[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] The Selection – Kiera Cass

imagesSummary
Characters – 2/5
Plot – 2/5
Style – 3/5
World Building – 2/5
Overall – 2/5

Quote
“I hope you find someone you can’t live without. I really do. And I hope you never have to know what it’s like to have to try and live without them.”

Review
Prince Maxon has finally come of age and all eligible young women across the kingdom have been invited to take part in The Selection. The entire process is televised throughout Illéa, showing the 35 lucky girls as they are whisked away from their families to live in luxury and compete for the hand of the prince.

America didn’t think she stood a chance when her letter arrived, having to be pushed by her mother and boyfriend, Aspen, to take the chance for a better life. When her name is called as one of the chosen few, America’s life changes forever. Automatically bumped up the caste system whether she wins or loses, America can never return to her normal life again. Fiercely loyal to her family but heartbroken by Aspen’s recent betrayal, America plans to stay in the palace for as long as possible just to escape reality – Prince Maxon doesn’t even factor into her ideas.

While I ultimately enjoyed THE SELECTION as an easy break from more taxing reads, I took great exception to the simpering nature of the main character, America. She spends the vast majority of the book fawning over her first (and secret) love, Aspen, while simultaneously falling for the bland Prince Maxon. Love triangles and relationship drama are no new phenomenon in YA, but it’s the positively pathetic and generic way America handles herself that frustrated me most of all. She has all the makings of a perfectly acceptable (if not boring) heroine, but her one dimensional thoughts just perpetuate the outdated stereotype of women swanning around in pretty dresses and weeping over men.

THE SELECTION comes complete with a tiered caste system, vague mentions of poverty, rebellion and a general resentment of the upper factions to create a generally predictable world. There is even a somewhat embarrassing attempt at exposition, with a whole history class on the Chinese invasion of the US. Then the Russian invasion of the US. Then the US becoming a monarchy. Sigh.

It’s a perfect example of the infuriating trap of the modern ‘dystopian’ trilogy. For a start, there is hardly any motivation for this book to be a dystopia. Throwing a poorly judged and terribly insipid few paragraphs on World War 3 completely undermines the reader’s intelligence. Worldbuilding like this needs to be explored sensitively and expansively; not simply comprise of a throwaway reference in order to classify as a popular genre.

Additionally, there is absolutely no need for this book to end on such a poor cliffhanger except to make it ‘fit in’ with the current market. YA publishers seem to be forgetting that, no matter how many books in a series, each novel needs a complete story arc. There is nothing even close to a complete story arc in THE SELECTION – we don’t even see the whole selection process! Is there any reason to drag this plot over three books that doesn’t boil down to money? Not that I can see.

I can appreciate why this has become so popular with the slightly younger YA readers, but it’s the kind of novel that I dislike myself for finding even somewhat entertaining. I’m growing so tired of the incessant bandwagon that is YA dystopian trilogies. Light, fluffy, mindless reads are only going to satisfy the community for so long and I can’t wait for the industry to finally move on.

[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] The Human Script – Johnny Rich

Summahuman-script-finalry
Characters – 4/5
Plot – 3/5
Style – 5/5
Science – 5/5
Overall – 4/5

Quote
“Inhumanity is part of humanity as much as suffering is a part of stories. Cruelty is written in the human script.”

Review
More science than science fiction, THE HUMAN SCRIPT: A NOVEL IN 23 CHROMOSOMES is an incredibly intelligent, literary exploration of what humanity means in a world so obsessed with hard facts and scientific proof. I truly felt like I was learning whilst reading THE HUMAN SCRIPT, but most importantly, it gave me a new appreciation and understanding of a variety of topics that I’d never even considered venturing into before.

I find it difficult to discuss the plot of THE HUMAN SCRIPT in complete isolation to its characters, ideas and settings, as the interplay between all of these factors is really what drives the story forward. To try to talk about the plot in any depth would be to ruin the experience of the entire book and to pinpoint Chris’ narrative down to just a few defining moments is practically impossible.

