January & February 2020 Wrap-Up: Begone, Cursed Months! (Feat. Pretty Lights)

Happy March, everyone!

These past two months felt overly short and dragged out at the same time. And I’m torn between wanting to re-do them or wanting to stuff them into a burlap sack filled with rocks and hurl them into the nearest lake.

I ended up re-reading a lot of old comfort books, partly because of a two-month reading slump I was still shaking off, and partly because I’ve been in and out of a really bad mental place and trying to do my best to stay afloat.

And kind of jumping from that, here’s a little PSA for anyone with depression and suicidal thoughts: don’t wait until you reach the lowest of the lowest breaking point before calling hotline numbers or checking yourself in. I used to think those were things you only do when you’re in a really fucked-up mindspace, and it took me a while to learn otherwise. Do it before you start playing roulette with yourself. Sure, they’re not one-shot fixes; no one comes to you with a platter of solutions and a magic wand to neatly sprinkle them into your brain. But they do try their best, and they give you a safe place when you’re not in a position to trust yourself. Sometimes that’s enough, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s always better than nothing.

Good? Okay, onto more fun things!

I did manage to get to a few new/upcoming releases, so here are some of the highlights:

⚔️= Fantasy; 🚀= Scifi; 🐺= Paranormal; 👻= Horror; 🔍= Mystery; 🌺= Contemporary; 🗝️= Historical; 🌈= LGBTQ+

 

The Best

best1.png

The Poet King (The Harp and Ring Sequence 3) by Ilana C. Myer ⚔️🌈:

I adore this series and sometimes I have a hard time explaining why except to say that it just speaks to me. The characters. The aesthetics. The texture of the world and how music shapes it. The Poet King is the end to a saga that started with Last Song Before Night and I loved it. I mean, it’s got some glaring conclusion issues, but I still loved it.

The “Sequence” part makes me wonder if there’s going to be more stories set in the world. It confuses me (and gives me false hope) when authors don’t come right out and say “trilogy” or “duology.”

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (Watchmaker 2) by Natasha Pulley 🗝️🌈:

I was nervous about this because Watchmaker on Filigree Street was kind of a disappointment, especially after reading Bedlam Stacks, but Pepperharrow shows how much Pulley is growing as a writer. It’s got everything I adore about her stories–the whimsical seeping into the everyday normal, love that’s portrayed by its negative spaces–plus a lot of the issues in the first book addressed.

 

The Great

great(1).png

Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus 👻🌺:

The worst and also the best alien abduction story I’ve read in a while. Daniel Kraus has no chill. [Review]

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights ⚔️:

Tevinter Nights is the first Dragon Age novel since 2014 and the first major romp through Thedas since 2015, and my god, I was stupidly excited. It’s an anthology, and while I’m not the biggest reader of anthologies and definitely not someone who finishes them in one go, make it Dragon Age and I’ll read dozens of them in one month. DA has been my number one game world obsession for the past 10 years. By far. And there’s a running joke–which isn’t really a joke–that when my friends and I play through the series we spend half the time playing the game and the other half combing through pixels trying to catch every bit of information about the world and compiling dossiers. Save the world? Sorry, that’s gotta wait; I have to stare at some statues for the next two hours and cross-reference them with these texts. And sometimes the sleuthing is even more fun than the actual gameplay.

Okay, I’m being told I need to stop before I diverge into full tumblr mode.

But yeah, the stories? *chef’s kiss* They were (mostly) a joy to read through, and I’m back with my tinfoil hat on. The review is going to be horrendously biased and I don’t even care.

 

The Good & Fine

fine

Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore 🗝️🌺⚔️:

My first venture into Anna-Marie McLemore and I wasn’t disappointed. Story-wise it’s nothing amazing, but I love McLemore’s style of writing and the way she approaches certain details. I’ll be working my way through her other books this year. [Review]

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 🌺:

This was, uh…..fine? Pleasant? More of a quiet experience than a story that I want to shout from the rooftops about. Review to come!

 

The Could Be Better, Could Be Worse

9781250238900_f3a76

The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood ⚔️:

This wasn’t really up to the hype and expectations, but I do like the protagonist–a lesbian orc fighter/merc who tries her best–and I’m hoping the sequel irons out some of the problems. [Review]

 

 


Life Things

I sprained my neck during a hike a few weeks ago which meant little to no drawing or painting (another reason to chuck February to the bottom-most depths), but it’s mostly healed now and I’m eagerly getting back into it.

Also, we got our first winter snow in January! There’s a lake-that’s-more-of-a-large-pond outside my apartment complex and it’s host to a lights festival during winter–creative light sculptures and light-strewn trees winding all around, everything from Christmas themes to Canadian-centric stuff (lots of beavers and maple leaves).

They look gorgeous on any normal night. But when it snows? It’s like you’re moving through these little pockets of magical worlds. Kind of ethereal. Kind of eerie. And super, super neat.

lights.png

 

871822294f7f1eb7105c1e31dd9e8866_page-divider-clipart-line-dividers-clipart-superb-decorative-_1268-362

Tell me how your winter months went and what you’re looking forward to in spring!

Review: The Infinite Noise – Fine with a Dash of Soft & Sweet and a Landing that Doesn’t Stick

91SnBiRP3wL.jpg

Title: The Infinite Noise
Author: Lauren Shippen
Publisher: TorTeen
Release Date: September 24th 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Mental Health, Superpowers
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 photo addtogoodreadssmall_zpsa2a6cf28.png photo B6096376-6C81-4465-8935-CE890C777EB9-1855-000001A1E900B890_zps5affbed6.jpg

 

 

 

 

Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”

Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb’s ability is extreme empathy―he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb’s life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam’s feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb’s feelings in a way that he can’t quite understand.

Caleb’s therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist―who seems to know a lot more than she lets on―and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.

flourish

First of all, if you haven’t check out the The Bright Sessions podcast, please please please do so. From a bird’s eye view, it’s a story about superpowered people attending therapy, but really it’s so much more than that.

Second of all, I highly, highly recommend listening to the audiobook for this (narrated by the VA’s who play Caleb and Adam in the podcast). That might be presumptuous, seeing as how I haven’t even tried the audiobook version yet, but…. *whispering* Shippen’s prose just isn’t as engaging in print form as it is in audio form (TBS fans can skewer me for that). I mean, it’s fine–very casual and conversational, which fits her teenage characters–but it’s also kind of plain, and I had a hard time differentiating between Caleb and Adam’s narration. And a multi first-person POV book in which the narrators blend together is Kiss of Death territory for me.

Well, at least it would be if it weren’t for the fact that (1) this is a Bright Sessions story, and (2) this is a Bright Sessions story. And TBS at its core has always been about the power of empathy and human connections, which remains very true in this adaptation.

Caleb is the jockish empath with the heart of gold, kind in a way that obliterates the typical jockish stereotype (I would go to war for him), and Adam is the quiet bookish boy who’s dealing with more mundane but still very real demons of his own. It was nice to see a more in-depth look at their relationship that we don’t get in the podcast. Shippen nails the messiness of being a teenager, psychic or otherwise, and her descriptions of anxiety and depression are some of the best I’ve seen.

It’s not dark, it’s…the absence of light. Like some sort of void. It doesn’t weigh down on me, suffocate me. It’s empty–just total nothingness. But it’s sucking me in and I feel like if I go inside of it I’ll stop existing entirely, and that scares me but at the same time it would be a relief. 

