Monday, December 28, 2015

Reviews in Review 2015

At the beginning of the year, I set my goal for reading for 2015. I intended to read 25 books, and unfortunately only made it to about 14. I'm a slow reader, exceedingly slow compared to some others around the reviewing watercooler, but I consider myself determined. I plan to set the same goal of reading 25 books for 2016, and I'm confident I can accomplish that.

Mostly, this year in reading brought a lot of new experiences for me. I decided that if I was offered a book to review, I would take on the project and give it a fair shot. (So long as it wasn't completely outside of my expertise. I'm not about to start reviewing non-fiction about the flight patterns of North American birds. Unless it's like, really good or something.)

Since the end of the year is usually a time of reflecting as well as setting new goals, I thought I'd take a look back at the books that I've read and reviewed this year. Not just as my own "Best Books of 2015" list, but also re-evaluating some of the reviews I left. So let's kick this sucker off.

Most Feels of the Year 
The Unbound by Victoria Schwab

Ah, the Unbound. I went into this book not at all expecting what would come of it. The emotional impact from this book was huge. It hit me in all the right spots, and though my review for the book was full of synonyms for FUCKING AWESOME, looking back I can see that was probably due to how it connected with me and my experiences. Others may not be so enamored with the book simply because they didn't connect to Mac's struggle as intensely as I did. Even still, I stand by my review while admitting my bias. The truths this book touched on left me in tears, those sort of happy delighted tears borne of understanding and feelings of connection to others. That's mainly why I write and read: to connect to those around me through the way they express themselves and view the world. Sometimes a book will describe an intangible feeling so well that it feels like it touches in on my soul, like the story has transcended words and the author has just touched my mind to hers like the kids in the Chrysalids, and we don't need words because I can feel it. When that happens, it's like freaking magic. If you want to talk about book hangovers, this one left me moaning with pain. Especially after I found out that the series had been discontinued by the publisher, and I would have no more of this fabulous world to immerse myself in. And that brought out a whole other set of feels. 

Best ARC 
Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

This almost seems like an unfair advantage, since Lauren Oliver was an author I had read and enjoyed before, so I had an idea of what to expect. Then again, if I had received Panic (the other book of hers I've read) instead, then I don't think I would have regarded it as highly. This book was simply so beautifully character driven. I could not put it down, because the characters felt so real they could have been my friends. It wasn't just the vivid characters, but the honesty of this book that really got me. It didn't shy away from tough topics, but more so it didn't try to sensationalize or demonize them. VG simply laid out the truth and let the reader form their own opinion on it, which was really refreshing. It reminded me of when I only wanted to be treated like an equal in my teenage days. This book doesn't talk down to its audience and doesn't try to instill a 'moral.' It respects its readers, which for some books isn't quite the case. 

A Review Too Harsh 
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Yes, I really hated Dorothy Must Die. I'm not going to deny that. It was filled with enough troupes and cliches to make your eyes bleed. Still, I feel like my hatred for those troupes colored my impression some, and made it harder for me to find redeemable qualities in the rest of the story. I did manage to read it till the end, mind you, and that was because there were aspects there that appealed to me, such as the re-imagined 'monsters' of Dorothy and her friends. And perhaps that's what spurred such a scathing review; I love creative world building, and like Zodiac, I wanted the story to be good so bad because of the world. When that didn't come to be it ended up making me hate it more than if it had only been a boring book. My little heart is broken so easily, and then usually turns pretty cold. 

Most Bad Assery 
Viscious by VE Schwab

Gah. Holy balls, guys. This book. Yes, Schwab has made it onto this list twice, and with good reason. I'm pretty sure she spins word gold. This book had everything I've ever really wanted in a book. It was so good it made me want to cry. More so, it was something that I would have loved to write, which is strange. It's rare for me to find a book that I could have written myself. The best friends turned enemy relationship, the moral ambiguity of heroes and villains, and the incredibly realistic explanation of superpowers. Gah. Even now it leaves me speechless in its awesomeness. If you weren't protected by a computer screen I would smack you in the face with my copy and make you read it. Believe me. I did that to my reading buddy. Don't worry, she thanked me for it later. 

A Review Too Soft 
Survive the Night by Danielle Vega 

From the cover to the content, I really wanted to like this book. I was excited to see drug culture being tackled in YA. When it came down to it though, the book just fell short. It fell short with character motivations, with its attempt at an unreliable narrator, and its attempt at horror. Though I admit to projecting what I wanted onto the book in the review, I was still too soft on this book because of what I wanted it to be. I shoved on beer goggles and convinced myself this was the book I wanted, or was at least passable, but when I sobered up the next morning (figuratively), there was no denying that it just wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. At the end of the day this book had a lot of potential, but potential is not the same as actually following through on it.

Ending With a Bang 
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde 

The first book I read this year still riles me up as much as it did when I first read it when I think about the ending. Perhaps what makes it so enjoyable for me is that I'm horrible for flipping to the last page and reading the last line. Well, when I did it with Shades of Grey, the scene involved a very happy ending at a train station. Only when I reached the end of the book did I understand the context of what was going on, and realized it was anything BUT a happily ever after kind of ending. It was such a smack in the face as a cheater reader like me, but I adored it. It completely threw me and my expectations on its head, which is exactly why I read. Not to mention the book was such an incredible delight the entire way through, and so the ending still has a big impact on me. The books that stay with me for years always end up being those I treasure most. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Interview with Cornelia Funke

I'm very excited to have Cornelia Funke, author of the Mirrorworld series and founder of Breathing Books, on the blog today. She is an awesome lady who creates some astoundingly magical worlds. I hope you'll all join me in giving her a warm welcome and a big thank you. I hope you'll check out her website here (which is so super cool!), as well as the webpage for Breathing Books

1) What was the most challenging part of writing The Golden Yarn?

To weave all the storylines into one pattern. This world by now delivers so many – which is of course the greatest gift for a storyteller and at the same time it asks for cruel choices. I am currently exploring which characters I’ll follow in Book 4 and which ones have to wait until I write their story separately. But- I love this feeling of a world opening in all directions especially as this one is so close to ours in so many ways.

2) When do you write? Do you have any rituals or routines?

Yes, but they changed vastly over the years. When my children still lived at home I mostly wrote only when they were at school or busy with their friends. As I was the bread winner that was only possible because my husband stayed at home and helped with everything, from cooking and driving the kids to school to lay outing my illustrations and discussing plots with me. Now that my son and daughter more or less live their own independent lives, I enjoy it very much that I can be more flexible. I still organize my work quite strictly nevertheless, as I love to work on several projects at the same time by now. I have a small paper calendar, where stickers name my tasks of the day: ch 9 edit Griffin’s Feather, research Japanese Fairy Tales, cover sketch advent calendar book, ch 10 Color of Revenge, short story Stockholm….these are only a few examples of what they can say. If I don’t get them done I put the sticker on the next page :) But this way makes it very easy for me to have my mind always in just one story, although I wrote more than three at times.

O yes – I always write my first drafts by hand, in A 4 notebooks. I prepare those books for each story, creating a cover from images and sketches. By now I have three fire proof boxes filled with them (after all I live in California) :)

3) How does it feel to read your stories in German versus in English (or any other language for that matter)? Do you feel something is lost or gained with each language?

That’s a very precise description. Yes, they both loose and gain. I especially experience that when I do readings back to back in German and then in English. It is of course still the same story, but it wears different clothes. And it tastes slightly different on the tongue when I read it aloud.

4) Where do you draw your inspiration for your characters? Do you have any suggestions for character building?

