Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: The Book of Negroes

Book Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill 

Goodreads Description: Based on a true story, "The Book of Negroes" tells the story of Aminata, a young girl abducted from her village in Mali aged 11 in 1755, and who, after a deathly journey on a slave ship where she witnesses the brutal repression of a slave revolt, is sold to a plantation owner in South Carolina, who rapes her. She is brought to New York, where she escapes her owner, and finds herself helping the British by recording all the freed slaves on the British side in the Revolutionary War in The Book of Negroes (a real historical document that can be found today at the National Archives at Kew). Aminata is sent to Nova Scotia to start a new life, but finds more hostility, oppression and tragedy. Separated from her one true love, and suffering the unimaginable loss of both her children who are taken away from her, she eventually joins a group of freed slaves on a harrowing odyssey back to Africa, and ends up in London as a living icon for Wilberforce and the other Abolitionists. "The Book of Negroes" is a page-turning narrative that manages to use Aminata's heart-rending personal story to bring to life a harrowing chapter in our history.

My Review: The Book of Negroes is an incredibly odyssey story featuring Aminata Diallo, who at 11-years-old is abducted from her village and trafficked into slavery. She is taken onto a slave ship that heads out to South Carolina where Aminata is sold into slavery to an indigo plantation owner. The novel follows Aminata's life as she gains more and more freedoms and eventually makes her way back to Africa. The book tackles ideas of colonialism, imperialism, assimilation, racism, (of course) slavery, all the little shades of grey that fall between those concepts, and most importantly, how real people tried to live their lives within the framework of systematic oppression. 

Something many writers might pick up on while reading this book was how the author utilized the concept of 'show don't tell.' The narrator, Aminata, tells us a lot about the story and characters point blank, and though at first glance it would seem like Hill is breaking a pretty big writing rule, it's a necessary evil. The Book of Negroes is incredibly long and detailed, and in order to get the story out, some parts are simply told to us without any attempt to show we might "see" it play out. We can see this a lot in dialogue scenes where the writing would go from using dialogue and tags to just telling the reader what was said. Alternatively, there is a lot that is shown to us, usually the things related to the bigger themes rather than the plot. Hill shows us how white people sometimes rationalize racist behaviour through characters like Soloman Lindo, who asserts that he's different from slave owners, and calls Aminata his servant instead of slave, yet still participates in the systems of oppression and has no problem using them to his benefit. Hill shows us the realities of racism by showing why other slaves refused to run away for their own safety, and how those that did often didn't find a good life. He shows us arguments against abolishment by using what the audience would consider "good" characters to express the anti-abolishment concerns, and shows us how slavers at the time hid the truth of the inhumane conditions in order to keep the trade alive. All of this adds up to a pretty balanced use of both "show" and "tell," and the book is a great example for when to use each angle. On a personal level, I found the way Hill used his "telling" to be a little intrusive at times and took me out of the story, but I recognize it as a necessary evil to tell such a long story. 

The novel tackles some very difficult ideas and subjects, and does it with an incredible amount of tact and fairness that makes the book feel very authentic. The book is obviously anti-slavery and anti-racism, but Hill approached these subjects with a very balanced portrayal. Instead of pushing any sort of agenda, the book presented the history as thoroughly as possible and let the truth speak for itself. As well, the horror was nicely balanced so the book was not unbearable to read. Hill addressed the violence and horror appropriately and did not shy away from the awful truths, but also didn't linger over them or fetishize the violence. The book gets progressively easier to read content-wise the more freedom that Aminata gains. 

As for the characters, they were all incredible. Aminata is truly a courageous and resilient main character. Chekura really stole my heart; at the beginning I was rolling my eyes at the idea of him and Aminata getting together, but a few hundred pages later and I couldn't imagine them without each other. Even all the other characters that came in and out of the story were very consistent and had very clear personalities and motivations. 

