Review: Everneath by Brodi Ashton - what YA should be

TITLE: Everneath
AUTHOR: Brodi Ashton
PAGES: 384
FORMAT: Kindle (but I want it paperback now, because it deserves a spot on my bookshelf)
ISBN: 978-0062071132
BUY IT: Amazon
RATING: 5/5 [in the genre] or 8.5/10 [all books I’ve read]. New number system again!
FOR: Fans of YA, myths, fantasy, paranormal, romance, and well-written books with complex characters.

Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. Now she’s returned—to her old life, her family, her boyfriend—before she’s banished back to the underworld . . . this time forever. She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists. Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance—and the one person she loves more than anything. But there’s just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen. As Nikki’s time on the Surface draws to a close and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole’s queen.

I was first drawn to Everneath by its super snazzy cover, but a cover does not a great book make. Nope. That job was done by the tight writing, perfect pacing, loveable characters, and the very original plot. It brilliantly avoided loads and loads of YA/Teen clich├ęs . . . by starting in the middle. You begin right as Nikki returns aboveground, wondering, “What the heck happened for all the time before this?” Only it’s a good wondering, because you have enough of an idea from the book jacket to have a sense of the first chapter, and you (if you’re like me) already feel a lot of suspense. But fear not, you’ll get the back story later, in cleverly placed flashbacks that enrich the present story and teasingly let slip a few details at a time, so you’re never dumped with information bad-fantasy-style.

I like to make my reviews as objective as I can, but I’m having a hard time saying anything bad about this book. There were a few lines or short scenes here and there that I thought could have been done better, and sometimes the mythic ties seemed a little farfetched. However . . . that was about it. Maybe I’d give it 9 or 10 if it was a little more lyrical and profound, but that’s not really what you’re looking for in a YA book, is it? And Ashton managed to be a good deal profound without dragging down the story. Nikki is a complex character with a dark past, but she’s neither a superhero, nor a puppet, nor a martyr. She tries to take control of her life, but it’s not always easy for her and though she has some support, in the end, she’s the one who has to make the hard decisions. Her relationship with her father is believably strained. Jack is a genuinely good guy. Cole is tortured but realistically, not like some of the brooding badboys I’ve loathed in other novels. Jules could use more page-time, but that’s a small critique. Short version: The characters are fantastic. You don’t get a lot of descriptions of how they are; they just are. These are real people you’re just meeting, and you get to know them better page by page.

And the plot? Where do I begin? I genuinely enjoyed reading this every night and had a hard time putting it down—or I’d put it down because I didn’t want to finish too fast; I wanted to savor it. The weird thing—not a lot happens. It’s not constant action. A lot of the middle is Nikki readjusting to high school life. BUT it’s never boring. There is always tension because page by page, Nikki is getting closer to her deadline. Every moment feels like a last moment. And the atmosphere is somehow soft and magical and dark: a psychological study of a troubled teen girl—who took her self-medication to supernatural levels. With plenty of romance. The sweet, believable kind. And one of the best love triangles (maybe the best) I’ve ever read in YA. Just an all-around great book with wide appeal.

So read Everneath and go check out Brodi Ashton! Great author, very accessible. Find her at @brodiashton and brodiashton.blogspot.com! (As we speak, I’m geeking out because I replied to something she said and she replied back. TWICE. A real life published awesomely awesome author. To ME!)

Coming up soon: A review of Lichgates by S.M. Boyce (@thesmboyce) . . . with a few surprises!


Review: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

[[In honor of 13 Reasons Why's 100th week on the bestseller list, here's a review!]]  

Title:  Thirteen Reasons Why
Author:  Jay Asher
Format:  Paper, Kindle
Rating:  9.5 / 10
Description:  When Clay Jenson plays the casette tapes he received in a mysterious package, he's surprised to hear the voice of dead classmate Hannah Baker. He's one of 13 people who receive Hannah's story, which details the circumstances that led to her suicide. Clay spends the rest of the day and long into the night listening to Hannah's voice and going to the locations she wants him to visit. The text alternates, sometimes quickly, between Hannah's voice (italicized) and Clay's thoughts as he listens to her words, which illuminate betrayals and secrets that demonstrate the consequences of even small actions.