I am suspicious of patterns and rules for stories and their characters. I believe that every writer should find his or her unique voice, rhythm, colors….and characters. Otherwise our books may be as predictable as our movie plots one day! Some characters are clear from the very first moment we name them. Others hide and pretend to be someone else. I love to find out more about them with every draft – and I do up to 15 drafts before I hand a story to my editor. Some reveal themselves so late that you have to revise dozens of chapters, but I believe that to allow that makes them come alive in far more organic ways than building corsets for them and their stories which they are not allowed to escape from. The writer’s greatest challenge are the clichés we all work from. We owe our readers to escape them and that mostly is not possible by planning ahead.

One tool though I find very helpful when creating characters. I search for faces on paintings or photographs to have a more multi-layered approach to my characters. Images often say so much more than words. I pin them on my writing house walls, collect them in notebooks and sketch them while writing. My manuscript notebooks are by now filled with such sketches and very often they make me see a character much earlier and quite differently from what I expected him or her to be. A real face says so much more than an abstract description. It doesn’t have to fully match the image in our imagination. But it will always enrichen it. There is such a strange hostility towards illustration and visuals, when it comes to books. So often I hear: doesn’t that cripple our imagination? But books were illustrated on every page in the 19th century and I think it can help our imagination to play – and to see.

5) What do you feel your greatest success has been as a writer? Biggest failure?

I don’t really think in such terms. Especially Success is such a strange and over used word. It measures life and its tasks in such a questionable way. Apart from the fact that it is mostly understood in terms of material gain or celebrity status, instead of creative achievement. For me the most important and meaningful decisions of my creative life were often made against such ‘success’ and ‘failure’ definitions. When I wrote The Thieflord – the book that made my world career – my editor didn’t like it at all and wanted me to change it in ways that I didn’t agree with. I therefore edited it myself – quite a scary step to take :) - but this decision made me into the writer I am. I had a similar challenge with Reckless. My readers and publishers hated me for leaving Inkworld and trying something new. But I decided that this is the world I have to explore and I worked for eight years against the wishes of my readers (and my publishers :) Now many readers love the Mirrors more than any other of my books and once again I grew as a writer. One could say: failure gave birth to success:) I think it often does. We have to dare to fail to grow. If I would use the word success I’d say it was my Mirrorworld App. Creating it opened so many channels in my creativity that I would need six arms and three heads by now to get it all on paper :) Suddenly my worlds were shown in museums and I became much more of an illustrator again – which was quite a surprise!

6) To publish The Golden Yarn, you started your own publishing house, Breathing Books. What transpired with your previous publishing house that made all this come about?

I came back from quite a magical tour in Germany, from readings in huge theatres filled with Mirrorworlders, brilliant reviews and the feeling that I was Sir Edmund Hillary who had climbed Mount Everest by writing these books for eight years. But – at home I found an email from my US and UK publishers asking me to change the beginning and the ending of The Golden Yarn, although it had been published to such passionate reader reactions in Europe. I would never change a published text, unless I feel I can make it better, so …I said No. And when my publishers didn’t accept that I had only one choice – to publish myself. If I had sold the rights to other publishers it would have taken far too long to get The Golden Yarn to my readers. I was tired of the age boxes, publishing works in by now, its merciless commercial thinking and all the tailoring for the markets.

7) What was the greatest difficulty in starting your own company? Your biggest success?

It would have been quite easy to just publish as EBook, but books have to be also on paper for me. So we had to face the challenge of translation editing, printing, binding and delivering in little more than six months. Not easy even for a small print run. But…it was all worth it when I unpacked the boxes! And so far Breathing Books gave me back the feeling to be connected to my readers, to book sellers, bloggers, librarians and all those other bookophiles, that make my work so magical.

8) How do you think starting your own house will affect you as a writer?

It will give me the freedom to try adventurous things – like publishing The Color of Revenge, my Inkworld sequel, in three installments ( inspired by the publishing ways of the 19th century) I will publish my first picture book written in English and illustrated myself in spring, as things move so much faster, when you do it yourself. I will publish the other two Mirrorworld books with a design I love and with my illustrations in summer and I plan a book of short stories and artwork based on the Mirrorworld App. Additionally I will print small numbers of all my books that are out of print in the US- quite a few- and I will publish some never published in English.

9) What are your goals with Breathing Books? What would you like to see your publishing house achieve?

We want to explore ways to include more illustration, weave art and word together. We’ll continue with what we tried with the Mirrorworld App and keep all my books alive, although they may not sell big numbers. We’ll try to think less of numbers and more about creative adventure.

10) What’s the best feedback you’ve received from your readers? Got any stories?

Oh there is so much! At a reading in Germany I just received a small envelope filled with Golden Yarn – spun by the reader herself. I received letters from the parents of dying children, telling me that my story helped both their child and them. Or from a soldier who told me she survived the desert thanks to Inkdeath. I hear so often that my stories grant shelter from the storm. It is each time a reminder that the responsibility of a storyteller is to catch the beauty and the terror of this world and life in words – for the others.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Book Review: The Golden Yarn

Book Review: The Golden Yarn by Cornelia Funke

Goodreads Description: Jacob Reckless continues to travel the portal in his father's abandoned study. His name has continued to be famous on the other side of the mirror, as a finder of enchanted items and buried secrets. His family and friends, from his brother, Will to the shape-shifting vixen, Fox, are on a collision course as the two worlds become connected. Who is driving these two worlds together and why is he always a step ahead?

This new force isn’t limiting its influence to just Jacob’s efforts – it has broadened the horizon within MirrorWorld. Jacob, Will and Fox travel east and into the Russian folklore, to the land of the Baba Yaga, pursued by a new type of being that knows our world all to well.

My Review: I was given an advanced reader's copy of The Golden Yarn from Goldberg McDuffie Communications and the author, Cornelia Funke, but my opinions are entirely my own.

The Golden Yarn is the third installment of the Mirrorworld series, a deep fantasy tale of love, treasure hunters, and magic. As I've done with previous reviews, I went into the book blind, hoping that the strength of the story would keep me from being out of the loop. Immediately, the story lunges into the action with the birth of the skinless prince to Kami'en, King of the Goyle, and the dollface human, Amalie. I was instantly enamored with the lyrical writing and a world that was both familiar and brand new. Funke's world beyond the mirror is based on many fairy tales, and despite the depth of the story, as well as the amount of characters in play, Funke's control of pacing kept the story moving. At no point did I feel bogged down by excess explanations. Instead, the narrative only lingered on past events or worldbuilding long enough to give the reader a taste for it. And it only made me hungry for more.

Though I have a general idea of what transpired in the previous two books, I still could not tell you how the story played out. At times when I read a sequel without reading the previous book, I no longer have to. The story is so thoroughly explained in the sequel, or the events are so linear that I would feel bored just reiterating what I already know. This wasn't the case at all with The Golden Yarn. I'm clamoring for the first two books, not only because I want to know more than just the little tastes I've been given, but because I know the first two are bound to be as complex as this one. Though some might be disoriented by shifting characters and titles used more often than names, I found the many characters and their layered inner conflicts so delightful. I loved seeing how these characters all intersected and then went their own ways. As well, each character had rich inner conflicts that influenced their actions. The Dark Fairy, of course, being the most obvious, especially after she sought to end the love she felt for Kami'en. I especially enjoyed Will's conflicts as well, how he was the "canvas others painted on," and how he came to deal with that.

I will say that Will's sort of "betrayal" of Clara by the end of the book (at least how I saw it) felt a little off, especially since his entire motivation for going to the Mirrorworld is to save her. And because of the high fantasy and so many shifting POVs and varying storylines, the tension can seem to lag a bit and it can be easy to be pulled out of it, at least in my opinion.

