Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Author Interview with Shirley Simon and a Giveaway

Hey all! Today I'm excited to welcome Shirley Simon, author of Sinister Ties, to the Underground. Shirley is an author living in Delhi, India with a love of thrillers ad the paranormal. My review of her self-published book, Sinister Ties, can be found here. There is also a giveaway for the book at the bottom of this post definitely worth checking out. If you'd like to learn more about Shirley and her writing, you can visit her website at http://superphoenix.wordpress.com


1) What draws you most to mystery and the supernatural?  

My love for mystery and the supernatural goes back to my childhood.

As a child, I grew up on stories of the unknown—of ghostly encounters, haunted houses, demonic possessions and people wasting away under the influence of black magic—stories narrated by family members and neighbors alike. People finding their things floating around their rooms in the middle of the night; apparitions stopping travelers and asking for a ride; of people traveling on a certain road finding themselves unable to move or drive away from a particular spot till a specific time passed or an apparition crossed their path. My aunt often bought these local horror magazines that featured supposed true stories of people who had encountered spirits and genies. I loved sneaking a peek into those magazines (Yeah... My brain is a little twisted that way)

I was always fascinated by these tales. Those stories fueled a yearning in me to know more—whether it was all real or not, whether creatures and spirits—existed beyond the human realm.

Those childhood tales gave rise to quite a vibrant imagination. An imagination that over the years has consistently been fed with a regular dose of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, demons and everything that goes bump in the night. The supernatural intrigues me. The thrill of the unknown, the possibility of there being something beyond what we call the real world and for me it is the perfect escape from the real world.


2) Are you a pantser or a planner? Do you do an outline before you write or let the story guide you?  

I hate to admit this, but Yes I am a pantser. Everybody says that you should plan your story, make an outline, get your character sketches done. I have never been able to get around doing things that way.
For me, it's always been about the story leading me. The first thing for me, have always been jotting down the story as it comes to me. I try not to control the story at this stage and usually let it take the shape it is supposed to. After it is all there on paper, then I start working on giving it a better form and structure, reworking/ molding the action, etc.


3) Aside from self-publishing your work, you also run a review blog outside of a full-time job. How do you balance your time? Any advice?  

*Blushing*  Honestly, I really don't think I have ever been able to balance my time effectively.

I've always loved reading books. The idea that I could actually reach out to like-minded people and let them know how I felt about a book, got me so excited that I started writing reviews on Goodreads and LibraryThing and blogging about books, authors, etc. I found it to be a great way to connect with others. Writing my own stories and sharing with the world was a very recent decision, but it's been quite an exhilarating (and exhausting) ride.  

Over the years, I've realized that there is no right way to manage all the tasks that tend to come up. I try to do what suits me best. There are days when I am only writing and days when I am a bookworm reviewing books or trying my hand at designing. And some days I am not able to get down to doing anything constructive. I believe it's all because of the state of mind one is in and one should do everything possible to keep oneself happy.

It is not possible to isolate yourself from everything around you. We all are social animals (even if we authors deny the fact), we like to have our loved ones close to us. We go out to earn money, socialize with friends and associates and come home to write mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, or undying love stories. We all need to find things to do that refreshes our brains and keep us happy—spend some time with our family, take up a small hobby, and when we just can't think straight, read a good book (and review it).

All I am saying is—do things that improve your state of mind. If you are happy, you will be able to balance your time better, have time to write and write well too. If you are not happy, it will reflect in everything you do, even your writing. And remember, there is always scope to improve. Keep learning... keep the fire burning.


4) What has been the hardest part of your publishing journey?  

I caught on to the writing bug only a few years back and like any other self-publishing author, the road was not an easy one. The need to get my story out there was so overwhelming that I ignored many crucial steps in my publishing journey. Aside from experiencing anxiety pangs and weird writing moods—I think the hardest part for me was getting over personal fears.

Am I writing anything good? Will people like my stories? Will they want to read my stories? …..etc, etc, etc... These doubts plague me still, but today I have a little more confidence of what I write and that helps a lot. Though, I am still coming to terms with the nuances of promoting my work to excite readers and encourage them to take a risk on me. I think that is the toughest thing for an author.


5) How did publishing your first book change your writing process? 

Publishing my first book had been more of a rash decision (not thinking at all, I would say)—to dive head first without knowing how to swim. My first reader feedback had me hungover with excitement for quite a few days. It was not a positive one, but it opened up a whole new world to me. I realized that I could tell stories — ones that could appeal to others and were different from the usual run of the mill ones that were going around. They had potential to be something big, but I needed to work on my writing skills—showing and not telling, grammar, tenses, amongst many other things. Today, I have more visibility of my strengths and weaknesses.

I cannot say that I have come any close to perfecting the art, but I am making conscious efforts to improve my writing. I am reading up articles, books, and blogs on the art and doing writing exercises. These are helping me to express better and write more engaging stories. I want to be able to bring to readers tales that will catch their breath or bite their nails and keep them awake for days.


6) What does literary success mean to you? What would be that ‘dream goal’ you’d like to achieve?  

I want my stories to be sought after by readers the world over. I want them to look at me as the author who weaves unique, enchanting tales and brings extraordinary characters to life—ones that will remain in their thoughts for a long long time.


7) What was the most difficult part of writing Sinister Ties? What was your favorite?  

I think the first chapter was the most difficult for me to write. It was also the first thing that I began writing on in Sinister Ties. It had to set the mood for the rest of the story and I was never satisfied with it and kept going back to it again and again.

My favorite part was Bodhi setting the house on fire. It was a tragic incident but Bodhi's innocence and purity of intent, adds a different dimension to the story. The incident brings out anger in the reader, a frustration that creeps in and wants you to just stop him somehow and yet you still like him, love him even and feel sorry for him.


8) What kind of response have you gotten from fans? Any stories?  

There have not been fan moments (yet), but I have received a lot of support from fellow authors, beta readers, reviewers, and readers alike. Their kind words have boosted my confidence and I am working to bring something more exciting in the second book in the series.


9) How has your photography and art affected you as a writer?  

I feel it has helped me to think better, visualize better and express a little more effectively. Trying my hand at art or photography gives me a different perspective of looking at things. It is also a welcome release from when I can't think straight and need a distraction.

With fiction and especially fantasy writing, a lot of what I write about does not always have a physical precedence to fall back on or get a reference from. Trying to create a scene or just doodling away, is inspiring. Working on the cover of Sinister Ties had me go back and rework a few scenes in the book.


10) What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are interested in self-publishing?  

A) Be open to learning new things and improving yourself. The world of self-publishing is very dynamic and at times tough. There is a lot to learn here and only when you have that zeal in you and the curiosity, will you be able to go through the journey and enjoy it too.

B) Save money. Self-publishing is not cheap. Keep some money aside—you will need it to get your work edited, proofread and promoted. Believe me, it's not cheap out there and no single (free) platform to rely on. I stepped into this world without any research or money in my pocket. I just wanted to get my story out there. I learned the hard way that that is not enough. You will end up with bad reviews and find that your perfect story is not perfect after all. Avoid the heartbreaks. Do some research, find the right resources and platforms before you publish. Things will be a whole lot easier.


fancy-fonts


Enter below for a chance to win an e-book of Sinister Ties. The contest will be open internally, so enter away! Contest closes at the end of the month.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: The Garage? Just Torch It


Book Review: The Garage? Just Torch It by Dylan D Debelis 


Goodreads Description: A rally cry for the healing power of wonder and the disarming catharsis of grief, The Garage? Just Torch It. balances themes of belonging, love, politics, illness, family and forgiveness with stunning imagery and an intense playfulness. Paced as if the reader is moving through the belly of a burning building, each turn of the page represents the uncovering of the long-hidden, buried, and the better-left-forgotten.


