Saturday, December 30, 2017

Too Sensitive for Sensitivity Readers

'Twas the day before Christmas, and all the writers on twitter,
Were snuggled in their jammies, filled with wine and baked fritters.
When a post appeared online that arose such a clatter,
and had writers yelling, "Sensitivity readers matter!"

The New York Times is known for ruffling feathers in the YA community and kid lit with tone-deaf articles based in sensationalism rather than the full picture. Just in time of the holidays, they've gifted us with a new piece called, In An Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books or Censorship? in which NYT picked and chose their words in a way we might call censorship to make it seem like the white authors who've used sensitivity readers were victims of an oppressive scheme to destroy art. I hate to give articles like this any extra hits but I think it's important to read the other side of the story (hah). Plus, I like knowing the opposing viewpoint, so I figured you would to.

So What Are Sensitivity Readers Anyway?

When an author finishes writing a book, it's not actually finished. Not if that writer has plans to publish it in any way. As said in many acknowledgement sections in books, "writing is a solitary art, but publishing is a group project." When someone writes a story, it is a wholly personal thing, a reflection of what's in their heart, and a testament to their experience. But once that person shares their story with others, it's no longer theirs. Readers are affected by it, and they ascribe their own interpretations and meaning that can change the message actually being conveyed, which makes the whole writing-publishing process a bit trickier. At the end of the day, you are trying to convey a message or story, and you want to do that as clearly as possible without inadvertently having your narrative say something you didn't mean to, such as reinforcing racism. This is where sensitivity readers come into play.

Sensitivity readers are a part of a book's editing stage, and are similar to beta readers. What makes them different is they are specifically looking for how a minority group is portrayed on the page, looking for accuracy, and to get rid of things that might be offensive. When writers write outside their cultural experience, they can sometimes get it wrong. No matter how much research one does-- and writers often have to research non-stop while writing-- when writing about a different way of life, tiny inaccuracies can pull readers out of books, can cause readers to put it down, or just plain offend someone. (Think of the marine biologist getting so worked up over Jaws inaccuracies, then imagine POC and minorities feel that except x100000). Sensitivity readers are people with the same experience or background as the characters, who can (hopefully) pick out the things that would be culturally insensitive or inaccurate. That way we could avoid the whole cycle of people getting mad on the internet and poorly worded apologies and conveniently trying to forget that book is a thing.

Notes from sensitivity readers hold no more power than a beta reader or your mom's opinion ("Oh sweetie, your characters shouldn't use so many naughty words") and though major publishing houses are starting to hire them, most sensitivity readers are unpaid, unofficial, and just trying to help out their fellow writers. Though some people's reactions have been harsh, sensitivity reads are a voluntary thing for writers, and many do seek them out. Because at the end of the day, this is a craft issue. Characterization is a major component of good writing and this is just another side to writing characters. For decades, publishing has, and most media as well, assumed the only experience out there is white, able-bodied, straight, with westernized views and a Christian background. That any other experience is considered 'niche,' 'specialized,' and in a 'significant minority,' and most people have the same experience in life. Slowly, we're realizing the opposite is true. Each of our experience is so varied and our culture hugely affects how systems and people react to us, that we can't paint all people in one brush. That even the experience of walking down the street is hugely different if you're white, compared to black or Muslim. Now that we're realizing that, we are striving to make each character's experience wholly accurate, and sensitivity readers, or input from people in the same shoes as your character, is vastly helping writers improve their craft. We're taking characterization to a new, better level. We're bringing our literature to eye level with reality, so we can more accurately express what it's like to be alive in this world.

The NYT article really said it best in the article with: "Like fact checkers or copy editors, sensitivity readers can provide a quality-control backstop to avoid embarrassing mistakes, but they specialize in the more fraught and subjective realm of guarding against potentially offensive portrayals of minority groups, in everything from picture books to science fiction and fantasy novels."

Oh yeah, fact checkers handling some seriously subjective subject matter. Which is probably why things are getting a little explosive.

The "Outrage"

I hate how the word "outrage" has been used lately. It's thrown out as a demeaning phrase used to devalue legitimate concerns, often raised by people of colour. Adding "online" seems to knock it down another peg, insinuating that because it's done online it has less merit somehow. It's not people marching in the streets, so it must not matter. Which is utterly ridiculous.

Minorities and people of colour have for decades felt this level of outrage for misrepresentation in
Black people protesting Birth of a Nation in 1915
media. Sometimes, before the days of the internet, they took to the streets to express their disgust at the level of harmful misrepresentation. Now that we have the internet, there is a public platform for minorities and POC to voice their concerns-- allowing publishers to easily see it and respond. Which makes it so much harder on the part of publishers, producers, creators, everyone, not to take responsibility for these things. If you know better, you do better. Or isn't that what we expect of each other? Publishing is beginning to listen to these concerns and is responding with sensitivity readers, especially children's publishers. As they publish content for the most vulnerable and impressionable, they need to ensure their representation is accurate. More than just making POC kids feel bad about themselves, books with stereotyped characters and cultures can indoctrinate white kids (or those unfamiliar with that culture) with inaccurate and harmful information, which perpetuates the racist and white supremacist systems in our society.

For most writers, this all seems pretty simple. Writing about a major medical incident? Get a doctor to read over your manuscript. Writing about Victorian London? Consult a historian. Writing about Navajos living on the reserve? Maybe you should talk to a Navajo living on the reserve.

One of the examples from the article really hit home the importance of sensitivity readers, especially for me, as someone who works with kids in foster care and who are in adoption processes. Kate Milford received feedback from sensitivity readers for her middle grade novel Ghosts of Greenglass House, who, like her character, were also adopted internationally by white American families. "In one small but meaningful change that a sensitivity reader suggested, she stopped referring to Milo’s mother and father as his adoptive parents, and simply called them his parents." This, to an adopted child, is a huge change they would've definitely noticed. They are often highly sensitive to the concept of "real" families and belonging. So reading this book, it may be a trigger for them to see a distinction between "my adoptive mom" and just "my mom" normalized in a published book. That word sticking out there reaffirms that they're outside the norm which can have damaging effects to their self-esteem over the long run.

So where's the problem? Sensitivity reading seems to do a lot of good. But the article, as well as some writers, seem to suggest this is all censorship.


Cries of censorship echo all across the writing world, flying hand-in-hand with sensitivity readers. Yet I have trouble seeing the issue, especially when the process of sensitivity reading is the same as beta reading but with a different focus, and we didn't see cries of censorship there. Some writers (primarily white) are feeling afraid in this climate to "write outside their lane" as they fear getting it wrong and the inevitable backlash. Some are even claiming that they don't feel they can write about people of other backgrounds anymore, which doesn't make any sense to me. The whole point of sensitivity readers is to allow writers (primarily white) to write outside their own lane and do it successfully. The NYT article claims this is leading us to more homogeneous literature, when really the scrutiny towards accurate representation will allow us to write wider and write better. Instead of relying on internalized stereotypes and assumptions, we can get the inside scoop to allow writers to improve their craft and connect better with readers. Some critics are claiming that sensitivity readers are only one voice of a minority, and one black person can't speak to how all black people will feel. And while I agree wholeheartedly, it is still better to get the opinion of a few black people rather than none, is it not?

Criticism hurts at any point. It sucks to be told that the writing you've poured your heart into is bad, but that's all part of the process. If you want to improve, you have to take a hard look at your faults. If you want to publish, you have to be aware of your impact.
Shades of Magic series

Real censorship is awful, but criticism isn't censorship. Censorship is what happened to author VE Schwab. Her fantasy series, Shades of Magic, contains a gay relationship which was redacted from the Russian publication of the series without her permission. The contract stipulated that the plotline would remain, but the Russian publisher breached the contract to keep in line with the Russian "gay propaganda" law. Censorship comes without your knowledge or your consent. Censorship is the suppression or elimination of information. Sensitivity reading is the improvement of your content so you can tell the story you want. Sounds like the opposite of censorship to me.