The ending worked everything together well, which I was primarily concerned with, as it can be hard to create so many "beginnings" and "endings" in the course of a series, but everything tied together in a way that felt like closure with the room for more story to be explored. There was only one plot thread, the subplot of the skinless prince, that didn't get properly resolved. I realize that it will no doubt be carried on in the next book, but it would have made such a more satisfying read if that one last plot thread could be tied back into the central story with its own little sense of "closure."

All in all, I really adored this book. I was really happy to get the chance to read it and I can't wait to look into the others in the series. If you love high fantasy, or want to love high fantasy but have a hard time with heavy writing, pick up the story of Jacob Reckless, and I assure you, you won't be disappointed.

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. A lyrically written fantasy that tugs at the golden heartstrings.

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Goodreads Description: I didn't ask for any of this. I didn't ask to be some kind of hero.
But when your whole life gets swept up by a tornado - taking you with it - you have no choice but to go along, you know?

Sure, I've read the books. I've seen the movies. I know the song about the rainbow and the happy little bluebirds. But I never expected Oz to look like this. To be a place where Good Witches can't be trusted, Wicked Witches may just be the good guys, and winged monkeys can be executed for acts of rebellion. There's still a yellow brick road - but even that's crumbling.

What happened? Dorothy.

They say she found a way to come back to Oz. They say she seized power and the power went to her head. And now no one is safe.

My name is Amy Gumm - and I'm the other girl from Kansas.

I've been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked.

I've been trained to fight.

And I have a mission.

My Review: I'm not going to lie, I definitely considered not even reviewing this book. I found nothing redeemable about it, and why should I spread word about a book I despised? Ultimately, I decided to write this review for the same reason that I chose to read Dorothy Must Die to the end-- in the hopes that I could learn something, AKA what not to do.

I was draw to DMD as soon as it came out, as it had a lovely cover and even a staff picks sticker at my local bookstore. Naturally, that boosted my confidence, and since I love re-tellings, I hoped it would be the thrilling adventure I'd been craving.

What I got, instead, was every possible cliche in the young adult handbook. I'm pretty sure the author just Google searched Most Overused Tropes in YA and then crammed all of them in. From the love triangle between the 'sweet' boy and the 'troubled' one, to our main character being ghosted away from her home to be the "chosen one" and the "only one who can stop Dorothy." After Amy, our main character, is dumped into this twisted version of Oz, she trots along and gets herself arrested and thrown in Dorothy's prison despite the numerous warnings and red flags around her that insist it wasn't so smart. She might as well have walked down the middle of the road and then acted surprised when a car hit her. As Amy orients herself into this new world, she learns little by little about the world and what happened since she heard the story of Oz and Dorothy. And I mean, LITTLE by LITTLE. Because every flipping character has to give her the same roundabout "I can't tell you that/I'll tell you later/You shouldn't have to know things" bull that comes up far too often. I read a great post recently about tension that summed up the failures of this book perfectly: When an author withholds important information in an attempt to generate "tension," it means they have no faith that the story and its plot will generate tension on its own. Sadly, if the author didn't spend so much of the book pussyfooting around and actually got to the point, the book would not only be more enjoyable, but the tension would be stronger. When withholding information from your reader that the characters know or should know, you are treating your readers like toddlers. Instead of building a story, it leaves the reader frustrated and in the dark. They're reading your book because they want to know what happens. Don't hold back from that.

Tension aside, each character within this book made me want to beat my head against a desk. Amy is possibly the only character with some small bit of development and personality, and that's only because we get to look into her history, her mom, how she deals and copes with it all. But because this had no effect whatsoever on her story (not even affecting her choices in OZ, for example) the whole thing felt out of place. Aside from this, every other character was about as flat as a pancake, the most pathetic of which included the love interests, specifically Nox. The entire romance between them was so, so painfully forced. There was NO chemistry between the characters, there was barely even an attempt. The adult characters pushed Nox and Amy together like they were trying to play matchmaker. There was nothing there to draw them together, especially since their relationship starts off rocky (of course), and the only thing that made Amy slightly like him was that he said she wasn't useless. I'm sorry, but Amy needs some way better standards. A kiss eventually comes too, but like I said, the forced romance coupled with zero chemistry left me rolling my eyes and moving on.

The only redeemable thing about this book has to be the re-imagined characters of Oz. I really enjoyed how the author reinvented each one, but that's where the enjoyment ends. Though they were creatively recaptured, their characters were just as flat, if not more so than any of the others. They were often defined by a single thing -- the Tinman's love for Dorothy, the Scarecrow being creepy -- and didn't ever expand or build on that. Moreso, Dorothy's character had been completely flipped to be a promiscuous, drunk, cruel little princess. The author touched briefly on some of Amy's fears-- will she end up just like Dorothy?-- but didn't go deep enough. Why was Dorothy like this? What about the magic drove her to be this way? And more importantly, how easily could Amy slip down the same road?

At the end of the day, this felt, aside from the copious swear words that again, seemed out of place, like it should have been a middle grade novel. The thought processes and ideas expressed were very black and white and didn't look any deeper than the surface, and I feel like it could have been re-tailored to a younger crowd and been more successful. As it was, the book itself felt like a little kid dressing in provocative clothing, swearing, and trying to insist they were all grown up, while its reliance on troupes and cliches left it really juvenile.

If you're looking for the same crap you could find in any fanfiction on the internet, if you find comfort in simple concepts and cardboard characters, then by all means take a gander. The only thing this book is good for is guilty pleasures. Or maybe a fire starter.

TL;DR: .5/5 stars. Goddamn this one made me embarrassed to write YA.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Vicious

Book Review: Vicious by VE Schwab

Goodreads Description: Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

My Review: I've come to a place in my reading and reviewing of Victoria Schwab's books where I just want to smash my face into the keyboard like an overexcited puppy shouting, "SO GOOD. BOOK SO AWESOME. YOU WILL LOVE. BUY NOW. NAO." But somehow I don't think that gets my full point across, so I will try to put my OMFG into words. 

Vicious is everything I wanted in a superhero/villain story wrapped in beautiful prose. Though the story jumps around a lot in time, the narrative is clear and flows so smoothly that readers won't get confused and wonder where the hell they've jumped to next. The first part of the book focuses heavily on the characters' backstories, particularly Victor and Eli's "origin" story. The science and reasoning behind it left the book feeling very realistic, even with people summoning crazy powers. Because of the flip-flops in time, the pacing feels rather slow. But not for a moment did it drag, as the incredible characterization and the tension between finding out what happened as well as what will happen made me want to soak in every word.

And the characters, oh, the characters. I like to think that if I can predict how a character will react to or do in a situation, the character is fully developed. If I know enough about the character to know how they would act, then the author has done their job. Schwab's characters were so well developed that I could see how their beliefs and motivations converged to make them into the people they were, which was delightful. Another breath of fresh air is that few of the main characters were actually good people. They all did horrible things, but it's the devil in the details that determines why you side with Victor over Eli.

Overall, the way the story and plot came together left me unbelievably happy, especially the way the tension built over Victor's countdown to midnight. It did feel a tad Dues ex Machina when Dominic comes into the picture, as his ability lets Victor access and do things that would have otherwise been impossible. I was able to forgive this a tad in the sense that everything else about the book was marvelous. However, there is one part that truly sticks with me, but as it is spoiler-filled, I want to give a warning to skip the next paragraph if you're afraid of spoilers.

The only part that truly bothered me was after Victor's death, Dominic steals his body away. That scene ends on a solid note, however, the next scene with them has Sydney and Mitch digging up Victor's grave in order to revive him. If they already took back his body, probably to revive him anyway, why would they bury him to dig it up? So his 'corpse' could be used against Eli in trial? In which case, why did they take the body?

Alright, you're in the safe zone again. All in all, Vicious was incredible. It's another reason to love Victoria Schwab. If you consider yourself a fan of superheroes--or great writing in general-- be sure to get your hands on this.

