Short Tuesday #6: “meat+drink” by Daniel Polansky

This week I ventured onto to take a look at some of their original short fiction, since the last couple short stories I read in the S.O.S. anthology haven’t been so impressive. I had no idea that Tor even offered original fiction on its website—thanks to the lovely people at Spells, Space & Screams for turning me onto that! I’d heard some positive mention of “meat+drink” previously, so that story jumped out at me immediately. Read it here for free if you’d like…

I really enjoyed this story!!! I mean, it’s vampires, so what’s new, right? 😛 But actually, everything feels new in this story. These are not your typical vampires, just close enough to the edge of humanity to make them sexy. They do not sparkle or glitter—they are instead predatory meat, the memories of their previous lives addled by the vampiric transition, on the hunt for flesh (that’s us humans). (Side note that I haven’t seen the word “flesh” dropped so many times since I read the Interface series by _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9.)

It’s really the tone of the story that sets it apart from other vampire fiction, though. The MC has a matter-of-fact, this horror happened then that horror happened type of voice, leading us steadily through a few days in the life of these vampires. It’s sort of a paranormal slice of life, a window into what it’s like to be a monster living in the Baltimore slums.

Oh, and there’s no capitalization, because capitalization is a human construct, I suppose? Or something. I do think the stylistic choice aids in making the narration feel flatter—a good thing for this story. Everything’s a good thing when it comes to this story. Love it—so go read it!

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

Okay, what do I even say about Maureen Johnson at this point? She’s awesome? I love her characters, her voice, her plotting? Does that about cover it?

Listen, Maureen Johnson has a certain style that you’ll either like or you won’t, and her books are all different versions of the same wonderful thing. Quirky and intelligent MC, no parents for miles, a way of inserting detail and humor into the text that keeps you just reading one page, no, two pages, no, twenty pages more… If this is the sort of thing you enjoy, then go read the first in the Shades of London series, or Truly Devious, or 13 Little Blue Envelopes. (And presumably anything else by Johnson, all of which I’m sure I’ll read eventually.) If you’re trying to decide between her series, here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Shades of London series for ghosts (this book, The Madness Underneath, is book two)
  • Truly Devious series for true crime and historical elements
  • 13 Little Blue Envelopes series for quirky road trips

It’s been a while since I read the first Shades of London book, so I got to rediscover the MC, Rory, in this second in the series. A Louisiana native transplanted to a London boarding school, Rory behaves in a way that feels authentic. There are more than a few points in the book where I was mentally screaming at her to do something, anything other than what she was doing, but even when Rory’s making bad choices, you can see why she’s making them. She’s flawed but relatable, and you can’t help but be on her side, even when she’s royally fucking up.

So what else do I have to say about this book? It had that classic “recovering from the first book” feel, especially given the emphasis on therapy. I can understand if a lot of readers feel this book lags in the first half, but again, I don’t care; something about Johnson’s writing just calls to me, and the rip-roaring ending made up for any slowness. Plus it’s totally allowable to slow things down temporarily after the frenetic ending of the previous book. Our MC is in high school and just went through some truly traumatic events—it would be unrealistic to push ahead with the story any faster.

As the book moves toward the finish line, there’s a plot twist that I’ll admit I saw coming, but the execution and details of the surprise were still exciting and unexpected. As can be expected from Johnson’s other books, there isn’t so much a resolution at the end of this book as a pause and shift in the action, compelling us to reach for the next in the series. Cliffhangers are just something you have to deal with if you’re a Maureen Johnson fan.

I did also feel that the plot held together more cohesively than the first in the series. Leaving aside the aforementioned cliffhangers, the ends of both books struck me as a little bit off, like the reader is being expected to take a too much of a leap of faith, all at a breakneck pace. You can definitely leave both of these books with a dazed, what even just happened feeling. Yet the second book is an improvement on the first—not quite so manic, not quite so out-of-the-blue.

So overall The Madness Underneath was a crazy fun read (I mean, it’s not Truly Devious, but whatever…) and I’m looking forward to picking up the third book in the series.

#TSOOSI (Two Series Out, One Series In)

I’m sure we can all relate. You see that awesome review on Goodreads or a blog. Bookish intuitions aquiver, you know it’s a book you need to read right now. But then you see a #1 by the title, and with a sinking heart you realize that this is not a standalone, but the first of a series, which means commitment—commitment which, let’s get real, many of us don’t follow through on or push off for literally years.