In a market where the loudest voices are the teen girls with their breathtaking romances, the problems of the ordinary teen are often neglected.  There’s nothing wrong with these books.  They’re thrilling and a perfect escape from an ordinary life.  But ordinary life is important too, and there aren’t many teenagers out there whose problems include a vampire-werewolf love triangle or their own budding magical powers.  Friends and family are left to the wayside, and the boy problems become the only problems.  Yet teens go through so much, that every problem should have a voice.  Jay Asher brings us this voice as Hannah Baker in Thirteen Reasons Why

From first page to last, the book is a blinding race.  We open on Clay, the narrator, the good boy still reeling over his schoolmate’s death.  Only now he knows her story, and is passing it on to the next listener.  After this prologue, the reader teeters on the top of a peak as we backtrack to Clay first discovering the thirteen tapes and Hannah’s demand:  Listen to them all.  Find out what you did to contribute to my suicide.  Then pass them onto the next person on the list.  Thirteen names, a multitude of little crimes that build on each other.  I started the book at night, planning on reading a little before bed.  I went to sleep at nine in the morning.  Once you start, you’re drawn into Hannah’s tale.  Her voice talks to you as much as Clay; like him, you feel responsible for her.  Indebted.  You can’t stop, because you must know what happened to her, even if you already know how it ended. 

Sometimes I kept skimming Clay’s parts and having to re-read them because I was so engrossed in Hannah’s story; though his voice becomes stronger as time goes on, and it becomes clearer how much he cared for her.  You feel for him too, confused and lost, unsure what he did to drive Hannah to the edge, following her map from place to place and listening to all the little things that sucked the joy from her life.  You can’t give up until he does, and he never does.  Clay and I both sat awake through the night, listening.  And Hannah’s story grabs hold of you and never lets go.  She seems like a sweet, funny, friendly girl in a new place.  Not ever the kind who’d dream of killing herself.  Yet, a single rumor changes her life forever.  Suddenly people see her in a twisted light, and treat her as though the rumors are true.  Each action alone seems unimportant to the actors, but together they weave a tragic story of a teenage girl losing her faith in herself, in people, in life. 

Her voice is remarkably strong, at times tragic, at times funny and irreverent, at times terrified.  So compelling that when I found my paper copy had the last thirty pages misprinted, I bought it on Kindle at eight in the morning just to finish it.  Hannah’s ending is set from the beginning; Clay’s shows hope, and a new understanding of just what little actions can mean, for good or bad.  This is the message that Asher spreads, and it’s something that teens need to hear.  There are thousands of Hannah’s whose voices are never heard.  It’s my hope that people will embrace this book and better understand their suffering classmates.  That the sufferers will draw strength from it and search for help.  Fantasy and romance is fun, but suicide is a crucial issue for young people.  Jay Asher brings it into the open in a way that is accessible, compelling, and above all sensitive to the complicated issues behind it.  A fantastic book that everyone should take a look at.  


Review: Bone Dressing by Michelle Brooks

TITLE: Bone Dressing
AUTHOR: Michelle Brooks
PAGES: 360
FORMAT: Kindle
ISBN: 978-0615477596
BUY IT: Amazon
RATING: 3/5 [I’m trying out a new number system. I hate numbers. They really aren’t all that useful.]
FOR: Fans of hardcore, passionate romance, the supernatural, and high school dramas.