Overall, the book was an incredible piece of historical fiction. I can't say I was completely blown away by the characters or plot, and if not for my college class I don't think I ever would have picked it up (mostly due to the violence), but I really valued it for the accurate and detailed portrayal of life for slaves and free blacks. I really appreciate that it took the time to look at slavery from every angle and even actively dispute common racist myths. The Book of Negroes is an important read for people hoping to learn more about the history of slavery in North America and understand how the framework of that systematic oppression still exists in our society today. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. The Book of Negroes is an important piece of historical fiction that paints a thorough picture of life for people of colour trapped in the slave trade. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Book Review: Vengeful

Book Review: Vengeful by VE Schwab 

Goodreads Description: The sequel to VICIOUS, V.E. Schwab's first adult novel.

Sydney once had Serena—beloved sister, betrayed enemy, powerful ally. But now she is alone, except for her thrice-dead dog, Dol, and then there's Victor, who thinks Sydney doesn't know about his most recent act of vengeance.

Victor himself is under the radar these days—being buried and re-animated can strike concern even if one has superhuman powers. But despite his own worries, his anger remains. And Eli Ever still has yet to pay for the evil he has done.

My Review: This review will have major spoilers. There are no warnings beforehand as they are spaced through the whole review. So beware if you find spoilers spoiling. 

Vengeful picks up after the events of Vicious, but the story is told through multiple points of view across many points in time, so it's difficult to remember where in the book each part of the narrative gets revealed. Five years have passed since the end of Vicious, where Victor and Eli faced off and which left Victor dead and Eli in prison. After being resurrected by Sydney, Victor discovers her powers are a double edged sword, because he's been brought back wrong. His powers are different, and he keeps having fits that cause a surge of electricity to shoot through his body and kill him-- over and over and over. Desperate to find someone to fix what's broken in him, Victor begins hunting EOs, and in an effort to hide himself, Sydney, Mitch, and Dom from Stell, the detective who put Eli behind bars, Victor has to kill those he meets to cover their tracks. But it all turns out to be in vain, for Marcella Riggins, a new EO in Merit, is taking over the city, amassing EOs to work for her and dragging Victor, Stell, and even Eli into her sphere of influence, causing the three men to come crashing into each other once again. 

Okay. Okay. Okay, okay, okay. This is going to be hard for all of us, but it's important to be honest in order to get through this. 

I really, really didn't like this book. 

It's probably one of the first books Victoria Schwab has written that I actually didn't like. Not to say there wasn't anything to like about this book, in fact, there was a lot to love. But what sends the rating crashing down for me is that this book, this STORY, had so much potential that just wasn't lived up to. So now whenever I look at this book, all I can think about is what it COULD HAVE been, which makes the loss feel a little more profound. This was also the first book that I've ever pre-ordered. I'm pretty against pre-orders, just for the selfish reason that I like going into the store on release day and snatching up a copy, but I did it this time because I really loved the book, so it just added to that disappointed feeling. 

I think a major issue with this book is the dramatic shift it takes from the first book. Vicious was about Victor and Eli. Vengeful is about Marcella. While not a bad thing for a dramatic shift in focus, it was really off-putting because a lot of the bones of the story were still about Victor and Eli-- Victor trying to find a 'cure' to repeatedly dying, Eli being in prison and reevaluating his childhood and ideologies, and ultimately Eli's escape from prison, but all this took a backseat to introducing Marcella and her motivations. This was annoying because readers who were clamoring for this book were looking for Eli and Victor, as that's the story they were hooked on. Instead we're introduced to Marcella, who has the potential to be a really incredible character, but she falls horribly flat because she doesn't have the nuance that Victor and Eli had in the first book. What made them so interesting were the shades of grey in their characters, and Marcella had none of that. She was all ambition and vengeance with nowhere to go. After being wronged by her husband, she attempts to "ruin" him, which she succeeds early on in a very anti-climactic scene, and then decides to take over the mob and "ruin" them. Her desire for vengeance against her husband was clear and concise, and then after that the motivation kinda fell apart. She wanted to take over the mob, and do what with it? Did she want to rule the city? Destroy it? To what end? Some of her desires are outlined but it was kind of muddy, and all we really hear of Marcella's "grand plan" is that she's throwing a party, which does nothing but end in her death, making me wonder what the point of all of it was. Marcella was intended to be a powerful, intimidating, ambitious woman, and she came across as an empty-headed super villain with no depth. The story readers came for took a backseat to introducing us to this female villain, who didn't compare to the moral complexity of the male characters from the first book. And trust me, I wanted Marcella to live up to the characterization in the first book, but it just didn't happen. 

That lack of moral complexity wasn't just apparent in Marcella, though. Victor was significantly less 'grey' than in the first book. Vicious painted Victor as an anti-hero, and both he and Eli were well-balanced with good and evil parts to them. Though the same framework for those dilemmas exists in this book-- the whole aspect of Victor killing EOs to cover their tracks could have be a great moral grey area to explore further-- but instead it's glossed over and so Vengeful just doesn't have the same interesting moral complexities that made Vicious so interesting. 

Unfortunately, there was a serious lack of character and development in this book. We're introduced to a host of new characters like June and Jonathan, but there's not enough there to show us who they actually are. Jonathan, Marcella's "shield," is such a pathetic cardboard cutout of a character that it makes me a bit embarrassed for Schwab, but it is definitely a symptom of having too many characters and not enough time to explore them. June and Jonathan are also characters created with a purpose-- Jonathan is the shield that keeps Marcella from being shot and June is the connector between Sydney (and Victor's group) and Marcella. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so apparent. June is also really infuriating, because other than having a cool and trendy power, we know absolutely nothing about her-- not where she came from or how, not who she was before, no real hint as to what she actually wants, aside from being creepily obsessed with Sydney (though still not sure why). Her motivation is just all over the place. She's helping Marcella, but doesn't like her, then wants to be on her side because she's powerful, then tries to betray Marcella (seems like because of Sydney), then betrays Sydney anyway. It's a complete mess. I have no idea what June actually wanted out of any of this, and I suppose that's the point, because it's clear from the epilogue that there will be a third book in the series with June as a major character (why else include a scene where she wipes herself from EON's database if not to use it somehow?) which is even more infuriating. It feels like her backstory was withheld so she can be a central character in the next book at the expense of her characterization (and the reader understanding her and her motivation) in this book.

The book read like I was reading two separate stories smashed together-- Marcella's and then Victor and Eli's. And unfortunately the story that I signed up for was crammed into the last 50 pages of the book, hidden after Marcella's death. The parts with Eli and Victor were great (if a little less morally subjective) but there just wasn't enough of them. There were too many threads in this book and the ones that should have mattered the most got dropped. I probably would have loved this book a lot more if Victor and Eli's story was better integrated into Marcella's, instead I get a handful of pages with Victor that I'm pouring over trying to imagine the rest of the book with him actually in it. 

I really enjoyed the writing, as always. Schwab has a command of language that really shows through her use of vocabulary. However, the book had a lot of tension with not a lot of payoff. There were so many scenes that were setting up atmosphere, tension, and building up to a climax, and yet when we got there, the climax did not live up to all the build up that came before. Sydney is a perfect example of this, as she spends the whole book obsessing over her sister's ashes, building an exorbitant amount of tension as we see her master her resurrection skills, and then she decides not to bring her sister back in a rather anti-climactic resolution. I can appreciate the choice that Sydney made, but because Schwab spent scene after scene building her power, and the tension with it, it felt painfully underwhelming. 

The same could be said for many other parts of the book, such as Marcella's "big plan" which turns out to be a party. She claims this party will change the city, and yet all we can see that she planned was to bring a few reporters and maybe show off her powers. Because of the lack of a satisfying climax, Marcella came off as weak and more concerned with how she appeared to be powerful than actually being powerful. Which, yawn. I was excited by Marcella because I love powerful, dark, ambitious women. But Marcella wasn't powerful, she was just a sparkler-- pretty to look at, looks like it could burn or hurt you, but really it just fizzles itself out on its own. If you want to create a real Marcella, don't just give her ambition, because ambition without direction is meaningless. Give her goals, give her plans, give her ends to her means and give her a damn good reason for pursuing them. Make it clear that nothing will stand in her way. Don't just have her sip champagne and then melt a glass when she gets angry. Give me a woman who changes things. Give me a woman who knows what she wants and gets it. Give me actual power, not just the illusion of it. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. Disappointingly doesn't live up to its potential. 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Book Review: Frankenstein

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Book Review: Emergency Contact

Book Review: Emergency Contact by Mary H K Choi 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: Bring Me Their Hearts

Book Review: Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf

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

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

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

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

Winner takes the loser’s heart.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour Organized by:

Friday, June 22, 2018

Author Interview: Alison McGhee

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

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

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

1) What inspires you to write? 

