An Interview With The Awesome And Creative James Stryker

Again I find it necessary to be thankful to Twitter and its ability to connect people. I stumbled across James Stryker on Twitter and fell in love with the concept of his then upcoming novel, Assimilation. I was eager to get my hands on it and found a generous author willing to give me a copy for a review, and so started my love for James’s work.

In addition to being kind enough to have furnished me with copies of his books in exchange for my thoughts, he agreed to spend some time to do a video interview with me to discuss his books and his own writing journey so far. He was also generous enough with his time and thoughts to read my own novel and willingly discussed it with me with interest, criticism, and praise.

So without further ado, my friend and colleague, James Stryker!

dsc_0169editted.jpg

 

DM: Thank you again, so much, for being willing to do this (interview)

JS: Thank you very much for your time. It’s a pleasure, an honor. I love talking to other authors and having the chance to talk about my stuff and – I mean I know you sent me a list of questions but please feel free to talk about your stuff as well.

(The man is humble and truly enjoys discussing others’ work. I let him know that while I appreciated that, this interview was about him, so we tried to keep the focus on James.)

DM: So, I’m not sure which to ask about first, Assimilation or Boy: A Journey, but essentially I’m really curious about the same thing on both of them, and that is, what’s the first thing you remember as far as your idea, the seed of that idea?

JS: Well, I’ll speak to Assim first. I did a brief stint at a funeral home, and so I’ve always just been very interested in cadaver prep, like embalmings, cremations, and all that really good stuff has always been very interesting to me. And I was just researching one day, just reading about a lot of the new advancements and everything with the cryonic preservation theories and about the new challenges that they have and all that kind of good stuff and something that I ran across was that an inherent part of that invasive procedure is just the impact on brain tissue. Like, if it becomes successful, there is a very real possibility that someone could come back and have different personality traits. Also, just knowing that gender identity, possibility, and expression, the brain just plays a huge role in that, more so than just genitalia. So I had the image of a young man basically paralyzed in a hospital bed opening his eyes to a different man expecting his wife and child so, the story just kind of built itself from there. One of those, what if this were the kind of thing that could happen and it truly could.

For Boy, I’ve always just been really passionate about being an advocate for the transgender community. I have a lot of friends and am involved in a lot of the online support scene for it and something that’s just personally always bothered me a little bit, and I know it bothers a lot of other transgender people, is that there’s a lot of sensationalism around it. It’s constantly seen as something that’s very dramatic, it’s constantly erupting, it’s just this scarlet letter that will follow you for the rest of your life, and that might be true for some people, and I’m definitely not mocking that or knocking it at all, but I think there’s a segment of the transgender population where they transition and then they just carry on because they don’t see their true authentic self as being transgender. So, it doesn’t impact them on a daily basis and it’s so seamless that you would really just never know, and my idea was that if a transgender person that chose they wouldn’t have to reveal their past to anyone, and really under the right circumstance, I don’t think they would even have to reveal it to their children. When I brought that idea up in a few circles, several people kind of doubted that it was possible. I actually even had a psychologist tell me that there was no way it could be down so I just decided well, screw you guys, I’m going to write it because it is possible.

DM: I really loved the ideas. That was my first desire really, was to know where the spark of each of those came from because they were such interesting possibilities.

JS: Thank you, I really appreciate that. High praise coming from you.

 

After a moment of my patented awkward and extremely appreciative thank you, we delved further into a discussion about some of the elements in Boy: A Journey and how they relate to the transgender community.

JS: In my involvement with the community I’ve met a great array of people and there are some individuals where they identify as transgender and that journey is so meaningful and impactful to them that they always- that is how they prefer to be known and they are comfortable with other people knowing that, and not to say that the faction of folks that I write about is not comfortable telling people, obviously in Boy: A Journey is, but I think that what you see in the media all the time is all the drama and all the people that it’s just, sorry for lack of a better word, is just constant drama, constant upheaval, and it’s never just something that you move beyond where I think that the dream of a lot of young transgender people just is, I’m going to go through transition and then I’m going to carry out my life as if I were a “normal” man or a “normal” woman, that can be done. One of the, I know there’s the whole big thing about the bathroom issue and there so many great stories that were posted in light of that, of pictures of people who are transgender, and you walk by them every day on the street and you have no idea, but it’s not those people that you see in the media, or that you see in a lot of books and, in my personal opinion, I just feel like that’s where a lot of transgender folks really do fall and so I wanted to write about those people.

The other thing that I definitely do want to add is that, what I just love about gender expression and identity is that, you also then have a faction of people where they identify as they/them or both and that gender fluidity which is wonderful, that’s not the type of people that I write about it, but I just think that that’s incredibly as well. Just capturing everything. I really loved working with Nine Star Press because that’s what they do, they capture all of the binary or as much as one can.

Even if you pop into some of the transgender chat rooms and support groups, so much of it is upheaval. I’ve talked to a lot of teens and young people who are starting the process and the constant fear I see is you know, I’m never going to be normal, I’m going to be this freak, people are going to look at me and they’re going to know immediately, and it doesn’t have to be like that.

I hope that even though I kill Jay off immediately, that maybe that gives some kind of empowerment to folks who think that ‘I’m always going to be seen as weird or a freak,’ you don’t!

DM: Definitely. I do have to say that, Jay may have been killed off immediately but he was a huge presence throughout the book. You did such a good job of giving a character who wasn’t there, character.

JS: Thank you, I appreciate that.

 

On the subject of Jay, we discussed further some of the changes that can occur after someone dies, like that they almost become a different person to different people.

JS: It was great to explore how this man is seen in three different lights from three different people, all of his motives are questioned in three different ways, and I just, I really enjoyed that because I see that so often and have experienced that when someone does pass away.

DM: How long did it take you to finish writing Assimilation and Boy: A Journey?

JS: Well, actually for Assimilation it went very very quickly. I wrote that over the span of a couple of weeks actually, after the initial idea was completed. I’m a very fast writer and what I’ll do is I’ll take time off of work and I will write. I can write up to 15k, 18K a day because I’ll just go for hours.

DM: Wow..

giphy-downsized-large (1)

JS: Really, Boy: A Journey was a challenge because I mulled that idea over and over, had dozens of false starts, like, several different ways I tried to go about it because I really, again, it was very important to me to represent that faction of the transgender community and I wanted to do a good job at it, so I started it several, several times. It took about seven years before that was finished, so I ended up finishing Assim first.

DM: How long did it take you to get Assimilation published, from when you decided you were done and going to start?

JS: I finished that in, oh…February 2014 and it took me over a year for me to get it published because after I finish writing I don’t immediately send it out, I do the editing, I let it sit in the sock drawer for a while, that kind of good stuff. I sent that query to, probably over a hundred agents and publishers and wasn’t really getting any bites until I went through #SFFPits on Twitter and it got picked up by Momentum Pan Macmillan. So, the entire process was probably, from completion, a year and a half to get that published.

DM: That’s pretty awesome.

JS: Yeah, it went well, I think.

DM: I have such a problem with that, a pitch is hard enough but especially when you’re pitching on Twitter it’s just….ahhh!

giphy (2)

JS: Yeah, no, and there’s so many like amazing stories out there, to really make yours stand out, it can be quite challenging. There’s Twitter contests that I would enter that I would get tons of faves and then others where it just seemed like it got lost in the shuffle so, it all just really depends.

DM: As writers we all know that we put pieces of ourselves and our characters in our stories, what would you say is perhaps a trait or a characteristic of yours that you put into one of your characters? (in any novel you’ve written)

JS: Well, I think that kind of leads into one of the questions you were going to ask about my favorite book, I really think it kind of leads into that. Because normally I do try to separate myself somewhat. I mean I put in a little bit of how I act in to everyone but really try not to write me.

DM: Yeah, of course.

