Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favourite Braids by Laura & Marie #review

Big disclaimer: I'm on the list of bloggers for a number of publishers and sometimes print books wash up on my shore that really aren't my thing, but I'll give them a fair review.

Okay, for those of you who know me, they'll be well aware that I'm not big on the whole hair and make-up thing. My hair is long and mostly loose, mainly because I'm not bothered with doing exciting things with it. There are days when I strangle it into a bun because it annoys the ever-loving hell out of me. If I were into doing all manner of braids, Favourite Braids by Laura & Marie would most certainly be useful. (And I mean, with hair down to my butt, I really should look at doing something more exciting but who'm I kidding? When I go out, I wear my top hat 'cos that's my vibe and the hair must maar hang and do its own thing.)

Yet, this book is filled with some suitably awesome, elaborate hair styles, as well as the step-by-step instructions and photos to guide you into making them or at least give you plenty of ideas (if you're a budding hair stylist in the making). But I'm not that girl (though I'm sure they're out there.)

My main beef with the book is its design. Here my critic is creeping out of the woodwork to say that whoever designed this book is still stuck in the 1990s with the choice of fonts, colour palette and layout. But if you look at what the purpose of the book is, and the fact that it's probably marketed towards preteens who're not particularly savvy with YouTube and the Interwebz then this is a fun book. I can see this in a school library, for instance. Or it might be the kind of gift a well-meaning aunt or grandmother would gift to a girl who has an interest in hair and beauty. Or a girl she thinks is interested in hair and beauty...

(I was that girl who who had read The Lord of the Rings twice at the age of 12, can't you tell?)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Children Who Chase Lost Voices #review

A coming of age story involving young love and a mysterious music, coming from a crystal radio left as a memento by an absent father, that leads a young heroine deep into a hidden world.

Also know as Journey to Agartha, this film, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, is one of those that punched me right in the feels. Strongly themed along the lines of Orpheus's decent into the Underworld, this is a story about a young girl, Asuna, who inadvertently stumbles into the secret world of Agartha with its ancient, crumbling mysteries.

Generally I steer clear of your bog-standard anime, but Children Who Chase Lost Voices (which we caught on Netflix) resonated with so much mythic gravity and such strong story writing, that it begs a second look. I gained the sense of startling depth in world building with a solid mythos. Though on the outside, this is very much a young girl's coming of age story and her dealing with her absent father, it is also very much a tale about how one comes to terms with loss through death.

While I'm no fan of cute critter side-kicks, Mimi the cat was adorable while being suitably pesky, and her own story arc was apt, and I won't say any more for fear of spoilers. Characters all have strongly developed narrative arcs that interlace well, and have satisfying conclusions.

The production is exquisite down to every last detail, and the plot gradually unfolds, taking you from the everyday to the absolutely downright fantastical to the point where I was watching with the gooseflesh creeping up my arms. I will add that up until now, my experience with anime has been (mostly) limited to a few Studio Ghibli films, so I don't have much of a repertoire to draw on in order to make comparisons save to say that this compares favourably to the likes of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Tortoro.

Also, I really need to watch more quality anime, so if you have recommendations, please feel free to make them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Crossroads by Calyah, a review


Ever since KeeperLavellan over at AO3 gutted me with her Solavellan hell in Apotheosis (seriously, go read it and its Dark Solas companion piece) I've been struggling to find another F!Lavellan/Solas piece that works for me. Or, even as I've later developed an unfortunate fixation on the Sentinel Abelas (and how do you even name that ship?) I've enjoyed seeing how writers bring his story out of the brief encounter in Mythal's temple.

Abevellan?

I guess so. Google can't be wrong.

Anyhoo, so somehow I stumbled across the writer Calyah, and she'd started writing a rather sweet Abevellan, but then I think she hit the same speed wobble loads of writers did after the Trespasser DLC that knocked our entire storylines sideways. Now, some may gamely have continued with their headcanons despite everything. Others, like Calyah, took down her chapters and revised.

At the time, I remember being quite put out (and more than a bit worried) as I'd thought she'd just deleted the fic. But no. She cam back. Better and with so much bite. She has grown tremendously as a writer when I compare the earlier piece in the series to what she has going with The Crossroads.  Essentially, this is a retelling of the Trespasser DLC, with a whole lot of author headcanon and retelling of the main storyline, giving Abelas and his fellow Sentinels a far more active role in opposing the Big Bad.

And it's every bit as awesome as you can imagine. And satisfying.

If I'm going to nit-pick, I'll mention that there were a few little wibbles and wobbles with grammar and typos et al, but not so much to make me grumble or grouse because the story had me scrolling down, dead keen to see how Calyah was going to let things play out. Her action sequences are exhilarating and the emotional tension strong with few places where the pacing flags or the ball gets dropped. (At any rate, the rough patches didn't bother me – this is still one of the better Solavellans out there.)