People who take up arms against sensitivity reading don't have a lot of answers to the concerns POC raise about the lack of diversity in publishing. Nor do they really care. The way publishing Has Always Been benefits and suits them, and it can be difficult to engage people who can't see problems outside their own experience. So they claim that those who "don't like what's being published" should go off and "start their own" publishing houses/imprints/magazines/etc/etc. Aside from how difficult that is for people who don't come from rich backgrounds, POC have been starting their own houses/imprints/magazines/etc/etc for decades now. They've put in the work, building everything from the ground up just to publish works with accurate representation, and are still outpaced by big publishing houses who continue to publish books with harmful representation. Segregating publishing does nothing to address the problematic books being published all across the board.

The Core of It

Why is all of this such a big deal? Why should we even have to bother with sensitivity readers? At the end of the day, the need for sensitivity readers reflects the lack of diversity in the publishing industry. Where are the black editors? The Muslim agents? The Asian-American immigrant book reviewers for major publications? The more diversity we have within the industry itself, the less we'll have to reach out to sensitivity readers working unappreciated on the fringes. We're already asking for these people's input, and it's about time we put them in places where they can use their input to influence publishing. Not only will that open the door to more unique voices, but it will help to build sensitivity reading into the foundations of publishing itself, which is something we're long overdue for.

As it stands now, most of the gatekeepers within the publishing industry are of that white, straight, able-bodied, westernized, Christian background, and so don't have the experience to culturally vet so widely. That is also why we have more of a focus on white experiences. This is also why it's so much easier for white people to publish books about POC than for POC to publish books about POC. The expectation is (because the industry is mostly white) that the audience will also be mostly white. So even when books on POC are published, it needs to be through the viewpoint of a white person to make it more appealing to the "general" audience. And once that "Book about POC" slot is filled on a house's list (and because the assumption is the audience majority is white, there usually is only one or two slots a year for books about POC), most other submissions are shit outta luck until next year. So even when publishing about POC, white people still have the advantage to get those coveted spots of POC books to be published that year.

At the end of the day, sensitivity is nothing to be afraid of. If you want to write about black people, don't you want to get it right? If you're publishing anything at all, don't you want to make sure you put your best work forward?

And if your major concern is that there's too much focus on diversity, and we need less of it? Well then you can go fuck right off. Because we all deserve a voice. And it's about time we all learned to share the spotlight.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Book Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by EK Johnston

Goodreads Description: Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don't cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team's summer training camp is Hermione's last and marks the beginning of the end of… she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black.

In every class, there's a star cheerleader and a pariah pregnant girl. They're never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she's always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn't the beginning of Hermione Winter's story and she's not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.

My Review: Senior year promised Hermione Winters a lot of changes and a lot of endings. Cheerleading, one of the pillars of her life, will come to an end at graduation, and she'll be moving on to college without her best friend, Polly, and possibly without her boyfriend, Leo. But she's ready for those changes, and is determined to make her senior year all it can be. Until the night of the dance at cheer camp, when someone drugs her drink, rapes her, and leaves her limp and bleeding in the lake. Though Hermione can't remember the incident, she's confronted with the brutal truths of her new reality: that rumors fly faster and farther than truth, that her boyfriend thinks she brought it on herself, and that Polly is the strongest person she knows.

One of the best things about Exit, Pursued by a Bear is how it begins by establishing Hermione, Polly, Leo, and the world well before the trauma. We get to see the Before, which allows us to understand how things are so fundamentally changed by the rape. The characters themselves are all really wonderfully done; each with strong internal motivations that makes their reactions so realistic. Hermione is a sympathetic character that wonderfully breaks the cheerleader stereotype. The trope of the snobby cheerleader is so overwrought that it's annoying more than boring, so this book was a wonderfully refreshing take. As well, Polly is such a champion throughout the whole book. I wish I had a Polly; hell, I wish everyone had a Polly. Having that kind of ride or die friend helps Hermione through the tough moments, but the nice thing is she doesn't completely lean on Polly either. Hermione has got her head in the right place and would've been find without her, which is nice as well. It's not a story of dependency, it's a story of friendship.

And, as you can tell by the description, this book tackles some pretty heavy things. Not only is Hermione attacked and brutalized, but she goes through a lot of the issues that women do when they're sexually assaulted. Her boyfriend implies that she wouldn't have been raped if she had been with him, where she was "supposed" to be. A teammate spreads some rumors about her having condoms at camp, which was taken out of context. A reporter asks her if she has advice for other girls on how to avoid rape. But on the other side of the coin, she has a lot of support from places that some real rape victims don't, like the police, parents, and the rest of the team. It's a really nice balance that made this a story unique to Hermione instead of just a series of awful things that happen to rape victims.

From the first page, the book engages the reader and makes you care. This book isn't dramatic, and it's a calmer, quieter tension that carries the reader through the book. It's also more realistic in a lot of ways. It's not a revenge fantasy or a tragedy, but a story of a girl going through a big trauma without defining herself by it. Because of that, the ending feels a little out of place and almost wish-fulfillment. It felt a tad rushed since everything happened within the last chapter and then it ends abruptly, with our characters shooting that metaphorical basket on the way out. If there had been a little bit more to ground the reader after that abrupt pivot, it might've been a better, at least in my opinion.

The only other concern I had is, and I'll be the first to admit it's petty, the title is a Shakespearean reference, as reinforced by the other Shakespeare quotes before each part. Yet the story itself had no reference to Shakespeare, which made it feel out of place to me. Although the title did tie in at the end when Polly and Hermione exit the field, as the "bears" (their team mascot) pursing the rapist. Still, it set me up to expect some sort of Shakespearean influence, so that kind of threw me.

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. A brave book about a girl refusing to be defined by her assault.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Book Review: More Happy Than Not

Book Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera 

Goodreads Description: Part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, part Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Adam Silvera's extraordinary debut confronts race, class, and sexuality during one charged near-future summer in the Bronx.

The Leteo Institute's revolutionary memory-relief procedure seems too good to be true to Aaron Soto - miracle cure-alls don't tend to pop up in the Bronx projects. But Aaron can't forget how he's grown up poor or how his friends aren't always there for him. Like after his father committed suicide in their one bedroom apartment. Aaron has the support of his patient girlfriend, if not necessarily his distant brother and overworked mother, but it's not enough.

Then Thomas shows up. He has a sweet movie-watching setup on his roof, and he doesn't mind Aaron's obsession with a popular fantasy series. There are nicknames, inside jokes. Most importantly, Thomas doesn't mind talking about Aaron's past. But Aaron's newfound happiness isn't welcome on his block. Since he's can't stay away from Thomas or suddenly stop being gay, Aaron must turn to Leteo to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he is.

My Review: "Now we know the procedure is 100 percent real and 0 percent bullshit because one of our own has gone through it." 

Explaining books like More Happy Than Not can seem like a Herculean task. It's a book about everything and nothing, about the complexities and chaos of humanity interwoven with the daily banality that drives boredom into your skull like rail spikes. Somewhere between chatting with his mom and games of manhunt with the guys lies this beautiful picture of firsts, from first love to first kiss to first discovering who you really are, which all folds together to paint us a picture of Aaron Soto's life.

After his father's suicide, Aaron is left adrift. He has Genevieve, his girlfriend, who has stuck by him through the struggle, his Mom, who means well, and his brother, who never looks up from his video games, but at least he's there. Then Aaron meets Thomas, a kid from the next block over who sees things in a way Aaron never considered. As they grow closer, Aaron must come to face truths about himself: that he doesn't miss his girlfriend of over a year like he misses Thomas, that he can't stop staring when Thomas takes off his shirt, and that he's hopelessly in love with his new best friend. Being gay would disrupt everything he's tried so hard to build up since his father's suicide, so he turns to the Leteo Institute, which can help him forget his sexuality. But can erasing parts of himself really work in the long run? Or will the procedure threaten to tear Aaron's life-- and his mind-- apart?