TIME IS RUNNING OUT … THE DARK THAT’S BEEN CHASING SYD FOR MANY LIFETIMES HAS FINALLY CAUGHT UP WITH HER … Sydney Roberdeau lost her parents as a young girl. Waiting for her life to start and the freedom that will come with her eighteenth birthday, Syd spends much of her time haunting the local cemetery. It is there, stretched out among the dead, that she feels most alive, most at home. Until one rainy night when Beau, Sarah and T.J. crash her ghostly sanctuary, appearing out of nowhere, turning her already inside-out world one degree past upside down. Syd must now revisit past lives, dressing in the bodies of her previous selves … bone dressing. Her only chance to outrun the evil breathing down her neck is to face her own worst nightmares and her strongest desires. But if she can’t stay out of trouble in this life, how can she possibly fix mistakes from past lives? And just how many lives has she lived, loved and lost? What is Syd exactly, and what will she risk for the life of a man she doesn’t remember, the man she spent a lifetime with, the man she loves? Everything … including her very own life? Bone Dressing, the first in a series of seven books, will carry Syd and Beau on an adventure that transcends life itself. www.BoneDressing.com

I’ll start off by saying that this is not my usual genre. I’m not a big romance reader, so that factors a lot into my rating. I go more for the supernatural side, so I don’t get into the long romantic scenes as much. And this book has a lot of romance. So if you like romance, then I definitely recommend it, because Brooks really knows how put passion into words. There were moments between Rachel and Jesse that I just thought were so sweet, especially when they were bantering, and others when I could really feel the intensity and love between them—me, the non-romance reader. So keep that in mind. It’s a personal thing. Anyhoo.

All in all, Bone Dressing is a solid read. Conceptually, it’s very clever. A girl going back to her past lives to fix things up? What a fresh look at time travel! It’s that concept that got me to pick this up in the first place, and I thought Brooks did a great job of bringing us into the past life seamlessly. We were suddenly faced with different characters, but there was enough of Syd left in that it felt comfortable instead of jarring. Writing-wise, I’m on the fence. I love Syd’s personality, hands down. She’s a fantastic main character. Broken and traumatized but she knows that she’s to blame for some of her problems, and she’s also strong enough to fight for her own solutions. Her voice comes through so strongly in the narration that you have no doubt she’s her own person. That said, sometimes the metaphors pile on so many that I feel like Brooks could have stuck with one and gotten the same point across. Then again, Syd is a gusher, so it makes sense for her to go overboard. It’s a tricky middle ground and I think whether you love it or not is going to come down to personal opinion. As for the other characters, Brooks did a great job of differentiating them. I love Patricia. I just want to hug her!

Plotwise, it’s slow going in the start but it picks up to a nice exciting clip by the middle and races excitingly to the end. (Keeping in mind that longer romantic scenes aren’t my thing, so I wasn’t as enthralled by those as by the later plot elements.) There’s a bit of first book syndrome here. When you’re writing a long series, the first book has to bear a lot of weight. You need to know the rules but still leave enough mystery to keep them reading. That said, there were a few mysteries I would have thought more necessary to learn in a first book: the biggest one being, what is up with Beau? For example, Brooks handles the mystery of Mr. A perfectly: he’s introduced, he’s clearly a major player, and by the end we know enough about his role to feel satisfied, but there’s still enough left out that we want to find out more. Beau and co. are just a little too elusive for my tastes. I’m also a little iffy about some of the other supernatural elements centering around Jesse and Rachel, to be vague. I’d have enjoyed it just as much if it were just a story about past lives; adding more elements is ambitious, and it’s going to be difficult to keep up with. But again, this is a first book, and how Brooks handles it in the later books will make or break it.

So, overall, Bone Dressing is worth a read, especially if you’re a romance reader and are looking for a new take on paranormal romance. Brooks definitely has a fresh outlook. It runs a little long at times writing-wise, but Brooks has a strong sense of character. Syd is funny, sarcastic, and the kind of protagonist you want to root for. With Bone Dressing: The Dreaming coming up, I’m very interested to see how the many facets of the first book develop and grow—and of course, what Syd’s next life will be!

Don't forget to check out Michelle's website, www.bonedressing.com. She's very involved with her fans.


Retro Review: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

TITLE: Howl’s Moving Castle
AUTHOR: Diana Wynne Jones
PAGES: 224
FORMAT: Very love-worn paperback
ISBN: 978-0688062330
BUY IT: Amazon
RATING: 11/10 [These go to eleven.]

