Book Review: The Map from Here to There

Last year, a friend of mine gave me the gift of a bunch of random books (both published and ARCs) they’d acquired, read, and were willing to part with. I’ve been slowly working my way through what I was given and reviewing them as I go. There is absolutely, no rhyme or reason to my pattern. I literally eenie meenie miney mo my way through my TBR pile. Which is probably how I ended up accidentally reading this book, which is a sequel, without ever having a clue that it was, in fact, a sequel. So, here’s my adventure in reading something and having a very strong feeling I missed something. 

The Map from Here to There, a sequel to The Start of Me and You, is by Emery Lord, and was released January 20, 2020.

Book Summary: 

It’s senior year, and Paige Hancock is finally living her best life. She has a fun summer job, great friends, and a super charming boyfriend who totally gets her. But senior year also means big decisions. Weighing “the rest of her life,” Paige feels her anxiety begin to pervade every decision she makes. Everything is exactly how she always wanted it to be–how can she leave it all behind next year? In her head, she knows there is so much more to experience after high school. But in her heart, is it so terrible to want everything to stay the same forever?

What I Enjoyed: 

Despite my complete foul up, I totally understood what was going on and everything I missed in the first book, with only the vague idea that this seemed like enough backstory for a whole other book, so that was pretty damn impressive. 

This book, much like the last one I read, was great anxiety representation. I felt for Paige and her panic about the huge, life-changing decisions that come with being a senior in high school and having to decide on colleges. Add to that the fear of a new relationship that everyone around her sees as inevitable, and the fact that her divorced parents have been dating again, and you’ve got a major anxiety cocktail.

And it’s not pretty. Which is probably my favorite thing about this. Paige, who seems like a decent and nice person on the whole, does some epically stupid stuff while in the grasp of this anxiety, and it does some real damage to her relationships. There are consequences and they matter. 

Another thing I loved? The characters and what they faced. Paige’s struggles weren’t the only ones. Paige’s boyfriend, Max, struggles with a renewed relationship with his previously absent father and deciding what he wants to do with his life, as well as the fallout of Paige’s decisions. He also has to decide whether he wants to choose his college to go in line with where Paige gets accepted, an issue that helps push Paige’s anxiety levels up a few notches. Never mind the fact that Max is just adorable. His confident nerdiness with a slice of vulnerability made him the perfect boyfriend and foil for Paige’s nervous overthinking.

Paige has three close girl friends, and they each have their own storylines that are real struggles. Tessa also struggles with her newly long distance relationship, as her girlfriend heads to college. She tries her best to help Paige, her closest friend of the friend group, and often ends up getting the brunt of Paige’s attitude. Kayleigh’s father is getting remarried, and she is dealing with choosing a college that is not the college she and her bestie Morgan agreed upon. Also, Morgan may be falling for her brother and she isn’t sure how she feels about it. After Morgan receives a negative diagnosis, she strikes out on a quest to spread sex education and women’s health education through the state, fighting the school board as she goes. 

And then there’s Hunter. Hunter is Paige’s friend from her job at the local movie theater. For reasons I can’t get into without spoiling things, I really loved the arc of his character. I loved the fact that tropes were completely tossed out the window when it came to him, and I really appreciated the resolution his character reached in the end. He was extremely well-handled, despite the fears I grew toward the minute of the book. 

What I’d Avoid: 

I really think it should say the book is a sequel somewhere on the book. I seriously had no idea I was getting into a story midway. I mean, the author did a good job of recapping, but I kinda wish I knew beforehand. I spoiled the previous book for myself! I wish I could have gotten to see Paige and Max fall in love. Dang it. 

The other thing I had an issue with also might be spoilery. The ending was lovely, however, I wish there was more closure. I get that that was kind of the point at the end, the idea that some things, you don’t know, you will never know, until life and its infinite twists and turns decides them for you. However, there were a couple of questions that I think could have been answered more definitively before the closing of the novel…unless, of course, there’s a third story planned for this series. 

What Can I Learn From it: 

This was prime ensemble casting. As someone who tends to overstuff and then have to cut down on my ensemble casting (you don’t want to know how many characters I had to cut out of Order to streamline the story into something I could be proud of). The author manages to handle a large ensemble of characters without any of them ever feeling like they get lost in the shuffle. 

Would I recommend it:  

Yes. But I would recommend you read it in order. *facepalm*

Book Review: Till it Stops Beating

I’ve been meaning to read this book FOR AGES. 

If you’ve been around here for a while, you know about one of my first jobs in publishing was as a reader for Sucker Literary. Sucker was a YA Anthology run by author Hannah R. Goodman. In my time working for Sucker, and also submitting my work to Sucker, Hannah and I got to know each other. And when her book Till It Stops Beating was released in July 2018, I quickly snatched up a copy, and it has lived amidst my TBR list ever since. 