The Infinite Noise talks about feelings–their shape, their depth, their colour–probably more than any other speculative book I’ve read. And I so, so appreciate that, not only because rifling through emotions and assigning imagery to them is something I always do (because that makes it easier for me to process them), but also because it goes such a long way towards normalizing vulnerable masculinity in media.

So the majority of the story is slow-burn relationship building with bits of sci-fi elements, which is good. The last 10% or so is really where things fall apart for me. And most of that has to do with the structure of the podcast, and how some of it doesn’t translate to a two-POV book environment. Sequences that are interesting and well-paced in the podcast come across as incredibly abrupt and jarring here, and…I don’t know, I just think the book could have benefited from an extra 40-50 pages to flesh things out.

Overall, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It was nice to revisit these characters in novel form, but I don’t think if it brought anything majorly new and exciting to the table that the podcast didn’t. That being said, I…still recommend checking it out. I think it’s a fine intro to the TBS universe for newcomers, and the way I see it, any story that champions kindness and empathy is worth at least a quick browse.

 

flourish
Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: Missing, Presumed Dead – A Gritty Queer Paranormal Mystery that I’m Side-Eyeing

81Ga3mcxCUL.jpg

Title: Missing, Presumed Dead
Author: Emma Berquist
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Release Date: May 21st, 2019
Genre(s): YA Paranormal, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (f/f)
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: ???

 photo addtogoodreadssmall_zpsa2a6cf28.png photo B6096376-6C81-4465-8935-CE890C777EB9-1855-000001A1E900B890_zps5affbed6.jpg

 

 

 

 

With a touch, Lexi can sense how and when someone will die. Some say it’s a gift. But to Lexi it’s a curse—one that keeps her friendless and alone. All that changes when Lexi foresees the violent death of a young woman, Jane, outside a club.

Jane doesn’t go to the afterlife quietly. Her ghost remains behind, determined to hunt down her murderer, and she needs Lexi’s help. In life, Jane was everything Lexi is not—outgoing, happy, popular. But in death, all Jane wants is revenge.

Lexi will do anything to help Jane, to make up for the fact that she didn’t—couldn’t—save Jane’s life, and to keep this beautiful ghost of a girl by her side for as long as possible.

flourish

Here’s a fun dilemma:

What rating do you give a book that contains literally everything you love–a complex bisexual female protagonist, a gritty paranormal mystery, exploration of mental health, ghost girls, f/f romance–and executes most of them very well, but then you come across three or four lines that make you go, “I’m sorry, what??” and put a damper on the whole thing?

Asking for a friend. (Hashtag-I-am-that-friend)

Okay, let’s backtrack for a bit. Missing, Presumed Dead is like the queer YA version of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, starring a girl who can tell the how’s and when’s of someone’s death by touching them skin-to-skin. Except I’m not sure ‘YA’ is even the right label because many of the characters either feel older than their teenage years or are actually older; personally, I think it’d sit more comfortably as a New Adult.

As far as paranormal mysteries go, it’s fairly typical of what you’d find in a lot of adult books: a club that doubles as a sanctuary for people with magical abilities (witches, psychics, etc), a sudden surge of missing and/or dead kids, and a ghost girl with no recollection of how she died. Thing is, though, we don’t really find these kinds of stories in YA–especially ones tinted with shades of horror and noir–so this was a much-needed breath of fresh air for me. The mystery is engaging, the pacing is quick, the worldbuilding just vivid enough to hold your interest, and the protagonist is….well. The protagonist is messy and sharp all over and I was such a huge fan in the beginning.

Lexi is, to be blunt, miserable, and understandably so, considering how her abilities don’t allow her to engage in physical affection and intimacy of any kind. Through Lexi’s lens the story becomes a portrait of loneliness and depression, and I can’t emphasize enough how much I adore stories that dive deep into the psychological baggage that comes with having supernatural powers.

Really, the only major issue I had was with the love interest Jane, who just isn’t as interesting or well-developed as Lexi.

And then I ran up against The Problem, which starts with this little passage:

“My Jane has never looked this carefree, this innocent. My Jane is angry and wild and a little cruel. I know which one I prefer.”

and this one:

“I’d rather have her furious and bitter, I’d rather have her sad, anything but this scornful, spiteful ghost sneering at me across the seat.”

It’s perfectly normal to desire a connection with someone who understands first-hand the pain you’re going through. I get it. I’ve been there. And that’s what initially drives Lexi and Jane together. But you can’t build a relationship on a foundation of mutual suffering. “I can fix your pain and you can fix mine” may sound sweet and romantic, but what it often ends up becoming is an echo chamber of hurt coupled with codependency.

And wanting someone to remain miserable and fucked-up, because that’s how you feel most of the time, is selfish and unhealthy. I’m all for YA stories exploring unhealthy relationships or unhealthy mindsets regarding relationships, but I need them to address the fact that yes, this is, in fact, unhealthy and here’s how we can move forward from that, which this book never does, and that sits so wrong with me.

And the crazy thing is that the core this issue can be fixed by just taking out those four lines.

So yeah. I’m conflicted. And frustrated. And I spent more time trying to figure out what rating to give the book than writing the actual review.

Which is why I’m giving it a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the end.

flourish

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Broken, Awkward, Incompetent, Mismatched Heroes: Why We Need Them in Stories

Broken.png

I’m not sure what the umbrella term for these types of characters should be. Atypical heroes? Messy heroes?

Well, whatever the term, I adore them. And my love grows stronger every time I come across a protagonist who’s graduated from the academy of perfect heroes. You know–the shiny put-together ones. The ones whose mistakes are just tiny blips in their character designed to further the plot.

My first issue with those characters is that I’m kind of bored of them. Selfish, I know. But I think I’ve seen and read enough of them to last me a lifetime.

My second issue (and probably the more pertinent of the two because it goes beyond “Well, I think it’s boring, so YOU should think it’s boring too!”) is that they spearhead the idea that the only way to be a hero in your story–to win the battles, collect the friendships, score the romance, change the world for the better–is to be confident, bold, determined, to always know what to say at the right times, and have an emergency stash of witty quips in your pockets.

And if you occasionally say the wrong things or step out in the wrong direction? Well, hey, no worries! They’re nothing permanent! Your weaknesses only exist as temporary obstacles to overcome so you can scratch another notch on your Badass Post.

But what about the rest of us?

Because there are many faces to heroism and not all of them involve being extroverted or confident or even necessarily good. Maybe they’re a hero who has crippling shyness and social anxiety. Maybe they’re just not super into the idea of quests and adventures. Maybe they’re trying so hard to be perfect and unflappable that it’s breaking them from the inside out.

So some quick bullet points on why I love these characters and why I want to see more of them:

  • They’re relatable. I mean, that’s kind of the biggest reason, right? As humans we’re all messy and imperfect, and we like seeing that reflected in media.
  • They can force you to look at a well-worn genre from a new angle.Take The Adventure Zone podcast, for example. Thanks to a cast of lovable idiots who could have been pulled out of a sitcom, your typical D&D fantasy story turns into a feel-good, slice-of-life, goofball comedy of hilarious mistakes and equally hilarious successes.And Bright Sessions, which is another (incredible) fiction podcast and one that runs with the idea of superpowered people going to therapy. It’s most definitely scifi, but the characters aren’t your usual X-Men variety, in that they’re messy in every sense of the word and everyone’s dealing with something. It’s almost like a self-help guide disguised as a scifi story and I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.

bright-sessions-banner.jpg

  • They show us that no matter who you are–how successful and powerful and magical–being a hero doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. Having powers doesn’t preclude you from having doubts. Being strong doesn’t shield you from being broken. And there’s comfort to be found there. We can look at that and feel less alone in our struggles.

