Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book 4 - Body Trade

When I started my 100 Books by January 1, 2011 challenge, I had few rules: no picture books, strive for an assortment of genres and styles, and unfinished manuscripts don't count. I'm not even out of the top 10 and I'm about to break one of those rules.

I'm always honoured to read the unpublished and unfinished works of my friends. I have two awesome critique partners whose work is every bit as good (perhaps better) than many established authors, my cousin is writing a killer book I'm looking forward to helping him with, and I love, love, love to read anything by Kyle and Rocky. The Journalist in me is hungry for any editing challenge presented to me, often encouraging me to take on challenges that actually weren't presented to me at all.

Such is the case with Body Trade, an unpublished, but very much complete, novel by Alberta author Margaret Macpherson.

This isn't her first book. In fact, she quite a few Canadian-published novels under her belt. And in just a few months, she'll be teaching young writers at Winter WordsWorth, a program put on by the Young Alberta Book Society where I work. That's how I met her - and before long, I'd asked to take a look at her manuscript.

Margaret told me Body Trade wasn't a kid's book. She wasn't kidding. But as the (now) cliche goes, she had me at hello.

The story begins in northern Canada, where two unlikely young women meet and decide to take a road trip. On their way to Mexico, Tanya and Rosie share Thelma and Louise style adventures, and go from the magic of Disneyland to the horrors of a Belize pig farm. There they witness violence that shocks even the wordly Tanya, and they are both cast into the underground sex trade.

It is a tale of friendship and survival.

It is also one of the most well written stories I have ever read. I've lamented about the difference between literary and commercial fiction in the past, but Margaret leaves no room for debate. Body Trade is firmly rooted in the literary category and the words are woven together with such skill, the characters leap from the page.

Though tasked with "editing" Body Trade, I could scarcely stop reading to make a mark on the page other than to compliment - over and over again - Margaret's incredible talent. The writing is tight without creative compromise. The metaphors are not cliched and yet paint images so vivid, you can't help but be swept up in her emotional roller coaster. Margaret even breaks my personal point of view rules and tells each woman's story in first person - but its clear she understands, deeply knows, each of her characters and without even the tell-tale dialogue tags, you know which character commands each scene.

The book is, of course, not without flaws, and after staring at "the end" slack jawed and desperate for more, I think I might have patched together some feedback that could be useful. But any advice I offer may only fill a few small gaps because it is evident Margaret needs no help when it comes to the written word.

Body Trade is not yet published - but it will be. And when it hits the bookstores, I will be first in line for my copy.

The Book In my Bag This Week: Lover Revealed, J.R. Ward (yes, again)

Monday, December 28, 2009

My artistic idol

Deep breath.

I'm addicted to American Idol.

I've watched almost every season, including the first, when Kelly Clarkson was crowned the first Idol. I haven't agreed with all of the winners and losers - Chris Daughtry NOT in the top 3? Come on! - and I swore I would divorce the show if Adam Lambert didn't beat out the far less interesting and talented Kris Allen.

Of course, Adam didn't win and I will likely watch the next season, despite my resolve to "stop the addiction."

In retrospect, perhaps it's best my two favourites from last season - Adam and the amazing Allison Iraheta - didn't win. Both CDs were on my Christmas wish list (much to my husband's dismay) and Santa was good to me. I doubt either Adam or Allison could have produced these incredible debut albums under the Idol constraints.

I love them both, but when I hear Adam's CD I want to write. When he isn't creating controversy (Yes, I DID see his American Music Awards performance), he's creating great music. The entire album has a techno vibe that brings me back to the days of glam rock. And beneath it all, Adam pumps out some stellar lyrics in his trademark powerful voice. The guy can sing.

But talent can only get you so far.

Since his Idol departure, Adam has been selected as one of Barbara Walters' most fascinating people of 2009, he's been on the COVER of Rolling Stone Magazine, appeared on several talk shows, collaborated with the likes of Lady Gaga, and produced a CD I think portrays what Adam is all about. Impressive - but I think he's just getting warmed up.

After the AMA performance, Adam was on The View, reminding viewers he is no longer an Idol contestant. His CD, his performances, his media attention is all about HIS career now - and his music may not be what you might expect from an Idol winner. He isn't "safe". He's experimenting. And he's creating art.

Over the last few days, I've been reading, watching movies, and thinking about my career as a writer. In 2009, I allowed obstacles to form - internal and external. I didn't always listen to my gut, and often worried about what others would think rather than focussing on what is best for the story. Bad Dawn.

