Wednesday, December 17, 2014

10 Most Fascinating Characters of 2014

Despite the fact that she claims she's retired, Barbara Walters came out with her annual list of the Ten Most Fascinating People of the past year. It was full of the usual people; actors, philanthropists, etc. It got me thinking, though. If she can call out the 10 most fascinating people, why can't I do the same with book characters?

So I did.

Come with me under the cut to see what ten characters were the best in 2014!

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Monday, December 15, 2014

9 of Your Favorite Characters Celebrating Chanukah

by Megan S.

by the 4th Annual Pez Menorah Project*
The holiday season is in full swing this week with Chanukah beginning tomorrow and ending on December 24. The Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the holy temple during the Maccabean Revolt is celebrated by some of our favorite fictional characters, including some you may not of realized practiced.

And, of course, we have a list of who will be doing what over the next eight days...
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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Blast From the Past: Ancient Ales

"Tis the season for making merry, sharing food and drink, and giving presents of the more spirited variety.

If you have an adventurous wine or beer fan, perhaps give them MIDAS TOUCH, an entry in Dogfish Head's Ancient Ales.

Sweet, dry, and tasting of a mix between wine and beer, the recipe was uncovered from ingredients in 2700 year old drinking vessels. With the help of biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern, Dogfish Head is crafting beer that is so old it's new again.

There is a whole lineup of Ancient brews. Most are in limited release but Midas Touch is more widely-available.

I would caution though, do not put it in the fridge or try to chill it. I made that mistake the first time I tried it. All I could taste was grape until it warmed up a bit. The second time I drank it at room temperature and found it really smooth and quite tasty.

If you are looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, give Midas a try. Also, be sure to read Dr. McGovern's account of the excavation of Midas' tomb.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Penguin Saved Christmas

When it comes to books, I am a walking personification of the Amazon recommendation tool. Besides being passionately obsessed with books to a certifiable degree, I spent over five years working in the book trenches as the manager of a Borders. I know books. My greatest joy is someone asking me on Twitter what book to read and hearing back in a few weeks that they loved my suggestion. Books are my thing.

But even people who are personifications of the Amazon recommendation tool get stuck sometimes. That's where Penguin comes in. Penguin Random House is one of the big publishers in the US and they have a large social media presence. Inspired by the Butterball turkey helpline that assets people cooking turkeys at Thanksgiving, they launched the Penguin Hotline this winter to help people find the perfect book to give for the holidays. The Penguin Hotline is the brainchild of Penguin President, Madeline McIntosh, who has been so good this year I'm pretty sure Santa is going to bring her a Ferrari. 

I won't mince words here. The Penguin Hotline is fucking GENIUS.

Staffed by over 300 passionate Penguin employees from all corners of the company, the program is "publisher-agnostic" and recommends books from every publisher under the sun. Just answer a few quick questions at the Penguin Hotline website (age of the reader, books they like, other media stuff they enjoy) and in a few days you'll receive a group of exceptional suggestions. This idea is so amazing I am shocked a publisher hasn't come up with it before. It's on par with Macy's sending people to Gimbel's in Miracle on 34th St. It's genius, both in marketing and customer goodwill.

I decided to give it a try using the most difficult book person I know: my father. Everyone in my family is a voracious reader but everyone is very precise about the genres they read. My mother likes western romance novels, for example. Not regency, not modern day, they HAVE to be westerns. My father is even worse. My father only likes epic historical fiction like Pillars of the Earth or incredibly hard to find historical murder mysteries. Those mysteries can't take place after World War One. He prefers them to have medieval English monks and Roman centurions solving crimes. YEAH, you try finding books like THAT every Christmas.

A few days after I sent my request to the Penguin Hotline, I received a very nice email from Jess in the Editorial department. Jess is currently my hero. The email contained a book suggestion so perfect I nearly wept. It was David McCuullough's The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. My father, born and bred in New York City, will be HEAD OVER HEELS for this book. It's just like Pillars of the Earth, except it's about a bridge and not a cathedral. I took my unrestrained glee to Twitter and thanked Penguin profusely for offering this amazing service.