TL;DR: Droolworthy. 5/5 stars.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Culture of Labels: Mental Health and Violence

Growing up in Canada, any kid in the ‘90s or early 00s could tell you about the commercials put out by Concerned Children’s Advertisers, a non-profit organization that puts out public service announcements aimed at kids to teach about bullying, drug use, self-esteem, etc. Even today when I turn on the kid’s channels, I may catch a newer version of one of these commercials. But the ones I watched when I was younger still ring in my head, sticking with me for reasons I never quite understood as a kid.

One in particular featured a young teenage girl on a track field, ready to leap into a sprint. And as she did, tiny labels were ripped off of her by the wind, words like whore, emo, lazy, stupid, all fell away, until it was just her, no labels holding her back.

I remember being confused by the message at the end: “Don’t Label Yourself.” What did that even mean? Surely labelling oneself had its benefits. How else did you know where you belonged? How else did you know who you were? In my young mind, things were better labelled and categorized, people were better labelled and categorized, so you knew what to expect when interacting with them.

(One of the CCA's commcericls. Their stuff is really good if you want to check it out.)

And it seems that other young people have thought this way as well. I saw the culture of labelling emerging as I was a young person not long ago, but it seems to have exploded in the years since then. Especially when it comes to mental health.

Just saying those words, mental health, people think Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, etc. They think of the diagnoses, the illnesses in which people are classified as. And it seems these days that everyone wants to be labelled. Kids that come into our mental health treatment facility don’t want treatment, they want a diagnosis. They want a name to slap onto the crazy they feel, a name that comes with a list of dos and don’ts, or as it’s seen, list of what they can or can’t do. They’ve spent so long with all this buzzing energy within them and they want someone else to acknowledge, Yes, what you feel is legitimate. Here’s what we call it.

So, naturally, when people talk about mental health in connection to extreme acts of violence such as a school shooting, a lot of people, including those who work with mental health, are quick to say: But this isn’t a proper reflection of people with mental illness! Not everyone with a mental illness will become violent! Stop comparing mentally ill people to murderers!!

Ugh, hold up here. Are you people serious?

When someone becomes a danger to themselves or others, they are considered ‘mentally unwell.’ A person can become suicidal without needing to be diagnosed with depression. A person can go out of their way to hurt someone without qualifying for a diagnosis of ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’ Just because these people aren’t diagnosed with something, DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE MENTALLY WELL.

Mental health =/= mental illness.

Everyone has a state of mental wellness that they uphold. Some people have their wellness disrupted by mental illnesses that develop, i.e., someone finds it harder and harder to function in day-to-day life as they develop depression, exhibit symptoms, and that is the main reason they are unable to function. The reason we even have a diagnosis of “depression” is simply to say “When these symptoms line up, here are the steps to treatment we’ve found that works.” All the diagnosis of “depression” means then, is the cue to use a certain vein of treatment for that individual.

But what happens when something starts affecting a person’s ability to function, but they still don’t qualify for a mental illness? I had a psychiatrist, who has been working with youth with mental health issues for a long time now, come into my office and let out a deep sigh once. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that he couldn’t get a doctor to diagnose his client with bipolar disorder because she didn’t fit the guidelines of it, and he couldn’t access much help (like medication) for her unless he had that diagnosis. He said to me, “The thing is, she doesn’t meet enough of the qualifications to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but those mood swings are still there. They’re having a huge effect on her.” Because she didn’t fit the label, professionals all around her were pretending that the symptoms she had didn’t matter. When really, her symptoms and behaviours were severe enough to land her in an agency with Children’s Services.

So then what happens when we as a society decide, mental health discussions shouldn’t take place anywhere near discussions of violence or school shootings? What happens when we conveniently ignore the symptoms and behaviours of violent people because it doesn’t fit into our idea of what a mental illness should look like? I can tell you exactly what happens, because sadly I see it often in my line of work: the person and their issues are pushed to the back burner until they explode and do something that can no longer be ignored.

Do all violent people have mental illnesses? Of course not. But their mental state is jeopardized, where they don’t see the logic of how hurting others and themselves is extremely detrimental to their well-being. Many get wound up in these ideologies of “glory” and “fame” through violence, but where does that need for glory and violence come from? It stems from many places, but often builds up from feelings of hopelessness, feeling alone and isolated, projecting their anger onto other people and convincing themselves they are the cause of their problems. All are behaviours that anyone could exhibit. After all, haven’t we all wanted to blame someone else when we were angry, too emotional to see our own errors in judgement? But when those small things are left to fester within us, grow to a place where suddenly all we think are those negative thoughts, where our day-to-day functioning is impacted, then we are no longer in a state of mental wellness. We wouldn’t qualify for a diagnosis, but the condition of your thoughts doesn’t allow you to reach your full potential. You are mentally unwell and, in a lot of cases, are in need of help.

Mental health or gun control? What will keep our children safe? There’s no easy answer, but it definitely isn’t in turning a blind eye to mental health. Because we ALL have a mental health, we all contribute to it every day—weighing yourself down with stresses and taking the load off with exercise and time to reflect. It’s never a bad thing to seek help when things get out of control—or even when things are just tough, to keep things from getting out of control. After all, most people who fall into toxic thinking don’t even realize or acknowledge that they’re unhappy. They use that anger and bitterness to convince themselves they are happy, or that they’re above or smarter than the rest of the population for the way they see things.

Don’t underestimate the power of a walk outside on your mental well-being. Never underestimate how truly damaging stress can be. We deal with our mental health every day and so often we don’t even think about it, often letting our worldview fall into a “normal” and “crazy” spectrum, where we’re either one or the other. When really it’s a compounded interest of everything we think, do, and experience. It can seem far-fetched that something as simple as “toxic thoughts” could lead someone to walking into a school and killing as many innocent people as they could before taking their own life. After all, everyone has toxic thoughts from time to time. But the fact of the matter is those people who commit these horrific acts are often not mentally ill (since a lot of mentally ill people, the illnesses people think of as “the crazies,” wouldn’t even function well enough to follow through with a scheme of that scale). They are normal people whose toxic thinking led them to a place where they are very mentally unwell, often to a point they don’t realize it.

And I think that’s what frightens people the most. That’s why they use words like “crazy,” and “mentally ill,” and “psychotic,” when we refer to these people. Because we don’t want to think for even a second that those monsters could be anything like us.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Book Review: Survive the Night

Book Review: Survive the Night by Danielle Vega 

Goodreads Description: We're all gonna die down here. . . .

Julie lies dead and disemboweled in a dank, black subway tunnel, red-eyed rats nibbling at her fingers. Her friends think she’s just off with some guy—no one could hear her getting torn apart over the sound of pulsing music.

In a tunnel nearby, Casey regrets coming to Survive the Night, the all-night underground rave in the New York City subway. Her best friend Shana talked her into it, even though Casey just got out of rehab. Alone and lost in the dark, creepy tunnels, Casey doesn’t think Survive the Night could get any worse . . .

. . . until she comes across Julie’s body, and the party turns deadly.

Desperate for help, Casey and her friends find themselves running through the putrid subway system, searching for a way out. But every manhole is sealed shut, and every noise echoes eerily in the dark, reminding them they’re not alone.

They’re being hunted.

My Review: Survive the Night has a strong opening hook, but afterwards it kind of trickles along slowly, taking a while to get to the rave itself, let alone any of the more severe conflicts taking place. Despite this, there's a lot of character interaction and mini tensions thrown in to keep your interest until the main event begins taking place. This helps to establish the characters before they're reduced to running, screaming balls of terror. It also allowed for me to connect with Julie much more before she is killed off. This, however, is where I was a little disappointed. I wish I didn't know which of her friends would die first going in-- as was spoiled in the back jacket I read before picking it up. It made it seem like Julie would die much sooner and also left me studying her character through the lens of "this character will be killed off." Which took away from the surprise and question of it all.

