[BOOKTOUR] Alyssa Sheinmel on writing

I’m so excited to host this guest blog from author Alyssa Sheinmel! After you’ve read her advice on writing, make sure you check out her new novel, FACELESS, and my review!


Writers are often asked what writing advice they would give to aspiring authors, to younger versions of themselves, or to just about anyone who has a story to tell. 

I always give the same answer, and I have to admit, it’s pretty simple. (Plus, it’s something most people who write love to do anyway.) It’s just one word and only a single syllable. It’s also one of my favorite words in the whole world.

Read.

Okay, I know that’s not the most insightful suggestion. It’s not particularly original.   I mean, you’ve probably heard that piece of advice a dozen times before, right?

I could at least be more specific. Like by suggesting a particular author or genre or style or author. Here goes – not just one but three more specific reading suggestions:

1. When I was in college, one of my favorite teachers told me to read writers who wrote the type of writing that I hoped to do myself someday. And I learned a lot from that type of reading, and continue to do it every chance I get.

2. Or, when I’m feeling a bit blocked, there are a few authors whose writing never fails to inspire me – writers whose work I look up to, whose stories are usually very different from the stories I’m trying to tell, but who tell the stories so well that just reading them feels like a lesson. (Just a small sample of these writers: Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Alice Hoffman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway.)

3. I also get very motivated to write by researching the project I’m working on. In the case of Faceless, that meant reading a lot of articles about face transplants and immunosuppressive drug regimens. I’m a research-happy writer, and reading information about the story I’m telling always gets me that much more excited to tell it.

But … at the end of the day, I keep coming back to that one syllable. Read. Because I really do believe that every single thing I’ve ever read has taught me something about how to tell a story – books that I’ve loved and books that weren’t necessarily my cup of tea. Novels and non-fiction. Essays and articles. Even – and I really mean this – textbooks. (There’s one psychology textbook I read over a decade ago that I still think about all the time.) Everything has something to teach you – or at least, I feel like it has something to teach me. Ideas can come from the most unexpected of places. A textbook taught me to insert humour into a dry topic. Magazine articles have prompted (sometimes completely unrelated) story ideas. Novel after novel has shown me beautiful and unexpected sentences. Essays have improved my vocabulary. For me, the essential thing isn’t always what I’m reading; sometimes it’s just enough that I’m reading. It’s still (and I suspect always will be) the piece of advice I most often give to myself about writing: just sit down and pick up a book.

-Alyssa Sheinmel

[REVIEW] Faceless – Alyssa Sheinmel

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Characters – 5/5
Plot – 4/5
Style – 5/5
Setting – 4/5
Overall – 4/5

Quote
“No one will know that I used to be an athlete, that there used to be freckles on my nose, that I used to have a dimple in my left cheek. They might wonder how I got these scars, but they’ll be too polite to ask, and I won’t ever tell.”

Review
When Maisie wakes up from a medically induced coma after going for a run in a storm, she discovers that half of her body has been burnt beyond recognition. Constantly told how lucky she is to be alive, to be found in time, to be brought to this particular hospital, Maisie doesn’t feel very lucky at all. Given the option of a face transplant to repair the damage caused by her accident, Maisie grabs the chance to slip quietly back into normal life without considering how difficult her plan really is.

The plot of FACELESS is a relatively simple but moving one. Maisie is left to rebuild her life in the wake of her accident: going to school, applying for college and trying to keep up with her best friend, Serena, and her boyfriend, Chirag. It’s unfussy, and the simplicity of the story perfectly compliments the inner chaos Maisie experiences as she tries to make sense of what’s happened to her and learns how to look at herself in the mirror again. The book is punctuated with everyday challenges that she once took for granted – her first day back at school, finals, dates and getting up early to go for a run.

The majority of the characters surrounding Maisie are just as believable and honest as she is. Serena is unflinchingly supportive, loyal at cost to her own happiness, while her parents work together as a united front despite their years of fierce arguments. Each has their own problems and lives outside of Maisie’s recovery, and these strong facades start to crumble piece by piece as Maisie slowly begins to understand how her accident has touched the lives of those around her too.