More recently, after a conversation with Hannah, I realized I hadn’t yet read that book, because life got in the way, and my TBR list is years old and contains more books than I’ll ever probably read. I pushed everything else aside and finally picked it up. 

Book Summary: 

Seventeen-year-old Maddie Hickman’s senior year begins with the good (the reemergence of The One That Got Away), the bad (a cancer diagnosis, not hers, but it might as well be) and the WTF (an anxiety attack that renders her writhing on the floor like an upside down crab).

Adding to her spiraling anxiety is Senior Project, in the form of I’ve Decided To Write A Book about The Other One That Got Away (And Crushed My Heart). Compounding it all is applying to college and keeping up with her friends. The ever-mounting stress eventually rips her tight grip on all that she holds dear.

Her break down leads to an unexpected road trip where she is forced to listen to her wildly beating heart. It is only in the back of a convertible with pop music blasting, that she discovers she must risk everything in order to really live.

What I Enjoyed: 

I’ve been suffering from anxiety since I was a teenager. My son has suffered from sometimes crippling anxiety for most of his life. He’s only ten. And so, Till It Stops Beating’s main character, Maddie Hickman immediately earned herself a very solid place in my heart. This was genuine mental health rep, with a relatable protagonist, whose anxiety manifests itself in realistic ways. 

Maddie has been through a lot. She’s been through the death of a friend. The addictions of her sister and the boy she once loved, but still can’t shake. She’s struggled through some nightmare scenarios, and when she discovers her Bubbie (Grandma, for those of you who weren’t raised at least somewhat Jewish), it takes her a minute, but Maddie finally shuts down. She implodes, unable to add this to her litany of troubles and her mounting fear of the future. You see, Maddie is a senior in high school, and she has no idea where she is headed, or who she wants to be. 

So, once she pulls herself together from the big emotional drop, Maddie does what anybody would do when pushing themselves to recover—she experiments. She tries to figure out who she wants to be through sheer force of will. She throws herself into life and discovers that what she always needed wasn’t at all what she ever expected. 

Though the first half was incredibly touching, it is in this latter half, as she struggles to find her place after striking out as an adult, that the book truly finds its footing as a story of fighting through anxiety, and finding what matters most–not to live safely, but to live well. 

What I’d Avoid: 

While I loved the prose in this book, and the characters were relatable and fun, I did find that part 1 and part 2 of this book felt like two completely different books. High School just kind of ends abruptly there in the middle, and suddenly we are on this road trip we haven’t even really seen Maddie come up with. I almost wish this would have been a long percolating idea in her head from the beginning of the book, so it didn’t feel like such a plot shift. This happens a few times. There is also a book that Maddie is writing in the first half for her senior project, and it’s done before we really have time to feel her triumph. I get that there was a lot happening in this book, and we couldn’t linger that long on too many parts, given the span of time being addressed, but this made me feel like the book was running away from us. The pacing was just a little off for me. 

Would I Recommend It: 

Yes, absolutely. Maddie is a great character, and her collection of friends and family are heartwarming and endearing. I was carried along with her journey and enjoyed exploring her emotions. She’s a complicated person, which makes her feel very real, and the mental health representation makes this important reading for the young adult market. 

What Can I Learn From It:

The writer and editor in me finds a lesson in each book, and here’s the one that can be found here. Always write from the heart. Write your truth and don’t go easy on it. Some thoughts we have aren’t the most likeable. Some things we do make us look like jerks. But that’s the reality of who we are. Not everything gets resolved in the end in life, and that should be true for fiction, too. We don’t always get to say our sorrys. We don’t always get to say our goodbyes. 

Cover Reveal: The Order of the Key and Pre-Order info

It’s here! It’s really happening! The Order of the Key now has a brilliant cover!

The text is a little small on that one, so I’ll paste it below.

Jacklyn Madison never expected to be attacked by a beast on an evening snack run. Add a rescue mission enacted by a trained regiment of teenaged warriors, and her night officially becomes just like a scene from one of her beloved comic books. Turns out, her parents were once members of the Order of the Key, gifted humans that protect humanity from creatures spilling through inter-dimensional rifts. Unable to control her newfound abilities, Jacklyn and her family rejoin the Order.

After an attack on their headquarters leaves Jacklyn questioning their leadership, Kyp—the boy who led her initial rescue—reveals a darker secret. The Order’s leader may be corrupt, and Jacklyn’s questions could put her family in danger. Drawn into the search for proof, Jacklyn must use her guts and magical brawn to protect her family, her friends, and herself from the monsters spilling from rifts, and those hiding within the Order.

And now for the really big news. The Order of the Key is now available for pre-order at Black Rose Writing’s Website!

If you order here, use the code PREORDER2020 at checkout for a 15% discount.