After finishing this book, the only metaphor I could think of to describe it was a roller coaster with only one drop. The anticipation builds as you settle into the seat and it slowly starts the ascension. The view is beautiful. This is how the book begins. We see Aaron, living in poverty but happy nonetheless, still reeling from his father's suicide, with a girlfriend at his side and a gaggle of neighborhood friends. Then Thomas enters the picture, and the view just gets better. The budding romance, the slow realization of sexuality, and the feelings of real love blooming all flows as expected and loops the reader into a false sense of security. We think we know how the rest of the book will play out. Then before we know it, the roller coaster drops and we head down, down, and the rush is amazing but there's the realization that you're not coming back up, and the book heads down, down, down, until you crash at the bottom into a beautiful emotional wreckage.

Plot? Characters? Tension? Writing? Give them all a ten out of ten. The writing is so well-done that it's sometimes hard to stay objective as a reviewer and not get completely absorbed into the story. Silvera especially has a flair for foreshadowing, which comes into play all throughout the book. It's used throughout in small and big ways and leaves the reader constantly looking back, reevaluating the dual meanings in every line. I was particularly taken with one of the first lines, the one at the beginning of this review, which takes on a whole new meaning about half-way through.

Too often in books, characters can have their negative traits washed away to appear "good" in an attempt to create a character that is likable and sympathetic. Silvera didn't hesitate to risk "likability" for raw relatability, which sounds similar, though likability tends to be sugar coated while relatability tends to show us our flaws as well as our strengths reflected in a character. There are several instances of characters "behaving badly" throughout the book; Aaron cheats on his girlfriend, a love interest cheats on his girlfriend, Aaron obsessively denies Thomas's sexuality and assumes he knows what others are feeling. I was initially a little turned off by the cheating, especially as I started the book very aware that Aaron had a long term girlfriend and the potential for cheating was rife. I've been burned hard before by books that have a character cheating on their SO while it's portrayed as okay because of "true love" or because the SO was a dick once. I was disappointed to see Aaron cheating, but the way it was presented made this an opportunity for character growth as opposed to excusing poor behaviour. Both through dialogue of other characters and through Aaron's narrative, it's asserted that the cheating was completely wrong and fully Aaron's fault. What's nice is there's no speech from Mom to explain why cheating is bad, instead we get glimpses that allows the reader to come to that conclusion on their own. That's what really makes these negative characteristics shine: Silvera shows the reality of how and why we act that way, and then layers in the slow realization of the consequences from it. We're not told that cheating is bad, instead we see how it affects those Aaron cares about. Plus it allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, which is crucial, especially for YA fiction.

Throughout the book, Aaron stresses in his narrative that he knows Thomas' sexuality, that he knows Thomas is "acting straight," and will come to his senses eventually, allowing them to be together. It was a little jarring at first, especially because making this assumption is pretty unflattering for Aaron. As the book goes on, he continues to stress that he knows what Thomas likes, despite being provided with evidence of the contrary. By the end of the book, he comes to accept the reality, and by doing so comes to accept himself, for Aaron's assumptions about Thomas' sexuality are really just him projecting his issues onto Thomas. He can be certain about Thomas' sexuality because he's so uncertain about his own. Deep down, he knows he's 100% gay, but because of his circumstances he cannot consciously admit it. It's why, just before he admits it within narrative, he tries to rationalize in ways that become ridiculous in their attempt to avoid the obvious. He literally does anything he can to avoid the truth, to the point that when he does admit his sexuality, he immediately begins to project everything onto Thomas, seeing him as the one whose gay but straight passing. By projecting his situation onto Thomas, he can safely analyze the situation and think about what he should do (stop hiding his homosexuality and just be true to himself). As well, this rings so true to the experiences many LGBT kids have growing up: that forceful wishing that the person you loved would realize they were gay too (or just returned your feelings) so you could both have that Happily Ever After. It's something real and tragic and seeing it on page brought me right back to being 13 years old again.

The book perfectly captures the pain and hope of adolescence. It literally made me feel like a teenager again because of how incredibly well-crafted the narrative was. As mentioned above, Aaron makes assumptions about Thomas' sexuality, uses his girlfriend as a cover, falls in love with his best friend, hopes when there's no reason left to hope that his crush might love him back, and when things don't fall into a fairy tale, he struggles to find his happiness with people who can't give him the whole of what he needs. All of this done with an unapologetic teenage thought-process that mirrored exactly how I thought as a teenager. Aaron Soto actually thinks like a teenager, not an adult pretending to be a teenager. The cherry on top of that realistic teen experiences were things like Gen and Thomas hanging out together, the way Collin just isn't who Aaron needs him to be, and the empty spaces where no one asks what's wrong, which really brought home that isolating teenager experience. Life isn't Disney as a teen, and boy, does this book remind us of that.

The book can come across as heavy, especially because a major part of the book involves Aaron wanting to erase the part of his brain that's gay. It's a risky topic to play with, but Silvera handles it perfectly, and without having Aaron sit down and say, "I'm okay with me!" the narrative manages to show that being true to yourself is the key that opens the door to happiness. One of the hallmark's of this book is its ability to say something without outright saying it, which is a true testament to Silvera's incredible writing skills. Bring on the books, Silvera! This is one author you'll want to watch.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A beautiful tale of firsts, of a boy coming to grips with who he is, of finding happiness through the shards of tragedy.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Guest Post: My Writing Journey by Kari Lynn West

K: Hey all, I am so pleased to welcome Kari Lynn West, author of The Secrets of Islayne, to the blog today. My review for her book can be found here, and if you'd like to connect more with Kari, you can reach her at her website, here. I hope you'll join me in welcoming Kari to The Underground.


Hi there,

First off, thank you Katie for hosting me on your blog today! I appreciate the chance to introduce myself and talk a bit about my novel with all of your lovely readers J

To all those lovely readers, my name is Kari Lynn West, and I recently released my debut YA fantasy, The Secrets of Islayne. You should also know that I love coffee much more than is probably good for me. One of my favorite things to do is to curl up on the couch with a cup of strong coffee and a good story.

At some point in the past few days, I hope you've also had the chance to do just that.

Speaking of stories, I'd like to share a short tale with you about my writing journey and how my debut novel, The Secrets of Islayne, came to be. If you want, feel free to brew some good coffee first and find that favorite spot on your couch. I don't mind waiting.

...All set? Let's begin. :)

A Young Story Fanatic

It was a dark and stormy night...

Kidding, everyone, kidding.

Let's start that again:

Books have long been my obsession. As a kid, I could spend an entire Saturday curled up on the couch with the latest Little House on the PrairieRedwall, or Dear America novel. The adventure, friendship, and fun I found between the pages opened up my imagination and sparked a never-ending search for my next favorite story. 

In college, I majored in English so no one could fault me for reading so much. One summer, I worked weekends at a tiny, mostly-forgotten used bookstore where they paid me in books (which served as my inspiration for where Ronan finds himself working at the beginning of The Secrets of Islayne). There is a kind of magic in well-penned words that I’ve been drawn to my whole life. For me, the desire to write novels was just a natural extension of my love of reading.

The Glimmer and the Grind

Have you ever had an idea that you just can't get out of your head?

Years before I put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard), I watched a news story about a woman who could remember each moment of her life as clearly as if it had just happened to her. For months after I saw that news feature, I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to remember your life that clearly. The concept was utterly fascinating to me (in part because I have a terrible memory). 

The seed for The Secrets of Islayne was planted in that moment, but it didn't come to fruition for quite a while. Like a lot of would-be writers, I had big dreams but little self-discipline when it came to my craft. It took several years for me to consistently sit down at my computer each day and add to my word count. But slowly, I learned the art of faithful creativity in the midst of the craziness of life (aka working my day job, having two kids, and moving twice).