My Review: I was given a review copy of The Garage? Just Torch It by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

The Garage? Just Torch It is a collection of poetry separated into four parts that tackle some pretty heavy topics. The poems have vivid imagery and beautiful use of language that had me pausing to roll the word combinations around on my tongue. This is not poetry that spells out things for you, rather, it speaks in the spaces between lines and paints images out of smoke. Read too fast and the image is gone, and so this book demands the reader pause to contemplate and savour each line. In a world of instant gratification, this poetry collection pauses to reflect on the beauty of tragedy and allows the reader to find the beauty in the moment. 

On the surface, the poems can seem disjointed and confusing at times, but when you see through the lines, the themes of a father's death begin to appear. It does at times present itself as a puzzle to piece together through clues in the poems, which I actually enjoyed. It allowed me to piece together an image of the poet and discover how the threads of literary lyricism all tied together. If you don't enjoy finding the story behind the lines, this collection may be frustrating for you, but if you enjoy the type of heavy metaphor found in university English class, this collection is a delightful read. 


TL;DR: All in all, 3/5 stars. A no-holds-barred poetry collection tackling the intensity of grief and loss.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Should Books Contain Trigger/Content Warnings?


Riddle me this, book lovers: should books contain trigger and/or content warnings?

This question has made its rounds in literary circles many times before. A few years ago, many editorials came out discussing the idea after university students began asking for trigger warnings on course material. You know, mostly to have a head's up in case a disturbing scene is just around the corner. I was amazed at the amount of anger such a consideration sparked. It was as if these students had asked for regular book burnings to take place on campus. Many of the objections boiled down to some simple themes:

1) You are ruining the Sanctity of Literature if you spoil plot points through trigger warnings.

2) These special snowflakes need to buck up and deal with it. Life doesn't come with trigger warnings.

3) Being able to "opt out" of uncomfortable situations or scenarios is unhealthy.

4) Trigger warnings will lead to banning books. 

So let's really get into this. Because I want to know what you think about all this.

For the purpose of this post, when I talk about trigger warnings, usually I'm referring to graphic depictions that could trigger someone who has a history of trauma. Things like suicide, war,
racism, rape, child murder, domestic violence, etc. When I talk about content warnings, it's usually in a broader sense and covers things that may not be triggering, but many still would like to be aware of, such as group or kink sex, swearing, drug use, etc.

Frankly, content warnings are something that should have been added to books years ago. Every other media has a rating system to let people know what kind of content they're about to walk into. From movies, to television, video games, comics-- all have their own system to let you know what kind of content it holds, from a G rating all the way through to NC-17. Even TV shows have general disclaimers to make audiences aware of swearing, nudity, and violence. These rating systems don't spoil content-- it allows us to be informed consumers.

Yet books are exempt from this? Why?

Probably because books pre-date any sort of rating system. We were dragging around dusty tomes before we decided what was offensive and what wasn't. But does that mean they should stay exempt? It's easy to excuse a novel from needing a rating system simply because you need to immerse yourself to actually get the full impact. A person strolling by a grotesque movie poster only has to glance at it to feel the triggering effects. A book, however, can look innocuous enough until you realize what those words are building towards. Of any type of media, books are most deserving of content warnings and a rating system because you often have no inkling of it coming before you're immersed in a very triggering scene. Movie trailers give you a much stronger picture than vague back covers, and yet there are still ratings and systems in place to make sure you go in informed.

Also, to add to the argument against "content warnings are spoilers" lets remember that according to the University of California, spoilers don't spoil. In fact, they often make the experience more enjoyable.

But what about real life? Nobody hands you a content warning when you walk out the door. And could it be harmful to self-censor yourself from upsetting content? Unfortunately, when we talk about people who have been "triggered" by content like this, it's not because they've lived sheltered lives. It's because that person has a mental illness that is being aggravated by this trigger. To be triggered often means panic attacks, extreme anxiety, hallucinations or flashbacks, and are absolutely debilitating. People who suffer through experiences like this, often stemming from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cannot control their triggers and are often hit by them when they least expect it. A traumatized individual could be triggered and not even know what by, which can create a life paralyzed by fear of the next trigger. Because of that, people will often avoid things they KNOW will trigger them, as they will inevitably be triggered by something they can't control anyway. Might as well minimize the damage, right?

Imagine PTSD as an allergic reaction. Every time you come in contact with coconut you break out in hives, so the logical thing would be to avoid coconut, would it not? You would want ingredient lists on anything you eat so you can know if it has coconut. If a teacher handed you raw coconut water and said you had to drink it for a grade, would you? Or would you protest, because this could severely hurt you, if not kill you?

Do people avoid certain topics and content? Sure, because everyone has preferences. At the end of the day, why should people be forced to read something they don't want to? There is no "book everyone must read" no matter what people say. Most importantly, due to life experiences, everyone will take away something different from a story. You may have found something beautiful in a book about a soldiers' journey through war, whereas an ex-military personnel may walk away feeling disgusted and horrified. It makes me think back to how media personnel vs military personnel responded to Trump's speech which honoured a fallen Navy SEAL, William "Ryan" Owens.

Media Reaction (left) and the Veteran's Reaction (right). 



Finally, will trigger warnings lead to banning books? I suppose I can see where the thought comes from, though to me it makes about as much sense as saying that if we offer people free healthcare they'll start running into traffic. In fact, everything I've seen when trigger warnings are put in place leads me to believe the opposite. Content warnings get people more excited about what's available to read. It's used as a tool to track down what you want through an over saturated market. To me, these 'warnings' are no different than tagging a book as sci-fi, fantasy, romance-- it helps to narrow down where in the world of literature this piece fits.

Before I came into the publishing world, I wrote fanfiction and participated in a lot of communities. Content and trigger warnings were STANDARD. It was EXPECTED. Often there were warnings on a chapter by chapter basis for longer pieces, so you knew exactly when the troubling content was coming. And how did people feel about it? Great! In fact, those content and trigger warnings became like lifeblood. Often, instead of turning people away from a story, it would engage them to click on and read. Back in those days, when I wanted to read a sweet romantic story featuring two gay men, I knew to look for tags such as "fluff" and usually the coded tag for that relationship (dating myself here, but in Saiyuki fandom, numbers were used to represent characters 3, 5, 8, and 9, so looking for a certain relationship meant looking for those numbers 3/9, 5/8, etc.) It worked amazingly. Going back to spoilers don't spoil piece, if people knew a story was especially dark, or contained graphic sex, or torture, tagging it as such let allowed people who were looking for those stories to find them easier.

When I transitioned out of the fanfiction world and started reading YA, I was thrown off by how little you are able to find out about a book. I wanted to find gay characters, especially as a teenager, and while in fanfiction such things would be easily tagged as such, in the book buying world I was flying blind. Unless the whole book focused around an Issue, you had to read the thing to find out if it had the content you were looking for. And then, Issue Books are often so formulaic and focuses so much on the problem that it can be hard to just enjoy the stories. Not to mention (especially for marginalized people) it's unfair that the only representation offered painted those people as People with Problems and forgot that they're just human.

Even today, when you look at how readers refer books to one another, you can see readers are concerned about content, not just when it comes to picking what not to read, but what to read as well. So many people on Twitter shoot out questions like, "Any recs for books with lesbian MCs/Disability rep/losing virginity/etc?" Yet if books had a content warning or rating page, it might be easier for people (especially teens) to track down the content they actually want to read about.

