Wednesday, August 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Early Decision by Lacy Crawford


A delightful and salacious debut novel about the frightful world of high school, SATs, the college essay, and the Common Application—and how getting in is getting in the way of growing up.

Tiger mothers, eat your hearts out. Anne the “application whisperer” is the golden ticket to success. Working one-on-one with burned-out, helicopter-parented kids, she can make Harvard a reality. Her phone number is a national secret. Her students end up at the best of the best.

But sometimes acceptance comes at an enormous cost. In a world of cheating scandals, huge alumni donations, and lots of inside pull, some parents know no bounds when it comes to ensuring that their children get in. It’s Anne’s job to guide students to their own destinies, beginning with their essays. Early Decision follows five students—four privileged, one without a penny to her name—as they make their applications and wrestle with fate.

To write the perfect personal statement, they must tell the truth. And the stories they tell are of greed, excess, jealousy, deceit, money, ego, and pressure, as well as of endurance, tenacity, victory, and the hope of surviving their parents’ wildest dreams so they can begin to live their own lives.

Early Decision captures the most ferocious season in a modern family’s life. Parents only want the best for their children, and students are fighting for college seats that will give them a head start into work and adulthood. Is it possible to face the fall semester of senior year without losing your mind?

Told in part through the students’ essays, unsparingly revealing the secrets of college advisors at the highest levels, Early Decision is an explosive insider’s guide to college admissions in our day. It’s also a sharp commentary on modern parenting. The truth is, the kids are all right. Their essays are fabulous. But the system is broken. With humor and hard-earned wisdom, Early Decision illuminates the madness of the college race.



I've been to college.  I didn't try to get into a "name" school, but it was still pretty crazy, to say the least.  Reading through "Early Decision", it reminded me of that scene in "Baby Boom" (with Diane Keaton) where these mamas are sitting in the park consoling one of their own because her child didn't get into the prestigious pre-school.  This of course meant that he wouldn't get into the 'right' grammar school, prep school, and forget about ivy league.  The kid was three years old, people!

Ms. Crawford made the right choice providing the information in novel form.  I was highly engaged the entire time.  Trying to read through a non-fiction book with this information, I'd probably have to go on a one-mile run every 5 pages turn work out the aggravation.  (And I don't even run after our puppies when they get out.  I call the kids.)

On the one hand, you have the student/young adults who are the subject of the applications.   They are trying to be whom they think the schools want in order to get where they want to go.  The parents - oh my goodness, I have a 17-year old and I don't want to be like any of the parents in Early Decision!  They want their children to go into a certain field, or go to a certain college.  One parent wants his daughter's essay to be perfect because his acquaintances at the college will read it.  Another wants Anne (the college admissions advisor/heroine) to write his son's essay for him because he has no faith in his son's ability.

Now, I'm not parent-bashing.  Doubtless, in their own way, they want the best for their children.  What they fail to realize is that maybe what is actually best (most fulfilling) for their children is not what the parents think it is.  My parents made mistakes, and it took me a while, but I realized they were doing their best.  Goodness knows I'm making at least my fair share of mistakes with my children, and I hope they will realize the same about me some day.

While reading Early Decision I alternately smiled, groaned and laughed out loud.  I even gasped a couple of times near the end, but I'm not going to tell you why.  That would ruin your fun!

If you've ever been to college, if you've ever thought about going to college, if you have a child getting ready to go to college, you should read this book!  Early Decision is highly entertaining, and it's a lot more enjoyable (and cheaper) than getting any of those vanity 'get into the best college' books.



For fifteen years Lacy Crawford served as a highly discreet independent college admissions counselor to the children of powerful clients in cities such as New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. Her “day jobs” included serving as senior editor at Narrative Magazine and director of the Burberry Foundation. Educated at Princeton and the University of Chicago, Lacy lives in California with her husband and two children.


(Disclosure:  I received a copy of "Early Decision" from the author and publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

REVIEW/INTERVIEW: Dance of the Spirits by Catherine Aerie


Spring 1951: it is the fiery zenith of the Korean War, a war that the youthful US Army lieutenant Wesley Palm and his men thought that they had won… until the Chinese swept across the Yalu River.