And save those receipts. I’ve got a pre-order giveaway in the works and I’ll be posting about it soon.

The Order of the Key Update

I’m really trying to keep up with posting things here more often, but this month has brought changes in my day job that interfere with it. Still, I’m working on it.

All late on posting this here (some of you have probably seen this on social media already), but I recently had the chance to scope out the proof of my book! So have a gander at the inside layout and the first page.

Let me know you’re thoughts! I can’t wait to see what you think.

Title Page
Page 1

Book Review: Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It

I think any book lover worth their salt has a large To Be Read pile waiting to be tackled. Over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to work my way through mine, which encompasses an entire bookcase–I may have gone overboard. The book I’ll be reviewing today was acquired on the book convention circuit, picking up free ARCs. I never got to this book before it came out officially, and I, sadly, never even read the description before grabbing it up because the cover looked pretty. I know, I’m bad. I know, I should be more selective. But I’m a very eclectic reader. So I dove in.

Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It is a YA Romantic Comedy with a gorgeous cover.

Book Summary:

Jolie’s a lot of things, but she knows that pretty isn’t one of them.

She has mandibular prognathism, which is the medical term for underbite. Chewing is a pain, headaches are a common occurrence, and she’s never been kissed. She’s months out from having a procedure to correct her underbite, and she cannot wait to be fixed.

Jolie becomes paralyzed with the fear that she could die under the knife. She and her best friends, Evelyn and Derek, decide to make a “Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It (Which Is Super Unlikely, but Still, It Could Happen)” list. Things like: eat every appetizer on the Applebee’s menu and kiss her crush Noah Reed.

But since when did everything ever go exactly to plan?

What I Enjoyed:

The funny thing about Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It, by Kerry Winfrey, is that its concept strongly resembles the plot of a short story I wrote years ago, “One Percent.” “One Percent” was about a young teen who discovers she needs to have spinal surgery to repair her scoliosis and panics, her anxiety feeding the idea that she would be part of the small percentage of surgeries that failed. Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It starts in a very similar way but becomes so much more as the story evolves from its basic concept (and quickly becomes nothing like my short story.

This book hit all of my happy notes. Each character, even the oddball side characters, felt like a person, each with wants, needs, desires–and nobody was a bad guy. This wasn’t that kind of novel. Jolie is actually her very own antagonist, in a very real way. As Jolie struggles with the very idea of what it means to be beautiful–inside or out–she struggles to create new relationships, and salvage the ones she needs to keep.

Her relationships with her family are well drawn, and we get to see a YA book with a family that acts like a real family. Sure, there’s drama, but the characters are loving and warm to each other, and they are not the bad guys in Jolie’s life. Jolie’s best friends, Evelyn and Derek, are uniqueand come with real problems that aren’t really even the point of the story, but are interesting side stories that become important to us because of how important they are to Jolie.

The romance here is a spoiler, but it’s so well done, and it doesn’t go anywhere you would think it was going to go based on the book blurb.

One of my favorite things about this book was that there weren’t enemies–there were competitors, and there were people who cause trouble obliviously, and there are people getting in their own way. But there aren’t bullies and an arch nemesis. Just life, in all the way that it is difficult, and in the ways it becomes more difficult when you have a physical deformity, a struggle I tangled with as a teen myself, as I coped with scoliosis.

What I’d Avoid: I honestly don’t have anything for this section. This book had a strong plot, strong characterizations, strong theme, humor and was just plain lovable. I’ve got no complaints.

Would I Recommend It: Absolutely! Hell, my nine-year-old son wants to read it and I told him to go for it (it’s always a miracle to hear him ask for something he actually wants to read, versus being forced to read). It’s a sweet story and a sweet romance, with only two small detours into subject matter that may be questionable, although when I say that, I mean it skirts the edge of what you’d probably see on your average prime time television show.

What Can I Learn From It: It’s rare to see a book where all of the characters were well-rounded, and not in any way the bad guy. I mean, we’re not even speaking about characters that are the bad guy, but have redeeming qualities. We’re speaking about characters that simply get in their own way, as we as people are wont to do. And not having a clear villain does nothing to damage the conflict of the story–it’s there and it’s strong. I’m eager to try something similar in a different setting, just to see if I can accomplish it.

All in all, Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It was a fun, well-told story I would recommend to anyone who is looking for a book that is about real life–ups, downs, quirks, and insecurities.

Scribbler!

I’ve been itching to try the Scribbler subscription box for writers since it was first released. But alas, there’s the issue of budget that never allowed me to sign up. May I take a moment to say “Yay Christmas Bonuses!” Because I get to share my very first Scribbler box with you!

So I intended to take pictures if each item, and my Logan knew it. Hence, we get pictures like this.

The first thing I spotted when I opened my Scribbler box was a near magnetized dry erase board. I used it immediately to write a love letter.