Fast forward a few years. After several drafts, a lot of helpful feedback from trusted, story-smart readers, hundreds of hours spent re-writing and editingand an embarrassing amount of time banging my head against a wall, crying that I would never get the story rightI finally had a novel worth sharing. 

Happy Readers, Happy Life

But I'm the author of the story, so I may be a little biased (nobody's perfect). If you'd like to know what a few other readers had to say, feel free to read the quotes below or check out the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

"It's one of those books where 'just one more page' turns into you reading the entire chapter. The Secrets of Islayne is full of unexpected turns and whimsical writing that will pull you in from the first page. Highly recommend it!"

"...a wonderful tale filled with adventure, romance, intrigue, and beauty that you won't be able to put down!"

"A must read for anyone with an appetite for suspense, humor, young love, and just great storytelling!"

Want to Join the Fun?

You can grab a copy of The Secrets of Islayne today to see for yourself how the adventure unfolds. You can get your paperback book on Amazon, or download your ebook on AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, or iBooks.

If I were you, I'd be sure to read it in that same comfy spot on the couch, with a fresh cup of coffee in hand.

Happy reading,


P.S. If you’d like to stay in touch and get some free preview chapters of my story, I’d love to have you join my readers’ group!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review: The Secrets of Islayne

Book Review: The Secrets of Islayne by Kari Lynn West 

Goodreads Description: For centuries, the island of Islayne has given certain residents the ability to revive other people’s memories. These gifted individuals are known as luminators, and sixteen-year-old Ronan Saunders desperately desires to join their illustrious ranks. As he struggles against the prejudice of the old, powerful families who have an iron grip on the trade, Ronan falls under the tutelage of a reclusive luminator, rumored to be insane.

Just when his long-desired future is within reach, Ronan and his three friends discover a deadly secret on the island. As they delve deeper into the mystery, what they find forces them to question their loyalties, doubt long-held beliefs, and wrestle with the dire consequences of revealing the truth. Ronan finds himself torn between everything he loves and the only future he’s ever wanted. The entire fate of the lumination trade hangs in the balance of his decision.

My Review: I was given a review copy of The Secrets of Islayne by the author, Kari Lynn West, in exchange for an honest review. 

A beautiful island off the coast of Scotland, Islayne has nurtured luminators for centuries. Its very land has gifted those born there with a special power-- to revive another's memories. Ronan, born to non-luminator parents, would give anything to join the ranks among the best, even as his parents try to steer him away from the idea. They don't understand how precious the memories are to Ronan, or the pain of denying his gift and feeling it wither inside him. When Ronan and his friends discover a book that could destroy the lumination trade, he doesn't know whether to expose it and risk his chance as a luminator or ignore it and pretend someone isn't committing the unthinkable. There's a luminator on the island destroying memories instead of reviving them. And if Ronan doesn't catch them first, he could end up as one of the rogue luminator's targets. 

Oh man, you guys. The first thing to really jump out at me while reading Secrets was the world building. I'm such a huge, huge fan of world building and so this book was an instant win with me. The lumination trade, the gift, and all the ins and outs from the academy, to the bureaucracy of the trade, to details like the recovery tea after sessions, all added depth to the trade and the world. The book touched on some poignant observations about memory and how it makes us human, which helped to tie the reader back to the heart and weight of the situation. The only complaint I would have about the world building is that I wanted more-- give me more details, show me how luminators function in this culture. Which is usually a good complaint to have. 

My second favorite thing about this book was Ronan. I'm a sucker for YA books with boys as the main POV character, but Ronan was such a raw and innocent guy that it's hard not to fall for him. Ronan earnestly loves lumination and the feeling of bringing a memory back, and coupled with his idealistic perspective, he comes across as adorably naive. That nativity is challenged later in the book as he comes to terms with the realities of his trade, which was such a great contrast. He, as well as a couple others in his friend group, face inner conflict throughout the book which really strengthened the characters. It was especially awesome to see Ronan, as well as Cassie, change and grow throughout the book. By the end they're all a little bit more mature, more 'sobered' by the realities they had to face throughout the book. 

The plot was well done and thought out. Though the beginning of the book appears to feature Ronan with his tutor and then Ronan hanging with friends, the two worlds slowly intersect and things from one world start to affect the other. The climax was more than just good guys toppling the bad guy, and the complex consequences of doing the right thing made it a really solid read. 

Walking away from the book, the only drawback had to do with the writing. The technical writing skills-- good flow, word choice, prose-- all worked well, but other issues held the story back. The author does a lot of heavy telling and infodumping, which really slows down the story and even became repetitive at times. Scenes that should have been powerful barely had an impact because the narrative explained the characters' emotions and situation beforehand. Some of the information contained in the infodumps was interesting and important to the plot, but it could have been shown to the readers instead of just explaining it to them. 

As well, the book contained some lazy tropes of YA fiction that dulled the originality of the book. The Absent Parent stereotype reigned hard, as well as a predictable romance that followed a framework of I-have-a-crush-on-you-so-I-want-to-get-to-know-you instead of I-got-to-know-you-and-fell-for-you. It makes things feel forced, right down to the romantic climax where Ronan pretty much says, "So are we gonna do this or what?" As well, there was a lot of POV switching throughout the book, some that was beneficial to the story, and some that...wasn't. It would've been a stronger story if we stayed with Ronan's POV throughout and learned things about the other characters through him. Some of the subplots with his friends became a bit distracting at times and took away from the main plot. 

All in all, the Secrets of Islyane was a delightful read with an adorable main character and a lovingly-built world. The author has so much potential, not just with this series but with their writing in general, that I'm really looking forward to future books. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A solid story with an adorable main character and a creative approach to memory manipulation. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Book Review: Glimmer of Steel

Book Review: Glimmer of Steel by KE Blaski 

Goodreads Description: Damen has a plan to save the life of his childhood friend before she’s forced to marry the evil Noble Tortare: switch her soul with some other girl and let the other girl die in her place. Only he didn’t count on the other girl’s determination to live, he certainly didn’t count on her soul coming from a different planet—Earth, and falling in love? No, he never planned on that. Told from alternating viewpoints: Damen, a truthsayer from Astrune, and Jennica, the soul snatched from Earth.

Like Scheherazade from 1001 Nights, Jennica, the bride with the Earth girl soul, tells tantalizing stories about her planet so her beastly husband will keep her around past the wedding night. But Noble Tortare is no Arabian prince. He’s a monster from the tip of his metal tail to his penchant for sucking the souls from his wives.

Damen must be present while Jennica speaks to Noble, to verify she isn’t lying. As Noble’s faithful servant, he does what Noble asks. Only he didn’t plan to spend so much time with Jennica, and he certainly didn’t plan to care about her so deeply he can think of no one else. Now Damen needs a new plan: free Jennica from Noble’s clutches, free himself from a life of guilt for stealing Jennica’s soul, and free his heart to love—all without telling even the tiniest of lies on a world where deception is like oxygen.

If only that Earth girl wouldn’t have so many plans of her own: like keeping Noble Tortare’s soul trapped on Astrune, because after listening to her stories, Noble craves something more than Jennica’s soul—Noble wants to go to Earth.

My Review: I was given a copy of Glimmer of Steel by the author, KE Blaski, in exchange for an honest review.

A kingdom ruled by a metal monstrosity. Purple skin that turns onlookers into predators. A boy that cannot tell a lie. Once, Jennica would have brushed it all off as anecdotes of a fairy tale, until she finds her soul ripped from her body and swapped with a princess due to be eaten on her wedding night. Jennica didn’t ask for purple skin that forces her to be isolated or face the untamed lust of everyone around her, or the truth speaking Tovar boy, whose sad, kind  brown eyes make her feel something she’s afraid to admit to. Yet as time goes by it becomes hard for her to imagine her life without them. The only way to survive her stay in Astrune is to keep plying her new husband with stories of Earth. But his interest in her stories may be her undoing, for he intends to use the information to fly-- and spread his tyrannical rule all the way to Earth.