What initially interested me about the book was the talk of drug and rave culture, which is something not often talked about in YA. It was exciting to see the topics taken head on, but there were quite a few ways where it fell short. The main character, Casey, is a good girl dragged into the world of drugs by an eccentric friend. This is perfectly understandable, but I feel like Casey spent too much time establishing that she was "better now" since being to rehab. If Casey was to the point that she had been put into rehab (and Shana wasn't???), which also was shown as plausible through her dependence on her pain killers, she wouldn't be able to walk away from rehab with a smile and a skip in her step. Addiction is often a lifelong struggle, which was glossed over a little too much. This was probably in an attempt to make Casey more "relateable" or to show that drugs are super bad, mmkay.

If Casey was too much of a "good girl," then Shana was too much of a wild card. Yes, her behaviours seemed in line with some of the out of control kids I see at my work with at risk kids and teens. But she needed more explanation for her behaviours. There is a moment near the end where she tries to make Casey understand why she did what she did, but there wasn't enough of that. Why did Shana feel she needed to be out of control? Why did she go out of her way to put herself and friends in danger for a good time? It didn't go into her motivation for what she did besides "fun," which was really lacking. Even the most crazy and whacked out kids I see at work have a reason for doing what they do, even if it's as (unfortunately) trite as the excuse of "My parents beat me/I had to deal with x trauma" etc. But there's an emotional motivation for their desire to do these dangerous things. The beginnings of that was there, but there needed to be more of it.

Without going into the real thoughts and feelings behind their addiction, the whole rehab/drug subplot didn't have the full impact it could. In that same vein, the author attempted to use the effects of the drugs to create an unreliable narrator. Is she really seeing her friend dead in the subway? Or is she just tripping balls? It seemed like the author could have taken that vein straight through to the end, and it would have been interesting to leave it as a "was all that real?" kind of ending. (Which it kind of seemed like it tried, but the way it was laid out made it impossible.)

In the end, what really got me about the book was the thing that ended up hunting them. It was something I didn't really expect, especially because of how the book began, but I actually enjoyed it. Again, I wish more had been done with it, a bit more of an explanation, as well as something at the end that gave closure to its existence, even if it is an open-ended "It's always just below their feet," kind of ending. As it was, I looked at the final scene in the hospital and much of the end of the book as a metaphor for Casey and her addiction. The struggle in the hospital at the end, really, made me think of it as Casey finally putting an end to her dependence once and for all. Unfortunately, this was more of my interpenetration and a bit of a stretch, and I don't think a lot of readers would see it that way. Which is a shame.

In the end, it had the start of a lot of good ideas, and is definitely reminiscent of old slasher movies, but didn't quite measure up to what it could have been.

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. So much promise, not enough payoff. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: The Walled City

The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

Goodreads Description: 730. That's how many days I've been trapped.18. That's how many days I have left to find a way out.

DAI, trying to escape a haunting past, traffics drugs for the most ruthless kingpin in the Walled City. But in order to find the key to his freedom, he needs help from someone with the power to be invisible....

JIN hides under the radar, afraid the wild street gangs will discover her biggest secret: Jin passes as a boy to stay safe. Still, every chance she gets, she searches for her lost sister....

MEI YEE has been trapped in a brothel for the past two years, dreaming of getting out while watching the girls who try fail one by one. She's about to give up, when one day she sees an unexpected face at her window.....

My Review: The Walled City starts off by introducing us to our three main characters, Jin, Dai, and Mei Yee. Their first person POV chapters gives the reader a full view of the Walled City of Hak Nam. Though it's a dark book with a lot of edgy content, including human trafficking, forced drug torture, and prostitution, the underlying hope each character carries within them keeps it from feeling overwhelmingly depressing. Each character is exceedingly well crafted and their personalities shine through in a myriad of ways. Each one had motivations, dreams and a history that intersected perfectly and gave them sympathetic reasons for being in such a horrible city.

Aside from the character development, the other strength of this book is the author's ability to build tension and suspense. Though information is withheld from the reader about certain characters, it's not done in a way that feels annoying or intrusive to the story. As well, the three alternative POVs allows the reader to be privy to information that the characters haven't realized yet-- that Mei Yee is Jin's sister, that Dai is the strange boy Mei Yee sees in the window-- these little things leaves the reader-- or at least me-- squealing and bouncing in my seat, eager to see how the reveal will come, not to me, but to the characters.

The sense of place is incredibly strong within The Walled City. The city is based off a city that once existed in Hong Kong, but had since been torn down. Ryan Graudin creates an incredible setting by detailing the places and people who dwell within. Graudin keeps true to the Chinese history and keeps the culture rich within her own Walled City. The diversity was delightful to see, especially because the level of detail made me feel like I was standing in those cramped, dark streets.

Speaking of detail, the writing in this book is absolutely gorgeous. It flows and flowers without being overbearing, which I found to be absolutely delightful. The level of symbolism and metaphor as well is heavy and very well done-- from the dying flowers in Mei Yee's hotel room to the seashell and ocean representing her freedom-- the pages are lined with the type of writing that makes me heart sing.

I adored this book from start to finish. It drew me in and made me fall in love. At no point did I find something that annoyed me or I didn't enjoy, and at the end I shed a tear, not because the ending was sad, but because it was so good and I was happy with how things resolved.

If you want a beautiful story filled with rich Chinese culture, I suggest you pick this up. If you're worried about it too dark, don't let that stop you. The heart of the story keeps it hopeful.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. So. Freaking. Beautiful.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

What's in a Number?

Just an average day at work
I work in a mental health office for kids and their families, but my immediate surroundings are filled with people at least twice my age, and most of my correspondence is with people who could probably be my grandparents, let alone my parents.

I'm 23 and work as the file manager in an institution filled with kids with severe mental health issues, Talk about inspiration for writing, am I right? I've been in this position a few years and worked very hard to get where I am, and in the last year or so I've encountered some prejudice from some of the people I work with. These are some of the most caring people in the world, those who devote themselves to trying to help people, who work non-profit, and yet I still encounter what you would call "micro aggressions" from them. All because of my age.

It's nothing rude, mind you. Just talking over me, talking to my boss or coworkers on issues and departments that I not only approach them on, but that I am the sole person working on. It's frustrating to be treated in a way that undermines all the work I do, simply because of my age. It reminds me of my teenage years, fists clenched, eyes blazing, demanding to be treated like an equal and not an idiot.

Back in those days, I wrote furiously. Every free moment (and during the classes I skipped), were filled with furious typing. Even back then I was obsessed with having an authentic voice. I was determined that as I grew older, I would never allow myself to resent kids and look down on them. But more so, I never wanted to forget what it felt like to be a teenager. I didn't want to turn into an adult that didn't think teenagers had opinions or issues or dreams.

I never wanted to become what I hated.

As I grew into a young adult, graduated high school, dabbled around in university, it all seemed too easy. It felt like growing up was impossible, but even then I knew my voice had shifted. What I wrote was and is so affected by my life because those issues and ideas are what's writing from my heart. I let my voice shift and experimented with new things, But I also kept writing YA, right up to when I got my job at the mental health agency and began a shift of focus in my life.

I began volunteering with the kids at the agency, those who lived on the campus where I worked, some who had undergone unspeakable tragedies, abuse, had lost their parents, were parents themselves, and on and on. Yet at the heart of it these were still just kids, and I saw a lot of myself from just a few years ago in them. I'm close enough in age to some of them that a kid will play a song that's on my iPod and I can't help but bust out a jam. Yet despite how close in age I am, there is a world of difference between me and them, between who I was and who I am. And it made me realize something.