With a mind that is constantly churning over possibilities, connections and events, Chris explores everyday life with an eye that searches for meaning in every single detail he can comprehend. If you like your novels to have very clear-cut conflict/resolution from chapter to chapter, I would suggest that this isn’t the novel for you.

THE HUMAN SCRIPT is fairly heavy on a wide range of thought-provoking topics. We are taken on a whirlwind tour of complex ideologies in philosophy, biology, art, anthropology and religion from the very first page to the very last. Ultimately, this novel is the bemused consideration of human nature – a study on the space inside our protagonist’s head and the circumstances that happen to him and because of him.

The parallels between Chris and his brother are both fascinating and enlightening – the more I read the more I began to understand the context of Chris’ musings on nature vs nurture and cause vs effect. The twins are genetically identical, but born on different days under different signs, they have lived lives that are both the same and entirely different. The development of Chris’ character is integral to the storyline and his arc is executed to perfection. He has a sharp mind and enjoys dissecting his experiences to internalise and justify his feelings, changing ever so imperceptively but dramatically as his life takes the usual twists and turns.

Our second narrator is an omnipotent and manipulative unknown third person. He interjects occasionally, describing how the moments Chris finds himself in were constructed and came into being, pushing his thoughts into the story and even directly challenging the reader with his twisted philosophy (“So who is cruel? You, cruel reader, you are. You.”). This narrator adds a dimension of detachment to the story that becomes increasingly significant as it progresses.

I feel that talking specifics would spoil such a painstakingly crafted narrative and I’ve deliberately tried to keep my review short on details for this reason. A literary/non-fiction hybrid, I would urge you to give this one a go even if it doesn’t sound like your usual reads.

THE HUMAN SCRIPT is a novel that absolutely begs to be shared and discussed and argued over endlessly so please let me know if you’ve already read this book! I would love to talk to people about the themes and philosophical theories considered throughout the novel and learn even more.

[REVIEW] Skin – Ilka Tampke

24721903Summary
Characters – 5/5
Plot – 4/5
Style – 5/5
World building – 5/5
Overall – 5/5

Quote
“He was as dazzling and unfathomable as the night sky: in equal measure splendid and despondent, vital and injured, tender and cruel. He had an Elder’s wisdom, yet the wariness of a child, and in the force of these splits, the whole earth turned within his sprawling frame.”

Review
Set in a Pagan Britain yet to experience the rough hand of Roman rule, Ailia’s story is one of magic, politics and becoming more than you ever dared to dream was possible. Born in body but not in soul, Ailia is skinless. Without a totem animal to guide and protect her spirit she is forbidden to take part in the ceremonies that bring her people together and form the structure of their lives. She has found herself in a privileged position in the Tribesqueen’s kitchen, but it comes at the cost of never being permitted to learn, to marry and never knowing who she truly is. With her peaceful village on the cusp of a brutal Roman invasion, she must quickly learn to find the courage and conviction to rise to the role the Mothers have destined for her.

SKIN is a collision of all things perfect. Ilka’s language is like music, deftly weaving reality and the impossible into one beautiful world. The dialogue feels true to the era yet natural and playful, simultaneously elevated and understandable. Every moment is cinematic, real, alive with colour, texture and sound – from the kitchen to the Mother’s abstract realm, Ailia travels through vivid and fascinating scenes. I could read this book over and over and never grow tired of Ilka’s absorbing prose.

The mixture of history to fantasy is in flawless proportions. I usually shy away from historical fantasy as the courts and queens and servants can be stale and boring, but SKIN takes place in a relatively unexplored era with an original and fresh setting. The research poured into the novel is evident on each page, creating a believable and strongly rooted world.

