Thursday, February 5, 2015

COURT is Yet Another Unique Tale from Cat Patrick

Cat Patrick's COURT is such a unique concept that her publisher didn't want to take a risk on it. Well, I could've told them to go ahead and take a leap of faith, because Cat Patrick's previous books are unique and people love them! FORGOTTEN features a girl who can't remember her past, but can remember her future, while REVIVED's main character has died and been revived five times. So, yeah, unique totally works for her! (Check out my interview with the author here, by the way.)

Anyway, Patrick proceeded to self-publish the book. I don't normally read self-published books, because a lot of times I can't get my hands on a print copy for my library, so I steer clear of them. (Or they simply aren't very good, and I don't have time for that.) But, if I know the author's work, then I bend that rule. I had enjoyed Cat Patrick's other books, so I knew I was in for a treat.

Here is your quickie synopsis:
For more than 300 years, a secret monarchy has survived and thrived within the borders of the US, hiding in plain sight as the state known as Wyoming. But when the king is shot and his seventeen-year-old son, Haakon McHale, is told he will take the throne, becoming the eleventh ruler of the Kingdom of Eurus, the community that's survived for centuries is pushed to the limit.

Original concept, right? Each of the main royal families control a section of the Kingdom, where a certain resource is predominant (oil, coal, wind, etc.) Before Haakon can take the throne after his father's death, his mother announces that he must marry Gwendolyn, the daughter of the Duke of Coal. While marrying will solidifying the monarchy, it will also make him appear more mature. However, neither Haakon or Gwendolyn want to marry. As the story continues, many secrets and hidden plots among the royal families are revealed.

I loved the concept. I was super curious to see how this society could be hidden in plain sight. I still have more questions, but I enjoyed the discoveries in this first novel. The story is told in multiple points of view, which works well, since I wanted to know about all sides of this hidden society. One character would have been limiting. The plot moved quickly and built to an exciting ending. I grew to love some of the characters. Overall, I liked this so much that I may have to lift my ban on sequels to read the next one. That is, if there is a sequel. I have many more questions about this world. (There has to be with that ending, right?)

I'm leaving you with some tidbits from Cat Patrick's website about the evolution of this book:
Happy Reading!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Streamline Your To-Do List with Wunderlist

While writing a post about notetaking apps, I came across Wunderlist. I created an account and messed around for a few minutes, and just when I was about to sign out and dump it in the recycling bin of my brain, I Googled to see how others were using it.

I found this post on the Just a Girl blog. She (or actually her husband, since he was guest posting) showed me a workflow that struck a chord with me!

The aha moment for me was the way you create tasks. You simply throw things into the "inbox" and organize them later. In my previous system, I would have to give a task some thought, then choose a day on my calendar, create a todo event, and add it there. Or, more often, I would be in a hurry and just add the task to the next day. I would invariably end up with 25 unorganized tasks on the next day. That was overwhelming.

My Old Process
Let me back up and explain the process I used before. I would create an all-day event for
my To-do list. Anytime I needed to add something, I would first have to think about the what day to add it on and some items really didn't have a due-date day, so I would just throw them in there somewhere. So in the morning, I would go in and organize that giant list and move items to different days as needed.

Whatever I didn't finish that day, I would push to the next day. Multiple days would pile up, so then I would need to go in a re-organize. I would also have certain all-day events titled with a project name and I would move those along since they were ongoing projects. One aspect I liked about having all these items on my calendar was that everything is in one place. But the negative is that looking at a calendar and seeing appointments and to-do lists together can become overwhelming and messy. Also, items would get lost when I forgot to move old To-dos to a new day.

Furthermore, in reality, it wasn't all in one place as I fooled myself into believing. Because, in addition to the calendar lists, I used the Google Tasks (built into the calendar), which I liked somewhat. You can add a due date to one and it will show on the calendar. But there is no mobile solution for Tasks unless you use a third party app, and I never found one I liked. I was also using the stock Mac/iOS Reminders and Notes app, since you can access those everywhere, which I like. (Windows too through iCloud.)

Anyway, my point is that even thought I felt terribly organized, I was using too many apps and it was confusing. I would forget to look in those other places, so some longer term projects would get forgotten.  After reading about the workflow in the post above, the light bulb went on. I could get rid of all my other extraneous lists, along with the To-Do events in my calendar and have one place for it all.

