Book Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Book Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina and the Black Cloak By Robert Beatty

Fantasy, MG

“Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.”

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity…before all of the children vanish one by one.

*~*~*

For some reason, the first twenty or so pages of this book were a little hard to get in to. But the book finds its stride about thirty pages in and it’s a quick page turner. This is a young middle grade novel, so some of the hints at Serafina’s true nature can feel somewhat heavy handed to adults, which might be why it didn’t grab my attention very well. But I think young readers will be just as intrigued at unraveling the mystery of Serafina as they will the terrifying specter Man in the Black Cloak.

Serafina is a feisty character and the Chief Rat Catcher of the Biltmore Estate, except no one knows she exists. Her pa is the chief handyman of the estate and they live in the basement in secret. Serafina has a complex inner life. She loves her pa but she wants more than anything to know who her mother was. I think what this book does best is illustrate that courage is not the absence of fear, but acknowledging it’s there and going forward anyway. Serafina is a smaller-than-average twelve year old girl facing down a supernatural foe and she is scared. She’s scared she’ll be caught, she’s scared her friend will be caught, she’s scared if the Man in the Black Cloak doesn’t catch her one of the Vanderbilt adults will catch her and put her pa in jail. But she goes on the hunt anyway, because leaving the Man in the Black Cloak to roam and harm others is worse than her other fears.

Towards the back end the book gets a little heavy handed again on morality and what makes one good and what makes one evil. I think that theme should have been introduced sooner since Serafina’s decision is an important turning point for her inner life and thoughts.

There’s also some folklore introduced near the ending, which again, I think should have been brought up sooner since it is a critical piece of information that ties the ending together. It’s not brought up by anyone until close to the 200 page mark. As much as Serafina reads, I think it could have been inserted much sooner when we were learning about some of her favorite books.

Young readers I think will enjoy the ending, the epic battle and how clever Serafina is, as well as the happy ending that leaves room for many more adventures. But as an adult reader I was put off by the winning-the-lottery levels of luck needed to make this ending so happy. I try to avoid spoilers in reviews, so I can’t say much else without giving things away, but the ending did leave me with one question: How? How did these characters just so happen to once again be in the same place at the same time?

Serafina and the Black Cloak is a good story for young readers if they want a Halloween vibe outside of October. For adult readers, I think it would make a good ‘car book’, that book you leave in the backseat to read when you have waiting time like at the doctor’s office or DMV.

 

You can find Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And Robert Beatty’s website: http://robert-beatty.com/

 

 

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Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper Cypher #2)

Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper Cypher #2)

Shadowhouse Fall (The Shadowshaper Cyper, Book #2)

by Daniel José Older

YA, urban fantasy

Sierra and her friends love their new lives and shadowshapers, making art and creating change with the spirits of Brooklyn. Then Sierra receives a strange card depicting a beast call the Hound of Light—an image from the enigmatic, influential Deck of Worlds. The shadowshapers know their next battle has arrived.

Thrust into an ancient struggle with enemies old and new, Sierra and Shadowhouse are determined to win. Revolution is brewing in the real world as well, as the shadowshapers lead the fight against systems that oppress their community. To protect her family and friends in every sphere, Sierra must take down the Hound and master the Deck of Worlds…or risk losing them all.

*~*~*

This is the second book of Older’s YA series, the first is Shadowshaper, so if you haven’t read that one, skip over to a bookstore and pick it up or you’re going to be confused in the next few paragraphs.

Daniel José Older is one of my favorite authors. I thoroughly enjoyed his Bone Street Rumba trilogy, but I love his YA. We’re still following Sierra in this book and she’s tiptoeing into her role and Lucera. The crew is still with her and they’re growing with her as they all figure out their new abilities. The book starts right off though with hinky hijinks unsettling the tentative equilibrium Sierra picked up at the end of Shadowshaper.

On top of one of her classmates telling her the Sorrows haven’t given up on annihilating her and Shadowhouse, personal tragedy also strikes, shady cops seem to pop up at the worst times, and there’s also boy trouble. It’s a lot for one young girl with the ancient powers of ancestors to handle, but she’s got a cadre of ride or die friends helping her out.

The writing throughout the book feels like the breathless, breakneck, tumble Sierra is in as she tries to find answers to what the Deck of Worlds is and what it means for her and those she loves. Sierra is just trying to keep her head above water with everything happening in the spirit world and in the physical world. It’s not until you get to the final twenty or so pages that you feel like you can breathe. Finally, things start falling in to place, characters reveal their true motives and Sierra can go on the offensive.

All of Older’s books are rapid page turners and Shadowhouse Fall is no exception. Answers are always juuuuust out of reach and you’ll find the whole night gone as you tell yourself, “One more chapter, then I’ll go to bed.” But by then you should be at the end and you’ll have all the answers and you won’t be tossing and turning thinking about How’s the Scooby gang gonna get out of this one?

