Book Review: Plastic Magician, an Imaginative Read

If you follow my blog at all, you’ll know that I’m a fan of Charlie Holmberg. I loved her books The Fifth Doll and Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet. So, when given the opportunity by Netgalley to review a free ARC of her most recent book, The Plastic Magician, to be released on May 15th, I jumped at it. While this book, the fourth in her Paper Magician series, was an imaginative, fun read, it wasn’t quite the caliber of the other books I’ve read of hers. But I still recommend it, if you’re looking for something light and easy.

What Plastic Magician Is About

Alvie Brechenmacher is an apprentice in the field of plastic magic; she can bespell the substance to do any number of things, as long as she studies hard under her mentor, the world-renowned magician Marion Praff.  Alvie’s enthusiasm reinvigorates her mentor’s work, and together they create a device that could forever change Polymaking (the magic of materials). But Magician Praff has a bitter rival who learns of their plans and conspires to steal their invention and take the credit for it himself.

Alvie is a wonderful main character, a young woman who is smart, clueless in the ways of romance, attractive, mechanically inclined, eager, clumsy, and excited. As part of her apprenticeship, she’s required to do volunteer work at a local hospital, where she meets and befriends a young girl who has recently had her arm amputated. She happens to meet the girl’s brother, Bennet Cooper, and a cute romance develops between them.

Who Would Like This Book

Even though Alvie’s in her early twenties, I think the people that would most like this book would be young girls between the ages of 8 and 20. The plot, because it involves minimal conflict and a lot of magic, is more middle-grade than young adult. And, if you read and liked The Paper Magician, The Glass Magician, or The Master Magician, you’d probably like this book too, although I’m told that Alvie is quite different than the main character of those books, Ceony.

 

My Writing Update and a Book Review of Paper Hearts,

This past week has been an interesting one as I gained a lot of insight into a problem I’ve been having, and took steps to resolve it, and as my husband and I talked about what he wants to do “when he grows up.” In the midst of that, I continued revising my first book, Forced, querying my second book, Stranger in my Own Head, looking for beta readers for my third, which is the sequel to the second, and starting my fourth book, which is called Sealers for now. What this means is:

  • After writing Forced, revising it through five drafts,  then getting it critiqued, beta-read, and edited, I researched about 50 agents looking for urban fantasy, then submitted query letters and sample pages to them, asking them to consider representing me to publishers. While there were a couple of requests for fulls and partials, no agent has yet offered representation, so I took the premise to one of my critique groups and, after receiving reassurance that it’s still really solid, decided to tweak and revise it again. Rewrite #8: bring it on!
  • After writing Stranger in my Own Head and revising it seven times, having it critiqued and beta-read, and submitting queries to 120 agents, I’ve so far received a similar response: one request for a full manuscript and another for a partial manuscript, both from agents from whom I haven’t heard back from yet.
  • I wrote Stranger in my Own Head #2 in a little over a month, and have since revised it once. It’s quite short, only 50,000 words, which is about 150 pages, so I need to have a beta-reader take a look at it to see where the plot would best be fleshed out.
  • To prepare to write Sealers, I’ve done all kinds of research on volcanoes, rapamycin, skin cancer, Chile, and Easter Island. I’ve made a character bible and a beat sheet (basic outline). I scrapped everything I did before writing the book from the daughter’s perspective, and am instead writing/rewriting it from the mother’s perspective. This will be the first adult sci-fi I’ve written.

I’m also researching and outlining three other books.

Paper Hearts: Some Real Writing Advice

To help me in all of these tasks, I read Beth Revis’ Paper Hearts #1: Some Writing Advice. I bought this book purely based on the fact that Beth is a published YA sci-fi author whose books (Across the Universe, A Million Suns, Shades of Earth, and The Body Electric, to name a few) I have greatly enjoyed. In more than 100 very short, “tidbitty” chapters, Revis explains the intricacies, beauty, and difficulties of being a writer, in a conversational, helpful tone. From one writer to another, she offers advice on things like how to find a good critique partner, ways to chart story structure, and what a writer should do if he or she is stuck somewhere in their work-in-progress.

Ninety-eight percent of her advice was spot on, about things I can testify to the importance of through my own experience, or easily and practically applicable to the book I’m writing right now. I could see how what she was saying about charting plot structure could help me fine-tune the beat sheet I’ve done for Sealers, for instance. The only thing that would keep me from giving this book a perfect 10 out of 10 stars, or five-out-of-five on Amazon, was that Revis, in one part of the book, got on her soapbox about a particular issue (featuring gay characters in books). I like hearing other people’s opinions, especially when they’re respectfully stated and posted in a way that invites civil conversation. But if someone states their opinion on social media or in real life simply for the purpose of putting it out there (which I understand) as opposed to starting a dialogue, it just adds to the cacophony of people shouting their opinions. We don’t need more of that, especially in a writing book.