That same day I put in a Hotline request to see if they knew anything good for my picky younger sister, who thought Gone Girl was the best book she's ever read. Chris from the Marketing department came through with the suggestion of Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson. Two sentences into reading the book's description, I knew my sister would absolutely love it! Both books have already been bought and are going to go under the tree this year, to my immense relief. I didn't know either of them existed and yet they are both PERFECT.

Definitely curious now, I decided to really test them and put in a Hotline request pretending to be someone buying ME a book. Claire from Editorial complimented my good taste in Neil Gaiman and suggested books even I hadn't heard of yet; Helene Wrecker's The Golem and the Jinni and Lauren Owen's The Quick. Looks like I may be gifting myself some books this holiday season too!

The people at Penguin are complete and utter miracle workers. They found two awesome, perfect books for two very difficult people to shop for. Christmas is saved! Many thanks to Jess, Chris and Claire, who have given Santa's own elves a run for their money. Book people are the most awesome people in the world.

I definitely suggest you visit the Penguin Hotline to get some stellar recommendations for all the people on your list. I hope Penguin has a lot of success with this program because it's such an awesome idea and they are executing the absolute hell out of it.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good book!
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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Evil On The Shelf

by Megan S.

via Gas Station Burrito
For lo these past nine years, a pestilence has been spreading to homes across our fair nation.  It creeps in on formless stockinged stumps, crouches in the corners, and embeds itself into the daily lives of families. It taunts our children and forces our mothers and fathers to lose precious sleep from Thanksgiving until Christmas.

Worst of all, it silently judges us at the behest of an old man who has never done time for the countless B&Es he's committed.

Yes, sisters and brothers, I'm talking about the Evil on the Shelf and it is high time we rise up and rid ourselves of this blight on our holiday time

by Hunted Interior via Hi Sugarplum
Why, that elf is just a loveable scamp, you say. His harmless, if off-color, pranks don't hurt no one, you say.  Untrue! Even his most harmless pranks do everlasting damage. Defecating in a jar in public is not a lesson we want to teach our children!

But, my friends, this is not the reason I'm here today.  That creature is wicked through and through and I have the proof.


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Monday, December 8, 2014

This Guy's Spotify Playlist Is Most Definitely A Good Omen

by Megan S.
Good Omens fanart by thenizu
The end is nigh, dear readers.*  Though we have no confirmation if the Antichrist (AKA the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness) has arrived in Tadfield, England yet, one thing is for certain, somebody's definitely gotten the ball rolling on this whole apocalypse thing.

Eagle-eyed friend of Stellar Four Simone C. spotted a telltale sign** on the Spotify troubleshooting community forums today and it's a whopper.  Every Spotify playlist of user MKWalker's eventually turns into a Queen album.
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Friday, December 5, 2014

Calling All Writers: Why Aren't You Using Scrivener Yet?

by Sara N.

Don't you love it when something is as good as promised?
Following a monthlong trial, I've determined that the writing software Scrivener is, in fact, the game-changing, writer-friendly wonder program it was rumored to be.

As I told you all at the beginning of November, I took advantage of Scrivener's free trial during National Novel Writing Month and used it to knock out my 50,000 words. I was skeptical at first, in large part because before I could type a word, I had to walk through a lengthy, head-spinning tutorial demonstrating all of the program's bells and whistles. It was daunting, and I thought at the time, "I will never use all of this stuff. I should just stick with Word."

I was both right and wrong. After a month of use, I haven't tapped into even a fraction of what this program can do. But lemme tell ya, what I have figure out how to use has been so incredibly useful that I took advantage of Scrivener's promotion for NaNoWriMo winners and bought the program for 50 percent off.

And now I'm going to convince all of the writers out there why you should pony up the $45 ($5 less for PCs) for the program, even without a discount code: Scrivener is an organizational dream.

