Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Review: Death of a Scratching Post


Book Review: Death of a Scratching Post by Jackson Dean Chase


Goodreads Description: This short poetry chapbook is a celebration of cats as much as it is a look into loneliness, into the heart of a poet, and perhaps into yourself. If you've read my previous cat-themed collection, LOVE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE LITTER BOX, then you know what to expect: Cats are the stars of some poems, bit players in others, but they are always there, purring in your ear, telling us life isn't so bad if we'd only just open our eyes and see...


My Review: I love poetry, but I don’t consider myself anything of an expert on it. Poetry to me, especially when I write it, is something personal and private, and utterly raw. With so few words, you tend to have to go straight for the point, which I think a lot of people don’t necessarily understand. Jackson Dean Chase is excellent at getting straight to the point and though this book of poetry has a lighthearted topic—all poems featuring cats—it still packs an incredibly powerful punch. I found myself rereading a couple poems, as if to confirm to myself that what I felt wasn’t some coincidence or passing fancy. I found as I reread this simple poetry book a couple times (an easy feat, as it not incredibly long), I found myself struck with the same wonder and awe each time, inspired by simple words and emotions. 

At times, Jackson Dean Chase can dip into some dark topics, as I think is pretty common for poets. But the angle of cats, as well as brief spots of optimism and hope, keep this little collection of poetry nicely balanced. It is the first poetry book I have read from cover to cover, mostly because it’s an easy read, but also since I found myself delighted by each poem as I read. Ideally this book would make a great gift for a lover of cats and reading, who wouldn’t be off-put by some of the darker tones. I loved it for those darker looks at reality, but I could easily see it upsetting some of my elderly coworkers, who can sometimes fit the “little old lady” theme a bit too well. 

What really caught me about this collection was the raw emotion and the no-holds-barred way of looking at life. It’s the best kind of poetry there is—with a subtle and rhythmic flow to the writing and strong emotional messages, delivered both bluntly and through delightful cat metaphors. 


TL;DR: All in all 4/5 stars. A great look into Jackson Dean Chase’s style with the cuddliest of subject matter. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Author Interview with Audrey Greathouse + Cover Reveal!


It is with great pleasure that I would like to welcome Audrey Greathouse, author of The Neverland Wars, to the Underground! Audrey writes mostly science fiction and fantasy, but has published some of her poetry on ezines. She is currently working with her publisher, Clean Teen Publishing, on releasing the sequel to The Neverland Wars.


1) Since the Neverland Wars released, you’ve received such a wonderful response from the young adult blogging community. What has been your favorite response from readers so far?

I would say my favorite response is “me too.” Gwen is resonating with a lot of teenagers, and many of them are contacting me to say they relate to her. Adult readers are loving The Neverland Wars, too, but I feel like that's an audience who has often already figured out how to deal with the problems Gwen faces in her head. Knowing that teenagers who are actively dealing with the issue of growing up are connecting with this story is the best feeling. One girl got in touch with me and wrote, “Thank you for reminding me that even though I am 17, I am not grown up yet and I can still enjoy being a kid!” I couldn't have asked for a better response.


2) Do you have any tips/“secrets” for other authors when it comes to marketing yourself and your book?

It won't come as any surprise to you, but book bloggers are the lynch pin of my marketing plan. Lots of aspiring authors aren't even aware of this community, or how much of an impact book bloggers have on a book. I haven't done any paid ads for The Neverland Wars and neither has my publisher, and yet the book is in Barnes and Nobles everywhere from Pensacola to Manhattan... and selling! I think, from a marketing perspective, a review on the right book blog is worth more than an editorial review these days.

I don't really invest in the “author brand” idea, and I'm not really trying to find “fans.” I wrote The Neverland Wars because I had a feeling I didn't see anyone else struggling with while growing up. My goal is to find other people who share that feeling. I'm looking for everyone who can say “me too, and—” I want to find other creative people to collaborate and discuss life with. Ultimately, I want The Neverland Wars to bring new and exciting people into my life, not just bring my words into other people's bookshelves.


3) Are you a planner or a pantser when it comes to writing? Do you like to outline or prefer to let the story reveal itself?

Definitely a planner. I love outlining and I nurse story ideas for months or years before I even start drafting them. I like to see which story ideas are going to “stick” with me. Once I realize that I'm never going to stop thinking about this story until I've written the book, that's when I know I have a great idea that really will work as a novel. The amazing thing is that no matter how long I wait or how much I outline, the writing process is always full of surprises. Writers may be planners, but characters are always pansters, and they can hijack the storyline in a million different ways before I get to the ending I have in mind. Writing a good novel is a lot like taking a good roadtrip. You have a destination in mind and lots of landmarks you want to see along the way, but the exact roads and stops you take to get there will naturally come with a few surprises.


