Saturday, November 10, 2018

Book Review: Frankenstein

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 

Goodreads Description: Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever. 

My Review: Frankenstein was an assigned reading for my college class, and being the masochist that I am, I decided to throw a review out there as well. Frankenstein was on my list of Classics That I'll Read Someday, so reading it for class was super productive. One less book off the never ending TBR list. 

Like many out there, I didn't know a whole lot about Frankenstein before I began, aside of course from the things pop culture has taught me: Victor Frankenstein was an old, crazy, white-haired scientist, his creature was a groaning, drooling, bolt-in-the-neck kinda monster, and there would definitely be villagers with torches and pitchforks chasing the creature into the night, this I was absolutely sure of. But pop culture led me astray again, for none of these things actually happened in the book (although there were some villagers with torches chasing off the creature, but it was one sentence in the middle of the book, more the response of walking into the wrong change room than the dramatic climax of a monster movie). By the time I'd finished the book, I felt a little ripped off. Where were the accurate movie adaptations of Frankenstein? Why had pop culture mangled the story so badly? 

The book begins far north in the arctic where we meet Walton, a young explorer searching for knowledge and glory. Out in the wilderness he discovers a man, frozen half to death, and when he revives him the man tells Walton that he was once young and ambitious, and sought out knowledge and power over nature, just as Walton was doing. After a few days of kindness, the man decides to reward Walton with a story: one of warning, hoping to save Walton from falling prey to the same fate as the old man. And so we realize the old, weathered man is Victor Frankenstein as he tells Walton, and the reader, the story from his birth to what led him to be old and dying out in the wilderness, still desperately searching for the creature who destroyed his life. 

First off, the prose is spectacular! I found myself awed continually by Shelley's wordplay and use of descriptors all throughout the novel. She describes nature so intensely that it's difficult not to feel as though you are out in the wilderness yourself. Being a Romantic writer, Shelley focused on the beauty and terrifying power of nature, and many of the confrontations between Victor and the creature take place in the throes of nature. Although Frankenstein was written 200 years ago, the writing style is not difficult to get accustomed to. It borders the line (at least in my opinion) between modern novels and historical classics. Like classics, the book takes its time to build to revelations, and spends a lot of time on backstory or information that would seem superfluous to modern writers. We start Victor's tale before he's even born and are introduced to his parents and family culture before Victor is even around, which is a testament to how a lot of classic novels tends to linger over every detail. Despite the intense backstory, the flow of action is actually very steady. Like modern novels that tend to get right to the inciting incident and keep pushing with plot and conflict, Frankenstein had a pretty steady pacing and tension that kept me engaged straight to the end. It does have a bit of a slower burn to the tension-- we're not talking thriller level pacing, but it's enough to keep the story moving without losing the reader along the way. 

The beauty of the story comes down to Victor and his creature. Victor was a wonderful character, and has already become one of my favourites in literature. He is not always likable - as he can be quite depressed and mopey at times, and ruminates on problems that he could (with some work) solve himself. After giving life to his creation, he becomes horribly depressed and heads down a spiral that he doesn't recover from. For some readers, Victor probably comes across as very annoying, especially as he becomes more and more depressed. He does less and less for himself, turns very inward, and generally comes across as a little brat. However, I really connected with this as I feel Shelley accurately portrayed someone with worsening mental health. The creature is an interesting character study as well. He is extremely articulate and intelligent, and seeks to confront Victor with words (at first) rather than violence. As he is driven more into isolation, he becomes more enraged and violent, and yet is shown to be in complete control of himself as he spirals downwards, which we can see through how he doles out the violence against Victor and the world. These two characters mirror each other in interesting ways, so the few scenes where they are together hold a lot of weight and were the most interesting scenes, in my opinion. They are both driven to insanity and violence through isolation, and while Victor isolates himself by choice, he is not as aware of how that loneliness is causing the degradation of his mental health, contrasted with the creature, who is isolated by force, and is aware of how that solitude is slowly wearing away at him. It reminds me of an African proverb: "A child not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth." The creature knowingly attempts to "burn down the village" of his creator, all out of a short-sighted need for revenge. The creature purposefully chooses to use violence, and plans out how he wants to use it against Victor, as he feels it is the only way to justify his treatment and satisfy his anger. 

Frankenstein is a rich, Gothic horror tale and one of the first science fiction books to be written. Many readers are disappointed by the "horror" in this book, probably thinking it's going to be something like jump-scares from horror movies or the Stephen King style horror of something's coming to get you. But Shelley's horror is a different kind. She doesn't create a monster that's just waiting in the shadows to get you, instead we find horror in how Victor Frankenstein, a smart, kind boy with so much potential, could take one step too far against nature, create something that horrified and terrorized him, and how he couldn't stop himself from falling for the creature's trap and dooming himself to be a miserable, obsessed man whose only joy in life was to seek revenge for all he'd lost. You're not supposed to be scared of the creature, you're supposed to be scared of how far a sensible young man could have fallen, and how easily, but for the grace of God, that could have been you, or at least, someone you know. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A classic tale of horror that asks the reader to look at the monster within themselves rather than the one just outside the window. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Book Review: Emergency Contact

Book Review: Emergency Contact by Mary H K Choi 

Goodreads Description: For Penny Lee, high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.

Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a cafĂ© and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him. 

When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other.

My Review: I was given a review copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go on a road trip with someone you really hated? Well good news, because reading Emergency Contact is a lot like being trapped in a small, uncomfortable space with a selfish, spiteful little shrew on an endless drive into hell. There's no pit stops, no rolling down the window, and you bet your bottom she's going to criticize your music choice. The author achieves this effect by introducing us to one awful character after another-- and I don't mean awful as in poorly written, as the characters were all consistent and well-rounded-- just that their personalities were complete trash. Most supporting characters, as well as the love interest, Sam, did have moments where they were compassionate, considerate, or selfless, but Penny continued to be awful right up until the last page.

The book starts off with Penny in the Apple store with her mom, picking out her new phone. Instead of it being a happy moment, Penny is crabby the entire time. She gets bullied by another girl there and decides to take out her anger on her mom later in the car, calling her stupid and getting upset for childish reasons (because mom was talking to someone else at the store? WTF much?). This left a hugely sour taste in my mouth which didn't go away, mostly because Penny continued to be an jerk to everyone around her -- she's rude to her roommates because she intereperates them as rude first (not sure how she came to that conclusion?), she discovers Sam collapsed on the street and decides she can't touch him because he might be a drug addict so she kicks him awake instead, she's incredibly superficial and seems to be mainly interested in how guys look first and personality second, and on and on. If there's a chance for Penny to be mean and spiteful, she takes it, even if it is just to silently judge people. I suppose the author intended for Penny's spiteful internal monologue to resonate with teens somehow-- after all, we've all felt like that crowd of popular girls was a little too fake or that old man smelled really awful-- but instead of using these judgemental moments sparingly, the entire book is one long judgement train, with Penny thinking she's somehow better than everyone else for thinking this way. It's exhausting and makes her seem more cruel than relatable. More so, the relationship between Penny and her mother made me sick to my stomach at times. Penny makes all sorts of claims about her mother-- that she's not responsible, is a 'MILF,' that she's stupid-- while Celeste is shown to be a perfectly normal mom who wants to be involved in her daughter's life. This makes it really hard for the reader to understand Penny's reasoning and agree with her, because the reader doesn't see Celeste behaving the way that Penny describes. So Penny comes off as completely unreasonable-- even a bit abusive sometimes. Even when Celeste ends up in the hospital after eating a pot brownie, the first indication that she's anything like Penny says, it feels like Penny's reactions to the event were unreasonable. Shit happens, but that doesn't mean Celeste is a bad person. I wanted to understand why Penny felt so negatively about her mother, but the reasons given were half-baked at best and glossed over. Because it wasn't clear why she's so mad, Penny just looks like the bad guy in every interaction. I understand the author was trying to illustrate the tumultuous relationship between a teen girl and her mother, but I wish it was handled in a way that didn't demonize teen girls.

The reason why having a book full of unlikeable and unsympathetic characters was so difficult was because this was a ROMANCE BOOK, and a CHARACTER DRIVEN ONE AT THAT. Meaning all the focus, tension, and reason for reading was on these characters. There were plot elements that came into play that were intended to shake up the romance and introduce more tension, yet they were so poorly executed it would have been better if they'd been left out. Penny has a boyfriend back home? Two seconds to talk about it and they're over it. Sam might be having a baby with someone else? Let's just Deus ex Machina that problem away. It got to the point that I ignored any potential conflict because I knew it would get swept away without any consequences or real effect on the story. Because of this, there were no real stakes, no sense of conflict or danger building. In romance, sometimes a lot of the fun comes from setting up these dramatic situations and seeing how your characters resolve them, and I was really disappointed to see these great set-ups with no follow through. The only interesting subplot had to do with Penny's story that she wrote about the "anima." It was a great metaphor for their relationship and some of the themes of the book, but I wish it had been expended upon and filled out more. It also had the same anticlimactic feel that the other subplots did in that it kind of just... went away without ever going anywhere.

Because none of the conflicts led anywhere, the tension in this book was abysmal. There was a bit of romantic tension, but even that was pretty mild compared to other YA romance books. There was no dramatic tension, because the conflicts lacked a satisfying climax. There was no plot tension, because everything else going on was only there to reinforce the romance. Somehow, the author even found a way to make their scenes about writing boring. I'm a writer, and if I'm not enjoying reading about writing, then you as an author have failed spectacularly. A lot of the flaws that I can see come down to the fact that the author is an experienced writer, but obviously not experienced with novel formats. The lack of climactic moments, the unlikeable characters, even the lack of tension and decent pacing could come down the fact that this is Choi's first novel. The funniest part about my issues with the book is that Penny receives the same feedback from her writing professors WITHIN THE ACTUAL BOOK. It's said that Penny's characters were unlikeable, had no motivation, etc, which are complaints that I had about Choi's writing. This proves to me that Choi was aware of the problems with her book and either chose not to fix them or was unable to. The writing style is full of short, blunt sentences that gets straight to the action. There are no flowery sentences or description to be found, but unfortunately, it's hard to appreciate the fact that Choi can write when the rest of the book is in such rough shape.