Friends, I am here to say that my name is Katie, and I have a problem: I start series and never finish them, despite the very best intentions. Case in point, last year I read Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, which I adored and is the first in a series. I knew the second book was coming out in 2019, so to tide me over until release day, I picked up 13 Little Blue Envelopes, also by Maureen Johnson. Once I’d devoured that, did I finish the Blue Envelope series like a responsible human? Of course not—instead I decided it was much more important for me to start another series by Maureen Johnson. So if you’re keeping score, that’s three series I started by Maureen Johnson within a span of approximately six months, and I am only now trying to rectify this mess.

This has to stop. It stresses me out to look at my TBR shelf, knowing that there are sequels up there that I have been pushing off for years, the details of the first in the series fading fast from my memory. So I’ve decided to institute a personal rule, which I invite anyone else suffering from this problem to adopt. I’m calling it Two Series Out, One Series In, or in abbreviated form, #TSOOSI. Slightly inane-sounding, I know, but that’s what we’re going with. Essentially, I’m making sure to finish or get up to date on two series before I can start another series. Hopefully this will whittle away at the problem until my TBR is cured of unfinished-series-itis.

Here are the series I can think of off the top of my head that I need to finish or get up to date on; I am sure there are more than this, though. Revealing all these is… a little embarrassing, I’ll be honest.

Right now I’m in the middle of The Stone’s Heart, which is the sequel to The Queen’s Wing (and there is no prospective third book listed on Goodreads) and I’ve just gotten up-to-date on the Truly Devious series, so after I’m done with The Stone’s Heart I can introduce another series—I’m thinking The Call by Peadar O’Guilin. I know getting “up to date” doesn’t exactly solve the problem, but it’s definitely better than nothing, so that’s what I’m going with for right now.

What do you think about TSOOSI? Have you tried something similar to wrangle a stress-inducing TBR? I’d love to hear how you balance the excitement of starting new series with the need to finish series, so drop a comment down below!

Short Tuesday #5: “Death in the Moonlight” by Archibald Rutledge

This is the third work I’ve read from the short story anthology S.O.S.: Chilling Tales of Adventure on the High Seas. The text can be found here if you want to read it. Just so you know, I found a couple typos in the Field and Stream edition (pretty sure “goulash” is meant to read “ghoulish” lol) but it’s all comprehensible. FYI that there are spoilers down below…

This was another short story that I was just so-so about. I’m not sure exactly when this was first published, but it reads old. I noticed the author relying a ton on adjectives, as if with just one more word the readers will at last fully comprehend how scary this shark was. But I almost always find that heaping on the adjectives ends up taking away from the writing. Give us some run-ons or fragments instead, or maybe a cool simile. We all like a cool simile, right? But instead we just got a ton of vocab. Goulash, indeed.

Speaking of sharks, that’s all the plot was: we were fishing, and there was a shark. A different author could make that amazing, but given that the writing itself wasn’t wowing me, I had a hard time getting swept up in this scene piece. “Death in the Moonlight” sounds cool, but as far as making sharks scary (you know, sharks—those primitive blood-loving death machines with sharp teeth), this didn’t do it for me.

Chapter Five of The Gold in the Dark and a Writing Update!

The fifth chapter of The Gold in the Dark drops today! If you need to catch up with the last few chapters, you can do that right here. New chapters post every other Sunday at 11 AM EST, and each one is accompanied by a beautiful, custom illustration drawn by a mysterious illustrator. I promise you’ll get to meet her soon enough—exciting stuff is in the works!

The new book I’m working on is on hold again, shelved in favor of putting the final touches on Specter. I know, I know, it feels like I say that same thing every week, and it’s getting frustrating to me. Do all the little formatting details really make a difference? I definitely feel guilty about not drafting for so long, but I try to keep reminding myself that I am working on writing, just the more editing/business side of things. Fortunately, I happen to really enjoy the entrepreneurial side of self-publishing, so it’s not like this is a slog. Well, maybe it is a slog, but a strangely enjoyable one. :/ I’m actually putting together a blog post all about the formatting and typesetting choices I made for Specter—it’s already loooong and getting longer. Maybe no one wants a post like that except for me, but at least it will be a reminder of all the steps I took for Specter so that when I have to do all this again for the next book it won’t be quite so labor-intensive.