Enter Wunderlist
Now back to the new workflow with Wunderlist. First of all, it is available everywhere, which is a huge thing for me. I have to be able to access it online and on all my devices. Next, I really like that I can just add things in there at the drop of a hat, so I don't forget them, easing the "brain clutter." Then first thing in the morning, I open the inbox and assign all of my bits of clutter to a category by dragging and dropping them. I can choose a due date if needed or I can leave it open ended. With the inbox mentality, I know I'm addressing everything. This is my favorite part of Wunderlist.

Here are some of other the reasons I love it:

1.Today list:  Once you've added due dates to items, they will show up on the day automatically through the "Today" smart list. After moving everything from my inbox to their appropriate categories and dates, I can keep my Today list open all day in a pinned tab in Chrome. It will show them in their appropriate categories, so you can scan quickly and see which area will be busy that day.

2. Week view: Need a broader overview? Check out the "Week" smart list:

3. Reminders: In addition to giving your task a due date, you can set a reminder. Your notification options include push (for phones), desktop pop-ups, and emails. I love this for certain tasks that I simply don't want to forget. 

4. Recurring Events: This feature allows me to remove all the random little tasks that I have on my calendar that recur. This really cleans up my calendar.

5. Chrome Extension: You can add items to your list or your inbox while using Chrome. (There are also Safari and Firefox extensions. Sorry IE users - didn't see it listed.)

Final Thoughts:

  • I was able to remove a lot of clutter from my calendar, which eases my Type A mind when I look at it in the morning. 
  • Adding tasks are much easier from the web or my phone or tablet. 
  • I don't miss tasks, because now they're all here in one place, because I can keep short term (due date items) and long term items all together. Previously, I would keep long term or ongoing items in Google Keep or iOS Notes - like a grocery list, book list, or brainstorm list. 
  • It's gorgeous! You can change the background, but they all look nice. The app and web interface are a joy to use. 
  • You really have to use a To-Do app for it to work. I was already in the habit of organizing my list every morning, so this is great. But for Wunderlist to work for you, you'll want to have a routine of going through the items to make sure items pop up when you need to do them. Again, I refer you to the Just a Girl post, it has some great ideas!
Here are a few other articles about Wunderlist that I found helpful:

Enjoy redesigning your To-Do list! 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Google Scholar - Did you know you have a "library" you can save to?

Although I usually refer students to the library databases we pay for, there are situations when I recommend using Google Scholar for searching. Plus, I realize that students will use Google search anyway in a lot of cases, so I might as well help them along.  Here is one handy feature:

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Productivity: Using Technology to Focus Better

To continue my productivity series, I'm sharing a few ways that technology tools can help you focus.

I feel like I've been thinking about productivity a lot because it's that time of year (winter break) when I begin planning for the new semester ahead.

But, in all honesty, I'm sort of a sucker for the subject of productivity/time management in general. My favorite Google app is the Calendar, and in the olden days before electronic calendars, I was a sucker for those Franklin planners. So, I'm a planner and a productivity junkie.

During a typical day in the library, I have a set of tasks I want to accomplish. Some tasks are those that don't require high-level focus: checking and responding to email, paying bills, creating book orders, minor technology related tasks, and so on. These tasks can be interrupted and I can easily resume them with no trouble. (Interruptions are a normal and welcome part of my day - I'm here to serve.) Others require high-level focus such as planning a lesson, writing an article, or brainstorming other important library related things. During these activities, I need to be able to think without distractions.  I thought it might be fun to discuss some tools I use to create an atmosphere of total focus. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

Simple Pomodoro Extension
Yes, there are other online timers. But when I set a timer via Google, I usually end up closing that Chrome tab by mistake and then totally forget I had a timer on. So...this is when a Chrome extension helps. I really like Pomodoro because I agree that working in chunks of time is the best way to focus. When I really need to focus on something, I'll set this timer and then go to work. It's nice because I know that when I'm done, I get a reward. Read more about the Pomodoro technique here. It's simple and effective.