Finally, my last and probably strongest complaint with this book is the way it touched on diversity, and how it approached major subjects such as racism, rape, DACA, and deportation. The book feels cheap because the author touches on these issues without fully exploring them, their impact, and their consequences. There's a disclosure of rape in the book that came so out of left field that it left me with whiplash. At no point do we explore how the rape has affected her and her life, rather it's just used as a way for the love interests to get closer, which is f*cking infuriating and cheapens the whole thing. A lot of the other big topics brought up, like DACA, felt predatory, like the author was trying to "name drop" to make their book seem more "diverse" without actually exploring the issues mentioned. The way the author dropped these subjects in was very similar to how she dropped in slang: like it was thrown in there to be relevant, without bothering to explain the significance or have it make sense with the rest of the story. Granted, not every time we talk about DACA or rape does it have to be an "issue book" or documentary-level information, but these tidbits stuck out as they didn't fit with the rest of the story being told. It struck me as something an inexperienced writer would do, but what concerned me is that this was left in there by the editor and publishing house. If Simon and Schuster or the editor really cared about diversity, they would have respected the issues to give them the space they needed in the book, or knew to take out things that didn't have any relevance to the story. They're thrown in like buzzwords in an attempt to profit off a "diversity trend" instead of respecting that there are real people out there with those issues, who don't want their stories used as a gimmick to prop up an otherwise exhaustingly boring book.

All in all, this book is awful. The only thing that kept me from marking it as a one-star was the fact that the author had a good grasp of craft, and the book was written well, moved swiftly, and tried to touch on some real feelings of never being alone yet always feeling alone. But everything else in the book is such a chore to endure that I can't see myself recommending it to anyone. This book really proves that characters are everything, and if your reader can't find a single thing to like about them, it's likely true for the rest of your book, too.

TL;DR: 2/5 stars. A character driven story featuring horribly unlikeable characters.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Goodreads Description: The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is…Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

My Review: Before I get started, some terminology to make this review clear AF. During this review, I will refer to Riley, the main character of Symptoms of Being Human, as they/them. Riley does not express what their preferred pronoun is in the book, but "they/them" is a pronoun many non-binary people use when they want to avoid gendering themselves. When I talk about gender, I mean gender identity (how we express our gender), and when I talk about sex, I mean the biological sex (genitals) you were born with. 

Gender takes a front seat in Symptoms of Being Human, the story of a genderfluid teen coming to terms with their identity. The book takes an interesting approach to non-binary characterization by purposefully not revealing the main character, Riley's, sex. The author uses first person POV and avoids any gendered language, reducing the chance of a reader approaching Riley with their own assumptions on gender and roles. By doing so, the reader focuses on Riley as a person, with their sex and gender as a secondary focus. I've never read a book before where the main character's gender was not outwardly stated. It was an eye opening experience to see how establishing gender also establishes a huge list of expectations and assumptions, even when we don't realize we're applying them. It's a good reminder that none of us are immune to the 'programming' we receive from society. I identify as genderfluid and have considered using they/them pronouns, so I've understandably got a lot of feelings about this book. Hopefully I can get them all down coherently. 

To start, Symptoms is all around a great story. Though it tackles a lot of hard issues, such as gender non-conformity, suicide, and sexual assault, it keeps a light-hearted tone that makes it a pleasant read. Even during heavier chapters, I didn't feel weighed down or depressed by the events, probably because Riley doesn't spend a lot of time ruminating on the bad. It is well-balanced with a lot of happy scenes, making this feel like the story of a normal kid with ups and downs as opposed to a kind of tragedy. The scene where Riley first comes out was so beautiful and supportive that it filled me with warm fuzzies down to my toes. It is now probably one of my favorite scenes in queer YA lit. 

A lot of Symptoms' strength lies in its characters. The author clearly had a solid grasp of the characters before he even started writing, as they were so well-formed. Riley had little interests and quirks thrown in that didn't affect the story, but added depth to the character, showing that they were more than what was presently happening to them. I found the feeling of "otherness" with Riley and Bec really authentic. It's a feeling that many YA writers try to touch on, but which can often come across as fake or forced; a reason for the main characters to be the underdog rather than creating characters that truly are different-- and get singled out for it. I was really excited to see how the "villain" characters were handled as well. The bullies at school were jerks, without question. They viciously went after Riley for no reason other than Riley stuck out as different-- and not an easy to swallow difference, either. Riley's gender was something they couldn't comprehend, and so their confusion turned to anger, which is very true to the real world. More so, we get to see a bit of the bullies' backstories to understand why they act the way they do. Rather than presenting it as justification or an excuse for how they treat Riley, it's used to contextualize their behaviour. 