Adults cannot write young adult fiction without having some contact with kids and teens. Whether you're a parent, a teacher, work in child care, have friends who have kids, volunteer with kids-- you cannot create an authentic voice and story for kids and teenagers without actually talking to some.

Yes, yes, we were all kids once. And that experience is vital to creating fiction for teens. But you also have to accept that you're looking at it all through the lens of an adult. Your experiences since you were 16 have vastly changed you and how you view the world. There is plenty of adult fiction out there starring teenagers-- it's not considered YA because it is written with an adult audience in mind and so touches on thoughts and experiences that teenagers won't relate to as much.

What makes YA, YA? The target audience.

A "positive thought" left in my Positive Thoughts Bowl at work, written by a teenage client. Sorry it's crappy quality.

It's great that so many adults read young adult fiction these days. Hell, I'm an adult that reads YA. But I'm not who it's written for. The voices and experiences it needs to reflect are for those teenagers out there looking for something to relate to. They want a reading experience that speaks to them, and that is the entire point of young adult. It's to give a voice to teenagers and children. And the only way to successfully do that is to talk to teenagers, interact with them in some way or another. Consider it research, a very important kind.

Yeah, I hear you. Sometimes teenagers suck, Especially the ones that roll their eyes at you, or call you a little c**t, or get charged with assault. But just reading other YA novels as research into the "current" teenage experience isn't enough. That's a dangerous way to create a circle-jerk of outdated or false information. If you don't actually take the time to relate to those you're actually trying to market to, you run the risk of talking over your audience instead of giving them a voice.

What does that look like? It looks like creating a 'moral' for your readers to take away. It's purposefully forging characters to be perfect role models instead of creating true to life people. It's minimizing what might be 'offensive' or 'inappropriate' or  what you 'don't think kids/teens can handle.' It's assuming you know what's best for them and undermining their intelligence. It's inauthentic and kids can always tell.

If you really want to inspire a lifelong love of reading and literature in kids and teenagers, you have to create authentic experiences they can relate to, and touch on ideas and emotions that will leave lasting impressions on them. If you only focus on imposing a moral or lesson on them, on speaking over them, then it feels too much like work or school or the rules they're used to at home. If they sense the catch, they will drop your book in a heartbeat and probably drop reading not long after, if every other book they read is the same experience.

When you start to think you know what's best for young readers, you take away their autonomy, which is so vital in a world where young people seem to have so little of it. It's such an easy thing to do, and I'm certain I'm guilty of looking down my nose at those younger than me at times. In order for me to keep my promise to my younger self, to keep my voice authentic and true to the teenage experience, I will get to know my target audience and do my best to always be the conduit to their voice, and not its silencer.

I hop you will too.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Book Review: The Unbound

Book Review: The Unbound by Victoria Schwab 

Goodreads Description: Last summer, Mackenzie Bishop, a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive, almost lost her life to one. Now, as she starts her junior year at Hyde School, she's struggling to get her life back. But moving on isn't easy -- not when her dreams are haunted by what happened. She knows the past is past, knows it cannot hurt her, but it feels so real, and when her nightmares begin to creep into her waking hours, she starts to wonder if she's really safe.
Meanwhile, people are vanishing without a trace, and the only thing they seem to have in common is Mackenzie. She's sure the Archive knows more than they are letting on, but before she can prove it, she becomes the prime suspect. And unless Mac can track down the real culprit, she'll lose everything, not only her role as Keeper, but her memories, and even her life. Can Mackenzie untangle the mystery before she herself unravels?

My Review: The sequel to the Archived starts off with Mac dealing with the events of the previous book-- her fight with Owen and the lasting scars. It's refreshing to see in a fantasy the main character actually be traumatized by the horrible things that happen to them. It's one thing to be upset by what happened, quite another to start breaking down and questioning your sanity. Mac is dealing with horrific nightmares that make it impossible to sleep and moments of blackness where she can't remember what she did, or at least has great trouble. She keeps a lot of her fears bottled up due to the very real threat that the Archive may find her unfit to be a Keeper if she's losing her mind. And so the nightmares get worse, and her paranoia grows...

This book blew me away. The beginning starts off very focused on Mac and her real life as she tries to get her life back to normal. Not easy with her brother's death still hanging over her family, let alone settling into a new school year. The opening is smooth and solid, bringing Mac into a new world with a new circle of friends. Questions quickly begin piling up-- why is Mac having black spots in her memory while out hunting? Why are people who come in contact with her disappearing? And why are Crew from the Archive following her? The best part of all these questions is the deeper one Mac keeps asking herself: is any of her suspicions of foul play real, or is it all in her head?

As the story progresses, that question only amps up to the max. Mac's breakdown is so beautifully written and articulated it had me crying while waiting in lines at a convention. Despite everything weighing against her and the very real possibility of losing everything-- her job as a Keeper, any chance with Wesley, and her relationship with her parents-- Mac continues to fight for what she thinks is right. You could almost call what Mac does a troupe-- refusing help and not confiding in the Archive about what's really going on-- but it is written in such a way that is not only justified perfectly, but that suits Mac's character and contributes to her breakdown. So when she turns around and keeps fighting with such a profound weight on her, it just felt so awe-inspiring and invigorating.

And the romance? Oh, god, the romance between Wesley and Mac is gorgeous. Mostly because it relies on their need for each other and the shared connection they have. Not to mention their shared way of "hearing" people-- Wesley's rock band noise and Mac's thunderstorms-- really adds a unique angle to their romance that left my toes tingling.

Story aside, the pacing is perfect and the writing itself is absolutely stunning without being overbearing. The plot fits together like a puzzle that does an excellent job of circumventing your expectations. I went into The Unbound expecting a decent story, as I really enjoyed the first, and came away absolutely inspired and in love. I couldn't find a single thing I didn't enjoy about it, and it has easily become one of my favourite books. I'm not usually one for rereading, but I can easily see myself going back for this one. It it something else.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. If you buy one book this year, make it this one. This book is utter magic.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Art and Truth

There are bars on the window of my hotel room.

The room sits on the sixth floor of an older building, and the brass framed windows open large enough to slide through, without a screen to feign the idea of security. Three white bars stretch across only the opening, bolted to stone and porcelain, with a bold-type logo stretched across the bottom reading ‘Guardian Angel.’

The bars make me want to jump more than the inviting cement waiting at the bottom of the six-storey drop.

Not that I want to die, mind you. I actually enjoy my life and am quite happy with the way things go, most of the time. But it’s difficult to fight that urge to leap from a rooftop, to play chicken with a transit train and lose, or to pull the steering wheel and send my car into a tree. I think it’s that adrenaline of oncoming death, that brief moment before tragedy hits where everything seems to hang still, that I’m really aching for. Something beyond the mundane, the trivial conflicts and strife that do more to drag you down rather than make you feel alive.

Of course, it’s not something that I talk to many about. Urges of destruction are rarely a socially acceptable topic to entertain at tea time, and yet these impulses are very real, and very there. It joins the many other dark little secrets of mine that are not tea-time worthy, and despite the fact that I know others face similar demons and entertain morbid thoughts, we all keep them tucked away, out of sight and out of mind.

But things don’t stay buried. Not in the mind and not in the world. And when wild dogs dig up our skeletons, we have no choice but to answer for them. I believe the more frightening option, however, is that these skeletons stay buried, that we harbour them in secret until the day we die, and those we leave behind have no idea what really took place within us.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I am not able to silence the demons for long, or keep these morbid thoughts from bleeding out. Most often these themes and ideas creep out into my art. Stories of war, racism, utter despair, and struggle are those that I’m drawn to write. I want to look into the abyss and see what looks back. I want to know what’s hiding beneath everyone’s tea-time demeanour. I don’t want those secrets to stay secrets.