Let’s take a moment to talk about dialogue. If you’re a writer, take notes of Older’s dialogue. These characters come alive on the page because it’s not just the world of NYC that is fully realized it’s in how characters talk to each other, it’s in their nonverbal interactions, it’s in their silences. Take a page, any page from Shadowhouse Fall or any of Older’s book and read the dialogue out loud. Even when talking about spirits and otherworldly creatures it still sounds like a conversation you’d hear in the gas station or at a bus stop. I can’t get enough of Older’s dialogue. That’s the realness at the heart of Older’s work.

The stakes in Shadowhouse Fall in the spirit world are up a notch, because while her family and friends were in danger in Shadowshaper just for associating with her, now they’re targets themselves. In the physical world, Older keeps things true to a group of young POC running the streets of NYC. Illegal arrests and abuse from police and white teachers in primarily black classrooms tiptoeing through lessons on slavery and Civil Rights. And if that makes you uncomfortable then it’s time to have a good long conversation with yourself about why that is.

Anyway, I’m not here to get on a soapbox. Yet.

I really enjoyed this book as I did Shadowshaper. Sierra is a well rounded and conflicted character. It does seem to me though that she keeps making the same mistakes that she made in Shadowshaper of keeping secrets from people closest to her. The threat of a spy in this book makes it understandable, but there are a few chapters I wanted to knock my head against the wall. The goal though is to get Sierra to the point that she realizes she doesn’t have to shoulder this burden alone, that she has people who have her back and will step up next to her no matter what.

Still.

But if an MC doesn’t make you want to bang your head against a wall a couple times, are they really a good MC? People make the same mistakes all the time in real life and they, too, will make you want to jump out a window.

Shadowhouse Fall is an excellent follow up to Shadowshaper. You can read the first book and immediately pick up this one and feel like you’ve just turned to the next chapter. While I highly recommend all of Daniel José Older’s work, Shadowshaper Cypher series is at the top of the list.

 

As always, you can find Shadowshaper, and Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Read more about the author on his website: http://ghoststar.net/

 

 

Book Review: Oddity by Sarah Cannon

Book Review: Oddity by Sarah Cannon

Oddity by Sarah Cannon

MG, Fantasy

Ada Roundtree is no stranger to dodging carnivorous dumpsters, distracting zombie rabbits with marshmallows, or instigating games of alien punkball. But things haven’t been the same since her twin sister, Pearl, won the town’s yearly sweepstakes and disappeared.

Along with her best friend, Raymond, and new-kid-from-Chicago Cayden (whose inability to accept being locked in the gym with live leopards is honestly quite laughable), Ada leads a self-given quest to discover Oddity’s secrets while evading the invisible Blurmonster terrorizing the outskirts of town.

But when one of their missions goes sideways, revealing something hinky with the Sweepstakes, Ada can’t let it go. Because if the Sweepstakes is bad, then what happened to Pearl?

*~*~*

Full disclosure: Until I picked up Oddity I had not listened to Welcome to Nightvale, but now I am hooked. If you are already a listener, stop reading this review and get to the store to get this book because it’s what you need in your life.

For those that haven’t listened to that podcast, strap in because things are about to get weird.

Oddity jumps right in with the weird too, just to let you know you’re not in Oz or even Narnia anymore with students locked in the gym for ‘safety drills’ dodging and tranquilizing angry leopards. Ada comes out swinging as a delightful mix of sarcastic and confident, with a dollop of Mama-Friendness as she does her best to keep New-Kid Cayden alive.

Cayden is a nice touchstone for those of us who don’t live dodging carnivorous dumpsters and aliens. While Ada is the main character, Cayden gets more page time than Raymond because while he may flail and scream, deep down inside he’s just like the rest of us and knows an epic adventure is at hand.

Raymond is rock solid to match Ada’s fiery impulsiveness. Raymond is an excellent foil not only in personality but in the steadiness of his home life as well. He does seem to play a bigger role at the beginning when reigning Ada in is more important. He remains a constant character throughout the book but once the mystery is hatched there’s more a focus on Ada and Cayden.

Ada’s world is topsy-turvy—more than usual—since her twin sister, Pearl, won the Sweepstakes. Her father is working long hours as an animal control officer (and that is one hell of a job) and her mother is mostly comatose. For better or worse, Ada’s Aunt Bets is there to try and wrangle her. And, despite their warring ways, Aunt Bets is like Raymond. She’s solid and there for Ada, looking out for her, putting the fear of the gods in her. All the things solid parental figures do for us.

The first few chapters are a ride as you find your new ‘normal’ in this bizarre little town. Things like the sentient puppets that run the city, the Puppet Committee, the invisible Blurmonster who routinely tears up the outer edge of town, UFOs sticking out of diners, zombie rabbits that are cute in inexplicable ways, ghosts that haunt closets, and even a pirate.

And then things get weird even for Ada.

Which kicks off the race to find Pearl and to find out what dark secrets the strange and dangerous town of Oddity are hiding. But most important: Finding Pearl.

If you strip away all the fantastical elements, Oddity is a story about family. Ada’s family is holding on by threads after Pearl is taken away. Ada’s recklessness initially is about running away from the Pearl shaped hole in her family and her life, but soon she circles back and begins running toward that gaping hole and looking for a way to fix it. And if she has to burn the whole town down to fix that hole and get Pearl back, she will.

