[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.

[BOOKTOUR] The Awakened – Sara Elizabeth Santana

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Zoey Valentine is concerned with two things: surviving the multitude of self-defense classes her dad makes her take and avoiding Ash Matthews.

Then the Z virus hits, wiping out a third of the population in a matter of weeks. If that weren’t frightening enough, the bodies of the victims disappear and suddenly reappear, awakened from their dead state.
Faster, smarter, working together to get the one thing they crave, human flesh.

The United States is in a panic and then the government decides the unthinkable: to bomb every major city overrun with the awakened.

Now Zoey is on the run, with her dad and Ash, desperate to find a place of safety amongst the ruined remains of the country.


0081ce_f0504e6999e74d0d830f8a11e8d785e4Summary
Characters – 3/5
Plot – 3/5
Style – 3/5
World Building – 3/5
Overall – 3/5

Review
Zoey is physically strong and seemingly well prepared for the end of the world. Between shooting lessons and a proficiency in almost every martial art on offer, she can certainly take care of herself.

Her bravery and powerful right hook can be a little too good to be true at times, especially with her tendency to hide her emotional vulnerability, but she does eventually open up as she warms to Ash and comes to terms with her losses along the way.

Whilst in places the plot was somewhat predictable, the awakened are a brilliant twist on the classic, slow zombies which usually haunt apocalypse books and movies. Distinguished by the blue tint to their skin, the awakened are intelligent, vicious, fast and light on their feet; surviving in this new world is a truly brutal affair.

I loved Zoey as a protagonist but felt that occasionally the author was trying a little bit too hard to mould her into a relatable character. She’s super into reading and makes a lot of references to popular novels and characters in the YA community. Sometimes these shoutouts felt a little shoe-horned in, to me, but I definitely think they will go down well with less cynical readers (I’m a grump, what can I say?).

I also have to go out on a limb here and say that I really did not like Ash. He does go through some serious character development throughout the story arc (thankfully), but until the effects of these changes are felt, he is utterly insufferable. I do maintain, however, that a good character doesn’t always have to be likeable, and Ash is the exact kind of smooth, flirtatious, persistent irritant that seems to make other YA readers go weak at the knees.

THE AWAKENED has some seriously steamy moments for a YA novel which took me by surprise. Sometimes sex in YA can produce very stilted, timid, ‘fade to black’ scenes that make it very obvious that the author didn’t feel confident or comfortable writing about it. In THE AWAKENED, these moments are pitched at the perfect level for an emergent audience and are well-written and handled appropriately across the board.

While this certainly wasn’t a major feature of the plot, it is so refreshing to read a YA novel where the 19 year old protagonist actually behaves like an adult. Even little things like Zoey wanting to brush her teeth on the road and having her period add together to make this a wholly more realistic (and therefore frightening) experience.

As a publishing student, the real triumph here is seeing how Ben’s (Benjaminoftomes) hard work has paid off. Setting up a micropublishing house is an amazing feat in itself, but he has also managed to take three books to publication since September with more in the pipeline for early 2016! I can’t wait to see how Oftomes Publishing grows and am certainly looking forward to reading more books from a publishing house which is so in tune with what the community really wants to read.

Overall, THE AWAKENED is fast-paced and exciting, with danger lurking on every road between Zoey’s New York brownstone and her mother’s farm in rural Nebraska. Facing more than her fair share of tragedy, Zoey has to learn how to hone her survival instincts as she slowly becomes aware of how and where these mysterious awakened came from.

I received THE AWAKENED in exchange for an honest review from Oftomes Publishing. My reviews always represent my own opinion. 

[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. 

[ARTICLE] Literary Bloomsbury

LITERARY BLOOMSBURY

Given the title ‘Literary Bloomsbury’ and told to run with it in any direction we saw fit, I spent more time than I care to admit racking my brains for a topic. Before moving to London, I had never even heard of the apparently infamous Bloomsbury Group and my knowledge of the area only went as far as UCL (and probably Bloomsbury Publishing) being a part of it.

Turns out that Bloomsbury is home to more publishing houses than you can shake a hardback at. As part of our Publishing Contexts module, my class was given the incredible opportunity to nosy round Faber & Faber and meet some of the lovely people who work there. Inspiration hit.

I’ve loved Sylvia Plath since I first picked up one of Faber’s many editions of The Bell Jar on one of my regular angry teenage shopping trips. Stomping through Waterstones, I can’t imagine what attracted me to pick it up. At the time, I was almost exclusively reading manga, costing me nearly £10 a volume and devouring each one in a matter of hours. The Bell Jar was my first leap into the ‘literary’ or ‘classic’ genre, and I have yet to find another book that even comes close to it.

Sylvia, born in Massachusetts, came to the UK on a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Cambridge University. She had excelled in academics throughout her entire life and through her short stories, won an editorial internship at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Her experiences there utterly exhausted her and later became the base upon which she built The Bell Jar.

Bell Jar OpeningDetailing in vivid imagery the crushing disappointment, resentment and loathing she felt in New York, The Bell Jar was the first novel I read that showed depression in such a raw and real form. Sylvia was repeatedly told how gracious and grateful she should be for such an incredible opportunity, that she should be having the time of her life. She simply wasn’t.

Faber publish The Bell Jar as part of their Children’s/YA list. Why? Everything about it screams mature, warning, parental guidance. The themes may be hard to swallow, but they’re real.

The number of 15 and 16 year olds with depression has almost doubled since 1980. And that’s only the ones brave enough to seek help. Young readers are experiencing these sudden extremes of emotion, squashed into boxes that don’t fit them by academia and society. Crushing down feelings of inadequacy and fear, teenagers are forced to compete against the projections of perfection endlessly plastered across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

We are failing them. By maintaining this shroud of taboo around mental health and making it so difficult to talk about our emotions, we are not teaching these burgeoning adults how to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. The number of children admitted to hospital due to self-harm has increased by 68% in just ten years. And that’s only the ones brave enough to seek help. 

By publishing The Bell Jar in the YA list, Faber are speaking frankly to young adult readers and allowing them to take ownership of their education on mental health. We need books that create an open and honest space to discuss depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar and all the other labels we like to slap on each other’s foreheads. The Bell Jar. All the Bright Places. The Silver Linings Playbook. My Heart and Other Black Holes. Books like these allow young readers to identify their own difficulties, find solace in knowing they’re not alone, learn how to talk to people they’re concerned for and provide a springboard for seeking out more information. Mirrors and windows.

Carefully choosing to publish books that facilitate this discussion is a vitally important responsibility of our industry. 

Faber & Faber summarise Sylvia Plath’s brilliant life in just five key milestones – one being her birth and the other her death. Her first key moment? Meeting Ted Hughes. This incredible woman achieved so much in her life but is defined merely in terms of her romantic relationships. Clearly we still have a lot of work left to do there too, but that’s an article for another day.

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Charlotte x

(All statistics from Young Minds.)

[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.