And today, as I leaned against the bars of my hotel room, looking out over the gloomy downtown Seattle and imagining a moment of free falling, I realized: you can’t lie in art. It is pure truth, and the things you create are a reflection of all you are within, the nice things and the not so nice things. It is impossible to create art without truth. Whether that truth is a well-known and accepted one, like the love between a mother and child, or something not so talked about, like the daily struggle against depression, you cannot make art without a reflection of soul taking place.

And perhaps that’s where I’ve gone wrong for the last little while. It’s difficult as a writer to sometimes share your work with others, as that is a piece of raw, unprotected soul that you are offering to them. It can be crushing to have others dismiss or criticize it, and I believe as we grow older, it makes us more guarded and less willing to show those pieces of ourselves, whether in art or otherwise. Without realizing it, we quietly censor ourselves more and more as life goes on, until we are nothing more than our tea-time demeanour, our polite little masks. For me, it’s become more and more difficult to share and create my work, being so overwhelmed by the opinions and criticisms of others, not necessarily about me or my writing, but about what I’m actually trying to say.

Is my message too dark? Will people be offended if I talk about these subjects? How do I portray this in a way that doesn’t make people think that I’m a monster?

On a walk with my boyfriend the other night, we discussed art and what made something “real” art. He made the point that art wasn’t to be shared, that “real” art was something created by the artist, for the artist. And though I argued vehemently, (“Of course art should be shared! It can’t be locked up in a box and forgotten!”) I think there’s definitely some truth in there. When you become so overwhelmed by what everyone else wants, which is very common when getting into the business side of art, you can’t hear your own inner muse. You can’t find your truth, because it gets mixed up in everyone else’s truths. And when you lose your own truth, you either can’t produce anything, falling prey to the devil’s “writer’s block,” or you lose all love for the craft.

I like to think diversity in art isn’t just about the artists themselves, but what you’re really saying. I like to think that the stories and truths within need to be as individualized as the artists, and we should be mindful of looking over each other’s papers too much. When you have too many people trying to stick their thumbs in the pie, you only get a crust full of holes. Inspiration is great, but there’s always a balance to things, and too much outside influence dilutes your individual style.

So, at least for me, that’s what I need to do: write truthfully. Be honest about what I feel and experience as a human. There are always those out there who feel just the same, who need those stories or that art to make them feel connected to someone else. To make them feel not so alone.

At the end of the day, what keeps me from pulling the steering wheel, from taking a swan dive, from leaping to dark impulses, isn’t some stupid ‘guardian angel’, but the fact I know I’m not alone. I know there are others out there like me, because I’ve shared my art and they’ve shared theirs. I know the world is dark and morbid and so am I, but it’s also full of incredible people, whom I hope to understand and who can understand me.

So I’ll be honest, even when it’s not easy. I’ll try to remember the feeling of art as a child, when it felt like my skin was as thick as steel. Because, let’s face it: I will have zero control over my demise when the time comes. I could die tomorrow, and I couldn’t bear to leave anything left unsaid.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Interview with Carter Roy and Giveaway!

Today on the blog, on the release date for the Glass Gauntlet, I have the privilege of hosting Carter Roy, as well as a giveaway of his awesome new release. Why head to the bookstore when you can win this baby with the click of a button? To celebrate its release I'd like to welcome Mr. Roy to the Underground!

1. Out of the many jobs you've had, which one most influenced your writing?

It is boringly obvious, but my jobs in publishing have most influenced how I write. I started as an editorial assistant and ended up in the position of editorial director at a major publishing house, and along the way I learned from the literally hundreds and hundreds of books I was lucky enough to work on.

2. What made you switch from writing for adults to children? What appeals to you about each?

I don't really feel like I made a "switch," exactly—I still write both! But the stuff for younger readers is less thinky and a lot more fun, while the adult stuff assumes a greater sophistication in the reader.

(This is not to slander younger readers; far from it. But part of growing up as a reader is to acquire a readerly sophistication that allows you to switch with ease from a novel by Charlaine Harris to one by Thomas Harris to one by Thomas Pynchon. Writing for adults has a bigger playing field as a result, if that makes sense.)

3. Did you have any trouble switching from short stories to a novel length tale?

Yes and no. Figuring out the pacing of a novel turns out to be really a lot of work. Ideally, there is a page-turning quality to the storytelling, right? But there also needs to be breathing room for exposition and character development and so on, so it can't all be breathless excitement. (Besides which, breathless excitement gets pretty dull after a while, and proper lulls in the storytelling make the more active bits all the more thrilling.) But with a novel, you get all this room to play around in that you don't have in a short story. The reader has settled in for the long haul with a novel, so she gives you more space for your tale. Not so in a short story. There, every line has to count. There are real challenges to each form.

4. When do you write? Do you have any routines or rituals?

I try to write to a schedule, but those can be awfully hard to nail down. (I recently became a father, and suddenly all routines went out the window.)

Ideally, I get up early (five to six am), brew some coffee, read the news, and then turn on Freedom (a program that blocks the internet for a set amount of time). And then I write that day's word count target, which can be anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 words depending on the draft and where I am at in the book. (Later chapters and earlier drafts come faster; revision is where the writing slows to a crawl.)

Between chunks of the story (when I reach the end of a scene, say), I take a break and do other things. It's important to give your brain a break once in a while, and doing something else often shakes things loose. Walks are good for solving story problems.

5. Do you have any difficulties switching from editor mode to writer mode?

I don't think so. If anything, I'm too severe with my edits on later drafts. "When in doubt, cut it out" is my mantra. Each successive revision of The Blood Guard came in shorter than the previous one, because if I feel something is slow or not working well or showing the author's hand too much, I toss it. The first draft was a 100 pages longer than the finished book. The story is all still there, but there's no fat on its bones.

6. What advice do you have for young writers on writing an excellent story?

Never mind writing what you know, or what you think the market wants. Instead, write what you love. Nothing else is worth your time, and anything other than a story you love is going to get mired down in dreary, dead prose. Writing is tough, surely, but it is also fun. When you're clicking along writing the kind of book you want to read, then a certain kind of alchemy happens, and you find little pockets of joy in the writing all over the place. Love it or loathe it, but The Blood Guard is the kind of book I loved when I was eleven. Write what you love. Otherwise, why bother?

7. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you find it easier to plan or go with the flow?

Both. I work up a very detailed outline ... and then I feel free to diverge from it as the story comes together. I'm a firm believer in the liberating power of formal constraint. Outlines? They're safety nets. They allow you to feel secure as you blindly follow inspiration. As a writer, you can attempt bigger feats of daring when you know that even if you fail, you'll have the outline to fall back on.

8. What made you choose Evelyn as your main character's name?

Evelyn because I am fan of the hilarious, cutting novels of Evelyn Waugh; Truelove is because a friend's last name is actually Truelove, which struck me as both wonderful and a kind of curse.

9. What was the most challenging part of writing the Glass Gauntlet?

Making the story stand more-or-less alone but at the same time matter in the larger arc of Ronan's story.

Middle books in a series are always challenges—they can't move the story all the way to the end, but no reader wants to feel as though she is spinning her wheels waiting for the book three to thump down onto the doorstep with the conclusion of the tale. I knew Ronan and his friends couldn't leap right into full-blown action yet, because there is no way they could be ready to go to battle by book two. Instead, they needed to face a contained set of experiences that could dovetail with the larger story—and also set them up for the third book. Did I succeed? Beats me. But I certainly tried my best.

10. What is the best feedback you've received from readers? Got any stories?

I suppose my favorite (?) feedback comes from a few impassioned commentators who see The Blood Guard as having an agenda. (It doesn't. Honest.)