The program lets you write in chunks and organize your work into folders. Your folders can be chapters, characters, plot threads, whatever you choose. You can name them what you want, drag and drop them where they need to go, and easily search them. Last year during NaNoWriMo, I discovered how hard it is for me to keep track of timelines and when things happen in the story. I solved that problem this year by making each folder roughly a chapter, but labeling those chapters with the time period they cover. This worked for me, but it's so flexible that you can customize it for your own labeling needs.

Searching is easier, too. In the past when wanting to refer back to a previous reference on longer documents, I had to Command-F and hope I remembered the proper word combination for whatever I needed. Here, I can generally locate it more quickly because the story's broken into labeled, bite-sized pieces. And there's a search function, too, of course.

The bottom of the lefthand bar also has folders you can create for your characters so you can compile their first and last names, eye color, height, alma mater, mom's nationality, whatever. It's a lifesaver as a quick reference for supporting characters, especially. (Lemme tell ya, this is something George R.R. Martin could really use. I saw him speak a few years ago, and I asked him how he keeps track of things like character eye color, and he said he really doesn't and always has to look it up, which is part of the reasons he writes so slowly. Try this program, George! You heard it here first!) That same area also has a spot for you to save research, articles, reference documents and so forth so you don't have to open a new program or break your stride if you're on a roll. Oh, and it automatically saves a backup when you close out of the program.

This is just scratching the surface of what Scrivener can do, and now that I've met the Nov. 30 deadline, I can slow down and explore the other tools, of which there are many. I'm tickled by the corkboard function that offers a different approach to visualizing how the book flows. The different colored pins indicate whose POV each chapter is, although you could have different colors stand for any signifier you choose by customizing it. (I'm writing a contemporary romance novel, so pink is her, blue is him, green is both. No, I have not chosen to buck hegemony with these color choices. Deal with it.)

Scrivener's potential is hugely exciting for other types of writing, too. I'm an academic, and I conduct research, write scholarly articles on the results, and submit them for publication. What could I do with separate folders for the literature review, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion, plus a place to stick citation articles and charts and graphs for easy referral? I'm giddy with the possibilities! In addition, my husband's an attorney, and Scrivener will be an enormous help when he writes appellate briefs, again because of the ease of storing research, chunking your work, focusing on one element at a time, searching for what you've already done, and reorganizing when necessary.

Long story short: If you're a writer of lengthier projects, Scrivener is worth it. Absolutely, without a doubt worth it. If you want to give it a spin yourself, you can download it for a 30-day trial. That's probably all it will take to convince you to buy it for keeps.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to boot up my copy of Scrivener. I'm still tweaking my book.
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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gods, Monsters & Misery

This week one of our favorite authors had a book birthday. Stephen Blackmoore has been on S4 before (see here, here, and here for a few examples). He has a new book out from Abaddon Books, MYTHBREAKER. It is the second book in a series of standalone novels written by different authors (book 1, UNCLEAN SPIRITS is by Chuck Wendig, and there is a novella by Pat Kelleher, DRAG HUNT).

I admit that I've broken one of my book rules: I haven't read the first book yet. I can say that there was no problem getting into this book and now I'm looking forward to reading SPIRITS. 

I really enjoy worlds that are a mash-up of the various mythologies and belief systems (American Gods, Kate Daniels, Iron Druid, Eric Carter, etc), so this world of fallen gods from every pantheon speaks to me on so many levels. It is gritty, as I expected and hoped it would be, and once again Blackmoore has shown that it really sucks to be a character in his universe. But oh, how I love to read about it.

Louie Fitzsimmons does the books for a drug dealer and tries to spend his days high as a kite and hooking up with strangers. Drugs are the only way he knows to quiet the horrible hallucinations that have plagued him his whole life. Then he finds out that the nightmares are actually transmissions from the many gods and goddesses living among us and he is a valued Chronicler, or prophet. He's someone who can tell the stories that shape belief.

One lesson I learned studying mythology is that when humans gain the notice of the gods, it never turns out well for them. Soon Fitz is on the run from a nearly forgotten forest goddess, a Greek powerhouse with a cadre of crazy stay at home moms, an angel with big plans, and a more modern deity. He might be valuable to the gods, but they aren't known for their kindness. He makes uneasy alliances as he tries to come to terms with his power and find a way to survive.

