Sunday, December 22, 2013

A New Year’s Toast to Our Favorite Books of the Year


At this point, you’ve probably read a lot of lists of the year’s best books.  While we agree with so many of the fantastic books praised by the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and NPR, we’d also like to point out the top three books that we devoured this year that didn’t make it into those lists.

Perfect Ruin by Lauren DeStefano

The story takes place on the floating city of Internment where you can be whatever you want to be, but you can never leave. Even getting too close to the edge of the city can lead to madness, as the main character, Morgan, knows from her own brother’s experience. But when the first murder in a generation rocks the city, Morgan can no longer stop herself from wondering what's truly keeping her in her place.

While at first glance, this may look like another dystopian book in an oversaturated market, in DeStefano’s hands it is so much more. Easily one of the most beautifully written books we’ve read this year, DeStefano’s prose is so poetic, yet effortless. We’re so glad this is just the first in her new series. If her Chemical Garden series is any indication, we're in for a really gripping ride.

Fiery Heart by Richelle Mead

The latest book in the Bloodlines series follows Sydney Sage, a human torn between her family, her career as someone who bridges the worlds of humans and vampires, and her relationship with her very sexy, very undead boyfriend.

It must be harder to get on to the best of the year lists if you are in the middle of a series, but Mead’s books just keep getting better and better.  The characters and relationships evolve and deepen, and the plot twists become more intricate. If it were up to us, The Bloodlines series would never end.

Two Boys Kissing by David Leviathan

Based on a true story, the book tells the story of two 17-year-olds boys who take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new world record and take a stand against a homophobic attack.  Narrated by a Greek Chorus of gay men lost to AIDS, the rest of the book is filled with other teen boys dealing with relationship issues, coming out as gay or transgendered, and struggling with self-loathing.  

We have no idea why this book was overlooked by the best of the year lists. Not only is it gorgeous and full of pathos, that made Betsy openly cry on the subway, but it’s an important contribution to LGBT literature that should be taught in schools. Or maybe not, because it’s even better to discover it on your own and savor it, and then talk about it over and over until your friends have no choice but to read it and repeat the process. 
We don’t own the images, but hope Simon and Schuster (Perfect Ruin), Razorbill (Fiery Heart), and Knopf (Two Boys Kissing) won’t mind us borrowing the cover images to go along with the gushing reviews.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Not Your Momma's Book Club

Does anyone else have a book club whisperer? The friend who manages to keep the book club going for years despite the constant flux of people moving, getting new demanding jobs, and having babies? For me that person is my friend Ella, who loves nothing more than books, wine, and connecting people. I asked Ella to share her thoughts about a recent foray into starting a book club for kids because I though it was just too cute. Spoiler: there was no wine involved, but she did score a wonderful middle grade author to make a special appearance. If you haven't read her books, I highly recommend them.
Over the past few years, my six year old daughter observed how much fun mommy and her friends had at book club, mostly after she went to bed. So she decided she wanted to host her own book club which meant, of course, that I needed to plan it for her.
Luckily, my good friend Courtney Sheinmel is a popular kids book author, responsible for bringing the wonderful series Stella Batts into our lives. Courtney agreed to come, read a bit of Book 2 and take questions from the audience.
The kids loved the experience and asked really great questions. Stella Batts' main character is a third grader, and one of the most profound questions came from a 3rd grade boy, who asked if Stella was left back because she is “always in third grade in every story.” Courtney explained that for continuity, she writes Stella as a forever third grader and makes no mention to birthdays and holidays, so that Stella's adventures can be relevant throughout the whole school year. Other readers asked how Stella got her name, about the process of writing in a kids’ voice, and where Courtney gets her inspiration for Stella's adventures.
Courtney in turn asked the kids how they would like to see Stella's story evolve and even explained fan fiction to the kids. The grown-ups had as much fun as the children, and enjoyed asking Courtney for her own adult and young adult book recommendations.
As a parent, I saw first-hand how a kid focused book club could provide an enjoyable and easy way for children to hone their  literacy skills and I loved how the experience encouraged reading comprehension. In preparation for the day, we enjoyed reading the books together and discussing plot and character related questions. I’m glad we had this experience and look forward to participating in future events.
Photo: Author Courtney Sheinmel and Ella's little bookworm, Sasha.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pitch Wars: Resistance is Futile

Like so many (many, many, MANY) others, Betsy and I have cast our hardworking, critique-loving hats into the ring, and entered our YA paranormal novel Essex Hill into Pitch Wars. What are Pitch Wars? It’s a contest run by the fabulous Brenda Drake ( and her team of slush-tastic readers that pairs published/agented authors, editors, or interns with writers hoping to woo agents. 