 

https://pagesbelowvaultedsky.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/flourish.png?w=300&h=27

Now let’s look at some of the specific character types and examples of them in media!

The Incompetent Hero

A story starring an incompetent hero doesn’t have to be a comedy of errors. Nor does it mean they should stay incompetent from beginning to end.

For me, it means being thrust into a position the character is wholly unprepared for and every step from there on is a hard, awkward learning process riddled with stumbling blocks and many steps backwards. And maybe it takes them a little longer to pick up on certain skills–things like politicking and swordplay don’t come overnight (or overweek or overmonth). Side characters may even have to help prop them up until they can stand on their own. And just as in real life, there’s nothing shameful about that.

sei_57689566.jpg

Sansa Stark from ASoIAF/GoT is the biggest example that comes to mind: a sheltered girl who likes pretty boys and the lure of the city and is very good at embroidery. A girl who’s thrown into a pit of vipers and tries her best to learn and survive.

Sansa has also unwittingly become the biggest example of the issue surrounding people’s response to these fish-out-of-water characters, usually the female ones–that they’re annoying and useless and whiny and “Why doesn’t she do x and y and z?” and “Arya is SO much better.” (On the flip side, if they’re “too competent” they’re called Mary Sues. Female characters just can’t catch a fucking break, can they?)

A character who’s bad at something doesn’t make them a bad character. It makes them normal. Relatable. Human. And while a quiet story about learning and survival may not be as a exciting for people as one with swordfights, it’s nonetheless a journey of courage and strength.

I find it interesting (read: frustrating) that WW2 fiction nowadays are often filled with fish-out-of-water heroes and readers gobble them up, and yet when it comes to speculative fiction–fantasy and scifi, especially–people have so little patience for them. Which kind of makes sense–different readership, different expectations–but also not at all, because shouldn’t we expect more incompetent characters in a world that demands that they win wars, fight/befriend dragons, and juggle fire balls all at the same time?

 

“I’m Fine (But Really, I’m Breaking Inside)” Hero

tenor.gif

I see the “I’m FINE” trait more often with side characters than main ones which is kind of a shame. The fun thing about these characters is that from the outside they resemble your typical heroes: proactive, capable, and confident. But peel back some layers and you start to see cracks, which then resolve into chasms.

These are characters who try so damn hard to project an aura of okayness, both to themselves and to others, that they can’t tell where the pretense ends and where their real feelings begin.

Karin Lowachee does this beautifully with Jos Musey in Warchild, as does Seth Dickinson with the indelible Baru Fisher in Baru Cormorant. And if you want non-speculative stories (because heroes can exist outside of SFF settings), Neil Josten in All for the Games series is another great example.

wb2.png

 

“Baby, I’m a Fuck-Up” Hero

This part got LONG so I cut some of it out and will probably make a separate post on it at some point. But here’s the gist: we need more fictional characters who fuck up. It’s especially important nowadays when social media has us privy to every morsel of success your friends and family and random strangers have achieved. The amount of pressure that’s placed on young people to get the perfect grades, get accepted into this and that college, get ‘x’ number of degrees by the age ‘y’ is ridiculous and makes you feel like there’s zero room for mistakes. Either you walk that tightrope from end to end or you crash and burn. There’s no in-between. And seeing more of these kinds of heroes in media might have saved me an ambulance bill.

And people can say that’s giving fiction too much credit, but here’s the thing: art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a product of our world and it, in turn, feeds back into the world as a reflection of the things we want to see more of. And if we see more characters in books and movies and games who genuinely mess up and are made stronger for it, then that’s kind of an invitation to ourselves to be less fearful and more forgiving of our failures.

And I honestly believe that can save lives.

Some wonderful examples of these characters include Millie Roper from The Arcadia Project series, who I would give my left arm for, and Mae Borowski from the game  Night in the Woods. She’s a pansexual college-dropout with depression, and I would happily give my other arm for her.

81e+UsYqToL.jpgMae-Gif

 

 

Awkward, Antisocial, and Shy Hero

91mhfrdtkel
Eliot of In Other Lands is unlike any other protagonist I’ve come across in YA fantasy. To be blunt, he starts out as a kind of a little shithead: he’s prickly and awkward, says the wrong things at the wrong times, makes the worst first impressions and consistently gets on people’s nerves. But it works because it doesn’t come from a place of “I’m doing this because I’m an asshole and want to fuck with people,” but rather, “I’m terrible with social interactions and I feel out of place in this world.”

And how beautiful and necessary is it to see a teenage hero who’s not all that nice?

These characters tell you that it’s okay that you don’t know what to say or how to act in certain situations. You’ll step on the wrong feet and piss people off and that’s fine because that’s life and you’ll learn from it (hopefully).

And seeing that kind of sentiment in media is such a weight off your back, you know? Especially when you’re young and still trying to figure yourself out.

 

81R2XfnvXuL.jpg

Murderbot from The Murderbot Diaries

People adore this series and for good reason. Personally it doesn’t do much new in terms of plot and worldbuilding (from what I’ve read so far anyway. I still have two books to go), but character-wise it’s everything. Because the story is all about murderbot, and murderbot would much rather spend its time alone watching dramas than interacting with a group of people. I mean, come on–an awkward, introverted protagonist in scifi? And an A.I. at that??

Why isn’t that more of a thing in fiction?

 

 

 

“Save the World? Sorry, I Can’t. I Have to Wash My Hair” Hero

sponge

AKA reluctant heroes.

So, I have this weird attraction to the scenario of characters being offered the role of a  hero or Chosen One or whatever, and them responding with, “Thanks but no thanks” because they feel that there are more important things to worry about. Like, take some penniless college student trying to juggle six classes per semester along with a part-time job, and then one day a Chosen One Messenger bursts through their door yelling, “Guess what, Harry? Yer a–”

“Chosen One. Yeah, I know. And what’s the monthly salary on that?”

“Er, well. You’ll earn satisfaction in the knowledge that your actions will herald the salvation of– “

“Wow, tempting! But I think I’ll pass.”

“This isn’t an optional–“

“Plus, I’m not really Chosen One material, you know? I mean, the other day I dropped my Starbucks cup on the way to chem class and didn’t even bother to pick it up. I don’t think you want a litterer as the poster child for your quest, do you?”

“Well, it’s not–“

“Try the guy next door. He volunteers at the animal shelter or something so he’s, like, literally saving puppies and kittens in his spare time. There’s your Chosen One.”

“But–“

“Also, my name’s not Harry.”

…Ahem. Sorry, I got carried away.

But yes, reluctant heroes! Heroes who, for whatever reason–maybe because they’re afraid of fighting, maybe they’re super busy and this whole quest business is incredibly disruptive to their livelihood, maybe they just really like sleeping in during the weekends–aren’t all that enthused about their new role.