JS: However, while I really do love all of my books, a novel that I completed a couple of years ago that’s really meant a lot to me and I put a great deal of myself in that book. To be frank I was in a very dark place when I wrote it because my wife and I had been trying to have a child for a very long period of time and it was not happening. I was actually finding it even difficult to leave my house because seeing children was triggering me into anxiety and I happened to make a joke to my wife one day that I just need to find a place where there were not any kids and the perfect job for me would be the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  That comment actually got the wheels turning and in doing some research I just discovered that there wasn’t really anything out there about his backstory and, I mean, this is a guy who, in 2005 he’s voted the scariest villain in children’s books and in 2008 Entertainment Weekly said that he was one of the 50 most vile movie villains but nowhere is there any explanation of why this guy does what he does. So, I really decided to try to take on that, and I reimagine him as a person who wasn’t evil but was suffering through some severe depression and just trying to cope with the inability to have children. Really, writing that book helped me to work through a lot of what I was feeling and it’s probably the most the most personal piece of writing that I’ve done. It’s difficult for me to read that over. It’s been difficult for beta readers who know me personally to read it because there is a lot of my feelings and anger and incredibly frustration in that. So, I do hope when that does get out there, that it’s able to help someone else feel not as alone. But I would say, in a long winded answer to your question, that’s where, of all of my books, I really wrote about me and my struggles and so it’s very meaningful to me.

DM: Gotcha. Wow. I really appreciate you sharing all of that with me. That was definitely one of the books I saw that you had that would be coming out that I was like, ‘I have to have that, I have to read this, I really want to know!’

JS: I would very much love to get your thoughts on it. It’s the only one right now that is not actively doing anything, it’s just hanging out there. Again, it’s a difficult one for me to read through and it- I have queried it before. I had some people that were interested, but it’s something where- you know, you have writers say, ‘this book is my baby’, and the other books, they are very important to me, but this one is my baby. So it’s been really hard to…let it go.

DM: Oh, I can completely understand that one. I mean, that was one of the depression issues I was having with The Foretelling Spark is because I’m like, it’s not bad, but it’s not my baby. It’s not the book I’m going to hold up as being the proudest of and say that I’m so glad I wrote this book. I mean, it was the first thing novel-length I was able to complete and I didn’t throw into something and set it afire, you know?

JS:  Well, and it was great. I mean, I saw, and again I know we aren’t super bffs but, just in speaking with you and, you know, looking at your Twitter and things that are important to you and how you view the world, there was a lot of you in it, but you could tell that there was, you had also taken that editorial eye to where you’re not just writing every thought that comes into your head. I see that so much in other writers, where there’s just not that filter; not to say that thoughts aren’t important, but every one doesn’t need to be written down.

 

We continued down this slight detour of discussion concerning my own novel, which James was kind enough to read and give some feedback on. There was much blushing and giddiness on my part from James’s praise and thoughtful critique of my work. But this interview is about the talented James, so back to topic!

DM: So, what would you say your publishing experience has been like so far?

JS: Uhhh….*heavy sigh* a whirlwind! I mean, as I said, Assimilation was picked up non-traditionally through a Twitter pitch on #SFFPit. And then Boy: A Journey was picked up through #Pitmad from Ninestar, so that was again, another non-traditional being picked up there. They also asked to then see any of my other LGBT work and that’s how they ended up publishing The Simplicity of Being Normal. They offered me based on that, and then, while all of this other stuff was going on I was still out there, still trying to find a literary agent, and I received an offer on my YA manuscript. And I sent out that standard notice of offer of rep and I was just beyond ecstatic that my dream agent actually offered me! So now I’m out of the querying, Twitter paryting scene.

DM: Ah! Wow! Congratulations!

JS: I’m super excited. It’s nice to not have to worry about that anymore, it’s just a relief. It’s also an honor to really be working with someone as talented and awesome as she is.

DM: Sounds like a good match, then. So, what would you say has been the most difficult part of the entire writing process? The writing, the editing, the querying, publishing, whatever part of it?

JS: I mean, querying is, as I’m sure you know, frustrating as hell, oh my god! So that was very difficult, but really, I mean, in just my personal experience, I feel like the publishing has been more difficult, but that really could be, it seems like every time I start the process of publishing there’s also something else going on. So, what ends up happening is that I end up procrastinating, and ultimately I feel super rushed and super stressed out about it. So even though querying is super frustrating, at least it was, okay, I send out this query, there’s nothing else I can do about it, and I let it go. But with publishing when there’s all the deadlines, it has to go through like eight different people, and I don’t want to be the hold-up, so the rush is very stressful, so I would could that the most difficult part.

DM: Do you have a favorite writing spot?

JS: It really depends on what I’m working on and how deep I need my concentration to be. When I’m at home I usually just write at the dining room table which is where I’m at right now. But if I really need a chunk of time and I need to focus I will go down to just a local coffee shop; it’s kind of hard to get distracted there, I don’t have kids running around and dogs running around. So it depends on what I’m working on.

DM: Makes sense. How do you balance your writing and the rest of life necessities?

JS: Oh god…uh…I wish that I really did have two other mes, that would be nice. Um, I mean it’s, I try to carve out writing times at night. I mean, I do have a full-time job that I’m very dedicated towards there, I’ve been a foster parent for a couple of years now, so caring for any children in the home is a hugs priority for me. So I usually write when everyone else is asleep! Luckily I have insomnia so I’m up all night.

DM: Ah, a tell-tale sign of a writer, too often. Too many of us anyway.

JS: That is true.

DM: What are some of your interests outside of writing?

JS: Um, well, my nine month old little guy. Nothing really brings me more joy than he does so he’s probably my main interest. I’m also really passionate about my full-time job, I’m part of a leadership team at a call center and I find that very rewarding. I have the opportunity to use a lot of my creativity, I design presentations, photoshop stuff, as well as mentoring other people. So, those are my main things.

DM: I know you’re a fan of Sci-fi, so for the record, do you have a favorite writing or reading genre?

JS: I actually, even though Assim is sci-fi, it actually shocked me because I don’t know that I’m a huge huge fan of sci-fi/fantasy. I really like, uh- like, I’m so excited to get my hands on whatever you’re working on that’s dystopian, so kind of like that soft sci-fi, because I’m very much character driven; that’s very important to me. Again, this is just my personal taste as a reader, sometimes with a lot of sci-fi or fantasy novels, the world building and descriptions and all that, I want to move and know what’s going on with these characters, that’s what grabs me. I more go for literary fiction. I really love books that have beautiful prose, which again one of your strengths! Really, I like things that have a purpose beyond just merely entertainment. I want to walk away being a little bit different. I’m not saying I like to read inspirational, and I don’t want to be ‘fundamentally changed’, but to walk away with even just a new idea, new perspective. So yeah, I really am more literary.

DM: That’s exactly why I fell in love with Assimilation and your characters in general because that is definitely one of your strengths. As I said in my reviews and before, you really know how to grab a reader with your characters and not let go.

JS: Thanks. That’s what I like to read, so.

DM: You definitely write it well, so I understand why you love to read it too. I definitely enjoy very character driven work. I mean, who else are you investing in?

JS: I definitely agree. I don’t know why, I’ve always found that, from a very young age, that I read a book because I want to be somewhere else, I want to walk in someone else’s shoes. But you know, the other thing that I think is very interesting to that too, and that I’ve tried to convey in my books, is that I don’t necessarily think that that person has to be super likeable; I really enjoy reading about characters that are flawed, that are deeply flawed because I think that’s so much more approachable. I can’t imagine myself being in the shoes of some saint, but people who are affected by their surroundings, who make very poor decisions, who can be very cruel, as cruel as they are kind, I feel like that’s part of what sucks me in as a reader, and so I try to convey that in my writing as well.

DM: I definitely say you do that quite well.

 

I mentioned that this was something I needed to work on in some ways with my own work; I have a problem understanding or having a character do something that could be considered mean or cruel without having a purpose or a deeper reason, and sometimes characters need to do those things, or have them happen to them.

We discussed my characters and the notes James made about my novel, which led to an interesting and important thing to consider while writing certain characters.

JS: What it reminds me of is the book I’m working on with my agent right now. It has a main character that…he’s an asshole. A major, major asshole that keeps everybody at arms’ length, and that’s a problem because, even though there’s a reason why he is an asshole, and there’s a reason that he keeps everyone at arms’ length, keeping the reader at arms’ length, it was then a struggle for the reader to connect with him. It’s been something that I’ve had to go back through and think about, okay, I know why he’s doing this, I know why he is just very standoffish, and why he is the way he is, but we’re in his head. So, he can be that way to the world around him, but not to the reader.