Glimmer of Steel is an incredibly fun ride from start to finish. Even though one of our protagonists, Jennica, is from Earth, we spend no time there, instead focusing on the rich fantasy world of Astrune. Though it is reminiscent of traditional ‘fairy tale’ high fantasy—king-like ruler, big castles, servants falling all over our princess-- there were so many things about it that made this world stand on its own. These world building aspects don’t just look pretty, they serve a very real purpose to the story, such as the metal that Noble fuses to his soldiers’ skin, which he uses on Jennica to punish her for running away by turning her feet to metal. These pieces come together to make Glimmer of Steel feel familiar but fresh, which is especially exciting in high fantasy. The book wastes no time on flowery description, instead getting right to the action, which is something I really appreciate. Despite the direct approach, the author definitely takes time to smell the roses, using purposeful words to get the most sensory imagery out of each sentence. Because of that, the book moves swiftly through action with all the senses evoked. I never found myself bored by description or the narration, and never was I starved for setting or a sense of the scene. The balance was beautifully done.

As for characters, holy wow. I loved Jennica. I probably fell in love with her just as Damen did, as her passion, determination, and fiery soul are so well presented on the page that it’s impossible not to. From the very first page, it`s apparent that Jennica is a character of action. Even when trapped in her room, unable to do anything to stop a pending revolt, she refuses to give up and hangs a banner out her window to get her message across. Because of this, it`s so easy to root for her, because when things go wrong for her, we know she`s going to do something about it. Too often characters can slip into a passive role and react to what`s happening to them as opposed to taking action to shape where the story leads. The only issue I had with Jennica was how easily she forgave Damen for some of the really horrible things he does to her. As well, I find it hard to understand why she would develop any feelings for Damen. I mean, his attraction to her makes perfect sense. She`s amazing! But why would she want to spend her time with someone so unapologetically awful?

Honestly, from an objective point of view, Damen is a solid character. He’s well-constructed, consistent, and has believable drives and morals. But from a personal point of view? Damen the truth-telling Tovar is the biggest ass in the book. How you do that while staying a truth teller was a little impressive, I have to admit. If he had played any role but the love interest, I probably would have loved him, but as a love interest there was no way I could get behind him. A brief (incomplete) list of his assholery: he’s the reason Jennica’s soul was snatched away (he essentially condemned her to death, knowing that he was condemning an innocent); he doesn’t apologize for it even as he starts falling in love with her, because he’s happy “she’s here with him”; he tries to poison his rival love interest and accidentally gets her instead; he tries to sabotage Jennica’s trip home because he believes she belongs in Astrune with him; I could go on. He’s also portrayed as honourable because he resists the temptation of Jennica’s purple skin, when in reality he lusts after her just as much as anyone else, and his desire for Jennica causes him to do awful things while in full control of himself, which is a lot worse than doing so while under a possessive influence. Damen has the decency to feel bad about what he does, but not enough to apologize, make amends, or change his behaviour. Because of this the romance feels a little unbelievable at best, and somewhat unhealthy at worst.

This leads into my second issue with the book. The book is framed as Damen’s world which Jennica is brought into. We see this in how the book begins with Damen and Nyima, heavily establishing their world and situation, before we even get the chance to meet Jennica. When we finally get to, we get less than a chapter’s glimpse of her world before she’s dragged into Astrune. While we don’t need to spend a lot of time in a world we already know, the rest of the story centers around Jennica’s struggles against her circumstances and her attempts to help, so it would have been nice to establish her as our primary character right off the bat. This was Jennica’s story, and by framing it as Damen’s, Jennica ended up feeling like an object being acted upon instead of an independent driving force, which is what you want your main character to be. What we’re left with felt a little jarring and especially so because I could find little to no reason to sympathize with Damen.

Aside from the above concerns, I really enjoyed this book from start to finish. The prose was simple but beautiful. The story captured me right off the bat, the tension steadily mounted, and the climax really satisfied my inner girl power. The book also explored some themes about consent as Jennica learns to stand her ground and even fight off people hypnotized by lust. The world building was my favorite part, and I loved how each aspect came around to affect the plot. Moreso, it sets itself up for an exciting sequel and leaves the reader with great lingering questions. Did they really succeed? What will happen now that the Citrons are free? And most importantly, what’s happening to Nyima back on Earth?

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. A beautifully immersive fantasy world with a fiery heroine who spins stories to save her soul.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book Review: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Book Review: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Goodsreads Description: There are ancient tribal human behaviors-loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation-that flare up in communities during times of turmoil and suffering. These are the very same behaviors that typify good soldiering and foster a sense of belonging among troops, whether they’re fighting on the front lines or engaged in non-combat activities away from the action. Drawing from history, psychology, and anthropology, bestselling author Sebastian Junger shows us just how at odds the structure of modern society is with our tribal instincts, arguing that the difficulties many veterans face upon returning home from war do not stem entirely from the trauma they’ve suffered, but also from the individualist societies they must reintegrate into.

A 2011 study by the Canadian Forces and Statistics Canada reveals that 78 percent of military suicides from 1972 to the end of 2006 involved veterans. Though these numbers present an implicit call to action, the government is only just taking steps now to address the problems veterans face when they return home. But can the government ever truly eliminate the challenges faced by returning veterans? Or is the problem deeper, woven into the very fabric of our modern existence? Perhaps our circumstances are not so bleak, and simply understanding that beneath our modern guises we all belong to one tribe or another would help us face not just the problems of our nation but of our individual lives as well.

My Review: Humans are more than pack animals; we're a community animal. In every facet of life, we rely on one another to not only survive, but grow and flourish. Yet somewhere along the evolutionary track we've been derailed, and now we find ourselves in a modern society with all the components of a utopia-- yet which is hurtling itself faster and faster towards dystopia. Sebastian Junger's Tribe takes a critical look at individualism in our modern society and how it conflicts with our tribal nature. 

During natural disasters, wars, and any breakdowns of civilization, Junger notes the emergence of primal tribal behaviours that are proven to improve mental health, reduce violent crimes, and curb crime against the collective such as fraud. Junger has spent many years as a journalist working on front lines from many different conflicts across the world.  He looks at tribal society vs 'civilized' society through a historical as well as anthropological lens that makes this book not only informative but fascinating.

The author's background in military has a palpable influence on the book. The book has a particular focus on PTSD in veterans, and comparing our modern soldiers to warriors passed. He argues that tribal societies were more effective at reintegrating warriors back into society after conflicts, thus why PTSD was not common in soldiers until modern times. The arguments were incredibly well-researched and supported, though most of the sources were cited in an appendix as opposed to in text, which some readers have said made it difficult to discern between fact and opinion. I found this method to be less disruptive and created a more seamless read for readers who may be intimidated by a textbook-like format. 

The focus in the book was particularly on wartime mentality, natural disaster responses, and the evolutionary support for tribal lifestyle, which was slightly limiting. From my own research into Native American culture, there is much more evidence for how tribal communities provide for people's spiritual, emotional, and social needs outside of conflict scenarios that wasn't even mentioned. In the prologue, Junger touches on a point that seems pivotal to the success of tribal society and yet was glossed over throughout the rest of the book. In discussing an experience he had backpacking, he states, "He'd been generous, yes, but lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he'd taken responsibility for me." A centerpiece of tribal society--or any sort of successful community-- is not just caring for one another, but taking responsibility for one another--to ensure health and happiness, to protect from harm, to support, and to provide purpose and mastery. This shows through all the examples that Junger provides--from the survivors of the siege of Sarajevo to miners responding to a mine collapse-- that the responsibility that each member takes upon himself to ensure the well-being of the group is what creates that tribal environment. But the book itself doesn't look into how this sense of responsibility contributes to this communal environment, instead only focusing on examples of people banding together against a threat. 

