked about self-publishing, the advantages of using a literary agent, and her suggestions for mandatory reading. She would love for you to follow her on twitter, like her on facebook, or visit her website for more information.

Stevie: How long have you been writing, and what is Single In The City about?

Michele: I’ve been writing for about 10 years, though I didn’t harbour the desire to write from an early age. My decision was a practical one. Sitting in my office one day I thought, “Why won’t someone pay me for what’s inside my head, without me having to come to an office?” I hit upon writing as an option. But with no practical knowledge or writerly training, it was a rather long road to publication.

Single In The City is about taking a chance and finding your feet in unfamiliar surroundings. 26 year old American Hannah moves to London on a whim, arriving with no job, no friends and no idea how she’s supposed to build the new life she’s dreaming of. Armed with little more than her enthusiasm, she charges headlong into London, baffling the locals in her pursuit of a new life, new love and sense of herself.

Stevie: Does your decision to self-publish in America reflect on how writers are treated here vs. in the UK?

Michele:No, not at all. I’ve had an excellent experience with Penguin (UK) and assume my experience with an American publisher would be just as supportive and professional. But I do think that in the case of Single in the City, some of the American publishers have sold chick lit fans short. My agent and I approached a few last year but they said American women would not identify with a book set in London because relatively few had been there. I disagree. After all you don’t need to live in the American South to appreciate The Help, or have a child who’s done something terrible to identify with the mom in We Need To Talk About Kevin. Trying to make your way in a new environment is an experience we’ve all had, whether it’s a new city, or country, school or circle of friends. I’ve got faith in American chick lit fans and am excited to publish it for them.

Stevie: Would you advise all aspiring writers to get an agent? Are there any distinct advantages or disadvantages to using an agent?

Michele: No. I would advise all aspiring writers to get the right agent. There’s a big difference. The right agent is one who you know you’ll want to work with for the rest of your writing career. She’s there as much to support and guide your writing as she is to sell your books. In fact, the collaborative relationship is probably even more important. I’ve pitched every story idea to my agent and we decide together which ones I’ll write. She is my sounding board, when I’m outlining the book, while I’m writing, and once I’ve finished the draft. We also decide together the direction that my writing career should take. We were giving a talk at a writer’s group once and likened it to a marriage.

Aside from the substantial career support that the right agent provides, there are other advantages. She’ll be able to get your manuscript read by the editors in the publishing houses that are the best fit for your book. She’ll know which editors at which houses are acquiring.

There are probably very few agents who don’t care about their writers, but there are a lot who don’t have the time necessary to devote to new writers, because they already have a very full list of writers. So I’d advise a new writer to look for a newer agent. Though it’s tempting to think a big shot agent will give you a better chance at selling a book, in fact, newer agents tend to have contacts with newer publishing editors. And it is the newer editors, who haven’t got full lists yet, who tend to acquire the newer writers.

Stevie You mention in your Guardian article that you wrote your first chick lit novel after reading one and deciding you could do better. Do you think chick lit itself is a similar collective response- a bunch of women deciding "we can do better" than whatever women writers they've been told to read?

Michele: I don’t think chick lit was a reaction to existing literature, but rather the extension of the relationships we have with our friends. The early chick lit writers captured an important part of our lives in prose, giving us characters we cared about because we “knew” them. They are our sisters, friends, cousins, mothers, daughters and frenemies. They amuse us and frustrate us and show us their flaws and their triumphs. The genre has grown around this kind of character.

Stevie: Was there one experience or moment when you knew you would be a writer, or was it more of a growth process?

Michele: It was a process punctuated by ‘aha’ moments. I remember when I wrote "The End" on the last page of my first book (I wrote 3 books, all literary fiction, before Single In The City). That’s when I knew I could do it, so that’s when I knew I could be a writer. It wasn’t till I finished my second book that I knew I would be a writer. That’s when I knew that I’d chosen writing as a career.

Stevie: If you could wave a magic wand and make every man in the world read any three books, which books would you choose?

Michele: The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, because becoming happier is a wonderful process.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray because we can all use a little help understanding the opposite sex (and if I had a second pass of my magic wand I’d make all women go see Defending the Caveman).

And Single in the City, because if every man on the planet bought it then I could quit my day job and write full-time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: Midsummer Night In The Workhouse

by Diana Athill.

House of Anansi Press. 2011. Paperback, 196 pages.

Diana Athill, former editor for Andre Deutsch and Costa Biography Award-winning memoirist, has penned a collection of genreless short stories held together by themes of conflicted love, moral ambiguity, and nonconsensual power sharing. This is her first collection; the stories here first appeared "between the 1950's and 1970's," according to the book's front flap. Of the twelve stories, only one, "An Afternoon Off", features a male protagonist.

What unites nearly all Athill's women are their ill-fated, awkward, or visibly doomed relationships with men. In "No Laughing Matter," Jane's boyfriend ends their relationship, refuses to sleep with her, and patronizingly offers to keep seeing her- "but less. Not alone so much." It is a slap in the face, and college-aged Jane is devastated. In "The Return," Englishwomen Jan and Sarah visit Greece. There they must outwit an old man and his nephew who proposition them on a remote island. Athill turns this awkward situation into an ominous one by making the old man the only available boat driver. This is a stark shift in power, since Jan and Sarah can afford a Greek vacation while the old man only has three teeth.

It is the kind of dynamic one comes to expect from Athill by the book's end. The stories are kept interesting by their variety. Sometimes the woman is complicit in her own downfall; at other times she only imagines she is. And the losses, of power, companionship, identity or status, are not always bad outcomes. In the last story, "Buried," Enid Klein reconnects with her brother after he wrecks their car and they must hike through the farmland of their childhood to get back home.

Not all women like literary books. But every woman has had a relationship, a family, a growing up experience. Every woman has, at some time or another, been wounded in love. For these reasons, Athill's book has something to offer every woman. Midsummer Night In The Workhouse is a revealing and surprisingly quick read. It is literary without being stuffy, universally true without being hackneyed. Athill's voice rarely offers comfort, but I left her book feeling more comfortable about gendered relationships and my role in them.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Contest Results and 2012 Reading List

I have a winner! It's Michelle Haimoff. Thank you to everyone who participated. I hope you will follow our conversation here and on twitter. Feel free to send me your reading suggestions- I'm pretty sure Michelle will let me add to her list as long as I stay on track.

Staying on track won't be hard, because Michelle has already sent her list broken down by month. I am sharing it here to mark the official start of our project. Maybe you, reader, can finish at least one of these books in 2012 and join the discussion? Michelle has great taste:

January - The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

February - These Days Are Ours - Michelle

March - Wingshooters - Nina Revoyr

April - Play It As It Lays - Joan Didion

May - The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton

June - Bad Behavior: Stories - Mary Gaitskill

July - People Are Unappealing: Even Me - Sara Barron

August - It Chooses You - Miranda July

September - The History Of Love - Nicole Krauss

October - Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name - Audrey Lorde

November - Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay

December - The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Five Things I Learned...

From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

1. It is harder to read classics now that I am focusing on modern and postmodern writers. The language is burdensome, and there is way more narrative exposition. Today I caught myself sneaking glances at The Devil Wears Prada, which I will probably read in place of Bridget Jones' Diary.

2. The monster in the book is completely different from the Hollywood version. Shelley's version is a brute and a killer, but he is an extremely articulate, intelligent, self-aware brutish killer.

3. Shelley's theme of guilt that one cannot share shows up in modern texts. Victor Frankenstein knows his monster killed a child, and he knows the person who hangs for the murder is innocent. But saving that person's life would mean telling the world that he (Dr. Frankenstein) created a monster from purloined body parts. That reminds me an awful lot of Walter White's multiple secrets in Breaking Bad. Plus, meth lab = mad scientist lab.

4. This did not actually come from the text, but here's a neat article about scientists pinpointing the exact moment when Shelley dreamed up the bones of her novel: Guardian UK. There's an old legend that Shelley wrote this book in a single night. I knew that wasn't true beforehand, but now I don't see how anyone could seriously believe that. It is too complex and has too much depth.

5. There is no reason for me to read men's books ever again. I am not going to lie- I miss them a little already. I guess what I miss most is the autonomy, being able to read whatever I want. I have lost that, even though my year of assigned reading doesn't start until January. But I don't have to go back. There are enough complex, beautiful, rewarding texts by women to keep me engaged and occupied. Frankenstein was both fun and challenging- my favorite kind of book.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


I wanted to read a nonfiction book before the year ends. I usually like self-help books as long as they don't have a religious slant. So I put it to my twitter community, and Valerie Parv gave me this assignment:

I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, by Barbara Sher and Barbara Smith. Thanks Valerie!

I got a chance to read the preface, introduction, and first chapter. Sher says the book grew from her experience as a career counselor. She gave her clients the motivation to go and do almost anything they wanted. But they kept telling her they didn't know what they wanted to do. So she and Smith wrote this book in 1994. There are exercises to help you decide what you are supposed to be doing. This is what your family, society, and peer group expect you to do. Then Sher gives directions- lifted from her therapeutic practice- for finding out what you were meant to do, and matching your external life to that ideal.

I relate to an idea in the first chapter. Sher says that if you tell your friends, family, or peer group what your wildest career goals are, they will immediately tell you to stop. But if you share some of these ideas with strangers, or folks you just met, they will usually encourage you. Some will even offer to help.

That has definitely been my experience as the Chick Lit Guy. Nearly everyone I reach out to on twitter is supportive. I look forward to reading the rest of Barbara's book; she takes a light, conversational tone as if you were in a room with her.

What about you? Are you doing what you're supposed to? What would you rather be doing?

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I once tried to write a story about a woman who marries her former college professor. All I know about him is that he quit teaching to tend bar, moved like a gorilla, and proposed to Female Lead on a gondola in Venice.

I never finished it. My wife tore it apart for me:

"You really need to stop writing from a woman's point of view. Because you don't write like a woman. You write like a man who thinks like a woman."

That's probably the best writing advice I have ever heard. But yesterday, walking to class, I saw some construction workers walking on the opposite sidewalk. They are part of the project going on. As far as I can tell, this project involves driving huge trucks all over a dirt field. Sometimes they spray water.

I have been listening to the book on CD of Can You Keep A Secret, by Sophie Kinsella. I actually examined the construction guys and wondered which of them Emma, the heroine, would want to date!

"Hmmm, no, those two guys are big fatties, and besides, they wouldn't make her feel special which is what she needs. That guy in the front is the supervisor... she does date her boss in the book... maybe... what about the shy, nerdy one with glasses and a polo shirt? Probably doesn't do much actual construction... Emma would appreciate that..."

In the end I decided Emma would go for Supervisor Man, and she would help him not to be such a demanding workaholic, and he would help her get promoted at work by making her see her own talent.

All this in a ten minute walk. I don't know what's happening to me.

Friday, September 30, 2011


It's done.

Over 200 of you followed me in less than a week.

Now one of you will decide what books I am allowed to read in 2012.

If you want to win, please carefully consider your answers to the following questions:

1. What does being in charge of what I read mean to you?

2. How will we make it work?

3. What was the last book you read?

Please send an email with your answers in the body. Do not send an attachment. Send your answers to:

Include the word CONTEST in the subject line. Sign your email with your twitter username (or a link if you can). The deadline for entry is midnight on Tuesday, October 11th (Eastern time). I will announce the winner here and on twitter on Monday, October 17th.

Here are a few final things to keep in mind:

-You must follow me on twitter in order to win. You can still do that here.

- I am only interested in books by women. If you plan on assigning me men's books, please do not enter.

- If you are an author, please do not just assign me your books and nothing else. I am looking for an experience with depth and diversity.

-I will link to your twitter, blog, website or anywhere else you want me to. With your permission, I will use your name in my blog posts to talk about our interactions and my responses to your choice of books. This yearlong project is a chance to promote yourself as much as it will promote me.

Again, and I cannot say this enough, thank you to every one of you for following me, mentioning me, reading my work, and asking me to read your work. You are all fantastic. I am honored to be part of such a literate, passionate, creative community.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


As of this writing I have 105 followers on twitter. I need 96 more to decide who will tell me what to read in 2012.

This is all happening far faster than I planned. Thanks to follower Rowan Coleman for replying to this morning's tweet, thus forbidding me to read any men's books. I had thought I could get away with it for a few more months. Rowan, I edited my profile after your tweet.

If you still have not joined the contest by following me on twitter, you can do so here. Offical contest rules are still here.

The internet is a wonderful thing. I am now following and being followed by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus . Whoever wins this contest, I hope you will let me read their books next year.

Another follower, Chrissie Manby, asked me if the contest was really for a whole year. Yes, it is. It will take that long to document what I learn from this experience, and how it changes me. So if you are in it for the long haul, go ahead and follow me.

As always, thank you to everyone who has followed, messaged, retweeted and otherwise shown an interest in this project.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


As many of you know, I recently started a contest on twitter to decide which of my followers will earn the right to tell me what to read in 2012. Thank you to everyone who has followed me, retweeted my contest posts, messaged me, and mentioned me. As of this writing I have 57 followers. I need 201 to announce the winner.

Since I am gaining followers so quickly, now is a good time to explain how the contest will work. Once I reach 201 followers, I will tweet a link to a page on this blog. This page will ask you to answer 3 questions, and give an email address for your answers. I will accept answers for 10 days, then take four days to go through your emails and pick my winner. I will announce the winner here and on twitter.

It wouldn't be fair to keep those questions secret... so here they are:

1. What does being in charge of what I read mean to you?

2. How will we make it work?

3. What was the last book you read?

If you want to answer early, feel free to do so. If you have any other questions I will be glad to answer them.

I will be blogging about the books you assign me and about how this experience changes my attitudes towards literature. I will link to your blog/twitter/website; I want this to be a shared public endeavor. After all, learning, sharing, and changing are the main reasons for doing this.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Two Kinds Of Fiction?

Note: I would like to thank the women of Book Lovers Inc. for starting this conversation.

Here is the best and most well-informed thing I can say about the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction:

The more I read about it, the more I realize how little I know.

For example, romance novels feature tropes. A trope, according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, is "a common or overused theme or device." We are all familiar with the tropes of romance. There's the Lead Woman, who has suffered some trauma before the start of the book. This could be a divorce, the death of a loved one, or just a string of crummy relationships.

Then there's Lead Man, or, as one of my recent reads calls it, the Alpha Male. He usually shows up on Lead Woman's turf. This is what happened in the first romance I ever read- Kay Hooper's Elusive Dawn. Robyn Lee, bookstore owner, is at work when Shane Justice approaches her. Shane is a race car driver. His job is another trope- the Alpha Male often has a dangerous occupation, or one that requires him to be away a lot of the time. In recent years we have even seen Nascar, military, and police/fire/rescue romances. These are all new twists on an old trope.

We all know what happens once Lead Woman agrees to see Alpha Male a second time. She sees him, decides not to see him, and changes her mind. He charms her by violating her boundaries. She agrees to have these boundaries broken, sees that they were holding her back, and is recast in Alpha Male's image. At the same time Alpha Male, who has trauma of his own, learns how to be both sensitive and a can-do guy.

When we come to the end of the book, Lead Woman almost always marries Alpha Male. We, the readers, knew all along. We would not go back to an author who ended her romances any way other than happy.

There. Romance novels are genre fiction. Right? They named a whole genre after them. There's a problem, though. Webster's defines literature like this:

"Writings in prose or verse, especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest" (italics mine).

What is more permanent or universal than wanting to be loved?

Have you ever finished a romance novel that did not express this theme in an excellent way?

I am not arguing that romance novels are literary fiction. Going strictly by the book, they are genre novels. My point is that the terms are confusing. As a teacher, a literary critic, and a reader, I am rejecting them. I know enough to discuss them, and I have some idea what other people mean when they use them. But I am letting go of the need to categorize the books I love.

Here's a final thought. Reading romance novels has changed me. I now view myself and other people differently than I did before. I expect different things from my reading experience, and I care more about character than I do plot. These changes are starting to show themselves in my writing too. Any text that changes you has to be literature.

I support every person's right to decide for herself where the lines are, what the lines look like, and whether they even exist at all. And I encourage every reader to allow the books she reads to change her. If that isn't happening, why read books at all?

Friday, September 23, 2011


These are books my readers and followers have suggested or assigned for me to read:

1. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

2. Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding

3. Shallow Water, by Cathryn Grant

A huge thank you to the women who suggested these!

If you would like to decide what books I can read in 2012, please follow me on twitter:


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Second Guessing Fate

AUTHOR: Claire Robyns

PUBLISHER: Carina Press

RELEASE DATE: 9/26/11; 153 pages; digital e-book.

Buy on Amazon

Claire Robyns writes perfect love scenes. Whenever catering company owner Gemma meets with recently jilted business mogul Nick, the reader is treated to a tryst containing just the right proportions of steam and sensitivity.

The book starts when Gemma’s friend Helen takes her to a psychic, Madam Hooch. Helen’s devotion to and faith in Hooch’s predictions are a little hard to believe, until they begin to come true for Gemma. Upon leaving Hooch’s office, Gemma and Helen have a wreck in Helen’s car. Nick is the driver of the other car, and their first date is an attempt to bribe Nick so he will not go after Helen. One thing leads to another, and after some hemming and hawing on Gemma’s part, Robyns brings the couple together for the first of her stellar bedroom narratives.

The lovemaking both thrills Gemma and causes more problems for her. Madam Hooch predicts Gemma and Nick's meeting, but also says Nick must dump her before she can meet her true love. This leads to some hilarious scenes reminiscent of How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days. Robyns also drops references to Shakespeare and has Nick's barroom buddies tell him to become a "beta male," i.e., a man who listens to his partner and sees things from her point of view. This is an oversimplified version of masculinity and gender roles, but I applaud it anyway. I named myself the Chick Lit Guy, for goodness sake- I talk about gender roles so much it even makes me sick.

Robyns handles the psychic element well, making it part of the story without it seeming like a gimmick. Watching Nick and Gemma evolve is a pleasure- Nick becomes more sensitive while Gemma learns to trust other people. Robyns's references to literature and feminist thought show that she is astute, well-read, and progressive. I look forward to reading her again, and I am glad I had the chance to read Second Guessing Fate.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Guardian Of The Green Hill

AUTHOR: Laura Sullivan

PUBLISHER: Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

RELEASE DATE: October 25th, 2011

Hardcover, 304 pages.

Laura L. Sullivan has crafted a fine fantasy story with enough intrigue and adventure to keep young readers interested. The heroine, Meg Morgan, is a young girl coming into her own as the titular Guardian. The Green Hill is a place where humans and fairies coexist. The Guardian’s job is to preserve the fragile peace between the two societies. The job is more complicated than it sounds- fairies in this book are not sweet-natured Tinkerbell types. They are spiteful, mischievous, and childish, closer to the Irish version of fairies than anything from Disney.

Meg’s life is further complicated by Gwidion, a sinister artist whose accomplice is a talking goat. Gwidion’s paintings have the power to weaken and coerce their subjects. He comes to the Green Hill to paint a portrait of Phyllida, Meg’s great-great aunt and the current Guardian. The portrait is supposed to weaken Phyllida and put her under Gwidion’s thrall. Meg also has three siblings- Rowan, James, and the appropriately named Silly. Taking care of them in their parents’ absence causes more tension for Meg. They live with Phyllida, but many of the duties fall to Meg.

Through a series of encounters with supernatural creatures, Meg comes to accept her destiny. She battles Gwidion and comes to accept that Phyllida’s life is nearly over. Guardian Of The Green Hill is a fantasy book, but it is also a coming of age saga with which middle grades readers can identify. It is the second in a series by Sullivan, the first being Under The Green Hill (2010).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Learning What I Like

I am almost done with Forever by Jude Devereaux. I liked it, and I will read more of Jude's work, but it didn't light me up. It wasn't one of those books that I couldn't put down.

My next read was supposed to be 1105 Yakima Street, by Debbie Macomber. But I cheated a little. I got another bestseller- Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich. I will read it next and come back to Debbie.

Why? Because after reading Forever I know that I like stories with supernatural and paranormal elements. And I have always loved books written in first person. I identify with Lizzie (the heroine of Wicked Appetite), because she is in her late twenties and still seems to be finding herself. That's how it was for me, too.

Also, Janet doesn't mess around. I only skimmed over the first few pages, and the villain has already shown up. He is evil and attractive, like a bad guy should be.

I am still finding my way around the romance genre, and women's books in general. My guiding principle is to pick those books that appeal to me, that speak to me and make me want to pick them up. I know I will end up reading Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, and Heather Graham soon. I think of Janet's new book as "paranormal lite."

What about you? Who are your favorite supernatural authoresses? Now that I've shared a little, do you have any suggestions for me?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Every Other Day

By Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

Release Date: December 27th, 2011.

Publisher: Egmont USA.

You're a normal teenage girl at a new high school. You spend half your time worrying about boys, friends, and how you are going to pass that history test next period.

You spend the other half battling hellhounds, dragons, zombies, and other entities that can kill, eat, or maim you with the flick of a scaly, rotten, putrefied wrist.

How do you live?

This is the question Jennifer Lynn Barnes poses in her latest novel Every Other Day. Barnes's 2010 novel Raised By Wolves won accolades including the title of "the best YA werewolf novel out there" (Melisa Marr). I don't know enough about YA werewolf books to agree or disagree, but if Raised By Wolves is anywhere near as much fun as Every Other Day, I will be looking for it soon.

Kali, the main character and narrative voice of Every Other Day, is virtually untouchable in battle, but only... well, every other day. When the power takes her over, she roams the streets of her suburban town, taking out evil with as much style and wit as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fans of that franchise will enjoy this book. The story is complex, the characters are compelling, and the action is fast and relentless. The first chapter begins with Kali taking on a pack of bloodthirsty hellhounds. She then goes home to her emotionally distant father. Their strained relationship forms an intriguing, real-life subplot.

One of Barnes's strengths is her willingness to play with fantasy and horror conventions. For example, in Kali's world, a chupacabra is not a toothy rodent that devours livestock. It is a fatal parasite that attaches itself to one's nervous system and drains out the life force. The hellhounds are an endangered species, which makes fighting them an ethical quandary. Dragons exist, some breathe fire, and, like bears, are only a problem when they show up in the wrong place.

Teenage readers will identify with Kali's anxieties and obstacles, both supernatural and ordinary. Boys and girls alike can identify with her voice, which is snarky and mostly confident without ever being cocky. Although Barnes writes on a high school level, the book is appropriate for some middle grades readers. There are a few deaths, but Barnes handles them with taste and uses violence to move the story forward.

I recommend Every Other Day to fans of young adult books, even those unfamiliar with the fantasy or paranormal subgenre, because Barnes's breezy writing style makes the book so accessible to a diverse set of readers.

Monday, September 5, 2011


I am still reading Forever by Jude Devereaux. A few days ago, I said that Darci Monroe, the lead character, was naive. I was wrong about that. Now that I am over halfway through the book, I can see that Darci overcame a sorry childhood with her positive attitude.

She and the male lead, Adam Montgomery, have gotten past the stage of driving each other crazy. Darci is letting Adam hold and comfort her. Plus, she can telepathically make him want to kiss her. This is what I love about romance novels- I feel like Darci and Adam are a couple that I know. I do not get that personal connection from mens' books.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Just A Little White Lie

Author: Lynette Hallberg

Publisher: Carina Press

Release Date 9/12/2011.

Carina Press website

One of the best things about romance novels is how they keep the reader second guesssing herself along with the heroine. Things are never what they seem- the guy pursues the girl, then decides he can't take her because it's wrong. The girl runs from the guy, ends up in his arms, then flees again. Lynette Hallberg's latest novel, Just A Little White Lie, fits this mold perfectly. There are, of course, multiple lies, not just one. Hallberg uses them to keep the reader's interest.

First, Lucinda Darling leaves her deceptive husband at the altar after she learns of his cheating. She takes off in her wedding dress with no idea where she is going. Lucinda is a child of privilege- her father is a land developer- so she is unable to fend for herself when her car breaks down. Jake Parker, Harley rider, ex-oilfield worker, and all-around Hot Southern Guy, shows up to rescue her from the stifling Georgia highway. He helps Lucinda find a garage, then enlists her to help him deceive his grandmother. Lucinda agrees to pose as Jake's fiancee.

Through a series of coincidences that only happen in romance novels, Jake and Lucinda share a hotel room. She resists him, and he resists her, but that never lasts in books like this.

I knew what was coming, and anyone who reads romances will know too. But I could not resist either. Who can say no to a book with a line like "she shot him a grin that singed his Levi's?" The characters and dialogue make Just A Little White Lie as comfortable as a favorite pillow. Another conflict arises when Lucinda's fiancee and her family come after her. You didn't think they would just let Lucinda go, did you? In a romance novel, the only things you let go of are your inhibitions and your painful past.

Just A Little White Lie is romance gold. This reviewer will look for more books from Lynette Hallberg. I recommend this book to anyone who loves the genre and needs to live vicariously through Lucinda (or Jake) for a few days.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Right now I am reading Forever by Jude Devereaux. It is the first part of a trilogy featuring Darci Monroe.

I can already see that I will have to read the whole series. Darci is extremely intelligent, but her approach to life seems naive.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meg Rosoff

I just reviewed the book There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff. You can read the review here.

You can pre-order There Is No Dog here.