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

2) What draws you to writing for children? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) What's your favourite part of writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

Author Interview: Gabrielle Mathieu

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

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

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

1) What was the inspiration for The Falcon series? 

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

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

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

3) What draws you to writing historical fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

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

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

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

9) How do you approach research for your writing? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Book Review: What I Leave Behind

Book Review: What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: The Falcon Flies Alone

Book Review: The Falcon Flies Alone by Gabrielle Mathieu 

Goodreads Description: As the sun rises on a quiet Swiss mountain village in 1957, runaway Peppa Mueller wakes up naked and stranded on the roof of her employer’s manor, with no idea how she got there. As she waits for help, she struggles to piece together fragmented memories of the previous night. Did she really witness the brutal massacre of a local family? Did she kill them? Her fear of sinister house guest Dr. Unruh fuels her panic—as do electrifying flashes of a furious falcon, trapped inside her.

Wanted for murder, Peppa flees the police, intent on finding out if there’s a scientific explanation or if she’s just going mad. Her godfather, world-renowned chemist Dr. Kaufmann, risks his career to help her. In the meantime, Peppa fights her attraction to the handsome priest from India who offers her shelter. With their help, she not only finds Dr. Unruh but places herself at his mercy. His experiments may be the reason Peppa now shares her body with a bloodthirsty bird of prey—but the revenge she plans could kill them both.

My Review: I was given a review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review. There will be some spoilers in this review, but there will be a warning before they come up.

After her father's death, Peppa Mueller takes a job as a caretaker to a wealthy family to wait out the weeks until her 20th birthday, when she can claim her inheritance and move on with the rest of her life. On her first night in a new town, Peppa witnesses a brutal massacre that lands her right in the center of a murder investigation. She doesn't know how to process the things she sees-- the family that suddenly starts killing each other, her new boss, Dr. Unruh, smiling down on the violence, her own hands reaching out to snap a man's neck, or her body transforming into a falcon and soaring high above it all--so Peppa runs from the police, at least until she can find a scientific explanation for what happened to her. She doesn't believe in spirits or the occult, and is willing to bet Dr. Unruh dosed their drinks that night with a psychoactive substance. If Peppa can prove it, she might be able to clear her name as a suspect. But to find the answers she needs, she'll have to find Dr. Unruh and earn his trust so she can get into his lab, and the doctor may not be so easy to fool.

"I'd taken his bait, and the trap was closing." 

The Falcon Flies Alone is an incredible story of fantasy versus science, filled with well-balanced characters that flesh out a historical setting from not so long ago. The book takes place in 1950s Switzerland and is filled with fabulous notes from the period, from the Elvis records, the fashion, to the political landscape. There was an intimate way of describing things, making it obvious that the author was very familiar with the time period. Characters throughout made comments that were anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist, but they were authentic to that time period, fit well into the world, and the main character did shoot down those comments appropriately. The differences between cultures were highlighted throughout the book, and it was interesting to see the distinctions made for what was appropriate for Swiss culture and what wasn't. The book is historical fantasy and does an excellent job of really bringing the history alive from start to finish.

As for the characters-- wow! They were all incredibly well-constructed and balanced, fitted with their own sets of flaws, motivations, secrets, and shames. I fell in love with Peppa and Tenzin, and even Dr. Unruh. As a villain, Dr. Unruh was positively evil-- rapist, murderer, sadist-- but also very articulate and charming. The way he rationalized his abuse to Peppa was downright frightening at times, and very convincing. Peppa was smart and strong the whole book through; every obstacle she solved creatively, which made for an interesting read. This made it easy to root for Peppa, as she wasn't just bumbling her way through the plot events. It also made Dr. Unruh even scarier, since no matter how clever Peppa was, he was still getting the best of her.