There will be some fun reviews coming up in these next few weeks, as well as the introduction of #TSOOSI. I’m having fun with Short Tuesday, too, so expect more of those. (Though here’s hoping the next short story is a little bit more satisfying than the Edgar Allan Poe one!)

Anyway, let’s keep it short and sweet for this week. Have a great rest of your weekend, and enjoy Chapter Five! ❤

A Good, Old-Fashioned Haul

You know that feeling-spendy itch, the kind where the only way to scratch it is by heading to Barnes and Noble or Amazon? It doesn’t hit me often, especially now that I receive ARCs, but maybe it’s the change of seasons or something—I just had to add some new books to my TBR shelf. And it’s not a lot, but listen, this girl has a limited amount of shelf space, so I have to be choosy about the physical books I bring into my house. (Spring cleaning un-haul coming soon!!)

Since this is the only book of the bunch that just came out, I wanted to buy this in hardcover at Barnes and Noble in the first week of release. That’s my general rule of thumb for new releases I care about—I do this 1) because I’m surprisingly often able to buy a signed in-store copy; 2) because I’ve found that many times these books are still stashed in the back, even though they’ve just been released, so I feel it helps the author out to go specifically to the store and remind the booksellers to get them on the shelves; and 3) because I have a vague sense that buying the hardcover helps the author more than buying the ebook in terms of sales numbers and the possibility of future opportunities. Would love to know if those suspicions are correct… :/

Anyway, I’m super excited to read this book, since I’ve heard good things about the author and it’s supposed to be similar to Stranger Things. I’m also really interested to see how the aliens are handled in this book, since aliens in YA aren’t a huge thing. Or are aliens the next vampires or something???

The other three books I bought were from Amazon. Under Rose-Tainted Skies only landed on my radar recently, since I was searching for a book featuring a character suffering from agoraphobia. I have a book in the works that may have an agoraphobic character, so I’m curious to see how other authors have written about agoraphobia, as well as to get some sense of how people deal with the condition. It’s just the first step of what will likely be a whole lotta research. Look at that gorgeous cover—I’m pretty psyched for this one to arrive in the mail.

This is the final book in the Downside trilogy by S.L. Grey, the South African horror duo who wrote The Apartment. The Downside books can be read as standalones; it’s really the horror worldbuilding that ties them together—and it’s the best worldbuilding, let me tell you. If you are a Silent Hill fan, especially if you’re a Silent Hill 3 fan, then do yourself a favor and read The Mall. There are no words to express how excited I am to read this book—it’s going to be fantastic.

The last book I picked up was Matt Haig’s The Humans. This is definitely one of those books that’s made the rounds in the book blogosphere, and also another book to do with aliens! As I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I have an idea marinating for a book about an alien, so I’m trying to read some alien-related fiction to get a sense of how other authors approach the topic. I’m also pretty interested to see how funny this book is; most people say it’s hilarious, but I have a track record of disliking supposedly funny books. (Bad Omens, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.)

And that’s my haul! Short and sweet, but I think keeping hauls smaller makes me more likely to read the books for some reason.

Have you picked up any exciting books lately? Are you also getting that spring shopping fever? Let me know, and thanks for reading!

Just a real quick reminder that Chapter Five of The Gold in the Dark will be posting this Sunday at 11 AM EST! All right, that’s all, folks. ❤

Short Tuesday #4: “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” by Edgar Allan Poe

For this week’s Short Tuesday, I switched away from the Kelly Link collection to a short story anthology called S.O.S.: Chilling Tales of Adventure on the High Seas. This is a pretty obscure anthology, with only one Goodreads rating and two Amazon reviews, so I’m excited to see it passes muster! Sometime soon I’ll tell you how I came to have this book in my collection… but not today.

The first story I read in the anthology was Stephen King’s “Survivor Type.” It’s a grisly tale about a surgeon with copious amounts of heroin marooned on a barren island, but I unfortunately can’t find a legal copy to link to, so I don’t want to dwell on it overlong—just know that I highly recommend it, but readers should have a strong stomach. 😉

The second story I read was Edgar Allan Poe’s “Manuscript Found in a Bottle.” It’s been forever since I read any Poe, so I was excited to jump in, but pretty much from the start I didn’t enjoy this story—heretical, I know, since Poe is an American literary legend. I found the story’s language too dense to be enjoyable (though now I know what simoom means!), and the plot was also… nonexistent? The story is more a description of an immense, fantastical ship than anything else. I can see a tie to modern weird fiction, though, which is unsurprising given that Poe spearheaded the movement.

