Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Review #4: Tiger's Curse

This week's animal fantasy book review is Colleen Houck's awesome YA novel, Tiger's Curse.  I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but I just couldn't resist the beautiful, shimmery, white-tiger cover.  The cover reeled me in, the story won me over.  In the rare case the cover didn't win you over, too, here's the blurb from Houck's website to entice you further:
The last thing Kelsey Hayes thought she’d be doing this summer was trying to break a 300-year-old Indian curse. With a mysterious white tiger named Ren. Halfway around the world. But that’s exactly what happened. Face-to-face with dark forces, spellbinding magic, and  mystical worlds where nothing is what it seems, Kelsey risks everything to piece together an ancient prophecy that could break the curse forever.
In case you didn't know by now, I'm a sucker for shape-shifting/animal fantasy romances.  They combine two of my favorite things--animals and a head-over-heels love story--and mold them into one powerhouse novel.  Although there are technically no talking animals in this book (Ren growls like a normal tiger while in his feline form), I still think it counts as an animal fantasy due to the abundance of magical elements and animal transformations.  Even though the tiger-prince can't speak, Houck still infuses his actions and growls/whines/roars with powerful emotions, from humor to despair and everything in between.  What's especially interesting is that Tiger's Curse was originally self-published, then offered representation after e-book sales skyrocketed.  If you have any curiosity about the self-publishing industry, you will want to check out Houck's inspiring success story on her website.  
My two favorite elements in Tiger's Curse are Houck's use of setting and voice.  The book takes place in India with several trips to mythological realms full of fantasy flora and fauna, as well as Indiana Jones-style booby traps.  The real-world settings are vivid and full of details that invoke the senses, while the fantasy ones brim with magic and feel like somewhere you could actually travel.  With such realistic, believable settings, I was shocked to find out that according to Houck's website, she's never even been to India!  (She did conduct a massive amount of research on the country, traditions, and mythology, though.)  I never once doubted her facts and descriptions, proving a bit of sleuthing and a keen eye for detail can save you quite a bit of money in research-travel expenses!  
Houck's use of voice is just as important in Tiger's Curse as her setting.  The main character, Kelsey, narrates the story from First Person perspective.  Remember when I griped a few months back about growing tired of that overdone "snarky" teen voice?  Well, Tiger's Curse is a breath of fresh air!  To me, Kelsey had a contemplative, realistic, normal voice which I could relate to easily.  "Normal," in this case, is by no means "boring."  Kelsey had enough humor and sass to keep me chuckling, but not too much that it overwhelmed the story.  She doesn't wallow in her woe, or explode in unnecessary outbursts, or rebel at everything and everyone in her life.  Instead, she's complex, kind, and just a little jaded with believable reactions to the good and bad events that come her way.  Kelsey's narrative prose is simply lovely; I guarantee your heart will go out to her and her tender, inner "love plant" that flourishes and withers as she follows Ren to the end of the world and back. 
If you like a good animal fantasy romance like East or Shiver, then Tiger's Curse is certainly for you.  If you're a writer, it's a great opportunity to study a superb execution of setting and voice.  And if you simply wish you had a tiger who could turn into a charming, hunky prince, then run out and get this book right now!  I can't wait to start the sequel, Tiger's Quest.  The ending of Tiger's Curse left me yearning for more, and it might just have my favorite closing lines out of any book I've ever read.       
You can check out Houck's website at:  And if you read the book, let me know!  I'd love to hear what you think. :)

Note: Summary blurb and cover art are both from Houck's website.

Monday, August 22, 2011

COSCBWI August Meeting: 1st Pages

Our SCBWI meeting for August was an open-critique where members brought in the first page of their manuscript.  We read each first page aloud, then offered feedback as a group.  Here are some pointers and common issues that came up:

1-Be sure you double space your manuscript, use 12 point font, and have one inch margins all around.  Your first page should also start about half-way down the page.  (I know, I know--what a jip!)  It's good to get into these habits from the get-go, though.  That way, when you are ready to submit, you won't go, "Shoot!  My first page cuts off in the middle of an awesome paragraph!"

2-Don't info dump on page one.  (i.e. don't give the main character's entire list of extended family members or describe every piece of clothing in their wardrobe.)  Sometimes less is more.