It’s not that they have a disdain for the continued survival of humanity. It’s just that, in their world, “continued survival of humanity” ranks a few entries below things like “Pass the ochem exam” and “Don’t mess up that date on Friday” and “Do something about the gnomes that are eating all the vegetables in the garden.”

I love them because they’re relatable and cathartic and exude Tired Millennial energy. And sometimes I feel like there’s an unspoken rule that SFF heroes need to be eager adrenaline junkies and glory hounds. And those are great! They’re fun! But not everyone wants to risk their lives to save the world. Not everyone wants to be kings and queens and politicians and insert themselves into every major event that shakes up a nation. Some people just want to live their lives peacefully in relative comfort, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

91zPO9KaRwL


Jalan from the
Red Queen’s War series is a great example of how such a character can be done well. At the start of the story, his life basically boils down to gorgeous women, good food, comfortable bed, and …that’s…about it. That’s the height of his aspiration. Well, until he gets dragged into a war against his will. Then he adds “Don’t die” to the list.

While Jalan grows as a person over the course of the series, he still remains true to who he is, in that he’s not going to be leading nations and giving inspirational speeches anytime soon. Yet he’s still, against all odds, a hero.

And I find that super endearing.

 

https://pagesbelowvaultedsky.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/flourish.png?w=300&h=27

And there you go! What are your thoughts on these characters? Send me all your juicy, juicy thoughts!

 

Interview with Sam J. Miller – Destroy all Monsters

mksDJsUG

A crucial, genre-bending tale, equal parts Ned Vizzini and Patrick Ness, about the life-saving power of friendship.

Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.

Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.

As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth—together.

Fearless and profound, Sam J. Miller’s follow up to his award-winning debut novel, The Art of Starving, spins an intimate and impactful tale that will linger with readers.

flourish

I’m super excited to be joined here today by Sam Miller, author of Blackfish City, The Art of Starving, and his most recent YA release, Destroy all Monsters.

It’s got friendships and dinosaurs and photography magic and–

You know what? I’ll just let him tell it.

 

Destroy all Monsters

Hi, Sam! Thank you so much for being here today! I haven’t read DESTROY ALL MONSTERS yet but if it’s anything like THE ART OF STARVING, I’m sure I’ll be crying in a fetal position while hugging it to my chest. To start off, can you share a bit about Solomon and Ash and some of the things they’re going through in the story?

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is the story of Solomon, a gay teenage photographer in a city full of monsters and magic, who is trying to save his best friend Ash – the Refugee Princess – from a conspiracy trying to destroy all magic. But it’s also the story of Ash, a regular teenager in the real world, who is trying to save her best friend Solomon from a mental health crisis. As their quests progress, these two worlds begin to collide.

 

What was the main inspiration behind the story? I know this is a cliche, but it’s a question I never get tired of asking because the answers can be so unexpected.

I’ve always wanted to write a story that was set in two separate worlds, half gritty contemporary and half fantasy novel, because I love both those genres and the different kinds of fun you can have with each! DESTROY ALL MONSTERS was born the way lots of my stuff is born – the characters walked up to me and introduced themselves and then slapped me around until I did what they wanted me to do. In this case it was a pair of troubled teens, best friends, from different worlds, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally a story set in two very different genres – and have those worlds collide in wild and crazy ways.

 

I love, LOVE how you combine SFF elements with the topic of mental health in your books–your first YA story was about an eating disorder that manifests as fantastical powers, and now your second one revolves around trauma and monsters. What draws you to write these kinds of stories?

Well, being queer was considered a mental illness until the 1960s! And being queer is totally a superpower. So I’m definitely drawn to aspects of our experience that we are trained to perceive as negative or bad, or illnesses is to be cured, they’re really just different aspects of our self. Life is full of wonder and magic, and the things that we may be infuriated or depressed or miserable about are also things we can make peace with and find power in.

 

This is your third published novel (which is incredible!!) and I’m sure you’ve gotten hundreds of feedback from readers (including myself), but what are some of the favourite things you’ve heard over the years, from both teens and adults?

I’ve gotten a ton of great responses from people, especially young folks, who have let me know that my work is help them process painful or traumatic or confusing aspects of their own experience, and that of course is always my highest goal as an artist. Life is hard, and full of suffering we don’t want and don’t deserve, and great art is here to help us make peace with the world as it is. So just like great books and movies and music have helped me stay alive, I am always gratified to hear that my own work has had similar impact on others.

 

Pride month will be over when this interview goes up, but since there’s never a bad month for queer books, what are some recent LGBTQ+ reads that you want to recommend?

I can’t wait for the next book by Mark Oshiro! And ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING BY KACEN CALLENDER. And I’m super excited for How to Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters, The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper, and Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All The Best, and We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

4.png

 

flourish

 

author
Sam J. Miller is the Nebula-Award-winning author of The Art of Starving (HarperTeen), one of NPR’s Best Books of 2017. His second novel, Blackfish City (Ecco Press/USA; Orbit/UK) was a “Must Read” according to Entertainment Weekly and O: The Oprah Magazine, and one of the best books of 2018 according to the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and more. Joan Rivers once asked him if he was gay (HE IS!). He got married in a guerrilla wedding in the shadow of a tyrannosaurus skeleton. He lives in New York City.

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr | Facebook

Review: Last Bus to Everland – Life Sucks But We’re in it Together

81q0pFFBI7L

Title: Last Bus to Everland
Author: Sophie Cameron
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: June 18th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Contemporary, Portal Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 photo addtogoodreadssmall_zpsa2a6cf28.png photo B6096376-6C81-4465-8935-CE890C777EB9-1855-000001A1E900B890_zps5affbed6.jpg

 

 

 

Brody Fair feels like nobody gets him: not his overworked parents, not his genius older brother, and definitely not the girls in the projects set on making his life miserable. Then he meets Nico, an art student who takes Brody to Everland, a “knock-off Narnia” that opens its door at 11:21pm each Thursday for Nico and his band of present-day misfits and miscreants.

Here Brody finds his tribe and a weekly respite from a world where he feels out of place. But when the doors to Everland begin to disappear, Brody is forced to make a decision: He can say goodbye to Everland and to Nico, or stay there and risk never seeing his family again. Will Nico take the last bus to Everland?

flourish

“You’re magic, Fairy. Remember that.”

Surprises can be a hit or a miss for me. Sometimes it’s like sticking my hand in a mystery box and hoping nothing cuts my fingers off.

I came into Everland thinking it’d be a light and quirky story about a boy who goes to a magical world and discovers himself while befriending a band of misfits. Instead, I got something more quiet and poignant: a story about mental health and identity and what happens when life becomes too heavy to bear on your own.

So I think things worked out pretty well with this one. All fingers intact.

If you’re looking for a portal fantasy story with an emphasis on “fantasy,” this probably isn’t for you because Everland is one of the least developed portal fantasy worlds I’ve come across. That’s not entirely a criticism, though, because detailed worldbuilding wouldn’t have fit the vibe of the story. It’s supposed to be a world that’s magical in a vague and scattered kind of way, more like a virtual reality club than an actual fantasy setting–cool things to see (massive libraries, festivals, beaches) and interesting people to meet, but not a whole lot of depth to it all. A place that’s different enough from the the real world for it to be an escape.

There were definitely moments where I wished I had something more to chew on, but overall I didn’t mind it.