With Adam as this week's muse, I'm hopeful I can break the "safe" cycle and remind myself that as long as I'm mindful of Steve Berry's craft rules, it's ok to experiment. I'm excited to start today.

I have a feeling his CD will also be my musical muse this week. (My current song obsession is Sleepwalker...)

The Book In my Bag This Week: Lover Revealed, J.R. Ward

PS - Santa brought me many books this Christmas and I can hardly wait to sink my teeth into them. However, as I promised myself I would do, I am finishing the books I started - and stopped. This is the third time starting Lover Revealed. I WILL finish it this round. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book 3 - Bed of Roses

I was preparing for my own wedding when I read the first book in Nora Roberts' Bride Quartet series. Vision in White made me cry.

So did Bed of Roses.

Nora's bigger books - like Black Hills - have been hit or miss with me the last few years, but she always scores when she returns to her straight romantic roots. Bed of Roses has the classic romance genre set-up, with few deviations, and I'm okay with that. She's created characters I like and a story that tugs at my heart strings. And I love, love, love the environment -- four best friends who've creating a wedding planning business based on their individual talents.

Nora Roberts has talents too, many of which are on full display in this book. And even though she breaks a few "craft" rules, I don't seem to mind so much. As my mentor would suggest, breaking the rules is forgiven when your track record alone sells books. The number of novels Nora has produced - including the amazing J.D. Robb series - is staggering, and I might respect her for that alone, but I also fully appreciate her command on the genre and am happy to get lost in her words.

As always, with Nora's series, my biggest disappointment is simply waiting for the next book.

On the hunt for Book 4 in my 100 book challenge.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday a"muse"ment

Anyone know who this is?

Me either.

But it doesn't really matter, does it? Absolution is done, finished, complete...outta here. Which means writing / editing / finishing it isn't going to hang around my neck like an albatross over the Christmas holidays.

In fact, any writing I do over the next five-ish days is strictly gratuitous - kinda like this guy in the Santa hat. Seems like a perfect muse to me.

Objections, anyone?

Book 2 of 100 - The Devil's Punchbowl, Greg Isles

I love Greg Isles.

He hooked me with Dead Sleep and I read Turning Angel in one day. Greg has incredible talent, the kind of writing that makes me wish I could rise to his level and tell compelling stories like his with such an awesome command of the English language. In the game of word-play, Greg is a master.

So it wasn't lack of talent that prevented me from finishing The Devil's Punchbowl in one sitting, but rather a lack of time. Reading it slower than I would have liked didn't cheapen the experience. This book tackles some pretty heavy duty themes - dog fighting, gambling and the sex trade. He doesn't pull any punches and the web of terror he weaves is intricate and heart pounding.

The story re-introduces several characters from previous Greg Isles thrillers, including protagonist Penn Cage. I loved being re-acquainted with these people again, kind of like going to a high school reunion.

I've never been a fan of first-person prose, but Greg is brilliant in his execution, particularly in this book. The subplots are told through third person points of view, which, unfortunately, are written in italics. Thankfully, these scenes are shorter so the italic font didn't distract me for too long.

If you've never read a Greg Isles book before, I'd recommend starting with some of his earlier work. The Devil's Punchbowl isn't for the weak of heart - especially if you're a dog lover.

The book in my bag today: Bed of Roses, Nora Roberts

Thursday, December 17, 2009

One proud sister

My younger sister, Jessica was fourteen when she announced she wanted to be a forensic psychologist. After watching Silence of the Lambs, something about Jodi Foster's character resonated with her - and stuck.

It's been a long haul - more than a decade of schooling, innumerable years as a starving student, and countless hours of studying. But her decision has never wavered (except that one year when she considered marine biology, but we won't tell Dad about that...) and yesterday, she defended her dissertation and passed. Which means we can now call her Dr. Ius.

I teased her a lot about that last night after she'd indulged in a little champagne and I mourned the fact I couldn't be there with her to celebrate. I asked how long until her handwriting went to seed, or whether she would be trading in her headphones for a stethoscope, or if I'd have to make an appointment and pay astronomical fees to hang out with her. (Yes, I do know she isn't THAT kind of doctor.)

But really, this milestone for her is nothing to joke about.

I don't know anyone with more passion and drive than my sister. She's tough as nails but has a heart of gold. She's pragmatic and creative, compassionate and honest. Her beauty radiates from within - and she's a knockout, as her fiancee Pete would certainly attest. Jess will be an awesome wife, and is already an incredible role model for her two stepsons, Nick and Chris.