3-On the other hand, don't be too vague either.  It's nice to have your main character's name on page one, one or two defining features of his/herself (looks, personality traits, etc.) AND/OR the environment so readers feel grounded in the story.  From that list, pick what's most important to your story.  If little Betsy Lou will be learning to overcome her fears in the book, we really ought to see that she's a scardey-cat on page one.  If your book is about city-dwelling dinosaurs, it would be good to know your book takes place in New York City and not the jungle.  And if Timmy's story is all about dying his hair magenta, then his boring hair color is a must-know upfront.  

4-Do try to be exciting and make your reader eager to turn to page 2.  You can entice your reader to flip that page by incorporating a number of techniques including suspense, humor, intrigue, action, sympathy, attitude (and many many more!)  It's a good idea to pick up some of your favorite books and study the techniques those authors used on their first pages that made you say, "I must read more!" 

5-Remember that your first page is your book's first impression.  Make it as polished as possible and get as many pairs of eyes on it as you can.  You'll be glad you did. :)

There's one other piece of advice I've always taken to heart regarding first pages.  I heard it when I attended the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference in 2009 and it's stuck with me ever since.  The conference had a panel event where several agents and editors gave their first impressions of attendee-submitted first pages.  The advice they gave us was this: your first page should make a promise to your reader.  A promise.  What that promise is, is completely up to you.  Makes you think, huh?

What things do you like to see in the first page of book?  Do you have a favorite book opening?  (I'm pretty partial to the first page of Harry Potter!)  And if you feel overwhelmed by the daunting task of creating a rockin' first page, here's Snoopy to make you feel better!

Happy writing!

Snoopy/Peanuts is copyright Charles Schulz and Peanuts Worldwide LLC

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Hello everyone!  I'm over at WriteOnCon this week--a free online writing conference chock full of publishing information, vlogs, and online chats with industry professionals.  There are also critique forums and the opportunity for agents and editors to scout your stuff.  If you're a writer, then you should be there too! 

Check it out:

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Remember Who You Were

When writing as an adult for kids, it's important to keep your emotions and reactions in touch with your character's age.  If you drop a worm on the head of a three year old picture book character, eleven year old middle grade character, and seventeen year old young adult character, you would have quite a range of reactions.  This mindfulness can be a challenge when the adult writer is so far removed from their character's age.  Fortunately, I have a 13 year old sister to keep my mind young.
A few weeks ago, I went to the Kentucky Horse Park with my mom and little sister.  We signed up for a trail ride at the end of the day where you actually got to ride horses instead of just look at them.  Everyone over 18 was not required to wear a helmet, but I opted to anyway 1) for safety's sake and 2) so sis didn't feel like a total loser.  She got antsy at the mere mention of "helmet," frantically scanning the group to make sure no cute boys were within a ten mile radius.  (Yeah, I'm not sure there were any boys ages 10-25 in the entire Horse Park...)  
We stood in line together waiting for our helmets.  When it was our turn, the worker held up a plain, black, normal helmet.  He sized us both up for a moment (note: there might be a millimeter difference in our height), and handed the helmet to my sister.  Then he turned around, plucked a star-spangled monstrosity from the stack, and plunked it on my head.  Truth be told, it was atrocious.  It was like somebody threw up the American flag and molded it into a helmet.  I laughed, tightened the chinstrap, and joined my sister waiting with the other already snickering riders.  The look of utter relief in my sister's eyes practically shouted, "I'm sooooooo glad that's on you and not me."   
I'm too sexy for this helmet.
At once, I saw myself in her sneakers twelve years ago.  7th Grade Kathryn would have been mortified to have that thing on her head.  She would have wanted to crawl into a hole and die.  She would have been paranoid that all the cool kids in school would suddenly appear behind her.  She would have been certain that satellite pictures taken from space were being posted all over the internet for the entire world to mock.  (Hey, I never said 7th Grade Kathryn was rational.)  My adult reaction was, "No biggie."  I cracked jokes with the other riders and wished I had my camera to document the moment.  But to 7th Grade Kathryn, wearing that helmet would have been the difference between having a fun day and having a miserable one.
Even without a patriotic helmet on her head or a single boy in sight, my sister was still anxious about what horse she would get.  I didn't care if they gave me a polka dot horse with a rainbow mane and tail; I was simply happy to be riding!  (As such, I got a lovely fellow named Nacho who was proudly pooping in the first picture the workers took of me during the ride.  I kind of wish we'd bought that picture now...)  My sister got her wish for a pretty horse and had a completely non-eventful, embarrassment-free ride--which resulted in a non-eventful, tear-free car ride home for the rest of us.
See?  I told you we're practically the same height!
It was rather enlightening to see this situation from my little sister's perspective.  Had I been writing a similar scene in a book, my adult emotions might have gotten everything wrong.  My little sister reminded me that the world is a much more embarrassing place to a middle schooler and that what I consider a molehill, she might see as Mt. Everest (and vice versa).  All in all, this was a mutually beneficial experience.  She taught me a lesson and I spared her from having to wear that stupid helmet.  Deep down, I'm soooooo glad they put it on me and not her, too. :)    
What's something that doesn't phase you now that would have absolutely mortified your 7th Grade Self?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review #3: Nightshade City