 

He then related this back to my own novel and how it is something to take into consideration. It was helpful and great to discuss these issues so that I can attend to them, not only in revisions for The Foretelling Spark, but something to take into future projects as well.

Then I turned our conversation back to James.

DM: Okay, we kind of talked about this before, so just to clarify, what is your favorite book that you’ve written? Is that The Child Catcher, or another?

JS: No, it really is. I love all of my books and there’s, you know, a message behind all of them and a reason why I wrote them. I did go into some depth with Child Catcher and why that one is really the favorite book, the most personal. However, a close second would really be Boy: A Journey. I wrote that, even though I did write that a lot for the transgender community, the portions of it with Tom’s death were very difficult for me to write because I dedicated the book and wrote it with my grandmother in mind. That was something that, a lot of what happens there at the end when he actually does pass, that was very personal to me in that I was, that I went through similar situation and so I would say, after Child Catcher, Boy: A Journey is very very personal to me because it was me saying goodbye to her all over again so, reliving that.

 

After a moment of sharing condolences and brief discussion about writing and encapsulating the loss of a loved one, we turned to slightly fuzzier topics.

DM: So, I know you mentioned your pugs so, I’m going to ask you to tell me about any writing helper/minions or furry distractions you have, if you don’t mind.

JS: I do have the pugs, and like I said, I also have a nine-month old little boy. He used to be in the ‘help’ category when he was smaller. I actually edited Boy: A Journey standing up at the drafting table with him like, in a snuggie on my chest. But now he just wants to be into everything including the laptop so, he now falls into that cute yet distracting bucket. That’s also kid of where the pugs are usually, they like to pile around me when I write on the couch. In most of my profile pictures is my senior girl, Binky. I look better when I have a pug. So those are the minions, distractions, ‘helpers.’

DM: How would you say your writing community has affected you?

JS: Oh I mean, tremendously. Besides that I wouldn’t have published anything or really found literary rep without Twitter, like I said, I went the traditional querying route and it didn’t really get me much of anywhere. But I’ve also met awesome people like yourself, sharing best practices, and it helps to make me a better writer, honestly. I’ve met some really great friends, again yourself included. I’d also like to think that I’ve helped a lot of people too, or I’ve tried to. If I could give a small shout out to Elizabeth Hamill,who has an awesome LGBT sci-fi that’s releasing in July, and J.M Sullivan who just published Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles on May 16th, they just, they rock. I love Beta Reading for them and helping them, or I like to think I helped them. They were awesome without me, but maybe I helped just a little bit. If nothing else, just the self-esteem boost of telling them that they’re awesome, sometimes that really helps, in a sea of rejections.

DM Definitely! And how would you say you found or created your writing community? Did you just get on Twitter, start tweeting and find some people, or was there something else along the way?

JS: My wife actually was doing it first. She’s also a YA author and she was just very much into it for a time and was telling me all about these Twitter parties and everything. At first I thought it was just crap and then I finished my books and considered giving it a whirl. I really started doing it a lot because of her and the Twitter parties and everything, just participating in that, I had the opportunity to be a slush reader at #70pits last year where I’ve met a lot of super awesome people to connect with.

DM: For writing tools, do you have a preference for Word, Scrivener, old-fashioned handwriting?

JS: I like just, Microsoft Word. Sometimes I will get an idea, usually it’s dialogue, like dialogue will pop into my head at 2 in the morning (I’m sure you understand), and I have to, you know, turn over and write it in my notebook by my bedside but, normally I do like Microsoft Word because like you, I do agonize over word choice and structures and I can’t imagine doing it hand written because I would be be crossing things out, whiting things out. I like being able to type out a sentence and then switch it around fifty different ways.

DM: Which author drink stereotype would you say is your biggest vice, if at all, coffee, tea, or alcohol?

JS: Coffee all day and wine all night. Lots of coffee, and I like wine. There’s a lot of good wineries around here I frequent. I’m not a drunk, but I do enjoy a glass of wine while I write.

DM: So I know I asked you about the most difficult part of the entire process, but what would you say is the most difficult part of novel writing for you?

JS: I’m really crap at beginnings. I really am crap at beginnings. You’ve read things so far where I’ve edited and edited the beginning and believe me, everything you’ve read, that’s not where it originally started. And I’m still, I’m…happy with how they start now, but I always have to redo beginnings. I feel like in everything it doesn’t really start to get good until 15-20 pages in, and that’s not good. So beginnings, I really struggle with. I don’t know why.

DM: Okay, I promise we’re nearly done! So, The Simplicity of Being Normal is your most recent release, is there anything you can tell us about it?

JS: Sure. It’s more similar to Boy: A Journey than it is to Assimilation. It is told from three different points of view like the other two novels are, and of course it has LGBT elements in it. It follows the story of an underage transgender young man as he is living in a very conservative community and there’s a lot of bullying and abuse that is going on at school. He does find allies in a couple of teachers at the school but just how he navigates and of course, because we’re in three different perspectives the other two main characters, the teachers, they also do have some secrets that they’re hiding and struggles they’re going through as well.

DM: Well, I really can’t wait to read more. I’m only a few pages in and already, just oh, Sam!

JS: It’s a struggle. Again, I wrote Boy to show that there doesn’t have to be that sensationalism and that is also what I hope comes across with Sam; that this is just a young man who wants to be seen as normal. He’s not out there hurting anybody, like he’s not out there doing drugs, or anything like that, he just really wants to be normal, and people are just fighting him the entire way. That’s what a lot of young transgender people go through.  Especially in communities like he’s in where they don’t have the support, they [lack] the ability to receive treatment so they’re kind of just stuck in limbo until they hit 18.

DM: Which by then is just…the difference between being able to start before puberty hits, to be able to, it just…how is that so hard to understand?

JS: It’s incredible. And besides the fact that the changes to the body are just so much more effective the younger that you start. I mean the teenagers, we all know it, cisgender, transgender, what may have you, those are building blocks to the person you’re going to be and spending those formative years constantly fighting who you are, being so depressed, so anxious, hating yourself, that is so destructive to a persons’ self-esteem, self-confidence. I’m very excited to see your thoughts, but I would imagine that even though Sam is going to be feeling those things, even after transitioned for years to come as many transgender individuals do so, the earlier that you’re able to start getting treatments, it’s just so much better on many levels. So I hope you enjoy it.

DM: As I said, I definitely cannot wait to sink in further. Okay, the last question I have is, what is your next novel coming up and what can you tell us about it?

JS: The next novel is the one that I’m working on with my literary agent. It’s a contemporary YA, so I would imagine that’s going to be the next one to come out, unless everyone hates it and I have to work on something else. I would say that it’s kind of like a YA twist on Fight Club. It follows a young man with medically induced dissociative identity disorder and he’s basically fighting to maintain control of the shared body. So it’s kind of like YA Fight Club if you were rooting for Tyler Durden. It’s pretty gritty, reads kind of similar to The Gospel of Winter, so it’s not like a super deviation from my other work in the literary realm, but it’s also not told from multiple points of view, unlike the other novels. So that’s what’s next.

 

From there our conversation turned to my own work, once again. We discussed a WIP of mine that’s I’ve been slowly piecing together over this past year or so, and it was a wonderful and lively conversation. I enjoyed myself immensely.

I highly recommend you snag yourself one of James Stryker’s fantastic books. I will besimplicity of being normal finishing up The Simplicity of Being Normal, and you can expect a review to come after. I will also be eagerly waiting for more stirrings about his novels to come.

Another huge thank you James for his time and doing this interview with me, and of course, for his thoughts, criticisms and praise of my own work and willingness to share his thoughts. Thank you, James!

You can find James on Twitter, or through his site.