Content warnings don't have to be scary.
A content/trigger warning page doesn't have to be the end of the world. It can work like in the picture above, or a page like the acknowledgements listing out any troubling material, which can be easily skipped if you're not concerned and prefer to fly in blind. And if fanfiction is any indication, content warnings could serve to drum up excitement about books and reading. Would trigger warnings lead to censorship? Doubt it. If so, then we wouldn't have television, movies, video games... Besides, trying to slip in potentially distressing scenes in the name of Literary Sanctity, or to "teach readers" some moral or another, or because you know it won't be received well (slipping gay characters into Christian fiction, for ex)-- just comes across as, what we call in bird culture, a Dick Move.

I'm not asking for censorship. I just want the chance to be informed.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: Sinister Ties


Book Review: Sinister Ties by Shirley S Simon


Goodreads Description:  The screams of a child trapped in a blazing fire, echo in the depths of a deserted stone hallway, leaving Bodhi terrified and shaken to his core. Has the dark stormy night conjured a nightmare for him or is this a premonition of something terrible coming his way?

Max Devon lives a happy peaceful life with his wife and daughter. When his past comes knocking on his door, his whole world is threatened by this harbinger of death. Will he be able to protect his family in time? Will he be able to escape his cursed past?

An ancient evil is rising, thirsty for power and control. Forgotten friendships would have to be revived, new alliances formed before everything is lost.

Beware the family ties. There’s something sinister lurking there.


My Review: I was given a review copy by the author, Shirley Simon, in exchange for an honest review.

Max, his wife, Claire, and their daughter, Noreen, live a peaceful life in their small town, until Max's Aunt Ida returns after many years, trailing trouble right behind her. She's the last person Max wants to see, as she drags up a dark family past he thought he'd put to rest. But Ida isn't interested in letting him forget, and the demons she intends to raise may be more real than anyone imagined.

Sinister Ties is a simple horror tale of family bonds and dark magic. The writing is solid and steady, with a lyrical flow to it that makes this a pleasant read. The plot hits from the first chapter and keeps flowing at a steady rate. Tension mounts, though the author often withholds information from the reader for too long at times, which is more frustrating than tense. Still, once all the cards are on the table the story hits hard with pulse pounding action and an excellent pacing that carries through to the end.

The characters were okay, but I feel like more could have been done with them. I didn't really connect with anyone. In fact, I was probably most drawn to Ida, as she seemed to be the most animated and proactive. She drove much of the plot, being the villain, which made it hard not to be drawn to her. The other characters all reacted to her and seemed to go with the flow more than tread their own path. As well, the author tends to head-hop. Though the writing wasn't super confusing, the head hopping takes us out of the story and disorients the reader, as we have no idea whose thoughts we'll be privy to next, while meanwhile missing out on others. As this was Max's story and he was framed as our hero, I'd wished we'd stayed in his point of view more.

Despite that, the plot evolved nicely and I liked the backstory and build up as to how the demon came to be locked away. The climax was a satisfying crescendo and wrapped things up nicely while still leaving room for a sequel. I will say there are some strong Christian overtones in the book, most of which didn't affect the story until the end. One of the characters prays to God during the climax and then is relieved God "heard her prayers," which added some heavy religious overtones to the story.

All in all, this was a lovely scary story with a final chapter that hit all the right notes. It's short and to the point with flavorful writing. It will be interesting to see where the author goes from here.


TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A pleasantly chilling horror tale to keep you up at night.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Book Review: The Hate U Give


Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Goodreads Description: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil's name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.


My Review: The Hate U Give is a once-in-a-lifetime book. It lives up to every bit of hype and has already wowed readers across North America. I remember way back to the Publisher's Marketplace announcement of this deal, and I thought to myself, "This one's going to be special." But this is more than just another good book. This is one of those cultural shakers. This is a book everyone needs to read. 

“I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.” 
-The Hate U Give

From the first page, we're immersed into Starr's world in Garden Heights. The author uses a perfect amount of description to set the scene, evoking all the senses to bring the reader into the moment. Starr's voice leaps off the page and brings the story up to another level. It is the perfect balance of slang and "accented" writing that not only reveals Starr's personality, but gives the book its own unique flavor. The book uses African American Vernacular English (AAVR) beautifully, and Starr even takes time to reflect on her use of it and how she switches to "proper English" at her white school in an attempt to avoid being seen as "hood." The writing doesn't waste time on flowery phrases, but hits hard with clever word play and to-the-point sincerity. The writing in this book just wraps you up from the first page and doesn't let go until the last. This book is also straight #ownvoices, as the author is black comes from a neighbourhood like Starr's. 

Writing aside, what makes this book so special is the story itself. It hits all the right notes, addresses all the right points, and explains things in a sincere way that helps to piece together the picture of black Americans and police violence. Even as something as simple as the feeling when a friend unfollows you on social media was explained with such an on-the-nose honesty. Not only does it address the varying sides of a complex issue, but it cuts straight to the point. It doesn't shy away from black on black violence. It's not a case of white-cops-vs-black-kids, as Starr's uncle is a cop and black cops take part in some sketchy and abuse-of-power situations. And it beautifully shows how situations can escalate into protests and riots, like what has taken place all over the United States. It also shows the white ignorance in several different forms, from the disconnect at Starr's school right up to some of her close friends, who simply just don't get it. This is not a biased look at the situation. It carefully analyzes all angles and presents a very nuanced look at the events that have launched #BlackLivesMatter. 

As I work in mental health services, I always look at books with an eye on mental health. THUG does an excellent job of portraying the post-traumatic stress that Starr experiences. She doesn't walk away from the shooting with just a few nightmares-- she cycles through the stages of grief, experiences anxiety that affects her day-to-day life, and copes with the difficult emotions that follow from grief and from the trial. Despite that, her trauma doesn't hold her back from speaking out for Khalil, and it shows why even the strongest people can be overwhelmed by traumatic events and may not react how they expect to in the moment. 

Yet under all the intense tackling of social issues, THUG is a heartfelt story of a girl caught between two worlds and the loving family that supports her through it all. I have a particular love of Starr's father, who is strong, outspoken, comes with a troubled past, and yet has such raw love for his family and community. Every character is beautifully balanced between good and bad traits, and the book plays around with themes of perception, not only in regards to Khalil and how the media portrays him, but how Starr portrays herself between her neighborhood and her school. The kids are so real and so fun that it really makes me sad to know they're only fiction. 

“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug.
He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I'll remember how he died.
Fairy tale? No. But I'm not giving up on a better ending.” 
-The Hate U Give


I could talk about this book for days. If you read anything this year, this decade, or in your entire life, then make it this one. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. As John Green put it, "Stunning." 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: The Girl From Everywhere


Book Review: The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig 


Goodreads Description: Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination.

As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix.

But the end to it all looms closer every day.

Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it—and going there—could erase Nix’s very existence.

For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters.

She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love.

Or she could disappear.


My Review: An island paradise, A ship that can touch any shore. And a map that may lead to Nix's undoing. The Girl From Everywhere is that exciting bit of magic and pirates that YA has desperately needed. 

I love pirates, I love time travel, I love diversity-- there was nothing this story was lacking. Right from the first page this book wastes no time in driving straight into tension, conflict, and action. After years of searching, Nix's father finally catches wind of a map of Honolulu from 1868. He's searched for years so he could save her mother, and this time the map looks real. Nix's inner conflict of helping her father, even if it could ultimately erase her from existence, is bold and powerful, sucking the reader in right from the first page. The pull of loyalty she feels towards her father outweighs her fear of the unknown and they sail for Hawaii-- only to discover their map has been mis-dated, and they arrive in 1884. This tension has a perfect pacing and doesn't let up until the very last page. 