Traveling with the million-man army bent on driving back the march of “American imperialism” is Jasmine Young, a Chinese surgeon who has volunteered herself into the war for unspoken, grave reasons. Through a chronicle of merciless battles, freezing winters, and the brutality and hypocrisy of human nature, the two will find themselves weaving through the twists and turns of fate and destiny. Though their love is forbidden, their passion and pursuit of liberty cannot be quenched.



Up until reading "Dance of the Spirits", most of my information about the Korean War came from my near-obsession with the tv show M*A*S*H.  (Sad, isn't it?)  My father did ROTC to help with college finances and spent two years in the Army, but did not see combat.

A lot of the first part of the book was about Jasmine's childhood.  She was the legitimate daughter of a well-to-do family.  I make that distinction because her father quite often had children with one or the other of his mistresses.  Most of them were girls, who were brought into the household (without their biological mothers).  When the latest mistress finally produced a son, the boy and his mother were brought into the house, over the strenuous objections of Jasmine's mother, who eventually committed suicide.

Then, Communism swept the country, and a former servant became an officer in the army and the social relations between the classes changed.  He had long been attracted to Jasmine, but could now use his status to try and influence her decision.  He wanted it; Jasmine's family wanted it.  Jasmine...wasn't so sure.

Jasmine was a trained physician/surgeon and decided her best option was to enlist.  She did what was possible with ever dwindling medical supplies and ever-increasing numbers of wounded.  One of her patients was her family's former servant, who was now a Colonel.

At the beginning, Jasmine and Wesley are on opposite sides of the conflict.  He'd probably just as soon shoot her as anything.  They have several change meetings and near-meetings almost as if fate is bringing them together (at least in geographical location).  At times, Wesley is captured and a prisoner of war.  As "Dance of the Spirits" progresses, it is Jasmine's turn to be taken prisoner, where she works as a doctor to the Chinese prisoners.

Both Wesley and Jasmine are multi-dimensional characters.  We laugh and cry and get angry right along with them.  They help us see that it is never strictly good vs evil, even in the horrors of war.  It seems that many great, sweeping novels are set against a backdrop of war, showing us both the best and worst of 'humanity' and the human spirit.  "Dance of the Spirits" is one such novel.  Aerie's book is a wonderful addition to anyone's bookshelf and a must-read for historical fiction fans.



Catherine Aerie, a graduate from the University of California, Irvine with a master degree in finance, grew up in China as the daughter of a Shanghai architect. She was inspired to write The Dance of the Spirits while researching a family member’s role in the Korean War, deciding to revive an often neglected and overlooked setting in fiction and heighten the universality of resilient pursuit of love and liberty. Her debut novel was finished after about two years of research. She currently resides in southern California.

For more information please visit Catherine Aerie’s website. You can also find her on Facebook and Goodreads.



1.  What gave you the idea for "The Dance of the Spirits"?

Assuming the question is asking how I was originally inspired to write the book, it all started off with my original interest in the Korean War itself. Then it became personal when I was researching my family history and discovered that a female relative had participated in the conflict. From there on, the basic foundations of the plot and the characters folded together with each extra thought added into it.  

2.   What is the best thing about being a writer?

I’d like to say the best thing about being a writer, along with writing in general, can be compared to hiking up a mountain: the journey is begins enthusiastically and excitingly, with an author eager and optimistic about putting their ideas to paper and the greatness that may result. However, as the trail ascends and the terrain grows rougher, one becomes encumbered with the fatigue of research, character development, story progression, and the draining motivation to continue on writing anyways. Through all the temptations to completely abandon the hard climb at several points along the way, an author who finally drove themselves to finish their work can react the same way as a hiker does upon reaching the summit of the mountain; the heartwarming pride of seeing one’s own landscape of dedication and creativity finished before them.  

