Monday, October 9, 2017

Jane, Unlimited Review


This book, you guys. This book.

I'd been waiting for this book for months. I got it on pre-order. If you're reading this blog, I've likely recommended at least one of the Graceling Realm series books to you, and it was likely more than once.

This book isn't high fantasy like Graceling Realm, and it's a standalone. When I'd read the sample pages on Amazon, it reminded me of Aimee Bender (another of my favorites/writing influences). Jane, who makes umbrellas, gets invited to a mansion on a private island after her Aunt Magnolia dies in Antarctica. There are so many things that I adored about this book--the characters, the bi representation, the structure, how engaged I was. I don't want to spoil too much if you haven't read it. If you like Gothic lit, Lemony Snicket, Downton Abbey, Aimee Bender, Ray Bradbury, Alice in Wonderland, and/or The Wizard of  Oz, then I urge you to stop reading my review right now and go pick up the book, then come back. I literally only knew about the premise I mentioned above and I think that is the absolute best way to read it. After this point, I'm getting into major tons of spoilers.

Oh. And also: If you're a writer, there's lots of innovative genre and structural things going on, too. That's as much as I want to mention pre-spoilers.

ALERT ALERT ALERT SPOILERS DO NOT READ AFTER THIS POINT UNTIL YOU'VE READ THE BOOK

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Okay. You've read the book already? Good.

WHAT THE DAMN HELL, RIGHT?! And I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

Okay, so, in order to keep myself from going all over the place I'm going to do a list. I like lists.

1. Bi Representation
Jane is at least not monosexual. She shows interest in both Ivy and Ravi. She has a short passage that states her interest in men and women. Even before that, I got the hopeful sense that she might be, and it was nice to see that acknowledged in the narrative. Ravi's sexuality is described by Ivy as "panoptically" attracted to people. He might identify as bisexual, or pansexual. Ivy seems (in my reading) to be a lesbian, or at least this was how I took her complete shut-down of even flirtations from Ravi. The queer rep was awesome, and I loved how natural it felt. Plus, I was so excited that this was the second novel in a row where the main character was a bi girl.

2. Structure
This is possibly the most innovative structure I've seen in a novel. When I got to the beginning of section two, I thought it read a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure (which is funny, because in the author's note Cashore mentions that it started that way). When I got to the end of section two, and the start of section three, I lost my mind. I was so excited to see multiverse. It felt so fresh.

3. Shades of Characters/Plots
Each section added new knowledge about the characters and what was happening. Though this is a multiverse and it's not all happening in the same universe, you can guess from what's been revealed in earlier sections what's going on in the background (where the sculpture's gotten to, why Mrs. Vanders et. al. are sneaking around, etc.). It's a clever way to reveal more without simply telling the same straightforward story over and over. Which brings me to...

4. Genre
The first section feels like the set-up for a Gothic novel where the house is alive, a character of its own. The second section was a mystery/heist with a Lemony Snicket vibe. The third a spy novel, Mr. & Mrs. Smith meets Downton Abbey. The fourth a dark magical realism (the most disturbing section by far if you ask me) that felt like "Quiet, Please" by Aimee Bender. The fifth section was a space adventure that reminded me of Ray Bradbury's "August 2026," with the addition of space pirates. And, finally, the last was a portal fantasy akin to Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. This variety of genre helps each section to feel distinct.

5. Themes
The genre bending and structure felt natural to the story, and I think a lot of that has to do with what's going on thematically. So many of the characters are at in-between points in their lives--not quite here, not quite there--Jane, Kiran, Ivy, Lucy, Ravi (depending on the universe you're in). The multiverse predicated on every possible choice makes sense here, because choice during these in-between spaces these characters exist in is such a vital and important thing. To boot, these characters are at an age where they're trying to figure out who they are and how they want the rest of their lives to go. There's also loss and grief so deeply embedded in this novel--Jane loses Aunt Magnolia, Ravi loses his favorite art, Octavian loses Charlotte. How the characters deal with that loss shapes the plot and ultimately, it seems, the universe itself.

In general, as a reader the book excited me, especially once I realized, as Kiran was talking at the end of section two, that it was a multiverse. I loved the characters. Ivy was one of my favorites, and most versions of Jane, and Ravi was such fun. (Really, the only one I totally hated was Colin. He's the worst.) Each section complicated my understanding of the characters, and of what was going on. As a writer, the innovative structure and genre-bending really challenged me to consider what a novel can do.

This book was just such a delight. I even loved the cover--the dust jacket is gorgeous, and the actual hard cover of the book had a pretty surprise. I've already added this one to my favorites list. Now to find a way to squeeze it onto my favorite books shelf...

Bonus: Songs I had stuck in my head as I was reading:




Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bivisibility Day Interview with Megan Manzano

So I made a call on Twitter for bi writers to be interviewed as a part of Bivisbility Month/Day. Megan Manzano was generous enough to respond and provide the interview below. So please go on ahead and read, then follow her everywhere!

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On your site, you mention The Perks of Being a Wallflower being made into a movie as an “ah-ha” moment where you discovered that you love writing. How did this affect what you did with your writing?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower made me realize I wanted to write as a career. I was always a fan of writing. I still have the notebooks from childhood with horrible (trust me on this) stories. The point is, the inkling was there. Perks made it something tangible for me, made me go “wow, why aren’t you trying to do this too?” After that, I declared myself as an English major, started writing short stories for magazines, and just finished the first draft of a book.

What themes do you find yourself obsessed with in your writing?
Ha, well, I have some friends who say I’m obsessed with dark themes: death, betrayal, ominous cliffhanger endings. Every time a friend reads a short story of mine, I get a message asking where the happy ending is. It always makes me laugh because I don’t intend for my stories to turn out that way. They just kind of happen, where I have a line in my head and I just see where it takes me.

What are your thoughts about bi representation in media? Are there any tropes or misconceptions that you wish would just vanish in a puff of smoke already?
Bi representation in the media definitely needs work. There are too many narratives that seek to question bisexuality as an identity and others that disregard it completely. Some of the main tropes that need to go away are:
  • Bisexual people can’t hold long term relationships because they’re promiscuous.
  • If a bisexual person is in a seemingly heterosexual relationship, their identity is completely erased.
  • Bisexual people are not really queer.
I could go on about this. Thankfully, I have seen some positive reps of bisexuality in recent media, but there is still a long way to go.


If you could live in any sci-fi/fantasy world, which would you pick and why?
This is so hard. I don’t think I could pick one world as they are either super terrifying or have things that go horribly wrong, but I’d love a world where I could space travel. The universe has always been a fascination of mine.

How do you feel that being bi has affected your writing life, if it has? 
Identifying as bisexual has definitely made me seek out works that claim to have this representation in it. I look to see if they’re breaking through tropes and stereotypes or if they’re reinforcing them. I look to find me in the pages. One book that handles bisexuality so well is How to Make a Wish by Ashley Blake. It is wonderfully written and was probably one of the only books I read that truly understood my sexuality.

As for my writing, I tend to want to include positive queer representation in my stories. There’s too little of it out in the world and it is definitely needed. 

What writing project(s) are you working on at the moment?
I have several I’m trying to work on, though my brain keeps doing the thing where it hops between ideas because why not? I’m reworking an old short story of mine from about 3 or 4 years ago. It’s a dark fantasy piece that explores the relationship between siblings, power, and magic.

I’m also trying to write a second book which too falls under the fantasy genre. However, I’m thinking of shifting the genre from high fantasy to urban fantasy. Fingers crossed that this actually works out well as I love my main character so much.

What do you recommend binge watching on Netflix?
SENSE8. Please watch this now.
But also, The 100, Shameless, Stranger Things, and Jessica Jones. 

[Audrey's note: I second Jessica Jones and Shameless so hard, you guys.]