Many of the contest entrants are posting reasons why the participating mentors should choose them– all under the hashtag #PimpMyBio. So, since all the cool kids are doing it, Betsy and I thought we’d dust off the jazz hands, polish the tap shoes, and tell you why you should pick us.

We’re Ready for Boot Camp
We’re hardworking, perfectionist, team-players who aren’t just here to be told how amazing we are. Our egos are way in the back of the hall closet along with those roller blades, just in case roller blading ever makes a comeback. We WANT criticism and feedback and a swift kick in the ass. We’re ready and willing to murder our darlings and rip our manuscript apart, poke at its guts with a stick, and put it all back together like some bionic-super-story: better, stronger, faster.

Collective Consciousness
We’ve been friends for over 20 years and in that time we have collaborated on numerous creatively challenging projects – from producing a weird downtown Shakespeare adaptation in an old deli on the Lower East Side, to battling one of the most obnoxious landlords in all of NYC, and planning each other’s weddings just three months apart, and of course, novel writing – so we know how to work together. Over the years we have developed a highly sophisticated, possibly psychic process for sharing ideas, critiquing each other’s writing, and coming up with a finished product we both really dig. It’s at the point now where we feel a bit like the Borg – our hive mind generates this work and we often can’t recall who wrote what or where certain ideas came from.

Plus, with two writers working on the project, we have twice the productivity output! And just think – in the time it takes to mentor one project, you’ll have boosted the careers of two writers! That’s two for the price of one! You can’t afford NOT to choose us.

Operators are Standing By
Have a question for us? Need an answer ASAP? We’re there for you night or day. Betsy lives on the East Coast and has a pre-schooler and an almost two hour commute, so she’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 6:00 am Eastern Standard Time. Carrie is in California and has insomnia, so she’s usually awake until 1:00 am Pacific Time. That means one of us is awake and on call to knock out some bad-ass rewrites at all hours of the day (except from 4:00–6:00 am EST/1:00-3:00am PST).

And finally…

There Will be Cookies
(That’s right, we’re not above bribing you with baked goods. Lots of baked goods. Lots. Martha Stewart should be scared.)

PS big thanks to Dannie Morin and Christopher Keelty for putting together the PitchWars Mentee Contender Bio Blog Hop.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks to Book People Who Rock

Thanksgiving is always a time of reflection as we look back on the previous year.  While we're both really grateful for a plentitude of things, this year we thought we would make a list of what and whom we are grateful for in the literary world.

In no particular order, we’re grateful for:

Adrian Ivashkov, one of the dreamiest love interests around, no pun intended. Okay, maybe a little one. He can visit our dreams any day. It’s almost unfair of Richelle Mead to have released Fiery Heart in the middle of NaNoWriMo. Who can be expected to write while Adrian awaits.

Those who organize and participate in pitching contests. Everyone, from the organizers to the slush zombies, agents, and other writers are so supportive. We know that it’s a huge undertaking. We’re very grateful for the Nightmare on Query Street team, especially our team captain, Michelle Hauck.
Other writers and editors who have offered help with queries, first pages, and introducing us to critique partners. 
Independent bookstores that keep going, even in this scary economic climate. There’s nothing like personal attention from a store owner or manager who really knows and loves books. We’d like to offer a special shout out to our favorites, in New York City: Shakespeare & Co. in the Village (where Betsy was a manager and met her husband, also a manager there) and Booksof Wonder. In Larchmont (Betsy’s new hometown) Voracious Reader and Anderson’s.  In San Francisco (Carrie’s new town):  Books, Inc.

Librarians.  In particular, Betsy is grateful for her children’s librarian who always has a great recommendation for a book. In the past year, Miss Rebecca has found the perfect books for her toddler, whether she was dealing with new glasses, potty training, the loss of her cat, or separation anxiety. As we know, books make everything better.

Mo Willems, Jon Klassen, Peter Brown, and other off-beat picture and early reader book authors for making hilarious books that parents don’t mind reading over and over and over again.