So what makes the book good? First of all, it’s a YA contemporay-ish novel that’s set in Scotland which already sets it apart from most of its peers. Secondly, Brody’s narration is easy and charming (I loved his Scottish brogue) and his empathy pulls your right in. Thirdly, the cast is super diverse–Everland allows people from all over the world to mingle–and they’re all interesting characters with their own little backstories.

Fourthly, and most importantly (for me, anyway): the mental health representation. Pretty much every character is struggling with something in their lives. Like Cameron’s father, for example, which was a complete surprise for me because we don’t often see father figures in media going through mental health issues. Either they’re strong and well put-together, or their illness manifests in violent and abusive tendencies. Empathetic portrayals are few and far between.

Well, serious kudos to Cameron because Brody’s father has agoraphobia and her portrayal of it is stunningly real and painful.

What I love most about the story, though, is that it explores the invisible hardships that people deal with on a daily basis–depression, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders–and the idea that just because you think someone’s life is perfect and untroubled, doesn’t mean it actually is.

When I was in undergrad, a friend opened up about how she was going through anxieties and depressive episodes and how uncertain she was about her future. Then she punctuated it by saying that I couldn’t possibly understand her feelings because I was happy; I had a loving boyfriend and knew exactly what I wanted to do once I graduated.

And well. Talk about words that make you feel small.

I get why she said it. Often times we can be so wrapped up in our own heads that we don’t see past our own darkness. And we can’t help but weigh our suffering on a scale and see how it compares to someone else’s. See whose life comes out the shittiest. But I think that’s a train of thought that only does harm in the long run, breeding resentment in a world that already has its fair share.

Life is hard and people hurt in different ways. Ways that aren’t often visible to others. Your rich and successful neighbour might be dealing with panic attacks on a regular basis. Your friend who wears a smile 24/7 might be wrestling with suicidal thoughts. You just don’t know sometimes. Your demons don’t negate the existence of other people’s demons and, conversely, other people’s demons don’t make yours worth any less. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

And the book addresses all of that in a beautifully candid way. Characters get open and honest about their feelings by the end of the story, and it’s touching to see friends and families air their problems and come together in moments of mutual understanding. A lot of “You feel that way? I’m sorry, I didn’t know that” and “I know what you mean–I’ve felt that way too.” Some people might call it cheesy; I found it cathartic.

Everland isn’t a book that had me bouncing off the walls and wanting to scream from the rooftops, but it is a book that made me feel warm and satisfied and a little wistful. Like waking up smiling from a dream and trying to chase the tail ends of it.

And sometimes that’s enough.

flourish

 

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

I’m Back! – Health Nightmares, Weird Analogies about Canadian Health Care, and Queer Mermaids

164756-1

I love how positive-yet-uncertain this bear looks. Which matches me perfectly right now. Like, “HI! I’m back…? Maybe…? I don’t know what’s going on….”

Hey everyone! I’m back (possibly? hopefully?) from my completely unintended hiatus!

Sigh. Let me be blunt: these past two and a half weeks have been the absolute worst.

You know the saying “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”?

Well, June came in like a beautiful flying unicorn spraying rainbow spectral dust and has been crashing in a big glittery inferno ever since.

So. Let me try to sort this mess out for you into something that’s digestible and not a blog post equivalent of me sobbing into a pillow for an hour.

It started two weeks ago when I got a call from my mom saying that my grandmother back in Korea has stage 4 liver cancer. And that was a “I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you properly” moment, because I’d seen her and talked to her in a video call a month ago and she’d seemed completely fine.

I hadn’t had to face the prospect of any of my grandparents not being healthy since my grandfather passed away 15 years ago, so I was at a loss to how to process it.

Now, that same week I’d been to the clinic because of some abdominal pains I’ve been having, and that led to a trip to the lab for blood tests. And not soon after I got the call about my grandmother, I found out from the doctor that my vitamin B12 levels were high, as were the numbers for one of my liver enzymes. Either one of those results by itself is notable but not exactly scary. Coupled together, however, means that there’s a probability of liver damage. (I had an ultrasound done since then and my liver seems fine, so that’s one worry off the list)

And that’s when my brain starting spinning in on itself.

constellation_overview_desktop_1.5x.jpg

One of my favourite end products of human evolution is pattern recognition–our ability to take disparate bits of information and create a whole picture out of them (WAIT, there’s a point to this, I swear). And I love that so much.

I love that we hung a fish, a lion, a queen across the sky because we saw specks of light in the dark and believed them to have meaning.

I look at the stucco patterns on my ceiling and convince myself there’s a shape of a person holding an umbrella.

We connect dots and find stories in chaos. Which is beautiful, right?

Except when our brain turns it against us.

Because somehow I connected my grandmother’s health troubles with my test results and came to the conclusion that there’s something severely, awfully wrong with my own liver. And when it comes to personal stuff, I tend to catastrophize. So whenever something remotely bad happens I can’t help but assume the worst.

Cue stress dialed up to 11.

I was shaking, I was having anxiety attacks, I couldn’t fall asleep at night, and when I did, I only managed about 4 hours before bolting awake.

So I decided to go work out at the gym every other evening because I desperately needed to release the stress somehow.

Cue breathing troubles.

My first two workout sessions went fine–I took it easy and did light cardio. After my third session, though, I was dizzy and wheezing and it felt like my chest was constricting and I could only take shallow breaths. And this lasted through the next day.

So I visited a clinic and the doctor sent me in for an X-ray and signed off a prescription for an inhaler. Now, I don’t have a history of asthma and I wasn’t sure if what I was experiencing was asthma, but I just wanted to breathe properly again and surely a couple of puffs couldn’t kill me, right?

So I tried two puffs.

Cue intense vertigo and wooziness (I’m chalking this up to the inhaler’s side effects).

And I spent two days lying in bed watching Youtube videos and Netflix because I couldn’t focus on anything else. Also, getting vertigo on a 5th floor balcony is decidedly not fun.

Then about five days later, I started having chest pains. It started with my chest and spread to the shoulders and neck, and there were periods where I was dizzy and couldn’t breathe properly. And on Thursday night it got severe to the point where I was slumping against the wall of my apartment.

So I went to the ER, and they set me up with an X-ray, ECG, and yet another blood test, and then had me wait 5 hours until they came to the conclusion of “Tests look fine, don’t think it’s a heart problem. Take Tylenol.”

And I went home at 2 AM.

(*deep breath* Do not turn this into a rant about the Canadian health care system. Do not turn this into a rant about the Canadian health care system. Do not–)

Here’s the thing about the Canadian health care system.

simpletrees_cloudsonsticks.jpg

Let’s think of our doctors and hospitals and labs as little inns scattered across a kingdom. The quality of the inns is pretty great–clean environment, nice food, well-trained workers–but the roads that connect all the inns–the ones that you need to follow in order to get from one inn to the next–are unpaved and infested with bandits and giant man-eating scorpions.

So because you’re fending off swords and deadly stingers and trying not to trip over a minefield of uneven rocks, it takes you forever to reach the next inn, and by that point you’re poisoned and bleeding and sleep-deprived, and those well-trained workers have their work cut out for them. (oh god this is a terrible analogy)

You’re not really aware of the problem if you just visit the family doctor every now and then for checkups and things like the flu. But if you’re ever dealing with a more severe condition that has you moving from doctor to lab to doctor to specialist to lab, it becomes abundantly clear how inefficient and bogged-down the system can be. Especially compared to other countries that have universal healthcare.