4) As well as writing novels, you’ve written and published your poetry as well. What would you say are the pros and cons to writing novels vs poetry?

Believe it or not, I think novels are easier! My favorite aspect of writing is the narrative and characters, which are two elements poetry captures only minimally. I love sharing my characters with people, and while I might write a poem about a person, the reader doesn't walk away with as detailed an image of that person or their story as I could give them in fiction. I think most young adult readers feel that way too...which is why they seek out so little poetry. I probably only really got into poetry because I wasn't musically competent enough to write songs. I love rhyme and meter and form poetry... all the things that are woefully out of fashion in this post-modern world. The best thing about poetry is how quickly you can pound out a draft and get a sense of catharsis though. I like being able to sit down with a feeling and an hour and a few verses later know that I managed to put it to words.


5) What would you say are the differences between publishing poetry and publishing a novel?

Most notably, the pay. There's a lot of commercial fiction in the world, not so much commercial poetry. Like short stories, poems are usually sold to literary magazines and that is a whole other world from book publishing. Literary magazines are changing just as much with the event of ebooks and the internet, however, and my experiences with online 'zines have been fantastic. I've worked with other writers I never would have known about in my own hometown and editors as far away as India, Australia, and England. The internet is breaking down barriers, and the sort of people who publish poetry are really in it for the joy of the art. There's aspects of that passion which I really miss now that I'm working for a publisher that is actively trying grow and turn a larger profit than last quarter.


Swing by Twitter tomorrow for a Q&A with Audrey! 

6) What would you say is your highest hope for The Neverland Wars? What would be your ultimate “dream come true” moment?

I suppose most writers would say when it gets a movie deal or hits bestseller status... but I feel like my dreams go beyond that. The mental image that question triggers for me is sitting down at a bar with Neil Gaiman and talking to him about it, and all sorts of other stories we're both reading and writing. There are a lot of fantastic artists who have inspired and evoked that “me too” feeling from me, and really I have this strange hope that someday my art will be a high enough caliber that these people with such wonderfully refined and strange aesthetic tastes can enjoy it. I'd really like to give a story back to all the people who have given me my favorite stories over the years.


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

You know, I think I would have to say everything that happened after I signed the contract and before I saw the first sales figures. As tiring as the writing, revising, and getting rejected was, I felt super confident in it because Me, Myself, and I were going to get through it. I had a soul-deep, unshakable faith in myself. As soon as I got a book deal, suddenly there were all these other people involved! Of all the creative pursuits, I think I was drawn to writing because it is so solitary. Learning how to work with others and to trust others with my art was definitely challenging for me. It was only about a month ago when I saw stores selling out of the book and looked at the data my publisher had that I realized, “It's okay. People are getting the book. Everything's working.”


8) How did NaNoWriMo help you as a writer?

It prevented the number one thing that keeps potential writers from getting published—giving up before they've even finished a draft. Writing is a lot like walking a tight rope for the first few hundred thousand words. You can't look down and realize how bad your writing is or you'll be paralyzed by that realization. You just have to keep going and know that it will get better... that you will get better. NaNoWriMo has forced me to draft eight novels now, and I grew more as a writer with each of those. A lot of them will never be published, but they were still invaluable because I learned so much in the process. The Neverland Wars was a NaNoWriMo novel, the sequel was last year's NaNoWriMo project, and you can rest assured I'm looking forward to November to draft a final installment in this trilogy!

9) Why write science fiction and fantasy? What about the genres appeals to you most?

I've always thought that science was in charge of showing us what life is, and art is charge of showing us how life feels. In reality, life behaves by a pretty universal set of physical principles, but it doesn't always feel that way. Sometimes it feels like you have an ocean inside of you, or it feels like you actually could fly. They say that you shouldn't let the facts get in the way of a good story, so when I wrote The Neverland Wars, I didn't let silly things like gravity or mortality get in the way of telling the story of what it is like to grow up in this world.


10) Is there anything you can tell us about the sequel to the Neverland Wars? Any sneak peaks
or secrets you can share?

The Piper's Price has a lot more of Jay in it, and a lot more adult characters. Peter wants to retaliate against reality, and in the process, Gwen ends up meeting a lot of people on the other side of this fight and getting a peak into their motives and rational. I really love working with Gwen because she embodies a lot of the neutrality and unwillingness to commit that you experience in your teen years. She also spends more time away from Rosemary, under both favorable and unfavorable circumstances, so it is great to get that look into how she behaves when she doesn't have her little sister in tow. Gwen is much more on her own in this book, which gives her a chance to grow as a person, and give more thought to whether or not she actually wants to grow up.