The book begins with historical events and evidence from colonists' contact with Native American tribes. There is a fair bit of information conveyed in the opening pages, which may put some readers off or feel draggy. But the book quickly picks up and achieves a better balance between historical and anthropological evidence, as well as personal experience and current studies and statistics. The writing is easy to digest and flows well, aside from the boggy beginning. As someone working in mental health, I found the book especially interesting in how it related community to the process of healing, which is something supported in the practices employed where I work. It helps to bring some pieces together and suggests that the way to healing our society may lie in our tribal roots. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. An interesting look at the social, emotional, and mental benefits of tribal society with a focus on PTSD in veterans. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Review: Secrets of Skin and Stone

Book Review: Secrets of Skin and Stone by Wendy Laine 

Goodreads Description: Something is wrong in Hidden Creek. The sleepy Alabama town is more haunted than any place fiend hunter Grisham Caso has ever seen. Unearthed graves, curse bags, and spilled blood all point to an evil that could destroy his gargoyle birthright. The town isn’t safe for anyone, and everyone says fiery Piper Devon knows why.

Piper wants to leave Hidden Creek behind. She’s had enough of secrets—they hide in the shadows of her room and tell her terrible things are coming. Too-charming city boy Grisham might be her only chance to save herself.

To survive, Piper and Grisham have to shed their secrets and depend only on each other. But what lurks in Hidden Creek still might take everything away from them, including each other.

My Review: I was given an ARC of Secrets of Skin and Stone by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

As soon as Gris Caso rolls into Hidden Creek, things get interesting, and it’s not the crazy number of fiends in town—demonic creatures invisible to most people. It’s Piper, the beautiful and neurotic girl living next door whom he can’t keep his eyes off of. After her dog is murdered the day he arrives, he discovers curse bags in her room and an army of fiends swarming over her each night. It doesn’t take long to figure out someone is targeting her—but why? Piper meanwhile doesn’t know what to think of the mysterious boy who rolled into town claiming to hunt ghosts. There’s no sense in falling for someone who will only be leaving town soon, but the more time they spend together, the harder it is to deny her attraction. 

SECRETS comes with a bit of heavy content, which hits right off the bat with Piper discovering her dog murdered. This is not at all superfluous to the story, as it acts as the inciting incident and serves to drive Piper into a search for the murderer, which leads her straight towards the fiends. As is stated in the trigger warning at the beginning of the book, Piper self-harms in the form of cutting a couple times throughout the book. The thought process is explained very well and the author does an excellent job avoiding any glorification. More so, we see Piper able to overcome this through non-judgemental love and support from Gris. In particular, during the scene where Piper promises Gris she won’t cut anymore, he makes a comment that if she “had to do it again, he’d understand.” That level of acceptance and understanding can really make all the difference in someone recovering from self-harm. Especially important, it isn’t the relationship that is “saving” her, but rather the support and freedom to talk about it with him that makes the difference.

Piper also has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a type that is shared by the author and is well-executed throughout the book. Piper’s diagnosis influences every aspect of her character, but it doesn’t define her, which I think is something the book does amazingly well. It does a great job dispelling some of the stereotypes of OCD and explains how it can present in different ways in different people, which is showcased through Piper’s mom, who also has OCD. It’s definitely an #ownvoices book and the author gives us an inside look to how it feels living with the diagnosis.

As for the plot, hot damn does this book have a good mystery! There’s a long list of suspects and even as the characters knock off possible candidates, it only makes it harder to figure out who is responsible. The author did an excellent job ramping up the mystery all the way through, and by the end I was suspecting everyone, even Gris’ aunt. It all led to an exciting climax that helped put all the pieces in place—including some that I hadn’t even considered. As well, Piper and Gris were very well-constructed characters. Piper especially felt so solid and real that I felt like I really understood her. As well, the romance between them was sizzling hot, and those tense moments in Piper’s bedroom together had me begging for more. 

There were times where the tension felt a little lacking. Even with the threat of fiends everywhere and a killer running around town, there was no sense of immediate danger. There was more romantic tension than plot tension. My only other issue came from the initial start to their relationship. Gris, who supposedly traveled around and fought monsters for a living, got attached to a girl and committed to settling down so quickly that it felt a little contrary to his character. 

Once the awkward early stages had passed, their love progressed at a realistic pace that felt natural to their characters. The very end was probably my absolute favorite part, as it just seemed to encapsulate the heart of the story so perfectly and left me with a warm feeling long after I finished reading. 

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. An unflinchingly real urban fantasy with an irresistible love story at its core.

Book Review: Alex and Eliza

Book Review: Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz 

Goodreads Description: As battle cries of the American Revolution echo in the distance, servants flutter about preparing for one of New York society’s biggest events: the Schuylers’ grand ball. Descended from two of the oldest and most distinguished bloodlines in New York, the Schuylers are proud to be one of their fledgling country’s founding families, and even prouder still of their three daughters—Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit; Peggy, with her dazzling looks; and Eliza, whose beauty and charm rival that of both her sisters, though she’d rather be aiding the colonists’ cause than dressing up for some silly ball. 

Still, she can barely contain her excitement when she hears of the arrival of one Alexander Hamilton, a mysterious, rakish young colonel and General George Washington’s right-hand man. Though Alex has arrived as the bearer of bad news for the Schuylers, he can’t believe his luck—as an orphan, and a bastard one at that—to be in such esteemed company. And when Alex and Eliza meet that fateful night, so begins an epic love story that would forever change the course of American history.

My Review: I was given a copy of Alex and Eliza by MB Communications in exchange for an honest review. 

Alex and Eliza is the timeless love story between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler in the late 1700s America, as a fledgling country was just taking shape. The story begins with Eliza’s mother throwing an extravagant ball in the hopes of finding suitors for her three daughters, Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy. It is there Alexander Hamilton stumbles into Eliza’s life for the first time, and though it is not the most romantic of encounters, their feelings continue to bubble and grow as their paths cross over the years. 

The revolutionary war serves as a backdrop to the love story, as both Alex and Eliza are passionate about the cause. Despite this, the story isn’t at all about the war, and rarely did it encroach on what was going on with Eliza and Alex, except when duties would summon Alex away for a period of time. The focus is solely on the budding love between the two. As the book is set in an era of slow courtship, it takes time to establish the romance enough to get to those cutesy moments. In addition, the social expectations of the time, such as having to marry for money, added in realistic and frustrating roadblocks. A lot of the tension in this book comes from that anticipation of will-they-won’t-they. Because of this, the beginning is a little lacking in tension and moves a bit slowly as there is a lot of information on the families and estates that needs explanation. The prologue comes across as a bit of an info-dump, but the explanations don’t linger too long before the story moves into action. 

The book definitely has that prince/princess/happily ever after vibe (or was that just me?) that tapped into my inner Disney princess. While Alex has a couple moments of being the hero and sweeping Eliza off her feet, Eliza is a strong and confident woman who is not waiting to be saved. For much of the beginning of the book, Eliza views Alex as a threat to her family and treats him sharply, all in the name of protecting her father. It’s only after she comes to know the Colonel better does she begin to soften and let him in. I will add that as the book was inspired by the Hamilton musical and informed by history, there is no mention or reference to skin colour, allowing the reader to imagine the characters as either white or black depending on their preference.  

Melissa de la Cruz never fails to tell an awesome story, and this is no exception. She definitely steps into her literary shoes for Alex and Eliza, using flowing prose and a flowery vocabulary to transport us back to days of powdered wigs and corseted ball gowns. The prose does slow down the pacing, but helps ground us in the time period as well as adding a layer of literary flavour to the book. Alex and Eliza is definitely a good pick for teens who enjoy romance and are still craving more after seeing the Hamilton musical. 