Alright, now to the meat of this review: all that queer stuff. As I mentioned earlier, the premise of the book is that neither the reader-- nor, it seems, most of the characters-- know if Riley was born a girl or a boy. From a reader's perspective, this was amazing. We were able to strip away assumptions and focus on how Riley saw themself rather than how the reader saw them. However, when it comes to the characters within the story, keeping Riley's gender secret didn't make much sense. Very few people in the world are truly "androgynous," and most people will assume a gender before accepting an "I don't know" answer, whether or not they're correct. I'm sure many non-binary people would kill to be able to look truly androgynous, but that's not the world we live in. We often have one trait or another that people connect with a gender (adam's apple = man, curves = woman) and so even hinting at those traits cause people to assume a gender. The reason I say this is a problem is that non-binary people face a host of expectations, especially from transphobic people. They assume your sex denotes your gender which denotes your behaviour, and when you break out of that chain, the non-binary person is seen as doing something wrong and must be corrected. So you will have parents who try to get them to dress a certain way, peers who will tell them they can/cannot have certain interests, teachers/adults/strangers will bar them from certain activities or areas, etc, all based around gender roles. Those expectations can be overwhelming and can be a bigger problem than outright bigotry, as even allies can come in with expectations and unconscious biases. So while not knowing Riley's sex was hugely beneficial to the reader, it also left this gaping hole in the story where Riley doesn't have to deal with this issue that many non-binary people do. This also led to a lot of confusing scenes with Riley's parents. We get the feeling in those scenes that their parents do have gender expectations for Riley. As much as they're trying to be supportive, they feel Riley shouldn't be "dressing this way," but don't give any indication of what they want from their child. It led to a "tip of the tongue" feeling where the parents are always about to say something, but never do because the author doesn't want to "out" Riley's sex. 

Despite how hard the author tried to remain impartial on Riley's sex, there were many hints that came through that led me to believe that Riley was born a boy. This was no doubt due to the author's own experiences bleeding through, but it makes me wonder if the publisher utilized non-binary sensitivity readers who were born female to check over the book to truly make it more neutral and cover up these slip ups. What led me to believe Riley was born male were a lot of tiny details: Riley's constant reluctance to wear dresses (this one is negotiable, but as it was presented more like Riley wanted to wear a dress but was scared to, it made me think Riley was used to having male expectations pushed on them), all the "pieces" in their formal binary outfit (some dresses do come in parts, but it sounded more like all the pieces from a suit), Riley had a crush on a boy who rejects them because "it's weird" whereas their relationship with Bec takes off without issue (even when it's stated Bec's only connection to the Q or queer group is her trans sister), etc. These were so subtle that most readers will not see them, but as a non-binary person who has grown up with "female expectations," the differences in expectations stand out like they were highlighted. 

Finally, I have to take issue with the fact that sexual orientation was not touched on at all. There was some mention where Riley stated that his parents thought genderfluid was being "bisexual," and while Riley does refute that a little, the book doesn't touch on sexual orientation whatsoever. I understand the intent was to focus on gender identity and not confuse the two, but I felt it would have been beneficial, especially to younger readers who might not be as familiar with these terms, to establish and explain the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. As well, since Riley does get into a relationship through the book, it actually feels necessary to touch on. If the book didn't have any romance and focused solely on Riley's coming out and everything else happening, then there would be no need to talk about Riley's sexual orientation. But since the book does go to romance, avoiding the topic feels like the author is trying to have his cake and eat it too by giving Riley the benefits of a relationship without tackling any hard questions. How does Riley view their sexual orientation? Do they see themself as gay? Straight? Bisexual? Many genderfluid people have different ideas of how to treat their sexual orientation due to their fluctuating gender, and it would have been helpful to see how that piece helps to complete the puzzle that is Riley. 

Overall, my concerns for this book were very minor, and mostly focused on the queer representation. As I identify as non-binary, this book was super important to me, which means I'm going to nit-pick like crazy. So much in this book hit strong, deep chords I didn't know were in me before. I laughed, I cried, and I fell in love with Riley, who was a reflection of me but also very different from me. As a child, I never would have imagined a book like this was even possible and it really makes me believe in a future where every kid can actually be who they are without abuse. Symptoms of Being Human belongs in the hands of every gender-questioning kid. Hell, it should be given to kids who aren't gender-questioning too. Because Rileys exist everywhere and we're tired of hiding. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Caught between coming out and closing down, Riley struggles to make sense of a fluid gender identity and the people who seem more concerned by what's in their pants than in their head. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: Bring Me Their Hearts

Book Review: Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

Goodreads Description: Zera is a Heartless – the immortal, unageing soldier of a witch. Bound to the witch Nightsinger ever since she saved her from the bandits who murdered her family, Zera longs for freedom from the woods they hide in. With her heart in a jar under Nightsinger’s control, she serves the witch unquestioningly.