As someone with a younger sister, this was a refreshing book to read. So often in media siblings are pit against each other at first and their arcs are about finding a close relationship I think most of us already have with our siblings. Sure, my sister annoys me sometimes, but she’s still my sister and I’d do anything to protect her. Being twins, Ada and Pearl have a little bit different bond, but they’re still best friends at the start of the book.

If you’re a fan of Welcome to Nightvale or you love the old Twilight Zone shows, Oddity by Sara Cannon is a book for you, your kids, the ghost in your closet, and the aliens in your side yard.

You can find Oddity on:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And at Sarah Cannon’s website: www.sarahcannonbooks.com

 

 

Unlearning

Unlearning

Hey everyone, been awhile.

And while I wish I was here to tell you about more adventures, instead I’m going to dig into this Gabby Douglas thing. If you don’t know, Gabby Douglas was a US gymnast in the 2012 Olympics and she kicked all kinds of ass.

Just two days ago, one of Gabby’s former teammates, Aly Riseman, posted her own #MeToo story. Gabby found her way into the story by tweeting in response to Aly’s story that women can avoid sexual assault by dressing modestly.

That’s bullshit.

I know that. You know that.

But none of us were born knowing that. We had to learn it. Or unlearn it. All our lives, doesn’t matter if you’re boy, girl, both, or neither, what is the one thing that we have always been taught about sexual assault? Victim blaming. What was she wearing? What was she drinking? Why did she walk home that way? This has been the narrative All Our Lives.

Hopefully, 2017 will do this one thing for us and radically change that narrative and young kids growing up now will not learn to victim blame.

But as I said, none of us are born knowing what gaslighting is or microaggressions or victim blaming. We had to learn from others by listening, by actively looking for help to understand. No one is faultless. As a friend said, “If you can look back five, ten years on your life and cringe at the things you thought and said, then you’ve grown.”

I can think of quite a few cringe-worthy moments. I have one that I’ve been thinking about since Gabby Douglas’ tweet blew up. Six years ago, maybe even seven, I was in the car with my friend. She confided in me that she’d sent nudes to her then long distance not-quite-boyfriend and they’d had a falling out. He threatened to post her nudes all over the internet in an act of revenge porn.

And I know exactly what I would say now about getting a shovel and some lye and hunting him down.

But then? I asked her why she sent the pictures to begin with. Victim blaming. This-bad-thing-happened-because-you-didn’t-fit-in-the-box-of-modesty-I’ve-been-told-is-the-only-way-to-stay-safe.

I wasn’t supportive. I wasn’t a good friend. I was just another mouthpiece of patriarchy telling her that she was the one who had done the bad thing, not him.

That moment is when we started to drift further apart. There were other things going on and that would happen later down the line, but that moment in the car is when the divide started to open wider. We’d been friends and confidants since elementary school. But in that moment I wasn’t a good friend and it doesn’t matter how many playground secrets you keep if you can’t be the friend you need to be when it matters.

We’re starting to talk more again, but I doubt we’re ever the friends we were back then. Because I messed up and I didn’t even realize I was doing it until years later. I had to learn.

The only saving grace any of us have is that we did a lot of learning before social media became the beast it is. Gabby Douglas is young and she messed up. Unfortunately, she messed up on a massive platform. This tweet is going to stick to her for the rest of her life. Doesn’t matter what she does or where she goes, there will always be someone who equates her with what she wrote when she was 21 years old. I can’t and don’t want to imagine what horrible things people have been tweeting at her for the last 48 hours because the world is not kind to black women, period. But if/when they mess up?

I hope there are people in her life who are patient and kind and who are willing to teach her. I hope she’s willing to learn. I hope she looks back in five years and cringes.

Book Review: The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky

Book Review: The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky

The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky by Summer Heacock

Kat Carmichael’s priorities for the last two years have been primarily opening and keeping up with her successful bakery Cup My Cakes. Business is good and she’s working with her best friends and there’s a deal coming that could just push Cup My Cakes into the big leagues.

Also, she hasn’t had sex in two years.

Who has the time, right?

But it’s not a quick fix. The last time Kat and her boyfriend attempted sex, they found it to be physically painful. And not the fun kind of pain. With her four year anniversary coming up, Kat sets a deadline. Putting her relationship on hold, she encourages her boyfriend to see other people while she dives into the physical therapy needed to get her lady bits back in action.

With the help of Ben Cleary—one of the shop’s handsome regulars—and now a Friend With Benefits, Kat is all set to reach her goal. But as clear cut FWB relationship starts to get blurry, Kat must figure out what it is she actually wants.

 

*~*~*

I can say with sincerity, I have never laughed this hard while reading a book. Sure, I occasionally chuckle or snort when I read, but The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky had me flat out laughing every four pages.

Kat is a woman with friends and a bustling business that just happens to be having some physical issues with sex. This book isn’t just about romantic relationships, it’s also about relationships between women, and the often neglected platonic relationships between men and women.

To balance out the relationship drama is small business drama. Cup My Cakes has only been open for two years but they’re doing steady business and they’ve thrown their hat in the ring for a big business contract. That’s a lot of stress and it resonates in the relationship dynamic Kat has between all the other characters. There are no static feelings in this book. Even the secondary characters are filled out and nuanced.

