2018 – We have plans!

Last year I sat down around this time, give or take a few days, and started this blog. When I first started, I wasn’t exactly sure what this space was going to be. I knew I wanted to explore my writing more, and I wanted to start reviewing books. But I didn’t really know what that meant.

Fast forward a year, and the more things change, the more they stay the same!

I’ve talked a bit about my reading goals in my 2017 summary. I am once again doing Goodreads, and trying the Book Riot Read Harder challenge again. I am going to leave my Goodreads number as is, just as I did last year. It’s a good exercise for me to stop trying and changing my goals. Set them and work towards them. Even if I meet that challenge, changing it raises too much uncertainty in me. I just need to keep going forward. Does anyone else relate to that?

One of the biggest successes I had was in building relationships in the bookstagram and blogging community. I am floored by how generous and kind the people in these communities are! I talk to them every day, and my life and confidence is blooming because of them. No matter what career or hobby you find yourself in, reaching out and developing relationships with people within that area is such an enriching experience. Being able to talk to other writers and know that they go through the same roller coaster of emotions and challenges helps quiet the noise for me. It helps me feel like I’m not on this journey by myself.

I enjoyed posting my bookstagram photos before, but let me say, the experience is 1000 times better when you get involved in the community. This group of wonderful book worms has single handedly changed my experience of social media. Life is what you put into it, and the same can be said of social media. It can be intimidating and scary to reach out into the abyss of the unknown and open yourself up to strangers. But man is it rewarding! This experience was the most unexpected thing to happen in 2017, and by far one of the best.

Life as a reviewer bloomed in 2017. When I first started, I had no idea how to request books, let alone reach out to publishers or publicists to build relationships. Again, with help from some amazing friends, I learned about Netgalley, First to Read, Blogging for Books and began to email for books. This process can seem daunting when you’re first starting but it isn’t nearly as frightening as I would have initially thought.

I also learned some things about reviewing. The first is, careful what you wish for. When I first began, I emailed and requested everything from everyone. And ended up getting more than I could handle. I wish I had requested less and built better relationships with fewer publishers. Rather than feeling stressed out and spread thin. But you live, you learn, and then you do better.

Personally, 2017 was a bit of a turbulent year. We ended up selling our store in April, and at the time I thought that meant I would have more time. Time to write, time to recover, time to reconnect with myself. What I didn’t anticipate was just how exhausted and run down I had let myself get.

The thing about exhaustion that I learned, is recovery takes time. It’s a slow process. It isn’t just the physicality of it. It’s mental and emotional as well. It meant that I didn’t make as much progress on my manuscript as I thought, and that other projects I dreamed of tackling took more time as well. And when you’re exhausted like that, you can be a bit fragile. I found that my anxiety and depression, which had mostly been under control for quite a long time, hit me hard.

Recognizing that I was in a depressed state took some time. Accepting it took time. And finding my way back, took time. Bit by bit, I found my energy returning, and with it, the ability to focus. I began to feel like myself, a self that I forgot about. Because that’s the other thing with exhaustion. When you run yourself low, but just keep pushing yourself, you forget what normal feels like.

So what does all this mean for 2018 goals?

First, I am going to discipline myself with reviews more. I’m going to request less and work in personal books with my reviews. I don’t want to get back in a rut when I feel like reading is a chore.

I want to post more consistently on my blog. Since I didn’t really have goals in place with my blog when I started, I never got into a routine with my posts. Some weeks I posted daily. Some only once that week. But like anything, consistency matters. So, whether it’s a review, a check in with writing, or writing about questions of the day, I want to post at least every other day.

My manuscript is almost complete, and I want to start submitting within the second quarter of the year. This gives me time to work through a second draft, get to some trusted readers for feedback, and to review that feedback. And of course, start the second book!

I am going to become more active on my social media accounts. Developing friendships has been the best thing I could have done. I want to be sure I continue and give back to that community as best I can.

One of the big accomplishments was opening my Etsy shop! I want to keep developing that account and working on projects so that the shop is always evolving and growing. Writing is my destiny, of that I am sure, but working in this mode creatively is a very fulfilling exercise, and I want to see how far I can take that.

Finally, I want to make sure I am taking time for me. I need to be kind to myself. To forgive myself for setbacks, to cut myself some slack, to stop being my biggest critic. Life is a journey. One meant to be lived. Here’s to taking each day, the good with the bad, and living.

 

Exquisite – Review

“I was suspicious of love and what it did to people – those dark depths of anguish and horror; the thought of it all made me shudder.”

Bo Luxton has the life everyone wants. A successful writing career, loyal husband and two adorable daughters. She is the very picture of happiness and contentment. All she wants is to share her happiness with others. To help guide fresh new talent into the literary world, giving back to the world that has given her so much.

Alice Dark is young and lost. Full of hidden but unused talent, she writes an entry to a writing retreat, expecting it to end in nothing but disappointment like every endeavor before. To her surprise, she is selected and given the chance at everything she’s ever wanted.

From the moment Bo read Alice’s words, she knew this was the young talent she had been looking for. And from the moment Alice spoke with Bo, she knew this was a woman whose wisdom could guide her. Mentor and mentee. Two paths destined to cross and become entwined. So how does it all go wrong?

This book is breathtaking in it’s intensity! Every page has you swept into the story, the suspense building with a subtlety that is, well, exquisite. You know something is off, but it’s difficult to put your finger on it. For the life of me, I could not tell which direction Stovell was taking me. I only knew it was going to be a dark and twisted path.