So, I do recommend Paper Hearts #1 to other writers, with that one caveat. There is a workbook and two other books in that series that I intend to get. If you’ve read them, let me know what you think!

Book Review: Restore Me, an Embroiling Read

I just finished reading my fourth book this week: Restore Me by Tahereh Mafi. As it happens, it’s also the fourth book in Tahereh’s Shatter Me series. It was an embroiling read, as intense as the three books before it, but less for the action than for the emotion. And, of course, it too, has a cliffhanger ending. Guys. I can’t handle all these books with cliffhanger endings! So frustrating! It was good on so many levels, but you might want to wait until more books in this series come out before you pick this one up, because you’ll get to the end and be like:

via GIPHY

What Restore Me Is About

To tell you that, I have to tell you a little bit about what the previous three books are about, so this section will have some spoilers. The main character, Juliette Ferrars, has a lethal touch. This is in a far-future America where everyone’s all but killed everyone else off, and what’s left of humanity on this continent has organized itself into 50 independently-governed sectors. A group called The Reestablishment endeavors to control all of them, and wants to do so by wiping out all languages but one, all religions, everything that divides humankind up. Juliette has been kept in an asylum’s solitary confinement cell for almost a year because of her touch, until she’s given a cellmate who’s immune to it. He eventually reveals that he’s working for The Reestablishment, and then introduces her to Warner, the son of the Supreme Commander, who has come to free her so that she can use her touch to punish traitors to The Reestablishment.

Juliette doesn’t want to use her touch to hurt anyone, especially not traitors to The Reestablishment, so Adam, her cellmate, helps her escape. They get away, and Adam introduces her to a rag-tag group of people forming a rebellion against The Reestablishment, a crazy feat to even attempt given its size and power. But eventually Juliette reveals her ability and finds out that others in the group have powers as well. Over the course of a couple of books—Unravel Me and Ignite Me—they gather reinforcements, against all odds, and kill the Supreme Commander. Warner, the son, tracks Juliette obsessively, she thinks, because he wants to turn her over to his father, but really, because he is in love with her. He also happens to be immune to her touch, although no one knows that. So, by the end of book 3, the Supreme Commander is dead, Juliette learns how to turn her power on and off at will, and she realizes that she might love Warner too, broken young man that he is (like her).

Restore Me, then, is about Juliette’s first days as the new 17-year-old Supreme Commander of Sector 45, with Warner by her side. Adam, who was an initial love interest, is no longer in the picture. She was able to rally a whole sector of people and some allies to defeat the forces that the previous Supreme Commander brought to bear, but now that she’s in charge, she realizes how little she knows about everything. She’s quickly overwhelmed, especially when an announcement is made that the teenage children of the Supreme Commanders of all the other sectors are all coming to meet her. She finds unexpected allies and enemies in some of them, discovers secrets about her past that she didn’t even know existed but that upturn everything she thinks she knows about herself, and doesn’t discover enough about Warner to merit how deeply she falls in love with him. But she’s desperate for people, for touch, for help.

Who Might Like Restore Me and Why

Restore Me is definitely dystopian, in a way that reminds me of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, a series written by Australian Isobelle Carmody also based on the premise that many hundreds or thousands of years in the future, mankind almost makes itself extinct, to the point that cars and skyscrapers and Netflix and the internet are mere relics of the past, and the bad things we did to the environment before that happened caused mutations to develop in people that gave them certain abilities.

It goes without saying that if you’ve read any of the previous books in this series, you’ll like this one, if you’re okay with cliffhanger endings. If you’re a fan of the Twilight saga, you’d probably also like this book because Juliette, like Belle, is wrapped up in her inadequacies but drawn by some otherworldly chemistry to someone she shouldn’t be drawn to. There is a sex scene, and some swearing.

And, for you science fiction fans, there is very little world-building, so much so that it can be a little frustrating. To a certain extent, the descriptions of the characters’ environment has been taken care of in the previous books, but since they’ve destroyed a lot of it, and are rebuilding, more world-building would’ve definitely been helpful.

And, while I detest the baiting of cliffhanger endings, I anxiously await the release of the next book in the Shatter Me series.