One last interesting thing to note is that some critics believe Poe meant this story to satirize classic sea tales. Maybe that’s one reason it wasn’t working for me, since I don’t normally read sea tales, let alone older ones. I’m not writing off Edgar Allan Poe, of course—just simply don’t think “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” is the tale for me.

Love & Luck by Jenna Evans Welch

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya and all that! In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, a couple weeks ago I went on a quest for some Irish-themed reads. The Call almost made the cut, but I couldn’t stomach taking on another series at the moment, so that’s how I ended up with Love & Luck!

If you’re in the mood for a quick, cute St. Patrick’s Day read, look no further! Love & Luck is an adorable read that will transport you to the Emerald Isle. Readers follow Addie, who is in Ireland with her large, boisterous family for her aunt’s wedding. Fresh out of a relationship, Addie has a secret™ that is eating her up inside. She’ll need to spill the beans eventually, but is working on first coming to terms with how her relationship ended. Her moral support through all this? A guidebook called Ireland for the Heartbroken, which has Addie soon gallivanting across Ireland with her older brother and his Internet best friend.

This is one of the only road trip book I’ve truly enjoyed; most of the other ones that I’ve read didn’t feel entirely cohesive. But with the guidebook framework, everything comes together into a whimsical package, aided by the fast pace and authentic-feeling characters. The Maeve/female empowerment stuff did read a little bit cringey and forced to me, but this is a small aspect of the book only, so not much to worry about.

I’d say this is an excellent read for anyone who enjoyed Morgan Matson’s Save the Date. There are a lot of similarities (in the best way possible), from the older brothers-younger sister relationships to the romantic themes. (And the obvious wedding common thread.) Another pretty obvious comp is 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson, which has a larger European focus… But you guys have heard me harping on about Johnson lately, so I’ll leave it at that. 😉 And if you do read this book and love it, Love & Luck has a sister novel called Love & Gelato, featuring Addie’s best friend Lina in, you guessed it, Italy. So hopefully I’ll be picking that up sometime, since this was such a cute book.

Writer’s Corner: Close POV

If you’ve read some of my reviews lately, you may have noticed me harping on about “close POV.” (Or the unfortunate lack thereof.) I realize that this phrase might look like gobbledygook, so I thought today that I would explain what I mean when I say close POV, why I like it, and some quick ways to implement this in your own writing. Just a head’s up: once you start writing this way or noticing these techniques in the books you read, you will really notice when authors don’t write in this way, and it will annoy you.

So “close POV” stands for “close point of view.” I often say “close 3rd POV” or “close 1st POV.” “1st” and “3rd” stand for “first/third person point of view.” Explaining the differences between these terms is a little bit beyond this blog post, but here’s a good explanation if you need it.

“Close” is the key word, and it refers to the closeness of the reader to the main character. Ideally, the reader should feel like they are the main character themselves, rather than a camera following the main character around. Feelings, thoughts, actions, observations—all these things need to be written in a natural, engaging, “show, don’t tell” way that tethers the reader to the main character.

But wait, you might ask, what about first person POV? Isn’t that the absolute definition of being as close to the main character as possible?

Actually, no. There are many books out there written in first person that feel like the narrator is, well, narrating. If there is any sense that the narrator is talking to the reader, then this isn’t close enough to qualify. Consider the opening lines of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song.

Now this is a story all about how
My life got flipped, turned upside down
And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there,
I’ll tell you how I become the prince of a town called Bel-Air.

Apologies for getting that stuck in your head. You see how it feels like we all just settled down around a campfire, ready to hear Will Smith tell us an awesome story? Close POV does not do that. Instead, it’s visceral and raw, as if you’re a neuron in the main character’s mind.

Here are some simple tips to implement close POV in your writing.

“Verbs of the Head” Must Go!

Get rid of “verbs of the head.” Nothing annoys me more than seeing a sentence like this:

Marge wondered to herself who this “Slenderman” was that her niece was always going on about.

If Marge is the main character, we know she’s the one doing the wondering. So why is “wondered to herself” necessary?

The answer is that it’s not necessary, so just ask the damn question: Who was this “Slenderman” that her niece was always going on about?