Do you feel like you’re a part of any writer communities on Twitter, or online in general? What communities are you involved in? How did you find them? What does contributing to that community/those communities look like to you?
I’d definitely say I am. I started twitter about two years ago, but didn’t really engage as well as I should have until this year. This was partly due to me being socially anxious and partly due to getting a feel for the community. I’m a lover of YA literature so that’s where I found most of my writing friends. Whether it was through liking relatable tweets, asking them about their stories, or messaging them to freak out about a really good book, I found my people.

I like to give back to the YA community so I do my best to be as open to writers as possible. I work in publishing and write/edit often. Starting off in publishing can be difficult and overwhelming so I try to give out tips, offer critiques, and keep an eye on the market. Also, especially for the YA community, listening to teens is important as they are the intended audience for those books.

You’re a part of the family friendly Youtube channel Geektastic. What do you feel like you’ve gotten out of that experience? Do the reviews and discussions affect how you approach your own writing at all?
I think the main thing I got from doing the YouTube channel was being able to film with some of my family members who love books and television the same way I do. We’re able to rant and freak out about the media we enjoy. Editing the videos are a bit more complicated as there are usually tons of extra footage from us either laughing, making inside jokes, or going on a complete tangent.
I can’t say it’s affected my writing, but it’s definitely made me more excited to read/watch something and then prepare to share it with them.

Plug time!
I’m the kind of person that does a lot of things at once. I really do enjoy editing, writing, and publishing so here are all the things to know about:
The Inkwell Council: This is my editing service that I co-run with my family. We give free critiques to the first 3 chapters of a novel and short stories. To find out more, click here: http://theinkwellcouncil.com
Editing: I freelance edit. Everything you need to know about that can be found here: https://meganmanzano129.wordpress.com/editing-services/
Publications: I have gotten a handful of short stories published over the years and they can all be found here: https://meganmanzano129.wordpress.com/publications/
 A sci-fi short story of mine is coming out later this year that I will be sharing everywhere as it is my first anthology publication.

Twitter: This is the main way to find me as I talk about publishing, books, offer critiques, and giveaways at times. Plus, I love making new writing friends. My handle is: @megan_manzano

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Looking for some further reading? Then check out the winners and finalists of the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

5 Reasons You Need to Read Labyrinth Lost Right Now



Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cรณrdova has become a new favorite book of mine. (Seriously, though? My "favorite books" shelf is getting way too crowded. I need a new shelf!) Anyway, here are five things that I loved about the book, and five reasons that you should pick it up ASAP!

1. Bi Representation

The main character, Alex, is bisexual. There's a bi love triangle. It's awesome. The plot of the book doesn't center around Alex coming to terms with her identity as a bi girl, in the same way that it's not centered around her coming to terms with her identity as a Latina girl. It's about her coming to terms with her power. Those other aspects are a part of her in a way that's not represented, and especially represented well, nearly enough.

2. Family & Meaningful Female Relationships

Of course Alex and her best friend, Rishi, have a strong relationship in the book. But one of the really central parts of what makes Alex who she is is her family--her mother and her sisters. She has a different but equally dynamic and developed relationship with both Lula and Rose. Even characters who are less present in Alex's current life, like her Aunt Ro and Mama Juanita, have very defined and realistic relationships with Alex. Family is the main heart of the novel, with lineage and heritage and power driving it from beginning to end.

3. World Building

The obvious thing to talk about here is Los Lagos, the realm that isn't our own. And, certainly, it's creative and inventive and has a very twisted fairy tale sort of vibe to it. However, the world building doesn't begin and end there. Brooklyn feels so alive in this book, and so real. Coming from Queens myself, it's so rare to see New York done right, or to see New York beyond some cardboard stereotype of Manhattan, and this is so refreshing.

4. Total Surprises

I'm a writer. I can't turn that off when I read or when I watch TV or movies or when I play video games. It's impossible for me to stop myself from trying to predict where the story is going. It's just how my mind works. And you know what? I was completely taken off-guard by developments in the book four or five times. (I'd give vague ideas of where these were, but if you haven't read it yet then I don't want to spoil.) This is honestly a continuation of this book feeling so fresh in general.