Have you read anything by Tahereh Mafi? What did you think?

Book Review: Dark Breaks the Dawn, a Romantic YA Read

I have to apologize. A couple of days ago, in this post, I said that Sara B. Larson’s book Dark Breaks the Dawn was all about power. I was wrong. While most of the story’s direct conflict revolves around the main character’s struggles to defeat the despotic ruler of a neighboring kingdom, it is actually the romance that develops between the main character and a member of her court that becomes the true underpinning of the book, making it more of a romance than anything. That being said, though, the ending brings the theme back around solidly to power, so if you like speculative books with both romance and battles, you’ll like Dark Breaks the Dawn.

It’s important for me to determine what genre a book is so that I read it with the right expectations. If one reads an adult contemporary thriller with the expectation that it’ll have the magic of a fantasy romance, for instance, one will be disappointed, but not by the fault of the book. I mentioned this in this post about Jenna Welch’s book Love and GelatoIf one reads Dark Breaks the Dawn knowing it’s mostly a romance, then one won’t be disappointed by the lack of detailed battle scenes.

What Dark Breaks the Dawn is About

Most books about queens and kings and magic that I’ve read don’t have much romance in them because the assumption or rule is that monarchs have to marry to form alliances, not for love. That rule is not brought up in this book, presumably because both of the main character Queen Evelayn’s parents were killed in battle trying to fight the aforementioned despotic ruler, and no one else cares who she marries. The young queen’s main conflict is learning to wield the power that only she has, and that she just came into, in time to defeat ruler Bayne, and sort out whether the young lord chosen to help train her likes her for herself or is being compelled to. She thinks he might be wooing her to force a wedding and the production of an heir who can carry on the line of power should she fail.

Who Might Like This Book, And Why

In that this romance is the focus of the book, and the queen is only 18, that makes this a YA speculative book, putting it in the same category as books like Cinder by Marissa Mayer, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman, and Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater. It has the slightly quicker pacing of a YA book, as well as a coming-into-one’s-own feeling, and characters who mature in their understandings and misunderstandings of what truly wielding power, both political and magical, means. Evelayne is less of a fighter than Alexa Hollen, the main character of Larson’s Defy series, which I really enjoyed, but she acts with resolve and benevolence, still making her worthy of respect as a main character and figment of Larson’s imagination.

But…

So, young adults, and adults who consider themselves to be young-at-heart (like me), will like this book…unless they don’t like cliffhanger endings, because this book has one. What is it with the cliffhanger endings? I’ve read a string of them lately, unwittingly, and I’m bugged! I hate cliffhanger endings!

No sex, violence, or profanity. Six stars out of ten. I bought and listened to this book on Audible, where it was narrated by Amy Schiels. Amy has a gentle Scottish brogue that really fits the story, and heightened my enjoyment of it.

 

Book Review: Traitorborn is Mind-Blowing

For some reason, I find myself reading multiple books right now that revolve around the theme of power: mankind’s constant struggles for it, what it does to those who hold it, how it affects those who don’t. The one I most recently finished—Traitorborn by Amy Bartol—is remarkably like Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson in some respects, more like K.B. Wager’s Behind the Throne in others, all built on premises of matriarchal monarchies, magic or magical technology, and infinite political intrigue. Traitorborn is the sequel to Secondborn and is a mind-blowing handful of a read.

What Traitorborn (and Secondborn) Are About

In a kingdom called the Fates Republic, Firstborns rule society. Secondborns are the property of the government. Thirdborns are not tolerated. On every secondborn’s 18th birthday, they’re taken by the government and forced into servitude as soldiers in a bloody war. Roselle St. Sismode is the second-born of one of the most elite families in the Fates Republic, but she’s taken away like every other secondborn. And her elite firstborn mother is happy to see her go. Her mother is paranoid that she’ll kill her older brother Gabriel to gain his status, so paranoid she doesn’t see the love between the two siblings. So paranoid she’s willing to try to have her secondborn child killed while in transit to her servitude.

But Roselle had a privileged, if isolated and abusive, upbringing that has earned her the resentment of her secondborn peers. She survives the attempt on her life only to be forced into battles where her life is threatened constantly. Then she’s confronted with the opportunity to kill or spare an enemy soldier on the battlefield. Killing him means she’s like her mother; sparing him marks her as a traitor to her mother, punishable by death. Though she’s able to keep her decision a secret (you’ll have to read Secondborn to find out what it is), she finds herself almost always fighting for her life…when she’s not being regaled by various secret factions bent on destroying her mother and putting Roselle in her place. She has to constantly defend herself against various foes sent by her paranoid mother, and those who pretend to be her allies while killing her family so that they can put her in a position of power she doesn’t want, to maintain a system of government she doesn’t agree with.