The overall plot is fairly simple – the threat of Rome hangs directly over the villages head and the people must decide whether to stand their ground or submit to the sheer force of the Roman army. It means sacrificing their deeply set pagan ways and denouncing the Mothers, but it also means staying alive. Ailia is obviously key to this decision in some way, being our protagonist, but there is a sense of reason in her significance and a massive risk in trusting her importance.

There are several side plots which add extra flavour and excitement to the mix – Ailia’s romance with Taliesin is a thing of beauty and her journey as a character and a woman is developed with just the right pace. I often complain about romance in YA and fantasy novels but Ilka has absolutely hit the nail on the head in SKIN. Ailia is both confident and vulnerable, inexperienced yet mature while Taliesin is alluring and frustratingly mysterious, creating a sensuous and intricate relationship between the two.

I savoured the final chapters of SKIN as I just didn’t want that first read-through experience to end. While it would stand as a convincing standalone with the completion of a full story arc, I am absolutely thrilled that a sequel is already in motion. A sprawling fantasy series could easily spring from SKIN, in any case, I hope to read much much more from Ilka Tampke.

[REVIEW] Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

SummaryOnly Ever Yours
Characters – 4/5
Plot – 5/5
Style – 5/5
World building – 5/5
Overall – 5/5

Quote
“We have never had a class on how to say no to men while simultaneously never saying no to them.”

Review
ONLY EVER YOURS is a dark and disturbing commentary on society’s reckoning of the female role, set in a world far too close for comfort. Women are no longer born, they are created as a reflection of perfection, trained for their entire lives in the art of being female. Each year three times as many eves are created than boys born – these boys grow up knowing the eves’ faces, ranking their fotos regularly to determine who is the most attractive, but they will not meet until the eves are nearing the Ceremony which determines their lives forever.

Kept in solitude during the night, the eves are played ceaseless mantras to wash their thoughts: I am a good girl, I am pretty, I am always agreeable, I always do as I am told. During the day, their appearance is scrutinised, their self-control is tested and they are taught lessons of utmost importance: how to please a man, how to compare themselves to other women, how to serve their purpose.

Best friends freida and isabel are approaching the final year and the stakes are higher than ever. This is the year the Inheritants will make their final judgement and condemn the girls to life as either companion, concubine or chastity. Desperately clinging to her lifelong desire to become an honoured companion, the pressure on freida gradually mounts throughout the story to an excruciating peak. The tension is well-built and well-paced, giving the whole story a creeping sense of unease that stayed with me long after reading the final page.

freida can be a difficult protagonist to like at times due to her behaviour – she makes a string of terrible choices and her justifications are hard to swallow. Having access to her thoughts was a little disturbing too; she is a product of her environment after all. Overall I really enjoyed her as a narrator and felt she gave a very true reflection of life in the world created for her. I felt a little maternal towards her by the end, as even though she made such big mistakes I loved her and just wanted to get in the story to protect her.

It’s made clear from the beginning that isabel is significant, but I could not figure out why until the very end. Keeping everyone guessing, she is enigmatic and mysterious and I couldn’t help but be sucked into the hysteria surrounding her. The other eves all envied her and wanted to know her secrets, look like her and be like her.

The other characters, especially the eves, are presented as extras, a means to an end. To freida they are either competition to beat to win the heart of the boys or tools to exploit in her pursuit. The girls were vapid and soulless, perfectly moulded into the roles prescribed to them. I loved the fiery attitudes of the chastities and felt they added an extra dimension to the secondary characters with their more powerful role in such a heavily patriarchal society.

Stylistically, this book took my breath away and left me reeling. ONLY EVER YOURS is cutting with its honesty and is brutally unforgiving. I watched helplessly as freida pressed the self-destruct button and felt her pain as vividly as if it were my own. Louise O’Neill is to the point and sharp with her words, her style mirroring the themes of the book in perfect harmony. The decision to use lower case letters for female names is so intelligent – it’s such a simple but striking reminder of inferiority throughout the entire novel. It begins to feel almost natural as you turn the pages, so assimilated to the idea by the end.