**SPOILERS, skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled** The whole dynamic between the two is interesting, although I am concerned with the way their relationship developed and ultimately, how Dr. Unruh's death was presented. As I said, Unruh is a deeply sick man, but Peppa is drawn into his charismatic spell and develops a bit of lust towards him, even if she expresses a lot of disgust at herself for it. While she's under the influence, of a drug as well as magic, Peppa and Unruh have sex, which comes across as very date-rapey, especially as Unruh sticks something in her vagina while she's still unconscious. Despite all this, when Dr. Unruh is dying, Peppa is kind to him, even gives him a bit of a prayer with sacred sand as he dies. Honestly, the book did such an excellent job of building Unruh up to be a horrific man that to see him being redeemed in his death felt anti-climactic. I expected Peppa to take revenge against the man who had literally tortured and raped her, and instead the book tried to play him off as a tortured soul. It came off as an attempt to minimize the horrible things he'd done in the name of a redemption.  It was disappointing at best, offensive at worst.

The book has some really incredible writing. There were many times where I stopped and marveled at the word choice and the ease with which the author commands language. The book kicks off from the first page with humor and mystery as Peppa wakes up naked on the roof of her employer's, and has to piece together the events of the previous night. The tension mounts and builds at a very steady pace, and the book has well-defined stakes that gets the reader emotionally invested. Even during slower parts of the book, the author was able to uphold the tension to keep the reader eagerly turning pages. The only issue I had with the writing structure is the climax seemed to come too soon. **SPOILERS** Unruh's death was the climax of the book, yet there was still a lot of plot that needed to be resolved. However, those conflicts didn't top the weight of taking out Unruh, leaving the last 20% of the book to feel like a drawn own denouement. The pregnancy, which could have been a big enough conflict to top Unruh's death, had a very underwhelming resolution, which contributed to that feeling.

The book deals with a lot of YA themes-- firsts, coming of age-- but I would recommend the readership as upper YA, even adult. The book deals with a lot of adult themes, but it's the voice and the mature way it's viewed that makes me slot this as an adult book rather than YA. It is heavy at times on the science, which was fascinating, but I could see teen readers getting turned off by the long periods Peppa spends in the lab.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, aside from some concerns. It made for such an enjoyable read with truly awesome characters that stole my heart. I'm definitely looking forward to the next books in the series.

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A beautifully written period piece where fantasy and science collide.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Guest Post: Breaking Out of My Comfort Zone by Stacy McAnulty

My comfort zone—quite literally— is my office. I share the space with my three dogs. It’s close to my coffeemaker and a bathroom. The internet is speedy, and the phone has caller ID (allowing me to choose which calls to answer). And I alone control the thermostat. I spend most of my waking hours in this home office, feeling safe and secure except when I start reading political threads on Twitter.

But as an author, this safe and secure feeling is not something I want for my characters. That would be boring and also, not true to life for most young readers. In my debut middle-grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, 12-year-old Lucy is a homeschooled math savant, who is academically ready for college. She’s content with life in her apartment and chatting with “friends” on math internet forums. But Nana decides to send Lucy to middle school for the first time, and Lucy ends up lightyears away from her comfort zone.

The start of the story is an example of a kid being forced out of her comfort zone. This was Nana’s idea (and Nana’s fault!). This is often the case for kids. They don’t choose to move to a new town. They don’t have a choice to participate or not in gym class. I can clearly remember the unit I hated most in PE class—gymnastics. I’ve never been able to do a cartwheel, and I’m as flexible as a dining-room table.  Gymnastic in gym class was agony. I’d fake injuries and illness to avoid tumbling across the large orange mat. But you can’t avoid a month-long unit. Eventually, I was forced onto the balance beam and uneven bars. Was there anything gained by forcing 12-year-old me to humiliate myself in front of my peers? I certainly didn’t go on to the Junior Olympics. It was more about learning to handle the uncomfortableness and embarrassment—something that happens to everyone, maybe not in gym class, but sometime during one’s public education. The seeds of empathy had been planted.