Check out Audrey's Q&A tomorrow on Twitter. She'll be stopping by to answer questions about the upcoming sequel to The Neverland Wars, The Piper's Price. Here's the blurb for the book:

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.

You can also visit Audrey at her website:  https://audreygreathouse.com/

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review: Life of Pi


Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel 

Goodreads Description: Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

My Review: There’s something about reviewing classic and well-renowned books that strikes me as unnecessary. It’s like walking into a church, shaking the pastor and screaming in his face that God is real, that he must accept Him into his life. It’s announcing something people, especially avid readers (and I assume you are if you’ve been reading my reviews), already know. Some books, like Life of Pi, are gold. It’s because of that fact that I’m still pulling out my laptop, shifting through all the thoughts and feelings this book has left me with, and preparing yet another review for a book that hardly needs the promotion. Despite their classic status, I can’t help but want to put my feelings about a book like this on paper, if only for my own benefit. 

If you don’t know the tale, Life of Pi is the story of Piscine ‘Pi’ Molitar Patel, a young Indian boy who grows up on a zoo in India and relocates with the animals to Canada with his family. While crossing the Pacific Ocean, the boat sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, and a 3 year old adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Not only does Pi have to survive over two hundred days at sea in a lifeboat, but he has to do it while juggling the delicate ecosystem created between himself and the animals.

I began reading Life of Pi in the hospital after my best friend of over 10 years was in a serious car accident that nearly killed her. I admit, I grabbed the book in part because I knew of its religious connotations, and I was searching for some sort of comfort in an idea of something bigger than myself. After all, Pi Patel is a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim simultaneously, mostly due to an unbidden love of God and the word of Him, no matter what form it takes. I am not at all religious, but I am fascinated by religion. Pi’s take on Christianity, Hinduism and Islam was enlightening and light-hearted. At Pi’s first introduction to Christianity, he tries to understand the logic behind Christ’s sacrifice in such an innocent and non-judgemental way that it had me cracking up laughing. As well, I felt a connection to Hinduism’s spiritual side, and the fantastical reaches of its stories, to the calm, serene peace that Islam and prayer brought him. Despite all this religion, the book itself is not preachy nor does Pi have an obsessive devotion to God that would make non-religious readers uncomfortable. In fact, most of the religious moments were contained within the first part of the book, where the author goes into Pi’s backstory, how he came to all these religions, and his childhood growing up in a zoo. Once Pi hits the lifeboat, he spends very little time mentioning God or prayer or religion, really only mentioning it in passing detail. This I think was very vital in not having the religious tones overwhelm the rest of the story.

As for the rest of the story, what a story it was! It wasn’t the situational story of Pi in the lifeboat with these animals that made the book so great—it was all the set-up done in the first part of the book, establishing zoos and how they function, how zookeepers think, how life worked this boy from Piscine, to Pissing, to Pi. All this backstory involved such creative and interesting characters, from Mamiji, to his school teachers, to his religious teachers. Each piece added an integral part of the book for when Pi was actually on the lifeboat. Without all the buildup, the reader would have been unable to see how Pi’s thoughts worked while at sea. Whereas, by getting to know Pi Patel so intimately before the conflict sets in, the author didn’t even have to mention a lot of Pi’s direct thought process for us to understand why he did what he did. I was fascinated how intimately I was in Pi’s head—it’s something that I’ve rarely found, and never to such an intense level.

To the untrained eye, the first part of Life of Pi may appear to be one long info dump. After all, as writers, aren’t we warned away from dumping out a character’s entire history before getting to the inciting incident? There are three main reasons that I believe this isn’t an info dump, and why it amounted to the book’s success. For one, the tension builds throughout the first part, in the solid teasing of the sinking of the boat, and the continual hinting of Richard Parker. For at this stage, we have no idea who Richard Parker is, whether he’s actually a person or what. He is a ghostly figure that “haunts” Pi Patel, long after the story has ended. And though the mentions of the lifeboat are what propel us forward (as that is the story the reader believes they’ve come for), the mystery of Richard Parker, who he is, and why he haunts Pi, is what keeps the reader intrigued and engaged. If this book had one of these tension tricks but not the other, I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful.