Advertisements

Review Corner: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

I’m not sure where I first saw Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, but I was intrigued with the description and tried multiple times for a copy of it on Goodreads giveaways and ARC copies. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review through another channel.

dark matter

I finished reading this many months ago (okay, almost a year now), so I apologize for the delayed review. I got frustrated every time I tried to put my thoughts into words and kept moving on to other things.

As excited and interested as I was for the book from reading the blurb, I was unfortunately disenchanted with it….….actually more than that, I disliked it and by the end, I was angry.

It was easy enough to read through quickly. It’s written in often short, choppy sentences or pieced together fragments. It’s supposed to add suspense, but it’s mostly lacking. At times it works well, at others it’s annoying. Some more strategic use of this would have made it stronger in my opinion…at least the reading part, the plot- well, we’ll get there.

The story goes that Jason Dessen (also to be known to as “Original” Jason) goes out one night to get some dinner (I believe) for his family, but never comes back because he’s abducted. The “familiar” but mask-wearing culprit takes Jason’s clothes, asks him some strange questions, and eventually disappears into the ether. Jason is eventually left unconscious in the unknown location he’s been brought to.

He awakes strapped to a gurney, surrounded by people that supposedly know him, but that Jason does not recognize. “Original” Jason is believed to be a different version of Jason, one that never married (wife, Daniela, called Dani) or had a child (Charlie), is not a professor, and who continued to pursue work in the field of quantum physics; it’s this Jason’s work that brings “Original” Jason to where he is. This “other” Jason’s research and work created a way, through use of ampules and what was once a physically impossible box, to travel to different dimensions, thus the many various versions a person’s life (and the world) can take. (Here’s how it works: once inside the box you take the ampules then start walking down a hallway of doors, each door is a different possible decision or branch that changed something about the world beyond; so endless Jason’s making endless Jason decisions….talk about nightmare, but anyway…)

It doesn’t take long to piece together that the masked abductor was this other Jason, who had decided he had missed out on a few things and thought stepping into “Original” Jason’s life made more sense than…any number of other things…. such as trying to reconnect with the Dani in his dimension, or another woman entirely…the point is, this over-entitled supposed genius had options, and he went with abduction and switching lives….I’ll explain even more how this is a problem in a moment…

So essentially, “Original” Jason wants his life back and escapes with (and with the help of) a woman named Amanda that ‘other’ Jason worked with. So they travel with ampules and simple packs through the endless rows of doors, randomly picking ones to step through to find the right door to “Original” Jason’s life.

Throughout the book I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was written as a testimonial to the author having researched, learned, and understood some physics. The bulk of it is told from Jason’s perspective, so the delving into physics explanations was like the man giving himself a mini-lecture in his head every time he remembered something physics related; it did not work for me at all.

Most of what happens in the box and in the worlds “Original” Jason (and sometimes Amanda) visited isn’t really important. The descriptions of the worlds are varied, their reason for leaving the box routinely isn’t highlighted or well explained other than to give the book a “middle” and attempt to illicit more drama. The only thing you need to know is that “genius” Jason tries some asinine and repetitive things to go home, Amanda leaves him to be stupid and whiney on his own, and eventually he magically finds his way to the world and life he was stolen from.

Which then leaves the other glaring issues with this book (and its horrible conclusion).

So, something to keep in mind while “Original” Jason has been blundering his way back home, Daniela has been living and sleeping with a man who is not exactly her husband or the man she married….there is SO much wrong to me on the basis of consent when it comes to the devious and disgusting violation of Daniela as a human being with rights to her own body. Of course one of the first things ‘other’ Jason did is have sex with the wife he took to be his, even though she wasn’t, of course without telling her. It is NOT an interesting philosophical debate about if it’s really Jason or not- it’s rape.

But it gets worse.

You remember how the box creates branches at each decision Jason makes, which leads to a large number of versions of Jason converging on this ONE Daniela and Charlie; all believe themselves to be the “Original” Jason that deserves to be with Daniela and Charlie…and NONE of them seem to really believe it’s down to Daniela to choose. There’s one very brief quasi-choice given to Daniela, but it’s not a full and proper choice; it follows the story the author decided he wanted to tell.

This book was mostly that; pieces of a story made to fit together the way the author wanted, characters acting out a necessary script, plus some physics and erasure of women’s choices. Consider me not a fan.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It was a waste of time, a poorly plotted story (admittedly a difficult idea to tackle, but badly done), and unnerving in how many people seem unbothered by Dani’s lack of proper autonomy or the fact that she was violated throughout this book, which apparently didn’t matter because it’s all about Jason.

The very end is even more frustrating and further evidence of negating Dani’s rights and choices (it’s safe after the kitten under flannel):

Spoiler-Alert-Discussion.jpg

 

Dani selects her Jason (the one whose story we’ve followed)…BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH!!! Apparently Daniela’s “choice” isn’t enough to persuade the other Jasons, so Dani, “Original” Jason, and Charlie all “have” to go into the box and choose another world to live in and hopefully hide from all the other Jasons…..
holtzman what gif.gif

Let me break that down again: Dani chose a Jason. The other Jasons still think they know better. Dani and her chosen family have to flee their lives…..

giphy (1).gif

kitten flannel safe from spoilers

(safe from spoilers now)

There are also issues with continuity and explaining away the presence of the boxes throughout the worlds, how they were exactly where they needed to be for whatever purpose in the moment, all without being noticed by really anyone other than the Jasons; then there’s how much Jason is talked about as if he is incredibly intelligent, but he does some of the stupidest things and fails to ask some of the most important and obvious questions of certain characters that he meets.

Add in the glaring issues concerning Daniela (and Charlie)….

Yeah, I’m not a fan of this book and I would recommend you spend your precious reading time on other, far worthier, books.


Recommendations:
Assimilation by James Stryker

 

Review Corner: Boy: A Journey by James Stryker

While speaking with James Stryker after I had finished his debut novel Assimilation, he told me about his latest (then upcoming) novel, Boy: A Journey.  After reading the description on his website, I was very much interested in it as well.

A snippet of it is: Everyone knew about Jay’s hidden transgender past — except his son. Now that his father is gone, Luke must seek the truth to understand the man he thought he knew. (click here to read the rest)
boy a journey.jpg

James Stryker was gracious enough to honor me with a copy of Boy: A Journey in exchange for an honest review. So, I eagerly dove head first into the novel, soon realizing that I would need to break from it over the holidays due to the sensitive and heart rending nature of the story and the events in it.

The first chapter includes the brutal and graphic death of Jay, Luke’s father, in the midst of yet another fight between father and son. The room became quite…dusty…during the first chapter, of course being the cause of my watering eyes…

crying gif.gif

When I was able to collect myself (and *ahem* find a less dusty room) I returned to the story to learn what happened in the aftermath of Jay’s death.

Boy: A Journey is told in three perspectives. We’re first introduced to Luke, the King of Brats, Luke the “Wronged”; the next chapter, we meet Tom, the man dying of cancer holding secrets to his chest like precious gems, in love with Jay and hiding in the wings; and finally, we have the perspective of Ginger (real name Jake), Luke’s brother-in-law and the man stealing Beau away from possessive Luke (he and Beau are twins, after all).

Unfortunately while reading, I ran into some similar issues that I had with Assimilation regarding pronouns and how time passes. For instance, it could be difficult at times to know for sure who is talking or being talked about. This was especially true when there were more than two people in the conversation; it got a little confusing on occasion.

There was also a lot of jumping back and forth in time without clearly seguing the reader through the time shifts; this made the car ride home with Luke and Jay in the first chapter a little confusing and difficult to get through, in particular.

Some chapters repeat blocks of time from different people’s perspectives, but it’s not always stated or made clear that that’s what’s happening. This left me with a discombobulated feeling. I think if chapter intros were used more consistently and effectively (which may or may not be the case with the final published version, I’m not sure), this problem would be mostly resolved.

Before I go too much further, there is one major detail (or set of details) that I wish were perhaps different: three important characters have the names Jay, Jake, and Jackie…even by the last page, this still messed with me. The names are so similar it took me way longer than it should have from the beginning to place who each character was every time I came across them. I became frustrated with momentary mix-ups more than a few times. It was easier when Jake was called by his nickname, Ginger, but then it would throw me off when I saw “Jake” used again.