Until Nightsinger asks Zera for a Prince’s heart in exchange for her own, with one addendum; if she’s discovered infiltrating the court, Nightsinger will destroy her heart rather than see her tortured by the witch-hating nobles.

Crown Prince Lucien d’Malvane hates the royal court as much as it loves him – every tutor too afraid to correct him and every girl jockeying for a place at his darkly handsome side. No one can challenge him – until the arrival of Lady Zera. She’s inelegant, smart-mouthed, carefree, and out for his blood. The Prince’s honor has him quickly aiming for her throat.

So begins a game of cat and mouse between a girl with nothing to lose and a boy who has it all.

Winner takes the loser’s heart.


My Review: I was given a readers copy by the publisher and YA Bound Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. There will be spoilers in this review, but I will flag the paragraph they are in.

For three years, Zera has wandered the forests as a Heartless, an immortal soldier of a witch. She spends her days fending off wound-be assassins and protecting the cottage she calls home, where she lives with the witch who stole her heart and two other Heartless children. Until the day her witch, Nightsinger, offers her a deal: sneak into court and steal the crown prince's heart, turning him into a tool of the witches, and Zera and the other two children can have her own hearts back. Zera will earn her freedom and all she has to do is condemn the prince to her deathless fate. It should be easy-- how hard could it be to tear out the heart of a spoiled, ignorant noble?-- or so she thinks, until she meets Prince Lucien, the tenderhearted boy caught between the court and what he believes is right.

As they grow closer, Zera grapples with the monster inside her. Can she kill the beautiful boy who makes her heart flutter, even so far away in a jar? And if she doesn't, will she be condemning everyone she loves to another war between witches and humans?

Welcome to the city of Veris, where the pampered elite look down on the struggling masses. Where large statues called Crimson Ladies guard the city against witches. And where a new archduke stirs up hatred and fear in hopes of starting another war. Bring Me Their Hearts takes us right into a traditional fantasy court, full of magic, drama, and witches. The book leaps right into action, starting at Lucien and Zera's first meeting, then dialing us back a few weeks to show Zera preparing for when she enters the court. There's an easy flow to the writing with just enough description to get a feel for the scenes without bogging the reader down, which made for a pleasant read.

The characters in this book are its true strength, from Zera to Lucien and even Y'shrennria. I found there was not a whole lot of chemistry between Lucien and Zera, but taken individually I found myself really liking their characters. With Zera, we see a really balanced main character: strong but gets knocked around, bratty but kind, selfish but compassionate. As well, Zera does things to make herself "feel human," when she's stressed, like dressing up in fancy clothes, and does this several times throughout the book, which was a nice touch. I really liked Lucien as well. I feel like much of his personality was purposefully crafted to make him seem more attractive-- his habit of saving Zera, caring about his people to a fault, isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, even his devotion to his sister-- but it still adds together to create a really solid and lovable character. The relationship between Zera and Y'shrennria was also really lovely-- seeing Y'shrennria learn not to be afraid of Zera was touching-- even if the scene where Y'shrennria admits she cares did come down a little heavy handed.

On that note, the book was a little on the nose sometimes with it's narration. As in, when referencing something that had happened earlier, either a character or the narrative would immediately connect it back to that earlier event, without letting the reader make the connection themselves. This might be helpful for younger or forgetful readers, but it takes away the sense of reward of piecing together the story, which I don't think the general YA audience would have had trouble with. It could also be a little cheesy at times, but that wasn't always a bad thing and it made the book more fun in a lot of ways. Still, the cheesiness sometimes took away from scenes that would have had more impact had there been a more genuine approach.

The romance in this book is really awesome, and definitely keeps the story moving. Despite having no real chemistry between love interests, the romantic scenes were well done. By the end I was definitely holding my breath, trying to figure out what Zera would decide. Zera does clue into her feelings for Lucien a little late, which is kind of cute while at the same time it makes her seem a little dense. The tension in this book is also incredible, as you can probably see from the summary. The stakes are very well-established, there's a feeling of time running out, the impending doom of the monster within her, and all of this makes the book very hard to put down. By the end, I was completely glued to my ereader.

There is a bit of Not Like Other Girls syndrome in this book. as Zera is skilled with a sword and "inelegant," unlike all the noble girls around her. It's not completely overt, and will probably appeal to teen readers who feel like the odd girl out, but it's disappointing to see the narrative pit girls against each other in competition for a guy. Grace and Charm, the two other Spring Brides competing for Lucien's hand, are the worst developed characters in the book. Not only do they get barely any page time (which begs the question, what was their point?) but they're portrayed as snide, spoiled rich girls that turn their noses up at Zera. Instead of showing why Lucien would choose Zera over Charm and Grace, the other girls are simply turned into caricatures that disappear from the story shortly after Zera knocks them down a peg.