TL;DR: All in all, 4/5 stars. A beautiful and tense romance set against the backdrop of America’s revolutionary war. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Author Interview with Shirley Simon and a Giveaway

Hey all! Today I'm excited to welcome Shirley Simon, author of Sinister Ties, to the Underground. Shirley is an author living in Delhi, India with a love of thrillers ad the paranormal. My review of her self-published book, Sinister Ties, can be found here. There is also a giveaway for the book at the bottom of this post definitely worth checking out. If you'd like to learn more about Shirley and her writing, you can visit her website at

1) What draws you most to mystery and the supernatural?  

My love for mystery and the supernatural goes back to my childhood.

As a child, I grew up on stories of the unknown—of ghostly encounters, haunted houses, demonic possessions and people wasting away under the influence of black magic—stories narrated by family members and neighbors alike. People finding their things floating around their rooms in the middle of the night; apparitions stopping travelers and asking for a ride; of people traveling on a certain road finding themselves unable to move or drive away from a particular spot till a specific time passed or an apparition crossed their path. My aunt often bought these local horror magazines that featured supposed true stories of people who had encountered spirits and genies. I loved sneaking a peek into those magazines (Yeah... My brain is a little twisted that way)

I was always fascinated by these tales. Those stories fueled a yearning in me to know more—whether it was all real or not, whether creatures and spirits—existed beyond the human realm.

Those childhood tales gave rise to quite a vibrant imagination. An imagination that over the years has consistently been fed with a regular dose of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, demons and everything that goes bump in the night. The supernatural intrigues me. The thrill of the unknown, the possibility of there being something beyond what we call the real world and for me it is the perfect escape from the real world.

2) Are you a pantser or a planner? Do you do an outline before you write or let the story guide you?  

I hate to admit this, but Yes I am a pantser. Everybody says that you should plan your story, make an outline, get your character sketches done. I have never been able to get around doing things that way.
For me, it's always been about the story leading me. The first thing for me, have always been jotting down the story as it comes to me. I try not to control the story at this stage and usually let it take the shape it is supposed to. After it is all there on paper, then I start working on giving it a better form and structure, reworking/ molding the action, etc.

3) Aside from self-publishing your work, you also run a review blog outside of a full-time job. How do you balance your time? Any advice?  

*Blushing*  Honestly, I really don't think I have ever been able to balance my time effectively.

I've always loved reading books. The idea that I could actually reach out to like-minded people and let them know how I felt about a book, got me so excited that I started writing reviews on Goodreads and LibraryThing and blogging about books, authors, etc. I found it to be a great way to connect with others. Writing my own stories and sharing with the world was a very recent decision, but it's been quite an exhilarating (and exhausting) ride.  

Over the years, I've realized that there is no right way to manage all the tasks that tend to come up. I try to do what suits me best. There are days when I am only writing and days when I am a bookworm reviewing books or trying my hand at designing. And some days I am not able to get down to doing anything constructive. I believe it's all because of the state of mind one is in and one should do everything possible to keep oneself happy.

It is not possible to isolate yourself from everything around you. We all are social animals (even if we authors deny the fact), we like to have our loved ones close to us. We go out to earn money, socialize with friends and associates and come home to write mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, or undying love stories. We all need to find things to do that refreshes our brains and keep us happy—spend some time with our family, take up a small hobby, and when we just can't think straight, read a good book (and review it).

All I am saying is—do things that improve your state of mind. If you are happy, you will be able to balance your time better, have time to write and write well too. If you are not happy, it will reflect in everything you do, even your writing. And remember, there is always scope to improve. Keep learning... keep the fire burning.

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

I caught on to the writing bug only a few years back and like any other self-publishing author, the road was not an easy one. The need to get my story out there was so overwhelming that I ignored many crucial steps in my publishing journey. Aside from experiencing anxiety pangs and weird writing moods—I think the hardest part for me was getting over personal fears.

Am I writing anything good? Will people like my stories? Will they want to read my stories? …..etc, etc, etc... These doubts plague me still, but today I have a little more confidence of what I write and that helps a lot. Though, I am still coming to terms with the nuances of promoting my work to excite readers and encourage them to take a risk on me. I think that is the toughest thing for an author.

5) How did publishing your first book change your writing process? 

Publishing my first book had been more of a rash decision (not thinking at all, I would say)—to dive head first without knowing how to swim. My first reader feedback had me hungover with excitement for quite a few days. It was not a positive one, but it opened up a whole new world to me. I realized that I could tell stories — ones that could appeal to others and were different from the usual run of the mill ones that were going around. They had potential to be something big, but I needed to work on my writing skills—showing and not telling, grammar, tenses, amongst many other things. Today, I have more visibility of my strengths and weaknesses.

I cannot say that I have come any close to perfecting the art, but I am making conscious efforts to improve my writing. I am reading up articles, books, and blogs on the art and doing writing exercises. These are helping me to express better and write more engaging stories. I want to be able to bring to readers tales that will catch their breath or bite their nails and keep them awake for days.

6) What does literary success mean to you? What would be that ‘dream goal’ you’d like to achieve?  

I want my stories to be sought after by readers the world over. I want them to look at me as the author who weaves unique, enchanting tales and brings extraordinary characters to life—ones that will remain in their thoughts for a long long time.

7) What was the most difficult part of writing Sinister Ties? What was your favorite?  

I think the first chapter was the most difficult for me to write. It was also the first thing that I began writing on in Sinister Ties. It had to set the mood for the rest of the story and I was never satisfied with it and kept going back to it again and again.

My favorite part was Bodhi setting the house on fire. It was a tragic incident but Bodhi's innocence and purity of intent, adds a different dimension to the story. The incident brings out anger in the reader, a frustration that creeps in and wants you to just stop him somehow and yet you still like him, love him even and feel sorry for him.

8) What kind of response have you gotten from fans? Any stories?  

There have not been fan moments (yet), but I have received a lot of support from fellow authors, beta readers, reviewers, and readers alike. Their kind words have boosted my confidence and I am working to bring something more exciting in the second book in the series.

9) How has your photography and art affected you as a writer?  

I feel it has helped me to think better, visualize better and express a little more effectively. Trying my hand at art or photography gives me a different perspective of looking at things. It is also a welcome release from when I can't think straight and need a distraction.

With fiction and especially fantasy writing, a lot of what I write about does not always have a physical precedence to fall back on or get a reference from. Trying to create a scene or just doodling away, is inspiring. Working on the cover of Sinister Ties had me go back and rework a few scenes in the book.

10) What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are interested in self-publishing?  

A) Be open to learning new things and improving yourself. The world of self-publishing is very dynamic and at times tough. There is a lot to learn here and only when you have that zeal in you and the curiosity, will you be able to go through the journey and enjoy it too.

B) Save money. Self-publishing is not cheap. Keep some money aside—you will need it to get your work edited, proofread and promoted. Believe me, it's not cheap out there and no single (free) platform to rely on. I stepped into this world without any research or money in my pocket. I just wanted to get my story out there. I learned the hard way that that is not enough. You will end up with bad reviews and find that your perfect story is not perfect after all. Avoid the heartbreaks. Do some research, find the right resources and platforms before you publish. Things will be a whole lot easier.


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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: The Garage? Just Torch It

Book Review: The Garage? Just Torch It by Dylan D Debelis 

Goodreads Description: A rally cry for the healing power of wonder and the disarming catharsis of grief, The Garage? Just Torch It. balances themes of belonging, love, politics, illness, family and forgiveness with stunning imagery and an intense playfulness. Paced as if the reader is moving through the belly of a burning building, each turn of the page represents the uncovering of the long-hidden, buried, and the better-left-forgotten.