The Good and Not so Good…Intermingled

Both books are set in a world of airships, electronic monikers that track every single person’s actions and movements, skyscrapers built like trees, fusion weapons, and a brutally-maintained caste system. The reason behind this caste system isn’t explained until the end of Traitorborn, and while that explanation fits where it’s placed, I would have appreciated it much earlier (or at least intimations of it) in the storyline because so much of what Roselle decides to do or not do depends upon her understanding of the caste system, which turns out to be incomplete. The world-building in this series is breath-taking; it incorporates highly-imaginative tech with stunning architecture that directly reflects the values of the people that built it.

Both books (the first of which I bought on Amazon, the second of which I got an ARC of from NetGalley) also incorporate a lot of fighting, killing, political strategizing, romance (with three different love interests, no less), and recognition of the value of filial love. If these books were made into movies, they would both be rated-R for the fighting and killing. It was difficult for me to wade through those parts, and I ended up skipping over some of them, as I’m not a fan of gruesomeness. There is a lot of political strategizing, with Roselle constantly trying to figure out who she can trust, who she can be herself—a supremely-skilled fighter who gets panic attacks from all the death she sees—around, between those who would put her in power so that she can maintain the caste system, those who would put her in power so that she can take it down altogether, and those who just want to make everybody stop fighting. If I were a person in the world of these books, I’d be part of that last group. If there’s anything that I’m tired of after reading so many books about what power does to people, and seeing it (I think) play out in real life, I think that no one person should be in charge of any country or kingdom or province, even if there are checks and balances and councils and congresses in place. But that’s just me. I’d be interested in what you think of that.

So, with the fighting and strategizing and romance (i.e., heat – no sex scenes), there’s a lot of action, and both books are fast-paced and intense. That, along with the world-building, I really liked. I also really liked Roselle as a main character: incredibly tough but also very vulnerable.  My big complaint with both books, though, other than they (like the other power-based books I’ve read recently) are based on flat antagonists whose hunger for power makes them stereotypical and one-dimensional, is that they both end with huge cliffhangers. I mean, HUGE. On the one hand, I’m absolutely convinced that I won’t read the third book in this series when it comes out in 2019 because I don’t want to reward the author and publisher for that kind of baiting. On the other hand, the cliffhanger at the end of Traitorborn is so wild and unforeseen and crazy that I might not be able to resist, especially if I can get another free ARC from Netgalley.

So, if you liked Dark Breaks the Dawn, Behind the Throne, The Sin Eater’s Daughter or books about power set in worlds other than our own, you’ll like both Secondborn and Traitorborn. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this ARC, and have provided an honest review.

Book Review: Steal Across the Sky, A Philosophical Read

Nancy Kress is really good at writing hard-core science fiction, and for that alone I applaud her. To do that in such a male-dominated field is brilliant; to do it repeatedly is amazing. I thought her book  After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall  was brilliant. Steal Across the Sky, also by her, was less than she’s capable of, though. Where this book excels in world-building and uniqueness, it falls short in the area of characters with whom one can really relate and who have deep emotional progression.

What Steal Across the Sky is About

The book is about two people who volunteer visit seven planets and “witness” for a mysterious group of aliens that all-of-a-sudden arrived, built a base on the moon, and put an ad on the internet. These aliens claimed to have wronged humanity ten thousand years before, and need some volunteers to visit a bunch of planets seeded with human stock. Italian-English grad student Lucca and waitress Cam are among the twenty-one volunteers chosen, and they visit two planets. Cam encounters a monolithic, brutal and appallingly bloodthirsty culture where a game determines everybody’s destiny. On Lucca’s planet, evidence mounts that the people can perceive and converse with the recently dead, something Lucca rejects. Once all the witnesses return to Earth, a compelling picture emerges: on half of the planets visited, the inhabitants can indeed see and chat with the recently dead. The Atoners explain that those inhabitants carry a gene that allows them to do so. On the other planets, and Earth, the Atoners deleted the gene. (They don’t explain why.) On gene-less Earth, chaos ensues as Kress explores the consequences of that premise.

And, as you might imagine from that description, what ensues–actually what happens throughout almost all of the book–is essentially a philosophical discussion about what that means for humanity.