Nevertheless, the story drew me in for the most part, despite Luke’s obnoxious and occasionally cruel asides. I did, however, spend a healthy portion of the book wondering why I was reading so much from Luke’s perspective; the giant chip on Luke’s shoulder leaves him with a skewed version of events in his life, all of which are compounded by the unexpected revelation of the secret Jay had kept most vigilantly from his son, and the fact that Luke is the last to know. It’s hard to understand how Luke came to be this much of an ass.

In the aftermath of Jay’s sudden and traumatic death, Luke’s focus is still mainly himself. He may be affected by the loss of his father, but the reasons are far more egocentrically based than truly mourning his dad; he cares more about trying to rattle and humiliate Ginger (his brother-in-law) at Jay’s funeral than he does giving his last respects and saying goodbye to his own father. Even his eventual tender moments towards his mother and sister are all about playing Luke’s most important role, that of “perfect” son and brother.

Everything comes to a head when Luke finds out that there’s a secret and everyone else was privy to it except him, and he believes, his twin, Beau. When Luke finds out that Tom, a virtual stranger to him, knows and has some connection to Jay and thus the secret, he arranges a meeting in hopes of manipulating answers from him. The meeting, however, is brief as Tom quickly realizes that Jay has not told Luke everything and that Luke is fishing. The disastrous encounter prompts Luke to confront his mother, Jackie, and demand the truth from her…the night of his father’s burial.

There are a couple of things I would I like to comment on concerning the conversation where Luke is told of his father’s transgender past and the ending, but I don’t want to give anything away to anyone who wants to experience it for themselves (I definitely recommend that!) So just in case you don’t know the drill, scroll down until you see the kitten under the flannel, it will be safe after that.

Spoiler-Alert-Discussion

No matter what Luke’s justification is to himself, or anyone else, he is incredibly cruel with some of the things he says after the revelation of his father’s past, and Tom’s contribution to his and Beau’s existence.

The best part, though, are Beau and Jackie’s reactions; I loved the ferociousness with which Beau and Jackie defend Jay being a man and Luke’s real father. They rail against Luke and his ignorant and disgusting comments with passion…my heart swelled. Even though it was violent, I have to say I also enjoyed the detail of Ginger noticing Beau moving her wedding ring so that she smacked Luke with it facing him.

Another moment that tugged at my heart strings, and was incredibly sad to read, was Tom’s hallucination of Jay taking care of him, when it is really Luke. I almost cried.

As far as the end goes, one thing that I wish had been done differently was the apology and reconciling conversation between Luke and his family. I’m sure it would have been incredibly difficult to write, but as a reader, it seemed to resolve relatively easily. One long phone conversation after months of nothing, and things are on their way to being better. Not entirely fixed, but better, and mostly forgiven. Though it was obviously painful and difficult to get there for the characters, it still felt a little too easy of a makeup. I think it would have made the book a little stronger to further illustrate this pivotal conversation between Luke, Jackie, and Beau.

kitten-flannel-safe-from-spoilers

Yes, is safe now.

There is only one other matter I have an issue with and feel I must comment on, and that’s the way Tom talks about the pain medication he is given for his cancer. To read Tom’s experience, it’s incredibly easy to get pain medicine when you need it, which is not necessarily the case, regardless of a doctor’s willingness to prescribe.

For a man that likes to comment on being put upon and listing all the things he has to go through, Tom doesn’t once mention the debacle of having to go pick up his higher dose pain prescriptions himself from the doctor’s office and then taking them to the pharmacy to be filled; a doctor cannot call in a prescription for pain medicine that is classified as a narcotic, they have to have the physically written prescription in hand, and the ID of the person picking it up/who it’s for. I know this from personal experience. And believe me, it’s not fun.

Both to keep to Tom’s character, as well as to accurately and responsibly depict something concerning pain medicine, it’s something I would like to see done a bit better.

All around, even though I wanted to strangle Luke on more than one occasion, it was an unexpected journey to experience, and one I enjoyed reading overall.

My favorite aspect of the book is the “good deeds of truth,” doing something for the sake of someone else without any benefit for yourself. In general, it’s a beautiful sentiment that I wish more people understood, shared, and practiced. In the book, it’s one of Jay’s pillars, especially in concerning his care of the dead; Jay and Ginger are morticians, they care for the dead with love and respect without being repaid in anyway by the person they care for. There is no benefit but to respect another human being’s life.

I heartily recommend this to anyone looking for an LGBTQ+ related read, but only if you can handle some sad and difficult scenes. It’s hard for me to say who might enjoy this book, it has cancer, death, and transgender man holding onto a secret, but it also has a lot of heart and an ending that won’t make you want to throw it across the room, though you might tear up.

It’s safe to say that I’m a fan of Stryker’s writing style and his stories are intriguing. I will be eagerly awaiting and anticipating his future releases. You can get a copy of Boy: A Journey on Amazon or B&N , or visit James at his website.

You Might Also Like:
Assimilation by James Stryker
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Why I Will Never Have a Favorite Book

 

You mention your love of books, or you’re among book lovers, mention that you’re an author, or having an interview, you’re getting to know someone….you know the questions is coming…..what is your favorite book?

giphy (2).gif
1347511966021_7495313

I’ve never been able to answer this question, and I never will. Usually I don’t like using words like “never” but in this case, it’s completely appropriate.

I understand how people can have favorites, but only because I cannot properly place or understand the value someone else has for one particular story; I can only account for the value and significance certain books have to me.

So, why am I incapable of choosing one or even a select few (less than 10) favorite books? It boils down to two basic issues:

First of all…

What defines a favorite book?

A favorite is defined as what is preferred before all others of the same kind.

But seriously, what criteria needs to be met for a book to be considered a favorite? What are the parameters? I’m sure the answers are as varied as the books being read and named, but problem remains: how do you define a favorite book?

Is it the number of times you reread it? Is whether or not you would reread it? Is it a matter of how deeply a book touched you? If a new idea was introduced to you?

My reasons for choosing the books I consider as my favorites (of which there are many) can vary; sometimes the reasons are ineffable and exist in the feeling within the book itself, the magic woven into the ink of the words on the page.

For every possible definition, I could probably conjure up another and another title that would fit, forever making a singular favorite impossible.

Second of all…

Too many possibilities

Even if you were able to construct and agree on a definition, there are far too many possibilities!
born-reading-list-never-finish

Every day, there are new books being written, published, and found, and if even fractions of those are read, at least a fraction of those are likely to become special or a favorite. The sheer number of stories in existence is enough to illustrate the difficulties, even when you do the math to approximate how many of them you may read in your own lifetime.

Unless you’re reading mostly books that you don’t like, or aren’t interested in, or that are all somehow all just atrocious, you should be scooping up a handful of titles that stick with you.

So again, how, with all of the many wondrous possibilities at hand, is it possible to choose one, or even a precious few, favorites?

Sheldon throwing-papers-up-in-air gif.gif

Even if you try and narrow the parameters to make the choice “easier,” there’s still the question of how you decide what kind of favorite? Favorite book(s) of all time (hard to say and subject to change)?

Favorite book in a particular genre? By a certain author? Recent favorite (as in most easily comes to mind, or in the last few months)?

So you see, choosing a favorite anything can be difficult, but choosing a favorite book…

mcgonagall head shake gif.gif

It’s just not going to happen any time soon…

I could give you a list of my favorites, possibly even rank them from extreme to basic favorites, but that’s probably the best I can do. Personally, I’m okay with that.

What about you? Are you able to choose a favorite book? Please share it in the comments!

Review Corner: Assimilation by James Stryker

Months ago, I was approached by James Stryker about possibly reading and reviewing his debut novel Assimilation. After being given a brief synopsis:

ASSIMILATION, a dystopian thriller with LGBTQ elements, follows the struggle of a man who is reanimated in a woman’s body following a cryogenic error. The story’s main character, Andrew, must fight to assert his own identity against the husband who paid to have his wife returned.