The second reason to the backstory’s successes lies directly in the title. The book is the Life of Pi, and we see as soon as we get to the portion of the lifeboat, every little detail, right down to the nickname “Pissing Patel,” helps to keep him alive on the boat. He applies all these incidents in his life and what he’s learned from his parents and mentors, and it keeps him alive. The key to his survival isn’t the tiger or his wits or even dumb luck—it was the circumstances of his life that made him able to live so long. And this becomes apparent long before the book is over, meaning that the reader isn’t frustrated by all this information that’s coming to them that would appear superfluous. Because the author draws the reader’s attention back to the main conflict through little “tension teasers,” it helps to draw the reader’s quiet realization that all these rich stories are coming together and interwoven into the main conflict. Readers hate feeling like they’re wasting their time reading something that doesn’t matter to the main story, but the author kept Pi’s backstory interesting while subtly drawing back to the main issue, as to reassure readers that they hadn’t run off together on a tangent.

And finally, the true mark of infodumping is Telling, not Showing. With Pi’s backstory, the author took us on a firsthand experience, and though there was a lot to explain, he still showed us the richness of the zoo, what classes felt like, and strong memories that stick out for one reason or another. Many authors, when trying to convey as much information as possible, jump to telling, which is why their “infodumps” get scratched out in editing. Telling is boring to read. But with every chapter of Pi’s childhood, I couldn’t wait to see where we would go next, central conflict be damned.

Really, I believe this book is essential for writers. If the religious elements make you shy away, don’t fret. This book is an intellectual look at religion and faith, not one that demands your audience in church pews. The symbolism in this story is really what gets me, time and time again. For that reason alone I know it will stick with me, and will definitely be a book I can’t help but reread, time and time again.

TL;DR: All in all, 5/5 stars. Life of Pi is such an incredibly well-written tale that is so magical and whimsical while still remaining completely realistic. You won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Author Interview with Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

Hello all! I'm very pleased to have Mohana Rajakumar, author of The Migrant Report, to the
Underground to share some of her knowledge. I always say I love learning from fellow artists and authors, and so I'm very pleased to have Mohana here today. I hope you'll all help me in welcoming her here today.

If you'd like to check out more of your work, you can find her at her website here: www.mohadoha.com


1) What initially inspired you to write and become a writer? 

I came to writing through a love of reading. My mother took us to the library every week and as a child it was a ritual to pick out books - I thought everyone did this until I got to college. Now I share this joy with our sons.


2) You've mentioned having a busy life being a mom and a university professor in the Arabian Gulf. What does your routines for writing sit down? How to you organize your time to optimize your productivity?

I write very intensely every November, during National Novel Writing when we do 1600 words a day for 30 days. The rest of the year I'm tinkering, mostly in the mornings and Saturday afternoons, getting novels ready to launch in July or December.


3) What made you want to write about the migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf? 

Everyone talks about "the workers" but they rarely get to speak for themselves. Also the way we speak of them is either as dangerous unknowns or objects of pity. I wanted to convey their agency.


4) Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you carefully plan out your story before starting or see where the plot takes you?

Oh I outline the first 10 chapters down to the four scenes in each chapter. After that, the story tends to take on a life of its own and gather momentum. Otherwise the whole thing is like a soup without any salt - a disaster! I've tried it the other way - "pantsing" and it's much messier.


5) What as the hardest part of writing the Migrant Report? How much of your experiences of living in the Arabian Gulf did you put in the story?

Whenever you take on a voice that isn't your own, male, other nationalities, you have to be as careful as possible not to generalize. The only way to do this is through lots of research and beta readers. Of course living there helps tremendously!


6) What is it like writing and publishing in the Arabian Gulf?

I love bringing readers into places they haven't been before. It's also exciting to bring somewhere that's on the margins of the western centric world into focus.


7) You've talked about sensitive subjects on your blog and how writing can help us confront difficult subjects and find solutions. What kind of things did you learn about the migrant workers that really surprised you and hoped to address with your book? 

How sometimes they work against each because many of their situations are so desperate there is no sense of solidarity.


8) What is your advice for authors who want to approach publishing their own ebooks?

Write every day and get the best editor you can. :)


9) What kind of reactions have you had from your fans regarding your books? Any stories to share?

People love reading about places they want to learn more about. Others appreciate seeing where they live put into context, not the hyperbole or stereotypes of the nightly news or Hollywood movies.


10) Is there anything you can reveal about the sequel to the Migrant Report?

Life gets darker and more complicated for everyone - particularly Ali and Manu who are charged with the first vice squad.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: The Migrant Report


Book Review: The Migrant Report by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar 

Goodreads Description: The penalty for stealing is losing your hand. No wonder Ali can leave his wallet overnight in his office. Yet crime hovers on the fringes of society, under the veneer of utopia.