And the payoff at the end. Yussss, it was bloody perfect and well worth the wait. The happy-for-now is a perfect set-up for if she should feel the need to leave the story as is, or pick it up later.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Departures by Schattenriss, a review


Yes, I'm still compulsively reading Dragon Age fics written by Schattenriss over at Archive of Our Own. Maybe it's because I've got a mild crush on his Inquisitor Kai Trevelyan and his rather wry humour. Departures is pretty much the origin story of the Shit That Got Weird before the events that occurred at the Temple of Ashes sent everything for a ball of shit with Coryphy-whatsis-face.

So if you've read and enjoyed The Wrong Sort of Whatever – which expands upon the events that transpire during the Trespasser DLC of Dragon Age Inquisition, Departures will be especially sweet and meaningful.

In brief, before he became Inquisitor, Kai Trevelyan was a mage in the Ostwick Circle, and when we meet him, it's pretty much the point in his life where he's had it with his existence. He never asked to be a mage – and he's a damned good one too – and he's had it with being locked up like a dangerous animal. When the shit gets ugly between the mages and templars (thank you, Anders) Kai sees this as his opportunity to scarper. Which he does.

The only problem is that he's got no idea how to fend for himself in the outside world. He can't bloody well walk about openly being a mage unless he wants a lynching, and apart from reading and writing, he doesn't have any marketable skills. So essentially the story is all about how he adjusts to life on the outside, how he finds some comfort with lovers and also his prickly relationship with his parents.

There are some truly awkward social situations that happen, some of which really made me hurt for Kai. And of course there's The Awful Thing that happens near the end that I won't spoil, but it was heartening to see how Kai got through that dip.

There isn't an awful lot of action in this story, so if you're looking for fireworks and earth-shattering events, this is not that story. What you will find here are nuanced, sometimes intensely awkward interactions with people, and often some lively debate too. And loads of foreshadowing for events to follow.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Hot, quick tips to be a BS detector

Of late I find myself getting into a bit of a frothy when folks share sensationalist BS and hoaxes via social media. Seriously, folks, there is already so much garbage out there, you *don't* need to add to the pile. However, something else I've realised is that many folks don't stop and think before they share nor do they possess the skills to tell when they're (sometimes) unwittingly sharing garbage. So, here are my hot, quick tips to help guide you.

VERIFY YOUR SOURCES
Recently an unidentified voice message was doing the round on the community WhatsApp groups, where a chap was mouthing off a currently popular conspiracy theory. I immediately smelled a rat. Why? The guy did not identify who he was nor who he represented (always a warning bell). Nor could he back up any of his so-called facts with actual names and dates. So here's the deal, see what the source of your information is. If it's not an official news site or authority within the field then for the love of dog, don't share the information.

Here's an example: someone claims that a spate of fires in a region are being started by arsonists with political motivations. If that someone isn't the police, the official spokesperson of your local Fire & Rescue or a credible news source (like your local daily paper) then it's probably some idiot trying to get everyone all wound up with his fear-mongering. Avoid! Don't share! Don't pay attention to this!

CHECK YOUR EMOTIONS
How do you feel after you've read or listened to the supposed "news"? Are you angrier than usual? Do you feel like you want to go and punch someone? If so, then there's a very good chance that that particular snippet of "news" has been created specifically for that purpose – to get you all GRRRRR riled up and emotional. People who're all GRRRRR are known for making poor decisions. You're being manipulated. Take a step back. Take a breath. Go look for other news sources to compare to the one you've just read. Look at the language usage. See which one is offering a more measured response.

CONSPIRACY!
We all know that there are loads of wingnuts and Flat Earthers out there who believe in chemtrails and Reptilians and all manner of really crazy stuff. And they will try to get others to share in their cray-cray by the way that they share their information. Remember this: every weird hoax doing the rounds has a little grain of truth. This is what makes it so appealing for us. We don't like situations that are difficult to explain. We want to have order in our lives, to be able to say that ABC is the reason for XYZ.

First off, it's okay that we don't have all the answers. It's okay to say "I don't know" and spend time looking for a solution ourselves or waiting for the experts to deliver a report. Remember also that all that fake news and the clever hoaxes out there pander to our own biases. So when you read a story that makes you go hmmmm, first check with yourself.

For instance, if you're religious, you're less likely to question the authority of your local pastor or imam. However your religious leader is also just human, and is himself prone to fallacies.

So, check your biases before you go off on a half-cocked tangent. If something sounds unbelievable or just plain odd, go ask the experts. Phone your local police station, speak to a medical doctor, or your city or town's helpline. Or, if you are faced with strange advice (the most recent one being folks claiming that little bags of water taped to windows repel flies), go check it out on Snopes.com. HOAX-SLAYER is also a fantastic site, among others.