The cast of characters is delightfully diverse, featuring a half-Chinese main character, a French-Arabic love interest from One Thousand and One Nights, and a black lesbian crewmate, just to start. The book is #ownvoices as the author herself is Chinese and grew up in Hawaii, where much of the book takes place. As well, the book is filled with myths from all over. We see Emperor Qin's stone soldiers come to life, to Hawaiian healing springs and the Hu'akai Po, Jewish golem magic, to the bottomless bag from Welsh legend. Instead of just throwing in characters of different backgrounds or orientation, The Girl From Everywhere embraces diversity in a way all YA books should take note of. It integrates legends and myth from a variety of cultures, and even highlights the diversity in our own history (Nix's mother is Chinese and came to work in the opium dens. Many Chinese immigrants came to Hawaii during this time). The book doesn't just toe the line of diversity, but shows us how it can really enrich writing and worldbuilding. 

Along with killer tension and delightful characters, the book has a wonderful plot that keeps things turning and readers guessing. Since this is a time-travel book, there is a lot of paradox-correcting that goes on. It's not nearly as much as some stories, but if you're one to nit-pick over time travel paradoxes, it will still give you things to pick at. But they are minor and handled well. The writing itself is pretty straight to the point and doesn't waste a lot of time with fancy descriptions. Yet it also has its lyrical moments in terms of prose. 

** Spoilers in the following paragraph** 
The only real issue I had with the book came down to its final chapter. The conflict and most of the tension revolves around Nix's father wanting the map back to her mother, despite the danger it may put Nix in. This conflict starts from page one and carries a lot of the emotional weight. But in the last chapter, when Slate, Nix's father, has the map he wants, he instead decides to throw it into the ocean. He has spent years, pretty much Nix's entire time alive, searching for this map, and on the last page he 'chooses' Nix and gives up the love of his life. Granted, he and Nix became closer on this mission, but there was nothing life changing or stunning that would justify his complete 180. Everything they struggled for during the book ended up being for naught. The characters did grow together through this journey, but there was nothing about this journey that stood out as being significant or more meaningful than their any other journey. I was left with a feeling of "Why now?" It reminded me of the cliched "It was all a dream" ending, where characters learn but ultimately none of the stakes have any real effect on the story. 


TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A stunning pirate fantasy adventure flush with diverse folklore and faces. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Publisher Spotlight: Slug Pie Stories


Today on The Underground, I'm excited to focus my spotlight in a new direction. I'm all about indie and so I'm excited to welcome KE Blaski, author of the young adult novel Glimmer of Steel and Senior Partner of Slug Pie Stories, LLC. Slug Pie is an indie publisher of middle grade fiction. Right now it exclusively publishes an adventure series by Mick Bogerman, but they have plans to expand and mentor other authors. Their mission is "to inspire reluctant elementary and middle school readers, through exciting storytelling, to develop a life-long passion for books."

I had the chance to read How To Protect Your Neighbourhood from Circus Werewolves (say that ten times fast), the latest book in the series, and you can find my review for it here. The book was such a fun read that I invited KE Blaski back to the blog to find out more about Slug Pie.

I hope you'll all join me in welcoming KE Blaski to the blog.

How was Slug Pie Stories born? 

I like to read what my kids read and my middle school girls are assigned a lot of books to read for school. Every single one of the books they were assigned to read was tear-jerking sad: mom’s losing her battle with cancer, brother gets hit by a car, best friend commits suicide, the dog dies. It got to the point where neither my kids nor I wanted to read them any more. Real life is sad enough already. So I pulled out some of my son’s old Goosebumps books and the girls loved them. There was one problem with them though… every book spent the first couple of chapters introducing you to a new set of characters. That’s when I thought to myself, what if there was a series with kid-level horror and lots of adventure that featured the same set of kids? It could be the Goonies meet Goosebumps. And so, Slug Pie Stories was born.

Why did you decide to start up your own imprint?

I wanted to publish Slug Pie Stories my way. Call me a control freak, but I wanted to work with editors of my choosing and an artist who could capture what I wanted to see on the covers. I wanted to price the books competitively and I wanted the profits for my efforts. The traditional publishing model requires giving all that up.

How did you come to editing?

Honestly, I hire out the editing. My expertise is in writing, teaching, and marketing, and I know enough about business to know I need to focus on my core competencies. Handing over the story to a professional editor for new, objective, skilled, and experienced feedback just makes sense, both financially and for the good of the story. Slug Pie Stories go through at least two, often three rounds of professional editing: developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading.

What was the hardest part of starting your own imprint?

It’s not necessarily difficult to start and run an imprint as it is time-consuming. There are months of prelaunch tasks and then there are the never-ending marketing efforts for the series as well as individual books. Slug Pie Stories, LLC is a family partnership, so I do have help, thank goodness.

What has surprised you the most about the journey?

The absolute emotional reward when a reader loves a book and says so, either through a review, an email, or in person during an author visit. There is nothing else like it.

What do you hope to do differently with Slug Pie Stories?

I’ve got a to do list a mile long! Right now, I’m contracting audio book production. The first audiobook was released summer 2016 and I’m looking at a second one summer 2017. Once the series itself hits six books, We'll be releasing a boxed paperback set. I would love to do graphic novel versions of the entire series with illustrator Kat Powell. She is so very talented.

You mention an interest in mentoring authors. How does that look to you?

I have met wonderful writers on my own publishing journey and some of them are at a crossroads: do they continue pursuing traditional publishing when there are fewer traditional publishers out there than ever before, do they forge their own path as an indie publisher, recreating the wheel and duplicating the mistakes of others, or is there something in between? Perhaps, a consortium of indie authors who share a publishing model. We started a second imprint Mollusc Bay Books that is outside of the Slug Pie Stories world in the hopes of eventually using it with other indie authors to achieve that goal.

What made you decide to focus on middle grade fiction?

It’s my personal mission! I like to think of 8 to 12 year olds as being in that sweet age where they decide if they are going to read for the rest of their lives or only what they “have to” to get through school. If I can publish books that guide these kids into the first category instead of the second, I’ve done my job.

What drew your interest to Mick and his stories?

Mick’s stories have all the right stuff: a blend of kid-appropriate horror, adventure, friendship, tense pacing, surprises, and always, a satisfying end.

Mick Bogerman is the author and main character of his series. How does that work? How does he write in between fighting off monsters?

You’ll have to ask him that one. Apparently he’s good at multi-tasking.

You’ve mentioned on your website hoping to publish a few authors you already have a relationship with. What kind of stories are you hoping to publish going forward?

Once I streamline my own publishing model, I would love to open Mollusc Bay Books up to the indie middle grade and YA authors I know who share the same philosophy as I do: creating books that engage and help drive a love of reading for life. My mother and I are also suckers for a happy ending. Whatever Mollusc Bay Books publishes has to have one.

What kind of reaction have you received from readers? Any stories?

Both kids and kids-at-heart are loving Slug Pie Stories. My favorite email came from a ten-year-old boy who after his parents put him to bed, would sneak in to his six-year-old brother’s room to read the series with him under the covers with a flashlight. You know you’ve done it right when kids are willing to risk getting in trouble in order to read.


If you'd like to check out Slug Pie Stories and learn more about Mick and his adventures, check out their website at www.slugpiestories.com

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Piper's Price Teaser and Giveaway!


Hello all you Underground fans! Today I'm excited to take part in a Book Blitz hosted by Express Book Club in honor of Audrey Greathouse's release of her sequel to the Neverland Wars series, The Piper's Price! I had the chance to read and review this book before its release, and you can find my review for it here. I also had the chance to interview Audrey a few months back, which you can find here.  Otherwise, check out the excerpt below and enter for a chance to win a copy of The Piper's Price!