I was intrigued and more than ready to dive in.

assimilation cover.jpg

It was a slow start for me, though admittedly, it was a very difficult place to take up the story since the reader is not familiar with it or the characters at all yet. It opens with the emerging consciousness of recently remade/reanimated Natalie, except that it’s Andrew….as I said, it’s a difficult place to dive in, but once I was in a chapter or so, past the foggy uncertainty, and into the ability to learn about and connect with the characters and the story, I was hooked.

In fact, I still blame Stryker for essentially missing a few days of writing progress because I was either reading the book, or distracted by thinking about it…

i'm not even sorry gif.gif

The novel is told in three perspectives; we start with that of Andrew/Natalie. There are a couple of chapters with Natlie’s husband, Robert’s, perspective to illustrate his inner thoughts concerning the changes he sees in his wife, and what he thinks about doing to make things the way he wants them. Lastly, we have a few chapters from Oz’s perspective (we’ll talk more about him in a bit).

I was a bit jarred at the first switch in perspective because I was not expecting it. In particular I was not expecting Oz’s perspective, but it didn’t take long to get into the swing of it and not be as jolted by the shifts.

It was soon evident that the author has a gift for evoking an emotional response from the reader, swiftly pulling you into the strange situation at hand; Robert wants his submissive, ‘perfect’, wife and caretaker, mother of his remaining son, returned to him just as she was before the car accident that killed her; Andrew wants to find who is, be who he is, despite his outward appearance being that of Natalie.

While Andrew, attempting to play the role of Natalie, continues to get better and grow stronger while recovering in the hospital, he must face the looming and terrifying circumstances he is in; being “restored” and reanimated by Cryolife comes with a lot of signed paperwork, but also the fact that “Natalie” is under conservatorship for a six month period, where the conservator then decides whether or not to grant full benefits and entitlements to “her” ……just simmer on that one for a moment…

Robert, Natalie’s husband, is the conservator. It is up to him to decide if his wife is “acting appropriately” for the six month period that she will be under observation…packaged as for the sake of safety. Andrew is faced with the task of conforming to Robert’s ideal version of Natalie in order to keep from being returned to CryoLife and “helped” by being put through a process that would essentially kill Andrew and result in any number of possible issues with the newly “restored” Natalie.

Even once deemed well enough to return home, “Natalie” must continue taking antibiotics and other medications, as well as return regularly for sessions with Dr. Zuniga, head of the psychiatric board for Cryolife, and one of the Brigman team that controls the medicines and therapy that Natalie receives, all shaped by Robert’s desires.

It is while picking up the refill of one of these prescriptions that Andrew (in Natalie’s body of course), meets Oz, the pharmacist, and that’s where things start to take a turn for Andrew.

After a most shocking in depth introduction to Oz, “Natalie” begins sneaking out to spend time with him, where Andrew also meets a ragtag collection of fellow reanimated CryoLife subjects, all “returned” more than a little different; one hears an unending loop of the same music in his head, sometimes growing louder to the point of madness, and another with an affinity for things no longer living. For the first time since coming to being, Andrew finds comfort and a sense of belonging, but it’s not with the family that Natalie had made and elected to go through the CryoLife procedure for.

“Natalie’s” odd behavior does not go unnoticed by the demanding, controlling Robert. Behavior such as a complete disconnect from their son, Simon; before, Natalie had been doting, quintessential mom and housewife, but after, she was nearly negligent if not blatantly abusive (secretly drugging Simon with cough medicine to make him sleep instead of clinging to “Natalie”), not cleaning up to Robert’s usual standards (dust on the electric socket…not even joking….), etc. Stryker does an excellent job at portraying a character as a narcissist, one that believes that they are infallible and acts accordingly, including forcing their own desires on other people the way Robert does with Natalie.

Things eventually devolve when Robert finds out that “Natalie” has not being visiting with her best friend, Shelly all the times she’s gone out, but is instead visiting Oz. Again, Stryker knows how to paint a horrifying picture of abuse and abduction, to the point that, as a survivor of abuse myself, I wish I’d had a little more warning, but that’s a personal thing. There’s nothing too terribly graphic, but the inferences and some of the actions and conversations are enough to horrify a reader.

One thing I had a problem with while reading were some confusing uses of pronouns. There were many occurrences where “him/he” were often used without being sure of who was actually talking or being referred to. This seemed to be a particular problem when Andrew is telling the story, especially since Andrew is sometimes referred to as Andrew (he/him), while other times as Natalie (her/she). Using names a little more often would have been helpful in these situations.

Another thing I noticed was an occasional issue with story tense and marking the passage of time. When a character recalls something from the past, there isn’t always a clear marker or segue, or even consistent past and present tenses, to move the reader back and forth between them. Also, things seem to sometimes happen on top of each other; an unexpected and unstated amount of time can pass from one paragraph to the next without it being marked and left to the reader to divine whether it’s been minutes, hours, days, or weeks. This is probably heightened by the switching perspectives without a firm grounding of time.

One other big thing that was difficult for me to go along with is some of Andrew’s reactions; they can be incredibly aggressive, sometimes over the top, often without provocation other than Andrew mistaking something someone said, did, or is thinking instead of asking for clarification (except the pizza throwing, I understand the reason, but the action still felt unnecessary, and there are other reactions that would have been more plausible to me). That aspect was a bit frustrating for me, unless Andrew is supposed to be acting like someone that could have borderline personality disorder. I’m not sure if this is intended to speak to the various drugs “Natalie” is being given by CryoLife doctors, a comment on Andrew’s personality, the damage CryoLife did, or just an attempt to illustrate more conflict, but it didn’t work for me very well.

One of my favorite things about Assimilation, though, is the love and connection forged between Oz and Andrew. Despite the bizarre way they came together, there’s something beautiful about how they are able to connect. At one point, Oz was a mathematician, it was his art, an art lost to him after being reanimated, and Andrew is able to appreciate and see it for that. That really got me, I have to admit, and my description of is it atrocious in comparison to the picture described by Stryker.

I have a few other comments that are or could be possible spoilers so, if you don’t know the drill and you don’t want to see any spoilers, just scroll down until you see the kitten in flannel.

Spoiler-Alert-Discussion

At one point in the novel, after a relationship between Andrew and Oz has been established, it comes to light the Dr. Brigaman, the same man responsible for CryoLife, is Oz’s father. When this is revealed to Andrew, he makes no real comment about it and has essentially no reaction to it, which I find incredibly hard to believe.

As the reader switching into Oz’s head on occasion, it was no surprise that Brigman was his father, but to Andrew, I can’t imagine that’s expected news.

I’m also curious as to what kind of place Robert takes the abducted “Natalie” to that has doors that lock from the outside, or if Robert changed the locks. I don’t remember seeing any mention of that, or signs that it had occurred. I feel it needs to be explained in some way or else it feels like an added detail just to keep Andrew trapped without having a real basis for it.

The only other issue I have is why Santino, one of the group that has been reanimated by CryoLife and is friends with Oz and Andrew, leaves Oz at all in the Savanah General Hospital after he is hurt; it’s connected to CryoLife, which they all know. I just found it a little hard to believe given the parameters of knowing that Brigman is too close, and that the unconscious are vulnerable.

Other than that, I found the ending incredibly sad, but understandable, especially given the way it ends; since Tinks is the one that hears the music and routinely wants to end things in order to make it stop, it’s a difficult ending, a crushing one, but worthy of the characters in it. I really wish Oz and Andrew could have been together in life and happy; it was a poignant ending, but it worked in a strangely love soaked (and thus beautiful) way.

kitten-flannel-safe-from-spoilers

Okay, it’s safe to come out and read from here if you wanted to skip possible spoilers.

I know I’ve mentioned a lot of things that may not have worked for me, but I need to make clear how strongly invested I was in this novel once I get into the characters. There are always things that could make a novel stronger in hindsight, but the core story-telling, and the characters, were well written.

If you don’t like sad endings, you may want to skip this one, it’s a heart breaker.

book-emotional-experience-paperback

But if you are willing to brave through it, it’s worth the read, my friends.

Those looking for LGBT+ related books might find it of interest, given the involuntary/voluntary switch from Natalie to Andrew. Also, fans of dystopian sci-fi, but really, anyone that wants to walk away with a story and characters you won’t forget, then Assimilation is worth your time.