Kat is very independent and not one to really ask for help, so I relate. She could be on fire and still wouldn’t ask for a glass of water. She is complex and real character. Her bravado and dry humor are her battle armor, hiding insecurities and fears any person can connect with. She’s worried about letting her friends down, worried about her future, worried about disappointing her boyfriend. And the book opens up right smack in the middle of this crossroads that churns up her insecurities and chips away at her armor. The armor is resilient though, I cried a little toward the end, but three pages later I was laughing through the tears.

From an ace point of view, I didn’t really connect with Kat’s urgent need to have sex to validate her relationships. I spent good portions of the book reading like it was wildlife guide to a new species. This is seriously the closest I will ever be to being inside a non-ace person’s head. It’s kind of thrilling. And weird.

The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky broke a dry reading spell for me. I was burned out on reading about ridiculous love triangles in every YA book I picked up. I couldn’t get into the characters in another series because some of the romance scenes felt so staged I just wanted to throw the book out the window. It’s a downside to not sharing the same sexual wants/needs as the majority of the population. Romance gets tedious.

This book though didn’t feel tedious. I flew through these 356 pages in an afternoon. I was excited to see what Kat was going to do, how she was going to deal with situations, and how this was going to resolve. And a great deal of that comes from the wonderfully unique voice Summer Heacock has. It is an unforgettable style of writing and storytelling. Once you read The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky you’ll be able to spot Summer’s writing from a mile away. She has a distinct voice with a penchant for glittering swearing and it is all things great and good.

And if you want to test out some of the delicious cupcakes they mention in the stories, surprise! There are recipes for five specialty cuppies in the back! I cannot recommend the chocolate-peanut butter enough. So. Good.

All in all, The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky had wonderful characters, lots of nail biting drama, laughter for days, and an ending as relaxing and satisfying as that last deep breath before you drift into sleep.

Even if ‘chick lit’ isn’t what you normally read—I don’t—I still encourage you to make an exception for The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky by Summer Heacock. I promise, it’s one you’ll pick up again and again.

 

The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky by Summer Heacock is out now!

Harlequin

Barnes & Noble

Amazon

Adventures Abroad: Devil’s Choir

Adventures Abroad: Devil’s Choir

transformers_g1_prowl_by_tsaisin

You’ve been running for so long still breathing

Hoping soon to find a song worth singing

Every chapter of this note they’re reading

But you’re slowly losing hope on bleeding

I’ll carry you

My darkest desire

When life sings to you through devil’s choirs

Fear won’t steal what burns in you

I’ll carry you a

Away from the fire

My desire, devil’s choirs

My desire, devil’s choirs

Raise another broken glass to failure

A simple promise of a crimson savior

Take a look into the life you’re leaving

I promise you this isn’t pain you’re feeling

I’ll carry you

My darkest desire

When life sings to you through devil’s choirs

Fear won’t steal what burns in you

I’ll carry you

Away from the fire

My desire, devil’s choirs

My desire, devil’s choirs

My desire, devil’s choirs

Black Veil Brides, Devil’s Choir

Well holy hells boys and girls. Today is my last day in Yan’An. Tomorrow I’m setting off for Xi’an to get a quick look at the Terracotta Warrior Army and then I’m heading back to Japan for about a month.

It’s snowing right now, actually, it’s been snowing since early this morning. I spent the morning packing my big bag, cursing myself for bringing dress clothes. Seriously, I wore them in Cambodia and I wore them a few times last semester but the school was fine with jeans and their t-shirt. If I wasn’t looking to start a job in the States that requires some formality in the clothes there’s a very good chance some of those things would’ve been ‘donated’ to the next teacher.

China wasn’t what I thought it would be, which is neither good nor bad, it’s just different. I’ve visited a few neat local places like Ho Kau Pu Bu, the waterfall, and WanHua the peony mountain. I’ve had a ton of fun trying different foods I’d never have considered in the States; chicken feet, stinky tofu, mystery meat on a stick. I’ve picked up some Chinese, though my listening comprehension is much higher than my speaking, I want to keep up with it. I’ve always wanted to be a polyglot and I’ve got the basics of Chinese already. So I’ll either find a class or pick up a Rosetta Stone program when I get back to the States.

But I got everything crammed in my bag and my backpack is filled to bursting with souvenirs for family and friends. It’s so strange to think tomorrow is the last time I’ll be on a train leaving Yan’An. This year has gone by so fast. There were a few days there in July where I thought this year would never end, but here we are.

This time last year I had just arrived in Xi’an. I was nervous about teaching, a little overwhelmed with culture shock, jetlagged, and missing my friends from Cambodia. Now? The sun is starting to peek out and I think I’m going to go down to one of my favorite street vendors and pick up some noodles one last time. I’m excited to see the Warriors and get a better look at the Big Goose Pagoda and I can hardly wait to get back to Japan.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this year, which is a scary/exhilarating feeling when you’re jumping straight into a new place and new job. But that’s life. And teaching here has given me the experience and credentials to keep teaching—preferably older teens and adults—all around the world. I still want to teach for a year or two in Japan. I know that whenever I get back to the States I have plans to start teaching Microsoft programs and who knows, maybe I’ll find a company that will happily send me thither and yon for a week or two at a time.