This week's book review is Hilary Wagner's awesome middle grade novel, Nightshade City.  This is a true animal fantasy story where the talking animals are not just side characters, but take center stage as the main feature.

Here's the summary blurb from Wagner's website:

Deep beneath a modern metropolis lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of remarkable rats of superior intellect. Following the Bloody Coup, the once peaceful democracy has become a dictatorship, ruled by decadent High Minister Killdeer and his vicious henchman Billycan, a former lab rat with a fondness for butchery.

Three young orphan rats--brothers Vincent and Victor and a clever female named Clover--join forces with Billycan's archenemy, Juniper, and his maverick band of rebel rats as they plot to overthrow their oppressors and create a new city--Nightshade City. This impossible-to-put-down fantasy explores timeless themes of freedom, forgiveness, the bonds of family, and the power of love.

It's hard to avoid comparing any animal fantasy about rodents to Brian Jacques' works.  (He did sort of "write the book" on the genre.  Hee hee!)  Two hallmark characteristics of Jacques' books are their warm characters and vivid settings.  Wagner most certainly exemplifies both.  Although the majority of the characters in Nightshade City are "icky" rats, that are about as repulsive as teddy bears.  The three protagonists, Vincent, Clover, and Juniper, are delightful--the kind of critters you'd want to invite into your house rather than chase out of it.  Their emotions and interactions are engaging, and I dare your heart not to melt when Vincent and Victor show some brotherly love.  I also never thought I'd find myself so enthralled with a cast of helpful worms!  (They terrified me more than rats did when I was little...)  Of course, the villains are duly villainous, but even they have their soft-spots, too, so it's hard to truly hate the baddies.  In addition, the setting of Nightshade City is just as colorful as the cast of characters.  Although the creepy, dark Catacombs are the complete opposite of Redwall Abbey, the titular Nightshade City is bright and inviting.  You feel right at home in the caverns and halls where rats toast with tiny tankards and champion freedom.  I promise the world of Nightshade City is one you'll want to revisit long after you turn the last page.  

Something interesting to note in Nightshade City is Wagner's use of Omniscient Third Person point of view.  Wagner executes this tricky POV quite well and in doing so, she gives each character their chance to shine in the intricate, epic storyline.  I think this POV ties in with her use of characterization above; by getting in everyone's head--from the heroic Vincent to the devious Billycan--you come to love them all.  If you're considering using Third Person point of view in your own story, you'll definitely want to check out Wagner's tactics.  

Nightshade City is a great book from both a reader's and a writer's perspective.  If you want to study good use of characterization, setting, and POV, then this book is definitely for you.  If you love a great story full of suspense, intrigue and surprises, then you should pick it up, too.  And if you love anything by Brian Jacques (like me), then this book is 100% for you!  I enjoyed my time with these delightful rats and can't wait until October when the sequel, The White Assassin, comes out.  (With a title like that, book two is sure to be sweet!)

You can check out Wagner's website at:

And if you pick up Nightshade City, let me know!  I'd love to hear what you think. :)

Note: The Nightshade City summary and cover art are both from Wagner's website.