Another (bad) example:

Barbie squinted at her reflection in the mirror, seeing something that gave her pause. Was that a wrinkle? she wondered. God, I’m getting old, she thought.

And the fix: Barbie squinted at her reflection in the mirror, something giving her pause. Was that a wrinkle? God, she was getting old.

See how much smoother that is? Plus now there’s no need for awkward italics to indicate character thoughts. (Also, notice how “seeing” is also a verb of the head you can sometimes get rid of?) So quick rule of thumb is to adjust your sentences to be more direct, eliminating any of the following example verbs if at all possible:

  • wondered
  • thought (this is the big one)
  • noticed
  • saw
  • knew
  • felt
  • pondered
  • observed

Show, Don’t Tell is Fucking Important!

Mary felt sad.

God, don’t you just feel that in your gut? Don’t you just understand exactly the level and depth of Mary’s sadness? How her eyes are watering or stinging? How she knows this is going to be a big cry—and where are the fucking tissues?! How she’s trying to dam up the tears by pushing her tongue to the roof of her mouth? How it feels like a cold stone weight has settled over her shoulders?

Oh, you didn’t get any of that from Mary felt sad? How strange.

So don’t tell the reader about the main character’s feelings. Show them how those feelings are making the character feel and act. Is your character nervous? Probably they’ll have heightened or dulled senses, perhaps a quickening pulse or breath. Is your character confused? Maybe they’ll blink a few times rapidly or rattle off a litany of questions in their head. If you have a hard time coming up with these sorts of details, I highly suggest brainstorming what you yourself feel and do under the influence of different emotions, then looking up body language guides if you’re stuck.

Narrative Descriptions in the Character’s Personality

Which of these sounds more like the internal thoughts of your typical horny teenage girl?

I looked in the mirror and smiled. The merlot-red dress caressed my every curve. Perfect.

I looked in the mirror and smiled. The dress clung to my hips just right. Fuck-me red—perfect.

So maybe your character will think like the first example, but more likely it’s the second one, right? The first one feels a little too old, what with “caressed” and the wine reference.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that detailed description alone doesn’t mean you’re achieving close POV. The character’s personality and identity should inform the narration, glimmering through whenever it can. It’s hard to do, but this is what will take your close POV from a B to the A+ range.

Present Tense

I sort of hesitate to put this in here, but I think it bears mentioning. Present tense POV is increasingly popular, especially in YA, and the reason is that it’s an easy way for the POV to feel closer, even if it’s not. For example, I walk to the store is just as blah and boring as I walked to the store. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using present tense, but first off, understand that you’re going to annoy some readers by writing this way. Secondly, present tense shouldn’t be the only technique you’re using to achieve closeness, lest your narration come across as plodding and boring.

I hope this guide proves useful to people who are trying to write close POV. Please don’t take all this to mean that I am some sort of all-knowing writing guru, because I am not, but I do truly believe that these techniques make stories more interesting and engrossing, and I do my best to use them in my own writing as much as possible.

Feel free to drop a comment down below if you use these techniques or others to bring your POV closer! Which authors do close POV really well? Any recommendations?

Short Tuesday #3: “The Specialist’s Hat” by Kelly Link

This week I read the third short story in Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen, “The Specialist’s Hat.” You can read the short story here… FYI that there are vague spoilers in this review.

Now that I’m three stories into the Kelly Link book, I’m starting to get a pretty good grasp of her style. I went into this anticipating I’d have little to no concrete answers at the end of this story, and I was right, but again I was left with that eerie, uncomfortable, awful things are happening in the background feeling that Link does so well.

One thing I did notice was the emphasis on the concrete, in particular the constant numbers throughout the text. The chandelier has “exactly 632 leaded crystals shaped like teardrops,” the house has eight chimneys, the twin main characters’ game has three rules. (A few things in the story even smell like Chanel No. 5.) And then there’s the difference between “gray” and “grey,” and “dead” and “Dead.” It feels like everything that is happening to the girls is so vague and creepy that they rely (subconsciously or otherwise) on numbers, definitions, and rules to define their slippery reality.

Overall, I can’t say I loved this story; I have the sense that it’s well-written, just not for me, or maybe not for me right now. It might have to do with the fact that I kept getting interrupted while reading, so I had to read the story in a very fractured way. In any case, I think I’m going to set down Stranger Things Happen for a week or two and try something else for next Tuesday.