5. The Writing

The writing is so, so lovely. Here are just a few of my favorite lines:

  • "I am an element. I am the storm."
  • "Right now, I'm just a girl, and there is also magic in that."
  • "It is my turn to shape the galaxies."
  • "Something about this pleases the creature. Because he's not a man--he's a hideous, greedy creature that belongs in this ashen, cold land. It's a hateful thing, and this is a hateful place."
  • And  then there's the first line: "The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing."


Go. Buy. Read. Hurry. It's been optioned as a movie.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Two Poems

I asked on Twitter what section from my (yet unpublished) poetry collection people wanted to read from. It was close, so I decided to post two! Enjoy, and please go on ahead and share this post around. ๐Ÿ’—

From "(Bi)sexuality":

You Remember Your First


girlcrush, which came four years
after your first boycrush

(and they were cousins, so apparently
you had a type
that included big brown eyes
& constant laughter)

it was easy enough
to play off the desire
as mere admiration:

you wondered how her hair
sat so straight and silky
while curling at the ends
just right

& you never asked her

just played the game of comparison,
you with your scrunchie-tied
ponytail, mind-of-their-own
curls poking
out over your ears

& at 11 you weren’t allowed
to date anyway, so what did it matter
except that you might’ve known earlier
the nature of your lingering

might’ve known the line
between wanting to compare notes
& pure wanting

later, you wonder if she avoided
you because your scrunchie was bedazzled
or your overalls so 3rd grade

or

maybe

if she knew that you looked at her
the way boys looked at her
if she sensed something about you
that you wouldn’t

for years and years to come

--

From "Flesh Betrays Flesh":

Capsulate


dulling of nerves plucked
to frays like copper
wires shorted, sparking

awareness of each vein
fading with the osmosis
the elixir promises

mind’s protests quieted
anxieties smokescreened
by fog enhancing the hush

cognizance sacrificed
for movement, for mobility—
            mind as guesswork’s victim

each solution in turn
            a call for stitching patches
                        over splits left exposed

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Too Queer



"Unfortunately, it isn't the right fit for us at this time."

This is probably the most common phrase in a rejection letter from a lit mag, agent, or publisher. It's pretty standard. However, sometimes you see a different phrase: "This isn't the right fit for this issue" or "This isn't a great fit for my list right now." At the end of the day, it's all polite ways to say "Yeah, thanks, nah."

But, as a marginalized writer, rejection can take on different meaning. I'm a woman, queer (bi, specifically), disabled, and non-Christian. Of my identities, I most often write about queer women. Lately, I've noticed a pattern. I've only started writing queer women in the past few years, and that shift in my subject matter has made me notice something. I've had relative ease publishing stories with straight women (or women whose sexuality isn't addressed), and it's been much more difficult getting my queer lady stories published. Even though my queer lady stories are overall better--I've had years of writing under my belt to help--they don't meet as much success in query piles. Out of about fifteen stories I've published, one has had clearly queer characters at the helm. (While, percentage-wise, I've published many more poems about non-queer subjects, I've still had a few queer poems published, like this, this, and this.)

I've been shopping around some queer stuff recently, and it's often met with a blanket rejection phrase, sometimes even with some praise ahead of that in the rejection letter (ex: "While I enjoyed the writing...). Maybe this is just a politeness, maybe it's not. As a marginalized writer, it's hard not to ask--Is it that I'm queer? Is it that my characters are queer? Would this meet more success if either of those facts were changed or better hidden? Have they already picked up their "gay book" or "gay author" for the season?