One letter writer accused me of having an anti-science, pro-religion bias, because the bad guys in the series employ cutting-edge technology. Another was sure I was against organized religion because the same bad guys have strange religious underpinnings to their beliefs.

The truth is that I didn't want to malign my villains just because they are true believers. Why shouldn't such people also recognize the power of science and technology? That bad people take advantage of technology doesn't mean I think science is bad; and just because some people commit heinous acts in the name of a religious belief doesn't mean religion is bad, either. It's a very complicated world out there, and I was hoping to make the opponents Ronan faces reflect that a little bit.

Why this has to be an either/or thing for some readers mystifies me. But I do appreciate their passion for their points of view, and I am grateful that they read my book and took the time to write to me.

Wow! Gotta love the last answer there. I definitely didn't see that one coming. Thank you so much Carter Roy for stopping by, and for those of you excited to get your hands on The Glass Gauntlet, I hope you'll enter the contest below! Simply comment that you would like a copy with an email address to contact you, and I will select a winner using a random number generator on Monday, August 24th. The contest is international, so enter quickly! 

Trust me, you'll want this one.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: The Glass Gauntlet

Book Review: The Glass Gauntlet by Carter Roy

Goodreads Description: Ronan Truelove barely survived his first encounter with his father and the Bend Sinister. Now, he’s determined to become one of the Blood Guard, a sword-wielding secret society sworn to protect thirty-six pure souls crucial to the world’s survival.

Eager to prove he’s got what it takes, Ronan is sent on his first mission with his friends Greta and Sammy to visit a weird-sounding school and take a series of tests called the Glass Gauntlet. Paper and pencils and nerdy scholarship—where’s the life-or-death challenge in that?

But the Glass Gauntlet is actually something much more dangerous: head-to-head competitions against ruthless opponents. Nothing and no one are what they seem. Who can he trust, and who will kill him? Ronan has to figure it out fast because his enemies are multiplying, and soon he will have to pass the ultimate test: facing his father again and standing up to those who threaten not only him and his friends but also the world.

My Review: An ARC of the Glass Gauntlet was given to me by MB Communications, but my opinion is entirely my own.

I hit the ground running when reading THE GLASS GAUNTLET as I had not read the first book in the series. I could have taken the time to read the first one, but I more wanted to read TGG on its own to see how well it stood up as its own story. After all, even though we write a series, aren't we told to make each book able to stand on its own? Its with that thought that I dived into these pages, and I gladly wasn't let down.

The beginning of the book is a little bogged down with some telling of what occurred in the previous book. As I had not read the first book, I found this information helpful, though many other readers could quickly grow tired of the explanations. Besides that, the book starts right into action, begginning with training in the Blood Guard's base camp before moving out to the estate of Agatha Glass to compete in some sort of 'test.' At first glass, Agatha's test could be seen as a refinishing of the Hunger Games trope-- a competition with life threatening challenges that runs the majority of the plot. Thankfully, this is not the case, as the "test" is not what the story focuses on, but rather everything going on outside of the test, which was refreshing. The tension and voice kept the story moving fluidly until all the tipping points are in place. It was nice to see that the major complications that Ronan faces in this story is caused by his own actions. Rather than being dragged along as a tool of the plot, Ronan instead makes choices both in the beginning and at the end that greatly shapes the outcomes. I especially liked how his decisions made things worse rather than better, as it keeps the tension high and the main character in the action seat.

The entire book had a definite feel of Rick Riordan's books, and many mirroring ideas. But where Riordan's stories focus more on magic, the GG is more focused on tech. The main mystery focuses around the glass gauntlet, what it can do, and how they were going to make it work. The writing is smooth and rather descriptive without going on for paragraphs and paragraphs. The way Carter Roy described scenes and actions made it very easy to visualize. His writing style keeps the pace swift and with deliberate details that are easy to latch onto.

One of the downsides was the lack of serious character changes or development over the course of the novel. I figure that more characterization of the main three characters took place in the first book, and the second is now more focused on plot than building up characters. It was nice to see some of Ronan's struggles-- how he dealt with thinking of his father and his responsibility to Greta-- but outside of him there's not much there besides showcasing character skills to convey personality. The character I was most interested in was Jack Dawkins, mostly because the mystery of his history and the emotion brought out of him, having to face friends he hadn't seen for many many years.

All in all, The Glass Gauntlet made for an enjoyable and fast-paced read. It definitely feels like a book that would appeal to boys, especially those interested in things like the Percy Jackson series. I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did and was delighted with the ideas and plot elements Roy brought to the table.

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A good adventure story for those who dream of being a hero.

Book Review: The Girl in the Torch

Book Review: The Girl in the Torch by Robert Sharenow

Goodreads Description: At the dawn of the twentieth century, thousands of immigrants are arriving in the promised land of New York City. Twelve-year-old Sarah has always dreamed of America, a land of freedom and possibility. In her small village she stares at a postcard of the Statue of Liberty and imagines the Lady beckoning to her. When Sarah and her mother finally journey across the Atlantic, though, tragedy strikes—and Sarah finds herself being sent back before she even sets foot in the country.

Yet just as Sarah is ushered onto the boat that will send her away from the land of her dreams, she makes a life-or-death decision. She daringly jumps off the back of the boat and swims as hard as she can toward the Lady's island and a new life.

Her leap of faith leads her to an unbelievable hiding place: the Statue of Liberty itself. Now Sarah must find a way to Manhattan while avoiding the night watchman and scavenging enough food to survive. When a surprising ally helps bring her to the city, Sarah finds herself facing new dangers and a life on her own. Will she ever find a true home in America?

My Review:  I was sent an ARC of The Girl in the Torch, but my review is entirely my own opinion.

Right from the beginning of this book, I was pulled into Sarah's struggles and admired the way the author set up each conflict and could make every little problem feel like the end of the world for Sarah. As a new American immigrant arriving around the turn of the century, Sarah faces many varied challenges, from losing her mother, to choosing to jump from the boat to avoid deportation, to scavenging for food and a place to sleep among the Statute of Liberty. Through all of this Sarah remains resilient and hopeful, which is part of what made this book so special. Though Sarah undergoes horrible tragedies, she is always trying to move forward and overcome her next challenge. She doesn't dwell on things and remains optimistic and kind to those around her. Moreso, what made me admire Sarah's character is she was actually smart. The author, Robert Sharenow, didn't have her ignore red flags and walk blindly into danger. She could realize when something wasn't quite right, stand up for herself, and get out instead of allowing herself to be dragged into serious trouble. This is balanced well with a bit of the meekness and naivety that one would expect of a young girl on her own. The balance made her not only a realistic girl, but one that young readers can really look up to.

The pacing of this book is slow at first, but is in no short supply of tension. Each problem that Sarah has to overcome is presented in a way that makes it hard to look away, and each step builds upon itself. The last third of the book runs through like a thrill ride as Sarah has to find a way to rescue her new found friends and family from getting sent to prison because of her, while still find a way to stay in America. It was delightful to see all the pieces come together by the end. The epilogue definitely has a bit of sugary sweet cheesiness to it, but the overall ending to the story was very delightful. I can't think of a better word for it than that, since I was just delighted reading it.

The book had a very diverse flavour to it, since the story is of American immigrants. Sarah rooms with Chinese people and a black couple, befriends an Irish orphan, is rescued by a half-native man, not to mention encounters a variety of cultures settling throughout New York City. It definitely reminded me of something I would have read in school. It would be perfect for young readers to discuss in a classroom setting, as it does touch lightly on things like racism and life for immigrants to the USA.

I highly encourage teachers and librarians to pick this one up for their students. It would also appeal to those who enjoy a historical tale as well.

TL;DR: All in all, 3.5/5 stars. A very sweet and diverse tale, and one to savor.