The Piper’s Price
Audrey Greathouse

(The Neverland Wars #2)
Published by: Clean Reads Publishing
Genres: Fairy Tales, Retelling, Young Adult
Peter is plotting his retaliation against the latest bombing. Neverland needs an army, and Peter Pan is certain children will join him once they know what is at stake. The lost boys and girls are planning an invasion in suburbia to recruit, but in order to deliver their message, they will need the help of an old and dangerous associate—the infamous Pied Piper.
Hunting him down will require a spy in in the real world, and Gwen soon finds herself in charge of locating the Piper and cutting an uncertain deal with him. She isn’t sure if Peter trusts her that much, or if he’s just trying to keep her away from him in Neverland. Are they friends, or just allies? But Peter might not even matter now that she’s nearly home and meeting with Jay again.
The Piper isn’t the only one hiding from the adults’ war on magic though, and when Gwen goes back to reality, she’ll have to confront one of Peter’s oldest friends… and one of his earliest enemies.
EXCERPT:
They found the forest’s hiking trail moments before breaking the tree line. “Where are we going, Peter?” He was heading toward a mobile home community next to the state park.
He continued to walk with confidence. His usual cocky stride looked surprisingly like the swagger of an ordinary teenage boy. “My friend lives here. Don’t worry. Don’t look like such a stranger here.”
She didn’t want to appear conspicuous, but Gwen was too baffled to help it. The unkempt lawns were boxed in by chain-link fences covered in varying degrees of rust. They passed a lawn littered with bicycles; on the other side of the gravel street, two different cars were parked on the lawn, clearly non-functional. Satellite dishes were on every trailer home. Despite all being painted differently, the track housing still managed to present a uniformity of depressing color.
Multiple houses had motorcycles out front or a dog milling around their yard. When she and Peter passed a pack of Rottweilers, the dogs ran up to the fence and began snarling until all the other dogs in the neighborhood were barking too. “Ignore it,” Peter advised her.
She was scared. This was not the sort of place she ever expected to visit with Peter. She didn’t trust his ability to protect her here. This wasn’t his world, but it wasn’t hers either. They were both out of their element. Peter just didn’t have the sense to realize it.
Winding down the gravel road, Gwen matched Peter’s pace almost step for step. They approached a blue-and-grey house. Like the others, it had wooden latticework around the bottom to help obscure the fact it didn’t have a foundation in the ground. The square house reminded Gwen of how she would take shoeboxes and try to turn them into homes for her dolls by decorating them. It was hard to fathom that she was walking up the plastic steps of the porch to knock on the door.
She waited, feeling her heartbeat in her throat, her toes, and everywhere besides her chest. Even the predictable noise of the door opening startled her.
A woman with a long, black braid and beige cardigan stood in the doorway. Gwen looked up at her, and then watched as the sharp features of her dark face dissolved into unadulterated shock.
“Peter?”
The startled woman ushered them in. She was just as uncomfortable with their presence in the trailer park as Gwen. Once inside, they stood in a living room full of old furniture, facing a kitchen with old electric appliances. There was no unity or romance to the orange recliner, chipped mixing bowl, off-white blender, dull toaster, and sunken couch. It was a bunch of old stuff that looked like it represented several decades of objects abandoned at Goodwill. The chingadera and bric-a-brac wasn’t any more cohesive: porcelain angles, an antique pot, a vase full of bird feathers, and a stopped clock made the place confusing and strange in the same way her grandmother’s house had been.
“What are you doing here?” she hissed, pulling her cardigan close and tossing her thick braid over her shoulder and out of her way. She had a shapeless housedress underneath the beige sweater, and a pair of black leggings insulating her legs as she stomped around, heavy-footed in her leather slippers. She looked comfortable, except for the unexpected guests who were putting her so ill at ease. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I need your help,” Peter said.
“They’re still keeping tabs on me.”
“That’s why I came in disguise.”
“You’re being irresponsible. You’re jeopardizing us both, and Neverland to boot.”
“I took all the right precautions. This is important.” Hollyhock and Foxglove wrestled their way out of the pixie purse and came twinkling out now that they knew they were safely inside.
“You brought fairies here?” she exclaimed. She leaned down and grabbed a hold of his arm, forcing him to look her dead in her dark eyes. Gwen wanted to leave. This wasn’t a friend, not anymore. This was a grown-up, and unlike Antoine the aviator, she was not amused with Peter’s wartime antics.
“What happens if they figure it out and come to question me?”
Peter scoffed. “You won’t tell them.”
“What if they threaten to arrest me? They could put me away forever until I told them what they needed to know, and nobody here would stop them.”
Peter broke free of her hold with ease; she wasn’t actually trying to restrain him. “Preposterous,” he declared. “If they did that, you would sit, stone-faced and silent in your cell until they all died.”
“What if they beat me?”
“You’d take the blows as though you were made of rock, and you would not speak.” Peter seemed to disregard the question.
“What if they tortured me and stuck blades under my nails?” she demanded.
“Then you would not even scream, but stay silent as a stone!” Peter insisted, hopping up onto a wooden kitchen chair at her dining table, looking down at the woman.
“What if they bring knives and cut off my fingers, one at a time, until I told them how to find you?”
Peter yelled right back, “Then you would steal their knives and scalp them all like the redskin princess you are!”
Her anger slunk off her face and out of her shoulders. She shook her head, frowning as a sad laugh escaped her. She clung to her sweater, blinking back tears, until, at last, she flung her arms around Peter. Still on the chair, he had to bend down to return the embrace.
“Oh, Peter,” she muttered, unaware of the tears slipping off her smiling face. “Oh, Peter.”
“It’s good to see you, Tiger Lily.”




Author Bio:
Audrey Greathouse is a lost child in a perpetual and footloose quest for her own post-adolescent Neverland. Originally from Seattle, she earned her English B.A. from Southern New Hampshire University's online program while backpacking around the west coast and pretending to be a student at Stanford. A pianist, circus artist, fire-eater, street mime, swing dancer, and novelist, Audrey wears many hats wherever she is. She has grand hopes for the future which include publishing more books and owning a crockpot. You can find her at audreygreathouse.com.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Review: The Piper's Price


Book Review: The Piper's Price by Audrey Greathouse 


Goodreads Description: Peter is plotting his retaliation against the latest bombing. Neverland needs an army, and Peter Pan is certain children will join him once they know what is at stake. The lost boys and girls are planning an invasion in suburbia to recruit, but in order to deliver their message, they will need the help of an old and dangerous associate—the infamous Pied Piper.

Hunting him down will require a spy in in the real world, and Gwen soon finds herself in charge of locating the Piper and cutting an uncertain deal with him. She isn't sure if Peter trusts her that much, or if he's just trying to keep her away from him in Neverland. Are they friends, or just allies? But Peter might not even matter now that she's nearly home and meeting with Jay again.

The Piper isn't the only one hiding from the adults' war on magic though, and when Gwen goes back to reality, she'll have to confront one of Peter's oldest friends… and one of his earliest enemies.


Book Review:  I was given an e-copy of the Piper's Price by the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Piper's Price is the second book in the Neverland Wars series. It picks up a few months after the end of the first book, where Gwen and her sister, Rosemary, fled reality and the black coats of the Anomalous Activity Department, who intend to strip down Neverland's magic and use it for their own purposes. In order for Peter to recruit an army of children to protect Neverland, Gwen must return to reality to hunt down tokens to summon the infamous Pied Piper. But when the Piper does show up, the cost of his cooperation might be more than Gwen can handle.

Aw, yeah, guys. This book is the prime example of a sequel ending up better than the first book. The plot was a smash hit and integrated many elements from the first book very nicely, from Gwen's mysterious childhood memory to the mermaid's scale. I was delighted to see how all these elements came together, and makes me excited to see how future things will come into play, such as the mermaids finally getting their "sky glass"/mirror. The relationships in this installment were much deeper and more heartfelt. I particularly enjoyed the friendship between Gwen and Lasiandra, as it is always nice to see authors explore female friendships in YA, even if one of the girls is a mermaid.