Why I Didn’t Connect With the Book

While the premise is fascinating (as I tend to find with many science fiction books), and the execution of that premise in line with the expectations of its genre, the emotional quotient is just not there. It would have been neat, I think, to see that chaos play out and then resolve in Lucca’s and Cam’s relationship, for instance. I think that would’ve made for a more intense, relatable book.

Also, because it’s adult sci-fi, the pacing was slower than that of YA. I can’t dock it for that because that wasn’t a fault of the book per se, just a matter of my taste.

Who Will Like Steal Across the Sky

If you’re a serious fan of science fiction, I would dare say that this book should be on your required reading list. If you liked books like A Case of Conscience, which explores the nexxus of science and religion from an other-worldly angle as well, you’ll like Steal Across the Sky. I, for one, am going to continue pursuing my goal of reading all of her books, even though this one wasn’t my favorite.

 

Book Review: Dreamstrider, an Enchanting and Fascinating, if Esoteric, Read

Imagine you have a beautiful pearl necklace, long and made up of many beautifully-iridescent and perfectly-shaped orbs. It’s one-of-a-kind, with multiple strands intricately woven around each other.  You love everything about it except for the fact that the orbs are threaded on a gossamer-thin string that makes it difficult to wear without breaking. Just taking it off the hook of your necklace holder and shaking it a little to make the strands flow instead of bunch has broken the string in the past. But you love it, and you can’t re-string it on a stronger filament, so you keep it on the hook and just admire it. Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith is like that pearl necklace, I think, amazingly rich and beautifully-written, but with too-thin connections between some plot points. Its premise is at once fascinating and grand, even while based on something so intimate as dreams, but it’s that very premise and grandness that makes it a tiny bit too esoteric for me. All in all, though, Dreamstrider is a very worthwhile, fascinating read.

What Dreamstrider is About

Indeed, I dare say that Dreamstrider’s plotthe intricately-woven strands—is complex enough that I feel like I need to read it again at least one more time to fully understand it and fully appreciate it. It’s about the ability of the main character, Livia, to enter other peoples’ dreams, and through that, to don the bodies. Her ability makes her useful as a spy for the Barstadt Empire, and as such, provides her with the means to get herself out of the Tunnels where she was born–out of a life of abject poverty, servitude, and gang violence. While she’s happy to be of use to her kingdom, even though it’s based on a caste system that deprives her of full citizenship because of where she was born, she’s unsure of her real value to anyone else and thus unsure of what she really wants out of life and whether or not she deserves anything more. When she and her spy partner, Brandt, uncover a plot against the Empire that threatens both the dream and waking worlds, Livia is presented with the opportunity to prove herself and earn a new station in society…if she can figure out who the enemy really is and where her value truly lies.

I bought this book because 1) I’m fascinated by dreams and 2) I wrote two books about a girl whose dreams have a certain power, and I’m trying to read every traditionally-published fiction book about dreams to identify ways in which my books are both similar to and different from what’s already out there.

What Are Dreamstrider’s Strengths?

If you’re looking to be enchanted by a book’s writing, then you will love Dreamstrider. Take this paragraph, for example:

An icy breeze whips around us, raking like nails across my exposed skin. His question steers my gaze toward the mountain peaks in the east; try as I might, I can’t help but look at the ancient bones strung across the high mountain ridge, the massive ribs on the mountainside curled like the rusted bars of a cage. The Nightmare Wastes’ words echo in my mind; soft as silk, they slither around me until they tighten into a knot.

Every page of this book is filled with graceful and evocative descriptions like these, carrying the reader easily into Livia’s world, which is rich and emotionally-charged. But Smith doesn’t caught up in descriptions just for beauty’s sake; each one also carries the weight of progressing character relationships and motives as well.

What Are Dreamstrider’s Not-Strengths?

That being said, though, sometimes those beautiful words are wrapped around fragile inferences made about scattered clues along tangled plot strands. Livia and Brandt, for instance, are tasked with finding the source of the threat against the empire, and assume it’s the Commandant of the Land of the Iron Winds, a land south of the Barstadt Empire with a dictatorial commandant. They go on a spy mission, with Livia donning the body of one of the Commandant’s generals, to find out more about the Commandant’s plans. This leads to them cooperating with some operatives from Farthing, a country to Barstadt’s east, which presents a challenge for Livia, as Farthing is acting as an ally, but not one that is close enough that she can reveal her ability to their operatives. She dips into the dreamworld as herself to investigate some research her mentor left behind that might help her push her ability to the extent that it needs to be pushed to find out who’s colluding with the Commandant because, during the spy mission, he alluded to using a mystic and having a great warbeast. Livia’s dreamworld dip leads her to find that something important is missing from her mentor’s dreamworld (one that he created, like the characters of the movie Inception). From that, Livia infers that Marez, one of the Farthing operatives with whom she’s working, is the Commandant’s mystic, and that Marez promised the Commandant a warbeast, which is the resurrection of the giant monster on the high mountain ridge: Nightmare.

