Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Book Review: Descriptions of Heaven

Book Review: Descriptions of Heaven by Randal Eldon Greene 

Goodreads Description: A linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death—news of an unknown creature in the New Bedford Lake coincides with news that Natalia’s cancer has returned.

On the shores of the lake in a strange house with many secret doors, Robert and his family must face the fact that Natalia is dying, and there is no hope this time. But they continue on; their son plays by the lakeside, Natalia paints, Robert writes, and all the while the air is thick with dust from a worldwide drought that threatens to come down and coat their little corner of green.

A lament for what is already lost and what is yet to be lost, Descriptions of Heaven leaves only one question to be asked: What’s next?

My Review: I was given an advanced reader's copy of Descriptions of Heaven by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Descriptions of Heaven is a beautifully written novella featuring Robert and Natalia, a young couple living with their son in their lake house. As Natalia's cancer returns and her death seems inevitable, Robert struggles to explain her death to his young son, Jesse, while simultaneously coping with the loss of his lover. 

First and foremost, this novella has gorgeous prose. The author has an obvious love of language and it shows through vivid descriptions and a wide use of vocabulary. I can see some readers being put off because it can come across as "purple prose" at times. There were a few moments where I wished the author took a single step back, as it felt a tad overkill. Despite that, the superfluous prose was not boring or took away from the story. Rather, the story itself was about the love of language, as Robert is a writer and a linguist, so the quiet introspection about life spaced throughout feels fitting. Aside from feeling it was a tad much at times, I loved the author's prose and his style in general. Greene makes poetry of his prose and commands the page. For that reason alone, it was a joy to read. 

The story itself is very wistful and speculative. The main character spends a lot of time pondering life and death, as can be expected, and makes lots of observations about the world. The story's strength definitely lies in its quieter moments, and there are plenty of them. Unfortunately, the story lacks a bit of the side of action. Even in scenes where there is more action, such as when Natalia discovers an intruder in the home, the action is glossed over and minimized to focus instead on the characters reflecting and discussing the scene afterwards. I felt that these are missed opportunities. If the author had put a bit more focus on the action and tension in those scenes, fully embracing what is happening, then the quieter scenes to follow would have had more punch as well. 

Descriptions of Heaven is a soft, beautiful narrative that left me wistful and lingering on the last lines. It didn't feel incomplete as a story, but I was still left rereading the last few paragraphs, as if I was searching for something. The best way to describe the feeling this novella left me with would be the emptiness and incompleteness when a loved one is lost. Though I wasn't heart broken by Natalia's death, I found myself searching for the meaning in her death just as Robert did. But there isn't much meaning in death, especially untimely death, which I believe Greene captured perfectly. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A lovely novella exploring life and death through the love of language. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Blocked By VOYA Magazine

When I was younger, my mom taught me that when someone was bothering you, it was important to make it clear that you'd like that behaviour to stop. If it didn't, then it was best to disengage and interact with that person as little as possible. Starting fights doesn't often solve anything.

I've followed that ideal for most of my life. So when the initial mess with VOYA came up, I, like others, made my displeasure clear, offered criticism, and then watched as they stubbornly refused to change or take responsibility for wrongdoings. VOYA Magazine stooped so low as to block and gaslight those offering criticism, respond to industry professionals with sarcasm and rudeness, as well as respond to attempts to help them with insults.

Normally, I'd follow my mother's advice and walk away, but I can't this time. Not when a magazine that claims to be the "Voice of Youth Advocates" turns around and spits on not only their audience, but those they claim to "advocate" for.

If you haven't heard of the madness, it all began when VOYA Magazine published a review of Kody Keplinger's RUN (which they've since deleted), in which they claim the book should be for mature junior and high school readers due to a bisexual main character and swearing. The main issue, of course, being the implication that the mere existence of a bisexual character warrants a "warning." The real problem is best outlined by the author herself:

Nowhere in the review does it mention the straight sex. What makes the book mature was the mere fact that Bo expressed that she liked girls as well as boys. 

