Category Archives: Review

The Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

 Sometimes, certain books come along at just the right moment in our lives.  And sometimes they come along much later.  Not too late, but not at the time we really needed them.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. When I was growing up in the dark prehistoric ages before the internet — before cable TV even — certain ideas and concepts just weren’t available to my young mind. I read ravenously, everything I could get my hands on, without any real restrictions from my parents, but I knew literally nothing about sexual identity or gender expression.  I remember reading a couple of early news stories about people like Renee Richards, a tennis player who had male-to-female reassignment surgery in the 1970’s — but it was mostly the stuff of punchlines or baffled magazine articles.  One time I tried to talk about one of those articles with my mom — who a vocal feminist and pretty enlightened person for that time and that place (Southern America, firmly inside the Bible Belt).  Her reply was, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

I never heard the words “transgender” or even “transsexual”. In fact, I was a teenager before I ever knew anyone who was openly Gay.  And the depictions of LGBTQ people in the media at that time ranged from non-existent to ridiculous to condescendingly tragic.

It’s hard not to look back and wonder what my life would have been like if I’d had those images — if concepts like gender non-conforming, gender fluid and non-binary had been available to me when I was figuring out who I was. (A puzzle I’ve never even come close to solving.)

So I have quietly been making a list of books and other media that I think of as “Things I Wish Had Existed When I Was A Kid”.

Very close to the top of that list is The Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin.

Riley Cavanaugh is a high school student and the child of a US Senator, from a very conservative district in Orange County. On top of the usual teenage rebellion, Riley (who spent some time in a psychiatric hospital after trying to wash down a bottle of Xanax with booze) is beginning to understand what it means to be gender fluid.  Some days, Riley wakes up feeling like a girl, some days like a boy — and some days neither.

Riley’s father is trying to pass an important new public education bill, and so Riley moves from a private Catholic school (which was hell, but where at least the uniform requirement eliminated the decision of what to wear every morning) to a public school in their district.

Maybe public school will be different, maybe Riley can find a place to fit in and not be the constant target of abuse.  Maybe.  Or maybe not.

But there are new friends to be made: a Star Wars loving Samoan football player called Solo, and Bec, an intriguing girl with a lip ring and lightsaber blue eyes.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley begins an anonymous blog about being gender fluid — and that blog takes off when other teenagers find it and relate to Riley’s struggle.  Suddenly, the isolated outsider has a (virtual) community, a cause to fight for, and (maybe) a girlfriend.

But not everyone is willing to accept Riley on Riley’s terms. And when one of those enemies make the connection between the weird kid in school and the blogger, everything Riley cares about (and Congressman Cavanaugh’s re-election) is put in jeopardy.

The Symptoms of Being Human is a heartbreakingly good book about a main character you can’t help but love and cheer for. A young adult novel that is rich enough for readers of all ages — even for the confused inner children of people who needed books like this a long time ago.

Thank goodness we have them now.

Under My Skin by A.E. Dooland

When was the last time a book hooked you so deeply you actually worried about the characters when you weren’t reading?

“I’m writing because I wish these stories had been available for me to read when I was dealing with some tough identity issues, and I want them to be available to other people who are struggling.” — A.E. Dooland

 

 

I found Under My Skin sort of by accident.  I was looking for fiction that featured nonbinary/transgender characters and I was drawn in by the fun, playful cover.  I have a weakness for sweet LGBTQ romance stories and that is what I expected here. (I did notice that the book is much longer than most romance novels, and that gave me a moment of pause.) By the time I realized that Under My Skin was a lot more than that — not the breezy lighthearted romance I expected — I was too in love to quit.

Fair warning:  This book disrupted my sleep cycle for several nights running.  I simply could not stop reading.  And it does have its breezy, wonderful romantic moments — a lot of them.  But they’re set in a story about the price of hiding who you really are (from the world and yourself) and the cost of coming out (to the world and to yourself.)

Ming Lee is a Korean/Australian woman living in Sydney.  She has a great job in the marketing department of an international mining corporation, a boyfriend who is almost too perfect, and a comfortable home that she loves.

But underneath the surface, she is restless and unsatisfied. She has extreme body issues, almost no social life, and has been drinking too much.  When she paints a portrait of herself as a man, it sets off a series of events that will change everything in her life.

Part of the power of this novel is the main character.  I was in love with Ming from the start — not just sympathetic or interested — head over heels in love.  Then comes her best friend at work, Sarah, her incredibly perceptive (except where it really counts) boyfriend Henry, and Bree — a troubled schoolgirl force of nature who finds Ming’s paintings on Deviant Art and storms into her life like a hurricane. All these characters quickly became friends that I cared about and rooted for.

And there are a couple I could really hate.

As Ming’s life spirals more and more out of control, there were parts of this novel so intense I had to put the book (ok, the e-reader) down — and then I just continued to worry about the characters and be anxious about what would happen to them until I went back.  It’s kind of a cliché to say a story made you laugh and cry, but this one did — and hit just about every emotion in between.