The only thing about the book that really bothers me, and truly knocked down the ranking for me, was the ending. It does end in a cliff hanger, but the frustrating part is the main conflict of the book-- will Zera take Lucien's heart?-- is never actually resolved. The book ends abruptly after Lucien sees Zera's true nature while she's still grappling with whether to take his heart. It made me feel extremely disappointed, as it felt like I was waiting the whole book for this question to be answered, only for it to be jerked away at the last second.

Despite the above complaints, this is a great romance read for teen readers. It's got a kick-butt heroine that doesn't take crap from anyone, a swoon-worthy lead, and wicked tension that makes this book impossible to put down.

TL;DR: Overall, 3/5 stars. A wickedly fun battle of wills--and hearts-- against a delightful court fantasy backdrop.

About the Author
Sara Wolf is a twenty-something author who adores baking, screaming at her cats, and screaming at herself while she types hilarious things. When she was a kid, she was too busy eating dirt to write her first terrible book. Twenty years later, she picked up a keyboard and started mashing her fists on it and created the monster known as Lovely Vicious. She lives in San Diego with two cats, a crippling-yet-refreshing sense of self-doubt, and not enough fruit tarts ever.

You can find Sara at her website, follow her on Twitter, or check out her Goodreads page.

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Author Interview: Alison McGhee

Today I'm stoked to have Alison McGhee on the blog, author of many children's books including What I Leave Behind, a story of trauma and healing through one hundred chapters only a hundred words long. You can find my review of What I Leave Behind here. This book really touched my heart in a way that only words can, and so I'm really stoked to have Alison join us today to talk about her craft and writing for children.

Alison McGhee writes novels, picture books, poems, and essays for all ages, including the forthcoming novel Never Coming Back (out in October 2017) and the #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestseller SOMEDAY, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages. She lives in Minneapolis, California and Vermont.

You can find her at her website here, follow her on Twitter, or check out her Goodreads page to see her incredible list of works.

1) What inspires you to write? 

The experience of living, just being alive in the world and seeing and experiencing everything that goes on, is too intense for me. There’s so much sorrow and joy and love and loss, and it’s almost too much to handle. Writing is my way to translate and transcend what I see and feel in daily life. It’s a way of reflecting on the things that happen, and of trying to figure out how best to live in the world.

2) What draws you to writing for children? 

I began my writing life as a novelist who wrote only novels for adults, and I came later to writing for children. At this point I write all kinds of books for all ages. I think that writing for children is, arguably, the most important writing we can ever do. Children are just beginning to navigate their way in this confusing and enormous world. The books that they read are like blueprints, helping them map their way forward. It’s both a huge honor and a huge responsibility to write for children.

3) You have such a variety of writing credits under your belt, from poems to memoirs to novels to picture books. How do you decide which medium to use? How does changing styles so frequently affect your writing? 

This is a great question. Some might call me flighty, always zipping from one form to another, rarely settling down on one kind of book for very long. I think of myself as restless and driven. As a reader, I’ll read anything – memoirs and essays and poems and novels and nonfiction –and my own writing reflects those eclectic tastes. Great writing is great writing, and I seek it out wherever it can be found, no matter the form. In my own work I try to divine the secrets, or some of the secrets anyway, of each different kind of book. I love to challenge myself, and writing in all forms is certainly one way to do that.

4) Along with all your writing, you also teach writing workshops to fellow writers. What's the most important thing you believe all writers should know? 

Don’t hide. Put your heart on the line, in both words and life. When you do, your fellow human beings will respond in a profound way.

5) Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you outline beforehand or just see where the story takes you?

Oh, I’m a pantser. The word pantser was invented specifically for me! (Not really, but it sure feels that way.) I’m pantsing my way through writing and life.

6) What's your favourite part of writing?

My favourite part of writing is before I’m actually writing. When that beautiful, imaginary book is shimmering in the air before me, just waiting to be written. The reality of actually writing it is much, much different.

7) How do you balance writing and life to be so productive?

Another great question, and one for which I don’t have a good answer. The most important things in life to me have always been family, friends and my writing. I try hard to intertwine all three in a seamless way. When my kids were little I used to clatter away at my keyboard while they played/argued/whined around me, and I trained myself into a sort of “have laptop, will write book” mentality. Consequently, I can and do write anywhere – on a plane, in a hotel room, at dawn on my living room couch, at midnight with a whiskey by my side. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to write, or have kids, or be a loving and available friend. I’ve never closed off one part of my life to another. Which is kind of an exhausting way to live, but since I’m not about to give up anything I love, I make it happen.

8) What was the most difficult part of writing What I Leave Behind? 

The most difficult part of What I Leave Behind was writing about such painful subjects –suicide and rape—and figuring out how to do so in a way that left the reader (and me) filled not with despair and sorrow but with hope and love.

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

My earliest memories are of wanting to be an actor. Then a ballerina. Then a singer/songwriter. When I physically learned how to print, at age six in first grade, I instantly wanted to be a writer. Looking back, I think what I really wanted was to center my life around art. The actual form of it –writing or music or dance—probably wouldn’t have mattered much. But I’m glad I chose writing.