But yeah! That’s kind of where I’m sitting at right now. Been crying a lot. Still dizzy. Still having chest pains. The tests say my heart is fine, so I suspect it’s a blood vessel issue, but I won’t know for sure until I see a cardiologist (which will probably take 4-6 weeks).

I think I’ve gotten past being scared and anxious into just plain exhausted. I hate the feeling of not knowing what’s going on with my body, but that’s what it is at the moment. I can’t yank our system by the collar and force it to work faster.

So in the meantime I want to try to get more rest and focus on positive things.

Like BLOGGING. And BOOKS. And GAMES. And talking with all you LOVELY, LOVELY PEOPLE. ❤

So let’s close on a good note!

 

Some Happy Things that Happened in the Past Two Weeks

🌻 I caved in and bought watercolour paints that have been on my wishlist for half a year. They’re a brand called Daniel Smith and their special thing is that they mine minerals from all over the world and grind them into pigments to make a lot of their paints.

Serpentine-Genuine.jpg

When I first started watercolour last year and began researching different brands, I kind of side-eyed Daniel Smith because using semi-precious gemstones to make paints (and charging $16-$30 per 15 mL tube) seemed kind of pretentious and elitist. But then I watched demonstrations and read articles and I saw how every paint behaves differently with the water in such mesmerizing ways…and it’s just the perfect marriage of science and art. How can I possibly hate that?

I’ve been playing around with them a bit and they. look. stunning.

🌻 I walked (very slowly) around one of my favourite forest trails in the region and sat by the lake for a couple of hours. Nothing gets me feeling more comfortable and at peace than being in the woods.

🌻 I saw female mallard ducks leading their ducklings on a practice flight session around a lake (a different one). It was disastrous and adorable and made me laugh.

🌻 I wrote an email to a UK publisher asking for an ARC, and to my joy and utter bafflement, they sent a physical copy over.

🌻 I stumbled across this freaking gorgeous painting on Twitter and I’m pretty sure it added several years to my life. I NEED it to be made into a story.

You can find the artist @trappedinvacancy on Twitter and Tumblr!

tumblr_ptiqmh259e1r9ixm2o1_1280.jpg

 

flourish

Now you! Tell me something you saw, heard, experienced that made you happy this month!

Review: Magic for Liars – Ivy Gamble is Not Magic and She Wants Everyone to Know

81lqd0DkyOL.jpg

Title: Magic for Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: June 4th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Siblings, Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (Secondary)
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 5.0/10

 photo addtogoodreadssmall_zpsa2a6cf28.png photo B6096376-6C81-4465-8935-CE890C777EB9-1855-000001A1E900B890_zps5affbed6.jpg

 

 

 

Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it.

Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life – or at least, she’s perfectly fine.

She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister.

Ivy Gamble is a liar.

When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

flourish

 

I think this book would save people a lot of disappointment if it came with a disclaimer. Something like “NOTE: The magical boarding school featured in this story is actually pretty ordinary and the characters spend more time talking about the theories of magic than actually doing magic.” Though personally, I wasn’t too bummed out by the lack of magic. In the first half I was still interested in the mystery and the MC, so I didn’t mind that there weren’t moving staircases and people lighting things on fire. And in the second half I was too caught up in other–bigger–issues to really care.

Yeah. Safe to say this was a disappointment for me.

It starts out very strong (I mean, a book that opens up with a scene straight out of Hannibal has my full attention) and it ends on a…strange and depressing note that I still don’t know how I feel about (though I have a feeling I’ll eventually land at “I didn’t like it”). But it’s mostly the middle bits that I had a problem with. And a lot of those problems link back to the protagonist.

Ivy Gamble was a trying narrator for me. Think Jessica Jones with all her psychological baggage minus the snark. And I was sympathetic in the beginning. I can imagine how bitterly disappointing it would be to watch your sibling discover their magical abilities and get accepted to an elite magic academy while you’re sitting on the sidelines reconciling with the fact that you’re not magical and this incredible new world is off-limits to you. I understand how that can shape the rest of your life.

But I don’t need to be reminded of it every other page.

Ivy goes out of her way to let the readers know that, hey, she’s not magic. Did you know she’s not magic? Bet you forgot she’s not magic since the last time she told you she wasn’t magic.

*taps on mic* An important announcement: IVY GAMBLE IS NOT MAGIC.

If you haven’t noticed, I love–for the lack of a better adjective–tortured characters in stories. Characters carrying scars that they can’t bear to look at but can’t help but prod. But when all that mental turmoil overpowers the rest of the narrative–plot, side characters, setting–the result feels less like a story and more like a one-sided therapy session. And that was more or less my experience with Magic for Liars. The mystery would start to get interesting but then Ivy would start comparing Nonmagic Ivy (her current self) to magic Ivy (a theoretical version of herself) and musing about how the latter would do so much better in this and such situation, and that would pull me right out of the story.

And this is more of a general complaint that I’m throwing out into the fictional ether, but I’m a little tired of private eye stories where the protagonist is an emotional mess and drinking constantly. I understand that that’s part of the noir aesthetic–cigarettes and gin and staring out the window in contemplation of the fatality of life– and, yes, there’s often a romantic allure to it, but for once I would like to see a well-adjusted PI who chooses to abstain from heavy drinking because it interferes with their work. A happy (or happier) noir, you know?

This book is not a happy noir, though, so if you’re looking for a twisty mystery with magical school shenanigans, you’re better off looking elsewhere. If you want a simple narrator-driven mystery with a lot of diversity and a LOT of heavy introspection, then well, it doesn’t hurt to try!

 

flourish

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Fantasy Books & Games for Mental Health Awareness Month (Why I Need More Mental Health Rep in Adult Fantasy)

 

  • ww-2019-dragon-banner-all-caps

May is Wyrd & Wonder and mental health awareness month, so it only makes sense to celebrate the 31st by smooshing them together into one post.

I meant to write this on Wednesday for Top 5 Wednesday, but I’ve been zonked out on allergy meds all week (one day the pharmaceuticals will develop a formula that doesn’t hit me like a freight train) and going to sleep at 6 and waking up at 3 AM.

So apologies in advance if I sound scattered and tired (however tired sounds like in a blog post).

But before we get started, I want to address something.

Hey, mainstream adult fantasy–epic fantasy, if we’re being particular–can we sit down and have a quick chat? It’ll only take a sec.

This is a topic that’s been a growing source of frustration for me in the last handful of years, and I’m going to bring it up again in another post soonish (hopefully) so I’ll keep it short and blunt today: why don’t more of your characters deal with mental health issues? 

Why aren’t your Chosen Ones having panic attacks and breakdowns? Why isn’t your merry band of misfits dealing with the mental fallout from battles and murders and facing monstrosities and just the general “holy fuck” factor that comes with trying to save the world? It seems to be an unspoken rule that therapists can’t exist in fantasy worlds, so how are these people getting out of bed every morning holding determination in one hand and eagerness in the other?

Why is trauma a temporary roadblock that you can gently remove and set aside so that the heroes can go on with doing hero things?

I’m sorry if I seem frustrated and/or bitter but I’m tired and mental health is a topic that means everything to me, and when paired with fantasy, the resulting story can be powerful and validating. And while that isn’t to say I don’t love seeing mental health reps in contemporary and horror and thriller and scifi–because I do, I love it a lot–fantasy can explore mental health from angles that other genres can’t.