My Review: I was given a review copy of The Garage? Just Torch It by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

The Garage? Just Torch It is a collection of poetry separated into four parts that tackle some pretty heavy topics. The poems have vivid imagery and beautiful use of language that had me pausing to roll the word combinations around on my tongue. This is not poetry that spells out things for you, rather, it speaks in the spaces between lines and paints images out of smoke. Read too fast and the image is gone, and so this book demands the reader pause to contemplate and savour each line. In a world of instant gratification, this poetry collection pauses to reflect on the beauty of tragedy and allows the reader to find the beauty in the moment. 

On the surface, the poems can seem disjointed and confusing at times, but when you see through the lines, the themes of a father's death begin to appear. It does at times present itself as a puzzle to piece together through clues in the poems, which I actually enjoyed. It allowed me to piece together an image of the poet and discover how the threads of literary lyricism all tied together. If you don't enjoy finding the story behind the lines, this collection may be frustrating for you, but if you enjoy the type of heavy metaphor found in university English class, this collection is a delightful read. 

TL;DR: All in all, 3/5 stars. A no-holds-barred poetry collection tackling the intensity of grief and loss.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Should Books Contain Trigger/Content Warnings?

Riddle me this, book lovers: should books contain trigger and/or content warnings?

This question has made its rounds in literary circles many times before. A few years ago, many editorials came out discussing the idea after university students began asking for trigger warnings on course material. You know, mostly to have a head's up in case a disturbing scene is just around the corner. I was amazed at the amount of anger such a consideration sparked. It was as if these students had asked for regular book burnings to take place on campus. Many of the objections boiled down to some simple themes:

1) You are ruining the Sanctity of Literature if you spoil plot points through trigger warnings.

2) These special snowflakes need to buck up and deal with it. Life doesn't come with trigger warnings.

3) Being able to "opt out" of uncomfortable situations or scenarios is unhealthy.

4) Trigger warnings will lead to banning books. 

So let's really get into this. Because I want to know what you think about all this.

For the purpose of this post, when I talk about trigger warnings, usually I'm referring to graphic depictions that could trigger someone who has a history of trauma. Things like suicide, war,
racism, rape, child murder, domestic violence, etc. When I talk about content warnings, it's usually in a broader sense and covers things that may not be triggering, but many still would like to be aware of, such as group or kink sex, swearing, drug use, etc.

Frankly, content warnings are something that should have been added to books years ago. Every other media has a rating system to let people know what kind of content they're about to walk into. From movies, to television, video games, comics-- all have their own system to let you know what kind of content it holds, from a G rating all the way through to NC-17. Even TV shows have general disclaimers to make audiences aware of swearing, nudity, and violence. These rating systems don't spoil content-- it allows us to be informed consumers.

Yet books are exempt from this? Why?

Probably because books pre-date any sort of rating system. We were dragging around dusty tomes before we decided what was offensive and what wasn't. But does that mean they should stay exempt? It's easy to excuse a novel from needing a rating system simply because you need to immerse yourself to actually get the full impact. A person strolling by a grotesque movie poster only has to glance at it to feel the triggering effects. A book, however, can look innocuous enough until you realize what those words are building towards. Of any type of media, books are most deserving of content warnings and a rating system because you often have no inkling of it coming before you're immersed in a very triggering scene. Movie trailers give you a much stronger picture than vague back covers, and yet there are still ratings and systems in place to make sure you go in informed.

Also, to add to the argument against "content warnings are spoilers" lets remember that according to the University of California, spoilers don't spoil. In fact, they often make the experience more enjoyable.

But what about real life? Nobody hands you a content warning when you walk out the door. And could it be harmful to self-censor yourself from upsetting content? Unfortunately, when we talk about people who have been "triggered" by content like this, it's not because they've lived sheltered lives. It's because that person has a mental illness that is being aggravated by this trigger. To be triggered often means panic attacks, extreme anxiety, hallucinations or flashbacks, and are absolutely debilitating. People who suffer through experiences like this, often stemming from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cannot control their triggers and are often hit by them when they least expect it. A traumatized individual could be triggered and not even know what by, which can create a life paralyzed by fear of the next trigger. Because of that, people will often avoid things they KNOW will trigger them, as they will inevitably be triggered by something they can't control anyway. Might as well minimize the damage, right?

Imagine PTSD as an allergic reaction. Every time you come in contact with coconut you break out in hives, so the logical thing would be to avoid coconut, would it not? You would want ingredient lists on anything you eat so you can know if it has coconut. If a teacher handed you raw coconut water and said you had to drink it for a grade, would you? Or would you protest, because this could severely hurt you, if not kill you?

Do people avoid certain topics and content? Sure, because everyone has preferences. At the end of the day, why should people be forced to read something they don't want to? There is no "book everyone must read" no matter what people say. Most importantly, due to life experiences, everyone will take away something different from a story. You may have found something beautiful in a book about a soldiers' journey through war, whereas an ex-military personnel may walk away feeling disgusted and horrified. It makes me think back to how media personnel vs military personnel responded to Trump's speech which honoured a fallen Navy SEAL, William "Ryan" Owens.

Media Reaction (left) and the Veteran's Reaction (right). 

Finally, will trigger warnings lead to banning books? I suppose I can see where the thought comes from, though to me it makes about as much sense as saying that if we offer people free healthcare they'll start running into traffic. In fact, everything I've seen when trigger warnings are put in place leads me to believe the opposite. Content warnings get people more excited about what's available to read. It's used as a tool to track down what you want through an over saturated market. To me, these 'warnings' are no different than tagging a book as sci-fi, fantasy, romance-- it helps to narrow down where in the world of literature this piece fits.

Before I came into the publishing world, I wrote fanfiction and participated in a lot of communities. Content and trigger warnings were STANDARD. It was EXPECTED. Often there were warnings on a chapter by chapter basis for longer pieces, so you knew exactly when the troubling content was coming. And how did people feel about it? Great! In fact, those content and trigger warnings became like lifeblood. Often, instead of turning people away from a story, it would engage them to click on and read. Back in those days, when I wanted to read a sweet romantic story featuring two gay men, I knew to look for tags such as "fluff" and usually the coded tag for that relationship (dating myself here, but in Saiyuki fandom, numbers were used to represent characters 3, 5, 8, and 9, so looking for a certain relationship meant looking for those numbers 3/9, 5/8, etc.) It worked amazingly. Going back to spoilers don't spoil piece, if people knew a story was especially dark, or contained graphic sex, or torture, tagging it as such let allowed people who were looking for those stories to find them easier.

When I transitioned out of the fanfiction world and started reading YA, I was thrown off by how little you are able to find out about a book. I wanted to find gay characters, especially as a teenager, and while in fanfiction such things would be easily tagged as such, in the book buying world I was flying blind. Unless the whole book focused around an Issue, you had to read the thing to find out if it had the content you were looking for. And then, Issue Books are often so formulaic and focuses so much on the problem that it can be hard to just enjoy the stories. Not to mention (especially for marginalized people) it's unfair that the only representation offered painted those people as People with Problems and forgot that they're just human.

Even today, when you look at how readers refer books to one another, you can see readers are concerned about content, not just when it comes to picking what not to read, but what to read as well. So many people on Twitter shoot out questions like, "Any recs for books with lesbian MCs/Disability rep/losing virginity/etc?" Yet if books had a content warning or rating page, it might be easier for people (especially teens) to track down the content they actually want to read about.

Content warnings don't have to be scary.
A content/trigger warning page doesn't have to be the end of the world. It can work like in the picture above, or a page like the acknowledgements listing out any troubling material, which can be easily skipped if you're not concerned and prefer to fly in blind. And if fanfiction is any indication, content warnings could serve to drum up excitement about books and reading. Would trigger warnings lead to censorship? Doubt it. If so, then we wouldn't have television, movies, video games... Besides, trying to slip in potentially distressing scenes in the name of Literary Sanctity, or to "teach readers" some moral or another, or because you know it won't be received well (slipping gay characters into Christian fiction, for ex)-- just comes across as, what we call in bird culture, a Dick Move.

I'm not asking for censorship. I just want the chance to be informed.