Alyssa Sheinmel presents Maisie’s recovery in what feels like a very truthful and sensitive way. There are no miraculous cures which take the pain away, no great moments of realisation. Each discovery and progression is creeping and gentle, slowly catching up to Maisie as she works through her new appearance as well as the emotional consequences of her surgery. Seeing a stranger every time she looks in the mirror and tied to taking medication for the rest of her life, Maisie has a lot to come to terms with. The difficulties she faces can’t be swept under the carpet, no matter how much she tries to avoid herself.

Set against the typical, YA high school setting makes Maisie’s story a lot more digestible for that younger audience. Such a huge and unimaginable trauma, both mentally and physically, works really well with a relatable background to bring the story back to something understandable. There are many layers to FACELESS, with self-acceptance being one of the major underlying themes.

I received FACELESS from Chicken House in exchange for an honest review. My reviews always represent my own opinion.

[REVIEW] Mosquitoland – David Arnold

mosquitolandSummary
Characters – 5/5
Plot – 4/5
Style – 5/5
Setting – 4/5
Overall – 5/5

Quote
“Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multidimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.”

Review
Being called out of class isn’t exactly a new one on Mim, but overhearing the principle discussing her mother’s deteriorating health with her father and step-monster certainly is. And it’s the last straw. Dragged 1,000 miles away to live in Mississippi when her parents divorced, Mim decides it’s about time she made good on her plans to visit her mum in Ohio. Stealing all the money in the house she can find, Mim jumps on the next Greyhound bus and sets off into the world to make things right.

MOSQUITOLAND has a simple but fast-paced plot that is built around the characters Mim encounters on her journey to find her mother. Making plenty of friends and enemies on the way to her mother, Mim’s story is one of humanity and, like all good road trips, figuring out where she stands on family, friends and matters of the heart (in all their incarnations). I never knew what was coming next with Mim, she’s as unpredictable as they come, with all the accompanying excitement.

David Arnold’s style is perfectly pitched between humour and gravity, and feels incredibly genuine from our young heroine’s mouth. Despite spending a fair amount of time travelling and waiting, there is never a dull moment in MOSQUITOLAND with a pace which flows quickly throughout the whole novel.

Told through a combination of letters to Isabelle and an up-close and personal first person narrative, getting inside Mim’s head is an extremely simple, if not occasionally uncomfortable, experience. Medicated at the insistence of her protective father, knowing that what Mim is thinking and feeling is real isn’t entirely straightforward.

Mim is just about the bravest, most relatable, most human YA protagonist that I have yet to come across (and please let there be more). Melinda Salisbury gave a passionate speech at YAShot this year on feminism and the notion of strong female protagonists. She said that being strong is so much more than just having a ‘sassy’ narrative or a physical advantage, that there a million different ways to be strong, from standing up for what you believe in to having the courage to walk away. For me, Mim represents exactly what Melinda was talking about. She is a real human being who is full of the bravado of a confident teenager to the world but, in reality, is just as confused and anxious as everyone else.

Mim may have a funny, nonchalant voice but it is her true self that really makes MOQUITOLAND stand out as honest, liberating and most importantly, believable. The way she interacts with other characters isn’t always flattering, but she does have more redeeming features than she probably even realises. Her partners in crime: Arlene, Walt, Beck and a whole host of Carls, are just as well developed and endearing as she is.

It’s the things that Mim learns about herself on the way to rescue her mother that absolutely brings this novel to life; it takes guts to drag yourself 1,000 miles from home. I truly loved the deeper message of self-acceptance behind this book and can only hope that more readers find that same warmth, to make MOSQUITOLAND a quiet classic for years to come.

I received MOSQUITOLAND in exchange for an honest review from Headline. My reviews always represent my own opinion. 