And I just–I don’t understand why that isn’t taken advantage of more often.

Writing multi-volume fantasy epics has never really been an aspiration for me when I was younger. I adore reading them, sure, but my projects always leaned more towards…Guillermo del Toro crossed with Markus Zusak.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the one thing that’ll push me into drafting an epic fantasy would be the lack of depressed protagonists in these stories.

Because at the end of the day, you try to create the things you want to see more of in the world and hope that by doing so you’ll help foster an ecosystem where more such creations can take root and grow and maybe become the norm.

So yeah…good chat, adult fantasy! Same time next week? 😀

 

The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

The Light Between Worlds

Rep: PTSD, Depression

The Light Between Worlds is the portal fantasy I always wanted and finally got–a spiritual continuation of Narnia and every portal fantasy that has ever ended with the protagonists returning to the real world. The author doesn’t hold back on showing the ugliness of depression and the mental toll it takes on the people who have to watch you go through it.

One of the hardest and most rewarding books I’ve ever read.

 

 

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

The Art of Starving

Rep: Eating disorder

This book is important for several reasons:

1) It talks about eating disorders and body image from the perspective of a teenage boy, which is super rare in fiction.

2) It made me acknowledge things about myself that I never really wanted to acknowledge. You can read about the details in the review here, if you want. It’s a post I’m glad I’d written because the process was…cathartic, in a clobbered-with-a-sledgehammer sort of way. But occasionally I think back on it and get the urge to trash it because, holy hell, it’s so awfully personal. (Some good news, though: I’m 6 pounds up from last year. That doesn’t sound like much but considering where I started from, I’ll take it).

Also, I’ve seen complaints that Miller’s narrative romanticizes the act of starving. But I can’t imagine anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder to read this and be like, “Yeah, this is the handbook for getting skinny.” I think readers can recognize the mental gymnastics we go through to convince ourselves into self-harming (which starving ultimately is) and Miller makes it crystal clear that Matt’s actions aren’t ideal.

 

Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb

assassin's Apprentice2

Rep: Depression, PTSD, and more

If you want a prime example of how mental health can and should be addressed in high/epic fantasy, look no further. Depression, PTSD, self-esteem issues, suicide ideation–Hobb tackles all with absolute mastery (and I’m shocked and disappointed that the series didn’t spawn more high/epic fantasy books with similar themes). The series also has the best depiction of chronic loneliness I’ve come across in fiction. The kind that has no rhyme or reason and shadows you for years and years and years, waiting for moments when you’re most vulnerable. That’s a very hard thing get across in any story, and the fact that she does it in a fantasy one (across nine volumes) is remarkable.

 

The Hollow Folk series by Gregory Ashe

Hollow-Folk

Rep: Depression

I er, think I’ve actually run out of words to describe these books.

If you’ve read any of my dissertations reviews, you know how much the series means to me. Gregory Ashe draws on his own experiences with depression and slips them into his main character and the result is painful but so, so spot-on.

 

Arcadia Project Trilogy by Mishell Baker

512E6AicfFL.jpg

Rep: Bipolar Disorder and more

Ninety percent of the characters in this series is a mess and that’s what makes them so great.

Arcadia Project is an ownvoices urban fantasy, and the author does a wonderful job of explaining BPD through her MC while also crafting a unique and entertaining story about faes and Hollywood and the messiness of relationships.

 

The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

51gquuK4yYL.jpg

Rep: Depression (I think)

I just realized I’ve never talked about this book before on the blog which is crazy because it’s one of my favourite YA books released in the last two years. Memory Trees is all about female relationships–mothers and daughters, sisters, best friends, girlfriends–and the story puts a spotlight the MC’s mother and her mental illness and the events surrounding her hospitalization, which I thought was explored really well.

And okay, calling it a fantasy book is kind of an eyebrow-raising move because for most of it the only fantasy is in the way that Wallace approaches the story–as a dreamy inter-generational fable. The rest of it is a mix of contemporary, mystery, and historical fiction. But I swear, the magical stuff does rear its head at the end; you just have to squint to catch it.

 

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

1365116618.jpg

Rep: The entirety of DSM-5

I’m uh, actually not too sure if this belongs here?

On one hand, I’m not kidding with the DSM-5 thing. Fletcher’s series has the most comprehensive exploration of mental illnesses–from kleptomania to schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder–I’ve ever seen in speculative fiction.

But I don’t know if I would call them representations, per se. In the Manifest Delusions world, your delusions give you power–so the more ill you are, the greater your control over reality. It’s similar to The Art of Starving in that sense, except this doesn’t address those issues from a positive, “This is how you can heal” perspective.

 

Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire

91sDvEmtpEL.jpg

Rep: PTSD and more

I’m two books behind on the series, but Wayward Children is another portal fantasy story that deals with the trauma of being sent back to the real world, and just the general hardships that come with…well, living, and being different.

 

Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron

81q0pFFBI7L.jpg

Rep: Agoraphobia, Anxiety, and more

Oh look, another portal fantasy! Says something about the subgenre, doesn’t it?

What I really loved about this story is that it features a father who is dealing with severe mental health issues (agoraphobia) and that’s not something I often find in fiction; it’s usually the mother figures who are depressed and ill and on medication. And Sophie Cameron talks about his illness in a really empathetic light, which is even rarer, so massive kudos to her for that.

 

flourish

Now for the video games!

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Senua

Rep: Psychosis, Depression

Hellblade is many things.

It’s the most candid look at psychosis (with auditory and visual hallucinations) I’ve seen in any fictional media.

It’s an example of how to go about representing mental disorders you don’t have personal experience with–doing thorough research and consulting mental health professionals and people who do have experiences with them.

It’s the story of a woman who makes her descent into Hel (literally and figuratively) at a time in her life when darkness is all that is seemingly left.

It’s one of my favourite games of all time, and it’s the one game that made me cry from beginning to end. (I cried so, so much)

I can’t begin tell you how grateful I am that Hellblade exists and that I had the opportunity to experience it. Senua’s story is one I’ll carry around for the rest of my life and I 100% would have gotten this quote tattooed if it’d been a bit shorter:

Never forget what it is like to see the world as a child, Senua: where every autumn leaf is a work of art; every rolling cloud, a moving picture; every day a new story. We too emerge from this magic, like a wave from the ocean, only to return back to the sea. Do not mourn the waves, the leaves and the clouds. Because even in darkness the wonder and beauty of the world never leaves. It’s always there, just waiting to be seen again.

 

Night in the Woods

banner.jpg

Rep: Depression, disassociation

(Or as like to call it, Millenials: The Game)

I think there are three different lenses with which you can look at Night in the Woods:

1) A mystery/horror/fantasy story with cute (and queer) anthropomorphic animal characters getting caught up in strange happenings around town, all the while trying to navigate the murky waters of friendship, family, and romance.

2) A very pointed commentary on the state of capitalism suffocating small towns and older generations who would sacrifice their youth to maintain status quo and save their town from a broken economy that they helped dismantle in the first place.

3) A stark yet empathetic exploration of depression and existential crises from the PoV of young adults in their early 20’s.

…Or all three at the same time. That works too!