Police captain Ali's hopes of joining the elite government forces are dashed when his childhood deformity is discovered. His demotion brings him face to face with the corruption of labor agencies and also Maryam, an aspiring journalism student, who is unlike any local girl he has ever met.

Ali and his unlikely sidekick must work together to find the reason so many laborers are dying. Against the glittery backdrop of the oil rich Arabian Gulf, Ali pursues a corrupt agency that will stop at nothing to keep their profits rising. As the body count rises, so does the pressure to settle the source. Can Ali settle the score before the agency strikes again?


My Review: I was given a review copy of the Migrant Report by the author, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, in exchange for an honest review. 

The Migrant Report is a wonderfully rich tale set in the Arabian desert, starring a cast of delightful characters that centers around the struggles of immigrant workers and some of the terrible conditions they endure. The story centers around Manu, a young Nepali man who immigrates to the capital to search for work. His sister, Sanjana, who already works in the capital as a housemaid for a wealthy American family, sets him up with a plane ticket and a sponsor, so that when he arrives he will be given an office job with an excellent salary. That way, the two siblings could send back plenty of money to help feed their younger siblings and their ailing mother. But things begin turning sour right away as Manu's passport is confiscated at the airport by his company rep, and he's forced to sign a contract in a language he can't read. When he arrives in his new home, he discovers his job is that of a labourer building infrastructure. His employers won't pay him, he can't leave the compound, and any complaints are met with punishment. While Sanjana feverishly struggles to hunt him down, it takes more than one person to take down a corrupted system of human trafficking. 

I fell in love with this book right from the start. Though the cover seems a little bland and the pitch on the back of the book is a tad confusing, the story itself is incredibly strong and well-done. I fell in love with each character, from Manu and Sanjana, to Ali, the police officer with one testicle, to Maryam, the feminist journalism student trapped in a culture that wants to tame her, to Paul and Cindy, the rich American couple struggling to balance their marriage with Paul's work. Every character was well-crafted and had their own conflicts, flaws, and motivations that all converged and complicated the main conflict. The Migrant Report shows us the beauties and shortcomings of the Arabian Gulf through the eyes of varying people who are entangled up in this horrible-- and unfortunately real-- system. At first I worried that there were too many POV characters, but Rajakumar balances each one with finesse, so the story flows clearly and every voice is necessary to the story as a whole. 

Along with characters, this book balanced all the plot threads wonderfully. With so many characters, each with their own personal conflicts, it can often be difficult to keep everything straight, let alone relevant to the story. But each little tidbit-- from Daniel and Sharif smoking hashish, to Cindy handing out blankets and bibles to the workers, to Maryam's parents growing insistence to find her a husband-- contributed to the main conflict with Manu. The tension and pacing were both steady and consistent, but not overwhelming. The book moved at a pleasant pace and the tension was just where it needed to be. This book didn't try to grab you by the throat and strangle you with intensity like some, but I found myself just as hooked to The Migrant Report all the same, simply because I loved the story, characters, and culture. 

The only problem I really had was the ending. Though the main conflict with Manu is wrapped up and most of the story is dealt with, it ends on a cliff hanger that literally had me flipping pages to see if there was a chapter missing. It felt like a very abrupt ending, leaving some threads unresolved. And while I can admit cliff hangers are a stylistic choice for a lot of writers, personally I believe in the stance of "every book should stand on its own." I believe this rings especially true with the initial book of a series, and then cliff hangers at the end of later books are not as much of a concern. However, despite this rule the only real reason it bothered me was because I wanted more! There were a lot of questions that I was left with at the end-- how will Maryam's paper turn out? What will become of Sanjana and Manu's relationship? What's going on with Cindy and her flirting around?-- and though this is a great way to lead into a sequel, there were simply so many that it left me feeling as though the story stopped too soon.

There were also some accents put into the dialogue that I found a little off-putting. Again, this is a stylistic choice, as some writers really love making their dialogue as authentic to how people talk as possible. But I found the accents and broken English a little off since throughout the book, most characters were speaking various languages, some of which were their first language. I felt like it was added to show which characters were speaking in unfamiliar languages to them, but it was unclear if that was the case and didn't really add anything. Since most of the time they were speaking their native tongues and having things translated, having that bit of broken English only made it harder to read. 

Finally, I would hope that in future books, Rajakumar adds in a bit more description, because I loved the landscape and culture and wanted to immerse even further. I wanted to feel the sun on my face, taste sand on the air, and feel the weight of the Abaya. All the descriptions in the book were wonderful and well-written, so more would make the book just that much richer. 