So, even though this is a long book, I never once felt bored or thought that it went on too long.  I didn’t want it to end.

Which is good because there are two more books in this series.  Flesh and Blood, which is a sequel, continuing Ming’s story, and Solve for ί, which deals with some of the supporting characters from Under My Skin.

I totally intend to read them both.  But I need to catch my breath for a moment first.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Books that Helped Me on the Road to Publishing My First Novel

I recently published my first novel A Land of Iron and that accomplishment would not have been possible without A LOT of help from A LOT of people — some of whom I never actually met.  I’ve spent most of my life reading books about writing (I wore out at least two copies of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because for years it was my favorite bedtime read.)

So in no particular order, I would like to recognize a few of the books that were most useful to me over the last couple of years when I’ve really gotten serious about my writing.  Specifically, these are some of the books without which I don’t think A Land of Iron would exist.

I was resistant to the ideas in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering at first — prepared to fight to the death against the assertion that there is one true, effective story structure that all successful fiction adheres to.  I’m still not sure I really believe that, but I came to realize it doesn’t matter.  My empirical side won out over my idealogue and I tested out Brooks’ ideas for myself.  What do you know, they worked.

It wasn’t really anything I hadn’t seen before.  His presentation of story structure is drawn heavily from screenwriting — although instead of the typical (and for me, not very useful) three-act structure many books promote, Brooks divides a story’s structure into four quartiles, each with its specific requirements and tent-posts, and characterized by the nature of the protagonist’s journey in that quarter of the story.  Despite his tendency to be long-winded and repeat things more often than is really necessary, Brooks managed to present this idea in a very practical, ready to apply manner that changed my writing process completely.  I went from being a pantser who scribbled notes to himself as he went along and frequently wrote himself into corners, to a devoted outliner who now finishes almost everything he starts.

In addition to story-structure, Brooks also does a very good job of explaining the difference between a simple idea and a premise that can support a novel (or screenplay).  And his take on “three-dimensional” characters and what that means is unique and very useful.

The follow-up book to Story Engineering is called Story Physics.  It is more scattershot than the first book, not nearly as focused or useful overall.  But I did get from that book a wonderful nine-sentence outline that I still use as the first stage in mapping a project.

 

Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker is a totally different kind of writing book.  Hawker is an indie writer, mostly of historical fiction, (see here) and Pants is  geared to that world.  This is a book for writers who need to learn how to write well and write fast — which is what the modern Indie publishing scene requires.  To write clean, structurally solid first drafts that minimize the time spent on later revisions requires planning and outlining.  Hawker’s model, combined with some ideas I got from Chris Fox (see his video series on outlining here) helped me learn to flesh out ideas quickly, making sure all the necessary elements were present.

 

 

Speaking of Chris Fox, he has a new book out called Plot Gardening, which I admit I haven’t read yet.  But all of his books on writing are valuable and well worth checking out.  Especially 5000 Words Per Hour and Write to Market.

 

 

 

Finally (for now) something totally different.  Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting is unique.  Henkel’s blog on game design, layout, typography and related topics is always fascinating (find it here).  A few years ago he published a series of posts on formatting ebooks yourself, using HTML. It’s a more laborious and time-intensive process than exporting your manuscript in ebook format from Scrivener or Word — but it’s also precise, elegant and affords a level of control those other methods can’t touch.

Fair warning, it can be aggravating, frustrating and is likely to induce fits of despair (especially if your HTML/CSS skills are as rusty as mine were) — but if you’re a writer you’re already familiar with those parts of the creative cycle.  I used Henkel’s book as my guide and built the book version of Land of Iron from scratch, including visuals and chapter title designs.  I’m very proud of the finished product.

That’s only a small sample of the books and articles that have helped me get to where I am today — which is just beginning.  In future posts, I hope to share more.

 

“Rebel of the Sands”

Before I get to my review, let’s give the author, Alwyn Hamilton the first word:

As she says, Rebel of the Sands is a fantasy novel set in a world that is two-thirds Arabian Nights and one-third weird western. It features magic, Djinni and other mythical creatures — as well as a brave, reckless young heroine, Amani Al’Hiza, who grew up in a backwater village called Dustwalk and taught herself to shoot against all the customs and prohibitions of her society.  From the opening scene, where she sneaks into a shooting competition disguised as a boy, Amani is engaging, likable, stubborn and determined above all else to escape her miserable life.

And there’s a rebellion going on in the Desert — a nearly legendary Prince who disappeared years ago, but whose followers are still at large, fighting against the local tyrant and his foreign allies.  And though Amani doesn’t think of herself as political, she will soon be swept up in the intrigue and wonder of the rebellion.

Rebel of the Sands is an exciting story, set in an original world full of mystery and magic.  It is the first book in a trilogy (apparently — at least, there are three books so far) and I wasted no time leaping on the second.

Highly recommended.

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