 

The Missing: J. J Macfield and the Field of Dreams

the missing

Here’s a crazy rundown of the first 15-ish minutes of this game:

You’re a college girl named J.J. and you and your best friend/maybe-girlfriend Emily are camping out on an island having a great time. But things black out and the next thing you know Emily has disappeared and you’re running through the island desperately searching for her. Then you get struck by lightning and die, but a moose doctor comes and resurrects you, so all’s good. Then you start getting text messages from the stuffed toy you’ve been carrying around (the stuffed toy that got destroyed in the lightning–so presumably it’s sending you messages from whatever afterlife toys get sent to). Meanwhile, Emily is still nowhere to be found.

…I’ll give you a second to soak that in.

Would it then surprise you to know that it offers one of most beautiful explorations of identity and self-acceptance I’ve come across in gaming?

The Missing is made by SWERY (aka Hidetaka Suehiro), and his games tend to be on the…trippy side. Bizarre and peppered with pop-culture references and off-beat humour, you love them or hate them.

I’m firmly in the former category. They’re not technical marvels, the controls can be wonky, the story dives into the nonsensical, but they’re never boring and there’s something incredibly endearing about them. (It helps that he’s an absolute sweetheart on social media)

swery-767x1152.png

Yes, that is SWERY. Yes, he is amazing.

Well, this jumps over “endearing” into “empowering” and “validating.”

The problem I have with media that explores mental health and LGBTQ+ issues is that they sometimes explore the pain side and kind of leave it at that. No closure. What stories like The Missing offer is that end piece–the sorely-needed ray of hope that yes, you can find peace and healing and come out on the other side stronger.

While I can’t personally speak for one of the representations that SWERY dives into (spoiler: transgender rep), other players can vouch that yes, he gets it right.

Please. Go play it. Or watch a playthrough/walkthrough of it.

 

flourish

Review: The Mortal Sleep – Stripped Me Open and Healed Me Anew (Why I’m BEGGING You to Read this Series)

51Z711vj1ZL._SY346_

Title: The Mortal Sleep (Hollow Folk 4)
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Independent
Release Date: April 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery, Romance
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 491

Rating: ∞/10

 photo addtogoodreadssmall_zpsa2a6cf28.png photo B6096376-6C81-4465-8935-CE890C777EB9-1855-000001A1E900B890_zps5affbed6.jpg

Brief overview of Books 1-3: A gay psychic teenager named Vie Elliot moves into a small rural town in Wyoming and gets himself involved in a series of murders, kidnappings, and paranormal activities. This is a story of found families, love, complicated relationships, and facing demons within and without.

(You can read my reviews of Book 1-3 HERE)

flourish

 “Maybe it’s all of us, I thought in a flash. Maybe we all believe, deep down, that we don’t deserve love. Or— maybe not all of us, maybe not some lucky assholes— but most of us. Maybe most of us are just as uncertain, just as frightened, just as desperately hoping that we’re worth loving and that the person we love loves us back.”

flourish

I’ve been writing reviews for over a year now. And within that period I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a whole range of emotions–from hair-pulling anguish frustration to joy and nervousness and anxiety.

This is my first time being scared of writing a review.

Like, really fucking scared. Like, shaking in my chair scared. Because I could string together every language that has ever existed in this world, scrawl them into a 1000-page epic, recite it from dawn to dusk until my throat is torn, and still come up with nothing that could describe what this book means to me. And that kills me.

My brain tells me I need to spend several weeks on this review at the very least. But my heart tells me no, I need to do this right now. Because all those immediate emotions that I’m feeling? They’re the ones I need to seize. And because fears need to faced when they’re at their freshest.

So, okay.

This is a book that feels entirely too big to fit in this universe let alone my heart. One that I want to clutch so hard to myself that I become it, or it becomes me. And I would happily give up half of my consciousness, half of my soul, for it to live and grow inside me. But then I realize there’s no need because it’s already claimed it from Book 1.

And when I walk, it walks with me, anchoring my steps. When I look out into the morning light, it looks out with me, radiating hope. When I’m crumpled on the ground it’s there, pulling me up.

Which all sounds a little crazy. It sounds like the ramblings of a soon-to-be maybe-killer (“Well, that Kathy. I mean, she was pleasant. Polite. Never caused any trouble. Although…she did say all those things about that book that one time. Guess that should have been a warning bell, huh?”) But “crazy” just about defines this book. Because perfection doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t exist. And yet it’s sitting right here in my hand.

So what can I tell you about The Mortal Sleep?

I can tell you how heartstoppingly beautiful Ashe’s writing is. I can tell you how his characters aren’t characters; they’re people existing in some other reality, other dimension, projecting their lives into his brain, and now they live in these books like it’s where they always belonged–across ink and paper, instead of flesh and blood–and their relationships are so exquisitely developed that they become your relationships.

I can talk about how the buildup of tension, with regards to both plot and character development, is off-the-walls phenomenal. I can talk about how he’s raised the bar for storytelling from book to book and how he has surpassed it yet again. I can talk about how series finales are so, so incredibly hard to nail, and yet he does it (because of course).

But what makes this book a veritable masterpiece (and I don’t use that term lightly), what makes it stand shoulders every other book I’ve read in the past two years, is that it peers into every dark crevice of the characters’ pain and suffering–into the heart of what makes us us–and it Does. Not. Flinch.

The line between honesty and gratuitousness is a thin one when it comes to stories that try to tackle depression and suicidal behaviour. Gregory Ashe walks it while balancing four different genres and reciting poetry that would make the angels weep. Without condoning it, the book doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and the violence that comes with mental illness.

And it’s not pretty. It’s not sugar-coated.

But it’s true. It’s so, so fucking true.

Like, there’s a scene where Vie goes out his way to deliberately hurt his boyfriend (using words), and at first he tells himself that he’s doing it as a favour–he’s doing it to push him away, to save his life. But then it morphs into something uglier. Because sometimes you turn other’s words and actions (even the innocuous ones) into ammunition against yourself–reasons for why you’re unlovable and discardable. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much and you don’t know how to deal with it, so it overflows onto the people you love. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much that you want them to feel just an ounce of it, and you derive a kind of awful, aching almost-pleasure from that. And on the heels of that comes blackness and self-loathing.

All of that. And all the reasons why we might hurt ourselves (and, in turn, the ones we love). And hate ourselves. And try to end ourselves.

Just…How.

How do you put that mess of emotions into words that I can recognize?

This book gets so many things so right, so real, that it felt like I was experiencing them again for the first time. And I was shaking and crying so hard that I had to go take multiple walks to calm myself down (and this was past 12 AM).

And I honestly don’t know how he does it. Maybe it’s magic. Or pure talent. Or power sourced from earth’s core. I don’t know how he does it but he does it, and I’m thankful to the point of tears because I can look at Vie’s scars and look to my own and nod and say “Okay.” And that’s enough.

This book (and series) is a bulwark against the voices urging me in the middle of the night, whispering that surely this time I can get the dosage right. And I know it can be so much for so many of you too. For all of you who have been broken and ground down. Because in spite of how dark it gets, this is a series about hope. And love–so, so much love. Finding it. Losing it. And slowly, oh so slowly learning that maybe, just maybe, you’re worthy of it and every other goddamn thing that life has to offer.

The Mortal Sleep has taken the top of my Best of 2019 list (and my heart and my sleep and my every waking thought) and it won’t be moving for the rest of the year.

flourish

Complimentary copy provided by the author. All opinions are my own.