14040061_10154423056847389_1512551353628490207_n

James Stryker has a new book coming out called Boy: A Journey, which I’m also personally looking forward to emerging myself in, if you’ll excuse me….

busy reading gif belle.gif

Good, Bad, and Something Else: How Do You Review Books?

What pushed me over the edge into writing and posting book reviews was getting my first ARC (that’s an advanced reader copy, which is a book that hasn’t been released yet), which was sent to me with the understanding that I would rate and post an honest review of it. I took (and continue to take) that seriously and put a lot of thought into what kind of reviewer I wanted to be.

This was especially true when I was requested to write a review for an ARC by the author of the book. When I most unfortunately did not enjoy much of the book, I found myself uncertain about whether or not to post what was a negative, though honest, review of it. Ultimately, I decided to post it, and I’ll tell you more about why in a bit.

I decided to write this post about book reviews after happening across two very different blogs about not posting negative reviews. The first is from a site I cannot find anymore, but the author was a man who chose to follow the idea of not saying anything if you don’t have something nice to say; I completely understand and respect this sentiment, but I have to say I think there is a fine line to be made between not saying something mean and not pointing out things politely in constructive fashion with no malintent.

The other blog was from author Kristen Lamb where she shares her own reasons for choosing not to post negative reviews. There are many of her points that I agree with or understand, but at the end of the day I have to disagree on the overall message.

There are countless posts citing many incredibly good reasons to refrain or be careful when posting a negative review. Many don’t believe in it at all and some have strong opinions about those that continue to post negative reviews. So, I decided to share my own thoughts and explain why I write and post even the negative reviews and subsequently how I review because there’s usually a lot that goes into it.

So, the Why and the How:

Why I write and post even the negative reviews

Stars and ratings alone don’t work- Two reasons why this doesn’t work for me.

  1. No matter what someone rates a book, I’m often curious what others’ thoughts are, regardless whether or not I take their thoughts into account in my ultimate decision. But if someone ranks a book with a rating of 1 or 2 out of 5 (or whatever the equivalent rating system), especially if there are reviews raving about it, I am painfully curious to know why it received the score it did. If you’re serious about writing book reviews, I thinks it’s important to be able to express what makes a book great for you as well as what doesn’t work for you and why. It also proves that a bad rating isn’t for an unknown petty reason.
  2. In Kristen Lamb’s post, she mentions that silence speaks volumes, and she’s right. Silence can speak volumes but it can also be easily misinterpreted. For instance, generally if you see no rating and no review on a book from someone, it’s very easy to believe or assume that the person hasn’t read it. No one will know you’ve read it unless you mention it, in which case, what do you say? Nothing? Or give your opinion? You can, of course, leave a rating without a review just as easily, but in this case, I do not see silence as a friend. A rating says a lot to some people, and leaving a low rating without any comment as to why may sound nicer than leaving a negative review. To this I posit that seeing a rating without a review can do just as much harm, if not worse, because the reader bothered to rate it enough to inform other users, but didn’t bother taking the time or energy to explain why. Was is it for objective or subjective reasons? To me, this makes silence a dangerous weapon when given no further context, which makes me question using silence as a reviewing tool in an attempt to be kinder than leaving a well written and thoughtful review.

Duty for reading an ARC in exchange for an honest review– I take this seriously anytime I’m offered or receive an ARC if it’s in exchange for the review. To do otherwise makes me feel like I’m stealing or lying, neither of which are high on my list of things to do. I give all of my attention to the book and review it the same way and with the same detail I do when editing or beta reading (feel free to ask me about either). I’m happy to send a review to an author prior to posting and discussing it with them, but if I’ve taken the time to write a review, generally it’s because I intend to post it. In the end, I’m trying to do right by both the reader and the author (which leads me another point later).

Possible help to author open to listening– First, I know how much it sucks as an author when someone doesn’t like your work. I know how little you (or I) feel like listening to someone that doesn’t like our work, and I absolutely don’t presume to be all-knowing or the final authority. It’s never a pleasant feeling when someone criticizes your book. Some people enjoy giving nasty reviews, and many people can’t resist filling theirs with juicy zingers, but I am definitely not one of them. Okay, I wield my wit and sarcasm, but I try to steer away from anything that doesn’t actually present a constructive thought; a jab for the sake of adding a witty jab doesn’t work for me. It gives me no joy to say I dislike someone’s work, especially if I’ve read it as an act of support for an author I like as a person. It is my sincere hope that at some point, my words are taken for what they’re worth, comments on what I enjoyed and what kept it from being the best book I thought or hoped it could be, at least for me.

For readers– Ultimately, why are books reviewed? To give opinions and help others decide if they want to read it too. Reviews may be an author’s friend in selling books, but that’s oscar wilde quote 2true because reviews help many readers decide what to choose next. To me, that alone is enough reason to write thoughtful, if occasionally negative, reviews. As a voracious reader, I’m still depressed by the unfortunate realization that I will never have the time to read (and write) all of the books I want in this lifetime; it’s just not humanly possible, no matter how hard I wish for it. So to me, a book review is incredibly important if the writer does their due diligence. If I’ve helped a reader save valuable time and money on a particular book, or helped show them why another is worth it, I’ve done my job and accomplished what I ultimately set out to do in a review, help the reader decide whether to read a book or not.

 

How I write reviews

What I do for a book I’ve decided I am likely to write a review about (I don’t review every book I read or I wouldn’t read as many book as I want) is have a notebook near me for notes. If I have a thought, question, or reflection, whether it’s good, bad or neutral, I write it down with the page number (okay, I actually do this for *any* book, but the rest is for the sake of reviews). For jots that I know are an overall issue or most likely to be a point I will highlight in a review, I make a note in the margin if it’s good or bad and add a word or two to describe the note; this is so that I can easily find examples for particular issues as I’m writing the review. Other details about how I do reviews:

Try to find the line between objective and subjective– At the end of the day, a review is going to be subjective because each readerno two person read same book goes in with a different perception, knowledge, strengths, weaknesses, etc.

I believe that both are important, but mostly subjective observations are best noted as such; I usually do this by mentioning something specifically as my personal preference or opinion. Objectivity is very important though, especially if it’s the book of an author you’re friends with or know, or a genre that may not be your typical cup of tea (keeping to your preferences is best, but I’m eclectic and occasionally enjoy trying something new or untypical if a description sounds worth it).

Always try to mention things I do and don’t like- If I end up writing a review for a book I enjoyed, I am sure to point out something that didn’t work or could have been stronger or made some aspect work better (if we’re talking about an instant love, this may be harder, but still I try; example, it took me years before I could separate my feelings for Harry Potter enough to do this). Same thing if I end up writing a review for a book I didn’t enjoy very much, I try point out at least one thing that I did enjoy because there usually is something if you’ve paid close enough attention.

Things I focus on and look for in a book and use to write a review:

  1. Characters– I look for a character to invest in, root for. I like to have some sense of who I’m dealing with in a novel. Characters that don’t feel fully developed are usually easy to spot but sometimes it takes reading the entire book to realize there are very few things you actually know about a character. That’s a problem for me and I make note of it when I see it. Even if what you learn turns out to be a lie later, I only feel betrayed or surprised if I’m invested, otherwise I just feel slightly annoyed, if also surprised.
  2. Connection– This goes along with characters especially, but I need to connect in some way with the book. Usually it’s through the character, but sometimes it’s just the voice or the writing style that resonates with me, or the story has be captivated. If there’s no sense of connection and I don’t in some way mourn the loss that comes with ending a book I’ve enjoyed, then it’s something I’m sure to point out.
  3. Story– Obviously the story is important. No matter how great a character is, part of what you invest in is the story, either the one being told in the book or the characters’ back stories, and hopefully both. In descriptions and blurb synopses, sometimes you get clichés that turn out fantastic books, and sometimes you get intriguing descriptions but a less than desirable book. How the story develops and ends is a big factor.
  4. Dialogue- This is one of the things I’m hardest on because characters that can’t talk to each other can really kill a story for me. Writing dialogue is one of the most difficult parts of writing (believe me, I know…) because it’s literally a reflection of different people’s thoughts. It’s also one of the things I appreciate most in a well written novel. I look for how believable or stilted a conversation feels and if it resonates with the character speaking or if it just makes the story the author is constructing, happen and move forward.
  5. Continuity- This is one aspect that I tend to be very critical of. Nothing makes me come crashing out of a novel quicker than a continuity issue that makes me want to go searching to verify it (which I’m often able to do through my notes). Continuity is a huge deal in a story, and this can be especially true depending on genres like mysteries, where a continuity error could mess up the big reveal at the end. Issues with consistency will absolutely kill a book for anyone paying attention. I’m harsh and exact when I write my own novels and hope to be sure every possible plot hole or continuity issue is attended to if not avoided, and I expect a certain level of that from other writers. If your story is littered with continuity issues, whether in story itself or through the characters, I have a hard time believing you have pride in or believe in your writing. But that’s me.