“There’s only one direction this can go, and that is straight to hell.”

We are given the story of Alice and Bo in parts. The first is a story, a woman in prison, but where and when is yet to be determined. Is she a narrator, a story from one of the writers, or a third party yet to be presented? And then we get chapters from both Bo and Alice’s perspectives. These are alternating until after the retreat, where we get only Alice and then only Bo. And then back to alternating as we get closer to the truth.

Each side is presented, with their own slant told. And Stovell is masterful in her writing, never giving us enough clues to get a grasp on what’s actually taking place. Page after page has us feeling as if we are trapped in a cage of quicksand and fog. Nothing is steady, nothing is sure, except that someone is lying.

“The thing about being hurt badly is that the only person who can make you feel better is the person who hurt you, and so you keep going back and they keep making you better, but then they hurt you again, and so it goes on.”

Exquisite kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. I never knew who to trust, who was the victim and who was the assailant. Even when Stovell unveiled the details, the truth was so sinister, it hits you in the gut, hard and unexpected. Again, the word exquisite fits so perfectly, because that level of story telling is exquisite. You know something is coming, and yet it still manages to hit you by surprise. The title perfect in so many ways.

I am a huge fan of psychological plots, especially where the characters are so deeply complex it’s difficult to fault them for their flaws, and Stovell does not disappoint. But there’s also a deeper villain uncovered, and the cold, sinister motivations are chilling and pathological. We are introduced to someone unrelenting and unapologetic in their behavior, and that persona is truly terrifying. To be lulled into complacency, into sympathizing with someone this evil in nature gets under your skin. Stovell has given us a villain that really does make you stay awake at night because this is the type of villain that is real.

If you are a fan of psychological suspense or thrillers, you need to get your hands on this book. It is masterful in it’s suspense, brilliant in it’s psychology, and breathtaking in it’s twists. In all, this book is exquisite.

Thank you Orenda Books for sending me a copy to read and review!

The Cottingley Secret – Review

“The soul of the fairy is its evanescence. Its charm is the eternal doubt, rose-tinted with the shadow of a hope. But the thrill is all in ourselves.”

The Cottingley Secret is part historical novel, part contemporary novel, where the two stories intersect and meet together in the end.

In 1917, two girls brought together by the Great War find a little bit of magic in the garden by their home. Frances Griffiths was ripped from her home in South Africa when her father was called to war. She and her mother move to Cottingley, England, where she and her cousin Elsie Wright become as close as sisters.

Present day introduces us to Olivia Kavanagh. Olivia finds herself back in Ireland after the death of her grandfather. She learns that she inherits his bookshop, Something Old, and with it, a number of financial problems. Somehow, her grandfather knew she would need time and space to set her course, and also leaves her a manuscript. Olivia finds herself falling into the past and reliving the grip of a nation in a frenzy over fairies.

This book is simply magical. Personally, I am a fan of books that take two different times and somehow write a compelling story that makes them relevant to each other. Something about connecting the past to the present is really appealing to me. Gaynor executes the weaving of these two times and these two stories so beautifully. Each is it’s own story, but also reliant on the other. You want to know what’s happening in both, and wonder all the way through how they are connected.

It isn’t necessarily a mystery, as enough large clues are given so that you can draw the conclusions on technical relationships. But it is the mystery of magic in both stories that make them so unique and such a pleasure to read.

“It is only by believing in magic that we can ever hope to find it.”

I didn’t know going in to this book about The Cottingley Fairies. As I was reading, I found myself going online and reading more about it. This is one of my favorite things when reading historical fiction. When an author takes real events and works them into a story. It feels so much richer to me when you read about a time, or an event, or a person and get to immerse yourself in a possibility of the past.

What I find so completely magical about this book, and about the original story, is that it really becomes less about the actual fact of the fairies and more about the idea of believing in the fairies.

“If we can believe in fairies, perhaps we can believe in anything, even in an end to this damned war. And wouldn’t that be something.”

I loved that at every turn in this book, it didn’t matter if you believed in fairies or magic or not. It became about the ability to believe in possibility. Francis needed to believe in the possibility of her father coming back. She had to wish for it, and in order to wish for something, you have to believe in magic. For Olivia, her wishes required less magic, but belief nonetheless. She needed to remember that she can be whoever she wants, and do whatever she wants. She simply needs to believe that she can.

It’s books like these that make reading so magical to me. We are always urged to grow up and to focus on reality. We forget that there’s a magic to life, even if we don’t expect fairies to greet us in every garden. There is a gift in not knowing what’s going to happen next, and we can find enormous power in simply believing that anything is possible. It’s a wonderful reminder to read a book and be gently reminded that we can create magic in our own lives every day.

“Make-believe keeps us going at times like this. We have to believe in the possibility of happy endings, sure we do, otherwise what’s it all for?”

Francis and Olivia both need to believe in their own happy endings. Which is true of all our lives. We are the bearers of our own magic. We can determine if we believe in the possibility of something, or if we can’t. And our fates will follow our beliefs. So many things we take for granted today would be considered magic centuries ago. Lights that turn on with a switch, or movement. A machine that allows us to talk to anyone in the world, anytime we want. Movies, television, phones, heat, air conditioning. These are all things no one would have dreamed of. Until someone did.

This is the magic that Gaynor brings to life in her book. It is the magic of what could be. The magic of what we can’t imagine yet. It tells a tale of fairies, yes. It weaves a story about a little girl who saw fairies and the choices she made afterwards. It is fiction, wrapped with a touch of reality. Yet it still pushes us to close our eyes and remember the days of our own youth. When we believed in magic and possibility.