In all honesty, I didn't really consider my lit mag rejections for queer stories until my most recent round of agent rejections. In the novel I'm shopping around, a bi main character falls in love with the new girl at school who is disabled with fibromyalgia (like I am). I've gotten a handful of rejections that amounted to "While I'm really into the writing, the setting, and the characters, it's just not compelling enough that I've got to have it." Again, is this just being polite? In my experience, no one has time to offer a ton of personalized feedback about the positives of a manuscript unless they mean it. And sure, it could be that je ne sais quoi factor not hitting home for them. But I've submitted this manuscript to a bunch of different people. I've submitted my stories to lots of different lit mags. Again, I can't help this nagging sense that it is too queer.

It's not like you can email the editor or agent back and say "Is this not a good fit because it's queer?" It's nearly impossible to talk about this without sounding like it's simply sour grapes, and the fact that the rejection doesn't say "TOO QUEER, SORRY NOT SORRY" in the first place indicates that, even if that is the case, it's not a line of inquiry that's really worth pursuing.

It's so, so difficult to discuss this honestly without just coming off as bitter about a story not being published. But beyond my own stories and novels, beyond my own anecdotal observations, I think it's something worth thinking about. Publishing is an old institution. Has it come a long way as far as representation? Hell yes. Could there still be even unconscious biases and places where we should be having conversations? You bet.

And I think I'll conclude by saying that this worry of mine isn't going to deter me from writing awesome queer ladies any time in the near future (especially bi women). I'm still shopping around that novel. I'm still sending out and writing stories with women in relationships with each other. And I'm currently writing a queer af novel about goddesses. Just because it might be more difficult, just because it makes for another thing to question in our rejection letters, is no reason to stop working for representation in writing, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stop any time soon.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Reading for Fun


One of the things I most want to instill in my daughter is a love of reading. I don't mind what she loves reading--fantasy or scientific explanations of animal behavior, memoirs or comics, long complicated tomes or breezy beach reads. But I read with her fairly often (and I have since I was pregnant with her) because I want her to get into reading as early as possible.

There are lots of reasons I want to help guide my daughter toward reading--it helps engender empathy, it arms you with knowledge about the world, it sparks your own imagination and creativity. I think something that is severely undervalued these days is reading for pleasure. This has become painfully obvious for me this year. My first love--both in reading and writing--is the novel. I realized about a week or two ago that I was in a real novel reading slump this year. I hadn't read many this year, and the ones I had read weren't as fun for me as I was hoping.

Then I started really thinking about this. The last time that I'd really read for fun consistently was before my PhD program and before my MFA program, in the gap year when I was only working and not attending any sort of English/Creative Writing program. And before that year, I hadn't read purely for fun since high school. And by "purely for fun" I mean not reading with a pencil in hand or for class or with the intention of picking it apart for some specific writing-related purpose. Of course, there are exceptions here and there--for example, Felicia Day's You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) that I read in the summer between my MFA and PhD programs. And this isn't to say that I don't really enjoy novels like Madame Bovary that I've read for class--hell, my favorite book, Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan, was originally pulled from my MFA thesis reading list.

So, taking all of this into consideration, I thought about that year between my undergraduate Creative Writing program and my MFA program. I had gotten a library card for the Osterhout in Wilkes-Barre and made regular trips there, where I'd pick up an armful of books to read. The pressure was low, both because I didn't have strict "read this in a week" types of time limits and because, if I wanted to for any reason, I could stop reading a book twenty pages in and move on. This let me experiment widely and find books that I personally really connected with (like the Graceling Realm series). And so I decided to do this last week at my new location--going to the Peace Dale Library in my current neck of the woods, getting a library card, and coming out with an armful of books that just looked interesting. (Bonus: I have a license now and don't have to walk to and from the library if I want to go on my own.)

I happened to come across Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, a book I'd heard tons about as a queer writer who writes queer things and tries to keep up on this sort of thing as much as possible. I had fun reading it. I got really into the characters and narrative. I recommended it to a friend. It's been a long while since I've gotten into a book that I just went and picked up myself.

There's that saying--people who say they hate reading just aren't reading the right books. While that may not be 100% true for everyone, I think that if people expanded their idea of reading beyond Shakespeare and Hawthorne (I love Much Ado About Nothing and The Scarlet Letter, don't get me wrong), then they might be more likely to find something they enjoy, whether they're reading sports biographies or some basics of cooking or whatever.