In the land of Ingary, such things as spells, invisible cloaks, and seven-league boots were everyday things. The Witch of the Waste was another matter. After fifty years of quiet, it was rumored that the Witch was about to terrorize the country again. So when a moving black castle, blowing dark smoke from its four thin turrets, appeared on the horizon, everyone thought it was the Witch. The castle, however, belonged to Wizard Howl, who, it was said, liked to suck the souls of young girls. The Hatter sisters--Sophie, Lettie, and Martha--and all the other girls were warned not to venture into the streets alone. But that was only the beginning. In this giant jigsaw puzzle of a fantasy, people and things are never quite what they seem. Destinies are intertwined, identities exchanged, lovers confused. The Witch has placed a spell on Howl. Does the clue to breaking it lie in a famous poem? And what will happen to Sophie Hatter when she enters Howl's castle? Diana Wynne Jones's entrancing fantasy is filled with surprises at every turn, but when the final stormy duel between the Witch and the Wizard is finished, all the pieces fall magically into place.

I’m taking a step back today to talk about one of my favorite books of all time. I do not use those words lightly, but Diana Wynne Jones has captivated me from the beginning, ever since my mom gave me a copy of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci: Volume I for Easter. Diana is the master of breathtakingly original fantasy. You’ll never find a stale elf-and-dwarf Tolkien-rip-off or a flat plot. I love every single book of hers I’ve read, but HMC has always, always stood out above the rest.

To me, it’s the perfection of young adult fantasy. Strong lead character with spunk, charisma, and a voice that’s unmistakably hers. Equally strong supporting cast, with a snarky, adorably dandyish wizard straight out of Oscar Wilde, a demon with a heart, a wicked step mother who’s not all so wicked, and many more. Romances built on friendship and trust and passion. A style bursting with wit, snark, and clever tricks with words. Kooky magic that turns your run-of-the-mill fantasy straight on its head, in a way that only Diana can.

All those features make it perfect fantasy, but it’s more than that. Its “In which” titles and storybook tone are straight out of Grimm but it’s not your average fairy tale. Every page pulls you towards the next and when you’ve finished, you just want to read it over (or catch the sequels!). It’s fun and lighthearted but the dangers are real, and in the end, the characters must face up both to the problems of magic and danger as well as the problems of growing up, finding themselves, and looking past appearances. Nothing is what it seems, but nothing feels contrived or tricksy. I get shivers every single time I read it. Literally. It's written a little younger so don't expect steamy teen lit style makeout-scenes, but hey...it does just fine without 'em.

And I will leave you with this: GO READ IT. Now! No, don’t wait, just go! Because I just realized that if I buy it for Kindle, I can carry it around with me. Best. Day. Ever.

Look out in the next couple days for my review of Bone Dressing by Michelle Brooks!


Excerpt: The Realm of It

In honor of @BreeDespain's word war, I'm posting a bit of the new novel I'm working on.  It's not actually the part I wrote for word war today, but it makes a little more sense without context.  Have at!