Were the fairies of Cottingley real? Was it all a hoax? And, really, does the answer matter at all? Like any good story, it isn’t the details that matter. It is how we feel when we close the pages. We each have magic inside. We simply have to choose to ignite it.

Thank you BookSparks and William Morrow books for sending me a copy to read and review for FRC 2017.

The Party – Review

“The interview room is small and square.”

We begin The Party with the definitions of the word. A social gathering. A political group.  A guilty person. The wording of the title and placing these definitions in the beginning deliciously brilliant, as we know going in that this novel will be an experience on a multidimensional level.

We begin with Martin being interviewed by the police. Voluntarily. An event happened at a party weeks earlier. But we don’t get the whole story right away. We get thrown into the beginning of the night in question. When Martin and Lucy first arrived at the hotel.

Each chapter gives us insight into the characters. Told from Martin’s perspective, Lucy’s journal and the police interview, we get an alternating recount of events. Martin goes further back, explaining his friendship with Ben, the host of the party. We see into Martin’s childhood, his dysfunctional relationship with his mother and his obsessive friendship with Ben.

“I think my mother’s obsessive love for me co-existed with contempt for her own vulnerability. She was dependent on me for affection and yet she denied that she needed it. I never met her standards because I never knew what they were.”

Martin quickly shows himself to be someone not very likable. His view of the world is warped and self-centered. He is the picture of narcissistic. This is a man who uses ‘The Art of War’ to tackle personal relationships and not corporate takeovers. He is precise and controlled and unwilling to see anything but what he wants.

I found some of the most interesting parts of the book when Martin would recount an event, and then Lucy would take us through her version of events. Rarely did the two match, although Lucy seems far more reliable. This comparing of memories gives us a glimpse into how blind Martin can choose to be. How stubbornly he clings to an internal narration, despite any evidence to the contrary.

We do see moments where Martin lets the control slip. Or, rather, moments when he doesn’t understand why his version of events is abhorrent or unreasonable. These moments are just as important to understanding Martin as Lucy’s perspective. Since we are watching the night of the party unfold mainly through his eyes, we need to know if we can trust his version of events. Mostly we can, but we also know that there will be a slant to his version. Or a blunt honesty that makes us flinch.

“It strikes me as far too much effort to nurture a social conscience. Hearts were never intended to bleed.”

Lucy is hands down the most likable character in the book. She is kind and patient, and has much more depth than anyone gives her credit for. She is seen as frumpy and having no fashion sense. Yet we learn that Lucy does things just as deliberately as Martin, or Ben, or even Serena (Ben’s trophy wife).

“I knew Serena thought I had no taste – so did Martin for that matter – but it was done on purpose. I didn’t want my clothes to be the most remarkable thing about me.”

This book is written with the mystery of what happened at the party building with each page. We don’t even know who is hurt, let alone what happened, until the very end. The effect to that building mystery makes the novel read as a character examination. Rather that a who-dun-it, it becomes a who could have done it? Each memory revealing more pieces to the puzzle that are necessary to trying to solve the mystery.

The possibilities seem endless as we read, learning about the financial power of Ben’s family, the Fitzmaurice’s. Martin more than a best friend, but nearly an adopted brother. Yet there is distance between Ben and Martin. Or is it a rising tension?

Whatever happened, we know that it must have been one hell of a party. Someone in the hospital. Police investigating. Lucy separated from Martin and in treatment. Our imaginations run wild with horrific possibility over what could have transpired.

“Sometimes the entire course of your life can change because of a single second, because that single second doesn’t exist in isolation: it is connected to an infinite chain of minutes, days, weeks, months and years that have gone before.”

The examination of past and present becomes necessary to understand the moment at the party that culminated into these mysterious consequences. We need to understand the character of all parties involved in order to assess the outcome.

The Party is a lesson in social conformity and expectation. We all want to be seen and heard by our peers, by our spouses, by our families. We want to be accepted and lauded for our accomplishments. We are attracted to the rich and the famous for their ease in all of social settings, and for the ease in which they gather achievements. Martin is no different, though he is a bit more sociopathic about it. Ben is wealthy and charming, and Martin is drawn to his flame. It is Lucy who gives us the grounding we need.

“That’s the problem with charm. It means you get away with stuff. It means you never have to develop a real character because no one remembers to look for one. They’re too busy basking in the glow of your attention. They’re too busy being impressed.”

The ending to this novel is satisfying and yet still disturbing. I don’t want to ruin the mystery, as part of the fun is trying to picture what horrific event could have transpired at a party for the rich and famous. It is shocking, and not shocking. It makes you feel vindication and satisfaction, but then you pull back, because maybe you shouldn’t.

A very interesting examination into social status and relationships. You’ll consider how we view the wealthy. How their choices are so different from people outside of that social stratosphere. And how that desire to be a part of that social circle can become twisted and all-encompassing. Can that obsession change who we are? Can it change what we do?

You won’t be able to stop reading until you find out: what happened at The Party?

Thank you Little, Brown for sending me a copy to read and review.

Chatting with Val – The Reminders

Some of you may remember that in early summer I won the chance to chat with Val Emmich, author of The Reminders, from Little, Brown. I was lucky enough to be able to include a few of the women from my book club (@pnwbookworm, @trissinalovesbooks, @thepagesinbetween), and through a series of scheduling snafus and hilariously trying to figure out how to group Skype (at the last minute of course!) we successfully connected!