The plot in this book was much more engaging than the previous installment, in my opinion, as there was more clarity to Gwen's mission and circumstances. Despite that, I feel like the tension could have been improved by outlining the stakes a bit more. We have a vague idea that Neverland will be bombed and stripped of magic, but it would be nice to see the concrete consequences if Gwen were to fail. (e.g., if they're not able to recruit the Piper by X date, the black coats will invade.) In addition, I feel the tension suffered because the bad guys didn't come across as big and bad. They had access to powerful magic-fueled technology (like ability to track flight and suppress all magic in an area) yet hardly utilized it to its full effectiveness. They come across as bumbling and incompetent more than usual, which dulled the kids' victories over them. The pirate appearance ended up feeling more threatening than this entire magic suppression agency, because he came after Peter and Gwen with everything he had.

The characters development was well-done for Gwen. I really liked seeing her struggles with doubts, and her flipping between two worlds-- adult and childhood. She perfectly straddles that inner conflict that many teenagers face where they don't feel as though they belong in either world. I especially liked that the book delved further into the relationships between characters, particularly between Gwen and Jay vs Gwen and Peter. The latter relationship is not romantic but has fleeting hints that there might be. However, Peter's stunted character makes it difficult to determine where it will go. He is presented as a "larger than life" figure, but he often comes across as one dimensional because we only see one facet of his personality-- pretty much the stereotype of Peter Pan. I understand the effect that was going for, but as other "fictional" characters come across with more personality, I'd feel like he could have a greater effect if we saw other sides to him as well.

There was a bit of conflicting world building which I felt could have been improved through some more explanation. It was difficult for me as a reader to understand how the world worked as things often flip-flopped in their usage, Like, the raven tree eggs at the beginning of the book were being used as a food, then later were being used as a weapon. There was a host of "fictional" characters that had immigrated to reality, but it's never specified who's who. There were some minor hints, and maybe I'm just dense, but as this is a book for kids, spelling it out in this case is probably best. As Gwen would recognize these figures from movies and storybooks (as the princesses mention Disney at one point) I can’t see why she wouldn’t be making comparisons in her mind between the reality versions and what the fiction depicted them as.

Delving a little deeper would also help with the whole "reality vs fiction" representation of Native Americans. It touches a little deeper on it in this book by showing Tiger Lily living in reality as a Native American as opposed to a redskin, which I think is important. I'm not Native American, so I can't speak to the representation, but I will say I'm glad the redskins and Native Americans are shown to be two separate entities.

Aside from all the criticisms, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was such a fun mission-based story that gave Gwen a lot of autonomy and strength. She wasn't just another kid in Neverland; she was one of the only lost children smart and strong enough to take on this mission for Peter. The romance as well between her and Jay was so light and beautiful, especially in the way the two accepted the realities of their situation. Gwen often reminds herself that this is a crush, not a True Love situation, which lets the romance grow naturally. By the time they get to the L word, it feels organic to their situation despite their time apart. Because most of the story takes place in reality, it has a definite urban fantasy feel to it that really made the whole thing charming. I would recommend this book for readers on the younger end of the YA scale, perhaps those transitioning from MG to YA.

TL;DR: 3.5/5 stars. A kick ass sequel that beautifully tied elements together and led by an awesome heroine juggling her life between two worlds.



Friday, February 3, 2017

Author Interview with Dani Hoots + Cover Reveal for Trapped In Wonderland!

Today I'm excited to host Dani Hoots, author of The Quest. Dani has published both novels and short story collections, and primarily focuses her efforts on science fiction, fantasy, and young adult. Her newest release, Trapped in Wonderland, is a young adult fantasy featuring Meredith Alice Hughes, who finds herself transported to Wonderland and must defend it from the Cirque de Rêves, a group trying to destroy and take over Wonderland. Little does she know her home world is threatened too, for every Wonderland creature embodies the dreams of her loved ones back home. And as they die at the hands of the Cirque, so do the hope of every living thing.

Dani Hoots is a science fiction, fantasy, romance, and young adult author who loves anything with a story. She has a B.S. in Anthropology, a Masters of Urban and Environmental Planning, and is currently in the Your Novel Year Program through Arizona State University.

Currently she is working on a YA urban fantasy series called Daughter of Hades, a historic fantasy vampire series called A World of Vampires, and a YA sci-fi series called Sanshlian Series.

Her hobbies include reading, watching anime, cooking, studying different languages, wire walking, tinkering with her violin and concertina, and volunteering at the library. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two cats.

1) Out of all the different stories and series you’ve penned, what makes the Quest special to you? 

The Quest is special to me because it is the first book I ever finished. I started the series in middle school with a friend. It has definitely gone through many, many rewrites, but it has been seventeen years since I started thinking of it. I keep finding old drafts in notebooks as I reorganize and get ready to move and flipping through them I can definitely say I was one weird child.


2) Where do you draw your inspiration from? 

The Quest was based off an image I remember in a dream, but for other books I get inspired by music, people, mythology, and sometimes just get an idea in my head from out of nowhere.


3) Are you more of a planner or a panster? Do you outline or prefer to let the story lead you? 

I’m a bit of both. I get an idea, figure out the beginning and end, then figure out how to connect the two. Sometimes they change depending on what is needed by the characters.


4) What are the pros and cons of writing novels vs short stories? Do you prefer one style over the other? 

Short stories are nice for when I have an idea for a lot of stories that are related and I’m able to get them all done without taking years and years, but novels are nice for developing characters more. For example, my A World of Vampires Series, all the stories are shorter since there are twelve of them, but there is still a lot of their life I could go into more detail with. But who knows, maybe I’ll come back to those and expand them.


5) What draws you so much to science fiction/fantasy? What do you think that genre offers readers?

I like sci-fi and fantasy because anything can happen. It is a good escape from real life, but characters face problems that can parallel the real world still. I also love mythology so I like exploring those ideas and applying them to my writing.


6)  What has been your greatest struggle as an author? Your greatest success? 

The greatest struggle is marketing for sure. A lot of people think that authors just write and don’t have to market, that people just come and buy their book and that they make a bunch of money. That is definitely not the case. I also really hate it when people complain about paying for a book or art, as if the author or artist didn’t work hard to create something. That is one of the most frustrating things to hear as an author or artist, and very hurtful.

The greatest success I had was being able to learn one-on-one with authors that have inspired me. They have been pushing me to keep on going and whenever I get uninspired, I just think of them rooting for me, and I keep going. I also love meeting authors and becoming friends with them as well. The community can be really great.


7) When did you decide to become an author? What influenced you to take this path?

I’ve always wanted to be an author since I was little. I was one of those kids who's mind couldn’t slow down and I had to pretty much keep myself entertained by making stories in my head. I become more serious when I got diagnosed with Sjögrens Syndrome and couldn’t walk without a cane for a very long time. That whole journey made me realize life’s short and this was my dream. And also working for myself I don’t have to put myself in any physical stress on flare-up days.


8) How much of yourself do you see in your characters? 

Depends the story really. I mean, I’m definitely never 100% my character, but I often put myself in my character’s shoes and wonder what I would do. I also take bits of myself and put them in my books. Maybe they each are a horcrux. I do find it interesting when people tell me I’m a certain character in my book. It’s never a character I see myself as.


9) What is the hardest part of publishing for you? What advice would you give others struggling with the same issue?

Back to the greatest struggle, I would say marketing. As any author, I just want to write! I also have struggles when reviewers seem to bash the author instead of just stating why they hate the book. I don’t mind negative feedback, but when it is downright rude and more aimed at the author, it can be very hurtful. For other authors struggling with the same issue, or having people say you don’t have a real job, or getting a bunch of rejection letters, anything negative really, I would advise you to just ignore them. Don’t let it get to you, and keep writing! Never give up, learn more if you need to work on a flaw, but don’t give up. Anne Rice told that to me at one of her signings, and told me how it took her a long time to get published but she never gave up, so neither should I. She is a great inspiration, along with all the mentors I’ve had in the past few years.