Momentum Extension 
I use Google Calendar to organize my life, as mentioned before. I'm preaching to the choir here for those of you who are already Google Apps users. But for those using another online calendar or a paper calendar, perhaps I can convince you to try Google Calendar. It's essential for my productivity, as you'll read in an upcoming article about Google Calendar's fabulous features.

However, sometimes, I still end up with to-do lists for my to-do lists, so when I need to really focus, I need something a little simpler. This is where Momentum comes in. It's simply an extension that takes over your "new tab" in Chrome. It's simple, yet gorgeous. You type in your focus for the day and every single time you open a new tab, it will show you this: (Each day you fill in the blank with your focus.)

The beautiful background changes each day, which is awesome. The bottom right corner has a to-do list that you can use or not. You can even hide it in the preferences. This is the simplicity I need on those occasions when I really need to focus. When I try to open a new tab, this greets me and reminds me what I should be focusing on. Love it! Give it a try.

Google All-Access 
My favorite and most important tool for focusing in music. I plug in my headphones and start my "inspirational" playlist. This playlist includes peaceful, yet inspiring instrumental and movie score music with no lyrics. (My dance playlist is handy during the aforementioned more mundane tasks of the day to make them more fun. Dance music makes everything more fun.) This inspirational music helps my brain function at its highest level. The moment I hear it, I can get in gear.

Yes, you can achieve similar results with Pandora, Spotify, iTunes radio or any other music curation/streaming service. In fact, I actually use Pandora as a discovery service to locate the movie scores that I will add to my Google music playlist. But for creating as many playlists as I need, easily and intuitively, I love All Access. I can access it on all my devices. I can pin a playlist to my device, so I don't have to use data when not on wifi. It powers my entire day from the dance music in the morning, throughout my workday, and while running in the evening.

The point is, music is great for focusing. So find your focus playlist by whatever means you are partial too. (That 10 year old Classical Music for Dummies CD is a start, sure!) If you're in the market for a new streaming service, I highly recommend Google All-Access.

It probably goes without saying, but let me remind you that if you're setting up to really dig in without distractions, turn off your notifications, email pop-ups, and slide off your unneeded extensions. I'm surprised how many people don't realize you can do that. Slide them off (that gmail counter can be super distracting. How long can you look at it without clicking??) You can always click the little arrow if you really need to get to one while you're focusing. If you don't know what I mean, watch this: (it's flash, sorry if you're on mobile.)

Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.

I would be glad to hear your suggestions! Is there another extension that's handy for turning off notifications or any apps that you use to help you stay on track?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

3 Chrome Extensions For Productivity

Today's Chrome extension article focuses on productivity. One of my favorite ways to help people with technology is to help them be more efficient. If I see someone taking 10 steps to do something that you can do in 5, I will tell them about it. (Or I will "offer" to help. Bossy is not really my style.) Therefore, it makes sense that my first post in my Chrome extension series promotes efficiency. 

Out of all of the "readers" and "save it for laters" I've tried, Pocket has been the most reliable and easy to use. It works with all of my devices, so when I save something, I can read it at any point later on any device. In addition to working from Chrome, you can send stuff to Pocket from Android beautifully, and now it works in iOS too. The mobile app is not too shabby looking either. 

I think all Type-A-ers will be with me on this last point. I really enjoy clicking the little check mark after I'm done reading an article. So that's why this one makes my "Productivity" list. When I can make a check mark, I feel productive. Don't you?

I just recently heard about TabCloud from Amy over at FriedTechnology. I really love it! If you open the same few windows each time you perform a specific task (blogging, catching up on your social media, perusing ebay & Craigslist for your business selling obscure porcelain dolls from the seventies) then this is just the thing for you. 

You can save a certain set of tabs and name them whatever you want. Then when you open your browser, you just click the little plus sign and all your tabs are open like magic. You can sync this extension across multiple computers too, which is super handy. I save so much time not having to manually open tabs (the horror!), so that's why I'm more productive with TabCloud. 

Lastly, there is just really no excuse not to have a good password manager these days. I LOVE LastPass because it's always been there for me. I could not function at all without it. It can generate secure passwords based on any requirements (number of symbols, number of characters, etc.), and it works on literally ALL devices. You can access your vault on any computer (in my library when I'm at a presenter laptop, for example) and safely log off when you're finished. The features really are endless. 