Hard to tell in the dim light, but I swear I saw mist in his eyes.  Not good.  “Please, Zoe, just a few hours.  We shall be back before anyone even knows that you’re gone.” 
I looked everywhere else in the room, but it didn’t matter.  His broken pitiful face was burned into my retinas.  With a huff, I stomped my foot into the ground.  “Oh, fine!  But you’d better not be lying or I’ll tell them the truth and let them at you.”  Probably not, but it sounded nice.  Before I could dodge, he flung himself up and wrapped his arms around me with such force that both of us went crashing into a stack of boxes.  The top one crashed to the ground and a flock of tiny pigeons burst out of it. 
While they cackled, I peeled him off of me and pushed him delicately away.  I was shaking again, only this time it was more unpleasantly tingly.  “Don’t do that.” 
“Yes, Zoe, whatever you ask!” 
“Stop saying my name.” 
“Yes, Z—yes.”  He gasped.  “Oh!  Here!”  He reached into a crate and handed me the object inside. 
I held it gingerly.  “My purse.  You saved it.” 
“Of course, Zoe.” 
I glared. 
“Right.  Clarence, then?” 
“Ugh.  Zoe is fine.”  Everything was intact, even my cell phone.  I wanted to call my dad, just in case, at least so he could look for Barkley who was probably roaming in every flowerbed in the neighborhood by now, but it was dead. 
“I need to call my dad,” I said. 
He quirked a brow.  “Don’t be silly.  Who gets service underground?” 
“It will be fine.  I promise.”  I didn’t want to trust his stupid calm smile, but I didn’t have much of a choice.  Both our ears perked up when the floor knocked. 
“Are you ready?” he asked. 
“I guess so.”  I chewed at the loose skin on my lip.  It tasted like blood. 
Creakily, obviously still in horrendous pain despite whatever thing he had eaten out of those crates, he opened a square in the floor and held out a hand to me.  “Milady?” 
Glowering, I took it and let him lower me into the darkness, bracing myself to enter the strange Realm of It.  


Character Psych 101: Trauma, Drama, and Emotional Wear-and-Tear

Welcome to my new feature! A bit silly that it took me this long to think of it, but so it goes. After a bit of head scratching and about 10% of the sleep I need to function, I thought: Hey. I’m a writer. I’m also a clinical psychology grad student. I know things about people. Writers should know things about people. I could tell them these things. Now if only I had an outlet for telling them . . . like a thing that people could read at their leisure . . . like a blog . . . Don’t judge. It’s been a long week. Long story short, here’s where I use all that knowledge rattling around my head to help you write characters that are deep, complex, and psychologically realistic. Because let’s face it. There’s nothing worse than a character who’s completely unrealistic. If you can’t see them as a real person, you can’t relate to their story. That’s where we turn to science! Sorry if I sound a wee bit angry. Misuse of psychology kind of makes my eyeballs bleed. And for those of you nerds like me, I will include citations where applicable (mostly from free-access medical sites, because most scholarly articles are pay-to-read; so take what they say with a grain of salt, because these are broad overviews that may not reflect cutting edge research). Also, this is not comprehensive...just some things to think about. So without further ado:

Trauma. Authors love giving their characters dark, brooding pasts. Readers love reading about them. But wouldn’t we love reading about them a little more if they were more realistic? Aside from the overuse of trauma-as-characterization (a whole other issue), let’s talk about the problems with using traumatic events. We’ll talk later about common misuses of diagnoses, but let’s focus on the relevant ones for now.

Amnesia. Let’s put it this way. If you are raped, witness a murder, etc. etc. etc., you do not forget about it. Not usually. There are indeed instances where people have black spots in their memory. Full amnesia is rare (I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, just that total memory loss is not common; usually amnesia after such events is only partial or temporary. Or associated with a pretty severe head injury, which means you have a whole ton of other problems. If it’s necessary to your plot that the person forget, use with caution. Or tweak it. Maybe they remembers parts but there are some key features that are fuzzy. That’s pretty normal. Ask any psychologist how good eyewitness reports are and they will cringe and flee. (Spoiler alert: They are terrible.) So use the human brain’s imperfect memory to your advantage . . . and use amnesia cautiously. Here’s a great article on dissociative amnesia and related disorders (the kind where you lose memory of a traumatic event) from Mayo Clinic.

Multiple Personality Disorder aka Dissociative Identity Disorder. This should really be in the upcoming Character Psych 101 about misusing diagnoses, but we’ll discuss it here. Because people seem to think that undergoing something terrible means that your mind splits into pieces and all of the sudden you’re Sally, Frank, and Harry. Not so much. It’s a very, very rare disorder and is usually sparked by many years of consistent, severe abuse. It’s also not clear whether it’s a real disorder or something that happens to suggestible people in therapy. Also . . . it’s not schizophrenia. Don’t say it’s schizophrenia. You’ll sound dumb and people will laugh at you. And I will cry inside. Check out this article on DID from WebMD.