I took notes, but by no means is this a detailed transcription of what we discussed. Any errors are mine, and mine alone. And rather than type out an interview style article, I wanted to rather relay our chat in snapshots and impressions, because let’s be honest, my note taking skills aren’t that accurate.

As I recap, please be aware that there could be spoilers in this conversation. Please stop reading if you are planning on reading the book, as I would hate to ruin the experience for you. That said, be sure to check out my Instagram page for a Reminders related giveaway!

Outside of signing events and meeting authors at conference, this was my first actual one on one interaction with an author, and I am so glad it was with Val.

First, let me start by saying, we ended up talking on Skype for over an hour and a half! And, honestly, I think we probably could have gone on longer. It didn’t hurt that we all, author included, adored his book. But beyond that, Val is such a genuine person that it felt natural and easy to talk to him.

Obviously we talked about the book. We talked about the characters, and his process and everything in between! To give you an idea of how kind he is, he asked us questions about ourselves, wanting to include us in a conversation, and not just focus on his book or himself.

If you need a reminder, HERE is my review of the book.

To begin, we jumped right into how this book came to life.

The Reminders is actually the third book he wrote. He had gone through the writing, and querying and attempted selling of the first novels with no luck. After going through some artistic soul-searching, similar to what Joan’s dad goes through, (and an incident with his daughter, but we’ll get to that) he sat down and began writing a short story. This short story was about a girl named Joan and her rare memory disorder. From there the story grew.

He talked a bit about how in his first two books he was trying to write what he thought would sell. When the idea for Joan came, and he started writing, he changed his tactics and started to write something that he would want to read. He wanted it to be joyful and pleasant. To do that, he simply worked against our trained assumptions to assume the worst.

I found the way he wove these assumptions into the story in such a subtle way to be brilliant. There were multiple moments when my heart sank, only to be buoyed up by an unexpected turn in the story. These aren’t dramatic plot twists, or predictable outcomes, and yet the impact of being wrong works so beautifully. Hearing this insight after reading the book is amazing. Not just as a reader, but also as an aspiring writer.

We spent a lot of time talking about music. Music, as you know, plays a huge part of this book. Joan is trying to win a song writing contest, her dad has a music studio and Gavin and her dad were in a band in their college days. So, it is probably not surprising to learn that Val is a musician.

The music in the novel developed organically, the story coming to life as he wrote. This is an example of the adage, “Write what you know”. There are a lot of his own struggles brought to life in the novel. The struggle of being an artist, of living in New Jersey and not New York, of deciding to stay in art or change careers, and then there’s the struggle of being a parent. This honesty makes the novel so relatable. The characters and their struggles feel more real.

Even though the details of the music came organically, there was a moment when he realized he would have to write a song that would be good enough to actually enter and possibly win a contest. The experience he’s had as a musician and song writer really helped with this, and he said it was a lot of fun to write and create a song that has both Gavin and Joan in it.

Everyone always asks, where do ideas come from. Sometimes this is a tricky question for an author. But in this case, Val knew.

He talks about this moment on his YouTube channel, and elaborated with us. He was shopping in a Home Depot (sound familiar?) and his daughter fell out of the cart. After the terror of the accident calmed down, and everything turned out to be okay with his daughter, a special came on TV discussing memory and these rare disorders. An “AHA” moment transpired.

Some of the questions we asked were about details of the book. How did he track all the details of Joan’s memory? This is one of my favorite things in the book, how Joan remembers things so vividly and specifically. Val confessed to not having a great memory, so he printed calendars and filled them out with things that Joan experienced. It became a way for him to write, but it also ended up being a way for him to connect with the character.

How did he pick the age? His wife is a teacher. She teaches 4-6th grade gifted kids, and he spent some time observing them. From there it became a matter of figuring out what was too old (pre-teen) or what was too young for Joan. Her age had to be realistic to achieve certain details in the plot, but also to be able to think and rationalize like a child. He knew it was right when he landed on ten.

Where did the details for the characters come from? The characteristics for all the characters are an amalgamation of different people. Mostly these are unknown, so we won’t be revealing secrets here. But, like with anything, he watched people he knew, people he didn’t and the characters began to come to life. No matter how they started, or who provided the inspiration, it was fun to add personality and give them dimension.

The idea of music being intertwined with memory fit together fluidly. As a society we remember music. It makes sense, that for someone like Joan, where memory is such a vivid part of her life, that music would be a relatable way to showcase that importance.

Writing about such a specific memory problem was also a challenge. In some ways, he said it was easy, and in others it was difficult. The calendars he created helped him visualize her reality. He read books on people who actually have this condition so that he could understand it. The details about her clothing came from this research. While he didn’t come across that specific detail in an account, other details sparked the idea. Memories are so vivid for these people, that a shirt can pull them into the past. They often keep journals, which Joan does as well.

And finally, we talked about book tours.

Many publishers aren’t sending authors out on book tours, especially new authors. But since he already had a network and a fan base, he set up a tour anyway, or an exchange of sorts. He played music in exchange for a book discussion. I think given the nature of the book, this sounds perfect! These tour events also ended up being more personal and intimate than a traditional book store event. They were in people’s homes and so it prompted more intimate discussion and interaction. Again, if you’ve read the book, I think you agree, it sounds like a perfect setting!

One awesome detail: the drawings are his but the handwriting in those pictures are from his ten year old niece! How cool is that?!

Val has already started writing his next project, and should have an announcement coming soon! I for one, cannot wait to hear what is next.

If you’re interested in winning a copy of the soundtrack for the book, hop on over to my Instagram page for details!!!

Please visit his YouTube channel HERE

You can buy your copy of The Reminders HERE

Thank you so much Little, Brown and Val Emmich for giving us the chance to spend time getting to know you and your book!!! It was an experience we won’t forget.

 

 

Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined – Review

“This whole trip could have been set up to prove it to me once and for all. Life isn’t fair, and anything is possible.”

Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is a stunning book. It so fully captures the heartbreaking nature of living. The depth and warmth and aching beauty of this book will stay with me for a long, long time.

Ingrid grew up listening to her mother sing. They traveled throughout Europe and her mother always encouraged her to follow her dreams and believe in herself. Until that career came to an unexpected end, and they moved into a smaller, more normal life.

“We believed in hard work, but we also believed in magic.”

Somehow, years later, Ingrid finds herself thrown into a summertime wilderness survival trip, made in a strange negotiation with her mother in order to go to the school of her dreams. The magic her mother believed in, that she taught Ingrid to believe in, had disappeared. To have to prove her determination to follow her dreams, to her own mother, is unbelievable to Ingrid. She treks into the wilderness feeling alone but simmering with an anger that makes her more determined than ever.

I adored Ingrid. Adored her! If I had known her as a teenager, we probably would have been friends. She is smart, and funny, and quirky. But she also has had an artist for a mother. An artist who wasn’t always as stable and reliant and motherly as she needed. As a result, she is a very adult teenager. But still a teenager. She swings between emotions whiplash quick at times. She feels the magic of first love and finding her passion, but also feels the fear children feel when parents behave in odd and unpredictable ways.

It’s hard sometimes to capture the tumultuous nature of adolescence. Or, at least to capture an aspect of it that can be relatable to a wide audience. Not everyone lived an unstable life growing up. Or had emotional issues. Or problems with the law. And often, we find main characters struggling through some sort of extreme in many YA novels.

And don’t get me wrong. Ingrid is struggling through some heavy issues. But the way Young-Ullman draws us into the story, through a series of journal letters, flashes to the past and narration of the current story, we get to know Ingrid before we understand what happened. I really liked that, because especially in a situation like a wilderness survival trip, that is how we get to know people. True, this is more intimate, but it is still a relationship that develops slowly. With each letter, with each flash to the past, you can’t help but feel for Ingrid. She may have grown up in a glamorous setting, in a privileged way, but that doesn’t mean it has been easy for her.

I haven’t specifically been through a trip like Ingrid’s. But I have been through plenty of therapy, group included, and these often included group interaction in activities like ropes courses and problem solving and other similar activities that Pat and Bonnie lead this group through. If the author hadn’t been through some sort of similar experience, I would be shocked because she absolutely nailed it. The frustration, and embarrassment, and fear, and even the close friendships that can develop.

These types of therapies are popular for a variety of reasons. And sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I happen to agree with Ingrid in many of her assessments and reactions, but not everyone will. However, even if you don’t agree, or haven’t been through any similar activities, I think everyone will relate to Ingrid, on some level. The author did an excellent job of balancing this piece of the novel; however, and the result shows you the good and the bad.

I also loved how the author used Pat and Bonnie to demonstrate the fine line therapies like this can walk. They represent the different theories and approaches that these programs can take. I loved the other participants in these programs. They were all very vivd characters, full of refreshing depth. Writing a variety of at-risk youth in a way that makes them feel well-developed and real isn’t easy, and was done incredibly well. Honestly, everything was solid and realistic.

Everything Beautiful is such a beautiful book. We all struggle through heartbreak and grief in our lives. Sometimes we are young, sometimes we are old, and while each experience is unique to the circumstance, the raw power of those emotions are so similar in us all. We feel Ingrid’s pain, her anger, her stubbornness. We watch as the solitude of this experience forces her to face the things she doesn’t want to face.

Nature has always been a source of centering and a way to find yourself. Getting lost in the balance of nature forces us to face ourselves in the most raw way. I loved how this setting was used to peel away the layers of Ingrid and her own stubborn nature. Sometimes we need extreme measures to face extreme emotions, and this novel captured every detail of this extremeness perfectly.

“In your eyes you look better. Fast rivers and slow forests seem to agree with you.”

Ingrid isn’t cured, or fixed, or healed by the end. Nothing about this novel was cliche or predictable or boring. I felt the entire time that I was experiencing the life of a teenage girl, struggling through a difficult time, and finding some understanding but no real answers. Which I absolutely loved.

By the end, my heart ached for Ingrid. Not in a heartbreaking way, although there is heartbreak on many levels in this book. But heartbreaking in the way growing up always is. Our hearts break a million different tiny ways in our lives, and a handful of big ways. They break and they heal and we are stronger for it.

“Instead I stand under the giant sky counting stars, feeling scared and raw, but at the same time full, fierce, open.”

I highly, highly recommend this book. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began, and flew through it. Ingrid found her way into my heart. Danielle Young-Ullman is an author I will definitely be reading more of!

Thank you to Xpresso Book Tours for sending me this book to read and review in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

#amwriting

I’ve been asked quite a bit lately about my writing. What am I writing? When am I going to be finished? When will I submit? And, mostly, what happened to that other book you wrote?

In January last year, I had a moment, sitting in my office, when I realized that I wasn’t fulfilled. I hated my job, and felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. Watching my only son go off to college to pursue his dreams, and attending his orientation where you are in a room filled with people who still believe that anything in life is possible, is probably what triggered this. I realized, at some point I had forgotten how to dream. I had forgotten what I wanted, and I wasn’t happy.

So, I sat down to write.

This was not my first book. I’ve been writing on and off since I was 7. And throughout the years, I had even drafted and almost finished several novels. But none of them worked, for a variety of reasons. When I started writing in January, I had an idea. It was cute. And funny. And the characters weren’t terrible. And I completed it.

I went to a convention and pitched it. I received decent feedback on it. I went in to edit it, and discovered I hated it.

And here’s where I think I had a crisis as a writer before I even began. Do I finish what I hate? Or do I go with my gut and start a new process? There is advice everywhere giving lots of solid reasons to do either choice.

My decision was to shelve the book. I went with my gut. And here’s why.

As a reader, I’ve read countless Indie books where the idea is good, and the plot is decent and the characters are even likable. But it needed work. More editing. More finessing. Just more time and attention. They weren’t terrible, and indeed, many readers and reviewers enjoyed them, but they could have been amazing.

I understand the impulse to want to get your work out there. Publishing is a long, arduous process, which is why I think many people choose to go Indie. A writing dream doesn’t pay the bills. I feel the same pressure.

On top of that, let’s throw in my own mid-life crisis. I’m relaunching a career late in my 30’s. I already feel behind. I already feel like I have to do it NOW NOW NOW! And for good measure, let’s throw in insecurities about writing, and feedback, and not being good enough.

I felt the pressure to submit this first book. Because it probably was good enough. But to me, it wasn’t great. It was okay. There are lots of okay books out there that do well and are well received. However, you can only debut once. And once a book is published, it’s out there forever.

Although it may sound like I think I can write a book to win the masses, I know that isn’t true. Not to say that I can’t be a successful writer, but no one, not even Stephen King, can write a book that everyone likes. It isn’t possible. I know this. The only thing I can control is how I feel about the book I present. And if I put every bit of my heart and soul into a book, and know deep in my gut that it was the best I could do at the time I did it, then I can walk into that world and feel good about it. I need to have that confidence to face the criticism and rejection and bad reviews that will inevitably come.

In my gut, I know that the book I’m writing now is better. I know it fits me more. I know that I get excited to talk about it, and describe my characters, and constantly think about the plot. It’s only a first draft, but I am already proud of it. Of what I’ve created. I didn’t have that the first time.

I don’t want to be a writer so that I can have a shelf full of my own books, pumped out as fast as I can write them. Or, I do want a shelf full of books, but I want them to be my best efforts. The books I can’t get out of my head, filled with characters that are pieces of me. I have those books in me. I feel them in my heart, in my gut, in my head.

It probably seems crazy to have spent a year on a book and then to walk away from it. Some days it feels crazy. It feels like wasted time and effort. It feels like I’m even further behind. But, I know that’s not true. That book showed me I CAN do it. I can write a book. I can edit a book. I can see plot failures and work to correct them. I can. Which means I can do it again. And again. And again.

Writing is a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I walked away from that dream for over a decade. Coming back to it isn’t going to be easy. I don’t want it to be easy.

I’m going to finish this book, and I’m going to submit it. I know it’s a good story. That doesn’t mean it will be picked up. Or even sold. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I have no idea. What I DO know, in the core of my being, is that it’s good. If this doesn’t sell, I will go with my next gut instinct and write the next book. I will write, and I will submit, and eventually, I know I will find my publishing people.

So, for those of you who wonder, I am writing. Thanks for your support, both vocal and non. I feel your support even when you don’t say anything. I feel it even more when you do.

Writing is a process. It’s art. Not everything created needs to be let out into the world. Sometimes, a piece of work is for the artist, intended to help them in some unseen or unknown way. This is my way, and I have to trust my instinct.

Anything worth doing, is worth doing right. Thanks for sticking with me!

Counting Wolves Blog Tour

XBTBanner1
This week, I am happy to be a part of the blog tour for a new book, Counting Wolves. Thank you to XPresso Book Tours for the review copy!

“Most secrets we hide even from ourselves.”

Counting Wolves is a book exploring what fear can do to us. How it can impact us and effect us in ways we don’t expect.

Milly has to count to one hundred to walk through doorways. And speak. And take a bite. Which is a problem to everyone. But they don’t understand that Milly does it to keep the wolf at bay. If she doesn’t, the wolf will be unleashed and hurt everyone.

Her step-mother has her committed to an adolescent psych ward after Milly faints in her gym class. Here, she is surrounded by other fairy tales come to life, and is forced to deal with witches and toads who run the floor. Milly realizes that counting here isn’t as strong, and has to learn how to use new weapons to fight her wolf.

The story is a unique take on mental illness. Sometimes when we envision how an illness manifests, or what can trigger certain behaviors, we see it from the outside. Here, we are thrown into Milly’s mind and have to work to unravel the real from the fantasy along with Milly. While it wouldn’t happen as quickly in real life, the message is still effective.

We also are able to see how mental illness can develop in an adolescent. At that age,  trying to figure out what’s real and what’s in our head is a struggle without trauma, or compulsions, or outside stressors impacting us. Milly doesn’t quite capture everything right about OCD or trauma induced compulsive behavior. Personally, I feel that the short timeline made it feel more unrealistic and forced than the author intended. No one can stop behaviors in a week that have been reinforced and reenacted for years. It simply isn’t realistic. However, in terms of facing the fairy tale, it works.

As far as other characters, I absolutely adored Vanet. I think his depiction of manic behavior was accurate and his personality added some humor to the heaviness and darkness of the subject matter. I would have liked to have seen a down episode, as manic-depressive behavior is never all ups, but the timeline of a week made that difficult from a plot perspective.

“Maybe he is the fairy godmother. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who actually seems to believe anything is possible.”

The one problem I had with the novel, was the psych ward didn’t seem realistic. I do have some knowledge in this area, and the behaviors of the staff just wouldn’t happen, in my experience and opinion. Some of the details regarding the other patients, also didn’t ring quite true, but they were minor and I understand their relevance to the story.

Overall I did enjoy the story. The depiction of mental illness wasn’t 100% right in detail, but the feel of how terrifying it is was right. Having thoughts you can’t control and compulsions you can’t stop is overwhelming and frightening at any age. Our minds always try and create an explanation, and using fairy tales was a good way to show that.

I also really enjoyed how Milly’s parents were depicted. They were set up to be uncaring, or even part of the problem, and really the author did a nice job showing their support. Even more, Dr. Balder was depicted as a caring psychiatrist, with Milly’s progress as his priority. I think that having Milly surrounded with this love and support is important in talking about mental health. It removes the idea that getting help has to be problematic, and sends a fantastic message about relying on others and accepting help.

For anyone looking for a way to understand how mental illness can sometimes look and feel, this book gets the panic and the fear right. Counting Wolves sends all the right messages about not just what fear and the spiral into compulsive behaviors can look like, but also about getting help and accepting support.

“Fear is the mind-killer.”

Want to win a copy? Click the link below for a chance to win one of 25 ebooks!

GIVEAWAY!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Counting Wolves is available now. Synopsis and links are below! Once again, thank you to Xpresso Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Counting Wolves
Michael F. Stewart
Publication date: August 14th 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult

The Breakfast Club meets Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the lair of an adolescent psych ward.

Milly’s evil stepmother commits her to a pediatric psych ward. That’s just what the wolf wants. With bunk mates like Red, who’s spiraling out of control; Pig, a fire-bug who claims Milly as her own—but just wants extra dessert—Vanet, a manic teen masquerading as a fairy godmother with wish-granting powers as likely to kill as to help; and the mysterious Wolfgang, rumored to roam for blood at night; it doesn’t take long for Milly to realize that only her dead mother’s book of tales can save her.

But Milly’s spells of protection weaken as her wolf stalks the hospital corridors. The ward’s a Dark Wood, and she’s not alone. As her power crumbles, she must let go of her magic and discover new weapons if she is to transform from hunted to hunter.

Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Kobo

Author Bio:

Michael F. Stewart is winner of both the 2015 Claymore Award and the 2014 inaugural Creation of Stories Award for best YA novel at the Toronto International Book Fair.

He likes to combine storytelling with technology and pioneered interactive storytelling with Scholastic Canada, Australia, and New Zealand’s, anti-cyberbullying program Bully For You. In addition to his award winning Assured Destruction series, he has authored four graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada’s Boldprint series. Publications of nonfiction titles on Corruption and Children’s Rights are published by Scholastic and early readers are out with Pearson Education.

For adults, Michael has written THE SAND DRAGON a horror about a revenant prehistoric vampire set in the tar sands, HURAKAN a Mayan themed thriller which pits the Maya against the MS-13 with a New York family stuck in the middle, 24 BONES an urban fantasy which draws from Egyptian myth, and THE TERMINALS–a covert government unit which solves crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next.

Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he was the Ottawa Public Library’s first Writer in Residence. To learn more about Michael and his next projects visit his website at http://www.michaelfstewart.com or connect via Twitter @MichaelFStewart.

Michael is represented by Talcott Notch.

Website / Goodreads / Facebook / Twitter

How To Behave In a Crowd – Review

“I guess that’s what happens when you’re the only one to notice a thing: you feel responsible for it.”

How To Behave In A Crowd follows a French family living in a small town in rural France. We get our introduction and view of the family from the youngest son, Isadore. Dory, or Izzy, as he would prefer to be called, feels separate from his family. The rest of his siblings have all skipped grades, shown to be prodigies in one way or another, sometimes multiple ways. Yet Dory is in the grade he belongs and has no idea what he wants to do or who he wants to be.

Rather than presenting a straight forward coming-of-age tale, the Mazal family is struck by a tragedy early in the book. This tragedy becomes the defining moment of the family, and so the book, in how each member moves forward with their grief.

Even though Dory isn’t a prodigy academically, he is prone to observing and understanding people better than the rest of his family. This sensitivity and ability to empathize, is his family’s best shot at healing from their grief.

“I knew my mother thought that of me. That I was kind, and good at reading people’s emotions. What I didn’t understand was why she thought it was a good thing.”

This book was presented as a dark comedy. While I did see the darker aspects of humor in the characters, the comedy of it didn’t quite work for me. I could see the quirks written into each character to make them seem eccentric, aloof, and in their own way, humorous, but it just didn’t work entirely for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the book. But rather than finding the humor in the writing, it felt very tragic and sad. Dory was meant to be the one to bring the family together and help them heal, but I didn’t see that happen. In fact, in a rather abrupt ending, we are told about Dory’s role, rather than shown that role.

The fact that Dory feels unseen and out of place is made very clear. I realize that eccentric people can seem cold and unfeeling, when really they have much more depth. In fact, this depth is usually where the humor lies. I think for me; however, we are never really shown that depth from anyone but the mother. We are shown the struggles that Dory’s siblings go through, but how he helps them to resolve those struggles is a little less clear.