But she'll always be my role model.

She has such limited time, but she'll read anything I send her and provide thoughtful, encouraging feedback. And though our relationship has been fraught with common (and uncommon) sibling angst, her support of me and my writing has always remained consistent. It's not a coincidence my first novel, Absolution, has been dubbed "Silence of the Lambs in a confessional."

When I want advice about friends and family, or being a step parent, I call my sister.

I call her when I need to cry, too.

Jess is the first person to tell me to "suck it up" when I'm having a pity party, but she's also the most reliable person in my world. And she understands me better than anyone in the universe. Who else, but my sister, would have known that on the afternoon of my wedding all I wanted was a cheese sandwich?

Jessica's path has been hindered with many obstacles but through tenacity, hard work, and sheer brute force, she has reached the pinnacle of her career and I couldn't be happier. I'm thrilled the rest of the world can now call her doctor - but I am most proud to call her my sister.

I love you, Jess. Congratulations on realizing your dream.

The book in my bag today: The Devil's Punchbowl, Greg Isles

Monday, December 14, 2009

Angelina will steer me right...right?

You can say what you want about Angelina Jolie, but if there's one thing that's clear, the woman rarely misses her target. Whether its landing a star role, a leading man, or fighting for one of her many causes, Angelina is a force to be reckoned with.

When I grow up (grin) I want to be her.

Yeah, I know, she's done some weird things - like that intimate kiss with her brother, or wearing Billy Bob's blood in a vial around her neck. But over the years, she's also fought for several noble causes and made numerous contributions to improve children's lives.

Still, I didn't select her to be this week's muse for either her rebellious past or her present angelic (and wealthy) nature.

For one thing she embodies the thrill-seeking, tough chick I imagine two of my characters to be. She's confident, beautiful and sexy. And, she has a knock-out smile that radiates from the screen. This week I'm in desperate need for plenty of those smiles. As the holidays approach, I'm losing traction with the WIP, which translates to some writerly doubt - and I'm pretty sure Angelina wouldn't tolerate that.

So I'm ok with her whipping me into shape. Often when I'm running on the treadmill, I watch the opening sequence to the first Tomb Raider, and somehow I'm inspired to look that awesome in a black tank top, booty shorts and strap-on "guns." (Don't even get me started about the dog sledding scene - I tried it once and didn't look even half as graceful.)

And since it was her handsome hubby Brad Pitt who gave me the biggest push on this WIP just last month, I figure she's competitive enough to want to out-do him. I've got no problem racing to the finish line with Angelina at my side. Honest.

My apologies to those who read my Monday morning post with the anticipation of some male eye candy. I had little say in the matter - Angelina is also a sly and convincing muse.

The Book In My Bag Today: The Devil's Punchbowl, Greg Isles

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Marked - Book 1 of 100

Woot! I finished the first book in my 100 books by January 1, 2011 challenge.

Granted, it wasn't any of the ones I've started - and stopped. And yes, it was young adult, but I'm kind of into that whole vampyre-teenage-romance genre.

Perhaps more motivating was that my best friend Karen decided she also wanted to read 100 books by January 1, 2011 - which is kind of like throwing down the gauntlet of challenge - albeit in a friendly and loving sort of way.

You can check out Karen's progress here.

So here's my take on Marked by P.C and Kristen Cast.

We follow sixteen-year-old Zoey as she is first Marked by a Vampyre Tracker, thus ensuring she must leave teenage-hood as she'd always known it and move into the House of Night, a kind of boarding school for fledgling vamps. But Zoey is special - her Mark darker than the others, her powers more developed, her destiny already taking shape.

I loved Joey from the first page and the story immediately drew me in. The Casts do a wonderful job of touching on teenage topics - like sex, death and drugs - without coming across as preachy or condescending. The story-line might be considered cliche by now - the misfit youth trying to find his / her place, finding it in a new (supernatural) world, and realizing he/she does not only fit in - but he / she possesses special "powers" there as well. To off-set this potential cliche, the book is sprinkled with great description and wit that gives it a fresh feeling. And at the end, I found myself wishing I had the second book in the series.

Curled up with Marked isn't a bad way to spend a cold wintery night.

Friday, December 11, 2009

100 books in 2010-ish

I'm reading four books right now - Nora Roberts' latest in her wedding series, Lover Awakened - or maybe its Lover Unbound, I seem to have lost track, or perhaps interest, Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz and the Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Isles.