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

I treasure the notes I get from fans, both adults and children, and I keep them all. What an honor, to have a book resonate so strongly with a reader that they actually sit down and write to you. One of my favourite stories came from a librarian I met a few weeks ago. She told me that one of her students had withdrawn my novel from the library and flatly refused to return it. “I can’t,” the student said. “I just can’t.” Makes me want to put my arms around her and give her a hug.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Author Interview: Gabrielle Mathieu

Hey all! Today I'm excited to have Gabrielle Mathieu at The Underground, author of The Falcon series. You can find my review of her first book, The Falcon Flies Alone, here. The Falcon Soars, the third book in the series, just released with Five Directions Press.

Gabrielle Mathieu lived on three continents by the age of eight. She’d experienced the bustling bazaars of Pakistan, the serenity of Swiss mountain lakes, and the chaos of the immigration desk at the JFK airport. Perhaps that’s why she developed an appetite for the unusual and disorienting. Her fantasy books are grounded in her experience of different cultures and interest in altered states of consciousness (mostly white wine and yoga these days). The Falcon Flies Alone is her debut novel.

You can find the series on Amazon, and to make it super easy, here's The Falcon Flies AloneThe Falcon Strikes, and The Falcon Soars. As always, if you have read it, please leave a review to share the love and help other readers find it too!

1) What was the inspiration for The Falcon series? 

I had a vivid nightmare when I was in my twenties. The horror of the poisoning and the resultant madness, during which people tore each other apart, was balanced by the sweet thrill of turning into a spirit falcon and flying behind the world, into a place I couldn’t describe.

2) What was the most difficult part of writing The Falcon Flies Alone? Your favourite part? 

The hardest part was how to structure the beginning. I wanted to open by placing my heroine, Peppa Mueller, in a dangerous predicament. Yet, I knew if I included no details about who she was and what she wanted, readers wouldn’t care that she was about to break her neck sliding off a roof.
I loved the plot complications that emerged after the first drafts. I admire crime and mystery writers like Elizabeth George, and it pleased me to be able to introduce some twists and turns as well.

3) What draws you to writing historical fiction?

I combine historical fiction with fantasy. I like nuanced writing, and write for adults or mature teens. This doesn’t mean I make my novels gruesome, with only sadistic characters.  I just want things to be complicated, not in a dense, “tricked you now” way, but in a way that echoes our real lives and our understanding of events. I hope that the events I describe seem almost believable.

Using a historical setting gives a somewhat enchanted sheen to a reality-based story, and allows me the pleasure of visiting older neighborhoods in European cities.

4) Are you a planner or a pantser with your writing? Do you outline or just let the story guide you? 

I’m a bit of both. As my writing has evolved, I’ve become more of a plotter. Initially, most of us are finding our style, and discovering our themes, so it’s hard to outline the first novel. It comes with practice.

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

The biggest challenge writers face is finding their readers. Readers have a banquet of books to choose from, and the selection can be overwhelming. Getting the right book to the right reader used to be an art. Now it’s an algorithm.

6) What goals do you have for this series? What would be your "dream come true" moment? 

I try not to have goals, because that sets you up for disappointment. Obviously, I, like most writers, would like to have a larger audience, but that audience connection is something I can only nourish, not command. Really, I’m grateful for every person who bothers to write a review and tells me how much they enjoyed the book.

7) What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Decide on your genre. Then read, read, read. Read widely, and sample various authors and styles. Find a good critique group. Learn the difference between someone who is offering critique constructively, and someone who wants to hurt you. And please do pay attention to grammar. You can still break the rules once you know them.

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

Like Peppa, I was an only child who was rewarded only when I demonstrated adult behavior. I had a lot of book learning, but was somewhat isolated. I did want to make Peppa different from me in some ways though, so I had her be very self-conscious about her looks. Unlike Peppa, I never worried about finding boyfriends. I also initially wanted to be a doctor, like Peppa, but I didn’t have her math or chemistry skills.

9) How do you approach research for your writing? 

Research gives me a great excuse to travel. It’s hard to say whether the locations inspire the book’s setting, or whether I seek out places as great backdrops. For The Falcon Flies Alone, I started out just researching areas in Switzerland, where I live. I looked for a remote village in an alpine setting, where the terrifying experiment takes place in my novel. Most of those places have barely changed since the fifties, and it was easy to imagine my recently orphaned heroine stepping off the train in the village of Gonten, uncertain and desperate.

I knew my third book in the series, The Falcon Soars, would take place in the Himalayas, since it involves Peppa’s failed romance with Tenzin Engel, who comes from India. In that instance, my plan for the book inspired our trip to Nepal and hike up to Annapurna base camp. Now I know what it feels like to walk until you almost drop. I never did find a real-life Tenzin though, which my husband probably appreciated. You can read about our real-life adventure here.

10)  Is there anything you can tell us about the finale, The Falcon Soars, releasing soon?

My third book is set in Munich and the Himalayas, in 1967.  I would have loved to see Kathmandu then. It must have been a paradise.