I was listening to music while I tetrised my clothes into my big bag and a song, Devil’s Choir, by Black Veil Brides popped up. I could remember so many days listening to that song at full volume driving to my fast food and restaurant jobs and hating everything about my life. I had a POS car that was turning into a money pit, I wasn’t making enough money to get a place of my own, I had—still have—student loans due for a degree that was turning out to be more useless than the paper it’s printed on. My depression manifested as insomnia, wild mood swings, and periods of rage so intense I have gaps in my memory. I hated everything.

I started looking at jobs out of state, I started looking at jobs in state parks, government jobs. Anything my ridiculously narrow skill set and degree could get me. And then I had that conversation at the pumpkin patch that kick started the search for TEFL certifications. I found the one thing my degree in creative writing might actually be good for. It took about two years, but a year ago today I was boarding a plane to come to China after spending an incredible month in Cambodia.

It wasn’t easy to get to that point, and it hasn’t been easy being here pretty much on my own with a language barrier the size of the Great Wall. But I made it to that plane a year ago and I made it here for a year and even managed to make a few friends along the way. In two days I’ll be on another plane to Japan, a country I never thought I’d see in person and I’m going to be there a month.

So if you’re stuck and you’re angry, I understand. I won’t say it gets better because it doesn’t. You have to make it better. You have to be brave enough to get yourself unstuck. That’s the hardest part, being brave. Sometimes you have to be willing to jump into the fog even if you can’t see where you’re landing.

Adventures Abroad: Privilege of Travel

Adventures Abroad: Privilege of Travel

I scrolled past an article on FB about the privilege of traveling a few weeks ago. Although I use “article” in the loosest sense of the word; it was about five hundred words of the author saying we should remember that traveling abroad is a privilege. And while I found that to be an eye rolling duh what caught my attention were the comments. Most of them were unflattering opinions of people who travel abroad. A common thread was that people who travel must have lots of extra money to afford to do such things. That traveling abroad is an elitist pastime available only to the 1%. The article itself touched on that idea; the author comes from a poor background and it took a lot of hard work on her behalf to travel.

There are a lot of blogs discussing the privilege of traveling, like these here, here also here  annnnd this one. That’s just a quick sampling. Google anything about travel and privilege and you’ll find more. There are even links within those blogs to other blogs speaking about the same thing. It’s like blog-ception.

I mean, you read enough of those you’ll feel like an elitist bastard if you mention you’ve been to the state next door. But what’s more irritating than the feather-light brow beating these people feel is necessary is that none of them have proposed solutions.

The article I mentioned at the top was shared over five thousand times when I scrolled past it. And the only thing in that writing is a gentle wrist slap to people who actively encourage others to travel because not everyone has the means to travel and that makes us look snobbish. But there was nothing about how we can reduce that privilege gap and work to help everyone travel.

There’s not much we can do about visa restrictions, unless you’re a powerful figure in your respective country. First world travelers, such as myself, have a massive advantage. Canadians can pop in and out of 174 countries without the hassle of a visa. My fellow Americans, we can skip through 160. Have a UK passport? 175. Have a freaking German passport: 177.

If you’re from Ghana? 63.

Iraq: 30.

And Pakistan and Afghanistan have even less. If you’ve been following my blog you know about my trip to Chicago to get my Chinese Visa and that, while irritating, was easy. I’m only a three hour drive from Chicago. But if I’d had to go to Washington D.C.? That would have required money for airfare and a hotel stay. I would’ve had to take time off work instead of going on a day off. Visas are a goddamn pain and each one you get costs money. If I’d had to go to D.C. the total cost of getting my visa would have been around $500. As it was—if we don’t count the car getting towed because fuck Chicago—the total was $200.

Again, there’s not much individuals can do about visas, but there are some things you can do. Head over to GoFundMe once a month or so. There are people around the world trying to raise money to travel. Sometimes they have noble causes, sometimes they just want to see the world. But if you can spare five dollars, that’s five dollars that can help someone get a visa or get a plane ticket. Trying to untangle the rat’s nest of politics involved with visas is a bit much for any one person, but as one person you can help another.

I don’t have solutions for every circumstance in every country, but—as I’ve mentioned—I’m from the US and those are the issues I’m tackling first. No one can save the world all at once; you have to start with the problems you see. And, as the world has been privy to us airing our dirty laundry, the US has quite a few issues right now.

The first time I went abroad it was during my time at university. I spent a semester in London and from there visited France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Vatican City. My group was not full of Richie Rich kids either. Most of us lived off pasta and toast so we could afford to travel to additional countries. I missed a trip to Ireland because I had only three hundred dollars left in my account in a time when the dollar was significantly weaker than the Euro. We took the jump across the pond because a semester abroad was roughly the same as a domestic semester. I took out loans to make the trip and I’m still glad I did it even though I’m still staring those student loans in the face.