10) What kind of feedback have you gotten from fans? Any stories? 

Depends the book really, but my favorite is when I’m at a convention selling and signing books and a person gets tired and decides to open up my book and read while they rest, then comes running back to tell me how much they love it so far. Those moments are priceless.



Without further ado, I would like to present Dani's beautiful new book, Trapped In Wonderland!


Meredith Alice Hughes has found herself falling through a portal and into Wonderland. There, she finds some of her classmates, who are actually fictional characters from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, and they use a potion to make her forget everything. Everything would have been fine, that is, until the White Rabbit tries to murder her and she finds herself in Wonderland once more. Apparently, according to a prophecy, Alice is the only one who can save Wonderland from the Cirque de Rêves, a group that is trying to destroy and takeover the world. Little does Alice know that not only is Wonderland in danger, but her home world as well, because all the citizens in Wonderland represent the dreams of every living human in the real world, and when they start to disappear, so does the hope of every living thing. Will Alice believe in herself enough to defeat the Cirque de Rêves? Or will she fall victim to the dark thoughts that reside in her heart?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Book Review: I Am J


Book Review: I Am J by Cris Beam 

Goodreads Description: J always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was; a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a "real boy" and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible - from his family, from his friends...from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he's done hiding - it's time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.


My Review: Oh, my lord. Where to start. I Am J is the coming of age tale of J, as he comes to terms with his gender identity. J uses his frustration and the prejudice he faces as justification for being a complete and total jerk. The whole plot involves J starting drama with his friends and family. Though this book is heavily about the transgender story and I can't speak to how well it reflects that, I will say there was plenty of other problematic material that turned me off.

First off, the best friend, Melissa, that up and "deserts" him does so after J kisses her while she's asleep, against her will. She kicks J out of her house and in an email tells him she needs some space afterwards. It's mentioned "If J was a real boy, it would be rape," which I have serious issue with. Just because J is biologically female-- and even if he identified that way as well-- kissing someone without their consent is still sexual assault. Women don't get excused from that behaviour simply for being women. Regardless, Melissa forgives him and they're friends again, despite J never showing remorse for what he did.

The book was also littered with homophobia, as well as some biphobia. J repeatedly stresses how being compared to a lesbian is "awful" and the "worst thing ever." I understand that he wants to be seen as a man, not a butch woman, but the way it was handled was incredibly hurtful. Moreso, during a classroom scene a biphobic comment is expressed by one of the kids: "For reals, this poet shoulda picked men or women or prostitutes. Bisexual's nasty." The other kids all agree and the teacher does nothing to challenge this. Meanwhile there is no representation of lesbian or bisexual characters. As well, we have a scene where J comes across a girl getting sexually exploited, and says he could care less about a bitch and leaves. Finally, after his parents express their love and support for what he's going through, J proceeds to run away and refuses to talk with them. When his mother sits him down to talk about his transition, she tells him that though she doesn't understand, she still loves him. Apparently that isn't good enough as J proceeds to cut contact with her for the most part. All of this and more made it incredibly difficult to find sympathy for J.

Not just in the plot elements, but in every scene J finds some way to be overly selfish, rude, or aggressive in an attempt to be more "masculine." I find this incredibly damaging, as it seemed to reduce being a man to only negative traits. Melissa is quite obnoxious and uses J throughout the book. She is a cutter and an awful representation of it. She is an attention-seeking cutter, right down to her "performance" where she cuts herself in front of an audience, yet she's somehow shocked she's sent to a psych ward afterwards. J's mom was awful for plot reasons, but those reasons could have been solved with some simple communication between J and his father. Their excuse for each other was, "Well, you didn't call either." It hardly felt realistic considering the circumstances. Meanwhile, J's father Manny is described as a complete monster by J, but that is never shown through any of his actions. If anything, he is open, communicative at times, and loving. He is ignorant, though not aggressive about it, but the fact that he calls J "Jeni" sometimes (before he even comes out) makes him some sort of monster.

The writing itself was very bland and clipped. Most sentences were short and to the point, often leaving scenes feeling abrupt. It's rare to say, but this story would have made a lot more sense told from first person point of view rather than third. J begins the book by seeing himself as a "head without a body," and after his assault on Melissa, decides to accept himself as a man. Yet the pronouns are 'he' from the beginning of the book, and though I suppose this is suppose to illustrate that J always had been a man, it just felt off with the narrative. The writing also jumps back and forth in time, often mid-scene, which can be a bit confusing. The flashbacks were incredibly prevalent and were often used to reinforce the scene currently taking place, which gave the sense of convenience. For example, we see flashbacks of Melissa and J's history right before the kiss, and we see flashbacks of why J hates swimming now mid-argument with mom, etc. etc. It's a version of telling through flashbacks instead of working that information organically into the narrative.


TL;DR: All in all, 1/5 stars. A character driven story with horribly unlikable characters.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves


Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley


Goodreads Description: In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.

Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town's most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept separate but equal.

Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.


My Review: What a tremendous way to start off a reading year! Lies We Tell Ourselves is an intense read straight from page one, as it unflinchingly takes on racism, desegregation during the time period, and the institutionalized oppression systems that are still affecting our society today. Despite being a well-researched period piece and an issue book, at its core the story is a beautiful romance that puts most het romance to shame. As well as having an intense, life-or-death plot tension, the author also balanced a softer romantic tension that had my toes curling, and this balance kept the story engaging and exciting straight to the last page.

The thing that struck me first and hardest about the book was the alternative viewpoint it offered me. This story is mostly told through the eyes of a black girl, and though it's peppered with passages from Linda's very opposite point of view, they only serve to support Sarah's narrative. Secondly, the dynamic with tension was something I'd never seen before. We have a school environment, and a story of ten kids simply trying to go through an average school day, and yet it's riddled with life-and-death danger. Everywhere Sarah and her fellow black students go, they're insulted, tormented, have things thrown at them, humiliated, and downright abused at every opportunity. Normally we'd see this kind of high-stakes tension in a school environment only in something like urban fantasy, where you can support that life-or-death element with supernatural dangers. But there's nothing supernatural about the danger facing these kids. It's completely realistic and true, which helps to highlight a whole side of reality that many (including myself) can hardly imagine.

The characters themselves were beautifully crafted. They were all very real people, strong and independent but still struggling with their own insecurities and weaknesses. I especially liked the subtle approach to Sarah's character, as she in incredibly strong and courageous, but you can see the cracks that let her insecurities bleed through. Linda was a difficult character to read at times because of her blatant racism and prejudice. I was able to grit my teeth and push through her point of view passages mostly because I knew she was going to undergo a change. The change in her character was very realistic as well, occurring gradually and not without struggle, which made her transformation much more believable.

This story is a romance, and with such a bigoted character as one side of that romance, I understand why some readers might take issue with Linda. The trope of the abuser and the abused falling in love is not only all-to common, but harmful to survivors of abuse. There's no arguing that Linda is an abuser, but I also believe this book properly shows humanity's capacity for change. We are all human, we all have things in our past we regret and have learned from, and it's harmful to everyone to assume we are unable to change. The key component that makes this relationship stay healthy, is not only that Linda strives to change and shows remorse for her past, but Sarah doesn't accept any of the abuse. She calls it out and at times even rises above Linda's trolling behaviour.

This book may be difficult for some to read because of the intensity of abuse the kids undergo, but it is necessary to acknowledge it as part of our past. This book wonderfully captures the courage of kids who sacrificed their sense of safety for the promise of a more equal society. Underneath that, though, is the gentle and beautiful love story of two girls in a Romeo-and-Juliet style circumstance.  This is one of those instant classic books that belongs on every reader's shelf.