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. Can I read the sequel, like, now?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

God Is In The Rain

Only a few hours from now on this Sunday evening, it will be exactly one week since the car accident that put my roommate and best friend of nearly 10 years in the hospital in critical condition. 

It almost seems too quiet for the turmoil raging in my head. Though clouds gather over the evening sky, the air is crisp and warm as a sunset paints the world in low romantic hues of reds and gold. Out in the neighbouring province of British Columbia, hundreds if not thousands of people are picking ripe fruit to send all over Canada. It's hard, hot work, and my roommate, Josi, left with a backpack and a huge smile only a few weeks ago to join them. Previous summers, she'd left on similar adventures, so by now she knew the ropes. This Monday morning would have brought another day of work, and before dawn Josi would be the one to run through the bunk houses cheerfully singing or banging on doors, yelling, "Everybody up now, I need my coffee!" Whichever greeting it was for the day.

But the camps have been quiet this last week. 

Not only for Josi but also in mourning, for the accident took the life of a talented young musician named Max. I only arrived home yesterday evening after spending the last four and a half days with her in Kelowna. Josi was airlifted there after the car she was in flew off the road and into a ravine. Her seat belt, though it broke, saved her life. She sustained severe injuries and had to have multiple surgeries to set her bones and repair damaged organs. The list of injuries grows more upsetting the longer it gets, as the number of broken bones almost rises to the double digits. 

It's begun to rain here at home, and I can't help but wonder if it's raining over Josi too. There was a quote from V for Vendetta that always stuck with me in a weird way, as I never quite understood it. 

"God is in the rain." 

I'm not much of a religious person. Neither is Josi. We're both spiritual and we believe in something out there, God, spirits, karma, energy, the universe--whatever. We don't always know what name to put to the forces out there that influence our lives, but we have always felt that presence. One interpretation of the above quote, at least one that I really love, is that there is always something good in the bad. God is in the rain, as in even when you're caught up in storms that seem impassable, you're not alone. There is always love there with you, and God or the universe or karma has not given up on you. There is purpose in suffering, even if by our own human sense of justice, it can seem unfair or imbalanced as to who undergoes what kind of suffering. 

When I first arrived at the hospital, Josi was not conscious. She had been initially, was even awake at the scene, as she had no head trauma. One of the more severe and worrying of her injuries-- her broken back-- meant that any sort of movement was dangerous. Josi, being fidgety at the best of times, was kept sedated so she didn't try to move in a way that ended up paralyzing her. 

Breathing tubes snaked down her throat. Two monitors showed, I'm sure, every bodily function of hers possible. There were about four IV stands in the room, and probably a dozen or so tubes coming out of her. They'd admitted her to the ICU, and a nurse sat outside her room at all times to keep a watchful eye over her. 

To say I was a mess would be an understatement. If my head was a storm cloud, my tears were the unending torrent of rain. Cheesy maybe, but the metaphor is certainly apt for how I felt. Let's just say I'm glad Josi didn't have to see me bawling like a baby. I managed to gather my composure, as hospitals are sadly not an unfamiliar place to me, and pulled out the book I'd brought to read to her. 

I'd seen the movie Life of Pi and of course fell in love with the story. I knew the book would be a much more moving experience, and so Josi offered me her copy to read a few months ago. I'd hoarded the book away in my pile, and with the other books on my list I hadn't been able to get to it as quickly as I should have, considering it's a borrowed book. But the tale was both familiar to Josi while being new to me, so I figured it would be the perfect thing to read aloud to her while the drugs kept her sedated and machines reduced her life to a series of graphs and numbers. 

I didn't get far in the book, but far enough. I did end up bringing it back to the place I was staying to read, because of course once I started it was hard to stop. I brought the book for Josi, but also hoping that the words would give me some healing as well. And there was so many beautiful words to give me solace in that cramped ICU room.

"I am not one to project human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at the sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing. Sometimes I got my majors mixed up. A number of my fellow religious studies students--muddled agnostics who didn't know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool's gold for the bright-- reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God." 

Josi reminded me of a three-toed sloth strapped to that belt, her arms literally tied down with bandages to keep her from upsetting her spine. As I read to her, the story of Pi Patel's life unfolding, she began to transform from a sloth back to a human, back to the dragon she was. She began to fidget and turn, and come back more and more. Even after they upped the sedation, she continued to push back to the surface. The first moment she opened her eyes and looked up at me, my smile stretched so big it felt like it would break my face.