But not everyone is eligible for loans or the loans they take out don’t cover things like semesters abroad. But what if education was affordable? We can do that. We can make education affordable to everyone. We can fix the system that uses students as another source of income instead of working to help them. Going abroad will still be more expensive than a domestic semester, but we can fix that too. There are programs at universities that will help fund students’ travels abroad, but they’re not advertised. I didn’t know until six weeks before my graduation that my university had a program for writers. Had I written a short paper on whatever country I wanted to visit and how it would influence my work and how I planned to incorporate all I learned I could have had a chance to go anywhere in the world and the school would have paid for the flight and helped with living costs. At the time, one young woman was living in a small medieval village in Romania writing a modern thriller.

I spent about fifteen months saving up the money for the plane ticket to Asia and the program fee as well as money to live off of while I was getting my TEFL. And it was still a tight month before I got my first pay here in China. The reason I went with Language Corps was their China program got me lined up with my job before I even left the States. Had I not had a job before getting on the plane I probably wouldn’t be here. I didn’t have enough money to live for an extra three months and job hunt.

While in the States, I worked two jobs for a while before landing one that paid better than both and then I worked there every week as long as I could until the chef realized I was in OT and kicked me out. I remember very little about the year leading up to coming to China. I remember snippets of work and a few other things that FB reminds me of with their “memories” thing, but I worked pretty well from sun up to sun down. And there are people who are still doing that and working seventy hours or more a week just to afford an apartment and food.

Why don’t we have a living wage? I don’t care if you think people in the service industry don’t “deserve” fifteen dollars an hour. To afford an apartment, utilities, a car, food, and clothes; people will need that damn fifteen dollars an hour. Gods help them if they have kids. I figured at twelve dollars an hour I might be able to afford my own apartment as long as I carefully rationed my utilities and didn’t exceed more than seventy dollars a month in gas money and only spent fifty dollars a month on food. I still have my student loans to pay, and then I’d only be making the absolute minimum payment. So yeah, if you want to give yourself salt poisoning by eating ramen four days a week and toast the other three you can survive on about twelve dollars an hour.

And that’s bullshit.

Minimum wage is not a goddamn punishment. It is not “spending” money. This is a wage paid so that one person or a family can live. They should make enough money they can afford to eat real food and make sure their kids have clothes and if something breaks on their car be able to fix it. They should be making enough to put some money in savings. They should be making enough money when the holidays roll around they can buy their parents/friends/siblings/children a few gifts and not feel the axe of credit card debt hanging over them. They should be making enough money if they want to go out and have dinner and catch a movie they damn well can. Because that is what we do when we have enough money to live. Anyone, anyone, who thinks minimum wage shouldn’t be raised to a living wage is a picture of elitism. Why not? What makes these people who make your sandwiches and help you find your produce and stock your shelves and help you return clothes unworthy of being able to live a fulfilling life without worrying day and night about how they’re going to pay for their water or put food on the table? And that bullshit argument that people should just go to school and get a better job. You mean that school that puts its graduates in tens of thousands of dollars of debt? That school? If people can barely afford to pay rent, what makes you think they’ll suddenly be making enough to pay three hundred dollars in loans every month?

The writer of the article also mentioned she has chronic health problems which limits how much traveling she can do. So let’s talk about healthcare. Many of my friends as well as my sister have chronic health problems. They shouldn’t have to make sure they land an upper tier job to have health insurance. Everyone should have health insurance and it should be affordable. People shouldn’t have to choose between purchasing the medication that keeps them alive or buying food. There is abso-fucking-lutely no goddamn reason for it. Full stop.

Now let’s talk about the other types of privilege that can make traveling easier for some. In just shy of ten days I’m going to visit Singapore. In this particular country it is still illegal for persons of the same sex to kiss in public. It is a crime for which you can be fined or imprisoned. There are countries across the globe that will execute LGBT people. Trans-people can have an absolute hell of a time getting official documents that reflect their gender. As I said, homosexuality is still punishable by death in places.

And that needs to change. Right now. We can support groups who are actively fighting to change legislation in their countries. We can support the people who put their lives on the line by marching in Pride parades. We can acknowledge that these injustices exist instead of shrugging them off because they happen in distant places.

It’s still dangerous for women to travel alone in some countries because of oppressive patriarchal ideas of the role women play in life. We can fight that too. There are women around the world working to change society. Stand with them. Support them either with words of encouragement or financially. Get their message out there. Tell others, share it of social media. Let others know that there are women fighting to make their homes safe for themselves and their daughters.

So I have to say Ms. Ferguson—and all the others—I read your articles and I see what you’re saying. Traveling is a privilege that not everyone has access to. What I don’t understand is why you presented this as the way things will always be. We can change this. We can close the gap of privilege by making education and healthcare affordable, by paying people enough to live, not just enough scrape by and survive. We can make this world safer to travel for everyone, not just white men. Traveling will only be a privilege as long as we allow it to be.

