Monday, May 11, 2015

Hilarity Ensues When you Accidentally Invite the Devil to Live in Your Basement: HELLHOLE by Gina Damico

This book is hilarious, all the way through. I grabbed every spare moment I could find to get back to reading it. It was a breath of fresh air after reading a few dark books in a row. And yes, I just said that reading a book about the devil was a breath of fresh air. Weird, but true.

Max Kilgore accidentally invites a devil to live in his basement. Max assumes he satan, like the devil. But he soon finds out that his devil is only one of many. This particular devil is in charge of salty snacks. He demands that Max bring him stolen snacks on a regular basis while demanding that Max find him a mansion (with a hot tub) to live in. And the kicker - the mansion has to be "stolen."

Max only agrees because the devil promises to cure his sick mom. Before he realizes it, Max gets deeper and deeper into debt with the devil. But with the help of a few friends, he may be able to get himself out of trouble.

I loved this book! It's in my top five for the year.  It's original and a total joy to read!

Watch the trailer to get a feel for the humor in the book

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Masterful Storytelling in BELLWEATHER RHAPSODY by Kate Racculia

I really can't write a better description of this book than the author herself, who sums it up on her website like this:

"My second novel asks the big questions, like:
What if Glee and Heathers had a baby and sent it to band camp at the Overlook Hotel?"

BEST DESCRIPTION EVER! This is totally accurate.

But I will trudge along and write a review anyway.

Kate Racculia is a master storyteller!

First of all, the setting is rich and delightful. The Bellweather is a historic hotel run by Harry Hastings, the concierge, who has lovingly taken care of it and its guests all these years. You can tell that the hotel was really something special back in its day, but the years have taken their toll, and with its lack of business, money hasn't been spent to keep the hotel in its former glory. The Bellweather has ballrooms, an auditorium, and a Tiffany glass domed rooftop pool. Since it's in upstate New York in the middle of a snow storm, references to The Shining are appropriate and encouraged.

The story begins in 1982 when a twelve-year-old bridesmaid witnesses a murder suicide in room 712 of the Bellweather. Then it skips fifteen years ahead to the Statewide competition for band, orchestra, and choir. We're introduced to two of the main characters, twin brother and sister, Rabbit and Alice Hatmaker. They've both made it to the Statewide their senior year. Their new music teacher that year is Natalie Wilson, who drives them to the hotel in a "short bus" merely because she knows it will aggravate Alice. Alice is a bit of a Rachel Berry, who is confident in her talent and future as a singer/actress. While Rabbit is a very talented bassoon player with a secret.

Arriving at the Bellweather, we meet the conductor, Fisher Brodie. Fisher is a talented piano player with an offbeat way of conducting and a semi-tragic childhood. Viola Fabian is in charge of the event, after the previous organizer had a heart attack under questionable circumstances. Her daughter Jill Faccelli is Viola's flute-playing prodigy daughter who hates her mother and simply wants to be left alone.

Imagine throwing all these characters together in a hotel with a few hundred more music-making teens for the weekend. Add in a few suicides or murders and you get this fabulous character driven, spectacularly written novel.

Also, the music! The author successfully writes about music, so that you can hear it. Plus, there is an orchestra scene near the end that is especially lovely and took me back to my own days in band to those special moments when everyone experienced the same joy of playing beautiful music well together.

There is just so much wonderful here. I highlighted so many passages that I adored. The descriptions, the characters, the setting, the dialogue, and the tone are pure perfection. This is my favorite of the year, so far. Did I mention it just won the Alex Award? Totally deserving.

The author's website has some fun links for you. You can see a Clue-like map of the Bellweather and some printable Tarot cards. Nifty. You can click below to go directly to the map.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Another John Green Movie - PAPER TOWNS Trailer is here!

The next YA book to movie hit is on the horizon. PAPER TOWNS by John Green is coming out this summer, July 24th. The trailer is out NOW. It seems like it will do the book justice, but I guess we'll see.

Also, check out this adorable video with John Green and Cara Delevingne, who plays Margo.

Happy Reading! Err...watching?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I REMEMBER YOU by Cathleen Davitt Bell

Whelp, you know me and time travel books. I thought this sounded like time travel of some variety, because Lucas remembers things from the future. It's not exactly that, but I won't spoil that for you.

Your quickie synopsis: Juliet and Lucas are falling in love, but when Lucas "remembers" things about Juliet he could not possibly know, Juliet begins to wonder if something is wrong.

I enjoyed this. The love story between Juliet and Lucas felt remarkably real. The author captures all the little details of first love: the intensity, the desperation, the way a smile or touch can send shivers down your spine.

I also enjoyed the friendship between Juliet and her best friend, Rosemary. The secondary characters are well fleshed out and enjoyable.  Overall, what I noticed most was the beautiful descriptive writing.

Here is a passage that I highlighted. Tell me you don't love this room. Doesn't it make you feel right at home. I want to toss a ball around with these dogs.

In the back of the house, it was all tennis and dogs. Piles of leashes and worn collars, chewed-up tennis shoes, tennis balls rolling around under counters, dogs rolling under the chairs, chasing them, sleeping with tennis balls grasped gently in their mouths. Tennis balls crowned the mail pile, held up broken table legs, mixed with the apples and oranges in the fruit bowl, and even, bizarrely, took pride of place in the door of the fridge where the ketchup and salad dressings are supposed to go. 

Also, I simply adore the description of the town library. (The setting is 1994, by the way.)

I love the way it smells of clean carpet and furniture polish and the dust-meets-chemical scent the microfiche readers emit. I love the librarians' low voices, the muted thumping of the wood chairs against the tables, the water fountain gurgling politely just inside the door. makes me want to go visit the libraries of days gone by. Perhaps I shall install a microfiche reader in my library. Okay, maybe not.

I'll leave you with the author's website to read more about this book, as well as her other books.

Happy Reading!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Need Some Inspiration? Read RITES OF PASSAGE by Joy N. Hensley

If you're looking for a strong female character who doesn't give up, no matter how many times she's threatened, Sam's your girl!

Sam McKenna is the only daughter in an all-military family. Her dad is a Commander of Special Forces, her brother was a Ranger, and her other brother is the cadet colonel at Denmark Military Academy. It should have been no surprise that Sam decides to be the first female recruit at the Academy, after her brother dares her to enroll. But people were surprised - and enraged.

Sam is allowed to enroll in Denmark Military Academy, but she is thwarted at every opportunity by her superior officer, Corporal Matthews. He verbally abuses her and is much harder on her than any of the male recruits. He also gets physically rough with her while others aren't looking.

The only bright spot of Sam's existence at the Academy is her drill sergeant Dean Stamm. He is the only one who appears to be on her side. But even with his help, Sam encounters another tough challenge. There is a secret society that is bound and determined to make her quit. What began as a dare from her brother ends up being the hardest thing Sam has ever done. And she will not quit.

I really enjoyed this! Sam is an incredible inspiration for young girls. She shows tremendous mental and physical strength through the book. It does have a bit of a love story, as well as some interesting family dynamics.

The author attended military school herself, which explains why the book feels so authentic. Check out her website for more behind the scenes information and some of the songs mentioned in the book. After you read the book, or even before, read the part about the song by Billy Joel, Goodnight Saigon. Then listen to the song. It's quite emotional.

Go here to read a sample from the book.

And I'll leave you with a book trailer. Happy Reading!

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).