Sunday, August 28, 2016

Slow Burn: Why I Read Slowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: No Rest For The Wicked


Book Review: No Rest For The Wicked by Dane Cobain 


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Review: Death of a Scratching Post


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


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


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

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

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


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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Author Interview with Audrey Greathouse + Cover Reveal!


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


8) How did NaNoWriMo help you as a writer?

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

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

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


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

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


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

Peter is plotting his retaliation against the latest bombing. Neverland needs an army, and Peter Pan is certain children will join him once they know what is at stake. The lost boys and girls are planning an invasion in suburbia to recruit, but in order to deliver their message, they will need the help of an old and dangerous associate—the infamous Pied Piper. 
Hunting him down will require a spy in in the real world, and Gwen soon finds herself in charge of locating the Piper and cutting an uncertain deal with him. She isn’t sure if Peter trusts her that much, or if he’s just trying to keep her away from him in Neverland. Are they friends, or just allies? But Peter might not even matter now that she's nearly home and meeting with Jay again. 
The Piper isn't the only one hiding from the adults' war on magic though, and when Gwen goes back to reality, she'll have to confront one of Peter's oldest friends… and one of his earliest enemies.

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review: Life of Pi


Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Author Interview with Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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