Such an inference is crucial for the plot to unfold correctly, and to reveal that Marez is more of a threat, really, than the Commandant, but it seems much too fragile, based primarily on what Livia guesses is missing from her mentor’s dreamworld. I like that Marez turns out to be the bigger threat because the Commandant is much too flat of a character (i.e., just power hungry, with no back story whatsoever). But the plot would have been stronger if there was something to corroborate Livia’s guess. Maybe there was and I was too dumb to see it. If you read Dreamstrider and see that was something else, please let me know in the comments below!

And, as you can probably tell, Livia’s excursions into the dreamworld, either as herself while she’s sleeping or as other people while she’s using their dreaming bodies, add a plot layer that is neat and not bound by the rules of reality, but also confusing, vague, and difficult to determine meaning in the waking world. This layer blends with reality at the climax of the book in a way that deftly ties together many plot strands but also left me scratching my head in puzzlement a little bit. So, if you also like books that tease your brain, you’ll like Dreamstrider.

To sum up, then, Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith is an enchanting and brain-teasing read, if a little tenuously-constructed and esoteric at times. I’d give it 7 out of my 10 stars. Nutrition facts: no swearing, no sex, some violence, good theme (self-worth).

Book Review: Caraval, A Good Distraction

Oh, you guys, I’m so happy to be not sick anymore, or at least not as sick as I have been! I’m way behind in posting my reviews because I’ve been struggling with the flu. It’s been a bad bug: 104° fever, chills, body aches, gut-wrenching cough, headache, extreme exhaustion, etc. On top of that, my youngest was struggling with the croup. You need to get the flu shot so as not to get this bug; my husband got the vaccination and, while he flirted with getting sick for a day or two, ultimately didn’t, even though he was highly exposed to the germ.

Bur First: My Reactions to the Florida Shooting

Honestly though, I’ve also been struggling with a deep sense of worry, fear, and disappointment after the shooting in Florida. Many of the kids who were shot were the same age as my oldest child. As a mother, my first reaction was to want take my kids out of public school altogether. My second was to start looking into what it would take to move our whole family to a more peaceful country. My third was to make a list of things I felt like I could do immediately to lessen the chances of something like this happening in my community. My fourth was to laugh at my list and myself for thinking that I might have any power to do anything to stem the tide of these awful shootings. My fifth was to stop laughing and break down each of the things on my list into action steps I could do each day, because if I don’t do them, I feel like the only way to truly keep my kids and my family safe will be to move to a different country. And maybe hibernate.

My sixth reaction was to write this post, and by so doing, I hope I can spark some kind of conversation that will inspire people beyond just myself to take action so that the number of shootings decreases.  I can’t imagine continuing to live in a world where it’s entirely possible that someone will walk into my children’s school and start shooting. I don’t want to live with that fear, and I can’t imagine any of you do either. But we’ve become a country so divided, so unable to speak civilly with each other, that resolving this doesn’t seem possible. And so, except for the surviving Florida high school students who are marching on their state legislature and later on Congress, the rest of us seem to be throwing our hands up in the air.

We cannot. We must not. For our own safety, and the safety of our children, we should not. But what can be done, you say? If our elected leaders haven’t been able to figure out a solution to the gun control debate, what hope is there? I say there is a lot. Preventing more shootings isn’t just a matter of guns ( I realize that some of you might say it isn’t a matter of guns at all, but humor me for a bit); it’s far more complex than that. I promise I’ll tie a book or two into this.

