You’ve Got Five Pages, Wayward by #BlakeCrouch, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Wayward by Black Crouch

So in my podcast I note the peculiarity of the publication and how it’s tied to Amazon publishing. It looks like a new edition of this book is coming out later this year through Ballantine, so I wonder if Blake Crouch started with self-publishing and has since gone traditional. Either way, good for him! Still wonder how my library got a hold of the old edition, though…

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

Honestly, this was a curious find. It’s plain to see we’re not starting with the regular protagonist, but that outsider perspective does provide a unique look at the setting for this trilogy. For all the quaint beauty of this small town, there is a very real, very lethal menace in all the razor wire and posted snipers. To begin the story with one of those snipers immediately establishes the high stakes involved with surviving this mystery. We may be entering this story arc in the middle (it is Book 2, after all), but the first chapter does its job in establishing some major ground rules for a reader uncertain of the road ahead. We have action, we have monsters, and we have an unsuspecting populace.

Sounds like a recipe for mischievous disaster to me!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: #TheShatteredSkies by John Birmingham. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Shattered Skies by John Birmingham

We have a unique situation here. This is a new release in Science Fiction, but it’s also the second book of a trilogy, which means a lot of establishment of character, conflict, and setting have already been accomplished. So, we’ve got to seriously temper our expectations when it comes to worldbuilding and character development, for much of that could be present in the first book, The Cruel Stars.

What will you, fellow creatives, make of these first five pages? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The conflicts and worldbuilding alluded to by the first chapter’s primary character sound epic in their scope, and the character’s voice certainly fits a military mind. I just wish this character could have interacted with someone instead of only inwardly reflecting on all the epic conflicts and political intrigue. Let the man talk to a subordinate officer or some other henchman while waiting to land on a planet! You know me–I’m a sucker for a beginning with some action. 🙂

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: #RileysGhost by John David Anderson. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Riley’s Ghost by John David Anderson

Yes, this is a Middle-Grade (MG) novel, but a paranormal mystery for a kid can be a fun read for an adult, too! My daughter Blondie has been on my case to share this book on the podcast, so this week I’m buckling and here we are. 🙂 Honestly, though, I’m glad I did.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The story begins with a graphic description of a dead body…a dead frog body. It’s a wonderful way to set the tone for this school setting: the “barbarian” seventh grades, the disconnected teachers, and Riley, who just doesn’t feel like she belongs and would rather forge an adult’s signature to escape accountability rather than get help. Blondie promises very creepy moments are in store for anyone who loves a ghostly read, and if you’ve listened to my December 2021 collabs with Blondie, you know she wouldn’t gush about a story if it wasn’t worth reading! 

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: Finding that Balance Between #Worldbuilding and #Character Development

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Happy May to you, my fell creatives!

As I mentioned last month, I got something of a stick in my craw, a monkeywrench in my gears, a fly in my ointment, and other such little irritants over some story series two friends recommended to me. These irritants led me to create this rant/debate/discussion/whatever you want to call it that we’ll be getting into today, so buckle up, my friends–this one’s going to be a bit raw (in a good way (I hope)).

First, a little context.

My podcast You’ve Got Five Pages…To Tell Me It’s Good has me constantly asking the questions about what as readers, hooks us into a story and what, as writers, helps us create that hook. By looking at first chapters only, I am expecting a book to somehow get my attention in those opening pages. Usually, one of two things will do the trick: either a fascinating setup for the story, or fascinating characters I want to hear more about. Ideally, we would get both, but I know this will not always be the case. The lovely P.J. Lazos recently reminded me that there will always be stories that take their time building up interest and intrigue (Outlander was her example). She’s certainly not wrong! How often have we come across stories where “the good stuff” showed up later on? So I won’t knock a book for that approach. Yet I do think something in those opening pages encourages a reader to keep going. When that something peters out…well, that’s why we’re here today.

So, the books in question: one was all about epic battles with fire and ice and lightning–

–while the other was a trip down Pride and Prejudice Lane, only from Mr. Darcy’s point of view:

Both series sounded promising to me from the outset. One’s providing insight into the silent character whose heart is a mystery to the characters around him, while the other alludes to a mysterious Ascension, the physical lifting of six gigantic islands the size of Australia into the air in order to save humanity from drowning in the now Endless Ocean.