Adventures Abroad: Christmas

Adventures Abroad: Christmas

(Picture by Liam Shalloo)

‘Tis already December 26 for me and it’s the same sort of Monday I’ve had for the last ten months or so. There is some Christmas in China, but it’s more akin to say Catholics trying their hand at Chanukah. They know there are some candles involved and it lasts for a few days and something about a top, but they have no idea why they’re doing these things or what they mean. Same thing for China and Christmas. There is a giant inflatable Santa outside one of the stores and a few Christmas trees scattered about and—for whatever reason—many, many, people walking down the street dressed like Santa Claus. But there’s no spark to it.

When you walk down the street in the States during December there’s a low key buzz in the air. People are excited, they’re stressed, they’re happy, they’re a roller coaster of emotions all focused on this one day. My family doesn’t do the religious aspect of Christmas; it’s a time for family for us. We have a big get together with my aunts, uncles, and cousins over at my grandparents’ house the Sunday before Christmas and have dinner and exchange a few gifts and catch up on everything that’s happened. Christmas Eve my mom makes a ham and we do a big dinner and watch A Christmas Story until we can recite the movie verbatim. Then Christmas day Grandma and Grandpa come over and we do a special breakfast and exchange gifts.

There’s none of that in China. Christmas Eve and Christmas day are shopping days like Black Friday. The only part of Christmas that has trickled into Chinese culture is the commercialized and materialistic part of it. We had to do a Christmas party for the kids which was a waking nightmare for me, I’m pretty sure I still have a headache, but the school wanted either myself or Roommate to dress up as Santa Claus.

Uh. No.

They spent half an hour trying to negotiate with us on dressing up instead of shrugging and moving on or, you know, telling the guy who stays and the school and doesn’t do anything else to dress up, because for them Christmas is all about Santa Claus. In their imaginings of Christmas, not having a Santa Claus is like not having a Christmas tree. Sure for little kids Santa is a pretty big part of Christmas, but with all the holiday movies we have the idea that this is also a time for family gets through a bit.

So it was yesterday while I was at school, as usual, while 7000 miles away my mom and sister went through our Christmas Eve routine that I had my first true moment of homesickness. My sister commented on my FB page that she had said or done something weird that reminded our mom of me and that now Mom was missing me more. I was sitting in the office five minutes from starting my next class where I spend just as much time trying to keep the kids from fighting and screaming as I do teaching them basic English words, I had just finished giving one of my older kids a dressing down for spreading pro-Nazi propaganda during class, and the lobby was full of kids screeching and running back and forth. And I really, really did not want to be there anymore. My sleep pattern has been nonexistent and I’m starting another round with this head cold that I seem to remember having in February that is just a perpetual cycle of congestion, sinus headaches, and a sore throat most likely caused by all the coal dust in the air. I miss the cats and dogs, my dad has a new puppy I haven’t snuggled, and—seriously—thirteen months without any sort of animal nearby is a goddamn crime. I was done with all of this and ready to be home.

If that is true homesickness then I’d like to have a word with some of the authors who have written their characters being homesick because they dropped the goddamn ball. I can understand why people would up and leave short notice, because if I felt like I did during those few minutes in the office all the time I would have left in July. Actually, I would say Laini Taylor in her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy captures the feeling pretty well. Those books gave me so many feels, you guys. So. Many. Next trip I make out of China I’ll be adding them to my kindle so I can put all my feelings through a shredder again.

Great books, cannot recommend enough.

But, I didn’t get on a plane and head home. I went to my class, stopped the kids from fighting, might’ve taught them a word or two and carried on with my day. I have twenty-five days until we break for Spring Festival and after I get back from that planned excursion I have only eight straight days of teaching to get through and then I will be on my way to snuggling kitties and puppies.

And getting some goddamn peanut butter.

Adventures Abroad: Roommate

Adventures Abroad: Roommate

(picture: Mechs of Law by Popetti on Deviant Art)

 

Ahh yes, took about ten months but I have acquired a roommate and thus the school has acquired a secondary foreign teacher. So I only have fifteen classes this semester instead of twenty-two. Roommate has been here for…two weeks now. First week was a bit rough since I was dealing with both a chest/head cold and my own agonizing brand of cramps. I can honestly say I don’t recall much from that first week.

But, I lucked the fuck out in the random roommate lottery. Roommate is a Brit with a masters in writing, which is cool. He’s also a science fiction and fantasy writer who dislikes the “classics” as much as I do. I don’t care what you say; Great Expectations is a fucking bore.

And neither of us likes The Beatles. Deal with it.

He also has a minor in politics and we’ve had several long talks about current US politics as well as UK politics. Last week we spent about five hours discussing superheroes and feminism. And I’ve also convinced him to watch Transformers Prime which is a huge boon for me. It’s become our nightly thing where we do our own thing during the day but about sunset make or get dinner and watch an episode or two.

Seriously you guys, I cashed in every scrap of good karma I had for this roommate.

I’m still a bit feral, I mean, ten months with no one’s company but my own, we’re lucky I didn’t try to bite him when they introduced us. But I’m slowly remembering how to function with another person in my space. Good news is both of us are fairly introverted so we don’t see much of each other during the day when we’re off. Sounds weird and kinda rude, but it works. Then we emerge and say hello and grab dinner and see if we can get the internet to work well enough to stream movies or shows.