"Are you with me?" I asked, but hell, I didn't think she'd nod! She fought her way back to consciousness just enough to squeeze my hand back. After only a few days and after undergoing three different surgeries, Josi slowly came back to herself. I asked her if she wanted me to keep reading to her, and she nodded.

 I felt like, hey, at least I can do something.

The next few days I spent with her, she recovered incredibly quickly. To the point that amazed me, and made me wonder how the heck she could be so strong. She had full mobility in her hand with her broken wrist. She can wiggle her toes and move her foot on the ankle she broke. Her abdominal injuries are healing and her back was fitted with a brace, so moving her isn't so much of a concern anymore (aside from pain).

Despite all this, Josi's spirit is incredibly strong. The first day after regaining consciousness she was singing and joking around with us. When her dad listed off the injuries she had, she shook him off and simply said, "I'm alive."

By the grace of something, that's for certain. When Josi's seat belt broke and she was ejected from the car, someone or something was there to help cushion her fall. May sound crazy to some, but I've never really cared if people called me names. Initially upon waking, Josi told me her grandfather (who had passed away when she was a child) had been there to save her. "He looked like an angel, or Jesus, and he held me in his arms and cried before sending me back, because it wasn't my time."

It's hard not to believe in God, to believe in angels or karma or even damn luck, when you're sitting in the ICU gripping someone's hand. It's hard not to question the justice in it all, or look for meaning in it, or look for something to blame. With Life of Pi as my bible, I know I was looking for God within those hospital walls. They say more prayers are uttered in hospitals than in churches, though I believe not because people are unfaithful, but because hospitals are where prayers are needed most.

We all believe in something. We can also believe in things simultaneously, things that others may think contradict each other. Like with Pi Patel, who was a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Someone once said to know a man's beliefs is to know the man, and that is certainly true.

I can't even begin to explain what I felt watching Josi's recovery in the time I was able to be with her. She laid in bed and told me of the beautiful yellow dragon that snaked around her room, shyly hiding his face from view, but watching over her. I told her it was her guardian spirit, there to protect her when I couldn't. I told her it must've come back with her when she went to the other side with her grandfather. Hallucination or not, she looked up at that dragon with such love and gratitude in her eyes, I couldn't help but feel like she was looking up at God.

I think I reacted the same way a lot of other people do when they get the Bad News Call. The night I received the news, shock snapped over me like a bear trap, and I argued vehemently in my head with the notion that it was even real. I called upon God, though in an unclear and ambiguous way, and questioned why this had to happen to someone so kind and compassionate. Someone who always put others first. Who in the hospital screamed the first day she was conscious, defending her friend, the driver, because he merely fell asleep at the wheel. Why did this have to happen to them and not someone else? If I was angry at anyone throughout all this, I was angry at God, or fate, or karma. 

Yet at the same time, I couldn't be more grateful. She's alive. She will walk again. Whatever fate tipped her into that accident tipped her right back and kept her alive. 

I'm not sure what I walked out of that hospital feeling. I don't know what I believe-- hell, even down to the shifting stories of events, it's like trying to piece a broken vase back together. Even if God wasn't there on that roadside, even if it came down to dumb freaking luck that she lived and Max didn't, I do know one thing for certain: 

I believe in Josi. And I believe in her strength.



Thank you so much for reading this post, if you've made it this far. I rambled, but it was to get some healing from writing, the same way I find healing in reading. If you have any pennies to spare, there has been a Go Fund Me account started for Josi. The account is to cover medical expenses and transportation and eventual physio and rehabilitation. She will have to learn to walk again. There's a lot of details yet to handle-- the forefront of which will be somehow getting her home--but that's what it all comes down to: details. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sympathetic vs Likable Characters

In my reviews, I talk a lot about characters and whether or not they're sympathetic. Many writers want their characters to be likable, especially their main character. After all, the reader has to spend an entire book with the main character, and why would they devote that much time with a character they didn't like? It can sometimes get tricky to keep a character likable, especially when characters begin doing unethical things in the name of the greater good. At what point does a character stop being likable? At what point do they stop being sympathetic? Though the two are related, they are definitely two different concepts that many writers get mixed up. Writers can sometimes become so obsessed with making their character likable that they forget to make their character sympathetic.

But what is the difference? 

When your character is likable, they are someone your reader enjoys reading about. This relies more heavily on personal preference and so it's sometimes impossible to create a universally liked character, though many writers lose sleep trying to create one. A character can be two dimensional, crude, rude, erratic in their actions, and completely unsympathetic, but they may still be likable if there is something about the character the reader connects with and enjoys. A character can be likable because they are sympathetic, but they don't have to be sympathetic to be likable. 

