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.