Tristina Wright (@TristinaWright) sent an email to VOYA after reading the review, and the following response from VOYA staff sent the internet into a frenzy.

The whole exchange makes me cringe hard. Of course, people make mistakes, right? Nothing a simple apology wouldn't fix. But the event only spiraled from there. 

Emails and tweets piled up from various writers, bloggers, publicists, publishers, agents, editors, basically everyone and their grandmother, expressing that this was not okay. The biphobic comment was awful, but VOYA's blatant disrespect towards one of their readers was inexcusable. Naturally, people wanted an apology. Instead of giving one, VOYA Magazine decided it was better to just block people and try to sweep the matter under the rug. 

An email response from VOYA. Deflect, deflect, deflect. 
The rage flames grew higher, and rightly so. Among other offenses, VOYA misgendered someone and continued to do so after being told to stop. 

They responded to valid concerns and criticisms, and offers of help with sarcasm and rudeness. 

Lied about apologizing to Tristina for insulting her and her child. 

They claimed that genderqueer is simply "twitter lingo." 

Naturally, this PR catastrophe bothered a lot of people in the community and there was a lot of blowback. After all, this kind of ignorance and bigotry is not accepted and cannot be allowed to run unchecked. So, VOYA released first a half-assed, victim-blaming apology: 

"The LGBTQ Community has taken offense" is the polite way of saying "The LGBTQ Community is forcing us to say this but frankly we've done nothing wrong." Surprisingly, this didn't go over well with the community (it's like they think we're stupid or something), and so VOYA released a longer, more eloquent, victim blaming apology: 

You'll notice VOYA now blames the community for not stepping forward sooner. The biphobic comment was noticed, by many, including the author herself and her publisher. But for them to speak out on the issue would have been seen as a major taboo (as the golden rule for authors involves never responding to a review). The fact that all this came out during BiWeek had less to do with us "searching to destroy our enemies in a public forum" (as VOYA has accused), and more to do with the fact that people were actively seeking out reviews about books with bisexual characters. An advocate looking to celebrate BiWeek came across the problematic review, and it was the magazine's horrible behaviour that blew the backlash to epic proportions. 

After all, this could have all been avoided if VOYA Magazine had acted like a professional, thanked Tristina for her feedback in the original email, and then edited the problematic line. Instead, they've proven that they don't care and they won't change. For all their apologies, they just don't care what the LGBTQ community has to say. 

As of Sunday night, days after all this hit the fan at high velocity, VOYA is still attempting to cover themselves with lies while censoring and blocking those raising issues. Hannah Moskowitz, a prominent member of the YA and LGBTQ communities, just this morning was blocked from VOYA's Facebook page with all her comments deleted. For all their apologies, they continue to dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole. 

Like my mother always taught me, I'll be walking away from VOYA and making sure I never associate with them. But that's not enough. It's not enough for one major reason. 

VOYA Magazine is the Voice of the Youth Advocate. They claim to advocate for youth, all youth, and yet they've shown the exact opposite. They've shown to all those who look to them for advice, such as librarians, educators, bloggers, reviewers, etc., that bisexuals are something to be warned against. That bisexuals are the other, that though they are allowed to exist, they are "mature content." 

How many queer teen lives has VOYA affected in their screenings of f/f YA novels? How many innocent books were marked as "too mature" simply because there was a mention of LGBTQ? In comparison, why was Kody Keplinger's first book, The DUFF, not rated mature by VOYA despite the rampant (straight) sex all throughout the novel? 

VOYA cannot be allowed to be "an advocate for youth" if their advocating is selective. Bisexual, lesbian, and genderqueer youth deserve to be advocated for just as much as straight youth. I work in child welfare, and I've seen first hand all kinds of "youth advocates." I've seen those who would throw themselves on a grenade if it would give one vulnerable youth a better life, and I've seen "advocates" who would gladly throw children on grenades if it helped them get a better salary. 

VOYA Magazine is the latter. They are an advocate that only wants to exploit youth, young adult fiction, and what it may see as an "easy cash cow." 

Teens don't need fake advocates. They need people who care. Not people who brush off the realities of issues facing a large portion of their audience, of those they "advocate for." 

After all, would you want your youth advocate posting things like this in a public Facebook account? 

Lisa is the co-owner and review editor at VOYA. Definitely seems like she cares about youth and their rights. 

I refuse to stand by and allow VOYA to continue like this. I won't be able to sit comfortably wondering how many more queer youth are hurt by their unchecked abusive behaviour. 

I'm here to ask you, all of you, to make them accountable for this. It's time to boycott VOYA. I ask not only that you sign the petition to boycott, but to actually stand by it as well. 

Queer youth need to know that they have those that stand with them. That they don't need a content warning. That they don't need to be silent. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Book Review: The Best Man

Book Review: The Best Man by Richard Peck 

Goodreads Description: When Archer is in sixth grade, his beloved uncle Paul marries another man—Archer’s favorite student teacher. But that’s getting ahead of the story, and a wonderful story it is. In Archer’s sweetly naïve but observant voice, his life through elementary school is recounted: the outspoken, ever-loyal friends he makes, the teachers who blunder or inspire, and the family members who serve as his role models. From one exhilarating, unexpected episode to another, Archer’s story rolls along as he puzzles over the people in his life and the kind of person he wants to become…and manages to help his uncle become his best self as well.

My Review: I was given a copy of The Best Man by Goldberg McDuffie Communications in exchange for an honest review.

The Best Man follows 12-year-old Archer Magill as he grows up between the two major weddings that play a part in his young life. Archer puts it best in the opening pages, when he remarks that his story could be called “A Tale of Two Weddings.” Most of the story takes place between these two weddings, both of which Archer plays a role in. The Best Man is a wonderful story of family, growing up, and what it means to be a man narrated by the most authentic middle grade voice I’ve ever read.

From the very first pages, I fell head over heels in love with Archer Magill. He is a naïve narrator and often oblivious to things around him, which makes him a wonderful narrator. Though he often notices things taking place around him, he doesn’t often connect the dots, leading the reader to draw their own conclusions. The reader discovers things alongside Archer instead of being told what he knows, putting the narrator and reader on equal terms, which I think is especially important in middle grade.

Archer’s voice was incredibly authentic to his age, in part for two reasons. The first being his use of “body language” expressions, such as “It came up to here on me.” These expressions forced me to visualize Archer’s body language as the narrator, which made it feel as though he was standing right in front of me. The second reason for his authentic voice would be the occasional “head hopping.” Normally, I’m very against head hopping, as how does your main character know what everyone else is thinking? Yet with Archer’s age, it’s natural that he would use phrases like, “Lynette was thinking the same thing too,” as he is at an age where it makes sense that he would assume to know everything. The author used the head hopping sparingly, perhaps only a couple of lines throughout the book, which is what added to the character’s voice without being overbearing. If Archer had stated what every character was thinking in every scene, it would have lost the magic and stretched too far into “head hopping” territory, and I’d be wagging my finger. This is a perfect example of not only “less is more,” but “do what works for your manuscript.” Richard Peck took something that is considered taboo in writing (head hopping) and used it in a way that added to the narrator’s voice without taking away from the story.

Outside of Archer, the story is mainly a love story told through the eyes of an oblivious narrator. I loved this, as we got to experience the evolution of Uncle Paul’s relationship from an outsider’s point of view. It touches wonderfully on gay marriage, harassment, and masculinity. It strips down a lot of stereotypes and presents everyone as real people. More so, the story isn’t centered on the relationship. It also focuses greatly on Archer’s relationship with his friend, Lynette, as well as his relationship with his family members. Because of that, the book doesn’t come across as preachy or trying to spread a message-- It’s just another story of a loving family. Those familial relationships are really what sold the book for me, and made it feel so incredibly heartfelt.

The writing style is smooth and flows at a perfect pace. The writing is very stripped down, as it doesn’t have a lot of heavy explanations or descriptions. Not a single word is wasted when it comes to The Best Man. It reads very easily without talking down to its audience, throwing in, as Lynette said, “fifth grade vocabulary.” Honestly this is the perfect book for middle grade readers. Especially readers on the younger end of the scale, who may be worried about transitions out of elementary school, changes in the family dynamic, or who are confused about gay marriage and what that means for the world now. If I had a son, this would be the book I read to him every night before bed. Hell, he’d have it memorized by middle school.

TL;DR: All in all, 5/5 stars. A truly honest and lovable story about growing up that made me bawl like a baby and snicker with my inner child.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Book Review: Between Worlds

Book Review: Between Worlds by Skip Brittenham 

Goodreads Description: Immersive augmented reality brings this action-packed fantasy to life. 

The town of Eden Grove has a legend: In the center of a pine forest there is an aspen grove, and in the center of the aspen grove is an ancient, magnificent tree. A tree that grants wishes.

Mayberry and Marshall have heard the stories about the Wishing Tree, but they know nothing like that could really exist near their dreary town. Misunderstood and restless, the teenagers wish for a lot of things, including being on another planet altogether. Somewhere with magic and adventure—someplace where they can be heroes.

And then the unlikeliest thing happens: On a hike through the forest, they find the Wishing Tree. The pair make their wish, fall asleep . . . and wake up on Nith, a world that is exactly what they asked for. The alien landscape is beautiful, but it’s also full of dangerous and fantastic creatures, and almost without exception, the creatures are hungry. Soon Mayberry and Marshall learn two very important facts about their wish: First, that magic comes at a very steep cost; second, that they can only be heroes if they can survive. The journey that follows will test the limits of their courage and strength . . . and change them in ways they haven’t begun to imagine.

My Review: I received an advanced reader’s copy from MB Communications in exchange for an honest review. 

Between Worlds is the story of Marshall and Mayberry, two teens that stumble upon another world through a Wishing Tree. They head out into their town’s Mystery Forest, which is a thick aspen grove steeped in legend. After falling asleep beneath the wishing tree, Marshall and Mayberry wake up in Nith, a parallel world filled with fantastical creatures and magic. In a world rich with beings Marshall and Mayberry could have only ever dreamed of, it becomes difficult to tell friend from foe. But they’ll have to figure it out fast—as well as their newfound magical abilities—for there to be any hope of getting home. 

When I first heard about Between Worlds, the thing that caught me was the supposed ‘Augmented Reality’ that can be achieved with this book through an app. I raised an eyebrow at first, as these gimmicks can at times take away from the actual story. Before I even began the book, I opened the app and directed it at the cover. Basically, the app works through your camera, and when you point it at the book or certain pages within (any artwork page), 3D creatures pop up on the app. It looks as though they’re standing on the book, which I admit I was impressed by. There are, at times, more than one creature per page, and each comes with a diary style entry written by one of the characters to describe the creature and what it can do. The creatures also move and fight back if you poke them, which was very cool. It added a lot of information that is needed in heavy fantasy, but isn’t always easy to incorporate into the narrative without boring the reader. Not to mention that it brought the book to life in a way I’ve never before experienced. You had to read the book for these creatures to have any meaning to you, and as you read each artwork page you stumble upon gives you something new to look at through the app. So I was very pleased to see how the augmented reality complimented the story and encourages kids to read through, and not just sit on the app poking creatures all day. 

As for the story itself, the writing was very solid. The thing that really caught my breath, as is probably expected, was the world building. I loved the richness of creatures, as well as the fact that nothing in Nith looks human, even those that have intelligence or human traits. It felt fresh in the way that it explored the “kids falling into another world” idea. I find a lot of YA and MG that follow that trope have their main characters almost immediately find someone that wants to help them. Not so is the case in Between Worlds. Mayberry and Marshall had to struggle and survive very much on their own strength throughout the whole story, which really helped to build them into the kind of heroes you want to see in this type of world. 

The prose flows nicely and steadily, offering just enough background without slowing down the pace of the story. At the same time, the story doesn’t rush anything, allowing us to see Mayberry and Marshal’s world before  they travel to Nith, which I believe is so important when you want to establish character growth. How do we know how the characters have changed if we don’t see how they lived before their harrowing adventure? It’s nice to see the contrast later, after Marshall and Mayberry return, and how much confidence they’ve gained. 

The only thing I could have asked for when it came to Between Worlds would have been something more for my heart to grab onto. The prologue starts off with Aaron dealing with the conflict of his sister’s death, but aside from that there wasn’t much inner conflict or motivations that really tugged at my heart. Mayberry goes off into the forest partly to help her mother in getting samples, but as we never get a chance to see her mother or their relationship, it’s hard to feel connected to her motivation on an emotional level. Even Marshall’s main motivation to go was because was he was her friend. Even when they struggled to get home, it was Aaron who brought on the heart wrenching idea of home baked cookies. There didn’t seem to be as much driving Marshall or Mayberry to get home. 

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. A gripping creature fantasy complimented by amazing augmented reality. 

Poetry Spotlight: Dane Cobain

I am excited to share with you something I've never done before: a poetry spotlight. I'm very pleased to welcome Dane Cobain, author of No Rest For the Wicked, Eyes Like Lighthouses When The Boats Come Home, Former.ly, and Social Paranoia: How Consumers and Brands Can Stay Safe in a Connected World. Dane also runs a book reviewing blog (woot fellow reviewers!) which can be found here: http://www.socialbookshelves.com You can also find him at his website, here: http://www.danecobain.com/

So, without further adieu, I'd like to present Dane and his poetry piece, Redundant Formats, which he wrote from prompts I gave him.

Redundant Formats 

Sometimes I’m not fun to be around,
like when I’m reading a book
or I’m cutting through crowds
100 feet down on the Northern Line,
talk about Notes from the Underground.

Sometimes I’m fun
although I’m usually drunk,
when I’m living my life
at open mic nights
or trying to find
some excitement.

Sometimes I even
get the drinks in.

Sometimes I take my metaphorical quill
and feel metaphorically ill,
so I metaphorically spill my words
in a funeral hearse,
and so I fear the worst
and hope for something better,
you’d better believe it.

But this isn’t about me,
not really –
we all need something to believe in,
whether it’s reality TV
or whether it’s buy-one-get-one-free
on books and CDs,
even though we stream mp3s
as a society.

I like my books in redundant formats,
hypertext stories on floppy disks,
audio books on cassette tapes
or lines of foolscap
from a typewriter.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Slow Burn: Why I Read Slowly

There's definitely the assumption out there that to be a book reviewer, you have to be a fast reader. And while I'll admit that's definitely an asset, I don't think it's necessary in the pursuit of spreading the love of books. I get a lot of people (writers especially), who say things like, "I could never be a book reviewer, I just can't read fast enough/don't have the time." On the one hand it's meant to be a compliment, but I feel especially strange fielding comments like that, especially when I'm thinking, "I don't read quickly at all..."

It doesn't bother me. I don't stress out over how quickly I read or finish a book. I set goals for myself, usually yearly goals, but I don't do daily monitoring or beat myself up if I don't reach my goals. I also don't psyche myself out about other bloggers who can post over a hundred reviews a year, while I'm just bumping along at a little over twenty.

I don't stress because reading slow, for me, means I have fallen in love.

As a book reviewer, I receive a lot of requests for reviews. Since I don't like to turn people away, and since I always like to try new authors, I end up reading a lot of things that I would never, in a million years, pick up myself. Whether because of writing quality, or the way the pitch is framed, or whatever. There are those out there that say life is too short for a bad book, and while I agree in part, I also believe there's something to learn from every book. Even if it's What Not To Do. Often those books are the greatest teachers, as it allows you to understand why the rules are there in the first place.

When it comes to books I don't really enjoy, I tend to read much faster. The more I'm not enjoying it, the more I power through just for the sake of finishing. That isn't to say I skim. I just spend more time, and in longer stretches, with the book out in front of me.