I’m doing what I can to give Roommate a fighting chance for the next year he’s here. He’s already agitated and annoyed with the total lack of organization with the school. Not much I can do about that except tell him it’s not going to improve. He’s taught before, but that was at university level. He was quite irritated with some of the kids this last weekend which was his first real class. I’ve shared some of the discipline tricks I figured out the last two semesters so hopefully he can use those this week. We shall see.

There’s also all the little things I don’t think about anymore. Such as, in Asia, if you want to be polite you use two hands when accepting or giving people things. I learned that way back in January in Cambodia and I’ve been doing it ever since. I don’t think about it now and wouldn’t have thought to tell him that until I saw him hand money to someone.

That’s the hardest part of trying to pass on survival tips. Some of these things are so ingrained I don’t think about them anymore. Things like the using two hands or even how to cross the road. Again, I learned how to do that in Cambodia where there were no rules just suggestions on traffic flow. Roommate has come direct from the UK. He tries to stay on sidewalks and uses zebra crossings and I hardly give traffic a glance before stepping off the curb. It’s a hard habit to break, but you cannot stop once you start across the street or you’re going to get hit or cause an accident. The drivers see you and are already making course corrections to go around you. If you stop you throw off the whole system.

Roommate doesn’t have any Chinese which has thrown me for a loop because while I arrived equipped with only numbers and a few polite phrases I still came with something. So I’m trying to teach him helpful phrases and numbers while he also has Chinese lessons with one of the Chinese teachers.

I have no idea if another teacher is arriving after I leave or if Roommate will be on his own for a semester like I was so I’m just throwing all the knowledge I can at him. The one thing I’m trying the hardest to impart though is the knowledge that the school is going to tell you about important things days or sometimes hours before they need to be done. The ability to roll your eyes and deal with it and then bitch about it with friends and family later is the only way to stay sane. And that, I’m certain, is going to be the hardest thing to teach.

December Writing Updates

December Writing Updates

Well Hells boys and girls, it’s December! I missed my writing update last month as I was wrapped up in NaNo so let’s get back into the swing of things!

I had many a lofty goals in November to work on original fiction and that went straight out the window. So original fiction is in pretty much the same shape it was in…August? Whenever the last update happened. *sigh*

I actually talked to my side thug, Maye, about why I’ve been doing so much fanfic writing and less original stuff. She’s been doing more poetry than long form. And we’ve both come to the conclusion that writing stories we want to submit to agents exerts a ton of artistic pressure. Every line you’re thinking, is this a cliché? Does this make sense? Is there too much exposition?

And certainly, I want the fanfics I post to be good, but we’re all here for fun. No one’s paycheck is in jeopardy if I only get six reviews on a story. The only person I’m in competition with is myself, not the hundreds and hundreds—thousands even—of other writers in a slush pile.

I’m trying to find a way to shift this fanfic mindset back to my original writing, but it’s hard. Although, with the way my fanfic has been evolving I told Maye by this time next year I might be able to change some of the details and submit it as original, lol.

Hey man, if Fifty Shades of Grey can do it, I sure as hell can.

oOo

Anyway, fanfic updates!

I have scrapped my previous posting timeline.

Let me explain before you grab torches and pitchforks.

I had a reader suggest a story over on Archive of Our Own called Iacon Prophecy by ntldr. It’s set in the Barbarian AU. It’s not a humanformer fic, which is why I’d skipped over it previously. It’s a great story and just wrapped up not long ago. I absolutely loved the idea of a more primitive take on Transformers and I started writing a story with that in mind.

And so, I now have about 100K words written for a Ratchet-centric piece set in what I’m calling the Primitive AU because I’ve left out all modern devices. Of course when I started this it was just going to be a one story deal and going to be kind of short. And then I kept writing…and writing…and thinking and writing. And now this first story is probably going to another 100K before it’s done and I have already outlined the second and third stories in the series. Series is tentatively being called Constellations.

I’m still going to do the sequel to Where the Lonely Ones Roam and get up Tracks’ story for the Street True AU, but the priority has shifted a bit. I really like this Ratchet series. So I want to get at least this first look at Ratchet done and posted and then I’ll start on the others.

oOo

I also started an open ended series of unconnected stories under the title Of Gods and Mortals. They’re mythological stories because I loooooove mythology and I want to write a story for each major culture on Cybertron and then move into subcultures. So far I have a Polyhexian myth and an Iaconian one. I think next I’ll do Vos or Praxus. These are all with OCs but as another reader, Vela13, commented, these stories do relate to the universes I’ve written already and others that haven’t been written yet.

They don’t give away any major plot points or anything like that, but it adds some new textures and perspectives to characters if you really want to nerd out with me.

oOo

Make Believe I want to have wrapped up this month because January and February are going to be hectic. Also, my focus is drifting more and more to this Ratchet series so I need to get this Red Alert/Jazz thing wrapped up before my attention drifts too far.

I have four chapters left to write, next chapter will be up this week after I fine tune it a bit more.

 

That’s all I’ve got for you this month! I’ll check in again in February!