Brainstorming Some Possible Solutions to Prevent More Shootings

Here’s what I think we need, and what I’m doing to be a part of the solution:

  • more civil dialogue: we are at a crucial part in our development as a society.  We have the “microphone” of social media to our mouths, and, like children, we haven’t matured in our use of it well enough to use it for much more than idle chitchat, hating, shaming, or the occasional fundraising campaign. One of my favorite nonfiction books— Crucial Conversations Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry PattersonJoseph GrennyRon McMillan— makes several really good recommendations, such as: check your motives, agree before you disagree, establish common goals, and establish mutual respect. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone who has a social media account, or for that matter, has a mouth.  I’m trying to teach principles from Crucial Conversations to my kids.
  • less consumption of violence: after the the Florida shooting, I was particularly sensitive to what media my kids consumed on the family screen and desktop and on their own devices. I’ve never let them play any video games with an M rating, or watch any content with an R-rating (and sometimes even a PG-13 rating). It’s a constant struggle to stay on top of that, given the many ways they can get content these days, the fact that violence is so prevalent in so much of what we watch, and the fact that they fight me almost every step of the way, as if they don’t have access to a million other ways to entertain themselves with non-violent media content.  I don’t think I can allow my kids to play first-person shooter video games and not expect them to get desensitized to the act of shooting other people. To a similar extent, same thing with allowing to watch violence in movies, YouTube videos, etc.
  • more empathy/sympathy: over and over again, the academic books and studies I’ve read show how the tendency that we have to commodify other humans, define them as other than us, criticize them or make them seem less than human is a tendency that is growing all too common in our society. Dr. Brent Slife, in his book Frailty, Suffering, and Vice (which I reviewed here), says: “the cultural emphasis on individual separateness is part of the problem.” We tend to abstract others, or view them as a part of the world that is “out there,” and only existing to potentially meet our needs. The internet only heightens this.  “Commodifying people is another kind of self-inflicted wound because it makes it all the more difficult to form the special, committed, caring relationships we so clearly need.” How else could someone justify walking into a school and shooting countless unarmed people, and then go and get a sandwich at a nearby Subway, like the Florida shooter? How else could the Las Vegas shooter justify shooting more than 50 unarmed people from afar? While I’m not saying that anyone who has a hard time empathizing or sympathizing with someone else is going to end up shooting a bunch of people, I am saying that there has to be an association. For my part, I try as much as possible to talk about what other people might be feeling or thinking in ways that my kids can understand. I seek out social media content and engagement opportunities that enables me to understand other peoples’ points of view.
  • encourage better mental healthcare infrastructure: we know now, after so many shootings, that mental illness plays a part in some of the shootings. It was a factor in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Would it be possible to ask our legislators to at least investigate the possibility of requiring psychological evaluations for anyone wishing to buy a gun? Would that help? Do we have data on that? If we were to encourage more people to get degrees in social work, psychology, and psychiatry, provide scholarships for them to do so, expand funding for mental healthcare nonprofits and agencies, and expand funding for research into the causes of and possible cures for mental illnesses, would that make a difference? I want to know!
  • make it illegal for the press to name the shooters: if the motive of a shooter is notoriety, wouldn’t asking our legislators to make the naming of the shooters in press reports about the shootings illegal help to remove the possibility for that notoriety?
  • funding for more protection at schools: if nothing else, would it be possible to provide funding for training of veterans or off-duty police officers to serve as armed guards at schools?

Caraval, a Good Distraction

In an effort to distract myself from my illness and these difficult questions, I read Caraval by Stephanie Garber this past week. It’s about a girl who gets swept up in an all-consuming game, one that involves other players competing for a prize given by a magical but very mysterious host named Legend. She goes to escape her abusive father, rescue her flighty sister, and meet Legend, but finds that nothing in the game is what it seems to be and that she stands to lose much more than she gains, if she can gain anything.

Because almost the whole book is set in the game, in and around an isolated island village that exists solely for the purpose of Caraval, the book’s setting is at once enchanting and bewildering. It’s full of quaint dress shops, evil tunnels, and enchanted bridges. It’s populated primarily by other contestants in the game who are competing against Scarlett (the main character), and the actors in the game, the people Legend sets in strategic locations at certain times to confuse or help the players. It’s like the reality show Survivor meets the movie Alice Through the Looking Glass.

This book’s strengths are its unpredictability and its style. It is rich with both. As a distraction, it was effective. As a depiction of the complicatedness of human nature, it was accurate, even given the outrageous premise. It was a good read, overall.

 

 

 

Have you read Caraval? Did you like it? What are your thoughts about what we can do to prevent more mass shootings?