In hopes of giving some ideas of what you might want to try out, I asked some writer friends what they're reading at the moment. So here are ideas, but--of course--please feel encouraged to do your own wandering at the library or bookstore, and find something that you'll enjoy and get wrapped up in! Don't hesitate to let us know in the comments how this goes, or to make your own recommendations.

  • Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli
  • Poetry Magazine, July/August Asian American Poets issue
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Kill Six Billion Demons, Tom Parkinson
  • sea foam mag
  • Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp
  • Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
  • Armada, Ernest Cline
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  • My Bloody Life, Raymundo Sanchez
  • Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher

Want to keep up with my reading list? Check out my Goodreads page here!


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Starting New Projects: The Myth of the Blank Page



One of the most conflicting things that you can do as a writer is start something new.

There seems to be this kind of fable set up of THE BLANK PAGE as the writer's bogeyman of sorts. Now, in general, I tend to put a lot more time into revising endings than beginnings. But sometimes starting is the literal worst.

Take, for instance, the most recent novel that I wrote (the one I'm currently sending around to agents). When I started the project, it was third person from Celeste's point of view, straight-up (haha) YA queer literary. Then I started mostly from scratch when I realized it was falling flat, turning it into YA queer magical realism. Then I had to re-start it again because I realized that the voice was wrong and that it should've been first person from her POV and that it was going to be more heavily fantasy. Then, two-thirds of the way into what would become an actual first draft, I started adding in first person sections from Simone's POV, which then also had to be spliced into the beginning and middle in revisions. It took a lot for Strange High to figure out that it was a dual first person YA queer fairy tale.

More recently, I just started a new writing project. I've been working on a new collection of poems (collection #3, because I've been sending collection #2 out to publishers), and that's been great. But I've had a big, novel-shaped hole in my life. Of course, with a new daughter who wants to be cuddled 24/7 there's hardly a spare moment and, when there is, I do more frivolous things like eat or shower or buy the family groceries. I've been finding spare moments to write poems, but I haven't really touched fiction since I finished revising Strange High. Option #1: Go back to a novel idea that I really believe in and that I actually wrote 15,000 words of before switching to Strange High last year. Option #2: A recent nightmare that felt like an amazing novel idea. My feeling was that I'm young and can do both ideas--but one has to come first. As I'd like to maybe do the started novel for my dissertation in a couple of years, I decided to give this new idea a shot. And, last night, I managed to come up with character names and write the first 450 words (in addition to the plot idea that the nightmare gave me).

Now, maybe I'll leave the idea when I get 1,000 or 10,000 words in because it's not working. Maybe I'll switch to the other novel idea because I find that's what my heart is pulling me toward. This is what I'm talking about when I bring up how conflicting the start of a novel is. Sure, you could do whatever you want. You have that freedom. But you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT. It's the fear that I hear from my students sometimes when they're trying to find a thesis for their paper--How, in the wide world of paper ideas, do I just pick one? Where do I even begin?

So, for me, it's less that I can't figure out a good first line. (I actually think I'm pretty good at those.) It's more the total sense of uncertainty. Unless I do major planning first, I don't know these characters, I don't know where this is going, and it's not going to be done in one go of it. What's more, I don't even know if I'll like it enough to finish, or if I'll be able to sell it once the time comes. Uncertainty is one of the most uncomfortable things in the world for me and I really struggle with it.

Now, if I never wrote without a clear idea of every last detail of the entire project then I'd have to quit this gig and go find something where uncertainty wasn't in the job description. I find a way to do it. That doesn't make it a pleasant part of the process. I kind of just need to put my blinders on and push through the discomfort of uncertainty. It's knowing that, later, I'm going to really start getting into the groove of things and have fun with it that helps keep me going until things click into place. Ultimately, this makes it worth it.

Are you a writer, or a creator of any sort? What part of your creative process is least enjoyable for you? How do you soldier through anyway?