You really have no excuse. Google is your friend. Question everything and go do your research before you share misinformation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

You've read the book, now leave your mark

When it comes to folks discovering their next read, word of mouth is best. This could be as simple as a friend shoving a book under your nose and yelling READ THIS BOOK! or you might encounter a review in your local paper. Or, you may belong to an online book club on Facebook. Or you trawl Amazon or Goodreads for books in genres you enjoy reading. Ten to one, before you make your choice, you're going to see what other people have said.

Reviews are, therefore, gold for authors (especially if they're placed on vendors' sites), and a wonderful thank you if you've enjoyed a literary work. (Apart from buying a book or writing a bit of fanmail.)

I've had folks come to me saying they don't know the first thing about what to write in a review. Likewise, I've had authors commenting that readers end up giving a blow-by-blow report of the novel's events rather than share their opinions in reviews. So, here I'm going to give a few tips on how to write a decent review and talk about some of the pitfalls of offering your opinion.

YOU DON'T HAVE TO RE-INVENT THE WHEEL
There is no need to rehash the plot. By all means, say a little bit about the characters and the circumstances, to give a (brief) description but be careful to avoid spoilers. As an example, this is my way of introducing a review of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Goldilocks is a nosy little girl who doesn't respect others' private property, but on the day that she visits the Bears' household, she's in for a little more than she bargained for.

That's enough. It's fine. It sets the scene. Now, ask yourself the kinds of questions you imagine other potential readers might ask.

What did you like about the story?
Mention here that the plot was full of surprises. Perhaps you were up until late reading (authors love hearing this). Perhaps the writer uses poetic language or is really good with descriptions. Perhaps the dialogue between characters is especially witty and made you laugh. Mention things like this.

Were the characters well-realised? 
Characters are either likeable or unlikeable. Don't just say that you hate something or love something. Tell readers why. You have your own personal likes and dislikes, so be aware when these may colour your opinion. Characters may do things you don't agree with or like, but that doesn't mean you're reading a bad book.

Was there anything about the story that annoyed you?
This could be anything from the fact that a novel is poorly edited and there were lots of errors or that the writing itself was simplistic. Perhaps characters' behaviour lacked sufficient motivation. Don't just say something was awful; try to figure out what bugged you. Merely saying "This is a terrible book" won't explain to potential readers why you think it's terrible.

When you write your review, remember that there is another person on the receiving end of your words. It's all too easy nowadays to let rip. While I'm not advocating that you only say nice things, my suggestion is that you sandwich the positive with the negative so that your review is balanced. You might not like that the novel is written in the present tense, for instance, but you enjoyed the way the author depicted the setting.

Take notes while you read so that you have a record of your responses. (Goodreads offers functions for this.) I always love comparing my review to others just before I post it to see if there are other reviewers who've felt similarly. You may find yourself agreeing or disagreeing, and that is fine – each reader will have a unique response to a written work.

One thing I always keep at the back of my mind when writing is that I may very well one day meet the author whose work I've read, so I aim to keep my tone respectful. If I can't share my opinion to their face, then there's a chance that perhaps I should not write it down online (where it may well be carved in stone).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Don't be THAT AUTHOR (or rather, GUESS WHAT? NO ONE CARES).

I find myself going round in circles so often with the whole "how to self promo" thing for authors. Plainly put, no one truly knows what works. Some claim a Facebook advertisement garners results. Some say it won't. Some authors don't do a single stitch of advertising, and their books fly off the virtual shelves. Other authors spend hundreds of dollars each month on ads, blog tours and whatnot, and perhaps don't even see a blip on the radar when it comes to sales.

THERE IS NO WAY TO PREDICT WHAT WILL WORK.

A few authors I know have gained success bundling their books or novellas and pooling their resources (and in that way, they've gained a modicum of success on bestseller lists). This is all fine and dandy, but it just highlights the fact that the market at present is saturated with new releases every day. With the prevalence of permafree copies, 99c specials, giveaways, I can tell you I have more books on my Kindle app than I can hope to read in four years. And that's not even talking about what I've got squirrelled away on my Kobo and iBooks apps.

After the initial boom in ebooks and small presses, we're now entering an age of overabundance. Readers have more choice than ever before, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for authors to make their voices heard (and sell books).

I'm going to put my cards on the table. I'm *lucky* if I sell one or two copies of one of my dozen or so titles each month. Granted, I don't write in a popular genre like romance, and my career so far has genre hopped a bit, and also I haven't been arsed to release any new novel-length works during the past few years.

A lot of work goes into self-publishing. Not only is the author responsible for content creation, but she takes on the role of publisher too – this means being willing to invest in editing, design, formatting, illustration. This means shelling out money. And it stands to reason that the same amount of effort must go into marketing.