While hippies are lighting up in Munich’s English Park and protesting the Vietnam War, Dr. Peppa Mueller has put her nightmare past behind her and gotten her life firmly on track. There will be no more mistakes like the bloodbath in Ireland. No more occult drama. No more family secrets.

But there’s always calm before a storm. The final leg of Peppa’s difficult journey will take her to the snowy Himalayas, where she will rediscover old friends, confront her lingering heartache, and gain a new understanding of—and appreciation for—the spirit world.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Book Review: What I Leave Behind

Book Review: What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee 

Goodreads Description: After his dad commits suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each.

Sixteen-year-old Will spends most of his days the same way: Working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles. Will started walking after his father committed suicide, and three years later he hasn’t stopped. But there are some places Will can’t walk by: The blessings store with the chest of 100 Chinese blessings in the back, the bridge on Fourth Street where his father died, and his childhood friend Playa’s house.

When Will learns Playa was raped at a party—a party he was at, where he saw Playa, and where he believes he could have stopped the worst from happening if he hadn’t left early—it spurs Will to stop being complacent in his own sadness and do some good in the world. He begins to leave small gifts for everyone in his life, from Superman the homeless guy he passes on his way to work, to the Little Butterfly Dude he walks by on the way home, to Playa herself. And it is through those acts of kindness that Will is finally able to push past his own trauma and truly begin to live his life again. Oh, and discover the truth about that cornbread. 

My Review: I was given a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

"Let your feet find the way. You'll know it when they do. Then let the day drain out of you." 

16-year-old Will copes with his father's suicide the only way he can: by walking out the days and spending his nights trying to recreate his father's famous cornbread. It almost feels like enough, until his best friend, Playa, is raped at a party, and Will decides to stop being complacent with his sadness.  He starts by leaving anonymous gifts for those in his life, like Playa, and the Little Butterfly Dude, his boss Major Tom, or even the dog of insanity, kept tied up on a chain all day barking. When Will stops walking past everyone in his life and starts finding ways to bring them happiness, he discovers a way to reconcile his own trauma and finally move on. 

What an incredible read! As the Goodreads description says, this book is comprised off one hundred chapters, each only one hundred words long. It makes for a short read, but the book still manages an intense emotional experience that lingers long after the last page. Perfect for reluctant readers, What I Leave Behind gives us a tiny peep-hole (the one-hundred word format) with which to view Will's world. It ensures each word is significant and makes the details of Will's life seem more poignant, since we're only offered a handful of them. This book deals with a lot of trauma, from Will's father's suicide to his best friend being raped at a party he was at, and looks boldly into those feelings, yet doesn't exaggerate or dramatize them. Will doesn't have a big breakdown or blow-up scene-- not to say those emotions aren't real, but they are rarer than media would let us believe. Instead, the book looks at the quieter sides of grief and sadness, through observations and showing the effect the emotions have on day-to-day life. In that way, the book creeps under the radar and quietly leaves a bundle of complex emotional truths at your feet, without the fanfare of a huge climax or staggering stakes. 

From start to finish, the book is incredibly heartfelt. Will is a quiet, sensitive boy who feels powerless against the trauma in his life. His father's suicide was completely out of control-- even if he feels responsible for how their last interaction went-- and Playa's rape is something he can't control as well-- he can't be a vigilante and go after the rapists, and he doesn't know how to be the unconditionally supportive best friend. It leaves him in a pretty powerless situation, which I found to be incredibly true to life, especially for a lot of teenagers. Trauma, in whatever form it takes, is a beast that can't be solved quickly or cleanly, even in situations where you do have power to change things. So when we can't change anything, we have to figure out what to do to address the emotions left behind. Will does this by doing anonymous good deeds for those in his life, which gives him mastery over his situation as well as connects him to those most important to him. 

As for writing, the book is simple, straightforward, and well-constructed. The writing was all very purposeful-- has to be, because of the format-- and uses a lot of showing to bring the reader to the emotional points. Instead of showing strong emotions-- having a scene be dominated by the character's emotion-- the author carefully draws up an image that focuses on the reader's emotions about that scene. The author does this by carefully avoiding telling us the characters' feelings, and then by having the narrator be vague about how these scenes make him feel, purposely adding in phrases like, "You know?" to make the reader feel that, no matter their interpretation, the narrator feels the same. It's truly the greatest example of how showing can allow your reader to connect more with your book. As mentioned before, the book doesn't have much for a climax, or stakes, or a lot of tension. What we get instead are these powerful emotional highs and lows that connect with the reader and keeps them reading. If you're easily put off by a lack of tension, stakes, or plot devices, you may not connect with this book as easily. 

All in all, this book is perfect for reluctant readers, or younger readers coping with trauma. I also strongly recommend everyone picking up this book, because it is such a beautiful look at trauma, what to do when you feel powerless in the world, and how to do more than just move forward. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. The beautiful story of teen boy learning to move on from his trauma through random acts of kindness.