For those who know me, please pick your jaw up off the floor. I'm aware this is very much out of character. Up until this year I would never have started a new book (let alone four) before finishing the first one. And with the exception of Lover Whichever, the books I have on the go are written by some of my favorite authors. Add to that the new Steve Berry, the upcoming and highly anticipated James Rollins, and the mountain of To Be Read novels scattered throughout my house, and I've got far more books to read than I have available time.

Or perhaps more accurately, I've not given reading enough of my time.

I've forgotten what it feels like to be immersed in a book, fiction that make me forget the sometimes roller coaster that is life, and takes me to places I'd love to go, with people I wish were my neighbors and friends. I haven't fallen in love with a male character since Wrath, and that love affair ended the second I reacquainted myself with Roarke. And the last time I finished a book that truly gave me goosebumps was... Sadly, I have no idea.

It has nothing to do with quality. I simply haven't made time to read.

That's going to change in 2010 - in fact, it's going to change starting this weekend. Between now and January 1, 2011, I'm committing to 100 books. I recognize that's about two a week, but there was a time - not too long ago - that a couple novels every few days would have been a given rather than a challenge.

I miss evenings in front of the fireplace (albeit fake), curled up in the blanket my Nona made, reading a great book. I have four (ish) awesome books on the go - and I think I'll start with those. I'll use 2010 to get over my odd fear of new genres and new authors, and get back to what made me want to write in the first place. I'll remember how to take comfort in fiction and replace chocolate (yeah, I've been bad) with good stories.

To hold myself accountable, I'll list every book I read here. If I get ambitious (ha ha), I might even include a review.

The truth is, my "need" to read is as strong as my "need" to write. So as I proclaim 2010 as the year I start looking after my needs, reading and writing will top the list.

If you have any recommendations to throw my way, bring em on. I'd love to hear what's keeping you turning pages well into the night.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fighting with my inner Grinch

Christmas has changed for me in these last few years.

As a typical youth, I looked forward to the gifts Santa left under the tree, stockings filled to the brim, presents piled high in a mountain of toys, clothes and technology. But even then, I understood tradition - and our family had many of them.

Like the annual "tree lot" hunt, where Mom always had the last say. Watching the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Mom's favourite holiday movie. Scrubbing the kitchen down as though we expected a visit from the Centre for Disease Control in anticipation of Nona's two-week visit. Playing Scrabble with my sister on Christmas Eve and then staying up all night for last-minute wrapping. Champagne and orange juice morning toasts and mouthwatering waits for the biggest, most moist turkey in the universe - well, at least in Calgary.

Those were good Christmases. Surrounded by family. Minimal stress. Tons of fun.

It's different now.

It isn't just that the family dynamics have changed - my sister lives across the world (okay, just across Canada, but it feels so much further), my Mom and stepdad are no longer together, and I have a family of my own.

Granted, it's a small family. Last year, my (now) husband and I celebrated the holiday with our dogs. Just the four of us, waking up when we felt like it, stumbling into the kitchen for coffee and champagne. Opening gifts and fielding phone calls from loved ones. Watching movies all day in our new pyjamas, and throwing together a last minute dinner before crawling back into bed. Different, but no less enjoyable.

Things are changing again this year. Last year, Mom sent a Christmas "box" filled with stuff that looked suspiciously like the items one might find in a stocking. She isn't doing that this year, though as she tells me this her throat constricts with emotion. And while my husband and I will stay home with the dogs again, we also have his daughter with us.

With her comes a whole set of expectations. Back home, she'd be surrounded by family and presents. Here, there is just my husband and I, the dogs - and her mouse. Finances are tight and while we'll do the best we can, I suspect it will look more like Present Hill rather than Gift Mountain.

It shouldn't matter.

I of all people know that. Regardless of our financial situation, Mom gave us the best Christmases, not with gifts, but with enthusiasm. The kind of sheer joy that radiated from her and filled our hearts. Sure, we got Cabbage Patch Kids (I sacrificed mine for Rikki Rockett, but that's a whole other story...Jess, stop laughing!), but sharing Nono's After Eights while playing Italian card games as Mom and Sy laboured over turkey evokes a much more vivid - and emotional - memory.

Those are the kinds of memories I want with my new family - but I seem to be lacking a bit of holiday spirit this year. I'm stressed about what my stepdaughter WON'T find under the tree (even as my heart and mind tell me it shouldn't matter), and I'm missing some of those old traditions. Who else will play Scrabble with me over a couple of beer? We don't even own a copy of the Grinch.