This is a fast-paced, high-flying, crude, sweary, gritty, kickass book. As I said, I really like the inclusion of all of the pantheons and the idea that we're creating new deities in our modern life. One of my favorite parts though, was that the gods might be immortal, but they are not indestructible. They have some vulnerability. The power of human belief is also explored in a different way that I won't go into because of spoilers, but it was good stuff. I'm also a fan of books where stories are especially powerful. It kind of goes with the territory when you're a book addict.

Again, Blackmoore fully tortures his characters. I had a few, "Dammit, Blackmoore!" moments. OK, maybe more than a few. This is a dangerous world they're living in, of course. It's a great cast of characters. Besides the miserable Fitz, we have Medeina (kickass!), and Amanda (more kickass!), and lots more. Amanda started off pretty cool and by the end I became her biggest fan. The villains are good too, and like the best books, most of the characters exist in a grey area where they are neither fully heroic nor evil. So much good stuff.

Buy MYTHBREAKER  Amazon | B&N | Kobo | BAM | Powell's | Indiebound

Stephen Blackmoore:

[received a review copy]
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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dragon Age: Romantic Comedy

I personally don't play Dragon Age but nearly everyone on my Twitter feed does. It sounds really fun, I keep meaning to check it out. The latest chapter in the sprawling, epic game series is Dragon Age: Inquisition. If your social media has seemed light lately it's because everyone is playing it.

While I don't play DAI, I've heard a lot of excited chatter about the romances. My friend Laurie shared an amazing and hilarious video about the best romance in DAI and it's too good not to spread around. It involves a character named Iron Bull and his lover getting caught at a delicate moment. Hilarity ensues. I laughed so hard I almost cried. Careful though, it's definitely NSFW!

Do NOT read the YouTube comments. Trust me. Homophobia as far as the eye can see, with a hearty sprinkling of GamerGate nonsense. If being a SJW is wrong, I don't want to be right.

If you'll excuse me, I have to go buy Dragon Age: Inquisition. Oh, Bioware, you lovable scamps.
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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Gift Ideas: Fantastic Picture Books

There is something wonderful about the perfect blend of story and illustration. We have a few shelves devoted to picture books in our family library, and they are among our favorite gifts to give. Here are a few you might look at for the young (or young at heart) readers on your list.

Jacob Lawrence in the City by Susan Goldman Rubin

Blurb: "Busy city! Beep, beep, beep!

Jacob Lawrence's exuberant artwork guides readers through a bustling city, complete with builders rat-a-tatting and children playing in the streets. With rhythmic text and 11 iconic paintings, this book is both an introduction to an influential artist and a celebration of city life."

This one is a board book - the books with the thick chunky pages that your baby can't rip through (unless your kid is Superbaby). I love the artwork.

Amazon | B&N | Powell's | BAM | Indiebound

Professor Whiskerton Presents Steampunk ABC by Lisa Falkenstern

"Steampunk is fun! Steampunk is imaginative! It's making something new out of something old. It's dressing up in clothing from long ago. It's inventing machines out of hardware and found objects. It's creating a make-believe world! In Professor Whiskerton Presents Steampunk ABC, two mice dressed in Victorian clothing use gadgets and found objects ? each starting with a letter of the alphabet?to build something fantastic - which is revealed at the end. A wonderful and delightful surprise!"

It's a steampunk ABC - obviously it should be in everyones personal library.

Little Red Writing by Joan Holub and Melissa Sweet

"Acclaimed writer Joan Holub and Caldecott Honoree Melissa Sweet team up in this hilarious and exuberant retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, in which a brave, little red pencil finds her way through the many perils of writing a story, faces a ravenous pencil sharpener (the Wolf 3000)... and saves the day."

Words are everything in this story - Red needs to find the right ones for her story, and they also come in handy when dealing with a big bad wolf.

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