3.  What is the hardest thing for you about being a writer.?

To get straight to the point, the most difficult part of being a writer is the imprinted fact that an author will have to multitask in order to both get by the challenges of daily life and remain dedicated to their project(s) at the same time. What spare free time one may have had would have to be sacrificed to write, while an author still has to look over life in the family as usual without change.

4.  Who is in your dream cast for a movie based on the book?

That’s rather difficult to fully answer without sounding overconfident or self-centered. I’d personally rather leave it to Hollywood to decide, since readers often form their own personal images of what the characters of a book look like while reading - to have an image preset by the author, even inadvertently, is to, as Stephen King put it in his memoir On Writing:  “. . . lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I [the author] want forge between us [the reader(s)]. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. (pg. 174)”  

5.  Who are your influences. .. bookish or otherwise?

To state “bookish” influences, I’d have to say that my writing influences stem primarily from the language styles of Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Mitchell, and Ernest Hemingway. Some extra mentions can also go to Dr. Otto F. Apel, whose memoirs of his Korean War service served as a major source for my book, and Max Hastings with his excellent overall history of the conflict.      

6.  What three places in the world would you most like to visit?

I have yet to set foot on European soil before, so naturally I’d have to say that Paris, St. Petersburg, and Berlin, along with their respective countries, would be on the top of my traveling list.

7.  What's on your desk (or in your space) when you write?

Asides from my laptop, about a dozen books that serve as both potential sources and improvised foot rests and as well as two mugs - one for tea and the other for coffee - that are almost always being refilled.

8.  How do you think society can foster young (school - aged) writers?

With the powerful influence of the Internet nowadays, young people can share whatever self-made writings with countless others online by pressing buttons and clicking a mouse; the only real challenge, as always with everything in life, is to remain dedicated and loyal to one’s projects while enjoying in the process. From what I’ve seen, the furnace for many great writers of the future consist of online forums such as, where entire virtual novels of self-made sequels to beloved films exist, and NationStates, with its online role-playing community that revolves around creating fictitious countries and establishing whole histories about them. There’s even a virtual encyclopedia completely dedicated to writing fiction and its various mechanics, TV Tropes, and is home to communities of netizens that write and publish online for a hobby.

All this being said, today’s modern society simply has to let young writers know that there is a place where their ideas can be published and reviewed without worrying at all about investment or profit - it’s online on the Internet and simply has to be found. Not only can they easily show off their works to hundreds across the globe, but can also gain knowledge, advice, and experience from more experienced online writers without even having to meet them in person. As I said before, it’s only a matter of loyalty and dedication to one’s writing, ideas, and projects to make it so.

9.  Which writer throughout history including today would you most like to invite to your home for a visit?

To answer that question, I suppose that it would be a very enjoyable evening to have tea with Pearl S. Buck underneath the gazebo in my backyard or being able to toast a glass of wine with Ernest Hemingway.  

10.  Who was your favorite teacher?

I’d like to award my beloved father for that prestigious award, who always brought me more books to satisfy my hunger for them and took me to see many places in my life.


(Disclosure:  I received a print copy of "Dance of the Spirits" from the author and publisher via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in exchange for my unbiased review.  Click the button to see other stops on the tour and enter the giveaway!)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weekend Writing Warriors

Weekend Writing Warriors is hosted at  Sign up below with your name, blog and email each week from M-Sa, then share an 8-sentence snippet of your writing on Sunday. Your post needs to be live between 12:00 noon on Saturday 08/23/14 and 9:00 AM on Sunday 08/24/14. Visit other participants on the list and read, critique, and comment on their 8sunday posts.

Spread the word. Twitter hashtag #8sunday. 


Warning:  The following describes a disturbing event which happened outside my house earlier this week.  Please consider this and its possible effect on your state of mind before continuing.

I was the angriest I have been in years earlier today.  Our dogs ganged up on one of the kittens.  Dante wound up running off with it in his mouth.

By the time I got to the kitten, it looked like a limp dishrag.  It's eyes were bulging and its breath was coming in short gasps.  I tried to push the rake under it to lift it up, but it wasn't happening.  When I picked it up, there was no blood, which surprised me.  But there was no spirit either.

When my husband got back from his errands, I went to the nearest town of sufficient size, just to get away for a while.  I wound up getting my hair cut (which I tend to do on the spur of the moment), and get a journal.  I wasn't intending to write about what had happened earlier, but that's what came out of the pen.  And it helped repair my shattered insides a little.

Friday, August 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Bewitching Boots by Joyce and Jim Lavene



Jessie is thrilled when she finds Bill Warren, an old fashioned shoemaker, and he agrees to come back to Renaissance Village with her. She’s not so thrilled when claims to have elf magic, and he falls for Princess Isabelle. The dancing slippers Bill makes for Isabelle make him a suspect when the princess takes a leap from the castle terrace. Now, Jessie must find the lady or lord who helped the princess with her last dance before she loses her star attraction.



I've been to Scarborough Renaissance Faire in Waxahachie, TX, a couple of times, but could not conceive of a place where the staff live it every day.  That is the first  nice surprise in this latest installment of Joyce and Jim Lavene's Renaissance Faire Mysteries, entitled, "Bewitching Boots".

The shop's name refers to the handmade works of art by the cobbler (no, not apple or cherry...a funny running gag) Bill Warren.  He claims they are made with the help of his 'elf magic'.  You can almost hear Jessie's eyes rolling; that is, until she has to body tackle a customer whose new purchases have quite literally run away with her.  Ok, so maybe it is a little hard to fathom Jessie's disbelief in elf magic, considering she talks to the naked, blue-skinned (from dye), red-haired ghost of one of the victims from an earlier installment of the series.

"Bewitching Boots" is part fantasy, part reality; part murder, part mayhem, and full-on, flat-out entertaining!  The authors need to distill and bottle whatever it is that keeps these wonderful stories flowing out of their quills (a little Renaissance humor there).  Joyce and Jim Lavene are amazing storytellers; may they continue for a long, LONG time.



Joyce and Jim Lavene write award-winning, bestselling mystery fiction as themselves, J.J. Cook, and Ellie Grant. They have written and published more than 70 novels for Harlequin, Berkley, Amazon, and Gallery Books along with hundreds of non-fiction articles for national and regional publications. They live in rural North Carolina with their family, Quincy, their black cat, and their rescue dog, Rudi.

(Disclosure:  I received a copy of "Bewitching Boots" from the author and publisher in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.  Opinions expressed in the review are my own.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Avoidable Contact by Tammy Kaehler


Racecar driver Kate Reilly is suited up and ready for the start of the legendary 24 Hours of Daytona. But what’s ahead will test her will and nerve more than any other endurance race.

Even before the green flag waves over Daytona International Speedway, Kate receives word her boyfriend Stuart is fighting for his life after a hit-and-run earlier in the day. Still reeling from that news, Kate must absorb other shocks in the race’s opening hours, including an on-track accident with tragic consequences and an eyewitness who claims Stuart was run down deliberately by someone from the race paddock.

Alternating stints behind the wheel of her Corvette racecar with stretches of quizzing colleagues and searching for clues, Kate taps every possible source—friend, foe, and family—to find out who’s after Stuart and why. As the race clock counts down to zero hour, Kate must come to terms with her own fears about the past and decide whom she’s willing to trust. Only then can she identify who’s willing to kill to keep a secret buried—and stop them before they lash out again.



I appreciate the author's inclusion of a 'map' of the Daytona racetrack to help visualize the shape of the track and follow along with Ms. Kaehler's detailed descriptions of the layout.  The only bone I have to pick about the book concerns all the racing jargon in the first chapters, where the book read a little more like a guide for racing fans, than a novel.  But at least half of that is on me, because racing is not a sport we follow closely in my family.

Once the story started, that issue was laid to rest.  I appreciated the descriptions of how the drivers visualized the driver changes, much like I used to do on the stage, or you hear about other professional athletes "seeing" their shots.  And can you imagine racing for 24 hours straight???  Talk about endurance!

Kate was an extremely personable character.  She wasn't an angel, but then who of us is?  Kate's father is at the track, and to start, she wants little to do with him.  And other members of her extended family -a half-sister, two cousins and an uncle are working for other teams in the race.  The uncle and cousins are of the sort that you would probably want to give them a piece of your mind if you ever came across them - and nasty with it.  But, maybe in response to some of the things that go on (her boyfriend being critically injured in an off-track hit-and-run the morning of the race, and the 'avoidable contact' accident caused by an amateur driver with disastrous consequences) she begins to warm to her step-sister and father.  Her father even winds up knocking his brother to the ground over threats and vicious names he calls Kate.

It wasn't my usual cozy mystery with a craft shop or restaurant of some sort.  But the situations - family atmosphere of some of the teams, rivalries, jealousies, greed, etc. - can be found in many books I have enjoyed.  The racing atmosphere was definitely a new one for me, but I liked it.  And I have a whole new respect for people involved in the sport.  The concentration needed, the accuracy involved and the split-second decisions all make for a very exciting book!

There are three "Kate Reilly Mysteries":  Dead Man's Switch, Braking Point, and Avoidable Contact.  I hope there will be a fourth.  I want to find out what happens with Stuart!



Tammy Kaehler’s career in marketing and technical writing landed her in the world of automobile racing, which inspired her with its blend of drama, competition, and friendly people. Mystery fans and racing insiders alike praised the first two Kate Reilly Racing Mysteries, Dead Man’s Switch and Braking Points, and she takes readers back behind the wheel for the third time in Avoidable Contact. Tammy works as a technical writer in the Los Angeles area, where she lives with her husband and many cars.



I Have That Question Too

When readers talk to authors, they usually want to know the answers to a few basic questions. I’m no different. I want to know how other authors work … and just maybe I’m looking for the magic solution that will make writing books easy-as-pie. (Hope springs eternal?)

It might surprise readers to know that some authors hate answering the big question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Why? It’s a tough question to answer, because there’s no one method and often no simple explanation. I’ve heard responses of “everywhere,” “nowhere,” and “from the vending machine you don’t know about.” And as flip as they might sound, all are likely to be the truth! (Not that I know how to find the vending machine.)

My answer goes something like this: I get my ideas from putting all kinds of random information into my brain, forgetting half the details, and mushing a bunch of ideas together. It’s a bit like putting a lot of ingredients into a blender and ending up with a smoothie that’s a combination of everything. You could say I have strawpricotanagurt ideas.

The other big category of questions we get asked have to do with creating characters—and personally, I like talking about characters more than talking about overall ideas, probably because creating characters is a more straightforward (and simple) process than creating a robust plot.

Just like other fans and readers, I’m also always curious to know how much of the author is in the characters? How much are people the author knows—and which ones? The corollary I’m often asked is how many of my characters are real people in the racing world? What I always want to know is what the germ of the character idea was—did it start with that extra quirk—or two—that makes the character so charming, irritating, or laugh-out-loud funny? Or did the character start more “normal” and get the hook later?

I say characters are easier to talk about, but in my experience, like plot ideas, there’s also no one answer to where characters come from. Sometimes characters come to us out of the ether. Sometimes they come to us from real life. What I do most often is mash-up a bit of this person here and some of that person there, plus a dash of something unrelated to either one. Sometimes I build a character on a single attribute I find amusing or interesting about a real-life person—or on the inverse of a real person’s distinguishing characteristic.

What I find intriguing about the whole character-creation process is that the resulting character is never anything like the original inspiration. As much as I might base a character on a living, breathing human, what happens next is I stop thinking about the real person and focus only the character. I’ve had plenty of people say to me that a character in my book was exactly like someone in real life—which astonished me, because I never once thought about that real-life person when writing. I’d simply picked a couple traits from three very different people and let my imagination flow from there.

There’s another reason my characters are guaranteed to do something totally different than the real person would do. Most of the time, I don’t know the real person I’ve stolen a feature or habit from. We might be acquaintances, but I don’t know them well enough to actually describe them. I figure that makes it safe for me to “steal” distinguishing features from real people, because I’ll never be copying their entire personality or persona entirely.

The bottom line here, I’m afraid, is that no one around me is safe. (Welcome to being friends with a writer!) Anyone I know or meet might find themselves a character in my books—though I suppose the consolation is you might not ever know it….

And by the way, if you know of any great, irritating, or confounding personality traits, physical characteristics, or tics, let me know. I could use more material!


(Disclosure:  I received an e-copy of "Avoidable Contact" from the author and publisher via Great Escapes Virtual Book Tours in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

BES August Challenge - Day 12 - Writing Communities

Click the button above to be taken to the main challenge site, to sign up, and/or to visit the other participants!

Today's Question:  

How has having a website and being involved with an online community (like BE) helped your blog?

Well, right now, 'my blog' and 'my website' are one and the same.  Being involved with several online blogging and writing communities, I can say that my writing has improved in both quality and quantity.  It's nice to have people to share ideas back and forth. Also, when there is a challenge, such as this one, with prompts and everything, it helps me a lot to write everyday.  

Other communities of note in which I am or have been involved include:

Blogging from A to Z Challenge - A group of a couple thousand people pledge, not only to write a post every day in April, but to visit other bloggers on the list and to encourage and provide feedback.  This year was my second year participating in the challenge, and was proud to be a co-host's 'minion'.  I 'met' a LOT of people, and still interact with many of the bloggers from this year's group.

#ISWG (Insecure Writer's Support Group) - Every writer is insecure at some point in the process.  Is it good enough?  Will people like it?  Will it sell?  What about editing?  Finding a publisher?  The first Wednesday of each month, we get together and air our insecurities about our WIP's, and receive encouragement and support from our writer friends!

BOOK REVIEW: The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman


• Hardcover: 288 pages
• Publisher: Ecco (July 29, 2014)

The Tiger’s Wife meets A History of Love in this inventive, lushly imagined debut novel that explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters.

When Eli Burke dies, he leaves behind a mysterious notebook full of stories about a magical figure named The White Rebbe, a miracle worker in league with the enigmatic Angel of Losses, protector of things gone astray, and guardian of the lost letter of the alphabet, which completes the secret name of God.

When his granddaughter, Marjorie, discovers Eli’s notebook, everything she thought she knew about her grandfather—and her family—comes undone. To find the truth about Eli’s origins and unlock the secrets he kept, she embarks on an odyssey that takes her deep into the past, from 18th century Europe to Nazi-occupied Lithuania, and back to the present, to New York City and her estranged sister Holly, whom she must save from the consequences of Eli’s past.

Interweaving history, theology, and both real and imagined Jewish folktales, The Angel of Losses is a family story of what lasts, and of what we can—and cannot—escape.



A grandfather's stories.  They sound like fiction, but are sometimes more than that.  And there are things that Grandpa does not like to talk about.  But who could blame him?  

How much of what we experience is of our choice, and how much is fate?  Marjorie starts out believing the former, but through her grandfather's notebooks and written stories, starts to believe otherwise.  Marjorie's sister, Holly, has married an Orthodox Jew, and now answers to "Chava".  Nathan does not get along particularly well with the rest of his wife's family, in part, due to his religious views.

Ms. Feldman skillfully weaves an intricate tale of family, culture and belief in "The Angel of Losses".  The old maxim, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," is true also in this book.  Stories and legends of the White Rebbe seem to be playing out in the modern-day United States.  Marjorie is surprised with a secret from her grandfather's past that, in retrospect, explains some of his odder behavior.

I also think the line from Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," (1.5.167-8) applies here.  Do you believe the stories and legends?  Do you discount them?  That is up to each individual.  But some things are more easily explained than others.

That's why "The Angel of Losses" is more than 'just a story'.  It may not make you question your beliefs, but it will make you ponder them.  And that is precious.



Stephanie Feldman grew up in Philadelphia and studied writing at the University of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts,  and Barnard College.  She lived in NYC for 10 years before returning to the Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.


(Disclaimer:  I received a print copy of "The Angel of Losses" from the author and publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest opinion.)