My prevailing thoughts when I finish a book and end up writing a negative review are often that I believe a book could have been stronger. Sometimes I feel like there is an obvious rush for publishing instead of taking the time to listen to a few more beta readers, or take another run through after a break away from the material.

I may change my mind in the future about writing negative review or reviews at all, and that’s okay, but I feel it’s important not to discriminate between reviews that are posted, as long as proper detail is given to them. I believe positive reviews need the same level of attention to detail. Bad reviews can serve a purpose just as much as good reviews, it just depends on your own reason for writing book reviews. I write a review because I want readers to know what they’re getting into and to know what my experience was like. Why else write a review?

Do you write book reviews? What are your thoughts on leaving negative reviews?

 

You Might Also Like:
Review Corner: Menagerie by Rachel Vincent
Review Corner: The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford
Review Corner: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

An Interview with Novelist Susan Crawford

I first tried to meet Susan Crawford at a group book signing of local authors at a nearby Barnes and Noble, but due to some poor placement of the authors around the store and my susan crawfordown introverted tendencies, I did not introduce myself. Nervously but determinedly (since I chickened out in person), I emailed Susan instead and asked her for an interview, noting my first sad attempt. Little did I know that I would find a fellow introvert who welcomed my questions and was kind enough to meet with me, returning to that same Barnes and Noble and indulging me in what would turn out to be a very lovely chat.

We started off talking a little bit about Susan and the start of her novelist journey. She deemed herself officially a novelist in 2014 when The Pocket Wife sold to a traditional publisher, which she had completed that same year. Susan noted that her first draft was written in about six months before going through edits and revisions that would lead to the eventual published tale.

DMG: I assume you like to read

SC: I do

DMG: What books do you enjoy reading?

SC: Right now I’m reading April Witch. It’s very dark in fact it’s a little too dark for me, have to read it in increments. I love Margaret Atwood, anything she writes. She’s able to write so many different kinds of books and people don’t care as long as she’s the one writing. Also, another favorite is Susan Minot. I like Kate Atkinson and Liane Moriarty. It is helpful to read other writers that write similar genres so you can say ‘oh, this works!’

DMG: Your Amazon author profile mentioned reading mysteries in a hammock as a child, what mysteries did you read?

SC: All of the Nancy Drew books, really.

After enumerating the ways that reading aids a writer, we turned to The Pocket Wife.

the pocket wife

DMG: What part came to you first? A scene, a character, the plot?

SC: Before I knew anything else, I knew there was going to be a dead body.

DMG: Did Dana come from anywhere in particular?

SC: She did.  I’ve been very close to bipolar people before, so I had sympathy and empathy for them. I thought it would be interesting because we always look in at the person with, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and try to see what they’re thinking and judge them, you know ‘what are they going to do next’. And I thought it would be interesting to switch that around and try to show the world from the perception of the bipolar person instead of the bipolar person from the perception of the world.

DMG: One of the things I most enjoyed about The Pocket Wife was this aspect, most interested because of it

DMG: What about Jack Moss’s character? The empathy he seems to have for Dana or someone like her?

SC: I think people are very intolerant of most people with mental illness, which is why so many of them are living on the street, and then we put them down for asking for money. I wanted to show the humanity in Jack Moss. He’s in this position of authority and has, not much power but some power, in the situation at least, and he’s flawed. He’s screwed up his relationships with two women, and two sons and one of them died. And also to show that things that happen to us fleetingly when we’re young, and these things stay, often and make an impression. He had seen someone – maybe it was Dana maybe it was someone like Dana, but it made an impression on him that probably helped him to be a better cop and detective.

DMG: So I was curious, did you actively decide to use present tense or did it just start coming out that way?

SC:  I just do it. The next book is also in present tense. I’m not quite sure. Maybe because with suspense it seems a little more immediate, especially with Dana who is so frenetic.

DMG: Did you learn anything in particular from writing this book, The Pocket Wife?

SC:  I learned something about suspense writing by reading other suspense writers and I learned that it’s really a fun genre to write. And then the whole publishing world was an education.

 

On the subject of publishing and Susan’s writing process:

DMG: What influenced your decision for traditional publishing?

SC: I just never thought about any other way. I didn’t have the money, for one thing to do the vanity press or the personality to be out there selling my books. If it hadn’t been picked up, I would have continued to write.

DMG: What steps did you take to get published traditionally?

SC: Well I’m a member of the Atlanta Writer’s Club and once or twice a year they have a conference. Writers can go meet agents and editors. So that’s what I did, and found a fantastic agent.

DMG: Do you have a favorite writing spot?

SC:  I like, my daughter’s old bedroom, it’s sort of a small room. And it’s upstairs. It’s a really silly place because the computer is on this old desk and there’s a window right there so of course I can’t work there because the light comes through. So I have a shade over the window and I have a quilt over the shade. It would probably be smarter to find a different spot but…that’s how I write.

DMG:  What about music?

SC: I do like music, but it can’t be something so interesting that it takes my mind off work, so sometimes I work without music. Classic music is best, no lyrics.

DMG: What do you have the most difficulty with when you’re writing?

SC: The phone. If you’re not at work you’re not at work, so people think I’m more available, probably, than I am. To say nothing of telemarketers and just sort of random phone calls so I often work with the phone off the hook, and then when I take a break I’ll check my messages.

I’m not a terribly disciplined person so scheduling is key. What I do usually is get up, feed the cats, and then start working. People will say they have writer’s block, or only certain times of the day they can work, I don’t feel that way. I feel like there’s always something that can be put down. Even if I throw it out later.

 

On Susan’s upcoming novel and current writing project

DMG: So you’re next book is also a mystery/thriller type novel, but you said you like writing literary fiction. Do you think mystery/suspense is kind of where you’re leaning towards now?

SC: That’s an interesting question. I think…I like to combine them. I’m not sure I would say I wrote literary fiction because that’s such a nebulous term. I mean what does it really mean, I just really like characters. I like to develop the characters. So my emphasis is on the characters which I think then throws it into that genre of literary fiction. I do that with the suspense as well though. So the concentration is on the characters.

DMG: I definitely saw that in the Pocket Wife

DMG: What can you tell me about The Other Widow other than it comes out in April? The synopsis on the HarperCollins website was really intriguing. Can’t wait for April!

SC: It’s told from three points of view. One is the widow (the wife), the other is his girlfriend (the other widow), I wanted to make her a sympathetic character, not overly so but realistic instead of just somebody out there that steals people’s husbands, not this diabolical character. And then the third point of view is the insurance investigator.

DMG: What about what you’re working on now?

SC: I don’t have a title for what I’m writing right now.

DMG: Is it another suspense type?

SC: It is…I’m only at the beginning of it so it’s still forming, not quite sure where it’s going to go. Sort of feeling my way through it, with the help of the characters who do often sort of tell the story because of who they are. Being who they are, they will only do certain things so that when they come together it makes for a certain kind of scene, which is interesting. But right now we’re all flailing around.

Don’t forget to order your own copy of The Other Widow when it comes out in April!

 

You Might Also Like:
Review Corner: The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford
A Novel Update and How to get Here to Published
Review Corner: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert