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.