But my favorite new feature is that I can open and use my passwords with TouchID on iOS. I no longer have to type in my super-secure long vault ID on my tiny mobile screen. Yes, that really is the best feature. When I'm using Android, I can't do that. Sigh. (But there are many other features I like better about Android that I'll discuss in an upcoming iOS vs Android series.) As for why this made my list, well, I think we can ALL agree that not having to keep hundreds of passwords in my head saves space for me to be more productive, but it also saves my sanity (you're welcome world).

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Coolness of Canva

I wanted to share a tool with you that's really helped me out a ton lately. It's called Canva. It's a free program to create professional looking graphics. You can create graphics to use on flyers, blogs, websites, or even for your cover photos on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

What I like best is that it's extremely intuitive to use. You can choose from the high quality graphics and photos included or you can upload your own.

When you want to easily layer a photo over another one, without messing around with Photoshop, Canva is the way to go. I've also used it to create infographics and handouts, as well as simple, but elegant graphics for my resources guides.

Another aspect I appreciate about Canva is that you can create custom sizes for your canvas art. This is important when you need to change your header for a social media site that changes their header sizes pretty regularly (I'm looking at you Google+).

Finally, something else that Canva offers is a feature called Design school, so for those of us who are not naturally gifted designers, perhaps Canva will help us craft more pleasing designs.

Anyway, I've always used Canva here and there for small projects, but during the last week, I've used it so much to help with my new logo that I felt compelled to share it with you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

SOULLESS by Gail Carriger: My First Steampunk

I've been wanting to read this one since I enjoyed Gail Carriger on a Sci/Fi panel at ALA a few years back. I loved it! I really didn't know what to expect. I've been searching for a Steampunk novel to read for a while, but haven't really stumbled upon anything that intrigued me. So, I went back to this one, since it's been on my list for a while anyway, having made the the Alex Award list in 2010.

Let me begin with your quickie synopsis:
Alexia Tarabotti, a woman without a soul who is viewed as unable to marry, works with werewolf Lord Conall Maccon to clear her name after she accidentally kills a vampire and is suspected of the disappearances of other undead members of high society.

In case you were a little confused by the mention of vampires and werewolves, let me give you some background on Gail Carriger's version of Steampunk.
See now? And it totally works! Throwing vampires and werewolves into proper Victorian high society works brilliantly in the hands of Gail Carriger. 
Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster at the ripe old age of 26 (yikes!). She's got quite a brain on her, so she inserts herself into investigations and other activities of the local law enforcement. Although the investigation in this story begins not by her own busybody-ness but after a vampire attacks her. The fallout from the attack starts a domino of events that leads to a discovery of a secret society with sinister goals.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! At first, it felt a little slow for me and I wasn't sure I would continue. But the beautiful language and the depth of the main character kept me going. I'm glad I did. As I read, I highlighted passage after passage of highly entertaining writing and witty banter. I concluded wishing the story would continue. It really is wickedly funny. Alexia Tarabotti is now one of my all-time favorite characters!

I would be remiss if I neglected to tell you that Gail Garriger now has a teen series set in this world called The Finishing School series. I haven't read it, but from the reviews I've seen, it's appropriate for middle school readers. Whereas this book, as an Alex Award book, is an adult book appropriate for older teens.

I don't have a trailer, but you should really visit Gail Carriger's website. It's chock-full of so many goodies!

Read this one, if you haven't yet! You'll love it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Action-Packed Science Fiction Love Story by Claudia Gray in A THOUSAND PIECES OF YOU

Imagine there were unlimited versions of you in an unlimited number of dimensions. Imagine that each choice you make spurs off a different course for your life. But somehow there are certain people you always encounter in each dimension. You and this other person find each other no matter what. This is A THOUSAND PIECES OF YOU. Although other people would argue it's an action book, with a dash of love.

I adored this book. I'm a sucker for great relationships, and Gray delivers some really meaningful, deep relationships. She actually pulls off a greater feat than that, since these relationships occur in different dimensions, so the characters have to be nuanced across worlds. I can't explain more without divulging too much, but seriously, that is an amazing feat. (Sorta like Orphan Black, but not really...)

Since I haven't given a summary yet, let me do that. Here is your one sentence summary:
When eighteen-year-old Marguerite Caine's father is killed, she must leap into different dimensions and versions of herself to catch her father's killer and avenge his murder.

Not only did I enjoy the characters and relationships, but the premise was intriguing. I think it's interesting that they travel through dimensions, but not time. So when Marguerite travels it's the same exact period of time. Here's what seemed really cool to me - some dimensions were ahead of us technologically, whereas others were behind. One dimension had just invented the telephone. How cool is that to think about. What forces stalled their advances or propelled ours?

Additionally, it was interesting to see the differences between people in different dimensions. Marguerite's mother was a genius in her dimensions, as well as others, of course, but the way it manifested in each dimension was fun to see play out. It makes you think about how different we all might be after making different decisions in the course of our lives.

Overall, this is a lovely combination of science fiction and love, with tons of action. The plot keeps moving all the way to the end. I truly appreciate the author's ability to combine these elements in such a fulfilling way. As much as I am tired of trilogies, I'm so glad that this story will continue, because I want more!

I could not locate a book trailer, so instead, I'm bringing you an exclusive interview with the author from the Novel Novice website. Click below to read. (There are no spoilers!)

Friday, November 7, 2014

SIX MONTHS LATER by Natalie D. Richards

In the mood for a mystery?

Here's your quickie synopsis:

Chloe didn't think about it much when she nodded off in study hall on that sleepy summer day. But when she wakes up, snow is on the ground and she can't remember the last six months of her life. Before, she'd been a mediocre student. Now, she's on track for valedictorian and being recruited by Ivy League schools. Before, she never had a chance with super jock Blake. Now he's her boyfriend. Before, she and Maggie were inseparable. Now her best friend won't speak to her. What happened to her? And why can't she remember?

I was intrigued by this premise of losing your memory for six months. The mystery kept me going, and I enjoyed the Chloe's journey to figure out what happened. When she wakes up and things are so different, she wonders what kind of person she turned into to create this completely different life. Her mom is thrilled with her now that she's being courted by Ivy League schools and getting top grades. But what was the cost for her mom's approval? Her boyfriend is the boy she's always dreamed of, but why does he repulse her?

You'll enjoy this if you love a good mystery.

Other books I recommend about memory loss:
For a completely, totally original take on memory, check out Forgotten by Cat Patrick.
Also, Mercy by Rebeccas Lim throws angels into her amnesia tale.
And last, but definitely not least, one of my favorites of the year, so far - We Were Liars by E. Lockart.

Now I leave you with a book trailer:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Amy Zhang's Haunting Debut, FALLING INTO PLACE

“She is human and bound by the same laws of nature—gravity, in particular—as everyone else. Try as she might, she will never grow wings.”

Liz Emerson has decided that the world would be better off without her. She gives herself a week to plan her departure and to give the world one last shot at convincing her to stay. The story is told from a unique perspective, multiple time periods, and through snapshots of Liz’s childhood. On paper that sounds like it would be confusing. But it’s not. In fact, it makes the story that much more interesting. Add to that perceptive, completely beautiful writing and you have a winner. I loved this book.

The author walks a very fine line with the Liz's character. She’s so hurtful and deliberate in her actions towards her friends and students who cross her. But being inside Liz’s head, you feel where she’s coming from, and somehow I rooted for her. It’s a delicate balance that the author pulls off smoothly. If I don’t like the main character, I’ll easily put a book down. What’s the point of reading someone’s story if you don’t care about them. It was important to see the growth from where Liz was as a child and the journey that led her to now.

The unique narration and flashbacks made the story more intriguing. The writing is lovely. It’s perceptive and feels authentic. The relationships are what really wrenched my heart.The way Liz’s mom neglects her hits hard, but then we still feel for her mom, since we know she’s in pain. Also, the way Liz hurts her loyal friends when she really just wants to support them.

The book is beautiful, haunting, and thoughtful.

I couldn't locate a book trailer, but I'll refer you to Epic Reads "20 Elegant Quotes from Falling into Place."  They put together their favorite quotes from the book, many with striking images. That should give you an idea of how lovely Zhang's writing is in Falling into Place.