[REVIEW] Lorali – Laura Dockrill

24910026Summary
Characters – 5/5
Plot – 4/5
Style – 4/5
World building – 4/5
Overall – 4/5

In a Tweet
Mermaid-turned-human, Lorali washes up on an English beach. Found by a sweet natured boy and hunted by everyone, can they survive the storm?

Review
I picked up LORALI expecting it to be a harmless summer read to pass the time, not sure on whether I would actually enjoy it. The tagline doesn’t inspire much confidence (“An extraordinary mermaid in an ordinary town”) but I thought I’d give it a chance. Needless to say, it completely blew my expectations out of the water.

In the grim seaside town of Hastings, young Rory celebrates his birthday the way he always has. Standing out to sea with a bag of chips, wondering if this year his dad might remember a card or even make an appearance, and planning his evening trying to get served in the local.

Lorali is a princess that has always been unusually fascinated by the world above. When her Resolution, a mermaid rite of passage, doesn’t turn out as she’d hoped, she decides to seek solace in the human world. Washing up on the shore, alone, afraid and suddenly with legs, she soon discovers both the kindness and horrors of the human nature.

Punchy, exciting and gripping, LORALI is fantastically original and told with a melodic style. I would say that it’s only very loosely based on The Little Mermaid, definitely not a straightforward retelling. The plot is full of surprises and I don’t want to give too much away with my review; it definitely kept me on my toes. Splitting the narrative into three perspectives (plus the occasional newspaper clipping and blog post) kept the story moving, flowing quickly from chapter to chapter.

Rory’s voice is incredibly fresh and real, portraying the true nature of a 16 year old stuck in a dead town. I was surprised at how funny he was and how realistic his words and actions were – it’s been a long time since I’ve really believed in a character in this way. He could very easily walk off the page and straight into any high school in Britain without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow.

Lorali is just as wonderfully complex, her background and motives are dripped throughout the story to draw you in and fascinate you. She brings with her the mystery of the mermaid culture and the wonder of learning a new one. Her early moments are bright and funny, and when her true personality begins to be unearthed we find she’s feisty, brave but still quite vulnerable.

The Sea as a narrator was an absolutely brilliant choice. Able to give insights on the goings-on both below and above, The Sea became the wise and sassy omnipotent perspective, although that doesn’t make her any more reliable. Tripping the reader up in her own quirky voice, The Sea drops the hints and lets the reader do the work.

The mermaid kingdom is vivid and imaginative, full of fun little details. Laura has given the merpeople their own heritage, culture and secrets with side characters that are much more than just backdrop. The Sea takes care to fully introduce our pirates and people, meaning every character feels valuable to the story.

I feel like the ending is set up for a sequel, but honestly I would be happy to leave the world how it is. There’s the hint of what’s to come in the future and I would prefer to just connect the dots myself. The conclusion is exciting and vicious, with a good measure of hope thrown in at the end.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with LORALI and would absolutely recommend it to lovers of YA contemporary and fantasy alike. With elements of romance, action, adventure and mystery, it’s not only a tale of finding yourself but also learning what’s important and what to let go.

[REVIEW] My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises – Fredrik Backman

downloadSummary
Characters – 5/5
Plot – 4/5
Style – 4/5
World building – 5/5
Overall – 4/5

Quote
“All the best people are different – look at superheroes. After all, if superpowers were normal, everyone would have them.”

Review
Endearing and heartwarming, MY GRANDMOTHER SENDS HER REGARDS AND APOLOGISES is the tale of precocious seven (almost eight) year old Elsa coming to terms with her superhero and best friend’s death. Sent on an epic quest to deliver letters to the various characters living in her block of flats, the real world begins to mingle with Elsa’s fairytale land of monsters, knights and angels.

Fredrik’s style is really pleasant to read with lovely, image-rich writing that flows nicely from page to page. The plot is simple but effectively executed, keeping a reasonable pace as Elsa finds and delivers each letter. The Kingdom of Miamas is beautifully constructed and delicately woven into the storyline of Elsa’s reality – even the setting of her average Swedish hometown was stunning.

Drawing on Elsa’s memories and adventures with her outrageous grandmother, we have the opportunity to explore all sorts of stories in the Land of Almost-Awake. The tales are sewn into the plot in an incredibly intelligent way and I just couldn’t get enough of Miamas. I loved this feature and felt it added a whole other facet to what would otherwise have been a more traditional literary novel. For those not used to the fantastic, it may be difficult to get really stuck into the story, but for me it worked perfectly.

Elsa was a delight to read. She is bright, funny and very much a fan of quality literature such as Harry Potter and Spiderman. She’s a touch eccentric, just like her granny, and has an exceptional imagination. Even though she’s wise before her years, her voice feels very true to a curious and intelligent young girl and she has an inquisitive nature that really becomes her.

We see the whole story through Elsa’s eyes but we learn much about her friends, family and neighbours as she muddles through her grandmother’s quest. All the side characters we encounter initially seem rather one dimensional, but as Elsa delivers her letters and gets to know each and every person on a more personal level, layers of complexity are revealed. The stereotypes, amusing though they might be, slowly become real, rounded people.

Through her life Granny shows us that it’s okay to be different and through her letters she reminds us of an incredibly important lesson – don’t judge a book by its cover. The people Elsa encounters all have stories to tell and by the end of the book my initial opinions had been completely reversed on all of them.

MY GRANDMOTHER SENDS HER REGARDS doesn’t fit into one distinct genre and has a little bit of everything for everyone (just like Granny); fantasy adventure colliding with contemporary life. A creative world and complicated characters, Fredrik has brought an utterly charming, uplifting and original story to life.

I received MY GRANDMOTHER SENDS HER REGARDS AND APOLOGISES from Sceptre in exchange for an honest review. My reviews always represent my own opinion.

[REVIEW] I’ll Give You the Sun – Jandy Nelson

23573418Summary
Characters – 5/5
Plot – 5/5
Setting – 4/5
Style – 5/5
Overall – 5/5

Quote
“Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people,” I say. “Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.” Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.”

Review
I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN is a heart-warming story that encompasses love in all its forms; family, friends and romance. The underlying focus is Jude’s desperate need to reconnect with her twin, Noah and their furious mother, after life has torn them all apart. Joining Jude at age 16 and Noah aged 13, we experience both sides of their tragic story in a brilliant format – large sections are narrated by each character to provide a true sense of their personalities at various points in time.

Noah and Jude are both brilliant artists, inspired and encouraged by their wild mother and grounded by their logical father. Noah dreams of art school and tries to make himself invisible to everyone but the boy next door, while Jude jumps off cliffs, kisses boys and raises hell. Their worlds come crashing down when tragedy strikes and I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN tells the story of their lives in the before and after, revealing how Jude both tears apart and brings the family back together.

Jude as a young teenager is an immensely unlikeable character. She is cruel and destructive and rebels against her family more than most 13 year olds would dare. Yet, three years later she is our heroine determined to set things right. As a narrator she is vulnerable and the pain she feels leaves her raw and unhinged. The way Jandy has worked these two personalities into Jude is masterful; she found a firm place in my heart for showing her capacity to change and to open herself up to love.

13 year old Noah is as vibrant as the paintings he imagines. He’s passionate, funny and full of an infectious energy that just leaps off the page. Easily the most endearing character with his innocence and lust for life. Yet as a 16 year old, he is cold and distant, choosing to shut Jude out no matter how hard she tries. The seamless execution of this role reversal is just a further credit to Jandy’s brilliant character development.

I loved delving into each twin’s personality and learning how they have chosen to protect themselves against the harsh realities of life throughout the years. Even secondary characters such as Guillermo and Oscar are treated with great attention to detail with exciting backstories that reflect in their actions today.

The plot really drew me in and kept me guessing all the way through. There was a real sense of honesty about the different relationships explored and this was carried beautifully throughout; no clichés in sight. There were a few little surprises and some major reveals towards the end that shocked me and gave an extra depth to the whole story; seeing glimpses of characters’ past decisions and how their personalities have been shaped by the consequences.

The writing flows like a river and is bright, colourful and lively. Jude and Noah have very distinctive voices but they feel linked somehow. Noah often interrupts his own thoughts with ideas for the paintings he’ll create at the end of the day and Jude argues with her desire and references her grandma’s superstitions constantly, creating a nice mirroring effect.

I really fell in love with I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN and would absolutely recommend this one not only to fans YA, but of books that explore the true nature of love and family. It’s a real work of art in its own right and left me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. I will definitely be picking up a copy of Jandy’s first standalone, THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, to experience more of her wonderful words.

[REVIEW] Alice and the Fly – James Rice

23588512Summary
Characters – 3/5
Plot – 4/5
Setting – 3/5
Style – 4/5
Overall – 3/5

In a Tweet
Greg’s obsession with classmate Alice slowly spirals out of control, as he tries to understand the world of loneliness and fear surrounding him.

Review
ALICE AND THE FLY is the debut novel from Waterstones bookseller, James Rice. Greg is a troubled young man, trying to make sense of the fine line between love and obsession, in a home where he’s ignored and a school where he’s shunned. Struggling with an intense and life-halting phobia of Them hasn’t made things any easier for him, labeled a ‘psycho’ and forced to act as a happy family while everyone crumbles around him. His diary, intended to help him find the words to express his innermost thoughts and fears, has slowly morphed into an open letter to Alice, the beautiful girl who smiled at him once on the bus.

Reading Greg’s diary allows the reader to really get inside his head and see the world through his eyes, making building a close relationship with him extremely easy. While I sometimes didn’t agree with his personal decisions, I understood and truly sympathised with his behaviour due to this intense first-person perspective. My favourite chapters were those written in one continuous prose, no punctuation whatsoever. They were real and completely absorbing, creating such a huge sense of urgency and fear.

To keep the plot pointing in the right direction, there is the occasional police interview with Greg’s friends and family interspersed with his diary entries. While these weren’t always the most informative or interesting, they acted as tiny breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout to keep the intrigue alive. There is a little mystery in this novel, but ultimately I figured out the ending long before I came to it.

The story itself is very engaging, focussing on themes of loneliness in all its manifestations and how we try to hide it from the world. There is a sense of painful truthfulness in Greg’s journal that often made me feel uneasy; he has a sharp mind and a veracious voice. His perceptions of his family, Alice and himself can be difficult to swallow in their child-like honesty, but this only makes the relationship between reader and protagonist stronger. Greg is a real underdog and will quickly get any reader on his side.

An obvious drawback to choosing a journal style is that we don’t have the opportunity to closely experience the other characters. However, I feel that Rice did a great job in representing each character through Greg’s astute observations and more intimately through the transcripts.

While I enjoyed ALICE AND THE FLY very much, I was unhappy with the conclusions drawn about Greg towards the end. It is clear throughout that Greg is struggling with certain aspects of his mental health; he is isolated and withdrawn, has a severe phobia with compulsions and may even be experiencing hallucinations. For me, creating a character like this places the onus on the author to handle him responsibly.

Towards the end, Greg is slapped with a label to explain his actions – a sweeping under the rug of his problems that absolutely does not justify or resolve anything that has happened. It feels like this label is supposed to be a eureka moment for the audience, as though we have been waiting with bated breath to finally hear his diagnosis. This conclusion not only doesn’t fit Greg’s personality and behaviour in the first place, but also serves to perpetuate a multitude of misconceptions around mental health. To jump straight to such a complex, difficult to diagnose and commonly misrepresented disorder feels irresponsible and stigmatises those who may identify with Greg. I would have given 4/5 overall if not for this, as issues such as this are too important for me not to dock a point.

Generally, I would absolutely recommend this book to those who want to read something a little different. Greg is a breath of fresh air and I was privileged to hold his hand through his tragic journey.

I received ALICE AND THE FLY from Hodder and Stoughton in exchange for an honest review. My reviews always represent my own opinion.