My dad tells a more uplifting story. When he was a kid about 7 or 8 years old, his mom (my sweet grandmother) told him to go play ball at the park with the other boys in the neighborhood. When my dad cried and refused to go, she dragged him to the field and left him. When he tried to return home, she locked him out of the house. (This was in the 1950’s and totally normal parenting.) With no other options, he went and played baseball. And as he tells it, he loved it and played for the next 40 years. Gram wrenched him from his comfort zone with great success.

Knowing adults can push kids into new activities and situations—sometimes with positive results and sometimes not. Then there are times when kids choose to make that leap for themselves. In the book, Lucy does not like to draw attention to herself in class. When teachers are looking for volunteers, she hangs her head and hides behind her hair as if she could make herself invisible. But there comes a point where she does speak up.  She can no longer stay silent.

Kids aren’t actively thinking, “I’m going to step outside my comfort zone.” Sometimes the choices are split-second decisions. Do I confront this person? Do I raise my hand when I’m not sure about the answer? And sometimes, they’re longer and more agonizing decisions. Do I try out for the play even though speaking in front of an audience is terrifying? Do I ask the teacher for extra help, something I’ve never needed before? Do I go to this event where I won’t know anyone? Big or small, kids are handling these issues often. It’s important for young readers to see characters doing the same things with both positive and negative results. Plus, it would be boring if we all just hung out in my home office all day. Although I do have lots sugary snacks to share.

About Stacy: 

Stacy McAnulty is a children’s book author, who used to be a mechanical engineer, who’s also qualified to be a paleontologist (NOT REALLY), a correspondent for The Daily Show (why not), and a Green Bay Packer coach (totally!). She is the 2017 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Recipient for Excellent Ed, illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach. Her other picture books include Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years, illustrated by David Litchfield; Max Explains Everything: Grocery Store Expert, illustrated by Deborah Hocking, Brave and Beautiful, both illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff; Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He’s the Favorite, illustrated by Edward Hemingway; and 101 Reasons Why I’m Not Taking a Bath, illustrated by Joy Ang. She’s also authored the chapter book series Goldie Blox, based on the award-winning toys, and The Dino Files. Her debut middle grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, will publish in May 2018. When not writing, Stacy likes to listen to NPR, bake triple-chocolate cupcakes, and eat triple-chocolate cupcakes. Originally from upstate NY, she now lives in Kernersville, NC with her 3 kids, 3 dogs, and 1 husband.

About the Book:
Author: Stacy McAnulty
Pub. Date: May 1, 2018
Publisher: Random House
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
Pages: 304
Find it: AmazonB&NiBooksTBDGoodreads

Middle school is the one problem Lucy Callahan can't solve in this middle-grade novel perfect for fans of The Fourteenth Goldfish, Rain Reign, and Counting by 7s.

Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn't remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she's technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test--middle school!

Lucy's grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that's not a math textbook!). Lucy's not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy's life has already been solved. Unless there's been a miscalculation?

A celebration of friendship, Stacy McAnulty's smart and thoughtful middle-grade debut reminds us all to get out of our comfort zones and embrace what makes us different.

"An engaging story, full of heart and hope. Readers of all ages will root for Lucy, aka Lightning Girl. No miscalculations here!" --Kate Beasley, author of Gertie's Leap to Greatness
Giveaway Details:

3 winners will receive a finished copy of THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL, US Only.

Tour Schedule:
Week One:
April 23, 2018: Beagles and Books - Interview
April 24, 2018: Mrs. Knott's Book Nook - Review
April 25, 2018: A Dream Within A Dream - Excerpt
April 26, 2018: Here's to Happy Endings - Review
April 27, 2018: She Dreams in Fiction - Excerpt

Week Two:
April 30, 2018: 100 Pages A Day - Review
May 1, 2018: Wonder Struck - Review
May 2, 2018: Nerdophiles - Review
May 3, 2018: The Underground - Guest Post
May 4, 2018: Feed Your Fiction Addiction - Review