When your character is sympathetic, they are doing something or expressing ideas that the reader can approve of. They are working to save their world, rescue their parents, save their love interest, etc. Even if as a person, they are incredibly unlikable, your character can still be sympathetic by doing the right thing. 

For example, in my review of The Outliers, I talk about how much I disliked the main character, Wylie. This was mostly due to personal preference, as Wylie did things and said things that I thought were rude and uncalled for. However, her overall motivation throughout the story-- saving her best friend-- was something I could sympathize with, and therefore I could continue reading. It's like the idea of people working together in a crisis-- I can deal with not liking a character based on who they are, so long as their actions or ideas are sympathetic. 

But where do you draw the line? How do you know if you're writing a likable character, or a sympathetic one? Or neither? Or both? 

As I said, creating a likable character can be frustrating and nearly impossible, mostly because it generally comes down to personal preference. There are people who love Voldemort, despite the fact that JK Rowling made no attempt to make him likable. You cannot control how people will respond to your characters, just as you can't control how people respond to your personality. So don't even try. Don't focus on making people like your character, make your character consistent with who they are. If you want a stubborn character, don't tone down that trait to make them more likable. Embrace the stubborn part of your character, make it consistent through their actions and reactions, and readers will like your character for being true to themselves. 

On the other hand, creating a sympathetic character is something a writer does have control over, and should pay attention to. Generally, it's not hard to make your character a sympathetic one. Plot motivators tend to make for sympathetic situations-- needing to rescue a loved one, stop a catastrophe, free people from suffering, etc. But you don't need those external motivators to create sympathetic characters, as their beliefs and ideas have a big impact on how the reader views them. For example, your character may be a high class thief only out for personal gain, but their decision not to hurt people while on the job instantly makes him a sympathetic one. 

External elements to create sympathy are the easiest to do. Internal motivators to create sympathy have a much stronger impact. Your character can have both external and internal motivators to create sympathy, or only one or the other. Toeing the lines can create interesting character dynamics and is something authors tend to do frequently. 

In the Second Sons Trilogy by Jennifer Fallon, the main character, Dirk, has external motivators to make him sympathetic, but no internal motivators. He is working to save the kingdom by toppling a corrupt system, not necessarily for the betterment of his fellow people, but more because the structure of the royal court puts him in danger. He is all around unlikable-- arrogant, snobby, and really doesn't do a single nice thing throughout the whole series unless it serves him, despite the fact that he is doing the "right" thing. Jennifer Fallon admitted that she intended to do this with Dirk-- she wanted to see how bad a main character could be while still keeping the reader on his side. And it certainly worked! By the end of the series I thought Dirk was pretty much the scummiest guy you could meet, but he somehow still managed to remain the hero of the story. 

On the other side of the coin, in Vicious by VE Schwab, the main character Victor has internal motivators without much in the way of external motivators. He chases down his best friend who has become a serial killer, and though his expressed motivation is based on revenge (which doesn't make him overly sympathetic), he does acknowledge that he thinks what Eli is doing is wrong. So even though his external motivation is a choice of him getting revenge, his internal motivation makes him sympathetic as it shows he cares about others. 

Characters can be a hard balance. I speak from experience, as they've always been something I've struggled with. But managing that balance, once you have it, makes your book so much stronger overall. 

So, since I threw a lot at once, to sum up: 

Likable Characters are those who are liked by the reader, for one reason or another. All characters are likable in some way. Likable characters are based on reader preference. Generally, good deeds = people like your character, but the reasons a character is likable are as varied as types of literature. 

Sympathetic Characters are those whose actions, motivations, or beliefs, whether its proclaimed from the rooftops or inserted subtly, create sympathy and approval for the reader. They approve of the hero's journey, or at least their reasons for the journey. 

External Motivators for Sympathy are external forces that put the character into a situation that garners sympathy. They can be as literal as people locked in a cage needing to escape, or pressures from other characters to do things they don't want to. 

Internal Motivators for Sympathy are more the beliefs and morals held within the character that propels them to take action and creates sympathy in the reader. They can be stated outright or implied. They still inspire sympathy and originate from the character's belief system. 

Ex.) In the Hunger Games, the external motivator for Katniss is to stay alive in the games and the government structure invading her life. Her internal motivator is her desire to keep her sister safe and make it back home to her. 

Hopefully this helps to shed some light on what I mean when I talk about sympathy vs likability. So writers out there, relax, take a deep breath. Stop pulling your hair out trying to make your characters liked by everyone, and just make your characters true to themselves.