The author of the month this month was YA fantasy author Evelyn Skye, who had a short story in the Sucker Literary anthology I was promoting around here a few years ago. The book that accompanies this box is Circle of Shadows. It is her third book, an epic fantasy. The book includes a signed bookplate.

Not only is the book included, but there is also a separate pamphlet that offers an inside look at the editing process. She shows us a scene from Circle of Shadows that was cut in edits, and walks us through everything that has changed since, including a whole storyline that was cut.

Evelyn also wrote up a great collection of tips and tricks for writing fantasy—mainly focusing on building magic systems and how it figures into and impacts world building.

This sticker gives me life.

An invitation to an exclusive chat with Kristin Rens, Executive Editor at Balzer + Bray, was also included, but, as is always my luck, it lands on the day and (believe it or not) exact time of a seriously important doctor’s appointment, so I won’t be able to attend. 😦

There was a great little notebook with a sturdy cover, built for the kind of writer that writes on the go. You can work on the writing prompt they sent in that adorable little notebook.

And lastly, this warm scribbler beanie, perfect for the snowy weather I’ve been trudging through–as modeled by Logan.

So, what did I think of my first Scribbler box? I loved it! Just having a bunch of cute things that relate to my life as a writer, while also relating to my life loving YA novels is just perfect. I do wish the writing chat was something I could attend—for instance, not in the middle of a normal workday—but other than that, every single piece included is going to get a lot of use from me.

I can’t afford to do this every month, but I think there are more of these in my future.

To sign up for a Scribbler box, go here!

Storytime with Boogie Down Books

I recently had the wonderful experience of reading to children during Boogie Down Books’ Storytime, and it was an amazing experience. As soon as I arrived at Mottley Kitchen on Saturday Morning, December 15th, I knew I had to chronicle this experience for my blog and let everyone know about the delightful time I had and all about the wonderful bookstore without walls.

I met Boogie Down Books owner Rebekah Shoaf at The Bronx Book Fair in May and immediately took a liking to her. She was unbelievably friendly and energetic and immediately put me, who attended as both a networking author and a mother looking for new books for her son, at ease. She told me all about her company, and I immediately signed up for the newsletter, grateful to discover such an interesting new Bronx program.

Rebekah called Boogie Down Books a bookstore without walls. Instead of a brick and mortar shop, she organizes pop-up shops at events and schools around the borough. She even organized a pop-up shop in Mottley Kitchen, a cafe in the South Bronx, where she organizes  weekly Storytimes for young children and a monthly book club for teens and adults.

After reading through their newsletter, I decided to volunteer to read a book for children at Storytime, and was selected to read Windows by Julia Denos. I was very excited and didn’t really know what to expect.

Now, hearing about all of this and experiencing it are two very different things. In theory, it seemed like a nice idea. In practice, it was warm, welcoming, and engaging. Rebekah greeted me and my husband and son, Logan, near the pop-up bookshop set-up, every bit as open and cheerful as she had the first time I met her. She chatted with Logan for a while and when he asked if he could help her, she promised they’d discuss it when he was older. Logan felt included and happy, and I was exceedingly grateful.

After showing me around and explaining my role, Rebekah left us to grab some buttery croissants, filling granola bars, and piping hot English Breakfast Tea (for my wonderful sore throat) from the staff at The Mottley Kitchen (we also bought books, of course), and we settled in until people started to arrive.

Once we had a good group gathered together, Rebekah called everyone together. I sat in a chair in the center of the reading nook and the children gathered around me. Rebekah led the group in a breathing exercise and then a welcome song. It was clear that the large majority of the children were regulars, and Rebekah knew them by name. The welcome song referred to each child by name, including Logan, whom she had just met.

Rebekah had asked me to read The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats in addition to Windows, as the books held many similarities. I agreed, eager to read even more to these adorable children. So, I read, and asked questions, and interacted, and for a wonderful half hour, I got to hang out with children, which really is the best thing.

Photo by Rebekah Shoaf

Then, it was time for the kids to do their book related craft, and I got to mix and mingle with the lovely parents. By the time it was time to go, I was reluctant to leave. I had felt so welcome, and so comfortable amongst this group–I imagine that’s what the kids who come to attend storytime feel like every weekend.

And just like that, I decided I was definitely going to do this again. Maybe not for a little bit, since my schedule is packed, particularly on Saturday, but I would be back. It was such an uplifting experience. In the Bronx, where it’s been a struggle to get one brick and mortar bookstore open, where the overwhelming need for literacy programs are left to very few people to lead the charge, I decided I needed to be a part of it.

If you’re in the NYC area, you should absolutely support Boogie Down Books. Come out for a Storytime or a Book Club. If you’re not, and you can afford it, buy a book or two from their website. Little pleasures like this one are few and far between. We should try, however we can, to keep them alive.