Tag Archives: book reviews

The Magician’s Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia), 1955

I published this post on my self-hosted blog last spring. Since the first five Narnia books are on this blog, I wanted to put this one here, too.

the magician's nephewI’m nearly done working my way through the Chronicles of Narnia with my son. This is the sixth and second-to-last book in the series. Oddly enough, it tells of Narnia’s beginnings. Yes, for this one we jump back about two generations before the Pevensie children were born. At this time there lived in London a boy named Digory and his neighbor, Polly. Digory’s mother is deathly ill, so they came to live with his aunt and uncle. Uncle Andrew, unfortunately, was a horrible man—arrogant, selfish, and cruel. He had absolutely no business dabbling in magic.

Digory and Polly soon find themselves in the dying world of Charn, where Digory disturbs a great evil and awakens a sorceress. Later, when the children find themselves in the brand new world of Narnia, during that splendid first morning when Aslan sings the land and creatures awake, they bring the witch with them. It is a Genesis story. An Eden, complete perfection sullied by mankind’s error. But Aslan promises to bear the worst of the cost on himself.

As always, Aslan’s presence is rich and beautiful. He works a protection over all of Narnia that will last for many hundreds of years—accomplished through the hands of man. He is the lordly, noble hero of the series, but not all admire him. He terrifies Uncle Diggory.

“He has made himself unable to hear my voice,” Aslan tells the children. “If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves from all that might do you good!”

Yet for others, for the London cabbie and his wife (and their horse), who entered Narnia accidentally, and for the two children, their lives are forever changed by their encounter with the Lion and his beautiful land. Though Digory and Polly must return to our world (they do appear in other books, but I won’t spoil that surprise), the cabbie and his wife become the first great King and Queen and the ancestors of all humans in Narnia. We’re even treated to the story behind the lamp-post in Lantern Waste.

All in all, The Magician’s Nephew is another great adventure and a necessary precursor to books one through five. Here we find the beginning of the threads that will tie up the entire series in a neat package in the next and final book.

A Look Forward and a Look Back

What a year! There are things about 2012 I’d like to repeat and things I never want to go through again. I suppose that’s like any other year. As far as my writing is concerned, it’s also been a mixed bag. Now it’s time once again to pick out the highlights, celebrate the goals met, and start planning for next year.

having-goals

Of course my list of accomplishments has to start with the publication of not one, but TWO books during 2012: Beneath the Slashings, which finished off my Civil War trilogy (whew!) and Song of the Mountain, a project that spanned several years. I also released my first podcast and put together my first blog tour. I learned a good deal in both cases. The first I will repeat; the second, probably not. In addition, my blog experienced substantial growth this year as I added over one hundred middle grade and young adult book reviews and shared many posts about the ins and outs of self-publication. I am well-satisfied with all these accomplishments.

One thing I am not satisfied with is book sales. I pulled in just under two thousand dollars this year. While that’s three times the amount I made my debut year, it’s a ridiculously low amount. As my books have been given very fair ratings from strangers as well as friends, I’m left to assume obscurity is the biggest culprit. Second is the lack of enthusiasm among adult readers for children’s literature. I cannot change the latter (and I will not change my genre), but the former does leave room for improvement. I confess my promotional efforts have been pretty much nonexistent. So my first goal of the new year is the implementation of a marketing plan. Fortunately, I have a lot of ideas. I’ve just been lazy in this regard.

My second goal, of course, is publication of my current MG manuscript by summer. I’m not sure that I can also bring my YA manuscript to print this year, but I am setting a substantial word count goal. I also plan to release 2-3 more of my titles as podcasts. I may even dabble a bit at submitting to traditional publishing houses, though I cringe at my loss of control. (Obscurity…control…obscurity…control…hmmm…)

Hee! Hee! I loved this one.

Hee! Hee! I loved this one.

These are some lofty goals that far exceed last year’s. The only way I can hope to meet them is to break them down into monthly and weekly chunks. I’m also giving myself permission to read less and cut my blog reviews to only once a week. While I love to read—and might later give myself permission to write less and read more—it takes a lot of time. This balance is always tricky for me. I don’t want to be a servant to my writing, my reading, or my blog. But I do know if I don’t set some solid writing goals, I’ll have nothing to show for myself next year at this time.

And so I continue to try to turn this hobby into a career. I’m eager to see what 2013 brings!

What goals did you meet this year? What do you hope to accomplish next year?

My Experience with Giveaways (Unmasking an Author Series, #2)

This is the second in a series about author visibility. Last week I discussed some challenges indies face. This week and next I’ll be discussing the use of freebies.

“Giveaways are a great way to generate interest and spread the word about your book.”

That is what I was told by several veteran indie authors, various bloggers, and a whole bunch of indie websites, so I buckled down and organized several. Unfortunately, I mistranslated that statement. I thought it meant that giveaways generate sales, and I was disappointed. Giveaways DO have a place, but before you jump into one, give thought to what you hope to accomplish.

Blog Giveaways

The most common type of giveaway seems to be the blog giveaway. This is when a blogger features a particular book and gives away a copy which has been donated by the author. In my experience, however, I’ve found that it’s not a very effective sales method. In fact, just the opposite usually happens. The folks who enter blog giveaways usually aren’t interested in buying your book; they want it free, and by the close of the contest they have forgotten all about it. Nobody actually buys your book. Then at the end of the week, one person wins, and you have to donate a copy. If you’re donating a paperback, you’ve just lost money.

Goodreads Giveaways

With that lesson learned, I thought I’d experiment with a Goodreads giveaway. After all, those often attract thousands of would-be readers. Who wouldn’t want that kind of exposure, right? Well, notice I said would-be readers, not would-be buyers. Again, these are people with their hands out. Honestly, I’m not bashing them. I’ve entered many myself. I’m simply pointing out that this mindset is the logical reason why giveaways don’t result in sales.

So I went into this new giveaway with lower expectations and a further test in mind. After a winning name was drawn and the paperback sent out, I contacted forty of the most active Goodreads members who had signed up for my contest. This is actually against Goodreads policy, but I went ahead and did it anyway for the sake of experiment. The first day, I contacted 20 people explaining that they didn’t win the paperback, but I offered them a coupon for a .99 Smashwords download of the same novel. I had absolutely no sales as a result. A few days later, I contacted 20 more members, but this time I gave away a coupon for a free Smashwords download. About five of those coupons were actually cashed in. Interesting, huh?  It rather proved my point: Giveaways do not generate sales.

Reevaluate Your Expectations

So should we give up on giveaways altogether? Not at all. I read a post from one fellow who did this very same Goodreads experiment, only on a much larger scale and with a different motivation. He offered every single person who signed up for his Goodreads giveaway a free download of his book afterward, hoping to get some reviews posted on the site. Did you catch that? His motivation was not sales, it was reviews, and he was successful. Out of several hundred contacts, he ended up with a good handful of reviews. I forget the number, exactly, but it was like 20 or 30, I believe. That’s not bad. And that brings me to my final point: Giveaways can indirectly influence sales.

Let’s go back up to that first statement: “Giveaways are a great way to generate interest and spread the word about your book.” After my disappointments, I realized there is actually a lot of truth in there. Giveaways are effective, but they aren’t the microwave recipe I thought they’d be. Rather, they’re a slow cooked meal.

In marketing, I’ve learned there is a “Rule of Seven.” It states that in general, a consumer must be exposed to a product seven times before they purchase it. That’s why those Subway ads ran again and again and again during the Olympics. The franchise marketing team has this figured out. And do you know what? After a few days of watching the games, I had to go out and try the new avocado topping on my favorite ham and provolone sub. (It’s delicious, by the way!)

Giveaways work in the same way. Each feature, each review, each giveaway is one more t.v. commercial. It’s a seed planted. Few readers will buy on the first exposure, so an author must be patient, must keep planting, must keep giving away. Eventually the hard work will pay off.

Effective Giveaways

So abandon the thought that throwing a few free copies before the masses will make you rich and famous. It won’t. You have to get more strategic than that. Here are a few ways to make giveaways work for you:

1. Give books away to blog reviewers. If enough people leave enough varying viewpoints in key locations, they will influence buyers. They’ll serve as proof that someone out there was glad they took a chance on your book. Even a few negative reviews can be useful by showing genuine reactions and boosting curiosity. And, hey, it’s spreading the word.

2.  Set the first book in a series free. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ve heard lots of success stories. It’s sort of like baiting a fishing line. Lots of folks will pick up a freebie. If the book is well written, many will swallow the hook and move on to purchase book two, then three, then…you get the idea. I have set single titles free on Amazon temporarily to boost the sale of other single titles and had modest success. Since KDP, however, this hasn’t worked as well. The method seems more reliable with a series.

3.  Create related content and give it away. This could include a short story featuring some of your characters, or additional scenes. Bonus material. (Think movie special features and deleted scenes.) This type of content won’t take nearly as long to put together as a novel. You simply want to create an appetizer that will draw people to your main course.

As a former teacher who now writes for kids, I like to put together a collection of materials (study questions, links, vocab, extension ideas) for each of my novels that educators might find useful in the classroom. The paperbacks have a price tag, but I make digital versions free on Smashwords and Barnes and Noble. So far one has gone free on Amazon as well. As soon as it did, I started selling more copies of that novel.

4. I’ve even seen the first several chapters of a book published as an ebook and used as a free preview (though I didn’t know it when I downloaded it and was angry when I found out and refused to buy it, so if you take this road, LET YOUR READERS KNOW WHAT THEY’RE GETTING).

5.  And finally…well, I do have one more specific idea for using giveaways to good advantage. I have been thinking on this all spring and summer, so it is a really good one. One I’m going to put into practice very soon. But I want to discuss freebies a little further before I unveil it. Tune in next week. In the meantime…

What has your experience been with giveaways?

Knee-Knock Rise, by Natalie Babbitt, 1970, Book Review

In a land of flat plains there sits a ridge of hill, and on the very top one, the one always embraced by a cloak of mist, there dwells a beast. The people of Instep, the town closest to Kneeknock Rise, hold a fair each autumn, when the weather turns surly and the Megrimum atop the hill begins to moan. It is to this fair that Egan is bound. Here he learns the nature of the beast, and the best ways to ward it off–candles, onions, wishbones, poppies and bells. Especially bells. Bright-eyed people happily shared exciting tales of mystery and dread, for the Megrimum was “frightful and fine and it belonged to them.” But is it a beast at all?

Natalie Babbitt creates a wonderful tale that took Newbery honors in 1971. I did not, however, like it as much as Tuck Everlasting, but that’s hardly fair. I’ve had an ongoing love affair with Tuck for twenty-five years. Kneeknock Rise, though written earlier, is completely new to me. But it just doesn’t reach the depth of insight and beauty that Babbitt achieves with Tuck.

In the end, Kneeknock Rise comes off much like a fable. For while Egan is visiting Instep, he hikes to the top of the rise. What he finds surprises him, but not as much as the response he gets to his story when he hikes below again. Perhaps the moral for this fable is best illustrated by a poem written by Egan’s Uncle Ott:

The cat attacked a bit of string
And dragged it by the head
And tortured it beside the stove
And left it there for dead.
 
“Excuse me sir,” I murmured when
He passed me in the hall,
“But that was only string you had
And not a mouse at all!”
 
He didn’t even thank me when
I told him he was wrong
It’s possible – just possible –
He knew it all along.
 

To put it another way: You can’t talk a fool out of deluding himself.

Highly recommended.

Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt, 2011, Book Review (Kind of)

okay for nowI have one word for you:  A.m.a.z.i.n.g.

Gary Schmidt has long been one of my favorite authors. In fact, I’ve kind of made him my very own personal back-pocket author. Years ago, when I was freshly out of college and toying with a writing hobby, I discovered his book, Anson’s Way.  I finished the last page, closed the cover and just looked at it there in my hand. “I want to write like that,” I told myself. Shortly thereafter, I began my first novel, The Color of Freedom.

Sometime later, I discovered that Mr. Schmidt taught at a college very close to my house. Not the school I had attended, but one I often visited to make use of its library. Gary Schmidt was practically my neighbor! How do you think it felt when I found out my very own personal back-pocket author lived almost in my backyard? You got it. I started my second novel, The Quill Pen.

When Schmidt’s book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy took Newbery honors, I read it twice, and I attended a writing conference where I heard Mr. Schmidt speak. I started my third novel, The Candle Star.

Schmidt’s next book, The Wednesday Wars, also took Newbery honors, and I lamented the tragedy that it didn’t win the medal outright. (This is my favorite Schmidt book, one I highly recommend you all read.) I wrote Mr. Schmidt a very nice letter letting him know how much I appreciated his work over the years and shared how it influenced me to pursue my own writing career. He wrote a very nice reply, including some encouragement and a few tips. You know how it feels when your very own personal back-pocket author sends you a letter of encouragement? Kind of like when you finish writing the last page of your very own story and you look down at it there in your hand and you know it’s exactly right. I started my fourth novel, Broken Ladders.

This spring, after a million revisions of each, I self-published three of my four (so far) novels. I bet you can guess how that felt! And Mr. Schmidt released another book–this one, Okay for Now. Again I say, amazing!

Within, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck (one of the minor characters in Wednesday Wars) moves to a stupid town in upstate New York with his horrible family. And I’m not lying, I mean horrible. His father is a world-class jerk and his brother is a chump. But Lil Spicer isn’t so bad, and neither is Mr. Powell, down at the library, who teaches Doug to draw from a collection of bird prints by artist John James Audubon. Doug’s other brother comes home from Vietnam much different than when he left. And Principal Peattie never does stop talking in the third person, even when he turns out not so bad as Doug thought.

This isn’t a high-action thriller. Honestly, nothing too exciting happens in stupid upstate Marysville. Except the residents turn out to be the real good kind of neighbors. Except a whole family undergoes some much needed changes. Except Doug finds out that he, like Audubon’s birds, has very strong wings. This one’s a powerful feel lousy/feel good kind of book that keeps you reading simply because you can’t disentangle yourself from the people inside its covers. Look for this one to be in the running for some big awards.

In the meantime, Gary Schmidt has inspired me to go big as well. I’m not going to settle for self-publishing the last of my four (so far) novels. No, I want more for The Quill Pen. I want to know what it feels like for an agent say, “I love it!” and for a publisher to say, “This is just the sort of story we’re looking for!” and for a reader to write to me and say, “Your work inspires me!” Gary D. Schmidt knows how that feels, but I don’t. Not yet. But I bet it feels like, well, like when Joe Pepitone belted one right out of Yankee Stadium during the World Series. And I’m not lying. I bet it feels just like that.

It’s Like This, Cat, by Emily Neville, Book Review by Emily, age 11

it's like this catThe title of this book is It’s Like This, Cat. The author is Emily Neville. This book won the Newbery Award. It is fiction.

The story begins in New York with the main character, Dave Mitchell, arguing with his dad. He gets in all sorts of arguments with his dad. He goes to an apartment where a lady named Kate lives. Everyone thinks Kate is crazy. She has lots of stray cats. Dave goes there every time he gets mad at his dad. This time Kate has a stay tomcat. They talk about his argument. She ends up giving him the tomcat. Dave names him Cat.

Cat gets lost one week. Dave looks all around the block and finds him in the cellar of some building locked in a cage. A boy who was hiding in the cellar helps get the cat out. Dave tells his dad about the person in the cellar. His dad is a lawyer. The boy, Tom, ends up being a thief. They become friends, and Dave’s dad helps Tom.

Dave goes to the beach one day with his friend, Nick, and Cat. They meet these girls and they take them to the movies later on. Dave becomes good friends with Mary, one of the girls he meets. Kate receives a telegram telling that her brother died and she got a lot of money that she didn’t want. She gives Dave two more cats. Two kittens. Dave and his dad finally stop fighting. And Tom comes to their apartment and says that he is entering the army. In the end, they have a toast of wine to Cat, who was in the middle of everything.

I think the story was good but I don’t think that it should have gotten the Newbery award.

***Michelle’s commentary:  This book explores the evolving relationship of young David Mitchell and his father. As his father goes out of  his way to help Tom, who’s own father abandoned him, and Kate, who ends up in a legal mess after her she inherits her brother’s estate, Dave begins to see and understand what a good man his father really is. And Cat, of course, is at the center of all these relationships. I agree with Emily. Cute story, but not Newbery-worthy.

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The Golden Goblet, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Book Review

golden gobletPublished in 1961 and receiving Newberry honors the next year, The Golden Goblet is still a worthy read decades later. Within, young Ranofer wants nothing more than to become a goldsmith in ancient Egypt, but after his father’s death, he goes to live with his horrible half-brother, Gebu, who apprentices him as a stonecutter. After finding an exquisite goblet hidden among Gebu’s clothing, Ranofer is convinced his brother has been robbing tombs in the great Valley of the Kings. But how can he prove it without getting himself killed?

Ranofer is a captivating character. Surrounded by wicked men, he keeps his integrity. Among devestating circumstances, he maintains hope. And as he struggles to reshape his life to realize his dreams, this bewildered boy matures into a thoughtful, courageous young man who is willing to risk his life for what he believes is right. And as he does, he is befriended by two companions, young Heqet and the Ancient, who demonstrate true loyalty and friendship.

Not only are Ranofer, his friends and Gebu fascinating, their surroundings are beautifully depicted. Ms. McGraw paints for her readers a stunning portrait of the land, its culture and its religion. The Golden Goblet would be a valuable companion for a social studies unit on Egypt. It would be equally valuable in any children’s literature class, as she writes with rare artistry. Her prose is fluent and poetic, and she makes effective use of a variety of literary devices. She’s a master of dialogue. And her choice of word pictures, in particular, are wonderfully rich and period-appropriate. For me, this richness is the book’s greatest strength.

While The Golden Goblet successfully held my interest, and it ends with a spine-tingling conclusion, it took a great many slow pages to develop in the middle. Not every reader would stick it out. But in my opinion, it’s worth pushing through. Ms. McGraw has made ancient Egypt come to life and given to us a delightfully innocent, lovable, unforgettable character named Ranofer who, in my favorite scene of the book, is asked by the queen what he would most like in the world and asks for… a donkey! Recommended for ages 10+.