TL;DR: All in all, 5/5 stars. A beautifully balanced period piece and romance story that makes my heart happy.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Book Review: How to Ruin Everything


Book Review: How to Ruin Everything by George Watsky 

Goodreads Description: Are you a sensible, universally competent individual? Are you tired of the crushing monotony of leaping gracefully from one lily pad of success to the next? Are you sick of doing everything right? 

In this brutally honest and humorous debut, musician and artist George Watsky chronicles the small triumphs over humiliation that make life bearable and how he has come to accept defeat as necessary to personal progress. The essays in How to Ruin Everything range from the absurd (how he became an international ivory smuggler) to the comical (his middle-school rap battle dominance) to the revelatory (his experiences with epilepsy), yet all are delivered with the type of linguistic dexterity and self-awareness that has won Watsky more than 765,000 YouTube subscribers. Alternately ribald and emotionally resonant, How to Ruin Everything announces a versatile writer with a promising career ahead.

My Review: "Taylor skips by the big rock arches, and a lump rises in my throat like the one Mom can't hide when she talks about her high school boyfriend-- emotion that forty short years can't dull, a tremor that makes me love my mother more because I understand her in those moments, relate to an ache that takes nothing away from our family but illuminates the million different lives each of us could have led if we'd washed up on different shores." 

How to Ruin Everything is a collection of essays written by George Watsky, who has spent over ten years as a spoken word poet and a musician. In this collection, Watsky steps into new territory with essays featuring his life and experiences, and explores how sometimes ruining things causes them to turn out for the best. I was of course drawn to the book as I am a fan of the author's spoken word and his music, and was excited to get a deeper look at his work. 

I'll admit, I haven't read too many essay collections, at least those with essays all written by the same author. The book reads largely as a memoir, as the author reminisces about his life, his experiences, and how they've helped to shape him into who he is. That said, I found the essays thematically unconnected, and were drawn together only because they focused on the same person. It would've been nice to get a bit more to each essay to help bond it back to the theme of ruining everything. Or at least some sort of timeline, as the stories came from all over his life-- and thus it was difficult to tell where in his life and thinking we were at. 

On their own, the essays were quite an enjoyable read. Especially the last several, I found them rather poignant and beautifully written. A poet at heart, Watsky really knows how to bring out the beauty in the mundane. He doesn't embellish the beauty or pain, nor does he understate it. He lays both out plainly, and lets the reader draw their own emotional conclusions. The quality of the writing helps carry the reader through the disjointed timelines and random subjects. The beautiful use of words as well as the clever observations make this book such a joy to read. The style is rambling and introspective, like a poet ran away with a keyboard, and nowhere near a "must read," but it still holds a quiet, special spot on my reading shelf. 

TL;DR: All in all, 3/5 stars. A series of disjointed essays with strength in beautiful writing and poignant observations. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Reviews in Review 2016

e-books sadly not included. 
Another year, and another stack of incredible books! I'm a little late on this post, but better late than never. I think I was a little too eager to put 2016 behind me (aren't we all), but I got the chance to read some really awesome books and work with some incredible artists this year. I can't let the year slip away without a bit of reflection. As well as being a bit of my "Best Books of 2016," this list serves as another look at my reviews. Feelings can sometimes change on books; some that impacted me greatly while reading become hardly memorable, while something about a mediocre book could stick with me for months.

I made a goal of reading 25 books this year, same as last year. I made it much closer to my goal this year with 19 books, and so I'm setting my goal against for 25 in 2017. I'm confident that I'm going to make it this year, and not just because of short books. (Though I'm having deja vu of saying this last year, hah.)

I found it really hard to narrow down a list this year, which I suppose is a great sign. Without further adieu, let's get this rock show started!



Most Class
Life of Pi by Yann Martel 

Nothing classier than a classic. I figured I should get the obvious choice out of the way first. Life of Pi rocked my summer reading in a way only excellent literature does. For months after I found myself flipping through passages and looking up quotes, still enamored with the story and its storytelling. One of the main reasons why I loved this read so much was because I learned a lot about writing from it. Not only about tension and execution, but as an incredible in-depth character study. The reader gets to know Pi as intimately as themselves, and that's something I haven't seen done so well before or since.


Delightfully Different
The Migrant Report by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

I was offered a chance to read this book in exchange for a review, and I was so glad that I did. It's one of the books that sticks out most for me this year, if only because of the rich culture and characters. Though there was a large cast of POV characters for this novel, the author balanced it well and kept each character vivid and original. I was a little turned off by the sequel baiting, but months later I'm still delighted thinking back on the characters and all their interwoven problems. It is an #ownvoices book, as it is staged in the Arabian Gulf where the author lives and writes. My only real complaint comes back to wanting more from the book, yet it's one I often end up recommending, mostly because I feel like it is an awesome story that deserves the love. 


A Bad Aftertaste
The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight

I was probably a little too forgiving in my review of this book. Then again, it's probably just that the few good parts I enjoyed have faded from memory, leaving only the bad. I call this book a bad aftertaste as it perfectly describes the feeling I get when I think of it. The main character was such an unlikable jerk, the romance was highly unbelievable, the beginning fluctuated between a "telling" backstory and break-neck tension and pacing, and the end is a string of bad fantasy tropes, all disguised in a contemporary. The main character is the "chosen one," it ends on a cliffhanger of people hunting after them, along with the reveal that we've got super special powers. It almost felt like a bait and switch of a book-- painting itself to be a contemporary story about character and growth, instead turning into the epitome of urban fantasy cliches. 


Most Warm Fuzzies of the Year
Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz

This book delighted me from beginning to end. Perhaps it was because I read it right after an especially dark book, but the tone and writing of Something in Between was so positive, so bubbly and fun that it really lightened my spirits. It is a bit of the quintessential love story, but focused on a Filipino family and their struggle of impending deportation. The book balanced the love story with an #ownvoices look at Unites States immigration. It tackled the issues with the seriousness they deserve, but kept the story hopeful and fun right up until the end. It was such a breath of fresh air to read. 


Best Let Down of the Year
Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Ah, Night Vale. After hearing about this book, I was so excited to immerse myself in the world of weird. A couple of my friends read it and encouraged me to pick it up, so I was fairly hyped up about what I was getting into. But after diving in, I found myself quickly bored of the strangeness without direction, and a plot hastily tied together at the end. There were tiny glimmering aspects of the book that I really fell in love with, which made the book even more of a let down to me. It may simply come down to personal preference, but I really felt like this book could have been so much more. It was the first book I read of the year and that disappointment still rings as strong as the day I finished it. 


Surprise Delight
Death of a Scratching Post by Jackson Dean Chase

I'm not usually one for cute coffee table books, but I picked up this poetry collection on a whim, mostly because I love cats. I was surprised and delighted by how much I fell in love with the author's prose. Yes, every poem was about a cat, but held a lot of passion and depth that I wasn't quite expecting. I really enjoyed the author's approach and even now I find myself flipping back to the poems and reading through. It's a short but sweet read and has stuck with me for longer than I expected. 




Honorary Mention: Holy Shit Technology
Between Worlds by Skip Brittenham

I felt like I couldn't go without mentioning this book. The story itself was pretty standard and didn't actually wow me-- it was the augmented reality app that did it. This is a middle grade book, and in an attempt to engage kids who might be a little too attached to their electronics, an app was constructed as a "how to" guide for all the creatures the main characters discover in the new world they're transported to. Using the phone's camera, the app projects a 3D creature standing on the book (think Pokemon Go). As you read through the book, the reader discovers more pages that show new creatures. I was impressed because I felt like the app helped to facilitate reading and encouraged the reader to get more into the story, instead of taking away from it with too many flashy add-ons.