Deeply emotional and terrifyingly twisted, ONLY EVER YOURS didn’t just break my heart, it ripped it out and took pleasure in stomping all over it. This book should be required reading – as a female of course I am acutely aware of how society treats us and pushes us to think, but freida’s world truly woke me up to the horrors we ignore in everyday life. Yes, it’s speculative fiction, scifi, dystopian… but every moment is based on mountains of truths. It’s opened my eyes to how I think and feel and I certainly won’t be able to let this book go for a long time.

Louise O’Neill’s second novel, ASKING FOR IT, lands on 3rd September 2015. Though it’s bound to be another emotionally draining read with themes of rape culture and victim blaming, I know Louise will handle it with grace, respect and brutal honesty.

[REVIEW] The 5th Wave – Rick Yancey

16101128Summary
Characters – 4/5
Plot – 4/5
Style – 4/5
World building – 4/5
Overall – 4/5

Quote
“But if I’m it, the last of my kind, the last page of human history, like hell I’m going to let the story end this way. I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing. I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway. I am the one not running but facing. Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity. And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.”

Review
They arrived on an average day without warning or fanfare, the Mothership hanging over Manhattan like it belonged there. Aeroplanes dropped from the sky, tsunamis and earthquakes destroyed entire coastlines, and the Pestilence took four billion humans with it. Isolated and terrified, the survivors are ripe for hand-picking. Now they are with us, walking in our skins and killing us with our own hands. Nobody can be trusted.

Cassie is on her own. She has survived the 3rd Wave and is managing to eke out on existence in the 4th. She knows the 5th Wave is coming, not when or what or how, but she knows it will come, because the Silencers won’t stop until every last human is silenced. Searching for her little brother after their separation at Camp Ashpit, she refuses to break the promise she made him. Zombie is training to become an alien-killing machine and Evan is just trying to follow his heart.

One of my favourite features of THE 5TH WAVE was the way each character’s storyline began separately and eventually became woven together. Rather than chapter-by-chapter changes, their stories are told in segments, ending each time on perfect, tension-building cliffhangers. This method certainly made for a more dynamic and intricate story-telling experience.

There are some truly thought-provoking and moving moments in THE 5TH WAVE, considering what it really means to be human in a world stripped back to its most basic nature. With just the right amount of humour and teenage dreams, the plot is fast-paced and full of energy. The threat of capture and death is tangible and hangs over the characters constantly, making for an exciting and powerful story.

The story of Cassie and her family takes place against the classic apocalypse backdrop: not quite deserted forests, conflicted survivor camps, lonely highways and the looming watchers above.. Uncomfortably realistic and set firmly in the modern-day, the many scenes of Cassie’s travels feel like an eerie reflection of what our world could be if aliens really didn’t want us around.

The few protagonists and their friends appear to be quite well-rounded and come complete with one fully realised, heartbreaking back story or another. Some characters, such as Ringer, remain charmingly enigmatic, keeping enough secrets to make her interesting. Evan in particular is complex and intriguing, with motives and a history I enjoyed puzzling out. There’s a lot of development in Zombie in particular as he learns the art of war and what it truly is to be brave, while Cassie’s evolution creeps up on her and takes her cold-hearted distrust by surprise.

My only real disappointment with THE 5TH WAVE was that each character didn’t have a completely unique or distinct voice. The style in general was excellent across the board regardless of which character was in charge, but without context I found it difficult to distinguish between Cassie and Zombie. They each had subtle quirks and I especially enjoyed Cassie’s internal conversations with herself, but stylistically there was little to make each one instantly recognisable.

THE 5TH WAVE has the makings to be a brilliant young adult scifi series, with THE INFINITE SEA already available and a third installment on the way. Frantic and believable, every page is completely absorbing with the perfect combination of an unearthly atmosphere and the human condition.