But those books that I really fall in love with, I tend to read slowly. Not only do I read slower, but I often pause and stop. Most often at the end of a chapter or a break, and sometimes when something resonates with me just so.

I put a finger in the book, put it down, and stare back unseeing in space, relishing in the feeling. The only way I can describe my reaction to a beautiful piece of writing is like a high. I'm filled with awe or glee or just plain joy of language, and it usually takes a few minutes before I'm able to return to reading. I'm sure I must look like a spaced out lunatic to my roommates. If I'm hit with these continued blows of awe, I often have to put the book down entirely and take a break, which leads to the days stretching on while I slowly digest and work through the story.

If I really enjoy a book, I do what I consider 'savouring.' I roll the words around in my brain, churn the story and characters about, and 'taste' the prose like fine caviar. I can't stand the idea of ending a good book, so I try to enjoy it for as long as possible.

So at the end of the year when I reassess my reviews, I wouldn't at all be disappointed with a smaller number. Because at least it means I've really enjoyed what I've been reading.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: No Rest For The Wicked

Book Review: No Rest For The Wicked by Dane Cobain 

Goodreads Description: When the Angels attack, there’s NO REST FOR THE WICKED. 

Father Montgomery, an elderly priest with a secret past, begins to investigate after his parishioners come under attack, and with the help of Jones, a young businessman with an estranged child, Montgomery begins to track down the origin of the Angels. 

The Angels are naked and androgynous. They speak in a dreadful harmony with no clear leader. These aren’t biblical cherubs tasked with the protection of the righteous – these are deadly creatures of light that have the power to completely eradicate. 

When Jones himself is attacked, Father Montgomery knows he has to act fast. He speaks to the Angels and organises a final showdown where he’s asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.

My Review: I was given a copy of No Rest for the Wicked by the author, Dane Cobain, in exchange for an honest review. 

No Rest for the Wicked is a horror/fantasy novel centering around creatures of light that many have dubbed ‘Angels,’ who wander the earth and punish those they deem sinful. Caught up in the mess is Father Montgomery, a weathered priest, and his son, Robert Jones, who has no idea his oldest friend is also his father. The story is told through many points of view, and often incorporates newspapers, articles, and television broadcasts to show the range and scope of the angels’ invasion. 

The author does an excellent job of building tension, partly through the varied points of view used. The angels do an excellent job of being a foreboding monster who, while claiming to be working for the eradication of evil, are obviously only seeking their own satisfaction. Through random murders, tension builds. What are these things? Where did they come from? 

The author also has a pleasant flow to his writing. The descriptions are vivid and each scene moves with a steady pace. It was just descriptive enough to give me a taste of the setting without slowing the reader down with too many flowery prose. The book also managed to hook me in quite well, and starting off with the ‘creatures’ killing definitely caught my attention. 

While the tension starts fast and mounts steadily, I found there was little payoff to the tension. Instead of giving the reader some relief from mounting tension with action from the main characters, the book focuses mostly on mounting tension by killing previously unmentioned characters. We’re introduced to randoms who are then killed, which did succeed in building tension, but after the fifth or sixth scene without any sort of action or payoff, the scenes had lost effect.

The characters were another place where I had an issue. So many POV characters was pretty disorienting, especially when those characters never returned or were killed off in the scene they were introduced. I wish the story had been nailed down to the points of views of the main characters and their experience. While the articles and side murders added depth, there were too many and thus became ineffective and took away from the main conflict. The characters themselves, from Montgomery to Robert, felt horribly flat and without much motivation. Montgomery’s backstory was the most interesting part of their characters, and even then his love affair was flat and at times didn’t make sense. The biggest emotional reveal of the book—Robert discovering his parentage—was reduced to one sentence, which made me feel cheated of the payoff. 

Finally, the climax, in my opinion, fell very short. After such a buildup with murders and people panicking across the globe, it all felt resolved too easily. It also felt like a solution that could have been applied way earlier, and thus saved many more people in the process. Partly because of that, I felt incredibly unfulfilled as a reader. 

TL;DR: All in all, 1/5 stars. This book reads like an action movie without any of the action.