By the time I reached the end, and Dory gets hit with another severe emotional trauma, I was fairly fed up with the family. Instead of coming across as eccentric, quirky but well-meaning members, they all came across as self-absorbed and dysfunctional.

I imagine that being the youngest of six children would make any child feel somewhat invisible. I can also understand how living a normal life in a family of prodigies would really highlight that feeling. But the siblings all felt too absorbed in their own intellect to really try and connect with each other. I didn’t get the sense of a big family, full of unique personalities, challenging each other. Instead, the siblings were all involved in their own projects, their own lives, and had a difficult time connecting. One scene described all the siblings home, the visitor asking if Dory was by himself due to the quietness of the home. It gave the impression of a home that is sterile, cold, devoid of any warmth that a family should provide. Again, it felt more dysfunctional to me, rather than eccentric. Having the mother emphasize Dory’s kindness and empathy only drives home that the other siblings aren’t.

“Sometimes, I feel like I brought up a batch of little misanthropes,” she said. “You’re all so intolerant. You only look up from your books to criticize the rest of the world.”

The trauma Dory experiences, both instances of it, leave him with an anger that demands an outlet. I really would have enjoyed that anger land him in some sort of trouble that forces the family to rally around him. When you hear the book compared to The Royal Tennenbaums, you can easily picture this crisis. It would have provided the siblings and even the mother the chance to redeem their quirks, their selfishness, their lack of interaction. Instead, we are given half attempts from half of the family. His anger is somewhat released, left largely unaddressed and there isn’t a clear path forward when the novel closes.

Ambiguity in a character isn’t a problem for me. Life ends nightly on unknowns for all of us. In general, I love when a novel shows the openness and possibility at the end, and if fits the character. In this case, I had no sense of hope for Dory. There was no sense that the siblings would ever be involved in his life, or change their efforts in regards to him. the mother did seem to be more aware of his struggles and there was hope that she would perhaps change, but given how small her role in the family was in relation to Dory, I’m not sure that was as satisfying as it could have been.

In all, the book was melancholy and sad. I felt terrible for Dory throughout the entire book. This kid needed friends, family support and most of the time a really big hug. Perhaps that’s the American in me. Maybe it was a cultural translation that didn’t work for me. I’m not sure, but whatever the reason I just didn’t connect with this family.

Thank you to the Penguin Random House First to Read program and Crown Publishing for the early copy in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

The Goddesses – Review

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”

Nancy wants nothing more than to forget her life in San Diego. Even more, she wants to forget why her and her family had to move to Hawaii in the first place. Meeting Ana, pronounced On-a, gives her a chance to reinvent herself into the fearless and bold woman she always wanted to be.

Ana is a free spirit, deep and living a life full of meaning. Nancy wants her freedom. She wants her spiritualism. She wants space from the demands of her twin teenage boys and her unfaithful husband. Nancy finds herself drawn to Ana, drawn to her irresistible nature.

“Habitual momentum,” she said, “dictates of our lives. It’s hard to change our patterns. And it’s easy to get stuck.”

When Ana asks Nancy for help, righting the wrongs of her past to help force good karma in her life, Nancy says yes without hesitation. Every task completed makes Nancy feel powerful and alive.

“Delivering the karma could be hard sometimes, but afterwards you really did feel like a goddess.”

The Goddesses is an exploration of friendship. How the line between friends can easily become blurred. We often see these types of novels use the similarity of passion and obsession between couples. To use this concept between friends is a twist I was excited to read about.

I can see how the novel is psychological; however, it missed the mark for being suspenseful or thrilling for me. Ana felt very predictable to me. Nothing she did was shocking, and honestly, Nancy was way too gullible to be believable. The details meant to be confusing or climatic, fell flat for me. By the end, even the dramatic twists weren’t that impactful.

The aspect of friendship and how we use people to escape our own lives was interesting, and I did like that aspect of the book. Nancy was an interesting character. Her desperation to be someone else, for this new personality to erase all the pain in her past should have been compelling. I felt for her.

Life throws some fairly cruel curveballs sometimes. They can be difficult, and I think most people have wished for a redo at one point or another. The problem with Nancy for me, though, is that she isn’t very sympathetic. I can understand her struggles with her husband, and even her lack of ability to understand her sons should have made her sympathetic.

“Terrible that sometimes, as a parent, the easiest thing to do is to ignore the problem.”

These struggles though aren’t as difficult as her reactions to them are. She wants to shed the trappings of her life, but she also wants to relish in her life. As the old saying goes, she can’t have her cake and eat it too. But even wanting this, doesn’t make Nancy a bad character. What was the most disappointing were the hints we got to a darker side of Nancy. The desire to be Ana and the willingness she jumped into the friendship hinted at this darkness. If Huntley had explored this own inner darkness, Nancy would have been fascinating. Instead, she ended up feeling whiny and a bit naive.

Ana also had the potential to be compelling. But again, her motives were very see-through and predictable. Not just that her motives or actions were transparent, but she just wasn’t that shocking. Nothing she did was surprising. And the plot twist, wasn’t that twisted. I guessed what was happening within the first few interactions between the two women. It was disappointing that I was right.

While I didn’t hate reading The Goddesses, it just wasn’t as gripping or compelling as I would have liked. I wish it had more suspense to it, more shock, more creepiness. I turned every page waiting for more, but it never came. There was a lot of potential to really dive deep into the dark side of a twisted mind. Sadly, that potential was never reached for me.

Thank you BookSparks and Doubleday for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.