Writing Journey Update, 2/11/2018

Because of a massive reduction in my work hours and some changes in my oldest’s education needs, I’ve had more time to write lately, which has been wonderful. I won’t go into too much detail about the identity crisis that I faced as that transition took place, but suffice it to say that there was a period where I was very frustrated and not sure what my purpose in life was supposed to be: if it wasn’t to work to help provide for our family, and it wasn’t to homeschool my 14-year-old, which I had been prepared to do to help him recover from a disastrous first semester of 9th grade and to help him learn how to compensate better for his vestibular neuritis, discalculia, and ADD, then what was it? Well, it’s still possible that I’ll be homeschooling him for 10th grade, and sending him to summer school if he doesn’t get his grades up, and I’m working with him everyday to help him do that. Until we know for sure that he’s going to be able to stand on his own academically, it seems my purpose in my life has once again become being a stay-at-home mom. It is a role I still enjoy, although it’s different now than it was before I worked at BYU. Coaching an adolescent through middle school is not easy. I’m freelance editing now, and I started an etsy shop to sell the fancy cards I make.  I still read a ton (obviously) and write.

In fact, I started writing three new books, which is to say I crafted query letters, character bibles, and beat sheets for those books. A writer usually writes a query letter to send to an agent to ask them to consider representing him or her to publishing houses if that writer wants to get traditionally published, especially by a medium to large press. They write it after they’ve written and revised a book, had it critiqued, beta-read, etc. It generally contains the nuts and bolts of the book the writer is asking the agent to represent, in a couple of paragraphs, along with the writer’s credentials. I started with the query letters this time so that I could make sure each book had a strong, emotionally-centered conflict, and that the stakes (what the main character stands to lose if they don’t get the thing they’re striving for) were clearly defined.

The character bibles are dictionaries, if you will, of all the traits (physical, mental, etc.), histories, and beliefs of each of the central characters in a book. And the beat sheets are basic outlines of the plots in 15 short blurbs.

When I had those completed, I had to decide which one I wanted to write most, which one was calling my name most. As it turned out, it was the sequel to Stranger in My Own Head, the book that I’m querying now. I just queried my 115th agent for that book, and am still waiting on a response from one of those agents who requested my full manuscript . So that’s what I started writing. Five weeks ago. And I’m almost done!

That’s unprecedented for me, to write almost 10,000 words a week for five weeks. I can only hope that that means that this book, this series, is meant to be published. I’m certainly doing everything I can to educate myself on the craft of writing: presiding over Utah Valley Writers, having a critique group, looking for beta readers, going to writers’ conferences, continually reading books on the craft of writing, etc. I still really, really want to get traditionally published (as opposed to self-published), to get what I write to the point that it’s good enough to be published in the highly-competitive book market these days.

So to those of you who have cheered me on, who have encouraged me to continue even when I felt like I was crazy for doing so, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please continue to do so. I’ll get there some day. Meanwhile, I’m still enjoying the journey, even if it’s not what I expected it to be.

 

Book Reviews: Banished and Unforsaken are Rapid-Fire Reads

It’s been an emotionally-draining week, but I still have two books to review! They are Banished and Unforsaken, by Sophie Littlefield.  They’re both YA fantasy, the second one the sequel to the first. These are books you want to read if you want fairly intense, action-based reads, not deep, but compelling.

What Banished is About

Hailey Tarbell lives lives in a run-down neighborhood in Missouri, with her cruel, sickly grandmother who deals drugs out of their basement and her four-year-old foster brother, Chub. He’s the best part of her grim life, and she plans to take Chub far from Gypsum and start a new life where no one can find them the minute she turns 18. But when a classmate is injured in gym class, Hailey discovers a gift for healing that she never knew she possessed—and that she cannot ignore. Not only can she heal, she can bring the dying back to life. Confused by her powers, Hailey searches for answers but finds only more questions, until a mysterious visitor shows up at Gram’s house, claiming to be Hailey’s aunt Prairie.

There are people who will stop at nothing to keep Hailey in Trashtown, living out a legacy of despair and suffering. But when Prairie saves both Hailey and Chub from armed attackers who invade Gram’s house in the middle of the night, Hailey must decide where to place her trust. Will Prairie’s past, and the long-buried secret that caused her to leave Gypsum years earlier, ruin them all? Because as Hailey will soon find out, their power to heal is just the beginning.

I won’t tell you what Unforsaken is about because that would be one big spoiler for Banished.

Why You Should Read Both Books

The first book is definitely an intense, action-based read. I had to go right out and buy the sequel, and then I read it in two days. Hailey’s dilemma was interesting, not just in a how-do-I-handle-my-power way but also in a how-will-it-affect-those-I-care-about way. I felt that the antagonist in Unforsaken could’ve been better fleshed out, but the romance and the well-developed plot compensated. Oh, and there were zombies, which was an interesting touch.

There is a little bit of swearing, and definitely some violence.