David Leviathan for writing Two Boys Kissing, which is among the most poignant books we’ve read in years. We’re talking full blown sobs on the subway, the kind that make other passengers stare, which is pretty rare in New York.

Other books we absolutely fell in love with this year including Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood, Veronica Roth's Allegiant, and Lauren DeStefano's Perfect Ruin, to name just a few.

Successful authors who post really honest stories of failure on their blogs to encourage the rest of us who are in the query and/or submission trenches.

Jennifer Lawrence for her portrayal of Katniss, and for kicking butt off the screen, too.  
J.K. Rowling for knocking herself off of the Forbes billionaires list by giving away 160 million dollars to charity, and for speaking out for struggling families.

Our beta-readers: Julia, Emily, Amanda, Christy, Jaina, and Laekan for their thoughtful comments and encouragement. Thanks for slogging through the messy stuff.  

Our e-readers which make it possible to read things like the hilarious and sexy How to Discipline Your Vampire by Mina Vaughn and Christina Lauren's Beautiful Bastard in public. Not to mention the authors of these books for writing steamy novels featuring multi-faceted women and complex relationships.

Our AP English teachers and literature professors. Sure, we didn’t want to read Melville and Steinbeck, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t good for us in the long run.

Our friends and family for putting up with our book obsessions and understanding when we’d rather stay home and write than go to a party.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

She’s not scary – she’s cute…

The other day, I was thinking about why I love ghost stories so much, and why I’m so excited about the witchy ghosty novel that Betsy and I have written. It’s most likely because face-to-face I am probably the un-scariest, most nonthreatening person in the world, so telling a spooky tale is the only way I can live out my dream of truly frightening people. 

Even at a very young age I wanted to be scary, but I learned quickly that, for a blond-haired, pug-nosed little girl like me, that was probably easier said than done. When I was about 6 or 7, for Halloween, I decided to be an ugly, old witch, the type that would terrify all the other children just by walking into the room. It was going to be awesome! I had a black dress and the requisite pointy hat, green make-up, hair that was teased and sprayed grey, and, of course, a kick-ass broom. I felt powerful, in charge, ready to seize those ruby slippers and turn everyone into toads.

But no one shrieked in horror when I rang their doorbell. No one cried or peed their pants in terror. It was disappointing, to say the least. However, the nail in coffin was when an older gentleman told me that I was “too adorable to be scary.” How dare he?! He should have at least pretended to be frightened – I mean, why break a little girl’s heart on Halloween? My mom assured me that he didn’t know I was trying to scare him. “He was just trying to be nice…” Whatever. I was devastated. And to add insult to injury, I’m pretty sure he gave me a box of raisins instead of candy. Jerk.

As the years passed, I continued to try to inspire mortal dread in my friends, holding “séances,” telling ghost stories with flashlights, and playing Ouija board (to my knowledge, we never released any demons from hell, and no one has since been possessed.) I think I ended up scaring myself more than anyone else, doing these things, though.

By the time I was a teenager, having inspired only warm fuzzies in my peers and comments like “you’re as cute as a button” and “you look like a little doll!” from elders, I gave up on trying to be scary. I consoled myself by reading horror and gothic novels and every single ghost story I could find at the library (the internet wasn’t a thing yet, so that was my main source of info.)

After college, when I was still an actor, I got a role in William Shakespeare’s Haunted House, an annual NYC Halloween production in which Shakespeare’s famous characters are forced, as ghosts, to relive the worst moments of their lives over and over. It’s all the supernatural and bloody scenes from his plays, performed using the original text in an interactive, Coney Island-style haunted house setting. I played one of the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; however these fairies were not sweet, glittery, Tinkerbell pixies. Nope, we were disgusting, alien, bug creatures that would eat your brains, if given the chance. 

Throughout rehearsal, I worked hard to tap into the darkest, most primal and monstrous parts of myself. I was a trained, professional actor, not some little kid in a homemade witch costume. This was my big chance to be scary for real!

I thought I was doing a great job in the show, growling and gnashing my teeth in iambic pentameter with the other fairies, until one mom in the audience said to her little boy, “Honey, don’t cry. Why don’t you go talk to that fairy,” pointing at me. “She’s not scary, she’s cute.” Seriously?! Come on! Disappointment rose up in me, filling me from the “nave to the chops,” until I could taste it – it tasted like stale Halloween raisins.