Even traditionally published authors can no longer rely on their publishers to handle their marketing for them. While big-name authors will get marketing budget tossed at them, many new and mid-list authors will need to supplement whatever promo they get from their publisher with efforts of their own.

With so much noise in social media going along the lines of BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK! actually selling enough copies to make a decent living is becoming more and more difficult. This is the reality of the system. It's no use crying about it.

You, as author, are not special. Don't try to deny it. Unless potential readers are invested in you, they simply don't care. Accept it. Deal with it. Getting bitter and twisted about it won't change that fact. You simply have to ensure that the product (because yes, your special darling *is* a commodity) you put out is the best that it can be.

Work on the premise that no one cares, and you'll save yourself a pile of heartache. Ask yourself why it is that you write. If you're looking to make oodles of money, be prepared for disappointment. Play the long game. No one cares about your awesome YA kick-ass heroine who resembles "XYZ of that popular dystopian setting's heroine". There are hundreds if not thousands of other authors out there who most likely are publishing books that are similar to yours. And also feel as if they are TWU SPESHUL SNOFLAKES.

So, what can you do?

It's about attitude readjustment. You are not going to sell your book on Twitter or Facebook. You may not even sell your book using your newsletter. Word of mouth is best.

I'm going to say it again.

WORD OF MOUTH IS BEST.

And there's nothing *you* personally can do to make it happen.

People must care enough about you to care about your writing. If you're a whiny little sh*t who complains about the fact that you're being discriminated against day and night, that everyone else has it soooo much easier than you and your life is just terrible and one disaster after the other...

Guess what?

NO ONE CARES.

If all you ever post every day are buy links and bits begging people to BUY YOUR BOOKS, guess what? NO ONE CARES.

If you send people who follow you DMs telling them to BUY YOUR BOOKS, guess what? They'll unfollow or, worse, block you. If you constantly self-promote in communities where self-promo is forbidden, guess what? You'll get blocked.

Your shotgun approach to marketing won't sell books. It won't make people care about you, as a person or an author. You'll just have yourself labelled as "that author" and folks will be resistant to picking up copies of your books.

Sending buy links to other authors won't work either. They're in the same boat that you are. You need to reach readers, not authors. If you think getting [insert famous author name here] to share or retweet your buy link will automatically result in fame and fortune, you're sadly mistaken. Readers aren't stupid. If you don't put down what they want to read, they won't pick it up. If you think getting your novel reviewed in the local papers will make a huge difference, nope, nope, nope. You might see a slight bump, but newspapers and magazines get pulped. And, while reviews on vendors' sites like Amazon are gold, and Good reads is pretty fab too, they still won't sell your books.

So, what to do, if as this post suggests, nothing works?

Cultivating your readership is an exercise in patient gardening. Your readers must be so excited about your next book that they share news of an imminent release for you. Hell, they must love you so much that they make and share fan art. Or gush about what they're reading randomly on social media. And there's no easy way to reach this point.

My suggestion is as follows: go see how your favourite top authors handle their social media. One thing you'll notice is that many of them rarely (if ever) share buy links. Instead they talk about the things that are important to them. They share snippets of (curated) personal info. They might post cat photos or pictures of what they're baking. They might talk about the writing process. What books they're reading. Hell, even what they're knitting. What music inspires them. They might offer insights about current affairs (although here be careful that you don't go overboard with politics – this can also be a turn-off).

Don't inundate people with all the terrible things in your life. Remember, NO ONE CARES whether your left testicle is slightly lumpy or that your dog ate an entire block of hash and has now pooped it all over your afghan. Okay, I digress, the last example is actually quite funny, but I hope you get my point that folks don't want to be privy to the unrelenting existential crisis that you've been having for the past three decades. You won't win awards (or sell books) for being a martyr. Find ways to turn your setbacks into opportunities to shine.

(For instance, if I'm feeling blue, I ask my friends to post me pictures that will make me smile and it's so lovely to see engagement that way).

Thing is, it's not wrong, per se, to post buy links from time to time, but it's *how* you do it and with how much regularity this occurs (less is more, IMO). People want to get to know you, the person, and then they'll be more prepared to care about your writing. If they feel that they can relate to you and you're not like those annoying religious fundies who go door to door trying to sell afterlife insurance when all you really want to do is watch telly, then you're on the right track.

But remember this, it's not a case of overnight fame. You're not going to get rich off your debut novel (those stories are the exception, not the rule). Write because you love to. Tell the stories you love AS IF NO ONE CARES. Don't be that author who makes you want to hit the unfriend button.

PS. Use the fact that no one cares as a way to free yourself from the expectations of others. That's what I do, and I can guarantee that instead focusing on making beautiful books that *you* love to read, makes the journey worthwhile.