So, on the one hand, you have a character-centric story; on the other, a plot-driven story.

Is it necessarily bad to have one or the other? No, not…not necessarily. But it’s certainly tougher to appeal to readers. Jeff Gerke is pretty blunt about this matter in Plot versus Character: A Balance Approach to Writing Great Fiction:

The problem is that each kind of novelist is usually as awful at the one thing as she is terrific at the other thing. The plot-first novelist tends to create characters who are flat, unrealistic stereotypes: cardboard cutouts who, despite different moods, agendas, genders, and occupations, seem eerily similar to one another–and the author’s personality. The character-first novelist produces wonderfully vibrant characters–but often has no idea what to make these interesting people do.

This point came home as I read each series. Here’s the blurb for Skyborn, which is both succinct and totally encompassing of the story at the same time:

Six islands float high above the Endless Ocean, where humanity’s final remnants are locked in brutal civil war.

Their parents slain in battle, twins Kael and Brenna Skyborn are training to be Seraphim, elite soldiers of aerial combat who wield elements of ice, fire, stone and lightning.

When the invasion comes, they will take to the skies, and claim their vengeance.

Aaaand that’s what they do. So there’s no false advertising, at least.

Now again, I want to be clear: this series, to me, had a really cool premise. After all, SOMEthing like an apocalypse must have happened to lead to this Ascension that allows SIX continent-sized land masses to remain perched atop giant beams of water high above an endless ocean. How could such an event affect these different lands? What kinds of people would live on each land, what kinds of wildlife? Would they have different habitats, like deserts and rainforests and such? Plus, these islands had strange prisms that could help power metal wings one could strap on–where did those come from? How do they shoot fire and stuff? Does that mean they have advanced technology, too? Where and how does all that history affect this world’s present?

I had so many questions about this epic place filled with epic war. And oh yes, there’s lots of fighting with ice and fire and lightning and such. This author knows how to write a battle, and there are a LOT of battles across the trilogy. Plus, he included some very interesting themes at work involving God and free will, the needs of the many over the few, and so on. Such themes fit very well in a world where people flew like angels.

And yet, I was bored. Why?

Because I didn’t care about the characters. There wasn’t enough about them to make them feel like actual people.

Readers meet these twins just as they are watching their parents battle in the sky and die. And the next thing you know these twins are now going to school to be Seraphim. We don’t really explore how such a traumatic event affects these two. They were growing up to be Seraphim, and they’re still going to be Seraphim. The first book almost immediately takes us away from whatever sort of everyday setting there could have been for the twins to process their grief so we could instead see “underdog kids in school” situations while they train to be Seraphim. Grief? What grief?

On school grounds, the twins are surrounded by cutouts like “snob boy,” “quiet girl,” “smart librarian,” “deceitful politician,” “kindly teacher.” And what really got me is that the very protagonists themselves never really grew out of such descriptions either: the girl Bree was eternally “out to prove herself,” and the boy Kael was eternally “thoughtful and supportive.” Even when the twins’ father who was thought dead in the first two books shows up in Book 3, there’s hardly any interaction between him and his children–and as a result, there’s hardly any emotional resonance. (spoiler alert) And since he also dies in Book 3, the aftershock of his loss amounts to…nothing.

In all of their epic battles, the characters never really transform. Even when the boy twin literally grows wings at one point, it never seems to matter because the girl twin’s got to prove herself again, so off she goes with his support to keep fighting and on and on.

Now for the record, we’ve all enjoyed plenty of stories where the characters don’t really change–heavens, I don’t read any given Poirot or Marple mystery by Agatha Christie for the character transformations. I read for the murder, mystery, and mayhem. The characters are just a part of that plot-puzzle. So, I tried to treat the Skyborn books that way as well–the characters were just pieces to lead me to the puzzle that was this world.

But I also feel like this was part of the problem: I wanted to care about these characters and this world. But since, outside of battles, this world interacted so little with the characters and vice versa, we never really got to see much beyond destruction. And considering the obvious care put into creating this world, this felt like a missed opportunity.

~*~

Now let’s flip to the character-centric.

Who is Fitzwilliam Darcy?