PTSD. Flashbacks are extremely rare. By flashbacks, I don’t mean memories. Those are the essence of PTSD. People with PTSD do have very intrusive memories about the event. I’m talking about your basic crime drama soldier-comes-back-and-thinks-he’s-still-in-Iraq-and-starts-killing-people. It just doesn’t happen. But wait! You say. I’m writing about one of the few people who does have flashbacks! That’s fine. Hollywood, but fine. Just know what rules you’re working with. Here’s an overview from the National Institute of Health and more info from the American National Center for PTSD.

Grief and loss. Loss is a big deal! It takes most people a long time to fully get over loss events, even if they deal with them in different ways! To look at abuses of this, let’s check out The Vampire Diaries. I love that show. Deeply. Probably to an unhealthy extent (yes, I admit it, I’m Damon-obsessed). But in the first couple seasons, MANY PEOPLE DIE. Many people that the main characters love! So why the heck do they seem to move on so quickly!? Why is Alaric over his dead wife and girlfriend in about 3.5 seconds? Why do people forget that Damon killed about 15 people not that long ago? So you see the problem. It just looks a little shady . . . because either these people are psychopaths, or they are inhumanly resistant to sadness. Except Jeremy. They actually do a pretty decent job with him. So yes. Give your characters time to mourn. Check out the NIH on grief.

I could go on and on, but by now your brain is probably spinning and you want to throw things at me and tell me that I’m being overly strict. So here ends our first lesson. Long story short: If you’re going to break the rules, know what they are. And sometimes following them can give you much deeper characters with more realistic actions and motivations. Trauma can't replace character.


Writing Tips: Next Time You Get a Bad Review, Come Out From Under the Covers and READ IT

I've read several blogs over the past week (which I won't mention, partially to avoid sounding attacking and partially because my memory isn't that good) about ignoring bad reviews. You know the kind they're talking about. The "This author is stupid and her book sucks" reviews. The "No one should write about fairies because they're dumb" reviews. Things that cut to the core because at the end of the day, they're not about your writing, your plot formulation, your skill. They’re about someone’s subjective opinion. So ignore them. Run away. Count them as any-publicity-is-good-publicity and move on. Right?

Well . . . maybe not. Before you go and click X on that negative review, look a little further. Because let’s face it—just because they hate your book doesn’t mean they hate you. Yes, maybe they’re just a bitter fourteen-year-old with a tablet and they’re bashing on you mercilessly. But maybe, just maybe some of them have a very good reason for hating your book. It’s valid to say that vampires are overdone and you didn’t do anything new or interesting with them. It’s valid to say that your writing still is too flowery, too sparse, too derivative of Palahniuk, Rowling, or Tolkien. It’s valid to say that your characters are flat and difficult to connect with.

Sure, just because they think so doesn’t mean everyone will. It doesn’t mean that your book won’t sell. But as an author, it’s your responsibility to write something fresh, interesting, and above all, the best you can possibly write. You just aren’t going to get there by blinding yourself to the negativity and saying, “But so-and-so loved it, so it’s fine.” Instead of getting defensive, get tough. Let yourself indulge in a little authorly temper tantrum catharsis (eat a pint of Cherry Garcia, watch Gilmore Girls, whatever works) and then move on. Ignore the abrasive tone of some of those bad reviews and peek a little further to see if they actually have a good reason for hating your book. (Some of them won’t. In that case, ignore away!) And the well-written negative reviews? Even better.

Think of them as free beta readers. Unlike your friends and family, they’re not going to lie to you just to spare your feelings—which means they’re going to say the things you need to hear, even if you don’t want to. You may be a decent writer doing what you’ve always done, but you’ll never be a great writer unless you’re willing to slash your own writing as hard as they do. In the end, you’ll get a few bruises, but you’ll also be able to look at the flaws in your writing and find ways to improve them. Maybe you don’t agree with all the flaws they see, and that’s fine. But it never hurts to look at a new perspective, even if you have to stock up on band-aids and ice cream.