Archive for September, 2009

homers-odyssey-coverWould you adopt a four-week-old stray kitten with a serious handicap? This is what author Gwen Cooper did and she writes her anecdotes in Homer’s Odyssey, a book that will warm the hearts of cat lovers.

Homer’s Odyssey is the story of an unusual cat — not only because he’s blind, but because he’s one of the most resourceful, intrepid and clever felines you’ll ever meet. From the day he’s adopted, to the time he saves Gwen from a burglar, to the horrific day on that tragic September 11th, Homer’s antics will charm and surprise you. It’ll also pull at your heart strings.

Cooper’s prose is light and witty and shines with insight into the loving bond that can develop between a cat and a human. There’s a little of romance and a lot of humor thrown into the mix. The interesting narrative and lovely flow kept me turning pages as if I were reading a fiction story.

The book also offers an important message: we must never give up on what at first glance seems hopeless. Indeed, a little love, faith and perseverance can go a long way.

I highly recommend this tender, sweet account about a very special cat, a very special lady, and how they changed each other’s lives for the better.

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You want to write. Your head is packed with stories that haunt you, begging to be released. They keep you up at night, and sometimes you wake at 2 AM to scribble down your ideas in a journal full of… scribbles. You dream of the day when you’ll have delicious, lazy hours to put pen to paper, to craft volumes of stories filled with characters who will entertain and inspire readers. You long for a few hours to call your own. Or maybe even a few minutes. You have so much to say, want so urgently to say it, but you don’t have the time.

As if sabotaging your dreams, reality creeps in with a cold splash of guilt. Your two-year-old screams for ice cream, but really needs a nap. Your teen needs a ride to soccer practice, chauffeuring home for a dinner that isn’t yet started, and another ride back to school for play practice. All the while, your eight-year-old just wants to be loved. She asks for help with her homework, and you try to squeeze it into the third trip up to the school. She needs time with you, special time. Your guilt mounts.

Laundry calls your name from the room that’s starting to smell a bit moldy. Weeds creep higher in the garden, and it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish the bean plants from the pigweed. Some days you don’t know how you’ll find time to pay the bills, never mind write a story. You buy extra powerful vitamins to see if they’ll help you get through each day, and although you know you should be cherishing these moments when the kids are little, you secretly dream of the day when you’ll be able to call your time your own.

Or perhaps you’re a corporate slave, commuting hours per day to the job that pays the mortgage but steals your soul. Maybe you’re chained to a desk, or your schedule is jammed with back-to-back meetings. You fly from topic to topic, trying to save the company, or at least fix that one annoying problem that’s sucking the life out of you. Your day starts at 5:00 and ends at 7:00. By the time you get home, you just want to eat, check your email, and flop in front of the television so someone else can whisk you away to worlds only imagined, filled with intrigue, romance, or mystery.

And so it goes. Pressure. Stress. Duties. Responsibilities. They zap your time and wrap you up like a mummy who can barely see through the slits in the white cloth, a drone who glimpses that elusive creative life with envy.

Now stop right there! I’m here to tell you that it can be done. With a little sacrifice, you can carve time out of your day to get that novel started. Even if you “do it all,” like Sarah, the accountant in the following example.

Sarah is a mom who works full time outside the home. After work, she hurries to daycare to pick up her two year old. Her husband isn’t exactly the “let me do the dishes,” kind of guy, so she cooks, sews, cleans, packs lunches, shops, reads to her son, walks the dog, and often takes out the garbage. The hubby mows the lawn and fixes things. In Sarah’s life, there’s barely time to take a shower, never mind luxuriate for a few minutes to jot down a few poetic phrases.

When I met her, I instantly recognized Sarah’s “writer” voice. Through her emails, I picked up on a severely suppressed creative urge. Her words sang to me. They were filled with so much more than typically needed to describe directions to the nearest Thai restaurant, or sharing about those juicy apples she discovered at the orchard tucked away in the boonies. I called her on it, and she admitted writing lots of stories in high school and college. She hoped to write. She planned to write. But life just wasn’t cooperating. She’d have to wait until she retired.

I challenged her. “Take fifteen minutes every day–during your lunch hour, if necessary. Just write something.”

Sarah admitted she ate at her desk most days, anyway. She surfed the web or chatted on the phone. When I mentioned writing, her eyes widened with fear. “I wouldn’t know what to write!”

My answer–write something. Anything. Write gibberish. Write about your dreams last night, or about a scene from your childhood. Write about your wedding. Your rock garden. Your dishes. It doesn’t matter what. Get something down on paper, and show it to me tomorrow. Just write.”

Because Sarah was never shy to accept a challenge, she listened. She’d been interested in Civil War re-enactment lately, and had planned to bring her son to an event in the coming month. With bleary eyes at night, she’d sewn him little costumes that fit the time period, and had researched the heck out of the topic. So, it was no surprise when on that very first day, she wrote the first pages of what ended up being a very tidy little historic paranormal novel about a young woman caught in a Civil War time warp.

Do we all have such books in us? Is it always that easy? Was Sarah just lucky?

The answer is that if you have the calling, if you suffer from the aches and pangs of wanting to write, if you think about stories on your drive to work or in the bathtub, if the itch is so persistent that you’re cranky when you can’t scratch it–then you already are a writer.

In Sarah’s case, the first page of prose she wrote was lovely. Her talent leapt from the page. I knew she had it in her, and all it took was fifteen short minutes every day to get it started. Of course, once she was hooked, she spent her whole lunch hour writing, and even finagled the not-so-helpful hubby to give her several hours a week so she could write.

Sometimes we need to negotiate with our spouses for more time. Sometimes we need to prioritize. In my case, I used to rise at four in the morning to write for two hours each day. It was the only quiet time in our very busy household. Sure, I went to bed early most nights. I’m not a martyr. I need my sleep! But what did I give up?


So, instead of being lulled into a stupefying sleep at night by mindless junk that others had written, I took control of my life and started my own series. Thirteen books and ten years later, I still don’t care about television, and I know I made the right choice.

You can do it. It’s a matter of making a conscious choice for your writing soul. You have a voice. You need to be heard. Now go figure out a way to let it out! And don’t forget – write like the wind!

copyright 2009 aaron paul lazar

About the author: Aaron Lazaar is the author of many mystery novels, including the latest Double Forte and Mazurka, published by Twilight Times Books. Visit his website at www.legardemysteries.com and his popular blog, www.murderby4.blogspot.com, which he shares with 3 other mystery authors.

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My guest today is the talented Puerto Rican author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa. Raised in New York City, she taught in the New York City school system before becoming a young-adult librarian. She’s won the Bronx Council on the Arts ACE and BRIO awards, as well as a Literary Arts Fellowship. Daughters of the Stone is her first novel. She lives in the Bronx.

It’s a pleasure having you here today, Dahlma. Tell us a little about your background and how you started writing.

I was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New York City, mostly the Bronx. When I was ten I was sent to live with my grandparents in rural Puerto Rico. I was an urban kid so when I got there, I was in shock. I thought harmless lizards were baby crocodiles and I felt that hens were perfectly justified in pecking my hands when I was sent out to get eggs. I thought it was gross that milk actually came out of those swollen utters. I just wasn’t ready. I wanted nothing more than to come home to the Bronx. But that’s also when I first started hearing stories about events that happened in the past that I knew nothing about. I remember sitting on the porch into the evening hours listening to stories about hurricanes and cane cutters and old-school dances and the way my grandfather courted my grandmother. I guess I was recording it all in my tiny brain. Who knew so much of it would end up on the pages of a novel so many years later?

Your first novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE STONE, has just been released by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. How does it feel to hold that first published book in your hands?

I couldn’t really believe it was happening until I received my first copy. That night I fell asleep holding my book and dreaming about walking down the aisles of a superstore where every shelf was packed with my book. I loved seeing the book cover reproduced over and over again, like mirrors reflecting on other mirrors. It was great! I woke up smiling. I’m still smiling.

The novel has already garnered some excellent reviews. What is the novel about and how did you come up with the idea for the story?

The novel is about five generations of women in an Afro-Puerto Rican family. The basic question is what does a woman leave her daughter when she owns nothing, not even own body? The novel is an exploration of legacy. What are the things that are bequeathed to each generation that helps us survive and thrive?

Did you have to do a lot of research?

I took a number of trips to Puerto Rico and interviewed many elders. I took pictures of old houses, visited ruins of plantations and restored plantations. I asked questions, dug into albums, sought out genealogical charts. I haunted the bookstores and bought every book I could find on the life and conditions of slaves in PR. But this book is about social rather than ‘objective’ history (if such a thing exists).


Who is your favorite character in the book? Why?

That’s like asking a mother who her favorite daughter is. Each character is near and dear to my heart. I love Fela’s determination, Mati’s strength, Concha’s resilience, Elena’s independence and Carisa’s curiosity. But if I had to pick only one, I think I would pick Mati because of her connection to a magical/mystical time. She exists on a totally different plane. She was the most fun to write because I could let my imagination soar.

Is there a villain in the story? Tell us about him!

Why do you assume it’s a male? I suppose Romero would be the obvious villain. His self-hate makes him a sociopath. He thrives in the service of others who use his pathology to keep their hands clean. So who is the greater villain?

Your story spans five generations of women. Did you do detailed character sketches for each one? Did you work from a detailed outline?

I did do detailed character sketches. But it took me a while to get to that point. At first, I let the story grow organically, without putting any restraints or imposing an external structure on it. It all came out on the pages of my journal. Once it became obvious that the journal entries were part of a larger narrative, I had to begin to organize and hone the work. So the characters sketches grew out of this process. There were too many characters, to many stories and too many complex relationships. Things were getting out of hand. At that point, I had to step in as writer and take control.

Do you have a website and/or blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

My website is www.llanosfigueroa.com. It’s an on-going project. But there is a lot of information in there and a way of entering into a dialogue with me. I’m really interested in what my readers are thinking about the book.

Is there a second novel in the horizon?

There are already several books on the horizon. There are short stories and travel pieces and maybe even a dramatic monologue. But if you are asking is there a sequel to this book, all I can say is that I don’t think I’m quite done with all these characters. After all, I had to trim two hundred pages out of the original manuscript. And I never throw anything out.

Thanks for the interview!


–Mayra Calvani’s latest book is a satire titled, Sunstruck.


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Last CallSeamus-Irish Musings

I frequently am asked about the humor in the dialogue used in Last Call. I’d love to say its magical, some kind of gift or even how hard I work on it late into the night. Truth be told, hard for an Irishman, most of the dialogue for my book takes place in a bar (easy for an Irishman), not surprising since the main victim is a bar owner who works regular shifts tending his bar.

To bar regulars, or even irregulars, it should come as no surprise that humorous, intentionally or not, conversations take place in bars. Maybe it’s the booze that sets inhibitions free and loosens tongues or maybe we’ve ‘dumbed down’ as a society-I’m not sure but you definitely hear some funny if not odd conversations while sitting around. You can join in or not, up to you and that’s also part of the allure. It’s the same no matter what part of the country, or world, you live in. The subject matter is also pretty much the same-race, religion, politics (huge except for Obama jokes-his fans don’t think they are funny and everybody else doesn’t think they are jokes), sports, marriage, divorce. You name it. Somebody, somewhere is saying something funny, stupid, or both right now in a bar.

Case in point. My wife drug me shopping Saturday afternoon at a fairly large mall in Orlando. I didn’t want to follow her around so I was allowed to stay-stern warning to not move, from the general area where we entered the Mall. Not tough right? They had a Tommy Bahamas store and a Ruby Tuesdays close by. Hawaiian shirts, food and beer, all the necessities of life close by my waiting area. I was set. I hit Tommy Bahamas first and bought some shirts and then headed for a cold one.

I was in the bar part of the restaurant less than fifteen minutes and overheard the following witticisms from an older gentleman consoling perhaps his son who had just lost a job. Consecutively he said- a closed mouth gathers no foot and a boss with no humor is like a job that is no fun. The next stool over a pair of young guys were talking about high school and one actually said he’s been placed in special education because they thought he was slow. They were right because next he said that he’d stayed in special education for the girls. Heard a Nun joke from a couple of Priests across the bar. “What goes black, white, black, white, black? A Nun falling down stairs.” A lady yelled from behind me, “Is Hugh short for Hubert?” The bartender, with a bit of an edge to his voice yelled back, “No! It’s long for huh.” Lady yelled, “Oh. Thank you.” Bartender looked at me grinning and said, “Don’t mention it.”

The next time you’re in a bar, listen. It’s a riot.

Novelist JD Seamus has lived and worked among some of the most amazing characters ever to have walked the Earth. After decades of working in the world of retail finance, e-commerce, and venture capital, Seamus began writing a series of novels based in Manhattan. With a keen eye for detail, Seamus takes to heart the old adage to “write what you know.” Borrowing from real life experience, Seamus delivers highly entertaining tales full of sparkling wit and dark humor. Whether pondering life’s most absurd or most wonderful moments, or showcasing a character’s foibles or triumphs, JD Seamus is dynamic new voice in the world of fiction. Seamus may make you blush, he may make you cry, but he will certainly leave you entertained.

Today, Seamus is happily at work on his sixth book in South Florida and dividing his time between his family and Braves and Jaguar games. You can visit his website at www.jdseamusbooks.com.

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dog nannyWhen Julie Shields temporarily loses her job as a vet technician, Fate throws in her way an opportunity to make some good money training two poodles living with a rich couple in a mansion in Waco, Texas.

What does she have to lose? Julie loves dogs and, after all, she has a lot of experience in dog training. Besides, training those two poodles, Nacho and Blanco, appears to be the only way to save the rich couple’s marriage. To add to this, Julie is in search of a husband… so who knows what else Fate could bring her way?

Indeed, when pilot Nick Worthington arrives at the airport to fly her to Waco, Julie is instantly taken by him, even though he’s a little too infuriating for her taste. He has a great sense of humor, but he’s also too sure of his good looks. Soon, however, Nick becomes a suspect in illegal trafficking. Being pulled into a vortex of mystery and trying to train two delinquent poodles in only one month isn’t an easy job, even for a feisty, born-again virgin like Julie.

This romantic comedy will be especially enjoyed by dog lovers. Talented author Ann Whitaker has created a delightful story featuring two sympathetic protagonists and a couple of adorable, uncontrollable doggies that will keep readers laughing along the way. The dialogue is witty, the situations humorous, and the events move at an agreeable pace. A fun, hearty read!

–Reviewed by Mayra Calvani

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For the next two weeks I’ll be touring the Latino blogosphere with BronzeWord Latino Authors!

I invite you to check out the schedule and stop by the hosts’ blogs if you get a chance. I’ll be giving away print copies of my children’s books and ebook copies of my other books. To be eligible, just leave a comment at the end of each post on the appropiate date.


Latino Book Tour Schedule:

Monday, September 7 – Behind Brown Eyes – Paranormal Short Story: "Deja Vu"

Tuesday, September 8 – Spanglish Baby – Interview

Wednesday, September 9 – Mama Latina Tips – Interview

Friday, September 11 – Writing to Insanity – Article: "How to Write a Great Blurb"

Monday, September 14 – Efrain’s Corner – Guest Post: "I Hated Reading When I Was a Kid"

Wednesday, September 16 – Christina Rodriguez’s blog – Guest Post: "On the Author & Illustrator Relationship"

Thursday, September 17 – Unloaded – Guest Post: "The Responsibilities of Owning a Dog"

Friday, September 18 – Chasing Heroes – Guest Post: "Heroes Must be Angels and Demons"



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Former Boston Review Editor Gail Pool has been involved in literary journalism for three decades. She has been a magazine editor, a review editor, a critic, a columnist, and a freelance journalist. Her columns, essays and articles have appeared in publications such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Houston Post, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Petersburg Times, the Kansas City Star, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times, among many others. She has also written about reviewing for the Women’s Review of Books, Boston Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Pool is the author of Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, published by the University of Missouri Press. For her impressive compilation of articles and essays on book reviewing, visit her website.

Thank you for being my guest today, Gail. Why don't you start by telling us a little about yourself?

I’ve been involved with reviewing in one way or another for about 30 years. I started out as a reviewer at Boston Review, where I later became an editor, assigning essays and reviews. Since then, I’ve been a reviewer, columnist, or review editor for publications ranging from the Christian Science Monitor and the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Women’s Review of Books, the Nation, the Radcliffe Quarterly, and the library press. I really feel I’ve seen the field from many angles.

What constitutes a good review?

Well, I think there are many ways of writing a good review—I don’t think there’s a formula. But a good review should include an accurate description of the book that places it in a meaningful context and an assessment of whether or not the book succeeds in what it set out to do and why. As an article in its own right, a review should also be well-written and interesting to read.

What is the difference between reviewing and criticism?

There are different kinds of criticism, and reviewing is one kind. Historically, reviewing has referred to the criticism of new books. This means the reviewer is writing for readers who haven’t read the book—which is why an accurate description is so important. And it also means that critics haven’t discussed the book before, so reviewers are on their own in forming their opinions. This is one of the reasons reviewing is so difficult.

Do you see a review as an opinion or as a critique of someone’s work?

I see a review as a critique of a work. It contains the reviewer’s opinion about the book, but it goes beyond expressing an opinion: it explains how the reviewer arrived at his or her opinion, providing reasons from the book. I think of a review, even a short review, as an essay explaining a response to a book.

Do you keep the author's feelings in mind when you review?

I focus on the book when I’m reviewing, and I try to respond to the book. My job is to write about the book, after all, not the author. And I’m writing for readers, not the author. Still, I’m aware that the author does have feelings, and I don’t see the need for nastiness. I don’t think criticism should be personally hurtful.

In your book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, you refer to book reviewing as a ‘troubled’ trade. What has gone wrong with reviewing?

Reviewing in America has always been a troubled trade. Since reviews first appeared in this country, people—even reviewers—have been complaining about them. You should read the insults heaped on reviewing in the 19th century! And many of the complaints, which have remained remarkably similar over time, are justified. Too many good books are ignored, too many reviews are hype. But there are many reasons reviewing hasn’t been better, including the fact that the field has never received financial or cultural support. The reviewing community hasn’t resolved those underlying problems.

How has book reviewing changed during the last 10 years with the rise of so many online review sites?

The main change has been the increasing number of self-published reviews with no editorial oversight. We’ve always had many amateur reviewers—unpaid reviewers writing for newspapers or literary magazines, specialists reviewing in their field. But in the past there were review editors, whose job was to choose worthwhile books, match them with knowledgeable reviewers with no conflict of interest, and edit the reviews for coherence and clarity. I see this role, if it’s well done, as important, partly for the integrity of the review, and partly for quality. In my experience as a writer and editor, writers need editors.

You also state that bad reviewing happens despite good intentions and that many intelligent people who love books can sometimes say unintelligent things about them? Would you elaborate?

What I meant is that reviewers set out to write good reviews, but constraints work against them: deadlines can force them to read and write quickly, a lack of space can force them to leave out important points, low fees limit the time they can devote to a book, the pressure to be “lively” too often leads to snappy rather than thoughtful writing. In the end, whatever reviewers’ intentions, reviews are often poorly written, poorly argued, filled with clichés and overpraise.

Do you think there's a lot of 'facile praise' among online review sites as opposed to print publications? If yes, why?

I think there’s a lot of facile praise both in print and online, and on the whole I believe the reasons are similar. One central reason is that we tend to think that being “fair” means being kind to the author rather than honest to the reader. The tendency to praise too highly is a tradition firmly embedded in American reviewing. I think it’s embedded in American culture.

There are some bloggers out there who have acquired fame as tough reviewers
because of their harsh, nasty, mean reviews. What, in your opinion, is behind their philosophy?

I think they’re trying to show how smart they are, especially how much smarter than the author whose book they’re writing about. These reviews seem to me more about self-promotion than criticism. But this isn’t limited to bloggers. Nasty reviewing has a long history in print, and there some good satirical essays mocking this kind of oneupmanship.

If a book is terrible, do you think a reviewer should write and publish the
review, or should she decline to write it?

If a reviewer finds a book so poorly conceived and written there’s nothing of interest to say about it, I don’t think she should review it. But to some degree the decision depends on the book and the aims of the reviewer or publication. Some books are bad in significant ways—they reveal a trend in writing or thinking that’s worth discussing. And there are weak books written by well-known authors that readers will want to know about, good or bad—but they need to be reviewed honestly: the reviewer has to guard against being intimidated by the famous name.

In your opinion, how influential are reviews on the consumer?

This has always been a hard question to answer because influence is difficult to measure, but I think reviews have an impact on sales and also on reputation. Reviews may not create bestsellers as Oprah does—although the New York Times Book Review has quite an impact—but the Amazon ranking for a book certainly rises after almost any review, so they do sell books. Reading groups use reviews in selecting books. Award committees use reviews. Bookstores and libraries rely on reviews in trade publications, the Times, and local papers. Directly or indirectly, reviews bring books to a reader’s attention.

Can the average reviewer review a friend's book and keep her objectivity?

No, I don’t think a reviewer should review a friend’s book. The relationship is bound to interfere with her response to the book.

Amazon and many other online retailers and review sites rate their books. Do you think this is a good thing? Is rating books fair? What should people keep in mind when looking at these ratings?

I find the rating system too crude to be useful. Reading a review, we learn not only about the book but also about the reviewer’s viewpoint and can judge for ourselves whether we want to read it. A rating accompanied by a few comments tells the reader almost nothing. Especially since reviewers apply these rating so differently. One reviewer will praise a book, with no criticism, and give it 3 stars, while another will call a book poor and also give it 3 stars. How do we interpret this? The visual impact of these stars is hard to ignore, but I think readers should be cautious in using them.

Do you think a review written by a reader has less value than one written by
a professional reviewer? What defines a true 'reviewer'?

It depends on the reader and the professional reviewer. Since reviewing began, readers have become “professional” reviewers by reviewing. There aren’t credentials or degrees. But those readers who became good reviewers had critical skills, writing skills, and they did the necessary work. And it does require work to write a good review. The reviewer has to have the background knowledge to assess a particular book and the ability to articulate his or her views on how and how well the book works. Ideally, the professional reviewer has devoted time to learning his subject field and how to write about books, and if he has, this gives value to his review. The reader, if his review is to have value, has to do this as well. It takes time and skill, which is why I’d like to see reviewing as a vocation.

Do you think a reviewer or site that receives payment for a review from the
author or publisher can be honest and objective?

I think it’s a bad idea in many ways to pay for reviews. There’s a potential conflict of interest that’s best avoided. Just as important, I think, it means that books are selected for review because publishers or authors can pay, not because they’ve been judged worth reviewing. And with so many books, we need to give attention to those that are worthwhile, not those that are best funded.

Do you see true good reviewers as endangered species?

I think that good reviews have always been an endangered species. But I do think the field is in transition right now. The danger is that the very concept of a good review will be lost amidst the mass of ratings and “comments.” But it seems to me that there will always be people with critical skills who will want to critique books well. And as some of our best critical magazines, bloggers, and online web sites show, they’ll find a way to do that.

What advice would you offer aspiring reviewers?

My advice is to read widely. Read literature from the past as well as the present, to develop a feel for good writing and a context for understanding and appreciating what’s being written now. If you’re interested in a particular field, read in that field, know the background. In reviewing, I suggest reading carefully, writing precisely, and being brave as well as thoughtful. We need critics who will say they think something is good when it’s being ignored or that it’s weak when it’s being hyped as the new great thing, and that takes courage.

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