In An Assembly Such as This, Pamela Aidan finally answers that long-standing question. In this first book of her Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy, she reintroduces us to Darcy during his visit to Hertfordshire with his friend Charles Bingley and reveals Darcy’s hidden perspective on the events of Pride and Prejudice. As Darcy spends more time at Netherfield supervising Bingley and fending off Miss Bingley’s persistent advances, his unwilling attraction to Elizabeth grows—as does his concern about her relationship with his nemesis, George Wickham.

Setting the story vividly against the colorful historical and political background of the Regency, Aidan writes in a style comfortably at home with Austen but with a wit and humor very much her own. Aidan adds her own cast of fascinating characters to those in Austen’s original, weaving a rich tapestry from Darcy’s past and present. Austen fans and newcomers alike will love this new chapter of the most famous romance of all time.

I found it fascinating to see Pride and Prejudice from a different set of eyes and it was particularly fun because, for those who may not remember, Darcy spends the first half of the book more or less skulking about and staring at Elizabeth. What on earth Darcy was thinking in all of that time? Through this retelling, we know it’s not just his observations of Elizabeth Bennet, but also his concerns as a big brother for his little sister Georgiana. Reading from Austen’s original narrator, we as readers do not learn until Darcy’s letter (halfway through the story) of the cad Mr. Wickham’s attempt to whisk Georgiana Darcy away with elopement. So in this retelling, it makes perfect sense that Darcy’s very worried about his sister from Chapter 1 onward, and the very sight of Wickham drives him to fear and anger. In the original Pride and Prejudice, we as readers just don’t understand that concern’s effect on Darcy’s actions in Meryton until later. In An Assembly Such as This, we see the motivations plain as day, and it helps us better understand why Darcy is as he is.

But then, there’s the second book.

The first book ends with the Netherfield ball, and the third book takes readers to Rosings Park and Darcy’s first–and disastrous–proposal to Elizabeth Bennet. So what the heck was going on in the second book?

Darcy goes to a rundown castle for what amounts to a bizarre gothic mystery. Darcy’s determined to find a woman of his own class to marry so he can forget about Elizabeth, so he visits a castle to hang out with a bunch of rich people. Only they are all being snobs, and then there’s some sort of haunting, and some sort of ritual sacrifice and kidnapping of children and just all sorts of mysterious whatnots that should be interesting.

Yet it wasn’t. Why?

The plot of this overall story arc has already been set. We know that this retelling can’t divert from the eventual coming together of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Since it takes Elizabeth’s refusal for Darcy to finally reflect and grow as a character, his character does not really change during this second book, either. So we as readers are simply plowing through this gothic mystery to, essentially, “get back on track.”

And considering how this whole second book could have explored more of Regency England’s concepts of marriage and how such pressures can impact characters and transform them, this installment felt like a missed opportunity.

~*~

Perhaps THAT is my problem in all this. I’m a writer grumbling about the “missed opportunities” I see in other writers’ work when all along those stories aren’t mine to dictate. Perhaps all that author wanted to do was make lots of epic battles featuring angel-like people, or perhaps that other author just wanted to get a gothic mystery on paper and this was her moment. We all have a right to tell the stories we want to tell, so please, PLEASE, feel free to love those stories and approach your own tales your way.

For let’s face it–some readers just want those epic battles, or those dramatic interactions. And others still want to see what happens when vastly different genre elements get tossed together. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?

Gosh, this post is LONG.

Know what? We’ll break it off here and finish this off June 1st (I’ve an author interview planned for later this month–stay tuned for that!). In exploring books for my podcast, I did find a book that balances character and worldbuilding without sacrificing either, so we’ll cover that next time.