I know I need to let go and create NEW traditions - and we've started, really. This past weekend marked a second successful annual tree hunt. And it did, indeed, take my handsome hubby several hours to string the lights. We decorated as a family - he directed placement from the floor while his daughter and I hung the pink hearts and brown balls with care. Jeff says we will indulge in champagne and orange juice Christmas morning too, and spend the day in our pyjamas watching movies.

But I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness as I continue my search for some of that old Christmas spirit - the kind my Mom could magically evoke with a simple smile.

Monday, December 7, 2009

More 24-hour amusement

Yeah, I know. Kiefer was LAST week's muse, and it's a bit of a cop out. But hey, it's my brain and it can cheat if it wants to.

Truth be told, I haven't quite tapped all of what I need from Jack. I've got a little more havoc to wreak, a bit more torture to inflict. The freaking book to finish!

So if I'm going to be filling my head with THOSE kinds of images, I might as well have some decent eye candy to help me get rid of them after, right?

Friday, December 4, 2009

One day in Bliss

December 3, 2009 will be marked as a perfect day.

Up at 6 a.m. to make my handsome hubby's lunch and send him off to work smiling. Insert coffee IV, open laptop. Begin writing. Off to a great start, right?

By 1 p.m., I'd knocked off 6,000 words of fresh text. Yep, that's right - patting myself on the back, here.

At 1:30, I cleaned the kitchen, because even though my muse can work from almost anywhere, he really prefers organized chaos -- and I hear Kiefer Sutherland (this week's muse) is kind of anal about that stuff. Are you going to be the one to tick off Jack Bauer?

At 2:00, I hopped in the bath with pages from my friend Rocky's book Catch a Falling Star -- don't run to the bookstore, it's not on the shelves. Yet.

At 2:30 I began writing again. Another 2,000 words before 4:30. (Yep, 8,000 word-day. Suhweet!)

I started making dinner at 4:30. A healthy dinner, even. (I should fess up here, though, that the previous food choices for the day were not healthy - like the giant bowl of buttered popcorn, the Pop Tarts, and the Smores Pie from McDonalds - yes, Karen, JOYGASMIC.)

Having knocked my daily writing goal out of the park, I entered the "after-dinner" portion of my day without guilt. Handsome hubby and I took the dogs for a brisk walk. We watched a bit of T.V. together, then crawled into bed early.


This, my dear readers, is a perfect day in my world.

Hours of writing, reading and spending time with my family, peppered with communication with the friends who make my world go round. Text messages that bring smiles to my face (Sue). Phone calls that remind me of the wonderful people who support and love me (Kyle). A heart-warming message on my cell phone answering service (Karen). New pages from a critique parter (woot!).

Does it get any better than that?


Sadly, it's snowing outside and while I'd love to repeat yesterday, I'm back at the day job today. Don't get me wrong -- I love what I do and believe the goals of the Young Alberta Book Society are both noble and necessary. But after yesterday, today seems a little bit of a let down.

Thank goodness it's Friday and Kyle is on his way here. (And that my other crit partner finally posted a new blog today...)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Holy Smokes - he was right! (Sort of)

My husband and I were watching Angels and Demons the other night when after witnessing black smoke rise from within the chimney of the Vatican, he said, "That must be where the term 'holy smoke' comes from." When a new Pope is elected after the death of the previous one, black smoke indicates a decision has not been made - white, of course, indicating a new Pope has been elected.

My husband isn't the religious sort, and so I chuckled at his definition and quasi-suffered through the rest of the movie. But three days later, 'holy smoke' is still rolling around in my head. So I decided to look it up.

Turns out, my handsome hubby is right. Well, partially.

There appears to be a couple of explanations on how the term came about. The most common is the answer my husband provided. Another explanation dates back to the nineteenth century, when the term was first used by Rudyard Kipling in his book The Naulahka. And there are other references from literature as well - a poem from the 1860s by Jean Ingelow compares holy smoke to love, and in the Bible, the Book of Revelation quotes: And the smoke of incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."

But perhaps the most likely explanation is that holy smoke - like "holy cow" and "holy mackerel" was invented as a mock-religious exclamation and mild oath. The word 'holy' is often inserted to strengthen an expression - to express strong emotion, such as great surprise or anger.


Is it any wonder I love research? (Just yesterday, I learned all about embalming....)