In the years following, I was recast as Juliet which allowed me to be more cute than scary, so that was better, but there’s a part of me that still longs to send shivers up spines, cause skin to goosebump, and make neck hairs to stand on end with fright. I haven’t yet learned how to follow Lady Macbeth’s advice to bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.”

So, maybe what I can’t accomplish in person, I can do in my writing. I know I’ll never be a master of horror, like Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Edgar Allan Poe – there will always be an element of cuteness, a touch of quirky wit, and probably some kissing in my writing – yet, hopefully with Essex Hill, Betsy and I can at least creep a few young readers out, and perhaps inspire future generations to go for the gold and scare the crap out of people. 

PS. I just read Kendare Blake’s fantastic, scary YA novel, Anna Dressed in Blood. Talk about witty, romantic AND terrifying. Deliciously scary!
Having given up on trying to look scary at Halloween, Betsy and I now embrace the cute (and I put my piggy nose to good use!)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Philadelphia: City of Ghostly Love

So, as mentioned, Carrie and I both enjoy going on ghost tours when we visit new cities. Between the two of us, we've been to many supposedly haunted places, but the most dramatic evidence of ghosts that I have personally encountered, happened when I wasn't even looking for it.

Several years ago, before I was married, I went with my parents to Philadelphia for a short weekend trip. My mom, who enjoys going to touristy spots on occasion, insisted we go to the City Tavern restaurant, one of the oldest restaurants in the country. She also always makes a big deal about asking the waiter to take a family photo.

Generally, these photos end up in a drawer, never to be thought of again, but not this one. When it was taken we didn't notice anything unusual at all. It was before digital cameras were available, so you had to patiently wait to finish a roll of film, then drop it off at CVS and wait again for the pictures to be developed.

The evening after this photo was taken, my dad and I went on a ghost tour of the city. The guide stopped in front of the City Tavern and told us a creepy story about how there was to be a wedding at the tavern, but the curtains caught on fire and the whole wedding party perished. He then stated that people still get married there to this day, but the ghost of the bride often photo bombs the wedding pictures.We didn't think anything of the story at the time and put it out of our minds.

That is, until we got the photos back.

You can see the dramatic white light in the picture. The photo was taken at night with no mirrors anywhere nearby. Not only that, but it was the only one on the roll like this. I showed the raw film to Carrie's husband, who dabbles in photography and he confirmed: there was nothing that he could think of that could have caused the smoky white shape in the image.

And this is why, when I did get married years later, before booking the venue, I jokingly asked if anyone had died there. Dude, wedding photography is way too expensive for some ghost to ruin it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Meet Your Ghostly Hosts

Not so long ago, before there were smart phones, but after the X-Files premiered, two young women met at NYU, where they studied musical theater and lived in a haunted dorm.  Carrie and Betsy, we’ll call them (because that’s their names), became fast friends as they both adored gothic literature, Shakespeare, and They Might Be Giants. Over the years they’ve acted, directed, and produced together (most notably a dystopian version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure which took place in a former deli on the Lower East Side), written really bitter, wine-fueled Dorothy Parker inspired poetry (hey, it was an awful break up), and spent countless hours reading and discussing books, especially those of a romantic or ghostly nature.

Okay, it’s us. We put away the tap shoes years ago and found real grown up jobs in the arts. Betsy was a magazine editor for seven years at two arts publications before joining a communications office at an NYC museum. Carrie has held arts administration positions at an orchestra and a children’s theater. But despite getting to do creative work for a paycheck, we always wanted to get back to those days of stormy brains when the wine and the ideas were messy and overflowing.

Inspired by some wacky ghost experiences across the globe, and our New England and New Amsterdam family roots, we set out to write ESSEX HILL, which we describe as Gilmore Girls meets The House of the Seven Gables. Read full description here.

We hope you’ll join us in our journey to see it published, and to write our work in progress. We don’t want to say too much about it yet, but we can tell you that it’s a quirky YA Contemporary novel and it has been a lot of fun to write so far.

We’ll also be spending time on the blog posting ghost photos, talking about other author’s books, and chatting about any other topics that are rattling around our book-addled brains.

Yours in paper cuts,

Betsy and Carrie
Photo of our haunted dorm, Brittany Hall. We don't own the photo, only the student loans. Apparently, Edgar Allen Poe wrote his famous poem, "The Bells," about the church directly across the street. Spooky, right?