Plus, I will hold myself under this critical lens. Since I’m revamping Middler’s Pride for a novel release instead of its previous serial release, I need to make sure I’m also balancing the worldbuilding and character development to propel the story forward. Stay tuned!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: #Revelator by Daryl Gregory. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Revelator by Daryl Gregory

The first sentence of Revelator by Daryl Gregory alludes to a kid meeting “the family god,” so I just don’t know how the stakes can go down from there. What will you, fellow creatives, make of these first five pages? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

This story’s got a feeling of the Southern Gothic in its voice and style, a dark, murky magic hidden in its green Kentucky valleys. The setting is beautiful, but it is not safe. I find Gregory’s prose in this tale to be positively intoxicating with its various rhythms and inflections, the dropped words and intention alliterations. The first pages not only provide an authentic voice for the little girl Stella, but a sense of true dread as we follow the adventurous child down a path into a church embedded in the mountain. What could possibly go wrong in such a place? I’m going to guess a lot.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: #JoanIsOkay by Weike Wang. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Joan is Okay: A Novel by Weike Wang

The first pages of Joan is Okay by Weike Wang are unlike anything we’ve read on previous episodes of this podcast. We’re not diving into genre fiction here–no fantasy, no science fiction, no horror, etc. This is life, and it’s the life of an Asian American woman who is forced to take on the journey of grief by returning to China for her father’s funeral. What will you, fellow creatives, make of these first five pages? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The prose is sharp and cuts to the bone in its lack of emotion, which makes readers wonder just what the relationship between the narrator and her family had been. As one who also lost her father suddenly, the journey of grief is not an easy one to walk alone, so I am naturally drawn to Wang’s storytelling here. The blurbs on the back promise wit and humor, which I didn’t see in the opening pages, but I found the narrator’s fixation on the surface-level aspects of her coworkers rather intriguing. It makes me wonder just how well this narrator knows the people in her life–and how well she truly knows herself.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: #DeadSilence by S.A. Barnes. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes

The first pages of Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes are brilliant. In the first three sentences alone, we have an injured protagonist hallucinating a dead person. By the end of two pages, we find out our protagonist is being interrogated because the rest of the character’s crew was murdered…in space! What will you, fellow creatives, make of these first few pages? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

Mystery fills the cosmos here, for we do not know how much we can trust this crew, this company, or the very soul telling us this story. The unreliable narrator can be a tricky element to utilize in storytelling, but when done right, it keeps both the story’s cast and reader on their toes. In the first few pages. Barnes nails it, so I’m excited to see where the story goes from here. It’s the perfect–albeit terrifying–escape to take during my brief term break!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: The Berlin Exchange by #JosephKanon. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon

The first pages of The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon bring readers to the 1960s and the height of the Cold War. We are to witness a prisoner exchange…only we are quickly transported back in time to before that exchange with the briefest allusions of what has brought one of the prisoners to that moment of exchange. Despite Kanon’s writing choices not following my preference for sensory detail and action in the first paragraph, I cannot help but be intrigued with both our narrator and enigmatic protagonist, Martin. What will you, fellow creatives, make of these first five pages? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I’ll always be a sucker for Cold War-era espionage, but it’s the voice here that intrigued me the most. The stream-of-conscious paragraph on the fourth page reminded me of prose poetry, while the curt inserts in the exposition have me wondering just who is telling us the story. Is it Martin? Is it a separate narrator? I have to know!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: #TheTenant by Katrine Engberg. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Tenant by Katrine Engberg

I saw the words “grisly discovery” in the blurb and thought, I’m in! As promised, the discovery is indeed grisly, and it does indeed happen in those first five pages. What will you, fellow creatives, make of this tale’s opener? Let’s find out!

The first pages of The Tenant by Katrine Engberg are…well the first THREE pages are marvelously done. I was lulled into impatience following an elderly character, but by the end of the third page we made the “grisly discovery” and I found myself happily corrected on pacing.

Then the next two pages happened.

So this story’s start is something of a mixed bag. Perhaps I’m being too nitpicky, though, so feel free to let me know your thoughts!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You Have Five Pages to Tell Me It’s Good: #TheSilentSisters by Robert Dugoni. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Silent Sisters by Robert Dugoni

Being a fan of John le Carre’, I immediately found myself drawn to this particular book. Cloak and dagger “espionage writing,” as the Providence Journal blurb puts it, is a lovely branch of mystery writing when done right. What will you, fellow creatives, make of these first five pages? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The first pages of The Silent Sisters by Robert Dugoni transport us immediately into dangerous, bloody territory. Who is really on the meathook–the enemy, or the ally? We do not know. While I do have a minor niggle about the pacing, this prologue definitely promises a taut thriller for all the espionage-lovers out there.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!